Saturday, March 29, 2008

Eastern Promises

2007, UK/Canada/USA, directed by David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises plays out in a strange netherworld London. Set mostly in the parallel world of Russian organized crime, the London streets of the film often seem devoid of the people and action so characteristic of the metropolis. At times, the action of the film seems almost as geographically restricted as the (not so quiet) small town at the heart of Cronenberg's previous film, A History of Violence, as if to emphasize that he has little interest in a tourist version of the city (Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things similarly refused to reduce the city to a series of postcard views).


Cronenberg often seems fascinated by the disconnect between appearances and reality, and he gives that theme full rein here; it's not, of course, an entirely new theme for explorations of gangland, given the simultaneous depiction of brutal violence and close-knit family life in a films like The Godfather. It's not a legacy that Cronenberg denies, it seems to me; rather he uses the diconnect to create truly multi-layered characters that confront us with complex and even unpleasant moral choices. It also allows him to play with audience expectations, and even to spring plot surprises on the viewer (well, at least this viewer); he's expert at the mechanics of genre cinema, while not allowing himself to be limited by conventions.


In this film, Cronenberg is consistently interested in those who are otherwise dismissed: the plot is set in motion by attempts to identify an unknown girl, of little consequence to most people at the hospital where she dies. Cronenberg is also insistent on finding the humanity in characters that others dismiss: a prostitute who is discarded by one of the Russian gangsters is beautifully lit, looking almost like a painter's model, as if to emphasize that this woman is as worthy of artistic attention as anyone else, and that she retains a core of dignity that few are willing to accord her. It's of a piece with the humanist spirit of many of his films, where he finds unexpected tenderness and affection in stories that often contain raw, even brutal violence - such as the memorably bone-crunching sequence here where Viggo Mortensen fights another man in a Russian bathhouse.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Tropical Malady

2004, Thailand/France/Germany/Italy, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Apichatpong Weerasethakul revisits several of the themes of his previous films in his third feature, but it seems to me that the film marks a step in a new direction, one where he makes use of a much greater range of cinematic means - placement of actors, camera movements, even special effects. It's a little like watching a flower suddenly burst into bloom: it's the same plant but there's a striking vibrancy about the result. It's hard, for example, to imagine his earlier work including a shot as stunning as that where one of the main characters disappears into the night, his shirt visible long after the rest of him has merged with the forest. However, he pursues these new explorations without losing sight of his familiar obsessions, and without compromising his exceptional attention to atmosphere.
Like his preceding film, Blissfully Yours (and his subsequent Syndromes and a Century), the film is divided into two parts. The first segment is a richly evocative rural romance between a soldier and a young man in the town where he is posted (the affair is accepted in unruffled terms by those around the two men, perhaps enhancing the sense of a pastoral idyll). As in his first film, Mysterious Object at Noon, Weerasethakul allows his camera to linger on faces and locales that have no great narrative significance, but which contribute to the acute sense of place; you almost expect these people to reappear later in the film, but that's not really the director's purpose.
As in much of Weerasethakul's work, the confrontation between tradition and modernity is a central theme: there are abrupt intrusions from the modern world, whether it be a brightly-lit shop, or an open-air exercise routine set to dance music. These co-exist with the telling of a folk tale or a visit to a site of spiritual significance, and as the film moves into its second segment the sense that there's an entirely different world running in parallel to the "real" world of modern Thailand is brought to vivid life. This other reality is most fully expressed in the forest, far from others, just as the forest serves as a place of both almost mythic revelation and renewal in Blissfully Yours. As in that film, the prolonged sequence in the forest is intensely atmospheric, with an especially rich soundscape, and time itself seems to lose any meaning. A film that begins as a relatively realistic story becomes enmeshed with the narrative of Thai folk tales, revealing a completely different lens through which to interpret the world.
My particular enthusiasm for the film may stem from the fact that Weerasethakul makes use of one of my favourite cinematic devices: a journey through a city, by night or by day, car or motorbike, set to music. Whether it's Nanni Moretti on his Vespa exploring Rome to the sounds of Keith Jarrett in Caro diario, Maggie Cheung on the back of a motorbike in a Parisian night in Irma Vep, with Ali Farka Touré and Ry Cooder on the soundtrack, or a car driving through the streets of Barcelona accompanied by Ismaël Lô's "Tajabone" in Pedro Almodóvar's Todo sobre mi madre, I'm a sucker for them all. Weerasethakul's nighttime journey, with music by the a group calling themselves fashion show, is no exception: it's a terrifically evocative sequence, both of the Thai night and the feelings of someone newly in love.

That sequence on the motorbike has an appealing sense of being shot on the fly - I wonder if some of the moments the camera captures while moving along were fortuitous rather than planned - but I love, too, Weerasethakul's more careful compositions, like the shot, above, of a bed and a window, that recalls a shot from near the end of his first film. Or that below, where the soldier character (out of uniform) is foregrounded; the placement of his actors gives the shot a slightly unnerving feel, as though the main actor is about to burst out of the screen.



Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Maltese Falcon (1941)


1941, US, directed by John Huston


I often wonder if any director - of reasonable longevity - had better career bookends than John Huston: this film began what The Dead brought to a stunning close in 1987. Admittedly, Huston had his lows, too, most notably a terrible string of films in the late 1970s and early 1980s (when I was growing up, though, it was hard not to get caught up in the footballing exploits of Escape to Victory, which played frequently on Irish and British television), but this film announced his arrival in a manner as emphatic as the same year's Citizen Kane opened the curtains on Orson Welles's directorial work.

Huston's film is the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel, after a 1931 version under the same name, and a 1936 re-write as Satan Met A Lady. As well as being more expansive - Huston adds 25 minutes to the running time of the earlier films - this version is more obviously hard-bitten from the off, rarely playing things for open laughs. A much more bitter variety of humour replaces the breezy, devil-may-care tone of the first film and the out-and-out farce of the second, in keeping with the deeply cynical view of greed and human self-interest on display.

The story of the falcon itself is efficiently dealt with by the inclusion of a quasi-historical background in an opening scroll, which lends the rather fanciful details a little more gravitas when the story is re-told later on. An opening montage - not unlike that from the 1931 film - then establishes the film's location, before Huston cuts to a shot that introduces Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart). Though Spade certainly isn't indifferent to the women around him, the director has little interest in re-creating the insistent ladies' men of previous films. Unlike those earlier versions of Spade, Bogart's detective is a far more sceptical man, led by his instincts but less likely to be dominated by them.

Huston restricts his characters to a small number of sets for a great deal of the film's running time, effectively creating tension from the constantly shifting loyalties created in such enclosed spaces, with mistrust the only constant. These pressures prompt the characters to behave in odd ways, becoming brittle with nerves. He shoots the characters from highly unusual perspectives, too, displaying the influence of German Expressionism: sometimes his camera is just below waist level, looking slightly up, whereas at other times the camera is almost on the floor, most obviously when shooting the rotund Sydney Greenstreet, an affable but unmistakeably ruthless leader. There's a fascination with shadows, too, whether in the early, night-time sequences but also in the play of letters across a carpet as the light shines through Sam's office window.

There's a wonderful sequence early on where Spade is informed of the death of his partner which underlines the fresh approach Huston brings to the material: Spade's voice is heard offscreen as the camera focuses on his nightstand and the window beyond, the still life contrasting with the tragic news being relayed, and the tension enhanced by the mysterious absence of the leading character. Less subtle is the portrayal of Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre); it's hard to believe the censors were entirely taken in by Huston's "downplaying" of the character's sexuality, since there's little mistaking the fact that Cairo is homosexual, signalled primarily through his emotional overreactions to slights both minor and significant, as well as the unambiguous manner in which he fondles his cane when speaking with Spade. There's a campiness to Lorre's portrayal that recalls his work in Hitchcock's 1936 Secret Agent, a less memorable tale of international mystery and rapidly shifting loyalties.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Atonement

2007, UK/France, directed by Joe Wright

Several of the reviews of Ian McEwan's source novel - I haven't read the novel itself yet - suggest that McEwan references Evelyn Waugh's most celebrated novel Brideshead Revisited; both books take place across different time periods, and use the Second World War in crucial ways to mark the end of a particular period in English life. Joe Wright's film adaptation makes the connection much more explicit, evoking the English country house of the 1930s as a place of almost prelapsarian innocence, emphasized by the lushly coloured visuals (gorgeously shot by Seamus McGarvey), in much the same splendid manner that Waugh later confessed he had mixed feelings about.

As in his previous adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Wright's camera is extremely mobile, yet despite what seems occasionally to be a whirl of movement there's an forceful sense of the languid English summer enjoyed by those of means; scenes filmed by a pond, or a pivotal sequence by a fountain, use light and sound to conjure up a headily sensuous atmosphere that foreshadows later events.

Throughout the film, Wright is concerned to get inside the heads of his characters - whose perceptions of events often differ in crucial ways from the realities they are observing - and it's refreshing that he avoids reliance on the voiceover, often used in more respectful period adaptations, in favour of visual methods of evoking his characters' psychology. Thus, the much-discussed long take on the beach at Dunkerque seems to me not so much a distractingly virtuoso bit of filmmaking - though it's certainly virtuoso - but rather of a piece with the extraordinary strangeness of the setting, taking us into the mind of Robbie (James McAvoy) as he encounters the unimaginable, an experience further intensified by the fever under which he's labouring at the time. It's as convincing an insight into the workings of his mind at that point as the more obviously surreal sequence, shortly afterwards, when Robbie finds himself behind the screen in a movie theatre playing Marcel Carné's Quai des brumes, itself a film about the end of illusions.

The film also provides interesting depth to the cherished mythology of Dunkerque: while the heroism of the episode isn't called into question - as attested by the newsreel footage of the actual soldiers involved - the events are supplemented with a layer of grit, blood and drunkenness that gives a sense of the chaos and disillusionment of the withdrawal, a reality check for the legend.

[As a footnote, it's interesting how many reviews categorize Atonement in disparaging terms as "Oscar bait"; if that's the filmmakers' aspiration, they're on the wrong track, since rough-edged - or aspirationally rough-edged - films with American settings have dominated for the past few years.]

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Gettysburg

1993, US, directed by Ron Maxwell
With its emphatic title (in contrast to director Ron Maxwell's subsequent Gods and Generals), expansive running time, actual location shoot and impeccable attention to period detail, Gettysburg first appears as an attempt to provide an authentic account of the great Civil War battle. As an actual historical account, however, the film makes extensive use of the techniques of fiction rather than of the documentary, particularly in its use of subsidiary characters who act as a means to enter the story; this is especially true on the Confederate side, where an actor-turned-spy and a British observer have a disproportionate amount of screen time,
functioning as tools to enable the key Southern military leaders to explain the action to the viewer (they are sometimes assigned speeches which seem unlikely to have been delivered in such measured tones in the realities of battle). In telling the story from the Northern side's perspective, Maxwell relies instead on the more genuinely central figure of Joshua Chamberlain, a colonel who led a particularly brave action using many soldiers who had previously been prisoners; his inspirational leadership makes him a natural choice for one of the film's narrative threads.

Such choices are necessary to try to capture the humanity of individual people involved in the battle, though Maxwell generally chooses to focus on men with a clearly defined role: either senior officers or a spy, with only one NCO getting a prominent role (it seems almost predictable, then, that he's a salt-of-the-earth, no-nonsense type: the class distinctions seem to belong as much to British as to American life, though in 1863 the distance between the two may have been that much narrower, and certainly the officers hint at their shared gentlemanly background, across the political divide). The ordinary soldiers are rarely seen as anything more than a churning mass, either stalking across open fields or engaged in pitched battles. Even so, the film succeeds well in conveying the idea that the battle was experienced as a series of often unconnected engagements from the perspective of those involved: they had little sense of what was going on elsewhere in the field, at least not until after the fact.

Although released on the big screen, the film still feels as though it belongs on television: there are long, discrete sequences that were clearly conceived as individual episodes of a mini-series, and which have not been radically restitched for the four-hour cinema version. The events often have a small-scale feel, and on the rare occasions when Maxwell indulges a flourish such as the use of a helicopter shot to run down a line of marching soldiers, he draws attention to what is otherwise a very restricted field of vision, with little of the expansive visual sense of American filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, who makes full use of the big-screen canvas when shooting battle sequences in a film like Saving Private Ryan. There's nothing wrong with a work conceived for television in and of itself, but the decision to release Gettysburg in this format perhaps ultimately does the material a disservice.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Save the Last Dance

2001, US, directed by Thomas Carter

Rating: **.5

Thomas Carter’s third feature constantly threatens to go somewhere interesting, particularly with regard to black-white relations, but at almost every turn the film backs away from the tough stories of the neighborhood where it is set in favour of the tale of a white girl getting her groove back. That story isn’t irrelevant – and it certainly makes for emotional highlights – but the choice of focus seems like a missed opportunity when there are bigger issues in the background.

It’s a shame, because the film has a fine young cast (Julia Stiles, Sean Patrick Thomas and Kerry Washington, the latter bringing some real fire to proceedings), and there’s great chemistry between Stiles and Thomas, especially in the warm, well-played scenes where he coaxes her into being just a little less uptight. The film feels as though it’s still something of a draft: while some sequences are expertly constructed, at other moments the film doesn't entirely cohere, while it makes poor use of the character of Roy (Terry Kinney), who plays Stiles’s father, and who might actually have something to teach her about the world in which she finds herself.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Never Been Kissed

1999, US, directed by Raja Gosnell

Rating: **


I've always found Drew Barrymore to be charming performer, capable of giving a lift to sub-par fare (there are plenty of examples in her cinematic CV), but given her executive producer credit she has only herself to blame for the extremely weak script here, rendering her energy pretty ineffective. The story is padded out to inexcusable length: there's really no reason for this kind of thing to come in over the 90-minute mark unless the wit quotient is much higher.

Barrymore plays a woman whose first journalistic assignment is to go undercover in a high school - to expose the seamy side of modern education, and not incidentally give her own high school memories a makeover. A decent Hollywood movie takes the time to invent a vaguely credible world that at least makes sense on its own terms, whereas Never Been Kissed doesn't care to patch the absurd plot holes, even drawing attention to them (there's a scene that makes much of the security scanners at the school entrance, and yet this long-in-the-tooth high schooler has no apparent trouble enrolling in the first place). I know that realism is not the primary object here, but the filmmakers seem to have little sense of the kind of craftsmanship that would lend their film a little more cohesiveness. The usual high school cliches are trotted out with little conviction, and the film fudges its central romantic problem - Drew can either date a kid or a teacher who thinks she's a kid - by essentially ignoring it aside from one line delivered with little conviction. Even the supporting cast - usually the saviours of this kind of film - are rather lacklustre, except for Leelee Sobieski, who deserved better.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

No Country For Old Men

2007, US, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

When No Country For Old Men was first released in November 2007, I found the deluge of media coverage overwhelming - so much so that my desire to see the film leached away (it didn't help that I found the most recent Coen brothers' films to be among their weakest, even though I've generally enjoyed their work). I turn to writing on the Internet more and more when thinking about film, but in this case much of the passionate coverage on blogs was especially off-putting, being both divisive and dismissive (of the film itself, or of dissenting views).
I was struck, too, by the contrast between the ubiquity of a film that benefits from the mainstream publicity machine - and the Internet coattails that develop from this - and those films which have quietly made their way into my consciousness, becoming the more intriguing as a consequence. Just was I was avoiding No Country For Old Men, I was finally discovering the work of Thailand's Apichatong Weersaethakul, for instance, mostly through scattered references across blogs. In the end, it was a recommendation from the best of sources, my parents, that sent us off to the one nearby theatre where the film was still playing, but the experience made me think over how I make decisions about selecting the 100-150 new films I see each year. That's less than many other cinephiles, but it's a rhythm that works with my life, and still allows for a reasonable amount of new discovery, of both new and older films (and good and bad).

The film itself marked what for me was a major return to form - or even advancement - for the Coen brothers, after several recent misfires. While there were intermittent pleasures in both Intolerable Cruelty and their bizarre remake of The Ladykillers, those films feel like out-and-out pastiches of their source materials, whereas No Country For Old Men deconstructs and reassembles the genre elements that inspire it in ways that make them seem surprisingly fresh. That this story of violence is set against the backdrop of the American West seems no surprise, for the landscape itself has a force that often seems to belittle the human attempts to control it; if the conclusion has any allegorical value, it seems to me that it's in this idea that the land endures implacably whatever is thrown at it, while the men and women that inhabit that land inevitably wither. It's a theme explored in much Australian cinema, which makes such strong use of the malevolence of the outback.

Though it's punctuated by brutal episodes of violence - none more so than the chilling first death - there's a paradoxical calm in the Coen brothers' treatment of their material: many of the shots linger much longer than is the current norm in American cinema. This languid rhythm extends to the narrative itself, which, as Stéphane Delorme points out in Cahiers du cinéma, doesn't introduce one of its key characters until almost a quarter of the running time has elapsed. The story advances in unexpected jumps, eliding scenes we might have expected to see, then stopping again for moments that seem equally unexpected - Tommy Lee Jones holding a glass of milk, his silhouette reflected in a television, or pouring a cup of coffee for an uncle on an isolated farm (an abode that wouldn't have been out of place in the harsh rural settings of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford a century earlier). Most of all, it feels as though we're in hands that are in supreme control of their material this time around; the film is beautifully edited and carefully framed, so that even scenes of devastation have an unsettling painterly quality, albeit married with a brutal streak.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Tasuma

2004, Burkina Faso/France, directed by Kollo Sanou

The shadow of Ousmane Sembène is never far from Kollo Sanou's Tasuma, which deals with an elderly man's attempts to get the military pension to which he is entitled by virtue of his long service in the French military. Where Sembène's Camp de Thiaroye examined a bloody event at the end of the Second World War, the culmination of a series of protests by West African veterans of that conflict, Sanou opts, however, for a contemporary setting, and the gentler style of a village comedy.
Despite the pastoral background (and the fact that much of the film's funding comes from France) Sanou is unequivocal about the injustices suffered by his protagonist, Sogo (Mamadou Zerbo), and many of his fellow-soldiers - who've not only been denied their pensions but have suffered the ignominy of being paid far less than their French counterparts for equal service. Whereas the theme may relate to that of Camp de Thiaroye, the plot hews closer to that of Sembène's much earlier Mandabi, chronicling the bureaucratic absurdities of the quest to be paid a pension, with one office after another turning the old soldier away. There's an echo of Sembène, too, in the role of women in the film: they protest when Sogo finds himself cornered by the lack of action on his pension and his own desire to improve life in his village (he's a relative progressive, staunchly opposed to forced marriage, for instance).
The near-constant echoes of Sembène's films have the unfortunate consequence, however, of reminding the viewer that Sanou is a far less assured filmmaker. Where Sembène poses open-ended questions, Sanou simply seems unable to resolve his plotting, and introduces contradictions particularly with the treatment of the Arab trader who has a major role in the action. At times, the film portrays him in a positive light but at other moments he's seen to be unsympathetic, with no great logic to the changes; the film gives no particularly convincing motivation, for example, for the trader's ultimate act of generosity (in some ways, Sogo and his friends are as cavalier with the rules as the French authorities who are the source of so much ire, and the trader pays the price on this occasion). Less excusable than such narrative infelicities - which some might view as evidence of a grounding in the tangential style of oral narrative - are often awkward framings, and what seems to be careless camerawork, in which characters are sliced down the middle or cut off halfway up their faces when they lean forward, unusual in a film from a country with a history of producing strong visual storytellers.

Fame and Fortune (It's All Relative)

I was surprised to see my site stats go through the roof today, and when I looked into it I discovered that my university's web-newspaper had published a piece on me; I did the interview a year ago when I won a little blogging prize and it only appeared today, unbeknowst to me.

Now I feel like a bad blogger who needs to (a) get working on recent entries and (b) make good on my 2008 resolution to expand beyond the movie diary format (while preserving that as the core). I think that will be more likely to spark a dialogue in response to posts, which is the really fun part of the blogging game.

I really enjoy the websites of bloggers like girish, the siren and cinebeats - quite different from one another, and thankfully not always in perfect step with my own tastes - who prompt vigorous debate, and who are great about responding to and nourishing that debate. Those are, of course, just three examples among many, but all three have a great sense of community that I think is very valuable - and worth emulating.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Bride and Prejudice

2004, UK/US, directed by Gurinder Chadha

Rating: **


Gurinder Chadha's
Bride and Prejudice is ultimately a rather unfortunate dilution of the Bollywood style, designed to appeal to the multiplex audience. The idea of using the template of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice isn't a bad one - after all, Amy Heckerling's 1995 film Clueless made good use of Austen's Emma in a California high school setting - but the film sticks too closely to the original blueprint and has to cram far too much incident into its running time. The final 20 minutes are particularly compressed as a consequence, but earlier scenes also seem to run disjointedly together (at the more standard Bollywood running time, this probably wouldn't be an issue...).

Things begin brightly enough, with an Indian family in a social whirl, trying to marry off four daughters, and the initial musical segments are lush and often amusing. The opening promise isn't sustained for long, though: the songs quickly become insipid, and are few and far between by the second half of the film, as if a producer somewhere simply ordered them to be snipped. It's also hard to become too involved in such a terribly upwardly-mobile world, which seems to take wealth - even great wealth - entirely for granted, while it's impossible to take the characters' protests about the failure to discover the "real India" too seriously when the film itself whips up such a fairytale version of the country for our consumption - failing, in the process, to understand much of the point of Austen's novel, which made a virtue of its setting among the landed classes.

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