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...