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.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Review: The River (1997)

The River (1997, Tsai Ming-Liang)

Xiao-Kang, played by Kang-sheng Lee, is a young adult drifting aimlessly through life, just like a dying leaf lying on a pond with a slight breeze whisking it along the water. The opening scene of the movie makes this abundantly clear, whereupon an old acquaintance of Xiao-Kang asks him what he is occupying himself in life. All the young gun can provide are bashful replies of 'nothing' and 'not much.' She invited Xiao-Kang to join her on a movie set where she currently works. Fate has it that the director needs an extra to play the role of a floating corpse in a Taipei river, but this seemingly inoffensive act ends up having significant consequences for our protagonist. Shortly after this brief introduction into filmmaking, Xiao-Kang begins to experience an steadily growing pain in his neck, one that plagues him for the remainder of the film.

The River
's DVD cover features several quotes from various critics who shower the film with praise, saying it is an honest depiction of modern Taiwan. The synopsis on the back of the DVD cover reads how the film is a brilliant snapshot of the modern, increasingly fractioned Taiwanese family structure. I discovered Tsai's skill as a director at the tender age of 1 year ago, when I saw his 1994 effort Vivre L'Amour. It was therefore with a sense of anticipation that I borrowed The River from my local library. By the end of the film, I had the same feeling when I have finished eating a plate of fresh fish which is lacking some correct spices. It's certainly good, but I wanted a little bit more.

First and foremost, I want to applaud the performance given by Kang-sheng Lee. As his character's neck experiences increasing levels of pain, Lee must continuously act out an awkward tick by jerking his neck to the left. It may not sound like much, but pause and reflect about that for a moment. You are an actor and the director asks you to perform this annoying tick through most of the shoot. Scenes need to be shot, then re-shot, and re-shot again until they are perfect. There are also some lengthy scenes in the film as well! It seems to me that would get frustrating really quick. Not only must that be difficult work after a while for the actor involved, but ironically enough the growing annoyance works well within the story itself on many levels. At the beginning of the movie, Xiao-Kang was already a young man alienated from his mother and father, both an elevator operator and a bum/closet homosexual respectively. Their family unit, in this modern and late 20th century world, is rapidly falling apart, no longer tightly knit with the traditional elements of love and respect which typically bond us to our own families. Family, if you will, has sort of become a 'pain in the neck' for Xiao-Kang if you know what I mean. His meandering lifestyle, which resulted in his earning a severe neck pain, has forced him back together with his father most, the latter whom brings him to various doctors and healers. It's a complicated relationship, that between Xiao-Kang and his father. One of the best scenes in the film, and the type of scene I had hoped would feature more prominently throughout the movie, has Xiao-Kang and his father eating at a restaurant. The young man's pain seems to be 'eating away' his appetite, as he refuses to eat the food his father has ordered. After a few honest attempts at getting Xiao-Kang to take some bites, his father receives a harsh reply from his son. The father then continues to eat his own dish, but only now he is facing the other way, avoiding eye contact with his impolite son.

It is also interesting to note how each subsequent doctor and healer that Xiao-Kang visits practices more and more unorthodox methods ('unorthodox' when compared to how we generally expect patients to be treated). Painful massages, the good old 'plenty of needles sticking out of your hand' treatment, etc. With each new treatment comes a new sense of hope, although that hope for a return to normality my already be quickly fading, just like the hope to return to the older days when their family happenings were healthier as well. Xiao-Kang tries everything to rid himself of this horrible pain, but all attempts are futile. Sometimes you just have to live with the pain. 'No pain, no gain,' as the old saying goes.

There are a few too many scenes that, to my mind, indulged in themselves. One of the themes of the film, connected to that of the crumbling family structure, is that of loneliness and a lack of human communication. The scene I briefly discussed above between Xiao-Kang and his father at the restaurant, exemplifies this brilliantly, but there are others that feel a bit too 'on the nose' and seem to exist only to pad on the running time. I understand that to feel the theme of loneliness and tediousess one should experience it with the characters, but sometimes I just wasn't into it. One scene occuring just outside a MacDonald's with two characters walking past each other about 5 billion times is a good example of one I felt the film just didn't need. The scene near the beginning where the viewer learns that the director's fake dead body is unsuitable for the scene seems to take forever to finish, even though I'm sure in actuality it only lasted about 3 or 4 minutes.

An intriguing tone, a brilliant performance by the leading man, Kang-sheng Lee and handful of great scenes make The River a worthwhile experience for fans of recent Taiwanese cinema, although I woulnd't consider this a perfect film by any means.

Status Update

Hello! So, no reviews since October 19th. What's up with that? Well, obtaining the films I want to watch for the 'European Female Directors' marathon has been a bit tricky. Let's be honest, this marathon has not been about movies that you don't pick up by the dozen at your local HMV or Future Shop.

That isn't to say we are giving up. No, we certainly are not. That being said, in case you haven't noticed, there has been somewhat of a hiatus for the last couple weeks. Instead of leaving the site to eat dust, I've decided that in the meantime I'll post some brief reviews of films I,ve been watching lately. That should fill up some space for about a week. The 'European Female Directors' marathon should be back soon enough.