Review: Last Tango in Paris (1972)

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In the Tango, the two participants have to dance as though they are in the midst of a passionate and loving embrace, which is the complete antithesis of a pivotal sequence in the tail end of Last Tango in Paris that involves the South American dance. Instead, the scene is a forlorn and pathetic unravelling of the recently widowed central character Paul, (Marlon Brando) who earnestly comments upon the nature of the dance in a ballroom that is brimming with couples partaking in a tango competition. Paul has attempted to deal with the death of wife through a potent sexual liaison that he has with a morose and young Persian woman called Jeanne. (Maria Schneider) Earlier in the film, he crucially declares that he opposes any sense of developing a familiarity and external picture of Jeanne outside of the encounters.

With this in mind, one gets the sense that the film is an exploration of the inherent fragility of relationships through the prism of two ideas. The first is an inherent paradox within the confines of a flourishing and stable long-term relationship, which comes from the plot point of Paul’s wife Rosa committing suicide. The act leads to a fundamental Epistemological pessimism for the main character as he questions his presupposed knowledge of his wife.

Did he truly know his wife in all the years he loved and cared for her or are these merely illusory pearls of wisdom designed to trick one into believing that they are truly happy with their spouse? The scene where this deep seeded sense of despair is expressed is when Paul is sitting beside the decorated body of his dead wife in a darkened room. He grimly states that “Even if a husband lives 200 fucking years, he’s never going to be able to discover his wife’s real nature.”

To say that Brando’s performance in Last Tango in Paris is powerful, soul bearing and emotionally real with particular reference to the as above mentioned scene is a mere understatement. Instead, one can argue that the most fascinating aspects of his performance are the scenes where he is in the run down apartment with Jeanne. In these scenes, Brando imbues Paul with his most captivating and hideous qualities, with his sly vocal tones, dominant and beastly physicality as well as a subtle sense of snide cruelty, which is strangely comical.

The scene where all these qualities harmonise wonderfully together is a long sequence where Paul candidly talks about a supposed incident in his past. Brando combines these previously stated qualities with a sense of melancholic reflection, which is amusingly shattered by the end of the scene when he slyly suggests that these series of memories that he is reflecting upon may not be truthful at all.

Nevertheless, one can say that writer/director Bernardo Bertolucci gives Brando’s performance substantial weight. His employment of the camera is fixed and nonintrusive as though he is capturing authentic and significant moments of a person’s life. For example, in the previously mentioned scene, Bertolucci’s has a five-minute medium close up of Brando allowing for every facial expression and gesture to be conveyed as he is telling Jeanne about stories from his past.

Elsewhere in the picture, Bertolucci’s use of the camera allows for a compelling exploration of the second idea to do with the overarching theme of the inherent fragility of relationships. This comes in the form of Jeanne’s fiance Thomas (Jean-Pierre Leaud) who is a film director. Through the course of the movie, he attempts to make a film called “A Portrait of a Girl” which is a heightened visual portrait of Jeanne’s various moments in life. As he remarks when he first sees his fiance, “We are in a film, If I kiss you, it might be cinema.” With the Thomas character, there is an introduction to the motif of idealism that manifests itself in the relationships through the course of the movie.

Thomas sees every moment with Jeanne as an idealised cinematic moment that needs direction and reinforcement, which results in him being blind to his fiancee’s torrid affair. Bertolucci’s direction of these scenes in motion are amusing and striking. One such moment depicts Thomas describing a shot to Jeanne, which includes the camera moves, her state of mind, and the accompanying music. In this moment, Bertolucci’s camera movement follows the film director with a high and slow descending shot, which eventually falls upon his subject. The framing subtly changes as the camera momentarily matches Thomas’s twirling, which is evocative of a gentle ballroom dance.

In essence, the scene illustrates two things. Firstly, it showcases Thomas’ intensive obsession with his visual endeavour, which ultimately results in an ignorance of his wife’s actions. In turn, we see Jeanne’s new found confidence from the sexual encounter as she firmly states that she wants to improvise the scene that he is describing with a gratifying smile on her face as they immediately start filming.

At the same time, Jeanne idealises Paul and by extension the strange nature of their relationship. As she says towards the end of the film, “Do you know why I’m in love with him? He knows how to make me fall in love with him.” Before saying that she cites some of Paul’s qualities such as his mysterious nature and the fact that he is unlike anyone that she has ever met. However, the most compelling articulation of idealism contributing to the breakdown of relationships comes in the film’s final moments as Paul confesses his devotion and love for Jeanne.

The young Parisian woman is appalled by this declaration of romantic feelings because of three reasons. Firstly, she acknowledged to herself and Paul that the relationship is over because she is about to get married. Secondly, the man she held in such high esteem has disappeared. In the ruins of that idealistic perception is a man devoid of mystery, as well as someone who is ageing, desperate and repulsive. Finally, Jeanne ultimately idealised the affair as something intrinsically passionate. As she remarks at one point, “It’s beautiful without knowing anything.”

On occasion, one does get the distinct impression that Bertolucci is embarrassed by Paul’s attempts to start again with Jeanne, which is evident in the filmmaking. The best example of this is when the aged man is describing his life in voiceover, which is played over him lighting up a cigarette and walking in the midst of a swarm of dancing couples.

As he walks over to Jeanne, Bertolucci’s framing of the scene becomes ever more expansive in scope as more of the bustling ballroom is revealed to the audience, which is conveyed in a series of elegant crane shots. Crucially, Paul gets lost in the crowd of people and as a result is not in the centre of the frame. Moreover, Bertolucci cuts back to the dance sequences in rapid succession as if provide the audience with a glamorous distraction to the awkward scene that is occurring in the corner of the room. Despite this, one can feel that Bertolucci the screenwriter does not feel contempt for the Paul character. Instead, he conceives of him as a wounded animal whose ultimate end seems fitting because he will no longer need to go on in a world feeling the raw pain and loss of his wife’s recent passing.

Two scenes give this reading validity. Firstly, in the aftermath of a love scene, Paul and Jeanne share an intimate period with one another, and they start making animal noises together. The amusing moment is initiated by the former saying quite firmly, “I don’t want a name, I’m better of with a grunt or a groan for a name.” Secondly, in the previously mentioned scene where Paul is sitting beside the body of his dead wife, he says inconsolably, “I`m sorry, I don’t know why you did it. I’d do it, too, if I knew how. I just don’t know how.”

In the end, the real power of Last Tango in Paris is that it reminds the viewer how tenuous relationships can be, both in the short and the long term as well illustrating the destructive nature of idealisation. It can cast temporary happiness however it can equally shatter the human psyche, which the tantalising last minutes of the picture only begin to show.

Concise Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

 

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Ghostbusters is an affectionate remake of the original 1984 picture of the same name. It succeeds in crafting a unique interpretation of the same material while also allowing for subtle homaging and subdued franchise building. The primary virtue of the picture comes from its improvisation, which allows scenes to have an archaic energy and inherent longevity. From jokes involving a play on words to do with a classification of a pet to a tangential conversation about Patrick Swayze’s filmography; this new Ghostbusters film succeeds in its ad-libbing framework.

Kate McKinnon emerges as the most capable and strongest actress in this comedic setup. At times she mole like with her physicality, which is illustrated in moments where she randomly pops up in the middle of tense encounters. She also has an idiosyncratic manner of delivering her lines. These vary between a casual detachment and sounding like an excited teenager who is in the midst of expressing a perpetually awesome experience.

Moreover, the third act of the film has an excellent sense of wonder and awe as all the ghosts of America’s past are unleashed upon New York City. Director Paul Feig accentuates this feeling with his free moving camera moves that has many top down shots where we are witnessing the spirits like children who believe the world is gigantic and boundless. It was refreshing to experience a finale that is not marred by exhaustive action.

The only problem with the film is that it fundamentally does not reach the comedic and emotional heights of Feig’s 2011 picture Bridesmaid. Furthermore, it lacks the intrinsic universality that resided in that picture as it explored the changing nature of friendship amidst marriage and climbing the social ladder. Nevertheless, Ghostbusters still retains a unique sense of care, which is commendable in today’s oversaturated summer movie cycle.

Review: Born to be Be Blue (2016)

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In Born to Be Blue, the Canadian writer/director Robert Budreau valiantly attempts to reconcile the seemingly disparate qualities of the ineffaceable American Jazz musician- Chet Baker. (Ethan Hawke) The result is a beautiful, idyllic and sobering affair that meditates on the complicated nature of the artistic life. In the first twenty minutes of the film, there is a black and white flashback that is somewhat romantic and dreamlike in nature. Within the sequence, the iconic Jazz artist Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) honestly critiques Baker’s performance and show. He sternly tells the young trumpeter that he should return to Jazz when he has “Lived a little.”

The criticism is a literal mantra for the film’s visual canvas as the audience are treated to many scenic scenes that have Baker practising his trumpet in the midst of his recovery from a brutal attack that he has undergone. In fact, some of the film’s most striking moments are the ones that see Baker struggle in the aftermath of the physical assault. The most astounding one comes before the Davis’ flashback. Baker is sitting in bathtub attempting to play his instrument however the result is intense pain and bleeding from his mouth as the scene goes on. The scene is a powerful reminder of the savage nature of life and its unpredictable turns, which can ultimately fulfil the artist with a newfound optimistic striving that did not exist before.

Ethan Hawke is simply out outstanding as the titular musician. He effortlessly portrays the inherent contradictories of Baker. For example, sometimes Baker’s looked and sounded like an idealistic young boy, which contrasted sharply with his smooth flirtatious side. One scene where Hawke conveys these contrary attitudes is at the beginning of the picture. There is an extended sequence where Baker is getting to know a woman called Jane (Carmen Ejogo), who is his co-star in a film that he is making that is about his life. They both go bowling, and Jane asks him some very pointed questions about his life. Hawke’s soft-spoken vocal tones nicely contrast well with his childlike physicality, which combined with the discussed truthful subject matters make for an engaging scene.

However, Hawke’s finest moments in the picture are in the third act when he is starting to play professionally again. There is a sense of willful determinism and an obsessive sense of control in regards to his comeback that is fascinating to watch. The standout scene in the act is when Baker is performing ‘My Funny Valentine’ for a live studio album in front of an audience that is comprised of producers. In this moment Hawke shows a natural aptitude of the trumpet, which is evident by Budreau confidently framing one of his solos in a single take.

Moreover, Hawke imbues a sense of precision and emotional weight to the singing sections of the song, which fundamentally speak to the emotional experiences of life and how they can shape the artist into a confident and mature person who can firmly channel their experiences into their work. The scene also illustrates the appeal of Chet Baker. Although he was not a technically polished singer, his voice had a distinctive rawness that always felt immediate and soul-baring.

Review: Suicide Squad (2016)

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Suicide Squad is an entertainment free dead zone. In fact, one cannot even call it a film because it plays more like a series of awkward skits that have been edited together with short vignettes that feel like music videos. In essence, the film is like a child who has discovered swearing for the first time, relishing in its apparent boundary pushing behaviour but ultimately looking absurd and juvenile. Worst of all, when the film does occasionally feel the need to take five, it’s dramatic moments are in service to its continuous and obnoxiously stated premise- we are the bad guys.

This is a shame as there potential moments that could have been emotionally resonating however they are undercut by the film’s humour that pervades the film like Tourette’s syndrome. For example, in the third act, there is a scene where all the principal characters are in a bar. In the aftermath of a harrowing confession that is made by Chato Santana (Jay Hernandez), the inexplicably popular, attention seeking and loud mouth that is Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) makes an inappropriate comment. The moment serves as a vital reminder that the film is devoid of any real emotional depth as it lumbers from one supposedly funny joke to the next.

At the heart of Suicide Squad is a genuine sense that the director David Ayer has been sucked into the studio whirlpool. The film’s visual scheme is drab, muddy and incredibly lacking in any creativity. Even Ayer’s reported visual flair gets lost amidst the bland proceedings. For example, in a recent Empire article, Ayer revealed that the inspiration for the smashy human fodder in the picture came from a nightmare, which he briefly sketches with the following description “There was a black pool of oil with a human shape rising out of it.”

If one were being generous, the visually arresting moments of Suicide Squad are regulated to mere seconds. During the beginning Harley Quinn vignette, there are a few interesting shots that represent fascinating cinematic interpretations of Alex Ross’ photorealistic comic book artwork. And there is a striking scene that occurs in the middle of the film that involves the Joker (Jared Leto) and Harley. The former is asking his partner for utter devotion, and Harley reciprocates via a baptism through acid, which he partakes in later in the scene. In their embrace in the acid pool, the lovers look like two people cuddling on a canvas which is accentuated with a heavy use of muted green combined with little strokes of purple and blue that surround the characters.

The moment encapsulates the problem with this interpretation of the Clown Prince of Crime. At worst Leto’s Joker comes across as a psychotic Austin Powers. However, at best one can say that his role in the film is utterly insubstantial. On a conceptual level, he feels like a confused man that can’t decide whether or not he wants to be a flamboyant, crazy person or Tony Montana from Scarface. So, he synthesises the two, and the result is a queer interpretation with flashes of brilliance such as his laugh and a tattoo of a smile that he occasionally uses to cover the bottom half of his face.