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.


La Casa Sperduta Nel Parco (1980) - Ruggero Deodato

It's a good job Ruggero Deodato made a name for himself, and established a reputation with Cannibal Holocaust because watching The House On The Edge Of The Park one could easily assume he's the Uwe Boll of the 1980s.

Starring David Hess from Wes Craven's Last House On The Left the parallels to that film do not end there, although in Deodato's film there are attempts at social commentary - albeit ones delivered with all the subtlety and nuance of a sledgehammer. The set-up is very close to Craven's film - people are tortured and abused at gun/knife-point before the captives turn on their captors to wreak bloody vengeance. The way this film never remotely approaches reality, is also a feature shared with the earlier work, only whereas Craven went for comedy Deodato goes for the plain ludicrous. A spoiler follows, but as i wouldn't recommend this film to anyone then i don't think it matters much (even so, if you might watch the film just skip to the next paragraph). The most ludicrous part of the film has to be the reason for it all - after all the killing and hurting we find out that it was all set up by one of the rich characters as a way of getting his own back on the guy who raped his sister; at this point you have to wonder why his friends agreed to be humiliated, raped and abused just so he could kill a guy none of them have ever met.

Like I've said above, the film is dire. Not even dire, but truly, abysmally atrocious. The lighting doesn't even match up from one shot to the next, never mind the play fighting that passes for violence or the dumbest scream in film history. Then there's the dialogue, the flow of the plot etc etc nothing makes sense, nothing is even barely believable. There's suspension of disbelief with films, then there's stuff that's so bad you just have to laugh at it, this is such a case. Thankfully however, being in the UK i saw the film after it had been cut by about 11 minutes - i for one am glad i didn't have to endure another 11 minutes of this crap.


Tuesday, 28 August 2007

48 Hours in Paris

With only one half-decent idea for what to do for my girlfriend's birthday, i made a snap decision to take her to Paris for a couple of days last week:










Monday, 9 July 2007

Day at the Races

My day at the British Formula 1 Grand Prix at Silverstone, in pictures:

lewis hamilton
red arrows heart
red arrows 12
red arrows 11
red arrows 8
red arrows 6
view left
view front
view right

Monday, 2 July 2007

L'Amico Di Famiglia (2006) - Paolo Sorrentino

In Family Friend, a wonderful recent Italian film Giacomo Rizzo plays Geremia De Geremei. Geremia is an old man, a tailor with a rather repulsive appearance who lives in a run-down apartment with his ageing sickly mother. He seems nice - people come to him for advice, money help and lots of people seem to like him. The poor old guy couldn't harm a fly, the moment you see him you want to put your arm round the quaint old fella and tell him everything is going to be alright (though you'd have to say it in Italian as he doesn't speak English). This impression lasts for about 15 minutes or so, maybe less, before it's revealed he's a lone shark who charges 100% interest on all monies lent. But what can and old man like this do if someone doesn't pay? Well he employs some rather burly twins to get the money, or something of equal value out of his customers. He's "a friend of the family" to everyone because no one wants to admit who he really is to others, or that they need his help. The film itself revolves largely around a father who can't afford his daughter's wedding, so he goes to Geremia to get the money for the wedding. Soon after the money has been lent, Geremia gets an offer from a businessman who needs a million Euros (that means 2 million repaid to Geremia - enough to set him up for life). Between the businessman, Geremia, the father and the gorgeous bride-to-be who will do anything to lower her father's repayments things get messy very quickly for all involved; all the while Geremia's one true friend in the world - a man with a penchant for line dancing and country music with a dream of moving to the US, offers him a friendly shoulder to rest on and some sound advice.

This wonderfully shot film, captured largely in dark orange tones that bring a sense of Mediterranean warmth with a suspicious edge to the frame, seems to be all about friendship, and what constitutes "real" friendship. Geremia has lots of 'friends', but like the dealer in Patrice Leconte's My Best Friend they are only in actuality business acquaintances. People respect Geremia because they fear him, and no matter how nice he tries to be to them they will always resent hi and the power he holds over them - even if he will never understand this because of his delusion that he is liked by these people. Why he doesn't seem to spend any of the money he makes (he keeps it all in a safety deposit box), and whether he was a loner before he was a lone shark aren't fully explained. It seems to be down to a very conservative, prudent outlook on life as well as his domineering mother who rules his life from her bed and his absent father who brought him up to be a lone shark. His only real friend might not be his country music-loving accomplice, but 'The Pirate' - a competing loan shark who may or may not exist, but in Geremia's world he certainly exists, and is probably the only person who can truly understand Geremia's situation.

The acting is as wonderful as the cinematography, Giacomo Rizzo is perfect in the lead while Laura Chiatti exudes sultry European sex appeal from every pore of her skin (even when her dancing leaves a little to be desired we still [i]want[/i] her as much as Geremia does). The editing of the music, the production design... it all comes together cleanly and crisply to elucidate a very unique vision of a seedier side to contemporary Italian existence outside of the major cities. In the end not all is answered, though nor should it be for this film - as it stands - is [i]very[/i] good and in the first 30 minutes or so, touches on genuine greatness where it an irresistible sense of power is attained. Let down only slightly by the con story that comes to the fore in the film's ending, the emotional complexity involved in trying to de-construct the film's protagonists is something not seen that often in cinema these days. Sorrentino refuses to paint a landscape of good guys and bad guys, he refuses to explain why nice people do bad things and he refuses (for the most-part) to give into stereotype and cliché (there is one wonderful scene in which we think Geremia is going to sexually assault a client, before it turns out that is not what he is after at all). A brilliant theatrical experience; a film i will probably try to revisit when it comes out on dvd.

7 leaning towards 8/10