Tuesday, August 31, 2010


The Maltese Falcon: A well-deserved rewatch, one of those lightening-in-a-bottle films, as attested to by the fact that Warner Brothers then spent the next few years putting Humphrey Bogart together with Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet and shaking vigorously, and never getting the desired result (Casablanca is their only arguable success, but it's a very different movie). Anyway, what one has here is a tense, witty thriller with cleverly-used sexual subtexts, impeccable casting and a denouement scene which is still powerful despite repeated viewing.

Movie count for 2010: 98

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Teenage Kicks

A Fistful of Dollars: Another rewatch; what I noticed this time around was the ethnic politics of the town. Both of the gangs that the Man With No Name sets against each other, the Baxters and the Rojas, are clearly mixed-race, but the Baxters emphasise the Northern European section of their ancestry while the Rojas emphasise the Hispanic, suggesting a further racial dimension to an already-complicated situation.

The Lover: Fifteen-year-old French girl, living in 1930s Vietnam, has sexual affair with thirty-two-year-old Chinese man. This could have been a powerful, erotic tale of love forbidden on many levels, but unfortunately it's just boring.

Spider-Man: A rewatch, but one of the few superhero movies I can stand rewatching; it actually does something interesting with the concept by making Peter Parker's transformation into Spider-Man a metaphor for adolescence, both physical (as Peter's body gains new powers, but everyone still treats him like a dork), psychological (as Peter comes to grips with the moral issues surrounding the use of his new abilities) and social (as Peter struggles with the tacit class issues underlying his friendship with Harry and his love for Mary Jane). Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin is amazingly Grand Guignol, but makes it work.

Cyrano de Bergerac: This was one of my favourite films when I was a teenager, and watching it again after many years I can kind of see why. Both Cyrano and Roxane are deeply adolescent individuals, with Cyrano obsessed with his image as a tragic lover and rebel against the system, and Roxane a superficial woman who spends fourteen years locking herself away in a convent after the death of her husband rather than grieving and getting on with it. Unfortunately this adaption, while beautiful, well-cast (hooray Depardieu) and nicely researched without making that background research too intrusive (coughgangsofnewyorkcough), cuts out some of the dialogue from the original play which indicates that the author regards Cyrano as a bit of a self-obsessed manchild, meaning that the audience has to take the characters here at face value.

Movie count for 2010: 97

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Of Dogs and Men

Old Boy: Man locked in hotel room for 15 years then mysteriously released seeks out the person/persons responsible. Result is sort of like The Prisoner, only with martial arts and some gleefully Jacobean incest, mutilation and ironic vengeance schemes.

My Life as a Dog: An earlier you-will-cry-buckets dog story by Lasse Hallstrom, about a young Swedish boy separated from his beloved pet and sent to live with small-town relatives when his mother develops a fatal illness. Suffused with guilt and grief, as well as burgeoning feelings of sexuality which confuse his relationship with his tomboy friend Saga, he conflates his own identity with that of his dog, his mother, and the then-recently-deceased Laika, eventually coming to accept his situation despite all its unfairnesses, leaving the viewer to carry on the anger and grief on his behalf.

10 Things I Hate About You: After my last foray into the post-Lurman Shakespeare-for-teens genre, I was not expecting too much from this, but it proved surprisingly good, being The Taming of the Shrew redone as a Whedonesque high-school comedy, full of zingy one-liners and humourous stereotypes of teenage cliques and with the misogynous treatment of Kate in the original play considerably mitigated (as the focus is less on Kate's brainwashing at the hands of Petruchio, as on the Kate- and Petruchio-equivalents both unbending and becoming less hostile to each other and the world). The one real complaint is that the start of the film seems to set up a subplot involving Alison Janney's randy school guidance counsellor which gets abandoned about one-third of the way in.

Movie count for 2010: 93

Sunday, August 15, 2010

There Will Be Issues

Inception: One of the best new films I've seen this year, a modern take on the sort of reality-bending issues explored by the likes of McGoohan and Cocteau, and in print by some of the best New Wave science fiction, with a cleverly ambiguous ending. Also, the less cute Leonardo DiCaprio gets, the more he actually shines as an actor, here brilliantly portraying a man slowly going mad in a series of dreams within dreams.

There Will Be Blood: Takes several familiar tropes of frontier fiction-- the small wilderness settlement caught in a power struggle between big business and a small community leader, the father and son becoming estranged and reconciled, the unexpected arrival of the long-lost relative who may not be all he seems, the up-from-poverty entrepreneurial life history-- and plays with them to explore the complex dynamics between an oil prospector, a pentecostalist preacher, and the oil prospector's son (or maybe not, it's complicated). I'm not really certain it deserved all those awards/nominations, but certainly it's got a lot going for it.

ETA: Alan suggested a somewhat more complicated subtext exists in TWBB, in which Daniel Plainview is the devil, hiding in plain view (Daniel being a reference to Daniel Webster); first seen in a pit, mining for silver, he then becomes an oil man, leading Paul to sell his birthright and Eli to become tempted by the sins of pride and avarice (note that, like Jacob and Esau, they are twins), leading the latter to deny God in the end; HW, however, ultimately rejects his father and walks away from temptation. So perhaps it did deserve all those awards, and thanks Alan for seeing what I didn't.

Movie count for 2010: 90

Friday, August 13, 2010

Capsule Catch-Up

Disturbia: Essentially Rear Window for teens, with a couple of knowing winks to Psycho and Vertigo in there as well, as a teenage boy confined to the house by a court order suspects his neighbour is up to no good. The title would suggest some kind of Donnie Darko-esque comment on the nastinesses hidden by the polite face of suburbia, but it’s actually just a popcorn flick. Also the love interest is a bit too much of a fantasy figure for me to take her remotely seriously.

Les Valseuses: Follows the adventures of two ne’er-do-wells stealing, breaking and entering, and, depending on how one views the complicated consent issues involved, raping their way through France, until a strange tragedy forces them, gradually, to rethink their position on life and women. An American film would have made them lovable rogues who never do anything seriously objectionable; this film doesn’t shy away from the evil side of the characters, but also provides them with a satisfactory ending which gives them emotional closure as well as an implicit comeuppance for their crimes.

Austin Powers: Nineties nostalgia classic which shows a clear love on the part of its creators for Sixties pop culture (even working in visual references to the Doctor Who stories The Daleks’ Master Plan and The Invasion); watching it now, what strikes one is that the Nineties references are the bit that feels dated, not the Sixties ones (I winced when Robert Wagner announced “The world is dead, there are only corporations”-- we all know where *that* philosophy led). Oh, and that Mrs Kensington Senior is much lovelier than her daughter; guess the modern celebration of the Cougar/MILF was a few years off at that point.

The Sweet Smell of Success: 1950s indictment of celebrity and the press culture which surrounds it, which is if anything more relevant today than at the time. Almost Shakespearian in its portrayal of a press agent and gossip columnist’s conspiracy to bring down a rising young musician, and a clear influence on Mad Men.

Manhunter: Genuinely disturbing adaptation of Red Dragon, exploring the grey area between criminal and investigator, through unfolding the complicated triple relationship shared by FBI agent Fisk, his current quarry, serial killer Dolaryde, and his previous quarry, Hannibal Lecktor. The d├ęcor and soundtrack are 1980s to the point of distraction, but, apart from leading to a couple of dreadful synth numbers, it’s mostly a good thing, helping to build up the tension through oppressive music and spare minimalism.

Mr and Mrs Bridge: The single most boring and pointless film I’ve ever seen, consisting of two hours (and about ten years of screen time) in which nothing really happens. Every so often a drama seems to be emerging, but it quickly gets stomped flat. Otherwise there’s not much to do other than develop one’s hatred for the titular characters, a boring and hypocritical man and a woman who never seems to stand up for anything, even herself.

The Untouchables: Garnered a lot of awards when it came out, but really, it didn't tell me much I didn't know (or couldn't infer) about crime and law enforcement in Prohibition-era Chicago, and I'm far from an expert on the place. Also contained a sequence of a raid on some smugglers by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, mounted on horseback (I kid you not), in which, despite the presence of Tommy guns, not one horse gets shot.

Movie count for 2010: 88

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Who's on Faust

Mephisto: Brilliantly incisive retelling of the Faust story. Klaus Maria Brandauer plays an actor with vague socialist leanings but a stronger sense of personal ambition, who is tempted by the promise of success the Nazi party offers, and compromises himself and his ideals, all the while offering platitudes and excuses. Of course it's bigger than that, with Brandauer's experience being an allegory for that of the whole German people post-Weimar, and the complexities of compromise explored through the various characters. There are also some clever breaches of the fourth wall in which the audience is placed as a character in the film, and a very Prisoneresque sequence in which an entire wedding party, some masked as devils and animals, dance wildly to the German tune Im Grunewald.

Passion of the Christ: Disappointingly conventional retelling of the Crucifixion story. Yes, it's gory; yes, they went to a lot of trouble recreating first-century Palestine, yes, everyone's speaking Aramaic or Latin, but Jesus is European-looking, Mary Magdalene is the Woman Taken in Adultery, the implications of Pilate's washing of his hands as regards his culpability in the whole affair is skated over quickly. Even the gore is hardly without precedent (go take a look at 15th century Flemish religious art). If you want a straight presentation of the modern mainstream Protestant take on the Crucifixion, watch it, but if you want a consideration of the implications of the story for society and religion, frankly, you're better off watching Ben Hur.

Movie Count for 2010: 81

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Gang warfare

Gangs of New York: Scorscese taking some of his familiar themes-- New York, anarchy, migration and its links with crime-- and applying them to the Irish community of the 1860s. It has a lot of excellent period detail, but unfortunately this makes it feel a bit too clean and distant: Scorscese can do terrifying urban anarchy (Taxi Driver) and modern filmmakers can do Victorian squalor (the recent BBC adaptation of Bleak House, among many others), but this feels rather like it was filmed in a pioneer village rather than a real place. This, plus the casting of Leonardo DiCaprio (still at the time known for playing cute heroes rather than more ambiguous characters) as the protagonist, plus, apparently, some differences of vision between Scorscese and his producer, has meant that a lot of the film's political message (a savage take on the way in which the rich more or less let the poor of the city go to the devil, other than to exploit them as cannon fodder in their political and literal wars) has less of an edge than it ought to have, and life in the sort of ungoverned environment where everything is privately owned and, consequently, the fire departments spend more time fighting rival fire departments than putting out fires, comes across more as a quaint portrait of olden tymes than, as it must have been, a desperate, terror-filled and brutal existence. Lots of British actors in supporting roles, and if you blink you miss Trevor Cooper about halfway through.

Movie count for 2010: 79