Friday, 30 July 2010

Who Wants That Texture In Their Mouth?

Steven Soderbergh... well, he likes to keep himself busy. In 2008 he had the epic four hour Che extravaganza (which I will watch in one sitting one day when I have that much time free...), in 2009 he knocked out The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant!, and he so far this year has And Everything Is Going Fine with The Last Time I Saw Michael Gregg also listed as a 2010 release and three more titles in the works for next year. And he still manages to hit with some degree of critical and commercial consistency. How? I'm assume the devil's work.

The Informant! saw him working with his Ocean's trilogy collaborator Matt Damon, netting Damon a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical. Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a long time employee of an Illinois-based company involved in the production of lysine. One day he spills to an FBI agent that a number of executives, including himself, have been involved in the fixing of the price of lysine globally for many years. Mark goes informant for the Feds, spending years collecting hundreds of hours of audio and visual evidence to be used against his employer and many other companies around the world - this is a mammoth undertaking.

As it all progresses the stress and strain of his role start to see Mark unravel. His mind gradually topples and he shows signs of bipolar disorder - plus he decides to embezzle a fairly significant sum of money. All the while he is convinced that, after the collapse of pretty much all of the higher ranking employees at his company, the board will see that he is looking after their best interests and promote him to run the company. All in all, his deranged antics see him put in jail for three times as long as those criminals he initially set out to bring down.

Yeah, Damon was good. It was quite an entertaining role, and he pulled it off properly. Historically, I've never been a huge Matt Damon fan, but I'm starting to warm to him a little more. Still, I've seen him do better. Melanie Lynskey, who plays his wife, seems to ham it up a fair bit, which kind of works in a way, but probably not to the extent she does it. Soderbergh's take on the entire film (apparently a true story) seems to caricature it somewhat - presumably to make the idea of lysine-fixing entertaining to the general public. I mean, this isn't the tobacco industry. You can't pull through with an Insider. What the hell is lysine anyway?

That's all I really have to say on the film. Also because I have to go and get ready for work. And really, it was all just a little nothing. It was entertaining, but very easily forgettable. 2.5 stars.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

You Stole My Life, And I'm Stealing Your Suitcase.

Cannes in 2004 had a whole bunch of big names competing for the top prize. Already here we've looked at a couple - Oldboy and Tropical Malady (from this year's winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul) measured up against such directors as two-time Palme d'Or winner Emir Kusturica, a new film from previous winners the Coen brothers, Wong Kar Wei, Olivier Assayas, and the eventual winner that year Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. It wasn't necessarily a banner year on the French coast (compared to the pedigree of this year, for example), but it seems to have made a decent play at making its mark in this here blog.

That was a very longwinded way of getting to the point. The Consequences of Love, Paulo Sorrentino's uber-stylish second feature also played in the competition. It is a beautiful and pointed, very precise film strikingly shot by Luca Bigazzi, rendered somewhat distant by its own insistence on pitch-perfect on-screen beauty. 

Titta (Toni Servillo) has spent the last eight years living in a hotel in Switzerland, separated from his family who don't really want anything to do with him, doing a mundane delivery job for the Italian mafia as a punishment for losing an extraordinary amount of their money on the stock market. He is too afraid to start anything with Sofia (Olivia Magnani), the girl behind the bar, because he doesn't want to complicate things. His brother, a flighty character, convinces him to leap off and go after her, and Titta follows his advice. How much of what follows can be attributed to this action is debatable, but it must be said that things do indeed start to go wrong.

It is truly beautiful to watch. From the opening shot of a big long hallway with a porter on a travelator you know you're in for something special. And then there is the beautiful 180 degree spinning shot of Titta in the hotel room - stunning. Matched with some exceptional music, both original by Pasquale Catalano and existing from bands such as Mogwai, it truly lends an incredible backdrop from which to build the characters.

And don't get me wrong, the characters do build. Titta, who is the undeniable focus of every moment of the film, is a hard character to get into, but he does let his guard down and gradually allow you to see inside his emptiness and hopelessness - he has been almost entirely hollowed out emotionally and spiritually by his strange form of imprisonment by the Italian mafia. What hasn't been emptied, however, is quickly given over to Sofia. Servillo especially excels, dominating the characterisation. But you're never really allowed to see totally inside him, or, for that matter, Sofia. His grand gestures are nervous, with fear of failure that you know he is going to try and convince himself he doesn't feel but which is electrically charged through every movement. And Sofia, with her reactions, shows her fear of all of the unknowns surrounding the strange man who lives in the hotel. Even after all of his secrets are spilled, however, this fear still seems to permeate. And while you are swept away by everything you are watching as the film moves towards its terrific climax, I never truly found myself engaged with the people within the film. I was there intellectually, fine, it got me there. But I was still entirely able to switch it off at the end, say I was done and move on. What stands out to me are the visuals without an emotional attachment - unlike, for example, Days of Heaven where the visuals may well have been what stood out but they brought with them the associated feelings announced through the narrative.

I don't really know where to place this film. I liked it. I really liked it. I thought it was very entertaining, it kept me watching, I was never bored. But I also never felt. It's a strange feeling (and one that I'm going to be repeating soon when I get up to writing up a certain summer blockbuster that everyone has been talking about...), but it's not necessarily a bad one. I am convinced, however, that it could have been that little bit more, that it should have been a little bit more. Producer Domenico Procacci has brought us plenty of films that manage that before (see Gomorrah) but here he couldn't quite get all the pieces aligned. But there is enough promise to make me look forward to my next engagement with Sorrentino, and indeed Procacci (whose relationship with Rolf de Heer will always keep me intrigued.) 4 stars.

A Magical Protection.

Ousmane Sembene was really the first African director to achieve any international prominence. Starting his creative career as a writer, a novelist, he moved into filmmaking with his first feature hitting in 1966. His films won acclaim and attention around the world, seeing him serve prominently on festival juries and picking up prizes right through until his last film in 2004 before his death in 2007.

Moolaadé follows his themes of films with a political and social urgency. One not afraid to speak out, in his final offering to the cinematic universe he tackles the controversial subject of female circumcision, something that seems to be on and off getting much attention in the western world over the last decade. In Sembene's film (which picked up a couple of prizes at Cannes and the NSFC Award for Best Foreign Language Film) we look at how a village possibly on the verge of a cultural shift away from the practice moves through the vilification and exclusion of those opposed, and where the support comes from.

Like so many Sembene films, the protagonist, the strong one, is a woman. Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly) is a mother who a number of years before the events in the film refused to have her daughter circumcised, knowing the risk that she may die or that childbirth might become a tortuous procedure for her (more tortuous than I can only imagine it is already...) Six girls are set to be circumcised, but they escape. Two drown themselves in a well rather than submit themselves to what could happen, while the other four run to Collé to seek refuge. She provides this for them in the form of Moolaadé, or magical protection, a rope strung across her property that no one dares to cross. This unleashes a string of problems within the village, with people variously for or against her, some of them women, some of them men. The elders feel that she is bringing shame, and they encourage her husband, who is initially against involvement, to beat her publicly to try and force her to revoke the protection, but when she is close to collapse, having held her ground, a merchant who has previously been friendly with her steps in to stop the spectacle. The repercussions for him are deadly, but the greater good this achieves for the village is obvious.

It is a very different experience watching a film like this shot by a native of the area, starring natives of the area. Unlike, say, Hotel Rwanda, where ostensibly foreigners pitch in with their views on what is going on, Sembene looks at this through the eyes of someone in tune with the traditions and the village politics involved. The correctness or barbarity of the practice is not clearly defined - yes, it is more than likely horrifically wrong, but there is a tradition here, no matter where that tradition came from or how long it has been practiced. There is a level of entrenchment here that has to be recognised and dealt with before the ceremony can be entirely excised. Sembene moves through narrative with his own view quite plainly out on show (with the sympathetic characters being those against the circumcision, and the people in charge of the ceremony portrayed in menacing anonymity) but without ever closing off the alternate angles and viewpoints dictating the arguments for.

And his method of making the film is much more... well, real. The film feels a lot closer to truth, probably due to the much simpler production methods presumably dictated by the resources available to a film of this type and his own understanding of the society he is portraying. Their day to day activities aren't romanticised or even emphasised, simply shown as a backdrop to the dominant narrative, necessities within the film.

Moolaadé emerges from all of this more as an interesting insight, however, than a fascinating motion picture. The entire way along it feels a little emotionally distant, it doesn't quite puncture through to the feeling that one might have expected from something with such a passionate discourse surrounding it. It somehow felt light. It didn't quite make it all the way through to the dramatic potential of the material. I'm sure this in many ways had to do with the relative inexperience of much of the cast and the constrictions of local, truthful filmmaking with the region, but I feel like it could have cut through a little closer to the bone.

That being said, it is a bold statement, definitely valuable even as a launching point for further discussion of the subject both cinematically and generally. And as far as an example of how films can be made in Africa by Africans, there are far worse possibilities. The film definitely warrants closer inspection of Sembene's back catalogue. 3.5 stars.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Let Me Tell You About My Mother.

OK, I watched this one ages ago and forgot to put it on my list, and so have only just remembered it. Still have to put something in for it, though!

I think I'm going to need to watch Blade Runner again. It's another film that's been on my list for years - I studied film noir back in uni and as part of that looked at neo-noir and its presence through the last fifty or sixty years of filmmaking, which of course featured Ridley Scott's 1982 film. But I never got around to watching it (like so many of the films that I wrote about... seriously, I wrote essays on any number of films that I have never seen, and got good marks for them too. The power of the online journal. But now I'm trying to make amends.)

But yes, Blade Runner. I finished it and wondered what all of the fuss is about. Which is why I think I have to watch it again. Because, I must be honest, I watched it in two parts. I started watching it when utterly exhausted and part way through I realised I had no idea what was going on and just needed to sleep. So the next day I started it from where I could remember what was happening, but in retrospect I'm not entirely sure I did remember all that had come before my break. I think I should have started from the beginning. But I didn't. So this is what I have to play with.

It is 2019 and Los Angeles is a dank megalopolis, a dirty grey hulking mass of city dominated by the headquarters for the Tyrell Corporation, a company who manufacture 'replicants', humanoid robots used to replace humans in dangerous or less desirable areas. These replicants are not allowed on Earth, but for the occasions where they manage to find their way back there exist 'blade runners', cops tasked with tracking them down and retiring them. Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, presumably one of the better blade runners out there, who is brought back in from semi-retirement with one last job to do.

The latest version of replicant is so advanced that they are developing emotion - this ain't good. However, the Tyrell Corporation foresaw the possibility of this occurring and as such installed a fail-safe device in all replicants - a four year lifespan. But these newest versions, they're developing emotions pretty damned fast, and three of them (Roy [Rutger Hauer], Zhora [Joanna Cassidy] and Pris [Daryl Hannah]) have escaped back to Earth intent on forcing Tyrell to extend their lifespans so that they can truly discover the humanity within themselves.

Tyrell is also continuing to develop more advanced replicants, and Deckard discovers one of these at the Corporation - Rachael (Sean Young) is so advanced it takes four or five times longer to determine the truth about her because she has actually had young memories implanted within her. She is so advanced she is virtually undetectable, and in fact has no idea that she is not human. This poses a problem for Deckard, who is attracted to her and troubled by the ethics of the situation.

So, the usual hijinks occur - Deckard chases around bad guys, who are maybe not so bad after all, simply wanting the truth to their lives and the possibility to see them develop to their full potential. Of course, they can't, and being slightly less than human that gives them no qualms about killing those they feel are responsible.

I like the idea of it. I generally liked the look of it, taking away from the perfect futuristic idea and instead embedding a particular brand of eighties dirt and dinginess. It just... didn't really do anything for me. And I didn't go in with incredible hopes - yes, I've seen it praised as one of the greatest films ever made, but because it had never really appealed to me I was always skeptical about the claim. So I can't say it was disappointing due to expectations. In fact, I expected to go in there and feel the way I came out of it feeling, which is that it was a reasonably average film with elements that I can see could cause people to adore it, but more in a retro-memory kind of way. And this is what makes me think that I need to watch it again, awake, appropriately caffeinated and with a clear mind.

I was about to go through the elements of the film and talk about what I did and didn't like, but I think I should withhold judgement for the time being, not only because I think it needs another viewing but also because it was so long ago. The truth is, I just started to write about the performances and then deleted it to write the complete opposite - I'm too conflicted. The more I think about Blade Runner the more I need to understand it better. The more I need to see it again. So until I get around to it, I'm not even going to give it a rating. It will be a while before I see it again, but hopefully soon we'll see this through to the end.

(Ok, so I just went searching for images from the film, and yeah, the production design is actually phenomenal. Sci-fi films of today try and achieve the texture of this but with all of the CGI it doesn't have the same depth. Yeah, Blade Runner went for dirty, but you could really, really feel it. Modern films, regardless of the level of filth, just don't quite feel the same. I mean, yeah, Gandhi's art direction was good, but seriously, better than this? Which do you think really deserved the Oscar?)

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

John Doe.

Last year's Sin Nombre kept getting spoken of, and I remember seeing it advertised all over the place here in London. But I remember the poster just didn't do anything for me. I'd been a bit out of the loop with what was getting hype, but I'd hear about the film, think of the poster... it never appealed to me. Finally, someone said something that got me thinking about it and I thought, what the hell. Give it a shot. And damned glad I did.

Cary Fukunaga's Spanish language debut film is set in Mexico amongst the gangs and clans. Violence is the way of the streets, and most of the characters we are introduced to engage in it, or want to engage in it. El Casper is a member, initiating young Smiley whilst trying to lead a double life with a girlfriend from the right side of the tracks who is suspecting him of infidelity due to the hidden nature of his thug life. When she confronts him at a meeting of the gang one of Casper's peers rapes her and accidentally kills her. Shortly after they are robbing attempted illegal immigrants on top of a train going through Mexico towards the border with the US when the same gang member talks of raping another girl. Casper's response isn't positive.

Smiley heads back to the gang to tell them of what has happened to be threatened due to not taking action at the time. To make up for it he promises to get Casper before he escapes to the States. Casper meanwhile has managed to befriend the girl he protected, and the two get off the train together before the police pounce on the illegals. They make it to the border, but Smiley awaits...

Visually the film reminded me heavily of City of God, with the colours and the vibrancy, especially when mixed with the underworld themes. And the general vibe of the film radiated similar energy - it's hard to really pin it down beyond the obvious similarities between the two thematically. Like City of God, Sin Nombre is a terrific film.

Fukunaga brings incredible depth of emotion and character to a number of characters who should essentially be unlikeable. Casper is conflicted, this is shown from the outset, but the solidarity of the gang members and their feelings over their land and their fallen comrades is incredibly touching and no less valid than similar feelings outside of the world of violence. Smiley especially should not, by rights, be a sympathetic character, with his overwhelming desire to become a killer and his pledge to seek vengeance against someone who was merely standing up against the threatened rape of an innocent girl. But you do feel for him, you feel for his youth, his naivety and his lost future. In twenty years he will be a hardened criminal with no way out, if he makes it that far, but right now he is someone with no idea what he is getting himself into, but throwing himself into the perceived glamour of the lifestyle with scary gusto.

Relative unknown Adriano Goldman provides the beautiful images that, it has to be said, do seem to be becoming a bit par for the course for this sort of Mexican film. Yes, they are stunning to look at, but it's not entirely original. Props to his work, however, and I look forward to his next collaboration with Fukunaga on the upcoming adaptation of Jane Eyre - something very different indeed. I also remembered loving the music, what I remember of it.

Future husband Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna EPd the film, which was produced by Amy Kaufman, who interestingly EPd Bernal and Luna's breakout film Y Tu Mamá También. A terrific effort all round, definitely worth checking out and one worth remembering. 4.5 stars.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The Audience Left Twenty Years Ago.

Sixty years ago (almost to the day) Paramount released Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, a scathing and withering look at Hollywood star culture, into a film world dominated by cheese, contract players and nothing with any great depth (speaking, obviously, broadly and directed towards the major studios and their dominant popular fare.)

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) was a huge silent film star but is now an old and lonely faded celebrity living in a mammoth, gaudy mansion on Sunset Boulevard. A struggling journalist, Joe (William Holden), on the run from a pair of thugs attempting to repossess his car, turns into the driveway of the house with a flat tyre and ends up being drawn into Gloria's deranged world. She is convinced she is still a star and entreats Joe to help her write the screenplay for her triumphant return to the thousands of people she is sure are waiting breathlessly for her reappearance. Joe, being in a dire financial position, is in no position to say no, and ends up being drawn into the lavish lifestyle Norma provides for him. He is intrigued by her frailty and her belief in herself at the same time as a large part of him is simply indulging her fantasy for as long as he is able.

Joe begins working on another screenplay at night, leaving the mansion to write with Betty (Nancy Olson), a girl he met at a party. This upsets Norma greatly, as she is not only deluded by her own popularity and power within the world of entertainment, but also fiercely protective. Joe does feel guilty for his deception, especially due to his financial dependency on Norma, but he gradually manages to prise himself loose. Norma is missing calls from Paramount, assuming that they wish to finance her completed script, but when it is revealed that the studio merely wants to rent her car for a shoot, her butler and ex-husband Max (Eric von Stroheim) insists on keeping the information from Norma, in much the same way as he keeps from her that he is writing the vast majority of her fanmail. 

Quickly deteriorating mentally, Norma finally loses it all, committing a crime and being arrested at home in front of an enormous number of the press, vultures intent on picking over the corpse of Norma Desmond's career and sanity. She is convinced that these people are here to support her return to the screen, and after descending the staircase closes the film with one of the most memorable lines in cinema history.

Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett co-wrote the script, though only the first third was written when filming began, perhaps explaining how they got away with it. The film's narration (from Joe) does feel hack-ish, but this is totally accurate considering it is coming from the self-confessed hack himself. Norma has the best, most iconic lines, with Joe matching them with dry retorts and sarcasm. For a film put together as it went, the script is terrific, netting Wilder, Brackett and DM Marshman Jr an Oscar, to go with those handed to the art directors and composer Franz Waxman.

All of the lead actors deservedly received Oscar nominations for their terrific performances. Swanson, playing something close to herself, was superb, matched by Holden perfectly, who had to be forced into the role using his performance contract. Wilder draws them in and on, and brings the audience into the horror of the world of dead celebrity perfectly, capturing the fear, desperation and loneliness after the cameras have gone, brutally savaging the world of celebrity that has only become monumentally worse.

5 stars for this classic of cinema and tremendous achievement.

Monday, 12 July 2010

He's Heading Towards Certain Death.

I really didn't know what to expect when I picked up Werner Herzog's Oscar nominated Encounters At The End Of The World. I figured that I would end up watching an interesting and somewhat unique documentary about Antarctica, having learned from Grizzly Man that Herzog isn't your standard documentary filmmaker. I didn't expect to finish having experienced one of the most heartbreaking scenes I've seen on screen.

I'm sure anyone who has seen the film knows what I'm talking about. The suicidal penguin, the penguin who stands, seemingly momentarily confused, before choosing not to follow his fellow penguins and instead begin his solitary trek inland towards certain death. That lone penguin, scampering across the ice, wings outstretched and exaggerating that almost comically pathetic waddle. A black speck on a frozen ocean of white, perhaps deciding that enough is enough. And with Herzog's narration, with his particular views on humanity behind it, the scene is devastating, poignant and all too human.

Herzog took his camera and a cinematographer to McMurdo, the American outpost in Antarctica, a town Herzog describes in no uncertain terms as fundamentally depressing. He outlines what his film is going to be about - it won't (despite the above reference) be another film about fluffy penguins. He is concerned with humanity, with the people who are drawn to this lonely, desolate continent at the bottom of the world, with why they are there, what stories they may have to tell and how they survive so far from... well, everything.

He takes an incredibly unique and interesting view. He doesn't overly judge the people (though his dry commentary does often give some indication as to the humour he must feel regarding some of the personalities he encounters), simply allowing them to tell their stories, and contrasting them to the setting they are within. This setting is not merely the unattractive town, but the stunning beauty of Antarctica we all remember from films such as that one about the fluffy penguins. Herzog also ventures into the water, however, and not merely for the seals (though the sequence on their calls immediately makes me think of The Cove, which will be coming up shortly here...) but also to look at the beauty of single-cell organisms being newly identified constantly, forming beautiful, artistic shapes, with discussions on their intelligence. Herzog invariably manages to bring all of these natural wonders back to analogies about humanity, a feat that cannot be taken lightly and which proves ultimately incredibly interesting.

Yes, a lot of the film feels a little like pop psychology, but the insights and postulations are thought out and presented by Herzog as options rather than conclusions, opening a dialogue with the audience and allowing the viewer to completely fall into the film, emotionally and intellectually invest rather than simply passively enjoy. I left the film affected, though I couldn't begin to explain how. Thinking back on the film now it somehow has more weight than other films, it lies heavier on my body than most that I have seen. Similar to an incredible and powerful drama, which renders you paralysed and forces you to contemplate everything about and around yourself, Encounters At The End Of The World isn't a light film, despite its ostensibly light matter. It is far from depressing, in fact it is very enjoyable, but expect it to hit you far deeper than you might have thought. 5 stars.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Pianos & Porn.

Have I mentioned today how much I love Isabelle Huppert? No? Well there is no time like the present. And combine Huppert with Michael Haneke - glory.

The Piano Teacher (or La Pianiste) obviously clicked, with the Cannes jury at least - Huppert won Best Actress (her second such recognition from the festival), her costar Benoît Magimel won Best Actor and Haneke won the Grand Jury Prize. Based on Elfriede Jelinek's novel, the film centres around the horrifyingly sexually repressed piano teacher Erika (Huppert) and her relationship... well, with the world around her, manifested in a gifted pupil Walter (Magimel.) Erika, in her forties, lives at home with her mother, even sharing a room. She frequents video rooms in sex shops, even sniffing discarded cum-soaked tissues as she watches. She cuts her genitals while sitting on the edge of the bath, right before dinner. And she is cruel and hard with her students.

She meets Walter, who falls for her cold distance due to her talent with the piano, and some glimmer of humanity and weakness he is able to discern within her. What he doesn't realise, however, is the twisted sadomasochism that takes the form of that weakness. Despite her attempts to distance him, Erika finds herself drawn into some sort of relationship, of sorts, with him, which sees her make public her desires for the first time, much to the horror of Walter. It is only later, when her dreams come true, that she realises how unpleasant they really are.

Huppert is extraordinary. She is always extraordinary, but here... here she is something else. She is so incredibly there, within this horrid creature that she plays, but managing to imbue Erika with the frailty of her own fear and shame. Rather than hating her tormenting ways, from the get-go you feel sorry for whatever has driven our protagonist to this point in her life.

Magimel does a fine job opposite Huppert as the young, beautiful, precocious but ultimately arrogant and unaware student of music. He was good, though whether I'd plant him as the best of the fest I don't know. Having said that, I can't actually be bothered looking up who else was in contention, so we'll let him have it, shall we?

Haneke does his twisted thing so well, and he does it again beautifully here. Erika is a tough cookie, very mean and dark and often shocking, but Haneke, of course, doesn't ever flinch away from showing her, from emoting with her and discovering empathy for her. He's not afraid to open the door to each of our hearts and remind us that, somewhere inside, we are all as desperate as she is. Cinematographer Cristian Berger shoots the film coldly and clinically to match the leading character, the first collaboration between Haneke and Berger before Hidden and The White Ribbon.

Riveting, striking and quite shocking, The Piano Teacher is high on my list of favs of the last decade. Haneke is pretty damn good, and Huppert is pretty damn amazing. 5 stars.

Friday, 9 July 2010

This Is Pretty Cool.

And also pretty! We like pretty.

Linked through facebook to Pitchfork for the vid.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Fuck Him Or Fight Him.

Hmm, I don't know what it is with Scorsese. Maybe he's a director I have to be in the mood for. Like, I gave Goodfellas 5 stars, and thinking back on it I don't know if I still would. Then I gave Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore 4 stars, where I'd probably now give it more. But I'd still probably give Shutter Island 2 stars. Maybe three, depending on my mood. I think that two stars is more related to the fact that I just wanted more from the film, from Scorsese.

With Raging Bull, I think my biggest obstacle is the fact that I thought it would knock me for six. I was waiting for it to blow me out of my chair, to completely astound me. I went in with three decades of expectations (well, less than two decades of that I was aware of it, but still, it was made thirty years ago) and came out thinking it should have been a little more. Not that it wasn't fantastic. There is something not quite grabbing me around my organs, which I can normally identify with those truly incredible movies, however. There isn't an overwhelming urge to go and watch it again, immediately. Though I must say the depth and texture of the film, and particularly De Niro's Oscar-winning lead performance, is drawing me back towards it.

De Niro plays a boxer, the raging bull of the title, one Jake La Motta. The story follows him over twenty years, with marriages, arguments, family fall outs (his brother is played terrifically by Scorsese regular Joe Pesci (does three films count as a regular? Sure. Let's go with it), bar purchases, mob run-ins - the full gamut of Italian-American boxing life in the 40s to the 60s. De Niro is at his powerful best, proving what an inimitable force he can be when given the right material, and when he really puts his back into it. God knows what path he's wandering down now, but give him back some meaty material and Marty and maybe we'll see him as good as he can be.

Scorsese takes Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin's adaptation of La Motta's autobiography and hones it into a taught biopic, spanning twenty years without dragging. And his fight scenes - holy gemini. The boxing scenes were truly beautiful to watch, in that they were also quite horrific. Cinematographer MIchael Chapman gave editor Thelma Schoonmaker some beautiful images to work with (and she won an Oscar for her terrific efforts). 

The film is very, very good. It's a terrific show of craft, and I think that's what I mean when I talk about it missing something to truly grab me by the balls and shake. I think this is a problem I have with many of Scorsese's films, in fact. I think they are incredible examples of craft, but somewhere along the line the heart goes missing. I'm not feeling this film. I'm watching it, I'm liking it, but I'm not feeling it.

Having said that, it is very good. Terrific, even. 4.5 stars.

Monday, 5 July 2010

When You Have To Shoot, Shoot, Don't Talk.

So, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is the third in Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy (after A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More), and I haven't seen the first two. I don't think that's an impediment. I mean, I understand they're a thematic trilogy. It's not like there's a story running through the three. It's not like I came in and watched Return Of The Jedi without seeing A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back. Jeez, I'm not stupid.

I must confess, I'm not a huge Clint Eastwood fan. I generally speaking, in broad terms, don't mind the films he directs, but I'm never a fan when he puts himself in them (I still think he was the weakest part of Million Dollar Baby, for example), and I just don't really relate to him as a performer. But here, he works. Here, I got it. Here, he fits. Everything he is is perfect for the Blondie character in this epic western. Spaghetti western, I guess. It's that Italian influence...

Eastwood plays The Good, the man with no name, Blondie. Lee Van Cleef is The Bad, Angel Eyes. Eli Wallach is The Ugly, Tuco. The three are bandits, gunslingers, criminals of the American desert. Romanticised as only the desert can (and that applies in other countries - I'm looking at you, Ned Kelly), these men may be brutal and vicious, but you're rooting for them. Well, not Angel Eyes so much, but definitely for Blondie and many times for Tuco as well.

It's a long movie, and a lot goes on in it, and I don't really have any desire to get into the specifics of it right now. I'm still well behind on here, so I'm going to keep it short. Eastwood, while playing Eastwood, is perfectly suited to the role. Van Cleef is wonderfully menacing and Wallach is bumblingly endearing, somehow. Music legend Ennio Morricone's iconic score still resonates, some 45 years later, and Tonino Delli Colli's cinematography is beautiful. The film itself, written by Leone with Luciano Vincenzoni, Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli, manages to incorporate a hell of a lot into it's run time, which isn't short at around three hours. Despite this length, it is packed to the brim, especially considering you go through, what, the first ten minutes in one scene without a word spoken. To then manage to move through banditry and the civil war without any theme or story left undigested is a fair accomplishment. And for it to never feel rushed nor boring (and I don't really like westerns...) was particularly refreshing.

A definite cinematic staple for a reason - it's a damn fine take on a genre that has plenty of examples but far fewer items of critical acceptance. Leone has done very well. 5 stars.

Friday, 2 July 2010

It's Tiring Killing A Man

I remember, back in the day, thinking that Ludivine Sagnier would go on to be a big star, with great cross-over appeal in the English language world. For some reason, however, it doesn't seem to have happened, at least not to the level that I anticipated. I can't even remember what movie made me think it - I'm sure it was before her turn in 8 Femmes. Maybe it wasn't, though I don't think that film made a big enough impression on me to have made me think it on my own.

I thought it again watching François Ozon's Swimming Pool alongside Charlotte Rampling (who was in Ozon's previous film on here, Under The Sand.) She is beautiful, she is talented, and she has that gorgeous voice, whether speaking in French or in English.

Sarah (Rampling) is a successful writer of crime fiction, somewhat uptight, who is offered by her publisher (who it is implied she may be having, have had, or want to have a fling with) the use of his house in France to work on her next novel, away from the distractions and complications of her London life. She takes him up on it, and begins to enjoy her time there, relaxing, doing as she will. Her solitude is interrupted, however, by the arrival of Julie (Sagnier), apparently the publisher's daughter from an old relationship. She says that she is allowed to use the house whenever she wants, and Sarah obviously cannot say no. Julie, however, is intent on partying like the young, free girl that she has, which seems to include bringing home a different man every night. Sarah is initially somewhat angry and hostile about this, but shortly starts to take an interest, somewhat voyeuristic, in Julie's exploits, showing jealousy at her lifestyle. 

Julie brings home a waiter, Franck (Jean-Marie Lamour) who Sarah has also been flirting with, and it soon seems that Franck is more interested in Sarah than Julie, though Sarah's prudish ways do little to entice him. The next morning, however, Franck has disappeared, after he stopped Julie from fellating him on the edge of the swimming pool due to his shock at Sarah throwing a rock in the pool from her vantage point on a balcony off her bedroom.

I shan't go further for fear of giving too much away, but let it be said that I'm sure the plot would go down very well in one of Sarah's murder mysteries (and I'm sure that was the point - I'm not dense.)

Coming out of the viewing of the film I thought to myself that I think Ozon is a director whom I always want to like more than I do. Looking back on it now, however, I think the film has worked its way into me much more than I gave it credit for. The pacing of the film works perfectly, giving ample time to truly understand each of the primary female characters and allowing for their motivations to become entirely understandable. Rampling does well (though her English does sound like a Frenchwoman speaking English, which is strange considering she is, actually, English. Maybe it was just me, but speaking her native tongue never struck me as particularly natural for her character. Sagnier was beautiful and youthfully tortured, turning in her character with all of her vulnerabilities with style and finesse. Maybe her stardom will come with age - so often the pretty are ignored until a wrinkle or two appears.

I prefer this film to Under The Sand (possibly because of my age - Under The Sand was, I think, dealing with themes and issues more geared to an older audience), but I still would heistate to call it a great film. I will keep plugging along with Ozon's filmography, and wait for that one that grabs me and says 'yes! You're right! He's genius!', because I'm sure it is there. I can feel it, waiting to engage me on a much deeper level. In the meantime, 4 stars.

Just Because He's A Faggot Doesn't Mean He's An Asshole.

Todd Solondz does know how to make 'em depressing, as we saw back here with Happiness. Preceding that one by a few years, however, was his breakthrough Sundance winning title Welcome To The Dollhouse.

Dollhouse is a film like only Solondz can make them. Strangely comedic in many ways, it is ultimately horrendously tragic through the bleakness offered up at the end - there is no bright side, only reality, which is so often very ugly. 

Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) is an unattractive and unpopular junior high schooler with a nerdy older brother playing clarinet in a band in the garage and a younger sister who is perfect in every way. Dawn is picked on at school and only makes matters worse through clumsy attempts at retaliation, such as spitballing a teacher in the eye. One student even threatens to rape her, though after a failed first attempt he opens up to her and eventually seems to fall for her, though she rejects him in order to try and get it on with the hunky singer who has joined her brother's band.

Eventually, after a fight with her sister resulting in her going missing, Dawn realises that her only hope of some freedom from the agony of her rejected life is to try and simply fade into the background, something which is all too easy after she tries to find her sister, running away to New York, with her absence not even being noticed until she phones home to let her family know. In the end, she ends up back where she started, singing the anthem with her classmates, completely alone.

It is this hopeless ending that I so often associate with Solondz and his films. It is painfully pessimistic when taken in the context of storytelling and how the majority of narrative arcs conclude, both within the mainstream and independent sector. Generally there is some glimmer of hope, no matter how desperate the situation. Very rarely do all the characters end up dead, plagued by unhappiness, with no order restored to how you are encouraged to view the world. Here, however, that is entirely what you get. Dawn ends up with nothing, with less than how she started. Even though she took the bold and dangerous route, albeit motivated by guilt, of going to New York and sleeping on a street to try and find her sister, she is completely snubbed by her family and friends. There is no heroes welcome for her on her return, no thanks for her noble gesture, however misinformed. 

The hardest thing with this film is that it probably is, in fact, much closer to the reality of what may play out, especially for a girl in Dawn's situation. A lot of parents may in fact be furious with her for running off without first telling them, especially considering it was in many ways Dawn's fault that the sister went missing. And for many people at her age, it just doesn't get any easier in the short term. They continue to struggle through and hope to find some sort of clique once they enter the elder realms of education and the freedom of movement and choice that provides.

Writer/director/producer Solondz takes us there with gusto. He doesn't pull any punches. His humour is sardonic more than it is hysterical - so dark as to almost disappear within itself. His themes are depressing and his characterisations often alienating, but these are the elements that lend to his singular voice. In a world of light he is the realistic twilight, the bitter reality check, and the deliberately stylised and stereotyped performances add a layer of horror to the film - those sorts of portrayals are much more suited to a fifties period drama (I just jumped to Far From Heaven...) where they fit in with the heightened moods and the period nature, the filtered retrospect applied to history. Here, they just serve to ram home the point that the more things change, the more they stay the same. And sometimes they even regress.

Dark and hard to watch, it is nonetheless a terrific film. Another 4 stars for Mr Solondz.