Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Mount Victoria

A shout-out to one of my favourite movie theaters, and a visual record of the experience that I look forward to in much of my filmgoing. Mount Victoria is a sleepy little hamlet in the Blue Mountains, popular with tourists for its art-deco architecture, and it also happens to have one of the best movie theaters in Australia. Going to see a film there is a pleasure, as is just walking around before and after. Mt Vic Flicks is an independent theater, and they have a lot of trouble with distributors (who once threatened to put a ban on them after they put a much-needed intermission into Titanic), and their sound system isn't all that good, but who cares when you can get a cup of coffee for $1, their selection of films is always top-notch, and there's this scenery to enjoy?

Monday, 14 September 2009

Cadillac Records (2008)

More a mosaic of a time and place than a bio-pic, and perhaps all the better for it, Cadillac Records offers vivid, portrait-like studies of some of modern music’s gods: Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Columbus Short), Howlin’ Wolf (Eammon Walker), Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), and Chuck Berry (Mos Def), the troubled, stratospherically talented stable of Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), former junkman and shifty captain for this ruined band.

Chess, a complex figure, wheels and deals, corrals his wayward talents, giving them both a space to work and live in, whilst apportioning out their money in less than ethical fashion, playing the angles with the same dexterity Waters plays his guitar with. It’s a tough little world they’re involved in: Walter’s nine-tenths crazy, and doesn’t mind putting a cap in anyone who pisses him off; the awesome Wolf enforces his bandleader authority with a gangster’s methods; and Chess receives casual beatings from Chicago Southsiders resentful of his suzerainty over his label’s black artists.

Records has no pretence to building a neat narrative out of a fracas of powerful personalities, each with a particular psychodrama to enact; like Chess’s car when he suffers a fatal heart attack driving away from his beloved studio, it trundles to a gentle standstill, still gripped by the joyful talent uncovered within its fearsome clan. The film looks rather at the interaction of races, of money and art, and family and workplace.

Both Waters and Chess define the people drawn to them as family, and like any family, some members screw each-other, some members hate each-other, and some members remain through a powerful half-sensed bond. All the core protagonists are tortured by barely suppressed resentments and outrage at their place in the scheme of things, even, ironically, as their cultural vigour begins to reinvent that culture. Even the heretofore level-headed Chess falls under the spell of the damaged, smack-addicted, but volcanically emotive James, and the act of trying to leave both her and the studio behind literally breaks his heart.

Wright adds another of his sublimely etched characterisations to his CV, and Def is a surprisingly lithe and spirited Berry, as in his hilariously droll takedown of the Beach Boys for pinching “Sweet Little 16”. Knowles, padded and meatier than usual and playing a character with the mouth to match her abundant flesh, is consequentially a more substantial presence than ever before, but her acting is showboating with little overt effect. She does however do a better job of nailing James’ singing than one would expect.

Director Darnell Martin insinuates her way within the setting and the people with grace, and offers its music with real affection and interest in performance. Whilst it’s no earth-shaking piece of cinema, it’s a fine, and very entertaining, film.

The Combination (2009)

David Field, one of Aussie cinema’s relatively unsung bastions as an actor, makes his directing debut with a study of the intersection of suburban Lebanese immigrant life with both racial strife in high schools and gangland savagery. The film was banned for a short time from Sydney cinemas owing to some fistfights at screenings – if every rock band that caused the same was banned there’d be no music on a Saturday night, revealing what a craven and gutless bunch we are when it comes to films of anything like relevance.

Although it deals head-on with exactly the sort of racial strife between teen gangs that the fights involved, The Combination isn’t really worthy of controversy, being as it is a by-the-numbers melodrama, in which older brother John (George Basha), recently released from prison after an incident that’s never really explained, tries to keep younger brother Charlie (Firass Dirani) on the straight and narrow. Young and full of swagger, loving his regulation macho iconography (2Pac and Tony Montana), Charlie is drawn in first by a posse of fellow ethnic hotheads who delight in taking on the “Skips”, and then start working for a local drug dealer Zeus (Ali Haider) with a ruthless business technique. Meanwhile John, working as a cleaner at a local gym, hooks up with Sydney (Clare Bowen), a total shiksa, and embarks on a romance that faces the inevitable second-act blow-up.

The confluence of Field as director and star Basha’s screenplay confirm this as an actor’s project, evident in that it sports bearable dialogue and effectively etched characters. But the film is afflicted with touches that reek of script-development workshops, giving us a school shooting, an extremely rare and disturbing event in Australian society, which hardly seems to impact on the narrative apart from eliminating a couple of Charlie’s foils. Field utilises footage of the Cronulla ethnic riots as if it’s contemporaneous to the drama, and yet there’s no explication of a milieu of strife, thus blunting whatever point he wanted to make. And then it all turns into a gangster film. Zeus acts in a strangely stupid fashion for a successful crime lord, casually shooting Charlie despite having been paid what’s owed, in essence to lead us to a strong finale rather than through obeying narrative or criminal logic. John tracks him down and beats the shit out of Zeus, rather than put a bullet through him, leaving us with a dubiously upbeat end despite his having left alive a man who already shot one brother in the back for no good cause.

The Combination’s strengths are entwined with its weakness: a broad, Elia Kazan-style social-realist mix of sententious argument – most execrably in the scene in which Sydney is lectured by her white-bread parents on the problems of hanging about with Lebs, reeking of what Dihanne Bartlett in The Sydney Morning Herald once memorably called “issue issues” theatre – and straight genre fare. It’s faintly reminiscent of Once Were Warriors in its homey grit and the use of many authentic-feeling can’t-actors, but Field is no Lee Tamahori: the direction and the camera work in service of it are merely serviceable. Bowen is unimpressive. But Basha and Dirani are good, and Doris Younane as their mother Mary is a warm presence, and the film is watchable.

District B13 (Banlieue 13, 2004)

Could also be called The Running, Jumping, and Never Standing Still Film. Taken director Pierre Morel’s debut, under the aegis of the ubiquitous Luc Besson, is a splendidly pithy cavalry charge of a movie, churning together a fashionable urban multiculti vibe, parkour athleticism, and Republic serial pace into a pâté that’s over just as soon as it needs to be. Like Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, Neil Marshall’s Doomsday, and some other recent films tackling dystopian vision, it constructs a reactionary, assailed future Europe trying to suppress waves of disaffection and considering violent sterlisation of the whole lot. It could almost be Besson’s shot back too at the hermetic guardians of high culture who constantly berate his vision of international cinema.

Not long from now, the slum areas of Paris have been cordoned off and the people inside them left to survive the best they can. In one of these areas, B13, Leïto (David Belle) tries to maintain something like decency, taking on drug kingpin Taha (Dominique Dorol), but he’s screwed over by the disinterested flic who are abandoning the district entirely, imprisoning Leïto and allowing Taha to take his spirited sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) and keep her as his drug-addicted slave.

Six months later heroic undercover agent Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli), having busted another kingpin, is assigned to infiltrate B13 and recover a stolen nuclear warhead, and he has to make friends with Leïto to pull it off. The film kills off its baddie too casually, and the plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but never mind, this is modern action cinema at its most lively and graceful, and mixes up its unabashedly rowdy, violent, anti-authoritarian bent with some on-the-fly social relevance and key characters who are actually likable.

The International (2009)

Tom Tykwer tackles the conspiracy thriller flick, mixing up Hitchcock, Frederick Forsyth, Alan Pakula, and Jason Bourne, armed with considerable weaponry: Clive Owen, an unabashedly lefty screenplay by Eric Warren Singer, and superb cinematography by Frank Griebe. Owen plays Louis Salinger, an Interpol agent and former British cop with a grudge against IBBC, a colossal global bank, which has become in essence arms dealer and purse strings-holder for third world potentates.

With a fellow agent, a contact within the bank, and an Italian magnate-slash-presidential candidate with the goods to blow the bank’s cover are all killed within hours of each-other, Salinger, rendered increasingly desperate, aided by a Manhattan Assistant DA, Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), attempts to locate the bank’s favourite assassin (Brian F. O’Byrne), their only apparent ticket to unravelling the dirty operations of the near-omnipotent organisation.

The result: a riveting thriller that effectively envisions modern high capitalism as the exemplar of feudal prerogative, assassination and bribery envisioned as merely the blunt end of globalised banking. It dispenses thankfully with the pseudo-profundities of Michael Clayton and gets down and dirty with a grandiose shoot-out in the Guggenheim Museum.

The film succumbs to some plodding last act twists, and Watts is miscast, but Owen is at the top of his game and Armin Mueller-Stahl plays with his usual silken effect the bank’s traitorous lieutenant. Tykwer’s clean, moody style imbues the material with far more punch, grace, and grit than it might otherwise have possessed.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Bound (1996)

As hard as I found it to forgive the Wachowski brothers for the execrable conclusion to The Matrix series after two passable but badly overrated instalments, I have to admit that Bound, their debut, is pretty damned good; even, possibly, a small classic. Sold as a lesbian film noir, which it is indeed, but in a slightly unexpected fashion, it essentially makes a pretty obvious twist on the standard formula of the genre, where a lonely, alienated, rough-trade hero becomes smitten by a femme fatale and drawn into her double-crossing schemes.

The quirk here is that the regulation hero-schmuck is instead lean hunk of love Gina Gershon, recently released ex-con Miss-Fix-It, Corky. Her new partner in crime and the sack, sultry minx Violet (Jennifer Tilly), defines her relations with mob accountant Ceasar (Joe Pantoliano) and some of his gangland friends as “work”, as she looks for an angle to escape her life as a plaything for rich assholes.

That chance that finally comes when Ceasar is charged with cleaning and counting the blood-smeared loot filched by another member of the same crew, being the gang of slimy old boss Gino Marzzone (Richard C. Sarafian) and his psycho son Johnnie (Christopher Meloni). Corky’s clever plot to snatch the money relies on forcing Ceasar into running, but he throws a spanner in the works when he starts thinking for himself, and decides to play dirty.

Bound’s use of a strictly limited setting (most of it takes place in two adjoining apartments) and a small, strong cast playing out intricate games in a ticking-clock scenario, replicates the disciplines of classic genre works with unexpected precision, with the added pleasures of contemporary, punchy sex and violence, and some well-described characters. Gershon, as suave here as she ever was in her brief moment of stardom, is a pleasure, but Tilly’s one-note performance doesn’t match up, making it easier for Pantoliano to wrap the movie around his little finger, in an epic performance mixing hysteria, malevolence, and pathos. His demise is a beautifully Hitchockian moment. There’s also a wonderful contribution by John P. Ryan as his vicious overlord with a latent romantic streak.

Madame Curie (1943)

Happy recollections of a movie slightly disappointed: distinctly overlong and terribly mushy in its first third, Curie takes a long time to get to the phase that justifies its existence, the lengthy and riveting sequences of Pierre (Walter Pidgeon) and Marie (Greer Garson) relentlessly working through their obsession with locating that pesky new element radium. Here, director Mervyn Le Roy works with Joseph Ruttenberg’s excellent, atmospheric photography to conjure a fervent envisioning of scientific research and marital bliss as both requiring backbreaking labour and almost saintly dedication, leading to the priceless moment of the loving couple entwined above the eerily glowing dish of distilled energy which is as much symbol as element.

Pidgeon is uncharacteristically adept at playing Pierre as an introverted savant who discovers his own romantic side as accidentally as another scientist first uncovers the presence of the mysterious element. But the pressure to play the story as romantic melodrama, the presence of Garson, whose screen persona seemed to work more as bromide for overexcited war-time wits rather than as anything like an interesting actress, and some paltry comedy relief from Robert Walker, make the film difficult to penetrate initially, and it trundles home after its climax to a dead stop.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008)

Mulder and Scully return, a little older and a lot more world-weary: although it proved the brand’s waning cultural potency and disappointed everyone still waiting to find out what was going on with all that black goo and alien conspiracy jazz, and is in essence an episode of the show writ large, this film is actually quite good. It helps that it retains, and indeed emphasises, the series’ key ambiguities, the mature approach to its characters and their world views, and the often cryptic, eliding approach to its generic conceits, the barely glimpsed atrocities and overall atmosphere of oppressive angst.

Simultaneously, it toys with the familiar, adding a likable element of new raffishness to the central twosome, who have long since become a strange kind of couple, with Mulder wryly satirising his own nerdish rants and Scully crashing intolerantly through situations she would have once handled with kid gloves. Amanda Peet makes a fine contribution as a conscientious FBI officer, and Billy Connelly is unexpectedly restrained and effective as a psychic with a dire past. The success of this film’s mixture of dry humour and dark moodiness confirms that the show was never meant to support that heavyweight superstructure of its increasingly incoherent central plot, and that its real pleasure was in its humane characters contend with a dark and threatening universe. As Michael Chabon said of H.P. Lovecraft, one otherworldly monster is hilarious; perceiving a universe filled only with them is profoundly disturbing.