27 November 2007

The Sugarland Express - Steven Spielberg's First Feature Film



I had always somehow managed to steer myself away from this film for a long time and even when it appeared on late night TV I still refused to watch it. I think part of the reason probably lay with the fact that Spielberg's reputation as a director had yet to be confirmed, and also I just couldn't stand Goldie Hawn, well, I still can't stand Goldie Hawn even today; she is the simply the most unfunny person working in cinema today and also she cannot act. She isn't even a competent performer. Anyway, having got over my Goldie Hawn phobia I was able to finally watch Spielberg's big screen debut, The Sugarland Express, and I have report that it was actually a pretty good film, considering it was Spielberg's second film. (Duel was his first unofficial film but in America it was considered a made for TV movie whilst in Europe it got a deserved limited release; I still think Duel is one of the his greatest films). It is effectively a road movie but at the same time a chase movie, and feels quite similar in tone to Jaws and Spielberg's other 70's films. One of the drawbacks with the film is the dialogue scenes which are overplayed by the actors, revealing Spielberg's early difficulty with filming scenes of intimacy between characters. The film's strengths lies within it's adherence to a tragic and unconventional Spielberg ending which culminates with the death of one of the central protoganists. Considering this film was made in the 1970s and that Spielberg was working very much within the confines of the road movie genre, the outcome seems quite inevitable, so I am not sure if this surprising in terms of the narrative and characterisation. The story follows an American couple who hijack a police officer and make their way across what seems like most of America to get back their baby son who has been taken into custody by social services. Spielberg's early use of the widescreen potential of the frame is hugely impressive and the chase sequences still seem fresh and bursting with energy. This was also the first time Spielberg would colloborate with Vilmos Zsigmond who does a remarkable job filming the American landscape through sunsets. Spielberg also seems to be criticising the apathetic nature of an American society in which the nuclear family had more or less become a symbol of 1970s apocalypse. What this film proves to me is that Spielberg has always been a genius film maker and more importantly has consistently challenged himself, having successfully mastered the major genres of American cinema. The Sugarland Express underlines the simple truth that Spielberg has extraordinary range for a director who even today is sometimes dismissed as a mainstream hack.

24 November 2007

L'Eclisse (The Eclipse); The ANTONIONI 'Alienation' Trilogy



More Antonioni films are getting the deserved DVD treatment and The Eclipse starring Monica Vitta and Alain Deilon forms the final part of Antonioni's loose 1960s trilogy of films that deal with modern day relationships contrasted against a changing Italian architectural landscape of concrete, glass and steel. Like most Antonioni films, it is very difficult to try and pin down a coherent summary of the storyline. The narrative structure appears extremely disjointed and fragmented, and the film seems more concerned with positioning characters against appropriate architectural backdrops. The Eclipse is a cinema that interrogates relationships and the lonely void that has appeared in the life of the female character played by Monica Vitta is a theme that would come to dominate many of Antonioni's later work. Even today, the film's crisp and bold black and white cinematography is aesthetically superior and symbolically layered. Unfortunately, The Eclipse is a film that did not leave a lasting impression. It seemed quite innate in places and though Antonioni is a much loved world cinema auteur, this film seems somewhat overrated by critics. But the final montage is what really makes this film worthy of standing amongst the masterpieces of 60s world cinema.

23 November 2007

QUIEMADA! (BURN!) Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, 1969 - Post Colonialist Film Making



Sometimes the overwhelming power of a film in the ouvere of a director can be drawback especially when that film comes to stand as a historical testament of the civilian resistance of an entire Nation. Quiemada! was made a few years after Pontecorvo's masterpiece, The Battle of Algiers, and recently was restored back to its original cut of 132 minutes. Unfortunately, I have just discovered that the version I watched was neither a restored print nor was it the new version with the longer running time. Nevertheless, the film not only contains one of Brando's greatest performances as William Walker, a ruthless and manipulative British Agent who is working on behalf of the forces of English imperialism and the Colonial Sugar Corporations. With the advent of DVD, it seems as though so many films are being rediscovered and reappraised by film criticism and this obviously has an effect on the careers of certain directors like the Italian film maker Gillo Pontecorvo who's career is regularly reduced to The Battle of Algiers. Quiemada! is a post colonial exploration of exploitation, slavery and marxist ideology. The clearly Marxist vein that runs through the film is a direct contribution of the scriptwriter, Franco Solinas who wrote a number of interesting political Spaghetti Westerns in the 60s and 70s alongside his work on The Battle of Algiers and Costa Gavras's State of Siege. Apparently, this was the film that persuaded Brando to reject a role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and what is more interesting is that this is the film that Brando personally felt contained his best performance. Brando's character is sent by the British to the island of Quiemada where he instigates a revolt amongst the slaves and overturns the Pourtegese grip on power so that he can secure British rule over the island and control the production and distribution of sugar. Walker finds a leader in the black plantation worker, Jose Dolores, who he encourages to rebel against his Pourtegese masters. Inspired by the post colonialist writing of Frantz Fanon, the character of Jose Dolores becomes a revolutionary leader who by the end of the film realises that martyrdom is the only means left of spreading the seeds of dissent and resistance amongst his fellow people. Brando gives a genuinely moving performance and this would also mark the beginning of the second phase in his acting career, giving him a new sense of direction which is also evident in The Godfather and The Last Tango in Paris and even his mumbling incoherence as Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. The final few minutes of the film are beautifully realised and played out with Brando's egocentric and ruthless character heading back to catch the next ship to England whilst Jose announces to Walker that the notion of civilization that the white man supposedly worships is nothing but a hypocritical perspective of guilt. In light of what is happening in the world today, Jose says to one of the soldiers who is escorting him back to the fort for his execution, 'True freedom is not that which is given but taken willfullly'. Such a statement continues to hold relevance to the situation in Iraq where the notion of freedom is that of forced imposition, and the people of Iraq have started to realise that true freedom cannot be given to a people by another foreign power as this is a false kind of freedom, a freedom which comes with a price.

15 November 2007

INTO THE WILD - Directed by Sean Penn; An Existential Odyssey Through America - The Road Movie Genre



For me the great road movies are those that underline despair and destruction through the death of the central protagonist. The best road movies have always been the ones that end tragically and the leave the audience in a state of emotional reflection. Easy Rider and Vanishing Point are two definitive illustrations of the road movie as a microcosm of social and political disillusionment and ideological vehicle for existential discovery of identity. In the road movie unlike many other traditionally conservative genres, the image of the open road, a contradictory symbol of both uncertainity and independence carries with it the potential for exploring an endless array of themes, issues and situations. Into the Wild is an unusual film because it manifests none of the hallmarks of a typical Hollywood film nor does it really feel like a Sean Penn movie. This is a real progression in the directorial style of Sean Penn and represents a break from his earlier self indulgent and overly melodramatic character study's. A nostalgic yearning for the cinema of the 1970s seems very much in fashion today especially with the recent release of Michael Clayton and the up coming PTA western, and Into The Wild seems very close to Jeremiah Johnson in terms of its muted and somber mood. It is a film that is primarily concerned with nature and the environment, and at times the film veers close to the documentary medium particularly in its impressive use of landscapes and backdrops that appear purely as a celebration of the metaphysical wonder of a world from which we have become detached. Though much of the brilliance of the film rests with what is probably the best cinematography of the year, the film never feels it needs to push itself to become a didactic lesson on the need to drop out of society and become human again. The scope of the film is extraordinary and once the film has come to an exhausting end you do get the sense that you have an undertaken a journey of some real importance. The episodic nature of the non linear narrative structure and the conflict with the landscape reminded me of the simplicity of new wave Iranian cinema in utilising the ordinary and everyday in order to generate an emotional response of such warmth and respect for the characters. The character of Chris meets a number of different people as he makes his way to Alaska, each representing a distinct facet of American society, and each being represented as equally sympathetic as one another. Here, the villain is not Chris, nor is it American society, it is parents. Special mention should be given to the exemplary and haunting soundtrack composed by Eddie Vedder and the wonderful cameo performance by the veteran Hollywood actor, Hal Holbrook, who nearly steals the film from Emile Hirsch. Into the Wild is undoubtedly one of the best films of 2007 and is by far the best film Sean Penn has directed.

5 November 2007

CHAK DE INDIA - Bollywood High Concept Cinema Comes of Age?



Chak De India was released this summer as a Shak Rukh Khan and Yash Raj Vehicle that was met with moderately positive critical acclaim and went on to do good business at the domestic and international box office. Most Shah Rukh Khan film's tend to be an event and he is currently the most powerful and popular movie star in India. Beginning with the commercial success of the terrorist musical 'Dil Se', Shah Rukh Khan's box office pull in the foreign territories namely the UK and the US has been tremendously consistent, helping to accelerate the commercial appeal of Bollywood films across the globe. Shah Rukh Khan's films have remained to draw in wide audiences abroad and this is where his commercial strengths as a movie star lie. Directed by Shimit Amin, the director behind the powerful crime thriller, Ap Tak Chapaan, Chak De India brings together Shak Rukh Khan with the Jerry Bruckheimer of India, Aditya Chopra who continues to grow from strength to strength with Yash Raj Studios having cemented their reputation as the most recognisable Bollywood brand after the singularly expressive Amitabh Bachchan. Yash Raj have built somewhat of a reputation on being able to create high concept films that have a cross generation appeal and at the same time imitating much of the technical expertise developed by Hollywood cinema. Any recent Yash Raj film is a true indicator of the technical credibility of mainstream Bollywood cinema today. Though there films can be overtly sentimental and generic, Yash Raj have helped to push the technical boundaries of contemporary Bollywood cinema. Chak De India is a slick high concept vehicle for Shah Rukh Khan and is one of the first films to play with the celebrity, star and real life image of Shah Rukh Khan to great effect. The film itself is extremely generic and a typical feel good movie that seems to borrow quite heavily from recent Hollywood films like Coach Carter and Rocky. What is much more interesting is how Shah Rukh Khan plays an Indian Muslim Hockey Player who is misrepresented in the media as a traitor to his country because he failed to score the winning goal in the final of a Hockey match between Indian and Pakistan. Kabir Khan is a secular Muslim who loves his country but who has been increasingly isolated within his own community and within the eyes of the Indian nation for advocating a message of tolerance and understanding. It is fascinating to see how much of Kabir Khan's fictional character draws a great deal upon the real life qualities of Shah Rukh Khan, thus blurring the usual division that exists between the star and their real life persona. The absence of other stars and recognisable Bollywood elements means that this is a film that is carried entirely by the star presence of Shah Rukh Khan which he does with great assurance and charisma.