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?

Monday, 10 December 2007

list: the top ten films of 2000

Following the astonishing wave of ambitious, risk-taking and brilliant films that emerged from Hollywood in 1998 and 1999 (I'm thinking of The Thin Red Line, Fight Club, Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia, The Matrix, Being John Malkovich...), 2000 was not a particularly good year for cinema. With the exception of the films occupying the top two or three slots, which are genuinely remarkable, most of these films might have struggled to find a spot on the top ten list in an average year. Which doesn't mean they're bad - all the films here are worth watching, all are very good, but, for various reasons, not all manage to cross the line from "very good" into "great".

Luckily, 2001 was to prove a far more interesting year...

tenth: snatch. (guy ritchie)

With Snatch., Guy Ritchie essentially redeployed the formula that made Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) - itself little more than a cockney rip-off of Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) - an international success. There is little in this film that is new, original or meaningful - every detail in its hundred-minute ride through the London criminal underworld is a homage to films that were themselves homages. But there is no denying that this breathless pop-culture rush is energetic, hugely stylish, often painfully hilarious and riotously entertaining. This could be the very definition of mindless entertainment, but sometimes that's exactly what you need.

ninth: ghost dog: the way of the samurai (jim jarmusch)

Anchored by a typically excellent performance from Forest Whitaker, this quintessentially Jarmusch film takes a pulp narrative (a Mafia hitman living according to the Bushido samurai code) as the core for a moving and drily humorous study of characters living in their own worlds on the fringes of society. It's not Jarmusch's best, but it offers a unique, offbeat take on a tired genre, and a host of memorable and perversely lovable characters.

eighth: almost famous (cameron crowe)

Cameron Crowe's fairy-tale vision of the 1970s rock scene may have little to no relation to any actual reality, but, taken as Crowe's love letter to the music he grew up with, and as a magical coming-of-age tale, it is a resounding success, and a standout in the director's somewhat mixed oeuvre (it was easily his best film since 1989's Say Anything...). Its golden-hued nostalgia could easily have been maudlin, but there's a genuine honesty of feeling that makes it affecting.

seventh: the virgin suicides (sofia coppola)

Sofia Coppola's debut film was a languid, gorgeously sensual and disturbingly enigmatic period piece, locating a disquieting, unaccountable horror within the life of five beautiful sisters in 1970s suburbia. There is a poetic grace and a sensitivity to the inexpressible in this film that belie its nature as a first film, and mark it out as the arrival of a noteworthy film-making talent.

sixth: amores perros (alejandro gonzalez inarritu)

The first of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's trilogy of non-linear, multi-narrative epics, Amores Perros is also far and away the best. There was a rawness, an immediacy, an intensity and a directness here that disappeared as 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006) grew increasingly formulaic, ponderous and self-consciously Important. Here, nuance and a keen, unflinching eye for character match the film's epic scope and wide canvas, making this the closest Inarritu has come to a masterpiece.

fifth: o brother, where art thou? (the coen brothers)

Admittedly a step down from the Coen brothers' late 90s masterpieces, O Brother, Where Art Thou? remains an engaging, joyous and wonderfully-crafted oddity. The Odyssey reworked into a part-slapstick, part-musical, entirely whimsical and beautiful picaresque trip through 1930s America, this was at once an inventive, hugely entertaining road movie and an affectionate celebration of American pop-history and folk music.

fourth: requiem for a dream (darren aronofsky)

Requiem for a Dream may possess a somewhat one-note emotional register, and its vision may be too unremittingly nihilistic to swallow. But what is undeniable is that it achieves a rare, monomanic intensity that is palpably frightening, and that sears itself indelibly into one's memory. Many have interpreted this as a simplistic anti-drugs movie, but beneath the surface it's a terrifying, bleak vision in which tragedy is the only possible result when one reaches for their dreams.

third: crouching tiger, hidden dragon (ang lee)

I'll admit that I find Ang Lee a talented but somewhat overrated filmmaker, with a career consisting of well-crafted and interesting films lacking the true spark of greatness. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (along with, possibly, Sense and Sensibility (1995)) is the exception, and far and away his standout achievement to date. It may seem over-familiar in retrospect, viewing it in the wake of the wu xia resurgence it helped spawn, but at the time it was something almost completely new. Marketed as art-house material, at heart this is a crowd-pleasing epic adventure, but one executed with a grace, gravitas and a sweeping beauty that is rare in any genre, and that invests its undeniably thrilling action with a lasting sense of melancholy.

second: dancer in the dark (lars von trier)

Almost a polar opposite to the traditional idea of the movie musical, Lars von Trier's Palme D'Or winner Dancer in the Dark is one of the most devastating, almost unbearable character tragedies ever put to film. A stunning performance and soundtrack by Bjork are at the heart of the film's emotional pull, and the success of the film is at least as much due to her input as to von Trier's. There is little about the film that is subtle - one could easily argue that von Trier here (and elsewhere) is as emotionally manipulative as Hollywood at its worst - but its raw, unflinching impact is undeniable and unforgettable.

first: in the mood for love (wong kar-wai)

Wong Kar-Wai is one of the greatest masters working in the cinematic medium, and In the Mood for Love is his unqualified masterpiece. Aided by Christopher Doyle's gorgeously saturated cinematography and by impressive performances from Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, he crafts a quietly intense study of two people trapped in disintegrating marriages, unable to consummate the tentative love that develops between them. One doesn't watch a Wong Kar-Wai film, one inhabits it, immersing oneself in the sensuality of its textures and colour, in the finely-observed details of character and indefinable moods, in the expressivity and emotion that invests even the simplest gesture and image. This is a perfect film, one that deserves the oft-abused appellation of genius, and one of the greatest films of the decade.

honourable mentions: Chocolat, Billy Elliot, Unbreakable, X-Men

Sunday, 9 December 2007

on year-end lists

The first year-end lists for 2007 have started to be released, which presents me with a slight problem. I love reading and writing year-end top tens/twenties/hundreds/whatever, though I do realize they have to be taken with a pinch of salt, and reveal at least as much about the critic's tastes as about any objective overview of the field.

It's ultimately a highly personal endeavour in which the list-maker filters through the year's cultural landscape, selecting the gems from the detritus, making an often heartfelt case for what they, as individuals, loved. It almost represents a process of canon-formation on a personal level, a recognition of what deserves to be remembered and preserved by one's own standards. And it's on this level - as a personal, rather than objective or externally-determined, canon - that I find year-end lists so entertaining.

Which brings me to the aforementioned problem. As someone who a) lives in Malta and b) is an impoverished student without the finances to purchase tons of DVDs, I am never in a position to create a definitive year-end top ten list at the end of any given year, simply because I am unable to watch all the year's films I want to watch by the end of the year. There are still films from 2006 I want to catch up on before writing a list for that year - 2007 is out of the question.

What I shall be doing is to start from the first year of the current decade, producing a top ten list for the year 2000, and working my way up year by year, hopefully, eventually, reaching the present. I cannot promise I will upload a list every few days, or every week, but I will upload one whenever I have some time.

Expect the top ten films of 2000 in a day or two...

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

review: across the universe (julie taymor, 2007)

A young man sits alone on a barren beach, beneath grey skies, and intones the words of a pop song become something grand, almost mythic. As he looks out at the waves, the music reaches a crescendo, and a montage of images and newsprint are superimposed on the waves, appearing and disappearing with their rapid ebb and flow. These riveting opening moments neatly encapsulate Across the Universe: a quasi-elegiac look at the myth of the 1960s, granting equal attention to a personal story of friendship, love and loss, and to the wider picture of a generation's dream and disillusionment, with the music of the Beatles (surely no better cultural, ideological and aesthetic metonym exists for the 60s) a constant, choral presence, both diegetically sung by the characters and as more traditional extradiegetic soundtrack. Above all these things, it is the most fun I've had in a cinema all year.

Across the Universe
is far from a flawless film, but it is a film I can't help loving wholeheartedly, despite its sometimes glaring issues. Closest in spirit to Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! (2001), it offers an LSD-fuelled vision of 1960s New York as unreal and fantastical as the earlier film's absinthe-fuelled vision of 1890s Paris. Taymor is not interested in demythicizing the era, nor in providing an in-depth examination of the social and cultural issues from which the youth movement was born. Its half-hearted attempts in this direction, notably a sequence depicting the July 1967 Detroit riots, while not exactly failures in execution, smack of tokenism - particularly, in that case, of attempting to introduce an element of race-consciousness into a very white-dominated film. Rather than providing any depth of social critique, these digressions from the main narrative succeed primarily in painting a backdrop of repression, authoritarianism and violence against which the main characters' actions gain weight and purpose.

Far more successful, in this regard, is a stunning sequence in which Max (Joe Anderson), having received a draft notice, reports to the local army base. Set to "I Want You (She's so Heavy)" and featuring (among many other things) singing Uncle Sam posters and rows of soldiers in identical G.I. Joe masks, this sequence demonstrates Taymor's undeniable talents at visuals, mise-en-scene and choreography. From her spectacular cinematic debut with the Shakespearean adaptation
Titus (1999), Taymor has demonstrated herself a relentlessly inventive visualist, eschewing subtlety or mundanity in favour of pop-expressionist flights of externalized fantasy and wonder. It is difficult to imagine a more perfect vehicle for her style than Across the Universe, and, unlike in Frida (2002), which only occasionally escaped the shackles of the conventional biopic formula, Taymor unleashes her imagination to the full, and pulls out all the stops to create an exhilarating sensual spectacle: we get swooping cameras, rich cinematography, psychedelic washes of colour, animation, CG-assisted visions, astonishing choreographies...and, of course, the music.

It is difficult to write anything in praise of the Beatles without sounding like either a fifty-something nostalgia-monger who stopped listening to new music in 1976, or a hype-spouting
Q reader. Nonetheless, I have to admit that this is one case where the hype and nostalgia are justified. The Beatles genuinely were a great, incredible band; their albums deserve their perennial positions in all-time top ten lists; and their music remains fresh, exciting, moving and beautiful today, undiminshed - in fact, almost enhanced - by the ponderous mythic status it has acquired. The music constitutes the emotional heart of Across the Universe, adding resonance and power to the film's events.

As it traces the rise and fall of a personal romance and of the counter-culture movement, Across the Universe encompasses heart-breaking beauty, love and happiness, and aching sadness, despair and melancholy. A sequence set to the grand, languid tones of "Because", one of my favourite Beatles songs, encapsulates both within a vision of almost painful beauty. Having taken Dr. Robert (Bono)'s magical mystery bus on a psychedelic road-trip to reach Mr. Kite (Eddie Izzard)'s, another drug guru, the protagonists lie in a golden, autumn-tinged field and dive in a crystal-clear lake. This is the apex of their escape from the social pressures that surround them into a psychedelic dream-land, and the moment is unutterably beautiful - and yet there is a palpable sadness underpinning it, with the realization that this cannot last. In Hunter S. Thompson's words, and to return to one of the film's opening images, this was the high-water mark of the revolution, and you could already feel the wave starting to ebb.

As I have said, as much as I love this film, it's not flawless. Its biggest flaw, apart from some smaller issues I have already touched upon, comes right at the end, when, after the film has reached a logical, affectingly sad ending, it proceeds to engineer a somewhat contrived happy ending. There's nothing wrong with this ending
per se, it's rousing, and it will leave you with a smile on your face - by this time you've come to love these characters and you want to see a happy ending - but at the same time, it feels like something of a let-down of the film's themes and its tragic movement.

This isn't exactly a minor flaw, but, perhaps despite myself, I found myself more than willing to forgive
Across the Universe its foibles. It's an earnest, endearing, exhilarating and lovable film, imaginative, beautiful, thrilling and affecting , the kind of thing I can see myself returning to again and again on DVD as comfort viewing. It may play into the myth of a 1960s that almost certainly never existed, and, like many other films that take its kind of maximalist sensual approach and earnest emotional tone, might seem faintly silly if you are predisposed to find fault. Accept it on its own terms, unconditionally, and perhaps, come the end credits, you genuinely will be inclined to agree that love is all you need. And be prepared to find yourself humming Beatles tunes for the rest of the week...

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

review: pan's labyrinth (guillermo del toro, 2006)

I have always been a fan of Guillermo Del Toro. From his innovative take on the vampire genre with Cronos (1993), to possibly the best of recent years' glut of superhero films, Hellboy (2004), through the masterful arthouse-Gothic trappings of The Devil's Backbone (2001), he has developed a unique voice, bridging the mainstream with the alternative, and giving new life to fantasy and horror genre elements - though the less said about Blade II (2002) the better. Having said that, there has always been the sense that Del Toro had not achieved his full potential, that there was a truly great film lurking within him that he had not yet managed to create. A remarkable achievement on all levels, one of the best films of last year and an instant classic, Pan's Labyrinth is that film.

Drawing as much inspiration from
The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973) as from Labyrinth (Jim Henson, 1986), Pan's Labyrinth has one foot firmly within the traditions each of the two embodies. It is a film about the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, and about General Franco's regime (personified here in the self-hating, patriarchal figure of Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), who becomes an almost monstrous avatar of authority, repression and tradition). It is also, and perhaps more importantly, a film about myth, imagination and their capacity to offer - not an escape, but a transcendence of the mundane, an untouchable imaginative space where the insurmountable problems of life (and there are plenty in Pan's Labyrinth) can reach a resolution and provide some sort of redemption for the soul. It is in this redemption that myth comes to be seen as the last unconquerable refuge of the individual, unreachable and always above tyranny and oppression, a place where the individual of moral and personal integrity can achieve some form of, at least internal, apotheosis.

Pan's Labyrinth also draws heavily from the literary and cinematic tradition of the fantasy as a coming-of-age narrative, typically of a female protagonist (Kira Cochrane wrote an excellent piece examining the film from this angle and within this tradition, here). Ofelia (played excellently by Ivana Baquero) is the centre of the film, which fundamentally follows the arc of her struggles to develop as an individual, by finding a space of her own within a rigid, patriarchal order in which she and her mother are little more than appendages to Captain Vidal, her stepfather.

In exploring these themes, Del Toro mirrors and parallels events in the "real" world in a fairy-tale narrative replete with tropic imagery and classical mythological resonances. These sequences see Del Toro unleashing his imagination to an extent unseen in his previous films. These sequences possess a power and an intensity rare in fantasy - Del Toro is unafraid to indulge in the wondrous flights of magic his story demands, but neither does he shy away from the darkness, horrific violence and underlying terror that permeate both the material and the fairy-tale realms.

The richness of Pan's Labyrinth's vision, its sensitivity towards its characters, its affecting and profound understanding of the intertwined relationships of fantasy, imagination and experience, its visceral impact, and its technical and cinematic excellence, all mark it out as one of the finest masterpieces of the fantasy genre, and of modern cinema. It is a remarkable achievement - a film that, like Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men (2006), erases the boundary between commercial genre cinema and the arthouse, exhibiting a uniquely personal, powerful vision on the scale of canvas usually reserved for studio-approved blockbusters, while simultaneously utilizing and transcending those same blockbusters' tropes. Del Toro has confirmed himself an auteur, and this is his masterpiece.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

review: stardust (matthew vaughn, 2007)

Although, at first, glance, Stardust might seem to fit in perfectly with the post-Lord of the Rings / Harry Potter glut of fantasy films, it is of an entirely different lineage. Whereas the noughties fantasy film is almost invariably a sombre, self-important affair, modelling itself on the epic (and I am not necessarily defining this as a negative point, as some critics have), Stardust more closely resembles the fantasy film zeitgeist of the eighties - half-serious, half-comic, lighter in touch and derived very clearly from the fairy-tale.

The most obvious point of comparison here is The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner, 1987), which walked a line between affectionate pastiche of the fairy-tale's familiar genre elements and unabashed adoption of the same tropes it gently mocks - in effect, allowing a cynical modern audience to be affected by these same old conventions through the veil of irony. Stardust achieves the same tightrope-balance, leavening its archetypal, mythical and resolutely unironic quest plot with a nice line of macabre humour, as well as somewhat more than the occasional wink and nudge. In doing so, it provides one of the most entertaining cinema experiences of the year.

It's not a perfect film. Gaiman's story is a complicated one, and in the transfer to the screen, a lot of what made sense on the page as a picaresque sort of narrative, on-screen seems like a random series of events linked by mere coincidence. The breathless rush of on-screen events also does not allow as much time as one wishes for the development of Tristan's (Charlie Cox) and Yvaine's (Claire Danes) relationship - though good performances from the two leads save their characters from falling flat, which would have been fatal to the film. This cramming of the story's emotional elements results in some scenes, notably Yvaine's monologue in the caravan towards the end of the film, falling into sentimentality, missing the innocent yet knowing wonder of Gaiman's novel.

One could also wish for a more distinctive look to the film - Charles Vess' excellent illustrations to the source novel could have provided the inspiration for a much richer visual tapestry to the film, and I can't help but wonder what someone like Terry Gilliam could have made of it. As it is, Matthew Vaughn does a solid enough job, managing the occasional breathtaking scene (thanks also to Ilan Eshkeri's suitably rousing score), but one still wonders what could have been.

These flaws conspire to make the film not quite the magical gem that Gaiman's novel is, but nonetheless, there's no denying its wit, imagination, energy and heart, and the excellent performances both from its leads and from a supporting cast clearly having a great time (especially Michelle Pfeiffer's gloriously evil witch, not to mention Robert De Niro's first memorable performance in at least twenty years).

In the end, it's not a modern fantasy masterpiece on the level I believe Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy of Alfonso Cuaron's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) to be. Nor is it quite the lovable fairy-tale that, say, The Neverending Story (1984) is - though I have to ask myself seriously whether I would have felt differently had Stardust also been a part of my childhood, or had I seen The Neverending Story for the first time yesterday. However, Stardust possesses a genuine heartwarming genuineness and love, both for its protagonists and for the enduring power of the fairy-tale, which makes it very easy to overlook its numerous flaws, root for the heroes and boo-hiss the bad guys, and have a huge smile on your face come the inevitable happy ending.

Friday, 2 November 2007

review: curse of the golden flower (zhang yimou, 2006)

Even by the increasingly ornate, florid standards of Zhang Yimou's films, Curse of the Golden Flower breaks new ground for baroque ostentation. I am pretty sure this is, by some distance, the most colourful film I have ever seen. It is often visually beautiful; however, unlike Zhang's previous films, even including his previous martial arts epics Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), his masterly grace is absent; Curse of the Golden Flower achieves its beauty through sheer, pummelling, piled-on spectacle. The camera swoops, pans and dollies, intricate textures and seas of colour wash over the spectator; it's an eyeful, certainly, but there's no real style or meditative thought to it. Nothing here achieves the austere loneliness of the palace in Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Zhang's best film, or the otherworldly stillness of the lake scene in Hero. Its beauty is a brash, loud, empty one.

An argument could be made, of course, for this being entirely intentional - the film, after all, tackles the theme of corruption hiding behind luxury, tradition and ritual, and the shallowness and sheer, ridiculous exaggeration of the film's aesthetic reflects that of the imperial Forbidden Palace in which it takes place. The colourfully-screened, richly-fabriced inner chambers and the majestic, flowered courtyards of the Palace are the venue for a melodramatic, frequently histrionic tale of corruption, deceit, incest, rivalry, jealousy and betrayal.

It cannot be denied that Curse of the Golden Flower has some resoundingly successful moments; the story isekf is an engaging one, on a simple potboiler level, and excellent performances from Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat help in humanizing and nuancing what could have descended into aristocratic soap opera. The sequences, towards the start, where Zhang cuts away from the protagonists to reveal dozens of servants toiling away behind the scenes to allow the imperial family to live their privileged life reminded me of similar thematic digressions in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels. Like the crumbling, labyrinthine castle of Peake's novels, the Forbidden Palace here takes on a life as a hermetic world of its own, defined by strict, hierarchical class divisions, ritual and the crushing weight of tradition governing every step.

There is also a strong and clearly thought-out system of images in the film; from Empress Phoenix's poisoned medicine being associated with the elaborate ritual with which it is served (it starts to seem as if it is the ritual itself that is slowly killing her), to the Emperor's oppressive army, that fights with immovable steel walls and binding ropes.

The problem is that this is territory that Zhang covered much, much, much better in Raise the Red Lantern, one of the greatest films ever made about ritualised, aestheticized oppression; in fact, one of the greatest films ever made. Curse of the Golden Flower is little better than a shadow to it, lacking its measured thoughtfulness, its gentle beauty, its calm surface hiding a deep, seething anger.

The other problem is that, after an hour or so as a good, if not great, drama, the film switches gear completely as it heads into an epic martial arts battle climax. Not only does this not fit the tone of the film, it is also executed surprisingly poorly and unconvincingly; it is difficult to believe this is the same director that brought us the astonishing, groundbreaking martial arts sequences of Hero and House of Flying Daggers.The ending seems tacked on, as if Zhang felt the need to continue in the vein of his recent
wu xia epics, while also feeling the need to return to his earlier dramatic pieces. The result is a film that lacks focus and subtlety, grace and emotion, and, while far from a disaster, is also far from the level we expect of Zhang.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

review: ratatouille (brad bird, 2007)

If there's one thing we can be sure of, it's that Ratatouille comfortably places Brad Bird in the position of being unquestionably the greatest auteur of mainstream Hollywood entertainment since Tim Burton in his heyday. The Iron Giant (1999) and The Incredibles (2004) already demonstrated a genius at work, a talent that could infuse the familiar formula of the family-oriented animated film with genuine warmth and love (as in The Iron Giant), or ambitiously broaden the horizons of Hollywood animation (as in The Incredibles). With Ratatouille, his best film to date (and also Pixar's), he has retained and expanded on these tendencies, creating a dazzling, heartfelt spectacle that's as moving as it is entertaining.

Like The Incredibles before it, Ratatouille steadfastly refuses to fall into either of the two rigid categories that typically define and limit American animated features - the Disney-esque musical fable, or the Shrek-style, pop-culture-referencing, postmodern pastiche. Ratatouille proves, again, that an animated film doesn't have to be exclusively sappy or played entirely for laughs (though there are also plenty of laughs) - it can take itself seriously and aim for genuine emotion. We know this, of course - Hayao Miyazaki, for one, has been proving this for close to three decades - but such reminders are rare in Hollywood blockbusters, and Ratatouille displays a new level of maturity even for Pixar (while resoundingly putting to rest the disappointment of Cars (2006)). Indeed, between this and what we've seen of Wall-E (to be released next year), one has to wonder if Pixar have entered an era of increased aesthetic ambition and risk-taking.

Ratatouille is still, of course, a resoundingly entertaining and endearing adventure that will
enrapture children and anyone with a youthful spirit. And, even on this level, it is remarkable, demonstrating a fluid and breathlessly inventive visuality capable of sublime beauty and inspired visual gags (often in the same frame), sometimes exploding into Chuck Jones-esque slapstick chases. But there is more to it than that. Even on a cursory viewing, Ratatouille reveals itself to be a film not about rats, or food, but about Art (most emphatically capitalized). Remy the rat is a kitchen Mozart cooking up a culinary symphony (the musical analogy is made concrete with the kynaesthetic bursts of colour accompanying his awakening to his sense of taste), and what he yearns for is a beauty that will lift him from his bestial, mundane existence.

Bird's film makes an affecting, stirring case for the transcendental power of Art and beauty, while almost Romantically celebrating the individual genius of the artist capable of such beauty. In a measure of the film's intelligence, however, Bird does not simplify these ideas - the desire for beauty and the dream of personal ambition and fulfillment of the genius come into credible conflict with pragmatism and the voices of family tradition - a conflict that is not painted in black and white, but that creates genuine characters arguing understandable positions.

Neither does Bird shy away from tackling the accusations of elitism that have been fielded against the Romantic idea of the artist as the individual genius. On the contrary, he brings the debate explicitly centre-stage throughout the film, mostly through the musings of the superbly realized, quasi-vampiric critic Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O'Toole). Again, as in The Incredibles, Bird argues for exceptional individuals to be allowed to flower and share their talents for the benefit of humanity, but here he emphasizes that this great talent can be present in anyone. There can be no lower lower-class than the rat, yet that is where genius is found; while Linguini, culinary nobility by blood, is entirely, almost defiantly, talentless.

Little else can be said in conclusion. Ratatouille is a joy that has exceeded expectations; Pixar's best, one of the highlights of the year, and a confirmation of Brad Bird as a great artist to be noticed.

joyous news: a new malick film is on the way

The title says it all, really. Terrence Malick's long-rumoured fifth film, Tree of Life, is now official, with Sean Penn and Heath Ledger the first to be cast.

Not much is known about the plot, yet - rumours about it somehow involving a minotaur at the beginning of time dreaming the universe are great, but apparently unfounded - but surely all that matters is that we are getting another Malick film. I'm sure I've bored many of my friends to death talking about Malick, especially earlier this year when I was writing my Bachelor's dissertation on The Thin Red Line and The New World, but he is in the very highest pantheon of filmmakers, at least by my accounting (along with Kurosawa, Tarkovsky, Lynch, Miyazaki and Kubrick), and a new Malick film is definitely a Big Event.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

classic image (halloween special): the texas chainsaw massacre (tobe hooper, 1974)

What is it about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that makes it so terrifying? You must understand that this is coming from someone who has never been impressed, on pretty much any level, by any other slasher film. But something sets TCM apart. I feel it is, perhaps, better even than its cult reputation would have it. There are more intellectually nuanced and aesthetically richer horror films, but none, even today, that come close to achieving its raw, unrelenting, brutal terror. At the most basic, primal, lizard-brain survival instinct level, TCM remains the ultimate horror film.

And yet, the question again. What is it that makes it so terrifying? Why does it succeed where so many hundreds of films that have followed in its footsteps (including its 2003 remake) have, to varying degrees, failed? The most obvious answers are the superficial ones - the technical mastery that allowed director Tobe Hooper and his crew to create, on a shoestring budget, a film of frequently astounding cinematography and editing work; and, on an entertainment level, the relentless, unbroken, breathless tension with which the film is invested.

There are deeper reasons, however. I have already touched upon one in the opening paragraph, and that is its very rawness and bloody-mindedness. There is no polish or gloss to dress up or soften the blow of its subject matter (which is not to say there is no craft in its making, for, as I have already said, there is plenty); it is direct, matter-of-fact and utterly unadorned. Its violence is not intellectualized, or aestheticized, nor is it shied away from in the least; it is not glorified, gloated in or watered down. It is violence, pure and simple, it's ugly, and it feels real. Few other horror films leave one with such an acute awareness of the physicality, the flesh and blood, of human existence, and its fragility.

Another reason for the film's unique effect, I feel, lies in the story itself, and its thematic implications. Unlike other slasher films, TCM doesn't have a killer as an intruder into an ordered, safe world. It inverts the situation: the victims are trapped in an insane, almost alien world where the killer is "normal". This is a world of decay, corruption and death, a nightmare landscape of dilapidated colonial mansions, bones, grime and blood, populated by equally decayed, disfigured, barely-human figures. More than that, this is a place where the securities and laws of civilization have been peeled away - even the local sheriff is in league with the killer.
Civilization here has died and rotted long ago; furniture is made out of bones, while tools and other relics from the outer world are broken down and used to make seemingly pointless sculptures, as if their use has been entirely forgotten. This is an atavistic descent into primal, animalistic, hunter-gatherer humanity, stripped of all intellectual or spiritual pretensions, defined solely by the struggle for survival and the search for food.

And this, finally, is what makes TCM so unnervingly terrifying, even on repeat viewings when you know exactly what will happen - it is an almost unbearably nihilistic vision of "pure" humanity, stripped of social mores and obligations, as a grotesque, horrific, violent animal, living among the remains of its victims. We may begrudge it the countless insipid slasher films it helped spawn, but it is enough of an achievement not to be in any way lessened by the legions that, in reconstructing its elements, failed to come even close.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

classic image (halloween special): dellamorte dellamore (michele soavi, 1994) and santa sangre (alejandro jodorowsky, 1989)

So it's the month of Halloween and, predictably, I'm writing an article about horror films. Since I'm sure your DVD store's copy of The Exorcist is currently sitting there in dread, awaiting what is possibly its millionth Halloween DVD night, I thought I’d rather submit a post that’s a little more off-beat…

Even within the context of cult cinema itself--which is already a contest of the bizarre--let alone in the context of mainstream horror, Dellamorte Dellamore and Santa Sangre are two beautiful, shiny gem-like red herrings. Now these two films aren't exactly what might unanimously be agreed to demonstrate the pinnacle of aesthetic sublimity, and yet they are challenging films in their own right, tinged with a peculiar visual style and mood that defies the strict categorisation imposed by genre and imbued with a seemingly incompatible yet effective blend of genuine Romanticism and self-reflexive irony.

Based on Tiziano Sclavi's Dylan Dog graphic novel series, director Michele Soavi's odd-ball anomaly of a film Dellamorte Dellamore is set for the most part within the confines of an Italian small-town cemetary and chronicles the social isolation of the protagonist, the pretentiously and dramatically titled Francesco Dellamorte, surprisingly played by well-known actor Rupert Everett (who apparently inspired Sclavi's original protagonist). Francesco spends his life casually observing the lives of others turn to dust while he goes about his routine job as Buffalora's local cemetery keeper with only his naïve, mute hunchback sidekick Gnaghi (François Hadji-Lazaro) for company. That is, until in the tradition of most films set in cemeteries, the dead start rising from the grave and walking around in a hilarious parody of their former breathing selves and a beautiful young widow known only as 'She' (Anna Falchi) catches Francesco's eye and goes through a series of reincarnations.

The fascinating thing about Dellamorte Dellamore is its fine balance between erotic horror thriller, black comedy, social satire and serious meditative drama. Now I'm aware that these claims may sound suspicious as such descriptions are often used in defense of many a mediocre pornographic B-movie disguising itself as something more. However, it is definitely not the case with this movie, which transcends the limitations of its low budget via Soavi's highly aesthetic eye. As Dario Argento's protégé, Soavi's visual style is clearly influenced by the well-known Italian cult director, yet he succeeds in creating his own unique mood which imbues scenes with a melancholy and eerie beauty that tones down Argento's savage style and makes way for a tone which is more aligned with Francesco's Romantic mind-set. Yet the film also often reflects ironically upon itself, and we begin to intuit that Francesco's narcissistic isolation within the almost dream-like feel created by cinematographer Mauro Marchetti is a cover for his need to strike out at a less-than-ideal society. Still, the quiet and contemplative figure of Francesco strolling through an autumn-tinged daylight world and a misty night time within set designer Massimo Antonello Gelleng's stylized and lavishly designed sets is always more appealing to the viewer than the drab town outside its gates-- one populated by neurotic, fluttering politicians and an array of ridiculous yapping caricatures…..“The more they laugh, the further away they seem. You can never be too different, Gnaghi”, bemuses Francesco as he condescendingly ignores the (false) rumours surrounding his alleged impotence running through the ears of the vulgar town's folk.

The movie is essentially composed of purely cult humour which rather than being camp itself, possesses an intuitively camp sensibility. Combine this factor with scenes which are pretentiously artistic in their visual approach and you have Dellamorte Dellamore, an odd mixture of philosophical ruminations about life and death captured in highly quotable one-liners such as “I'd give my life to be dead”, a bizarre necrophilic yet naïve love affair between a re-animated disembodied head and Gnaghi, fire-flies hanging upon visible strings and an apparition of the Angel of Death composed of pages from a burning phonebook! The film is a feast for those, who like myself, are enamoured of down-right insanity of plot, yet in terms of linearity the film for the most part avoids the often over-convoluted nature of scripts such as those of Argento's Profondo Rosso (1975). It in fact strives for a more 'lovably-evil' vibe than the down-right psychotically malign, while still not falling in line with the purely parodic mood of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series (1981, 1987, 1992). Dellamorte Dellamore in general spins a unique mood of its own, which combined with the seductively misfit-like performance of Everett in this lesser-known role, possesses a charm which is hard to resist from the initial visually gorgeous Argento-style shot right up to the strange and original ending. My only warning applies to the dub: although the movie is officially dubbed in both English and Italian without specifying an original language, I still highly recommend the Italian dub since the only character which doesn't possess a shrill cringe-worthy voice on the English version is Francesco. Moreover, the script is in most instances more effective in Italian in terms of both depth and irony.

In comparison, Santa Sangre is probably even less accessible to anyone who doesn't already share an appreciation of movies that are well, basically, just plain weird! Alejandro Jodorowsky's film, which is probably a red herring in any imaginable context, requires the imagination to work a little harder since despite its intriguing nature, the production clearly plays out in a sequence of highly ambitious ideas which are way beyond its budget. In spite of this, or perhaps precisely for this reason, Santa Sangre holds a fascinating edge which you don't come across everyday.

Following the psychological deterioration of the young Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky) after he undergoes a series of childhood traumas within the grounds of his father's circus and his mother's fanatical religious cult, the film unfolds in a line up of seemingly random scenes featuring eccentric characters, tormented personal visions containing brutal religious imagery and a unique twist on the cinematically over-used Oedipus complex. In this way the film deals heavily with a Romanticised vision of the isolated madman figure, and the hardships of social rejection continue to be raised through several minor characters such as the melancholy circus clowns, who unlike Fenix, carry their outcast nature externally. In the meantime, selfish characters in the film often seem to fetishize each other's social or physical differences for their own ends. The film seems pretty obsessed with its inventory of the unusual and among the members of this list feature a muscular, completely tattooed woman with a relentless bent for power through her self-imposed shocking appearance and an ever-suffering mute ballerina with pierrette-style make-up.

With its highly baroque style and imagery as well as its erratic tone--which switches between camp, serious drama and melodrama--the only thing which I have been able to compare its style to is not a film, but a novel. In terms of visuals and instances of mood, the movie does in fact bear a striking resemblance to Angela Carter's eccentric novel Nights at the Circus (1984), although the film often seems to act as a tribute to more than one popular source of influence. A clear example is a delightfully tongue-in-cheek scene where Fenix enacts the concoction of an invisibility potion in what is obviously a tribute to James Whale's classic film adaptation, The Invisible Man (1933). However, throughout the film we sense the poignancy of even the most seemingly random scenes, and as Fenix's quest for invisibility continues to demonstrate his descent into the status of non-entity at the mercy of the figure of his over-bearing mother, this sequence becomes increasingly significant.

Any viewer's reception of Santa Sangre is bound to be mixed since apart from the mesmerising insanity which looms over the film as a whole, one other question remains surrounding it: is this movie camp or is it perfectly aware of the limitations of its budget and its sometimes painfully bad performances? Surely, the decision to have Spanish actors simply learn their lines by rote to appeal to an English-speaking audience has something to do with the often cringingly bad delivery of dialogue, though in the brief scenes where a transvestite wrestler mimes lines to what is obviously a mousy woman's voice recorded on a different track, then there is clearly something more going on behind the scenes. My guess is that Santa Sangre is quite self-consciously displaying its penchant towards happily non-mainstream film-making without being predictably or traditionally controversial.

And in any case, it is probably impossible for such movies to cause any level of controversy since they are so seldom given any attention or understood according to their own particular context, for it is clear that there are some movements or film-scenes which work on a very different wavelength in terms of mood, humour and over-all philosophy of style. This last comment of mine is however not meant in complaint to what may be understood as a general under-appreciation or dismissal of certain cult-appeal films, but rather a relieved reflection on the factors which allow this kind of underdog film-making to continue wheeling around its disturbing little treats even amidst the cynical laughter of the cool kids.

Monday, 15 October 2007

r.i.p. rudolf arnheim

I have just learnt (through Cinematical) of the death, last June, of Rudolf Arnheim (1904-2007), one of the greatest and most important of film theorists. Though there is much to criticize in his theories (as Noel Carroll demonstrates so eloquently in Philosophical Problems of Classical Film Theory), it is undeniable that his early contributions to the academic field of film studies was instrumental in the development of the understanding of film as a new and valuable art form.

Despite the flaws in his arguments, and a certain narrowness in his vision (he continued to criticize the sound film as a dilution of the purity of silent cinema), the ideas expressed in his seminal work Film als Kunst (1932) are still endlessly valuable in understanding the cinematic art. Locating the value of film in the specific ways in which it diverges from the mechanical, photographic recording of reality (and thus emphasizing the inherent artifice, rather than the realist aspect, of fimmaking), he outlined these specific divergences as being the cause of film's expressive power, thus paving the way for much formalist analysis of the medium. He remains one of the greatest and most important theorists of this still-young medium.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

plug: the looney tunes appreciation blog

There can be little argument on the fact that the Looney Tunes, in their heyday, represent the pinnacle of the animated short. We all have our childhood memories of them; the joy comes in returning to them as adults and discovering levels of intelligence and humour you'd never have picked up on before. There can be no greater testament to their enduring genius than the fact that they have surived, untarnished, through decades of Warner Brothers' most valiant attempts to ruin them forever.

But, to the point. A friend of mine has just set up the Looney Tunes Appreciation Blog, a project in which he aims to watch and review one Looney Tunes short per day. It's a worthy enterprise that deserves some attention, so go there.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

review: the proposition (john hillcoat, 2006)

"Australia...what fresh hell is this?"

Standing in the gruesome aftermath of a desperate and frantic gunfight that opens the film in media res, Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) looks out at the sweltering, barren landscape of the Australian outback in near-desperation, and anachronistically quotes Dorothy Parker. Later in the film, bounty hunter Jellon Lamb (John Hurt) remarks how all the God has evaporated out of him in this "godforsaken land". The harsh Australian landscape, dusty, bleached, buzzing with flies, endless, mocks Captain Stanley and his repeated platitudes that he will "civilize this land". It mocks the little rose garden his wife (Emily Watson) tends in front of their house, demarcated by a ridiculously out-of-place white picket fence from the vast sea of sand and rock that surrounds it.

The traditional Western dichotomy between the wilderness and the encroaching garden of civilization is present and accounted for, but this is neither a throwback to the classic Western, glorifying the settlers and their work, nor is it a revisionist recasting of the settlers as corrupt spearheads of capitalism, destroying the natural landscape and all it stands for. Here, the wilderness is savage, empty, and so cosmically indifferent to the figures within it that any delusions of taming it are laughable.

1880s Australia in
The Proposition is a vision of hell, a godless, amoral wasteland in which all attempts at civility and civilization seem woefully inadequate. This land - which director John Hillcoat rightly places in the foreground of the film, somehow making sweeping, empty landscapes seem stifling and claustrophobic - is a land of dust, flesh and blood, a place where a man can have little pretentions of being anything other than a beast, and where any sort of morality seems an exercise in futility. Watson's Martha Stanley,a gentle, composed, seemingly upper-class woman, seems, together with the class and domestic values she represents, utterly out of place here.

Here, justice becomes an elastic concept; the word is much bandied about but no-one seems to agree on what it means or how it should be enforced. Captain Stanley, who, despite a distinct roughness, at least possesses some degree of compassion, is the only person willing to look beyond an especially vicious eye-for-an-eye philosophy; but even this slight hint of morality seems like a hopeless match struck in an ocean of darkness.

Nick Cave's voice is clearly evident in the screenplay (he also contributes an unsurprisingly excellent but surprisingly understated score), in its blend of low, casual vulgarity and violence, and high seriousness. There is the distinct hint of Old Testament fire and brimstone coursing through every line of dialogue, resounding with an elaborate but unforced, dramatic theatricality that is entirely appropriate to this resolutely expressionist, despite its dusty grittiness, film. Hillcoat translates the copious acts of violence in the script primarily through effective suggestion and detail - blood being strained from a whip, and so on - though there is one glaring, and memorable, exception (you'll know it when you see it).

The hint of Abel and Cain haunts the central narrative, of Charles Burns (Guy Pearce), the middle brother of a three-sibling outlaw gang, forced to choose between hunting down his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston) or letting his younger brother Mike (Richard Wilson) be hanged. There are also echoes of Conrad's Heart of Darkness (and Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979)), with Arthur seeming to have become a kind of Kurtz figure, a near-godlike legend who has absorbed the spirit of the land.

This is a rich film unafraid to tackle the big themes - family, morality, justice, atonement. But, despite Hillcoat's and Cave's considerable talents, the film would not have worked as well as it does without the contributions of a truly remarkable cast. It is difficult to pick a standout, since all the principal players - Winstone, Pearce, Huston, Watson, Hurt - deliver perfectly-judged performances, from Hurt's histrionic grandstanding, to Watson's understated, restrained turn, to Pearce's ragged, conflicted introversion. Their performances prove crucial, for despite the loftiness of its themes, The Proposition's ideas are expressed through the conflicts and relationships that tie its characters together; the family bonds that link the Burns brothers, Captain Stanley's troubled but affectionate relationship with his wife, his subordinates' flagging trust in his authority, the pact, if there is one at all, between Captain Stanley and Charles Burns; and the crux of the film lies in the way all these relationships come under strain, often violently, as all the characters attempt to follow their own twisted moral compass in a godless, spiritually and materially arid land.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

review: inland empire (david lynch, 2006)

What to say about a film that so determinedly places itself in opposition to rationalization, to logical thought, to being pinned down or reduced into any logical schema? David Lynch's Inland Empire, even by Lynch's standards, is a film that absolutely cannot be reduced to its narrative elements or summed up in a plot outline.

It is, more than any film of his career, or, indeed, than any major film of the last few years, a film of pure images and atmosphere. The transition to DV has suited Lynch well; though the glossy, hyper-real saturation of Mulholland Drive (2001) is lost, the grimy, murky look we gain, all overexposed highlights and dark, grainy shadows, suits the film perfectly - it is difficult to imagine Inland Empire shot on traditional film. Lynch isn't the first major film-maker to switch to video, but none have made the switch so comprehensively, so acutely aware of the possibilities created by the change in medium.

So what is Inland Empire? At its core, it is a labyrinthine descent into an individual and a collective subconscious, a dense, interlocking web of images and stories, a claustrophobic and frequently outright terrifying inner journey into the darker corners of everyday domestic life and the psychic imprints they leave behind.

Having said all this, there is a sort of narrative sense, though the pieces can only begin to fit together once you accept that multiple levels of consciousness and reality are being intercut, and that not every image is to be taken literally, and that the connections are more often emotional, metaphorical or psychoanalytical than logical.

The most obvious story thread is that of actress Nikki Grace (played with terrifying intensity by Laura Dern), a has-been star who is given a role that could put her career back on track. There are complications - an affair with her co-star brings down the wrath of her jealous husband, mirroring the plot of the film under production; while the cast learn that the film is based on a Polish folk tale that is said to be cursed - an earlier attempt to film the story was abandoned when the leads were murdered.

(it is probably not a good idea to read the next couple of paragraphs if you haven't seen the film, especially if you feel it's important to reach your own interpretation first)

There is much more to it than this story, however. Besides Nikki's story, the film is also that of the unnamed woman we see at the start, crying as she watches television. Just like Nikki herself as well as her character in the film, she is trapped in the "old story", the record playing over and over, of desperate marital unhappiness, in whatever form - infidelity, jealousy, abuse, violence, abandonment. The myriad interlocking and overlapping stories that surface and disappear in the swirling mass of Inland Empire orbit this theme, with the endless, hypnotic repetition of images, lines of dialogue and characters all trapped in the same endless drama.

Seeking solace in the television, she finds it (among the pop-culture detritus TV images) in the film (or possibly more than one film) Nikki took part in. Nikki, in confronting and overcoming the demons in her own subconscious, her own "inland empire", while making the film, made it possible for other women, through the stories, to do the same, such that at the end of the film, the unnamed woman is able to welcome her husband back and find happiness. The film, then, is a journey simultaneously into the collective subconscious and into that of two particular women, the actress whose delving into her own subconscious allows for the creation of the stories that are released into the collective consciousness that helps the other woman, the viewer, to overcome her own demons. It is an expansive inner epic in which Lynch explores not only the theme of female oppression - as revealed by the film's subtitle, "A Woman in Trouble" - but also the power of stories and storytelling, and the relationship between the collective and the individual consciousness.

(end "spoilers")

What Inland Empire definitely is, is Lynch unleashed, Lynch redux, Lynch freed completely and totally from any commercial pressures and allowed to go as far down his own rabbit hole as he wishes. The math is simple - if you've enjoyed or appreciated Lynch's previous descents into the subconscious, particularly the fractured psychological dreamscapes of Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001), then you will love this. If you didn't, then this might provide you with the most excruciating three hours you'll ever spend with a film. It isn't for everyone, and that isn't meant as a damning either of the film or of the people it isn't for. It is what it is.

In distilling his vision into its purest, most individual form, and painting it over his largest canvas yet, Lynch has created something that feels distinctly like his Big Statement. I am less eager to label it the apex of Lynch's career than some other critics have been, but that is a testament to the quality of his back catalogue, not in any way a denigration of this film. Inland Empire is another masterpiece, a staggering, frequently jaw-dropping work of pure cinema, an intense collection of gorgeous and terrifying images, a densely layered meditation on consciousness, gender, oppression and the relationship between the artist and their audience. It is a landmark film that offers further confirmation, if any were needed, that Lynch is a cinematic genius with very few equals.