January 28, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 10:22 pm
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Director: David Fincher

166 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

New Orleans, 2005, then New Orleans/Russia between 1918-2003. Daisy, a dying woman tells her daughter, Caroline, the tale of a blind clockmaker in the city who devised a clock that ran backwards in the memory of those who died in World War One. Caroline then reads to her mother the diary of Benjamin Button. Born in November 1918, Button is born with the appearance and body of an 86 year old. His mother dies in childbirth and his father abandons his son on the porch of a nursing home run by Queeny and Tizzy who take the boy in as their own. Benjamin grows younger as the years pass. In 1930, he meets Daisy for the first time.

A few years later, Benjamin works at sea on a tugboat owned by Captain Mike. In Russia he meets Elizabeth, the wife of a British diplomat and they have a short lived affair in their hotel. During World War Two, the boat is used by the US Navy and destroyed in battle. Only Benjamin survives. He returns to New Orleans in 1945 and meets his dying father who bequeaths his assets to him. Benjamin meets Daisy again in New York. She is in love with a fellow dancer but her career is finished after a car accident. In 1962, they are reunited, at approximately the same age, and start a relationship. They have a child but Benjamin soon leaves, realising he could not be a real father to his daughter. When Daisy reaches old age and Benjamin reaches childhood (but with dementia) she takes care of him before he passes away. Back in the present day, Daisy dies as Caroline finishes reading the diary.


‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ is nothing if not a curious film. Just consider its origins for a moment. Somewhat based on a short story of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald (it’s only the basic premise of a man ageing backwards that’s used), it originally began as a project for Ron Howard. Eric Roth, the screenwriter of ‘Forrest Gump’ wrote this script which you’d think would make it perfect material for a director such as Howard who has made his name with a number of mainstream, middlebrow films. So how did this project finally reach David Fincher? Known as one of the most inventive and cutting edge Hollywood directors who reinvented the serial killer thriller with ‘Seven’ (1995) and who captured the turn of the century crisis of masculinity in ‘Fight Club’ (1999), ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ seems like strange material for him. There are responsibilities that go with working with a $150 million budget; such as producing a film whose appeal goes beyond the lure of its star. ‘…Button’ certainly will reach a wide audience but at what cost to Fincher’s credibility?

It’s tough to know how much to dissect the film when its initial premise of a man ageing backwards is so fantastic. Is there any point in arguing that certain aspects just don’t work? The film is no doubt supposed to be a whimsical piece of fantasy. However, what for instance is the importance of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans at the exact moment Daisy dies? It has no bearing whatsoever on the plot. Perhaps it’s just to remind us which city we’re still in and what the current year is to put into context Daisy’s age. New Orleans was undoubtedly one of the most diverse and culturally vibrant cities of the 1930s but the ethnic melting pot that the film suggests seems a little too over-harmonious with rich elderly white people staying at nursing homes run by a black couple and there’s nary a whisper of racial tension whatsoever. The Russian segment where Benjamin meets and briefly courts Tilda Swinton’s frustrated wife seems like an unnecessary diversion.

The philosophical issues that might accompany someone in Benjamin’s circumstances are also barely touched upon, although again the get out clause here is that it’s not immersed in any kind of reality. Benjamin ages in the reverse direction to everyone else, which has inevitable and grave consequences upon the relationships he builds with people. This would place a heavy set of responsibilities upon Benjamin. This doesn’t really become the focal point of the film, which I suppose is understandable given that a sombre and downbeat attitude isn’t going to sell the film very well. Roth and Fincher refuse to engage any of these issues though and they’ve settled for each answers. At the heart of the film is an incredibly mushy and suffocating love story which overtakes the rest of the film. Their parting occurs in a matter of seconds too. Given the emotionally manipulative nature of the film and the years which Benjamin has waited to be with Daisy, this scene should be tugging at one’s heartstrings and devastating for both. It’s not like Benjamin and Daisy react pragmatically, agreeing it’s for the best. There’s no reaction whatsoever to his departure, which seems cheap given what’s gone on before.

One of the most disappointing aspects of ‘…Button’ is how it never once seems like a Fincher film. He doesn’t leave his signature upon the film and there are none of his trademark techniques. Perhaps he wanted to demonstrate that he can direct a major mainstream picture with a large budget but the worrying aspect here is how he seems to have pimped his significant talents to this film as a hack for hire. Imagine you knew nothing about this film before watching it. You would never guess the identity of the director. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t look good though. Fincher has always been a visually gifted film maker and aesthetically it’s difficult to fault ‘…Button’. The backwards scenes of World War One (which reflect Benjamin’s entirely existence, his life began at the moment the war ended and the backwards clock was installed) retain an immense power in emphasising the waste of life, and the World War Two scenes at sea show where much of the budget was evidently spent. Fincher too shoots much of the early scenes in a slightly discoloured and fragmented sense to reflect the film stock of the era, and contrasts this sharply with the sterility of the modern day as shown by the brilliant whites of Daisy’s hospital room. Still, you would expect Fincher to deliver more punches but no doubt he felt he had to rein himself in.

He’s not helped by a script that dispenses with conversation and replaces it with simplistic musings on fate, demonstrating that Roth relies largely with the template that enabled him to hit paydirt with ‘Forrest Gump’. There’s humour drawn from Benjamin’s extraordinary circumstances but this goodwill is diminished by the recurring “joke” about the man who was struck by lightning seven times. Of course Fincher has to periodically return to the man telling each incident with a cut to said incident. The budget and Roth’s desire to cram as much detail in as possible makes the film far too long, especially given that the original source was only a short story. Pitt no doubt deserves his acclaim for his role as Benjamin from 85 to 18 or so, especially for the “older” years rather than the more blank and vacant youth he reverts to. However overall ‘…Button’ is something of a flabby mess. Nominated for 14 Oscars, the most amongst this year’s films, it’s unlikely to win any of the main prizes but reveals that 2008 was not the best year for American mainstream film making.



Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 12:08 am
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Director: Gus Van Sant

128 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

New York, 1970 and San Francisco, 1970-1978. Archive footage of police raids of gay bars, then press announcements about the death of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. Milk records his will days before his assassination. In New York in 1970, Milk meets Scott Smith on the eve of his 40th birthday. Milk and Smith depart for San Francisco and establish a camera shop in the gay neighbourhood of the city. Finding bigotry and prejudice from locals, Milk becomes an activist for gay rights, assisted by his position as a prosperous businessman.

Milk unsuccessfully stands for election as city supervisor in 1973 and 1975, then in 1976 for the California state assembly. Milk eventually is elected as a city supervisor in 1977. During this time Smith has left Milk, frustrated by his devotion to politics, and Milk has started a relationship with Jack Lira, an unbalanced young man. Milk closely works with Dan White, a married Irish Catholic whom Milk suspects of being a repressed homosexual, but tensions arise when Milk refuses to vote with White on various local issues. White refuses to support Milk over Proposition 6, a referendum on whether to fire public service workers who are known homosexuals. Milk oversees the campaign that defeats Proposition 6. A frustrated White resigns from the board and when he seeks his post back, Moscone declines. An armed White then sneaks into City Hall to assassinate Moscone and Milk.


One of the most idiosyncratic and intriguing American directors, Gus Van Sant had his fingers seriously burned when he last worked in Hollywood. After ‘Good Will Hunting’ (1997) received critical acclaim and commercial success, his follow up features ‘Psycho’ (1998) and ‘Finding Forrester’ (2000) did not receive anything like as much favour although this critic actually has much time for the ‘Psycho’ remake from an artistic perspective. Since, Van Sant has worked outside the mainstream, directing a number of low budget experimental features mainly with non-professional casts and a preference for improvisation. ‘Milk’ represents Van Sant’s return to Hollywood and it’s reasonable enough to suggest that he’s still capable of working within the “system”. ‘Milk’ is a largely successful and impressive balance between the demands of mainstream film making and the director’s own artistic impulses. It’s also difficult to think of another director capable of producing a film that does justice to its subject.

Van Sant is largely faithful to the conventional techniques of biopics, retelling Milk’s life in a more or less chronological fashion. Milk recites his own story as he records his will just days before he was assassinated. This feels like a contrived narrative device in a way, as if Van Sant has to clarify and reinforce when and where events take place rather than entrusting the audience with understanding this. Much like the adjoining interviews in ‘Frost/Nixon’, this device seems redundant and unnecessary and doesn’t really add anything to the film. This gives ‘Milk’ a by-the-book feel, as if Van Sant wasn’t confident enough to use the narrative conceits he’d used in his previous few films.

‘Milk’ might be conventional in that sense, but Van Sant doesn’t just rely on recreating the events of Milk’s life as run of the mill biopics would. He alternates this with plenty of documentary footage, including excerpts of the Oscar-winning documentary ‘The Times of Harvey Milk’ (1984) and the photographs which open the film – police raids of gay bars and the arrest of men who like Milk were “in the closet” and living superficially respectable lives. Although it’s often difficult to distinguish between documentary footage and the film itself, the impact is to reiterate how this is real people and real lives that are the subject. This is fact, not fiction.

One of the great positives about ‘Milk’ is how it reflects the genuine moral and political climate of the 1970s. A growing wave of conservatism takes over the country, even in a supposedly liberal San Francisco, in which Milk and his friends experience first hand prejudice from police and local residents. Van Sant uses more documentary footage to demonstrate the rise of a moral majority which made the persecution of homosexuals in public office their main crusade. Real interviews with the likes of Anita Bryant, who was one of the main supporters of Proposition 6 indicate the general tone of intolerance across the country and all states besides California backed the proposition. Not that Van Sant would have known at the time but the release of ‘Milk’ at this current time has a rich sense of irony. Almost unnoticed during the euphoria of the election of Barack Obama in November 2008, California passed a law banning gay marriage in the state. Milk had spent years breaking down barriers of prejudice and obtaining the rights which had been denied to homosexuals but recent events suggest that perhaps attitudes haven’t changed as much as we would like to think. Van Sant acknowledges that Milk’s achievement of mobilising the gay community across the United States was exceptionally impressive. Unlike people from racial/ethnic minorities, homosexuals in the 1970s could hide their identity and remain “in the closet”, much as Milk himself did before meeting Smith in 1970. Milk encouraged homosexuals to “come out”, stating it was the only means of gaining acceptance. White on the other hand represents Milk during the repressed and unsatisified spell of his life. Whether Van Sant’s theory about White’s sexality has any credence or not, what he depicts is the strict codes of masculinity of the fiercely conservative Irish-American working class community.

Van Sant never shies away from showing Milk’s sexuality. Whether he only had two lovers during this time, who knows, but in typical style, Van Sant fetishises their intimacy, filming with a series of close ups of eyes, faces and bodies, all slightly out of focus and distorted. At the heart of the film is a superb central performance by Sean Penn in the Milk role and he is assisted by a number of excellent supporting performances. Only Diego Luna as Jack fails to maintain this high standard though this is probably because it’s a thankless role more than anything as an unstable and unsympathetic lover of Milk’s. The candlelit vigils that follow Milk’s death are incredibly moving but perhaps even more so is a scene where a young man unable to “come out” to his parents calls Milk, who tells him to leave for the nearest big city where his lifestyle would be more acceptable. When Van Sant cuts from the man’s face to his wheelchair, we know full well how truly trapped he really is. ‘Milk’ is a fiercely relevant and intriguing biopic of a man who is not made into a hero but a figurehead for a struggle which still continues to this day and who would begrudge it any awards it collects this season?

January 22, 2009

The Magnificent Ambersons


Director: Orson Welles

88 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Indianapolis, the early part of the twentieth century. The Ambersons are a wealthy, upper class family. The eldest daughter Isabel is being courted by an eccentric inventor, Eugene Morgan. When he drunkenly serenades her, she breaks off the relationship and soon marries the dull but conventional Wilbur Minafer. They have a son, George, who is a spoilt and petulant young brat, detested by the local community who long for the boy to get his comeuppance.

Many years later George returns from college and a ball is held in his honour. Eugene has recently returned to the town with his daughter Lucy to establish an automobile factory. George immediately falls for Lucy, whilst Eugene tries to rekindle his relationship with Isabel. George discovers from his aunt and uncle that Eugene was once in love with his mother. This sends him into a jealous rage. Wilbur soon dies; after which Eugene and Isabel make plans to marry. Isabel falls ill and George takes her on a long holiday to prevent her marrying Eugene. When they return her illness is terminal. The family wealth is gradually being squandered as they are unable to keep up with the rate of economic progress. George finally receives his comeuppance.


‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ has one of the most notorious histories amongst any Hollywood films. It has acquired a reputation for all the wrong reasons; not for the quality of the film but the post-production issues that significantly altered Welles’ vision of the film. Maybe he should have seen it coming. It was unprecedented for a 25 year old director to be given full artistic control of his debut film, as Welles was afforded on ‘Citizen Kane’, yet the film was not without difficulties, including legal action and only a moderate box office performance. This experience no doubt made RKO nervous about Welles’ follow up and so it proved when ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ tested poorly and was subsequently edited and released when Welles was out of the country. This was the start of the end for Welles in Hollywood.

The film itself however is almost every part as impressive as ‘Citizen Kane’, which let’s not forget didn’t receive quite the adulation it now enjoys. Both films rip up the rulebook of conventional film making. The experimentalism which was at the heart of ‘Citizen Kane’ is just as prominent in ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’. The most notable example of this is the cinematography. For his first film Welles used Gregg Toland who contributed an extensive use of deep focus, unheard of in American cinema at the time. For ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’, Welles used Stanley Cortez, later noted for his work in film noir. Cortez’s most interesting contributions here are low angle shots of gossips in the local store wishing for the young George’s comeuppance, which is then followed by intense close ups shot also from a low angle.  The ballroom sequence is another example of how Welles and Cortez were at the peak of their craft. Utilising deep focus and high angle techniques, George and Lucy are speaking on the stairs but an elaborate display of dancing is vividly behind them in the same shot. There can be no doubt either than Visconti had this scene in mind when making ‘The Leopard’. Visconti’s own ballroom scene is one of the greatest in the history of cinema but Welles’ influence is apparent.

Much like ‘Citizen Kane’ dealt with the rise and fall of a wealthy press baron, ‘…Ambersons’ concerns itself with the rise and fall of a wealthy family. Kane was undone by his sexual affairs and political ambitions, the Ambersons undone by the seething jealousy of the spoilt son George. However Welles acknowledges that this family was almost certainly doomed towards decline anyway. The Ambersons made their wealth and acquired their status in an America that no longer exists by the second half of the film. Welles’ narrator acknowledges that the town, a microcosm of America is growing and changing rapidly. The family is not keeping up and is already on its way to its downfall but it’s George who sends it into oblivion. The industrial age is in full swing and families like the Ambersons aren’t prepared for it. The irony is of course that Eugene is prepared for this new age. An eccentric joke when the Ambersons prospered, he’s now a roaring success and had George’s jealousy not prevented his marriage to Isabel, then the family might have survived. The greatest irony of all is that George becomes an invalid, both legs broken, in an automobile accident – almost the strongest symbol of the new economic forces outstripping the old. Welles captures the snobbery of the Amberson family perfectly; not so much within the family patriarch of Isabel, but inside George and his bitter aunt. In the hands of such people, the Ambersons were inevitably doomed.

Welles certainly gave the impression of an artist who wished to be involved in every aspect of his films. Although the input of the likes of Toland and Herman J. Mankiewicz are considered crucial to the success of ‘Citizen Kane’, the film is widely perceived almost as a one man show. For ‘…Ambersons’ Welles remained off-screen but his presence is still there, narrating the unique credits sequence (as opposed to credits being printed onscreen). ‘…Ambersons’ represented the beginning of the end for Welles in Hollywood. Studios became reluctant to hire him as a director (though he acted prolifically enough), and when he directed Hollywood films (‘The Lady From Shanghai’, ‘Touch of Evil’) they were heavily edited without Welles’ approval. It’s likely that the 131/148 min edits of the film offer more insight and perspective; one wonders what was removed, surely more than just mere padding. Nevertheless, the shortened edit we have is still an incredibly impressive film, just as significant as anything in the Welles’ canon.

January 21, 2009

All That Heaven Allows

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 8:50 pm
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Director: Douglas Sirk

89 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

The fictional town of Stoningham, New England, the 1950s. Cary Scott is a recently widowed middle aged woman. Her children away at college, Cary is gradually returning to a social life after the death of her husband. She attends a dinner at the country club with an older man named Harvey. Soon after, Harvey proposes marriage in a rather unromantic fashion, assuring Cary she will feel the same. A young gardener named Ron is undertaking maintenance work on Cary’s garden and they strike up a tentative relationship before he disappears at the end of Autumn.

Cary’s children suggest a television set would make a useful companion for her. Ron soon returns and invites Cary to visit his friends who have escaped the rat race and live a more contemplative lifestyle, much different to her social circle. Ron asks Cary to marry him but Cary hesitates, considering it impossible. A local gossip, Mona, sees the pair and spreads gossip about them across town. Cary’s children are appalled by the idea of this marriage. Cary and Ron attend a country club function together, which ends disastrously as they are the victims of constant sniping. Cary chooses her children over Ron but Cary’s daughter soon convinces her to reunite with Ron.


Sirk had enjoyed a successful theatre background in Germany before emigrating to the US but took well over a decade to make his mark in Hollywood. Between 1954-1959 he directed a series of lavish melodramas in Technicolor, including ‘Magnificent Obsession’, ‘Written on the Wind’, a remake of ‘Imitation of Life’ as well as the film in question here. The critical receptions for these films at the time were mostly negative, citing lack of realism and banal subject matter. However in recent decades Sirk’s films have been rehabilitated by critics and have influenced a series of important film makers. The premise of ‘All That Heaven Allows’ has been referenced by both Rainier Werner Fassbinder (‘Fear Eats The Soul’) and Todd Haynes (‘Far From Heaven’). Both films added a racial dimension to indict the society they were critiquing but ‘All That Heaven Allows’ is just as significant and powerful as the films it influenced in its social commentary. The critics of the day only viewed Sirk’s films as trivial and disposable weepies; the satire is subtle and perhaps required a degree of hindsight to be really appreciated.

Far from being a valid criticism, the artificiality of Sirk’s melodramas is actually one of their greatest strengths. Sirk wasn’t reflecting American society as the audience wanted to see it, in its white picket perfection, but instead he was reflecting it in a slightly distorted fashion with the dark side of the American dream. It’s easy to take this for granted nowadays when films like ‘American Beauty’ et al dissect the mores of the American middle class with great precision, but at the time films like ‘All That Heaven Allows’ were genuinely groundbreaking. Sirk’s aesthetical approach, encompassing his use of colour, lighting and framing set his films apart from anything else produced at the time and reflect his satirical objectives.

The opening shot sets an ominous tone. Sirk employs a bird’s eye view of the community. Everything is perfect, a typical suburban street with every house lined with trees in Autumnal colours. This is all surface, a pretence of everything being normal. The interiors of Cary’s house with its imaginative tones of colour reflect the confusion at hand; the cool blues of her room and the strong reds of the lounge for instance. Perhaps these reflect the contrasting emotions of Cary in the aftermath of her husband’s death, torn between mourning and moving on. Sirk also employs innovative use of his camera, constantly tracking Cary during her first visit to the country club, but also with intense close ups when it matters. The most notable of which is after Ron and Cary have their first meaningful conversation. She asks about a specific tree; he tells her its a symbol of love and can only live where love exists. Sirk then zooms in on the tree – a sign of what is to blossom between the pair. The symbolism which Sirk uses can often be heavy handed though; a roaming deer is present during their first kiss and also when they are finally reunited.

The observations of American society however are spot on. The country club, the embodiment of bourgeois aspiration is presented as a hothouse of snobbery, gossip and backbiting. Women are willing to undermine their friends at any opportunity, whilst the men are lecherous. However despite knowing all this, Cary still wants to be part of this social circle. Opting out or being ostracised is a far worse prospect. This “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality is contrasted with the more carefree attitudes of Ron and his own set of friends, who have retreated from the rat race and have a new outlook on life. This group is also far more diverse than the homogeneous set of friends Cary has. Ron’s friends encourage his relationship with Cary, whilst her friends and family believe the best form of companionship for her is a television set. Their prejudices become more obvious the more serious the relationship becomes, most notably from Cary’s children who make clear their shame and how this relationship with ruin their lives and reputations.

Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson had previously starred together in Sirk’s ‘Magnificent Obsession’, which was the first of Sirk’s classic melodramas (based on the myth of Alcestis). They don’t make the most convincing of couples and their relationship in the film seems to literally occur overnight and feels as if it lacks substance. But then as we established, realism wasn’t on Sirk’s agenda. The relationship exists as a device in order to critique the American middle class. In this respect Sirk succeeds with flying colours – his satire is subtle and sophisticated. It’s visually that ‘All That Heaven Allows’ impresses most though; its exaggerated colour palette reflects the thoughts of its protagonists and the use of the camera remains inventive and thoughtful. Sirk would subsequently make better films; ‘Written on the Wind’ and ‘Imitation of Life’ but this is a wonderful example of the Sirk melodrama.

January 14, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 4:46 pm
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France/Federal Republic of Yugoslavia/Germany/Hungary

Director: Emir Kusturica

170 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Yugoslavia, 1941, 1961, 1992. Part One: The War, 1941. Blacky and Marko, two drunken and roguish Serbs join the Communist Party as Nazi bombs fall on Belgrade. They steal German weapons for personal gain, rather than donating them to partisans. The Nazis search the entire city for the pair who hide in the basement of Marko’s grandfather. Blacky’s pregnant wife gives birth to a son, Jovan, but she dies in childbirth. Three years later, Marko and Blacky rescue Blacky’s mistress, an actress named Natalija from her Nazi lover, shooting him. The three are later ambushed by Franz, who survived the attack. Blacky is captured, but Marko later returns to rescue his friend, killing Franz. A wounded Blacky recovers in the basement.

Part Two: The Cold War, 1961. Marko is a prominent official in Tito’s Yugoslavia. He has convinced Blacky and those who were also living in the basement that World War Two continues above them. They produce the weapons that has made Marko a wealthy man. Marko and Natalija, now a couple, are invited to the wedding of Jovan, during which Blacky and Jovan agree to fight the Nazis. They escape when a chimpanzee commands a tank and destroys the basement. Stumbling upon a set recreating Marko’s wartime heroism, Blacky shoots the actor playing Franz. Jovan accidentally drowns in the sea whilst Blacky is distracted.

Part Three: The War, 1992. Blacky is a patriotic warlord, mourning his son. Marko continues to deal arms. Marko’s simple brother Ivan, who lived in the basement for twenty years kills Marko in revenge, then hangs himself. Blacky’s men finish off Marko and also kill Natalija. When Blacky discovers their identity, he stumbles into the church Ivan hanged himself in, sees the ghost of his son in the well, and drowns himself. In a final dream sequence, the characters reconvene for Jovan’s wedding, whilst Ivan tells the camera “once there was a country….”


Emir Kusturica is one of the most important and most controversial film makers of the last three decades. Twice a winner of the Palme D’Or, for both ‘Underground’ and his 1985 film ‘When Father Was Away on Business’, he has attracted much criticism since the production of ‘Underground’ for the apparent rejection of his Bosnian roots and the adoption of an orthodox Serb identity, coupled with supposed pro-Milosevic comments. ‘Underground’ was also partly financed by state-owned Serbian television and used the services of the Serbian armed forces. Adding to the controversy is the fact that critics suggest Kusturica has taken a distinctively pro-Serbian account of Yugoslavian history. His two “heroes” are Serbs and the cowards are usually Croat, Slovene or from other minorities. Also, there is footage from the 1941 segment that shows the Nazis being warmly welcomed into Maribor and Zagreb; quite the opposite from the fierce resistance they met in Belgrade. Kusturica would no doubt argue that the film takes a more complex attitude towards Yugoslavian history than this, and that one would need to know the history of the Balkans to fully understand his film.

The fifty year time span of the film demonstrates the history and dissolution of the country of Yugoslavia, always a country that had been an uneasy coalition of different ethnic, racial and religious groups; the tensions between which exploded by the final third of the film. Kusturica makes no suggestion whatsoever that this was a harmonious relationship between peoples. As mentioned, the Nazis were welcomed into Croatia. Kusturica uses documentary footage to demonstrate this, and though he does not elaborate beyond this, it is widely known that the ultra-nationalist Ustase were prominent during the occupation, including purges of the Serbian population. Kusturica reflects the genuine tensions that existed beneath the superficial unity of the Yugoslav nation as suggested by politicians (including a radio broadcast by the vice-President in the opening scene of the film). Regarding the accusation of pro-Serbian bias, one should remember that Kusturica’s two Serbian heroes are motivated purely by self-interest; selling weapons rather than helping the resistance and even willing to betray each other. Natalija, the film’s heroine, is deceitful herself, her affections shifting depending on who seems to be in the most advantageous position at the time.

One of the most striking philosophical issues about ‘Underground’ is the role of the cellar; a metaphor for ignorance and a tool for manipulation, which literally keeps people in the dark. One wonders whether it is a deliberate reference to Plato’s metaphor of ‘The Cave’ in ‘The Republic’, which essentially is the same premise. This metaphor might reflect how politicians have betrayed its people. In Tito’s Yugoslavia, Marko has become a prominent political figure whose wartime heroism is the stuff of legend. His success is founded solely on the ignorance and exploitation of others. Ultimately it is not the people who lead themselves to the light but the antics of a badly behaved chimpanzee, which reflects the grand level of farce at the centre of ‘Underground’. Other instances include Marko planting a rose between a prostitute’s buttocks and then smelling it, Marko strangling Franz with a stethoscope and the checking his heartbeat to see whether he is still alive and Blacky and Jovan stumbling onto the film set of Marko’s wartime exploits, believing it to be the war in full flow.

Although the humour demonstrates the absurdity within Yugoslavia, the final third shows the history of the country in a relentlessly tragic dimension. The death of Tito spelt the death of the Yugoslav experiment. Marko might be a wanted criminal but his greatest crime of all might just be the betrayal of Ivan, his brother. Easily the most sympathetic character, Ivan is stranded in Berlin, unable to legally return to Yugoslavia (he is devastated when told his country no longer exists – he still believes war rages, which indeed it does but not that war), but searches day and night for his beloved chimpanzee. The simple Ivan knows nothing of politics and the human frailties that accompany politics; betrayal, duplicity, manipulation etc. When Marko and Ivan meet once more, Marko utters the final words “no war is a war until a brother kills a brother”. Although this has a personal context, no doubt this phrase summarises the entire conflict. The people of Yugoslavia were brothers. ‘Underground’ is as exceptional and significant film, combining surreal comedy with the tragedy of history. Kusturica ends with a flight of fancy; the characters who had been at each others throats for decades now reunited, with Ivan, no longer stuttering remarking upon Yugoslavia; “once there was a country” as his friends and family dance and live merry. It is as far opposed to the preceding scenes as possible. Perhaps a distinction between the myth and reality of Yugoslavia?

January 5, 2009

The Actress

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 11:28 pm
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Hong Kong

Director: Stanley Kwan

147 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

China, the 1930s and Hong Kong, the 1990s. An unconventional biopic of the Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu, composed of photographic stills, interviews and filmed recreations of aspects of her life. In 1929, she is cast as a prostitute in ‘Reminisces of Peking’, her breakout role. Lingyu is then cast in the 1930 film ‘Wayside Flowers’, the filming of which is contrasted with discussions between Stanley Kwan and Maggie Cheung about this film and the life (and death) of the actress. Ruan Lingyu starts a relationship with Chang Ta Min, who seems interested in sponging off her growing wealth. Shanghai is invaded by Japan. Film production moved to Hong Kong. Lingyu collaborated with a number of leftist, progressive film makers, offering more challenging roles to the actress; the first of which was ‘Three Modern Women’. Lingyu then separates from Chang Ta Min and starts a relationship with a wealthy businessman, Tang Chi-Shan. During the filming of ‘New Women, her penultimate film, Lingyu has an increasing number of onset breakdowns as her private life becomes public knowledge. ‘New Women’ is responsible for a press backlash against Lingyu because it openly criticises their profession, and cuts are ordered of the film. Chang Ta Min then sues Lingyu for adultery. Life imitates art as Lingyu commits suicide shortly after, with press intrusion cited as the main reason, just as it was for the suicide of the heroine of ‘New Women’.


Of the numerous auteurs from the Chinese diaspora (Zhang Yimou, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Wong Kar-Wai, Edward Yang et al), Stanley Kwan is possibly the most overlooked. Few of his films will have been seen in the West, with Kwan being another example of how many interesting directors are poorly distributed though one hopes that might ultimately be redressed. His 1987 film ‘Rouge’ possibly remains his most well known film, a haunting ghost story about lovers separated and lost over time, capturing how our perceptions of love have barely changed in the intervening decades. The esteemed film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum on the other hand is a serious advocate of ‘The Actress’ as not just Kwan’s best film but possibly the best of all films ever to emerge from Hong Kong. Although there are numerous other candidates one might offer instead, it is simple to see how Rosenbaum has come to this conclusion.

The strongest aspect of ‘The Actress’ is that it reconstructs the genre it belongs to. Although it is nominally a biopic, it is certainly amongst the most unconventional biopics one is likely to see. Kwan is not concerned with merely recounting the life of Ruan Lingyu. Instead he wishes to consider other themes; the nature of Chinese cinema during the 1930s and the 1990s (unsurprisingly commercial interests predominate during both eras), the responsibility of the press, public and private lives etc. Kwan uses numerous techniques and perspectives to construct his film, starting with black and white stills of the actress herself. Whilst he recreates Lingyu’s life with himself directing Cheung as the actress, he alternates these scenes with interviews with those who knew Lingyu during her life, interviews between himself and the actors in this film, as well as scenes for Lingyu’s own films. Consequently, ‘The Actress’ does not follow a linear path, shifting between the past and present numerous times. Kwan’s motives for making the film are to create a tribute to the actress known as the ‘Chinese Garbo’ rather than a definitive account of her life, and ‘The Actress’ works all the better for it.

Kwan understands that the rise of Lingyu’s career corresponded with the rise of Chinese cinema as a serious form of art. Her breakout film ‘Reminisces of Peking’ was the start of a wave of leftist film making. Lingyu was often cast as more independently-minded women struggling against social pressures; the most well known of these was as the eponymous and ironically titled ‘Goddess’ in 1934 where Lingyu was a kind-hearted prostitute trying to do the best for her son. The challenging roles she played on screen added to the intense pressures she endured in her private life, culminating in the collision of public/private lives in her penultimate film ‘New Women’. Lingyu was sadly unable to disassociate herself from her film roles. There was suggestion that the breakdowns as depicted by Maggie Cheung in the film had their own autobiographical element; that she herself was undergoing relationship difficulties at the time. Cheung herself mirrored Lingyu’s career to some extent. Both began performing throwaway roles in rather ordinary films. ‘The Actress’ was the moment at which Cheung was taken seriously as an actress, and she is arguably the finest actress of her generation, having undertaken leading roles in several Wong Kar Wai films.

During his recreation of Lingyu’s life, Kwan remains true to the cinematic techniques of the time, filming by the standards of the 1930s. This includes melodramatic acting, actors’ faces painted white for the benefit of the camera and Kwan filming the making of a film. Kwan also has a tendency to film Cheung through doors or windows or behind bars. This “looking in” perspective demonstrates her entrapment and Kwan does so with great sympathy and subtlety. The imagery is never heavy-handed.  Interestingly, Kwan does not linger with the details about her suicide, shown only as Cheung ‘performing’ her suicide. This might be because the film is intended as a tribute rather than morbid reflection. There is no need to reflect upon the massive cultural impact her death had. ‘The Actress’ remains a sorely neglected film, seldom seen because of poor distribution but a remarkable elegy to one of the greatest actresses in world cinema overseen by a director at the peak of his creative powers.

January 1, 2009

Sansho the Bailiff

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 11:52 pm
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Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

124 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Japan, the Heian period of feudal Japan. An altruistic and benevolent governor is exiled to a far-off region after refusing to provide extra soldiers and raise taxes. His family; his wife Tamaki, his son Zushio and his daughter Anju depart to live with her brother. Their journey crosses a lawless region where bandits and slave traders are known to reside. The family are aided by an elderly woman who provides shelter and finds two men to transport them down river. However they are slave traders who separate the family, selling them into slavery. The children live and work at the estate of the brutal Sansho. His humane son Taro encourages the children to stick it out before thinking about searching for their parents.

As the children reach adulthood Zushio participates in the branding of slaves who attempt to escape. Anju still wants to escape to search for their parents but is discouraged from doing so by Zushio. When Zushio takes a dying slave out of the estate, Anju encourages him to escape with her. Anju distracts the guards, allowing Zushio to get away and faced with torture if caught, she walks into a lake, drowning. Zushio encounters Taro on his journey, who verifies that he is the son of the former governor. Zushio acquires his dead father’s title and sets about abolishing slavery despite much opposition, but discovers his sister is now dead. Relinquishing his position, he searches for his mother, whom he finds, blind and helpless on a tsunami-hit beach and they are reconciled.


The 1950s were the golden age of Japanese cinema, finally reaching the attention of Western critics after decades of unfair obscurity. Kurosawa and Ozu produced their finest works, including ‘Rashomon’, ‘Ikiru’, ‘Tokyo Story’ and ‘Floating Weeds’. Although he had been making films for approximately thirty years, Mizoguchi was also at his most creative, arguably producing his three finest films within just three years between 1952-1954; ‘The Life of Oharu’, ‘Ugetsu Monogatari’ and ‘Sansho the Bailiff’. Such was the impact of Mizoguchi’s run of masterpieces that he was rewarded for all three, in consecutive years, at the Berlin Film Festival, which no film maker previously or has since achieved.

Mizoguchi and his contemporaries were united by their exploration of similar themes and their shared humanist interests. What distinguishes Mizoguchi from both Ozu and Kurosawa is his concept of the suffering of women being caused by the weakness of men. This is a theme that features in ‘Ugetsu Monogatari’, ‘The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums’ and ‘The Life of Oharu’ amongst others as it does here to an extent. The virtuous governor might have noble ambitions but this ultimately destroys his family and unleashes decades of suffering before a kind of reconciliation. The governor’s absence from the entire film reiterates the extent of the pressure placed upon Tamaki to hold things together. Her innate goodness and trust in others are virtues seen as weaknesses in a precarious and dangerous environment and these are ruthlessly exploited by those with more nefarious motives. Mizoguchi never condemns his characters for not adapting to the world they live in. Zushio attempts to gain favour with the regime as the best means of survival, forgetting the lessons learned from his father, that “a man is not a human being without mercy”, but soon recovers his moral compass when it is most required. Despite the violence and brutality of the world, the family is reunited by the close of the film, showing that nothing can ultimately break family bonds.

What also distinguishes the masters of Japanese cinema are their technical approaches to cinema. Ozu was renowned for his “one scene one shot” formula of little camera movement and an objective eye. Kurosawa had a unique and innovative approach, especially in terms of editing, which contributed to the revision of cinema’s language. Mizoguchi was perhaps somewhere in the middle; more formal than Kurosawa but more radical than Ozu. The family’s journey following their banishment is shot with an extended tracking shot, moving from right to left, culminating with an intense close up on the face of Tamaki, confirming how women bear the brunt of the actions of others. During these scenes Mizoguchi impressively contrasts the rural idyll through which the family travel with the warnings of others about bandits and slave dealers. The children seem oblivious to the dangers ahead so it is as if the peaceful world we see is as if seen through their perspective. Mizoguchi also demonstrates a satisfying “less is more” approach with one of the film’s most poignant scenes; the suicide of Anju. He shows her walking into the lake, but crucially cuts to the prayers of the dying slave she assisted, before cutting back to the ripples of the water. We do not need to see the death of Anju; it is made perfectly clear and her death is bestowed a sense of poetry from this arresting image.

‘Sansho the Bailiff’ is one of Mizoguchi’s most compassionate and powerful films. It is interesting that the film is titled as it is, with the emphasis appearing to be on the scarcely visible owner of the estate rather than the family itself (Mizoguchi’s films are often named after the protagonist with whom the director sympathises). Sansho is the encapsulation of the oppressive nature of this society, founded on slavery, which is almost encouraged by the authorities because of the wealth this generates. Sansho and his system of slavery demonstrate the power of the family bond and the moral compass of these children; Zushio initially forgets who he is but ultimately they refuse to let it break them (Anju departs this world on her own terms rather than giving in). ‘Sansho the Bailiff’ is a film that once seen will be hard to forget; such is the film’s power especially captured in the devastating final scene as mother and son reconcile.

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