Monday, July 06, 2009

The Week in Review - 5/7/09

Circumstances conspired to enable me to see more films than usual this week. First, there's been an abundance of films worth seeing: Melbourne Cinémathèque, of course, but also ACMI's Focus on Girls 24/7 and advance screenings that I didn't want to miss. Also, it's school holidays, which means I have a two-week break from my Alliance Française classes and on top of that, with conflict in the home, what better to avoid stress than sit in a dark cinema? Don't worry, it's a long story. A very long story.

  • Coco avant Chanel (Anne Fontaine, France, 2009)
  • Cztery noce z Anna (Four Nights With Anna, Jerzy Skolimowski, Poland/France, 2008)
  • Deep End (Jerzy Skolimowski, UK/West Germany, 1971)
  • Winged Creatures + Q&A (Rowan Woods, USA, 2008)
  • Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo From 5 to 7, Agnès Varda, France/Italy, 1962)
  • Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Jeanne Dielman, Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France, 1975)
  • Balibo (Robert Connolly, Australia, 2009)
  • Wanda (Barbara Loden, Barbara Loden, USA, 1970)
Coco avant Chanel
I'm loathe to cricitice a film like this. It's like many I see that are well-made, technically proficient and yet do nothing for me. I'm simply not part of the more mainstream target audience that will revel in the drama, the period and the background to this iconic character. I don't find that her life is that interesting and that she never married is no great accomplishment.

Four Nights With Anna
This film does so well what I love about Eastern European cinema: it looks absolutely beautiful (in a decaying sort of way - check out my profile, urban decay is one of my interests) and its minimalist story-telling leaves one guessing. The film does have Hitchcockian elements and you feel that the director is messing with your expectations. This is my first experience of Skolimowski, so I'm interested to see the other Cinémathèque screenings to get a sense of what he's about.

Deep End
Having discussed this elsewhere, I don't really feel like regurgitating much of this. I liked it, it's historically fascinating, a kind of document of its time. As I was discussing with someone last night, it seemed to do for 1970s London (by a Pole) what Wake in Fright did for outback Australia (by a Canadian). Both films seem very frank and truthful analyses of their respective settings by so-called outsiders.

Winged Creatures
I don't care what Rowan Woods produces; anyone that can make a The Boys has won my respect. For me, the uncompromising brilliance and edge-of-your-seat suburban terror of that film indicates unusual talent. I took the opportunity of telling him after the Q&A that The Boys is a film that he can probably never equal. I know a director is focused on the current and upcoming projects, but the truth has to be said.

It can be easy to fault Winged Creatures and Matt Ravier has done an excellent job of pointing them out, though I don't feel the faults are as fatal as he. During the Q&A, Woods seemed to acknowledge some of the flaws himself, and knew that an ensemble film is inherently difficult.

As much as I would love Rowan Woods to make films like The Boys, I suppose every director wants his or her films to be seen, to make money and to make work for future work. Maybe Woods doesn't see a future in uncompromising bleak social dramas. So what we have now are compromised bleak social dramas.

Winged Creatures is a more ambitious project than his previous endeavour, Little Fish. First, it was made in Los Angeles with a fairly high-profile cast that includes Forest Whitaker, Kate Beckinsale, Dakota Fanning, Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Hudson, Guy Pearce, Jeanne Tripplehorn and others. It's visually a nicer film to look at and the themes are also more interesting. So, I feel it's an improvement on Little Fish.

The film is clearly looking for an audience, and compromises have been made to succeed in that direction. As Matt Ravier points out, there is little subtlety and little is left to chance that the audience won't understand the narrative each step of the way. It makes the film accessible to a wider audience but, as with Coco avant Chanel, this is not what I look for in cinema.

I liked the themes the film explores. Various survivors of a random shooting in a diner try to come to terms with their trauma, each in their own way. Dakota is chilling as a born-again Christian and her final transformation is very moving. But her initial transformation is just too over-the-top. I was surprised how gripping the film starts out. Unfortunately, the ensemble structure diffuses the opening dynamics and the film gradually loses momentum.

Cleo From 5 to 7
I found this rivetting. At first, it seemed to have the frivolity (sans the experimental nature) of Daisies, also screening as part of the ACMI Focus on Girls 24/7 and which I saw at Melbourne Cinémathèque a year or two ago as part of the Czech New Wave program. Clèo is a young female singer with a sort of princess bitch syndrome a la Daisies. As she wanders the streets of Paris, with concerns other than the latest hat or shoes (she may have cancer), the film takes on an element that strongly recalles Louis Malle's Le feu follet. Like Malle's film, the protagonist's journey takes us on a walking tour of the back-streets of Paris, but without anywhere near the level of bleakness of Le feu follet's Alain Leroy. Interestingly, these films were made about a year apart (Clèo was made first).

The 5 to 7 refers to two hours in an evening of Clèo's life, depicted in real-time, as she worries about her hospital test results, interacting with various people.

Jeanne Dielman
Is this the film that inspired Van Sant's Gerry? Two very different films, different scenarios and aesthetics, yet strangely parallel. Sure, one is set in mountain and desert regions as two Gerrys try to find their way; the other about a widow/housewife/mother-cum-prostitute who is trying to find her way.

This film is an amazing and confident accomplishment for the young Akerman (she was 25 when this was made). Like Gerry, it demands much of an audience. You must submit to it, to its pace, to its rhythm. You have to get into another mode of experiencing cinema. In Akerman's film, the camera is static virtually the whole time, and the subject is banal beyond belief. We view Jeanne as she cooks, cleans, tidies and receives clients. Takes are long, no detail is left unseen. The story takes place over three days, and each day seems superficially much like the previous.

Yet there's change we can't help noticing. We are not privy to Jeanne's inside world, which is clearly conflicted, but we can deduce this by the slight ripples in her daily rituals. She has decent middle-class standards and yet a pragmatic need to survive financially, which she achieves through prostitution. This film rewards the patient and I was surprised to see only one walk-out during its 200 minute run-time.

This is the film that opens MIFF in a couple of week's time and I was lucky to attend a media preview, introduced by the director. I was thinking it was the closing film and I mentioned to someone that it would make a good opening night film, which of course it is - silly me! The buzz coming out of the screening was palpable, with some saying it's not just another good Australian film, but one of the best films of the year. Refer to my comments about Chanel.

I like the film, in fact parts of the film I like a lot. Firstly, Australian films rarely touch political issues, but this is one political issue - a tumour in the nation's psyche - that has festered for way too long and needs to come out into the open. In a sense, the film confirms that which we always knew, or at least suspected. It demands questions, but doesn't necessarily ask them, if you get my drift. It leads us to water but doesn't make us drink, trusting an audience to understand the issues, without ramming them down our throats.

The performances are generally good, especially Oscar Isaac as a young and charismatic José Ramos-Horta (now the president of East Timor). The film has a couple of problems, the main one being coherency. There are different narrative threads, taking place in different time frames and the film's effectiveness is, as I mentioned with Winged Creatures, diffused by the parallel handling of the threads. Despite this, the film manages to rise above the flaws, and present what feels not just worthy, but important. It involves us in events that are historic and relevant, in an authentic way. The film is particularly effective in its bringing the story to a climax; it's very moving without cheap sentimentality.

For a more positive and extensive response to the film, check out Matt Ravier's review.

What a remarkable piece of film-making - they don't make 'em like this any more! With grainy 16mm film and an aesthetic that strongly recalls Cassavetes, we just don't see enough of films like this. Barbara Loden directed and played the main role, a raw depiction of a woman with not a lot going for her. Divorced as an irresponsible mother with no regard for her children, she takes up with a thief and finds her situation going into downward spiral. The revelation of characters, in particular the thief, is both clever and funny. There is a truthfulness to the depictions that is chilling and awesome.


derekrulz66 said...

Interesting re: link to the conversation re: Deep End.

I think there's a similar attitude to the opposite sex in the upcoming Skolimowski films as well, most especially in "Moonlighting", although not as obvious as in Deep End and Anna. I don't think misogyny is the right term, since the men in the films are just as harshly drawn.
The boy character is really quite similar to the character Skolimowski plays ID: None and it's sequel Walkover. There's a certain perverse way characters act in his films.
There's also the mixture of humour and suspense I like in his work.

Anyway, I laughed my ass off in Deep End, and the ending knocked me flat. The use of music was also done in a similar way Fincher used "Hurdy Gurdy Man" in Zodiac. Using one song over and over can be Really effective. And I love when it's done in films.

I've placed Deep End in my Top 30. I still like Moonlighting more though, and I have a feeling you will like that one the most as well. It takes all his elements (except the theme of youth), and mixes into a soup of a film.

And I'm glad you dug Jeanne Dielman. It's so effective in pacing the audience. It was quite an amazing experience for me. And the 3.5 hours just flew by so fast. When the film finished, I thought only an hour went by.

And Winged Creatures - my most hated film in years.

You had a interesting week in film.

Paul Martin said...

You had a interesting week in film.

Yeah, the Cinémathèque and ACMI screenings were really strong. I'd be happy if Winged Creatures was the worst film I'd seen in ages, but it's not.