Monday, 26 March 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, John Madden, UK 2011

John Madden's latest offering pretty much offers what one would expect from the director who gave us Shakespeare In Love, Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Mrs. Brown. My own personal favourite of the lot is the latter, though Mrs. Brown may be slightly atypical for a John Madden flick inasmuch as it's less upbeat than, say, Shakespeare in Love, to say nothing of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel which is the ultimate upbeat, feel-good movie experience if there ever was one!

A motley bunch of British retirees from various walks of life but with one thing in common - a lack of funds - gather at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for that very reason: a dearth of the necessary funds to retire in dignity in their home country makes them opt for India instead. Their adjustment to their new home - or the refusal thereof - varies depending on their background. Judi Dench's Evelyn, whose late husband squandered away their money, a fact she only learns about once he's left for the eternal hunting grounds, adjusts more easily than the rest of the lot and seems a great deal more open to the pleasures and possibilities - as well as the pitfalls - of their new surroundings. Running a blog, which she originally started as a means to keep in touch with her family back in the UK, it is mainly through Evelyn's eyes - and words - that we, the viewers, get the run-down of the India experience of her and her fellow retirees first hand. It is also Evelyn, who, with her sometimes wise, sometimes utterly banal, blog entries, keeps the movie at its upbeat, feel-good pitch. Therefore, Dench is the one to provide the smiles.

However, it is Maggie Smith who provides the laughs. And uproarious ones at that! As the one who's most reluctant to leave her beloved England with all its biscuits and builder's tea behind, she's at her most uproarious, politically incorrect, hilarious, best! Her lines simply had me in stitches! To be perfectly honest, a movie this frothy and - dare I say it - at times, syrupy - would have benefited a great deal had there been more of Smith. And I'm not just saying it because I'm probably her biggest fan. No, it's just that she's the spice - the red hot chilli - in a dish that's otherwise a little too sweet for my liking. But hey, I admit that if I was able to make a wish, I'd like a DVD with all of Maggie Smith's scenes from California Suite, Gosford Park, A Private Function, Sister Act, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, cut in a row! Why, it would mean hours and hours of sheer endless laughter and first-class amusement by the world's prime comedienne, or how I choose to refer to her - the Goddess of Camp!

Sunday, 11 March 2012

German Film Now

If the German Competition entries at the recently concluded Berlin Film Festival are anything to go by, German Cinema is in a sorry state. OK, sorry may perhaps be too strong a word, but compared to other countries - European and otherwise - Germany has little cause for celebration. Certainly, if the seventh art was a reflection of a country's economic might, Germany would be much closer to its nemesis, Greece. Having had lunch recently with a friend, a Berlin-based film producer, though one who's involved in international co-productions only, she seconded my assumption. However, she also demurred that those in Germany's film scene who see it this way are few and far between. In other words, you ask any German (film maker), and he'll tell you that German film is alive and well. But if you ask anybody outside Germany, they're bound to tell you that the last time they saw a German film was probably when Fatih Akin's On The Other Side received rave reviews the world over, but especially in France.

Now why is that, I wonder? How come that in spite of the relatively high annual output of home-grown fare, only a mere handful of films - if that - are actually doing well on their home turf. Equally pitiful is the number of those that receive a foreign release, to say nothing of the fact that year by year goes by with the Cannes and the Venice Film Festivals snubbing Germany yet again, choosing not to include any German entry for their Competitions. Countries like the UK, the US, Italy, Turkey, and of course, France, regularly have films in the Competition of both Cannes and Venice without fail. Not so Germany.

The problem, in my opinion, is three-fold, really. On the one hand, there's a quality problem. Then there's a box-office problem. And lastly, there's the problem of delusion, for as I said above, few in Germany are aware of the sad state that country's film industry is in, preferring to be in denial over it. Yet all I can say is: Just look at the three German entries at this year's Berlin Film Festival and look at the French, British, and American entries at Cannes and Venice in recent years and the problem becomes very evident indeed. While film makers such as Ken Loach, Andrea Arnold, Steve McQueen, Terrence Malick, Michael Hazanavicius, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and so on are taking a critical look at the world around us or are reinventing the cinematic language, the three German films at the last Berlin Film Fest (Gnade, Barbara, Was bleibt), were little more than self-gratifying, parochial dramas at the expense of Germany's tax-payers, for needless to say - those films were entirely made with subsidies. I'm inclined to add that these subsidies would be put to better use if invested in Greece rather than in films no one's ever going to see because their topics are of little concern to anyone but their film makers. I have no idea how exactly that country's subsidy system works, but its seems to me it is either as corrupt as, it appears, quite a few of that country's politicians or else, the people who make the decisions over who does and who doesn't get any money for his latest masturbation exercise - excuse my French! - are hopelessly incompetent.

Needless to say, all three films received rave reviews in Germany (and admittedly some decent ones by foreign reviewers), and one well known German film critic whose name need not be mentioned, even went so far as to predict that all three German Competition entries surely would end up garnering all major awards at the Fest, a view which was shared by few others, I might add. In the end, only one major award went to a German film, an obligatory Silver Bear for Petzold's Barbara. Every year, one single Silver Bear is habitually awarded to a German film - usually it's the one for Best Actress - so as if the International Jury felt obligated to stroke that country's battered ego. The last time, however, a German film was awarded the Grand Prix - the Golden Bear - was in 2004 when Fatih Akin won for Head On, and that was about the last time a German director submitted a film that was both visually stunning and at the same time had something to say - and to do - with the world which surrounds us.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the last German film that made it into the Competition at Venice, Tom Tykwer's Three, in 2010. Tykwer's film went more or less unnoticed, hence I was not a little surprised when it received excellent write-ups upon its German opening. And it was this fact which finally prompted me to go and watch it for following the film's negative international reception upon its Venice premiere, in addition to the film's hopelessly dated topic, I had no intentions of watching it at first. But once I'd seen it, I was seriously asking myself what prompted Tykwer to shoot this film, a film which showed a Berlin with no immigrants and whose protagonist exclaims at one point, "Islam and all that may just as well disappear!", and where the fact that a man has an ex-marital affair with another man is made such a fuss over. Back to the 1950s, is all I thought. Why this film of all films received this kind of a critical accolade on its home turf - including a string of German Film Academy Awards nods - is anybody's guess.

Most probably, the recent output of German film makers is a reflection of what's going on inside that country. And looking at the way the Greek Tragedy is being discussed in the German media, the positive reception of Mr. Sarrazin's highly questionable and controversial book, not to mention the way in which Germany's outgoing president was being chased out of office in a witch-hunt the likes of which had not been seen since McCarthy was US Senator, I can't help but thinking that yes, that country may well be looking backwards instead of forwards. Back to the 1950s! Which again reminded me of a recent Tagesspiegel article by Zafer Senocak in which he decries just that, the way in which the Germany of today is a lot less open-minded and forward looking than the (West-) Germany of the 1980s.

If the films churned out by Germany's film makers in recent years are anything to go by, Mr. Senocak does have a very valid point indeed. However, the question is - why? And more importantly, why are so few - if any - in Germany see it that way?

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Shame, Steve McQueen, UK 2011

I know by now that the trick in life is to not have any expectations whatsoever, but instead to walk into any new experience cold - for obvious reasons. However, as a rule, I'm not very good at this game, as my expectations always tend to be ahead of me, usually emerging way before my brain is able to remind me that having expectations is a bad thing. All this gets especially difficult when it comes to movies: these days, with the information overflow spilling out of iPads, iPhones, televisions, radios, newspapers, magazines and what not, one simply cannot help but picking up the odd titbits here and there on a new movie that's about to be released. And if the movie's supposed to be a good - or even great one - the advance buzz is such that unless you're living like a hermit, cut off from society including its media, your expectations are quite simple bound to soar, whether you like it or not. And so they have as far as I'm concerned in the case of Steve McQueen's new film, Shame.

Have they ever!

As we all know, the higher the expectations, the more difficult it is for the movie to own up to them, and more often than not, I myself end up being disappointed. Now, having seen McQueen's previous film, Hunger, which I'd declared my favourite film of 2008, I don't need to tell you that with all the buzz surrounding Shame's premiere at the Venice Film Festival last September, my expectation were, mildly put, sky-high. And yet - lo and behold, they were not only met, McQueen's masterpiece actually exceeded them.

That's how good his film is!

Good is not quite an apt description, really, for McQueen excels at practically every level, including cinematography, screenplay, editing, and, of course, the acting. But all these merits notwithstanding, the most noteworthy aspect of Shame, in my opinion, is the fact that the film addresses a topic which has so far received scant attention, if any, from film makers. And yet, the topic - somewhat insufficiently described as sex addiction - seems so relevant and prevalent in world where sex is just a click away; a world dominated by media whose main preoccupation seems to be just that: sex.

Like Hunger, Shame is a very visual film, McQueen being a master at using the cinematic medium to the full. In other words, McQueen uses dialogue only where necessary and where what he wants to bring across, cannot be told through images. All the better, then, that Shame's main character, Brandon Sullivan, is a man of few words, taciturn at best, a loner, in fact. More often than not he's irritable and on edge, even when he's having sex which, if Brandan's facial expressions while having sex are anything to go by, has little to do with what sex is usually associated with. Obsessive, wild, with a face seemingly contorted by pain, sex to Brendan appears to be more strenuous than something he does out of lust and desire.

Set in New York - which , sorry Mr. Wowereit, still outdoes Berlin in sexiness by a far cry - Brandon's world consists mainly of his manically spotless apartment in Chelsea where, unless he's bedding a hooker, he spends most of his time by the computer doing what any loner does who's socially and emotionally clumsy yet whose only outlet is sex. It has been estimated that two thirds of all Google searches are sex related. And yet, as I said earlier, the topic of sex addiction, including Internet porn, has been strangely neglected by film makers and writers alike. No medium or invention has changed our life and habits to the degree the Internet has. This especially goes for our sex life, although most of us may not even be aware of it. The lure of the Internet, catering to every possible sexual deviation, kink or desire, 24/7, in the privacy of your own home, and just one click away - has arguably changed our sexual habits considerably more than anything else, including the invention of the anti-baby pill or the freedom that came with the sexual liberation of the student movement of the 1960s.

Just to be clear - I am a clear advocate of the Internet and the freedom and accessibility of information it provides, but that doesn't exclude looking at the implications it has had on society at large, particularly at the way we look at sex. The big advantage - or disadvantage, depending on your vantage point - is that the Internet allows you to withdraw into a fantasy world, to shut out reality entirely. To have sex - either with yourself or with somebody via chat or webcam - the Internet doesn't require you to speak or interact. You're free to create your own reality behind the images you see on screen. And it is precisely this fantasy world that is Brandon's realm.

In one of the few scenes in Shame which relies on dialogue and images in equal parts, we see Brandon dating a co-worker, the stunningly beautiful Marianne whose interest in Brandon obviously goes beyond the mere sexual. Brandon, however, proves a poor date. Their conversation is kept alive mainly by Marianne with little input from Brandon. Evidently, Brandon's not one of those who cares to impress his date with his knowledge of food or his expertise when it comes to selecting the wine. Food, wine, like all other things associated with social interaction, play a subordinate role in his life which revolves but around one thing and one thing only. It is with pride, almost, that he admits to Marianne that his longest relationship lasted four months, a record , it seems, she is hoping to break. Even though it has become clear by this point, that Brandon's incapable of intimacy, we, the viewers, hope that Marianne might succeed, regardless - or perhaps because - of the fact that Brandon doesn't take her to bed right after their dinner. He does so, or tries to, anyway, a few days later. However, in order to pretend that Marianne is just another girl he picked up on the way home, he takes her to a hotel instead of taking her home. But to no avail - he is only capable of having sex on a completely anonymous, casual, basis, and his relations with Marianne have already reached a level of nearness and intimacy that make it impossible for him to keep that fantasy alive.

Make no mistake: McQueen does not portray Brandon as a one-dimensional character - sex-crazed, cold, and irritable - but rather as one whose feelings are buried way below, and only occasionally do they rise to the surface. They do, however, in one of the most poignant scenes in Shame, when Brendan's sister, Sissy, gives a devastatingly beautiful rendition of New York, New York. There are few songs I can think of more apt to express optimism, promise and hope for things to come as do the lyrics of this song written by Fred Ebb for Scorsese's 1977 movie of the same title. Sissy's own rendition of New York, New York, though, seems to express exactly the opposite. It reminds us that besides being sexy, New York also is a place where it is probably easier to feel lonely and abandoned than in most other places. Is that why Brandon, listening to his sister, suddenly starts to cry? The only instance in the movie where he is seen expressing his feelings - however involuntarily - in public.

Not meaning to sound pretentious or smug, the central topic of Shame is a very complex one, and it is to McQueen's credit that he doesn't even attempt to psychologically explain Brendan's condition, let alone deliver a full explanation. The only hint he gives us is by means of Sissy, who, towards the film's end leaves a message on her brother's phone saying, "that just because we're coming from a bad place doesn't mean we're bad people!". By this point, though, we just about gathered as much. Love may be a cheesy, much overused term. But it is nevertheless the basis for almost everything. And it doesn't require a great deal of psychological insight to know that the absence of love during childhood is apt to scar anyone and will make it all the harder for the child to later lead a normal life as an adult. However, while what's been lacking during their childhood seems to manifest itself in Sissy in an amplified need for love and intimacy, the opposite is true for Brandon, who is fully incapable of any intimacy, even that offered - and requested - by his own sister.

I have no idea, of course, what Steve McQueen's impetus for his film was. All I know is that Shame is so well observed and told with such empathy, immediacy, intensity and a tremendous level of accuracy - which is nothing short of awesome.

Shame is as disturbing as it is mesmerising. It is, quite simply, one of the most provocative, evocative and most important films I've ever had the privilege of watching.