Sunday, December 15, 2013

La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty Italy 2013)

A wit I can't recall lamented in blunt irony that the rich are always with us. Fifty years after Fellini invited us to vicariously savour la dolce vita, another film-maker offers another glimpse into the demimonde, in a richly baroque, loving embrace of a Rome where ancient artefacts host the bunga-bunga vapidity of the latest incarnation of Roman excess. Luscious young women gyrate to pulsating dance music and bored rich people luxuriate in their ennui and self-absorption. Our guide is Jep Gambardella, a journalist on the cusp of old age. He once wrote a novel, something of which we are reminded rather too often, and loved a girl in his lost youth. Surprise, surprise, he finds his life wanting. A spiritual emptiness not so much a problem but a conceit. Much like his designer clothes and acid wit. For him, a funeral is a performance.

Jep, more with languor than urgency, between cigarettes and while staring at the ceiling of his bedroom, ponders the big questions in a small way. Is director Paolo Sorrenti playing a rather elaborate joke on the glitterati of film who like moths to the flame frenetically flutter in their ecstatic worship of this film? Is it all "blah, blah" as Jep muses in one of his rare lucid moments. Perhaps. Or maybe he actually is serious that we should care about Jep our guide.

Like the limping man with the mysterious suitcase, Jep has all the keys to the beauty of Rome. Yet he has never found its soul. Why? Not for want of trying. He most likely has looked in all the wrong places. Where are the right places? Sorrentini doesn't show us. Indeed does he even know? His Rome is a place beyond normal lives. Every frame is immaculately composed, but with all spontaneity excluded. A dead beauty where the mess of real lives is kept at an ethereal distance, lest it contaminate those perfect compositions.

Thankfully Sorrentini stumbles at the end. Enter a desiccated 104 year old toothless nun - a gratuitously banal caricature of Mother Teresa - and an ambitious cardinal. Her aphorisms are empty, and the cardinal, the bishop most likely to be the next Pope, who would rather talk about food than matters spiritual, has "no answers". He leaves the scene behind the gliding curtain of his glimmering limousine after insincerely blessing our lost hero. In these pitfalls Sorrentini exposes the inadequacy of his own answers. Jep will now write another novel about "the great beauty" beneath the "blah, blah". Just who is supposed to care?

There is a certain irony in seeing this film over 6 months after it's release. There is now a new Bishop Of Rome. He does not drive around in a shiny limousine and he doesn't live in a gilded palace. He picks up the phone and talks to people who have written to him with their problems. People in that world beyond the magnificent terraces of the rich.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

High Noon (1952)

Growing up in an inner-city suburb of Sydney in the 50s and before my Dad bought us a b&w television, every Saturday he would take my younger brother and me to the local cinema for the matinee, which most days featured a Western. So by the age of 7 or 8 I had pretty well absorbed all the conventions of the genre and my hero was the cowboy. Around that time after a spell in hospital my parents gave me a special gift. A cow hide cowboy outfit. The full kit. Hat, chaps, vest, tin spurs, and double-holster six-guns. I was over the moon. And the coolest thing was that riveted on to the jacket was a tin star. That meant I was the good guy.

A tin star. With it went power but even more an obligation. Adherence to a creed that required courage and perhaps sacrifice for a greater good. Those worthy of that tin star were decent and courageous men. The selfish concerns of family, comfort and material well-being trumped by allegiance to a higher more demanding code.

In High Noon, set in a small frontier town, Marshall Will Kane, needs to get up a posse of deputies fast. A convicted killer, Frank Miller, is heading into town on the noon train, and he will in all likelihood, in cahoots with three hombres waiting at the station, be gunning for Kane, the man who arrested him five years before, only to be saved from the gallows, imprisoned for five years, and then pardoned by abolitionists up North. Kane is bitter at this leniency yet allows that “sometimes prison changes a man”. But can he rely on this unlikely possibility?

This classic scenario is played out in real time over 85 minutes in a taut progression of scenes that are marked by cuts to ticking clocks pointing to the impending confrontation. Kane has to face the threat alone. Those who he would rely on, either from cowardice, ambition or selfishness, desert him. There are even those who welcome the bad guys because they are good for business: the saloon keeper, a barber cum coffin-maker, the hotel clerk, and an ambitious but callow deputy who turns in his badge.

Kane is not young, and maybe a little tired. When the news of Miller’s impending arrival hits town, an aging still handsome Gary Cooper, always an actor with a quiet gentleness, has just married a young Quaker woman played by Grace Kelly. They are leaving town to start a new life. A new Marshall will arrive the next day.

Kane hesitates feeling he must delay his departure to face the threat.  Kane’s new wife abhors violence and wants him to remove his Marshall’s badge and leave town as planned. Kane reluctantly agrees but not long out of town – to her consternation – he turns back. He won’t run. He puts his badge back on, while she heads for the train ticket office.  Later though, back in town to wait for the noon train at the local hotel, she confront her fears and, after meeting a Mexican business woman from Kane’s past (Katy Jurado), finally accepts the imperative of standing by her man.

In Kane’s fruitless search for deputies he is revealed as a taciturn man, polite, self-effacing, with his doubts, and fearful, even wavering, but in the end ready to face fate and his obligation as best he can. Director Fred Zinnermann and his team have respected Carl Foreman’s no-nonsense script by not intruding and letting the wonderful Cooper by his signature decency tell the story.  An elemental story told simply and with economy. Those who make long speeches are cowards or pleading self-interest. Kane is a man of few words.  His responses are direct and honest.  The film-makers give their protagonist distance and approach their task with the same economy of plain-speaking and simple evocation. Tight clean shots, cut editing, and the melancholy and plaintiff theme song gently interspersed with the silent moments where the visuals do the talking. This is why that magnificent soaring crane shot when noon strikes is so powerful.

The crisp monochrome photography of cinematographer Floyd Crosby against a flat sky fosters a confining atmosphere that only really breaks loose when we hear the whistle of the noon train as it approaches town. The consummate editing by Elmo Williams sustains the tension even while we see Kane go about his almost laconic search for support. Particularly effective are frequent repetitions of the same static shot of the empty rails at the edge of town. The threat posed by the men already assembled is deftly evoked by menacing tight close-ups of their faces. We actually feel anxiety and frustration as precious minutes tick by. Another reviewer has called Dimitri Tiomkin’s score as ‘fretful’, a canny description of Tiomkin’s pitch perfect contribution.

His friends tell Kane to leave town. This is no longer his fight. He can’t and he won’t. The old Marshall whose hands are crippled by arthritis can’t help him and joins the chorus. He speaks from bitter experience: in the end it’s “all for nothing”. Is that why the tin star is finally thrown down into the dirt? You must come to your own view about that. An ambivalent action bitter with disillusion, and for Kane final. (The original story by John W. Cunningham which Foreman adapted for the screenplay was titled The Tin Star.)

A lot has been said and written about High Noon. Contemporary American audiences were ill at ease with the final repudiation. (The same audiences were equally unhappy with the vinegar served by Billy Wilder the year before with Ace in The Hole.) The history of the great Westerns has been ever thus. The form’s conventions periodically used to present new arguments, reflect a changed zeitgeist, or as a commentary on contemporary events. High Noon does all this and more without breaking the conventions and at a level of reality that forestalls the pretensions of those who would critique the aesthetics, while ignoring the strength of the allegory and the respect for genre imperatives. Still there were contemporaries in Hollywood whose hubris saw the film as a betrayal of the genre. No betrayal though. More a maturation that chafed against the yoke of machismo and facile patriotism.

High Noon is that rare combination: a great Western and a great movie.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Hunt (Denmark 2012) aka"Jagten": Fate is a hunter

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg and not to be confused with the William Dafoe vehicle The Hunter of the same year.

A middle-aged man working in a pre-school in rural Denmark is wrongly accused of child sexual abuse.

The Hunt is definitely a well-made film with strong performances, but the screenplay is psychologically suspect.

Certain behaviour of a pre-schooler doesn't ring true, depicting a child at a very young age with a mindset that pushes her into lies, and the accused despite having a clear affinity with kids handles a delicate event with blundering insensitivity, oddly contrary to the sensitivity he displays with the child in the film's opening scenes. A scene involving the girl's teenaged older brother, which is supposed to provide fodder for an innocent fabrication is so shocking and unreal as to be contrived, and out of character for the brother, who later is shown to have a finer sensibility. The brutal reaction of friends and community is predictable.

Cinematically, there is little to distinguish the effort, apart from idyllic rural tableaux as a counterpoint to the trauma being played out. But again, nothing new.

Vinterberg I think to a certain extent sets up a straw man that makes it easier for our blood to boil more ferociously in response to the treatment meted out to the accused by his friends and the local tight-knit community. Consider that if the innocence of the accused had been revealed only at the end (or not at all), and the audience was placed in the same shoes as friends and community. Perhaps our emotional response would be more problematic and, dare I say, more genuine?

There is something deeper going on, but most won't see it, basically a noir motif - shit happens yes - but there is a sense that fate here is not just capricious but avenging. The killing of a stag by the accused in a hunting trip is essentially - like all hunting for recreation - a vile act against nature and the soul, a grave sin. That just like the stag, fate can single the hunter out - fairly or unfairly. His dead dog killed in response to the charges is shown in the same deathly repose as the stag, with its tongue hanging out of it snout.

Gripping but flawed.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Blind Venus (1941) “Vénus aveugle”: Vive la Romance! Vive la France!

The very rare Abel Gance film Blind Venus (1941) “Venus  aveugle” (original title) is a truly magnificent movie.

A masterpiece. A master film-maker fashions from a melodrama a picture of epic emotional sweep with a heroine to die for, played with true pathos by the luminous Viviane Romance. Set in a French port town, the moods of the sea in calm and in storm are harnessed through sublime montage and expressionist abstraction to enthral your senses and seduce your sensibilities.

Clarisse a vivacious young woman is diagnosed with an inoperable eye disorder which will destroy her sight in a year or two.  Her amour fou with a seaman demands that she break with him and hide her coming affliction.  The stage is set for a passionate and almost unbounded melodrama.  Yet the film soars beyond the melodrama to a sublime comédie humaine.  Made during the German occupation the film is also an allegory. Through human decency and solidarity the unachievable comes within reach.

There are no miracles, but there is redemption and acceptance. The heroine's unaffected voice of reconciliation reflects the visual poetry that has borne her through wild seas to a safe harbour:

I'm no more in the night.
I'm in the snow.
I see enough to make out
the white shadows of people,

and the smoke of things...

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Recently Seen...

Quick capsules for some Hollywood movies I recently watched:  Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Silver Linings Playbook, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Moonrise Kingdom, and an old charmer, Simone Simon’s first Hollywood feature, Girls’ Dormitory (1936).

I can’t understand the hype surrounding Argo. A middling thriller where the politics is superficial and the triumphant Americanism predictable. More mumbling for dialog and the picture is half-over by the time you figure out who’s who. Fancy camera work, and taught editing make for a gripping climax, but nothing more. No real intelligence and the bathos of the superhero figurines coda is risible.

Stripping Zero Dark Thirty of its wider dimensions I found it overlong and disjointed. Politically it is propaganda and seems to have no sense of how fine is the line separating terrorism from the barbarism of torture, which is taken as a given and never held up to scrutiny. I found I had a lot of sympathy with the views expressed here Enlightened Barbarism: On Zero Dark Thirty and the Torture Debate. Technically, the attack on the compound is impressive, but again the slaughter of unarmed people woken from their sleep does not seem to interest Bigelow.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Silver Linings Playbook are both forgettable, the same old rehash of familiar themes, and far from any semblance of reality. Any poor bastard with a mental illness or a shy teenager would be plunged even further into despair when returning to the reality of their own lives after seeing this pap.

Moonrise Kingdom was surprisingly charming, and its nostalgic quirkiness embraces your heart. Great cameos. The girl Suzzy is a brilliant deadpan, nicely capturing the 60s vibe perfectly. Brilliant idea to have Francoise Hardy as her favorite singer. Great camera work and melding of Benjamin's Britten’s music.

Girl’s Dormitory (1936) has the old Hollywood magic. So elegantly made, and Simone Simon is lovely and utterly beguiling as a schoolgirl in a finishing school in the Austrian alps on the cusp of womanhood, and with a crush on her teacher, Herbert Marshall, who fits his role like a glove. Director Cumming & DP Gerstad do a great job, and deliver a brave ending for the period with on an screen kiss – but after graduation.

The Politician's Husband (UK TV Mini-series 2013)

The Politician’s Husband is an interesting study of the rivalry between a political couple, which confirms all our worst fears on the mendacity and moral depravity of politicians, where even family and friends are no strangers to treachery.
Great acting but pedestrian plotting and direction just hold it together over four episodes. A strength is the brutal portrayal of the politics of marriage and how vengeful misogyny can be found in ‘normal’ relationships, where sex can be just as much a weapon of vengeance as an expression of intimacy.

Broadchurch (UK TV Mini-Series 2103 ): Exceptional

Broadchurch which had a massive following in the UK over 8 weeks earlier this year, is about the investigation of the murder of a young boy in a small prosperous seaside town in Dorset. The performances from a stellar cast are top notch, and the high production values demonstrate the real strength of British TV, and the willingness to delve into life as it is lived by most of us, using actors who actually look and behave like real people.
At first I was reluctant to go to such a dark place, and then was compelled to continue watching as it drew me into a maelstrom of emotions driven by the need not only to find the killer but to comprehend the how and why of it all. The writing, the cinematography, and the direction are exceptional. The landscape is intimately involved and rendered in rich tones of aching beauty. A must-see.

To The Wonder (2012): Indulgent

Terrence Malick’s  latest film To The Wonder is disappointing. Flimsy and pretentious, with the masterful cinematography and elegant mis-en-scene largely wasted on the mannered antics of a clutch of shallow bourgeois mouthing banal verse over too many scenes of egotistical ardour, and of impossibly beautiful women if not endlessly dancing around like 10 year olds, moping about empty backyards, or running nymph-like through fields of wheat.
Indulgent film-making that mistakes talking about love over pretty pictures for profundity. The priest is the only interesting character, and we see too little of him. Are we supposed to care about the Affleck character because he is some kind of environmentalist? Most of the time he looks like the Incredible Hulk fitted-out by Ralph Lauren.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Master (2012)

The Master is an ultimately empty film. Great period setting and cinematography, with strong performances, but the scenario is indulgent and meandering. All those long takes and mobile camera movements are elegant but have surface only.  I get that Freddy Quell is a mumbler, autistic perhaps, but being able to follow only snatches of what he is saying, makes you painfully aware that you are watching a movie.  Like observing someone else's dream and on the cusp of totally boring. The last hour goes literally nowhere. Deeply flawed.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Tod Browning's Freaks (1932): A humanist masterpiece

Tod Browning's Freaks is a humanist masterpiece that leaves you thinking and in awe its compassion and craft.

Browning has you first appalled with a confronting directness that borders on exploitation, yet all the while he builds compassion and a criminal solidarity through empathy. He makes you complicit in terrible acts of revenge - not withstanding the tacked-on studio-imposed closed romantic ending, which perversely reinforces the darkness of the deeds by rewarding vengeance. Indeed the expressionist climax is as dark as any noir from ten years down the track.

Notes on Yasujirô Ozu's I Was Born But (1932)

Contrary to most critics' view that the ending of Yasujirô Ozu's I Was Born But is downbeat, I find it delicately up-beat. The two precocious brothers not so much lose their innocence but rather gain in maturity and compassion. They are too young to see that their father’s silliness is a much lesser crime than the philandering of the boss, which while it is played for laughs, is there for the adults to see.

The kid brother played by 8yo Tomio Aoki  has to be one of the greatest childhood performances ever. Those mean poses, the cheekiness, the raspberries, and the mimicking of the older brother are glorious. A fantastic example of the uplifting joy of cinema both in its wistful nostalgia and human pathos. Great performances, a wry script, and a beguiling rhythm have you hooked.

The Ozu static shots and interludes with a low camera (and the flagrant disregard of Hollywood's rule) are there, but the editing and ensemble scenes also have a cheeky eloquence, like the camera panning before the character providing the perspective is shown, tracking shots with the camera like a little kid trying to keep up with the antics of the older kids, and the same tracking camera stopped by an obstacle such as a lamp-post . The shots of trams crossing the frame insinuate the elemental pathos we are witnessing.