Saturday, September 23, 2006

Memories of Murder

2003, South Korea, directed by Bong Joon-ho

Based on the real-life events surrounding South Korea's first recorded serial killer case in the mid-1980's, Memories of Murder is closer to (very) black comedy than it is to police procedural. While the cops come off pretty well in the average detective film (after all, they usually solve the crime), this movie is unlikely to be a hit even in Korean squadrooms. Any rural police force would be overwhelmed by the events that transpire in the film, but the three detectives at the heart of the case are left to their own devices to a quite remarkable degree, and their investigative methods are, to say the least, unconventional (when not downright incompetent).

There's a strong political point being made here, with broad suggestions that the government of the time was much more interested in suppressing democracy demonstrations than in catching a rapist/killer, but the absence of central investigational oversight is lacking in credibility (and doesn't seem to fit with the facts). That said, the sense of South Korea as a country ill-prepared for its headlong entry into the global economy, and still existing rather pathetically in the shadow of its American benefactor, is powerful, while the portrait of a small town in the grip of fear is generally convincing. Director Bong Joon-ho never quite settles on a unified tone, although he has a knack for atmospherics and off-kilter humour.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Vera Drake

2004, UK, directed by Mike Leigh

Comfortably Mike Leigh's strongest film since Secrets and Lies, Vera Drake carefully evokes a very specific time in British history - the austere post-war years - as the backdrop for a tale of quiet yet radical rebellion. Imelda Staunton is astonishing, delivering the performance of her career as Vera, a gentle, caring woman who works as a house cleaner and who, in her spare time and in secret, conducts back-street abortions at no charge. Her clear-eyed view of the realities of the world is calculated to sow confusion in the minds of those who disagree with abortion; there's no doubting her integrity and her attempts to restore some kind of dignity to those around her, and her lack of eloquence doesn't prevent her from expressing her views to telling effect. The sense of time and place are brilliantly created through a series of apparently unconnected early vignettes, intermingling scenes of home and workplace life to great effect (one scene where the men discuss 'what kind of war' they had is especially telling); the actors who play Vera's family are uniformly strong, creating a detailed set of character studies. The one downside is Leigh's inability to create rounded middle- or upper-class characters; as in his other films, his class views are so narrow that the upper-class characters, especially, are almost without exception insufferable or unsympathetic. As a consequence, a subplot about a wealthy young woman having an abortion seems heavy-handed, over-emphasizing a point already made subtly throughout the film.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Les Dames du bois de Boulogne

1945, France, directed by Robert Bresson

Unlike the austere films that Bresson began to make from 1950 onwards, Les Dames du bois de boulogne drips with the style and melodrama of classical Hollywood (it's not hard to imagine someone like Bette Davis in the role so perfectly played here by María Casares). A tale of very chilly revenge (a society lady takes such exception to the end of her relationship with a rather feckless aristocrat that she engineers his reputation-destroying wedding to a prostitute), the film has dialogue by Jean Cocteau, and it's not hard to see a trace of fairy tale in the conclusion, although it's closer to the redemptive power of the concluding moments of Bresson's own Pickpocket rather than the texture of Cocteau's La Belle et la bête, which was being shot when this film was released. The film's great weakness is the insipid Paul Bernard, who plays the aristocratic lover; Cocteau's occasionally delirious meditations on the turmoils of love fail to convince when uttered by such a bland leading man. It's the same problem that hampers Brief Encounter: the passionate declarations of a passionless individual, but then that, too, isn't entirely uncharacteristic of Bresson, who often favoured remarkably flat performances.

Sisters of the Gion

1936, Japan, directed by Mizoguchi Kenji

A beautiful early feature film from Mizoguchi, which overcame the terribly poor transfer available for viewing [I subsequently saw a restored version], Sisters of Gion is a fascinating portrait of a vanished time in Japanese history, set before the Second World War in Tokyo's geisha district. The film makes clear that this way of life is already disappearing: the two sisters of the title are divided on the proper behaviour expected of a geisha, with one searching for a striving patron, the other loyal to a diminished benefactor. Although the film is bursting with incident - the fate of the two sisters seems to hang in the balance until the final moments - it's shot in a very simple, direct style, with many of the carefully composed long shots, often using frames within frames, for which Mizoguchi is famous. He intersperses that straightforward style with several gorgeous tracking shots, including one that opens the film, which reveal he was already master of the mobile camera. If there's any weakness to the film, it's perhaps the overly didactic ending, which tends to repeat what the director has so eloquently conveyed throughout; it's reminiscent of the conclusion of Sembène's Mandabi, which also crosses the line from account to pamphlet, but in both cases that may be illustrative of filmmakers in the process of finding the voice with which to express their committed social vision.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Common Wealth

2000, Spain, directed by Alex de la Iglesia (original title: La Comunidad)

A wacky Hitchcockian riff, Alex de la Iglesia's film is the blackest of comedies, with Carmen Maura as a real estate agent who discovers riches in an old apartment building only to find that the other tenants are determined to get their hands on the money (and they're prepared to take some pretty extreme measures to do so). The opening half-hour, during which the cash is uncovered, is laden with suspense; the direction is taut and the set design is eerily clever. The strange events that follow are amusing but certainly over-extended, straining credibility even in this outlandish genre, though the references to Hitchcock films consistently hit the mark, while de la Iglesia has a devilish sense of humor that pops up at the most unexpected moments. Carmen Maura is a standout in the lead, playing it straight in the midst of a building full of crazies, and clearly enjoying the wild antics; it's great to see that Almodóvar isn't the only Spanish director capable of creating a meaty role for an actress over 50, and a shame that American movies can't follow their lead.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Shark Tale

US, 2004, directed by Bibo Bergeron, Vicky Jenson, Rob Letterman

With the bar set so high by the Pixar films - especially Finding Nemo and The Incredibles - and Dreamworks' own Shrek films, it's hard not to be a little disappointed by Shark Tale: while it zips along nicely, with little wasted time, the basic storyline is a little trite, and the lead character (voiced by Will Smith) is a too hyperactive and self-obsessed to really prove endearing. However, while the overall framework isn't a success (and can't help but suffer when compared to the undersea antics of Finding Nemo) many of the incidental details are extremely enjoyable. Robert de Niro and - especially - Martin Scorsese are entertaining in a Mafia-movie parody (the Scorsese-voiced character has amusingly bushy eyebrows), and even funnier are Ernie and Bernie, a pair of rasta jellyfish, one voiced (for full authenticity) by Ziggy Marley.


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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