Monday, 24 May 2010

valhalla rising (w&d nicolas refn, w. roy jacobsen)

This was not the movie any of us expected, after another Sunday evening excursion. It did admittedly contain an appropriate amount of gore, it did contain a single Viking, a one-eyed Viking called One-Eye. But that's as far as it goes. Refn's poster suggests a canter through some millenial pillaging, but the film is a meditative, psychotropic crawl, exploring an unlikely but perhaps feasible voyage towards death.

One-Eye has been captured by a pagan Scottish tribe, and is their resident, caged Giant Haystacks, defeating all-comers. When he escapes, he hooks up with a bunch of witless would-be Scottish Crusaders. Their boat goes the wrong way, drifting Westwards through a pea-souper to arrive on the shores of Vineland, where all and sundry meet their fate, either at each other's hands or those of the unfriendly natives. The spectre of Aguire overshadows the story, even if Refn's adventurers arrive in the New World five hundred years earlier. In an interview, Refn also mentions Tarkovsky, whose debt is evident in the film's stately, anti-dramatic pacing, albeit a pacing interrupted by moments of crude violence.

The premise, with its Scandanavian twist on history, is engaging. The Vikings did make their way to the place which was later named America, and doubtless more than a few suffered desperate, unheralded fates. It wouldn't be hard to read a kind of anti-history into the narrative. The unspoilt Eden of the Americas remains pure, the barbarity of Western ideology, shaped around religion, snuffed out at birth. In an otherwise patchy dialogue, one of the Crusaders remarks of an arrowhead that it's made of stone, not metal, and takes this as evidence that the natives are savages; but in the end it's the Crusaders savagery which is laid bare.

The looseness of the episodic narrative invites a hermeneutic approach which the film itself probably doesn't quite justify. It's something of a curiosity. In an interview where he also says he'd like to direct Wonderwoman, Refn talks about his film as a drug. You could probably read it as a classic bad trip, inclusive of dodgy 'blood-soaked' imagery. Nevertheless, in spite of the iffy dialogue and its general wooziness, the film got under my skin, its refusal to give the audience what it's expecting suggesting a perverse talent.

(Nb - I have not seen Pusher, but have had it recommended to me, and I can imagine that in more concrete, contemporary surroundings, the filmmaker's hypnotic approach could feel revelatory.)

Sunday, 23 May 2010

the bad lieutenant: port of call - new orleans (d. herzog, w. finkelstein)

There are two hand held shots in this film, one from an alligator's POV, another from an iguana's, which are pure Herzog. The rest might be defined as more Kinski than Herzog, as though Nick Cage is seeking to summon the director's excessive alter ego from the grave. Cage's over-the-top performance possesses similar traits to Kinski's most grandiose work, which was achieved in conjunction (rather than at the behest of) his director. Herzog has a penchant for the atavistic spirit, the freak who not only lives life but seeks to devour it, and Cage is more than happy to comply with the less measured half of the director's brain.

Which all goes to make for an entertaining if ridiculous movie. Had it been directed and played more 'straight' it would have been pure pap. However, under the sway of director and star, it almost becomes a critique of excess, a lost film of Donald Cammell's. Almost, but perhaps not quite. Within the security of the Hollywood system, Herzog's vision becomes cauterised. (Hence the appeal of the two shots he quite specifically claims as his own in the credits.) It feels like the only way it could truly have been a Herzog movie would have been had he been able to make it in the days following the breaking of the New Orleans levees, when the bodies and the slime still owned the streets. The shadow of Katrina, and its critique of the American dream, hovers over the film, but its potency has waned. Instead, Herzog uses images of the blandness of the cityscape, its residual grey, its neo-destitution to frame the decadence of a system that can produce an anti-hero like Cage's Terence McDonagh. The gloopily feel-good ending (as in the case of Rescue Dawn, his last Hollywood film) seems like an admission of defeat. This is not Kinski on a raft full of monkeys, or throwing himself at the surf. The rage is tempered, the system and the filmmaker agreeing an uneasy and not entirely satisfactory peace. The irony is that for all its faults, Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant might have been truer to the original spirit of Herzog's fimmaking than Herzog's own version of the film whose title it shares.

Friday, 21 May 2010

four lions (d morris, w morris, bain & armstrong)

It's been over a week since I saw the much heralded Four Lions. Which was to be enjoyed. In spite of the fact that the trailers and the sneak previews had already used many of the funniest clips, Morris' provocative humour still packed a punch, and the premise is too perfect for the film not to succeed on some level or another. The notion of making a comedy about a group of suicide bombers, exposing not the fundamentalist but the British roots of their endeavour, is both bold and in a strange way beautiful. The scene where three of the four are in a van driving down to London to do their deed, singing along to the cheesiest of pop hits, Dancing in the Moonlight, captures some kind of ludicrously believable truth. It's in the British psyche to be 'a bit of a nutter'. These are jovial fools, followers of Falstaff as much as Allah, the type of characters who have been celebrated in English literature through the ages.

At the same time, a week later, I'm not sure if the film's conceit quite comes off. The double task of personalising and ridiculing these hapless figures only functions in patches, no matter how hard Riz Ahmed works to pull it off. At times the piece strays into the terrifying realm of 'comedy drama', meaning that it refrains from going for the jugular in the style of Morris' television work. Some of the comedy felt tame, not least in the outtakes that are filtered at the end, and the political messaging has no real clarity. Morris is at his most effective as a Swiftian provocateur, a respecter of no rule, upto and including the injunction that declares we have to care about the characters. In the end, Four Lions might have been more powerful (and more funny) had it followed a Godardian rather than an Ealing Comedy model, although that kind of debate would surely have been anathema in the funding rounds the film would have had to go through.

Nevertheless, I suspect Four Lions shall be looked back on with fondness, in the same way we look back on the likes of Porridge, or Citizen Smith. It's a curious, slightly disjointed film, but one that has the cojones to address and humanise a subject that British culture usually struggles to deal with in anything except the most worthy of ways. It will be interesting to see how it fares abroad.

Friday, 14 May 2010

what is the what [w. dave eggers]

What is the What is a long, dry piece of writing. It is a book written by Eggers but described as the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese 'lost boy' who now lives in Atlanta. The book is therefore narrated in the first person, and there are no embellishments in the telling: it is a prosaic account of a remarkable and tragic life. However, this is not to say that there are not literary choices being made by the author, which we'll get back to in a bit.

Achak Deng's lifestory is a tragic one. Displaced from his home and separated from his parents at a young age, the book describes in detail his terrible march to ultimate safety in Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya. Along the way he faces hunger, the Janjaweed, the Sudanese army itself, mines, predatory animals. It's the sort of life that seems beyond belief to anyone raised in the comfort of the West, and Eggers' straightforward prose narrates the drama with page-turning efficiency. Achak, a sympathetic character, finds that tragedy continues to dog his life, as death continues to stalk him even after he should be safe. His very flight out of Kenya to a new life in the USA is postponed by the fact he was due to fly on the 11th September 2001.

The narration is framed by the events that occur on a given day in Atlanta when Achak is subjected to a violent robbery, and discovers that there's precious little attention or respect paid to his sufferings. This feels like an effective literary framing device, counterpointing the terrible events of his childhood and adolescence with this other more mundane act of violence. As though Achak is some kind of cursed everyman, fated to suffer the worst life has to offer wherever he finds himself. However, the book doesn't really explore this idea in any detail, and in the end both stories slightly tail off, with the final section lacking any real shape.

At which point its hard not to wonder if Eggers might not have made more of Achak's story had he been bolder and attempted to do something more creative with the narrative. Or perhaps this is a very self-conscious literary exercise exploring the borders of journalism and literature? One suspects that Eggers' rationale for writing it as it is might be that Achak's story is too dramatic to require any kind of literary manipulation, and to do so might be to belittle or traduce the reality. However, even the most prosaic of accounts involves a certain amount of literary dexterity, and in the end Eggers' wilful simplicity runs the risk of seeming as condescending as the visitors to the gym where Achak works. What we end up with is a clinical account of the surface facts, but no real sense of the poetic or philosophic context of those facts.

To put this in context: there was one moment, when Achak meets a crazy man who owns a bicycle, who lives on the edge of a minefield in what would appear to be the middle of nowhere. The man takes Achak in and he considers living with him. This brief passage reminded me of the work of Mia Couto, and his curious fables of war and societal disintegration in Mozambique. In this moment there was a hint of the way in which Achak's story is more than a succession of heartbreaking moments; that it fitted into some kind of pattern which only literature might reveal. But then the moment passed, and the book trundled on into his future, flitting from tragedy to tragedy.

24 city (d. zhang ke jia, w. zhang ke jia & yongming zhai)

My appetite for reviewing appears to be waning somewhat, so my apologies if this is at all cursory. Perhaps its the result of the political manoeuvrings which have been occuring in the UK of late. Strange to think that as a nation we once held sway over China, forcibly addicting its citizens to opium, in one of the more benevolent phases of British imperialism. Now it's China which is finally looking outwards, imposing its mark upon the world. I have no figures but its said they own most of Africa, I know they own large parts of Australia, and are no doubt active in Latin America. Over the course of what seems like no time at all they've become the world's greatest commercial power, or have initiated the process of becoming it. The transformation seems astonishing, but then one of the conundrums of ageing is that it's only as you yourself devour the years alloted to you that you begin to realise how fast history operates, and how impermanent are things that in your youth seemed to have been the same for ever.

All of which is apropos of Zhang Ke Jia's film, which is a study of an old weapons factory in the growing city of Chengdu. Zhang films the process of its destruction as it makes way for a swanky housing/ commercial development. In the course of the film he stages interviews with workers (apparently played by actors) who recount some anecdote from their past, thereby bringing the social fabric of the factory to life from its inception in the fifties up to its recent closure. These stories are counter-pointed by images of the factory as the last workers work there, engaged in the rugged labour of heavy industry. Rings of molten metal are beaten into shape, before the workers leave and the space becomes a kind of mausoleum to the China which has now slipped away.

Zhang's film is lengthy and far from an easy watch. Its pace is slow and there's little attempt to dramatise the stories, which are told by speaking heads in fixed locations (a bus, a hairdresser's etc.) Yet the film has a subtle and gradually accumulating potency, with the final subject, a pretty young buyer who owns a new VW Beetle talking about how she finally grew up when she realised she had to take responsibility for her parents. Which suggests the film's message is that the present cannot be called mature, or developed, until it learns to respect the past. The dangers and ironies of vast material growth at the expense of spiritual (for want of a better word) development are reaffirmed by the closing vision of modern Chengdu, a sprawling, characterless seeming city of glass skyscrapers and flyovers. This is a documentary of sorts, but it is also a critique of onrushing history and the way in which China is changing.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

revanche (w&d götz spielmann)

Revanche would appear to be the latest in the Austrian wave to break over the shores of Britain. In many ways this seems like the most conventional of the four different director's films I've seen over the course of the last year or so. It tells the story of a man whose girlfriend is shot by a policeman, and how he obtains a kind of revenge. The film moves from the milieu of a Viennese brothel to the rural backwaters, as Alex, the anti-hero, holes up on his grandfather's farm. There are sufficient holes and co-incidences in the plot to empty several buckets, but the film's effectiveness has more to do with the sense of mood or tone it creates than its narrative. It's here that the influence of his peers seems to touch Spielmann. The tendency to let the camera linger on a scene longer than might seem strictly necessary; the violence of the sex scenes; the sometimes abrupt edits. All of these things contribute to give the piece a slightly brooding weight which the narrative alone perhaps doesn't warrant. In contrast to the film's slightly regulation premise and storylines, the things that stand out are moments like an old man playing his accordion or another younger man mowing his lawn.