Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Don't Touch Me.

The Todd Haynes/Julianne Moore fest continues! This is title four for Mr Haynes (with a fifth on the way) and title six for Ms Moore (with two more on the way - can anyone say Julianne-love? I can, but it's not a very attracting combined word, so I might drop the hyphen. Good? Good.)

Safe hit in 1995 and was a bit of a breakthrough for both Haynes, post Poison, and Moore, landing them both in the limelight. It was a title I remember seeing around at the time and in the years after, and have heard a lot about, making me expect something wondrous. I must say, I was a little disappointed.

Carol (Moore) is a suburban housewife, partnered to Greg (Xander Berkeley), stepmother to his son. She spends her time around the house, not working, not really doing anything that might be considered productively using her time - there are no real hobbies outside of decorating her home. There is nothing really wrong with her life, per se, but it does seem somewhat hollow. Suddenly she begins to develop horrible allergies and unexplained medical problems - asthma strikes, nosebleeds, vomiting, convulsions - and they get more and more severe as the film progresses. Doctors can't work out what is wrong with her, and, struggling, she reaches out to an advertisement she sees for a new age retreat called Wrenwood, a rural estate designed to help people suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity. Cars are not allowed, allergens are kept to a minimum, all to try and allow these people to function on a day to day basis.

Whilst there, she almost seems to be brainwashed. Religion is involved, visits are limited, and her condition doesn't seem to improve at all. In fact, it is not long before she is wheeling around an oxygen tank and eyeing off an old igloo-type structure that another chronic sufferer created in order to bar all outside intrusion in the hope that this will help.

I don't mean to cheapen the experience of anyone who may actually suffer from disorders like this (I have no doubt that there must be some repercussions to the hugely increased chemical intrusion on our day to day lives), but it does seem to be quite heavily implied that much of this from Carol is a cry for attention. More than that, actually, it seems that she is looking for a niche to involve herself in, for a world that gives her meaning, structure, purpose. Or at least gives her a very valid excuse for not being able to pursue one. 

I didn't find myself overly intrigued by the story. There is a distinct possibility that that is at least partially the fault of the time passed since the setting of the film - like the Y2K hysteria, there may well have been a bigger cultural fear of traumas like this becoming more common and destructive during that time period. It definitely feels like a mid-1990s complex. Looking back on it it seems a little absurd, but maybe at the time is was much more topical and therefore more relevant. Now, for me (and this might be a cause of my own rampant skepticism of cults and cult-like organisations, which Wrenwood does superficially appear to be) it simple seems a little absurd.

Moore is fine in the film. I've seen her do much better work, I think. She didn't overly engage me with her character - I kind of wanted to slap her and tell her to go and get a life, stop being so passive and do something to improve her situation. And that was all before her problems started. I just didn't have any desire to empathise with her. 

Hayne's work both as writer and director also didn't really allow me in. He kept us very distant from the actions, not really allowing us into the emotions of anyone. The camera remained very objective, refusing to judge either Moore or Wrenwood or society, and I feel the film as a whole suffered for this. A little more editorialising might have allowed me to find a stance that gave me emotional involvement, whether positively or negatively, but instead it just left me floating loose in the middle.

The film as a whole was kind of interesting, but kind of not at the same time. It's memorable for a few moments of imagery, and it definitely serves as a marker in the trajectory of Hayne's career, coming between Poison and Velvet Goldmine. You can see the lessons he learned from his debut, and also where he stands to learn with his third film. 

I have now watched all of Hayne's films, and I definitely think that going through his career I like each of his films more than the last. Which is a truly remarkable thing to watch. Every one of his films (will) appear on this blog, and he will be the only filmmaker with more than one or two films (I think) to have that honour. I will have watched his entire oeuvre over a six month period, which has really enlightened me to the movements of him as a filmmaker, his development. And I really like that. I'm really happy I have had this opportunity.

Having said that, the film is 2.5 stars.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Truth And Illusion Are Often Disguised As Each Other.

I briefly mentioned my love for Tony Leung back here, but the older I get and the more films I watch him in the more I realise I have a quite unprecedented crush on the man, considering is, what, fifty-odd? Almost. Oh, 48. That isn't so bad. But it's quite long-lasting. At uni our units relating to contemporary cinema invariably looked a lot at Asian cinema, and he does feature quite a lot in that particular region. Especially considering the heart that was directed at Wong Kar Wei back in the early years of last decade, before 2046 (which isn't terrible, mind) and My Blueberry Nights (which I haven't seen, but I have never held my breath for) came out. I think my true love for him, however, stems from my 200...5 (?) watching of Happy Together at an ACMI curated festival of WKW films at the Dendy in Circular Quay. It was the first time I'd seen the film, it was a last minute decision as my boss had a spare comp ticket, and I loved the film. I'd always liked Leung before that, but with the addition of a much, much loved film he suddenly jumped higher. And now I've seen a bunch more titles with him, and my love for him (more a strong emotional respect than the kind of love I have for, say, Jónsi, Brad Pitt or Joseph Gordon Levitt, mind) grows each time I see him in something.

Which is almost entirely beside the point. This has nothing to do with love, really, or with Happy Together, WKW or my future husbands. It's to do with John Woo's first Asian film since 1992 (or his first two films, depending on where you happened to take them/it in.) Apparently, the story is quite well known in China, but it was deemed to confusing with too many characters with similar names for western audiences to handle unabridged, so the two part film was reduced to one film (still two and a half hours long, but that's well reduced from the four of the original) for our eyes. Probably for the best. I do sometimes struggle. As we know.

Red Cliff is an epic Chinese war film, that surprisingly does away with the general martial arts stylings that seem to be favoured by the big action pieces that seem to have emerged from the region over the last decade or so (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, House Of Flying Daggers etc.) I have no issue with this martial arts style, but it is nice to see something a little more lo-fi. Having said that, John Woo does know how to go for big action stylings.

The story is ostensibly about duelling war lords in the China of 1800 years ago. There are alliances broken and collapsed, treachery suspected and punished, ploys both successful and unsuccessful. And at the end, the battle of Red Cliff, the climax. Both sides employ some clever (and marginally diabolical... though if only modern warfare were so poetic) tactics in order to both unsettle and offput their opponents, and the final battle is terrific to watch for its cleverness and luck. Tony Leung sniffs out the wind and everything goes well for the right people (of course - that's not a spoiler, that's a fact of life in the movies, honey. Especially ones with mammoth budgets.)

Woo, who wrote the script also, does very well. I believe the last film I saw of his was Face/Off, though there is a chance I saw M:I-2 also... generally speaking, his aren't the kinds of films I enjoy. This, however, I enjoyed. I liked the way it looked, I liked the way it played. The focus wasn't merely on the action, but neither was the prominent subplot a love story - it was about tactics, about past wrongs. It was more cerebral than emotional, with the head feeding into the heart. I liked that. It kept me thinking, rather than trying to manipulate me into feeling - something I find happens all too often. The performances weren't overly important, but they were good. Leung was gently commanding with his presence, taking over last minute from Chow Yun-Fat whose physicality would possibly lend himself more to this position. Photography from Lu Yue and Zhang Li was good, though the visual effects could have done with a bit more money thrown at them, or a little less reliance to make their sometime clunkiness a little less distracting.

Overall, it was a good film. I'd actually really like to watch the double feature version now that I've wrapped my head around the basic story, but that's one for the future. For now we'll just leave my enjoyment at 3.5 stars.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Her Majesty's Most Expensive Prisoner.

People know Tom Hardy now because of the fact the he called my future husband 'darling' in Inception, but a few years ago he made a film that was in the World competition at Sundance and won the 2009 Sydney Film Prize. He took on the fearsome role of the notorious British criminal Charles Bronson (born Michael Peterson), putting on something like 20kgs and spending much of his time fighting, and much of that naked. It's a fearsome breakout role, played stunningly by our English friend (whose first two screen credits are for Band of Brothers and Black Hawk Down - not bad debut roles, huh? Apparently he's also taking on the Max role in the new Mad Max film.)

Bronson (the character in the film of the same name) was a brawler from a young age - he is shown fighting as a young boy at school, wielding desks as weapons. Not long after marriage he robs a post office and is sentenced to a rather sever seven years in jail. But while there he begins to treat it as a hotel, and decides to fight with the guards every night. He is shifted from prison to prison, then to a psychiatric hospital where is kept drugged, but finally plots his return to a normal prison by strangling a man who confesses being a pedophile. After arriving at Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital, a high-security facility, he manages to start a riot, ending up holing himself up on the roof, earning himself the title of this entry.

Paroled (for some unknown reason...) he moves back with his parents and takes up bare knuckle fighting for money - do what you're good at, right? He falls for a girl, who isn't interested in him in a serious way, and robs a jewellery store for an engagement ring. This constitutes a violation of his parole, and he is sent back to prison, where his violent outbursts become more and more creative, leading to extension after extension on his term. He is beaten, constantly in solitary confinement (he is apparently most renowned for having spent the majority of his life in solitary, in fact), but he seems to revel in every moment of it. This is what he wants - and this is how he gains the fame and notoriety he has always craved.

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (who is apparently responsible for the Pusher trilogy, though I have no idea what that is... should I?) also co-wrote the screenplay, placing Bronson on a stage, performing to an audience, as his narration. Bronson always wanted to be famous, but didn't have the normal entertainer skills - Refn gives him those skills in his biopic, channelled through Hardy's brilliant performance. Hardy, for his part, entirely inhabits his character. I don't recall seeing him in other roles (though I must have), but I don't think it would matter - truly, his appearance is terrifying and his character is appalling. But his performance, with Refn's script, gives him humour, and depth, and emotion. Yes, he probably deserves all of the beatings he gets, but it is a cry for attention, and one wonders how the prison system can function with abuse like that as rampant as it is portrayed. Maybe there is creative license - but maybe not.

The film was quite indie, and I'm certain a lot of criticism must have been levelled against it for glorifying the life of a criminal, especially one as violent as him - similar criticisms were levelled against Chopper back in the day. But Bronson, as sympathetic as you may feel towards him at times, is never shown as anything other than the masochistic monster that he is. Just because you can laugh with him doesn't mean he isn't a monster. It just means he's a funny monster. You still want to keep him well away from your children. 4 stars.

And And And!

That was number 200. A nice little milestone to hit. Later than I intended, but I have a backlog of thirty, so it's not quite as bad as it seems...

Not Quite Stealing.

She has a bunch of César awards, a Golden Lion, has been up for a few Golden Bears and a Palme d'Or. But never an Oscar, though if my memory serves me correctly she was on a longlist a couple of years back. Who is it? Why, Agnès Varda of course! An influence and marginal precursor to the French New Wave and member of the Rive Gauche movement, married to Jacques Demy. One of only five people present at the burial of Jim Morrison in fair Paris.

Now, she is kind of old. Her hair is greying, her hands are wrinkling. But this doesn't stop her from making powerful films, such as her 2000 title The Gleaners & I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse.) For those not in the know, gleaners are those who glean, who go through the detritus or the ignored, who wander into unexplored or public areas, who look where no one else has bothered to find things of value. This can be out of necessity for the poor (that homeless man rummaging in the bin for an empty aluminium can? Gleaning) or to obtain a culinary edge (René Redzepi of Copenhagen's Restaurant Noma famously 'forages' for foods - gleaning.) It can be for interest, for collection, or for environmental reasons - recycling the old rather than constructing the new.

Varda narrates her own journey into the world of gleaning, going through the French countryside and discovering the various people doing the various gleaning things they do. She looks at the laws surrounding gleaning, the people and companies who encourage gleaning, and those who go out of their way to stop it. But the most fascinating segment of the documentary involves her analysis of her own gleaning ways. Her view that, with her camera, whether making films or documentaries, she is gleaning from the reality of the world. She is gleaning moments, ideas, inspirations, beauty, horror, whatever. And it is a true and wondrous way of contemplating her own space within the world, as a leading filmmaker of the last fifty-odd years. It spins a whole different light on the actions of any artist - we're all just gleaning off someone else. That line of dialogue you overheard on the bus and is now in your novel? Gleaned. The framing of that shot reminiscent of that painting you saw in that gallery one time? Gleaned. In the same way that every story has been told before, every shot has been composed, every note played, every thought framed. And we're all just gleaning off each other, hoping to be able to form them into a new mould. Or a mould in a different shape, constructed, as it is, of many existing fragments.

It is this idea, rather than the interesting but otherwise somewhat bland notion of following a bunch of foragers, that makes Varda's film eminently watchable. Her constant parallels to her own activities, and her lack of compunction when it comes to scenes such as the dance of the lans cap (watch the film and you'll understand) show a bravery towards her own artistic tendencies and a belief in her own abilities, both to glean and create. The dancing lens cap, for example, can be said to owe a debt to Sam Mendes' dancing plastic bag in American Beauty - is its inclusion therefore gleaned? Or is it a lucky mistake?

Surprisingly, watching a seventy year old French woman roam the countryside is gripping and beautiful, much more than geriatric films generally are for those of a younger age. Varda brings her character and life to the forefront, gives us everything she has learnt (or gleaned), and teaches us something about each and every one of us. 5 stars.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

I Humbly Beg You, Show Mercy To These Men.

In all my years, to never have watched Paths Of Glory. I can understand my reticence to pick up Barry Lyndon, it looking so unlike the Kubrick we all know and love, but to ignore his breakout film? The film that got him the Spartacus gig? Which in turn allowed him to go on to be possibly the greatest filmmaker to have lived? For shame. 

But now rectified!

Paths of Glory wasn't Kubrick's first feature (that honour belongs to either The Killing or Killer's Kiss, depending on whether you count the latter as a feature due to its run time - which in turn probably depends on the version you're watching), but it was his first to really make people sit up and take notice. I'm sure no small part of this is due to the casting of Kirk Douglas, who was just about to receive his third Oscar nomination in less than a decade - though not for this film.

Douglas plays Colonel Dax of the French military, commanding troops against the Germans in the First World War. General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) orders his subordinate General Mireau (George Macready) to send his troops on what will effectively be a suicide mission to capture the strategically important Anthill. Mireau in turn orders Dax to take charge of this operation, having had his opinion swayed by the promise of promotion. Dax resists but eventually follows orders, leading his troops onto open ground where the majority are promptly slaughtered. Some troops even refuse to leave the trench, under such heavy fire that they know they will get nowhere, inspiring Mireau to order his artillery men to open fire on his own troops to inspire them to charge. The artillery men refuse without written orders (as is protocol), infuriating Mireau, who decides to execute 100 of them for treachery. Broulard manages to convince him that three would be enough, one from each company, to make an example.

The three are selected for various reasons - one to cover up a grave error by his superior; another because he is a 'social undesirable'; and a third just by pure bad luck, despite the fact that he is a valiant and courageous soldier. Dax, a lawyer in the civilian world and outraged by what is happening considering the suicidal mission they were all sent on, takes it upon himself to defend themselves in the court martial that is convened to try them. The court martial is a preposterous affair, however, and branded such by Dax, who fails to get the men off. Dax does repeatedly try, submitting further evidence to Broulard in order to try and sway for clemency, but he fails every step of the way. Ultimately, Broulard offers Dax the promotion he was going to give Mireau (after indicting Mireau for the order to attack his own men), prompting Dax to violently challenge Broulard on his assertion that this was all in order to move up the ranks - Dax has always had his men's best interest at heart, and is disgusted by any inference to the contrary.

It is a powerful premise and a terrifically executed story. Douglas is magnificently torn and conflicted, struggling with navigating his own best interests, those of his men, and how best to make his way through the intricate labyrinth of the hierarchy of military life. He knows it is unfair, but he also knows kicking and screaming means nothing in the army. If proper protocol isn't followed you may as well just hand yourself over for a misconduct charge.

Menjou, Macready and the entire support cast perform very well. The three men on trial present entirely opposite faces to the world, perfectly matched to provide a snapshot of human nature in the microcosm of an army jail, and  played wonderfully. 

Shot in and around Germany, with Americans playing French military, it is a little discombobulating to watch at times, but a little suspension of disbelief allows you to fall into the world Kubrick has created. Maybe not entirely, but as discussed before (here, here and here), he never truly lets you fully into the sphere of the film, instead too happy to keep this world at arm's length from the audience. In this world the maestro is unafraid to show off the stylistic flourishes that would become his trademarks - the faces, the tracking shots, the thematic struggles - all in the wonderfully constructed world of trench warfare and palatial court-martials. 

A riveting film in every way, Kubrick did more than make his mark with this film - he shouted to the world that he is here, and he is not going to stop. And thank god for that. 5 stars.

Liverpool Calling.

There were a lot of criticisms levelled at Nowhere Boy when it opened here last year. Coming, as it did, from acclaimed artist Sam Taylor-Wood, a lot of people were hoping for something edgier, something a little more artistic. Probably coming off the back of films like Hunger and Le Scaphandre et le Papillon by artists of similar stature didn't help. Then, a lot of people had similar criticisms that were heaped on Coco Avant Chanel - why focus a biopic on the time before the subject was famous? Surely there are better stories to tell from that period. After all, that's the John Lennon/Coco Chanel/whoever that we all know and love, right?

The last sentiment I totally disagree with - if anything, we already know that story. All we may know of the earlier period is 'John Lennon grew up in Liverpool, primarily looked after by his Aunt. He was kind of rebellious.' His later life? So well documented that showing it on film isn't really going to provide any insights - we know it all already. Unless you take a different tack and go down the lines of something like I'm Not There, the Bob Dylan biopic (which is coming up on here shortly, when I catch up), which was an incredibly innovative way of presenting a story we may otherwise already know way too well.

The first criticism I can understand, however. Prior to the release of the film I was looking forward to it like... something that is is looking forward to something a lot. I was very excited about seeing what Taylor-Wood would do with this story, how inventive it would be. Then the reviews came out, and I thought 'oh, ok, maybe I won't rush out and see it.' And then I got busy and didn't see it. And then I saw it on DVD and hired it. And that brings us to here. (Please do let me know if you would like blow-by-blow descriptions of how I came about watching every movie. I think that was possibly the most thrilling few sentences I've ever put on paper. Or pixel. Shut up.)

So, I went into this exploration of Lennon's early years not expecting visual fireworks, and that's exactly what I got. What Taylor-Wood has provided, instead, is a solid little look at what it may have been like for our little Beatle (played by Aaron Johnson) growing up with his aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) without knowing his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff.) When he discovers his mother in fact lives close by, he rebels against Mimi, who may have been strict at times but is heartbreakingly portrayed as hoping for only what she considers the best for John, before discovering precisely how unreliable his real mother his - she is prone to fits of depression and despair, irrational anger that forces those near her again and precipitated the need for Mimi to take control of her son's life.

Throughout this John is beginning to spread his musical wings, fashioning himself after Elvis Presley as he puts together a band, including first meeting and collaborating with Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster.) His music is an outlet as much as an escape route, but his egoism threatens to break everything apart - as we know, however, Paul and John went on to the incredible partnership with George Michael and eventually Ringo Star. And the rest is history. Which is presumably why it is not in this film.

Scott Thomas and Duff have been suitably lauded over the year since the film's release, so I won't really go into it again except to reiterate that they are, indeed, magnificent. Johnson is very good in his portrayal on Lennon, much better than my impression received from his turn in Kick-Ass earlier this year. Sangster has an incredibly intriguing look about him that is almost too distracting - I still remember him very well from his brief stint in Bright Star last year because he just jumped out at me. He is incredibly intense and just cocky enough to put up with Lennon and fight back when necessary. His is a job very well done.

Matt Greenhalgh, who penned the fabulous Control a few years back, was on scripting duty here, and did well, layering the characters nicely and providing depth to all who shared the screen. Goldfrapp duo Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory provided the great accompanying score, which featured pretty much no Lennon tunes - it was nice to see that in a biopic. Of course, it makes perfect sense - you can't feature a song in a biopic before it's written, right? And Seamus McGarvey shot the film very nicely - there was nothing flashy about it, but everything looked... well, right. Like it fitted. There were no visual distractions.

Ultimately, this is probably going to be my criticism here. Yes, the film was good. It was a good little film, well made, well acted, well told. But nothing popped. And when someone like Sam Taylor-Wood is at the helm, you kind of expect it to pop. Even if it pops in a terrible, terrible way. Like, put Andy Warhol at the helm of Lonesome Cowboys and you don't really get a great film, but fuckdamnit it's interesting! It's at least fascinating as an artwork. Sure, there's real money from real investors at stake here, so maybe you don't want it to be a total disaster, but you can take some risks. Steve McQueen's Hunger could have been a total failure. The film had virtually no dialogue, for god's sake. There's, what, a sixteen minute static shot in the middle of it? It could totally have fallen on it's face. It didn't, but without the risks it just would have been another biopic. This was interesting, and yes it turned out terrific. But only because the risk was taken.

In the end, I don't think a desire for what the film may have been in a situation like this should take away from the verdict of what the film was, and what I would have been perfectly content with had the director been someone other than Taylor-Wood. It's a definite 3.5 star film. And ok, while it may have been closer to 5 stars had Taylor-Wood pulled off some risktaking, it may also have fallen to 1 star. But what's better - mediocrity or failure?

No. No Booze. Sex. I Want Sex.

Well, a hugely grossing comedy (at the time) and your first (of seven) Oscar nominations is a pretty good way to break out, really, isn't it? Robert Altman really made a name for himself with MASH, kicking off a long and generally acclaimed (and very prolific) career with a huge fight with his studio - well done. But the film that came out of the scandal did nab an adapted screenplay Oscar, with four other noms.

The initials MASH stand for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, and the film takes place in one on the frontlines of the Korean War - despite Altman removing all references to Korea in the hope that the setting would be mistaken for Vietnam, which was still raging at the time, Fox insisted on an opening crawl identifying the location. The film, like the subsequent television series, is episodic, so while the story revolves around new arrivals Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) and Duke (Tom Skerritt) and their hijinks and exploits in and around the camp, there are a number of smaller, distinct and complete storylines that are interspersed and feed into this overarching narrative. Sally Kellerman picked up a supporting actress nod for her role as the new head nurse, quickly dubbed 'Hot Lips' O'Houlihan after exploits with Hawkeye and Duke's tent-mate Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), who otherwise thoroughly disagrees with the new pair's debauched womanising and drinking ways.

While the film is a comedy, there are some moving moments in it, as would be expected within a war film, and they are deftly handled by Altman and his cast (many of whom, outside the big names, were releatively inexperienced within film and were brought in due to their experience with adlibbing in clubs), including a story about a Polish dental surgeon who is depressed due to the fact that he has a very large penis and this means won't sleep with him, and this depression turns to suicidal desires. Our protagonists organise a fake suicide for him, and then organise for a nurse to sleep with him that night, thereby curing his depression. While broadly comic, the sentiment is touching.

The performances are very good, including a turn from Elliott Gould as Trapper, the third part of the Hawkeye/Duke machine. Altman, ever innovative, used overlapping dialogue from as many as four parallel conversations to bring across the messiness and confusion of war, something that worked extremely well, adding realism to the surreality of the comic placement. A grimy looking set was perfect, again dragging the film back to reality, with the operating scenes suitably gory, despite the disrespectful laughter forced out of you at every turn.

A truly entertaining anti-war film set within a war, Altman deservedly made a name for himself that would live on for three more decades and bring with it many more classic titles. 4.5 stars.

Friday, 20 August 2010

I Loved The Taste Of Blood Since I Tasted Yours.

I derive joy from simple pleasures. Like knowing that what is often thought of as the pioneering film of the French New Wave, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, was nominated for an Oscar. Strange it wasn't nominated for Foreign Language film (though that may well have to do with the submissions procedure), but for Best Original Screenplay for Marguerite Duras. Of course it lost (to Billy Wilder's The Apartment, which took home Best Picture also), but it did get a BAFTA (the UN Award - what the?)

Alain Resnais' 1959 masterpiece was widely acclaimed, coming around the same time as François Truffaut's The 400 Blows and just before Jean-Luc Godard's seminal A bout de souffle. Resnais brought in the jump cut between memory and present, as well as keeping his story of love in another country very simple. He (credited on imdb.com as Luis but given no name in the film, played by Eiji Okada) is an architect in Hiroshima, who was on active duty when the bomb hit, but whose family all lived in the city at the time. She (similarly, her name is Elle, played by Emmanuelle Riva) is an actress in Hiroshima for 36 hours only. The two begin a passionate affair despite the fact that they are each otherwise married. But the film doesn't focus on the words these two speak of and too each other so much as what is said about the city. It is almost as though Resnais and Duras are attempting to heal the damage done fourteen years earlier, using love as the bandaid. And it is beautiful. As the film progresses it seems entirely plausible that their feelings could possibly undo all of the damage bestowed upon the city.

Of course it can't, and in the final scene, which heavily references Casablanca, it becomes apparent that all good things must come to an end. But, like Casablanca, the memories will last a lifetime - they may not have started a beautiful friendship, but they will forever hold in their hearts the few hours they spent in carnal embrace, discussing the world and their names as cities.

The Japanese sections in particular were beautifully captured by Michio Takahashi (the French segments captured as flashback and memory by She were shot by Sacha Vierny), and the whole film wove its way into my consciousness like not many can. Resnais' crafting of the structure, and the way it was all cut together by a team, gave it a freshness that still holds firm fifty years later. The realness that somehow permeates through the artifice of the medium is striking - I do think it strange that the jumpcutting in this film and in A bout de souffle in fact seem to be the realest ways to portray humanity, despite the almost Brechtian selfawareness they by nature have.

It is a beautiful example of how simple cinema can be whilst saying absolute volumes. There is a good reason why this film is held up somewhere near the pinnacle of film. This is a film I look forward to revisiting time and time again, as I'm sure that every time something new shall shine through. 5 stars.

Maybe I'll Just Sit Here And Bleed At You.

I think I made it quite clear here that I am in love with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and shall gladly have his babies should the need arise. So, back when Brick released in 2006 in Australia, but a year after I'd rediscovered him in all his glory in Mysterious Skin, it should be no surprise that I was right there waiting. It didn't hurt that the film came with a fair amount of buzz as an acclaimed debut by Rian Johnson, neo-noir, winner of a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for originality of vision. One is entitled to have some degree of expectation when confronted with this information.

Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan, a high schooler caught up in a world of drugs, death and intrigue. With word-play the name of the game in Johnson's inventive screenplay, the story moves along at a cracking pace as Brendan uses his friend The Brain (Matt O'Leary) to decode a cryptic phone call from ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin), leading him towards the clutches of Laura (Nora Zehetner) and into the world of The Pin (Lukas Haas.) Striking a deal with the assistant vice-principal to provide inside information gives him some degree of freedom of movement and ability to break the rules with immunity, allowing him deep inside the juvenile crime world run by The Pin (whose mother is all too happy to serve up milk and cookies to bleeding boys sitting at his table) in order that he may discover who is responsible for the body of Emily found in a drain.

Johnson's winning formula in Brick takes the tried and tested film noir idea and transplants it into the world of adolescents. The seriousness of the performance is tempered by the comedy of the situation - seriously, guys, you're at school. Yes, someone has died, but I'm fairly certain there is little you can do. But it works, because of Johnson's ability to bring it all together, to make you believe, with his words and his characters. And to think he made this on less than USD$500,000 is incredible - I just found this out, and I'm fairly gobsmacked.

Huge credit has to go to Johnson. He really did make this all work, and very, very well. Nathan Johnson (Rian's brother) scored the film, his first scoring effort, apparently achieving the majority over iChat whilst he was in London. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin did a stellar job, especially considering the constraints having absolutely no money can put on someone in that role. A cast and crew with experience ranging from much to not much at all combined under Johnson to make something quite unique, and very entertaining. Definitely a recommended watch. 4 stars.

One More Shot.

Claire Denis fest! Ok, not really, just two in a row. And to be honest, this one I watched ages ago. I can't even remember how long ago, but we're talking months. But I've got to try and document my impressions. So here we go.

35 Shots Of Rum (another great title) is a film about a father and daughter, very close, living together in France. Lionel (Alex Descas) is a widower, and has raised his daughter Joséphine (Mati Diop) for years, with the only occasional involvement of a neighbour Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), who was once in a relationship with Lionel but is now left wanting for a return of the relationship and of maternal tendencies towards his daughter. It is quite apparent that Gabrielle wants to be a bigger part of the lives of this small family, but also quite apparent that neither Lionel or Joséphine have any desire to upset the delicate balance they enjoy.

Joséphine is growing up, shown by her strangely forming relationship with another neighbour Noé (Grégoire Colin), who is quite unhappy in his current life but unable to move on due to his feelings for Joséphine, which are feelings he is nonetheless somehow compelled not to act upon. As the film moves on, Joséphine and Noé grow closer together, forcing Gabrielle and especially Lionel to realise that she is growing up and that their special relationship will have to evolve and develop sooner rather than later. At the same time, with tragedies and retirements affecting Lionel's personal and professional life, he comes to the understanding that he is not getting younger, that the end may even be surprisingly near, and maybe it is time for that old tradition of 35 shots of rum.

I remember coming out of the film somewhere between nonplussed and mildly disappointed, but looking back from this vast distance I really, really want to go out, pick it up and watch it again. It may be a matter of distance making the heart grow fonder, but the time passed has made me really appreciate everything the film was saying. Unlike many films that I watch, almost every moment of this film has stuck with me. I can pretty much recreate the film in memory, and that's a fair feat since my memory is generally ratshit. 

The performances are very strong. Very underplayed, very controlled, and beautifully spoken. Not a word or a look is out of place, especially within the father-daughter relationship, giving the characters a familiarity that is almost disturbing in the intimacy it allows you from the very beginning. One shouldn't be allowed this deep into a family situation without having known the parties for years.

Stylistically the film is very simple. It's not quite documentary styled, but it's close. Naturalism, I guess, is the appropriate term, but that doesn't feel like it is quite doing the film justice either, for there are some moments that seem to scream, despite their simplicity. I can remember scenes in Noé's apartment in particular that popped like a highly stylised film from the fifties might have done, for instance, despite the fact that it just looked like any other home. Something to do with the mingling of the colours and the framing employed, one must imagine (remember, faulty memory at play here), but it still gave the film a little lift away from the visual drudgery apparent in some other naturalist films. Kept it that little bit more interesting.

Denis has made a splendid film that I can imagine would be quit divisive, especially for the general public. This isn't a big, action packed film. This is a little character piece where, for the most part, not a great deal happens. Well, not a great deal on the surface, at least. But underneath the mundanity of their lives, everything is happening. Life is happening, and it might not seem any more exciting than the life of you or I, but it is rarely shown with such respect to the meaningfulness of existence. 4.5 stars.

Africa And Coffee.

Isabelle Huppert fest! Though, going to write this film made me realise ANOTHER film that I had failed to write up, 35 Shots Of Rum. Seriously, every time I think I'm making some headway on this backlog of lists, I come across things I forgot and it just keeps growing. On the plus side, it does make the deficit I need to make up somewhat shorter.

So, the amazing Isabelle Huppert. We may remember that we love her almost as much as life itself. So it is shocking to me that this is only the third time she has shown here, after this one and this one. But here you go, her third appearance here, for her latest French film White Material.

Frail. But oh so strong.

Claire Denis (who did 35 Shots Of Rum, hence why that memory was triggered) takes Ms Huppert to Africa where she puts her in charge of a coffee plantation, whilst all around her civil war rages. It's a damaging state of affairs, where being white makes her the enemy, regardless of how fair she may be to her black charges. Complicating this situation is the presence of her family, particularly her rebellious, antagonistic teenage son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), the fact that this plantation is her home and she does not desire to leave it for the safer confines of her native France, and the added fear of fiscal problems relating to the fact that the plantation is failing anyway and she wants to at least get in the final crop that is ready for picking.

Maria (Huppert) risks everything in order to get this last crop. But it is definitely more complex than merely wanting or needing the money. Maria will see giving up and running away as failure of the highest order, especially coupled with the financial problems they will face. To avoid this she is very willing to put the safety, and even the lives of herself and her family on the line - and it is definitely Maria making the decisions. Her husband André (Christopher Lambert) is present but weak, castrated even in the face of the much stronger, more independent and awesomely willful Maria. This is pussywhipping that could cost a life. Plus, Maria complicates matters again by beginning to shelter a rebel officer - she is drawing attention to herself when they should just be trying to slide under the radar and hope for the best. But it is not in Maria's nature to fly under the radar, not when she is being hard done by. She is hardwired to fight back, no matter what the cost.

Huppert is perfectly placed for the role, her wiry frame (looking scarily tiny in the loose and flimsy frocks she was donning for the African heat) adding an outward fragility that was reversed by her steely demeanour, allowing her a contrast that, sure, has been used before, but with her expressive eyes able to radiate iciness like no others this always proves impressive. Duvauchelle's very European looked contrasted well with the African locale, making his obstreperous rebellion almost valid due to how out of place he was. Lambert's presence was limited but very strong, appropriately submissive but never to the point of fully bending over to his wife. Rather than a passive husband doing what he was told, you get the opinion that he has very strong views and that he will fight for them, but he is ultimately steamrolled without mercy, a much stronger force of nature barreling him out of the way.

Denis has crafted a good film, though not quite a great one. Strong performances can't quite get past the fact that the film seems to keep wandering down the one track, and the subplots are never fully fleshed out of given time to take hold. The dominant narrative is very clear, but everything underpinning it is murky. It provides some support, but not quite enough to stop the primary forces from feeling a bit repetitive. The elements were almost universally strong, but they were let down a little in the ultimate grand scheme.

But it's a good film. Definitely a good one. 3 stars.

Monday, 16 August 2010

I'm Giving You A Spade. A Spade.

Man, Taste of Cherry has been on my radar for so long now, and I can't believe I've never watched it. I'm entirely ashamed of myself, in fact.

In the three Kiarostami films I have watched over these last nine months or so (we had this one and we have 10 coming up also) there is a very, very distinct style, and even setting. They are all digital video, they all feel like documentaries (though I'm never going to label any but Close-Up as even approaching mockumentary) and they all have a lot to do with cars. Well, they are all set for a large part (or, in the case of 10, for the whole part) in or around cars. I am therefore intrigued to the max with Kiarostami's first non-Iranian film, Certified Copy, which from the trailer seems bright, glossy, and features Juliette Binoche. We shall see.

Taste of Cherry centres on Mr Badii (Homayoun Ershadi), a man with a suitcase of money driving through Tehran trying to find someone to help him die. That's not entirely accurate, actually. He is not looking for someone to help him die, merely for someone to bury him once he has died. He confronts a few people, from a boy in the military to a seminarist from Afghanistan before coming upon a taxidermist, who says that he will help though he tries to talk Badii out of it beforehand, revealing that he had tried to commit suicide earlier in his life and was now glad that he hadn't.

It is a very simple conceit for a film, but with Kiarostami's deft touch (something which, according to the cover notes for 10, saw him voted the most important director of the 1990s by a collection of leading international critics - I'm not going to argue, despite the fact that this was unreferenced...) it becomes something incredibly beautiful and complex. After seeing the film, the title itself brings emotion bubbling to the surface, coming as it does from a beautiful little monologue during the film:

If you look at the four seasons, each season brings fruit. In summer there's fruit, in autumn too. Winter brings different fruit, and spring too. No mother can fill her fridge with such a variety of fruit for her children. No mother can do as much for her children as God does for His creatures. You want to refuse all that? You want to give it all up? You want to give up the taste of cherries? 

And all this while Badii is being given directions by his passenger! Coming as it does within the mundanity of 'turn right', 'turn right', and the pauses between these directions, gives such beautiful words added poignancy and beauty. 

It is hard to truly do justice to something so beautiful, yet so simple, by talking about it. Taste of Cherry won the Palme d'Or in 1997 (tied with Unagi) and picked up a couple of critics awards for foreign language film in the States that year as well. It is soft and subtle but touching in many ways. It's probably one of the best films I've seen over the last year as well, and considering I just counted that I've seen 223 since I started this on November 9, that must be saying something. Kiarostami is, and shall be forever more, very high on my list of directors whose work I must absorb as much of as possible. 5 stars.

(Did I really say 'intrigued to the max' up there? I am so, so sorry.)

Don't Call Me Cock-Hole, Bitch!

In 2005 New Zealander Taika Waititi nabbed an Oscar nomination for his live action short Two Cars, One Night. I think it got a fair bit of attention in Australia because of the fact that we seemed to be having quite a run in the short film categories of the Oscars over that period, with Harvie Krumpet taking out the Short Animation award, Birthday Boy and The Mysterious Geographic Explorations Of Jasper Morello picking up nominations and Inja also getting a notice in the Live Action category, all between 2002 and 2005. And, as we know, when it comes to major awards, New Zealand has always qualified as Australia. It's how we roll.

So, when his debut feature Eagle vs Shark came out a couple of years later (having been worked through the Sundance labs in 2005), everyone was taking note, waiting to see what would happen. Not a lot did happen, and while I liked the film, I can't really say that I'm surprised by this. While it has been likened to Napoleon Dynamite, it is much deeper and less superficially comic, making it that much darker and harder to simply laugh at - rather, the laughter has to come from a place of identification, or else risk being that of one taking advantage of those in a much weaker position.

Lily (co-creator Loren Horsley) and Jarrod (Jemaine Clement) are awkward social misfits. Lily works at a fast food burger outlet, with a crush on Jarrod, who works in a gaming store and is more interested in Lily's co-worker. One day, when the co-worked is not in, Jarrod drops off an invite to a party he is holding. Lily dutifully passes the invite on, but when it is brushed off without even a glance she decides to attend the party herself, dressing up in the costume of her favourite animal (a shark) as requested on the invite. The party is attended by similar apparent misfits, and the party culminates in a video game competition, with Lily ending up competing in the final to Jarrod (dressed as an eagle - get it?), losing primarily because she spends much of the time staring at her crush.

So begins an awkward and seemingly ill-conceived relationship between sweet-hearted Lily, who is willing to put up with a lot of mistreatment, and selfish, confused and angry Jarrod, a compulsive liar who by his own admission is 'too complex.' As his complexity continues to rear its ugly head, however, Lily tires of putting up with it and determines to escape. Her determination is, however, thoroughly thwarted by a bus timetable, allowing for Jarrod's hard and created shell to collapse under the weight of his own fear, letting the scared little boy inside climb out.

The comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite are valid, but as mentioned there is a much deeper commentary on social pressure underlying Waititi's work. The laughs are derived from the same comedic realm, but where Dynamite's are heartier guffaws, Shark's tend to more reserved, tending to the sardonic or the relieved. The comedy is also very evenly spread - Waititi's script has been very well honed to reveal his characters gradually over the course of the film without there being a need for an expository act of somberness to give depth to otherwise under-realised characters.

That being said, the film did feel somewhat longer than its fairly short ninety minute runtime. The pace, while even, is slow, and the grouchiness of Jarrod coupled with the meekness of Lily are quite draining as prolonged thematic elements. In fact, there is very little in the way of light in the film, either light characters or laughs or storylines. For the most part, until the film begins its small arc to a conclusion, all of those introduced have similar problems or contributions to the world as our initial protagonists. And when the light does crack through as the film closes, it doesn't seem bright enough or long enough to truly lift the film up.

It is a great debut, obviously very intricately worked to arrive at the final product, incredibly lean. As a study of Waititi's abilities it works very well - it's a great little calling card that has obviously worked as his second feature Boy played at Sundance this year in the World Dramatic competition (Eagle vs Shark played in that competition also in 2007.) I will definitely be looking out for a chance to see Boy as soon as I can, because I'm sure Waititi has progressed leaps and bounds and that could only mean wonders for his sophomore effort. In the meantime, Eagle vs Shark is definitely worth a look, though don't expect fireworks. Solid and interesting, but not earth shattering. 3 stars.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

That Scag And His Floozie, They're Gonna Die!

Man, scag is totally a word I have to introduce into my vocabulary.

A few years there was a terrific little Australian documentary called Not Quite Hollywood that looked at a particular period of Australian film apparently loved by Quentin Tarantino dubbed 'Ozploitation.' They were made in the days of the 10BA tax break for feature film investment, which, if my understanding of it is even vaguely correct, meant that you were almost guaranteed not to lose money on a film even approaching halfway decent - so long as it made some money at the box office you would probably come out even, bailed out by the tax office. So, with nothing to lose and the chance, even an outside chance, at a bunch of money rolling in, who wouldn't join in? And what happened was this movement of cheap films full of action and sex, many of which have been subsequently forgotten (most of them probably rightly so), but some of which have gone on to become enduring cinematic classics. Even if they were redubbed in the States so that the Australian accent wouldn't be heard, with much of the slang reworded, and with the original soundtrack not appearing Stateside until 2000.

I guess he does look pretty good in leather...

Mad Max was the debut feature from director George Miller (that's Dr George, to you), now an Oscar winner (and I honestly believe he is the only Ozploitation director with that claim to fame.) Conceived and written with the late Byron Kennedy, the film also helped to launch some American born but Australian trained actor, perhaps the only other direct descendant of the Ozploitation movement with Oscar on his mantle. You've probably heard of him, he's been back in the spotlight recently (though mostly for anti-semitism and domestic violence...) 

Mel Gibson plays the titular Max, a highway patrolman in the not too distant future of the Australian outback (looking very much like a slightly modern attempt on the eighties - oh, retro sci-fi! Just like Blade Runner.) This is a dystopian world, and gangs rule the highways - law and order is brutal and vengeful, much like the rage of the bad guys. Max, initially part of the game, soon tries to quit, afraid that he is going to become like one of the guys he chases only armed with the false moral protection of a badge, but is convinced to take a holiday to think it over. Whilst he is on holiday, the gangs strike back...

But we know it can't end all bad for our hero Max, because our Mel is in the next couple of Mad Max films (though apparently has nothing to do with the upcoming fourth project - and I forget, is that going ahead for sure? Do we want it to, really? Wouldn't it be nice seeing Dr Miller do something original again, rather than Mad Max 4, Happy Feet 2 and Babe the gazillion?)

Max is an iconic character in a very simple, futuristic western film. Mad Max as a film is not particularly challenging in any way - it is an Ozploitation film through and through in the sense that it approaches its genre gung-ho with its cheese on its sleeve and without any shame. Miller wants the film to go out on a stylistic limb, pushing boundaries of the glorification of violence, but in order to do that effectively yet still make a film broad enough to turn a profit he had to keep it thematically simple. This is not in any way a bad thing - the story drives forward relentlessly, charging ahead with guns literally blazing and cars flying through the air, not letting a low budget stop him from some spectacular crashes. And Gibson proves himself promising (though, I thought, falling short of mesmerising by a decent distance), worthy perhaps of his later following.

A highly entertaining, if somewhat lightweight, iconic piece of Australian cinematic history. Shame on me for letting it go this long. 4 stars.