Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Colour Of Pomegranates (1968)

The Colour Of Pomegranates (1968)

“Poetry”, to quote Poe, “is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.” And poets the world over have sought to distill their vision and experience into this most compressed of forms. Sadly cultural exchange has seen few renderings of Sayat-Nova, a 17th century Armenian troubador, in English, which makes difficult a wider understanding of this bard’s work in the context of Sergei Parajanov‘s The Colour Of Pomegranates (1968, 78 mins), a biographical tale that dispenses with regular storytelling and instead takes a more audacious approach.

At the heart of the film is a new cinematic language, like what Dziga Vertov once delivered in Man With A Movie Camera. Here Parajanov practically dispenses with a linear narrative — though not completely — and instead offers a fascinating series of images. The narrative is fairly simple: the young Sayat-Nova grows up, joins a monastery, becomes old, and dies. However the execution makes a poet of Parajanov as he delivers scene after scene of intriguing events. Books, previously dripping with water, are left on a roof to dry in the sun. Musical instruments, those tools of the troubadour, both levitate and spin. It’s beautiful to watch but understanding of the story is difficult and, based on the abundance of symbols on offer, wide open to interpretation. Scenes are likely inspired if not by its subject’s poems or the images within those poems, then by a strong connection to Armenia’s valiant history.

The first nation to adopt Christianity, religion is an important aspect of life in Armenia. Sitting where it does geographically, it has faced considerable historical attacks by way of Islamic invaders, not to mention suppression via Soviet state atheism. Sayat-Nova was put to death for refusing to convert and in doing so he embodied his nation, a people who for centuries had faced down the enemy and remained fiercely Christian. And The Colour Of Pomegranates is generous with religious, historical, and national imagery that, to the lay viewer, is likely to pass unheeded. They certainly passed with little comprehension here, although that’s not to dismiss the enjoyment possible. Near the beginning the youthful poet holds aloft a skull in a helmet and covers his eyes. A memento mori, perhaps, as the poet comes of age to recognise the finiteness of life, but also a reference to Saint Vardan. Does one need to understand the latter when the former is a valid interpretation?

Away from the visuals, the sounds also provide interest. There’s little dialogue between characters and, in fact, little character to these characters, who stand silent staring at the static camera or move in rhythmic patterns. Further confusion comes from the acting of Sofiko Chiaureli, charged with six roles, including a younger incarnation of Sayat-Nova. When there is talking, it’s typically takes the form of wisdom, perhaps observations from Sayat-Nova’s poems. But the human voice is not just limited to speech and, throughout, there is a variety in the soundtrack, ranging from religious chants through folk songs with some elements calling to mind Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s Gesang der Jünglinge.

How, then, does one appreciate a film they are never likely to understand? To simply go with the flow would be the answer. The story need not be so detailed to enjoy what’s available. And in The Colour Of Pomegranates there is an experience like few others in film. As a biography of a historic poet, you will likely leave knowing no better about his life. As a film exploring what cinema can do and be, there’s much fruit for the taking.

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One Million Years B.C. (1966)

One Million Years B.C. (1966)

It’s said that prostitution is the oldest profession in the world but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a toss up between dentistry and running a beauty parlour, given the perfect teeth and hair on show in One Million Years B.C. (1966, 95 mins). However, historical accuracy need not be of any concern here for this “story of long, long ago, when the world was just beginning” is a prehistoric fantasy, its feet firmly planted outside any known past. Straight teeth, styled hair, and perfectly fitting bikinis are — pedants be damned! — allowed.

A remake of One Million B.C. (1940), this movie begins like a nature documentary as a narrator describes the scene and introduces us to the Rock People, an extremely underdeveloped tribe who hunt in groups and communicate with the most basic of grunts. Amongst the tribe is Tumak (John Richardson) who, one day, is cast out from his people to face the horrors of what the narrator describes as “a hard, unfriendly world”. Bizarrely, for all the help said narrator provides in introducing characters, he soon disappears, never to be heard from again, leaving the rest of the story to the viewer.

What Tumak finds out in the wider world forms the basis of what this movie really appears to be about: the special effects and excellent stop motion animation of Ray Harryhausen, he of other classics like The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad (1958), and Clash Of The Titans (1981). There’s large lizards, giant tarantulas, and dinosaurs ; one after the other. What little story One Million Years B.C. provides leads Tumak to the Shell People, a slightly more advanced tribe with knowledge of paint, cave art, boiling water, and even some rudimentary dialogue.

With this new tribe is arguably the most famous aspect of the movie: the iconic Loana (Raquel Welch in her infamous fur bikini). Essentially it’s a boy-meets-girl story, though there’s not much beyond that. Events are sequential, one thing leading to another with little acknowledgement to what has gone before. However each does at least demonstrate some aspect of their character. The actors seem to have a good time with little script, jumping and whooping in their loincloths. The use of a few nonsensical words acting as cave man dialogue does limit the amount of storytelling that can be achieved.

Even outside historical fact there are some silly issues around the set design with regards to the prehistoric world that has been created. Networks of caves house cave men and, a few evolutionary steps behind, ape men. But in a world where the most advanced technology presented is the spear, who carved all the steps? But such questions are not the sort of mysteries a movie like this seeks to put in place. Instead it just rumbles along on its own logic and, like its characters, it doesn’t say much.

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The Expendables (2010)

The Expendables (2010)

Into a prolonged hostage situation in the Gulf of Aden come a team of mercenaries. While this opening hostage rescue in The Expendables (2010, 103 mins) appears tense, any expectation of gritty, thoughtful action is soon dispelled when a single shot comically cuts a Somali pirate in half. But that single shot isn’t enough to solve the problem at hand. Therefore, after a hail of bullets, knives, and kung fu kicks rains down on the remaining pirates, all that’s left are the hostages and the eponymous Expendables. As manifestos go, it certainly gives warning of what little to expect of the movie.

That preliminary shootout introduces us to the characters. There’s Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone, acting and directing), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), and Yin Yang (Jet Li). If they are the A Team, then the B Team support are Toll Road (Randy Couture), Hail Caesar (Terry Crews), and Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren). None of these men has a back story, although there’s a plot strand following Christmas, his lover (Charisma Carpenter), and her other man that seeks to give viewers something different to focus on, but it’s dispensed in two scenes and impacts the story not a jot.

The movie’s main plot revolves around killing General Garza (David Zayas), the puppet dictator of a Latin American island state. The job comes in a scene whereby Stallone gets together with Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Willis is Mr Church, the man with the job. Schwarzenegger is, like Stallone, a mercenary, only he knows the situation on Garza’s island and rejects outright the opportunity. A scene like this must be the action fan’s wet dream, putting together three action movie legends for the first time. In its short duration, we get sly knowing jibes at each other with some cute banter thrown in (“You guys aren’t gonna start sucking each other’s dicks, are ya?” asks Church).

With the exception of Tool (Mickey Rourke), one liners are the only dialogue the guys in this film trade. It’s macho-to-the-max, empty and with little substance. Although many of the cast made their name in eighties action flicks, and this movie is a tribute to those days, there is little to suggest in the serious delivery that much has moved on since. The movie overall may not be serious — explosions, gun porn, and hyperbolic fisticuffs — but the way it’s played certainly is, even if done in a knowing way. It’s a give-the-people-what-they-want sort of film, and in this Stallone comes up with the goods as regards pulling an action movie together from a range of men who would typically take the lead in their own vehicles.

But if Stallone is giving the people what they want in The Expendables, the question must surely be why do people want this? Pyromaniacs aside, who’s eyes light up at the thought of meaningless explosions? Who punches the air when a bad guy dies? Who cheers on the good guys? Who doesn’t demand more from a film? Because in a film like this it’s never a question of if the protagonists will survive an encounter, but purely when they will. The audience knows that, whatever the story, the outcome is assured. Who wants to go into a movie and know how it ends?

While a man can stand around firing an unlimited barrage of bullets all day, much of the actors here have seen better days. Most of the physical action is delivered in quick succession of cuts that are too frenzied and make it difficult to recognise any athleticism. In this, perhaps the eighties action hero has had his day and, with the likes of Jason Bourne and James Bond‘s continued appeal,  Stallone and contemporaries are a few brain cells short. There’s no emotional connection with any characters, nor any underpinning motivation. There’s no thrills in the big budget set pieces nor any real danger in anything that happens on screen.  Ultimately there’s no rhyme or reason for this movie to exist.

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Goodbye, Columbus (1969)

Goodbye, Columbus (1969)

The summer of love — and free love at that — was two years gone but its echoes were still reverberating around the world. It was 1969. The year of Woodstock. The year of Easy Rider. Students protested with sit-ins; musicians with bed-ins. Goodbye, Columbus (1969, 101 mins) may as well have been walking on the moon with its wholesome students and concerns about premarital sex.

Adapted from Philip Roth‘s 1959 debut of the same name, it follows the summer relationship between Neil Klugman (Richard Benjamin) and Brenda Patimkin (Ali MacGraw), two Jewish teenagers in New York. When they first meet it is at a country club; Brenda asks Neil to hold her glasses while she swims he wastes little time in asking her out. The relationship that follows is quick to blossom, although issues of class rear their ugly head with her parents’ probing questions as to what he does for a living.

Neil’s working in a public library is a far cry from the other man in Brenda’s life — her father (Jack Klugman). He was once like Neil but through determination and hard work has pulled himself up into the nouveau riche via his own business. And in moving on up the money ladder (affluent suburb, big house, maids) he finds himself able to look down on others. The ultimate paradox of his family is their attempts to assimilate into wider society. They cling onto their heritage — evident at the wedding of Brenda’s brother Ron (Michael Meyers) — while simultaneously trying to hide it with nose jobs.

Neil, with his background, likewise can’t assimilate into the Patimkin family, partly due to their resistance to him. The mother (Nan Martin) is particularly hostile, questioning him about everything; while the father prefers a more pragmatic approach, recognising the relationship as merely a summer liaison that will end when Brenda returns to school. There’s sex aplenty (don’t let the parents know!) but, as in any coming of age story, some point has to be reached where a lesson is learned. In the case of Goodbye, Columbus it’s the thin line between love and lust.

While the film works well as story of two lovers who come to realise their relationship for what it is, it isn’t without some minor problems. At one point Neil goes to stay at the Patimkin’s for a fortnight. While it’s discussed, it’s never explained why he needs to and therefore disorients the story. Also, infidelity to Roth’s source creates a pretentious cartoon of Ron, the character who in repeatedly playing a recording of his school’s valedictory speech gives the film its title. Although it’s sprinkled with Roth’s original dialogue, it does occasionally take leave from the story, but presumably that’s the challenge of bringing a first person narrative to a third person delivery.

When Neil is at work a young black boy regularly visits the library to stare at Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings. “That ain’t no place you could go, is it?” he asks of the Pacific paradise. Swap Tahiti for the Patimkin family and there’s Neil’s issue foreshadowed. It’s refreshing to see a guy get the girl and lose her, not through any fault of his own, but because he never really had her. There may have been a summer of (free) love, but it comes at a cost.

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Knife In The Water (1962)

Knife In The Water (1962)

Aside from some earlier short films, Roman Polanski‘s debut Knife In The Water (1962, 93 mins) is unique amongst his work in that it’s the only one in his native Polish. Well received, it became the first Polish film to be nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards, although Federico Fellini‘s eventually secured the prize. While both may start in cars, the roads they travel along could not be more different, as Polanski keeps his story grounded in reality.

Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) is a sports writer who, in so far as one can in post-war Poland, appears to have it made; a car, a boat, and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka), a wife many years his junior. One day, when driving out to the boat, they come across a young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz). While Andrzej would happily drive on, he suspects that Krystyna would have shown more compassion. After an ill-tempered rant, Andrzej cedes to his wife’s sympathy, although only because he senses an opportunity to play a game. The hitchhiker first joins them in the car, then on the boat.

The journey that follows sees the two men play a macho game of oneupmanship, which devolves into a serious battle for Krystyna’s affections. For all his physical feats (e.g. shimmying up a mast), the young man is naive and unskilled. Matters maritime lead to derision from his challenger. Conversely, what Andrzej lacks in youth, his experience compensates. His practical, patronising approach is his way of impressing.

In more intimate moments, we see the trio come together, eat, talk, and play more simple games. One of these sees Krystyna perform a song as forfeit to losing. Andrzej concerns himself with the radio, listening in to a boxing match, while the lyrics she sings capture the essence of their marriage (“Joy has faded and our love’s gone sour.”) His lack of interest in what she has to say underpins the unhappiness of their relationship.

Such subtlety is at the core of how Polanski works in Knife On The Water. What the characters lack in verbal interaction, we learn so much more from body language; a quick glance here, a smile there. Even a dearth of subtitles does not detract from what’s being said due to both context and the physical actions that accompany. For the two younger stars, who were new to acting, their turns are well-played (although Malanowicz does appear less youthful than is suggested) and Niemczyk’s older Andrzej flits between smugness and authoritarianism that, by the end, has slipped into confusion and fear.

Away from his actors’ performance, the cinematography is beautiful. Shot in black and white, the composed images capture so many shades of grey. Even on a small boat, where one would expect limited flexibility for a film crew, Polanski manages to provide shot after shot of unique angles; sometimes overly crowded and claustrophobic; other times open and empty. Beyond the trio, we see clouded skies, hints of land on the horizon, but no other glimpse of nature. No fish in the water, no birds in the sky. At times the boat sailing through this barren world is accompanied by Krzytsztof Komeda‘s jazzy score, led by Bernt Rosengren‘s sultry saxophone, which adds spice to the film’s sense of menace.

The titular knife belongs to the unnamed boy. Forewarned by the title, each appearance it makes creates a sense of dread, brought on by not knowing how it will be used. When it hits the water the sexual tension that has been growing on board comes to a head. We do not see the knife actually in the water — Polanski gives us only the splash but it makes ripples that, for everyone, will change their life.

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Nikita Kino (2002)

Nikita Kino (2002)

In 1960, the father of experimental film maker, Vivian Ostrovsky, discovered that his siblings were still alive and living in Moscow. It had been forty years since they had last met. Although one died soon after the initial visit, a routine of annual travel was put in place where he would take his family from “carnival-crazy Brazil” to Russia to visit the extended family. It could only have been that way as the Russians were forbidden to leave the Soviet Union. Nikita Kino (2002, 40 mins) gathers together Ostrovsky’s collection of 8mm film footage of those visits and mixes it with other film media to create a video collage that’s somewhere between a memoir and a travelogue.

Her old footage is not that interesting. People sit on benches and chat; take food from the oven; or sit about on grass, smiling at the camera. We never know who is who, and it doesn’t really matter as Ostrovsky instead elects to provide a voiceover narrating what was going on at the time. Early on, as she describes how the relatives’ warmth helped extinguish the sense of claustrophobia and paranoia the situation created, we see the first instance of other footage enhancing the narrative. Tape reels recording and a room of women listening in on headphones and scribbling away. And Ostrovsky’s recollection of “a raincoat man” tailing them shows that, though not entirely noticeable, surveillance was happening.

The breadth of surplus footage used is impressive. Films, news reels, documentary, music, propaganda, and other found footage. The extensive use hides that there likely wasn’t much family footage, but it is cleverly used to either riff on a theme from Ostrovsky’s narrative or to slyly undercut it with contradictions. In a country sans advertising but replete with propaganda, we see what we are meant to see. In a clip from a Soviet movie, we are allowed to see its players dressed up to echo western cinema, albeit showing off how Soviet ideals make the more utopian society. But this propaganda is swept away (“The outside was never like the inside. What you saw in the shop window could never be found inside.”) to show us what lay underneath the falsehoods.

Beginning with ramshackle Soviet housing, Nikita Kino continues lifting the veil on Soviet society — restaurants, dance halls, and industry — with supplementary footage and recollections. The contemporary space race is seen, and it’s sometimes a wonder how they got a man into space with all the parading that had to be done, both military and athletics. And while there are positives about the society — women being able to work any career; to divorce and have abortions — there are darker elements too, most notably that Ostrovsky’s family passports carried ‘Jewish’ as a nationality and, two decades on from the Holocaust, segregation was still a way of life:

Jews had to be smart to get into kindergarten. Bright to get into the best schools. Brilliant to get into the right universities. And supermen to be allowed a military career.

Throughout the short film, the accompanying music flirts with various styles, with gypsy music blending into the martial. While sometimes comical it can turn the mood to solemn in a beat, and this, in the same way the found footage does, helps enhance the experience and the storytelling. For all its linearity — the narrative spans 1960 to Ostrovsky’s father’s death twenty years later — the delivery is nicely abstract and plays with the arrow of time so as not to be episodic. Ostrovsky jumps around, from one theme to the next, meandering into the paradoxes of Soviet life where everyone is individually unhappy but happy as a whole. At one point a young man in Yerevan waves to the camera; footage of Nikita Krushchev smiles and waves back.

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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Into the lawless west came Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), fresh from law school, and armed only with law books. His stagecoach however was assailed by masked bandits and he left for dead.  His money may have be stolen but fortune was on his side as Tom Donophin (John Wayne) found him and brought him to the small town of Shinbone. So begins the flashback that forms the main narrative of John Ford‘s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, 123 mins).

The flashback is triggered by Stoddard, now a senator, returning with wife Hallie (Vera Miles) to attend the funeral of his good samaritan. Asked by the local paper to tell his story — a famous politician seeing off a practical unknown is quite the scoop — he agrees, citing characters from his past as justification. His story is the stuff of legend, centring as it does on his continued encounters with the belligerent Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), the widely feared leader of the aforementioned bandits.

The film is not a simple story of law versus lawless, but is in fact a look at the changing condition of the west, as its wildness is tamed. Donophin and Valance, both cut from the same cloth, represent the old west, where justice and pistols are one and the same; while Stoddard with his books is seen as ushering in a new learned era. He teaches the illiterate of Shinbone to read and write and preaches democracy, all to a classroom comprising women, blacks, and immigrants. It’s classic civil rights stuff and given its shooting in the early 1960s, seems entirely relevant and its contemporary impact would likely have been harder hitting than it would be today.

Despite its moral compass, a love story also runs through, with the affections of both Donophin and Stoddard focused on Hallie. Together before the lawyer’s arrival, Hallie and Donophin grow apart as she sways toward the newcomer. There’s a sense that Donophin, as a cypher for the old west, knows his time is nigh and begrudgingly allows the women he loves to drift away. And while she willingly goes, and enjoys the success that comes, it’s clear from the beginning that she always loved the other. Just another element that gives The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance depth.

One thing that does seem particularly silly is the age of both Wayne and Stewart. At the time of filming they would have been in their fifties, playing men some thirty years their junior. While it’s easier to accept Wayne’s traditional cowboy, Stewart is unbelievable as a fresh-faced graduate. However, it’s easy to set age concerns aside and enjoy his performance as his helpless unarmed attorney evolves into a man whose later success hangs on the legendary reputation he acquires in his final encounter with Liberty Valance. The burden of that legend weighs hard, and as the flashback continues, we learn the facts that, once aired, allow Stoddard some respite.

Away from the main cast’s tale, the town of Shinbone is people with a wide range of memorable characters, notably Edmond O’Brien‘s Dutton Peabody (alcoholic editor of the Shinbone Star) and Andy Devine‘s Marshall Appleyard, whose cowardice allows Valance’s hellraising to go unchecked and brings some comic relief to an otherwise serious film. Lee Van Cleef‘s Reese, one of two sidekicks to Valance, is a touch underused, although he and his compatriot’s limited role serves to enhance their boss’s malevolence. Valance himself is a bit one-note, although his unlikeability allows us not to mourn him too much when the inevitable happens.

When Stoddard’s flashback ends and the truth is out we are left to question the nature of the western myth, asking whether heroes are made or made-up. The railroad’s advent modernises industry; enlightenment changes society. Shinbone — and, by extension, the world — will never be the same again. And with these advances the old cowboy tales — and cowboys like Tom Donophin — are relegated to the past. Stoddard’s is one such tale; his legend will live on, the facts disregarded. But given the truth at the heart of his fame, the romance of the west never felt so bittersweet.

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Straight To Hell (1987)

Straight To Hell (1987)

Given the chance to make ¡Three Amigos!, (1986) Alex Cox declined and instead made Straight To Hell (1987, 87 mins.), a rowdy send-up of spaghetti westerns, its cast peppered with musicians. Panned on release it has since achieved something of a cult status, filed under the so bad it’s good category. And while it really is bad, it is hard to approach it as a serious work, so is probably best taken in the spirit it was intended. Therefore it does have a certain entertaining charm but that still doesn’t make it good.

The story behind the film is arguably better than the one filmed. Following a successful gig in London in support of the Sandinistas, Cox intended to film a concert tour of Nicaragua featuring the bands involved. With funding not forthcoming and the artists already signed up for a month, it was easier to raise far more cash for a movie. So they went to Spain, filmed it, and the result of four weeks’ work produced Straight To Hell.

The brief timescale shows. While it’s evident that the cast are having a good laugh making it, the film suffers throughout. The plot rumbles along on a logic all its own and much of the cast can barely act, hamming it up at every opportunity. While it’s spoofing spaghetti westerns and gives nods to familiar tropes (towns with rival gangs; the undertaker having to clean up the stranger’s mess) it’s not really funny. Instead there’s the sense that it’s full of in-jokes between the ensemble, audience be damned. However, it does do something different by way of a genre mash-up, bringing organised crime into the western format.

After a botched job and a hurried robbery three hitmen (Sy Richardson, Dick Rude, and Joe Strummer), with a whining Courtney Love in tow, head to Mexico to lay low and escape their boss’s wrath. They bury the cash and hole up in a small desert town. When they eventually crawl out of a local bar, their story becomes as meandering as their drunken swagger. The coffee-swigging McMahon family (played by various members of The Pogues) are the resident gang and shoot out after shoot out ensues as other strangers come to town. Ultimately, everyone wants to get their hands on the buried cash.

At one point Dennis Hopper shows up, hands over a huge gun to the fugitives, and vanishes into the desert dust. It’s a seemingly random act, but it’s one of many moments that can be pinned to a wider plot, if obliquely. Sure, the viewer can infer from one scene to another at times what’s going on, but the treatment feels unfair due to a lack of information. Whether scenes were edited out or Cox and Rude weren’t too fussed at the lacunae in their script, Straight To Hell plays as if we are only privy to occasional glimpses of something more complete.

For all it’s stupidity, it’s hard not see that Straight To Hell can also have been an influential film. A young Quentin Tarantino must surely have taken one look at Strummer and Richardson here and jotted down notes that would later see homage in Pulp Fiction. While the film is a raucous espresso-fuelled mess, it can still be enjoyed on its own terms, whatever they may actually be.

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We’re The Millers (2013)

We're The Millers (2013)

Take four disparate people, dress them up as a family unit, and send them off to Mexico for a spot of drug smuggling. That, in a nutshell, is the plot of We’re The Millers (2013, 110 mins), and for a comedy it need not be more complicated than that. However, in order to get around the simple story what a comedy does need is plenty of laughs to drive it along. There are laughs to be had here, but this ham-fisted tale of crime not paying (much) is more likely to split opinion than sides.

Jason Sudeikis plays David Clark, a small-time self-centred drug dealer. One day he gets involved in a street scuffle and sees both stash and cash stolen so when the local drugs tsar (Ed Helms) provides an opportunity to make far greater amounts if he does a drug run over the border he accepts. His only problem is how to make himself inconspicuous to border guards. When the eureka moment comes he is lucky to have three reluctant accomplices to hand. Neighbour Rose (Jennifer Aniston), a stripper struggling with money; the virginal and naïve teenager Kenny (Will Poulter), and runaway Casey (Emma Roberts), whose struggle with David’s muggers started the whole farce. Driving an RV and becoming the Millers (after their street) they set off for Mexico.

The duration of the film is not so much about the initial collection but getting an obscene amount of weed back to David’s paymaster. Along the way there’s all manner of obstacles such as corrupt cops, an over-friendly family, and the border itself. But sometimes the biggest issue is their own familial cohesion — they’ll bicker about anything. Not the image David wants to portray if he wants to deflect attention. If all these conflicts aren’t enough, the film also throws in another drug lord intent on catching them before they reach their destination.

The whole thing is horribly contrived. The characters are mostly two-dimensional cartoons given flesh although Poulter by far does the best with what he’s got by virtue of getting the greater percentage of jokes. Roberts chips in some glum teen posturing and Aniston never really convinces as a stripper. Their efforts are passable, however Sudeikis plays David as an all round wise-cracker, emotionally impervious to the threats around him. In something more serious it could be construed as a defence system, but not here. Real crimes to acting come as Ed Helms cranks the ham up to eleven as if he’s performing in some other film. His megalomaniac drug lord spoofs classic James Bond villainy, but comes up shorter than Nick Nack.

The majority of the humour in We’re The Millers can only be described as gross-out light. Body parts and sexual antics see the greater share, helped some way by comic performances, especially Nick Offerman‘s Don Fitzgerald, patriarch of another family coming home from Mexico. The saddest part is that the jokes, far from being laugh-out-loud funny, are barely groan-out-loud funny. Ultimately the film feels like a lazy patchwork of juvenile ideas that don’t quite work as a whole. A bit like its Millers

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Amour (2012)

Amour (2012)

In films dealing with love the norm typically sees two different characters collide and, after a number of episodes, realise how suited they are for each other. Michael Haneke‘s Amour (2012, 127 mins.) comes to love later, much later, in life as two (very suited) octogenarian’s face the end of their time together.

Georges Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are retired music teachers living in a Parisian apartment who we first see together in a crowd at a musical concert before heading home on the bus to discover that there’s been an attempted break-in:

Georges: Why does anyone break in? To steal something.

Anne: From us?

Georges: Why not?

The seeming randomness of this burglary — the notion that it can happen to anyone — foreshadows the story’s driving event. At breakfast, as they talk with each other, Anne suffers silently a stroke. When she comes round, she has no recollection of the previous minutes. The family doctor investigates, and following tests and a failed operation,  new complications arise and the comfortable life the couple had together is lost as Anne experiences first paralysis and then dementia.

Apart from a few brief post-credit scenes, the film is set entirely within the Laurents’ apartment. The world outside passes at an unknown stretch. Maids and nurses come and go. A former pupil drops by unannounced, his talk of the past highlighting Anne’s fading memory. And their daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), harps on at her father to put her mother into care, a well-intentioned suggestion at odds with her mother’s wishes and an indictment of the younger generation’s proclivity for sweeping things under the carpet. Georges, of his older generation, is invested in his situation to the end — till death do us part, if you will.

The suggestion of love in Amour‘s title steps away from what most other films perceive as love (which is arguably more like romance) and does its own investigation into what love means. Haneke’s take is a far remove from any romantic notions, picturing not only a woman’s physical and mental decline but her husband’s dogged determination to keep her with him to his own detriment.  The question of how one retains their dignity in the wake of everyone’s good intentions is asked, if not answered. The delivery is wholly unsentimental, the camera’s gaze unflinching; neither judging or assessing anything it sees. Visual and spoken clues are left to the viewer. The approach is never didactic. Instead, we watch scenes play out and apply our own meaning.

The performances in the film are superb. Trintignant’s initial lustre fades over the duration, his face always revealing unspoken concerns and hidden depths. He also displays some physical change, brought on by the stress of the situation. But it’s Riva’s role that demands the greater range as she moves through the stages of decline, which she expertly does. Her face is extremely expressive, even when Anne is at her most distant: during the initial stroke or asked to recall something during a conversation that she cannot. In all the pain that Anne experiences, you can believe Riva feels it too.

The conclusion of Amour is one foregone as the film opens with firemen breaking into the Laurents’ apartment and finding Anne’s corpse shrinelike in bed. How it comes to be thus is the thrust of the film. It’s a painful watch, especially with foreknowledge, and Haneke ensures tight storytelling so that, in its two hour running time, nothing feels excessive. It’s a tour-de-force of film making that lingers long on the mind.

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