23 September 2008

THIEVES LIKE US (Dir. Robert Altman, 1974, US) - An evocative and sad gangster film

Hollywood cinema in the 70s allowed ample opportunity to challenge what traditions and orthodoxy that still lingered from the days of the studio era especially genre. The genius of Altman was not his maverick status as film maker; that seems more like an indistinct category invented by some critics at the time so that they could try and account for his unwillingness to play ball with the studios and their obsessive need to control the creative process. The genius of Altman was his daring and fearless approach to genre film making, making films that were not only fiercely anti-genre, but films that literally turned the genre on its head, stripping away any kind of compromise and refusing in any way what so ever to live up to audience expectations. One of the pleasures of genre has always remained with the audience in that they were in large part assured of certain elements, archetypes and conventions being repeated constantly so that satisfaction was derived from formulaic reinforcement of something which was deeply familiar, and strangely entertaining.

However, no such notion exists within many of the genre films made by Altman in the 70s including his examination of the gangster/crime genre in the shape of ‘Thieves Like Us’, one of the most unglamorous and realistic examples of the genre to have emerged from a decade that seemed to want to celebrate disillusionment and despair in equal measures. Altman’s gangster film is unfairly positioned in the shadow of the precursor to all contemporary gangster films, ‘Bonnie & Clyde’, and it has never been able to elevate itself out of hiding since its release, but a single viewing of the film is likely to persuade any audience member or fan of the genre to question why Altman’s unromantic masterpiece has been criminally neglected and passed over for an over sexed, hip and brash film like Penn’s ‘Bonnie & Clyde’. Even though it is difficult to take anything away from the historical significance and importance of a film like ‘Bonnie & Clyde’, it seems when a canon of gangster/crime films is drawn upon by certain film publications, ‘Thieves Like Us’ is somewhat absent and barely registers a mention.

Altman's film is a remake of Nicholas Ray's 'They Drive By Night', a 1950s fatalistic crime noir, and stars the overlooked David Carradine in the main role as an escaped convict and bank robber; Bowie, who falls for a shy and reluctant girl called Keechie (Shelley Duval). To make us live and breath the space in which these characters inhabit, in virtually every scene, especially the interior ones in a domestic setting, Altman chooses to foreground the radio as not just a prop used to emphasise period detail but more importantly, to suggest how the glamorisation of crime was something championed and perpetuated by the mass media. Chicamaw (John Schuck) is one of the more violently inclined members of the notorious gang and his repeated obssession with attracting some degree of cult celebrity status manifests itself in his concern for their representation in the news; his slaying of innocent civilians becomes his way of drawing attention to his lawless attitude towards society.

Though this is a gangster/crime film, the only real violence that unfolds before us with naked brutality is the final sequence in which Bowie is massacred by local law enforcement. The rest of the violence takes place off screen and Altman never once dwells on representing the physical nature of violence. Instead, he wants us to accept how violence is an inherent part of the personality of Bowie and Chicamaw, and that they will never be able to break free of the need to use violence as a means of confirming their existence in the scheme of things. Nothing is stylised or embellished, and the relationship between Bowie and Keechie is treated in a very tender and humane way, so much so that our identification with Bowie becomes one fraught with anxiety. Unmotivated by any kind of narrative structure, Altman tells his story through the use of episodes and encounters that seem random and unfold with a naturalism which embraces an observational camera style rather than your traditional bombastic, over stylised Hollywood gangster mode of address.

Like 'McCabe and Mrs Miller', this is a sad and sombre film that revels in destroying the relationship and love story between Bowie and Keechie. Bowie's death may seem unjust and unfair, but the image of his dead body rolled up in a multi coloured rug with blood dripping down the sides is unforgettable and powerfully executed by Altman to finally state how his life in the eyes of civilised society is absolutely and fundamentally worthless.

20 September 2008

IRON MAN (Dir. Jon Favreau, 2008, US) - Very shiny, very conservative and very empty Hollywood cinema

Even if this big budget high concept comic adaptation of the Marvel superhero 'Iron Man' had managed to steer clear from xenophobic Middle Eastern stereotypes, it still would have been a major disappointment, simply because the script is terminally underwritten and fatally flawed in terms of narrative structure; the final third of this film runs out of steam and meanders hopelessly towards an anti climactic finale whilst many of the supporting characters are not given enough screen time for us to care what happens to them. Absurdist fantasy role playing of this kind is deeply problematic when considering how the suspension of disbelief alludes a spectator when faced with the prospect of having to watch another Hollywood film that seeks to promote yet more po-faced, jingoistic Republican propaganda.

'Iron Man' opens with an extended flashback in Afghanistan, representing the people and place with a strikingly offensive degree of contempt. Some film critics went as far as to say that the depiction of Middle Eastern culture is not only inappropriate in how it perpetuates and recycles familiar stereotypes but it also smacks of an underlining racism that the film feels is some how acceptable, normal and a natural way of looking at 'the other'. Upon having defeated the terrorist bad guys with an indiscriminate flamethrower and invincible suit of iron, playboy billionaire Tony Stark, arrives back in good ole America, demanding a cheeseburger of all things; the cheese burger being another patriotic symbol of American hegemonic power and cultural influence. During his short stay at the terrorist death camp, Tony Stark is tortured and then coerced into building a missile for a mean looking Arab terrorist who grunts and goes by the name of 'Raza'.

Though we are supposed to be in Afghanistan, the terrorist group who are given the not so frightening name of the 'Ten Rings' clearly descend from either Iraq or Saudi Arabia, perhaps insinuating that redemptive American figures like Tony Stark have a moral obligation and duty to stand up against the so called forces of terrorism. Such naive racism is objectionable yet the film's myopic view of the Middle East extends to the unfair and stereotypical representation of African Americans, as manifested in the demeaning and redundant role of 'Rhodes' who is played by Terence Howard. 'Rhodes' hardly appears in the film, lacking characterisation and functioning as a crude narrative device that seems to give weight to the 'tokenism' theory about how black characters are repeatedly misrepresented.

To counterbalance the hostile representations of Middle Eastern people, the film tries in vain to offer a positive character in the form of 'Yinsen' who appears in the opening sequence as a persecuted professor, using his nerdy intellect to help Tony Stark escape from the clutches of the evil doers. We discover later when Tony Stark makes his escape that 'Yinsen' has been lieing to him about reuniting with his family and that death is what he ultimately desires from life now. Such attempts at positive stereotyping falters as the death wish that 'Yinsen' seeks only serves to cause further offense by reinforcing the media's unfair and deliberate associations with the Middle East and a cult of death which has come to surround Islam.

Unfortunately, the amazing special effects can do nothing to support the narrative as the director fails in every conceivable way to make Tony Stark as equally fascinating and compelling as that of Bruce Wayne, Bruce Banner or Clark Kent; superheroes who even though they are shown to be exceedingly wealthy in some cases, are never represented as obnoxious, consumerist obsessed individuals. Such is the case with Tony Stark who is supposed to be a likable down to earth kind of guy but who even after his moment of realisation still comes across as a grotesque extension of the American military. Having made a ridiculous amount of money across the globe, 'Iron Man' is set to become one of Marvel Studio's first franchises and the cast and crew have already confirmed the production of two more films.

'Iron Man' is very shiny, very conservative and very empty, but the emotional emptiness at the heart of this xenophobic high concept product offers a great insight into how America continues to see the world today, and ironically, it is the ideological conservatism and orthodoxy that makes it such a offensive and fascinating piece of fantasy wish fulfillment cinema.

17 September 2008

THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED (Dir. Jacques Audiard, 2005, France)

The French film industry has always prided itself on it's staunchly anti-Hollywood attitudes and though they have been more successful than the Brits at resisting the imperialism of American cinema, French cinema like many other cinematic nations have borrowed quite regularly from the best that Hollywood has to offer international audiences. Whilst Hollywood is still busy remaking any world cinema film with potential commercial appeal, in 2006, mainstream French film maker, Jacques Audiard, committed a cardinal sin by remaking a 1970s Hollywood film titled 'Fingers' that starred Harvey Kietel as a small time gangster.

The reaction from Audiard's contemporaries was little, if any, in terms of disapproval, and when the film, 'The beat that my heart skipped' was released in France, it went on to become a mainstream success. The fear with remaking somebody else's film is the pressure of having to come up with something different and perhaps even a better film so to keep at bay the school of critics who are anticipating failure and self destruction. Like most successful remakes, Audiard transports the idea and concept from 'Fingers' about a gangster who has a naturally gifted talent for playing the piano and an intelligent appreciation for music into his own noirish narrative about a lonely, troubled young real estate developer who is faced with the dilemma of pursuing his desire to play the piano in a professional capacity or imitate the sleazy and violent life epitomised by his selfish, greedy father. Audiard does something quite extraordinary with the piano playing sequences, lingering obsessively on the hands of Tom (Romain Duris) with seductive close ups, rendering the entire musical experience as purely sexual and driven by a euphoria that surges through the narrative with an unstoppable energy.

Duris has emerged as perhaps the actor with the most youth appeal in French cinema today, and his portrayal of Tom is an intense character study that reminds one of how star charisma and conviction as a performer has become almost a rarity in virtually all national cinemas. European actors like Javier Bardem, Daniel Bruhl and Romain Duris represent some of the best acting talent in world cinema today, and I say this, primarily because they have never allowed themselves to become media celebrities, seeking out challenging and controversial roles that seem to characterise a commitment to the art of performance which is absent from the repertoire of many contemporary Hollywood actors who work under such naked constraints.

Audiard is a real master in terms of how he manipulates and utilises the most under rated of filmic elements; sound. His collaboration with French film actor and star, Vincent Cassel, in the 2002 film, 'Read my Lips', was cinema channelled through the power of a soundtrack that captured the details of a reality which was honestly articulated and amplified so we could fully experience a psychological state of mind without any false resort to arbitrary dialogue. A similar, honest approach to sound is also evident in 'The beat that my heart skipped' and the images of a shadowy Parisian night scape are vividly anchored by a minimalist choice of musical numbers. Music comes to penetrate the very soul of Tom, haunting him to the point of consuming him, and its affect upon the spectator is equally beguiling.

The final sequence is slightly uneven in how Audiard uses a perfunctory title card to indicate an ellipsis of nearly 2 years, and though this is quite common amongst world cinema film makers, it leaves us in limbo as we are suddenly forced to accept Tom's radical transformation from petty low life real estate enforcer to professional piano player and manager. The fear of personal failure and not being able to live up to the talent that one possesses is a personality flaw that repeatedly prevents Tom from realising his potential as a musician, and like all great noir protagonists, he is unable to escape from the brutal violence of his past, and in the final moments of the film, he succumbs to the primal urge of revenge. Audiard finishes his masterpiece with another close up, lingering and scrutinising the bloody and bruised fingers of Tom sitting in an audience of an apparently sophisticated class of people, listening to the sound of the piano, reflecting regretfully at the thought of never having been able to escape the banality of his own existence.

13 September 2008

SPARROW / Man Jeuk (Dir. Johnnie To, 2008, Hong Kong)

Hong Kong film maker and heir to John Woo, Johnnie To's latest film, Sparrow, follows in the understated elegance and hip beatnik style that he has been able to procure in films like 'Election', 'Breaking News' and 'Exiled'. Though Johnnie To is more renowned for his trail blazing work in the Hong Kong action genre, his laid back, Godardian directorial style is at exact opposites with the ultra fast and violent spectacle of cinema pioneered by Woo in the 80s and 90s. Since 'Exiled' in 2006, To has really mellowed as a film maker, and the virtual absence of a plot in his latest film 'Sparrow' seems to confirm his shift towards the unstructured philosophical ideology of someone like Jean Luc Godard. 'Sparrow' was made over a period of 3 years and if this is a true production fact then To and his crew have done a remarkable job ensuring continuity. What makes this such a fascinating film when positioned within the ouvere of Johnnie To is how it signals an evolution in terms of his maturity as a key auteur in East Asian cinema.

In terms of genre, 'Sparrow' like 'Mad Detective' is an oddball of a movie, drawing on multiple cinematic references and celebrating the lexicon of To's favourite Hollywood genres like the musical, film noir and melodrama. The narrative is an inspired one as we enter the world of a group of ingenious and charismatic pickpockets who spend their time leisurely roaming the streets of Hong Kong, proving to one another of their invaluable and immeasurably confident skills. The band of lovable rouges is led by Kei who is played by a To regular, Simon Yam, who has now joined the ranks of an illustrious series of East Asian actors like Tony Leung, Anthony Wong and Andy Lau that have remained vital to the appeal of Asian cinema to Western sensibilities.

An urban, city film that uses the motif of the femme fatale to manipulate audience expectations, 'Sparrow' reaches its stylistic high point towards the end of the film when Kei is challenged by a big time Hong Kong gangster to what amounts to an absurd but sublimely executed pickpocket sequence that takes place with umbrellas, rain and beautifully judged slow motion. 'Sparrow' is one of the most pleasurable cinematic experiences that I have encountered in a while. It is a film that deserves a wider audience but part of me wishes it just remained a hidden gem so that only a few of us would know about the secret pleasures of a Johnnie To movie.

12 September 2008

THE FAMILY FRIEND / L'Amico Di Famiglia (Dir. Paolo Sorrentino, 2006, Italy)

'The Family Friend', Paolo Sorrentino's follow up to his award winning and wonderfully exuberant breakthrough feature, 'The Consequences of Love' is somewhat of a minor disappointment. Though Sorrentino finds it difficult to hold back the stylish excesses, the flair and and warmth with which he depicts his fickle and charming characters is enough to prevent him from being crushed by the force of his own Antonioni like indulgences. Beginning with a startling shot of a nun up to her neck in sand on a beach, Sorrentino is clearly attempting to refashion religious symbolism as a naked tribute to the legacy of Fellini, but it is the first of many seemingly random shots that the film celebrates for no apparent reason other than to provoke some kind of outrageous emotional response. 'The Consequences of Love' was a genuinely emotive piece of cinema that finally signalled a fresh new talent from a dormant Italian film industry. Not all is lost for the Italians as Cannes 2008 seemed to herald a new wave of emerging Italian film makers who may pose a challenge to the Romanian film movement that is still making an impact on world cinema.

Sorrentino's 2006 follow up is the tale of another loner, a tight fisted and sleazy money lender called Geremia (Giacomo Rizzo) who becomes infatuated with the daughter of a couple to whom he loans money for a wedding. Poorly structured, the film could be interpreted as an elliptical journey through the perspective of Geremia but this seems like a poor excuse for a film that is ruined by one too many cut aways, confusing inserts and pointless tracking shots of inert, postmodern architecture. Breathlessly edited, this is a film that is filled with interesting ideas but that seems to be the problem; too many ideas and none of them are really ever given time to develop and neither does Sorrentino seem particularly interested in close thematic study. Another weakness is that the central character of Geremia is totally unsympathetic which is exactly what Sorrentino was aiming for but this means we have no one left to identify with, and so as the film was reaching it's sentimental ending, I was totally indifferent to the outcome. However, like 'Consequences of Love', Sorrentino's eclectic and original taste for soundtracks is both exact and inspiring. A minor film from a film maker who has still much more to offer in the coming years.

10 September 2008

THE ASCENT (Dir. Larisa Shepitko, 1976, Russia) - An intimate war film

Andrei Tarkovsky was a magnificent film maker because of his ability to make us feel the textures of life. In ‘Stalker’, Tarkovsky constructs his pared down and elliptical mise en scene by pausing frustratingly to make us listen to the dense layers of natural sounds that seem to reverberate through the minds of characters who are journeying aimlessly through what is supposed to be some kind of parallel universe. In ‘Stalker’, the cinematic impulse comes from a starkness that is perversely pleasurable, ensuring we are captivated by an absence of action and narrative motivation. Tarkovsky was unique in how he could make us experience textures; water, earth, fog, - elements that are distilled to the point of becoming abstract symbols of nature. I mention Tarkovsky with such reverence because his influence was felt amongst his fellow colleagues who were also emerging in the 70s as film makers with a vision of cinema that embraced aesthetic choices over the ideological dogma of an orthodox Russian school of thought which was marked by Eisenstein political gesturing.

Larisa Sheptiko only ever got the chance to make two films as her career was cut short when she was tragically killed in a car accident. Had she gone on to make more films, she surely would have mirrored the illustrious careers of her contemporaries like Tarkovsky. To be honest, I had never heard about Sheptiko until now, and was fascinated by the prospect of being able to watch her 1976 masterpiece, ‘The Ascent’, on a newly restored and re mastered DVD print. Released by Criterion, who seem to be the most important DVD company working anywhere in the world today, ‘The Ascent’ rightfully deserves a place in the cannon of great war films. Simply put, the film is a genuine revelation; a brutal, aching and beautifully bleak film that manages to capture the suffering and trauma experienced by a band of Russian partisans who seem to have become adrift in the harsh, wintry landscape of Belarus.

As contemporary cinema continues to accelerate forward each year with great disregard for traditional techniques, it becomes harder for us to engage with specialised film making as it’s associations with the past provokes polarised debates that seem to serve no real purpose other than appearing to sound hip and cool. Leone forged an entire body of work out of the close up, which is not a bad thing considering how neglected the close up has become in today’s world of ultra fast, high concept cinema. Today, the close up is only ever used for dramatic high points, but in ‘The Ascent’, Sheptiko’s camera uses such a device to probe beneath the impenetrable austere of an entire nation who felt compelled to repress any kind of real human emotion when faced with the prospect of occupation and destruction from German soldiers.

Shot in black and white, the imagery of snow and ice literally overwhelms the frame to such an extent that at times it feels as though Sheptiko wants us to immerse ourselves in the textures of such a grim visual style so that we share the agony and torture as experienced by the helpless, shell shocked Russian partisans. The Ascent is unlike any other war film I have come across as Sheptiko does not feel compelled to offer us the visceral pleasures of the classic war conventions, opting for a much more intimate approach that is painfully uncompromising in her depiction of a reality that seems largely absent from a genre accused of distorting history in favour of narrative convenience.

The Ascent is an evocative ode and testament to the courageous resistance of an entire nation and deserves to be positioned alongside great war films like 'Paisan', for it's real inspiration lies in the enduring influences of the Italian neo realists and films like 'Bicycle Thieves' that also offer an equally unforgiving representation of humanity.