Sunday, July 09, 2006

Frozen Days

The third film I saw at the festival was Frozen Days. The production began as a uni project for director Danny Lerner, and was completed post-university, with no additional support from the uni. It is a film which indicates there will be a promising future for Lerner, but at the same time you can still tell that it is a uni project. By that I mean not fully polished, not fully realised.

So what attracted me to this film? One – the screenshot. Two – the story sounded right up my alley. A hip Israeli girl wafts around selling drugs and crashing out in empty apartments before finding herself locked in an identity crisis. Also I want to visit Israel, so the chance to see some recent footage was really tempting (that and the fact that some of the best psy-trance around is coming from Israel, and would be, I figured, in the film).

I did enjoy this film but it left me feeling quite frustrated. The ending was just not properly rounded out – films with surrealist aspects a la Bunuel are definitely my tea cup, but they really need to be directed by someone as good as Bunuel. Dealing with concepts such as memory, identity, perception, construction of reality, are all really tempting for younger or inexperienced directors, but they just never seem to be pulled off properly. For films like that to work they need to be silky smooth. A second watching is really required though, because the film ended up being nothing like I expected - which rather than being a pleasant surprise was disappointing. I am keen to go into it a second time without my expectations. Basically I thought it was going to be a character study and it turned out to be this weird pseudo-horror piece.

Maybe my experience was turned partly pear-shaped by my late arrival. Or maybe it was the fucking gigantic drink cups. I mean you get a choice, but if you look at your options it’s really not much of a choice at all. Or maybe it was the crazy laughing cinema douche. You know the one – the wily old pederast that wafts in and sits down the front, only to cackle and haw at the most inappropriate parts. Like the guys who laugh in horror movies – but not at the cheesy bits, only ever at the really awful moments. In fact this guy was laughing at such absurd moments, like at shots that didn’t actually show anything, that I nearly came to the conclusion that he must have been involved in the production, and kept noticing mistakes or remembering on-set laughs. If he hadn’t been curled up in his seat like a mouldy pretzel then I might have concluded with that notion.

The film was shot on High Definition DV (HD) and this was one other aspect that piqued my interest. Since that format is becoming more and more likely the format of the future, and since I still hate it, I want to keep abreast of how features shot on HD look. It is definitely going to be adopted more – there are certainly a lot of benefits to shooting on HD, not the least of which is cost (hence the use for a uni production). However it still does not look as good as film. Film, beautiful film, where light actually burns an image onto the neg, seems so much more natural than digital. At this point in time, film will still win the Pepsi challenge with digital on any day, but the future will most likely change that. So how did it look? Well I was sitting very close to the screen, which won’t have helped, but it did look very digital – for example what were meant to be straight diagonal lines looked more like a little set of steps.

With regards to the picture it is also interesting to note that nearly the whole film is in black and white. It is not marketed that way though – the screen shot is in colour. That actual shot in the movie is in black and white, which leads me to believe that the whole movie was shot in colour and then converted to black and white in post-production. I think the film may have looked better in colour, and it certainly didn’t look like it had been filmed specifically with the intention to later convert it to black and white – judging by the lack of definition and contrast throughout the film. I’m still not sure why they finished it in black and white, maybe because they thought colour would distract too much from the story.

Or maybe it was because the director had his mind set on using a bit of a ‘gimmick’. That said – it’s quite a gimmick. The film contains the best sympathetic representation of a drug experience that I have ever seen. It was done through both the cinematography and sound design, and man, it was fucking cool. But if that scene was kept to the detriment of the overall film, then that’s a mistake. Guess there is no way I’ll ever know.

Another small gripe was the use of repetitive visual techniques – certain shots were repeated over and over, and although I understand what they were trying to achieve, I think maybe there could have been a better way to do it.

All-in-all the movie had me scratching my head, and has left me wanting to see it again, so for a uni-based project, I think that’s pretty damn good. Also Anat Klausner, the lead actress, was excellent. She gave a really strong performance, and I am keen to watch any other films with her in it. Check it out.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Impressions – The 53rd Sydney Film Festival

So I just got back from my first screenings at the 53rd Sydney Film Festival. This is the first time I have been to the festival, a poor effort for a committed cinema-geek such as myself. However, in my defence, I did try and make it to some sessions in the last two years – only they had sold out. So time for a change – I bought five tix online, and I’ve gotta say, I’m glad I did. As soon as you pay online you get an email with the tix in pdf format, then just print them off and you’re done. I have to say it’s well planned – a very efficient system. Nice one!

The first screening today was in the State Theatre – great venue, makes it feel all ‘special’ being there. And it was packed, which is a really encouraging thing to see. One thing I did notice was that there were a lot of different languages being spoken – I’m curious to know whether this represents large numbers of tourists, or simply just a cross-section of our multi-cultural society. Either way it’s very cool – just seeing so many, and so many different (age, gender, culture) people there has gone some way to restore some of my faith in cinema. I’m a bit like the priest who can’t stop staring at those young boys – my eternal faith in cinema is waning every time I encounter Hollywood. So – my thoughts:

Casa de Areia -
Dir. Andrucha Waddington.

House of Sand
- One family, three generations, six decades. This film successfully captures the isolation and barrenness of living in a wind-swept land of remote sand dunes. It does this through the use of expansive shots of the landscape, some of which are quite beautiful, and also largely through the sound design. Perhaps the film is a little too successful in this regard though – I mean it just gave me the feeling that, well, say you’re camping, and you’re damp, and a bit cold, and it’s pretty windy, and you’re bored, and well, really fucking far from anywhere useful….that’s how this film made me feel. The characters were generally very human, but also lacking in some respects - I don’t think they fully justified why they continued to live in this area. So I guess this film frustrated me – as I don’t really know why the director wanted to make it! All I can say is, I was glad to get out of that wind…

Not the best choice to kick off the festival with…but this next one I was really looking forward to.

Starfish Hotel
– Dir. John Williams.

John Williams is a British born, Japan-based director, and as such I was expecting a Western sensibility combined with elements of Japan (in a good way, not like Lost In Translation, which was a Western view of Japan). So the blurb in the festival guide mentions Donnie Darko and Twin Peaks. I am a fan of both – more of the Peaks than the Darko though. So as my good friend George put it – “it’s a good sell”. George seemed a bit more cynical than me about this film – thinking it could go either way. I wasn’t too concerned, you see, for me there was a clincher – Haruki Murakami. One of my favourite authors, who writes novels kind of like a contemporary Twin Peaks set in Japan, is cited as a major influence on Williams.

And the influence is pretty clear, in fact I think maybe a little too clear. However the more Murakami presence and influence in cinema the better, as far as I’m concerned. I noticed a lot of similarities between the film and A Wild Sheep Chase – the genre elements like whiskey and cigarettes, the Starfish / Dolphin Hotel, the snowy-remote meeting places, the shots with a focus on the girl’s ear, the man in a rabbit suit / sheep suit. So yeah – there’s definitely an influence/reference there. Not to mention the whole ‘author’ plot-device.

Have a blurb. One thing I found really interesting is that it mentions the visual style and themes of Ugetsu. It’s funny because as soon as I read that, I remembered that Ugetsu had popped into my mind whilst watching Starfish Hotel. I really wish I could pinpoint what it was that made me think of Ugetsu – all I remember is the image of the lead female ghost coming to me, but I can’t remember what prompted it.

Starfish has a great visual style – the production design and cinematography are top notch – really crisp, bright and warm. I really liked the portrayal of Japan, though I have no idea how accurate it is (since the director is based in Japan it is probably a more accurate and compassionate representation of Tokyo and surrounds than is a film like Lost In Translation, which incidentally I think I am bashing because of an interview I read with master cinematographer Christopher Doyle…probably not the best reason, but I like the guy. Actually, I remember liking Translation, I thought it was a great portrayal of a certain type of relationship, of what could have been if they met at another time. It’s more the portrayal of Japan, rather than the whole movie, which bothers me. )

All the actors were great, I’m not really up on Japanese film at the moment, so I don’t know how well they are known, but I think they all did a good job. I especially liked the old rabbit suit bloke, and the young girl with the sexy ears. I also really liked how the story revolves around a novelist, I loved the explicit and implicit connections to literature. My main gripe with the film was the score – in some parts it is very effective, however in others I felt that it was a little too simple, and went on a little too long. Had it been used a bit more sparingly I think the film would have benefited. Also the piano part was very reminiscent of Eyes Wide Shut, but that is by no means a bad thing.

So far one good, one bad. I’ll keep you posted.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Jarhead

Jarhead (2005), directed by Sam Mendes, screenplay by William Broyles Jr, based on the book by Anthony Swofford.

I generally don’t like war movies, however I still watch them, and for such movies I think the environment of the cinema can’t be beat. So the other night I went with a mate to see Jarhead. This mate of mine loves war movies. So it was interesting that by the end of the film neither of us really knew what to make of it. Didn’t know whether we liked it or not.

Well its had a few days to sink in and I think that overall it’s not a very good film. There are too many scenes of movie-fat, which could be trimmed, and numerous scenes the likes of which we have seen before. Without these scenes though, there would not be much of a movie left. For me the best thing portrayed was the mental state of the soldiers – thinking about the girlfriend you left behind, and what she’s doing.

The movie has lots of references to other war movies – some of which I thought were quite cool (the grunts watching Apocalypse Now in a cinema room) and others which seemed lazy and cheap – the drill sergeant and head shots of grunts, which seemed far too Full Metal Jacket. Incidentally, those two movies mentioned are my favourite war movies, although arguments could be made about both that they aren’t really war movies but are other stories, set in the context of war. Which is kind of similar to Jarhead – it’s more about Swofford’s experience of the war, and his mental state, than the war itself.

The coolest thing about the movie had to be the use of music. Great soundtrack. There is one dream-sequence scene where "Something in the Way", a Nirvana track, comes on and blasts out of all channels – it’s really enveloping and is a great effect. Overall I can say that it’s just a movie – see it if you’re curious but otherwise don’t bother – you’re not missing much.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005), directed by Andrew Adamson, based on the novel by C.S. Lewis.

So I like to go to a Hollywood movie every once in a while just to remind myself why I generally stay away. Maybe I have become too cynical with my movie watching, but this one did not even particularly entertain me – I mean it was ok, but I was not properly pulled into the story and into the movie. The story of Narnia is (although with strong ties to the story of Christ’s resurrection) a good story – I just didn’t like this rendering of it.

First up, can I just say: Fuck CGI. It has its place, don’t get me wrong, and I do think that it is a useful tool if used sparingly and wisely. There is also some argument to be made for ‘achieving things that would otherwise not be possible on film’ – however I would argue that these ‘achievements’ invariably always look like a computer game anyway, and so are not much of an achievement at all. CGI when used for large scenes/set pieces/characters etc takes away some of the magic of film. Find some way to do it for real, or don’t do it. Anyway, just a small rant because I find it pulls me out of the movie.

Now I did grow up on the BBC version of the Narnia story. Unfortunately I can’t really remember what it was like so I can’t make a comparison. Needless to say, this one didn’t live up to my expectations. Firstly – the voices. I don’t think a single one of the human voices that were used for the animals were well matched. However this was one area where there was some humour injected, which is much needed for an adult audience. The child actors were not much chop either – I think they could have done a bit better.

Technically the film lacked a bit for me too. I’ve already whinged about the CGI, on top of this I did notice a few clunky edits, and a number of instances where it seemed like perhaps they had too much coverage, but not necessarily good coverage. The most impressive element was the sound design, however in context of the whole film it was a bit over-powering. It felt as though the sound design and music were working over time to cover over some cracks.

Finally the climax was a bit lame. In the middle of the battle scene it just, sort of, – ended – and that was it. Loose ends were quickly tied up and we shuffled out of the cinema. I don’t remember the other version being that anti-climactic, but maybe I’m wrong. I can’t really recommend this movie at all.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Le Mépris

Contempt (1963), directed by Jean-Luc Godard, based on the novel by Alberto Moravia.

Contempt is often noted as being one of the best films about filmmaking. It is also noted for its use of colour, and the presence of Brigitte Bardot and Fritz Lang.

The story revolves around the production of a film adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey. Fritz Lang plays a fictional version of himself, the director who is creating the adaptation. On a second level, the film Contempt is itself a modern adaptation of The Odyssey. I have not read Homer’s work and I’m sure that those who have would also pick up on a lot more than me. The same really goes for Godard’s work – his films are usually grounded in a certain time and culture, and those with a greater understanding of the political and cultural climates of early 1960’s Europe would probably glean a lot more from this film.

Since Á Bout de Souffle (Breathless) in 1960, Godard’s style has consistently challenged the norms and conventions of cinema. He breaks rules and toys with construction of scenes and genres. A lot of his methods are very Brechtian, honoring the maxim that ‘art should reveal the principles of its own construction’. The film opens with a stationary shot depicting a film set – a camera moves towards us on a long set of tracks. This is the first use of a visual leitmotif that will run throughout the film – the use of, and depiction of, tracking shots. Whilst we view this shot, the credits are announced out loud. This is something I have never seen (heard) before – it’s such a simple device, and one that typifies the way Godard works – who ever said credits had to be read?

Revealing means of construction - tracking shots.

Contempt uses a colour scheme that revolves around red, white, and blue, which represents the colours of both the French and American flags. Contempt was an international co-production, which really only got off the ground with the presence of Brigitte Bardot. There was pressure from the producers to include some salacious scenes – so Godard made a concession and shows Bardot in the nude. Behind red, white, and blue filters. Whilst the camera lingers over her body the couple discuss her breasts, thighs and so on. We are presented with a verbal list of what the audience presumably desires. So Godard has shown the nudity, but he has intellectualized it. Again this is also a Brechtian technique as it draws attention to the means of construction, making the audience aware that they are viewing a construction.

Intellectualising Bardot's nudity.

Just as Godard is frequently referencing, he too is frequently
referenced. Compare this opening shot from Sophia Coppola's
Lost in Translation.

The score by Georges Delerue is tragic and grand, although it did sound a bit like a soap opera at times. The way the score is used is interesting though – it does not run with the emotions and action. If anything it seems more like a punctuation mark. Again this is a Brechtian device, where there is a form of tension between the elements – music/shots/acting/dialogue and so on, working against each other rather than harmoniously.

The hair.

The pacing of the film is also worth a mention. Firstly there are lots of long takes, which results in a lot less shots than your average film. Sometimes this has the effect of foregrounding awkwardness – i.e. making the audience feel awkward. What a great way to subtly manipulate things – creating a reaction that is not totally reliant on the contents of the frame. A few times there are some flashback sequences – a bunch of quick cuts, whilst the music remains playing. They are discontinuous and show shots/events we have already seen and some we have not (and some that are yet to come). Again, they call attention to the construction of the film, but I think they are great – actually they form some of my favourite segments.

Godard makes great use of Cinemascope in this film. The
positioning of the actors throughout adds another layer of meaning.

Other things of note:

- The film really lacks subjective shots. Actually I can only remember one, but there were probably a few more.

- Godard uses a few shots that are ‘empty frames’. The actor leaves frame but the camera lingers. Wong Kar-wai seems to be fond of such shots, and so am I. The French do have a specific term for this device, but I can’t find it.

- Style as important as substance. The apartment/argument scene is about half an hour long – the same scene in a Hollywood movie would last a few minutes. It is almost in real time, and also has realistic dialogue – full of sarcasm, beating around the bush, and lacking in snappy lines.

The empty frame.
So overall I don't think I particularly liked Contempt. I do have a lot of respect for it though, and I do think that it is one of those films that I will be able to come back to later and discover more. I like the way Godard plays with conventions and I like the self-reflexive nature of the film; I just don’t think that I enjoyed it all that much.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Bad Timing

Bad Timing (1980), directed by Nicolas Roeg, written by Yale Udoff.

Life has been really hectic over the last couple of months, and that’s my excuse for not posting for a while. I have viewed a few films since The Lady from Shanghai, and most of them are worth writing about, however it is Nic Roeg’s film where I shall pick up the slack.

The only other film from Roeg that I have seen is Dont Look Now. I am quite a fan of that film, even though I have only seen it once. I saw it about 2 years ago, and images from it still rattle about in my head. The editing of both of these films commonly gets mentioned by reviewers. It’s innovative and it’s good. In terms of Bad Timing, the editing really makes the film. I really don’t think it would hold together very well if it weren’t for the way they have cut it – a straight narrative style would not work. When the film was released 25 years ago it must have been pretty chaotic for the audiences – I think these days most of the MTV generation would have not much trouble following the film. Still, I think the film will definitely hold up to multiple viewings.

Art Garfunkel

I actually found this film pretty depressing. It’s a good film, and generally I am pleased when a film strongly affects my emotions, but this one just left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. It’s a film about sexual obsession, about the intense sexual connection that can sometimes click between two people. In a sense it is a character study of a relationship – one that has elements to which most viewers can probably relate, but one which also has a darker side. Art Garfunkel’s character is forced to examine why he is in the relationship – he knows, but just does not want to admit it. It’s great the way a dark vibe can be conveyed without explicitly showing it, and also the reaction in the viewer that gets created through the juxtaposition of two shots.

Frequently the film cuts between a tracheotomy and lush interiors.

As far as acting goes Theresa Russell was really good, but at times Art was a little forced. I actually really liked his presence, and he looked great, but sometimes it felt like he was waiting to react to things, and some lines came off sounding like one-liners rather than just natural comments. Having said that, the guy is a musician, not trained as an actor, so he did a pretty good job.

The music in the film varies wildly – some cuts work very well with the images, whilst others just feel lazy. Some of the more generic jazz numbers give a whole midday-movie feel to it; had this been combined with standard, linear editing, I think the movie may have come off feeling just like a midday-movie.

The production design, cinematography and costuming are all top notch. There’s a great look to the film, almost psychedelic, great use of colour. Also either the film was greatly planned-out, or they just shot the fuck out of it. There seems to be so much coverage – lots of shots of things from numerous different angles. Again, kudos to the editor and director, either way they did a great job of pulling it together. It’s done in such a fashion that at times you never quite know where you are.

Great use of colour throughout.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Lady From Shanghai

The Lady From Shanghai (1947), directed by Orson Welles, screenplay by Orson Welles, based on the novel If I Die Before I Wake, by Sherwood King.

I really enjoyed this movie, but it is lacking in a few areas. If your familiar with film noir then all of your genre expectations will be fulfilled. It’s not a bad story and it kept me going along with it. I really like Orson Welles as an actor – he has an incredible presence and just oozes charisma. I mean c’mon, how cool is the guy? Having said that, he is a bit awful in this movie. It’s the accent. His character is an Irish guy, and Welles puts on this laughable, horrendous Irish accent throughout the film, which really threw me a bit. It’s quite unbelievable and tends to pull you out of the film, however even though it was crap, I’m kind of fond of it. What can I say – it’s definitely a quirk.

Mr Charisma

The other lead was Rita Hayworth, and to my knowledge this is the first time I have seen her in a lead role. Some old actors that used to be stunners in their time just don’t do it for me, but man, Rita is gorgeous. She has a fair bit of presence too, and the moment she is seen on the screen you just know poor old Orson is in trouble. Unfortunately I found nearly all of the other actors awful – both their characters and the actors. I guess the characters are meant to be awful, but they are just played by awful actors. Let me clarify – it’s not so much that the acting was bad, just that I didn’t like the physicality of the actors.

The Femme Fatale

Technically the main thing I noticed about the film was that there were a few clunky shots and edits. A couple of times the frame size and angle was not really changed enough. When this happens the result is a little jarring for the audience. It’s not uncommon to see in old films, I mean it still happens these days. What I thought was strange about it though, was that the film was directed by Orson Welles, and I guess based on Citizen Kane, I thought he would have done better. I don’t remember any clunks in Kane, though it’s been a while, and Kane was his first movie. I guess the reason is that Lady was more of a studio picture and less artistic for him than Kane.

The image cuts from this to the one below. It's not
really jump cut, but just a clunky edit.

So why watch this movie? Well it’s all about the mirrors! You watch this movie for the mirror scene, which comes right at the end. Don’t worry – it’s not one of those movies where you sit through torture waiting for some final line or scene at the end – the rest of the movie is enjoyable too. But the mirror scene – it’s genius. It’s innovative cinema like this that I have come to expect from Welles, and so far, in every movie of his that I have seen, there has been at least one very cool bit. For Lady, it’s those mirrors.

The mirror scene. Genius.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes

Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), directed by Werner Herzog, written by Werner Herzog.

What the fuck is this? This is a joke, right? I mean there is a whole community of cinephiles conspiring against me, trying to convince me of the greatness of Werner Herzog and Aguirre.

Hi! Welcome to scathing post number one. Unfortunately I was not up all night on methamphetamine, so I don't have a decent excuse for my paranoia and cynicism.

Look, to be perfectly honest, I have probably not given this movie a fair chance. But I tend to think that if something looks like a steaming pile of shit, then it probably is a steaming pile of shit. Why is this movie so popular? C'mon, fire up people - let me know what I am missing and why. I just don't get it. I watched about the first 10 minutes of this movie and sat there dumb-founded. This can't be serious, right? So I skipped a few chapters....still looks and sounds the same. Is Herzog fucken serious, or is this film just having a big laugh at the audience's expense?

1 - The look. It's bad. Terrible look to the film, possibly the actual stock and cameras used. Combine this with the awful academy aspect ratio and you have a whole screen of yuck!

2 - The style. It's not a doco and it doesn't seem to be a story that lends itself to the doco style. Horrible cinematography. What the fuck does a 45sec out of focus shot of muddy rapids have to do with anything?

3 - Sound. Horrible dubbing, looks ridiculous, have read reports that both German and English language versions are dubbed. Badly.

4 - Crappy acting. Looks like bad theatre. Kinski looked like a cool sort of dude, but not cool enough to keep me watching.

5 - Wardrobe. Again looks like something out of a really bad stage play.

6 - Music. This is where the joke begins. It's not serious, is it? Sounds like synths replicating out of tune church organs.

Please help me out here - why the fuck should I give this movie another chance? For that matter, why should I give any Herzog another chance? This is the first fictional film I have seen from him. I was pretty keen to go and check out Grizzly Man at the cinemas, but now am not so sure if I will make the trip.

Watching bits of the film I could not escape the feeling that I was watching some horrible 1970's BBC production of a crappy play. Disappointing.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Vozvrashcheniye

Vozvrashcheniye (2003), directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev, written by Vladimir Moiseyenko and Aleksandr Novototsky.

Wow. What a beautiful film. Seeing The Return makes me want to pack up and go to work in the Russian film industry, probably not the most prosperous industry in the world, but one capable of producing great pieces of art.

And that’s exactly what this film is – art. Apparently it was a low-budget feature, but much to the credit of the filmmakers, you can’t tell. Where to start? The story – for those that have been weaned on Hollywood, with a supplement of MTV, you will probably hate this movie. There is not a lot of action and the movie could be considered slow, however to characterize it as such is to miss the point. The story mainly revolves around three characters – two young brothers and their father. They know their father only through an old photograph, and they have not seen him for twelve years. He returns, and takes them on a camping trip to a remote island. I can’t really say more than that without giving it away, as there is not a lot of plot function here - it is mostly a character study. There is not a lot of dialogue, mostly what is said is succinct and to the point. This is true cinema – the images do the talking.

The cinematography is often breathtaking. Shot after beautiful shot – a combination of the framing, the locations, the lighting and whatever other magic tricks the DOP has. Throughout the film a blue filter is used, which really helps the somber tone of the film, and gives it this stunning visual quality. The film looks blue in much the same was as Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Un long dimanche de fiançailles looks brown. The use of symmetry was quite noticeable, with many shots being perfectly framed and aligned, contrasted with great dollys and cut-aways. The symmetrical framing reminded me of Kubrick’s work, as that was a part of his signature style. Almost any frame could be taken from this film, and hung on the wall of a gallery.

Both the sound design and the music are great in this film. The music has traditional Russian elements, which are a-tonal to western ears, brought forward into the electronic age. Really great music, totally suits and creates the tone of the film. Sound design was quite creative too, especially the uses of silence during what would normally be a quite noisy scene.

The acting is also great from everyone involved, although at times I found Ivan’s performance to be a little too acted, then at others he was excellent, just so believable. The other actors all put in great performances too. The R4 dvd edition has a great making of feature, that runs for about an hour. Tragically the other young actor died two months before the premiere of the film at the Venice film festival, and finding this out after just viewing the film, which is pretty tragic itself, put quite a dampener on my mood. But in a good way.

Anyone with an interest in pure cinema or foreign film really should see this movie.


Monday, September 26, 2005

Jacob's Ladder

Jacob’s Ladder (1990), directed by Adrian Lyne, written by Bruce Joel Rubin.

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks and I really have not had much time at all to view movies. I think maybe I have watched about two – and they were not worth writing about. I’m not too sure that this one is worth writing about either, but I want to keep in the practice of writing, or else this site will fall to bits. I really wanted to view a steady diet of foreign and art-house films but things have not panned out that way. At the moment my film watching is generally at the end of the day, when I am tired, and not really in a mood to read sub-titles or watch something particularly deep. Which means that to sit through a Tarkovsky or the like, I really need to do it during the day, but I can’t help getting the feeling that I am procrastinating and should be doing something more important. Perhaps I should set aside some day-time each week, for study/viewing works of art.

Anyways on to the film.

First up – Tim Robbins. For some reason I have something against the guy. When I see a film starring him, similarly to anything starring Renee Zellweger, I generally avoid it. To be honest though, I didn’t mind him in this film, and because of that I will probably give the guy a chance in the future. The main reason I did not want to see Winter bottom’s Code 46 was because of Robbins; that was probably a dumb reason. So anyways he is likeable enough in this movie, and his girlfriend is a bit gorgeous, so that’s that.

Story wise the film did not totally gel for me. I won’t give away the ending but let’s just say it felt really tacked on, and I’m not sure that it even made sense. In fact I don’t think it made any sense at all, and I don’t mean in the weird/para-normal/unexplained/Lynchian kinda way. Which would have been cool. No, it just felt like cheap script-writing and a bit of a last minute tack-on. I think the story had potential but it did feel a bit clichéd. It mixes para-normal horror elements with war, drugs and conspiracy theory. I think it would have worked better to pick just one of these elements and run with it; it might have come out more original that way. Instead it ended up being quite familiar most of the way through.

The use of actors with creepy faces is one element which will probably always work for a horror/thriller film. Set in the right light and the right context, these people can look genuinely frightening. Not sure how the actors feel about being portrayed this way but I guess that’s not really the issue. I saw mentioned on a forum the use of the “shaky face” technique. I don’t recall seeing it in any other films, though apparently in the 90’s its use became quite common. Basically the face of an actor/monster shakes like mad, so much so that the features are blurred. As far as techniques for horror goes it’s ok – it works in one film because it is new and innovative, but I can’t really see it working in many other circumstances.

So all in all nothing particularly stood out about this movie. I had been wanting to see it for a while, and have satisfied that urge, but I don’t think I’ll bother watching it again. Same goes for The Ninth Configuration.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Casino

Casino (1995), directed by Martin Scorsese, screenplay by Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese.

I used to be quite fond of Casino. These days I’m not too sure – I have to say that it didn’t do a lot for me. It’s not a case of it being a bad movie, just that I think my tastes have changed a fair bit over the last couple of years. There were actually a lot of things about the movie that got on my nerves. Scorsese often talks about being influenced by the old Italian films, and I think I too am being influenced by them, and preferring them, to his contemporary renderings. Sure they are quite different movies, but the influence was there. I think I actually prefer Goodfellas to Casino, the former being just a bit snappier, and I guess I just liked the story more. One cool thing about both movies is that they were based on real events and people; both were based on novels by Nicholas Pileggi.

The production design on this film is great – you really get a good sense of the time and place that it is set. Love the wardrobe too – De Niro’s suits kill me. And I forgot to count, but I think he has a ciggie on him in every shot. I’m fond of little quirks like these, kind of like Brad Pitt always being seen eating in Ocean’s Eleven (2001). Anyway this was the main thing I liked about the film – apart from that I found the violence and swearing to be a bit too much. When I was younger these aspects appealed to me, but now I find it a bit harder to watch, perhaps a bit unnecessary.

Scorsese is known for his soundtracks – the way in which he will pilfer his record collection and find songs that would be suitable for his movie. Apparently if you listen closely to the sound track on Mean Streets, you can hear scratches in the vinyl and what-not, because it was low-budget and they used his actual records for the soundtrack. I think there are definitely occasions where a well placed pop song can work wonders – some tracks just fit so well. There are examples of this all over the place in all sorts of movies. Since I mentioned Mean Streets, a good example is where the Stones’ Jumping Jack Flash is played as De Niro walks through the red-lit bar. Great Stuff. However I think with Casino (and now that I have picked up on it, probably lots of his other films too), he goes a bit overboard. It really began to shit me by the end because the film was just like a constant jukebox – not enough silence, tracks being rammed into each other, volume knobs flying all around the place. Often the music/volume seemed to be the main instrument used to increase tension, rather than actually letting the scene or acting do it, it felt like the music was dictating how the audience should feel. Oh, and he could have found a way better place to use Fleetwood Mac’s Go Your Own Way.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Elephant

Elephant (2003), written and directed by Gus Van Sant.

This is a great movie. One of those movies that I wish I had caught on the big screen. When my mate Will was keen to see it at the cinema I wasn't very interested. I’m an idiot. I should have gone to see it with him – sorry Will. This film was great on the small screen - some films translate well and others don’t, it’s just that I think this film would have had an even greater impact on the big screen.

So Elephant is a fictional rendering of the Columbine High School massacre. Most of the students in the film use their real names and the film was shot on location in a high school in Portland, Oregon. Apart from that I am not sure to what extent things in the film are ‘real’ – I’m pretty sure that most of the people in the film are non-actors, and that much of it was improvised, but I’m not totally sure. Anyways I think they all do a good job. The film is kind of like an observational documentary – sort of a ‘day in the life of’ thing. Yet it is of course fictional, and quite stylised.

As to the style – a lot is owed to Harris Savides’ cinematography. The film looks extremely lush, which is interesting since it was actually shot for television, to be shown on the HBO network (think Sopranos, Sex and the City). Compare this to say Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, which was also originally shot for television, and you can see the difference. I mean you can tell Mulholland Drive was shot on cheaper film or had lower production values, but there is something about Elephant that just makes it so lush. I would be really interested to know more about the technical aspects of the cinematography as there are many shots which are single takes, but move through environments with various types of light (for example indoor to outdoor shots, with no cuts). Apparently the film was shot on 35mm and you can see the camera adjust to the different light levels, but it must have been tricky – no stopping to white balance for example.

The scoring was quite interesting too and although quite subdued I think it did a good job of creating a sort of tension in the piece. Further sound design was done really well, and since the movie is told in an ‘elliptical’ sort of style – not a linear narrative – I think elements of sound design would reveal themselves more upon repeated watchings.

Plot wise the great thing about this movie is that it doesn’t offer up an easy answers. It’s probably quite realistic – sometimes things just happen and can’t be easily explained or justified. The film starts off, and I guess because of the subject you already know what is going to happen, and from the beginning it just sort of broods and builds. The climax has been handled really well – a fine balance between showing too much to the audience and going for the shock factor, and between not making the film shocking enough. It has quite an impact.

From a filmmaker’s perspective there are also a couple of things I really liked about Elephant. Firstly, it is considered to be the second in Gus Van Sant’s loose ‘trilogy of death’. Trilogies – I love them. And in this case I don’t mean Hollywood style sequels that create a trilogy, a la Indiana Jones and Back to the Future. The trilogy can be more ‘loose’ and the films are generally thematically linked in some way, often not having characters repeated in them. Apart from this ‘trilogy of death’, I’m thinking of films like Kieslowski’s Three Colours Trilogy and Antonioni’s ‘trilogy of disillusion’. I guess it appeals because it may mean you get a crack at making another couple of films. Just the idea of exploring a concept/theme throughout a number of movies really appeals.

The second appealing thing was the editing. It was edited by the director, Gus Van Sant. I read somewhere that Krzysztof Kieslowski liked to edit his own films, but maybe that statement was taken out of context, because IMDB.com credits him as only editing one film. Editing is a true art and really it is at that stage that the film gets constructed and put together – the tension is created, action, confusion, the pace. Editing is so often overlooked and it is one of the most important functions in telling the story. I think directors are probably too close to the material, so that they perhaps cannot be ruthless when it is needed. An outside perspective can help shape the material. Having said that it’s really cool to see a major film edited by the director – and I think he has done a really good job.

Direction and style are also really noticeable in this film. It harks back to earlier style of filmmaking, I’m particularly reminded of Tarkovsky here, as the film is composed of lots of long shots and long takes. I have a feeling that Gerry, the film that started the trilogy, will be even more like this, as apparently it is full of things like 10 minute takes. Last Days, the conclusion to the trilogy, is showing out here at the moment, so hopefully I will get out to see that one soon.

This review was written whilst listening to Dj Krush's Jaku. A dark chilled Japanese instrumental hip-hop album garnished with pan flutes and scratching.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), directed by Tim Burton, screenplay by John August, based on the book by Roald Dahl.

Ok well we all know the original movie was great, at least it was last time I watched it, which was probably about 10 years ago. So to be honest I really don’t know how the original would stand up now. Gene Wilder’s performance was very memorable, and that is one of the main complaints about this remake that seems to pop up – that you can’t replace Wilder. So Depp didn’t try – his Wonka is deliciously twisted, darker and more absurd than Wilder’s. A wise move, as it basically makes comparisons redundant.

I generally loathe remakes but there are the odd exceptions, and this is one of them. I would still rather see all the creativity, effort and money that goes into a remake be channeled into something original, however if it has to be done, it may as well be done right. In this case the Burton/Depp team hit the nail on the head.

The colours and production design really stand out – the whole thing is lavish and visually arresting. The scoring is another stand-out; in the beginning it serves to imbue the film with a darker vibe than the original. Danny Elfman is the man responsible – one of those major Hollywood dudes who has scored dozens of big-time movies, also the man behind the theme for The Simpsons. The movie also has numerous references to other movies and songs from pop-culture.

I guess I don’t really have that much to say about the movie. I definitely enjoyed it, but on the other hand something kept me from being totally absorbed and wrapped up in it. Nearly the whole time in the cinema I kept thinking about what I would write in this blog, rather than just being pulled into the world of the movie. The only thing I can come up with is that perhaps it was because it was a kids movie, and although it did have some jokes and references aimed at adults, maybe it just wasn’t enough to lock me in. Having said all that I did have a stupid smile plastered to my face for most of the movie, so maybe I was just tired.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Woodsman

The Woodsman, (2004), directed by Nicole Kassell, based on the play by Steven Fechter, screenplay by Kassell & Fechter.

This film caused a bit of a stir when it came out, everyone was bitching and moaning about what playing a child molester would do to Kevin Bacon’s image/career. Well I think only good things – he turns in a great performance and I certainly have a lot more respect for his skills as an actor since seeing this. Both Bacon and the film as a whole do a great job of portraying what is basically a very un-likeable sort of character in a humane and possibly compassionate light. It does a great job of not marginalizing and demonizing his character which is much to the film’s credit. They have made a provocative film which has depth rather than shock value.


An interesting aspect of the film was that it was based on a play – I didn’t work that out from watching it. Thus the director/crew have done a great job of adapting the story to the screen. There are a number of movies which are immediately recognizable as being based on plays. Some because they are almost just like taping a play, and others because of the dialogue, style and sets. A good example of this is Closer – I actually really liked the film and thought it was a great snap-shot of contemporary fucked-up relationships, but it was quite clearly based on a play. The Woodsman is not like this – it is a good screen story that stands on its own.

I don’t really remember the score at all and I guess no technical aspects really stood out for me. However, I did notice the atmosphere created through the cinematography and production design. Bacon works in a lumber yard and the film successfully creates that world and imbues it with a sort of depressing edge, which is suitable given the subject matter. Anyway I think it achieves what The Machinist was trying to do but where that film came off a bit contrived, The Woodsman delivers.

So the atmosphere, the acting and the plot/themes are really the reasons to check this film out. And it really does deal with some pretty substantial themes. I liked the way in which nothing is rammed down your throat, the filmmakers basically leave the audience to draw their own conclusions. The film actually ends with a sort-of downbeat, 70’s style ambiguous ending, which is a good thing to see these days. The questions that the film raises are interesting and are sure to cause some pondering. Although the film deals with a pretty confronting subject, and it is dark, it was presented in such a way that I did not find it particularly disturbing. Again, I think this is to the credit of the filmmakers because it makes you think about the issues rather than try to shock you.

The film starts with Bacon just out of a 12 year jail stint. He is trying to rebuild his life and integrate back into society. The film raises questions about the nature of redemption and the nature of self/character. Once someone has served their time should their actions be forgiven/forgotten? Can someone change? There are some great moments in the film where these issues are directly tackled, yet there are no real answers. At one point it seems that Bacon may cross the line again, and although there is a sequence which seems to be portraying Bacon beating out his demons, the film has enough ambiguity so that we are never really sure if he has or will change. It’s also interesting to think that, let us say that one can’t fundamentally change who he is, then should he not be given a chance? I mean sure you can control how you act on instincts and impulses, and thus whether or not you affect the lives of others, but if someone can’t help being who they are then who are we to punish and even if they serve their time, can they ever be redeemed? Although I guess the same argument can be made for serial killers. I don’t know, I’m just playing devil’s advocate here – I don’t mean to judge either way as my own mind isn’t made up about such questions. However, I think the fact that the film raises them is a good thing, and that it deals with them in such an honest, open manner.

12 Angry Men

12 Angry Men (1957), directed by Sidney Lumet, written by Reginald Rose.

I know I have seen this movie before, I am just not sure where or why. Maybe a midday movie when I was home crook about 10 years ago. Who knows? Anyway, this is a pretty good movie. Now that I have seen it, I have no need to see it again or add it to the collection, but it is an example of a tightly constructed, well told story.

Nearly all the action and almost every shot is placed inside the jury room. That is probably the greatest thing about this film – the way the director holds the interest of the audience, whilst confined to only one set/room (must have been great for the budget!). I have seen two other films which attempted similar things – Hitchcock’s Rope and Linklater’s Tape. Oh and for that matter I guess Rear Window is basically the same too. Rope was an experiment in creating a film in the one room, except I think it’s actually filmed in a few rooms, but in the same apartment (all rooms opening into each other). A while ago I read that Hitchcock constructed the film as 9 ten minute shots, creating a 90min film. Since reading this I have not gone back to view it again, so I guess that is a film I will have to hit up soon because I like the concept. Anyway from memory it wasn’t one of Hitchcock’s best, but it wasn’t bad either. As for Tape, I didn’t mind it but it was nothing great. The point is – I think 12 Angry Men is the most successful of all of these films in holding the audience’s attention within the one room/environment.

Through varying the shot sizes and length of shots, Lumet is able to create tension and help mold the ebb and flow of the conversation. It’s a greatly choreographed film, in one sense, because it is basically through the direction and the editing that the film is able to capture the audience for 90mins. The actual story of the murder is not particularly interesting, I mean it’s interesting to see how the story unfolds, but the details are not exactly gripping. It’s through the use of different elements of composition that the director is able to hold our attention.

The acting is good, particularly Henry Fonda in the lead role. It is a bit of the old classic style of acting though – I can’t really work out what it is, just sort of stiffer I guess. Character wise the film is pretty strong – all twelve men are different types of people, and whilst I wouldn’t say that any of them are really stereotypes, this is a drama so some aspects of their personalities are exaggerated. As a result the film presents an interesting look at the psychology of humans.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969). Directed by George Roy Hill, written by William Goldman.

Straight-up I’ll say that this is an example of ‘movie as entertainment’ rather than ‘film as art’. But it is really entertaining – it’s a great, fun movie. The line-up of Paul Newman and Robert Redford work really well, they have a great chemistry and individually they both have pounds of charisma, so it’s hard not to get the feeling that these are some cool dudes. Four years later they worked together on The Sting – it’s a shame that they didn’t do any other work together as I think they made a great on-screen partnership.

The film has a fun, romping sort of vibe to it and there’s some great one-liners. According to the director although it was a period piece, the characters were basically contemporary in their manners, their speech (though not anachronistic), their vocal rhythms etc. Which leads to the music. It’s awful. It really is a shame that I watched the making-of and heard the director’s justifications for the music choices because it makes it hard for me to absolutely shit-can it. So due to it being a period piece somewhat contemporized for the audience at the time (1969), they chose to use music of that time. Written by Burt Bacharach. Think “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”. I get it, I understand why they did it, but man it was such a bad call. It might have been good at the time, but it has aged really badly. The “musical interludes” are just awful – cheesy music covering slap-dash montages which try to add depth but are pretty unnecessary.

Pacing wise the movie was okay, except it got a bit funny around the one-hour part. At that point it felt like a suitable spot for it to end, yet it would have been too short. So there is a last act where they travel down to Bolivia and basically try to resume the same lifestyle down there. This section does have some cool scenes, but it just felt a bit tacked on to me. Technically I didn’t really find anything of note. I did notice a few bits which have been referenced in other movies though. Way of the Gun (written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, the guy who wrote The Usual Suspects) has the names of the leads as Parker and Longbaugh the ‘real’ names of Butch and Sundance. The final shoot-out scene in WOTG is so clearly ‘borrowed’ from Butch that it is almost embarrassing. (It’s not actually embarrassing because WOTG’s scene is really cool). Also a bit of a weird connection, but in Kevin Smith’s Mallrats there is a security guard called La Fours, bearing the same name and the same hat (!) as a sheriff called La Fours in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.