Call Me By Your Name, a new (Merchant) Ivory film. Yeah.

Call Me By Your Name.

Once a year, critics descend on a film to anoint it and declare it a film fit for grown-ups. Looking around, it’s not hard to see why. Every week, cinema goers are presented with a cast of interchangeable superheros who stand immobile against a green screen, as A N Other arch villain is CGId behind them, and the walls and ceiling of the cinema are engulfed in a blast of flames and a wall of sound, as the studio responsible attempts valiantly to disguise the complete absence of a story by burying us all in the 21st century’s answer to sturm und drang.

Given that all serious drama aimed at grown-ups has long since migrated to television, it’s hardly surprising then that any stray film that somehow slips through the cracks in the system to momentarily appear on the silver screen is instantly pounced upon. This year’s critical darling is Call Me By Your Name. And it’s, well, perfectly nice.

The unusual I Am Love.

Nominally, it’s the third film in Luca Guardagnino’s trilogy of desire, after I Am Love (2009) and A Bigger Splash (2015). But in reality, it’s the latest offering from the Merchant Ivory conveyor belt. And therein lies the rub. Because what you think of it will depend very much on what that means to you.

Producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory were life and creative partners for half a century and produced some 44 features together. Films like A Room With A View (1985), Maurice (’87), Howard’s End (’92), Jefferson In Paris (’95) and Surviving Picasso (’96). Solid, dependable, professionally produced dramas revolving around a reliable roster of regular thespians blithely disporting their middle brow culture and earnestly extolling a liberal arts education – the majestic the Remains of the Day is merely the glorious exception that goes to prove the rule.

Boys will be boys.

Call Me By Your Name was adapted by Ivory, Merchant having passed away in 2004, and only latterly became a Guardagnino project. Elio is a 17 year old boy spending the summer with his parents in their house on the shores of northern Italy, where their evenings are spent listening to Bach being played at the piano as they airily discuss the merits of Heidegger and Nietzsche. His father, a professor of archaeology, has invited an American post grad of his to stay for the summer, and Elio quickly finds himself attracted to the handsome American’s rugged good looks.

The peerless The Remains of the Day.

The boy reveals his feelings, and… they’re reciprocated. Meanwhile, he loses his virginity to the girl next door, but when then he instantly cools on her, having lost his heart to the American, she responds with… complete understanding, and pledges her life-long friendship. And when his parents eventually cop… they’re completely supportive. In other words, there is absolutely nothing at stake.

Everyone is so insufferably educated, and so overbearingly well brought up, that instead of a drama, all you’re presented with is a picture-postcard, wet-dream vision of a would-be idealised upbringing. No parents are really ever that understanding, and would that that were what the crushing disappointment of a shattered first teenage love really felt and looked like.

It all looks marvellous, and it’s wonderful to escape into that sort of hokum for a couple of hours of a winter’s eve. But be warned, that’s all it is. If you’re hoping for Wagner or Bach, I’m afraid all you’ll find here is Tchaikovsky. Or, worse again, Puccini. Come to think of it, he’d have been a much more appropriate choice for the soundtrack.

You can see the trailer to Call Me By Your Name here.

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How bad is the new film “Mother”?

Darren Aronofsky's Mother.

Darren Aronofsky’s Mother.

So just how bad is the new Darren Aronofsky film, Mother? Well, and at the risk of bamboozling you with arcane technical jargon, it is what we in the industry refer to as pants. Which is extremely disappointing, because for a while Aronofsky seemed as if he might be the great white hope of independent cinema.

He made his impressive debut in 1998 with Pi, and followed it up two years later with the genuinely dazzling Requiem for a Dream. Here gloriously, form is content, and content form, as Beckett had defended Joyce with. The highly stylised exploration of the language and grammar of cinema was the perfect way to delve deep into the topic of addiction. The result was the film of the decade.

Jarred Leto and Jennifer Connolly in Reqiem for a Dream.

Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly in Requiem for a Dream.

Next up was The Fountain in ’06. And, suffice it to say, we all put that film down to the immense pressure he must have been under to produce a worthy follow-up to what had come before. So he was forgiven that.

Then came The Wrestler in ’08. So okay, before earning the right to go back to making the sorts of films that he really wants to make, he needed to accommodate the bean counters in Hollywood. And as nice as it was seeing Mickey Rourke back on the silver screen, it really is little more than your runofthemill, feelgood Hollywood film.

The dream master, David Lynch's Mulholland Dr.

The dream master, David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.

But then came Black Swan, reviewed earlier here, a further a n other Hollywood picture. And then, worse again, Noah in ‘14 which couldn’t have been more Hollywood had it been directed by Cecil B DeMille and starred Charlton Heston. So just what kind of a film maker is Aronofsky?

Well let’s just hope that Mother isn’t the answer to that question. True, for periods of ten, even fifteen minutes, the film trundles along inoffensively enough. And you begin to wonder what all the fuss is about. But then there’ll be a plot point, a quote development unquote in the ahem, story, that’s so implausible and so completely unconnected with what had gone on before, that your only response is an almost overpowering urge to get up and leave.

I don’t remember ever seeing a film that left me so permanently on the edge of my seat, about to leave, only to remain where I was on the assumption that any moment now, it was surely going to improve. It was like re-living the 2016 election night all over again.

Jodorowsky's most recent pair of comeback films, Santa Sangre and the Dream of Reality.

Jodorowsky’s most recent pair of comeback films, Santa Sangre and the Dance of Reality.

For a while there, you wonder whether what’s being explored here might perhaps be some sort of dreamscape. But as Freud so memorably summed up, dreams are about “the transformation of manifest dream material into latent dream content”. The whole point of dreams and their reading in other words, is the connection between what you dream about, and the stuff of your everyday life. The different elements need to be connected, otherwise they are literally meaningless. And if what we’re being offered on the other hand is some sort of metaphor, allegory or parable, then we need to be able to identify with whoever it is that is experiencing the lesson to be learned.

There are no connections between the beginning, middle and end of Mother, or for that matter, between any of its major scenes, and you couldn’t possibly identify with any of the characters involved. There are the same two principal actors, poor old Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, on the same set, of the same house, and all the props are the same. But there is almost nothing to connect what happens in one scene with what happens in the next.

Fellini's 8 1/2.

Fellini’s 8 1/2.

Dreams have been central to cinema, which is hardly surprising for a medium designed to produce illusion. Fellini’s 8 ½, Bunuel’s the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Polanski’s Repulsion and, more recently Alejandro Jodorowsky’s the Dance of Reality, reviewed earlier here, and, of course, David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., where, as David Thompson astutely pointed out, D R stands first and foremost for Dream, and only secondly for Drive.

If there are any of those films that you haven’t seen, do so now. If however you’re curious about what happens when you try to make a film without having a script or, therefore, a story, then if nothing else, Mother will put you right on that.

Here’s the trailer to Mulholland Drive. And for the record, you can see the trailer to Mother here.

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“Heimat”, the original box set.

Heimat.

Heimat.

Heimat, a Chronicle of Germany, comprising of 3 seasons and a prequel and made up of 32 individual films that last for more than 53 hours, is one of the most ambitious and brilliant series ever broadcast. Season 1 has eleven episodes that cover the years 1919 to 1982 and was first broadcast in 1984.

The whole saga centres on the Simon family in the fictional village of Schabbach in the Hunsruck, in the heart of rural Germany. Specifically on Maria, and the two sons she has with Paul, and with Hermann, the son she later has with Otto. What Edgar Reitz, who writes and directs them all, does then is to concentrate on the things that matter most to all communities, big and small, rural and urban. Family life, love and loss, triumph and despair and on all those who leave the fold never to return, and on those who stay behind.

Maria.

Marita Breuer as Maria.

Each of the decades from the 20s to the 70s get about a couple of episodes each in season 1, so all of those defining events that Germany was subject to through the course of those years are seen through the prism of village life, where everybody knows everybody and practically everyone is related to one another in some shape or form.

So instead of being the fulcrum around which everything else pivots, the rise and fall of the Nazis is just one of the many backdrops against which village life proceeds. It’s not remotely surprising then when Lucie, Maria’s sister in law, cosies up to the Nazis in the 30s and early 40s, only to completely switch sides in the late 40s and 50s as she sidles up to the Americans, who effectively replace them in the wake of the second World War.

Season 2 of Heimat was made in 1992, and the 13 episodes cover the 60s.

Season 2 of Heimat was shown in 1992, and the 13 episodes cover the 60s.

There is nothing immoral about her denial. It’s entirely amoral. You do what you have to, to survive. The second world war, like the first before it, the great depression, the swinging 60s and the fall of the Berlin wall to come, all look very different when viewed from the purblind confines of village life, buried deep in the heart of nowhere.

What Reitz does so brilliantly is to make a succession of individual, stand-alone films that each focus on one or two  characters. So that the rhythm, pace and feel is not that of a succession of episodes, but of individual, 70-80 minute European art house films.

Season 3 of Heimat was screened in 2004 and covers post 1989 in 6 episodes.

Season 3 of Heimat was screened in 2004 and covers the post 1989 period in 6 episodes.

Every frame is carefully and precisely composed, and you’re deliberately given the time to take in its composition. Music is used but sparingly, and in its place tactile sounds resonate; film being loaded into a very early camera, the soles of worn, leather boots scrunching on a dirt track, the chopping of vegetables being readied for a soup. And all the while, Reitz slips in and out of the predominant black and white and into occasional bursts of colour, as his very personal aesthetic dictates.

History unfolds in the distant background as village life is brought to a standstill by the defining events that shape their lives; the laying down of the first tarmacadam road, the arrival of the very first telephone, the opening of that first industrial factory in the post war years, those gorgeous, curvaceous, open-top Mercedes’ that they manufactured so triumphantly in the 60s, and the erosion of their very specifically German, and rural German culture, that all that late 20th century progress destroyed so methodically as it made its way inexorably onwards.

The 2013 Heimat prequel covering the 1840s.

The 2013 Heimat prequel covering the 1840s.

Like Syberberg’s equally magisterial Hitler: A Film From Germany from 1977 (over 7 hours and in 4 parts) and the work of W. G. Sebald (specifically his almost unbearably moving novel Austerlitz), Heimat is a nuanced and measured exploration into how what happened in Germany could have happened there, and what it means therefore to be German. Like the people it deals with, it’s a serous work that demands to be seen.

Season 1 was screened over the summer on Sky Arts, so there’s every chance it’ll be repeated there. While the recent prequel Home from Home, which Reitz made in 2013 and which covers the 1840s, was  screened recently on BBC4, so keep an eye out for it there. All four hours of which are every bit as captivating as the very first episode of season 1, first broadcast over a quarter of century ago.

You can see the trailer to Home from Home here.

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Moonlight Triumphs

Moonlight.

Moonlight.

One of the great mysteries of the show biz world is how it is that the most gifted, talented and ambitious stars in Hollywood contrive to produce the most tedious television programme of the entire year. The Oscars are so drearily predictable and every gesture has plainly been choreographed within an inch of its life.

Ironically, quite how redundant the Oscars are as a tv show was further highlighted by this year’s extraordinary GUBU – that’s Grotesque Unbelievable Bizarre and Unprecedented for the uninitiated. Because the vast majority of people who subsequently watched that, there’s no other word for it, unbelievable cock-up will have seen it as a clip on Youtube, thereby avoiding having to sit through the hours and hours of tedium that it was preceded and followed by. On the off chance that you missed it, here it is.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which lost to ?

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which lost to Gladiator.

Unusually, they actually got is right this year. Moonlight really is the best film of the year. But under normal circumstances, few members of the Academy would have bothered taking their dvd copy out of its box – they gave the Best Picture award to Birdman over Boyhood (reviewed earlier here) in 2014, to The King’s Speech over Toy Story 3 and The Social Network in 2010, and to Gladiator over Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Traffic in 2000.

Based on the unpublished play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight is divided into three acts as we follow the growing pains of a young black kid as a child, a teenager and as a young man. The damaged only child of a drug-addled mother who pays for her habit the only way she can, he is rendered all the more shy and awkward by virtue of being secretly gay. All of which screams hopelessly dull but drearily worthy.

12 Years A Slave, another surprise winner in 2012, and also supported by Brad Pitt.

12 Years A Slave, another surprise winner in 2013, and, like Moonlight, also supported by Brad Pitt.

Happily, indeed impressively, the film soars above and beyond its theatrical origins and rather than being subjected to the sort of preachy lecture that the material suggests, what we get instead is a vision that somehow manages to be both impressionistic and coolly detached at the same time. Director Barry Jenkins, whose second film this is, worked on the script with McCraney, and both do a remarkable job of freeing the material from its source and injecting genuine cinematic life into it. But they manage to do so without ever losing sight of quite how horrendously difficult growing up is for a gay black kid in the suburbs, when the only hope any of them ever have of escape is of tailoring to, and feeding off, people like his mother.

Boyhood, which lost to Birdman.

Boyhood, which lost to Birdman.

Magnificent yes, but not quite the masterpiece some would have you believe. In parts one and two, every time he tries to just get on with his life the outside world comes crashing down on him and it’s heart wrenching to witness. But by the time we get to the third and final part, the world leaves him momentarily in peace, and he is finally given space to breathe. So you leave the cinema on a much lighter note than you might have expected, but you are left feeling ever so slightly short changed.

The brilliant if dark Toy Story 3.

That’s how you make sequels.

But that is a minor quibble. This is a major film and Jenkins is a serious talent. Let’s just hope he manages to walk away from the obscene amounts of money that as we speak will be appearing on tables in front of him across the whole of Hollywood. Just say no.

You can see the trailer for Moonlight here.

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Finally, two new films to shout about.

Manchester by the Sea.

Manchester by the Sea.

In her revealing profile of Kenneth Lonergan in the New Yorker here, Rebecca Mead charts the travails that Lonergan went through with his second feature Margaret. Not withstanding her entirely sympathetic portrait, one of the fascinating insights to emerge is that, at least to some degree, those wounds were partially self-inflicted.

Certainly his debut You Can Count On Me was one of the most impressive films to come out of America in the last couple of decades. And not withstanding the wrangling over its length, his follow up Margaret, reviewed earlier here, was if anything an improvement on that debut. But when it came to delivering that contentious final cut of Margaret, he seems to have burrowed himself ever deeper into a hole largely if tragically of his own making.

The Brilliant You Can Count on Me.

The brilliant You Can Count on Me.

There’s evidently a stubbornness and a prickly recalcitrance to his character that’s quietly at war with his fiery intelligence and the profound sense of empathy that he has for other people and, therefore, with the characters that he ends up creating on the page. It’s in this sense that his third film, Manchester by the Sea is so clearly an autobiographical one. It’s not so much the story that he tells that is so manifestly his, rather it is the mood created that so perfectly captures that inner tension.

Casey Affleck plays Lee, who has bottled up whatever it was that happened to him in his past so tightly he’s become immune to life itself. When a tragic event sends him back home to the Manchester of the title, he has no choice other than to face up to his past.

What Lonergan does so brilliantly is to stay with his characters as they go about the mundane, day to day chores that have to be gone through whenever any of us have to deal with a tragic event. What makes this all the more excruciating is that of all the people who have to deal with those kind of things, Lee is the least capable, and the most in need of help. Which is the one thing he’s incapable of asking for.

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea.

Casey Affleck, who’s a revelation, and the excellent Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea.

It would be misleading to pretend that, at times, this were not a profoundly depressing film. But its brilliance lies precisely in its refusal to turn what seems like an impossible situation around and to tie up all the various narrative strands. In life as we live it, some things are impossible to move beyond. And those stories don’t end, they rumble on for the rest of our lives.

Loving is the sixth feature from Jeff Nichols and after the atmospheric Take Shelter (2011) and Mud (2012), he made the disappointingly conventional Midnight Special. The latter seemed to strain for the sort of Spielbergian grandeur that Hollywood and its accountants are so in awe of. This film, happily, would appear to a conscious effort to produce an antidote to that sort of emotional incontinence.

Jeff Nicholas Loving.

Jeff Nichol’s Loving.

As a based-on-a-true-story tale of a white man’s insistence on marrying the black girl of his dreams in the 1950s, in the southern state of Virginia, it’s the sort of story that could have been ruined had it been saddled with the traditional Hollywood treatment. In contrast, Nichols is consciously restrained throughout, and he refuses to punctuate every emotional expression with a musical outburst, quietly letting the facts speak for themselves.

And, as with Manchester by the Sea, he too takes his cue from classical Greek drama, so that most of the pivotal action happens off stage, including even the climatic court scene when the laws prohibiting interracial marriage are finally overturned.

Ruth Nega in Loving.

Ruth Negga, who gives a powerful performance in Loving.

Instead of which, he focuses on the reactions of the protagonists to the events that have unfolded off screen. And there can be few scenes more moving than when Ruth Negga gets the phone call informing her that, somewhere in the vast bureaucracy of the United States government, someone was finally responding to her many letters pleading desperately for help.

Some have complained that this distanced view renders the film cool or even cold. But as Manohla Dargis writes in her excellent New York Times review here, it’s precisely this quiet distance that gives the film its emotional punch. You can see the trailer to Loving here, and the trailer to Manchester by the Sea here.

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