Sunday, 17 August 2008

coffee and typescript


It's been a while since there's been any form of activity here. Basically, University work, and later actual work, other interests and laziness in general got in the way of writing here.

I've decided to give blogging another shot, but I also wanted a wider remit and the ability to talk about the other things that interest me - literature, music, videogames, etc. - besides movies. To this end, I've started a new blog on Wordpress that's less strictly defined and freer in terms of content. I'll still be talking about movies most of the time, if that's your thing, but it'll be interspersed with anything else that might interest me at any point in time.

If anyone is actually still checking in here at this stage (I doubt that, but anyway), thanks for your readership, and I hope you'll find your way to the new blog.

Follow the link: Coffee and Typescript

Thursday, 28 February 2008

wouldn't it be great it...

Imagine you were a director working on a worthy drama, tackling an important social issue in a heartfelt, compassionate manner, and that you had the skill to pull this off in an aesthetically assured and impeccably crafted way. In short, imagine you are making a film that would sweep the Academy Awards, the Palme d'Or, the Golden Bear, and whatever other award can be thrown at it.

Now imagine that you film an alternate ending where, say, one of the main characters turns out to be a monstrous alien witch-doctor in disguise, who slaughters the entire cast before raising their corpses as an army of zombies and taking over the world. This is only an example, but you get my drift.

Next, imagine that you distribute the film with the proper, normal ending, but that you put the alternate ending onto one in every, say, two or three hundred prints that goes out to theatres. When you eventually release the film on DVD, you do the same thing with the same proportion of DVDs.

Finally, sit back and wait for people to start wondering why the HELL no-one else seemed to notice that ridiculous ending...and then start to wonder if they imagined seeing that ending when they watch the film again somewhere else and find an entirely different ending...

Monday, 25 February 2008

review: atonement (joe wright, 2007)

I must open this review with a couple of admissions. Firstly - and perhaps somewhat embarassingly for a literature student - I have not read Ian McEwan's novel, and can therefore only judge the film on its standalone merits. Secondly, I must also admit to having had a considerable prejudice towards the film that led me to delay watching it. Primarily this was because it seemed to be the sort of dull, insipid, vacuously pretty film which is automatically guaranteed prestige by virtue of its being
a) British
b) focused around an aristocratic period setting
c) based on a literary work of established reputation and importance.

Having finally watched it, I can safely say my prejudice was more or less half-right - take that as glass half-empty or glass half-full, whichever suits you best. Atonement does indeed take the glossy middlebrow period film to new levels of polished, shiny surface gloss. It is a showpiece of slick film-making craft, as polished as a luxury car in a showroom and only slightly more aesthetically meaningful. The film positively gleams, bathed in a warm, sensually nostalgic glow. It really is quite incredibly beautiful to look at in places - there is a rich sensuality to the luminous glow and saturated colours of Seamus McGarvey's cinematography that almost allows the film to get by on eye-candy alone.
But, by and large, this isn't the measured beauty of a Wong Kar-Wai or a Terrence Malick film, consciously moulded by a film-making intelligence keenly aware of its nuance, purpose and expressive intent; this is the shallow, ephemeral beauty of a postcard or a magazine cover. There is no depth of feeling, mood, texture or thought to the film's visual spectacle - this is simply a meaningless, indiscriminately-applied sheen of surface prettiness. The war hospital later in the film, packed with impeccably-uniformed nurses walking in perfect formation, is as gorgeous as the country mansion in the opening scenes. 

Which is not to say that Atonement is without merits. The film is at its best in its first half, as it traces the rapidly-intermeshing fates of the main players on a long, languid, hot summer's day on the palatial Tallis estate. Wright handles this section well - its complex temporal structure, with the film repeatedly looping back on itself to return to the same events, which shift in meaning and implication with each new point of view, nonetheless maintains a headlong forward momentum that creates a sense of uneasy and increasingly anticipatory foreboding tension - events can palpably be felt rushing towards the oncoming tragedy, with all the certainty of unavoidable fate. A key element in this is Dario Marianelli's excellent (and justly Oscar-winning) score, most notable in the remarkable opening sequence, where it incorporates the clatter of Briony (Saoirse Ronan)'s typewriter as events are inexorably set in motion, prefiguring the metafictional twist the film takes in its closing moments.  

It is disappointing that, contrary to what Karel Reisz did with The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), for instance, Wright fails to find a filmic interpretation of this aspect of the story, instead sticking to McEwan's literary device. Nonetheless, these early sections have a power, a sensual intensity and a complexity that suggests that the film cannot be summarily dismissed as a cynical attempt to make this decade's The English Patient. Keira Knightley and James McAvoy acquit themselves adequately, if unremarkably, but this first section of the film is dominated by Ronan's thirteen-year-old Briony, subtly displaying hints of ambition, pride and jealousy wrapped up in an uncomfortable in-between state of puberty - innately, perhaps instinctively, picking up undercurrents in the events she witnesses that she remains too young to consciously understand.  

Especially in these early sequences, Atonement achieves moments close to brilliance. But these moments come almost randomly, with no coherent and consistent aesthetic vision behind them to shape them into an effective whole. The technically astonishing four-minute Steadicam shot on the Dunkirk beach, in the film's World War II-dominated second section, is a case in point. It's a remarkably assured and effective scene in isolation, but it does not belong in the film - nothing that happens before prepares us for it, and nothing new comes from it. It sticks out like a sore thumb - elaborate and showstopping though it is, it's essentially a long distraction from the actual business of the film.

As the film goes on, it moves further and further away from its initial promise, and by the epilogue - essentially a monologue by the grown-up Briony, played by Vanessa Redgrave - it descends entirely into mawkish, simplistic sentimentality. I have no idea how close to McEwan this monologue is, but on film what should have been anguished and profound - a dying woman's statement of regret at sins that have haunted her all her life - only comes across as cloying, simplistic and somewhat unconvincing. It's an unfortunate end to a film that initially seems to break away to some degree from the staid vacuity of the British heritage film, but that seems to run out of courage well before it runs out of screen time. 

Monday, 21 January 2008

review: once (john carney, 2007)

One of the first things you pick up in just about any film theory class is that film is not a representation of reality, but a constructed artefact, a readable text, a mediated series of artificial images. Now, everyone old enough to speak can grasp the distinction between real and fictional images, but this point goes deeper than that, underlining the fact that a film is, first and foremost, a sequence of images, and not a transparent window into another world. What is most important is not what happens in the film's plot, but how it is presented - how this plot is constructed into images, how technique is utilized to lend visual and thematic richness to this narrative framework, and so on.

Every once in a while, however, you get a film like Once, which undermines this viewpoint. It makes little sense to look at Once and attempt to speak about its formal aspects, its thematic development, its technical approach. This is a film about two characters - an Irish busker with a repair-shop job and ambitions to be a songwriter, and a young, near-penniless but musically gifted Czech immigrant with a broken marriage - about the delicate but intense relationship that develops over the few days following their first encounter, about the effect each has on the other, and on the beautiful music they make together.

This simple, intimate setup represents the totality of Once's concerns, and the film's sole drive is to represent the unfolding of this relationship, in as direct and unadorned a fashion as possible. This is something entirely different to the studied, meticulously constructed, affected rawness and pretend-immediacy of a film like Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008 - review forthcoming, but I will just take this opportunity to exhort you to run out and catch it on the biggest screen you can, now). Once does not adopt a self-consciously "real" style; rather, it elects to follow its characters with as transparent, simple and uncomplicated an eye as possible - it's just about the polar opposite of last year's other music film, Julie Taymor's maximalist Across the Universe.

All of which pretty much places the entire film on the shoulders of its two leads, Glenn Hansard and Marketa Iglova, and it is a testament to them that the film succeeds as well as it does. Their performances are endearing, subtle, heartfelt and never less than disarmingly, entirely convincing - there is a feeling of genuineness to every gesture, word and look that is rare. All of which means it does not matter in the slightest that the film is somewhat technically shoddy, the camerawork is unremarkable at best, the lighting in many scenes is somewhat lacking, and whatever other complaint I could throw at it if I were feeling objective and/or mean.

Actually, I should point out that even within these technical restrictions, there are moments when Once achieves its own brand of beauty transcending the mundanity of its setting - as when the camera follows Iglova as she walks home from the local shop, singing to Hansard's music playing on the discman she just bought batteries for. But these moments are always closely focused on Hansard and Iglova, and on the alternately delicate and soaring music they share.

Once is perhaps too slight to be a Great Film or a masterpiece, and there isn't really anything beneath its surface, but that doesn't really matter - this isn't a film that sets out for greatness, but that unassumingly aims simply to share a few momentuous days in the life of its protagonists, and that feels as ephemeral and spontaneous as the experiences it documents. It's a film that's by turns joyous and melancholy, and that, in its own way, is just about perfect.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

review: i am legend (francis lawrence, 2007)

It was only a matter of time. I Am Legend continues the recent resurgence of dark, apocalyptic sci-fi, as seen in 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002) and Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006) (and soon in Neil Marshall's Doomsday - see trailer), but does it the brute-force, big-budget, softened-edges, Hollywood way. Where the aforementioned films tiptoed around comparatively limited budgets with inventive mise-en-scene, effects work and production design, I Am Legend $150 million budget simply erases any limitation, as well as the need for finesse. Where 28 Days Later and Children of Men refused to flinch in following their visions to their darkest implications, I Am Legend can almost be felt crashing into a focus-group-controlled line it cannot afford to cross.

Which is not to say it is entirely your typical blockbuster. For a considerable portion of its running time,
I Am Legend seems, to a somewhat surprising degree, primarily interested in painting an intimate psychological portrait of Robert Neville (Will Smith), seemingly the last surviving human on Earth, plagued by loneliness and guilt which fuel his obsessive, Sisyphean quest to cure the disease that has decimated the human race. As the film follows his daily schedule and documents survival instincts - hunting, scavenging, hiding - become routine, it is at its most interesting. Even here the flaws are evident - the slips into delusion that are intended to signify Neville's increasingly precarious mental state are crashingly heavy-handed and simplistic, not helped by Smith's often agonisingly cringeworthy performance (which has been inexplicably praised from some quarters). From the outset, the film exhibits little sensitivity or subtlety in it technique, which often feels random and unconsidered - as in the overuse of shaky handheld camera. And that line I mentioned already makes itself felt - Lawrence seems unwilling or unable to take the portrait into the depths of despair, misery and existential and physical terror it clearly demands. Nonetheless, and despite these limitations, there is a melancholy resignedness and a tragic quality to this first section that makes these scenes engrossing and effective.

A large part of these scenes' impact, of course, lies in the backdrop.
I Am Legend's (clearly digitally-created, but entirely convincing) vision of a completely still, barren and dilapitaded New York is an astonishing piece of work, and it's the film's strongest point, lending an eerie, tense yet beautifully elegiac quality to those opening moments. 28 Days Later and its sequel 28 Weeks Later (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007 - review) already gave us similar remarkable visions of a depopulated, post-apocalyptic London, but what we see in I Am Legend is on a different level entirely. If the film is to be remembered at all, it will be for this.

real problems begin when I Am Legend decides to shift gear. Just as we have settled in for a good, if unremarkable, science-fiction drama, night falls, things go wrong, the plot develops,and it becomes the action-horror blockbuster it was marketed as. I've got nothing against action-horror blockbusters, per se; the problem is that a) the shift feels sudden and unsuited to the story, and b) as a horror film, I Am Legend is - apart from one standout scene - an utter, miserable failure. When the vampiric, zombie-like infected make their plainly artificial, CGI appearance, any atmosphere and tension the film had managed to build up to that point dissipates in an instant. I cannot even begin to fathom what Lawrence was thinking when he decided to opt for CG (and, as it happens, atrocious CG) to depict the infected - what we have here must have cost ten times as much as dressing up the extras in 28 Days Later, but is not even a tenth as effective. The rushing hordes of pale, leathery-skinned, screaming monstrosities, and the run-and-gun direction the narrative takes, bring nothing to mind so much as the worst moments of the Stephen Sommers Mummy films. Lawrence's direction, which before felt workmanlike and unsubtle, here descends into unabashed action-movie cliche.

The film continues to get worse and worse as it approaches a blatantly tacked-on, ridiculous happy ending that directly contradicts and demolishes everything interesting, unique and affecting in the story. This story has a natural, obvious, dramatically satisfying ending, and it is not the ending we get on screen. Not to mention that (SPOILER) in envisioning a salvation for the human race in the form of a neo-puritanical commune complete with a church bell calling the congregation to mass, it unintentionally manages to create a vision of the future even more terrifying than the annihilation of the human race.

Friday, 21 December 2007

review: beowulf (robert zemeckis, 2007)

I listened, felt myself swept up. I knew very well that all he said was ridiculous, not light for their darkness but flattery, illusion, a vortex pulling them from sunlight to heat, a kind of midsummer burgeoning, waltz to the sickle. Yet I was swept up.

In John Gardner's astonishingly good 1971 novel Grendel, the eponymous monster, transformed from the source poem's mute, irrational, almost elemental malevolent force into an existentially-questing, nihilistically mischievous philosopher-child, listens to the Shaper in Hrothgar's hall weaving the random, piecemeal events of the Danish people's history into a rousing, glorious song. He knows that the song consists of nothing but lies, that it is an attempt to create a pattern of order, meaning and high-minded idealism out of pure chance, violence and base brutality, but nonetheless it represents an emotional force that cannot be resisted, that rewrites history and recreates human consciousness. "The man had changed the world," Grendel muses after hearing what we recognize as the first lines of Beowulf, "had torn up the past by its thick, gnarled roots and had transmuted it." Like Gardner's novel, Robert Zemeckis' film is aware of and adresses this process of myth-making as an ideological and aesthetic reshaping of events, and, if its reworking of the Beowulf myth is ultimately nowhere near as daring, insightful, multi-levelled and brilliant as that in Grendel, it offers a surprisingly inventive and astute interrogation of the poem and its ideas on heroism.

Where Gardner took the adversarial figure of Grendel as his protagonist, Zemeckis (and writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, who can at least as plausibly be defined as this film's
auteurs - Gaiman's voice is especially recognizable) focuses narrowly on the figure of Beowulf himself. Compared to The Lord of the Rings, for instance, this is a narrower, more personal epic, with a strongly-defined character at its centre, and this character's progression forming the focus and backbone of the narrative.

What we see here is not the simplistic reversal of values typical of much revisionist myth revisiting (hero bad, adversary good). There is clearly much to Beowulf here that is heroic - superhuman stature and strength, unflagging courage. But all too often, especially in the film's first half, this courage palpably crosses the line into brash foolhardiness or showy macho bravado, revealing the personal ambition and glory-seeking that fuels them.

Evil, in this vision of the myth, lies within precisely this ambition and vanity, a temptation to which all the leaders succumb. Embodied in the figure of Grendel's mother, who here becomes a succubus-like Lilith figure, tempting men with promises of wealth, power and glory besides her obvious transgressive, forbidden sexuality. Beowulf's encounter with this figure in her underwater lair reminded me of Guyon finding himself in the Cave of Mammon in Edmund Spenser's epic
The Faerie Queene - the same themes of virtue and temptation are being explored.

Like Grendel in Gardner's novel, this film, aware as it is of the hollowness of the heroic ideal, remains uncontrollably half in love with it. And this comes through in the joyously over-the-top action and feasting scenes that can only possibly be watched with a strong sense of irony and with tongue firmly in cheek. Beowulf's naked fight with Grendel, which strays uncomfortably close to Austin Powers territory, is perhaps a step too far, but on the whole, these sequences manage the difficult balancing act of being simultaneously spectacular and exciting, and campily entertaining.

As likely as the action is to be the film's big box-office draw, however, it's hardly the main purpose of the film, or its most interesting aspect. This is a film with a complex tonal range, able to switch seamlessly from intense horror (that really stretches the PG rating further than anything I can recall) to slapstick comedy, at the drop of a hat - as when, during the opening scene, the camera leaves the mead-soaked revelry in Hrothgar's hall and suddenly plunges into the seemingly endless, austere, barren landscapes around it, the hall an increasingly pathetic light surrounded by the infinite night and the dark forest.

The film's primary movement is from the boisterous exuberance of the first half to the wintry, regretful melancholy of the second, as Beowulf ultimately has to come to terms with the fruits of his pride and vanity, and to accept his own limitations. Repeatedly the film contrasts youthful ambition with the regret of old age, suggesting the inevitability of the process and, as the final scene makes clear, the universality of the endless cycle.

A big bone of contention has been the performance-capture technique that Zemeckis has utilized for this film. The technology has clearly improved since
The Polar Express (2004), but it has not yet been perfected - the faces of Zemeckis' protagonists remain clearly artificial, and not as expressive as live actors. The trade-off is that Zemeckis, freed of practical limitations, is completely unfettered in his camera placements and movements, to a degree that would probably have been impossible in live-action without a much higher budget. Ultimately, the film is good enough that I was able to ignore its animated-ness after the first few minutes. Nonetheless, there remains a vague air of pointlessness about the technique, which ultimately adds little to the film apart from a gimmicky sheen of cutting-edge technology. (Though at this stage I should point out that I did not watch Beowulf in its intended 3D format, which might perhaps have changed my opinion on this point.)

, in the end, is something of an odd film. A blockbuster in budget and technology, it is miles away from the flat, depthless monotony of, for instance, 300 (Zack Snyder, 2007). Its themes are perhaps painted too self-consciously, too transparently, for the film to qualify as a masterpiece, but there is clearly much thought, intelligence and feeling invested into it, and multiple levels of meaning and imagery to decipher (I have not touched on, for instance, the thread underlying the main narrative that traces the old pagan religion's slow death beneath the approach of Christianity). Also, some knowledge of the source poem is almost essential to understanding the film and its intentions - all of which, as I mentioned in a previous post, makes me wary of classifying Beowulf as a standard blockbuster epic. It is something altogether more thoughtful and affecting, and altogheter more interesting.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

the definition of "mainstream"

Let us imagine the possibility of a film made to a nine-figure budget, marketed across the globe as a big "event" films, that pulls in enough crowds to be top of the box-office for several weeks, perhaps even ranking among the year's best-performing films in financial terms. Now let us further imagine that such a film, beneath the crowd-pulling lavish production values and spectacle that is de rigeur for a film with a budget of that magnitude, ultimately exhibits a sensibility aimed at a specific, niche audience - that it can be enjoyed on a superficial level by a wide audience, but only actually understood by a much smaller subset of that audience.

This is occasioned by my catching a screening of Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf - I will post a full review shortly, but suffice to say I was pleasantly surprised - a film that fits virtually every practical definition of a mainstream blockbuster. It also happens to virtually demand some considerable knowledge of the Old English poem in order for its full subtleties and intent to be understood, since the film virtually positions itself as a dialogue with its source text.

A "mainstream" audience will come to Beowulf and perhaps enjoy it for the joyously over-the-top action scenes, or perhaps be slightly bored by the long-winded sections between these scenes. A considerable majority of its audience, however, is - and I am really trying hard to avoid sounding elitist here - unable to understand the full impact of its references and the thematic weight behind the film's events and images.

This is similar to a discussion that developed recently in a cultural criticism class I attended, about whether Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill (2003-2004) should be considered cult or mainstream. In terms of production, exposure, marketing. cultural impact and audience reception, there can be little doubt that it is a major mainstream release. In terms of sensibility, the question is more problematic. It is certain that only a small segment of its audience will understand its wide range of cultural references or be aware of the cinematic legacies Tarantino is paying homage to - and, ultimately, Kill Bill was made for these people more than for the wider audience. It is even possible, though perhaps to a lesser extent, to argue a similar case for Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) trilogy, the biggest blockbusters of all.

Does it make sense, then, to call these films mainstream, or commercial? Is "mainstream" defined according to inherent qualities a film possesses, or is it measured purely by the film's media profile and financial success? Is it possible that some (by no means all) of the most-watched, highest-earning films might, in sensibility, and beneath their glossy surface, be as niche at heart as more overtly "cult" hits?