27 February 2008

RAMBO IV - A truly violent exploitation film; the Stallone revival continues in earnest

The iconic and enduring figures of John Rambo and Rocky Balboa are Stallone's contribution to cinema history and though he has reached his 60's, Stallone continues to revive lucrative franchises with arguably the same degree of passion he brought to the films back in the 1970s and early eighties. Many would argue that the only reason Stallone has revived Rocky and now Rambo is because his commercial appeal had plummeted quite catastrophically, thus this is a cynical attempt at clawing back some box office credibility which of course is all very true. The only problem with this cynical motivation is that Rambo is such a fascinating cinematic figure so suddenly the prospect of Rambo IV seemed somewhat welcoming and even gratifying to know that Stallone would return and also direct. When Die Hard 4 was released last summer, most of the fans were vitriolic in their condemnation of the studio's policy of dumbing down on a franchise that was famous for it's gratitious representation of violence and colourful, inventive use of swearing, or bad language, as the critics prefer to say. After 9-11 many had felt that the time was right for Stallone to bring back Rambo but even though the film could have been set within the Middle East or even America, they opt for Burma, a country which has been gripped by a civil war for many years and is referred to as a notorious political 'hotspot' by Stallone in the many similar interviews he has given whilst doing his rounds on the British media. First Blood is still the benchmark Rambo movie, featuring Stallone's best performance and exploring a significant political issue, that of the social prejudices faced by Vietnam Veterans returning from a war which had all but lost favour with mainstream American society. Rambo can be simply interpreted as a metaphor for an aggressive US foreign policy and the fact that Rambo is an expendable killing machine, a product owned by the American military is suggestive of how dehumanisation as a consequence is inevitable. In terms of political ideology, it is interesting to trace the shifting ideological positions within the four films; the first was labelled by many as being somewhat fascist in tone but by the end it is clear that the film states its liberal intentions when Stallone breaks down into a blubbering mess. The second Rambo film, and arguably the most fascinating and most iconic of the franchise, dealt with Reaganite conservative politics by presenting us with a idealistic wish fulfillment narrative scenario in which Rambo single handly defeated the South Vietnamese in a patriotic attempt to heal the trauma of having lost the Vietnam conflict. Though for many the stand out moment comes when Stallone dispatches one of the Vietnamese Soldiers with an arrow that results in his whole body exploding into smithereens. The third film relocated the story of Rambo to the foothills of Afghanistan, and this time Stallone was seen championing the cause of the Afghan people who were up against the terrifying might of the Russian empire. The third film did have the potential to be quite interesting but it seems to nose dive into self parody and ends up mocking up the conventions of the franchise which it didn't have to. Nevertheless, Rambo 3 is one of the few films to have been made by Hollywood that directly dealt with the conflict between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan, but it is unfortunate that the film explores the subject matter with a degree of stupidity and laziness. Now we have Rambo 4 and unlike the other 3 films, it is difficult to pin down the political position the film adopts, other than killing, violence and bloodshed is a way of life and inherent within the genes of John Rambo. Stallone has already hinted at the potential of a fifth and final film, and this in no doubt reinforced by the ending which sees Rambo return home to America. Rambo 4 works as an exploitation film and is passable entertainment but more importantly it works because Stallone still believes he is John Rambo.

21 February 2008

JODHAA AKBAR - Not a disaster but very disappointing and overhyped Bollywood historical epic

Nobody in their right mind would have given up to £20 million to Ashutosh Gowariker to make a a historical epic genre film about the love story between an ancient Mughal emperor and a Rajput Princess unless of course two of Bollywood's most powerful stars were attached to the project; Hrithik Roshan and Ashwariya Rai. Though this film has been overhyped and is unable to justify the four hour long running time, Ashutosh Gowariker's reputation remains intact purely because his films 'Lagaan' and 'Swades' confirmed his status as one of India's finest cinematic auteurs. With Jodhaa Akbar, Gowariker finally falters and comes unstuck. The film has clearly been researched with great diligence and the production detail and design is immaculate, producing an aesthetically overwhelming visual experience. Nevertheless, the film has real problems with length and pacing - the screenplay is filled with empty speeches and hollow grandstanding, and very little occurs in terms of narrative momentum. The first two hours culminates in a melodramatic moment of false betrayal by the Rajput princess but it it such an obvious and clumsily handled sequence it seems as though Gowariker feels uncomfortable with the material and the actors. The real criticism with the film is that both actors have been miscast in the roles and neither of them have the acting credentials to carry off such mature and complex characters. Hrithik Roshan is the poster boy of Indian cinema and it is very difficult to accept him as emperor Akbar because he has never been accepted as a serious actor. Roshan does not have the gravitas nor the range to be able to portray Akbar in a three dimensional manner and thus the character becomes a superficial stereotype of the angry leader who is surrounded by people who wish to decieve and betray him. I could not help but wonder how different this film would have been if more credible and better actors had been cast in the lead roles. Jodhaa Akbar has opened to great commercial success and the film does have a very secular message at the heart of the film which has the potential of reaching a wide audience. Unfortunately, this is a film which has been undermined by Gowariker's faith in mainstream actors and a script that has been severly underwritten and is heavy on historical pronounciation.

17 February 2008

MICHAEL CLAYTON - A brilliant 'debut' from Tony Gilroy & George Clooney Does it Again

George Clooney's film career continues to go from strength to strength, and as Michael Clayton, Clooney delivers arguably his greatest performance to date. When you look back at the films which Clooney was making at the start of his film career, it is hard to believe how far he has come as an actor, distancing himself away from mainstream Hollywood actions films like Batman & Robin and The Peacemaker, and even shunning the postmodern irony of the Tarantino-Rodriquez Vampire collaboration, From Dusk till Dawn. The politicisation of George Clooney as an actor and director really started with his longtime and continuing assocation with Steven Soderbergh whom he met when they worked together on the noirish and superlative 'Out of Sight'. After this artistic collaboration, Clooney entered a much more mature and serious phase in his career, carefully selecting film projects according to his political position as a self declared liberal humanist. Post 'Out of Sight', Clooney's filmography is deeply impressive with films such as Solaris, Oceans 11, Syriana, Good Night & Good Luck, The Good German confirming his credibility as not only an actor but also as a competent director who is not afraid of taking on political and social issues which are overlooked and dismissed by commercial Hollywood film making. Michael Clayton is a throwback to the New Hollywood cinema of the 1970s which had no qualms about turning classical narrative film making into intense character study's about marginal characters; loners, misfits, outcasts. Having made somewhat of a notable reputation as a gifted and insightful scriptwriter, Tony Gilroy's directorial debut is an assured and understated examination of corporate culture and greed affects actions of individuals within a society that no longer wishes to act as a watchdog for corruption and the misuse of power. Clooney plays Michael Clayton, a former district attorney turned 'fixer' who works for a major American law firm, helping their clients get out of problematic situations. When Michael Clayton comes across the lawyer Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) who has decided to put together a case against the client he is supposed to be defending, he starts to question his own moral and ethical standing. The client Edens is defending is a powerful agricultural corporation which goes by the name of U-North but he discovers that the corporation knowingly put at risk the lives of thousands of people and was also directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds. Michael Clayton works effectively as a taut political thriller and it takes on one of the least audience friendly of themes, that of corporate corruption, and translates it magnificently for a mainstream audience. The film has done respectable business considering it was given a limited release and that it ran a low key marketing campaign, perhaps because studios find it somewhat problematic to sell things like politics, corruption and character. It is very easy to fall into the trap of talking down to your audience especially when you take on the issue of corporations but Gilroy does extremely well to give us some very flawed but compelling characters to get out heads round. For me, this film really triumphs in the last ten minutes, reaching a fitting conclusion that provides audiences with an enormous level of satisfaction. Gilroy suggests that redemption and moral integrity are certainties in a life which is plagued with superficial distractions. The film finishes with the camera fixed on the face of George Clooney as he takes a cab ride, finally before we fade to black, a smile pops up on his face; a reflection of having made the right choice. It is also happens to sums up the brilliance of Clooney's controlled performance. Many critics have likened 2007 to 1999 in terms of the quality of output produced by Hollywood, and Michael Clayton definitely adds yet further proof of such a claim.

30 DAYS OF NIGHT - Another Fine Mess

Directed by another one of those music video directors turned film makers, David Slade's 2nd feature film, after the controversial and well received Hard Candy, 30 days of Night is a very ordinary and pedestrian by the numbers vampire flick which I desperately wanted to be good but sadly I was greatly disappointed once again by Hollywood's lack of originality and intelligence. I have still yet to see a film that has benefited from the shoddy and miserable acting skills of Josh Hartnett who whinces and grimaces his way through a film which needed much more attention in the writing phase. Recently, I have been having real problems finishing films which don't sustain my interest and unfortunately once the vampires turn up 30 minutes into the film I lost complete interest and had to restrain myself from wanting to categorise such a film as disposable trashy film making. However, 30 days of Night is a poorly conceived, structured and directed feature film. The emotional focus of the narrative is supposed to be a failing relationship between Josh Hartnett and Melissa George's characters, both who act as if they have never been in the same room as each other, never mind trying to convey a sense of misunderstanding. A good genre film is supposed to give audiences something new, something a bit different, just enough for us to not to treat the film with contempt. However, I thought the poster was great. The same can't be said for the film. Watch out for Ben Foster who yet again is learning the annoying Hollywood act of playing the same character over again just because his agent told him that typecasting gets you exposure and acting gigs quite easily. For further Ben Foster comparative references, please see the recent 3:10 to Yuma. Much has been said about how most of the best writers in Hollywood have disembarked to television land because they are recognised as auteurs with an identifiable voice and given the respect they deserve. Such a statement is proven true when you consider the poor screenplay and execution of what could have been a potentially interesting postmodern idea.

15 February 2008

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH - Why are audiences staying away from the films that matter?

Now that Sylvester Stallone has been able to revive his waining commercial appeal with the exploitative resurrection of two of Hollywood most enduring icons, Rocky and Rambo, it is of little surprise that the Paul Haggis directed, In the Valley of Elah, has more or less sunk without a trace at the American box office, which is hugely despiriting when considering how significant and influential this film could have been in kick starting a series of films that seriously and critically examine the consequences and wider implications of the war in Iraq. No such mainstream film has come along yet which has been able to strike a commercial and critical chord with audiences about Iraq. Many industry critics have commented on how the recent cycle of films to deal with Iraq have all failed at the box office and therefore it has become increasingly unlikely that Hollywood will greenlight further projects without somekind of 'star' assurance. I personally feel that the up coming film by Paul Greengrass, starring Matt Damon may be the film to make a significant commercial impact at the box office, and thus set in motion a series of high profile films on Iraq. It will also be interesting to see how Hollywood deals with the issue after Bush has left the whitehouse and whether or not a Democractic attitude change will be the determining catalyst in finally ditching the objective political approach taken by many films. In the Valley of Elah is the closest Hollywood has come to dealing with the war in Iraq yet interestingly it is a film which approaches the consequences of war through a popular home front perspective, namely, through the figure of a military man, played quite brillantly by Tommy Lee Jones. The film cost around $5 million to produce and was released by Warner Independent but it made very little domestically, taking just under $6 million, which is pitiful when you consider that this was a highly anticipated film, especially after Haggis's recent success at the Oscars with the pretentious 'Crash'. The critical reaction to the film was overwhelmingly positive, with the film appearing in many critics end of year lists. In the Valley of Elah examines how the death of an American soldier on US soil comes about as the result of the burden of guilt placed upon the shoulders of young boys who have been sent to liberate a country which does not want liberation, and how war crimes are a common daily occurence. The film is highly critical of the failure of American society to help reintegrate returning American soldiers coming back from the war in Iraq. This is a film that tries to deal with the notion of trauma - the trauma of death, war crimes, parental responsibility, the trauma of loss, and most apparently, the trauma of dehumanization, which are evocatively expressed through the intercutting of youtube style video clips of US soldiers committing acts of atrocity. One of the most fascinating aspects of the film for me was how Haggis suggests that racial ignorance and prejudices act as a link between father and son in determining their fate. In one of the most telling scenes, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), goes into vigilante mode, assualting an Iraqi war veteran, accused of killing his son. Hank's actual racial prejudices come to the foreground, exploding into a violent rage for which he apologises for later in the film. The aspect of racial ignorance is vital in being able to understand the connection between father and son in how they see people of a different colour. Hank's son is slowly revealed to be a quite callous, apathetic and racist individual who has been shaped by his father's own prejudices which he has casually repressed for most of his life. Therefore, it is of little surprise that when Hank see's the clarity of his son's crimes, he doesn't just see something removed and distant that has occurred in a foreign land, he sees his own self reflection. This is quite a chilling conclusion because it suggests that the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the war crimes which have been committed in the name of the American public, have largely been a consequence of widespread racial fears and anxieties that have long existed within mainstream American society.

3 February 2008

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD - The Greatest Western Since Unforgiven, and that was 1992

I had somehow managed to miss this remarkable film because Warner Bros had real problems pushing the film into cinemas for a wide release which on reflection it should have been given, but like most of the best films, The Assassination of Jesse James is a film that will be rediscovered on DVD. I don't know where to begin with the beauty, power and grace of this masterpiece, and it is a masterpiece precisely because it transcends genre limitations and becomes something uniquely cinematic and breathtaking in it's emotional range.

Produced by Brad Pitt with Ridley Scott, this film more or less confirms the artistic credibility of Brad Pitt who has always been overlooked as a performer. His portrayal of the outlaw and civil war renegade, Jesse James, is Brad Pitt's finest performance to date, and though critics have tended to focus on the brilliance of Casey Affleck, I feel many have overlooked and undervalued Brad Pitt's steely and multi layered performance, as he makes the figure of Jesse James enigmatic and impenetrable.

Much has been written about the protracted production history of this film and it is safe to say that the vision that the Australian director, Andrew Dominik, had in mind and also the final length is very much evident in the film which is something that must be complemented. I suspect the reason why the film has not been tampered with by the studios is largely to do with the people involved with the project, names like Ridley Scott and the famous Western producer, David Valdes, all have a reputation for being fiercely independent and protective of their work. And it also helps greatly when you have a powerful star like Brad Pitt who has become increasingly committed over his career to making films that are both entertaining and didactic.

The film itself recalls the early work of Terence Malick, particularly alluding to the lyrical and memorable imagery of Badlands and more strikingly, Malick's masterpiece, Days of Heaven. Like other great films, The Assassination of Jesse James is a piece of cinema which successfully manages to bring together the original and established contributions of many artists like Cinematographer Roger Deakins, the much maligned Hollywood actor, Sam Shepherd, and finally, the evocative and haunting musical composition by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis which brings an added dimension to the film. It has also been a long time since I've heard such an effective use of a voice over in a film and Andrew Dominink's screenplay has been written with a vivid and consistent level of detail and clarity that works to support Deakin's muted imagery.

The Assassination of Jesse James, No Country For Old Men, 3:10 to Yuma, There Will Be Blood proves how viable and relevant the Western genre is today for audiences and producers.
Apart from 3:10 to Yuma, which is the most mainstream of the bunch, most of these films have not done exceptional business at the box office, but nevertheless they have all made valuable contributions to the recent development and reinvention of a genre which Hollywood needs to have more faith in when it comes to making films which can be deemed respectable works of art.

The film opens with an incredibly poetic montage of imagery which picks out the figure of Brad Pitt as Jesse James, images which we have seen before but in films like Gladiator and Days of Heaven, yet Dominik manages to make them appear fresh and vital on the screen. Much can be said of the unusual narrative structure that the film adopts, and though it would be easy to re title the film as the rise and fall of Jesse James, the narrative provides us with minimal action, steering clear of typical western conventions. Whatever claim Brad Pitt may stake to this film, it is a film which is very much about the anonymous stranger and coward, Robert Ford, and like the best revisionist westerns, the film seems more fascinated by the marginal characters which have always made the genre so interesting and captivating for audiences.

The steady rise of Casey Affleck as A list actor who should be taken as seriously as his peers like Matt Damon and his older brother continues in earnest with his multi layered portrayal of Robert Ford. Affleck's notable performance represents a repellent Robert Ford as a sympathetic and greatly misunderstood figure within Western mythology. Much has already been said about how the film plays upon the real life celebrity image of Brad Pitt and it is interesting to see how Casey Affleck's Ford is positioned by Dominik as another obsessive fan who entertains notions of fame and recognition. The freeze frame has become probably the most hackneyed technical device used by Hollywood films today, re appropriated by the Hollywood new wave from the Nouvelle Vague in the 60s.

This is the first film that I have seen in a long time which uses the freeze frame in an unforgettable way as it appropriately immortalises the figure of Robert Ford, something that alluded him all his life. A magnificent and towering achievement and one of the best westerns of the last ten years for sure.