Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Week in Review

Christmas holidays are here, so what better way to spend time during these hot days than in a cool cinema. Nothing really stands out for me this week.

FILM:
  • The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, USA, 2007)
  • The Golden Compass (Chris Weitz, USA, 2007)
  • Coeurs (Private Fears in Public Places, Alain Resnais, France, 2006)
  • Crackers (David Swann, Australia, 1998)
  • Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1942)
  • The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, USA, 1941)
DVD:
  • Duel (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1971)
  • Paris, je t'aime (Various, Leichentstein, 2006)

The Darjeeling Limited
It seems some people love Wes Anderson's style and some hate it. I tend more towards the former camp, though I've only seen The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Of the two films, I prefer The Darjeeling Limited, which could be viewed as a family drama with comedic elements or a comedy with dramatic elements. In actuality, it is highly comedic, but there is also much dry and understated humour and much drama with strong threads based in reality that we can grab onto.

The characters are great, better than I expected after seeing the shorts many times. Having established the family dynamics between the three brothers, it was quietly amusing to see the understated way Anderson introduced another family member. You'll know what I mean when you see the film. The Indian characters are terrific, especially the Chief Steward. Bill Murray gets an obligatory cameo, and Natalie Portman's small role is sweet.

Much has been said about Anderson's use of colour (highly stylised in The Life Aquatic). India makes a great natural backdrop for The Darjeeling Limited, where colour is a natural element of the social and cultural life. I found the depictions of the country mostly authentic (except for one amorous scene on the train, but which most Western audiences would not pick up on).

Anderson's use of colour, his eccentric characters, the story arc and his creative use of camera angles makes for an enjoyable experience. Many films have come out of the US in recent years that I call 'quirky', which could almost be considered a separate genre. In my opinion, most of them don't work, because the quirkiness is too self-conscious, too contrived. For me, Wes Anderson joins Hal Hartley as someone for whom quirkiness works.

The Golden Compass
There's a novel device that differentiates this film from other children's films of a similar genre - in this parallel universe, people's soul's live outside the body in the form of an animal. Other than that, it's basically a CGI extravaganza of the order of say the Harry Potter franchise or Narnia. None of these films particularly impresses me. I find them too formulaic and predictable, with some hero figure, a victim to be saved and some

The film has an open-ending; it is obviously to be continued. This leaves a slight frustration, though thankfully the film ends around the 90 minute mark. The performances are OK, especially by the young Dakota Richards. Nicole Kidman seems a little it like a fish out of water, but does her best with a fairly weak role while Daniel Craig seems more credible in a smaller role. I found Ian McKellen's easily recognisable voiceover for one of the CGI characters a bit distracting - he has a good voice, but it was hard not to picture the actor, so a less recognisable voice would have been better.

The film is entertaining enough for children (my seven year old enjoyed it), but not recommended otherwise. Personally, I'd like to see more children's cinema like John Sayle's The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) where characters are more nuanced, there's a little more naturalism and less CGI. Or even Tim Burton's fairytale-like stories, that play on stereotype, but usually have some bent twists.

Coeurs
Oh, what a dreary, boring film, and I endured all 120 minutes! This film was one cliché after another, terribly staged (as if were were watching a third-rate live theatrical performance) with stereotypical characters that seemed straight out of The Bold and the Beautiful. People did not respond as people do. The writing was puerile, so there wasn't much the actors could do with the material.

So many devices annoyed me, including:
- the soft camera lenses on 60+ year old women to attempt to make them look gorgeous
- the intrusive and manipulative music
- the sets and setups
- the snow-fall fading in and out at the end of each scene as if it were a stage curtain
- the acting that was like a third-rate stage play (and the sets reinforced that)

Melodrama doesn't have to be stupid. This film lacks any subtlety, is very stupid and is currently on target to just make it onto my worst 10 films of the year (along with 5 other French films!).

Crackers
Hey, it's Christmas-time, so what an appropriate film for ACMI to screen as part of its Australian Perspectives program. The dysfunctional family get-together at year's end. In many respects, this is a fairly stereotypical Australian comedy, at least on paper. Yet it has an edge and an underlying authenticity that extracted much laughter from the small audience at the single ACMI screening I attended with my family (and my seven year old loved it).

My elderly mother still dreams of getting another caravan and going away on a holiday, perhaps with one or more of her adult children. The start of this film drives home for me why I absolutely refuse to have any part of it. Hell on wheels, that's what I remember it as, and that's how the film depicts it.

Crackers is not a particularly consistent film. There's various flat spots at times, a few stereotypes and weaknesses in the direction. It does, however, have a good heart and some good humour that makes it stand out in the genre. My favourite bit was when the dog gets burnt over the barbeque. My son couldn't control his laughter at that bit.

In spite of some predictability, the film does have some redeeming features, like not using clichés like referring to men as blokes or Aussies. You know, that mythological "Strine" that just doesn't exist anymore (at least, not as films depict it). I much prefer a modest little film like this, with a good heart and some good writing than a big budget poorly written film. Kudos to ACMI for unearthing little gems like this for the Australian Perspectives program.

Humphrey Bogart double at the Astor
I don't think there's anything I can say to add to these two classics: Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. I preferred the former, and the number of famous lines was awesome. But I enjoyed them both.

Duel
I saw this DVD on special somewhere and thought I'd give it a go. I think it was Tarantino's Death Proof that got me thinking about it. On occasions, I've revisited 70's films that impressed me on original release, only to be disappointed at how much they've dated. That happened, for example with Tommy (Ken Russell, 1975). Sure, I still like the music, but the film is cringe-worthy.

Duel was originally made for TV in the US, but was distributed elsewhere as a feature movie - director Steven Spielberg's first - by adding a few scenes to bring it up to 90 minutes length (I believe it was originally 74 minutes). As I recollect, it screened here as the opener to a movie double, and was the minor feature. I saw it at a drive-in theatre, something my family (with four children) found economical. I don't remember the main feature, but Duel always stuck with me. Even though it has dated in some respects, I think it has withstood the test of time and is just as enjoyable now as I remember it then.

Basically, a travelling salesman finds himself the victim of a malevolent truck driver who tries to eradicate him on a lonely desert road. The film consists of a cat-and-mouse chase with various twists. I can't say I'm a big fan of Spielberg, but this film really shows his talent at an early age (he was in his early to mid 20s at the time). What is basically a one-man show holds its own for the whole duration, a real edge of your seat thriller. The camera angles are great, the truck looks genuinely menacing and the twists are believable. The finale is excellent. I got my money's worth with this one.

Paris, je t'aime
Revisiting this after six months or more was an interesting exercise. I think I liked this compilation of short films more than most, for reasons detailed in my original post. Watching the interviews and other DVD extras perhaps enhanced my appreciation, and I liked the film even more this time round. The injured Nigerian immigrant, the grieving mother, the lonely driver, the boy by the Seine - all these stories affected me at least as much as the first time. Even the stories that had a lesser affect (like Christopher Doyle's Chinatown segment) seemed to improve over time.

3 comments:

Luke Corbin said...

The Golden Compass was a huge disappointment for me. I read the 'His Dark Materials' books as a teenager - I still remember churning through the second book in the series, 'The Subtle Knife' in one weekend in Daylesford - and I was looking forward to the film interpretation with giddy interest!

Although I should stress I was not unrealistic in my expectations. I was happy to see immense sacrifices made, because I knew that even a film that focused only on certain parts of the books (i.e. with less narrative, only focusing on one dominant theme etc) could have been brilliant.

When I learnt Chris Weitz was directing and had done most of the screenplay I started having doubts. But as Chris hadn't done a fantasy film I still guarded a faint flame of hope.

I don't have anything really positive to say about the end result. The man in the cinema next to me exclaimed at the end of the picture, in a very loud voice; 'What a MESS!' and as much as I like to stonily disregard such displays in the cinema, I was inclined to sympathise in this case.

Oh and...

'Tommy (Ken Russell, 1975). Sure, I still like the music, but the film is cringe-worthy.'

Aiiieee!! Tommy is a masterpiece! I have seen the film a dozen times, and I assure you that none of the screen-savvy Gen Yers I have viewed the film with have cringed. Tommy is stylistic enough to endure with its pop sensibility and great symmetry, visuals, wallpaper! My emotions still run high when Tommy climbs the mountain in the closing moments, every time.

But it's definitely no Lisztomania, I'll give you that.

Personally I found that The Maltese Falcon (John Huston) has aged better than Casablanca. I've enjoyed Casablanca the four times I've seen it, I enjoyed the one viewing of The Maltese Falcon much more. I can't get any more specific than that though; when I complete my Huston collection I'll be ploughing right into it.

filmnut said...

Both Casablance and Maltese Falcon are great films. I haven't seen them for a while though. My favourite Bogart films where I think he is at his best is The Treaure of Sierra Madre and The Big Sleep. The Bogart and Bacall dialogue scenes are amazing in The Big Sleep. It is also a weirdly surreal film that you need to see a few times and it is very convoluted and a headf**k.

Duel is also a very good film. Spielberg was only 24 when he made it and at such a young age, he had such great command of the visual style, composition and cinematic image. These days the wunderkind directors are 30-something. Spielberg was a true wunderkid. Personally, I think Spielberg is a great director. I don't like all of his films and he has made some duds but they are always interesting to watch. He has such a great command of cinema and in terms of cinematic framing, he is in the top five directors who can frame a shot exquisitely and tell a thousand words with one image. The last great director who was the framing king was Kubrick. Today's directors don't seem to know how to frame shots that well. I have seen many films made today where the framing is more like TV than cinema.

Paul Martin said...

Luke, I've heard from several sources that The Golden Compass is quite complex. I wouldn't know - I haven't read the books. But the film seems dumbed down, and with little character development. Poor Nicole hasn't put a foot right for some years now.

The thing about Tommy is that I remembered it was such fondness, but it seemed so crude when I saw it again.

Filmnut, The Big Sleep (Director's Cut) screens at the Astor on 2 March, so I'll attempt to see it. Surreal, convoluted and headfuck are words that entice me.

My experience of Spielberg is largely at the early end with Duel and Jaws. I've seen little of his other works, but like what I've seen.