Thirtyframesasecond

November 23, 2009

Bamboozled (2000)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 11:10 pm
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US

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)

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UK/Australia/France

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)

USA/Canada/France

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)

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Spain/Peru

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.

October 18, 2009

The Time That Remains (2009)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 8:32 pm
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UK/Italy/Belgium/France

Director: Elia Suleiman

109 min

‘The Time That Remains’ is the third part of Elia Suleiman’s trilogy about the place of the Palestinian people in the modern state of Israel, following ‘Chronicle of a Disappearance’ (1996) and ‘Divine Intervention’ (2002). It’s his most ambitious film to date, tackling the sixty year history of Israel as seen through the eyes of the Suleiman family, based on the diaries of his father and his own memories. Its structure is loose and episodic, concentrating on a handful of pivotal moments in Israeli history, such as the collapse of the Arab resistance in 1948 and the death of Nasser (the President of Egypt and ‘leader’ of the Arab Nation) in 1970, and using the Suleiman family as a benchmark of the position of Palestinians within the state. Suleiman smartly doesn’t go in for showing the “bigger picture”, but shows how these events affected people on a more basic, domestic level.

Suleiman plays a thinly veiled version of himself, who remains a silent, passive observer to what occurs around him, though his presence is vital as a foil to more active characters. His performance hangs on a series of mannerisms and gestures, coupled with his hangdog expression, and is completely in keeping with the absurd and blackly comic nature of the film. Its surreal approach to serious history is similar to that of Emir Kusturica, and even someone like Beckett couldn’t invent its sheer strangeness. As the film develops, a sequence of bizarre events take place, more so in the current day, as if Suleiman is suggesting nothing could change in the area. A young Palestinian man speaks on his mobile phone, oblivious to the fact a tank is about five minutes away and its cannon is pointed right at him! As he walks around and changes position, the cannon subtly shifts, never losing its focus. A crazed neighbour attempts to commit suicide every day but fails, and has interesting logic about the political situation. The Israeli Army and Palestinian civilians fight over a wounded Palestinian on a hospital trolley. ‘The Time That Remains’ could have, in lesser hands, been a worthy, didactic, political film about the history between Israel and Palestinian, but Suleiman’s approach succeeds – mainly because it would have been impossible to do it justice in a more conventional fashion.

The London Film Festival 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 7:54 pm

The next few posts will be a few thoughts on the films I’ve booked tickets for from this year’s festival. Due to time and financial considerations, it’s only three films this year…

  • The Time That Remains (d. Elia Suleiman)
  • The Milk of Sorrow (d. Claudia Llosa)
  • Chloe (d. Atom Egoyan)

September 28, 2009

A couple of Satyajit Ray DVD releases

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 1:00 pm

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Only in the last couple of years or so have the films of the renowned Indian film maker Satyajit Ray (considered the favourite director of Akira Kurosawa no less) become increasingly available in the UK. His justly acclaimed first set of features, ‘The Apu Trilogy’ have been widely obtainable, but his comparatively lesser known masterpieces have been released by Artificial Eye in various collections, including the likes of ‘Charulata’ (1964) and ‘Nayak’ (1966) in the last year or two. The fledgling Mr Bongo label has now jumped on board. Having already released ‘The Adversary’ (1972), two more Ray films are released in September; ‘Devi’ (1960) and ‘Two Daughters’ (1961).

Both films have a pivotal position in Ray’s career, as the first films he directed after the Apu trilogy (although 1958’s ‘The Music Room’ bridges the trilogy’s second and third parts). Rather than exploit the success of the Apu films, Ray completely changed direction with ‘Devi’, which tackles issues of superstition and religious obsession within the context of a tight-knit community that operates according to a hierarchical structure (potentially an allegory for the rapidly changing India?). Featuring the two actors whom Ray worked with most frequently; his alter-ego Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore (the 14 year old future star of Hindi cinema and great grand-daughter of Rabindranath Tagore – Ray’s favourite Indian writer), it’s a melodrama of the highest order. When the elderly, infirm village elder Kalinkar, the most influential member of the village begins to believe his son’s wife, Doya, (Tagore) is the reincarnation of a Hindi deity, Kali, everyone comes to believe it to be the case, including Doya herself. Inevitably tragedy strikes, ultimately destroying this particular family. Ray’s level of empathy is impressive. He warns of the dangers of such fanaticism, but he does so with great subtlety, never condemning his protagonists for how they act. They are blinded by faith.

‘Two Daughters’ is a minor film in comparison but still showcases Ray’s considerable talents. Comprised of two short stories by Rabindranath Tagore, the underlying theme is of female emancipation. In the first tale, ‘The Postman’, the eponymous character moves from the city to a rural village, where he befriends a young female orphan. He teaches her to read and write; she nurses him after a bout of malaria. Only once he leaves does he recognise the bond between them both. The second tale, The Conclusion’ features Soumitra Chatterjee as a law student who rejects his intended arranged marriage to wed a tomboy instead and the complications that arise from this. Whilst Ray ensures he pays homage to Tagore’s original text, he also makes sure he doesn’t suffocate the film by being over-reverential. Both tales are tributes to rural life in India, by showing how the dynamics of villages change after the introduction of outsiders and comparing the differences between both urban and rural living. The humour and satire is gentle but there’s a constantly sharp observation of the plight of women in these societies. As you’d expect, both films are splendidly shot, and serve as further evidence that Ray is one of the finest of all film makers from the second half of the twentieth century.

Both films were released by Mr Bongo films on 21 September 2009.

September 13, 2009

Fish Tank (2009)

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UK
Director: Arnold Arnold
124 min

Synopsis

Essex, UK, the present. Mia, a fifteen year old girl lives on a council estate with her feckless mother, Joanne and younger sister, Tyler. Her sole form of self-expression is dance. Mia engages in an argument with some girls on the estate, one of whom she headbutts. Angry, she breaks into a traveller’s site and tries to liberate a chained horse, but is interrupted. One morning, as she dances in the kitchen, she is observed by Connor, the new boyfriend of her mother, to whom Mia is initially hostile, despite Tyler’s friendliness towards him. Connor spends more time at the flat; throwing a party, taking them for a drive – during which he catches a fish with Mia’s help and Connor tends to the wounds Mia suffers in the process.

Mia borrows Connor’s videocamera to audition for a position as dancer at a local club. One evening, when Joanne and Connor return home drunk, Joanne passes out upstairs. Connor asks Mia to show him her audition. They then have sex. The next morning, Connor has left. Mia tracks him down to his home in Tilbury, where he lives with his wife and young daughter, Keira. Connor drives her back to the train station, but she returns, kidnapping Keira whilst she plays in the street. When Keira accidentally falls in the river, Mia rescues her and returns her. Connor then finds Mia and punches her. Mia attends her dance audition, but realising it’s a seedy club, leaves. Mia leaves for Cardiff with Billy, a young man from the traveller’s site.

Review

Perhaps the brightest hope for British cinema currently, Andrea Arnold’s burgeoning career has been synonimised by awards and acclaim at every turn. Her short ‘Wasp’ (2003) won an Oscar, whilst her debut feature ‘Red Road’ (2006), made under the influence of the Dogme ’95 movement won the Jury Prize at Cannes. So the hopes for her latest film, ‘Fish Tank’ were high and she hasn’t disappointed. Like ‘Red Road’, the film received the Jury Prize at Cannes this year, putting Arnold in rare company. ‘Fish Tank’ has already opened to very promising reviews in the British press, though it’s unlikely to crossover into mainstream territory, which is a shame as it’s a very honest, truthful film that shows an insight into a particular social class without resorting to patronising them.

The Essex council estates that bridge the city and the countryside are territory that Arnold knows all too well. ‘Wasp’ covered similar ground, focusing on the efforts of a poor, single mother on an estate to find a new boyfriend/father. This might have been set in Dartford, Arnold’s home town, but it could be anywhere to be honest. Arnold has disagreed with her critics who describe her work as leaning heavily on the grim side of life amongst the socially excluded. She doesn’t view her films this way; that although they’re set in these environments, they’re hardly ‘Nil By Mouth’ territory; that they focus on the lives of her characters as honestly as possible and offer hope. And there are also hints of autobiography here and there. Arnold doesn’t agree that estates are intrinsically depressing places and the film reinforces this.

The casting of Katie Jarvis in the role of Mia has become the stuff of minor cinematic folklore. Arnold’s casting director apparently witnessed her arguing with her boyfriend at Tilbury and recommended her for the part immediately. It’s an inspired decision. Even amongst the professional thesps on show (Kierston Wareing, Michael Fassbender), Jarvis more than holds her own in this central performance. It’s by some distance the most impressive performance I’ve seen by a young actor. She inhabits Mia so completely that you’d have to imagine that Jarvis and Mia are more or less one in the same. It’s a subtle, nuanced performance, capturing every aspect of Mia’s personality – her anger, her suspicion, her pride, her potential for verbal and physical violence, but also her potential for compassion, demonstrated mostly with her affectionate relationship with the tethered horse. Coming from a family where “I hate you” means the same as “I love you” and where a term of affection is “I’ll kill you last”, it’s no wonder that Mia remains guarded when faced with Connor’s friendly, warm demeanour. Jarvis has since had a child, so let’s hope she returns to acting and she’s some talent.

As the ‘relationship’ between Mia and Connor grows, demonstrated by slightly worrying moments of physical touching and the character’s accentuated breathing (through some neat sound effects work), there’s only one way this is going to go. Arnold allows this to be signposted a mile off. It doesn’t come as any surprise to us when the inevitable occurs. This makes it all the more disturbing of course, because we’ve had time to consider what will take place between Mia and Connor and even when it occurs, it’s extremely difficult to watch. What Arnold, to her credit, doesn’t do is try to explain to justify why Connor acts how he does. Whilst Mia’s family wear their motivations on their sleeve, Connor’s life is shrouded in mystery. Of course we never believe him when his mysterious ‘phone calls and seemingly being kicked out of home are because of his mother. We always suspect he has a family somewhere, but why latch onto Joanne and her family? And why then have sex with Mia? It’s hinted at some jealousy towards her relationship with Billy, the boy from the travellers site. There’s so many questions left unanswered. Connor’s departure sets in motion a peculiar revenge episode, which I’m not sure I found really convincing; from the way Mia was able to kidnap Keira to her seemingly homicidal intent. The positive byproduct of his departure was at least to facilitate a stronger relationship between Mia and Joanne.

Arnold and her regular DoP Robbie Ryan make the most of their settings; from the claustrophobic council estates that provide the film with its title to the evocative, wide-open spaces of the countryside, there’s a real sense of poetry here but never a fetishistic dwelling upon the seamier side of things. The relationship between Mia and Connor is also shot in a hazy, woozy fashion, as if reflective of a young woman’s sexual awakening, capturing the confusion and sensuality perfect. Complimenting the impressive visual work is a rich sense of authenticity and reality from the protagonists and milieu. ‘Fish Tank’ sometimes loses its way in its final third, once Mia discovers Connor’s secret, but on the whole it’s a striking, sympathetic film that largely deserves the reputation it’s acquiring.

September 12, 2009

District 9 (2009)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 1:43 pm
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USA/New Zealand
Director: Neill Blomkamp
112 min

Synopsis

In 1982, an alien vessel stops over Johannesburg. The malnourished aliens on board are rescued and soon placed into a government camp named District 9, which quickly becomes a slum. In the present day, Multi National United, a private military contractor starts the process of relocating the “prawns” (as they’re called) to the new District 10, outside of the city. The operation is led by Wikus van der Merwe, the son in the law of the head of MNU, who starts evicting the aliens. At one shack he finds a cylinder that sprays him with an unknown liquid. Wikus falls ill. At this hospital it becomes clear he’s mutating into an alien. MNU take him into custody, intending to experiment on him but he escapes.

Wikus returns to District 9, to the shack of “Christopher”, where he found the cylinder. This liquid was intended to power the dormant vessel. Christopher offers to reverse Wikus’s transformation if he retrieves the cylinder. Wikus attempts to purchase alien weapons from Nigerian gangsters, who want his arm, believing they’ll be able to gain his powers from eating it. Wikus steals weapons, and both he and Christopher break into MNU, retrieving the cylinder. When Christopher tells Wikus he has to return home before turning him back, Wikus knocks him out and attempts to power the vessel himself. The Nigerians hijack MNU when they capture Wikus and Christopher. Christopher’s son activates a powersuit that allows Wikus to save himself against both the Nigerians and MNU. Wikus allows Christopher to return to the vessel and go home. The aliens are moved to District 10, where it’s suggested we see Wikus, fully transformed into a “prawn”.

Review

The debut film from a South African film maker widely known already for his work in advertising (you’ll have seen his Citroen advert with a car that turns into a dancing robot!) came about rather fortuitously. Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, had been impressed by his previous work, including the short ‘Alive in Joburg’ (2005) and had arranged for Blomkamp to work on a film version of the Halo videogame’. When funding collapsed, Blomkamp returned to his earlier short, to turn in into a full length feature. In hindsight, it was a very wise decision. ‘Alive in Joburg’, which can be seen on Youtube is a six minute short that features the rough synopsis of ‘District 9’, but with the freedoms of a two hour running time and a large budget (though nothing like as large as most Hollywood action films – $30m approximately), Blomkamp has been able to tackle serious subject matters, whilst making a film that appeals to a mainstream filmgoing audience.

Blomkamp’s film hasn’t been acclaimed as a particularly inventive action film because of the technical bravura, although how he gets so much of a comparatively tight budget is certainly impressive, but moreover, because of its sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle allusions to South African history and general philosophies about humanity. It doesn’t require the audience to be an expert on apartheid to understand what Blomkamp is probably referring to. Confined to shanty towns, discriminated against, facing prejudice at every corner – we recognise these as symptoms of apartheid. As is the case in an increasing number of “alien”-themed films (Verhoeven’s ‘Starship Troopers’ springs to mind), it’s the “aliens”, not the humans with whom we sympathise. It’s the “aliens” who demonstrate the most obvious “human” characteristics. What humanitarian impulse began the settlement of the aliens in District 9 quickly descended into outright hostility and fearmongering. Sure, we expect politicians and military personnel here to be devious and selfish, but mild mannered bureaucrats like Wikus think nothing of illegally evicting aliens and issuing the use of violence with little motivation.

The transformation of Wikus from human to “prawn”, which seems influenced by Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’ (1987), isn’t just a physical metamorphosis, but also a mental and emotional change. From changing from a human, he somehow becomes more human. The effects of his actions as a civil servant become more apparent – he sees the experiments that MNU undertake on “prawns” first hand. He experiences discrimination and prejudice for this first hand – note the rumours peddled about how his change happened (sexual intercourse with a “prawn”). The one significant relationship within the film is between an alien named Christopher Johnson, an intelligent and articulate alien who knows his rights and that the eviction of his community has no legal basis, and his young son, who plot to rescue their species. Compare this at least with the relationship between Wikus and his father in law, Piet Smit, who has nothing but contempt for him, is complicit with his taking into custody and lies to his own daughter about what’s happened to Wikus. Mid-transformation, Wikus recovers his humanity and selflessness, risking his own life to ensure that Christopher and son can return home. Even with the final scene that shows a fully transformed Wikus, who may never return to human state, carving a flower from a can and leaving it on his wife’s doorstep, this never feels cloying or overly sentimental, but poignant and moving.

Not that there aren’t issues with the film. In its final third, it often feels as though Blomkamp realised there was a significant part of the budget left and the film begins to descend into one massive shootout between Wikus/Christopher and the MNU mercenaries, led by the almost psychotic Venter. For a film that wears its anti-discrimination, anti-prejudice credentials firmly on its sleeve, the characterisation of the Nigerian gangsters sails a little close to the wind, as they seem to merely fit crude stereotypes. These are minor quibbles though that shouldn’t detract from the otherwise impressive nature of this film. It’s a superior, intelligent action film, with a fine, nuanced central performance by Sharlto Copley, who actually doesn’t act all that frequently. Blomkamp nicely switches between faux-documentary of Wikus’s attempts to evict the aliens (filmed for state television) and more conventional film making once he begins to change and the CGI overseen by the director and presumably Jackson gives the film its epic feel. After the superb box office returns already in the US and worldwide, a sequel is probably inevitable. Blomkamp ends his film tentatively, on something of an anti-climax that suggests this chapter isn’t closed. With Jackson’s patronage, he ought to keep his feet on the ground and choose his subsequent projects wisely.

August 30, 2009

Broken Embraces (2009)

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Spain
Director: Pedro Almodovar
129 min

Synopsis

Madrid, the present. Harry Caine (real name: Mateo Blanco), a blind screenwriter makes love to a young woman who helped him cross the road. Judit, his assistant, informs him that the newspaper reports the death of Ernesto Martel, a powerful businessman. In Madrid, 1992, a young receptionist, Lena, is troubled by her father’s illness – Her employer, Martel arranges for Lena’s father to be treated in the best private clinic. She becomes his mistress. Back in the present, Harry is contacted by a man named Ray X, who wants to work on a film about a father who had ruined his son’s life forever. This is Martel’s son.

In 1994, Lena is now an aspiring actress and auditions for a film to be directed by Mateo, ‘Girls and Suitcases’, which is financed by Martel. Lena and Mateo embark on an affair on set, even though Martel’s son, Ernesto Jr. has been sent to keep an eye on Lena. As Lena tells Martel she’s leaving him, he pushes her down a staircase, severely injuring her. Lena promises not to reveal the truth and to stay with Martel as long as he allows Mateo to finish and release the film as he wishes. Once healed, Lena and Mateo holiday in Lanzarote, whilst an angry Martel butchers and releases the film; a flop. Lena and Mateo are involved in a car crash, which kills Lena and blinds Mateo, who now calls himself Harry. Back in the present, Judit reveals she told Martel where he and Lena were. Ray X helps Harry, who now reclaims the name Mateo re-edit ‘Girls and Suitcases’.

Review

The most stylish and financially viable of all European auteurs, the late career of Pedro Almodovar has been more mature and adult than his previous kitschy, chaotic features. Critics worldwide have declared the likes of ‘All About My Mother’ (1999) and ‘Talk To Her’ (2002) as unadulterated masterpieces, whilst ‘Bad Education’ (2004) and ‘Volver’ (2006); the latter featuring a powerhouse, Academy Award-worthy performance by Penelope Cruz were similarly well received. I’m personally slightly more agnostic about Almodovar’s ‘classics’. It’s fine to be influenced by Hollywood ‘women’s pictures’ and noir thrillers if you’re bringing something of yourself to the film, contributing your own original ideas. I think Almodovar certainly does this, but he often seems so in thrall to the likes of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ or ‘Mildred Pierce’ for instance, and wanting to do these films such justice, that the lines between borrowing and creativity often become blurred. More often than not, he’s on the right side of this line, but there’s always a concern that he’s backing himself into a corner. Fortunately though, there’s no sign that Almodovar has hit a creative rut if ‘Broken Embraces’ is anything to go by.

Never has Almodovar been more referential to cinema, and not just Hollywood but also himself than in ‘Broken Embraces’. Cinematic allusions are everywhere; whether it’s the pseudonym of the main protagonist – Harry Caine – a portmanteau perhaps of Harry Lime and Charles Foster Kane, the reference to the noir classic ‘Kiss of Death’ (1947), when Martel pushes Lena down the stairs, or the various films that are watched or discussed. Lena and Mateo watch ‘Voyage to Italy’ (1954) on television, which contributed the title of this film. Diego (Judit’s son) and Harry (as he became known after his blindness) discuss ‘Magnificent Obsession’ (1954) – itself a film where a major character becomes blind after an accident, as well as ‘Lift to the Scaffold’ (1958). These are films that have had direct influence upon Almodovar his entire career, though perhaps the work of Sirk is of most obvious amongst his work – the rich colours, dizzying visuals, the constant lack of reality/presence of artificiality has not only influenced Almodovar, but Fassbinder, Haynes and many others. What’s more, Almodovar is more self-aware than ever; the comedy ‘Girls and Suitcases’ borrows from ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ (1988), his first international success. There’s a clear extent to which Mateo is based on Almodovar himself. Almodovar is a contrast to that other renowned borrower of the history of cinema, Tarantino. Almodovar doesn’t allow what he’s borrowing to consume his own ideas.

‘Broken Embraces’ is also a pivotal film about the film making process, although this is not just because of what we see going on ‘behind the scenes’, but also because of the fact we have Ernesto Jr./Ray X operating as a ‘witness’, filming the ‘making of’ ‘Girls and Suitcases’ (whilst conveniently spying for his father), running parallel to us, the audience, watching the film being made. Ernesto Jr.’s voyeuristic gaze; at one point Mateo even mentions he reminds him of ‘Peeping Tom’, sits parallel to ours, but as though we watch objectively and he watches subjectively. We’re never quite sure what his interest in undertaking this ‘documentary’ is though. To gain the approval of his father? Ernesto Jr. is an awkward, effeminate young man whose relationship with his homophobic father is at breaking point at this early stage. The wounds of having two parents who bemoan giving birth to a “fairy” are obvious. Even in his twenties, Ernesto Jr. is a twice-divorced father but has now shacked up with another man. Does this suggest a lack of comfort with his sexuality or whether he was bullied by his father into marrying and having children? Or maybe just finding a way to fit into society? Certainly the film he wishes to make with Harry is an act of revenge against his father.

The constant jumps between times and parallel narratives often mean that pivotal moments of interest are overlooked. We don’t always understand the motivations of characters and because of this, often find it difficult to empathise with them. For instance, there’s a good decade between the death of Lena and Ernesto Martel’s death. He apparently was brought down in a financial scandal in this intervening period, and presumably we’re told this so that we equate his financial corruption with his moral corruption. But once Lena dies, he becomes a peripheral character. It’s not just the case with Martel though; there’s very little that links the two time periods in which the film operates.

Anchoring ‘Broken Embraces’ is yet another superb performance by Penelope Cruz, who constantly looks luminously beautiful, though she possesses vulnerability and self-determination at the same time. Not content solely being Martel’s mistress (which we assume was because her father was ill), she wants to provide for herself and rejects her wealthy lifestyle for true love with Mateo. The rest of the cast provide more subtle, low-key performances, but none of which should be overlooked. As expected, Almodovar’s film is slick, stylish entertainment, with impressive cinematography from new DoP Rodrigo Prieto, whose works still harks back to previous Almodovar features. Coming into the film with lesser expectations than the director’s loyal fanbase will, I was pleasantly surprised. The labyrinth plot more or less held up, though the two time periods could be adjoined more successfully and whilst the balance of style and substance sits precariously, the end result is dizzying and often breathtaking.

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