Monday, December 31, 2007

Fracture

2007, US, directed by Gregory Hoblit

Director Gregory Hoblit has been here before, mining material similar to that of his first feature film, Primal Fear (which featured a memorable debut from Edward Norton). As in that film, Hoblit ensures that the narrative tricks play second fiddle to the confrontation between the two lead actors, Ryan Gosling and Anthony Hopkins (playing a young prosecutor and a wealthy murder suspect, respectively).

Hopkins, his voice rich in his original Welsh accent, is much better here than is often the case when he's on the Hollywood dollar, referencing his original turn as Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs but toning down the subsequent ham, while Gosling has held on to something of the rawness of his recent turn in Half Nelson, investing his character's hard-scrabble back story with more than usual conviction. Hoblit shoots the film in a calm, precise style, lingering over surfaces and shadows, of which there is no shortage in Hopkins's remarkable house, where the film's plot kicks into gear. It's a nice contrast to the more frenetic style that's so characteristic of recent Hollywood storytelling, allowing ample room for the actors to work, rather than reducing them, Bourne-like, to a single expression for the duration of the movie.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Shoot 'Em Up

2007, US, directed by Michael Davis

Rating: **

With just under 90 minutes of frenetic over-the-top gunplay and stunt work, Shoot 'Em Up would like to think itself a throwback to the glory days of Hong Kong action films, right down to the hero carrying a baby as he blasts everything in sight. Although some of the set pieces are carried off with chutzpah, particularly the opening sequence when an apparently unremarkable bystander - Clive Owen - turns out to be a master with a weapon, the filmmakers unaccountably graft on a plot about, of all things, gun control. Director Michael Davis no doubt finds this extremely witty, along with his very literal mother/whore (Monica Bellucci) and a running joke wherein the ultra-violent villain (a remarkably poor shot when the plot requires) gets nagging phone calls from his wife. Like the high-octane Hong Kong movies on which it models itself, the film exists in a world completely divorced from the one we inhabit, with shootouts prompting not even passing police interest. It renders the average James Bond adventure surprisingly credible, and a lot less bloody.

River of No Return

1954, US, directed by Otto Preminger

Marilyn Monroe makes a rare appearance in a western here, directed by Otto Preminger making his only outing in the genre; old hand Robert Mitchum is there to keep things on track (a good thing, since Monroe's unusual diction sometimes seems to belong to a different film). In plot terms, it's a fairly conventional tale, with Mitchum trying to escape a troubled - though not dishonorable - past in the Canadian Rockies, along with his young son, but getting himself dragged into someone else's tale of greed.

While the film succeeds admirably as entertainment - Mitchum's performance is particularly good - I can't help thinking that the auteurist case for the film has been perhaps a touch overstated. The narrative arc that conveys bitterly-won knowledge from father to son seems a typical Hollywood contrivance, while many of the individual incidents, are standard western fare (which is not to say that they aren't enjoyable, nor that they aren't stitched together with care).

By contrast, the director is more obviously present in the insistently mobile camerawork. The early scenes, in a gold miners' camp, are especially strong, and a sequence when the camera roams through the makeshift bar where Monroe performs is exquisitely choreographed. For all his tilting at moral convention elsewhere, though, the sexual politics here seem decidedly old school, particularly in the sequence where Mitchum first imposes himself on Monroe.

[Update: Via girish, I read Dan Sallitt's post on Henry Hathaway, and it seems to me that he's suggesting some of the same issues with auteurist evaluation of a filmmaker. It reinforces my sense that River of No Return may be a decent illustration of some aspects of Preminger's visual style without necessarily being a great primer on some of his thematic interests. I read somewhere that he made the film under contractual obligation, and wasn't that interested in the project, but I need to find a solid source for that speculation.]

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Once

2007, Ireland, directed by John Carney
A small but infectiously enjoyable film about a serendipitous artistic encounter, Once is also a quietly pointed commentary on Ireland in the age of the Celtic Tiger. The slight story revolves around the meeting between a Dublin busker (Glen Hansard, lead singer of the Dublin band The Frames, and sometime Commitment) and a young Czech immigrant (Markéta Irglová) who proves to be a talented musician. It's a pretty familiar tale of growing attachment and dreams of the big time, but director John Carney keeps the film consistently anchored in reality, creating a deft, humorous portrait of life on the fringes, that results in a thoroughly satisfying payoff.

The film adeptly captures the air of Dublin circa 2006, a city with a burgeoning immigrant population (most notably, in recent years, people from Eastern Europe), and a newfound wealth. Carney, a former member of The Frames himself, isn't taken in by tales of gold in the streets, however: even within the world of the film, dreams of musical success lie not in Dublin but in London, tempering the images of economic boom. The director is also insistently accurate in his account of Dublin geography: the characters accurately navigate the city's streets while walking from one location to another, as if to reinforce the idea that the film is grounded in a particular place and time.

Given how natural they seem onscreen, it's tempting, too, to conclude that Hansard and Irglová are playing thinly-veiled versions of themselves, though they can't conceal their musical talents. Carney allows their work free rein, playing several songs in their entirety (the film's main weakness is perhaps the overuse of musical montage, even allowing for the fact that it's more a musical than a drama). For the most part, he films the action in stripped-down style, using a handheld camera and sometimes minimal lighting (a sequence where a group of musicians eat, drink, and play together one evening has a wonderful shadowy warmth). He does nonetheless allow himself the occasional directorial flourish, particularly near the end, but also early on in a beautiful slow handheld shot that advances on Hansard as he busks on Grafton Street after dark, moving in on the singer's face as he reaches his song's climax.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Speed

1994, US, directed by Jan de Bont
A B-movie action flick with an A budget, Jan de Bont's directorial debut is a good exercise in making the most of what you have in the Hollywood context. Though Keanu Reeves has his moments as an actor, the director wisely keeps Reeves's dialogue here to a minimum, since he's far more convincing as a cop of action rather than a cop of words (Graham Yost's script, full of irritating verbal tics, most notably a running series of "pop quiz" remarks, doesn't help Reeves's cause).

While the premise, as in many an action movie, is absurd, de Bont moves the plot along so swiftly - and so clearly - that there's little time to reflect on the inconsistencies. He's helped enormously by the serendipity of a catching a young actress on the rise, the more so given that Sandra Bullock has tremendous onscreen chemistry with Reeves (by contrast, Dennis Hopper is a laughably manic villain).
It's refreshing, too, to rewind a few years and watch a movie that depends more on old-fashioned sleight-of-hand and stuntwork than on CGI effects. Perfect post-Christmas bloated-stomach brain-detached watching.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Tiger's Tail

2006, Ireland, directed by John Boorman

Since their highly successful 1998 collaboration The General - based on the life of the Dublin criminal Martin Cahill - Brendan Gleeson has been a fixture in John Boorman's work; The Tiger's Tail returns him to center stage, and to Dublin, for a rough-edged satire on modern Ireland. It's an uneven film, full of unexpected shifts in tone, sometimes bluntly funny, then disconcertingly serious, but when it hangs together it's compelling, and enjoyably disrespectful of sacred cows.

Gleeson plays Liam O'Leary, a highly successful property developer emblematic of the Celtic Tiger, who becomes convinced he sees his doppelgänger at every turn, causing him to call his entire life into question. As with a film like Emmanuel Carrère's La Moustache the film is a very serious kind of fable, that hinges entirely on suspension of disbelief. Unfortunately, it only works up to a point: it's difficult to take the double's infiltration entirely seriously, particularly in a deeply questionable - even in the satirical context - rape scene involving O'Leary's wife (Kim Cattrall), though Gleeson does a fine job distinguishing between the two characters.
Gleeson always seems on strongest ground when he's at home - his accents sometimes leave a little to be desired, though that's not the case here - and he carries the film through many of its weaker patches, accompanied by a veritable galaxy of Irish character actors in the smaller roles. As you might expect with Boorman, the film is visually strong, with atmospheric camerawork from Seamus Deasy, who also shot The General (in beautiful black and white).

The film is most successful as an indictment of the direction of contemporary Ireland - it's no accident that O'Leary is a developer, driving property prices ever higher in a fragile pyramid of excess - with Boorman turning an especially jaundiced eye on his adoptive home (he counters the accusation of rose-eyed nostalgia with an acid commentary on the social values of the past, too). Two sequences stand out in particular: the puking excesses on a weekend night in Dublin's Temple Bar, and his hellish vision of a hospital casualty ward (though the plotting required to take the viewer there seems contrived). The Temple Bar segment is a brilliantly conceived living nightmare, where drunken young people stagger around like the zombies of Shaun of the Dead (with Shaun initially unaware that they are any different from the average blear-eyed Londoner), while the casualty scenes might have been lifted from the accounts of dreadful hospital experiences that regularly grace the pages of The Irish Times.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Painted Veil

2006, US/China, directed by John Curran

As in his previous films, sensitive literary adaptations all, John Curran's primary pre-occupation in The Painted Veil is the secrets and compromises at the heart of relationships. He has drawn his inspiration from a wide range of literary sources, with the raw material on this occasion coming from W. Somerset Maugham's eponymous novel, already filmed a number of times. Ron Nyswaner's script makes substantial changes to the original book, however, while preserving many of the best lines, even if they are attributed to different characters.

Most obviously, the film opens up the novel's perspective, which is focused almost exclusively on the character of Kitty Fane (Naomi Watts), and reduces almost everyone else to a supporting role. This filmed version places her husband, Walter Fane (Edward Norton), on a roughly equal footing. The film also changes the setting of the early portions of the film, moving the action from Hong Kong to Shanghai (Maugham initially had to invent a fictitious locale after a colonial official took legal action around the time of the book's publication, but modern editions of the book have restored the original setting).

More importantly, the filmed version makes substantial changes to the ending, abandoning the original coda entirely. The new conclusion injects a dose of Hollywood uplift that Maugham denies his characters, while the final sequence showcases an independence of mind perhaps desired by modern audiences but likely unattainable in 1920s Britain. It also reduces the spiritual journey at the heart of Maugham's work to a more conventional tale of self-realisation.

By contrast, there is a satisfying addition in the form of a vein of commentary on the emergence of Chinese nationalism in the 1920s, a theme only hinted at in the novel, which makes but a fleeting reference to anti-foreigner riots. Curran is more fully invested in the idea of a story that takes place in China than Maugham ever was; the book requires a distant location, but often fails to move beyond a fairly simplistic exoticism. Curran delves a little more deeply into Walter Fane's motivations as a scientist, drawing a portrait that has more than a hint of Albert Schweitzer - not necessarily, these days, an unblemished positive. Fane, who makes no effort to speak Chinese, is persistently surprised when those local people with whom he works display wit, intelligence and cosmopolitan sophistication; despite his labors on behalf of those afflicted by a terrible cholera epidemic, he's condemned to remain apart, whereas his wife is ultimately willing to plunge in to local life in an more enveloping way.

The filmed version is perhaps most faithful to the original in its remarkable cast: Watts and Norton skilfully capture the nuances of class and social pressure that have entrapped Kitty and Walter, while there's a horrible tension to their interactions after the revelation of Kitty's unfaithfulness, with neither person equipped to discuss the problems that beset them. The smaller parts, too, ring true: Liev Schreiber may be a touch too dashing as Kitty's paramour, but he's convincingly caddish once things go awry, while Toby Jones mixes weariness with shrewd humanity as Waddington, the only other foreigner once the Fanes decamp for the countryside, and the cholera, in the aftermath of Kitty's infidelity; the great Hong Kong star Anthony Wong also has a nice, if small, turn as the local police captain.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

I Am Legend

2007, US, directed by Francis Lawrence


More than anything else, I Am Legend is a testament to Will Smith's considerable star power: for much of the film, he's the only identifiable character, as in Tom Hanks's similar solo turn in Cast Away (Smith at least has the benefit of an eerily de-populated New York and an expressive dog as support, where Hanks had to rely on a ball as straight man). Smith, a tremendously appealing performer, is also a solid actor, and he's convincing as Robert Neville, New York's last remaining resident, a resourceful man of action. Despite a carefully honed routine, he's prey to his own mind - driven half-mad, on his bad days, by the necessity of sustained paranoia and the lack of human company.

The film is on surest ground while Smith is alone - his daily explorations of the city are suspenseful and strange, whether driving the wrong way up weed-infested Manhattan streets or exploring the homes of those killed by the devastating virus that has swept all before it, save Neville, who is trying to understand his own immunity (Emma Thompson makes a brief, uncredited appearance as Dr. Krippin, the virologist who's to blame; her name is reminiscent of another famous killer who found himself on the wrong end of an earlier technology of global reach). Halfway through, the film switches gears, abandoning much of its subtlety in favour of more mundane (and too obviously) computer-generated thrills; the film's budget doesn't stretch to the kind of authentically thrilling denouement of 28 Weeks Later, with which it shares some thematic similarities, though less filmmaking chutzpah.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Adam and Paul

2004, Ireland, directed by Lenny Abrahamson

Set over the course of one twenty-four hour period, Lenny Abrahamson's film follows two drug-addled Dubliners on their increasingly desperate attempts to gather enough money to score another hit. Adam and Paul - invariably referred to as one undifferentiated person, Adamandpaul, by everyone else - owe much to Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon, trying desperately to fill the hours that seem to stretch endlessly before them (Abrahamson's only prior film, the 1991 short Three Joes, similarly gave an absurdist spin to an apparently ordinary setting).

The film is not simply a re-working of Waiting for Godot, however, but rather a conscious counter-narrative to the prevailing mythologies of the Celtic Tiger, in which Abrahamson is determined to illustrate the realities of life for those left further behind by the rising tide of prosperity (themes given more recent expression in his 2007 television series, Prosperity, scripted by Adam and Paul's screenwriter and - taller - co-lead Mark O'Halloran). Ireland's economic boom is experienced exclusively as something outside the two men's sphere of existence, from which they are sometimes literally excluded; it's a story that inhabits the same universe as some of the finest of Damian Dempsey's songs, providing a trenchant alternative perspective on modern Irish life.


Though it is often extremely funny, in an utterly bone-dry way, the film is careful to avoid any hint of sentimentality. It acknowledges, often quite movingly, Adam and Paul's remaining shreds of humanity but never looks for simple emotional exits. It doesn't flinch, either, from the manner in which they're apt to turn on each other or on those few people more vulnerable than they. Though O'Halloran provides able support, Tom Murphy's performance as the second of the titular pair steals most of the attention: his work is a brilliant balance of deadpan humour, desperation, and a terrible, gnawing sadness. It's one of the finest film performances by an Irish actor in recent years; sadly, Murphy, best known as a stage actor, died in late 2007, a few months shy of his 40th birthday.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Venus

2006, UK, directed by Roger Michell

Rating: **.5

Though intermittently enjoyable as an actors' showcase, no amount of script padding can conceal the fact that Roger Michell's film is terribly thin, and thus maddeningly repetitive. While there is considerable poignancy in the film's depiction of an older man's attempts to cling to his more youthful passions, as well as a consciously discomfiting suggestion that even those of advanced years might have sexual feelings, Hanif Kureishi's script too frequently takes refuge in easy amusements such as having his old codgers swear like sailors.

It's hard not to conclude that Peter O'Toole is playing a slightly more down-at-heel version of himself - one hopes he's squirreled away a little more cash than the still-working bit part actor he plays here - and as such it's a carefully-judged performance devoid of vanity from one who started his career as such a stunningly handsome man of action. There is a genuine warmth in his interactions with the rest of the cast - whether the youthful Jodie Whittaker, or his fellow oldsters Leslie Phillips, Richard Griffiths and the ever-luminous Vanessa Redgrave; the actors are almost able to lift the film over its fundamental weaknesses.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

American Gangster

2007, US, directed by Ridley Scott

The spectre of The Godfather hangs over American Gangster, with Ridley Scott unsubtly channeling Francis Ford Coppola, particularly as his picture nears its climax, which intercuts a church scene with a series of police raids. Indeed, given American Gangster's carefully evoked 1970s New York setting, you half expect one of Scott's characters to emerge from a screening of The Godfather, though they're mostly far too driven to enjoy their leisure hours. Like Martin Scorsese's The Departed, American Gangster ultimately can't hold up in comparison to earlier, stronger films, though Scott's film at least avoids the over-the-top antics of a Jack Nicholson.

As with many other films about criminal life, American Gangster sometimes runs the risk of glorifying that which it seeks to depict; as if in conscious counter-balance to this, Scott includes several montage sequences that outline, in squalid detail, the ultimate consequences of the drug trade. Similarly, just as the eponymous gangster, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), threatens to become too sympathetic he carries out one of his most arbitrarily violent actions, undercutting his store of charisma.

Scott attempts to explore the wider political backdrop against which Lucas rose to power - most notably the Vietnam war and the aftermath of the 1960s - and while he's capable of making the occasional telling point (there's a recurring joke about the police's inability to believe that a black criminal could possibly be in overall control of such a drug network), for the most part the effort to stitch Lucas's story into the broader fabric of American life remains schematic. If the title didn't so consciously strive for greater import, it might be possible to appreciate the film as a simple chronicle of New York criminal life (Scott is a sufficiently accomplished storyteller that the film's ample running time never seems excessive), but it doesn't have the conviction to match its ambitions.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Ratatouille

US, 2007, directed by Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava
Perhaps because this time he's tweaking mythologies that are more profoundly anchored in another country rather than in his own, Ratatouille doesn't have quite the deeper resonance of Brad Bird's previous films, The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. Still, there's a level of visual invention at work here that's far beyond that of most mainstream animation these days, accompanying a quietly-delivered message about tolerance, and a paean to simple, uncommercialised food. The film's set pieces, in particular, are dazzlingly constructed and executed, far exceeding the imagination on display in most non-animated action films; sequences in the sewers and on the Seine are especially breathtaking. Given the hero's diminutive stature - he is on the smaller end of the rat spectrum - much more constricted spaces, such as a restaurant kitchen, also serve as a theatre for alarming encounters with humans, and the backdrops are quite beautifully rendered, giving the film a wonderful sense of depth. The copper pots gleam with almost photo-realism, while the shelves are stocked with lovingly-detailed animated versions of every gourmet ingredient the most demanding rat or restaurant patron could desire.

Rémy, the central character, is richly imagined, with a full arsenal of Gallic gestures and expressions, and an appreciation for the finer things in life that befits his national origin; his mid-American voice, provided by Patton Oswalt, is unfortunately much less resonant. The voice casting in general is a little eccentric: some performers, like Oswalt, speak in unaccented American voices, while others, like Janeane Garofalo as Colette, adopt over-the-top fake French accents (when they don't waver into entirely different nationalities). In such company, Peter O'Toole's voice comfortably steals the show: as the ghoulish Anton Ego, the film's much-feared restaurant critic, O'Toole positively salivates over every syllable. The remarkably clever, poignant moment when Ego first tastes the film's signature creation is something to particularly savour.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Flickering Shadows

J.M. Burns. Flickering Shadows: Cinema and Identity in Colonial Zimbabwe. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2002.

James Burns's book is a detailed examination of the encounter with cinema in what was known as Southern Rhodesia and, later, simply Rhodesia. Covering the period 1914-1980, Flickering Shadows is the first book-length account of the impact of film in an African country; his work also makes frequent reference to the use of film in other British colonies, and includes briefer comparisons with French and Belgian colonies.

Most work on African cinema tends to focus on the development of post-colonial African filmmaking, from the 1960s onwards. This book is a refreshing addition to the literature in that it concerns itself in large measure with an earlier period, and particularly with African audiences, who are often absent from works which deal with films that are seen more widely in the west than on their continent of origin. Burns deals with both propaganda and commercial filmmaking, and attempts to trace audience reactions to both.

Almost as soon as cinema arrived in Southern Rhodesia, around the time of the First World War, there were calls for control of filmed images, with colonial officials quickly establishing a censorship board (this was nothing new: censorship in India, for example, accompanied the growth of cinema as a popular form of entertainment, as Prem Chowdhry recounted in her 2000 book Colonial India and the Making of Empire Cinema). The zeal of the censors sometimes came into conflict with the demands of the white mine owners, who needed to assure a steady stream of cheap cinematic entertainment, which they viewed as a simple means to control the leisure hours of their African employees; some owners, and even a few colonial administrators, saw nothing wrong with a good film show, particularly in comparison with beer halls, which were both a source of domestic strife and possibly a theatre for political organisation.

By contrast, an emerging African middle-class sometimes repeated the call for the censorship or even outright banning of commercial (mostly Hollywood) films, including the hugely popular westerns, fearing that any misbehaviour linked to film screenings would threaten their own developing social status. However, unquestioning belief in African credulity with regard to film, was the particular province of the white population.

Film units throughout the British colonies in Africa developed a simple shooting style for educational films. The film unit directors felt that this style, which pared the action down to the barest minimum, and which eliminated all extraneous material, would be comprehensible to African audiences. The colonial filmmakers swallowed then-current theories about African cognition, with many semi-apocryphal stories about African credulity; Burns does a fine job of dismantling such stories, which often circulated for decades in various guises.

The colonial film unit directors were certain that Africans would believe and then follow what they saw onscreen (the corollary of the view that film could provoke disturbances was that film could also educate, along the desired colonial lines). As Burns shows, the short films that emerged from these theories were often counter-productive. Not only did African audiences not identify with what they saw in such films - they were obviously a white gloss on the African experience of life, and said far more about the coloniser than than colonised - but they often ridiculed the content, and then voted with their feet by simply staying away. Mobile film units in rural areas had to resort to the expedient of adding westerns or other commercial fare to the film programmes in order to ensure that the audience showed up.

While Burns provides a detailed account of the development of the colonial film units, and some of the individual films they made, the major weakness of his book is the lack of any sustained examination of the commercial films that were apparently so popular with audiences in Southern Rhodesia (and elsewhere in Africa: the anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker wrote vividly about 1950s film-going in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) in her 1962 book Copper Town).

Westerns were, Burns tells us, the particular favourite of most audience members, but either through lack of documentary records or because his research took him in other directions, there is little sense of the specific films shown, or of more detailed audience preferences (did they show a preference for a particular kind of western? were gangster films also popular?). One of his chapters is a re-worked version of a journal article entitled "John Wayne on the Zambezi", but neither article nor book makes any mention of films actually starring Wayne. There is a suggestion that B westerns starring Jack Holt may have been favoured in the 1930s, but the specific film titles mentioned in the book (and they are few in number) tend not to be westerns at all; one film deemed liable to provoke upset was Abbot and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), for example.
In that, Burns, no doubt inadvertently, tends to reinforce the colonial-era view that African audiences were not especially interested in film narratives, and would watch more or less anything as long as it was exciting. While it's possible that audiences were not always discerning, it's difficult to draw conclusions one way or the other given the lack of evidence. There's also something of a contradiction in the book: at one point, Burns states that westerns simply escaped the censors' scissors, while later he implies that many films were so badly chopped that the plots were rendered meaningless. In this, his comments are similar to Charles Ambler's 2001 American Historical Review article on moviegoing in Northern Rhodesia. Ambler appears to over-reach the raw materials, at least as cited in the article, which state only that many films -- perhaps half at the high-water mark -- were censored, but not whether they were heavily cut.

Even with this caveat, however, Burns's book is tremendously valuable as a starting point for further research, and also as an examination of the use of film for propaganda purposes by a colonial regime. Film remained a critical - though not necessarily effective - tool under Ian Smith's illegal Rhodesian Front regime after 1965: the closer the regime came to collapse, the more violent the propaganda, with Burns arguing that Rhodesian Front propaganda ironically precipitated its own end.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Films of Len Lye

Free Radicals (1958)

As I've written previously, I was first drawn to the New Zealand-born experimental filmmaker Len Lye's work by Kristin Thompson's blog post earlier this year, with her subsequent update alerting me to a touring program that featured almost all of his films, from his first work, Tusalava (1929), to his final Particles in Space (1966).

Lye moved to London as a young man - he had planned to visit the Soviet Union, but stopped in England - and the first phase of his film work was completed there. Near the end of the Second World War, he moved to the US, and made five distinctly different films in that country, of which he became a naturalised citizen. Most of Lye's works are very brief, with the longest pieces around seven minutes in length; some are just a minute long. He worked in many other art forms, too, and was especially known for his kinetic sculptures.

Lye's first film, Tusalava, best illustrates his early interest in imagery from the South Pacific, with motifs based on Maori and Samoan iconography. It's a complex and sometimes humorous work that melds images from the natural world with sequences reminiscent of science fiction robots; many sections recall the pulsating intensity of small life-forms seen under a microscope.

Rainbow Dance (1936)

A few years later, Lye made his best-known film, A Colour Box, a vibrant direct-animation work (the images were painted directly onto strips of film, an extraordinarily painstaking process given the small scale of the endeavor). Like many of his 1930s films, A Colour Box was in fact a commercial, for the General Post Office in this case (it was specifically designed to promote new parcel-post rates). After the success of the film, Lye made a half dozen films - including the above Rainbow Dance - with an ostensible advertising purpose, for clients such as Shell Oil, the GPO and Imperial Airways.

The commercial messages are almost always subsidiary to Lye's experiments with colour, shapes and process, and are sometimes added at the conclusion as an apparent after-thought. Lye received much encouragement at this stage of his career from the great documentarian John Grierson as well as from Alberto Cavalcanti, an even more cosmopolitan filmmaker than Lye himself (born in Brazil, he had worked in France before coming to England); Grierson headed the GPO Film Unit, while Cavalcanti was a producer and technician.

Even where the starting point for some of the films is more conventional, such as in the post office advertising film N or NW, Lye quickly subverts the realist trappings, concocting a multi-layered film that plays with editing and voiceover while delivering an amusing message about the need to correctly address letters. That said, there's no doubting the period in which some of the films were made: Colour Flight drums up business for Imperial Airways' connections to the colonies, while Trade Tattoo celebrates the high water mark of Empire, with the slogan "The rhythm of trade is maintained by the mails" flashing across the screen over carefully transformed images of an industrious motherland.

After the Second World War and his move to the US, Lye's work takes a radically new turn. While his first postwar work, Color Cry, recalls the dazzling colours of his best-known British films, the images themselves are starker and less jaunty; his choice of music, too, is more downbeat, the Latin-influenced music of earlier films replaced by a plaintive blues song. His subsequent work is even more spare: colour disappears from films like Tal Farlow and the stunning Free Radicals, which feature intense sequences of lines and cross-hatches, and have a particular obsession with the vertical, foreshadowing Gerhard Richter's "Curtain" series of paintings. These later films are accompanied by insistently rhythmical musical works, including African drumming, and have a mesmerising power that is all the more intense for the films' brevity.

(As previously, I'm indebted to Roger Horrocks's work on Lye, and to Kristin Thompson for highlighting Lye's films and for prompting me to actually see the films).

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Talk To Me

2007, US, directed by Kasi Lemmons

Kasi Lemmons's film is the story of the Washington DC radio personality "Petey" Greene (played by Don Cheadle), who emerged from prison in the late 1960s and was given a shot on AM radio, developing one of the first phone-in/talk shows. As is the general rule with filmed biographies, the script takes substantial liberties with the actual historical record, often reducing Greene's complexities and contradictions in the process (and tending to portray his fraught relationships with women in excessively lighthearted terms). While Greene became a crucial voice for the African-American community in Washington, the film sometimes casts him as a jive-talking comic, and blunts his more hard-edged commentary.

Issues of black identity are at the heart of the film, with Greene representing the "authentic" voice of the streets, in opposition to the radio producer Dewey Hughes (the busy, and versatile, British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is seen by some blacks as having "gone white" to get ahead in business (such debates about black experience are hardly the stuff of the past, as evidenced by some reviews of the film). Kasi Lemmons's first film, Eve's Bayou, was more nuanced - and wonderfully atmospheric - where Talk To Me ultimately reduces Greene to an entertainer rather than a radically new political voice. That said, Cheadle captures at least some of the man's swagger and bluster, and Greene's deep desire to remain true to himself rather than to some pre-programmed idea of success; Ejiofor is an excellent foil, and there's a real sense of conspiratorial glee between the two men.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Man with the Golden Gun

1974, UK, directed by Guy Hamilton
The Man with the Golden Gun, the second of the Bond films to star Roger Moore, is likely the nadir of the series in terms of sheer improbable silliness. That surely constitutes an achievement of some kind in a franchise that has rarely prized realism. While it's not necessarily a guide to film quality, this entry's box office performance was also notably dismal, and the series subsequently took a three-year break.

Christopher Lee plays the villain, Scaramanga, whose titular weapon provides him a lavish living, while he remains largely unknown to the intelligence services of the world. That proves no obstacle to Bond, who picks up the evil one's trail in no time at all, criss-crossing Asia while he's at it (the Thai locations are especially beautiful; there's no hint of the turmoil in Southeast Asia at the time, of course). The scriptwriters throw in various ideas from previous films, notably an especially wicked dwarf manservant (Hervé Villechaize), while Clifton James, from Live and Let Die, shows up again as a redneck sheriff (on an especially improbable Vietnam-era holiday), in the somewhat desperate hope of camouflaging the absurd central plot. After a capable debut, Roger Moore looks distinctly uncomfortable on this occasion, perhaps sensing that the inspiration was running dry; that he survived the three-year hiatus indicates that the producers felt, correctly, that the film's problems did not begin with its star.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Michael Clayton

2007, US, directed by Tony Gilroy

Given that Michael Clayton draws on the familiar tropes of corporate shenanigans films, as well as on 70s conspiracy paranoia (even casting Three Days of the Condor director Sydney Pollack in a pivotal role), the end result is surprisingly fresh, mostly by virtue of Tony Gilroy's carefully layered shooting style, which manages to make even conventional revelations surprising. There's a nice example of Gilroy's work early in the film, when a high-powered company lawyer, played by the remarkable English actress Tilda Swinton, prepares for an interview; the images and words, not quite perfectly aligned, play off each other in subtly amusing ways, giving a new spin to that now-common movie idea of having a character recite lines in front of a mirror.

Gilroy weaves in other references that repeatedly create new and unexpected outcomes: there's a sequence in a hotel bar that evokes lead actor George Clooney's wonderful bar scene with Jennifer Lopez in Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, with snow artfully falling in the background, but the scene unravels here as a metaphorical slap in the face. At the very beginning of the film, another sequence is reminiscent of Stephen Frears's The Queen (inadvertently, since Gilroy finished shooting his film long before the release of that picture). Michael Clayton and the titular monarch both have moments where they step out of the maelstroms that surround them, to reach out for something simpler and less jaded, but the scene in this film concludes violently, and ultimately gives the film its opening kick, nothing like the privately regal moment of grief in Frears's film.

Like most films about corporate malfeasance, Michael Clayton unspools in a wintry setting somehow appropriate to the bleak view of humanity unveiled by such behaviour (the most obvious exception is the sunny California of Erin Brockovich). The characters, too, are dragged down by the season. Clooney, in particular, looks utterly jaded by the demands of his job, fixing problems not of his making and, bit by bit, sacrificing something essential inside himself; if the resolution ultimately seems a little too poetic, it's hard not to want to cheer for him as he attempts to right things. In that, Michael Clayton resembles Patrick Kenzie from Gone Baby Gone: an essentially decent man soured by the environment of moral compromise in which he works, where his boss (Pollack) feels certain that a check and a contract can solve any difficulties. By contrast, the film has far less sympathy for Tilda Swinton's character (though the actress's work is stunning, and devoid of any trace of vanity): the conclusion implies that it's foolish for her to play in a man's world, and she - somewhat unfairly - takes the brunt of the film's moral opprobium.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Host

2006, South Korea, directed by Bong Joon-ho

Bong Joon-ho's The Host gives the monster movie an engaging new spin, deftly blending political commentary with thrills, and using his sympathetic characters in genre-defying ways. Like Bong's earlier Memories of Murder, the tone of the film spins on a dime, one moment malevolent, the next slapstick, but the mix is handled much more successfully here; perhaps it's easier to have fun with big monsters than with the depredations of a serial killer.

As in his previous film, there's an extended commentary on the US influence on South Korea: it's not a subtle point, with a particularly blunt take on the American attitude to Korean safety in the film's prologue. There's a more understated set of observations on recent Korean history, particularly in the shape of the protagonist's brother, whose youth was spent protesting against military government in the 1980s. The fina scenes see him reclaim that youth in a liberating fashion, as he and the other members of his family take on the monster that has ravaged Seoul, bypassing the authorities, who are still seen as less than reliable.

Bong is a tremendously assured director, orchestrating both his actors and his CGI effects with often dazzling skill; the initial attack by the monster is a particular highlight, with carefully planned tracking shots through the panicked crowds. He's also an adept visual humourist, with one especially amusing sequence that plays on fears of a SARS-like virus, while he draws performances of wit and surprising humanity from his cast.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Requiem

2006, Germany, directed by Hans-Christian Schmid

As with his 2000 feature Crazy, Hans-Christian Schmid displays here his ability to take potentially sensational or mawkish material and treat it with great sensitivity. Requiem focuses on a young Catholic woman who has dealt, apparently, with episodes of epilepsy and leaves her rural West German home for the university town of Tübingen in the mid-1970s. The opening of the film recalls Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves, in which a devout woman in an isolated community turns to the church in an attempt to deal with forces beyond her control, though Schmid has none of von Trier's characteristic tendency to punish his lead character. He's also adept at creating a sense of the specific provincial background from which this woman emerges, a world that has little to do with the tumultuous political universe of German cities, where Christmas presents are movingly humble, and where a father's gift of a typewriter represents a silent investment of hope in a daughter.

When Michaela (Sandra Hüller) experiences problems at university, she turns to her religious upbringing for an explanation, understanding her difficulties in terms of her faith, and eventually concluding that she has been, in some manner, possessed. Schmid gives a wide berth to the trappings of the exorcism genre, instead casting his film as an examination of a troubled mind, which is unable to understand the realities of its own disintegration. While Schmid's view of the situation may not be that of his protagonist, he invests her character with tremendous dignity, trapped as she is in a situation not of her own making. He's also clear-eyed about the bitter fault-lines in Michaela's home, lines that fracture again as her illness worsens, and outside influences, in the shape of two priests, are brought to bear.

The film is shot with a hand-held camera that occasionally creates striking perspectives, as if we're watching a documentary, the camera roughly changing focus to move closer to Michaela at her desk. There's an extraordinary sequence when Michaela, suddenly moved by what finally seems a liberating spirit, dances, intoxicated, at a party, like the ordinary young woman she desperately aspires to be. The unfamiliar Sandra Hüller delivers a performance of great commitment as Michaela, vividly capturing her disintegration, never more so than in a unnerving sequence in her parents' kitchen. Burghard Klaußner, who also played the father in Crazy, complements her work with an understated turn as Michaela's staunchest protector.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Troy

2004, US, directed by Wolfgang Petersen

Rating: **.5


Even when they have links to wider events, Wolfgang Petersen's best films, like Das Boot and In the Line of Fire, play out on a smaller canvas, but here he's hamstrung by the requirements of a big-budget swordplay epic that allow little time to explore the intimate story at the heart of the original Greek myths. The vast battle sequences are too obviously in the thrall of other films - whether Saving Private Ryan for the beach invasion early in the film, or The Lord of the Rings as the scale expands - and while there are impressive bloody confrontations on occasion, too often the computer-generated nature of the carnage is apparent.

When Petersen is capable of reducing the focus, the film has a greater payoff: watching Hector (Eric Bana) prepare for a fateful battle has an undeniable charge, while Peter O'Toole steals the film with one pivotal scene, where the aged Priam appeals to Achilles's better judgment. Other British and Irish stars fare less well: neither Brian Cox nor Brendan Gleeson are well-served by script or direction (though Cox's hair extensions probably deserve some form of acting nod), appearing to have drifted in from a different film (Gleeson's accent is especially distracting). Sean Bean, though, and the Australian Bana give the film the gravitas it needs, and help to ensure that for all the historo-mythical infelicities, the movie remains solidly watchable.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Alien

1979, UK/US, directed by Ridley Scott
For all the portentous echoes of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in the early going, Alien is essentially a sci-fi update of the "old dark house" genre (with James Whale's 1932 The Old Dark House perhaps still the best exemplar, both for title and atmosphere, though not for fans of blood and guts). The film's action is relentlessly simple: after a slow opening that establishes the relationships between a blue collar space crew, interspersed with plenty of impressive technical work, an alien is discovered, and the crew attempt to survive the creature's attacks. Inevitably, not everyone is destined to survive, further sharpening the narrative line, which initially cross-cuts between the various crew members as they search their vast vessel.

As is often the case with his films, Scott is more interested in atmosphere than in character development, creating sometimes dizzying effects with strobe lights and fog, but often reducing the players to ciphers. By contrast, James Cameron manages to make Ripley much more memorable - as well as more kickass - in the subsequent Aliens, while he takes the time to establish more nuanced relationships between a similarly blue collar group in The Abyss. Still, there's no denying the cumulative power of the stripped-down storyline, nor the eerie menace for a crew thousands of miles from home, while a number of the shock moments retain their well-earned visceral power almost thirty years on.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Gone Baby Gone

2007, US, directed by Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck may have grown up in a more genteel part of town, but on the evidence of his fine debut film, he gets Boston's less affluent corners. His film is steeped in the often unsubtle lines of class and race that divide the city, and that make it a striking patchwork of unrelated communities that nonetheless live cheek-by-jowl. Inward-looking neighbourhoods are at the heart of the action, in which Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) is hired to supplement a police investigation that has apparently been stymied by a lack of local cooperation. In order to make any headway, Kenzie has to stray off his own personal map of the city, and into bars and streets where he, too, is unwelcome. To some extent, the film does try to have it both ways, however, implying that the locals are somehow stunted in their stubborn resistance to outside interference, and then doing much to imply that their suspicions are well-founded.

The obvious cinematic reference points are Clint Eastwood's 2003 Mystic River, based, like this film, on a Dennis Lehane novel, and Martin Scorsese's The Departed. Gone Baby Gone emerges as the strongest of the three, lacking both the overly earnest tone of Eastwood's film, and the overwrought stylings of late-period Scorsese. In particular, it restores much of the gallows humour that Eastwood leached from Boston's streets, robbing his film of much authenticity in the process. It also benefits from a low-key cast, with Casey Affleck strong in the lead role: the slow aging of his very youthful face as the film progresses mirrors the central theme whereby good people are soured, perhaps irretrievably, by the moral compromises in which they find themselves participating. The older Affleck, for his part, adopts an unshowy visual style, focused on telling a compelling story rather on directorial tics; there's something almost old-fashioned about his consciously simple shot choices, a kind of contemporary invisible style.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

1931, US, directed by Roy del Ruth

This first version of The Maltese Falcon features the rat-a-tat narrative movement so familiar from of 1930s Warner Brothers features, with the story sometimes moving so fast that it's difficult to keep the various characters straight. It's certainly hard to keep up with the various women in Sam Spade's life; here, he's a dedicated pre-Hays Code womaniser, with a cheerfully wandering eye. Spade is played by Ricardo Cortez, an Austrian-born actor who was repackaged as a Spanish star by the studio. This was one of his biggest parts, and though he's adequate he's certainly no Bogart: there are lines that fall utterly flat from his mouth, and director Roy del Ruth wisely keeps the focus on the supporting cast as much as possible.

Given the rich source material, and snappy dialogue, there is room for several nice character turns, especially from Dudley Digges in the role later made famous by Sydney Greenstreet, while the extraordinarily busy Thelma Todd, for whom this was just one of nine feature films in 1931, also appears (it's the kind of film where you expect a younger Bogart to pop up amongst the supporting players, as a tough perhaps).
This version doesn't possess the same sense of pervasive moral compromise that characterizes the 1941 film (the compromises seem off the cuff rather than soul-curdling), but it's an efficient telling of the Hammett tale of cynical, double-dealing ambition.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Cinderella Story

2004, US, directed by Mark Rosman

Rating: *.5


The prologue of A Cinderella Story, narrated with old-style economy, promises something more than is ultimately delivered: there's a canted, low-angled shot of a young Sam (played first by Hannah Robinson and later by Hilary Duff) as she heads to her garret room that hints at a darker version of this particular story, one ultimately never told. Instead, we get an insistently bright Valley update of the familiar fairy tale that mines a tired array of high school movie clichés. Although the tween stars Duff and Chad Michael Murray - the latter obviously older than everyone else - are likable enough, the story fundamentally lacks credibility, most obviously in the key encounter between the young stars, while supporting players like Jennifer Coolidge, usually so good, are trapped in one-note roles.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Elusive Close-Up

(Posted as part of the Close-Up Blog-a-thon at The House Next Door)


Bamako
(2006, Mali, Abderrahmane Sissako)


The close-up in films from sub-Saharan Africa is a story as much of absence as of presence - an absence that results from a quite conscious aesthetic choice on the part of many directors. As with so much of the history of post-independence cinema in Africa, at least in francophone Africa, it's possible to trace this choice back to the director known almost universally as the "father" of African cinema, Senegal's Ousmane Sembène. Although his first feature, La Noire de... features a number of close-ups at critical moments - perhaps most notably a shot where a handheld camera precedes the protagonist as she runs, tear-stained, from a room - as Sembène matured as a filmmaker he began to move away from such tightly focused shots, showing a strong preference instead for the medium and long shot. Critics like Manthia Diawara have tended to link this technique to the oral tradition in African storytelling; in this reading, Sembène occupies the position of a griot, observing his characters from a greater distance, and clearly indicating the physical spaces in which they interact.


La Noire de... (1966, Senegal, Ousmane Sembène)


As the academic critic Josephine Woll has written, it's also possible that this preference for the medium and long shot derives from the cinematic training that Sembène received in the Soviet Union during the early 1960's; Woll has unearthed similar stylistic choices in the work of filmmakers like Pudovkin and Dovzhenko, whose films would have been much used for training purposes. Sembène's influence on those who followed him - it's hard to find a meaty interview with an African filmmaker before 1990 that doesn't mention Sembène, mostly in reverent tones - was such that subsequent shot choices might perhaps have been made, even unconsciously, in the shadow of the Senegalese master.


Yeelen (1987, Mali, Souleymane Cissé)

That's not to say, of course, that the close-up is absent from films from Africa, more that it is used in sparing fashion: Souleymane Cissé, another Soviet-trained filmmaker, uses extreme close-ups, particularly on ritual objects, in his 1987 film Yeelen, for example, though the majority of the film shows a preference for longer shots (both in terms of camera placement and time). By contrast, Cheick Oumar Sissoko, a near contemporary of Cissé's who received his training in France, has shown a strong bias against the close-up, a shot choice which he feels to be a typically "American" technique at odds with an African style based on orality; his 1989 film Finzan is notable for the almost complete absence of such shots. As Teshome K. Gabriel has written, for many directors from Africa - or the broader Third World in Teshome's view - the close-up is seen to be unnatural as it calls attention to itself, and eliminates wider social considerations, a theme that is central to the work of African filmmakers until the late 1980s, at which point it's possible to trace the emergence of a more consciously "popular" streak of filmmaking, less chary of using Western commercial cinema as a reference point, and consequently more open, among other things, to the close-up.


Dakan
(1996, Guinea, Mohamed Camara)


Given this generally spare attitude to the use of the close-up, particularly in more "artistic" African filmmaking, Mohamed Camara's 1997 film Dakan upends tradition in a number of ways. Best known as the first sub-Saharan African film on the subject of homosexuality, it's also an aesthetically daring project, with tight, sometimes claustrophobic shots not simply of faces - as well as shot/reverse shot combinations that are unusual in African cinema - but also extreme close-ups on body parts: an eye, a nose, lips, often enhancing the film's fraught atmosphere (unfortunately, given the difficulty of finding a copy of the film there are few images to illustrate this). In many ways, Dakan hearkens back to the work of the great Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty, whose work can't easily be squeezed into any particular tradition, and who makes startling use of close-ups on faces, hands and inanimate objects in his 1973 film Touki-Bouki, another film with moments of intense sensuality, a rarity in sub-Saharan African filmmaking.


Touki-Bouki
(1973, Senegal, Djibril Diop Mambéty)


Most recently, Abderrahmane Sissako has developed his own unique aesthetic: another filmmaker trained in the Soviet Union, his films combine languid observation in long and medium shot - conversations often feature both speakers rather than switching back and forth - with prolonged close-ups, whether he is filming an unfortunate parade of people attempting to use the unreliable village telephone in his wonderful 1998 La Vie sur terre or when holding the camera, to mesmerizing effect, on the witnesses who take the stand, or the locals who move in the same orbit, in his more recent Bamako.

(In addition to those critics whose work is cited above, I'm indebted to work by Jonathan Haynes, Roy Armes, and Françoise Pfaff).

Thank You For Smoking

2005, US, directed by Jason Reitman

Jason Reitman's adaptation of Christopher Buckley's novel is a broad, and often very funny, satire of both the tobacco industry and the spin doctors who do such sterling work on the industry's behalf. It's not clear, though, whether the complete lack of smoking onscreen is part of the joke, or further conformity with current Hollywood (double?) standards; there's certainly no reluctance to show drinking and guns (the central character, Nick Naylor, pow-wows weekly with his counterparts in those industries).

Aaron Eckhart is perfectly cast as Nick, the ideal pitchman for the kinds of moral equivocations so dear to Big Tobacco. Even in those films where Eckhart plays an out-and-out cad, there's an aspect of his character that's insistently attractive. Director Neil LaBute exploited this quality to particularly good effect in his début film, In the Company of Men, though Eckhart's first opportunity to really charm an audience came with a supporting turn in Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich. Here, he deploys his full wattage on behalf of an unreasonable cause and yet starts to make the viewer feel that it would be even more unreasonable to even think of disagreeing with him. Reitman has surrounded Eckhart with a top-notch supporting cast: J.K. Simmons and Robert Duvall, among others, are especially good, but Rob Lowe has a standout sequence as a Hollywood super-agent; his meeting of minds with Nick is a joy to behold.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Shaolin Soccer

2001, Hong Kong, directed by Stephen Chow

Shaolin Soccer is built on spectacle rather than tight plotting, with Stephen Chow using digital effects to give a new spin (in every sense) to the traditional kung fu film. As in previous generations of martial arts films, the key here is the big "fight" scenes rather than the sometimes less-than-fully-coherent filler material, which is scattershot and, not incidentally, often very amusing. Much of this material disappears in the heavily edited American version of the film, which loses in charm much more than it gains in streamlined narration. There's a fine wit at work throughout the film, playing with the traditions of martial arts films in affectionate ways, whether it's the goalkeeper who channels the spirit of Bruce Lee or the characters who, when confronted with another multi-talented team, are convinced the trickery must be the result of "wires".

Like Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Chow is a great connoisseur of oddball faces: there's quite a gallery of unusual physiognomies on display here, with the camera often just inches from the visages in question. Those more naturally cartoonish elements are often more successful than some of the CGI effects, which are less than seamlessly integrated with the "real" action, seeming to occupy different physical spaces (similarly, the CGI crowds at the soccer matches are devoid of atmosphere). Beyond all of the trickery, though, is a concern with those who are being left behind in a modern, upwardly mobile society; there's a surprisingly serious core to the portrait of the soccer players in bustling Shanghai, and the final sequence makes their triumph the more satisfying.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Les Poupées russes

2005, France/UK, directed by Cédric Klapisch

Like Cédric Klapisch's previous L'Auberge espagnole, of which this is a continuation, Les Poupées russes is an attempt to tell a truly European rather than purely national story (Michael Haneke's efforts in this direction are perhaps the strongest to date, but Klapisch is carving out an interesting niche). While the first film took a scenario familiar to many a young European, that of a year abroad in a polyglot setting, the follow-up spends most of its time traversing the English Channel between London and Paris, with an excursion to Russia, and a confrontation with a different aspect of the broader Europe - though St Petersburg is arguably the "acceptable" face or Russia from the Western European perspective. The notion of being a citizen of Europe rather than of one specific country is celebrated here, with those (generally young) citizens accepting the challenges of multiple languages and constant movement.

As in the first film, plot often takes a back seat to Klapisch's instincts to give his very personable cast free rein: the overall narrative shape is less important than the individual incidents. For the most part, the strategy works well enough, though it does tend to mean that the film's central character, Xavier (Romain Duris), is subjected to rather more incident than seems credible. There's also a sense that Xavier is a tremendously fortunate young man who doesn't appreciate that good fortune, and the film's rushed progress leaves little time to reflect on his confused position; in that, Klapisch is fortunate to have an actor of Duris's magnetism, who is capable of ensuring that we care about the character even when he behaves, at times, like a cad.

It's hard to hold this structural weakness against Klapisch given his sure hand with the individual vignettes, however. He's careful to ensure that each of his key characters has a moment to shine: Audrey Tautou is generally best with gamine roles, but she has a moment of real fire here that's quite startling, while Kevin Bishop has a lovely sequence wherein he narrates an encounter with the love of his life. Klapisch has fun, too, with the visual aspects of his story, whether recounting one young woman's rather sad love life as though it were a fairytale, or a running joke that spoofs - with eerie accuracy - French TV romances.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Zodiac

2007, US, directed by David Fincher

Zodiac, director David Fincher's finest film to date, marks a remarkable return to the big screen, particularly on the heels of Panic Room, a stylish but limited film. While Zodiac is framed as a strict police procedural - it evokes the narrative progress of the original Law and Order show, as well as another San Francisco cop film, The Laughing Policeman - with each scene carefully dated and located, Fincher is well aware of the viewer's likely familiarity with the conventions of less disciplined thrillers, and uses that knowledge to excellent effect. Educated by Jaws, for example, we know that an innocent drive, or an idyllic day by the lake, are likely nothing of the kind; what's especially jarring in this film, and what undoubtedly contributed to the public fascination with the crimes, is the sense that death can emerge at any time of day, anywhere. Later in the film, Fincher has fun with an "Old Dark House" sequence that frays the nerves of both the film's central character, who's already unraveling, and the audience; that one of the characters in the sequence is a movie projectionist only adds to the frisson.

The construction of the film as a strictly straightforward narrative isn't just a dry, formalistic exercise, however: it's critical to underlining the manner in which information becomes available to the investigators, particularly in a world far less interlinked than our own, where basic information either isn't or can't be shared with those in nearby jurisdictions. As viewers, we're constantly trying to push at the limitations this creates - though we still have access to more information than the investigators - in trying to stitch the details together in a manner that makes satisfactory sense. We're constantly confronted, though, with the reality that our search for some kind of meaning in crimes, particularly crimes of this magnitude and visibility, may be a fool's errand; Fincher isn't trying to provide us with the kind of resolution we get in a 45-minute television episode, though the longer his film runs, the easier it is to want such neat conclusions.

As Robert Greysmith, the San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who becomes utterly obsessed with the Zodiac case - his book provides the film's raw material - Jake Gyllenhaal delivers another dependable performance; he's particularly good at capturing Greysmith's growing mania, which excludes and even alienates everyone around him. Greysmith has an interest in puzzles himself, and the case becomes the grandest he encounters; at one point, he appears to be the only person working full-time on the case, establishing lines and linkages that have eluded others who think of the murders in isolation. It's easy to take Gyllenhaal's work for granted, not least because this is another in a line of introspective roles that conceal his broader abilities. If anything, his co-star Mark Ruffalo is even more undervalued; he breezes through light comedy in 13 Going On 30 or Just Like Heaven, but is equally capable of carrying serious fare like In the Cut (perhaps over-serious fare) and We Don't Live Here Anymore, without seeming out of his element in either context. Here he's especially good as the most upright of cops, tireless, yet absolutely by the book, stymied by the difficulties not of identifying a suspect but of bringing that suspect to justice as the law requires.

From the very first shot, Fincher establishes an acute sense of place and time that goes beyond even the datelines provided so regularly throughout the film (though it takes an attentive viewer to assess exactly when certain events take place, since the passage of time is indicated primarily with titles of the "three weeks later" variety); there's an extraordinary degree of attention to the details of décor, costume, habit and speech - there's a wonderful sequence where Gyllenhaal takes Chloé Sevigny on a date that exudes the feel of the era - but also a profound sense of a very different communications world, where the "telefax" is the latest thing, available in the big city but not in downtown Vallejo, where key sequences revolve around payphones, and where, perhaps most notably of all, the newspaper is a medium commanding the greatest of respect (by contrast, television, in the film, seems prone to farce); though much of the film takes place earlier than Watergate, this is the America of All The President's Men, and a killer with a media fixation sees no better outlet for his threats than the local quality daily.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Catch and Release

2007, US, directed by Susannah Grant

Rating: **.5


Or Several Suitors and a Funeral. Susannah Grant's first film (as director, after several screenwriting successes) opens on an unexpected note for a romantic comedy, with Gray (Jennifer Garner) in tears as she mourns her fiancé, killed on the eve of the wedding, the preparations for which were already well underway. However, Grant gives her main character an easy out from her grieving, undermining the fiancé's saintliness and allowing Garner to quickly return to the single life in ways that strain the bounds of credibility. There's a scene where the fiancé's mother seeks the return of the engagement ring, a family heirloom, that's supposed to illustrate a callous nature, but in truth the mother's reaction, suffused with grief for her dead son, rings far more true than Gray's.

Grant is uncertain as a director, unable to map out her character's fairly simple evolutionary arc in satisfying ways, moving too quickly to the post-grief stages and then idling to regain credibility; she's also particularly prone to the musical montage. The film does benefit from several decent supporting turns, particularly Juliette Lewis, whose character finds herself in especially awkward circumstances, as well as the great Irish stage actress Fiona Shaw paying some bills as the dead fiancé's mother, while Clerks director Kevin Smith is amusing as a garrulous pal.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Hot Fuzz

2007, UK, directed by Edgar Wright

Coming on the heels of the splendid Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, though entertaining, is ultimately something of a disappointment, as it tries to stretch its central joke, that of a hard-charging city supercop thrown into quiet village life, well beyond its useful life. While the opening is amusingly brisk, and the film saves the best for its closing sequences, the middle sags rather badly (a flaw that also bedevils Knocked Up, though the success of both films seems to give the lie to the idea that mainstream movie audiences are attention-deficit). The plot, in that central segment, descends into complete absurdity that's obviously intended as a satire on self-obsessed Little Englanders, desperately clutching at the remains of a bygone (and non-existent) age, but which smacks, instead, of writers throwing random ideas together in the hope that something sticks.

By contrast, the repeated spoofing of American films is much more successful: Edgar Wright is merciless in his dissection of male-bonding actioners, with extended riffs on films like Lethal Weapon (particularly one hilarious rain-soaked sequence), Bad Boys and Point Break (that critically-loved film was pretty self-conscious to begin with, though). It might be that he - and co-writer Simon Pegg - is also trying to make a point about the degree to which American films have coloured the views of even provincial Englishmen, though one could also surmise - particularly given his subsequent plans - that he's simply auditioning for a bigger stage.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen

2007, US, directed by Steven Soderbergh

After the oh-so-self-conscious second episode, the Ocean's franchise gets back to relative basics for its third installment, essentially a re-run of the enjoyable first film, showcasing a monstrously complicated heist that, of course, seems breezily simple for George Clooney and his crew. Director Steven Soderbergh indulges his taste for Traffic-style intercutting with some of the side stories (most obviously a semi-comic tale of labour unrest in Mexico fueled by one of the heist crew), though the complexity of the heist and the number of players means that the story shuttles around hyper-actively, proving quite distracting at times.

While a passing acquaintance with the previous films - and particularly the first installment - doesn't hurt, given the only half-explained backstories that link certain of the characters, the Ocean's trilogy has nothing like the web of interconnections that renders the maligned Pirates of the Caribbean franchise so much more fun to watch again; where those films seem to build towards a kind of resolution, Ocean's Thirteen is condemned to repetition of its own past glories.

Mr Brooks

2007, US, directed by Bruce A. Evans

Rating: **.5


As with many a contemporary serial killer movie, Mr Brooks imputes extraordinary, near superhuman, detection-avoidance abilities to its protagonist, as if, in addition to his twisted psychosis, he's also armed with a graduate degree in forensics to ensure his continued liberty. Perhaps the film, in choosing such a well-heeled killer (a kind of lethal Raffles) is engaging in unexpected social criticism, implying that access to great wealth can cover even the most sadistic of crimes (the extent of his holdings leads to an especially silly denouement involving a seedy photographer who believes he can one up Brooks).

Costner's star has fallen so far that it's easy to forget that he's still more than capable of carrying a film, his easygoing charm lending this effort far more credibility than it ultimately deserves, given its muddled plot and sometimes overwrought style. The film is most creepily successful, in the end, when it evokes the complicity between the two sides of Brooks's personality: the evil component is embodied by William Hurt, who has several enjoyably chewy scenes with Costner (there's a real frisson in the moments when the two parts of Brooks's broken psyche share a laugh over their plans).

Index

List of all movies

Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

About Me

Boston, Massachusetts, United States