The Past (Asghar Farhadi, 2014)

What's it about? Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) travels from Iran to France to finalise his divorce from his estranged wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo), who now wishes to marry her boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim), whose own wife lies in a vegetative state in hospital following a suicide attempt. Complications ensue.

Is it any good? Farhadi's follow-up to the Oscar-winning A Separation may not quite be as good as that superlative film, but it's a similarly engrossing drama, which draws the audience into the messy emotional world of the protagonists. In previous films such as A Separation and About Elly, Farhadi used a modern Iranian setting to emphasise how cultural and societal pressures acted to constrict the characters. In this film the French setting means those pressures are less important, but the characters are constricted nonetheless, this time by historical pressures, as their various overlapping back-stories refuse to let them move forward without the weight of the past dragging them back. The details of these back-stories are drip-fed to the viewer in wonderfully assured fashion, almost like a murder-mystery, with Samir's comatose wife acting as the victim. As we discover more about past events, sympathies shift from character to character as we begin to understand the baggage they all carry and their struggles to collectively and individually deal with it. It's intelligent, grown-up drama, with great performances, including from the children as the kids who must burden their fair share of their parents past exploits. That said, it does falter in finding a satisfying resolution, although the obvious riposte is that real-life rarely finishes neatly either. However, it felt like a bit of a cop-out to me though, which was a bit disappointing given the quietly gripping drama that preceded it.

I don't trust you. What do others think? An enthusiastic reception all round, with critics and audiences alike impressed by Farhadi's ability to generate such gripping drama from 'ordinary' set-up. This is the first film Farhadi has made outside of Iran and in this interview he discusses his motivations and inspirations for The Past.

What does the Fonz think? Past tense.

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Richard Attenborough Double Bill

So I returned home from holiday to the sad news about Richard Attenborough's death. Naturally, most articles since have paid due tribute to his work as director on epics such as Gandhi and A Bridge Too Far, and for his avuncular, beardy performances in the likes of Jurassic Park and Miracle on 34th Street. But did any of them acknowledge his two best performances, which happen to be as thoroughly nasty characters? Well? Oh. They did? Well, that's okay then. So. Well, I might as well do it too. I'm, like, fashionably late, don't you know?

Brighton Rock (John Boulting, 1947) is a fine adaptation of Graham Greene's novel, centred around an excellent performance from a fresh-faced 24-year old Attenborough as the juvenile psychotic hood Pinkie Brown, a role he had previously played on stage to great acclaim. Pinkie is a small-time teenage gangster in pre-war Brighton who finds himself rapidly out of his league when his gang is threatened by a larger more sophisticated operation. After murdering reporter Fred Hale, he is forced to tie-up possible loose ends, leading to his courtship of naive waitress Rose, not out of love, but because a wife can't testify against a husband. His nemesis comes in the form of Ida, a good time lady who embarks on a campaign to see justice for the murdered Fred and to save the soul of Rose. It's a pacy thriller, with some fine noir direction which captures the seedy backstreets of Brighton to great effect. It's probably fair to mention that the transfer to screen means it is less cruel and bleak than the source novel, with Pinkie's Catholic guilt and abhorrence of sex watered down, as well as a final shot which is more hopeful than it ought to be. However, this is still a fine film and worth  a watch, not least for Attenborough's sinister and arresting turn.

10 Rillington Place (Richard Fleischer, 1971) is based on the exploits of notorious serial killer John Christie, who killed at least eight women during the 1940s and 50s in his London home (guess what the address was?). As befits the sordid story, this is a grimy, tense, claustrophobic drama, all the more horrific for being true. As the banal, softly-spoken and unspeakably evil Christie, Attenborough puts in a terrifically unsettling performance, one that disturbed him greatly during shooting. A young John Hurt is also excellent as Timothy Evans, Christie's simple-minded lodger, who was wrongly convicted and executed for the murder of his wife and daughter, murders that Christie had actually committed. Once the truth emerged upon Christie's arrest, the miscarriage of justice was a key case in the abolishment of capital punishment in the UK. It was this historical importance that Attenborough said afterwards was the reason he could not refuse the role. However, one suspects someone as savvy as Attenborough also viewed it as an opportunity to impress as an actor playing against type. And impress he does. It's not comfortable viewing, but it's worth seeing for him in particular.

Two fine films, so why not check out the darker side of Attenborough. If you'd prefer to finish on a lighter note, though, here's a smiley picture of him as Santa. RIP.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson , 2014)

What's it about? A new lobby boy at the titular hotel in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka is taken under the wing of dandy concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Murder, theft, prison, war, cakes and OAP sex ensues.

Is it any good? Listen! I've got a FANTASTIC idea for this review. I'm going to write this review like a TripAdvisor entry. Because it's a review of a hotel, see? Won't that be the cleverest thing, like, ever!! Oh, excuse me just a minute *reads note handed him by lawyers*. Oh. Seems that's been done. On the TripAdvisor website itself, no less. Well, now that I think about it, it's not that clever. Bloody hipsters.

Anyhow, the film delivers everything we have come to expect from a Wes Anderson movie; a cleverly constructed, beautifully framed and shot film, with quirky sensibilities, some great sight gags and a host of cameos from actors on his Rolodex (Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, to name but a few). What we might not have expected is a very funny performance from Fiennes, whose comic timing and deadpan delivery is impeccable throughout. He is really terrific, as he barrels breathlessly through the energetic and consistently amusing screwball plot, which brings to mind a those great pre-war comedies from the likes of Ernst Lubitsch. It does all finish a bit abruptly and it isn't as charming as Anderson's previous Moonrise Kingdom, plus it's content to be a frothy confection, rather than a deeper, more satirical film. But no matter, it's still great fun and it's a film that shows there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric blockbuster-driven world that was once known as cinema. Indeed that's what it provides in its own modest, humble, insignificant.......oh, fuck it. I have to go, someone threw my cat out the window.

Anything else I should know? Well, I supppose you'll be wanting to see that TripAdvisor page now. You can find it here. Elsewhere, you can read about how Austrian writer Stefan Zweig inspired Anderson to make the film.

What does the Fonz think? The Fantastic Mr Gustave.

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A Word From The Fonz

A special shout out to all those students receiving their exam results today, especially if you didn't do as well as you had hoped. Always remember, folks, A-Levels will never be as important as AYYYYYY-Levels.

The Great War Movie Commemoration

There's a load of commemorative events taking place on the centenary of the outbreak of The Great War. However, I'm hope not going over the top with another humble offering, in which we review a dirty half-dozen films set during WWI. 

Wings (William Wellman, 1927) has entered into cinema history by being the first ever winner of the Best Picture Oscar at the inaugural Academy Awards. But is it any good? Well, remember the Michael Bay movie Pearl Harbor? Now, imagine if that was silent and, like, actually watchable? Then throw in a splash of Top Gun aerial footage and homo-eroticism and you have Wings. It's an enjoyable enough Boys Own adventure about two US fighter pilots (Charles Rogers and Richard Arlen) and their rivalry over the woman they both love back home. Although obviously this rivalry hides their love for each other, pre-dating Top Gun's wingman bromance by 60 years. (It might not have any topless volleyball, but it was the first film to feature two men kissing, fact fans!). Anyhow, the first two-thirds is actually all a bit hammy and melodramatic, with only the luminous 'It Girl' Clara Bow in a thankless supporting role to keep things interesting - she considered the script one of the most misogynistic she had ever read. However, it picks up dramatically once the battles begin as Wellman, himself a combat pilot during WWI, stages some well-realized biplane dogfights, complete with special effects to colourize the flames, before building to a sobering climax. Ultimately, Wings is a rather old-fashioned and romanticised depiction of war which never soars to great heights, but glides along effortlessly nonetheless.

Three years later, All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930) also won Best Picture at the Oscars, and this was a film that was neither romanticised nor old-fashioned. Based on Erich Maria Remarque's devastating WWI novel, it does full justice to the source material as the tragic waste of young life is quite brilliantly captured in the harrowing battle scenes. Even today, it's easy to appreciate how technically inventive these sequences are, with the superb sound design all the more remarkable for being produced when sound in films was not commonplace. The all-American accents of the German characters may jar a little, but by the time we reach the desperately  poignant and justifiably celebrated final image of a soldier on the battlefield reaching to touch a butterfly, it is clear that nationality is irrelevant when it comes to death on the battlefield. Over 80 years on, this remains remarkably relevant and is still the still the anti-war movie all others look up to.

In Paths Of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957), the lottery of death and the cruel injustices of war are also painfully demonstrated as three innocent French soldiers are court-martialled for cowardice following the failure of their regiments to take a German fortress. Their commanding officer (Kirk Douglas) fights their cause, bringing him into conflict with his aloof and bureaucratic superiors, who are blind to the true nature of war on the ground. Kubrick considered his film not so much "anti-war” as "anti-authoritarian ignorance”, a viewpoint shared by the writers of Blackadder Goes Forth and The Wire, which were both influenced by the film in their depiction of institutional (mis-)management. It's a classy, superbly acted affair and notable for being more emotionally involving than much of Kubrick's later work. 

Joyeux Noel (Christian Carion, 2005) is a diplomatic, multi-national production about the famous Christmas truce in the trenches of WWI in 1914, when opposing troops set down their guns and mixed together in No Man’s Land. It's earnest and well-played, but despite the historic significance of the material, it's a rather unremarkable affair. It also suffers from shoehorning a female character into the story for dramatic purposes, a wholly unnecessary addition as the events depicted are moving and dramatic enough in themselves. On the plus side, isn't that Trevor from Eastenders in there?

Gallipoli (Peter Weir, 1981) tells of two Australian athletes, Archy (Mark Lee) and Frank (Mel Gibson), who enlist in the army at the outbreak of WWI and head off for a merry bit of training in Cairo, before being exposed to the true horrors of war at the botched Allied campaign on the Gallipoli peninsula. By choosing to spend much of the film away from the battlefield, the film beautifully develops the lead characters as young men with hopes, dreams and bright futures, bonded together by principles of friendship, honour and nationalism. Thus, by the time they are thrown into battle, we have invested emotionally in their fates and care deeply about what will happen to them and their comrades. This empathy is increased by the appealing performances of Gibson, an obvious star in the making, and Lee, who effectively embodies the fresh-faced innocence of youth. Parallels between sport and war run through the film, with war viewed as a great game to be played, rather than fought. It's a naïve viewpoint that is shattered once and for all in the final devastating scenes as soldiers prepare to sprint towards the enemy and certain death rather than a finish line and victory. Prepare for a lump in your throat.

La Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937) is a poignant, beautifully acted and well-written story, which appears regularly on Greatest Film Ever lists. Other things in its favour are that Orson Welles loved it, Joseph Goebbels hated (and banned) it, and it features the second best on-screen rendition of La Marseillaise after Casablanca. Lt Marechal (Jean Gabin) and Captain de Boldieu (Pierre de Fresnay) are two French pilots shot down by German pilot and aristocrat Captain von Rauffenstein, brilliantly played by renowned director Erich von Stroheim. Assigned to a POW camp, they plot their escape, but the boundaries between 'good' and 'bad' are blurred when it emerges that von Rauffenstein and de Boldieu share mutual acquaintances across the upper-classes of European society, and probably have more in common than with the working-class Marechal. As a result, the film has important things to say about the place of class, race and humanity during wartime, which take on more resonance with the knowledge that WWII was only a couple of years away. It's a pity these elements are not matched by a sense of urgency or danger in the eventual escape, because if Renoir could have fashioned a little more tension out of the latter scenes, it would be a truly special film. By the end, what the title refers to is open to interpretation, but given that the 100 years since The Great War began have seen countless bloody conflicts across the globe, perhaps 'La Grande Illusion' is that human beings can ever hope to live in peace together. 

For a whole generation who were butchered and damned.