Monday, 28 July 2008

Yardstick: 100 Directors, 100 Pinnacles

This is, I guess, an official yardstick of my standards and tastes. The only rule I kept in composing this list: one film per director. The list is in alphabetical rather than preferential order of titles. But of course it's not just to say what I like - it also tells me what I have not yet seen, and so serves as a yardstick for my ignorance.

2046 (Wong-Kar Wai)
4 Months, Three Weeks, and 2 Days
(Cristian Mungiu)
40 Guns (Samuel Fuller)
(Federico Fellini)
A Hard Day’s Night
(Richard Lester)
A Man for All Seasons
(Fred Zinneman)
A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood)
Aguirre: The Wrath of God
(Werner Herzog)
Alexander Nevsky
(Sergei Eisenstein)
All About My Mother (Pedro Almodovar)
Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky)
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola)
Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville)
Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick)
Belle de Jour
(Luis Bunuel)
(William Wyler)
Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni)
Blue Velvet
(David Lynch)
Border Incident (Anthony Mann)
Branded To Kill (Seijun Suzuki)
Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale)
(Michael Curtiz)
(Roman Polanski)
Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding)
Deep Red (Dario Argento)
Diary of a Lost Girl (G. W. Pabst)
Down By Law
(Jim Jarmusch)
Dressed To Kill (Brian De Palma)
Ed Wood (Tim Burton)
(Gus Van Sant)
Far From the Madding Crowd
(John Schlesinger)
Fat Girl
(Catherine Breillat)
(Fritz Lang)
Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming)
Greed (Erich Von Stroheim)
Henry & June
(Phillip Kaufman)
Henry V (Kenneth Branagh)
Hour of the Wolf
(Ingmar Bergman)
In Cold Blood
(Richard Brooks)
Isle of the Dead (Mark Robson)
Johnny Guitar
(Nicholas Ray)
Kiss Me Deadly
(Robert Aldrich)
Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi)
Last Tango in Paris
(Bernardo Bertolucci)
Lawrence of Arabia
(David Lean)
Le Corbeau (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
Les Enfants du Paradis
(Marcel Carné)
Levrés de Sang (Jean Rollin)
Marie Antoinette
(Sofia Coppola)
(Robert Altman)
Modern Times
(Charles Chaplin)
Mona Lisa (Neil Jordan)
Mr Smith Goes to Washington
(Frank Capra)
Naked (Mike Leigh)
Napoleon (Abel Gance)
O Lucky Man!
(Lindsay Anderson)
Odd Man Out (Carol Reed)
Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone)
Operazione Paura (Mario Bava)
Point Blank
(John Boorman)
Raiders of the Lost Ark
(Steven Spielberg)
Red Beard
(Akira Kurosawa)
Repo Man (Alex Cox)
Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino)
(Jules Dassin)
Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks)
'Round Midnight
(Bertrand Tavernier)
Savage Messiah (Ken Russell)
See No Evil (Richard Fleischer)
Sherlock Jnr (Buster Keaton)
Shoot the Piano Player (Francois Truffaut)
Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick)
The Birds
(Alfred Hitchcock)
The Body Snatcher
(Robert Wise)
The Devil Rides Out (Terence Fisher)
The Duellists
(Ridley Scott)
The French Connection
(William Friedkin)
The Grapes of Wrath
(John Ford)
The Hustler
(Robert Rossen)
The Last Temptation of Christ
(Martin Scorsese)
The Leopard
(Luchino Visconti)
The Leopard Man
(Jacques Tourneur)
The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer)
The Mother and the Whore
(Jean Eustache)
The New World
(Terrence Malick)
The Pawnbroker
(Sidney Lumet)
The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor)
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (Billy Wilder)
The Red Shoes
(Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper)
The Thing
(John Carpenter)
The Wild Bunch
(Sam Peckinpah)
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Thief (Michael Mann)
Three Times
(Hsiao-hsien Hou)
Touch of Evil
(Orson Welles)
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
(John Huston)
(Emir Kusturica)
Week-End (Jean-Luc Godard)

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

One of those films that you consider turning off a half-dozen times whilst watching it, and yet finish up liking a little, The Other Boleyn Girl finally survived in my DVD player chiefly because of a last-act swerve into a strange and dainty kind of terror, as Natalie Portman's Anne Boleyn, have batted eyelashes and bitchified her way into the role of Queen, finds that she has written herself into a tragedy with starring role as tragic heroine. Portman finally gets a chance to do the nervy desperation that's becoming her stock-in-trade, having spent most of the film looking embarassed when having to speak lines of dialogue like when, in response King Henry's question as to how she'll stay on a horse, she replies with all the seductive wit of a Carry On character, "With my thighs." She goes to the chopping block with brittle dignity and saves England from dynastic wars and the movie from disaster. Screenwriter Peter Morgan's lapses into vulgar obviousness, which kept poking its head up throughout The Queen, dominates here. The bulk of the film is pure comic book history, with Anne battling her pleasantly dim younger sister Mary (Scarlett Johansson) for the affections of Henry VIII (Eric Bana), at the crafty behest of their wicked uncle Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey). Anne is eager - too eager, and nicey-wicey sis Mary is bedded by the king first. Mary soon gets knocked up, and then shunted aside when Anne returns with some new learning in ze French arts of ze lovemaking, oui oui.

Certainly this is based on a pseudo-historical potboiler, but those have been made into terrific films before; witness Otto Preminger's adaptation of Forever Amber. This is more like Temporary Turquoise. The first scene in the film that tweaked me out of amused torpor was Morrissey's solicitations to Portman, Morrissey all brusque, rapacious opportunism, nakedly searching for a willing courtesan, and finding Portman a suitably illusion-free candidate. Little of the movie has such snap; the love scenes are prissy piffle and the politics rushed, leading to the impression that the whole of the English Reformation can be boiled down to an excuse for Eric to give it to Natalie roughly from behind. Bana and Johansson make no impression whatever, but that's not really their fault - Mary and Henry are barely characterised, the former who has to be the nice girl victim and the latter stuck straddling an uncomfortable duel responsibility of being romantic lead and tyrannical monster, at once casting him as villain for cutting off Anne's head for not giving him a son, but also as misunderstood lonely guy who protects Mary. The film literally cannot decide on a key for his character, so obviously neither can Bana. This may have been spun into a profound statement of the corrupting nature of power and the strange entanglement of desire, love, and hate with politics, but no-one seems to have taken the time to really think about this film before making it.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Point Blank (1967)

John Boorman’s sophomore thriller bewildered me the first time I watched it – granted I was half-asleep. Returning to it last night I found myself hypnotised by its artistry. If Orson Welles had made a crime thriller in the hippie era, it would have looked something like this, and the Wellesian influence is marked, from the jagged, time-distorting editing to the use of architectural monstrosities. A pithy script matches Boorman’s vivid, impressionistic, oft-haunting visuals; the nightclub punch-up is a sequence of crazed effervescence that Welles would have proud of. Boorman would later prove to be an occasionally brilliant, occasionally intolerable director, but here his experimental bent meshes perfectly with a tale of mean justice, wintry love, and mysterious politicking. Boorman predicts his own Excalibur in presenting an almost abstract quest for a grail that is supposed to be money, but this never rings true, yet nor is it revenge in the traditional sense – Lee Marvin’s Walker’s mission begins, rather than ends, with tracking down his wife, Lynne (Sharon Acker), and his friend, Reese (John Vernon), who betrayed him, and finds himself instead dedicated himself, with the aid of Keenan Wynn’s mysterious sensei, to a ruthless, methodical exposure of the food chain of the quasi-corporate mob, trying to find a beating heart somewhere that he can attack, and finding, eventually, there isn’t one. This intermeshes in strange ways with Walker’s loss of one sister, Acker, and his subsequent fling with another, Chris (Angie Dickinson), where Walker both exudes a kind of ice-burn sensuality, whilst remaining impervious, as if, in its way, his mission is both a repudiation of human concerns like love, yet, nonetheless, motivated by it. Boorman’s interest with the changing faces of lovers finds crystallisation in an especially strange shot where Marvin, Acker, Dickinson and Vernon morph into each-other. Boorman’s eye, like Lester’s in Petulia and Antonioni’s in Zabriskie Point, and perhaps more pointedly and efficiently than either, discovers something alien and inhuman in the glaring sunlight and boxy architecture of California, where even the intimacy of burial has become an instant consumer experience. This is contrasted by the bookends at Alcatraz and the Presidio, gothic mazes that contrast the wide-awake nightmare of the central span of the film. Marvin is at the height of his strident cool (having a good year, between this and The Dirty Dozen), and a strong supporting cast works well, especially the always-intriguing Dickinson. Some interpret Marvin’s disappearance into the shadows in the end to indicate that the whole film has been his dying fever dream, but I see no real evidence of this. Nonetheless, the film has an eerie, dream-like feel, as if, though perhaps Walker’s body did not die on Alcatraz, some piece of him did. Like Love’s Forever Changes, another ’67 landmark, it’s a work both very much of its era and yet, in its slippery surfaces and subterranean unease, still utterly contemporary.

Reese (John Vernon) and Walker (Lee Marvin): "I need your help!"

Walker reunited with wife Lynne. Happy homecoming, not. This shot goes on forever, encapsulating Walker's stoic silence and Lynne's trancelike sorrow, Boorman turning the frame into a merciless trap that she can only escape through suicide.

When they met - "It was raining..."

Four shots from the dream Walker has whilst sleeping in Lynne's house:

Savage intimacy;

Marvin's body langauge and Boorman's slow motion emphasises the kickback punishment of firing a gun - a self-enervating force;

Spilling the empty cartridges - hollow revenge, bullets spent shooting a pillow.

Five shots from 'The Movie House' sequence, which particularly reveals Welles' influence:
Hell is a go-go club.

Walker puts the boot into one of his attackers;

A soul singer coaxing an audience member into singing with him: Ahhhh!



Honey trap.

Man on the moon.

Fairfax (Keenan Wynn) and his hired killer (James Sikking) and the last victim, Brewster (Carroll O'Connor), within the Presidio. But Walker isn't so stupid as he was born yesterday...

...and he sinks back into the shadows. Is he dead, dreaming, or has he simply realised he has been used, and that his quest is futile?

Friday, 18 July 2008

On why I don’t like the revived Doctor Who

I was listening today to a remixed version of the Doctor Who theme that a friend gave me amongst a whole bunch of other odds and ends on a disc. It was a remix that grew from a stripped down version of Ron Grainer’s already sparse, eerie electronic score, to swinging to a jittery imposed techno beat. It captured the sci-fi noir spirit of the old show at its best, its mixture of genre concepts rich and strange.

And something finally crystallised for me about what it is I don’t like about the new Doctor Who. The old show could, of course, be lamentably tacky and silly. It could sport water balloons with attached vacuum cleaner tubing posing as tentacled monsters, and goonish sets and costumes. But it was a fundamentally serious programme that managed surprisingly often to be boldly dramatic and tautly handled, from the intelligent and well-written - and incredibly cheap - early seasons, to its zenith in the '70s in episodes like Genesis of the Daleks, Spearhead from Space, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Revelation of the Daleks, not to mention the Hammer-horror pitch of episodes like The Tomb of the Cybermen, The Brain of Morbius, or Terror of the Zygons, the ambitious, pseudo-poetic desolation of The Sontaran Experiment or Warriors' Gate, or even the cyberpunk satiric tilt of Sylvester McCoy’s era. That’s all gone now, replaced by day-glo camp, self-mocking melodrama, and broad pot-shots at New Labour mores. The Russell Davies Who is a show designed to please people who never really watched the original show, and who don’t like science fiction, casual consumers having their egos stroked by their superiority to such fare. What was once only a comedy on the surface has been turned entirely into one. At the centre of this has been the uncomfortable spectacle of seeing both Christopher Ecclestone and David Tennant, two fine actors, forced to mug and sweat their way through every episode, never allowed the kind of restrained, meditative downtime allowed Tom Baker or Peter Davison, and certainly none of the relaxed savoir faire of Jon Pertwee or McCoy. Only very occasionally, in episodes like The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances and Dalek, had the new programme come anywhere near the mix of urgency, invention, and corn that made the original show riveting at its best.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

One-Armed Swordsman (Dubei Dao, 1967)

What a way to die - killed by the Mod Squad on an unrealistic snowy set.

Shaw Brothers classics appeal to me for much the same reasons as the early Hammer films. They're snappy, aggressively unpretentious, corny but strongly felt, and put together with colour and verve. One-Armed Swordsman is gorgeous in its bold cinematography and set-bound stylisation. The legendary Yu Wang plays our hero, Fang Gang, a servant's son who is trained by a martial arts master, Qi (Feng Tien), as a gesture towards his father who died protecting Qi's school. His prowess irritates the snottier sons of the gentry who learn at the school, and Qi's daughter Pei Er (Yin Tze Pan) has a thing for him that, being as she is a bitch, expresses itself in aggression. When she and some lads gang up on him, she accidentally-on-purpose cuts off his arm when he's not on his guard, and he stumbles away into the snow to die.
Pei Er is upset that Gang doesn't find her as irresistably cute in this ensemble as the other boys.
But he's rescued by good honest peasant girl Man (Chiao Chiao) - who happens herself to be the exiled daughter of a martial arts master who wrote a book that contains techniques for fighting with the left hand...Before you can say "obvious plot device" our Gang goes from having bullies kick sand in his face to breaking rocks and splitting trees with his new skills.

Like many an adolescent boy before him, Gang realises the awesome potential of the left hand.

Meanwhile, one of Master Qi's old enemies, Long Arm, an expert in martial arts and the tradition of the contemptuous villain's laugh, returns to the area looking for vengeance for his defeat years before in a duel, and he's equipped his students with a sneaky new device that immobilizes Qi's school's strictly right-handed fighting technique. Sounds like a job for the kick-ass guy with a good left hand!
Gang does battle with Long Arm's best student, Smiling Face.
The solid, simplistic storyline is beautifully coherent and Wang has a boatload of charisma even in playing a dour character. The special effects are amusing in their low-tech pizzazz, and the choreography of the fight scenes not, thankfully, excessively stylised or over-stretched, and so they still look like actual, physical brawls rather than Breakdance battles, as they would by the early '80s.
Master Qi battles two of Long Arm's henchmen whilst Long Arm himself (in centre, wearing blue), prepares to laugh in contempt again.

Monday, 14 July 2008

I'm Not There (2007)

This one had the stink of a wankfest from Day One. Fifteen minutes in, I turned it off, my sense of smell proven still sharp, and I think only the music got me that far in. Collecting a bunch of tinny aphorisms and cheeseball film school tricks does not actually add up to a worthy tribute to Bob Dylan, his songs or his life. Whatever potential surreal poetry might have been had in Todd Haynes' stupid idea of having umpteen actors play Dylan is completely lost in witless direction that had me bored at hello. A clodhopping screenplay, which seems to have been written by clipping out the least interesting parts of His Bobness' liner notes and pasting them into a bad newspaper essay on the Pop Culture Impact of Bob Dylan. No wonder the mainstream press lapped it up when they threw away Dylan's own restless, interesting, and genuinely feverish Masked and Anonymous. Haynes has long been near the top of my list of incredibly overrated critics' pets, and now he takes the crown. Factory Girl was stupid, but at least it was modestly stupid.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

The Carey Treatment (1972)

Blake Edwards directs James Coburn in this entertaining but ridiculous murder-mystery, based on a Michael Crichton novel. The Carey Treatment dabbles in a few serious themes, dabbling with the moral exigencies of abortion and social elitism, somewhat smothered under '70s gloss and "hip" attitude, and an overall approach that suggests a feature-length pilot for a show that could well have been called Murder, He Diagnosed or something. Coburn plays the title character, a free-spirited hipster pathologist - yeah, baby - who breezes into a private Boston hospital and shakes things up in the white-bread establishment. His friend David Tao (James Hong) is imprisoned for killing the daughter of the hospital's boss (Dan O'Herlihy) in a botched abortion. Carey sets out to prove his innocence and romances stunning dietician Jennifer O'Neil at the same time. Carey adjusts from doctor to dick in a few minutes and begins running down suspects and tight-lipped witnesses with aplomb. It's a pity that Edwards doesn't keep a tighter rein on the film's fancies, in stupid scenes like Carey shaking an admission out of teenage girl by driving her about dangerously, or forcing a confession out of the killer with placebo torture. A rare Edwards film not to feature a Henry Mancini score, boasting instead a terrible parade of lift music by Roy Budd.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Flyboys (2006)

There's a great French word that describes this film perfectly. Honestly, how can anyone get away with passing a script like this off in our day and age? And with David S. Ward's input! James Franco needs a new agent. Badly. Jean Reno, too. Martin Henderson gives an astonishingly bad performance. Of course it's '00s, so we can't expect any actual flying. We get rotten CGI instead. A paintbox war to match a recycled script. The film almost piles on enough corn so that it becomes self-satirising, but I doubt even Mel Brooks or ZAZ would have had the gall to include the scene where the heroes are saved by a pilot who's learned to fly with his hook. Yeah. What is it about the Lafayette Escadrille that attracts terrible films? Watch The Blue Max instead, people.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

James Mangold has been one of Hollywood's quiet achievers for a decade now; Copland, Girl, Interrupted, Identity, and Walk The Line fulfilled their disparate, generic objectives with sinuous, well-crafted storytelling, and all display Mangold's superlative skill with actors. 3:10 is far from being a great film, or even a very good one, but it entertains, and Mangold's walloping action scenes and his handling of an electric cast cannot be faulted. Adapted from Elmore Leonard's story and the previous film version of it by Delmer Daves, the script has been awkwardly padded out with some extra plot contrivances that stretch credibility, and the running time, unnecessarily. It feels like the first major Hollywood Western since Peckinpah died not to be weighed down by its own self-importance as a Great American Genre, and settles for being a robust, pulpy, if moderately intelligent, shoot-em-up. Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, both of whom have built their reputations on giving more to mediocre projects than they deserve, do so again here; the interplay between Bale's ferocious sternness and Crowe's fleshy, cheeky killer is intriguing, certainly extending Leonard's fascination for likable bad guys and a general moral ambiguity in its version of the American West - what price Crowe's honest villainy, when this world is full of killers, sadists, arsonists, religious maniacs, and ruthless power-hungry operators? Peter Fonda is turning into his father.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Stormy Waters (Remorques, 1941)

A late entry in the poetic-realist wave in '30s French cinema, starring its chief male muse Jean Gabin, and directed by Jean Grémillon. Stormy Waters is an atmopsheric, fluent, intense character drama where Gabin plays the Captain of an ocean-going tug, the "Cyclone", stationed in Brest. He and his crew brave storms to rescue floundering ships, and on the wedding night of one of the junior officers, they're called out to bring in a tanker. That ship's captain (Jean Marchat) is a hysterical, obnoxious fool who'll let his ship drift a little longer just to spite his crew and the rescuers he'll have to pay for the job. His wife (Michèle Morgan) has put up with him for two years and is so fed up she bails in a lifeboat with some of the crew. Gabin picks her up and, once she's dried off, falls for her hard. Problem - he's been married for ten years to Madeleine Renaud, and she's keeping secret from her husband a heart defect that's being aggravated by anxiety over his job. That this meaty, fascinating milieu, excellently portrayed by Gremillon's film-making, is badly served by unimpressive special effects lets the team down a bit, and also that it turns out to be a set-up for yet another adulterous quandary; Gabin himself claimed he gave up watching romantic films because it was "the same old eternal triangle". Yet the film's elegant editing and photograpahy, and fervent acting - especially from Morgan as an emotionally frayed but radiant woman who sees her life as rootless - add to the emotional genuineness and sharp dialogue of Jacques Prevert's screenplay that neatly ties together the setting and the characters as being, indeed, people on stormy waters. It leads to a dizzying and tragic final scene that is as memorable as it is strange.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Charlie Wilson's War (2007)

Mike Nichols. A frustrating talent with a tendency to make excellent films out of unpromising or asinine material (The Graduate, Working Girl, Wolf) and an equal propensity for screwing up prestige projects (Catch-22, Regarding Henry, Primary Colors). Like too many of his recent films, Charlie Wilson's War has all the visual discipline of a sit-com episode writ large. This film's depiction of the very real, very bloody Soviet-Afghan war is offensively video game-like, and its concluding attempt to swing from, well, swinging good time to darkening political tragedy is negligently curtailed. War suffers from a queasy-making conflict between its ribald, satiric take on a Washington where it takes a coke-snorting poonhound to get anything done, and its sticky Reagan-era nostalgia and clumsy efforts at cue-the-inspiring-music patriotic triumph. Especially in the woefully handled wraparound sequence of Charlie receiving an award from the covert community, which is so broad a reproduction of similar scenes in other films that it felt like it had to be a parody - except it isn't. The punchline you wait for is absent. It's as if to make a film about a situation that all too cruelly bit the hand that fed it, Nichols and Sorkin felt a need to hide behind a platitudinal lip-service to late Cold War doctrine. Nichols' style, resolutely set-bound and far more stagy than Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ever was, badly lacks a vivid, context-making dexterity, the feel for time and place, that would back up Sorkin's words with snap of its own.

I might be making the film sound bad, which it isn't, but I am endeavouring to identify its major shortcomings. Aaron Sorkin's witty, hectic screenplay is the major asset, acknowledging its own stylised screwball-politico archness by even having Pakistani soliders speak in his speedy, smart-ass epigrams. The film pumps Wilson's extra-curricular sex life and general propensity for skirt for an oft-delightful shot of Tashlin-esque va-va-voom, with Emily Blunt in underwear and Amy Adam's power skirt and bobbing ponytail enough to drive a hetero guy crazy. But truthfully, apart from the likably dirty scene that introduces Wilson, lounging with Playboy models, strippers, and seedy TV producers, in a Vegas hot tub, the film does very little with its potentially, beautifully subversive take on what constitutes a patriotic, humane man. Tom Hanks is fair in the role, but though he tries, he can't quite achieve either the quick-witted verbal dexterity required by Sorkin's dialogue, or the earthy, sybaritic charm to carry it off. Thus, the film doesn't really get into gear until Phil Hoffman arrives as the foul-mouthed, working class Greco-Pennsylvanian CIA agent with a chip on his shoulder. His first scene is like a fist in the mouth of much modern Hollywood blandness and that of the standard portrayals of the white-bread intelligence services. Without him, the film would be pleasantly watchable; with him it's not quite as instantly forgettable. There's also some sterling character work from Adams, Ned Beatty, Om Puri, and Ken Stott. Julia Roberts, as a wilfull, right-wing, proselytising Texas matriarch, is borderline competent, as always, in a role she's badly miscast in.

Friday, 4 July 2008

The Children's Hour (1961)

Of course, this is a passe piece of work. In some parts of the world, anyway. No gay woman hangs herself these days because she's got a crush on a straight friend - she just goes out, gets drunk and gets picked up. No guy goes through torments of hell when his girlfriend is rumoured to be bisexual; today it's a status symbol. No teacher is socially ostracised because...hang on. Maybe it's not so passe after all. William Wyler, a director with a nigh-untouchable gift for sustaining dramatic interplay within the cinema space, returned to this material having filmed a bowdlerised version in the '30s as These Three. After a shaky start - especially in some of Shirley MacLaine's clunky line deliveries - The Children's Hour becomes one of the more revelatory viewings I've had in recent months. One of the contradictions of great drama is that it wrings every ounce of entertainment out of watching people being miserable, and this certainly provides one from the other. Though it's considered a founding text of modern Queer cinema, in truth it fits neatly into the dramatic mould of its era, like The Crucible, which, as opposed to classical tragedy, where mankind proved impotent before Fate, this breed of tragedy is essentially about society destroying individuals, usually for one reason that actually covers up another. It's especially pleasurable for seeing two actors usually allowed to coast on their looks and charm, James Garner and Audrey Hepburn, aka Miss Clothes-Horse of the Year 1953-1967, work for a living. Hepburn's performance equals her other finest work (in The Nun's Story), proving she was at her best playing interior characters - her subtle but vivid facial expressiveness suits such roles. And Garner is surprisingly moving. MacLaine is the histrionic weak link. The story builds with compulsive power to a brutal finish.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Wonderwall (1968)

Jack MacGowran, a consistently great actor, has one of his few leading roles here, playing the meek, absent-minded Professor Collins, besieged in his windowless apartment, haunted by the memory of his strict wheelchair-bound mother. One night he finds there's a hole in the wall of his apartment that gives him an eyeful of his gorgeous next-door neighbour, Penny Lane, played by Miss Je T'aime herself, Jane Birkin. What sounds like the set-up for a bad dirty-joke movie is actually a comic-psychedelic fantasia, as Collins obsessively studies Penny's joyously colorful existence with her photographer boyfriend (Ian Quarrier), withdrawing from work and life - not that he has much of a life to withdraw from - to watch theirs and fantasise about becoming Penny's gentleman saviour, battling with Quarrier in absurd duels with giant cigarettes and lipsticks, saving her from poverty and despondency, and finally marrying her. But not everything is so swinging in paradise and the Professor finally has to live out some of his fantasies for real. The film is loaded with Polanski acolytes, being a story written by Gerard Brach, and Wonderwall bears many similarities to Brach's scripts for Polanski, as the voyeur hero seals himself in his apartment and ceases to discern reality from fantasy. The differences are marked, in that Wonderwall is primarily one of those late '60s works of mobile pop art, inflating a small, interior film that might have made a wonderful subject for Polanski into an often immobile spectacle of trippy effects that aren't staged with enough verve to make them dizzying, as in Richard Lester's films, or with enough intimacy to make it truly dream-like. Director Joe Massot, who later made The Song Remains the Same an arch-masturbatory spectacle for Led Zeppelin fans, provides some indelible images beautifully photographed by Harry Waxman, but the film cries for a lightness of touch that's missing, and would probably have made a better short. Massot's mod-at-all-costs approach can't set up the necessary tension between a glum outside world and the Eden Collins seeks and Birkin and Quarrier seem to have. This film may be chiefly remembered as the inspiration for that Oasis song, and its George Harrison music score. Neither of which represent the best reasons to watch it, though Harrison's inventive score is excellent and innovative. Mostly a static would-be head film, it is still, an intermittently charming, wry, and touching work.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

9 Songs (2004)

Michael Winterbottom's restless experimentalism results in this film that is, like much cutting-edge cinema of recent years, more about the study of the mood, behaviour, and texture of an event - here, fucking, to be precise - rather than narrative or drama. It portrays an event that happens every day but very rarely makes it to the cinema screen, and if it does, it's usually in some asinine rom-com line where characters talk about relationships that were purely sexual. Well, here's what one such relationship looks like: Kieran O'Brien and Margo Stilley play the pair of young, fit, but not especially beautiful or charming characters who meet at a rock concert, screw, go to more rock concerts, screw some more, dabbling with kink, and then finally break up when lust exhausts itself. The powerful, embracing, communal stimulation of great rock music - including kick-ass performances by Franz Ferdinand and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - contrasts the delicate, grappling, intimate stimulation of the couple's affair, and indeed, the emotion of the concerts becomes a stand-in, a surrogate place to expend the feeling they can't approach in the bedroom.
It's something of the anti-Brief Encounter, intricately related to that film as a portrait of a go-nowhere romance, but where the older film presented a love affair that was entirely emotional and done in by the impossibility of consummating it, this relationship is entirely built around sex, whilst both characters are utterly devoid of intellectual or emotional communcation. It seems that O'Brien feels more about the relationship than Stilley does - she has just as intimate, if not more so, a relationship with her vibrator, and the whole scene is essentially a holiday fling for her - and he meditates, in the future, as he explores Antarctica, upon their time together. When sex is commodified in hideous, dishonest, plasticised horrors like Sex and the City, 9 Songs, in its dispassionate directness, achieves an ironic distance that both legitimizes its own bald perspective as well as making a deft critique. 9 Songs doesn't live up to other explorations of sexual affairs like Last Tango in Paris and A Pornographic Affair despite being more visceral, but to a large extent that's missing the point - it's about its visceral meditation.