Thursday, March 04, 2010

The week so far - 4/3/10

I know, I missed last week's review and, while I prepared quite a bit of writing, I completely missed January (I planned to do a month in review). The French Film Festival opened tonight - not that I got an invite. I sure wasn't going to spend $50 to see a film, as much as I love Jeunet and look forward to seeing Micmacs. I've just finished working out my schedule for the festival and may see up to 14 films - that's on top of the 10 I've already reviewed. For me, the festival begins tomorrow and, aside from Melbourne Cinémathèque (where a Fellini season is currently underway), it'll pretty much be French, French and more French films for the next two weeks.

As well as the films below, I also got to the new Mary and Max exhibition at ACMI. I hope to post on this in the next day or so, but if I don't get around to it, go and see it. It's free and it's a delight to see so many pieces from the film on display. I've taken some photos and if my post sees the light of day, I'll plaster some of those on here. So, here's what I've seen so far this week:

  • L'armée du crime (The Army of Crime, Robert Guédiguian, France, 2009)
  • Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, USA, 2010)
  • Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Niels Arden Oplev, Sweden/Denmark/Germany, 2009)
  • Amarcord (Federico Fellini, Italy/France, 1973)
  • Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton, USA, 2010)
Shutter Island
Marty, Marty, Marty, what's happened to you? Aw gee, every film Scorsese's done since 1999's Bringing Out the Dead (one of my favourites of his) has been a disappointment. Gangs of New York, The Aviator and The Departed all left me non-plussed. I think Scorsese is trying too hard, trying to break through with a big mainstream/blockbuster film. He's obviously still getting the big budgets and Shutter Island certainly looks very nice. The trouble is, it's all been done before and offers nothing new. It's a thriller without suspense. It goes through the motions, but the audience can see where it's going and what's coming. And just in case you're not sure, he makes sure there's no ambiguity.

There's a setup at the start that's such a silly subterfuge to distract the audience. But when the big reveal is made apparent, I just had to roll my eyes. Fifteen years ago, it might have had more impact, but it's been done to death.

Mark Ruffalo's role is a bit limp, Michelle Williams is underused, Ben Kingsley plays a fairly stereotypical character and Leo DiCaprio's constant state of desperation is being overplayed. If Scorsese is going to keep recycling his actors, he should give them a bit more range. I like DiCaprio a lot (Revolutionary Road was one of my top films of 2009), but his role in this film just seems to recycle his persona in The Departed.

I think Scorsese should follow one of his contemporary's lead. Francis Ford Coppola may not be producing universally lauded films but is getting back to his roots and making personal films with soul. Scorsese seems to be enamoured by technical proficiency but missing out on the gutsiness of his earlier films. I'd rather less polish, and more guts.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
I didn't have a good time with this over-long (3 hours) gothic crime thriller. I don't want to go into the plot, but much of it is silly and cliched, the acting clumsy with gratuitous nudity and violence. The look of the film is digital grainy, a murky look that does nothing to ingratiate itself. The film is not a total write-off - it will probably appeal to a hip young audience - but it's not my thing at all. It's the first in a trilogy and opens in cinemas on the 25th of this month.

OK, I don't 'get' Fellini. I don't understand his films and I don't connect with them, at least those I've seen. I think it was Satyricon that I tried to watch about ten years ago and I couldn't finish it. Granted, my taste in cinema has changed a lot since then, but even did nothing for me a year or so ago. Tonight it was Amarcord, which is amiable enough, but it just seems to be a rambling story going nowhere. I get that it's 'a year in the life of' this village. I get that it documents in passing the rise of fascism, village rituals and lifestyle and some of the idiosyncratic characters. I also get that it's probably part-autobiographical. But I don't connect with anything. What did I say...? A rambling story going nowhere. I'll still give his other films a go, but I couldn't sit through a second one (La strada) at Melbourne Cinémathèque. Next week it's La dolce vita and Boccaccio ‘70: Le tentazione del dottor Antonio.

Alice in Wonderland
Let me preface this by stating that I love Tim Burton's films and I'll see anything he makes, even if it doesn't quite work. And this is one of them. Mia Wasikowski is the best thing about it - she's close to perfect. She looks perfect and her performance is spot on - pretty important, given that she's the central character.

I love both Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter but I had major reservations about them prior to seeing the film. I dreaded seeing Depp's overplaying like he did in Burton's earlier Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. My fears were largely unfounded - despite his over-the-top-looking Mad Hatter, Depp's performance was relatively understated (for him, anyway). I still found the look of Depp's and Bonham Carter's characters a bit distracting.

The other strong elements of the film that worked for me include the non-fantasy elements and, in Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat and the White Rabbit. These familiar characters had nice Burton touches but remained true to how we recognise them. The Blue Caterpillar wasn't bad either. Not so hot was Anne Hathaway's White Queen. The way she held her hands up in a faux queenly manner really grated, though I may be alone in this seemingly petty criticism. While her character looks lovely, the role itself seemed empty and lifeless. It did nothing for me.

The film is strongest when it's focused on the micro-elements, in particular Alice interacting with various characters in a personal way. Where the film is weakest is when it goes off on these concocted tangents of fighting and (I know everyone else has said it) elements that are more like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and The Golden Compass. And to compare further with Lord of the Rings, Bilbo Baggins adventures were most engaging on a personal level, but bored me shitless when the story shifted to the epic level (big wars, etc). It's much the same here.

The CGI is used profusely, as you'd expect, and it works pretty much in proportion to my previous point. In micro, up close and personal, it's lovely. When the film moves to the big picture, the CGI draws too much attention to its flaws and takes one out of the moment.

For a film that has had such a big lead time and created a high level of awareness, it doesn't seem to be on a large number of screens. I use YourMovies and it was only screening at three of the cinemas I've listed as ones I attend. So maybe that reflects the confidence that the exhibitors have in the film. If you're a Burton fan, you won't want to miss it. If you're a parent, primary school-age children should be fine with it, though there's a couple of moments that might be scary (but not overly) for sensitive children. For others, it's fun enough, but not one of Burton's finest films.


David O'Connell said...

I'm hoping to fit in both Alice and Shutter Island this weekend as well as a couple more from the French Film Festival. I'm definitely keeping my expectations in check with the first two!

Like you Paul, I've always had trouble with Fellini. I've mostly avoided his work based on the snippets I'd seen via an enthusiastic devotee friend of mine. I loved Nights of Cabiria but had never really seen anything else in full.

That said, I must admit to liking Amarcord the other night. It is a fairly loosely structured film to say the least - it seems positively random at times! But it IS funny, not laugh out loud for me (unlike the woman in the back row!) but enough that I found myself enjoying it against all expectations. It's quite stunning visually at times. I do find dubbed films irritating for a while and I don't think the subtitling was very comprehensive - another slight annoyance - but I came away a little shocked how much I got into this.

La Strada was a bit of a struggle however (not to mention the fact I kept nodding off in the second half!). I find the Anthony Quinn character so unsympathetic. He's detestable really which I suppose is the point. The bleak ending I really like but I still don't quite understand the reputation this film has - and the reason it won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars in its year.

Paul Martin said...

David, I do like Amarcord - probably my favourite Fellini so far. It is funny at times but it just doesn't resonate. But I haven't written Fellini off just yet. It took me a few films to 'get' Bergman, and now I think the guy is brilliant. With Fellini, it could be something I'm not getting or it could be that there's nothing for me to 'get' and that he's just not my kind of film-maker. For now, I maintain an open mind, but with low expectations. I've not seen La strada.

Anonymous said...

The so-called twist that everyone seems to apply to Shutter Island is not meant to be seen as a big revealing twist that will shock audiences. Like the reveal at the end of Rosemary's Baby, it is not the reveal that is interesting but our empathy with the character when she discovers the reveal. Hitchcock was never interested in using any twist in the narrative as a surprise because he had plenty of clues hinting at it. You just needed to find them and involved the audience in understanding film language and mise-en-scene. Shutter Island works on many levels for me and I look forward to catching it a second time soon. I have a feeling like Eyes Wide Shut, the second viewing will be just as rewarding and like Kubrick's film, it will divide audiences.

Anonymous said...

Paul, it is interesting you like Bring Out The Dead which is probably the only Scorsese film I have only seen once and never plan to watch it again. For me, it was a lesser work for him and probably his least complex.

Paul Martin said...

Anonymous, I think that's a fair comment about the twist, and I appreciate your comments which have got me thinking about it. I'd need to see it again, which I probably will but not anytime soon. Perhaps it is what I feel is the film's laboured manner in which we get to the ending that bothers me. Or maybe it's DiCaprio's constant state of desperation.

I suppose Scorsese likes desperate characters. Cage's character was in a similar state in Bringing Out the Dead. Melbourne Cinémathèque recently screened Scorses's After Hours which impressed me and also I couldn't help but notice that Bringing Out the Dead was basically the same film, structurally at least. BOTD is perhaps the last of Scorsese older style films.

I don't know if BOTD is Scorses's least complex film, but it's think that description doesn't do it justice. There's a number of reasons I liked it so much including:
* The way in which the camera work establishes a frenetic state from go to whoah
* The always excellent music that enhances that state
* The really black humour involving violence
* The metaphysical element
* And lastly, and perhaps most significantly, in spite of every opportunity to go the Hollywood cliche with Cage and Arquette, their interactions remained subtle, nuanced and genuine. The final shot of them together just blew my mind, almost as much as the final scene in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannsen.

And, FWIW, I think BOTD is a much better film than After Hours.

I appreciate your chiming in with a contrary view, because opposing views always make me question my own perceptions. Maybe I missed something.

Paul Martin said...

Anonymous, if you've seen every other Scorsese film more than once, may I suggest you see Bringing Out the Dead again? Maybe you'll see more in that one too on a second viewing. It's not my favourite Scorsese film, but it's close to it. I think Taxi Driver remains #1, followed by perhaps Raging Bull and Bringing Out the Dead. But I still have a number of his early films to catch.

Paul Martin said...

The distributor of Alice in Wonderland (Disney) has corrected me:

The film has opened on a total of 448 Screens:
234 3D
209 2D

I obviously don't subscribe on YourMovies to many cinemas that screen blockbusters.

Anonymous said...

You need to see The King of Comedy asap.

Anonymous said...

Another view of Shutter Island that I generally agree with:

Paul Martin said...

I have it on DVD and will see it - one day. I'll check out that article later - heading out for the French Film Festival now.