1993, US, directed by Jonathan Demme
It's striking that twelve years after Philadelphia was released, the notion of a perfectly ordinary man who simply happens to be gay is something that the movies still haven't come to terms with: while Andrew Beckett's (Tom Hanks) sexuality is critical to this story, in another sense the fact that he happens to have a male lover (Antonio Banderas) is portrayed as purely incidental, something that's as natural as breathing, whereas in most movies it's still framed as an 'issue'. The story is familiar: Andy Beckett is fired from his job, apparently because he is both gay and HIV positive, and the only lawyer in town who'll take on his case is Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), a former adversary and a homophobe to boot. On its own terms - major Hollywood movie tackling a genuinely emotive subject - Philadelphia does a decent job: it's simply unrealistic to expect a major studio to plunge millions of dollars into a movie like this and have the stars go to bed with each other. Soft-peddled it may have been, but it also got people talking in ways that they weren't accustomed to, and that, perhaps, is enough to expect from the entertainment industry. Tom Hanks handles his part with skill, and he makes the point, unmistakably, that one's sexuality and one's common decency are two entirely separate things (and not mutually exclusive); Denzel Washington is also solid, conveying some of the feelings of prejudice that even the most apparently open-minded among us occasionally mull over. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Philadelphia as an 'AIDS film' more than a decade on is the way in which AIDS is now a disease which is seen as an international - and especially African - public health issue, rather than simply as a 'gay plague' that carries a rapid death sentence (something that is less and less true in the West).
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Saturday, November 26, 2005
2005, US, directed by James Mangold
It's hardly a surprise to see this film compared to last year's Ray, what with the similarities in raw material, at least as presented onscreen: two dirt-poor southerners who have faced tragedies of one kind or another head out on their own, and break into the music business in semi-miraculous fashion. Their rise to stardom is fuelled by substance abuse and infidelity - followed by redemption and elevation to the status of national icons. That, at least, is the Hollywood version of things, although the movie format doesn't allow for much in the way of biographical nuance in two hours, even where the focus has been reduced to a fifteen-year span of Cash's life, childhood scenes apart. Given the constraints of the form, this a creditable bit of pseudo-biography, filling in the major incidents of Cash's rise to fame, especially the long flirtation, and eventual relationship, with June Carter. They first met when both were married - not something that cramped Cash's style anyway - and the film does a decent job of sketching in the emotional complexities of their relationship, without excusing them overly. In this, the film is greatly helped by its stars: Joaquin Phoenix is exceptional as Cash, inhabiting the character in convincing fashion, his face showing the wear and tear of hard living as the film progresses, while Reese Witherspoon, after years of froth, looks as though she's finally fulfilling some of the dramatic promise she showed as a teenage actress. Both actors do their own singing, imitating Cash and Carter with considerable accuracy (Jamie Foxx did a fine job of channelling Ray Charles's tics and twitches, but Phoenix and Witherspoon lend real fire to proceedings with their own energetic renditions of the greatest hits), and there's an unmistakeable chemistry between the two. It's no surprise to see Cash 'saved' from himself by the love of a good woman - Carter - but there's a twist, in that her relationship with Cash is clearly a form of redemption, too, after years of unhappiness: in many ways, this is a biopic of a couple rather than an individual, as befits the bond the two shared.
Friday, November 25, 2005
2005, US, directed by Florent Emilio Siri
Hostage reminds me of Wes Craven's Red Eye: a B-movie set-up played with great conviction and given an injection of directorial panache for a satisfyingly twisted payoff (although the action isn't as pared-down here as it is in Red Eye). Bruce Willis - who could do this kind of thing in his sleep but instead looks as though his life depended on it - plays an LA hostage negotiator who retreats to small-town California after a standoff goes terribly awry. As any alert movie-goer knows, the calm won't last long, although Bruce's bucolic existence is punctured in especially jarring fashion: three miscreant teens (one of them a standard-issue homicidal nutcase) end up under siege in the high-security house of a wealthy, but morally bankrupt, local citizen, and the man's underworld connections (who appear to have near unlimited resources) become involved in order to recuperate an incriminating DVD. There are multiple plot strands at work here, which would be fatal in the hands of a less accomplished director, but Siri, making his US debut, ably juggles the competing storylines to ratchet up the tension, making effective use of his star, who (happily) looks as though he wandered in from the set of Die Hard. The core of the film is the siege of the house, and the multiple attempts to break in - with no regard whatsoever for standard police practice, naturally. Siri employs a highly mobile camera - prowling, swooping and swishing its way along roads, over houses and along corridors - to great effect, although the colour scheme, all ochre and orange, is a little over the top. There's a great opening credits sequence that comes as a surprise in a film like this, and which sets the scene rather effectively for the bravura tone of what's to come.
Thursday, November 24, 2005
2004, US, directed by Adam McKay
I may be doomed never to fully appreciate the comic talents of Will Ferrell, but it's a burden with which I can live. Ferrell was amusing in Elf, although credit should also be given to a half-decent script, but in other fare, like Wedding Crashers, he's invariably the least amusing element of the film (I'm glad no-one was tempted to give him a 'surprise' cameo in The 40-Year-Old Virgin). As writer and star of Anchorman, he should take the lion's share of the blame for the unfunny shenanigans: the first 30 minutes are flat-out painful, with cast and director apparently convinced their set-up is uproariously funny in and of itself, whereas it's really a pretty tired recycling of 70's pastiche (even the weak film version of Starsky and Hutch did it better). Like so many movies from the Saturday Night Live crew, even when individual scenes amuse the whole film barely hangs together; there are many extraneous bits that, no doubt, proved wildly amusing to the makers while constituting an endurance test for audiences. Fortunately, there are several excellent supporting performances, most notably from Fred Willard and Steve Carell, both of whom are consistently hilarious, while one or two scenes - the epic fight between competing news teams, for example - raise the humour level several notches.
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Like many films at the beginning of the 1930s, Sous les toits de Paris still has one foot firmly in the silent days, something that inevitably dates the picture for modern audiences. Many scenes, even those in which the actors are clearly speaking to each other, have a musical accompaniment alone, while the dialogue is not especially memorable (a few years later, Jacques Prévert and others would ensure that snappy dialogue became a cornerstone of French filmmaking). The performances, too, are reminiscent of silent days: the actors' movements are frequently exaggerated and wide-eyed, in contrast to the more naturalistic acting style that developed later, particularly once the possibilities of dialogue were better exploited. However, notwithstanding these limitations - which have as much to do with the modern audience perspective as with the film itself - Sous les toits de Paris retains great charm, from the elegant opening shot (filmed in a studio, and paired with a similarly graceful parting shot) which takes us down to street level, and into a crowd singing the title song, as a young man (Albert Préjean) attempts to sell sheet music. Préjean's character is, like everyone else, a creature of the streets, hard-scrabble but honest, living in an attic-room (hence the film's title), and hoping for a little cash and love. The story is very slight, and director Clair is indulgent with the running time, but there's no denying the director's affection for his characters: as poetic realism goes, he certainly errs on the side of the poetic, to mostly enjoyable effect (and the theme song will remain in your head for days afterwards).
Saturday, November 12, 2005
2003, Afghanistan/Iran/Japan, directed by Siddiq Barmak
When Osama was released, most of the focus was on the simple fact that it was the first film made in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban (not that the pre-Taliban list of films was long; there was never a movie industry to speak of in Afghanistan, unlike in neighboring Iran or Pakistan), but it also happens to be a fine bit of filmmaking, a carefully crafted miniature of considerable power. Like several key recent films from Iran, Osama adopts a child's perspective to reveal the wider society, in this case following a young girl whose mother compels her to dress as a boy in order to gain employment (the mother, who is a medical professional, is restricted to her house under Taliban rule: as a widow, she doesn't have a man to accompany her anywhere). The decision seems a good one initially but once the girl - re-baptised Osama - is removed from her place of work by the local mullahs in order to attend a madrassa, things spiral out of control. Director Siddiq Barmak keeps the action absolutely pared down, rarely straying from the main story, yet using background detail to develop a rich portrait of an astonishingly controlled society (with women the most visibly, and most brutally, repressed victims). It's a society from which the Taliban has leached almost all of the joy, in which even small acts of childish exuberance become dangerous. The non-professional actors are, for the most part, excellent, while the visuals are accomplished, with striking images throughout - the young girl skipping in prison, or the rows of covered women, not even their eyes visible. To paraphrase a friend, Osama is one of those worthy films that also happens to be good, which shouldn't be too much to ask.
Friday, November 11, 2005
1934, France, directed by Jean Vigo
Vigo's second and final film was so under-appreciated on release that the producers cut 25 minutes from the running time and gave it a new title, and it wasn't until years later, and more than a decade after his early death, that his critical reputation was born. It's ironic, then, that the passage of more years hasn't been kind to L'Atalante, which appears very dated in parts, and whose underlying slightness is ever more apparent. It's a romance, following the early wedded months of a barge captain and his new bride on the canals; the barge's wildly eccentric mate, played by Michel Simon, is a key figure in both their lives. More than most talking pictures, the link with silent days is very apparent: it's not hard to imagine the film without dialogue, particularly in the scenes between the married couple, whose acting style is as wide-eyed as in many a silent. For the most part, their story is rather routine: the film comes alive when Simon (one of the least handsome actors ever to achieve stardom) is on-screen, despite the fact that his gruff line readings are almost incomprehensible at times. His character's colourful personal history is rendered in vivid, amusing detail. While the plot is of the thinnest variety, it is nonetheless possible to discern something of what made Vigo unique in his time: there's a rawness that's the opposite of all that establishment cinema of the time stood for, and a willingness to experiment formally that inevitably impressed itself on the filmmakers of the nouvelle vague in the late 1950's. There's also a frank eroticism in several scenes that remains startling even today.
Monday, November 07, 2005
1970, France, directed by Eric Rohmer (original title: Le Genou de Claire)
One of Rohmer's best-known films, Le Genou de Claire exemplifies in many ways both the strengths and weaknesses of his approach to filmmaking. It's an especially garrulous talk-fest - the characters do little else - which is capable of considerable insight and occasional wit, but Rohmer's films are often set in an especially insular world (like the Manhattan of Woody Allen movies), which of its nature is intellectually exclusive, while it's often difficult to suspend one's disbelief at the blatantly artificial set-up. Jean-Claude Brialy plays a diplomat spending the month prior to his marriage on holiday alone - there's a scenario drawn from reality! - and while relaxing he catches up with an old friend, perhaps a former lover, who's a novelist. He spends his days 'befriending' a teenage girl and, later, becoming somewhat infatuated with her willowy, slightly older sister. His every move is recounted for the benefit of his writer friend, who goads him to more action (something the viewer might well appreciate, since his moves consist mostly of lengthy conversations). While there are scenes when, unexpectedly, all this hangs together and becomes quite compelling, Rohmer seems remarkably tolerant of some pretty poor acting, with lines delivered as if they're being read from cue cards (which wouldn't be surprising, given the large chunks of text the characters are required to deliver). As a director, he's clearly fascinated by cinema as a narrative medium, but has relatively little interest in the purely visual aspect of storytelling: the story is reminiscent of an epistolary novel, set in a very hermetic world, where other Rohmer films are a little more expansive, and considerably more charming.