Monday, 20 September 2010

I Spit On Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978) DVD Review

It's been 32 years since the film American critic Roger Ebert called "a vile bag of garbage" reared its ugly head in cinemas, causing an unmatched controversy and panic. That quote is the same one used to introduce a 24-page booklet accompanying this re-release of the infamous rape/revenge horror, and as stated by writer Calum Waddell, it's probably the best place to start. Ebert was no stranger to 'extreme' or 'exploitative' cinema - he'd penned Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (Russ Meyer, 1970) and given the thumbs up to The Last House On The Left (Wes Craven, 1972) by then. Even in this reshaped form (strangely the BBFC have still demanded 2m 54s worth of cuts) the film is still incredibly challenging and disturbing. In my review of Craven's shocker I said that "if a movie like 'Jeremy' (Arthur Barron, 1973) is coming-of-age, then 'The Last House On The Left' is destroying-of-age". Well, if that's true then I don't even have words for what I Spit On Your Grave is. But deep in the woods of this world violence begets violence - and there's lots of blood to be shed. Ebert was right - it's just his context that was wrong.

I Spit On Your Grave is "a vile bag of garbage" and that's precisely why it's so powerful. I also think that Ebert misses the emotion and artistry of the film. For the first 20 minutes it follows aspiring New York writer Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton, Buster's granddaughter) as she settles into her new Summer home. The film takes solace in silence (the same place where it will later exact revenge) and allows us, along with Jennifer, to soak into the surroundings. Shots of her swinging on a hammock and rowing in a tranquil river lull us into a false sense of security. Barely a word is spoken in this time (except for Jennifer's first meeting with her attackers) and no score is used. Only the natural sounds - crickets, water splashing, wind blowing, typewriters tapping - make an impression... until that speedboat comes along. The way Zarchi uses sound in the film is one of the highlights and as the young men drag Jennifer's boat to a secluded spot, the introduction of that droning engine is enough to alert the audience that a drastic change in tone is about to occur. The men chase Jennifer through the woods and then strip her for their virgin friend Matthew (Richard Pace, who like the rest of the principle male cast never acted again) to have sex with. One by one the men rape her, but worst of all is the way the torture unfolds. She is raped by three of the men but manages to escape between each time. The second escalates the violence as she is thrown over a large rock and taken from behind as the other men hold her down. After this she crawls back to her house, eventually getting hold of a phone - only to have it kicked out of her hands by the men who have got there before her. Here Matthew gets his way and the men leave Jennifer abused and alone... the screaming has been deafening.

From here we once again inhabit the silence of the world as Jennifer comes to terms with the crime forced upon her. Shots of her showering as the blood and mud falls from her skin are incredibly affecting, and knowing that Zarchi got the idea for the film after finding a woman who had been brutally beaten and gang raped, only adds more depth to the proceedings. The sickening acts in the film are never dwelled upon, allowed to become sexualised or endorsed. Our attention is always on the damaged face of our protagonist and it's clear that the film has an emotional arc; and its director feels it as much as we do. After quiet rehabilitation Jennifer takes it upon herself to exact revenge. She grabs a gun from the drawer, heads for church, and begs for forgiveness. Violence is coming.

Sadly this is where the film loses some of its power. A woman in Jennifer's position would have likely been so disturbed and defiled that any revenge she wished to undertake would have been simple - shoot the men dead, regardless the consequence. Instead she sets up a series of unbelievable traps for the oddly unsuspecting men to fall prey to. Her encounter with the simple Matthew for example is more like something out of an X-rated Looney Tunes cartoon - she lures the man into the woods wearing a skimpy nightgown, only to reveal herself to him and promise "a summer you won't forget". They have sex on the floor of the forest, near the waters edge, where Jennifer has prepared a noose. She pulls it tight over the rapists head and proceeds to hang him. It seems awfully contrived (although as beautifully shot by DoP Yuri Haviv as the rest of the film) and by the time Jennifer is taking a bath with her second assailant, it all seems a bit silly. What makes the film work however, is the way it stays grounded and bloody. There's still no score, flashy editing or exploitative sleaze. There are only three or four more characters seen in the film and they have barely any speaking time - so it feels as if Jennifer is alone with her nightmare. She deals her revenge in silence so that when she slices the genitals of one of her attackers, his screams echo through the dense, nihilistic landscape. To paraphrase the tagline of Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi Alien, nobody can hear them scream.

Her revenge culminates in the perfectly threatening speedboat dispatches - bringing the film full circle in a fascinating way. The performances aren't OSCAR worthy but they're all dedicated and believable enough to feel sadness and horror in equal measure. It's a hard film to love but a worthy one to admire and most of all we must commend I Spit On Your Grave for having the strength of its convictions. The Last House On The Left had a sickly pop score and comedic interludes with chickens to soften the blow of its violence. Zarchi's film has a wide, open landscape populated by loners and rapists, who feel no guilt or consequence for their horrendous crimes... and it's fucking terrifying.

DVD Extras: 24-page booklet chronicling the history of the film, interview with Zarchi, trailers, TV spots and much more...

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Battle In Beauty

Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2009)

So, I have another confession to make. Last weekend I embarked upon my much-anticipated first viewing of A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2009). I'd been looking forward to the film for some time - the trailer was stunning, the photography was so beautiful that even the still frames I'd looked at had captured my heart, and Colin Firth had turned in an OSCAR nominated performance. What could go wrong? Well, as it turns out, a lot...

When the end credits rolled I was in two minds. I couldn't remember the last time a film had divided me so completely. Upon its release many critics had taken against the film for its visual style; the photography by Eduard Grau and direction by Tom Ford. They claimed that the film was more like a perfume advert than a film and indeed this was where Ford's experience lay. I find that view to be overly cynical. It's certainly obvious where Ford has learnt his craft - there are entire scenes that I expected to end with 'Dior' popping up onscreen, along with a price tag. But personal style plays a large part in the the film and clothes are an integral part - especially for George (Firth) who wears his as an armour from the outside world on the last day of his life. My problems did, however, lie in aesthetics. The thing is, A Single Man is two films. One is a grey and subtle meditation on loss and bereavement, hinged on the amazing Colin Firth. That film is great. The other film is an aesthetic meditation on grief - using photography to inform shifts in mood, tone and emotion. The direction and editing informs us of space and time; a directly visual representation of George and the people around him. That film is great. Meshed together however, humanity and construction prove to be an ill-fated mix. As soon as I was drawn in by Firth's marvelous turn the self-consciously 'arty' presentation reminded me that it was all a film and coldly withdrew me from emotional engagement. The problem lies in what I call internal and external filmmaking.

The internal is what we see through the camera lens. It's everything that's real and natural - the location, diegetic sound and performances. The external is what's behind the camera - the photography, editing and score. This takes what is natural and manipulates it into something else - it warps the image (perhaps beautifully) to inform an audience of something. Direction lies somewhere between the internal and external. A filmmaker like Michael Haneke allows his camera to absorb the naturalness. In Caché (2005) he uses static shots with natural sound - no scoring or overly-stylized photography - to form a space where the audience can think for themselves. There is some neat editing - the rewinding of an image to reveal what we are watching is a pre-recorded video tape. But this is only to further the internal narrative. This is different to a filmmaker like Martin Scorsese, who in films like Goodfellas (1990) uses frenetic camerawork and inventive shots to create a pace - of course it's marvelously edited but it's Scorsese who's manipulating the image as much as anyone else.

There is a conflict of interests in A Single Man with the internal and external film. The internal is played like a sombre, painful soliloquy. The external is played like a visual poem - an avant-garde expression of loss, if you will. This creates a problem with how I, the viewer, accesses the film. In its attempt to mesh emotion and aestheticism the film falls flat halfway inbetween authenticity and artifice. Which one it is I honestly don't know. But either way A Single Man feels more like an art installation than a film. And that has to be a problem. Doesn't it?

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

It's All A Fiction

Big Daddies roam the universe of Bioshock (2K).

Up, LB, X, LB, LT, RT. In the eyes of a snobbish moviegoer this combination of letters would be met by a sneer. To those of you who have not been inducted into the world of videogames, it's really, really confusing. Allow me to explain. The above combination might represent a central character reloading a gun, taking cover and then launching from their position to take fire at an enemy. In a film such as Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) such an action is taken for granted. But in the world of, for example, the recent Splinter Cell: Conviction there's much more at stake. Die Hard, as brilliant and revolutionary as it is, is still a piece of popcorn entertainment. Playing Splinter Cell is an incredibly tense and atmospheric experience; the shadow-soaked environments cloaking your hero, equipped with just a pistol, from the MP5 wielding goons just a metre away. You're actually there, in the moment, with your life on the line. How can a film match that? Well, easily. For one, films aren't made of pixels. They're allowing you to invest into a world that's instantly recognizable and filmmakers can build tension through performance, editing and score. Consider last years State Of Play (Kevin MacDonald). Tubby journalist Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is investigating the apartment of a suspected killer. He believes the suspect not to be home only to be met with the stone-eyed assassin, face-to-face. I can still remember the shiver that darted down my spine. And of course genres such as comedy, documentary and drama would be hard; albeit pointless, to create on a gaming console. I'm of course initiating an old debate: Videogames vs films. Which one is superior? Well, lets find out...

Firstly lets create an even debating field. Much of the argument employed by moviegoers is that videogames can't be art. And while it's true that Ninja Blade, Afro Samurai and Section 8 are nothing more then linear, button-bashing actioners it's difficult to discern the difference between that and Transformers (Michael Bay, 2007), Quantum Of Solace (Marc Forster, 2008) or 2012 (Roland Emmerich, 2009). Videogames and films can both be trashy entertainment and they can both be art. There are enough examples of cinematic art littered throughout this blog (, Federico Fellini, 1963, for example) but examples of games include Mass Effect, Fable II and the above pictured Bioshock which create unique, expansive and alive worlds that can be explored for hours on end. And due to the level of design a videogame undergoes and the fact that this world is being built from scratch normally means they look stunning;

The beautiful world of Fable II (Lionhead Studios).

Cinema is a 122 year-old art form which has benefitted from being a worldwide phenomenon since its birth. Filmmakers from all over the world have innovated their craft over the past century and there has always been an audience to embrace it whether it be the popcorn or arthouse crowd. Based solely on the fact that every genre can be explored through film, both visual and aural techniques are employed in its creation and no matter the language its messages are universal, cinema should be the outright winner. But we now live in a different world to the Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device, the first acknowledged electronic game designed in 1947 by Thomas T. Goldsmith, Jr. and Estle Ray Mann. We now live in a world where never-before seen universes are at the fingertips of technicians and imagineers. If you can think of it, they can make it. The problem is that despite this fact a majority of games feel incredibly retrograde. It's rare that a product feels totally original or captivates in the way a film can. Perhaps this is why it hasn't yet reached the level of recognition that cinema has? Bioshock is perhaps one of the most absorbing, intelligent and important sci-fi works of the past decade but it will be looked down upon by bookworms and movie snobs alike. Why? It's very simple. Because games are now inextricably linked to the fear-mongering of the national press. Whenever someone is assaulted on the street it's the warped, morally corrupting influence of video games that did it. Of course, they target movies too ( but over the years GTA and Manhunt have picked up a lot of tabloid heat. Unfairly so too, because as with movies, no artistic work can force a person to do what isn't already in their nature. A videogame allows you to live out a fantasy or do something that isn't possible in real life - if anything, therefore, reducing angry impulses. Of course that isn't to say that people's fantasies should be to roam the streets gunning down thousands of civilians. But it's just a way for people to kick back and forget about the worries of the day - be silly in a made up world that clearly isn't promoting violent activity. The games themselves don't even promote the killing of civilians. A game like GTA IV has an actual story with characters that develop - this is the point of the game. But the option is there to go crazy with a machine gun on a busy street. Because the game is realistic. In today's world, that's an all too scary possibility in reality too. I don't think anyone needs to be reminded of the tragic Columbine High School Massacre...

The main difference between cinema and videogames is obviously control. A film is a pre-packaged product, designed to entertain or provoke for however long... traditionally around 120 minutes. A game comes in a linear format too (despite the ability to free roam, they still have a very strict structure) but there is also the ability to divert... to drive around the city, get a burger, go to the gym, fly a helicopter etc. This can be fun and certainly adds value to an incredibly expensive price tag (cinema costs £7, videogames cost £40). But not every game is like GTA or Fable. Take a look at a long-established gaming franchise - Tomb Raider. The average Tomb Raider game (nowadays) will take 6 - 8 hours to complete on a medium difficulty setting - £5 per hour in the best case scenario. The latest Splinter Cell (Conviction, twice as cinematic, half as stealthy) takes around 5 - 6 hours, working out at around £7 an hour for a disappointing product. And these games are mission orientated in a contained world i.e. not free roam. You start at point A and solve the puzzles / kill the bad guys until you get to point B. Sure, no gaming experience will be exactly the same. You may go a slightly different way about a mission to the way your friend does. But lets think in terms of value for a second. With Tomb Raider Underworld you pay £7 for around 75 minutes of on-rails linear action (pushing blocks and shooting enemies) with a feeling of familiarity. For Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (Simon West, 2001) you pay £7 for a slick, sexy, pumped-up blockbuster on a big screen with surround sound, which you can discuss with your mates afterwards. The thing is, the only reason this argument has become more prominent in the last five years is because gaming has become more cinematic. Think of Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare - the opening level on an enemy ship sees you running, trying to escape as the ship sinks. It sways from side to side, water pipes burst and explosions go off all around you. Think of the games mid-way twist and the epic countdown finale. It owes everything to cinema. Yet it still doesn't have the immersive experience. Why? Because of loading screens, health bars, glitches, dying and restarting the level. No matter how far videogames come (and model themselves after cinema) they still retain the basics of an old Sega Megadrive game - Point A to Point B. The difference is that we've jumped from side-scrolling pixels to HD widescreen - and, of course, a living breathing world. This is why most films adapted from a videogame fail - because they have no structure and rhythm.

As I said earlier, games can be artistic. They can be exciting and engaging. They can be jaw-dropping and addictive. But in the war between movies and videogames? They just don't cut it... yet.

Monday, 13 September 2010

À Bout De Souffle (Breathless) (Jean-Luc Godard, 1959/60) DVD Review

Based on a story by François Truffaut (Les quatre cents coups, The 400 Blows, 1959), 'Cahiers du cinéma' writer Jean-Luc Godard revolutionized the art form in 1959 with À bout de souffle (Breathless), an innovative crime caper that would leave a definitive fingerprint on French cinema. The film kicked off a movement known as the nouvelle vague (New Wave), where a series of like-minded filmmakers (most of them critics like Godard) decided to shake up the world of cinema. Tired of the old, these young auteurs crafted the new, and they started with this now classic gem.

Telling the story of Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a young car thief who accidentally kills a policeman and then holes up with American ex-lover Patricia (Jean Seberg), the film uses ahead-of-its-time camerawork and editing to form the crux of the narrative. There is more than one nouvelle vague filmmaker at work here (the late Claude Chabrol acted as artistic and technical director) but the work is clearly Godard's - one of the films most famous scenes, an extended conversation between Michel and Patricia, would be homaged in Godard's later masterpiece Le mépris (Contempt, 1963) and the central themes of crime and relationships would reoccur throughout his entire career. Shot in a beautiful black and white (Raoul Coutard, whose best work for regular collaborator Godard would be on the underrated Une femme est une femme, A Woman Is A Woman, 1961) the story has a tremendous pace largely due to the films innovative editing style. Jump cuts allowed Godard to move the story forward without need of an explanation. Many at the time argued that it was a matter of style over substance; indeed the edit was merely 'cool' when Godard did it. The jump cut wouldn't be considered an artful technique until Kubrick did it in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). À bout de souffle (literally translated as 'at breath's end') did it better however, by making the audience think for themselves about what was happening between the gaps in the narrative. Godard threw continuity editing out of the window in favour of a more energized style of cinema.

And Godard's style behind the camera was more than matched by the style in front of it. Literally, of course, I'm talking about the coupling of Belmondo and Seberg, each showcasing head-to-toe cool, striking sparks as ex-lovers. Belmondo; suited, smoldering and rarely without shades, exudes a confidence as the sociopathic Michel - we're not meant to like him, but he's dangerously engaging. Seberg (also wonderful in the little seen Lilith, Robert Rossen, 1964) plays Patricia with a grounded independence, seemingly the only character in the film who can resist the charms of Michel. With short hair, glasses and stripy tops, she redefines style. Each character could warrant their own film but together, especially in the aforementioned conversation scene, they're perfect. There is a third character however, equally as stylish, who takes up every frame. The character is Paris. Godard shows a real love for the city, but never in an obvious or promotional way. There are no establishing shots or lingering on landmarks (except for a beautiful shot of the Eiffel Tower). The focus on architecture is subtle, but incredibly pleasing - the city is vibrantly alive with bustling streets, trendy café's and cool cars. The landscape is epic and modern; grand in design and scope.

Also employing voiceovers, handheld cameras, tracking shots and existentialism, Godard formed a new language in cinema with À bout de souffle. It's to the films credit that it looks like it could have been made yesterday, but we probably won't see anything so adventurous for decades...

DVD Extras: Short film Je t'aime John Wayne (Toby MacDonald, 2000), Godard BBC interview, Jean Seberg featurette, Jefferson Hack appreciation.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, 2010) DVD Review

"What the hell just happened?" is the question most viewers will be asking themselves after a first viewing of Kick-Ass. Granted, they have a point. What he hell did just happen? Did Hollywood just distribute a superhero movie where an 11-year-old girl, uttering the C-word, gets her ass kicked by an Italian-American mob boss? Lets start at the beginning...

Adapted for the screen by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, Kick-Ass is based on a series of graphic novels by Mark Millar (the genuis also behind Wanted, Timur Bekmambetov, 2008). Slyly making fun of superhero culture (the basic premise has Spider-Man written all over it) the film takes place in a universe where one man, Dave Lizewski, wonders why nobody has ever tried to be a superhero. One stabbing later and he's answered his own question but this doesn't stop the young crime-fighter. After becoming a YouTube sensation Kick-Ass (Dave) meets up with some real-life superheroes - Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and their affairs with the aforementioned mob boss Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong). To say any more would be to spoil a few hugely effective plot twists but lets just say that, apart from being as brutal and uncompromising as the British press have suggested, it's absolutely brilliant.

By all accounts Kick-Ass should have been a failure of epic proportions - a dark, parodic comic book movie, totally tongue in cheek but also brutally ballsy. Indeed, it's so subversive and cultish, so uncompromising and violent, so weird and stylish that it may fly right over the unsuspecting heads of the British public, who simply won't 'get it' on their first watch. You don't necessarily have to know the (brilliant) source material, which this is pretty faithful to, but you probably shouldn't be expecting The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2010) or even Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009). What you should be expecting is a movie that has no problem putting an 11-year-old girl up against a 45-year-old man and letting her take a kicking. Some of the critics didn't like it, probably because of the vital context in which we should be embracing it - it's all a bit of a laugh. Kick-Ass, for all its oddness, is still a superhero movie. It's still a movie in which one man tries to make a difference, win the girl and take down the bad guy. It's a genre movie. It just has about five different genres. We should be more concerned about having fun with a piece of pure popcorn entertainment than starting a moral panic...

The performances are largely terrific - Aaron Johnson invests Dave with a geeky gawkiness, both pathetic and likable in the early stages, but admirable in the latter. As he grows in ability we root for him more and more, even when me makes mistakes (some of them life changing) - by the end, the film rests on his victory. Chloe Moretz is a revelation as the foul-mouthed, purple-wigged, knife expert Hit Girl, a 4ft whirlwind of death... with a penchant for ice cream. She looks the part, plays it with a dry world-weariness and totally convinces in the action scenes - especially in the heart-wrenching rescue of Big Daddy, the films most breathtaking scene. Cage is on fantastic form as the mustachioed avenger, clearly having a blast with the young Moretz - his final scene showcasing some of his best work in years (although admittedly, the last few years have been rough). Christopher Mintz-Plasse also comes a step closer to shedding the McLovin skin, looking surprisingly effective with a sword. Finally Mark Strong has great fun chewing the scenery as mob boss Frank, barking orders and [SPOILER]getting to take part in one of the coolest death scenes in recent memory[END].

Everything else about the production shines as well - from the perfect visual style (and some great lighting) to the slick direction, but special mention must be made for the score. Tracks such as Strobe and Flying Home perfectly capture the tone and sense of adventure of the story - it almost acts as a narrative in itself, taking familiar genre cues and then adding electric guitars and swelling orchestras, combining to a sometimes dark and sometimes vibrant sound mix. 'Strobe' perfectly underpins the films key sequence, an emotional blow so effective that Kick-Ass holds the honor of being the first superhero movie to make me cry. But tracks like 'Flying Home' just make you want to soar above the city... and you'll be humming it for days.

DVD Extras: A fun commentary with director Matthew Vaughn and a 20 minute documentary about the evolution and creation of the graphic novel, and its translation to the screen.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Crime Of The Century... Part 3

The Limey (Steven Soderbergh, 1999)
There are few directors as chameleonic and prolific as Steven Soderbergh. After a slower run of 90s work including Kafka (1991) and Schizopolis (1996) he now has at least one new film out every year and even when dealing in genre pieces such as this, his homage to Mike Hodges' Get Carter (1971), he's adding something avant-garde to the proceedings. Cast your mind back to last years The Informant!, a playful comedy about whistle-blower Marc Whitacre (Matt Damon) which uses a deceptively comic voice-over to keep the audience from looking at what is really going on (embezzlement). Soderbergh smartly takes us directly into the psyche of Whitacre, relaying his thoughts, concerns and theories to keep us inside the box - and then devastate in the quietly regretful ending. Same thing with Traffic (2000) - a pretty straightforward interlocking-narratives drama about the drugs industry; those trying to stop it, and those funding it. Soderbergh once again mixed things up with juxtaposing styles of cinematography (blue and yellow) and some interesting handled camerawork. Perhaps the only contemporary filmmaker to match his consistent level of genre swapping is François Ozon (8 femmes, 2002). But none of this comes close to the spectacle that is The Limey, an incredibly underrated crime gem from 1999 - the year of the new movie brats.

Sofia Coppola, P.T. Anderson, Kimberly Peirce, Sam Mendes, Spike Jonze, Alexander Payne and David Fincher all confirmed themselves as riders on the new wave of American cinema in 1999 - a revolutionary year that included Magnolia (Anderson), Boys Don't Cry (Peirce), Being John Malkovich (Jonze) and Fight Club (Fincher). Soderbergh had already made his name in 1989 with the OSCAR nominated, Golden Palm winning Sex, Lies And Videotape, but it probably wasn't until 2001 heist caper Ocean's 11 became a hit that his name was a box office draw. Throughout the 90s he made interesting but underseen (and now mostly forgotten) work, quirky and inventive enough that, had it been released now, among the works of Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry, might have been more successful. The apex of the decade though was The Limey starring an on-form Terence Stamp, living up to his name as he stomps flat-footed through violent scenarios, chewing up the script and scenery as if they were a buffet ("Tell them I'm fucking coming!") Once again the reason why the film works (it's a pretty straightforward thriller, even following the same structure of Get Carter) is the way Soderbergh plays with cinematic technique - this time, with editing.

The Limey is an arthouse revenge movie. An arthouse revenge movie that introduces its villain (Peter Fonda) with a musical montage. Funnily enough, it's totally serious. For a filmmaker clearly shooting with his tongue in his cheek, The Limey is a remarkably straight-faced movie that deals with the concepts of guilt and vengeance. Wilson (Stamp) is a career criminal making up for lost time by buying into the theory that violence begets violence. He wastes no time with explanations or apologies - one scene sees him wait patiently for a thug to come his way. A second of conversation passes before Wilson punches the heavy and throws him over a balcony. His brand of rhyming slang ("Now look Squire, you're the guv'nor here, I can see that. I'm in your manor now. So there's no need to get your knickers in a twist") may raise a smile but Wilson is a hardened killer set on finding the truth. And Soderbergh enters the psyche of this man through the art of film editing.

Borrowing and mixing techniques from the nouvelle vague and Eisenstein's (Stachka, 1925) 'montage' theory (see his seminal literary work 'Film Form'), the editing in The Limey can be confusing, but if you're paying attention, highly rewarding. The obvious techniques to note are the jump cut and the fade. Rather than wasting time watching a character unpack his bag or drive a car we cut straight to the chase of any event. Some events, including one of Valentine's (Fonda, the villain) thugs beating Wilson, is edited with a fade to make the scene move faster and also create a dreamy quality as the violence escalates. The best technique though, is cross-cutting, which propels us backwards and forwards from the current scene in order to either move the plot forward or provide necessary exposition. The way in which Soderbergh employs this technique (alongside the jump cuts and fades) is what makes it revolutionary. The style allows you to be in three places at once, being fed information while studying the physicality of the performances. It's genuis. Of course this was probably Soderbergh's idea but credit must be given to one of the most underrated film editors in the business today - Sarah Flack.

A regular of Sofia Coppola (she brought you this wonderful sequence from Marie Antoinette, 2006, and also edited 2003's Lost In Translation) she has also worked with Sam Mendes on Away We Go (2009) and Michel Gondry on Dave Chappelle's Block Party (2005) - crafting works of immense visual power. Along with director Soderbergh, she says goodbye to the script and forms a narrative through the art of shot coordination. Of course, every film uses its visuals to tell a story - film is a visual medium. Look, for example, at Uzak (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002), a Turkish drama focusing on the evolving relationship between a recently divorced man and his cousin. Ceylan (one of the best filmmakers working today) uses the art of direction and photography to convey his message - the lonely, static shots and sparse yet beautiful images add to the films feeling of loneliness and distance - the spaces between spaces. Soderbergh's film is well directed and it contains some wonderful photography - look no further than the scene where Wilson stands on Valentine's balcony, surrounded by pointed architecture (blue sculptures, almost like a sharks fin, allegorical to the nature of the villain) as the sun sets over the nearby forrest and day turns to night. But these images, unlike Ceylan's, don't propel the narrative.

The Limey, more than any other film, made me realise the many ways in which a story can be told in film. Pre-1927 Hollywood didn't have the liberty of sound (this changed with The Jazz Singer, Alan Crosland, 1927) so all stories had to be told through performance and title cards. As film has evolved sound design has become a more important way of telling stories - think of the openings of Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2007) and There Will Be Blood (P.T. Anderson), the beautiful naturalness of Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, 2004) or the nauseating drone of Irreversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002). And of course direction and photography are as important as ever - look at the films of Terrence Malick, in particular Days Of Heaven (1978). But editing will continue to be the least appreciated film form until more movies like The Limey enter the mainstream - and change the way we accept stories. Seek it out...

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Around The World At A Cinema Near You

Through A Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman, 1961) (Left)

Cinema has the power of bringing people together. No matter where you were born or the language you speak, it is an art form that transcends location. It's international. So it comes as a surprise to learn that most moviegoers, the world over, almost exclusively attach themselves to the 'major' cinema of the USA and UK (and, of course, their own country). Of course they have the ability to reach beyond what is playing at their local theater - they have the ability to peruse the DVD shelves of their local store and stumble across 'World Cinema'. Of course, they may not want to. But why not? Cinema, I say again, is international. Subtitling and (worst case scenario) dubbing allow you to watch whatever film you want, should it peak your interest. I'm sure that in most cases its not so much ignorance (although there are cases of such behavior it would be cynical to pretend this was the majority view) as just prejudice. "I don't want to read a film, I want to watch it!" a typical response may declare. "Too much hard work!" may another. I can't complain - it's not like they're getting any incentive either. It's not like the names Kenji Mizoguchi (Sanshô Dayû, 1954) and Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Uzak, 2002) jump out like Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park, 1993) and Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, 1958) do. It should also go without saying that the content and styles of these films are dramatically different.
So rather than preach about how we should broaden our horizons and modern cinema is going to hell (it's not, but the flames are rising) I'll instead offer something of a starters guide, by way of a story. At this point, I should declaim ownership of this idea, as it was given to me by Seth Saith, who writes an excellent blog. So, onto my story. By the way, the picture to the right is of Sanshô Dayû (Kanji Mizoguchi, 1954).
My story begins in a Film Studies class, 2008 . The topic? World Cinema. My favorite film is Magnolia (P.T. Anderson, 1999) - and for the record, it still is. Foreign films aren't alien to me, nor are they familiar. As a regular reader of EMPIRE and Total Film (and occasionally, should I feel up to it, Sight&Sound) my awareness of world cinema is apparent. I have tipped my toe into the beautiful waters, with Godard's A Bout De Souffle (1959) and Haneke's Caché (2005) but not yet have I become a global film fanatic. This topic perhaps, may change all of that. I should say for the benefit of those who do not attend Film School, a lot of information can be found in books such as The Story Of Film, Cinema Now, The Cinema Book, Foreign Film Guide, Time Out Film Guide, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, 501 Movie Directors and the upcoming The Foreign Film Renaissance On American Screens 1946 - 1973 (yep, that about brings you up to date). For those of you who do, you'll likely enjoy a module like mine. The module where I discovered Wong Kar Wai.

Chungking Express (Wong Kar Wai, 1994) (Below)
Chungking Express, in many ways, is the film that changed my life. The handheld camerawork, dreamy cinematography (Christopher Doyle, Lau Wai-keung), multiple narratives, metaphors and soundtrack combined for a tour de force of cinematic intrigue. To this day it's one of my favorite films and it still holds the honour of featuring my all-time favorite ending. Magical, isn't it? Nobody captures the concerns and atmosphere of Hong Kong like Wong Kar Wai, with his central themes of time and food also deepening the sensual and cerebral viewing experience. The buzzing, poppy energy of Chungking Express is just one string in the auteurs bow however and the films boundless euphoria proves the perfect juxtaposition to In The Mood For Love's (2000) melancholy regret. This was another film I studied in class and its a much more stylish and intimate affair, focusing on a relationship between two married people. Instead of embarking upon a typically sexual affair however, they eat food and role play their spouses. It's another fascinating film with a political agenda that never overpowers characterization and cinematic invention. Together, they provide a perfect ying and yang, and Kar Wai's other work (such as Ashes Of Time: Redux, 1994) only makes his oeuvre more interesting and admirable.
Volver (Pedro Almodóvar, 2006) (Right)
I next embarked (with my class) into Spanish cinema, especially that of vibrant auteur Pedro Almodóvar. The film we viewed was All About My Mother (1999), recipient of the 2000 OSCAR for Best Foreign Film and an odyssey of womanhood, sexuality and mourning. The way Almodóvar shoots his capital city is amazing - one minute a corrupt cesspool, the next a gorgeous architectural landscape. The story concerns all of his central themes - religion, performance, sexuality - but it's also a wonderful mystery, powerful melodrama and its cinematic referencing is joyous. In many ways its a perfect first film for anyone wanting to reach into world cinema - its funny, heartbreaking and exciting, with wonderful photography and direction. Like a lot of foreign cinema (I apply this especially to Germany, Russia and Turkey, in my experience) it is not a 'slow' film. It's incredibly well paced, in many ways matching the work of Alfred Hitchcock or Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, 1976). It also marks the first pairing of Almodóvar with now OSCAR winning (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen 2008) actress Penélope Cruz. Their crowning achievement together would be the pictured Volver, a multi-generational tale of love and murder, suitably brimming with simmering reds and voluptuous women - Cruz (magnificent as ever) especially. His work ranges from the angrily grimy (Pepi, Luci, Bom, 1980) to the playfully sleek (Bad Education, 2004) and he remains Spain's greatest contemporary filmmaker. From here, I was on my own...

Judex (Georges Franju, 1963)
I completed my exam, passed and moved on - into my own academic study. Many of you would have gone on to Uni at this point, and I wish you well. It's just as satisfying however, to explore cinema on your own - at your own pace, choosing your own topics. Knowing where to begin is the hardest part but the aforementioned books and filmmakers like Wong Kar Wai and Pedro Almodóvar will help show you the way. But allow me to provide a further helping hand, with some recommended filmmakers - and the best way to see them. I shall start with French cinema.

Many will speak to you of the nouvelle vague (New Wave), which takes in filmmakers like Éric Rohmer (Chloe In The Afternoon, 1972), François Truffaut (The 400 Blows, 1959) and the king of them all Jean-Luc Godard. The link will take you to a Box Set of his work that includes A Bout De Souffle, Une Femme Est Une Femme (1961), Le mépris (1963) and Alphaville (1965), however misses out major works such as Bande A Part (1964) and Week End (1967), best distributed through the BFI and Artificial Eye respectively. The likes of Robert Bresson (Pickpocket, 1959), Jacques Rivette (Jeanne La Pucelle, 1994) and Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Wages Of Fear, 1953) will now be obvious to you, so I'll highlight a few filmmakers that have got lost along the way, and helpful links to the best editions of their work. Surreal animation legend René Laloux's Fantastic Planet (1973), Georges Franju's beautifully haunting Eyes Without A Face (1960), Jacques Becker's fantastic escape drama Le Trou (1960) and Philippe Garrel's latest masterpiece Regular Lovers (2005).

To Asia now, and the cinema of Akira Kurosawa. Many will know him for samurai epics such as Seven Samurai (1954), Ran (1985), Throne Of Blood (1957) and Kagemusha (1980), all of which are worthy of their acclaim. Kurosawa's epic scope and sense of space within a frame are second to none and the epic climax of Seven Samurai (probably the finest battle sequence ever filmed) is breathtaking in its assured handling. The famed director is, however, more interesting on a smaller scale, dealing with intimate dramas - the best of which is based on a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The film is The Idiot (1951) and along with Drunken Angel (1948), remains his least appreciated work. A contemporary master to rival Kurosawa is Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of Studio Ghibli and director of the 2001 masterpiece Spirited Away. It's not often that a contemporary film can be called "totally original" or "unique" but that is the commendation that this magical masterpiece deserves. The story alone is enrapturing, the animation perfect - but its the epic, individual landscapes, colourful characters and general oddness that make Spirited Away stand alone. Miyazaki had done fine work before (Princess Mononoke, 1997) but it was in the last decade that I found him at his most refined and imaginative, with Howl's Moving Castle (2004) and Ponyo (2008) proving suitably mind blowing and adventurous. A forgotten director of Japan is Nagisa Ôshima whose In The Realm Of The Senses (1976, pictured above), a sexually explicit tale of obsession and desire, was cut and banned in several countries. It marks an interesting depiction of sex in Japanese cinema, a topic which is not the usual address for filmmakers of the country - a more typical, if obscure, example would be Hausu (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977) - but Toshio Matsumoto's Funeral Parade Of Roses (1969), a tale of transvestites, is another notable entry into Japans sexual canon. The most obvious mode of discussion for Asian cinema would be action - I therefore point you, without further ado, to Ichi The Killer (Takashi Miike, 2001), Police Story (Jackie Chan, 1985), Police Story 2 (Jackie Chan, 1988), The Good The Bad The Weird (Kim Ji-woon, 2008) and Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003).

The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg, 1930)
Germany has always been one of my favorite cinematic countries and I have given space to its Expressionism/Weimar period before. The likes of Der Golem (Carl Boese, Paul Wegener, 1920), Das Cabinets Des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920) and Asphalt (Joe May, 1929) should also be mentioned however, and they can all be bought in this excellent Box Set. Rainer Werner Fassbender (In The Year Of Thirteen Moons, 1978) and Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, 1982) brought about something of a New Wave with their stylish, artistic cinema - Fassbender's small and intimate and Herzog's epic and strange. Both of their works can be bought in complete volumes through Artificial Eye and Anchor Bay respectively. Perhaps the best contemporary German films (not counting the amazing The Lives Of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006) were those made by Michael Haneke in the 1990's - The Seventh Continent (1989), Benny's Video (1992), 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance (1994), Funny Games (1997) and the made-for-TV Kafka adaptation The Castle (1997). This work demonstrates a stunning mastery of the camera, Haneke's dark and slow paced films showing only what is necessary - his strict directorial style forces viewers to look behind what is really happening and make their own conclusions. He made films in France and America throughout the 00s, returning to Germany for the incredible The White Ribbon (2009).

These, along with Italian cinema (Fellini and Fulci are covered here, branching out should be easy) are the principle countries that should be focused on. Italy is relatively new to myself also - Vittorio De Sica (The Bicycle Thieves, 1948) and Dario Argento (Suspiria, 1977), along with the obvious Sergio Leone (Once Upon A Time In The West, 1968 - a stunning masterpiece) are about as far as I can take you. There is also, of course, the emergence of Luca Guadagnino, whose I Am Love (2009) was my favorite film of the last decade. But from there you still have a whole world to explore. Denmark, and the amazing Lars von Trier, Russia and the innovators Sergei Eisenstein (Strike, 1925) and Vsevolod Pudovkin (Storm Over Asia, 1928), Sweden and the dramatic master Ingmar Bergman (Wild Strawberries, 1967) and the emergence of Romania (4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu, 2007) and Israel (The Band's Visit, Eran Kolirin, 2007) in the past decade. It is these films and filmmakers that will hopefully widen your gaze to the point of no return, where cinema of a foreign land no longer feels alien or uncomfortable but beautiful and essential. After all, it's international....