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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  1. Grande Illusion is a wonderful film i really enjoyed it. Put in the context of the rise and fall of the PF many of Renoir's films give a fantastic insight into the social pressures at work in french society during the 30's. As for Russian Ark ive heard a lot about this film, might be worth seeking out some time in the near future.

    21 Mar 2006, 16:00

  2. I'm thick, "PF" = ? Renoir is of great interest to me, not only for his place in the canon, but because so far I just love his attention to character and, as you say, his abilities as a social critic. I found The Grand Illusion only slightly disappointing, but that's solely because of its reputation. I look forward to investigating more Renoir in the future though, is there anything you'd particularly recommend?

    And Russian Ark is most definitely worth seeking out. It's a rare cinematic experience if nothing else.

    21 Mar 2006, 16:19

  3. I was lucky enough to see Russian Ark on the big screen a few years ago (my local cinema often does 'one night only' screenings of random or older films) and it was fabulous. I don't know many other people that have seen it but if you find it, grab the opportunity to watch it and you won't be disappointed.

    21 Mar 2006, 16:45

  4. Hi Reehan, no time for a long comment. I haven't seen the first two, but I'd really like to. No interest in seeing Dead Man Walking (it's conceivable I actually have seen it and forgotten). I pretty much agree with your review of Goodbye and Good Luck. Clooney is quite an oddball. Did you see him in the Solaris remake? He's surprisingly good in it too. Syriana was a big disappointment though. Of course, he's never done better than his fantastic role in Return of the Killer Tomatoes. I wasn't entirely sure about Russian Ark. Obviously it's exceptionally clever, both technically and artistically, but I didn't find it hugely enjoyable to watch.

    I've found out that the blockbuster in Leamington has a surprisingly good collection of Bergman films, so I'm going to be brushing up on them over the next week or so. Might write some reviews. I'm also going to watch 'M'.

    21 Mar 2006, 17:42

  5. Caroline – I envy you so. I can only imagine how marvellous Russian Ark must seem on the big screen, it's clearly one of those films that is intended as a purely cinematic event as opposed to the laptop experience that I endured. That the film still managed to inspire such awe in such a context is surely proof of its greatness?

    Dan – always good to hear from you, regardless of how lengthy your comments are.

    I'll be viewing Syriana soon(ish) so I'll see what I think of it. It doesn't really seem like my kind of thing though. I find Clooney the actor works best when he's laying on the old-school charm. He's not a thespian, he's a star, and he should play up to that more often. Clooney the director = a guy with much promise though, don't you think? I haven't seen his previous directorial effort, but GNAGL is highly proficient on every level.

    I haven't seen Soderbergh's Solaris (in fact, I've actively avoided it. Should I not?) but I'm going to be seeing Tarkovsky's original within the next couple of days. I heart Blockbuster! It's good to hear that the Leamington store is well-stocked on their Bergman, although I warn you in advance - in my experience, they tend to stock things like All These Women , Port of Call and Three Strange Loves – films regarded as 'lesser' Bergmans. I've been avoiding them because I want to get to all his acclaimed vehicles first. It's stupid, I know, I just don't want to risk tarnishing my opinion of him until I've got it to the stage where it can't be tarnished. :s Any objectivity is thrown out the window when it comes to Ingmar, I'm afraid.

    I actually own M (some 2-disc special edition, no less), although I've only ever given it one chance. It failed to wow me. I haven't really gotten along well with Fritz Lang thus far (I wasn't keen on Metropolis either). Hope you get along better though! I'm sure there's much to admire, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    21 Mar 2006, 19:28

  6. See the Tarkovsky original first (it's amazing), and only then see the remake (it's surprisingly good). I was in a bit of a hurry so I just grabbed the first Bergman I saw which was Port of Call. I hadn't read anything about it beforehand. My experience of Bergman so far suggests that even his lesser films will be pretty damn good.

    I had a similar feeling to you about Metropolis, but you've gotta see these historic films I think.

    Just got back from V for Vendetta, pretty damn good.

    21 Mar 2006, 22:57

  7. PF is Popular Front the broad left alliance in power from 1936–39. I can recommend Le Crime de M Lange and La Bete Humaine (Jean Gabin is great in this). The PF is important in all of this because Renoir was originally seen to endorse the front and show his political persuasion in terms of character portrayal as well as technically through his 1930's films – check out the mise en scene in Le Crime de M Lange – Renoir's move away from the directly political in his later works was seen as a betrayal.

    21 Mar 2006, 23:09

  8. Do you think that political films are going to come back into mainstream?

    21 Mar 2006, 23:13

  9. multiple films made you cry in one year?
    I'd hardly say that's "rare".
    Do not fear, friend.

    21 Mar 2006, 23:49

  10. Another point – I loved the jazz score, but what the fuck was with the musical interludes?!

    I think that was supposed to hint at the way popular entertainment was encroaching on current affairs programmes at the time. Similarly, the plot was also interrupted with milk and cigarette commercials Murrow was forced into presenting those celebrity interview shows. Networks were realising the ratings (and the money) was in entertainment and not in news.

    You'd hope that was all in the past, but reading the BBC's white paper and seeing the job cuts in Panorama this week, it doesn't look like such a trend is history.

    Great film though!

    22 Mar 2006, 10:58

  11. Dan – I'll keep a lookout for Soderbergh's version from now on then. Be sure to let me know what you make of Port of Call . Like you say, I imagine a lesser Bergman is still likely to be a fine film, and I'm intrigued as to whether early Bergman deals with the same themes and ideas as later Bergman. I share your opinion about seeing these classics, just to have an opinion on them really. And V for Vendetta is one of the few 'mainstream' films that I want to see at the moment, so good to see your thumbs up.

    Peter – Thanks for elaborating (I did know about the Popular Front, honest! Abbreviatons throw me...). The idea of Renoir getting overtly political is tantalising. M. Lange and Human Beast are both films that I was intending to get to eventually, so your recommendations are very handy. Thanks.

    Re: your question about political films… in all honesty, I don't think they will, do you? The profitability of a film like Good Night, and Good Luck. is obvious, but it's still only barely grossed $50m worldwide. Real popcorn entertainment has the ability to outgross that in its first week. The fact that even a filmmaker as commercial as Steven Spielberg can't drive a film like Munich to box-office success speaks volumes. Admittedly, it was a pretty poor film, but that's never stopped Spielberg from creating blockbusters before has it? Moreover, the content of Munich is stuff that's as politically resonant today as it ever was. And still it can't find an audience.
    The public at large don't go to the movies to be informed or enlightened, they go for escapism. Unless you're someone like Michael Moore – a reactionary in the right place at the right time – an explicitly political film just isn't going to set the box-office alight. It's the way things work, I guess? What do you think?

    Vincent – You questioning my masculinity mate? Eh? EH?! Ahem. When you put it like that, I guess four films is quite a lot, but considering the number of films I watch it's a pretty small proportion IMO. And I know people who are a LOT worse than me so there. :p

    Adam – That's an interesting idea, I never considered that angle before?! Thanks for that! The Liberace interview was a hoot, wasn't it? Like you say, it's as significant now as it ever was. Great stuff.

    22 Mar 2006, 15:22

  12. chris

    re kiarostami: if you can find a copy of his movie about making movies, "10 on ten", you might be interested in his take on political film making, which foregrounds practice over content. the clooney movie is an example of political content within a conservative formula, and it's deeply unsatisfying compared to kiarostami's approach. even though "10 on ten" is a documentary, a kind of seminar, with the director talking to the camera as he drives around, it nevertheless has a surprising killer ending!! maybe it's best to see "ten" before "10 on ten", but they are packaged together on the zeitgeist films DVD release, and also the AV Channel DVD release, which comes from australia i think.

    21 Apr 2006, 20:08

  13. Darn, I had the opportunity to watch 10 on Ten with the Taste of Cherry DVD, but I couldn't find the time. I will definitely check it out at some point in the future now that you've mentioned it though, thanks. I think I'll check out Ten beforehand though, like you suggested. I'm really excited about the rest of Kiarostami's work following Taste of Cherry ?! He sounds like a VERY interesting (and very intelligent) filmmaker..

    28 Apr 2006, 13:27

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