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‘This is Me: Feel Again’

This film was very much Wendy’s streaming choice: a long-term fan of trance music, and of Armin van Buuren in particular, she was intrigued to see this 2023 release. It combines footage of one of van Buuren’s shows from Amsterdam’s Ziggo Dome with documentary footage and interviews.

This confounded my expectations. I didn’t expect a trance concert to feature a live orchestra of classical musicians, live singers and live ballet. Wendy has always argued that trance has its roots in classical music, and that couldn’t have been made plainer than in this production.

I didn’t expect the interviews to focus on van Buuren’s recent struggle with depression. He talked about how his therapy had taught him to live mindfully in the moment. It isn’t hard to see the parallel between that advice and trance music—which perhaps explains why this slightly bizarre combination of content slotted together so seamlessly.

He talked, too, about his struggle with social media and people’s criticism of him and his work online. I often read or hear of famous people simply ignoring this sort of content, and was struck by his different approach. He talked of recognising that everyone sees the world differently, but understanding that there may be a kernel of useful and usable feedback in even unjust criticism. He noted that he can’t control others’ opinions, but he can strive to be better by his own judgment. It seemed like a grounded and reflective approach.

I also found myself enjoying the music, perhaps all the more for understanding some of the thought processes which informed it.

This was not at all the film I expected it to be, and I very much enjoyed it.

This post was filed under: Film, Music, .

‘Back to Black’

Earlier this week, I said—in essence—that I didn’t see the point of the film Civil War. Maybe I’m in a strange mood, because I felt the same after seeing Back to Black. Perhaps I just don’t understand cinema.

Back to Black is a biographical drama based on the life of Amy Winehouse, who is brilliantly played by Marisa Abela. It is an unremitting sympathetic portrayal of Winehouse and virtually everyone else in her life—to the point where it doesn’t really hang together as saying much of anything at all.

I suppose the first decision a biographer in any format must make is to decide on the questions they want to interrogate about the life they are covering. Even to me, someone who didn’t especially follow Amy Winehouse’s life or career, it seems as though it had a rich tapestry, as though she existed mostly in shades of grey rather than black or white.

It might have been interesting to interrogate the thought processes behind her compositions; but this film just repeatedly features her sitting alone and suddenly singing line upon line of perfect lyrics. There is no process.

It might have been interesting to interrogate the influence of her use of alcohol and cannabis on her songwriting; but in this film, alcohol and drugs are portrayed only in the negative.

It might have been interesting to interrogate how success and fame changed her approach to her art; but in this film, they bring only intrusive paparazzi.

Really, the film doesn’t ask any questions. It turns a short but storied life and a remarkable talent into a sympathetic melodrama featuring nothing but blandly ‘nice’ people.

It feels almost like the writer decided that the film should portray some of the life events that inspired the songs without realising that the songs’ emotional heft comes from being personal, opinionated, and true. Show them as based on a sanitised, black-and-white version of the truth comes off as inauthentic.

This is a middle-of-the-road, inoffensive film about a character who was neither of those things. In the end, that’s just a weird choice.

This post was filed under: Film, , .

‘Civil War’

I saw this recently released film on the big screen this week. It follows a journalistic foursome as they travel across a present-day USA embroiled in civil war, attempting to reach and interview the President in the White House.

Our foursome comprises celebrated war photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), her aspiring protégé Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), Smith’s longtime writer collaborator Joel (Wagner Moura), and veteran New York Times reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson).

It seemed as if the film was going to be a tribute to the power of journalism, but it didn’t quite land: the central message ended up being about the futility of journalism, which was an odd choice, and I’m not convinced that it was what they were aiming for. I also didn’t really understand why they chose the US as a setting: it seemed to oddly hamstring the writers, who avoided any mention of issues which might divide the nation, which one might think would be the very issue journalists would want to examine. Some visual effects were jarringly ropey: a large group of helicopters seemingly caused no down-draft in one scene, which then immediately cut to the next scene beginning with the focus on a single helicopter’s down-draft causing dust to blow. There were a few deathly dull, protracted gunfight/battle scenes which could have been usefully cut.

And yet, for all that, I didn’t think the end result was too bad. It was a weird sort of road trip movie, and it was quite endearing to see the relationships of our foursome develop and to watch Jessie come of age. The soundtrack was not entirely successful, but was at least playful and unpredictable.

I don’t particularly want to see this again, but I wasn’t rolling my eyes and tapping my foot, waiting for the credits to roll.

It was… alright.

This post was filed under: Film, , , , .


Last year, I enjoyed Charlotte Wells’s film Aftersun.

I recently learned that Wells had made a previous 11-minute short film which was particularly well-regarded: Tuesday. The whole thing can be streamed for free on her website.

It’s a short film centred on a Scottish sixteen-year-old girl’s experience of grief, most of it—like most of the emotion in Aftersun—unexpressed and repressed.

I noticed that Tuesday felt like it was, emotionally, at a remove from the viewer. I felt like an observer, rather than someone involved in the central character’s emotional life. This was similar to my response to Aftersun, and it’s made me reevaluate it: perhaps that was, in fact, Wells’s intent in both films.

There is something interesting about casting the viewer as an observer, about keeping the characters at a distance. It’s also something that must be difficult to achieve when the emotions explored in both films are such strong, universal feelings.

You already know that I know nothing about cinema; this short film made me realise that I perhaps missed the point, the artistic intent, of that longer one.

Maybe I’m learning… though writing about ‘Tuesday’ on a Monday perhaps shows I could learn a little more about good blogging technique.

This post was filed under: Film, .

The RNS perform Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’

A year on from watching the Royal Northern Sinfonia accompany Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, Wendy and I returned to see them repeat the trick with Chaplin’s 1936 follow-up, Modern Times.

I don’t think I’ve seen Modern Times before. The programme for this performance leaned into a narrative around automation and drew a comparison with the current debate about the future of work in the context of artificial intelligence. I found this a bit reaching: I saw the film more as a commentary on capitalism and the Great Depression.

You may already know the plot: Chaplin’s Tramp is sacked from his job at a steel mill after the pace and repetitive nature of the work produces a nervous breakdown. He meets a girl, they plan a life together, but he bounces in and out of employment and prison. It’s a mostly-silent comedy romance, scored by Chaplin.

Not knowing the film, I was disappointed by the score, which seemed to draw heavily on the jazz standard Smile. You may chuckle knowingly: as I’ve since discovered, the score came first, and combined with lyrics inspired by the film, it became Smile only two decades or so later.

Modern Times was brilliant, particularly in its physical comedy, but I thought it lacked a bit of the warm innocence of City Lights. It also had less emotional range: Modern Times didn’t have the profound melancholy and longing of City Lights: it was an altogether lighter affair, despite its political message.

But the film was only half the experience. The Royal Northern Sinfonia performed as brilliantly as always, and as with last year’s example, really brought the film to life.

We had a great time.

This post was filed under: Film, Music, , , .

‘Fallen leaves’

I steamed this 2023 Finnish film, which is by Aki Kaurismaki, who is apparently a noted filmmaker, though he’s unsurprisingly unknown to me.

I was attracted to it in part by its very manageable 80-minute running time. It turned out to be a beautifully made, understated and gentle romantic comedy. To me, it seemed tonally similar to a Charlie Chaplin film: think meaningful glances and swelling strings (the varied soundtrack is a highlight). But it is set in present-day Helsinki.

Throughout the film, we hear radio news reports regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which made me reflect on how different that horrific war must feel in a nation on Russia’s border.

A gentle film it might be, but it doesn’t shy away from difficult subject matter: alcohol addiction, exploitative zero-hours contracts, and chronic loneliness are all major themes. It’s also genuinely funny: I laughed out loud while sitting alone.

Fallen Leaves was understated, warm, and full of heart. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

This post was filed under: Film, .

‘Mothers’ Instinct’

I caught this film in the cinema last week, knowing nothing about it in advance. It’s taken me a while to write about it simply because I’m struggling for anything to say.

The film is set in United States suburbia in 1960, and it follows the relationship between two mothers who are next-door neighbours after one of their sons dies. It’s described as a psychological thriller. The main characters are played by Jessica Chastain and Anne Hathaway, who by their names I recognised as very famous actors, but whose faces I wouldn’t have recognised. I did recognise The Good Wife‘s Will Gardner, Josh Charles, as one of their husbands.

The word that springs to mind to describe this film is ‘bland’: there’s just not a lot to it. The plot’s a bit silly, which I suppose is somewhat fun in a ‘surely they’re not going to… oh, they did’ kind of a way, but I didn’t feel invested in any of the two-dimensional characters. I kept looking at my watch with a sense of resignation.

I suppose this just wasn’t for me.

This post was filed under: Film, , , .

‘The Zone of Interest’

The Zone of Interest is Jonathan Glazer’s critically acclaimed, double-Oscar-winning, triple-BAFTA-winning adaptation of Martin Amis’s novel. It is a bona fide nailed-on success of British cinema that everyone who knows anything about film says you should watch. In this post, I’m going to tell you that I didn’t think it was very good, but I know nothing about filmmaking.

The film is set during the Holocaust in the area around the Auschwitz concentration camp. The central character is a fictionalised version of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of the camp. The film focuses on his domestic life in the family home next to the concentration camp, and the impact of his career progression on his family life. The viewer is never taken inside the camp, though we do hear atrocities being committed in the background of scenes, and see the rising smoke from the crematoria.

Let me first say that I streamed this at home, which was clearly not the best way to experience the film, as it translates poorly to a small screen and to TV speakers. The film often uses distant shots where the action is quite hard to make out on the small screen. The dialogue is German, and the subtitles (which are burned-in) were slightly too small to comfortably read. In many scenes, the contrast of the white text on a light background failed me. The sound design is hard to appreciate in this setting, too. If you’re going to see this, see it in a cinema.

I don’t usually engage with works of fiction about the World Wars, with some notable exceptions. I tend not to enjoy them: the totality of the experience of war is so difficult to capture that I often find them trite. I’m not therefore able to set this film in any sensible artistic context, which might mean that I’m missing a lot of what’s in it.

The film seemed to be making a point about ‘othering’. The family was portrayed as seeing Jews as a ‘problem to be solved’. The Jews who worked in the house were mostly ignored or were casually taunted in horrifying ways about the spreading of their ashes. This point was driven home by the mother-in-law character, who had a personal connection to a Jewish woman and who couldn’t hide her horror at events.

However, focusing on ‘othering’ in a context where such division is already institutionally enforced seems an odd choice. The narrative fascination with ‘othering’ typically lies in the transition into ‘otherness, a process glaringly absent here due to the pre-existing, state-imposed separation. If we accept that the Jewish community had already been ’othered’ by the state, then it somewhat lets the individual characters off the narrative hook in terms of not acknowledging the screams, the shots, the rising smoke.

It strikes me that it would have been better to use the setting to make a point about the universal nature of humanity, but this is weirdly excised. Living in a place surrounded by the sounds of atrocities would surely make people anxious about what if the screams were from this side of the wall? For example, if you were sending your children out to play in a garden where the background is gunshots and screaming, even if you’d blocked that out through continual exposure, surely you’d naturally worry that you wouldn’t hear your own injured child? And, surely, that would lead you to reflect on humanity? It’s strange that the chillingly mundane impact isn’t even observed, let alone explored.

This film doesn’t offer explanations, and nor could it: but if we take it as a work of fictionalised observation, it’s a peculiarly framed one.

Towards the end of the film, there’s a section of present-day footage of cleaners at work in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. This footage is haunting and emotive, but I think it’s entirely inappropriate to use footage of the site of death of thousands of people, as well as their personal effects, to lend emotional heft to a fictional piece. It felt immoral.

And maybe, in the end, this just wasn’t a film for me.

This post was filed under: Film, .

Vermeer on screen

A year ago, a visit to the Rijksmuseum’s Vermeer exhibition left me completely astonished.

Obviously, it’s the paintings that are the star here. That unexpected, indescribable presence, the astounding attention to detail, the lifelike quality. They really are utterly unbelievable, completely astonishing.

I was so unexpectedly bowled over by the exhibition that I did something I’ve never done before with any exhibition: I went back the next day. I was so surprised by the strength of my own reaction that I couldn’t quite believe it, and wondered if I’d just been tired or overawed at being back at the beautiful Rijksmuseum. But no: the paintings really are spectacular, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

This weekend, Art Fund members—myself included—are being treated to the opportunity to stream the film version of the show, created by Exhibition on Screen. And so, last night, I found myself settling on the sofa to watch.

I was impressed. Obviously, seeing paintings on TV is not nearly the same as standing immediately in front of them. Many of the things I liked about the exhibition, such as its spare use of commentary and explanation which really allowed the work to sell itself, wouldn’t lend itself to film.

Yet, the film really did a fantastic job of bringing across that ineffable quality in Vermeer’s work, the arresting way they pull in the viewer. The experts featured in the film explain that this is partly attributable to Vermeer’s use of light, as I thought when I saw them. They also point out that Vermeer’s brushstrokes are invisible: an attribute I hadn’t noticed independently, though I suppose it should have been obvious.

It was an hour and a half well spent. That the opportunity to watch the film appealed even after seeing the exhibition twice made me reflect on quite how big an impact that once-in-a-lifetime show had made on me. As I said last year, Vermeer got inside my head; he clearly hasn’t left yet.

This post was filed under: Art, Film, , .

‘Poor Things’

‘A bit of madness is key,’ sang Emma Stone in La La Land, ‘to give us new colours to see.’

In Poor Things, she proves it: the film is absurd, unhinged, and glorious. It’s my favourite film of the year so far, and one I wouldn’t have seen in a million years were it not for this project.

Our setting is a steampunkish, retrofuturistic version of the Victorian era. The plot centres on Stone’s character, Bella Baxter. The film’s Victor Frankenstein-esque character, Godwin Baxter, played by William Defoe, pulls a pregnant suicide victim from the Thames. The victim’s brain is removed and replaced with that of the foetus, and Bella Baxter is created. We follow her growth and development, her betrothal, and her decision to run away with another man.

The set-up makes this sound like a horror film: it’s not. Horrific things happen, but they are treated lightly and comedically. This was a film that had me grinning almost from beginning to end, even as Bella repeatedly stabbed a face with a scalpel.

Poor Things is a completely realised comedic fever dream. Everything about it is pitch-perfect: acting, set design, score, costumes, cinematography, it all adds up to a mesmerising whole. This is a film that embraces its form: sections are in black and white, sections are shot in a circular format, sections use a disorienting fish-eye lens. I am lucky to have seen in on the big screen, and would recommend that others do the same. It looks and sounds gorgeous.

Using its absurd world, the film has interesting observations to make on so many things, from feminism, to parent-child relationships, to the ethics of sex work, to the harmful straightjacket of polite society, to paedophilia. It is wonderfully, delightfully, inspirationally and insightfully odd. It’s richly and outrageously crazy.

Stone’s performance is nothing short of astonishing perfection. I cannot begin to imagine how someone can even attempt to inhabit such a gloriously weird character, with such a wide developmental arc. Stone brings Bella to life, making sense of a totally mad sketch of a character. It is unbelievable.

The other performances are also universally excellent. Of particular note, Vicki Pepperdine made a giant impression from a tiny part, not least with the surely immortal line, ‘She grabbed my hairy business!’

I enjoyed this from the first frame to the last. I’d happily watch it again.

This post was filed under: Film, , , .

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