Tuesday, January 10, 2012

We Were Here

PCMR Verdict: Understated, powerful film-making. This account of the AIDS pandemic in 1980's San Francisco is given from the perspective of those who, as the title suggests, were there.

The eyewitness accounts are eye-wateringly detailed, intensely personal and completely compelling. It's brilliant, and you should try and see it (if you can find it)!

PCMR Rating: 9/10

I first became aware of this documentary in a Mark Kermode Guardian article, entitled 'Hidden Gems of 2011'. (Which prompted two instant DVD purchases, and a third is on the way!)

As a piece of entertainment, 'We Were Here' hits its marks, in that it will bring a tear to the eye of the of the hardest heart, and a lump to the throat of the surliest soul. More than this, however, this film is also relevant in a number of other, possibly more important ways. It is in equal parts historical document, cultural relic, and cautionary tale. You might be a child of the 80's, but I'll wager good money you've not seen this story told from a similar perspective.

The film tells the story of the AIDS pandemic in 1980's San Francisco, told from the perspective of five people who were at the epicentre. Guy was - and still is - is a flower salesman in the Castro for the last 28 years. Eileen was a nurse in 'the 5A', a ward in San Francisco General Hospital where AIDS patients were treated. Paul is a political figure, trying to lobby for research and aid, while fighting propositions to quarantine and isolate sufferers. Ed is a gay man whose friends were dying, so he volunteered to help isolated sufferers, and ended up working in the 5A. And finally Daniel is a HIV/AIDS sufferer - still living with the disease - who lost many friends and, tragically, two long-term partners to the disease.

The stories begin with the rise of the gay community in bohemian, post-hippy San Francisco at the end of the 70's, with each person giving a separate account of how they ended up there, and what it meant to them to be part of it. The participants' words are interlaced with incredibly rich archive footage from the time, starting in the late 70's and working through the 80's.

The rise of the virus itself is particularly chilling, and the suddenness with which it spread is compared repeatedly and aptly, to a warzone situation. In 1982, people realised that something was out there, but by then it was already too late. Awareness of how it was transmitted, how to prevent it, and most importantly how to treat it did not develop until thousands had already died: more than 15,000 would eventually die. The symptoms of the disease were particularly horrific and sudden, with sores and lesions, and rapid wastage among the more viscerally visual signs of the virus's hold.

However, underpinning the historical relevance of this story is the personal accounts of the contributors. As their individual stories unfold and develop, gradually the different ways each of these people experienced the outbreak hits home. The choice of contributors is inspired, as they are all eloquent and likeable and, as their stories can coalesce and commingle, their different perspectives consistently inform the same coherent narrative.

Each story is so rich, I can't possibly do them justice in this format, but take one example. Eileen Glutzer was a nurse in ward 5A of San Francisco General Hospital, where hundreds of Aids sufferers were essentially given treatment which amounted to palliative care, and a place to die in peace. At a point in the pandemic where field research was desperately being conducted in the search for a cure, her role involved asking sufferers if they would donate their eyes after they died. As she puts it herself, not an easy question. Also, she would get to know these people, as they could remain on the wards for weeks or months before the virus took their lives. Really, I cannot imagine how difficult that job must have been. But as she says herself when describing a conversation with her mom, "I didn't choose this, it chose me."

Apart from the powerful stories of the personal tragedy associated with AIDS, the movie really focusses on the sense of community that began to develop at this time of great tragedy. Volunteers began offering their time to help isolated sufferers of the virus. Lesbians, traditionally no great friends of gay men, rallied in their support through blood donation drives and political lobbying. Artists collaborated and opened a store where people could buy products such as t-shirts to support local sufferers. (Interestingly, the original name suggested for this shop was 'Aidsmart'!)

The contributors' words are all their own, and their stories are uniquely powerful. The archive footage and photos that are cut with the stories are fascinating, and really get across the palpable sense of dreadful fear and terrible personal loss that were so pervasive at the time. And yet, the rallying of the community leaves the viewer with a sense of the possibility of people to survive, and rise above any tragic event.

You won't see a better documentary this year. Go buy it if you can.

  1. Kermode's Hidden Gems of 2011
  2. We Were Here on play.com (€12.49)

Saturday, January 07, 2012

The Invention of Lying

PCMR Verdict: Unashamedly intellectual, and admirable for being so, but it's not very funny.

Honestly, I might have chuckled only a couple of times, which is pretty unforgivable considering the cast of this movie.

PCMR Rating: 5/10

Love him or hate him, you have to admire Ricky Gervais' work ethic. The Office made him a household name, and the syndication will guarantee him financial rewards for the rest of his life, but since then, he's done a few successful stand-ups (Politics, Animals, Fame, Science), made Extras, another successful TV Series (which PCMR controversially prefers to The Office), developed a children's book called Flanimals, which will now also be made into a TV series. His record breaking podcast with regular collaborator Stephen Merchant and best mate Karl Pilkington has been made into an animated HBO Series, and spawned an excellent spin-off series called 'An Idiot Abroad'. And most lately Gervais' gleefully irreverent appearances as the host of the Golden Globes have copperfastened his global celebrity status.

Somehow, with all of this going on, Gervais has also managed to make a couple of Hollywood movies. Now, not all comics can survive the jump to the big screen, so this is a bold move for Rick. The most obvious comparisons to draw from his foray would be with the attempts of Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock. Although this duo have enjoyed huge success on television and on stage, their Hollywood careers are not exactly glittering, so the expectations for Ricky are probably not too high.

Low expectations or not, Gervais' first attempt at a Hollywood movie is a bit of a mess. The premise is so straight-forward, it could apply to a Jim Carrey vehicle: it can be easily Hollywood Pitched in the gravelly trailer man voice. Just like this. (Ahem).

In a world.
Where everyone tells the truth.
One man.
Has just invented...
The LIE.
*cue hilarity*

The movie certainly starts out on those lines, but unexpectedly, in this lie-free, truth-only world, people don't just avoid lies, they constantly blurt out painful home truths about themselves and others. Indeed, in the opening scenes, Mark Bellison's (Gervais' character) first date with Jennifer Garner is punctuated by painfully honest observations on everything from masturbation to Gervais' slim chances of a second date.

However, after inventing the lie, Gervais suddenly finds himself in a world of gullible fools who will believe anything he says. Then, he finds that he can tell little white lies to make people feel better. Each of these revelations present their Bellison with different dilemmas.

Gervais' script diverges from the Hollywood premise rather sharply however, when he lies to his mother on her deathbed about the existence of heaven. Some doctors and nurses overhear, are amazed, and demand to hear more about the existence of this magical place. Bellison becomes an overnight celebrity, known for having a direct line to the 'man in the sky', and the movie enters a more philosophical act.

Gervais actually has a degree in philosophy, and the ideas in 'The Invention of Lying' are good ones. You can only admire his genuine attempts to make a smart movie, rather than opting for the easier, more lucrative Adam Sandler route. The only problem with his execution is that I sat down in front of this movie expecting a good laugh, and there isn't enough comedy to balance out the clever ideas. The movie can only be disappointing as a result.

I certainly admire Gervais' ambition with this movie. He recognises that he needs to do more than just be funny (which by itself ain't easy), that he needs to leave the audience with something to think about. The only problem with this movie is that the balance favours philosophy, and comedy is neglected as a result. So, next time, more comedy please Rick!

Thursday, January 05, 2012

La Joven (The Young One)

PCMR Verdict: Pre-dates 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and 'Lolita' by two years, but could conceivably have inspired both movies.

Bunuel's multi-layered tale sins and sinners touches a lot of raw nerves, but the theme of race must have been particularly controversial in 1960. It's 50 years old and still holds up, although it's arguably not an all-time classic.

PCMR Rating: 6/10

'La Joven' (aka 'The Young One') was made a full thirty years after l'Age d'Or, and is an entirely different kind of movie. For one, it is in English, one of only a couple of movies Bunuel ever shot in the language. For another, the surrealist influence is almost entirely absent, so at first glance Bunuel could appear to be making a 'studio picture', or taking a job for the paycheck.

On the surface, 'La Joven' is the story of Traver, a man on the run from a crime he claims he didn't commit, namely raping a white woman. It's important that the woman is white, because this is 1950's America, and Traver is black.

Traver stumbles upon a game reserve island operated by Miller, a grizzled bear of a man who would shoot intruders on sight, without requiring any prior knowledge of their character. But if the intruder was black, his trigger finger would no doubt get a little itchier. Miller's only companion on the island is young Evalyn, whose age is never revealed, but she is certainly no more than a child, perhaps thirteen years old. As the film begins, Evalyn's former guardian has just died, and Miller starts to notice how she is becoming a woman...

So Traver certainly arrives at a dramatic moment, but his arrival is the catalyst for a series of events that may end up revealing Miller's dark secret, and if Traver's own secret is revealed, it could mean his death.

On the surface, this is a straight-forward racially themed drama, but look a little deeper, and Bunuel's subversive themes are there as well. The hypocrisy of Miller's conduct is plain when we see how he treats Traver. In particular, his disdain for the crime Traver is accused of is in stark contrast to how he expects to get away with his own transgression.

The arrival of a reverend on the island is an interesting addition, and he certainly reveals who is the guiltier of the two men. "Let he who is without sin..." and all that.

The Young One isn't populated with many likeable characters, bar Traver. Played with relaxed charm by Bernie Hamilton, he's smooth, almost to the point of being a 60's cliché, but manages to retain his cool nonetheless. Miller is fundamentally a bit of a cunt, and is played well by Zachary Scott. Perhaps a little one-dimensional, he is at his best when he is broodily threatening, with either Evie or Traver on the receiving end of his menacing presence.

The best part of the film is the dialogue, especially when Traver and Miller are shooting the breeze. It's extremely well written, with hardly a wasted word, and each discussion revealing more about the characters. Bunuel's skill and influence here cannot be understated, as the dialogue is remarkably fresh for a fifty year old movie. Also, in Hollywood in 1960, there can't have been many Hollywood movies evangelising black characters and vilifying their white counterparts. In this context, the film is also subversive and enjoyable.

Unfortunately, where 'The Young One' falls down is in terms of this reviewer's expectations of the director. It's a million miles away from his initial movies of the 30's, and perhaps reflects the stage of life Bunuel was at when he made it. Exiled from Spain since the Spanish Civil War, he had been working in Hollywood and Mexico for some years, but he actually lived in Mexico, where he also made a lot of his movies. (I'm working on getting a copy of 'Los Olvidados', and will include it in this retrospective if I do get it)

So, in brief, it's a 'straight' Bunuel movie, and in English. Might be a good starting point for the Bunuel-curious out there, a gentle one to dip your toe into before starting into the Spanish surrealist stuff. I think I was a little disappointed by the Young One because it's the surrealist work what I'm looking forward to!

Next Bunuel review: The Exterminating Angel
(Sounds awesome! - Ed)

Monday, December 12, 2011

L'Age d'Or (The Golden Age)

PCMR Verdict: Sensationalist, scandalising and surreal, Bunuel's second collaboration with Salvador Dali, and his first full-length feature picks up where Un Chien Andalou left off. It is more coherent and narrative-driven than it's predecessor, and perhaps hits more of its targets. Dali's early departure from production means that this picture better represents an example of Bunuel's work.

PCMR Rating: 7/10

When you slash an eyeball in the opening scene of your debut short film, there has to be a moment when you ask yourself: "where do I go from here?" Well, after 'Un Chien Andalou', Bunuel collaborated once more with fellow provocateur Salvador Dali to produce a full length feature named 'L'Age d'Or' that was so controversial upon its release, it was banned for more than 50 years. Not bad, eh? In any case, this was the last movie that Bunuel made before returning to Spain, and after sufficiently aggravating the fascist authorities there in a similar manner, he wisely decided on a move to Hollywood.

No stranger to controversy, Bunuel's eyeball-slash is followed here with a scene where the female lead fellates the toes of a statue of Venus... surreal and controversial all at the same time.

Dali and Bunuel fell out before this movie started shooting, and although Dali still has a writer's credit here, his influence would no doubt have been anarchic, reducing concern with such trivialities as story, narrative structure and rational explanation. Due to his absence from shooting, it's probably fair to describe l'Age d'Or as more of a representation of Bunuel's work than Dali's (although the toe-sucking scene certainly has a whiff of the painter's influence).

The movie is divided up into a series of vignettes, tied together with themes of class warfare, the madness of high society, the effects of sexual repression, and of course, attacks on organised religion. Surrealism is also liberally sprinkled throughout proceedings, so in Bunuel's world, we should not be surprised when we find a cow in the bedroom. Seriously. However, the surrealism is used more as a device to enhance the satire, so in other words, it's more 'Spitting Image' than 'Monty Python'.

The attacks on high society are more coherent and sustained. At a black-tie gathering a maid screams and falls through the kitchen doors as flames pour out behind her. The party continues uninterrupted. Outside in the courtyard, a child is unjustly shot dead. The party is momentarily interrupted, but carries on. Then, there is a sudden breach of decorum by one of the tuxedoed revellers, as he slaps a female guest across the cheek. Well, at this, the wealthy revellers, ever inward-looking, stop to express disgust, eject the miscreant, and console the dejected victim.

While the party continues, a consistently interrupted, star-crossed couple illicitly meet in the garden, where the infamous statue-toe-sucking scene takes place. More disturbing for me though, is where the pair suck on each other's fingers, and his fingers disappear. In a subsequent scene, the girl's face is clearly being stroked by a fingerless hand, and it is not a special effect. Is this Bunuel warning of the results of sexual repression? Earlier in the movie, after the couple were found kissing and forcibly separated for the first time, the guy begins expressing violence towards random passers-by, in one instance knocking down a blind man. This appears to a clearer warning of the effects of sexual repression on men, and it's clear why a message of this kind would be seen as controversial and corrupting by the religious authorities.

However, the religious authorities themselves make a couple of cameos too, but their presence is more satire than surreal: a bishop plays fiddle in the band at the party attended by the high society. In the beginning of the movie, we see four bishops - possibly cardinals? - mumbling in prayer until they rot into skeletons. Another bishop is thrown from a second floor window, although we see him walking away. Bunuel's message to the church is not a positive one.

I have to say, although it certainly has it's moments of unusual imagery, the movie is not as visually arresting as 'Un Chien Andalou'. Perhaps credit is due to the brilliant madness of Dali for some of that. That aside though, I love the irreverance of Bunuel, and his open challenges to high society and the religious establishment are compelling. In this, his satire and surrealism is not simply unfocussed and defying explanation: quite the contrary, it is rational and targeted.

Our own generation could probably confess to thinking that artistic scandal and controversy are somehow unique to us, but when you see this movie, made more than 80 years ago, that conception is instantly exploded.

L'age d'Or is available to watch on youtube here

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Un Chien Andalou

PCMR Verdict: Today, these first 15 minutes of Bunuel's cinematic career still have a big impact, but in 1929 - that's a full 82 years ago - Bunuel's surrealist handshake to the world of cinema must have been seismic. It's surreal and non-linear, and co-writer Salvador Dali stamps his presence on a number of scenes. It's confusing and strange, but is certainly memorable!

PCMR Rating: 7/10

It seems only proper to start this retrospective of Luis Bunuel at the beginning. In 1929, Luis Bunuel co-wrote 'Un Chien Andalou' - a.k.a. 'An Andalusian Dog' - with Spanish compatriot and surrealist artist Salvador Dali. The film is a short, at only 15 minutes, but it has certainly had a lasting impact.

It would be unfair to call it incoherent, but the film is essentially a collection of unrelated images. While making the movie Dali and Bunuel challenged themselves to not provide any rational explanation for the images presented on screen.

It's tempting to believe that controversial art has only existed in our own generation, but in the first few seconds of this film, Bunuel explodes that conceit, and slashes a woman's eyeball with a cut-throat razor. In reality, the eyeball belonged to a calf, but the effect is startling. Dali's imagery is also prevalent: one of the main characters' hands is crawling with ants.

The soundtrack is Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, and is also memorably jaunty, providing a light counterbalance to the strangely dark imagery on screen. An amazing foot-note is that Bunuel himself played the score live at the movie's premiere in Paris in 1929!

This fiteen minutes features sex, death and a death's head moth, which you might recognise from 'Silence of the Lambs'. The surrealist imagery is jarring and disjointed at times, but the film is never dull, and always visually interesting. It's mind-blowing to think that it was made more than 80 years ago. If the rest of Bunuel's work is half as interesting as this, then this retrospective should be an interesting trip!

You can watch 'Un Chien Andalou' on youtube here.

Director Series: Luis Bunuel

In a bit of a departure from the usual reviews, for the next few posts I'm going to work my way through a set of movies directed by Luis Bunuel. I'll confess to owning a box set of his movies for around four years, and only ever watching one of them (which I reviewed way back in 2007!), so this will be education for me, and hopefully I can recommend the ones worth watching.

If you're unfamiliar with Bunuel or his work, he's probably one of the most influential directors in movie history, but certainly the most celebrated Spanish movie director of all time. In his very early career, his surrealist inflences led him to work with Salvador Dali on the notorious short surrealist film 'Un Chien Andalou' ('An Andalusian Dog'). Staggeringly, made in 1929, this short film announced Bunuel's arrival, and includes a sequence involving a razorblade and an eyeball that might still make headlines were it included in a movie released today.

The surrealist influence continued throughout his career, and I should probably confess up-front to being a big fan of Salvador Dali and surrealist art. When surrealism is done well, as with a lot of Bunuel and Dali's work, it can challenge and excite audiences, and make even the most formulaic piece of drama suddenly seem subversive.

Bunuel's later career had this subversive surrealism, and he was renowned for his perceived attacks on organised religion, which put him at odds with the fascist establishment in Spain, and ultimately led to him leaving the country. As a result, many of his movies were made in France, and are in the French language. Perhaps his best known, Belle De Jour is a great representation of this wilful subversive cinema, and I'll certainly be including that.

This should be the ideal project for the Christmas holidays and early new year, so I hope you enjoy these movies as much as I'm going to!

Here's the complete list of Bunuel movies I'll be watching and reviewing:
Un Chien Andalou
L'Age d'Or
La Joven (The Young One)
The Exterminating Angel
The Diary of a Chambermaid
Belle de Jour
The Milky Way
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (here's my previous review)
The Phantom of Liberty
That Obscure Object of Desire

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

My Week With Marilyn

PCMR Verdict: Light entertainment of a pretty high standard, someday this movie will make a great accompaniment to a Christmas Day nap. Michelle Williams is very good, Kenneth Branagh is great. It's nicely put together and the time flies, but it may flatter to deceive.

PCMR Rating: 6/10

A lot of popular entertainment is about impressions, and if you were unlucky enough to spend an odd Saturday evening watching ITV in the 90's, you probably remember one example. You see, before the polished, cosmopolitan 'X-Factor' vomited onto our screens, the telly-watching public were subjected to comparatively less cultured 'Stars in their Eyes', featuring Matthew Kelly, a dressing-up box, and a karaoke machine. "Tonight, Matthew", they would say, "I will be... Kiki... DEE!". And then lo and behold, through the magic of telly they transform, and in fact often do bear a resemblance to their celebrity chum... until they start singing anyway.

What 'Stars' demonstrated week after week was that, once the uncanny resemblance is out of the way, there has to be something more, something new and idiosyncratic that the impersonator brings to the party. Without that certain something extra, the impression falls a bit flat, and we're reminded of the dressing-up box.

In 'My Week With Marilyn', Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh are in full impersonation mode, to tell the true story of a certain Colin Clark's encounter with the world's most famous actress. The film is set in Pinewood Studios in 1957, and narrated by Clark, who is played very competently by the unfeasibly youthful looking Eddie Redmayne.

In 1957, Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) is already a household name, and is shooting 'The Prince and the Showgirl' at Pinewood with Laurence Olivier (Branagh). It's Clark's first job, as a 'third' or 'third assistant director' (essentially a go-fer), and as the movie begins we see him leaving home to make his own way, starting from humble beginnings, yadda yadda yadda.

Monroe and Olivier conflicted on set for many reasons. For one, Marilyn was a movie star, and Olivier was an ac-tor, which you can't pronounce correctly without saying 'darling' afterwards. Ironically, each coveted what the other had: and this is the driving theme of the movie. Olivier wants to be a star, Marilyn wants to be respected, and Clark wants to bask in their reflected glory.

Williams' Marilyn is insecure on set, requiring constant reassurance that she belongs. Off-set, her marriage to third husband Arthur Miller appears to be rocky and, after Miller leaves the set to return to the United States, a lonely Marilyn seeks solace in the uncomplicated company of the innocent local named Colin. (Wait, Marilyn Monroe had a fling with a guy called 'Colin'? - Ed) In Marilyn's eyes, Clark is uncorrupted by the movie industry, and this innocence appeals to her (more coveting? - Ed).

This relationship is effectively the core of the movie, and to a large extend the two complement each other pretty well. Williams does a fine job as Marilyn, but although Redmayne does an ok job, his character is perhaps a little too clean-cut, homogenized to the point where he's a little dull.

As rounded and capable as Williams' performance is, Branagh's Olivier is more fun, a sweary, bombastic alternative to the romantic flippencies of Marilyn and Colin. Branagh's is more of a supporting role however, and although he's not in the film nearly as much as Williams or Redmayne, he steals a lot of his scenes. Judi Dench provides further gravitas, and the very capable Emma Watson even throws in a nice turn.

The thing is, it's all rather nice, but unfortunately, much like Colin himself, it's a little bit throwaway (er, spoiler alert? - Ed). The story is enjoyable because it's true, so it works as a historical document, but the theme of 'be careful what you wish for' is pretty lightweight. Also, although Williams' Marilyn is very good, her performance never really elevates beyond faithful impersonation for me, which contrasts with Branagh's breezy take on Olivier. So, some good performances, but if you think that this is heavyweight, Oscar-worthy drama, then PCMR thinks you may have the wrong impression.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Take Shelter

PCMR Verdict: Fraught, atmospheric, layered story of a man's mental disintegration. Remarkable performances from Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.

Undeniably quality for me, but the mental illness angle is a tough sell, and my 'atmospheric' could be your 'a bit dull'.

PCMR Rating: 7.5/10

'Take Shelter' tells the story of Curtis (played by Shannon), who is very much an everyman as the movie kicks off. He has a beautiful wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and a young daughter, he works for a paycheck, and he lives in an unnamed part of suburbia, USA. His buddy on the job is his drinking buddy off of it, and, outwardly at least, everything is going fine for Curtis.

Until the dreams start. Curtis begins dreaming about a storm, or at least an awful event on the horizon. His dreams quickly escalate in severity, and before long they begin having an impact on his waking life. Curtis's worries about whether he is going crazy are escalated by his Mom's story. She was committed to permanent care for schizophrenia in her early thirties: Curtis is also in his early thirties.

After the dreams begin, some of Curtis' initial decision-making is not great. He talks to his doctor, who recommends he see a psychiatrist. Curtis initially baulks at the idea, but soon goes to see a counsellor instead. Meanwhile, however, he leaves his wife in the dark, partially out of embarrassment, but she very quickly picks up on the fact that something is wrong.

This is a layered story, and is not just about a man dealing with his apparent onset of a medical condition. It's a story of the fragility of relationships, and how even subtle changes in the ones we love can cause untold damage. Curtis's mental breakdown isn't dramatic, at least not until the third act, it's more about subtle changes in Curtis' behaviour, barely perceived by strangers, but keenly felt by those closest to him: his wife, his brother, his buddy at work.

At it's core it's a psychological drama, but Take Shelter plays with some of the same tropes of the home invasion horror genre, especially in the dream sequences. Michael Haneke's 'Funny Games' is called to mind when Curtis dreams of standing in front of his wife in his kitchen, shaking his head as she reaches for a carving knife. The payoff of the dream is unimportant: the moment of dread is simple, evocative and powerful.

Shannon's performance here is really remarkable, and - one shouty Pacino-esque scene aside - for the majority of the movie, he is portraying a slow, gradual escalation of an inner struggle, without an awful lot of dialogue. His unconventional face and the intensity of his turn may invite comparisons to Christopher Walken, but that's only a measure of how good he is here. One scene in particular, where his brother attempts to intervene, is particularly memorable.

The unique atmosphere is a slow-burn though, and this might put some people off. Is the movie delicately building tension? Or is it a bit dull and baggy in parts? In this reviewer's mind, it's the former, although discussions were had after the screening I was at: perhaps not everyone will agree with me!

Take Shelter is unique in terms of its atmosphere, and also in its ambiguous conclusion, which leaves the viewer with something of a challenge. I enjoy this kind of ending as it prompts discussion, but it might annoy some viewers.

All that in mind, PCMR reckons this one is worth a look for Shannon's performance alone. Chastain, also, is showing some pretty serious chops of late, and is a very hot Hollywood property indeed. On the basis of this performance, it's no surprise: she's also really very good. Considering all of the above, and also considering the theme of mental illness, it's a high rating, but a qualified recommendation from me.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Le Gamin au Vélo (The Kid With a Bike)

PCMR Verdict: Uncomplicated, entertaining character study of an underdog kid who struggles to find his path.

PCMR Rating: 6/10

Conversational filler makes the world go round, especially in Ireland. Consider the sentence "this is it": a classic piece of conversational grout, plugging an occasional silent (potentially awkward) moment in an otherwise pleasant chat about the weather. Example: Paddy Irishman, chewing on a spud, addresses you with the gambit: "The weather's taken a turn today, hasn't it?". The correct response - "Ah, sure this is it." - is polite and deferential, will be appreciated by Paddy, and is more of a social convention than the Incorrect Responses, which include "what? who are you?", stony silence or a bitch-slap, among others.

The point here is that, although on the surface you appear to be saying very little to Paddy, what you are giving him is a familiar social convention to take the edge off a potentially awkward interaction with a stranger. Maddening as it can be to hear this phrase too often, it's providing tiny doses of social anaesthetic in this country, administered many thousands of times a day.

'Le Gamin au Vélo' is similarly deceptive. On the surface, it's a plain, slice-of-life movie, but layered into it there is real depth, subtly delivered. The relevance of this movie is in the characters' reactions to difficult events, and how we learn more about them as a result. Which, you could say, is just like real life really. But sure this is it.

PCMR has banged the drum for subtitled movies in the past, and often defended them against any number of claims from people who "wouldn't watch a subtitled movie". Top of the list of reasons for this wilful ignorance is a perception that French movies are intellectual: this is a generalisation I find difficult to understand, and 'Le Gamin au Vélo' is an example of why. If it is intellectual, it hides it under a bushel, and this makes it a likeable film.

The movie is a window into the life of a kid going through a difficult adjustment. The Kid of the title is Cyril (Thomas Doret), an orphan. As the movie begins, he's in a home, acting up a bit, and is struggling to come to terms with his father running out on him. He's fostered by Samantha (Cécile de France), who bonds with him when she finds his bike, which his deadbeat Dad had previously sold. She takes him out of the home at weekends to her own home, and he gradually gets to know the other boys in the local neighbourhood. As he starts to fall in with the wrong crowd, Samantha tries to protect him, but will she succeed, or will he go totally off the rails?

Gradually, we get an idea of Cyril's character, and how he might turn out at the end of all this. His story is not particularly epic or unusual, but it is realistic and believable, and you can't help but root for him. The kid himself (Doret) is brilliant, simply for not having any affectations, and for providing a totally realistic performance of an enigmatic, testy pre-teen.

If you are to look under the surface, 'Le Gamin au Vélo' is about Cyril becoming aware that he can choose a path. Although initially he's a victim of his father's weakness, he slowly learns, thanks in no small part to an act of kindness, that his choices can play a big part in his own fate.

I will confess to not being on familiar terms with the Dardenne Brothers' other work, although on this evidence, I would definitely watch out for them again. Be clear though folks, don't prepare for explosions or car chases, this is very uncomplicated drama. So, although the rating isn't too high for this one, I would give it a guarded recommendation, perhaps for a DVD night in. If I'm brutally honest, it might be more of a one for the movie buffs really. But sure this is it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Voyez Comme Ils Dansent (See How They Dance)

PCMR Verdict: It's called 'See How They Dance', but PCMR recommends you avert your eyes, and avoid spending two hours in this kind of company.

PCMR Rating: 3/10

Life can't be easy for people who are easily offended. Just imagine being shocked by the simple fact of someone on TV swearing before nine o'clock in the evening. Mind-boggling, really. It's tough to imagine how life's actual hard knocks will impact on people so sensitive. After all, things could be an awful lot worse. For example, only last week PCMR heard one of the kids totally drop the c-bomb on 'DeGrassi'. He didn't even prefix it with a "no offence, but.." or anything! Which of course, would have made it totally fine, because as everyone knows, using that prefix means you can say anything you like to anyone and they aren't allowed to get offended. (Well, duh! - Ed)

The thing is, if you blog regularly, the state of being offended is a useful maguffin, even if it is, let's say, artificially enhanced for creative purposes. PCMR may have even employed such a device on this blog over the years, but recently I've realised that the habit of being offended is something I'd like to try and kick. The thing is, when you're offended by something, where do you go from there? Folks, the journey from measured critic to air-wasting troll starts with one angry review.

So, with this alarmingly grown-up resolution in mind, I'll not get too worked up about 'Voyez Comme Ils Dansent', which I should first point out, is completely and unreservedly terrible.

This meandering fluff tells the story (arguably) of a famous performance artist and total douchebag named Vic (already annoying - Ed), and the two women who love him. First, he (James Thiérée) has an affair with his doctor, Alex (Maya Sansa), and divorces his wife Lise (Marina Hands). Then, he emigrates to a remote part of Canada to be with Alex, where he subsequently does something even more douchey to her, which, according to the house rules, I would spoil by telling you about. Considering how bad this movie is, I seriously doubt that, but rules is rules.

So, Lise then somehow contrives to travel across Canada by train, and, lo and behold, her train ends up delayed in Alex's remote tiny village, and she urgently needs a doctor! I know, right? How mad is that? That Lise ends up moving in with Alex for Christmas is probably a low watermark for the bonkers twists and turns that this movie takes. The plot feels improvised and haphazard at best, as if the director would prefer to forget about such trivialities as story structure (pfft!) and get on with filming the Canadian countryside instead.

Given that Vic himself is such a douchebag, it is difficult to sympathise with the two women who fell in love with him. His wife Lise doesn't have too much character to speak of until she gets divorced, whereupon she somehow engineers a work project in Canada. Humm. Her train journey from one side of the country to the other involves carrying a movie camera and smoking the occasional joint. She's complicated like that, you know?

The conceit of her contrived meeting with Dr. Alex is my biggest problem with this movie. The thing is, without it, the film would be dead in the water after about half an hour, and though it pains PCMR to say it, that would improve this film immensely.

Alex (Maya Sansa) probably comes out best from this movie, as she's a more likeable character than Lise, and clearly has better boobs. Director Claude Miller gives us a peek at both female characters' breasts, with both shots comically gratuitous in the style of a lot of French yoghurt and cheese adverts. (Although perhaps Alex needed to go for a naked swim in the lake, and I'm just being cynical). As if to redress the balance of gratuitous nudity before the end of the movie though, we also get a male full-frontal shot, with Vic's junk also put up there on-screen for us, all arty and challenging like.

On the positive side, there are some nice location shots of Canada.

It's pretentious, and a lot of old nonsense, and Maya Sansa is the only one who might come out of it without terminal career damage. 'Voyent Comme Ils Dansent' even has an annoying title!

So avoid this one if you can, but if you do happen to catch it, PCMR asks you to try and imagine the opening credits start with the words: "no offence, but..."

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