Saturday, August 28, 2010


2008, US, directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff

Traitor is one of the stronger entries in post-9/11 cinema, painting a strong picture of the moral compromises that are an inevitable part of US policy in the "war on terror," and presenting a particularly convincing critique of the ways in which the many and varied security agencies fail to communicate with one another - to their own and our potential detriment. It's refreshing, too, to see those agencies depicted not as frighteningly omnipotent - with all manner of satellite technology in constant motion - but subject to gumshoe limitations. The film also does a fine job of constructing a rounded, sympathetic Muslim character - played by Don Cheadle - who, as the coda underlines, is quietly uncompromising about the simple practice of his faith, a kind of freedom often apparently forgotten in overheated US debates. There's considerable subtlety in the film's visual approach, too; instead of the constant shaky cam of the Bourne movies or The Kingdom, director Jeffrey Nachmanoff employs a handheld viewpoint when his story demands a sense of urgency, before transitioning to a calmer shooting style elsewhere.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Harder They Come

1972, Jamaica, directed by Perry Henzell

Perry Henzell's terrifically vibrant film is a crucial link to an extraordinary period of cultural cross-fertilization in the 1970s, stretching from music to filmmaking to the political realm. Although the plot of the film largely takes place within the world of reggae music, where exploitation of often impoverished performers is rife, The Harder They Come is also very much about the power of cinema. After all, when the central character, Ivan (played by musician Jimmy Cliff), arrives in Kingston from his country home, his first destination is the Roxy, a movie theatre he's heard about out in the sticks.

Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come

Ivan conceives of his subsequent odyssey very much in terms of cinematic (anti-) heroes, with the conclusion of the film referring back to Ivan's early viewing of the movie Django: the soundtrack of that film plays over images of Ivan as The Harder They Come reaches its climax. Cowboy films were massively popular in Jamaica, at the time, no less so than in other parts of the world - Ousmane Sembène's novel Les Bouts de bois de Dieu makes much of how West African youth were captivated by cowboy heroes, a fascination that Dani Kouyaté also captures in the more recent Ouaga Saga.

Image from Touki-Bouki (1973, Djibril Diop Mambéty)

It's impossible to know exactly who saw what when, but it's not hard to find commonalities between Henzell's work and Djibril Diop Mambéty's Touki-Bouki, with its equally self-conscious anti-heroes and its striking blend of symbolic and literal imagery (and its references to European art cinema traditions). Like much African cinema of the 1970s, and indeed like at least some blaxploitation films, there's an ethnographic aspect to Henzell's film, a desire to provide a filmed account of lives and locations that hadn't normally featured onscreen, and that vitality still sets the screen alight almost forty years on. Henzell has a sympathetic, non-judgmental gaze, finding energy and drive in his characters while never concealing their blemishes; there's a warmth and a spontaneity to his film that reminded me of Malick Sidibé's photos of young Malians, in the studio and on the dancefloor, in the 1960s and 1970s.

Photo by Malick Sidibé (image from Gallery 51)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Ghost Writer

2010, France/Germany/UK, directed by Roman Polanski

Although several of the characters are thinly-veiled versions of real people, most obviously Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) as a Tony Blair facsimile, Roman Polanski is ultimately less interested in the correspondences with actual events, which are in any case pretty limited, but with surfaces and appearances, which makes for a disconcerting film where we're never quite sure what people know or admit. The central character, an unnamed ghost writer played by Ewan McGregor, is placed at the heart of a guessing game, although he seems to perceive it more as a sequence of physical clues - sometimes a touch obvious - rather than the hints and contradictions which surround him. Even the physical location of the film - a windswept island fortress/summer home - seems unreal, with a picture window that has the feel of a screen, concealing as much as it reveals.

Polanski's construction is impeccable, both within the individual shots - the placement of his characters within the frame reveals much about both their power and perceived power - and in terms of overall architecture, with plot revelations carefully dispensed to create the sense of jigsaw pieces falling pleasurably into place (a sensation just as satisfying on a second viewing). The only dissonance that took me outside the world of the film was caused by own familiarity with the actual locations, and on one occasion, during a sequence supposed to conjure up an air of malevolence and danger in Belmont, it was hard to suppress a smile given that Belmont is an unthreatening suburb with no lonely roads that even vaguely resemble those assigned to it by Polanski and his team.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


2009, Italy, directed by Matteo Garrone

Despite the rather different subject matter - the influence of the Camorra on life in the region around Naples, versus the state of the French education system - my first reaction to Gomorra reminded me of how I felt after watching Laurent Cantet's Entre les murs. Both films work hard to present an apparently "realistic" view of their chosen subjects, through a series of interlinked anecdotes, and both raise a degree - even a strong degree - of concern in the viewer about the situations depicted onscreen. The question that lingered for me, however, was what to do with this sense of outrage, that things are broken and need to be fixed. That's perhaps a question more important for people closer to the ground; perhaps notably, when I visited Naples this year there were DVD copies of the film everywhere, including in the sheaves of pirated disks outside the central rail station.

The broader social questions aside, I found the film to be an impressive piece of work, which plunges the viewer into the world of the Camorra with no preliminaries - the relationships between the characters are barely explained, and we often don't even get the characters' names. The action changes from one aspect of the Camorra's operations to another - the blooding of new recruits, or the operation of business fronts - with no more warning, almost mid-scene on occasion. Garrone's concern is less to resolve individual plotlines, although some segments are brought to a conclusion, than to create a sense of the Camorra's pervasive impact on life in the region. There's nothing hidden about most of their work - unlike many films devoted to the underworld, Garrone shoots the vast majority of the film in broad daylight, with all of the thuggery visible in the harsh light of southern Italy.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

2009, US, directed by Tony Scott

I haven't seen the original The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 for a while but if memory serves it showcases plenty of the grit of mid-1970s New York, just as this generally enjoyable updating has the slickness, and perhaps some of the more commercially antiseptic qualities, of the city's current incarnation. This is Tony Scott in relatively toned-down mode: he doesn't engage in nearly the same level of visual experimentation - particularly with changes of film stock and colour schemes - that have become his recent stock-in-trade. That said, his characteristic focus on atmospherically-lit sets is very much intact, as the aesthetics of the film's subway tunnels amply demonstrate - giant fans artfully creating shadows and blinking light effects, contrasted with the warmer lighting of the control room where Denzel Washington does his work.

As ever, Scott loses no time in plugging us into the action; that's perhaps his greatest strength as a storyteller, his ability to cut to the heart of the matter within a minute or two of the opening sequence. The storyline established, he has an exceptional ability to then hold the audience's attention as the plotting grows more outlandish, while still delivering the natural confrontations and resolutions that a film like this demands. Despite its generic qualities, the final shot is also nicely chosen, marking a return to the benign normality from which Washington's character has been so unexpectedly plucked.

Friday, August 06, 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire

2009, Sweden/Denmark/Germany, directed by Daniel Alfredson (Aka: Flickan som lekte met elden)

The second of the trilogy of films based on Stieg Larsson's books, The Girl who Played with Fire is a good deal more subtle than its predecessor, toning down the sexual violence in particular, and choosing to imply at least some of what the first film delivered with sledgehammer subtlety; that's presumably the result of a change of director. The plot, taken fairly directly from the source novel, is more straightforward, too, reliant on coincidence but easier to swallow than the earlier film's central revelations. Mostly, though, this is another showcase for the talents of Noomi Rapace, terrifically committed again as the spiky, anti-social, morally queasy Lisbeth Salander, a compelling blend of cyber-savant and woman of robust action.


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