Cold War (2018)

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Time doesn’t matter when you’re in love.  In post-war Poland conductor and musicologist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) are holding auditions for a state-sponsored folk music ensemble. Wiktor’s attention is immediately captured by Zula (Joanna Kulig), an ambitious and captivating young woman who is faking a peasant identity and is on probation after attacking her abusive father when he attempted to rape her. They commence a sexual relationship but Wiktor doesn’t want to incorporate more Stalinist propaganda in their productions and wants to escape to the West. Zula doesn’t join him when he escapes in Berlin but a couple of years later he finds her on tour in Yugoslavia where he is quickly removed back to his current base in Paris. Then Zula shows up and leaves her marriage and becomes a recording artist with his help. She can’t stand what he has become and flees to Poland the night her album is launched and Wiktor makes a tremendous sacrifice just to see her again … As far as we’re concerned you don’t exist. It starts with people singing folk songs, performed plaintively and sonorously against a mysterious monochrome backdrop which is rural Poland yet some images take a while to reveal themselves from abstraction. That’s all of a piece with the lives of these somewhat disembodied, disenfranchised individuals whose better existence is entwined with each other yet whose life together is messy, filled with bust-ups, disagreements, partings, border crossings, cultural preservation, propaganda and politics. Their identity – colonised, travelling, in denial – presents a kind of melancholy frankly incomprehensible to people who think they should be glad to be out of the hellhole of the Eastern Bloc.  Neither protagonist is especially likable and the underage relationship is at first shocking, even if she is sexually precocious. The gleaming black and white photography seems bleak at first but paradoxically heightens the romance because this is a film that rejoices in the possibilities of cities and how people can express themselves in one international language – music. Watching Zula finally let loose in the West to Rock Around the Clock is joyous, even if it further fractures her relationship. The architecture isn’t stressed but the common culture it expresses looms over the narrative – building styles, churches, bars, clubs, concert halls, the locations where this couple can find themselves and each other, over and over again. It’s sombre but passionate. Finally they wind up at a literal crossroads, decision made. Writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski traverses these ideas like a high-wire artist, never stooping to the obvious even if some of the melodramatic curves seem inevitable. When Zula tosses her eponymous record in a fountain and then takes off back to Poland it seems unlikely they can ever meet again. But Viktor returns to his home country only to be imprisoned? Well. If it wasn’t true, would you believe it? Yet that is what Pawlikowski’s own background looks like – complex, difficult, liminal, like all stories about affiliations and borders and political ideologies and exile. It’s about his parents. And it’s true. And it took years and years for them to get together and their relationship covers a continent of musical styles and idioms. Remarkable. Let’s go to the other side.

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Christiane F. (1981)

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Aka Wir Kinder Vom Bahnhof Zoo. You’ll never forget her … In mid-1970s Berlin, an aimless teenager (Natja Brunkhorst) who lives with her single mother and sister in a social housing project falls in with a drug dealer Detlef (Thomas Haustein) after meeting at a nightclub where her hero David Bowie is performing. Soon her addiction leads her to hanging out with other junkies at Bahnhof Zoo subway station and then to a life on the streets… I only did it because I wanted to know how you feel. Adapted from tape recordings with the real-life junkie whose story it tells, this has cult written all over it. From the Berlin setting, the drugs, Bowie and the excruciating portrait of a beautiful child lost to sex and heroin and, well, rock ‘n’ roll, it’s tough stuff. Working from a screenplay by Herman Weigel and director Uli Edel adapting Kai Hermann and Horst Rieck’s non-fiction book, Edel directs with verve and a realistic grit. This is not an attractive experience despite the superficial elements of cool – its low budget, graphic sex scenes and shooting style place it in the exploitation realm while the classic score by Bowie (Station to Station, Boys Keep Swinging and unofficial theme song Heroes are the most famous tracks) and the great Jürgen Knieper give it a real kick. The cast are mostly non-professionals and the beautiful Brunkhorst is the only one who proceeded to an acting career. However watching dead-eyed kids having underage sex, shooting up and overdosing ain’t pretty and this squalid depiction of Berlin in the 70s is miserable – no wonder it cleaned up. A film that truly shocked upon release, it’s dedicated to Atze, Axel and Babsi, all portrayed here and all dead from heroin ODs.  A grim Euro-classic with a cameo performance by Bowie actually recorded in NYC.  I can’t get hooked if I just use a little, only once in a while. I can control my using

Palo Alto (2013)

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Live a dangerous life. Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and his best friend Fred (Nat Wolff), are California teens who like to drive around and get stoned. Shy virginal April (Emma Roberts) is at soccer practice when her friends laugh about their coach Mr. B (James Franco) having a crush on her. Mr. B asks April if she can babysit his son and he then offers her the position of striker on the school team. Fred and Teddy walk back to their car talking about what they would do if they got in a drunk driving accident. Teddy says he would drive away even if it was his crush, April. He crashes into a woman and drives off, with Fred demanding he be dropped off. When Teddy reaches home he’s arrested and winds up doing community service in a library where Fred gets him into trouble by drawing a penis on a children’s book. Fred has sex with Emily (Zoe Levin) who is infamous for giving blowjobs to boys. Mr B. confesses to April that he loves her. After a soccer game he asks her to his house but his son is at his ex-wife’s and they have sex… I wish I didn’t care about anything. But I do care. I care about everything too much.  Gia Coppola’s writing and directing debut, adapting a set of short stories by James Franco, is disturbing in terms of its content but not its presentation. It’s as though these teens’ experiences were being told through a fuzz of weed and alcohol to which they all have easy access, presumably courtesy of the extraordinarily lax parents and step-parents at arm’s length from them (Val Kilmer plays Roberts’ stepfather as a wacked out stoner. Her mother isn’t much better). When Fred’s father (Chris Messina) almost comes on to Teddy, sharing a joint with this troubled kid, we know we’re in melodramatic territory, even if it’s slowed down. That leads to Fred’s own questioning of his homosexuality when he reasons that getting a blow job from a boy isn’t any different. Roberts as the girl who is fooled by the high school sports coach is terribly good, registering every shift in her circumstance with precision. The sex scene with Franco is very sensitively shot:  this is basically a rape after all. Wolff is fine as the boy as spinning top, unsure of who he is but convinced he needs to set everything fizzing, a hormone wrapped up in dangerous levels of immaturity and sociopathy. Young Kilmer (son of Val and Joanne Whalley) is as unsure of his character as his character is of his purpose, constantly being led astray. The film has its most impressionistic performance as this boy struggles to do the right thing. His single mom just gives him love if hardly any guidance never mind issuing deterrents – this we learn is his second rap and adults are keen to keep giving him chances, just like he allows Fred to get him into jams. These kids are testing everyone’e limits with no indication of what might be permissible beyond their marijuana fume-filled homes.  It’s no surprise when the film ends on the road to nowhere:  this is not a narrative of punctuation. Peer pressure is an eternal problem, but amoral parenting sucks the big one as this amply demonstrates it in its many shades of hypocrisy, corruption and cynicism in adult behaviour. A fascinating showcase for several second- (and in the case of Coppola, third-) generation Hollywood talent in a film which literally blames the parents. I’m older and I know that there aren’t a lot of good things around, and I know that you are really good

 

Boogie Nights (1997)

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We’re going to make film history right here on videotape. In LA’s San Fernando Valley in 1977, teenage busboy Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) gets discovered by porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), who’s on the lookout for new talent.  He transforms him into adult-film sensation Dirk Diggler. Brought into a supportive circle of friends, including fellow actors Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), Rollergirl (Heather Graham) and Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), Dirk fulfills all his ambitions, but a toxic combination of drugs and egotism threatens to take him back down to earth.  As 1979 rolls into 1980 the business is changing and Horner is under pressure to switch to video despite his ambitions to be an auteur and he has to make a tough decision when financier The Colonel James (Robert Ridgely, who died shortly after production and to whom the film is dedicated) is caught with an underage girl who’s OD’d …  Diggler delivers a performance worth a thousand hard-ons. Bravura filmmaking from Paul Thomas Anderson which takes lurid content and spins it into a surprisingly sweet morality tale about the lowlifes behind pornos. The leading men are a study in contrasts:  Horner is a clever but kind director who doesn’t flinch from hardcore; while Diggler is the dumb box of rocks who has an enormous penis that dazzles. The running joke about Little Bill (William H. Macy) and his insatiable wife has an unbelievable climax; the revenge Rollergirl takes on a boy from high school is horrifying; and the wrap up sequence of redemption and closure for this makeshift family is fine drama. The final reveal is the money shot that we’ve all been waiting for. Reynolds won the Golden Globe and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Clever, amusing and humane, this is one of the best films of the Nineties.

An Education (2009)

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If people die the moment that they graduate, then surely it’s the things we do beforehand that count.  In early Sixties London, Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan) is a teen with a bright future; she’s smart and pretty and her parents (Cara Seymour and Alfred Molina) want a good life for her so encourage her aspirations of attending Oxford University.  But when David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming but much older suitor, motors into her life in a shiny maroon Bristol, Jenny gets a taste of adult life that she won’t soon forget and it puts everything she’s been working for in jeopardy… Nick Hornby adapted the memoir of Lynn Barber, that acerbic Times columnist, who revealed the shocker of her youth:  her underage romance with a colleague of Peter Rachman, the slum landlord.  David tells Jenny the ‘stats’ he and his mate Danny (Dominic Cooper) haunt are the little old ladies who move out of their flats and sell them for half nothing once the guys move coloureds in next door. She’s just wise enough not to be wholly shocked. She loves everything French and sings Juliet Greco songs and colludes with David in deceiving her parents so that she can lose her virginity to him in Paris.  The beauty of the screenplay is its deadpan humour: she marvels after that episode that all those love songs and poems are written about something that doesn’t last that long. It’s this oblique commentary that saves it from becoming sordid. Her friendship with Helen (Rosamund Pike), Danny’s  gloriously dim but kind and beautiful girlfriend, provides some of the wonderfully observed high points but Jenny conveniently ignores all the signs that something is wrong with this perfect picture. The concerned English teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) who acts as the conscience of the piece turns out to be a mentor of sorts in a stirring coming of age story that is a far from sentimental education. Emma Thompson as the anti-semitic headmistress is a piece of work – she expels Jenny when she learns she’s engaged to a Jew. It’s beautifully handled and performed and London looks just as it should, courtesy of John de Borman’s cinematography. Directed by Lone Scherfig.

The Reader (2008)

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Go to your literature, go to the theatre if you want catharsis. Don’t go to the camps. Germany, 1958.  Fifteen-year old Michael Berg (David Kross) meets thirtysomething tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) when he falls ill with scarlet fever and she comes to his aid. Months later he visits her to thank her and she seduces him. They meet regularly and their relationship is passionate. She insists that he read books to her during their meetings. Reading first. Sex afterwards.  When Hanna abruptly moves away without informing him, Michael is heartbroken. Years later, while studying law at Heidelberg University, he is shocked to discover that Hanna is on trial for a brutal Nazi war crime when he is sent to observe a case at court. She admits to something that will incriminate her and ensure life imprisonment rather than say she is actually illiterate. She became a prison guard to hide her problem. What would you have done? Michael withholds the crucial information that could minimise her sentence. Ten years later he (Ralph Fiennes) is divorced and unhappy. His daughter lives with his ex and he has nothing much to do with his family.  He records cassettes of himself reading books and sends them to Hanna in prison.  She teaches herself to read using his recordings alongside books from the prison library. Then Michael is phoned by the prison as he is Hanna’s only contact to be told she is due to be released and needs to re-enter society … Bernhard Schlink’s semi-autobiographical novel Der Vorleser was watercooler stuff, the book you had to read a decade and a half ago. In an era suffused with simplistic youth-oriented dystopic nonsense and wizardry it was water in the desert, a book that had historic relevance and contemporary resonance in a society still gripped by the Nazis who were and are still living, still unrepentant. When Michael asks Hanna what she learned in her prison term she states bluntly, I learned to read. Winslet may have received the acting honours but the role is narrow, her character’s intelligence limited, her grasp of anything finite beyond a certain native shrewdness. Everything is transactional, even degeneracy. It is Fiennes who has to retain and expose the devastating effect their relationship has had on his life, as a son, a husband and father. He is also the adult lawyer living with the knowledge that his generation has been mainly unmarked by the failure of the German state.  Yet somehow his sexual adventure has created an incriminating situation for him akin to guilt.  Kross is equally good as the boy initiated into the wonders of sex with a woman who gets him to repeat the reading ritual that Jews were forced to perform for her at Auschwitz. The irony that they have both introduced each other to vastly differing worlds ricochets through his adult life. Her shame concerns illiteracy, not complicity in murder:  this is the crux of the narrative. She will not dwell in the past. It is a metaphor too far for some perhaps but it makes sense when you consider the ease with which Germany rebuilt itself with former Nazis running everything, an arrangement blessed by the former Allies, a fact erased from most people’s consciousness. That is why I believe so many critics hated this film:  we are all complicit in Germany’s overwhelming role in Europe today,  in permitting the Nazis to continue in another guise:  we are therefore no better than the Germans ourselves.  Linking this concept to an erotic coming of age story is daring and reminiscent of The Night Porter, another divisive work.  Michael did not go to his father’s funeral, his mother says.  We infer that his father’s role in World War Two was beyond the pale, at least for him. Things remain unspoken. This is a complex, emotionally powerful film with a problematic resolution that seeks to assuage several varieties of guilt without actually excusing anyone, understanding the accommodations necessitated by the quotidian. Adapted with acuity by David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry and produced by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack who both died during production. There’s an interesting score by Nico Muhly and Bruno Ganz’s performance as the law professor with Lena Olin as a Jewish camp survivor (and her mother) rounding out the impressive cast in a troubling and carefully constructed moral tale.

Call Me By Your Name (2017)

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Just remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. And before you know it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now, there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it and with it the joy you’ve felt.  In the summer of 1983 precocious piano prodigy, American-Jewish-Italian 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is spending the days with his archaeologist father (Michael Stuhlbarg) and translator mother (Amira Casar) at their 17th-century villa in Lombardy, Italy.  Oliver (Armie Hammer) is a handsome American doctoral student who’s working as a research assistant for Elio’s father and living with them for the holiday to help him with his academic papers. Amid the sun-drenched splendour, while Elio pursues relationships with local girls, he and Oliver discover the heady beauty of awakening desire that will alter their lives…  Adapted by the venerable filmmaker James Ivory from André Aciman’s 2007 debut novel, this is a uniquely atmospheric work by director Luca Guadagnino which attempts successfully to convey how people really think and feel about each other while consumed with desire. Most of the acting nominations were for Chalamet but Hammer is stunning in a role he was born to play. There are moments that take the breath away – shot choices that focus on his face, shifting lens length and emphasis and particularity to indicate his conflicted thoughts about instigating a relationship with a mere boy.  We understand how his mind works. When the older gay couple visiting the Perlman home stand listening to Elio play an affecting piano piece, Hammer hovers very briefly in the background in the doorway and his effect on people is such that the younger of the men looks over his shoulder, as though the very plates had shifted beneath him, even with a passing glimpse of this astonishingly attractive guy. Such is Oliver’s power. His beauty is tactile. He eats up life with the same enthusiasm he gobbles food. He folds in his imposing height to avoid intimidating people. But his touching of Elio’s shoulder during a volleyball game signals his intentions. It’s such a physically demanding characterisation. He is wooing us all. The puppyish Elio has no hope. Hammer projects his position as lust object with immense sympathy. His introduction to the family involves Perlman’s customary intellectual test which he passes with flying colours in an audition that might telegraph social embarrassment but lends the drama its comic and humane undertow. It also skewers the viewer’s fear that this is a film about pretentious people:  we soon realise these are instead people of passions. There is a coyness of course to the exposition of the sex – we see Elio having intercourse with his young girlfriend but we never witness the act between him and Oliver. Instead, when they finally achieve total freedom and intimacy away from the family home, in the mountains outside Bergamo, the correlative for this is a waterfall:  it’s somehow overstated yet understated at the same time, perfect for young men going wild in the country, figuratively sharing an orgasm in public. The brief flashback sequence is done in tinted negative, another decent aesthetic choice. Mirrors are used sparingly to convey psychological turmoil and brief parental distance. And if T.S. Eliot encouraged you to dare eat a peach you might think twice before doing it after watching this:  masturbation played ultimately for endearingly awkward laughs, more Philip Roth than American Pie. What a marvellously thoughtful and beautifully judged piece of cinema, one that lingers in the mind long after viewing for its grace and beauty and generosity and its remarkable sensuality. Richard Butler must be thrilled.

 

Philomena (2013)

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It’s  funny isn’t it? All the pieces of paper designed to help you find him have been destroyed, but guess what, the one piece of paper designed to stop you finding him has been lovingly preserved. God and his infinite wisdom decided to spare that from the flames. In 1952 Irish teenager Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) became pregnant out of wedlock and was sent to a convent. When her baby, Anthony, was a toddler, the nuns took Philomena’s child away from her and put him up for adoption in the US. For the next 50 years, she searched tirelessly for her son. When former BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) – who’s been fired from the Labour Party in disgrace – learns of her story, he becomes her ally after initial reluctance to take on a human interest story. They travel together to America to find Anthony and become unexpectedly close in the process… Actor and writer Coogan who (with Jeff Pope) adapted Sixsmith’s book about the real life Philomena finds a real niche for emotive comedy in this tragic story of a mother’s search for the son she was forced to give up after an illicit episode of underage sex leading to years spent in the service of the Irish Catholic nuns who took her in.  Dench and Coogan prove a formidable double act, he the reasoned, caring journo, she the guilt-ridden sharp-tongued mother whose legitimate daughter coaxes her to look for her other offspring many years later, when they are put off by the obdurate misinformation emanating from the Christian sisterhood who blithely conceal a terrible secret. Moving, well played and deftly handled. Directed by Stephen Frears.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

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He was vulnerable and weak.  It was all I ever wanted and now I had no desire for it. In 1976 San Francisco, a precocious 15-year-old Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) embarks on an enthusiastic sexual odyssey, beginning with her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) current lover the handsome Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). He’s a feckless sort who enjoys their affair with a recklessness to match the girl’s while her distant mother and goofy younger sister Gretel (Abigail Wait) remain somewhat ignorant. The far from pretty Minnie has sex with whomever she chooses to sate her desires, including her BFF Kimmie (Madeleine Winters) who has a penchant for giving blowjobs to black men. When her mother finds her tape recorded diaries she goes underground with cool girl druggie Tabatha (Margarita Levieva) who presents her with a situation that’s too far out even for her and she goes home to face the music …  Marielle Heller’s adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s somewhat autobiographical novel is full of problems, many of which are resolved through the sheer brio and bravery in Minnie’s voice.  Despite my misgivings – which lasted for, oh, maybe the first hour? More? This is ultimately an artistic success. My misgivings have to do with the depiction of a child having a full-on sexual affair with a man twice her age who happens to be her mother’s boyfriend (feel free to contribute your own Woody/Soon-Yi reference but at least we are spared the full-frontal genital photographs of her daughter that greeted Mia Farrow). When he takes her virginity we share the bloodletting but that’s the last suggestion of physical discomfort in the whole sordid tale – a rather unlikely outcome in this scenario. As her story (complete with effects, animations and voiceover) progresses it’s clear that she is the one in charge and finally the most mature person in this massively dysfunctional and promiscuous tribe, documenting her experiences through her chosen artform of cartooning and tape recordings – which out her to her betrayed mother. Gifting this intelligent girl with so much agency is an achievement in itself and perhaps in the context of the times it’s a safer move than it would be in a contemporary story.  There is a point at which you surmise that all the hearts and flowers animations are there to distract from the horrors  – Minnie is so hot to trot she asks, Does everyone think about sex as much as I do? She’s a pederast’s wet dream. This is a film which isn’t afraid to confront the audience. When her stepfather Pascal (Christopher Meloni) returns for a visit with the girls there’s a flashback to a time when he asked their mother (it’s unclear as to who the younger daughter’s father might be) if she didn’t think Minnie’s intense need for physical contact wasn’t sexual.  It’s he who thinks something is awry in this screwed up shacked up situation. This is a comedy drama which never strays from its serious subject matter despite the graphic novel form in which it is presented, reminding us of Ghost World. Minnie’s artistic heroine Aline Kominsky appears in cartoon form and writes her a letter of encouragement. However it is a relentlessly adult story and a cautionary one about growing up much, much too soon in an out of control family where sex is permanently on the menu and the mother admits to her own teenage horniness. Their relationship  is clearly abnormal but the film sidesteps this problem by presenting Monroe not so much as the erotic devil but rather a harmless moron who takes what he can get when it’s presented to him. Minnie doesn’t care, she just wants sex. This is never less than disturbing but it is also a necessary corrective to the male patriarchal perspective about female experience. What’s the point of living if nobody loves you?

 

A Cure for Wellness (2016)

 

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Do you know what the cure for the human condition is? Disease. Because only then is there hope for a cure. An ambitious young executive Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent to retrieve his company’s CEO Pembroke (Harry Groener) from an idyllic but mysterious “wellness center” at a remote location in the Swiss Alps. He soon suspects that the spa’s miraculous treatments are not what they seem and the head doctor Volmer (Jason Isaacs) is possessed of a curiously persuasive zeal and, rather like Hotel California, nobody seems able to leave.  Lockhart’s sighting of young Hannah (Mia Goth) drives him to return. When he begins to unravel the location’s terrifying secrets, his sanity is tested, as he finds himself diagnosed with the same curious illness that keeps all the guests here longing for the cure and his company no longer wants anything to do with him because the SEC is investigating him – and is that Pembroke’s body floating in a tank? … Part bloody horror, part satire, indebted equally to Stanley Kubrick, mad scientist B movies and Vincent Price, this has cult written all over it. Co-written by director Gore Verbinski with Justin Haythe, with his proverbial visual flourishes, this is one 141-minute long movie that despite its outward contempt for any sense of likeability, actually draws you in – if you’re not too scared of water, institutions, eels or demonic dentists. Isaacs has a whale of a time as the equivalent of a maestro conducting an orchestra who dispatches irritants with a flick of a switch or insertion of an eel. DeHaan gets paler by the scene. Wouldn’t you? The one thing you do not want to do is drink the water! A man cannot unsee the truth!