My week in film: Point Break and suspending disbelief, in Life of Pi

Warning: this post has curiously ended up being about the endings of films, details of which are revealed!

This week’s film journal excitingly includes films watched whilst suffering from post-hogmanay celebrations, i.e. A New Year’s Day Hangover. I’m sure readers will have their own favourites or go-to films when under the influence of dehydration and/or nausea and perhaps the consensus would be that a hangover film should be an unchallenging watch, possibly comedy and generally intended to make one feel better. My choices this new-year were, in order: Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991), The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985) and Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008).swayze-point-break

Until The Hurt Locker, Bigelow’s films always made me feel a little creepy. Strange Days (1995) is an elaborate dustpan take on ‘unmediated’ virtual reality and The Weight of Water (2000) does nothing to promote poetry as a form of seduction. Nevertheless I anticipated good things from Point Break, which has been much celebrated for its action set pieces, including surfing, skydiving and gunfights. Its also been much critiqued and theorised with regards to its treatment of the male body; which appears the object of the fe(male) gaze as stars Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze are seen either showing flesh and/or fetishised for the feats of strength and agility that their toned bodies are capable of (books about this can be found here and here). point_break_patrick_swayze_kathryn_bigelow_010_jpg_hfne

Point Break is less of a cop buddy movie – though Reeves does have a cop buddy in the form of Gary Busey – and is more that classic love story between the officer of the Law (Reeves) and the criminal he hunts (Swayze). My perspective on seeing the film was therefore clouded by preconceptions such as those mentioned above; but what surprised me (aside from just how awesome the action is) was that I didn’t believe the decisions that Reeves character makes. Such is his respect and awe for Swayze’s surfing Zen master, he puts aside justifiable anger at his girlfriends kidnapping and torture (not to mention the death of several people) and gives his blond beauty what he wants: a glorious death rather than a humbling imprisonment. True love I suppose and though not plausible considering the lengths gone to catch him, a more spectacular ending.

The-Breakfast-ClubWatching The Breakfast Club for the second time in my life brought the realisation that a lot of the running time is spent in boredom watching bored, boring adolescents. So many quiet scenes of broad characters and their representative foods/wining/body language/dance moves. Also noticed that after that scene “I HATE you!” its actually inexplicable how Clare (Molly Ringwald) ends up with Bender (Judd Nelson) at the end – and I’m not convinced this was Hughes dark comment on just how much Clare hates herself. Anyway, on new-year’s day it ended up being the perfect segue into a nap… clint_eastwood_gran_torin_2008_movie_photo_18

Gran Torino also came loaded with expectations and contained lots of drawn out repetitive scenes involving Mr Eastwoods’ parody of his own classic Dirty Harry persona. It’s really quite convenient that his character talks to himself; otherwise one would be robbed of many witty asides about how he hates everyone. Ultimately I thought Gran Torino dragged out its set-up and was simply too long.

LRA_life_of_pi_14At the cinema, Life of Pi directed by Ang Lee was thrilling and spectacular, proving that some films do benefit from the third dimension. Adapted from the book of the same name by Yann Martel, its framed as a conversation between Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) and a writer i.e. Martel (Rafe Spall) as the former tells the amazing story of how he survived a shipwreck alongside a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. Early on in Pi’s story, we see his father warn his two sons not to be fooled by religion, as its all ‘spectacle’. The adventure includes glowing jellyfish and a whale breaching over the lifeboat, a carnivorous island and of course, living alongside a dangerous predator – spectacle – it could be argued, is the film; as suspension of disbelief allows one to be caught up in Pi’s incredible quest. This makes for a very enjoyable cinematic experience, particularly the seamless way in which live action is blended with CG. life-of-pi-fishThe final part of Pi’s account is that of relating the story to the Japanese Transport Ministers whilst recovering from his ordeal. Not believing him, he tells a different version of events that is more believable and less fantastic. What is problematic is the simplistic way that Pi’s story is related back to his faith. Having heard both accounts of his survival, the writer is asked; “which do you prefer?” to which he responds; “the one with the animals, it’s a better story” eliciting the reply from Pi; “And so it goes with God”. The ‘better’ story is one that allows for belief in the incredible without reliance on facts or logic – in other words, pure faith. To be a cynic, or atheist is to lack imagination – to reject spectacle – as Pi’s father did.

This is a particularly banal and reductive way to understand faith carried over from the book and one that is disarming, if – like me – you’re an atheist who’s just allowed the preceding adventure to entertain and amuse you. Life of Pi is perhaps best thought of as a wildly successful exercise in suspending disbelief, whilst affirming faith in that fantastic thing: cinema.

Also watched:

The Lady Vanishes, Alfred Hitchcock.

Where Do We Go Now? Nadine Labaki

Up, Pete Docter, Bob Peterson.

My week in film: Keep the Lights On, The Girl, Jennifer’s Body and an assortment of fairytales.

The festive week’s film viewing, rather than including the usual Christmas fare (I didn’t even manage to watch A Muppet Christmas Carol!) for the most part; either reinforced exactly the same ‘magical’ feeling that Christmas is supposed to be about – only in fairytale form or; centred around issues of female identity and gender stereotyping – depending on which way you look at it.  JENNIFERS-BODY-photos-lesbi

On Christmas eve whilst many round the country were at midnight mass, I was thoroughly enjoying Jennifer’s Body (2009), the Megan Fox starring high-school horror/comedy in which Mean Girls’ Amanda Seyfried dons spectacles to play the titular cheerleaders’ BFF. Diablo Cody’s witty screenplay and Karyn Kusama’s thoughtful direction combine to produce a hugely enjoyable critique of the female teen experience. Not to mention a nice satire of the ubiquity of US indie rock bands. A comment about the myth of PMS comes to take on new meaning when Jennifer (Fox) is possessed by a blood-hungry devil, who – when not satisfied – reduces her appearance to dank hair and pallid skin; or does this ‘beauty’ simply look like every other teenage girl at their ‘time of the month’. Needy (Seyfried) must then find a way to stop Jennifer’s murderous rampage, whilst keeping the friendship intact (or not). Rather than a will-they won’t-they love story, Jennifer’s Body puts female friendship at stake and refreshingly examines loyalty across presumed social barriers. It’s also very funny indeed. Giselle-enchanted-1992210-1024-768

Next up – fairytales and parody in Tangled (2010), Enchanted (2007) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993) – the latter being a film I’ve seen more times than I care to mention. Tangled on release followed The Princess and the Frog (2009) in being a fairytale princess tale harking back to the times of Snow White and Cinderella, but with the twist that their heroines are more autonomous and quit-witted than previous incarnations of the Disney female. Tangled’s Rapunzel may be surrounded by fairytale archetypes such as the mean witch/mother who won’t let her out of her tower but she determinedly breaks out of her comfort zone to pursue her own goal.


Likewise, in Enchanted, Giselle – having been pushed out of fairytale land Andalasia and into Manhattan – ends up fighting the evil queen to save the man she loves, rather than marry the traditional prince with whom she is supposed to share true loves’ kiss. In Sleepless in Seattle, Meg Ryan’s Annie fantasises that a man she has never met could be ‘the man of her dreams’ and we, the audience are complicit in the fantasy as Nora Ephron’s sweet and clever film persuades us of the couple’s compatibility with a huge bucket of charm. Believing in a fairytale, whether you’re aware of it or not is a simple part of life, apparently. In my festive line up of fantasy females though, I think Jennifer and Needy win.

the-girl-ay_99779624HBO/BBC’s The Girl also dealt with female autonomy and male sexual fantasy whereby the fairytale of Hollywood stardom comes with a heavy price.  Sienna Miller and Toby Jones portrayed Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock during the making of the legendary directors iconic films, The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964) and Hitch is shown to have manipulated his star, sexually harassed her and put her under physical and emotional distress. Based on interviews with Hedren and members of Hitchcock’s crew, Gwyneth Hughes and Donald Spoto’s screenplay nevertheless makes it hard not to question the veracity of the events portrayed, as Hitch comes off as a sleazy, impotent creep, an image contrary to the loveable, black-humoured national treasure he is considered by many to be. Indeed it has been reported that Hitchcock’s former crew have spoken out about his portrayal in The Girl claiming that he has been misrepresented. Truth or fiction aside, the level of period detail and recreation of film sets and locations is a singular achievement and Miller and Jones both perform with conviction and authentic emotion.

2_e_Ira-Sachs-_Keep-the-Lights-OnGetting back to the cinema I was thrilled to see Keep the Lights On by Ira Sachs. Unfortunately I hadn’t managed to avoid the praise for this film (I like to keep an open mind) but nevertheless it proved to be an intelligent and mature approach to a contemporary romance about a couple, one half of which is struggling with drug addiction. Thure Lindhardt as Erik was a luminous, enchanting presence on screen and well matched by Zachary Booth as his troubled boyfriend, Paul. That it was shot on super 16 film not only renders the whole film completely gorgeous but lends the aesthetic a romantic feel and grounds the form in line with its protagonists profession as a filmmaker – cinematographic warmth translates to deep affection for the characters, indicating a very personal story. The use of Arthur Russell on the soundtrack is also an excellent element that coheres with the emotion of the screenplay demonstrating a freshness that saves it from sentimentality.

Coming soon, my most memorable – rather than best of – 2012 and a list of those I’d rather forget.



My week in film: Argo, Rust and Bone, Jeanne Dielmann, Sound it Out and more

Dirty Dancing was my option for a temporary break from thought at the end of the weekend’s more strenuous viewing, and I let its combination of melodrama, daddy issues, US loss of innocence and wildly anachronistic use of 80’s pop tunes wash over me with ease.

Catching up with current releases meant a double bill consisting of Ben Affleck’s third directorial outing, the Oscar-tipped Argo, and Jacques Audiard’s latest, Rust and Bone following the highly praised A Prophet (2009). Argo stars the aforementioned actor-turned director alongside Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Brian Cranston and a selection of recognisable (though not film star) faces, including the excellent and almost unrecognisable Scoot McNairy (Monsters, In Search of a Midnight Kiss), and is based on a real CIA operation that was declassified by President Clinton in 1997. Opening with a potted (and animated) history of how the US overthrew the democratically elected Mosaddegh government in 1953, placing a more secular Shah in its place, the film then begins proper with scenes showing the storming of the US embassy by protestors objecting to the Shah being taken in by the US, rather than be tried for his crimes against human rights. The protestors take 53 hostages, but six embassy employees escape to the Canadian ambassadors house – and this is where the great thrust of the drama comes from – how to get them out without being detected?

What follows is Tony Mendez (Affleck), an exfiltration expert, convincing the CIA to approve an operation to remove the six ‘house guests’ by fooling the Iranian authorities into taking them for a Canadian film crew, scouting the location for a Sci-fi film called, Argo. The result of this strange but true thriller plot is a (undoubtedly entertaining) combination of Hollywood satire, political corruption and heist movie convention. What started out as quite a balanced view of the US/Iranian relationship, soon gave way to fairly ordinary jibes at the business that is Hollywood, and a thriller that turned sympathetic Iranians into threatening caricatures – a menacing, fearful Other. For a film that tells a previously untold story, I was surprised by how much I felt I’d seen it all before.

Rust and Bone on the other hand – despite perhaps deserving just as much criticism being levelled at it – succeeded in being really quite moving. The plot concerns the rehabilitation of Marion Cotillard’s Stéphanie, an orca trainer who one day loses her legs during an incident at the marine centre where she works. Reconnecting with bouncer Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), whom she met at a club before the accident, Stéphanie gradually develops a new place in the world, at first through their casual relationship and later becoming a deeper connection. Rust and Bone most certainly suffers from an abundance of plot – especially towards the end – but the performances, script and use of music is strong enough that it had me totally compelled and invested in the characters by the end.

Perhaps spurred on by the thriller aspects of Argo I found myself craving another dose of Hollywood suspense and watched The Fugitive (1993) for the first time. Hugely enjoyable and engaging – I kept thinking “what’s going to happen to Harrison?!” -despite better judgement telling me it’ll probably be alright in the end. What I found most interesting was the attention the screenwriters pay to the relationship Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) has with his deputies. Strangely touching – like a papa bear to his cubs.



The monster movie this week was The Faculty (1998), a film that seeks to satirise the clichés of high school comedies whilst reinforcing them by the final reel. Great to be reminded of all the excellent performances from said faculty; Salma Hayek, Jon Stewart, Bebe Neworth, Piper Laurie, Famke Janssen and Robert Patrick as the creepy coach.


Following that high school treat, and in retrospect probably inspired by Affleck’s cinematic ‘maturity’, I returned to the always excellent Dazed and Confused (1993) in which said director plays bully O’Bannion (with remarkably similar hairstyle to his later Mendez incarnation, minus the beard) – tormenting the new freshmen on the last day of school in 1976. Linklater’s often dreamy depiction of 1970’s youth benefits from some delightfully awkward performances, notably Wiley Wiggins as Mitch Kramer (Wiggins is also in The Faculty) who relies one too many times on a ruffled brow and hand acting and is all the more charming for it. It’s a shame that so many high school films lean on the same tired plots whilst Linklater’s effort seems effortlessly tremendous nearly twenty years later.

Sound it Out buy Jeanie Finlay was a melancholy and empathetic film concerning one of the last independent record shops in the UK, the titular establishment situated in Stockton, Teesside in the North East of England. Finlay interviews the owners and regular customers of the store – which for those singled out – seems to form, in turns, a lifeline, an addiction and an essential component of their sense of identity. I felt that Finlay didn’t offer much in terms of the factual history of the area, preferring to concentrate on the testimonies of her interviewees – which at times results in contrived scenes involving them lip-syncing their favourite tunes – a misstep that turns fully rounded people, into an object of amusement.

Friday night saw the first in a selection of Chantal Akerman films at the French Film Festival, hosted by Edinburgh Filmhouse, which kicked off with her latest, Almayer’s Folly (2011). Adapted from the Joseph Conrad novel of the same name, the film concerns the fraught relationship between a white, European trader (Stanislas Merhar as Almayer) and his mixed race daughter, Nina (Aurora Marion) living in Malaysia. Almayer’s ineffectual nature and clouded judgement make him a frustrating character to watch, but is an essential aspect of the overall claustrophobia that develops as a central concern of the film. Almost every scene features water, whether it’s the characters wading through sodden ground, travelling by boat or getting soaked by the rain – giving the sense of their inability to escape their circumstances, and the obstacles that face them whenever they try to affect change.

Saturday saw the second of three Akerman films, Meetings with Anna (1978), an autobiographically inspired story of a filmmaker’s journey from Germany to Paris, and her interactions with family, strangers and friends along the way. A masterful portrait of a non-conforming female that gradually reveals social, political and personal tensions between Anna and those she encounters.

Finally, the week’s viewing came to an end with the magnificent Jeanne Dielmann, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), Chantal Akerman’s most celebrated film. This three hour and twenty minute tale of three days in the life of the titular Belgian housewife uses mainly static interior shots to describe Jeanne’s routine (and disruption of that routine) consisting of domestic chores and highly controlled prostitution. The vigorous formalism of each still shot, in which we see Jeanne engage in such banal tasks as making coffee or prepare the evening meal mean that whenever a new camera angle is used, it’s the equivalent of an explosion in a Hollywood action film – confounding out expectations of what the plot has been until that point. Jeanne’s unravelling, presumably triggered by a letter from her sister and her son’s (sudden?) interest in his parent’s relationship and the strangeness of sex, is perhaps too extreme to be wholly believable but nonetheless this is still one of the most astonishing pieces of cinema I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching.

Jeanne Dielmann was voted 36th Greatest Film of All Time in Sight & Sound’s once a decade poll, and Chantal Akerman is the only female director in the top 100 films.