Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Partie de campagne

1936, France, directed by Jean Renoir

Although it's not even three-quarters of an hour in length, Partie de campagne has nothing of the feel of a vignette, and it's as packed with incident as any of Renoir's full-length films. It's a beautiful evocation of a very specific time and place - and a fine adaptation of an intensely atmospheric Maupassant short story (although Renoir does not reproduce Maupassant's lingering descriptions of unpleasant agricultural odours). It's also achingly romantic, both in subject matter and tone - with an air of melancholy longing that lingers long after the final credits (the film is, if anything, more melancholy than the original short story, simply because it implies a far longer period of haunted remembering). Although the setting is the late nineteeenth century, it's not hard to imagine an updated version set in the 1930s - after all, the romance of an escape from the city in favour of the countryside banks of the Loire is at the heart of films like La Belle équipe, while the evocation of a young girl's romantic - and sexual - awakening is timeless (Maupassant explicitly compares young Henriette to Shakespeare's Juliet). The one distraction is the poor quality of the subtitles, at least in the print I saw; they don't capture the film's mood properly, and omit important information.

Little Miss Sunshine

US, 2006, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

An enjoyable - and often extremely funny - comedy of modern American manners, Little Miss Sunshine makes the most of a potentially mawkish premise with smart direction and an exceptional ensemble cast, who play off each other to great effect. There's a ring of the sitcom to the film's conclusion, but the film generally transcends this with its well-etched characterisations, which are all agreeably spiky (and sometimes, particularly in Greg Kinnear's case, borderline unpleasant). Though the film obviously exaggerates familial dysfunction for comic effect, it also grounds each character in just enough reality for their foibles to remain recognisable, and anyone who's ever taken a family road trip will identify with some of the truths that come out under the tense conditions created by such excessive proximity.

Directors Dayton and Faris display quite a gift for the set-piece (the family dinner that begins the film is exquisitely discomfiting, while a later sequence involving a policeman, a stack of porn magazines and a malfunctioning horn is flat-out hilarious), and for visual jokes - but also, more surprisingly, for direction of actors, drawing pitch-perfect performances from old hands like Alan Arkin and Steve Carell as well as the young Abigail Breslin (who looks like a sunnier version of Heather Matarazzo circa Welcome to the Dollhouse).

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Saviour

2005, Australia, directed by Peter Templeman

Like many a narrative short , The Saviour has a structure that revolves around a last-minute joke that ties the action up; this film deserves its fun with a carefully plotted set-up. It's essentially a deadpan variation on the theme of revenge as a dish best served cold, in an unusual milieu: those earnest young men who go door to door to promote the way to truth and salvation (the lead character (played by Thom Campbell) is not quite sure of his calling and it's not hard to sympathize with this rather lovable loser). Writer-director Templeman has fun with the relationship between Malcolm and his American pastor (if you ever wondered what happened to Friedrich Von Trapp from The Sound of Music, actor Nicholas Hammond is alive and well in Australia), while he's already a skilled filmmaker, making clever use of editing to compress time and play with the viewer's expectations.

Le Crime de Monsieur Lange

1936, France, directed by Jean Renoir

Jean Renoir's 1930s career must surely constitute one of the most extraordinary periods of artistic production in film; he seemed to casually turn out masterpieces almost every year while constantly expanding the limits of what is possible in cinema. This 1936 feature is no exception, and is filmed in a beautifully fluid style that fits an abundance of action into a compact, comprehensible whole. It remains absolutely fresh seventy years after it was made - while simultaneously capturing, as few other films have, something of the spirit of the Popular Front, the alliance of left-wing parties that came to power in elections held a few months after the release of Renoir's film; the heady atmosphere of those years was already in the air when Renoir was filming, and the optimistic portrait of the working class's future is very much of the age.

In portraying the capitalists and those they exploit, Renoir makes use of the conceit of an apartment building - or rather a courtyard - around which all human life revolves, something that crops up quite frequently in French films of the period: René Clair made good use of the idea, while Julien Duvivier exploited a similar location to masterful effect in La Belle équipe, also from 1936, and very much a Popular Front film. The dialogue is by Jacques Prévert, and has a wonderful snap, though it's not always well-served by the workmanlike subtitles (which would, in any case, have a hard time keeping up with the pace), while the acting is almost uniformly strong. Even against that backdrop, though, Jules Berry delivers one of the great performances in French cinema, a wonderfully oily turn as the predatory boss of the publishing house around which the action centers, and who gets his comeuppance in a manner that argues for the occasional intervention of natural justice.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Salvatore Giuliano

1962, Italy, directed by Francesco Rosi

Salvatore Giuliano, the film that brought Francesco Rosi to international attention, is a fascinating examination of the career of a notorious outlaw/mafioso, as well as of the post-war history of Italy, and Sicily in particular. It's also a meditation on the problems of truth and objectivity, from both the filmmaker's and the historian's perspectives as Rosi attempts to illustrate the realities behind the events that marked Giuliano's career. To this end, the director blends voiceover narration that sets out the broader political framework (linking the strength of the mafia to other developments, including the aftermath of the Second World War in Sicily) with careful reconstructions of individual events and the trial of one of Giuliano's closest associates.

Though Rosi's aims are ultimately quite different, the influence of neo-realism is clear in the the use of the actual locations of Giuliano's life and death, while the performers are almost all non-professionals (given that the film was made just a decade or so after Giuliano's death, that must have made for an interesting filming atmosphere). The portrait of a society with a deeply conflicted and unresolved relationship with the outlaw elements in its midst is very powerful, while Rosi's critique of the northern establishment's poor understanding of the Italian south comes through unmistakably. The film is captured in beautiful black-and-white, with some striking shot choices - the overhead angle that opens the film and its counterpart, later on, that looks down on the dead Giuliano in his bed, are especially compelling.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

2005, UK, directed by Dan Ireland

Though the storyline is fairly predictable, and a little overly cute at times, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is grounded by some fine performances that keep the film from straying too far towards mush. Joan Plowright is excellent in the title role, playing an elderly woman who moves to a London hotel to retain some independence - but also, we sense, because her family views her existence as something of a burden. It's to Plowright's - and her director's - credit that she resists the urge to overplay the part, instead conveying a quiet pride and intelligence, and an enjoyably dry wit.

Plowright has able support from a group of fine British character actors playing other hotel guests (Anna Massey and Robert Lang, in his final role, are especially good), as well as from Rupert Friend, as a foppish young man for whom Mrs Palfrey becomes a surrogate grandmother. The film is in many ways about finding new families when our own doesn't quite seem to work, and there's an undercurrent of comment on the treatment of elderly relatives that lends the film a little bite to go along with the sweeter moments.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Children of Men

2006, UK/US, directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Almost from the first frames, Alfonso Cuarón's new film imagines a Britain that is the antithesis of Blake's "green and pleasant land" (and its attendant mythology), with a dystopian vision of southern England two decades hence. Throughout the film, there's a sense that the joke's on us (or at least the residents of contemporary England), given the implication that the country is already well on its way to the drab, grey, law-and-order outcome depicted here (it's a joke similar to that made, with great wit, at the beginning of the zombie film Shaun of the Dead). There are few corners of resistance remaining in this adaptation of the P.D. James novel that imagines a world twenty years after the human population has become infertile (the absence of children makes dogs and cats even more ubiquitous than is currently the case), but one seemingly ordinary day Theo Faron (Clive Owen) finds himself dragged into an underground movement years after he's abandoned politics.

The narrative force of Cuarón's film is simple and almost overwhelming: once Theo's mission, to safeguard a young woman, is explained to him the film's focus narrows in short order to just his world (though there are a few jarring moments when the camera lingers, briefly, on other events just after he's left the screen). Cuarón employs claustrophobic, sometimes hand-held camerawork to remain at Theo's side at even the most fraught moments (an extraordinary sequence inside a car, with stunt performers coming at the vehicle from all sides, and a visceral scene of battle - virtuoso displays of technique that never distract from the narrative). Now and then, the references to contemporary realities are pointed out a little over-eagerly, but for the most part those resonances are allowed to emerge organically and are all the more powerful for that. Owen is excellent in the thoroughly unglamorous lead role, while his strongest support comes from Michael Caine, riveting in his few scenes as an aging hippy.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Secondhand Lions

2003, US, directed by Tim McCanlies

Secondhand Lions makes no pretense to be anything other than a charming shaggy dog story, and as such it's very enjoyable, even if the final moments are of a sweeter tone than most of what has come before. An eccentric coming-of-age tale that puts an adolescent boy in the company of his two unsocialised uncles, it's a great vehicle for the talents of both Michael Caine and Robert Duvall, who are winningly curmudgeonly, and occasionally ornery, throughout. It's also a film with a well-developed sense of Hollywood of old: the tales (tall or perhaps true) that punctuate the film are brought to life in a manner that recalls the swordplay fun of stars like Errol Flynn, with the film cheerfully foregoing realism in recounting the Boy's Own adventures of the two uncles in their youth.

Haley Joel Osment is a little awkward, not yet an adult actor, but his two co-stars and a busy plot provide plenty of distraction from those growing pains, while the way that director McCanlies keeps a veil over the truthfulness of the uncles (before giving in at the very end) lends the film a little edge that keeps things interesting from the perspective of the adult viewer.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Afrique, je te plumerai

1993, Cameroon/France/Germany, directed by Jean-Marie Teno

After several films that addressed very specific problems in Cameroonian society (such as the availability of clean water), Jean-Marie Teno tackles a much broader canvas here, that of the post-colonial legacy - or, more accurately, the view that independence has simply brought a new form of subjugation for the population, with a new cast of characters in power. Teno uses a wide variety of visual materials, including interviews, archival materials (particularly deeply paternalistic colonial-era newsreels), broadly didactic sequences and even the occasional staged scene to assemble a multi-layered picture of the colonial legacy in his country. His film also functions as an explicit effort to restore key historical figures and achievements (particularly leaders of the anti-colonial union movement) to their correct place in the discourse, while giving a sense of contemporary forms of resistance to the state and all that implies.

Originally conceived as an examination of publishing in Cameroon, Teno widened his focus during the course of filming, and although his critique of both the colonists and those who inherited their mantle is powerful, the film does bear some of the hallmarks of a draft, particularly in its slightly awkward structure, which focuses on books and publishing until an abrupt turn towards darker material at the halfway point. This is especially distracting on first viewing the film, which grows in power with a second look.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Stepford Wives

US, 2004, directed by Frank Oz

Rating: **.5


Given the reviews that accompanied the release of The Stepford Wives, the actual film seems far better than we have any right to expect, particularly in its entertaining first hour. In updating the 1975 original, the film goes for the slightly wacky comedy tone that's familiar from previous Frank Oz outings, and which acts as a showcase for zingers from the pen of scriptwriter Paul Rudnick, who's much better at catty dialogue than he is at plotting (though there is also a surprisingly serious, and absorbing, scene when Nicole Kidman and Matthew Broderick discuss the state of their marriage). In keeping with the breezy tone, the production design and costumes burst with colour and energy; there's no doubt that the behind-the-scenes personnel had fun with the palette. Unfortunately, the tone becomes much less certain in the final half-hour, which bears confusing traces of re-writing, with a resolution that's unsatisfying. Nicole Kidman is much better here than in her subsequent foray into remake territory (there's a brilliant moment where we watch her react to the news that she's lost her job), while Bette Midler - who looks fabulous - provides some amusing support.

Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon

2005, South Africa, directed by Khalo Matabane

A drama-documentary hybrid, Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon starts off in somewhat confused fashion, before gathering itself and building to an often absorbing portrait of contemporary South Africa as a migrant destination, with many of the dispossessed arriving in the country after experiences that challenged even those who have come through the apartheid system. The initial confusion is perhaps appropriate, as we follow a rather lost young man in the Johannesburg park where he spends his afternoons sitting and trying to make sense of the world around him. A brief encounter with a young Somali woman, who tells him a profoundly moving story of loss and suffering, suddenly gives him focus and energy, and he assembles a rich collection of immigrant portraits as he searches for Fatima, the Somali woman.

The fictional framework is of the thinnest cloth, and functions entirely as a pretext for the interviews, which are with genuine migrants and refugees (from a bewildering variety of locations: Ethiopia, Uganda, DR Congo, Mozambique, Gaza, South Korea, the former Yugoslavia and so on); many of them are fascinating and pose difficult questions about national identity and South Africa's position and responsibilities on its own continent. The refugees often place South Africa in an unexpectedly privileged position when measured against some of its neighbours, despite its own troubled history, though the film doesn't minimise any of the experiences described.

King Kong (2005)

2005, US/New Zealand, directed by Peter Jackson

After the remarkable The Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong is an inevitable comedown for Peter Jackson, not least because it doesn't have the sense that he was the first filmmaker to give true life to a particular story. Here he's competing, throughout, with the 1933 original. Although he has far more money at his disposal, and he almost doubles the running time, Jackson, for all his filmmaking skill, can't match the consuming weirdness of the original, while the appearance, in the interim, of Jurassic Park robs the 'lost world' sequences of much of their magic; throughout the film, there's an overwhelming sense that we've been here before (sometimes with less polish, to be sure, though the relatively creaky 1933 special effects are part of the original's appeal for modern viewers).

Despite all of that weight, the new King Kong remains entertaining: there's a tremendous energy to much of the narrative, and Jackson is exceptionally skilled at juggling the parallel storylines on Skull Island. That said, the editing shears could have been used far more liberally in some of the over-extended set-pieces; there's a sequence that involves dinosaurs, a giant ape, an imperilled actress and some very strong vines that is but one repetitious example (that the critics, for the most part, warmly welcomed King Kong and dismissed Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, with its clever action set-pieces, seems to me a strange paradox). On the human side, Jackson does a decent job of capturing Carl Denham's flaws and his unfailing ability to destroy all he loves, whereas he's less capable of updating the gloriously strange ape-woman relationship bequeathed him by the original.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Beautiful Thing

1996, UK, directed by Hettie MacDonald

Beautiful Thing is a strong entry in a cycle of 1990's British films that moved beyond (often dour) kitchen-sink realism to take a more upbeat, hopeful look at aspects of working class life; this film is especially unusual in tackling the theme of gay teens coming to an understanding of themselves. The two boys, Jamie and Ste, at the heart of the story live in a London tower block, and Beautiful Thing narrates their experiences over one memorable summer. Here, the flats are a relatively peaceful enclave, with general racial harmony and a strong sense of community, but homophobia is alive and well, with nasty slurs slung thick and fast as local suspicions are raised.

Glen Berry and Scott Neal (who went to the same theatre school) are excellent as Jamie and Ste, respectively, capturing the boys' conflicted feelings with a convincing mix of sweetness, vulnerability and hostility; director Hettie MacDonald's touch with the other actors is equally assured, with winning performances from Linda Henry (as Jamie's mum), Tameka Empson (as their corrosive, Mama Cass-loving neighbour) and Ben Daniels (as Jamie's mum's beau). Although the film is undoubtedly a little schematic - overall, coming out has rarely seemed this easy - it's got exceptional charm, telling its story with wit and an enjoyable sense of place; it seems a shame, then, that it's ghettoised for most viewers by appearing in the 'gay interest' section of the video store when it belongs with every other exuberant youthful romance.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Departed

2006, US, directed by Martin Scorsese

From the opening frames, The Departed gives the impression that this Scorsese doing 'Scorsese', returning to the gangland territory of some of his most distinctive work, amping up the editing and adding yet more interwoven layers such that at times, it's like watching The Godfather or, for that matter, GoodFellas with the fast-forward button on. While Scorsese's always seemed absolutely assured in the Italian-American milieu, his take on Irish-American gangsters in Boston lacks the same conviction, and often spills into cliché; for all of the repetitious shots of Boston's golden State House dome, the film also lacks the remarkable sense of place that marked Infernal Affairs, the slick Hong Kong picture which Scorsese remakes here.

The remake isn't a shot-by-shot re-creation, of course: William Monahan's script adds characters, removes and then adds plot turns (particularly an altered conclusion) and throws in so many expletives that the film sometimes verges on self-parody (the opening voiceover is like a more profane re-tread of some of the sentiments in Mean Streets). The film adds about 50 minutes to the original's lean running time, much of it because the gangland boss played by Jack Nicholson occupies a much inflated place in comparison to the the Hong Kong version, which is presumably the price you pay for casting Jack in the role rather than Ray Winstone; the latter is quietly excellent as Jack's right-hand-man. Nicholson is in full-blown over-the-top mode and Scorsese makes no effort to reign him in, which seriously unbalances the picture. Much better are Matt Damon and, especially, Leonardo DiCaprio, who is absolutely convincing as an undercover cop internalising his experiences to the point that he is eaten away from within; he's the acting standout, and the biggest reason to see the film.

Caché

2005, France/Austria/Germany, directed by Michael Haneke

Opening like a conventional thriller, Caché quickly moves beyond genre expectations and takes up many threads that mark Haneke's previous work: a concern with representation; a dissection of the modern sense of anomie; and acute discomforts onscreen and for the viewer. Caché begins with a family's discovery that someone is watching them - and sending them videotapes to prove the point. As in the film scenes of Code Inconnu, this allows Haneke to play with our expectations such that we're never quite sure what is a 'real' and what is the taped version of that reality; these sequences unspool at some length, compelling the audience to become absolutely complicit in the voyeurism. Haneke offers no explicit explanation for the events depicted, but the film reminded me of J.G. Ballard's 1988 novella Running Wild, deeply concerned with issues of surveillance and youthful (mis)behaviour.

I was struck by the way in which Georges (Daniel Auteuil) repeats almost verbatim the words of his counterpart Georges in Code inconnu when absolving himself from any real blame in a childhood incident at the core of the film. Haneke uses that incident to pose difficult questions about where individual responsibility ends. Those past occurrences relate partly to the events of October 17, 1961, when the Paris police killed as many as 200 Algerians, events brought to public attention through the efforts of writers - especially Didier Daeninckx - and filmmakers. The cast is exceptionally strong; Auteuil has grown into darker material like this after starting out in some very lightweight fare, while Juliette Binoche is reliably excellent. The supporting work is equally strong, with, for me, Maurice Bénichou and Annie Girardot doing some of their finest work here.

Code inconnu

2000, France/Germany/Romania, directed by Michael Haneke
By Haneke's rigorous standards, Code inconnu counts as his most optimistic work, a rich, multi-layered portrait of intersecting lives in a Europe dealing with new realities that exist within and at its borders. As in many of his other films, the Western characters are caught in a paralysing anomie, their lives riven through with banal rhythms (Haneke seems to have a particular distaste for the supermarket), but here there's a clear sense of a path of escape from that suffocating routine, a path of some hopefulness (in contrast to the solution seen in The Seventh Continent).

In weaving what he terms 'incomplete tales', Haneke chooses to film each scene more or less continuously, with minimal cutting, subjecting the audience to sustained takes that have a sometimes hypnotic power. The second sequence, for example, is an extraordinary virtuoso take along a busy street, but in the contrast to the showmanship of a De Palma or even a Scorsese, the effect here is to highlight the unity of life on the street rather than to draw attention to itself. As ever, Haneke shows great skill in getting underneath the viewer's skin, confronting us with ordinary, unspoken discomforts that have tremendous power when given form on the screen, and he's blessed with an outstanding cast, not least Juliette Binoche in one of her strongest performances.

Haughey

2005, Ireland, produced/directed by Niamh Sammon for RTE

A four-part documentary made for RTE, Haughey is an essential addition to the growing body of work concerning this most divisive of public figures, the dominant figure in Irish political life since the late 1960s. Although the series was screened a year before Charles J. Haughey's death, it has the air of a blunt obituary, particularly given that the former Taoiseach is not interviewed. As with any decent obit, it's a balanced account, making clear his accomplishments in a number of areas (especially while Minister for Finance, from 1966-1970, and during his third and final stint as Taoiseach from 1987-1992, when the country finally grappled with its crippling debt burden, and took real steps towards peace in the North), but pulling no punches on his overweening ambitions and the constant questions about his lifestyle and finances that ultimately led to his downfall and utter disgrace (though not his impoverishment; indeed, the end of his career in public life was also the beginning of a life of true wealth given how he was able to profit from the property boom in Ireland).

While the entire series is absorbing, there are particular highlights: the 1982 GUBU period, inevitably, given the serial skulduggery that punctuated Haughey's brief term as Taoiseach in that year; the breathtaking 1990 betrayal of loyal supporter and friend Brian Lenihan in the presidential election controversy (some of the roughly contemporaneous footage of the sickly Lenihan is genuinely disturbing); and the 1992 events that led to Haughey's resignation. In contrast to all of the shenanigans, there are moments of courage, too; though you're never supposed to like a Minister for Finance, even a former one, Charlie McCreevy won my grudging admiration for his 1982 backbench revolt.

The format is standard for episodic TV documentary, with a strictly chronological approach that blends voiceover narration with contemporary footage, radio and television snippets, and dozens of talking heads. The gallery includes family members, businessmen (few improving their public images), government officials, politicians (in addition to the aforementioned McCreevy, Desmond O'Malley and Mary O'Rourke are especially good), journalists, and academics. For his part, longtime adviser and confidant (and driver) P.J. Mara does nothing to throw off the vaguely sinister image fixed in amber by Dermot Morgan's legendary turn as Haughey on the Scrap Saturday radio show, whereas Pádraig Flynn is, on camera at least, a surprising hatchet man; he comes across as somewhat frightening in the third installment, but looks marginally better by the conclusion despite pocketing a donation from a businessman who 'said he liked me'.

Haughey's dominance of his era and his misbehaviour are by now well-known, so perhaps the key achievement of the series is the manner in which it pins down his divisiveness, especially within his own party, which was almost torn asunder (that Haughey's successor as leader of Fianna Fáil, Albert Reynolds is reduced, on camera, to tears when recounting old events speaks volumes about the passions raised). That polarising effect is undoubtedly critical to the continued fascination his life (private and public) exerts.

La Commare secca

1962, Italy, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Bernardo Bertolucci's debut feature narrates, from multiple angles, the aftermath of the death of a prostitute on the rundown outskirts of Rome. The debt to Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon is obvious - as it is in more or less any film that employs this structure - but the film, with a script by Bertolucci, Sergio Citti and Pier Paolo Pasolini, transcends this limitation with its sense of place and time, that is, the slums of Rome in the early 1960's. The post-war building boom is apparent in the background, but the marginalised characters who populate the film lead lives little changed, at least on the economic level, since the 1930's; there's an added poignancy now in our knowledge of a city (and country) on the verge of enormous upheaval.

The film is essentially a police procedural shot through with shades of neo realism, filmed in often rundown locations with many non-professionals. It's remarkably assured for a 21-year-old director, who is already displaying considerable technical competence (there's a beautiful shot when the prostitute and a john descend a set of steps, while the sequences that show the woman dressing are staged with great care). By contrast, the acting is sometimes unconvincing, and the post-dubbing may reveal the limitations of the budget. It's not hard to hear, in the events recounted, an echo of Pasolini's fascination with the lower depths; indeed, there's a chill in the vague similarities with his own death.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Skeleton Key

2005, US, directed by Iain Softley

Though director Iain Softley has never really fulfilled the promise he showed with Backbeat, which recounted the early years of the Beatles, there's a strange kind of fun to be had here with his orchestration of the clichés of the spooky American South (there's Spanish moss in the opening shot, for goodness sake!). Despite a cast with some major wattage (John Hurt, Gena Rowlands, Peter Sarsgaard and, in a true blink-and-you'll-miss-it turn, Isaach de Bankolé), the film is an unpretentious Gothic thriller, set in an Old Dark House chock-full of secrets. Visually quite attractive, the film does have some pacing problems: after revealing his hand early on, Softley is forced to pad things out for a while, before a well-orchestrated and original twist at the conclusion. Kate Hudson plays a much less frothy character than usual, and she's generally credible in a more serious guise, with the underlying charm that makes her so watchable. Films like this remind me of the pantomimes I grew up watching each Christmas - that is, an experience to be enjoyed in a crowd, where the implausibilities are actively noted by talking back to the screen, with the audience able to yell 'he's behind you!' as needed.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Sansho the Bailiff

1954, Japan, directed by Mizoguchi Kenji

Like most of Mizoguchi's films, Sansho the Bailiff is concerned with questions of social justice, with a particular focus, here, on the realities of life for the lower classes during the feudal period. Mizoguchi is blunt about the working and living conditions on a powerful man's manor (the set design and the crane shots effectively convey the cramped, muddy living quarters, while there are moments of distressing brutality); there's none of the elision or even romanticisation characteristic of some films that deal with the same period.

Beyond the broader social depiction, though, is a profound story of familial loss - of honour and status, certainly, but also the loss of humanity in terrible ways, when a nobleman's children are captured and enslaved, and separated from their mother who is, in turn, sold into prostitution. The children's father was a just man, exiled for the progressive views he has imprinted on his family, and the moment when his son realises how profoundly he has been diverted from his father's principles is deeply moving - the more so because he's aware that what he's done can never be undone. The son's subsequent behaviour is a shade too didactically obvious for my taste, while the resolution is a little slow, but Mizoguchi's exquisite eye for visual compositions is always diverting (several of the shots have the perfection of the finest printwork, and some of the same motifs), while the acting is uniformly strong.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service

1969, UK, directed by Peter Hunt

My fond memories of this as one of the better Bonds seem misplaced on re-viewing the film after a long gap; perhaps it wasn't as obvious, then, how substantial a downgrade George Lazenby is when compared to even a going-through-the-motions Sean Connery. Along with the 2006 Casino Royale, this is one of the most domestically-minded Bond films, with hints that James might be ready to settle down (though he happily beds an entire harem while preparing himself for nuptial bliss).

Like its immediate predecessor, You Only Live Twice, this film brings arch-nemesis Blofeld out from the shadows, robbing him of much of his menace (especially since he's played here by a rather genial Telly Savalas), while Blofeld, for all his alleged smarts, has to learn the hard way that failing to dispatch 007 using one of the traditionally foolproof methods is bound to come back to haunt the average over-reaching criminal mastermind. Though Lazenby can't hold a candle to Connery, Diana Rigg is one of the most appealing Bond girls, lighting up the screen when she's around, and displaying some independence of spirit (which clearly wouldn't do, though the conclusion of the film is lifted directly from Ian Fleming's novel); the skiing scenes are also a pleasing distraction, even if some of the back projection work is unconvincing.

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Pursuit of Happyness

2006, US, directed by Gabriele Muccino

It's lucky that Will Smith is such a charming screen presence, because he does a damn good job of making you forget you're cheering for his character, Chris Gardner, to become, of all things, a stockbroker. While the up-by-your-bootstraps lessons of the film are well-intentioned, it's hard in retrospect to feel all that enamored with Chris's monetary aspirations, as if wealth is, in and of itself, the path to being A Better Person (unless, of course, you wish to join the clubby profession he works so hard to impress). The film also skates over the manner in which Chris's ambitions are the source of much of the tension that leaves him looking after his young son; it's hard not to sympathise at least a little with his double-shift-working girlfriend, focused on making ends meet to the point that she has no outside life. She's played by Thandie Newton, getting to do some interesting work for a change after far too many eye-candy turns; her absence leaves a hole in the later stages of the film even though it's necessary to the onscreen drama. Though the storyline is problematic, there's an authentically down-trodden feel to the locations, and there are moments when Smith captures, superbly, the weight of the world as it crashes down around Chris - made the more affecting by the (not always successful) attempts to shield his son from reality. The relationship with his child (played by Smith's real-life son), also feels authentic; their life together isn't always sunny, and there's a real tension when he grabs the boy by the arm or bundles him into a bus.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Seventh Continent

1989, Austria, directed by Michael Haneke (original title: Der Siebente Kontinent)

Michael Haneke's first feature film bears the hallmarks of a far more experienced director, already adept at discomfiting his audience; he's absolutely in control of the material in recounting, with horrifying precision, the progressive alienation of a seemingly ordinary family. The first of a trilogy of films on (his view of) the malaise dogging contemporary Austria, The Seventh Continent is formally adept, using repetition of visual motifs to establish a sense of the grey routine besetting his characters, and not incidentally unsettling the viewer by holding up a mirror to similar patterns in our own daily lives (though it's open to question whether the structure illustrates the artist's bias against those with routine jobs, or his rebellion against routine more broadly). At times the onscreen family seems relatively content, but Haneke gradually subverts the notion of a happy family in ways large and small - and, near the end, in tones of the blackest humour. It's easy to imagine what such potentially sensationalistic subject matter might have become in less rigorous hands, but here Haneke pitilessly observes, and shares with us, the destruction of every conceivable aspect of this family's existence, with an insistent and often distressing realism.

Monday, January 01, 2007

You, Me and Dupree

2006, US, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

Rating: **


I quite enjoyed the Russo brothers' previous outing, Welcome to Collinwood; although it wasn't overwhelmingly original, the vein of daffy humour and the gritty sense of their home city, Cleveland, were appealing. Here, though, their run-down version of Cleveland has been exchanged for flat, sunny locations in a nondescript Southern Californian town, and the material is similarly bland. Owen Wilson and Kate Hudson are both likeable performers, in quite different ways, but too often they're trapped in films like this, which pass the time and are then disposed of. Although more obviously comical than The Break-Up, released around the same time, the film shares some of that movie's problematic tone: at times it attempts to be more consciously dramatic but the script isn't up to the task. Large chunks of the running time are spent sketching in Matt Dillon's workplace problems - in many ways, the film isn't about growing up but about reconciling work and life - and that slows the film right down, only for things to perk up again when Wilson or Hudson are onscreen (why Hudson doesn't put the moves on dopey-but-fun Dupree rather than her weak, workaholic hubby is beyond me).

The Curse of the Golden Flower

2006, Hong Kong/China, directed by Zhang Yimou

Zhang Yimou's third historical epic, after Hero and House of the Flying Daggers, first struck me (and many others) as his transposition of Shakespearean themes to a Chinese context, but on reflection it's more John Webster than the Bard, given the insistently bleak view of humanity, and, importantly, the complete absence of any comic relief, which Shakespeare would no doubt have restored in a script polish. Like his previous swordplay films, Zhang is as interested in colour and form as he is in the details of plot, although the interwoven familial betrayals are crucial to the atmosphere of moral collapse in the court of a 10th century Tang dynasty ruler (Chow Yun Fat). The first hour of the film sets up the complex intrigue, focusing particularly on the Empress (played by Gong Li, reunited, onscreen, with Zhang after a ten-year hiatus) and her sons, while the second half sees the chickens come home to roost in spectacular, and bloody, fashion. Like Zhang's previous epics, the film looks astonishing. The sets, costumes and lighting are magnificent, often awash with colour, but it's not empty spectacle: like The Queen, the film uses the trappings of wealth to illustrate the notion of divorce from the people, while the almost hermetic removal from ordinary life has a certain poignancy at times: these characters are trapped in pre-ordained roles, and the film unfolds their tragedies mercilessly. The swordplay is less central than in the previous films, though the action, when it arrives, is brilliantly choreographed (the flying ninjas are especially thrilling).

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States