29.8.11

Three Colours: Blue

Ian McEwan's Saturday follows a well-off surgeon for a day around London, and stuff happens, some very dull (squash), some quite exciting (assault). Oh, and that day is the 15th of February 2003 -- the massive protest march against the invasion of Iraq. Now, the reader is supposed to spot the connections -- obv the surgeon's story is some allegory for the workings of international politics. But as is usual with McEwan, you never know exactly what THE POINT is supposed to be. Personally, I don't mind so much. Whenever I've read anything by him, I could always cobble together some meaning for myself (which is what it's all about, right?). Also I forget said POINT almost immediately (don't ask me to explain Saturday. All I remember is that the references to Hobbes were supposed to contrast with the surgeon's decision at the end of the book. Or something. It probably involved religion or gender -- it usually does with me.) With McEwan, the journey was always worth it anyway, particularly the early fucked-up stuff. Not so much with Saturday tho. Saturday was pretty shit...

ANYWAY. This film reminded me of Saturday only because ostensibly it's set out to be a comment on the blue bit of the french flag: liberty. But then we spend all of our time hanging out with a widow processing her grief. The connection? Beats me! OK not really, because I have books and the internet to explain to me that the film swaps the political for the personal, navigating the contours of the chazm between liberty // love. Love makes you unfree: that shot with the reflection in the eye. You can't see for yourself anymore, you see through others. It's all a bit Rousseau, actually. ((Ah philosophy! Gotta be useful for something!)) And as the film's finale sings to us: love >>> everything else.

But really, I would have preferred it if Kieślowski had called this film something else, so it didn't have all this misleading baggage which doesn't add anything and merely distracts away from the otherwise quite beautiful story of someone learning to live and feel again. A lot of this is on Binoche, who does a marvelous job being by turns icy and vulnerable. I'm also sort of impressed by the sex-worker character, who didn't seem to be shaped by creepy male fantasies (call bullshit on this please, if you think otherwise). Actually, all the characters were handled elegantly. This film cuts the crap right out, so that every line is from the heart. That's refreshing. I liked everyone I met.

David Thomson hits on something when he describes this movie's 'pride and humourlessness' as 'crushing'. The story and themes do not reach Magnolia-size (BTW pretty much my fave non-genre film, I think). And yet Kieślowski is obv going for that level of grandness. It's a bit pretentious, in other words. Quite literally.

Did I just call a French art-house movie pretentious? Welcome to the Hothouse, friends! Sweltering with original insights and controversial opinions!

American: The Bill Hicks Story

I'm new to Bill Hicks (and stand-up in general) so getting my info from this film might give me a different slant from other Bill Hicks fans. This biography has a particular approach: getting at the subject through the people who knew him best -- family, friends and their archive of photos and video. It's Bill Hicks from the subjective standpoints of those close to him, and the filmmakers take a step back to let them tell the story. This is their testimony, and we judge the truth-value for ourselves. The way they use animation to realize the various episodes described is clever. We don't just get talking heads, but a larger-than-life reconstruction of what they are talking about: a great way to portray the workings of memory.

This is one way of doing biography, valuable perhaps, but with Bill Hicks I think there's a lot that's missed out from the focus on his personal life. As the film makes clear enough, his work was a way of escaping where he came from. Indeed, the info the film provides gets very general whenever Hicks is away from Texas and his family. We don't get many details on this life placed in different contexts. Where does Hicks fit into the history of stand-up comedy? Woody Allen and Richard Pryor are mentioned as influences, but for those that don't know who they are, what did Hicks take from them? What was his influence on others? Why was he so successful in Britain? What did he read? His philosophy can't JUST be explained as a result of a far-out trip on magic mushrooms. How did his stand-up actually WORK? One thing I noticed from the clips was the way Hicks could get away with critiquing American idiocy by co-opting parts of the audience and making them feel that they weren't the stupid ones.

This is stuff a more traditional biography might cover, with input from academics and disciples. Perhaps it has been covered to death elsewhere, which is why this film took this particular route. It provides a very good portrait of the man: hard-working, driven, very American as the title suggests. But my feeling is it missed a lot of what made Bill Hicks such a cult figure.

27.8.11

The Skin I Live In

I'll take this as Almodóvar's atonement for Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, the last film he did with Banderas, and which made my political correctness siren start wailing over here. This film isn't entirely clear of testy moral waters. Like Talk To Her, there is a rape by an 'innocent'. Perhaps because of the different circumstances -- Vicente did stop (eventually...) when consent was withdrawn -- plus the fact that the film's stance is more distant, I didn't get worked up about it. Whether this is tantamount to hypocrisy I'll leave to you.

But at least here we have a prisoner (who may have succumbed to stockholm syndrome, or maybe not -- we are left to draw our own conclusions) who breaks free and is reunited with a real loving family (of women, of course). I wonder if Vicente steals Norma in the end?

The focus should be on Robert, however. A magnificent performance by Banderas, who has enough charisma and passion to sell his absolute devotion to his deceased wife and child, while at the same time being the clinical obsessive bad guy. When did the madness emerge? His wife started shagging his id-driven brother and his daughter was pretty old to be playing with toys when we first see her -- maybe Robert was the one that defenestrated both, albeit indirectly. Marilia was of the opinion that she had given birth to demons. Zeca "the tiger" is an animal, no restraint at all, a true rapist. Robert is all about restraint, control, observation, intervention -- I'm not surprised that his wife cuckolded him and his daughter developed social problems. And his undoing by Vera comes exactly when he lets her in. Just as he starts becoming human, punishment is delivered.

A wondrous film. The best Almodóvar mystery I've seen so far.

24.8.11

Super 8

Dude, seriously, quit with the lens flare already! It made sense when everything was shiny new and space age, but this is just a railway station in the 70s. There is no need for it!

A bit weird, this film. Star Trek had enough jokes to cover for the obv character beats and themes. This tries to use cuteness instead, and I dunno... Maybe I'm a cold cynical bastard, but I didn't really feel involved.

Apart from one scene. BUT SHE'S NICE TO ME! ...that one hit hard.

Also, stay for the short movie that plays over the credits. As my wise friend from over here pointed out -- very Garth Marenghi.

All-Star Superman

I'm always slightly daunted by Grant Morrison comics, which are never as simple as they appear. For example, the second issue is overtly about Lois accepting Superman's secret, but its also a riff on the Bluebeard story -- Lois thinks she is going to be trapped and forced to make lots of superbabies, but in fact Superman offers empowerment. Now if you don't have your wits about you, you may miss these big things Morrison is talking about.

There is a lot to be impressed with here. The first issue has to set up everything in 21 pages, so the first page origin and the splash on the next two are brilliant at getting across everything you need to know. The way Morrison cuts between Superman, Lois and Luthor in that issue, and across two time continuums in the tenth, shows the control he can exert over a story.

My favourite issue is pretty linear, however -- number five, which looks at Luthor as interviewed by Clark Kent. What's interesting is that Luthor portrays himself as a revolutionary attempting to create a new human renaissance. For him, Superman defines the ideal, meaning that no one can establish any alternative values ('abstracts') while he lives. The sequence in which the prison walls become panels brings a whole meta-element into this. Luthor is trapped in a reality which does not allow for his genius to flourish. As he says himself: he is a born dictator, but Superman always stands in his way, ideologically as well as literally. And all of this is brilliantly undermined by the irony of Luthor complementing Kent on his bumbling humanity. The issue is framed by Kent visiting and leaving the prison, from the air and then under the ground, which makes me wonder if this is a riff on the Inferno: Kent shown around by a demented Virgil before being carted off by an insane S&M Beatrice at the end. Maybe not, but the fact that the comic suggests such grandiose comparisons is a testament to the way it can talk about big ideas in a compact and plot-driven way.

Issue ten is the other highlight, in which Superman runs a test case of a universe without Superman. There, as here, people create gods, then try to surpass them. Nietzsche appears writing his Zarathustra. Finally, a zoom in to a pencil sketch of Superman (but in a different costume). The issue is about letting go and trusting others. Superman learns that he can rely on people to continue to generate ideals and try and live by them. That one page sequence where he saves the suicidal girl captures this well. As Mark Waid says in the introduction: Superman achieves his power by believing in us.

The religion to science development is what the book ends on. Superman provided the 20th century ideal for human aspiration. He is a modern god. Some, like Lois, think he will return once the sun is fixed. Others, like Leo Quintum, move on to solving the problems of the universe themselves. The gods show us the way, but then human ingenuity takes over.

22.8.11

Starter For 10

I was looking for something along the lines of this, and was rather disappointed. It's all a bit O.C. isn't it? Did Dominic Cooper have to look EXACTLY LIKE James Dean? Did Alice Eve have to look EXACTLY LIKE Catherine Deneuve? YES, obv, because otherwise we wouldn't know what character they were playing. James McAvoy was charming enough, and Benedict Cumberbatch was very funny as the team captain (also, Rebecca Hall can marry me now, please). But they didn't have a lot of depth to dig into.

The script is written by the author of the original novel, and I'm thinking either the book's rubbish or he doesn't know what he's doing. Because the film is big on cliche, lacks wit, and relies on cringe for tension. To be fair to it, there is a fundamental decency to the story that wins through (just!) despite the platitudes and contrivances. However, I do wish the characters had a few more dimensions.

21.8.11

Morvern Callar

With this film, I got the feeling that a lot of THE POINT was left in the original novel, with director Lynne Ramsay preferring to do Malick-style meandering w/o the voice-over. But whatevs, it was entrancing. From some of the arguments on the IMDB page, I got the impression that the novel is superior (it's narrated first person, which immediately tells me that there must be more character / theme stuff going on than you get in the film). But I haven't read it so I'm forced to ponce over what Ramsey provides. She should have thought about that.

The hook is that Morvern's lover commits suicide, but leaves his finished novel dedicated to her with instructions to send it to publishers. Morvern does so, but not before substituting her name for his. Then she takes his money and goes on holiday. And that's pretty much it. Her character is explored through action rather than dialogue, and what we see is a sullen, restless, impulsive, resourceful, uneducated girl who enjoys silence, ants and sexual encounters with strangers. ??? indeed.

I'm thinking the dead boyfriend hangs all over this film, which leads me to suspect it's less about some sort of existentialist journey (how terribly old fashioned!) and more about aesthetics and interpretation. Why not? Didn't some guy in the 60s declare the death of the author? Well I don't know about that. This guy leaves the protagonist with a "Sorry Morvern. Don't try to understand. It just seemed like the right thing to do", his love, a new jacket, a lighter, and a mixtape which she (and we) listen to throughout the film. Communication through objects and music, plus affection and condescension. Is dead boyfriend writing Morvern's life for her ("don't try to understand")? Did he want to set her free ("the right thing to do")? Or is his little toy rebelling, claiming her right to her own life, with reparations for the exploitation she's suffered ("Sorry Morvern")?

Or maybe I'm just looking for nuance in an otherwise pretty but dull film? I'll give Lynne Ramsay the benefit of the doubt. The film was pretty. And, I should have mentioned this before, Samantha Morton is magnificent.

17.8.11

Underground

I'm not quite able to give the commentary Kusturica's film deserves, partly out of ignorance of the particular history the film explores in fairy-tale and allegory. Others will have to judge whether the portrayal is accurate and responsible. From where I'm standing (as I said, ignorance), the faintly nationalistic spirit of the final lines had an uncomfortable ring. But then again, my feeling is that Kusturica is pretty ambivalent about everything he is showing us. The last scene is a fantasy going on in Cerni's head, let's not forget. And Cerni is a dimwit who has no qualms about forcing women to marry him and kills his own son out of negligence. There are no heroes in this tale, no matter how much the three leads resemble stock noir characters (the unyielding oppressed fighter, the inscrutable villain, the femme fatale). And it's quite an achievement portraying such corruption in a sympathetic way, and on top of that all the arch cartooning and slapstick. I swear this film shifts tone about 20 times.

For philosophy buffs (this shit has to be useful for something, right?) Marko's phenomena vs. real maps pretty easily onto Nietzschean metaphysics. You have your environment, and you have the lies you invent to make sense of it, and the one who lies most beautifully runs the show. Also, it's hard not to interpret the moment when Jovian first sees sunlight as a rework of Plato's allegory of the cave. Both scenes are beautifully accomplished. Through all the fun and dancing, it's those bits of genuine feeling that will stick with you.

12.8.11

Miami Vice

It's Michael Mann, right? What do you expect? The film vs. digital debate is a bit academic, I think. You trade colour for versatility, and whether you are prepared to accept those terms depends on what you're aiming for. Mann has found he can do more with his tiny cameras, and on the evidence, I say leave him to it. But hey, it's Michael Mann, right? Every frame is beautiful.

The film kicks off at a nightclub, where undercover police are keeping their eyes peeled for some pimp to show. Which gets you to the centre of what Miami Vice is about -- the observation, prediction and ensnaring of enemies. The scene is repeated mid-way thru the film, but this time the crooks are watching the cops, and the consequences are disastrous. You gotta be more guarded.

Which might explain why everyone speaks in this super cool, professional manner. All the dialogue in the film is either business or small-talk with subtext. When Sonny and Rico have their heart-to-hearts, or when Sonny gets all flirty with Isabella, this becomes extremely hilarious. Relationships are built, maintained, and destroyed with photography and sound-design, which makes them appear entirely physical. When (gods-forbid!) the characters actually start talking about their feelings (you know, the way real people sometimes do!) they do so aphoristically and with terrible metaphors. And when you try and do soppy Romeo + Juliet stuff in this circumspect way, it just doesn't work.

Mann is keen on the love-interest sidelines, and seems to want to explore the way personal lives can fuck up the business of competition and survival. But (once again) this descends to ladies getting into trouble because they are not smart, cold, or hard enough, and getting saved by resourceful gents who ARE that smart, cold and hard. Well I'm sorry, but Trudy should have made mince-meat out of those two aryan supremacists, and Isabella should have thrown Sonny out of her house as soon as he interrupted the booty call with negotiation. That's what would have happened if I was in charge.

Just to stir-up the controversy a bit, Miami Vice shares more than a few common features with what is still Michael Bay's finest film, Bad Boys 2. The latter is a garish cartoon, its fetishes border-line offensive. But it's striking how many of its cues Mann, a respected auteur, follows. Mann buys his inimitable style with humourlessness, and if I had to pick, I'd stick with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence rather than Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx.

Captain America: The First Avenger

I did the rant about 3D before, so won't waste words here. At least this film was more colourful than Harry Potter, so I could actually SEE the action sequences. Which was good, because they were extremely enjoyable. As was everything else.

There is absolutely nothing original in this film. Plot-points, characters, themes are all recognizable repeats from previous adventure, SF and war movies. What you get is more of them, and faster. Nazi scientists to laser guns to train heist to death scene to interrogation scene to motorbike-chase and so on.

Rarely have I seen a film go through the motions with such poise. Characters are as flat as cardboard, straight out of Hollywood history, but their lines are carefully balanced between sincere and arch, and are delivered with sharp timing. Not once did I wince, and I laughed quite a lot. Tommy Lee Jones seemed to be having a blast handing out deadpan putdowns to all and sundry, but he could also eat his words without having his authority undermined. Bucky was super suave as the playboy in the uniform, but his superior / inferior / ultimately loyal relationship with Steve Rodgers was also handled very well. Poor Peggy got stuck with the thankless romantic-interest role, but the film pushed the gushy stuff between the lines, so Hayley Atwell was allowed to be an adult and kick some ass as well as flirt and get jealous. Bit like Thor, tho, that kiss came out of nowhere (and at such a silly moment!). Better to have left it with arranging a date, but I'm guessing the film-makers lost that battle.

But really, Chris Evans carries this one on the back of his giant super-soldier shoulders. You couldn't have just got a smiling tank like Chris Hemsworth to play the role. Even when Cap acquires the bod, the face has to remain humble and honest. As a skinny, delusional glory-seeker, you still believe Rodgers has that quiet determination and bravery that would make him an inspiration. Chris Evans manages to convey a faith-in-oneself despite the failures and rejections life has brought, a faith born out of a simple but rigorous sense of what's right. When he speaks to Peggy, he is (or very quickly becomes) sure of himself, so you get the feeling that the reason he hasn't got the women before is because they haven't been listening. Bucky does shoot back the suggestion that Rodgers's ambition is fueled by a sense of inadequacy, but again, Evans's performance contradicts that reading. It's more simple than that. Rodgers wants to fight because he's the hero.

And Hugo Weaving wants to destroy the world because he's the villain ... pretty much. The thematic line being fed is the question of how to deal with power. The Red Skull is an Nietzschean strongman with the will to dominate all weaker forms of life. Hydra is the mindless, numberless force he assembles, and whose existence he defines and directs. On the other side there's Steve Rodgers, an ordinary kid given extraordinary abilities, and grateful for them, and with humility intact. He's been beaten up all his life, and now has the opportunity to fight the bullies back, on a global scale. The people he assembles around him aren't faceless, but diverse, and with personality streaming out of every pore. It's the free world against totalitarian terror. A time when things really were that simple.

But the film is also an extended origin story, because Cap wakes up in a new world where the bullies and the honest jons are much more difficult to tell apart. The opening and concluding scenes undermine the genre stereotypes and period fittings the film riffed on (much better than First Class did, btw), and hopefully set up a more complicated Captain America that we will see in The Avengers next year.