The Hours (US-UK, 2002)

Measuring lives in hours

Measuring lives in hours

Seeing this film again is a reminder of how Nicole Kidman (above) has lost her way as an actor somewhat as the commercial movies have taken over from the thoughtful ones. Here she is absolutely terrific but may even be ‘beaten’ by Julianne Moore. Meryl Streep, of course, is wonderful. All this may suggest that the film is about performance but it is more than that.

A third melodrama set in the ’50s (well in part) I’ve seen recently: Bigger Than Life is the classic; Revolutionary Road the disappointment. The Hours is brilliant: a fascinating narrative and intelligent direction to go with a powerhouse cast (Ed Harris, Toni Collette, John Reilly, Jeff Daniels, Clare Danes…).

I complained about Mendes anodyne use of camera, Ray was a master; Stephen Daldry relies upon composition and sepia colouring which works extremely well. There is also a tour de force scene when Moore’s character contemplates suicide and her bedroom is consumed in a flood.

Philip Glass’ repetitious score is perfectly melancholy for the melodrama.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo hu cang long, Taiwan-Hong Kong-USA-China, 2000)

Introducing wuxia

Introducing wuxia

This film was first foreign language film to break $100m at the North American box office suggesting that if brilliantly fulfilled its purpose: introduce western audience to wuxia – roughly ‘martial arts’. Eastern audiences found it slow and so do I now, but in 2001 I greatly enjoyed the choreography of the fight sequences and the romantic sweep of the narrative. Maybe the film has also been superseded by Zhang Yimou’s stunning films Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004).

Hiroshima mon amour (France-Japan, 1959)

Post-war existential angst

Post-war existential angst

I guess there is still a ‘canon’ of ‘great’ films that all cinephiles should see and in these days of DVD plenitude there are few of them that are not available. Canons are elitist and, to an extent, discredited (particularly in literature where, in the west, it is/was based on white, male writers) but are useful for those wanting to get a guide on what films from the past should be watched. (Incidentally the ‘key films’ pages on this blog are not necessarily canonic, but are significant in some way either stylistically or commercially).

One of the excitements of youth is being presented with a massive amount of (potentially) great films to watch. As you get older, and have spent many years ploughing through the canon, there are fewer ‘classics’ left. Hiroshima mon amour is one ‘great’ film I hadn’t seen.

I love Alain Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad (1961) but after a terrific 20 minutes (beautiful abstract images of the entwined naked bodies of the protagonists) I got irritated. Coincidentally in yesterday’s The Guardian Joe Queenan lists it as one of the great films of the French ‘new wave’ so who’s wrong? Certainly it’s a ‘key film’, Resnais’ roving camera and abstruse voice over, are very distinctive however… The film starts investigating, in horrific style, the effects of the Hiroshima bomb but then its focus switches to Elle and her treatment in small-town France after she fell in love with an occupying German soldier. What happened to her is undoubtedly tragic however is virtually meaningless in comparison with the A-bomb’s effects so appears self-indulgent; maybe the narrative trajectory should have been the other way around and so the character might learn her travailles are meaningless compared to what happened to the Japanese. Ultimately the film comes over as indulgent and dated existential angst.

That was disappointing.

Ordinary Boys (Chico normales, Spain, 2008)

Typical lads

Typical lads

The premise of this film is fascinating: it’s set in a Moroccan village where the Madrid bombers originated and looks at the ordinary lives of its residents. It doesn’t quite work for me but there was much that was engaging.

The film attempts to look at the social context – poverty – that leads individuals to become terrorists (the film’s careful to distinguish the Madrid bombing terrorism from the Palestinian resistance which, it rightly says, is justified). Focusing on  two ‘ordinary boys’, and female Law graduate Rabia, the film portrays the lack of opportunity for the young and the rather fatalistic attitude of the older. Whilst one lad gets mixed up with a drug dealing gang, the other thinks going (illegally) to Spain will solve his problems. However we never get to see the ‘fundamentalists’ who persuaded the bombers – their meeting place has ‘closed down’. I think this is problematic but probably a function of the documentary style, the cast are non actors + locations shooting, of the film

The position of women in Muslim society is also dealt with through Rabia who rejects becoming at the ‘beck and call’ of a man and desires equality. Throughout the film she rejects wearing the hijab, saying she’ll wear it when she wants. At the film’s close she decides to do but this isn’t explained.

Although Spanish in origin Ordinary Boys is, in effect, a Moroccan film and so is a fascinating, if flawed, glimpse into another world not so far away (from the west).

The Grandmother (US, 1970)

Giving birth to granny

Giving birth to granny

This is a very early David Lynch short that mixes animation, pixelation and live action to typically obscure effect. Lynch is one of those directors for whom the auteur theory does work and the ‘seeds’ of his later work are apparent here; particularly the disturbing soundscapes he produces. On the ‘The Shorts of David Lynch’ DVD the film is introduced by the director in hilarious non-explanatory fashion; though I can never work out if Lynch is ‘taking the piss’ or genuinely ‘out to lunch’. It doesn’t matter, in the tradition of the surrealists, Lynch makes films that disturb bourgeios complacency and that’s to the good.

Sex Traffic (UK-Canada, 2004)

In the thrall of men

In the thrall of men

Channel 4’s brilliant two-parter lays bare the mechanics of sex trafficking through three intertwined narratives: John Sim’s do-gooder NGO; a victim (brilliantly played by Anamaria Marinca); the capitalist ideology that creates the conditions for thousands of women being entrapped into sex slavery.

If the ending is slightly pat, at least the ‘happy-ever-after’ is compromised by the final shots, the film is important in bringing to attention this evil practice. This is what Channel 4 was made for: well crafted and politically challenging programmes.

I find John Sims too mannered but the rest of the cast are excellent and David Yates’ direction conveys the drama well; if if is a bit of a stylistic mish-mash. If you want more uncomfortable truths – and what’s the point living in ignorance? – then read Misha Glenny’s McMafia (2008).

Bigger Than Life (US, 1956)

Monstrous father

Monstrous father

After the insipidly directed, if well acted, Revolutionary Road it was great to have an opportunity to see this classic ’50s melodrama at the Bradford Film Festival (celebrating James Mason’s centenery). Everything that was wrong with Revolutionary Road is right with this film focusing on Ed Avery’s increasing megalomania as he gets addicted to cortisone (a ’50s ‘miracle drug’). As he turns into a monster, espousing right wing elitist views, the mise en scene mirrors his psychological state – see above. After a sedate start, the mise en scene gets increasingly hysterical, culminating in a fight of, for ’50s Hollywood, astonishing brutality between Avery, and his best friend, on the stairs. Stairs are a significant space in melodrama as they are space of ‘transitions’ as well as being potentially precarious.

As feminists critics noted before anyone else, in the 1970s, ’50s Hollywood melodrama, utilising the space of widescreen frame and the colour available to ‘A’ pictures, offered a critique of the capitalist American dream: Ed has to do two jobs to ‘keep up with the Joneses’; the ‘domestic bliss’ of the home is based upon repressing women and patriarchal domination.

Directed by Nicholas Ray (his first film after the celebrated Rebel Without a Cause, 1955) Bigger Than Life also benefits from Huddersfield-lad James Mason’s performance with excellent support from Barbara Rush as his wife. If any further evidence was needed that films need to be seen in the cinema to be properly appreciated then the shattered handrail on the stairs, which violently breaks up the composition in the middle of the frame, will do. I’d seen the film on television twice before but it was only now that this had the overwhelming effect it was obviously intended to have.