Saturday, May 31, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

2008, US, directed by Steven Spielberg

The fourth Indiana Jones adventure starts out rather well: a thrilling drag-racing scene on an isolated Nevada highway sets the 1950s tone very effectively, while it's nice that the filmmakers acknowledge up front, shortly thereafter, that their leading man has added at least a few years even if he's still able to throw a punch when called on (Harrison Ford looks suitably grizzled at times). The drag-racing scene and the great set piece that follows, in a vast military warehouse, showcase Spielberg's gift for clear, action-filled storytelling: these sequences are viscerally exciting but also contribute much to the narrative, establishing Indy's return and the identities and abilities of the various bad guys that will drive the tale forward, while there's also an agreeably spooky edge to the mysteriously magnetized box that's at the centre of events.

Spielberg blows hot and cold, however. While there are other passages that are equally satisfying, such as the section that introduces a new sidekick, Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), and which includes another memorable chase scene, by contrast the sequence with a nuclear blast ultimately seems like an afterthought - the implications of both nuclear testing and 1950s Communist witch-hunts aren't given any satisfying follow-through - while the film eventually spirals over the top into special-effects overload, leaving the actors at sea. The action moves along so swiftly in the later sequences that the characters have no time to grow together: they're on the same page only because they're in the teeth of adversity, since they haven't had the chance to exchange more than a few sentences (the manner in which the film throws a "big revelation" into a scene fraught with danger is symptomatic of this, even if it also happens to be rather amusing).

The film's most enjoyable when it evokes both its own past glories - with nods to the first and third films especially, including a series of jokes that involve the much-missed Denholm Elliott's character, Marcus Brody - and the kinds of movies that inspired Spielberg and George Lucas in the first place: old-time serials that chronicled outlandish feats of derring-do but also the great action films of the 1930s. There's a wonderful scene late on where LaBeouf simultaneously channels Errol Flynn and Tarzan, which gives a sense of the light touch that could have been sprinkled more liberally through the film. That such scenes also refer back to films which were much less overblown and cluttered is perhaps a lesson to which Spielberg and company might have paid more careful attention.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

2007, US, directed by Jon Turteltaub

The first National Treasure film was tremendous fun, an unexpectedly fluent updating of the Indiana Jones series for the digital age, with a little more emphasis on codes and books and a little less on action heroics, with some enjoyable inter-character banter. The second film, unfortunately, feels like a pallid photocopy of everything that made the first installment so entertaining, while the references to other films - from All the President's Men in the Library of Congress scenes to North by Northwest in the big finale at Mount Rushmore - only underline that this is a weak concoction.

The biggest problem is that despite the frenetic, country-hopping plot - the film almost never sits still, and the one sequence where two characters have a conversation on a couch is fraught with danger - the plot seems entirely too predictable. Early on it becomes obvious that the characters will easily wriggle out of whatever troubles they face with little real difficulty. Somehow, the first film managed to sustain the tension - the tiny, niggling "what-if-they-don't-make-it?" voice - that's essential for this kind of thing to work (it's one of the reasons for the success of the three Pirates of the Caribbean films, also produce by Jerry Bruckheimer: unexpected outcomes aren't ruled out in advance).

While the historical and quasi-historical elements of the plot are reasonably absorbing, and the breakneck pacing disguises the fact that the film doesn't do a great job of connecting the dots (not that this is really the point), the film's absurdities, especially the relationship between good guys and bad guys, eventually collapse under their own weight. As the film progresses, Nicolas Cage and his team seem to conveniently forget that their nemesis has used very real guns against them, while the fact that there can be a bullet-strewn chase sequence in London (great fun, incidentally, and perhaps the film's best set-piece) with no apparent police interference stretches credibility just a little further than it's willing to go, even for a treasure-hunting tale. It's a pity, too, that the banter of the first film, especially between Cage's Ben Gates and his sidekick Riley (Justin Bartha) is much more muted here, even if Helen Mirren adds an agreeable spikiness to proceedings, especially in her first two scenes.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


2007, US, directed by Jason Reitman

After the amusing opening credits (accompanied by a song that's reminiscent of the opening to Jason Reitman's previous film, Thank You For Smoking), the first fifteen minutes of Juno put you through the pop-culture wringer. The smart-aleck comments and hipster references come thick and fast, with Diablo Cody's script front-loading its smarts to the point of overwriting: the teens here speak like the characters from Dawson's Creek in overdrive, and my wife turned to me, only half in jest, to wonder whether we had any hope of understanding the movie.
Thankfully the frantic pacing of the one-liners lets up after the introduction, letting the viewer breathe and allowing the characters to emerge from behind the torrent of words: there are even magical moments of silence, like the moment when Juno's best friend, Paulie (played by Michael Sera) discovers that their night of passion together has resulted in a pregnancy. The transformation of Sera's face in the aftermath of this revelation is quite remarkable, his features speaking as eloquently as any snappy line of dialogue. It's also one of the few moments where you get a sense of a character grappling with the depths of a teen pregnancy; for the most part, the film isn't all that interested in raw realism, and conflicts are resolved in remarkably reasonable fashion throughout.

As the film progresses, the purpose of Juno's near-constant stream of patter emerges, casting the opening in a new light: she uses the chatter as a carapace to cover her nerves and deep sense of uncertainty about herself, both before and after the discovery that she's pregnant. Later in the film, she encounters someone else who behaves the same way: when he's unmasked in front of Juno she sees the deception for what it is, and prompts what's perhaps her first truly adult decision, made with a new wisdom.

Though the script eventually grew on me, Juno's greatest strength is its cast, from Ellen Page in the title role - she's on the screen almost the entire film, and she creates an utterly convincing teen portrait - through Michael Cera (the film jumps up a notch every moment he's on the screen), JK Simmons, and Jennifer Garner, who reveals a striking vulnerability in one lovely moment that gives new depth to her character.

Monday, May 19, 2008

27 Dresses

2008, US, directed by Anne Fletcher

I don't expect a whole lot of innovation from a Hollywood romantic comedy: just like in any fairy tale, there's a template for success, and if you tweak it too much it's no longer a romantic comedy. For the most part, the destination isn't in any real doubt, so the pleasures are in the diversions along the way: the witty zingers, the big set-pieces and especially the great Hollywood character actors that fill in the roles of best friends, bosses, hairdressers and so forth (the one time I went to LA, I had more fun spotting those people than looking for the big stars).

The problem with 27 Dresses is that the snappy lines are too few and far between, and the sidekick roles are generally thankless (especially Judy Greer's role as the best office pal). For that matter, Katherine Heigl's central role isn't too rewarding, either: I think Heigl's a charming performer, but she's given very little to do here beyond running around frantically and dancing through the inevitable musical montages. Even by the standards of the genre, the set-up is also awfully hard to believe in: the film does little to portray Heigl as having the kind of social life that would lead her to be involved in 27 weddings, since she's so busy doing everything for her allegedly wonderful boss.

It's also hard to buy into the idea that Heigl is likely to be eclipsed by her pretty and pretty vacant younger sister, given her smarts and apparently ability to charm her way into any wedding party, but again, that's what we're asked to swallow (if Malin Akerman's performance was any more like Cameron Diaz's turn in In Her Shoes there would be a decent case for copyright infringement, though that's probably not Akerman's fault). I'd love to see Heigl break out of a short run of rather put-upon women and take on a brassier lead; she can carry much better movies than this one.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Japanese Story

2003, Australia, directed by Sue Brooks

Like so many films set in the Australian outback, Japanese Story casts the wilderness as an unpredictable and challenging character in its own right, a vast expanse not to be taken lightly - and sometimes even a malevolent presence (it's a pattern that dates back at least to Picnic at Hanging Rock). There's a mystery in the depiction of the landscape from the film's opening credits, with aerial shots finding strange patterns and unexpected formations, emphasizing the alien nature of the expanse. The different responses to that space underline the kinds of cultural differences that are central to Sue Brooks's film.

Sandy, her Australian protagonist - played by Toni Collette, who is almost never off the screen - is a blunt-spoken woman who seems well-prepared for whatever the outback might throw at her, but she's essentially at the service of a Japanese businessman, Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima) who has his own distinct agenda, and the power dynamic compels her initially to follow his sometimes peremptory instructions.

The first part of the film mines the confrontation between the two for much humour at Sandy's expense, given her unerring tendency to trample on convention, a problem exacerbated by her annoyance at what she (correctly) perceives to be an insulting babysitting job; there's an especially funny running joke about business cards, which perplexes Sandy. The inevitable human connection that subsequently develops between these two people when they're shut together in a four-wheeled box is hard-won given the ill-will that has preceded it, but the transition also seems both natural and convincing, born of fellow-feeling in the face of the elements. Although the script perhaps telegraphs its emotions a little too much, there's also the sense that the two give each other a different way of looking at the landscape where their story takes place.

For a film that is so deeply concerned with the imaginative relationship to the landscape, it's striking that the Aboriginal population is almost completely absent, except in the form of a rock drawing and, later, a subordinate employee in a dusty outback town. At times, these two outsiders run the risk of romanticising their setting, while the camera's view of Hiromitsu occasionally feels as though there's a certain exoticization at work; however, there's also an unexpected and refreshing sexual candour, too, with a distinctly female gaze, that's more central to the film's purpose.

That candour is matched by the emotional rawness that follows an unexpected plot turn - Collette navigates the transition quite remarkably, her face conveying the depths of what we are seeing, and there's an intense physicality to her work that's draining to watch. The film swings almost completely on its axis during these scenes, revealing a frightening power in both the land and the human connection that's hitherto lurked just beneath the surface. The final sequences, scored with a musical refrain that lingers long after the film has concluded, reveal Sandy as far more complex than even she has imagined herself to be, and they carry with them a rich sense of another story about to begin.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Across the Pacific

1942, US, directed by John Huston (with Vincent Sherman)

Across the Pacific reunites director John Huston with a good portion of the cast of his first film, The Maltese Falcon, with Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet and Mary Astor on board a ship which makes the journey down the east coast of the US to the Panama Canal. Huston also makes use of the constantly shifting loyalties of his earlier film, where we're never quite sure who is fighting on which side, and when; everyone in the cast seems to have something to hide, and as the film moves towards its climax the revelations come thick and fast.
While there's much of the hard-bitten tone of The Maltese Falcon in the interactions between Bogart and Greenstreet - Bogart's character comes across as a cynical operator, available to the highest bidder, and blunt about what he wants - the scenes between Astor and Bogart are altogether different. There's banter here that wouldn't feel out of place in conversations between Katharine Hepburn and, well, anyone - Cary Grant, James Stewart, Spencer Tracy to name a few - and Bogart seems to enjoy the bang-bang give-and-take, though it has little of the more memorable depth of his exchanges with, say, Lauren Bacall.

The film never actually makes it to the Pacific at all, never mind across that particular ocean, with the conclusion, which feels like a 1940s template for a Bond film - these sequences were directed by Vincent Sherman after Huston headed off to war service - taking place on a plantation in Panama. The wartime flag-waving message is loud and clear in the final images, and the stakes are notably higher than in Bogart's earlier wartime effort All Through the Night, where the comic tone was easier to sustain when it was still mostly someone else's war.

Though much of the film takes place on a fairly cramped boat, Huston doesn't, to my mind, make full use of the claustrophobic potential of the setting, which often has the feel of a rather jolly cruise. Instead, the most atmospheric sequences in the film are in Panama's Japanese section, when Bogart drops into a movie-theatre for Japanese patrons: there's a wonderful escape scene behind the big screen, with the film projecting behind the action, while the entire Japanese quarter set is a fine example of Hollywood back-lot exoticism. Huston's stylistic skills also emerge in shot choices like those which focus on a hand counting out money, or Bogart's hand ominously emerging from the dark after a fight scene, or a telephone that lies on the ground in the aftermath of a death - an echo of the shot in The Maltese Falcon where Sam hears of the death of his partner.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On

1987, Japan, directed by Kazuo Hara

Kazuo Hara's documentary, his third feature, focuses on the extraordinary figure of Kenzo Okuzaki, a veteran of the Second World War who transformed himself into a one-man social movement committed to confronting post-war taboos that restrict discussion of Japan's role in the conflict, and more particularly the actions of the Emperor and military establishment. Indeed, Okuzaki appears to be unbound by almost all standard social conventions, having served time for murder years before the events chronicled in the film, and he is quick to resort to violence when it feels this to be necessary. Despite this, he's acutely aware that he is transgressing norms: he calls the police himself after one outburst and is almost absurdly polite in his dealings with various officers of the law yet does not rein himself in on subsequent occasions.

Hara gives us only the most fragmentary of information about Okuzaki in the film itself, following his activities but almost never supplying supplementary details (for that, it's very useful to turn to Jeffrey and Kenneth Ruoff's excellent short book about the film).* The film opens with one of Okuzaki's apparently quixotic enterprises - he drives around Tokyo broadcasting messages from a loud-hailer on his van, and is halted by police - and it's for the viewer to slowly assemble a story as we continue to follow him through Japan, where he confronts a variety of men who, years before, were complicit in, or at least aware of, a particular wartime scandal that's at the core of Okuzaki's interests.

Although Hara himself never appears onscreen, Okuzaki's actions are so intrusive - kicking an old man around, involving his own wife in acts of deception - that the film poses intriguing, and unresolved, questions about the filmmaker's own responsibility in setting at least some of the specific events in motion (although the actual actions are less troubling, the film raises some of the same issues of journalistic and human responsibility that swirled around Kevin Carter's famous - infamous? - photograph of a starving Sudanese girl apparently being stalked by a vulture). 

* Jeffrey and Kenneth Ruoff, The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On, Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 1998.

Chris Cagle hosted a discussion of the film at the Film of the Month Club; the film was selected and introduced by Girish Shambu.

The Visitor

2008, US, directed by Thomas McCarthy

Although the film provides an obvious interpretation, there are many ways to construe the eponymous visitor: as one of several guests, not all of them invited, in a New York apartment; as a visitor to the US; even as a visitor to one's own life when one becomes unmoored in the aftermath of a trauma. The story concerns a recently widowed academic, still at sea (and perhaps not only because of his grief), and his encounter with a young couple, both illegal immigrants.

While other films have tackled the world of illegal migrants with great skill - Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things is a fine recent example of the power dynamics that exist in so many immigant stories - Thomas McCarthy's film unfortunately feels extremely obvious (an example: the lead character's specialty is the economics of the developing world). As soon as the central characters meet, it's not hard to foresee the manner in which the grieving Walter (Richard Jenkins) is brought out of his shell by a happy-go-lucky, Syrian drummer (and his less relaxed Senegalese girlfriend): somewhere, Edward Said is rolling in his grave.

While that's by no means the only thread to the story, it's hard not to feel that the further developments, mostly regarding the immigration system, reinforce the liberal sense of the current US political direction without acknowledging that many of the systemic problems may have (substantially and even severely)worsened since 2001 but were hardly unknown prior to that date. At the show I attended, a woman yelled out, "Don't forget to vote next fall", as if a change of party would solve the problems depicted onscreen; if only it were that simple.

In the film's defence, while there are fundamental problems with the story there are moments of tremendous warmth and humour, skilfully played by Jenkins and the much less familiar supporting faces (Hiam Abbass is especially good, capturing a character caught between aspirations for her family and blunt reality), which, scene by scene, feel strikingly real and unforced.


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States