Just been watching…(35)

The Sessions (2012) Also known as ‘The Surrogate’

***No real spoilers***

I consider myself to be something of a tough old man. Despite becoming more emotionally labile as I got older, there is very little that makes me cry. Indeed, I could count the films that have brought tears to my eyes on one hand, and one of those was about a dog! (Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, 2009)

I had never heard of the film, ‘The Sessions’, nor anything about the real-life person, Mark O’Brien, whose life is the subject of it. But it was on TV late at night, so I decided to watch it, perhaps drawn by the presence of Helen Hunt, an actress I have long admired.

Mark O’Brien was a Californian man who contracted Polio at the age of six. After that, he was unable to move anything except his head, and depended on living in an iron lung most of the time, just to stay alive. He became a writer, tapping the keys by using a stick in his mouth. He relied on paid carers for almost everything else, having to be fed, and to drink using a straw. He was able to go outside lying on an ambulance trolley, wheeled by his attendants, but was housebound the rest of the time. The added problem for Mark was that he still had all the usual emotional feelings and sexual urges, but could not act on them. After being rejected by a girl he proposes to, he decides to confess his feelings to his local Parish priest, (William H. Macy on his usual good form) and to ask his ‘permission’ to use the services of a sex surrogate and therapist, Cheryl. (Helen Hunt)

Cheryl is not a prostitute, rather a specialist who helps disabled and withdrawn men discover their sexuality by teaching them about sex, using her own body. I have to give a warning here for full-frontal female (not male) nudity, as well as some sex acts shown in a fair amount of detail. But PLEASE don’t let that put you off this film, as everything is done so naturally, and there is nothing at all salacious or titillating in this necessary inclusion.

Mark is allowed to employ Cheryl for six sessions only, (the Sessions of the title) during which time she educates him about the female body, and how to appreciate his own body too. Progressing from foreplay to full intercourse over the duration of the film, these sessions are warmhearted, sometimes very funny, and always beautifully handled. Knowing that the story is true elevates this film above any with a simply sexual theme. In fact, I cannot think of of many films with a similar theme at all!

As might be expected, Mark becomes very fond of Cheryl. And as their relationship builds, we see Cheryl also returning his affection, and the effect this has on her home life and marriage too. We also get more insight into Mark’s condition, and how it limits his life. Full marks have to go to John Hawkes, for his portrayal of Mark. It is almost impossible to believe that Hawkes is not suffering from the same condition, such is his ability to not only act the part with great emotion, but also to convey the physical defects so convincingly. Had this been a mainstream film, it might well have starred Daniel Day-Lewis, and he would have got a Best Actor Oscar. Hawkes deserved one, in my opinion.

Helen Hunt is a perfect choice for the role of Cheryl. Spending much of the film naked, she is completely relaxed at all times, and her interactions with Mark are always touchingly played, and totally believable. The rest of the cast are mostly unknown to me (except for Macy) but are all equally excellent in their understated style. I really cannot praise this film highly enough, and it has gone straight into my top twenty of films I have enjoyed, and been affected by. It is sold as a comedy, and does indeed have many very funny moments. However, I have rarely seen a film that combines such life-affirming feelings with sadness in quite the same way. Please try to see it.

And it made this grown man cry.

Here’s the American trailer.

Our National Day

This is a re-post from last year. Not only for the benefit of my many new followers, but also to remind us that we no longer celebrate our National Day, in England. We live in a world where so many seemingly pointless ‘Days’ are enthusiastically celebrated; from ‘Stroke A Pet Day’, to ‘Eat Some Chocolate Day’, and many others beloved of the Facebook Generation. Yet some acknowledgement of the long-standing tradition of the 23rd of April is hard to find.

St George’s Day

Today is the 23rd April. That date may have little or no significance to most people, and will pass just like any other day, with little or no fuss. But in England at least, it should count for something different. It is our National Day, though you would be forgiven for not knowing that fact.

Unlike Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, England does little to celebrate its patron saint, or the day named after him. More fuss is made of the fact that it is Shakespeare’s birthday, and the TV companies are pulling out all the stops to celebrate the works of the Bard of Avon. Nothing wrong with that of course, but how about poor old Saint George, and England as a separate nation?

If you were in Ireland (or almost anywhere else) on the 17th March, you could never be unaware that it is Saint Patrick’s Day. ‘The wearing of the green’, some crazy outfits, pubs and bars serving green beer, and many other celebrations, would all bring home the fact that Ireland’s Saint’s Day is celebrated wherever the Irish have a connection.

On 1st March, if you were Welsh, you might well be wearing a leek, listening to the songs of Druids, or watching a male voice choir singing ‘Men of Harlech.’ One thing’s for sure, you would know that it was Saint David’s Day, and no doubt be proud of your Welsh heritage, and separate nationality within the UK. Later in the year, on the 30th of November, Scotland joins in, with Saint Andrew’s Day. Scottish flags flying proudly, special meals, kilts and bagpipes in evidence all over. And since 2006, it is a public holiday in Scotland too.

So what happened in England? Did we just stop caring, or has it all been forgotten? There are some parades, but they are small ones. Some buildings fly the red and white flag of Saint George, but most don’t bother. It is not a public holiday, and very few young people even know that it exists. There is a small website campaigning to get better recognition, but you would be hard pressed to find it mentioned in the mainstream media, let alone celebrated in style. In central London, Trafalgar Square hosts a gathering of Morris Dancers, and a promotion of English food, for the benefit of some bemused tourists to wonder what is going on. The Prime Minister has issued an official message from Downing Street, and a few people are wandering about dressed in the style of 12th century Crusaders.

But we are missing the opportunity to celebrate England as a country in its own right, long before the formation of the UK, or the current union with Scotland, and the six counties of Northern Ireland. I am not a nationalist by nature, but surely we owe it to future generations to make them aware of the culture and heritage of the country that makes up such a large part of the British Isles? Has this country become so diverse, or so steeped in apathy, that such things no longer matter? I sincerely hope not.

Happy Saint George’s Day everyone, from good old England.

Significant Songs (132)

Every Day I write The Book

From previous experience on this blog, I am well-aware that Elvis Costello is not favoured by many of my readers. In fact, some of them dislike his work intensely. But I cannot ignore a song in my head, because of that fact.

You might agree that a benchmark of a song is that it continues fresh in your mind. It is evocative of a period, and a time that was important to you, for whatever reason. This song from 1983 was on the album, ‘Punch The Clock’. Elvis Costello was in his heyday, often accompanied by his backing band, The Attractions. This song has never left me. Earlier today, walking with Ollie, I could hear it playing in my mind. I could recall the expressions on Costello’s face as he sung it on TV, and sing through the lyrics in my mind, as if I had heard them only yesterday.

Later this evening, as I was doing the washing up, I couldn’t get the song from my head. The line, “Chapters four, five, and six” kept playing as if it was on a jukebox in the room. Costello went on to do much, much more after this. He is still recording and playing today. But this was his golden hour, at least for me. I could add almost his entire catalogue to this series. But I won’t.

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American Hustle (2013)

***No spoliers***

I had this film stored on the PVR for ages, and just remembered it last night. Released to mainly rave reviews four years ago, this period (1970s) black comedy concerns the activities of some small-time fraudsters in America. Christian Bale and Amy Adams play Irving and Sydney, successful con artists, who are also lovers. During one routine operation, they are caught out by the ambitious FBI agent, Richie DiMaso, (Bradley Cooper) who immediately sees a way to use the hapless duo to further his own career.

He embroils them in a major sting operation, intended to bring down a series of corrupt politicians, and Mafia bigwigs. These include a New Jersey mayor, (Jeremy Renner) and a Mafia hard-man. (A nice cameo from Robert De Niro) Irving is out of his depth. Overweight, suffering from heart problems, sporting a terrible comb-over hairstyle, and caught between his affection for Sydney, and his flaky wife Rosalyn, (Jennifer Lawrence) his whole world starts to unravel. Meanwhile, Richie is facing resistance from his bosses, as his demands for the operation spiral out of control, and he finds himself falling for the charms of Sydney too.

With no spoilers, that’s about it. So, what else? A lot else, actually.

This film is based on real events, with the names changed. It is so well rendered in period, that at times it feels not only like it is set in the 1970s, but was actually made back then too. Bale is amazing as Irving. Getting fat, stressed-out, calling upon all his talents as a con-artist to survive. Amy Adams convinces completely as the sexy sidekick, attracting admiring glances from all around, the perfect diversionary tactic. Yet her loyalty to Irving is never in doubt.

Cooper gets it all right as the obnoxious FBI agent; using curlers in his hair, treating his mother and fiance appallingly, and prepared to step on anyone to get his operation approved. He is impossible to like, and we are not meant to. Jeremey Renner, sporting an incredible Roy Orbison hairstyle, has a good stab at being the misunderstood mayor, just trying to do the best for his people. This was sold as a black comedy, but it has some moments of fine drama. Many moments, in fact. Throw in Lawrence’s portrayal of the wife, De Niro’s coldly terrifying gangster, and you have it all. It’s a really satisfying old-school con-men drama, with an equally satisfying conclusion.
And the soundtrack of contemporary songs is just right too.

It’s not ‘Nine Queens’, but it is very good indeed.

Top Ten Films

When I first started this blog in 2012, Top Tens were all the rage. Most days, it seemed to me as if there was a Top Ten of everything on the blog. This ranged from the top ten cute cats, to the top ten favourite film stars, through to the top ten favourite places to go in the world, and the top ten best snack foods. Top Ten mania had hit blogging, and could not be avoided.

Not long after I started to write posts about film and cinema, the ‘Top Tenners’ came knocking on my door. They sent me links to their own top tens, and asked to know my own preferences. Who were my favourite actors? My list of best directors? The questions went on and on. The barrage was relentless, for a while. Some blogging sites were even called ‘My Top Ten’, and other variations. These Top Ten addicts went into almost everything you can imagine, believe me.

But I resisted, I refused to play ball. There was no way that I could think of my personal top ten films. After all, I had seen so many, how could I choose? I offered them categories. I would suggest my top ten films by Japanese directors, or my top ten war films, and so on. But this did not satiate their desire for me to provide that list. Even when I said things like, “my tastes are constantly changing”, they refused to accept that I could not provide them with a ready-to-order selection.

Almost five years later, and I hardly ever see Top Tens anymore. Maybe they ran out of subjects to place in order, or perhaps they just stopped blogging once they had got all the answers. They should have waited for me though, as I have just decided that I WILL list my top ten favourite films after all. There are some thoughts accompanying this list though. I do not claim that these are actually the best ten films ever made, far from it. Nor do I claim that their subject matter will suit everyone, even the most ardent film fan. They are just the films that I remember fondly, and always enjoy seeing over again. I will also state from the outset that those people who do not like subtitles will be disappointed. You lot better not bother to read on, in that case. And everyone should also realise that these are personal favourites at the moment, so that does not preclude new films appearing, and knocking some of these from their spot.

So, here goes, in ascending order. Feel free to add your own top tens in the comments. Let’s keep the spirit of those Top Tenners alive, in 2017!

10) The Conformist (1970)
Bertolucci’s political drama has long been a powerful memory for me. Fascism in Italy, amazing sets, and the portrayal of a man prepared to do almost anything to move up in the world. Memorable performances from a talented cast, and everything feeling just right, at the hands of one of the best directors. The period is recreated impeccably too.

9) The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)
This unusual British film, written and directed by Peter Greenaway, can best be described as having a ‘cult following’. The amazing costumes, the wonderful musical score, and the unusual construction, all surround a baffling ‘whodunnit’ murder mystery, set in England in the 17th Century. I have heard it described as the ultimate case of style over substance. I don’t care. It is fabulous.

8) Great Expectations (1946)
David Lean had to feature here, and this film is undoubtedly one of his best. Beautifully filmed in luxurious black and white, this is a masterclass in how to bring the work of Charles Dickens to the big screen. Add to that a great cast at the peak of their form, stunning imagery, and a faithful depiction of Victorian England, and you are left with a work to treasure; one to watch over and over again, and never tire of.

7) Carmen (1983)
I have always loved to watch Spanish Flamenco. I admire the percussive dancing, the hand-clapping, and the wonderful guitar work. Carlos Saura took the story of Bizet’s opera, and transplanted it to a modern flamenco school. It was a stroke of genius, and works so well, with the flamenco rhythms replacing the operatic score. This is a very personal preference of course, and I will understand if you are baffled to find it in my list. But it is a great film, in so many ways.

6) Kagemusha (1980)
Akira Kurosawa is one of my all-time favourite film-makers. I could have probably populated this list with ten of his films, and left it at that. Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior is a visual feast. This is how to make an historical epic. Set in the turbulent days of feudal Japan, this film left me reeling after watching it at the cinema. Sweeping vistas, a riot of colour, and the use of countless extras in the cast. This feels completely authentic at all times, and the plot, about a small-time crook who resembles a warlord, is almost unnecessary.

5) GoodFellas (1990)
I have admired many of Martin Scorsese’s film over the years, but none more so than this. In my opinion, this is the ultimate gangster film, and the best ever made in the genre. (You will note that it managed to squeeze The Godfather trilogy out of this list) From the opening scene, it had me gripped, and I watched every second of the film with the same fascination. This is the seedy side of the hoodlums who do the dirty work for organised crime, with a succession of first-rate actors taking on every role as the film unfolds, as well as the performance of a lifetime from Ray Liotta. Throw in some of the best long-shot scenes ever put on film, and the constantly convincing changes in the eras covered, and you have what can only be described as a modern masterpiece.

4) Touch Of Evil (1958)
I have always loved to watch Orson Welles. I write about him a lot on this blog, from his twinkling-eyed smile in ‘The Third Man’, to my own admiration of his performance as Falstaff, in ‘Chimes at Midnight’. I really rate him as an actor, though he is best known as a director. His work on this film is second to none, in both areas. From what is perhaps the best crane shot in cinema, as the film opens, to his portrayal of the run down bloated detective Quinlan, Welles has crafted a film that is complete in so many ways. There is a seen-better-days Marlene Dietrich to enjoy too, and you can even forget that Charlton Heston is in it.

3 ) The Lives OF Others (2006)
This Oscar-winning German film deals with life in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989. It is about surveillance, dissent, and living in a very controlled society. But you can now just forget that, because this film is high on my list for one very good reason. The acting of the star, in the main character of Wiesler, the Stasi captain. Ulrich Muhe might well have been unknown to most of us, were it not for this film. As he sadly died the following year, aged just 54, we are left with this amazing performance as his legacy. His depiction of the obsessive captain is second to none, and he displays such nuance, that at times it appears that he is not acting at all. One of the great films of all time, without doubt.

2) Come and See (1985)
Regular readers of my blog will hardly be surprised to see this Russian film so high on my list. This is a war film like no other. A haunting, surreal production that will live on in your memory, and is unlikely to ever be erased from your mind. It is almost impossible to describe. You just have to see it, to experience its terrible wonder.

1) Blade Runner (1982)
A film that has had its own post here already, and been praised to the hilt by me so many times, it just had to get the top slot. Few films have stayed with me like Ridley Scott’s dystopian film noir. Part science-fiction, part gumshoe detective story, it just has it all. Wonderful performances, amazingly-rendered sets, and fantastic ideas. When I left the cinema after watching this, I knew that I would never forget it. And in all those years since, it has never been bettered. There is a sequel due out soon, but don’t wait for that. See the original, and marvel at the invention.

There you have it. My first ‘real’ Top Ten. No great surprises, for anyone who knows my taste. I hope that you will play along in the comments, and maybe even watch the ones on this list that you have never seen. Let me know if you want more Top Tens too.

Just been watching…(33)

High Rise (2015)

***Contains spoilers***

I was looking forward to this film. Directed by Ben Wheatley, it was to be the next in a row of successes for him, I was sure. I had greatly enjoyed the sinister ‘Kill List’, and delighted at the black comedy of ‘Sightseers’. This was British film-making too, with natural locations, and a very English feel. I looked at the pedigree of ‘High Rise’. From a novel by J.G. Ballard (‘Empire of The Sun’, and ‘Crash’) and boasting a great cast of British actors, including flavour of the month, Tom Hiddleston, as well as Jeremy Irons, Keeley Hawes, Sienna Miller, James Purefoy, and Bill Paterson.

The story is about a high-rise development, a vision of the architect, Anthony Royal. (Irons) He lives in the luxurious top-floor penthouse, which includes a rooftop garden, and even a horse for his wife (Hawes) to ride. The good-looking Doctor Laing (Hiddleston) arrives to take up residence there, and he is soon noticed by some of the attractive ladies resident in the tower. It becomes apparent that social status and wealth is represented by the floor that the person lives on. Those on the lower floors are mostly middle-class, and also mostly insufferable too. The higher the floor, the more privilged the resident, right up to Royal’s penthouse. This high rise is complete with everything necessary to establish a contained community. It has its own supermarket, swimming pool, and gymnasium. Other than when they go to work, the residents have no need to ever leave.

But Royal’s vision is flawed. There are problems with the power supply, resulting in frequent power blackouts, and lift failures. Rubbish remains uncollected, food spoils in the supermarket, and the inhabitants of the block have to resort to using candles and torches, as well as having to constantly walk up and down stairs to their apartments.

We have the usual scenarios of troubled families and individuals. Royal’s wife is neglected and unhappy, Hiddleston’s doctor is troubled by loss, and struggling at work. Many of the women are unusually promiscuous, and even Royal is finding it hard to cope with the increasing deterioration of his project. As conditions become increasingly worse, the residents revert to type. The rich tenants on the upper floors hold a series of increasingly debauched parties, eventually resembling some kind of alcohol-fuelled Roman orgy. There are attacks on some people, women are raped, and this group begins to take over most of the building, banning the poorer residents from parts of it, including the swimming pool.

The lower classes on the floors below eventually revolt, led by film-maker Richard Wilder, (Luke Evans) a man who resents those on the upper floors for their comfortable lifestyle. There is looting in the supermarket, as well as more violence doled out, as they take their revenge. There are no winners though, and we are left watching the surviving residents descend into madness.

I haven’t read the book, but I presume that this tower block, and the lives of its residents, is supposed to represent the failure of organised society. The book was set in the 1970s, and Wheatley stays true to this, with contemporary cars, clothing, hairstyles, and attitudes too. For me, that was one of the most irritating aspects. It would have been far more effective to update the time period, and to set it in the 21st century. Perhaps because they are playing in a period piece, many of the otherwise excellent actors revert to type too, with some wooden acting worthy of puppets, and delivery of their lines as if they are in some kind of spoof.

Much of the nudity, and occasional graphic sex, seems gratuitous to me. The same could be said for the violence, though that is no worse than you might see on TV. Most of the cast members are wasted playing caricature roles, and other than Irons and Hiddleston, none are really given enough screen time to display their talents. The flaws in the story are obvious of course, so presumably intentional. Why does nobody just leave the block and go to the local shops when the food spoils in their supermarket? Why are the police never called to investigate the violent attacks? Why doesn’t anyone think to inform the electricity company that they have no power? Of course, if all that had happened, there would be no drama, and no story.

We are led to conclude that the building itself has taken control of its residents, altering their personalities, and returning them to savagery. The building represents society, and the way it stopped caring about the poor and the weak. I didn’t buy into that, but as I said, I haven’t read the book. What I saw was an often clumsy delivery, embarrassing acting at times, and some nasty and unnecessary sex acts and violence. It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know, and it failed to entertain me. But don’t take my word for it. Many critics raved about this film, and continue to do so.

For further reading, check out this excellent article from Nandia Foteini Vlachou. She sums up this film in a very academic and interesting way. Here is a link.

“Architectures of Control”: Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise (2015)

Just been watching…(32)

Son of Saul (2015)
(Hungarian, German, and Russian languages. English subtitles.)

After ‘Schindler’s List’, The Grey Zone’, and lots more, it may seem to many that there have been enough films made about the Holocaust. After all, even the most well-made and well-intentioned film about this subject can ultimately only serve to depress the viewer, reminding us of those awful events and the inhuman treatment of the prisoners. However, I would argue that they need to continue to be made, to carry on bringing these tragic stories to new audiences; lest the memory of these people and places becomes something ‘historical’, and future generations lose interest in what happened.

‘Son of Saul’ won the Oscar, BAFTA, and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. I asked for a DVD of this for my birthday, and decided to watch it this morning, as I was sitting in with a sore throat and heavy cold.

The film goes straight into action, with no lead-up, or back story. We have no idea where these men come from, or how they got there. They are part of a ‘Sonderkommando’, a special unit of stronger prisoners who are tasked with assisting in the industrial process of killing hundreds of people at a time. They are a mixed bunch; with Jews, non-Jews, captured Russian soldiers, and others. Ruled over by the ‘Kapos’, other prisoners promoted into supervisory roles who are harsh in their treatment of the men in their charge. The film starts with familiar events. Terrified people are herded into the gas chambers, told that they are going for a shower, and will be given soup afterwards. The men of the Sonderkommando stack their clothes and belongings, as they listen to the screams of those inside. They then go into the chamber to retrieve the bodies, and to wash down the area ready for the next arrivals.

Where this film differs from all the others, is that it uses a non-widescreen format, something like the old TV ratios. Then the camera is used at very close range, rarely more than a few inches from the face of Saul and others, or following close behind as they move. This means that faces literally fill the screen, and the viewer is swept up in the intimacy of detail, the close contact, and the claustrophobic feel that is present throughout. Clever use of differential focus also renders the backgrounds blurred and indistinct. We can see many bodies are there, or perhaps be aware of hundreds of other prisoners, but the focus remains on Saul, making us feel as if we are actually there, seeing what he sees, in the same way.

This is not to say that the film is not harrowing, it is never anything but. However, it does give a different insight to life in those camps. The prisoners have few friends, and there are language difficulties too. The non-Jewish prisoners and Russians have little respect for the Jews, often seeming to detest them in the same way as the Germans do. Everything is about survival, staying alive for one more day. This is particularly relevant for the members of the Sonderkommando. They are all-too aware that their days are numbered, and know that the Germans will eventually kill them too, and replace them with a new group of workers. This spurs on one group to plan a break-out, and Saul is reluctantly drawn into their plans.

In the middle of all this madness, this vision of Hell on Earth, Saul becomes fixated on the death of one young boy. He determines to ensure that he has a proper religious burial, and embarks on a one-man quest to find a Rabbi in the camp, someone who can say the correct prayers for the boy. He hides the body, and tells others that it is his son. Although some are sympathetic, they are aware that he is putting all their lives at risk with this action, and he eventually has to act alone.

As often happens with foreign films, not knowing any of the cast just increases the feeling of authenticity. This film feels totally believable at all times, and the viewer is drawn into Saul’s obsession along with him. Strong performances are delivered by everyone, even in the smallest roles, and the outcome is to leave you feeling drained after watching it all the way to the end.

It is no spoiler to say that things do not end well for anyone involved. These are events of record, and it would be unrealistic to provide a happy ending where none existed. If you think you can stand it, this powerful film is highly recommended.