Wild Card Tuesday – Hunger


Hunger (2008, dir. Steve McQueen)

Starring Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham
The fight between Catholic and Protestant sides in Northern Ireland has devastated that country since the late 1960s. Each side has visited monolithic brutality on the other in of the greatest displays of community inflicting such cruelty on itself. But the cruelty that was the worst, was that of employees of the British empire on IRA members imprisoned in facilities across the country. Director Steve McQueen never give support for the terrorist actions of the IRA, but advocates that all prisoners, regardless of their crimes, deserve humane treatment.
The film’s focus is real life IRA soldier Bobby Sands (Fassbender). While the film doesn’t explicitly cover his activities with the IRA, he was no saint. He helped ferry weapons for the movement and was involved in the bombing of a furniture store in 1976. The film chooses to portray Sands as a figure unwilling to budge an inch for the brutal authority crashing down around his head. In this effort he has allowed himself to become dehumanized. Simply put, he has been caged and treated like an animal, so he will behave like one. Sands smears the walls of his cell with his own feces, allows the daily meals to rot and mold in a corner, and funnels his bed pan (synchronized with the other prisoners) out into the hallway. Is it vile? Yes. But there something innate within us that despise authority that wishes to break us, so it comes off as bizarrely admirable.
Bobby’s most memorable, and final, triumph came when he began a hunger strike in 1981 which took his life after several painful months of starvation. Michael Fassbender destroyed his body through malnutrition to take on the gaunt, sunken appearance of a Holocaust victim. He become the specter of death with additional help from an incredibly talented makeup department. His back is covered in open sores, he’s unable to urinate for the prison doctor’s physical, and he stains his sheets with black, acrid blood. The moments before Sands passes are truly powerful. The film moves into his consciousness as hallucinations of his younger self appear and his mind travels back to long distance race where he and both Prot and Catholic youths ran together, in fields of golden amber. Director McQueen doesn’t want you to take the IRA’s side, he wants you to realize how irrelevant any side is, and simply see a man dying.
The aesthetic choice made by McQueen are magnificent. For the first 30 minutes of the film there is little or no dialogue. Only 50 minutes in is there an actual conversation between two people for extended amount of time. Here Sands and a priest from his community debate the point of standing in defiance of authority. The priest tells Sands he must submit to the uniform being enforced on the prisoners and Sands simply won’t budge. Once again, neither side wins in the debate. They simply come to the conclusion that neither of them will change their ideas about it. Hunger is one of the best examples of director using the language of cinema to tell a visceral and moving story. There is no maudlin sentimentality, yet there is a deep emotional core. Not for those lacking a strong constitution, but one of the most amazing British films I’ve ever seen.
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Jolly Good Thursdays – Naked


Naked (1993, dir. Mike Leigh)

Starring David Thewlis, Lesley Sharp, Katrin Cartlidge, Gregg Crutwell, Claire Skinner
When viewing a Mike Leigh film you typically expect to see a slice of life portrayal of contemporary England. The focus will on the ins and outs of daily life for working class people. However, with this picture, Leigh creates an abrasive, violent, surreal universe which does adhere to the tenets of his standard films: there are no big illuminating answers or moments.
We first see Johnny (Thewlis), the film’s protagonist, in the middle of raping a woman in an alleyway. Hardly a way to endear us the character we’ll be following through the rest of the movie. The woman runs away saying she’s going to get brothers and they will beat Johnny to death. Johnny runs home, grabs a few things, steals a car and heads to London where he imposes himself on old flame Sophie (Sharp). Johnny gets involved with Sophie’s flatmate (Cartlidge), leaves in a huff and encounters a series of strange characters living and working in London. Johnny is paralleled by Jeremy (Crutwell) an utter misogynist and sociopath that gives Patrick Bateman a run for his money.
Director Leigh seems to be using Naked as sandbox in which to play with the audience’s expectations of their characters and the flow of plot in film. There is a palpable trajectory to the film for its first 30 minutes, and then suddenly it veers off into an episodic series of encounters between Johnny and other random characters. The introduction of Jeremy is intentionally confusing and appears to have no bearing on the overall plot of the film. Jeremy’s abusive exploits don’t feature any characters from Johnny’s portion of the film and seem as if they were cut in from another film. When the two plots cross into each other in the last 40 minutes of the film there is no explosive conflict or release of tension.
Naked could easily be seen as an extremely misogynistic film, but that would be selling short. Yes, women are brutalized numerous times throughout the film, Jeremy himself rapes about three women. However, I think Leigh is testing us to see what we will accept from characters in a film. What is the line they cross that makes them intolerable for us? In addition, every single characters is away from home: Johnny is on the run, Sophie is sub-leasing, her friend Sandra (Skinner) is off traveling through Zimbabwe. The moment the film finds its resolution is when all the characters have assembled in Sandra’s flat after she has returned home. It’s in this moment the genre of the film becomes rapid fire and even more absurd. There are elements of farce, romance, drama, and in the end it all falls apart. Johnny ends up even more broken than he had been at the start and where is going is now unknown and inevitably even further into the gutter.

Wild Card Tuesday – Fish Tank


Fish Tank (2009, dir. Andrea Arnold)

Starring Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing
Mia is angry at everyone and everything. She headbutts a girl for simply mouthing off to her. She fights constantly with her mother. She’s considered an oddball by the boys. She’s been kicked out of school. This her last chance. Andrea Arnold’s portrait of a 15 year old girl growing up in contemporary Essex, England is an incredibly immersing film. I have to admit, I sat down to watch it less than enthused but found myself completely engrossed in the picture. Arnold’s emphasis on naturalism comes shining through and every frame of the film feels honest and real.
Mia’s world is changed when her mother brings Conner home. Conner is a handsome, charming man who treats Mia and her younger sister with kindness. The four make a nice little family, going out for a drive in the country one day, and Conner and Mia catching a fish together. But there is a palpable tension between Mia and Conner. The film constantly veers from her seeing him as a replacement father but also an object of sex. And for a girl in Mia’s situation, such a confusion would be understandable. There is no single strong male or female influence in the girl’s world, so when one comes along she clings to him for dear life.
There’s a recurring action of Mia’s that is glanced in the first moments of the film and repeated throughout. A ragged emaciated horse stands chained to large boulder in the middle of gravel covered field. Mia climbs a fence and uses a stone to smash at the chain and free the horse. With each attempt she find the action more and more futile. Another action which Mia repeats again and again is when she busts into an abandoned tenement flat and practice hip hop dancing. Music becomes a link between she and Conner and also a possible mode of escape. Where Mia and her family end up is a balanced mix of sadness and hope, and Conner’s role in it all is the most shocking.
The film is all about newcomer Katie Jarvis who, in her film debut, is absolutely amazing. Katie’s personal life is not too different from her character’s. She was a mother at 16 and was discovered while screaming at her boyfriend on the street. The same anger and fire in Mia is all brought to the film by Katie herself. Director Andrea Arnold is also a powerful force, making this world feel completely honest and knowing when and what to show the audience. An amazing achievement in contemporary British cinema.

Jolly Good Thursdays – Alice in Wonderland (1966)


Alice in Wonderland (1966, dir. Jonathan Miller)

Starring Anne-Marie Mallik, Peter Sellers, Leo McKern, Michael Redgrave, Peter Cook, Michael Hough, John Gielgud, Eric Idle
Lewis Caroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been adapted in many ways and forms since the advent of film. The majority are informed by the 1951 Disney animated feature and, because of that constant influence, seem bland. Not so with this BBC television adaptation. Jonathan Miller, a popular director and comedian who worked with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore extensively, brings us one of the most surreal and abstract versions of Wonderland. Here no one is dressed up like a white rabbit or caterpillar, instead they resemble the British aristocracy Carroll was mocking in his text.
The image above, which is the opening title of the film, evokes a very strong tone. Alice is something primal here, this is not the light-hearted English schoolgirl but a figure with a sinister air about her. Alice doesn’t speak for the first 20 minutes of the film, what we get is a whispering stream of consciousness. The most intriguing evolution of this conceit is how the whispering voice becomes the Cheshire Cat later in the film. It ends up highlighting pieces of dialogue from Carroll’s work that portray Alice as deep in contemplative thought about identity. This extends to her experiences eating and drinking items that distort her physical self, and as emphasized int this film, her psychological perception of herself and her environment.
It’s quite jolting to hear the silly dialogue, attributed originally to anthropomorphic figures, coming from the mouths of English nobility. That aesthetic choice emphasizes the absurdity of British aristocracy in Carroll’s time. The Caucus Race, which is Alice’s first major episode in Wonderland, occurs in an Anglican cathedral and involves stodgy nobles running around the pews and performing the sign of the cross. Every thing has an atmosphere of malaise, intensified by the wandering sitar music of Ravi Shankar. Alice sits at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, slumping down in her chair, washed over by the utter boredom and inanity of the dolts surrounding her.
This is by no means a children’s adaptation or one meant for mainstream audiences. This is a very masterful and crafted adult interpretation of classic story that operates on multiple levels of satire and philosophy.

Film 2010 #36 – The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner


The Loneliness of the Long Distance (1962, dir. Tony Richardson)

Starring Tom Courtenay, Michael Redgrave
Film across the world was undergoing a transformation in the early 1960s. It began with the French New Wave movement of directors like Godard and Truffat and spread across Europe. Eventually, it hit England and corresponded with the coming of age of the first group of post-war children. The films produced in this period are referred to as the Angry Young Men, as they focused on teenagers and men in their 20s for whom the drudgery of blue collar life, that their parents so readily accepted, was considered a living death sentence.
This particular film focuses on the life of a Nottingham youth named Colin Smith (Courtenay). The picture opens with Colin being transported with a group of other juvenile delinquents to Ruxton Towers Reformatory. At the same time, the administration of the facility learns a nearby public school (in the States it would be a private school) wants to have their boys compete against Ruxton’s in a track and field event. The governor of the school (Redgrave) eyes Colin with the potential to win the long distance race after a tryout and begins loosening the restraints on the boy to ensure he will feel dedicated to Ruxton when the day of the race arrives.
Throughout the film we’re given glimpses of what led Colin down this path. At Ruxton, he is a humorless and dour young man, but in his life before he possesses a yearning to escape the factory life of Nottingham that kills his father. It becomes apparent that all Colin has been given in life are a series of expectations to live up to. His father’s former employer expects Colin will come work for them. Colin’s mother expects him to get a job once his father dies. The authorities figures in his town expect him to fall into a life of crime. The pressure of these expectations slowly grows inside Colin in both the flashbacks and during his time training for the race.
The most wonderful moments of the film come when the Governor allows Colin to run outside the gates of Ruxton. As soon as Colin is past the gates a soundtrack of period jazz music kicks in and the camera becomes very loose and documentarian in how it captures the runner. These moments of joy when Colin is by himself, simply running till he can’t breathe are played against his confrontations with fellow boys at the reformatory and regular sessions with the nervous and ineffective counselor. The loneliness mentioned in the title ends up playing both a joyous and bittersweet role. The film has two endings in effect, the one where Colin is “victorious” and then a sort of epilogue which causes us to question the cost of that victory.

Film 2009 #109 – In The Loop

In The Loop (2009)
Directed by Armando Iannucci
Starring James Gandolfini, Chris Addison, Tom Hollander, Peter Capaldi

“War is unforeseeable.”

With this statement from an interview Simon Foster, the U.K.’s Secretary of State for International Development starts a hellstorm of media attention. He’s met with the ire of the Prime Minister enforcer, Malcolm Tucker and told he has to work damage control. Foster and his aide Toby journey to the United States and attempt to play the political game.

Armando Iannucci came to fame in the U.K. through his work writing and producing comedic series, in particular Knowing Me Knowing You and I’m Alan Partridge, both semi-improvised shows starring Steve Coogan. He was also the mind behind The Thick of It, a satirical look at the goings on in the Prime Minister’s office and what would become the foundation of In the Loop.

While American filmmakers feel a need to make their political films hard-hitting or iconic idolatry, Iannucci opts for the stance of pointing out the epic buffoonery that goes on behind the scenes of the most powerful in the world. The relationships in the film are all a series of adolescent one-upmanship. The methodology of going to war for many of the characters is simply to prove a rival wrong or usurp their position.

Iannucci and his actors are extremely comfortable with language and the dialogue is strengthened by that confidence. There are moments that feel like the dialogic equivalent of a blockbuster film’s shoot out and explosion sequences. This is also an incredibly subversive film that works to show incompetence at every level and a disconnect between those in power and the people at the bottom. One particular sequence involves Steve Coogan playing a character whose mother lives next door to a government building and is calling Simon Foster to complain that the wall between the properties is slowly crushing his mother’s greenhouse. Foster, at the U.N. and rushing to save face for a series of flubs constantly shrugs the man off.

If you are looking for some strong counter-programming to the thoughtless films of the summer, In the Loop provides an alternative that is equal parts entertaining and incredibly intelligent.