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Au hasard, Dachshund – Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog (2016) – DVD review

January 17, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

A throwback to 1990s shock-satire with one problem – enfant terrible Solondz has grown up and hasn’t figured out how to mix sobriety with scandal.

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Wiener-Dog
(Todd Solondz, 2016)

Once upon a time, Todd Solondz was the enfant terrible of indie cinema.  Films like Happiness were deliberate acts of provocation upon audiences.  But what happens when such a filmmaker grows up? As Danny De Vito’s Dave Schmerz, a filmmaking teacher observes, it’s a case of ‘what if’ and ‘then what.’  What if the mood of cinema moves on?  Then what?

This film is at once a throwback to Solondz’s 1990s heyday – it even resurrects the lead character in his debut, Welcome To The Dollhouse – and the work of an older director who is altogether more elegiac and less inclined to shock.  Yes, this has the mix of hipster cool and John Waters-esque outrage that made his name (who else would dare to have an extended tracking shot of a sidewalk covered in dog dioarrhea?), but the shock is very half-hearted.

It’s a co-production between Amazon Studios and Megan Ellison’s Annapurna, two of the few places interested in auteur cinema when today’s film culture revolves around superhero movies – here given typically short shrift.  Yet there’s also the sense that Solondz hasn’t quite figured out what to do with the beneficence of his funders.  It’s an awkward, fragmented film, a kind of arch remake of Au Hasard Balthazar as it follows the many owners of the titular dog, a mute witness to the pain, loneliness and stupidity of humanity.

As with many multi-strand films, it’s a mixed bag.  The segment with De Vito is the best by far, its sour vision of becoming culturally obsolete given emotional nuance by the star’s careworn performance.  The opening sequence is a sardonic detonation of the American family unit, with Tracy Letts in great form as a supercilious but inept father, but even this can’t quite escape the sense that it’s been done better before – not least by this very director.

The other two meander inconsequentially, notable mainly for the way that Solondz seemingly sets up opportunities for shock value – a Down’s syndrome couple, for instance – only to play them with disarming charm and sincerity.  It says something, though, when an already short film is padded out with – of all things – an intermission.

Wiener-Dog is released on DVD and digital on 23 January.

Sidewalk Surfin’: Catherine Hardwicke’s Lords Of Dogtown (2005) – Blu-ray review

November 28, 2016 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

A filmed memoir that drags you along in its slipstream with an exuberant sense of teenage freedom – and the cinematic style to match.

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Lords Of Dogtown
(Catherine Hardwicke, 2005)

Skateboarding is one of the most cinematic of sports.  Not only does it thrive on the exhilaration of movement, but it’s also something that requires steadfast dedication, patience and the willingness to keep trying again and again until you get it right.  Put these things together, and it’s no surprise that the hurtling momentum and rhythmic editing of the skating sequences in Lords Of Dogtown have an indelible grace.

Of course, it also makes the film look somewhat like a skateboarding video with the bonus of celluloid’s grain – which is no bad thing because this is a film by the fans, for the fans.  Skateboard supremo Stacy Peralta turned filmmaker had already made documentary Dogtown And Z-Boys about his legendary teenage years as one of the sport’s pioneers.  His screenplay for this film is, essentially, the same story with the mythmaking dialled up to 11.

Does it work for non-believers?  Surprisingly, yes.  While the details of the sport are sketchy, Catherine Hardwicke brings an infectious energy to proceedings, taking the never-give-up attitude of her debut Thirteen and adding a semi-ironic vision of male bonding.  The twin models are Boogie Nights and Dazed And Confused; this has the subcultural detail of the former and the laidback drift of the latter, although the lack of a critical distance in the writing means it never quite matches these classics.

Still, there’s plenty of interest, with Hardwicke’s camera attuned to the sport’s roots in poverty in a dead-end coastal town where there’s nowhere to go except up and down an improvised turnpike.   At its best, it’s as strong on the ties between geographical stasis and cultural innovation as 8 Mile.  The film’s most memorable sequence shows the skaters sneaking into back gardens during a summer drought to skate in empty swimming pools – a symbol of class outsiderdom to rival the Burt Lancaster film The Swimmer.

It only falls apart, as films of this nature tend to do, when fame strikes and old friendships are sundered by money, rivalry and self-destruction.  The overfamiliarity of the narrative retrospectively makes the highs of the Z-Boys look insignificant – arguably, the formulaic arc fails at the fundamental task of truly explaining what made these boys so radical.

Still, as an immersive vision of being in the gang, it’s helped enormously by good casting.  While Emile Hirsch was a big deal back then, and John Robinson – as Peralta – was then familiar from Elephant, neither they nor Victor Rasuk, as the third in the trio, have fulfilled their promise.  A decade later, it really helps cement the film’s sense of this being a youngsters’ film about youngsters’ passions.   And the elegiac quality that Heath Ledger brings to his role, as the surf-dude-Falstaff who is ultimately betrayed by his princes, gets an added layer of melancholy knowing that he would be dead within a few years of this film’s release.

Lords Of Dogtown is released on Dual-Format by Eureka on 5 December 2016.

Master Shot: Francois Truffaut’s Day For Night (1973) – Criterion Blu-ray review

November 2, 2016 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

One of the best films about filmmaking, because it’s literally about the making. It doesn’t even matter what’s being made. The making is reward enough.

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Day For Night
(Francois Truffaut, 1973)

“I am not interested in any film that does not pulse,” said Francois Truffaut – saying that to pulse needed to depict either the joy or the agony of filmmaking.  The result is Day For Night, one of the definitive films about filmmaking because it captures exactly these myriad emotions.

In broadest outline, this is the archetype for the genre because it is the simplest: a crew makes a film and struggles with independently-minded cats and drunken actors; the cast fall in and out of love; the set is beset by hangers-on; and the director resets his ambition from masterpiece to just getting through the whole thing unscathed.  From such material dozens of films have been made.

But Truffaut takes a more philosophical viewpoint.  Here’s a film about the tortuous relationship between truth and fiction.  From the title onwards, with its reference to how cinema fakes reality, the film shows the old man behind the curtain.  A bit of wall is erected high up in the air to suggest an entire building; a man doubles as a woman for a death-defying stunt.  Even the lead actor donning a moustache becomes part of the artifice.

And yet Truffaut has fun.  The film being made is very generic in its plot, and stilted in its delivery – there are long sequences showing the monotony of repeating the same scene over and over again, the actors bound by their duty to hit specific marks.  But the film we’re watching is full of extraordinary sequence shots, the camera panning and tracking to capture remarkably naturalistic movements and dialogue.

What’s going on?  Most films about filmmaking assume that the banality of the process leads into the profundity of the finished product.  Yet Truffaut tricks us, shows us the exact opposite of this because the finished product is a melodramatic trifle and the process is the real star.  Even here, he’s toying with the illusion by bringing in real-life elements, not least his own casting as the director-within-the-director.  Then there are the autobiographical nods to his youth of stealing posters of Citizen Kane, or referring to Julie Baker as the actress from the film with the car chase – a direct reference to Jacqueline Bisset starring in Bullitt.

In the film’s most indulgent moment, Truffaut throws down a dozen or so books about directors he admires.  It’s his generation’s canon – Hitchcock, Hawks, Bunuel, Bergman… and Godard.  The presence of his friend and colleague shows how Truffaut is thinking in terms of a tradition: the French New Wave as evolution, not revolution.  And this is a film that might have been made at any time.  Perhaps that’s why an irate Godard fell out with Truffaut after seeing this film, but he’s missing the point.  It’s not about making grand statements, or trying to change the course of cinematic history.  It’s about taking cinema’s pulse.

Day For Night is out on Blu-ray now from the Criterion Collection.  Best extra is a smart analysis of the film’s dream sequences by video essayist kogonada.

Knave of Hearts: Ken Loach’s Kes (1969) – Masters of Cinema Blu-ray review

November 1, 2016 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

The standard-bearer of British social realism, because Loach finds the perfect balance between specifics of time and place and a still-potent resonance.

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Kes
(Ken Loach, 1969)

The 1960s was one of the most potent periods in British cinema, yet how many at the time realised that perhaps the era’s finest movie snuck in quietly, under the radar, during the decade’s last year.  The contemporary icons were Schlesinger, Richardson and Anderson, all of whom had either won the Oscar or the Palme D’Or by 1969. Meanwhile Ken Loach’s film was more understated, and in the shadow of his fiery, compelling TV work like Cathy Come Home.

Today, it’s very different: Kes is an acknowledged masterpiece, the defining film not only of Loach’s career but of the tradition of British realism, and an enduring inspiration.  Yet in some ways it’s atypical: its social comment is shorn of the agit-prop commonly associated with Loach and its visual style has a mesmerising simplicity, hovering like the kestrel between the grounding of documentary and a mythic England, its landscapes rolling hills and colleries, the green and pleasant land of William Blake.

It’s a film of its time, and yet timeless.   Clearly, this is a portrait of the failure of social mobility, even in a more progressive, well-meaning time where building new estates and new schools would solve poverty – but this becomes a backdrop, the story told through action and image: the callousness of teachers, the inherited rage and desperation of Billy Casper’s brother Jud, the tangible divide between scruffy Billy and the smartly-suited grammar school boy, just as disobedient but likely to come up trumps in life because he passed the 11-plus.

And then there’s Kes, and everything the bird represents: a sense of respect and responsibility, a camaraderie of self-sufficiency.  It’s surprising how little screen-time Loach devotes to scenes of training – the comic football match easily outlasts it – but it’s precisely the avoidance of big set-pieces in favour of incremental snippets that gives the film’s best scene (where Billy finds his voice explaining his passion to his classmates) its power.  Can you imagine how awful the film would be with a standard-issue training montage?

It’s the film’s rhythm that is most remarkable, that sense of a series of setbacks plaintively counterpointed by the still centre provided by the kestrel.  Billy is always running but it’s not through exhilaration – he runs because he’s late, or in trouble, or because he’s told to.  In contrast, when he’s with Kes he doesn’t move, safe in what the teacher describes as a “pocket of silence.”

So it still works as a parable – and yet the sadness at the film’s heart has only grown deeper with time.  For all that is familiar about the world Billy inhabits, late 1960s Yorkshire is strikingly different to our own era.  Despite Billy’s neglect, this is still a sense of community here, seen in the charmingly innocent conversations he has with strangers on the street, or the Saturday night at the local club.  That world was destroyed by Thatcher’s attack on mining, and you wonder: did Billy go down the pits?  Did he continue to work with animals?  Did he find a trade?

It’s disconcerting to note that, in Loach’s latest film – I, Daniel Blake – the title character shares Billy’s love of the BBC Shipping Forecast.  Billy today would be – what, late 50s, early 60s?  Daniel Blake’s age.  They could be the same man.  What’s truly tragic about Kes is that, compared to life now, Billy had it easy back then.

Kes is available on Blu-ray from Masters of Cinema on 7 November with the usual great selection of extras.

High Tide: Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire At Sea (2016) – DVD review

September 23, 2016 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

An outstanding example of Slow Documentary, which faces the complex horror of the migrant crisis with an unblinking, calm but incandescent stare.

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Fire At Sea
(Gianfranco Rosi, 2016)

Slow Cinema is the term used for a kind of art-house cinema where directors encourage us to adapt to a more glacial pace, all the better for watching the world with close attention.  But there’s also a kind of Slow Documentary: the likes of La Quattro Volte and Two Years At Sea have achieved the same kind of calm observation with real-life situations.  But the genre’s master is Gianfranco Rosi, who follows his Venice prize-winner Sacro GRA with Berlin prize-winner Fire At Sea, making him the century’s most-garlanded festival favourite next to Michael Haneke.

On this evidence, it’s well-deserved. If the social comment in the earlier film’s portrait of life around the edges of Rome was flecked with a wry aburdism, this time the subject hits altogether harder.  Rosi shows life on the island of Lampedusa, inadvertent weigh station in the journey of thousands of migrants from Africa, and a sleepy bastion of survival for those making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.

It’d be very easy for Rosi to sound the claxon, with earnest narration and emotive music – but that’s not the way of Slow Documentary.  Instead, the situation washes over you as gradually but inexorably as the sea itself, in waves of sadness, angry and numb terror.  The imagery itself is enough to convey multitudes, especially in the continually surprising ways that Rosi shapes his material.  Faced with a choice – follow the rescue efforts? or look at how the locals are dealing with this crisis? – Rosi boldly opts to show the whole picture.

Much of the focus is on Samuele, a young local boy set to follow in his family’s fishing trade, but for now struggling to deal with seasickness and a lazy eye.  Mostly, he wants to practice his favourite hobby of playing war with a homemade slingshot.  Stories of life on the sea are an exotic mystery, to file alongside his grandmother’s memories of wartime, when nighttime navy boats caused the sea to catch fire – incidentally, Fire At Sea is a traditional Sicilian tune played by the local DJ.

Rosi builds up the irony in increments, until you realise how starkly exposed the situation is.  This is a culture in denial, going about its business even as the news reports the latest fatalities and fishing boats bump against patrol vessels in the dock.  For at night, a war is still being fought – to protect the thousands in deadly danger, who have escaped the conflicts that Samuele daydreams about.  Rosi’s compositions are like sci-fi, with helicopters framed against the dawn sky as if this was a Ridley Scott film, while the survivors are wrapped in shiny heat blankets as masked, hazmat-suited officials march them about.

There’s a sudden, savage inversion.  Despite not being interviewed, the nameless throngs of people, mere statistics on the news, regain their humanity, faces bearing the trauma of their plight but the hope of something better through defiant songs or jubilant games of football.  Meanwhile, it’s the rescuers who become anonymous, and somehow callous despite the dedicated rescue work they’re doing.  The rescuers remark with distaste about survivors whose clothes reek of diesel fuel… but then a local doctor – in the film’s only moment of conventional interviewing – explains the awful truth of what that fuel does to people.

The doctor is the film’s moral arbiter: his duty to tend to the sick, whoever they are.  We see him with Samuele, patiently tending to what appears to be nothing more than hypochrondria – but then he fights tears as he discusses the necessity of post-mortems on those who haven’t survived the journey from Africa, “one more affront to the dead.”  Rosi’s film is an atonement to those affronts.  As philosophically nuanced as it is politically barbed, it forces us to confront the unimaginable and makes it our duty not to turn our heads away.

Fire At Sea is released on DVD on Monday 26 September.

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