Carmen Jones (1954) dir. Otto Preminger

CarmenShot in glorious technicolor and Cinemascope, Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones is a treat for the senses. From the opening credits and the strains of Bizet’s opera, vivid colour floods the screen in this lovely restoration from the BFI.

Using Bizet’s 19th century-set opera is transposed to a Southern military base at the end of the second world war, starring an all-black cast performing an Oscar Hammerstein book and lyrics. In terms of musicality it never quite works, I mean, who dubs Harry Belafonte? However, Carmen Jones is an incredibly important film, and one that should be heralded as monumental.images-3

Carmen (played beautifully by Dorothy Dandridge) is a troublemaker. She exudes a tomboyish quality; a playful femininity which sees her climbing, running in heels, happy for rough and tumble, and an inner strength which belies her slight frame. Her arrest places her in a car with strait-laced G.I. Joe (Belafonte). He is charged with driving her to jail. Needless to say, Carmen tried to escape and after wrestling Joe to the ground, he finds himself in her childhood home, being cooked for, seduced away form his girl Cindy Lou (Olga James), and then imprisoned himself for allowing the duplicitous Ms. Jones to flee. images-4

Sultry Carmen is hedonistic, carnal and revels in her freedom whether sexual or geographical – she makes it abundantly clear – she will never relinquish it. She is the epitome of the transgressive woman, and just like those women of cinema (and in keeping with the opera’s tragic heroine), she is irrevocably punished for her transgressions. Interestingly, examining the notion of freedom, conformity, acceptability and erotic desire of Carmen is worth questioning; is she is defeated or merely defiant? Her active sexuality does not appear over-sexualised but feels liberated and yet it is the scenes in which Belafonte is shirtless that feel fetishised. As Carmen’s freedom is threatened, her frequent calling of Joe “boy” loses its affection and becomes derisive.

imgres-1Love, jealousy and tragedy are abound in this opulent and liberal affair, people of colour fill every frame, Dandridge and Belafonte are supported by Pearl Bailey, Joe Adams, Diahann Carroll and Brock Peters to name but a few.  They have agency, and are (mostly) free from stereotype. With songs entitled “Dat’s Love”, “Dis Flower” and “He’s Got His Self Another Woman”, written to Bizet’s musical score, and every effort to present a black community (albeit thought through the lens of an émigré man), it seems incredibly odd to disjoint the narrative and risk alienating the viewer by having these songs dubbed with the operatic vocal talents of Marilyn Horne and LeVern Hutcherson. I can’t help but feel these songs would be more memorable, more gut-punchingly real if sung by the souls that play each character; the opera dub upsets the rhythm of the film.

Carmen Jones is wonderful but deserves to be seen on a huge screen, it loses a sense of this grandeur as a home release yet, regardless, is a gift; even an imperfect one. Its complexities certainly make for an interesting watch and one to unpick. Preminger’s use of space and incisive camerawork means there is a lot of visual charm but it feels muddled, a historical achievement for 1954, absolutely but missing something musically. The imposition of Horne’s vocals disjoints and the differences in pitch, tone and timbre seem, at times, farcical. It did, however, make an icon and Oscar-winner of Dandridge and rightly so, she is incredible in the role, and why CJ should always be hailed as “culturally, historically [and] aesthetically significant.”[1] imgres-2

Carmen Jones is available now on Blu-ray and screened as a part of the BFI’s Black Star season which ran from 17 October – 31 December 2016.

[1] In 1992, Carmen Jones was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress who described it as above.

Ghostbusters (2016) dir. Paul Feig

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For my 4th birthday, I received – amongst many gifts – a beautiful Ghostbusterscake. It was huge, had red-frosting and the logo emblazoned across the front. My cousin, born six years before and ten days later got the same cake (only his icing was blue). Lol [his name not laughter] was responsible for my introduction to Ghostbusters and Star Wars, actually, if truth be told. At no point did he exclude me because I was younger or because I was a girl, and let’s face it, a four-year-old will test any ten-year-old’s patience regardless of gender.

I remember having the crap scared out of me watching the film on TV then suffering sleepless nights, that bloody ghost in the library. Six years later I had a David [brother] to pass the love of ghosts and busting onto; films  cartoons, and toys, oh-so-many-toys. Spengler (Harold Ramis), Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson)  and smart-ass Venkman (Bill Murray) held a special place in my (and his) childish heart. Now, Yates (Melissa McCarthy), Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and Tolan (Leslie Jones) will provide joy for a whole new generation. Seriously, why is that so terrible?

File_001The expected happened. I grew up, the little girl repressed somewhat but still knocking around, and rewatching Ghostbusters (1984) as an adult is a whole different experience. Now you can laugh at the adult humour that sailed over your cherubic head, cringe at the effects which at times are pretty awful and the best part? Crawl under a duvet, hungover, and passively let each scene douse you in nostalgia like an ectoplasmic gloop. A sequel arrived in 1989 – largely disliked now – who knew? It was fine. I regularly rewatch.

The reboot was announced. Urgh! Originality is a concept lost on most Hollywood studios. This one was to be directed by Paul Feig. For the record, he seems like a very nice man, always impeccably dressed, and there’s no denying how he has boosted women-led films, but he directed Bridesmaids (deplore), The Heat (lukewarm) and Spy (I adored that one). Was it really a surprise that this Ghostbusters, his vision, would be all-woman? I was intrigued sure, can’t say I was overly fussed either way. The casting of Hemsworth piqued my interest, not least because he would be the male Janine (Annie Potts) – bravo!File_002

Time passed as the darker pockets of the internet cried, screamed and generally threw a strop. Misogyny is never pretty and even that four-year-old girl (now a 35-year-old woman) was verbally abused for daring to say she liked the trailer. These men seemed to have forgotten their own mothers, sisters, grandmothers and aunts as they rendered women ill-equipped to play *fictional* paranormal scientists; their childhoods (long gone) destroyed forever. *Pause for dramatic effect*

File_004The world lost a vital 1/4 of the original line-up in 2014, with the sudden passing of Harold Ramis. A Ghostbusters III without him would have been senseless. While unable to cameo in the new film, one of his sons makes an appearance and that gorgeous gold bust seen from Gilbert’s desk is a beautiful touch and definitely brought a lump to my throat. Okay, progression. Four more humans don the overalls, get slimed and save New York from paranormal activity, not such a far-fetched notion. Oh, and they have lady-parts…So, what’s it all about?File_003

Following a very effective opening whereby Gertrude Aldridge’s ghost (Bess Rous) is terrorising her childhood home, physicist Erin Gilbert (Wiig) – up for tenure at the prestigious Columbia University – is approached by Ed Mulgrave (Ed Begley Jr). Clutching Gilbert’s co-authored book, a hardbacked thesis written by Dr. Gilbert and her ex-colleague/ estranged friend Abby Yates (McCarthy), he begs for her help. Unaware of the book’s existence, Erin visits Abby and her new colleague, engineer Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon) in a lab strewn with gadgets – think Egon’s place, only messier.With the help of human A-Z and New York history buff, Patty Tolan (Jones) and inept-but-we-gave-him-the-job-because-he-was-the-only-applicant receptionist, Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), the Ghostbusters (it’s easier for Kev to pronounce than the actual name, you see) are born; to capture paranormal entities and prove their existence to the world while a city of naysayers including the Mayor (Andy Garcia) attempt to discredit them.

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Doesn’t sound so drastically different from the previous incarnation and you would be right in thinking the original has served as a blueprint much like The Force Awakens‘ (2015) similarities to A New Hope (1977). Each acknowledges what has gone before but stands alone in its own, inclusive, right. There are enough nods to the past for the girl with the cake to recollect fondly and yet enough meta commentary and gags for the adult to snigger at and mentally high-five all involved.

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It’s not “man-hating” which is how I saw it described this morning. The antagonist, Rowan North (played another SNL alum Neil Casey) is white, male, and a little fragile but so are most Bond villains, and after the scourge of hate heaped upon this film, why wouldn’t the filmmakers and writers respond not least in an entertaining way? And it is, you know, extremely so, and I’m sorry but a blast from a ray gun aimed at a marshmallowy nutsack is amusing. It has been a long time since a big studio offered a blockbuster that is as enjoyable and, more importantly, FUN as this one.

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The cameos (there are a fair few and perhaps one or two could have been saved for the inevitable sequel) but they would not have worked so well had those actors been playing the characters they made famous yonks ago. Thankfully, they’re a breath of fresh air and each one more joyful than the last. Hemsworth is perfect as pretty but dumb Kevin, his Norse God alter-ego is a saviour, however, it’s refreshing that four ladies get to rescue him, and I don’t necessarily mean just from peril – they become a family. The women themselves are hilarious, smart, loud, brash, uptight, and gloriously realistic albeit plonked in a disbelief suspended setting.  Abby and Erin are the heart of the narrative, it’s their friendship which drives the plot while Jillian and Patty are the funny. I’m unfamiliar with their Saturday Night Live work but Jones is hysterical and McKinnon, a revelation. It’s not perfect, nor was I expecting to be, it’s a Ghostbusters film and I don’t mean that in a derisive way – as long as there are creepy ghosts, gloop, busting of said see-through creeps and humour, I’m easily pleased.

It does exactly what it set out to do, which is bring the Ghostbusters into the 21st century, passing the proton pack to a whole new generation. That’s the beauty of it, there is no either/or, everyone will have a preference, sure but neither undermines the other – there are now eight Ghostbusters to identify with and choose as your favourite – I just had faceache and a warm, fuzzy feeling throughout watching this one. I’m still chuckling days later. If only that four year old girl could have seen it…

 

Tale of Tales (2015) dir. Matteo Garrone

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Long, long ago there lived a Queen (Salma Hayek); a desperate, seemingly infertile Queen who wished for a child more than anything. Her husband, the King (John C. Reilly) would (and does) do anything to make his love happy and provide her with the child she so yearns, and so begins Matteo Garrone’s (Reality, Gomorrah) first English language feature Tale of Tales. The tone of which is set from the very beginning as the King of Longtrellis wades into water to slay the sea monster and pluck out its heart thus providing his beloved with the bloody, and delicious, means to conception and the shortest gestation period ever. His untimely demise brings the neighbouring Kings; sex-crazed libertine Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) and sweet melancholic Highhills (Toby Jones) to the funeral procession, and all three kingdoms merge, intersect and ultimately influence the other as the triptych of tales unfurl, some sixteen years later.

Queenie is now mother to a teenage albino Elias (Christian Lees) – taking on the colouring of the sea beast – and who is spending a lot more time with his identical twin brother from another mother, Jonah (Jonah Lees). The Royal mother is overcome with envy as the two boys; one princely, one a pauper make adventures of their own.

Strongcliff is a skin-crawling, somewhat beastly Don Juan-type whom women seem to grow tired of very quickly. Looking for another distraction, he hears a beautiful ToT7singing voice and follows it, mistaking an old crone (played respectively by Hayley Carmichael and Stacy Martin) for a beautiful Princess and so begins an obsessive courtship, of sorts, (through a door) chaperoned by her equally wrinkled sister Imma (Shirley Henderson).

ToT4Highhills is a widower who as his only daughter Violet (Bebe Cave) matures becomes more attached to a flea than the fruit of his loins, and when said pet passes on (respiratory issues) provides a fun guessing game, the prize of which is the hand of Violet. Step forward the Ogre (Guillaume Delaunay) and the poor Princess is whisked away, under duress, to what essentially is a hole in a mountain.

While the majority of audiences – whether filmic and/or literary – will recognise the conventions, motifs, metaphors, plots and characters of the traditional fairy tale, they may even attribute to the Brothers Grimm. However, without putting too finer point on it; the Italians came first. Straparola inspired Giambattista Basile, upon whose tales –The Enchanted Doe, The Flea, and The Old Woman Who Was Skinned– this film is loosely based. In his work, Basile, deployed the loquacious gifts of female storytellers while Garrone adapts to forefront the role of women in his carnivalesque cinematic tale for they all can be read as rebellious females manipulating their surroundings and fashioning their own fates.

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The film is a real feast for the eyes combining the Italian setting with baroque beauty, brimming with flamboyant metaphors which render Tale of Tales as sitting somewhere between repulsive and hilarious. Garrone clearly appreciates the richness, diversity and complexity of the fairy tale, especially those from his motherland. It intrigues, has much to say on the power of civility and transformation and is completely wicked and highly pleasurable. Not least due to its direction but the special visual effects (practical, digital art, props) and ageing prosthetics, provided by mAKINARIUm are outstanding, as is Massimo Cantini Parrini’s gorgeous and sumptuous costuming; fit for any Royal. Alexandre Desplat delivers a dreamy score, expressive in tone and timbre which really lifts and enhances those darker moments.

ToT5Tale of Tales is a charming curio – dark, gruesome and mirthful; a transgressive grotesquery, thematically rich, irreverent and unctuous. Those fiabe that we hold dear as children are just as important to us as adults, and when they are as wonderfully made as this, even better.

And they all lived happily ever after…yeah right.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) dir. Zack Snyder

BVSI was always going to see it (twice, in fact) and while I wasn’t a fan of Man of Steel, I enjoyed Batman v Superman; I know, such a contrary Mary! Chin Dimple needed a little more to do, Batfleck was pretty good, and Wonder Woman didn’t disappoint. Don’t get me wrong, it was ludicrous in parts but…oh it’s probably best you just have a read: Batman v Superman

Frankenstein (2015) dir. Bernard Rose

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Another version of Frankenstein was released on Blu-Ray and DVD last month. Yes, another one! Although this beautiful adaptation is free from electrodes, corpse reanimation, and two grown men writhing about in viscous lubricant. This one is quite stunning. Read here: Frankenstein

Spotlight (2015) dir. Tom McCarthy

 

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There have been a number of films which have dealt with the subject of abuse within the Roman Catholic Church. Most memorable is Alex Gibney’s damning documentary Mea Maxima Culpa (2012) and Pablo Larrain’s The Club (2015). While the latter is a dark work of fiction based upon an overwhelming truth, Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer chose the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by The Boston Globe as the basis for their screenplay, Spotlight.

In 2001, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) took over as Editor of the Globe and immediately suggested that a group of journalists: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian D’arcy James), led by Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton) look into the case of Father John Geoghan and the accusations of child abuse that were levelled at him. Although the events of 9/11 delayed their investigation until 2002, the Spotlight journalists joined forces with lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) to expose the lengthy cover-up by the Church and how this Priest and the 86 others, within the State of Boston, were deemed above the law.

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Hollywood has a way of sanitising; it is why, I would argue, European cinema hits harder. Spotlight is the exception to the rule. It recounts those tireless, investigative months with dignity, anger and drama and only for the intertitles and events detailing 9/11, it is timeless, and reminiscent of that last great newsroom -based drama, All the President’s Men (1976) by way of something as emotionally-charged as Philomena (2013).

We know the characters names and there are obvious hints to their marital statuses and even the faith within which they were raised but no unnecessary character development deviates from the point of this low-key yet impacting film. The Globe’s involvement is two-fold; selling newspapers but also making amends by detailing a story they had access to five years previously. This is about facts and exposing the truth, while making an audience engage with what they are seeing.

spotlightroomIt also throws up some infuriating questions – for the audience, and the characters onscreen – does the ‘good’ work of the Catholic Church cancel out the heinous and systematic abuse? (This is rhetorical.) Upsetting the cart for a few bad apples is an analogy best suited for this horror. When all is said and done, it wasn’t/isn’t all Priests but some 6% of any one discretion, according to former-Father and psychiatrist Robert Sipe. The incredulity of the reporters, when they think they are dealing with only one Priest, triples as realisation hits (remember what that felt like); just how many “fool around” with children? These predators targeted a specific type of child – poor, working class; those who would take whatever pay-off they were offered and keep their “shame” to themselves. The Church has money and they turned child abuse into a cottage industry while putting more children in danger by not dealing with the problem but merely reassigning Priests to other parishes for the cycle to begin all over again.

Oh, and I’m not just “another lapsed Catholic pissed off at the Church”, as John Slattery in his guise as Ben Bradlee Jr flippantly states. I’m a furious, lapsed Roman Catholic who cannot comprehend the immoral and criminal way in which men (and women) of my faith behave(d). Anybody, regardless of creed, who harms a child is evil and the rationalisations which, seemingly, members of the Church place upon that level of abuse are horrifying. Apparently, there is a distinction between abuse, rape and sexual gratification and a pederast can walk out of a police station without charge as long as he is wearing clerical dress. Guilt, according to Spotlight, also lies outside of the abuser. How many people, including men of power, knew and did nothing? Mitch Garabedian/Stanley Tucci says it best, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

wordsSpotlight is a tremendous piece of work. It makes for a riveting watch and is incredibly moving and thrilling. Everything within the mise-en-scène is very subtle, even downplayed including McCarthy’s direction; Howard Shore’s score is sombre, restrained and emotive without ever feeling manipulative, and the cast? Every single one of them is outstanding and it is the best ensemble piece seen in a long while; from a very passionate Rezendes/Ruffalo to the staid and calming force of Baron/Schreiber. This is one of those flawless films you don’t want to miss and more importantly, shouldn’t.

 

75 Years is a Really Long Time…

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Footage has been released! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i9Ur4De7yT8

No, I’m not talking about the dreary looking Batman Vs. Superman, within which there is some nonsense about whether Supes bleeds, some fighting presumably instigated by a small bewigged Luthor, people getting angsty, etc. until they make nice and play with that woman with the shield, who, by the way isn’t “with” either of them. I am, of course, talking about said (wonder) woman and no, I’m not going to analyse the footage. At least not exhaustively because let’s face it, somebody will have done so already and either offered some salient points,  snark and anger or deluded optimism.

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For the record, I sit somewhere in the middle. I think I’ve made my feelings on the character, casting, and the 75 year hiatus between comic inception to big screen heard. Following the release of footage, which is seconds long (by the way) and yet again released on the coat-tails or rather, I should say, flowing capes of the men in the DC universe. DC comic writer Geoff Johns, Gal Gadot, Chris Pine and Patty Jenkins all offer up some spiel over the snippets. Good, bully for them but at the end of the day it is those few shots that I am most interested in. Yes, they’re dark and swift but I was (briefly) giddy and determined to show anybody who showed the remotest interest. Johns describes WW as an Amazon Warrior charged with protecting “man’s” world, a corner of the internet seethed – he shouldn’t have said man he should have said humanity. In the original comics, it was man’s world. Themyscira is an island housed solely by women (why do you think WW was made of clay? No sperm producers). Also, he then describes it as ‘our’ world.

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All of the other titbits of information…feminist cultural icon (check)…stands for equality (check)… are followed by Patty who declares Wonder Woman to be “good and kind and loving, yet none of it negates her power”. Yeah, Ms. Jenkins gets it – another corner of the internet eye-rolled, female superheroes don’t have to be loving, good and kind. No, they don’t but Wonder Woman IS. That’s kind of the point; she was Marston’s utopian vision of a strong, good woman who is all for equality and love, ooh and also not a misandrist just because she can kick your arse.

Ah, her arse. That came up too apparently, she’s sexualised in those few short seconds, the camera held at butt-level. Having rewatched a good half a dozen times, I don’t see it. The camera angle is low, sure (I would suggest that is because she’s a Goddess, we’re mere mortals looking upon her/up at her) but her entire body is in frame and she’s active, ferociously so and I just don’t register a scopophilic gaze but then, my gaze tends to be female and I’m not objectifying her.

I love the fact that a few seconds of film can produce such disparagement but I’ll be damned if I let it ruin the experience for me.

 

#LFF 2015 Carol (2015, dir. Todd Haynes)

carolpicPatricia Highsmith has always written credible men. Her themes of masculinity, love and murder have thrilled audiences for decades both in the literary and filmic world. Carol, (originally published as The Price of Salt under a pseudonym) could not be further from the likes of Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley or The Two Faces of January. Here, protagonists are female and the thrilling cat-and-mouse chase becomes a different kind of pursuit in this superbly told love story.

rmaraNew York set during the fifties, Carol tells the story of Therese Belivet (Mara); a young woman with a passion for photography but who works in the doll section of a department store. Mrs. Carol Aird (Blanchett) visits the store looking for a Christmas gift for her daughter Rindy (KK Heim) and on Therese’s recommendation purchases a train set. Upon leaving, Carol leaves her gloves behind and Therese returns them in the post. This small act of kindness changes both their lives.

Not only a love story between two women but Carol looks at the heartbreak of a mother separated from her child amid an acrimonious divorce and the sexual politics of the fifties sheds light on the limitations of women and their role in both the home and society. Haynes is a master of the period and shoots women beautifully. He appears to understand them, intuit their strengths, weaknesses, whims and nuances. He is also notorious for getting the finest performances out of his leading ladies – Julianne Moore (Far From Heaven), Kate Winslet (Mildred Pierce) and now Rooney Mara. Make no mistake that while she may play the titular character and gives a stunning performance, Cate Blanchett is out-classed at every turn by Mara.rooney

Much like Haynes’ previous work, there is a reverential Sirkian quality to this drama. The highly stylised mise-en-scène appears as if belonging to a live-action Norman Rockwell painting . The attention to detail makes for hazy viewing; the colours are rich, the costumes are resplendent and Carter Burwell’s gorgeous score sets the melancholic yet triumphant tone. Carol is an intricate, heart-swelling amour fou which depicts the mesmeric, insanity and beauty of love.

carol3Carol is out on UK cinema release on 27th November.

#LFF 2015 Chevalier (2015, dir. Athina Rachel Tsangari)

chevalier (1)Economic crisis birthed a Greek New Wave with Athina Rachel Tsangari leading the fore. Historically, she has written, produced and/or directed many of the films associated with the Greek film industry resurgence – Dogtooth, Alps, Attenberg (and acted in Before Midnight too with her lead actor Panos Koronis). She and fellow Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) screened at this year’s LFF.

chevalierTsangari’s last cinematic outlets Attenberg (2010) and her 2012 short The Capsule heavily featured females and their place in – and on the periphery of – the world around them; the director’s next concentrates on the adult male. In spite of its gallic sounding name, Chevalier is very much Greek. Set upon a yacht amid the Aegean Sea and a palette of pale greys and marine blues, it is like Attenberg in that the look is minimalist playing against the backdrop of the Aegean and the insular interior of the boat.

We never find out what brought these men together, or why they decided on a boat-trip. There are indications as to how they know each other: the Doctor and his handsome predecessor, the Insurance salesman nudist son-in-law, and his loner-genius brother who cannot go into the water (although, we never find out why), the one who spends an inordinate amount of time on his hair, and his pal; they are all friends of sorts. Growing tired of the tedium of card playing and incongruity of asking each other what fruit they see each other as, they decide to make things interesting and create a new game – who is the best in general? They start marking each other on everything, from sleeping posture, the ability to make an IKEA shelving unit, to the size and girth of their erections. The Chevalier of the title is referenced by a signet ring, often worn by French nobility and although its meaning varies depending upon which culture it inhabits, it is also a decoration given by a Patriarch of the Orthodox Church/Knight/Nobleman. You get the gist.Chevalier_PyrpassopoulosPapadimitriou

Co-written by Efthymis Filippou (Alps, Dogtooth) which may give an indiction the absurdist direction the film will veer. As to the journey, we’re all along for the boat-ride. To see these men primp and preen is a riot and even I relished (and perhaps snorted) at the male insecurity and ludicrous machismo on display as characters start to examine themselves in the mirror and bemoan the size of their thighs; an anxiety usually associated with female culture.

panosThere is little guidance in relation to interpretation; the film can be read in socio-political terms especially when the game catches on with the boat’s chef and porter but Tsangari never leads one way or another.  Friendships will be tested and manipulated, blood bonds broken and formed as the best man overall is discovered.

Chevalier is a rebellious, brilliantly mordant and shrewd satire of the male ego. It is absurdist, surreal in parts, and hilariously droll from start to finish. It takes an astute filmmaker to hold a mirror up to society and provoke laughter and it will make you laugh. A lot.