All entries for April 2006
April 07, 2006
April 03, 2006
MOU GAAN DOU [INFERNAL AFFAIRS] (Andrew Lau & Alan Mak; 2002)
3½ stars (out of 5)
I’ve been a little bit Scorsese-obsessed lately. Along with The Age of Innocence (see below), I’ve finally caught up with this here film, which Marty is remaking as The Departed . The plot of Infernal Affairs is tantalising: two moles – one an undercover police officer in the mafia and the other a gangster infiltrating the police force – are made aware of each other’s existence, leading to a thrilling cat-and-mouse game where the distinctions between hunter and hunted are blurred as both attempt to discover the other’s identity in order to save their own necks.
The greatest fault of this film lies in its horrible tendency to over-sentimentalise certain events to the point of oblivion. It reads like a textbook cliché: character dies, cue cheesy pop ballad and black-and-white flashbacks to happier times. Such explicit manipulation of the audience gets on my tits – big time. Fortunately for Infernal Affairs , the film’s strengths counter this nauseating trait.
For about 90 minutes, this film simply whizzes by as the tension levels generated by the narrative’s core are heightened to their extreme by chaotic editing and ridiculous camera angles. Following that opening hour and a half, the film takes a dip in quality, before indulging in an enthralling climax that lingers in the memory long after the film caves in to a slushy conclusion. Suspense is created from the unlikeliest of sources: who could have imagined that typing letters on a keyboard would make for such excruciating viewing? In terms of action, the rulebook is thrown out the window as the directors subvert the traditional technique of creating tension via claustrophobic set pieces, and instead choose to make full use of their Hong Kong locales by staging two climactic scenes on expansive rooftops against the city’s dizzying skyline, thus marvellously utilising agoraphobia as a plot tool.
Tony Leung, who is surely the finest actor of his generation (check out Wong’s Happy Together and In the Mood for Love for proof), excels during the film’s poorly-scripted quieter scenes. Both he and Andy Lau are handed underdeveloped romantic subplots designed to hint towards character dilemmas: Leung pays regularly visits to a shrink, whilst Lau’s fiancée is coincidentally writing a book about a man suffering from MPD. Lau is typically competent, but Leung’s eyes express an internal strain that single-handedly makes the issue of double identities one that resonates. Underneath its slick exterior, Leung provides the film with a heart that elevates Infernal Affairs from the realm of pure entertainment to that of something to give a damn about. It’s going to be fascinating to see what Martin Scorsese & co. can do with this already great material… (cheap linkage alert) and talking of Scorsese…
THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (Martin Scorsese; 1993)
4½ stars (out of 5)
Opinions on Scorsese’s greatest film can very generally be divided into three camps. There’s the IMDb/Empire whores who rally behind Goodfellas , there’s the highbrow Sight & Sound critics who hail Raging Bull and then there’s the twisted weirdos who love Taxi Driver . Personally, I love all three to death. After seeing The Age of Innocence for the first time, however, I’m feeling the need to start a new sect designed to appreciate this forgotten gem in the director’s oeuvre.
Violence is at the forefront of the three established Scorsese masterpieces, so upon first glance this lush period drama seems rather out of place in the director’s back catalogue. Look a little closer however, and you’ll find that the lavishness harbours a psychological combat zone that victimises those who fail to conform to this upper-class society’s unwritten code of conduct. Such a fate initially befalls the exotic Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), a woman oblivious to these social mores, before she’s rescued by the well-meaning Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis). The pair become romantically entangled, despite the fact that she’s married (albeit unhappily) and he’s engaged to society darling May Welland (Winona Ryder). As their peers gradually awaken to their potential affair, those that Newland and Ellen hold nearest and dearest quietly manoeuvre in the background to repress their desires before a dreaded scandal ensues.
Scorsese’s realisation of 19th century New York is sumptuous right down to its very core. Magnificent sets and glorious costumes combine with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’ breathtakingly sinuous camera to create a vivacious evocation of an era gone by. So exhilarating is the film’s energy, that one could almost be forgiven for missing the fervent undercurrents of passion and deception that the mise-en-scene conceals. I say ‘almost’, because Scorsese is, at heart, concerned with his characters above all else. The parallels with his other works are striking, for The Age of Innocence is all about society’s outsiders. Ellen Olenska is much like Travis Bickle in that all she craves is acceptance, and Newland’s desire for her makes him an obsessive wreck a la Jake LaMotta. Society predestines everything here, but although it prides itself on morality, it’s exposed as nothing more than a hypocritical joke – thereby lending the title a wicked irony. The film’s material exuberance is a thin veil for the emotional hollowness that the supporting characters actively breed. Note how Larry Lefferts’ standing in society ensures that everyone ignores his philandering, while the very people who ignore his immorality attempt to quash the genuine love felt between Newland and Ellen. Even more tragic is the fact that Newland might well be the most idealistic person in the entire film, as we discover at film’s end.
The Age of Innocence finds Scorsese at the peak of his directorial powers. His stylistic approach regularly emphasises his characters’ roles as ‘outsiders’. Take a scene at the opera which finds the romantic duo already distanced from others in a theatre box. Scorsese utilises an iris shot to highlight this point, before rendering silent all outside sound to make us feel as if we’re entering the private world of Newland and Ellen. It’s a sign of a director that never wastes a shot, whose every frame is discreetly used to augment his narrative. It’s appropriate then, that said narrative should be dealing with a world where each word and gesture tells a part of the story - such as May Welland’s final scene where she quietly communicates her enormous depth of understanding; or even something as simple as Newland undoing Ellen’s glove, a moment of unbridled catharsis for both involved. Scorsese’s Age of Innocence is very much a sweeping romance, but it’s infused with an intellectual vitality that’s often lacking in the genre and the charismatic performances of its two leads (seriously, Day-Lewis and Pfeiffer NEED to work more often) will cause the viewer to ache for every moment that they don’t share. Hopefully time will provoke a rediscovery of this sorely underrated work.
DARE MO SHIRANAI [NOBODY KNOWS] (Hirokazu Koreeda; 2004)
4 stars (out of 5)
Koreeda’s touching family saga first attracted my attention when I noted that one of its child stars, Yûya Yagira, picked up a surprise Best Actor award at Cannes 2004. I’ve been keeping a lookout for it ever since, knowing little beyond a basic plot outline: four children, abandoned by their mother, are forced to fend for themselves. Little could have prepared me for the emotional punch that the film gradually crescendos towards, however.
Nobody Knows aims for realism, and it achieves it with ease. Koreeda films in something of a documentary style, complete with elliptical editing to narrow the events of a year down to a mere 141 minutes. In spite of this, the film still feels much longer than it actually is – although surprisingly, that works to its advantage. Koreeda’s approach is to delicately let his story unfold on screen, and he has no misgivings about showing us the most miniscule of details – whether it involves painting fingernails or doing arithmetic. Consequently, the director creates a contiguous relationship between character and audience, allowing us to fully comprehend the essence of these children’s lives. We share in their every joy and every sorrow. The film quietly paints a vivid portrait of youth, ably conveying the humbling simplicity of its characters’ everyday existence.
Realism can be found in the film’s performances as well. With the younger siblings involved, one can understandably question the extent to which they’re simply ‘being’ as opposed to acting. Yagira’s poignant turn as the eldest child, however, is most definitely a performance – and I mean that in its most complimentary sense. His Akira is the fulcrum upon which Nobody Knows rests, and his understated emotions serenely lay bare the heart of this film. From the beginning we realize that it is he who acts as the true ‘parent’ of the family. Whilst his mother goes out to get drunk, Akira cooks dinner and deals with the finances. When she disappears for the last time, Akira is forced to taken even greater control, and the film explores what occurs when the process of adolescence is denied to a child. Mature beyond his years, but not adult enough to be a father to his siblings, Akira is caught in limbo, desperately attempting an ominously fragile balancing act.
Deceptively modest in its tone, Nobody Knows is a tender observation of familial bonds coping in the face of adversity. Koreeda refrains from judging his characters - it would be easy for him to place the blame on the immature mother or a society that persistently ignores these children, but he invites empathy. The mother is clearly an emotionally troubled child who never grew up, whilst the children hide away from society as much as it ignores them. Neither is totally excused, but neither is totally at fault. As a result of Koreeda’s simple presentation of events, the film comes across as refreshingly pure making its moments of sentiment seem genuinely heartbreaking. Nobody Knows is at once a celebration of childhood, the human spirit and the simple things in life – and when a film has the ability to make something as menial as doing the washing seem like an passionately liberating experience, you know that it’s doing something right.
CAPOTE (Bennett Miller; 2005)
3 stars (out of 5)
So I finally got to Capote . I’ve made it a case in point since 2002 to catch each year’s Best Picture nominees. Unfortunately, I’ve failed every year since 02… until now that is. Capote means that I’ve seen everything, making my opinion on the Oscar race valid. Wa-hey?!
We might as well get the main point out of the way – yeah, Philip Seymour Hoffman is superb in the role. Playing Truman Capote as a ruthlessly-motived intellectual, his bitchy and snarky veneer conceals a shrewd understanding of those around him, allowing him to manipulate anyone along the way to attaining his ultimate goal: literary immortality. Hoffman’s performance (including the voice) never falters once, always encapsulating the frighteningly ambitious heart of the writer.
The film goes out of its way to distance the audience from its protagonist, forcing us to glare at Capote’s repulsive core. It functions as a fascinating portrait of one man’s obsession with his work, but those who haven’t read “In Cold Blood” can’t comprehend the eventual achievement – which the film decides to relegate to a hyperbolic sentence during the epilogue. It’s meant to be an examination of the desperate measures taken in the name of great art, but Capote is hindered by the fact that we don’t know what that art is and thus the presentation of the title character comes off as somewhat lopsided.
Other actors are sorely underused, and whilst this apathy towards supporting characters reflects Capote’s own mindset when in the midst of the most artistically fertile period of his career, the ensuing proximity with his character results in further repellence from the audience. Potentially dramatic subplots – such as the homoerotic undertones between Capote and murderer Perry Smith (a powerful Clifton Collins Jr.) – are simply ignored. Catherine Keener’s elegantly understated turn as Harper Lee makes Capote slightly more palatable to both the other characters in the film as well as the audience, but it’s not enough.
By detaching us from the central character, the filmmakers force us to look at other aspects of the film objectively and that’s where the film really stumbles because, well… there isn’t really that much else to appreciate. Nothing about its direction is particularly noteworthy, and the bleak locales contribute to an overall sense of stultification. It’s a solid movie, excellently performed by its actors, but I struggle to see it as anything more.
THE CHLIDREN’S HOUR (William Wyler; 1961)
2½ stars (out of 5)
I’ve been missing the good old Hollywood classic as of late, so when I discovered that this’d be on the telly I thought I’d attempt to sit through it, despite my distaste for Audrey Hepburn.
Wyler originally attempted to film the Lillian Hellman play in the 1930s, but the notorious Hays’ code forced him to change the story about two schoolteachers accused of lesbianism by a student, and instead we ended up with the hetero love triangle in These Three . A quarter of a century later, and Wyler finally got to make a film faithful to its source - but although The Children’s Hour is daring for its time, it ends up feeling very much like your average melodrama, which is unfortunate considering the controversial subject matter.
The issue of homosexuality is kept pretty hush-hush, even during the film’s climax. Whilst this does comment on what a taboo issue this was at the time, it also has the effect of allowing the film’s condemnation of vicious gossipmongering to supercede its criticism of societal prejudices. Moreover, the film is predictable from the start, and one can easily sense the fate that will befall the characters from the very beginning. I won’t provide a spoiler just in case anyone does ever see the film, but the ending makes me pretty uncomfortable as a viewer, although I understand why it was necessary in terms of narrative and context.
A solid cast manages to inject some life into proceedings. Whilst Hepburn is decent enough, it’s Shirley MacLaine who steals the show, excelling as the woman whose jealous streak sets the ball rolling for the catastrophic events that follow. Veterans Fay Bainter and Miriam Hopkins provide nice performances as well, although the wretched brat who plays Bainter’s granddaughter should be SHOT for her horrific attempts at ‘acting’.
An underedevloped subplot featuring the token Audrey Hepburn romance detracts from the film’s quality, but although the film is pretty standard fare, it deserves to be commended for its thematic content. It’s a well-made film that makes for an interesting waste of time, if little else.