Sunday, December 21, 2014

Linda, Linda, Linda

Linda, Linda, Linda starts with a scene that's intended to encapsulate the movie by way of three filmmakers who ineptly stumble their way towards "making an impact" as they shoot a piece about their school's festival. However it also serves to call attention to the process of film-making by laying bare their decision making process as they decide that a cut to a close-up will give their documentary more of a jolt than simply using one shot. From then on viewers can be expected to pay a little more attention to the film's visual grammar than they might have otherwise done.

Such simple but effective technique persists throughout the film. For example the next scene recalls the opening of Irma Verp or Serenity as the camera tracks to follow a single character in very long takes and in doing so introduces both the setting and most of the major characters in a concise, elegant manner. The film's narrative however is less tidy. Certain conflicts remain somewhat unresolved, back-story is hinted at but limited, "important" scenes are elided and the bass player suffers the indignity of bass players everywhere as she's mostly relegated to the background.

The result is something of a strange film. It's sweet and touching but subtly so - in stark contrast to contemporary Western teen films. Its tone can be summed up by its conclusion; it ends on a oddly melancholy note. Rather than finishing on the girls' triumphant performance of the title song it concludes on a montage of packed away festival equipment in the rain.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Hard Day

I once read someone opining that the worst thing that can happen to a national cinema is for it to become a genre. I don't think there's any real danger of that happening to South Korean film (there are too many idiosyncratic voices working in the industry) but it's fair to say that even a filmgoer with only a passing knowledge of the nation's films could construct a bingo card for the typical commercial movie. A Hard Day would probably allow you to fill out that bingo card in under 30 minutes. All the boxes are covered: Wild tonal shifts, brutal violence and a soup├žon of social commentary crop up relatively early.

Fortunately A Hard Day is a fairly accomplished version of Commercial South Korean Movie. It's stylishly, albeit somewhat anonymously, directed in a way that only occasionally starts to grate (check those dutch angles!) and is blessedly free of the super fast continuity editing that plagues the films of Na Hong-jin. It also does an excellent job of placing its protagonist, sympathetic dirty cop Go Geon-soo, in memorably tense and funny predicaments. It never really tops an early set piece involving a child's toy, a dead body, balloons and a shoe lace but that's to be expected.

A Hard Day does occasionally drift into excess. The score can best a described as overbearing and the climax is overextended (check your bingo card),  but for the most part it zips along and it will provide an excellent exemplar of what Korean film in the 00s was like.

Friday, December 12, 2014

We Are the Night

This is mostly just a bog standard "vampirism as unbridled hedonism" movie. It's marginally interesting in that it links social class with the ability and desire to be a pleasure seeking junkie but it never really explores that idea, or any idea, productively because it's too busy laying track for its bog standard "corrupted innocence" plot line.

It's never subtle either. When Lena (Karoline Herfurth, Passionand Errors of the Human Body) undergoes her transformation it physically strips away her class indicators (haircut and tattoos) and when she first tastes blood she orgasms. There's a marginally more clever scene in which the vampires' voracious capitalism is offhandedly underlined by a game in which the person who buys the least must pay for everyone else but mostly it's just very obvious in a rather dumb - if fitfully amusing - way.*

The shallow way it treats its supposed themes occasionally pushes it past simply being dumb and into potentially offensive territory. During Lena's initiation Louise explains that vampires are an all female society as all male vampires were killed off in order to preserve female autonomy. This idea is never directly explored and as a result it simply becomes another aspect of their hedonistic behaviour. Sure, the film seems to imply, it might be nice for women to be free and not dependant on men but it's really an unsustainable excess just like all the rest.

I'm not sure that the film's writers or director intended this interpretation (although the way in which the women's ultimately unfulfilling interactions are positioned against Lena's embryonic heterosexual romance suggests they might've) because despite its overwhelming bluntness it can be somewhat muddleheaded. Purportedly three endings were shot: one in which Lena decides to watch her crush die rather than turn him, one in which she turns him and the actual, trendily ambiguous ending. The choice of the third ending suggests that the director has no strong feelings about what his movie is about which is amusing given how on the nose so much of it is.

*Someone is killed by a page from For Whom the Bell Tolls. The audience knows which book it is because there's a quick close up of the book title right before it happens.


A Festival By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet

I've made it to Brisbane in time to catch the tail end of its new festival, the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival (BAPFF). The BAPFF is replacing the more compressed (in terms of time frame) and more sprawling (in terms of films' origins and the number of films programmed) Brisbane International Film Festival. As usual I'm writing up some of the films and as usual I make no promises as regards the quality of the writing or its regularity.

Salt of the Earth: Let's get the obvious out of the way: Sebastiao Salgado's photographs are so astonishing it's hard to describe them without one's prose descending into a mess of superlatives and cliches. Somehow he manages to capture people instead of bodies using just... see what I mean? In any case with that dealt with the question becomes whether The Salt of the Earth's presentation of Salgado's work does it justice. Initially the answer seems to be yes. The film opens with an evocative description of the photographer's art and the subsequent use of Salgado's narration and sound effects to contextualise his work is effective, if hardly revelatory. Eventually though, the film founders. The constant narration laid over the images rarely leaves room to simply contemplate the images and Salgado's baffling incomprehension in the face of Europeans with high standards of living committing unimaginable war crimes "...at the end of the twentieth century..." (!) serves only to diminish the man and his work. Similarly the biographical segments are patchy at best, tend to gloss over strife and culminate in a rather on the nose final set of title cards. (I suppose that's the risk of having a family member as one of the work's primary authors.)

Lake August: My enthusiasm for this film (bolstered by the appreciation of several smart film people) was initially deflated by its style. The festival approved formulae of static, or near static, master shots combined with long, unbroken takes is rapidly becoming less of a signifier for artistic seriousness and more of an indication of laziness. However several elements of the film combined to jolt me out of my apathy. The first of these was the way in which the style complements the film's content. What better way to convey the ennui of young adults cast adrift then long stultifying takes and airless conversations in which every question or statement is followed by a long pause? To be fair though this hardly sets the film aside from its festival brethren. What really drew me in was the indications that the director was really thinking about his shots and edits. A long shot of the protagonist dazing in a boat is broken by a sudden edit to a new and disorienting camera angle combined with the loud intrusion of a passing train on the soundtrack. I was jolted into life in much the same way as the protagonist.

Also notable is the way in which sly humour or commentary is regularly present as details at the edges of frames. The restaurant/hotel in which most of the film takes place is festooned with signs forbidding spitting and a mundane scene of the protagonist washing himself on a roof slowly morphs into something much stranger and pointed by way of a wayward political banner (indeed political posturing is ever present in this film but never remarked upon or even really noticed by the characters). Sly humour is not always simply a detail in this film: there's extended drunken "dance" scene that gets across a sense of anomie without requiring the viewer to stare directly into the void.

The danger of a film about anomie is that the main character - here a disaffected young man who speaks and acts with a near total lack of affect in the wake of personal tragedy - will quickly lose the audience's interest. Wisely Lake August contrasts him with Ah Fang, a more vivid character who is constantly investing more in her relationships than she can ever hope to get out of them. While at times faintly ridiculous (she is forever wearing absurdly chunky platform shoes) the defeats she suffers are heartbreaking - if only because she's one of the few characters in the film who is palpably invested in their own life.

If anything the complete product seems very reminiscent of the films of Jia Zhangke in both its depiction of people left adrift in modern China and in the ways in which the realist atmosphere is punctured by oddities (for example the, um, rather mobile architecture of Still Life). However Yang Heng is clearly doing much more than blindly copying as evidenced by the way he makes slow pans right into a recurring, yet never mechanical, motif.

***

For reading through all that nonsense I once again present you with Glen's Super Awesome Double Bills: For complete disaffection I recommend pairing Lake August with Wasted Youth. Actually no, don't do that unless you want to feel really lousy.


Saturday, August 2, 2014

A Most Excellent Review

When TV partisans declare that their medium has overtaken film in terms of quality this is exactly the kind of film they're imagining as a synecdoche: the subtle, adult genre film with a strong thematic through-line. If they were to pick out a TV series to favourably compare to A Most Wanted Man they could hardly do better than The Wire. After all, both concern themselves with institutions so thoroughly perverted that they end up perpetuating the very pathologies they're supposed to be treating.

Unlike The Wire, A Most Wanted Man only has two hours to do its job so it narrows its focus to one institution and one pathology: it's about how powerful intelligence agencies focus on punitive measures without stopping to consider the long term impacts of their methods. Like The Wire it primarily relies on dialogue and performance to convey its message. Perhaps its most strong, thematically focussed scene is the one in which the head of an American intelligence agency struggles to understand the benefit of cultivating assets to which her German counterpart can only ruefully quote her own words, "To make the world a safer place."

It also narrows its scope, focusing solely on the methods through which the spy agencies undermine their mission and leaving the consequences to the fertile imaginations of its audience. (Jamal may turn terrorist, activist or simply live quietly but one thing is for sure: he'll never trust the state again.) Whether that approach is more or less effective than The Wire's relentless and agonising accounting is a question I'll leave to the partisans who think that TV versus film is a debate that's worth more than a lazy hook for a review.

A Most Wanted Man does however expand beyond its thematic boundaries. For example it documents some sketched-in personal relationships (every possibility of which would be exhaustively explored on a tv show, to the benefit of some and the detriment of others) and, more interestingly, demonstrates an interest in the way in which people are turned into assets.

The most in-depth example of this is Annabel Richter's recruitment. It's accomplished through nothing more than a textbook good cop/bad cop routine. To the audience it feels completely scripted and artificial. We can almost guess the words that each actor is going to recite before they even leave their mouths. It's a feeling that, if anything, is enhanced by the way the scene frequently cuts to surveillance footage. This pattern repeats some time later when Richter turns Issa Karpov except, if anything, it feels even more artificial because it takes place in an apartment that looks exactly like a theatre set.

I don't think this is accidental. These interactions are made to feel creepily artificial (we're shown lights and cameras that the subjects of the scene don't see) because they are. Whatever genuine concern the characters feel for one another its consumed and directed by the institutional pressures bearing down on them.

***
For making it through all of that nonsense I'm going to leave you with GLEN'S SUPER AWESOME DOUBLE BILL SUGGESTION #1: Omar was also released in 2014 in Australian cinemas and its take on the pathology of intelligence agencies is similar and equally topical.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ida

I saw two trailers before watching Ida. One presented it as a film about uncovering dark secrets of the holocaust and the other suggested it was about a nun being tempted by carnal pleasures (you've got to feel for whoever fell for the latter). It follows then, that as far as I'm concerned it's about neither.

Many critics have seen this film as a radical change of pace for Pawlikowski and while the formal elements may be new - black and white cinematography, 4:3 aspect ratio, compositions emphasising negative space and an editing strategy that gets right to the meat of scenes - the narrative elements strongly recall My Summer of Love. Most saliently there's a coming of age story in which a young woman tries on a new identity under the tutorledge of a somewhat dubious mentor. What makes Ida more interesting than that earlier film is that Anna/Ida attempts to reconcile multiple contradictory identities - that of a devoted nun, of a Jew, and of a woman of the world. Furthermore those identities come with accumulated historical and personal baggage - they're as much suffocating as they are freeing.

It's interesting too, albeit frustrating, to see that Pawlikowski's interest in religion is much the same as it is in My Summer of Love. Pawlikowski's not concerned with the content of Anna's beliefs or why she might believe or continue to believe. Instead he still sees religion as an ascetic lifestyle in direct opposition to sensuality (maybe he's one of the few people who could really benefit from watching Babette's Feast) and as a tool with which to deny aspects of oneself. Once again though, worldly life has its own share of traps and disappointments.

...And I can't believe I just spent most of that "review" talking about Ida's narrative, of all things. What a waste of space.

(PS: I should give Ida an extra half star for the score. The last time I really listened to jazz Trichotomy was called Misinterprotato. I'm off to remedy that now.)

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Pride & Prejudice & Blogging Incompetence

My first thought upon seeing the opening shot of Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice was that I might be about to watch a precursor to Andrea Arnold's muddy, sweary take on Wuthering Heights. Of course Wright's elegant, concise adaptation is nothing of the sort. Sure, a pig is briefly brought inside a house but Wright's shots of nature are more likely to be sweeping and stirring than grimy and grim. Furthermore much of the dialogue is taken directly from the source material and the actors are all professionals.

Despite this it's a pretty far cry from Masterpiece Theatre* so I thought I'd do something a little different on this blog and make some trite, grammatically challenged observations about its mise en scene. As to how this differs from my standared M.O. well, this time I'll be doing it with pictures! No more dancing about architecture!

To start let's return to that opening shot I mentioned. It looks exactly like this:

And in the space of about a minute it turns into this:

It's nice, although starting your story with "a new day dawns" is not exactly a strong statement of purpose. It's just as well then that Wright is using this shot to visually foreshadow the movie's climax.

In the following scene, during which the central couple reunite after having dealt with all their hang-ups, Wright returns to the same landscape at the same time of day for the first time since the film began and I like to imagine that as soon as viewers see the following:

 They're anticipating this shot here:

Wright doesn't just use repeated motifs to create a little extra resonance. Sometimes he deploys them in order to get across a plot point. For example the most urgent motivation for Catherine de Bourg to marry her daughter off her daughter to Mr Darcy.

Here is the establishing shot of her grand house as Lizzie Bennet and the newly married Collins approach:



Despite the house's overwhelming size it's clear, even from this tiny screenshot, that multiple windows are broken which suggests that, despite all of Mr Collins' effusive praise, the de Bourgs are something of a dynasty in decline and are no longer able to afford the upkeep that their stately home demands. I'd like to imagine that the placement of the tree on the left, which doesn't frame the house so much as obscure it, and the decision to shoot in the afternoon so that said tree's shadow looms over the house were deliberate but I'll admit they may well be serendipitous.

What is not serendipitous is the contrasting majesty of Mr Darcy's mansion:

Unlike the shot which introduces the de Bourgs' house the camera is not static, instead it pans left past obscuring greenery until it rests in the position you see above, thereby encouraging the viewer to anticipate the reveal of the mansion's majesty. The shot's composition is also much stronger than the one that introduces the de Bourgs' house as the artificial lake in the foreground serves to guide the viewer's eye towards the house.

Shots of the houses' interiors only reinforce this impression. The scenes at the de Bourgs' are shot in the late afternoon and the night. This is as bright as the house interior gets:

This house's gloominess is only reinforced by its colour scheme which, as you can see above, consists of a lot of browns and reds.

Meanwhile Darcy's mansion is only seen in the morning and comes across as lighter and airier. It helps that the interiors are largely white/cream (or something, colours are not my strong point) and that the rooms are larger:


It's never directly stated in the film that Catherine is bitterly upset about Darcy's interest in Lizzie because of  money troubles; ostensibly she's far more concerned about their differing class status. The presentation of these two houses however suggests that she has more pressing motivations.

Speaking of Mr Darcy my favourite repeated motif in this film is the one I like to call "The Hand of Sublimated Passion". It's difficult to make a romance when your leading man's defining characteristic is his guardedness. Hence Joe Wright's use of "The Hand".

Here it is in its first appearance:

It's just been engaged in the uncommonly gentlemanly gesture of assisting Lizzie to board a carriage. Lizzie, who has been sparring with the hand's owner for some time now, is understandably surprised so the shot that precedes this one shows her looking quizzically after him. Obviously it would be a betrayal of Darcy's character for him to return her gaze so Wright shows us a close-up of his hand flexing instead which makes his feelings clear to the audience but no one else.

Darcy's Hand of Sublimated Passion sadly makes only one more appearance. This time it's after a meeting at which he and Lizzie are clearly smitten with each other but not yet ready to bust out the L word (no Scott, the other L word). The most romantic thing Darcy actually says to Lizzie here is something along the lines of, "Would you like a lift?" so the hand has to do the heavy lifting:



While Darcy's hand is regretfully denied a proper denouement (I was hoping it would find it's way into Lizzie's) the film's end is strong and a key part of it is this shot here in which Jane Bennet prepares to accept Mr Bingley's proposal (by the way that guy is such a dolt in this adaptation):

The scene is initially about Jane so she gets to be front and centre in bridal white while most of her sisters are relegated to dull colours and the background. Lizzie too, is favoured by the composition as she is placed off to one side and framed by the windows. This is because she gets a little moment with Mr Darcy.

In much the same way that the shots I discussed at the beginning call back to one another this shot is reminiscent of the one in which the sisters first learn of Mr Bingley's arrival:



Here Lizzie was most favoured because her amused reactions contrasted with her siblings unabashed excitement. And now I have no idea how to end this... so let's hastily cut to the credits:








*Disclaimer: I have not seen any Masterpiece Theatre.