Meek’s Cutoff (US, 2010)

A woman's place

This is the first film I’ve seen by director Kelly Reichardt and shall be pursuing her other two features. It’s based on a true story of a wagon train, reduced to three in the film, that get lost as a result of their guide’s – Meek – ‘cutoff’. The slow pace of the trio’s painful progress is mirrored in the ‘slow cinema’ of Reichardt’s direction; including one immense dissolve that take so long that the train is juxtaposed with itself.

Scriptwriter Jonathan Raymond focuses upon the wives who are absolutely marginalised; their influence upon the world blinkered metaphorically by their bonnets (mirrored in Reichardt’s use of Academy ratio). Another variant on the western is the ‘indian’. Here presented as unknowable, not as being a savage as in classical Hollywood, but we are given no access to his perspective; he simply responds to whatever happens to him.

One irritant, for me, was the inconsistency of the train’s direction. Where they were going was of importance: they argue whether to go south or north; they choose the latter but are shot going south against a setting sun.

However, if you have the patience for slow cinema, and the cinematography and performances should be enough to keep you happy, catch this (revisionist?) western.

Gamer (US. 2009)

Games with brains

This movie passed me by when it came out; I think I thought it to be a macho exploitation movie; it is but it’s also got brains. Given that much of the action is a game then the macho, first-person-shooter narrative is entirely valid but what Nevland/Taylor (producers/writers/directors) have done is use the genre of the exploitation film (there’s lots of blood, tits and ass edited so quickly that blink and you see the next one) to offer a moral panic about video games.

It’s probably my age but I think there are issues about the dehumanising impact of virtual reality that need airing. Certainly there should no banning of games (or Second Life, a version of which appears in the film) but when social messaging via mobile necessitates – for many young people – that their phone be a constant appendage, ‘analogue’ folk, such as myself, seek explanations.

The action of the film is full on, but mostly uninteresting; it’s the dystopian future that makes this an above the run-of-the-mill movie.

Black Swan (US, 2010)

Actually Oscar worthy but what about Darren?

Requiem for a Dream (US, 2000) was my favourite film in the century’s first decade and I’m delighted that director Darren Aronofsky has produced another great movie. Check out the Case for Global Cinema for an excellent discussion and information about the film’s antecedents; here I’m going to focus on Aronofsky’s direction.

However, as an ‘Oscar’ movie it’s worth noting that Portman has followed Mickey Rourke and deservedly garnered a Best Actor Oscar; Aronofsky as an actor’s director?! He also gets terrific performances from Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey and, in a small role, Winona Ryder. However, the film’s great – for me – because of the brilliant direction.

Much of the camerawork is handheld however the frame remains composed. There’s no arbitrary placement within the mise en scene for the sake of ‘realist immediacy’. Whilst Tom Hooper did an efficient job with The King’s Speech, Aronofsky’s direction is top drawer; the Academy may have got Portman right but… Using handheld camera, which usually signifies realism, in an expressionist film is a coup de theatre in itself (not to mention to actual coup at the film’s climax). Ballet is about motion and, in shadowing Portman’s Nina, the film focuses on her movement both when at work and when simply commuting home. It welds us to her subjectivity, a key element of an expressionist film.

By shooting much of the ballet in medium shot, the audience are given a privileged position in relation to the performance. The immediacy is striking and gives a clear sense of the physical challenges of ballet (which also emphasises Portman’s ability to convince as a prima ballerina). Understanding the physical challenges involved in performing makes the mental deterioration understandable. Critics who find the narrative unconvincing are not understanding what the movie is trying to do.

I’ve no doubt that Black Swan will stand up to multiple viewings; much of the editing is rapid and so necessitates being seen again. I look forward to teaching the film.

Source Code (US-Fr, 2011)

Dickian reality

Philip K Dick adaptations are usually disappointing (the recent The Adjustment Bureau (US, 2011) certainly wasn’t bad but…) however this film, based on an original script by Ben Ripley, comes closest than most (all?) to rendering a Dickian universe. Groundhog Day meets The Manchurian Candidate might be a high concept formula of the film’s idea but is distinctive enough to offer its own take those films’ ideas.

Spoiler alert: the key Dick idea is reviving the dead, and the set design of Colter Steven’s (Gyllenhaal) ‘dead’ space is brilliant with it’s leaking walls and collapsing boundaries.

Duncan Jones directs expertly, the opening 10 minutes offer a particularly spectacular vision that demands to be seen in the cinema. The UK critics have gone ‘gaga’ over it – particularly the Guardian‘s Bradshaw’s 5/5; it’s not that good but it’s  well worth seeing.