Wednesday, 24 January 2007

the last king of scotland (dir. macdonald; w. morgan)

The first time the young Scottish doctor meets the dictator is a moment of high drama. The dictator, whose speech the feckless Scot has admired already, has an accident – his car has hit a cow, and he’s suffered a minor injury. The doctor is summoned, the cow lies wailing in misery on the side of the road. The doctor tends to the president whilst the cow wails. His humanitarian instincts working in overdrive, the doctor seizes the President’s pistol, lying on the car bonnet, and puts the cow out of its misery. The sudden action leads the soldiers to prime their rifles. The dictator looks like he might order anything. The doctor realises he’s out of his depth. The dictator learns he’s Scottish and embraces him. The woman the doctor fancies admires his reckless heroism.

It’s a beautifully structured and executed scene which sets a standard that The Last King of Scotland can never top. Unfortunately it comes at the end of the ‘first act’: the moment when Idi meets Doctor Garrigan.

Forest Whitaker proceeds to deliver a bravura performance as the mercurial Amin. However a trope has been set: he will swing from overbearing to jocular in the space of a moment. His very unpredictability becomes predictable. The Scottish doctor, played by James McAvoy, is a harder part to pull off. Here is a man who is complicit in the mechanisms of a dictatorship. His ignorance is hardly excused by his callowness. Yet at the same time he is also the romantic lead, a dashing model of globalised youth. The contradictions within the character are pertinent. McAvoy’s performance has flashes where it captures these contradictions, yet the film is reluctant to undercut its hero with too severe an examination, and his eventual sadistic torture operates as a kind of atonement. His Scottish charm lets him off the hook, and those who he could turn to for advice or support are caricatures, none more so than McBurney’s villainous-seeming Englishman, whose two-dimensional role in the film seems to be entirely to act as a foil for McAvoy’s boyish charm.

The Last King of Scotland has all the ingredients of an exhilarating film. One of the most ruthless rites of passage narratives you could ever come across. Charismatic characters, moral contradiction, sex, exoticism, violence and ‘based on a true story’. For all this, it remains something of a haggis of a movie; flavoursome but stodgy, spicy but safe. Nowhere is this more evident than in the climactic party scene, where Garrigan sleeps with Amin’s wife. The action is ‘heightened’ by a montage scene of topless African nubiles, dreamlike images of Amin entering the doctor’s consciousness, burning flames. Perhaps this is a wilful homage to seventies Bond movies, but if so, one wonders, why?

At the end of the movie, Amin berates Garrigan for playing the white tourist in exotic Africa. It’s a valid point which has been waiting to be made. There does seem a danger that a Western film set in Africa will echo this voyeurism. The Last King of Scotland tries to steer clear of the worst excesses of Amin’s rule, but it is still trading on the notion of the dark continent, where unspeakable things will inevitably happen, to be re-presented for Western consumption and entertainment. At the end of the movie the chastened Garrigan flies out on a plane; we go with him, little the wiser about the continent we’ve been invited to visit in his company for an hour or so.

babel (dir. Inarritu)

They’re at it again, Inarritu and Arriaga. Replicating the formula. Only the formula’s getting bigger and the canvas broader.

So it’s not a surprise that a certain amount of bagginess is creeping in. Amores Perros was set within a single city. 21 Grams was set within a single country. Babel is set within a single globe.

The title itself seems to recognise the risk of hubris. On a thematic level, the word 'Babel' acts as an indicator of the perils of miscommunication. A child is mistaken for a terrorist. A kindly nanny is mistaken for a child-snatcher. A deaf girl is mistaken in all kinds of ways. Language holds the key to enlightenment, but also confusion and alienation. However, Babel was also a tower, a structural edifice, and this film’s sense of ambition incurs the risk of the thing collapsing, the ideas outpacing the content, the semiotic meaning drowning out the narrative.

To what extent this occurs remains a subjective judgement. It seemed to me as though the film didn’t quite manage to juggle all the balls in the air. There’s the basic unlikelihood of lightening striking twice at the core of the movie, with Blanchett and Pitt’s children being subjected to a tragedy which is completely independent of the one the parents are undergoing. Despite the neatness of the chronological rupture (the tragedies do not occur simultaneously, in spite of the fact they have to within screen time), this seemed too much like the vagaries of Greek tragedy for such a realistic (use of the) medium. Had they gone the whole way and the third strand of the storyline compounded this, it may have worked better. But as it was, this strand was only tenuously linked to the other two stories. The Japanese material – a teenage virgin desperate to get laid – seemed out of keeping with the measured psychology of the Calexican and Morrocan tales.

The movie flared and then faded. The first third of the movie – the promise of what kind of a movie this might become – was the strongest section. A movie which might encompass so much of this turbulent, globalised village. It set out its ambition, and then, like the tower, failed to fulfil it. It might be that the Japanese daughter killed her mother with the same gun that shot Blanchett, but this seemed too arbitrary a pillar on which to build a film that spans the world.

It’s impossible not to admire Inarritu and Arriaga’s ambition. Babel is aspiring to things that other movies have never even heard of, let alone dreamt of. The influence of Amores Perros on cinema has been substantial. It may be that it’s time for its creators to step out of their masterpiece’s shadow. Babel seems to follow the architecture of that movie to a logical, grandiose end. Perhaps it had to be done, but it would be interesting to see how the filmmakers’ cinematic dexterity might now work on a more intimate, humane scale.

Friday, 12 January 2007

zemastan/ in winter (dir. rafi pitts)

As a teenager I was shown Ashes and Diamonds, by Wajda. I don't remember much of it now. A scene set in a sea of sheets, subsequently stolen. But I do remember the lead performer. I was told he was like a Polish James Dean. I didn't know too much about James Dean, and what I had see didn't quite work for me, a mewling middle-american pretty boy, but I could sense that somehow what these actors did was maybe less important than who they knew they were. The actor as zeitgeist definer.

I raise all this because it crossed my mind that Hashem Abdi's performance as Mahrab might be doing something similar for a contemporary Iranian audience. The storyline of In Winter is simple, and bleak. A man leaves his wife to look for work abroad. Another man arrives in town. He's a bit of a chancer, good looking. He gets a job, takes a shine to the wife, The wife is told her husband's dead. The chancer marries the widow, then loses his job, and a few weeks later decides that he too has to go abroad to find work.

The film is beatifully constructed, with succinct cinematography capturing the hinterland of an Iranian town. The music is sparsely compelling. But the thing that lifts the film out of the ordinary is Abdi's enigmatic performance. He seems like a drifter and a waster, and yet he has a compelling charisma. When the boss wants to sack him, Marhab doesn't go meekly, he answers back and vandalises the car plant. He brings smiles to his wife's face and makes his friend laugh. This in a society where laughter seems as precious as money. In the face of the unremitting austerity of contemporary Iran, Abdi's laconic, amoral performance looks like it might be one that touches a nerve. With a bleak flair, Zemastan gets under the skin of this edgy, precarious world.