All entries for Tuesday 21 March 2006

March 21, 2006

Last Five Films… as of 19/03/06

4 stars (out of 5)

Pierre Fresnay and Erich von Stroheim in LA GRANDE ILLUSION (1937)

There is one advantage of being back at home – I get to pay regular visits to my wonderful local arthouse cinema again. Not that the Arts Centre is bad (I adore it to bits), but it always gets things so damn late. Anyway, I noticed that my local was indulging in a one-off showing of Renoir's much-lauded Grand Illusion. Its reputation amongst cineastes has ensured its presence on my "must watch" list for a while now, so when the opportunity finally arose to see it I promptly caught the next train over to Brighton and sat in anticipation.
The Grand Illusion is, unsurprisingly for a film widely noted as the greatest "war" flick, all about the notion of conflict. What IS surprising about the movie however, is the conflict that it deals with. It refuses to use bang-bang battle scenes to justify moments of calculatingly "touching" camaraderie, as convention would dictate. Indeed, it lacks even one such scene. Instead, Renoir focuses on the intricacies found in human interactions – and the friendships that are forged as a result. These relationships are deftly used to criticise a fragile world senselessly divided by barriers such as language, class, nationality and religion.
The friendship formed by Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), a French aristocratic officer who’s the prisoner of the German aristocrat von Rauffenstein (director Erich von Stroheim giving an acting masterclass) proves crucial. Through them, Renoir highlights the tensions between the old nobility and the working-classes and the differing reactions to the decline of the ‘old guard’; before dealing with the hypocrisy of war and the questioning of its purpose. During all this, Renoir never loses sight of the hearts of his characters, thus lending the film a dimension of poignancy that would otherwise be lacking.
Rare is the film without flaws however, and The Grand Illusion is no exception. The final chapters strike me as monotonous and ineffectual - despite the presence of the wonderful Dita Parlo (so magnificent in L’Atalante ). Additionally, in spite of my fandom regarding jump-cuts, The Grand Illusion’s editing is plain sloppy and simply disrupts the poetic flow of the narrative. Finally, the film lacks any dislikeable individuals, meaning that at times its portrayal of war can seem slightly too brotherly.
As a humanist parable however, The Grand Illusion is unrivalled. It’s stirring without being sentimental, and affecting without resorting to manipulation. As a critique, it probes gently and simply guides the viewer to the emotional core of its findings. Although I think I prefer my Renoir more scathing (note the fucking masterpiece that is The Rules of the Game ), as war films go, you’d struggle to find better than this.

TA'M E GUILASS [TASTE OF CHERRY] (Abbas Kiarostami; 1997)
5 stars (out of 5)

Homayon Ershadi in TASTE OF CHERRY (1997)

There are a select few films in the history of cinema that I’d argue capture the rich tapestry of existing to the extent that I’d be willing to term them mini encapsulations of life itself. Au hasard Balthazar might be one such film. Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy is most definitely another. Having viewed Taste of Cherry for the first time, I have no qualms whatsoever about letting it join such esteemed company.
Kiarostami leaves everything and more to the imagination here. We meet a protagonist (Mr. Badii) in a car, driving around the outskirts of Tehran. His mission is left undisclosed until well into the film, by which point we’re questioning his sexuality as the director plays on our own covert misconceptions of human behaviour. We learn that he is, in fact, suicidal, and is searching for someone to bury him upon death. We do not know why he wants to die, nor are we made aware of his fate as a character. What do we learn from Taste of Cherry then, if anything?
Minimalism is the name of the game, and a pared-down style can potentially belie the concerns behind the film’s deceptively calm exterior. Barren landscapes connote the emptiness of Badii’s soul, and the “slow” pacing where supposedly “nothing happens” is reflective of life itself. But, as is the case with life, things are always happening - internally if not ex. It is simply the case that others cannot always share in the experience. Kiarostami asks his audience to try and share in Badii’s experience, and his soothing pace affords us the opportunity to appropriately savour each and every image as if it were our last.
Badii’s mission leads him to others that share parts of his journey. A pivotal trio of allegorical characters (rings of Stalker , anyone?) comment on the functions of the military, religion and science; as well as drawing attention to his country’s multiculturalism – an observation many Western viewers may take for granted. By taking the most basic narrative decisions then, Kiarostami proves capable of knitting a skilled examination of modern Iranian society.
Shot-wise, all inter-car action involving Badii is filmed from the passenger seat. Consequently, we never see him framed with another person inside the vehicle. The audience becomes forced into a position where we too become his passengers, and Kiarostami encourages us to empathise with the dilemma of Badii’s guests – what would we do if someone asked us to play a hand in their death?
However, Kiarostami aptly presents the other side of the debate as well. By reinforcing his solitude – like the aforementioned technique of filming him alone, or by allowing his immense surroundings to envelop him – the director, complemented by Homayon Ershadi’s tender performance, demands compassion for his protagonist. A lack of knowledge regarding his background forces the viewer to judge him on his own, sorrowful terms.
Badii’s humble quest for a simple burial raises many a philosophical question about the nature of human life. Taste of Cherry adopts a worldly view of this predicament (as if to drive this home, note how Kiarostami absolutely insists on filming action from the outside). The film never moralises and admirably resists the temptation to get heavy-handed with its subject. One can’t help but feel, however, that Kiarostami is gently nudging both Mr. Badii and his audience to ‘choose life’. The focus on apparently insignificant everyday details, as well as the remarkable u-turn the film coughs up at its conclusion (I’ll spare you a spoiler, but it’s one of the most brilliant ‘twists’ in all of cinema) bare life in all its rich complexities - bad, as well as good. Taste of Cherry invites us to revel in the resplendent glory of it all, and take the knocks as well as the gains. After all, do we really want to miss out on the ‘taste of cherries’, as one character asks? Having sat through Kiarostami’s masterpiece, I know that I sure don’t.

DEAD MAN WALKING (Tim Robbins; 1995)
4 stars (out of 5)

Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon in DEAD MAN WALKING (1995)

For about 90 minutes, I wondered if I was sitting through The Shawshank Redemption Part II. Maybe it was the Tim Robbins factor. Maybe it was the whole prison thing. Maybe it’s the fact that Dead Man Walking just feels so much like a mid-90s kinda movie. I don’t know. Either way, I was content. And then, I started blubbing like a baby. Rare is the film that makes me cry - I could count the ones that have conquered my tear ducts over the last year on one hand (here’s looking at you Brokeback , Sunrise and Balthazar ). The tears seemingly came out of nowhere…
…But they didn’t. And it’s a testament to the craftsmanship of Robbins, and the exceptional performances of his two leads, that such a reaction was provoked. Dead Man Waking is not the anti-death penalty propaganda vehicle that you’d expect from the teaming of three of Hollywood’s most vocal liberals (although, frankly, that’s something I probably would’ve been happy with). It’s a mature presentation of an argument that admirably makes time to give credence to every side of a very complex debate. Even at the film’s most powerful moment, Robbins refuses to let us forget the criminal’s atrocities. Moreover, he smartly avoids submitting to contrived sentimentality. His directorial touch is light – simply offering up the case, and allowing the material to speak for itself.
What walloped me was the cumulative power of the raw emotion that started leaking from the moment Sister Helen Prejean got involved with Matthew Poncelot. Robbins has written two fully-fledged human beings for his leads – he resists the temptation to portray Prejean as a saint, and doesn’t demote Poncelot to the role of another victim wronged by the system.
For bringing these characters to life, we’re indebted to two career-best performances from two of the finest actors of their respective generations. Susan Sarandon, in the last year of truly superlative performances for actresses (Moore, Kidman, Shue, Thompson all on top form), manages to edge out all competition with her nuanced portrayal of the virtuous Prejean. Even when exposing her character’s flaws, not once does she let you doubt her goodwill and every expression conveys a fascinating depth of understanding, so much so that the viewer is fortunate enough to witness her learning process as the film develops. Sean Penn proves to be a perfect foil. Given the task of gradually humanising a flat-out brute isn’t easy, but Penn makes it look effortless. He is utterly convincing as the outwardly impenetrable thug, and devastating as his moment of truth approaches.
The strength of Dead Man Walking arises from the humility and dignity of these characterisations. Thus, the film’s weaker elements (Prejean’s moments in the community; muddled attempts at spirituality; a slow opening) are countered by the tentative connection between these two completely different beings. Through them, we learn that the real oppressor is not the state, nor the murderer, but hatred. Thanks to them, that message gains an amount of credibility that might be absent in the hands of lesser professionals.

GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. (George Clooney; 2005)
3½ stars (out of 5)

George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr. and David Strathairn in GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. (2005)

I know I’ve seen a damn good quintet when the weakest of my last five films is a movie as accomplished as Good Night, and Good Luck. I’ve no doubt that you’ll have heard of George Clooney’s sophomore outing as a director by now. It lives up to its reputation.
Clooney crafts a tight, well-made and fast-moving cerebral experience designed to indulge the intellectual senses. His pace is swift, but never feels rushed. His cast is outstanding, and his evocation of an era is alluring. All this from the guy who was in Batman & Robin ? It boggles the mind, doesn’t it?!
Much has been made of the script (written by Clooney and producer Grant Heslov) and its simplistic interpretation of events in the 1950s. It’s true that it suffers from a tendency to glorify Edward R. Murrow and his achievements. However, David Strathairn’s bravura performance counteracts these accusations. Playing Murrow with ice-cool chain-smoking conviction, Strathairn stubbornly refuses to let Murrow wander off into the realm of deification. He makes him identifiable – he isn’t a god, he’s simply a guy who gives a damn.
The real weakness of Clooney & Heslov’s script comes down to a couple of unnecessary subplots – namely the hidden marriage between Joe and Shirley Wershba (Robert Downey Jr. & Patricia Clarkson, both sorely underused) and Don Hollenbeck’s suicide (Ray Wise). The latter part was performed with modesty by Wise, but was too poorly written to be saved. Another point – I loved the jazz score, but what the fuck was with the musical interludes?!
Enough of the negative though. Good Night, and Good Luck. is an absorbing motion picture from the moment it plunges you into its timeline, and although it’s often difficult to keep up with, it’s worth the ride. The cinematography is lush and the editing sharp, and Clooney interlaces proceedings with enough wit and charm (wonder where he got that from…) to keep things running smoothly. His use of real-life footage of McCarthy is a brilliant touch, and he seems at ease handling his overtly political material. He frames his movie with one of Murrow’s acerbic speeches, deploring the degeneration of television as an informative and investigative medium. The fact that it rings so horribly true in this day and age is evidence of both the decline that Murrow was anticipating, as well as Clooney’s assured ability to make the issue so resounding.

RUSSIAN ARK (Aleksandr Sokurov; 2002)
4½ stars (out of 5)

Sergei Dreiden in Aleksandr Sokurov

Few people will have heard of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark. I’m here to fix that. This is a film that comes with a major gimmick - it’s noted as the first feature to have been filmed in one single and continuous shot. Yep, that’s right - one take. All 96 minutes of it. I’m pretty sure that Mike Figgis’ Timecode pulled off the same feat earlier, but Ark seems to have stolen some of the limelight - and rightly so. I haven’t seen Timecode, but I’m sceptical as to whether it even remotely approaches the spellbinding motion picture experience that is Russian Ark.
Sokurov’s epic is a time-travelling saga like no other. Set entirely within the confines of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum complex, the film criss-crosses across 300 years of recreated Russian history, encountering the likes of Peter and Catherine the Great along the way. This achievement was made possible by over 4,500 cast and crew members, working together to ensure that the film could be completed in its single take. The enormity of their accomplishment is even more striking when one realises that the Hermitage only granted one day for Sokurov to shoot the film. After three false starts, he completed it just in time.
For that work ethic, we can only be thankful. The fruit of all this labour is a delicate exploration of the nature of history and its effect on a national consciousness. Complementing this is the enormous cast, costumed in lavish period outfits and hustling and bustling their way around one of the almightiest of all cinematic historical settings in the Hermitage. Cinematographer Tilman Büttner’s (Run Lola Run , Downfall ) steadicam camera floats, glides and even waltzes its way through all this commotion, spotlighting various moments of action seemingly at random. It lends a graceful fluidity to events, mirroring the transience of time. We come to understand that the single, continuous take is not just gimmick, but is vital for representing the eternalness of history itself. The non-linear, improvisational ‘structure’ of the film thus acts as an evocation of the chaos of a nation’s past.
In terms of central characters, we are handed only an off-screen narrator (whose visual point of view we share) and an arrogant French Marquis who is as much provocateur as he is guide. Together, the pair echo the unceasing tensions between Russia and western Europe. Their meandering debates on Russian culture (the Marquis accuses the nation of plagiarising European mores) makes for gripping banter. That all this takes place in the Hermitage, an inherently Russian symbol that harbours many works of European art in the most ‘western’ of Russian cities, adds further significance.
The role of art is paramount to Russian Ark, and there are several instances when the camera lingers incessantly upon paintings, as if to emphasise their transcendence over our mortality. The Marquis’ criticisms disturb the wistful spirit of these moments, as he accuses the Russians of lacking their own art heritage. In a brilliant act of self-reflexivity however, the film itself quietly acts to contradict such claims. Russian Ark continues a tradition of revolutionary Russian art cinema, begun in the 1920s. Whilst pioneers like Eisenstein advocated montage editing, Sokurov – in what is surely a deliberate act – completely opposes the core values of montage theory with his single-take style, in itself innovatory. Against such a context, the Marquis’ denigrations are subtly dismissed as completely unfounded.
A pervasive melancholia haunts the film as it runs it course, and culminates during the final magnificent sequence – a recreation of the last great ball held in Imperial Russia. Sokurov seems nostalgic for Russia’s ‘Golden Age’, and the lavishness and joviality of the Tsarist era is juxtaposed with the gloomy representation of the Soviet era. At one point, the narrator states that he is “unsure” of his feelings towards the present Russian government, implying a loss of bearings regarding contemporary reality. Considering the last tumultuous century in Russian history, who can blame him?
Sokurov acknowledges the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky on his work, and there is indeed a spiritual thread weaved into Russian Ark. Aside from numerous biblical references in the museum, it is implied that our two ‘protagonists’ are dead and simply journeying through time. Their voyage then, could be interpreted as a deeply personal one, designed as a search for identity and meaning, as well as simple time travel.
As a cinematic achievement, Russian Ark is incomparable. Its technical worth speaks for itself. That Sokurov should also find time to step back and infuse his work with artistic merits is estimable. His Ark is a complex saga that underlines the importance of a cultural heritage and its role in the development of a national identity. He investigates the core of his nation’s history, commenting on its fragile relationship with the West as well as its own internal struggles. Ultimately though, he shows the difficulty in attempting to understand a historical past by accentuating the everlasting concept of time, which is always beyond us. He invites us to empathise with a history that isn’t our own. And he succeeds. When the film concludes by stating “we are destined to sail forever”, you can’t help but feel both moved and exhilarated after witnessing such an extraordinary vision.

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