Sunday, 17 August 2008

coffee and typescript


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

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

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

Follow the link: Coffee and Typescript

Thursday, 28 February 2008

wouldn't it be great it...

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

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

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

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

Monday, 25 February 2008

review: atonement (joe wright, 2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 21 January 2008

review: once (john carney, 2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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