28 April 2008

Still Life (Dir. Jia Zhang-Ke, 2006, China) - Cultural Bias and Chinese Cinema

Recognised by many critics and film festivals as one of the most important and best film-maker’s working in the world today, Jia Zhang-Ke’s work has somewhat alluded me until now. The North West in particular has always suffered from the cultural bias that exists within British society. Apart from a few notable independent art-house cinemas like The Showroom in Sheffield and The Corner house in Manchester, film culture has been pretty much absent from the North, and even today, anybody seriously interested in pursuing a career in film education, or catching up with the latest offerings from world cinema, will be disappointed with the lack of retrospectives on offer by the local art house cinema.

Currently, the NFT in London is showing a retrospective of the Chinese film maker, Jia Zhang-Ke, but the problem with such a tantalising range of films is that for somebody like myself who lives in Manchester, getting access to such a wealth of cinema would mean having to commute regularly just so that I can satisfy my endless demands for film. Such an argument of cultural bias seems absurd when considering how DVD and the Internet have considerably narrowed the classic problems of accessibility and availability that were associated with world cinema in the past. But if this true then are we clearly not suggesting that those who do not have the means to access films on the big screen in their rightful context should be satisfied with reducing their consumption of films to a flat screen and multi region DVD player?

It still seems strange that Manchester, one of the most populated cities in England, has only one dedicated art house cinema, that incidentally only houses 3 screens, and which are of a relatively poor standard compared to an independent like The Showroom in Sheffield. Much has been written about the cultural contempt with which the British Arts institutions treat cinema and film in the UK, and we as a society have never really believed in the cultural validity of film as an art form, ranking it much lower than painting, theatre, and literature. Then it comes of little surprise when a film like Still Life just simply seems to bypass all traditional means of exhibition, and is relegated to a niche audience on DVD. It makes little sense when mainstream critics and film journals including newspapers make a consensual argument about Jia Zhang-Ke’s contemporary significance as an auteur, when in fact the truth is that when a film like Transformers, directed by Michael Bay, is released on an unreasonable number of screens is not met with any sort of criticism regarding Hollywood’s policy of mass saturation and the virtual hegemony they hold over the UK multiplex. What this picture of UK film criticism reveals is the toothless nature and contradictory position of many UK film critics particularly those who claim to be working for certain illustrious and hugely influential film magazines. So is it audiences who are suggesting that Michael Bay holds more cultural relevance than a film maker like Jia Zhang-Ke?, or is it the fact that much of the mainstream film critics tend to side with the big Hollywood studio’s and distribution networks which have come to cynically monopolise our cinematic cultural tastes and consumption habits to such an extent that we rarely ever question the selective choice of Hollywood dominated films on offer to us today.

If Still Life or any other major world cinema release was afforded a worthy distribution and exhibition package then perhaps it might have a chance of finding an audience within the supposed narrow consumer tastes of the average cinemagoer, but of course, such an idealistic proposition would be met with much derision and anger from a Hollywood system that seeks endless opportunities for commercial exploitation of a film, and unfortunately, Still Life is not a product, but an illustration of ‘true’ cinema.

The Three Gorges Dam Project is one of the biggest construction projects ever undertaken by the Chinese government. Still Life looks at the real life social consequences of such a massive undertaking on the communities and individuals who have been forced to relocate elsewhere. Using a parallel narrative that features the story of two people returning to the town of Fengjie, looking for people they seemed to have drifted away from for reasons that are not explained, the film presents us with a carefully observed study of a reality that is unflinching in it’s depiction of humanity, with people reduced to mechanical figures frozen in time against a vacant landscape reminiscent of the films of Antonioni. Much of the film is shot through a series of long takes and a fixed vantage point that allows characters to enter and exit the frame with remarkable naturalness and ease that is in no way motivated by narrative casuality. In fact, the neo realist approach utilised by Zhang-Ke is evident in how he permits conversations and situations to come almost organically from out of the landscape itself, a technique favoured by De Sica and Rossellini in films such as Bicycle Thieves and Paisan. Though the film seems apolitical in how it avoids overtly condemning the Chinese government for policy decisions like the Dam Project, it seems more concerned with exploring how the inevitability of change as a historical force pulls and pushes at the lives of ordinary people, fracturing communities and smashing society so it is rendered in a constant state of paralysis.

Still Life is a film that finds parallels with the alienating landscapes of Antonioni and the understated moral vacuum of Bresson, suggesting that life in China will continually be in on the verge of a permanent motion of forward progression, change and metamorphosis that invites the horrors of loneliness and displacement.

24 April 2008

I AM LEGEND (Dir. Francis Lawrence, 2007, US) – Mediocrity Rules!

Disappointing is not the appropriate word to describe Will Smith’s latest film, I am Legend, an eagerly awaited adaptation of Richard Matheson’s apocalyptic story. Previously adapted for the big screen as The Omega Man with Charlton Heston, over the past decade, several high profile directors like Ridley Scott have been attached to the project, but budget and script problems have always made Hollywood studios reluctant to commit until that is the most bankable Hollywood film star today came along and decided he wanted to make the film possible. Though it is difficult to associate certain stars with specific genres today, Will Smith’s long running and commercially respectable relationship with the science fiction genre has produced a number of high concept blockbusters over the last decade that have performed remarkable international box office business, ensuring the genre remains very much a safe bet for Hollywood studios. In no doubt inspired by Danny Boyle’s brilliantly effective zombie apocalyptic thriller, ‘28 Days Later’, that opens with a powerful narrative hook in which the central protagonist wanders through the deserted landscape of London city, I am Legend seeks to tempt us with a much short lived promise of a radical departure from the conventions of apocalyptic films. Hollywood’s endless fascination with imagining the end of the world in a broad cinematic spectacle that finds mankind as the endangered species seems to say more about the self-destructive vein that exists within American society than it does about the thematic relevance of the genre.

Will Smith is one of the few genuinely likable film stars working with the mainstream today as his non-offensive off screen persona represents him as the hard working family man. The science fiction genre is the one genre that Will Smith can rightly call his own as it has allowed him to perfect the on screen persona of the charismatic, wise cracking hero who will stop anything to prevent mankind from ceasing to exist. Had I am Legend been released earlier in 2007 then I am sure it would have tried to compete with Spiderman 3 and Pirates 3 for the top spot, but nevertheless, the film has done phenomenal business, eclipsing many of the records Will Smith had set with his previous films. Considering how thoughtfully executed the marketing strategy was behind the release of the film, it surely proves that Will Smith’s star power can ensure a movie opens with a hefty opening weekend. The trailers for the film and the animated shorts which appeared on the website were ingeniously constructed, generating the required buzz for a film with such a big budget. However, discounting the commercial appeal of Will Smith and the current attraction of apocalyptic themed films like Cloverfield, I am Legend falls short of being anything but quite ordinary in it’s execution of a concept that on paper seems tantalising and ripe for allegorical interpretation. Will Smith’s character, Robert Neville, is too close in personality to that of the oddball detective, Del Spooner, in I, Robot, another science fiction which failed to deliver on it’s early promise, and I could not help but wonder why Smith would want to simply play a variation of a role/character that he has tackled before. You could say this is all purely about typecasting and recognising stars in familiar, conventional archetypes but then that would be giving far too much credit to the people involved in this dull and flat film.

I am Legend would have been an infinitely superior picture had a director of some bold artistic reputation been attached, namely Ridley Scott, but instead we are told by the press junkets and producers of the film that we are in the safe hands of an emerging talent, what ever that means. The is the third feature film from the music video director turned film maker, Francis Lawrence, who seems to have built a reputation on being able to instruct Keanu Reeves where to stand in the terribly misconceived comic book film, Constantine. It does seem quite unusual why somebody as woefully talentless as Lawrence was put in charge of such a big budget film with an A list leading actor and a credible technical crew, that is unless the producers were demanding a mediocre film, which is probably in line with the current mentality besieging Hollywood high concept film making.

This is a film that becomes gradually worse as the conventional narrative unfolds in predictable fashion, culminating in an absurd and baffling finale in which Robert Neville (Will Smith) literally self-destructs. The problem with Hollywood blockbusters today is that unlike the a decade ago when the phenomenon of multi platform marketing of a film was relatively new, most of them are overhyped juggernauts that plough their way through the multiplexes, pushing to a side the films that perhaps do matter in terms of artistic value.

No film is really a film when it shoots a number of different endings designed to satisfy the needs of a cynically engineered ‘testing’ system that only proves the apparent worthlessness of Hollywood producers who seem only interested in limiting the kinds of films we want to watch.

20 April 2008

FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (Dir. Terry Gilliam, 1998, US) - A deeply flawed film

I have tried on many occassions to get through a complete screening of this minor work from the superlative imagination of Terry Gilliam who truly is one of the few mavericks working within the constraints of mainstream American cinema, but I finally managed to finish the film, and I am sad to report that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one real mess of a movie; it is a deeply flawed film that was troubled from the outset, especially once the original director, the under rated independent film maker, Alex Cox, attached to the project for a considerably long time was fired over creative differences.

Ever since Terry Gilliam’s well documented run in with the Hollywood studios over his 80’s science fiction dystopian masterpiece, Brazil, his flamboyant and deeply surreal film making style has been treated with a large degree of apprehension and like many film makers who refuse to compromise their creative vision, he has had to exist on the margins of the mainstream. Gilliam rarely ever works as a director for hire, overseeing commercial projects, unless approached by somebody of some notable Hollywood prominence who is respected for their independence like Johnny Depp. Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 novel was labelled as virtually impossible to translate into cinematic terms without having to make some degree of dramatic compromise.

The film was somewhat of a pet project for Depp and his star power enabled him to replace Alex Cox with Terry Gilliam with relative ease, ensuring the production to keep on track. Reportedly, Rhino were involved with bringing an adaptation of the novel to the screen since 1992 and originally wanted the New Zealand director, Lee Tamohri to direct but was tied to another film project. The film was eventually distributed by Universal and was dumped because the marketing department were clueless about how they were going to sell a drug movie to a mainstream audience.

The film itself is a mess, with a meandering narrative that begins promisingly with Duke and Gonzo on the road to Vegas as they experience a colourful assortment of drugs. The problem with the film is that it is relatively unsuccessful in being able to capture or convey the hedonistic and liberated lifestyle of the drug induced era of the late 60s and early 70s. I felt that Johnny Depp was way out of his depth, thinking he could take on the insane and paranoid character of Duke was a mistake, and his performance seems improvised to such an extent that it becomes a self parody. On the other hand, Benicio Del Toro, one of the best actors working today, is superb as the hysterical and unhinged Dr Gonzo, who captures the contradictory lifestyle of the middle class American professional with incredible zeal.

If we discount Fear and Loathing then Gilliam took a hiatus of 10 years without making a film before he was allowed to direct again in 2005 with The Brothers Grimm. Lost in La Mancha documented Gilliam’s ill fated attempts to direct a big screen version of Don Quixote, and he is a film maker who has been plagued by a disproportionate set of ill fated problems with every film he makes. It seems as though fate is always working against poor Terry Gilliam, and it is disappointing that Hollywood has never really embraced him as a filmmaker as he has much to offer in terms of creativity and originality that is sorely lacking in an industry driven by banal, superficial concepts.

Fear and Loathing remains a Gilliam film, and this perhaps is the only reason that I can identify as being a cause for celebration of this disappointing excursion.

THE BIG SILENCE (Dir. Sergio Corbucci, 1969, Italy) – One of the finest Spaghetti Western’s ever made; this is Corbucci’s Masterpiece

The Spaghetti Western cycle of films was very much an Italian invention, created as a response to the classical traditions of the Hollywood genre, which had reached a point of formulaic repetition that demanded radical innovation and a daringly fresh approach. It would be dismissive and wrong to suggest that the Italian’s bastardised the western genre and cheapened it so that many of the films can still be viewed as exploitation films today, as this would detract from the invaluable contribution many of the film makers like Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci made to cinema in general. Corbucci as a film maker continues to be overlooked as the genre seems to be strongly associated with Leone who’s brilliantly audacious Dollars trilogy did so well to imitate the visual language of Akira Kurosawa’s wandering Samurai anti-hero, and help kick start a series of low budget, savage and revisionist westerns for an international audience. Corbucci made a number of Spaghetti westerns in the 1960s and actually worked almost parallel with Leone, using many of his regular collaborators like the composer, Ennio Morricone, to create a vision of the west which was as equally brutal, sadistic and nihilistic as that of Leone’s. Though Leone would go on to prove he had far greater skill as a film maker, Corbucci’s greatest contributions to the genre were Django (1966), and his 1969 political western, The Big Silence, which is considered by many to be his best film. Corbucci was a self proclaimed Communist and much of his work has been interpreted as discrete leftist critiques of capitalism which take up an unusually bold Marxist ideological position that very few of the Spaghetti westerns are able to lay claim to.

From the outset, the film appears like a simple tale of revenge but as the narrative slowly unfolds, a complex political and social commentary emerges on the nature of killing, capital and lawlessness. The French actor, Jean Louis Trintingant plays a mute bounty hunter called Silence, who is summoned to the wintry and desolate town of Snow Hill in Utah so he can help avenge the murder of one of the outlaws. However, Silence is faced with a town that is controlled and ruled by the local banker, Pollicut, who has coerced the monstrous killer, Tigrero, played by a terrifying Klaus Kinski into maintaining his hegemonic rule over the poor and oppressed, namely the women, who in the dubious traditions of the Spaghetti western are represented as prostitutes. Corbucci said that he made the film as a response to Leone’s romantic glorification of bounty hunters in For a Few Dollars More, and Corbucci’s unequivocally uncompromising ending clearly strikes a note of some deeper political significance.

The production values and technical aspects of many of the Spaghetti westerns were dubious and Corbucci’s camera does seem slightly incompetent at times, but it is exactly these nakedly visible qualities that were able to provide the genre with a raw energy and general sense of discontinuity that proved them to be so popular with audiences. Trintingant famously agreed to do the film on the basis that he not be asked to learn any of his lines in Italian, which is why the character of Silence becomes a clever play on the archetype of the stranger with no name that had been established by Leone in A Fistful of Dollars. Corbucci’s departure from the conventions of the genre was also illustrated through the change in locale, with the narrative framed against a breathtaking and bleak winter landscape that would influence films like Pale Rider and Unforgiven. Another defining characteristic of the genre was the mysoginist attitude towards women who are subjected towards repeated violence and acts of sexual violation. Leone and Corbucci seem to share a vision of the west in which patriarchy is not only an ideology that brutalises the opposite sex, but also suggests that the only role a woman can possibly occupy within such an archaic society is either that of the prostitute or the wife. The vein of Catholic symbolism running through much of the work of Corbucci was a thematic preoccupation that was evident in the genre, and religious overtones are reflected in the symbolism of crucifixion at the end when Tigrero and his goons mutilate the hands of Silence.

What really makes this film quite something else in terms of the Spaghetti Western is the incredibly grim and despondent ending. In a radical departure from the orthodoxy of the Hollywood western which was grotesquely conservative in how it imposed closure and contained possible readings of a film is rejected by Corbucci who allows Tigrero and his band of merciless killers to massacre the entire town, kill the only positive female character and destroy the supposed saviour. The power of this film comes from a crypto-Marxist ending that is loaded with political importance as the forces of capitalism which seek to profit from the misery of others and the sadistic exploitation of death are clearly shown to be triumphant in a society which no longer values humanity. An alternate happy ending in which Silence teams up with the local sheriff to stop Tigrero was also filmed for audiences in Asia and other countries as the producers felt it would be too grim for their tastes.

The Big Silence is undoubtedly one of the most interesting Westerns made and the truth of it’s politics is what makes it so unique and endlessly fascinating for critics and audiences today.

19 April 2008

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (Dir. Orson Welles, 1948, US) - Directed by Orson Welles?

The film literature ranging from journal articles, biographies and detailed studies of his body of work is vast and deeply profound in repositioning the auteur status of Orson Welles within the context of American cinema. Citizen Kane's domination of film cannon's around the world continues to point to a undeniable consensus amongst film critics of Welles' influential status as a film maker. The level of detail that exists now about the typically protracted and troubled production history of many of the Hollywood film's Welles made within the conservative and orthodox constraints of the studio system makes it endlessly fascinating for critics and audiences today to overlook the truly pioneering cinematic aspects of his films. The Lady from Shanghai is a film which has a production history which is more interesting and compelling than the film itself, and is representative of a textbook example of studio interference. Welles reportedly made the film as a favour for Harry Cohn who at the time had backed one of Welles theatre productions that had not been the commercial success which many had predicted.

Head of Columbia Studio, Harry Cohn's interference with the production and the final shape of the film has been well documented and once again provides further evidence of how deeply misunderstood Welles was a film maker. Though Welles only made a few films within the confines of the studio system, his artistic vision was consistently compromised and sabotaged to such a degree that it led to a rejection of Hollywood and resulted in a disillusionment which led to a self imposed exile in Europe. The original approved directorial running time of The Lady from Shanghai stretched to well over 2 hours and 30 minutes but once Harry Cohn was given a preview, he was dismayed by the end product, protesting about the film's supposedly incoherent narrative structure and radical depature from Hollywood film making practices. The film was eventually narrowed down to an 'acceptable' running time, losing over an hour of film, and violating Welles original vision, forcing him to distance himself from the final finished studio version.

Though very little remains of what Welles originally intended, the film still manages to succeed in conveying many of the innovative cinematic approaches and desires for experimentation that interested him as a film maker, such as the use of long takes, the brilliantly designed and well executed expensive crane shot in the opening encounter between Welles and Rita Hayworth, and the love of deep focus cinematography. On it's release, The Lady From Shanghai was dismissed by critics but now it is considered by some as a key film in terms of the development of the film noir movement. Rita Hayworth was still under contract to Harry Cohn's Columbia Studios at the time and he was eager to captialise on the commercial success she had enjoyed with 'Gilda', which had made Rita Hayworth an international superstar and icon of feminine sexuality. Welles had Hayworth cut her hair short and promised that this would be a role that would provide her with an opportunity to explore her acting abilities. Unfortunately, Hayworth's performance is somewhat limited in the film by her incredible on screen beauty - like Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, the camera eroticises the contours of Hayworth's physical beauty especially her legendary cheekbones in most of her scenes with a real sexual energy that becomes a fitting tribute to the work of the Hungarian born cinematographer, Rudolph Mate.

The film is a tale of sexual jealousy and culminates in the famously hysterical and bizarre hall of mirror sequence in which death becomes a confirmation of betrayal. Like Godard, Kiarosatami and Tarkovsky, Welles is a film maker who's work needs to be revisited repeatedly for us to unlock and comprehend the immense talent he had as a film maker which has become lost in the mythical accounts of his status as a director that Hollywood did not understand nor appreciate until now.

15 April 2008

THE BANK JOB (Dir. Roger Donaldson, 2008, UK/US) - A film that deserves an audience

Ever since The Transporter films made Jason Statham a household name, he has been searching for a project that would at least provide him with a return to the British gangster terrain so he could prove his credibility as an actor. The Bank Job is reminescent of the 50s Ealing style of film making which was characterised by witty dialogue, compelling characterisation and inventive concepts which were rooted in a familiar working class context that was quintessentially British. Though The Bank Job is quite typical and conventional of the gangster/crime caper genre, it does well to stay clear off all the recent British gangster stereotypes and formulaic plot lines that currently hold no favour with audiences or critics. The saving grace of this film is the political slant which makes it worthwhile entertainment. Roger Donaldson's experience with the thriller genre, having made the under rated Thirteen Days about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the brilliantly suspensful 1980s remake, No Way Out, also with Kevin Costner as a double agent. The problem with directors like Donaldson is that they are rejected outright as auteurs because their body of work shows no real consistency in terms of creativity - Donaldson directed the hit film, Species, in the 90s. Donaldson's interest with political intrigue comes to the foreground in The Bank Job as the script approaches the generic material of a heist through the face of a corrupt British establishment which is represented as monstrously hegemonic in trying to protect the interests of the ruling elite, namely the Monarchy. The film moves too quickly for my tastes and the film could have done with spending more time in the first thirty minutes by providing a far greater insight into the lives of the criminals involved in the heist. This is probably why I found it difficult sympathising with any of the characters as they come across as two dimensional archetypes. The Bank Job is illustrative of superior entertainment but the problem with this film is that it does not have any star names attached to the project which will severly limit it's chances of finding an international audience.

13 April 2008

THE SEVENTH VICTIM (Dir. Mark Robson, 1943, US) - A Val Lewton Production

Martin Scorsese's role as an academic and authority on American cinema is equally significant as his unique place as a film maker within film history. Scorsese has worked tirelessly to underline the overlooked cinematic contribution of the Hungarian immigrant, Val Lewton, who in the 1940s produced a series of low budget feature films that specialised in the horror and noir genres. Lewton's approach to genre film making was way ahead of it's time, permitting cinematographers like the notable cinematographer, Nicholas Muscaraca, to experiment with the visual language of film noir in films like Cat People and The Seventh Victim. Much of Lewton's work has attracted a large cult following and the recent release of his complete work on DVD has meant that his contribution to American cinema under the studio system can finally be acknowledged as hugely important in terms of contributing to the evolution and development of genres like the psychological thriller, the horror film and film noir. The term escoteric is usually associated with the work of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur whom was a regular collaborator - this term appears quite appropriate for films which undoubtedly catered for niche audiences and demanded some general understanding and knowledge of the issues being tackled. This is true of The Seventh Victim which is one of the earliest Hollywood films to deal with the taboo theme of the occult, with a narrative that revolves around devil worshipping and suicide. Financial constraints meant that film makers were forced to be creative and economical, and this is why many of the films Val Lewton produced are characterised by the creation of a certain unsettling mood and tone.

12 April 2008

MODERNITY AND THE FILM STAR: 'ROBERT DE NIRO'

The words; 'method guru' are probably the defining characteristics which we tend to associate with the star, Robert De Niro. It is his popular relationship with the method style of acting that most people have come to recognise him by and his name has become another American icon embedded within our cultural parameters. De Niro has helped to push the method style of acting to the forefront of modern American cinema, by producing a remarkable range of character based performances that have called for immense physical transformations. Undergoing extraordinary metamorphosis's for the smallest of roles reflects a man obsessed with perfection and equally compelled by the neo realist concept of 'authenticity'. De Niro avoids the powerful influence of make up and special effects because they represent a compromised and superficial means of constructing an illusion that is pretentious. He prefers the asethetics of real acting which demands a consistent search for real life material and detailed research. This choice of total immersion with performance breaks down the illusion of acting solely for the screen as De Niro's work reaches beyond the shoot, penetrating into his private life. His obsession with his craft has created a long list of much celebrated stories that reflect his method madness, and many of these myths have become synonymous with Hollywood celebrity culture and folklore. For the role of Al Capone in De Palma's The Untouchables gangster film, De Niro had the exact same underwear made which Al Capone wore when he was still around haunting the streets of Chicago in the 1920s - though the underwear would never make a screen appearance, De Niro's authentic and punishing approach demanded that he wear them.

Dominating the modern American cinema of the seventies was the dubious and strangely sympathetic figure of the anti-hero, a male figure whom possessed non heroic and weak qualities not traditionally characteristic of the hero. The anti hero of 1970s Hollywood cinema was an isolated and alienated character whom De Niro played variations on in films like Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter and The King of Comedy. These are characters who are typically frustrated males at odds with society, lashing out in a violently disturbing manner and representative of the uglier side of the American underbelly. We could go as far as to label them as sociopaths today. The last and most cinematic association with De Niro the star is his now legendary collaboration with the American director-auteur, Martin Scorsese who together have forged an intimate and highly personal relationship and an extensively daring body of cinematic works. The 'actor's director' is another characteristic linked to De Niro as he is an actor who revels in collaborating fully with the director in bringing to the screen the most appropriate performance. When De Niro completed the first day of filming on Kazan's 'The Last Tycoon', he phoned the director to develop the character further. Martin Scorsese is one of the few people who actually know's the man behind the mask as his off screen persona remains inaccessible and is an enigma as puzzling as that of Brando. Secluding himself from the public's view, De Niro has been presented as a very private and quiet individual, maintaining a low profile until recently where he is seen often on televison endorsing products and brands like American express. Then again the privacy and mystery off screen complements his on screen image as the myth of the frustrated male loner is confirmed by De Niro's refusal to give interviews, reinforcing the notion of him having become alienated from modern society in real life and that he is just as inarticulate as the characters he has embodied on screen.

De Niro has consistently been portrayed as the loner on and off screen right from his breakthrough performance in Scorsese's 'Taxi Driver'. The division that typically exists between the off and on screen image of a film star is not a rule that we can readily apply to someone like De Niro. Everything we see on screen is assumed to be a reflection of the man in reality. This unusually high degree of assumption on behalf of the viewer has occured because of De Niro's isolation from the media's intrusive glare. It is interesting to compare 'Heat' (1995), one of the De Niro's most recent performances with one of his first, 'Taxi Driver' (1976) and to identify that his actual star image of the loner and introvert has not changed significantly. In 'Heat', De Niro plays hard boiled criminal, Neil McCauley who's dedication to his criminal code has numbed his ability to socialise - like Travis Bickle he experiences a great degree of loneliness.

To reverse these dominant representations that have been established over his career would be an unfair mythical deconstruction of his own importance as a star in American cinema. Many of the characters he has played and the ones that have been written about extensively in film literature are 'criminals' and his image has been liberally constructed around his upbrining as he was raised in the Bronx, on the so called mean streets of New York. We can subsequently determine how his Italian origins have been exploited in order that they be directly associated with society's stereotypical image of the Italian hoodlum which is contrary to De Niro's personal admittance of a childhood filled with loneliness. Once again, the persistent emphasis on his upbringing within an environment of loneliness and violence fits into the persona of many of his on screen characters.

There are two basic modes of movement visible within De Niro's performances; the bestial energy of the violent male and stationery silence of the loner. In 'Raging Bull', the camera is constantly attempting to keep up with his amazing physical prowess in the ring and at home. This uneasy combination of violent energy and stillness creates a strange duality which is seemingly ambivalent as it comes across as being a desperate struggle between the two for the man himself. De Niro's style is closer to the restrained and confrontational style of Brando, combining lonely silences and outbursts of violence that are highly emotional and physical. Over the years De Niro has created a cerebral style which suggests he only chooses roles that are physically demanding which is perhaps contradictory when we examine his post 2000 work which consists of comedy roles in films like 'Meet The Parents' that celebrate the postmodern notion of self parody which he so regularly likes to endorse these days.

De Niro has shown a remarkable versitality working within the constraints of the mainstream, taking on many genres, learning to adapt his punishing and methodical approach to everything from crime to comedy. He is surprisingly one of the few actors who can make the audience sympathise with imoral outsiders and misfits like Jake La Motta, Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle - deviations from the classical Hollywood protagonist. It has been 30 years since De Niro started to act in films and considering his relatively inconsistent box office record and bankability, it is strangely unique that through the 80s, a period in which the America become one capitalist frenzy, De Niro managed to come out relatively unscathed. De Niro survived by refusing to compromise his artistic credibility by rejecting commercial projects, choosing roles that provided him with the chance to fufil his need for personal expression. His criticism of Hollywood cinema in the 80s, much of which was directed towards a refusal on part of the script writers to produce intellectual, daring scripts, forced him to work with European film makers who were still committed to the notion of personal expression. Films like 'The Mission', 'Brazil', 'Angel Heart', 'Once Upon a time in America' were all made by directors who are considered to be part of the European arthouse scene. Terry Gilliam, Alan Parker and Sergio Leone, circumvented the Hollywood system by using De Niro as a ploy for raising financing whilst at the same time allowing them to stay true to their original visions for their film projects. Scorsese arguably does a similar thing today with Leonardo De Caprio, whom he uses primarily to get the neccessary financial clout for his increasingly expensive film projects.

Towards the end of the 80s, the game was up and De Niro's shift into the mainstream commercial arena was signalled by his unexpected departure from tough, cynical roles to the comic role a Bounty Hunter, Jack Walsh, in the sleeper hit, 'Midnight Run'. The success of Midnight Run proved his commercial potential as a bankable star. In the 90s, De Niro would alternate regularly from art to commerce with films like 'Heat', 'Cape Fear' and 'Backdraft', reinventing himself as an icon of some real cultural significance. Today, De Niro seems to have had enough of the method madness, and the gradual domination of the high concept film has meant that his choice of roles has become less dependent on the physical demands they could bring but rather on the possibilities of commercial pleasures and attractions. The same could be said about Pacino's recent work.

Like most of Franz Kafka's protagonists who are alienated strangers subjected to capitalist beauracracy, De Niro's performances have constantly reminded use of the ills and sickness experiences in modern environment. The foremost psychological conditioning of alienation can be seen in the performances of 'Taxi Driver' and 'Heat'. They are represented as anxious males drifting through a fractured urban landscape associated with dead, empty spaces that are a reflection of the negative effects of living in a modern world. In many of his fims, De Niro gets across our own fears and hostile relationship we have with our own oppressively detached surroundings. This experience of the modern environment is cynical, brutal and coldly pessimistic, presenting an outlook on life that is defiantely bleak. Disorder in his performance is another stark reminder of the increasing loss of social control in today's world - the notion of the vigilante in Taxi Driver was a disturbing prophecy on the inversion of state control. Travis Bickle's stomach pains are another symbol of the suffocating effects of the world he inhabits. This fatalistic inability to communicate expressively and clearly with the people around him is symptomatic of the paranoia modernity has imposed upon us, trapping us in a world we can no longer relate to, communicate in, nor function within.

Violence is another vital source of expression present in De Niro's performance style and has pointed towards our own ever increasing personal experiences with violence within the context of a society that seems obsessed with control and alienation. The hyperbolic anti social violence that is so persistently inherent within performances we find in 'Taxi Driver' and 'Raging Bull' is problematic of our own apathetic difficulties with real life violence to which we have become desensitised by the media at large. We have accepted violence as trivial and normal yet characters like Travis Bickle re emphasises the brutally self destructive approach that is so readily visible within much of society today. Bickle's desire for acknowledgment and recognition from society through the media's transformation of him into a local hero is a commentary on the perverted role of the media. The media's morbid pre occupation with romanticising the actions of Bickle is a distorted reflection rather than an honest appreciation of Bickle's actual anger.

11 April 2008

GET CARTER (Dir. Mike Hodges, 1971, UK) - Still The Best British Crime Film

Though Croupier (starring Clive Owen) comes close to being the best film Mike Hodges directed, Get Carter continues to rule as the definitive British crime film, and however much Michael Caine's stature as a film actor continues to grow, this still features his finest performance. Get Carter is regularly referred to as the film that scarred the landscape of Tyneside and Newcastle for over a decade and continues to be a film which has amassed a significant cult following that has led to the film being named as one of the best British films of the 70s and examples of the British crime genre. What really pushes this film out of it's generic trappings and sub standard exploitation revenge narrative is Michael Caine's impressive and towering central performance as the cold, heartless and brutal gangster turned vigilante, Jack Carter. The fact that critics and audiences rejected Get Carter on it's original release in 1971 kind of sums up the peculiar cinematic tastes that are inherent within the average British cinemagoer - Donald Cammel and Nic Roeg's Performance also met a similar fate in terms of box office. Michael Caine appears in nearly every scene and the way he carries himself, imposing his tall, controlled presence on the subdued mise en scene, is expressed bravely through the subtlest of gestures and mannerisms; clicking his fingers at a barman, removing Eric Swift's sunglasses with absolute confidence, and instructing his brother Frank's daughter to behave herself like a good little girl. Like Al Pacino in Godfather Part II, the vacant look in Michael Caine's eyes seems to reveal a sadness and loneliness that perfectly captures the moral uncertainity of his actions. Michael Caine moves across the desolate Newcastle landscape, dressed in his trenchcoat like a figure of death, avenging his brother's death with the myopic intensity of a lawless gunslinger and outlaw. The real joy with Get Carter remains with the unrepentant and downbeat ending which is one of the main reasons why the film was not distributed as it should have been in the UK. As Jack Carter takes one final look at his brother's shotgun and prepares to throw it into the sea, a shot rings out and he falls down dead, and suddenly the film fully transforms into an evocative example of contemporary noir; Jack is no longer the crusading vigilante and untouchable teflon gangster that he thinks he is, he is now the doomed noir protagonist. Get Carter is simply sublime film making.

10 April 2008

WINTER LIGHT (Dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1961, Sweden) - The Everlasting Question of Faith

My discovery of the extensive body of cinema produced by Ingmar Bergman has been a gradual process and the recent DVD release of Bergman classics like 'Winter Light' has made me realise how socially progressive Bergman was as a film maker. Winter Light is a meditation on faith and the role of religion in a secular society, and Bergman explores these themes through the figure of a lonely, self destructive and deeply troubled Priest, Tomas Ericsson (Björnstrand), pastor of a rural Swedish church. What is quietly extraordinary about Winter Light is how ahead of it's time it was when it was released at the beginning of the 60s, and even today, when religion is making a resurgence within western society, Bergman's understated study of faith is somberly expressed through a sparse mise en scene that directs it's collective anger against questioning the existence of God. Winter Light reveals the brilliance of Bergman as a writer and also his handling of actors, drawing vivid and theatrical performances, positions him within a unique category amongst the great film makers of the 20th century. Though Winter Light is Bergman's most overtly religious films he directed, it is a film which is largely driven by dialogue and at times the film takes on board the claustraphobic and static dimensions of a play. The Criterion Collection DVD release of this film is an exceptional piece of work with a pristine transfer that is a real tribute to the stoic cinematography of Sven Nykvist. A minor work in the filmography of Ingmar Bergman but a major work in terms of Swedish and World Cinema.

9 April 2008

DARATT / Dry Season (Dir. Mahamat Saleh Haroun, 2006, Chad)

The power of world cinema has always come from it's unique ability to provide us with insights into different cultures, nations and people which have traditionally been alien and distant to us. Daratt is the first film I have seen from the nation of Chad and has been directed by one of the most talented of the contemporary wave of African film makers; Mahamat Saleh Haroun. I have not seen much of African cinema before and personally I have always held reservations about much of African cinema, mainly because it has been difficult to access but the advent of DVD has revolutionised the avaliability of previously hard to find films. The episodic, slow pace of the narrative of Daratt is set to the backdrop of a country which is coming out a difficult and brutal civil war, and focuses on the character of Atim, a symbol of the nation's youth who is sent by his blind grandfather to find and kill Nassara, the man supposedly responsible for his father's death. This is a film which is defined by it's beautifully realised and powerfully humanist ending that suggests unusually how forgiveness can provide some kind of temporary closure for the wounds of a political conflict which is still fresh in the memories of the youth. The dubious and uneasy relationship that Atim develops with the bullish and overtly partriachal figure of Nassara reveals the mistreatment of women within a domain that seems to be ruled by religious sentiments. Nassara is a complex figure who recognises the errors of his ways but who is also avoiding the confrontations he will have to face one day from the relatives of his victims like Atim. Daratt reminded me very much of The Dardenne's film, The Son, which was released a few years ago and though both films originate from separate corners of the globe, they are inexplicably united by the message of peace, compromise and the power of forgiveness.

4 April 2008

RACE (Dir. Abbas Mastan, 2008, India) - Bollywood High Concept At It's Worst

Race belongs in the era of trashy and technically below par film making that was being churned out by the handful at the end of the eighties and beginning of the nineties, and though I had assumed quite wrongly that this type of trashy exploitation film making had become part of the past, it continues to infect film makers in Bollywood today. Directed by the so called duo team of Abbas and Mastan, Race has been characterised by one of the most expensive advertising campaigns for a Bollywood film this year, aggressively promoting Saif Ali Khan's biceps and Biphasha Basu's thighs at an easily distracted youth market. The music promos for Race have been cleverly directed to emphasis the high octaine action aspects of the film which are clearly very minor to a film which is a poor example of the contemporary thriller. Race really has nothing going for it except for well choreographed song and dance sequences which seem to appear in the narrative unexpectedly and purely in an attempt to change the mood and entertain us. Last year, Farah Khan once again with Om Shanti Om showed everybody in the industry how the musical numbers which are so integral to Bollywood films can be incorporated expressively and inventively into the narrative so that it comments upon key themes, characters and helps to further the narrative of the film. In Race, the musical numbers stand out like a sore thumb, becoming effectively dead space and increasing the film's already unacceptable running time. Abbas and Mastan are merely competent film makers who have produced a body of films which are both uninspiring and formulaic. I am in no way going to suggest that the people involved in this venture have contempt for the audience by insulting us with an array of contrived plot twists which by the way seem to go on for an entire 2 hours and 30 minutes, nor I am going to say that reputable Bollywood actors like Saif Ali Khan, Akshay Khanna and Anil Kapoor purely did this film for the money, but what I will say is this; Race is a classic example of a film which was financed not on the basis of the screenplay but because somebody thought that the idea of Saif and Bipasha getting intimate to the soulful music of Pritam would somehow work on all of the Bollywood music video channels, which of course is exactly what has happened. The screenplay for this film is awful, with dialogue that seems to have been invented as they went along, and scenes in a horribly obvious studio set that lack any sort of energy or conviction. Aside from Anil Kapoor who has real fun with his role, everybody else act as if they are auditioning for one of those bad melodramatic TV shows that appear everyday like clockwork on the Star Plus network. Race tries to imitate the Yash Raj Dhoom films but is let down by a shockingly bad script, terrible production values, mournful cinematography, and an ending which is tragically predictable. This all adds up to be Bollywood high concept cinema at it's worst.

3 April 2008

THE ORPHANAGE (Dir. Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007, Spain) - Disappointing Thriller From the Producer of Pan's Labryinth

The Orphanage is another film which has been overhyped and fails to live up to the impossibly high expectations that have been consensually generated by mainstream critics in the UK. The film has been a gigantic commercial success in Spain and is doing very good business for a 'subtitled' film in the UK, having gained a good distribution deal, allowing it to target the multiplex crowd. This is not a horror film but a traditional ghost story that draws a great deal upon Gothic literature and American films like The Others, The Sixth Sense and Poltergeist. This is a very minor film with little originality in terms of the ghost story genre, relying upon established conventions like the one about the past coming back to haunt the present. For me, this film has been marketed quite cleverly, misleading audiences with it's effectively taut trailer that gives very little away in terms of key narrative plot points. What would have made for much more of an interesting story is if they had stayed with the child's perspective and had the narrative unfold through the eyes of the little boy who is played brilliantly by a talented young actor. The twist ending is totally uninspiring and was lost on me as an audience member as everything seemed to build up to this one moment and when it arrives it suddenly seems as though we have just been robbed because not only is it quite predictable, it is cynically manipulative and very Del Toro like in it's fatalism.

SECRET SUNSHINE (Dir. Lee Chang-dong, 2007, South Korea) - An Emotionally Draining Experience

South Korea has produced so many brilliant film makers over the last decade that it is hard to keep track of them all. Though the Korean new wave has peaked in terms of international commercial appeal, it still continues to produce films which regularly find themselves at prestigious international film festivals like Cannes and Berlinale. Kim Ke Duk, Park Chan Wook, Bong Joon-Ho, and Lee Chang-Dong are some of the best known of the Korean new wave film auteurs, and much of their work has reached a stage where we find them adopting different cinematic approaches and exploring alternative subject matter and genres which we would not normally associate them with. A recent example is Park Chan Wook's experimentation with the romantic comedy and science fiction genres in his latest offbeat film, 'I'm a Cyborg, but that's OK'. The powerful and hard hitting 'Peppermint Candy', directed by Lee Chang-dong in 2000 is the film that he is readily associated with in film literature. His latest feature, Secret Sunshine, premiered at Cannes last year, and was well received, with the Korean actress, Jeon Do-yeon, walking away with the coeveted Best Actress acoloade. Cannes seems to have got it right by awarding this film with a prize for performance because this is a film which is built around a single performance, and though that may be a criticism aswell, Secret Sunshine's emotional intensity comes directly from Jeon Do-Yeon's amazing performance. The narrative focuses on a woman who has lost her husband in a road accident, relocating with her son to a small town where her husband was born. However, her attempts to reconstruct a new identity and life for herself in the town is met with fatal consequences when her son is kidnapped and murdered by a local school teacher. The majority of the film examines the difficulties both emotionally and ideologically that Jeon Do-Yeon's character Sin-ae must face for her to be able to cope with the loss of her husband and son. When Sin-ae discovers her son has been murdered, she turns to religion for peace but her beliefs are short lived when she discovers that the imprisoned man who is responsible for her son's death has already been absolved of his sins by forces of providence. Sin-ae's rejection of religion and belief in humanity is worked out through the film's narrative but by the end she seems to have arrived at a point in her life where we are not given any hint of closure or resolution to her emotional problems. Trauma for Sin-ae seems like a never ending process. Jeon Do-Yeon's performance is undoubtedly the most striking and commendable feature of what is a very emotionally draining viewing experience.

2 April 2008

THE BANISHMENT (Dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2007, Russia) - Reimagining The Work of Andrei Tarkovsky

'The Banishment' is Russian film maker Andrey Zvyagintsev's follow up to his multi award winning and devestating first feature, 'The Return'. The Banishment is a deeply cryptic and allegorical film that left me baffled about what it is exactly trying to tell us about modern life. However, the real pleasure of this film rests with one of the most masterful and beautifully framed mise en scene's I have come across - the images and moods Zvyagintsev manages to create and express are remarkably linked to our understanding of nature and it's intensity as a landscape which is both mysterious and deeply allusive. Zvyagintsev's camerawork is meticulous and profoundly compelling - his shots of industrial and countryside landscapes are detailed, metaphorical and should I say Tarkovsky like in their beauty. Very few film makers know how to utilise the potential of the widescreen frame and each of Zvyagintsev's compositions are individually breathtaking - take for example the opening of the film which begins with a bold image of a tree on a baren landscape, a car appears in the distance and it slowly makes it way towards us on a dirt road; the light which radiates from the frame in this sequence and throughout the film is exceptionally lucid, making the mise en scene appear very tangible - this is a film about experiencing the textures of life and those sentiments come across vividly through the multi layered and dense cinematography. The Banishment gets more confusing as the narrative unfolds and the film in no way depends upon a plot or real story as such. This film is a staggering technical achievement - it is in my opinion one of the most beautiful films in terms of graphic design, use of lighting and general mise en scene manipulation I have come across since David Fincher's masterpiece Zodiac. Zvyagintsev has shown great promise with his first two films and like Alexandr Soukrov has emerged as an important figure within contemporary Russian cinema.