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Sunday, 6 December 2009

A Serious Man

The trademark Coen palette of oddness and the unnatural natural seems to be at its most apposite in A Serious Man, as Jewish professor Larry Gropnik struggles to comprehend the series of fantastic personal catastrophes his faith continually tells him is natural. Divorced by his wife and encumbered by a troubled brother, Larry is increasingly subjected to these fantastic misfortunes, all tightly structured by the Coens around visits to three rabbis and his son’s approaching bar mitzvah. A professor of physics, his appeal to mathematical proofs yield no concrete answers and neither do the po-faced and bizarre counsels of the three rabbis, and after each meeting Larry has his faith tested, in his commitment to be A Serious Man. As this series of misfortunes slides further worse as he has nightmares, those not even resolved fortunately, and the tragic and the farcical clash to darkly comic degree, at one point Larry’s property lawyer having a heart attack only feet away from him. The dilemma of attributing misfortune to cosmic coincidence or steadfastly believing in a teleological resolution is one that drives Larry to despair, and which makes for a beguiling conclusion. Michael Stuhlbarg gives a suitably incredulous performance as the everyman continually asking the question ‘why me ?’, and the rest of the cast do a fine job as oblivious colluders and the rabbis with meaningless answers, the first one he visits reminiscent of Paul Dano’s zaniness in There Will Be Blood. One of my favourite and best films of 2009.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Many who have followed the career of Quentin Tarantino would attest that his last great film dates back over a decade ago to 1997’s slick crime drama Jackie Brown. His output in the subsequent decade has been critically maligned by some as almost typically self-indulgent, personal meanders indicative of misdirected potential. Such a charge however cannot be levelled at his latest and bravest effort. Inglourious Basterds spent over a decade rolling around in his head until he decided to visualise it, and it feels very much different from any of the works he produced during that period. Gone are the usual Tarantino suspects in favour of relative unknowns, Mélanie Laurent and Christophe Waltz, and bar its signature feature of a dialogue chewing Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine, the film is less balanced towards the exploits of the Basterds than its title suggests. Besides, aside from the entertaining Pitt, the less screen time given to Tarantino’s odd choice protégé Eli Roth, the better, considering his acting is as woeful as his directing. Christophe Lanz on the other hand, is a name to remember. Right from his engaging opening entrance questioning a French farmer, Waltz as the calculating Hans Landa commandeers every scene he is in, underplaying and overplaying, interrogating his victims as delicate as an incisive pathologist. The film is built upon these increasingly tense encounters: at the French farmhouse; Landa’s subtle test of Laurent’s Jewish survivor turned avenging angel, Shoshanna Dreyfus, culminating in the rendezvous behind enemy lines with Diane Kruger’s Bridget von Hammersman, an unbearably taut scene that is simply marvellous in execution. This cast in fact, is possibly his finest since yes, Jackie Brown, and the finest ensemble of any film this year. After all however, Inglourious Basterds was only ever going to polarise opinion as it did at its Cannes release, on account of his fascination with and representation of violence, but whatever your angle on QT, his latest should be considered his best this decade, and one of the best films this year. Featuring a multitude of impressive performances and tense dramatic incidences, Basterds will be marked as arguably his most audacious project since Pulp Fiction, and in Hans Landa one of his most compelling characters, driven by a terrific performance by Christophe Waltz.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Watchmen - Cinema review

First of all, I haven't read the graphic novel, despite being within feet of it, and I was wondering whether to postpone my viewing until I'd read it. Nonetheless, as the uninitiated, I will say that Watchmen is in any respect, a very good film, sporadically excellent, and memorable. It is the most visually arresting film this year, reminiscent of Blade Runner but of its own universe, and the darkness of its setting reflecting a film with deep, beguiling questions about the nature of humanity, and the social aberration that is its heroes: the Watchmen. The performances range from passable (Malin Akkerman) to excellent, namely Jackie Earle Haley as Rorshach and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian. It's a credit to Snyder that he manages to hold your attention more in the pivotal scenes that aren't just action; even so, these scenes are executed with a brutality that surpasses The Dark Knight even. It has been compared elsewhere that Rorshach's monologues are very much like Travis Bickle's, and it isn't an inaccurate comparison, the slow motion tracking shot as he walks through a disgusting urban undergrowth of prostitution and baseness, and his dialogue reviling it are highly reminiscent of Bickle's monologue avowal to "wipe the scum off the streets". I have more to say about this, and it'll be interesting to hear everyone else's reaction to Watchmen, but I don't doubt so much that this film is both Snyder's swansong, and the best film of the year so far.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The Conversation - Francis Ford Coppola (1974)

Coppola's other film from 1974, The Conversation is about the life of Harry Caul, a mercenary surveillance expert who begins to doubt the morality of his profession and the motives of his employer. As the film progresses, a fairly self-assured Caul played by a magnificent Gene Hackman (barely recognisable from his signature role as the incendiary Popeye Doyle), becomes steadily more obsessed with the recording of the titular conversation, realising he may be selling lives instead of just goods for money. The film's beautifully minimalist and pensive score captures the isolation and introversion of Caul perfectly, (and funnily enough reminds me of the Zodiac soundtrack ), shifting from dissonance to tonality, mimetic of the stunning volte face in the film's tone towards the end of the film. Brilliantly paced, intelligent, satirical and arguably Gene Hackman's greatest ever performance, The Conversation is one of the defining films of the golden 70s, and I can't believe it took me this long to actually watch it.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

The Strain

From celebrated director Guillermo del Toro and co-author Chuck Hogan comes The Strain, a modern day take on the vampire myth that combines folklore with techno-realism and the theme of biological warfare in the form of arch vampire Sardu and his “strain” of rabid, body shock vampirism. The story setup is this: a plane recently landed at JFK draws concern when mysteriously, all communications from airport control meet with no answer and the plane is ominously powered down. When it is discovered the entire plane has inexplicably deceased, save a handful of survivors, Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, head of Disease Control is dispatched to the scene to ascertain cause, which may be even more sinister than he realises. Dodgy protagonist name aside, it sounds like an engaging diversion, especially in the hands of the imaginative Del Toro.

After an atmospheric opening established in a fairytale from grandmother to grandson, Abraham Setrakian, the action cuts to New York and the mystery surrounding the grounded, darkened airplane, and the furore drawing from a potential danger to national security. Fairly frenetic stuff, but the authors make it so pedantic, informing us about technology and procedure that it undermines a sense of involvement in the action. Add to that some tedious interludes involving Eph Goodweather’s divorce and the unfortunate child caught in the middle, it becomes more of a slog than a fast paced exposition. For the first hundred pages I found myself becoming slowly disinterested with the frequent changes of viewpoint and passing introductions to minor characters who either transform later on, or who we never see again.

Eventually though, things start to pick up pace after the pandemic begins to transmogrify its victims into their new gruesome forms, feral and genuinely disgusting creatures similar to those in Del Toro’s Blade II. The perspective switches between the purveyors of the strain; a flamboyant rock star; a returning husband with a problem wife, and a high powered lawyer, all of them rote character clichés who we don’t really care about. We also don’t care about Eph Goodweather, his former wife and her jock husband, or his distanced son. The characterisation is uninteresting, and whilst horrors may in some cases be more about the bloodletting and the imagery, which this inevitably is, it makes the filler material in between the action all the more irritating. In essence it trades out like any other Dracula caricature: old man Setrakian (Van Helsing) turns up, characters refuse to believe the unbelievable, they band off to defeat the head vampire and the legions of his undead.

By more closely translating this vampire story to the present day rather than just a vague approximation, Del Toro and Hogan explore a New York that has changed in the last decade, cleverly locating the vampire underground in the underground of the symbolic, ruined World Trade Centre, providing an eerie background to the book’s finale. The sense of time and space in particular is the most striking aspect of the book, not only with the closing showdown in the WTO underground, but also Setrakian’s experiences during the Holocaust in which he is stalked in the barracks of a concentration camp by Sardu. Those scenes are genuinely creepy and the most absorbing to read.

In the knowledge that The Strain is the first in a trilogy, it leaves the series in a good position to develop. Even though the authors’ opening effort is from time to time weakly written and characterised, there is invention enough and the tag of ’Guillermo del Toro’ to sustain interest in the next two volumes.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Public Enemies

For a film about John Dillinger, the charismatic and audacious one man crime wave, Public Enemies is a remarkably understated biography of his infamy. Dillinger is portrayed to be as calculable in carrying out bank heists as he is contemplative and loyal to his principles, to his comrades and his love, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). The series of heists that punctuate the film are given fleeting attention in the changing American context of federalism and organised crime, and the sense of the historical significance of John Dillinger is well impressed by the end. In a biopic that could have been a cops and robbers routine, Mann balances the film well - but possibly not enough - in opposing the men behind both lines, Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and his crew, and agent Melvyn Purvis (Christian Bale), the task-man recruited by J. Edgar Hoover (a well cast Billy Crudup) to take the gangster down. Depp is excellent, capturing the swagger and simple pleasures of the legendary bank robber, but so is Christian Bale, delivering an intelligent, and human portrayal of a complex man, judging by the ending biographical notes. There is a sense however, that Mann possibly does not dig deep enough in Purvis for audiences to really connect with him, the moral centre of the film. Marion Cotillard is fine in her role as Billie Frechette, working off Depp very well, and shares one of the most poignant scenes with Christian Bale as Purvis, disapproving of the methods of the G-men, carries her away after having been tortured. To say that Public Enemies is understated is not necessarily a summation of the entire film though, as it contains the greatest sequence of a Michael Mann film to date: the safe house siege. The cinematography in this scene and through the entire film is as you would expect from the director of Heat, incredible to look at, shot with a beautiful crispness and clarity, and the shoot out itself is just as arresting, shots discharged like solar flares amidst a night time backdrop. What is most impressive is the sense of context and historical movement that is occurring, as organised crime re-organises, and the FBI has its methods questioned. The movie is as much about the fall of the legendary John Dillinger as it is a questioning oversight of the limits of law enforcement. In Mann’s latest effort, we have possibly his best, one that is meticulously laboured and shot, and that will improve upon future viewing.