Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Went The Day Well? (1942) - Alberto Cavalcanti

Went The Day Well? rises wonderfully from it's mid-War propaganda roots to quickly become an engaging, entertaining wartime thriller warranting several viewings. The 1942 Ealing Studios production starts as innocently as any rural drama with a truckload of troops entering a village under the auspices of some kind of communications mission. The villagers suspect nothing, and nor do we - the accents come with the stiffest of lips; the only odd behaviour is the scolding of a young boy curious to see what's on the back of the truck under the tarpaulin. As with most films of this type however, where a con is afoot, the audience are told early on that these are in fact Germans in disguise (in a similar vein to Battle Of The Bulge). Curiously, it is the women in the village who have suspicions first, but even they don't cotton on to the traitor in their midst. Ultimately, the Germans' mission is inevitably futile when the villagers seize their chance to take down the troop themselves turning the tables irrevocably to their favour.

For a film with a purpose it not only does what it sets out to do: affirmation of British stoic strength in the face of adversity, but does so without shoving any agenda distastefully down the audience's throat. With the men abroad it's unsurprising that the women take on a lot of the film's strongest roles (Thora Hird taking the strongest, and most frightening) yet these roles don't come with the hardened sense of extreme feminsim they might have in later films dealing with this period. The workmanlike direction from Alberto Cavalcanti ticks the standard clichés and runs through predictable plot arcs without ever seeming tired, or mundane. The photography may be uninspired, but then it doesn't need to be particularly special when the story holds up on its own merits. We know what's going to happen, but I never once felt watching the flick was pointless and with some unintentional comedy thrown into the mix this mixed bag has a little something for everyone. Ok, so the acting may be as wooden as the crosses that adorn the church interior but you get what you expect with this classic gem of a film: excitement, a thrill or 2, some action and some comedy all dished up within 90 minutes. I for one couldn't ask for much more.



Went The Day Well on Wikipedia
Senses Of Cinema article

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Rope (1948) - Alfred Hitchcock

Is this the rope by which Hitchcock hangs himself? For me, yes, well - at least in part. The obsession with style and technique here really overrides the plots focus and any sense of realism. The rope may be awaiting the film's protagonists, it may be the ingredient that gave them away, but in trying for so long to tie the long tracking shots together Hitch' comes desperately unstuck for this particular viewer.

The set-up is simple: 2 impossibly arrogant bourgois students murder a classmate purely to see if they can get away with "the perfect murder". Murder, they proffer, is not just a crime but an art form reserved for the higher classes of individual to be perpetrated on the weak lower echelons of society. After the murder the 2 students hold a party attended by the deceased's girlfriend, his father and aunt, another friend and an old teacher. To add excitement, or for whatever reason, they use the trunk into which they've dumped the body, for the party's centrepiece. The film follows the conversations at the party and the unravelling of their big plan by the teacher.

There seems to be so, so much wrong with this film. For starters there's the way it's shot. After the first cut to the interior Hitchcock does so much to mask the cuts [at the end of reels] by using close-ups of characters' backs to mask the edit. At the time, i can see that this would have worked for the majority of the audience who wont be looking for edits, but years later with a reputation firmly established this bold experiment fails in my estimations. Once we, the audience, are aware of what Hitchcock is doing, every edit becomes more than just obvious - they become the focus of the film. The close-ups on backs are unsightly, drawing unwarranted attention to themselves they reveal the director's trickery drawing further focus away from the story itself. Perhaps however, this can be excused in context, when technology of the time is taken into account as well as the audience etc. What's stranger then, is when in the final section of the film the cutting resorts to much more standard practise. As unsightly as the early edits may be, they do at least establish their own form of rhythm with which one can accept and become attuned to, but this is all undone by the end of the film. For a film "with no cuts" 3 or 4 actual cuts seems quite steep, for all the good these later cuts do he [the director] may as well have put in a jump cut at the end to a courtroom or to the gallows. I can't deny the technical achievements in pulling those huge camera through the set to achieve those eternal tracking and panning shots, but i really don't feel here that the risk was worth it. In technical innovation Hitchcock undermines any semblance of realism the film started off with, to the point that it's less of a film per se, but an unpolished, raw technical experiment that still needs an awful lot of work before it's fit to be shown to audiences.

Assuming however, you can buy the style and technique enough to focus on the story, how good is the plot? Again, it's found wanting. Wanting of a twist, something interesting to spice it up, something to raise this overwrought melodrama from the ever-predictable doldrums in which it irrevocably resides. For two students who seem so apparently well-educated one has to question almost every decision they make in the film. By placing the body, literally, in the middle of the party they are displaying a huge degree of arrogance and egotism. We know it's going to be their downfall, so maybe that's the point - that ego leads to failure, that the obnoxious upper classes are never as superior as they think they are intellectually or otherwise. But most people already are well aware that arrogance is a forbearer of doom; cocksure and distasteful we resent these protagonists as soon as we meet them and hope they get what's coming to them... which, essentially is what happens in the film. The guests turn up, the teacher rumbles their scheme and makes sure the police come to arrest them. To me it seems bafflingly simple, and almost pointless. Person does bad, gets found out and receives comeuppance: where's the fun, interest, intrigue; excitement in this? Fans seem to point to tension, but i can't say i felt any, at any point in the film. The whole thing seems to be one slippery slope from the moment Stewart enters the room, from the moment he steps in he seems suspicious and gets ever more so 'til the climax. There's no discernible revelation here, just mounting evidence that increasingly confirms one characters initial fear/suspicion. Again however, this in itself is not always a terrible thing - after all films that tell a simple story well in a tight runtime can be just as much the masterpiece as those sprawling epics which interweave many complex narrative threads and characters. But, all i can say here is that the execution is terrible (pun intended). There's a kind of build-up to a debate over the merit of murder's artistry in which the protagonists all but give themselves away (they really couldn't make it more obvious, throughout the film, that they are very guilty murderers), yet this central debate, the apparent focus of the film is over extremely quickly with only superficial argument. There's a sort of revelation near the end when the teacher rescinds his standpoint on murder as art, an act (rescission that is) that could have come as a surprise if we knew more of his character or if he didn't seem so impossibly, eloquently, liberal - that he would see the error in his previous views comes as no shock whatsoever; indeed the only shock is that it takes him so long to do so. All in all, the story seems barely real or credible, with lines feeling evermore contrived and dialogue evermore focused on driving home plot points being delivered by 2 dimensional characters none of which we can reasonably side with.

All that remains then is the performances, which could make the film worthwhile. They don't. Wooden throughout, stagey delivery and extraordinary unevenness leave the performances - even from the leads - approaching a shamble. The last remnants of reality are shattered every time anyone speaks a line. The actors should be on a stage when they talk like this, not a film set, and when i say talk i mean read. I'm fairly sure that there are times you can see the actor reading his/her lines off of a cue card off-screen. Monotony is one thing, but that actually, isn't the problem here - everything else is. There's a total emotional dearth at the script's core, and with emotion absent what we're left with is these cardboard figures blandly reading a poorly constructed argument on the morality and sociology of crime. I wanted there to be another layer, some kind of subtext, maybe even something metaphorical going on but there just isn't. At times the writing borders on incompetent - especially with the girl and her ex-boyfriend: really i see no point whatsoever in them being at the party, their only contribution to the plot is needless time-wasting. I don't hate the performances, because i think the fault lies as much with the writers as the cast but surely good actors can make a bad script work - even to some small extent? Perhaps not. James Stewart, FWIW, is the most bearable of those appearing the feature, although that's only because he's playing James Stewart who i happen to like; if Tom Hanks was in the role i would undoubtedly have hated him.

All in all, i was left thoroughly disappointed by a film that seemed to hold so much promise and didn't deliver, at all.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Black Moon (1975) - Louis Malle

The tagline for Malle's first English language feature, "An apocalyptic Alice in Wonderland", is as misleading as it is an accurate summary of everything the film stands for. It is apocalyptic, but only in the most rudimentary of senses with the setting of the film taking a large backward step here in favour of the actions and events that form the film's plot. Don't understand? Well, i've seen the film twice in the last couple of days and neither do I. Enigmatic, perhaps even profound, Malle eschews cinematic dogma with confidence and aplomb providing a film that's as baffling as it is absorbing, intoxicating and off-putting in equal measure.

Essentially, the film follows Lily. We don't know who she is but she's running (more specifically, driving) from something. A couple of external scenes show there is some kind of war of attrition going on between men and women. When she can get no further by car, she continues on foot first following a horseman(?) then a unicorn she spies. The unicorn, along with hens, pigs, sheep, a rat, an eagle, a millipede, snakes and a horse is just one of the film's animal images. The unicorn leads her to a house, in which she finds an old lady (Therese Giehse) who speaks in tongues to a large rat and occasionally talks to someone on a CB radio to describe what Lily is doing. Later, Lily (Cathryn Harrison) meets Lily (Joe Dallesandro) and his sister, Lily (Alexandra Stewart). Not much of importance really happens after this, except for Lily talking to the unicorn and playing Wagner on the piano, Lily (Joe) killing an eagle and Lily (Alex) breastfeeding the old lady.

Considering that anything we see could be as much fantasy for Lily as it is reality. critiquing the film becomes problematic. You can't say that the old woman wouldn't have set all those alarm clocks to go off at the same time, as much as you can't say unicorns don't exist/talk. Things happen and recur in the film that defy reason or logic that seem, somehow to have an importance or meaning. One could attach arbitrary meanings to individual scenes - the clocks being thrown from the window as a "time flies" gesture for instance, however i fell that ignores the spirit of the work. In writing the screenplay, Malle seems to have been aiming for some kind of cinematic equivalent to automatic writing where things happen and only afterwards with hindsight can we look at the results for some kind of meaning. At the same time though, it's a deeply personal film for the director who shot and edited it at his home in the Dordogne valley.

Taken as a kind of pubescent voyage of discovery, a lose form of linearity can be derived in the narrative. The film opens on the childish Lily running from the battle of the sexes, she witnesses it (women being slaughtered at a roadside) but doesn't take part, only picking up a gun much later in the film when a body is discovered in the house's garden. From her external flight, she enters the new world of the film's interior where she encounters siblings (Lily and Lily) who lead a pseudo-incestuous relationship, and the old lady who can be seen to embody a perverse notion of maternity. The old lady even plays on pubescent insecurities, laughing loudly at the Lily not having any bosom. The bastardised effeminacy seems to be a central current of the film, even extending to the bizarre [un]natural things we see outside.

The sight of naked children herding animals, and sheep flocking should not, prima facie be a threatening or foreboding event yet Lily runs franticly from the sheep and the sight of the children with the large pig and other animals seems to take something almost natural and make it part of a surreal nightmare. Actually, is it even a nightmare? Lily only seems to be aware of the war, but have no comprehension of the relationship between the old lady and the two Lilies; her actions inside the house are always instinctive, rushed frantic - yet on her first encounter she seems to know why the old lady attacks her (something about a watch?). Conversely, she screams when the old lady suffocates and - in a quick edit - we see a masked intruder strangling her. The old lady also says that Lily sees things and believes there's a war on; are we to take this as a dose of reality in Lily's fantastical nightmare, or is it just another bit of nonsense into the mélange.

Alice in Wonderland is unavoidable when talking about Black Moon. A feminine protagonist goes on a surreal journey encountering talking animals and a myriad of other characters; she is scared and trying desperately to get home. Here however, Alice only provides the roughest sense of the narrative structure - the linear journey that leads to these bizarre encounters, and also a sense that it shouldn't all (if ever) make sense. One big difference however, is that Lily doesn't wake up at the end. This is not an adaptation of Caroll, it's incorporates the structure to tell it's own story but pays as much attention to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde as it does to the literary work. There's an unmistakeable earthliness to the film, it's symbiosis with the land underpins everything - nature comes into man's world and vica versa, to the point that she can hold conversation with a unicorn. It's this sense of earthliness that allows the shots of animals to seem in context, and also lets myth intermingle with legend and folklore on the screen without question. It doesn't make much sense, but somehow it fits.

The most crucial question remains: is the film a success? Well, if by that we mean "does this film achieve the director's intentions" then i think the answer has to be yes (to some extent). The director always insisted its inclusion in retrospectives of his work and, to all intense purposes, was proud of the finished product despite the box office flop it became (and then there's the fact that Malle created a shorter, 1 hour cut of the film which he was also happy with). Financially, it was a flop arriving to very mixed reactions in the arthouse crowd but is it an artistic success of merit? I have to say that personally, i found it impossibly dull. The long, long periods of time without any dialogue whatsoever were often all too mind-numbing. For most of the film, very little happens at all. There are events but they can at best be sporadic; i can see it would be very easy to fall asleep during the film. This was shot by Bergman's cinematographer, Sven Nykvist yet it looks so dull - this at least was an artistic decision to only shoot the film when it was overcast (and when it was sunny shoot the interiors); Malle wanted it to look flat, opaque, without shadow, a film shot at an undefined time of day: a dawn or dusk of man/woman.

Saying the outside is dull, ignores the frankly brilliant interior shots - especially those lit by fire or candlelight (something Nykvist has excelled at in his career) that brought to mind works like Jarman's The Tempest for it's hauntingly romantic interiors. The performances are the measure of restraint, glances and shifts in posture filling in for the lack of dialogue, the actors erotic in their androgyny. It's so odd: a film that seems to put the audience at such a distance then, in a moment of brilliance, sucks you inexorably into the narrative intellectually and emotionally - for me the scene in the film that makes it all worth it is the one when Lily plays piano for the children. Out of the lethargic ordinariness of the film, rises like a phoenix from the ashes, a few minutes of captivating, sumptuous cinema that comes in waves reaching an incredible crescendo; it's literally worth watching for the one scene where - through the artistic medium - she escapes her surreal hell, and we can forgive Malle for making us wait so long to see what he can produce.

Overall: 6/10

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Frantic (1988) - Roman Polanski

Roman Polanski
's Hitchcock homage, Frantic, was a far better experience than i'd bargained on. Harrison Ford plays the American bureaucrat out of his depth in a very mono-linguistic Paris. His wife scarpers while he's cleaning his nether regions in the shower beginning the film's main plot line - the search for his wife. The film could just as well been called Frustrated because he runs into dead-ends wherever he turns. At first, it seemed the film was making fun of - or at least highlighting - the pitfalls of cultural/linguistic ignorance in a foreign land; it's ok while everything's fine but as soon as things go array things get very difficult very quickly. However, this taut first half with minimal action and maximum notching-up of palpable tension gives way in the second half first to a plot involving drug smuggling, then finally to international nuclear espionage and a showdown on the Seine.

Beyond the fisticuffs, a naked Ford receiving a roundhouse kick to the face, characters scrambling over rooftops and spies in car chases there's much more to the film's construction. Polanski and cinematographer, Sobocinski, achieve countless shots that are simply brilliant in their simplicity as much as the attention to detail. The frame is so often broken up with verticals (doorways, windows etc) into at least 2, if not 3, distinct sections of action. Polanski compounds this with an incredible use of recessive depth which leaves the extreme background out of focus but ever-present. The colour photography, set and costume design like so many movies of its time looks routed in the 80s but this isn't necessarily such a bad thing. The relative dullness, the low contrast and saturation of the photography, allow the plot's tension and excitement to come to the fore rather than distract from it.

Ford excels in the lead in a role more akin to Jack Ryan than to Mr Jones, while the supporting cast do rather well with their own limited characters. All in all an entertaining, well-paced thriller that never outstays its welcome.


Sunday, 28 October 2007

A hot sojourn of a very different nature - photos from Egypt

Went for a week all-inclusive in Egypt - Hurghada to be precise - earlier this year with Faye. Spent the majority of the week going brown, then red, by the pool drinking free beer and cocktails and eating the free burger and chips. The one excursion we did go out on was a day out into the desert, racing over the sand dunes in the back of some very rickety ol' jeeps (sans seat belts) before riding camels and looking around a bedoin village before being entertained by traditional dance and food in the evening, stopping on the way back in the middle of the desert for a bit of star-gazing (without any ambient light the sky looks very different indeed).

On coming back we spent about 10 hours being delayed in an airport with a very British mutiny by half the flight passengers who got it into their head that our flight wasn't safe to take off. Considering it was a military airport i found it surprising that the ruction kicked up by irate travellers was too much for the staff to handle - to the point that they ignored usual security checks and allowed the flight crew into the terminal to explain the situation to us directly. ON the plus side the airline gave us free pizza and coke, although they compounded the bad-feelings by then accusing some people of taking double portions and messing with our boarding passes.

hotel lobby:

sunset over the Red Sea mountains:

very real Saharan landscape:

on the horizon i think you can make out a mirage (non-existent mountain range)

Those glasses did contain free [strong] coctails, until we drank them.

entrance to our hotel:

lounging by the pool:

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Finding Neverland (2004) - Marc Forster

The key word here is competent. There is nothing specifically bad about Marc Forster's film, it's just there's nothing particularly exceptional about it either. Depp and Winslet phone in reasonable performances while Forster does the minimum with the material provided to produce a film which, although not in the least bit dull, doesn't ever amount to something that feels wholly satisfactory.

The story follows J.M. Barrie as, under the pressure of critical slatings of his latest plays, he immerses himself in the world of Sylvia Davies' children - one of whom becomes the boy upon whom the character of Peter Pan is based. All this going on while - unbeknownst to the family, Silvia is desperately ill following the passing on of her husband. Backed by a financier at the end of his tether, with more money than sense, the Peter Pan story conjures itself in the head of Mr Barrie heavily inspired by the children with which he so closely associates. There is a brief mention of the rumours circulating that something untoward is going on between the playwright and the kids, but in this family film such talk is presented as bitter cynicism by prying eyes and stuffy-nosed high society who don't take kindly to breaking the mould. By contrast Barrie's unconventional production is presented here as something of a brainwave, a revolution in the medium, something which pushes art forward upon a broader audience socially as much as artistically.

It's all very neat, yet unavoidably shallow. The film never even seems interested in the whys and wherefores behind Mr Barrie's relationship to the children beyond him being genuinely kind of heart, and any sexual chemistry between him and Silvia is underplayed to the point of non-existence. We learn next to nothing of Barrie's background, nor what happens after the play's performance. Ultimately, I'm afraid Forster wants to turn this interesting drama-come-fantasy into a tear-jerking family drama about love, but the underdeveloped characters of the children and Silvia left me, in the final reel, simply wondering "is that it?". Was the play a cathartic way of dealing with the mother's illness for the children; did Barrie intend it that way or was this merely co/incidental? Forster, apparently, doesn't care as long as the music stirs on the right queue and every negative shot is followed by a cosy, nice one.

It's a safe watch, that veers clear of tedium, but does nothing to linger in the memory for more than about 30 seconds after the credits have expired. Taking Monster's Ball into account, Mr Forster must do better next time IMHO.


Monday, 3 September 2007

Azumi (2003) - Ryuhei Kitamura

Not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, Azumi is a simple story told fairly well with plenty of fighting and blood-spilling thrown in to keep the audience entertained. The story is essentially one of assassins being sent out into the world to kill bad men, only to start questioning their actions when they come across nice people and witness innocents being slain. I could probably throw in a quote here about how along with great power comes responsibility, only in Azumi the assassins have no responsibilities, are are actively encouraged not to feel guilt. Azumi herself, is the only woman in the group, the fastest and most talented of all of them it is abundantly clear from the first reel that she is the one who will save the day in the end.

Considering the body-count (very high - 3 figures at least), explosions and other sorts of violence it's surprising that such a film could be as dull and boring as this. The dialogue is monotonous and - for the mostpart - the editing of the action scenes is choppy beyond distraction, throw in far far too much slow motion and an awful electric guitar soundtrack and the whole thing gets quite annoying very quickly indeed. There's not much required of the actors here, other than to talk solemnly and fight - which is a pity because one or two hint at some genuine talent.

With cliché compounding cliché, and no blood-letting we haven't already seen before in Kill Bill i wouldn't recommend this to anyone. There are much, much better Samurai flicks out there, and much better Japanese film-makers too.