Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bottom 10

Oh no, do we really need to do a bottom 10? No, but they're fun. Actually, in case none of you have noticed, I tend to write favourable reviews here at Between the Seats. Even with films I don't like by and large, I rarely, rarely think a movie is a big fat turd with no qualities.

This means the following list is not one for movies I thought 'sucked hard.' Some of them I honestly didn't like, that's true, but some are films that had redeeming qualities, but due to either the hype surrounding them or simply particular aspects of the filmmaking, I just didn't like them that much. Some I would even be willing to give half scores, or something in the nature of a C or C+, which is far from terrible. They just weren't as good as some of the other stuff I saw in 2009. Tell you what, I'll leave little indicators to specify my feelings towards each entry.

1-Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (sucked)
2-The International (sucked)
3-State of Play (irritating)
4-The Hangover (wow, terribly unfunny)
5-Adoration (good actors, disappointing outing from Egoyan)
6-I Love You, Man (terribly unfunny)
7-X-Men Origins: Wolverine (A guilty pleasure for me, but it wasn't a 'good movie')
8-Year One (flat)
9-Terminator Salvation (excellent visuals, boring story)
10-500 Days of Summer (too cutesy despite strong moments)

Top 10

Ah-ha! Where is the top 10 list however? Everybody seems to be doing them, so I felt obliged to chip in. Many apologies if this list seems 'whateva.'

1-Two Lovers
2-The Brothers Bloom
3-Thirst (which I really should have written a review for because no one will know what this is)
4-Public Enemies
5-Inglourious Basterds
6-Star Trek
7-Il Divo
10-Summer Hours

Coulda, woulda and probably shoulda made the cut: The Hurt Locker, Still Walking, Red Cliff and The Limits of Control.

And if there are some movies on the list you don't know...trust me, my top 10 for '08 was even less mainstream.

Status Update

When I said the 'long arms of the law' marathon wouldn't be that long, I meant it. I never intended it to be anything lengthy, just enough to occupy readers until the New Year. I hope you enjoyed the reviews for Public Enemies, Bullitt, Dirty Harry, PTU and Touch of Evil. I loved writing them. It's a genre I'm quite comfortable with, so those 5 reviews were a breeze to write.

When the reviews return we'll begin the 'queer cinema' marathon. What I want to watch (note 'want to watch' and not 'shall watch.' Changes pending.) is Brockback Mountain, My Own Private Idaho, Happy Together, Bad Education and The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant...for now. Suggestions are more than welcome.

Thank you

Hello readers!

It's the holiday season, so I just wanted to take a moment to thank all those that have taken the time to visit my blog, read the reviews and in some cases even share some comments. I really do appreciate it. Lord knows there is a host of film blogs out there already, some of which are of dubious quality at best. The fact that there are followers and readers of my blog makes me feel pretty darn good. Thank you very much.

Christmas time is a time of sharing, so I shan't take the entire spotlight. There are some excellent blogs out there, many of which I visit on a regular basis (even if I don't always post comments, I do actually visit your sites people). Here are some of the blogs that were absolutely worth reading in 2009 and will probably be just as good in 2010:

The Reelists
M Carter @ the Movies
Bill's Movie Emporium
Big Thoughts From A Small Mind
Film for the Soul
Encore's World of Film & TV
Cinema Sights
Corndog Chats Cinema

If I didn't list your blog, fear not, it isn't because I deem it unworthy. It's most likely because, with all the blogs I already visit, yours is still relatively new to me and I therefore haven't gotten quite familiar with it yet. Regardless, you all know that there is a huge list of links on the right side of this page, so you all get to make the mega list anyways!

And of course, Merry Christmas and happy New Year! Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année!

'Long arms of the law' marathon: Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil (1958, Orson Welles)

The full article is now available at Sound on Sight here.

3D tells me I'm stupid.

Hello readers. How are you doing?

I went to see Avatar in 3D yesterday afternoon. Look, I want readers to know that I don’t go into movies hoping that they fail. I don’t pay 15 dollars to see something I hope will suck (possible misquote). If I wanted to do that, I’d rent Steve Martin’s Pink Panther 3 times and be done with it. I just wanted to get that out of the way before anybody gets some fancy ideas as they read this post.

My eyes and brain don’t register 3D in films like everybody else does. I’m retarded like that. My brain is too stupid too figure out what it is my eyes are supposed to see. So the movie begins and I’m thinking ‘Hey, what’s up with all these 2D images superimposed on one another? It looks like those popup story books my mother bought during my childhood. It was fun then before kindergarten started, less so today when a film is hyped as insanely as Avatar has been. Maybe the effects will get better as the film evolves.’


Wait a minute, l shouldn’t get ahead of myself. Let me present an asterisk=*. There were individual objects and creations within many shots that looked great. The Na’vi look great. The super machine gun robots driven by the human soldiers looked great. Much of the fauna and flora of Pandora looked great. A couple of the wild animals living in the forests of Pandora looked great. When I list those elements, I’m referring to them individually. The Na’vi character looked great, but not within the world of Avatar as presented via the 3 dimensional graphics. Again, way too many shots looked like a bunch of 2D superimposed images. I can’t help it, that’s what my eyes were seeing. There were moments when all the elements on screen meshed well together and felt part of the same image, and it was in those moments that I understood the power of 3D in movie making. It was there, right there before me. And then the moments were gone and the film went back to a bunch of 2D images.

It was interesting because every once in a while I would briefly remove the 3D glasses. Granted, much of the background looked all fuzzy (part of the 3D graphics when you aren’t seeing them in 3D), but the characters and machines in front of those fuzzy backgrounds looked amazing. So rich in detail and colourful. It kind of made putting the 3D glasses back on more of a chore than anything else.

Over at the Filmspotting message boards I wrote similar comments upon returning home after a 3d screening of the Pixar film Up this past summer. Look, 3D films will make plenty of money, and there’s no denying that the general movie going public seems to be enjoying the experience. Honestly, good for them if they enjoy it. I’d never advocate that studios cease making movies in 3D. If the people like it, then go ahead. Having said that however, I’ve come to the conclusion that 3D is not for me. I don’t like what it is I see on screen, I don’t like the effect it lends to the movies and I simply don’t feel more immersed in the story, which is supposedly the purpose of the entire enterprise.

3D is too sophisticated for me. I like that old flat look of movies. I wish I could get into the 3D hype, because apparently it's a lot of fun. I really do wish I could. Alas, that boat has sailed off without me.

'Long arms of the law' marathon: PTU

PTU (2003, Johnnie To)

Johnnie To is an interesting director from Hong Kong. In many ways, he reminds me of Quentin Tarantino despite some stark differences. To writes very unique characters and situations that are specifically designed for the worlds he creates. There is a distinct style, both in the writing and in the cinematography that Johnnie To films possess, and it is that style which carries the movies and makes them attractive. He deals with a lot of violent people, be they on the side of the law or not. His movies can turn on a dime, where in one moment the viewer feels entertained because of the hilarity on screen, and the very next moment the screws are turned and the viewer suddenly feels very uncomfortable and possibly feels sorry for a character who earlier would not have earned our sympathy. To really enjoys mixing different ingredients together to see what happens and consistently lends his movies a beautiful visual style in which lighting is used to great effect. Unlike Tarantino however, To’s characters don’t often say very much. When it comes to the dialogue, the Hong Kong director prefers minimalism.

PTU, or Police Tactical Unit, follows a great number of characters for one night, but the central character is Inspector Lo, a chubby, ill-tempered man who earns the wrath of the Ponytail gang during a tense but comical scene at a diner early on (the blending of styles begins early). Upon chasing one of Ponytail’s gang members down an ally, he slips on garbage and loses his pistol in the process. This is obviously a big mistake and he is forced to spend the remainder of the night desperately searching for his gun. This quest pits him in the middle of a gang rivalry (other than Ponytail’s gang), under the loop from the chief of the homicide unit, and generally leaves him tired and frustrated. In his corner, temporarily at least, is a peculiar PTU that agrees to help Lo in his search. Given how it is suspected that the Ponytail crew have possession of the missing pistol, the PTU hunts down for any contacts and leads that may help them with their goal. However, this unit of officers is comprised of some nasty characters. They are in essence street bullies who obtain what they need through means of intimidation and embarrassment. Their badges provide them with immunity from repercussions that may emerge from the city’s criminal world, or so they seem to believe at least. They don’t smile very much but their sense of unity and camaraderie means they look out for each other. You stir trouble with one, you have stirred trouble with the entire unit.

There is much to admire about PTU. Filming at night lends an entirely different look than filming during the day. Artificial lighting can become an amazing tool in creating mood and a world for the characters, and it would seem that director To understands this very well. The pacing of the camera during the action sequences is pitch perfect, and there is always something interesting to look at on screen. A colour shade here, ominous shadows there, cigarette smoke playfully swimming in the air, PTU occurs in a beautifully shot world where light and shadow engage in a terrific dance. The shadows are thick and would discourage anyone from venturing deeper into the neighbourhood. Yet, when the light shafts emerge from the lamp posts or from the seeming warmth of a late night diner, the faces you encounter might not be the friendliest. Perhaps the shadows were not so terrible upon second thought. A perfect example of this is the scene in which one by one the members of the PTU, equipped with their flashlights, enter a tall building shadowed in complete darkness and slowly make their way up the flight of stairs.

Something that struck me very early into the movie was how frequently I was laughing. The story is not funny per say and none of the characters display much of a sense of humour, but there are several hilarious moments throughout the movie. Make no mistake, none of these laughs were produced unintentionally where a scene or character was taking itself too seriously. Johnny To has a knack for finding comedy at the most unsuspecting moments. I don’t know if To was afraid of people finding is movie too dark and consequently uninteresting (an argument that holds little water when one considers his two Election movies), or if he was aiming for a strange hybrid of police drama and comedy, but the mixture succeeds every time. Many of the comedic moments are of the ‘shit happens’ variety, such as when Lo accidentally slips on garbage near the beginning when chasing a hoodlum. It’s unexpected, occurs at the worst possible time for the character and somehow is filmed in a way that makes it really funny. Another example is the scene in which a young man eating at a diner is forced to change tables each time a new intimidating personality arrives at the restaurant. There is a running joke involving cell phones, and even the scene mentioned earlier with the PTU members going up the dark flight of stairs has a funny, if brief, moment. On the surface, and particularly given the look of the movie which has many dimly lit scenes, one wouldn’t think PTU would be ripe for comedy, but there you go. I hope I haven’t given the impression that PTU is a laugh-a-minute comedy festival, because there are in fact far more darker moments.

As I wrote briefly already, the police tactical unit which assists inspector Lo on this night are a vicious bunch. More than once in the movie members of the unit exercise their status over the scum of the district they patrol. In once scene which I shan’t spoil too much, the PTU encounter’s Ponytail’s cousin at an arcade game establishment. The PTU really put a clinic of stress on the cousin and on his friends. Another moment sees some unit members viciously attack a gang member on the run. This goes back to what I wrote about in the introduction to this review, about certain victims of these abuses earning a certain degree of sympathy when they arguably would not have done so a minute earlier. There are some deep psychological and emotional elements at play during these scenes. Perhaps the hoodlums themselves have practiced similar forms of intimidation or worse still. The teenagers and young adults who populate the streets at night have a nasty and outsider look about them. They believe that they’re pretty tough, one can read it on their faces. Does that justify the actions of the PTU? I highly doubt it. When faced with those who wish us ill, be it physically, emotionally or psychologically, it is tempting to imagine oneself returning the favour, but seeing the PTU doing just that doesn’t make the prospect very attractive any longer. It seems that we have been flirting with this very topic a few times this week. Movies have many ways of depicting characters who, for good or ill, choose to serve by offering those who choose to break the law a taste of their own medicine. In some cases, as in Dirty Harry, those actions look cool and we cheer for the anti-hero. In Johnny To’s PTU, the results provide the opposite effect. Although the film held my attention and was entertaining on many levels, it had me wishing, if only slightly, for a character who could come across as a bit more virtuous. Even the woman who leads the homicide unit is a hard ass. None of this actually hurts the movie in any significant way. It arguably makes it all the more intriguing, just to see where the night would carry this band of characters and maybe to see if anybody would get their ‘cumupins.’

I had been waiting for a To film that would make a better case for why he is a so-called ‘great director.’ Sparrow and Election, while both good, didn’t convince me enough. PTU, with its gorgeous cinematography, quirky blend of humour and drama and its cast of unique personalities (while all being jerks in their own way) is my favourite To film to date. Fans of Hong Kong cinema and cop films would do well to check it out.

'Long arms of the law' marathon: Dirty Harry

Dirty Harry (1971, Don Siegel)

3 years after Bullitt came a another movie with bad people on the loose in the beautiful city of San Francisco and yet another no nonsense cop doing what it takes to serve and protect the decent folk under threat, especially from a crazed sniper rifle shooter (Andy Robinson) randomly picking off people from city rooftops. This time however, the rules of the game have changed in that the rules are what detective Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) determines them to be. While Bullitt may have been that character’s real name in the script, detective Callahan is known to his colleague as Dirty Harry, and that’s a nickname he has truly earned.

In the previous review for the movie Bullitt, we briefly discussed how the filmmakers opted for realism as much as possible. Dirty Harry is a film that, while expressing a distinct political and cultural message, is mostly content with providing the viewer with a nice serving of ‘bad assery’ or ‘a can of whoop ass.’ There is a running joke throughout the story about why Callahan has earned the nickname Dirty Harry. It might be because he tends to sweep up all the small dirty jobs no one wants to do. It may be because of his attitude towards his fellow colleagues (including racist comments! Yay!). Or, it might be due to the completely off the top ways in which he carries his duties. To put it mildly, he won’t always follow the law if the law doesn’t serve justice. Imagine the can of worms that sort of philosophy opens. Therein lies the politics of Dirty Harry, that the system doesn’t always work and that certain, shall we say, more extreme measures (or at least measures that do not respect protocol) are justified to attain honourable means. The decision makers don’t always think about the moral nuances that litter the field of work. Following rules and regulations is one thing, but what of serving justice? What about taking matters into one’s own hands because, well goddamn it, it’s the bloody right thing to do? This comes into play especially during the second half of the movie when Harry learns that his less than gentle methods used upon arresting the psycho sniper shall lead to the man's quick release. Torture, illegal methods to obtain evidence, these practices mean little in the eyes of the law despite the fact that they are dealing with an incredibly dangerous man who will most likely cause havoc again once free.

Rules and the lawmakers who bring them about often incur the wrath of those who wish to defend similar ideals but through different methods (or altogether different ideals). This is understandable and it’s difficult to imagine anyone being immune to this sort of sentiment. The politics of lawmaking itself is a business of give and take and compromise. Not everybody will get exactly what they want and what they individually think is ‘best’ for society. There is however an important counter argument to those who take a liking, a real liking, to the philosophy championed by Dirty Harry. Who the heck is he to decide what’s right and wrong, what consists of proper justice? His badge I presume? Even so, the film doesn’t hide the fact that, when the circumstances are right, justice can be found in the old saying ‘an eye for an eye.’

The popularity of Dirty Harry rests in two significant elements among others. The first is that the character is an action man, a detective who lives with a bit of a devil may care attitude, a raw sense of humour and someone who accepts his responsibilities. He’s an anti-hero detective who can indeed prove to be mightily entertaining. The second factor, which for some may work on a subconscious level or for others may be a hidden fantasy, concerns this notion of going against the system, to do what one believes to be correct, to adopt the philosophy of the ends justifying the means. Tempting indeed, even among the more docile and conformist among us. In the context of the United States, and this is based on my limited knowledge of that country’s cultural and political history, Dirty Harry arguably taps into something found in the American psyche, albeit in a more violent and vicious manner. Life, liberty and and the pursuit of happiness, the Revolution which gave birth to the country, the less government the better, etc. I think (and I’ve been wrong before, mind you), Dirty Harry, in his own way, personifies and embodies some of those values. The system and its rules cannot always serve the people. To right some wrongs you sometimes have to get your hands dirty. Fuck the system. That isn’t to say the ideas exemplified by the character of Dirty Harry do not resonate among people in the world. A lot of people outside the United States not only recognize Dirty Harry but think he’s a marvellous character. I myself think he’s fun to watch mop the floor with hoodlums. What I’m trying to get at is how Dirty Harry feels like a typically American creation, almost unmistakably so.

Is the movie good? Yes, in many respects it is. There is a charisma to Eastwood’s performance that is reminiscent of what he showcased a few years earlier during his spaghetti western days, probably because he plays a similar character except not as rogue and with a few more lines of dialogue. The intensity and the earnest quality with which he delivers much of his lines are amusing. Almost every phrase he utters throughout the movie works as a thinly veiled ‘screw you’ to whomever he is talking to. Nonetheless, he is not a super cop at all times. When the antagonist of the story has kidnapped a young girl and hidden her underground somewhere, Harry must do as the villain says by running from check point to check point. If Harry slips up, there is little doubt that the victim shall suffocate. However, hypothetically speaking there is no guarantee that the psycho has any intention of keeping his word by revealing the girl’s location. Harry certainly sweats it out in this sequence, with stress and anger clearly all over his face. Apart from Eastwood however, the only other noticeable character in the movie is in fact the antagonist, played by Andy Robinson, but that has much to do with the oddball and twisted nature of his persona. He’s basically a nasty psychopath. Ham it up, have a freaky look in your eye, talk, mutter and whimper as if you are completely mad and your job is pretty much complete. That isn’t to say Robinson doesn’t do it well for he does, only that there isn’t much to it. The finale, which has Harry assault the villain from atop of a school bus and finally chase him though a factory, is well executed and satisfying conclusion. This is in contrast (sort of) with an earlier scene in which Harry prevents a group of bank robbers from escaping. He guns them down in broad daylight in downtown San Francisco while eating his lunch. To top it off, he confronts the last robber left alive with the immortal ‘Are you feeling lucky today?’ line. Entertaining to be sure, if somewhat silly. I think that is what takes Dirty Harry down just a notch from the other movies we’re evaluating in this mini marathon. While it does have its fair share of moments and Eastwood’s bad ass attitude is difficult to resist, I felt the movie takes itself a bit too seriously at times when, for me at least, what was happening on screen could have fitted perfectly into a comedy. The film has legions of fans and I can see why, it can be pretty fun, but I couldn’t help but find at least some of it cheesy.

Despite all its silliness, Dirty Harry has lived on as far more than a mere anecdote in American cinema history. To this day people still love the movie and quote lines without much effort. While I didn’t feel such an intense love upon first viewing, there is enough to enjoy. Just don’t take it all too seriously.

Friday, December 18, 2009

'Long arms of the law' marathon: Bullitt

Bullitt (1968, Peter Yates)

A man makes a daring escape from a group of gagnsters in alarge building one San Francisco night. His pursuers almost get the better as drives away at full speed, bullets from firearms crashing into the vehicle’s windshield. The cuts occur in uber cool fashion with the next frame appearing within the outline of the opening credits as they zoom towards the screen. What exactly is going on? That isn’t fully explained until a few scenes later, but Bullitt certainly opens with a cool first scenes to grab the viewer’s attention. You want to find out more? Very well, then stay a while as San Francisco detective Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is set on a case with mystery, tension and some great action.

Woken up early after a long night of work, Frank Bullitt is summoned to meet the district attorney (Robert Vaughn), who charges the detective with keeping a gangster defector alive until his testimony on Monday. Keep the witness in a safe hose with officers on rotation throughout the weekend. As you may have figured out, the witness is the same man the viewer followed at the beginning. Sounds simple enough really, but the mob has ways of finding ways, and before long Frank is working on the case on a far grander scale than originally anticipated. When simply keeping a witness alive eventually leads to games of hide and seek within hospitals and airport corridors, as well as a high speed chase along the San Francisco highway, one knows they earned more thn was bargained for.

Director Peter Yates and star Steve McQueen collaborated very closely on the project to provide a movie experience that, while thrilling, would nonetheless be grounded in reality as much as possible. The hospital location, where much of the middle section of the film takes place, is a real hospital. The doctors and nurses who operate on the witness after the latter is shot are real doctors and nurses. The airport chase sequence which closes the movie was filmed in areal airport. The explosion that ends the fantastic car chase is real. Jacqueline Bisset’s sex appeal is absolutely real. Steve McQueen’s hair is real. The gunshot wounds are real.

Perhaps not the last element, but one can never be too sure.

This devotion to authenticity by the filmmakers does provide Bullitt with, well, a realistic aesthetic. Nothing flashy or too fanciful, but rather an adopted grittiness that some films might sometimes overlook. The department where the directing shines however is in the editing and cinematography, particularly during the action sequences, such as the much heralded car chase. Yates’ camera has a pacing during these moments of tension and danger which is excellent in producing a satisfying build up, followed by the obligatory high octane cues. The subtler game of cat and mouse between Frank’s car and that of his pursuers (who quickly become the prey, thanks to clever driving from Bullitt) is a joy to behold, with shots in which one vehicle suddenly appears in the rear view mirror. Each edit is executed with care and an attention to detail. Car chases, I can only imagine, must be infinitely complex to prepare and eventually capture on camera. The geography of the situation must be made clear enough for the viewer in order to assess and feel the danger, the proximity of the vehicles from one another, and the expert driving performed by the stunt men. The chase from this film has been lauded by many and it certainly merits the praise. Once the warm up is over with however, the cars take off like thunder. It’s a visual style that commands some respect, wherein a very grounded and realistic world is captured and subsequently edited for film to produce a very cool experience.

Arguably, what may hold the film back in the eyes of some is the story, of which there isn’t much admittedly. Bullitt receives an assignment, that assignment goes up shit’s stream. To make up for it, Bullitt sticks it to the district attorney while eventually catching up with the gangsters. This all sounds rather simple, perhaps even mundane and lacking originality. The pleasure of the film is definitely found in the interactions and behaviours of the characters, most notably the rivalry that quickly builds between Frank and the district attorney, given how their personalities and methods certainly do not mesh well together at all. While he doesn’t go completely Dirty Harry crazy, Bullitt does bend the rules by smuggling the corpse of the informant without the district attorney’s consent in order to by time and solve his sabotaged case when smuggles, and at one point goes so far as to suggest (in a subtle way, mind you), that Robert Vaughn might be working from the inside to aid ‘the organization’ as the villains are referred to in the movie. McQueen can have a steely look of determination, act groggy when waking up in the morning , or act casual while enjoying a dinner with his lover at a restaurant. McQueen was an actor with great range and skill at inhabiting the moment. The film is therefore deceptively simplistic: it plays like a straightforward cop and gangster movie, but the acting is stellar, which in turn creates fascinating character relations, thus elevating the proceedings a notch. Robert Vaughn delivers the acting chops the way he should when an actor is called upon to play the stuck up district attorney. He’s on the side of good, yes, but he is also very much a villain insofar as his job and plan interfere with those of Frank, the latter whom is clearly accustomed to working in the field and making quick decisions which may or may not always respect protocol. The former is a desk jockey, who earns the wrath of the viewer with his slimy, pushy and very confrontational mannerisms. Frank is therefore caught a rock and a hard place, with hurdles to overcome on all fronts, including on his side of the law.

For these reasons, Frank Bullitt is most likely this film fan’s favourite movie cop. He’s tough and gritty, but not to the point where his demeanour becomes questionable. If need be, he’ll find his own way to finish the case, but not by going totally rogue. There are moments, albeit brief ones, that show a more human side to the character, particularly when he is in contact with his girlfriend, played by Jacqueline Bisset. Because those moments and scenes don’t last long, a strong actor is required to bring that side to life. Steve McQueen, an actor whose filmmography I have yet to explore in depth, is bloody brilliant in the role. His presence encompasses toughness, intelligence, even a joy de vivre when the situation permits. He played a great variety of characters, but Bullitt will always be one of his more popular roles.

Possibly another knock against the film may be the lack of a well defined villain. The movie spends almost no time at all with the members of the organization. There is the opening scene which we described earlier, and but a few other moments during which the camera reveals their faces. No names and virtually no dialogue for any of them. The movies functions a bit like ‘Frank’s crazy weekend on the job.’ The might disappoint some who enjoy multi dimensional adversaries but, as you may have determined already from the Steve McQueen love fest I’ve been writing, this aspect has never bothered me nor harmed the viewing experience the viewer can appreciated from Bullitt.

Film can capture our imaginations for all sorts of reasons. In the case of Bullitt, it is the title character who owns the show. There’s good camerawork, marvellous editing, a solid supporting cast and some fantastic tension and action, but Steve McQueen’s Bullitt simply dominates the screen.

'Long arms of the law' marathon: Public Enemies

Public Enemies (2009, Michael Mann)

John Dillinger went down in history as one of the most famous criminals in the history of United States. He was a bank robber during the Great Depression of the early 1930s. While the people bled poverty, Dillinger and his gang performed daring and dangerous theft operations. Obviously he was a crook, but as a crook who took from banks, those big bad selfish establishments, he was viewed in somewhat positive light by the many in the general public. Director Michael Mann brings the story of Dillinger’s final few months alive to screen in Public Enemies, based on the book of the same name written by Ryan Burrough.

The ever popular Johnny Depp steps into the shoes of the sly criminal, which turns out to be a smart casting decision. Depp has a varied filmography, proving time and time again that his range as an actor apparently knows no bounds. Depp’s Dillinger is, as most thieves should be, a confident man, a man who gambles his freedom with every heist, but who is ‘having too much fun today to think about tomorrow.’ Success breeds success in more ways than one. In the case of Dillinger, success is felt through the money he has, but also through the network of support he has in the criminal world. One evening, while out on the town he catches sight of Billie (Marion Cotillard) a coat check girl who is quickly won over by his bravado and charm. Their love affair proves to be a passionate one. Christian Bale is Melvin Purvis, a special agent of the FBI working for J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Cudrup) and, with his special unit of young men hired to track down Dillinger and his scoundrels.

It’s a genre that has been treated rather well in cinema history. The last thing a person can claim is that it has been underused and under-appreciated. Whether in the United States or abroad, gangster movies have always found an audience and been successful. Some are less successful than others, but it can be said that making a gangster film is probably a safe bet. Public Enemies is an interesting case study. With the narrative, it follows the tried, tested an true plot of the gangster who had it all but due to various circumstances (of his own doing and not) eventually fell (since the film is inspired by the exploits of the real John Dillinger, it didn’t have much of a choice in the matter). Mostly due to Depp and Cotillard, the story movies along nicely, depicting Dillinger’s struggle with wanting a love in his life, his career as a bank robber, and his eventual failure to cope with the forces closing in on him when his partners and friends leave…or die. Simple enough, but done well at least. Depp and Cotillard have very good chemistry together in particular. Where things take a different turn is in the visual style applied by director Mann. The action was captured with a high-definition hand-held camera, the ones that are gaining tremendous popularity these days in film. Rather than provide the film with a typical slick Hollywood look, complete with careful steady cam shots and perfect panoramic views, Public Enemies has a gritty, ‘filmed on the go’ quality. The picture looks very good, but it takes a moment to grow accustomed to the very realistic, documentary atmosphere. As an experiment, Mann hits a home run. Pores on the skin are there for all to see, but that’s a minor complaint in an otherwise superb looking movie. Mann plays with the audiences expectations, many of whom might expect a glitzy show. If there’s something that disappoints, it would be in the handling of some shots in close quarters, when the camera sometimes moves frantically around, desperate to stay focused on the critical events in each scene. Such a technique can cause a dizzying effect, but thankfully the film doesn’t make this mistake all that often. There are more than enough beautiful shots to make up for it.

As a fan of gangster films in general and of director Michael Mann in particular, there were certain expectations that needed to be met. Public Enemies passed with flying colours. There is a reason why Johnny Depp graced the marketing posters. Christian Bale may be a big name in the industry, but this film is dominated by Depp’s presence. Dillinger is a fun character, but a three dimensional one as well. Hurt him and he bleeds, literally and figuratively. The film doesn’t dwell on the history of the man, nor does it make him the most complex person ever, but he is human and entertaining with his cocky and smooth attitude. Depp is memorable in the role with some great gangster lines which sound great with that Midwestern twang. Cotillard fares very well as Billie, the ‘lower class’ girl that Dillinger fancies. She’s an interesting choice as she delivers a lot of Americanized dialogue but with a definite French accent, this despite that her character grew up in the United States. That little oddity aside, there’s no question the actress can bring a character to life. For the most part she falls into the mould of the gangster’s girlfriend, but when such a role is filled by an actress like Cotillard, there’s still a special little bit of class to it. She doesn’t break new ground with the character, but it’s a fine performance nonetheless, especially in the latter scenes when she is under duress by the police. Billy Cudrup also appears in the story as J. Edgar Hoover, a desk man whose lack of experience in the field hasn’t hurt, in any shape or form, his ambition and public figure. Cudrup truly shines as Hoover, delivering lines with some real zest and spirit. It’s a supporting role only, but he’s great during every moment as this pompous and lively decision maker. Even in his limited time as Baby Face Nelson, Stephen Graham is incredibly amusing, even though the character is fairly one-dimensional. The actor who appears to receive the short end of the stick is Christian Bale. Like Johnny Depp, he’s proven more than enough times that he is a stellar actor but, admittedly, his Melvin Purvis isn’t the most engaging. He’s very workmanlike and so is the actor’s performance. No private life is shown, no downtime either. His arc within the story is mostly regarding the methods used to catch Dillinger. At first Purvis is convinced that he and his team of pretty boys, what with their police school training and all, will be more than equipped enough to handle the task at hand. It becomes apparent that Dillinger is far more ruthless and effective at evading capture than originally foreseen. Eventually Purvis must call on the help of some agents from the southern states who, suffice to say, don’t mind kicking some ass. Puvis eventually concedes that some more action-oriented manners may be better suited to end Dillinger’s reign of crime. Bale makes use of that steely glare of his, a smirk here and there, but not much more. In essence, Bale’s stature in the eyes of the movie buffs will probably determine how they react to this performance. I happen to like Bale a lot as an actor, so his mere presence was satisfying. There is a professionalism about the way he presents himself that I like personally, but it is understandable if that alone is insufficient for some. Many criticised the performance as utterly forgettable, and while I myself don’t echo that sentiment, I can see why such arguments emerged.

L.A Takedown, Heat, Collateral, Miami Vice and now Public Enemies. Writer and director Michael Mann loves telling stories about people on the right and wrong sides of the law confronting each other, whether head-on or during drawn out games of cat and mouse. In each of these films the viewer is given an intimate look into the characters they feature. Sometimes the result is balanced, as in Heat, other times it feels skewed towards a character on one side, as in Miami Vice (Crockett on the side of the law) and here in Public Enemies with Dillinger taking the spotlight. Mann goes for realism, both visually and for the story, while ensuring that his protagonists and antagonists are human. Public Enemies isn’t perfect by any means. As I’ve written, Bale, an excellent actor, doesn’t have much depth to work with and there are a couple of bizarre story related decisions, such as when Dillinger walks into a police station office without anybody taking notice (it’s a fun scene, but completely preposterous ). I’d still argue that it’s one of the better American mainstream films released in 2009.

Status Update

Hello again. So what is happening with the 'queer cinema marathon?' Good question. I think I simply thought it had been less time since the last marathon review, whereas in actuality, I haven't posted one in over a month! Many apologies. I will make a New Year's resolution to invest greater effort in providing marathon updates more consistent. As you can probably tell by now, there won't be any reviews for the 'queer cinema' marathon until at least after January 1st, so I decided to write some quick reviews for a mini-marathon that will occupy you readers until then. I kept things nice simple with a genre that I am quite familiar with, cops and crooks, and followed a theme (or attemtped to. I think I failed in one of my reviews actually) of characters who, regardless of which side of the law they are on, decide to bend and break it. I'll call this mini-marathon 'Long arms of the law' marathon. I hope you enjoy. We'll talk queer cinema just after the new year. Merry Christmas to my fans!

Nana (1926, Jean Renoir)

Jean Renoir silent films are uniquely visual. What the film cannot provide in voices for the characters, it makes up for with distinct and captivating visual cues, be it through the physicality he demands of his actors, the editing, the camera work, the colour palette, and even special effects featuring characters and objects which fade in and out like ghosts. Throughout the man’s career he would create movies in which the world where the stories transpire feel complete and fully realized. Renoir was a meticulous storyteller who presented conflicted characters often trapped in whirlpools of fate, no pun intended. This attention to detail in characters, story and the aesthetic elements are on display for the viewer’s pleasure in Nana, Renoir’s film adaptation of Émile Zola’s harsh story. Come to think of it, I doubt I’ve come across a Zola novel that wasn’t harsh.

Nana is a character. More specifically, she is a young woman working as a performer in a theatre group. Her talents may be questionable, but there is little doubt regarding her beauty. Many men, among them the count Muffat, his nephew and the Count Vandeuvres, are smitten by her. Time and time again this only leads to heartbreak and frustration for dear little Nana is incredibly vain and self serving. What matters to her is what she can extract from those foolish enough to take care of her, be it money, luxurious living spaces, trips, or favours in the acting business. In essence, she is a bad girl. The frustrating thing about her behaviour is that she is blind to her shameful attitude and treatment to those around her who crumble beneath her powers of seduction. It’s a twisted game of give and take in which men give their hearts and money and Nana takes it all.

The acting style that can be found in silent films such as Nana is only remote these days. Because the actors cannot talk, their physical expressions are all the more important, all the more detailed and emphasized. Granted, in film today (and since the advent of sophisticated sound in movies) there is acting which requires a great deal of physical investment. Crazed villains, action heroes, slapstick, physical comedy aimed at children, etc. I feel there is something different in how I pay attention to the acting in silent films. The viewer doesn’t have a choice because the characters cannot speak, every look, every gesture is infused with even greater importance. Catherine Hessling, who was Jean Renoir’s wife at the time, carries the film as Nana, whose energy and attitude is front and center. She is pre-Madonna, the unworthy diva, the disease against which men have no immunity. Her makeup is intentionally excessive. The artificiality of her character permeates through every pore of her body and right down her very core. The supporting players are also very interesting, among them the Werner Krauss and Jean Aangelo who portray both Count Muffat and Count Vandeuvres respectively. The former character is a chubby man with an obvious air of aristocracy about him. His long time friend Count Vandeuvres is tall and thin as well as a bit more reserved in his expressions. He’s a rather classy fellow, or at least appears as one at least, but he cannot shield himself from Nana’s poisonous appeal. I’d like to give some appreciation to Jean Angelo who plays the role of Vandeuvres. His presence was very much welcomed in so far that it established how Nana is dangerous to the point where she can ensnare anyone she desires. More stoic than Muffat, Vandeuvres would often have a look of curiosity, concentration, and reflection in his eyes. Although one of the themes of the story is the fallibility of men in the face of…pretty face and how they can give up too much when they think with their dicks, I nonetheless felt a little bit sad and disappointed to see poor Vandeuvre fall prey to Nana’s sexual witchcraft. But it would appear that no one is immune to her charms.

Renoir’s skill as a visual storyteller is quite impressive. Recently I watched La Fille de l’Eau for which Renoir also operated with an acute and eye catching style. In many respects, Nana, which was made a mere year later, feels even more accomplished. The story is loosely divided into chapters in which the mood and tone of the events shift, sometimes quite dramatically. On each occasion the picture is saturated with a different colour palette. The majority of the motion picture is brimming with a golden sheen. It is during this time that Nana begins her assent in the circles of high society. For her, it is a time of opportunity, a time when Nana sinks her claws into whatever bag of wealth she can. Clearly, the movie makes no assumptions about her manipulations even though Nana herself never realizes the full extent of the harm she is causing. Jealousies among the men begin to simmer, but they never boil. Essentially, trouble is brewing but there may be hope for these characters yet. Further into the story, once emotions begin to shift and the consequences of the of the men’s foolishness begins to press on everyone, Renoir paints with a different brush, sometimes a more stark black and white palette, other times preferring to dampen the tone of scenes even further with a contrast of black and dark blue. These transformations of the colour schemes may not sound as unique or particularly clever today in 2009, but remember that this is a film released in 1926, a time when movies was still a relatively young art form. Artistic expression at this level must have been quite impressive at the time. Even as I watched the movie the other night (as objectively as possible I imagine) the technique produced what I presume were the intended effects. I’ve also been taught to never assume anything, but I’ll continue on my high horse regarding the artistic and storytelling intentions of the technique. Nana may have even functioned as a precursor to future movies that adopted the same style.

Unsurprisingly I did not witness the movie in a theatre with a beautiful print, but rather in the comfort of my living room. The DVD was part of a 3 disc set which was released by Studio Canal and Lionsgate a few years back. The picture was quite good, but what really struck me was the score (clearly remastered for maximum effect). A great movie critic once said that the best move scores shouldn’t make themselves known but work on a subtle level. Well, in the case of older ‘silent’ films, the score must have a greater, more obvious impact. That of Nana is stellar, a pure joy to listen to. Granted, hearing crystal clear music accompanying a film that obviously looks very old was a bit of an odd experience, but I can’t stress enough how effective and beautiful the film’s score is. Much like the acting in the movie, it isn’t always subtle, but also very difficult to dislike

I haven’t read the original source material, therefore I’ll refrain from carrying out any sort of comparative study of the two products. However, I know what I like and this movie is rather good. Jean Renoir was a director whose talents as a very visual storyteller carried him throughout much of his career. The special effects, such as the appearance of the ghosts of the men who killed themselves following their defeats at the hands of Nana, and the cinematography techniques virtually always serve the story of the film. There is a remarkable creativity and skill in his direction that are so easy to appreciate.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Review: The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

The review below might read like it has a different tone than my usual reviews. It's actually a report about a movie that was suggested to me by a fellow message board member over at Filmspotting. The full review is a bit on the theatrical side. Below is a condensed version.

The Hitch-Hiker (1953, Ida Lupino)

The Hitch-Hiker is, for the most, what I expected from it judging from the box presentation. The story follows the plight of two American low budget tourists travelling by car (Edmond O’Brien and the fantastic Frank Lovely) who, before ever enjoying the sights and sounds of Mexico, are held hostage by the infamously dangerous hitch-hiker Emmett Myers (William Talman) who needs to make a getaway

I’m tempted to say that The Hitch-Hiker could be categorized as what cinephiles name a ‘slow burn’ film, but upon second thought that is probably incorrect. It isn’t a very long movie and possesses quite an intimate feel and texture. Many of the scenes occur within the claustrophobic confines of an automobile and those which don’t do not feature much high octane action or especially striking moments, with the exception of a few. Nonetheless, whenever it feels like the viewer’ comfort level hasn’t been rattled in the last little while, co-writer and director Ida Lupino attempts to stir things up a bit. What struck the most about the story was its setting, that is, Mexico. Actually, not just Mexico, but the hot, dry, mostly barren Mexican countryside, and not the part where agriculture can be practiced. The more desert-like countryside. Our protagonists and their nefarious captor rarely come across bystanders, which makes their situation all the more stressful and uncomfortable. They can’t just yell at any Juan, Marta and José for help. They are stuck with this monster until they can figure a way to either escape or inhibit him. It’s always sunny and hot, which adds another dimension to their nightmare. There is a ring of bitter irony to their predicament when one thinks about it. They have all that space to run for their lives or drive off to safety, but as long as Emmett Myers has his gun and his eyes locked onto them, they cannot go anywhere. I liked that aspect of the film very much. It’s one thing to have a director’s touch or particular actors involved in a project, but when the filmmakers set things correctly from the start, which involves creating a story and developing a worthwhile setting for that story, then more often than not the film will have my interest. The film makes a clever use of space in that regard, with the risk of death hanging over their heads whether they are feeling each other’s breath inside the small car or feeling the unforgiving Mexican sun when outside.

With a brisk 70 minute running time, it is unsurprising that The Hitch-Hiker offers little in terms of character development. There are a few brief minutes in the early goings where the two American tourists chat about their travelling memories and their families just so we get the sense that these guys are good, regular blokes, but their purpose is served by being the victims of extraordinary and terrifying circumstances. I can’t say that is a bad thing however since it allows a viewer to easily imagine oneself in such a situation. The slate is pretty clean given how we are not familiar with the histories or the baggage of the protagonists. Our hitch-hiker from hell, Emmett Myers, is quite the specimen. Played to the hilt by William Talman, Myers is very much a ‘badass’ villain. He pulls no punches, kills without mercy, barks orders like an ogre and hates it when people ‘speak Mexican.’ Subtlety isn’t the name of the game here, but then again, I guess this isn’t the kind of movie where such an element is a prerequisite. There is a slight defect with his right eye that enables him to sleep with one eye open, literally. How’s that for a villain’s quirk? In fact, with a bit of cleaning up, I could envision this guy as a heavy in one of the earlier Bond flicks. He’s a filthy Le Chiffre. Heh.

More to the structure of the story though. Not every scene involves our bitter trio mind you. Given how Myers is a wanted criminal, Mexican and American authorities work in conjunction to track the car down (they pick up on the fact that our two protagonists have gone missing through and eye witness). I was relieved to discover that these scenes weren’t given half of the film’s running time, which could have easily been the case, because they felt dry, stiff and uninspired. A lot of talk resembling ‘Assuming Myers is heading in this direction…’, that didn’t strike me as all that necessary, or interesting for that matter. The fun is unquestionably found with the three main characters. Their misadventure is less a story with any significant ‘plot’, but rather a series of brief set pieces, some which are clever and effective, others less so. A pit stop at a small grocery store is one of the highlights (more of those ‘Stop speaking Mexican!’ complaints which are hysterical), as is the scene at night when the protagonists attempt to make an escape under Myers’ nose. Great stuff. Other moments work purely in terms of tension, but feel as though they’re working on shakier ground in terms of purpose within the film, such as when Myers forces his prisoners to play a modified version of the William Tell apple game. Interesting, but I was wondering why it was happening. I guess his reputation as cold hearted killer wasn’t enough to make the heroes understand that he is evil. Yeah, a little William Tell apple game should definitely make that clearer by now. I won’t give away the climax, but I was slightly underwhelmed. Without revealing in what context, I was surprised at how overpowering one of the heroes was when facing Myers one on one. It made the villain appear rather week suddenly, which supports his brutish attitude earlier on when he was in control of the firearms, but I couldn’t help but think: hmm, a bit of a pus** this guy is.

Finally, and this will sound anti-climactic, there is the fact that the director is Ida Lupino. The back of the DVD cover states that The Hitch-Hiker is the only film noir to be directed by a woman. Does that translate into anything significant, somehow, in the final product? I really didn’t think so. Truth be told, if the DVD cover hadn’t proudly stated that fact, I wouldn’t have cared at all. I don’t mean that in the sense that I don’t feel that women finding directorial work (especially in the 1950s after all) isn’t worthy of mention, but in this case, the viewer gets an interesting little thriller, no more, no less. I suppose that if one really wants to think hard about it they come up with some variety of ‘oh, but a woman directed a movie with violence and only male characters’ sort of argument, which I imagine meant something in the 1950s, but overall I think the female perspective is a non issue in The Hitch-Hiker. And if I may take a moment to really drill home my point, I think that is in fact what matters most. A woman directed a competent thriller, so what? In a better world, the world I enjoy pretending I live in, that wouldn’t be so extraordinary anyways. There.

Did I find The Hitch-Hiker to be particularly memorable? No. Does that mean it isn’t worth one’s time? Neither. It’s like Fatal Attractions, which was on the tele a couple of Saturdays ago. It was an entertaining diversion while it lasted, and in my book, that’s good enough.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Review: What Time is it There? (2001)

What Time is it There? (2001, Tsai Ming-Liang)

A familiar cast featuring Lee Kang-Sheng and Tien Miao among others returns for another Tsai Ming-Liang experience of storytelling about modern Taiwan in What Time is it There? After an opening few scenes in which Hsiao Kang’s (Lee Kang-Sheng) father apparently passes away, something interesting occurs one day as he is selling watches on the streets of Taipei. A young woman named Shiang-chyi(actress Shiang-chyi Chen) approaches him in search of a dual time watch for her trip to Paris. After much pleading on her behalf, she succeeds in convincing him to sell off the one he owns despite its sentimental value. The girl must have had quite an impression on the young lad, for from that point onward, and for the remainder of the film, Hsiao Kang will spend of his efforts on changing the time on the clocks around Taipei in accordance with Parisian time. All the while his mother will persistently perform little acts and rituals around the home in the hopes that her late husband will return, reincarnated in nonhuman form.

Watching Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang’s film What Time is it There? raised two thoughts to my mind. The first is that Tsai is a quintessential ‘auteur’ filmmaker, a director who unquestionably brings his own voice to the art of movie making. Anybody reading this who frowns on those who support the auteur theory need only watch movies like Vivre L’Amour, The River and What Time is it There? There is something very distinct about Tsai’s camera work, his choice of actors and the kind of stories he tells. There is even a commonality of the themes and tones of those stories. This leads me to the second thought that occupied my mind while watching this movie: his movies really do look alike after a while. Some directors are very much auteurs but create different worlds whenever they make a different film. Tsai seems to make different chapters all related to the same world, with the same textures and while the tones of these chapters are not identical, they are to me very similar. Long scenes, with cameras resting at great lengths on actors while they smoke, eat, walk, lie on beds, look into the distant as they ponder on their feelings and whatever inner turmoil may be disrupting them. It’s not a bad style, far from it in fact, only that after watching a third Tsai film…it begins to feel like a lot of the same. I’m well aware that Tsai has made other movies than the three I have watched, and I shall undoubtedly discover the others at some point in the future, but for the moment, I feel as if I’ve digested a sufficient dose of his style. The writer director has a fascination with the modern Taiwanese society, how that modernity has moulded the society he knows, what inner family relationships are like today, what it’s like to be a young adult, professional or not, in this society, and so on. Hey, they guy is from Taiwan after all and more power to him if he has a lot to say about his home country. I won’t necessarily tell him to do otherwise, but I am starting to wonder what this man’s range as a director is like. Maybe he doesn’t need great range if his interest rests primarily in one major idea, albeit with several possible stories that may be told within that major idea. In fact, there were several moments in What Time is it There? that immediately reminded of scenes from both The River and Vivre L’Amour. The opening scene featuring Hsiao Kang’s father (who also played the father in The River) smoking a cigarette at a table, Shiang chyi’s sad stare at the very end of the film, Shiang chyi’s pseudo lesbian night with a Hong Kong woman who helped earlier in the day, the petty bickering between Hsaio Kang and his mother at the dinner table, Hsiao Kang’s habit of peeing in plastic bags or bottles at night, etc. I felt as if I was playing a game of contrast and compare with the other films I had seen almost more than I was watching a unique piece of cinema. In a strange sense, even though I have admiration for what Tsai does as a filmmaker and still thoroughly enjoyed this film, I still feel like I’m getting diminishing returns with every new movie I watch. None of the three I’ve seen have been bad, on the contrary, they have all been good, but I can’t help but feel that they have all felt pretty much the same. There are some staunch Tsai Ming-Liang supporters out there, I even know some over at Filmspotting, so if any of you happen to be reading this, I hope I’m not giving a particularly negative mood to this review. I’m still recommending the movie. I can’t imagine anybody who has seen a Tsai film before not enjoying this one.

That isn’t to say this movie doesn’t have its moments. The final scene, which reserves something pretty special for the viewer, is expertly crafted, and many of the Shiang-chyi scenes as she visits some atypical Paris surroundings or spends late nights in her hotel room, were very captivating. A few scenes involving Hsiao Kang and clocks, whether because he was changing the position of the arms or because he was steeling them (I’m referring to the scene at the cinema) were quite funny and entertaining. Those involving his mother performing what nonreligious people would consider to be ‘silly’ acts based on faith and superstition were less compelling. The to and fro snickering between her and Hsio Kang wasn’t that interesting and, based on what I just wrote about in the above paragraph, was too reminiscent of certain scenes from The River. Of the three Tsai films I have watched, I’d argue this one has the most attractive colour palette. There is something very rich in the tones and texture of the scenes in this film. This quality was present in The River but really comes out to shine here. The shadow and lighting are exquisitely managed to set the mood of the movie, particularly for the indoor sequences. I think many of the scenes occurring in Hsiao Kang home, while they don’t strike me as memorable for the dialogue between the character and his mother, were some of the most pleasing to the eye for their aesthetic qualities. And more to the point of Hsio Kang’s domestic scenes and their relation to those involving Shiang-chyi Chen in Paris, I found the latter ones more interesting than the former. I think Lee Shang-Keng is an interesting and very good actor, and he does an admirable job in this film, but Shiang-chyi Chen was the most interesting player overall. Her decision to visit Paris alone despite not speaking any French, thus spending most of her time in Paris feeling very alone, made for some curiously enjoyable moments. There is something very attractive about her aura as an actress, in addition to the obvious fact that she’s rather cute.

What Time is it There? has some great moments, but overall I will limit myself to saying that it is a good film, a few beats shy from being great. Perhaps had I seen this Tsai movie first instead of Vivre L’Amour my feelings would be different, or maybe if this film had been one of Tsai’s earlier efforts and not one of his more recent ones. On its own, there isn’t a whole lot to fault the film for, except for some of the mother/son scenes and other moments where the camera lingers a bit too long characters (much like one of my complaints for The River, go figure). Having said that, the movie looks great, features strong performances and goes for something interesting in the late stages as events in Taipei and Paris seem to be connected for some unknown reason. I enjoy this writer director’s work, but I may just be taking a breather from his filmmography for the next little bit.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Review: Kanal (1957)

Kanal (1957, Andrzej Wajda)

The Warsaw Uprising, like so many other events that transpired during the nightmare that was the Second World War, is a great subject for a film, and who better to tackle the topic than the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda. The film was brought to life in 1956 (released in 1957), a reasonably short time following World War II and during a period of great tension between Poles and Russians, the latter whom had extended their political and cultural arms of influence over Poland during this early decade of the Cold War. Despite censorship regulations, the film nonetheless found its audience, and director Wajda became an important cinematic voice around the world. Kanal even earned the Special Jury Prize at the 1957 Cannes film festival.

Kanal is inspired by a true story about a band of resistance fighters and civilians during the Warsaw Uprising who, in order to flee their crumbling hideout and make it to a 'safer' section of the city, must navigate their way through the maddening maze that is the underground sewer system. The film begins in economical fashion with a nameless narrator briefly explaining the status quo and introduces each of the main characters the viewer will follow throughout the story as they march in a line one after the other, avoiding enemy fire amongst the ruins of a decadent city. The narrator pulls a fast one on the viewer upon announcing that these are the last few hours of their lives. Wha, wha, what!?!. The setups only lasts about 20 minutes or so before the characters embark on the perilous journey in the canals of the underground, but just enough is done to establish most of them, providing the viewer with something to latch on to. They aren't merely dirty faces, but people whom we would like to see make it out alive. Of course, the revelation earlier from the narrator arguably heightens the viewer's sensibilities and attachment to this band of doomed souls, thus we will them onward to their rendez-vous point. Amongst the members of this crew are Zadra, the cynical captain of the group who goes against his better instincts in order to see his people to safety, Slim, who is tall and skinny and all gun ho about charging the enemy and doesn't like the idea of abandoning their post, Jacek, young and energetic, but whose brashness gets him into some trouble early in the film, Daisy, who is Jacek's main squeeze and who probably has bigger balls than most of the men we see in the film, and Michael, a nervous pianist who only wishes to see his wife and daughter alive again. This is but to name a few, so it is forgivable if not everyone the viewer meets is a fully developed character. Following an attack by the Nazis from which our heroes survive but not without a degree of difficulty, Zadra receives orders that that they are no longer required there. Too dangerous. Other sections of the city are now safer and have become priority. You know the drill. Zadra gets his troops and the civilians among them to gather up their essential items and make their way to the sewers and reach their destination a few streets away. And so begins a frustrating and hellish trek through filth, darkness and an impending sense of doom which begins to infect them.

From this point onward, Kanal takes on another atmosphere altogether. Up until then, the viewer has been privy to a typical WWII film. A well made one to be sure, but one that appears to follow a familiar formula with a familiar setting. From the moment Zadra and his followers enter the sewer tunnels, the film adopts a completely different life. It’s dark and shadowy (forgive the filmmakers for having the set sit. After all, a real dark sewer would have been rather boring), the tunnels quickly begin to resemble one another, the fatigue and frustration set themselves in the minds and bodies of our heroes, the lack of fresh air affects them, the resistance group is inadvertently split into three smaller bands, and then there are those frightened people running past them madly, claiming that the enemy is gassing the sewers. There are odd fumes flying about suddenly… There is a monumental battle between despair and determination that is inflicted on the emotional and psychological stability of the resistance fighters which is quite haunting. Some characters, such as Zadra, Slim and Daisy, dig deep and find some resolve to push onward, while others like Michael and Jacek are crumbling under the weight of the situation and with every step and crawl they take. The movie had me questioning my own bravery and how I would behave if forced to experience such a scenario. One slogs their way forward, there is a pending fear of being gassed (if that really is gas that is floating around), one loses strength with each and every further step, and once one turns a corner…they are met with the stoic stare of a dead end. Worse still is the claustrophobic nature of the sewer canals, where one has only limited space, no natural light and can only move or backward. And what if one is separated from the rest of the group, left to find their way through the filthy maze with the one bloke who keeps repeating that you are all doomed and there is no point in going on? Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!

Clearly, I had a significant reaction to the film. The aesthetic of the sewer scenes, witnessing the fall of certain people who seemed invincible not long ago, the determination of others in an increasingly desperate situation (that darn revelation from the anonymous narrator still haunting me), the stressful interactions amongst comrades, all this made for a remarkable viewing experience. Whether the characters, prior to their figurative and literal decent into hell, had been brash, kind, cynical, heroic, annoying or even drunkards, it is something else entirely to witness their deterioration, their fragility and ultimately their failure. It lends a degree of universality to the movie watching experience that is difficult to capture. Only the right ingredients in film can tap into such emotions. Other variables include the moment when you are experiencing the film. Young, old, good mood, foul mood, morning, night, sunny day, rainy day, all these will dictate elicit different reactions. Well, there was certainly something in the air of my living room the other day when discovering Kanal.

Much like another war movie we only just discussed, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, I was surprised by how apolitical this movie felt. Clearly, there are themes of survival, hope and hopelessness as well as the real life backdrop of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. The elements are ripe for exploration in cinema, but Kanal doesn’t pander to any obvious political message. The viewer do not even see very much of the Nazis in the film. We observe the result of war via the dilapidated condition of once proud Warsaw, the depression and anger in the eyes of many members of the resistance, and the physical price many victims of war must pay, but the enemy and its physical incarnation that is the Nazi army force, is pretty much absent for the great majority of the running time. Even in the early attack, the assault is performed with a tank and a smaller armoured vehicle, both faceless mechanical monsters inexorably approaching the last remaining hideout of Zadra’s resistance group. Rather, the real enemy takes on a more psychologically frightening shape. The omnipresence of death and decay, which in turns shatters the spirit of many of our heroes, is what truly attacks the protagonists on all fronts. The physical pain leads to emotional pain and finally to the unforgivable and unforeseeable psychological pain. The characters, while still being their own persons as defined in the opening 20-25 minutes of the film, are also vehicles which exemplify this reality of warfare.

I think I’ve bombarded the readers of this review with enough of my thoughts on the film. It was rather difficult for me to formulate the thoughts and feelings I have towards Wajda’s film. I haven’t even mentioned any of the individual performances, nor the editing, nor even the cinematography, a testament to how much I have to say about Kanal. I haven’t the faintest idea whether or not any of you who might read this review will take the time to discover the movie and share my reactions or not. I can only recommend the film, and recommend it highly at that.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Review: The Hurt Locker (2009)

The Hurt Locker (2009, Kathryn Bigelow)

The Hurt Locker took may people by surprise this past summer. Amidst the Harry Potters, the Revenge of the Fallens and the Happy Peoples came a film about American soldiers stationed in present day Iraq. It was helmed by Kathryn Bigelow, a director whose previous efforts varied from fair to average, and the added factor of another Iraq war themed film coming our way, there was a slight cause for concern. The early buzz was overwhelmingly positive, with detractors really being far and few between. As I entered the dark air conditioned room with a disgustingly sticky floor, I hadn't seen any trailers, I was unfamiliar with the filmmography of the cast, and I still didn't know what exactly the story was except that it involved an anti-bomb squadron. Interestingly enough, I recall that it was playing on 2 or 3 screens at the local multiplex, so it was obviously a 'big' release.

First and foremost, as an action film, it is mightily impressive and entertaining. I haven't looked at the numbers pertaining to the film's budget, but it feels like an expensive endeavor, and that's all that matters. There are a handful of scenes in which our heroes, SSgt William James (Jeremy Renner), Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Sgt. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) who make up this anti-bomb unit, are involved in moment of surprisingly tension. The key word here is in fact 'tension.' The viewer will of course see bombs go off and some bullets fly, but the most successful scenes are those that have SSgt. James attempting to defuse an explosive device with his two comrades covering his back as potential enemies surround them. Are the onlookers innocent bystanders whose curiosity got the better of them or are they legitimate threats who hope to foil the unit's goal? Will SSgt. James even succeed in neutralizing the mechanism? These are such simple concepts, and yet when used as they are in The Hurt Locker, they are remarkably effective. Rather than being a purely action-oriented film, which is what many have qualified it as, myself included, it is far more of the thriller genre. That being said, there is one intense action scene which has our band of protagonists and a group of British contractors pinned down in a small pit-like are in the desert by sniper shooters hidden in front of and behind them. This scne is yet another perfect example of effective editing and cinematography. It is mature filmmaking in that it allows the viewer to understand the geography of the moment. The movie is aided by an all-around effective directing style, one that shows a sufficient amount of competence in handling action and suspense without ever resorting to any overbearing sense of style.

In addition to being a solid piece of entertainment, Bigelow's outing, also shows off some more cerebral muscles. Between all these bomb diffusion missions are a number of compelling character based moments. It is during these moments that we learn how frighteningly comfortable William James is in this environment. He is as far removed from the typical soldier who 'just wants to make it back home.' as can be. Instead, James feels the most alive and excited when starring death in the face during their assignments. The stress, the danger and the notion that any slight error may lead to oblivion are taken as moments of tremendous thrills and allows him to be himself, no more and no less. He shows cockiness not only in the face of danger, in the face of his comrades as well. When pressed for time and with lives on the brink of extinction (including his own), that is precisely when he demonstrates the least amount of fallibility. What makes the character of William James all the more a conundrum is the reality that he has a family back in the United States, including a child who requires some upbringing. And yet, it is in Iraq, a place where admitting that one is American does not earn one many popularity points, and where he continuously plays deadly games of chess with the wiring of explosives that he is at his very best. The aggressiveness of this world is what fuels above all else. The final minutes of the film exemplify this perfectly, whereupon after returning 'home' for a short period to spend time with his family, our hero re-enlists to perform more bomb-diffusion acrobatics under the hot Iraqi sun. There is no shortage of films featuring characters who enjoy 'living on the edge,' but I'd wager that The Hurt Locker is a cut above most of them.

Over at the Filmspotting message boards there is a discussion tread dedicated to the movie, but the exchanges have not been limited to the obvious topic of the film's technical merits or lack thereof. They also concerned the topicality and political relevance of Bigelow's effort. Some very perceptive comments were made, many of which pertained to what thematic relationships exist between the world of the film and the real world American involvement in Iraq and whether or not the story takes a pro-war or anti-war stance. While I absolutely agree that some compelling cases can be made and that there is undoubtedly value to those discussions, I'm more impressed with how apolitical the film is. It is a series of sequences with people trying to diffuse bombs in a hostile environment. Iraq is indeed a sublime setting for such an adventure, but The Hurt Locker nonetheless shies away from being overtly political, and I admire it all the more for that. Kathryn Bigelow and the screenwriter Mark Boal preferred to concentrate their efforts on creating a character based action thriller. The Iraqi setting adds a topical flavour, but the film doesn't have to take political stances because of that choice. As I have already written, one can assuredly make connections between the movie and the realities of war or the reality of present day Iraq, but the film can easily live independently of them.

The film did reasonably well during its theatrical run, although it was ultimately overrun by the more obvious summer fair which played at the same time. I hope more people will discover it on DVD or Bluray in the years to come. If you enjoy action and thrills, I cannot think of a reason why you shouldn't check out The Hurt Locker.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Review: This Sporting Life (1963)

This Sporting Life (1963, Lindsay Anderson)

After a productive career as a director of documentaries, Lindsay Anderson ventured into the world of fictional storytelling in the early 1960s, although the filmmaker's documentary sensibilities could still be felt. One of his first feature films was This Sporting Life in 1963, which shares the tale of a minor turned successful rugby player star named Frank Michen (Richard Harris, in tip top shape) in Yorkshire, a town which had been the focus of one of the director's previous documentaries. The protagonist currently lives in the home of Mrs. Margaret Hammond (Rachel Roberts, appropriately icy), a widow and mother of two who rents Frank a room. The film's narrative is served in non-chronological order at first and is comprised of Frank's recollections about his time with Mrs. Hammond. This technique is used until about the 2/3 mark when the viewer has fully caught up with the history of their relationship and the tale continues in the proper traditional order.

Anderson'S film carries significant emotional weight. The characters, as we meet them, emerge from less than glorious pasts and must wrestle with a tumultuous present and conflicting emotions. Frank is a man whose emotions get the better of him most of the time. There seems to be a chip on his shoulder 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. His previous profession as a minor surely added to his toughness, although through Richard Harris' performance the viewer can identify that there is something much greater eating away at his insides. One element could be his lot in life before reaching his current status as a rugby player. The luck of the draw that others have had, such as the money mongering owners his of club, would be another. The brutal poundings and unforgiving afternoons on the always muddy Northern England rugby fields. Most of all, and at least pertaining to this chapter in the man's life, it is the obstinate refusal of Mrs. Hammond, Margaret as he begins to call her by her first name, to accept the version of happiness that Frank offers her. Margaret rarely displays any signs of warmth or pleasantness, preferring to perform her daily chores in utter seriousness, with a hint of bitterness in her gaze and verbal language. With her husband now gone, she is definitely in survival mode with her children, but the memory of her late husband haunts and still complicates matters once Frank, in his suitably unsubtle fashion, begins to develop and express his attraction to her. The balance of power goes on between a desire to find love or some form of happiness, and his naturally angry, abrasive self, which doesn't permit him to become someone easy to love, or even like for that matter. This struggle from within as well as his incomprehension towards Margaret's stubborn attitude, are what define him as a character.

Richard Harris' job is to convey these conflicting and powerful realities, and convey them he most certainly does. Even upon acquiring a higher societal status (relatively speaking) thanks to his relative success on the rugby pitch, Frank shows that he hasn't changed much. There will always be something clumsy about him, the source of which can found in his overwhelming rush of anger and dissatisfaction. The performance by Harris has been praised on many an occasion and there is little I can add in this review that will break new ground. I truly think it is of the highest order, and at times very loud and at times even slightly touching. Mostly loud though.

Rachel Roberts is not to be overlooked however. What she lacks in the departments of brute strength she makes up for in bitterness and her own sense of dissatisfaction, the results of her inability to let go of the past. 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.' Her cold demeanor towards Frank, particularly when he makes genuine attempts at lightening her mood(awkward as those attempts may seem to many of us), is enough to reveal that her heart has been turned black. Her character is a fascinating puzzle. After all, Frank is truly attempting to lift her spirits and hopefully guide her towards some happiness. Should she not accept this, or least give in a little bit and let go of this unwelcoming exterior shell? There is a case to be made there. Conversely however, we the audience know that Frank's emotions are unstable even during the best of times, and Margaret knows this as well. By opening up to him, she may very well be incurring the risk of more frustration at some point down the road. There is a case to be made there too. Two deeply flawed people who unquestionably require some stability in their lives, but who in the end may not be the least bit compatible. And yet their dance continues, the first steps of which are always initiated by Frank.

Adapted as a screenplay by David Storey, the man who authored the novel of the same name, This Sporting Life is qualified as a 'kitchen sink drama' and as one of the greatest British films ever made. I unfortunately have not seen a sufficient number of British films in order to confidently agree with the latter statement. I can argue that the film is a whalloping punch, with characters who we wish could be better, or find a way to become better in their minds or hearts, but who are ultimately destined to live with the pains they have been cursed with. Reality bites very hard sometimes.