The denouement, if you can call it that, in Ozu's Banshun (Late Spring) and the first part of his famous Noriko trilogy had me enraptured at the litany of emotions experienced by the aging and lonely Professor Shukichi (Chishu Ryu). Having given away his daughter, Shukichi returns home to an empty place. Now devoid of companionship and the affecting presence of his caring daughter Noriko (Setsuko Hara), Ozu expands time by extenuating Shukichi's loneliness through a series of carefully composed images including a weary silhouette, the symbolic peeling of an apple and the final shot of waves sweeping in across the shoreline. It is a magical ending full of melodramatic sentiments that are visualised with a powerful emotional clarity by Ozu.
29 October 2010
27 October 2010
Hungarian director Istvan Szabo's 1999 film Sunshine starring Ralph Fiennes confronts the personal crisis of cultural and religious assimilation faced by a Jewish family growing up in Hungary. It was for me one of the best films of the nineties and whilst Szabo's body of work has been somewhat of an oversight for me, his most critically acclaimed film Mephisto, released in 1981, underlines a thematic preoccupation with identity that probably best characterises his status as a European film auteur. Juxtaposing the rise of fascism to the development of political theatre in Nazi Germany, Mephisto is a film all about performance. The central character of Hendrik Hoefgen, played impressively by German actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, is desperate for fame and artistic recognition. Prior to Hitler taking power, Hoefgen argues theatre should be used as a leftist tool for political and communist agitation but with the emergence of fascism in the 1930s, Hoefgen is faced with a dilemma; whether he should stay and be part of the propaganda machine or go into exile and continue his artistic endeavours elsewhere. Overcome with the possibilities of acquiring fame, Hoefgen makes a Faustian pact with the Nazis and quickly ascends to becoming one of the biggest names in theatre. His signature act as Mephistopheles becomes the clearest metaphor of his assimilation into Nazi ideology yet we are never quite sure if Hoefgen is merely using such a mask to disguise his own dislike of such an ugly display of power. However, his later attempts to maintain the tradition of political theatre is undermined by the Nazis when his determination to repeatedly emphasise theatre as central to the construction of national identity is denounced as secondary to the push for European domination. The final sequence is the most chilling as Hoefgen is taken by his Nazi accomplices to the Berlin Stadium which is awaiting the opening ceremony that will take place in 1936. It is here that we finally see Hoefgen stripped of his mask and trapped inside the performance space. Additionally, it is here that director Szabo foreshadows the spectacle and performance of Nazi propaganda that Hitler would take to new heights with the numerous rallies. In a way, it offers a concrete link to the constructed and pre determined nature of Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will.
24 October 2010
'Neorealism was born after a total loss of liberty, not only personal, but artistic and personal. It was a means of rebelling against the stifling dictatorship that had humiliated Italy. When we lost the war, we discovered our ruined morality. The first film that placed a very tiny stone in the reconstruction of our former dignity was Shoeshine.'Made in 1946, it is hard to imagine that whilst Hollywood cinema was entering one of its darkest periods and European cinema was attempting to reconstruct itself after the devastation of world war II that in Italy of all places a matinee idol turned film maker Vittorio De Sica was about to reinvent the language of cinema with the Zavattini scripted Shoeshine. Whilst auteur claims were to be found in the work of Welles and Renoir, it was directors like De Sica and Rossellini who were really the first auteurs of cinema. Shoeshine is an elemental film and one of the great humanist statements. Taking the premise of two young boys who act as a metaphor of post war displacement, De Sica's camera traces a journey that sees them brutalised by the adult world. Made up of a cast of non professional actors, the central performances by Rinaldo Smordoni as Giuseppe and Franco Interlenghi as Pasquale convey an unquestionable authenticity. De Sica's critical representation of prison life for the children inevitably translates into a microcosm of social and political depravity whilst their dehumanisation leads to a strong sense of indignation on part of the audience. Like Bruno in Bicycle Thieves, De Sica's children are constantly shown to be manipulated by adults who resort to physical violence, empty promises and lies so that power relations remain intact. Like many of De Sica's neo realist works and particularly those made with Zavattini as scriptwriter, film as a political tool for elucidation is never overwhelmed by the emotional connections shown by such real people in such real situations. Shoeshine is available on DVD and The Masters of Cinema release offers an extensive set of special features including an audio commentary by Bert Cardullo and a new documentary on De Sica.- Vittorio De Sica, Rome, May 9 1971
23 October 2010
British Cinematographer Jack Cardiff pioneered the creative possibilities of using technicolor in the 40s and 50s.
I have always been a great admirer of the director of photography but aside from the AFI backed Visions of Light documentary made way back in the 90s, featuring enlightening interviews on cinematography as an art form, it is still an aspect of film making that has never really been elucidated in terms of getting behind the process and letting the artists speak for themselves. Like editing, cinematography is no longer the hidden art form that it once was and many cinematographers are able to leave an identifiable authorial stamp on their work. This documentary is a rarity in many respects as directors continue to be celebrated endlessly but cinematographers are somewhat pushed to one side. Craig McCall's celebration of Jack Cardiff as perhaps the most innovative and accomplished cinematographer of his generation is equally an affectionate tribute to an age in which what was possible with colour and light could only be accomplished on set and via the camera. Whilst the focus is on Cardiff's career, we are also taken through the history of cinematography as an art form and the real spirit of the documentary is forged in the sequences exploring the groundbreaking and singularly unique creative collaboration between Cardiff and Powell-Pressburger. As an aid to teaching the cinematography process, this comes highly recommended and much of the critical commentary is supported by impassioned interviews from Martin Scorsese, Kirk Douglas and Richard Fleischer. Cardiff's astonishing work on both Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948) has made me want to revisit both films again. Of course like John Alton and Conrad Hall, the influence of painters is what makes the work of Cardiff so aesthetically superior and timeless. He truly was a master of his profession.
22 October 2010
M. Night Shyamalan's Devil reminded me of an extended episode of the iconic Twilight Zone TV series. Produced and based on a story by Shyamalan, the central premise revolves around a group of disparate characters who become trapped in an elevator only to realise that the Devil may actually be orchestrating events around them. I’m not sure if this is an all out horror piece as the raising the stakes narrative manipulation would push it more into the territory of the psychological thriller. Does it involve a final twist?; well, this is a Shyamalan production and Devil is the first of three planned films which will form the Night Chronicles trilogy. Shyamalan is a true auteur in the sense he tends to write, produce and direct most of his films. This means when a film fails he bears the brunt of the critical backlash. Compared to his contemporaries, Shyamalan is quite unique as he has achieved global success with a run of imaginative mainstream films. The Shyamalan backlash that started with The Village seemed to have never stopped and though I stayed away from The Last Airbender, I feel critics have to a certain extent simply written him of. I don’t agree with the opinion that he is a one tricky pony nor do I echo sentiments that Shyamalan relies too much on the novelty of the final twist. My opinion is that Shyamalan is still very much in the early stages of his directing career and though many would criticise his decision to venture into production as a means of salvaging his status as a film maker, I would argue a relatively low budget genre film like Devil suggests he does have the capacity to branch out and emulate the parallel creativity of someone like Spielberg to whom he is regularly compared. Devil is a well crafted genre piece and much of the narrative action is amply sustained in the confines of an elevator whilst the camerawork creates a strong sense of claustrophobia. Thematically, most of Shyamalan’s films have quite a prominent spiritual edge to them and whilst Devil is a minor work in many ways, the enclosed and simplistic staging reminded me of the superbly effective Val Lewton productions which he made for RKO in the 40s.
21 October 2010
On the strength of just two feature films and a handful of notable shorts, British director Andrea Arnold has emerged as an exemplary propagator of the social realist aesthetic that continues to be a marker of quality British cinema as defined by the work of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Shane Meadow. Whilst it would be easy to trace the realist approach to film making back to the Italian neo realist cinema of the post war era, Andrea Arnold's latest film Fish Tank repeats an ideological agenda from her fierce debut red road that situates working class women at the centre of the narrative. Simultaneously, Arnold's unfiltered and elliptical style shares more common ground with the work of The Dardennes than her British contemporaries. In many ways, Mia's erratic and unpredictable nature which of course has largely been shaped by the impoverished environment parallels the misguided and plainly desperate path chosen by Bruno in The Dardennes masterful L'Enfant (The Child, 2005). I guess what I am leading to is the legacy of Robert Bresson who left a deep impression on European art cinema and both Red Road and Fish Tank seem to take their lead from a minimalist style that is reflected in Arnold's emphasis on micro details. In truth, Arnold merges the traditions of social realism with that of transcendental cinema to create an urban story that smacks of an immediacy in which the over used political rhetoric of broken Britain is undeniably current.
However, Arnold's images of absent fathers, feral youth and class exploitation are familiar enough in their painful evocation. It is a reality constructed and manipulated by men like Connor (Michael Fassbender) who use class disparity as a means of patriarchal control. I guess power relations are fundamentally at the heart social realist cinema and of course such an argument is repudiated in the age old class conflict of Ken Loach. Interestingly, Ken Loach is back on the news agenda since he recently criticised television producers for filling schedules with a glut of reality shows - funnily enough Arnold seems to share such a view as she repeatedly juxtaposes family life to the escapist diversions of reality shows which hover in the background as a symbol of political and social inertia. Another detail is the use of a horse which we first see chained up and which Mia attempts but fails to free. It is a simple metaphor rendered with such poetic imagination that the death of the horse at the end becomes an extension for the loss of innocence and also more importantly that becoming trapped in the case of Mia will inevitably lead to a perpetual state of despair.
This is a brave film in every sense and like The Dardennes, Arnold seems to share an equal interest in natural lighting, non professional actors, location shooting and an observational style that continue earnestly to dictate a contemporary and brutally honest neo realist agenda. Not an inkling of pretension exists, transforming Fish Tank into a truthful treatise on family life, youth and escape. On a final note, I didn't want to end without referencing the influence of Alan Clarke on director Andrea Arnold - in many ways the social exclusion experienced by skinhead Trevor (Made in Britain) in Thatcher's Britain finds telling parallels in Mia who too has been excluded from education. However, the explicit politicising of Clarke's cinema yet again illustrates how detached Arnold may actually be from the social realist style commonly invoked when discussing her work. Nevertheless, the one common value that unifies all of the directors I have mentioned is their humanism and it such an outlook that makes Fish Tank such a prescient and emotive work.
19 October 2010
British director Matthew Vaughn initially started his career working with Guy Ritchie, producing commercially successful gangster films such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. The shift into feature film making with Layer Cake showed some promise but this seemed to dissipate with Stardust. With the independently financed comic book adaptation Kick Ass, Matthew Vaughn seems to have regained lost ground, proving his worth as a capable and provocative film maker. Based on the comic book by Mark Millar, Kick Ass arrived in the UK in March and whilst it was surrounded by controversy related to the film’s handling of violence especially the touchy subject of children and knives, the critical reception from the British mainstream press was decidedly split. The Daily Mail and Telegraph predictably criticised the film for its representation of an eleven year old girl who swears inventively and violently dispatches bad guys. However, The Guardian gave the film five stars whilst Empire magazine also came to the film’s support with a rave review. Though the right wing press may have attempted to damage the artistic credibility of the makers of the film by condemning it as hollow, it didn’t stop audiences from embracing Kick Ass as a genuinely unconventional and refreshing addition to the emerging and ever evolving comic book film genre.
It seems mystifying that all of the studios turned this project away considering the franchise potential but perhaps on reflection this was exactly what a project like Kick Ass needed – minimal interference from the powers that be and additionally had the studios backed this one then it is more than likely it would have been tailored made for a PG-13 audience. Thankfully, Kick Ass is one of the most enjoyable films I have seen in a while and in terms of invention is comparable to another under appreciated comic book adaptation released this year – Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Both have already achieved a degree of cult status by refusing to surrender completely to a premature teen audience, ensuring enough post modern reflexivity exists for an older adult audience to participate in the celebration of pop culture. As the comic book film genre has already reached a level of sophistication, firmly establishing its own set of conventions, a film like Kick Ass can be interpreted as a fan response from script writer Jane Goldman and producer Matthew Vaughn. Clearly, many of the conventions are openly acknowledged and pleasurably parodied but simultaneously the genre is reinvigorated with the welcoming presence of genuinely risky characterisation in the form of Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz delivering a marvellous performance) and Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage proving he is still a fine actor).
The narrative itself it fairly generic and does somewhat lose momentum mid way through but such a criticism is compensated by a visual energy and sardonic wit that stops the film from taking itself too seriously. In terms of music, Vaughn lifts heavily from the work of Danny Boyle including both Sunshine and 28 Days Later which were scored by the atmospheric British composer John Murphy. British actor Mark Strong is perfectly cast as the vicious Mob Boss Frank D’Amico and the resolution at the end sets up the character of Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) as a suitably intriguing nemesis for the recently announced sequel. I’m not entirely sure how financing was raised for the $28 million budget but the presence of a strong British cast and crew would surely make Kick Ass a viable contender for one of the best British films of the year.
18 October 2010
It came as a real surprise to fans of David Fincher when he announced what was initially titled ‘the Facebook movie’. The films of David Fincher have responded to the zeitgeist in more ways than most of American cinema. Whilst Fight Club was a Hollywood induced Marxist response to the emasculation of men and rabid consumer culture and Panic Room reacted to the post 9-11 anxieties of homeland terrorism, The Social Network taps into a culture of social networking, victimisation and male egoism that has become pointedly associated with the Internet. Positioned in the body of Fincher’s work so far, The Social Network may appear as somewhat of an authorial anomaly but on closer inspection, many of the familiar thematic traits that unite his films are evident in what is a compelling narrative. It has to be said that this feels like a film Fincher has made for the studios, almost as returning a favour for the creative freedom given to him to make films such as Zodiac and Benjamin Button. In that sense, it seems less personal and engaged than his last few films and recalls more of the clinical precision of Panic Room, a slight film made purely as a genre piece and star vehicle for Jodie Foster’s women in peril persona.
I have always positioned Fincher alongside Michael Mann as they both seem to continue a tradition of utilising technology especially cinematography as a means of aiding the storytelling process. Whilst Mann has respectively attracted greater critical attention, Fincher’s background in music videos and his close collaboration with Brad Pitt on a number of films has meant he has labelled as a mainstream visual stylist, very much in the vein of Ridley Scott. With only one published account of Fincher’s work to date, a book that merely skims the surface, Seven continues be the one film upon which most critics have continued to judge the aesthetic and ideological credibility of one of American cinema’s most technically adept film makers. Whilst The Social Network is very much the story of Mark Zuckerberg, one of the founders of Facebook, Fincher’s choice of material does reflect a preoccupation with exploring male relationships and friendship that he first started to deconstruct in films such as Seven, Fight Club and Zodiac. Aaron Sorkin’s script has been getting a lot of attention for its fierce command of language but I wasn’t to sure if such literary sensibilities seemed comfortable in the rich and detailed landscapes of the film, a director who has a trained eye for mise en scene extrapolation.
Fincher shot the film using the Red One digital camera - the same approach taken by his friend and director Steven Soderbergh on the film Che.
In terms of genre, film noir has often been associated with Fincher and with The Social Network, the convention of the doomed noir protagonist finds a twisted affinity in the insecure yet egocentric loner of Zuckerberg. In addition, themes of paranoia and partial guilt emerge and consume the young entrepreneurs, yet again recalling familiar psychological characterisation common to the language of noir. Digital cinematography has arguably benefited directors wanting to shoot at night and in The Social Network, many of the sequences shot at night have a startling clarity and luminous feel to them that directly echo what is possible with the increasingly popular Red One camera. One aspect of the film that slightly irked me was the casting of Max Minghella as Divya Narendra (one of the people to sue Zuckerberg for intellectual property theft) - I am sure they could have found an Indian actor to play this role (Abhay Deol, anyone?). This is not one of Fincher's best films but it does tell a riveting story and yet again points to Fincher's masterful technical expertise. Of course, the problem with making zeitgeist films is that they inevitably have the danger of dating very quickly and becoming viewed as another case of Hollywood opportunism.
15 October 2010
Since getting back to teaching again I have naturally had very little time to do some illustrious and meaningful blogging on the few films I have managed to see over the past few weeks. I think I still need to watch more films at the cinema but I just don’t get the time and whilst DVD is an inexpensive alternative, it cannot really compensate for the appropriate context in which most films should be viewed. I still feel I need to blog about every film I watch but that would be sheer madness, right?, and very time consuming so in an attempt to catch up, here are some of the more notable films I have had the chance to see recently. As a side note, video essays are becoming an increasingly popular means of blogging about certain films; the work of Aaron Aradillas and Matt Zoller Seitz on the opening sequences to the films of David Fincher are exemplary in every way – check out their work over at the Museum of the Moving Image website along with many other great video essays.
Released over the summer period, When You're Strange (2009), American Independent film maker DiCillo's riveting documentary on Jim Morrison and The Doors is helped by an ultra cool narration by Johnny Depp. Having seen Oliver Stone's biopic on The Doors which was a huge disappointment, the use of what appears to be quite rare archive footage constructs an image of Morrison as an overwhelming tragic artist who has been somewhat misunderstood as simply just another counter culture sex symbol who appears prolifically and out of context on all manner of consumer products. DiCillo represents Morrison as somewhat of an outsider and the iconic music of The Doors used throughout does go a long way in explaining their enduring appeal. It's easy to see why Depp seems to have constructed his own suspect maverick image around the imagery of Morrison as it sublimely beatnik in every respect. Courtney Hunt's Frozen River (2008) is yet another brilliantly directed study of working class lives but the focus on the relationship between two women gives this slice of social realism an added social subtext. Melissa Leo is best remembered for her work on David Simon's Homicide TV series and she brings a similar vulnerability to the role of a belligerent working class mother who find herself marginalised and a victim of poverty. The poignant denouement prevents Hunt's film from tipping over into despair.
The British Horror Genre has produced a series of films in which the middle class comes under attack from the youth.
British director Paul Andrew Williams may be considered daring and original but unfortunately Cherry Tree Lane (2010) which sees a middle class family come under attack by a group of feral youth is particularly dubious in terms of the violence it represents and the representations of Black British youth. I think the situation parallels Haneke's Funny Games but the despairing and perhaps even stereotypical representations of working class youth, in this case Chav culture, quickly makes William's attempts at producing a relevant critique into a redundant exploitation picture with very little to say about British society today. Cherry Tree Lane has been labelled as a horror film but considering it feels more like a case of dystopian implausibility, I would have to say this one misses the mark completely. As far as remakes go, The Crazies (2010), is quite a successful updating of Romero's overlooked 70s original and whilst this shiny new version fails to replicate the strong ideological frissions, it does effectively reiterate many of the classic zombie tropes in a post-Bush context. In addition, the contamination of the water supply by a chemical virus as a result of government negligence preys upon current anxieties to do with corporate accountability. Maintaining the lineage of remakes, Robert Rodriguez's contemporary updating or should I reboot of John McTiernan's Predator, hopelessly re-titled Predators (2010), is an underwhelming film that features a pained Adrien Brody of all actors in the lead fighting off a swarm of alien predators. Strangely McTiernan's original avoided the exploitation tag by intelligently pitting the Alien creature against the physique of Schwarzeneggar but this attempt to re launch a familiar franchise is undermined by weak direction. Whilst Rodriguez should be praised for retaining the violence from the original film by the time Brody has morphed into a superman it all feels somewhat redundant. The Fog (1980) is one horror film of the Carpenter canon I hadn't seen so being able to catch this one finally on the Blu Ray format came as a refreshing experience on the back of so many disappointing horror films, many of which simply fail to grasp the naunces of genre cinema. A near masterpiece in suspense, Carpenter's film brings together mother and daughter Janet Leight and Jamie Lee Curtis whilst the device of the fog bringing with it aspects of guilt and trauma associated with the town's past is genuinely frightening. As usual, the hearbeat of the spectator is endlessly played out in the pulsating and endlessly chessy synth score by Carpenter himself.
Labels: dvd round up
2 October 2010
BACK TO THE FUTURE (Dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1985, US, 25th Anniversary Re-release) - Imagining Suburbia
To mark the 25th anniversary of Back to the Future, the film opened in cinemas on Friday in a new digital print for a limited release. Making a welcomed return to the big screen, this Spielbergian offspring directed by Robert Zemeckis, has certainly lost none of its infantile charm since it’s debut in 1985. Along with The Goonies, E.T., Gremlins, Raiders of the Lost Ark and many other films that were directly nurtured by Spielberg’s illustrious Amblin Entertainment mini studio in the eighties, they came to collectively colonise the very conscious of youth imagination. It is hard to believe that many of these films including Back to the Future were at one time considered blockbusters yet unlike the cynicism of high concept cinema today, the Spielberg produced films of the eighties not only reconstituted the notion of juvenile entertainment by ensuring the very soul of a script remained intact but also remained committed to offering infinite genre pleasures. Though one could criticise Spielberg and Zemeckis for milking the first film by expanding the concept of time travel via a Delorean into a highly successful trilogy and franchise, Back to the Future’s status as one of the best loved films of the eighties perhaps underlines the difficulty of marrying narrative demands with spectacle and not making it look contrived or laboured in anyway. It is still Zemeckis’s best film to date and its position as one of the key films of American mainstream cinema in the eighties has lately been acknowledged by film academia with the recent publication of a book by the BFI that approaches the film via a series of critical perspectives.
Like many of the best American films and the ones which seemed to have cast a spell over audiences, it is the integrity and intelligence of the screenplay that has been the overwhelming factor in determining longevity. Like many of Spielberg’s best films, the narrative storytelling and plot development are characterised by a high level of ingenuity and events established in the first act of Back to the Future are done so with an economy that reiterates the efficiency of classical Hollywood narrative. Contextually, the film’s satirical and at times dark edged ideological examination of American suburbia not only echoes the nightmarish disturbances of David Lynch but similarly like E.T., The Goonies and Gremlins, the middle class politics of suburbia are shown to come under attack for the failings of adults/parents. It is largely the children of suburbia upon whom it falls to reconstitute and resolve such tensions, restoring a semblance of normality at the end by usually surrendering a degree of their innocence. In many ways, by going back in time to 1955, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is shown to not only alter the relationship between his parents but more importantly his intervention bringing forth the ‘Florence Nightingale’ effect brings about a wider ideological change so that his parents conservative Reaganite attitudes are exchanged for a utopian liberalism and a projection of Marty’s own youthful fantasies.
In terms of genre accents, the eccentricities of Christopher Lloyd as madcap scientist Doc Brown is a familiar science fiction archetype yet whilst the teen figure of Marty McFly may at first recall Jimmy Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, his awkwardness brings him closer to the film nerds that gave birth to him including both Spielberg and Zemeckis. In the landscapes of eighties American suburbia conjured up in films such as The Goonies, E.T. and Gremlins, Back to the Future also presents us with a similarly dystopian vision in which Marty McFly, a symbol of middle American youth, is faced with the prospect of remaining imprisoned in the conservatism of suburbia. Marty’s desire to escape from suburbia not only results in the potential destruction of the family but articulates a veiled censure of the effects of suburbanisation on the psyche of the American teenager. Whilst many of the representations of male teenagers in the films of Spielberg are often shown in relationships, the absence of parents engenders a loneliness that is masked by an external connection with a realm of fantasy, imagination and genuine strangeness as is the case with Marty who sees Doc Brown as somewhat of a surrogate father figure and close friend. In The Goonies, it is the imaginary existence of One Eyed Willy whilst in E.T. the lovable alien literally becomes a part of Elliott’s life. In this sense, Back to the Future uses elements of horror, fantasy, science fiction and the high school film interchangeably to create a film fraught with endless suburban anxieties, many of which are played out in the cold war era of 1955. A high level of intertextual cinephilia and audience pleasure operates in Back to the Future that comes out of the films and directors which influenced Zemeckis ranging from George Lucas and Star Wars, 1950s Science Fiction films, the work of Spielberg and Frank Capra. However, what really makes Back To The Future stand out as an example of exemplary popular American cinema is its genuine love of imagination and the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief. It has been a while since an audience applauded at the end of the film and it was reassuring to know that some movies can still have an impact on the emotional response of today's movie going audience.