Watchmen (US, 2009)

Objectification with a difference?

Objectification with a difference?

I’ll ignore the question as to whether the film’s as good as the graphic novel and deal with it in isolation. It’s not a typical Hollywood action movie, though the shadow of The Matrix (1999) is still looming for the fight sequences, as it is infused with melancholy and the emotional punch is garnered through a woman coming to terms with her mother against the usual Oedpal narrative. While Malin Akerman is an unfeasibly scrawny action hero, whose dress is about revealing her body shape, Watchmen is unusual in showing the male protagonist’s cock. And it’s not just Hollywood that averts its gaze from the male member. True Dr Manhattan isn’t human but he does sport a six-pack and, I guess, an attractive arse so men are objectified too.

Dr Manhattan is also the locus of the melancholy, though the noir atmosphere that infuses the film (again The Matrix sprang to mind) is also grim. It’s unusual to have such a bunch of dysfunctional heroes. Night Owl’s sexual potency is questioned; Rorsach is borderline psychopath; Comedian a rapist; Ozymandias a megalomaniac. Silk Spectre is only ‘normal’ one. Of course all this difference is a result of the source material, Moore and Gibbons’ anti- super hero comic book.

Director Zack Snyder has does a good job in visualising Moore-Gibbons alternative world where the US won the Vietnam war and Tricky Dicky is elected for a third term. I don’t what audiences unfamiliar with the source material made of the film but, for the record, I enjoyed it more than the novel (which is not to say it’s better).

The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom, S.Korea, 2008)

Italian western Korean style

Italian western Korean style

Undoubtedly the funniest film I’ve seen in a long time. It stars the man with the maddest hair in contemporary cinema, Song Kang-ho, and some of the best action sequences in any western. Clearly a homage to Leone’s spaghetti westerns the visual style, as you expect, is stunning but director Kim Ji-woon (also A Bittersweet Life, 2005, and A Tale of Two Sisters, 2003), fills the mise en scene with fabulous detail that complements Song’s ‘hamming’ comedy. In one shoot out he wears a deep sea diver’s helmet, in another he’s on a motorbike being chased by a bounty hunter, two bandit gangs and the Japanese army.

Like Tears of the Black Tiger (Thailand, 2000), Good-Bad-Weird delights in virtuoso camerawork but while I did get bored by the former, Kim’s movie never palls and I look forward to seeing it again to appreciate the tremendously fluid camera movement, and the actors’ movements in the frame. The use of colour is, like Black Tiger, utterly stunning. But what shines out in Song’s comic timing, seen also in The Host (2006) and Memories of Murder (2003); from his furtive glance around him as if everyone is listening to him to his hapless attempt to escape where he’s asked if he’s attempting to escape (he says, ‘No,’) the guy is a comic genius.

Aventure Malgache and Bon Voyage (UK, 1944)

Jolly japes for the spies

Jolly japes for the spies

World War noir

World War noir

It’s not likely anybody, other than historians, would be interested in these short propaganda films if they hadn’t been directed by Alfred Hitchcock. But they are interesting from a historical-cultural perspective, the representation of the colonised Malgache (ie virtually non existent),  as propaganda and as Hitchcock movies.

As propaganda they, as this excellent piece suggests, are too ambiguous; there’s no totally one-sided jingoism and that may one of the reasons they were never shown when they were made. Both are aimed at a French audience, they’re wholly in French, and show in Aventure Malgache colonial resistance to Vichy; the colonials being the French. African faces are strictly, and understandably for the time, in the background. Bon Voyage is more obvious Hitchcockian territory with an escape from France by British soldiers aided by the Resistance. However, the former film is infused with Hitch’s mordant wit and the latter includes a harrowing shot where a female member of the Resistance is forced at gun point to convey a phone message and is then shot dead: all filmed in close up on her face.

Maybe the films were simply Churchill’s way of giving the French in England something useful to do where they couldn’t get in the way. As the characters in Aventure say, their choice is to be German or Japanese slaves, or to bend their knee to the British: Hobson’s choice.

Flame & Citron (Flammen & Citronen, Denmark, Czech Republic, Germany, 2008)

Whose side are you on?

Whose side are you on?

This is a terrific war movie infused with film noir. Based on a true story it portrays Flame and Citron’s fight against the Nazis and, it transpires, the internal politics of the resistance. Usually resistance fighters are presented as noble, self-sacrificing heroes and, no doubt, many were. However, the internecine politics represented here is a far more convincing portrayal complete with a femme fatale who could’ve been out of Hollywood movies made during the ’40s.

The acting is terrific and the set design is particularly striking. Like The Counterfeiters (Austria-Germany, 2007) the film offers a different take to the well-trawled subject of World War II and does so with a gripping narrative that reveals moral complexities. The moral ‘black & white’ of traditional war movies has been replaced by nuance that allows the spectator to understand better the moral quandaries of the time.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct (L’instinct de mort, France-Canada-Italy, 2008)

No bars hold

No bars hold

I’m not a fan of biopics, the narrative necessarily skips through highlights making the film like some ‘greatest hits’ compilation. If you don’t know the life, then the film can be even worse. However, when your life is scumbag Jacques Mesrine, encompassing the Algerian war against France and Quebec separatists, then the subject’s worth doing. Vincent Cassal, of course, is excellent as Mesrine and although he is a figure of admiration, the film doesn’t let us forget what a bastard he was.

The film includes a fabulous set-piece prison break, well two really, and a terrific car chase; not thud and blunder but surreal, something out of The Sugarland Express (US, 1974), Spielberg’s first cinema outing. I’m looking forward to part two.

Germany Year Zero (Germania anno zero, Italy, 1948)

As grim as it gets

As grim as it gets

Germany Year Zero was director Roberto Rossellini’s third World War II film and it followed Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisa (1946) in filming, on location, the ‘here and now’ of the end and aftermath of the war. While both use melodrama as much as realism, Germany Year Zero is probably the bleakest, which is fitting given the devastation visited upon the defeated Berlin. I was glad that the film runs only 70 mins (on DVD) as the graveyard scene at the start sets the tone and it gets progressively grimmer.

It would be interesting to compare the film with the noir The Third Man (UK, 1949) shot on location in Vienna, which I haven’t seen for some time. Whilst I admire the British film, compared to Rosselini’s portrayal of the degradation forced upon people by war simply ‘cuts to the chase’; or rather, it doesn’t bother with philosophy it simply shows the ‘state of things’ for the defeated nation.

Like Rome the use of location shooting is crucial to realist project, though unlike in De Sica’s work, most of the actors are professionals. The shots of the people looking at the camera as they get off a tram signifies the film’s authenticity in that it was obviously ‘there at the time’.

Moon (UK, 2009)

Space Oddity

Space Oddity

This film has been lauded and is even rated in the top 250 by imdb users; why? I don’t know as I found it  overwhelmingly derivative: 2001: A Space Odyssey (UK-US, 1969), Silent Running (US, 1972), Dark Star (US, 1974), Solaris (USSR, 1971, US, 2002),  Android (US, 1982) and The Truman Show (US, 1999). Of course all films, particularly genre films, are derivative in some way; as Bakhtin suggests, we only understand any film through intertextuality. However, the degree to which this film draws upon others overwhelms it.

That’s not to say that the film is worthless. Sam Rockwell is excellent and the special effects (the film only cost £5m) are very good; though I found the star-filled sky unconvincing – bright stars should be as much points of light as dimmer ones, here they are photographic smears.

The plot twists are too obvious and I still don’t know why a rescue mission was sent. Nonetheless, it is a well-made film.