Tuesday 29 June 2010

60 Second Movies... Part 1

Anatomy Of Hell

I am a woman. Look at how delicate and precious I am. I'm going to kill myself in a toilet.

What is the meaning of your suicide? Perhaps if I stare at your hand on an angle, it will prove artful?

You hate me because I'm a woman.

But... we just met! You have no basis for saying that whatsoever!

Who cares? This is avant-garde. Watch me when I'm unwatchable.

Is that a metaphor for this movie?

Try and resist me. I'm a woman by the way. Did I mention that?

Yes, several times. In fact i'm going to shove a gardening implement into your vagina just to shut you up for a few minutes.

I'll see your implement and raise you a marble rock. How artful.

You're incredibly interesting and not in any way a narcissistic, philosophical, pompous bitch. Despite the fact i'm gay, lets fuck.

This is literally insufferable.

Now you have given into me my feminist cause is complete.

You're right, and i've just realized this film is really homophobic.

Yeah, i'm pretty much one step away from being a Nazi. Now drink from this glass of water, which contains a used tampon.

Hey, why not? It's a Friday!

He drinks the liquid and then they fuck again, in an incredibly unneeded explicit manner. There will be blood.

Well now you've wiped me of my identity, so i'll be off.

Okay. And we've all learnt something... right?

We'd rather have endured a collective acid enema.

Wednesday 23 June 2010

The Amelie Armada!

This article was written for A-Level Film Studies in early 2009. This is a reprint of the complete article.
War, Drama, Thriller - no matter the genre, France is leading the way in visionary cinema, competing with Hollywood all the way. As the battle goes on, one question remains constant. Whose side will you choose - Jonze or Jeunet?

Just one month ago, on the 8th February, Kristin Scott Thomas - a well respect and talented British actress recieved her third BAFTA nomination. This was particularly significant because the nomination was for a French film called I've Loved You So Long (2008), the feature debut from Philippe Claudel. Following up on her success in Guillaume Canet's Tell No One (2006) she is now part of a small revolution in French cinema, happening under the noses of many an ignorant moviegoer. She joins filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, 2001, pictured above) and rising stars like Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, Julian Schnabel, 2007) who are creating some of the most visionary and critically acclaimed films not just of now, but ever. Largely ignored by the Academy these films suffer from limited release, but there is no denying the quality.

Laurent Cantet's 2009 OSCAR nominee The Class (2008) is a superior drama to most of Americas output that year, and Female Agents (Jean-Paul Salomé, 2008) will arguably be better than Quentin Tarantino's 6th film Inglorious Basterds, released this August. It seems a bold statement to make, and perhaps a premature one, but it wouldn't be surprising given the sudden influx and recognition of French cinema. Released to critical acclaim and followed with five OSCAR nominations Amelie probably started this revolution, despite a few popular French films being released the year before, including the controversial Baise-moi (Rape Me, Virginie Despentes, Coralie, 2000) and the sequel Taxi 2 (Gérard Krawczyk, 2000). It is of course arguable that despite not being as mainstream as American cinema, French films have always been in the public eye, made aware to anybody who's ever been to the cinema. In fact, the 90s were an exciting time for French cinema, the pinnacle being La Haine (Hate, Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995), a film about a group of young thugs killing time with the recovered gun of a police officer, over the course of one day. Shot in stark black and white and soundtracked by angry rap music, it's the sort of urban film you would expect independent filmmakers in America to come out with, but when released in 1995 it was hailed with critical praise and 14 years later, still grips like a vice and shocks like it did over a decade ago. It brims with energy and contains a raw animosity which assaults the viewer from the first frame. It was recieved well at the box office, arriving just a year after Léon (1994), Luc Besson's celebrated killer thriller, climaxing in claret red violence and a volcanic rage in the form of Gary Oldman, a market for France was beginning to emerge in America. Other popular French films of the 90s were Nikita (Luc Besson, 1990), The Three Colours Trilogy (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1993-1994), The Fifth Element (Luc Besson, 1997), Taxi (Gérard Pirès, 1998) and Joan Of Arc (Luc Besson, 1999). The common link between some of these films is of course Luc Besson who has long been the mainstream bridge between France and America - casting big stars like Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich and Gary Oldman in his films. Leon is without doubt his masterpiece, ranking 34 on IMDB's Top 250 films of all time at the time of writing. It's a simple story of the struggles encountered by a lone assassin and a 12 year-old girl who's looking for a father figure. It's a drama at heart, a tale of love - the story of an emotionally detached man coming to terms with his emotions and a girl finding love and respect in a man for the first time. The way they are torn apart through merciless acts of violence provides a compelling narrative and an emotional depth rarely seen in modern movies. It's a landmark in filmmaking and all the better for being French. It's unbearable to imagine what this film could have been like had the likes of Joel Silver got their hands on it - and lets hope a remake is never on the cards.

Leon and Mathilda in Léon.

It is of course important to remember the beginnings of French cinema - the greats like Truffaut and Godard. The French New Wave helped shape a lot of modern cinema, in particular of course, French. Landmark films like The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959) and A Bout De Souffle (Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard, 1959) created a host of new techniques and styles since employed by every new filmmaker hoping to make a splash in the movie world. Handheld camerawork, voiceovers, jump cuts - we've seen them a thousand times and they originated in their finest form here. Films from this era have arguably had a bigger impact than style as well - some say Truffaut's The Soft Skin (1964) influenced Woody Allen's London drama Match Point (2005). The fact that these films still hold up today and are still studied avidly by film fans around the world proves just how important they are.

45 years on from The Soft Skin and we are at another important peak in French cinema. Amelie was released in 2001 and apart from launching Audrey Tautou into the mainstream it confirmed Jean-Pierre Jeunet as one of the leading auteurs of the country. Eight years on and one film later - the brilliant A Very Long Engagement (2004), and he now holds the title of one of the best auteurs in the world. His multi-layered, humanly funny tales of love in a city overindulgent in it feels refreshing and has a charm and style that most Hollywood films severely lack. His earlier works (the dark Delicatessen, 1991, superb fantasy The City Of Lost Children, 1995 and quadrilogy closer Alien Resurrection) are also each individual and original with Alien Resurrection being his only mainstream effort so far, and although it recieved a critical panning at the time it still stands as a worthy addition to the franchise. It still remains hard to pinpoint what exactly is so enticing about Amelie. It could be the beautiful cinematography, the performance of Tautou's career and superb supporting turns from Jeunet regulars Dominique Pinion and Rufus, or a script so full of charm and hopeless romanticism which makes it so watchable time and time again. The film follows the life of Poulain, a woman who takes pleasure from the simple things in life, as she goes on a journey to make others happy and maybe find love herself. Jeunet followed this up with A Very Long Engagement which met the same critical praise and is another quirky story of love, this time set against the backdrop of war. With an OSCAR nomination behind him for Best Screenplay, Jeunet is arguably the director responsible for the popular resurgence of French cinema.

If Jeunet has directing covered, Mathieu Amalric is leading the actors front. One of his first leading roles came in 1996's My Sex Life... or How I Got Into An Argument (Arnaud Desplechin) for which he won the César Award for Most Promising Actor. He is generally seen as one of Frances greatest living actors and he has gone on to star in critically acclaimed films such as Heartbeat Detector (Nicolas Klotz, 2007) and the multi-OSCAR nominated The Diving Bell And The Butterfly. One of the things that allows Amalric's smaller French films to be seen is the fact that he mixes them with big Hollywood movies including Steven Spielberg's Munich (2005) and last years Quantum Of Solace (Marc Forster, 2008), the 22nd film in the James Bond franchise. His roles in these big hitters (particularly Solace) no doubt pushed forward the release of his latest movie A Christmas Tale, which was released here on January 16th, 8 months after its French release.

Mathieu Amalric in The Diving Bell And The Butterfly.

Masters of genre, the French keep knocking out great films which, while not seen by a large audience, are blowing all Hollywood efforts out of the water. This is proven by just looking at a few specific genres America seems to excel at (if we all believe the OSCARS are an indication of quality anyway): War, Thriller and Drama. Last year France released Female Agents which was critically applauded and didn't feature the sort of gung-ho machoism that is sometimes seen in the Hollywood war efforts - a recent example being Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001). Female Agents is the sort of film grounded in real war, and being based on a true story it has believable characters and retains a certain grit and tension without resorting to big-scale CGI-led action sequences. A film that does focus on large scale battle scenes is Days Of Glory (Rachid Bouchareb, 2006) but it's a much more intense affair than a film with budget on the brain more than historical accuracy. Even Jeunet's A Very Long Engagement is better than some American war movies - and that only uses the setting!

The thriller speaks for itself with Tell No One and Hidden (Caché, Michael Haneke, 2005) being popular films in their respective years. Slow burning and totally unflashy, these egoless films thrill audiences without using big name stars or elaborate, effects heavy action sequences, instead opting for character and story - and using a great script structure to hook genre fans.
And finally we arrive at drama and Kristin Scott Thomas' very human portrayal of Juliette Fontaine, a woman readjusting to society after being in prison for 15 years, for murder. It's an amazing performance and one that truly deserved the win - and the film itself stands tall amongst all the other French masterpieces that are currently doing the rounds. This year will see the return of Jeunet with Micmacs and no doubt a good number of others will be announced or arrive unexpectedly as the year goes on. To misquote Colin Welland - "The French are coming!"

Look out for my follow-up article, This Is The New French, next month.

Friday 18 June 2010

Lars von Trier: Prankster, Provocateur, Past Master...

Across the last 26 years, Danish writer-director Lars von Trier has become something of a curator of controversy. His unique, albeit difficult visions have led him to be labelled with terms as diverse as 'genius' and 'misogynist', but one thing is always certain: no matter where in the world you go, people will either venomously loathe him, or bathe in the sun which shines from his arse. Prodding the thematic meat of his work - which takes in unfunny comedies, three-hour Brechtian stage plays, genital mutilation and faking mental disability - it becomes clear that his is a dish not for everybody, but with The Boss Of It All (2006), Dogville (2003) / Manderlay (2005), Antichrist (2009) and The Idiots (1998), he's served it up good and raw. With tongue forever in cheek, von Trier has crafted a diverse and divisive oeuvre. Any analysis of it is fascinating, but so many critics seem afraid of deconstructing his worlds and facing the risk of just becoming the butt of a great joke. Well, here's my two cents on the prankster, provocateur and past master that is Lars von Trier. There will be blood...

Primarily I want to contend this nonsense of misogyny. It is inarguable that von Trier exploits his (typically female) characters, and the central theme of his Golden Heart Trilogy (Breaking The Waves, 1996; The Idiots and Dancer In The Dark, 2000) is the naivety of women. This series places heavy burdens upon the shoulders of female protagonists whose goodwill forces them down a dark path from which they might not return, but the filmmaker does not look down on his characters. It is not he, reaching through the camera, who is inflicting pain upon them. All of von Trier's films are morally centered, and clearly he has understood that focusing on women will lend more power to his message. In the director's own words...

"My films are about ideals which clash with the world. Every time it's a man in the lead,
they have forgotten about the ideals. And every time it's a woman in the lead, they take
the ideals all the way."

Let's consider The Idiots. The film revolves around a group of ordinary people who pretend to be mentally handicapped, striving to expose society's prejudice celebrate their "inner idiots." The very idea may be enough to repulse some, but to take The Idiots at face value is ridiculous, and bound to leave a sour aftertaste. Of course there are elements of the film which bait controversy (notably the birthday orgy), but von Trier is a natural prankster. The Idiots was made under the conditions of the Dogme 95 Manifesto: new avant-garde filmmaking rules (referred to as the Vow Of Chastity), co-written by Thomas Vinterberg (Festen, 1998). They outline a more "pure" cinema, and are as follows...
  1. Filming must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
  2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot).
  3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place).
  4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
  5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
  6. The film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc. must not occur)
  7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now).
  8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
  9. The film format must be Academy 35mm.
  10. The director must not be credited.
Understanding that The Idiots was made under Dogme 95 immediately rules out the possibility of taking it seriously. The manifesto was an elaborate experimental joke, but von Trier was wise enough to recognise that The Idiots also had to stand with a thematic and moralistic backbone. I genuinely believe that morality runs through the veins of his cinema, and the message at The Idiots' core is that the world can be a better place if we all just reject prejudice and enjoy life's simpler pleasures. The character's faking mental disability is just an exaggeration; a way of provoking that message from us, rather than spoon-feeding it. Justification isn't really a word you can bring to The Idiots, but there is a pure, human centre and a connection of understanding made between the characters and audience. Ultimately it's a film about escaping from the everyday world by just embracing the simple.

As part of the Golden Heart Trilogy, The Idiots' narrative focus falls with Karen (Bodil Jørgensen), a deeply troubled and introverted young woman. From the second we meet her there is an unbalance. Despite her initial opposition to their activities, she seems ready and willing to accept the invitation into these people's lives. And why not? They are kind and open hearted towards her. It would be all too easy to once again take the film at face value, and assume that these Idiots are taking advantage of Karen's naivety, cruelly subjecting her to their social experiment. But they never force her to become a part of the 'spazzing', and eventually their home becomes a haven for her. She's not tormented, but comforted. The finale sees her completing a 'task' to confirm her loyalty to the Idiot cause. Finally von Trier allows us a window into this poor woman's past, for a scene in which she returns home. The shocking revelation that Karen has lost her son comes to our attention just seconds before she 'spazzes' in front of her family. It's a moment of disturbing intimacy, quietly heartbreaking and fundamental to the film's thesis. If anyone needed an escape from the real world it's Karen, and if von Trier really is pulling the strings of her fate then he's freeing, not punishing her. And despite it being a deeply uncomfortable viewing experience one does get the impression that, for the first time in a long time, Karen is going to be okay.

To effectively disprove the claims of misogyny we must also consider the remaining films in the Golden Heart Trilogy. Breaking The Waves tells the story of Bess McNeill (Emily Watson), a deeply religious young woman from a small, rural community in the north of Scotland. She marries an outsider named Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), and while he is away at work (on an oil rig) Bess becomes restless, praying for his return home. At the same time Jan suffers a terrible injury which renders him paralyzed, and from his hospital bed asks Bess to take a lover and relay the details of her experience back to him. This way they can still be together, he says. Initially Bess struggles with the idea, but eventually she convinces herself that these actions might aid her husband. Perhaps through the sacrifice of her body, Jan's will be healed, and thus her selfish act of praying for his return can rectified. Bess is killed while prostituting herself, but perhaps hers was an act of martyrdom? Sure enough, Jan begins his recovery after her passing...

Overall Breaking The Waves is a hard film to assess. Bess is a brilliantly drawn and complex character, played with conviction by an Oscar-nominated Watson. von Trier certainly doesn't hate her, but neither does he free her. His story pushes Bess to her death, and in this case her trial is at the will of a man, albeit a man she loved, and was loved by. Jan mourns for her, and buries her body at sea. And let us not forget the end of the film - bells ringing from above to signal her place in heaven. Bess may have been a troubled soul, and it remains open to interpretation whether or not she was manipulated by a bed-ridden, drug-addled Jan, who probably didn't want to carry on living. But her wrongdoings were for the sake of good. Jan walks and, by way of a miracle, hears her place among angels, and I just can't interpret that as being hateful. As misguided as Bess was, von Trier allows her to be at peace. There are even religious interpretations of the film which argue Bess as Christ, and Jan as the resurrection.

Dancer In The Dark is another story of a woman's compassion and sense of loyalty leading to her downfall. Selma (Björk) is a Czech immigrant living in America; a kind-hearted and hard working soul who is gradually losing her sight. She lives with her son, across the street from Bill (David Morse), who is suffering financially. Selma gets through each day by her love of musicals, believing that a song can cure even the darkest of plights. But the darkness becomes overwhelming when Bill attempts to rob and manipulate her. In a struggle Bill is shot and Selma goes to jail for the crime, where she awaits her death sentence.

This is the easiest of the trilogy to interpret. Selma was saving money from work in order to pay for an operation that would stop her son from becoming blind, and Bill's accidental death was the result of Selma trying to protect what was rightfully hers. She sticks to her guns and says that the money must only be used for an operation and not to make an appeal for her release. She would rather die and have her son live a happy life than live and see him go blind. It can be tough watching Selma put to the test, but like all of von Trier's most interesting work Dancer In The Dark is a morality play. He doesn't hate her. We, the audience, don't hate her - we admire her. We are saddened by the fate of Selma. Truly she has a golden heart.

Charges of misogyny have also been leveled at Dogville and Manderlay, the first two films in von Trier's 'USA - Land Of Opportunities' Trilogy (not yet completed, as Washington lies in development limbo). At this point I will allow viewers to go away and form their own opinions on these works, and whether or not misogyny is present. Of course I don't think there is - these are once again moral tales set in small-town America, focusing on religion, prejudice and slavery. They are grueling viewing experiences, and contain themes which run deeper than gender (the film's arguable anti-American stance, for example). The most interesting thing about these films is the way von Trier chooses to shoot them: on a black, Brechtian soundstage with only bits of set to define the location - front doors, a table, some chairs, and animals and plants chalked out on the ground. The audience has to work harder with this approach to find the truth between spaces. But again, on another level, von Trier is just playing with us.

Moving away from misogyny we have to look at his role as a prankster. And where better to start than with the aforementioned Dogme 95 Manifesto, conceived by von Trier and Vinterberg as nothing more than an elaborate joke, albeit one which a number of filmmakers have fallen victim to, as Mifune's Last Song (Kragh-Jacobsen, 1999), Julien Donkey-Boy (Korine, 1999) and The King Is Alive (Levring, 2000), have underlined. The rules were invented to provoke discussion, and encourage audiences to look at cinema from new and challenging perspectives. Vinterberg and von Trier have both made films that purposefully break these rules - Vinterberg with the awfully pretentious It's All About Love (2003) and von Trier with Dogville, Manderlay and Antichrist. Taken together these films break every rule in the manifesto - elaborate stage design, grinding non-diegetic music, long static shots, black and white photography, murder, mutilation, genre convention and director credits have defined von Trier's work over the last ten years. Dogme did its job at provoking, forcing audiences to think outside the box about what cinema could be, what it could show and how it could show it. The fact that critics wrote scathing reviews of The Idiots is probably exactly what von Trier wanted. People didn't necessarily have to like the film. They just had to talk about it.

The key example of von Trier's playfulness comes with his 2003 feature The Five Obstructions. In this compelling documentary he guides his mentor Jørgen Leth through a series of filmmaking 'obstructions', forcing him to remake his 1967 short The Perfect Human five times. It's a joyfully torturous experiment but also a powerful insight into the filmmaking process and the genesis and nurturing of ideas. The obstructions are as follows:
  1. 12 Frames. Answers. Cuba. No Set.
  2. A Miserable Place. Don't Show It. Jørgen Leth Is 'The Man'. The Meal.
  3. Complete Freedom or Back To Bombay
  4. Cartoon.
  5. Lars von Trier Will Make The Last Obstruction. Jørgen Leth Will Be Credited As Director. Jørgen Leth Will Read A Text Written By Lars von Trier.
The list will only really make sense to those who've seen the film, but to say any more would be to spoil it. The best scenes in the film involve von Trier revealing to his mentor the new challenge he is proposing. He studies Leth, listening intently to every word so that he can snap it up for his own mission. As soon as Leth mentions, in passing, that he has never been to Cuba, von Trier tells him it must be filmed there. Leth asks von Trier about sets, at which point a Cheshire cat-sized grin emerges across the Dane's face, and he says "no sets". The anarchy of this project is the pure product of a vein that runs through von Trier's entire body of work. Despite their harshness, there is a playful side to everything from Breaking The Waves to The Boss Of It All. Speaking of which...

The Boss Of It All finds von Trier toying with the conventions of comedy. The film opens with the lines "although you see my reflection, trust me - this film won't be worth a moments reflection. It's a comedy, and harmless as such. No preaching or swaying of opinion. Just a cozy time. So why not poke fun at artsy-fartsy culture?", and if you hadn't already guessed, it's another prank. By telling the viewer that the film has no message von Trier is doing two things; one, forcing a more intelligent viewer to search for a message and two, allowing the more passive viewer to be at ease and miss the point entirely. But the message to be found by viewer number one is that this "artsy-fartsy" experiment is as shallow as the comedy it attacks. It's just another elaborate joke that will divide audiences, yet cause them to talk. The story follows a vain, out-of-work actor named Kristoffer (Jens Albinus) who is hired by Ravn (Peter Gantzler), the head of an unhappy IT company, to provide moral support to his troops. Ravn invented a man called "The Boss Of It All" to pin all of his own unpopular decisions onto and Kristoffer has been hired to play this part. It's a deliberately slow comedy, shot in static tableaus with diegetic sound, creating a tonal effect directly at odds with the Hollywood output it lampoons. A love interest is introduced in the form of Lise (Iben Hjejle), who forms a difficult relationship with the "boss" when she thinks he is gay. When it's exposed that he's not, she storms into his office with the intent of confrontation. They end up having sex and, mid-coitus, Kristoffer asks, "have you heard of Gambini?" It is, of course, ludicrous and totally brilliant.

The final film to consider in von Trier's role as a prankster is also the film which underlines his filmmaking roots. The film, and the final rejection of Dogme 95, is Antichrist. 'He' (Willem Dafoe) is a psychologist, 'She' (Charlotte Gainsbourg) an academic working on a thesis for gendercide. The scene is set up in this clip of the opening, which for easily offended viewers contains sexually explicit content (real penetration) and the death of a child (obviously faked):

From here the couple grieve, retreating to a cabin in the woods (specifically referencing Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, 1981) where things take a dark and violent turn. Antichrist could easily have been directed by two people. On the one hand it's a deep, meditative study of loss, stapled to which is a brutal and unforgiving horror movie. It deals with themes of nature and the evil of women, and unwinds into a bloody, self-mutilating hell. But it also contains a fox who, after munching away at his own intestines, turns to the camera and tells Willem Dafoe that "chaos reigns". The scene has meaning, but von Trier is simply playing with the boundaries of genre. He's saying "look what I can do", and unless you're expecting a sort of dreadfully serious psychoanalytical horror picture then the joke should be obvious. It's von Trier finally mixing his provocateur sensibilities with honest emotion and the fresh-faced aestheticism of his youth. Sadly Antichrist is another one of those films that would be ruined by saying too much about it. It's both devastating and shocking, visually stunning and extremely intelligent. Unfortunately not as much can be said for von Trier's early days.

The Europe Trilogy takes in Element Of Crime (1984), Epidemic (1987) and Europa (1991), the first three features von Trier made when he finished film school. They all deal with identity, reality and to an extent these themes as a disease. Each film also has a manifesto, detailed in the Region 2 4-Disc DVD from Tartan. They are von Trier's least interesting but most stylish films. Element Of Crime is a noir by way of Tarkovsky, visually astonishing (in fact containing some of the greatest images ever committed to film) but lacking in substance. Epidemic is more of a curiosity but ultimately a fumble, a film within a film in which an epidemic spreads as two writers complete a screenplay about an epidemic. It's slow paced and lacking the heart or humor of the director's best work. Europa is a black-and-white thriller infused with political drama, and another supremely stylish affair. It brought critical acclaim and quite obviously opened the door to greater things, but these films would only be recommended to avid von Trier fans.

Hopefully this article will have allowed von Trier's detractors to look at him in a new light. Perhaps it has added even more fuel to your fire. At best it's inspired you to seek out more of his filmography. But no matter what, one thing is certain: no matter where in the world you go, people will either venomously loathe him, or bathe in the sun which shines from his arse. If the rampant hate-mail of von Trier's critics is to be believed, then it's the end of the world as we know it. But y'know what? I feel fine...

For Your Consideration...No.8

Lady In The Water

Anna Ran: "He's hearing the voice of God through a crossword puzzle."

So, I have a confession to make. For a long time now i've been a detractor of M. Night Shyamalan, the so-called 'visionary' who has 'lost his way'. The Sixth Sense (1999)? Nope. Predictable, unscary and far too weighty for its own good. Unbreakable (2000)? Better, but still just a bag of contrivances hung on a strong lead performance. Signs (2002)? This one I liked for the most part but it's let down by gargantuan plot holes and a silly finale. The Village (2004)? Lets not even pretend that one had fans. But then we come to an anomaly. Something I haven't been admitting, that sits in the back of my mind. Shyamalan hasn't managed to sustain my peaked interest (The Happening, 2008, is beyond absurd) but I actually like Lady In The Water (2006). It was thrashed by the critics, had the weakest opening weekend of a Shyamalan film up to that point and his fans started lashing back angrily - the film still has a mere 25% on the website Rotten Tomatoes. Everyone hates this movie. But I don't. I, the critic who once described Shyamalan as a "trumpet blowing bean counter", likes Lady In The Water. One paragraph in and I imagine his fans are already up in arms. This won't be easy...

Now let me make two things clear. Firstly, I'm not about to make a case for Lady In The Water being perfect or some misunderstood masterpiece. It has flaws. Big, annoying flaws and I will get around to them. Secondly, despite my dislike of Shyamalan as a filmmaker I have to commend his vision. Because it's very rare that an auteur will get as big a platform to leap on as Shyamalan does and even when he makes a bad movie he's at least trying to do something original. He's at least using his imagination, and the passion behind every project is clearly on screen, sometimes to the point of distraction. And it's exactly for this second reason that Lady In The Water works and so many 'mainstream' audiences were put off. It's an auteurist fairytale. A complete, unhindered vision so personal that Shyamalan was unwilling to compromise and subsequently severed a relationship with Disney. It has some really silly moments and even reading the words "narf" "scrunt" or "tarturic" may make some giggle. But this is an honest, magical world and Shyamalan, for once, isn't asking you to believe it. He's asking you to absorb it and take it into your heart. And if you do you might end up like me by the end credits. A little bit misty eyed.

The story sees handyman Cleveland Heap (Paul Giamatti) one night stumbling upon a lady in the swimming pool at the apartment complex where he works. She has a scar on her leg and describes herself as a 'Narf' which by aid of his neighbors Cleveland soon learns is a sea nymph. The story unfolds to reveal a grassy monster called a Scrunt is stalking the nearby forest in the hope of catching this Narf (named Story, played by Bryce Dallas Howard) before she can be taken away by a giant eagle called the Great Eatlon. Before she can be taken away the Narf must make contact with an unknown writer whose words will one day change the world. Cleveland, whose past holds a great tragedy, commits himself to helping Story and getting her home safely. From there the way things unfold are both annoying and uplifting. And i'll start with the bad stuff.

One character in the apartment complex is Harry Farber (Bob Balaban), a snobbish movie critic arrogant enough to "presume the intention of another human being" and supposedly included to comfort Shyamalan after all the critical floggings he's had. The critic is very intentionally made to look like a fool and his demise (which even he makes obvious from the very beginning) is the low point of the movie. After returning from a romantic comedy ("why does everyone stand around and talk in the rain in movies?") he foretells his own fate by saying "characters were walking around saying their thoughts out loud". Shyamalan then takes it upon himself to be ever so clever and face the critic up against the Scrunt. Cowering in fear the critic is made to eat his words when he stands and literally narrates his own death - "my god, this is like a moment from a horror movie. This is precisely the moment where the mutation or beast will attempt to kill an unlikable side character". And then the Scrunt leaps upon him. Shyamalan literally devouring his critics is not big. It's not clever. It's sadly petty and ruins the movie, especially when he then goes on to laugh in the face of the critical corpse by setting the last scene in the rain. But of course as Shyamalan (*ahem* Cleveland) points out, it could be "a metaphor for purification". It's an unprecedented level of smarminess made all the worse for Shyamalan casting himself as the visionary author Story seeks, who will one day become a martyr so that his words can change the world. As illusions of grandeur go it's the stunningly false and egotistical sort that would make Tarantino blush.

Bob Balaban as Harry Farber

The other problems I have with the movie are typical of Shyamalan's indulgence of imagination. While I commend him for having clarity of vision and strength of conviction there are ideas that just don't work - a prime example being Reggie (Freddy Rodriguez) a body-builder who only works on one side of his body as a scientific experiment. Therefore, through some very strange prosthetics, Freddy looks like an ordinary guy on the left side of his body and Sylvester Stallone on the right. Every time he pops onscreen involuntary laughter erupts, and it's no different come his eventual significance to the plot. As the story progresses and becomes slightly sillier the entire apartment block bands together to help Story get home. One person needed is a Symbolist who will reveal the way to summon the Great Eatlon. The symbolist is revealed to be the son of a man named Dury (Jeffrey Wright) and he is able to read the magical instructions... in cereal boxes. It's 'the' Shyamalan moment that seemingly all his movies have to contain (Mark Wahlberg negotiating with a potted plant in The Happening remains his finest work in this department) and it's the exact moment where you realise a script editor is probably needed. Not to change Shyamalan's vision, but just to reign it in. Fortunately though, these are easily overlooked when compared to the good things about Lady In The Water.

Firstly the score by James Newton Howard. Howard has scored all of Shyamalan's films thus far and has also provided the sounds to blockbusters such as King Kong (Peter Jackson, 2005), I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007) and The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008), on which he collaborated with Hans Zimmer. His work has always been good, but never exceptional - normally a functional, rousing but unmemorable piece of music to enhance the effect of an action or suspense sequence. But here Shyamalan employs him differently. Here Howard has seemingly been given free reign to create the tone of the whole film and his haunting, magical track 'Prologue' plays under most of the major scenes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0-lu9Zs5Gw. The piano section that starts at 1:31 into the track is among the most beautiful, stirring and emotive scores that have ever been put to film and it lends more power than anything Shyamalan attempts in his direction. It's a frankly stunning piece of work which I would feel comfortable calling genuis. It's a track that actually feels like the sound of something magical. It actually inspires the imagination.

Of course, while the soundtrack creates the atmosphere and tone of the film, it would be inconsequential if there was nothing to care about in it. Giamatti provides a perfectly fine performance (when does he not?) but the real star here is Bryce Dallas Howard as Story. It's a shockingly overlooked performance. The beautiful young actress has easily escaped her fathers shadow (Ron Howard, director of Apollo 13, 1995 and The Da Vinci Code, 2006) and formed a captivating fairytale character. She brings an honesty and a quietness to Story, whose eyes are the gateway to a soft, humble soul. Everything from her long red hair to her delicate posture is perfect. It's a mystical, ethereal performance that's totally, totally believable despite its obvious fantasy. Howard pronounces her lines in a way that makes us think about the origins of the character when Shyamalan has provided so little. It's such a layered, deeply intimate portrayal you'd almost think she was from another world. The fact that this performance has now drifted by unnoticed is a crime. Because it's one of the best of last decade and has an enrapturing quality that is very, very special.

But there is something to be said for Shyamalan himself, and that's his sense of space. Lady In The Water is all set within the confines of the apartment complex but it never feels claustrophobic or restricted. You never long for a change of scenery. In fact it was only after the film had ended that I noticed at all. Shyamalan creates the mystery within four magical walls - overhead shots of the pool, long corridors, individual rooms, the surrounding woods. He's crafted a single location for all the conventions of a horror or fantasy movie to take place. It goes to show that the widened gaze of something like Harry Potter And The Philosophers Stone (Chris Columbus, 2001) or Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001) isn't always necessary. Beautiful, impressive landscapes they may be, but they're no more engaging than the world of Lady In The Water. It's not the misty shots of castle-filled landscapes or long corridors of talking paintings and dwarves that create fantastical cinema, but tone and feeling. The story, score, cinematography and performance by Howard are the elements that compliment Shyamalan's enclosed setting. His direction may be nothing special (in fact a single location probably demands more innovation - the opportunity for complex tracking and panning shots is sorely missed) but the sense of space is extraordinary and it makes for his best cinema. Indeed, the only other Shyamalan film I can tolerate is Signs, and that's largely set within the protagonists house and surrounding field.

And then there's the ending, the make or break moment of any Shyamalan story. In this case the power of the finale doesn't rely on a twist but rests entirely upon the viewer. If you've allowed the magic of the film to wash over you then it will be a thing of pure beauty. If the critical nitpicking and one-bicep tenant have proved bothersome, it will be the final straw. For me it belongs in the former category. Its full of inconsistencies and the arrival of the Tarturic is a little clunky but its also staggeringly powerful. Stood in the rain Cleveland embraces Story and whispers "thank you for saving my life". The Great Eatlon swoops down and takes Story away into the sky, soaring over the dark clouds and city below. A shot from the pool, looking up hazily at Cleveland slowly fades out and gives way to a strangely moving cover of Bob Dylan's 'The Times They Are A Changin'. We may have got there by way of a cereal box, but it doesn't matter. Because Lady In The Water is a complete vision. It's a story of magic, belief, heart and soul. And it has problems. But who cares? I'll defend Lady In The Water forever, even though Shyamalan has let me down time and time again. Do yourself a favor. Give it another chance...
Giamatti as Cleveland and Howard as Story

Saturday 5 June 2010

The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson, 2008) Review

One-trick ponies... Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo as The Brothers Bloom...

I'll lay it out straight: expectations were high. After the critically acclaimed Sundance hit Brick (2005), which proclaimed up-and-comer Joseph Gordon-Levitt as one of the most dynamic screen actors of his generation, Rian Johnson had a lot to live up to with his second feature, the kookily titled Brothers Bloom. The plot is as daffy as Warner Bros. iconic duck, but then Brick's was an idea which should have fallen flat on its face, instead emerging as an intelligent, bruising high school noir. After a limited US run last year, Johnson's follow-up now arrives on our shores. Were expectations met? Well, yes and no...

So, let's first establish that daffy plot. Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) are brothers in crime, once con-boys and now con-men. After a stylish prologue Stephen is established as the leader of the pack - he plans the heists and builds the characters before setting off Bloom on a 15-part escapade which he's now growing weary of. Also followed by the zany Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), Bloom agrees to one last job before retiring to an "unwritten life". The 'job' is eccentric millionaire Penelope (Rachel Weisz), and from there I'll leave things open.

Naturally for a sophomore feature Johnson has widened his gaze, relishing the option of a budget to zip his audience across the globe (Greece, Tokyo, Mexico...) and absorb them into a world which often looks like it was hand-painted by Wes Anderson and Jean-Luc Godard on a weekend picnicking trip. The colour scheme has brightened, abandoning the west coast pastels of Brick for a more comic book-y aesthetic, matched by the film's amped-up quirk factor (Stephen and Bloom live in a Zoo). And yet, something is lost in the expansion. Brick's genius was its simplicity (teenage gumshoe unravels a murder plot), but Bloom is far too big for its boots, and knows it. Even our introduction to Penelope is an exercise in tested patience - trapped for a lifetime in her dream home, this lonely spinster "collects hobbies", and in a goofy montage shows Bloom her skills at skateboarding, juggling chainsaws and playing the harp. Seriously, it's almost skin-crawlingly cute.

Of course, the Brick / Bloom comparison is a little unfair, as they're completely different films. But when a filmmaker has been as good as Johnson has been, there's really no excuse for him being this average. The picture hurries through about twelve plot twists a quarter, but each has a depressing flash of brilliance masked by the madness. Despite the manic pixie qualities of her character, one is undoubtedly Weisz, who has always been a pleasant screen actress, but not always a convincing one (the coffins acted her offscreen in The Mummy Returns, 2001). Here she pulls out all the stops to play this giggling ball of useless expertise, desperate to find a real adventure and a real love. There's a totally endearing innocence to Penelope which acts as a glue to the disjointed narrative, and her journey is one I was compelled to follow.

There are also moments of real directorial flair, such as a jaw-dropping car crash towards the film's end. Sweeping pans and close-ups are employed brilliantly here, building to an awesome stunt where the car flips upside down in slow motion - the camera placing us inside the car, watching the characters reactions. The finale also oozes style, set in a derelict theater with noirish light filtering through the curtains. Zooms and quick-cut editing make this a thrilling sequence, but it's too little too late for a film which ultimately registered as tedious. It's a film of bits - bits I loved and bits I hated. It hasn't been worth the wait, but there are fragments of warmth and humor which remain unique among their contemporaries. I love Rian Johnson and I await Looper eagerly, but this one was just... well, a bit of a one-trick pony.

Tuesday 1 June 2010

Black Dynamite (Scott Sanders, 2009) Review

Black's back baby, and he knows kung fu... Black Dynamite (2009)

A smooth talkin' cat with an eye for the ladies, the eponymous hero of Scott Sanders Black Dynamite - a baadasssss homage to the 70's sub-genre which gave us Shaft (Parks, 1971) and Super Fly (Parks Jr, 1972) - is about as cool as movie cops get, but this one's got a difference: he knows it. Dynamite (Michael Jai White) is an operative whose brother was killed during an undercover operation, and now he's out for revenge. Drugs are infecting the streets, turning orphans into heroin addicts, and a new drink by the name of 'Anaconda' is sweeping the nation. There's something very wrong going on, and Black Dynamite is determined to find out what. In fact, he takes his brand of chop-socky kung-fu all the way to the White House...

Truth be told, most blaxploitation films have dated badly - they're products of their time which now act as jazzy, sexed-up artifacts of crime cinema. A recent revival in exploitation (from the likes of Viva, 2007, to Planet Terror, 2007) has sorely missed the chance to capitalize on the winning formula of these films, and Black Dynamite - halfway between homage and spoof - is about as close as we're going to get. Honestly, there's not much room for complaint. The sets are perfect - all leopard skin and satin, featuring retro diners and sleazy hotels populated by jive-talkin' suckas ("I'm blacker than the ace of spades!"). The costumes are also period-perfect, announcing themselves in garishly coloured skin-tight leather. Everything from the intentionally grainy film stock to the chorus line of the theme tune screams 70s, and while its heart is in the right place, it's not perfect. For two reasons.

Firstly, there's that sneaky postmodernism. One thing I love so much about blaxploitation is the fact that it was a genre of gender equality. Hear me out. For every Shaft there was a Foxy Brown (Hill, 1974), for every Super Fly a Cleopatra Jones (Starrett, 1973), and these girls could pack heat. They were cool - sex was their weapon, along with a Magnum .47. Yes, there was a strand of blaxploitation which saw women as objects, in which the rule of thumb was: the more buxom the babe, the more evil the villain whose leg she cradles. Because Black Dynamite is cast with a postmodernist touch, it seems to think it can get away with such simplistic attitudes towards women, but it can't. Just because it's done with a wink n' a smile, can we excuse the complete redundancy of the film's female characters, and continue ignoring the likes of Coffy's (Hill, 1973) Pam Grier? Black Dynamite is a male-lead action movie, with most of the females busy gettin' busy with one of our protagonists. American critic Roger Ebert stated that the film marked the return of "much-needed gratuitous nudity". Of course, the man who co-penned Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (Meyer, 1970) would say that, and the film's obvious sexism does begin to grate. It raises a few laughs, sure, but also a critical eyebrow, and by the midway point I was left desperately wanting Foxy Brown to turn up and start kickin' some ass.

The second problem lies in the story itself. Black Dynamite seems to forget that blaxploitation may have drawn in audiences with their sex, violence and catchy theme tunes, but they also told some pretty solid crime stories. They were hardly noir level - T.N.T. Jackson (Santiago, 1974) is no Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) after all, but they were engaging tales told trashily well. The 'twist' in Black Dynamite may be absurdly funny, but it's not in any way engaging and at the same time that the film's sexism begins to grate, its one-note gag is wearing thin. The film is an absolute blast, and it's superbly written by Michael Jai White, Byron Minns and Scott Sanders, but the plot is awful, and there are too many gaps between the (admittedly inspired) jokes for us to forgive it that.

Perhaps I'm expecting too much of Black Dynamite. Perhaps the fact that its 77 minute running time flies by, mixing kung-fu with expert comedy is good enough. It's not trying to be The Godfather (Coppola, 1972) and to be honest, I did forgive Bitch Slap (Jacobson, 2009) for the exact same misgivings just a week or so ago. As an homage it's loving, and as a nostalgia trip I'm sure it works fine. As a comedy, it's exceptional. Even the send-up of action movie clichés (one character begins emoting about wanting to start a family when he gets back from the mission; he's shortly dispatched by a spear) seem perfect. Postmodern or not, Black Dynamite needs a woman's touch, but overall this is top-notch entertainment - super bad, super cool and most importantly, just pretty darn super.