Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner!

The poll closed earlier today and the gizmo that computes the percentages tells me that Jean-Pierre Jeunet is the people’s choice with 22 votes or 33%.

The runners-up are:

Tim Burton: 14 votes (21%)
Chan-wook Park: 13 votes (20%)
Neil Jordan: 11 votes (16%)
Alex de la Igelsia: 2 votes (3%)
F Gary Gray: 2 votes (3%)
Mira Nair: 1 vote (1%)

The Jeunet retrospective will kick-off in the summer.

March was a complete no-hoper with regards to the Personal Faves, Work Sucks and Hellraisers series. Things were a little better on the Operation 101010 front:

Clint Eastwood movies
None yet. The Agitation of the Mind will focus on Eastwood’s career during May, leading up to the icon’s 80th birthday.

Werner Herzog movies
1. Little Dieter Needs to Fly
2. Wings of Hope

1. My Neighbour Totoro
2. Sky Blue
3. Ponyo

1. All the Colours of the Dark
2. Blood Stained Shadow
3. The Black Belly of the Tarantula

1. The Aristocrats
2. An Inconvenient Truth
3. Anvil: The Story of Anvil
4. Iron Maiden: Flight 666

1. Amarcord
2. Winter Light
3. All About My Mother

1. Intolerable Cruelty
2. Kissing Jessica Stein
3. In the Loop

1. Sylvia

Impulse buys
1. Rise: Blood Hunter
2. Stoned

Films with numbers in the title
1. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
2. 49th Parallel

Finally, a small announcement:

I started this blog, as I started MovieBuff Redux on Platform 27 before it, as a fun thing to do in the gaps between undertaking proper writing projects (ie. chipping away at my lifetime’s ambition of making it as a novelist). With the exception of a failed attempt in late 2008/early 2009 to drag what was essentially a short story out to novel length, I’ve singularly failed to do any serious work towards this end.

Last month, as an early birthday present, my wife paid for me to attend a creative writing course at the Nottingham Contemporary, hoping it would kick-start my dormant ambitions. Good call on her part. I’ve completed two stories since the course finished mid last week, and I’m now fervently doing research and sketching out some preliminary material for what might (whisper it softly) become a novel. A friend of mine, a talented young artist, has expressed interest in working with me in developing a graphic novel version.

I’m not going to say anything more for fear of jinxing myself, but I need to do a hell of a lot of reading by way of research, then I want to apply myself fully to the project. I can’t maintain the current rate of blogging at the same time, but by the same chalk I don’t want to put The Agitation of the Mind on hold. I’ve invested too much of myself in it and built up a decent readership.

So I’m going to take a fortnight’s break, then re-approach the blog mid-April with the intention of posting at least one (and hopefully two) reviews per week. At this rate, I should still complete Operation 101010 by the end of the year, even if on/off projects like the Personal Faves or Hellraisers might have to take a back seat. (In the interests of new material for Agitation, if anyone would like to submit a guest article, I’d be happy to feature your work; email me: slainte at inbox dot com.)

Likewise, if my proliferation in leaving comments on other sites lapses over the coming months, please don’t think I’m being anti-social. I’ll still be reading your sites in whatever time there may be available when I ought to be working.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: impulse buys / In category: 2 of 10 / Overall: 23 of 100

Why buy?

It was about £5 ($7.50).


It received decent notices during its (brief) theatrical run.


The soundtrack was guaranteed to be a belter.

The expectation

Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, baby! Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

The actuality

To a degree, it delivers in all three areas.

Let’s take them one at a time:

There’s plenty of nudity and some fairly unsubtle intimations (for a 15-rated movie anyway) of BDSM, sexual violence, statutory rape, group sex and troilism. But for all of this, and despite the throat-tightening beauty of Tuva Novotny and Monet Mazur (both of whom are frequently half-naked if not wholly), there is little in the way of erotic frisson.

There’s plenty of drug use. Fuck’s sake, it’s a biopic of Brian Jones! And if this film and Stephen Davis’s Rolling Stones biog ‘Old Gods Almost Dead’ are anything to go by, the guy had a tendency to the kind of indulgences that make Keith Richards’s hoover-nosed habits look like a life of sobriety by comparison. Yet it never reaches the trippy heights or psychedelic mind-fuckery of Oliver Stone’s ‘The Doors’, Ken Russell’s ‘Tommy’ or Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell’s counter-culture anti-masterpiece ‘Performance’.

Rock ‘n’ roll? Hell, yeah. The Rolling Stones are represented by The Counterfeit Stones (doing a sterling job) and the soundtrack is rounded out with original cuts by Jefferson Airplane, Traffic, The Small Faces and The Bees.

The narrative focuses on the final days of Brian Jones (Leo Gregory), estranged from the Stones and whiling away his time at Cotchford Farm, his sprawling country retreat and formerly the home of children’s author A.A. Milne, as he waits for the inevitable expulsion from the band. (Jones was unable to participate in the Stones’ 1969 tour of America due to his drug convictions; moreover, his attendance at rehearsal/recording sessions had become more often than not characterised by incapacitation and inability to play.) He is attended by his latest girlfriend Anna Wohlin (Novotny) and loyal Stones chauffeur-cum-minder-cum-fixer Tom Keylock (David Morrissey). At Jones’s behest, Keylock engages local builder Frank Thorogood (Paddy Considine) to do some renovation work around Cotchford Farm.

A culture clash ensues between the bullish, defiantly working-class Thorogood and the bohemian, flamboyant and sexually ambiguous Jones, the escalating tension steeped in sexual rivalry as Jones plays off the seductive Wohlin against Thorogood. Jones rubbishes the work of Thorogood and his team, calling for entire walls to be torn down before changing his mind and tasking the workmen with re-erecting them. Pay is promised then withheld, Thorogood taking his grievances to Keylock while Jones blithely shrugs off anything so piffling as monetary concerns.

And yet, somehow, a strange and increasingly unhealthy mutual dependency develops between Jones and Thorogood, events playing out at Cotchford Farm (as Jones heads inexorably towards a date with the swimming pool) in counterpoint to Jones’s recollections of the band’s history, his destructive and abusive relationship with Anita Pallenberg (Mazur) and her eventual cuckolding him with Keith Richards (Ben Wishaw).

There’s dramatic potential aplenty in all of this, but the film has two main problems (and a host of minor ones, but for the sake of brevity I’ll just stick to the biggies). The first is the absolute lack of a sympathetic, likeable or even remotely pleasant character. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some bludgeoning literal philistine who requires everything to be black and white and the good guys and the bad guys to wear hats of the requisite colour. I like to see a bristlingly nasty villain, a morally compromised anti-hero or a vituperatively cynical bastard in the lead role as much as the next man. But I also get the most out of a film or novel if I can identify, root for or moderately give a shit about at least one of the characters. ‘Stoned’ gives us Jones, a woman-beater and possibly a rapist; Thorogood, a human incendiary device with a hair-trigger; Keylock, a leech who exploits his access to the Stones’ inner sanctum in order to shag groupies; Wohlin, an alternately clingy and indifferent bit of set decoration; and Pallenberg, whom the filmmakers portray as complicit in Jones mistreatment of her. Indeed, the depiction of Wohlin and Pallenberg adds a tinge of misogyny to an already seedy and black-hearted aesthetic.

The second is Stephen Wolley’s directorial approach. In the flashback sequences, he achieves an off-kilter aesthetic that evokes (sometimes through explicit plagiarism) ‘The Servant’ and ‘Performance’, both of which deal with unhealthy co-dependent relationships, power games and troilism. However, in the Cotchford Farm scenes, ie. those which define the film’s dynamic and as such could (should?) be expected to engage with the aforementioned psychosexual tropes, he seems ill at ease: the visuals are bland, the pacing uneven, the sexual tension wanting in comparison to the scenes between Jones and Pallenberg. The result is an inconsistency the film is unable to reconcile.

And yet … and yet …

‘Stoned’ is never less than watchable. The performances are searing. Paddy Considine mines a jet-black seam of intensity and coiled violence that matches his unforgettable turn in Shane Meadows’s ‘A Room for Romeo Brass’. Leo Gregory turns up the predatorial charisma, magnetism and sexual androgyny to the max. David Morrissey exudes dodgy-dudeness from every pore. Novotny and Mazur rise above the thanklessness of their roles.

Good buy/bad buy?

I’m still undecided. There are significant problems and the film, in the final analysis, leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. But performances and soundtrack are excellent. It’s too flawed to merit a recommendation, yet it contains enough that’s commendable to disallow a perfunctory writing off

Fuck it: the Scottish verdict.

Friday, March 26, 2010

49th Parallel

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: films with numbers in the title / In category: 2 of 10 / Overall: 22 of 100

‘49th Parallel’ was the third of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s collaborations, and the last on which they would take separate screen credits. For their next film, ‘One of Our Aircraft is Missing’, they formed their own production company, The Archers, and bequeathed to the history of cinema that idiosyncratic and still inspirational credit “written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger”.

‘49th Parallel’, in short, was the film that sealed the deal. It was epic in its conception and execution, and just a teensy bit controversial as well. And while I chose ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’ to represent Powell and Pressburger on my personal faves list, ‘49th Parallel’ remains a film that I wholeheartedly love: definitely a standout even among so prestigious a body of work as theirs.

The first eight films P&P made together were all produced during the war years and were all, ostensibly, propaganda films. Each was designed to communicate a specific message and/or celebrate an aspect of Britishness (ie. to reinforce the values under threat from Nazi-ism). Thus, ‘Contraband’ warned against Fifth Columnists, ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’ celebrated national values (a “why we are fighting” movie) and ‘A Canterbury Tale’ focused on Home Front activities.

‘49th Parallel’ was a plea for American involvement. Ian Christie, in his book ‘Arrows of Desire’, recounts the film’s genesis:

“Powell had read an article about how Canada had come into the war on Britain’s side despite internal French-Canadian hostility, and he understood how the forceful presentation of this issue could help win the most important propaganda battle of all: to bring America into the war quickly. With £5,000 from the Ministry of Information [this in 1940, by the way!] Powell and Pressburger embarked for Canada immediately … Back home, Treasury opposition to the idea of financing a film nearly killed the project. France was crumbling and the Luftwaffe threatened, yet ‘some bastard wants £50,000 or £60,000 to go and make a film in Canada’. But … the project proceed[ed] and within six weeks shooting had started in Canada.”

The basic plot, extrapolated by Pressburger from a scenario he and Rodney Ackland cooked up, has a German u-boat bothering shipping off the Canadian coast; when a successful aerial attack destroys it, a small group of survivors led by the borderline fanatical Lieutenant Hirth (Eric Portman) find themselves the sole Nazi invaders of Canada. Setting out from Hudson Bay, they attempt to traverse the country and cross into still-neutral America from where they hope to gain passage back to Germany. En route they encounter a French-Canadian trapper (a bizarrely-cast but enjoying himself Laurence Olivier), a holidaying and potentially draft-dodging Englishman (Leslie Howard) who responds to Hirth’s vituperative accusations of cowardice by staging a one-man resistance campaign, and a soldier gone AWOL (Raymond Massey) who beautifully outwits one of the Germans in a finale, played out above the Niagara Falls, that undercuts its tub-thumping propagandist sentiments with the quirky humour so typical of P&P.

The idea was to film the progress of Hirth and his crew through Canada on location, then wheel in the big-name guest stars (some of them released from military service in order to appear) for some studio work. One of the many achievements of ‘49th Parallel’ is how seamlessly location shooting, studio work and stock footage are cut together. The editor was a guy called David Lean. Dude made a few movies himself.

P&P’s plan was greeted with circumspection in some quarters, their critics suggesting they were whooping it up on a tax-payer-funded lark in Canada while our boys were dying valiantly etc etc etc, but when ‘49th Parallel’ opened the response was almost unanimously positive; it was, again to quote Christie, “greeted as the first considerable fiction film of the war: good propaganda and good entertainment”.

And it’s certainly entertaining. The structure – six vignettes in which Hirth’s crew progress (or devolve, since their numbers are gradually whittled down) through Canada – accounts for a brevity of mise-en-scene that paces the two-hour film faster than most movies of the time. The star names acquit themselves generally well. Olivier chews the scenery like a starving man who’s just been seated in a restaurant and reassured that he doesn’t have to worry about the bill. Howard is lumbered with the most literal bit of proselytising in Pressburger’s otherwise well-crafted script, but his affable charisma sells it. Raymond Massey, rubbery faced and having a whale of a time, steals his last-minute section.

But it’s the actors playing the Germans – and it’s worth pausing to reflect on the quirkiness of a British propaganda film made released in 1941 boasting six Nazi u-boat survivors as its protagonists – who take the honours. Particularly Eric Portman, appearing in the first of three films for P&P. Eric Portman in ‘49th Parallel’ is simply magnificent. A Yorkshireman by birth, you’d swear the man was a Prussian aristocrat. His portrayal of Hirth lays the groundwork for Paul Scofield’s von Waldheim in Frankenheimer’s ‘The Train’, Maximillan von Schell’s Stransky in Peckinpah’s ‘Cross of Iron’ and Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa in Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’.

Daringly, P&P also incorporate the idea of the “good German”, an archetype they would revisit in the character of Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (played by Anton Walbrook) in ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’. I won’t give anything away, but there’s an almost unbearably poignant scene, ending in a moment as chillingly inevitable as the outcome of Landa’s interrogation at the start of ‘Inglourious Basterds’, in which one of the group reveals himself as an honest and decent working man, a man of no political affiliations, a conscript purely because he was drafted, who comes close to embracing a new and gentler life in a foreign place … before the full force of brainwashed, unblinkered, hate-fuelled, jack-booted Nazi doctrine comes crashing down on him. It’s this scene that gives ‘49th Parallel’ its power, that imbues rhetoric with humanitarianism. It’s in this scene that P&P – as they would succeed in doing so many times during those first eight films – take the basest motivation for film-making (propagandism) and turn it into art.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Black Belly of the Tarantula

Posted as part of Operation 101010
gialli / In category: 3 of 10 / Overall: 21 of 100

Let’s run Paolo Cavara’s 1971 opus against a quick giallo checklist:

A title featuring some combination of a colour, a number or an animal – ‘The Black Belly of the Tarantula’. Two out of three. Check!

A quasi-scientific conceit that gives the film its funky title (in this case, an arachnid-derived nerve serum that permits the killer to … well, I’ll you find that one out for yourselves). Check!

Equally stylish cinematography/compositions and a tendency to architecture porn. Check!

An androgynous killer whose sartorial tastes run to trenchcoat, fedora and gloves. Check!

Bottles of J&B all over the shop. Check!

A roof-top chase. Check!

A scene involving one of those old-fashioned cage-style elevators with a stairwell built around it. Check!

Hyper-stylised death scenes in locations which include a room full of tailor’s dummies and a photographer’s studio. Check!

Eye candy a-go-go. Barbara Bouchet, Claudine Auger, Rosella Falk, Annabella Incontrera, Barbara Bach and Stefania Sandrelli. Check, check, check, giggety-giggety, alriiiiiiight!

An almost arbitrary ending where the killer’s identity and motivation are explained away with a bit of psychological mumbo-jumbo. Check!

Let’s face it, ladies and gentlemen, all ‘The Black Belly of the Tarantula’ lacks is a comically incompetent cop and an appearance by Edwige Fenech. On paper, you can see why the Blue Underground Region 1 DVD release is emblazoned with a quote from Horrorview declaring it “the best giallo ever made”.

A bold claim. There are plenty of contenders for the “best giallo” crown: Mario Bava’s ‘The Girl Who Knew Too Much’ (pretty much the original giallo), ‘A Bay of Blood’ or ‘Five Dolls for an August Moon’; Dario Argento’s ‘Deep Red’, ‘Tenebrae’ or ‘Opera’; any of the Sergio Martino psycho-sexual thrillers starring the aforementioned Ms Fenech; Lucio Fulci’s ‘A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin’, ‘Don’t Torture a Duckling’ or ‘Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes’; Pupi Avati’s ‘The House with the Laughing Windows’ … let’s face it, as a genre (hell, even a sub-genre), the giallo boasts more great examples than not. So: does ‘The Black Belly of the Tarantula’ live up to the hype?

Hmmmmm. Not sure.

Let’s look at the two things missing from that checklist. Ladies first: Edwige Fenech. Ah, well. Can’t be helped. Besides, ‘TBBotT’ does feature – albeit briefly – the knee-weakeningly alluring Barbara Bouchet. We’ll let it slide.

Which leaves us with the absence of that giallo staple, the comically incompetent cop. While our hero Inspector Tellini (Giancarlo Giannini) is an officer of the law, he has more in common with Stanley Baker’s Inspector Corvin in ‘A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin’ than, say, Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) in ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’. Tellini works the case, uncovering a blackmail plot and a highly imaginative cover for drug smuggling as he closes in on the killer, never mind a red herring designed to embarrass him in front of his superiors, an attempt on his life and the exposure to danger of his wife.

Also like Stanley Baker, Giannini is an actor better known for his non-giallo roles than his work within the genre. Probably best known to mainstream audiences as the ill-fated Inspector Pazzi in ‘Hannibal’ and Rene Mathis in ‘Casino Royale’ and ‘Quantum of Solace’, Giannini earned a Best Actor nomination at the 1977 Oscars for his role in Lina Wertmuller’s ‘Seven Beauties’ and has won Cannes, David di Donatello, Silver Ribbon, Flaiano International and any number of other US and European festival awards.

While his performance in ‘TBBotT’ is not quite as awards-worthy as his work elsewhere (although it was only a year later that he won his first David award), Giannini delivers a restrained, understated, brooding characterisation, establishing Tellini as a man who is painfully aware that his job is beginning to define him and is disconcerted by the implications. Having said that, his self-evident conflictions between career and personal life owes as much to the casting of the lovely and effervescent Stefania Sandrelli as Signora Tellini.

And herein lies the essential dichotomy of ‘TBBotT’. For all that it ticks the majority of giallo boxes, the film is atypical in many ways. For all that it delivers some graphic murders with gleefully exploitative relish, its overall aesthetic is low-key and frequently downbeat. For all that the denouement trades on pulpy psychology, the 90 minutes that precede it are a study in slow-burn procedural narrative.

For much of its running time, ‘TBBotT’ unfolds in a mannered and rather austere style (short of Tellini demonstrating an affinity for Wagner and real ale, you could almost mistake it for an episode of ‘Inspector Morse’). And yet the sexualised representation of violence, the intermittent lurches into expressionistic camerawork and the omnipresence of giallo touchstones seek to remind the audience what they paid for.

All of which left me confused as to whether I was watching a deliberately-slumming-it art movie or a thinking man’s exploitationer. ‘TBBofT’, entertaining as it is, never fully reconciles these polarities, and although I’d cautiously recommend the film, it falls short of greatness for precisely this reason.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Rachel Weisz at the Oliver Awards

Congratulations to Rachel Weisz on receiving the Olivier Award for her performance as Blanche du Bois in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Terminator Salvation

Public service announcement: in the pub after work last night, a stressful week at the office and a few nights with minimal sleep caught up with me, and I experienced a motivational shut-down that extended to a complete incapacity for social interaction (my apologies to those I was out with) let alone watching and blogging about movies later in the evening. I dragged myself home and slept for 12 hours. Consequently, I’ve only just got round to watching ‘Terminator Salvation’ and, again, what follows is hastily written and the product of first impressions. Normal service (and normal standard of reviews) will be resumed next week.

Okay, I’m wracking my brains how to start this article. Do I get into the semantics of whether ‘Terminator Salvation’ is sequel or prequel, or – given that concept behind the franchise is essentially an ouroborus – just another stepping stone towards (although not quite) completing the circle?

Do I try to get my head around an anomaly …


… in the Skynet avatar (Helena Bonham Carter)’s conversation with Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) where she/it tells him, “Our best machines failed time and again to complete a mission. You did what Skynet has failed to do for so many years. You killed John Connor.” The events of ‘Terminator Salvation’ play out in 2018 and culminate with John Connor (Christian Bale) meeting Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) for the first time, yet Skynet doesn’t send back the first of the cyborgs, the T-101, until 2029. WTF?!?!


Or do I just get down to the bit of business I’d rather not engage with, grit my teeth, spit blood, curse like a trooper and type the five words it fucking pains me to put into a sentence and record for all time on the internet?

Fuck it, let’s get it over with:

McG does an okay job.


For the record: the ‘Charlie’s Angels’ films are still crimes against celluloid and calling yourself McG is as pretentious as it is stupid. But for the most part he crafts a solid and often exciting mainstream movie. Indeed, apart from one ridiculous attempt to craft an iconic moment only to fail miserably and produce the bastard child of ‘E.T.’ and ‘The Great Escape’, McG (I hate to go on about this whole name thing, but I really don’t think the announcements read, “to Mr and Mrs McG, a son, no first name”) succeeds in making this the most un-McG-like McG film yet.

So how does ‘Terminator Salvation’ shape up to the rest of the series? Well, for the first hour or so I was beginning to wonder, with bated breath, if something of a minor miracle was in the process of being pulled off: could this be the second best entry in the cycle?

Turns out not. ‘Terminator Salvation’ gets some things absolutely right, and it’s only fair if we dwell on those things for a little while, but it drops the ball in a few places (and does so with increased regularity as it draws towards its curiously anaemic ending) and the end result is a film that doesn’t quite hang together.

Here’s what it does well. First and foremost, it gives us a John Connor who isn’t a whiny little brat or a bland twenty-something with all the leadership qualities of a particularly nervous dormouse. It gives us, instead, Christian freakin’ Bale. If there’s anyone you can imagine taking the fight to the machines and tearing their fucking lights down (sorry, couldn’t resist), it’s Christian freakin’ Bale. Secondly, it backs up Bale’s screen presence with good performances from Sam Worthington (there are no real surprises in his character arc, but the actor manages to invest Marcus with a palpable sense of enigma) and Anton Yelchin, reverse engineering Michael Biehn’s performance to give us a younger and still vulnerable, but swiftly toughening up, Kyle Reese. Thirdly, the effects piss all over ‘Rise of the Machines’, the Hunter-Killers glimpsed briefly in the earlier films tearing through the fabric of this one. Fourthly, the Mc-to-the-G keeps the aesthetic desaturated, grim and gritty; ‘Salvation’ is a colourless vision of the future shot through with the shaky visceral immediacy of a war movie, most of its battles pitched at the level of street to street combat.

Where it drops the ball is (a) the backgrounding of John Connor for much of the first half (the film’s absolute best scene – a chase featuring a Hunter-Killer, some driverless motorcycles and a wrecking truck – is a showcase for Marcus Wright and Kyle Reese); (b) the wasted opportunity to follow Connor’s development from footsoldier to leader (a title crawl suggests that some resistance fighters already see him as a prophet, others as a fraud, but the script neither establishes why nor explores the dialectic); (c) a handful of anomalies, mainly regarding timeframes (obvious example: Kate, now Connor’s wife, though played by a different actress – Bryce Dallas Howard – seems no older in 2018 than she was in 2003’s contemporarily set ‘Rise of the Machines’); and (d) the lack of a clearly defined antagonist. With Marcus Wright’s agenda kept ambiguous, it is left to actual hunks machinery rather than anthropomorphosized cyborgs to provide the actual threat to the resistance fighters. There’s nothing as memorable as the T-101, the T-1000 or the T-X and ‘Salvation’ suffers as a result.

And then there’s the ending. I haven’t quite figured out how I feel about the ending yet. I have a strong suspicion that something narratively redundant and thematically pointless has been passed off as a moment of great emotional import. I might need to watch the film again. And that’s something I never thought I’d say about a McG flick.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Public service announcement: I was at Waterstone’s for Joe Hill’s talk/signing session for his new novel ‘Horns’ this evening (the dude is cool, btw). Consequently, I only got finished watching ‘Terminator 3’ half an hour ago. What follows is hastily written and entirely the product of first impressions.

Notwithstanding the obvious aesthetic consideration of whether you’d prefer a cyborg sent from the future with the express purpose of killing you to appear naked in the form of a pectoral-ridden middle-aged Austrian gentleman or a lissom and well-toned Scandinavian lady, ‘Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines’ doesn’t seem (on paper at least) to offer all that much.

A journeyman director (Jonathan Mostow), an uncharismatic leading man (Nick Stahl), the non-involvement of James Cameron, and the complete absence of Linda Hamilton in her signature role. Throw in seven years of everyone slating it since its theatrical release and I settled down to watch ‘Rise of the Machines’ with no expectations. Whatsoever.

I was quite surprised.

It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great, either. Not a patch on the original, and without the broad scope of the sequel. But it wasn’t bad. And it has a couple of advantages on the sequel: it’s shorter and unpretentious, and Arnie’s T-101 (while still ostensibly the protector) is a lot more brutally pragmatic than his ‘Judgement Day’ incarnation (he doesn’t give a crap about bonding with the now adult John Connor in this one). Plus, it has a fuck-off great chase sequence involving sexy new Terminator the T-X (Kristanna Loken) commandeering a truck crane, its jib taking out entire swathes of buildings, as the T-101 engages her in combat.

It also has an intriguing set-up: Judgement Day has been averted and the listless John Connor (Stahl) holds down a succession of menial jobs as he drifts from town to town, living anonymously and off the grid. The T-X shows up and starts targeting random individuals. It turns out these are Connor’s future “lieutenants”, those who will form his first wave of recruits when he leads the rebellion against the machines. But even Connor himself believes that there is no longer a threat.

Mostow’s film, from a script by John D. Bracanto, Michael Ferris and Tedi Sarafian (writers new to the franchise), posits a reasonably convincing alternative to the development of Skynet and its disastrous achievement of self-awareness. The key is Connor’s high school sweetheart Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), with whom he is thrown together when the T-X tries to assassinate her.

Unfortunately, the film also does a lot of things wrong. The T-101’s arrival replays the biker bar brawl of part two but substitutes a bunch of rowdy women on a hen night and a gay stripper. The result is almost parody, but the humour borders on homophobic. Likewise, Loken is iconic as the T-X but the big finale between her and the T-101 plays out as ridiculously OTT, the two cyborgs demolishing a restroom as they twat each other with sinks and toilet bowls. The production design of the military facility Kate’s top brass father commands is bland in comparison to the Cyberdyne offices in part two, and the design of the machines themselves (which go renegade in the finale) is uninspired and realised with fairly shoddy effects work. That aforementioned fuck-off great chase scene? It happens at around the 30-minute mark; the movie shoots its wad less than a third of the way in.

Stahl’s performance is just bland. There’s nothing to suggest that this guy has it in him to lead the fight against the machines. Claire Danes, often a luminous and highly likeable actress (‘Stage Beauty’, ‘Stardust’), is saddled with a nothing role which requires her to do little more than look bemused for long periods and intermittently screech like a harpy. A pointless scene with franchise stalwart Dr Silberman (Earl Boen) serves to remind the viewer how sorely missed Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton are.

I’m still not sure what to make of the graveyard scene, except to wonder if the first draft of the screenplay had the working title ‘Terminator 3: Django Strikes Again’.

What ‘Rise of the Machines’ does have going for it can be counted on three fingers: (i) Kristanna Loken; (ii) a race-against-time ending that resolves in doom-laden quietus; and (iii) a running time, marginally shorter than even the original instalment, that doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

Q. Does ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’ represent:

(a) the last high point the franchise achieved?

(b) the moment the rot set in?

(c) both of the above?

Hands up if you answered (c).

Now, I’ve not watched ‘Rise of the Machines’ or ‘Terminator Salvation’ yet, so there may be some big surprises in store … but I kind of doubt it. These are works of cinema that have, after all, the respective talents of Jonathan Mostow and McG at their helm. ‘Judgement Day’ at least has James Cameron calling the shots and therefore preserves a continuity of vision. It also has Linda Hamilton taking the vulnerable but resilient Sarah Connor of the first movie and turning her into a hard-core bee-yatch, the spillage of whose pint is assuredly not recommended.

In the absence of Michael Biehn’s haunted personification of Kyle Reese (he appears briefly in a flashback/dream sequence), it is left to Linda Hamilton to give the movie a degree of substance and an emotional cachet beyond Cameron’s increasingly repetitive formula of high-speed-chase/gunplay/blow-shit-up. Muscular, terse, almost brutally pragmatic in her relationship with her son John (Edward Furlong), Hamilton gives us Sarah Connor Version 2.0. And a scarier prospect she’d present than even the old killing machine itself, the T-101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) … except that the T-101 is now good guy and there’s a new Terminator, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick) on the block.

And here we come to the problem with ‘Judgement Day’. Well, one of the problems. Let’s start at the beginning. You know how I said having Cameron back in the director’s chair preserved a continuity of vision? That was kind of a backhanded compliment. What Cameron does is basically remake ‘The Terminator’ but on a bigger budget, running a nearly an hour longer and with John Connor as an actual character and not just the (literally) embryonic concept he is in the first film. Things kick off with a vision of Armageddon, a kiddies’ playground exploding under the nuclear blast, and a voiceover announces that, hey, you know how Skynet sent a Terminator back through time to try to kill John Connor before he was even born, well damned if the sneaky li’l sunnovabitch didn’t pull exactly the same shit thirteen years later.

Yup, what we have here is essentially ‘John Connnor: The Teenage Years’. ‘John Connor: The You’re Not My Real Mom and I Hate You Years’. ‘John Connor: The I’m-Working-Some-Personal-Shit-Out-By-Flipping-My-Adoptive-Parents-Off-And-Tearing-Around-On-a-Motorbike Years’. Or, as the film would have been titled in the Agitation-approved cut ‘John Connor: The FFS-Won’t-Somebody-Slap-the-Little-Prick-Upside-the-Head Years’.

So, yeah: we’ve got a squeaky-voiced future leader of the resistance trying to cut it as a juvenile delinquent only his shirts are too clean and his haircut too prissy. We’ve got his estranged mother locked up in a sanatorium. We’ve got the T-1000, all liquid alloy and fond of impersonating highway patrol officers (I swear to God I am not making this up). And we’ve got our old mate Arnie in scuffed leather jacket and shades ensemble, all gutturally monosyllabic but with (bad move) more dialogue. And this time he’s the good guy.

I may have already mentioned that this brings us to the single biggest problem with ‘Judgement Day’. How best to describe the paradox? Like watching ‘Halloween II’ only this time Michael Myers is the sensitive soul who’s doing his best to help Laurie through the aftermath and if that means getting in a final act smackdown with some totally new and random character who’s doing all the shit that Michael was doing in the first movie, right down to the hockey mask business, then so be it. Because Michael’s the good guy this time. He is. Honest.

If ‘Judgement Day’ itself represents a sop to the audiences who flocked to ‘The Terminator’ and ‘Aliens’ in droves but stayed away from ‘The Abyss’ in roughly the same numbers, then the re-imagining of Arnie’s protagonist is a sop to the mainstream popularity the actor come to enjoy and which would remain unquestioned by moviegoers until ‘Last Action Hero’. It’s almost as if a memo went round before a word of the script had been written or a frame of footage shot: Arnie’s the good guy this time; work with it.

All right, I’m 700 words into this polemic and I’d really like to post it on the blog before sundown, so I’ll skim over some of the other issues – chief among them, the decision to follow slavishly the formula of the first instalment (which was, after all, a chase movie) only to incorporate a Cyberdyne-heavy subplot two thirds of the way in which effectively keeps the T-1000 off the screen for a good 40 minutes (that’s right, it’s a chase film in which the guy doing the chasing suddenly disappears only to suddenly reappear for the finale without any indication of how he even got there) – and simply observe that ‘Judgement Day’ can best be summed up by its extended-to-the-point-of-interminable finale: it’s visually spectacular, blazingly action-packed and supremely well-executed, but – jeez – it doesn’t half go on!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Terminator

I’m not into hagiography and it rankles when people try to deny their roots, but I’d love to discount ‘Piranha II: The Spawning’ and hail ‘The Terminator’ as one of the great debuts in modern mainstream cinema. It would almost be effortless to make the case: ‘Piranha II’ as a throwaway piece of hackwork (not even graced by the sly wit of a John Sayles script a la its predecessor) that Cameron seized upon purely because it gave him the chance to direct something.

Still, ‘Piranha II’ remains his directorial debut; and as Joe Dante used the first ‘Piranha’ as a stepping stone to ‘The Howling’ (the first authentically Joe Dante film), so Cameron used his fishy opus as a springboard to ‘The Terminator’. I mention this simply to illustrate what an achievement ‘The Terminator’ was, and how out-of-nowhere its success. (It’s worth bearing in mind, as well, that Arnie wasn’t a major star at the time; he’d got the ‘Conan’ films under his belt, but ‘Raw Deal’, ‘Predator’ and ‘The Running Man’ were still two or three years off.)

‘The Terminator’ can also be ranked as a hell of an achievement in terms of the amount of bang Cameron got for his budget. It cost $6.5million. Two years later Cameron’s next film, ‘Aliens’, clocked in at three times that much. Another three years and ‘The Abyss’ came with a price tag of $70million. In 1991, seven years after part one cleaned up at the box office, Cameron delivered ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’ at a cost to the studio of over $100million. They made it back and then some, which is why Cameron secured a $110million budget for ‘True Lies’ in 1994, $200million for ‘Titanic’ (1997) and $237million for last year’s ‘Avatar’. And with ‘Titanic’ taking over a billion and ‘Avatar’ twice that, there’s every possibility that his budgets will continue to be as bloated as his film’s running times.

Again, just for comparison, let me quickly rattle through them. ‘The Terminator’: 108 minutes. ‘Aliens’: 137 minutes. ‘The Abyss’: 146 minutes. ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’: 139 minutes. ‘True Lies’: 141 minutes. ‘Titanic’: 194 minutes. ‘Avatar’: 162 minutes. Which adds up to an average running time of two hours twenty six minutes. And as much as I love some of Cameron’s films and despair at others, there is nothing in his filmography that would not benefit from a more stringent approach in the editing suite.

Except for ‘The Terminator’.

‘The Terminator’ is a powerhouse action/sci-fi thriller, a textbook example of the chase movie, and a model of narrative economy. Everything about it hums with purpose, from the gritty urban look of the cinematography to the relentless cadences of Brad Fiedel’s score. In a comment he left on my introduction to Terminator week yesterday, Bryce of ‘Things That Don’t Suck’ remarked that “Cameron was able to take what was basically a Corman budget and turn it into something that blows my mind each time I watch it. That movie’s pure editing.” Amen, brother. Every cut, every choice of camera angle, every line of dialogue, every set-piece (and ‘The Terminator’ is littered with set-pieces, more so than many movies with ten times its budget) pushes the narrative forward, raises the stakes, heightens the danger, and plunges protagonists Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) and Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) headlong towards their inevitable showdown with cybernetic killing machine the T-101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

It’s Arnie who gets the iconography and the signature line “I’ll be back” (three words out of the grand total of the 130 or so he gets in the entire hour and three quarters), but for me it’s Michael Biehn who solidifies the movie. His performance captures the underlying melancholy in Reese’s grim determination: Reese is a soldier, on a suicide mission, and he knows it from the outset. Inevitability haunts him, but he never gives up. In his own way, he’s as relentless as the T-101; as unswervable from his mission.

Linda Hamilton credibly effects Sarah Connor’s narrative arc from harassed waitress to bona fide action heroine, although the world would have to wait until ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’ for the full adrenaline-pumped awesomeness of her transformation into hard-bitten, hard-as-nails survivalist. Elsewhere, ‘The Terminator’ serves as a casting call for ‘Aliens’ with Biehn and Bill Paxton making their first appearances in a James Cameron film and Lance Henriksen his second (after ‘Pirahna II’).

Ultimately, ‘The Terminator’ is as beautifully simple in its construct as it is darkly evocative in its vision of a dystopian future literally under siege from technology. Matters pertaining to Cyberdine and Skynet are kept to a minimum. It was with the arguably overblown sequel that the mythos of the series came to the fore. Here, the emphasis is kept rigidly on Kyle Reese, Sarah Connor and there remorseless, emotionless and implacable enemy. Cameron never forgets that the film is about the chase. And even when the conflict is over, a perfectly pitched coda carries the sting of a future still under threat.

Monday, March 15, 2010

"Come with me if you want to blog": Terminator week on The Agitation of the Mind

Colleague (incredulously): You’ve not seen ‘Terminator Salvation’?

Me: No. Missed it when it was at the cinema. Didn’t know if it was worth shelling for on DVD.

Colleague: But you’ve not seen ‘Terminator Salvation’!

At this point in the conversation, yours truly reflects on whether colleague’s aghast response isn’t perhaps a little excessive. After all, it’s not like I’m admitting to having never seen ‘Citizen Kane’, ‘Jules et Jim’, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ or ‘The Godfather’*.

Yours truly’s response is carefully considered.

Me: You know what? I’ve never seen ‘Rise of the Machines’, either.

Colleague (spluttering): But you’ve only seen half of the ‘Terminator’ saga.

(Yeah, he called it that. An honest to God saga.) Which is why I now have a plastic bag containing the entire, ahem, saga on DVD sitting on my desk. I rather think that in renewing my acquaintance with ‘The Terminator’ and ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’, my conviction that I’ve seen the good half of the saga will be strengthened. Let’s face it, we’re talking two films by James Cameron, followed by un film de Jonathon Mostow followed by something directed by a man with one name that’s not even a proper fucking name to boot (I mean, McG; yeah, right, like there’s Scottish clan called the McGs; I think fucking not) who directed the ‘Charlie’s Angels’ movies.

But hey ho, for the sake of fairness, completism and the fact that it’ll give me something to blog about other than Operation 101010 picks, I’ll blast through all four of them this week and post reviews, one a night, from tomorrow.

*For the record, I have seen these particular movies. Confidentially, I find ‘Citizen Kane’ a tad overrated.

Top five John Carpenter movies

Over at The Death Rattle, me and Aaron are counting down our top five John Carpenter movies this week.

The inaugural countdown was last week where he and Carl from I Like Horror Movies enumerated their top five most overrated horror movies. The countdown begins with number five on Monday and continues throughout the week, culminating in the number one slot on Friday.

Aaron’s devised a great format. It’d make for a great read if it was just Aaron listing his top fives each week, but contrasting them with the opinions/perceptions of a guest blogger makes things much more interesting.

Head over to Aaron’s site to check it out, and feel free to email him if you’d like to participate.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Iron Maiden: Flight 666

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: documentaries / In category: 4 of 10 / Overall: 20 of 100

Given their thirty-five year history and the carousel of line-up changes that saw two vocalists come and go before they even recorded their first track, Paul Di’Anno ousted on the verge of mainstream success and replacement Bruce Dickinson (having departed to pursue a solo career after two world-conquering decades) being swiftly recruited back into the ranks when his replacement Blaze Bailey failed to find favour with the fans – never mind the comings and goings of drummers and guitarists – there is probably an incisive, provocative and controversial documentary to be made about Iron Maiden.

Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn’s ‘Iron Maiden: Flight 666’ is not that documentary. However, it was quite evidently not meant to be and should therefore be judged under different criteria.

If James Brown is synonymous with – and doubtlessly deserves – the soubriquet “the hardest working man in rock ‘n’ roll” – then Iron Maiden are most definitely the hardest working band in heavy metal. ‘Flight 666’ documents their 2008 “Somewhere Back in Time” tour, involving 23 stadium shows in 13 countries over 45 days, Maiden clocking up somewhere in the region of 50,000 miles and appearing in front of half a million fans. (The title ‘Flight 666’ refers to the Boeing 757 the band used to ferry themselves and their crew between these engagements. Dickinson, a qualified pilot, captained the airliner, nicknamed “Ed Force One” after Iron Maiden’s mascot Eddie the Head, a huge illustration of whom bedecks the tailfin.)

Now, I’ll freely confess – as much as I love the ‘Number of the Beast’ and ‘Powerslave’ albums (released in 1982 and 1984 respectively) – I’d considered Iron Maiden a spent force. Until their blistering reinvention with the 2006 album ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, that is.

‘Flight 666’ shows up me as a fair-weather fan, with the screaming hordes who greet Steve Harris et al in Mumbai, Sydney, Tokyo, Mexico City, Costa Rica, Bogota, São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Santiago and Puerto Rico providing an object lesson in what the concept of being a fan truly means. And kudos to the band for playing in half of these places, putting on fully-fledged arena stage shows in parts of the world where, as one tearful aficionado puts in, seeing Maiden live is a “once in a lifetime” event.

Elsewhere, a fan in Mumbai – a kid who was probably ten years away from being born when ‘Number of the Beast’ came out – grins at the camera and shouts, “Up the Irons”. A Japanese fan salutes Maiden for always being true to themselves and to the fans. This is the root of their appeal, and the point that ‘Flight 666’ effortlessly puts across: Iron Maiden have never given a shit about being cool or relevant or fitting in; all they’ve ever wanted to do is put on the best show imaginable because their fans deserve nothing less. Again I say: kudos.

Does all this sound like an exercise in Maiden publicity rather than a documentary? Perhaps it is. But let’s face it, ladies and gents, we’re talking about Iron Maiden here. Not only are they the hardest working band in metal, they’re also the most unpretentious and least self-analytical. Whereas Metallica are represented cinematically by ‘Some Kind of Monster’, an epic account of a band in therapy, no film about Iron Maiden would ever tread that kind of path; and that’s simply because Maiden would never waste time or money hiring shrinks or “performance coaches” – they’d just talk it out over a couple of jars down the pub.

Therefore ‘Flight 666’ is the film is it because Maiden is the band it is: tight knit, focussed, fans first and no bullshit. Essentially, ‘Flight 666’ is a concert film with an unobtrusive amount of documentary footage, mostly showing the band as a bunch of down-to-earth guys, enjoying what they do and ribbing their manager Rob Smallwood for his gruff Yorkshire pragmatism, who seem entirely unaffected by their fame.

The closest analogue I can find to ‘Flight 666’ is Martin Scorsese’s ‘Shine a Light’, in which 15 minutes of documentary footage upfront is all that differentiates the project from a straightforward concert film. But whereas, in Scorsese’s film, the Rolling Stones are introduced by Bill Clinton in a performance in front of an exclusive crowd who probably shelled enough per ticked to pay off my mortgage, Iron Maiden keep it real by demonstrating a refreshing lack of agenda, a commendable commitment to their fans and a palpable energy and exuberance in their stage shows.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

In the Loop

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: comedies / In category: 3 of 10 / Overall: 19 of 100

After the first five minutes of ‘In the Loop’, I was convinced that Armando Iannucci and his three co-scripters had used a poison pen to write the screenplay. Half an hour in, I decided they’d used a typewriter ribbon marinated in the blood of small fluffy animals. By the end, I was guessing at a stiletto blade dipped in battery acid.

‘In the Loop’ – the big screen spin-off from the BBC comedy ‘The Thick of It’ – is the most cynical and abrasive satire I’ve seen in a while. Not to mention the most profane. Imagine a mash up of ‘Yes Minister’ and ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’, rewritten by Torquemada on a day off from the Spanish Inquisition and you’re half way there.

The plot is a labyrinthine affair sparked off when bumbling minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) makes an ill-advised remark (“war is unforeseeable”) during a radio interview, which he then compounds with an even more ill-advised one (“to walk the road of peace, sometimes we must be ready to climb the mountain of conflict”) when besieged by reporters. His qualifying statement that the mountain is purely metaphorical cuts no ice with the press and suddenly he’s front page news.

His loose tongue earns him the attention of communications manager Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), a man whose approach to communication is roughly the same as Joe Pesci’s in ‘Goodfellas’. In fact, Tucker would probably decimate the Mafia for breakfast and not even have to use a gun. His tongue is deadly enough a weapon. When communications director Judy Molloy (Gina McKee) interrupts Tucker’s dressing down of Foster, reminding him that she should be consulted on the matter as “it falls within my purview”, Tucker apoplectically retorts, “Within your purview? Where do you think you are, some fucking regency costume drama? This is a government department, not some fucking Jane fucking Austen novel! Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your purview and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock!”


The situation, however, soon escalates beyond even Tucker’s vein-popping brand of expletive-ridden damage limitation. Conflict is imminent overseas: on Capitol Hill, Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) and idealistic staffer Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky) join forces with General Miller (James Gandolfini) against the warmongering machinations of Assistant Secretary for Policy Linton Barwick (David Rasche – a revelation).

All parties in what rapidly becomes a minefield of political manoeuvring have a vested interest in Foster and before he knows it he’s in America, on the war committee (or, as Barwick prefers to call it, the Committee for Future Planning) and way out of his depth. Then, into a situation already as potentially volatile as the hand grenade Barwick uses for a paperweight, comes Tucker. What follows is a riot of bad language, back-room deals, back-biting, back-stabbing, hidden agendas, ulterior motives and shifting loyalties.

Filmed in an edgy, restless style that perfectly matches Capaldi’s adrenalin-rush portrayal of Tucker, ‘In the Loop’ hits every target with pinpoint accuracy. The faux-documentary aesthetic captures a ragged immediacy. The script takes no prisoners – on either side of the Atlantic. (I was reminded of Bill Hicks’ dictum that “all governments are lying cocksuckers”.) Everyone has something they want and everything to lose.

The performances are priceless. Hollander plays the hapless Foster as a cross between a puffed up Head Boy and a deer just beginning to twig on to the implications of a fast-approaching pair of headlights; Gandolfini does a nice line in slow-burn intensity and quietly spoken threat (“you might be some scary poodle-fucker back in England,” he tells Tucker at one point, “but out here you’re nothing”); and Capaldi ignites the screen like a Tasmanian devil with a firecracker up its arse and a pronounced case of Tourettes.

‘In the Loop’ is the real deal. As a political satire, it makes the likes of ‘Bob Roberts’ or ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’ look soft. It’s smarter, nastier and angrier. You’d never pick it as a date movie or a safe option round your mum’s on Mother’s Day, but it’ll give you at least two dozen lines (of varying degrees of obscenity) that you’ll wish you could get away with using at the office.

Monday, March 08, 2010

You glorious basterd!

Congratulations to Christoph Waltz on the Best Supporting Actor award - the only nominee I was actually rooting for this year.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Rachel Weisz

Even if it wasn't Oscar-winning actress Rachel Weisz's birthday today, I think I'd still have found some excuse to post these pictures.

Rachel Weisz's big screen debut in Bertolucci's 'Stealing Beauty' is among the sultriest, most memorable introductions ever. Beyond the obvious appeal, she's also fearless and honest in her characterisations, perhaps most notably in the role that bagged her the Oscar, political activist Tessa in Fernando Meirelles' magnificent adaptation of John le Carre's novel 'The Constant Gardener'.

A large glass of chenin blanc is being raised to Ms Weisz at chez Agitation this evening.

All About My Mother

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Eurovisions (Spain) / In category: 3 of 10 / Overall: 18 of 100

The opening scenes of Pedro Almodovar’s Oscar-winning ‘All About My Mother’ sketch out a close and affectionate relationship between single mother Manuela (Cecilia Roth) and her 17-year-old son Esteban (Eloy Azorin). Manuela works as a nurse; the studious and intellectual Esteban harbours ambitions of being a writer. Esteban is a fan of old movies – he and Manuela watch a TV screening of ‘All About Eve’ – and has a passion for theatre. For his birthday, Manuela takes him to a performance of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, headlined by his favourite actress Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes). Esteban has one other request for his birthday – he wants to know, notwithstanding that Manuela has stringently withheld the details from him thus far, what became of his father.

For the first ten minutes, the sensitive Esteban seems to be developing into that rarest of things in the Almodovar canon: a male protagonist (‘Talk to Her’ and ‘Broken Embraces’ are the only Almodovars I can think of with male protagonists – and even then the narratives are set in motion by the women in their lives), then tragedy strikes and Manuela, faced with the worst thing that can happen to a parent, is forced to reassess her life.

Relocating from Madrid to Barcelona, Manuela goes in search of her errant husband – a transsexual who now goes by the name of Lola (Toni Canto). She meets an old friend from way back when (also transsexual), truck driver turned hooker Agrado (Antonia San Juan). [Insert your own trucking-to-hooking gag or double entrende about delivering a load.] Agrado introduces Manuela to her friend Hermana (Penelope Cruz), a good-natured but sadly naïve young twenty-something who works at a women’s centre. Hermana and Manuela have something in common: they’ve both had relationships with Lola, who left both of them without realising they were pregnant. Manuela, though, had the luckier escape: Lola is now HIV positive, and has passed the virus to Hermana. Still, a friendship develops between the two women. Between Agrado and Hermana, Manuela gains an ersatz family to fill the void left by her son.

Manuela also re-encounters Huma, who is touring with ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. Huma is playing the part of Blanche du Bois, with her lover Nina in the role of Stella. Nina is unpredictable and driven by a drug habit; when she temporarily deserts Huma, Manuela steps in. Having played Stella in an amateur production years ago (it was there she met the pre-sex-change Lola; he was playing Kowalski), Manuela takes Nina’s place to some acclaim. Later, when circumstances dictate that neither Nina or Huma can go on, Agrado takes everyone’s place and performs an impromptu one-woman show.

The themes and narratives of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘All About Eve’ are woven into ‘All About My Mother’ to such a degree that the highest kudos are due to Almodovar for achieving a nigh on impossible feat: crafting a supremely entertaining film that doesn’t necessarily require familiarity with the Tennessee Williams play or the 1950 Bette Davis-starrer directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. (Although it goes without saying that a basic knowledge of these two works adds layers to the construction, subtext and appreciation of Almodovar’s film.)

For a film so character-driven and picaresque – there’s no real plot, simply a wryly-observed overlapping of the characters’ relationships – the pace is sprightly. Almodovar keeps track of a melange of connections, coincidences, ironies and mirrored scenes with such dexterity that it would be easy to underestimate how complex things become. For instance: at one point, Manuela is acting as surrogate mother to Hermana (pregnant and terminally ill by Manuela’s transsexual former husband) while jointly fulfilling the role of companion and co-star – ie. surrogate for Nina on both counts – to Huma, acting the role of Stella, a character heavily pregnant for most of the play, thereby reliving the circumstances in which she met her husband as well as being costumed to appear pregnant when she has recently lost her only child. When you break it down, this is melodrama so top-heavy that even Douglas Sirk would have backed off, shaking his head and going “no waaaaaaaaay”; Almodovar, by whatever directorial alchemy it is that he seems to have been gifted, turns in a light, frothy concoction that neither overburdens its audience or condescends to its characters.

‘All About My Mother’ is about many things – loss, acceptance, reconciliation, friendship, motherhood – but its overriding theme is a celebration of the feminine and accordingly it showcases some of Almodovar’s most productive director/actor relationships: Cecilia Roth makes the fifth of her six appearances for him, Marisa Paredes the fourth of five and Penelope Cruz appears for the second time (following a space but pivotal role in ‘Live Flesh’) and has since appeared in ‘Volver’ and ‘Broken Embraces’. It’s Almodovar himself who puts it best in the dedication that closes the film:

“To Bette Davis, Gena Rowlands, Romy Schneider. To all actresses who have played actresses, to all women who act, to men who act and become women, to all people who want to become mothers. To my mother.”

Thursday, March 04, 2010


Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: anime / In category: 3 of 10 / Overall: 17 of 100

‘Ponyo’ is a deceptive film. The story – an instantly recognisable take on Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ – is straightforward and unencumbered by subplots or a proliferation of supporting characters à la ‘Spirited Away’ or ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’; and yet Miyazaki communicates as much about the wide-eyed joyful innocence of childhood as he did in ‘My Neighbour Totoro’, as much about the environment and mankind’s often destructive relationship to it as he did in ‘Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind’, and as much about responsibility and the work ethnic never mind the youthfulness of the protagonist as he did in ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’.

By the same token, ‘Ponyo’ seems to have the simplest visuals of any Studio Ghibli production. As Tim has pointed out in his absolutely spot-on review at Antagony & Ecstasy, “The gentle look of the film, halfway between watercolors and colored pencils, gives ‘Ponyo’ the certain air of an illustrated storybook.” Tim develops this observation to note that ‘Ponyo’ has the effect of rendering any adults in the audience – and there were a few at the mid-afternoon screening I attended – “to a more infantile state”. Again, absolutely true. Even I stopped being a grumpy old sod for an hour and three quarters (well, except when I wasn’t entertaining murderous thoughts about the little bastards in the front row who wouldn’t stop talking; not to mention the parents/guardians with them who obviously didn’t give a crap*) and simply ended up staring at the screen in bliss and gratitude.

Why bliss? Because ‘Ponyo’ is a dreamily beautiful fable, flawless in its conception, and feelgood in a way that American cinema can seldom do without tipping over into emotional manipulation. The story is simple, but arguably all the more heartfelt for being simple. The characters are immensely appealing (even though I didn’t have the option of seeing this in a subtitled cut and had to put up with Miley Cyrus’s younger sister and an equally prepubescent member of the Jonas clan squeakily providing vocals for Ponyo and Sosuke), the undersea world is riotous blaze of life and colour, and the story’s one and only turn into darker territory (matters relating to a storm which threatens to flood an entire community) is done so excitingly that I doubt even the youngest viewer would find it too scary.

Why gratitude? Because in an age where the majority of child-friendly animated films are CGI, Studio Ghibli continue to produce old school 2D animation with a zest and imagination that makes you wonder why anyone would want to boot up a computer when they could simply draw. And in ‘Ponyo’, they have taken story so sweet and unpretentious – so slight – that it could easily have been risible, and made of it instead a work of art.

*My fault for attending a matinee screening during half term week, I guess.