Monday, September 27, 2010

Saturday, September 25, 2010

San Sebastián: NEDS

[No major plot spoilers, as long as you know it's about non-educated delinquents. Which is the title acronym.]

Watching Peter Mullan's Neds at a Spanish-subtitled screening in San Sebastián's Teatro Principal was an experience both electrifying and frustrating in ways an immediate tweet-response and grade can't really take into account, so I'm glad I've had the benefit of a few days and an unexpectedly epic homebound journey to ponder it further, particularly since it's now been awarded the Best Film and Best Actor awards. I remain thoroughly on the film's side, some clearly wobbly sequences notwithstanding, but an especially tricky problem was posed by the sound: this soft Southerner struggles to comprehend thick Scottish accents at the best of times, but every single English-speaking viewer I bumped into afterwards had the same complaint about huge quantities of mumbled Glaswegian slang falling by the wayside. (Trust me, the leeway Mullan gives his locally-sourced actors in this makes Trainspotting sound like An Ideal Husband.) There were insults and laugh-lines only the local viewers found hilarious, thanks to the benefit of being able to read the Spanish — if it weren't for the embarrassment, I'd have turned to my neighbours and asked "What was that uproarious thing he just said?" more times than I was able to count. Though the Principal's acoustics may have been partly to blame, my strong hunch is that Mullan will be asked to subtitle the movie for English (and surely American) audiences too; I think it's customary to find this silly or appalling, but in this case I actively look forward to catching it a second time and being able to relish all the rude catcalls and bits of bullying invective I missed, on top of the many excellent scenes that rang out loud and clear.

That initial tweet reaction ("messy but inspired") is still roughly where I'm at, but inspiration and mess tend to go hand in hand here: the film has superb, sustained passages which jostle right up against chunks of stuff that plain don't work. Everyone will draw their own conclusions about the following: the whole last act, dramatically choppy and schizoid in ways that bothered me less than the too-organised flaggy allegory of Shane Meadows's This is England, to which it's already being compared; the ostentatiously metaphorical final sequence, which I'm still mulling over; slightly earlier and even bolder, a druggy, go-for-broke encounter with a kick-ass manifestation of Christ; and Mullan's own supporting performance as the main character's permanently wasted, abusive father, a fierce and gurning turn which is right on the edge of being simply too much.

Then again, Mullan's best work as a director is almost always dancing on this very precipice. For every viewer who mentally checked out of The Magdalene Sisters when Eileen Walsh started shouting "You are naart a man of Gaard!", I know someone else who thinks it's the film's bravest and most brilliant coup. What's particularly outstanding here is the school stuff, and there's a (very) good hour of this. The journey of John McGill from milksop swot to vicious sociopath, charted through jagged phases that I believed far more palpably than the textbook conversion of Shaun in the Meadows film, is quietly tragic and unobtrusively affecting: we watch his intelligence curdle, this bright, diligent mind reorient itself to discover a kind of animal cunning. Neds never feels like lecturing sociology, serving up the mitigating circumstances to explain why John falls in with the ASBO crowd. It's significant that he hardly spends any time with his older brother Benny (Joe Szula), a notorious wrong 'un, because Mullan consistently keeps them at arm's length, more interested in the disparities between these siblings, in age, interests and scholarly drive, than the temperamental common ground forced on them by domestic circumstances. "Problems at home" may not have been so specifically dramatised since Nil By Mouth, albeit in a glancing, intentionally banal way here. The repeated shots of Mullan hollering at his wife from the base of the stairs have a harsh, lurid, debatably overacted menace, but he's even scarier as this faceless, disarticulated presence moving through rooms, violently opening drawers, a dark midriff passing silently behind the dinner table. It's entirely apropos that we want to spend as little time in this fearful household as humanly possible.

At school, Mullan resists any tempting Magdalene urge to ham up an ensnaring sense of institutional oppression. It's a place of apathy, mockery, and just muddling along, which is nonetheless desperately likely to fail all its students (and indeed staff) in offhand yet brutally life-altering ways. John, played as an uncertain youngster by Gregg Forest, fights his bookish little corner to begin with, but Mullan only needs a judicious moment for a forward jump and older actor (Connor McCarron, the gong-winner) to suggest what has changed, a certain light that's gone out, a hardening against the idea of being exceptional in the herd. Among the various teachers, played with chippy charm by Crying with Laughter's Stephen McCole, whose wrong side you would not want to see, ineffectual palliness by David McKay in a terrific one-scene cameo, and Gary Lewis, whose introduction, offering John a piggy-back through the school's main entrance, is a bizarre and unsettlingly deadpan tour de force, the most significant is Mr Bonetti (Steven Robertson), who welcomes John into Latin lessons and has wily methods of encouragement which carry frequent risks of backfiring. Robertson's scenes are almost unfailingly the film's best, I think, not only because his performance, as the most guardedly optimistic character, has places to go the other supporting turns lack, but because Mullan builds him into the pivotal moment when John conclusively turns his back on academic ambition, throwing this kindly, exasperated mentor to the wolves when he calculates what classroom cred he can gain from an act of insolent insurrection. McCarron is at his strongest here too, stepping up to a level of performative cockiness pitched carefully to John's peers — he manages to combine wicked assurance with shrugging indifference, and win the fight hands down.

The patchier second half never reaches these formidable peaks, though two scenes on a bus come close. John steals money from a driver at knife-point, a charged, indelible, oddly intimate encounter that lasts mere seconds, and later taunts his posh ex-friend Julian (Martin Bell) from the seat behind, cruelly flicking the ear of a black companion he's never met, and whose only moment in the film this is. Anyone who has ever sat through an uncomfortable or hostile experience on British public transport will feel the excruciating power and precision of that flick, more for the point it's proving than the token pain caused: it made me wince more than any of the all-out scenes of Clockwork Orange-esque gang beatings, the scrabblings with knives in school bathrooms, or the clonking of a character on the head with a loose gravestone, acute though Mullan's staging control often is in these outbursts. I don't want to dwell here on what's simply disorganised towards the end of Neds, which seems strangely unclear whether it's disappearing inside John's swirling head or backing away into abstract metaphor, because the limitations of the movie are easily the least interesting thing about it. What Mullan grasps here he grasps with clenched fists, and shakes often enough to sock his points home: that adolescent unhappiness and intellectual promise can be about the worst possible bedfellows, and the deadliest thugs, in another, more privileged life, might have been shoo-ins to Oxbridge. B+

Saturday, September 18, 2010

San Sebastián: I SAW THE DEVIL

I'll admit up front that I really don't get on too well with Kim Ji-woon among Korea's genre virtuosos, basically because I keep waiting for his films to develop beyond snazzy, self-adoring showreels with an ever-dwindling sense of actually going anywhere. A Tale of Two Sisters was entirely promising and allowable in this regard, without quite, for me, being the full banquet many enjoyed; A Bittersweet Life left me as thoroughly cold as gratuitously bloody existential macho cool always seems wont, if not actively designed, to do; and The Good, the Bad, the Weird wore out its crazy, caffeinated welcome long before the 130-minute running time crawled to a cherished end. Even longer and flinging out a frankly batshit pick'n'mix of customised serial-killer revenge games, I Saw the Devil is operatically grisly if nothing else: the first victim, betrothed to Lee Byung-hun's sharp-suited secret agent, is jumped in her broken-down car, begs for her life and explains she's pregnant before getting casually hacked up by Choi Min-sik's favourite cleaver, leaving only a severed ear (!) and a head in a box (!) to hint at her vapidly film-referential fate. There's plenty more squirmy stuff with Achilles tendons being slowly sliced, guillotines roaring in the OTT sound mix (OTT are Kim's favourite letters, except maybe CRAZY!), and a whole bevy more victims being leeringly and kind of annoyingly jeopardised by the illogical deferrals of Lee's payback scheme. Still sporting the most devastating male cheekbones in cinema, he can't for one second plausibly drive the character to let Choi off the hook as often as he does: Kim wants that Nietzsche quote about monsters becoming monsters to justify the absurd contortions of his prolong-the-pain plot, but it doesn't at all. You get the moment-by-moment set piece flair you're probably expecting, and Choi's louche villainy, schticky though it is by now: he's just the latest sick fiend with style, one of many psycho loners Kim is caught between reviling and blatantly idolising. But how often can a camera adopt the sex killer's aroused point of view, panning right up into a schoolgirl's trembling knickers, before you start to feel a dodgy complicity about this whole fandango? D

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Thoughts on this redesign?

Bearing in mind that I'm utterly hopeless at html. Opted for blogger upgrade mainly so that I can embed my twitter feed, which the old version wouldn't let me do. Wish I could make the sidebar background different from the main one for posts, but that doesn't seem possible on this template... unless some genius out there can advise me otherwise? Extra cookies to whoever identifies the header picture.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Les maudits (1947)

(screened on nitrate print at the bfi Southbank, 31/8)

René Clément made his name with the cinematographer Henri Alekan, who would go on to carve out an arguably greater reputation for Cocteau’s La belle et la bête and Wings of Desire, with an Oscar nomination for Roman Holiday along the way. I haven’t seen their acclaimed 1945 documentary La bataille du rail, about Resistance saboteurs, but a stark faux-doc style is the hallmark of this surprisingly obscure subsequent feature, a commercial flop at the time which has amassed the paltry sum of 44 votes on IMDb to date. No measure of a movie, I know, but it surely deserves better than that on face value alone, as a grimly involved and engrossing tale of maritime intrigue in the closing days of the war. The action is largely confined to an escaping U-boat, which pulls away from Oslo to seek harbour in one of those South American Nazi sanctuaries where Josef Mengele pitched up. (At least, that's the plan.) It’s almost Hitchcock’s Lifeboat in negative — this vessel's full of Nazis and collaborators of various nationalities (the title means “The Damned”, making it the third film of that name I've seen this year) whose safety or certainty of escape is obscurely compromised by the arrival on board of French doctor Guilbert (Henri Vidal), who knows more German than anyone quite realises. He’s beckoned in to attend to the injured, near-comatose wife of an Italian industrialist, played by Florence Marly in a performance with more than a touch of Foreign Affair Dietrich: her blatant cavorting with Kurt Kronefeld’s SS general suggests a long-hatched escape plan which makes for awkward moments aplenty, given that everyone, to include her outraged husband (Fosco Giachetti), is bunked in such heaving and smeggy proximity.

Alekan’s skill is not, alas, at full maturity in every frame of this often crudely lit, excessively shadowy production, but there’s an excellent, viscerally wobbly, Paths-of-Glory-trench-cam reverse tracking shot as Guilbert is lured down the full length of the sub to attend to Marly's flaky diva, little realising that the boat will pull away before he has the chance to disembark; he's thereby held captive for his continued medical expertise before the assembled fugitives grasp that his presence is potentially treacherous, if not disastrous. The other visual highlight is an on-shore episode involving negotiations with a turncoat agent (Marcel Dalio, top-billed for a virtual cameo) who plans to sell them all downriver now that Hitler’s death in the bunker has hit the airwaves: a wily young German adjutant (Michel Auclair) tries to strike a deal to make his getaway, hiding in a warehouse full of coffee-bean sacks which Alekan treats to a welcome touch of overhead expressionism. Otherwise, functional claustrophobia is the order of the day, with as many talking heads crammed into the average frame as possible, while morale frays and the less fervent buddies of the Führer start panicking about when to desert this figuratively sinking ship, and how.

It must be said that Clément’s on-again, off-again approach to the point of view he’s giving Guilbert, who gets voiceover through some parts, and is first shown committing his whole testimony to a journal, but is nowhere to be seen through key sequences like the Dalio stuff, makes the dramatic basis of the movie a lot more rickety than it might have been: popular though Vidal would become in the 1950s, he’s a colourless lead here, and the character gets lost in his endless skulking in and out of hatches below deck. The real star — the film’s Col Hans Landa, if we must — is Jo Dest, whose Gestapo officer Forster is handily outranked by the decorated SS general he essentially strips to mince. Elderly and obviously homosexual — Kronefeld at first places him only after a glance at Auclair’s pretty-boy sidekick — he’s all the more snakelike for what a deferential role he appears to be playing: Dest makes of him a deadly veteran functionary, who can insinuate his way to the top of command and talk the crew into firing up torpedoes. The framing business with Vidal scribbling ardently by candlelight and the final, declamatory coining of the title are thudding and lame, but no more so than you might get from a jobbing-it Orson Welles, say, taking a crack at a promising Graham Greene script everyone else had passed on. It's some way better than its overrated Losey and Visconti namesakes, and certainly never as squiffy as Welles’s more-or-less contemporary The Stranger (1946), but if we needed further proof that Clément is merely roughing out a commercial style here, the altogether smoother, more clement (I went there!), yet somehow headier voyage of Plein soleil (1960) is right there to provide it. B–