All entries for March 2006

March 28, 2006

My Most Anticipated Films of 2006


I've no doubt that more stuff will emerge at Cannes, Venice, Toronto and the likes. But for the moment, here are ten films – due to come out this year – that are causing me excess salivation…

Dir: Milos Forman
Cast: Natalie Portman, Javier Bardem, Stellan Skarsgård, Randy Quaid

Javier Bardem and Stellan Skarsgård in the same film? Under the direction of Milos Forman, who directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus ? With a script co-written by Jean-Claude Carriére, former collaborator of Luis Buñuel? AND boasting a story that promises to deal with blasphemy? I realise that the prospect of Natalie Portman headlining is enough to make anyone weary, but let's be fair - I thought she was pretty good in Closer and Forman managed to direct Courtney Love (Courtney friggin' Love) to an acclaimed performance. I mean, Cuckoo's Nest , maaaan... Forman's overdue another great film, here's hoping Goya's Ghosts does the job.

Dir: Michel Gondry
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg

This looks like exactly the sort of dreamlike fantasy that'll float my boat. Gondry's direction of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was beautiful. The guy clearly knows how quirk SHOULD be done, so hopefully he can pull it off again minus a Kaufman script. The Science of Sleep has already played to a lukewarm reception at Berlin, but I'm retaining my optimism. And does anyone else think that Gael García Bernal is fast-becoming one of the most interesting actors around?

Dir: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn

Again, this is in here due to my love of the director's previous film, Requiem for a Dream . This story looks like the sort of thing Tarkovsky (my most recent love) would lap up, and I'm curious to see how Aronofsky will handle it. It's either gonna fall flat on its face or it's gonna end up brilliant… fingers crossed for the latter.

Dir: Todd Haynes
Cast: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Colin Farrell, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Richard Gere, Julianne Moore

Seven characters, portrayed by seven different actors, each "embody a different aspect" of Bob Dylan's life and work. Again, this could potentially be a disaster, but I fuckin' LOVED Haynes' Safe and I really liked Far from Heaven too, so the talent is most definitely there. The brilliant Julianne Moore is back under his direction again, along with a cast too interesting to ignore. And um, Bob Dylan rocks.

Dir: Robert Altman
Cast: Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Garrison Keiller, Tommy Lee Jones, Virginia Madsen, Lindsay Lohan, Maya Rudolph

Altman doing an ensemble piece = guaranteed to be brilliant. The outstanding reception to this at Berlin has gotten my hopes up big time. And I mean, who else can direct a large cast like Altman can? This looks like great fun, and last time he tackled the music scene we ended up with Nashville . 'nuff said.

Dir: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Duenas, Blanca Portillo

Even I'm wondering why I'm looking forward to this so much. I adored All About My Mother , but was fairly lukewarm to both Talk to Her and Bad Education . That's all I've seen out of Almodóvar's oeuvre, although I have every intention of getting to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown asap. Anyway, I'm rambling. This has already opened to a rapturous reception in Almodóvar's native Spain, and the buzz has managed to get inside my head. Directing a bunch of women in an outrageous comedy is playing right to Almodóvar's strengths, I reckon. Can't wait to see the results..

#4 FUR
Dir: Steven Shainberg
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Robert Downey Jr., Jane Alexander

The prospect of Kidman, by far and away the finest actress of her generation IMO, returning to the world of art cinema is just too much for me to bear. Every time Kidman does one of these smaller flicks, she gets it spot on and delivers an astonishing performance to boot. This certainly doesn't look like a conventional biopic, and Shainberg apparently did a great job with Secretary , which I haven't seen. I'm praying that he excels here…

Dir: Ethan & Joel Coen, Christopher Doyle, Gus Van Sant, Oliver Assayas, Alexander Payne, Walter Salles, Tom Tykwer, Sylvain Chomet, Wes Craven, Alfonso Cuarón, Gurinder Chadha, Gérard Depardieu, Vincenzo Natali (amongst others)
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Gena Rowlands, Nick Nolte, Willem Dafoe, Fanny Ardant, Javiar Cámara, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Steve Buscemi, Ben Gazzara, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Emily Mortimer, Ludivine Sagnier, Natalie Portman, Marianne Faithful, Bob Hoskins

Ok, look at the directors. Then look at the cast. The term "spunkworthy" has never been more apt. "20 stories of love, from the City of Love" is the tagline. Each director provides a five-minute ode to Paris' twenty "arrondissements". It's destined to be uneven, but it should nevertheless be fascinating. Cannot wait.

Dir: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga, Mark Wahlberg, Ray Winstone, Alec Baldwin

J'adore M. Scorsese. No, really, I fuckin' love the guy. After the mess that was Gangs of New York , Marty showed signs of being back on top of his craft with The Aviator . Will The Departed , a remake of the much-lauded Infernal Affairs , be the next step up? It's a return to his gangster roots, which could be promising. But all I know at heart is this: the teaming of Jack Nicholson (my favourite actor evah) and Martin Scorsese (one of my favourite directors) is one that I've been aching to see for a long long time. I can't believe that it's finally happening, and now I'm just praying for this damn movie to be worthy of the talent involved.

Dir: Wong Kar-Wai
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Jude Law, Norah Jones

The unreliable IMDb list Wong's next project as The Lady from Shanghai . I desperately desperately wish it was, for that would mark the teaming of my favourite contemporary actor (Kidman) with my favourite contemporary director (Wong, duh). Unfortunately, it's been postponed until next year whilst Kidman finishes working on new films with Noah Baumbach and Baz Luhrmann. So, whilst Wong waits around for Ms. Kidman, he'll be directing this here movie – and it'll subsequently assume its place as my most anticipated flick for 2006. I have no idea what it's about, nor do I particularly love the stars involved (although Law has hit greatness before). I just know that Wong Kar-Wai is a cinematic magician, and whatever he conjures up for his English-language debut is likely to be mesmerising.

Oh, and here's an honorary shout-out to Snakes on a Plane . At first I thought it was a disaster waiting to happen, but every day I become more and more won over by its camp value. If this is done right, then it could well be THE comedy of the year.

Snakes on a Plane

Last Five Films… as of 23/03/06

I'm really not liking the way this blog has wandered off into the world of cinema-obsession. I need to diversify. But I can't be arsed at the moment, so oh well.

3½ stars (out of 5)

Diego Luna, Ana López Mercado & Gael García Bernal in Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN (2001)

Exciting, provocative and very, very daring, Y tu mamá también is one film that just might be deserving of all the praise that’s been heaped upon it. Cuarón, after helming what is possibly the single most agonising cinematic experience of my entire life, leaps right into my good books with this Mexican raunchfest of a picture. The film breathes some life into the well-worn ‘road movie’ cliché – not because it deviates from the stereotype (the characters predictably learn a life lesson or two on their metaphorical journey), but because it’s brisk and invigorating enough to maintain our attention.
Starting with its brash opening, the film’s treatment of sex is refreshingly frank. Cuarón really doesn’t abstain from showing us carnal details, although the sex here isn’t gratuitous by any means. It’s fundamental to the story and, at the very least, provides us with valuable insights into the characters lives. If it wasn’t for these visual illustrations, we’d never be aware of the hypocrisy behind the audacious proclamations of Tenoch and Julio – the movie’s two youthful heroes who feel little shame in bragging about their sex lives, but helplessly turn to putty in the hands of an older woman resulting in their amusingly premature climaxes. Sex then, is used to expose the basic inexperience of the pair, often leading to delightfully humorous effects.
There are, perhaps surprisingly, wider concerns here. Fucking is just one part of the duo’s carefree masculine playground which incorporates the usual material gratifications (drugs, alcohol, cars). Underpinning this happy-go-lucky lifestyle however, is a competitive streak between the two that rears its head more than once. In due course, we realise that the film is studying male relationships, and quietly examining the nature of the male ego – saving its boldest and most thought-provoking remark for the movie’s final act.
A wryly comic voiceover offers the audience further insights, although these are not always successful. When commenting on the characters, the film is perfectly within its zone and is able to make shrewd observations. However, the narration occasionally overreaches – and nothing irks me more than a film with visibly clear illusions of grandeur. Here, we find a feeble attempt to integrate a review of Mexico’s political situation into its narrative, which frankly isn’t very interesting. The film seems far more comfortable dealing with issues that are more directly relevant to its characters’ lives, for example the influence of class boundaries on Tenoch and Julio’s relationship. Y tu mamá también is socially conscious more than it is politically astute.
Mortality is another lingering idea that the film deals with. A fairly cheap ‘surprise’ revelation is saved until the film’s end, but it succeeds in spite of its contrivance, revealing certain events to be more poignant than they have any right to be. In essence then, this is more than just a raucous sex comedy. Its focus expands beyond mere erotic pleasures, and it ultimately succeeds in portraying an exciting chapter in life whilst remaining fully aware of its transience. For that, it should be commended.

SOLYARIS [SOLARIS] (Andrei Tarkovsky; 1972)
5 stars (out of 5)

Natalya Bondarchuk and Donatas Banionis in SOLARIS (1972)

Such is the effect of Tarkovsky’s cinema (or at least, my experience of it to date) that he leaves me at a complete loss for words. Solaris is a mystifying film, but it is wholly captivating, and I felt compelled to afford it a second viewing in order to truly come to terms with it. Now that I feel comfortable with it, I’m suffering from an inability to communicate my thoughts. I’ll try anyway, but if I fail miserably, please note that Solaris > my writing.
Solaris , contrary to its setting, is interested in inner as opposed to outer space - namely, the realm of our consciousness. Much like he did with Stalker , Tarkovsky manipulates the basic framework of the sci-fi genre to express his own thematic concerns, refusing to bow to generic conventions. Subsequently, space exploration becomes an apt metaphor for an examination of the human soul and Solaris ’ epic scope weighs in on the dilemma of the individual’s existence. What is love? What is reality? What makes a ‘human’? Tarkovsky confronts his audience with these solemn questions, whilst never privileging us with any direct answers.
The “Solaris” of the title is a sentient ocean residing somewhere deep in the cosmos. This mass of ‘jelly’, as one character describes it, not only possesses the power to probe a human’s subconscious, but also has the capability to materially duplicate the persons involved in those intimate thoughts. The film’s protagonist, Kris, after initially disbelieving Solaris’ immense potential, is thrown into turmoil when he discovers that the ocean has replicated his former wife, Hari, who committed suicide.
Hari is an extraordinarily complex character, who invokes as much perplexity from the viewer as she does from Kris. Born out of the latter’s memory, Hari is evidently not Kris’ ex-wife in spite of her apparent physical resemblance – she lacks the recollections of life with her husband that the real Hari would possess. What is she then? Is she simply Solaris’ perception of whom Hari was, or is she Kris’ idealisation of what she should be? Are the two even mutually exclusive? Tarkovsky uses Hari as one angle to tackle the question of what it means to be human. Later in the film, Sartorius, a chillingly rational character symbolic of the director’s distaste for science, relegates the fake Hari’s existence to the domain of the purely physical. Tarkovsky shrewdly lets Sartorius’ implication speak for itself: if material being is not a valid measure of one’s humanity, then surely something else is – and what else is there besides the human soul? With her tenderness and empathy, Hari certainly seems more in touch with her soul than the impenetrable Sartorius, and thus a deliciously wicked irony unfolds. She may not be innately human, but Hari certainly seems to have evolved into one.
A significant portion of Solaris is spent dwelling on Kris and Hari’s relationship. The former's initial response upon meeting this replication of his wife (he sends her away in an escape vehicle) serves as a critical depiction of man’s destructive impulse. This idea extends towards the ocean itself: Kris’ mission, to evaluate whether or not Solaris should be obliterated, is representative of our own fear of the unknown. Tarkovsky suggests that our instinct upon encountering alien environments is to simply annihilate them. This implicitly contributes to the reasoning behind Kris’ original reaction.
Another part of this reasoning is a distinct fear of confronting the past. The concept of remembering is a prevalent theme in Solaris , rearing its head most notably in the form of Hari who is effectively an anthropomorphised anamnesis. A persistent motif, first demonstrated via Berton’s character, finds Tarkovsky flashbacking to Kris’ youth, reinforcing the notion of one’s inescapable history. It should be noted that earlier in the film, we encounter Kris burning photographs and documents on Earth in a plain attempt to dissociate himself from his past. Once aboard the austere space station however, he is under Solaris’ subjugation and is accordingly required to face up to his guilt. The set design is used to reaffirm this, consisting as it does of concaved rooms, locked doors and enormous windows that literally look out to Solaris but figuratively look in to the soul. Such spatial deficiency coerces Kris into introspection, insisting that he tackles his conscience about Hari’s suicide. The aforementioned scene where he sends her away in an escape vehicle is pivotal. As the rocket begins launching, every door bolts and Kris becomes trapped – forced to endure the consequences of his actions. He suffers burns because of this, and his purpose essentially fails as Hari is simply resurrected by Solaris. Tarkovsky seems to be demanding that we make peace with the past, before we proceed with the future.
Probing the subconscious isn’t exactly the easiest of tasks, and Solaris’ copying technique is not perfect. In its own way, the ocean acts as an appropriate reflection of human memory – it can recall general outlines, but pays little attention to detail. For example, while Hari’s basic physicality is correct, the buttons on her dress cannot be undone due to the ocean’s inaccuracy. The film highlights the fact that we recollect our perception of people, as opposed to their reality, and Tarkovsky uses this concept as a basis to investigate the texture of love itself. He suggests that the emotion leads to consecrated memories (possibly the fake Hari?), that blind us from the truth (the real Hari?). Is it our consciousness of someone that we’re in love with, or is it the person themselves?
Pessimism drenches the issue of romance in Solaris . Kris claims to love the new Hari more than the old one, knowing that she isn’t real. His need for affection, on top of his active willingness to delude himself, would verge on the pitiable if it didn’t mirror our own natural desires. The director scrutinises the lengths that we’ll go to in the name of passion, and the issue of the past resurfaces as he indicates that we cannot escape from our mistakes. Accordingly, the fake Hari outdoes her human counterpart by committing suicide a number of times, only to be constantly resurrected in order to mercilessly illustrate her existential crisis.
Technology, an inherent factor in every science-fiction movie, isn’t ignored here so much as it is dismissed. It’s used to highlight spiritual destitution, most remarkably in the notorious ‘freeway’ scene where Tarkovsky films a ‘futuristic’ car journey without dialogue for several minutes in order to show how it is effectively taking us nowhere. Alongside this aversion to technology, the director shows a clear propensity for nature. Note the fondness with which the camera glares upon Kris’ life on Earth – Tarkovsky allows the audience to relish in these scenes of environmental beauty. Contrast this with the space station, where strips of paper are tied to a ventilation shaft in order to recreate the sound of rustling leaves, emphasising the disparity between the two worlds. Modes of travel are also brilliantly evaluated – there’s the obvious space travel, and the cars in the freeway scene, but there’s also a recurring image of a horse, elegant and graceful. Guess which one Tarkovsky favours…
Solaris is a dense and expansive piece of work that’s riddled with intricacies and contradictions that are impossible to fully comprehend. A more accomplished writer could apply a Freudian analysis to the text - and it’s certainly screaming out for one with it’s preoccupation with the subconscious, oceanic feeling and a surprise mother complex. Numerous interpretations can be brought to this film however, and no one theory is more right than the other. Complete with a shock ending that throws everything that came before it into disarray, Solaris is an enigmatic but nonetheless astonishing experience – a mood piece that soars to giddy heights thanks in part to the director’s masterful brand of visual poetry. If you enjoy being challenged as a moviegoer, then this is one film most definitely worth hunting down.

4 stars (out of 5)

Every day I become more and more convinced that Katharine Hepburn is completely worthy of her status as the greatest actress ever. Not that I ever doubt it, mind, I just become more certain . Her astounding turn as Mary Tyrone, the morphine-addicted matriarch in the film version of Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical play makes me wonder if there was anything this luminous star of 20th century cinema couldn’t do. Such is the might of Hepburn’s performance here, that even when the lady herself is absent from the screen, her spectre’s forceful presence eerily looms over the rest of the action.
Lumet chooses to present the film as little more than filmed theatre, albeit with a slightly wider scope of settings. That decision is something of a double-edged sword. While it obviously takes away from the cinematic nature of the film, it conversely allows the audience to concentrate on the story and the acting – and that pays huge dividends with a piece like this. The dysfunctional Tyrones put all other movie families to shame. Theirs is an impossibly bleak world consumed by guilt, distrust and severe antipathy. O’Neill doesn’t even allow us a façade of happiness, choosing not to subvert the ideal of a happy American family, but instead to penetrate its brutal core from the outset.
Each of the four family members has serious issues: morphine addiction, alcoholism, failed career, parsimony, tuberculosis, plain laziness. It is their dismal attempts in dealing with these problems that result in the bitter resentment that constantly threatens to tear the family apart. Whilst there is little doubt that these troubles are due in some – or even most – part to the other family members, the fact that the characters care little for working through their difficulties is more than telling. Rather than unite to confront their problems, they choose to actively lay into one another at every opportunity. Only Mary is exempt from this verbal battleground – but this isn’t beneficial by any means. So busy are the others, accusing each other of being responsible for her addiction, that they never stop to help her from sliding further into her miserably perilous world. Ironically, in spite of their relentless rowing, it is the family’s intrinsic inability to communicate that leads to their fall from grace.
With Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, James Robards Jr. and Dean Stockwell, director Sidney Lumet is gifted with a stunning troupe of actors to bring O’Neill’s embittered story to life. Robards skilfully laces vulnerability into his hardened cynicism, whilst Stockwell brilliantly conveys the youthful awakening required of him. It is nonetheless Hepburn who steals the show from a phenomenal cast (a feat she'd perform again in The Lion in Winter ) as she masterfully toes the thin line between sanity and lunacy, fittingly brewing tension in her audience with every passing moment. It’s a performance of tremendous gravitas, with the actress completely inhabiting her character’s desperate fragility and finding moments of delicate pathos along the way. Hepburn takes a woman who could easily spiral into caricature, and makes her devastatingly sincere. Only Richardson as James, the patriarch, manages to hit a sour note amongst these accomplished thespians. His uneven theatrics are out of place against the rest of the cast, and he very nearly makes a balanced character completely unsympathetic. O’Neill’s script is too good to permit such an occurrence however, and James’ revelation about his tough childhood helps us to at least partially empathise with him.
Tragedy and despair is inescapable here, and O’Neill’s refusal to offer any of his characters redemption makes things all the more hopeless. Stomaching three hours in the dreary Tyrone household is a difficult task, and the tedium induced by many of the family’s disputes fails to help matters. But this is intended, and O’Neill repeats arguments and dialogue to show how this godforsaken family have failed to progress beyond their turmoil. Indeed, the constant yearning for the past by the parents implies that if anything, the family is degenerating. Long Day’s Journey Into Night portrays a dire and discouraging situation, but there’s something about it that appeals to the viewers voyeurism – whether it’s the opportunity to glimpse into the life of the acclaimed playwright, or the fact that it triggers memories of viewers’ own familial issues, all that is clear is this: the decline of a family has rarely been so riveting.

THE PROPOSITION (John Hillcoat; 2005)
3½ stars (out of 5)

I’ve been somewhat lacking on the ‘happy movies’ front lately. Prior to the internal traumas of Long Day’s Journey Into Night , I viewed this equally bitter tale, which arrives with a reputation as “Nick Cave’s bloodbath”. Sick, twisted and incredibly gory, this account of Australia’s nigh-on sadistic past takes the Western tradition to the 19th century outback, where carnage is seemingly part of everyday life.
Cave’s screenplay is patchy at best. Characters, particularly the crucial Burns brothers, are left woefully underdeveloped, rendering insufficient any allusions towards creating a credible revenge saga. Moreover, an early insinuation that the film will deal with the indigenous question fails to substantially materialise, and something tells me I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that the script was plagued by historical inaccuracies.
Despite these flaws, director John Hillcoat manages to turn Cave’s fundamental abstraction into an advantage. He saturates his audience with images of the Australian landscape in all its majestic glory, finding unusually distorted patterns of nature that augment The Proposition ’s warped ambience. Complemented by Cave’s haunting score (his songwriting is clearly superior to his screenwriting), Hillcoat works with atmosphere to pinpoint the contrast between the unruly wilderness and the civilising mission, exemplified by the Stanleys and their domestic life. It’s an adept decision, with Hillcoat’s visualisation establishing an unnerving dichotomy that gifts Cave’s story with tension where previously there was only stifling desolation.
With a cast as astonishing as this (Emily Watson, Ray Winstone, Guy Pearce, John Hurt and Danny Huston in the same film?! Fuck me !), I am absolutely appalled that The Proposition hasn’t generated more publicity. I only heard about it when it was showing at the Berlin Film Festival, and even then I didn’t pay it much attention. The acting is solid all round, although I can’t help but feel that Hurt’s role is rather throwaway. Richard Wilson’s whimpering act as the younger Burns brother gets irritating, but thankfully his role is limited. Pearce is entrancingly ambiguous, and Watson and Winstone form a superb partnership that makes the everpresent theme of family in The Proposition more resonant than it has any right to be. A particularly powerful scene finds Watson in the bathtub describing a dream whilst hinting at her own inability to have children, as Winstone’s tough guy exterior quietly disintegrates in the background. It’s stark moments such as these that help the viewer comprehend the effects of the brutality that so contaminates this harsh world.
The Proposition is a highly disturbing envisaging of the moral foundations of Australia, but it’s far from being an outright gorefest. Hillcoat’s coarse lyricism irons over the creases in Cave’s script, and the film ultimately succeeds in portraying a transitory moment in time where colonialism was fraying at its seams and struggling to assert itself in an unknown land. If you can handle its matter-of-fact treatment of violence, which exists very much as a part of this Hellish land, then you just might find this a worthwhile experience.

TSOTSI (Gavin Hood; 2005)
3 stars (out of 5)

Tsotsi seems to have been marketed as the South African answer to City of God . That’s fairly unfortunate for this year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, because up against the frenetic vitality of the Brazilian movie, Tsotsi seems worse than it actually is.
Lumbered with his own lame excuse for a script, Gavin Hood attempts to inject proceedings with a shot of energy that consists of some occasionally snappy editing and a hip gangsta soundtrack. It works to an extent (the soundtrack is genuinely great), and the sun-dried colour palette helps add to the faux ‘cool’ of it all. Whether it’s enough to enliven a second-rate story is another question, however.
Tsotsi, of the title is, quite frankly, a cunt of the highest (or should that be lowest?) order. He is little more than a pathetic thug whose complete moral vacuity thinks nothing of murder. One night, he finds the baby of one of his victims in a stolen car, and so begins the contrived process of the cute and cuddly child humanising the beast. Of course, that’s assuming that Tsotsi is a beast. Presley Chweneyagae is given a lot to do with the title role and, alarmingly, all he can come up with is the same vacant expression – over and over again. The whole film should fall apart as a result, but somehow it keeps together. In a way, Chweneyagae’s blankness fits in with the idea of Tsotsi as a lost soul, aimlessly wandering around the slums and communicating the only way he knows how – through violence. One wonders whether that was the intention behind Chweneyagae’s acting, but either way, he scores a stroke of luck.
In terms of backstory, the script completely implodes. Hood tries to explain Tsotsi’s behaviour by blaming the clichéd alcoholic father. One could assume that life in the slums also played a role, before realising that no one else seems is anywhere near as bad as Tsotsi and his gang. So, um, he’s just a twat for the sake of being a twat? I see…
Tsotsi is a film that should really be a miserable failure - and yet I can’t help but like it?! There’s something refreshing about seeing a technically competent South African film find some success. Witnessing the slums of a supposedly modern city on the big screen, and seeing characters like Miriam (an exceptional Terry Pheto) attempting to make the best out of their poverty-stricken surroundings, makes for a humbling experience. Moreover, the fact that Hood offers Tsotsi the chance to redeem himself is an attractive ideal - it’s comforting to know that bad guys can turn good. Sure, it’s riddled with problems, is something of a simplistic fantasy in its treatment of its central character, and is about as subtle as a sledgehammer - but Tsotsi is a likeable movie. And aforementioned baby really is rather cute.

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.

March 18, 2006


For those observers who aren't familiar with yours truly on an everday basis, I buggered off to Ljubljana (capital of Slovenia) for a few days after the end of term with Warwick's very wonderful HistorySoc. We're cooler than you think you know, I spent every night rather wasted. Hippie communes, Slovenian tramps, and 7am kebabs… we took Slovenia by storm! And I won a "Best Orgasm" prize to boot. Terrific, no? I fully expect a recession in the Slovenian economy now that I'm not there to bankroll it with my alcoholic requirements.

Thanks to all wonderful people who made the trip as amazing as it was. I'll hunt around for pictures and shove 'em up asap.

Slovenia 4evah, and all that.

"The Piano" (1993)

Follow-up to The Greatest Films According to Reehan from My Blog.

Apologies in advance for the stupid Oscar-centrism and the unnecessary Spielberg bashing, this was written about a year ago whilst I was going through a severe "Spielberg & Lucas are the devils" phase...

Director: Jane Campion
Writer: Jane Campion
Cast: Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, Anna Paquin, Kerry Walker, Genevieve Lemon

the piano

Rewind to 1993, if you will. Scorsese, Altman, Kieslowski, Burton, Ivory, Leigh… a countless number of big names were at the top of their craft, churning out great movies. Nevertheless, 1993 was a year that belonged to one director only: Steven Spielberg. Earlier in the year he’d struck box-office gold with the megahit that was Jurassic Park (the highest-grossing movie of all time until Titanic surpassed it later in the decade). Come awards season and Spielberg was back again. Having been nominated for the Best Director category 4 times without a win, Spielberg was fast becoming one of Oscar’s biggest losers. That all changed with Schindler’s List, his holocaust epic that swept the awards circuit and finally brought him Oscar glory winning 7 Academy Awards including the elusive Best Director award as well as Best Picture. All I’ll say is this: the wrong film won that year, for Spielberg and his List never even remotely come close to the brilliance that New Zealander Jane Campion achieved with her elegiac masterpiece The Piano.

At the core of that film, you’ll find one woman and, somewhat unsurprisingly, her piano. Seems like a bit of a dull concept, doesn’t it? Fair enough, but what if I said that the aforementioned woman was a 19th century mute whose piano served as her “voice” and thus her only means of communication with an outside world that includes an unsympathetic husband (who became her spouse via an arranged marriage, no less) and a seemingly loutish stranger who identifies more with the native Maori tribespeople than the Englishmen and women with whom he shares an ancestral background. Still not sold? Ok then, throw in an emotionally volatile brat of a daughter, some scandalous sexual games, a notable undercurrent of feminism, a battle of male egos and a central theme of unrestrained passion, and then mix in a memorable score and throw in some of cinema’s most breathtaking cinematography for good measure. Now you have a film on your hands. And that’s saying nothing of Harvey Keitel’s cock.

With The Piano, Campion painted a masterful portrait of one Ada McGrath (Hunter) – a complex character and a misunderstood soul to all around her, including her daughter Flora (Paquin). Early in the film it seems like we’ve come across one of the most dislikeable heroines ever to have graced a movie screen. Despite Ada’s silence, she frequently manages to be childish and immature, refusing to co-operate with anyone and everyone unless things are done her own way. But of course, it is then that we hear Ada play the piano – the window to her soul, and only when we bear witness to this wondrous and glorious music do we realise just how passionate and rich the soul that lurks beneath that grimly costumed body actually is. It becomes clear to the audience that Ada lives and breathes through her piano, and without it she is a visibly tempestuous wreck. The big mistake that Alisdair Stewart (Neill) makes upon encountering his new wife for the first time is to completely dismiss this worldly object as an inconsequential nuisance. He doesn’t realise it then, but by dismissing the piano he also dismisses Ada – and by doing that, this man who grows to crave her affection so desperately, makes a misjudgement that will prey on him for the rest of the film.

Whilst the significance of the piano goes completely over Alisdair’s head, the same cannot be said for his neighbour, George Baines (Keitel). Upon hearing Ada play, he is instantly enchanted, and fuelled by both a lust for Ada’s body and a desire for Ada’s heart, he purchases the piano from Alisdair – an act that has Ada raging with fury. Raging that is, until she is provided with an opportunity to earn back her piano via one of the most curiously perverse exchanges in the history of film: “one key…”, says Baines, “one key” for even the slightest sexual favour that Ada gratifies him with. The initial disgust and resentment felt by Ada is quickly overhauled by a sense of longing for her beloved piano, and as both she and Baines get drawn further and further into their world of fantasy, a primal lust is awoken inside of her. Pivotally for all concerned, this lust gradually gives way to that other dreaded l-word: love, for the only person capable of comprehending her need for her piano, and thus the only person capable of comprehending Ada. And so the relationship between Ada and Baines begins to blossom. Unfortunately for them, however, both Flora (infuriated that her mother’s attentions have gone elsewhere) and Alisdair (still yearning for a little warmth) have different agendas, and the would-be lovers soon find themselves hurled achingly close to tragedy…

For a film whose primary character is a mute, Campion’s screenplay is actually something of a marvel to behold. The crescendo-like build-up of the story may well be gradual, but it never falls short of being anything less than gripping, the delicate twists and turns of each of her characterisations seeming almost outlandishly effortless. Note how seamlessly Alisdair and Baines reverse their roles in the film: at first it is Baines who is the unsympathetic character, a menacing-looking brute who exploits Ada’s sexuality, whilst on the other hand Alisdair strikes us simply as the well-meaning husband to whom Ada is being unnecessarily cold. Fast forward to the end of the film and with the benefit of hindsight (and a lot of nudity, a virtual house arrest and some bodily mutilation) it is Baines who emerges as the most compassionate and caring of all the characters, whilst Alisdair finds himself cast as the bad guy. To reduce these characters to “goodies” and “baddies” however, is to cheapen Campion’s work. Baines and Alisdair gradually transform throughout the film as a result of cause and consequence – with Ada acting as the critical source for both.

And what to say of Ada McGrath? The portal by which Campion channels all of her unique themes and ideas into one career-defining work. Perhaps most notably, Ada strikes the viewer as one of the quintessential feminist icons in cinema. She is daring, driven almost helplessly by her will, and her silence (remember, she chose to be mute) is at once: a reflection of the barriers and conflicts in communication that arise between self-serving white colonialists (e.g. Alisdair) and the native peoples that they attempt to take advantage of; a means by which she can disengage herself from the patriarchal trappings of the very language that male-dominated society holds so dear; and perhaps most significantly, a representative commentary on the plight of 19th century women in general and their similar lack of a true “voice”. That Ada dares to tackle the patriarchy (in the form of Alisdair) is an achievement in itself. That she eventually emerges triumphant is a testament to the steely resolve of this exceptional character.

It would simply be an injustice to write a review of The Piano without commenting on the remarkable performances of the actors. Harvey Keitel (who starred in the “other” great feminist flick of the 90s: Thelma & Louise), that beacon of gangster “cool”, plays against type here, donning an accent that’s somewhere along the line between Scottish, Irish and Welsh. Despite this occasional distraction, as well as the commotion he caused with his nude scene, he delivers a noteworthy performance, perfectly functioning as the “rock” in Ada’s existence. Sam Neill (who, incidentally, was in Jurassic Park) seems to get the least attention out of any of the lead cast members, but I’d argue that he’s stronger than Keitel. His aforementioned “transformation” in the film is quietly astonishing, and his later scenes, when he finds himself in limbo between rage, lust, affection and despair, are truly underrated. The real stars of the show, however, are the ladies. Anna Paquin as Flora, became one of the youngest Oscar-winners ever with her gutsy turn as Ada’s immature daughter. Strangely enough, it is the amount of maturity with which Paquin tackles the role that is so impressive. Throughout the shrieking, screeching and wailing, there burns a fire within Paquin’s young eyes that merely hints at the fact that she has further tricks up her sleeve. Incidentally enough, Paquin later serves as the catalyst for The Piano’s most brutal scene. It is Holly Hunter though, who walks away with this film. Ironically, this actress who possesses one of the most distinctive voices in modern cinema won her only Oscar for playing a mute. What that says about Ms. Hunter I don't know – but it does speak volumes about her performance. Removed of dialogue, Hunter is forced to act with only her eyes and her body language (and the piano of the title which, remarkably, she played herself), and she more than rises to the occasion. Whether smouldering with naïve desire, incensed with a burning hatred, lost within anguish and misery, or even when just enjoying a tender moment with Flora – Hunter, by all accounts of good taste, delivers a knockout performance.

I must conclude, however, by commenting on the talents of Jane Campion. The Piano made her something of an overnight sensation and an auteur to watch. Sadly, it seems as if she’s failed to deliver on that promise – but if this is to be the only masterpiece of her career then so be it, for The Piano is a superlative example of a director at her very peak. Infusing her work with surreal, dreamlike imagery and directing with a technically refreshing raw and near-primeval touch (a description that can also be lent to her superb handling of the actors), Campion seems to interlace all the various different threads of her film with absolute ease. The film plays so gently that it’s almost deceptively serene, and yet the drama that appears before our eyes is so complex, so fiery and so profound that the delicate balance that Campion manages to achieve very nearly has the effect of being unsettling. Writhing with its wild and unruly undercurrents of passion, The Piano is undoubtedly one of the most romantic films ever made: but more importantly, it’s a film that dares to question our very notions of love, sexuality and human relationships. For all its unparalleled romanticism, The Piano is as much about the negative effects of human desire as it is the positive.

Complemented by Michael Nyman’s haunting and evocative piano score, one of the most memorable in motion picture history, Campion’s masterwork boasts fascinating characters in a captivating story – but it’s the tremendous host of memorable images that will simply refuse to eradicate themselves from your mind. Those lush, utopian shots of New Zealand’s green forests; and the sight of Ada clamouring for help in the face of Alisdair’s wrath; and the moment that Ada slowly realises her “will” underwater at the end of the film. And above all, the sight of the piano, the fundamental crux of Campion’s intriguingly erotic world, in all its guises – although most lastingly as stated and seen in the film’s epilogue: “in the cold grave, under the deep deep sea." An unforgettable ending, to a damn-near perfect film. Spielberg – you can but dream…

Last Five Films… as of 05/03/06

LONG overdue, but the end of term is always hectic…

WALK THE LINE (James Mangold; 2005)
2½ stars (out of 5)

Considering all the hype, I’m a bit surprised to find that, at the end of the day, Walk the Line failed to exceed my expectations. It’s 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 Cash’s life – which I’m sure was pretty damn exciting – is rendered fairly mediocre once taken through the Hollywood machine. It becomes your average sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll scenario intertwined with a classic love story for good measure.
Having said that, mediocrity doesn’t 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 Cash’s 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 year’s Academy Awards.
Anyway, I shall stop being so embittered. Walk the Line is solid film fare. Go in with few expectations, and I’m sure you’ll come out satisfied.

2 stars (out of 5)

Before I get lynched, let me state that I absolutely LOVE (or loved?) Wallace & Gromit. Hell, I’m as big a fan of the original shorts as anyone – they’re irrepressibly warm and brimming with a quintessential British charm that I’m 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 did…
The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is almost definitely the most disappointing, and disheartening, modern film that I’ve 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, I’m 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 it’s 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.
It’s not the curse of the Were-Rabbit, it’s the curse of going through the fuckin’ Dreamworks machine. The fact that even Wallace and Gromit couldn’t come out unscathed speaks volumes. What made the originals work for me was the fact that the protagonists’ affection and a sense of humble sincerity were emphasised over cheap laughs. That’s 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 I’m 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 I’m honestly sad to say it.

CHOCOLAT (Claire Denis; 1988)
3½ stars (out of 5)


No, this isn’t the horrific Oscarbait Miramax blandfest that was directed by Lasse Hallström a few years back. This is a sensitive look at the nature of colonialism and cultural identity. In that sense then, it’s much like The New World , which I also viewed recently. Claire Denis doesn’t 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. It’s 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 can’t help but feel that Denis’ 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. There’s the repressed interracial romance, the Marxist class conflicts, Denis’ visual enforcements of the divisions between master and slave (and, consequently, white man and non), and that’s not even getting anywhere near the heart of it. Maybe that’s why I don’t love this film more – it’s 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. It’s just a shame that I wasn’t.

BLOWUP (Michelangelo Antonioni; 1966)
3½ stars (out of 5)


This was my first Antonioni, and judging by what I’ve read about him in the past, I think it’s 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. There’s a great great deal to admire with Blowup, but much like Chocolat, I can’t bring myself to truly love it. Perhaps it’s the fact that I find it’s London setting too bleak for my liking, or maybe it’s the fact that Antonioni forces his audience into a position where they’re almost too detached from the narrative?
Whatever it is that prevents me from loving this with my heart as well as my brain, I can’t deny the fact that it’s a true work of art. The sequence in which our ‘hero’ discovers a possible murder via a series of ‘blown up’ photographs is evidence that a true master is at work. I’m 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, I’m going to cop-out from delving too deep into this. Needless to say, there’s a lot more to this film if you’re willing to go into it, but alas, it’s another case where the admiration is far greater than the enthusiasm, and thus the passion isn’t 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)
4½ 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 couldn’t 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 city’s Limehouse district, and suspense is aptly layered with each passing frame. I’m not sure whether the accompanying jazz score is new or was released with the film, but it’s nonetheless delightful and watching the images correspond so sinuously with the music makes for enchanting viewing.
Piccadilly’s greatest asset however, lies in Anna May Wong – one of cinema’s 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 Wong’s earthly portrayal leads us to completely ignore the fact that she’s 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 it’s a remarkable testament to the strength of British cinema as well. See it if you ever have the opportunity to do so.

March 08, 2006

Final words on Oscar 2006

The Jack Reacts

Jack Nicholson has gone and proved just why he's my favourite actor of all-time. Aside from being just a hilarious guy, a charismatic personality and a brilliant thespian, he also has wonderful taste. Mr. Nicholson cast a deserved vote for Brokeback Mountain as Best Picture. He, like the rest of us, thought it was sewn up. His reaction in the above screencap tells you all you need to know about this year's Academy Awards.

I feel the need to reiterate just why I'm harping on about it, AGAIN. I have a ridiculous passion for cinema, and that (unfortunately) extends to cinema's highest prize. For the first time in years, I was genuinely passionate about the Oscar frontrunner. I loved Brokeback Mountain. I also passionately loathed Crash.

With all that passion involved, you can't blame me for being so obsessive right? :p I'm sure others have their obsessive quirks.

Anyway, having somewhat slightly calmed down after the snub to end all snubs, I've gotta find an outlet for my feelings. I'll keep it short – like so many movies, Brokeback doesn't need the Oscar to validate its greatness. Anyone who's seen it knows that already, and it's a film as ageless as its central love story. However, for so many people, it's clear that the film DID need the Oscar…

After trawling through a number of accounts, I've found that many homosexuals understandably find this a huge slap in the face. Other fans of the movie like myself can only stand back and sympathise. Just how far has the Academy REALLY progressed in its history? It's strange how this loss just makes Brokeback's themes all the more resonant.

All I can say is – it's a film that will be remembered. As will Crash, but for all the wrong reasons. Never fear, for time will reveal the travesty that is AMPAS' decision soon enough.

I'm done for this year's Oscars, apologies for rambling so much. I'll leave you – those that are still here and interested that is – with a few of the many articles that have already appeared on the Net deploring the disaster:

The Times summarise the Oscar ceremony

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, fast-becoming my fave British film critic, also offers a few quick insights

Gene Stone from Yahoo! writes a critical commentary -

Emanuel Levy on Oscar's taste for mediocrity

Stephen King - yes, THAT Stephen King - on this year's outcome

MSNBC come down particularly hard on Crash

And finally, 2 lengthy but brilliant articles that are definitely worth reading:

A recounting of this year's Oscar race, and how it all went so horribly wrong

An elaboration on how Brokeback was more than just a movie to some people

March 06, 2006

A slight rant.

Ok, I know I stated that I'd refrain from commenting on the Oscars until I'd caught up with a couple of films, but umm, f*ck that?!

The choice that the Academy made last night might well go down as the most horrific one that they've EVER made. Yeah, even worse than Ordinary People over Raging Bull, Dances with Wolves over Goodfellas, How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane, Braveheart over anything.

Let me articulate – the reason WHY this decision is causing shockwaves through the cinema-loving community is because AMPAS were effectively handed this year's Best Picture winner on a plate. Brokeback Mountain is not only the finest film of the year IMO, but it is also a critical and cultural juggernaut. It infiltrated the mainstream consciousness in a way that NO other film this year did – albeit often in a negative way (that "gay cowboy" film).

I'm not sure if there are any people who follow the Oscar season closely like myself round these parts, so for those who don't I'll explain just why this is such a colossal slap in the face.

There are certain 'rules' to the art (obsession?) of Oscarwatching as such. Basically, you need precursor support + box office. Brokeback had both. It entered Oscar night bestowed with 22 accolades from other awards bodies - compared to 3 for Crash. Yeah, that's TWENTY-TWO. Moreover, it's been breaking box-office records since its release. To date, it's made almost $79 million in the USA, a ridiculous number for a gay indie flick. One of the Oscar 'rules' is that your film has to make the Top 25 highest-grossing movies of the year to win the big one. Currently, Brokeback is #26, and is poised to enter the top 25 (had it won the Oscar, it might well have entered the top 20). Crash, with a gross of $53.4 million, sits at #49.

The industry success enjoyed by Brokeback was so great that I read discussions about whether it was THE biggest frontrunner and/or "lock" for the Oscar ever. At the end of the day, when it came to casting their ballots, what it came down to for Academy members was this: you either vote FOR Brokeback or you vote AGAINST it.

Now I'm not saying that all the votes casted within AMPAS for Crash were by people who don't care for the film. And I'm certainly not saying that everyone should share my own mindset and appreciate Brokeback Mountain. However, statistically, Brokeback has won EVERY single big award this Oscar season (Golden Globe and BAFTA most notable among them). When a situation like this occurs, you've got to ask yourself – why did it win everything except the big one?

Fact of the matter is, the Academy's penchant for mediocrity (or in this case, flat-out SHIT) is showing itself once again. Take a look at the most recent winners of Oscar's Best Picture:

2004 – Million Dollar Baby (horrific Oscar-bait crap) beats out The Aviator (not superb, but certainly more deserving)
2003 – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (overblown shit) beats out Mystic River (again, not amazing, but more deserving) [btw, I realise that my opinion on this one is in the minority, so ignore it if you so wish]
2002 – Chicago (lightweight fluff) beats out The Hours and The Pianist
2001 – A Beautiful Mind (speaks for itself) over Moulin Rouge! (the ACTUAL musical that should've won) and Gosford Park
2000 – Gladitaor (mediocre 'epic') over Crouching Tiger, Hidcden Dragon (elegiac epic)

Seriously, considering their history I should have anticipated this. But how could I when Brokeback was steamrolling everything else into oblivion? Of course, it's clear now that it wasn't. So what the Hell was going on?!

First of all, it's important to acknowledge (and deride) the influence of the media in all of this. With Brokeback so far out in the lead, there was very little excitement in this year's race. Consequently, they latched onto the safest bet they could find - and that was Crash, a film that appeals to the lowest common denominator. Suddenly, stories started appearing about how Crash had the potential to upset (despite having won NOTHING). Originally, I dismissed these reports as ridiculous media hype, but it's now become evident that they sadly played a part in the mess that was the 2005 Oscars.

What part did the film's studio have to play in all of this? Oscar season is notorious for the lavish campaigns spent upon making a studio's Oscar-baby a viable contender, and Lion's Gate certainly did that for Crash. Sending out 120,000 screener DVDs to every single member of the American cinema guilds ensured that their film would remain fresh in voter's minds whilst others grappled with the notion of whether or not to see a gay cowboy movie.

One of the most distressing reasons for Brokeback's loss (and let's make this clear, last night was about Brokeback LOSING, not Crash winning) that I've read about is the accusations of homophobia within the Academy. I don't want to believe it in this day and age, but the argument has been put across so well. The issue of homophobia is more overtly rife within America than that of racism, and you can't help but wonder how big a part this played with the Academy members. How many, do you think, were so worried about their own masculinity that they couldn't handle 10 seconds of gay sex on-screen? The film's box-office would indicate otherwise, but then these seem to have been countered by reports of a BrokeBacklash in Academy circles, who aren't willing to alienate the mainstream Right.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't give this argument any credence, but the stature of Brokeback's loss is so unprecedented that such ideas seem increasingly plausible. Hollywood isn't ready for the gays. Yes, the film won 3 other awards - but they went to Ang Lee (a heavily overdue director), Larry McMurtry (a heavily overdue writer) and the movie's undeniably gorgeous score. The only way to acknowledge Brokeback's thematic content would have been to vote the film as Best Picture. You could argue that Philip Seymour Hoffman won for Capote, but he was playing an outrageous de-sexualised gay intellectual - and outrageous and de-sexualised seems to be exactly how Hollywood likes its gays. I won't even bother going into Tom Hanks' win for Philadelphia in the early 90s.

You're wondering why I give so much of a damn aren't you? Well, aside from considering Brokeback the finest film of the year, I should make it clear that I consider Crash to be one of the most offensive pieces of trash ever to have found its way onto cinema screens, and I hope, and know, other film literates that feel the same.

It is a poorly executed white-liberal fantasy, constructed solely as a bad form of escapism – and, frankly, when you're dealing with an issue as complex and sensitive as racism, I don't think escapism is the right treatment for it. Paul Haggis (now my least favourite person on the planet) seems to think that showing us a bunch of decent actors on autopilot performing a series of blatantly artificial scenarios works on film. It doesn't. Watching Crash you'd think the entire population of Los Angeles spend night and day engaging in not-so-intellectual confrontations about racism. The amount of racial slurs used to illustrate this belief is laughable, as is the compulsive need for each character to utter the word "fuck" every other minute.
Haggis takes a heavy-handed approach to his subject and literally wallops his audience with a sledgehammer, ramming these issues down our throats. For what purpose? At the end, he pats us on the back and tells us not to worry, because everyone is racist anyway – just to varying degrees. How does he arrive at such a conclusion? By presenting his characters in their best and their worst lights – with NO grey area inbetween. What he ends up doing is playing with stereotypes that are unnecessarily offensive, particularly with regards to the Asian characters. He shows us the type, then half an hour later subverts it, but leaves no room for character development inbetween. Sandra Bullock falls down the stairs and suddenly her Hispanic maid is her best friend? Good Lord.
Crash is like Magnolia in its undeniably contrived set-up, but worse. The criss-crossing of the characters verges on the unbelievable, but unlike that latter film, Crash lacks the heart to make itself remotely commendable.
It's a credit to the abilities of Terrence Howard and Don Cheadle that they manage to rise above all this commotion and manage to inject some humility into their characterisations. Unfortunately, it's not enough to save this disastrous exercise from the realm of utter crap.

And you're telling me this shit wins Oscars?! That this "little film that could" beat out one of the most devastating cinematic love stories, well, ever, smacks of hypocrisy from a Hollywood that likes to call itself liberal. As a straight liberal (presumably one who should think like the Academy, then?) I'll say that they had the opportunity to acknowledge a truly great cinematic achievement. And they wasted it. Big time.

Funny how Academy's refusal to acknowledge Ennis and Jack's love parallels Ennis' own in the film, doesn't it?

I'm gobsmacked. This year's awards were meant to reaffirm my faith in the Oscars, to show that they can, in fact, be a barometer of artistic excellence every now and again. What a cop-out on their behalf…

Anyway, I've been ranting stupidly for ages now so I'll stop. What I've said is probably nonsensical bollocks to many, and that's fine. I just can't help but feel that this is a terrible day for cinephiles, considering the Oscars hold so much clout and significance (although hopefully, following this stunt, that will begin to recede). If you want to read an article that articulates everything FAR better than I possibly could then go here:

An article by Kenneth Turan

March 05, 2006

Oscar Predix

Pfft, so it's that time of the year again. Academy Awards night is upon us. My levels of obsession with this peaked around late December/early January in the midst of predicting nominations. By this point in the Oscar race, the winners seem all too obvious and all the fun has gone. :sigh: Why do I care about these awards so much, seeing as they suck so bad? Because the industry seems to care, and when you've got the likes of Federico Fellini claiming that it's the film industry's highest honour, then a film freak like myself can't help but care. Plus this year it looks as if Oscar will have it's first truly great winner since 5 years ago. And IMO, "American Beauty" was the first great winner for almost a quarter of a century. It's amazing how wrong they can get it sometimes…

So anyway, predictions minus comments:


"Brokeback Mountain" [Focus Features] (Alternate: "Crash")


Ang Lee; "Brokeback Mountain" (Alt. George Clooney)


Philip Seymour Hoffman; "Capote" (Alt. Heath Ledger)


Reese Witherspoon; "Walk the Line" (Alt. Felicity Huffman)


George Clooney; "Syriana" (Alt. Paul Giamatti)


Rachel Weisz; "The Constant Gardener" (Alt. Amy Adams)


Paul Haggis & Bobby Moresco; "Crash" (Alt. George Clooney & Grant Heslov)


Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana; "Brokeback Mountain" (Alt. Dan Futterman)


"Brokeback Mountain" — Rodrigo Prieto (Alt. "Memoirs of a Geisha")


"Memoirs of a Geisha" — John Myhre & Gretchen Rau (Alt. "Good Night, and Good Luck.")


"Memoirs of a Geisha" — Colleen Atwood (Alt. "Pride & Prejudice")


"Walk the Line" — Paul Massey, D.M. Hemphill & Peter F. Kurland (Alt. "King Kong")


"Crash" — Hughes Winborne (Alt. "The Constant Gardener")


"King Kong" — Mike Hopkins & Ethan Van der Ryn (Alt. "War of the Worlds")


"King Kong" — Joe Letteri, Brian Van't Hul, Christian Rivers & Richard Taylor (Alt. "War of the Worlds")


"The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" (Alt. "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith")


Gustavo Santaolalla; "Brokeback Mountain" (Alt. John Williams; "Memoirs of a Geisha")


"Travelin' Thru" from "Transamerica" (Alt. "In the Deep" from "Crash")


"March of the Penguins" (Alt. "Darwin's Nightmare")


"Paradise Now" — Palestine (Alt. "Tsotsi")


"Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" (Alt. "Corpse Bride")


"God Sleeps in Rwanda" (Alt. "A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin")


"One Man Band" (Alt. "The Moon and the Son")


"The Runaway" (Alt. "Six Shooter")

Unfortunately most of the major winners seem fairly obvious this year. Would love to be proved wrong though, surprises are a great thing. Anyway, I'm sure I'll have more thoughts in a few days after the ceremony and when I've caught up with a couple of films (e.g. "Good Night, and Good Luck.").

March 04, 2006

Random (Provoked) Thoughts

I think I need enlightening. Or I'm just trying to understand other viewpoints. Someone please explain what's so great about religion to me? Are the Religious Right, errr, right? Also, if anyone is still in favour of the war on terror/Iraq I'd like to hear why. Is any war justifiable?

I'm confused, y'see.

March 2006

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