dir: Joe Wright
There's some virtue to having modest ambitions. When confronted with the prospect of converting Leo Tolstoy's weighty tome into a movie, many have faltered, most have failed, and none have got it right. The book's way too big. It's also on too much of a pedestal for it to come out right to everyone's satisfaction.
Also, where some would obsess with verisimilitude, with period accuracy and historical detail, Joe Wright and the producers here have elected for a way to illuminate the story without having to get dragged into a genuine Russian winter. I mean, it destroyed Napoleon's army, it destroyed the Nazis, so what hope would petty film producers have?
Mother Russia, or at least the time and place of it relevant to this story set before the Revolution, is created for us on a stage. At least, all or most of the story seems to transpire within the confines of a massive old Russian theatre. It's deliberately artificial, as in, they're not trying to hide the fact that it's an inventive and elaborate pantomime. I doubt this approach was budgetary. I mean, I have no idea. Maybe it was cheaper to do it this way, but it doesn't seem likely. Setting up all these elaborate sets on a sound stage so that it looks like it's in on an actual stage is just as expensive as making it look like it's in outer space or in the White House.
The approach has a different aspect of importance, though, beyond the production. Its specific artificiality reminds us that it's artificial on a regular basis. If it doesn't allow us to submerge ourselves into an immersive experience, then it's saying something else, perhaps. The whole world's a stage, and within that stage, between the back stage and the proscenium, in the wings and under the floorboards, are the other people, in this case, the Russian peasantry, perhaps, all the people in the world that don't matter to Anna Karenina, in her singular pursuit of love and passion.
dir: Steven Spielberg
You know, I never thought Spielberg had the balls to do something like this, but he did, and audiences never really punished him for it. He’s taken the most iconic, the most universally admired US President (except in the South, perhaps) and depicted him as a crushing, tedious bore, and people are applauding him for it, and lavishing Daniel Day-Lewis with unending praise and statuettes.
Good for them, I guess. The thing is, I don’t even think it was subtle at all. He actively has characters respond with exasperation whenever Lincoln spins another yarn, while every other person sighs and maintains their steeliest “have to look enraptured for the boss” facial expression. People are active, working, doing stuff, usually arguing before he mutters some kind of non sequitur “It wasn’t like this back when I was splitting rails on the Tallahatchie trail”. Then everyone freezes, and we get the feeling that inwardly, they’re dying a little, and fighting the urge to run and hide in a dark, close place, or cry.
“Please, oh please let it be a short anecdote. Please don’t let this story go on so long that I chew my own leg off to escape. Please let his tongue have a stroke, even if he is the single Greatest Statesman and Raconteur the world has ever known.”
Lincoln will deliver his folksy little anecdote or parable, and, quite often, people will go back to what they were doing as if their relief that they can go on with their lives is palpable, measurable, marketable.
But you can’t ignore such a towering figure, especially when he has such a transformative plan for America. The screenplay is by Tony Kushner, who’s a pretty impressive writer, and has scripted some of the better recent Spielbergo ‘experiences’. He uses a bunch of sources, some credited, some not, but the main credited source is meant to be Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, a good book I’ve actually read but don’t really remember that well. The film is an excellent reminder of one of those moments in history where something completely obvious and fundamental (that people can’t be property) became enshrined into law, thus making a whole bunch of white folks feel good about themselves for a while.
dir: Tom Hooper
This might shock you, or anyone else, but I thought Les Misèrables was glorious.
What, I’m not allowed to like a musical? You, of all people, are going to cast aspersions on my sexuality?
Fah, well, obviously I’m not totally comfortable with going out on a limb and praising a hellishly successful film based on a hellishly successful West End/Broadway musical based on a book no-one finishes reading, but I’m a rebel like that. It’s just my way.
I’ve never seen nor heard anything from the musical my entire adult life. If I did (which is probably the case; it’s been impossible to ignore at certain times), then it slid off my brain like lube off a duck’s back, being a topic I never had interest in. 1980s musicals all come down to a horrible agglomeration of Cats / Evita / Starlight Express / Phantom of the Opera, none of which ever sparked any aspect of my curiousity, and I probably know more about rugby than I know about those kinds of icky musicals.
So I come to this story and to these songs very much a virgin, probably much alike the young Fantine (Anne Hathaway), naïve and hopeful, when she first met the man who would go on to ruin her life by despoiling her virtue with his honeyed lies, only to abandon her when autumn came. The difference for me is that while this film seduced me wantonly, I am left alive and grateful at its end, and not toothless, tubercular and utterly destroyed, though it almost feels like that after all the goddamn crying.
This film, this production, doesn’t try to do any more with the initial Victor Hugo story than it needs to, since it isn’t an adaptation of the novel, but of the musical from the 1980s. So there is an inbuilt audience for this movie that has greeted it the way meth addicts greet a visit from the meth dealer fairy: open arms, open legs, and open mouths (not filled, alas, with ground-down teeth).
Such an audience has its opposite. That’s how the universe is structured; matter/anti-matter, positive/negative, Spice Girls / The Spazzies. And goddamn, does that opposite group hate it. Far more people are calling this the worst thing they’ve ever endured, from root canals to colonoscopies, and, of course, they’re entitled to their worthless opinions, as are we all. Part of it I think is that it’s a musical, and the mass audience for musicals isn’t there like it was in, I dunno, the 1940s.
And operas and Gilbert and Sullivan follies aren’t exactly on the lips and Twitter streams of most people these days. Even more than that, I think there’s a kind of snobbery at play at well. It’s the very popularity of the musical in the 1980s and 1990s that (some) people remember and look down on, as if such a musical is somehow a ‘lower’ form of entertainment.
Oh, those unwashed, easily entertained masses, what with their bread and circuses and Ed Hardy clothing; they’re just so vulgar, aren’t they?
Truth be told, this is pretty much the attitude I had towards this whole ‘event’ before I watched the flick. I was expecting something of sub-Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber quality simply because of the multitude of simpering middle-aged women who’ve gushingly informed me that watching a production of Les Miz was the highpoint of their otherwise cat-filled lives. The ubiquity of it kind of made me loathe it without actually being ubiquitous enough for me to know anything about it, know any of the songs or recognise any of the music.
So. When I finally got to watch it, I felt like I was being expertly punched in the face, heart and groin by an epic, overblown, passionate, histrionic production that never paused, never relented in its depiction of a profoundly bleak and unfair world in which the only possible salvation comes from moments of grace, mere moments of kindness.
After all, it’s called Les Misèrables. My French isn’t that great, but I think that translates to The Miserables, but I’m not completely sure. Maybe I should look it up.
dir: Wayne Blair
Obscure bits of people’s histories: It’s almost like they happened just to give filmmakers something to make movies about.
I don’t need to be told that this flick is based on a true story, or that it varies significantly from the truthful aspects of the ‘true story’. What matters to me, in this instance, isn’t verisimilitude, it’s entertainment. Australian flicks generally aren’t ever going to be able to get budgets to make something credibly ‘period-piece’ unless it just involves a bunch of people sitting indoors with doilies everywhere and archival stock footage akimbo.
When they do get a huge budget, you get unwatchable crap like Baz Luhrman’s Australia, which was a national disgrace and a true blight upon our history.
Maybe we’re better off with small budgets in that case. I’m sure this flick used its budget well. It looks nice enough, everything’s well shot and in focus, and they had enough money for the music rights to some nice golden oldies from the era. And I hope everyone got paid reasonably well, and that the catering was choice.
They could also afford the time and salary of someone from overseas who, in this case, is Chris O’Dowd, who’s very welcome, at least to me. The film’s called The Sapphires, but he’s probably the star of the film. They couldn’t call it Dave and Some Other People, well, just because. He seems to get most of the funny dialogue, he is the character with the most character, and if he overwhelms the rest of the cast somewhat, well, it's a small price to pay to spend some time in his wonderful company.
If he reminded me of anyone, it was Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, just with slightly less tobacco chewing/spitting and way less Madonna. He plays the group's manager, whose great ambition, once they hear about it, is to play some tunes and shimmy in front of American troops in Vietnam. During the war! In 1968, no less, when things were anything but pleasant for any of the people concerned.
It's seems like a strange ambition for an all girl Aboriginal pop group from the back of Burke (though they're really from some place that proves unpronounceable to anyone except the girls themselves). For them it's a ticket out of a nice (perhaps too nice) rural existence and the daily humdrum of pernicious and ever-present racism, and the boredom that comes from not performing in front of lots of hot, sweaty African-American men.
dir: John Hillcoat
*sigh* This is the biggest cinematic disappointment of the year thus far, for me. No, withhold your sympathy, spare me your proffered hankies, tiniest violins and empty consolation, neither I nor Lawless deserve it.
It’s meant to be a can’t-miss proposition, from the dudes who brought us, uh, The Proposition. Nick Cave wrote the script, John Hillcoat directs, quality soundtrack and score with the usual collaboration betwixt Cave and Warren Ellis, but with a whole bunch of other credible musicians as well doing their homages to the hillbilly moonshine era. There’s Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman, and quality actresses Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain, and there’s extreme violence and nudity and redheads and ‘based on a true story’ cred and and and it all fucking falls over flat, because, I’m sorry to say this, but Nick Cave’s screenplay is absolutely the weakest element of it all.
See, lazier viewers / reviewers would say seriously / joke that it fails because of Shia LaBeouf playing a key role. I don’t think he sinks the flick at all. He doesn’t particularly save it either, but he’s not the one bringing the flick down. No-one else on this planet is going to agree with me, but I actually think he puts in a better performance than Beefcake of the Moment Tom Hardy.
They play moonshine-making brothers in Depression – Prohibition Era Virginia. They are the Bondurant brothers, Jack (the Beef), Forrest (Hardy), with middle brother Howard (Jason Clarke) completing the roster. They are making serious money, which of course attracts the worst kind of opportunists and entrepreneurs. Some corrupt, sexually ambiguous and very violent lawman (Guy Pearce) from Chicago comes to town to demand tribute from all the bootleggers, with backing from the Chicago mob, and bloody violence ensues.
dir: Timur Bekmambetov
And yeah, no-one’s thoroughly sick of vampires yet, not one little bit...
Abraham Lincoln kills vampires. That’s all you need to know, because that’s the entirety of the premise as far as people were meant to care.
Pretty much all you need to read. You could stop here. Walk outside, if it’s nice out. Breath in deeply, enjoy the sunshine/night/hail/plague. Go on, get out of here.
Wait, WAIT! Come back, please, I was just kidding. I swear I’ll try to be more amusing / illuminating than this movie was.
The masses were meant to care all the way into the cinema. I can’t see how they could have cared, really, but maybe there’s a greater pool of history buffs out there that I didn’t know about.
The statesman of American history who kept the nation from tearing itself apart and freed the slaves also killed vampires in his spare time, and actually went into the Civil War with the intention of throwing off the shackles of the shadow aristocracy trying to rule from the shadows by taking away their food supply, being African-American slaves.
Sounds accurate so far. I hope one day someone with moderator status edits Abe Lincoln’s biography on Wikipedia, and replaces his actual biography with this more plausible one, and that way after the fall of civilisation, some record somewhere will be taken as gospel that he did indeed fight the pale horde and win. And that’s what future neo-humans will think actually happened, and pass down to further stupid generations.
This flick is based on one of those ludicrous but somehow profitable ideas that mashing something ‘classic’ with something ‘genre’ equals ‘money from nerds’. It started, at least the recent revival of this stuff did, with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which updated Austen’s classic tale about girls desperate to marry wealthy men with ninjas and zombies. I’m sure we can all agree that it desperately needed to be brought into the 21st century. I mean, the story of Darcy and Lizzie Bennett had been done so many times, so tediously, that it really needed a fresh, rotting take.
From there the floodgates opened, and every hack with a laptop and an e-reader copy of a classic novel started dreaming up really dull stuff to combine, sometimes quite artlessly. My mockery of this stuff doesn’t mean I’m not a consumer of it. Yes, I shamefully admit to having read Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Android Karenina and Little Vampire Women, and now I’m utterly sick of the concept. So sick, in fact, that I happily paid to see this, much to my eventual regret.
dir: Tanya Wexler
Look, I know it’s a period piece set in England in the 1880s, but don’t be disheartened. It doesn’t have Keira Knightley in it, I swear! It has Maggie Gyllenhaal instead!
For some that’s a plus, for others it’s even worse, but for me it’s preferable. Infinitely preferable. I still have nightmares about what Knightley did with her jaw in A Dangerous Method.
Brrrr. No, this is about something far less outlandish. This movie purports to be about the strange time in human history where men didn't believe women were capable of having orgasms or enjoying sex, and where everything women said or felt or experienced was labelled as 'hysteria'. If they were perfectly docile and never complained about their status as third-class citizens, then everything was fine. If they arked up and said, "Wow, this system is fucked and we are totally disenfranchised", then clearly they were hysterical and needed to have their uteruses ripped out.
"I don't want to spend my whole life popping out children."
- slap "Get this woman to a sanatorium, she's hysterical."
"I think women should have the right to vote, to an education and the right to keep the money they earn."
- gunshot "Whack a straitjacket on that woman, she's hysterical."
"I don't think doctors should have the right to incarcerate us and perform horrifying medical procedures on us without consent and without any sensible purpose."
- stab "This woman is hysterical. She needs to have her womb yanked out."
But really, what it's about, and how it was probably sold to investors, is that it's about the invention of the vibrator.
And no, it wasn't invented by the Japanese, proudly released upon an unsuspecting but grateful world by the Sanrio Hello Kitty! company.
What's the link, you're thinking, between hysteria and a girl's best friend? The profound idiots of the medical fraternity thought women suffering from hysteria, which was a catch-all for everything ever experienced by a woman from the beginning of time onwards, could be treated by manually 'medically' stimulating women to induce 'paroxysms'. Not orgasms, you know, that blessed thing women do that lights up the world, but involuntary convulsions which, afterwards, left the women somewhat drowsy, contented, and not complaining about their lot in life.
dir: Roland Emmerich
Roland Emmerich has previously been best known for making some of the most explode-y and truly stupid movies the cinema and your eyes have ever played host to. Independence Day, 2012, The Patriot, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 BC – there are more, and it’s a long, ignoble list of universal infamy.
So why’s he making a movie about the ‘real’ story behind William Shakespeare, when Shakespeare has about as much in common with Emmerich’s cinematic atrocities as Andrew Dice Clay, Pauly Shore or Rodney Rude do?
Who knows? I mean, I could look it up. I’m sure there’s dozens of interviews with him giving what he claims is the real motivation for doing so, but, considering the fact that most of that sort of PR guff is bullshit anyway, I choose not to inform myself in such a manner.
It’s far more tempting to just guess, based on scant or no evidence, as to his deep-seeded desire to tear down someone substantially greater than himself.
If someone like Kenneth Brannagh, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Sir Derek Jacobi, Dame Judi Dench, a literature scholar or one of the Kardashians tried it, you’d think it arose because of their deep connection to and love for Shakespeare’s works, since they’d seemingly devoted much of their lives (or their bandwagons) to him. But because of that connection, there could be an assumption made that they’re not, like Iago from Othello, motivated by just motiveless malice.
When a hack like Emmerich, someone responsible for films as lobotmised and terrible as anything Michael Bay has ever managed, just with less robots, makes a movie where the whole point is that Shakespeare was an illiterate hack and never wrote the plays he was acclaimed for, you suspect that resentment and envy are the key.
Ultimately, though, and whilst I strongly and loudly assert that not for a second do I believe any of the alternate / conspiracy theory scenario at play here, I don’t think that’s what motivated him.
The main point the flick is trying to make is that the works themselves, works the flick never really devotes much time to in an artistic sense, are sublime and truly eternal, but that pretty much every living being in the Elizabethan Age was a scoundrel, a scumbag and a fuck-up.
dir: Michel Hazanavicius
I know this last year was the year of celebrating the early days of the cinematic art form, but, you know, let’s just chill the fuck out, at least a little bit, okay?
The Artist is an entertaining enough flick, there’s no doubt, but it’s not the second coming of Buddha Jesus or the second coming of silent and black & white movies. At least I hope not.
And yes, I’ll even grant that Jean Dujardin does a nice job as the main character, being George Valentin, and that Berenice Bejo is lovely as Peppy Miller, but the manner in which this flick is being lauded to the high heavens is a bit confounding, and more than a tad bandwagonesque.
That this maudlin, melodramatic tale has been nominated for Best Picture is slightly surreal, if not absurd, in this day and age, and speaks more to the way that a whole bunch of critics and reviewers, once a flick gains critical mass, are pulled along almost involuntarily praising something exorbitantly that they know is just ‘pretty good’. It’s like they’re watching an event at the Special Olympics and are getting way ahead of themselves.
George, in 1927, is an absolute star, a big bright shining star. His films, silent though they may be, play to packed houses, and everyone except his loathsome wife (Penelope Ann Miller) adores him. An urchin on the street who eventually calls herself Peppy, contrives a moment where the tabloids snap them together, thus kicking off her film career. They have a moment during a dancing scene where they seem to have fallen in pudding. I mean love, they’ve fallen in love. Sort of.
dir: Cary Fukunaga
Jane Eyre, eh? Prestige costume drama Oscar bait, eh?
Just imagine all the doilies and lace trimmings and bustles akimbo all over the place.
This just screams of potential audiences climbing over each other’s corpses, desperately trying to get to the box office in order to get tickets to the latest Brontean Blockbuster.
Despite the fact that the book presumably is still all over those high school reading lists for English or English Lit or whatever classes haven’t been cancelled and replaced with Glee-like activities (proudly sponsored by some repellent lip gloss), I’ve never read it, and never seen the dozens and dozens of versions of it that have been expelled onto an unwilling public.
I’d always lumped it in with all that Regency-era frippery like all of Jane Austen’s pap, and always assumed it to be on a par. You know, attractive and spirited but somewhat impoverished young ladies desperate to get married to someone who seems to treat them mean initially, but turns out to be more rad than cad, and who welcomes their spiritedness instead of having them incarcerated in a sanatorium for being hysterical.
Jane Eyre, I know now from having watched this flick, is nothing like that. It’s about an intelligent and spirited young lady who gets multiple raw deals in life through no fault of her own (played by Australia’s own Mia Wasikowska). The story she’s in is a dark and gloomy one, both literally and aesthetically. It is, apparently, more from the Gothic-Romantic literary persuasion, where you could almost mistake it for a tale of horror.
Remakes are usually pointless. They’re often just emblematic of the risk averse nature of Hollywood, which wants only to shiny up the tried and true for profit and plaudits. This isn’t even the first time the brothers Coen have remade something: they did it before with The Ladykillers, receiving global yawns for their troubles.
But they’ve also made a career out of making films about other films, or at least films that don’t usually exist as separate, independent entities, but which exist on that ironic meta level as if to comment on the genre they’re indulging in at that given time.
True Grit is fairly straight ahead, down the line, and doesn’t indulge as much in their genre commentary; as in, it’s not like it either deconstructs the earlier flick starring John Wayne, or the Western genre itself. The story comes from a book, and they’ve stayed true both to the book and the earlier film, without indulging Jeff Bridges the way John Wayne was indulged by the makers of the earlier flick.
The real main character of the film isn’t Rooster Cogburn, played as a fat, drunken, vicious idiot by Jeff Bridges, it’s Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a fourteen-year-old girl looking for justice. Or vengeance, whichever.
dir: Tom Hooper
This is what you get when Ham (Geoffrey Robertson) meets Wry (Colin Firth): a tasty, award-winning sandwich.
Could there have been a confection more Oscarbaity than this? Was the public so desperately crying out for more cinematic proof that royal personages are so much better than the rest of us? Eventually we’ll be able to put all these films together into a neat collage that exists to convince us only that as commoners, we really do suck compared to all those kings and queens.
And I get enough of that already, thanks for nothing.
The King’s Speech is an almost clever double-meaning title referring both to a specific speech which apparently saved Europe from Hitler, and the speech impediment endured and surmounted by the reluctant eventual heir to the throne, George VI, ably played by Colin Firth. Colin Firth will so win an Oscar for this performance. It’s not because it’s the performance of the year (something so subjective and unmeasurable in any meaningful way so as to be meaningless), or last year, or because this characterisation is so wonderful and crucial to our understanding of the time involved or humanity general.
No, he’ll win because he’s owed. Once these titans of the theatre rack up a sufficient number of nominations, they automatically receive the award, just to keep them happy. Add to that the fact that he’s playing someone overcoming something, and it’s virtually a foregone conclusion.
In the 1930s, Hitler was gearing up a party that would blanket the entirety of Europe with fun times. And what was our main character doing? Stuttering like a motherfucker at every public speaking event, embarrassing the entire nation with his speech impediment. How is this communicated to us, the audience? It’s shown by the manner in which the eyes of the public eventually look away in a mixture of pity and disgust.
And this is the man who’s supposed to compete with Hitler? In quite an amusing scene, Bertie, as we come to know him, watches footage of the Nuremberg rallies, and when asked by his daughter Elizabeth as to what Hitler is saying, Bertie ruefully notes that he’s not sure, but whatever he’s saying, he’s saying it very well.
dir: Alejandro Amenabar
It’s about time there was a biopic about the life, loves and times of Hypatia. You know, the famous 4th century mathematician and philosopher? One of the most renowned and virtually unknown women of antiquity?
Okay, unless you were a desperate and insecure teenage boy who struck upon the brilliant strategy of reading up on feminist icons believing that it would somehow result in some girl with low standards throwing you a pity grope every now and then, you might not have heard of her. But I had, and so when I heard that the director of Open Your Eyes, The Others and the superb The Sea Inside was making a biopic about this Hottie from History, I thought, “meh…”
Still, it’s turned up in our cinemas this week, and in a choice between watching something enjoyable, and watching something edifying, I chose Agora over, let’s say Monsters, or The Town.
More fool me.
Agora is the rare case of a biopic that works despite being about a person who’s not that interesting, and with not one but two ‘wrong’ performances from two of the main characters, but which still gets enough of the feel right and the depiction of the setting looks impressive enough to make you feel like it wasn’t a complete waste of time.
Sure, Rachel Weisz’s performance as Hypatia is not good, in fact it was downright painful, but she doesn’t even feel like the main character of her own story.
The real story being told is the early years of the Christian Church. After centuries of persecution, Christians in this part of the world were of sufficient number and inclination to start threatening the status quo. The story is set in Alexandria, Egypt, when it was one of the last bastions of the post-Hellenic world. They still had the Lighthouse and the Library and all! Sure, the Romans are still in charge, but Alexandria is depicted as being a mishmash of Greek and Egyptian enlightenment, with the dirty Christian hordes howling at the gates.
dir: Ridley Scott
Give it a rest, Russell, honestly.
And you too, Ridley. Stop pretending you’re all prestigious men of quality deserving awards and kudos. You’re both hacks and you know it.
And now you’ve taken a much beloved myth about some woodsy guy sticking it to The Man, and you've turned it into a grim Braveheart clone. For shame, gentlemen.
A few years ago, I remember reading a headline somewhere scrawled onto the tubes of the internets saying that Russell Crowe would be playing Robin Hood. My first and only thought was, “That’s boring, stop being so boring.”
And then I thought no more of it, until months later I read another buzzy story saying that the flick was going to be called Nottingham, and it would star Crowe in the main role, but that the clever hook would be that Crowe would be playing both the Sherriff of Nottingham, Robin’s classical antagonist, and Robin Hood as well. I don’t mean as twins or clones or anything, just that the role and script as envisaged had the Sherriff masquerading as his own fabricated enemy. Upon reading that I remember thinking, “That actually sounds a bit interesting, I wonder how they’ll pull it off.”
And then the next thing I knew, the flick had been made, and any sense of cleverness or humour had been drained from the concept, instead resorting to a fairly stock standard retelling of the tale, mixed in with the freedom / liberty bullshit American audiences apparently crave.
dir: Aleksandr Sokurov
Usually when people are ambivalent about something they say "I'm in two minds about this". In the case of this film I am in fifteen minds about it.
Reading reviews of this film from the serious chin-stroking film reviewers over the last few months, I was lead to believe that this film is one of the single greatest contributions to cinema in the last 100 years. It only recently received cinematic release here in Australia, and I was eager to see it on the big screen instead of
waiting another month or so to see it on DVD.
Much has been made of both the achievement in cinema this film represents and the artistic conceptual realisation that the film maker strives for. Essentially the achievement is an entire film made without edits. It is one continuous shot, unedited and incredibly well choreographed behind the scenes, with hundreds of extras having to be doing the right thing at the right time. Apparently it took them three attempts to get it right, which must have been quite frustrating for all concerned.
The other big selling point is the fact that the entirety of the film occurs within the walls of the Hermitage Museum, in St Petersburg, a place notoriously hard to get access to, especially for something of
Our so-called protagonist is really the camera, who wakes up confused to find himself back in the 18th century, following people about in the Hermitage. He bumps into famous people, Tsar Nicholas the First,
Catherine the Great, but mostly seems to wander around aimlessly. He also finds a fellow time traveller, a strange person referred to as the Stranger (credited as Sergei Dreiden, but actually an actor called
Sergei Dontsov; don't ask me what the fuck it means I've got no fucking idea). This Stranger has all the charm and tact of a crazy incontinent homeless man on public transport. He engages the camera -
protagonist in conversation as they wander the halls of the Hermitage, occasionally stopping to see some of the masterpieces, offering fleeting glimpses at classic works. They have an antagonistic relationship and argue about various things as they go, and the Stranger, true to form hassles other people he finds in the museum as well. Some of them are from the 1800s, other are contemporary 21st century people. It's less confusing than it sounds.
dir: Peter Weir
It is no wonder that the film hasn't set the box office alight. It's not a conventional film, with a conventional story and a 5 part structure. There's no love interest, revenge motivation, excessive one-liners, hyperkinetic coke binges in the editing sweet and no saccharine Hollywood ending. There is also little for people who are not anal retentive history buffs or at least fans of movies set in the Age of Sail (being the Napoleonic Wars between France and England et al) to be kept entertained by ultimately in this film.
It is satisfying for me, but then I'm one of the few reviewers that has actually read every one of the 20 Aubrey - Maturin novels written by Patrick O' Brian. And even then the film is satisfying more on an intellectual level than on the visceral / emotional level. Which is a damn shame.
Yes, I've read every book in the series by Patrick O'Brian. That has not, amazingly enough, turned me into one of those ubernerds of the same ilk as Tolkien obsessives that say Peter Jackson should be killed painfully for impugning the majesty that is the Lord of the Rings trilogy by presuming to be able to make it into a film that's not a thousand hours long. I very much enjoyed the tales of Lucky Jack Aubrey and naval surgeon and spy on His Majesty's Secret Service Stephen Maturin, in fact I loved reading them.
dir: Yves Robert
These two films are really one big film, in the same way that Jean de Florette and Manon de Sources are really one long film. In common with those other flicks, these are also set in the same area of France, being Provence. More intimately, they also share the same author, being Marcel Pagnol.
In this instance, these movies are based on Pagnol’s own life in the early part of the 20th century, in Marseilles and the hills nearby. As such, since real life rarely has the dramatic consistency and neatness of well-written drama, these flicks have a very different dynamic to the masterpieces that start with Jean de Florette. They share the same lush visuals, having been filmed in the same region, but completely different stories, themes, ideas and resolutions.
In some ways, enjoyable ways, My Father’s Glory is one of the truly most bourgeois films ever committed to celluloid. It focuses on the low-key meanderings of a family from 1900 onwards, seen through the eyes of the eldest son Marcel (Julien Ciamaca). That shouldn’t be seen as a criticism, just a description of the time, the place and the family involved.
The patriarch of the family, Joseph (Phillipe Caubere) is a school teacher, and mostly a decent and humble man. He’s not much of a drinker, gambler or wifebeater, which is just lovely. His wife Augustine (Nathalie Roussell) is happy to devote herself to doting on him and their ever-expanding family. She wears frilly outfits and makes enough food to serve an army and never complains about anything, ever, the blessed saint.
dir: Ed Harris
Ah, westerns. Not nearly enough of them are still being made. And, in some senses, as with musicals, X-Men films and anything made by Baz Luhrman, you could argue that there is no goddamn need to ever, ever make any more of them ever again.
The western, however, unlike the other examples cited, deserves to have a continued existence. It deserves to survive, and prosper as a genre filled with awe-inspiring scenery, people killing each other with guns, and the rugged individualism Americans like to think they’re all heirs to.
It’s the most quintessential of American genres. You can make the argument that virtually all cinema and all genres originate in America, considering the birthplace of the cinematic art form, but then you’d be being awfully pedantic, and no-one likes sleeping with awfully pedantic people. So let that be a warning to you.
Whatever the argument’s merits, the irony is that despite the ‘you’ve come a long way, baby’ that America has achieved as a country and in terms of civilisation, they still hunger to make and see films set in an era before everything was decided: before there were limits on anything, be it ambition, be it violence, or be it a complete lack of fences.
They hunger for the time when they were all free range, and maybe we do to. Personally, I have no hankering for the strapping on of guns, the crush of nuts on a horse’s saddle, or the killing of random people in saloons. Nor does that rugged individualism bullshit resonate with me either. I’m way too lazy, for one thing.
But I do love the ambiguous moral arguments, the heroes who are stone cold killers, and the villains who are almost indistinguishable from the heroes themselves. And I do love the scenery.
Appaloosa is set in those heady days of the 1880s, post Civil War, where civic structures were solidifying across the States. Lawmen were essentially mercenaries hired by rich townsfolk to come to their towns to kill their enemies. Our two protagonists: Virgil Cole (Ed Harris, who also directs), and Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), are two of these lawmen-for-hire. They are, I guess, good guys. They believe themselves to be the good guys, and act accordingly, by drafting regulations governing the town entirely to their liking.
The rich bastards running the town hire them not because they really care that someone near them needs to feel the harsh noose of justice for their crimes, but because they’re losing money. The villainous Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) might have killed a bunch of guys, but the reason the town fathers want him dealt with is because his lackeys avail themselves of all the town's booze and whores without paying accordingly.
dir: Hiroshi Inagaki
Now here’s a blast from the past. For reasons I’m not going to bother to explain, I’ve taken it upon myself to review an ancient Japanese samurai film for my amusement and to a chorus of yawns from the rest of the world. I do love Japanese films, that’s true, but I’m not sure if that’s adequate justification for writing about a film that is over forty years old.
Surely it matters not. Clearly the makers of this flick, The 47 Ronin, didn’t think that the Seven Samurai in Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece were enough. Clearly they thought there needed to be plenty more samurai to make a really good flick. After all, just like with sex, cooking or explosives, if something doesn’t work, just add more ingredients.
Actually, that’s got nothing to do with it. The 47 Samurai is one of the fundamental Japanese cultural tales regarding its history and feudal system of vassalage, and the complex and rigid societal / class system known as bushido, which translates to ‘way of the samurai’. Fascinated as I am with Japanese history and culture, this well-made but a bit tiresome epic film is a perfect example of everything that was most insane about this crazy country. And also, most importantly, it says something about why everyone seems to be dead at the end of so many Japanese films.
Lord Asano (Yuzo Kayama) is a young and prideful man. His stance against bribery and corruption brings him into conflict with the greedy and lustful Lord Kira (Chusha Ichikawa), who provokes Asano until he cants stands no more, in the words of Popeye. Asano lashes out at Kira, drawing a sword in a place where it is forbidden (the Shogun’s building), and lightly wounds him. I felt like screaming “Finish Him!” at the screen.
Due to Kira’s superior rank, and Asano’s drawing of a weapon, the samurai code clearly dictates what must happen next. Asano is not arrested and executed; he is invited to commit seppukuh, where he would be expected to stab himself in the guts and have a second, or kaishaku, usually a friend, cut off his head.
Asano does as is required of him. The samurai live by and die by the code. Often without seeming hesitation. Sometimes they seem absurdly eager to off themselves. It really comes across as surreal to non-Japanese outsiders. It has to.
But Asano’s suicide doesn’t fix things. The law dictates that his lands be seized, and that his loyal samurai retainers become masterless, becoming ronin.
dir: Luchino Visconti
The Leopard, based on the novel of the same name by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa, is a beautiful, languid film that slavishly follows the source material so as to not miss a single scintillating second of Sicilian magic. Only a Marxist director who was an aristocrat himself could so painstakingly reconstruct such a story about the decline of the aristocracy in Italy after the Risorgimento of the 1860s. So a classic story about the death of a way of life, of an entire people, becomes a classic film in the hands of the right director.
The acclaimed Italian director made plenty of other films, some as good and some worse (The Damned comes to mind), but few are as magnificent as The Leopard. The title itself comes from the coat of arms of the Prince Fabrizio di Salina’s prestigious and illustrious family. In the film he is played by Burt Lancaster, that most Italian of movie stars.
Oh, wait a second, he’s not Italian. How can he play a Sicilian aristocrat in that case? With great difficulty, perhaps?
Well, Burt Lancaster was of that generation of actors, like Kirk Douglas, like Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Anthony Quinn, Charlton Heston: guys that could play anything and usually did, and made it look easy. This isn’t even the only film he’s played an old Italian in. He played an even older one in Bertolucci’s epic shemozzle 1900 (Novecento). I can’t comment on whether he’s a great actor or not, but I can say he physically embodies the role of the Prince in a way that perfectly matches the character from the book and which greatly aids the film’s credibility.
dir: Martin Scorsese
History is replete with examples of grand folly. Times where people were inspired by big ideas that outstripped their ability, their budget or the laws of physics and failed spectacularly in ways so tragically overblown that they have become the stuff of legend, despite being remembered, perhaps incorrectly as time stumbles inexorably forward.
As an example, how about the plans of Arthur Paul Pedrick, who came up with a scheme to irrigate the Sahara by flinging giant snowballs from Antarctica using catapults? Or Howard Hughes’ ‘Spruce Goose’, the biggest, goofiest model aeroplane ever constructed, with its seventeen separate engines and its wingspan exceeding that of a football field by 20 metres, and possessing enough cabin space to carry two railroad carriages side by side? Perhaps someone should have told Hughes that railroad carriages already had a way of being moved around. It might have saved him some cash. And time. Lots and lots of time. And glue, probably.
dir: Peter Webber
The camera loves Scarlett Johansson’s face, there is no doubt of that. So much attention, so many shots amount to little more than the camera going into close-up to let her acting play out on the canvass of her face. Her lips and eyes get to do most of the acting. Having little opportunity to speak, true to her role as a poor 17th Century maid working for rich folks in the city of Delft, in the Netherlands, most of her work has to be purely from body language and the little dialogue she’s entitled to. Most of the time she is trying to speak, but because of who she is, where she is, that access to her own ‘voice’ is devastatingly rare. Her struggle to speak rarely countermands her ingrained idea of her ‘place’. More overtly she is specifically told by the lady of the house to only speak when spoken to.
As almost a mute she still holds centre stage and our attention, as the story focus is on her and her less than wicked ways. Thus the story, apart from being a purely fanciful extrapolation of the possible life of the subject of one of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings that the film shares as its title, is essentially feminist in its narrative. In a way the film belongs to the category of film I like to refer to as the ‘life sucks’ genre. To pare it down even further, recalling my use of the ‘f’ word, the film belongs to the sub-genre of ‘gee, didn’t life suck for poor girls back then?’
Our main character Griet works as a maid for the Vermeer family. Being poor and uneducated, and this being the 1670s or so, her options are really very limited. As a maid for a large house she is required to work virtually the length of the day and into the night. Her hands are perpetually red and scabbed from work and from being burned in the kitchen. In other words, as I said before, it sucked to be a poor woman in the 1700s.
(Kakushi ken oni no tsume)
dir: Yoji Yamada
Just like in The Twilight Samurai, this film follows the adventures of a samurai on the absolute lowest rank samurai can be on without falling off the feudal ladder. Just like in The Twilight Samurai, the noble and impoverished main character is vulnerable to the machinations of those more powerful than him within his clan, who compel him to do something he doesn’t want to do. And just like in The Twilight Samurai he is loved by and loves a woman he cannot be with because of some tenuous, noble, self-sacrificing reason.
But don’t let that give you the impression that it’s a rip-off of Twilight Samurai. Oh, heaven forfend such a perception on your part.
dir: Rob Marshall
I guess this was a highly anticipated adaptation of a bestselling book. To my eye, for the last five years, upon riding and enjoying the many virtues of public transport, if a fellow passenger wasn’t reading a Harry Potter book, or one of Dan Brown’s magnum opuses, they usually held a white book with a vivid set of red lips on the cover.
As something of a fan of Japanese history and culture (read: a pretentious dilettante), curiousity killed and skinned my cat about the whole production. So I endeavoured to read the book before seeing the film. Because it’s nice, occasionally, to have an informed opinion on something.
The book, to my surprise, was not, actually, the memoirs of a geisha. It was a purely fictional story written by an American guy, Arthur Golden, who researched a heap about the life and times of the geisha, and who probably doesn’t look that good in a kimono. So that was my first let down.
Then, as I read, I realised the story was essentially a Japanese version of Pretty Woman, that cinematic classic of the Golden Age of Hollywood. That was my second.
dir: Terrence Malick
Terrence Malick has a rightly earned reputation as a guy who doesn’t like to rush anything. His films, known for their beautiful scenery, leisurely pacing and lack of dialogue, are too few and far between for his isolated, sweaty fans.
The New World is his take on the first, tentative steps the Old World (European pilgrims) took towards its settlement and extermination of the people of the New World (Native Americans). Whilst much of it is historically based, it’s hard not to see everything as allegorical as well. Though she is never named, Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher) and her fate could just as easily represent the fate of the tribal nations that would come to be exterminated by disease, genocide and booze at the hands of Manifest Destiny.