Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Week in Review

Last week's screenings were dominated by the last of the season of Czech New Wave at Melbourne Cinémathèque, some truly rare and exception cinema. All these Czech films screened in this season were Australian premieres and all were excellent prints. The other highlight was Haneke's Funny Games, which I watched on DVD. I purchased it after seeing Time of the Wolf as part of the Focus on Isabelle Huppert at ACMI.

I had purchased a ticket to see Destricted at ACMI, but didn't get to see. I've heard that there's only a couple of segments of this omnibus film worth seeing, most notably Larry Clark's, so hopefully I'll get to see it on DVD some day (or maybe ACMI will re-screen it).

FILMS:
  • Angel (François Ozon, UK/Belgium/France, 2007)
  • The Nanny Diaries (Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini, USA, 2007)
  • Prípad pro zacínajícího kata (A Case for a Young Hangman, Pavel Jurácek, Czechoslovakia, 1969)
  • Konec srpna v Hotelu Ozon (Late August at the Hotel Ozone, Jan Schmidt, Czechoslovakia, 1967)
  • Hairspray (Adam Shankman, USA, 2007)
SHORT FILMS:
  • Postava k podpírání (Josef Kilián, Pavel Jurácek & Jan Schmidt, 38 mins, Czechoslovakia, 1963)
DVD:
  • Funny Games (Michael Haneke, Austria, 1997)
Angel
François Ozon is one of my favourite French directors, who produces films of many genres. I'm really looking forward to the ACMI retrospective of his work starting later this week. Ozon makes subtle and understated yet compelling social dramas like Sous le sable (Under the Sand, 2000) and Le temps qui reste (Time to Leave, 2005) that are reflections of mortality that really resonate with me.

Swimming Pool (2003) is a more conventional thriller with a twist that shares some themes with Ozon's latest effort, but is of a completely different genre. Both films explore the life of a writer, but while Swimming Pool is a contemporary story somewhat grounded in reality, Angel is a melodramatic fantasy set 100 years ago. It's also Ozon's first English language film - quite a daunting challenge.

Angel Deverell comes from a lower middle class family but is passionately ambitious to succeed as a writer of melodramatic novels. The film takes on the mood of one of her novels - the melodrama is evident from the opening scene with the choice of music. While the press notes for the film give no hint that the director's intent of fantasy, I can't take it any other way. Angel succeeds at a very young age, beyond her wildest dreams. The narrative is almost dream-like. I have no experience of Douglas Sirk's films, but from what I've read, the film appears to be a homage to his work.

The production of the film is lush and the film looks beautiful. The period reproduction is very competent, but the genre of film won't appeal to everyone. Ozon clearly has an interest in women's stories and these often have appeal regardless of gender. I suspect the melodrama of Angel is likely to appeal more to women than men, and to lovers of English period dramas.

The Nanny Diaries
The husband and wife team that brought us the innovative American Splendour (2003) has worked together again for a more conventional comedy with The Nanny Diaries. The film satirises a tendency among some of the extremely wealthy of Manhattan's Upper East Side who, courtesy of their husband's huge income, can afford to both not work and pay others to raise their children.

Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney play Mr. & Mrs. X, Scarlett Johansson plays Annie the Nanny and Nicholas Art plays Grayer, the X's young son. The performances are acceptable enough, and there is some genuine humour, but the writing felt clumsy to me, and fell into stereotypical cliché. Johnasson has potential with comedy, but while the clumsiness of her role in Woody Allen's Scoop melded reasonably with the narrative and style of the film, it doesn't quite gel in this film. Maybe that's a weakness in the direction or editing - I couldn't really tell. It just didn't quite work for me.

There wasn't enough material to engage an audience for over 90 minutes and the film would have benefited by having some 15 minutes cut to bring it to this length. The film basically is a single joke that gets too repetitious as time wears on. The aspect that bothered me the most was a convenient and emotionally tidy ending. This may not concern a more conventional audience, which should find this enjoyable enough. Good for a bit of light but forgettable entertainment.

A Case for a Young Hangman
Virtually all of the Czech New Wave films screening at the recent Melbourne Cinémathèque season seem to have a fixation on indirect criticism of the totalitarian regime of the day. A Case for a Young Hangman is based on Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and uses heavy satire and surrealism that also borrows heavily from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, particularly the appearance of a clothed rabbit replete with pocket-watch.

The film also recalls Orson Welle's The Trial (1962), reflecting a frustration with government incompetence, but takes absurdism and symbolism to a more extreme level. The film is structured like a dream, removing the need for narrative coherence and allowing the story to jump from one scene to another seemingly at the director's whim. Combined with visual inventiveness and restrained humour, this sucks the audience down a rabbit hole and is thoroughly engaging.

These devices are effective in conveying the frustration of living in a madly bureaucratic state. Krzysztof Kieslowski ran foul of the authorities by his direct and realist approach to criticism of the authorities in his native Poland, so the indirect methods employed by some of the Czechs (as in A Case for a Young Hangman) are quite novel.

Josef Kilián
This short film made an excellent companion piece to A Case for a Young Hangman. It also employs absurdism, but to a lesser extent than A Case for a Young Hangman. It is also highly satirical and uses irony to humiliate the craziness of bureaucracy.

Our hero stumbles across a cat rental store and on a whim hires. Having recently seen the realist depictions of communist life in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the director's mocking of bureaucracy is evident. A disinterested shop-girl asks for ID, takes the money and warns there's a steep penalty for late returns. The cat is mangy, nothing like the one asked for, and our hero - resigned to the uselessness of complaint - takes it for a day. He returns the next day but the shop is empty and no-one knows anything about it. The film then follows our hero as he desperately seeks the shop.

Late August at the Hotel Ozone
One of the finest post-apocalyptic films I have seen, that possibly inspired Haneke's Time of the Wolf. It has little of the humour of the previous Czech films. There is little dialogue and the story takes a while to unfold. We follow a troupe of young women being led by another old enough to be their mother. None of their identities is evident. Gradually we learn that they are some of the last remaining people on Earth (or at least, in the country). The older woman leads them across the country in search of other people, and particularly men.

Like Haneke's film, there is some fairly graphic violence, which works effectively in the context of the film. It also recalls Golding's novel, Lord of the Flies. The ending is full of irony and tragedy, but handled with subtlety. Great stuff.

Funny Games
Michael Haneke is one of my favourite directors. He uses bleak social realism to convey horror stories of sorts - thrillers, emotional dramas, post-apocalyptic stories and so on. Funny Games predates by several years Haneke's earlier efforts, Time of the Wolf (2003) and Hidden (2005), but explores common themes. Like Time of the Wolf, there is a holidaying family in crisis and like Hidden, there is an examination of the nature of reality and manipulation through the medium of film. Funny Games is particularly audacious in its cheeky self-reference, in which one of the antagonists directly addresses the audience.

It was interesting to see the recently departed Ulrich Mühe (from The Lives of Others). Apparently filming on an American remake (with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as leads) directed by Haneke itself has recently completed and is due for release next year. It will be interesting to compare versions.

In the DVD extras, Haneke says this film is the only one in which he deliberately provokes the audience. It is indeed a chilling story, and not for the faint at heart - my partner was scared shitless! I have yet to see a Haneke film that I have found less than excellent.

Hairspray

This films has wide distribution and much has been written about it. I went with the family, who enjoyed it less than I. Three words sum it up: lots of fun. The film is full of light uplifting energy, and it would have benefited by cutting 15 - 30 minutes to keep up the initial momentum.

Michelle Pfeiffer is looking painfully and excruciatingly thin and appears to be deforming herself with cosmetic surgery. John Travolta has a clumsy but effective role, John Waters has a hilarious cameo and Nikki Blonsky largely carries the film's success on her effervescent performance. The rest of the cast were good, especially Jerry Stiller (George Constanza's father in Seinfeld), Amanda Bynes and James Marsden, though I found Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle a bit flat. Good clean entertainment, with some nice choreography (by the director!). I'd like to see the John Waters original.

2 comments:

Marina said...

Great collection of films from last week. A few thoughts:

Angel - I'm really impressed by the positive reviews for this film. I haven't seen any of Ozon's others but the trailer put me off and suggested a forgettable and unlikeable female lead but all of the reviews I've read have been surprisingly favourable. I'll have to keep my eyes open for this one.

The Nanny Diaries - Agree that there simply wasn't enough material for the running time but what this film mostly proved to me is that Johansson is not a particularly good actress. I'm really on the fence and I think that "The Other Boelyn Girl" will make or break her for me.

Funny Games - I'm really looking forward to seeing this and if I can track it down on DVD, I hope to get around to seeing it this weekend. On a side note, I think the trailer for the remake is brilliant.

Hairspray - I was skeptical going in but was impressed by just how much fun it was!

Great week in review!

Paul Martin said...

Marine, while I like Ozon's films a lot, I don't like them uniformly. I didn't particularly like Angel but it is well made and will be enjoyed by its target audience. It's worth a look if you like period films and/or melodrama.

As for Johnansson, I don't know if it's her acting or how she's used by the director. I thought she was excellent in Lost in Translation and Ghost World. Every actor has their limitations, and I think a lot is on the shoulders of the director to first of all make sure they've got the right cast, and then to use the cast to their best effect.

As for Funny Games, I think it's always a good thing to see the earlier film first (though I haven't had the chance to see Waters' Hairspray).