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January 29, 2005

Notorious

1946.USA.Hitchcock

3.0 / 4.0

Hitchcock’s romantic Noir Notorious sees the Master of Suspense in good, but overrated, form. Made soon after the end of World War II, the film takes Nazi villains and pits them against an American agency, embodied by Cary Grant’s character Devlin, in exotic Rio de Janeiro. The battleground is Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a convicted Nazi who agrees to work for the Americans while feigning love for an important Nazi, thus gaining access to his mansion hideout, where suspicious things may be happening.

My main problem with the film (and calling this film imperfect still makes me feel slightly dirty) is its treatment of, and focus on, the relationship between Devlin and Alicia. The two lovebirds spend enough onscreen time together to distract from the more fascinating Nazi plot (or subplot, depending on your interpretation), but not nearly enough to make their relationship convincing or memorable. The film’s long beginning may be a valiant attempt by Hitchcock to create genuine emotion between the characters, but it’s a failure, because for everything that Hitchcock did well, constructing great, natural characters was one of his weak points. And call me a sadist, but I derive more pleasure from watching Marnie and Connery’s Mark Rutland than the mostly innocent love between Devlin and Alicia. I don’t doubt that I prefer Hitchcock films in which the characters are treated as props, useful in generating suspense, thrills and communicating the subtext that Hitchcock’s films are usually so full of. And Notorious disappoints in this respect too (although Penny’s perceptive idea that, “the overt use of the camera reinforces that the story itself is about manipulation,” is something I’m going to pay attention to the next time I watch it). The film is fairly shallow Hitchcock, with everything laid bare and even traditional Hitchcock motifs such as “the mother” implemented rather half-heartedly and mostly as plot devices.

In the film’s defence, it does contain several moments of high-calibre Hitchcock genius, such as the two famous balcony scenes, overlooking a beautifully shot coastline (and some clever editing to get around the time restrictions placed on characters’ kisses) and the staircase finale, in which Devlin makes good use of the three-way conflict between himself, Sebastian, and the ever-more-menacing Nazis. There are also some very good subjective shots, most notably of Alicia while she’s being poisoned and after waking up hung over. But these highpoints are technical.

Notorious is entertaining stuff, and quite good, but it’s not a Hitchcock masterpiece. At least not to a morose glutton for espionage like me.

January 28, 2005

The Hound of the Baskervilles

1939.USA.Lanfield

3.0 / 4.0

The Hound of the Baskervilles is a lean, tight version of the famous Sherlock Holmes tale. There’s hardly a wasted frame, unless you object to the silly romantic subplot between Henry Baskerville and Beryl Stapleton. Even a campy séance scene fits the mood of the film. And at less than eighty minutes, the running time is just right. Basil Rathbone is great as the detective, and Nigel Bruce is fun as a comic, bumbling Watson. Some critics object to director Lanfield’s horror approach to the story, but it works quite well and results in some atmospheric shots of the foggy moors around Baskervilles Hall and a genuinely monstrous hound. On the downside, the resolution is a bit underwhelming and Holmes disappears for a long chunk of the second act, leaving Watson and Henry as the main characters. Interestingly, a tame line of dialogue suggesting Holmes’ drug use (“Oh, Watson, the needle.”) was controversial at the time of the film’s release.

January 25, 2005

Just a Kiss

2004.Britain.Loach

1.0 / 4.0

British social realist filmmaker Ken Loach tackles inter-faith marriage and the tension between progress and tradition in his newest, called Ae Fond Kiss... on The Isles and Just a Kiss everywhere else. Building on the central relationship, that between a Muslim man and once-Catholic lass, the film manages to induce several forms of boredom and may force some viewers to claw at their eyes and brain, all while maintaining that it is of the same calibre as the British “kitchen sink” dramas of the sixties. Did I mention that it’s a smashing disaster?

Loach has made some good films, as well as some bad ones, but this is his lowest point. Just a Kiss is a film that flies in the face of filmmaking. It’s over an hour and a half of talking heads (played by ex-models) spouting bland lines and expressing their love by spending much of their on screen time making un-erotic love to each other. That “he” wants to open a night club and “she” teaches music could have made for some touching, unique scenes in which two people share a passion for music. But that must have slipped Loach’s (or screenwriter Paul Laverty’s) mind, because it’s barely touched on. I’m not even sure why these people like, let alone love, each other.

The best scene of the film is its first, in which “his” younger sister (the film’s best character, who doesn’t make nearly enough appearances) gives a rousing speech in front of her high school class that ends in a chase through the halls and to “his” parked car. Excluding a later scene where “his” father beats up some windows, it’s the rare scene in Just a Kiss that involves action. If one were to write transcribe what actually happens in the film, leaving out dialogue, the result would be pages of walking, sitting, and riding in cars. The dialogue, as desired I guess, is realistic and uninteresting with a whole bunch of repetition. “Talky” films can, and do, work and ones like Closer are pretty darn good. But they’re not meant to be realist works. There lies the crux of Loach’s problem. Like theatre, these “stagy” films aim away from realism. For example, the dialogue in Closer, or a David Mamet film, is expressive and complex rather than naturalistic. There’s a reason why playwrights and screenwriters whittle away at their scripts until they achieve the largest amount of, and clearest, meaning in the shortest space possible. To use a Seinfeld analogy, the dialogue in a good play or “talky” film is fully comprised of “jerk stores”. It ain’t kinda like the stuff you hear on the street when your walking to the umm grocery store and stuff. And it doesn’t make things better that Loach is getting more preachy with age.

Just a Kiss is a terrible film.

January 23, 2005

Million Dollar Baby

2004.USA.Eastwood

3.0 / 4.0

Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby is a well directed, acted (Morgan Freeman being the standout) and written riff on a story that wouldn’t be out of place in a daytime soap. It’s a fine film constructed from superior elements. In his review of it, Steve suggests that it will leave viewers polarized. Some will see cliché, and others cliché transcended. I fall into the first group, but with an asterisk. Million Dollar Baby is cliché perfected, Mystic River is better, and there’s not much more to say.

January 14, 2005

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

2004.USA.Anderson

2.5 / 4.0

I haven’t seen Bottle Rocket, was unimpressed by Rushmore, and the best thing I have to say about The Royal Tenenbaums is that it was quirky. In other words, I’m not a Wes Anderson fan. Despite my best attempts, I can’t seem to find anything in his films to sink my teeth into. They have an uncanny ability to draw me into their world, and I don’t dislike watching them, but they always come off as empty. Maybe I have a beef with Anderson the screenwriter and enjoy Anderson the director. Maybe I just don’t understand the films. Either way, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is more of the same.

Filled with great actors, the film is a lackadaisical fairytale about an aging oceanographer/filmmaker on a quest to kill the shark that killed his partner. Many people focus on the triangular relationship between Zissou, his son, and the jealous Klaus as the heart of the film, but I’m not convinced. The relationships are too shallow. If there is an overlying theme to film, my best guess is that it has something to do with artistic erectile dysfunction, or writer’s block. Why else would Zissou be a filmmaker and an oceanographer? If so, then Zissou’s son, Ned, is not a real child, but an idea (or inspiration) that Zissou gave birth to and somehow lost. And the course of the film sees Zissou fighting to regain that idea and cure his dysfunction. He moves from a state of artistic bankruptcy to creative renewal. It’s important to keep in mind that Zissou’s ultimate creation, which comes to him in a moment of intense emotion, the death of his friend, is the Jaguar Shark. Therefore, the film’s ending amounts to an artistic success for Zissou, something that eluded him in the opening scenes. (And the film’s pirates are meant to represent film piracy?)

Taken as part autobiography, The Life Aquatic may be a story of its own making not dissimilar from the Charlie Kaufman penned Adaptation. But whereas that film used style to complement and comment on its content, Anderson substitutes one for the other. For example, the action scenes in The Life Aquatic, while well enhanced by music and cinematography, are filler. They’re not necessary. The same can be said for many of the film’s lines of dialogue, which are funny but superfluous. Spec screenwriters are told, “kill your babies.” Anderson, as writer-director, has more freedom, but the advice is still sound. It could even be applied to a few of the characters.

Filled with some nice special effects, colourful sets and good acting, The Life Aquatic isn’t a bad film. But I still can’t figure out exactly what it’s about. Maybe it is about relationships between fathers and sons, or about the artist who’s lost his spark, or simply about growing old. I don’t know. And I suspect Wes Anderson doesn’t either.

Easy Virtue

1928.Britain.Hitchcock

2.0 / 4.0

Easy Virtue is an early, silent Hitchcock that is memorable mostly because it foreshadows themes and techniques that the director would use later in his career. The plodding story centres on Larita Filton, whose identity is corrupted by the media after a sensational divorce trial, and her subsequent attempt to start a new life with her new, and younger, husband. However, this proves difficult because as soon as she moves into her husband’s house (Rebecca) she’s antagonized by his cruel, overprotective mother (Psycho, The Birds, Marnie, etc.) As the mother’s suspicions rise, Larita fights to keep her real identity a secret (Notorious).

Feminist film critics like to read the film as Hitchcock’s condemnation of a patriarchal society that oppresses women, citing the courts, the media, and even the mother as the guilty parties. Of the three, it is the role of the media, represented by the camera, that captured Hitchcock’s interest the most. A much expanded version of the idea would be the basis for Rear Window.

From a technical point of view, there are some minor Hitchcockian touches. The best is a visualization of telephone conversation and its outcome through the facial expressions of the telephone operator who is listening in. There is also a great shot of a man’s swinging pocket watch melting into and out of a shot of a swinging pendulum that can be read in a few different ways. Some subjective shots are quite good, too. Most effective, however, are Hitchcock’s scene transitions. In the film’s funniest transition, a French poodle turns into an English bulldog to signify a corresponding change of setting.

Easy Virtue is strictly for people interested in Hitchcock. Otherwise, it's pretty ordinary stuff.

The Motorcycle Diaries

2004.USA.Salles

3.0 / 4.0

In Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky, two characters explain the distinction between tourist and traveller:

“A tourist is someone who thinks about going home the moment they arrive, Tunner. Whereas a traveler might not come back at all.”

Based on the diary of a young Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries is less a political statement or exploration of the early life of the revolutionary than it is a celebration of the journey. In following Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado on their trip across South America, Salles captures the perhaps indescribable feeling of adventure and discovery known to all travellers. Hints at Guevara’s future are wisely kept in the background, and break out at only a few key moments.

The most interesting aspect of The Motorcycle Diaries is its use of music. In the beginning, it originates strictly from outside the film’s world, imposed by the filmmaker, and is associated with the road. The film’s score dominates shots of Guevara and Granado speeding along on their motorcycle (also prominent are shots of the motorcycle crashing, which bring to mind another journey: the Stations of the Cross). However, despite the non-film world origin of the music, the two main characters hear it as clearly as the viewer, in the sense that it is synonymous with the lure of the open road. In this context, the entire film can be seen as an attempt by the two characters, but especially by Guevara, to find the film world source of the music that they hear but cannot understand. For example, Guevara is intrigued by the music performed by an orchestra at the house of his wealthy girlfriend’s father but eventually accepts, as does the viewer, that the music is not the same as the music on the road. Romantic love and money, Salles argues, cannot bring Guevara happiness or fulfilment. Neither can technology or science, as evidenced by the manner in which the music of a Chilean mechanic abruptly cuts off, yet another false lead. The first true source of music, discovered by Granado, comes at a leper colony as Granado leads a band of amateur percussionists in an intense jam session. It is here that he discovers his calling, and it is this moment that shapes the rest of his life. Guevara does not have a parallel onscreen experience, but Salles leaves no doubt as to his future. As the end credits roll over shots of various poor characters from the film, the score, exactly the same music as associated with the road, forges a direct link between those farmers, labourers, and unemployed and the music. For Guevara, it is these people that create the music in his life.

January 10, 2005

Enduring Love

2004.Britain.Michell

2.0 / 4.0

Roger Michell’s Enduring Love begins on a striking image. A pastoral setting is invaded by action as a hot air balloon interrupts a couple’s romantic picnic. The balloon is red and almost out of control. Behind it, an old man struggles to reel it in by way of a rope. Inside is a young boy. Suddenly, the picnicking man jumps into action. He speeds after the balloon, along with several strangers, and they manage to bring the balloon down. Everything is fine. Then a violent gust of wind, an act of God, lifts the balloon into the air again. The men hang onto the basket, hoping to force it back down. The balloon rises, contrasted against the sky. One of the men lets go. Within seconds, they all let go. Except for the old man, who rises with the balloon until even he can’t hold on. He falls to his death.

In this excellent scene, the balloon is a unique metaphor for love. Red, (the colour of passion but also of violence) the balloon (full of hot air) can be both an exhilarating experience (when witnessing the world from an otherwise impossibly high point of view) and destructive (as it proves for the old man). Love, as presented by Michell, is a force more powerful than any one person, and the most one can do is hang on. Sometimes this ends in happiness (the salvation of the young boy) and sometimes, for no logical reason (the gust of wind), in tragedy. The boy himself, in the basket, is perhaps a symbol for birth. And the old man’s death is an effective visualization of the self-destructiveness that an obsession motivated by love, such as the one the film will focus on, can result in. This opening scene has more depth than many full films.

Unfortunately, the promise of the film’s beginning is only a tease. Michell soon shows his true intentions, which sadly amount to making a gay, humdrum remake of Fatal Attraction. He fails to explore most of the issues raised by the great opening, and eventually even succumbs to preaching the film’s themes directly through the mouth of his main character. The actors do the best they can, but the film soon enough becomes tough to sit through. Neither the protagonist nor the religiously confused stalker are well developed, and the second act drags like Cheech Marin. My advice is to watch the first ten minutes and then turn it off. Most of Enduring Love is harder to endure than it is enduring.

Best Films of 2004

01. Code 46
02. Oldboy
03. Bad Education
04. Warszawa
05. Touching the Void
06. Twilight Samurai
07. Hotel Rwanda
08. Napoleon Dynamite
09. Two Brothers
10. Before Sunset
11. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
12. The Passion of the Christ
13. The Motorcycle Diaries
14. Million Dollar Baby
15. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead

Complete List is here

January 08, 2005

Bad Education

2004.Spain.Almodovar

4.0 / 4.0

Pedro Almodovar’s rainbow flavoured Film Noir, teeming with gay gaudiness and subverted genre conventions, is sweet and perverse mind candy by a master confectioner. Built with the basic blocks of any Noir, the femme fatale, ambiguity of good and evil, or saint and sinner, narrative through flashbacks and frames, and a sense of the pressure of a mysterious past, Bad Education transforms them into a fresh and fascinating, although wildly unfocused, film. Ultimately a story within a story within a story, each filled with as much truth as invention, Almodovar explores four characters over a period of twenty years, from their Catholic education well into their adulthood. A sometimes priest, two gay brothers, one of whom is a transvestite, and a successful film director are the principal players, an interesting deviation from Almodovar’s usual fascination with female characters. The film’s perplexing plot revolves mainly around stories, written by the triply named Zahara/Juan/Angel, which become both evidence and fiction.

Partly autobiographical, the film nevertheless warns that any retelling of past events, including Bad Education itself, is bound to contain numerous distortions and prejudices. As such, the controversy surrounding the film’s depiction of Catholic clergy, and its abuses, is rather unfounded as Almodovar is never simple in his accusations and criticisms. The abusive priest, for example, is intentionally distanced from the Church in later segments of the film, making it difficult to lay the blame for the titular “bad education” on a group, but rather on an individual, who himself is portrayed as lost and enslaved to powers and urges that he does not fully understand. Also unclear is Almodovar’s opinion on using art as a political tool. Certainly able to expose the comforted, as Juan’s story does, it can also be used as blatant profiteering. Whether Bad Education is meant to do either, both, or none is up for debate.

A major theme of the film is performance. One of the central characters is an actor, who impersonates people in front and beyond the range of the camera, another a director, the third a transvestite, a man performing as a woman, and the last an abusive priest, whose spiritual and later domestic life is a play put on to mask his true identity. A pivotal scene in which an abused boy, now an adult, confronts a priest appears to be an objective flashback but turns out to be a scene in a film. And after plotting a murder, two characters decide to go to the cinema (showing posters for Double Indemnity and La Bete Humaine), in what they believe will be a way to pass the time, but what Almodovar states is yet another performance. Almost in every scene characters perform for each other. From singing, to posing in and around a pool, and even to sex, characters play roles. That the same actors often have parts in each of the three frames of Bad Education underlines the eventual confusion and breakdown of these roles. The priest, for example, despite his desire to lead a heterosexual family life, finally gives in completely to, what we assume, is his true identity. On a larger level, Almodovar, as he often does, explores gender as an assigned role.

Throughout the film, Almodovar displays his technical filmmaking ability. From point of view shots, substituting the objectification of the female body with the male, to smaller and smaller “frames” of vision meant to show the impossibility of camera objectivity and the narrowness of human understanding and acceptance, he shows complete control over a film that is a strange mix of control and chaos, ugliness and beauty. But perhaps the greatest achievement of Bad Education is its ability to make the viewer feel at once uncomfortable and intrigued through subject matter and presentation. In doing so, it shows just how schematic and shallowly reaffirming most films are.

January 04, 2005

Meet the Fockers

2004.USA.Roach

2.0 / 4.0

Meet the Fockers is an attempt to cash in on the success of Meet the Parents, a far superior film. It uses the same premise, but with wackier, less believable characters (the best sequence involves a baby and Scarface). It would be uninteresting trash if it weren’t for two things. First, the film’s form fits its content. The Fockers celebrate the mediocrity of their son, Gaylord, by erecting a shrine-like wall of fame for him, filled with seventh placed ribbons at disciplines such as bread making. So too Jay Roach’s direction emphasizes its own blandness. Unlike most films, Meet the Fockers accepts its own insignificance. There is also a question of politics, emphasized by the casting of Dustin Hoffman, an outspoken liberal, as Bernie Focker. Pitted against DeNiro’s Jack Byrnes, the two engage in a battle of ideologies that the film plays out on a battleground of child rearing. On a historical scale, Byrnes represents the Cold War style of American foreign policy based on an arms race, represented by the Byrnes RV, and spheres of influence, or “circles of trust”. Focker, on the other hand, is more environmentally conscious and socially aware, while still not being a push over. In a pivotal scene he injures Byrnes by unexpectedly crashing into him during a football game, his arms stretched out like airplane wings. That Byrnes eventually acts, by injecting Gaylord with truth serum, on bad intelligence may also suggest other connections. Overall, Meet the Parents is an unfunny, bad and darn interesting film.

Friday Night Lights

2004.USA.Berg

1.5 / 4.0

I don’t know anything about the Permian Panthers, or their 1988 run to the Texas high school football state finals, so against my better judgement I have to give screenwriter David Cohen the benefit of the doubt. I’ll take everything that happens in Friday Night Lights as fact, shielding it from becoming just another cliché-ridden sports flick, even though the stock characters all make an appearance (son who can’t live up to father’s expectations, middle-aged drunkard who can’t let go of teenage past, injured superstar, etc.) But that Friday Night Lights focuses on these well known elements even though it has plenty of more original and interesting ideas bubbling underneath its Mighty Ducks surface means that the filmmakers are playing it safe. The issues of a town that is ominously obsessed with football (“They’re doing too much learning in the schools,” says a resident on a radio call-in show after a loss), the responsibility shouldered by the teenage players (Coach Gary Gaines: “The hopes and dreams of an entire town are riding on your shoulders. You may never matter more than you do right now.”), the desire of the young men to escape the small town lives of their fathers (“That's because he's out of here. He's got the grades. And no matter what we win or loose he knows he's getting out. He's got one foot out the door, man.”), and the uncertainty of a football career, or any dream, are much more fascinating than a last gasp downfield drive. On a brighter note, the filmmakers didn’t shy away from showing that in the championship game, in which the Panthers faced an all-black Dallas Carter team, it was a black ref who made the wrong call, benefiting the Cowboys. Although the film will no doubt be familiar to anyone who’s seen even a few sports films, there’s a certain amount of depth to Friday Night Lights that makes it mildly engaging. Just don’t let the football games distract you. Oh, and by the way, the jerky camerawork doesn’t mesh well with the otherwise slick production values. It’s like paying extra for used furniture. Some people do it, but I just don’t get it.

January 03, 2005

Hotel Rwanda

2004.USA.George

* * *

Sometimes a film’s subject matter threatens to overpower the quality of its filmmaking. Such is the case with Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda, a harrowing account of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that saw close to one million of the country’s Tutsi minority killed at the hands of the Hutu majority. Much like Spielberg’s Holocaust film Schindler’s List, to which Hotel Rwanda is being liberally compared (although Polanki’s The Pianist offers a more apt comparison), a negative or lacklustre review of the film’s form threatens to become a defamation of the genocide itself. Therefore, while credit should be given to George and co-screenwriter Keir Pearson for bringing such an important and overlooked episode of recent history to the screen, it should be kept separate from a critical approach to the film. That being said, Hotel Rwanda, despite not being a masterpiece, is a very good film.

Much of the film’s power derives from three key aspects. First, the plot smartly focuses on one main character. Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu, played with awesome restraint by Don Cheadle, is a hotel manager whose various skills, coupled with courage, allow him to save the lives of over a thousand innocent people, while often risking his own, by sheltering them in his hotel. Had the film tried to embrace the entire scope of the Rwandan genocide, its effect would have been diluted. However, because it is primarily the story of Paul, Hotel Rwanda elicits an emotional response from the viewer that contributes vastly to its impact. A result of this is that the actual killing, except during one scene, is kept off-screen. Hotel Rwanda, as its PG-13 rating attests to, is not a visually violent film. Interestingly, this decision, made for whatever reason, results in a tension that is not only horrific in itself, but plays on the viewer’s imagination. George carefully shows us enough to let us know what is going on outside the hotel perimeter without actually showing us the genocide. In a large scale application of the Classical Hollywood method of showing murder as a gun, a gunshot and splatter of blood, and of implying sex through dialogue and cigarettes, Hotel Rwanda implies its massacres. But whereas Classical Hollywood was forced into its actions by a production code, George’s decision is relatively free. It’s not self-censorship, but creativity, succinctness and a respect for the audience. For example, a shot early in the film of a large wooden crate breaking on the floor, spilling hundreds of machetes, is as effective as any gory death scene in any film of last year. But George’s camera doesn’t dwell on it. In fact, the deftness with which George handles the material is superb. He never intrudes or stylizes, but simply records. Hotel Rwanda is not a portfolio piece, as is Joshua Marston’s Maria Full of Grace or even Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. George doesn’t indulge in trick shots, elaborate cinematography or special effects. He lets the story speak for itself.

The minor faults that prevent Hotel Rwanda from being an excellent film result from instances in which George breaks his own rules. A reporter played by Joaquin Phoenix, for example, exists too much as a narrator about the causes of the genocide, and a few scenes suffer due to the intrusion of swelling, melodramatic music. But these are fairly minor quibbles about an otherwise good film.

So see Hotel Rwanda because it is a good film and because of what it is about. Just try not to mix the two up too much.

Note: Interestingly both Terry George and Keir Pearson are Irish, a people often considered the “blacks of Europe”.