Tuesday, June 23, 2009

For Neda

For Neda

“Policemen are not authorized to use weapons against people,” said Tehran Police Chief Azizollah Rajabzadeh, according to Press TV. “They are trained to only use antiriot tools to keep the people out of harm’s way.”

She was young
loving and loved
our sister

A simple honest life
modestly aspiring

She knew freedom
liberty dwelled in her lustrous soul
she acted
not with violence
nor rancour
a witness
against tyranny

An instant
the bullet’s trajectory unflinching
she falls
the blood
the horror
“I’m burning, I’m burning!”

Iranian Neda Agha-Soltan, 26, was killed Saturday evening when hit by a bullet during a protest in Tehran. Thanks to Lloyd Fonville of mardecortesbaja.com for bringing Neda’s story to my attention. Quotes from Los Angeles Times. In Farsi, Neda means voice or call.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning (2008)

A boy talks to God on a CB radio in a beat-up cleaning van. A sassy young woman with no job and fewer prospects is transported to ecstasy trestling under an urban train bridge. Her older sister struggles in low-paid jobs to survive and bring up her son. A loser father who never gives up and with a heart of gold. A gentle one-armed man sells cleaning agents and makes model planes. Contract cleaning the grisly detritus of messy deaths as a path to a life with purpose.

Sunshine Cleaning is a simple film that transcends a modest premise if you look deeply enough and with empathy. A story of the mostly painful struggle of those living on the margins in the suburbs takes you gently, and without violence or sermonising, on a journey where you discover the emptiness of things, the value of family, and the pain and wistful joy of grief.

To have the perspective that sees something worthwhile in this thoroughly decent film perhaps one needs to have actually faced failure, been on the outside, been a father, or faced the angst that can push someone to blow their head-off. Ask an adult child who has had the heart-broking job of emptying their dead parent’s home of the stuff that is left behind, of the pain of deciding what to keep and what to throw away, of a place full of memories stripped of the signposts that anchored them, of the shock realisation that the artifacts of a life are at bottom junk to be removed for the next occupant.

In this movie we have an original screenplay and direction by relative newcomers, and from that perspective they have done well. The cast is engaging and modest, they assume their roles without affectation or histrionics. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt are the two sisters. Alan Arkin, who has a mortgage on such roles, is the father, and Jason Spevack is charming as his grandson. Clifton Collins Jr. is impressive as the local cleaning aids supplier. Christine Jeffs’ unassuming point and shoot direction leaves the story by Megan Holley to unfold through the characters.

Not a great film but it remains in the memory as a bitter-sweet reminder of the transience of things, that a good life is not defined by the accumulation of possessions but by how honestly and bravely we tread the path fate has dealt us.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Summary Judgement: Gran Torino (2008)

A cliched story is saved by engaging performances from the the two young Asian-American co-stars. Eastwood's feel-good neighborly redemption and contrived sacrifice obscure the reactionary scenario that holds-up gun-justice and violence as solutions to urban alienation and conflict.

A truly disturbing confection that has nothing to say on the causes of urban decline and the economic forces that shape lives in the suburbs and on the streets.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Book Review: "Have You Seen...?"

I waited with as much anticipation as a depressive 56yo can muster for my Amazon order of film critic David Thomson's book, "Have You Seen...?": A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (2008). The reviews and blurbs are glowing: "a prodigious, seductive, and addictive achievement" said Richard Schickel and a "brilliant commentary" wrote Molly Haskell. Greil Marcus and Andrew Sarris offer similar praise. On receiving the book, I was sadly disappointed.

Thomson allocates a page for each movie giving him 600-800 words to play with. There are no images. The films are presented alphabetically and cover a wide range, with a strong bias for Hollywood product. The dustcover describes the contents as "including masterpieces, oddities, guilty pleasures, and classics (with just a few disasters)".

The marketing hype tells me the book is "a sweeping collection [presenting] films that Thomson offers in response to the question... 'What should I see?' ".

Sadly, the reviews are too self-consciously quirky and overly striving for knowing irony to be of any real assistance in their stated aim. I suppose you can put it down to dry English wit for it own sake. The short essays are full of arcane references for those cineastes who live for such trivia, and there is nothing wrong with that! But when you only have a page at your disposal, such indulgence costs. And the cost is high. After reading a review, if you have not seen the film, there is at bottom very little to inform your decision of whether to pursue it. If you have seen the movie, more often than not, you are left perplexed by the flippant tone and neglect of important elements.

For an old geezer, Thomson, who is in his sixties, strives to be hip by mixing obscenities with irony. Words such as, f*ck, f*ckability, and pr*ck, are often used where more elegant language would serve his purpose better.

As his bias is obvious I suppose it is to a degree acceptable. Though to my mind, this makes his survey rather limiting. For example, he writes-off the Marx Bros as mere vaudeville, refers to film noir as a "style looking for content", and barely tolerates Billy Wilder.

Better to spend your money on The Time Out Film Guide and 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (though I do resent having to pick up a book that has to always remind me of my mortality).

Friday, June 12, 2009

Movie Poster of the Day: 60s Pinku Eiga

Found in a back room of an Osaka cimena.

Image of the Day: Il Conformista (1970)

State of Play (2009)

Buried under the mire of cliché, there is an important story in State of Play, but its telling in a feature film will need a more intelligent screenplay and tauter direction.

An overweight long-haired junk-food-eating newspaper reporter, ably assisted by a young and attractive female blogger, stumbles across a story of corporate dirty-dealing which exposes government corruption and segues into sordid melodrama. Not to leave any stone of topicality unturned, we also have corporate demands for profits from the newspaper business, new versus old media, marital infidelity, abuse of process, and a deranged a gunman.

The reporter is played by a stolid Russell Crowe, who does little with an empty role. Helen Mirren as the blustery editor shouts and swears a lot, and nothing much else. Only Ben Affleck as a young Senator resonates, while Michael Berresse is strangely effective as a rogue psychopath.

It all plays out as a second-rate John Grisham novel, with a twist within a twist ending, which looks like it was tacked-on to appease a studio suit. The whole affair lacks tension or dramatic momentum largely due to the lacklustre direction and pedestrian cinematography. The soundtrack tries to instill a modicum of drama, but is weirdly out of sync: it telegraphs rather than informs the action.

If you want the real story told with conviction and intelligence read Naomi Klein’s thoroughly researched expose The Shock Doctrine.

Monday, June 8, 2009

All About Eve (1950): Last is best, older is better

The last scene in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve is the best. It encapsulates and reverberates the central motif: naked ambition is not a zero-sum game.

Bette Davis playing an aging actress is a testament to the eternal feminine: sassy, loving, vivacious, and vulnerable.

Reading the Movies

The Dancing Cinema film blog has asked film bloggers to list the film books that have enriched their passion. This is my list after excluding my latest disappointing purchase - "Have You Seen...?" by David Thomson, which I review here.

Landmark Films
William Wolf
A selection of films that Wolf saw as representing their time: from Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915) to Wertmuller's Seven Beauties (1975)

Film Noir
Andrew Spicer
Essential introduction to film noir

Film As Film: Understanding and Judging Movies
V. F. Perkins
A critique of film theory and criticism

A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941-1953
Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton
THE seminal survey of film noir

More Than Night: Film Noir In its Contexts
James Naremore
A deeply insightful review of the the meaning of noir

American Movie Critics
ed. by Phillip Lopate
A compendium of American film criticism from the silent era to the present

The Art of the Film
Ernest Lindgren
How movies are made and the aesthetics of film-making

The Contemporary Cinema: 1945-1963
Penelopw Houston
A survey of post-war cinema

The Story of Film
Mark Cousins
A complete reference endorsed by Bernardo Bertolucci

The Philosophy of Film Noir
ed. by Mark T. Conrad
Anthology of the philosophy of noir from Plato and Nietzsche to Sartre

The Film Handbook (1989)
Geoff Andrew
A reference of major world directors with an introduction by Martin Scorsese

1001 Movies (2005)
ed. by Steven Jay Schneider
Film reviews of top 1001 films by selected major international critics