Thursday, February 28, 2008

Call of the Wild

2007, US, directed by Ron Lamothe

Ron Lamothe's documentary traces the path followed by Christopher McCandless, the young man who died in the Alaskan wilderness after a peripatetic journey across America in 1990-1992. McCandless became the subject of Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild (filmed by Sean Penn in 2007), but this is a much more personal version of the story. Lamothe follows essentially the same route that McCandless took, in summer 2006, only Lamothe has a video camera in hand for his journey. He occasionally links up with friends for part of the route before he plunges completely into McCandless's world and resolves to hitch his way across a large section of the US.

Lamothe's film aims to illuminate McCandless's specific journey but also the ideas that inspired him and other members of what Lamothe views as the restless Generation X (Lamothe, a contemporary of McCandless's, sees his own itchy feet against this background, and his film interweaves his own experiences - travelling across Africa as a 22-year-old, or his home life in Massachusetts - with those of his subject).

Lamothe's a trained historian, and to his credit he doesn't simply take his thesis and run with it: he gives time to those with contrary views, including a college friend who thinks the whole "Generation X" designation is bunk, before arriving at his conclusions. He also probes the details of the McCandless story to form a more nuanced picture of the end of McCandless's life, one that contradicts the conclusions of the Krakauer book (and Penn film), while he exposes an extraordinary gap in the original investigation (by both police and journalists) that casts McCandless in a subtly different light, whether you view him as a fool or a romantic hero (the Alaskans interviewed seem to uniformly take the former view, often expressed in pugnacious terms).

Lamothe runs into some of the same people McCandless encountered, but also forms brief on-the-road friendships of his own (he has a knack for hitching rides from some extraordinary characters). This blend of McCandless's tale with that of the teller is generally very effective: it draws the viewer right into the story, giving a vivid sense of the charms of life on the road, and the exceptional diversity of the American population's preoccupations. The film doesn't quite master the arguments about Generation X - Lamothe perhaps isn't quite sure what they are, beyond having a sense that something was different - but his film is an important counterpoint to the more mainstream telling of the McCandless tale, which was overdue for a corrective.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

2007, UK/USA, directed by David Yates

While J.K. Rowling's source novels have gotten significantly longer as the series progresses, overflowing with plot, the fifth of the Harry Potter films is twenty minutes shorter than its predecessor. It's a welcome development: as the filmmakers become more comfortable with the material, they seem less beholden to Rowling's work, and more concerned to craft a version of the books that works onscreen.
Inevitably, this means that large swathes of incident from the book are abandoned - Harry's romance is relegated to a footnote - and many smaller set-pieces are entirely omitted. The film feels much more coherent as a consequence, even if it loses perhaps some of the observational character that director Mike Newell brought to the fourth installment. Near the end, the events do seem a little overly compressed - it's hard to understand how the young wizards break in to an apparently well-guarded place so easily, for instance - but for the most part the action moves on coherently.
The key new face this time around is Imelda Staunton, as a new teacher and Ministry of Magic plant; she does a remarkable job of straddling a fine line between menace and high-pitched ridicule, taking what seems like an entirely light-hearted assignment and giving it considerable depth. As the oddball Luna Lovegood, the Irish newcomer Evanna Lynch is excellent, while Helena Bonham-Carter energetically channels the work of her offscreen partner Tim Burton as the blood-curdling Bellatrix Lestrange.
Director David Yates does a particularly good job of marrying the effects work to the live action: while that's presumably also a testament to advances in film technology since the first film, he uses effects in a way that enhances the action rather than distracting from it, and for the most part the effects work seems to belong to the same plane as the real actors, making it that much more convincing.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


2005, US, directed by Joss Whedon

There can't be too many other films in the same category as Serenity, that is, the subset of movies based on TV shows that were cancelled after less than a dozen episodes were screened. If the special features on the DVD are to be believed, the existence of Serenity is testament, among other things, to the development of an extremely passionate online fanbase after Firefly, the original TV show, was released on DVD (complete with the episodes that were completed but never broadcast) - too late for the show, but evidence of enough interest to justify greenlighting a motion picture.

Like most of Joss Whedon's projects, Serenity is a genre-blend, mixing the spaceship drama with the further fringes of the wild West, although the western themes are more obvious in the TV series (signalled both by the choice of episode plots and the opening song, which isn't used in the film). The film simply picks up from the end of the final episode of the show, which means it has to do some nifty plot contortions at times, but has the nice advantage of treating its audience like informed consumers (first-timers may be confused by some of the jokes, and perhaps some of the back-story, which is inevitably given more depth on the small screen).

Whedon steers towards the darker edges of the TV plotlines, eliding some of the week-to-week character humour in favour of a confrontation with some of his bigger themes - the central discovery of the film's plot is grim indeed - but he's careful to ensure that each of his main characters (there are nine in all) has at least a scene or two to shine. Given the restrictions imposed by his own decision not to re-tread the TV series' plot in condensed form, he does a fine job of creating a narrative line, tying up loose ends in generally satisfying fashion, and ensuring that the characters remain true to themselves (one advantage, perhaps, of an early TV death). The fine TV cast all return for the film, and their chemistry together is tremendous: despite the characters' frequent differences of opinion, there's a strong sense of a shared bond, while the spaceship itself becomes an important inanimate cast member, a surprisingly cosy refuge from a universe that's often brutal.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

White Lightning

1973, US, directed by Joseph Sargent

In my local movie theatre, the eye-catching original poster for White Lightning hangs in a glass case, mostly surrounded by theatre memorabilia; I've no idea why that particular poster has survived, since there are no others of similar vintage. I've often thought that I should check out the original film, without ever following through, but Larry Aydlette's mammoth and hugely entertaining February 2008 Burt-a-Thon finally prodded me into action.

The White Lightning poster promises plenty of action: cars, guns, and wild women. It's unexpected, then, when the film opens on a somber note on an Arkansas lake, the tone far more Deliverance than Smokey and the Bandit, in terms of Burt Reynolds's other movies. Out on that lake, a dreadful crime sets the plot in motion. The crime carries an echo of the violence explored, however contentiously, in Mississippi Burning: while there's not an explicit racial element at work in these atmospheric early scenes, we subsequently learn that the local sheriff, who rules the county as his fiefdom, isn't too impressed by college kids (variously dismissed as "protestors" and "hippies") coming into town to "give our coloreds" the vote. Though the civil rights backdrop is explicitly evoked in such references, black characters are rarely present onscreen; there's only one meaningful exchange with a black character, though it does serve to underline the fact that Gator McKlusky (Burt Reynolds), hasn't been soured by the prejudices of those around him.

In that, Gator seems to have inherited the tolerance of his father, who is pre-occupied not with issues of race but those of class, beset as he is with the crushing weight of work on his small farm. The scenes where Gator returns home are among the strongest in the film, his elderly parents fanning themselves in the punishing Arkansas summer as they try to pick up the pieces of their lives in the aftermath of their younger son, Donnie. These characters - like many of the down-at-heel moonshiners we subsequently encounter - are all subject to the whim of someone like the sheriff, in cahoots with the worst of the local criminal fraternity, and determined to preserve the status quo.

As the film unspools, this vein of social commentary isn't always sustained, given the need to provide the kind of thrills and spills promised by that poster, with the tone occasionally wobbling between sober drama and good-old-boy backroad tyre-squealing spectacle. To its credit, though, when dealing with Sheriff J.C. Connors (superbly played by Ned Beatty), director Joseph Sargent never yields to the temptation to caricature a man who behaves as though he himself is subject to no law, and the film is blunt about the tactics Connors either employs or condones.

Sargent is exceptionally good at capturing the details of the film's broiling environment, before the ubiquity of air conditioning; clothes are stained, brows are sweat-beaded, and there's a glaze of heat exhaustion on many of the characters. It's no wonder such films were so successful with Southern drive-in audiences in particular, since they actually provide an exerience with which the audience can directly identify, unlike the often sanitized spectacle of backlot Hollywood movie-making. As Gator McKlusky - my favourite character name from his car crash years - Reynolds delivers an excellent performance, credible both behind the wheel or throwing a punch, but also in conveying the complex motivations of a man whose options have been restricted by poverty and powerlessness. There's a poignant scene where Gator makes smalltalk with a group of college kids - from the same school as his dead brother - that feels like a man yearning for a different outcome for his own life, and that perfectly underlines the surprising depth of the film.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Back to the Future Part III

1990, US, directed by Robert Zemeckis

For the final part of the Back to the Future trilogy, Robert Zemeckis and his scriptwriter Bob Gale return to the sources, finding again the seam of wit that animated the original film, and plundering the rich storehouse of the western to beguiling effect. It's clear that the filmmakers are enjoying themselves, and the re-workings of scenes from the previous installments have a freshness this time around which sometimes seems missing from the rather more mechanical - though also quite deliberately darker - second episode. Sequences such as that which confronts Marty with his Irish forebears, or the bit with a scale model re-creation of the plan to send Marty back home, re-visit old haunts from the first film with enough wit and skill to ensure that they seem worthwhile trips down memory lane.

When he's returned to 1885 near the beginning of the film, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) himself reaches into the pop culture trove - so well employed throughout the films, whether in the references to Jerry Lewis, Chuck Berry or sci-fi magazines - to give himself a western persona, employing the as-yet-unused moniker Clint Eastwood, only to find that the locals think it's a hearty joke rather than a tough-guy appellation. The real local tough is Biff Tannen's forebear Griff; again, Thomas F. Wilson does a fine job creating a new character while also ensuring that the links with the other members of the Tannen clan are clear (it's interesting, too, to see how the filmmakers find the common link between the generic characters of the bad seed cowboy and the juvenile delinquent of the 1950s).

The film also inserts some of the sweet romanticism that characterized the1955 segments of the original film, giving Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd, manic as ever) a love interest. Though Mary Steenburgen is a welcome addition, it doesn't really excuse the fact that Marty's own girlfriend is abandoned on a porch for two entire movies; inherited from the resolution of the first part, the girlfriend is treated as a plot inconvenience that the filmmakers clearly didn't want to grapple with, perhaps because they felt it would upset the Marty/Doc dynamic that is so central to the films' success. Though Marty and the Doc have to contend with the evil intentions of Griff Tannen, unlike in the downbeat second installment there's rarely a sense of real menace, not least because the confrontations here always have a comic undercurrent; the whole enterprise has a sunnier feel that has little to do with the authentic old west - even though the filmmakers play with the 1950s spin on tales of that west - and much to do with old-fashioned rousing entertainment.

Back to the Future Part II

1989, US, directed by Robert Zemeckis

In a kind of Lord of the Rings precursor, the second and third parts of the Back to the Future series were shot back-to-back, and released just six months apart. Given that the middle segment actually includes a trailer for Part III before the end credits roll, thus providing hints of a story beyond the bounds of this one, it inevitably has an unfinished feel, an episode in a larger whole rather than a self-contained tale. In the age of DVD it's easy enough to watch the two films in sequence, but when this portion was first served up the conclusion seemed especially unsatifying, like one of those "To be continued..." cards at the end of a TV show - except that the wait for the wrap-up was much longer than a week.

The first film in the trilogy is one of the great post-1980 Hollywood films, an entertainment constructed by masters of the craft, with a series of memorable set-pieces and a witty script. Here director Robert Zemeckis and his screenwriter Bob Gale enjoy creating a vision of 2015 as consciously hokey as their previous take on 1955 - channelling 1950s sci-fi magazines' dreams of what the future might look like - but watching the film again, I was put in mind of the recent discussion between David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson on Zemeckis's 2007 film, Beowulf, and specifically Bordwell's comment that since the end of his collaboration with Bob Gale, Zemeckis has set himself ever greater technical challenges rather than storytelling goals. Though the two work together here, some of the special effects gimmicks, particularly the multiple personae of Michael J. Fox, feel like ideas that don't bring much to the story (by contrast, the challenge of dealing with some cast changes cast is fairly seamless).

Similarly, the film occasionally feels over-contorted, as if it's trying just a little too hard to reproduce the iconic sequences of the first film - from different angles - rather than letting a new story breathe more fully. Still, the film's vision of alternate presents in particular is compelling and even vaguely unsettling, and Biff Tannen's spectacularly tacky adult self-glorification has elements of both Vegas and Tony Montana; Thomas F. Wilson does an excellent job of charting the character's journey from mean-spirited town bully to dangerously powerful man. The wit that made the first film so memorable is also present here, illuminating the scenes where we see events from a new perspective but also breathing life into the film's version of 2015, whether in the self-fitting clothes - achieved by virtue of ingenious effects - or the sometimes bizarre electronic devices that have proliferated in the homes of the future.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

On the Edge

2001, Ireland, directed by John Carney

Despite its unusual setting in a mental institution, John Carney's pre-Once feature is a considerably more conventional film than his quasi-musical hit, although On the Edge carefully skirts post-One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest cliches, with this particular institution altogether more benevolent. Even so, the film often feels too indebted to other movies to fully spread its wings.

On the Edge's most obvious forebears are Danny Boyle's Trainspotting, with its hyperactive opening and cocksure lead character (who is then confronted with challenges that force him to grow up), and Neil Jordan's darkly humorous The Butcher Boy, which provides a shade of black reflection on the complex and sometimes violent undercurrents that lurk in Irish family life (and a nice line in raw humour).

That's not to say that the film doesn't cohere: even when channelling Trainspotting in the early going, Carney is sufficiently confident as a filmmaker to carry the viewer along for the ride: a sequence set in the Wicklow mountains is particularly eye-catching, with spectacular overhead shots and an unsettling conclusion. In other scenes, the constantly moving camera is more of a distraction than necessary (the unexpected crane shots near the end of the otherwise pared-down Once are perhaps born of the same impulses).

The camerawork sometimes obscures the actors, too, which is a pity since they're generally very strong. Stephen Rea, who has played so many unpredictable parts, here gets the chance to play it straight and buttoned-down, allowing the younger actors, particularly Cillian Murphy, to make most of the running. It's not entirely clear why two young, and fairly obscure, American actors were used in the film, but Jonathan Jackson is charming (even with a sometimes oddball Northern Irish accent). Anna Manahan, better known as a stage actress, has a nice bit as one of the older inmates; by contrast Gerard McSorley, usually such a powerful presence, has an inexplicably small and wordless part.

The film sometimes stumbles in negotiating the transitions from funny to serious, though as the story progresses two of the most powerful sequences creep up almost unannounced, emerging at unexpected moments; it's notable that these scenes are visually far calmer, allowing the script and the actors to do their work. It's not that hard to guess the direction the plot will take - the film telegraphs one development particularly obviously - but the conclusion introduces a convincing element of maturity to the lead character, with Cillian Murphy playing the scene with a tenderness that his character has just learned.

Carney's background is as a musician, and as well as supplying some of the music he has assembled a tremendous soundtrack (for a small film, the rights costs must have been a major budgetary consideration). Occasionally, the musical backdrop seems overly insistent, rather than stitched into the fabric of the film, but when the sound and images work together, as in a wonderful sequence set to 'Singin' in the Rain', the film lifts off.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Blissfully Yours

2002, Thailand/France, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Apichatpong Weerasethakul said, while making his first feature, that it would just be a 'sweet romance', with 'no politics', but the dreamy atmosphere of the film's second hour comes across in many ways as a self-protecting response to the country's blunt political and economic realities as it emerged from the crisis of the late 1990s. Like his previous feature, the semi-documentary Mysterious Object at Noon, this film's opening paints a picture of a troubled country, where money and prices are at the forefront of everyday life. The usual courtesies are put aside in favour of requesting immediate payment, for no-one -- doctor or factory colleague -- can afford to extend credit, while careless use of another's possessions quickly triggers anger.
Thailand's complex links with its neighbours, as well as its own sometimes fraught ethnic relations, are also an important presence in the film, particularly as the film is set in the north of the country, near the border with Burma/Myanmar. After all, one of the characters is an illegal immigrant from over that border, and much of the opening segment of the film is taken up with the problem of his lack of an identity card. The characters use various stratagems to ensure his illegal status is not discovered, pretending he's a distant relative and even claiming that the man cannot speak. Similarly, when a motorbike is stolen in the forest, a character immediately assumes that the thief is a member of the much-maligned Karen ethnic group.

With all this in mind, it's no surprise that the characters seek out a place to escape from their world, if only for a few hours, finding an idyll in the woods to withdraw and recuperate from the demands of work and town life. The riverbank where they spend their time seems like the traditional place of renewal, where frayed connections can be repaired - particularly between the young Roong and her older colleague Orn. However, while the location allows for some respite, Orn's pain seems to run too deep to be easily washed away; Weerasethakul uses the symbolism of the river without simplifying the realities that poke through the surface of his film.

The river/forest sequences are an extraordinarily sensual experience, deeply focused on textures and sounds (the buzzing of insects in particular) and on an intense awareness of the surrounds. The camera lingers over shots of feet dangling in the water or Roong's face as she falls asleep, lulled by the warmth and peace of the location, undisturbed by a fly that alights on her in a nice bit of filmmaking serendipity. It's a seductive vision that is all the more poignant for the viewer's awareness of its inevitable temporary nature.


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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