Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Review: La Chispa De La Vida (As Luck Would Have It)

Roberto goes off to beg for a job from a former boss, having failed as a freelance ad copy writer. Bouyed by his one-person cheer squad, Luisa (Salma Hayek) he sets off with mixed cheer. The meeting is a deflating disaster. As a tonic, he goes to Cartagena to the hotel where he and his wife spent their honeymoon. It is now an archeological site of a newly discovered Roman amphitheatre which is in the process of becoming a public attraction. Trying to wrest himself free from the hoardes of reporters and eager crowds of Jose citizen, Roberto wanders to the area of the site still under construction and falls from scaffolding to some crisscrossed iron that, while bouncy enough to prevent his death, is also spiky enough to lodge a length of finger thick metal into the back of his skull. The mayor, archeological team and media burst on to the scene expecting a glimpse of the  splendour to come but only seem to see Roberto.

The rest develops into the kind of bright and dark satire that made Ace in the Hole so powerful. The agenda here differs a little, however, managing a constant feed of digs at the new EU, the disembowelling of its ancient culture, the weakening of its money and the resulting widening of divide between rich and poor. In the middle are the media, mostly venal and bloodthirsty but yet numbering a conscience or two among the ranks. Once you get into the mix of tones offered here you'll find this piece enjoyable and might be pleasantly surprised by the ending.

Jose Mota manages a lot of range with a role that demands he keep inhumanly still. Salma Hayek delights as the woman who has attempted to keep her sinking husband positive but now must invest as much truth as she can into providing even more. It is she whom we follow, coping with these crazy Spaniards (her character is as Mexican as she is) and their hyped up circus of a lifestyle.

While a contemporary European would recognise more of the nuance here this is still an enjoyable and bittersweet film. It was the only one from the Spanish Film Festival this year I was able to get to. If SBS end up showing it they will probably use the English title. Keep an eye out.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The MIFF of Another: reviews of films I hadn't marked for MIFF this year

Shadows regulars and fabbo people, Tyson and Sim hosted a couple of screenings of films they sourced which they would have seen at MIFF if illness and other annoyances hadn't got in the way. While none of these titles made my dance card I was very grateful for the opportunity to see them and for the most part enjoyed my socks off at the witness I bore of them. Here are the results...

Barbara: Barbara has fallen foul of the East German authorities and has been consigned to ply her trade as a doctor to a country hospital held together by a kind of administrative gaffer tape. She is befriended by the local version of the medical hunk but she has her own plans and they don't involve hanging around in Dowdyburg. There is a carefully laid and maintained tightrope of tension here between what Barbara wants to do and the forces that would seek to prevent it, as well as a slowly thawing humanitarian tale which only serves to add more complication. Some obviousness in plotting and expository dialogue are smoothed over with good performances, particularly Nina Hoss in the title spot who can transform herself from severity to softness in seconds.

Undefeated: Documentary shows how a new coach strains to drag his underdog high school football team from the centre of the earth to a level playing field. Theme of constantly maintained inspiration in the face of defeatism engendered by lack of privilege works but for me the sporting surface gets in the way. That really is just me, though.

Easy Money: Swedish crime lifestyler involving ethnic gangs and an ambitious wrong-tracks guy trying to climb the social ladder with some of the money in the title. Workmanlike and effective if a little too generic too frequently. Performances very good throughout and good pacing help. I think we have grown too used to tv of this quality and now expect our cinema to reach further.

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present: Performance artist docco gets going once the talking head plattitudes roll off and the show of the subtitle gets under way at New York's MOMA. Abramovic sits in a chair and looks at whomever sits in the one across from her. Results widely varying and steadily affecting as people from the very straight-laced to others so loosesly fastened they need to be removed by security. Too many profiles of performance artists fail to dispell the apparent silliness of the acts for me but the strength of the concept of this one was able to transcend its initial eulogistic tone and assume its own life.

Thanks again to Tyson and Sim for their generous hosting of these home screenings. Having failed to ressurect Shadows as a screening night through want of a venue and then seen so much defeating the micro cinema, my wish that the home screening could address the void left by the death of the arthouse scene in Melbourne might well have wings. Get projectors, ye cinebods 'n' frameophiles, and get some folks around. Let our flickering friends live loud and colourful upon your walls! We need it.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Various Apocalypses Part 1: BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD

Hush Puppy is a girl of six. She lives in a small community on a bump in the sea outside the post-Katrina levees called The Bathtub. Beyond those is a land where everyone is dependent on consumer goods and a false ecosystem that is sucking the life out of the universe. This is the depiction Hush Puppy is given in her local informal schooling, along with all the other kids. The world is soon to end, starting with the melting ice caps which will loose the frozen tusky giant boars that the ice keeps prisoner.

The community on the bathtub at first seems to be enjoying itself immensely. We meet them during celebrations that involve fireworks like the July 4 malarky folk beyond the levees go on about. The music is gloriously Cajun and the people's plain lives apparently happy. The houses and various forms of water transport are made of things the folk over the water have used and abandoned. Wink, HP's tough-love father with the worrying illdefined medical condition, drives a boat made of an old ute which I would have wanted if I'd seen this film as a child. Oh, there's your reference point in chief, by the way.

Beasts is a child's fable. HP's narration throughout fills us in on the way the information is processed. When Wink collapses in the bush and seems to have a kind of seizure, HP is alerted immediately by the sound of thunder to imagine a mighty and terminal looking weather system heading her way. This elegant economy of signification relieves this film of both the potential fall into tweeness from all the sweet magical realism on show and any alienation we might feel on witnessing this subsistence lifestyle. Also, HP's observations reveal more to us that she is able to comprehend herself.

There is a storm a-comin' and it will probably mean the end of the world, the onset of the reign of the beasts and the ever tearing rip in the universe. All we need start with is HP's fantasies of her long departed mother (never declared dead) and the very real possibility of her father (ie her world) being plucked from their home by the wind and water or those strange folk at the hospitals. The rest might as well be the end of all creation. This strikes every viewer of this film as they are or have been children and know the horror of the notion of the loss of their protectors and teachers. HP goes further, being forced to by her circumstances, and learns to find her own courage.

I typed those words just then but I promise you if I'd seen them typed by anyone else I'd avoid this film like another broken fibula. I'd cry "twee" and have done. But all of this is carried with no sausage meat forcing by a deft diredtorial hand that has expertly judged the position of the line of whimsy and cloying garbage. This is mainly due to a magnetic central performance by Quvenzhane Wallis who reminds us of how serious is a child at play (one for the Nietzscheans, there).

We hear HP's thoughts more than we witness her speak them but by the time she needs to speak we are already well prepared for her odd and heavily accented declaration of the coming catalcysm. The final image (of which Wes Anderson would have made a cute tableau) with the strength of purpose already established is both heart-in-mouth heroic and pitiably despairing.

If we are to have American Indy standing in for barrier-nudging cinema then let it be like this.

Still in cinemas at time of posting.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Filled gaps

In this post I listed a few famous movies that I'd never seen. I've now seen two of them.

Gone With the Wind: structured like an opera, the overture of this epic does a lot of flaunting of something that would have given its 1939 audience the sense of sitting in the lap of luxury: colour. The MGM lion would have been zappy enough but when the opening tableaux vivant faded in and disolved to more the thrill of it would have felt more electric than any of today's big CGI beginnings. And then we're straight into it with more and more colour as though someone discovered that chocolate ice cream cured cancer.

But it's not all colour. The famous preselling campaign to cast Scarlett O'Hara had landed on Brit up and comer Vivien Leigh. Mrs Laurence Olivier was infamously bratty on set and whether this was the method before its time or like for like casting, the screen is filled with her radient trouble or the aching lack of it. Then the war ends and part two of this film's four hours begins. And so do troubles of all kinds. Scarlett has had real trials from the civil war and she's flown through them all. But there's a problem when everyone has to get back into post war life and it's this. The good people stay good and Scarlett stays bad, using the character building of her recent travails to design herself as a better brat, a gold-digging, husband-coveting, manipulative hellmonster. Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, one of the most appealing figures from his cinematic era, has a famous line at the end of this film. I sing it with him.

What would have worked brilliantly on the pages of Margaret Mitchell's potboiler is at best only well-supported by cinema, here. It's just too much strain to keep watching an unsympathetic character continually triumph, especially after seemingly surviving the kind of things that ennoble other fictional characters. Not even the grevious events that befall her can quite balance this. Still, there's so much treasure on the screen here that at least one viewing would reward anyone.

Lawrence of Arabia: I've wanted to see this from childhood as from that time I've harboured a fascination with the first world war. For some reason or several I've just sat in front of it until recently. The closest I came bears qualifiers: a group of people I was hanging around because of someone I knew were watching it one afternoon and I went into another room and tried to write a novel (uh huh, those kind of days).

From there I heard what appeared to be dialogue constructed entirely from feed lines and heroic rejoinders. It didn't occur to me that these might in fact be delivered over parts of the soundtrack (score plus effects) that had boosted volume so I was only noticing the big bits but my impression was that it was an epic Boy's Own with good locations.

Well, I'm glad I waited for the blu-ray (or a screening of a restored print at the Astor). The vistas and set pieces are awesome (not "awesome!" when you get a free skinny latte as part of a promo deal but included to mean inspiring of awe) and David Lean's use of mise en scene to variously convey power or privation AND his way with his players all combine to make this long film a breeze to watch.

But even if none of these were present in such force there would still be the arresting fusion at the heart of this film which forms its cheif compulsion: T.E. Lawrence and Peter O'Toole. Lawrence was a born hero whose turbulent times fit him as though they were bespoke darkest hours. He thought brilliantly below and beside contemporary military wisdom, wove himself into an alien culture while remaining alien to it and upon finding the abyss, stared into it and found it staring back. If he'd been born in the initial Christian eon he would be replicated in plaster and pelted with prayers like any of the other figure in the Catholic canon. If he'd been alive in Nelson's time we would be saying Horatio who?

He famously described the effect of the castigating punishment (including rape) he received from the Turks as refreshing. He was heroic. He was weird. O'Toole shows us both, often at once and from the halfway mark we are unable to discern one without the other. This is the true setpiece of Lawrence of Arabia, its core and chief reward, overriding every instance of historical innaccuracy or the very dated presentation of English as the sole language spoken on Earth. If we watch this film we are watching O'Toole's heroic and weird reanimation of the historical figure as a dangerously volatile living legend. Recommended for first and repeated viewings.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Fibula Films Pt 2

Eden is West: Elias is on a leaky boat in what looks like the Mediterranean. When a larger ship is spotted he, his friend, and everyone else tear up their id papers and throw them in the brine. The Ship takes most of them aboard but it is really only a larger vessel, the hold is filled with others picked up before them. One night, the crew sight land and set off in a dinghy. Elias has a bad feeling about it and persuades his friend to join him in the sea. They swim around the coast guard ship that appears to gather the whole batch. Elias wakes on a beach when a ball bounces off him. He grabs the ball and looks over the rocks to see naked holidaymakers who ask for the ball and try to get him to join them. He strips off and walks to the catering tent without remark, finding a staff uniform there.

From that point it's clear that, although we might be seeing some of the baser aspects of humankind as Elias meets various people along the way to what he hopes is sanctuary, it will not stretch too far away from the lightness of touch Costa Gavras has chosen here. I say chosen as we are in the hands of a very deliberate film maker here who has some tough stuff on his rap sheet like the intense and powerful Z and the blackly comic satire Le Couperet. Elias' adventures and misadventures bring him frequently close to trouble but the worst is kept within rubber band reach of the gentler and more comic aspects. He ricochets from the seedier episodes of the exploitation of illegal immigrants and the racism he is frequently confronted with along the way. But this is the problem at the heart of this earnest 2009 exercise: the spoonful of sugar makes it easy to ignore the medicine altogether where a starker comic approach might have done more to allow its points their due depth and bring an only ever pleasantly amused audience into full engagement.

Enjoyable but too slight for its own good.

The Penalty: Ninety minutes of silent hatred as the great Lon Chaney plays a underworld boss who seizes an opportunity for revenge for his life's nasty course. In an opening sequence we learn that as a boy injured in a traffic accident his legs were needlessly amputated at the knee. He overhears one doctor first chastising the other for the pointless mutilation but then vowing to cover it up with a lie. Cut to 1920s San Fransisco where the fallen boy has grown into a cruel and powerful criminal going by the name Blizzard.

What's the opportunity? Get this: Blizzard sees an ad in the paper for a model for a sculpture of the fallen Satan. "So if you think you look like Satan please apply..." That's really what the ad says. Blizzard knocks off the competition and charms the sculptor into accepting him for the gig. The artist is the daughter of the surgeon who lopped his limbs off all those years ago. But there's more which I'll not spoil.

In an odd subplot involving the ongoing investigation into Blizzard's operations by the local finest, Blizzard takes up an undercover cop called Rose who gets a gig as the replacement concubine whose duties include applying the pedals when he plays and sings his bleak odes of vengeance at a grand piano in the parlour. Rose falls for Blizzard's charm, too and is soon torn between doing her real job and the one she's playing at here.

Everything converges neatly and there are twists a plenty in the final act. Done.

But if you are shy of silent cinema you should hunt this one down or any of Chaney's later features. You will find all the exaggerated emotion that probably keeps you from silent movies but in this case you will also find solid film making outside of the canon of comedy which seems immune to time's judgement. There are many sequences in The Penalty which impress like the tour through the secret dungeon or the opening scene which rises over the melodramatic motion at its centre and flies to crueller drama. And then there's Lon himself; if anyone in Hollywood ever suffered for his art it was this bloke who acted this entire role with his legs strapped beneath his costume and walking on his knees. He could only do that for minutes at a time. Try it for a few seconds and see how you do.

A revelation passed on to me in my hour (actually weeks) of need by the great Lon Chaney Advocate himself, Dean Mc, whose Time Capsules film night was the inspiration for Shadows in the first place. I'll thank him here for this.

The Red Badge of Courage: This was my first grown up book. It was a good first. Stephen Crane's tale of a young soldier coping with the shock of warfare is a modestly sized marvel. The depiction of both the ennui of training and waiting and the confusion of action have given readers the mistaken impression that this was the account of an eyewitness (Crane was born six years after the end of the war he's describing). And the language. The sound of the soldiers' talk is clearly audible and even when the speech itself is being described it's good stuff: "The youth's reply was an outburst of crimson oaths." Delish!

A book I read much later at university was Lillian Ross's Picture, an account of the troubled production of the film version of the book by the great maverick John Huston in 1951. The studio system that had reigned for decades and contributed such might to the art form was in decline and its nabobs were in a panic. One of the casualties of this was Huston's film which was compromised to within twenty-four frames of its life, suffering the forceful ignorance of suits left right and centre. So how does it scrub up?

Huston deliberately used a deep, silvery monochrome that emulates the famous war photography of Matthew Brady and it's stunning. The dialogue is taken effortless from Crane's pages, proving the accuracy of his ear.

But the big coup with this one was the casting of Audie Murphy as Henry Fleming, the protagonist. Murphy was the most decorated American soldier in World War II. Who better to convey a one-to-one scale understanding of the life-preserving force that fear is when confronted with the soaring likelihood of instant violent death? I find his later roles in westerns awkward but here he is in his element. One moment of that is enough to convince me: Henry is so buzzed up with fervour that he breaks from the line and runs toward the Confederate line firing. Before he thinks he goes to fire again. Audie is remembering in that moment that he is not at Anzio with his M1 but in the smoke of the Civil War and he's carrying a musket that takes a summer afternoon to reload. Keeping that in was a very nice touch.

Kes: Billy, small for his age and skeletal, shares a room and bed with his oaf brother who works "dowen pit-t".  School is severe and undernourished. The days of corporal punishment are still in force and the charges warranting it less to do with errant behaviour than the frustrations of teachers. PE teachers are failed sportsmen and take that out on the kids in hard-knocking soccer games and then in shower room shouting matches. Form-minded vocational guidance counsellors quack through Q&A sessions without regard to the Q part of it. Despite his hatred of the idea, Billy is probably headed for "pit-t". And the jungle of boys and girls biffs and taunts forever and ever.

In the midst of this late 60s Wilson government social penalty Billy finds an escape into the sublime through his nurture and training of a kestrel chick that he took from a nest, the Kes of the title. These scenes stopped me. They are so unaffected and pure that a simple documentary style is all that is needed for maximum force. But if these work they cannot compare with the scene where Billy tells his class about the first time he let the bird fly free. His delivery is realistically nervous but his wonder bursts through and even though it's hard to get every syllable of his Yorkshire brogue the story holds its audience as much as it does the kids in the class. It feels both natural and extraordinary at once. It is exhilarating.

I'm not a fan of Ken Loach in the main. Maybe I should rather say that I'm not a fan of how his fans misrepresent him as being the voice of truth when he himself would only claim to offer a representation of it. In my opinion the Loaches of the world offer a kind of escapism that is effectively identical to popcorn fests in the multiplexes, the politics of it regardless and there is more truth in art that sublimates the issues into fable and let the human nervous system and the survival response do the work.

Mind you, the first thing I knew of Ken Loach was seeing his mini-series Days of Hope on tv in the 70s and I was consistently awed by its commitment and apparent lack of affect. Though I feel disabused of this now I think I'd still find it a strong work. So too Kes which finds its power in a sentimentality derived solely from the artfully flat surface it appears to present. This is the art of Ken Loach, no matter how blaring his fans get.

The Tiger Brigades: France 1912 and the need for a police extender force is pressing with organised crime on the rise and the political situation in Europe getting dangerously ambiguous. Meet the first motorised police/national security agents/counter-espionage unit in Europe. This 2006 remake of a French tv series from the seventies was passed by me when I first saw it on my PVR drive but yesterday I pressed play to what I'd get. I expected a steampunk romp with a lot of cute references to the technological gap between now and then and an arch late 60s feel like The Assassination Bureau. Early signs pointed that way with the teasing response to a new recruit gets us into the dialogue and internal relations of the team. The new guy is Italian but one wag from the group keeps calling him Spanish.

But soon this settles and we're off on something both more serious offered in a package that feels lighter than it is. Bandits rob a bank truck but only steal a ledger. A Russian Prince is in town to oversee his wife's production of an opera about Ivan the Terrible amid a lot of anti-Tsarist feeling among the emigre population. Princess is having a torrid affair with the leader of the latter and there is an attempt to knock the Prince off before he signs the Triple Entente. All this has to do with a financial scandal on the scale of the GFC and that might well have a lot to do with a potential war around the corner. In the middle of this, our garcons from the Tiger Brigade are on the case and then off when they get too close.

Still sounds like a romp? Well, it reaches for that levity but keeps its feet on the floor. Violence hurts and has consequences. Both hero and villain, being unmistakably both, are afforded context and foible, allowing a clear shot at the third dimension. And there is something interesting going on with audience fealty. Witness:

The anti-Tsarist in chief is besieged by the Tigers and the Paris police in a farmhouse. He's resourceful and a fighter so all their wall punching firepower isn't pulling his hands up. A carload of Russians turn up, some of them armed and join in as though its a rustic hunt. There is a camera crew. Inside the bad guy makes good in our eyes by his voice over letter of farewell to his paramour, the Princess who is watching intently from outside. We feel as intently for his safety as we do the Tiger crew outside he is shooting at. We want them to get him, too. When the siege ends badly and decisively we follow the adulterous Princess' back as she walks slowly, aggrieved, away from us. We are glad of the new Tiger recruit's escape from death, aided by one of his teammate tormentors and happily note their newborn camaraderie. All that at once in a scene that goes for about ten minutes (but feels like five). And THEN a little later we see Parisian bar patrons roar with joy at a kinescope showing of the decisive explosion from the incident. Not what you'd call a romp.

The first point of comparison that nagged me with this one was less with The Assassination Bureau than the recent Guy Ritchie helmed Sherlock Holmes (not the terrific tv adaptation but the one with Robert Downey Jr). This has none of that film's assembly line action sequences stuffed into the very end. It's intrigue is built, stone by stone and genuinely engages and seems happy enough to have its characters live firmly in their time. Also, thankfully, the score is built on a tightly controlled motif played on a cembalo. I understand that this is an adaptation of the tv show's music. Well, it sits perfectly here. Bravo. This is on dvd but it's the second time SBS have played it in a year. If you have a taste for historical intrigue and smooth action plus some very un-Hollywood treatment of ethics and violence but still with high production values, try The Tiger Brigades.

Bad Education: Ignacio who wants to be called Angel but is really Juan visits his old school friend, now a famous film director. The latter, Enrique, barely recognises his old friend whose face is admittedly hiding behind a thick bushy beard, but accepts him for his claim. The catch-up reveals that Ignacio is an actor looking for work but also a writer who has a short story to offer to Enrique's next film. Enrique was actually caught in the act of sifting through the papers for a story he could develop. This one, though, is more promising. It has to do with their life as children and his as an adult. Enrique, initially annoyed by the intrusion perks up and promises to read it.

As he does we see the story as a finished film. Almodovar does this in an interesting way. Rather than changing the tone to sepia or black and white to suggest the passage of time he narrows the aspect ratio. The film proper is in scope 2.35:1 and the film within it in the more standard 1.85:1. Ole! The story begins with a couple of drag queens performing a cabaret. The more stunning of the two is played by Ignacio (the luminous Gael Garcia Bernal). this puts us in no doubt whose version of the film we are seeing as he confirms later by Ignacio's insistence on playing the lead in the film. At one show Ignacio (stage name Zaharah) hooks up with a young buck from the audience who he finds out is his old school friend. He writes an impassioned letter which he leaves beside the sleeping pickup and also leaves his payment.

This triggers the real movie within the movie within the movie as his flashback takes him to a segere Franco era Catholic school in which he is the target and victim of a priest's criminal affection. There is an incident and Ignacio is on the way to lifelong trauma. He gets through it with the help of a boy he has fallen in love with. Together their alliance and mutual attraction provide a bolster against the nightmarish attentions of the dogcollared one. Until the pair are found out. The boy Enrique is expelled which brings us back to do.

Why so much plot in a small review? Well, as in every Almodovar film, there is a lot of plot left over after that. But also to show how this cinemaster will establish his main theme and then use another to strengthen the first with a weave before providing more surprises, all the time delving deeper into his character's lives. We begin with misrepresentation, a man with several identities presents himself for work to a fashioner of fiction. What purports to be a gilded memoir is highly likely in this realm to be a true account. The double life of the predatory priest in this context is self explanatory but, this is an Almodovar film, is developed later almost to the point where it festers and takes on its own ugly life.

The other thing to bear in mind about this 2004 film is that its virtually womanless depiction of Spanish life is set in the Franco era (childhood scenes) and very shortly after. Like the grim and powerful Matador, Bad Education holds anger in its heart. It appearance twenty-nine years after Franco's demise and the opening of windows in Spain bears testimony to that without ever needing to name it.

Asylum: A friend gave me a folder bursting with old 70s horror tales from Hammer rival Amicus. Amicus were US backed and had contemporary rather than period settings. The two houses shared casts and are easily mistaken for each other. This one is a member of another group of its time in that it is an omnibus film, a few stories packed into a frame.

Robert Powell, Dr Martin, is a young psychiatrist who goes to a remote asylum for a new job. He is met not by the doctor in chief but the second fiddle (a typically seedy Patrick Magee) who informs him that Dr Starr has had a breakdown and is among the patients in the private rooms upstairs. Can Martin guess which patient it is?

Ascending the staircase Martin looks at a series of macabre depictions of violent insanity which are a kind of adaptation of Hogarth and Rowlandson. These pictures would never be hung on the walls of a real mental health facility. But this is an ASYLUM for the INCURABLY INSANE. We are in 70s genre land which is exactly what I felt like last night rather than the probably more worthy Winter's Bone which I recorded and will get around to soon. In any case I looked at these drawings and stepped out of the movie for a moment and thought: wow, someone drew those just for this movie. They could have grabbed from public domain horrors from abovementioned artists but they found a contemporary artist to create some new purpose-drawn pictures for this two minute sequence. Golden spuds!

So then we go upstairs and meet the cheerfully sinister orderly who shows Martin the inmates one by one who tell their stories. These stories, by the way are all penned by Robert Bloch who wrote, among other things, the novel Psycho. Once the awkward cravat-enriched setup had passed I found myself marvelling at how effective the first one was and how easily I was drawn in to the robust effect of the parts of a torso wrapped in brown paper come to life. It completely trounced the unfortunate over lighting of horrors from this time period. Next story starred the great Charlotte Rampling. Peter Cushing was in the on eafter and the final piece which rounded the last corner to complete the frame starred Herbert Lom. Directed by the largely unsung Roy Ward Baker who also made one of my favourite films of the era, the Nigel Kneale classic Quatermass and the Pit. We are in good hands.

What began as a wish for something light and diverting became a surprising reward. Good stuff with a lot of atmosphere and some real chills which is more than you can say of most western horror flickers nowadays.

Hero: Like The Penalty, this was a journey into an unfamiliar realm for me. This China/Hong Kong co-prod fable set in the midst of the dynasties starts with a nameless man presenting himself to the emperor. He has just eradicated the three assassins who were targeting the emperor, erasing the threat from the ruler who has been going around in full armour as a precaution. Noname tells his tales of battle and triumph which please the emperor until he starts noticing things about the stories that do not sit right and begins to discern a more complex arc forming over them.

If you are inclined to dismiss or ridicule Chinese wirework martial arts or swordplay you should give this one a go. Something about the preposterous action of this genre occured to me while I was watching this film: action in real life is always exaggerated and art-directed by memory so that it's smoother, more heroic and spectactular (you really do remember yourself flying through the air rather than just jumping out of the way of a car). Quite aside from the balletic and gymnastic beauty of the multispeed jousts and fights to the death on display here, the superhuman feats of the combatants are offered as the stuff of legend; we're just seeing the memory of it as though it happened that way at the time. This film mostly plays very fair with this notion as most of the wire work scenes (actually pretty much all CGI at this vintage) are played as flashbacks as Noname tells his story.

That out of the way, Hero yet holds depths that surprised me beneath its olympic coreography and luxurious visuals. The vengeance on offer here (there is a lot of it) is the driver rather than the car which has more of the examination of conflict and the purpose of fighters in its design. Contemporary master Zhang Yimou has won himself if not a fan here as much as one eager to see more.

Here endeth Fibula Films Part the Second as this week I took up my crutches and, being cleared to do so, walked with both feet into work and back into the world. There are a few I started during this time that I haven't felt like finishing due to the pleasantness of feeling freer than I have for the last two months. I'll get around to them and, blissfully, some real cinema screenings soon. Till then, can't say it's been fun but these slight things did extend some real comfort. As such they have my salute. <Salutes. Bows. Walks off assisted.>

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Top 10 30/08/2012

Run Lola Run: A gimmick movie must either play the gimmick to exhaustion and provide maximum fun doing so to the extent that its audience will also feel exhausted, albeit pleasantly, or it must offer substance beyond the scope of the gimmick. Run Lola Run does both. Lola gets a frantic call from boyfriend Manni who's lost a bag of his gangster boss' cash on the train. He has to hand it over in minutes. Lola runs to his rescue, trying whatever she can to get the money. This happens three times in parallel with very different results. Within each time incidental character's lives are affected (shown in rapid slide shows), also very differently. While most of it moves at a gallop there are pockets of expertly judged relief, allowing character and thematic development which still seem to speed thanks to a dynamic techno score. Dated? Watch it and tell me. This film does run on a gimmick but it's so tightly woven into the piece that you will have neither time nor breath to care about it. If you still do then you are an enemy of fun.

Eraserhead: The closest thing I've seen on screen to match day to day imagination with realisation.

Citizen Kane: Just because it's well loved doesn't mean it's overrated. CK remains a constantly engaging and intriguing piece.

Vivre sa Vie: Finally got around to my Blu-ray of this and was glad I did. This is a particularly rich junction of Anna Karina's force as actor and screen presence, her husband Jean Luc's affinity with this and the notions associated with prostitution, Raoul Coutard's complete mastery over the black and white image, sound design to kill and mise en scene to bury. I say this even though this is not my favourite Godard film (that's either Two or Three Things I Know About Her or Masculin/Feminin). It's just very rich cinema. Almost made me want to take up Gauloises again.

Network: Prophetic, angry, ceaselessly witty with a cast good enough to make utterly improbable speeches sound natural, Paddy Chayefsky's hymn of hate to the television that began his career works just as well as an arch satire on the ruthlessness of the corporation when offered the opportunity to pursue more of itself. Stellar.

Dog Day Afternoon: Another Sidney Lumet 'un like Network from his glory decade. Al Pacino  and John Cazale play out the bank siege so bizarre it might have been invented by a tabloid paper. Pacino is holding up the bank to pay for a sex change operation for his extra-marital lover. Constantly entertaining, this swings easily between tension and hilarity without compromising either. All this and that tough look given to everything from screwball comedy to hardarse drama in the early 70s. If you profess a love of cinema but haven't yet seen this then you are not good enough for me; there is something wrong with you.

Mephisto: Extraordinary tale of Weimar era German actor whose love of his craft and ambition see him dancing with devil after devil until the Nazis give him everything he asks for. They only want one thing in return: he must play the Faustian title character for their audience, the German people. Klaus Maria Brandauer offers his life's performance of the actor doing the same. There is such unbreakable integration between theme, character and player in this film that it would have worked on old video in a single set. Hungarian helmer Istvan Szabo's control lavishes period detail and majesty on to the image to the extent that we in the audience have no problem at all latching ourselves on to Brandauer's back, rejoicing at this success and bemoaning the deserving punishments that await him. Neither Szabo nor Brandauer were one trick ponies (take the superb Colonel Redl, for example) but this collaboration will delight for evermore.

Double Indemnity: Uber noir with conspirators planning to scam a life insurer and run off into crime-pays paradise that awaits all scammers, consters, bandits and gangsters in movies. Told as a confession from the inside man/paramour to his boss and progresses to a series of flashbacks, this double threaded  (central relationship and cat and mouse investigation) crimer cannot fail. Why? Because it has a cast that either were doing the best at what they'd always done (Edward G. Robinson) or stamping a trademark that would feed the rest of their careers even when playing against type. Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck trading lines simultaneously sexy and funny created a blueprint for most of the boy girl screen pairings to follow for decades. And then there's Billy Wilder, one of the most potently creative and dogged escapees from Hitlerville who ever landed in Hollywood. If you dig noir you really ought to own this one. Which reminds me ...

The Tenant: My favourite Polanski film and he made some great ones. Identity and submission to a nightmarish normality enacted by the director himself. Unrelenting, stark and often hilarious ("Drinks for everyone, everyone except for HIM!") this is a story for anyone who has ever felt the crush of conformity and resisted. Also, a very convincing gothic atmosphere in a modern urban environment. Paris has never looked so forbidding.

The Sweet Smell of Success: Tony Curtis as a sinking press agent needs the column inches blessing of Queen Bitch Burt Lancaster to save his clients and himself. There's a catch because there always is. Tony has break up the romance between Burt's sister and a jazz man. A very ugly battleground played with elegant force by all. Nasty and compelling.