A Kind of Rewind – Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002)

In a recent article for the Guardian newspaper on rereading LP Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, the novelist Ali Smith wrote that the novel was a model for the importance of rereading as “we wouldn’t, after all, expect to know a piece of music properly on just one listen”.  I not only agree, I would also add that the same can be said for films. How many films have you seen just the once, and when mention or discussion of them resurfaces, you perhaps struggle to recall it or your views on it? You may remember certain bits, but the finer, deeper details escape you? Happens to me all the time.  I have been thinking lately of a few films that, for different reasons, have popped back into my head and that I’d like to watch again.  Having recently read Alan Warner’s last novel, The Stars in The Bright Sky, the first film that occurred to me was Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Warner’s 1995 debut novel, Morvern Callar.

There is another reason for revisiting Morvern, and that’s the upcoming release of Ramsay’s screen adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s acclaimed novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin. Its Ramsay’s first film since Morvern Callar eight years ago – and only her third feature since graduating from film school in 1995 – an absolute age in cinematic terms.  Since her debut feature film Ratcatcher (1999), Ramsay has gained a reputation as a film-maker of great talent, with an artistic and Auteurist sensibility. Her version of Shriver’s unsettling novel has already made a great impression at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Morvern Callar opens when the character of the title (played by Samantha Morton) finds her boyfriend dead on the living room floor on Christmas morning, after taking his own life. He has left her some money and a finished novel on the computer hard drive.  For reasons we are not privy to, Morvern changes the name on the novel from his to hers and promptly sends it off to the first publisher on a list left by her boyfriend. She then proceeds to get ready to go out for a night on the town.

Morvern spends her days working in a local supermarket in the unnamed Port town where she lives. With some of the money left by the boyfriend(to cover funeral expenses) she takes herself and her best friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) off for a package holiday to Spain. What I remembered most after first seeing the film was that basic, slim storyline – bereaved girl goes a bit mad, heads off to Spain with her mate, does shedloads of drugs and booze and generally has a wild time. But on rewatching it, I see that it is a cinematic essay on grief and grieving.  Ramsay puts us inside Morvern’s experience, we see her world as she sees it – the sense of dislocation, the way everyday objects suddenly look unfamiliar or odd, they way your focus shifts, seeing everything suddenly more clearly but differently.

Ramsay brings an art-cinema aesthetic to Warner’s story. There are countless scenes where she allows cinematic time to slow all the way down. Morvern taking a bath, watching the body of her dead boyfriend on the floor while the Christmas tree lights go on and off, baking with Lanna ( in a gorgeously shot slow-motion sequence) – none of these add to the story but rather serve to put us in Morvern’s head. There is a wonderful marraige of image and music in a number of scenes, such as the house party and a trippy clubbing scene.  There is also the uncomfortable sense that her boyfriend’s death could be a liberation for Morvern, an opportunity for her to get away finally, to escape, and this is what she eventually does.

The film is beautifully shot by Alwin Kuchler; moving from the dark, rainy, night-time streets and interiors of the Port, to the sun and blistering heat of Spain. There is a whole sequence too where the film stock suddenly changes to a washed out, sepia-tone as the girls drive up into the Spanish hills; I wonder if this was intentional, but either way it looks fantasic.  The soundtrack and the sound design are also worth a mention – one of the things that struck me in the earlier parts of the film, was that the only music we hear is what Morvern plays on her cassette Walkman. I hadn’t noticed that first time around, and it’s highly effective. The film is crammed with bold moves like this.

So, like rereading, there is a lot to be said for rewatching. There are countless films I love to watch over and over; films grow and develop, as we do as viewers, and you read more, see more each time. What are the films you’d like to see 2nd time round, if any, and why?

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Viva Riva! (Djo Tunda Wa Munga, 2010)

I was intrigued by this film as it is apparently the first feature film to come out of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Written and directed by first-timer Djo Munga; Viva Riva, set in Kinshasa, is an action thriller which, intentionally or not, harks back to the American Blaxploitation flicks of the 1970s.

Patsha Bay stars as the Riva of the title, a charismatic and charming operator on the make who has liberated a truckload of petrol from local Kingpin Cesar (Hoji Fortuna). The city is out of fuel and Riva sees an opportunity to make a fast buck, however Cesar is on his tail. Riva also raises the ire of another of  Kinshasa’s hoodlums, Azor (Diplome Amekindra) by falling for his beautiful mistress Nora (Manie Malone). Riva finds himself pursued by both as he tries to get rid of the fuel and win Nora’s heart.

Munga shows he can certainly tell a story; he knows how to build tension and keeps the action moving at a good old pace, however his direction is quite flat, lacking any real inventiveness or flair. The film shows promise in the first twenty minutes, but after that the cracks begin to show. This ain’t no City of God.  Apart from Bay and Malone, the performances are one-note and quite badly acted in places.  The screenplay doesn’t help either; it’s poorly written and clunky, but we may be missing something in the translation into subtitles.

The glimpses we get of life on the mean streets of Kinshasa – frequent power cuts, crime, poverty, prostitution –  hint at ingredients for a better film, however Munga hasn’t made it. Instead he’s opted for an escapist throwback with comic-book villains, a perennially smiling, good-humoured protagonist and Malone’s one-dimensional eye candy. Still, it’s an enjoyable bit of fluff; worth seeing out of curiosity, if nothing else.

Kaboom (Greg Araki, 2010)

A wiggy, trippy, sci-fi fantasy from Araki. This review contains spoilers.

I very much enjoyed Araki’s earlier film Mysterious Skin (2004), an unsettling tale of the lives of two young men sexually abused as children, adapted from a 1996 novel by Scott Heim. I haven’t seen any of the films in his so-called “Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy”; namely Totally Fucked Up, The Doom Generation and Nowhere, but if they’re anything at all like the headrush that is Kaboom, I’ll be rushing out to rent them.

Kaboom (from an original screenplay by Araki) tells the story of Smith, a freshman hipster of “undeclared” sexuality, in college doing Film Studies and away from home for the first time. Needless to say he’s enjoying all that campus life has to offer with his sharp-talking lesbian best friend Stella (Haley Bennet), and his new forthright bedroom buddy London (Juno Temple).  In between impromptu sessions with London, Smith secretly lusts after his stoner-surfer room-mate Thor (Chris Zylka), who likes to lounge around naked, when not preening in front of the bathroom mirror.

Anyway, so far, so average(ish) American teen college movie – until Smith (Thomas Dekker) goes to a campus party, eats some hallucinogenic biscuits and thinks he witnesses a murder, which seems to relate to a recurring dream he’s been having. This then leads to him receiving mysterious messages, being pursued by black-clad men in animal masks, and discovering a cult called The New Order, who are happily working towards Earth’s annihilation and which may or may not be led by his seemingly deceased father. None of which stops Smith from routinely getting it on with London, fantasising about Thor and having it hot and heavy with a friendly hot-tub designer he meets down at the nude beach.

As you can probably guess from the synopsis above, this is all good, if not so clean, fun. Araki manages to pull off a sci-fi-teen-apocalyptic movie, which drops cultural references as often as characters drop their underwear. The film is also laced with great one liners (“You just said he was putting a load in some pinheads dryer last night”) which Haley Bennet as Stella,seems to get the majority of. It also has great self-referential fun with itself. When Smith (Smith/New Order – see what he’s done there?) asks Stella is she’s heard of The New Order she replies, “The seminal 1980s new wave band?” Har har.  Keeping up with the references, there’s also an appearance from James Duval, who played Frank in Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (hence the animal mask connection).

Reminiscent of both Donnie Darko and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks in tone, Kaboom also incorporates elements of Nouvelle Vague, daytime soaps, teen tv shows and (probably) gay porn into its visual template to produce a slick, hyper-real look. The actors play it straight and sincere, while the narrative moves between hallucinations, flashbacks and the present, giving the film a trippy, stoned quality. The film is, to borrow a line from Stella, “nuttier than squirrel shit”, but it’s also great fun.

Kaboom is showing at the IFI until Thursday, June 23rd. You can watch a trailer here

Senna and Point Blank

Here’s a couple of movies I got to over the weekend, but didn’t have time to post till now.

First up is the terrific Senna, directed by first-time documentary film-maker Asif Kapadia. If, like me, you know absolutely nothing about Formula 1 (or any sport really for that matter) don’t be put off – this is a thoroughly enjoyable film. Senna’s story is structured like a fiction film; in that Kapadia, his writer and editors give us a good old-fashioned start, middle and end. We even get a charismatic, dashing leading man in the form of Senna himself, naturally enough.  We learn of Senna’s initial go-karting passion, his entry into the high-powered world of motor sport, his early successes, his move into bigger and better teams (with more money and clout behind him) and his final ascension into the upper echelons of Formula 1 racing.

It plays out at times like a thriller; Senna is cast as our hero whose rise is routinely thwarted by insider game-playing and political intrigue, overseen by the shady figure of FISA head Jean-Marie Balestre in his dark glasses and leather jacket. Senna’s F1 rival and team-mate Alain Prost is cast as the not so good-looking, and less talented villain. As you’d expect with a subject matter like F1, the film moves along at a terrific pace and is notable for being made up entirely of archive footage – no talking heads, no current context, just clips from a variety of sources. And it’s that variety of astonishing clips that really gives the film an almost timeless feel. Highly recommended. Trailer here.

Speaking of fast-paced, good old-fashioned storytelling: Fred Cavaye’s Point Blank (A Bout Portant) brings us back to the familiar territory he established with his last film, Pour Elle (Anything For Her).  In that film his school-teacher lead character was tasked with breaking his wife out of prison (as you do); in this one our main man’s heavily pregnant wife is kidnapped by baddies and he only has to go in and rescue her. Sheesh, as if expecting a baby isn’t traumatic enough.

Gilles Lellouche is our rumpled-looking Everyman this time out. He plays Samuel Pierret, the expectant father and a nurse at the city’s main hospital. He’s on duty when the victim of a shooting is brought in. Someone wants to finish the job though but is foiled by Samuel who stops the killer and heroically saves the victim. Turns out the victim is criminal safe-cracker Hugo Sartet (Roschdy Zem) whose henchmen want him out of the hospital and harm’s way.  Next thing we know, Samuel’s wife is kidnapped by Sartet’s gang; Samuel is forced to get him out of hospital and deliver him to his gang in return for the safe delivery (pardon the pun) of his wife, or else. Gulp.

What follows, naturally enough, are lots of frenetic chases through Parisian streets, apartments, metro stations, police stations and whatever you’re having yourself. Cavaye keeps the pedal to the metal as he chucks his hero into all manner of mad, bad and dangerous situations. Naturally the two form a sort of bond, with Samuel becoming a fugitive suspect himself for springing the criminal and going on the run. The plot thickens with Sartet linked to the murder of a shady businessman, and the introduction of two competing police inspectors both pursuing the case for very different reasons.

Citizen Kane this ain’t, but it is a highly enjoyable, fun movie which nods to Hitchcock and features some wonderful edge of the seat action sequences. Cavaye is in firm control at all times and builds the action to the final climactic sequence, which thrillingly, takes place in a police station. All this in well under 90 minutes too. Marvellous.

Watch the trailer here.

Tree of Life – Finally a release date!

Just a quick update on this one, though no doubt anyone still interested possibly already knows – Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is finally set to get a release in UK and Ireland on July 8th!

Reports on the good news were released yesterday in The Guardian and The Irish Times the day before.

Phew.  Let’s just hope it’s worth it now!

 

 

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

This stone-cold classic from Roman Polanski screened as part of the Irish Film Institute’s High Anxiety Season, which I’ve already blogged about. Jack Nicholson stars as Private Eye Jake Giddes; an ex-cop who is asked to investigate a philandering husband, but soon finds himself out of his depth in a tale of missing water, a missing engineer and some high-level corruption at the L.A. County Water Board.

Giddes is contracted by Mrs Evelyn Mulwray to investigate her husband, County Engineer Hollis Mulwray, as she suspects him of having an affair. After photographing the alleged philanderer with a young lady, the story gets leaked to the papers and the engineer suddenly goes missing. In the first of many plot twists, we learn that Giddes was duped when the real Mrs Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) shows up, unhappy that the story is all over the city, and threatens to sue Giddes. When Mr Mulwray later turns up dead, Giddes finds himself drawn into a complex story of deceit, incest and murder, all strangely connected to the County’s disappearing water supply.

Chinatown’s modern Noir nods its hat to like-minded American movies of the 40s and 50s, while also being a gutsy, dark, tough take on the genre.  Nicholson looks like he’s relishing every moment of tough talkin’ Giddes’ screen time, and Dunaway is a breathtaking presence as the multi-layered, oblique Evelyn Mulwray. Giddes falls neatly into the conflicted anti-hero stance, not only of classic Noir films, but of 1970s American Cinema generally, which makes this a perfect addition to the Season. The film also stars veteran film director John Huston as one-time County Water Board Manager and Evelyn’s fearsome father,Noah Cross, and Polanski himself makes a memorable appearance as a knife-wielding henchman.

Written by Robert Towne (a close friend of Nicholson’s, for whom he wrote the part of Giddes) as an homage to the hard-boiled Private Eye fiction of the 1940s, and as a love letter to Los Angeles, the screenplay deservedly won an Oscar. It is ripe with immensely quotable and funny lines, and boasts a typically complicated Noir storyline that doesn’t dump us down too many blind alleys.  But it was Polanski who changed the ending from the original, making it unexpectedly dark and bleak, to perhaps match the atmosphere of the times. The last line of the movie’s dialogue, “forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown” has also rightly entered the pantheon of famous last movie lines. A classic must-see film from Hollywood’s last Golden Age.

The High Anxiety Season continues at the IFI until June 26th.

Bad Movie Mothers

Mommie Dearest?

Ok – so, inspired by Angela Lansbury’s powerhouse performance of a power-hungry manipulative Mum in The Manchurian Candidate, which I blogged about yesterday, I got to thinking of my favourite on-screen bad mothers. I was struck by how few I could recall. Certainly there have been multitudes of Mums portrayed on-screen, but how many really BAD mothers can you think of?

 

Here’s my list, in no particular order:

 

1. Anthony Perkins – Psycho

2. Angela Lansbury – The Manchurian Candidate

3. Faye Dunaway – Mommie Dearest

4. Piper Laurie – Carrie

5. Angelica Huston – The Grifters

6. Mo’Nique – Precious (I haven’t seen this movie, but I’ve seen the trailer a few times – that’s close enough!)

Who have I missed?