Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Oh, And...

I just watched my 150th film from this project. And today is day 143. So that's pretty damn good. I'm twelve writeups behind, but still. I'm getting there. This puts me in good stead for the invasion of the family, which will probably necessitate me taking a week of watching anything. Bring it. Go me.

Last Time, Last Year - Not So Good.

I have eons of time for I Heart Huckabees. Literally, eons. Well, not literally, but eons in the sense that Vivian and Bernard might use the term considering we are all one and therefore my matter and energy shall continue forever. 

Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) is having a crisis. He is the head of the Open Spaces Coalition, devoted to preserving open space amongst the urban sprawl in America. In doing so he gets involved with the Huckabees corporation, a large kind of K-Mart or H&M or something type company - a corporate sponsor who are responsible for a lot of the sprawl but can raise their profile and aid their own PR. To this end he becomes involved with Brad (Jude Law), a marketing exec dating the face of Huckabees Dawn (Naomi Watts.) Whilst meeting with him he finds the card for a pair of existential detectives, Vivian (Lily Tomlin) and Bernard (Dustin Hoffman), who he contacts with a view to solving a coincidence involving Stephen (Ger Duany.) However, he bites off a bit more than he can chew as they set about pulling apart his entire notion of existence. He is paired with his 'other', Tommy (Mark Wahlberg), and the two are meant to strengthen each others resolve as they attempt to realise that everything is the same, nothing is different, we are all connected. But Tommy is splitting up with his wife and getting involved with another existentialist, Caterine (Isabelle Huppert), who used to be Vivian and Bernard's best student but has gone along very opposite lines, espousing the notion that nothing is connected, everything is random, life is cruel. Hilarity ensues.

Seriously, hilarity does ensue. It's all existential waffling, notions of reality, those kind of 'hippy' ideas of togetherness, separateness and being that seem quite trite, but writer/director David O Russell's dealing of them makes them sublimely ridiculous whilst still ringing somewhat true. The writing is truly exceptional, with so many quotable lines that in the days immediately following any of my viewing it is virtually impossible to get a straight word out of me - it's all 'there's glass between us', 'infinite nature' and 'I'm in my tree, I'm talking with the Dixie Chicks and they're making me happy.' And the performances are suitably ridiculous without parodying themselves. Tomlin is crazily esoteric while Huppert (marry me) is brilliantly cold and distant, but at the same time so powerfully seductive with her rejection of anything of meaning.

There are some great cameos from the likes of Tippi Hedren and Shania Twain, and the music from Jon Brion is perfectly suited to the serious yet whimsical nature of the entire concept. It's hard to say too much without going into ramblings on various aspects, which I won't do. But if the idea of an existential comedy makes you want to chew out your own eyes, then this isn't for you. If you like the idea of a comedy that makes you think while you're holding your sides from laughter, but doesn't really make you think that much if it does make you think, but maybe you've been thinking it all along and we're all actually the same person but perhaps this is just random that you're now watching this and maybe maybe maybe you see what I mean.

It's worth YouTubing scenes that made it onto the internet of Russell abusing cast members as well. They're kind of scarily hysterical... he is seriously an asshole from the looks of them (they made it onto the net a few years back), but they make you wonder why the fantastic cast stuck around. 5 stars.

You Blew Up My Car. I Loved That Car.

Meh, I don't have a great deal to say about Martin Scorsese's latest Shutter Island. I didn't think it was terrible, I just didn't particularly like it. I kept waiting for it to get scary, for the tension to cut through, and it never did. It was a seemingly constant almost there film, which seemed to get stuck in contentment with its own mediocrity. It was like Scorsese got tired part way through and thought 'ah, fuck it, I'll just coast with this one.' We've seen much better here and here, after all.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Teddy, a 'duly appointed Federal Marshal' heading with his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to a mental institution for the criminally insane on the remote Shutter Island in Boston Harbour. The two are investigating the disappearance of a patient who must be hiding out somewhere on the island. Run by Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the question is raised as to whether the hospital is running experiments on its patients. Teddy gets crazier and crazier, searching out a patient he believes to be responsible for the death of his wife in a fire (played in flashback by Michelle Williams.) He encounters sinister beings in Dr Naehring (Max von Sydow), who liaises between the board of directors and Cawley, and patient George Noyce (a terrifying Jackie Earle Haley), as well as the missing patient Rachel and a whole host of dreams and hallucinations. Gradually, and then faster and faster, Teddy descends into his own paranoid insanity... but I won't give away the twist, no matter how easy many people claim it is to pick.

The cast is terrific, and they do some good work. I thought DiCaprio was trying a little too hard with his intensity, but I think I can see why he had to go all or nothing... it was kind of necessary for his character development, but I found it quite irritating after a while. The rest were all exemplary, with Emily Mortimer and my love Patricia Clarkson popping up, and the performances and Scorsese's direction worked well with the way they had to play their cards - I found them all a little off to start with, but it all came clear as to why that was.

The elements of the film... meh. I thought the production design was waaay over the top, similar to the horrible and completely removed from reality look of Gangs Of New York. It was just so over the top. I remember a scene early on where there was dirt or mud on someone's hands, and it looked so fake, so hammed on because we're in the movies now, where it really shouldn't have distracted from the psychology of the piece. And some of the effects... how when you're working with a budget like that can green-screening or projection be left to look so, so unrealistic? Seriously. We all know it can be done better than that. Robert Richardson lensed it pretty well, getting in lots of moody tones and sinister scenes, but the sets he was working with left it all looking a little too hyper-real - not even psycho-hyper-real, just not-very-well-done-hyper-real. Though, art director Dante Ferretti isn't exactly known for toning it down.

So yeah, coming out of this I think it is definitely lesser Scorsese. When you've built yourself a reputation like he has, it's sad to see a film so average. But we all have our off days. Here's hoping the next one restores my faith. 2 stars.

Go Do It Now.

So, in my can-barely-breathe anticipation of the release of Go on Monday (please dear god let me pre-order arrive that day! Or I'll die. I will just die), Jónsi is streaming the entire album through here and here - I believe the last link is UK only.

If you haven't ordered your copy yet, you should be shot, or something. You can get it at Or Amazon it. Or something. I'm listening to it now and it's making me very happy. I think there are still some tickets available to his tour, which is going to be epic from the looks of all the BTS vids posted around the place - 59 Productions are doing the stage and visual design, and it looks awesome.

Interestingly, Rufus is also releasing All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu on Monday. Brilliant! Two in one day! I recently discovered that I will be seeing Rufus four times in twelve months - I saw A Not So Silent Night last December, I'm hitting up his Sadler's Wells gig in a couple of weeks (front row! Centre! Wham), then seeing him play a Kenwood House picnic in July (or June? I only discovered I had tix to this the other day... haven't written the date down. Oops), then again with his darling sister Martha at the Royal Albert Hall in November, just before I depart this fair country. Crazy, I know.

So now, here's an embed of Go Do, which we love:








I'd embed a Rufus clip, but I don't know where they are. But we do also love the sound of the tracks we have heard. The Royal 'We', obviously.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

I Would Gladly Marry You, But I Fear My Ankle Is Twisted.

Again, mildly mangled, but I like the line.

Oh, Virginia Woolf. How we love thee. Orlando, the book, is a terrific read, spanning time and gender with a serious suspension of disbelief, but still beautifully and realistically, getting the gender narrative across whilst seemingly playing in fantasy. Orlando, the film, does the same. Sally Potter helms her breakout second feature, and wisely puts Tilda Swinton in the lead - not only can she appear somewhat androgenous, she is also such a brilliant actor.

Orlando (Swinton), the character, is born a boy, an aristocrat in England. While her family entertains the aging Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp - fabulous!), the first Betty to rule over England bestows upon him the land of his father on one condition - that he doesn't fade, that he doesn't wither, that he doesn't grow old. Orlando takes up the challenge with gusto. He is betrothed to marry a fellow British aristocrat, a proper girl, but soon falls in love with a beautiful Russian princess (Charlotte Valandrey) whose ship is trapped in a frozen Thames. The princess is otherwise enamoured, leaving poor Orlando heartbroken and off to take up an ambassadorial post in Turkey. He is almost killed in a diplomatic incident, and the next morning wakes up... a woman.

The new, female Orlando returns to her estate in England to discover that there are a number of lawsuits pending against her - namely, stripping her of her estate due to the fact that not only has she been declared legally dead, thereby making it impossible for her in fact to lord over her land, but also that, as she is now female, she is not entitled to it. She takes this all in her stride (remembering that some centuries have passed, and she is presumably by now well-versed in taking things on the chin), before falling in love with a visiting American Shelmerdine (Billy Zane), a whirlwind romance that can never last, though it does beget for her a child. The film closes with a new segment from Potter where Orlando travels to the city and receives information in the publication of a novel she has written, apparently her biography.

The film could quite easily have been muddy and hard to follow, but this is remedied by the masterful trick of never letting it feel entirely real. Orlando often looks to the camera and even speaks narrative pick-ups, his/her responses to the trials and tribulations set for him/her are quite stoic, tongue-in-cheek, even jocular, and the fantasy of her existence, while never questioned, is laid out in a 'believe it or not' fashion - whether or not you believe it is up to you, but the strengths of the film remain.

Those strengths are Swinton's performance, the superb production design and the terrific adaptation from the source material. Supporting players come and go very quickly (Billy Zane is second credit but is on screen for only a little over ten minutes - enough time to remind me that he was hawt back then, but not really enough time for any depth of character or true development of the American traveller to shine through) but play their parts well, but the entire film rests on the shoulders of Swinton and she does not disappoint. Superlatives don't give the woman justice. 

Serious kudos to Potter for managing to pull such a compelling film out of such a seemingly impossible novel, and (wait for it, I'm going there again) to Swinton for keeping it all firmly in check. One of the more creative literary adaptations I've seen. 4.5 stars.

Oh My God, You Sound Famous Already.

Jeffrey Wright fest! It would appear that we announce a festival in honour of an artist when we hit three films that they have been involved with. And unless he popped up in something the I didn't recognise, this is Wright's third appearance after this and this. We do love him so.

Basquiat was a bit of a breakout for Mr Wright, despite much acclaimed stage work (including Angels In America, a role he reprised on television.) And it's a beautifully juicy role to be given, a biopic of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, friend of Warhol, major acclaim, kooky, rags to riches, all that business. And a seriously cool cast alongside you - Benicio Del Toro, Claire Forlani, Michael Wincott, David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, Parker Posey, Courtney Love, Tatum O'Neal... wow. Plus! A film about an enfant terrible of the art world directed by an enfant terrible of the art world! What more could you want?

Basquiat (Wright) is a druggie, living rough, earning some notoriety for his graffiti work as Samo and the phrases he sketches on streetscapes. He works in an art gallery run by Mary (Posey), hanging paintings with an electrician also trying to make his way as an artist (Willem Dafoe) while Mary and her client, Albert (Oldman) abuse him until he walks out on them. He does some sketches and, with his friend Benny (Del Toro), manages to convince Andy Warhol (Bowie) and his manager Bruno (Hopper) to purchase these sketches - Warhol, in his terrific deadpan manner, comments after Basquiat's departure that they're actually good. Eventually, art dealer Rene Ricard (Wincott) spots one of his paintings at a party and tracks down Basquiat. The artist, still doing copious amounts of drugs as he tries and succeeds in romancing waitress Gina (Forlani), is quickly turned into a star, though on the way he burns many, many of his closest allies, including Rene and Gina. The destructive clinicism of Warhol's artistic cynicism starts to wear him down, and with no one there to say no, Basquiat spirals downwards.

Wright as Basquiat is fantastic, fully inhabiting the fear and fearlessness of success, the stoic drive behind the fragile artist, the self-belief and arrogance mixed with a paranoia that he might fade as fast as he rose. The supports, especially Oldman, Wincott and particularly Bowie, are terrific. Bowie as Warhol is almost scary in his disconnect from the world around him. Whether or not he is a perfect Warhol portrayer, he is perfect for this film.

It has been noted that the film can be seen as much as being about director Schnabel - I don't know a great deal about either artist outside of a decent knowledge of their work and where they fit into their respective movements, but even I picked up on distinct similarities between the characterised Basquiat and the real Schnabel. His pyjama wearing, for example. But whether or not the film is accurate to the truth of Basquiat's life, it doesn't really matter anyway. The film is an artwork by Julian Schnabel taking Basquiat's life as a leaping-off point, and like any great work of art it is not just technique but the emotion put into it, and that emotion is always going to be drawn from the artist themselves. So rather than seeing the film as a biopic, it is probably instead best to view it as a fictional narrative built around the basics of the artist, interpreted through the eyes of another artist who obviously holds the character in high regard.

But does the film work? In many ways, yes. The riveting performances and great cameos keep you watching and caring, despite the fact that Basquiat is in many ways repugnant once he gains his fame. But the film does not reach the heights of Schnabel's later The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, or even his Before Night Falls. It is, however, a solid debut and an interesting take on an artist's story. 3 stars.

Memory Is The Greatest Curse That's Ever Been Inflicted On The Human Race.

It's a slight misquote, but close enough.

Citizen Kane has long been regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, especially within America. Made in the middle of the second World War, newcomer Orson Welles directs himself in a story apparently fairly closely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, a newspaper magnate with huge influence and wealth due to his ability to control opinion through fear of bad press. Hearst is proxied in the movie by Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), who builds his empire after inheriting an apparently worthless piece of land that in fact contains the world's third largest gold mine.

An initially tumultuous childhood sees Kane being sent from his abusive father and depressed mother (Agnes Moorehead) to live with a wealthy city banker Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), who takes care of Kane the best he can. When Kane turns 25 he comes into the fortune bequeathed to him and embarks upon building his empire, buying up flailing newspaper The Inquirer and turning it around with yellow journalism. Kane quickly expands his empire, becoming an enormously powerful media player, able to bring people up, start wars, whatever he wants with a flick of his wrist and a stab at a typewriter, despite his earlier pledge to be true to what he believes in. The problem with Kane is his Freudian psychosis - reacting and manifesting from his sad and unfortunate upbringing.

Kane meets and marries Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick), the niece of the President, and begins a campaign to become governor of New York. Late in his campaigning days he stumbles across Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingmore), an aspiring singer, and begins an affair with her. Discovered, the affair proves a scandal, published widely in competing newspapers, and causes the decimation of Kane's political ambitions and the collapse of his first marriage. Kane quickly marries Susan, pushing her to become an opera singer of grand scale, building an Opera house for her to sing in. Upon her debut she is scathingly attacked from all sides, though Kane tries to stop his newspapers from saying bad things about her until a confrontation with his dramatic reporter and best friend Jebediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) reminds him of his previous attempts to maintain some dignity and sees him write a damning review under Leland's name.

Gradually, everything for Kane begins to fall apart. He is living in a magical, fantastical, enormous estate called Xanadu that seems to never be finished, collecting statues, with another marriage failing and friendships all left at the wayside in pursuit not of profit, but of notoriety. In dropping scruples along the way in order to help him here, he ends up having to further compromise himself in order that he get through over there. Friends, workers, loved ones, they all are forced away from him by his increasingly domineering personality, resulting in him dying alone at Xanadu, where he now only interacts with his staff, muttering the word 'Rosebud' and setting off newsreel reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) on a quest to discover the meaning.

The narrative structure of the film may appear somewhat normal today, but at the time was quite strikingly revolutionary, even if Welles can't take credit for the invention of it. The film introduces Kane initially through a newsreel about his death, which then turns into the investigation for the discovery of the meaning of his dying word. In interviewing a number of friends and associates of Kane, the film is then told in flashback as they describe him and his life, giving us an insight into his story in the past through the viewpoint of the present. What was probably most influential, however, was the inventive cinematography and set ups Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland used, including deep focus allowing for the entire scene to be in focus (some actually shot with clever lenses, others using in camera techniques and some post visual effects.) The music, also, by Hitchock fave Bernard Herrmann, was noted quite widely. In and of themselves, these elements weren't used for the first time in Citizen Kane, but they were combined in Welles' debut feature to extraordinary effect.

There is little that I can say about Citizen Kane that has not been said ad nauseam many times since. As mentioned, the film has regularly been touted as the greatest film of all time, something which to an extent needs to be viewed with the cinematic landscape of the time and how the film has influenced so many films and filmmakers hence (it was a particular favourite of the Cahiers du Cinema crew in France, including Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut) that have gone on to create the cinematic canon held up today. However, the film does also stand on its own two feet as a riveting dramatic work, something enjoyable without an understanding of the background and future of cinema.

A truly influential film, a great piece of cinema mastery, and an enduring feat that will continue to please years hence. 5 stars.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

This Is This. This Ain't Something Else. This Is This.

Crikey (good morning, Australia!), talk about taking a tumble. How do you go from a five time Oscar winning film to what was derided as an enormous flop that pretty much brought down a studio? I don't know, but the answer probably lies somewhere within Michael Cimino's brain.

Don't worry, I'm not going to talk about Heaven's Gate, his tragic opus - I haven't seen it, though there is a part of me that wants to. So I will eventually. But today we're here to talk about The Deer Hunter, his masterpiece, as it were. I must say, one of my favourite parts of watching films from, oh, probably about the 1960s to the 1980s is watching the opening credits to see where the stars of today appear. Like Dennis Hopper popping us as 'thug' or whatever it was in Rebel Without A Cause. Or here in The Deer Hunter, where Meryl Streep is listed after John Cazale and John Savage (who?) in the opening credits, after the title. Well, I guess this was only her first Oscar nomination out of the 235128475134 she has received, and only for Supporting, so... 

Robert De Niro takes the lead in this Vietnam War drama, playing Michael, leader of sorts among his friends. These friends include Stan (Cazale), Steven (Savage) and Nick (Christopher Walken.) They're a small town group of friends, steel workers preparing for Steven's marriage, their heading off to the war, and the hunting trip they're embarking on that evening. Shortly the boys find themselves in the midst of the brutal war, held captive, dropped in rivers, mentally and physically tortured - everything you have heard about the war. In fact, I'm sure it's nothing compared to what you have heard, but it's vicious nonetheless. Steven loses both of his legs and ends up in a military hospital back in the US, barely coping and keeping away from his wife; Nick goes mental and remains in Saigon, playing Russian Roulette for money, which he sends to Steven in hospital; Michael is the only one who seems relatively unscathed, though the trauma of what has happened to his friends and his promise not to leave Vietnam without Nick haunt him into returning, where he finds Nick seriously deranged, wracked with guilt and a complete sense of loss brought about by his conviction that he was the only one of his friends to survive. 

It's a long and haunting film, with much of it set in and after the Vietnam war, which doesn't make for easy viewing. The performances are uniformly terrific. De Niro holds his cards close to his chest but plays them at the perfect moment. Walken especially is incredibly haunting, his happy-go-lucky fun-filled character turning so severely to something so remote and removed so very convincingly. He deserved his Oscar for this film. Streep, as Nick's girlfriend kept completely in the dark as to what has happened to him, is terrific in an early role, quite small, torn between her love for her fiancee and the comfort of Michael's arms.

The script, by Deric Washburn with a bunch of others on story duty, is studied and measured, perfectly paced and pitched along the way. Cimino gives the film plenty of room to breath, allowing for a harrowing journey through the psychology of the characters and an insight into the devastating effects of war on those it spits out at the other end. A fairly typical score from Stanley Myers is worked into brilliant sound design to work your emotions in a standard but effective way. It all combines to a solid three hours of hard-going but worthwhile cinema. 5 stars.

I Do Barbara Rush.

I'm not quite sure I understand the allure of Warren Beatty as an uber-sex symbol of the 1970s. I mean, sure, he's not ugly, but why did people fall over themselves to get into bed with him? Power and money would have something to do with it, I'm sure, but still...

Shampoo, produced by Beatty and written by him and Robert Towne of Chinatown fame, is another of the New Hollywood films of the 1970s, directed by Hal Ashby. Beatty also stars as hairdresser George, not gay as one always hopes their hairdressers to be, putting him in a position where he can sleep with pretty much any woman he wants - and he does. He's in a relationship with budding actress and bimbo Jill (Goldie Hawn), and having an affair with Felicia (Lee Grant.) At the same time he is trying to set up his own salon to escape the clutches of his nagging employer, and to this end goes to Felicia's husband, who is interested in investing in the new venture thanks to the support of his wife. While meeting with the man, Lester (Jack Warden), he discovers that Lester also has a mistress - Jackie (Julie Christie.) George and Jackie have previously had a relationship, and Lester's interest in George's business creates some very tricky situations for the younger man, not helped by his rabid sexuality that even sees him bed Felicia and Lester's young daughter Lorna (Carrie Fisher in her feature film debut.)

All of this confusion leads George to begin to assess his sexual looseness and crave the simplicity of stability. After George, Lester, Jackie and Jill all end up at an excessive party together and Lester and Jill catch George and Jackie going at it on the floor, George seems to realise that it is indeed Jackie that he wants, but his proposal to her comes too late - Lester has left Felicia and is taking Jackie away so the two of them can live happily ever after, leaving our protagonist alone and despondent.

The film is set in the late 1960s, and the sexual liberation of the period is front and centre. Everyone seems to be having sex with everyone - it gets hard to keep up. The script is great, not holding anything back as it delves into the desires and beastial urges of both man and woman. Beatty was a little underwhelming, seemingly confused through the entire film, not really allowing his character any strength, instead trying to muster up sympathy from the viewer for his unfortunate predicament whereby he is desirable to every woman who comes across his path - boohoo, poor George. Hawn proves she can play the bimbo, something she has done many times since, and Christie as always is sublime. Grant won an Oscar for her portrayal, which seems a little odd as I think she is one of the less memorable characters, but oh well.

All in all, it's an entertaining little romp with beautiful production design (though maybe that's just a love of the way people and spaces were dressed in the 1960s...) that somehow falls short of being the masterpiece of sexual freedom and the 70s comedown that it so desperately wants to be. 3.5 stars.

Informers Inform, Burglars Burgle, Murderers Murder and Lovers Love.

Aah, Breathless (À bout de souffle.) You iconic piece of cinema, you. There is so much about Breathless that keeps me coming back for more, fifty years after the film released, close to a decade after I first saw it. As one of the defining films of the French New Wave, that period of cinematic awesomeness (yes, I just said 'awesomeness') that began in the late-50s and early 60s with films like Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour, both from 1959, Breathless helped to bring recognition and acclaim to the movement from around the world. What is it about the film? There are so many things. I once wrote a paper on it, in fact. I could go on for hours. But I won't. I'm going to break it down in simple terms.

Petty criminal Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is on the run from the cops after doing something a little more than petty - shooting a police officer. His American girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg) hides him, not knowing the extent of his crimes. The two romp around Paris for a while before Patricia gives him away. Resigned to his fate, Michel then decides to flee, bringing about the beautiful and tragic final protracted death scene.

That's the basic plot out of the way. Director Jean-Luc Godard helped to revolutionise film with the success of this film. Sure, he wasn't the first to use the idea of jump cuts (it's been years since I saw it, but didn't The 400 Blows also use them in the scene where Jean-Pierre Léaud is being interviewed by the principal or whatever it was also feature them? I might be wrong), but here they were so informative to the narrative, so strong in their purpose, so noticeable in how they were used.

Yes, Godard wasn't the first director to 'take it to the streets', as it were. In fact, this whole concept of taking it to the streets was one of the defining motivations behind the French New Wave. As a rebuttal to the stagnant studio system, the freedom of smaller cameras and running around shooting without lights with a handheld camera on the streets of Paris was pretty much the whole idea - freeing you up to work with very little money, anyone you wanted to work with, anywhere you wanted to do it, with the flexibility to adapt and change as you went along. A truly dynamic notion that works initially before ego and power gets in the way (a problem with virtually all New Wave movements, especially ones based on simplicity), within France this gave us the work of some truly incredible directors - lets add Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette to the few already mentioned.

As a film goes, the film is excellent regardless, entertaining, gripping, stylish but lo-fi relatable. Belmondo and Seberg pull off their roles with aplomb, and the few supports give their own little individual flair. It looks terrific, with cinematographer Raoul Coutard taking Godard's brief for a reportage style film seriously and giving the fictional tale a similar reality to that which held Close-Up thirty years later. 5 stars.


Close-Up by Abbas Kiarostami is another film that is sitting in my DVD collection back in Australia that I kept meaning to watch but never seemed to get around to it. For shame. And so now, when I have a perfectly good, possibly unopened copy in Australia, I'm paying to hire it out here in London. Well done me. 

Close-Up was arguably the Iranian filmmaker's break-through into the Western world. Active throughout the Iranian New Wave beginning in the 1970s, following this film he went on to success with the likes of Taste Of Cherry and Through The Olive Trees, recently putting out Shirin.

Utilising Kiarostami's documentary style, Close-Up tells the story of a man, Hossein Sabzian, who befriends a wealthy family and convinces them that he is the renowned director Mohsan Makhmalbaf. Saying he wants to use their house as a location and possibly use their son as an actor, the ruse is kept up for a few days before the family patriarch decides that he isn't the real Makhmalbaf. A journalist gets wind of the story and the fact that the police are on their way to arrest the con-man, with the film being told in flashback through the trial of Hossein, being filmed and questioned by Kiarostami.

Close-Up really feels like a documentary. All of the people involved are playing themselves (well, except when Sabzian is pretending to be Mokhmalbaf, but then he's pretending to be himself pretending to be Mokhmalbaf, so...), and Kiarostami's appearance as the documenter aids the conviction. A rough film set in the suburbs, Kiarostami keeps it simple and engaging with some striking visuals and snappy dialogue. As a non-political glimpse inside Iranian society immediately after their Iraq war, it is fascinating. 

A beautiful teaser into the work of Kiarostami, who is one of those directors that I've heard about all of my life and never brought myself around to seeing his work, I'm glad the introduction has been made and look forward to filling in my knowledge of his canon. 4 stars.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Conscience... That Stuff Can Drive You Nuts!

It was so hard not to put the immortal monologue portion from On The Waterfront as the title here. 'You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.' There is a damn good reason that line is immortal, is one of the great recognisable lines - because it is so freaking good. Not just that the words themselves are brilliant, but that Marlon Brando's delivery of them is so incredibly moving. Just thinking about them, about his performance in the back of that car, makes my entire inner being heavy. Far beyond bringing tears to the eyes (it doesn't do that to me), it makes me want to lie down in a dark room and just give up. Yes, it is that good.

The whole film is very good, in fact, but it will be that scene that will stick with you for its sheer power. Brando plays Terry, an ex fighter who is now a longshoreman working the docks in New Jersey (I assumed is was NJ - correct me if I'm wrong.) He is valued by mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) who runs the docks, and assists in an early murder of someone who Johnny wasn't too keen on. Subsequently, he befriends the man's sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and mourns the responsibility he feels for the role he played in her sorrow. Edie, in turn, is angry about what happened to her brother and the position she can see her father and Terry in, introducing Terry to Father Barry (Karl Malden), who is determined to break the mob's stranglehold on the docks and see fairness instilled in the workplace. Terry's opinions change and his loyalties shift as love blossoms, seeing him taking a central role in his own self-actuation as something more than just a bum.

The film won eight Oscars, and was notably nominated three times in the Best Supporting Actor race, for Cobb, Malden and Rod Steiger - none of them won, presumably because of a serious split in the voting for them. Director Elia Kazan deservedly picked up his second Oscar for his turn helming the film, drawing out such incredible performances to yield five acting nominations and two wins (for Brando and Saint in a bit of a category-fraud Supporting Actress result), as well as delicately weaving the film through melodramatic possibilities to keep it in check and in touch with the reality of the situation. Beautifully shot in black and white by Boris Kaufman, the film is a true classic of American cinema, heeding its post-noir placement with Kazan showing his European roots in his handling of what is ostensibly a gangster tale. 5 stars.

Recycle! It's Important.

So, I've recently somewhat befriended an American filmmaker based here in London called Engi Wassef, and, with another guy I now know Tyrone Walker-Hebborn, she is working on putting together a film through his Genesis Productions company - it's the spawn of the cinema he owns in neighbouring Whitechapel known, interestingly enough, as Genesis. So, Tyrone is also going to look at distribution, and to that end he has just released Engi's documentary from a couple of years back called Marina Of The Zabbaleen, which I checked out at the premiere, what, a bit over a week ago. As I know the filmmaker, I'm not about to write a proper critical review or give it stars, as I think that's an awkward position. But, I watched it and it's on my film count, so I've got to put something down.

The Zabbaleen are traditionally the rubbish collectors of Cairo, displaced people who would take the rubbish off the streets, sort it and recycle it. As such the rate of recycling in Cairo has been very, very high, especially when compared with western nations. It's quite ingenious really - different groups or families will go after one certain part of the garbage, say, newspapers or aluminium cans. They sort them and then resell them to whatever company will use it, will recycle it. They don't earn much money, but they survived, and they kept everything clean. However, recently the Egyptian government has started giving out contracts for waste disposal to large multinationals, meaning the Zabbaleen are out of work and the garbage is not recycled. Further, with the recent swine flu epidemic, the pigs they used to keep, both to eat and to keep their suburb free of the food waste that was invariably left over from rubbish collection, have been slaughtered, meaning the area has become less sanitary.

The film looks at this (well, the pig thing happened too recently to be included, but it's an interesting fact) and shows you these people, focusing on one family, with special attention paid to one of the daughters Marina who seems to show ability that may allow her to move into fields other than those attested by birthright. It's a very interesting examination of a social and industrial curio that I had no idea existed. Indeed, I doubt most people have any idea this existed. Apparently, despite the fact that the Zabbaleen suburb is quite central in Cairo, many residents have no idea where it is. It is such an ignored, yet extremely valuable part of the Egyptian society, and Wassef has shone a light on it against all of the odds, illegally as it were, without permission and risking her own safety and freedom.

Definitely worth seeing, catch it now at Genesis if you're in London.


Somersault came pretty much at the most recent nadir of the Australian film industry. That year, the percentage of box office commanded by local product in the Australian industry was pretty much at its lowest ever, if my memory serves me correctly. There were very, very few films of any interest released that year, meaning that Somersault also swept the board at the Australian Film Institute Awards (AFIs), winning thirteen statues in every single category from fifteen nominations, beating the previous record held by the eleven wins for The Piano a decade or so earlier. Is it a better film than The Piano? Hell no! Is it a bad film? No, it is not.

I'm glad I rewatched it. I've been meaning to for years, because my initial impression was so tempered by the press surrounding it and the awards it was winning, which would suggest that it is the best Australian film of all time, something it clearly isn't. It was the best film of that year, however, but still. And it did herald the arrival on the scene of current bright young things Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington, so that's something.

Cate Shortland wrote and directed this coming of age film set around Jindabyne, in one of the very few areas in Australia where you can consistently play in the snow. During winter at least. It really is a desert continent. Heidi (Cornish) is sixteen and caught up in desire for her mother's boyfriend (Damien de Montemas), causing her swift evacuation from her home in Canberra, taking herself to the lake town of Jindabyne. She finds a job, is helped out by motel proprietor Irene (Lynette Curran) and begins to explore her sexuality in self-destructive ways, though she always comes back to Joe (Worthington), with whom she begins a relationship of sorts. Joe has his own issues to deal with, including a brief homo one with older Richard (Erik Thomson), but the two are inexplicably drawn to the damaged nature of the other. Eventually, Heidi's ways get to Irene and she tries to kick her out, but Heidi breaks down and is instead rescued by her mother.

I've stated before that I'm not a huge Abbie Cornish fan, with the exception of Candy where I did quite love her by the end of it, and Somersault is no exception. Worthington is capable in his role, but there are no fireworks. He's actually better than I remembered him (probably my memory was affected by the subsequent dire Macbeth, which was truly terrible in so many ways), quite enjoyable really. Curran is great, playing that older, wiser Australian woman nailed by Noni Hazlehurst but also pulled off here, and I quite like Thomson in most anything he does - he seemed to channel a lot of the qualities brought to the older, gentler gay man by Peter Phelps in Lantana: his affectations are very similar.

Two points the film really, really has going for it. Firstly, the cinematography is spectacular, truly luscious. Robert Humphreys won everything going, with good reason, for his stunning work in the snow, playing with white and colour, making the landscape and then the details inside a true character in the story. Secondly, the score by Decoder Ring is phenomenal. I forgot how much I loved it and had it on repeat back when the film was out, but I'm reloving it now. Seriously, check it out. And then go and buy the soundtrack. Extraordinary.

All in all, I remembered the film as maybe 2.5 stars, but I'm giving it 3.5 stars. It's a solid effort, a vignette and a bit messy, but there are enough elements to make it worthwhile.

How Much For My Other Kid?

Woops. Turns out my weekend wasn't spent catching up on here after all.

Syriana. I see what writer/director Stephen Gaghan was trying to do. It worked so well for him with his screenplay for Traffic, after all. But it didn't work for me here. All those multiple narrative strands revolving around oil and the Middle East - it was noble, a valiant effort, but ultimately it was just too much going on, making it damned hard to actually know what the hell was going on.

George Clooney plays a CIA agent assigned to assassinate various people in Iran, but keeps doing things to upset his employer. Matt Damon is a Swiss based energy analyst whose son dies at a party thrown by an Emir, and out of sympathy his company wins a big oil contract. Damon becomes his economic advisor as he tries to modernise and bring his country away from its dependence of oil in the long term for growth. Chris Cooper is the head of a major American energy company merging with a smaller power, who are currently losing their grip on the oil fields of the same Emirate after said Emir grants a contract to a Chinese company. The merger is shady, but they have a big law firm (headed by Christopher Plummer) give the impression of due diligence by going through all of their documents and files. Unfortunately for them, the lawyer in charge, Jeffrey Wright, is too damn good and starts to find stuff out.

I guess that's about it. It's a great cast (also with Amanda Peet and William Hurt), and they all do fine. Strangely, I particularly liked Damon - his conflicted father throwing himself into work in the aftermath of tragedy was very well crafted. I don't fully understand the acclaim given to Clooney - he was fine, but there was nothing really exciting in his performance. It was just there. Wright I'm slowly falling in love with, each performance I'm seeing adding to my respect for him. Why he's not a bigger star is anybody's guess.

Score by Alexandre Desplat. I'm getting to a point where I think I'll just assume every score is by Desplat. Seriously, does the man never sleep? And they're always good! Damn him and his talent and work ethic. Robert Elswit makes the film kind of look like Traffic. It was nice lensing, but it didn't bring much of a new look to the region. Also reminded me a bit of films like Three Kings and Jarhead.

All up, a bit meh. One of those films that would probably make a lot more sense if I watched it again, but for this I just don't have the inspiration. Unlike, say, Mulholland Drive, which I didn't really understand but I knew I loved it and had to watch it repeatedly, Syriana probably won't become a brilliant film if I watch it again - it'll just give me clarity of storyline. And that's now what narratives are all about. 2.5 stars.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Am I Supposed To Still Hear You?

2007s Awake definitely has an interesting base concept, that of remaining conscious though unable to move, speak, anything whilst under anesthesia. It opens up a whole range of things that could happen to the patient or those around them. I guess, even the rest of the story in Awake, that secret wife Sam (Jessica Alba) has conspired with surgeon Jack (Terence Howard) to murder patient Clay (Hayden Christensen) for his wealth and the malpractice settlement, which would naturally go to the widow. It's just that the film is executed so terribly badly.

Who is Joby Harold? Anyone? He wrote and directed the film, with nothing listed on his IMDb page as far as previous credits go. He's married to the producer, though, so maybe that got him the gig. It looked pretty enough (helped by the presence of Christensen... did I get across that I think he's real perty here? In case I didn't, he's real perty), in a very generic Hollywood teen thriller kind of way. But the script is. Appalling. Everyone just muddles their way through (with the exception of the fabulous Lena Olin as Clay's mother! She's the only saving grace of the film. Well, her and Hayden's prettiness), so you never care overly much about what's going on. And then it's over - it's a short movie. I can see that it's trying to power along, it kind of almost gets there in points, but it doesn't ever hit the mark. It's just not a very good film. I'm sorry. It's not.

Why is Hayden doing roles like this, when we know what he can do from Life As A House? Did he just get lazy after the success of Star Wars turned him into a marquee name? Such a pity. Apparently he replaced Jared Leto in the role as well, so no matter how it had turned out, it was going to be pretty. Small favours. 1.5 stars.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

A Cock, In A Frock, On A Rock.

There are three films from 1990s Australian cinema that people seem to keep coming back to when referring to that little renaissance that occurred in the first half of the decade, when the films seemed to not only be good, but also to connect in a major way with audiences both locally and internationally. They were referenced in the early noughties when films like Lantana, Moulin Rouge! and The Bank came through, and will be referenced more and more over the next 12 to 24 months after such successes as Samson And Delilah, Mao's Last Dancer and Bran Nue Dae. These three films also seemed to birth some of the brightest stars to come out of Australia from that period - even though some of them were known before, this cemented them in the eyes of the world.

We had Strictly Ballroom from 1992, which won at Cannes, BAFTA, Toronto and was nominated for a Golden Globe. Sure, none of the actors from the film went on to anything major, but the director, some guy named Baz, seems to have done pretty well for himself. We had Muriel's Wedding (it's Mariel...) from 1994, which was a BAFTA and Globe nominee and gave us Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths and whose director, P.J. Hogan, went on to films such as My Best Friend's Wedding.

And then there was this one, The Adventures Of Priscilla: Queen Of The Desert, also from 1994, which I'm sure is in no small way responsible for Hugo Weaving's subsequent successes, as well as reminding everyone that Guy Pearce is not only hot hot hot, but also a terrific actor. This last also gave us the only Oscar recognition from these three films (yes, in craft, but we'll take what we can get thank you very much.)

Priscilla is the unlikely story of three drag queens from the Imperial Hotel in Sydney (when is that ever going to open again??? Seriously, unless it's finally reopened in the last couple of months, it has been closed for, what, two years for renovations. Or three years. A hella long time, whatever) taking a road trip through the Australian outback on a bus named Priscilla, heading to a residency in Alice Springs. Weaving, playing Tick, and Pearce, playing Felicia, are joined by aging transexual Bernadette (Terence Stamp) as they drink, drug and joke their way across the country, encountering bigots, fans, flies and fearsome terrain. When their bus breaks down they get down with the local Aboriginies for my favourite disco classic rendition in the fabulous soundtrack, Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive dance routine accompanied by didgeridoos, before finding themselves rescued by the kind and non-judgmental Bob (Bill Hunter), who gets them on the road again before deciding to accompany them to Alice. As they go along they meet local hostility towards homosexuality (still rampant in rural Australia - the hostility, not the homosexuality) and secrets are spilled, meaning much more awaits them in Alice Springs than most people expected.

Technically, it's not a terrific film. The editing is a little sloppy, the direction a little hammy, and the script has some decent sized holes in it. What wins for this film and will forever leave it in my head and my heart as a brilliant classic are the soundtrack of old ABBA hits, the incredible costumes by Oscar winner Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel, and the brutally honest portrayals by the three leads. Tick is scared of what awaits him but determined to keep up appearances, Felicia is camp and over the top but hiding sadness and fear inside, and Bernadette is the older, wiser sage, delivering advice and words of warning. But through it all, they want to have fun every step of the way.

Brilliant one-liners and production design from Owen Patterson abound, making this a truly and incredibly quotable film. Well worth checking out if you haven't seen it already, and if you have, I'm sure it is one that is well overdue for revisiting. 5 stars (despite the holes, it is a great achievement.)

Girl's Don't Fall In Love With Fun.

Brokeback Mountain... I don't know what to say about it. I really don't. I've watched it so many times, and every time it burrows its way inside me and makes me feel things I didn't realise I could feel. Truly.

I remember reading the short story on which this is based, many years ago, long before the film was released. I'd been following the development of the film for a while as well, hearing different names attached to it, noting the length of time between when it wrapped principal photography and finally appeared at Venice. I just kept waiting and waiting, having heard that the script had been touted for years in Hollywood as the best script that would never get made (got that wrong, didn't they!)

What struck me when I first saw the film in late 2005 after almost bursting into tears when trying to get a taxi in 45 degree celcius Sydney heat to a media screening of the film saw me arrive just in the nick of time, was that the film plays so remarkably close to the original short story by Annie Proulx. Quite remarkably. The story is, after all, short - my memory is telling me it runs somewhere in the vicinity of forty pages. The film is somewhat longer - a little over two hours. Definitely not even a short feature film. But screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, and director Ang Lee, hone and hone the film, allowing every second to count while stretching them out to the lifetime of the characters, giving Jack (Jake Gyllenhall) and Ennis (Heath Ledger) so much room to breathe at and to each other, and away from each other, to their wives Lureen (Anne Hathaway) and Alma (Michelle Williams), their children, their families. The land itself becomes a character, imposing beauty with the sharp edge of hostility everywhere they went.

But it's all about their love, and the trauma that brings to the two. It is quite obviously a gay love story - they are two men - but it is really just like any story of illicit love. What they do could get them killed, in much the same way as Romeo and Juliet operated. They hide their love and try and go on as normal, and the most overtly political statement of the film is a look at the destruction to the traditional family unit that those lies cause.

But Brokeback Mountain doesn't set out to be political. It is a love story between two cowboys in a time when a love story between two guys wasn't even a possibility out in Wyoming. And that love story is heartbreakingly beautiful. A huge credit has to go to Ossana and McMurtry for the stunning screenplay, with definite credit to Proulx as much of the dialogue did originate in her short story, and the lines spoken are oft apt to reach into your chest and stop your heart. The actors took a bow of some description with Oscar noms for Ledger, Gyllenhall and Williams, though supports from Randy Quaid, Linda Cardellini and Anna Faris, as well as Hathaway in her breakaway from her previous children-orientated roles, are notable. Lee's touch directing the picture saw him walk away with the golden man, and it truly is one of the most gently and simply directed films I have seen, but with power running through every scene. Gustavo Santaolalla created the instantly recognisable original score, which I often find myself quietly listening to in moments of reflection, and Rodrigo Prieto captures the images with serene beauty, as well as pulling off a memorable momentary cameo as a Mexican prostitute.

This feels like it rambles all over the place, formless, but that's how the film makes me feel. And there are so many quotes, phrases and words from the film that could be been referenced here in place of structure, but that would only serve to cheapen the power of them when spoken in the picture. Just let it be said that the final scene, the final unfinished sentence inside Ennis' trailer, is just about the only scene that, whether I'm reading the short story or watching the film, will floor me every time. Never a dry eye, and that is unlike any other film I've seen. 5 stars.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

We Just Ran Out Of Wine. What Are We Going To Do About It?

Quickly, quickly. Am so behind on these. 13, in fact, not including this one, or the one I'm about to write. Oh dear. I think my weekend activities have now been decided for me.

Withnail & I has been on my radar for years and years years, since an old colleague told me I had to see it as I'd love it. In fact, I believe she said that I was quite similar to Withnail. Looking back, I don't know how to take that... The film is apparently based reasonably closely on the life of writer/director Bruce Robinson at the time the film is set, in 1969. Richard E Grant makes his film debut as Withnail, a struggling actor living with I (this is how he's credited in the film... actually, he's credited as '& I' but that is way to weird to have as a character name in a writeup - he's played by Paul McGann) in a rundown flat in Camden Town, London. They are both impoverished alcoholics (Withnail much more so), struggling to find coins to feed the gas meter and hiding out in bars because at least there it is warm. Waiting on news on acting roles, they decide to escape the city for the country home of I's wealthy uncle, only to discover that it is run down, freezing, foodless and surrounded by hostile locals. The uncle, Monty (Richard Griffiths), turns up in the middle of the night to join them, erroneously informed by pathological liar Withnail that I is a homosexual. Monty, being a raging queen, wants a crack, but I saves himself with a lie that he and Withnail are in fact in a committed, closeted relationship. I quickly tires of Withnail, and receives a telegram saying that he has received a part, with the two soon returning to London, I cutting off his hippy locks and heading on his merry way, leaving Withnail to despair alone with a bottle in a park in the rain.

That's roughly the gist of the film, but it doesn't do justice to the hilarious writing contained within. Brilliant, razor sharp and often lightning fast dialogue crackles between the eponymous pair, back and forthing the way only good friends are able to do. The exploration of the end of the 1960s and the oncoming comedown and loss of idealistic hope brought about by the arrival of the new decade is perfect, with Withnail hanging on to his dream while I goes off to accept reality. My friend (another one, who actually dragged me around to watching this film) said that she didn't really like it the first time she watched it as a kid, liked it when she older, and now psychotically loves it, and I can see that this could be very easy to do. I'd like to watch it again, knowing what is going on, as it would allow me to take pleasure in some of the finer details she pointed out as the film went along, which one wouldn't notice until one has the time to look past the foreground action. Definitely worthwhile, especially for fans of British black comedy. 4 stars.