Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Come Back. Come Back To Me.

Oh, what a nice surprise it is to see Brenda Belthyn turn up in a film unexpectedly. I had no idea she was in Atonement, and when I saw her in the kitchen so early in the film I nearly wet myself. Sadly, her role was tiny. Sadly.

Atonement, director Joe Wright's second collaboration with Keira Knightley after Pride And Prejudice, is based on the best-selling and acclaimed novel of the same name by Ian McEwan. Set in the lead up to and then during the second world war, it is ultimately the story of Cecilia (Knightley), a young and beautiful daughter of a wealthy family, and her interrupted love affair with Robbie (James McAvoy), the son of a servant who died and has been almost adopted by Cecilia's family. All of this is told through the eyes of Cecilia's younger sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan in her younger incarnation, Romola Garai later in the film), the person responsible for the destruction of their relationship.

I must say, this dress is pretty stunning.

Briony has written a play, planning on premiering it the night she finishes using her cousins as the cast to celebrate the visit of her brother Leon (Patrick Kennedy), who is bringing with him his eligible friend Paul (Benedict Cumberbatch.) Cecilia and Robbie, meanwhile, have had a fight over a vase and are not speaking. Robbie writes a number of drafts of a letter of apology, and unfortunately puts the wrong one, a horribly crude version, in the envelope he gives to Briony to run ahead with. Upon reading it, Cecilia professes her love for Robbie, but they are interrupted in flagrante by Briony. Shortly after it is discovered their twin cousins have gone missing, apparently attempting to run away back to their parents.

All go out to search for the two in the dark, where Briony witnesses an apparent sexual attack on her remaining cousin, Lola (and is this name a reference to Nabokov's Lolita?), and as she had read Robbie's sexually explicit letter prior to delivering it to Cecilia, she convinces herself it was Robbie, whom she is in love with and angry at for spurning her. So starts the true drama in the film, with Robbie being sent off to prison and accepting an early release in return for fighting against the Nazis on the continent. Cecilia has disowned her family as soon as she could and is now working as a nurse, writing back and forth with Robbie whenever she can. Briony, perhaps as penance, also signs up to nursing school when she turns eighteen, and whilst in London seeks out Cecilia to apologise, realising what an egregious error she has made and how terribly she has treated her sister and Robbie.

I'm not a Knightley hater, but nor am I a lover, and I think she is fine here, not great, not bad, just... well, I think like Clooney, I struggle to see past Keira Knightley. Ronan is fantastic, and I have the time of day any time for McAvoy - I think he is incredibly underrated and such an extraordinary actor. Redgrave, playing the old Briony right at the end of the film, is powerful in her short time on screen, and Blethyn, despite hardly appearing, is fabulous as always. The movie is so well written, is founded in such an amazing screenplay, that it would be hard, I think, not to perform well within its bounds. 

The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey is nothing short of magical. The film looks incredible (helped by terrific production and especially costume design), and some of the feats achieved (such as that oft-cited long tracking shot through Dunkirk) are breathtaking. Almost all of the elements combine well to add to the power and beauty of the film without ever becoming a dominant force. But I do say 'almost' very deliberately. The score. The score often killed me. The inclusion of the initially diegetic typewriter as a recurring theme made me want to claw out my eyes. It was so distracting, I kept finding myself thinking about how irritating it was when I should have been immersed in the film. It totally drew me out of whatever frame of mind I was in. And it kept coming back! There were a few other diegetic elements incorporated, and after the typewriter clack I very much noticed every single one. It was eternally frustrating, and will forever taint my memory of a film that otherwise might have gone down as a memorable favourite from the last decade. But I just can't get that typewriter out of my head, every time I think of any scene or moment in the film. Clack. Clack. SHUT UP! Shame on you, Dario Marianelli. It might have been ok if used once, but all the way through was deadly. And to think it won him an Oscar. ARGH! Of course, if they hadn't been such pricks about Johnny Greenwood's There Will Be Blood score, this never would have happened. But I digress.

Despite the music, the rest of it was magnificent, magnificent enough to get 4 stars.

It's Hard To Pretend That I'm A Beautiful Rock Star.

I've always been fascinated by Atom Egoyan, purely because I really like his name. (Note for anyone who wants me to watch their films: if you have a cool name or you give your film a really cool name the chances are high that I'll tag along. Similarly for books: re A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius or Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close. Ditto music: I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too and Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not.)

However, until the other day I'd never seen one of his films. Well, not one that he directed. I believe he EPd Away From Her. Yes, he did. So I sat down and watched probably his best-known and most acclaimed film, The Sweet Hereafter.

Ian Holm plays Mitchell Stevens, a compensation lawyer who heads to a small town hoping to represent the families of a bunch of children who died in a tragic bus accident, determined that he can find that someone, somewhere was negligent either within the town council or the bus manufacture, and bring the families some money and sense of justice - and net himself a significant windfall as well, no doubt. He is both inspired and plagued somewhat by his relationship with his own daughter, a drug addict recently revealed to be HIV positive who has been in and out of rehab and seems to be constantly on the phone to him asking for help. The parallels between losing his daughter to lifestyle and the families of this town that lost almost all of their children to a patch of ice on the road is his driving motivation. He can't punish anyone for what happened to his daughter, so he is intent on exacting his revenge on behalf of other people.

In the town he is met by some initial resistance. People don't really want to keep digging away at raw wounds - they would rather try and let them heal or at least cover them up, allowing them somehow to get on with their lives. He convinces a number of them to sign on, and once he has the initial pair others follow. The bus driver Dolores (Gabrielle Rose) has been seriously injured, and appears to have loved the children like her own, is devastated by what happened. She maintains that she merely hit that patch of ice, that it was a terrible tragedy, but is persuaded that maybe, somewhere, someone negotiated a cheaper bolt resulting in something giving way that shouldn't have.

Their whole case, however, rests on two people. One of them, Billy (Bruce Greenwood) wants absolutely nothing to do with it, even threatening to beat poor Mitchell when approached. The other, Nicole (Sarah Polley - who directed Away From Her, let's not forget) is a young girl now in a wheelchair, and whom Mitchell hopes will testify that Dolores was doing 50mph exactly as she always did, driving safely, allowing for the allegation that someone else it at fault. Nicole, however, has other plans. She's not all too happy about the whole thing being dragged up, she doesn't truly believe that anyone is to blame, and she lies in her deposition, crushing the hopes for the case, in part to exact revenge on another interested party.

The film is a quiet, simple drama with some very deftly achieved moments of tension and horror. Holm and Polley stand out for their performances, though the supporting cast is equally affecting with their displays of grief and momentary glimpses of hope. Running the parallel stories of people's memories of the accident, Mitchell's story with his daughter and the present day wrangling over the lawsuit keeps each story fresh and provides for a fresh look at each story when another has its climax. Everything becomes relative. And the story also parallels the Pied Piper of Hamelin, very literally and very directly, with the notion that all of the children are led out of town, never to be seen again, with only one (in this story, Nicole) left behind, crippled and alone.

The film works beautifully and effectively. It's touching, simple and soft, not in the weight of the meaning, but in the touch applied to that meaning's extraction. A wonderful adaptation by Egoyan from the book of the same name, the film netted him two Oscar nods for Director and Adapted Screenplay. 4 stars.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010


Avatar just cracked the top spot on the global box office charts, after a little over a month in release, shifting Titanic down to number two. Check out the figures here.

I Have Been CLenching My Fucking Fists Since I Was Six Years Old.

I have a copy of this film back home in Australia, but I never watched it completely. It took me a long time to get around to watching it in the first place, and then my DVD screwed up about two thirds of the way through and I gave up, figuring I'd give it another shot a few days later, and then never putting it back on. I hadn't overly enjoyed the opening of Candy, you see, and I think I was unfavourably comparing it to Little Fish, which had come out the year and was a better film.

The Candy of the title is played by Abbie Cornish, a couple of years after her mammoth breakout with Somersault. She has met Dan, a heroin addict, a loser, played be Heath Ledger, and dives into the scene, starting off snorting and ending up arguing over needles. Deeply in love with each other they keep falling deeper and deeper into drugs, unable to keep themselves together, unable to pay rent, unable to come up with any money, stealing, begging off family, prostituting themselves, anything they can to get one more hit. Candy gets pregnant and they decide the have to stop, preparing themselves and locking themselves in their room, telling their friends not to answer their calls, falling to pieces in scenes reminiscent of what Ewan McGregor goes through in Trainspotting a decade earlier. When Candy miscarries the two fall apart even more, deciding on a move to the country and a stint on methadone to try and get themselves clean.

It all starts off ok, they're distraught but they're together and trying to rebuild something new and clean together, but Candy quickly starts a fling with a neighbour, before descending into madness, writing their life story in paints and crayons all over the walls of the house before finding herself in an institution. After rehab she tracks Dan down, but Dan doesn't want to drag her back into his world and knows their relationship was only ever functional with drugs, so lets her go.

This, I've decided, is my favourite Cornish role. She starts it with the same problems as I have with her in most other films, but her breakdown towards the end, her screaming match with her mother in the country after a ruined lunch, showed me depth I haven't really seen in her. I was more impressed than I expected to be. Ledger was solid if not exemplary, and I think he just went from strength to strength over the last couple of years of his life, becoming something truly sensational. Geoffrey Rush, as their gay confidant, camps it up but that kind of works here, and Noni Hazlehurst as Candy's mother is extraordinary. (Sidenote: I grew up watching her on Playschool and for years didn't realise she was an accomplished actress earlier in her career, so when I saw her first in Little Fish and then here, both times playing the swearing, hysterical mother of a drug addict, I found it amazingly confronting. She is truly incredible as an actress.) Tony Wilson as her father gives a nice, calm antidote to the wound up mother, and Tom Budge as Candy and Dan's friend is, as always, a revelation. He keeps going from strength to strength, with roles in films like Ten Empty and Last Train To Freo really cementing himself as a talent to keep your eye out for. Plus he can bring the same intensity to the stage - brilliant.

Candy isn't the debut feature from director Neil Armfield, but it was 16 years after his previous effort, so I'm kind of counting it. He's a huge stage director in Australia, creative director of the well-respected Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney, and his love of theatrics shows in the film. While the book on which the film is based, by Luke Davies, is very dark, very real, the film isn't. The fairytale love aspect comes through in heightened reality, but the trauma it leads to never hits home. Dan never looked like a drug addict, Candy never felt skanky enough, it all just remained a little airbrushed, a little safe, a drug story for the upper-middle class dreaming of the romance of the gutter. It's not bad, but it's not great, though I did find myself a little more affected at the end than I thought. It passed, though, and it passed quickly. So 3 stars it shall be.

I Am Shiva, The God Of Death.

When Michael Clayton was out in cinemas I didn't have that strong a desire to go and see it. I don't mind George Clooney, I think he is very charismatic and he plays certain characters very well, but I also think that he plays riffs on the same character most of the time. Maybe he's just too big a star and made too many major films riding off his charm for me to now be able to see past George Clooney and instead see the person he's playing, believe the character behind his eyes.

In Michael Clayton, Clooney plays the titular character, a 'fixer' at a major law firm. He has a gambling problem and has managed to get himself into $75,000 worth of debt, thanks in part to his gambling and in part to his failed attempt to set up a bar with his alcoholic brother. Meanwhile, Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), a leading attorney at his law firm, appears to be completely breaking down, stripping off in the middle of a deposition and beginning to deliberately undermine the litigation - the firm is defending an agricultural company against a class action lawsuit worth billions of dollars, and Arthur has come across some memos that he is finding impossible to deal with. Lead counsel within the agricultural company, U-North, is Karen (Tilda Swinton), who is growing more and more paranoid regarding Arthur's behaviour and Clayton's involvement, and is trying to make it all go away. But it's Clayton's job to make sure it doesn't all go away, and his loyalty to Arthur means that he cannot do it. With the rest of the firm in the dark, convinced that Arthur is simply going mad and that he may undermine millions of dollars in fees that the firm desperately needs, Clayton does what his conscience dictates, possibly for the first time in his career. Having almost lost his life, he is going to make sure that somebody pays.

Clooney plays Clooney for the most part, but, particularly in the closing scene, he pulls out a little moment of magic that I hadn't expected. As he sits in a taxi as the credits role, the camera lingering on his face, you can really feel everything going on inside Clayton, as opposed to Clooney. It's very subtle, but very effective. The supporting performances are well recognised, with Wilkinson picking up a Supporting Actor Oscar nom and Swinton taking home the golden man. Sydney Pollack (who also produced) was very good in the small role as Clayton's boss at the firm, with a raft of smaller players holding up their end of the bargain.

And the film works. It's a legal drama, and I am somewhat prone to liking them, I must confess. I get caught up in the game of law, so they work with me. Tony Gilroy, who wrote the screenplay and was also responsible for the Bourne series among other works, took up directing duties for his first outing here, and proves himself worthy of the title. It's a tight film, tense and dramatic, well crafted and well executed. Robert Elswit (who did the amazing work on There Will Be Blood) creates a sleek, slick world, just the right mix of grimy and shiny to befit these characters who are a mixture of nobility and scum. James Newton Howard (who has picked up eight Oscar nominations in the last eighteen years without a win) does a great job with the score, very light and never overbearing.

It's a very accomplished piece of filmmaking, ticking all the boxes, even if it doesn't quite break out into the territory of a classic or masterpiece. A very enjoyable watch, but probably a film that will fade from memory by the close of this, new decade. Props to the whole work, though. 4 stars.

What Would I Do With Something Valuable?

Much to my shame, I don't think I've ever seen a film by Olivier Assayas before. Looking through his filmography there are a number of titles I recognise, but I haven't seen them. The only one I feel I may have watched is Irma Vep years ago, but I don't think I watched the whole thing - I think I watched fragments of it in class. So, I took it upon myself to check out his latest, Summer Hours (or L'heure d'été), which I've been hearing a lot about over the last few months.

Three adult children are home for summer, camped out with their own children (if they have them) and spouses (if they have them) at their mother's home in France. Frédéric (Charles Berling) is the eldest, married with children, living in Paris; Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) comes next, an apparently single designer based out of New York; with Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) bringing up the rear, running footwear factories in China where he lives with his wife and kids. Their mother, Hélène (Edith Scob), who has just celebrated her 75th birthday, tells Frédéric that he will be in charge of her will when she dies, lets him know about a few hidden treasures and what should happen to her extensive art collection - her brother was an acclaimed painter, and Hélène has a vast collection of fairly significant art and furniture, as well as many of her brothers sketches and drawings.

Within the following year (one kind of assumes it is almost a year later, as it appears to be summer again, though it could simply be later in the same summer) the three children assemble again after the unfortunate and unexpected death of Hélène. They begin to discuss what to do with her estate. Frédéric imagines that the entire family will want to keep the house and collection intact, as a memorial and also a place for their own children to grow up, inherit and experience as they get older. However, Adrienne and Jérémie have other plans - Jérémie is moving permanently to China and needs to buy a house, Adrienne is getting married, and neither expect that they will be spending much time in France going forwards. The three children then try to come to a conclusion that makes all of them happy, as Frédéric realises his mother was quite probably correct when she said that it all should be sold and the three should move on.

It's a sweet film, but it's definitely a film for older audiences. It struck me in a similar way to The Barbarian Invasions, in that I think it is aimed at people older than me. However, since that earlier film, I have grown older and can now more easily relate to the loss of family members, meaning that the film did affect me in a greater way than I think it would have five years ago. Having said that, it is still a character piece, and there isn't a great deal of movement. But it works, on a slower and more sentimental scale than many films. The performances are all superb, and Assayas does delve into the younger generation briefly at the end, showing that Hélène's grandchildren do have more of a connection to the house and grounds than she may have realised. It's one of those films that I think my parents would enjoy, and that my brothers would hate. It's gentle, it's not groundbreaking.

3.5 stars.

We're Not Up To Feature Film Length Yet.

Violence for the sake of violence. Fear for the sake of fear. Unexplained happenings causing tumult in the lives of otherwise normal people. It's like this is the mandate for the work of director Michael Haneke, or at least the two I've written up on here (Hidden being the other one.) Funny Games (the original, Austrian one, not the 2007 American reboot) precedes Hidden by a good eight years, and it does, visually at least, look rougher around the edges. What they have in common, however, is that desire to unsettle the audience, and to do it by simply not giving them any answers, any motivation.

Couple Anna (Susanne Lothar) and Georg (Ulrich Mühe) escape the city for a holiday at their lakeside home with their young son Schorschi (Stefan Clapczynski.) Shortly after arriving their neighbour appears with a friend, Paul (Arno Frisch), described as a friend, and they help to put out their boat. After they have left, Peter (Frank Giering), another friend of the neighbours, arrives, asking to borrow eggs. After breaking a few eggs and accidentally knocking Anna's phone into a sink full of water, tensions start to rise before Peter and Anna, and she asks him to leave. Paul arrives, trying to calm the situation whilst still getting the required eggs, and shortly Georg and Schorschi return.

The confrontation escalates, with Paul attacking Georg with a golf club before Paul and Peter take the family hostage, making a bet that the three family members won't survive until 9am the following morning. They torture the family, mostly psychologically but also physically, and manage to recover both Schorschi and Anna after they escape their clutches. When Schorschi escapes, before he is brought back to the family home, he tries to get help from the neighbours whom introduced them to Paul and Peter, but he finds that family dead also - and we begin to realise what's going on.

Paul and Peter don't seem to have any motivation for what they are doing, outside of the thrill and fun of simply doing it. Paul often breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience, something which is quite disconcerting but unbelievably chilling. Initially it was quite jarring, but I actually think it provides the audience with a bit of a relief from the grueling trauma that they are otherwise put through - it reminds you that the film is not, actually, real, and that this level of unadulterated evil is a fiction. Here at least. These motivationless psychopathic murderers aren't actually underneath your bed, but far away on the other side of a film camera, spawned from the curious yet creative mind of a German auteur.

Yes, Haneke is probably deranged. I think this movie confirms it. But he is brilliantly deranged, at least. Like the Marquis de Sade. The way he manages to keep you on the edge of your seat without ever really showing you anything... it's all word play and palpable tension. He doesn't even use music for it - from memory, the only music in the film is diegetic, except for a track over the opening and closing credits. It's silence, light and exceptional performances from all involved.

I'm kind of curious to see the US version now, which he also directed, just to see what it's like. The original is so damned good, I don't know why you'd want to redo it, but hey. This one is another 4.5 star Haneke work.

How Much Evil Must We Do In Order To Do Good?

I love a good documentary, I really do. I think the truth behind documentary has the ability to cut so much deeper. I remember when I first watched Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, it terrified me. And I mean in the same way that a good horror film will terrify me. (Though it's worth noting that I'm pretty much chickenshit, and get scared waaay too easily.)

Well, The Fog Of War: Eleven Lessons From The Life Of Robert S. McNamara didn't quite scare me in the same way as Enron did. It wasn't quite so immediate, but much more insidious. The fear creeps back in at strange times, and I wasn't even alive during the conflicts (or near-conflicts) that the film centres around.

The Fog Of War, which won the 2003 Best Documentary Feature Oscar, tracks right through McNamara's life, from his time as a fighter during World War II, his time as president of the Ford motor company, into his time as the US Secretary of Defense, during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War. This is the real central tenet of the doc, his tenure at the Pentagon at time when nuclear war was a real possibility. He talks of how close they came, how the world got lucky, how their intel was wrong and it almost happened despite there being nothing to fight about. He goes through numerous administrations, notably those of JFK and LBJ (why don't presidents get TLAs anymore? They're so much fun), with astounding truth and honesty. He really doesn't hold anything back, and while you can see that he's trying not to either paint himself as a hero, nor as a renegade criminal, he does not shy away from such statements as saying that, if they had lost the war, he probably would have been tried for war crimes. He talks about the mistakes he and others with huge amounts of power during those precarious times made, which could have or did have drastic consequences. He mentions that one always hopes to learn from his mistakes, but with nuclear weapons there is no room for mistakes - you drop a bomb, you're destroying nations. The end. And it's a slippery slope down which you're propelling yourself head first.

McNamara was, and probably still is, pretty much despised in the States. He was referred to repeatedly as a war-monger, he was personally held responsible by the public at large for the disaster that was Vietnam. And he doesn't really try and dispel that responsibility, to his credit. He tempers it, yes, but he doesn't pass the buck. What he makes you see, however, is that war is a dirty process, not only on the ground, but in the war rooms where politicians are shuffling papers and signing names to make it happen. So many opinions and egos are at play that there is no simple solution. And while the buck ultimately has to stop with the President, he definitely pauses for a hell of a long time with him, so he has to take a lot of the blame for a very tumultuous period in global politics. And while he does try to rationalise it, he does take it.

It's an eye-opening film, and so nice to see a politician talking so openly and honestly about his own mistakes and virtues without it ever feeling particularly hyperbolic or self-flattering. It's simple and down to earth. Director Errol Morris has also managed to craft a compelling documentary out of an interview with one old man - no mean feat. Large parts of the film is just the talking head of McNamara. Talking head docs are often the worst, but Morris combines archive footage, recordings of conversations between some of the most notable political figures of the last fifty years, and some nice little modern day interludes with McNamara's voice track overlaid. He creates a documentary that is quite riveting, despite everything working against the odds here. Large credit here has to go to McNamara himself, whose truthfulness, dynamic delivery and obvious character keep the narrative moving.

A valiant film. 4 stars.

Monday, 25 January 2010

It Seems Diplomacy Has Failed.

What else is there to say about the behemoth that is Avatar? It has recently become the fastest film to ever pass US$550mil at the US box office, is only the fifth film to ever take more than US$1bil at the global box office, and as of today (presumably, though definitely by tomorrow) it will have overtaken James Cameron's previous directorial feature film Titanic to become the highest grossing film of all time on the world stage. (Let's not start talking about adjusted grosses or inflated ticket prices for the 3D presentation, because that's all academic, and nor shall we bring in the fact that major markets such as China have greatly opened up since the time of Titanic. Just let the glory ride. After all, it was only a couple of years ago I remember reading an article stating that the honour of box office champion would remain with Titanic for many years to come due to the changing nature of film performance and blockbuster patterns, something that Avatar has just shot down.) It's also the first film to stay at number one of the US box office for more than five weeks since The Sixth Sense did it back in 1999. It's one of the most expensive films ever made (though the actual cost of it is impossible to find out.) And this is all purely fiscal. The film is also extraordinarily groundbreaking for its visuals - each frame of the CGI world took an average of somewhere between forty and fifty man hours to render. Each. Frame.

This film has been the subject of so much publicity for so many years that I'm not going to go into plot, I'm not going to touch on the politics, if you don't know it by now, you're obviously living under a rock. In fact, if you haven't seen it by now you must be living under a rock. And I'd strongly advise you to get out from under that rock and go and see it immediately in a large cinema with those 3D glasses on. It will take your breath away.

Cameron has acquitted himself quite nicely. This film could have gone either way. If the technology hadn't been up to it, the film would have been a disaster. There's no way one could get so involved with a world and a people unless they looked as good as they did. The landscape created for Pandora is phenomenally realistic, awe-inspiring. I want to all of the visual team Oscars, and then knight them all, and then marry them all. Weta and ILM were both responsible (the larger part, I believe, came from Weta) and no superlative does justice to the splendour witnessed on screen. And the film itself, reasonably basic and run of the mill as it is, managed to live up to years of hype and a month of incredible performance on everybody's lips quite nicely - I had such sky-high expectations that were not only met, but exceeded. Those scenes in the Hallelujah Mountains - breathtaking. It did, I think, owe some debts to the world created by George Lucas (without the CGI power of today) in the original Star Wars films. There were many moments I watched and had flashbacks to the many times I saw those films as children. But that was actually kind of touching - an homage to another blockbuster groundbreaker.

This totally doesn't do it justice. Imagine this image, but about a million times better. Or a billion!

Sigourney Weaver as the scientist in charge of the Avatar operation is fabulous, as always. I've long been a fan of hers, and lately she has been doing amazing things for me. How Snow Cake got ignored a few years back is beyond me. Giovanni Ribisi as the head of the company mounting the mining operation creating the conflict in the film is fantastic. I think he is a terrific supporting actor, though I've never seen him carry a film as a lead. Keep him in supporting and I'll keep turning out to see him. Stephen Lang pulls of the role as the head of the US Marine unit on Pandora with amazing style. It's a role that quite easily could have been overplayed and hammed up, but he kept it to the minimum amount of hamming he could get away with and leant his character an air of arrogance and determination the fits perfectly with the setting and story. Zoe Saldana as Neytiri, the prominent Na'vi character, does incredible work considering her character is all motion-captured. (And that motion capture! It's really them on screen! Really! You can see it in their faces! Their expressions! Holy shit!) Sam Worthington has never been my favourite actor, though I'll commend his efforts in Somersault, but he pulls off the role of Jake Sully fine, probably because he doesn't really need to do much. He plays a marine well, though he couldn't quite nail the accent. And maybe I've seen him in too many Aussie movies, because I kept expecting him to pull out that hysterical line in his broad accent from his role as Macbeth, 'Is that a dagger I see before me?' (you have to see the film to understand that hysteria, but I wouldn't recommend it as I just don't think it's any good.)

James Horner's score is a James Horner Score For A Major Motion Picture, which means it's sweeping and majestic and doesn't really try anything new. It suits the film, but I'm not about to go out and buy it. And besides, it's all about those visuals. Not to say the rest of the film doesn't matter (if the visuals had been that stunning but it was let down in story and performance, it would be a shit film), but it is definitely the major element. And I'm going to give James Cameron full credit and a hats off for managing to not only conceptualise it, but then to impart that concept to his team, reign in all the things that could go wrong and make it work, and then inject the humanity of the story and the truth of the performance.

Seriously, go and see it. I'm sure it's going to win a bunch of Oscars (though my pick for Best Picture and Best Director is still probably The Hurt Locker and Kathryn Bigelow, which is actually looking more and more likely as the days go on), and deservedly so. It's a mammoth blockbuster making packets of money that I'm not going to object to. It deserves its acclaim. Bring it.

5 stars.


My Life As A Dog (Mitt Liv Som Hund) was recommended to me while I was studying as an example of a film that has injected humour despite the somewhat sad nature of the story. It had been on my radar before that, due to the fact that I quite like a lot of director Lasse Hallström's work (like What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and even Chocolat - I love you, Juliette Binoche), but it still took me, what, five years to actually get around to watching it. I tried half-heartedly to find it at a couple of places back in Oz, but couldn't. Thank heavens for my local DVD library here.

Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius) is twelve years old, a bit mischievous, a bit of a rapscallion. He's always getting under the feet of his sick mother, fighting with his brother, playing with his dog. Eventually, needing to recuperate, his mother sends him to stay with some family in a small town in Sweden, sending his brother to different family elsewhere. There, Ingemar knows no one. Playing football with his uncle Gunnar (Tomas von Brömssen), however, he meets Saga (Melinda Kinnaman), a serious tomboy (he initially mistakes her for a boy.) As Ingemar starts school, the two befriend each other, galavanting around town, boxing, just generally being kids. Ingemar eventually returns home, but is soon sent away again, this time with his brother, to stay with another uncle, but that relationship is fractious as his aunt doesn't seem to like Ingemar. After the death of his mother Ingemar and his brother are sent back to the initial family they were staying with.

Ingemar and Saga start becoming better and better friends, but the closer people get the more they tend to fight, especially when one of them is still so vulnerable from the early death of someone so close to him. When Saga taunts him about his dog, whom Ingemar maintains is in a kennel, the two have a falling out that inspires Ingemar to lock himself in a summer house Gunnar has built in his backyard. There he reflects, before reconciling with Saga to watch a major boxing match - though neither manage to last the distance.

What was really endearing about this film is the way Hallström shows the entire film from the perspective of Ingemar. While his mother is sick, Ingemar never truly gets sentimental, instead waxing lyrical about people who have things worse than him, such as the repeated Laika, the Russian dog sent into space, effectively to die. Instead, his mother is always seen as somewhat irrational, almost mean in her insistence on calm - Ingemar is just being a kid, after all. But of course, Ingemar wouldn't recognise the significance of what his happening to his mother, most of that information would be kept from him, so she just appears to be a cruel old witch some of the time. And then, when tragedy strikes, it's not quite certain whether he truly understands the gravity straight away - it is Saga's taunt about his dog that really brings it all home to him, makes him suddenly grow up to a point where he can fully comprehend what is happening. It's really a film about the loss of innocence, one calculable moment when Ingemar suddenly grows up.

Glanzelius and Kinnaman (and the other kids in the film) are superb, very accomplished. And I'm not going to say 'especially for their age', because I think that's a copout. They were very good. The end. Hallström's adaptation from the novel (with a bunch of other writers) was beautiful, rendering the story on the screen with subtlety, and making it work for all despite the fact that it was from the perspective of a child. And he never condescended to the audience, neither in his writing or his direction. I'm quite certain that the children watching My Life As A Dog would take something very different from the film to the adults, but you never feel cheated or pandered to. The film is effectively two films told at the same time, and both of them are told very well. No wonder the film picked up noms for Best Director and Adapted Screenplay at the '88 Oscars (despite being a 1985 film in home country Sweden...)

Having said all of that, I watched it five days ago and I had trouble remembering it. I had to look on the internet to remind me of what actually happens, and that's never a great thing. It's a strong and solid film, and a good base from which Hallström built better things later in his career. 3.5 stars.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Affairs Are Much More Exciting Than Marriages.

Heavenly Creatures was not Peter Jackson's debut, far from it, but it is probably the film that first had him noticed largely on a global scale, and netted him (and his wife, Fran Walsh) his first Oscar nomination (of eight in total, with three wins for the last Lord Of The Rings pic) for Best Original Screenplay.

It was, however, the inimitable Kate Winslet's first film, and what a debut it was, considering in the 15 years following the film she was nominated for six Oscars and won one. Winslet plays the part of Juliet Hulme in this true story of a horrible murder in New Zealand in the 50s. Juliet is a teenager recently relocated to a Christchurch school after spending a number of years abroad with her family. She is partnered in art class with Pauline (Melanie Lynskey), an outcast, and they instantly become friends. Juliet takes Pauline in a rich fantasy world, which Pauline relishes as an escape. The girls quickly embark on a relationship apparently deeper than platonic, and it is decided by Juliet's parents that, with her father relocating back to the UK and considering Juliet has recently spent some months in hospital with TB, Juliet should go to live with family in South Africa. Meanwhile, Pauline's parents are in the process of divorcing, and the two girls concoct a plan that they may stay together, with tragic and infamous consequences for Pauline's mother Honora (Sarah Peirse.) I won't say what those consequences are in case you are somehow unfamiliar with either the film or the case.

Winslet and Lynskey (who has since gone on to fame with Two And A Half Men and a role in Up In The Air) both give auspicious performances. Winslet's especially garnered much acclaim, and the two sides of her character portrayed (the outwardly confident teenage imaginer and the dark and depressed internal demon) are pitch perfect. It's worth noting that a year after this debut she picked up her first Oscar nod for Sense And Sensibility. Allun Bollinger (who also shot The Frighteners and 2nd Unit on the LOTR trilogy for Peter Jackson) presents the film beautifully, with the setting rendered extremely well by the designers in all fields, mixing real scenery with heightened fantasy seamlessly.

Jackson himself shows off the style that got him noticed in schlock pictures such as Braindead and Bad Taste, retro horror gore stylings, but reigns them in enough such that the film is simply given a very unique look and feel, plays differently to a perfectly straight representation of a story that would be very interesting in itself. His touch lifts it that little bit higher, giving the film an edge that draws you in.

A solid breakout for Jackson and some terrific first-time performances make this a 4 star film.

We Were Shagged Out.

That's right, another Daniel Day Lewis film. Looking him up, I remembered that I've always wanted to see My Beautiful Laundrette, and never had.

Day Lewis plays a supporting role as Johnny in this 1985 feature from Stephen Frears (who did The Queen), playing below Gordon Warnecke as Omar. (I love watching older films, when you see otherwise huge above the line names in today's world credited somewhere in the middle of the pack. I love remembering that they weren't always stars.) Omar is of Pakistani heritage and soon set to start studying, at the behest of his father Ali (Roshan Seth.) In the meantime he is simply spending time around the house, looking after his alcoholic ex-journalist father. Ali sets Omar up with a job with family, working for Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey) who runs an auto-repair workshop. Omar is soon promoted to managing a laundrette that Nasser also owns, though he negotiates a deal whereby he runs the shop, pays Nasser a fixed rent, and banks the profits.

Meanwhile he has run into an old school-friend and gang member Johnny, and the two have struck up a friendship that quickly develops into something more. Omar is hiding this from his family, so the opportunity for Johnny to leave his gang and help Omar develop the laundrette into something spectacular (as far as laundrettes go) is too perfect for them to give up - they get to spend enormous amounts of time together, alone, with cause.

The business goes well and Omar becomes quite cut-throat. Johnny is effectively destitute without Omar to support him, and Omar takes on a massive power ego, controlling Johnny as well. However, after Johnny is set upon by his ex-gang, the two reconcile. The ending is left beautifully open - they are obviously together, however the may appear to be mismatched, but the question of how long they will stay happy together remains.

All of the performances here are fantastic. Day Lewis, as always, exceptional, but the supports from a primarily subcontinental cast back him up strongly, while Warnecke carries the film very well. The grittiness of the world both of them inhabit (different kinds of underworld, but the underworld nonetheless) is very well portrayed, shot by Oliver Stapleton. It was also nice to see queer cinema told well, not preaching, not trying to make any sort of political point, and not steeped in historicism. (Well, watching it now it's historical, but at the time it was current.) Refreshingly, the Omar/Johnny relationship is not in any way a driving point of the film, really, nor does it cause any great turmoil. Despite the fact that it's closeted, it just is. And that doesn't happen all that often.

3.5 stars again.

All Is Nothing, Therefore Nothing Must End.

I have seen three of Jim Sheridan's seven features. I loved In The Name Of The Father, and watched it a number of times during the 90s, though I was younger then and my opinion may have changed, but my memories of it are very strong. I wasn't overly enamoured with In America - there were some good elements, but overall it didn't do it for me, though I thought Djimon Hounsou was fantastic (as I have thought he was in everything I have seen him in.) His first film, My Left Foot, falls somewhere in between.

Daniel Day Lewis, as expected, is terrific. He won his first Oscar for this role, very deservedly. (In fact, he also very deservedly won his second for There Will Be Blood, which I loved. Both his Oscars have been deserved. I like it when I can say that with true conviction.) He plays Christy Brown through Christy's older years, a man afflicted with cerebral palsy. The film is his true story (it is based on the autobiography of the same name), through his time as a child, learning to write using the only limb he can control, his left foot. It continues into him receiving speech therapy from Dr Eileen Cole (Fiona Shaw) and discovering his talent for painting, once he got his foot under total control. It ends with him gaining decent celebrity as a painter and writer.

Growing up in fair poverty, with a family that just seems to keep expanding as more children are popped out, he is doted on by his mother (Brenda Fricker, who also picked up an Oscar here) and in turns loved and hated by his father (Ray McNally) who often views him hostilely as an embarrassment. Christy falls in love with Eileen and is devastated with her announcement of her betrothal, and his 'special' status both as handicapped and then as a genius artist lends him an arrogance manifested in his anger, particularly here.

Day Lewis plays Christy not always sympathetically - there are many, many points where Christy is a downright asshole, and Day Lewis never shies away from letting that come through. Yes, he is a tragic character in many ways, but that doesn't excuse the fact that he is often a knob.

The performances are uniformly terrific, but the film as a whole felt a little empty. I can't explain precisely where this feeling comes from - it just did. The technical elements were all fine, it looked true to what I imagine that period in Ireland looked like. Sheridan and co-writer Shane Connaughton adapted very well, the script is pretty perfect. The direction was fine also. I think there wasn't enough of a character arc for the supports to truly make this sing - Fricker and McNally's characters both seem to remain static, despite the ups and downs. Not enough is made of his relationship with his siblings to be able to get you emotionally involved with his broader family life, though his relationship with Eileen does give us a nice subplot, ably executed.

It's a 3.5 star film, for me.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Ok. Thanks.

With this film it means I have seen all of the Palme d'Or winners of the last decade with the exception of The White Ribbon, which I don't believe has been released in the UK yet. If it has, sucks to be me. I really wanna see it.

4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days won the big gold branch in 2007, and was then outrageously and controversially snubbed for even a nomination at the Oscars a few months later. Many think that that, coupled with the Gomorrah snub last year, is why they have tweaked their voting rules. But then, the Academy so rarely pays attention to the Palme d'Or winners anyway (unless they're English-language, and even then...) that I don't think it's so much to go on. The English-speaking world kind of ignores the celebrated French winners in general - it's the way it roles. You're either going to be big at Cannes, or you can hope for American box office or award glory. The two rarely meet.

Cristian Mungiu's breakout was a bit of a big-hitter in its year. The Romanian production took out a bunch of critics awards around the world, was nominated for a bunch more, and even took home the Best Film prize at the European Film Awards. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is helping her roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) procure an illegal abortion during the 1980s. Of course, things go wrong. I'm not going to go into it. What goes wrong is what drives the narrative of the film, though I don't think it drives the film itself. 

In true European tradition (and especially the Romanian film tradition of late on the international stage), realism is the key. It's all about showing the place as these characters would find it in real life, in those times: grubby, broken, flawed. It ain't pretty, and Mungiu and his team don't try and show it that way. It's depressing, it's reality. The streets are cold, the hotel is stark, the world is cruel, and there is no easy way out. Money isn't going to make the truth go away, and besides, who has money?

It is arduous, and there are few letups along the way. The characters plow through and hope for the best. Sometimes the best happens, sometimes it doesn't, but their own lack of recognition of the gravity of the situation in which they find themselves doesn't help the matter. It's not that they laugh it off, but it is a serious crime at that time (whether or not is should be is a matter the film doesn't go near - there is no moral judgement here) and some of their actions don't seem to reflect that. People could go to prison, and yet Gabita won't follow the abortionists instructions, which leads to hearbreak all round.

I think the true trauma inherent in the film doesn't come from the abortion at all, but from something that happens just before. That is what the friends have to struggle with, have to come to terms with. Their anger, fear and humiliation is directed both at each other and at themselves, but they don't have an opportunity to truly feel these things whilst Gabita is lying with her legs in the air waiting for a foetus to come out. That's only half their concern. It's what they had to do to get there that propels the drama.

Excellent performances from all, especially from the two girls, and that gritty realism help the cause. And while I think it's a very good film, I'm not entirely sure it's the masterpiece that all are holding it up to be. Though the relentless pursuit of the morose is praiseworthy, especially when it doesn't end up moribund. Grueling but rewarding is the name of this game.

4 stars. That might increase. Just writing this out has made me appreciate it more than I think I did just after I finished it. I guess with time to fester within my soul it could prove to be one of those films that I keep coming back to.

It's In My Nature.

Woah, so somehow I've managed to fall behind by eight (count 'em, eight) films over the last few days. Which I think on the one hand is quite impressive (I've watched eight films in the last few days! Woohoo! I've almost caught up on my 365 thing!) and on the other is quite unimpressive (my god, you've had time to watch eight films, but not time to write any of them up? For shame.)

So, these are going to have to be brief in order that I may reestablish some order.

First up, The Crying Game. This was a bit of a spur of the moment, borrowed housemates DVD choice when a DVD of House Of Flying Daggers didn't work. Or didn't work to my liking. Only every third line was subtitled. That just ain't cricket in my book.

I didn't mind it. Fergus (Stephen Rea) is an IRA volunteer who is part of a kidnapping team who take out British soldier Jody (Forest Whitaker), giving the Brits three days to release some political prisoners or else Jody gets it. Of course, that all goes to shit. As they're about to kill him, the Brits strike the IRA camp, Jody escapes, but isn't so lucky on the road. Fergus hightails it to London to get away from all that was, and upholds a promise made to Jody that he'd find his lover Dil (Jaye Davidson) and tell Dil how much she meant to Jody. Fergus, of course, falls for Dil, but Dil isn't all that she seems. And to make matters worse, the IRA chaps who were bossing young Fergus around, led by Jude (Miranda Richardson), track him down and force him to try and do nasty things to a judge. Of course, this all goes to shit too. It all really goes to shit again and again. Lots of things, going to shit.

I watched it almost a week ago, and I've got to say that it was enjoyable enough, but it hasn't made that much of an impact on me. Rea was fine, though I didn't think there was anything spectacular there. Whitaker I never really believed as a Brit. Richardson was probably the best of them, though Davidson did do a striking job as Dil (Jaye is male - I'm referring to Dil as female because that is the gender identity through the film), earning himself a Best Supporting Actor nom in the process. It was his first role, and he's done pretty much nothing since, so what a way to make yourself known. Jim Broadbent pops up in supporting, doing his normal fine work.

Director Neil Jordan does a fine job, and the fashion, of the fashion. It's a 1992 film so you can imagine what it looked like. Retro fabulous.

All in all, though, I'm giving this one 3 stars. Maybe at the time I would have been more amenable to lauding it, but not today.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

RIP Kate McGarrigle

While my love affair has primarily been with her son Rufus Wainwright over the last five or six years, and subsequently her daughter, Rufus' sister, Martha Wainwright, it is impossible to love these two and know their music and stories without knowing about Kate. Rufus especially talks highly of his mother (she did, after all, never have a song like Dinner At Eight written about her), and her battle with cancer was widely spoken of after she was diagnosed during his putting together of his most recent studio album, Release The Stars.

She was a fairly major folk star, together with her sister Anna McGarrigle, in the 1970s, tumultuously married to Loudon Wainwright III for a few years, another folk star who has recently come back into the spotlight both through his children's rising status and his work on such things as the soundtrack to Knocked Up. Over the last decade or so she has, however, been primarily known as the matriarch of this extraordinary musical family.

I was lucky to see Kate for the first (and, unknown to me at the time, last) time at the Christmas spectacular A Not So Silent Night not much more than a month ago, at the Royal Albert Hall here in London. She was looking frail there, always sitting when performing, lovingly doted over not only by her children but by all else there. I think all in attendance, whether performing or watching, were aware of her understated power. Her anecdotes and jokes, while sometimes hard to hear, had all in rapture. It would appear that everyone had incredible respect for this woman who has seemingly muddled her way through over three decades of performance whilst raising very gifted children and, in the latter part, battling the cancer that eventually was her downfall.

Whether or not you know her music, she will be missed simply through association with Rufus and Martha. With their propensity and ability to wear their hearts on their sleeves in their music (not only Dinner At Eight, but Martha's Bloody Motherfucking Asshole is a powerful song about her relationship with her father, and there are so many songs about their emotions and opinions that do not even pretend to be veiled) you can expect many a heartbreaking tribute to Kate to appear and feature prominently in upcoming works. And if you are familiar with her beautiful songwriting and voice, may she forever live on in your record collection and iTunes. She's such a rare creature to emerge from the entertainment industry, respected popularly despite her relative obscurity, and the likes of her we may never really see again.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Chaos Reigns.

Lars von Trier is very, very well known for his misogyny. In Breaking The Waves his female protagonist is under the direction of her husband, with horrible consequences for her. In The Idiots his female protagonist is subjected to the whims of the group she is surrounded by, against her better nature, and with a tragic emotional impact. In Dancer In The Dark his female protagonist is afflicted by illness and forced to submit to the darker side of society and her landlord in order to provide for her child. In Dogville his female protagonist is set upon by an initially welcoming village, and while she does get her revenge it is provided for her by a powerful father. In Manderlay his female protagonist becomes frustrated and ultimately horribly disillusioned both with herself and the other characters.

Generally, the female characters have very little power of their own. Often, their power is gifted to them by outside forces - Grace's father in Dogville, her gunmen in Manderlay, the otherness of Selma in Dancer In The Dark. With his female protagonist in Antichrist (fittingly given no name), however, he provides power and yet still creates a situation whereabouts she is completely destroyed, degraded, castrated (if you will), subdued. Despite her power, obtained through grief and a husband who refuses to give up for many reasons, von Trier's misogyny will have its way.

But this is a singular von Trier film in many ways. From the opening scene you know to throw out all of your preconceptions of how this film will run. Dogme 95 this certainly isn't. Gone are the Brechtian stylisations of Dogville and Manderlay. This film isn't gritty, there is no reality here, the film exists entirely in the mind. 

The Man (Willem Dafoe) and the Woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lose child to a tragic accident. The Woman is particularly struck by the trauma of the incident, spending a month in hospital, medicated and receiving therapy. The Man, also a therapist, takes her out of hospital, believing her to be overmedicated and of the belief that his closeness and knowledge of his wife will enable him to better help her recover. She tries to distract herself from her trauma using sex - she repeatedly throws herself on top of him during heated arguments and screaming matches, crying and both physically and verbally abusing him in the process.As he delves into her mind and the causes behind her frequent panic attacks, he discovers that the source of much of her fear is the woods around their holiday cabin, Eden.

The two hike to the woods with the Woman panicking towards the end, running towards the house. As the Man sets about creating exercises to try and break through the wall of her distress, the woods and surrounds begin to affect them both. As she seems to be getting better (a false hope) he starts to lose it, communicating with animals and reading into her work on gynocide. Finally, in her psychosis, she beats him in a very delicate area with a hunk of wood, hobbles him and wanders off. He escapes and she comes looking, burying him alive. Wracked with remorse she digs him free and the two return to the cabin where she infamously cuts off her clitoris. Finally, he frees himself and exacts his revenge.

As mentioned, the Woman has the power throughout. The Man is entirely focused on regenerating his wife's mental state, whether for selfish reasons of self-aggrandisement or for more charitable reasons doesn't matter, and so is at her beck and call, constantly doing her bidding. Her grief is the driving force behind this power, crippling her husband and herself with its veracity. Her hallucinations and self-blame for the death of their young son drive the narrative relentlessly forward, and the viewer is never allowed a moment to breath.

This film looks like no other von Trier film. As I said. The opening scene, detailing the death of young Nic (the only character here to get a name, and he's dead...), plays like an incredibly expensive extended advertisement for a luxury goods brand. The black and white, uber-slow motion, crystal clear cinematography and operatic soundtrack accompanying shots of the Man and the Woman passionately making love around the house as Nic wakes up, lets himself out of his crib and ultimately dies are beautiful and moving, serving to distance this moment of happiness followed by the horrible catalyst for the remainder of the film from the remainder of the picture set in their house and in and around Eden. In fact, while the shots move from the stylisation of the black and white slo-mo advertisement feel to more realistic visions, the film never loses that glossy feel of expensive cinema, rich, textured and beautiful. This effect (something I've never seen von Trier do outside, perhaps, the musical sequences in Dancer In The Dark) heightens the psychosis of the characters, giving the environment a character and mood, making the film that much scarier.

The performances from both are fantastic, especially from Gainsbourg, who won Best Actress at Cannes and has probably delivered one of the best performances of the last few years to go almost entirely unnoticed. I mean, even Björk got a Golden Globe nod. (I don't mean that to sound like I don't think she deserved it - I think her performance is one of the best and most heartbreaking I've ever seen. I meant it as, if they're willing to recognise the power of the performance of one of the strangest pop artifacts in the world, surely they'd recognise that by the daughter of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, right?) And the photography from Anthony Dod Mantle is incredible, again criminally overlooked this year. He won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire last year, but that doesn't mean he can't win another this year! Plus, if I remember the credits correctly and my knowledge of previous von Trier films is correct, Mantle managed to wrestle the camera away from von Trier for this film - he was the camera operator, where I've almost always seen von Trier handling it himself.

All this having been said, the film is a struggle. It is dark, it is hard. These are two words I always associate with von Trier films, but here, possibly due to the heightened realism and impressionist influences, the character of nature and the sheer audacity of the graphic nature of the violence, it is very, very trying. Not necessarily in a bad way. I find myself in a similar frame of mind to after seeing Irreversible however many years ago. I came out of the film shell-shocked, barely able to breath. I call it a five star film that I never want to see it again and would never recommend anyone ever see - I can't fault it for many reasons, but dear god. Antichrist hasn't quite hit me in that way, but if I ever see it again (which will take a hell of a lot of courage on my part) I'm going to make damn sure there's someone sitting next to me that I can hide behind and take comfort in. As a grotesque and confronting horror film without any monsters outside of the minds of these two tragic and intelligent figures, Antichrist takes the cake. I will, as ever, hang out waiting for the next masterpiece (and yes, I'd say this is a masterpiece in many ways, whether or not you love it or despise it) from this auteur of auteurs, but will have to work through much therapy to bring myself to go through that again in a hurry. 5 stars.

Lust = Passion = Murder.

I don't know if I'm used to the Australian industry, where even after a hit film it'll take you roughly four and a half centuries to get another film up, but I don't think that's entirely it. I actually think Kim Ki-duk is a fairly prolific director. I mean, 15 feature films since 1996 seems like a fair number, right? Though, his last film was in 2009 - interestingly, the only other year since his debut that he hasn't released a film was 1999, so maybe it's a '9' thing. Maybe that's the year of each decade he takes a nap.

I was fascinated by his 2003 release Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... And Spring when it was on release in Australia, though I again never got to see it, probably because of the title. What does it mean? Why is it so long? How damn cool is it for a title for a film?

The answer to the first question is that it means exactly what it seems to mean. The seasons in the title refer to the episodes of life, broken down from birth (spring) to rebirth (spring again.) A monk lives in a temple sitting in the middle of a lake, with a very young monk-in-training. The entire film takes place on, in and directly around this lake, following the monks as the young monk progresses through these seasons of life - summer is his first blossoming of love and his escape from the lake; autumn sees his arrest for a heinous crime and the eventual death of the master; winter sees the young monk (now not so young) return to the lake and take charge of the temple; and spring again sees him take on a new apprentice, replicating the beginning of the film, showing that the circle of this young monk's life is now complete.

It is a beautiful and simple story, told with few words yet a lot of emotion. The old monk does not judge, he simply accepts stoically the mistakes and humanity of the young monk, and his ultimate death seems to imply that his acceptance is possibly born from the fact that he, too, has made similar mistakes and trodden similar paths through his lifetime before arriving at the enlightened spiritual state he appears to inhabit. And the pursuit of a modern kind of happiness by the young monk, only to return at the end to the simple life he once scorned, is almost a reflection of so many adult desires to return to a younger life where things were simple, where life was easier.

Wonderfully shot, sometimes the performance of the various actors playing the young monk does have holes in it, but with so little really demanded of the performers on the whole this doesn't really trouble you - the majority of the portrayal is pulled off perfectly, so those moments not up to par are few. The affecting story is what grabs you and draws you in - again, it lulls you into a state where you can position yourself within that lake and you begin to wish for the simple things again. 

It is the way cinema so rarely is, beautiful and intoxicating without appearing to have an underlying motive of superiority or moral high ground. There is no judgement here, only a story, beautifully told. 4.5 stars.