Friday, 26 February 2010

Brent Man-Management: Why no title-challenging club would ever appoint Harry Redknapp

In yet another uncomfortable interview this week, Redknapp again praised Roman Pavlyuchenko's re-emergence as a striker of commodious talent. But not without criticising him: this time it was the 'language barrier'. Why, then, having studied the warm-ups at nearly every home game this season, do I always see the Russian trading banter, or deep in conversation, with his teammates? Why, when his work-rate on the pitch and his rapport with fans and teammates alike is so admirable, does Redknapp continue to try and mark a blemish on Pavlyuchenko's public image? Some might say the manager's recent remarks are tactful, that they have worked in getting the best out of Pavlyuchenko; what he is getting is not the reactionary best of a man, but rather the inevitable benefits of playing a top-draw forward who converts his chances, works hard off the ball and has an awareness on the football pitch to match either Arshavin or Zhirkov - his two international team mates who have featured more regularly for Tottenham's two biggest rivals in the Premiership. Here is perhaps the most outrageously ignorant quotation, from the week, by Redknapp; a statement bordering on xenophobia, if we accept its implausibility:

"Russian players have generally struggled in this country".

Sorry Harry, but only seven Russian footballers have played in the top flight in the last twenty years - Arshavin, Zhirkov, Pavlyuchenko, Dmitri Kharine (1992-99), Alexander Smertin (2003-08),
Andrei Kanchelskis and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov - none of whom are remembered for, or are now, struggling. Harry Redknapp may have lived through the Cold War but somebody needs to tell him it's been over for a while, and fast.

Like Redknapp, Robbie Keane is another Premiership PR self-servant. In December, Keane organised an overseas Christmas booze-up against the manager's will, and these days the quirky Irishman seems to move to a new 'boyhood club' every season. But Keane, strangely reappointed as club captain on his return from Liverpool a year ago, has never been repeatedly criticised for either his lack of professionalism or his consistently poor form over the past eighteen months. Contrast this with Darren Bent who was blamed and humiliated by Redknapp in several post-match interviews last season; a decision that seemed to negate common sense, for Bent is a player who will not stop running and trying in any fixture, a benign machine whose product depends entirely on confidence. Keane's only prolonged spell of poor form in his Tottenham career has occurred under the club's current manager. And since Darren Bent has moved to Sunderland, Steve Bruce has clearly got far more out of the predator than a finger-pointing Redknapp ever could. Martin Jol got the best out of Robbie Keane because, although he would like to think he's George Best, Keane isn't, and Jol would rotate his abundantly talented strikeforce at the first sign of complacency. Now it is as if the fickleness in football is as contagious amongst its professionals as it is amongst its fans and its media.

Paradoxically deprived of either first team opportunities or a move away from the club, it is natural and hardly unprofessional for the Russian to have voiced his discontent to his country's media in recent weeks. If it were Jermain Defoe or Gabby Agbonlahor being snubbed by CSKA Moscow, we would expect nothing else. Bouncebackability is one of those silly footballing terms that never consistently applies to any one club's statistics. In the case of Pavlyuchenko's disciplined hold-up play and eloquent finishing in the last seven days, it is not a resurgence we are seeing: he has nothing to bounce back from. His record for Spurs this season stands at six goals in ten appearances (eight of these as a substitute), and in 2008-09, he was as prolific as Drogba or Berbatov in their debut seasons in England. Ironically, on the day Redknapp arrived at the club, it was Pavlyuchenko who scored against Bolton igniting the transformation of Tottenham's season, and who would later score goals against Liverpool and Manchester United, as well as the match-clincher against Burnley to avoid an embarrassing defeat, and to send Tottenham through to their second consecutive Carling Cup Final.

Harry Redknapp is a guru in the transfer market, a tactically assured manager, and I shan't write a righteous commentary on Redknapp's Wii commercials, his taunting of opposition supporters, his disregard for clubs' finances, or his own fishy doings. Needless to say, I only wish there were more managers of Jol and Roy Hodgson's ilk; lovable, not for timely humour, but for their honesty and dignity. If Spurs do miss out on the top four, this of all seasons, questions must be asked as to why Pavlyuchenko was repeatedly snubbed when his comrades were stumbling in front of goal. But they won't be, as Redknapp's wide-boy charisma - his 'Arry appeal - will trivialise another jovial press conference, this before he exits for Monaco, nodding and flapping his jowls to 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin'.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

A Single Man (2010)

* * * *

(Dir. Tom Ford, 2010)

From sixties sunshine to the folds of a rose, right down to the bronze buckle on our protagonist's tie, something shines in almost every frame of this aesthetically august work. We can not be surprised. Tom Ford is first and foremost a distinguished fashion designer. But now movie-goers have reaped the benefits of his (this year) unrivalled cinematography. And Colin Firth, so often so hard to believe in, has successfully immersed himself in his most interesting role to date. He is
George Carlyle Falconer, a gay, middle-aged literary academic and loner. He has just lost Jim (Matthew Goode), his partner of sixteen years, who we become familiar with in plentiful, touching flashbacks. Although he insists "there is no substitute for Jim", George knowingly leads on another young, handsome acquaintance, one of his students, Kenny Potter (Nicholas Hoult), who sweetly never fails to address George as "Sir", even when they are naked in the nighttime sea together.

This notion of pederasty is engaging for the most part, but it forces the director into an awkward plot-corner, where George's progress and destination are seconded for too long by a stereotypical sycophant of a student. In a world without Jim, George's unsatisfying consolations are literature, the prospect of suicide, Potter, and close female friend, Charley. This is an Anglo-American world, set at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when men wore their hair "like James Dean" and chic students smoked cigarettes in lecture theatres. Ford's observational talents are relentless: he doesn't miss a beat of the beat culture, nor does his film become a playground for politics or poetry alike.

Charley (Julianne Moore) is George's frustratedly platonic partner in loneliness; a widow living in ironic luxury. It is without doubt a vision of a
Paul Thomas Anderson Julian Moore: a flawed and frightened woman coveting glamour, splintered with regret. But in these circumstances, Moore's accent if off-putting, and the otherwise diligent cinematography is over-generous with this lost-cause-character. We can not be sure whether she is preying on George for good or for bad. Ultimately, they are probably using each other, and their laughter is uncomfortably desperate. Despite Ford's meticulous attention to Charley's make-up and her brief bursts of energy, Moore is at her affecting best, alone in bed, unmasked, where her character has room to grow. In one of the movie's most memorable set pieces, Charley comforts George at her front porch in a truly powerful display of grief and affection. The audio of bullish rain and a man's hysterical weeping are replaced by the saddest score imaginable.

Putting the difficult, Greek Love subtext to one side, George Carlyle Falconer is that unique teacher we take with us to the grave; he is an honest and bard-like sympathiser of disaffected youth in a fragile time (homophobia and the Cold War are beautifully understated). This is established early on in the film, by the frantic cutting between a reluctantly learned George, and a desperately learning Potter, as a bereaved master glosses his syllabus with personal, real pain. Although based on the novel of the same name by Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man better publicises Aldoud Huxley's novel,
After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. This is the subject of George's lecture, and Huxley's book - concerned with the fey and the seductive - remains important throughout the film, piloting its thematic engine: we are made to understand perfectly why this bereaved forty something is fascinated only by the power of authors and infrequent intimacies. Here Ford cleverly communicates the disadvantages to privacy, with George barred from the love of his life's funeral service and repudiated by his neighbour (we assume) because of his sexuality. And yet at its most desperate A Single Man can become charmingly comedic, as George fails to even attempt suicide, zipping himself inside a sleeping bag or bracing himself in the shower, curtain drawn, holding a gun we hope is already obsolete.

This is impressive film making, if on occasion wayward, by a debut director transgressing professions, and rewinding clocks that tick constantly and loudly here as hail might against glass. "My watch is broken", George smiles, at last out of happiness, initiating a finale that washes over us with karma and tears and stillness.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Solomon Kane (2010)


(Dir. Michael J. Bassett, 2010)

An indefensible disaster of a film. The apocalyptic setting for Solomon Kane
is Medieval England; although weirdly the movie's first frames convey a Union Jack, black magic and ghosts in "North Africa, 1600": superfluous subtitle of the year. Are we supposed to be thinking colonialism? This has nothing to do with the remaining hour and a half of Bassett's bland doppelganger-work.

The plot is simple enough. A spiritual plague of depravity has overwhelmed mankind as Lord of the Rings's orc-kind meets 28 Days Later's virally enraged. Solomon Kane, a reformed leader of men, is our saviour. The lad is crucified. Well, until he sees the girl who he has recently met but who matters enough to instill in him the determination to save humanity. She is the daughter of a religious orc-victim whose dying wish to Solomon is for him to rescue the girl from her kidnappers. Solomon releases himself from the cross by forcing his nailed palms free. If this isn't ridiculous enough, the holes in his palms are soon healed by pagan magic. His faith in humanity restored, he is now ready to front a resistance (don't get your hopes up: it's hardly Les Miserables). And he goes about doing this in an aristeia to humble Achilles, as some cool but exhausted special effects distract us - momentarily - from contemplating walking out of the cinema.

Peter Jackson probably doesn't know whether to laugh or cry, as Tolkien turns yet another slow turn in his grave. Solomon Kane is Strider/Aragorn, wandering out of the wilderness and into the fray. They couldn't have casted a closer-resembling man to Vigo Mortensen as James Purefoy (who plays Solomon plainly). Note, fashion adjustments from Middle Earth to Somerset: reformed leader of men is now tattooed with Biblical iconography, carries a firearm and wears a Pete Doherty hat. Briefly, Aragorn will morph into Gandolf. Even for the most uneducated in fantasy and sci-fi, the final battle between miracle-worker and flaming beast has "Thou shall not pass" written all over it. But without Tolkien's cosmic mythology or Peter Jackson's engaging set-piece cinema, there's only a ludicrous hero remaining, and it's of no consequence to my evening whether Solomon lives or dies.

From beginning to end, violent or sentimental, the score is offensively proud. Severe strings accompany sad episodes for characters who, without character, can not be sympathised with. There's also an Exorcist-girl episode not to savour, when an evil-doer disguised as a frightened child fails to rattle any audience member as her face is suddenly distorted and discoloured. Choosing from the most cringe worthy of the film's scenes is difficult, but mine would be Solomon's cheap imitation of Gladiator's inspirational, "Are you not entertained?", as our hero holds his arms out to a zooming-out camera asking, "What is it you want from me?". Answer: nothing.

Is this film so bad it's actually good? No.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Samantha and Selby

Pritchard Selby? Why can’t I remember this name from before?

“No. Nothing. What does he do again? Degree, uni? Taste in music?”

“Data entry clerk: in limbo. Economics, Durham. Early punk-rock mainly, New York Dolls and Sex Pistols, but recently into Black Eyed Peas and wearing a pink floppy beanie for want of eclecticism and pussy. Went out with Shannon Taylor in Year Eleven. He’s looking for a path into writing, and now me apparently”.
I laugh a small laugh:
“That path’s pretty crowded.”
“Which one?”
“Both”. I get a nasty kick in the shin. “And give him a break about the headwear: it is winter after all." Inside, I’m thinking
wanker. "And stop being so crude, it's so unattractive in a woman”. Which I mean.

The tube pulls in, and as the driver breaks, the metal of the underground screams fire and rape just as my grandfather’s watch - permanently buckled or tattooed around my wrist - ticks past another hour, and daylight emerges at the end of another tunnel. “Where are we headed then,” I ask, wanting to either walk or snack in silence, “Marco’s?”
“Why? You hate coffee and capitalism!”
“I want a slice of coffee-cake and an orange juice.”
Nothing beats fresh orange juice.
“Fag”, Samantha mock-laughs, lighting her first cigarette of the evening, a tiny burning in London. The twentieth hour of the first day in the twenty-fifth year of my life is colourless. Then she’s kissing me on the cheek - a sincere “Happy Birthday Fred” - and maybe, for a few seconds, her unsarcastic smile plugs me in, and I’m ready as a brimful kettle on an English Christmas Day.

Soon we’re indoors, God-forbid, beside a pram of hysterical newborn twins. There are suited men and women on work calls and a familiar or unfamiliar - I don’t know - black cleaner mops up a puddle of frappachino and, from me, warmth departs again. I have no direction, nor hope for anything other than a hope. If I try hard enough, I can picture them together, Samantha and Selby -
Why can’t I remember this name from before? - fucking one another drunkenly. Their predictable shadows, like pornography, have been witnessed before. I am no boy, these are no longer cruel thoughts. I am locked-in, an anonymous Jean-Dominique Bauby - a ridiculous analogy - and the door to my stomach and its lame butterflies is black and takes inventiveness to open.

I swallow the last of my prescription, drink up and make for the fire exit (there is a young couple at the entrance demonstrating love). "Meeting the boys in an hour." Then I say thank you to Samantha for a lovely afternoon and because I described it as lovely the look in her face says
I know you're lying you fucking liar. Meanwhile, in an aquarium somewhere, a five-year-old me is thumping a shark’s window, whistling, starting an earthquake.

Friday, 12 February 2010

The Wolfman (2010)

* * *

(Dir. Benicio Del Toro, 2010)

A remake of the 1941 Waggner film of the same name, The Wolfman abides the same universal mythology. When exposed to the moon, Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) transforms into a beast that is both man and wolf; imagine an athlete hairier than W.G. Grace, faster than Usain Bolt and fiercer than Mike Tyson. Set in 1891, Talbot has returned home to bury his brother, a wolfman-victim, only to be bitten and infected himself in another rampage in the local countryside. He has been absent from home since his mother passed away when he was a small child. We later learn that he spent time in an asylum, in what is perhaps the most terrifying sequence in the film, with Del Toro depicting a world before psychology has evolved as a discipline. Determined to find his brother's murderer, Talbot returns to living with father, Anthony Hopkins. As their relationship recommences, and as Talbot begins to fall for his dead brother's sympathetic fiance, Gwen Conliffe (a resplendent Emily Blunt), his terrible self-discovery deepens.

Cinemas around the world have been overflowing with films about vampires since Let The Right One In, my movie of 2009, and (sadly) the even more popular, Twilight, entered our consciousness. Differently, this movie's creatures have no means to their ugly ends. The wolfmen kill arbitrarily without the capacity for reason or the need for blood in high-tempo set pieces in the haunting rural nighttime, where the red of blood is gleaming for a screaming that never quite resounds. The sonorously lovable Hugo Weaving (The Lord of the Rings, V for Vendetta) is the officer in charge of eradicating the threat posed by wolfmen, and goes about his business ruthlessly. The eeriness and dispassion of his character has touches of his own, iconic Agent Smith, from The Matrix.

There are scenes where the Del Toro directing this movie is more Guillermo than Benicio, and this is an affectionate compliment. The bottomless mists, the fear-united public, the eloquently bullish score, and the X-Men-improved claws - as if derived from the worst nightmare of a riotous imagination - pull and push at the audience like horror ought to. Each homicidal chase is a minute-long theme-park-thrill, and every time Anthony Hopkins's eyes regress to Hannibal Lecter's, they sting like a double-dram of some untrustworthy spirit. Hopkins even walks like Lecter, those arms - capable of unimaginable cruelty - locked behind his back. When Talbot morphs into wolfman, the cinematography could be described as an anti-birth: a monstrous and regrettable becoming, stretched out bone-crunchingly across the silverscreen. This is truly trepidating stuff.

However, when we finally get to see wolf on wolf, the long-anticipated brawl at the film's climax, it is a let-down. For all the Hellenistic, Biblical and Shakespeare name-and-prop-dropping, the only tragic anagnorisis in
The Wolfman occurs within the audience, as we realise that the film's father-son duel, having been paradigmatically alluded to through extraneous references to Hamlet (well done screenwriters, you've read some Shakespeare), explodes in a fight scene that is closer to spoof than it is to palpable cinematic violence. It simply doesn't look right, knowing a seventy-two-year-old Anthony Hopkins and Benicio Del Toro are sparring as wolfmen. An alternate, ultra-violent ending to the beautiful Where The Wild Things Are would have looked something like this.

On the whole, this is a well-made and absorbable film. But don't be fooled by a pathetic fallacy that hearkens to Stoker and Mrs Shelley. This is an inconsistent picture, and when the illustrious filmographies of Hopkins and Weaving are complete for examination and celebration,
The Wolfman will have faded, a dim and forgotten star; not the full and awesome moon Benicio Del Toro has fashionably irradiated.

and again i hear

if you were only little again
to climb
to be amazed by bark and birdsong
the trees carry on
even if the water in the thames shifts every second
like dead skin dancing in the air
in the thick of canbury gardens i'm so unfrightened i can almost fall backwards

like five thousand mornings ago
my grandfather's arms could harbour
live on

our makers are the actual angels
the honesty and the heart in homesickness

the need for another layer
an afternoon pint

in the thick of the world i come here
always back to you
this trail i know blindfolded

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (2010)

* * * *

(Dir. Mat Whitecross, 2010)

Neatly titled and not just because of the hit song,
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll trades in the fashionably mellow and mythologising rock-Romantic biopic for a joyous ode with outrageous stamina, boasting a jolly soldier of an icon. Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings, Longford) is unsurprisingly faultless as witty, hedonistic punk pioneer and polio-victim, Ian Dury (1942-2000). He juggles two separate lives as family man, and avant garde front man, oscillating between two lovers (including his wife) who are warmly but confusingly friendly to one another. Dury has a daughter, barely written into the film, and a son, Baxter (the talented Bill Milner), who is led astray by junkie-groupie, Ralph Ineson. At this point it is worth briefly mentioning two amusing cameos by Ineson and Mackenzie Crook, instantly recognisable as Finchy and Gareth from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's, The Office. Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is concerned with Dury's implicit struggle with polio, the damaging narrative of his childhood and his unstable family life. And virtue demands that we pity, admire, repudiate and even loathe his sometimes benign, sometimes destructive, behaviour. But despite the death of his father (another impressive cameo, Ray Winstone), and a maturity of determination to support his family as well as a charity for the disabled, little happens in a gossamer plot.

I don't buy into Peter Bradshaw's description of Dury as "the missing link between Oscar Wilde and Morrissey". Although his lyrics are powdered with wit and literary sensibility, Dury was the enigmatic, crude and Cockney antithesis of Manchester's miserable aesthete, and the testosterone-pumped, alpha-male contrary to Wilde. However Dury's anthems for the wandering outsider, roared with uncanny accuracy by Serkis, are painstakingly Romantic and certainly anticipate the work of a number of alternative darlings in popular music. A more important proleptic reality can be found in the film's spurious and simple spiritual message. Purposefully out of sync with every other scene, Dury visits his old school for disabled children, and when asked whether or not he believes in "The Almighty God", he answers: "I believe in good" - a lawless faith, easily identifiable for the largely secular youth of twenty-first century Britain.

The art, or rather common sense, to a cult-icon biopic is to make the hero seem (even) more fascinating than he or she actually was, or is, in reality. So Dury is always mysterious; he is passive when the emotional dialogue is at its most visceral, subject to tears and fists and plate-throwing. At his angriest he cracks an egg in his producer's face, and then turns on himself with another egg in a farcical studio brawl. Dury's fascination with water ("covers seventy percent of the world") and rhythm ("the longest word in the dictionary without any vowels") belittles his lust for stardom and bestows the movie its pain. Dury was a talented swimmer and contracted his crippling, incurable disease whilst swimming as a boy. The image of the leg brace in cinema is best known for its sentimental role in
Forrest Gump. In contrast, and for this film's hero, disability is permanent. The brace is a constant reminder of how Dury's suffering is bound to childhood in an untypical erosion of innocence. Through the versatility of director and writer, this is skilfully sculpted into comedy in several incidences when our creepy clown has lost, or made fun of, the apparatus he can not function without.

No John Lennon epiphany or Ian Curtis apotheosis awaits Dury; Serkis sweats in every minute of this film, a self-deprecating "raspberry ripple" (cockney rhyming slang for cripple), a self-aggrandising "entertainer". We are spared Dury's agony: his death by cancer in 2000 is wisely boycotted by brilliant script-writer, Paul Viragh. Still, the physical defence mechanism provided by Dury's black sunglasses - his sense of cool is the simultaneously impenetrable and penetrating - becomes increasingly ubiquitous as the film draws to its timely close. Here then, there is no traumatic plummet, only a portion of the inevitable chill & comedown & fading music of
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. In the same way that Corbijn's sublime Control inspired a revival for Joy Division, so too could this film, posthumously, for another seminal voice of the seventies.

Visiting Hour

My back is half-turned from the door,
I am more open to the window view.
Bucking my teeth, my bottom lip hammocked,
Here is a fountain pen gripped in shivers.
I want this pose to last.
If she should walk in now
(I am expecting her visit at any moment)
She might think of me as a writer,
Her writer.
I could write her a thousand verses.

Two stray cats stretch their skinny bones
On the roof, yawping friendship.
I’m going to get out of here soon, I know it.
In Room 4, the fat schizophrenic starts again,
Growling, ‘I am not all that alone’.
The chairs beside my bed need sitting bodies.
That is not what they are for.
I give up on my pose, wash my hands
And my face, and tidy away my books.
I am expecting her visit at any moment.

Wall to Wall

Is that photograph of our laughter,
somewhere in My Documents,
still our photograph, our laughter?
Now it’s been clicked, dragged and dropped,
tagged and colonized by zealous friends,
hardly friends?

And are we losing our clandestine glow,
Stalking like desperate paparazzi,
Stalked like careless celebrities,
Now that the fakery of a camera
Forces out each smile and dance?

There’s honesty in some
but unseen
Movies, unread Books,
Quotes in others.
Great minds are bending in their graves.

Can this ‘watching and watched’ prove comforting?
In wasted hours of commerce and lust,
you wait for exes and potential exes
to flood your home-pages,
To confirm the bones of your struggle.

Our glorifying web will know dead wax
the way those white wings of Icarus did,
so too the Sun will scorch this masquerade,
mythologize us quietly in plans
of carbon, bone-marrow, satire.


You don’t have to eat five portions of fruit
Every day.
You don’t have to inventory your dresses,
Or shave that ugly growth.
You don’t have to read novels as fairy tales,
Or familiarise yourself with the FTSE index.
You don’t have to vote.
You don’t have to wear a seat belt
Or heed warnings on television.
You don’t have to wait in line at Morrisons,
You don’t have to print a statement,
You do not need insurance.
You don’t have to get a degree,
Or know what you want to do with one.
You don’t have to tell us you're agnostic,
Or bang on about Kennedy or Lennon.
You don’t have to do the washing up
Or buy your share of loo roll.
You don’t have to accept
You are luckier than five billion impoverished people.
You don’t have to begin every sentence,
The thing is…
You don’t have to end every sentence,
Do you know what I mean?

Have, don’t you, lungs?
You don’t have to breathe
If the oxygen's not what
You were hoping for.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Invictus (2009)

* * *

(Dir. Clint Eastwood, 2009)

is a film about South Africa's 1995 Rugby World Cup glory and its political significance, focusing on the leaderships of President Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and skipper, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). The historical moment is Mandela's recent release from Robben Island Prison, and South Africa's return to the global sports community. Mandela seeks, against the will of his supporters, to use, instead of banish, the green and gold Springboks - for years a symbol of white supremacy - as a means of uniting post-Apartheid South Africa.

On his first public outing at a test match against England, Mandela is confronted by a sea of apartheid flags and is nearly struck by a catapult of (ice cream?) - the closest the movie gets to violence.
Invictus is one of those bemusing films where its weird absence of suffering, its failure to deal with the real issues, is worse than meek: it is irresponsible. There are glimpses of the country's rugby-culture and how it is loathed by the majority of the population but these are contrived and seldom. The most painful scene is when Mandela's white and black security meet: the tension between, and the acccents of, the character-actors are never believable.

As a handsome, international captain, Matt Damon is closer to David Beckham than Francois Pienaar. His insipid speech making combined with the non-existence of any relationship with a teammate make for some uninspiring sports cinema. However his beefcake look and his team's visits to Robben Island and a township suggest a visually disciplined motion picture and paint a true portrait of the South Africa that people who have been will, or should, recognise. It is on Robben Island that Pienaar imagines (but not brutally enough) Mandela's struggle in his cell with the cinematographical support of Henley's poem,
Invictus, read on a voice over by Freeman and given to the captain for inspiration (in fact it was Roosevelt's speech, The Man in the Arena, that Mandela gave to Pienaar in 1995).

Moving or still, smiling or deep in contemplation, Morgan Freeman
is Nelson Mandela. Even if we turn our eyes away for just a syllable, it could be Nelson Mandela talking. Having mastered the wise and revered screen presence as a number of comparable personalities (Deep Impact, Gone Baby Gone, The Shawshank Redemption, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Bruce Almighty...), Freeman has nailed the part he was born to play, working a five-star performance in a three-star flick. The mutual respect between Mandela and Pienaar is well executed, as is Mandela's wit when it comes to afternoon tea, irony and self-deprecating humour.

If not the oppression, at least the diversity of South Africa's landscape is observed honestly by Eastwood. A third-world township is visited and uplifted briefly by celebrities, and elsewhere, the plush Pienaar household (notoriously racist, though this is largely muted by Eastwood) is attended to by a black servant. Eastwood removes his idealistic political show from the unresolved disharmony still prevalent in South Africa fifteen years on. Ironically, in a film that regularly takes us into the Springbok dressing room, Chester Williams, the one black player and cult hero in the squad, is even more of a caricature than he was in the original PR campaign; an opportunity for a fascinating character-development snubbed. It is particularly disheartening when Mandela, learning the names of each squad member, turns to his PA assistant and remarks that Chester is too easy to recognise: "This must change. It has to". Unfortunately, it hasn't.

Although the World Cup Final is dragged out (I remembered it as a territorial, scrappy affair) and although I knew what was going to happen when Joel Stransky set himself for the winning drop kick, my heart began to race at how much more than victory this meant to the brand new, rainbow nation. Outside the stadium, a black child listening to the radio-commentary with two white policemen is a nice touch, yet it is symptomatic of the way in which Eastwood sidesteps South Africa's cracked social fabric in pursuit of a cutesy and brief shot of pathos. Clint Eastwood is (of course) a fine director but with
Invictus he has taken an extraordinary, true and complex story and made an ordinary, misleading and straightforward film.

Sunday, 7 February 2010


The sandcastle, its fantasy, is thinning.
Wafer-thin is the sex between us,
This stranger and I on the Victoria line.
I won't smile. Not now.

Evolution is an inexplicable thing.
Biology irritated me, the way textbooks
And teachers personified science,
Gave the momentum of time and plants a will power.

This is an appeal, a space on a dating website
For lumps of puffed up poetry without rhythm.
Funny really, and cemeteries are passed
When I take the train home.

When I eat, graves are in my bowl,
On my spoon, a namelessness.
There is a draught in this house of many memories.
In my boyish bed, a man is sieving desire.

Friday, 5 February 2010

A Prophet (Un Prophete) (2009)

* * * * *

(Dir. Jacques Audiard, 2009)

A Prophet
is as sociologically important a work as Kassovitz’s groundbreaking La Haine, it races and snaps like Scorsese’s The Departed, and it is rumoured with the cinematographical poetry of Audiard’s own The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De Battre Mon Coeur S'Est Arrete). What we have then is a truly versatile and wise motion picture directed by a man who is doing everything possible to evade the shadow of his legendary father; instead he is casting his own inventive form over Europe and now across the Atlantic.

The story is of a young Arab male, Malik (Tahar Rahim), who has been sentenced to six years in a (particularly) violent French prison. Malik enters prison an ignorant loner and exits a learned gangster. His first point of contact in jail is Corsican mafia-boss, Cesar Luciano, who immediately enslaves Malik in a straightforwardly abusive relationship. Uneducated, and stripped of pride and autonomy, Malik embraces the opportunism of his criminal role. He works his way up by contributing to the Corsicans’ gangster operations as a puppet whose strings are the only agenda. Progressively Malik becomes more authoritive. He learns to read and write (in a differently directed but equally epiphanic set piece as Kate Winslett's self-education in
The Reader), and he is promoted to Cesar's assistant as the other Corsicans are released. But Cesar is aeging fast, physically as well as reputably, and Malik's prophesy will emerge as a reality; the title of Clint Eastwood's new release, Invictus, is based on William Henley's Victorian poem of the same name, but its final lines can be sooner applied to Audiard's film:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

In Malik we witness the most egregious treatment of the human mouth since
The Dark Knight and Heath Ledger's fascination with the Chelsea smile. Malik's first 'job' for Luciani is to murder a gay Arab named Reyeb, after sexually enticing him in order to catch him off-guard. He is told to hide the weapon, a safety razor, in a mouth that will subsequently and profusely bleed; to take it out only for the kill. Indeed Rahim's execution of his character's ineffable psyche is immersive enough to transcend mere thesping and to invite comparisons with Ledger, Nicholson, Day Lewis and so on. He takes on the challenge of the very title of this movie and fulfils it with seemingly effortless abandon. Because Malik is illiterate, it is fitting and never pompous that the cinematography shimmers and extrapolates and becomes a character in itself. Malik's beautiful and haunting dream of a deer in the road is not only prophetic but also symbolic of the vulnerability of Audiard's players. Images in the memory, the present and toward anxiety are everything to A Prophet.

The score by Alexandre Desplat is irregular: a predominantly soft and slow canticle for a violent motion picture. Piano and strings bruise with melancholy and yet there are moments of furious hip hop and percussion that buttress Audiard's already chilling social realism. The soundscape is inimitable and transcendental, responsible for an instantly classic murder scene that takes place when Malik is on leave, physically if not criminally. It takes time and stomach-corroding suspense for our protagonist to approach the parked, opaque vehicle containing his prey. When the moment comes for him to finally pull the trigger, a cacophony of gunshot explosions shift from snappy snare to hollow bass drum as the audience become embroiled in the deafness and momentary paralysis inside Malik's head. In the same way as Coppola, the Coens and Dominik nauseated, and toyed with, us in the
Godfather, Miller’s Crossing and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford respectively, here Audiard’s intense portrayal of killing is at once repulsive and tragic, subtle and yet forcible as a chapter-climax.

Unsurprisingly, this won the 2009 Cannes Grand Prix, the London Film Festival's Best Film Award, and has now been nominated for Best Foreign-language Film at the Academy Awards. Fated to endure,
A Prophet is a numbing paladin for French cinema, and a model for any auteur inquiring about what prison, survival and liberty each mean.