Monday, 29 August 2011

REVIEW: The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito)

Dir.: Pedro Almodóvar
With: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya

It gives me an absolute pleasure to write about this film. I’ll start with the posters. There are two:

The first one is one of the most beautiful film posters designed for a modern film that I have ever seen. It does not scream ‘come watch me!’ to me, instead it reminds me of an old anatomical folio where the illustrations were made by hand and the margins were adorned with flowers and birds. It also draws a link to the image of Marsyas, a satyr who lost a bet to Apollo and was flayed alive as a punishment. Classically, he is portrayed with visible muscles and insides, holding his skin as one would hold a coat – over one’s arm. The image of a skinless person is interesting when juxtaposed to the film’s title “The Skin I Live In” – where is the skin that the person lives in gone? What does the skin signify for a person’s life? How important is the skin and does it make up the person? All these questions are fittingly raised in the film as well.

The second poster is more traditional, focusing on the protagonist’s faces. The girl in a mask, looking tense and uncomfortable and Antonio Banderas, looming over her, menacing. Notice the contrast between their skins – hers is white, smooth and poreless. His is darker, shiny and weathered. Both posters deliver a crystal-clear message – the film you are about to see will be uncomfortable, tense and theatrical.

The themes addressed in “The Skin I Live In” can be described as the best of Almodóvar: there is obsession, motherly care, sex, revenge and insanity. It is also a classic tale of a mad scientist, in the style of Dr Frankenstein and Dr Moreau. Antonio Banderas is pitch-perfect as Dr Robert Ledgard, a brilliant plastic surgeon who is extremely wealthy, elegant and powerful. He lives in a secluded villa with his own private operation theatre outside Toledo. There is one special room in the house with one special patient – Vera, played by Elena Anaya. Their relationship is unclear at first – Ledgard appears to be carrying out experiments on Vera’s skin, however, she seems rather willing to succumb to all the procedures. The inevitable question rises – who is she? Her daily existence is quite dull, she practises yoga in the confinement of her room, she creates cloth figurines in the style of Louise Bourgeois and tries to seduce Ledgard whenever he is in the room. Who would possibly wish for such a life? Is she a prisoner or is she there out of her own accord? Did Ledgard bring her there by force or is he doing her a favour?

The plot is dense and keeps dashing back and forth in time, so sit tightly and try not to miss a thing. Now that I look back, there were plenty of red herrings in the beginning of the film, pointing out to who Vera could possibly be. Her identity is not only the key answer to the many questions raised by the plot, but is also the central theme of the whole film. What makes people who they are? Is it just our appearance? Can someone manipulate your “soul” to create a perfect being? What about sexuality – is it stable or fluid? I feel it is perilous to say anything on top of this about the plot for the risk of ruining it for you.

The cinematography was absolutely beautiful. The rich red from the poster is everywhere in the film – it is literally drenched in sex. Violence and sex are constantly juxtaposed in the film, sometimes infusing into one. Guns are aplenty and nudity runs amok. The paintings hanging on the walls of Ledgard’s villa are cheeky metaphors for Vera and the doctor’s relationship. ‘Venus of Urbino’ is mirrored by Vera herself on her draped bed. The soundtrack was beautiful but not overpowering.

It was refreshing to see Antonio Banderas cast in an unusual role – his accent and his looks limit his range in Hollywood to Latin lovers and southern avengers. Here he is enigmatic, reserved and extremely dangerous, much like a vampire. His feelings towards Vera are unclear, there is the Pygmalion element of the creator desiring his creation, the master-slave dynamic and also a tiny hint of the Stockholm syndrome.

Overall, this is a grotesque and absurd story that is enchanting and repulsive at the same time. If films had a smell, this one would be a difficult to bear, sweet, muscusy one, infused with flowery scents of southern Spain.

Monday, 22 August 2011

REVIEW: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Dir.: Rupert Wyatt
With: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Frieda Pinto

Ok, so I have never watched the original “Planet of the Apes” (bad, bad girl) but I’ve read enough about it to know that it is a classic with an unexpected (but much publicised) plot twist, original ideas and a very high entertainment factor. The first film also came out at the time when the social inequality issues were very relevant (just as they are today I suppose) and the movie had many satirical elements to it. Naturally, I did not expect the same quality level from the prequel “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” since, as we all know, most prequels and sequels are nothing more than cashing-ins without any substantial backbone in terms of plot and structure. This film, however, was a very pleasant surprise.

Although James Franco has got the official title role, the true protagonist is Caesar, a chimpanzee, created through motion-capture technology with Andy Serkis  (who also played Gollum and  King Kong) inside the lycra suit. I was completely blown away by the CGI – Caesar was so incredibly real, a bizarre mixture of animal movements and human emotions. His face had a wide range of expressions, from fascinated puppy-eyed face in his youthful days spent at James Franco’s house to the stern, wise and angry look of a revolutionary leader. His development from a tiny baby into a curious teenager and, eventually, into a hard-bitten adult was nuanced and fascinating to watch. You ended up siding with him as he, being incredibly intelligent, works out how to manipulate the world of humans and the world of primates.

The film was played out completely straight-faced, which I think it benefited from – there was nothing complex about the emotional drama in it, however, because the story was so interesting, the lack of nitty-gritty realism and ethical dilemmas did not seem as important. There was a healthy balance between sentimental character studies, human-primate interaction and big, loud action scenes. For a blockbuster, this had the right ingredients and the end result turned out to be highly amusing.

In fact, I noticed that the human on human interaction was much paler and more forced than any of the scenes with apes in them. James Franco’s character was a cookie-cutter good scientist, his father - the charming demented old man, his girlfriend a beautiful veterinarian (how fitting), all the other humans were evil and exploitative of nature. No wonder they got the ending that they did  – here is a little heads up – stay and watch the film until after the initial credits run – there is an interesting twist right at the end.

I never liked monkeys much, they are too similar to human beings and, if they were given the same intelligence, there is no question that they would easily conquer and enslave humans – we aren’t exactly the fittest species. I am now looking forward to watching the original “Planet of the Apes” to see my theories being confirmed.

PS. There is a quote in the film where someone says ‘he is not a monkey, he is an ape!!!’ which got me confused since I thought they were the same thing. Today someone enlightened me and told me that apes do not have tails but monkeys do – just a random bit of trivia for you.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

REVIEW: The Inbetweeners Movie

Dir.: Ben Palmer
With: Simon Bird, James Buckley, Blake Harrison, Joe Thomas

I have never actually watched The Inbetweeners TV show and was very surprised to suddenly find myself buying a ticket for the film. I obviously cannot tell you whether it is better or worse than the show, so if you’re a fan you’ll have to judge for yourself. I vaguely knew that the show was about four teenage friends from the English suburbia and their desperate attempts to get some action and survive the sixth-form politics at school. The first ten minutes into the film I kept thinking ‘I cannot believe I’m actually watching this’, the language was pretty much like this – ‘it’ll be like shooting clunge in a barrel’, you get the picture.

And you know what, once I got more or less familiar with the protagonists and what they represented, I really really enjoyed the film! It was one of the most cringe-worthy things I have ever seen, simply because the embarrassing moments in it weren’t at all outlandish and I could actually imagine real-life teenagers get into similar situations. The holiday plot is similar to “The Hangover”, but it is much more realistic and way more painful to digest.

Oh, the pains one has to go through in one’s youth in an attempt to impress the opposite sex and fit in with the cool crowd! Oh, the humiliation of looking back at one’s old holiday photos, thinking ‘what on earth am I wearing?!’ I found “The Inbetweeners” quite endearing because it was so easy to relate to. I don’t think I was ever as bad as the four protagonists though – their “slick” dance moves, drunken adventures and general naïveté are something else entirely. 

The dynamics in their group seem unforced and it is pretty obvious that the young men get along very well in real life as well. Their comedy skills were pretty impressive for their age and I am quite curious to see the TV show now. The film is not the perfect comedy and some of the crude language was not at all necessary, although there were some literary gems like ‘the moment I realised that ‘God’ is just ‘dog’ spelled backwards, I stopped caring’. Amen to that.

Monday, 15 August 2011

REVIEW: The Beautiful Lies (Les Vrais Mensonges)

Dir.: Pierre Salvadori
With: Audrey Tautou, Sami Bouajila, Nathalie Baye

French romantic comedies manage to retain the same inconspicuous charm that old Hollywood films like “Roman Holiday” used to have. There is something so naïve and lovely about French romantic stories, even the ones set in modern times. This film sees Pierre Salvadori re-united with Audrey Tautou after their successful collaboration on “Priceless” (Hors de Prix). Generally, Tautou plays ephemeral, sweet characters, but Salvadori somehow always sees her as a manipulative and harsh ‘salope’. Here, instead of a golddigger, she plays Emilie, owner of a hairdressing salon, someone who does not believe in the trifles of love and has more important things on her mind, which don’t stop her from meddling in other people’s affairs.

The set-up is quite simple, Jean, played by Sami Bouajila, is a highly educated, sensitive and shy admirer of Emilie’s; he builds up the courage to send her an anonymous love letter. At first she doesn’t give it too much thought, she then decides to send it onto her mother, who is going through a midlife crisis of her own. The letter does wonders to the woman’s well being, however chaos and more misunderstandings ensue.

I was smiling throughout the whole film, it is not too sickly sweet, there are some dark undertones, especially once you see how unpleasant and cold Emilie can really be. Audrey Tautou looked effortlessly chic in her unassuming attire and the beautiful Mediterranean landscape was a pleasure to take in. However, it is the mother, played by Nathalie Baye whom I fell in love with. Her character was absolutely marvellous – she starts off as a mentally unstable, depressive psycho and gradually blossoms into the most seductive older woman one can imagine.

I would highly recommend this film purely for its nonchalant French allure.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

REVIEW: The Devil's Double

Dir.: Lee Tamahori
With: Dominic Cooper

Finally, there are some decent films out! Let’s rejoice and praise the Lord!

I’ve been dying to see “The Devil’s Double” for a long, long time. The premise is well-known: the film is based on Latif Yahya’s memoirs of his life as Uday Hussein’s (Saddam’s eldest son) body double. Dominic Cooper plays both – Latif and Uday. There is something inherently captivating about stories with doppelgangers – our fascination with the concept of there being two copies of the same person probably stems from child psychology. The moment when a baby recognises his reflection in the mirror is when the possibility of having a dual existence first enters our minds. If you think about it, there have been tonnes of films made about twins, people who happen to look similar and, of course, identity usurpation. To name but a few – “The Talented Mr Ripley”, “The Parent Trap”, “Dead Ringers”, “Face Off”, “The Great Dictator”, etc etc etc.

“The Devil’s Double” does not, unfortunately, bring anything new to the psychology of doppelgangers, however, it is always fascinating to watch a person having to step into the shoes of another, both psychologically and physically. Dominic Cooper deserves much praise for his performance; he managed to create two completely different people – the psychotic, unhinged Uday and the reserved, unflinching Latif. He is both repulsive and highly amusing as Uday – there is a fair amount of humour and grotesque violence involved. Latif is quite boring, there is no real reflection of his inner turmoil, however, there are certain hints of him starting to acquire a taste for the material perks that come with his job. Dominic Cooper is in most shots in the film, but you do not tire of watching him. I do hope that his performance will be recognised by various award-givers.

The film itself could have been much better. The plot is erratic and uneven – there are very slow and boring moments and some high-paced ones. The ending is quite disappointing and there is no clear logical explanation for what had actually happened. Although, the events unfold during the years of the first Gulf War, the film does not tell anything new about Iraq and the country appears rather hastily sketched as a mere backdrop to the two protagonists. “The Devil’s Double” has been described as a Middle Eastern “Scarface”, however, it is no real match for it. The violence in it is not as shocking as one would anticipate; I have a strong feeling that the film had been heavily edited for a wider release. Uday’s womanising, sexual misdemeanours and criminality are hinted upon, but nothing is really shown. I think the film would have benefited from more shocking images. However, this is just a personal opinion and I am sure that some scenes are shocking enough for certain audiences.

Another weakness was Latif and Uday’s love interest. Her position was not very clear, not exactly a prostitute, this lady of the demi-world was supposed to be an Oriental beauty who captivated both men and caused some serious drama – the actress, Ludivine Sagnier, really failed to charm me and did not live up to her role at all.

Overall, I would still recommend watching “The Devil’s Double” simply because it is a very interesting story of a man’s life and because of Dominic Cooper’s impressing turn in it. 

Thursday, 4 August 2011

'Glamour of the Gods' - scopophilia, voyeurism and the pleasures of cinema

I’ve always been curious about what exactly makes cinema trips so enchanting sometimes. Of course there are the fantastical plots, the out-of-this-world adventures, the element of escapism and great acting, but what is it REALLY about cinema that makes people all around the world spend their time and money on sitting in a dark room watching strangers on a screen? I thought I had the answer (well sort of) a couple of years ago after I read an essay by L. Mulvey called ‘Visual Pleasure and narrative cinema’ but then obviously forgot all about it. I was reminded of it again when I went to the ‘Glamour of the Gods’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery a few days ago. I really enjoyed the exhibition – there were 90 photo portraits of old Hollywood stars, from Marlene Dietrich to Marilyn Monroe. Of course, the focus was on their iconic status, style and beauty (to think that Photoshop did not exist back then!), however, what the exhibition demonstrated rather clearly was that these frozen images or movie stills were central to firmly embedding the actors and actresses in the public conscience at the time.
There is an inexplicable and obvious link between these images and the films that the actors starred in; what unites them is the process of the audience actively looking and, thus, “owning” the images. Mulvey argues that watching films provides us with the basic voyeuristic pleasure. The darkness in the cinema and the silver screen supply us with the necessary distance to be able to observe the characters’ lives unfold unsuspected. She goes even further by linking this to the Freudian idea of scopophilia, the pleasure of looking at and fascination with the human form, also one of the component instincts of sexuality according to Freud.  At this point we, as the audience, take in the people in the films as objects, something to be consumed for purely erotic needs. Apparently, we are all prone to it, the perversion being obsessive voyeurism.
Moreover, cinema also provides us with the possibility of recognising and relating to the central characters and, unavoidably, gaining satisfaction from projecting ourselves onto the film’s protagonists as our idealised versions and, in a way, our ego ideal. Therefore, there is an intricate interplay between image and self-image at hand here.
All this is well and fine, but there is a major problem with this set-up – modern and classical cinema is largely phallocentric. The protagonists are generally male and pro-active, whereas the females are subsidiary to the plot and act mainly as objects to be sexually consumed through sight. Just think of the “normal” sex scenes in movies – the focus is always on the female body and face, even outside these scenes, it is standard to have close-ups of different female body parts in the shot. The audiences then are expected to identify with the male protagonist and see the film through his eyes. Ultimately, woman is always the image and the man is the bearer of the look. Of course there are exceptions such as Daniel Craig emerging from the sea in bright blue swimming trunks but, overall, this trend still applies to most films.
Which brings me back to the exhibition – whilst enjoying the photographs for what they were, I could not shake off the feeling that I was being a bit of a Peeping Tom. Those beautiful women and, to some extent, men seemed to be demi-gods in their lifetime, however, they were massively exploited simultaneously. In the days before internet and paparazzi, a photographed image really was worth a thousand words and a titillating image of a beautiful woman generated millions of dollars for the film studios. This continues today, whether it is pure sexism or just a manifestation of the human subconscious is debatable but here’s to hoping that the objectification will at least become equal in the near future, if it’s not possible to eradicate it altogether.
'Glamour of the Gods' is currently on at the National Portrait Gallery in London until the 23rd October.