1968, Senegal/France, directed by Ousmane Sembène
The first full-length feature from the great Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène, Mandabi gives free rein to his strain of humanism, and his eye for the details of the everyday. While his more recent films - Faat Kiné and Moolaadé - are explicitly about the status of women in Africa, that concern is also clearly in evidence here, and Sembène is quick to credit women with providing the backbone of family - and by extension community - life. The core of this film, though, is a satire on bureaucracy, greed and corruption, a biting indictment of Senegal's post-independence direction (his political commentary was even sharper in 1974's Xala), told through the experiences of a middle-aged man who receives a bank draft from a nephew in Paris. His attempts to cash the draft bring him into the contact with the worst of Senegal's bureaucracy, and not a few thieves; while the lead character is often spiky and sometimes foolish, his inherent decency in the face of continued opportunism gives him a quiet dignity, a value in short supply. Sembène doesn't hector us, though - at elast not until the very end - reminding us, subtly but insistently, that even the opportunists need to make a crust in a society always teetering on the verge of disaster.
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
1968, Senegal/France, directed by Ousmane Sembène
Sunday, May 28, 2006
2004, US, directed by Omar Naïm
The least successful of a string of more 'serious' movies that Robin Williams made a couple of years ago, The Final Cut boasts a reasonably interesting sci-fi premise - imagining a future in which humans can have their memories implanted on a chip, with the creation of a final, sanitised version after death - that is betrayed by poor execution. Given the short running time and the plot confusions, there's a strong sense that the film was trimmed from a more expansive version, although another 30 minutes of this stuff hardly seems appealing. Williams plays a 'cutter', someone who does the post-mortem memory editing, but it's almost impossible to care about someone who spends the entire film with one fixed expression (Williams's standard 'melancholy' face; it takes a much stronger director to coax a proper performance from him). Various larger themes are raised, but given little serious exploration, and the end result is a frustrating might-have-been.
Friday, May 26, 2006
2005, Denmark, directed by Henk Ruben Genz
A slight but agreeable entry in the cross-cultural encounters genre, Kinamand (the Danish word for Chinaman) is powered by a fine central performance from Bjarne Henriksen, and often witty observations on the meeting between an unhappy Danish plumber and the extended family of a Chinese restaurant owner. In structure and tone, it's similar to the excellent Norwegian/Swedish production Kitchen Stories, without that film's ring of more universal truth; both films employ an episodic structure and feature the rehabilitation of lonely, closed men. Like that film, Kinamand also inhabits a hermetic world, in which outside developments are almost irrelevant: until the end of the film, there's barely a month when the action shifts away from the grey city block where the plumber and restaurateur live and work. While the film has some sharp-edged marital commentary in its early sections, ultimately it's a warm-hearted affair, although there's an emotional honesty to the final scenes that ensures the film stays away from excess sentiment.
Thursday, May 25, 2006
Bresson's Pickpocket is a salutary reminder that the directors of the nouvelle vague didn't entirely emerge from the ether, nor did they have a monopoly on artistic innovation (indeed, by the time Godard, Truffaut and others emerged at the end of the 1950's, Bresson had already matured as an artist), although given Bresson's asceticism it's no great surprise that he took a back seat in terms of public visibility (and no great surprise that the sheer charm of a film like A Bout de souffle led to its over-valuation). While superficially simple, Pickpocket tends to raise as many questions as it does answers, for the motivations of the characters are opaque and even inexplicable - in this, the lead character has often been compared to Camus's anti-hero Meursault, although Bresson's notion of redemption is rather different. Bresson pares the dialogue down to an absolute minimum; words, unlike in so many French films, provide little explanation for the characters' state of mind, and the actors sometimes deliver startling information in the blankest of tones (a reflection, too, of their amateur status). The (swift-moving) action - particularly in the virtuoso re-creations of various pickpocketing techniques - effectively draws the viewer in, but even given the film's brief running time it proves hard to sustain the air of near-existential mystery, while the lack of any psychological insight makes the ending hard to swallow; there's no sense of the context from which the resolution abruptly emerges.
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
The Insider is the best marriage to date between a strong storyline and Michael Mann's striking visual imagination. By Hollywood standards, Mann is an authentic visual artist, here employing a cool, glistening palate (greys, blues, overcast skies and rain), and elegantly composed shots with the occasional, startling flash of colour (his use of music, too, is unsettling and often so insistent that it becomes a character in its own right). It's no great surprise to see Mann take on, once again, a claustrophobic, male world, telling the interwoven stories of malfeasance in the tobacco industry and the network television attempt to expose that malfeasance (the script is exceptional, expertly shifting the emphasis between storylines without creating distractions). Hollywood loves the kind of tale wherein big corporations get their comeuppance (Erin Brockovich, North Country, A Civil Action), but The Insider is far more complex, dealing in shades of grey and probing as insistently at the compromises of network television news (and particularly 60 Minutes, which still likes to think of itself as a serious news outlet, but which is ill-equipped to tell this particular tale, given CBS's own business interests) as it does at the evils of Big Tobacco. Russell Crowe and Al Pacino (as, respectively, a tobacco whistle-blower and a 60 Minutes producer) are both exceptional; in acting terms, Crowe gets the showier role, and his transformation after the hulking cop of LA Confidential is arresting. The supporting cast, too, is generally strong: Christopher Plummer channels Mike Wallace (who comes off as hypocritical opportunist) to eerie effect, while Bruce McGill and Colm Feore have fun playing that rare thing, the good lawyer. By contrast, the female roles - as so often in Mann's films - are of minimal interest; Gina Gershon has an especially thankless role as a bitchy CBS attorney.
Friday, May 19, 2006
Spielberg takes so much flak - especially from "serious" critics - for his sentimentality and infantilization that his telling of more adult, complex tales often comes as something of a surprise, no more so than in Empire of the Sun, a pretty clear-eyed adaptation of the rigorously unsentimental J.G. Ballard autobiographical novel. The theme, ultimately, is that of the descent of man, particularly in the prison camp context, where even otherwise 'good' people make moral compromises in order to maxmize their own chances of survival (a theme that doesn't really appear in Schindler's List, although the topic would be considerably more explosive in the context of the Holocaust). Despite Spielberg's clear affection for his youthful protagonist, Jim (Christian Bale) descends as far as anyone; the skills he acquires to charm his way out of any situation come at a heavy psychological price (indeed, by the end of he film, he seems like a literal shell), where the notion of loyalty to something beyond oneself is entirely subsumed by the need to get through each day. Even where Spielberg veers towards mawkishness, the film is kept on the rails through strong supporting performances, and the inherent interest in this relatively little-known corner of World War II history. Christian Bale, incidentally, is extraordinary.
Monday, May 15, 2006
With all of her bubblegum success, it's easy to forget that Jennifer Aniston has some tricks up her acting sleeve; she's the best thing in Nicole Holofcener's engaging and often very funny film, quite a trick when the company includes Frances McDormand and the ever-luminous Catherine Keener; Aniston's lack of vanity here is especially notable. The three actresses - and Joan Cusack, to whom I've never warmed - play a quartet of Los Angeles pals, who, along with their various significant others, lead intertwined lives in which - hence the title - money or the lack thereof plays a major role. Of course, Aniston's cause is immeasurably helped by the fact that she plays much the most pleasant of the four women, even with a vein of mania; McDormand in particular has to mine a vein of unpleasant pettiness that's the antithesis of her more accustomed salt-of-the-earth types (particularly post-Fargo). While Holofcener creates a galaxy of strong, interesting female roles, she's not interested in white-washing her characters, which lends the film considerable dramatic tension, even when things start out civilized. Structurally, the writer-director also does a fine job of interweaving the very different stories, never allowing any one character to spend too much time either on or off screen, while still ensuring that the changes of tempo aren't distracting.
Friday, May 12, 2006
Nearly 40 years on, The Graduate remains energetic and frequently amusing, although as the film's running time slips by, it's hard to avoid the sense that it have as much to say as it would like us to think, despite its status (some of it quite conscious) as a commentary on a generation. The observation that upper-middle-class Southern California might be superficial and obsessed with financial or social status is hardly an original thought (nor was it original in 1967); the social world of the film is so oppressive that only a fool wouln't want to rebel against it (even so, the final scene is surprisingly liberating). Dustin Hoffman's star-making performance mostly consists of looking startled by the events going on around him - things seem to happen near him rather than to him - but his fixed expression is so amusing that it carries him throughout the film, while his hesitant line-readings brilliantly capture his character's many confusions. While she's as much icon as actual character, it's hard not to think that Mrs. Robinson gets the short end of the stick: while she's undeniably manipulative and hypocritical, she's also, quite clearly, a troubled, unhappy woman, but the film isn't really all that interested in her fate.
Monday, May 08, 2006
1995, US/Austria/Switzerland, directed by Richard Linklater
With a set-up as simple as this - two travelers, one American (Ethan Hawke), one French (Julie Delpy) meet on a train and spend most of a day wandering Vienna - it's easy to assume that director Richard Linklater simply turned his camera on and pointed it at the actors. In fact this a very artfully constructed film, with carefully modulated highs and lows, paralleling the process by which the two leads get to know one another, alternately drawn in and pushed back with each series of personal revelations. In sensibility, the film is more French than American, in that these characters get to know one another through words rather than deeds; their attempts to impress each other verbally occasionally fall flat, but that's ultimately key to the charm of the film, which never tries to shade the characters' imperfections (both are also convincingly aware of their excusable flaws). While the core of the film is the blossoming human romance, Linklater also delivers a love letter to Vienna, seeking out some of the city's quirkier corners and inhabitants, and conveying the sense of a city with mysteries hidden around every corner. Both actors are strong; while their sprawling conversations are beautifully played, they also have fun with the silences, never more so when they share a music listening booth and aren't quite sure where to look.
Friday, May 05, 2006
While James L. Brooks has made some fine, entertaining fare (Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, in particular), here he seems incapable of deciding whether he's making a heartwarming drama or a pointed social satire - which is a shame, especially since he coaxes an excellent, understated performance from Adam Sandler. Sandler plays John Clasky, a successful LA chef with an overbearing wife (Tea Léoni) who hires a Spanish-speaking maid, Flor (Paz Vega), and life lessons ensue. Given Brooks' background in small-screen fare, it shouldn't be a great surprise that he crafts a setup straight out of sitcom central, but it's still astonishing to be presented with the scenario of a wise (and winsome) maid teaching a family of wealthy professionals a thing or two about honour and, well, the right way to live. Thankfully for Brooks, Vega and, especially, Sandler (along with the two young actresses playing their respective daughters) are both very watchable (more so than the trite story deserves), but poor Léoni is saddled with a truly obnoxious role with not a redeeming grace note in sight.
Tuesday, May 02, 2006
2005, US, directed by John Madden
A solid adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning play, Proof features a fine performance from Gwyneth Paltrow; it's a major step-up from the overrated Shakespeare in Love (also directed by John Madden). Paltrow plays Catherine, a young woman who has lived in the shadow of her mathematician father (Anthony Hopkins), a man who was a genius in his youth, but who was later ravaged by psychiatric illness. In the aftermath of his death, Catherine has to deal with an overbearing sister (Hope Davis, playing successfully against type) and a young mathematician in search of 'lost' work (the very un-nerdy Jake Gyllenhaal). Director Madden does a decent job taking the play beyond its stage origins, although the house around which the action is centered does have a certain theatricality; the price of movie realism is the loss of several longer speeches, particularly from the father (though Hopkins seems so sleepy, it's perhaps no great loss). Paltrow shows skill in playing an often unsympathetic central character, caught between her commitment to her father and her desire to develop an independent existence.