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.

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