Thursday, August 23, 2007

Amazing Grace

2007, UK/US, directed by Michael Apted

Amazing Grace is an unusually compelling historical re-creation, focused on the efforts of William Wilberforce to end British involvement in the slave trade in the late 1700s (his efforts didn't bear final fruit until 1807), but also providing a fascinating portrait of the realities of British parliamentary democracy in that era, and particularly during the governments of William Pitt the Younger. While inevitably the film spends more time with the moneyed classes of Britain (particularly England) rather than with slaves torn from Africa, it takes care to underline the connections between the two, and the uncomfortable sources of much of the Empire's wealth, while it also attempts to provide at least a cursory sense of the brutal circumstances that prevailed on slave ships and sugar plantations (one scene, where a genteel audience comes nose-to-nose with the stench of a slave transport, is especially effective, a bit of theatricality that Wilberforce used to his advantage).

Though Wilberforce harnesses parliament for noble ends, the film makes clear that it was a far from democratic place at the time (after all, even Wilberforce had to effectively purchase his seat), and the chronicle of shifting power alliances is especially engaging: director Apted is skilled at depicting both the backroom shenanigans, and the lowly but moving beginnings of the abolitionist movement, as well as the set pieces that inject a more conventional drama to the film.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Three Times

2005, Taiwan, directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien

Though it's tempting to embrace the differences between the three episodes that make up Hou Hsiao-hsien's film, it's really only in viewing them as a whole that the director's ambition becomes apparent, exploring the changes both in Taiwanese society and that society's attitudes to relationships from the early twentieth century to today. He experiments, too, with different aesthetics, employing handheld cameras in the final, modern, sequence that contrast sharply with the smooth grace of the first two segments. The middle sequence is set in 1911, and Hou films it as a silent, with extensive intertitles (as a consequence, it's easily the wordiest of the three stories), but he doesn't make any other concessions to the filming techniques of 1911: he shoots in lush colour, with beautifully serene camerawork. While the decision to shoot the film without sound (except for music, which sometimes recalls the soundtrack for Jane Campion's The Piano) initially seems distracting, it slowly creates a means by which to appreciate the extreme ritualisation of upper-class life in Taiwan of that era; the lack of aural distractions is combined with an intense focus on the details of daily routine.

It's in the film's first sequence, though, the the film comes most fully alive, for a charmingly slight tale of tentative love, a film that starts out in a pool hall - a place filled with its own rituals and rhythms - and ends up on the road, as a young man (Chen Chang) searches for the object of his affection. As the segment progresses, Chang allows his character's mask to slip, allowing for wonderful moments of warmth that reveal the growing depth of his love, never more so than the smile that flashes across his face when his girlfriend's mother provides him with her daughter's whereabouts. The entire sequence captures the giddy sense of self-containment that accompanies any burgeoning romance: the outside world, so fraught in many films set in the mid-1960s, seems irrelevant here, its challenges easily overcome as the two characters fall into step beside one another.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Black and White

2002, Australia/UK, directed by Craig Lahiff

Black and White
recreates the murder trial of a young Aboriginal man, Rupert Max Stuart, who was convicted, in dubious circumstances, of the murder of a young girl in 1958. His incarceration and particularly the subsequent appeals on his behalf through the Australian court system and the House of Lords in London, created a divisive public debate that shone a light on Australia's tragic racial history (the film focuses on a period when elements of the now notorious "White Australia" policies - which affected immigration rather than relations with the Aboriginal community - remained in place).

Given the weighty themes, it's unfortunate that director Craig Lahiff can't craft a more compelling narrative from the raw materials: the pacing is uncertain, and the script sometimes rather obvious. Robert Carlyle seems miscast as Stuart's main lawyer; there's little convincing fire in his performance, which makes it hard to accept his decision to pursue the case as far as he does (by contrast, David Ngoombujarra is much stronger as Max). The film does come alive, though, with the appearance of a youthful Rupert Murdoch, whose Adelaide newspaper threw its weight behind Max (not on the issue of his guilt - even the film seems ambiguous on that front - but rather on the legitimacy of his confession and trial); while Murdoch's role is undoubtedly overstated, his arrival supplies a much-needed jolt.

Saturday, August 11, 2007


2007, US, directed by Mennan Yapo

Underneath the self-conscious direction and a plot that's often extremely difficult to follow - that's part of the point, I suppose - there's a surprisingly hard-edged story about a crumbling marriage, and a woman's struggle to make meaning for her life as the mainstays of her life come unmoored. It's rather a chore, though, to unearth this story, couched as it is in the framework of a confusing semi-supernatural yarn that never quite makes up its mind where to go. The film also takes itself much too seriously - there's none of the cod-Gothic genre fun of a film like The Skeleton Key, and Bullock is drained of the spunky charm that's one of her main draws (she was appealingly nasty in Crash, but that role was as much about turning her accustomed image on its head as anything else).

Friday, August 10, 2007

Les Misérables

1934, France, directed by Raymond Bernard

One of the few screen versions of Victor Hugo's novel conceived on something close to the scale of the source material, Raymond Bernard's adaptation was originally released as three separate feature films (which appeared on three successive weekends!), with a cumulative running time two-and-a-half times that of Richard Boleslawski's 1935 US version. That film focuses, inevitably, almost entirely on the central narrative thread covering Inspector Javert's pursuit of Jean Valjean: the shorter cinema adaptations have tended to reduce the book to that one aspect, whereas Bernard's film restores many -- though by no means all -- of Hugo's interwoven themes and plotlines.

The players, too, are almost entirely the reverse of the American version of the following year: in Hollywood, Javert is played by the portly Charles Laughton, whereas Harry Baur, with a remarkably similar physique, plays Jean Valjean here, and it's a much better bit of casting (Laughton, for all his virtues, was never a credibly relentless hunter, lacking any obvious signs of hunger, while the fairly slight Fredric March can't possibly hope to fully evoke Valjean's allegedly immense strength).

As with many a great nineteenth century novel, Hugo's plot depends on an extraordinary variety of coincidences, something made more obvious by the cutting necessary to adapt a book that runs to well over one thousand pages. On film, at least, Valjean isn't so much implacable as remarkably fortunate, with Valjean falling into his lap on a number of occasions. At one point, as if to acknowledge this, Javert notes that "the world is small"; Paris seems reduced to the scale of a village, a few streets where people keep running into one another. Of course, the narrative itself was only one of Hugo's concerns, and his vignettes on the Paris suburbs, or the writing of history, inevitably disappear on film, though Bernard does create richly textured backgrounds that go some way towards providing a substitute for Hugo's descriptive detail.

As in his previous Les Croix de bois, Raymond Bernard blends a variety of techniques to create different moods. The most obvious stylistic device throughout Les Misérables is the use of canted angles -- sometimes canted so much that it appears characters are walking vertically, particularly in the film's stirring courtroom scenes -- that evoke something of the fraught spirit of German film of the late 1920's; the camera tilts notably further from its natural centre when Valjean's fate hangs in the balance, creating a terrific sense of dread, with fate apparently waiting in the wings to drag a decent man back down. At other moments, Bernard makes use of the handheld camera that proved so effective in Les Croix de bois, bringing the viewer to the heart of the street violence of the 1832 uprising in Paris, and injecting a note of grim realism that Hugo would surely have approved of.

Jean Valjean is a gift of a role, given the character's many personalities, and Harry Baur is compelling in all the guises he's called on to adopt: while Valjean's more gentle aspects dominate the running time, at least once he has cast off the baleful influence of prison, Baur's much briefer turn as Champmathieu, at the climax of the first part of the film, is a lovely bit of character acting, a vividly imagined piece of work that underlines Champmathieu's pathetic state, though Bernard is careful to ensure that we never laugh at this broken man.
(The image is snagged from the Criterion Collection site since I returned the DVD without remembering to snap a few stills that would better illustrate Bernard's use of unusual camera angles; Criterion don't suffer from a shortage of praise, but they deserve particular credit for bringing the work of a neglected filmmaker like Bernard to light once again).

Monday, August 06, 2007

Les Croix de bois

1932, France, directed by Raymond Bernard

Thematically very similar to 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front - and, like that film, based on a novel that remains in print today - Raymond Bernard's masterful film of Great War trench life has fallen into the cracks of cinematic history: purchased by Fox for US release, it sat on the shelves, with war footage turning up in films like 1933 Oscar-winner Cavalcade (according to the DVD liner notes). Like the better-known American film, it's a profoundly pacifist work, drenched in the tragedy of the wartime period, though also imbued with a grittiness that surely resonated with contemporary audiences for whom the front was an all-too-vivid memory. Bernard doesn't pull punches, however, reminding the viewer of the initial enthusiasm for war with an opening montage that evokes an almost joyous atmosphere, crowds taking to the streets, and troop trains decked with flowers.

That spirit of adventure is quickly snuffed out in the trenches, where the world is reduced to just a few square metres: for all the vast scale of the war, each soldier ultimately experiences it as, at most, a village to village affair, with prolonged battles over tiny slivers of land. Bernard enhances the sense of restricted movement by shooting a lengthy sequence inside a small post, where the members of the unit become aware of a German mining crew planting a bomb. The tension inside the cramped space, which seems to promise instant death in the event of an explosion, most surely have influenced Henri-Georges Clouzot's similarly sweaty The Wages of Fear two decades later (it's perhaps no coincidence that actor Charles Vanel plays a major part in both films). The sequence is also unusual in that the German side is shown, dispassionately, from time to time, the soldiers there in similar conditions, carrying out orders from officers behind the lines and out of danger.

Later, the film moves outside as Bernard choreographs pummeling scenes of battle, particularly a prolonged depiction of a ten-day bombardment. Like the battle itself, the sequence constantly promises to end, only for another shell to drop: it's an extraordinary attempt to provide a sense of the reality of this particular war, of what it means to experience a bombardment of this duration, the sound pounding constantly on every soldier's eardrums and nerves. During the battle, the camera cuts between sustained tracking shots, moving rapidly over the pock-marked landscape, and handheld shots that seem remarkably modern, evoking the combat photography of much later wars, with occasional, near-abstract shots of the artillery barrels as they pump shell after shell into the air. Indeed, throughout the film, the director exhibits a remarkable ability to move between and to blend styles, to convey the profound disconnect between life on the front and behind the lines, as well as the depth of the tragedy in France and beyond, couched in bitterly ironic terms in the final montage.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

2007, US, directed by Gore Verbinski

The third installment in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is a enjoyably shaggy finale that does its best to tie up vast swathes of plot, giving most of its numerous characters a suitable send-off (in one case taking an entirely unforeseen route), while introducing new elements to this particular world. While the film is occasionally confusing, with so many disparate strands interwoven, that's as much due to the gap since last viewing the first and second films than to any weaknesses on the part of the filmmakers (I tend to agree with Henry Jenkins's very fine analysis, which, while conceding some faults, argues that the filmmakers expect not a dumbed-down but a well-informed audience, something many newspaper critics can't quite grasp).

The most obvious point of comparison here is with the third of the Lord of the Rings films, which is also quite encumbered with plots in need of resolution (to the point that director Peter Jackson stages multiple climactic endings, as if to underline the need to appropriately conclude each part of the narrative, and give the characters the screen time the viewer feels is their due). Although there's a radical difference in their origins - with Pirates emerging from a theme-park ride, as opposed to from a pre-formed literary trilogy - director Gore Verbinski marshals his resources in a similar manner, cross-cutting effectively between the various portions of his story, and demanding that the viewer remain attentive over a lengthy running time. While the first film was focused to a great degree on Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow, the second and third films use him more sparingly (though he does have several extraordinary, surreal sequences in which multiple Jack Sparrows ensure that the film is adequately dosed with the character), choosing instead to explore yet further shores in the pirates' world, most notably - here - the scenes set in Singapore and in Pirates' Cove, memorable amalgamations of old and new effects, with the latter also enhanced by an arresting, and amusing, cameo from Keith Richards.

The Bourne Ultimatum

2007, US, directed by Paul Greengrass

The third installment in the Bourne franchise is even more stripped-down than its predecessors, with almost all extraneous material removed from what is essentially a two-hour chase movie, through multiple countries and toward the ultimate truth of Bourne's identity. Though director Paul Greengrass doesn't seem overly keen on comparisons with the Bond series - if press snippets can be given much credence - this film evokes the Bond heritage in ways both large (Bourne's almost comic indestructibility) and small (the brutal fistfight in Tangier that evokes one of the signature Bond matchups, that between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love). Visually, however, the film owes nothing to Bond: the hand-held urgency of the film adds to the sense of breakneck pacing, with the camera constantly changing angles, and sometimes thrown quite literally into the action (one car chase appears to result in the destruction of at least one camera). That's not to say that the filmmaking is unclear: that Tangier fistfight is clearly narrated, with a palpable sense of real, not comic book, violence between human beings.

On the broader level, Greengrass has to navigate a rather awkward line between two sometimes contradictory views of the CIA, presenting the agency's frightening, almost literally godlike, ability to track individuals through the deployment of a sinister array of resources as well as its striking vulnerability to attack from a well-resourced and determined individual. That, of course, is the reality of modern terror, though the message here is also about the manner in which the agency's moral compromises create - we can hope - fatal internal weaknesses, with its own officers likely to turn when the lines are blurred to an unacceptable shade of grey.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Mansfield Park

1999, UK, directed by Patricia Rozema

As befits the source novel, Patricia Rozema's adaptation of Mansfield Park is considerably darker than other recent Austen-inspired films, with the horrific spectacle of slavery in the West Indies underpinning the more familiar society whirl that drives the main plotline. Rozema is also more interested than most in scratching the social surface and exploring Austen's depiction of the status of women in Georgian England; the lightness of touch in Pride and Prejudice and Emma are replaced here by the stark realities of social rejection (for sins - and perceived sins - great or small), while the decor is generally much more spare than in the overdressed sets of other period adaptations (the walls of Mansfield Park itself are often strikingly bare).

Rozema's camera works in interesting ways, from stately, classical compositions to unexpected whip pans, and occasional hand-held shots at moments of extreme drama; the camera proves itself supple in adapting to the demands of Austen's melodrama, while there are striking direct-to-camera moments when the heroine, Fanny Price (Frances O'Connor, perfectly coltish), reveals the contents of the letters she writes to her sister. There's also an extraordinary shot near the beginning, as Fanny arrives at Mansfield Park for the first time, when the lush lawns take on the appearance of the flowing sea in the half-light of night.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

La Vie est à nous

1936, France, produced/coordinated by Jean Renoir

Although he did direct a number of sequences in the film, Renoir himself rejected sole directorial credit for La Vie est à nous, a 1936 election campaign film for the French Communist party (the party almost quadrupled its previous total of deputies, and took power as part of the Popular Front government, which lasted one year). The film never received the censor's approval, and hence was restricted to private showings organized by the party itself. There's little of Renoir's usual directorial presence here, with the film often devolving into pure propaganda, of a kind that now makes many (including former adherents to the movement) distinctly comfortable - perhaps especially the brief segments lauding Stalin.

About an hour long, the film is divided into two segments, the first an essay-like statement of conditions in France and her neighbors, melding lectures, documentary footage and manipulations (such as the amusing, and yet chilling, sequences in which Hitler and Mussolini bark like dogs); it's a fragmented collage that likely influenced Godard's most openly political films, as well as later filmmakers such as Jean-Marie Teno, adept at assembling collages from many sources (notably, though, there's barely the slightest reference to France's overseas empire, on which so much of the country's economic success depended). The second half of the film narrates three episodes where the party is seen to be a force for good; while the anecdotes undoubtedly had parallels in reality, the manner in which the party is seen to provide material and spiritual succour can perhaps be indulged as characteristic of the spirit of the times, but ultimately has little of the power of more subtle, fictional Popular Front films such as Renoir's own Le Crime de Monsieur Lange or Julien Duvivier's (now) little-seen La Belle équipe.


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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.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States