Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Mid-year film round up 2010 (part one)

Cine whifflings on a none-too-vintage year (so far).

Some good stuff though..

European heavyweights: A Prophet/I am Love

I’ve detected a dismissive attitude recently in some critical circles toward A Prophet – the inevitable backtracking of a certain kind of cineaste when a revered film festival favourite has the temerity to actually connect with a wider audience, make some money and appeal to people who haven’t ‘put the work in’ (i.e. spent every waking hour of their lives dissecting films).

Jacques Audiard’s film arrived at the tail end of a 2009 top heavy with big crime flicks – Michael Mann’s preposterously boring, elephantine Public Enemies and the overlong but sporadically brilliant Mesrine parts 1 and 2 (starring Vincent Cassell’s moustache). A Prophet is comfortably superior to both of these – it’s a film that dares to think outside the cell, rich with ideas and perpetually gnawing away at the constraints of the prison genre.

The film follows Malik, a young French/Arab teenager whose incarceration in a brutal French prison heralds a dizzying, sickening descent into violence and organised crime. When Malik is initiated into the fold by a grizzled Corsican gang lord he is tasked with committing an act of horrific violence that will haunt him and us, triggering a series of surrealistic hallucinations and symbolic dreams that will continue to plague him even as his place within the underworld becomes more cemented. Against this traditional downward trajectory, and over the course of a totally engrossing crime story, Audiard explores the masculine dynamics of power politics, the flaws of the French prison system, and Arab-French Islamic identity.

Thiis picture doesn’t have the rigorous control of Audiard’s previous films but there is something thrilling in its reach. Someone with a deeper understanding of Islamic culture will no doubt be able to uncover the nuances hidden within Malik’s symbolic journey (and it is very much a journey) but even if your knowledge is as limited as mine you are still left with an absorbing and muscular piece of work that engages both the head and the heart. Atmospherically, it’s quite possibly the strongest film of the year; the sights, smells and sounds of prison life captured with a hammer blow intensity that induces a genuine, palpable dread.

The Americans used to make films like this all the time in the 70s and 80s, but now it is to Europe and the likes of Audiard and that wickedly talented Italian upstart Paolo Sorrentino, or to Asia (Korea in particular) that we look for this kind of genre filmmaking with a sublime marriage of form and content. I don’t see that situation changing any time soon.

The vast twin shadows of two Italian giants – Antonioni and Visconti – loom heavily over Luca Guadagnino's sumptuous and stately drama I am Love - which channels both the grandiose, baroque stylisation of The Leopard (1963) and the somnambulistic pacing and glacial, existential dread of Antonioni’s peak period.

Tilda Swinton is Emma, a dutiful Russian/Italian woman married into the Reicchi family - a wealthy bourgouis dynasty who have made their fortune in textiles. The cavernous ennui of her opulent but empty existence is broken dramatically when she embarks on an affair with a family friend and associate, which has devastating consequences.

Patience, ever the byword in arthouse cinema, is required to gain full enjoyment from I am Love. Much of the first act details the minutiae of the Reicchi family as they celebrate a family birthday, which unfolds in languid, unhurried fashion, recalling the climactic ballroom sequence of The Leopard and also the family gatherings in The Godfather and Cimino’s Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate.

This is a film that frequently teeters on the verge of absurdity, pomposity and grandiloquence. It's unafraid of being a bit pretentious, a bit arch. Personally, I thought it was an amazing, absorbing film, with an innate sensuality. Swinton, as totemic a figure of arthouse cinema as you can get, reaches new heights here, with a sublimely controlled but affecting performance. It's a genuinely erotic film at times too, and has the best sexy-food vibe going on since Tampopo.

You could argue that I am Love, underneath its high art and style trappings, is essentially a soap opera - Il Colbys or The Days of our Lives - Italian style. Maybe it is, but these trappings are Milan, dahling not LA, and they're immaculately tailored.

Diminishing returns: Survival of the Dead/Whatever Works

There’s no immediate connection between George Romero and Woody Allen beyond the fact that they are both in their seventies and – inevitably – as far away from their great works now as imaginable. But there are other comparisons to be made. As with all great auteurs, both have spent their careers essentially reworking the same material, mastering it, reaching a high watermark with great works in the 70s and 80s, acquiring a loyal fan base for their respective shtick, and then incrementally chipping away at their reputations. The other connection is death. One of these men embraces it, fetishises it, realises it visually and metaphorically; the other fears it, broods over it and uses it as the basis for neurotic comedy.

The key difference of course is kudos and critical respectability – Romero is a revered cult director but has rarely worked with above-the- radar actors (discounting Land of the Dead) whereas Allen can entice top drawer performers and movie stars regardless of how flimsy the recent material. I’ve already blogged about Romero’s quasi-western, which, while in no way representing anything approaching his best work, feels to me at least like a logical – if ridiculous – entry into the great man’s canon. Romero’s philosophical musings on death and the zombie seem to have now infected his actual working methods – the narratives are shuffling and weak, the performances atrophy and crumble under unsure direction. Yet I found Survival, a tale of duelling ‘oirish families which seemed to enrage many Romero die-hards, more endearing than annoying.

The same cannot be said for Allen’s latest, which sees kvetchy miserablist Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) coming to the aid of pretty- but-dim runaway girl Melody (the excellent Evan Rachel Wood ) who turns up homeless outside his apartment and instantly falls in love with him because of his brilliance and insights – despite the fact that he’s a miserable old bastard who hates practically everything and everyone in the world. Essentially a one-note trawl through Allen’s usual obsessions – love fades, the young are inherently foolish and obsessed with low culture, we are born and die alone etc – Whatever Works only serves to cement his position as a director now completely out of step with the milieu he once totally owned.

The mordant philosophising that once marked him as a relevant and hilarious observer of human foibles has curdled into a pantomime of bored self-loathing and misanthropy. I’ve never known an Allen film strain so hard for laughs, and upsettingly, he’s even managed to render Larry David completely unfunny. This is a flaccid cock of a movie, a saggy wretched old man’s film, legitimised by marquee names.

Even if the central motif is self-parodic (and judging from that title how else can we regard it) and Allen is toying with the joke conceit of having beautiful young women fall for miserable old men - we still have to actually watch it happen.

It saddens me to be so negative as Allen has made at least four films that would comfortably grace my all time 100 best, but the most effective way to gauge the quality of his august years is simply this: how comfortable would you be showing any one of films from the last twenty years to someone totally new to his work? If you offered up this embarrassment as proof of one of the greatest living filmmakers you would be laughed out of the cinema.

Come to think of it that applies for Romero too.

Sound and fury: Clash of the Titans/Iron Man 2/The A Team/Green Zone/Inception

Since the summer is now entirely devoted to fantasy flicks, comic adaps and retro TV reboots, it makes sense to deal with these together.

Titans is far and away the most joyless of the bunch – a lame exercise in herculean pointlessness which amps up the expenditure of the original while making savage cuts to its sense of fun and wonder.

I mean seriously, stick this back to back with the 1981 version for an abject lesson in how 'un-fun' blockbusters have become. The original, which is largely complete guff, at least has BIG, joyful performances: a perma-oiled Harry Hamlin, the gravitas of Larry Olivier and Maggie Smith. It has goddesses and monsters and a genuine sense of otherworldliness - aided in no small measure by the genius stop-motion work of the godlike Ray Harryhausen; whose creatures live and breathe in the way that only those realised and created by human hand can.

Le Terrier’s 2010 reboot is a bloated CGI bore with a stolid hero in Sam Worthington (who has now graced three of the highest grossing films of the decade that no one came to see because he was in them). It’s surely too dark and gloomy for kids and the post 3D work is fantastically ugly. I’ve been informed that the action scenes have less murk and more clarity in the 2D cut but to experience this I would have to watch the film again.

This will never happen.

Iron Man 2 sidesteps the need for any conventional film analysis by actually not being a film –instead it’s a massive extended electronic press kit; an enormous, coked-up juggernaut, a special edition maxed up blu-ray in waiting.

The narrative arc here is so overstuffed, with multiple villains and Downey's Stark taking on the whole US administration as well as Mickey Rourke's villainous Vanko, that it essentially dissipates into a series of expensive, intermittently entertaining vignettes, with showboating turns from the likes of Sam Rockwell and Rourke and Scarlett Johansson.

Who does look good, to be fair.

Granted there are a couple of admittedly ferocious Bay-standard action sequences but the olympian levels of smugness pore from every premium-grade frame. This is a film that literally congratulates itself for existing as it unfolds, and watching it is like being dragged out to a ludicrously expensive, opulent bar where you meet an excitable chang-fuelled studio executive who promises you the NIGHT OF YOUR FUCKING LIFE. You foolishly accept the offer - only to wake up hours later, sore of head, empty in both wallet and soul.

Joe Carnahan’s A-Team – the worst received of these by the critics – was the no brainer I enjoyed the most, possibly a result of sub-zero expectations + free screening + free drink + Empire Dolby surround. The sound mix at the screening was so deafening it blocked out all rational human thought.

This perfunctory work cannot by any means be classed as a good film, but it succeeds in being absolutely the best possible one that could be made from such meagre material. Playing it's cards utterly straight (no Starsky and Hutch irony here) as a TV reboot it neither elevates (Mission Impossible)or degrades (Avengers) its well remembered but ultimately crappy origins. Once lauded as a kind of baby Taranatino in waiting, director Carnahan is shaping up to be more of a mini Andrew V McLaglen and if this isn’t quite The Wild Geese on anabolic steroids (that would be The Expendables naturally) I predict it will make perfect sense to future generations of dads/ten year old sons on bank holiday afternoons, where its quaintly anachronistic charms will surely be best enjoyed.

Two things about this film amused me greatly; a sequence in which the team essentially ‘fly’ a tank, which seems absolutely in keeping with the comic capers of the show and Carnahan’s simple device of how to get around the rank incoherence of modern day hyper kinetic action scenes: he actually has his characters talk you through them in voiceover as they unfold onscreen.

Green Zone is Paul Greengrass’ first truly, totally boring film and given that this man turned a recreation of 9/11 into a thrill-a-minute will-they-survive-this-Poseidon-in-the-air (United 93) that is no mean feat. It’s so unengaging that I began to secretly hope/partly hallucinate that WMDs did exist and that the movie would turn into a rabble rousing piece of pulpy right wing propaganda like Milius' mind bogglingly brilliant Red Dawn. Sadly that didn’t happen. Well intentioned in its liberal outrage, it cant match Hurt Locker for white heat intensity and the blank slate that Damon utilises so successfully as Bourne just comes across as utter disinterest in the material here.

Inception (or as some of us refer to it ‘Shutter Island 2: pumpkinhead’s dream continues’) is made with great care, detail and relentless seriousness by the prodigiously talented young British filmmaker Christopher Nolan. It has momentarily stunned the critical fraternity into lauding Nolan as the new Stanley Kubrick, though this seems largely based on what it isn’t (a sequel or franchise flick) than what it is (a solid, grown-up SF film with delusions of grandeur).

As with all Nolan’s films there’s guesswork and puzzles aplenty. It has a tremendous, confident opening act, some nicely-judged performances from some off-beat casting choices (a louche Tom Hardy, Ellen Page for once not jabbering endlessly) and a couple of genuinely bravura moments – a fold-up Paris sequence where DiCaprio shows Page how to harness her dream powers, creating an unfolding universe of infinite possibility, and Joseph Gordon Levitt hoisting sleepy inceptors around a lift (the one genuinely odd moment in the film).

But there’s little wonder or humour in this dry and overlong, hermetically-sealed dream tale, which has a brain but precious little heart. At the points where it wasn’t putting me in mind of more obvious antecedents (Matrix et al) it reminded me briefly of two lesser known sources – the work of Mancunian science fiction novelist Jeff Noon and a wonderful schlocky little picture from the mid 1980s called Dreamscape starring Dennis Quaid, which has much the same plot and an ending with a giant snake-monster on a train.

The key difference is that both Noon’s work and the Quaid film have a sense of the ridiculous, with lightness and humour – gruff, trippy manc wit in Noon’s case and a sense of camp fun in the Quaid film – and both are executed with far more brio and imagination than Nolan's film. For such a long film, its rather shameful that Nolan doesn’t spend more time exploring his characters or at least letting them live and breathe a little. Instead he devotes forty-five minutes of screen time to one of the dullest heists in history. I have to confess, with no small sense of irony, that I actually fell asleep during the final act though sadly I didn’t drift off into another, more interesting narrative. Nolan’s film has intelligence and class to spare, but he needs to care about his characters more, not just have them as foils for his tricksy, swiss-watch precision plots.

Inception could use a sense of wonder and imagination – and a giant snake-monster.

The bloody british: Black Death/Centurion

Chris Smith and Neil Marshall are probably the two highest profile British genre directors working today (Edgar Wright excepting). These are the guys out there making the kind of flicks that the geeks and fanboys would love to make – if they weren’t spending all their time watching cult movies and writing preposterously long blogs about other people's films.

Smith’s Black Death in which a young monk accompanies a group of mercenaries on a mission to understand why a local village is somehow surviving the plague that is ravaging England, is perhaps the more polished of the two, but it is also the more restrained. And if it doesn’t quite hit Flesh and Blood levels of insanity it is a stylish and well paced work, with fantastic location work and a genuinely timeless look. Smith has clearly been rewatching his Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan's Claw DVDs for visual inpiration.

Unusually for a genre film, it also has a superb, startling denouement, which is so good that I left wishing that the film had actually taken the ending as its starting point. It certainly sets things nicely up for a sequel - but given that Smith is a director who likes to pick n' mix his genres I doubt he would repeat himself.

Marshall's Centurion, which plays fast and loose with the legend of the ninth legion's assault on the picts in 117AD and fashions it into a lean and ferocious action spectacle, has a bit more dirt under its fingernails.

A savage, more obviously contemporary movie in look and feel, the film has absolutely no fat on it whatsoever, forgoing the traditional three-act structure in what is essentially an 90 minute chase a'la Apocalypto and Road Warrior.

What I like about Marshall is his energetic, elemental approach to the material. It's as if he looked at all the bloated sword n' sandal pics over the years and thought 'I know - I'll cut all the boring shit out and focus on the good stuff; the chases, the swordfights, the bloodletting'. If there’s a faultline here it's that, despite a really strong cast, perhaps the characterisation isn’t quite strong enough to engage or make you really root for anyone.

There's a whiff of John Carpenter about Marshall‘s career thus far, and over the course of four films he’s developed a strong signature style. He's comfortable with ensemble casts and evidently a proponent of strong fantasy female characters (Olga Kurylenko and Axelle Carolyn the standouts here). He should probably also be given some kind of formal recognition for getting a really good perfomance out of Rhona Mitra in his previous film Doomsday.

Smith and Marshall are not cynical directors, nor do they parody or mock the material, you never get a sense that they feel they’re better than/above the genre they’re working in. In a sense they're both following the Danny Boyle route - approaching and attacking different genres with relish and imagination. You feel that there is more to come from both men, although right now Marshall is probabably just in front, as the one to have made an all-time bona fide horror classic so far with The Descent.

In part two: the perfection of pixar, the north london fantasists, first-rate first timers, faded icons and the film that made me want to set fire to my own face...

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