Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Messenger (US 2009)

Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) and Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton) in one of The Messenger's interesting 'Scope compositions.

This film seems to have got a bit lost in the general failure of Iraq/Afghanistan war films – at least in the US. I quite enjoyed it. It’s a little predictable, but there are fine performances from the three leads (Ben Foster is clearly a talented young actor) and it is shot in a simple style making good use of the ‘Scope image (cinematography by Bobby Bukowski). I’ve seen the film described as 1970s American Cinema. I’m not sure about that but it’s certainly using drama to say something intelligent.

The film begins with Woody Harrelson as Captain Tony Stone, a long-serving US Army officer awaiting the appointment of a new man to his team detailed to inform relatives of the deaths of their loved ones. The new recruit, Sgt Will Montgomery is played by Ben Foster. This character has only a few more months to serve after being seriously injured in Afghanistan. He isn’t very keen on the new job – which must be undertaken with a strict adherence to the rules, including no physical contact with the relatives.

The new pairing develop a relationship slowly and Montgomery inevitably develops a forbidden contact with a widow played by Samantha Morton. The narrative swings between a potential relationship with Morton’s character and the dynamics of the relationship between the two soldiers. The only other significant element is Montgomery’s ex girlfriend’s upcoming wedding.

The film is directed and co-written by an Israeli migrant to the US, Oren Moverman. It is Moverman’s first feature as a director but he has a track record of interesting-sounding scripts (including the Dylan biopic, I’m Not There and Jesus’s Son (1999) – with Samantha Morton is a small part). Moverman did his compulsory military service in the Israeli armed forces. I confess to a certain wariness about what that experience has produced in other directors, but his take on the war is I think nicely summed up by one of the posters on IMdB who suggested that The Messenger is not an ‘anti-war’ film as such but one that simply tries to represent the hurt and emotional trauma that war brings.

Official trailer:

Potiche (France/Belgium 2010)

Judith Godrèche (Joëlle), Catherine Deneuve (Suzanne) and Karin Viard (Nadège)

A potiche is a useless ornament, in sexist language a ‘trophy wife’. It’s a brave man who would ever describe Catherine Deneuve as a ‘trophy’. But that’s the premise of François Ozon’s entertaining and beautifully made film, an adaptation of a ‘boulevard comedy’ first staged ten years ago or more (Ozon says ten, but Ginette Vincendau in Sight and Sound says it dates from 1983 or earlier). Boulevard theatre is solid middle-class middlebrow entertainment, traditionally despised by film critics but often popular with the public and with certain film directors. Ozon himself has got form in this type of comedy with 8 Women (France 2002) – his previous outing with Catherine Deneuve.

The plot involves a bourgeois family who own an umbrella factory in a small town. The factory boss Pujol is a tyrant who has control because his wife is the daughter of the company’s founder. The factory is going down the pan and the workforce is striking. At this point Pujol is taken ill and to her surprise Madame Pujol (Deneuve) finds herself in the driving seat. She proves to have an unusual ally in the local communist mayor and MP (Gérard Dépardieu) and soon has the factory moving forward. But Pujol recovers and wants his role back – the next generation of Pujols prove to be important in deciding how the factory will fare in the future.

As the still above illustrates, Mme Pujol finds herself in new relationships with both her daughter Joëlle and her husband’s secretary Nadège. This is the core of the film with a commentary on changing opportunities for women and I agree with Ozon and Deneuve that the narrative has plenty to say in contemporary discussion of gender equality, especially in relation to figures like Ségolène Royale and, God help us, Marine Le Pen.

I think that the film works on every level and I enjoyed it immensely. I’d pick out three reasons why: the tight and assertive direction which keeps up the pace, assured performances from a starry cast and excellent production design in evoking 1977 but making it seem vibrant not bathed in nostalgia. I particularly loved the designer umbrellas. The whole film was shot in Belgium, so it’s a great ad for the Belgian film industry.

It’s distressing that there are some negative reviews, mostly from younger audiences who seem bored by the film. It makes you wonder what modern audiences would make of Ozon’s hero, Rainer Werner Fassbinder who made similar but much darker films.

Here’s the trailer with a taste of the film:

À bout portant (Point Blank France 2010)

Samuel (Gilles Lelouche) reluctantly stitches the wound of Hugo (Roschdy Zem)

This is the second taut thriller from writer-director Fred Cavayé following Pour elle (Anything For Her, 2008). That was remade in Hollywood as The Next Three Days with Russell Crowe. I didn’t bother with the remake but the consensus seems to be that it was less interesting than the original.

This second film at first appears as if it will be more or less a repeat of the first – a happy and ‘respectable’ youngish couple suddenly thrown into a dangerous situation (with the woman heavily pregnant) which forces them into criminal action against their wishes. And indeed this is a short widescreen polar that has no pretensions beyond a desire to entertain as an action thriller. However, it soon reveals itself to be different from Cavayé’s earlier film in two respects. First, the male protagonist is given no time to think about the consequences of his actions or to plan how to rescue his wife – this time he is just thrown into the chase to save her almost immediately. Secondly, where the first film mostly involved outwitting the police, here the narrative is much more complex involving corruption and assassinations. In other words, this film is less the ‘one innocent man against the system’ and more ‘one innocent man caught up in extensive struggles between police and organised crime’ – i.e. much more like the traditional French polar.

The set-up is seemingly straightforward. Samuel (Gilles Lellouche) is a trainee nurse about to take his exams when a man is brought in to his hospital ward. We already know that Hugo (Roschdy Zem) was wounded and running away from two men when he was involved in accident. Samuel then foils an attempt on Hugo’s life and considers himself a hero. But the next day his wife is kidnapped and he is told that he must get Hugo out of the hospital if he is ever to see his wife again. The rollercoaster begins.

Most of the film involves chases across Paris, especially in the metro (invoking memories of Luc Besson’s Subway). As I watched these very exciting sequences it occurred to me that I can’t really compare them to British crime thrillers since my expectations of most British crime films are so low that I avoid many of them. Perhaps it is just a case of the ‘the grass is greener . . .’) but the French crime films of recent years seem to make much better use of Paris and its environs than British films do of London. Add to this excellent performances by Lellouche (French actor du jour, I think) and the always dependable Zem, plus a sudden narrative twist part way through the chase and you have excellent entertainment that will wake you up and keep you on the edge of your seat. No Hollywood remakes please.

UK trailer:

New Spike Lee DVD

Spike Lee’s last feature film, Miracle at St Anna has finally got a DVD release in the UK. Revolver are releasing the DVD/Blu-ray of the film on June 27. We featured a review of the American Region 1 disc here. The film is an adaptation of a novel by James McBride about a small group of ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ – African-American soldiers in Italy in 1944. As in many recent war films, the central story is ‘book-ended’ by events in contemporary New York. The film is long (150 mins plus) but always packed with incident. It’s a Spike Lee film so it is controversial and some people don’t like it for various reasons. But this is an important story about the Second World War and particularly about the segregated American armed forces. The film deserves to be seen.

The UK official website is here.

One of the interesting aspects of this release is the simultaneous launch of the film on DVD/Blu-ray, online via LOVEFiLM, iTunes, Playstation, BlinkBox, FilmFlex, BT Vision and on TV via Sky Box Office.

The film has never had a UK release (unprecedented for a Spike Lee fiction feature, I think) so Revolver should be rewarded with some interest.

The release prompts us to ask what Spike is up to at the moment. As far as we can see he has been working primarily for television documentary (plus one stageplay recording). Nothing new is available in the UK but a Region 1 DVD was released in April of his follow-up to the epic When the Levees Broke (2006). This is the documentary If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise (2010). To keep up-to-date with Spike Lee’s output, the best source is the 40 Acres and a Mule website.

Archipelago (UK 2010)

The holiday group (from left) Christopher, Patricia, Rose, Cynthia and Edward. The colour palette of pink/grey/khaki/blue is evident here on a desultory picnic trip.

This is the second film by writer-director Joanna Hogg and like the first, Unrelated (2007), it features an upper middle class English family on holiday. I confess that I really didn’t like the earlier film set in Tuscany. I admired it as a piece of filmmaking but most of the characters were so unappealing to me that I found it hard to watch. In particular I found the central character, a woman on her own joining a family group, to be intensely irritating. Because of this I approached Archipelago with some trepidation.

This time the family group is much smaller and the narrative seems more focused. The holiday on Tresco, one of the Scilly Isles, is a family tradition. They always stay in the same house and this time the holiday is a kind of farewell gathering for Edward (Tom Hiddleston), who has given up his city job in order to take up a voluntary post in Africa working on an AIDS project. He’s joined by his older sister and his mother. His father is supposed to be there but hasn’t as yet arrived. There are two ‘outsiders’ in the party. The first is Christopher, a professional artist who is tutoring Edward’s mother (and who is played by Hogg’s own art tutor, the painter Christopher Baker). The second is a live-in young cook, Rose, played by Amy Lloyd who is a professional cook with a drama school background. The mother (Patricia) and sister (Cynthia) are played by professional actors (Kate Fahy and Lydia Leonard).

Joanna Hogg has explained that there were two specific inspirations for her script. One was Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot and the other was a Paul Schrader article about Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (France 1966). Edward is effectively the man who is too ‘good’ for his own good and he finds himself in a family situation where although he is clearly troubled by his own indecisiveness, it is very difficult to communicate with his sister or mother – in fact he’s much more likely to have some form of communication with the two outsiders.

So, what does Joanna Hogg achieve in Archipelago? If you want a conventional art cinema review of the film, I highly recommend Jonathan Romney in Sight and Sound (March 2011). He nails the film very convincingly. I’m interested here in some other questions which I’m struggling to articulate. First I should say that as an ‘art object’, I think that Archipelago is very well put together. Every aspect of the film has been thought through carefully and executed with precision. There is a clear personal aesthetic which covers camerawork, editing and sound as well as narrative structure. This enables Hogg to present the landscape of Tresco – or rather the ‘environment’ of the island – as almost another character in the drama. There is no music in the film but the soundtrack is filled with the sound of the wind (which is of Kurosawa-like intensity at times) and birdsong. On the DVD commentary Hogg tells us that the birdsong is in effect an ironic commentary on the characters’ lack of communication with each other. The camera rarely gets close to any of the characters, preferring a discreet distance and often framing the three family members together in awkward (but often quite beautiful) compositions. There is much discussion about the philosophy of painting and art generally and several scenes are shot in a painterly style. Romney refers to a Danish painter I don’t know but on one occasion I thought an indoor scene was reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting.

In narrative terms the film is characterised by several significant absences. The father is absent and we learn about him only through the phone calls received by his wife (all of which, I think, we see from behind her) and Edward’s impressions of a rather gruff huntin’ and shootin’ man. The other missing character is Chloe, Edward’s girlfriend who is talked about but not seen. Visually, a symbolic absence is a framed print in the sitting-room which the family have taken down because they can’t stand it. Apart from the paintings of both the mother and her teacher, there is also an absence of any other cultural artefacts. No TV or radio, no music players, no newspapers, nothing really to intrude upon the introspective and stifling atmosphere. Cynthia owns up to have borrowed a book from her mother – but she confesses that she has hardly read any of it.

I think one of my questions is about audience responses to art cinema. Hogg’s work has been compared to such directors as Rohmer and Ozu – both in terms of aesthetic and family drama. This film reminds me of Antonioni a little. Of course there are many differences in such comparisons as well but my interest here is to observe that I view those films as texts about ‘other’ cultures. The more different it is (Japanese middle class life in the 1950s) the easier it is to distance myself. The British middle class milieu is in one sense much more familiar (I’ve often stayed with friends in relatively isolated houses in remote parts of the UK and abroad) yet also in a way completely alien. I couldn’t stand more than a few hours in the company of Patricia or Cynthia (even if I’ve sometimes behaved nearly as badly as they do – and I suspect we all have). Social class difference is for me still the defining feature of British culture. The way in which Rose is treated in the film fills me with fury but perhaps the best illustration of this is the implied criticism of Edward. Romney in his review has this description:

” . . . Edward is unassumingly pleasant, compassionate, idealistic – and irredeemably wet.”

It’s that use of the term ‘wet’ that is interesting. What does it actually mean? When Margaret Thatcher was savaging her way through the structure of British society, any of the (male) MPs in her own party who complained that she was going too far were dismissed as ‘wet’. The upper middle classes send their male children to boarding school, partly I think, to ‘toughen’ them up – to give them the confidence and arrogance to rule over the rest of us plebs. It clearly hasn’t worked for Edward who instead is sensitive but emotionally stunted. One of the teases of the film is that you hope that he will find some sort of emotional release with Rose – but this is a film in which narrative expectations are not likely to be fulfilled.

It seems that Joanna Hogg expects her audience to decode all the signs of repression in this family and to take their pleasure from the presentation of a well-crafted art object, but I can’t help wondering what her underlying motive is. Does she intend a political critique of this kind of upper middle class life? Perhaps the problem is mine in expecting some kind of social commentary to be progressive in some way? One specific point in respect: I found some aspects of Edward’s description of the project in Africa to be unbelievable and I’m not sure whether this was intended.

On the other hand, I think Joanna Hogg succeeds in creating an art film which successfully challenges audience expectations in an intelligent and carefully constructed way and I guess that can’t be a bad thing.

Here’s the UK trailer (the music doesn’t appear in the film):

Admiral (Russia 2008)

Admiral Kolchak receives tribute from White Russian forces and proclaims himself 'Supreme Ruler'

Picked up by Metrodome for a UK DVD release, Admiral is an interesting example of the new Russian popular cinema that is now emerging in one of the fastest growing cinema markets in the world. This month Screen International has a feature in which analysts predict that the Russian box office will grow to as many as 300 million admissions by 2015 (from 165 million in 2010). If this happens it will see Russia as the fourth biggest market behind India, US and China. However, most of this growth is due to Hollywood blockbusters and local films still struggle to compete. Admiral has been the second most successful Russian film of recent years (taking $33.7 million in Russia) and it involves some of the same cast and crew as the other two most popular films The Irony of Fate 2 and Day Watch. The other important institutional factor to note is that the film is actually a 2 hour cut from a 10 hour TV mini-series. That’s an extreme form of compression by anyone’s standards.

Outline (spoilers – but this is a biopic!)

The Admiral of the title is Aleksandr Kolchak (1874-1920), an important historical figure in Russian history. Kolchak was first a polar explorer and then a hero of both the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-5 and the First World War naval engagements between the Imperial Navies of Russia and Germany in 1916. It is with these engagements that the film’s narrative begins. During celebrations of a naval victory, Kolchak meets and falls in love with the beautiful young wife of his friend and deputy. – much to the dismay of both his friend and his own wife. Following the Tsar’s abdication, Kolchak managed to retain his authority (largely through being sent to America to help the US Navy). He is able to return to the Russian Far East where he seizes control of the White Forces in the Civil War against the newly formed Red Army. Throughout this period his new love Anna attempts to be with him while his wife and son are in exile in Paris. The film narrative is book-ended by a scene set in the Mosfilm Studios during Sergei Bondarchuk’s production of War and Peace in 1964. Anna, who survived the Civil War but was then imprisoned, is now able to appear in public – but is a role in a ‘patriotic film’, even as an extra, appropriate?

Commentary

An expensive production ($20 million according to Wikipedia) Admiral certainly looks the part – although it suffers like most modern ‘spectacular films’ from the problems of CGI battle scenes. Visually, it works best as a costume drama. The major problem is clearly the compression of the narrative which inevitably means that the story leaps about through time and space. I confess that apart from the two leads, I found it difficult to track certain characters through the narrative. Partly this was because of the strange experience of watching naval officers transmuted into army officers. If you don’t know the history of the Russian Civil War, I recommend at least an outline scan of events before watching the film. (The film does not purport to be an exact historical reconstruction.) It’s difficult to work out the extent to which the balance between the war combat/military planning narrative and the romance has been affected by the compression. I suspect that purchasers of the DVD expecting an epic combat film will be disappointed by the way in which the romance comes to the fore. The romance fails for me because Elizaveta Boyarskaya who plays Anna is certainly beautiful but appears to have little else in her performance that represents the passion the character feels for Kolchak. Konstantin Habensky who plays the Admiral is perhaps the most popular contemporary Russian actor and is believable as the central character, although he looks a little young. The obvious films that audiences in the West will use for comparison are Dr Zhivago (1965) and War and Peace (King Vidor 1956). Ms Boyarskaya doesn’t stand much chance up against Julie Christie or Audrey Hepburn.

For me the most interesting aspect of the film is its ideological work. It’s always an odd experience watching a film in which you find yourself being asked to follow the exploits of the enemy when your own side is not being shown. Not that this is impossible since I’ve never really had a problem with supporting Sergeant Steiner and his men in Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron even if they are part of the Wehrmacht fighting the Red Army. But that’s because they are professional soldiers simply trying to survive and ignore the Nazi officer who they distrust. In the case of Admiral, however, we are asked to support a man who became what some commentators have termed a proto-fascist dictator as ‘Supreme Chief of Russian Forces’. His own ideology seems to be church and ‘homeland’, expressed in patrician and aristocratic terms. The film makes no attempt to humanise the Bolsheviks and they are represented as little more than thugs in most cases – apart from some of the guards in the final sequence. I did quite like the ways in which the guards struggled to find different ways to address the Admiral in the new language of the revolution. ‘Mr Kolchak’ was the last one I think (according to the subtitles).

It’s a shame that the film doesn’t give us the whole story as Kolchak’s early life is intriguing. A character with more shades to his personal character might be more interesting. As it is this seems like a crude attempt to valorise a Putin-like figure. Channel One was a major funder of the film and I think this TV channel is still majority owned by the Russian state. Possibly the TV mini-series has more nuances and contradictions but if you want a corrective to this view of the Civil War I recommend Miklós Jancsó‘s The Red and the White (Hungary 1968). One last point – the image at the head of this post shows the British and American flags. There is, I think, little knowledge in the UK of the part played by Churchill in particular in sending British forces and encouraging other allies to support the Whites in 1918-9 and to try to strangle the Russian Soviets at birth.

A Russian trailer (with English subs):

13 Assassins (Japan/UK 2010)

Ichimura Masachika and Yakusho Koji as the two 'retained' samurai who must fight for honour in 13 ASSASSINS. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

Miike Takashi seems almost to define what a cult director of genre pictures should be. In his extended review of 13 Assassins in Sight & Sound (June 2011), Christopher Huber tells us that Miike has directed 40 films in 20 years, that he is not the ‘Asia Extreme’ director that everyone believes him to be but a misunderstood auteur and a great humanist. Those are quite some claims and I’m not really in a position to evaluate them. I’m not sure that I’d ever seen a Miike film in its entirety before this one. Fate decided to save me from the second half of Audition when a projector failed at the Hyde Park in Leeds and we got our money back. Other than that I think I’ve only seen extracts screened by lecturer-fans.

Huber also describes 13 Assassins as ‘audience friendly’ and tells us that a longer ‘director’s cut’ is available in Japan. Hmm! I found several of the scenes almost too much to stomach (literally in the first hari-kiri scene) and I thought that the final long battle at 45 minutes was just too long. But perhaps if I knew more about chanbara (swordfight films) and had seen more Miike films I would be able to make a more informed commentary. All I can do really is to respond like the typical specialised cinema audience member I am to an ‘international production’ (Jeremy Thomas pops up as an executive producer and Hanway Films are on board with Toho).

Plot outline (no spoilers – but the narrative follows conventions meticulously)

Japan in 1844. The Tokugawa Shogun’s half brother Lord Naritsugu has been adopted by the Akashi clan and is set to become the Senior Advisor to the Shogun and therefore untouchable. He is arrogant and unstable and likely to wreak havoc in public life – having already murdered a young married couple on a whim. The ritual suicide of a samurai who has been shamed alerts the authorities and a senior civil servant selects another of the Shogun’s samurai, Shimada Shinzaemon, to assassinate the rogue half brother before he can do further damage. Shimada recruits a dozen more samurai and sets out to trap Lord Naritsugu and his army.

Commentary

The first point to make is that this is a genre film – a remake of a 1963 chanbara by Kudo Eiichi. It’s very good as a 2010 re-working of the story and the visuals are excellent. I particularly like the mountain scenes as the samurai climb through thick forests. The ‘very long shots’ of tiny figures with large round hats climbing in single file up a hillside are reminiscent of Hiroshige woodblock prints.

In a Guardian interview Miike says that he was careful not to make a chanbara with insertions of ‘modern ideas’ such as romances. This seems a good point but I do like the jidaigeki of recent years by the veteran director Yamada Yoji (e.g. The Twilight Samurai) which feature more domestic scenes and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (which Miike clearly admires) includes at least one sequence in which the youngest samurai has a tryst with a beautiful village girl – something which at one point Miike looks like repeating. The reference to Kurosawa is one of the ways into an analysis of 13 Assassins. In some ways, the plot is similar to Seven Samurai – the thirteen samurai here are the equivalent of the seven and several of them seem to be ‘doubles’. Miike has a peasant who wants to be a samurai, a young man in awe of his masters, a ‘super swordsman, a jolly samurai etc. – all of whom are characters in Kurosawa’s film. The fortification of a village is similar and the traps for samurai on horseback. Yet the actual situation and the time period refer more to Kurosawa’s later films about ronin (masterless samurai) such as Yojimbo and Sanjuro. It may be that we need to discuss Japanese history.

The setting of 13 Assassins is 23 years before the end of the Edo period and the restoration of the Meiji Emperor. It is also just 9 years before US Commodore Perry’s appearance in Tokyo Bay – the historical moment marking Japan’s entry into the ‘modern’ (i.e. ‘Western’) world. Yet the long battle that ends 13 Assassins features less use of firearms than Kurosawa’s film set in the 17th century (even if it does feature several explosions). I think that I need to retreat to my history books. Japan was certainly ‘behind’ the West in 1844, but surely not as much as this film implies? Edo (Tokyo) had a population of over 1 million by the 18th century and by the 19th century there was both a thriving urban culture and a detailed pursuit of aspects of Western technological knowledge. Only in the representation of a gaming house does 13 Assassins attempt to portray this world. Once outside the Shogun’s domain in Edo, the narrative refers to nothing that would suggest that this is the 19th (rather than the 16th) century. In noting this I don’t mean to criticise the film. My point is simply that it is a genre convention that chanbara often take place in a highly stylised fictional world – just like the Hollywood Western. By contrast, Kurosawa researched his period dramas very carefully so that they matched historical descriptions. Miike seems to follow the Kurosawa of Seven Samurai in some ways (building his own village to destroy in a ‘real’ location) but not in others.

13 Assassins doesn’t seem to have done as well in the UK as I would have expected. I’m probably more squeamish than most action fans as I’ve indicated, but I can recognise when a director knows what he is doing. Considering that most of the actors had not previously appeared in chanbara they put up a very impressive display. The film is to my mind much more exciting than most Hollywood action fare. The CGI is very carefully integrated with the real swordplay and other action to produce a certain level of realism. On the other hand, I would have to watch the film again but there seems to be at least one ‘magical’ incident in which a character seemingly comes back from the dead. Either way, this is a story in which 13 men take on a much larger force of 200 and give more than they get. If action films are your bag, this is way better than most.

Here’s a flavour of the action in a subtitled trailer: