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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
A Genuine Achievement
Boldly announcing himself upon the stage of international cinema with 2009's Let the Right One In, the significant critical and commercial acclaim accorded director Thomas Alfredson clearly proved him a filmmaker capable of pulling off high quality adaptations of complex and dark literary sources.
Called back into service to uncover the identity of a Soviet mole at the height of the Cold War, retired British intelligence operative George Smiley is tasked with unwinding a vastly convoluted web of conspiracy, codenames, double agents, and deceit.
The movement from relatively low-budget foreign language filmmaking to helming star casts in comparably costly productions is one that, historically, holds significant risk for directorial careers. Add to the mix the danger of bringing a much-loved novel to life on screen, and Alfredson is certainly faced with a substantial task. An espionage thriller, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy—based on John le Carré's book—throws an extremely layered narrative at its audience and insists they keep up, making little in the way of allowance for those accustomed to excess plot exposition. Concerning an approximate dozen key characters—most of whom go by at least two names—the film contains a considerable quantity of raw information to be processed, particularly considering its reserved pace; the camera scrolls slowly across the screen in step with the story's measured progression, constantly moving along yet never losing the integral tension of its hastelessness. Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O' Connor and Peter Straughan demonstrate a keenness for the more tensely-oriented end of the genre, delving into an atmosphere of unease rather than one of brisk spy action. There is almost an air of claustrophobia to much of the film, the caliginous cinematography and mysterious score combining to evoke an aura of noir paranoia. Much like Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy boasts a thrilling visual panache; indeed, Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography is oftentimes so remarkably involving that entire scenes may pass by without any absorption of the dialogical details disclosed therein—the brain is simply too overcome by the aesthetic bombardment of visual pleasure to decipher the explicit aural signals. One particular shot—an extreme close-up of Smiley's wearied face draped in shadow— affords the audience the time to study the furrowed ridges of his forehead and the weighted bags of his eyelids, giving us an entitled sense of knowledge of, and familiarity with, this character. It seems almost redundant to offer praise to the film's extraordinary cast; a brief glance at the list of exemplary names will disclose the sheer calibre of talent on display: a veritable dream team of the finest names of modern British cinema. From Firth to Hurt, Hardy to Cumberbatch, Oldman to Dencik, the phenomenal cast plays beautifully together, each actor inhabiting their character with award-courting flair. Where Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy really shines is in its characterisation—an all-too often underutilised aspect in this genre—each of them distinctly human rather than simply mouths through which the plot developments are channelled. Their primary concern may be with their espionage, but ours is with them: exploring their motivations; their private lives; their loyalties; and just how a career like theirs affects an existence. A recurring Christmas party scene revisited a number of times throughout the film reminds us regularly that these intelligence agents are not solely extensions of the government's facilities, but rather human beings with emotions, afflicted by the agonies of their toils, burying themselves in vodka-laced punch to just get away from it all.
Hitting all the right notes in its performances, script, and direction, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy triumphantly infuses a challengingly multifarious narrative with a deeper humanity, questioning by proxy the way in which devotion to duty affects all aspects of our lives. Shot with unforgettable effulgence—committing to memory eternal every last contour of Oldman's storied brow—it is a genuine achievement in cinematic storytelling.
The Wicker Man (1973)
The Wicker Man: Impossible to Forget
What makes a great horror film? It might seem a frivolous question, a near rhetorical one to which the answer "a film which scares" is obvious. Yet few would interpret The Wicker Man, the 1973 British cult classic, as particularly scary in the traditional sense. It is in the themes and ideas behind the film, however, that the element of horror is to be found. Like its American contemporaries The Exorcist and The Omen, The Wicker Man deals with that most effective of horror themes: religion.
Having been anonymously alerted to the mysterious disappearance of a young girl from the remote Scottish island community of Summerisle, Sergeant Neil Howie encounters difficulties in his search for answers in the form of the obdurate islanders, who fervently deny the girl's existence.
That a film so regularly ranked highly in horror "best of" lists can contain traces of a musical might seem perplexing, even contradictory, the mutual exclusivity of the genres surely set in stone. Much of The Wicker Man's effect, however, can be attributed to its musical heritage, its eerie atmosphere of impending threat engendered primarily through the heavy usage of folk songs. On the second day of his visit, Sergeant Howie encounters a group of children dancing around a maypole, the increasingly rapid tempo of their song lending a sense of unsettling urgency to their otherwise harmless actions. The song outlines the basis of the community's beliefs, namely reincarnation and the old gods of the earth and the sun. The paganism which characterizes the islanders immediately establishes the film's religious commentary. Howie is a fundamentalist Christian, his views steadfast and self-assured. He is repulsed and repelled by what he encounters in Summerisle, the openly practiced sexual rituals and teaching to schoolchildren of phallic symbolism the direct antithesis to his conservative views of celibacy and quietly reverential worship. Played inimitably by Edward Woodward, Howie in many ways represents 1970s British society itself, at one point sternly reminding Lord Summerisle—the leader of the island, authoritatively portrayed by the great Christopher Lee—that he remains the subject of a Christian country. The dynamic that exists between the two characters juxtaposes their respective faiths, Howie's protestations that Summerisle is a place of heathenism and the community's practices ludicrous indulgences in sacrilegious nonsense countered immediately, the similarly far-fetched elements of Christian doctrine highlighted, scrutinized, and ridiculed as just as unbelievable and absurd. Lee brings an avuncular grace to his performance, his retorts simultaneously firmly definitive and benignly inoffensive—a description, incidentally, which rather effectively summates the film itself. Whilst not strictly anti-Catholic, the film takes a skeptical stance to organized religion, Woodward's depiction of his character as uptight and immovably fastidious deliberately preventing the audience from meaningful identification with him. Summerisle and its population are presented in such a way that we are made to question whether the strict society Howie represents is really a more appealing prospect. The island is inexplicably opulent, its crime rate all but non-existent, its inhabitants close-knit and undeniably satisfied with life. Indeed, even Howie himself is tempted by the allure of this alternative way of life, a particularly memorable scene in which the young woman in the room next to his nakedly dances, pounding his wall and singing a hypnotically mesmeric song conveying the testing of his ideologies. Like the audience, Howie is fascinated by this culture and, though he maintains an austere facade, sees in it the kind of free-spirited life which he can never himself enjoy.
Effectively utilizing music to create an atmosphere of tense unease, The Wicker Man is a film replete with religious imagery, symbolism, and detailed commentary upon the role of religion in society and its effect upon its followers. Impressively acted—particularly by its two leads—it is the kind of film which remains embedded in the mind long after viewing, its chilling effect making it impossible to forget. After all, isn't that what great horror should do?
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
The Night of the Hunter: Ethereal Fantasy
Many is the film which has, on initial release, been critically dismissed and largely ignored, only to be later heralded as a masterpiece of cinema. Such is certainly the case with The Night of the Hunter, a film so poorly regarded upon its original 1955 release that its director—the actor Charles Laughton—was never again afforded the opportunity to stand behind a camera.
Now regularly regarded as one of the finest examples of film noir, The Night of the Hunter is a powerful childhood fable that tackles issues of religious fanaticism, the innocence of youth, and loyalty to one's past and principles. Joining its sibling protagonists as their father arrives home with a gunshot wound and a handful of money which he demands they keep secret, the film sees the children attempt to evade the efforts of a suspect preacher to claim their fortune as he successfully ingratiates himself within their community.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Night of the Hunter is its titular character, and the thematic concerns addressed through him. Shown early in the film to be the cellmate of the children's father before his execution, Reverend Harry Powell is a villain of extraordinary depth. Quickly betrothing himself to the newly widowed mother, he is charming, charismatic, and utterly confident in his belief that he is an instrument of God. That his status as a preacher is not one he has simply adopted in order to attain his goals introduces to the film the theme of religion and the questions of the evil that can be created when faith is misdirected and dogma misinterpreted. In his own eyes, Powell is conducting the lord's work, the crimes he commits justified, even directly suggested, by the need to continue spreading his faith. It is this unabashed zealotry which endears him to Willa—the children's mother—and her employer Mrs Spoon, who is particularly insistent that Willa settle with a man of God in order to repent for her husband's sins. Powell is a terrifying antagonist, not for the ills he commits, but rather for his belief that they are righteous; that his implementation of such hideous violence is morally vindicated. The deep- seated fury inherent in the preacher is marvellously articulated in the performance of Robert Mitchum, bringing the various stages of the character to life, from benign guardianship to homicidal rage. Mitchum is, however, just one of the film's considerably many facets. Brimming with the visual hallmarks of film noir, the German Expressionist heritage on which the genre so heavily draws is here abundantly apparent. Distorted and surreal angles fill many of the darkly lit sets, their twisting contortions physical realisations of the more sinister side of the film. A particularly memorable sequence sees the children slowly floating down a river as they escape the Reverend, a miasma of natural beauty framing their slow journey in time to the orchestral score. Music, it should be noted, is of crucial importance to the film's effect, hymns used throughout. Powell's regular renditions lend a sombre sense of impending dread, his voice casting him as the omnipresent force of inescapable terror. A chorus of unseen children provides the antithesis to his haunting song, their innocent chanting endowing the film with the quality of an ethereal fantasy, providing an escape from the depths of darkness which fill the film so heavily.
Part extraordinarily dark film noir, part childhood adventure fantasy, The Night of the Hunter raises important questions about the darker side of religious faith and the chilling ways in which people condone their actions through their belief. Expressing as much through its effulgent lighting as through its haunting themes, it is a film of incredible visual appeal.
Blood Work (2002)
Blood Work: Nothing New
Much as was the case with Eastwood's prior directorial credit Space Cowboys, I had long avoided Blood Work despite being a huge fan of that decade of Clint. I can't even explain why really, it was simply a hunch, a suspicion that somewhere along the line something would go wrong.
An FBI profiler forced to retire after suffering a heart attack in pursuit of a serial killer, Terry McCaleb is pulled back into his former life when it is revealed that the woman whose heart he received via transplant was murdered by the very same serial killer in order to keep him alive and in the game.
Okay, so maybe a large part of my fear of this film falling short of the Eastwood high water mark lay in the synopsis above, a synopsis which is worrying at best. The screen has seen its fair share of serial killer thrillers and then some, the amount of times we've seen a profiler/detective personally taunted and egged on by his quarry making the genre bloated, tired, and altogether too unoriginal. It would take something incredibly special to lift a film from the depths of mediocrity which form so dangerous a pitfall for this narrative formula. Drucilla Cornell, in her wonderful book Clint Eastwood and Issues of American Masculinity, suggests that indeed Blood Work does have this special something, citing the recurrent theme of having a woman's heart as the introduction of a deeper exploration of masculinity and femininity to the film. Any fan of Eastwood would do well to encounter this text, incidentally, its ideas fascinating and perspective-broadening. Whilst I understand Cornell's approach, and wholly appreciate and commend it, I myself am not satisfied that the exploration of this idea goes deep enough to escape the ultimate problem that is the film's routine ticking-off of the genre conventions. McCaleb disobeys authority, goes renegade, finds an unusual sidekick, discovers evidence hidden in plain sight, involves himself in a dangerous romance, and discovers that all along, what he was looking for was closer than he thought. The oft repeated assertion that McCaleb will be guided by the heart of Gloria is, whilst an interesting idea that does seem to indicate toward a question of gender roles, insufficient to overcome the plodding dullness of the film's adherence to a standard formula. I appreciate the effort, but it's not even nearly enough. There is nothing new to be found in this movie, nothing that does anything for the genre, nothing to commit it in any way to memory, nothing to make watching it worthwhile.
Though it tries something new with the tired old genre, Blood Work conforms too lazily with the standard narrative progression of the serial killer thriller to manage to be particularly noteworthy. Unoriginal, and thereby uninteresting, it is a poor offering from a director who has so much more to give than this.
Space Cowboys (2000)
Space Cowboys: Damn Enjoyable
Despite my constant adulation of Eastwood's films of the decade ending 2009, I had never managed to see either Space Cowboys or Blood Work. Surely, I thought, I should be rushing to see both of these, given my fondness for that period of the director's career. Surely they would conform to this extraordinary block of raw talent.
An ex Air Force scientist denied the chance to go into space following the establishment of NASA, Frank Corvin is called upon to bring down a dangerously unstable Russian satellite which employs a now-archaic system he designed. Spying the opportunity to achieve his onetime dream, he rounds up the old team for one last mission.
I think it way have been the nature of Space Cowboys which perhaps subliminally kept me from getting around to it. A cast littered with highly esteemed names, a massive budget, a high-concept premise. None of these things were ever present for the slew of masterpieces which followed (some big names appeared, I grant you, but never so many simultaneously), a factor I must have considered an ill omen for this film's chances with me. I like my Eastwood dark and dramatic, not lighthearted and action-filled. Nevertheless, I was willing to get invested and involved, the cast offering names the like of Eastwood, Jones, Sutherland, and Cromwell, all of whom I'm deeply fond of. The plot is of course rather far-fetched and requires a considerable leap of faith. If you approach this film with cynicism you will be lost immediately upon learning that NASA is willing to send a force of geriatrics into space. That said, it is explained as best as possible; given that Corvin is literally the only man for the job, the government's acceptance of his terms is somewhat less fantastical, especially considering the delicate balance of international relations thereon dependent. The narrative structure is, beyond the age issue, pretty standard, following the well established path of gradual training and the resolution of whatever issues are encountered. When a serious problem threatens the success of the mission, a creaking cliché steps in to fix it. We all know the story, for so many times have we seen it unfold. And yet, in spite of all the problems of sheer unoriginality and a formulaic implementation, the film is damn enjoyable. There is a heart-warming charm to be felt in seeing these actors occupying the screen together and having quite so much fun in the process. They crack jokes, compete physically and sexually, and behave like little boys. Maybe that is the key to the film's charm: the participant's tongue-in-cheek acceptance of their own age, and a bold defiance of the societally imposed limitations thereof. In a way, the absurdity and ridiculousness of the premise is entirely intentional, allowing these onetime cowboys to ride again and feel the vigour of youth. And who are we to deny them that?
Though it is completely and utterly ludicrous and requires quite a substantial suspension of disbelief, one gets the impression that Space Cowboys plays upon just that very aspect of itself, breathing a renewed life into its elderly participants and vicariously so into its audience. An ode to youth and a firm middle finger to the limitations of age, one cannot help being drawn into its fantasy.
Alamar: Deeply Humbling
Named as the film of 2010 by a site in which I invest some credence, Alamar was something I was keen to seek out and take in, its status as an is-it-isn't-it-documentary an added factor to its appeal.
Leaving the urban residence of his mother to spend time with his father and grandfather off the Mexican coast, Natan experiences the wonders of unadulterated nature in this tiny fishing community.
There has been some degree of questioning as to whether Alamar ought to be classed as a documentary, owing perhaps to its lack of a distinct narrative as such. Certainly the lifestyle it portrays and documents is a real one, lived by real people in the real world. The names of the performers seem to suggest that this is a real family, Natan the actual son of these parents rather than simply playing the role. Maybe it is a documentary. Maybe there is fictionalisation; maybe this sets it apart and classifies it as a narrative film. The one thing I can say for sure is that whether it is documentary or not is irrelevant. It matters not in the slightest whether this story is a reality, whether these people really relate to each other, whether they are paid actors, for so engrossing, engaging, endearing, and enthralling is the film that we are made to feel almost as though we are right there with them every step of the way as they travel from city to sea, from urbanity to rurality of the most secluded sort imaginable. To call the film's cinematography majestic would be to call the ocean which plays such a huge part in its beauty wet: a gross understatement. Each frame lovingly captures the dazzlingly effulgent seascapes, every second of audio the enrapturing calm, the comforting hush. The phrase "words can't describe" is tossed about all too often, almost stripped of the true significance of its meaning, but it can be put to use here without even the slightest suggestion of hyperbole. Words cannot describe the encompassing wonder of the images and sounds captured; indeed, it seems only film can do so. One gets a sense that it is exactly this kind of task for which the medium was envisaged: to present that which can be expressed, be conveyed, be imagined in no other way. There is a complex simplicity to the way of life Alamar depicts, a system of frugality and self-sustenance which is deeply humbling, even moving, to witness. Sitting there, watching this astounding film portray this astounding life on my fancy television and DVD player in my suburban home, all but indistinguishable from the hundreds of clones around it, tears of joyous appreciation graced my cheeks; tears of recognition, of understanding that there remains such vast and astounding beauty in the world. For some 73 minutes I was transported into another life, a life wherein I could appreciate something completely different. Many would describe it as a basic existence, but it is so much more than that. So much more. To see the young Natan revel in the regal splendour of the bird he declares "Blanquita" is to be transported mentally, emotionally, philosophically, to an entirely different plane. Words may not be able to describe the feelings which this emotional experience engenders, but one word can sum up precisely the experience itself: cinema. Purely and simply, this is cinema; this is its power, its potential realised.
Writing about Alamar, thinking about it and picturing once more its perspective-altering images makes me immediately want to turn my back on everything I know and live life as these people do, out in the great wild open. Thankfully, I can do just that with the film, for so powerful is its effect, if only for 73 minutes...
The Eiger Sanction (1975)
The Eiger Sanction: A Ludicrous Film
Having been a huge fan of Eastwood's modern directorial career, I had been somewhat trepidatious approaching his earlier works, fearful that they would fall far shy of his current mastery of the art. Fears firmly assuaged by his first three films, I was convinced that the man could do no wrong.
A retired assassin resigned to a life as an art professor and collector, Jonathan Hemlock reluctantly agrees to take on the task of one last "sanction" when he learns that the targets are responsible for the death of an old friend. Discovering that one of the killers—the other has already been easily dispatched—is among an expedition to climb the Eiger, he must discern the identity of the target and take him out, all whilst scaling the deadliest mountain in all of Europe.
Writing the above plot synopsis, I was almost brought to tears of laughter by the absurdity of it. Have another read, go on. Sounds absolutely ridiculous, I'm sure you'll agree. Complete and utter rubbish, right? My thoughts exactly, going into the film. I wondered how my beloved Clint was going to manage to turn such a stupid action premise into a compelling film, as I had no doubt he would. Alas, not even Eastwood could pull such a task off. The Eiger Sanction is a ludicrous film. A key reason for Hemlock's agreement to take on the job is that the government agency which hires him will report his art collection to the IRS if he does not, a leverage he wards off by procuring what the film's Wikipedia synopsis rather charmingly names an "IRS exemption letter". I'm sorry, but that's just funny. As for this secretive organisation, it is headed by an albino ex-Nazi who resides in a darkened red room and survives on regular blood transfusions, all whilst being sure to crowbar the film's title into his painfully expository dialogue. Because there haven't been quite enough espionage thriller clichés gone through yet, let's welcome to the mix an attractive yet ultimately untrustworthy female, an extraordinarily camp former adversary, and a sequence of our hero demonstrating his masculinity by standing on large things. Stop clambering all over Monument Valley Clint, you've lost your right to be there. Startlingly bad, it is genuinely worrying to see the film dedicated to a man whose life was lost in its making. More of an insult than a tribute, it's sad to consider that some poor bugger died for this: a woefully poor, interminably dull, painfully unoriginal, distressingly formulaic, achingly uninteresting, and indescribably unnecessary piece of "action-adventure" tosh.
The sadly inevitable point at which I realised Mr Eastwood is not infallible, The Eiger Sanction is a very poor film which wastes the director's here-absent talents and the skills of the usually wonderful George Kennedy. Stupid, plodding, poorly-written, and badly brought to (decidedly lifeless) life, its only redeeming feature is the laugh factor inspired by the sheer scale of its nonsensicality.
The Beguiled (1971)
The Beguiled: Quietly Harrowing
Working my way through a boxset of the eight films Eastwood made with Universal in his early film career, I expected from The Beguiled a good quality western drama in the vein of the actor's other collaborations with director Don Siegel.
Slowly dying from his wounds, Yankee soldier John McBurney is found and rescued by a schoolgirl who has him taken to her boarding school where he is tended to by her classmates and the school's staff, who eventually decide not to turn him in to the Confederate soldiers under whose watch they reside.
Set toward the conclusion of the Civil War, The Beguiled is, if we insist upon generic classification, more a war film than a western. That said, it is far removed for being simply a war film. Immediately unearthing the idea of wartime loyalty to one's cause, the film examines the moral conflict engendered by the women's knowledge that McBurney will be killed if handed over. They are all loyal to the Confederate cause, but are uncomfortable with the thought that a man's death will be on their hands. This is not, however, the film's primary thematic concern, nor even one which is explored beyond its base dilemma. The issue of sexual appetites and the implications when they are not satiated is that on which the film focuses, portraying to us that of three of the film's female characters. Eastwood's character early identifies his power within this house despite his handicap, his phallic presence key to his manipulation of the sexually charged women who each wishes to have him in their bed. Using his masculinity as a weapon, he engages in a variety of mind games, attempting to prey upon the exasperated libidos; hoping to manipulate them so that he may make his escape. The film explores the issue of gender politics, the ideas of masculinity and femininity, the danger of sexual repression. Surprising enough in itself, it is another aspect of this film which will ensure its ability to be instantly and vividly recalled in the minds of all who see it. The third of these explorations—that of sexual repression—leads to the film's shockingly escalating horror aspects. A Gothic drama by its conclusion more than anything else, the film tilts toward scenes more terrifying than many self-proclaimed "horror films" in its latter half, pulling out all the stops to completely frighten and baffle the audience with darkness matched only in its comprehensiveness by the darkened wonders of Bruce Surtees' cinematography. McBurney's eventual fate as he becomes the emasculated prisoner of these sex-starved women is truly shocking, in every sense of the word. Though the film builds toward this all along, it softens none of the blow, leaving us wide-eyed and drop-jawed.
One of the most surprising narrative progressions I have ever seen in a film, and one of the most quietly harrowing along with it, The Beguiled is a traumatisingly dark drama that is a shocking output from all concerned. Benefiting from this greatly, it is a simultaneously exasperating, entertaining, and electrifying experience that poses some deeply interesting thematic questions about sexuality and violence.
Breezy: Entirely Believable and Endearing
Ever the Eastwood fan, I came to Breezy as a lover of the director's modern work, not very familiar with his earliest efforts. With his career as a major star still in relatively early days, it was interesting that he should opt not to cross in front of the camera as with his first two helmed films.
A free spirited counter-cultural youth, Breezy is a girl who cruises through life with whatever resources she can manage to encounter. Fleeing the car of a man attempting to take sexual advantage of her, she finds herself at the home of middle-aged real-estate agent Frank Harmon, and each gradually comes to be attracted to the other.
A man becoming ever more known for his roles as tough western heroes, Eastwood's decision to direct a film that he not only would not star in, but would be a romance, must have come as a surprise to many. His debut, Play Misty for Me, was of course a romance film of a sort in itself, and one which Eastwood safely captained, cementing his position as a top emerging director as well as a star capable of taking on more than just one set type of role. Nevertheless, the concept of something like Breezy coming from someone like Clint can't help but encourage one to raise an eyebrow. First things first: the leads. A well-known star in the autumn of his career, William Holden was at this time no stranger to roles as romantic lead, though his age had seen few of these roles come his way in recent years. Her first significant role, Kay Lenz was almost entirely unknown, a young girl faced with the monumental task of sharing the stage with one of Old Hollywood's biggest stars. Both rise to the task expertly, the respective cynicism of age and vibrancy of youth combining to create a wonderful chemistry wherein you completely buy the slow romance of these wholly different people. Frank is a functional member of society—albeit a divorced, lonely, and embittered one—while Breezy seems to stand entirely against it. Her clothing is colourful and lively, his gray and drab. She is a sociable, friendly, and cheery character, he a loner who seems content to recede into his hilltop home (incidentally, Eastwood places Holden with the sea in the background and Lenz with crowds behind her to emphasise this, a wonderfully subtle touch). It is the differences between these characters which draw them to each other, and indeed to us. Their relationship, despite its unlikeliness, is entirely believable and endearing, encouraging us to root for them and will them together. Naturally difficulties are encountered, the film teases us and never quite allows the characters to connect as completely as we'd like, and the emotions we invest are played with.
An unconventional love story which examines other issues such as counter-culturalism and becoming old, Breezy is a surprising film from a surprising director. Demonstrating himself to be as skilled behind the camera as he is before, Eastwood gives us an engaging and interesting romance that draws us in with the charisma of its leads.
Pa negre (2010)
Pa Negre: Dark and Deep
Black Bread begins with a familiar scene: a man leads his horse and cart through a darkened wood, glancing around with unease at the various forest sounds which break the tense silence. A fairy-tale quality hangs over the scene, the images framed in wide angles and brought to life with rich autumnal hues; perhaps this will be a fantasy parable. When an assailant attacks the traveller, binds him in the cart, and leads the now-blindfolded horse to the cliff's edge, brutally smashing it in the face with a sledge hammer, our stomachs concomitantly fold alongside the illusion that this will be anything but sickeningly real. It is the first clue to us that we are not in for the easiest of rides; many of the images that will come to us will be disturbing, even distressing.
Set in the years following the Spanish civil war, the film portrays the lingering dissent and tarnished political atmosphere of a nation divided. Andreu—the young boy who discovers the wreckage and is caught up in the post-civil war world of deceit that grips his small village as he attempts to discover the truth behind the "accident"—is sent to live with his grandmother, aunt, and cousins when his father—having fought for the losing side along with the murdered man—is forced to flee in fear of his own life. Andreu's journey to discover what happened to the cart and its riders takes him into the darkness within his village, his family, and even himself.
It seems to me that there is a recurrent idea in modern Spanish-language cinema: to explore the issues of the civil war through the eyes of a child. Predating Black Bread, there are a number of films such as Butterfly's Tongue and Pan's Labyrinth which use the same concept. Examining the war through young eyes contextualises it, reducing it to its most fundamental perceptible elements and providing a fascinating perspective on (in the case of the former) the senselessness of condemning people by ideology alone and (the latter) the monstrousness of war and the frivolity of conflict. In a way, Black Bread achieves both of these things, though far more so the second. It demonstrates not the horror of war itself, but the horror of the people war creates; the capability for evil of those left living. The dark truths Andreu unearths are as horrifying as any war, the images he dreams up truly disturbing. The child protagonist is a proxy through whom we see things at their most stripped-down, basic, and shocking, exposing to us the sheer lunacy of humanity's follies. Surprising is the film's tackling of a particular societal issue which gradually becomes the centre of its comment upon our race, and the animalistic prejudices which, sadly, so often characterise us. Worth making mention of is the film's name, something of a motif referring to the secondary theme of class and social standing, commenting upon the sickening imbalance between the wealthy and the poor in times of hardship. Most films would do well to achieve half the depth Black Bread manages with this theme, and it is a secondary one.
A worthy addition to the fray of Spanish civil war dramas, Black Bread is a surprisingly dark and deep examination of war's effect upon the lives and personalities of those who suffer through it. Condemning the capability of ordinary people to do extraordinary evil, it is an impactful portrait of guilt, responsibility, society, and family.
A Mighty Wind (2003)
A Mighty Wind: Works Astoundingly Well
Comedy in film is one thing which I tend to worry about more than many other factors. Perhaps it is due to the fact that I cannot precisely point out what I want from a comedy film that I feel uneasy watching them, afraid they will disappoint these hidden standards. With that in mind, and with an urge to laugh, I turned to the well trusted Christopher Guest.
A musical mockumentary, A Mighty Wind covers the organisation of a tribute concert to recently deceased folk music magnate Irving Steinbloom, to be performed by three of the acts he helped launch in the course of his career: The New Main Street Singers; The Folksmen; Mitch & Mickey.
Both A Mighty Wind and Best in Show, prior to my recent viewings thereof, lingered vaguely in the back of my mind from my first viewings several years ago. I can recall being, back then, thoroughly amused by the films but simultaneously gripped by a sense that so much was passing me by. It is only now that I realise quite how right I was, the layered approach to Guest's comedy ever more evident with the increased wisdom of years. Co-writing with Eugene Levy, and reputedly allowing for a great deal of improvisation, Guest creates a hybrid of comedic styles that keeps you laughing from start to stop. Perhaps it is in the nature of these humorous situations that the film finds its effect. There are no grand set pieces, no tigers in bathrooms. There are only people, behaving in an entirely human manner. Steinbloom's son, determined to give his father the perfect tribute, fusses over every detail of the concert, worrying that perhaps the chosen flowers may prove dangerous to exposed eyeballs. It is the realism of these characters, these situations, and these words that is so achingly funny. We all know people like this, people who would agree with the younger Steinbloom in his assessment of topiary hazards. Guest and co require no fantastical and otherworldly sequences of events to illicit our laughs; they need only reality and the true-to-life characteristics of the people around us. Real life is funnier than anything fantasy can dream up, and the mockumentary format makes A Mighty Wind feel as though this is reality at its most unadulterated. The laughs come fast, hard, and with an emphatic truth that makes them more amusing than just about anything else. This, I think, is the appeal of Guest's directorial work (or at least what I've seen of it), and it is what makes him one of the best comedic filmmakers today. Needless to say his regular cast works astoundingly well together, his reasons for re-using the same actors repeatedly easy to understand. What is truly exceptional about A Mighty Wind, ranking it above the frankly funnier Best in Show and more scathingly reflective For Your Consideration, is its humanity. I dare say nobody who watches this film will ever be able to forget the interminable sweetness of Mitch & Mickey, easily among the greatest screen couples of all time. An utterly compelling and at times quite saddening romantic subplot underscores the film with such a poetic drama that one cannot help but be moved as well as amused. And their song... Oh their song... Words cannot describe.
With the wonderful humour of Guest's comedies, A Mighty Wind stands head and shoulders above almost all competition. Its humour lies in the reality of its situations, and the normality of its characters. Equipped with a disarmingly charming romance that will test the most hardened of hearts, it also boasts a fantastic soundtrack to compliment this fantastic comedy.
Tarnation: Entirely Selfish Waffle
Recommended by a friend as an interesting look at an odd character, I came to Tarnation not sure of what to expect. Reviewers' opinions seemed divided, classifying it as some sort of an experimental documentary. Always on the lookout for something new and original, I was hoping for the best.
Discovering that his mentally unwell mother has overdosed on lithium, Jonathan Caouette journeys back through the lifetime of home video he has shot, reconstructing and reevaluating the unusual story of his life and that of his family.
Beginning with the aforementioned discovery before turning back the clock and examining Caouette's life from conception to present, Tarnation presents a comprehensive life portrait of its subject, as documented by that very same subject. Therein, one supposes, lies the problem. The first thirty minutes of the film, taking us up to Caouette's mid-teenage years, exhibit immediately the experimental nature of it all: rapid-pace, elliptical editing; expressionistic usage of music. A collection of images and videos supplemented with multi-coloured captions informs us of the difficult early life of Caouette and his single mother, a woman deeply affected by electroshock therapy in her youth. The way in which the footage and pictures are combined is a testament to the darkness of childhood, be it jaded by misfortune or not. We are given an intimate glance into the psyche of youth: the fears, anguishes, and weaknesses which characterise it. For as long as this lasts, the film is entirely captivating and alarmingly disquieting, a fascinating examination of mental trauma and the effect it has upon us in our formative years. Once we exit his childhood, however, we begin to see Caouette and his film for what they really are. Fortunately for him, he escapes childhood relatively unscathed, a perfectly normal and functional person, his fate far removed from the sad one accorded his mother, herself left to a life of wild mood swings and delusional paranoia. The film has been publicised as a chronicle of this mother-son relationship "torn apart by dysfunction and reunited through the power of love", but in actuality Caouette's mother is a secondary character. We do not see how these people join together to form a family despite their problems. We do not see an inquisition into the causes and effects of mental illness. We do not see the depth and darkness suggested by the first half hour. What we do see, in abundance, is further footage of Caouette dancing, making faces, setting up cameras, looking at cameras, watching things, and occasionally taking out his genitals. It is a steep drop from the intelligent and almost moving beginning of the film to the self-serving, self-involved, entirely selfish waffle that follows. It's not awful, and the film has the sense to conclude with something of a meaningful moment, but there are no fewer than forty-five minutes of nonsense; of Caouette showing himself off for the camera. I take offence to being lured into a film under the pretense of exploring a serious issue and being faced instead with an average adult showing me all his home videos. Why should this interest me anymore than anyone else's life? Because his mother has mental issues? Her only purpose is to show how difficult Caouette's life can be, and his fears of what he might one day become. He employs his mother's illness as an excuse to have us listen to his life story, and I for one find that shameful.
Faltering tremendously after its first thirty minutes, Tarnation does at least start strong, promising an intimate portrait of the psychological impact of a traumatic upbringing and the implications of dealing with familial mental health problems. It descends all too readily into an ego-inflammatory adulation of its subject—perhaps unsurprising, given that filmmaker and subject are one and the same. The best recommendation I can give is to turn it off after thirty minutes and pretend it's a short, because those thirty minutes exhibit interesting, harrowing, well-made, and well-worthy documentary filmmaking.
The Gunfighter (1950)
The Gunfighter: Like the Greatest of Westerns
It was only about ten years ago, as a little kid, that I would turn on my television early in the morning, be greeted with a western, and rush to the remote to turn it off as quickly as possible. Westerns? Pfft. Boring old stories of cowboys and Indians. It's funny how much we change. Last week, I got up early just to catch the first western of the day.
A legend of the west, Jimmy Ringo is said to be better than them all, the fastest hand there ever was. Approached in just about every little town he arrives in by some kid out to make a name for himself, Ringo is tired of the heroism of the gunfighter. Pursued by the brothers of one such kid whom he was forced to kill, he decides to return to the family who would much rather forget him.
It is almost a rite of passage for kids in the modern age to grow up regarding westerns as boring old films meant only for grandparents. Indeed, this was a view I more or less maintained up to six months or so ago, Unforgiven the only western I had ever sat through. It was not until an academic approach to the genre began to peel away the predisposition that I began to appreciate the potential intricacies of the western film and the ways in which the conventions could be played with and subverted in order to create something truly great. Considering that, The Gunfighter is just what the doctor ordered. The traditional image of the western gives us a sweeping epic with horses galloping across plains, or the classic showdown on the main street with eyes appearing above the saloon door. This is none of those, the very vast majority of the film spent in a single location, Ringo biding his time at the bar while he waits to hear from his wife, if she will acquiesce to his request to see her. There is no grandiosity to Ringo the gunfighter; he is a tired old man, world-weary and deeply regretful of how he has spent his life. As the town's children pile against the window to catch a glimpse at him, he recedes further into a state of depressed resignation that this is his legacy, that this is the legend he will leave behind. The interactions between Ringo and Mark, his old friend and the now sheriff of Cayenne, are a strong part of the film's comment upon western lore. Mark is in many ways the antithesis to Ringo: he has evaded the appellation of gunfighter, escaped the same doomed fate as Ringo, and made a new life for himself of use to society and, crucially, to Ringo's family. He has all that Ringo desires and yet can never achieve. Like the greatest of westerns, The Gunfighter deconstructs the genre, reducing it to its fundamentals and criticising them for their flaws. Ringo is no role model, no heroic figure to be admired, no future for a young man to aspire to. Violence and bloodshed are not things to be admired, and the distinctly anticlimactic and entirely unromantic ending to the film confirms this.
Saying a lot about the myth of romanticism and heroism in the figure of the titular character, The Gunfighter continues the tradition of the revisionist western by reevaluating the genre's key aspects and displaying their disharmony with reality. Boasting a fantastically muted performance from Peck, and a sadly inevitable fate for his character, this is further proof of just how wrong I was about westerns.
Vals Im Bashir (2008)
Vals im Bashir: Indescribably Important
It's funny that the most well-regarded films, the "classics of world cinema", are the ones which I most fervently avoid. The fear of disappointment in the face of excess hype; the distrust of the popular consensus; the experience of finding many "great films" to be far from that: many are the reasons I was hesitant approaching Vals im Bashir.
An animated documentary, Vals im Bashir follows director Ari Folman's journey to discover just what happened to him during the Lebanon war in 1982, his mind having almost entirely repressed his memories. Speaking to marginally fictionalised versions of his then comrades, he comes to reconstruct both their stories and his, and rediscovers the horror of war.
An interesting case in terms of its form alone, Vals im Bashir appears to have given rise to a plethora of questions regarding documentary film, and the surprisingly thin line which separates it from pure fiction. Folman's story is certainly a true one, his quest to uncover his trauma-hidden past in no way staged, but simply reconstructed and relived. His characters may not be exact replicas of their real-world counterparts, but they serve only to protect identity and maintain anonymity. The combination of documentary and animation is worthy of comment too, a mixture I'd not encountered before, and one I suspect is all too rare. What it achieves is to allow the narrator, and the audience with him, wild flights of fantasy, dream sequences, and fantastical visions of the past that combine to create a fully informed picture of the issue at hand. With the animation, Folman pulls us into the subject much more firmly than he would be able to were this a traditional talking head documentary format. We are able to experience the scenes of war, to see the described scenarios played out in a way which, though obviously fictionalised, is scarily realistic. The aforementioned flights of fantasy never fly too far from the horror on the ground, a swim with a gigantic mermaid interrupted by a missile raid, the dream of escaping to anywhere around the globe disturbed by the realisation that the airport is a hollow shell of what it once was. There is a lingering lugubriousness to the film, a resounding sorrow that builds to a tragic and terrifying crescendo of buried emotion. The questions of guilt and responsibility are the film's primary concerns, and ones which are explored in a subtle but comprehensive manner. Folman uncovers his own guilt as he does that of his nation, the repression not his alone. The film's slow atmosphere, making us feel as though we are soldiers wading through the mud to some eventually terrible destination, is entirely down to the music. The score's role is indescribably important to this film, the mournfulness it contributes paramount to our eventual emotional fatigue. Expect to be fully drained, wearied, and burned out by the time the credits arrive, the pacing combining with the deathly tone to assure the maximum impact is inflicted upon us. The final moments of the film, wherein we are exposed to newsreel footage of what we have just witnessed unfold, utilises the film's interplay between fact and fiction, informing us that this is concrete reality, that there is no escape, and that these horrors can never be undone.
Among the most emotionally affecting, thought-engaging, draining, and impactful films I have ever sat through, Vals im Bashir transcends the limitations of its combined media to present us with perhaps the most effective war film that has yet graced the screen. Playing with reality and our perception thereof but never straying from it, it employs an atmosphere of impending tragedy, a score to accompany it beautifully, and effulgently darkened palettes to present the best argument for peace you are ever likely to find.
New York Stories (1989)
New York Stories: Worth Watching, But Only Just
Having first heard of New York Stories many moons ago, I was pleased to see it scheduled on TV last night. Eager to see it, an interesting collaborative project between three key directors of the New Hollywood movement, I even rushed home from a prior engagement.
Three shorts banded together with the unifying setting of New York, New York Stories consists of: Life Lessons, Scorsese's tale of the relationship between an artist and his apprentice; Life Without Zoë, Coppola's take on the life of a child of wealthy parents, left to live alone in a luxurious hotel; Oedipus Wrecks, Allen's exploration of mother-son relationships.
A distinct danger with films of this sort is in the directorial differences which can vastly disrupt the overall film's flow. Monumental shifts in tone can be quite disconcerting and often do a lot to detract from the effect of the piece as a whole. Lucky, then, that these directors all come from the same period, each counted among the upper echelons of those filmmakers who graduated from the 60s/70s "movie brat" generation. Not, that is to say, that there is a homogeneity to the shorts—each offers something distinct in terms of both narrative and tone—but rather that they are at least of similar minds and sensibilities. Scorsese's contribution is perhaps the most interesting of the three, a look at the artist culture that is so key to the New York of fiction. Nolte's artist is a classic tortured soul, channelling his torment into his canvas and creating a work that evolves and develops just as he fails to do so, trapped in a cycle of depression and dependency. Intelligently structured and driven by character depth, Life Lessons is a very solid start. Coppola's follows, showing us the life of the wealthy and privileged and seeming to comment upon the laissez-faire parenthood of the rich which develops their children so early into adulthood. What sounds an interesting idea with room for probing into a social issue turns into a ridiculous story of princesses and parties, set in a fairytale world complete with a happy family ending. It drags, it sags, and it asks us to fall in love with hideously uninteresting characters. Life Without Zoë is an appropriate title for what the audience will come to desire by the time it all ends. No thank you Francis, get off the stage. When he does, at last, it is Allen's turn. Having never before experienced the supposed wonders of Allen's comedic efforts, Oedipus Wrecks was the most highly anticipated of the three for me, and brought some very welcome laughs into the mix. Fantastic situational humour coupled with Allen's sublime comedic timing quickly steered it toward becoming the best of the bunch. It takes a rather disappointing bad turn along the way, but still maintains enough of a laugh factor to keep it from sinking. Not masterful, but quite, quite funny, and with a nice dash of comment on the issue at hand.
The kind of idea that's interesting to see played out, New York Stories is neither as bad as its worst nor as good as its best. The Scorsese and the Allen each make for entertaining viewing, the former more substantial in its thematic depth, the latter more immediately thrilling in its hilarity. The Coppola pulls the standard down a stretch, really testing audience patience between the two infinitely better pieces. Much more three shorts banded together than a feature film, it's worth watching, but only just.
Invictus: Some Compelling Drama
Despite my ferocious adoration of the films of Clint Eastwood, particularly the more recent ones with accomplished cinematographer Tom Stern, Invictus was a film I had avoided seeing, simply due to my complete disinterest in sport and inability to watch it. Finally, however, I was forced to put my dislike aside to get my Clint fix.
Reliving the story of Nelson Mandela's early presidency, Invictus follows the newly elected leader's plan to unite his post-apartheid nation through the country's rugby team, a former symbol of the white oppressors. Collaborating with captain Francois Pienaar to establish the Springboks team as an institution which can be supported by all colours, Mandela sees World Cup victory as a much needed catalyst to healing the wounds of racial segregation.
It is precisely in the above plot summary that one can find what turned me from getting to this film for so very long a time, the unifying power of rugby not something I exactly believed in whatsoever. That said, any collaboration between Eastwood and Stern is automatically compulsory viewing material for me, so huge a fan am I of the sum of their creative visions. And yet, I couldn't help but maintain a scepticism nevertheless. Opening with newsreels covering Mandela's release from prison and election to office mixed with shots of Freeman altered to look like the newsreel footage, Invictus does not dwell on the politics surrounding the election, preferring to begin instead with the new president's first day in office. We immediately see, as perhaps we ought to expect, the theme of race relations coming to the forefront of the film's focus. The presidential guard serves as the primary representation of the changing state of South Africa, the two colours begrudgingly forced to work together and eventually coming to trust, even like, one another. As Mandela comes to have his bodyguards overcome their prejudices and forgive those who did them wrong, so too does he slowly repair his country's damaged state, caused as it is by the distrust of decades of enforced segregation. The first thing to address must surely be the performances. As Mandela's personal choice, Freeman does a very fine job. Not usually much a fan of his roles, I was behind him the whole way. Damon too is on good form, better than I've known him to be in the past (his wonderful performance in Hereafter suggests that he works well with Eastwood). Fortunately for me, the scenes of rugby are minimal, far more time spent off the pitch than on. Now, as someone who really just doesn't get sport at all, I of course had no familiarity with this story, and no idea whether or not the Springboks would emerge triumphant. The fact that I was rather interested to find out says something about the film's tension, though I would be lying if I said I was shouting for them. What is impressive is that through the sweeping crane shots of thousands of faces cheering on their team and the images of black and white united together in mutual hope, I came to understand— if only slightly—why sport can mean so much to so many. And do believe me when I say that that really does say an awful lot.
Though it falls far short of his best work, Invictus is a strong offer from Eastwood. As someone completely ignorant of its subject matter, the fact that I was made to be interested in the match, and even brought to understand the meaning of sport for people, does much to contribute to my appreciation of the film. It may not be a masterpiece, but it makes for some compelling drama.
Last Days (2005)
Last Days: Astoundingly Disappointing
The third installation of Gus Van Sant's thematic "Death trilogy", Last Days was a film I came to with very high hopes. Having the day before seen both Paranoid Park and Elephant, two extremely fine films, I expected only the best from the experimental director.
Following troubled rock musician Blake through his titular time period, Last Days takes heavy inspiration from Kurt Cobain. Much like Elephant's inspiration, this will instantly reveal the conclusion of the film to just about anyone who encounters any coverage prior to viewing.
Almost certainly the most well known of the true stories which gave rise to this trilogy, the suicide of Kurt Cobain is yet another subject which Van Sant has come under controversy for electing to represent. It is important to note, however, that the heavy ties to Cobain do not exclusively mean that he and Blake are one and the same, more that this is Van Sant's interpretation of a period he perceives as entirely immune to objective interpretation. As we have seen develop as perhaps the most important aspect of this trilogy, Van Sant once more offers us poetic visuals, further developing his personal cinematic style, one which is deeply independent and highly unique for so (at least sometimes) mainstream an American director. Probably the best way in which I can summarise my thoughts on Last Days is this: where Elephant was Van Sant identifying everything that was truly great about Gerry—the cinematography, the tension, the ability to show rather than to tell—and adding to this the societal message, the depth, and the emotional involvement which that film lacked, Last Days is the opposite. With Last Days, Van Sant takes the indulgent tracking shots and the apparent sagacity which lacks in genuine meaning and runs amok with it. While Gerry was a deeply flawed film, misusing its dazzlingly beautiful visuals by offering nothing beneath to support them, Last Days is simply empty, a pseudo-artistic "exploration" of a poorly structured character. Even the visual splendour is somewhat reduced, giving hopefuls like me even less to cling to as we hope for something more. Pitt wanders about, occasionally stopping to don a dress or make macaroni, mumbling intensely to himself in an utterly incomprehensible manner. After perhaps half an hour, I started to wonder what was happening. How, after the majesty of Elephant, had Van Sant gone so wrong? Alas, it just carried on in the very same way, Pitt wandering around his nonlinear narrative, me staring in puzzlement at the screen and wondering why this character was so thinly sketched. The characterisation is frankly non-existent, a serious problem given that this is—or at least is supposed to be—a character drama. I have a great deal of patience for slow films, and an unbalanced adoration for recondite ones, but this simply has no method to its madness, nothing whatsoever to say, and no apparent justification for existing. There is one scene, in which Blake loops his instruments and jams with himself, which does something to assuage this onslaught of disappointment. The long take as the camera ever so slowly zooms out films all of this through a window, the vast stone walls a barrier between us and this character, his dark playing and lugubrious wails a brief glimpse into the tortured soul that lies beneath. The scene itself is nothing shot of mesmeric, but it is essentially the only thing of any merit in the film. It's a deep shame that such a wonderful piece of cinema should be featured in so poorly misjudged a mess of a film.
Astoundingly disappointing as a follow-up to Elephant, Last Days follows on the nonsensical navel-gazing of Gerry by multiplying it, and by giving us fewer pretty pictures to look at to distract us from the unfortunate lack of meaning. Were it not for the fact that I've already seen and loved Paranoid Park, his feature to follow this, it would be a long time before I felt ready to trust in Gus Van Sant again.
Elephant: An Indisputable Masterpiece
The second part of director Gus Van Sant's "Death trilogy", Elephant was a film I had mixed expectations of, having been somewhat dissatisfied with Gerry, the first of the moribund triptych.
Following the lives of a multitude of high-school kids, Elephant gradually covers two days in their lives, alternatively accompanying groups and individuals as they go about their daily routine, and building finally to a tragic crescendo.
One of the most instantly interesting things about Elephant is the issue of spoilers. Despite the fact that the aforementioned tragic crescendo does not become entirely apparent until a good portion of the film's running time has elapsed, it is all but impossible to not know what will happen in Elephant unless one watches it with total ignorance intact, for so widespread is the coverage of its eventual issue. Perhaps even more noteworthy is the fact that this doesn't matter. The real-world basis of the film—the Columbine massacre—is far from a comfortable subject, and one which courted the film its share of controversy and criticism. Let's turn first to the look of the film. Much like in Gerry, Van Sant demonstrates his cinematic artistry, speaking to us with the camera, communicating with us through his visuals. The long tacking shot cinematography wistfully follows the characters as they walk through the school corridors, taking in scenes from a multitude of angles, and offering us fresh perspectives on scenarios, incidentally informing us of the fact that there are multiple ways to interpret anything we see, depending on where we stand. The way in which the camera focuses upon actions and movements of the hand seems reminiscent of Michael Haneke; indeed, the film seems to share with those of Haneke the atmosphere of foreboding, and the uncomfortable sensation that something is not quite right. The humanity and realism of the film's characters is to be commended, neither expressly good nor bad guys to be found within. The antagonists, insofar as it is possible to call them even that, are not just senseless forces of evil, but well-rounded characters with emotional motivations, human weaknesses, and enough in the way of realism to make you genuinely sympathise with, even understand them. The evil of the film lies in the society around us, the society which allows such a thing to happen, which makes available deadly weapons and explosives assembly instructions on the internet, which is so rife with violence and bloodshed in the mainstream media. The film silently but brilliantly shows the ills of our society which so often give way to such horrific incidences. One of my very favourite things about the film, and an element of its narrative was appears to have confused many viewers here, is the character of Benny, who is afforded a title card in the film's fleeting moments, apparently assigning him a key significance as the cliché role of saviour. His fate—rather recalling that of Dick Hallorann in Kubrick's The Shining—is Van Sant's way of saying that "saving" the characters of the film is beyond his control. He cannot employ so well-versed a narrative path to change the outcome of the story; though it is a film, its events are unchangeable, their occurrence in the real world preventing interference therewith in a fictional one. These things can happen. They have happened. And they will again, if we fail to recognise and emend the societal flaws which Elephant identifies.
With Gerry, Van Sant displayed an astounding cinematic vision, an eye for pure aesthetics, and a marvellous understanding of the language of cinema, though he failed to reinforce this visual splendour with sufficient depth of theme. Elephant redresses the balance, applying the director's style to a deeply provocative, intelligent, emotionally involving, and societally important film. Speaking volumes about issues in our modern world, and managing to subtly yet effectively create an atmosphere of the most unnerving horror, this is an indisputable masterpiece, and one of the very finest films of its decade.
Gerry: Falls Short of Saying Something Meaningful
With something of an interest in Gus Van Sant—his first few films, though flawed, are very interesting—and a major fondness for thematic trilogies, I was quick to seek out Gerry, the first of Van Sant's "Death trilogy".
Both of the same titular name, two friends drive out for a walk in the desert. Primarily silent as they go, they enjoy the beauty of the surrounding landscape. As they day goes on, they grow increasingly aware that they have become lost, clueless even as to which direction they should turn.
Perhaps my biggest motivation in exploring Van Sant's trilogy was the widely reported inspiration of the Hungarian director Béla Tarr upon this film; indeed Tarr even receives a thank you in the closing credits. The first point to be made is the braveness of the idea itself. With little dialogue, next-to-no narrative as such, and essentially nothing to attract a wide audience, the presence of Damon and Affleck as cast and writers is to be applauded. For such mainstream stars (perhaps not so much the latter) to appear in quite so independently-minded a film is intriguing on many levels. Many still regard Gerry as a prank of a film, and it's not difficult to understand why, the former collaborators of mainstream success Good Will Hunting taking so different a route with this. I tend to disagree, taking Gerry instead at face value: a deeply unconventional, ruminative film. The subject of much criticism for its perceived meaninglessness, the film is among the most polemic I have encountered in quite some time. Quite undeniably, it is an extremely aesthetically pleasing film. Whatever your opinion of the importance of narrative and such to the effect of a film, I defy anyone to honestly call the film anything other than a delight to look at. Paying particular tribute to Tarr's Werckmeister Harmóniák, Van Sant's is an extraordinarily well shot film, from the wide angle shots of the unforgiving desert horizon to the static distant shot of one Gerry attempting to help the other down from a large rock to the slow and methodical circling of Affleck as he sits, slowly losing hope. The cinematography does everything in its power to draw us into the world of the film, and whether or not we are depends entirely upon our own predilections. Those who value the aesthetics of cinema will be entranced, just about every scene laced with astounding beauty. Those who place more importance in narrative development may find themselves disappointed. Primarily in the former camp myself, I squealed with delight to see the references to Werckmeister (though the most obvious one, in essence a borrowed shot, is drawn out to excess), the splendour of the images sufficiently engaging. That said, the narrative is lacking. This was a film about which I thought for a very long time after seeing it, slowly building and formulating my opinion within my head. The conclusion: I'm not entirely satisfied that the film carries the thematic weight to back itself up. Visual proficiency is, to me, of the utmost importance, but when it falls short of saying something meaningful and incisive, as I believe Gerry does, it seems something of a waste.
A film which I see as more of an unsuccessful experiment for Van Sant than either a misfire or a masterpiece, Gerry is an absolute delight to feast your eyes upon, and one of the most visually moving films you're likely to find. It's just a shame that it doesn't quite have the depth underneath to really utilise the moving power of these beautiful wide angles, long takes, experimental shots, and dazzling camera movements which signal Van Sant as a real force to be reckoned with.
Idiocracy: Completely Misjudged
Rather a fan of Office Space, and at the constant brunt of an insistent friend's urges to make my way to this, I took the opportunity to watch Idiocracy on television when it appeared, despite a vague memory of being unimpressed at catching the start when I had seen it a number of years before.
Testing out new cryogenic technology, the U.S. military enlists Corporal Joe Bauers and private citizen Rita to go into a year long hibernation. Following the abandonment of the facility containing the pair, they are forgotten and are only awoken after 500 years. With the global population having become unanimously stupid, Joe now boasts the world's highest IQ, and is turned to to fix the problems of the dystopian society.
A social satire on the idiocy of modern American (primarily, though not exclusively) capitalist society from Mike Judge? What could go wrong? Well, the answer would appear to be just about everything, I'm sorry to say. For a film which purports to criticise the loss of intelligence in our current commercialist paradigm, Idiocracy is itself wholly stupid, idiotic, unintelligent, and downright dumb. Now, let's get a few things straight before we continue. I do realise that to effectively comment upon something, it is at times necessary to yourself resort to employing it. Would anyone dispute that This is Spinal Tap, despite iconically parodying the silliness of heavy metal culture, gave rise to a number of irony-free silly heavy metal concert tours from a very real and very silly heavy metal band? Certainly not. There is nothing wrong with becoming the subject of your discussion, indeed doing so is often necessary: would Unforgiven have functioned as well as a revisionist commentary upon the glamourlessness of violence in the western genre without portraying the violence of the western genre? An entirely rhetorical question. With Idiocracy, however, the situation is different. Judge employs idiotic characters and dialogue as well as lowest-common-denominator humour, but to what end? To show us the direction toward which our society is fast headed? Well yes, the character of Frito conveys this well, as do some of the circumstances in which Joe finds himself. But when we are shown a fast food chain eventually renamed to "buttf*ckers" (the asterisk is my addition), we are invited to laugh at it. Excuse me? Aren't we here to address the issue of stupidity in modern culture by examining an accentuated version thereof in a futuristic context? And yet the funniest thing the film— presumably, as one critical of stupidity, intended itself to be intelligent—can think to do is to have us laugh at how funny cheap profanity is. I just don't get it... The humour is lewd and crude, and relies heavily on profanity, sexual jokes, and exactly the things which characterise the dumbness of the society I assumed it to want to critique. Maybe it doesn't want to; maybe it really just wishes to provide cheap and stupid laughs. Either way, it fails to function entirely, neither amusing not satirising, just bemusing in its intentions.
Apparently intended as a scathing criticism of society's stupidity, Idiocracy is itself exactly what it claims to dislike about our modern world. Completely misjudged, appallingly and bizarrely stupid, and with a hideously uninteresting narrative to boot, it makes the popular "comedy" of Apatow and his ilk look genius, and by golly gum is that saying something.
Death Note: Desu nôto (2006)
Desu Nôto: Uncommunicably Despicable, Deplorable, Detestable, and Disgusting
Just over three hours ago, I turned on the television at the exact moment Desu Nôto began. Billed as a Japanese horror, I assumed fate to be on my side, offering me an appropriate experience to satiate my cinematic needs.
A law student increasingly dismayed by the failings of the legal system which he aspires to, Light happens upon a notebook which allows the bearer to inflict death upon any person whom he knows by both name and face. Using this new power to punish criminals, Light becomes a mythical figure who divides public opinion, inviting a multicultural manhunt.
What I currently compose is my first review in over a month, a period of silence necessitated by an increased dedication to college work. I break this, however, for so deeply affected am I by Desu Nôto that I feel compelled to write about it rather than sleep, as a sensible being existing in this time zone at the present moment surely would. Reader, it is ghastly. I employ not one ounce of hyperbolic histrionics when I tell you that it is easily counted amidst the ten worst films I have ever had the indignity of enduring. Where to begin... Firstly: it is profoundly poorly written. Many are the times I have turned to foreign cinemas to provide an escape from the aggravatingly clunky expository dialogue of which Hollywood is so avid a proponent; many are the times in which Japan has been successful in assuaging the anger engendered by the aforementioned. This, however, was not one of them. The dialogue of Desu Nôto appears to consist entirely of plot exposition, every word which escapes a character's mouth informing the audience of something they should, if blessed with more than a single brain cell, already be very well aware of. Whenever it seems convenient to do so, the film will cut to a screen demonstrating another rule of the notebook—increasingly bizarre and convoluted as they are—in some of the most shamefully lazy and ill-planned screen writing I have ever been forced to view from behind a shield of fingers-clasped-over-eyes-in-disgust. Secondly: the direction is head-splittingly, brain-meltingly, faith-in-humanity-and-the-future-of-cinema-dwindlingly rubbish. Gruellingly speedy camera movements demonstrate, among many many other flaws, that the dolly zoom is beyond the abilities of the director, many of his shots a laughable attempt thereat. He is content, however, to switch from angle to angle to angle in an utterly pointless and melodramatic fashion that does nothing more than further demonstrate the infantile nonsensicality of his film. Though it is often quite difficult to tell with a film in a language which you do not speak, I am reasonably confident that the film is poorly acted on top of its tactless direction and imbecilic writing. All of these flaws and more are readily apparent in the first ten minutes, after which I turned and urged myself to retain at least a minute shred of faith in a good film to be found somewhere. Not so, for shortly thereafter comes the staggeringly atrocious main element of the films soi-disant "special effects", the Death God, a creature rendered in what appears to be the style of a Final Fantasy game from no less than a decade ago. It is phenomenal that anyone should be expected not to laugh aloud mirthfully the moment this character appears; I most certainly did—not the only occasion on which the film provoked riotous laughter. His appearance was the moment at which all faith in the film flew out the window, never to return, and it happened fifteen minutes in. Fifteen. I had to endure—according to my self-imposed refusal to cease watching a film I've begun until after the credits roll (how I regret that now)—a further 110 minutes, each of which felt like an eternity in the company of these mono-dimensional, entirely amoral, completely unsympathetic, thinly sketched, and senselessly motivated characters, trapped as they are within the absurd and uninteresting narrative which makes not a single attempt to justify its own ignominious existence. It is junk. It is garbage. It is the kind of film that should be forever banned from being viewed by anyone, so utterly hideous is it; so wholly offensive is the extent of its awfulness. Cinema is a passion I pursue almost vehemently, and films which do so much to discredit the artistic merit of the medium with their maliciously deleterious maladroit claptrap encourage such a venomous fury within me that I feel ready to burst. Do forgive me, on that note, but do understand that this tosh is nothing shy of pure unadulterated evil, which simply must not be tolerated. And as if it all wasn't enough to drive me to the brink of mental despair, it's only half the battle: Desu Nôto is merely part one of a two part saga. Help.
Crap from the start, and crap to the end, Desu Nôto is so incommunicably despicable, deplorable, detestable, and disgusting that it has warranted my sacrificing of an hour of well-needed rest in favour of communicating to you, dear reader, just how much you should do to avoid it. For my sake and for yours, and for that of the future of our species, please please stay as far away as you can from this offal.
Los cronocrímenes (2007)
Los Cronocrímenes: Intelligent and Interesting
With a rather bizarre and unappealing sounding synopsis, Los Cronocrímenes was not something which particularly enticed me to choose it above others in the to-watch pile. It was simply a matter of restricted time which led me to opt for this film, the shortest of the available options.
Sitting outside his newly purchased country home with his wife, Héctor spies a glimpse of a stripping girl in the forest area adjacent to his garden. Going to further investigate once his wife leaves, he finds himself embroiled in a mysterious chain of events involving a masked stranger, the space-time continuum, and a strange research facility...
The premise of Los Cronocrímenes appeared to suggest a run-of-the-mill B-movie sci-fi film, not something with which I have a problem, but nor something which I feel entirely drawn toward over others. Nevertheless, the film was more or less my only option, and so I sat back and allowed it to attempt to win me over. A quick establishment shows us the happy lives of the central character and his wife, an apparently untroubled relationship. A handful of well executed jump cuts create the illusion of passing time as director Nacho Vigalondo rushes us along to the beginning of the film's series of events. For a period of about five minutes or so, things seem to run the risk of descending into the territory of jumping-out-from-behind-a-tree horror, but this is merely a brief borrowing of generic convention. After we encounter the mysterious facility, with its concomitant creepily quiet laboratories, the sci-fi element begins, setting the narrative spiralling toward ever-increasing convolution and confusion. Questions of causality, paradoxes, and the impractical side-effects of time travel crop up amidst the rather fast-paced storyline, in essence a multi-part, multi-perspective retelling of the same chain of events. Much like Héctor, we are forced to struggle to keep up with just what exactly is going on, who is doing what to whom, what causes which, and just how everything is going to come together neatly to give a practical solution to the many problems time travel so rudely and inconsiderately engenders. Many of these situations are, as you may have guessed, quite humorous, comedy the film's supporting crutch but by no means a distinguishing feature. The audience is kept guessing until the end, the increasing revisions to what we previously thought the final truth of a situation adding more and more contortion to what originally seemed a simple story. Vigalondo is a skilled screenwriter, rewarding his viewers for managing to keep up with him by effectively and respectfully concluding his little tale. A humble director, he amusingly takes the part of the much abused time-machine operator, allowing lead actor Karra Elejalde to assault him with a crowbar. That's one approach to directing your actors.
Los Cronocrímenes does not last long, and this is to its benefit, managing to make each of its 85 minutes wholly engaging; one will not want to miss a second in keeping up with the narrative twists and turns. A very fine execution of an intelligent and interesting—though not wholly original—idea, it's nothing tremendously special, but by gum is it fun while it lasts.
Bully: Paedophilic Nonsense
I recently saw Mean Creek, a film dealing with much the same core idea as Bully presents. The ever-interesting idea of comparing and contrasting two thematically similar films was my primary motivation in the decision to dedicate my time to this film, evidently a more visceral and uncensored treatment of the subject. Within one minute, my heart had sunk: "A Larry Clark film" appeared upon the screen. I recalled immediately my viewing of Kids, a film to which I had rather looked forward when I finally got around to watching it, and a film which I found to be nothing short of genuinely offensive, not an experience I often encounter. No, I am not offended by graphic sexual scenes, language, portrayal of drug use, or any such thing. Rather, I am offended by a film so morally vacuous and repugnant, and direction so perverse and borderline paedophilic as to be almost stomach-churningly awful. Nevertheless, I am not here to comment on Kids, but rather to take fresh judgement to Bully. I convinced myself to approach the film with a fresh and unbiased mind, and not to let my opinion of the director's debut feature shadow my potential appreciation of this, his third. The very first line of dialogue, considerably too lascivious to repeat here, informed me that it was simply not going to go well. It was ever before the thirty minute mark that the ability to sit still left me, my limbs in constant motion as though struggling to escape, sweat streaking my brow in pained discomfort. To quote the screenwriter who went on to insist his name be removed from the film, it is "revolting, offensive and childish
it much more closely resembles a porno. Unbelievably gratuitous sex, no story, zero motivation, no character development...". And that, dear reader, from the man who wrote the film. As with Kids, Larry Clark's directorial signature appears to be to shove his camera between the legs of a female lead, whether she be clothed or not, because we need full view of a character's underwear as she sits down. Of course. The gratuitous sex of which the screenwriter speaks is no understatement, few shots devoid of some glimpse of youthful flesh, an apparent preoccupation of Clark. So much can me said about the utter moral bankruptcy which accompanies such contemptible film-making, but I have limited time and word count, so along we must move. The latter two points of the aforementioned quote are key to the film's stupidity. The murder rationale comes in the form of "like... um... so... we could kill him... like... totally... cool...". I do not care what mysteriously impressed critics may say, this is not a scathing portrayal of modern teenage lifestyle, of middle-class America, or of laissez-faire parental influence. This is garbage. Not one of the seven characters involved in plotting to brutally murder a friend (who, incidentally, is neither intimidating nor the least bit believable as an omnipotent and omnipresent force of terror) consider for one moment anything other than this course of action. This is not how real people function, no matter what the "based on a true story" tag may postulate. I find it immensely hard to believe that not one of the seven saw a problem with immediately resorting to cold blooded murder, but hey, this is Larry Clark's vision of the world, so some gratuitous sex scenes in the place of character development, realistic dialogue, or any sort of cinematic artistry will do. Speaking of cinematic artistry, as we're here, no Larry, a several minute long shot of the camera spinning around a circle of faces is not impressive, it's idiotic, but that's hardly a surprise coming from something with your name affixed. A quick mention needs to be made of the parents in this film, namely to wonder where the hell they are. They seem content to allow orgies occur in their homes, to allow their futureless children to drive about unquestioned in their cars, to provide easy access to firearms. Look, I know that people like this exist, but they are not the same people who are portrayed as concerned about their children, as these parents are. Again, the world of Clark is populated by characters almost as morally bankrupt, disconnected from reality, and inherently imbecilic as he. The man is nothing but evil, those who adulate and applaud him fools who have mistaken his perversion for art. Terrible films are one thing, but terrible films which dress themselves in a veil of artistic merit are so utterly and entirely ghastly, meretricious, obdurate, errantly dowdy, ignominious, opprobrious, and an infinite number of such synonyms as to make me want to find the person responsible and have them punished in the most severe manner possible. Larry Clark deserves a fate far worse than that of his characters combined for this pseudo-intellectual genuinely questionably perverse and dangerously-close-to-paedophilic kitschy ostentatious crap.
So far removed from any form of morality that one can hardly manage to cry out in despair, Bully is mindless trash of the highest order from a man with the directorial flair of a pancake. Were it not for the fact that I detest him and his paedophilic nonsense posing as a serious treatment of a serious topic in a serious medium, I think I would pity him, for so distanced is he from any form of reality. I cannot begin to fathom how such a deleterious assault on cinema itself could possibly have been conducted without genuine intent of simply offending everyone unfortunate enough to encounter this garbage. Do not allow yourself to be counted amongst this group. If you want a film dealing with the bully psyche and dangers of fighting fire with fire within this context, please watch Mean Creek. If you want to see a genuine exploration of teenage attitudes towards recreational sex and drugs, why not try Bertolucci's The Dreamers? Anything is better than Bully, and I really do mean anything.
Qian li zou dan qi (2005)
Qian Li Zou Dan Qi: Tear-Inducingly Moving
My extremely limited knowledge of Asian cinema revolves almost entirely around that of South Korea; ignorance is a word which quickly springs to mind when considering both Japan and China. Having just last night endured the interminably fatuous nonsense of the Japanese Desu Nôto, I was somewhat afeared of returning so soon to that country.
Qian Li Zou Dan Qi tells the tale of the elderly Mr Takata, who journeys from his native Japan to a small Chinese village in order to record the titular mask opera for the benefit of his terminally ill son, from whom he is a decade estranged.
Now, obviously one terrifically awful film does not an awful national cinema make. However, I genuinely was a little put off by the prospect of watching another Japanese film so soon after the preceding opprobrium. Qian Li Zou Dan Qi begins with a combination of impressive and foreboding elements: its cinematography is immediately impressive; its apparent reliance on voice-over narration to express its main character's thoughts a little primal. Both of these remain, to some extent, present throughout the film, the former continually providing breathtaking visuals, the latter offering a slight detraction to the film's potential effect. To dwell on one for a moment, the rurality of the Chinese settings provides beauty aplenty for the camera, and we with it, to gaze upon. Many are the times wherein mountainous landscapes offer a stunningly beautiful accompaniment to the oriental soundtrack, the two combining to create a powerful and moving aesthetic which, the more the film goes on, demonstrates director Yimou Zhang's artistic mastery. Aside from the opening shot, the earlier parts of the film seem to lack a distinct visual prowess, but fret not, this is more than made up for by the end. Several times, the visuals convey thematic ideas to us through a combination of sky-spanning cinematography and telling blocking (wonderful to see that element of mise-en-scène utilised well), yet this is marred somewhat mere seconds later by the voice-over presenting the same ideas. Whilst I accept that this may be an accessibility issue—cinematic language is not one universally spoken—I did feel the film could have got along perfectly without narration at all, though it is by no means a serious flaw. The theme of paternal stoicism is one which I find inherently interesting at the worst of times, and is here given a fascinating treatment, the entirety of the film's effect hinged upon Ken Takakura's beautifully subtle performance. A gentle comedy permeates the film's dramatic layers, but always finds itself immediately overturned by the sombre drama of Takakura's face, which speaks volumes upon volumes with the simplest of motions. A wonderful element of the film comes in the form of the mask opera's singer's son, and the concomitant metaphorical representation of the relationship between Takata and his own son, an interesting and wholly effective means of presenting an otherwise unrealised dynamic. The film's eventual conclusion is tear-inducingly moving, capping a story that is described encompassingly in a single, simple word: lovely.
A very finely shot film which knows how to talk to its audience with images rather than words, yet still somewhat disappointingly opts to employ them, Qian Li Zou Dan Qi is a touching Japanese/Chinese co-production which attests to the beauty of both nations' rural landscapes and cultural aspects, as well as offering a genuinely moving, poignantly performed, and universally relevant tale.
Joe Kidd (1972)
Joe Kidd: Classically Entertaining
As I've said before in many reviews—which you, almost certainly reading this on the Joe Kidd page rather than my own review collection, likely won't have read—I am taking a systematic journey through the career of the great Clinton Eastwood. Next stop in the Universal box set I had obtained: Joe Kidd.
Locked up for hunting on Indian land, Joe Kidd's court hearing is interrupted by a raid from bandito Louis Chama and his crew. Invited to join a posse to take down Chama led by the wealthy Frank Harlan, Kidd is indifferent and insufficiently tempted by Harlan's offer of payment. When he sees that his own ranch has been raided, however, he decides to join the posse.
Having yet to see the Dollars trilogy which famously established Eastwood as a western legend, I believe I'm correct in calling Joe Kidd the very first conventional western I'd seen with Clint in. My relationship with the genre is a fledgling one, no large quantity of affection held on my part, though no cynicism or doubtfulness either. Kidd is introduced initially from beneath his hat; he occupies the classic tilted stetson position of rest. Despite his original imprisonment, his authority and toughness are quickly established as he reacts quickly and viciously to the jesting of a fellow inmate. Kidd is the typical westerner, his casualness as he struts about the town and settles in the bar in the middle of a bandito raid attesting to his nonchalance and disregard for the world beyond his own concerns. Eastwood does his thing, playing this role of the austere masculine hero with a reserved anger and his trademark snarl. Strong support comes in the form of Robert Duvall, who looks aged beyond his years as the thin-haired, mustachioed Harlan. Kidd's discomfort regarding Harlan's excessively violent tactics in locating Chaman adds a layer to his character, his development as a more conscientious and less self-centred individual a very positive factor in the process of the film's narrative. In a way, the combination of Kidd as a western archetype and his disapproval of the thoughtless murder employed by his cohorts reevaluates the westerns of days gone by, the film shaking its head at the disregard of its predecessors for human life. This is by no means the film's primary raison d'être, but it appends a nice moralistic footnote nonetheless. Once Kidd's unwillingness to participate in the ritualised slaughter is known, he is locked up and thereafter begins the main action of the film, as he expertly and humorously dispatches with Harlan's various cronies. The final showdown, the classically entertaining spectacle which ends most every western, features the most brilliantly hilarious and ingeniously mental action set-piece I have seen in quite some time. Topped off with a good old-fashioned shootout, the climactic finale is a great ending to a western that, if not entirely unique and original, is terrific fun.
Though it's certainly no masterpiece, the recurrent morality of Joe Kidd elevates it beyond simplistic western action. A relatively standard genre film from start to finish, it benefits from Eastwood, Duvall, and indeed the cast as a whole. Memorable for its excellent finale, there are far worse ways than watching this to pass the time.