Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Amélie - A Retrospective Review

This week Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s massive box office success Amélie is re released, ten years on from when it first captured audiences. It won best film at the European Film awards, four César Awards (including Best Film and Best Director), two BAFTA Awards (including Best Original Screenplay), and was nominated for five Academy Awards.

Since, it has become the archetypal artsy French film for modern audiences. Avid art-house cinema fans may feel its huge commercial appeal nulls such artistic status somewhat. Perhaps it is both. So, what is it about this French art-house (or just plain commercial, whichever) film that so many have adored? What is it about it that has driven countless students to want Amelie’s weird, quirky hair cut and round Bambi eyes staring at them from their bedroom walls?

You all probably know the story of Amélie by now, but let us recap anyway. Amélie (Audrey Tautou) is an innocent, shy waitress who lives a sheltered life in Paris. She decides to change the world one step at a time, and distract from her loneliness, by doing weird and wonderful things for those around her. She becomes engrossed in little bizarre projects that succeed due to the dedication to detail she puts into them.

Then there’s the love part. She falls for Nico Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz, director of La Haine) a handsome stranger who works in a sex shop and collects abandoned strips from photo booths in his spare time. She arranges eccentric and carefully planned, dramatic stunts to display her affections, all the while being too shy to reveal her identity until the penultimate, romantic conclusion.

The film is a wonderfully enchanting work of magic realism. Its uniqueness is in the remarkable attention to detail that Jeunet excels in. At one point Amelie is sat in the cinema, and whispers directly to the camera that she likes to ‘notice the details that nobody else sees’. This is evidently true for the filmmaker too, and we are given a part in it. Amélie’s parents are introduced through their likes and dislikes, as other characters are throughout the film. It’s an unconventional way to paint them but is surprisingly insightful. They are carefully crafted with interesting and unique quirks, and it is the specifics that create individuality. Amélie’s father dislikes clingy swimming trunks but likes peeling wallpaper. Her mother dislikes touching the hands of others, but loves cleaning out her handbag. Amélie loves to crack crème brûlée with a spoon.

The film is a rich sensory experience. The contrasting colours are vivid, as is the feel of the sack of grains that Amélie likes to plunge her hand into, and the pruned fingers that her mother dislikes when in the bath. In one lovely scene Amélie helps a blind man cross the road whilst energetically chattering away specific observations from their surroundings.The film is delightfully surreal and not at all concerned with plausibility. It doesn’t try to do more than tinker on the edges of realism and it does so in an absurd, comic way. In the film’s opening there is a tramp that cheerily and politely refuses money to Amélie because he doesn’t work on Sundays, a suicidal goldfish that jumps out of its bowl, and a cat that likes to listen to children’s stories being told.

Despite being set in 1997, the Paris is not painted as modern day, but as one from fifty years ago. The quaint accordion music playing throughout is nostalgic and dream like. It’s a dream like, picture perfect creation comparable to the new Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris, where the French capital is drawn as a 1920’s ideal. Amélie’s omniscient narrator describes the characters, their feelings and the plot as it unfolds. It’s like being read a fairy tale, but one that includes a sex shop.

Peter Bradshaw from the Guardian wrote in 2001 that watching Amélie is like being ‘frogmarched into Maxim’s in Paris and forced to eat up the entire sweet trolley in 60 seconds’. I’ll try to not be bias here. It is admittedly saccharine, and not everybody has a sweet tooth. Amélie is an adorably sweet bohemian waif. Her do-good actions are sweet. The outcome is sweet. Yet this is the precise intention, and the film mischievously indulges in its sugary content.

Those who love Amélie do so because it does what films can often do best; provide escapism. But of course, here it is escapism of the surreal, poetic sort rather than the mindless type. It’s endearing in how it transports to a world that’s recognizably real yet equally magical. It fills with warmth. It does this whilst being sharply humoured and strikingly imaginative. If only a device exists,like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to erase the memory of a film in order to experience it fresh all over again. If you personally prefer a savoury treat, well then fair enough, let us agree to disagree.

This review was written for Front Row Reviews by Sarah Holland/ The original review can be found here

Going His Own Way - Interview with Jake Scott

He marvels at Lynne Ramsay, would star Michael Fassbender in his dream project, and is altogether very serious about film. Jake Scott’s directional debut, Plunkett and Macleane, was brutally slashed by the critics. Over a decade later he is biting back with his second feature ‘Welcome to the Rileys’.

Jake Scott is talking about his inevitable attraction to film directing: “It’s a bit like being in a Butcher’s family…Scott’s Butchers and Co.’ His father is, of course, Sir Ridley Scott. Jake was raised in a home rich with cinematic influence and is one of five in his family to take up the vocation. He expresses how fortunate he has been: “Some dads play football with their kids and take an interest in them athletically, or through musical instruments. His way was through film and art, so there was guidance in that sense’

He initially “fought against” the desire to direct, and trained as a set designer, but it’s just something he loves. Had he not gone down this route he would have been a painter. He developed a creative eye by being a successful commercial director for years. Given such a unique background, have the various presumptions and judgements about his abilities been a challenge? He admits it can be a “fucking nightmare! It can fundamentally dismiss anything you might have to offer of your own, you find yourself judged, and react and rebel against that. But I think I’ve managed to find my step now. The main thing is not to be bitter, I think that’s poisonous.”

He describes his debut as a: ‘A very flawed film. I wasn’t ready to take on something big. I didn’t know how to deal with the problems and critically they had a right go at me”. His deems his second feature to be more personally rewarding. Welcome to the Rileys is a subtle, understated drama about a married couple struggling with the death of their teenage daughter six years earlier. Doug (James Gandolfini) is a man estranged from his wife and driven to adultery through his loneliness. His agoraphobic wife Lois (Melissa Leo) is confined to the home they share in American suburbia. Doug travels to New Orleans for a plumbing convention where he meets teenage prostitute Allison (Kristen Stewart). She bares a resemblance to the teenager he has lost and the two of them form a platonic bond. Doug becomes fixated, borderline obsessed, with helping her, as if to find some form of closure for his endless suffering.

The characters drew Scott to the script: “As a character study I thought it had a lot of potential. People often assume that in the mid-west of America people attend shrinks all the time. The reality is that many ordinary people must face such tragic circumstances alone.” Ordinary people dealing with impossible events is so endearing because of his extraordinary upbringing. He admits he’s had: “An unusual life that is almost removed from reality’ and has “witnessed things that are really amazing. In some ways, the more grounded and based in reality those struggles are, the more I’m drawn to it”. There is a total absence of judgement for any of the characters. He says he: “Needed to tell the story without any, and was trying not to ask the audience for any sympathy.” He wanted to give a realistic insight without sentimentality.

The cast had the freedom to improvise and would explore possibilities on set before filming. “It was a different way of working for me, and quite an exposed way of working”. Scott had to deal with three strong styles of acting: “James is a method actor, arriving on set prepared and delving deep into character. Kristen is not professionally trained and works with her instincts instead, which, for her strong and challenging role, worked in her favour.” Kristen Stewart was hired pre Bella-Swan-era and Scott was unaware of her tendency to twitch. He found her twitchiness to be appropriate for the role: “A lot of the young prostitutes are like that, they are very uncomfortable in their own skin.” Melissa is a very experienced stage and theatre actor, who was always very level and discerning. Rather than trying to cope with this, you had to work with it, and it worked well”.

Has he formed is own style and voice now, through this second feature? Will he continue to produce character-based films? “I have definitely found my footing, but it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t consider doing a thriller, but I am drawn to this sort of material and I think I will avoid anything with too defined a genre.” Who and what inspires him? “Filmmakers who are daring” he responds. “Steve McQueen is a brilliant director. Lynne Ramsay is also a brilliant filmmaker, to do these films takes a lot of tenacity and discipline and commitment. These directors have a defined and clear voice. I always marvel at them and wonder where it comes from.” He asserts that “without a doubt” Michael Fassbender is his favourite actor and would star in his dream project. Tilda Swinton is his most admired actress.

His favourite film of all time is Federico Fellini’s 8½, and he is a huge fan of Bergman. Most recently, he was very impressed with Drive: “cinematically, there was nothing new, but the director and the cast made a really unique piece. It was a Western, but built around an emotional connection”. Next on his agenda is a film about Jeff Buckley. He feels: ‘Very connected to Jeff and the tragic story of his struggle. I hope we will be shooting in May in New York. I suppose it’s a Rock n’ Roll biopic, but it is more than that. It’s about a spiritual journey.”

Welcome to the Riley’s is released on DVD on Monday 27th February

 This interview was written for Front Row Reviews by Sarah Holland/ The original interview can be found here

Abi Morgan in Conversation with Jeanette Winterson

On the 12th February at the Cornerhouse cinema in Manchester, Shame co-writer Abi Morgan shared her musings with novelist Jeanette Winterson. She discussed the high and lows of screenwriting, fainting after meeting Meryl Streep, and bonding with Shame director Steve McQueen.

Abi Morgan is one of Britain’s busiest and most established writing talents. She has written across theatre, television and film. In 2002 she was nominated for a Laurence Olivier award for her play Tender, but her real breakthrough was Channel 4′s Sex Traffic in 2005, which won 6 Baftas. For TV, she has adapted Sebastian Faulk’s novel Birdsong, and created BBC’s The Hour.

Film-wise, she adapted Monica Ali’s Brick Lane for the screen, wrote the Iron Lady and co-wrote Shame with Steve McQueen. Shame was voted Front Row Review’s top film of 2012. It is a bold, provocative and beautifully captured film about sex addiction, starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. “Why did a nice girl like you from North London go and write about a sex addict?” Winterson asks.

“I met Steve, and there was just a real harmony, we could talk about anything. One of the things we we were fascinated by was the internet and how it has changed how we evolve relationships, and the commodification of relationships, and that led to talking about sex and the people who have got addicted via the internet, to find the intimacy they can’t find in life.”

“We tried to find people in London and no one talked to us because it’s not really recognized as an addiction. In America they love to talk, they recognise it as an addiction. We met some amazing therapists, psychiatrists and addicts. The addicts were like all of us. Steve and I would come away after spending the afternoon with someone who would tell us intimate, torrid mundane details of their life. There would be this silence that would fall over us. Steve would say, “do you ever do that?” and I’d say “sometimes”. Suddenly all these nuanced behaviours that in extreme were addictions, you could see the route of them in yourself, as a man and a woman. Steve brought out the masculine in me and I brought out of the feminine in him. It was a good match.”

They worked on Shame together. “I write, but equally he does this huge transition when it goes to screen. I wrote it in a hotel room overlooking the Hudson in February that went into April. Of the first 100 pages they had of the script, they threw away the first sixty. “Steve got furious one weekend and said “oh it’s rubbish!” I cried in north London, he sulked in Amsterdam and I agreed with him and we started again.

We actually came in at page 61 and started the film there and ran those 40 pages and built on them.” Later, an audience member quizzed Morgan on those lost pages. He asked about the hinted incestuous undertones between Brandon and Sissy that exist throughout the film, that McQueen had previously deflected.

“We have a consensus about it. I know what happened. There was a key scene where you found out and, yes we did cut it. I mean, I’m a blabbermouth, so i could easily be cornered with a drink and tell you, but I won’t. I think Steve feels, and I sort of agree with him, that you can interpret it anyway you want really.”

“Steve is one of those rare directors, he is an artist, literally an artist. He made me raise my game. I liked that. It was really great to work with a director who really believed in his own voice and said ‘I know this script i know the way this film should be’. I really took a leap with him.”

“I think when you do a film about sex it is going to cause some controversy. I don’t think it really did. I think it exposes the sexual appetite not just of men but of women too, and the complexity of a man who cannot have the basic intimacy. You can meet men who are very in love with their wives but they can only have sex with a prostitute, and it’s heartbreaking for all involved.”

She described Michael Fassbender as masculine and charismatic. “He is also hugely tender. He’s a brilliant actor, a very special actor. He’s very exciting to be around because he’s very intelligent and intense but also a huge showman, and you get that in his performance, and that’s just a dream to write for.”

She recounted how The Iron Lady, where Meryl Streep plays Margaret Thatcher, was “really hard to write but actually the stage where Meryrl came on was brilliant, and very exciting. I went to work with her in New York in her very beautiful apartment and I had never met her before. I literally fainted in the lift because i was trying to be so cool throughout the two and a half hours i spent with her that i realised i had been breathing so shallow. There is a photo of me lying in the lift. I found her very daunting to be around. I genuinely think she is one of the greatest actresses in the world.”

Abi Morgan is excessively modest. She admitted “I think most of what i do is a process of failure – i think a lot of good work is about failing – most things you do you fail. I never look at a piece of work and think, bloody good. I i look at it and think fuck, i got it wrong”. Currently she has around seven works on the back burner, including a film about the Suffragettes and an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, set in 1950s Italy and starring Anne Hathaway.

Fortunately for us, she overthrew her original aspirations to become an actress and chose to write instead.

 This was written for Front Row Reviews by Sarah Holland/ The original piece can be found here.

Arrugas (Wrinkles) - Review

This poignant Spanish comedy animation has good intentions and pleasant touches. It was based on a graphic novel of the same name (2008 Spanish National Comic Prize) by one of its script writers, Paco Roca. The adaptation runs smoothly and the uncluttered 2D goes refreshingly back to basics. The director, Ignacio Ferreras, worked as a character animator on Sylvain Chomet’s Oscar-nominated The Illusionist.

Arrugas (‘Wrinkles’) is set in a nursing home for the elderly. Retired bank manager Emilio (voiced by Alvaro Guevara) is a polite, dignified gent showing early signs of Alzheimer’s. He was living with his son and daughter-in-law when they hurriedly place him in a home.

He befriends his room-mate, gregarious Miguel (Tacho Gonzalez), an unmarried and childless Argentinean who knows the ins and outs of the institution. He gives Emilio the grand tour, providing he is paid for it, and frequently takes advantage of the other confused residents by conning them out of small cash sums.

Miguel, although morally dubious, stays by Emilio’s side as his condition deteriorates. He fixes up his buttons and tie before his medical assessment and writes the answers to the possible questions on his arm, so that the doctor doesn’t ‘send him upstairs’ to the One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest type dwelling for those who have ‘lost their marbles’.

‘Arrugas’ explores the depressing and prominent issue in the developed world: the dilemma facing families of how to care for the elderly in a growing aging population. It is tackled sensitively and from balanced perspectives. One resident cries out: ‘Young people have to live their lives, I don’t want to be a burden’, whereas Miguel rants about the common neglect from such families.

It is difficult to be faced with the ultimate reality of ageing. It can’t be prevented, so what happens when the inevitable arrives? Wrinkles carefully traverses what ordinarily doesn’t bear thinking about. The saddening situations are lifted by Miguel’s no-nonsense approach, such as laughing at the elderly woman who fears that aliens are chasing her, much to Emilio’s dismay.

The comedy gets a tad tiresome due to its play on the stereotypes and clichés of the elderly. They fall asleep often. They can’t hear, see, must take an abundance of pills (Miguel takes Viagra), and so on. In one scene, an instructor with large breasts leads a pass-the-ball game in a gym lesson. One man pretends he can’t hear, so she will lean close and he can grope her. The others fall asleep, don’t understand the instructions or drop the ball. It’s slightly patronizing.

One highlight is the simple aesthetic of the film, and the scenes that allow it to shine. One lady sits in her room all day, smoking invisible cigarettes and gazing out of her window. She thinks she is on the Orient Express. The pale pallor of the anonymous care facility is contrasted with the vibrancy of her imagined world with its stunning views and rich tones.

There are several more scenes like this. When Emilio first arrives his intimidation reminds him of his first day at school. We watch a young Emilio slowly walking into class, muttering that he wants his mum. Dolores (Mabel Rivera), a woman constantly by her sick husband’s side wiping the drool from his mouth, re-visits a romantic story from their childhood which is not dissimilar to the moving scenes in Up.

The subject is a unique stance for an animation and it delicately explores the harsh reality of when those in their advanced years must succumb to mental befuddlement. Yet the comedy and dialogue is often predictable and repetitive. As the film is concerned with having respect for its elderly subjects and stressing that they are people too, it would have been beneficial to lessen the nursing home clichés and focus more on its residents as individuals; their memories, thoughts and imaginings.


 This review was written for Front Row Reviews by Sarah Holland/ The original review can be found here.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Love on a Pillow - Review

Love on a Pillow (Le Repos du Guerrier) is a stormy romance film from 1962 starring Brigitte Bardot. Miss Bardot, 29 years of age when the film was released, plays Geneviève, an upper class Parisian heiress who has it all; beauty, money, self assurance and a devoted fiancé. Yet, the confident preconceptions she has of her identity and desires are entirely disrupted when she takes a trip to arrange her inheritance.

She enters the wrong room in her hotel and discovers Renaud (Robert Hossein) in the midst of a suicide attempt. She visits him in hospital, he calls her his ‘angel’ and they fall in love. Not a healthy, happy sort of love but an all-consuming, demanding sort that requires a change of identity and denial of other elements in life.

Bardot lets her hair down, literally, and it is openly symbolic of her transgression from a ‘lady’ to a sexual deviant. She jilts her fiancé, doesn’t ring her mother and lets her normally pristine flat turn awry. This is not before she cleans naked upon request of her controlling lover, who will ignore her if she won’t submit to his demands. The director, Bardot’s ex-husband Roger Vadim, doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of how enviably photogenic Miss Bardot is.

In some way presumably, her passionate, spontaneous love affair and confinement to her flat for endless days alone with her lover is the ultimate romance. Her sexual awakening is liberating, and all that. Yet, it just feels claustrophobic to watch. Perhaps this is intentional, and Vadim is suggesting that love comes in all different forms, that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ love. Or, that the best love is the kind that defies convention. Still though, it instils a sense of unease and frustration.
Hossein is a handsome, charming and creative figure, but he is troubled and self destructive for unclear reasons. He is distant and gruff with her and spends his days drinking and reading crime novels that she brings him. He is reckless, and on one occasion makes a pass at a prostitute in front of her. On the advice of someone close to him: “he is in love with you, but he is testing you”, she stands by the man she loves.

Part of the film is shot in beautiful Florence. The couple share a romantic meal overlooking the Italian countryside, only for the nihilistic gent to ruin it once again by shouting at the Italian playing the violin for them. It’s draining to watch. Eventually, at the film’s climax, he desperately falls onto his knees and pleads for her hand in marriage.

It’s down to opinion whether this is a happy ending or not. Frankly, despite the relationship’s tempestuous, destructive nature being the result of such intense love and passion the affair becomes tedious after twenty minutes and the rest is as exasperating and boring as it must be for Geneviève to endure. She is supposedly finding herself and being true to her desires by denying other responsibilities and exploring her identity, but we essentially watch a once dignified and independent woman morph into a desperate figure dwelling in the loneliness of her love. You just want to say: ‘for god’s sake, he’s not worth it love’. Coming to think of it, the film wasn’t either.


This review was written for Front Row Reviews by Sarah Holland/ The original review can be found here.