Friday, 28 September 2007

review: bug (william friedkin, 2006)

The phenomenon of films marketed as something they clearly aren't is not a new one, but Bug, a character-driven psychological drama advertised as a horror film, presents a particularly extreme example. The manifest result, as is often the case, was a large portion of its audience leaving the cinema disappointed, not having gotten what they were expecting - and, subsequently, an underwhelming critical and commercial performance. Which is a shame, as Bug, while far from a masterpiece, is an engaging oddity, an insidiously disturbing, frequently horrific depiction of a couple's rapid descent into paranoia.

Ashley Judd plays Agnes, a waitress living in a run-down motel apartment seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Terrorized by her abusive ex-husband, who has just been released from prison, Agnes starts a relationship with Peter (Michael Shannon), a mysterious but seemingly kind-hearted stranger she is introduced to by a friend.

Agnes and Peter are both profoundly lonely people, retreating into claustrophobically solitary inner lives to escape a world that has treated them particularly harshly, and that they fear. Both speak in introverted near-mumbles and are initially unwilling to open themselves up to others; yet it is this same desperate loneliness that ultimately draws them to each other. This proves to be disastrous - wrapped up in each other and the world they create, they retreat further and further from reality, the increasing trust they place in each other seemingly fueling a corresponding mistrust of anything and anyone outside their narrow sphere.

The film's unique power stems from its intermeshing of its main themes - loneliness, love and paranoia. The bleak vision it presents is one in which an individual is defined by their fears and the little mental and physical enclaves they create to hide from a terrifying and incomprehensible world; where love is a desperate clutching at straws and leads only to a sharing and subsequent amplification of neuroses; where everything, from the whirring of an electric fan to the arrival of a pizza delivery man, sparks off a burst of irrational terror.

William Friedkin's output has been decidedly mixed, but he is on top form here, decking out the simple, one-location set-up with swooping aerial shots, montage sequences, long dissolves and inventive sound design, emphasizing the claustrophobia while also hinting at the protagonists' fracturing mental states. Nonetheless, the story's theatrical origins shine through all too clearly in places. The problem isn't really the story's restricted canvas (five speaking roles and virtually only one location), which is thematically integral. The script itself, however, occasionally sounds stilted, unnatural and overplayed, the themes just slightly over-emphasized and the narrative's overall shape just slightly too schematic to be entirely convincing.

As the film approaches its climax, then, it occasionally alternates (or my perception of it varied) between a genuine, intense psychological horror and farcically self-conscious pretention. Perhaps I am overstating this - these doubts are never more than momentary, and for the most part the film succeeds resoundingly. If it is a little too narrow and blinkeredly bleak in its vision to ever qualify as a Great Film (like Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream (2000), but perhaps even more so, this is a world where nothing good or beautiful can exist except ephemerally), it certainly executes its vision with intensity and focus, resulting, for all its flaws, in a chilling and disquieting horror-drama that will not be easily forgotten.

Friday, 21 September 2007

trailer: southland tales

It seems like we've been waiting forever to catch a glimpse of Richard Kelly's follow-up to one of the most astonishing of cinematic debuts, and, for my money, one of the films of the decade - Donnie Darko (2001). Reactions from last year's Cannes were spectacularly, overwhelmingly negative, but, in the full knowledge that I might be setting myself up for disappointment, I'll let my love for Donnie Darko fuel a cautious optimism about this.

The trailer certainly doesn't put me off - while I won't pretend to understand what the hell is going on, it sets up an intriguing, part-camp, part-serious tone and a joyful insanity. It reminds me somehow of the darkly comic, paranoid and surreal tone of the postmodern novels of Pynchon or Vonnegut; if Kelly has managed to capture that feeling, then Southland Tales might indeed prove to have been worth the wait. Only time will tell.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

(mostly) off-topic: back from london / dali and cinema

Normal service shall now resume.

London is a remarkable city, and to someone used to life somewhere like Malta, it feels like a different world. Its expansive, seemingly endless scale (I have visited three times and spent a total of over two months there, but still have not come close to taking in everything I want to see) is a big difference, of course, but it's not the only, or the biggest, factor. Its multiculturalism, the sense of the (mostly, but not always, harmonious)coexistence of countless lifestyles, is difficult to imagine coming from a society that is, at least on the surface, so uniformly homogenous. And this in a city where astonishing monuments such as Westminster Abbey and the National Gallery (whose collection we explored for almost two full days, without managing to see everything) stand to the monolithic Western Culture (the C most emphatically capitalized), with its unshaken values of tradition, aristocracy, hierarchy and nationalism, where Art stands in the service of God and country, and the latter two are almost interchangeable. The dichotomy between the almost incomprehensible, transcendental beauty of something like Westminster Abbey and the indefensible values it glorifies - monuments to kings, aristocrats, scientists and artists subsumed and incorporated into a great monument to the nation - represents, of course, one of the most troubling questions on the relation of art to society. Is the aesthetic worth of a work of art enough for it to transcend the material interests it is often designed to serve?

Back on topic - apart from sightseeing and museum touring, my visit also included two brilliant gigs (A Hawk and a Hacksaw, and Danielson, both of which Lara and I enjoyed immensely), a lot of book and record shopping, the sampling of several excellent beers which will make the local selections seem even more depressing, meeting a couple of expatriate friends, and other typical holiday pursuits.

On a more on-topic, cinema-related note, I also managed to catch a special exhibition at the Tate Modern about Salvador Dali's work for the cinema. The clear highlight, for me, was Destino, the six-minute animated film Dali had commenced work on with Walt Disney in 1946, but that had been left unfinished, until it was recently completed, following the original plans, by a team headed by executive producer Roy E. Disney and director Dominique Monfery.

The seams of this troubled history are evident; some sequences look very clearly CG-ed, while the look of the two protagonists seems very similar to Disney's more recent, modern style. As such, how close this project is to Dali and Disney's original intentions must remain in question; nonetheless, it remains a remarkable achievement.

I am not enough of an expert on art in general, or Dali in particualr, to be able to offer an in-depth critique of Destino. The power of its imagery, however, requires no interpretation. At its heart it is no more than the simple, eternal story of boy-meets-girl, but the story is told visually (there is no dialogue), and constructed out of the same symbolic, multi-layered surrealism as Dali's paintings. The film's images go beyond the breathless visual wit and invention they clearly display, attempting, as is the case with all of Dali's art, to capture and crystallize the hidden emotions and anxieties of the subconscious. The story becomes a beautifully eternal, almost epic one, while feeling intensely personal and real.

I cannot explain why the images have the impact they have - they work on an irrational, emotional level. But their impact is clearly felt, unlike in Dali's much-celebrated collaborations with Luis Bunuel, Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L'Age d'Or (1930). I understand I am slaughtering some kind of sacred cow here, but I feel that these two films, the latter in particular, degenerate into a tedious and incoherent visual babble of meaningless, affectless images, nonsense cinema in the most literal sense. While both, the former especially, contain moments of sheer brilliance (Un Chien Andalou's opening moon/eye montage is unforgettable, as is L'Age d'Or's closing sequence), they are few and far between, surrounded by long stretches of nothing. Their historical importance is undeniable, but I feel (and I may be missing something here) that, as experiences, they have aged terribly.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

interrupted transmission

Due to a long-planned trip to grand olde London, I will not have regular net access for a couple of weeks. This means there will be a short break in updates, but check back regularly for the blog will come back to life as soon as I return.