November 23, 2009

Bamboozled (2000)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 11:10 pm
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Director: Spike Lee

135 min

Messy? Unfocused? Incoherent? Grotesque? Yes, Spike Lee’s ‘Bamboozled’ are all these things and more. On the other hand, it’s an angry, biting satire on racism in the visual media since the advent of cinema and television. Always one of the most controversial and confrontational of all American film makers, Lee pulls no punches. What he places on screen over two and a quarter hours will stimulate debate and divide audiences. Some will loathe the film and pick apart its myriad shortcomings. Others will enthusiastically endorse it and applaud his guts. This is what cinema ought to be about.

The basic premise is a meeting of ‘Network’ and ‘The Producers’ but given the historical context of race in America. At the heart of the film is Pierre Delacroix, a pompous Harvard-educated black television writer who speaks with an implausible, presumably affected accent, and boy, doesn’t Wayans wander all over the place with his performance. Lee no doubt sets Delacroix up as the morally confused anti-hero. It’s difficult to sympathise with his actions both before and after his big break. Frustrated at being unable to get any shows off the ground, his ridiculously ‘down with it’ superior, Thomas Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) challenges him to create something ‘hip’, something ‘fresh’, something ‘black’. The answer? A modern-day black and white minstrel show…..with, get this! Black actors in blackface! Of course this show ought to appal anyone with liberal sensibilities and even those without, but in true farcical style, ‘Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show’ becomes an unlikely, but wildly successful hit.

Critics who’ve been supportive of Lee’s motivations behind making the film have been reluctant to endorse this aspect of his film. The misjudged behaviour of Ted Danson, when he blacked up when dating Whoopi Goldberg probably lingers in the mind. Lee has a serious point to make though and goes to extreme lengths to make it. Think about it for a second. With the exception of ‘Roots’, how often does American television produce serious dramas about the black community? Why are all shows that feature the black community comedies, that usually involve black characters at the butt of any jokes. It’s hardly the place to go into it but try dissecting ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ for a second and consider the precarious ground it stands on under scrutiny. With the Mantan minstrel show, Lee satirises this depiction of blacks in the visual media, grotesquely exaggerating it by using the single most offensive depiction of blacks ever – the cotton plantations – that nefarious symbol of slavery and oppression. The manner in which audiences, initially bemused, come to accept this nasty set-up is frighteningly plausible. Decades of normalised race relations seem to be paper-thin and wear down easily.

Beyond the initial premise, there is a case that Lee can’t keep a reasonable grip on his material and that the developments in the narrative thereafter seem a bit contrived. Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett-Smith), Delacroix’s assistant, whom Lee establishes as the film’s moral centre, has a pivotal role in events getting out of hand – she romances Manray, AKA Mantan (Savion Glover), whilst her ‘gangsta’ brother, Big Blak Afrika (Mos Def) kidnaps and organises the execution of Manray once he’s fired by the studio for rejecting the racist nature of the show. Although difficult to swallow, these events come to bring Delacroix to his senses, having been consumed by his own success. Lee ends his film with a recording Hopkins made for Delacroix, which remains the film’s strongest and angry segment, and none of it is Lee’s original work. It’s a lengthy montage of racist and demeaning clips from Hollywood and television, including ‘Birth of a Nation’, ‘The Jazz Singer’ and ‘Gone With The Wind’. It’s a powerful statement in its own right, and although Lee’s film wavers in quality, it lends it credibility and authority. ‘Bamboozled’ won’t be everyone’s cup of tea – Lee had to produce it on digital video when studios naturally avoided it like the plague – but one can’t deny it’s one of the most important American films of the decade.


November 9, 2009

Bright Star (2009)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 12:11 am
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Director: Jane Campion

119 min

Although it played to good reviews at Cannes, I have to admit to being content to giving ‘Bright Star’ a wide berth. I’ve always had a pretty agnostic approach to a certain kind of “quality” period drama. I was able to attend a preview screening of ‘Bright Star’ and it’s an attitude that I’m rather ashamed by now. My pre-film expectations might have been low, but I left feeling exhilarated and incredibly impressed. Working from the biography of Keats by Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, Campion’s film depicts the three year love affair between the Romantic poet and Fanny Brawne. What helps is that both lead actors are superb. Ben Whishaw combines sensitivity, compassion and good humour in his portrayal of Keats, whilst the Australian actress Abbie Cornish reveals Fanny to be an intelligent, progressive, ‘modern’ and independent young woman. Together, they create a love affair that is refreshing and original. The concern about focusing solely on this love affair is that it could easily degenerate into a simpering, mawkish episode but Campion ensures this isn’t the case. The origins are platonic; whilst Fanny admires his poetry, she doesn’t fall head over heels for it, and even tells Keats so. This is a relationship that slowly develops, frustrated by the Victorian moral code – Keats was eternally penniless and thus could never propose. Yet once they fall in love and declare so, Campion depicts the relationship partially through Keats’ own poetry. It’s easy to think that the romantic poetry that Keats worked on was because of the dizzying joy of his love for Fanny; never more so than in the sonnet that provides the film with its title. Never before has poetry been transferred so effortlessly to the screen.

As we know, there’s an inevitable tragic ending for this relationship, but it’s never overplayed or dwelled upon. Keats’ death is revealed only through a letter than his friend, Brown, gives to Fanny. Campion uses a short sequence of his coffin being carried, but otherwise it’s never overexaggerated from dramatic effect. That’s because Campion knows it’s the happiness the pair shared throughout their brief affair that’s the focus of her film, not the tragic illness that separated them. Campion retains a stunning eye for detail and for a brilliant shot, starting with the film’s opening sequence of intense close ups of Fanny sewing, but never more evident than in the stunning moment when Fanny is captured in a field of bluebells, reading Keats poetry, and falling in love with both the man and his writing. This is a film where nature’s beauty and love overshadows the literary writers block that Keats and Brown endure, though Keats seems only inspired towards greatness upon discovering his feelings for Fanny. In many ways, ‘Bright Star’ embodies the elements of the run-of-the-mill period drama; impeccable acting, sharp writing, high production/costume values, and this is indeed true, but there’s a genuine warmth at work. It never feels studied or aiming to be something it’s not. It’s a dizzying, delirious examination of love and certainly one of the finest films of the year.

November 8, 2009

Chloe (2009)


Director: Atom Egoyan

99 min

Egoyan’s latest film attempts to transpose his arthouse aesthetic to a more mainstream setting. The last time he attempted to marry these two different demands was with 2005’s ‘Where The Truth Lies’, which produced mixed results. It wasn’t the wholly satisfying shot at a studio picture that one hoped for. But if at first you don’t succeed and so on. The basis of ‘Chloe’ is 2003 French film ‘Nathalie’, although one could never say it’s a direct remake as such. It borrows much of the basic premise, but Egoyan stresses that the second half of his film changes direction completely from how ‘Nathalie’ developed. The later plot developments in ‘Chloe’ are far more in keeping with Egoyan’s past track record as a film maker. It’s easy to see what attracted Egoyan to the project (it’s one of the few films he’s made that he didn’t write himself or initiate even). The screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson, who wrote ‘Secretary’, pursues themes that Egoyan has tackled in several of his previous films; love as fantasy and obsession, the unreliable narrator, alienation, technology and so on. But even when working from another’s material, Egoyan is able to put his own stamp on the film.

Julianne Moore’s Catherine suspects her husband David (Liam Neeson) of having an affair, and hires the eponymous Chloe (Amanda Seyfried, demonstrating a range hitherto unseen) to seduce her husband and report back on the details. What could possibly go wrong?  What’s intriguing about this scenario is how Catherine’s motives quickly move beyond just trying to catch her husband in the act, but how she feels closer to him because of his adultery. She pursues the transaction with Chloe, even after Chloe attempts to end this arrangement. She needs to hear the gory details and doesn’t want to be spared. Egoyan uses ‘flashbacks’ of this affair, although when the truth about it emerges, you could kind of see it coming. What you don’t really see coming is the film’s second plot development. Egoyan rejects the notion that ‘Chloe’ sits amongst the other bourgeois family dramas about a woman spurned; ‘Fatal Attraction’, ‘The Hand That Rocks The Cradle’ et al. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t paint a picture of a stable, settled family life, but of course he considers his film more ambitious than these reductive thrillers. In keeping with his previous films, the revelation of the truth is stylishly done, the sexual scenes are artfully erotic, and the visual nature of the film; the sleek, glass interiors of the family home and the cold, icy Toronto locations, impresses. ‘Chloe’ threatens to go off the rails in places, and it probably does in fact. But a mainstream Egoyan film is always going to be interesting, and ‘Chloe’ is never but.

November 1, 2009

The Milk of Sorrow (2009)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 7:12 pm
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Director: Claudia Llosa

95 min

A surprise winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin earlier this year, ‘The Milk of Sorrow’ is further evidence of a renaissance in Latin American cinema. Like numerous other films from the continent in recent years, it considers the aftermath of the transition from dictatorship to democracy and the process of rehabilitation and reconciliation. ‘The Milk of Sorrow’ or ‘The Frightened Tit’ to provide the film with its more accurately translated title is an illness, more psychological and mental than physical, that afflicts a generation of Peruvian women. During the violence of the 1980s, thousands of women were raped by the Maoist terrorist organisation, Shining Path. The trauma of this violence is passed from one generation of women to another; it’s an illness that can’t help but be inherited.

At the heart of the film is a stunning central performance by a young, inexperienced actress named Magaly Solier, who plays Fausta. Her mother is dying, and with her final few words, it’s clear that she still remains haunted by the sexual abuse she suffered. The rest of the family are more concerned about the impending nuptials of Fausta’s cousin, and remain preoccupied still when the pensive, thoughtful Fausta reveals the death of her mother to them. What follows then is a sort of coming of age drama, as Fausta can only put the past to bed by burying her mother. This isn’t so easy, since arranging a burial’s not simple if you don’t have any money, and Fausta wants to treat her mother with respect and the dignity she never experienced through her life. Whilst she finds work as a maid for a middle class concert pianist, Fausta has nosebleeds and it’s revealed she has a tuber in her vagina. As her uncle explains the “milk of sorrow” to the unsympathetic doctor, he refutes this, as if the rest of Peru has forgotten its turbulent past already – it’s the population most affected by the political upheaval who’ve still been unable to overcome it.

The LFF screening was introduced by its Argentine DoP Natasha Braier, who recently shot ‘XXY’ and ‘In the City of Sylvia’ (both 2007) and has lent all three films a distinctive, artful style. It remains restrained and distanced. It’s a languid, composed film that never rushes itself, that never needs to reconstruct violence to show its effects and further demonstrates that the most effective means of interrogating the past is by using cinema.

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