Archive for Mike Leigh

Art isn’t just some guy’s name

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2015 by dcairns

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We watched two fairly recent films in a row — I know, shocking, right?

MR. TURNER suddenly became the film everybody in Britain had to see, and our local Filmhouse did a roaring trade. I think the success was similar to that of TV movie The Gathering Storm — you have a well-known actor playing a well-known figure who is redolent of Britishness, and it somehow becomes a perfect storm. The Albert Finney Churchill impersonation was held together by a strong story. MR. TURNER had lovely cinematography — more gorgeous than I would ever have guessed Mike Leigh of his cinematographer to be capable of — begging the question why they don’t let their contemporary films look beautiful — but no story at all.

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What, in fact, is MR. TURNER about? The extremely depressing final shot seems to argue that it’s about, at heart, the painter’s exploitative relationship with his housekeeper and mistress (Dorothy Atkinson, with some striking physical comedy work). It might be about the fact that each was the most important person in the others’ life, a thing which was never acknowledged for reasons of class. But if that’s what the film’s about, we’re faced with the problem that a good 80% of the action takes place far removed from this spine of the story. I liked Turner Snr., but his declining health is a different narrative altogether. Turner’s relationship with the cash-strapped Mr. Haydon has nothing to do with anything else. Turner’s suffering at the hands of the critics, who are unreceptive to his increasingly impressionistic work, would seem like an important element in a biography of the subject, but emerge very late in the runtime and vanish again, having had no certain impact on anything.

As usual with Leigh, a better approach I suppose is to simply ask if the scenes are interesting and not worry whether they are all necessary or add up to a coherent whole. TOPSY TURVY is the only other Leigh film I’ve both seen and liked, and it gains structural rigour by being about a theatrical production. It then jettisons that rigour by trundling on past its natural ending for about half an hour, leading into Gilbert & Sullivan’s next production. What Leigh gains from this is a deeper portrayal of the theatrical life, a never-ending cycle of fresh projects that must be laboriously brought into being. What he loses is a definable shape, a clear arc that lets the audience understand where they are in the story at any given time — most films follow these structural rules simply to reassure the viewer with a familiar set of beats. I don’t think he’s necessarily wrong to reject that.

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In the case of MR. TURNER, a lot of the scenes are interesting. There’s some pleasing rhythmic interplay, some outrageous hamming (Joshua McGuire as Ruskin revives the grand old British tradition of the silly ass) and the grunting, shambling figure of Timothy Spall is curiously compelling. For some reason, the movie feels the need to punish us with some unpleasant sex and a horrible ending. That’s where I can’t go along with it. If it’s just a bag of bits loosely themed around a famous artist’s life, it doesn’t earn the right to be upsetting and/or icky.

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THE MONUMENTS MEN is an equally handsome film, from handsome director/star George Clooney, who continues to show promise but doesn’t quite resolve his skilled team, charismatic cast, and intriguing subject matter into a really good movie. The music persistently tries to persuade us we’re watching THE GREAT ESCAPE, trampling all over the actual tone of the scenes, which are often quite a bit darker than a jaunty march would suggest.

Not too dark, though — a consistent and strange error of Clooney’s directing career is the allowing of scenes devoid of drama to make it through the development process. No tension or conflict, just chumminess. Decidedly odd when you have movies about the McCarthy witch hunts, a supposed CIA assassin and game show host (I admit I haven’t seen the ones about politics and football). I think because the story focuses on the good guys, who are all in agreement more or less, the potential conflicts with the Germans, the Russians and the American brass who don’t see the point of risking lives for paintings and sculptures, get fairly short shrift. As an actor, Clooney ought to know that you don’t have a source of tension in a scene you don’t have anything, but like a lot of enthusiastic amateurs he keeps ignoring what he does know.

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I think there’s also too much intercutting, and the script is sloppy in its willingness to feed us information any old how: a narration, letters home, radio broadcasts. Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov genuinely don’t seem to understand what drama is, or they think it’s OK to suspend it for minutes at a time while everybody stands around and tries to show how much they care.

But that all makes the film sound terrible — in fact, because the cast are all so affable and the basic set-up is intriguing, it’s a sometimes frustrating but generally diverting watch. It’s just not everything it might have been. Clooney is smart, talented as an actor, has good taste, and I’m certain he’s a nice guy — reluctance to allow drama to really boil over is often a trait of nice people — he just needs to take the gloves off, I think.

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Mayhem and Probs

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on May 21, 2011 by dcairns

I enjoyed Joe Cornish’s ATTACK THE BLOCK. which I saw with friends Marvelous Mary, David and Ali, and young Louis. I don’t have a lot to add to the general impression of approval emanating from the print media — it’s great to see a film which takes representation of British experience seriously while still delivering an entertainment. I remember Mike Leigh expressing satisfaction that ALL OR NOTHING was getting a wider distribution than usual so that his film about life in sink estates could be seen by people IN sink estates, and thinking, “Yeah, but be honest, why would they go see it? They know what it’s like.” Cornish has actually given the real-life equivalents of the heroes of his film something to enjoy, something that they can’t get at home: alien invasion.

It’s the alien invasion I want to dwell on, because that’s in some ways the film’s weakest part. Although the movie has a few scattered pop-culture allusions (the setting is Wyndham Tower, a nod to the author of numerous British sci-fi classics, and repeated mentions of Ballard Street tip the hat in the direction of another master of apocalypse, but where is the H.G. Wells tribute?), it doesn’t seem to have bothered much with imaging a coherent alien race. An eleventh-hour plot twist involving pheremones is the only real idea offered, and otherwise we’re asked to believe in a race of interstellar travelers too dumb to figure out how to open a wheelie bin. One bit of narrative development is surely not enough — ALIEN gave us the egg, the face-hugger, the chest-burster and the full-grown man-sized Geiger biker dude, after all. If it’s not going to be transformations in size and appearance, it should be a transformation in our understanding of the creatures’ purpose and behaviour, which is only grudgingly offered here, and doesn’t ultimately make much sense (if this is a mating ritual, why are the pheremone-doused humans KILLED?). A promising idea, that the film’s nominal hero, Moses, may be responsible for all the carnage due to his thoughtless, vicious killing of the first visitor, is largely abandoned — Cornish’s strength as writer, his affection for his flawed characters, may also be his weakness, as he’s too easy on them.

In terms of the aliens’ design, there are issues… Cornish has decried the over-detailed look of most modern CGI monsters, and he’s right (how ironic that he’s involved ins cripting Spielberg’s forthcoming TINTIN, which looks from previews like a reckless plunge into the Uncanny Valley of hideously-over-textured motion capture ugliness…) and so the idea of “monsters you could actually draw” sounds refreshing. Blacker-than-black outline beasts with glow-in-the-dark fangs sounds fine, but I wish the beasties’ ability to blend with the shadows had been exploited more. And the thick, matted fur may be making things too easy for the prospective fan-artist: even I could draw these things, since the jagged-edge outline robs them of even a clear silhouette. Basically they’re a bit like the star of ROBOT MONSTER but with a dog’s head. In fact, basically they’re exactly like the dog Gnasher in Britain’s Dennis the Menace cartoon strip.

A fuzzy outline filled with menace — that encapsulates why the scifi side of the film, both visually and conceptually, feels underdeveloped compared to the compelling and compassionate view of life in Britain today, which is more switched-on than most of the supposed social-realism of the last several decades. Still, I’m quibbling — this movie is a hell of a lot of fun, confident without being brash, exciting, funny and likable. Since Cornish comes from a similar background to Chris Morris (FOUR LIONS) and Richard Ayoade (SUBMARINE) , we may be seeing something almost unprecedented in British cinema: a reinvigoration of commercial movie-making by TV comedy talent, spearheaded by ATTACK THE BLOCK exec Edgar Wright. There have been some notable failures too (MAGICIANS, BUNNY AND THE BULL), but nobody since Monty Python seems to have managed that transition, so it’s worthy of note.

What the hell are “tidings” anyway?

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , on December 22, 2010 by dcairns

Here are some festive greetings cards from Shadowplay. Simply print out the images, cut them to size, paste them onto a piece of folded card and do all the wearisome and time-consuming interior layout yourself.

Actual size Scorsese.

I don’t like Mike Leigh’s stuff too much, but you’ve got to admit, he has a festive appearance.

And I applaud the Criterion Collection’s release of the long-unavailable TOPSY TURVY, the only Leigh film I’ve both seen and enjoyed. (There are many Leigh films I’ve seen and not enjoyed. Are there Leigh films I’ve enjoyed and not seen? Yes.)

Orson is how I’d like to imagine Father Christmas.

I wish this were a talking card, Lynch’s nasal twang seems an ideal medium for conveying seasonal cheer.

And nothing says “Yuletide Fun” like this fellow. Have an Irreversible Christmas!