22 June 2009

ELIA KAZAN : A Director's Journey (Dir. Richard Schickel, 1995, US) - The Actor's Director

Elia Kazan directs Brando on the set of 'On the Waterfront' in 1954

Film critic and academic Richard Schickel continues to produce documentaries for television on key American directors, and though his approach to the medium may be quite pedestrian, he nevertheless succeeds in ellicting a candid response from reluctant film makers like Eastwood and in this case, Eliza Kazan. Narrated by Eli Wallach, this is an accessible introduction to the films of Elia Kazan, examining not only his political beliefs but tracing his evolution as a film maker. When in 1999 Martin Scorsese strode across the podium to bestow upon Kazan an honorary Oscar, the response from the Hollywood liberal elite was somewhat muted and in some cases, provoking outrage. Yet is it right to solely judge a film maker on their political attitudes as continues to be the case with Kazan? Politics aside, what this documentary demonstrates is Kazan's incredible journey from theatre to film and finally to writing novels. His contribution to American cinema was unrivalled in the 50s and 60s, helping to influence the art of performance and prefiguring the emergence of Art cinema in a body of work that showed a startling degree of social realism.

Schickel leads us through his major films, supporting the enduring images with what is a very honest interview with Kazan about his approach to cinema and why he felt compelled to testify before the House of Un American Activities in the 50s. A lapsed Communist, Kazan reveals himself to be a humanist at heart and though his testimony may have alienated him from the affections of the liberals, he remained committed to making daring and unconventional cinema. I prefer Kazan's later period which included films like 'Baby Doll', 'A Face in the Crowd' and 'Splendour in the Grass'. But is he is a pioneer like Welles, Hitchcock or D W Griffiths? Perhaps not, but he can certainly lay a claim to being one of the most influential post war American film makers of his generation. Let's be blunt, without Kazan, there would be no Cassavettes or Scorsese.

21 June 2009

THE LOST HONOUR OF KATHARINA BLUM (Dir. Volker Schlondorff, Margarethe Von Trotta, 1975, Germany) - 'How violence develops and where it can lead...'

A key film from New German Cinema of the 70s.

My experiences with New German cinema from the 1970s tends to be defined by colossal authorial figures like Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and Fassbinder who undoubtedly helped to shape contemporary European cinema. Perhaps it is right to begin by saying that most of the academic film criticism in circulation in the mainstream is to some extent a reflection of patriarchal obsessions and concerns. The marginalisation of women in cinema also extends to the way in which they are written about or not written about by film academics and critics. 'The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum' made me realise that their is a particularly antagonistic side to film academia which wants to label this as another key film in the oeuvre of German film maker Volker Schlondorff, when in reality, the co director Von Trotta, a woman, is regularly sidelined and whose contribution is as equally valid (if not more so) as that of her male collaborator. So who's film is this? That's a problematic one considering I have no prior experience of watching a film by either Schlondorff or Von Trotta but the strong feminist slant would obviously tip the scales in the favour of the later, I guess rightly so.

Angela Winkler as Katharina Blum and Jurgen Prochnow as the Marxist-anarchist, Ludwig Gotten.

Unlike their contemporaries, Schlondorff and Von Trotta had an arguably less discernible authorial style. This may have been due to the fact that their first few films together were a collaboration and thus it would have made it difficult to say the least for either of them to try and leave their own individual, distinct stamp on the films without appearing as though were trying to selfishly hijack the project. Nevertheless, Schlondorff still regularly gets a grudging mention whenever New German cinema is discussed but the same cannot be said for poor Von Trotta whose contribution to European cinema has been cruel fully overlooked and perhaps even deliberately set aside for its uncomfortable political arguments, many of which are still prescient in today's culture of fear, much of which has largely been manufactured by the media at large.

In what is an indispensable profile on Von Trotta, freelance writer Ben Andac states quite clearly in his opening introduction:

'Born in Berlin in 1942, Margarethe von Trotta is two things: the most important woman director to emerge from the New German Cinema, and narrative cinema's foremost feminist filmmaker. Bold claims indeed – but irrefutable ones in my opinion, for there is no other director, male or female, who has matched von Trotta's single-minded determination to show cinema audiences real female characters. Whilst past great directors such as Kenji Mizoguchi have tackled feminist issues to some degree, von Trotta stands as one of the first women to break through the male-dominated film industry to further film study and analyse the dominant subjective views of women in films.'


Such a bold claim is evident in the symbolic feminism of Katharina Blum's apolitical character. Much of Van Trotta's work is available on DVD but not in the UK; a box set of her films can be imported through specialised DVD websites. Having trained under crime master Jean Pierre Melville in France, Schlondorff came to prominence as an international film maker with his debut 'Young Torless' in 1966, but it was 1975 that marked his first collaboration with Von Trotta, signalling a short lived series of films that were characterised by a rigorous political realism. 'The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum' was based on a best selling novel of the same name in which the leftist German writer Heinrich Boll detailed the persecution and victimisation of an innocent house keeper who unknowingly meets a radical Marxist, Ludwig Gotten, at a late night party and invites him back to her apartment. Though Gotten is being tailed by the police, his attempt to use the party as a cover results in him meeting Katharina and the two instantly make an emotional connection.

As this is a political film, Schlondorff uses elements of the thriller genre to make it much more accessible for a mainstream audience. However, unlike many other auteur vehicles of the German new wave that emerged out of the 70s, this is a film which must be read as a response to the stark political crisis that faced German society at the time. The emergence of a politically engaged generation of German students led to the formation of radical Marxist groups like the Baader Meinhof who were disillusioned with the capitalist state and what it could offer them as individuals. The film like the book vividly constructs a complex political argument that implicates the state and its complicit collusion with influential agents of ideological power like the right wing press that creates the necessary conditions for violence to exist and which subsequently leads to the growth of terrorist labelled left wing political organisations.

The right wing press run a terrifying smear campaign, intruding upon the privacy of Katharina.

Once Katharina is arrested, the right wing press and one newspaper in particular (a thinly veiled attack on a prominent German newspaper of the time which conspired with the civil authorities to condemn left wing political ideals as something akin to anarchism and terrorism) run a nasty smear campaign, sensationalising her private life and exploiting the emotional sentiments of a fragile German society to portray Katharina as though she was a terrorist sympathiser and a harbinger of political violence. What we see at work is the insidious nature of the mainstream press and its totally vindictive charge to shape and determine the political agenda of everyday German life. It works terrifyingly affectingly in demonising Katharina and turning the political struggle between left and right into something of a soap opera, thus neutralising the idea of political debate into a matter of popular opinion.

Aside from the consistently angry feminist voice lurking in the ideological subtext of the film, (for a more detailed reading of the feminist content of the film, read the following article by Daniel Cetinich on the Jump Cut website), what seemed to send a shudder through me was the unremitting indictment of the media and how the press is used as an instrument of right wing propaganda. Contemporary parallels with the Bush administration's relationship with Murdoch's Fox News channel are quite relevant here, especially given the fact that news is manufactured to follow an agreeable political agenda. The political theories of both Gramsci and Althusser feature quite strongly in this case. Althusser argued that hegemony functions by demanding consent from the majority and in the film we see both instruments of repression (the police and press) used by the state to ensure that Katharina's persecution and humiliation acts as both a warning and a symbol of the elite's unflinching desire to crush left wing sentiments.

The politicisation of Katharina Blum.

At the end, when Katharina comes face to face with the cocky and narcissistic journalist who has led a smear campaign against her, fabricating lies and violating her sacred private life, she kills him and finally we see how state repression breeds hate, creates fear and above all, ferments the exact ideology they are trying to expunge - terrorism. Yet Katharina's act of violence which comes at the end of the film seems perversely normal given the nightmarish and inhumane level of persecution directed towards her by the state and its conspirators. Katharina's politicisation is also complete now. At the beginning, she appears to have no real political affiliations and is considered in many ways an apolitical figure but the appalling treatment that she receives transforms her, and radicalises her into adopting a hardened left wing political position. What we have then is effectively the state's creation of a so called terrorist. I think it is this above all that makes 'The Last Honour of Katharina Blum' stand out as a very significant and deeply prescient example of European political film making.

20 June 2009

CHANGELING (Dir. Clint Eastwood, 2008, US) - 'He's not my son...'

Angelina Jolie tries but fails to convince as Christine Collins.

A constant sinister undercurrent lurks near the surface of the 1920's Los Angeles lovingly recreated by Clint Eastwood in his 2008 directorial feature, 'Changeling'. It is a creepy tone that makes this more of a horror film than a traditional Hollywood melodrama, rendering the ghostly and distraught figure of Christine Collins into a victim of police corruption and wider institutional abuse. When Christine Collins son disappears, her initial fears of never finding him again are momentarily allayed by the speedy work of the Los Angeles Police Department. In an attempt to elevate the murky profile of the LAPD in the eyes of the public, they brainwash another missing child into believing he is Walter Collins, the son of Christine Collins. Based on a true story, Eastwood's film also borrows liberally from the lexicon of American film noir, offering an all too familiar portrait of an incompetent, corrupt and oppressively patriarchal Los Angeles police department. The multitude of generic allusions is what makes the film uneven in terms of where exactly it wants to go with the narrative of Walter, the missing child. In addition, the film seems to shift gear very rapidly, charting Christine Collin's journey from victim of the state to a symbol of feminine resilience through a series of highly sentimental scenarios including the cathartic court room sequences in which we find Collin's quickly finding social justice for her traumatic persecution by the police and the horrific mental institution to which she is legally committed as a patient.

John Malkovich is badly miscast as a crusading Pastor.

Alongside Collin's quest to find her son, Eastwood creates two parallel narratives. The first is motivated by the religious figure of Pastor Gustav Briegleb (a miscast John Malkovich) who uses his radio show to help organise a campaign to not only free Christine Collins but more importantly to articulate the concerns of the public regarding the conduct of the Los Angeles Police Department. The second and equally predictable narrative strand concerns a prolific serial killer whose capture leads to the uncovering of a series of grisly murders directed towards kidnapped children. It's a long film and by the time we reach the point when Christine Collins has learned to live with the prospect of never seeing her son again, the film has already lost its momentum and it left me wondering why I had bothered in the first place. As for Angelina Jolie in the main lead, I always get the uneasy feeling that she is just another pretentious Hollywood actress who is far too busy trying to convince herself that she is a credible performer rather than simply deliver her lines and act. Sadly enough Jolie looking anguished in some of her more over wrought scenes was good enough to get the attention of the Oscars who nominated her in the best actress category. I think she should stick to fulfilling her duties as a humanitarian and continue waving the flag as the best dressed UN ambassador. As for the film, I did enjoy it initially but it's amazing how a few days can change one's opinion and critical stance. It's an odd film because it's not really a disappointing studio picture, but I guess, it left me feeling very little for it and the characters. Altogether, this is one of Eastwood's most unmemorable films to date.

18 June 2009

COP LAND (Dir. James Mangold, 1997, US) - 'I look at this town, and I don't like what I see...'

Stallone meets De Niro in 'Cop Land'

Art house film making tends to be defined by a strong and consistent authorial presence throughout the cinematic contours of the film in question. However, the same cannot be said of mainstream Hollywood cinema especially genre films which take an added pleasure in shaping the narrative so that it largely conforms to a compelling linearity. Such is the case with James Mangold’s urban western, ‘Cop Land’, a contemporary updating of both Zinneman’s starkly classical ‘High Noon’ and Hawk’s redemptive ‘Rio Bravo’. In the main lead and cast against type is Sylvester Stallone as Freddy Heflin, the humble Sheriff of Garrison, New Jersey. What makes this urban western transcend the label of competent mainstream cinema is Mangold’s confident and mature execution of what amounts to an old fashioned morality tale. To a certain degree, much of the simple black and white morality is a thematic allusion back to the traditional narratives evident in the films of John Ford and Anthony Mann. I think Mangold is not really given enough credit for the expertise and variation with which he has been able to succinctly shift from a range of popular genres, producing films that feature notable performances from mainstream Hollywood actors and an appreciation for both challenging and reinforcing genre conventions.

With a body of work, comprising of a probing prison movie ('Girl Interrupted'), an insightful musical biopic on Johnny Cash ('Walk the Line'), and an out and out action oriented western ('3:10 To Yuma'), Mangold’s eclectic range is perhaps more indicative of a film maker working in the studio era. Though I am a huge fan of 'Walk the Line', I would still consider ‘Cop Land’ to be Mangold’s finest film to date. It’s such a lean genre film with a career defining performance from Stallone and a magnificently staged ending (daringly original use of sound for a mainstream genre film) that makes one wonder how the joys of narrative cinema if executed with the necessary bravura can be as equally captivating as any serious art house or independent film on police corruption. Stallone’s dim witted Hefflin is supported by an array of unsavoury and despicable police officers, performed by a strong ensemble cast made up of Robert De Niro, Harvey Kietel, Ray Liotta and Robert Patrick.

16 June 2009

THE MOLLY MAGUIRES (Dir. Martin Ritt, 1970, US) - 'Don't get confused about which side you're on...'

Sean Connery as Kehoe, leader of The Molly Maguires

Made in a period of deep uncertainty, Martin Ritt's 1969 action melodrama, 'The Molly Maguires', is one of those studio films that seemed to creep in under the radar just at a time when Hollywood was attempting to figure where exactly its audience had disappeared to. It was also released at at a time when youth oriented films like 'The Graduate' and 'Bonnie and Clyde' were cleaning up at the box office and intensifying many of the studio's decision to try and keep up with the changing attitudes within wider mainstream society. Martin Ritt was in no way hip or beatnik as either Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols, and though he was well respected as an actor's director, the inclusion of big name stars like Sean Connery and Richard Harris must have provided some kind of commercial reassurance of the film succeeding at the box office. Of course it didn't, it was a failure, like many of the films being put out by studios who were clearly out of touch with their audiences.

However, 'The Molly Maguires' makes for an intriguing and punchy piece of political mainstream cinema, and dare I say it, one of the few films in which the proletariat is represented as a sympathetic Marxist, resisting the oppressive exploitation of the mining company by viewing the struggle to gain some kind of acknowledgment for their unfair treatment as of a politically motivated one. Set in 1876, the backdrop are the coal mines of Pennsylvania in which we find a group of hardened Irish American miners, known as the 'Molly Maguires'. Affectionately known by many as 'The Mollies', the men are part of a secret organisation which has its origins in Irish folklore:

'The name is something of an enigma. Multiple sources say it stems from the isle of Eire. When absentee English landlords put an Irish Protestant, Scot, English, or Welshman in their place, cutthroats which rebelled against them took this name. Molly Maguire is said to have been an actual woman, a widow, who would not leave her cottage when Protestant Irish, English, Welsh, or Scottish attempted to remove her for her Catholicism. These were dark times of persecution for Irish Catholics and were not to get better by crossing the Atlantic.'


Sean Connery as the serious, credible actor

The collective resistance put up by the Molly Maguires in the film stems from a natural resistance implicit within the historical past of their Irish ancestors. The gang leader, Kehoe, played by a frighteningly impressive Sean Connery believes that the only way of resisting capitalism is by implementing a philosophy compromised of sabotage, subterfuge and violence. In today's context, such Marxist ideology would easily be mistaken for terrorism, and in the opening sequence Kehoe and his gang of hard line accomplices are shown dynamiting the coal mine so that their act of defiance will lead to a strike and remind the powers that be of their relative prominence within the community. The mining company or should we say hegemonic corporation respond to the political threat posed by the Molly Maguires by coercing an out of town police detective, Detective James McParlan (Richard Harris in superior form), to infiltrate the organisation with the aid of Davies (Frank Finlay).

It is interesting to note that though at the time Sean Connery was by far the biggest star internationally, it is Richard Harris who gets top billing and as the slimy, apolitical McParlan he delivers a performance that outshines many of the actors around him. In addition, Martin Ritt resists the temptation of simply exploiting Sean Connery's star status and staggeringly enough, Connery does not utter any dialogue until around the fortieth minute, something most stars today would simply gawp at in dismay. Yet it works brilliantly to conceal the engima of Kehoe's character. Ultimately, he is a man of few words and the low key profile he maintains succeeds in supporting his attempt to conceal the alternate identity that defines his political status as a worker.

It's worth mentioning that the John Sayles directed 'Matewan' seems to provide a worthy and if not superior companion piece to Martin Ritt's film, and also poses the pertinent ideological question concerning the worker's relationship with corporate power. Unlike 'The Molly Maguires' in which infiltration of the miners community leads to the destruction of a worthwhile political organisation (no matter how extreme it may be), 'Matewan' finds the stranger from outside helping to politicise and organise the will to resist. In one of the more brutal sequences, a group of local mining enforcers hired by the company to maintain some semblance of law and order massacre one of the Molly Maguires whilst asleep in his bed including his wife and child. Though it is a revenge killing, the pathological impulse of the mining company is clinically illustrated by its refusal to back down and negotitate with what in their eyes is an illegitimate terrorist organisation.

Similarly like 'Matewan', the community acts as a benign but cohesive force which is somewhat subordinate to the placating voice of religion, an institution that is not corrupt nor cruel yet unable to offer a viable solution to the wounding inequalities faced by the miners. If religion is shown to fail in its role to provide comfort and reassurance, then so is the political activism of the Molly Maguires; both are subsumed and neutralised by the absolutes dealt out by the mining company. At the funeral of Dan Raines, the old man of the town who symbolises what awaits men like Kehoe, we discover that it is the anonymity and relative silence of such a death that frightens him the most. Kehoe's anger soon turns to rage and he ransacks the mining company's general store, setting it alight with the help of an equally vehement McParlan.

The destruction of company property is an obvious Marxist sentiment, articulating the anxieties of the community through the symbolic leadership of Kehoe and underlining how corporate power not only robs the worker of his labour but more importantly, his humanity. At the end, once McParlan's true identity has been revealed to The Molly Maguires, he visits Kehoe in prison. It is a significant political moment between the two of them, severing a relationship based on trust and bringing to the fore, many of the ideological divisions. Kehoe warns McParlan that none of them can never be truly free as long as capitalism reigns supreme and class acts as a means of reinforcing the status quo. Alongside Pontecorvo's 'Queimada (1969)' and Sayles 'Matewan (1987)' stands Ritt's overlooked Marxist critique on early American capitalism. Aside from the obvious Irish score, this is a delight from start to finish and comes highly recommended for anyone interested in the on going love and hate relationship between politics and movies.

13 June 2009

THE NEWTON BOYS (Dir. Richard Linklater, 1998, US) - 'The banks have been dealing dirt to our people since before we was born...'

The film borrows liberally from a range of American genres including the gangster film and western

Savaged by critics upon its release, Richard Linklater's 1998 period crime drama, 'The Newton Boys' failed to make an impact at the box office, grossing a measly $10 million from what was at the time, Linklater's biggest budget. A studio film with a youthful ensemble cast made up of Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke, well directed action sequences, strong production values and with an emerging American indie film maker at the helm, one would expect for such a studio friendly vehicle to do well at the box office. However, Linklater's film literally sank without a trace in the summer of 1998. But why? Okay, so the film didn't receive the fondest of critical receptions for another genre picture but this is only because most critics were somewhat baffled by Linklater's unsound commercial decision to want to make a character study of the infamous Newton boys who are still considered to be America's most successful bank robbers. Now, had Linklater chosen to go down to the generic route of utilising overworked action tropes like slow motion, absurdly staged action sequences, grand standing moments and a sentimental story about brotherly love then he might have won over the critics and audiences alike, but this isn't Michael Bay or D J Caruso we are talking about here, this is Richard Linklater, one of the key figures of the American independent scene in the 1980s and one of those rare American film makers who has been able to sustain a successful film career by cleverly outwitting the studios by alternating between indie projects and more generic, mainstream films.

Linklater's first big budget studio film involved the construction of expensive sets, replicating the 1920s

No film maker has made a finer film on youth anxieties than Linklater with his nineties masterpiece, 'Dazed and Confused'. It is disappointing that 'The Newton Boys' quickly became a DVD afterthought as I suspect 2oth Century Fox had no real idea of how they were going to market a film in which the central characters not only justify their decision to rob banks but also achieve a kind of catharsis at their trial and are subsequently immortalised as American legends. Had the film been released today then it might have stood a stronger chance of making some money and finding a sizable mainstream audience. With Michael Mann's 'Public Enemies' due for release later next month and society in the midst of an economic crisis, many would argue that the notion of robbing banks is a fascinating aspect of the crime film genre and may even prey upon our desires to get even with the bankers and financiers who have managed to evade the question of public accountability. It's a lot like Willis Newton (Matthew McConaughey) says in the film to his brothers, 'The banks have been dealing dirt to our people since before we was born. It's time we dealt some back'. I guess that's why we as spectators guiltily extract some kind of twisted gratification by wanting to sympathise and side with the anti-hero even if they are on the wrong side of the law.

12 June 2009

IN CUSTODY / HIFAZAAT (Dir. Ismail Merchant, 1994, India) - Poetic Inspirations

Shashi Kapoor as the legendary Urdu poet, 'Nur'

Even today the heritage film is somewhat of a vague term and difficult to determine whether or not it is a genre. However, if one was to throw Merchant-Ivory into the equation then audiences instantly know exactly what a heritage film looks like. This indicates how the two are inextricably tied together, and that Ismail Merchant and James Ivory's broad and enriching collaboration has helped shape and define a kind of cinema that seemed to sustain the British film industry in the eighties. Critics always seem to miss the point with Merchant-Ivory as much of their work is criticised for an elitist fascination with a nostalgic British society that is both repressive and snobbish in it's cultural tastes. Indian producer Ismail Merchant and American director James Ivory returned many a times to the colonialist relationship between India and the British empire. Their understanding of class is perhaps a wider representation of British cinema's continuing obsession with trying to work through and understand how such ideological divisions defines much of society. Ismail Merchant was a formidable and charismatic film producer yet he also directed a number of feature films, making his debut in 1994 with 'In Custody', an adaptation of Anita Desai's novel about a disillusioned teacher (Om Puri) who tries in vain to document the last days of a fading Urdu poet (Shashi Kapoor). It's a shame Ismail Merchant didn't direct more often as he certainly demonstrated with his first feature that he could create and sustain a compelling mood.

Om Puri as 'Deven', a star struck college lecturer who believes in preserving the traditions of Urdu poetry

'In Custody' offers a fascinating and intelligent view on an ever changing Indian society in which tradition has become a regular target for the steady erosion of values which represent the attitudes of a bygone age in which poets were held in high regard and revered for their bittersweet words. Though Deven, our main character and teacher, played by Om Puri is an avid fan of Urdu poetry, he is forced to teach Hindi as his main subject. We see him immediately being undermined and ridiculed by his students and the distance he maintains from his teaching position gives him the chance to go in search of one of the last great orators and advocates of Urdu poetry; Nur. The bellicose, rambunctious and alcoholic figure of Nur is played by an over sized Shashi Kapoor who at first appears virtually unrecognisable. Dismayed at the erosion of a great Indian tradition and the extinction faced by the Urdu language, Nur spends his final days in bouts of nihilist drinking sessions, pontificating pointlessly from the many poems he has written and catalogued in his clouded memory. Appropriately cast as Nur, Shashi Kapoor delivers one of his best performances, capturing the decadence of a man who sees death as a way of escaping from the humiliation of his origins and identity.

Shabana Azmi as 'Imtiaz Begum'; Nur's second wife also sees herself as somewhat of an undiscovered poet

Shashi Kapoor is equally matched by the anxieties experienced by Om Puri who as Deven is overcome with such adulation for a man he idolises that he is unable to see the beauty of the poetry written by Nur's second wife, Imtiaz Begum (Shabana Azmi). Deven is similar to the character of the neurotic and childish college lecturer (Shashi Kapoor) in 'The Householder' and he goes to great lengths to make a document of Nur's poetry but finds himself criticising technology as a harbinger of creative destruction. In keeping with the thematic traditions of Merchant-Ivory, the reluctant and sole voice of feminine emancipation imprisoned in the dominion of patriarchy is expressed through Imtiaz Begum, for whom Deven presents a substantial threat to her standing in the crumbling house of Nur. The DVD I managed to track down was surprisingly supported with some very interesting extras including specially commissioned interviews with the ensemble cast and an early short film titled 'Mahatma and the Boy' (1974), also directed by Ismail Merchant. This is a beautifully shot film and magnificently scripted, and one of the few films I have come across from India that makes exemplary use of the sublime Urdu poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

11 June 2009

MAN ON WIRE (Dir. James Marsh, 2008, UK) - 'If I die, what a beautiful death!...'

1974, New York, French man Phillipe Petit walks across a wire between the twin towers

British film maker James Marsh rose through the ranks of the industry as an associate editor, working on heritage films like 'Howards End' and 'Carrington'. With 'Man on Wire', a documentary about the larger than life personality of wire walker extraordinaire Phillipe Petit and his significant contribution to the Red Riding television series, James Marsh is emerging as one of the most versatile film makers working in the UK today. Grierson's constructive thinking on documentary as a popular mode of address with a didactic imperative continues to influence British cinema even today. Consider film makers like Winterbottom or Loach and its quite apparent that the blurring of the boundaries between reality and fiction in their films has usefully been labelled as social realism. What makes 'Man on Wire' such a unique documentary is the emotional intelligence with which Marsh inter cuts personal testimonies and candid interviews with noirish reconstructions of key events that led to the magically insane feat of witnessing Petit walk across a wire stretched out between the Twin Towers in New York.

The film benefits enormously from the eccentric narrative diction of Petit who is like an over excited child, a wondrous ball of energy and ultimately, a suicidal magician. Petit's charismatic presence consumes and enthralls us as an audience, as his every word and gesture is an evocation of a demented reality over which he has complete and total control. Yet is this even a documentary when considering the explicit cinematic nature of the genre allusions to film noir, the heist film and an overwrought score by Michael Nyman. Picking up the Oscar for best documentary, 'Man on Wire' has been an incredibly popular entry in the canon of recent British documentaries and in a strange Grierson kind of way, it also seems to offer a deeply educative view on the complexities of the human condition.

9 June 2009

WHAT JUST HAPPENED? (Dir. Barry Levinson, 2008, US) - Hollywood Angst

De Niro as Ben, the jaded Hollywood producer

Having read Art Linson's caustic book on his experiences as a Hollywood producer in which he tells it as it is, the prospect of watching the film on which the book was based filled me with dread. Directed by out of favour film maker Barry Levinson, 'What just happened?', starring Robert De Niro as Ben (Art Linson really) seemed to bypass me upon its cinematic release last year. At first I wondered why I had not been bothered to pursue this film and then remembered that it featured De Niro. Ever since his steady shift into comedy (selling out?) with forgettable films like 'Analyse This' and 'Meet the Parents', I have formed somewhat of a resistance to De Niro, the method actor turned film star on auto pilot. As the neo liberal, uncompromising and embittered Hollywood producer, for a change De Niro does not simply phone in his performance. The absence of a plot would suggest arthouse in most cases, however, this feels more like a fly on the wall documentary - a week in the life of a Hollywood producer. And for a film about the machinations of the Hollywood film industry, the autobiographical script seems cynically constructed as it offers us 'the players' as merely stylish and hyperbolic projections:

(1). The spoilt, 'method' actor who refuses to shave his beard because it may compromise his artistic integrity. Here the actor is played by Bruce Willis as Bruce Willis. In the book, the actor in question is of course Alec Baldwin who was coerced by Linson into shaving his beard for the Mamet written, 'The Edge'.

(2). The dictatorial, ruthless and apathetic studio executive who only cares about the bottom line.

(3). The director with an auteur shoulder on his chip who thinks he has made a masterpiece only to be told he does not have 'final cut' and will have to change the ending so that it has any chance of being distributed.

(4). The Hollywood star whom everyone would love to appear in their next film. Sean Penn like Willis plays himself and even makes an appearance at Cannes.

(5). The Agent is played by John Turturro as a predictable parasite who is prepared to go to any lengths to protect his property and the integrity of his client.

(6). Stanley Tucci as Scott Solomon is represented in a similarly pretentious and obnoxious manner. He stands in for the scriptwriter, David Mamet, who Linson collaborated with on 'The Untouchables' and 'The Edge'.

(7). The depressed and estranged daughter who is supposed to symbolise teen angst and youthful alienation.

(8). The ex wife (Robin Wright Penn) - emotional baggage who ultimately ends up surrendering to the emotional demands of Ben.

Robert Altman's 'The Player' is probably still the finest film made about Hollywood to date and the major flaw with this collaboration between Levinson and Linson is the predictability of it all.

5 June 2009

TERMINATOR SALVATION (Dir. McG, 2009, US) - 'Come with me if you want to live...'

Christian Bale as the resistance leader, John Connor.

It's a real disappointment that the only kind of salvation on offer is for the fictional cardboard characters that occupy the terrifyingly awful two hour running time of this new $200 million Terminator film. A nightmarish invention of the intelligent imagination of director James Cameron, The Terminator franchise is a brand that in essence has always been marketed around the novel and appealing idea of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the cyborg creation. It was an inspired piece of casting on part of Cameron and Arnie continued to return the franchise so that he could maintain his bankability as an A list film star. Having signalled his departure from film and shift into mainstream politics, the third Terminator film, Rise of the Machines, was Arnie's final film and for his work he received a hefty pay cheque. The film performed exceedingly well internationally and offered producers the anxious creative predicament that the Terminator franchise would need to be reconstructed without perhaps its biggest and most important asset.

This latest entry in the Terminator films is so undeniably terrible, it strangely elevates the status of the third film to a level of competency. I'm not sure who will be held responsible for this debacle as the film has underperformed and the early commercial signs suggests that it will need to cross the $500 million mark if it wants to be seen as a success. Even if this film does eventually succeed at the box office, I think all those involved in the production may have to reconsider making another Terminator film. So what makes this such a terrible mainstream film? Well, to begin with, the script by Bracanto and Ferris (the guys responsible for cynically constructed chase narratives like 'The Net' starring Sandra Bullock) features cringe worthy and wooden dialogue that constantly assaults the audience with a crushing degree of cinematic contempt. This is unforgivable considering the film had such a hefty budget and that Hollywood has got wise to franchise reboots with Bond hiring Haggis and Nolan writing his own material. Perhaps the biggest mistake of all is the unwise choice of director. Like many of his contemporaries, McG underwent his formal training to become a film maker in the world of music videos and it is not surprising that Terminator Salvation is devoid of any kind of real suspense, dramatic interest or visceral pleasures.

The flaws with this film are not strictly limited to the poor direction and bad writing, one also has take into account the dire range of monotone performances from Bale & company, as well as a musical miscue from Burton's regular composer, Danny Elfman. Bale may consider himself hot property after the incredible success he has enjoyed with the newly revived Batman franchise but someone with a cruel sense of humour has told him that the manly gruff which he developed for the character of Batman so to conceal his identity is a trait that is somehow demonstrative of a new kind of method madness. Add to the mix, the rapper turned actor Common (token black guy with nothing to say except know how to hold a shotgun in a range of redundant artistic poses) and the atrocious Bryce Dallas Howard (nepotism gone mad) and you have the worst Hollywood film of the year so far. The studio seems to have got this one terribly wrong. The only memorable thing was the trailer for Michael Mann’s new film, Public Enemies, which played at the start. It makes one wonder why Hollywood studios continue to hire film makers who are not film makers. If the studio aims to rectify the mistakes of this new film then the only way of trying to make this work is by going to the origins of the source material and hiring James Cameron as a creative consultant. If this happened then they might have a shot at making a half decent Terminator film.

THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA (Dir. Tommy Lee Jones, 2005, US) - 'I don't want to be buried on this side among all the billboards...

Tommy Lee Jones kidnaps the arrogant border patrol officer played by Barry Pepper.

The last few years has seen the emergence of a remarkable cycle of contemporary westerns. Alongside Andrew Dominik’s lyrical take on the legend of Jesse James and The Coens exemplary return to the genre stands the somewhat overlooked directorial debut of actor Tommy Lee Jones. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (1995) is an affecting study of guilt, friendship and race that features a moving performance from Tommy Lee Jones as Pete Perkins, a ranch foreman who forces a ignorant border patrol officer (Barry Pepper) to carry back the dead body of his friend and illegal immigrant Melquiades Estrada to Mexico so that he can be buried in his homeland. The screenplay is by Mexican scriptwriter, Guillermo Arraiga, who with his multi narrative and sociologically accentuated scripts for Amorres Perros, 28 Grams and Babel, has proven himself to be one of the strongest and most radical scriptwriters working anywhere in the world today. Arraiga’s script returns to a familiar motif, that of death and similarly like much of his previous work, uses multiple perspectives to unveil the subjectivity of an event. Expertly shot by ace cinematographer Chris Menges, the handsome but brutal landscapes of Texas serve as an iconic reminder of the consequences men like Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) must face for their indifferent actions. The biblical overtures of a narrative in which the guilty are forced to atone for their sins through the arduous physical task of carrying the dead works magnificently to create a hybrid between the western, road movie and melodrama. Alongside his performances in both 'The Valley of Elah' and 'No Country for Old Men', this is perhaps Tommy Lee Jones most complex, emotive and genuinely truthful performance. As for Melquiades, his death and status as a Mexican immigrant poses a striking range of questions regarding prejudices and attitudes harboured by those who see the Texas/Mexican border as something definitive and absolute. With time, I think this may just become one of the great westerns of the contemporary era.

1 June 2009

THE HIT (Dir. Stephen Frears, 1984, UK) - 'It's just a moment. We're here. Then we're not here...'

Terence Stamp as the London gangster 'Willy Parker' and Tim Roth as hit man 'Myron'.

Produced by renowned international art house film producer, Jeremy Thomas and directed by reliable British film maker, Stephen Frears, ‘The Hit’ is not only one of the few British gangster films to have emerged out of the 1980s, but it is a film with clear noir links, emphasising a real interest in the genre that stretches over three films; Gumshoe (1971), The Hit (1984) and most memorably The Grifters (1990). All three form somewhat of a loose crime trilogy yet unlike The Grifters which continues to be revered by many as a key neo noir film, Gumshoe and The Hit (perhaps their Britishness has something to do with the relative obscurity) have gone unappreciated by fans of Frear’s eclectic and wide body of work. Though some would argue that Stephen Frear’s isn’t much of a film maker, his presence nevertheless in British cinema has been highly instrumental in helping to invigorate the fortunes of the industry at the beginning of the 80s with the groundbreaking Hanif Kureshi written ‘My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)’. Frears continues to be reluctant about the domination of the Hollywood studios and his experiences with American film making has never been a smooth and mutually appreciative creative process. This was no better illustrated in the production difficulties and directorial challenges faced by Frears when making both ‘Accidental Hero (1992)’ with Dustin Hoffman and ‘Mary Reilly (1996)’ with Julia Roberts. Both films were Frear’s attempt at mainstream Hollywood cinema and their failure with the critics and at the box office forced a retreat back to the UK.

Ironically enough, Frear’s acceptance by the Hollywood mainstream elite as a film maker with a zeitgeist impulse was manifested in the enormous success he enjoyed with his 2006 film, ‘The Queen’. With a screenplay by the politically intuitive writer, Peter Morgan, and featuring a career defining performance from Helen Mirren, ‘The Queen’ was a glorified heritage film in which Frears awkward sympathising with the British Monarchy brought about criticisms to do with conservatism. However, Frears range as a film maker makes it slightly problematic to trace some kind of consistent linage in terms of personal political ideologies. Consider his deeply human representation of illegal immigrants living in London in ‘Dirty Pretty Things (2002)’, a film that seems to repeat the early fascination with those social groups and minorities that have been rejected and misrepresented by the anxieties of a British middle class.

John Hurt in a scene stealing performance as the reluctant and apathetic hit man 'Braddock'.

Made in 1984, ‘The Hit’ has greatly influenced another equally brilliant British gangster film, ‘Sexy Beast (2000)’, which was also produced by the prolific Jeremy Thomas. If one was to position Frears film within the catalogue of British gangster films then a number of significant film noir elements would challenge its status as a strictly genre product. Additionally, the stark, narrative style, oddball characterisation and fondness for landscapes makes Frear’s second cinematic outing an obvious art film, mixing the minimalism encountered in a Melville crime film with the brutality of a Sergio Leone Spaghetti western to create something uniquely unrepresentative of genre and much more indicative of the anarchy encountered in the films of Lindsay Anderson under whom Frears trained as a film maker. British actor Terence Stamp plays Willy Parker, a sophisticated and well read gangster who decides to grass on his criminal friends so that he can make a fast getaway to the burnt out vistas of Spain. Ten years later, two hit men hired by one of the gangsters put away by Willy Parker catch up with him, assigned the difficult job of killing him. What should be a quick and easy job in the language of noir becomes a task fraught with a series of insurmountable obstacles, many of which underline the doomed nature of characters who are each trying to come to terms with the meaning of death.

Beginning as a straight forward crime film then morphing into a road movie and finally entering classic film noir territory with the downbeat ending makes 'The Hit' a tricky genre proposition. Some have even interpreted it as a contemporary western, a reading which seems altogether more plausible when considering the male bonding, questioning of moral values and the inevitable death wish that permeates what is a very linear but highly episodic narrative. The mirror image to Willy Parker's acceptance of his fate is reflected in the wonderfully oblique and sadistic turn by John Hurt as the emotionless hit man 'Braddock'. Like many of the best examples of the noir genre, his downfall is attributed to a woman. However, Maggie (Laura del Sol) is in no way the prototypical femme fatale and though she succeeds in manipulating the affections of Myron (Tim Roth), her ambiguous and unexplained gaze is unable to penetrate the coldness of Braddock. Like Willy Parker, he too comes to understand that death is not just part of an inevitability but rather an absolute certainty that leaves no man untouched.