31 January 2008

RON HOWARD - Populist Film maker With an Under rated Filmography

Ron Howard has gradually become one of the most commercially viable Hollywood directors working today. His films are very mainstream and I would say that he is a populist film maker in that he makes films which work well as respectable entertainment. Like many of the directors who worked under the studio system, the films which seemed to slip through the net did not find an audience at the time are the films which have helped to salvage the career of many film makers who were initially dismissed and then later reappraised using the auteur theory as a critical tool for analysis. Even today, the films which Ron Howard has directed that have not been box office dynamite and have been dismissed by critics are the films which are infinitely more superior and interesting to study. The Missing, Cinderella Man, EdTv, The Paper and Night Shift are films which have underperformed at the box office but it these films which define Ron Howard as a film maker, unlike The DaVinci Code or Apollo 13. Ron Howard does have considerable range for a commercial film maker, having made a western (The Missing), a boxing biopic (Cinderella Man - possibly his best film), EdTV (Comedy and biting satire on reality TV), The Paper (Newspaper Film), and Night Shift (film noir comedy). Of course, many consider his best film to be 'A Beautiful Mind' for which he received an unexpected oscar for best director.

30 January 2008

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE - A MUSICAL DISASTER BY JULIA TAYMOR

The critical reception to Julia Taymor's musical experiment was quite vitriolic when the film was released in the summer of last year and having finally seen the film I can see why the critics had very few good things to say about this terrible film. The film seemed to have bypassed UK cinemas quickly because I don't even remember it being reviewed but when I looked at the external reviews listing on imdb I was amazed to see that the film was furnished with a limited release in selected arthouse cinemas and receieved a paltry 1 star in the Guardian newspaper's Friday review. Costing around $40 million dollars and starring a cast of unknowns along with one of the best soundtracks you're ever likely to hear. This is Taymor's tribute to enduring popularity of the Beatles music and the 60's counter culture decade but somehow the film just don't work. It fails in being a musical and it fails in offering us anything new about the 1960s which has been endlessly documented by Hollywood. The 60s has been approached in so many films that the decade seems to be losing it's cultural, social and political relevance. For some reason, Taymor treats her characters and the 1960's impulsive revolutionary ideals with a striking degree of naviety and simplicity which reduces her argument down to the ideological nothingness of an annoying Gap advert. Evan Rachel Wood plays Lucy in the film, a young wannabe revolutionary radical who has plans to instigate social change? The problem with such a proposition is that Lucy is presented like giant real life Barbie Doll which is something an American TV series on teenagers would perhaps do. There is nothing real about her as a person, and that very much sums up the film as a whole. Taymor tries and wants her film to be tricky, clever, inventive, and self reflexive cinema with a postmodern edge but it comes across as being silly, empty and spectacularly shallow. Nothing about the film works, not even the soundtrack which is just overused and exploited purely for reasons to do with Taymor's love of the Beatle's songs. The film goes on forever, never quite knowing when to stop and formulate an appropriate ending. The image Taymor presents of both Britain and America is puerile and superficially crammed with sterotypes and cliques, many of which do nothing to help elevate the film's status. Unlike the Western, the musical genre continues to face an uphill struggle in being taken seriously by contemporary critics. Across the Universe is part of another long line of failed critical and commercial attempts to revive and reinvent the genre for today's generation.

28 January 2008

CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR and PARTICIPANT PRODUCTIONS

Nobody expected that Jeff Skoll, one of the founders of the internet auction site, Ebay, would venture into Hollywood film production. Okay, perhaps it was a little predictable especially considering he had millions in loose change to invest in any commercially viable enterprises. Of course, Hollywood is not a profitable industry. Few films make actual money. It has always been about the glamour and prestige of your name associated with a product that reaches a worldwide audience but does so through the seductive power of the cinematic image. Over the last few years, Jeff Skoll's production company, Participant Productions has managed to establish itself as one of the fiercest supporters of important and relevant social and political causes, and has successfully produced a credible and diverse body of work including films like Syrianna, North County, Good Night & Good Luck and Charlie Wilson's War. These are films that can be deemed political statements. Apart from the association with contemporary Hollywood stars like George Clooney in particular, most of these films have been successful in securing a distribution deal via Warner Bros and most significantly have reached their intended audience, making a credible dent at the box office. The latest Jeff Skoll finanical venture is Charlie Wilson's War and once again is another film, this time a political satire, that deals with a sensitive American issue - the covert funding and support of the Afghan Mujaheddin during the Soviet Union occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s which contributed to the defeat of Communism.

Brilliantly acted by Tom Hanks as Senator Charlie Wilson and with a bravura supporting cast made up of the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julia Roberts, Mike Nichol's returns to the arena of American politics which he so incisively explored in Primary Colours with John Travolta's hilarious turn as a Bill Clinton like Democratic Candidate running for office. Beginning with his caustic and satirical commentary on 1960s sexual permissiveness, The Graduate, afforded Mike Nichols with an Oscar for Best Director, he has made a career out of sending up the dubious and hypocritical nature of an American society which has difficulty keeping up with the changes within the rest of the world especially a liberated Europe. I personally felt the film could have done with being a little longer but I can understand how difficult it can be to sustain a running time of more than 100 minutes for a political comedy. The final title and quote used at the end of the film sums up America's ambivalent and short term approach to foreign policy decisions. Though this is not brave film making, it is Hollywood taking another stab at the failures of the Bush administration, and that is something which should be praised. The other highlight of the film is that it features Tom Hank's being funny, which makes a change because comedy is something that comes naturally to him and which he does not do enough of anymore.

26 January 2008

JOHN SAYLES - The Voice of American Independent Cinema

No other American film maker comes close to the simplicity of John Sayle's cinema. Unlike other once Indie film makers like Spike Lee and Kevin Smith, John Sayles has successfully and happily resisted becoming subsumed into the mainstream. John Sayles continues to make films with the same sense of complex psychological characterisation and moral integrity that he started out with towards the end of the 1970s, supplementing his film making with scriptwriting for generic B movies like Piranha and Battle Beyond the Stars. Sayles's reputation amongst popular film criticism is somewhat in doubt because not much has been written about his films nor has their really been an indepth and significant study of his work as a contemporary auteur. With such oversight, it is suprising that Sayles continues to make films. Though it would be wrong to compare Sayles to popular European film auteurs like the Dardennes, his work does find parallels with the Iranian New Wave and literary cinema as he still considered by some to be one of the finest writers working outside the mainstream today. His acceptance and relevance as a contemporary auteur is evident in the fact that he writes his own films but more importantly and crucially is involved in the editing process, sometimes taking a credit as editor. This suggests Sayles has complete control over the creative process and is in no doubt reflected in his masterful control of pace and framing. Most of his films are a combination of understated character studies and an examination of American society and its relationship to political and social ideologies.

MATEWAN

For me 'Matewan' continues to be Sayles most memorable film because it gradually transforms into a political indictment of American capitalism and how the racial divide that existed was merely a social construct used by a 1920s Mining corporation in order to suppress any sentiments of socialism, liberalism and racial harmony. The film is about the history of American politics and more specifically it deals with the working class male in the figure of the Miner. The film stars Chris Cooper who plays a Union agitator and left wing radical called Joe Kenehan. Chris Cooper and John Sayles have worked on a number of films together and though he has entered the mainstream recently with his work in American Beauty and Adaptation, he has always been an important part of the American indie scene, way before the term lost its meaning ever since the commercialisation of the Sundance Film Festival. Matewan works on a number of cinematic levels and superficially Sayles uses a number of popular genre conventions associated with the most American of genres, the Western, and does it in a way as if to comment upon how the history of the west is tied to the polarisation of political ideology amongst the working class. This is also a film about political and social unity amongst the working class against the hegemony of corporations which is ultimately resorts to violence, destruction and blood. Matewan is one of the key films of 80s and one of the most important films to come out of American cinema in regards to its radical and insightful representation of working class politics.

24 January 2008

L'ENFANT (The Child) - Directed by The Dardennes, 2005, Belgium/France

It is a rare when you come across a film today which refuses to take up any pretentious moral position or directly ask the audience to sympathise with characters that have no clear ideological agenda. Directed by the Dardennes who have possibly become the most important film makers working in Europe today, L'Enfant focuses on yet another deceptively simple neo realist premise; the selling of a child as though it was just another commodity within the consumerist landscape in which we live today. The refusal to offer any motivation or Hollywood style goals for characters particularly for Bruno illustrates the minimal and counter cinema approach that has come to define much of their work. Inspired by the humanist and profoundly spiritual film making of the French master, Robert Bresson, the Dardennes have constructed yet another neo realist masterpiece which is remeniscent of the early work of Ken Loach, and in particular recalling arguably Loach's greatest piece of social realism, the brilliant and overlooked Raining Stones. In my opinion L'Enfant is a film which builds towards an ending of such force and power that it elevates the film to a transcendetal plane which very few have the capacity to achieve. Though this moment at the end at which Bruno breaks down can be interpreted in an overtly sentimental way, it retains such an impact because for nearly ninety minutes the Dardennes manage to contain the emotions of Bruno, never showing us anything but apathy. It is the only point in the film at which we see Bruno as a human being and the emotional outpouring of his relative failure as a father is profoundly moving and undoubtedly genuine. The Dardennes are real masters at stripping away at the artifice of cinema and their sensitive and deeply humane cinematic approach finds a parallel expression in the films of many of the Iranian new wave directors like Abbas Kiarostami. The opposition to music, stylised lighting techniques, dialogue, explanations, motivation, narrative coherence and closure are all characteristics which have come to define film makers who are concerned with characters who exist on the margins of society. Though the Dardennes are extremely dismissive of the ideological content of their films, you cannot but help notice how L'Enfant is an intelligent attempt at trying to ask such a pertinent question, the one about the value of human life within a post industrial contemporary society that seeks to trivialise and demean the suffering of daily human existence experienced by the working class and those who exist on the fringes of despair. L'Enfant is cinema. L'Enfant is reality. L'Enfant is life.