Last Five Films… as of 05/03/06
LONG overdue, but the end of term is always hectic…
WALK THE LINE (James Mangold; 2005)
2Ĺ stars (out of 5)
Considering all the hype, Iím a bit surprised to find that, at the end of the day, Walk the Line failed to exceed my expectations. Itís nothing more than a typically standard by-the-numbers biopic that even the most illiterate of moviewatchers will have seen countless times before. Amazingly, Johnny Cashís life – which Iím sure was pretty damn exciting – is rendered fairly mediocre once taken through the Hollywood machine. It becomes your average sex, drugs and rock Ďní roll scenario intertwined with a classic love story for good measure.
Having said that, mediocrity doesnít equate to flat-out shit by any means. Despite failing to sustain my interest levels for its overlong running period of 136 minutes, it had some great moments. The scene where Cash and Carter finally get together was beautifully handled (although that might just be the old romantic in me creeping in), and although the Cashís parents were underwritten, the scenes in which they did appear were tinged with genuine emotion. Moreover, Joaquin Phoenix gave a bravura performance and fully deserved his Oscar nomination. Reese Witherspoon was charming, but the fact that the bitch went and won an Oscar for what is essentially a mildly glorified supporting performance is yet another negative to haunt this yearís Academy Awards.
Anyway, I shall stop being so embittered. Walk the Line is solid film fare. Go in with few expectations, and Iím sure youíll come out satisfied.
WALLACE & GROMIT IN THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT (Nick Park & Steve Box; 2005)
2 stars (out of 5)
Before I get lynched, let me state that I absolutely LOVE (or loved?) Wallace & Gromit. Hell, Iím as big a fan of the original shorts as anyone – theyíre irrepressibly warm and brimming with a quintessential British charm that Iím just a sucker for. Understandably then, I was anticipating their first feature-length outing as much as the next guy, and although I missed the boat when it was first in cinemas (trapped in the Warwick bubble), I knew I could catch it at Student Cinema. So I didÖ
The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is almost definitely the most disappointing, and disheartening, modern film that Iíve watched for a long long time. The overwhelmingly positive reviews baffle me, and the Oscar is a joke. I note that it was produced by Dreamworks - the same guys who made the horribly gimmicky Shrek , as well as the terrible Madagascar penguins short that preceded W&G. Taking that into account, Iím starting to think I can see how W&G degenerated into the land of mindless bullcrap. Gone is the warmth and the charm, and instead itís replaced with a load of awfully lame and immature jokes that fail to crescendo towards anything remotely approaching an exciting finale. In fact, the film recedes in quality as it goes on, and descends even further into the sorts of ludicrousness that I most definitely would not expect from as accomplished a storyteller as Nick Park.
Itís not the curse of the Were-Rabbit, itís the curse of going through the fuckiní Dreamworks machine. The fact that even Wallace and Gromit couldnít come out unscathed speaks volumes. What made the originals work for me was the fact that the protagonistsí affection and a sense of humble sincerity were emphasised over cheap laughs. Thatís all lost with Were-Rabbit, and instead the focus shifts onto one-note attempts at juvenility that miss the mark every time.
I tried desperately to like it for about half an hour (hell, even my 2 star-rating is based partly on undying love for the originals), before realising that if Iím going to come down hard on something like Mrs. Henderson Presents , then I should judge Wallace and Gromit by the same standards. By my standards then, they missed. Big time. And Iím honestly sad to say it.
CHOCOLAT (Claire Denis; 1988)
3Ĺ stars (out of 5)
No, this isnít the horrific Oscarbait Miramax blandfest that was directed by Lasse HallstrŲm a few years back. This is a sensitive look at the nature of colonialism and cultural identity. In that sense then, itís much like The New World , which I also viewed recently. Claire Denis doesnít envelop the audience in glorious visuals like Malick, although the Africa that she envisages in Chocolat is by no means unattractive. Instead, Denis focuses on elegant pacing, providing tantalisingly restrained glimpses into the lives of her characters and inviting the audience to make sense of their complex relationships. Itís a staple tactic of arthouse films, and can succeed to astounding effect (think Au hasard Balthazar , In the Mood for Love or even Brokeback Mountain ), but one canít help but feel that Denisí thematic concerns are ever-so-slightly too expansive for her visual style.
Chocolat seethes beneath its surface, and a number of interesting ideas are to be found within its subtexts. Thereís the repressed interracial romance, the Marxist class conflicts, Denisí visual enforcements of the divisions between master and slave (and, consequently, white man and non), and thatís not even getting anywhere near the heart of it. Maybe thatís why I donít love this film more – itís clearly got a lot to say, but the fact that it projects an aura of tedium puts me off wanting to dig deeper. Occasionally, the pondering nature of the camera suffers from a tendency to irritate and the overt emptiness can get plain dull. In spite of that, the film is truly fascinating and will be rewarding for anyone willing to actively participate in the experience that it offers. Itís just a shame that I wasnít.
BLOWUP (Michelangelo Antonioni; 1966)
3Ĺ stars (out of 5)
This was my first Antonioni, and judging by what Iíve read about him in the past, I think itís pretty much what I expected in terms of his directorial style. I completely get the alienation and the crisis of identity, and I love the way in which the film sets itself up as a mystery but ends up refusing to tie up the loose ends for the audience. Thereís a great great deal to admire with Blowup, but much like Chocolat, I canít bring myself to truly love it. Perhaps itís the fact that I find itís London setting too bleak for my liking, or maybe itís the fact that Antonioni forces his audience into a position where theyíre almost too detached from the narrative?
Whatever it is that prevents me from loving this with my heart as well as my brain, I canít deny the fact that itís a true work of art. The sequence in which our Ďheroí discovers a possible murder via a series of Ďblown upí photographs is evidence that a true master is at work. Iím a sucker for existentialist fare (note: Bergman ), and Antonioni creates a captivating tapestry based on such a grounding, and then interweaves it with commentaries on art and society.
As with Chocolat, Iím going to cop-out from delving too deep into this. Needless to say, thereís a lot more to this film if youíre willing to go into it, but alas, itís another case where the admiration is far greater than the enthusiasm, and thus the passion isnít there for me to look closer. Although it comes very highly recommended from me, I can't help but feel that I should've popped by Antonioni cherry with L'Avventura or L'Eclisse which seem more suited to my tastes.
PICCADILLY (E.A. Dupont; 1929)
4Ĺ stars (out of 5)
Randomly picked this up from Short Loan's DVD library (Short Loan – I LOVE you, but your £2-an-hr fines are plain cuntish). I am VERY glad that I did so. What really drew me was the fact that it was a British silent (something I'd never seen prior to this). I recently wrote an essay on the early days of cinema, and discovered that the British film industry lagged well behind others on the world market until The Private Life of Henry VIII took off in 1933. On the basis of Piccadilly, I'd say we deserved a lot better – although that glosses over the fact that it was directed by a German… but ah well.
Anyway, Piccadilly suffers from a very severe case of style over substance. However, it's style is so sprightly and dexterous that the lack of any real weight underneath its blanket of charm works as an advantage as opposed to a hindrance. Indeed, it's only when the film becomes dominated by a conventional melodrama towards its conclusion that it loses its steam, and by that point I enjoyed what had gone on before so much that I couldnít help but forgive it.
Dupont does a truly wonderful job of evoking jazz-era London, with his camera as fluid and alive as his surroundings – it's a wonder that the steadicam arrived half a century later than this. The film is vibrant both in the hustle-bustle of Piccadilly's nightlife as well as the mysterious exoticism of the cityís Limehouse district, and suspense is aptly layered with each passing frame. Iím not sure whether the accompanying jazz score is new or was released with the film, but itís nonetheless delightful and watching the images correspond so sinuously with the music makes for enchanting viewing.
Piccadillyís greatest asset however, lies in Anna May Wong – one of cinemaís lost stars, whose career was sidelined by the internal racism of Hollywood. Here, away from Tinseltown, Wong sinks her teeth into the role of what is, on paper, an inherently dislikeable character and pulls it into the realm of intriguing sensuality. The extent of our fascination with Wongís earthly portrayal leads us to completely ignore the fact that sheís a bit of a bitch, and ends up blurring the distinctions between sympathetic and unsympathetic characters thus introducing a new element of racial tension that serves only to benefit the film.
Piccadilly is a remarkable piece of work from a forgotten director (from what I understand, his Variety was considered a masterpiece upon release, only to be lost in obscurity today), and itís a remarkable testament to the strength of British cinema as well. See it if you ever have the opportunity to do so.