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Kaufman presents a dead bird
28 May 2009
Charlie Kaufman can't tell jokes. Well, so what, you might say; according to some, nor could Shakespeare, and what of that? But then, Shakespeare never wrote a play consisting of nothing but jokes.

Of course, Kaufman the writer has been badly let down by Kaufman the director (although no more or less badly than he was let down by Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry, than whom he is at least no less talented) – so it's hard to say where exactly the fault lies; but while watching this film one comes to the slow and dazed realisation that what it's attempting is humour.

For example: Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is raging about his daughter's getting a tattoo at an early age. Claire (Michelle Williams) takes off her shirt to reveal that her back is entirely covered by a bright red tattoo of Satan, which she says she got at the same age. Caden, who has been sleeping with Claire for several years: "Well, I've never seen THAT before." It's a joke right out of "The Simpsons"; one can imagine Homer Simpson delivering the same line. The difference is that in "The Simpsons" the line would have been funny, and we wouldn't have blinked, sat in puzzlement through whatever happened next (one ceases to care after a while) and perhaps even made it through the closing credits and out into the street before realising that this line was supposed to be funny. Kaufman presents jokes to us the way a cat might present a dead bird, then stalks off to bask in his own cleverness while we're struggling to work out what our reaction is meant to be.

Not one of Kaufman's jokes, conceits, or visual touches, not the one-liner about the tattoo, not the unexplained Zeppelin that weaves its way through the scale-model New York tenements, not the miniature portraits you need magnifying glasses to see, not the laboured basic premise of the film, has any impact or life. Anyone can come up with these ideas: philosophy postgrad students are already able to generate thought experiments of this kind by the dozen, and often tell them better. And, alas, the film is like conceptual art. Once I tell you what it's about you might as well not bother to watch it. You've already got the gag. And it's not funny.
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There can be little doubt that this is unmitigated tripe.
2 October 2008
Okay, not unmitigated. The shot of the swirling coffee was nice to look at.

It's not fair to judge Godard by this one film, but if one were to do so, one would be forced to conclude that he's a charlatan. A real artist wouldn't have to talk our ears off for two solid hours. He talks at us through his characters, through his whispered narration (that guttural whisper is really hard to take after a couple of minutes); and even his incessant cinematic doodling is a kind of pitilessly boring monologue (he'll suddenly turn the soundtrack off not so much for effect as to goddamned well SAY something about cinematic convention – I don't know what, exactly; the point he's trying to make is surely a banal one, whatever it is).

Godard is so enamoured of language that not only does he use it – blast it at us – relentlessly; he has himself and his cast, when they run out of anything else to talk about, which doesn't take long, start talking about – language. And what twaddle they talk on the subject! "I suppose these are my eyes. How do I know they're my 'eyes' and not my 'knees'? Because people told me. But what if they hadn't?" That's not really the best example of fatuous nonsense; I remembered those lines among all the others because, silly though they are, they at least made sense: they don't reveal a mind so muddied by bad philosophy that it cannot think at all, which is what most of the rest of the script reveals.
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Sleuth (2007)
Pinter-sized remake
2 August 2008
Poor Kenneth Branagh – an undervalued director if ever there was one – is likely to receive far more blame than he deserves for the way this turned out. To be sure, he must have signed off on the tacky, minimalist set design (maybe this would work, or seem to work, if you saw the movie on TV) – which in turn forced him into a series of count-the-pores close-ups in order to get away from the bare surfaces and garish lighting. But this set basically echoes, admittedly in the most simple-minded possible way, the minimalist, engineered-rather-than-written screenplay which Harold Pinter manufactured out of Anthony Schaffer's vastly superior original. Schaffer's version was a stage firecracker, and so perhaps if looked at in the cold light of day it is a little mechanical and formulaic; but Pinter's re-working of the material is ten times more mechanical and formulaic; the chief difference is that there's no firecracker: Pinter doesn't want to run the risk of giving us something to enjoy. He seems to think the goal of black comedy is to mortify our flesh and dull our intellect.

Michael Caine is magnificent, but a large part of that magnificence consists in his ability to turn Pinter's stop-and-start dialogue into a performance of any kind, let alone a good one. How hard this task is can be seen by looking at Jude Law, who, without bad acting or any obvious misjudgement, utterly fails to do so.
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Inland Empire (2006)
14 March 2008
The people who gush over this film are simply not to be taken seriously.

Firstly, it's shot with hand-held digital cameras (not the kind of digital used in, say, the recent Superman, where digital comes close to being a passable substitute for film if you lower you standards only a hair's breadth; rather, it's the kind of lousy, cruddy, mud-o-vision digital which makes you wonder why you bothered walking into the theatre) - with an absurd overuse of fish-eye lenses. And it's not even in focus all the time. I know the out-of-focus shooting was deliberate - well, actually I don't know, but let's suppose it was - but it adds insult to injury: the image definition isn't anywhere near good enough for even a half second's out-of-focus shooting to be endurable.

Why do we stand for this kind of thing? Why don't people who pay good money to see a movie rise up in spontaneous rebellion when they find they've been swindled? It's one of those mysteries of modern life, like the mystery of why all modern buildings are ugly, when we certainly don't have fewer technical resources than our ancestors did when they made buildings that were beautiful.

And secondly, Lynch's latest is about (inasmuch as it's about anything) an actress, and about the production of a film. It's set in Hollywood and most characters are film-makers of one description or another. Does the resulting work consist of tedious, puffed-up, self-referential tomfoolery? Is there any serious doubt? Mulholland Drive was a more lifeless, inferior knock-off of Lost Highway chiefly because it was about Hollywood rather than something external to Hollywood: the most versatile directors in the world have difficulty making films about films without turning out something tiresome and trite, and Lynch, although he has on occasion been a great film-maker, and although he did make The Straight Story, is not renowned for his versatility.

One of the basic plot points is silly. Being based on a Polish folktale does not curse a production. Being set in Hollywood, does.

Lynch usually relies heavily on his is-it-real-or-is-it-a-dream ambiguity, but in this instance, there's nothing else - and the lousy digital images mean that even this stalwart gimmick doesn't stand a chance of working. Obviously, in excrement-brown digital, it's all a dream. Or might as well be. The digital cameras have robbed Lynch of his power to invest mundane items with menace (in digital, the mundane simply looks even more mundane); they've preventing him from using his slow, gliding camera; they've led him into the by now well-known just-let-the-camera-operator-follow-the-actors trap, and encouraged him to be self indulgently profligate in compiling more and still more footage for the thinnest script he has ever worked on.

You don't have to take my word for any of this, or trust my aesthetic subjective sense. Let's suppose for the sake of argument I'm a lousy judge of cinema. Nonetheless, the movie was shot on low-definition, muddy digital video: that's a known fact: look it up. The movie is set entirely in Hollywood and features actors, directors and technicians; again a known fact: look it up. You now know all you need to know to infer that Lynch has laid an egg.
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The most morally reprehensible thing on Australian TV at the moment
17 September 2007
I don't really have anything to say; read George Orwell's essay on "No Orchids for Miss Blandish" and discover why it's all been said before, better than I could say it.

Obviously the show is cruddy enough on aesthetic grounds: I don't know whether to blame the wooden acting or the 100%-exposition dialogue, so let's blame both. But people are willing to overlook such things on TV in the interests of fantasy. I am too. What's depressing is that people are willing to overlook the lousiness of the production in the interests of what they're really getting out of the show: the chance to watch the hounds chase the fox for an hour, until the latter collapses of exhaustion.

What's also depressing is that this show is part of a trend. In the past, a leading-up-to-the-trial kind of TV show would have focused on the defence lawyers; it's a shame that we're now getting a kick out of siding with the prosecution, especially when it's this bunch of deeply unpleasant people.

Perry Mason didn't have a mean streak.
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Undervalued, like all hand-drawn animation
13 September 2007
The "banter" between Miguel and Tulio felt very contrived at first, but that soon passed; there were moments of true humour, and the story was a good one. Animated films just aren't treated fairly. This (like its maligned Disney counterparts) was vastly better than the majority of popular Hollywood films, and deep down, we all know it.

Yes, I'm aware of the problems. While the art direction was decent, El Dorado wasn't as fabulous as it might have been; the aspects of the city most likely to give one a pure, adolescent thrill - things like the fantastic and colourful beasts, like the giant turtlish things people used to cross the lake, were neglected. It's not as though we in the audience particularly cared about the gold. (The other problem with the art direction, of course, was the CGI. It usually is.) The songs were a bad idea; note that for the most part, this isn't a musical, but one of those films in which the characters can't be bothered to express their thoughts and feelings by singing for themselves; instead, they get a pop star (Elton John here, Phil Collins in "Tarzan") to do so for them. (The songs are so ineptly worked into the story you'll cringe.) They weren't good songs, either. I'd thought of Tim Rice as being, at worst, workmanlike in his lyrics; here he slips a few notches, to lame.

But it's lush, it moves briskly, there's nothing really wrong with the plot, and the character animation is superb - much better than in "The Prince of Egypt". Note Chel, in particular: I'm glad to see ex-Disney animator James Baxter at work on a really sexy babe. (She has a tendency to waddle - I suspect because Baxter was asked to tone down the heat a little - but that only serves to make her cuter.) Hardly an animated classic, but compare it to - oh, I don't know, the live action "Road to" movies with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope - and it dazzles. Well, it glows invitingly, at the very least.
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Sorry - this film is disqualified.
3 September 2007
If I hadn't had independent evidence to the contrary I would have sworn there was something wrong with the print. Unfortunately, the disgustingly desaturated colours (the kind of colours that look as though they've already passed through someone's digestive system, if you get my drift) were deliberate. Every print looked as hideous as the one I saw; every screening, therefore, was just as much a painful chore to sit through. It would have been far franker - and far kinder to the audience - to shoot in true black and white, rather than in the various shades of pale murkiness one might see in institutional carpets that have fallen into disrepair and haven't been washed since the 1970s. Occasionally, when we leave the island of Iwo Jima, we might see some foliage that you can tell without squinting is green rather than yet another shade of mouldy brown; the cinematography off Iwo Jima is still lousy and the footage still looks like photos that were under-exposed and then left in the sun for a few months, but by this stage we're grateful for the smallest of mercies.

This disqualifies the film from serious consideration as a work of real merit. Nothing this ugly can be worth watching - even if the musical score had been other than thin and banal (it isn't), if the story had been about anything (it isn't), if there'd been a single moment or idea or exchange that had been well conceived or energetic (there isn't), the colours alone ought to be enough to make any self-respecting critic or audience member to say: "Sorry, I'm not interested." The fact that this film had an audience is a sad comment on audiences.

To make my point, Eastwood's companion piece, Letters from Iwo Jima, is in principle a much better film: it isn't a kind of dour flag-waving exercise (people, this film is about a flag! a flag, for Christ's sake! it's not about human beings at all!); there's a genuine story with a central character one could reasonably take an interest in; by taking the viewpoint of the opposing side, Eastwood and Haggis have managed to get some freshness in their conception... but none of this matters: there's the same damned god-awful colour scheme to get past, and it can't be got past.

Why do you think so many people mistook this piece of hothouse patriotism for an anti-American work? A comment on the futility of war, or some such? It certainly can't be the film's content: it's because staring at various subtle shades of pigswill for two hours is enough to put anyone in a miserable mood.
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A film whose many flaws cancel each other out and become positive virtues
19 March 2004
I knew I hadn't just bough a cinema ticket when I saw one of the opening ads, in which some second-string Australian celebrities stood in front of the audience to harangue us into reading the New Testament. "It changed my life," each one said in succession. The screen darkened and left me writhing in embarrassment, wondering what kind of naked, bludgeoning propaganda I'd just let myself in for. Would this be like it was sitting through "Triumph of the Will", with the addition of the uncomfortable feeling that some of my fellow audience members might actually be taking it seriously, and lapping it all up?

Then there was a trailer for an upcoming feature, and I relaxed somewhat.

As it happens the film is very much like "Triumph of the Will"; perhaps closer to pure propaganda. Both films are great, in a curious, disturbing way. One key difference is that Leni Riefenstahl was a great director, performing well below her ability in "Triumph of the Will"; with "The Passion" we have a mediocre director performing above his. Gibson didn't really do a good job, objectively speaking, and by rights his film ought to be dreadful. But Gibson's very failings, each individually enough to sink a film, collectively transform his film into something marvellous. This was a complete fluke; but so what? I've recently seen "Cold Mountain", a right shocker of a film even if there was a lot of genuine artistry in its component parts. Why should I be kinder to IT, just because its badness was something of an unfortunate accident? The mirror-image point applies to Gibson's film.

The controversy surrounding the film is pointless and silly but not quite too ludicrous to dismiss out of hand. This is NOT an anti-Semitic film; but it's worthwhile looking into why anyone thought it was. An obvious reason would be the scene early on, in which Jesus is captured and brought before the temple … and we see a roomful of jeering, pantomime wicked Jews, not just acting broadly, but acting broadly in unison. The head priest makes some feeble snide comment at Jesus and it's as though everyone else in the room is a puppet controlled by the same set of strings, as they slap their thighs, flail their arms, bend at the waist and contort their faces into unnatural, apelike laughter. This effect is exaggerated by Gibson's two most obvious stylistic devices.

Firstly, his ridiculous overuse of slow motion. How slow is this film? I darted out to urinate at one point, halfway through Jesus's progression up Calvary; when I came back, he'd travelled perhaps three metres. Nobody in this film can be whipped, feel remorse, be inspired, crawl in the dust, laugh, cry, walk across the room or pay thirty pieces of silver without it happening … lliiikke … tthhiiisss…

Secondly, there's the way Gibson uses Aramaic and Latin. You have to applaud his decision to film what is essentially a bilingual story in the correct, original languages. It's obviously the right decision. But this isn't a standard subtitled release. Watch a French film, and you'll see people talking with apparent naturalism in French, with the subtitles doing their best to translate – with, inevitably, the odd word left out here and there, or the odd phrase condensed or simplified or simply unavailable for translation. But because this story was So Very Important, Gibson arranged things so that NOTHING was lost in translation. This means that people speak slowly, simply, emphatically, sparsely, as though they know they're acting for our benefit and want to make sure they say nothing that will be lost in translation or fail to be caught by the slower readers in the audience. This strange mode of speaking is unnerving after a while.

The result is, the Jews are like no people on Earth we can recognise. They come across as yet another exotic tribe from the Old Testament, with no obvious connection to anyone living to day; more than that, they aren't even like human beings as we know them. They seem to be aware they're living within the pages of the Bible.

But if this is true of the Jews is this is equally true of the Romans. More so, in fact. Gibson's sadistic, buffoonish, verismo-operatic Roman guards whip and mock Christ as though they've been heartened by the pantomime acting the Jewish extras have managed to get away with and wish to do them one better.

This is all very irritating at first, but the end result is to heighten the atmosphere and set the ground rules for what is, after all, a grand, dark supernatural fantasy. This is where Gibson's narrowness of vision is actually an asset. The story of Christ's sacrifice ON OUR BEHALF is one of the most ridiculous myths ever told. Tell the full story and it's hard to avoid asking questions like: "But why didn't God just repeal the eternal damnation he'd condemned us all to, WITHOUT putting himself through this vicarious torture first? He's omnipotent, right? And what possible connection could his decision to allow himself to be whipped have to his decision not to fry you and I for eternity, anyway?" Gibson vanquishes such awkward questions by simply presenting us the pivotal moment of the Christian myth, in all its gory detail, and letting the rest of the fantasy fall into vague shape by itself.

All that remains to object to is the final insert shot of Christ rising from the dead, as though he's about to stalk the land like Arnold Schwarzenegger in "The Terminator". But that moment can't erase or negate the strange, seemingly flawed, accidentally magnificent film that precedes it.
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Pointlessly nasty, or just pointless? Hard to tell, hard to care.
18 March 2004
least, she stood out the front bravely enough BEFORE we'd all seen the film, and presumably stuck around for the screening itself, although I don't blame her if she didn't – and her mere presence at the screening made me curiously reluctant to say anything bad about her film. But then I come here and read someone actually PRAISING this valueless work and my reluctance vanished.

Barring comments on Sacha Horler's performance, which I suppose is up to her usual high standards (not that that it's easy to tell in a film like this), the nicest thing that can be truthfully said about the film is that it accurately conveys what it was like to live in suburban Adelaide in the 1970s ... to people who lived in suburban Adelaide in the 1970s. And if you think THAT'S an artistic achievement of any worth, you obviously haven't thought very much.

We do manage to gather that suburban Adelaide wasn't a very pleasant place back then. Everything looked sterile, and every single person who ever said anything, said it in the context of a sterile conversation. What it's like to LIVE in this impossibly bleak and mind-numbing environment, it's hard to say; there's nothing human about the film, so watching it gives us no means of telling. What it's like to sit through 88 minutes of flat conversations flatly acted in flatly lit flat settings, though, is obvious enough. It's boring. Or if not boring, AT BEST irksome. It's not as though the individually tedious scenes ever connect with one another, to produce something more than the effect of very many of them in succession.
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Hulk (2003)
Lee's one idea that works allows him to ignore everything else that doesn't
22 October 2003
There ought be something wrong with the split frames, the panning cuts, the jigsaw-like dissolves and all the tricks Ang Lee uses to keep reminding us that his film was based on a comic book. Bad ideas in principle, no? This may have been a comic book once, but it's a film now; these devices make no more sense than the old Hollywood convention of opening films like "Jane Eyre" with a shot of a big leather book being opened to the first page.

Yet we might as well drop whatever theoretical objections we may have and admit that (Ang) Lee's comic book fixation works for the film, and works well. There's a sense that every frame and every shot neatly and gracefully interlocks with its neighbours. It suits the kind of nothing-but-the-story storytelling that Lee's aiming for and somehow suits the material as well. And, much as I was prepared to hate it, it looks great. There are not only some stunning shots in this movie but they were laid out so as to enable me to best admire them.

A pity the film doesn't get over its main hurdle: the fact that Lee is a gifted, multi-talented director capable of taking almost any subject whatever and making it insipid and boring. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" – IN PRINCPLE a thrilling, magical ride – used the beauty of its individual shots to make us pretend (it even made me pretend, for a while) that it wasn't completely unengaging and forgettable – so much tasteless rice pudding – and "Ride with the Devil" managed to be, not just the dullest United States Civil War film ever made, but the dullest it's POSSIBLE to make. If "Hulk" is a better film than either of these it's not because Lee has learned how to make scenes come to life. Performances are somehow flat and pitched poorly against one another, none of the material sings, and if Lee had any idea why all this stuff interested him he didn't succeed in conveying it to me. Much of the film is so much finger-tapping while we wait for the inevitable to happen. When the Hulk REALLY goes berserk it's obvious enough what the solution is: do nothing and wait for him to calm down. This solution not only leaps to the mind of a child of three but it's already been employed in the film by the very members of the military, boneheads though they may be, who are in charge of what to do now – so however much fun it might be to watch (FINALLY, after so much exposition!) the Hulk leap around a smash things to bits, it doesn't do much for us, knowing that we're just waiting for the characters to start doing nothing. It's not that this lapse of military intelligence is implausible, you understand. The generals did, after all, have their brains amputated years ago, when they became soldiers. But why should Lee insult us by asking us to think and feel at their level? A really skilled director, like Kubrick, would know that the way to make this extended farce exciting would be to distance us from it, to show it to us from the viewpoint of a god.

But if Lee knew how to make films exciting "Hulk" would be very different in many ways.

And yes, state-of-the-art CGI is still bad. We even get a shot of the Hulk's magically stretchable blue pants during a transformation scene in bright sunlight (somehow devoid of true shadows for anything computer animated), just to rub our noses in them.
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Nothing short of a masterpiece.
2 September 2003
So who's right? Is it a dull, lumbering vehicle with beautiful photography and little else, or is it nothing short of a masterpiece?

Nothing short of a masterpiece.

So what explains the critical shellacking it got back in the 1970s, and the lazy kicks in the ribs it continues to get today? I have only a weak suggestion, scarcely an explanation at all:

It was the zeitgeist. The early 1970s - although the trend really began in the late 1960s - saw the rise of a dreary, kitchen-sink style of film-making which is easiest to recognise by its dingy cinematography (although that's not all here is to it); it was the style in which the young lions of 1970s American cinema (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and if "THX-1138" is the kind of film people say it is, George Lucas) made their name. It's true that time has not been kind to this style, and that the greatest films of the 1970s (like this one) owe nothing to it, but to be fair, it IS possible to make good films in this style, and a few such were made. The greatest asset of standard 1970s film-making is, as it happens, one also possessed by Lean: the ability to be in deadly earnest, to banish any hint of irony or sarcasm when it's not wanted. But this doesn't change the fact that "Ryan's Daughter" is not only different from what was modish around the time it was made; it ADVERTISES this difference. It might very well have the most beautiful cinematography of any film shot anywhere at any time. What's more, gorgeous photography is part of the essence of the film, not something that one can grime down in one's imagination to reveal a distinctively '70s film, in which the composition of shots doesn't matter, there's no atmosphere to speak of and everybody mumbles half-formed thoughts in ungrammatical sentences. This film, simply and unmistakably, doesn't belong in the era in which it was made.

At any rate the stated reasons for condemning he film don't sound at all convincing. Pauline Kael made a big deal of the fact that she couldn't accept Robert Mitchum as a mild-tempered cuckolded husband, which leads me to conclude that (a) she'd just seen "Cape Fear" the previous night, and (b) her brain was tired that week. In a way I can appreciate her difficulty, since when I saw the film, I wasn't aware that it WAS Robert Mitchum until I saw the end credits, so entirely convincing is he (and everyone else, for that matter). Another thing I've seen written a couple of times is that the film is "over-produced", a charge it's hard to make sense of. So Lean made a better film than, strictly speaking, he had to, in order to be faithful to the script? And this is meant to be a CRITICISM?

The only complaint that has justice on its side is the one directed at Maurice Jarre's score, too relentlessly jaunty at ill-chosen moments, particularly in the early arts of the film, without enough meat on the bones of the tunes to justify the fact that the music is really doing little to help. But even here, criticism is exaggerated. A majority of films released since, say, 1990, and this includes a majority of GOOD films, have musical scores that contribute even less, and are even more ill-judged; with "Ryan's Daughter" far more than with those films, complaining about the music seems petty.

Nothing so beautiful as "Ryan's Daughter" could possibly be other than good; the story is a fine one, simple in shape yet morally complex, and it's honestly told, with each point of view made vivid. The three hours are there to be relished. Lean uses the length of his film to make you wish it were longer still.
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Adaptation. (2002)
Yeah, whatever.
9 June 2003
"Being John Malkovich" gave me the impression that its ideal form was a short story. Whether or not I'm right about that, Charlie Kaufman's screenplay, wherein all the film's virtue resided, was was let down by Spike Jonze's utterly uninspired direction. At the very least the film was based on an excellent idea and didn't quite make it.

"Adaptation", also written by Charlie Kaufman and also, alas, directed by Spike Jonze, is certainly let down by not being particularly well made, but the surprise is it's also not particularly well written, and far from not being based on a good idea isn't based on any idea at all. Someone charged with the task of making a film has made a film about his inability to make said film. This kind of dodge, I feel sure, can only result in a good film just once - at MOST - in the entire history of cinema. Some people think Fellini's "Eight and a Half" is that film. It may be; I haven't seen it; I wouldn't know. But the successful I-can't-make-a-film film is certainly not "Adaptation".

My partner commented afterwards that she remembered writing this kind of story in high school and thinking to herself: "Wow! This is SO much easier than writing a real story!" Not only was she right; who hasn't had this experience? And who hasn't had the spurious feeling of liberation - hopefully also as a teenager - that comes with the idea that simply showing an awareness of one's own stylistic defects is enough to negate them? This film is self-indulgent and narcissistic; Kaufman's no idiot (perhaps the most courageous thing he's done with this film is to convince his prospective employers that he's all intelligence and no talent), so in writing himself into his screenplay he simply makes himself SAY that he's being self-indulgent and narcissistic, which somehow makes it okay. The first-person voice-over IS a bad device, and Kaufman's particular voice-over IS a particularly flabby and lazy one; so he has a scene in which his voice-over is shouted down by some sceenwriting guru talking about how flabby and lazy voice-overs are. And the guru is dead right. So now we know that Kaufman wants us to know that he knows how bad his own voice-overs are. It's impossible work out who or what this complicated and unfunny joke is at the expense of, and also impossible to care.

In any event I feel like sending the whole thing back to the studio and ask that this time it be worked on by a director with the gift of making scenes, characters, or ideas - notice I said "or", although "and" would be even nicer - come to life. An wispy project like this needs at least that much.
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Chicago (2002)
Stunning; the first really good musical in a decade
7 June 2003
"Chicago" is the first film in eleven or ten years thoroughly determined to be a full-blooded musical (the previous one was "Beauty and the Beast", or just possibly "Aladdin"), and, if there have been others, is almost certainly the best. Forget "Moulin Rouge". That film was terrified by the very idea of being a musical. It couldn't introduce a song without being seen to quote it rather than sing it, and would cut the song short, relieved to have it over and done with, at the soonest possible moment. But "Chicago" REALLY launches into its production numbers. Its songs are full-throated and lusty. (As far as the music goes, and the wit and sparkle of the lyrics, Kander and Ebb wrote far better songs for "Chicago" than for "Cabaret".) They've been staged with dazzling style.

Yes, a pity about the editing. But whereas the rapid-fire editing of "Moulin Rouge" as good as put a bullet through that film's heart, the rapid-fire - and it's not really "rapid-fire", it's just that there's too much of it - editing of "Chicago" does only minimal harm. Don't get me wrong: it's unquestionably a bad thing. The sudden shifts, bang on the downbeat, from the subtler colour schemes of the everyday Chicago to the block reds and misty blues of the stage Chicago, don't have nearly the impact they'd have if they weren't occurring every other minute; and Marshall's stark and striking shots are never held long enough to get the most out of them. A good thing the next image is never a disgrace on the previous one. A good thing that every other aspect of the production is so rock-solid to begin with.

It's absurd that Martin Walsh won an Oscar for such overdone to-ing an fro-ing. Some critics (Roger Ebert is one) suggest that the award was justfied on the grounds that Walsh's editing skillfully hides the defects of inferior performers, but I don't buy this. I'm convinced, for instance, that Catherine Zeta-Jones is NOT an inferior performer, that she doesn't NEED patchwork-quilt editing in order to look good; if she does, then Walsh has indeed performed a miracle, but not one he should be congratulated for in polite society. As for Richard Gere, I again don't see the need for him to appear to be better than he is. There's nothing wrong with his voice and he doesn't have to dance much HIMSELF. He's the kind who gets other people to dance for him. In the song "Razzle Dazzle 'Em" he actually sings as much: "As long as you keep 'em way off balance, How can they spot you got no talents?" Billy Flynn OUGHT to be a mediocre song-and-dance artist, who relies on glitter, lights and inspired staging - but certainly NOT on deceptive editing. In that song we need to see what's going on. We also need the suggestion that Flynn fools people who on some level willingly allow themselves to be fooled. In fact, we do see all this anyway, which is why the overly frenetic editing fails to do any real damage.

The story of "Chicago" is at once deeply moral and deliciously amoral. The two go together. Amorality depends for its zest on our sense of the pull of true morality: our sense that our heroes and heroines really do do the wrong thing now and then, and that no false excuses are being made on their behalf.
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Bloody Sunday (2002)
Bloody good, and made me bloody angry, despite the bloody awful cinematography
6 June 2003
You apprehend an armed man, who admits to being a professional bank robber, outside a bank. Inside the bank three people lie badly wounded on the floor. The bank robber blames the victims for their injuries, and (perhaps as an afterthought) also blames others standing in the queue; he says they started the violence. The victims blame the bank robber. Only if you were so feeble-minded as to have no ability to process evidence at all would you subject the two claims to an equal amount of scepticism. Anyone interested in arriving at the truth would be biased against the bank robber. Yes, it's not impossible that he's telling the truth; it's possible that the victims ARE to blame for their own injuries. But the burden of proof rests with him, with the man who walked into the bank carrying a rifle.

The following is public knowledge, known to people who weren't there and not denied even by the British army: The organisers of the march urged the people taking part not to resort to violence, however much provoked. They certainly didn't arm the marchers themselves. The officers of the army DID arm its soldiers, with powerful rifles, tear gas cannisters, heavy artillery and tanks. Moreover they did NOT forswear violence, even in the statements they made for the benefit of the press: on the contrary, they announced their willingness to use their weapons in retaliation; not just in self-defence, mind you, but in retaliation. That journalists could sit through a press conference in which Major-General Ford says, as a message to the organisers of the march: "Any violence that may result rests squarely on your shoulders," without snorting derisively, is surprising however much mainstream coverage you've seen of the recent attack on Iraq.

Greengrass has made a fictional recreation of an actual event and obviously he's had to fill in details. (Obviously, no outsider could possibly know for sure what Cooper said to his girlfriend in the privacy of his own home the morning before the march, etc.) But he's been exraordinarily careful, so far as I can tell, to fill in details in the most plausible way he can; only two or three times does anyone so much as utter a single line of dialogue that strikes me as unlikely (a line that sounds as though it may have been inserted for the purpose of exposition), and even then, not much. Not often, but sometimes, Greengrass has to choose between two conflictng accounts of what happened. If he doesn't do so he doesn't have a film. So he chooses whichever is most likely, which of course makes him biased; that is to say, a rational creature, and not a kind of walking dictaphone incapable of distinguishing between truth and falsehood.

Obviously I wouldn't be going to so much trouble to defend the film on this one point if I didn't also think it was good. It's a powerful and convincing account of a day gone wrong... a single day, with a couple of days' background, which is why people who accuse it of being a one-sided account of the conflict in Northern Ireland are also wrong: you either know or you don't why the protestors are marching, and the film doesn't include any forced exposition to try to cue in people who don't know. And while the film hints at what's likely to happen next, as a result of the violence, it doesn't include or pretend to include that story, either. I like a film that knows what it's about and what it's not about.

The cinematography is, alas, awful. What is Greengrass trying to do with all this needless, eye-watering camera-shaking - forge documentary footage? Only if he's a bigger fool than he could possibly be given the script he's written. He shows private domestic scenes no cameraman would be allowed to film, then wobbles the camera as though to remind us that there is a cameraman present, and an inept one, too, when in the world of the fiction, there isn't; and even outside the world of the fiction, one hopes that the cameraman isn't really as inept as he's pretending to be, although there's no direct visual evidence to the contrary. There's no excuse for such riding-over-a-cattle-grid photography. Nor is there an excuse for such horrible, dour, bluish-grey colour processing, the kind that announces to the audience, "I wanted to shoot in black and white, but they wouldn't let me."

Don't suppose for a minute that any of this HELPS the film. But the script, and Greengrasss sureity of purpose, are enough to ensure that it does little or no harm. We're taken completely inside the story despite (certainly not because of) the photography, and given the nature of what we watch... well, anger directed at the guy behind the camera seems misplaced.
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Adaptation. (2002)
If you want this kind of thing, do it yourself
6 June 2003
"Being John Malkovich" gave me the impression its ideal form was a short story. Whether or not I'm right about that, Charlie Kaufman's screenplay, wherein all the film's virtue resided, was was let down by Spike Jonze's utterly uninspired direction. At the very least the film was based on an excellent idea and didn't quite make it.

"Adaptation", also written by Charlie Kaufman and also, alas, directed by Spike Jonze, is certainly let down by not being particularly well made, but the surprise is it's also not particularly well written, and far from not being based on a good idea isn't based on any idea at all. Someone charged with the task of making a film has made a film about his inability to make said film. This kind of dodge, I feel sure, can only result in a good film just once - at MOST - in the entire history of cinema. Some people think Fellini's "Eight and a Half" is that film. It may be; I haven't seen it; I wouldn't know. But the successful I-can't-make-a-film film is certainly not "Adaptation".

My partner commented afterwards that she remembered writing this kind of story in high school and thinking to herself: "Wow! This is SO much easier than writing a real story!" Not only was she right; who hasn't had this experience? And who hasn't had the spurious feeling of liberation - hopefully also as a teenager - that comes with the idea that simply showing an awareness of one's own stylistic defects is enough to negate them? This film is a self-indulgent, narcissistic w**k; Kaufman's no idiot (perhaps the most courageous thing he's done with this film is to convince his prospective employers that he's all intelligence and no talent), so in writing himself into his screenplay he simply makes himself SAY that he's being a self-indulgent and narcissistic w***er, which somehow makes it okay. The first-person voice-over IS a bad device, and Kaufman's particular voice-over IS a paticularly flabby and lazy one; so he has a scene in which his voice-over is shouted down by some sceenwriting guru talking about how flabby and lazy voice-overs are. The guru is right. Kaufman knows the guru is right. He wants us to know that he knows. Is the joke on us, on Kaufman, or on the guru? That, nobody knows, and to be frank I couldn't care less.

In any event I feel like sending the whole thing back to the studio and ask that this time it be worked on by a director with the gift of making scenes, characters, or ideas - notice I said "or", although "and" would be even nicer - come to life. An wispy project like this needs at least that much.
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Treads the borderline of historical fiction and fantasy with breathtaking skill
24 May 2003
Never mind whether or not it's as good as "The Bridge on the River Kwai", "Lawrence of Arabia", "Doctor Zhivago", et al.; the point is, it's a great film that was clearly made by the same David Lean that made the earlier masterpieces.

The stuff that usually gets dismissed with a wave of the hand - the art direction, the music (Maurice Jarre reserved his best scores for David Lean, although there's less music here than there usually is), the photography, the editing, the indefinable assuredness of narrative flow - everything that makes up the heart and soul of cinema, in fact - is as marvellous as ever. It's amazing enough when you consider that this was Lean's first film in fourteen years. More astonishing is that it was the first film on which he's credited as editor in forty-two years. Forty-two years earlier, he was working for Michael Powell (the only other British director as good as Lean), who considered him the best editor in the world; and while Lean's wielding the scissors again after all that time may have made very little difference to his overall style, I still think there's something special - even more special than usual - about the way "A Passage to India" flows. Maybe it's that Lean adapted the screenplay, then shot it, then cut it himself, but he has such an strong feel for the pulse of the story, such an unerring feel for what follows from what, that even the several jump cuts - jump cuts are usually the most ugly, the most offensively flashy, and the most intrusive of all cinematic devices - are beautiful, natural, even classical. In a way you don't notice that they're there.

I've never heard it said that two-time collaborators Powell and Lean have much in common - and they don't. But of all David Lean's creations this one comes closest to being like a Powell and Pressburger picture. There's an element of mysticism (threatening as well as comforting) darting in and out of the story with such fleetness and subtlety that it's hard to tell when it's there and when it's not; and, of course, the incident at the caves (explained exactly as much as it needs to be, and no more) could as easily have come from one of Pressburger's scripts as from Forster's novel. If you've seen "Black Narcissus", admittedly a very different kind of film, you don't need me to draw attention to the points of similarity.

Lean's imagery may be less openly bizarre than Powell's but the effect can be much the same. "A Passage to India", although it lacks the beauty of the films of the three Lean films shot by Freddie Young, contains Lean's most disturbingly powerful shots, yet they're of such things as these: monkeys (echoed later on in the film by a startling shot of a man dressed like a monkey - actually, that IS the kind of thing I can see Powell doing), someone clutching her hand to her chest, the moon, the first raindrops of a storm hitting a dirty window pane, even water - simple cutaway shots of nothing but moonlit water.

I haven't read the book, but I do know that if you HAVE to have read the book to see what's wrong with the film, why, then, there's nothing wrong with it. I don't know how much of the book has been lost in the translation but I do know that if too much has been lost to make a rich and powerful film, then whatever has been lost has been more than adequately replaced.
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Schneider lovely, film tedious
21 May 2003
Warning: Spoilers
First, a personal note. Judging from this film alone, Maria Schneider is one of only three actresses I can think of at the moment (the other two are Marilyn Monroe and Christina Ricci) who, whenever she appears on screen, seems to be the most beautiful woman in the world - makes it impossible to concieve, at that moment, of anyone more beautiful. Acting ability is of course a prerequisite for this. (Otherwise, I'm thinking, not "My God, a vision of loveliness", but "Pity about the flat performance.") And indeed, Schneider gives by far the best performance in the film. Does this mean I understand her character? Not fully, of course not. But better an enigma than something empty (Jean-Pierre Léaud), inconsistent (Marlon Brando) or both (Brando again). Léaud spends his time gesticulating seemingly about nothing; it's probably his character more than anything who contributes the fatal odour of a French New Wave film. Brando is better than usual, but has he ever in his whole career, apart from in "Superman", managed to avoid giving the impression that he's trying too hard? Not that I blame him entirely: he has, after all, been asked to play an obnoxious, pretentious, vulgar jerk, which he does well enough, so it's not a complete surprise that his lapses into human feeling fail to convince. Schneider's reactions speak for me. At one point she walks into the flat the two of them share, looks at Brando in disgust, and says (paraphrasing) "What do I come here for? Do you really think a middle-aged American lying smugly on the floor eating cheese is so damned interesting?" Brando waggles his eyebrows like Groucho Marx as though to say, "But of course"; but I'm thinking: "Thank the heavens, she's finally realised how boring he is. -It all is."

My moment of realisation came earlier, when Brando's character broke his own rule and started talking about his past, and we heard some unbearably tedious story about milking a cow and having parents who were drunkards. "My God!" you could almost predict Schneider's response. "I take your point! Enough with the childhood reminiscences - unless the fact that they're so boring is due to the endlessly rambling, unmodulated way you deliver the lines." I'll admit she didn't quite SAY this, but you could tell she was thinking it.

Semi-spoilers follow (although I try to be circumspect).

The title is "Last Tango in Paris"; so when, long after we start to feel that the two-hour mark must have come and gone by now, we actually see a tango, it's a welcome sight: the first tangible evidence we get that the film will ever end. But the ending turns out to be like that of the 1990 screen version of "Cyrano de Bergerac" (and again, stop reading if you wish to know no more). That "Cyrano de Bergerac" ends with Gérard Depardieu's death scene, but WHAT a death scene! Fatally wounded, Depardieu manages to stagger from one end of Paris to the other before actually dropping off the twig; people only take longer than this to die in operas. Something similar happens here. Neither main character, but the affair between them, is fatally wounded at about the moment they dance a tango together: it's over, we know it's over, they know it's over (at least, Jeanne knows, and I suspect Paul does too, but with Brando's acting, who can tell). But the affair must still stagger across Paris and up a flight of stairs before we and they are finally allowed to be rid of it.

It's dingily and carelessly shot; it's serious, but it has no point. It feels as though the decade of the 1970s produced the film all by itself, without any help (or more importantly, resistance) from any human writer or director. A lot of 1970s films are like that.
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Good art does NOT need to disturb - but it does need to be good
19 May 2003
Warning: Spoilers
Unlike, I suspect, the jury at Cannes, I'd seen a really good film - "A Passage to India" - for the first time, not more than 24 hours before first seeing "The Piano Teacher". I can see how you might be sucked in to thinking the latter was a good film if you hadn't encountered one in a while. But if you HAD seen anything good immediately beforehand you'd wonder how this obsessive bludgeoning of the viewer with acts of twisted nastiness could even be mistaken for good art. Isabelle Huppert's performance? Admittedly she does keep us watching, keep us following her to see where she'll go...

Spoilers follow.

We start by watching a piano teacher who's at once very good and very bad: mercilessly cruel (in creative ways, so that nobody is ever really prepared) to her students, she holds a respected post because she is, after all, talented, and her insults are painful precisely because they're backed by knowledge and even, musically speaking, wisdom. Her cruelty is enough to make her a genuine monster, just as her mother's cruelty to to her is enough to make HER a genuine monster. Then, suddenly, we see her walk into a porno parlour, take in a hardcore flick, and sniff a tissue that had been soaked in some former male customer's semen; see her sneak up on and watch a couple having sex at a drive-in; see her masturbate a male student in the women's toilets at the conservatory, but refuse to let him finish... and it's all downhill from there. I'm thinking: WHY are we seeing this? Almost every famous figure in history and, we must assume, in fiction as well, has his or her sexual secrets. Most are allowed to remain secret. Biographers and authors, if they are wise, will pass over these things in silence unless they have specific reason not to: let these people have their privacy, for goodness sake.

It's only towards the very end that we find that Haneke has decided to make the fetishes Erika Kohut pursues in her off hours when nobody's looking, part of the main show, because they afford him yet another opportunity to show us the virus of cruelty: from Erika's mother, to Erika, spreading outwards further (well, to Water, who must have been especially susceptible to begin with; I trust most people would not behave so badly with so little provocation), every single interaction of any kind ending up as no more than another opportunity for one of the two parties to assault the other and Haneke to assault the audience. Yes, I get the point, whether because I worked it out myself or because I read it in other people's comments I'm not sure: the music Erika plays so well speaks of a joy which she no longer knows how to navigate towards in her own life, and just as she's been blighted this way, she will in turn blight others. Well acted, Huppert; well said, Haneke, in a one-note kind of way (although please do note: there's no particular reason, certainly no good reason, that your film as a whole should be as joyless or as merciless as its central character); but does this make for a decent film, one worth even the time spent watching it? Just recently I've seen the real thing, and I'm not fooled.

The following is something of a cheap shot, since the flaw I'm picking up on is just the result of an almost ubiquitous convention, but I feel I'm justified under the circumstances: in a film so determined to be unflinching, uncompromising and free of artifice, why is it that all conversations in Vienna are conducted in French?
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Doormat Goes Nutzoid
14 May 2003
One of those films that's known, if at all, entirely because of its amusing title, is something listed on the IMDb as "Zeisters" but alternately titled "Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid". One suspects the alternate title is apt, too, because there's probably not a lot more to that film than a fat guy going nutzoid. "Clean Slate" could also be called, with about as little oversimplification, "Doormat Goes Nutzoid". The first part of the film sees Bertrand Tavernier, helped along by Pilippe Noiret's broad acting and more co-operation than was strictly necessary from the rest of the cast and crew, establish again and again and again that Lucien is a doormat. In a typical scene two people who are of little account themselves will take turns tripping him so that he sprawls in the dust, only to watch him get up and apologise for falling over. It's like watching George McFly from "Back to the Future".

Then, in the latter and believe it or not better part of the film, Tavernier and Noiret slam on the brakes, skid 180 degrees and show us Lucien going nutzoid, killing off whoever gets or has gotten in his way, safe from suspicion because of his established persona. The film ends when it ends.

I saw a 16mm print which did little for what I suspected was nice, crisp location photography, but it was clear enough Tavernier was trying (with success) to make the remote and somewhat neglected African village look like a bare stage; which, along with the hints of pervasive colonial corruption, was necessary to allow such a piece of conceptual art as "Doormat Goes Nutzoid" to come to life. Necessary, but not sufficient.
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The one hour that's brilliant is enough to make the film an unqualified success
10 May 2003
Warning: Spoilers
Spoilers follow.

The first half hour is the weakest. It seems to consist of little more than forced, awkward little conversations and encounters between Sy and members of the family he obsesses about, in which Sy is too familiar, too friendly, too knowing, and the family members don't quite pick up on this - although there's always the chance that Sy will go just a hair's breadth further, and they will. This is just painful to watch. Mark Romanek doesn't yet have the skill as a director to make any of his early scenes come to life, and apart from establishing the fact that Sy is not entirely right in the head, and doing so too obviously, he doesn't seem to know where he's going. (It must also be said that even throughout the excellent final hour Romanek's competent but sometimes ill-judged direction is the biggest enemy of Romanek's fist-rate script: I wish he had used music, if at all, as music, not as a cheap horror movie sound effect; that he'd kept the camera still while showing us Sy's collection of photos of the Yorkins, rather than zooming in on them; that he hadn't included a brief dream sequence straight out of "Hellraiser".) At the start of the film it's hard not to be disappointed. "One Hour Photo" has an inspired premise; it deserves inspired story-telling.

Which it ends up getting. Romanek creates something far more interesting and affecting out of his premise than I'd dared hope. The moment that jolts the film from mediocrity to brilliance is the scene in which Bill, the Sav-Mart manager, calls Sy up to his office to fire him. We keenly feel what a terrible thing this must be for Sy. We'd already known that Bill was a prick. When there was an altercation between Sy and the machine repair guy Bill had coldly reprimanded Sy about starting fights in the store, without bothering to find out who started bellowing first (it was in fact the repair guy, not Sy), or what the dispute was about (it was about something important, and Sy was completely in the right). Bill attacks Sy and undermines what little power he has in the cruellest way he can. And the manner in which Sy gets fired is likewise cruel. A decent human being - and one doesn't get to be manager of a shopping complex by being a decent human being - would have at least given Sy a choice about whether to continue working for the rest of the week, or not (without, of course, making Sy's severance salary or back holiday pay dependent on how he chose). The conditions under which Sy is expected to come to work for the rest of the week are intolerable. Not that his work conditions had been tolerable beforehand: he'd been forced to wear humiliating clothes, all but coerced into providing a poor service (we admire him for resisting), not once been TREATED like a human being, and made to set up shop inside a shopping mall more hideous and dystopian than any I've seen in Australia - I suspect more hideous and dystopian than any existing in the USA, either, although in either case it's only a slight exaggeration of reality, and in years to come it may not be an exaggeration at all.

From here on the film doesn't set a foot wrong - until, perhaps, the final moment. I think it was a mistake to have Sy tell the police (but mainly the audience) about his childhood, "explaining" his subsequent behaviour by letting us know he was abused as a child, all too neatly adding (one can imagine Sigmund Freud ticking off the one remaining item on his checklist) that his father used to take photos of him doing degrading things. I'm not saying the scene doesn't work. Robin Williams didn't need to deliver this speech at all, since already in this film he'd gained our sympathy far more than he ever had in the past - but it must be said he delivers his lines movingly. And it's good that the policeman questioning Sy was given the chance to behave in a civilised manner, and nice for a change, in an American film, to see such civilised behaviour, rather than the usual fascist brutality, held up as an ideal. But we already knew that SOMETHING about the first part of Sy's life had been unhappy. Best to leave it at that. We can speculate if we want to. Besides, Sy's unhappy early life, whatever form it may happen to take, is only part of the story. Just as important, if not more so, in understanding why he went over the edge are the years of slavery he spent at Sav-Mart.
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A better title: "The Mind-Numbingly Boring Conversation, Which Is Made Only a Little Bit More Interesting by Being Bugged"
9 May 2003
Warning: Spoilers
My hunch is that the buzz surrounding this film is largely due to the fact that it OUGHT to be good. The idea is a good one. It's been made into a film, so far as I can tell, exactly once: no other film in history that I'm aware of is a remake, a foreshadowing, a knock-off, a parody or a faithful homage. There's really nothing better (or worse) to compare it to. Coppola made the film, between "The Godfather" and "The Godfather Part II", two films which are widely, if incorrectly, regarded as among the best of all time, with a talented crew and without any obvious mistakes. However few (or many) positive virtues it may have it has few positive failings. On balance it's probably okay, and certainly worth watching once.

Spoilers follow...

But surely even the film's champions can see how painfully boring most of it is. It's depressing, all right, because it's always depressing to spend two hours in the company of someone or something with no energy, no life and not very many thoughts; and I'm not referring to Harry Caul here (although I could be), but to the film itself. Coppoloa is as obsessive about getting down every little uninteresting detail about people and events he doesn't understand the significance of, as his protagonist is; if the process of watching the minutae of bugging is SOMETIMES involving (as in the opening scene, where we see how the title conversation was recorded in the first place; or the sequence in which Caul patiently and methodically sifts through what sound like random crackles in order to pull out complete, comprehensible sentences; or even the trade show, where matters of moment look as though they might be under discussion), this is because it's sometimes going somewhere. But Coppola doesn't know how to build. When the key sentence "He'd kill us if he got the chance" leaps out of the soundtrack at us, it's an arresting moment, but only because we suspect that the sentence means something. Only gradually does it dawn on us that we're never going to be told what it means; nor will we be given any further evidence, not even the thinnest little sliver, that might help us work it out. Nor does this sentence move the story forward in any way. Harry gets more paranoid as a result of hearing the sentence but while he moves around more frantically he doesn't seem to be going in any particular direction.

Another writer calls Coppola's film "a great paranoid character study disguised as a thriller", and goes on to say that it works well on either level. This view could not be more wrong. If "The Conversation" worked well as a thriller, we wouldn't need to invoke the central character's madness, and the fact that any particular thing we see may not really be happening at all, simply to make sense of the story; and if it worked as a paranoid character study, we wouldn't need to think that some of Harry's delusions may not be delusions at all in order to be interested in them. This leaves open the possibility that the film works as a COMBINATION of paranoid character study and thriller; but for that to be the case it would have to be less tedious.

The "ambiguous" ending is a simple cop-out, which is why the final shot of Harry's smashed-to-bits rooms, which OUGHT to be shocking and creepy, carry almost no charge whatever. Ambiguous endings only work when there is at least one satisfying disambiguation in there somewhere. There's none to be had here. This is the best I can come up with: Harry has been had by is colleagues again, just as he was at the trade show. The device he thought was fake, the one which would purportedly a distant wiretapper to turn any telephone receiver anywhere in the world into a live microphone, in fact WORKED, and Harry destroyed everything in his flat looking for newly-planted bug when the only bug present was the one that had been there all along.

The murder, or would-be-murder, or imagined murder (whichever it was), is, on this theory, little more than a red herring. I don't like this, but don't blame me if the film doesn't know what it's about.
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My Sassy Girl (2001)
Purely wonderful
8 May 2003
I'd like to respond to the writer who asserts, on the strength of having lived in Korea for nine months, that "the girl's aggressive behaviour towards Gyun-Woo is non-existent in [the] patriarchal, male dominated society of South Korea."

I haven't set foot in Korea. But I refuse to believe that ANY country is, or ever was, THAT homogenous. The population of South Korea is 48 million; assume that only someone in the heroine's age group could possibly resemble her (she does change in subtle respects as she grows older), and that the chance of any one woman developing her characteristics is a mere one in eight million, then by my rough calculations there's still an even chance that somewhere in South Korea is a woman who resembles her. Most Koreans won't have met her, of course.

Never mind whether this story is explicit fantasy or not (I'll need to see the film again before I can become decided on that point); fiction is there to focus on the exceptional, not on the ordinary. "The Girl" is presented as being exceptional. Gyun-Woo is right in thinking that the woman he loves is special and that he won't see her like again. Is everyone else in love right to think this about THEIR beloved also? Maybe, maybe not; other people's love lives aren't part of the story.

The fact that The Girl IS as special, as interesting, ultimately as lovable, as the story requires her to be (what's more: actress Ji-hyun Jun is lovely, and her facial expressions have to be seen to be believed) is only one of the reasons that "My Sassy Girl" is as fresh a romantic comedy as you're ever likely to see. Another reason is that it doesn't use romantic comedy formula even as its starting point. The levelling of obstacles standing between the lovers isn't really the point of the story. The point lies in the encounters themselves: how these two people change each other's lives.

Each of the three successive acts (first half, second half, overtime) adds something to the story and takes it to a new, unexpected and subtly magical place. Of the many risks Jae-young Kwak took the only one that I think was ill-advised was his decision to make Gyun-Woo's taking the story to Shin Cine studios to be filmed part of the story, suggesting that the movie we're watching is the movie its protagonists helped to create. Luckily we're watching something far better than that and the scene is but a brief distraction, one false note in a two-hour symphony of delight.
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Crackerjack (2002)
Crackerjack indeed
8 May 2003
It was while watching coverage of the 1990 Commonwealth Games that I realised: lawn bowls is not just one of the few sports that isn't unbearably tedious to sit down and watch, it's positively tense and exciting; minute for minute, probably more so than any other sport.

Am I disappointed, then, that we see so little lawn bowls footage in "Crackerjack", and we never get even an overview of a complete game? Not at all. Lawn bowls isn't really cinematic in that way; unlike a game of cricket or chess, a game of lawn bowls has little in the way of narrative structure. It's shot-by-shot skill, and that's what the camera in "Crackerjack" concentrates on. We aren't even told the rules of the game, apart from what we need to know to understand individual shots. What we see of the game is still nail-biting, and it's still enough to make me wonder why I taken up the game myself in the past thirteen years.

A decade ago I thought of Mick Molloy as the Ringo Starr of the D-Generation comics - or failing Molloy, I thought of Judith Lucy in that role. Yet here they both are in a comedy far more assured than either "The Castle" or "The Dish"; better in every respect, in fact: wittier, much funnier, better structured, in the end more heartwarming, and with more bite. The swipe at poker machines is motivated by real anger - as it should be, since you could probably crowd every single citizen of Australia, who honestly believes that poker machines are a good thing, into the one garage, yet for dubious economic reasons which surely can't REALLY persuade anyone the machines are allowed to invade anyway.

The basic premise of "Crackerjack" is all too common in reality. A lawn bowls club has stood solid for decades, is still in use, still benefits people, still has all the equipment and staff it needs, cannot in any obvious way be changed for the better and is of more value than what would replace it if it were to disappear. Yet someone comes along to tell its members that they can no longer "afford" to keep the club the way it is. Can anyone take this seriously? Nobody in THIS film, thank goodness.
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The Tracker (2002)
Lose the songs.
8 May 2003
Every so often the motion picture photography will just stop and a moment - usually a moment of violence - will be represented by a painting, in glowing colours. It's a powerful and dense device. The paintings are more shocking than explicit gore, which simply encourages us to turn away in disgust and then forget about it ... the paintings work, in fact, as Brechtian "distancing" devices ought to (but usually don't) work, distancing us from the concerns of the moment without distancing us from the world of the fiction. (They also hint at an aboriginal perspective. They suggest that the events we see are, somewhere and at some time, being documented; that even if they won't ever become part of any white historian's account, they will still enter into the historical record in some form.)

Alas, de Heer violates the one-gimmick rule by also using a narrative song track. The low point is when we see the four main characters plodding along on horseback, the camera holding each in turn in a tight close-up, and the singer, who sounds as though he could not be brisk or succinct if his life depended on it, tells us about each of them, one interminable song stanza per character - and he tells us stuff we already know anyway. In fact, the singer NEVER tells us anything we don't already know or aren't capable of working out. I swear, if a troubador had strolled in front of the camera, strumming a lute, it could not have been more intrusive (and might have been more entertaining). To be fair, the songs take up very little time overall. For one or two long stretches they're absent altogether. They do most of their damage by making us worry that they'll come back.

Minus the songs it's a wonderful film. It's a wonderful film anyway. De Heer has a tight, perfectly formed story that's nonetheless entirely believable, about the uncertain, shifting balance of power between the three riders and between the riders and the tracker; it's strongly acted and told with visual mastery (there's a memorable scene in which we see - with just a few simple shots - a dry plain from the perspective of the follower, full of identical white pebbles, and from the perspective of the tracker, with a single pebble that must have been displaced in the past hour or so leaping to the eye). The songs I soon forgot; the film itself I won't.
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It needn't have been made this poorly
7 May 2003
An utterly bewildering film. I can't recall being so confused at a screening. Yes, I'm sure Hong Kong audiences and devotees of Hong Kong cinema understood it well enough. This is partly because the version they saw was a quarter-hour or so longer than the version I saw. (I can picture the foreign distributor saying: "All this scene does is make sense of the other scenes. Get rid of it!") Partly, though, it's just slapdash film-making, which the long-suffering people of Hong Kong are no doubt well used to by now. This is a big budget production with first-rate sets and costumes, some decent acting talent and some amazing fighting and choreographing talent; so why is it lit, photographed and edited so clumsily? The uncertain fish-eye lenswork just doesn't work on so wide a screen – if it would have worked on any screen – and the idiotic juxtaposition of ill-chosen camera angles makes my head swim. (I don't mean to imply that all Hong Kong films are this poorly made; those I've seen with Jackie Chan in them, for example, aren't poorly made at all. Maybe, in Hong Kong, decent production values simply weren't for sale.)

The fight scenes – which, rightfully, tend towards non-violent wherever the story permits – are indeed well crafted, and about half the time, well enough caught on film. When I say "half the time" I don't mean that half the fight scenes have been filmed well. I mean that every single fight scene is half-and-half, combining instances where the camera has caught whatever it is that makes the display of martial arts breathtaking (the leaping about on the balancing ladders being especially so), with instances where it all too painfully hasn't.

It's not all the camera's fault. A film that navigates its way from one fight to the next would have been better served by a simpler story with less complicated heroes and villains… As it is, breaking the story like clockwork every so often for an unmotivated display of leg-swinging (each display all too much like the last) is like inserting Irving Berlin musical numbers into "The Manchurian Candidate". If the story MUST be complicated to the point of incomprehensibility, though, it could stand being more interesting in its own right.

But to defend the film (which isn't really as bad as all that), it's not the exercise in fatuous self-reference that an earlier writer says it is. Read on and you'll find his comments: they're a hoot. He writes: "The story is framed in the context of the imposition of Western technology into a mature civilization. Movies are a part of that intrusion, in fact arguably the most intrusive." (I suppose this is "arguable" in the sense that anything is.) "So we already have a self-referential conundrum."

I could run similarly tenuous arguments all day if I wasn't held back by intellectual honesty. "Doctor Zhivago" is set during the Russian revolution (the long process spanning decades, not the coup of 1918). But wait: movies were a part of that revolution! For that matter, "War and Peace" is about Russia, and movies are a part of Russia.

If there's any point to the setting of "Once Upon a Time in China" at all, and I think there is, it's that the country is being taken over by ARMED FORCE, which threatens to make old style martial arts fighting pointless; Western ways are not sneaking in through cinemas (of which there may not yet be any in the country), but are being marched in at the point of a gun. Bear this in mind while watching the film and you may not understand exactly what's going on, but at least you might avoid utter misunderstanding.
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