Sunday, November 29, 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, November 17, 2009
An academic piece written earlier this year.
The works of post-War Italian and French film are vastly important to the aesthetics and history of the cinema, most crucially, for the former, in the impact of Neo-Realism and its subsequent mutations, and, for the latter, the era of the Nouvelle Vague and its influence. And yet neither France nor Italy as nations had the happiest histories in the period following World War 2, illustrating perhaps the adage that troubled times generate great cultural energy.
The Italian film industry, and by that I mean the whole industry and not merely the momentary vogues for Neo-Realists and “Alienation”, was arguably one of the most consistently productive and commercially successful in post-War
The correlation of a shift from the so-called ‘white telephone’ movies to nitty-gritty subject matters, and the political death of Fascism and the new democracy, is easy to note. Perhaps too easy, considering the debt owed to pre-war ideas, and the way in which individual Neo-Realist films often channelled generic influences ranging from broad melodrama to Chaplinesque comedy. But certainly, they were the product of a time and place, and a confluence of ideals, ideas, and influences. Neo-Realism was, as most film scholars concede, hardly a consistently codified aesthetic approach, despite the efforts like those of the films’ leading screenwriter, Cesare Zavattini, to define it. Raw necessity and expedience, and a desire to reflect a cultural moment in all its drama, drove the production of the initial Neo-Realist films like Roma Citta Aperta (Roberto Rossellini, 1945) and Paisa (Rossellini, 1946). The aesthetics of Neo-Realism were essentially that of no-budget, rock-bottom filmmaking: natural lighting, no colour (the prettiness of the era’s Technicolor seen more as decoration than accuracy), and use of non-professional actors, and so the movement was as much a provisional stop-gap as artistic response, as Roberto Rossellini readily confessed.
This blossomed into a powerful and momentarily popular genre of films that took as its building blocks people and experiences often left out of the Fascist, and, indeed, out of much of cinema in general – ordinary tradesmen, working women and street kids – without recourse to sentimental narrative arcs of tribulation and triumph. And yet as 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.
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.
No longer motivated by the necessities of survival as dictated by war or extreme poverty, and consumed by anxiety in a world losing traditional parameters of church, state, family life, and musty morality, the frigid, lost bourgeoisie of L’Avventura and La Dolce Vita, the wayfaring circus folk of La Strada, the can-do family of Sicilians in Rocco, all fall victim to disintegrating assurances and consuming, irrational passions without any apparent goal. Il Gattopardo, although set a century earlier, in many ways captures the zeitgeist of the previous eighteen years, as its narrative stretches from the chaos of war and the exhilaration of new possibilities and shifting power, to the settling of a new order, the forceful repression of rebellious forces, and the end of a moment of possibility.
Bertolucci’s Novocento (1975) took a valiant stab at portraying Italian society up until the end of World War Two with a thematic interest in recording the violent conflict of proletariat and bourgeois social strata, and creating a new scope for reconciliation without violence. At the same time Pier Paolo Pasolini looked at the mores of the past through countercultural perspectives in works like his own vicious look at the Fascist era, the notorious Salo. The ghosts of Fascism, both Bertolucci and Pasolini suggested, far from having been exorcised, still haunted every repressive instinct, and the schism between capitalism and socialism threatened to consume the orderly new world with war every day.
From the early ‘60s on, the growing popularity of Italian genre fare overseas, with their westerns, obviously indebted to American models, and yet, in essence, repositioned versions of the Hercules and Maciste films, called ‘neo-mythologism’ by Vittorio Cotofavi, and horror films, led into a new era of pop-aesthetic, and also cultural cross-pollination. The works of high-style maestros like Leone, Bava, and Argento had common roots in the newly lush approach of Visconti and Fellini, and had an effect on
The post-war French cinema differed from the Italian in that, initially, its cinema went on largely as it had before, in the interregnum that the Nouvelle Vague critics and filmmakers disparaged with the label of “the Cinema of Quality” or the more directly generational le cinéma du papa, lacking aesthetic and political immediacy or risk. Which is not to say the era lacked good filmmakers: the diverse styles and preoccupations of directors of Marcel Carne, Jean Renoir, René Clément, Jacques Tati, Robert Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Henri-Georges Clouzot, Andre Bazin believed, kept alive “French art's talent for a certain novelistic, by which I mean transformative, intelligence”, as Bazin said in his 1957 essay, ‘Fifteen Years of French Cinema’. Men like Melville, who had worked for the Resistance, and Clouzot, who had been banned from working for a time for making films for a German-sponsored company, personified in complex ways the divided national spirit. They, and cultural nurturers like Bazin and Henri Langlois, prefigured the Nouvelle Vague, a grouping which it was recognised early on was, like Neo-Realism, more a concordance of spirit than a real school of aesthetics.
The younger directors’ redefinition of the cinematic outlook drew on a new cultural eclecticism distinctly more cosmopolitan and multicultural in breadth; they also seemed to reject the “social pessimism” Bazin felt had defined many of the pre- and post-war directors. The openness and vivacity of the Nouvelle Vague, and also its air of dedicated criticality, announced a generation whose experiences were formed not by engaging in a period of struggle but in having been young during it. It’s possible that the atmosphere of endemic struggle and visions of the everyday world collapsing in Jacques Rivette’s Paris nous Appartient (1960) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1963) and Week-End (1967), reflect a fear of the repetition of a recalled WW2 as much as they are statements of contemporary political engagement.
The New Wave, like Neo-Realism before it, often made virtues both political and artistic out of the limitations of low budgets, location filming, and the attendant baggage of anti-establishment attitude. Unlike Neo-Realism, they openly embraced virtues beyond mere tactile realism and simple humanism, using their array of diverse influences as an aesthetic weapon, utilising the widest variety of cinematically expressive techniques. This wasn’t merely aesthetic, for their outlook was deconstructive and interrogative. The cinema of a mob of young critics was inherently intellectualised even when chasing poetic subjects, intensely aware of the problems of the control and employment of image.
The defeat of
Those lines were well illustrated in Godard’s excoriating letter to Culture Minister and former leftist author Andre Malraux, for banning fellow director Rivette’s La Religieuse (1966). Godard’s personal drift towards ever-more politicised and radical filmmaking was rare in its extremity, indeed he was the only real radical of the movement, but it seemed in tune with the zeitgeist that culminated in the epic May riots of ’68. In such a milieu a film like Melville’s personal, haunting Resistance tale L'Armée des Ombres (1969) could be dismissed as “Gaullist filmmaking”. But the Gaullists won, the political crisis faded, and the spirit of revolt was left somewhat floundering afterwards, as documented in Jean Eustache’s epic La Maman et la Putain (1973).
Echoes of the era’s cultural arguments still ring through the discussions of French cinema, up to the minor controversy surrounding Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulain (2001), in which leftist critics like Serge Kaganski and Philippe Lancon accused the filmmakers of fulfilling a reactionary fantasy in painting a fairy-tale Paris, erasing the bustling, often fractious, multicultural city now inclusive (and often un-inclusive) of the citizens of former colonies and the third world, portrayed in works like Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995), and condemning fantasies of simpler times.
Such remarks can be seen as part of a wider modern fray, setting an ill-defined native French model, which in some ways is once again the Cinema of Quality, against a more vigorous but fantastic Hollywood cinematic template, exemplified by the efforts of Luc Besson. Unlike the Italian industry, the French never really exported its native genre cinema in large quantities, except for relatively odd creations by directors like Melville and Claude Chabrol, and so to try and keep up with
Sunday, November 15, 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.