Thursday, 14 December 2006

manhattan [dir. Woody Allen]

At the end of the showing in the ICA, an elderly man asked if they’d changed the film in any way, in the re-release. It's only a new print, but his reaction shows the freshness the film retains.

Most great US movies of the 70s were created on an epic scale – Coppola, Cimino et al. A few weeks ago I met someone who had been smuggled into Studio 54 when she was a teenager. She described an excess and a hedonism that has left anything else she’s seen in the shade.

There’s barely a hint of this in Allen’s Big Apple. He might appear drunk once, but that’s all. Instead, the film harks back to the twenties, thirties, forties. The dramatic use of the Manhattan skyline, which dominates the first five minutes, escorted by Gershwin, is as epic as it gets.

Which is a relief, and might explain why the film has aged so well. Men and women will always create drama in their lives, no matter what’s going on in the big wide world. The film’s keynote scene, with Allen having a showdown with his friend Yale in the presence of a Neanderthal- seeming skeleton drives this point home. It’s also the only scene where Allen seems prepared to accept that there is such a thing as a ‘wrong’ way of waging the battle of the sexes. He is genuinely aggrieved that Yale can twist and turn so recklessly, ruining at least two and perhaps three relationships at the turn of a Porsche ignition key.

Allen being Allen he retreats from any inclination to moralise. In his New York it may be as big a sin to criticise Bergman as it is to sleep with another man’s wife or another woman’s husband. The one guarantee of relationships is that they will cause pain, something he recognises by claiming the August Strindberg award for himself. And in a way, the movie seems to suggest, there’s nothing too wrong with this, because that pain lends meaning to life, which keeps us going.

And these things will carry on, no matter how the streets of the city might alter, no matter the prevailing trends in facial hair. Mistakes will be made and people will have to learn to live with them. Allen’s recognition of this is what lends his film a timelessness that revived me as much of a dull wintery London afternoon in 2006 as it might have done on a similar dull afternoon thirty years ago.

Thursday, 7 December 2006

casino royale [dir martin campbell]

Bond is an institution. How do institutions grow old gracefully? Through re-invention? Or acceptance of senility? How old is Bond anyway?

If Casino Royale seems to be anything to go by, he's just got to the mid-life crisis, so there's more to come, but diminishing returns should be expected. The film opens with a recap - Bond makes his first kills and acquires 00 status. It suggests the Bond team, whoever they are, want to make a fresh start - new Bond, new broom. Mid-life crises can take on various forms. Bond has no need of more gadgets, so these are pared back. He's worried about being unfit, so the new Bond is buffed up, shows off his chest, gets his hands dirty. All of which is par for the course. Trouble really comes when Bond, the character within this movie, genuinely does have a mid-life crisis, falls in love with a woman, runs away on a boat with her, hands in his notice.

This development occurs in hour 7 of a nine hour epic, after Bond has re-affirmed his masculinity and proved he can both win and lose at cards. Bond's crisis is squeezed into the tail end of the movie, neccessitating some cramped and unlikely dialogue. Revealing something we knew all along: we don't go to a Bond movie in order to see a psychological drama. His relationship with Vespa is deeply unconvincing, not least because she looks like she's about 17, and Bond has never been the paternal type.

A loss of direction is common in mid-life crises, and it's not surprising Casino Royale doesn't seem to know where it's going, slipping from 'action-packed' into static card games. There's also a curious homo-erotic element, with Bond and his advesary, Le Chiffre, indulging in some sado-masochistic horseplay. The buff Craig slipping out of the ocean seems to be targeted towards the pink pound rather than the lad's pound.

The real problem with Casino Royale is that it fails to develop this intruiging villain. He's good at playing cards, but since when is card-playing a danger to the world as we know it? There's nothing at stake save Bond's ego, and Bond's ego should never be at stake. There's nothing wrong with Mads Mikkelson, it's just his character doesn't actually do very much. Without a malevolent alter-ego on a mission, Bond doesn't know what his mission is. Perhaps it's no surprise he wants to retire and grow pot-plants. By the end of the nine hours he's been running around the world getting nowhere, and it's to the film's mimetic credit that we know how he feels.

london to brighton [dir paul andrew williams]

London to Brighton is a well-made film. It features commendable performances from unknowns, taut direction, and one fine scene where the gangster’s son meets his father’s killer. The technical proficiency is impressive, a masterly handling of a limited budget. However, I do have a couple of caveats.

These are: at points it seemed to me as though this film was an A grade in the British film-making A-level. With its nod to the british gangster genre (Long Good Friday etc) and vague Loach-ish hints in the characterisation of the runaway. Getting an A in any system cannot be criticised – unless you don’t rate the system. Another British gangster flick which seems less likely to have been in the director’s or producers’ mind would be Performance, a demented film that does its damndest to break narrative conventions rather than re-affirm them, thus breaking character conventions and filmic conventions. What grade would Performance have got?

Whilst some do not hold Performance in high regard, most rate Taxi Driver, that doyen of Anglo American film culture. Like London To Brighton, Taxi Driver manipulates the audience’s relationship with a pubescent girl at risk, knowing that an audience would want her to come to no harm. It’s an effective semiotic device – the innocent abroad in the big bad world. Scorsese’s unstinting exploration of Bickle’s personality, forcing the audience to side with the psychopath’s tender side, was a bold, devastating treatment of this theme. It took the audience to the same dark place Jodie Foster had found herself entering, the sewer of the city. (‘The sewer’ being a word the psychopathic son likes to use to describe the London world the UK runaway finds herself lost in.) London to Brighton lets its audience off Scorsese’s hook. It lacks passion: the runaway becomes a cog in a plot, a final hug from her grandmother seems perfunctory; the audience ambles out stirred but barely shaken.

The point of all this is that cinema has both a Pavlovian and a Brechtian effect on its audience. Film which makes us think twice, which makes us marvel or despair, will manipulate our Pavlovian instincts and then make us reflect as we participate – (perhaps by our just going – how can I watch this?). London to Brighton is a functional film which generates functional responses effectively. Whilst it’s churlish to criticise competence, it may be reasonable to long for ambition.