Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Lord of War

2005, US, directed by Andrew Niccol

Although Lord of War undoubtedly has some compelling - if broad-brush - things to say about the international arms trade, writer-director Andrew Niccol tries to have it both ways, combining a lesson in the ways of the world with a sometimes overly intoxicating portrait of the life of Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage), a fictional arms dealer who, in short order, goes from a tedious life in Brighton Beach to the top of the international arms trade and untold wealth (it's not always a credible rise to power, while it seems persistently strange that Orlove travels to the world's most volatile places with no security staff).

It's hard, at times, to avoid the conclusion that whatever the immoralities of Orlov's life, Niccol makes the good years seem awfully fun from the protagonist's amoral perspective, and the film's political point-scoring rarely returns to the heights set in a brilliantly cynical, and ultimately brutal, opening sequence that describes the life of a bullet from manufacture to use. That said, Niccol does open a useful window to the reality that most wartime deaths, at least in the kinds of nasty civil conflicts where Orlov makes his money, are from small arms fire, not aerial bombing, with AK-47s the most ubiquitous weapon on the market, cheap, easy to transport, and reliably lethal.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Paisan

1946, Italy, directed by Roberto Rossellini (original title: Paisà)

Made almost immediately after Rome, Open City, Paisà abandons that film's generally conventional structure in favour of a series of almost completely unconnected vignettes that are linked only in that they chronicle the progress of the American army up the length of Italy during 1943-44. The episodes are strikingly different in nature, though they tend toward the downbeat (a notable contrast to the usual depiction of literal and figurative liberation), and collectively paint a tough-minded portrait of the aftermath of war, which brings with it new conflicts and challenges.

Rossellini's main interest here is the meeting between two apparently alien cultures, those of wartime (and often backward and impoverished) Italy and the American military machine as it rolls up the peninsula, providential supplies in tow. It's not always a happy meeting, beginning with mistrust in Sicily, whose residents greet the Americans, and the collapse of Mussolini's regime, with some ambivalence (the complexities of Sicilian post-war loyalties are explored in greater detail in Francesco Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano). Even in areas where the Americans are actively greeted as liberators - with the film incorporating, almost seamlessly, documentary footage - the local population has difficulty relating to its military saviours, such is the economic gulf that separates them, with the US military seen by many hungry Italians, including children, as a soft target for theft. As the film progresses, however, the restoration and resumption of humanity creates a powerful bond between the two cultures, with a paradoxical optimism emerging from what is often a despairing catalogue of individual incidents. The final sequence, in particular, speaks eloquently of the power of individuals to seek to understand another culture - a theme explored by many of the filmmakers from Africa who cite the Italian neo-realists as an important influence.

Although many of the smaller parts are played by non-professionals, with various sequences filmed on the streets of Rome and other Italian cities (one part of Italy often masquerades for another: the Sicilian sequences were filmed in Amalfi, though the devastation of Naples, in the second episode, is absolutely authentic), Rossellini artfully blends in professional actors, with almost all of the American roles played by experienced theatre hands (some of whom, like William Tubbs, had interesting post-war film careers) to anchor each episode.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Roma, città aperta

1945, Italy, directed by Roberto Rossellini (Rome Open City)
Heralded as the beginning of the neo-realist movement, Roberto Rossellini's Roma, città aperta doesn't conform to some of the key expectations that would come to be associated with later films, most notably in its reliance on professional actors as well as many of the conventions of melodrama, while much of the film is shot on studio sets, however makeshift the studio may have been in the Rome of early 1945. The circumstances of the film's shooting weren't quite as hand-to-mouth as later legend would have it, particularly with regard to the film stock (there were just three kinds of stock, and they were consistently used for interiors or exteriors, as documented, among other places, in David Forgacs's study of the film), while Rossellini was an experienced professional with several fascist-era features under his belt, something that was less than politically expedient (for him and for many critics) in the immediate aftermath of the war.

What is remarkable about the film, even now, though, is the simple fact that it was made literally within months of the kinds of events it depicts (some anchored firmly in actual incidents, an idea that Rossellini further developed in his next film, Paisà), and under extraordinarily disrupted circumstances; it's both an accomplished, sometimes manipulative bit of filmmaking and one that literally reeks of its time and place (the choppy film processing contributes greatly to the sense of a film made on the fly and in locations similar to those being depicted onscreen). The documentary air of those street-level scenes are married with passages that evoke the more regular production of the Italian (and American) studios of the time, with comic local colour bits that make great use of the talents of performers like Aldo Fabrizi (as a priest involved with the resistance), though the comedy turns sour very quickly and definitively during a search that rousts several resistants.

Rossellini's portrait of the Nazis owes much to what were already quite conventional representations: while the Italian fascist officials (petty and otherwise) are often bumbling and warm-hearted, the German characters are coldly efficient, capable of drinking and amusing themselves mere feet from a chillingly-depicted torture chamber (the Gestapo chief and his female colleague are a sadistic and callous homosexual/lesbian pair, hardly the stuff of realistic portrayals).

Throughout the film, children listen in to adult conversations and observe adult situations, growing up quickly (they both play at and live through the war), learning brutal lessons that, at the conclusion of the film, are nonetheless leavened with a certain degree of hope, a hope partly created by the audience's awareness of the subsequent course of events; it's a theme that recurs throughout Rossellini's next two films, though in more challenging terms.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction

2006, US, directed by Marc Forster

Marc Forster is developing one of Hollywood's more eclectic directorial resumes, with this film following from Monster's Ball, Stay and Finding Neverland. If anything could be said to unite the films, it's perhaps their performances - and, less positively, somewhat flubbed execution that leaves the viewer feeling as though an opportunity has been missed, with the director sometimes, as here, coming frustratingly close to delivering something truly interesting, but backing off near the conclusion.

However, there is much to enjoy in the performances, not least from a subdued and surprisingly engaging Will Ferrell as Harold Crick, an IRS auditor who finds that he can hear his life being narrated by an unseen author. While Harold's attempts to deal with this state of affairs are nominally the main event - and allow for nice turns from Emma Thompson as the author and Dustin Hoffman as a literature professor (with Queen Latifah, by contrast, wasted in a fairly pointless role) - in reality the core of the film is Harold's out-of-character romance with quirky baker Maggie Gyllenhaal. The latter is one of the most charming performers around these days, and the two actors have an entirely unexpected and engaging chemistry which creates a sense of well-earned emotional payoff moments.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

28 Weeks Later

2007, UK, directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo

28 Weeksl Later is that rare beast, a truly worthwhile sequel, which in some ways surpasses the original, particularly in its commitment to a more rigorous and demanding conclusion in keeping with the film's overall narrative. The bleak tone and the opening scenes recall Michael Haneke's Le Temps du loup as much as they do 28 Days Later, which focused more on the character development of a specific group of survivors as on the actual progression of the 'rage' virus, the terrifying illness that precipitates the events of both films.

The film does a remarkably effective job of combining horror and thrills - the first major action sequence is harrowing and exhausting, as well as hypnotic - with insistent, intelligent political commentary. While the obvious resonance is with the Iraq war, particularly given that the troops sent to save and secure London are from the US, the film isn't simple-minded, depicting the conflict that arises as messily multi-faceted, and prompting reflection, too, on more distant wartime experiences, particularly the moral quandaries that accompanied the fire-bombing of Dresden during the Second World War (an action which, however necessary it may have seemed at the time, has increasingly been called into question, including in Britain). It's also an intensely visceral experience - an effect that director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo also achieved in certain sequences of his previous film, Intacto, but the tempo here is far more intense and sustained.

Local filmgoing note: this is the first film I've seen at the Somerville Theatre since they acquired a license to sell beer and wine; it's the only place I know of in Massachusetts where you can enjoy a drink (without food) while you watch, and it's a thoroughly civilized experience.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Ossessione

1943, Italy, directed by Luchino Visconti
One of the key precursors to the post-war neo-realist movement in Italy, Luchino Visconti's Ossessione is particularly notable for its use of location shooting (in Italy's Po Valley) during wartime, as well as its comprehensive debunking of the romantic hero; it's remarkable that Mussolini screened and permitted circulation of the film, though his son Vittorio, who was closely involved with cinematic production, was outraged at the liberties taken by Visconti.

Unlike some of the best-known neo-realist films, Visconti does not make extensive use of non-professionals: most of the main actors were already cinema regulars, while leading man Massimo Girotti had a fine career until his death in 2003. By contrast, although there's virtually no reference to the main world event of the time, the war itself, the film drips of the atmosphere of Italy's streets, both urban and rural. Even in the apparently more prosperous north of Italy, donkeys and bicycles are as much part of the transportation web as (rickety) trains and trucks, while the truckers look as worn as the men of The Wages of Fear, a bone-weary exhaustion that infects the main characters, too, most famously in the sequence where Giovanna (Clara Calamai) falls asleep while eating pasta.

Visconti opens the film with brisk efficiency, quickly establishing the key triangle of characters, as well as the tensions that entwine them (there's also a wonderful crane shot, moving up over a parked truck, that reveals the trattoria where much of the action is centered), creating an atmosphere of desperation and foreboding that also pre-figures post-war American noir in all its bleakness. As with several of the later neo-realist features, Ossessione is something of a hybrid, amalgamating Visconti's developing personal style with conventions of lighting and music drawn from popular cinema (there are moments when the music heavy-handedly emphasizes a spoken line, particularly a sequence where the police promise to return with more questions), but the strong performances and oppressive atmosphere succeed in crafting a portrait of a society under tremendous strain, with a misguided moral compass.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Shallow Hal

2001, US, directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly

Rating: **.5


There's a core of innocent sweetness in all of the earlier Farrelly brothers films, even though it's not always immediately obvious, and that impulse is given free rein here, with the gross-out gags radically toned down - indeed, the final 30 minutes of the film contain few laughs of any kind - as the brothers make a surprisingly didactic point about the nature of beauty. While it's refreshing that they stay true to the film's proper logic at the conclusion, it simply takes too long to get there, while the uncertain tone, varying between gag moments and sweet sincerity, is ultimately a little wearing (on the plus side, the brothers include a variety of unusual actors in smaller parts, and treat them, for the most part, with great respect; this is no Freaks sideshow). Gwyneth Paltrow does a creditable job of conveying the confusion her character feels when confronted with Jack Black's uncritical worship, ignoring her own beauty and creating considerable quiet humour in the process, while lifestyle guru Tony Robbins has perhaps the film's funniest bit when he spoofs his own image near the beginning.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Written on the Wind

1956, US, directed by Douglas Sirk

From its arresting opening sequence, Douglas Sirk's glorious Technicolor melodrama plunges to the seamy underbelly of the American dream, and the decayed ugliness that underpins the opulent lives of a Texas oil family (there seems to a be a special decadence, both literal and moral, associated with oil dynasties, something that, a couple of decades later, Dallas exploited to great success, giving us a vicarious glimpse into a kind of gorgeous imprisonment). Lauren Bacall's Lucy Moore is swept into this world by Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack), an oil-fueled playboy aware that he is a failure in his father's - and perhaps, more tragically, his own - eyes, never able to measure up to adoptive son Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson; the characters' names could hardly belong to another genre, or another era). It's a fairytale that has something sour at the centre from the very beginning: there's something cold in Bacall's expression as she surveys the excess, which moves her later to say that it seemed "beautiful at first, and then I thought how ugly it would be... in the morning", a despairing commentary on post-war boomtime consumerism (it doesn't prevent her from ultimately buying into the idea).

Sirk's film gives the lie to the notion that there's no concern with class in American society, using scenes in a local dive bar to effectively comment on the two sides of the tracks, with the working-class joint the site for recurrent slumming on the part of the Hadley siblings, unable to escape their small-town roots (though the nymphomaniac Marylee (Dorothy Malone) is held to a rather different standard than her older brother, a staple of the gossip columns). Sirk's use of lush colour to enhance the florid entanglements is complemented by his choice of camera angles as the story spirals towards its heady conclusion - the visual narration of Kyle's breakdown is especially effective - and he employs a brilliantly frenzied editing style in one of the film's pivotal sequences, intercutting a dancing Marylee with a horrific staircase tumble (less successful is an especially soapy "memory" sequence where Marylee recalls a lost childhood down by the river; the sequence serves neither the film nor Dorothy Malone).

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Greenfingers

2000, UK/US, directed by Joel Hershman

Given the charm on display here - within minutes of the opening, we're rooting for a long-time convict, even before we discover the details of his story - it's surprising not that Clive Owen has since emerged as a major star, but that it took a further five years for him to become a true above-the-line prospect. Owen brings considerable force to the central role, apparently based on a true story, credibly navigating his character's transformation, and elevating a lightweight, though often quite entertaining, outing.

As so often with British films of this kind, the supporting cast is a gallery of character sketches, some of them rather overdone (Helen Mirren's work is much more obvious than her remarkable turn in The Queen), others, like David Kelly's initially unpromising part, surprisingly affecting. The film looks remarkably pretty - overly so, at times, even in the context of the open prison setting - while US director Joel Hershman is almost completely uninterested in the complexities of the British class system, something that a local would no doubt have extracted much mileage from.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Emma

1996, UK/USA, directed by Douglas McGrath

Part of the wave of mid-1990s adaptations of Jane Austen, on both the big and small screens, Emma doesn't have the quite the same lively energy as the more recent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which injected particular verve into ball sequences that here seem much flatter. Of course, Emma also has to deal with a much spikier - and occasionally frustrating, on the page and the screen - central character rather than the charming Elizabeth Bennet, and Gwyneth Paltrow is generally strong, treading a very thin line as the meddlesome Emma. Paltrow and co-star Jeremy Northam do particularly good work in navigating the film's most dramatic, and emotionally rich, moment, when Emma's bitterest side is given full rein.

By contrast, the turnabout that results in Emma's final redemption is less skillfully handled, a weakness only partly inherited from the novel, since the film dispenses with one key character, as if her story did not also require resolution. Even in comparison with the average Austen adaptation, Douglas McGrath's film is rather self-consciously pretty: parts of the film unspool as an advertisement for quaint English landscapes, with the impoverished families of the area living in remarkably picturesque locations despite their allegedly straitened circumstances.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Hatari!

US, 1962, directed by Howard Hawks

Despite a lengthy running time and the thinnest of plots, there's something hypnotically watchable about this late Howard Hawks film, which interweaves footage of the capture of wildlife in (what is now) Tanzania with the after-hours activities of John Wayne and his team. Although the tone is altogether sunnier, and not just because of the African setting, there's something of the rhythm of Rio Bravo -- Hawks's previous film -- in the scenes, some of them quite extended, that detail the interactions between the diverse members of the crew; there's nothing, however, of the tension of Rio Bravo, not least because the narrative, such as it is, extends over many months, while several scenes have a very loose feel (several of Red Buttons's lines appear to have been improvised, particularly a scene where he appears to accidentally step on the tail of a cheetah). Hawks's sense of pacing is perfect, carefully judging when to cut into a scene, and creating a vivid sense of the reality of the characters' lives: although their professions may be exotic, they are grounded in long, work-filled days, which gives ample time to develop warm characterisations.

As a vision of Africa, of course, Hatari! is very much in the Hemingway mode: the crew is there to capture rather than to shoot the wildlife, but that detail aside the African characters are almost entirely in the background as the Westerners frolic for the camera (that said, there are frequent snatches of Swahili used throughout -- the characters do seem to learn the local language rather than imposing their own -- while there's a surprising sequence at a Maasai well that illustrates a general respect for the Africans with whom the team comes into contact). The photography is stunning, and the sequences shot in Lake Manyara and the Ngorongoro Crater (among other locales) are extraordinary for their visceral impact as well as for their almost complete disregard for the safety of the stars (it's impossible to imagine Harrison Ford throwing himself into this in the way that Wayne does: there are no stunt players here).

Music and Lyrics

2007, US, directed by Marc Lawrence

Rating: **.5


One of Hugh Grant's most appealing characteristics as a performer is his willingness to appear foolish on camera, something that is crucial to this light-hearted tale of a washed-up 1980s pop-singer - Alex Fletcher, an obvious Andrew Ridgeley knock-off - who we first meet picking through proposals for the kind of Z-list infested reality trash that clogs up the airwaves these days. Instead of debasing himself entirely, Fletcher prefers to gyrate to small crowds of fans reliving their glory days, circa 1984, though gyrating isn't quite as much fun with the onset of middle age (Grant himself is now 47, and there are moments when his boyish façade is replaced by something a little more rumpled, which gives the film a useful injection of reality). Grant has a decent foil here in Drew Barrymore, although he does a lot more with the fairly ordinary script, injecting an element of sarcasm into almost every line that keeps things watchable, and at times almost makes you believe that the filmmakers' satire of the music industry has some teeth.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Good Morning

1959, Japan, directed by Yasujiro Ozu

Yasujiro Ozu's Good Morning is a gentle, though insistent, satire of post-war Japanese mores, set in a claustrophobic suburban neighborhood where the homes are built so close together that characters frequently look from their homes directly into the living spaces of their neighbours (Ozu makes frequent use of this proximity to craft clever multi-frame compositions). Given such conditions, it's no surprise that the neighbourhood is riven with gossip, and Ozu explores the impact of such idle chatter in each of the households visited; the film unfolds as a series of vignettes, with the key plot point, a silent strike by two young boys who want a television, not emerging until the halfway mark.

Ozu uses the rigidly engineered structure of the houses to create complex geometric patterns that sometimes approach abstract art: he combines these patterns with striking use of colour, with certain shots evoking the paintings of Piet Mondrian, as the director highlights small, vivid patches of colour (a blue bowl, a red ski). The film is no dry artistic effort, however: at the heart of everything is an exploration of human interactions, and especially family dynamics, at a time of great social change. While the older characters fret about the impact of television on Japanese society, Ozu is clear-eyed about the lack of emotional engagement that frequently characterises family life, irrespective of whether the family is centered on a television or seated around a table, each person with his or her nose in the newspaper.

Index

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States