Shoot on Sight (UK, 2007)

Police politicking

While this film is not wholly successful in its attempts to portray the shooting of Jean Charles De Menezes in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings in London, any British film that has a Muslim hero and tackles a key issue of our time should be investigated. Jag Mundhra, who both directed and wrote the story, attempts to delve into the reasons why young Muslims from Leeds would blow themselves up attempting to inflict carnage on civilians in London; so De Menezes becomes a Muslim. Dramatically this is fine; however, he also tries to plant this narrative into melodrama and this stretches credulity too far.

Nasseeruddin Shah plays Tariq Ali (a better name should have been chosen; very few S.Asian names are well know in Britain but this is one!) who’s appointed to investigate the shootings. The choice is political, Brian Cox’s commander sees it as a way of ensuring the Met is seen to be doing the right thing. Shah, as are the cast in general, is very good in the role; he is not presented as ‘holier than thou’, he’s keen to get up the greasy pole. But having a childhood friend (Om Puri) who is a radical preacher, a nephew who’s making bombs while staying at his house as well as a wife and son directly threatened by the bomb, undermines any subtleties in the set up.

Amongst the subtleties include the representation of the shooter as a ‘typical racist hard man cop’. He  spouts the line that ‘Not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorists are Muslim’ which demonises a whole culture. However, Ali finds later that the shooter’s wife is black.

The film doesn’t get too far beyond blaming radical Imams for ‘brainwashing’ vulnerable young men for creating terrorists and though Palestine is mentioned it is out of the mouth of the cleric.

The climax is thrilling and seeing a Muslim copper playing the hero is a pleasant change though I’m not sure why it was necessary that he be married to Greta Scacchi.

The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo (Män som hatar kvinnor, Sweden-Denmark-Germany-Norway, 2009)

A man who hates women

The Swedish title of the film (and the book it’s based on) is the better Men Who Hate Women as that makes clear that misogyny was Stieg Larsson’s target in the first book of the Millennium Trilogy. This misogyny is viscerally portrayed in a rape scene that borders on exploitative (there’s one very brief and out of focus shot from behind the splayed buttocks of the victim) but, I think, just avoids going too far; focusing on the woman’s face and screams is sufficient to portray the obscenity of the act. It is a long time since I’ve felt so discomforted by a mainstream film. It’s a while since Hollywood has dealt with such issues in a high profile film and it’s planning a remake.

Following Shutter Island I was concerned, during the first 15 minutes, that having read the book would spoil the film. However, that feeling was soon dispensed as the adaptation was lean and compelling. The English language title emphasises the character of Lisbeth Salandar (Noomi Rapace – brilliant in the role) who is both a victim and the narrative hero. In another role reversal from the usual tropes in mainstream cinema, she is sexually assertive in her relationship with the male lead.

It’s good to see a two and a half hour foreign language film doing well at the box office; no doubt inspired by the book. However, the Wallender series (books and TV) has also stimulated the appetite for Swedish thrillers. What will the Hollywood remake look like? Given David Fincher is attached, it could be very interesting though artistically there is no point in remaking a very good film.

It Happened One Night (US, 1935)

Pull the other one

This classic screwball comedy looks good despite the varnish of 75 years. Claudette Colbert may have dated a little but Gable’s only anachronism is his pipe smoking. He’s great at having his male belligerence undermined, as in the image above where his so-called expertise in hitchhiking is revealed to be bluster.

The film also includes one of the great lines in screwball comedy; when Peter (Gable) is asked several times if he ‘loves her’ he finally shouts ‘Ye-es, but don’t hold that against me, I can be screwy sometimes!’

Although it stands up well to a 21st century viewing, It Happened One Night is inevitably of its time. In her book on romcom Tamar Jeffers McDonald describes it as part of the ‘bus movie’ cycle in the Great Depression and no doubt audiences warmed to see the ‘celebs’ of their day – the rich – being shown to be morally vacuous in comparison with Gable’s nice guy Everyman. It’s difficult to imagine, as we emerge from the almost another Great Depression, that audiences now would warm to seeing ‘characters’ like Jordan being demeaned; that’s a sad commentary on our times.

Pleasantville (US, 1998)

Postmodernism with meaning

This is an audacious film that melds the comedy of laughing at the myth of the American ’50s to social commentary on discrimination. Siblings David and Jennifer find themselves in a ’50s black and white TV programme but, particularly through her behaviour, they soon literally bring colour to the characters’ lives.

Jennifer is sexually predatory whilst David is the virginal nerd who knows everything about the TV show. So it’s Jennifer who initiates the youngsters of the hyperreal world of Pleasantville to the pleasures of the flesh. Add the fact that there’s no sense that Jennifer is doing ‘wrong’ then we have an usually positive representation of female sexuality from Hollywood (though it’s a pseudo-indie film made by Warners’ division New Line).

However as David (‘Bud’ in Pleasantville) notes it’s more than sex that brings colour into people’s lives (though his onscreen mother’s self sexual awakening brings a coup de cinema when a tree explodes into flames). Previously anti-book Jennifer starts reading the classics, DH Lawrence of course to start with, and finds the world of books even more enticing than sex. Here the film’s ideologies clash: on the one hand, the conservatism of (mythic) small town America is mocked; on the other, canonic literature is good for you.

The film’s postmodern playfulness is, as in the same year’s The Truman Show, deployed to meaningful effect. Art is portrayed as a subversive and enriching activity which challenges the patriarchy of the television programme in which the characters ‘live’. The book burning sequence, and the ‘no coloreds allowed’, are chilling reminders of the real world of suppression of ideas and discrimination.

Postmodernism usefully flattened the distinctions between high and low culture in a democratic move. However, the ‘anything goes’ destruction of the meta narrative of the canon reduced the common cultural  inheritance that we experience. Indeed, the invention of Literature as a subject was intended (see Matthew Arnold) to cement social values in the face of the decline of religion in 19th century Britain. So while the anti-elitism inherent in destroying the canon is good (who chose the canon in the first place? we didn’t) the common points of reference in contemporary society seem primarily to rest upon celebrity. Such that we can’t be presented with a documentary of street kids in India (and this is after Slumdog Millionnaire!) without it being Lindsay Lohan’s India. I’m not arguing for the return of the canon, which Pleasantville is, but it was better than what we’ve got now.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (UK-Canada-France, 2009)

Ladies and Gentlemen! We present nothing new!

This was Heath Ledger’s final film, his death during shooting brilliantly finessed by having Depp, Farrel and Law also play his character. It’s also a Terry Gilliam film and we can expect, like Tim Burton, a visual feast. However, whilst the cast is good, and some of the visuals are startling, I felt I’d seen it all before. The film presents a coagulation of music hall, Heath Robinson contraptions and the Faust story – so he have seen it before but unlike, say, Wallace and Gromit, it’s done is such a cliched and clunky way that the visual sheen cannot disguise the shortcomings of the script. Even having Tom Waits as the Devil – perfect casting for his raspy voice – doesn’t compensate for the ridiculous ending.

It was a troubled production but maybe Gilliam, like Scorsese, has run out of things to say. Or maybe I’m turning into a miserable old git who thinks he’s seen it all before.

The Father of My Children (Le père de mes enfants, Germany-France)

Patriarchal failure

This interesting film (hmm – damning with faint praise) meanders along until a shocking moment and then meanders to the end; a bit like life really (though shocking moments might be optional). It’s an interesting mix of realism and melodrama; realism because narrative strands are left dangling without resolution, melodrama because it deals with family relationships and has a striking use of music – see Roy on this.

The portrayal of a struggling indie-arthouse film production company is fascinating to watch as the clash between economics and art is laid bare. The difficult director who’s hemorrhaging money in Sweden is infuriating because he causes the production company so many problems; it could be that he also makes brilliant movies.

Spoiler alert: the film’s based on the suicide of a film producer and I couldn’t help feeling ‘what a bastard’ to leave his children behind, not to mention his long-suffering wife who threatens to leave him as she hardly ever sees him. The performances are marvelous, particularly the young children although I found some of their dialogue a little precocious; maybe French bourgeois kids are like that.

Shutter Island (US, 2010)

Don't tell no lies

Spoiler alert!
It isn’t really possible to write about this film without acknowledging the plot twist; that di Caprio’s character is not a US marshal but an inmate of the asylum. I’m not sure whether that was the reason I didn’t like the movie as, having read the book, I knew that all along. I admired the cinematography and set design but failed to get engaged in the narrative (the dream sequences are excellent too).

It wasn’t simply that I knew the story that caused the ‘deja vu’ throughout as the film is crammed with references to movies – see Roy’s posting for some excellent extracts. Although most of the references are from the ’40s and ’50s I’d add Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (UK, 1973) and Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse. What’s the purpose of all these allusions? Is it simply to make us admire Scorsese’s, and our own, cineliteracy? If that’s the case then we can accuse the film of postmodern frippery and forget it; that’s certainly my feeling.

There are reports that Scorsese’s considering Taxi Driver 2 – unless it’s an April Fool’s – so maybe he’s come to the end of his creativity.