My Blueberry Nights (Hong Kong-China-France, 2007)

Gorgeous neon bright

Gorgeous neon bright

Wong Kar Wai’s first English-language films had a lukewarm reception and if it’s not quite as good as his Hong Kong movies, this still has some wondrous moments. After the elliptical 2046 (2004) and the frustrating In the Mood for Love (2000), My Blueberry Nights marks a return to the fast food loners of Chungking Express (1994), and its companion film Fallen Angels (1995). From a western perspective, maybe the voice over monologues sound more banal because we hearing the words directly; though that device is sparingly used in this film. I don’t want to concentrate on the negatives, rather Darius Khondji’s fabulous cinematography and Chang Suk-ping (a Wong regular) stunning production design (he also edited). This isn’t to downgrade Wong’s contribution, his authorial voice is always evident.

Khondji was responsible for the fabulous blackness of Se7en (1995), here he revels in the neon bright colours of the sets. The actors are excellent too: Jude Law’s wonky Mancunian accent doesn’t detract from the warmth of his character; Norah Jones’ debut is perfectly pitched, or maybe she’s perfectly cast as the character doesn’t have to do too much. Rachel Weisz smoulders as David Strathearn’s estranged wife and Natalie Portman’s bottle blonde gambler stays the right side of caricature.

The film’s almost as stylised as Francis Coppola’s magnificent One from the Heart (1980); it’s beautiful to look at and, occasionally, also pulls at the  heartstrings.

JCVD (Belguim, Luxembourg, France, 2008)

Haggard but acting

Haggard but acting

It’s very difficult for action heroes to get thespian credibility; Sylvester Stallone got some for Copland (1997) but I can’t imagine Keanu Reeves ever receiving a nice sounding gong. Jean-Claude van Damme lives, as a movie star, in straight-to-video land mostly. He surfaced most prominently in John Woo’s first Hollywood film Hard Target (1993) but I’ve heard little of him since; of course he’s continued to make movies.

JCVD is little more than postmodern fluff, he plays himself caught in a hostage situation in a beseiged Post Office in Belguim, but is worth a watch. Most extraordinary is the scene were, with no narrative motivation, Jean-Claude is elevated above the fracas to bear his soul to camera in a long take. Blimey! Doesn’t he pull it off.

The Age of Stupid (UK, 2009)

2055: the benefit of hindsight

2055: the benefit of hindsight

This is a quite brilliant documentary about the disaster of climate change that capitalism cannot possibly do anything about as it’s, as the film states, predicated on expansion and when you’ve only one planet of resources… An SF framing device places an archivist, Pete Postlethwaite, in 2055 looking back at the ‘age of stupid’ – now – as we fail to get to grips with global warming. Using archive, and documentary footage, writer-director Franny Armstrong portrays the world of nimbys (who won’t have wind farms), exploitation of people by Big Oil, the declining glaciers of Europe, the displaced people of Iraq, and the Indian entrepreneur who’s bringing cheap flights to another billion people.

The editing (David G Hill) is terrific, for example juxtaposing the rationing during World War II with proposals for ‘rationing’ our carbon footprints, and the disparate footage is beautifully linked. There’s a quiet anger about the film that conveys its message powerfully allowing the blase entrepreneur, Jeh Wadia, to (inadvertently) pronounce his own stupidity and, memorably, one of the nimby wind farm protesters – when challenged about whether global warming was an important issue – drowned in her own hysteric laughter as she tried to reconcile her actions with her pronouncement that ‘of course it is, one does ones  best’. Wind farmer, Piers Guy, comes across as heroic in his attempts, in July 2007, to convince the little-middle Englanders, in Bedfordshire, of their responsiblities. He fails but when the county is flooded in the same month it appears that downpour was poetic justice.

Bradford Friends of the Earth were leafleting outside the screening and this film should prove a potent recruitment tool for green parties. That’s not to say it is propaganda, only a ‘head in the sand’ dodo would say so; it should be seen by everyone, particularly young people as they’re going to inherit the disastrous legacy bequeathed by the carbon economy.

Check out the website http://www.ageofstupid.net/ as it has interesting stuff on how it was made including its ‘crowd funding’.

The Good German (US, 2006)

This is Berlin, Jake

This is Berlin, Jake

Blanchett, Clooney, film noir and Soderbergh: should have been good; but it wasn’t. This is a pastiche of Hollywood noir, obvious from the title credits, and Clooney’s Jake Geismer gets battered as much as his namesake in Chinatown (1974) – also a pastiche. Similarly Berlin just after the end of World War II is a place, like the Chinatown of the film, where anything can happen. Chinatown works, while The Good German fails I think, because the former establishes the characters better; I found it difficult to care for the their fate.

Robin Clifford makes interesting comments: ‘Shot in the filmmaking style and technology of the 1940’s – antique lenses used in the day; noir style backdrops and back projection of the era; black and white photography; and, attention to the precise detail of period props – Soderbergh and company succeed in (almost) perfectly capturing the look and feel of film of that time. While technically well crafted (though I found the color stock used, when changed to black and white, doesn’t have that wonderful graininess that the great noir films of Billy Wilder or William Wyler) “The Good German” rings forced’

Also there are a number of shots that I don’t think would have appeared in classical Hollywood which I found distracting. For example, there’s back projection on both sides of characters in a car, and not just one side and behind; there’s a shot that foregrounds a steering wheel that breaks the composition. Chinatown is a pastiche noir to an extent but reverses the normal visual style by emphasising bright California sunlight.

The other film that lurks in the background is The Third Man (1949), actually shot in Vienna; both are searching for an elusive character that will resolve the mystery. That is a great film.

Paranoid Park (France-US, 2007)

They are not out to get us

They are not out to get us

I found it difficult to care for the characters in this film, usually a fatal problem for a movie unless it’s a popcorn roller-coaster pic. It’s Gus van Sant’s use of non-professionals, ranging for okay to terrible, that alienated me from the film; this isn’t a problem in itself as he did the same in the brilliant Elephant (2003). Chris Doyle’s cinematography is, as usual, fabulous and though Li Rain’s skateboarding camerawork is impressive, I got bored of it rapidly; clearly another problem for me.

I’m not sure what the point was of framing the ‘murder mystery’ narrative with the protagonist’s retelling. It seemed as if it were going to be some postmodern ‘cleverness’ but, if it was, I didn’t get it.

State of Play (US-UK, 2009)

Swansong for investigative journalists?

Swansong for investigative journalists?

The remake of the excellent BBC political thriller from 2003 deftly transfers the narrative to Washington DC and updates the ‘state of the nation’ message. The original six-parter had nearly six hours to play with, however the necessary compression is skilfully wrought though the motivation of the politicians is less clear in the film.

Kevin MacDonald’s direction is efficient but blobs on the underground car park suspense sequence (and at the climax). This had shades of All the President’s Men (1976), one of the key paranoia thrillers on the ’70s and, like Michael Clayton (2007) and Syriana (2005), State of Play draws upon that era’s tropes.

Of course there was plenty of complain about in Bush’s America; maybe Obama’s ‘new hope’ will render the genre toothless (in our dreams – however I’ve just read that Obama is considering prosecuting senior Bush figures for their role in torture: that would be something!) Russell Crowe does the ‘grizzled reporter’ really well but Rachel McAdam’s literally ‘bright eyed’ newbie looks to plasticy to be real; Helen Mirren’s marvellous as the editor.

Paul Abbott’s BBC original was a complex ‘state of the nation’ piece that took in ‘urban blacks’, disillusionment with Blair’s New Labour, the role of big business in lobbying and political corruption. Obviously when addressing the international market such parachiolism won’t play so the switch to Washington DC is understandable and its focus on the privatisation of security (rather than oil) is a vital issue; yesterday’s The Guardian led with a story that UK police are feeding intelligence to private security firms on environmental protesters (it’s time someone made a film about UK’s descent into a Police State). One of the three adapters of State of Play, Tony Gilroy wrote and directed Michael Collins as well as the Bourne movies.

Another aspect of the updating was the economic threat to newspapers and the rise of the blog. It’s rather old fashioned in its view of the blogosphere but its contention that the death of newspapers is going to threaten investigative journalism (though the Huffington Post is doing something about this) is correct. It’s great to see citizen journalism putting the Metropolitan police under the microscope after their police-state handling of the G20 protests but there will always be a need to investigate what’s going on ‘behind closed doors’ and that takes skill and money.

I saw the film at a preview in Leeds with only nine other people; it was a freebie advertised in The Guardian. It included a digital relay of a Q & A with the director from a cinema in London; a cute use of digital technology. The print, though, was poor; presumably that was digital.

Sweet Smell of Success (US, 1957)

Sickly smell of slime

Sickly smell of slime

Script by Odets and Lehman; cinematography by James Wong Howe; music by Elmer Bernstein; direction by Alexander Mackendrick; starring Lancaster and Curtis; need I say more? An absolute classic that remains thoroughly modern in its depiction of the corruption of celebrity culture. Lancaster does evil with a one-note demeanor (mean) and Curtis’ Sidney Falco oozes slime in probably his best performance. Expressions flicker across his face as he hustles his away around town and his occasional bursts of morality are always counterpointed by self-serving greed.

The cinematography is sensational: the blackness of the city is contrasted by the glitz of the light (though the DVD is marred with some scratches that run for a few minutes – disgraceful MGM) and Mackendrick mixes unobtrusive framing with occasional dynamic tracking and telling angles.

This was a Hill-Hecht-Lancaster production, one of the star-driven companies launched in the wake of the Paramount Decrees that took effect in 1948. It shows  Burt Lancaster’s versatility, the mainstream action Trapeze was released the previous year, and he went on to make films with Luchino Visconti and Bernado Bertolucci: a cinematic great.

Taste the first 10 minutes: