Sunday, December 28, 2008

Grizzly Man

Werner Herzog has always been drawn to characters driven by obsessiveness and madness, as his six-film relationship with Klaus Kinski (himself not the most well-adjusted of individuals) testifies. ‘Aguirre, Wrath of God’ and ‘Fitzcarraldo’, both born of this collaboration, are films of almost operatic grandeur. But Herzog has also proved a clear-sighted documentarist.

(Um, when I say "clear-sighted", what I mean is Herzog goes hell for leather getting to the emotional and aesthetic truth of his subject - and if that means staging a few scenes, then fuck it, that's exactly what Herr Herzog will do. We'll return to this subject when ‘Little Dieter Needs to Fly’ crops up on the personal faves list.)

In ‘Grizzly Man’, Herzog finds a real-life subject the equal of any of his fictive protagonists. Timothy Treadwell spent thirteen summers in the "grizzly maze" of Alaska’s Katmai National Park, often directly contravening the regulations on camping and non-interaction with the wildlife. He shot over 100 hours of video footage, focusing as much on himself as on the bears.

Reviews of the film trot out the same descriptions of Treadwell: "environmentalist", "troubled loner". Herzog’s documentary also shows him as a lachrymose sentimentalist ("I love you," he croons to the bears, whom he gives babyish names like ‘Mr Chocolate’); a paranoid fantasist (encountering a team of photographers on a wildlife shoot, he immediately decries them as poachers; a smiley face graffiti'd on a rock engenders a flight of paranoia that would be funny if ‘Grizzly Man’ were a work of fiction) and a rampant egomaniac (he deems the Katmai National Park "my land" and declares himself "a kind warrior").

Herzog never entirely calls it either way, though. True, he accuses of Treadwell of "crossing the line" during an expletive-ridden rant about the Katmai National Park authorities; but he also delights in the (almost accidental) visual poetry of some of Treadwell's footage. Herzog is too much of a film-maker, too much of a crazed adventurer himself, not to appreciate Treadwell's commitment. He's also too intelligent, too much of a realist, not to recognise Treadwell's naivety.

That Treadwell was killed by a bear is not so much irony as inevitability. A native Alaskan, interviewed by Herzog, advocates "Our people have lived with the bears for 700 years - they stay away from us, we stay away from them." A jolting cut from Treadwell’s childish musings to footage of two grizzlies locked in combat reinforces the point: these are huge, powerful animals that kill for food. Respect them, yes, but don’t try to play with them.

When another interviewee assets that Treadwell got the death "he deserved", it sounds harsh. By the end of the documentary, you realise it’s simply a statement of fact. "This is not a nature film," Herzog says at the outset. Very true. ‘Grizzly Man’ is a study in madness and just as compelling as if Kinski were in the lead role.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Compliments of the season

Prior to heading off to pick up Paula's father (our guest for today), prior to introducing the turkey to the oven and assuring the roast potatoes and pigs in blankets of a similar fate, prior to steaming the veg (all done over a glass or two of sauvignon blanc - chef's perogative!); prior to the conversation and the jokes and the new Wallace & Gromit on BBC1 later tonight ('A Matter of Loaf and Death' - inspired!) ...

... a few minutes to fire up the computer, log on and wish everyone who reads, follows or links to these pages a very Happy Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Paul Scofield

Kudos to BBC2 for tonight’s ‘Arena’ documentary on Paul Scofield, who died earlier this year.

Contributors included Simon Callow, Donald Sinden, Felicity Kendal and Nicolas Hytner, who directed Scofield in his final film role – Judge Danforth in ‘The Crucible’ – in 1996.

In the main, the documentary focused on his theatre work for the RSC, featuring some jaw-dropping archive footage, particularly of his performance as Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s ‘Amadeus’.

Milos Forman’s adaptation, long a favourite of mine, has now been compromised for me. As memorable and as nuanced as F. Murray Abraham is, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch it again without wondering how different – how much more compelling – it might have been with Scofield in the role.

Monday, December 22, 2008


When Steven Soderbergh made ‘Ocean’s 11’ in 2001, he was on a roll. After nearly a decade in the wilderness following his acclaimed debut ‘sex, lies and videotape’, he’d come storming back with uber-cool Elmore Leonard adaptation ‘Out of Sight’ in 1998, followed in rapid succession by ‘The Limey’ (still criminally underrated), ‘Erin Brockovich’ (a potential courtroom yawnfest that Soderbergh somehow made compelling*) and the multi-layered Oscar-winning ‘Traffic’.

Now I love all of those films, and it can be argued (quite easily it the case of, say, ‘Traffic) that all of them have more depth, more interest, more idiosyncracies – hell, just plain more to write about – than ‘Ocean’s 11’. In fact it wouldn’t be difficult to make a case for ‘Ocean’s 11’ as an incredibly entertaining but ultimately generic remake, file it under “style over substance” and move on.

But I would pick ‘Ocean’s 11’ over its stable mates any day. Several reasons.

It’s a pitch-perfect example of pure mainstream entertainment. You don’t need to think about it too much. You can kick back with a bowl of popcorn, crack a beer, relax and let 100 minutes of cool wash effortlessly over you. There’s plenty of films that fulfil the “pure entertainment” remit – most of them, in fact – but precious few that still manage to be supremely well-made and not insult the intelligence.

It improves on the original immeasurably. Lewis Milestone’s 1960 film was a ‘Rififi’-style crime caper teaming the Rat Pack with Sixties stalwarts Angie Dickinson, Richard Conte, Cesar Romero, Akim Tamiroff and Henry Silva; a classic in the making … or would have been had Milestone been able to shoot the film he wanted.

Sinatra and co. all had big room gigs at Vegas during the shooting and this, rather than the film, became their principle focus. Then there was the partying. We’re talking about the Rat Pack, after all. In Vegas. Analogy: imagine you’ve cast Richard Burton, Oliver Reed, Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris in a movie shot around a brewery. How much usable footage do you think you’d get in the car each day of shooting?

Between his stars not turning up on set, and throwing out the script in favour of jokey ad-libbing when they did, the first ‘Ocean’s 11’ lost its chance at greatness. It’s still good fun, but a shroud of “what if” hangs over it.

Soderbergh, however, didn’t have such problems. The script for his version – by Ted Griffin – was tight as a snare drum (the reason there are no deleted scenes on the DVD is that everything slid together so perfectly: nothing about the script was redundant) and zinged with cool dialogue. The cast is top-notch: George Clooney**, Brad Pitt, Andy Garcia (doing his best work in ages), Elliott Gould (ditto), Carl Reiner and Julia Roberts (the “introducing Julia Roberts” credit at the end is priceless). The second tier shine: Bernie Mac, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan and Eddie Jemison hold their own against the big names.

Music, cinematography, production design, editing (want a masterclass on how to use a segue? watch this film) … everything melds smoothly and seamlessly.

I’ve used the word three times already, and it’s a tool of both the stoner and the lazy writer, but there really is no other way of describing ‘Ocean’s 11’: it’s cool.

Suavely, stylishly, seriously cool.

*As well as getting a career-best performance from Julia Roberts.

** ‘Ocean’s 11’ was the second of his six – so far – actor/director collaborations with Soderbergh.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Gary Cooper

Well, I did appeal for anything cinema related. My thanks to Viv Apple for giving The Agitation of the Mind its first poetry page. Her poem ‘Beau’ is a lovely tribute to the strength and integrity of Gary Cooper’s finest roles.


How did it happen? When?
There was no look across a crowded room,
no sudden surge of dizziness as our hands touched.

Was it High Noon, your eyes still steady
in the piercing light, when I first thought:
I love you, Gary Cooper?

Was it the way you looked at Ingrid Bergman
in those Spanish hills where bells tolled,
made me say I love you, Gary Cooper?

Or was it that Grand Gesture
of sacrifice to save another’s honour
with your own? And yet stealing that gem
was a mere fiction. What I saw besides
was who you are. I love you, Gary Cooper.

In your eyes I saw compassion in a playful scene.
Three brothers chase a mouse across the floor -
you raise the broom, but cannot
bring the weapon down to kill.
For that, I love you, Gary Cooper.

I won’t express such love in the past tense,
for death is no more vast than the big screen.
Tears at your Viking funeral, Beau Geste;
and still I love you, Gary Cooper.

by Viv Apple

Thursday, December 18, 2008

20 fearless actresses

Sorry: I’m a little tardy to the party on this one. And, not having been tagged by anyone, I’m doing my jumping on the bandwagon thing again. But, hey, it’s a boring afternoon at the office and my brain’s too torpid with ennui to write a proper entry, so here goes.

Film Experience Blog kicked off a “20 favourite actresses” meme a couple of weeks ago. Here’s my take on it. What follows is actually the third list I compiled. The first was, as per the remit, my 20 favourite actresses, but there was a lot of overlap with lists already compiled (check the links over at Film Experience Blog).

Then I … how to put this without sounding like a lecher? … compiled a list of 20 actresses who I consider particularly radiant, whose presence in a film, irrespective of quality of performance, engages me on a level that … Oh screw it, I’m digging a hole here and it’s about time I put the shovel down. Basically, I compiled a “most fanciable” list.

Then I decided I didn’t want to sleep on the sofa tonight, and came up with the idea of 20 actresses who have given fearless performances. Fearless emotionally, fearless sexually, fearless in terms of pushing the envelope beyond anything they’d done before. I’ve credited each of them with one film that, for me, best typifies the fearlessness of their performance.

In some cases – Isabelle Huppert or Jodie Foster or Julianne Moore, for instance – I could have reference numerous roles. That I’ve kept it at one is more out of fairness to say, Linda Hayden or Christina Lindberg, whose entire careers were saddled with nymphet eye-candy roles but both of whom went for it big time the one occasion they were given a real role.*

So, in no particular order:

Jodie Foster (The Accused)

Susan George (Straw Dogs)

Christina Lindberg (Thriller: A Cruel Picture)

Helen Mirren (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover)

Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive)

Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener)

Jennifer Connelly (Requiem for a Dream)

Linda Hayden (Blood on Satan’s Claw)

Paz Vega (Sex and Lucia)

Asia Argento (The Stendahl Syndrome)

Ingrid Thulin (The Silence)

Julie Christie (Don’t Look Now)

Kate Winslet (Heavenly Creatures)

Jung Suh (The Isle)

Samantha Morton (Under the Skin)

Beryl Reid (The Killing of Sister George)

Julianne Moore (Savage Grace)

Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves)

Charlotte Rampling (The Night Porter)

Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher)

*I stand by Lindberg’s performance in ‘Thriller: A Cruel Picture’ as a real role, even if the film itself is firmly mired as a grubby little exploitationer.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


Watch Christopher Nolan's second film 'Memento' - an out-of-nowhere cult hit that set him up for what has proved, so far, a stratospheric directorial career - and marvel at its cleverness, intricacy and structural legerdemain. Watch 'Batman Begins', the most impressive franchise re-boot this side of 'Casino Royale', and marvel at his sleight of hand vis-a-vis the identity of not-quite-villain Raz Al Ghul. Watch 'The Dark Knight' - in my humble opinion the best film released this year - and be utterly gobsmacked at the narrative-fracturing possibilities of one individual's force of will (the Joker's) smashing into the ordered and rigidly defined perameters of Batman's. Consider the themes of duality, confusion of identity and obsession that permeate Nolan's filmography.

It seems somehow inevitable that he and his brother and co-writer Jonathan Nolan would adapt Christopher Priest's novel 'The Prestige'. Using the word "adapt" loosely. Priest's novel flits between time-frames (it's bookended and mesologued by contemporarily-set scenes while the bulk of the narrative plays out amidst the greasepaint and gaslight of the Victorian music halls) and features four* different first-person narrators, none of whom are reliable. The unreliable narrator is a stock-in-trade of Priest's novels. He's also interested in perspective, illusion and doubles. He's a science-fiction writer (such genre staples as time travel, cloning and alternative histories have all featured in his work) whose novels don't read like sci-fi.

As written, 'The Prestige' doesn't come across as ripe for filming. With much of the first half devoted to working class magician Alfred Borden's diary, all fractured entries and elliptical clues, and the second consisting of aristocractic Rupert Angier's journal, just as sketchy and missing crucial bits of information, the narrative essentially stops halfway, goes back to the beginning and starts again.

What Nolan does is to take elements from both sections of the novel and shuffle them like a deck of cards. This is a film about illusions, and as such takes the form of an illusion itself. The opening sees impresario Cutter (Michael Caine) explain the stages of a magic trick - the promise, the turn and the prestige - to a young girl (who is she? - very important, this - and where, chronologically, does this occur?); he also gives evidence at the trial of Borden (Christian Bale), who is accused of murdering Angier (Hugh Jackman). Oh, and there's some business about a lot of top hats in a forest that comes on like 'Miller's Crossing' in a time-warp. Forest, what forest? And why so many hats? It's important; keep it in mind.

Do not take all of this at face value. Take some of it at deeper than face value. There are clues even in misdirections.

It's a film about illusions and it takes the form of an illusion, but 'The Prestige' isn't a parlour trick - not like 'The Village'. It's one of those rare films - 'Memento', 'A Tale of Two Sisters' and 'Deep Red' being the only other examples I can site off the top of my head - that get infinitely better once you know the twist. But, like those other films, it's not so much a twist as a complete re-evaluation and re-assessment of everything that's gone before it. The first time I saw 'The Prestige', me and Paula talked about it all the way back to the car, all the way home and all the way through a bottle of wine. Now, having seen it a good half dozen times, we still debate it after each viewing.

Of course, I can't get into a really interesting discussion of the film here and lay out some of the questions me and Paula only think we've answered, because I'd have to give away an audacious, jaw-dropping triple-whammy ending (I've spoken to some people who think it's a double-whammy ending; it's entirely possible it's a quadruple-whammy ending - like much of the film, it's up to the viewer to figure it out). And I want everyone who watches 'The Prestige' to be as blown away as I was by it.

So, I can take the easy way out and break out the superlatives, praise Christopher Nolan's faultless direction to the heavens, applaud a cluster of great performances - Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine and David Bowie (a revelation as Nikola Tesla), take a bow - and rave about the period recreation, the hugely atmospheric cinematography and the attention to detail that coheres what could have been a sprawling epic full of overlapping timelines and interrelationships into intimate drama.

Or I can say that the story is driven, superficially, by rivalry (which Nolan kicks into gear differently than Priest does, and perhaps more effectively) but is, on a deeper level, about obsession, about secrecy, about dualism. About price of success and the sacrifice that is demanded. There's a third-act revelation (or maybe second act, or maybe fifth act - you work it out) that demands a suspension of disbelief that may leave you thinking the Nolan has gone a twist too far, but the key to the film is not to take it literally. True, Priest's novel takes it literally - and then takes it even further (there's a definite H.G. Wells homage going on in the latter stages of the novel) - but Nolan's genius is to render it as a metaphor. After all, this is a film about the dualism. About sacrifice.

Does it agitate the mind? Oh, you sweet fucking-A betcha!!

*Or more.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Six degrees of happy birthday

According to IMDb, the following luminaries of the silver screen share a birthday today:

Tom Wilkinson, who starred in ‘In the Bedroom’, the debut movie of director Todd Field, who cast …

Jennifer Connelly in his follow-up ‘Little Children’, which co-starred Kate Winslet, who appeared in ‘Finding Neverland’ alongside Kelly Macdonald, whose co-star in ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ was …

Bill Nighy.

Frank Sinatra also has a birthday today, or would have done if he’d been alive. So I guess that allows me to say that for a pussy-whipped Mafia bagman he certainly cut some decent tunes without fear of a lawsuit.

A hit, however, is another matter.

Thank you and good night.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Sea Inside

My thanks to Viv Apple for the following article.

‘The Sea Inside’ has been compared with ‘Whose Life is it Anyway?’ because of its subject matter, assisted suicide. Never having seen ‘Whose Life?’, I can’t compare the two, but I would be surprised if this daunting subject could be handled with more sensitivity and truth than in Alejandro Amenabar’s supremely moving film, based on a true story.

Javier Bardem plays the part of Ramon Sampedro, a Spanish fisherman and part time poet who at the age of 26 suffered a diving accident which left him a paraplegic. Now 54, Ramon has lived for 28 years with his family: his father, macho brother Jose, sister-in-law Manuela who is his main carer, and their son Javi, who helps Ramon by transcribing his laboriously written-by-mouth words onto a computer. Although bedridden, Ramon can talk normally and still manages to smile for much of the time, enabling those around him to empathise more easily. But his inner pain is conveyed by occasional dream sequences in which he gets up and flies over the countryside to the sea, which he still loves.

Through a friend who works with a ‘Right to Die’ organisation, Ramon is introduced to Julia, a lawyer whom he hopes will take his case to the courts to let him end his life. His family, especially his brother and father, are strongly against this, and the film’s tensions arise from the relationship between Ramon and all those who love him and yet have different views on how to help him. Julia herself has a degenerative disease which influences her growing relationship with Ramon, and despite the objections of some family members, Ramon is taken in a wheelchair to the court hearing. On the way, the camera shows us through Ramon’s eyes little snippets of everyday life, and on his face we see the re-discovery of the outside world he has missed for so long: a small boy being reprimanded by his father for straying off the path, two dogs doing what dogs do, and tellingly, his eyes puzzling over the turning sails of a wind farm half-hidden by a hill. It is small details like these throughout the film which lift it out of the ordinary.

Every character in Ramon’s story has significance. I haven’t mentioned them all, or the equally significant events which accompany the story’s flow, not because it would spoil the plot - this is not a plot-driven film - but because it might dilute some of its richness. It is memorable because of each character’s closely observed interaction with Ramon, and with each other. The ending has a gentle, unexpectedly sad twist, but despite its downbeat theme the film is absorbing throughout. Javier Bardem’s performance without doubt deserves the Best Actor award received from the 2004 Venice Film Festival.

by Viv Apple