Sunday, 29 November 2009

District 9 (2009)

Compulsive sci-fi film laced with action and telling humour, FX-whiz Neil Blomkamp’s debut feature District 9, adapted from his short subject “Alive in Joburg” (2005), is set twenty-odd years in the future, after a race of aliens, dubbed “prawns” for their crustaceous appearance, have landed on Earth, their spaceship apparently exhausted of power and most of the aliens themselves only a shiftless mob of galaxy-trash. They have been confined to a shanty town outside Johannesburg, South Africa, creating social tension and casual havoc, resulting in their affairs being taken in hand by sleazy arms-manufacturing company MNU, which wants to find a way to exploit the aliens’ bioengineered weaponry, resistant initially to human efforts to use them.

The lengthy introductory sequences, in which nebbishy bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a representative of MNU put in charge of moving the aliens to a new internment camp because he’s married to the boss’s daughter, and his paramilitary aides attempt to personally serve eviction notices on nearly two million “prawns”, are well done and laced with neatly transposed points about underclass citizens and racist attitudes, but it’s also obviously an extrapolation of a one-joke short film, played out in the already clichéd style of the mockumentary. Blomkamp has to walk a tricky path, in determinedly resisting the ponderous air of parable that afflicted precursors like Enemy Mine (1986) or Alien Nation (1988), but he takes other risks in finally deciding on a cheer-along buddy action film, full of hair’s-breadth escapes and bad guys ripe for severe chastisement.

The story begins to gain real momentum when Wikus is infected by an alien fluid, setting in motion a painful and unsettling transmogrification into a hybrid. He is soon found, through vicious coercion, to be the only man alive who can use the alien weaponry, making him a prize both for MNU and also to the sleazy Nigerian voodoo gangsters who prey on the aliens. Eventually Wikus forms an unsteady alliance with the determined alien ‘Christopher Johnson’ and his son, who have still maintained purpose and dignity in trying to get their crippled spaceships working again, leading to thunderous showdowns in the headquarters of MNU and the shanties of District 9.

It’s easy to see the influence of producer Peter Jackson, as the film sports his favourite motif of the nerdy loser transformed into hysterical superwarrior, a motif Jackson used often in his early films like Bad Taste and Dead Alive. Blomkamp's and Terri Tatchell's screenplay amusingly quotes many a cliché of the action genre with a slight twist of perversity: “We stick together! I’m not leaving you here!” Christopher chirps in his subtitled alien language. The Cronenberg-esque body-horrors are played generally for queasy humour, as when MNU tries to discredit and isolate Wikus by putting out doctored photos purporting to reveal him engaged in interspecies miscegenation.

Blomkamp, despite his anti-racist purpose, falls into his own trap, with his leering, superstitious Nigerian hoods, although, admittedly, the corporate baddies, exemplified by mercenary sadist Colonel Venter (David James), are themselves equally ugly caricatures of Apartheid-era Afrikaaner cruelty. The satire and humanism would surely have bit a little deeper if the generic nuts and bolts had been more intricately arranged, with a better defined sense of the interrelationship of human and alien cultures, to make the disparity between the aliens’ fearsome technology and their generally passive, wastrel community more explicable, and less one of dramatic convenience: the film becomes, in a way, a sci-fi variant on Blood Diamond. Blomkamp surrenders thematic rigour and exploration a little too readily for the sake of a relentlessly thrilling pace. Why, for instance, the aliens' vital fuel has been scattered, requiring a lengthy search, or why only some of the aliens retain a sense of self, is only touched upon. Nonetheless, District 9 is the strong revival of the kind of smart and unabashed genre film that we’ve waited for and deserved for so long.

Character (Karakter, 1997)

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.

Julie & Julia (2009)

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

A Troubled Inheritance: A Cultural History of Post-War Italian and French Cinema

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. Italy, a battleground for much of the war, was left poverty-stricken and shattered, to move painfully and inconsistently out of the Fascist era into a modernising, industrialising period. France contended with a distinct and visible decline in its colonial and international political influence, most baldly revealed by the military defeats in Vietnam and Algeria, and the lingering suspicions of the myth of the Resistance obscuring the truth of widespread collaboration with the Nazis. Each nation reacted to the powerful influence of the United States, both politically in the era of Cold War side-taking, and culturally, in contending with Hollywood and the new popular culture.

The Italian film industry, and by that I mean the whole industry and not merely the momentary vogues for Neo-Realists and filmmakers who took “alienation” as subject matter, was arguably one of the most consistently productive and commercially successful in post-War Europe. The huge number of genre works, a sea of Maciste and Hercules flicks, spaghetti westerns, and horror films, established Italian cinema as the low-rent Hollywood of choice through the ‘60s and ‘70s, and it’s highly possible today more cineastes are familiar with the works of Sergio Leone, Mario Bava, and Dario Argento than with Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. That this productivity owed a certain debt to the Fascist-era infrastructure, the large new studio Cinecitta and the industrially-honed of skills of filmmakers like Visconti, De Sica, and Rossellini, considering the conscientious attempts to erase the Fascist memory from the cinema landscape as well as political, had a certain irony. But no country, or industry, can begin with a completely clean slate.

The correlation of a shift from the so-called ‘white telephone’ or bourgeois melodramas, 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 Italy moved into the Fifties, and both the nation and the cinema became richer, more confident, and able to take on a broader range of references and aspirations, it was probably inevitable, even without social context, that Neo-Realism would come under strain. By the mid ‘50s, it seemed that Neo-Realism was dying out, and yet possibly this was misconceived: neo-Realist techniques became a permanent part of the lexicon of domestic and indeed world cinema, and the directors, though no longer to rely only on its precepts, could still build upon it. 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 , 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.

As in France, the next generation of filmmakers were vitally concerned both with leftist politics and questions of cinematic semantics. Bernardo Bertolucci’s Prima della rivoluzione(1964), both as a title and a film, can be seen as summarising the attitudes of the new cinema and its creators – young men and women under the influence of left/socialist ideals, waiting for the new society, righteously critical of the old, and yet all too aware of the seductive force of seemingly frivolous things – sex, money, movies. Whilst socially revolutionary possibilities in Italy came to look less and less likely, the arrival of counterculture mores demanded new varieties of self-examination.

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 Hollywood product. Leone’s westerns gave that genre a last shot in the arm before running out of steam in the mid-’70s. Although the ‘art’ cinema model lived on, and some filmmakers – the Tavianni Brothers, Ermanno Olmi, Giuseppe Tornatore and Nanni Moretti, a chief satirist and portraitist of Berlusconi-era Italy, to name a few – have maintained visibility on the world stage, Italian cinema largely lost the relevance and force it had in this era, at least in terms of overseas perception, before the Cannes success of Gomorrah and Il Divo in 2008.

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 Dien Bien Phu signalled the faltering attempts to bring about a French Colonial renaissance, and the culture soon reflected disenchantment, breaking up the loose post-War consensus and setting genuinely fractious political forces in play. In such a setting, a film like Paris nous Appartient reveals a quietly paranoid, even self-destructive bohemian-left subculture contending with blocks of power. Playful disseminations on genre filmmaking like A Bout de Souffle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1959) and Bande à Part (Godard, 1964) and personalised visions of childhood like Les Quatre Cents Coups (François Truffaut, 1959) were all well and good, but tackling more charged material, like tangentially depicting the political schisms invoked by the Algerian war with Le Petit Soldat, was enough to get that film temporarily banned. Battle lines were being drawn.

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 Hollywood’s game, rather than using it for own ends, is a relatively new and culturally problematic departure.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

The House That Dripped Blood (1971)

The other British studio to specialise in Horror in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Amicus, could never quite offer productions as well-conceived and solidly produced as Hammer’s, and the series of Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg-produced omnibus films generally offered sketch-like, dime-store vivacity as well as generic cheesiness. After Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1964), which Subotsky and Rosenberg wrote themselves, they turned to Robert Bloch, who adapted many of his old short stories into screen tales hanging from a negligible framework narrative. Where Dr Terror and first successor Torture Garden (1967) had been directed by the stolidly reliable Freddie Francis, The House That Dripped Blood was handled by first-time feature director Peter Duffel. The series maintained the snappy, morbid tradition of magazine horror with their gimmicky Gothicism and sick humour.

Perhaps, thanks to its title, the most famous of the Amicus productions, House is, like most omnibus films not called Kwaidan – and I’m including distant ancestor, Dead of Night (1945) in this – too flimsy in structure to truly compel and unnerve, and Amicus’ slapdash production doesn’t help much. Duffel’s direction is mostly tamed and hemmed in by the low budget and barely contiguous narrative, sporting only occasional flurries of strong imagery. He does gamely satirise his own inexperience in the film’s final chapter, “The Cloak” in which Jon Pertwee’s hammy horror star Paul Henderson, a self-declared genre aficionado, berates modern horror films, and his fresh-from-TV director. The house of the title is a decaying Victorian mansion, and a police detective, Holloway (John Bennett), investigating the disappearance of Henderson, and learns from a local sergeant (John Malcolm) and the house’s mordant realtor Stoker (John Bryans) the grim fates of the previous three tenants.

In the first episode, “Method for Murder”, Denholm Elliott’s murder-mystery writer Charles Hillyer moves into the house with his sickly sweet wife Alice (Johanna Dunham) and dreams up a strangler character, Dominick, who soon begins appearing to him. His wife sends him to a psychiatrist after she swears that an assault on her, which Charles thought was being committed by Dominick, was actually done by Charles himself. This leads to a wryly surreal moment in which the psychiatrist (Robert Lang) assures Charles it’s all in his head as Dominick sneaks up behind him and strangles him. Of course, it’s really a plot, engineered by Alice and her actor lover (Tom Adams), to set up Charles, but the persona of Dominick finally proves to have overtaken the actor too.

The second episode, “Waxworks”, sees a retired stockbroker (Peter Cushing) take over the house, and he and his visiting friend (Joss Ackland) both become fascinated by a Salome figure in a waxworks in the nearby town, which tantalisingly resembles a woman they had both loved years before. The figure proves to be the embalmed body of the waxworks’ proprietor’s (Wolfe Morris) wife, still attracting men with her temptress soul long after death, provoking the proprietor to murder all who are transfixed by her. This is easily the most negligible episode, failing utterly to communicate lingering totemistic/fetishistic obsession, with a lame object of waxen affection, to make it more than a penny dreadful punchline.

The fourth episode, with its overt self-satire, usually gets all the attention, with Henderson purchasing the eponymous garment from a sinister antiquarian (Geoffrey Bayldon) as a prop for his new movie a cloak that turns its wearer into a vampire. This proves to have been arranged by his co-star and lover Carla (Ingrid Pitt), who, being herself a vampire, announces that her fellows ghouls love Henderson’s movies so much they wanted him to join their ranks. When Bennett finally penetrates the space beneath the house in searching for the missing actor, he dispatches the bloodsucking thespian with a stake to the heart, but falls prey to Pitt.

The first and last stories reference that self-reflexive strain in a lot of horror literature that Stephen King has taken to the nth degree in tales like The Dark Tower and Secret Window, with fictional characters coming to life and that wheezy old idea of the actor’s part taking over his life. They gain most of their pep from the actors, especially Elliott, who was great at essaying febrile fearfulness (see To The Devil…A Daughter), and Cushing and Ackland buoy their episode with good work (and a reminder that Duffel got a gem of a performance out of Ackland three years later in England Made Me). Pertwee has a ball as the conceited actor, mustering much the same energetic humour he offered in his stint in Doctor Who.

But it’s the third story, “Sweets for the Sweet”, that’s both the most low-key and interesting, featuring Christopher Lee as a stern father who’s terrified of the possibility his young daughter (Chloe Franks) might prove to be a witch like her mother. He moves into the house and cuts her off from all contact with other children, hiring instead a tutor (Nyree Dawn Porter) for her. But the very thing he means to keep in check soon claims him victim when his little girl, obeying encyclopaedia instructions, and, possibly her mother’s communing spirit, builds a wax effigy of her father and takes dainty delight in torturing him with needle pricks. It’s a memorable psychodrama that presents a terse parable for family perversion, patriarchal repression and resurgent feminine will entwined in a vicious dance, climaxing with Lee’s horrid screams echoing as his effigy melts in the fire. In this episode, Bloch and Duffel comes close to a minor genre landmark.

Mongol (2007)

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.

Factotum (2005)

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 Pierre plays his self-penned opera on an organ to his audience of floozies, possess an almost Lynchian conceptual flavour that might have come grotesquely alive, but Hamer largely settles for a flat and flaccid realism.

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.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Redacted (2007)

Brian De Palma returns to his roots whilst simultaneously constructing one of the most angry, and far from subtle, films to deal with the Iraq War. The cultural memory of Vietnam and De Palma’s own early films like Greetings! (1968) looms large over Redacted’s libellous bent, as well, of course, as his ferocious if ill-focused Casualties of War (1989). It’s interesting that the most ambitious efforts to deal with a multimedia age of late have come from older directors like De Palma, Assayas and Romero. De Palma, who failed to get the rights to real pieces of film and video for a documentary, goes the full distance in trying to make Redacted look like a collage of found footage and internet MPEGs.

Built around a terrible true story, of a teenage Iraqi girl’s rape and murder by American servicemen, Redacted attempts to mimic the look and feel of embedded war-zone action, absorbing through unblinking technology the horror and madness it conjures, but it's not really as concerned with reproduced realism, the facile appearance of docudrama immediacy so popular with contemporary directors, but, like all of De Palma's movies, turns realism into a mode of expression first and foremost. He portrays a panoply of contemporary cultural responses to horror, tossing in abusive radical chicks ranting on You Tube and the greasy ooze of insurgent websites, suggesting a polarised world of rogue loonies, fanatics, and ideologues, squeezing the sane and conscientious between them with lethal intent, as spiralling violence feeds the dark fantasies of all. Most of the film’s narrative is sustained through the aestheticised pretence of a supposedly French-made documentary, complete with languorous Handel music overscoring the gritty reality, and the fly-on-the-wall documentary Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz) is making about his unit’s deployment in the hope to be admitted to film school. Much like Robert De Niro's Jon Rubin in Greetings!, the reproduced image is far more important to Angel than the actual moment, and like him war becomes only a new, strange zone to explore his obsessions.

De Palma’s fascination with the metastasising perversities of observation through technological media and the way it entwines with questions of political perspective, blurring into scarcely distinguishable quandaries, is as urgent as ever. Again, like many of De Palma's recent films, it's also disinterested in nuances of tone. He doesn’t chase artful award-worthy cool. His murderous GIs are drooling redneck beasts, a feat of broad manipulation indeed, but also a sustained and stinging critique of the notion that a violent purpose can be ennobled by rhetoric but fought by social dregs. De Palma makes clear his revulsion for the hints in such incidents as the one he’s fictionalising and the readily referenced Abu Ghraib, that America’s armed forces have been beefed up with economic conscripts containing unreconstructed racists and thugs who, not being allowed to run rampant in their own country, find ample opportunity in foreign adventuring. The air of hysteria that envelopes their more conscientious fellows is compulsively convincing, bullied by psychopaths handed all the power they want on one side and by a military structure anxious not to see anymore bad publicity on the other.

Simultaneously, De Palma encourages a note of jet-black humour which clashes queasily with the despairing compassion, especially in a lengthy sequence where the two avatars of unleashed aggression (Patrick Carroll and Daniel Stewart Sherman) attempt to complete the video project of their murdered squad mate Angel, calling him their “own Private Ryan” and seguing into Sherman’s long monologue about his murderous brother – here De Palma’s delight in bleakly funny improvisatory sequences could have been transferred directly from his early films. Simultaneously, De Palma’s perspective on the opinions of home front know-it-alls, like the aforementioned ranting chick, is just as revealing and suggestive of the way people and societies simultaneously use media to essay truth and yet also construct their own realities: De Palma helps define that intellectual echo-chamber many discern in contemporary cultural sectors.

Whilst not as poised and "exciting" as Kathryn Bigelow’s intensive but conventional The Hurt Locker, Redacted is far more disquieting and indeed original. De Palma makes ruthless meta-critical fun of the idea of corralling reality within the limits of any artful metaphor, as when Salazar first ignores and then later purposefully includes the famous Somerset Maugham passage at the beginning of John O’Hara’s “Appointment in Samarra”, reading the words of self-dramatising import, hoping he’s found a perfect epigraph for his work. Which of course he has, and yet cannot comprehend the immediacy of the threat. He will, naturally, later be hoisted by his own petard when he’s used as a prop in a vicious piece of fundamentalist theatre. Redacted almost succeeds in burning the war movie itself down to the ground, as it keeps the spirit of enquiring, experimental narrative as defined in '60s art alive and relevant.