“A Field in England” (movie review)

FieldA Field in England (2013)

Director: Ben Wheatley
Writer: Amy Jump & Ben Wheatley
Cast: Reece Sheersmith, Michael Smiley, Ryan Pope, Richard Glover, Peter Ferdinando

A film so defiantly weird and consciously anti-narrative that one can’t help wondering, how was it pitched? Who in their right mind would sign off on a project entirely denied saving graces like, well, a great story or likable characters or even a coherent plot line? What kind of maniac would invest good money on a script where the cast spends most of their time stumbling about in a psychedelic haze?

Whoever it was, they have our thanks.

“A Field in England” is unique and original and these days that goes a long way with me. In an era of comic book movies, CGI fests, rom-coms and Michael Bay, I cherish, I celebrate any cinematic effort that attempts to break new ground, while playing havoc with our carefully cultivated preconceptions.

“A Field in England” surprised, shocked and amazed me. I’ve never seen anything like it. Two hours later and I’m sitting here, still trying to accommodate what Wheatley et al were trying to communicate.

Do you know the story?

During the English Civil War (1642-51), three deserters from Cromwell’s ranks are forced to assist an alchemist seeking an unnamed treasure in a field near the site of a recent skirmish between the Royalists and their adversaries. The meadow, it turns out, is liberally sprinkled with a potent variety of hallucinogenic mushrooms, which some of the men ingest.

And then things really go off the rails.

Imagine a mix of Jodorowsky and Ken Russell at their wildest and wooliest and you’re starting to get the picture. Abandon any thought of cohesion or a classic story arc and just hang on for the ride. The cast, despite the daunting material, are wondrous–Michael Smiley as “O’Neill” and Reece Shearsmith as “Whitehead” are particularly fine. The ugliness and dinginess of the period are well-delineated; life is short and brutish, the quality of mercy in short supply. No one, back then, lived to a ripe, old age.

I note that this film has its detractors and fares poorly with audiences on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. I think this is largely a case of viewers attuned to facile, superficial visions being confronted by a motion picture that offers them few precedents and very little reassurance. It demands discussion and welcomes conjecture. Not content with merely entertaining, Wheatley and Ms. Jump have presented us with a scenario that takes us out of our comfort zones, disorienting and dismaying us, requiring under-used mental muscles to divine the brilliant purpose and guiding intelligence behind this magnificent mess.

“A Field in England” is ambitious, maddening, riveting.

Most of you will undoubtedly hate it, turned off by its unabashed strangeness…refusing to recognize, of course, that your disavowal reveals your own silly prejudices, the paucity and stubborn rigidity of your imagination.

ΩΩΩΩ (out of 5)

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“Le Weekend” and “The Act of Killing” (Film Reviews)

Le Weekend (2013)

Director: Roger Michell
Screenplay: Hanif Kureishi
Cast: Lindsay Duncan, Jim Broadbent, Jeff Goldblum

The cast shines but it’s Hanif Kureishi’s savvy, wise script that is the real star of “Le Weekend “.  Kureishi is a gifted writer, his screenplays and novels always populated by believable, well-wrought characters, dignified and funny and oh-so flawed. He makes us care about them, identify with them, hurt with them. He and director Roger Michell collaborated on three previous projects (including “Venus” in 2006), and theirs appears to be a creative partnership between two very different individuals (Michell, clearly, the more commercially minded).

Actors as accomplished as Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent must relish the opportunity to work with material that allows them to employ their talents with subtlety and to maximum effect. Both are at the top of their game in “Le Weekend”, delivering performances that are excruciatingly honest and compelling.

It’s their thirtieth anniversary and Meg (Duncan) and Nick (Broadbent) have returned to Paris, the site of their honeymoon, trying to recapture some of the passion that has, over the past three decades, gradually leached out of their relationship. There have been bumps in the road, including a fling Nick had with one of his students, and they’ve never been the same since their son (“a thirty-year-old pothead”, as Nick describes him), was finally convinced to move out on his own.  Their marriage is at the point where it must either be redefined…or abandoned outright. This weekend in the romantic city of their youth is their last shot at saving what remains (or beginning the process of divvying up the spoils).

Credit director Michell and his screenwriter for continuing to present us with intelligent, adult-oriented movies in an era when the marketplace, demographics and opening weekend gate receipts determine the type of films being made—their stubborn persistence is admirable, if quixotic.

“Le Weekend” is not over-wrought, bombastic, cartoonish or dull-witted; it is an intimate, richly detailed portrait of an older couple and the shared history that keeps them together, even as the growing distance between them denies them the affection and closeness required to maintain a love affair into old age.

ΩΩΩΩ  (Out of 5)

* * * * *

TheActofKillingThe Act of Killing (2012)

Producer(s): Errol Morris & Werner Herzog

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

Cast: Various

Deservedly shortlisted for an Academy Award, “The Act of Killing” never makes it easy on viewers, plunging them into the murderous atmosphere of the Indonesian civil war, a bloodbath that brought a dictator (Suharto) to power and virtually annihilated any political opposition.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s brilliant documentary makes it clear that historically Indonesia is governed by a cabal of militarists, fascists and gangsters, who collude in order to preserve power, silence critics and prevent discussion of the horrific acts perpetrated during the 1965-66 conflict. Official history has been rewritten, distorted to the extent that it no longer conforms to anything approaching reality…but no one is allowed to say so, the killers still alive, still in positions of responsibility, still able to wreak their revenge.

In fact, the killers are so secure, so immune from prosecution, they are only too happy to describe their atrocities and, for Oppenheimer’s benefit, re-enact their crimes, demonstrating their techniques, while providing graphic details of their victims’ suffering.

It makes for difficult viewing, to say the least.

But Oppenheimer’s decision to encourage his subjects to employ their favorite film genres to illustrate their narratives is a smart ruse, transforming a “deleted” scene from one of the “Godfather” movies into a gruesome torture session. The individuals involved initially seem to relish the play-acting but soon, very soon, reality intrudes, old memories surfacing and a darker aspect emerges that is absolutely blood-curdling.

It is one of the many unforgettable images I shall retain from “The Act of Killing”.

Retain it, remember it…no matter how hard I might try to forget.

Mr. Oppenheimer, for the foreseeable future, “hath murdered sleep”.



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“Agassiz” (A film by Sam Burns)

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/92797125″>AGASSIZ</a&gt; from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user8030494″>Sam Burns</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

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Reviews of “The Great Beauty” and “The Wind Rises”

BeautyThe Great Beauty (2013)

Written & Directed by Paolo Sorrentino
Cinematography:  Luca Bigazzi
Cast:  Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso

Academy Award-winner for Best Foreign Film.

“The Great Beauty” is a fitting, but never servile, homage to the romantic, decadent Rome of the late, great Federico Fellini. Film buffs and fans of Italian cinema will swoon as Luca Bigazzi’s camera pans and swoops through one of the historical wonders of the world, presenting us with a glut of gorgeous tableaux. Ancient statuary, temples and cathedrals of white stone, gifts of ages past.

The past weighs heavily on Jep Garbardella (Servillo)–this paragon of hipness, confidante of the rich and famous, playboy journalist and one-time literary lion has lost his zest for life; la dolce vita no longer holds him in its sway. Increasingly, his worldview is tinged with melancholia, a spiritual vacuum nothing seems to fill. He finds himself falling victim to bouts of nostalgia, recalling happier, simpler, more innocent times…at sixty he is no longer the man he used to be and uncertain of what happens next. Casual affairs do not fulfill and the art scene has become dull, tired and predictable. Nothing seems to shock or excite him any more.

Rome is a city obsessed with its own past, its monuments and attractions recalling bygone days, a lost “golden age”. Great efforts are expended to preserve its treasures and tombs but everything, inevitably, decays, crumbles, fades away. Jeb’s friends are growing old, some pondering the unthinkable, actually leaving the precincts of Rome and seeking happiness elsewhere.

But Jeb is a prince of the Eternal City, a tireless flaneur, walking its broad boulevards, ambling along the canal, the early morning neighborhoods coming to life during his insomniac strolls. He knows he’ll never write another book or feel the same kind of desire as he did as a young man…or rediscover that great beauty he has pursued all his adult life. That is the source of his melancholy, the knowledge that once he was young and filled with passion and a faith in something higher, a calling, an aspiration…or perhaps the belief that love, at least, endures.

Sadly, that is not the case.

And memories, precious though they may be, cannot suffice.

ΩΩΩΩ 1/2 (out of 5 )

* * * *

thw wind risesThe Wind Rises (2013)

Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Voices: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Werner Herzog, Mandy Patinkin

The last full-length movie from one of the giants of animation.

Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” is visually stunning, no surprise there, but I was somewhat puzzled as to why the Master would choose what is essentially a bio-pic as his swan song. He is, after all, a film-maker who usually explores far more fantastic themes, taking great pains to show us that the separation between reality and the uncanny isn’t as strictly delineated as we would like to think.

Jiro Horikoshi designed aircraft and is best known for being the driving force behind Japan’s greatest fighter planes. According to Master Miyazaki, Jiro was a dreamer, a man obsessed with flight–if he had ethical qualms about serving the military, they were fleeting and couldn’t compete with his desire to create better, faster, more stable aircraft. As for the carnage unleashed by aerial bombardment, Jiro’s conscience is remarkably clear. Near the conclusion of the film, reflecting on the horrors of the Second World War, an aftermath of ashes, Jiro merely opines: “It didn’t end well.”

A supreme understatement.

But Mr. Miyazaki is more interested in the doomed love story between Jiro and his consumptive young bride Nahoko than he is portioning out blame–that’s unfortunate. As a result, Jiro remains one-dimensional, unconvincing: a cartoon character. A conscience, some inkling of the crucial role he played in a murderous war, would have been refreshing.

“The Wind Rises” is about flying, severing our bonds to the earth and soaring among the clouds. Long before Jiro’s passion sends him to the drawing board (he’s myopic and can never be a pilot) he dreams of taking to the skies alongside his hero, the great Italian aviator Giovanni Caproni. Caproni (or, at least his shade) warns Jiro of the difficulties that lie ahead, the disappointments and failures that pioneers of new technologies must face. The “little Japanese boy” soon learns the wisdom of these words.

This is undoubtedly one of Mr. Miyazaki’s most beautiful efforts and throughout the film I could see his artistic influences, from the cultivated precision of Japanese landscapes to the color-mad Impressionists and billowing Turner-esque cloudscapes. The animation, even those portions that are, by necessity, computer-generated, reveal the Master’s touch on virtually every frame.

One only wishes Mr. Miyazaki had expended as much effort on the story, on Jiro Horikoshi’s unblemished, untroubled character. Surely, he could not have been as naive and blameless and the director paints him (that, I think, does Jiro a supreme injustice). Surely, as a living, breathing human being he must have been imbued with something that might have resembled regret.

ΩΩΩ1/2  (out of 5)

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Recently viewed…and read

welles:graverMaking Movies With Orson Welles
by Gary Graver (with Andrew J. Rausch)
(Scarecrow Press; 2008)

Secured a copy of Gary Graver’s memoir Making Movies With Orson Welles through an interlibrary loan (all the way from the University of Alberta library in Edmonton). The book was released by Scarecrow Press and is fairly hard to find. I’m guessing it wasn’t a massive print run.

I fear Orson isn’t as highly favored by film fans these days–”Citizen Kane” even lost its coveted Best Ever status when the critics consulted by Sight & Sound inexplicably chose “Vertigo” as the new All Time Greatest Movie a few years back.

“Vertigo”? Really?

Welles’ films are hard to find and they were chronically hamstrung by production delays, minuscule budgets. Welles became a master editor in order to disguise their shortcomings (anyone who has any doubt need only watch the cutting of the battle scene in “Chimes at Midnight” or the attempted assassination of Cassio in “Othello”). In the final two decades of his life, Welles struggled to secure funds to complete projects, increasingly isolated by an industry that favored youth over experience, big concepts and blockbusters over the classics. It is appropriate that he and Graver shot test footage for what would have been his last great stab at Shakespeare, an adaptation of “King Lear”. Lear, another old man who lived past his time, cast out, left to rage and snarl in the wilderness (and, oh, yes, Orson could snark and fulminate with the best of them, as Henry Jaglom’s tape recorder attests).

Gary Graver came along during the great man’s decline, offering his services, rounding up crews whenever O.W. had a whim to shoot more footage for “The Other Side of the Wind” or whatever hackwork was paying the bills that particular month. Circumstances forced them to adopt the tactics of guerilla film-makers and Orson pieced together what he could salvage, incorporating the footage into projects that dragged on through several American presidencies.

Mr. Graver’s collaborator, Andrew J. Rausch, and Welles biographer Joseph McBride do their best to assure us of Mr. Graver’s peerless prowess as a B-roll, second unit director and/or highly esteemed cameraman of classics like, er, “Satan’s Sadists”. But the truth is that by 1970, when Graver met Welles, the latter was in an artistic funk, desperate for whatever help he could get. Graver was in the right place at the right time and he knew how to load film in a camera. Welcome aboard, son

As a memoir, Making Movies With Orson Welles is more of an oral history–choppy and episodic and structurally creaky. For Welles fans, there are some glimpses of his stubborn genius, a few anecdotes about his working methods, some examples that showed he retained his ferocious intellect even in the wilderness, unpitying and hard-driving, a stern taskmaster for young, inexperienced and ever-changing crews. Graver evinces awe of Orson Welles at every turn, which must have made him an agreeable companion for a notorious egoist and raconteur. But that quality also damages his credibility; Graver is (at best) an unreliable commentator, an apprentice refusing to dish dirt on his master, a minor talent who can’t help continually pinching himself at the prospect of working for the man who made “Kane”.

Diverting hagiography; for completists only.

* * *

substance__albert_hofmanns_lsd“The Substance: Albert Hofmann’s LSD”
Directed by Martin Witz
(2011; 90 min.)

On the other hand, I have nothing but praise for “The Substance: Albert Hofmann’s LSD”. Swiss film-maker Martin Witz had the good fortune to interview the psychedelic pioneer around his 100th birthday and those scenes reveal a man still sharp and still, apparently, nursing a grudge against those who took his “problem child” and helped stigmatize it to the extent that even today the possession of a small amount of acid can lead to serious jail time.


But let’s lay the blame where it properly belongs. Thanks to idiots like Timothy Leary (the slightest reference to Leary provokes the centenarian chemist to visible anger), LSD was touted as a drug for disaffected youth, an instrument of revolt; taking acid and dropping out was the ultimate insult to a system that relentlessly firebombed a small country in Asia and assaulted and murdered unarmed demonstrators at home.

But LSD should never be used as a recreational drug (neither should cannabis, for that matter). Acid is a agent of transformation, a powerful tool for accessing the psyche and spirit. It should only be taken in controlled situations and the motivation for ingesting it should be rooted in a desire to see the world from an altered perspective, to experience a truly oceanic state. Dabbling must be discouraged at all costs.

Mr. Witz has constructed a clear timeline and included among his interview subjects some of the principal figures of Sixties counterculture, looking much older but unrepentant and defiant, even after all these years. The film is scrupulously fair, a fitting tribute to a great man. Albert Hofmann may have retained some misgivings as to the legacy of his greatest creation, but in his quiet lab in Basel he formulated a potion that literally changed the world. To the day he died, he believed LSD could help alleviate suffering and nothing he saw or experienced in his one hundred and two years convinced him otherwise. “The Substance” makes it clear: he was a psychonaut to the bitter end.

This is documentary film-making at its best.

Highest recommendation.

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“The Lost World” (1925)–Roxy Theatre, Saskatoon

Lost WorldTo this longtime cinephile, the Roxy Theatre’s “Silence is Golden” series is the film event of the year and I never fail to pencil it in to my calendar. I was fortunate to attend “Metropolis” back in 2010 and found the experience vastly entertaining, a thrilling fusion of dazzling visuals and powerful, evocative music. I haven’t missed a “Silence is Golden” screening since.

Last night’s presentation of “The Lost World” was, to my mind, “Silence is Golden” at its very best. The 1925 adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventure yarn was ground-breaking for its time and introduced the world to the genius of Willis O’Brien. O’Brien was the great-grandfather of today’s special effects wizards and his pioneering work with stop-motion animation led to his greatest achievement, “King Kong” (1933).

“The Lost World” certainly never achieves the technical virtuosity and brilliance of “Kong”, but there are ample hints of things to come. According to A Century of Model Animation (Harryhausen & Dalton; Aurum Press; 2008), “pre-production, which involved experiments on effects scenes, mattes and the models took over two years”. O’Brien and his small, dedicated crew meticulously and painstakingly animated frame by frame a plethora of creatures from the Jurassic, not only granting them movement but also a degree of personality and realism that, nearly ninety years later, still astonishes. There is a moment in the movie when a pterodactyl feeds on its prey and then absently scrapes off its beak, a gesture I’ve seen crows and ravens make many times. At another point, an allosaurus is on the rampage and an adult tricerotops nudges its young out of harm’s way before thundering off to engage the menacing intruder. Just little touches but they demonstrate Obie’s powers of observation and perception, as well as his knowledge of the animal kingdom.

Officially, Harry Hoyt is the credited director of “The Lost World” but I believe his input was minimal. It was Obie who created the visual look of the film and he not only had to supervise his animators, it was also necessary that he be present during principal photography to ensure the “live” footage matched up with his miniature sets and matte paintings. “The Lost World” is a Willis O’Brien Production in every sense.

As much as it was a treat to finally see “The Lost World” on a big screen, I have to say that this year it was the music that stole the show. The members of the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra who shared their talents with us last night succeeded in creating an atmosphere that imparted a whole other dimension to the viewing experience. The score, by Robert Israel (based on period music), was perfectly suited for the film, a seamless fit, none of the stitches showing. William Rowson conducted this time around, stepping in to Brian Unverricht’s shoes, and he took on a challenging task with energy and contagious vigor. He seems awfully young but from what I could see, his poise and ease at the podium, the kid’s the real deal. A local lad too, which is even better.

Thank you to all the gifted artists who combined their world class talents to create such a magnificent atmosphere for film and music-lovers of all ages, an evening none of us will ever forget. Impossible to discriminate between brass and woodwind, percussion and strings, every single musician was at the top of their game, adding mood and depth and drama to ancient, scratched images, imbuing them with something like life.

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Double feature at the Roxy Theater (Saskatoon)


Director:  Alexander Payne
Screenplay:  Bob Nelson
Cast:  Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, June Squibb, Stacy Keach

Forgive the first ten minutes.

“Nebraska” doesn’t start well. The dialogue is stilted, there’s too much exposition and the actors, particularly Bob Odenkirk and June Squibb, seem to be struggling to find the proper shade and tone for their performances. But after an admittedly contrived opening, the script sharpens up, the actors gain their footing and “Nebraska” comes to life.

The one constant is Bruce Dern. Over the course of five decades, the man has undergone a magnificent transformation as a thespian. Typecast as a psycho (even more so than Anthony Perkins), Dern specialized in bug-eyed, scene-stealing roles, a bad guy capable of almost anything (including, in “The Cowboys”, shooting John Wayne in the back). Every so often he would be gifted with a part that suited his enviable talents and he’d blow us away with a magnificent, intelligent, inspired turn: as the cuckolded husband in “Coming Home” or Jack Nicholson’s hustler brother in “The King of Marvin Gardens”. Personally, I thought he was nothing less than brilliant in “Silent Running”, a movie where he is the sole human character for over half the picture.

In an interview on “Charlie Rose”, Mr. Dern described a discussion with director Alexander Payne just prior to shooting on “Nebraska” commenced. Payne informed the veteran actor that he was well aware of his abilities but in the role of Woodrow Grant wanted to see him “do” as little as possible. Woody is a man of few words, undemonstrative, increasingly befuddled and infuriated by the world around him. He challenged Dern to underplay Woody, to pare his performance down to nothing and, by God, Dern took him up on it. To perfection.

The people in “Nebraska” are westerners, denizens of the great plains; hard-bitten and taciturn and stoic. The descendants of settler stock. Survivors. Payne knows these folks well, capturing their essence without exaggeration or caricature (unlike the Coen brothers’ “Fargo”, for instance) and he has an eye for faces that brings to mind Dreyer or Bresson. Real faces of real people, who live in the midst of a huge expanse, a vast, endless table of land that stretches from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the 100th meridian. Isolated, insular, self-reliant folk, courageous (or foolhardy) enough to pit themselves against drought, cold, almost every plague or misfortune known to humankind. And yet they persevere—they may not thrive but they mange to make a go of it; it is their courage and fortitude that commends them, not any claim to moral rectitude. Nice people don’t cut it on a frontier.

“Nebraska” is a quiet, unsentimental homage to a disappearing breed of men and women who dream of a better world but are forced by circumstance to make do with what life offers them. Woody desperately wants to be a millionaire, someone of significance. He’s old, he might be a bit addled, but he’s not stupid.

To their credit, right up to the last frame Dern and Payne refuse to strip him of his dignity. After all the other disappointments and setbacks he has endured, that would simply be too cruel.

Good on them.

ΩΩΩΩ (out of 5)

* * * * *

dallas_buyers_clubDallas Buyers Club

Director:  Jean-Marc Vallee
Screenplay: Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack
Cast:  Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn, Griffin Dunne

Matthew McConaughey is on a tear.

Over the course of the past few years he has gifted us with some stellar performances in films like William Friedkin’s “Killer Joe” (2011) and Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” (2012), but with “Dallas Buyers Club” he has taken his game to a whole other level. He rivals George Clooney in terms of sheer charm but, unlike Clooney, possesses a sense of menace and potential danger; a sidewinder, coiled and waiting to strike.

“Dallas Buyers Club” highlights both his affability and his dark Texan heart. As Ron Woodroof he is immediately believable, inhabiting his skinny, decaying body with an ease that is all the more admirable because it seems so bloody effortless. He may have AIDS, he may or may not be dying, but he sure as hell doesn’t want our sympathy. He’s got his life to live.

Ron’s journey from rodeo cowboy to AIDS activist is gradual and mesmerizing. He’s a good old boy, rough as leather, hard as nails. He loves to party, screw around and the very thought of homosexuality inspires ugly, cringe-worthy epithets. By the end of his life Ron may not be advocating for gay rights but he certainly recognizes a community of the fellow afflicted, marginalized by the mainstream, rejected by their families, dying horribly while pharmaceutical companies, in collusion with the medical system, either ignore them or use them as human guinea pigs for their toxic remedies. Human experimentation…weren’t the Nazis vilified for doing something similar?

“Dallas Buyers Club” isn’t pretty or reassuring and, like “Nebraska”, refuses to cater to sentiment. Woodroof’s antics frequently provoke a wince, the sex makes us blush and the consequences tear out our hearts.

At this point I must say something about Jared Leto. Playing a gay character presents special challenges and it’s so easy to get it wrong and allow camp to take over. Leto’s “Rayon” is a perfect creation, fully formed, as real as you or I.  His performance inspires awe. When he and McConaughey are onscreen at the same time, they play off each other like old, bitchy lovers, the oddest couple ever thrown together. They both deserve Oscars.

We lived in the shadow of a Plague. It claimed some of our best and most beautiful. It fed off our need to be loved or, at least, to be seen as desirable. Some called it judgement against our sins. It started out as a “gay disease” but it didn’t stay that way. In hospices and palliative wards around the world. Roomfuls of the dying. I remember one in particular.

This review is dedicated to David.

ΩΩΩΩ (out of 5)

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