Monthly Archives: July 2009

Frozen River (US 2008)

Misty Upham and Melissa Leo in Frozen River.

Misty Upham and Melissa Leo in Frozen River.

This was a riveting movie to watch, well-written and directed by Courtney Hunt (a first time feature filmmaker at 44). I found it also to be disturbing in several different ways.

Frozen River is a genuinely independent film made for less than a million dollars (raised from business acquaintances). Developed from an earlier short film, it was sold to Sony Classics before Sundance – where it won a major prize. The central character is Ray (Melissa Leo), a working-class woman living with her 5 and 15 year-old sons in a decrepit trailer. Her husband, a compulsive gambler, has just absconded with the money saved up for an upgrade to a superior home. Ray sets off to find him between shifts at the local discount store. The trail leads to a Bingo Hall on the Mohawk territory that spans the US-Canadian border. When she sees her husband’s car being driven away by a young Mohawk woman, she gives chase. The upshot is that Ray is sucked into the ‘people trafficking’ across the border which has replaced cigarette smuggling as an earner for some members of the Mohawk community.

As well as gambling and people trafficking, the narrative takes on issues of parental control and the deprivations of trailer park life. It certainly isn’t Hollywood, but still there is a kind of happy ending. In a way this was a relief after a couple of harrowing incidents in the story when I could hardly bear to look at the screen since tragedy seemed inevitable. I’m still trying to work out if this was a cop-out or whether I have read aspects of the film wrongly. As we’ve noted in other posts, it is rare to get contemporary American films that deal with working-class life. It’s even rarer to get films like this written and directed by a woman and with a central focus on two women from outside the norm of Hollywood leads. There has been lots of (justifiable) praise for Melissa Leo, but I would want to also praise Misty Upham as the Mohawk woman. I’m very supportive of the film in lots of ways, but . . .

The problem I have with the film and especially with the happy ending is really to do with the politics of American working class culture. I confess that as a middle-class European it’s sometimes hard to fathom. Let’s begin with the central family in the film. There is some interesting discussion on IMDB as to whether this is a middle-class family brought down in the world by the husband’s gambling. There is generally a view that a ‘poor’ family shouldn’t be watching a large rented TV and eating junk food. Against this, Ray is shown to be a mother who wants her children to go to school and do well (i.e. she isn’t ‘irresponsible’). I wasn’t sure about the actors (real cousins) who played the two sons – they seemed very articulate and ‘well-educated’. So, am I falling into a trap in expecting a stereotypical portrayal of kids who live in a trailer park? To be fair, the film offers believable, non-stereotypical police officers and other characters, so perhaps I ought to read the children as they are written. I can’t say too much about my major concern with the film without giving away the plot, so, SPOILERS ahead, I’m afraid.

Ray is driven by the need to find the money for the new house – in the couple of days before Christmas Eve. Driving illegal workers over the frozen river and across Mohawk land evades the immigration controls. She’s seemingly unconcerned by the Chinese in her boot (trunk) but freaks out when a Pakistani couple turn up, yelling that she doesn’t know what a ‘Paki’ is (the term used by the Mohawk woman) and then saying that she doesn’t know where Pakistan is and losing it completely because the couple might be carrying bombs or something. Is this what American working mothers are like? A woman who seems rational at other times can’t distinguish between frightened illegal immigrants and an Al Quaeda cell? Or is this just my false perspective?

Following this, Ray acts quite callously and only seems to care about her kids’ Christmas presents. Not so terrible perhaps, but we now have her classed as suspicious of other cultures – which goes against the believable portrayal of the two women, white and Native American who are slowly drawing together after beginning on a level of mutual animosity. Lila, the Mohawk woman is an interesting character, streetwise but not as assertive as Ray at first. She also has a small child who she has ‘lost’ to her mother-in-law after her husband’s death. In a possibly metaphorical move, she eventually buys some glasses to improve her poor short-range vision. The ending of the film sees Ray make a sacrifice which effectively ‘saves’ Lila and her child. It was this volte-face by the woman who could treat illegals as terrorists that I found a bit hard to take. I’m mindful of Nick Broomfield’s film Ghosts in which Chinese illegals drown in Morecambe Bay when their gangmaster allows them to work in unsafe conditions. People smuggling is often a dangerous business that ends in tears – see our discussion of Farewell China. The film seems to focus on the white-Native American relationship, but to ignore the illegals who somehow seem less than human (they have no dialogue as such). I’m interested to hear what Americans think about this aspect of the film – and Canadians, who are also ‘absent’ apart from the Quebecois who organises the smuggling. Wouldn’t all these illegals be better off taking their chance in Canada?

Info on Courtney Hunt was gleaned from an interview on the Huffington Post and the film’s press kit available here.

It’s great that Melissa Leo should get all this attention. I’ve been a fan since Homicide – Life on the Street. In this movie she looks like a real person and not a movie star. Writer-director Hunt is adamant about her commitment to showing a working-class woman on screen. According to an interview in New York magazine, Hunt herself was brought up by a single mother and took her early inspiration from Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

I hope the film does well – and creates discussion about race and class in contemporary America.

Just Another Love Story (Kærlighed på film, Denmark 2007): Part 2

Mette (Charlotte Fich) in Just Another Love Story

Mette (Charlotte Fich) in Just Another Love Story

Rona reported on this film from the 2008 Edinburgh Film Festival. Now it’s out on release in the UK, it deserves a second look.

Watching Just Another Love Story is similar to being bound in front of the screen, having your eyes forced open and then being slapped across the face with a wet fish. It’s unsettling but riveting. I’m glad that with Nick I watched it on the big screen at the National Media Museum. This digital print looked stunning and the sound design was to die for.

I’ve seen several posts that suggest that the film is a remake or very similar to a Sandra Bullock film (While You Were Sleeping) that I haven’t seen and also Julio Medem’s Red Squirrel, which I have, but can’t remember very well. There is no doubt that in plot terms the film borrows from many other familiar narratives, but that’s inevitable since as one character actually remarks, that’s what films noirs are like. The important issue is that these are all familiar conventions, but they are presented with originality and skill.

It opens with a Sunset Boulevard reference and later I was reminded of three very different films, none of which are referenced directly, but it’s the kind of film that makes you search for memories – moments when you might have felt this before. I thought of Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (and possibly Denis Potter’s Singing Detective) with a character in hospital in a coma whilst the narrative goes on around them or where we see events and wonder whether they are really happening or if they are part of the delirium of one of the characters. Later, the plot begins to unfold with some similar ingredients to the Claire Denis film L’intrus and overall I also got the mystery and foreboding of a film like Mike Figgis’ Liebestraum.

The widescreen cinematography is terrific with great use of different textures for the Vietnam and Denmark scenes. The locations are carefully chosen with unsettling compositions in a morgue (the director’s speciality it would seem), on the shoreline and in the family home and its terrace. The sound design offers us overlaps between a past in Vietnam and a present in Copenhagen and in the thriller moments I had to close my eyes because the brutality on screen was so great – but this was pointless since it was the sickening sound of rock on flesh that was so terrible. The film is written and directed by Ole Bornedal and photographed by Dan Laustsen. There is no sound designer listed, but the sound crew certainly did a great job.

I have to endorse Rona’s praise for both Anders W. Berthelsen and Charlotte Fich and for the devastating way in which ‘ordinariness’ and domestic life are thrown into such confusion and terror. This is one of those films that some will find overblown and ridiculous (it’s a melodrama!) and others will love as being what cinema is all about. Which are you?

L’argent de poche (France 1976)

The teacher and new father in the classroom.

The teacher and new father in the classroom.

I’ve criticised several of François Truffaut’s films featuring men stuck in adolescence, but when it comes to presenting children and real adolescents as believable characters on screen he really has no equal (apart from Jean Vigo, perhaps). L’argent de poche has no plot as such. Instead, it details what happens in a small community over a few weeks at the end of the summer term and into the holidays. The classroom here is the obverse of the terrible hole that confronts young Antoine Doinel in Les quatre cents coups. French pedagogy (rote learning) seems stuck in the pre-historic era in the year before schools go co-educational, but humanity shines through in every frame.

The film was made in the town of Thiers in central France (and some scenes are strongly reminiscent of Les Mistons, filmed not that far away and also featuring children, albeit with a different focus). The adult casting includes several actors, but the children play themselves. Truffaut here moves towards a more neo-realist style with several scenes played out in long shot and long takes as well as more conventional scenes in the classroom and family home. (I’m not sure that the shooting style is that different to earlier films, but it feels different.) There is one terrifying scene of potential tragedy, brilliantly handled, but cat-lovers should turn away. Elsewhere it is a deft mix of comedy, careful social observation and a little drama.

Once again, there is a Truffaut alter ego in the boy who is abused and neglected, but everyone else is part of a wonderful  community – a community that visits the cinema en masse and where Pathé Newsreels are still showing alongside an adventure film with an exotic title that reminded me of the potboiler watched by the couple in Brief Encounter. Was the world ever like this? I doubt it, but it feels so real that only the completely insensitive (there are a few such commentators on IMDB) will fail to be filled with a warm glow after watching L’argent de poche.

Kureishi and The White Tiger

A report in Screen International today announces that Hanif Kureishi has been commissioned by New York-based company Smuggler Films to adapt the Booker prizewinning novel The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga for a cinema feature production.

Smuggler Films is a UK/US outfit and funding is expected to come from a UK Film Council fund (and presumably other partners). No director is yet attached.

My first reaction is that this is another Slumdog scenario – Indian book, UK scriptwriter, UK/US production company. I’ve read the book and I enjoyed it, but couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about. Perhaps I should read it again. It reminded me in some ways of Indian novels in English from earlier periods with a decidedly modern twist re what is happening in big cities in India today (village boy gets involved in big city corruption and takes his revenge). Though it is not as well-written, I thought Q&A was just as interesting – both books have unusual narrative structures and it will be interesting to see how Kureishi turns an epistolary novel into a screenplay.

I wonder what others think – especially our readers in India. Could this cause a similar stir? Why hasn’t an Indian production company bought the rights? Who should direct it? What do you think about Kureishi as the screenwriter? I have plenty of time for him usually and he’s written some of my favourite films but I don’t know how much he knows about village life in the ‘Darkness’ (Adiga’s term) or about modern Bangalore.

La femme infidèle (France 1969)

Helene (Stéphane Audran) and her lover, Paul (Maurice Ronet)

Helene (Stéphane Audran) and her lover, Victor (Maurice Ronet)

Given my recent work on Claude Chabrol films from the last few years and from the New Wave period of 1958-62, it was interesting to go back to Chabrol’s most successful period in the late 1960s/early 1970s. La femme infidèle offers us ‘Helene and Charles’ (the characters’ names reappear in many Chabrol films) as a bourgeois couple living in a country house outside Paris. He’s a lawyer, she’s a woman of leisure and they have a son aged 8. Charles begins to suspect his wife is having an affair and pays a private detective to find ‘Mr Pegala’.

From the beginning, this is pure Hitchcock. Charles’ mother (a very Hitchcockian character) tells Helene not to allow Charles to get out of shape. Michel Bouquet as the husband is terrific. He is indeed a little podgy and jowly and he struggles manfully to carry out a Hitchcock murder and disposal of the body. Stéphane Audran moves through the film like a goddess and it’s nice to see Maurice Ronet again.

The whole film moves to its conclusion like a well-oiled machine. It’s fantastically smooth and controlled and ever so slightly preposterous with its almost comic policemen. I won’t give away what happens when husband meets lover, suffice to say there is a great gag that references Hitchcock again with an over-sized prop. In short the film is a masterpiece – flawless filmmaking. There is very little in the way of plot, but I found myself almost mesmerised by the way it is played. Best of all, the film ends with a beautifully shot sequence which is open-ended so that we can guess at what has happened, but we can’t know. This is similar to the endings of Les Cousins (1960) and The Girl Cut in Two (2007).

I don’t remember watching the film in the 1970s but I’m sure that I did and it struck me that somehow the film seems more ‘strange’ now than it did back then – i.e. I don’t remember Chabrol being ‘odd’ in any way, as some audiences do now. Is it just me who has changed as a spectator or are most films just made differently now? I’m not sure, but going by the recent Chabrol films, he has just kept on making them in the same way. He really is the true auteur, making virtually the same film each time with just enough difference in setting and narrative detail to keep us interested.

One technical point – the Region 2 Arrow DVD I rented had the wrong aspect ratio and I had to find ways of converting the digital file into one which allowed me to correct the mistake and achieve the correct ratio. It worked fine but was very fiddly.

Cinema returns to Nablus, Palestine

A ticket for the movies in Nablus (image from ALARAB Online)

A ticket for the movies in Nablus (image from ALARAB Online)

The first new cinema to open in Palestine since the closures during the intifada in 1987 has been screening films in Nablus since the end of June. It is offering commercial releases from Egypt and Hollywood arranged via a distributor in Lebanon. The Cinema City screen has only 174 seats for a city of 200,000 people but its opening is symbolic as well as offering a new entertainment option for young people who have never been to the cinema before. Not everyone is in favour of the virtual freedom offered by a cinema visit (i.e. rather than the real freedom that could be achieved if the Israeli occupation of the West Bank was lifted). But I think that this must be progress of a kind. (For more on this story see ALARAB Online and the Guardian). Before 1987 Nablus had four cinemas.

Cinema Dunia in Ramallah

Cinema Dunia in Ramallah

I took this photo in 1997. The cinema was closed in 1984 – information I retrieved from a marvellous account of visiting the cinema on the wonderfully named ‘Electronic Intifada‘. (Another reference suggests that the cinema was built in 1945, and that it was demolished later in 1997). Electronic Intifada also provided the name of the cinema shown below, which was still operating in 1997.

Cinema Walid, Ramallah

Cinema Walid, Ramallah

This cinema showed cheap US action movies (or possibly cheap French action movies). The poster on Electronic Intifada reports that in the 1970s some cinemas like this moved into soft porn since they couldn’t get the foreign films with Arabic subtitles (or indeed the Egyptian films) because of the occupation by Israel. The cinema may still be operating – does anyone know?

The article on remembering visits to Cinema Dunia mentioned above seems to have garnered an enormous response from older Palestinians and is mentioned on several other websites. I also found this terrific image of a Palestinian cinema from 1937 and another article on the three cinemas of Ramallah before the Intifada.

Lakshya (India 2004)

Hrithik Roshan as the young army officer Karan

Hrithik Roshan as the young army officer Karan

What to make of Lakshya? After Rock On!! I decided to look for some other films from Excel Entertainment and Farhan Akhtar and came across this DVD in a sale. The film is presented on 2 discs in a fold out package with an outer sleeve and a glossy booklet. At first glance, this matches the Hollywood packages that Excel and UTV are attempting to emulate. Unfortunately the impression is spoiled by the presentation on screen. A 185 min film in ‘Scope is compressed onto a single disc and my DVD player had problems with the coding in the central section of the film. The second disc does have some interesting material (including a ‘making of’ the film as a whole and a separate presentation of one of the dance sequences as well as some deleted scenes). This clearly was a big budget production with four major stars, location shooting in Kashmir and an international flavour to the crew.

The title ‘Lakshya’ means ‘objective’ or ‘aim’ and the central character Karan (Hrithik Roshan) is an upper middle-class young man with no real aim in life until, on a whim after watching an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, he decides to join the Indian Army. Eventually, he finds himself involved with his Punjabi Regiment in the Kargil War of 1999, when Pakistani forces crossed the LOC (Line of Control) in partitioned Kashmir. With the Pakistanis occupying one of the peaks and shelling an Indian highway, Karan finds his aim – to do the John Wayne thing and plant his country’s flag on top of the peak. The narrative utilises a flashback structure so that we meet the young officer first and then discover how he got there.

From what I’ve read and from the ‘making of’ documentary, it’s clear that the filmmakers here (father and son combination Javed and Farhan Akhtar as writer and director) intended to be as accurate as possible in representing the setting for the story and compared to what I know of mainstream Bollywood, Lakshya is a ‘realist’ film in the mode of mainstream Hollywood. The camerawork by the German cinematographer Christopher Popp is generally excellent, especially in presenting the mountain landscapes and the training moves of the Indian Army. Hollywood films such as An Officer and a Gentleman and The Eiger Sanction sprang to mind as I watched the film. I choose those references carefully as they represent two of the genre repertoires on which the film draws. Lakshya begins as a romantic drama and then transmutes into a patriotic war film with elements of the espionage thriller. There is no reason why this mixture shouldn’t work (although it is a tall order) but I wasn’t really convinced by any single genre element or indeed by the overall package. I was, however, impressed by many specific scenes/sequences. Is it me or is it the film? Lakshya was not a massive hit in India, despite its stellar cast (Preity Zinta, Amitabh Bachchan and Om Puri) but it does have some very enthusiastic supporters and played reasonably well in the US and UK.

Wikipedia’s detailed entry on the Kargil War/Conflict suggests several Hindi films that have been based wholly or partly on incidents associated with the war. I haven’t seen any of these, but I’m familiar with scenes from Mani Ratnam’s Tamil films and from Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist. Many critics have suggested that it was Ratnam’s Roja (1992) that pushed Hindi film producers towards films more clearly focused on issues in ‘real’ India. In Roja an Indian computer engineer working for the Indian military is abducted in Kashmir. His young wife campaigns to get the Indian authorities to do something to get him back and the engineer also attempts to escape. There is some business with an Indian flag and clearly there are connections between Roja and Lakshya. Although it is much more slick and probably more ‘authentic’, Lakshya doesn’t seem to me as coherent as Roja.

What’s the problem? First, I don’t really care about the central character Karan. Partly this is just prejudice against upper middle-class pretty boys. Hrithik Roshan is a good dancer and he looks very handsome in uniform, but his performance as a ‘slacker’ is really embarrassing. The other three stars have very underwritten parts and for me, don’t do enough in their roles (it’s especially sad that we don’t see more of Preity Zinta as a TV reporter. Perhaps this is a problem with the Bollywood star system and with its approach to genres more fully developed in other cinemas such as the war movie. The combat/army sequences need more space for other characters. Why is Karan in a Punjabi regiment? Who are the other officers in the regiment? Who are the squaddies? What stories do they have to tell? The cliché of British and American war movies – a squad of young men drawn from different classes and regions is there for a good purpose.

This kind of Bollywood film still requires songs, two of which have sophisticated dance choreography. It seems impossible for the producers to not have these – and indeed there is no reason why they shouldn’t be incorporated in the narrative. I think all the songs work to some extent. It is the sickly sentimental score in other scenes that I found to be a real problem. The issue is how to develop a tone that can bridge the romance and action scenes and I don’t think that was achieved. The film has been praised for the realism of the combat scenes but I wasn’t convinced. I’ve seen much better sequences of this kind of assault in recent Chinese and Korean films as well as earlier Hollywood efforts such as Sam Fuller’s films or indeed the Russian film about Afghanistan, 9th Company. Have the producers’ seen Santosh Sivan’s combat scenes at the start of The Terrorist?

The other major issue for me is the film’s literal ‘flag-waving’ patriotism. I’m afraid that I struggle with all forms of nationalism, so war pictures that go beyond a narrative of looking after your mates and seeing that they get out alive usually leave me cold. Again Lakshya seems to have been praised for not demonising the Pakistani forces. I thought it did do that to some extent, but I recognise that there was also an attempt to humanise them. The actual sequence when the film’s narrative switched to the Pakistani defenders on the peak threw me a little. Again this felt arbitrary and not thought through.

Overall, Lakshya is an interesting attempt to make a different kind of Bollywood film. It didn’t work for me, at least not as well as the producers might have hoped, and I doubt it found audiences in India outside the major cities, but this production team will eventually crack it, I feel sure.