Archive for September, 2009

Inglorious Basterds (2009)

“Inglorious Basterds” (2009)

ingloriousb

IMDb

It works, but NOT in the eye

I gave this film a much greater amount of reflexion than i usually give to any film before commenting on it. Some of the things in it are puzzling, not so much because of the film itself, but to the way people react to it.

This film has qualities, to me Tarantino deserves some credit for some good things, but there are fundamental issues that are important to me and certainly other film goers. The thing is, film is rooted in images, there was a time, if you’ll dig 8 decades, in which image was the only thing filmmakers could rely on, in order to give us a story. That’s pure visual story telling, that’s what Chaplin and Keaton did, Meliés, the incredible Pabst, which Tarantino talks about in this film. This means that the images, either for the way they were sequenced, either for the way they were shown, told us something. Maybe we could sum it up in a few words to anyone who hadn’t seen the film, but that wouldn’t mean anything, because “Seeing” was what it was all about. Remember “City Lights”‘ last sequence? The tramp, beaten up, defeated, is mocked at by some street kids, the ex-blind flower girl, now with vision (thanks to the Tramp), sees the scene, laughs at it but than takes pity on the poor tramp. She gives him a flower and a quarter, only to find out, through the tact of his hand which she recognized, that he was the man who helped her while she was blind. They look at each other, we cry. These words mean absolutely nothing if you haven’t seen the film, because the images ARE the film. Now, Tarantino knows this, that’s the thing, he knows how to Watch films, he claims as his references some of the filmmakers i care more about. Most of them are pure visual storytellers: Leone, Pabst, Hitchcock, Kar Wai. Tarantino knows this, and it must hurt him deeply that he can’t do their thing. He can be (i believe) deeply moved by the preciousness of the Bye bye Babs shot, or the initial ever lasting 15 minutes of Good, Bad, Ugly, which Quentin quotes in the first sequence of this film. But he can’t do anything that is remotely as visual (or visual at all) like these scenes. There is a number of tools and bricks that build a sequence, build a film, which Tarantino simply doesn’t master. Framing, timing, editing. On the pure visual field, Tarantino simply shoots, and has a special talent to adequate songs to his scenes. Now i wouldn’t give that so much attention, if Tarantino would be considered for what he is, a clever dialog writer, with some clever narrative ideas, but basically an ordinary director. It seems dangerous that the collective consciousness takes Tarantino as the big thins, the follower to his masters. He doesn’t Do what the masters did, so he Talks about it, and Talks us into believing he is doing the masters’ thing.It took me a few weeks to get to this point. I had to turn to Tarkovsky and Kalatozov so they would confirm me i was thinking right. They did.

Having said this, i think this film is the strongest Tarantino has made since Pulp Fiction, because he dedicates a lot of time to the 2 things he does best: building tense dialogs, and finding a narrative structure that fits. In Pulp Fiction he borrowed that from Kar Wai, here he sticks to the episodic chapters. The dialogs are great, they build tension and little times have i seen such cleverness in how different languages are alternated. Tarantino collects from his previous experiences in using chit chat to advance a scene, and does it well. So notice that in the first scene it is not what you see that makes the scene, it’s what it’s said. In my book, that is good writing, not good film-making, and it is precisely the opposite of the assumed reference, Sergio Leone. The same applies to the shooting scene in the bar. It’s the dialog that leads us to the final short shooting. And that’s my point.

There is a very interesting thing done on the narrative level. We are led throughout the film, by 3 characters, to a final stage, a film theatre: Lada, Raine, and Shosanna. Each plans their own film, and the external film we watch is a mix of all those others. On the lower level we have the dumb Nazis, who believe they go to the theater to watch the film they made, but they are the meal to 3 different blood seekers. In the very end, Raine stands on top, despite everything, but of course the line that matters and impresses is Landa’s. It’s rooted on the detective story, with him always on top all the way, until almost the very end. Christoph Waltz’s performance is excellent but the writing is very clever, in all respects, in all the twists. Visually, the best sequences are the ones in the theatre, and of course it’s dear that all goes around films, even the fire is started by film, literally.

The other great thing is the awkwardness of hearing David Bowie or Morricone driven themes in the middle of occupied France. It’s like Alban Berg’s music, which always gives us the impression to hear something tonal and classical, only to deceive us later. That pastiche is makes this film slide into ambiguous fields of undetermined genres. Great.

Brad Pitt is a funny guy, because now he plays making fun of his public image, while giving us a totally different thing. That’s something Clooney has already done for a while now (see them together in the Coen’s project for that).

I really loved the theatre building, the hall was a clear beautiful space, and well shot.

My opinion: 4/5

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Murder at 1600 (1997)

“Murder at 1600” (1997)

1600

IMDb

empty house

Another dumb mixture of uninteresting action scenes with a fake suspense mood associated with the political plot.

The thing in these films is that none of the elements that are supposed to grab you is mildly interesting to make the film worthy. Check it:

– the action is the scent of action, or even less. A few shooting scenes, literally shooting, Lane’s character is a specialist in straight shooting, and all the action scenes are dull and purely based on shooting;

– the story is trite and useless. See how silly it sounds: something about some guys who frame the president of the USA through framing his son, through implicating him in the murder of one of his lovers. That way they blackmail the president forcing him to choose between his position and the reputation of his family. The idea was to replace him so that the bad guys could get into North Korea with a few soldiers to free other soldiers… Oh the evil brain was a close friend and collaborator of the good president;

– the previous point shouldn’t matter. I can count dozens of films with similarly silly plots which are worth the time, because they layer other interesting things on the empty plot. But here nothing supports it. Snipes’ thing only works when the plot allows it (demolition man), the direction is banal and boring, there’s nothing to be seen.

Diane Lane does have a presence. She’s not a specially interesting actress, but she poses well, and has an enigmatic look, which attracts. She would have been a great femme fatal, should she have worked 60 years ago.

My opinion: 1/5

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Victory (1981)

“Victory” (1981)

victory

IMDb

boring dance

This film mixes sports with ideology, meaning that the game (football in this case) stands for moral and human issues. The one who wins the game, proves the righteousness of his attitudes. Nazis against the allies, the Nazis cheat. Apart from some ambiguity in von Sydow’s character, there are no concessions to the evilness of the Nazis. They is no possibility for redemption among them, no worthy character. So, for the way it handles the public’s perspective of nazi Germany (not the top hierarchies but the others) this moves nothing forward when compared to, say, Casablanca. It’s a matter of pride winning over evilness, justice prevailing over cheating.

The film starts with the scheduling of a football game, and ends with that game, so the whole film is a preparation for it. The game is a staged event, it takes place in Paris so we can have the audience supporting the “right” side. In terms of drama, this has the same effect as if the event would have been a theatre performance, or a public speech (it’s as if the final allie victory in the game was the equivalent to Chaplin’s speech in Great Dictator). So why does this fail where both Casablanca and The Great Dictator worked? Well, simply because this is made in 1981, the war is long over, the Soviet regime was living its final true years, and the context is totally different. It no longer mattered to have desperate declarations of honour against a by than historical regime. I don’t think ww2 related films is a dead theme, we still get them today, renewed and fresh. But this is a straightforward simplistic approach that was only justifiable during the war, when the nazi horror was still being perpetrated. This one, where it stands and how it is shaped is as simplistic and ordinary as a propaganda film.

The film depicts football. I think football is as hard to film as dancing. But football has been less used, so we have (even) less interesting solutions to film it. The thing is, both dancing and football implied movement, the most graceful football players are themselves dancers, entangling the ball, the direct opponent, and the general situation in the field. To capture this movement interestingly you have to rely on a certain fluidity of the camera. It can be done two ways: -still framing, where the player’s movement has to be worth the shot (safe and boring option); -the camera plays with the player, and the other elements, and thus enters the “dance”. Frankly, i’ve never seen the second option done well. This film misses an incredible opportunity to try it. That’s because it casts one of the more graceful players ever. Someone who danced like no one before or since, not as fluid as Maradona (or Messi), but eventually more thrilling in the “one on one” moments. He does some nice tricks for the camera, but none is properly used by the camera, and they are lost in the general boredom of the film. I wish this would be properly done some day.

This would be only a minor disappointment, but the thing is this film was directed by someone who used to think about cinema, besides merely directing. Huston made important things. But than again, his insight was on the narrative side, in how the story is shaped, and how it is told. Also, it is reported that by the end of his career he was sometimes only a worker collecting the pay check. Pity.

My opinion: 2/5

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Demolition Man (1993)

“Demolition Man” (1993)

demolition man

IMDb

Elegy to John Rambo and the Passenger 57

This film is great fun to watch. Really great fun, if you place it in its context, and if you consider its main performers.

It is, of course, the orwellian set up. That’s seducing by general principle. It’s a game of imagining societies in a more or less distant future, living on a very defined extreme situation – actually Orwell’s original model for such a society was the quite real soviet regime. A friend of mine alerted me to the last name of Bullock’s character, certainly not a coincidence. I believe there are two variables when you create such worlds. One is when you get, from the beginning, the evil side, and the cruelty and injustice of that imagined world, and that meanness is usually associated to a cruel (political/military) regime. Those versions sprinkle from 1984 (“V for Vendetta” comes to my mind). The other version is when you come to find out about the frailties and major flaws of an apparently positive world, which starts by seducing you. This film is that case. So, a perfectioned world, instead of a dictator we have a kind of demiurge (dressed as one, and named after an important artist, someone who creates). Finding out what is behind such “perfections” and understanding that a perfect world is not necessarily a human one is where it goes. It’s predictable, not specially well written, by the world is believable and it allows for the story to flow.

Now to me this is all accessory. The real fun about this film is where it stands and what it means in the context of American action films. Basically, this film and others from around the same time, introduces self-awareness in the action scene. It laughs at American action from the 80′, and it counts on Snipes and Sly to do it! That’s really great. That’s how the writing of the film takes advantage of the future reality where two past action guys (1 good and 1 evil) are defrost. So now this new world doesn’t have a clue about their past methods, and they have to explain them, so they talk about it all the time. Those methods are “barbarian”, atrocious to this new purified society, so the old action figures shock, and repel (initially). So, consider this was made around 1993, the 80′ were gone, audiences were changing, and that Rambo thing was gone. This means people than (and now) were already not aligned with the action of the 80′. So Sandra Bullock and the nerds from her future are our surrogates in the film. They look at Stallone’s useless material destruction layering on it the same levels of incredibility that the audiences place. That’s great. In the same year we had the highly underrated Last Action Heroe, starring another vase from the 80′ action films. Same game, same fun. These films are important given this specific context, they turn pages in a genre.

Remember Richard Crenna parodying his Rambo colonel in the Hot Shots films? That’s the type of self-awareness i’m talking about (pitty that Stallone wouldn’t leave it like that and came back to Rambo now).

Much of the film is quite ordinary, actually, but heck, i don’t care. It’s great fun.

My opinion: 4/5

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Tango & Cash (1989)

“Tango & Cash” (1989)

tango cash

IMDb

Lethal Weapon meets Die Hard

This is old school now. Good to watch, by now it already has the dust that flavours what is generally known as a “classic”.

The odd thing about this is that if this was made today, it would hardly be considered to be action. Except for the last sequence, of fancy “watch me shoot” ordinary motion, the majority of the film is spent with funny, witty dialog. That’s because the film is built on the Lethal Weapon tradition. Two figures, opposed personalities, united by their justice beliefs, separated by their methods. A woman in the middle, conveniently placed (as Sly’s sister) to enhance the dispute between man (Glover’s daughter in LW). The difference is that instead of Gibson/Glover, here we have Stallone/Russell. The first pair was action versus commodity, and there lied the fun; here we have two guys already known for they physical looks, and the friction comes in the competition, because each one tries to prove better than the other. On a deeper level, it is fun to watch this because both Sly and Russell laugh at their own character in this film, so there’s a sense of irony and relaxation regarding the 80’s action films that appeals to me. All the rest goes with those premises, stylish shots, designed to photograph muscles and the dialog supports the thing here. A kind of Rambo meets Die Hard.

The other thing that matters here is the interest to watch the direction of a previous Tarkovsky collaborator! A man who started his career sharing writing credits with one of the most meaningful filmmakers ever, and indeed participated in some of his first really important experiences. Than, Konchalovsky moved to the US, and made a career with one step in Hollywood. That is already surprising. That he comes to direct Kurt Russell and Stallone makes this worth watching on its own terms. The disappointment is that apparently, what one might expect of Konchalovsky and his Russian heritage is absent. The direction is firm, but not especially inspired. His career is, nevertheless, interesting for its specific and unique path.

My opinion: 3/5

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Public Enemies (2009)

“Public Enemies” (2009)

public enemies

IMDb

avenging hats

Some genres are constantly renewing, because they appeal to pieces and bits of our imagination that never wither, despite the political context or the ideological moment we live in. Such are the cases of the date movies, horror, or mystery. Others come and go, and every come back depends largely, to my view, on what the public demands in the specific moment of the movie. Those are the cases of the western and the gangster film. This is, i think, because both genres always deal with extreme heroic (or anti-hero) characters. Those characters always stand for something, usually selfless, usually en formed by a superior concept of moral, that exceeds the “law”, and digs into what really matters. Right now we are living through something the media calls crisis, and which, apparently, has to do with mismanagement, corruption, something about those who have some (or a lot of) power using their superior position to take away from the blind people, those who right now struggle to keep the few they have, while the powerful get away with it. This is the story line that common people accept as the summary of what is happening right now. That’s why it is highly desirable to make now a film about a man like Dilinger, something who in other times, of deeper depression, became the hero for the unhappy people. Again, today as in those days, people feel unsatisfied, and need guiding lights, not coming from the upper unworthy classes, but from next door. That’s when we have such guys portrayed as heroes, and the cops being the bad guys. Twenty years ago, Untouchables presented quite a different view. Cinema reflects life, without being life.

Now, there’s more to this film than the mere pertinence of its story. Michael Mann is an interesting director, one who really knows how to create spectacles through which we can look at his worlds like he wanted us to. He builds his films not on the narrative devices, which are always linear and usually predictable. Instead he makes an interesting mix of working characters, and building a mood out of them. In his films the characters do not exist as pieces of the world within. Instead they set the ton of that world. They don’t exist in a world, the world exists within them. We, as audience, are wrapped by that world, as if caught by a snowing ball, that started rolling much before we started watching it. Mann uses, for this effect, the careful framing of details, the detachment from the establishing shots, which exist but do not drive the mood. That’s why we have car mirror details, reflections, carefully photographed hats. We have that because John Dilinger tells us we live there.

Two powerful scenes to be noticed. One is when Dilinger sneaks into the police department investigating him. It clearly sounds as an inserted piece of invention into a real story line, and so the scene gives us nothing new in terms of narrative development. But it is a great piece of visual/sound adequation. The other scene is the final sequence, starting in the theatre and going to the very end. Dilinger gets in, sided by two prostitutes whom we know squealed on him. They watch a gangster film, starring Clark Gable. From than on we inter cut between scenes of that film, Depp’s gazing at it, with a premonitory look, and the police outside the theatre getting ready to get him. All this is en formed by the music. There is a game of Gable’s film, projected onto Dilinger’s feelings at the moment, and there is the police, leaded by Bale’s character, projected into us, viewers, who gaze at Dilinger knowing what will happen, while he looks back at us, announcing that he also guesses what will happen, for the film “told” him. This simple game of correspondence, competently hampered by the music fills the tension. Great. The ending, with no music, and the directness with which the policeman reports Dilinger’s death to his lover is as contrasting as it is wrecking. This final sequence is precious.

One major complaint, however. Mann shoots HD, and he is really exploring the medium. But because hd captures so much image detail, it is harder to elude the viewer, every editing or camera or actors minor flaw is enhanced to much bigger proportion than it used to be with film or dv. This film is filled with moments which just look poorly edited. I think this is only noticeable if you watch it on the big screen, so the film will probably gain something distributed for home viewing. Anyway, it distracts.

My opinion: 4/5

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Up (2009)

“Up” (2009)

up

IMDb

break the screen

I had some expectations regarding this one. I didn’t sense it would be as meditative as Wall.E, but i look forward to see what Pixar does. They are leading the sport of digital animation, and nearly all of their films have pushed something (or a lot) ahead, regarding the previous experience. Here, i wasn’t expecting that the film, as a whole, would be as grasping as their past 2, but i really thought i might be positively surprised by the 3d. The set up pleased me: this was their first 3d film, and the basic plot seemed to announce the challenge they would take: a flying house, travelling a good portion of the globe, flying over cities, landing on a huge and deep waterfall. Already, by the description, it is spacial. Since we have had Ratatouille just 2 years ago, i thought and longed that the approach would be on the spacial exploration, enhanced by the possibilities of the 3d. Well, i was wrong. In the end this film is the flattest of all Pixar films of the last 6 years, even more than Nemo (which i thought had similar possibilities and failed in similar ways). 3D is merely an enhancement of flat scenes, mundane compositions, and camera work that wouldn’t impress if the camera was real. I may have put my expectations out of focus, in relation to what the studio intended, but i really was expecting more on that side. I mean, in the theatre where i watched this, i saw a commercial, in 3D, of Vodafone, playing with that their spherical logo. At a certain moment, we got many spheres on screen, and the 3d made them ‘get out’ of the screen, and look like they were going to hit me. That 10 seconds bit was more of what i thought 3D can do than the whole film.

Well, other things are appealing, the introducing short film is, as usual, quite meaningful, in this case having to do with the act of creation, as a synonym for giving birth. We have clouds, who create, and storks, who deliver. One specific cloud molds what none other does, always dangerous beings, and the stork suffers in the way. Interpret it your own way, but i found it significant if you consider artists (creators) and the relation with an audience and the answer to the publics expectations.

The film is visually beautiful, not texture in the sublime fashion of Wall.E, but quite adventurous in how it uses colours. I still think Dreamworks is some steps ahead in face modelling, but these characters are more and more alive.

I think you’ll find it funny, if that’s what you want. I miss some wittiness of other films.

My opinion: 3/5

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