Friday, November 27, 2009

Vintage Trailer of the Week 42

A first-ever viewing of Jacques Demy's terrific Model Shop (1969) made me think about the brilliance of everything else I've seen by him (and if anybody was wondering what to get me for Christmas, that massive complete Box-Set available in France will do nicely, thanks), especially his two most famous films; the incomparable Les Parapluies des Cherbourg (1964) and the amazing Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967). Even if you don't like musicals (you fool) you should admire these for their wit, beauty, romanticism and exquisite style:


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Signature Shots: Wes Anderson

Anderson has so many directorial tics its difficult to choose a single one to focus on. Critic Matt Zoller Seitz does a good job of identifying and examining some of the others in these fine video essays , but my favourite of his stylistic trademarks is his fondness for slow motion shots of his characters walking.
Theres one in virtually every film, from a variety of angles and with a slightly different effect in each case.
Firstly, its a visually distinctive shot, and it allows Anderson - an extremely precise and controlled film-maker - absolute control over every facet of a sequence. All of his films feel throughly designed down to the smallest details - the wallpaper, the clothing, the props, and his framing, camera movement and editing are all famously exact. In a slo-mo shot he can also control the flow of time itself through the scene; the tempo of a walk, the length of a tiny pause in dialogue.

In The Darjeeling Limited (2007) there are two memorable slow motion sequences. The opening dash for the departing train, a slapstick affair seen so slowly it can be lingered over and becomes almost beautiful in its casual choreographing of chaos, and the scene of the boy's funeral in the rural Indian village later in the film. This may be a weakness of Anderson's - he does like to slow down the action so that the audience knows for sure that it is witnessing a scene of no little import. This is a funeral, he seems to be saying; it deserves some slow motion.

But then he also uses slo-mo to mark a moment of growth or change for a character. It does indicate a shift in awareness - as in life, temporal reality can seem distorted by any sort of mental alteration. So the funeral in Darjeeling Limited is when the brothers begin to grow up and accept what has happened to them, and Anderson manages to communicate this to us with this visual shorthand while also composing some nice shots of a traditional funeral ceremony.

They key slo-mo moment in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) is when Richie meets his sister Margot, the love of his life, upon his return to New York City. She steps off a bus and her walk across the pavement is scored by Nico's version of Jackson Browne's "These Days" against some masterful cutting and framing from Anderson. This is a moment loaded with significance for both siblings, and Anderson makes us feel its import, particularly for the miserable Richie. We see Margot's walk - she almost floats, idealised, across the space - as Richie does, since Anderson intercuts it with reaction shots in tight close-up of Richie's face. The use of that song may seem a little predictable and on-the-button for Anderson, but the sequence is a lovely one, and it does justice to the depth of feeling between the characters.

In Rushmore (1998), the beginning of hostilities between Max and Herman is marked with some slow motion. Max, having released some bees into Herman's hotel room, swaggers confidently from an elevator as the live version of "A Quick One" by the Who rattles away on the soundtrack. It is a macho, cocky passage of rock music - as is much of the other British Invasion stuff Anderson favours in that film - and there is an obvious comedy in the disparity between Max and the music soundtracking his adventures. In general, though, Anderson seems to prefer to use slow motion in more emotional, meaningful scenes, such as the oddly poignant conclusion to Bottle Rocket (1996), his feature-length debut, where Dignan is led away in the Prison yard and looks back over his shoulder as he walks.

Or indeed the quietly euphoric ending of The Life Aquatic (2005) in which Zissou and his extended family and crew walk down a Red Carpet to the premiere of his new film, Zissou carrying Klaus' nephew on his shoulders, and the rhythm of a walk down steps gives the shot a lovely sense of its own internal timing, a sort of steady rolling wellbeing. Its a lovely shot, something Anderson is always capable of, and the fact that he has resisted slow motion in the heaviest and most emotional scene at an earlier point in the film - the funeral of Ned, Zissou's son - gives the use of the technique here a heightened impact.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Storyville : The Vision

The Vision by Jonathan Lethem
from Men and Cartoons

This is how Lethem begins The Vision:
"I first met the kid known as the Vision at second base, during a kickball game in the P.S. 29 gymnasium, fifth grade."
Straight in, with a vivid and specific sense of time and place established instantly. The easy recollection of a youngish American in a plain, recognisably American idiom.
The story is told in the first person by an intelligent, presumably educated Hipster. Lethem makes references - to comic books, obviously (more on that later) but also to music, which give us the impression that his narrator knows his stuff culturally. When new neighbours move in next door to him, he immediately notices the records in the removals boxes with a geek's judgemental eye: "I spotted Captain Beefheart, Sonny Sharrock, Eugene Chadbourne."

But as the story progresses, we become aware that this narrator is not necessarily all that sympathetic. That he might even be a bit of an asshole. Its there in his responses in conversation and his thoughts, in his sharp decisions and mockery of others - he carries through his life a hint of bitterness that edges every experience and every interaction and makes his wit and taste - for all their careful refinement - a little pitiful, even pathetic. Lethem even drops in a possible explanation with the information that he has recently split with a girlfriend and is likely lonely and hoping to meet another, though we can see that his personality may stand in the way of this (indeed, the story's outcome supports that view). He comments on her "phantom-limb absence" and almost unconsciously sizes up every woman he encounters. This narrator has similarities to other Lethem heroes - the narrator of his semi-autobiographical epic Novel The Fortress of Solitude (2003) sounds not too different in the concluding part of that novel, as a bruised and cynical adult. Only there we have witnessed the difficulties of his childhood and youth; we understand and sympathise with him. Here, we may only be irritated by the Narrator's personality even if we recognise the insecurity beneath the facade.

The plot is recounted by this narrator, who recalls one of his contemporaries from School as a boy who dressed as and claimed to be the Marvel Comics Superhero The Vision. The Vision is an android (or "synthezoid"), originally created as villain, but who has turned his powers to the forces of good and joined the Avengers Superteam, also featuring a revolving cast of most of Marvel's big characters including Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and Hawkeye. He can fly, change the molecular density of his form, and fire radiation from his eyes. But the key to the success of his character is his mournful personality - for an android with little real human emotion, he is afflicted by near-constant angst over his origin (as the tool of a Supervillain) and his status as not quite human. But mainly over his relationship with his wife, Super Heroine the Scarlet Witch. Lethem discusses the appeal of the Vision for him here and unsurprisingly he focuses on the Vision's emotional instability. In the story, the kid-Vision uses red food dye to look like his hero and speaks in a flat, inhuman tone about his maker, the Archvillain Ultron. He is simultaneously funny and heartbreaking in what he suggests about a little boy and his understanding of reality and fantasy, an idea central to Lethem's work.

In the story, the Vision reappears in the narrators life when he and his girlfriend (or "paramour" as the narrator sneers he calls her) move in next door and he is invited - casually, because they need a head for a certain game they intend to play - to a party they are having. At that party he meets a girl he is attracted to and they all play "Mafia", a game of deception and social exclusion. The narrator works out that the girl he likes may have once had an affair with the Vision, and takes a dislike to him. So he suggests a drinking game of "I've never..." where you say something you have never done (for example "I've never had sex on an airplane.") and anybody who has had that experience has to drink. He introduces this game so he can humiliate the Vision by exposing his Superheroic past, but instead he is left humiliated when the Vision's girlfriend tells a story of her own that reveals how well she knows her boyfriend and how much she loves him.

Lethem has become one of the leading American writers of his generation in the last few years. Having begun as a writer of literary genre fiction - his early work is all, to a greater or lesser extent, science fiction - he has established himself as a more broadly literary writer over the past decade or so. His 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn was key to this shift. A literary novel with traces of the crime genre, it focused brilliantly on a protagonist afflicted with tourettes syndrome, and was original, funny and with a sure sense of character and place (it was the first book Lethem wrote upon his return to Brooklyn after a decade in California). The Fortress of Solitude, his next book, is not as focused or original, but it is full of pain and poetry and the truth of a damaged adolescence. It is also full of pop culture, one of Lethem's great themes. In his sci-fi work, the references to old movies, books and pop music are buried within the narrative (1996's Girl In Landscape is effectively a reworking of the Searchers) but with Motherless Brooklyn and especially The Fortress of Solitude they burst free and surface within the story. Lethem's narrators identify them for us - sometimes even choosing to find them as metaphors or to search for meaning within them, just as people do in life - and reveal their centrality.

The Fortress of Solitude takes it's title from the name of Superman's arctic retreat. It is a book positively brimming with a love for popular culture - music (the narrator winds up as a music critic and his childhood friend's father is a legendary but presently drug-addicted Soul Singer), fiction (the narrator's father, an experimental artist, gains his true fame and success as
the cover artist for sci-fi paperbacks of the type obsessively collected by Lethem) and comic books (the two characters - named Dylan and Mingus, by the way- bond over their love of super Hero comics and the novel takes a magic realist turn with some super-powered activity). Lethem works as a cultural commentator and essayist, writing pieces for Music magazines and websites, essays for the Criterion Collection DVDs and book introductions, but his non-fiction seems generally more focused upon comics. He has written several pieces about the importance of particular characters and artists in his life and recently wrote a mini-series revival of Omega The Unknown for Marvel (which he transformed into a moving if baffling treatment of Asbergers). His conversation with the comic books which dominated the imaginative life of his childhood has provided his fiction and non-fiction with much of its substance.

Which is what makes The Vision work so well. Freed from the generic constraints of his early work Lethem can deal more directly with how our childhoods relate to our adult selves. What importance does a childhood love of Marvel comics have in an adult life? Lethem has spent thousands of words on that question. His excellent collection of essays, The Disappointment Artist, contains a few pieces devoted to it in one way or another. The Fortress of Solitude is almost derailed by its sudden discovery of a magic ring which grants its heroes the ability to fly - it barely works as a metaphor, but the first half of the novel is so lyrical and understanding of the strains of childhood and adolescence that this new element feels like a sort of defeat. But in The Vision he has found a way to gracefully integrate the subject matter with the story. Any metaphorical layers are effortless and can be ignored, the story working on its own terms, the writing nicely judged and precise. He combines that with a really well-observed party scene, with tension and unspoken truths all rippling under the surface of the dialogue and tenuous relationships teetering. Lethem, for all that his heroes are often obnoxious, has always understood the cruelty and sensitivity on display in interactions between men and women, and here he touches upon both fleetingly but with great impact.

Since then, Lethem has moved on and his fiction seems more realist, less wedded to his old obsessions. You Don't Love Me Yet, a slight, comedic tale of an LA rock band, and his new book, Chronic City, both seem more fully engaged with the world around the author, and less with his nostalgia and difficulties with his own past. But perhaps his work on Omega The Unknown just reveals an artist who has grown more adept keeping his interests separate from much of his work.

For me, The Vision might just be the peak of Lethem's work. I share many of his obsessions and I love to see his intelligent, serious take on them. It is especially thrilling to see him referencing something I get within the context of a clever, gripping story of social tension and romantic misadventure, written with his usual skill and insight, but without the uneven sprawl of even his best work as a novelist.

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Vintage Trailer of the Week 41

"PRODUCED BY DAVID PUTTNAM" sits proudly beneath the title card at the end of this trailer in an only barely perceptibly smaller font. Meanwhile there is no mention of the Director David Dury. But Dury does Puttnam proud with this slick and gripping conspiracy thriller, the ending of which absolutely devastated my 14 year old self when I watched it on TV many years ago. A whip-thin, shockingly handsome Gabriel Byrne showed he had what it took to be a leading man and Gretta Scachi and Denholm Elliot provide classy support. I love any film set in late 70s/early 80s London, all concrete and bleak Thatcherite gloom, and this is no exception. Dury went on to a long and distinguished career in British TV drama.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Most Wanted 2010

The best thing about loving movies? Definitely one of the best things.
I could have listed about 60 movies I'm looking forward to next year in this post, but I got to thirty-odd before deciding to call it a day. And there are all sorts in here - big Hollywood blockbusters, Art cinema, Martial arts epics, indies, British political comedy...I try not to differentiate. I just love Movies. And anticipating Movies.

Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
I would look forward to any project from Terence Malick, and this - a drama set across two time periods following a man struggling in his relationship with his father and its affect upon his adult life, starring Sean Penn and Brad Pitt - is no different. The rumours of a separate/related project featuring CGI footage of dinosaurs to be released in IMAX cinemas, and the connections that project might have with Malick's abandoned 70s Epic about the creation of life only makes it all the more intriguing. But its Malick. Odds are it'll be a beautiful poetic-philosophical inquiry into life and meaning and the whole damn thing. With voiceovers.

Robin Hood (Ridley Scott)
Its not even called Robin Hood yet. For most of its pre-production history it was known as Nottingham, but the script has been extensively rewritten. No matter- I love Robin Hood stories. Richard Lester's Robin and Marian is one of my favourite ever films and Michael Curtiz's The Adventures of Robin Hood was a childhood favourite with plenty of pleasures awaiting any adults revisiting it. This reunites Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe from Gladiator, and (far less impressively) A Good Year and Body of Lies and American Gangster. But here Scott will be creating a world, the thing he truly excels at, and there should be plenty of action, romance and derring-do. Plus Cate Blanchett, more than a match for Crowe, as Marian, and the fantastic Mark Strong as the Guy de Gisburne equivalent, with Matthew MacFadden as the Sherrif. The most beautiful moments in both Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven were when Scott was stuck in dirty, wintry Northern Europe, all mud and blueish twilight, and this should be a whole film of that. If nothing else, it'll look great...

A Prophet (Jacques Audiard)
Audiard's strike-rate is damn near perfect, and he has been improving with each film. Considering that his last was the brilliant The Beat that My Heart Skipped, then the chances of his new film, A Prophet, being a masterpiece are pretty good. It details the life in a French Prison of a minor North African criminal and his gradual rise to power and influence. Its long and intense and serious like all Audiard's films, but Festival reviews have been glowing, its the front runner at the European Film Awards, and my expectations are very very high.

Greenberg (Noah Baumbach)
Ben Stiller plays a troubled New Yorker housesitting for his brother in Los Angeles and becoming involved with his brother's assistant. Yes, Stiller in one of his occasional roles beyond Kids Movies, and here its written and directed by Noah Baumbach, which almost guarantees that it'll be a messily realist comedy-drama with tons of brilliantly-observed but painful to watch moments and some great one-liners. Baumbach has been watching some Mumblecore films if his casting is anything to go by - Greta Gerwig, best known for a couple of Joe Swanberg films, is apparently the female lead, while the likes of Rhys Ifans, Chris Messina and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Co-writer and Baumbach's wife) fill out the cast. Its good to see that Stiller still has some ambition to do interesting work as an actor.

The Way Back (Peter Weir)
Peter Weir returns with a story about a group of soldiers escaping from a Siberian Gulag during WW2. Based on historical events, the escape takes the men across the Siberian Arctic tundra, the Gobi desert and the Himalayas and the film will star Colin Farrell, Ed Harris and Jim Sturgess. Weir's love of heroic historical stories was evident as far back as Gallipoli, but had seemed dormant until Master and Commander obviously reawakened it. Weir is a classy director who fashions mainstream entertainments for thinking adults, an endangered species these days, and anything hes involved in is worth waiting for.

Solomon Kane (Michael J Bassett)
It obviously could be awful. The character was one of the big inspirations for the dreadful Van Helsing, and the nightmare scenario is that this could be drek of the same variety. But I have some hope. Firstly; in the power of Robert E Howard's character. Solomon Kane is a borderline psychotic 16th Century Puritan Swordsman who is also quick on the draw with his pistols and absolutely obsessively devoted to fighting evil in all its forms. In Howard's later stories, Kane journeys to Africa, where he battles slave traders and black magic. Visually, he set the template for the mysterious hero in a slouch hat, taken up by van Helsing and Vampire Hunter D, but the character is granted some depth, and a strange resonance, by his dour, single-minded attachment to his faith. Director Bassett is known for a couple of low budget British horror films, Wilderness and Deathwatch (I've only seen Deathwatch and it wasn't bad, certainly full of promise) and his blog suggests an affinity with the character. The trailer, though full of some of the more irritating tropes of modern genre cinema, is still pretty good. And then there is the lead, James Purefoy, who was teh standout in HBO's Rome, and has deserved a big role for some time now. Here he has it and by all accounts he is fantastic. anyway, in a year when the Summer's big blockbusters all look second-hand or second rate, this is the kind of film to look to to placate your inner geek.

Four Lions (Chris Morris)
Chris Morris is a genius, but he's never made a feature film before. And I don't think anyone has ever had the balls to make a comedy about British Jihadis before, which is what Morris is attempting here. He has described the film as showing the "Dad's Army side to terrorism", and if it works, as most of Morris' material does, it'll be thrilling and hilarious and yet important and political. If it doesn't it'll be a disaster. Knowing Morris though, it'll work.

This Must Be the Place (Paolo Sorrentino)
Sorrentino is one of the great stylists in Modern cinema, and each of his films has been just pure pleasure for me. This, his first English language film, stars Sean Penn as a wealthy rock star who decides in his boredom to track down the Nazi War Criminal responsible for the death of his father. Which sounds bizarre, and could be a thriller, a comedy or a drama. Knowing Sorrentino, it'll be all three. With a series of dynamic, beautifully choreographed sequences cut to perfectly-chosen pop music. And Penn, emoting over-intensely.

A Single Man (Tom Ford)
Based on Christopher Isherwod's novel, Ford's debut follows a few days in the life of a suicidal gay man as he mourns the death of his longtime lover in a car accident. The terrific trailer makes it look sort of like a Wong Kar Wai film in its visual style and stately poetry, the Festival buzz has been deafening and lead Colin Firth is outstanding, by all accounts.

Green Zone (Paul Greengrass)
I read the book a couple of years ago, and I really have no idea where they took the whole action-thriller-Bourne stuff which fills the trailer from. It seems like adapting A Brief History of Time and filling it with Space armadas. The book is an at times comedic, at times appalled look at the way the US governed Iraq in the first few months after the fall of Saddam. Its more concerned with Civil Servants and contractors than with soldiers. Anyway, I have faith in Greengrass based on his last 3 films, and even in Damon, who is in the middle of a real hot streak, even if the troubled production history and ever-changing release dates speak of a film with big problems...

Carlos (Olivier Assayas)
A real change of pace for Assayas, this biopic of Venezuelan assassin, terrorist and formerly the World's most wanted man Carlos the Jackal will be shown on television in some countries as three 90 minute films and cinematically in others as two (edited, presumably) longer features. Edgar Ramirez (Domino, The Bourne Ultimatum) plays the title character in what has the potential to be a fascinating film. Assayas is a great, intelligent and cine-literate director, and my only real fear is that this project maybe too ambitious for him, as its so different to anything he's done before. The closest he has come was in Boarding Gate, which, while purportedly a globe-trotting thriller was in fact a globe-trotting arthouse drama with guns. He has a second film due in 2010 too, a semi-sequel to Summer Hours with Juliette Binoche, named Times to Come, which will also be worth a look.

Inception (Christopher Nolan)
Dark Knight basically gave Nolan carte blanche with studio funds. He could make a slapstick Holocaust comedy starring Gary Glitter and Warners would happily give him $200 Million to do so. But hes an ambitious director, and Inception is instead a sci-fi film concerning a team who invade people's dreams (or "the architecture of the mind" as the official write-up has it) in order to carry out corporate espionage. Or something. That Big budget means Nolan could shoot in London, Paris, Tokyo, LA, Tangiers and Calgary, and employ a youngish cast including the likes of (the dreaded) Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Ellen Page, Cillian Murphy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Marion Cotillard. The teaser revealed enough to make me interested in seeing more, and for all Dark Knight's flaws, Nolan is one of the more interesting directors working in the US mainstream right now.

The Assassin (Hou Hsiao Hsien)
Hou Hsiao Hsien finally gets to make the Martial Arts film he's been talking about making for about a decade. Starring his favourite leading lady, Shu Qi, along with her Three Times co-star Chang Chen, its an adaptation of a 9th Century novel about a female Assassin trained by nuns who wants to leave her life behind. Its got by far the largest budget Hou has ever worked with but its so far removed from what he normally does, I have absolutely no idea what to expect. Something strange and beautiful along the lines of Ashes of Time Redux, perhaps.

Your Highness (David Gordon Green)
After my first viewing of his incredibly assured and poetic first film George Washington, I never would have predicted that David Gordon Green would someday be directing 80s-referencing bromance stoner action comedies. But here he is. Your Highness reunites him with two of Pineapple Express' leads - James Franco and Danny McBride - in a Medieval action comedy about two Princes embarking on an Epic quest to save a fair Princess (Zooey Deschanel) from an Evil Wizard (Justin Theroux). Co-written by McBride, who is currently riding high on the success of his HBO hit Eastbound and Down, and also starring Natalie Portman, Damian Lewis and Charles Dance, I'm hoping for a slightly older-skewing Princess Bride. Pineapple Express promised great things but I still want to see Green return to his artier mode someday...

Hiroshima (Pablo Stoll)
In the 00s, Uruguayan Stoll has been partly responsible for two great little films - 25 Watts and Whisky, both International festival and arthouse hits. In 2006, however, his collaborator (they co-wrote and co-directed each film) Juan Pablo Rebella committed suicide, and this is Stoll's first subsequent project. A near-silent film following the passage of an intense young Montevideo musician through his daily life, Festival reviews have highlighted its sense of experimentalism and its fantastic soundtrack, but Stoll's presence is enough for me to look forward to it.

Centurion (Neil Marshall)
According to writer-director Marshall (The Descent, Doomsday) this is effectively a chase Western, only one thats set in Pictish Scotland and follows the survivors of the famed Roman Ninth Legion as they flee after their comrades are massacred, pursued by terrifying Picts across the hostile Scottish landscape. Already sounds ace to me, and if you add in the fact that Michael Fassbender - who has been great in everything I've seen him in - is in the lead, and that Marshall on his game is a great young genre director, then this surely can't go wrong...

Into the Void (Gaspar Noe)
Noe is an absolutely singular and unique talent who seems to play only by his personal rules, and if the completely polarised reviews from Cannes are anything to go by, then he has done it again with this film. A love-it-or-hate-it tale of a drug dealer in Tokyo, his death, afterlife and eventual reincarnation, it is meant to be a mindbending experience on a par with the likes of 2001. If anyone is capable of that from this generation of Directors, it is Noe...

The Expendables (Sylvester Stallone)
Stallone writing, directing and starring on the back of the success of Rambo. Jason "the Stat" Statham. Jet "the Fred Astaire of Kung Fu" Li. Dolph "I Will Brake Yoo" Lundgren. Mickey Rourke. Eric Roberts. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis in cameos. It truly is 1986. The story? A group of Mercenaries - the nice kind, obviously, not the sort still in the news occasionally for their hijinks in Iraq - go to a South American country to overthrow a nasty dictator. Violence ensues. Of the big explosion variety. And the fisticuffs variety. And the gunplay variety. I cannot wait. I say that with no irony whatsoever.

White Material (Clare Denis)
Denis is on an amazing run of form at the moment which makes her every film a must-see, and this one, a return to Africa and Colonialism as setting and subject, also benefits from a great cast (Isabelle Huppert, Isaach de Bankole, Christopher Lambert!). The story follows the fortunes of a French Coffee plantation owner in an African country falling apart under the strain of a revolution, and knowing Denis' work it will be beautiful and challenging. A score by Stuart staples, too.

Valhalla Rising (Nicholas Winding Refn)
By all accounts Refn has turned what sounds like it should be a muddy Viking Battle Epic into a Malickian tone poem and mood piece, which is just fine by me. Mads Mikkelsen as a ferocious Warrior joins a group of Vikings on a quest to a mysterious New World. Refn has never made a bad film, and I don't expect this to be one, either.

The Cry of the Owl (Jamie Thraves)
Waaay back in 2000, Thraves wrote and directed an excellent drama of young adults adrift in London called The Low Down, which, while in part a meandering, smug tale of feckless youth, is also a beautifully shot piece of cinema. Many films in that sub-genre are glorified TV, but Thraves directed with a feel for cinema in his compositions and editing choices, and it elevated his little film considerably. This, his first feature since then, is a Patricia Highsmith adaptation starring Paddy Considine and Julia Styles about a young man who sheds his life in the big city to move to a small town, only to become quickly embroiled in a murder investigation. The story sounds ho-hum, but Thraves gets another shot with me due to The Low Down.

The Kids Are Alright (Lisa Chodolenko)
Chodolenko is the writer director of one of my personal favourites from this decade - Laurel Canyon, a nice little family drama/rock comedy with an amazing cast (Christian Bale, Kate Beckinsale, Frances McDormand, Natatsha McIlhone, Allesandro Nivola) which she handles with expertise. Her new film also has an impressive cast (the always great Mark Ruffalo, Julianne Moore, Annette Bening) and sounds interesting - the twin children of a Lesbian couple decide to seek out their biological father, but his presence disrupts the lives of everyone involved. Chodolenko is a real talent, with a fine visual sense, a great sense of place and mood, and a way with authentic emotional situations rare in American directors of her generation. Shes building an interesting body of work, and her new film only looks like adding to it.

The Warrior and the Wolf (Tian Zhuangzhuang)
I've only seen two of Zhuangzhuang's previous films, but since one of those films was The Horse Thief, and it is one of the greatest films I have ever seen, and the other was the excellent Springtime In a Small Town, I'm interested in seeing anything else hes done. His new film sees him seemingly edge into Wuxia territory which has slowly claimed all of the Fifth Generation filmmakers over the last decade or so. Opening with a portrayal of a young shepherd boy's introduction to Warfare, reviews have complained that the film eventually resolves itself into an intense, slow-burning romance rather than he battle epic much of the publicity suggests it is. Sounds good to me, especially with the lovely Maggie Q starring.

True Grit (Joel & Ethan Coen)
How can this go wrong? Great, blackly comic but gripping novel as raw material. The Coens, operating near the peak of their powers, adapting and directing, and making their first Western . Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, with Matt Damon and Josh Brolin in the supporting roles.
It almost sounds too good to be true...

Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek)
Romanek is the only celebrated Music Video director of his generation not to have made a real impact on Feature films as of yet. He co-directed Static with Keith Gordon and then made One Hour Photo a few years ago, but relative to the reputation many of his videos have deservedly attracted for him, he is a minnow in cinema. This Alex Garland-adapted film of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel may just change that. It is basically a College romance with a dark, heartbreaking sci-fi twist, and the cast are correspondingly pretty (Keira Knightly, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield). Its not obviously the kind of thing anyone would expect from Romanek, who was fired from the upcoming The Wolf Man during pre-production, but his interest in it is heartening for the film's future survival as anything could be.

The American (Anton Corbijn)
Corbijn follows up Control with an odd-sounding comedy-drama observing Assassin George Clooney when he tries to hide out between jobs in a small Italian village and finds his life instantly changed by the people he meets there. That synopsis sounds utterly unimaginitive and second hand, i know, but the Corbijn-Clooney team, one would hope, ought to be working on something unusual, stylish and bold. Not just an Assassin in a fish out of water scenario, taught to respect life anew through exposure to the older values of a more sensual people. Which is how this sounds


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

My Blueberry Nights

Wong Kar Wai, 2007

DP: Darius Khondji

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Friday, November 06, 2009

Pointless List : 5 90s Mainstream Hollywood Films

I came of age as a Moviegoer in the 1990s. I studied film and got an education, learned about the masters of World and Classic cinema, read books of theory and plenty of criticism. But i also went to the cinema an awful lot. Twice a week, every week. To all sorts of films, most of them American, Hollywood, mainstream productions. I saw a lot of bad stuff. And some great stuff.
And some stuff nobody seems to talk about or care about much anymore.
Well, I do:

Fearless (Peter Weir, 1993)
A very convincing case can be made for Jeff Bridges as the greatest American actor of his generation. His most obvious competition is New york Italian, but Bridges has shown greater range than either Bobby or Al, from his early "cocky teen" roles in The Last Picture Show ( Peter Bogdonovich, 1971) and Bad Company (Robert Benton, 1972) through the square-jawed hero roles in King Kong (John Gullerman, 1976) and Tron (Steven Lisberger, 1982). He has also lately moved into villain parts in the likes of Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008) and has always been most at home in drama, where his range and easy grasp of emotion has been easiest to discern and meant that he has played an extraordinarily varied group of characters across what is proving to be an exceptional career. To top that off, he has created at least one absolutely immortal comic character too - the Dude in The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen, 1998). Through all those parts in all those movies, he has always been perfectly natural and normal, without any of the movie star glow that always - in every single role - surrounds the likes of Cruise and Roberts, which is what really marks him out as special. I have come this far without even mentioning what are, for me, his standout performances alongside The Dude. He was at his best in Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (Michael Cimino, 1974), Cutters Way (Ivan Passer, 1980), Starman (John Carpenter, 1984), Tucker: The Man And His Dream (Francis Ford Coppola, 1988) and in Peter Weir's outstanding Fearless. Fearless tells the tale of the survivor of an airplane crash who is robbed of his fear by the event. Having come so close to his mortality, he loses all fear of it, and is choking on a massive case of survivor's guilt, and his life is utterly changed - he views all of his relationships and life-choices differently and alienates the people around him while pursuing the connection he feels with another survivor, a young mother whose infant child died in the crash (Rosie Perez). at the same time he has begun to take crazy risks, like walking calmly into heavy traffic and balancing on the edge of a skyscraper's roof, and eating strawberries, to which he has a fatal allergy. This is a rare mainstream drama interested in our awareness of our own mortality and unafraid to confront that awareness. But then Weir, who has never really made a bad film, with only mild missteps like Green Card (1990) marring his record, has always been interested in this theme, evident in his work as far back as Gallipoli (1981) and Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975) and his great gift as a director is an ability to investigate his themes without sacrificing any emotional impact or cinematic beauty in his films.
Fearless is full of great scenes - the awed opening scene, the terrifying crash when we finally see it in flashback, Bridges driving a car into a wall to make a point to Perez - and the performances are uniformly excellent. Perez matches Bridges, and Isabella Rosselini, Benicio DelToro and John Turturro aren't too far off that standard either. The way Weir and the actors portray the new tensions in Bridges' marriage to Rosselini is impeccable and extraordinarily moving, as is the films great climax. One of the best American films of the 90s and seemingly forgotten today.

Pleasantville (Gary Ross, 1998)
Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, William H Macy, Joan Allen, J.T. Walsh and Jeff Daniels star. Paul Walker too, in the kind of minor dumbass Jock role he was born for. Pleasantville came out too close to Peter Weir's brilliant The Truman Show (1998) to be appreciated. For it covers similar territory - the reality behind the perfect image of 1950s America, and hence, America itself, created by television - even if it goes about it in a radically different way. The premise is straight from a vintage Twilight Zone episode: a quarrelsome brother and sister are zapped into the reality of the brother's favourite classic sitcom, where they have to learn to live until they can find a way home. While the girl shakes things up with her modern sexuality, the boy tries to fit in with a world he loves for its wholesome innocence, but their presence has changed things already and conflict follows their arrival. Gary Ross was best known prior to Pleasantville for writing Big (Penny Marshall, 1988), and this film captures something of that ones melancholy feelings about lost innocence and worldly experience. Ross is clever, if a little trite in his fusion of narrative with style: the gradual encroachment of vivid colour into the monochrome world of Pleasantville allows for several beautiful sequences, a biblical reference (a girl with a shockingly red apple) and an incredibly euphoric feelgood ending. But the film is unexpectedly touching - in Macy's heartbreaking, stunned confusion at the sudden destruction of the only life he understands. In Daniels joy at discovering art and the beauty of the world. And in Maguire finding himself in another life and realising what is most important. All that, and J.T. Walsh as the bad guy. Its all very 90s in its fusion of a very sentimental mainstream vision with a slightly indie sensibility in its casting and sensibility. But it works.

Rounders (John Dahl, 1998)
One of the reasons Matt Damon has risen to be perhaps the key leading man of his generation has been the fact that he has never really been typecast. Indeed, he doesn’t even really have a type. He plays stoic killing machine, neurotic corporate spy, traumatised grunt, ambitious oil executive and conjoined twin with equal skill and relish. His superficial blandness – the fact that he is of average height and build, good but not great-looking, moderately athletic and intelligent enough in an unthreatening way – aids him in this respect, giving him a malleability denied to many of his contemporaries.
Early in his careeer, however, it was different for him. The success of Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997) gave Damon a new profile and suddenly he was pursued for a variety of projects. But those projects did generally cast him in the whizzkid role, aiming to ape the success of Van Sant’s film. In Francis Ford Coppola’s the Rainmaker (1997), he plays a whizzkid lawyer, and in Robert Redford’s The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000) he plays a whizzkid golfer, albeit one who has lost all his whizz. Between those films, he played a whizzkid Poker shark in John Dahl’s Rounders. Dahl began the 90s as the rising talent of Neo-Noir, with Kill Me Again (1989), Red Rock West (1993) and the Last Seduction (1994) forming a major statement within that sub-genre, each nicely, even boldly directed and well-cast. He seemed to understand Noir in a way few contemporary directors do, and in a way that was palatable for modern audiences. He could only get better. Until he made Unforgettable (1996). Its critical and commercial failure rocked his career, and Rounders seemed like work-for-hire.
Except it might in fact be his most entertaining film. It feels almost like a 70s crime drama in its combination of strong characterisation and atmosphere, in the mix of grit with solid plot mechanics. And crucially it has been well-cast. Damon breezes through on that effortless whizzkid vibe, allowing his quick mind to transmit his calculations through his face in the poker scenes. Edward Norton, as his no-good ex-convict ex-Partner, is at his most Dustin Hoffman-esque, all tics and theatricality, ferreting away in the edges of the frame, an itch the film can't quite scratch. But Norton owns every scene hes in, aware of his own charisma and how best to use it. There is strong support from Martin Landau and Famke Jansen and John Turturro, and even Gretchen Mol before she best understood her own appeal, in what should be dull "girlfriend" role.But Rounders is too good for a dull girlfriend role, and so Mol - and screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman - make her character a conflicted, complex human being, with her own reasons and rationales for everything she does and says in her relationship with Damon. And then there is John Malkovich, chewing ham and just about making it all work as Teddy KGB, the villain of the piece. His Russian accent is ridiculous, but Malkovich is still scary, and still riveting in his final showdown with Damon. For Rounders is surprisingly similar to a western, in its fall-and-rise-again heroic narrative structure, in its basic tenets, with its men duelling for money, and its long Leone style close-ups during the card games. The final card game is an epic battle played out almost entirely in close-up, with biscuits playing a key role. Dahl's direction is understated, with a muted colour scheme and a nicely defined use of space, and no pyrotechnics. Instead he focuses on these characters and on creating this fully realised, convincing world in which they exist. If it had been made during the 70s it would be a minor classic with an upcoming Criterion release, which is a big compliment to bestow on any film. As it is, its still a minor Classic, and you can go buy it on DVD right now...

Beautiful Girls (Ted Demme, 1996)
Scott Rosenberg was perhaps the hottest screenwriter in Hollywood at one point during the 90s. With Shane Black languishing in semi-retirement, if a producer wanted a quality brush-up on a dumb action Blockbuster, Rosenberg got the gig. He wrote Con Air (Simon West, 1997) and Gone in Sixty Seconds (Dominic Sena, 2000), but it was hard to detect any Rosenberg at all in either film except for a cracking line of dialogue here or there and the odd self-parodic wink of the eye at the audience. The film that had attracted the attention of Jerry Bruckheimer was Things to Do in Denver When you're Dead (Gary Fleder, 1995), a post-Tarantino crime movie filled with characters and situations from a thousand other pulp cliches but some great, if overly "written" dialogue. Rosenberg could write a funny line, that much was obvious. He finally showed he could write human beings and realistic relationships in Beautiful Girls. Based on his own old friends in his hometown, the film follows a successful New York Pianist (Timothy Hutton) back to his snow-covered hometown where he reconnects with his old gang of friends and observes their various failures with commitment and ageing. He has a ragged but tight crew of solidly working class guy-friends, still seeing high school girlfriends and living off former glories, played with easy charm and impeccable authenticity by Matt Dillon, Noah Emmerich, Max Perlich and Michael Rapaport. Rosenberg's script makes each a distinct figure with his own foibles and warmth, and the strength of their group bond is convincing and even a little moving.
More complex are the films women, played by Uma Thurman, Lauren Holly, Mira Sorvino, Natalie Portman, Annabeth Gish and Martha Plimpton. Rosie O'Donnell's character sums up the men's problems in a lengthy rant about unrealistic expectations based on physical beauty created by MTV and Playboy, but the film itself seems conflicted. Hutton's character seems happy to settle into a warm relationship with his longtime New York girlfriend (Gish) and is only really given pause by his instant connection with the 12 year old "Old soul" next door (Portman) and a long, revealing conversation with a Chicago dreamgirl (Thurman), but Dillion and Rapaport are overgrown adolescents, and Emmerich's marriage seems strained and uncomfortable.
Rosenberg finds solace in the warmth of friendship, in the support of family and community. Along the way there are a series of brilliant one-liners and funny monologues (Rapaport: "You let her behind the curtain, I know you did. You never let them behind the curtain, Willy. You never let them see the little old man behind the curtain working the levers of the great and powerful Oz! They are all sisters Willy... They aren't allowed back there... they mustn't see!"), there is a great soundtrack of vintage jukebox and modern indie, and the entire cast is note-perfect, particularly Portman and Dillon.
Demme used the first act of the Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978) for inspiration, which explains a lot, and Rosenberg was inspired by his friend's responses to write the recent TV Series October Road, which is set in the same fictional town as Beautiful Girls, and shares many themes and ideas.

The 13th Warrior (John McTiernan, 1999)
Even at his commercial peak, John McTiernan was bafflingly underrated as a director. A master of mise en scene, he has few equals in his use of space and movement. His action scenes were, in his pomp, elegant, beautiful and muscular, but crucially always coherent and well-organised. Die Hard (1988) is perhaps the greatest action film of the 80s, transcending its own cliches even as it set them in stone for a hundred imitators, Predator (1987) is a thrilling, simultaneously bloated and pared down study of hunter vs hunted which manages to skirt Arnold Schwarzenegger's limitations as it faces him off against a creature even more alien and bizarre than he is, The Hunt for Red October (1989) is perhaps the only truly successful Tom Clancy adaptation and a great study in cinematic space, as McTiernan's camera prowls the confined setting of a nuclear submarine. Even the mostly deservedly maligned Last Action Hero (1993) has it witty moments, and is a bravely self-reflexive move on the part of this particular filmmaker. By 1999, when he came to adapt Michael Crichton's early novel "Eaters of the Dead", itself a retelling of "Beowulf", McTiernan had lost most of his clout, and the filming and editing processes were bedevilled with problems and studio interference. It is to his credit, then, that the result is such a bracing adventure film, telling this Viking legend in the style of Kurosawa with style and wit and an epic feel.
Antonio Banderas is a Muslim poet and courtier who accompanies a band of Vikings back to their homeland in the barbaric North in order to combat a terrifying, all-devouring beast. Along the way, of course, he comes to appreciate their values, courage, friendship and loyalty, while they learn to appreciate him as a Warrior and man.
The action scenes are terrific - not least the commando-style Viking raid upon the lair of the "creature" and the final attack upon the Viking fortress, shot mainly in slo-mo as the rain pelts down, in apparent homage to Seven Samurai (1954). But it is the smaller moments that best convince - Banderas gradually learning the Viking tongue just by listening and watching, his prayer before the final showdown, the Viking politics of challenge and combat put to cynical use, their contempt for his tiny arabian stallion trumped by its athleticism..
A year later Gladiator (Ridley Scott) would come out and sweep all before it, but McTiernan's film is just as good, if less overblown and more of a pure genre exercise. Now, what about a Directors Cut on DVD...?

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