Sunday, 29 November 2009
A Dickensian social drama with Horror film flourishes, Character won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1997, and yet still seems to be a little-known quantity. Director Mike van Diem, who strangely enough hasn’t made a film since, executes his period vision with terrific, inventive fluency, refusing to let his narrative slow and settle into literary adaptation stuffiness (it’s based on a linked novel and short story by reputed Dutch novelist Ferdinand Bordewijk). Young Katadreuffe (Fedja van Huêt) is a bright young go-getter battling the prolific dampeners of social mobility in 1920s Holland, whilst engaged in a furious psychic and fiscal conflict with his father, Dreverhaven (Jan Decleir). That pudgy beast is a ruthless capitalist loan shark and bailiff, who seems bent on playing a mysterious game of cat and mouse with his illegitimate, hardly acknowledged progeny, the result of an affair with his taciturn former secretary Joba (Betty Schuurman), who chose a life of drab poverty rather than countenance marrying him.
In supervising her son’s growth, Joba has seemed fearful of his becoming a man like his father, but her chilly demeanour can’t prevent him becoming a gifted, yearning, but emotionally closed-off individual, who badly fouls up his romance with fellow employee in a law office, Lorna (Tamar van den Dop), even whilst he triumphs against worldly odds; worse yet, he keeps a lid on a simmering violent streak that only occasionally but memorably reveals itself. Decleir’s Dreverhaven stalks through the landscape like an expressionist monster, whose lack of fear of physical and moral punishment seems sourced initially in a lack of human empathy, but he finally proves a self-loathing, sado-masochistic Caliban. Bookend scenes reveal Katadreuffe being grilled by police over his father’s apparent murder, and his long journey to manhood does indeed lead to a bristling scene of intergenerational violence, and the percolating metaphor for the struggle of old and new societies is personified with real force. The story manages to be both highly dramatic and yet ambiguous in the right ways, refusing to solve or explicate all the problems of character, that eponymous concern, whilst asking what the word means, both in terms of inner resolve before a foreboding society, and in terms of family, in the difficulties of understanding even the hearts of those so vitally close to us. The core performances are superb, and Victor Löw does great work with a gift of a role, as De Gankelaar, Katadreuffe’s mumbling but sympathetic mentor.
A lumpy mix of Nora Ephron’s usual style of romantic-comedy, biopic, and that popular brand of pseudo-personal journalism that the Charlie Kaufman of Adaptation found so impossible to manhandle into workable cinematic form. Julie & Julia is adapted from the blog and subsequent book by Julie Powell about her own experiences as a 30-year-old would-be writer, Amherst grad, and general flibbertigibbet (played by Amy Adams), when she and her husband Eric (Chris Messina) move into an apartment over a Brooklyn pizzeria, and she takes a soul-deadening job dealing with victims of the 9/11 attacks applying for aid. Julie, nettled by her lack of success compared to her high-flying friends and especially after one of them uses her as a cautionary model in a scurrilous article on failing Gen X-ers, finds new purpose taking on a project whereby she maintains a blog chronicling her attempts to cook her way through the colossal tome “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by her heroine Julia Child, a bible for gourmets. Julie’s experience is then compared through alternating flashbacks to Child’s (Meryl Streep) self-actualising odyssey, as a tall, garrulous late bloomer, teaching herself the arts of French cuisine when she and her diplomat husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) were residing in Paris in the early ‘50s, eventually roped into the efforts of her acquaintances Simone Beck (Linda Emond) and Louisette Bertholle (Helen Carey) to pen a book on French cuisine for American readers.
Infused with try-hard jauntiness in such a fashion that could be either intolerable or charming, given a viewer’s mood, by director Ephron, J&J offers a surprising amount of intimate detail in a film that is basically plotless, successfully contrasting the finer details of Child’s efforts to learn her craft, compose and sell her book, and deal with life problems ranging from her husband’s grilling by McCarthyite officials to sacking one of her less helpful co-authors, against Powell’s anxieties over her blog readership (i.e. does anyone read it? I relate!) and the general difficulties of negotiating an often bewildering and disconnected-feeling contemporary world. Child’s period tomboyish élan badly shows up Powell’s anxiety-riddled, often childish personality, most humorously contrasted in Child’s ruthless kitchen assaults on lobsters and onions, where Powell is freaked out by the springing lid of a pot full of crustaceans.
Ephron conjures a lucid warmth, and employs a clean, convincing feel for the details of both modern and ‘50s niche cultures, but struggles to leave behind the smug affectations of her earlier films, for the efforts to remain bouncy at all costs are finally tiresome in a work that is far too long. But there’s a certain depth in the film’s now-and-then counterpoint, the food looks good, and the pleasant acting carries it a long way. Streep’s ebullient, affected Child is one of her most lively and unforced performances in recent years, unlike her appalling turn in last year’s Doubt. Adams, whose innate variety of bug's-ear cute could be toxic if bottled, fights to make Powell winsome enough to forgive her whininess, and Tucci and Messina are droll in playing that rarest of modern movie animals: decent husbands.
Tuesday, 17 November 2009
Even if they’re more psychological, ‘bourgeois’, symbolic, or altogether stylised, subsequent films like Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia, Fellini’s I Vitelloni, La Strada, La Dolce Vita, and 8½, Visconti’s Rocco e i suoi Fratelli and Il Gattopardo, and Antonioni’s L’Avventura, can be seen as taking neo-realism into “unexplored territory”, as John Russell Taylor put it in 1964. They maintain a consistent, even compulsive, interest in the relationship of individual protagonists with the society and temporal identity they share.
Sunday, 15 November 2009
In any movie, poisoning a young prince’s father, robbing his possessions, enslaving and exiling him, and then stealing his wife, would be infelicitous acts, because he's bound to come back and kick your ass in the last act. When the prince in question is the future Genghis Khan, such actions appear positively unwise. Sergei Bodrov, who once made the fine Prisoner of the Mountains (1995), takes a stab here at melding that film’s flavourful, folk-tale mystique with the Braveheart-esque blockbuster epic and many visual and thematic flourishes plainly indebted to Zhang Yimou’s superior Hero.
Bodrov’s most at home communicating the intimate, rough-hewn yet still homey culture of the Mongols, drifting on the edge of the other civilisations Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano) will eventually unite them to destroy, and his direction drinks in the natural expanses of the Steppes. The early sequences set the story, and emotional imperatives, in motion with fluidic intensity, performing the hitherto imaginable feat of making Temudjin an empathetic hero as he is endlessly outmatched, betrayed, and generally screwed over.
But the absorbing first act gives way to crummy CGI and a paper-thin script, offering recurring capture and escape as its only narrative strategy, whilst proving amazingly shallow in exploring Temudjin’s psychology and growing strategic genius. For a film that proposes to reveal Genghis Khan’s origins, it can find nothing more to do than half-heartedly quote a dozen old matinee plots, unwilling to obey its own melodramatic impulses in setting up baddies ripe to be rumbled and then ignoring them, and tragic brotherly quarrels that have no climax or complexity. How Temudjin finally stakes his claim to being a leader of great hordes of men is skipped over because, well, it’s too complicated for the filmmakers to contemplate handling. The recasting of Temudjin as a nice family guy who likes frolicking with kids in between forcibly remoulding his nation through violence and ruthlessness has a quality of strong-government propaganda not far from that of Hero, that film’s least attractive quality, without its attendant poeticism. And of course behind every great man is a great woman, here the comely Börte (Khulan Chuluun), who becomes both pliable pawn and single-minded player in the games of frontier machismo, and to whom Temudjin is drawn from their first meeting at nine years old. But Bodrov can’t work up any convincing force to suggest transcendent, irrational passion, and finally he retreats into badly employed pseudo-mythical flourishes, like a thunder storm that intervenes at just the right moment so that Temudjin can awe the Mongols with his lack of fear of lightning. Rather than offer a contemporary Alexander Nevsky, Bodrov finally gives us a pissweak remake of Conan the Barabarian.
And of course behind every great man is a great woman, here the comely Börte (Khulan Chuluun), who becomes both pliable pawn and single-minded player in the games of frontier machismo, and to whom Temudjin is drawn from their first meeting at nine years old. But Bodrov can’t work up any convincing force to suggest transcendent, irrational passion, and finally he retreats into badly employed pseudo-mythical flourishes, like a thunder storm that intervenes at just the right moment so that Temudjin can awe the Mongols with his lack of fear of lightning. Rather than offer a contemporary Alexander Nevsky, Bodrov finally gives us a pissweak remake of Conan the Barabarian.
The mythology of Charles Bukowski gets another go-round in this fitfully funny and acerbic, but shapeless and style-free, cut-rate Canadian-shot adaptation of a Bukowski roman-a-clef. Matt Dillon fills out the author's scruffy, bitter, occasionally rowdy yet largely passive persona perhaps more accurately than Mickey Rourke’s full-bore machismo in Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly (1987), but otherwise that was an entirely superior film for capturing the nitty-gritty pseudo-poverty that Bukowski’s pseudo-autobiographical heroes revel in.
Instead we get plastic indie-budget blandness and a couple of slumming semi-stars. But Factotum is still worthwhile, detailing the decline of hero Hank Chinaski from semi-employed wannabe to down-on-his-ass wastrel. Along the way he gets caught up in a successful betting scam, and enters an on-again, off-again tryst with the horny, ineffably plebeian Jan (Lili Taylor), fights with his critical, angry, strait-laced father (James Noah), and is briefly initiated into the circle of a plutocrat weirdo, Pierre (Didier Flamand), who adopts barroom flotsam, thanks to one of his girls, Laura (Marisa Tomei).
Director and co-writer (with Jim Stark) Bent Hamer portrays a world of crummy jobs and bullshit bosses, full of folk for whom the bloom of youthful self-delusion has long since worn off, leaving them with little but fractious appetites and wayward impulses that can be just as well fulfilled by a good fuck as by cash, until the temptation to flee for security often becomes overwhelming. Or, in Hank's case, to run away from security. Moments like when
Meanwhile Hank essays his own constant self-defeat with a Zen master’s dedication to avoiding becoming anything as long as his true life project continues to be unfulfilled, until, at last, his breakthrough comes at the same moment he’s completely divested himself of all worldly status – that is, sitting on the pavement, homeless and drunk. Whilst it all barely hangs together as cinema, as a transposition of Bukowski’s perspective, it’s competent enough. This was Adrienne Shelly’s second-last film as an actress, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part.