(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2008)
Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)
Leigh has had a long and prestigious career but there’s a definite lack of consensus on what it amounts to. Is he an insightful chronicler of some deep truth about ordinary people, or a quirky grump off on his own peculiar ledge? I’m not sure myself, but I think he’s achieved his best work – with Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake – when focused on a particular historical or social purpose; at other times (as with All or Nothing) the films often seem to drift. The new movie, back in the present day, is built around the kind of relentlessly cheerful character who’s popped up in the margins of some of his previous films – 30-year-old Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a nursery school teacher who goes through life with a quip for every occasion and an almost pathological inability not to look at the bright side. Leigh is very good of course with the banter of the English masses (at times the movie just carries you along in a string of giggles), and although there’s little overt political content here, the film slowly lets in more of society’s dark and drab sides. In particular there’s Poppy’s tightly wound driving instructor, who simply can’t handle her, and there’s a great one-off scene with a homeless man who lurches between operatic incoherence and sharp lucidity (although Leigh has created scenes like this before too). Ultimately, there’s not much more to all this than the observation of Poppy’s best friend that “It’s hard being a grown-up,” which I suppose might broadly be what virtually every great film is about. But Poppy is a distinctive enough creation that she comes to seem almost radical. Ultimately I don’t think the film will change anyone’s opinions about Leigh, but I was firmly on board for the whole thing.
Achilles and the Tortoise (Takeshi Kitano)
Actor-director Kitano’s career has been illustrious enough to get him to the festival’s “Masters” section - he won the top price at the Venice Festival for Hana-Bi and his Zatoichi won the TIFF people’s choice award in 2003. There’s a grab-bag aspect to his work, but he’s achieved some beauty and plenty of deadpan diversion. With his last few films he’s shaken off his tough-guy origins, but at the cost of too much self-absorption. The new one is a nice little movie, straining for significance (the title metaphor doesn’t count for much) built around the intriguing concept of a dedicated life long artist who has lots of basic skill and imagination but lacks the je ne sais quoi that separates the notables from the also-rans. It takes us from his bourgeois childhood, ending in catastrophic bust, through art-school hi-jinks and an adulthood of stoic disappointments, pumped up throughout by the dazzling parade of his unwanted creations. Kitano’s expressionless block of a presence is perfectly suited to embodying the character’s older years. Throw in the recurring motif of death (but always with the sheen of art) and it makes for an engaging creation, although it’s tempting to take the easy criticism and to say that the film, like its protagonist, is more facile and resourceful than actually meaningful. This could of course be a clever fusion of form and content, a structure of bluffs and double bluffs, except that Kitano’s recent work suggests that, nah, this is actually as good as he could do.
Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino)
Sorrentino’s film probably isn’t ideally suited for those who, like me, have only a vague knowledge of post-war Italian politics (as in, it’s really dysfunctional, and a lot of people got blown up) – even the opening explanatory screen-scroll is barely penetrable. So this is a film where you have to go with the big picture, but then that’s all confusing too. Artfully so of course, for isn’t the false promise of simplicity and clarity in politics one of the great damaging illusions of our times? (cue Sarah Palin metaphor). The subject is Giulio Andreotti, who was several times Italian prime minister, maintained (as depicted here) a complex web of connections while remaining personally repressed and inscrutable, and was eventually indicted for complicity in Mafia crimes. “You’re either the most cunning criminal in the country,” says an acquaintance, “or the most persecuted man in Italy.” It’s likely that the film’s Andreotti – a man we see rip a page out of a mystery novel because he doesn’t want to know the killer – couldn’t tell you himself. The film has a silky menace that evokes the dark texture of the Godfather films (an obvious reference point in various ways); it also incorporates hints of Sergio Leone and others, although Sorrentino is much more actively experimental and out to dazzle with technique (which he frequently does, although again, not always comprehensibly). For outsiders (and no doubt largely for insiders), the murkiness about what Andreotti actually achieved (beyond a broad reference to his contribution to steering through the Cold War) makes it hard to assess his place on the moral spectrum. Still, it’s not a small achievement to make a movie that’s so compelling while yet leaving you feeling so grievously under-resourced.
Les plages d’Agnes (Agnes Varda)
Varda is over 80 now and has been making films for over 50 years, most recently a series of filmic essays often drawing on her own prodigiously creative existence. The latest is notionally based on the importance of various beaches in her life, but this is merely the starting point for another remarkably graceful reverie on family, friends, memory, love, loss, art and, always, cinema. She’s a compulsive recycler (one of her best-loved films The Gleaners and I took off from this trait) – I’ve now seen some of this footage (such as Jim Morrison visiting the set of Donkey Skin) three or four times in various places, and her work knowingly draws (detractors, although I’m not sure there are many of them, would say coasts) on her audience’s affection for her. The film certainly rewards it though, never more than when she once again pays tribute to her late husband Jacques Demy (who made The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), who she clearly still misses keenly after 18 years and discusses here more frankly in some ways than I’ve seen before. Varda’s resources are stunning – she visits people she shot as children in her first film La Pointe Courte; displays her extra-cinematic work from 50’s photos of China to recent art installations; dresses up as a giant potato; throws in some full-frontal nudity; talks (allegedly anyway) to fellow documentarian Chris Marker, who’s hiding behind a giant cartoon cat with a disguised voice; builds herself a makeshift beach in the middle of her Paris neighbourhood…all connected so subtly and fluidly that almost immediately afterwards you struggle to recall how she could possibly have done it.