29 November 2011

BULLET IN THE HEAD - (Dir. John Woo, 1990, Hong Kong)

John Woo is an innovator. With his Hong Kong action films of the 80s and 90s, Woo helped to transform the style in which action sequences were shot. Although the explicit, if not celebratory, references to the world of Peckinpah, Leone and Melville plugged us right into the cerebral strata of postmodern cinema, Woo’s sensibilities occupied, dare I say it, a realm of existential melodrama that echoed the eternal heartbeat of his nocturnal Hong Kong city-scapes. It was somewhat inevitable Woo would be tempted by Hollywood and his time in La-la land produced a disparate body of work that paled into creative insignificance when compared to the measure of striking visual aesthetics he had cultivated in Hong Kong. It is not difficult to pin point why such a creative void existed between Hollywood and Hong Kong – it was all to do with budget in my opinion. In any country, in any context and in any time, directors work better and much more creatively when working with limited resources. Subsequently, innovation becomes a necessity rather than just an accessory. The only exception of Woo’s Hollywood work is claimed to be Face-Off, which may possibly stand up as a film that is of equal quality to his Hong Kong output. It is somewhat reassuring that Woo has returned to his roots and with Red Cliff, he certainly demonstrated that he has lost none of his operatic signature moves including slow motion ballet. The other striking aspect of Woo’s Hong Kong actions films including Hard Boiled, The Killer and Bullet in the Head is the level of emotional involvement with the characters. Woo trained as an assistant under the populist commercial director Chang Cheh who was a key figure in the Shaw Bros film studio. Cheh developed what became known as the ‘heroic bloodshed’ film that incorporated the Wuxia tradition with a heightened emphasis on violence and masculinity. Woo expanded upon Cheh’s work, helping to refine the heroic bloodshed film and with Bullet in the Head, described by David Bordwell as Woo’s ‘most anguished work’, familiar themes to do with friendship, loyalty and violence merged with the real politics of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Bullet in the Head was one of the first films Woo directed after his split with producer Tsui Hark and the project was difficult to finance given the script’s bleakness. Woo ended up financing the film himself but the gamble didn’t pay off as the film was a commercial failure at the box office. Nevertheless, Bullet in the Head is one of Woo’s richest films. The central storyline of three close friends, Ben/Ah Bee (Tony Leung), Frank/Fai (Jacky Cheung) and Paul/Little Wing (Waise Lee), growing up in a 1960s Hong Kong only to leave for Vietnam and become embroiled in a world of guns, gold and violence recalls most extensively the narrative trajectory of The Deer Hunter, in which war traumatises friendship and causes the loss of identity. What distinguish Woo’s film from the Hollywood lexicon are themes of individual capitalist greed and social mobility intrinsic to Hong Kong in the consumer driven 1980s. In many ways, the box of gold that becomes a central motivating element of the narrative recalls the study of greed in Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre. The cast also impresses and it would be almost impossible to get Tony Leung and Simon Yam in the same film today, given their popularity as two of South Asia’s biggest film stars. The title of the film refers to the bullet that becomes lodged in the head of Frank when he is shot and betrayed by his friend Paul. Paul becomes consumed by greed and during their time in Vietnam, he jeopardises the lives of those around him so he can achieve his goal of social mobility and achieve an exalted place in a new Hong Kong capitalist society. The film’s tone gets much darker in the second half of the film. In one of the most ‘anguished’ moments, Ben confronts Paul over his betrayal by bringing the skull of their dead friend Frank into the boardroom. The image of the skull is iconographic of the horror genre and is transformed into a metonym of corporate greed that finds certain validity in today’s ethically bankrupt society. What Woo demonstrates with the action genre conventions is the capacity to move beyond ideological limitations and merge the personal with the political.

26 November 2011

COME AND SEE / IDI I SMOTRI (Dir. Elem Klimov, 1985, Soviet Union)

When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Belorussia (now Belarus) was occupied and ethnically cleansed of its Jewish population. Elem Klimov’s Idi I Smotri / Come and See (1985) is one of the most visceral films I have come cross. Klimov uses the point of view of a young country boy Florya Gaishun (Aleksey Kravchenko) who joins the Belorussian resistance and witnesses at first hand the horrors of World War II. Klimov covers the gamut of war from occupation to resistance and also the destruction of villages. This is a journey film so plot is irrelevant and the narrative is led by the movement of Florya across the Russian landscapes. As the level of trauma increases around Florya and the more brutality he witnesses, the more he ages. His face seems to paralyse, aching with a lifetime of unspeakable horror. The range of shocking imagery, raw and resolute in its clarity, is deeply affecting and moving. Klimov’s trajectory for Florya is relentless as the boy’s gaze transforms into a marker of historical truth, recording reality around him which he cannot transcend or prevent from unfolding; Florya is both a witness and victim of war. The most gruesome chapter in the film, which takes up a third of the film, depicts the complete destruction and ethnic cleansing of a village by marauding Nazis. Florya’s final gunshot and gaze that is directed at the audience is a complicated one as it attempts to unravel a history that cannot be undone. By journeying backwards through Adolf Hitler’s life and ending the sequence on a photo with Hitler as a baby, Klimov emphasises simplicity and universality about our lives, that innocence is both momentary and premature in the face of history.

19 November 2011

SILENT RUNNING (Dir. Douglas Trumbull, 1972, US)

Following the unexpected commercial success of Kubrick’s mind trip of a science fiction film, visual effects wiz Douglas Trumbull, who had been central to the special effects achievements of 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed his own take on the science fiction genre with the ingenious and under stated film Silent Running in 1972. Long available on DVD, the Masters of Cinema DVD label has given the film a much anticipated Blu-ray treatment including a gloriously new pristine transfer with suitably appealing extras. At first Douglas Trumbull did not envision directing the film. With a budget set at one million dollars, many directors were reluctant to take on a screenplay loaded with ideological sentiment, and so it eventually fell upon Trumbull to take on the role of director. The film was shot on a disused aircraft carrier, which was due for the scrap heap, and the production team converted the claustrophobic interiors into the spaceship Valley Forge. Having worked with Kubrick, Trumbull felt that science fiction cinema and space in particular was a lonely place but this didn’t necessarily mean humans had to be emotionless. Trumbull approached Silent Running from both an ideological and emotional point of view that echoed the growing concern in society towards the erosion of the environment. The narrative focuses on the character of Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), a hippie care taker and staunch environmentalist, who has been assigned the task of cultivating plant life which are housed in large domes. Set in the future in which all plant life on Earth has become extinct, the spaceship Valley Forge is an experiment initiated by the government to try and preserve the last remnants of plant life. However, given the cost involved of such an environmental experiment, the company and effectively the establishment decide to terminate the project. Incensed, Lowell kills his crew mates and with the help of the droids, he takes control of the ship. Trumbull mixes science fiction conventions with melodrama to create a genuinely moving plea for the preservation of the environment. Silent Running is a film that makes no cryptic or ambiguous existential statements or ruminations on the human condition, but by being so transparent in its message, the film’s honesty doesn’t feel contrived or pretentious. Trumbull doesn’t just want us to see the cost of our self destruction but feel it too through the time he devotes to the relationship between Lowell and the forest. Everything is spot on including the songs by Joan Baez, which haven’t dated in the slightest given the prescient lyrics, and the terrific performance by the sorely overlooked Bruce Dern. Masters of Cinema have to be commended on bringing Silent Running to Blu-ray because it is a science fiction that continues to grow in stature but unfortunately is still eclipsed by other generally over rated science fiction films. It's of little surprise that two of the best recent science fiction films, Moon and Wall E, have both been influenced by the film’s retro dystopian aesthetics and humane representation of robots, singling out Silent Running as an obvious classic of the genre.

17 November 2011

THE CONVERSATION (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1974, US)

One of many startling images from the film. (Blu-ray screengrab taken from the DVDBeaver website)

Coppola’s masterpiece is a film drenched in 1970s paranoia. The Conversation is one of my favourite American films. I first watched the film on Mark Cousin’s Moviedrome series on BBC2 and was surprised that Coppola had directed it. Revisiting the film on Blu-ray has made me appreciate not only the chilling political subtext but also experience yet again Coppola’s ability to merge the aesthetics of European cinema, especially the work of Antonioni and Bertolucci, with a wider ideological context. The use of architecture (spaces and places) and particularly the fixation with transparency (Harry’s transparent raincoat offers a lesson in creative prop choices) and loneliness is echoed throughout the choice framing of Harry Caul against glass, concrete and steel structures. Not only does such an aesthetic of architectural alienation echo the existential landscapes of Antonioni’s films but also it hits upon a thematic to do with corporate hegemony, which is still prescient today. Coppola’s film is referred to as his most personal work and the intense focus on a singular character gives the narrative a psychological complexity that was often witnessed in many of the great American films of the 1970s; both Chinatown and Taxi Driver come to mind in their study of the existential and lonely anti-hero. For Harry Caul, a surveillance expert, privacy is everything and defines him as an individual. With the fallout of the Watergate Scandal and the subsequent resignation of Richard Nixon, the film uses the erosion of Harry Caul’s privacy to comment on what had become a corrupt and dishonest American establishment that was capable of violating the trust of its people. However, even we were separate the events of the 1970s from the ideological content of the film, Coppola’s film would still occupy a unique position in American cinema of that era, largely because it is an exercise in remarkable sound design and film editing. The Conversation is a film that Coppola must share with his long time collaborator Walter Murch.

14 November 2011

WUTHERING HEIGHTS (Dir. Andrea Arnold, 2011, UK)

I came to Wuthering Heights from an interest in director Andrea Arnold. I have not read the novel and have no intention of doing so. It’s not surprising that much of the past week’s coverage of Andrea Arnold’s film has been either through a literary adaptation perspective or the racial facelift given to the central Byronic protagonist, Heathcliff. Given the fixation with literary adaptations and the Englishness inherent in so many heritage films, it is of little surprise that director Andrea Arnold’s latest film has been given so much exposure by the British media. To contrast the current interest surrounding Wuthering Heights to Arnold’s last two overlooked films, Red Road and Fish Tank, and it is obvious to determine that a discriminatory cultural agenda is busy at work. If Heathcliff is the ultimate outsider then so is Jackie (Kate Dickie) in Red Road and Mia (Katie Jarvis) in Fish Tank – all three are united by a recurring thematic interest with looking, gazing and a certain want for social mobility. Although a neo-realist aesthetic has been attached to Arnold, what the first hour of Wuthering Heights proves is a capacity to move beyond realist predilections and create intrinsically poetic imagery reminiscent of both Tarkovsky and Malick. Heathcliff’s connection to the earth makes Arnold’s film an elemental one that is also movingly impressionistic in its depiction of a specifically English environment and landscape. The first hour is a process of magnification, bringing to life the micro details of Heathcliff’s new environment and so Arnold pushes the observational mode to its very extreme but as a result achieves a gripping transience. Arnold has referred to Heathcliff as a force of nature and his relationship with the Yorkshire moors is conveyed through a repeated and prolonged emphasis on water, mud, the sky, wind, fire, animals, and many other elements. Sound designer Nicolas Becker and sound recordist Rashad Omar serve Arnold brilliantly. Such depiction of the rural English landscape is reminiscent of Kevin Brownlow’s Winstanley (1976). Had this not been an adaptation I wonder to what extent Arnold might have gone to making the film into a singular character study and journey film. Ideologically, class and gender dominates the council estate narratives of Red Road and Fish Tank, and with the inclusion of race in Wuthering Heights, Arnold is likely to continue broadening her socio-political preoccupations. At the beginning of the film a hill farmer, Mr. Earnshaw, brings a young Heathcliff into the family home. As he stands in front of the family, some of them immediately pass judgement on Heathcliff and Cathy whom he will grow to love spits in his face. It is an unwavering moment, raw and to the core of human existence, and demonstrates Arnold’s innovative means of confronting wider prejudices, anxieties and issues without having to resort to sentiment.

Here's an interview with director Andrea Arnold:

12 November 2011

MADHUMATI (Dir. Bimal Roy, 1958, India)

Madhumati was one of two Hindi films on which director Ritwik Ghatak worked as a writer. The other film was Musafir, released in 1957 and directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. When released in 1958 Madhumati was a huge box office hit and saw the re-teaming of director Bimal Roy and actor Dilip Kumar. Madhumati stands alongside Kamal Amrohi’s gothic noir Mahal in terms of its influence, pioneering and popularising the theme of reincarnation in Hindi cinema. The film is a beguiling one, blending together expressionist imagery, rural landscapes and a haunting ghost story, that eventually builds to an unexpected fatalistic ending (although undercut by a conventional epilogue). Familiarity with the work of Ritwik Ghatak and his interest in the more indigenous aspects of tribal customs and rural village life (as expressed in both his films and writings) is manifested most directly in the central romance between Anand (Dilip Kumar), a symbol of the middle class, and Madhumati (Vijayantimala), an innocent tribal girl. With music by Salil Choudhury and lyrics by Shailendra, the soundtrack is regarded as one of the creative high points of 1950s Hindi cinema with classics like ‘Toote Huye Khwabon Ne’ (Rafi Saab). I had problems with the running time of Rockstar, a contemporary Hindi film, which ran for three hours (unjustifiably) but considering Madhumati is of a similar length, it is easy determine that unlike Imtiaz Ali, Bimal Roy has formidable control over his material. A superior melodrama.

ROCKSTAR (Dir. Imtiaz Ali, 2011, India)

It’s strange but for the first hour or so of Rockstar I felt director Imtiaz Ali was about to show real progression and evolution as a film maker. Unfortunately, my hopes were soon dashed in the second half of the film in which Imtiaz Ali loses control of his material, thus leaving everything to self-destruct into a hyperbolic mash up. Before I talk a little about the film’s flaws, I want to begin by pointing out some of the virtues. Rockstar arrives at the end of the year with a lot of hype behind it. It is director Imtiaz Ali’s fourth feature, having directed three films that are predominately led by predictable boy meets girl romantic entanglements. Rockstar has a lot of money behind it (it’s all up there on the big screen, which makes a change) and a big name in the form of Ranbir Kapoor. The film is about Janardhan Jakhar / Jordan (Ranbir Kapoor), a middle class Delhi boy, who has musical aspirations and gradually succeeds in becoming a famous singer and ‘rockstar’. Along the way, Jordan falls in love with Heer Kaul (Nargis Fakhri) but his explosive diva attitude makes him a controversial figure. Firstly, Imtiaz Ali should be commended for thinking on an epic scale, and this being a musical, he largely succeeds in conveying a certain international grandeur about the way music can be a real leveller in society. Although, the narrative does shift around geographically with an alarming frequency, the cinematography and especially the choice of framing seems like a real contrast to most big budget mainstream Hindi films. Secondly, the brilliant music by A. R. Rahman certainly gives much of the images a certain weight and emotional resonance; at least they got one thing right for a film about a musician. Thirdly, Imtiaz Ali is right to make many of the parental figures peripheral rather than allowing them to typically shift away the focus from the youth to more traditional dilemmas. Nevertheless, like so many recent Hindi films which have arrived with an incredible fanfare behind them Rockstar has notable weaknesses that one finds problematic to overlook or push to one side. Admittedly, one of the crimes committed by Imtiaz Ali is in a way uniquely Indian – which is the exhausting running time of the film. I don’t mind intervals, its part of the experience of Hindi cinema, but I think the producers missed a trick by not releasing this film as two parts. Not only would this have solved the problem of narrative momentum but also it may have given the writers more scope with which to do something more creative and engaging in the second half. Another problem is that so many directors still undervalue the importance of the script. It is telling in the way in which the film wants to break with tradition but simply ends up reinforcing many of the stereotypical images associated with out of control musicians that circulate in the media. For me, Ranbir Kapoor seems more assured and appears more comfortable in the first hour as the hapless college youth but his transition to petulant rock-god is unconvincing and confusingly performed. Screaming into a microphone and strumming a guitar may appear workable in the context of a trailer but when included in a full narrative, they come across as terrible cliques. The other major element missing from the character of Jordan is ideology. In the film, Jordan’s transformation into a symbol of political protest is largely redundant because we never see him demonstrating any such political overtones; his defiance of the establishment is yet more premature, superficial posturing. In terms of the final third and conclusion, director Imtiaz Ali has no idea how to end his film. By unnecessarily invoking the most tiresome of romantic conventions (terminal illness) the desire to become a tragic epic musical comes to fruition but brings with it a transparent and manipulative ending that strikes all the wrong notes. The considerable flaws do outweigh the strengths of Rockstar but don’t let that get in the way of what has to be one of the most enjoyable soundtracks of the year.

5 November 2011

THE ROBBER / DER RAUBER (Dir. Benjamin Heisenberg, 2010, Germany/Austria)

The Robber is a German/Austrian thriller which is already being prepared for a re-make by Hollywood. What this means is that once again audiences are likely to ever know that an original and much better film existed before Hollywood got their hands on to it. Based on a true story, Johann Rettenberger is a marathon athlete who is released from prison. Johann uses his speed to begin robbing banks and the chance of being caught makes it an addictive experience for him. Director Benjamin Heisenberg shrouds Johann's past in a cloak of relative darkness that is maintained throughout the episodic narrative. Johann's cryptic nature and refusal to explain his actions recalls the elliptically charged characters of Bresson's most austere films. The muted visual style including a stripped down mise en scene creates a deadening impression of contemporary Austrian society. The film excels in the final third in which Johann escapes from police custody initiating a dramatically staged chase sequence. The Robber is a sombre character study but Johann's predictable and nihilist trajectory makes the overall experience way too detached for us to care for anyone. This is a film which one could easily position under the category of existential cinema, and Heisenberg's technical control over the material is impressive. American director Michael Mann would arguably be a perfect candidate for the re-make as Johann is an anti-hero fixated with death, time and professionalism.

2 November 2011

YAADEIN / MEMORIES (Dir. Sunil Dutt, 1964, India)

Set entirely in the confines of a house and featuring only one actor playing out a variety of roles, Yaadein is somewhat of a genuine oddity. Yaadein was the only film actor Sunil Dutt directed. The film adheres to a vivid expressionist style with numerous canted angles and low angle shots that literally imprison Anil’s (Sunil Dutt) figure within the tightly composed frame. Dispensing with plot, the film is an extended monologue delivered by Dutt as he wanders through the house reflecting on the breakdown of his marriage. Sunil Dutt was a terrific actor and his presence in virtually every scene was an exhausting and risky strategy to take but in many ways this is what makes Yaadein so distinct. It is evident that Sunil Dutt was openly interested in playing with his star image and Yaadein’s experimental vein pointed to a potentially interesting directorial career, which unfortunately never came to fruition. Yaadein is also problematic to categorise. While the film features a major actor/star in the lead role, the absence of plot and additional dominant mainstream characteristics pushes the film into the category of the art film. Nevertheless, Yaadein was a one off for the actor and whereas the film offers some fascinating expressionist moments, it has largely been forgotten because of a stylistic and ideological insignificance.