Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Small Plea

Can we import fewer Hollywood, French and Oscar foreign film winning mediocrities and more Asian cinema in general? Please?

EDIT: Lest anyone think I have some kind of unthinking bias against French Film (or the Oscar's foreign film selections) I should mention that this year's Alliance French Film Festival has an incredible selection. Love like Poison, Of Gods and Men, Outside the Law, Potiche, On Tour and Carlos are all on my list as must-sees. Although Carlos is a butchered 2 1/2 hour cut which makes me glad I caught the full 5 1/2 hours at BIFF.

(I also like plenty of Hollywood films, I just think these categories are over-represented)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Capsule: Tokyo Sonata

Tokyo Sonata is nothing if not ambitious. In following the travails of a middle class family it aims to paint a portrait of modern Japan. It sets out to encompass the plight of middle managers who are the first to go in difficult times and the least qualified to find other work, the nature of family affairs in which social expectations about gender roles and duties stifle both men and women, the United States - Japan alliance and what it means for young people and many other similarly weighty social matters.

Unfortunately in doing so it's bitten off more than it can chew - while some thematic elements find themselves well serviced others fall by the wayside and the average scripting is not up to the task of coping with some of the more esoteric strands. Similarly, while the family's secrets and multiple falls from grace are fairly well plotted, their final bottoming out and eventual acceptance of their new roles is clumsily handled via some unnecessary and tonally jarring plot mechanics.

Still, Kurosawa's direction of his ultimately awkward scenario is never any less than assured. Astutely chosen framing and lighting turn otherwise unremarkable office blocks and bus stations in to cut-rate versions of purgatory and many of the confrontations at home are choreographed elegantly; employing depth staging to quiet effect.

Capsule: The King's Speech

A surprisingly amiable film as many of the biopic/period clichés are effectively underplayed or absent entirely. As noted elsewhere Tom Hooper attempts more than the kind of paint-by-numbers approach usually found in such projects. He is committed to finding some visual interest in his frame - the initial therapy session with Rush's character is shot in such a way that there is an uncomfortable amount of negative space in the frame, effectively putting the viewer on edge. However there are moments when he bows to cliché. For example the way the final speech is shot, with its cutaways to every character who is even remotely important - and several that aren't - is tiresome. Surely it might have been more effective, and more in keeping with the film's low key tone, to stay locked on Rush and Firth and emphasis the constant personal  struggle of giving the speech?

The aforementioned low key tone is a great relief. Rather than the usual portentous declarations of importance the film generally downplays whatever negligible impact the speeches of King George VI might have had. Of course this approach also means that what we're left with is the story of a friendship between two loving family men but the performances and dialogue make it a fairly charming affair. If there's nothing particularly refreshing in the story of the eccentric who helps his new uptight friend live a little there's nothing particularly objectionable about it either.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Courtesy of SBS: Time

The common knock against science fiction writer Greg Egan is that, for all the fascination inherent in his scenarios, he is unable to create characters. I've always found this claim to be unfair - it's not that he doesn't create characters, it's just that those characters are always first and foremost a function of the scenario. The only part of their history, of their personality, that we get to see is the part that has a direct bearing on the philosophical question at hand. They're highly detailed people; they're just very narrowly detailed people.

I don't think there's anything wrong with this approach. There might be if Egan were attempting character studies but he's not. He's interested in exploring the personal and philosophical conundrums that rapidly changing technology presents. To my mind that's as valid a mission for an artist as creating complex personal portraits is.

It's a mission that, on the basis of Time anyway, Kim Ki-duk shares. To be fair Ki-duk isn't really interested in the possibilities and pitfalls of plastic surgery and what they might mean for us on a realistic level, but he does seem interested in very narrow philosophical questions of intimacy, novelty and identity and his character's traits are subordinated to exploring those questions.

Time is about the desire to enjoy intimacy with one person "till death do us part" and yet also the need to constantly be surprised and excited by that person. To maintain her lover's (Ji-Woo) interest the female protagonist (Seh-Hee) undergoes plastic surgery to make her self unrecognisable and enters his life again as a new person.  

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Quote of the Day

"Multiplexes, with their glorified video screens and tatty decor, are unimpressed by cinema. The Gaumont is of an age when film was still a miracle. It was a cathedral."

-From Looking for Jake by China Mieville

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

This is very much early Miyazaki. Early in the sense that he seems to have difficulty trusting the audience, instead ensuring that characters tell us what they are seeing and explain it - twice if necessary - so that there is little room for misinterpreting the potentially confusing scenario. Miyazaki in the sense that it is fully committed to its environmental message in a way that manages to be simple without being simplistic.

Like many environmentally concious films it's about being able to live in harmony with nature and respect it rather than struggling against it. Unlike many such films its message is never presented in such direct, cliched tones and the destructive impulse to be struggled against is not as simple as the commonly trotted out sin of greed. Rather than a parable of avaricious humans destroying the natural world out a myopic desire to enrich themselves it's about people trying to make life comfortable for themselves without understanding the environment they're manipulating. It's harder to boo and hiss at the bad guy while remaining confident of one's own good nature when everyone is acting out of recognisably common impulses.

It's also a pacifist film - as has been noted elsewhere much of the narrative is driven by Nausicaä's desire to atone for her early killings by attempting to resolve conflict without bloodshed. As with the environmental message Miyazaki avoids the easier strategies of polemic. While the hero is (of course) triumphant, the narrative is not naive about the possible consequences of attempting to face up to armed soldiers with bare hands and honest words.

The earlier noted combination of early difficulties and precocious assurance is repeated with the visuals. The animation, in keeping with the lower budgeted productions of Japan at the time, is often minimal and occaisionally awkward. However the art is as lush as ever and one can see, in the design of creatures, people and craft, many of the same aesthetic ideas pursued in later Ghibli films.

While uneven it's the strengths of Nausicaä that linger longer than the weaknesses. Once the audience is comfortably orientated in his world Miyazaki does let the story flow more smoothly with less intrusive hand holding and the story's strengths and even some of his humour emerge.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Dear The Australian

In the future please don't pay someone to write about film when they (a) utalise the phrase "Awkward Alert" in order to sound hip and snappy, (b) think Hollywood is another way of referring to the entire American film industry, (c) think Apatow comedies are about the limitations of institutionalised romantic commitment, (d) think Just Go With It and No Strings Attached will not have conventional happy-ever-afters and (e) call their mythical trend of realistic romcoms "extreme date movies".

Friday, January 7, 2011


Somewhere is a fairly restrained, if not exactly subtle, study of a man who - by personal temperament and because of impersonal structures - is pathologically incapable of forming relationships. Much of the film is given over to showing us the professional cocoon that surrounds Johnny and the personal routines he's built. The former's ever present, ever sycophantic but never personal presence is largely anonymous even when it is present in person. The latter's stultifying sameness and its lack of fulfilment is conveyed largely through visual metaphor: the endless parade of identical hotel rooms and buxom blonds, the car that races around and around and around.

This visual language remains consistent with the narrative of the film right up until the final shot. For example the stylish suite that breaks up the monotony of endless hotel rooms serves both its metaphoric function; the monotony of his routine having been broken by Cleo, and its plot function; a place for them to stay while they're in Italy. However this harmony breaks down at the end. While the final shot provides a neat counterpart to the opening one - instead of driving around and around he's leaving the safety of his cocoon and walking somewhere with purpose - it makes zero sense on a story level. He's decided his life is hollow but has been utterly at a loss as to how to fix it. The last shot suggests he's found a sense of direction but the narrative is at a complete loss as to what it might be. It's a cheat that somewhat sours the rest of the film's modest achievements

On the positive side it is at least as not relentlessly editorialising or as nakedly ideological as its spiritual partner Up in the Air. Unlike Ryan, Johnny lacks self awareness. As such he doesn't feel the need to develop a coherent philosophy to explain himself to others. This results in a film that feels less concerned with argument and debate and more concerned with the emotions of its protagonists. It's the difference between someone who decided that there is a trend of depersonalisation in modern society which needs to be exposed through popular entertainment and someone making a picture about a person in trouble.