Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Week in Review

What a week of contrasts: Monday I saw what I consider the year's best mainstream release (by the Coens brothers), to date at least. Yes, even better than Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. And Friday gave me one of the year's worst: Tell No One. My Alliance Française classes are over for 2007 (I've completed 3 terms), so it was good to get three French films in during the week.

  • No Country For Old Men (Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, USA, 2007)
  • The Wild One (Lásló Benedek , USA, 1953)
  • The Big Red One (Samuel Fuller, USA, 1980)
  • Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One, Guillaume Canet, France, 2006)
  • 2 Days in Paris (Julie Delpy, France, 2007)
  • Ensemble, c'est tout (Hunting and Gathering, Claude Berri, France, 2007)

No Country For Old Men
"The best Coen brothers film since Fargo" is the general buzz by Melbourne critics about No Country For Old Men. Utter crap! This film absolutely leaves Fargo way behind and is easily the best film Ethan and Joel Coen have made (at least among the ones I've seen, which admittedly is about half of them). Impatient audiences may prefer Fargo's pace, but this is a much more confident, masterful and mature offering.

The character development is excellent, with some actors playing against type and some with. The film messes with expectations, but in a natural, fluid manner. Like many Coen brothers films, it's about violent crime, and how things often go to plan. And, as someone pointed out to me, the lengths people will go to over money. Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is an everyman who stumbles upon $2 million of drug money and a bunch of dead guys. He makes a choice which leads him down a dangerous path.

The film is kind of like a cross between both of Cronenberg's latest two films, and Eastern Promises and A History of Violence, as well as Tommy Lee Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. The film is shot in similar country to the latter, and Jones puts in a similarly performance. Those lines in his face just keep getting deeper and he really portrays a weary lawman with conviction. One reviewer compared him to a character in a Sam Peckinpah movie.

The action in the film is thrilling, the violence chilling, but more than that, the suspense is excellent (many comparing it to the expertise of Hitchcock). The dialogue is great, but the confidence the Coens show by restraint, often using just the visuals is a joy to watch. I'm a big fan of Cronenberg, but this film is easily better than Eastern Promises (which I liked a lot), and I consider No Country For Old Men the best mainstream release of the year (thus far). I'm going to see it again when it gets its Boxing Day release.

The Wild One
There's not much I can say about this classic other than I enjoyed it a lot. Screening as part of the Lee Marvin season at Melbourne Cinémathèque, it was great to see Marvin in such a screwball role (a beatnik biker gang leader). How society has changed! This film was banned in several countries in its day for its subversion. Marvin pairs off against rival gang leader, famously played by Marlon Brando, in one of the roles that has made him a legend. Marvin has the best role, though.

The Big Red One
The Big Red One was a personal project for Sam Fuller, who had fought in all the major campaigns depicted in the film as part of the US First Infantry. Armed with this piece of information gave me a heightened appreciation of the heart that went into the film's making. There's a underlying sense of futility of war, and the film's connecting theme at the start and finish is quite poignant. I don't think the film is the masterpiece that some find it, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Tell No One
125 painful minutes. That's what I endured, though it seemed much longer. I didn't have high expectations, but as the film's farce (unintended, I assure you) unfolded, the film pushes suspension of disbelief to a ridiculous level. Basically, it's an English who-dunnit crossed with a very mediocre Hollywood thriller, with a French flavour. The soundtrack is all English-speaking (including Jeff Buckley and U2), so presumably the film was made for either an international audience (think Palace cinemas, and the oft-mediocre French films screened) or the mainstream French audiences who like Hollywood films.

There are so many things to fault in this film that I couldn't even begin to try to list them, but some do stand out. The convoluted layer upon layer of unbelievable plot development and hackneyed characters, the gratuitous nudity, the childhood lovers (at 9, kissing like adults) who have a 15 year age difference in middle-age (he 45, her 30), the stereotypical bad guys, the convenient plot setups, the bad dialogue... should I go on? Nah, just suffice to say that after about 20 minutes I was looking at my watch, and at 45 minutes I was thinking it must be coming to an end (only to be disappointed to see how little time had passed). It just goes on and on and bored me shitless. But, it did have a great car crash sequence on a highway that looked magnificent.

2 Days in Paris
Set in Paris, with a French-born (but now US-based) director/actress and French-produced, 2 Days in Paris is really a US-style romantic comedy, but not puerile like most that genre produces. Delpy has adopted or absorbed some of the Linklater style used with Delpy in both Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, in much the same way that Hal Hartley's influence on Adrienne Shelly can be seen in her directorial effort with Waitress. Yet, with both actress/directors, they have put their own mark on their respective films.

Like Linklater, Delpy has written a story in which there is much dialogue, and much of it is quite sharp and intelligent. The characters in 2 Days are not dissimilar to Linklater's characters, but the rest of the film is otherwise quite different. I was particularly impressed with Delpy's not exploiting her own asset of beauty and looked mostly un-made up for most of the film. It enabled us to absorb her character without that distraction and gave the film a more authentic and naturalistic feel.

The film is a kind of 'meeting-the-parents', as the two lovers finish off a European trip with a 2 day stopover in Paris before returning home in New York. Delpy captures the dynamics of the cultural and language difference quite nicely. Delpy's real life parents (both veteran actors) put in excellent turns as her stage parents. Her father portrays an art gallery owner, and his actual art is seen in the film.

This film is not high art by any stretch of the imagination, but in a genre which typically aims for the lowest common denominator, both in the US and France, 2 Days in Paris is quite a refreshing change. It is quite an accomplishment by Delpy who not only wrote, directed and starred in the film, but also edited and composed the music (we hear her vocals over the final credits).

I found the hand-held camera a bit distracting at times. For the life of me, I can't understand the OFLC's MA classification. The only part that could have been considered offensive in any way was some of the art was sexual in nature. This is puritanism gone stupid.

Hunting and Gathering
I didn't really know anything about this film but went because it is French (and want to practice my listening skills) and because I like Audrey Tatou. Yes, I'm one of those that liked Amélie, and liked it a lot. Perhaps more so because I saw it several months before its release and knew nothing about it. It was so heavily marketed that I think it would have spoiled the magic for me had I seen it later.

I've liked Audrey Tatou in just about everything I've seen her in, and while her performance is OK in this film, I just couldn't get into the film at all. It's the kind of middle-of-the-road French romantic drama that does really well at the French film festival or a release at the Como. It's about young people looking for sex and love, and finding it in unlikely places. Hunting and Gathering goes through all the hackneyed motions, without offering anything new. It's the kind of film the occasional film-goer can go to on a Saturday evening with a lover or with friends as a social event, have a good time and forget before the night is over. The ending looked like it might improve, but then turned feel-good for everyone. That totally spoiled it for me.


Anthony & Rochelle said...

Hi Paul,
yes, No Country for Old Men is definitely Coen bros best work. I too must go and see it again!- R

Luke Corbin said...

I am still making up my mind about No Country For Old Men, but 2 Days in Paris doesn't take as long to digest.

I thought it was a remarkably 'present' comedy. The constant references to terrorism and current American politics portrayed through dialogue, visuals (Jack's Guantanamo T-shirt) and most expressively in the 'fairy-fast-food Terrorist attack' simultaneously worked - I laughed - but also gave me doubts about the longevity of the film. So much of the humour was entrenched in 2007.

The other humour in the film, the formula and repetition in the comedic dialogue ('laugh at America! Okay, now laugh at France!') had me initially convinced that it was an America/France production. I was most surprised to find out on IMDB that it is in fact a French/German production.

Another thing I noticed is that a lot of the humour in the dialogue sections were a result of the timing of the subtitles. I don't know if this was intentional, I don't know how much control the film-maker has over these things. I just found that a lot of the hilarity in the French/English sequences came from the editing much more so than hilarious dialogue or I don't know, individual comic genius?

I think members of my generation (born in the mid 80s) are much more appreciative and receptive to humour as a consequence of editing and film-making processes rather than individual performance and dialogue. I have been thinking about this a lot recently, and 2 Days in Paris may not be the most logical place to start ranting about it, although I think it displayed a little of the theory. Needs more work.

I disliked the handheld camera too, but it suited the film to a degree since so much of it was dialogue and reverse shots. I just wish there was a tiny bit less of it.