Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) 4 Stars

France / Netherlands / G.B. (Allarts, Elsevira, Erato, Erbograph, Films, Vendex) 124m Colour
Director: Peter Greenaway
Producer: Kees Kasander
Screenplay: Peter Greenaway
Photography: Sacha Vierny
Music: Michael Nyman
Cast: Richard Bohringer, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Alan Howard, Tim Roth, Clarán Hinds, Gary Olsen, Ewan Stewart, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Ron Cook, Liz Smith, Emer Gillespie, Janet Henfrey, Arnie Breeveld, Tony Alleff

Director and writer Peter Greenaway was originally an artist, and this is translated perfectly into this stylish, disturbing, macabre, thrilling film. The title refers to the four main characters of the production – as at times it seems more like a stage play than a film - very literally: we follow the doomed, erotic romance of Georgina (Mirren) and the quiet librarian, Michael (Howard); a romance which is hidden from the former’s tyrant of a husband – Albert Spica (Gambon) – by the heroic head chef of Spica’s restaurant (Bohringer) in which the majority of the production takes place.

Greenaway creates an artistic masterpiece in ‘The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover’: with costume designed by Jean Paul Gaultier which instantly, stylishly, changes colour whenever a character moves into a different part of the set; a set over which the camera has almost free roam throughout the production – following the action back and forth, serving to completely immerse the viewer in the manic world they are presented with. Greenaway also manages to fully define his four main characters to incredible specificity, such that even their accents build upon their personalities. Gambon’s ferocious character is not unlike how one might perceive Henry VIII to have been: gorging on fine food throughout the film, whilst surrounded by those who serve him; furthermore a number of the costumes are reminiscent of that era and the painting The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company, which hangs over the dining table, creates a sense of royal grandeur. Spica incites immense fear into the viewer with his sudden rages and violent outbursts; his jealousy of his wife’s lover is so powerful that he commits atrocities almost immediately – including some incredibly disturbing and upsetting scenes, for which I have deducted a star from the film’s score. Helen Mirren’s character evokes pity throughout, mainly due to the oppressive qualities of her husband, qualities from which we hope she will escape or rebel against. ‘Her Lover’, Michael, embodies everything Georgina misses in Spica: he is chivalric, caring for her and treating her as an equal – as opposed to loudly reminding her of ‘how he taught her’ to go to the toilet; one of the many lines Spica employs to assert his dominance over Georgina. ‘The Cook’ appears less than the other main characters of the production, yet he is in many senses the hero. He is unflinching in his emotions; he treats everyone he interacts with in the same manner: a quality which often presents him as the brick wall with which Spica embarrassingly collides. He is arguably characterised as inhuman: the embodiment of cardinal virtues, he also seems to know things (specifically about the lovers) of which no other character has knowledge.

Michael Nyman’s music is undoubtedly one of the most memorable features of the film. The one song ‘Memorial’, which is played in chunks during the film, fits perfectly with the tone of the plot-line and with the staging and direction. Furthermore, the climax of the film neatly coincides with the only time at which the whole twelve minute piece is played uninterrupted, serving to create an immensely powerful and disturbingly macabre finale.

As I have alluded to earlier, the film contains some of the most disturbing scenes I have ever witnessed. At the time I couldn’t believe they were actually happening (my mum had to leave on several occasions), but now it is depressingly clear that they fit perfectly with the scenario devised and the characters involved; they serve a great purpose but I would not deem some of them a complete necessity.

I struggle to decide whether or not to recommend this film. I find it to be an incredibly powerful creation, yet I can understand why one could easily hate every minute of it – an uneasy tension I felt throughout the two hours. I have been affected by this film and am yet to decide whether it is for the better or otherwise; so perhaps it would be wise to stay away from it, but then again I would like someone to share in my experiences with.

Monday, 4 March 2013


Argo (2012) 3 Stars

U.S. (Warner Bros) 120m Colour
Director: Ben Affleck
Screenplay: Chris Terrio
Book: Tony Mendez
Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishé,

It is hardly surprising that a film in which: Hollywood itself cooperates with the CIA to save a group of civilians from a volatile Middle-Eastern country, has been awarded best film at both The Oscars and The BAFTAs; in my opinion ‘Django Unchained’ is a is a far better candidate for both. 'Argo' begins credibly, with a brief, storyboard-like history lesson on the origins of tension in one of the feature’s main countries, Iran. The sequence lends towards the idea that the CIA’s involvement there – mainly the placement of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in power of the country – was a key cause of tension later on. However, after this point the film takes a more patriotic stance: an exemplar scene being the persuasion of “producer” Lester Siegel (Arkin), in which after watching scenes of anti-American Iranian demonstrations, he decides to join Tony Mendez's (Affleck) cause.

‘Argo’ is based upon the amazing true story of Mendez’s exfiltration of six American foreign office workers, who escaped the American Embassy in Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. However, I found the film lends too much screen time to the planning of the fake film ‘Argo’ (their cover story for escaping Iran), and not enough to the experience of the characters in the country. I found what scenes there were regarding this to be incredibly thrilling, similarly the acting was incredibly believable. Unfortunately, the bulk of the movie avoided this and was instead filled with often slow moving, technical scenes saved only by occasional comedy moments; particularly during the Hollywood phase of the film. Despite this, ‘Argo’ does give a powerful look into what the decision making process of the operation may have been like; improved by Ben Affleck’s masterful direction of the American leaders.

The cinematography is especially skilful,  combining modern camerawork with more historical, grainy film. Yet this leads me to believe that ‘Argo’ is better suited to the documentary genre - interviews with surviving subjects and the full, original story would interest me more, personally. Furthermore, it would relieve us of the "deeply troubling portrayal of the Iranian people” which Canadian critic Jian Ghomeshi claims many others have failed to recognise. This along with the slow pace was one of my main problems with the film: Iran itself is arguably an accurate depiction, but many members of the population – military police and civilians - are depicted as animalistic, unreasonable, stupid and often evil, in a way similar to that of the black people in the racist ‘The Birth of A Nation’; which, unlike ‘Argo’, was heavily criticised for this.

Something I give great credit to the film for is its ability to build tension towards its climax: that by the end a 
large portion of the audience I witnessed, including my mum, were showing physical signs of stress. I was deeply disappointed, yet understanding, to find later that most of the tense scenes did not actually occur and that the film was littered with historical inaccuracies; which again made me feel a documentary would be more appropriate. However, I did enjoy the tension and nobody is forcing the writers to stick to the facts – so I am content.

To conclude, I don’t think ‘Argo’ is fully ‘Best Picture’ standard, but I understand why it won. Whilst I would have preferred a little more focus on the Iranian hostages’ experiences, I was happy to watch the comedy of the Hollywood scenes contentedly moving on – but do not expect to be entirely satisfied with the political stance taken by ‘Argo’. I praise Ben Affleck’s direction, the acting, and the hair and makeup team for being able to recreate a brilliant array of 70s moustaches and hairstyles; and for those reasons alone I would urge people to go and see the film before it leaves cinemas. However, ensure that this is after you have been to see Tarantino’s latest ode to the ‘Spaghetti Western’ – ‘Django Unchained’ – which is a true, best picture, five star, masterpiece.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Les Vampires

Les Vampires (1915) 3.5 Stars

France (Gaumont) 440m Silent BW
Director: Louis Feuillade
Screenplay: Louis Feuillade
Music: Robert Israel
Cast: Edouard Mathé, Musidora, Marcel Lévesque, Jean Aymé, Fernand Herrmann, Stacia Napierkowska

I will begin by stating that this ten part crime serial is not in any way related to the recent ‘Twilight Saga’, and that there is nothing supernatural about ‘The Vampires’: they are in fact an infamous crime syndicate plaguing Paris. The story begins dramatically with ‘The Severed Head’, in which crack reporter Philipe Guérande (Mathé) begins his investigation as to the missing, decapitated, head of Inspector Durtal (later found in an iconic ‘head-in-a-box’ moment). The crime was of course committed by ‘The Vampires’ but throughout the episode we are still unsure of exactly who or what they are: “My friend, I know nothing about the Vampires except that everyone is afraid of them” a character highlights in one of the serial's many title screens. This technique can be witnessed in modern films including Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ in which the shark isn't revealed until late on. ‘Les Vampires’ goes on to follow Guérande, along with ex Vampire Oscar-Cloud Mazamette (Lévesque), and their attempts to put an end to the notorious gang.

The fast pace of the plot is striking; it is already complex and thrilling with a number of twists and now classic ideas, from secret passages and codes to chemical weaponry in the form of a pen. This speed is both a blessing and a curse to the viewer, as we are immediately drawn in and excited, but at the same time the serial loses its effect as it progresses; for this reason my favourite episode was the first. This focus on immediate excitement could be due to the competition facing director Louis Feuillade at the time, coming mainly from rival Pathé rendering him understandably frantic. However, this is not to say that the serial completely loses all drama after ‘The Severed Head’, I would simply recommend watching the episodes separately over a number of days or weeks in order to take time to breathe.

The ‘legendary opus’ often alludes to Gothic writers and poets: particularly Edgar Allan Poe in my view. The gang was reminiscent of his presentations of evil organisations such as ‘The Spanish Inquisition’ and I found Guérande to be the likeness of some of Poe’s protagonists (namely Dupin).  However, the gang was also similar to today’s ‘Cirque du Soleil’: with their cat suit costumes, slinking movements and often very impressive acrobatics, namely scaling rooftops. This is best personified in one of the serial’s main villains: Irma Vep (an anagram of ‘Vampire’, which is unnecessarily revealed to us through some admittedly advanced special effects), the role which catapulted the actress Musidora to fame. Irma’s make up and expressions are arguably the most iconic part of ‘Les Vampires’, her snarl (see above photo) was pictured on most of the promotional posters and is still what is most associated with the saga.

Arguably the vast amount conveyed by the silent acting begins to have a negative effect on the viewer, as it comes in unison with a bombardment of generally superfluous title screens. I grew to find this boring and irritating; it detracts attention from the subject matter as we wait for the screen to move on. The cinematography of this film was criticised for its simplicity: it is bare apart from the occasional light going on or off or costume change – in this way I found ‘Le Voyage Dans La Lune’ to be far more adventurous and advanced, despite being released over a decade earlier. However, in terms of camera positioning there is some good that can be said: there are clear early signs of Avant Garde cinema and its tension building techniques are visible in more modern thrillers, such as those of Hitchcock. Another strong point for the serial is the subject matter’s cohesion with the soundtrack; which, after the previous silent films I have reviewed, I thought must be somehow impossible.

To conclude, the seven-hour-not-‘Twilight’ saga ‘Les Vampires’ thoroughly earns its place on ‘1001 movies you must see before you die’. It is not faultless when considering its arrangement of excitement and its primitiveness in terms of cinematography; but that is outweighed by the quality of its story, skill of acting and its classic, insane, all round, French brilliance.