Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Cinderella Story

2004, US, directed by Mark Rosman

The prologue of A Cinderella Story, narrated with old-style economy, promises something more than is ultimately delivered: there's a canted, low-angled shot of a young Sam (played first by Hannah Robinson and later by Hilary Duff) as she heads to her garret room that hints at a darker version of this particular story, one ultimately never told. Instead, we get an insistently bright Valley update of the familiar fairy tale that mines a tired array of high school movie clichés. Although the tween stars Duff and Chad Michael Murray - the latter obviously older than everyone else - are likable enough, the story fundamentally lacks credibility, most obviously in the key encounter between the young stars, while supporting players like Jennifer Coolidge, usually so good, are trapped in one-note roles.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Elusive Close-Up

(Posted as part of the Close-Up Blog-a-thon at The House Next Door)

(2006, Mali, Abderrahmane Sissako)

The close-up in films from sub-Saharan Africa is a story as much of absence as of presence - an absence that results from a quite conscious aesthetic choice on the part of many directors. As with so much of the history of post-independence cinema in Africa, at least in francophone Africa, it's possible to trace this choice back to the director known almost universally as the "father" of African cinema, Senegal's Ousmane Sembène. Although his first feature, La Noire de... features a number of close-ups at critical moments - perhaps most notably a shot where a handheld camera precedes the protagonist as she runs, tear-stained, from a room - as Sembène matured as a filmmaker he began to move away from such tightly focused shots, showing a strong preference instead for the medium and long shot. Critics like Manthia Diawara have tended to link this technique to the oral tradition in African storytelling; in this reading, Sembène occupies the position of a griot, observing his characters from a greater distance, and clearly indicating the physical spaces in which they interact.

La Noire de... (1966, Senegal, Ousmane Sembène)

As the academic critic Josephine Woll has written, it's also possible that this preference for the medium and long shot derives from the cinematic training that Sembène received in the Soviet Union during the early 1960's; Woll has unearthed similar stylistic choices in the work of filmmakers like Pudovkin and Dovzhenko, whose films would have been much used for training purposes. Sembène's influence on those who followed him - it's hard to find a meaty interview with an African filmmaker before 1990 that doesn't mention Sembène, mostly in reverent tones - was such that subsequent shot choices might perhaps have been made, even unconsciously, in the shadow of the Senegalese master.

Yeelen (1987, Mali, Souleymane Cissé)

That's not to say, of course, that the close-up is absent from films from Africa, more that it is used in sparing fashion: Souleymane Cissé, another Soviet-trained filmmaker, uses extreme close-ups, particularly on ritual objects, in his 1987 film Yeelen, for example, though the majority of the film shows a preference for longer shots (both in terms of camera placement and time). By contrast, Cheick Oumar Sissoko, a near contemporary of Cissé's who received his training in France, has shown a strong bias against the close-up, a shot choice which he feels to be a typically "American" technique at odds with an African style based on orality; his 1989 film Finzan is notable for the almost complete absence of such shots. As Teshome K. Gabriel has written, for many directors from Africa - or the broader Third World in Teshome's view - the close-up is seen to be unnatural as it calls attention to itself, and eliminates wider social considerations, a theme that is central to the work of African filmmakers until the late 1980s, at which point it's possible to trace the emergence of a more consciously "popular" streak of filmmaking, less chary of using Western commercial cinema as a reference point, and consequently more open, among other things, to the close-up.

(1996, Guinea, Mohamed Camara)

Given this generally spare attitude to the use of the close-up, particularly in more "artistic" African filmmaking, Mohamed Camara's 1997 film Dakan upends tradition in a number of ways. Best known as the first sub-Saharan African film on the subject of homosexuality, it's also an aesthetically daring project, with tight, sometimes claustrophobic shots not simply of faces - as well as shot/reverse shot combinations that are unusual in African cinema - but also extreme close-ups on body parts: an eye, a nose, lips, often enhancing the film's fraught atmosphere (unfortunately, given the difficulty of finding a copy of the film there are few images to illustrate this). In many ways, Dakan hearkens back to the work of the great Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty, whose work can't easily be squeezed into any particular tradition, and who makes startling use of close-ups on faces, hands and inanimate objects in his 1973 film Touki-Bouki, another film with moments of intense sensuality, a rarity in sub-Saharan African filmmaking.

(1973, Senegal, Djibril Diop Mambéty)

Most recently, Abderrahmane Sissako has developed his own unique aesthetic: another filmmaker trained in the Soviet Union, his films combine languid observation in long and medium shot - conversations often feature both speakers rather than switching back and forth - with prolonged close-ups, whether he is filming an unfortunate parade of people attempting to use the unreliable village telephone in his wonderful 1998 La Vie sur terre or when holding the camera, to mesmerizing effect, on the witnesses who take the stand, or the locals who move in the same orbit, in his more recent Bamako.

(In addition to those critics whose work is cited above, I'm indebted to work by Jonathan Haynes, Roy Armes, and Françoise Pfaff).

Thank You For Smoking

2005, US, directed by Jason Reitman

Jason Reitman's adaptation of Christopher Buckley's novel is a broad, and often very funny, satire of both the tobacco industry and the spin doctors who do such sterling work on the industry's behalf. It's not clear, though, whether the complete lack of smoking onscreen is part of the joke, or further conformity with current Hollywood (double?) standards; there's certainly no reluctance to show drinking and guns (the central character, Nick Naylor, pow-wows weekly with his counterparts in those industries).

Aaron Eckhart is perfectly cast as Nick, the ideal pitchman for the kinds of moral equivocations so dear to Big Tobacco. Even in those films where Eckhart plays an out-and-out cad, there's an aspect of his character that's insistently attractive. Director Neil LaBute exploited this quality to particularly good effect in his début film, In the Company of Men, though Eckhart's first opportunity to really charm an audience came with a supporting turn in Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich. Here, he deploys his full wattage on behalf of an unreasonable cause and yet starts to make the viewer feel that it would be even more unreasonable to even think of disagreeing with him. Reitman has surrounded Eckhart with a top-notch supporting cast: J.K. Simmons and Robert Duvall, among others, are especially good, but Rob Lowe has a standout sequence as a Hollywood super-agent; his meeting of minds with Nick is a joy to behold.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Shaolin Soccer

2001, Hong Kong, directed by Stephen Chow

Shaolin Soccer is built on spectacle rather than tight plotting, with Stephen Chow using digital effects to give a new spin (in every sense) to the traditional kung fu film. As in previous generations of martial arts films, the key here is the big "fight" scenes rather than the sometimes less-than-fully-coherent filler material, which is scattershot and, not incidentally, often very amusing. Much of this material disappears in the heavily edited American version of the film, which loses in charm much more than it gains in streamlined narration. There's a fine wit at work throughout the film, playing with the traditions of martial arts films in affectionate ways, whether it's the goalkeeper who channels the spirit of Bruce Lee or the characters who, when confronted with another multi-talented team, are convinced the trickery must be the result of "wires".

Like Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Chow is a great connoisseur of oddball faces: there's quite a gallery of unusual physiognomies on display here, with the camera often just inches from the visages in question. Those more naturally cartoonish elements are often more successful than some of the CGI effects, which are less than seamlessly integrated with the "real" action, seeming to occupy different physical spaces (similarly, the CGI crowds at the soccer matches are devoid of atmosphere). Beyond all of the trickery, though, is a concern with those who are being left behind in a modern, upwardly mobile society; there's a surprisingly serious core to the portrait of the soccer players in bustling Shanghai, and the final sequence makes their triumph the more satisfying.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Les Poupées russes

2005, France/UK, directed by Cédric Klapisch

Like Cédric Klapisch's previous L'Auberge espagnole, of which this is a continuation, Les Poupées russes is an attempt to tell a truly European rather than purely national story (Michael Haneke's efforts in this direction are perhaps the strongest to date, but Klapisch is carving out an interesting niche). While the first film took a scenario familiar to many a young European, that of a year abroad in a polyglot setting, the follow-up spends most of its time traversing the English Channel between London and Paris, with an excursion to Russia, and a confrontation with a different aspect of the broader Europe - though St Petersburg is arguably the "acceptable" face or Russia from the Western European perspective. The notion of being a citizen of Europe rather than of one specific country is celebrated here, with those (generally young) citizens accepting the challenges of multiple languages and constant movement.

As in the first film, plot often takes a back seat to Klapisch's instincts to give his very personable cast free rein: the overall narrative shape is less important than the individual incidents. For the most part, the strategy works well enough, though it does tend to mean that the film's central character, Xavier (Romain Duris), is subjected to rather more incident than seems credible. There's also a sense that Xavier is a tremendously fortunate young man who doesn't appreciate that good fortune, and the film's rushed progress leaves little time to reflect on his confused position; in that, Klapisch is fortunate to have an actor of Duris's magnetism, who is capable of ensuring that we care about the character even when he behaves, at times, like a cad.

It's hard to hold this structural weakness against Klapisch given his sure hand with the individual vignettes, however. He's careful to ensure that each of his key characters has a moment to shine: Audrey Tautou is generally best with gamine roles, but she has a moment of real fire here that's quite startling, while Kevin Bishop has a lovely sequence wherein he narrates an encounter with the love of his life. Klapisch has fun, too, with the visual aspects of his story, whether recounting one young woman's rather sad love life as though it were a fairytale, or a running joke that spoofs - with eerie accuracy - French TV romances.


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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