Sunday, May 30, 2010

Cleopatra (1963) Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

I never understood the attraction Elizabeth Taylor had for Richard Burton. Cleopatra is the movie where their on/off relationship kicked into gear. I guess I never really got Burton. Overacting, beer gutted, a bloated looking man. At this time you would think Liz could have had anyone.

I was fascinated to watch Cleopatra again because the stories of its extravagant, studio bankrupting production are legendary. The story normally ends up that with all the millions spent the film is not very good. That's actually not true. Yes, it's overlong, but it stands up pretty well after all these years of neglect. It's definitely not the film to top all films as the studio claimed. The beginning of the end of the old Hollywood studio system starts here. Despite all these expectations and unreasonable claims, Cleopatra works.

The story of Egyptian Queen Cleopatra (Taylor) and her doomed Roman lovers, Emperor Ceasar (Rex Harrison) and his protégé Mark Antony (Burton) is as good looking as any picture out there. The passage of time has been good to the lavish sets, wonderful costumes and color cinematography. So, some of the the money on show was well spent. It's a wordy picture with a lot of interiors that gives it a theatrical feel rather than creating a cinematic landmark. The acting is mostly excellent though of the stiff 40's variety. It must have felt out of date at the time of the films release to see actors recite their lines like this.

Still, stiffness is replaced by intensity and seriousness, and the main draw, Taylor's cleavage. In a variety of amazingly colored costumes the Taylor cleavage is displayed at every given opportunity. Taylor even has a full naked body massage and is bathed in milk. This is a sexed-up Cleopatra, and if there is nothing as jaw-dropping in Taylor's sexiness as the beach scene from Suddenly Last Summer, this certainly gives Cleopatra the required 60's groove the stiff script does its best to kill. Taylor is the thing to watch here.

From my very early memories of being bored with this film as a child, I really enjoyed it as an adult.
Not in the league of Kubrick's Spartacus,  this is still more watchable than say, Gladiator,  and far sexier.

Before we spent 3 nights watching Cleopatra, we had spent many nights watching the extras. We knew of the sprawling budget, Taylor's one million deal, her pneumonia, the love affair, the many countries used as locations, and we got a sense that somehow this film was a failure.

When we got to the movie, it seemed entertaining enough: there was the huge scale of the visuals, the colors and light, and the leading actors, especially Liz Taylor as Cleopatra. But were we watching a story about history and the fascinating characters who ruled Egypt and Rome for some time? Or were we watching a massive Hollywood machine slowly and clumsily churning ahead? Unfortunately, as our evenings with Cleopatra added on, I'm inclined to see it as the latter. I was no longer interested in the narrative, its repetitions and interpretations.

During the film there was much traveling between Egypt and Rome, but the movie was always cut from one static position to the other, thus never creating a natural flow and tension which follows from movement between places.

In this version of events, Cleopatra ruled with cleavage and was a kind of love addict. This view of her motivation is of course a necessary Hollywood interpretation, but I would be more fascinated to see her character as a purely power greedy ruler without the weakness for love. This would be upsetting for 20th century portrayals of women. Historically speaking, the notion of romantic one-on-one love did not exist in the world of Cleopatra.

The Egyptian dresses á la 1950s, which Liz Taylor sports courageously all through the four hours, seem always to be busting open while digging into her abdomen and lungs. I sympathize with the pain Taylor is going through here. The least she could get for her troubles was an alcoholic Richard Burton to nurse and love her in a rugged way.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

In The Name Of The Father (1993) Directed by Jim Sheridan

I have no real knowledge about the troubled story of Northern Ireland, mostly I have just seen movies about it. I claimed to have seen In The Name Of The Father as well, but to be honest this was my first time! Belfast and Daniel Day-Lewis just seemed like such familiar concepts.

In The Name Of The Father is one of those meaty and filling portions of cinema with the right proportions of great acting, a real and shocking story, anxiousness, anger, family ties, genders, hippies, drugs, crooks, prison time, torture and finally change. I can even forgive Emma Thompson's overly mumsy look just this once.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays a young son of an Irish family who is sent to London to get away from the looming IRA, and away from his petty crime and poverty in general. There he finds the pleasures of a big city for a brief moment before returning home rich with stolen money. In the first half of the movie Gerry's (Daniel Day-Lewis) leather jacket, shirt and jeans combination gives him a rock'n'roll edge.
Day-Lewis acts with pleasure and some of that youthful unpredictability, which brings to mind Robert De Niro in Mean Streets.

Yet, most of the film Gerry spends in prison because he is wrongly accused of the IRA bombing of a pub. Gerry and his father (also put in prison for terrorism) share a sell most of the time. There they have plenty of time to go over their relationship from early childhood onwards. Finally, the transformation of Gerry takes place and frees him from life in imprisonment – he accepts help.

The legal system is yet again abused by those with power, while innocent people suffer and lose their lives – sacrifices to save face. Black and white. But so life appears sometimes.

As recently as last week, Elvis Costello pulled out of shows planned in Israel because he objects to the way Israel has behaved towards Palestine. I can't really argue with Elvis, one wonders why he booked the shows in the first place. On the same principle, we can soon expect Elvis to condemn the USA and UK for the invasion of Iraq and the ongoing occupation of Iraq and stop playing shows in  those countries too. Yeah, right. Oh, the contradictions and the controversies. In a sense, this highlights the question: whose side are you on? Is there anyone left to side with? I'm not so sure anymore.

I mention all this, because In The Name Of The Father concentrates on another aspect of recent British history that the English should not be so proud of.  I remember the Guildford pub bombing of 1974 and the IRA terrorist mainland campaign, I was 8 at the time. There was genuine fear that, growing up in that area of suburban London where I'm from,  you could easily become a victim of an IRA bombing. There was a sense of anti-Irish feeling in England. One of the best films to deal with The Troubles, In The Name Of The Father focuses on the true story of Gerry Conlon who is coerced by the police into an admission of guilt (although innocent) for the IRA bombings. His father and other members of his family are imprisoned too, Conlon tries to clear his and his father's name and regain his freedom.

Jim Sheridan directs the picture clearly and energetically. Most of the plaudits go to Daniel Day-Lewis who turns in one his best performances.  In this film Day-Lewis is up there with the best of De Niro and justifies the claims some have made that he's the actor of his generation. Day-Lewis is well supported by Pete Postlethwaite who plays Conlon's father Giuseppe.

Although floored, this film is moving and at the same time angering. What happens to Conlon and his family is beyond appalling, but it makes you realize this kind of injustice is permanent and widespread in so called democratic societies. A brilliant film, which bristles with indignant power and anger.

Monday, May 24, 2010

District 9 (2009) directed by Neill Blomkamp

Nick :
I'm writing this quite late at night after a hectic day in the studio where computer's crashed at regular intervals. My brain is quite fried. The biggest surprise for me was that Astrid wanted to watch District 9 last night. She normally steers well clear of this type of picture. District 9 was surprisingly good.

So let's start with the obvious parallels with Avatar. Jame's Cameron's epic came out just after District 9 yet both films have aliens (or deal with the unwanted outsider), both films could be classified as sci-fi and both pictures are violent. Although Avatar's themes also cover environmentalist ideals, it's strange to have two movies form a similar genre both coming from political angles. There, the similarities end. District 9's sense of fun and fast pace offer a different experience to Avatar's pompous though well meaning message. Incidentally, I think Avatar is still the better film.

It takes balls to have this movie located in South Africa and the opening seen with the Alien craft floating over Johannesburg is  a cheeky nod to Independence Day. The aliens' space ship ship has broken down and the South African government start up District 9 to shelter the aliens found on the craft. The way the Aliens are depicted and treated is of course mirroring what happened during Apartheid era South Africa and for me this was as great a portrayal of the racial conflicts and problems that arise from segregation everywhere as I've seen. So, this already puts District 9 into original territory for an alien movie.

The fast editing, different film choices (from HD to video tape to film) suck you in from the off to what is a roller-coaster ride. After awhile the movie descends into a typical shoot em up display of firepower and revenge. All the characters are pretty hard to like (from alien to human) but as the film moves on you find yourself rooting for the annoying central human character (or is he?) and his finally sympathetic alien allies. I'm sure there working on the sequel already, but District 9 was a real fun blast.

I am generally against watching action films because they tend to bore me after the initial half an hour.
The mold for action is: present the ideas plus the events that lead to danger, then for the rest of the film just shoot and bomb, drive and run so you can hold hands in the end.

That said, I suggested watching District 9 last night, because untypically for myself, I was ready to be inspired by the fusion of human and alien DNA. I was up for imagining what happens when human rights are extended to extra-planetary beings.  As human rights have continually been used to justify war and the exclusion of others has been internal to defining humanity, it is fascinating to imagine what happens when Otherness lands on Johannesburg from a spaceship.

District 9 is surprisingly imaginative and multi-faceted in its dealings with the Otherness of aliens and most of all in the way it presents human reactions to the non-human presence. There seems to be a wide acceptance of the hovering spaceship over the city, while at the same time the aliens are the newcomers and therefore it appears 'justified' to put them in shanty towns and controlled camps for the time being.

Biotechnology is at the heart of what the aliens have and humans so desperately want to develop. Weaponry, unfortunately is what humans want this technology for. What is more interesting to me, is that through an accident a fusion of human and alien DNA occurs in a man. This becoming offers us a chance of asking a line of questions about the fluidity of being defined human.

Just last week I learned that the tiniest variation(less than 1% change) on human DNA-pattern could really drastically change humanity's make-up, while right now we are over 90% made of the exact same ingredients (and yet we appear so different to each other).

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Place In The Sun (1951) Directed by George Stevens

After a conference on Gender, Nature and Culture and Rosi Braidotti's inspiring keynote speech on Saturday my response to A Place In The Sun is deeply affected.

This film is a testimony and a criticism of capitalism. It portrays the spiraling effects of love as a commodity, sex as a tool of capture, and money as a killing trap.

Poverty and religion need to be abandoned in the 1950s America for the imagined riches that come through money. In fact, to be included in the definition of humanity necessitates the desire to be well off, to be upper class, ultimately to not be in need of anything. That desire as a motivation for action leads to an ethical dilemma. Ultimately, the society and its system of law which continually constructs the American Dream and feeds this desire, electrocutes a man for desiring. He needs to be excluded from humanity.

Another matter here is the telling of a truth. Or the relativity of any truth. As a viewer of the film I believe to have seen that there was no murder, yet, in the end the convicted main character believes that unrealized desires do in fact make him guilty.

There may be a dream of movement towards the sun, but this film illustrates how the unequal situatedness of people determines their ability to advance on the path.

I could talk of love and sex, abortion, Clift and Elizabeth, but will refrain for now and just say one last thing: the loon.

Nick :
I've already waxed lyrical on an earlier post about my youthful obsession with Montgomery Clift.   I ask myself why I find this film still so enduring and so fascinating.

Could it be the look? As mentioned in the extras, Stevens was a master stylist (or is that just the amazing outfits designed by Edith Head?) Montgomery Clift and a 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor certainly have chemistry and looked good together, which makes the actions of Clift's character George Eastman all the more credible as the film unfolds. It has something to do with old-school glamor for sure.

But I think what still makes A Place In The Sun so irresistible for me is the good old class conflict portrayed, the aspiration, the American Dream going sour, the groundbreaking allusions to pre-marital sex, seeking abortions, Shelly Winters being so convincing as a dowdy factory worker, the electric chair, being Elizabeth Taylor's "pick up", Clift's method before there was method,  a steady camera hand mixed with occasional vérité style, that over the shoulder shot, possibly THE romance you can't have. Finally, Clift's white t-shirt/leather jacket combination.

So, is that enough reasons for you to watch this classic?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Breaking The Waves (1996) Directed by Lars von Trier

Another sacred cow in the shape of von Trier so soon after Tarantino. I know this film is a favorite of Astrid's. I have also admired this picture when I last saw it over 10 years ago. Since then, von Trier has annoyed me with his exploitative cinema, his clear misogyny, his very public depression, his pretentious Dogme. At the same time I love his provocation (which represent the things that annoy me), and a von Trier film in principle represents something interesting to me, even if the results tend to be disappointing. Crucially, I feel the years have been unkind to Breaking The Waves.

Once the shaky hand held camera work at the start of Breaking The Waves subsides, a very conventional film is revealed. Actually, a very over-dramatic melodrama, which is as populist in tone as von Trier's music choices which litter the two and a half hours.  Emily Watson whom I thought was a revelation when I first saw this picture all those years ago, now seems to be over acting, especially during the films final reel. She's much better in Punch-Drunk Love for example, where she's not trying to say "look at me, I'm a new actress and really good". The less showy performance of Stellan Skarsgård stood out for me this time round.

The similarities between David Lean's much maligned yet underrated Ryan's Daughter are obvious, with the casting of Watson who even looks a little like Sarah Miles. Madam Bovary is an influence on both films I suspect, although remote villages and the religious context of Breaking The Waves are something shared with Lean's picture. Watson's stoning by the town's children at the end of Breaking The Waves could be taken directly form Ryan's Daughter.

But what sticks in the throat about Breaking The Waves is the realism that von Trier depicts initially, which he trades in for implausibility half way through the film. Watson's dissent into the town whore is a manipulating tactic which exaggerates the horror of Watson's situation. It is unsubtle and calculating (as much as Bambi?).  von Trier is revealed as a sentimental bunny, wowing the cheap seats. It's a cop out which undermines a sometimes powerful film. This time round, after watching Breaking The Waves, instead of feeling moved,  I felt a little used.

Breaking The Waves was one of the most important films of my teenage years. After seeing it for the first time I was silent for hours, although that's not so strange because I was often silent then for hours in good company. Then I asked my mother to make me a Bess beret and a scarf. I was meticulous about the shape of the beret.

Now, nearly fifteen years later I watched the film looking for what I had so strongly identified with in Bess. She is defined mentally ill by her family. She is a victim of a very strict religious society. She falls in love and discovers sex for the first time. She attempts to cope with her husband's sudden paralysis and dies in the process.

None of the above offers the reason why I loved this movie. Instead, it is the way Bess deals with emotions. She shows them and reacts immediately. Bess does not conform to hiding her sadness or her exhilarated happiness. The immediacy of her emotions was admirable to me, a vulnerable and frail teenager who had learned to hide her core very well. I could live intensely through Bess then.

Breaking The Waves is about goodness. It is about selflessness in the face of bigger powers. It is also about the danger of misinterpreting where those powers lie. Too much selfless good makes you weak, but at 16 I did not think much of that.

On this May 2010 viewing of Breaking The Waves I realized that this movie has contributed in me developing the thought that it is noble to not need anything for myself in life. Don't get me wrong, I was prone to thinking that way before seeing the film. Yet, it has taken me until now to understand that needing something isn't necessarily selfishness, but that needing nothing is selflessness.

Goodbye Bess, I'm going to need something now and a miracle will not be enough.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Inglourious Basterds (2009) Directed by Quentin Tarantino

A five day break from watching films made me willing to give anything a go, so this was Nick's chance to get me to watch something I usually would object to. Inglorious Basterds I certainly would never watch again.

Quentin Tarantino has made a b-movie with tasteless content, not enough tension or action, embarrassing acting, and too much floating referencing to the history of cinema.

I am too annoyed to go over why it is tasteless to make a joke out of Hitler. A revenge fantasy on this scale is also a lame excuse when we already had Tarantino's other films, especially Kill Bill. Then there is Brad Pitt who is still doing his Thelma & Louise role, because that's the only thing he can play – himself. Rarely have I felt this embarrassed for a millionaire. That said, there was only one acting role written for the script it seems and Christopher Waltz won an Oscar for it.

The various film history related facts and references Tarantino has inserted here are possibly the best content in this over-long piece. Yet, they seem to belong to another movie – a better one.

I am tired of Tarantino's recycling approach to cinema. He is a fan boy with a budget.

I was at an indie rock festival over the weekend. The TV in the chalet had a great selection of movies and I caught half an hour of John Carpenter's Assault On Precinct 13 between bands. The tension, soundtrack and the look of the film confirmed what I'd always felt. Carpenter is one underrated film maker. We need some of his films on this blog. Quentin on the other hand....oh dear.

You know you're in trouble when the first name on the box is Brad Pitt. How shit is Brad Pitt? How many films has this simian destroyed?  His first scene in Inglourious Basterds is Brad doing Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen . Yep, you got it, he can't do the accent. Tarantino however uses Pitt sparingly which is at least some realization from Tarantino.

So with Inglourious Basterds,  Tarantino serves up homage to (amongst others): Where Eagles Dare, The Eagle Has Landed, any Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western, The Searchers, the films of Jean Luc-Goddard, Blaxploitation cinema, and of course the Nazi-hating Stephen Spielberg blockbuster such as Raiders Of the Lost ArkInglourious Basterds has an uneasy mix of super violence, poor comedy, cinema pastiche and art-house cinema pretension. Some critics have even claimed that Inglourious Basterds is feminist cinema. It's amazing what Quentin can get away with, talk about sacred cow.

His position in recent popular culture assured, Tarantino can release anything nowadays and have it labeled the work of a master. It's been a long time since Tarantino wooed us with his mighty mouth and his cinema geek charms.  The excellent Reservoir Dogs was way back in 1992. Yes it was derivative and responsible for a lot of bad films that followed but it shook things up. Pulp Fiction (1994) is not great in my book, but contained some good scenes. Since then, Tarantino has been drowning in hype and bad movies.  He often talks a good film. He reached his career nadir with 2007's awful Death ProofInglourious Basterds offered a different genre of film for Tarantino to refresh himself, the war film. He blows it.

It's not all bad of course. The opening chapter of the film looks fine. Christopher Waltz's scene stealing Nazi officer the first interesting character Tarantino has come up with in ages. Waltz is so good in this picture he deserves a better film for his talents. The liberal pillaging of Ennio Morricone from other soundtracks at least brings some quality to the proceedings.

But the casual offensiveness, shallow schoolboy humor, lack of characterization, meandering wordy script (where have the quotable lines gone?), slow slow pace, the "seen this all before but much better" quality of Inglourious Basterds means Tarantino serves up another dud. Don't believe the hype.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Moon (2009) Directed by Duncan Jones

Along with Frank Zappa's children (Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen) Duncan Jones used to have one of the most famous and weirdest names for the son of a rock star. So, Zowie Bowie is nowadays Duncan Jones, and he directs.

I got the feeling Astrid was not so into watching this picture, feeling it would be slow and depressing. I didn't know what to expect either. Actually Moon is an odd film and fairly entertaining. Sam Rockwell gives the only real performance (unless you count Kevin Spacey's robot voice). He is great, often acting with himself. The nods to sci-fi pictures past are everywhere, especially 2001 : A Space Odyssey, Alien, Bladerunner, Dark Star & Solaris.  Jones might even have caught a glimpse of The Flaming Lips Christmas On Mars picture, the Moon surface scenes certainly have a similar ambiance.

Despite the typical references Moon offers something new to the genre. This film tells more about the emotional and the psychological. At its core Moon is a film about loneliness, isolation playing tricks on the mind. The film also questions our perceptions and inceptions. It deals with everyday hum-drum life, even working on the moon can be boring. But where Moon scores most is atmosphere. At times creepy, beautiful and sad, Moon moves me. Rockwell, his face can be the stern super-strong astronaut or the geek who got left out in the cold. This is his picture. Jones could be a magpie, but I enjoyed his debut. Impressive.

If I was stranded on the moon I would listen to Bill Callahan and write books.
And obviously I would talk to myself, or my reflection. The distance from humanity would get to me, or is it the distance from any kind of life? The others.

I was opposed to watching this film last night because I was unwilling to deal with the loneliness a movie called Moon would depict. But after the film I was inspired.
The clone Sams wake up in the lunar infirmary nursed by a robot who has created their memories. Through a failure in the system, they realize they are not the original human Sam, but they have been created solely to stay on the moon and serve the energy business on earth. Their memories serve a corporate purpose because they motivate work and staying alive.

The question arises: are we programmed too? We are born with no recollection of where we came from. Blanks. Then slowly we are imprinted with life on earth and we collect memories and let them motivate our action. We rarely ask questions or attempt to find the secret room. We rarely question our authenticity.

An idea: we should send a philosopher to the moon, or an artist. See what they come up with instead of these religious astronauts and politicians.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Honkytonk Man (1982) Directed by Clint Eastwood

It's Clint again. I no longer mind. I give in – to this household's clintomania. Gladly.
So this time he is the honkytonk man. The lost and heartbroken husky voiced country singer. The sympathetic alcoholic. The man who takes his nephew under his wing because it benefits him and takes him to a whore house as a reward. He also teaches the 13-year-old how to drive a car, engineer prison breaks and sip clear whiskey from the bottle. Lessons in masculinity. Again.

Significantly, this is a mild film. Mild for anyone, but especially so for Dirty Harry. There are emotions and drama, but everything is dealt with in a stroking, tingling manner rather than grasping the issues straight on. Suggestion rather than deciding for the audience. I am impressed.

So Clint is a singer and a songwriter then. He is heading for the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville to audition, but there are problems on the way, mainly that he is dying. And unlike me with pneumonia, he can't sing with TB. This is a depiction of broken dreams and having to give in. Or is it about fighting for the dreams until the end? It also romanticizes the life of a journey man, the unsettled outlaw who never fits in. There's the parallel with the characters Clint plays in his Westerns. The question is, what is so romantic about never finding your place, never stopping, especially when the outsider is  a white American ultra masculine male?

Nick :
I love Clint Eastwood.  From the Spaghetti Westerns through to Dirty Harry and then on to being considered a serious auteur, icon of cool, violent fascist, sexist/sexy and all the while a republican with liberal tendencies. These contradictions just add to my fascination. It has made for one of the most interesting movie careers of the modern era and at least a dozen truly great pictures.

In Honkytonk Man Clint sings! Again! This time round though,  no Paint Your Wagon embarrassment.  In fact, Honkytonk Man was an early sign from Eastwood that he had something else in the can. Of course before this, Clint the director had delivered a handful of pictures that to me were great : the classic The Outlaw Josey Wales, the very good Bronco Billy, The Gauntlet, and the ghostly Gothic Western High Plains Drifter which is genuinely strange yet brilliant. But Honkytonk Man is a gentle picture which gives an idea of the tragedy and sadness that would dominate later films such as Bird, Million Dollar Baby and The Changeling.

Eastwood's country singer picture looks wonderful and has a slow-burning dry humor. Kyle Eastwood (Eastwood's real son) is excellent as Eastwood's nephew while Clint's portrayal of dying country crooner Red Stovall is one of Eastwood's best turns.

This film flopped at the time, but time has improved its quality. The mainstream Superstar of the day took a left turn with Honkytonk Man, a quirky warm film that doesn't add anything to the myth of the man. It's just another piece from an amazing body of work.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Deer Hunter (1978) Directed by Michael Cimino

Michael Cimino is probably the Phil Spector of the movie world.  His eccentric behavior is well documented in Stephen Bach's book Final Cut. It is the story of the making of Cimino's follow-up to The Deer Hunter, Heaven's Gate,  which ended up bankrupting film studio United Artists. Cimino is interviewed on the extras of this film and even looks like Spector, he is pure EGO.

The Deer Hunter is such a highly rated film. People make lofty claims on it's behalf. David Thomson, probably the greatest living film critic describes The Deer Hunter  as one of the great works of American cinema (the picture also won 5 Oscars). This is a film mired in controversy regarding authorship and actuality. Cimino initially claimed the picture was based on his own life experience. Then it was discovered he had never been to Vietnam (or in the army) and had made the whole thing up. Does this knowledge make any difference in watching this picture?

I think The Deer Hunter is provocative, manipulating, features some of the best acting you're likely to see (hello John Cazale!), and also a little clumsy. It's an incredibly good looking film. Watching The Deer Hunter now feels like watching a parody of The Godfather crossed with Apocalypse Now! You've actually seen all this before and maybe better. This is second hand furniture.

Robert De Niro, amongst the method, at times plays Rambo. Meryl Streep looks too smart to be a working class girl. Christopher Walken is so New York upper class choir boy you can't take it so seriously that he ends up playing Russian Roulette in the back streets of Saigon. John Williams' nylon string theme tune accentuates sentimentality. The effects of the Vietnam war on their small town community descends into patriotic fervor.

But The Deer Hunter is still very watchable and at times amazing. It's not perfect but it possesses a haphazard power. But whisper it, for me, the butchered mess of Heaven's Gate is a more fascinating, interesting picture.

Working class characters and war depictions often come with heart-wrenching emotional content in Hollywood. It is justifiable to portray emotions when there is no intellectual content (assumption on the part of Hollywood?), or when there is extreme experiences taking place, such as war. Why are intellect and emotion separated then?

In the case of The Deer Hunter the respected method actors (from middle class homes) get to 'do' emotion. 'Doing emotion' may well have been one big reason why they wanted to act in the first place.
But somehow the acting and the thinking shines through the characters, especially Robert De Niro's Michael. Here is a famous actor giving us his interpretation of lower class small town male-bonding at home and away. Acting as much as he can.

The people who made this film never went to Vietnam, never worked in a steel factory, and were far removed from any kind of poverty. That's usually the case in movie making; that's why it is acting and fiction too. But The Deer Hunter suffers from a falseness. Maybe it comes from too much effort.

Putting the emotional overdrive aside, this film is about friendship and love between men. It's a depiction of homosocial male culture, which blossoms at war time. And here is where my emotional reaction comes in: for the first hour I felt angry and left out because the gang of young men was having a great time at a bar and then getting ready for a wedding and then they had a blast at the wedding. They appeared reckless and sincere with their risk taking in life. And the women were just props. Even the decision to go to Vietnam was a given and they not only had each others' support, but the whole village was rooting for them. I felt completely cast aside. For the second part of the film I was angry because of the cruel war depiction. I belong to the camp of people who do not have to sit through any more war films to know that war is unnecessary. I know life is cruel, basically.

All the while the women of this society were at home with children or at work in their home village. They were left outside of the fun and recklessness, of hunting trips, bar rounds and outside of war. What was there to relate to? How could these divided and gendered groups unite and influence each other? How could they create loving bonds like the men had done amongst themselves? The relationship that prevailed between genders was sexual, material and duty-bound.

Then there is the beautiful and sensual Meryl Streep as a grocery store girl. The film portrays her as different from other women. Yet, what she collects at the end is an emotionally unbalanced Micheal, who has returned from Vietnam. He has seen her boyfriend (and his best friend) Nick lose his mind and shoot himself in Russian roulette. The only way she connects with him is through sorrow and loss.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

To Catch A Thief (1955) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

I recall seeing a documentary about Cary Grant where he took up gardening in his later life. He was an expert orchid doctor and he was tender and loving to his beautiful French wife. This is not true of must have been some other actor. They went to the Niagara Falls and stared into the water holding hands. This documentary, the image of Cary Grant and my fantasy about gardening men have all contributed to how I see To Catch A Thief.

While for Cary Grant it works wonders to have his own name-sake rose, for Grace Kelly becoming a princess was a little too cute. She appears in my mind as a little bit dull, prim and too perfect a beauty who lived in a fairytale. Kelly and Audry Hepburn represent a sterile girlish prettiness like two china dolls – boring. But with Grace Kelly I may have been wrong, because in light of To Catch A Thief it seems that she was actually a good actress and had a quirk after all. It is important to have a quirk.

Or maybe it is a quirk borrowed from Hitchcock. He certainly complies with my preference for imperfection. The lights and colors are vivid and amazing, the scenery is breath-taking, the leading man and woman look divine, the cars drive dangerously and ex-thiefs cook gourmet meals in Cannes. Yet, the script is full of put-downs, sexual remarks and unresolved tensions – wry and witty with bold and beautiful.

Is it possible that Cary Grant is the most stylishly dressed figure in the history of Cinema? Could the epoch of this be his appearance in To Catch A Thief? For the first half an hour of this movie he wears the most amazing striped shirt, red scarf  and grey trouser combination. He follows this with assorted cool white polo necks, grey loose fitting suit jackets and the black coat at the end – well, it's too much. No wonder Grace Kelly's character is constantly hitting on Grant, she wants to try on his clothes.

Kelly is no slouch in the style department either and the series of outfits she dons in this picture are a tribute to the excellence of regular costume designer on Hitchcock's movies, Edith Head. Couple this with amazing Oscar-winning cinematography of the French Riviera  (the then new and short lived Vistavision process) and you have one of the best looking Hitchcock pictures ever.

To Catch A Thief is certainly one of the straightest of Hitchcock's mid-period pictures, you have to look for the eccentric here. You could point to the long car chase in the middle of the picture. The fireworks and kisses scene is also weird, the sexual innuendo in the script sharp, and the long dance scene at the end, where everyone is in period costume. This has the coldness that Kubrick would show in Eyes Wide Shut many years later. But To Catch A Thief  is also one of the most watchable and entertaining and in some ways least demanding of Hitchcock's later films.

The chemistry between Grant and Kelly is easy to watch. Maybe that's why this works so well. The glamor of Hollywood is at its old school best here. And in a sense, the reason cinema became so popular is still on the screen for all to see in To Catch A Thief. It's a world we can't have, or a world we aspire to, or it is a fantasy lifestyle we can escape to in our dreams.  Hitchcock understood the power of cinema, a medium for the audience to escape from the daily grind of their existence in the most entertaining manner. To Catch A Thief in this sense is close to perfection.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Out Of Sight (1998) Directed By Steven Soderbergh

It's all about timing. This applies to cinema as much as any other creative movement. But as of this time, George Clooney seems one-dimensional, Soderbergh doesn't feel like he will develop into a great auteur and Jennifer Lopez really blew it after this movie. Out Of Sight was not the movie I remember, time has not been kind to this picture.

1998 is a pretty weird time historically. We were on the cusp of computer technology completely overwhelming society, mobile phone culture was about to explode worldwide. It's really hard to say what that time represents other than the winding down of the Century, the War On Terror just around the corner. 1998 almost seems innocent now. And Soderbergh, the indie cinema geek, was about to break into the big time, Out Of Sight was the first sign of this and his first collaboration with Clooney. This film is not the equal of Traffic or Erin Brockovich, both fine mainstream pictures, or even the underrated Solaris remake. Out Of Sight was a dry run for the lucrative and smug Ocean's franchise.

But wait, what's wrong with this? It's well acted, joining Clooney and Lopez is a wonderful cast: Ving Rhames, Catherine Keener, Don Cheadle and Albert Brooks among others. As with a lot of Soderbergh it has a fine David Holmes curated soundtrack. This is slick film making. Clooney and Lopez have genuine chemistry, so often lacking these days. It's based on an Elmore Leonard book, another plus. But Out of Sight  in 2010 also feels bitty and dragging.  The apt word for Out of Sight now is stale. Out of Sight could be where the smug liberalism and well being of 00's Hollywood cinema started. I'm talking about Goodnight & Goodluck, Syriana and Soderbergh's own Traffic as well as other well meaning pictures. Does this political cinema already feel stale as well? Does it need time to become as iconic and fresh as the 70's cinema it was so in awe of?

I have to wait five or more years to watch Out of Sight again, to see if it gets better, to see if Soderbergh, who I rate highly, develops a spine. It's galling to me that the best thing in this film is Jennifer Lopez. Despite all the things that she's not, in this movie she is hot, lights up the screen and is definitely not Jenny from the Block.

In 1999 I lived in Ann Arbor 30 minutes from Detroit (some of Out of Sight takes place there). Eminem was in the hood, Jennifer Lopez was about to invade as the girl in a fountain and the girl in sci-fi all white (although I knew very little about them because I was listening to Rickey Lee Jones and the latest Beck album). I bought my first black leather boots (hardly any heels though) and my first jeans at a mall. I flew back to Finland on the dreaded night of Y2K. Muffins hadn't arrived here yet, or chai lattes, or Celestial Seasoning.

I don't know if you feel the same, but there was a real innocence present still. And a cultural difference. You could get things and feelings in Ann Arbor that you could only dream of in Helsinki. You could feel the distance.

Out of Sight reminds me of that lost innocence. J-Lo was still a promising actress and an up-coming singer. George Clooney did the weird-suit-guy role for the first time, so it didn't feel like repetition.
Tight knee-long leather jackets and acrylic turtle necks were sexy and freeze-frame seemed like a fresh effect on sex scenes in movies.

In 2010 that innocence is irretrievably lost. Considering cinema, Out of Sight is just a very average American prison-escape-bank-robbery thriller, which already references Bonnie and Clyde in its first minutes. In comparison to Soderbergh's other directed films, this one isn't even stylistically as quirky as his others. There is a straightness, which amounts to being uninteresting. What ever happened in the 1990s? A lack of daring imagination plagued everyone? Was life too comfortable and slow?

In the 2000s George Clooney became a political activist, Jennifer Lopez turned into a booty-shaking letter combination, I grew up and had a muffin in Helsinki and a sauna in Texas. Everything and everywhere is just one 'click' away now.