Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Week in Review

  • Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále (I Served the King of England, Jirí Menzel, Czech Republic/Slovakia, 2006)
  • Se, jie (Lust, Caution, Ang Lee, USA/China/Taiwan/Hong Kong, 2007)
  • A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood, USA, 1935)
  • Australian animated short documentaries at ACMI

I Served the King of England
This film is frustrating. Like many Australian films, it has many elements in place that could have resulted in something better. It ends up a case of the sum of the whole being less than the sum of the parts. The good elements include some interesting characters, an original story and good cinematography.

Some elements are a little predictable and repetitive, like the nudity, sex and a theme with money. The film's major flaw is the screenplay, something that became really obvious after reading Lynden Barber's recent writing about 'Where Australian scripts fall down'. Check out my link to the various articles.

The problem with the script is that it lacks dramatic punch or some kind of friction. There is no real conflict that allows for dramatic development. The main protagonist is too passive, merely experiencing circumstances and being dragged along by them. In spite of his fortune changing, there is no internal transformation, and consequently, the film feels flat and unengaging. I found myself looking at my watch at the ninety minute mark, always a bad sign (and it goes for another thirty minutes).

The film is marketed as a crowd-pleaser, and that it may be. But it has little substance and is suitable only as a light evening's entertainment.

Lust, Caution
Ang Lee tackles an impressively diverse range of films: Taiwanese drama (Eat Drink Man Woman, 1994), 1960's American drama (The Ice Storm, 1997), American Civil War drama (Ride With the Devil, 1999), Asian epic drama/fantasy/martial arts (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000), Marvel comic book translation to screen (Hulk, 2003), Gay relationship drama (Brokeback Mountain, 2005) and now a 1930's period drama/thriller set in Japanese occupied China.

Obviously, some of Lee's films are more successful than others, and I'm not talking about awards. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was my favourite film of 2000 while Hulk was for me pretty much just another comic book film. But I'll see anything by the guy. I find him a competent director who can really tell a story with feeling. He gets into his characters and makes them accessible to his audience.

I also find he has an amazing eye for detail. Many of his films are set in specific periods and he captures little details that don't draw attention to themselves but add a level of authenticity to his stories. Like the transparent umbrellas in The Ice Storm. He is better at encapsulating American culture than most American directors (he is Taiwanese).

I don't expect that Lust, Caution is going to get the same level of recognition that Brokeback Mountain or Crouching Tiger received, but is an excellent film nonetheless. Again, the period reproduction reeks with authenticity and the characters are excellent. The cinematography is magnificent and combined with other aspects of the film, reminds me slightly of Wong Kar-Wai's 2046. That may be partly because both films strongly feature Tony Leung (who convincingly plays a collaborator in Lee's film).

The aesthetic and narrative of the film have much in common with film noir. It's a story about a group of students who wish to do their bit for the Chinese underground resistance and where it all leads. The film runs in at two and a half hours, though I didn't find myself looking at my watch at all. There was a slight flat spot early in the film, but as the story progresses, the slow-boil suspense gradually builds and I had my heart in my mouth all the way to the end. I came out of the cinema feeling affected.

There is some fairly graphic sex and nudity in the film, and it'll be interesting to read about Lee's intention with that. While it could have been erotic, I found it quite grotesque, because of the context. I think the sex occupies a little more screen time than was necessary, but this is not really a complaint. The end will doubtlessly be debated by some, but I don't want to discuss that now as the film has yet to get it's general release.

There's a common aesthetic in Ang Lee's films, and I admire them both individually and collectively. If you like his earlier films, then you'll definitely like this one.
The film packs a punch and I liked it a lot.

A Night at the Opera
If you attended this session at the Astor this evening, that kid laughing the loudest was mine. Alexander was talking about this all the way home in the car, recounting all the funniest scenes. They just don't make 'em like this any more, do they? I hadn't seen a Marx brothers film for thirty years or more. They used to screen regularly on Sunday afternoon TV. It was terrific to seem them again on the big screen (and what a grand screen it is at the Astor!).

Australian animated short documentaries
Copied straight from the ACMI website, more as a personal reminder.

Confessions of an Animation (Steve Baker, 4 mins, 2004)
Life can be a little different through the eyes of an animation.

Darra Dogs (Dennis Tupicoff, 10 mins, 1993)
The filmmaker's reflections of childhood in an outer suburb, featuring the dogs which still haunt him to this day.

His Mother's Voice (Dennis Tupicoff, 15 mins, 1997)
A stunning motion capture short about a radio interview with a teenager's mother after a shooting incident.

It's Like That! (Southern Ladies Animation Group, 8 mins, 2003)
A deeply moving and innocent look at life behind the walls of an immigration detention centre.

Pleasure Domes (Maggie Fooke, 8 mins, 1987)
Animated watercolour drawings and handcoloured photographs shape this introspective reflection on the nature of landscape and the human response to it.

Revolving Door (Alexandra & David Beesley, 18 mins, 2006)
The world of prostitution in Melbourne from a range of different angles. Winner, Southern Panoramas' Contemporary Investigations acquisition award, Videobrasil, 2007.

A Saucer of Water for the Birds (Ann Shenfield, 9 mins, 1993)
As a woman and her grandmother sit at a kitchen table playing cards, their personal histories are revealed through shifts between the past and the present.

Two songs by Dougie Young (Michael Buckley, 7 mins, 1979)
An original recording of Aboriginal singer Dougie Young is used as the basis of this animated film that attempts to draw the attention of whites to contemporary Indigenous issues.

1 comment:

Cibbuano said...

I really enjoyed I Served the King of England - though I recognize that the screenplay is seriously flawed. The mechanic of an old man looking back seemed forced, and the end of the movie feels rushed.

But I loved the Charlie Chaplin/Buster Keaton style physical comedy, and fawned over the lush camerawork, especially when showing the reckless hedonism of the industrialists, especially their appetite for women.

As for Ang Lee, I'm really looking forward to catching Se Jie when it opens in Sydney. I didn't like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon... instead, I'd recommend Pushing Hands.