Thursday, 25 November 2010

Ronin (1998)

Robert De Niro, Jean Reno et al drive quite fast around France after a shiny briefcase. Lots of people get killed. There's some ice-skating.

Post-Jackal/Mission Impossible, pre-Bourne Euro assassin thriller - this film has a '70s feel, and with a bit more steely nous than a typical Hollywood thriller, this film does seem to be the perfect stepping stone between the high octane, unbelievable and really quite sterile Mission Impossible and the existential, intellectual Bourne trilogy.

As with the aformentioned thrillers, there is interesting use of technology. There is use of mobile phones but not digital cameras and this does place the film (and the others mentioned) firmly in time and space - the different technologies used act as a marker that instantly takes us to a specific year.

I really like the use of the McGuffin of the shiny briefcase - in the end De Niro is not interested in the case itself, but the destined owner of said briefcase. Just like the stolen cash in Psycho, it is the red herring that lures the viewer into thinking this is a run of the mill thriller. However, we begin to realise as the film goes on that there is none of your bog standard 'explaining' scenes about what is within the case.

The scenes toward the end of the film at the ice rink echo Frankenheimer's 1962 classic The Manchurian Candidate - the big stadium and a sniper again forging a link between Ronin and previous thrillers. The European setting also reminded me of other similar thrillers, especially after reading an article in the December 2010 issue of Sight and Sound about the George Clooney assassin film The American.

Anyway, a really enjoyable romp with a satisfactory ending that doesn't insult the viewers' intelligence and well worth seeking out if you enjoyed Bourne et al.

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Monday, 22 November 2010

Q&A (1990)

Bad cop/good lawyer go head to head in a classic police corruption procedural from Sidney Lumet and David Mamet.

I can still recall the episode of Film '90 or Film '91 that I was watching when the review of Q&A came on. The clip they showed is about half way through the film, when young assistant District Attorney Timothy Hutton is attending a crime scene and dodgy, corrupt cop Nick Nolte starts a tirade about the sanctity of police officers. I remember thinking that I wanted to know/see more, so only ten years late.

Q&A is a great thriller with lots of touches of the standard corrupt cop film but with some really original bits too. I kept being reminded me of James Ellroy's LA Confidential as we never, ever get to know the baddie, just like Ellroy's ultimate evil character, Lt Dudley Smith (played by James Cromwell, also known as the farmer in Babe. Confused? You will be). This makes them even more badass as we don't ever see their weaknesses or vulnerability, whilst we are constantly empathising with the limitations of the good guys. The only downside to the film version of LA Confidential is that Curtis Hanson decided that Dudley Smith should get killed off (baaaaad idea), rather than continuing as an unkillable enemy that he does in Ellroy's books.

We're introduced to hard boiled New York Irish American cop Mike Brennan (Nick Nolte) in the opening scene, in which he coldly dispatches an unarmed Peurto Rican lowlife and then makes it look like justifiable homicide. From this highly charged beginning we are lead into a very murky world of corruption, double dealings and murder, ending not so happily and more than a little ambiguously for the good guy.

Nick Nolte's character, Mike Brennan is a nasty piece of work and we learn much of this through others. There is something powerful about hearing bad stories of someone alongside seeing just a sample of their crimes. We do see Nolte killing people, but we never see him at home, rarely alone. What we do hear is others' tales of his history, who he knows, what he knows about them and what they know about him.

The good guy, Timothy Hutton's lawyer, has his flaws. We learn how he had previously left his girlfriend after learning that her father was black. The casual racism of the white cops against black and Hispanic colleagues also further highlights that alongside quite sophisticated corruption, that the NYPD painted here is one made up of thuggish throwbacks.

So many scenes have really cracking dialogue (courtesy of Lumet, Edwin Torres, who wrote the original book and with some help from David Mamet), from the police interviews with local Italian and Peurto Rican gangsters to the lawyers bar scene.

Armand Assante gives a great performance as a Peurto Rican drug lord looking to get out (with Hutton's ex), go straight and live the good life back in the mother land. As we get to know him and actually how moral he is, the idea that good and bad is not black and white is reinforced.

I kept hoping that we would get the great coming together/shoot out/good triumphing over evil scene, but Q&A is not that kind of film. The '80s/Miami Vice feel and look to the film belies its grittiness and I was left a bit bereft that there was not a clean happy ending. Ultimately though, it kind of made me respect it much more.

The only sticking point about the whole things was the music. Some bad '80s AOR style tunes were included, where what was really needed was some highly dramatic orchestral scoring to underline the heavyweight nature of what you get as a viewer.

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Saturday, 13 November 2010

Wings of Desire (1987)

Angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) flies about Berlin, dropping in on various lives but never being able to interfere. He eventually falls, both down to earth and for a human.

The film begins with a poem about children/childhood. We return to this poem throughout the film, and alongside images of children, you start to get a sense of Damiel's view of humanity as children, we don't get the eternity he has had to really learn or experience anything. But, he also sees into people's thoughts and feelings and realises how many of us are always thinking about mortality and the meaning of life.

Beginning in warm black and white, we begin with Damiel visiting many different people, in their homes, on the street, in cars. He discusses what he's been doing with a fellow angel and proclaims that he wants to take part in life, be seen, be part of things on earth.

They both visit a library, seeing lots of other angels overlooking those studying. A nice parallel - whilst the angel wishes to take part in mortality, the humans he's watching struggle with theirs.

We then see him visit a circus, where he sees a female trapeze artist, Marion, dressed as an angel and he falls in love with her. There are some lovely moments here with Marion saying to her colleagues "these wings bother me", well, exactly. As we watch her fly about on her trapeze, the film is suddenly in bright colour for several seconds. Is this our angel beginning to see the possiblities of a life in love and as a mortal?

We follow them both back to her trailer, where, as she thinks about her life and future, Damiel takes in her belongings, her past, photographs. She is longing for love and so is he, but he does not exist in her realm.

To me, Wings of Desire is an essay on humanity, our struggle with only being here for a short time. Between birth and death we experience so much, but in the bigger scheme of things it is but a sigh. How do we deal with mortality? We regret all the things not done, not yet experienced but also look back and enjoy what we have done. Is the regret of things not done a more powerful sensation than of the pleasure from things done? Some look to the bigger narratives, war and peace, history, but the majority look to their own private lives.

Set in Berlin (a city destroyed by war and divided by ideology) in 1987, this is also a work about a divided society, a divided self. We and Damiel follow citizens wandering the city, cut off by the Wall from memories of things past, reminiscing about cafes and buildings that have since been destroyed. Are all of us part human and part immortal angel? We oversee our own lives, think about our own histories and yet cannot escape the onward march toward death.

So, this is also a film about borders, passing between different states of existence, obsession with the past and how it continues to affect the present.

Peter Falk is ace as himself, shooting a film about the Second World War, again recreating history, dragging another world into the present.

Wenders and his photographers (including assistant director Claire Denis) use lots of crane shots, the descending camera constantly coming to down to 'our' level, the human level from where sometimes our heads are in the clouds.

There's a gorgeous moment as Damiel sits with the audience of children at the circus, the child sitting next to him turns and speaks to him. He then turns to look at us directly in the camera and smiles knowingly. Was this perhaps destined to be an outtake but then kept in as an indication of the importance of children?

Damiel finally breaks through to both life and colour film. We see him experience many things for the first time - tasting his own blood, being cold, learning the names of different colours, drinking coffee. This reminded me of my own learning, thinking back to when I learnt many of these things, as a child of course. He then goes after the trapeze artist but finds the circus gone. They eventually find each other and through experiencing love with Marion, Damiel discovers what it is to be human and even though he has brought himself down to human level (and only for a limited time), he finds that transcendence is also possible through love.

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Friday, 12 November 2010

Scenes From a Marriage (1973)

Synopsis: Middle class Swedish couple argue about marriage. The End.

Another one of those modern foreign art-house classics that one is supposed to have seen. I thought that this would be a struggle to get through in that it's about two and a half hours long and not much really happens. Apart from talking. A lot of talking. This film is all centred around the dialogue of a couple that have been married for some time, the husband has an affair, they break-up and eventually divorce but begin an affair of their own even after both have remarried.

Anyway, I needn't have worried about being bored. The dialogue is fascinating and not quite the intellectual merry go round that I had expected. It is an honest look at what couples can feel about each other, using accessible language and ideas.

We get to know the couple, Marianne and Johan, pretty well throughout their rows/discussions. We see their vulnerability and their strength as they both move through the different stages of the marriage and break up and I got a real sense of how, by the end, they both change a great deal.

As we begin the story, Marianne and Johan first speak to a reporter about their marriage (Johan bragging about himself and Marianne shyly talking about herself) and then as they entertain another couple. This bourgeois dinner party soon turns sour as the friends begin a vicious Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf style battle of put downs and insults. Marianne and Johan look on objectively, and even pride themselves on their own smug happiness after the couple have gone. We get a sense that we are being set up for some sort of fall as both the discussions with the reporter and the dinner party point to potential problems.

We also get a few scenes in which both partners are shown struggling with their family obligations and we see the strain that this puts on the other. Eventually Johan declares his love for another woman and leaves Marianne. This scene is a hard watch, as its played so low key, so matter of fact. Bergman gives them so much room in these scenes to go over what is happening and yet still you're left with that desperate notion (that many of us have experienced) at time having run out for them as a couple.

Marianne deals with the break up through various emotions: denial, anger and finally a strong resolve to pick herself up and carry on. There's a great sequence when Johan visits Marianne for the first time in six months for dinner. She discusses the therapy that she's been in, reading from her diary. I thought this scene was really superb, as Marianne (through photo flashbacks of Liv Ullman as a girl growing up) describes how her upbringing and adolescence has shaped the woman she has become. The insight and authenticity that Bergman brings to the female mindset is remarkable considering he also wrote these scenes and although much of Marianne's monologue feels very psychoanalytical, it still rings true on a much more instinctive level. The ace climax to her intimate monologue is that Johan has fallen asleep whilst listening, which is perhaps even more authentic than Marianne's speech.

This is followed by Johan's attempted seduction of Marianne, reminding me a bit of the end of Antonioni's La Notte. Bergman shows how sex between the couple has become a matter of bargaining and no longer of passion. Even as Marianne admits how she has thought of Johan in that way since their separation, she will not give in to him because of how this will make her feel. Earlier on, pre break up we see a couple of attempts of one or the other at suggesting sex, with the other rejecting for some banal reason. I would bet a hundred quid that anyone in a long term relationship would recognise themselves or their partners in these sequences.

The other cracking sequence is the one in which (again months or is it years) later, they are in Johan's office to sign the divorce papers. This felt like a scene from a stage play - it's an over extended scene in which the characters get drunk on expensive French brandy, first get along and agree and then argue horribly about getting divorced. They take turns in having the upper hand until Johan resorts to physical violence, finally releasing the tension that has built up between them over several years.

So many times whilst watching this I felt as if I were a voyeur, eavesdropping on the most delicate and intimate discussions of the couple. I think this is partly as the vast majority of scenes are between Marianne and Johan, we get very few supporting characters and even then they are largely off screen. This creates a claustrophobic atmosphere (much like a real relationship) in which the couple exists almost in a vacuum.

That they embark on an affair with each other even after re-marriage is perhaps testimony to an idea of what? not being able to let go? being just this side of right for each other? masochism? The ending, with the couple on a dirty weekend in a seaside cottage, is very much open to interpretation. Will Marianne and Johan continue with their affair or will their relationship ever finally come to an end? Maybe Bergman is saying that we could spend our entire lives exploring relationships with the same people, but still never really learn enough to be happy, either about ourselves or our partners.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)

Terence Davies' contemplative vision of his upbringing in 1940s/1950s Liverpool.

I saw Of Time and the City not that long ago - Davies' homage to his home town of Liverpool and the changes that the city has seen from the '50s onwards. A lovely sort-of-documentary but in my mind not quite as good as a much earlier BFI documentary on Northern cities - Morning in the Streets. Anyhow, Distant Voices really exceeded my expectations and is also a deeply emotional film.

The film starts with us looking at an ordinary terraced house, fairly drab, nothing extraordinary. As the camera takes us inside the house and along the hallway to look at the stairs, we see a woman come to the bottom of the stairs and call up to her three children to come down for breakfast. We then expect to see the children tumble down the stairs but instead we hear their voices and footsteps but see nothing. This immediately said to me that this film is about memory; that sensation of being in a place full of memories and senses coming back to you - words said, noises heard.

It also gave me a hint that this was going to be a non-linear narrative. It is a film full of tableaux and vignettes, all centering around a working class, Catholic family and the big events that frame their lives, the births, marriages and deaths. Each event is staged like an act in a play, kind of out context of the rest of the film, but each episode is like this with only images and music threading everything together rather than the standard voiceover or necessary explanatory scenes. This format gives the film lots of spaces and silences, allowing the viewer to slow down, absorb the images and contemplate on their own history, their own life.

The theatrical feel extends to the settings and surroundings, lighting and sound direction. Many scenes include shafts of slightly unreal looking sunlight coming through windows and very little or no extraneous noise in the street scenes. The colour palette is very drab and washed out in the first half, with even rosy wallpaper looking pale and dated. The second half warms up (as explained in the interview with the director in the DVD extras) as the story becomes slightly warmer, though to say why may ruin the film.

The story itself is about Davies' family and is one of the most emotive and down to earth depictions of domestic violence I've seen for a long time. There's no Nil by Mouth De Niro-esque ramblings from Dad Pete Postlethwaite in this film. We don't get an explanation as to why this man is an unpredictable tyrant towards his family, we simply see the erratic, violent outbursts and the fallout. Reminding me as it did of part of my own family one generation back, I found this a very uncomfortable watch but perhaps brought me closer to understanding what my own grandmother must have gone through.

In a broader way, I think Davies does a great job in showing how men and women experience life differently, especially at that particular time and how the expectations of family, church and community had a tight grip on people's lives. He also evokes a real spirit of place, with the characters singing songs and using language of a very specific location and era. In this way, Davies has created a wonderful document of memories of his early family life, but one that gives us many universal truths.

Next to watch will be his follow up film The Long Day Closes.

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