Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Week in Review - 28/3/10

The offerings at the cinema are so thin at the moment. I did a bit of research and worked out a few films worth seeing at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, but couldn't work any of them into my schedule. Weekends I've been busy with family and weekdays the screenings just haven't been convenient times. So, I've resorted to DVD: three of them this week.

  • A Single Man (Tom Ford, USA, 2009)
  • Daguerréotypes (Agnès Varda, France/West Germany, 1975)
  • Yo también (Me, Too, Alvaro Pastor/Antonio Naharro, Spain, 2009)
  • How to Train Your Dragon (Dean DeBlouis/Chris Sanders, USA, 2010)
  • The Terminator (James Cameron, USA/UK, 1984)
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, USA/France, 1991)
  • Funny Ha Ha (Andrew Bujalski, USA, 2002)

A Single Man
I was planning not to see this film, because the trailer gave the impression that Firth was reprising his glum role in Winterbottom's effective though unremarkable Genova. However, reading Lynden Barber's post on the film, I decided to give it a try and wasn't disappointed.

Yes, Firth is reprising that role, more or less. People have raved about his performance, which is perhaps the best I've seen him - not that that's saying much because he normally imitates a door. Too much is made of an actor's ability to induce tears before the camera. It might be impressive, but it sometimes becomes little more than a party trick (and I'm thinking of Penelope Cruz here).

In this film's case, the acting is fine. What makes the film so watchable, however, is all to do with the film's construct and style and less to do with the acting. I kept thinking of Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - the unconventional approach to how the image is framed and how the story is constructed. The visuals all serve to suck you into the emotions of the story. I don't think it's a substantial film, but definitely worth watching for its unconventionality. It could be accused of style over substance, but I'd say the style is the substance.

Link: Audio interview with Tom Ford

Agnès Varda, documentary, need I say more? The micro-level capturing of a local community, of a life-style perhaps long gone is rivetting. It mirrors thousands or perhaps millions of similar experiences world-wide. I love this woman's work and will jump at any opportunity to see more of it on the big screen. It screened at Melbourne Cinémathèque.

Me, Too
This is the opening night film of La Mirada Film Festival, my favourite Melbourne festival after MIFF and the French Film Festival. It's a curious film in its own right, and moreso as an opening night film - in fact, I'd call that gutsy programming. It blends elements of romantic comedy and black comedy, but is mostly social drama made in a manner that is accessible for a relatively mainstream audience.

Me, Too is unashamedly an 'issue' film, championing the cause of those with Down Syndrome. The story largely follows Daniel (Pablo Pineda) who starts his first job at age 34 in a government social services agency having just completed his university degree. The film challenges preconceptions of those with the condition. The actor factually has it and yet is able to effectively portray the intellect, characteristics and abilities of such a person. It's an impressive accomplishment and certainly challenged my notions.

Laura (Lola Dueñas) is a co-worker with issues of her own that form a tangential story. Both characters are social misfits of very different sorts, and very different backgrounds. While their pairing, so to speak, adds a populist slant to the film, it also serves to further challenge the audience, and there's some anticipation where their relationship might or might not go.

I don't think I'm quite the target audience for Me, Too but found it quite enjoyable nonetheless and appreciated the challenging nature of the story. It's quite ambitious, which is a good thing, but leaves the director with quite a number of threads to manage at the end, which gives the film a slightly overlong ending.

Me, Too opens the La Mirada Film Festival on Thursday 1 April at ACMI. The festival runs to 11 April.

How to Train Your Dragon
This is quite a likeable film, if you're part of the target market. My 9 year old son has read five of the books in the series and he thoroughly enjoyed it. It's not completely faithful to the source material, but is true to the spirit (on his say so - I've not read any of them). I like that the film doesn't market itself on any 'name' actors. The voice actors are all thoroughly competent and enjoyable without a single Tom Hanks, Mike Myers, George Clooney, Cameron Diaz or Miley Cyrus among them - thank god. I usually find the use of celebrities for voice actors a distraction.

This is a Dreamworks production, so you know it's going to be fairly conventional and mainstream. It's full of cliches, but that's not a negative. It is aimed at fans of the book and its lovely visuals don't disappoint - some of the scenes are quite reminiscent of Avatar. For what it's worth, my son gives it five out of five stars, but in his words, "dragons are my favourite fantasy creature". I think it's a good film for primary school age children and younger, and parents should find it enjoyable enough.

The Terminator
I first watched this on video in the early 90s and was struck by the power of the story, and still am. Much has dated in the film, but not necessarily to its detriment. The clothing, hair, makeup, music and colloquialisms all reveal a certain period. The film's special effects are the most dated, but I'm inclined to cut some slack here, because the film has to be looked at in context of time. Just like King Kong (1933) - the SFX are a joke by today's standards, but because the story is so good, and the film employs the best technology of its time, there's a certain reverence one may have for it (well, I do).

Arnie and Linda Hamilton are both so young in this flick, and little is done to Arnie to endear him to us. His hair style is terrible and basically he's just an unstoppable killing machine. There's something particularly terrifying about his character, a cyborg that will stop at nothing, neither bullets, fire nor explosions. His is a primal stereotype, the stuff of nightmares, more like the stuff of the horror genre - like say a zombie or vampire, only scarier. Perhaps this is one of the reasons this story works so well - it combines science fiction with drama, action, suspense and its own brand of horror. As Sarah Connor says, you could go crazy thinking about the logic (because ultimately the logic of it fails), but it's a great concept nonetheless.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Perhaps it's my 52" flat screen television, or my improved powers of observation because this film - long my favourite in the genre (action/SFX/sci-fi) - betrayed flaws I hadn't seen previously. Mind you, it's been many years since I saw this last. The technology has dated compared to what's currently available to film-makers, but it still holds up extremely well. Unlike similar types of films today, the SFX are used gratuitously, in a showy manner to showcase the technology without necessarily furthering the narrative. Hollow Man (2000) is a classic example of this.

In T2, Cameron employs the technology sparingly, only when needed. The story is always first and when the SFX appear, they are so organic to the narrative that one can't help but be impressed and absorbed in what's transpiring.

With what's available now, the SFX in T2 are not as impressive now, and one can see the 'seams' that weren't so obvious nearly twenty years ago. Like Arnie's character cutting his arm, or the face damaged by bullets (sometimes it's his face with prosthetics over the top, other times it's actually a mask).

Watching both Terminator films back-to-back (and for me, the franchise ends with the second), the humour stands out in spite of the terror. Both films have parallel trajectories and often parallel incidents. For example, Arnie appears first in both (obviously a trick in the second), getting clothes from punks in the first and bikies in the second. When Arnie throws the bikie onto the stove, it's like the blackest of black humour to see this guy burning himself. Yet when we next see Arnie in his clothes, they're all immaculate, like they're straight off the racks, all to the tune of "Bad to the Bone". It's quite a blast, really.

For the integrity of the franchise, they really should have stopped at 2. I saw 3 and it was just a shadow of the originals, milking blood out of a stone. I didn't even bother with Terminator Salvation. T2 is a very rare example of a sequel bettering the original, though on these viewings, I thought that T1 has bridged some of the gap. When I want to see a blockbuster, this is how I like to see them done.

Funny Ha Ha
This Bujalski film is reputedly the first of what is now known as mumblecore, a so-called movement of independent film-making. It seems to borrow heavily from the aesthetics, narrative style and low-budgets of John Cassavetes' work as well as the so-called Dogme school (without the rules). I can't say I'm a big fan of some Dogme but I do love Cassavetes' films. Unsurprisingly, the elements of the film that seem to borrow more from Dogme bother me while the strengths of the film have more in common with Cassavetes.

The devices that initially gave me reservations are the deliberate camera shake, the sometimes poor sound and the unusual framing characters often have part or all of their heads cut off. These were initially distracting but as the story and character development unfolded, I developed some empathy and emotional engagement and the distraction reduced. It didn't go away completely, but I started thinking about what is Bujalski trying to achieve.

Is it a variation of cinéma vérité, where we're taking a fly-on-the-wall perspective, as if we're present but obscured to the characters in some way? Or is Bujalski skewing the camera, in a sense like what Hal Hartley does with his camera rotations, albeit differently - in this case pointing the camera down slightly? Is he challenging the audience, and its conventional expectations of how a picture should look? Or just being different, to differentiate himself? Or trying to create a different aesthetic, consciously emulating Dogme? Maybe it's a bit of all of the above. I reserve my judgements for now and would like more exposure to mumblecore in general and Bujalski in particular.

I find it hard to believe that the sound could not have been better, without too much cost or effort. This appears to be an example of true guerilla film-making (ie, making it as cheaply and quickly as possible) and/or it's deliberately compromising (ie, reducing) the quality at times to disguise the genuine flaws.

The grainy 16mm film has a nice grungy aesthetic, and despite the high level of emotional honesty and social realism, some care has gone into the visuals with the use of colour and frame composition that I found enjoyable to watch. The story itself is well told. We follow Marnie, a 24 year old who loses her job, pines for someone who seems just out of reach and basically is struggling to find her place in an adult world. She parties and hangs out with her friends but, despite her attractiveness (think Natalie Portman), appears onely and confused. I don't think its fair to call this a slacker film, partly because the characters are not true slackers and partly because of the degree of realism is so Cassavetes-esque (think of the part that alcohol plays in his films).

I like that such an engaging film can be made on clearly a very low budget - perhaps some will find it too much like a student film. I also like that it addresses the very real and contemporary concerns of a particular demographic, which unsurprisingly is the demographic of the director (who plays a not insignificant role in the film, as a potential love interest), namely the early to mid twenties. In this sense, it serves as a kind of document, a documentary-like film very much unlike anything typically made about or for this demographic.

The film has a chastity you mightn't expect. Love and yearning are a strong theme, and mixed with excesses in alcohol, one wouldn't be too surprised where this could leave. There is no explicit sex or sexuality and little more than a kiss on-screen. The use of profanity is also very minimal, an element that is all the more noticeable when it occasionally occurs. This is much more representative of the middle-America it depicts than the populist Hollywood cinema that wildly exaggerates profanity. While we in Australia think we know American culture through TV and cinema, the real America does not engage in public cussing and sex as depicted in the media.

I did watch Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation on the (very) big screen at the Astor a while ago, but didn't appreciate it at the time (pun not intended) - perhaps my consequent discovery of Cassavetes helps me to better understand his work now. I thought this film might be a bit raw (aesthetically) for the missus, but she also likes it. For now, I hold on to my above-mentioned reservations about mumblecore and look forward to discovering more. Funny Ha Ha seems like a good place to start. It offers hope that a new generation of 'indie' film-makers is emerging.


David O'Connell said...

I really wanted to get to those Cinematheque screenings last week Paul but after only an hour's sleep on my flight home the night before I knew I'd just waste the opportunity and fall asleep! I'm nowhere near as familiar as I'd like to be with Varda's work but from all I've read of her she seems both a person and a filmmaker of real integrity.

I haven't seen the Terminator films in years either but it can be fascinating the way our perceptions change over long periods. I remember loving Gus van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy when I first saw it. I championed it for years, recommending it to anyone who'd listen. Finally, a couple of years ago, I decided to actually sit down and watch it again - and discovered to my horror that it bored me silly!! I was thinking 'what the hell did I see in it all those years ago'?!

It's funny, I guess it's we who change, the films never do. Then there's those ones we just cherish and admire more and more every time we see them.

Paul Martin said...

There's a real tenderness to Varda's work, David - not that I've seen much of it. On the strength of her amazing Cleo from 5 to 7 (which screened at Cinematheque last year, and is perhaps my favourite French New Wave film to date), I'll see anything by her.

My tastes were more mainstream when I first saw the Terminator films for the first time. Or rather, I hadn't yet become disgusted by the repetitious devices that Hollywood uses. I still think both hold up well over time, but I have moved on.

I'm a big fan of Van Sant, particularly his films from Gerry to Paranoid Park. My least favourite is My Own Private Idaho, which everyone raves about, but I didn't mind Drugstore Cowboy. I suppose films fulfill something within us at a certain point in time. Fuck, I even loved The Bodyguard when it came out!