Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Week in Review

It's taken me a while to write on these films, but are my thoughts on them.

  • The Strawberry Blonde (Raoul Walsh, USA, 1941)
  • Waitress (Adrienne Shelley, USA, 2007)
  • Trust (Hal Hartley, USA, 1990)
  • Forbidden Lie$ (Anna Broinowski, Australia, 2007)
  • Chacun son cinéma (Various, France, 2007)
The Strawberry Blonde
I found this film an enjoyable enough experience, but unexceptional. And because of that, and the passage of time since seeing it, I find I now have little to say about it.

Adrienne Shelly's start as an actress was in two Hal Hartley films: The Unbelievable Truth (1989) and Trust (1990). As far as I can ascertain, these were the only Hartley features she appeared in, though she did also appear in Hartley's 8 minute short Opera No. 1 (1994).

Hartley's style must have had a seminal influence, because his touch is evident in Shelly's last film, Waitress. Unfortunately she died last year under unfortunate circumstances (she was murdered, to be a little more precise), which you can check out on Wikipedia.

Waitress is being marketed at the same people who watch Sex in the City or Desperate Housewives, which might put off some for whom this film will really appeal (it should appeal regardless of gender). This is a US indie gem, that will especially appeal to Hartley fans. It uses a similarly dry but whacky humour, intelligent dialogue and an unpredictable narrative arc. And like a Hartley film, there is a dramatic core that is emotionally moving because it is grounded in truth.

The film is beautifully shot, with food and its preparation a joyous visual sub-theme. The character development is excellent, and it was interesting to see Cheryl Hines post-Curb Your Enthusiasm. Centre stage is Keri Russell who plays Jenna, a waitress at the local diner, along-side co-workers Becky (Hines) and Dawn (Shelly). Jeremy Sisto authentically portrays Jenna's jealous husband Earl and Nathan Fillion plays her gynecologist. An aging Andy Griffith also had a small but effective role.

While Hartley's films often end tragically, Waitress is not quite so dismal, and the film's overall mood is more upbeat and lighter than Hartley's style. The film appeals to one's sentimentality, but that's not a complaint - rather that's part of its enjoyment. It is well-written
with intelligent dialogue and story - well worth seeing.

Waitress premiered at ACMI and screened with Hal Hartley's Trust as part of an Adrienne Shelly double. Waitress has a theatrical release starting 25 October.

Photo: Cheryl Hines, Keri Russell and Adrienne Shelly

I think one either loves or hates Hal Hartley's style. I fall into the former camp. I've now seen three of his films, the others being Amateur (1994) and Fay Grim (2006). Trust is an excellent companion piece to Waitress, and it fascinating to see a younger Adrienne Shelly convincingly portray a 17 year old (at 23 or 24 years of age). After seeing Amateur, it was also good to see Martin Donovan taking lead role in another Hartley film (a search of IMDB indicates Donovan in 7 Hartley films). Hartley uses him to very good effect, especially with his style of deadpan humour.

The parallel stories of Donovan's Matthew and Shelly's Maria alienation from their respective families must surely strike a cord with many disaffected youth, though hopefully not to many would emulate Matthew's carrying a hand-grenade. The character of Matthew's father reminded me of Ricky Fitts' father (played by Chris Cooper) in American Beauty. While the development of Matthew's and Maria's relationship is central to the film, their bond is unsurprisingly unconventional, yet grounded in a reality that resonates. One can connect with these guys. The inter-twining of various tangential stories (like a baby kidnapping) adds to a whacky other-worldly vibe that permeates the film and gives opening for the unexpected.

I haven't found any of the Hartley films I've seen earth-shattering or the top of any lists but they are immensely enjoyable. They are intelligent comedy/thriller/dramas that are definitely out of the square, interesting and keep ya' guessing. I like the way he creates characters that are down-and-out losers, puts them together, throws in some impossible coincidences and lets the narrative go wild. I'm surprised it took me so long to discover him. Trust is a dark but humorous film that is also very moving.

Photo: Martin Donovan and Adrienne Shelly

Forbidden Lie$
In examining a literary hoax - Norma Khouri's claims in her best-selling book, Forbidden Love, about honour killings in Jordan - this Forbidden Lie$ is a fascinating portrait of a liar. By this I mean not so much as getting into the mind of a liar as in recognising one. Shifting sands is an image seen periodically during the film and how relevant a metaphor that proves to be, as Norma Khouri is revealled not just as a liar, but a con-woman on the run from the FBI.

What a fascinating journey Anna Broinowski went on, a journey she could never have imagined when she set out to prove Norma Khouri was genuine. In fact, Broinowski's belief in Khouri is the reason the film ever got made (Khouri almost certainly would not have cooperated otherwise).

While it is clear to me that Khouri is a fake, I'm sure there will be some who will come away from watching this documentary still unsure. In isolation, any one statement made by her is convincing enough to fool the average person (or any person for that matter). What gets her ultimately is the fact that she has been captured on film. One completely plausible explanation of the truth has already been contradicted by previous explanations that were equally convincing. Oh, what a tangled web we weave...

This well-made documentary is very entertaining and compelling due to Broinowski's combination of various factors: first and foremost, an interesting and willing subject (though, not so willing as her fabrications crumbled), relevant and varied perspectives, its international scope, a narrative arc that unfolds like a thriller and the use of effective dramatic recreations (a la Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line).

I predict this film will win best Australian documentary awards do well in the US (where some of the story unfolds) and elsewhere. It is well worth a look.

Links: AFI interview with director Anna Broinowski

Chacun son cinéma
I've been watching this DVD over a period of time. It's the omnibus film to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Cannes film, made up from the contributions of some of the most respected names in cinema. What the heck, I'll list them here:
Theodoros Angelopoulos, Olivier Assayas, Bille August, Jane Campion, Youssef Chahine, Kaige Chen, Michael Cimino, Joel & Ethan Coen, David Cronenberg, Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Manoel de Oliveira, Raymond Depardon, Atom Egoyan, Amos Gitai, Hsiao-hsien Hou, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Wong Kar-Wai, Aki Kaurismäki, Abbas Kiarostami, Takeshi Kitano, Andrei Konchalovsky, Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, Nanni Moretti, Roman Polanski, Raoul Ruiz, Walter Salles, Elia Suleiman, Ming-liang Tsai, Gus Van Sant, Lars von Trier, Wim Wenders & Zhang Yimou.
That's 33 short films, each three minutes long, and each one is the respective director's take on the importance of cinema. It's impossible to give a detailed analysis (like I did for Paris, je t'aime) without at least a second viewing. In short, I liked this compilation a lot. The results are inconsistent, as you'd expect with this type of project, but it was very moving to see the way in which each director was able to depict aspects of cinema that were important to him or herself.


Kamikaze Camel said...

Did you enjoy Forbidden Lie$? I know I sure did. Was a tad too long, but it was absurdly entertaining, don't you think?

Paul Martin said...

Yes Glen, I enjoyed it a lot. I think the trick of a good documentary is to have a good subject. Anna Broinowski was exceedingly lucky to have a willing subject, and to have been a participant herself in the story that unfolded in an unpredictable way with the cameras rolling. That is what is so compelling.

The other thing that I thought was amazing was how well it documents a pathological liar. How relentless was this woman? Oh what a web we weave....

She was so convincing, that even though she was clearly exposed as a liar by so many people (and mostly by her own inconsistency), she was able to confuse one that maybe she was genuine. I'm sure there are people who would see this film and still not be sure. That's part of the nature and symptoms of this type of character, and the film captured it beautifully.

In this respect, it reminded me of Imamura's A Man Vanishes which I think you may have also seen at MIFF. Even though the 'lies' were exposed in that film, as the camera kept rolling and the fiction continued, it was so convincing that it was hard to get your head around what was true and what was not. Fascinating!

So, while the film-making was not necessarily of the highest order - there were a couple of flat spots - the subject was compelling and the film is well worth seeing.

In the back of my mind, I knew from reading your blog that you were attending these AFI screenings. You come so far, we should catch up. I'm going to one more, West on Saturday at 12.15pm. If you're interested, email me and I'll send you my mobile number.

Kamikaze Camel said...

Yeah, I'm going to be up tomorrow for Home Song Stories and West.

I didn't see A Man Vanishes, but it sounds interesting.