Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Secrets and Lies

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"Secrets and Lies" is an exquisitely crafted movie, a recognition of the ties that bind us, although we often contest and deny such ties, for myriad reasons. Leigh is an immensely talented director, in control of the many resources at hand and he marshals said resources for compelling ends in this movie.

In this case, the film is, as mentioned, a recognition of the ties which bind and how they are sometimes unseen and, even when recognized, sometimes denied. The story that Leigh tells is that of the Purley family, a family with problems like any other. I hesitate to use the term dysfunctional because it seems the vast majority of families are of this nature and it is rare, the family which is "functional". Indeed, such a family might be somewhat dull to watch during the course of a film because, well, where would the conflict be? In any case, the family which Leigh depicts consists in a man named Mo Purley (the amazing Timothy Spall, who has starred several times for Leigh), a successful photographer who has attained a level of success at which he can now buy a nice house with his somewhat superficial wife Monica (Phyllis Logan). Mo has an older sister named Cynthia (the astonishing Brenda Blethyn) who lives a more banal life. She had a child at a young age and missed out on her education and so works in a factory and seems somewhat obsessed with retaining her youthfulness (and indeed she has remained in good physical shape, even if her looks have worn down, as they might by one's early 40s). Cynthia's daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook) works as a city sweeper and resists her mother's advice on how she might better herself. The two women live together in a small house and are short-tempered with one another much of the time, familiarity and proximity might sometimes induce.

Roxanne seems the most happy with her life although it would not be satisfying for many. She seems happy because she does not, apparently, wish for much more than she has. She is quite happy with her relaxed relationship with a construction worker Paul (Lee Ross) and their routine of watching television and having a couple of pints at the pub many evenings. Her lack of ambition is not to indict those who have goals, but simply to affirm the value of appreciating what one has.

The development which propels the story forward is that a young Afro-Caribbean optometrist, a successful and more composed yin to the Purleys' yang, Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) decides one day to track down her biological mother. It turns out to be Cynthia, who herself is at her wits' end, discouraged with her dull and monotonous life and with very little self-confidence. Cynthia, however, is a very nice person and is greatly loved by her younger brother for her role in raising him after their mother died when they were children. The relationship between the successful black optometrist and the white factory worker transforms both lives, giving both new appreciation for the wonderful complexity and richness of life.

I must admit that I thought that the revelations in the film were not particularly shocking at first. I thought to myself that I had seen many more jarring and shocking developments before. That said, the acting in this film is second-to-none. Spall, Jean-Baptiste, and Blethyn in particular are exceptional and, although I have seen some critical comments of Frances McDormand for her Oscar-winning performance in "Fargo", I do not think she was undeserving of the award, at least to the degree which some commenters seem to believe. Yes, her performance did not require the emotional range of Blethyn's, or the control of Baptiste's but in enlivening a bland Minnesota police officer, McDormand admirably imagined the cadences and persona of anonymity, and made them compelling. That said, I would not have had a problem with Blethyn winning. Her reaction when it sinks in that the girl she had given up for adoption has found her, is amazing. And the gradual transformation which this revelation has on her life is also amazing, as imagined by Blethyn. In short, Blethyn's performance was Oscar-worthy.

Baptiste is also amazing, embodying, with such restraint, the opposite of the out-of-control lives which burden the Purleys. She is the essence of class and provides a soothing counterpoint to the chaos of the Purleys' lives. And for me, Spall is better than both ladies- which is saying something. One can see the strain that these uneasy relationships are having on him and how he attempts to remain on an even keel amid the tensions and sniping between other family members. He retains this composure until a memorable explosion toward the end of the film. Were he not so composed throughout, the story would have no emotional center. Spall is fantastic.

Leigh's direction is admirable in its restraint. He recognizes that he has a winning story and he elicits measured performances from his actors, building up to the climax of the film without giving up any tension along the way. The metaphor of Mo's photography and his ability to elicit appropriate reactions from family members with obviously conflicting agendas and attitudes is representative of his abilities to steer the feelings of family members away from the harmful, hurtful reactions which they all wish to unleash on one another. He captures snapshots of groups as they wish to be captured. However, the mode in which they are photographed usually does not reflect their actual feelings at the time, and indeed may obscure peoples' true feelings about being there, in those circumstances, with those people.

In short, this film captures persuasively the degree to which we hide our feelings from one another and how revelation might be better for our mental health and may not actually harm us as much as enable us to come to terms with ourselves.

All or Nothing

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Lets be honest, Mike Leigh's films are not for everyone. No effort is made to make them commercially viable, the cast are almost always, largely unknown and certain scenes are so harrowing that even the strongest viewer can find themselves distressed and perturbed. While these factors keep some people away, they also keep many others coming back time and time again. Mike Leigh is quite simply, a national treasure. And I don't mean that in the same fluffy "Gawd Bless 'Em" manner that people applied to Thora Hird and the Queen Mother. I mean that he is simply one of the finest and most honest chroniclers of contemporary Britain that we have produced.

Make no mistake, the British have always enjoyed social realism. We can gauge that through that great yardstick of social self-perceptions, the soap opera. While the Americans produce soaps full of tanned, successful oil barons and their supermodel / actress mistresses, and the Australians show us their blue collar bungalow owners who like a beer with their mates and a barbecue on Sundays, the British make soaps full of characters who are little more than diluted, softened incarnations of Leigh's own subjects. People who work at checkouts and in launderettes, people who are trapped by poverty, alcoholism, violence and stifled or strangled ambition.

But through it all , there's a hope, an anticipation of a better day just around the corner and that's what makes these films ultimately uplifting. Leigh has always shown that no matter how dire the circumstances, how forlorn the existence, love and hope, friendship and family, will find a way to offer support, comfort and succor.

In achieving this, Leigh has the assistance of another of the U.K.'s finest - Timothy Spall. If ever an actor was capable of portraying at once the fragility, insecurity and yet the potential for sheer stubborn strength of the British psyche its Spall. His character in All or Nothing, Phil is an incredibly vulnerable man. A pensive, gentle man, trapped in his own doubts and in a world of people who react by lashing out, verbally or physically and so compounding his doubts and fear. He apologises constantly, and often appears to be apologising for simply existing. An under-educated but intellectual man he even apologises for having an extensive vocabulary, a character trait which Leigh uses cleverly but subtly by having Phil precede each "big word" with "wotsitsname". It appears that Phil is searching for the word, he isn't, he knows exactly what he's about to say but is reluctant to say it in case he appears educated or articulate. We hear Phil talk about destiny and saying "It's...wotsitsname..kismet". In a world of expletives and harsh words he's ashamed at his verbal dexterity viewing it as a weakness rather than a strength.

Devices such as these help us understand technically why Leigh is just such a good writer and the way in which these devices are performed help us understand why Leigh constantly looks to Spall to anchor his scripts with his marvelous humanity.

All or Nothing is a vicious, gut wrenching, graceful, uplifting gem of a movie from a master filmmaker. Its is performed by a marvelous leading man and a collection of wonderfully talented supporting actors. In a world of blockbusters and multi million dollar opening nights Mike Leigh continues to give us humanity, despair, courage and beauty. And do we ever need him.

The Bothersome Man (Danish)

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Where the heck is Andreas(Trond Fausa Aurvaag), exactly? Heaven? Hell? A parallel universe?

When the bothersome man steps off the subway platform and meets an onrushing train, his next conscious moment occurs on a bus; riding solo, the newest arrival, in a dead netherworld where all the suicides go. Dressed as he was at the time of his sudden departure from the corporeal biosphere, Andreas is greeted by an official man, who processes and transports the bothersome man from the barren flatlands to a city, if the eyeballs work, is a dead ringer for the sort of urban landscapes that he once inhabited, if memory serves him right. Andreas retains the look of a sleepwalker in a trance, a man estranged from people and objects, struggling to find his bearings; at home, or rather, his assigned apartment; or at work, where the bothersome man is randomly designated as an accountant for an independent contractor. Havard(Johannes Joner), his boss, tells him, "You'll get used to it," which covers more than just crunching numbers, we suspect, in this world, same as the old world.

If life is meaningless, like French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Satre said, the same can be said for death, as well. The subculture of office life might be heaven for one man, but it looks like hell to us, under the context that "Den Brysomme Mannen" operates on. To work in the afterlife, in essence, is to work for the rest of your life. The social intercourse among Andreas' office mates may pass as normal in the physical world, but death is a variable that creates estrangement in the viewer, as he/she now recognizes the drudgery of white-collar labor performed by white-collar laborers, who kill the hours with their inconsequential small-talk and designated jobs they perform during the course of a day like automotons, each and every day, seem irrational in its self-evident absurdity. To see daily life replicated in a speculative light, "Den Brysomme mannen" makes normal human interaction look like deadpan comedy, as quotidian life becomes a performance, which transforms Karl Marx's meaning of the word "alienation", because here, the men and women in the office, "do" identify with their labor, like actors in a play who conspire to make their fictionalized selves appear real. But the bothersome man never fully participates in the facade. He's always aware of the cracks.

From a wooden bench, Andreas witnesses the aftermath of a jumper, who impales himself on an iron fence while people on their lunch breaks walk on by, indifferent to his escaping intestines that create red splatters on the clean sidewalk. Andreas faces the same impassivity from his own co-workers after he purposely cuts off his own finger, with the hope that he'll feel the pain, on a paper slicer. He doesn't. It's just another sensation, in addition to being able to taste and smell that's lost to the bothersome man. This inability of being able to take solace in the simple pleasures, amplifies the bothersome man's need for love,where simple pleasures compensated for his loneliness in the physical world. At a dinner party, hosted by his boss, Andreas meets Anne Britt(Petonella Barker). They hit it off. He walks her home. She invites him in. They become a couple. He moves in. When they have sex, however, it's good for neither Andreas, nor Anne, who seems to get more pleasure out of interior design. Love is an abstract concept, another sensation that's unattainable in this world, but love matters to the bothersome man, so he tries again with Ingeborg(Birgette Lagen), a girl from work. "Den Brysomme mannen" deconstructs love by presenting its foundation as a series of gestures that require performances from both the man and woman. When Ingeborg doesn't elicit the same tender feelings for Andreas after his hyper-romantic gesture of leaving Anne Britt for her, this Norwegian film reveals its secrets about the prosaic, but odd city, with an open-endedness that's solvable, and offer up multiple interpretations.

Wounded by Ingeborg's apathy towards his avowal of love for her, the bothersome man wanders into the same subway station, stands at the same platform, leers at the same couple aggressively making out, and jumps. This time, he can't die. How can you die when you're already dead? Hit repeatedly by train after train, Andreas' face turns into ground beef; his body contorts in angles previously seen only seen in art. When the bothersome man realizes that love and death are out of his grasp, he seeks out the man from the club, who was willing to say what goes unsaid in this city of the walking dead. Which is: death, not life, has no meaning.

Getting to the bottom of the mystery behind Andreas' whereabouts drives the narrative, and to the filmmaker's credit, this enigma is satisfactorily addressed, in a scene that recalls Spike Jonze's "Being John Malkovich", when Andreas crawls through a tunnel in order to cross over into another world, like a newborn baby, which resembles the portal to Malkovich's brain that Craig Schwartz charges people to crawl through. Andreas' attempt to traverse the great divide presents a beguiling paradox. Since heaven and earth are literally separated by a wall, this vulnerable boundary acts as a perfect encapsulation of the atheistic belief that "heaven is a place on Earth". But at the same time, heaven is proved by the reality of a hell; the place that Andreas is sent to after being banished from the city of his destination.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


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''Maelstrom'' is probably the first romantic drama ever narrated by a smelly dead fish. What might a dead fish have to do with love? It has something to do with the ocean whence life springs. And as it turns out, fish figure prominently in the symbolic structure of this fine French Canadian film, written and directed by Denis Villeneuve. Its protagonist, Bibi Champagne (Marie-Josée Croze), is a beautiful and successful 25-year-old businesswoman. Virtually overnight, Bibi's sleek yuppie existence unravels, and she faces an acute spiritual crisis when she has a series of personal disasters.

Commenting on her travails, the craggy-voiced fish (Pierre Lebeau), the movie's philosophical voice, periodically punctuates the soundtrack of a movie whose strategy is to surprise us by taking abrupt surreal sidetracks. At one point in the story, when a character in a restaurant complains about the toughness of her octopus, the film goes on a wild tangent as the waiter complains to the cook who in turn calls his supplier, and we follow the path the octopus took to reach her plate.

As weird as it may sound, the movie's aquatic fixation is integral to its concept. For above and beyond telling a story, ''Maelstrom'' is a meditation on the disconnection between the glossy surfaces of high-end urban existence and the life-and-death realities they camouflage. The opening scene finds Bibi undergoing an abortion. The procedure is carried out with such a cool, clinical dispassion that she doesn't see what is removed from inside her, which is taken away and immediately incinerated.

Afterward Bibi, feeling desolate, is comforted by her best friend, Claire (Stephanie Morgenstern), who has had three abortions and who advises Bibi to ''de-dramatize'' what has just happened. Bibi's composure further unravels when her brother -- who employs her in a business importing high-priced boutique items from Sumatra -- fires her for losing $200,000 in a transaction. We also learn that Bibi's mother, now dead, is a legend in the fashion world. A glossy magazine called L'Avenir (The Future) interviews Bibi and photographs her posing as her mother for a cover story.

The final blow comes when Bibi, preoccupied with her problems, strikes a pedestrian while driving and blithely leaves the scene of the accident. Later she learns from the newspaper that the victim, a Norwegian immigrant who worked as a fishmonger, has died. Guilt-stricken and terrified, she drives her car off a pier in an act that's both penance and an attempt to erase any evidence.

For all the modern anomie that ''Maelstrom'' evokes, the movie insists there is a hidden connection between things. And when Bibi meets the dead man's son, Evian (Jean-Nicolas Verreault), a handsome frogman, their anguished tango recalls the dance of Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry in ''Monster's Ball.''

''Maelstrom'' is a deliberately unsteady mixture of stylistic elements. Some, like the recurrent images of turbulent water foaming at the bottom of the screen, are abstract. Others, like the abortion, are clinical. The talking fish chopped up by a blood-spattered fishmonger is Dadaist, while the swooning images of sunsets over water and the love scenes are intensely romantic.

The soundtrack also varies from the Dadaist (Tom Waits growling a lyric about drowning in the ocean) to the romantic (Edvard Grieg). Not all the selections are well advised. ''Good Morning, Starshine'' from ''Hair,'' which recurs as a perky upbeat palliative, sounds annoyingly tinny and ends the movie on a shallow note.

What's sacrificed by the conceptual audacity is a sharp sense of character. Ms. Croze's Bibi never really transcends the stereotype of a yuppie cold fish (if you will), and the details of her family history remain frustratingly sketchy. But the film's iconoclastic mixture of elements is still a courageous attempt to ambush us by tearing through the surfaces of Bibi's life to conjure the gnarly essence of what lies beneath.