Sunday, 2 September 2012
Understated, assured direction and two wonderful performances turn a beautifully simple premise into a devastating, albeit not humorless journey into the darkest depths of a manipulating and, ultimately, murderess mind. Jean Simmons is mesmerising, her eyes sparkling with faux-innocence, we cannot look away. Beautiful, dangerous, unstable, she plays the quintessential femme fatal Diane Tremayne, who ensnares the simple but not altogether moral Frank Jessop (Robert Mitchum). Mitchum is great value, his broad frame practically filling the screen as he sucks down cigarettes with weary, browbeaten nonchalance. Drinking tea with Tremayne, the cup appears comically minute in his great ham fists. Preminger teases his audience with a slowly unraveling tale of misdeed, and by the time the final, heartbreaking (and wildly brave) climax is upon us, we are trembling with astonishment and sadness at how a fairly innocuous flirtation has evolved into such grand tragedy.
Friday, 17 August 2012
"With murky cinematography, a meandering pace, a dull storyline, and rather wooden performances, The Pang Brothers' Bangkok Dangerous is unsuccessful” says Rotten Tomatoes, giving it a measly 9%. By most accounts this remake of the filmmaking duo’s own 1999 action thriller was a failure, receiving poor reviews and even poorer box office takings. Seeing it with no expectations last year (2008), I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was, however, in a severe minority even among the group of friends whom had been with me in the cinema, and I found myself the object of playful ridicule following the showing. In this piece I want to attempt to delve into my enjoyment and find out why I liked it while no one else (that I know of) did. Do I have some bizarre fascination in cinematic failure, or was Bangkok (as I will refer to it from now on) in some way genuinely laudable? I am writing this the day after having re-watched the film on DVD.
On revisiting the film, having had many discussions with friends, I was much more aware of Bangkok’s flaws, which, I have to admit, are many. The dialogue is frequently silly to the point of hilarity, with lines like “Somehow when I looked into his eyes, I saw myself. So I became his teacher” and “The face has a million ways of tricking you, but the eyes never lie” peppered throughout the screenplay. Nicolas Cage looks awful, with weird stringy hair and a consistently morose expression (except when with his beloved deaf and dumb pharmacist). The combination of his demeanour, appearance and gravely, bored voice is very, very funny, particularly when saying things such as “uh, banker, yes” while sitting awkwardly in his love interest’s house. When he smiles at her mother, his face seems like it might crack with effort. Overwrought, ridiculous, sentimental – all appropriate adjectives when discussing the film’s scenes which deal with Joe and Fon’s relationship. A pounding, serious soundtrack adds to the unintentional humour.
So far, then, my pleasure in watching Bangkok has been derived from the films’ artistic failures. But so what? I maintain that this isn’t a “so-good-it’s-bad” film in the mould of Plan 9 from Outer Space (though I could happily write an article in the defence of that and Ed Wood’s other misunderstood work). This is something a particular friend of mine has a problem with when we discuss it. I genuinely like the way the film is shot, the atmosphere created, the action, the mise en scène. My unnamed friend cannot accept my stance – that a film such as Bangkok is capable of having both elements of unintentional humour created by poor creative choice or misguided filmmaking sensibilities and other aspects that work in the conventional sense.
I will admit to having an intense love of cheap genre cinema. I maintain that many of these "trashy" films have an independent spirit and charm never found in more mainstream cinema, and that their flaws often shift into beautiful idiosyncrasies to be cherished and admired. I can’t categorize Bangkok in this way (the film cost $40m to make), I’m merely using my admiration for “cult” cinema as one possible explanation for my enjoyment of the film – I saw it as true exploitation, not the preening, self-aware graininess of the recent Grindhouse but an example of genuine, naïve genre cinema in the noughties. I found an honesty in Bangkok that attracts me to some of the cheapo films I like so much. There is little or no use of CGI, the film is self-contained, there are few characters, some inexplicabilities which I can engage with and enjoy. Perhaps this is a perverse kind of cinephilia, but I’m always filled with joy when I see bargain-basement bins, brimming with untapped craziness.
My admiration for Bangkok seems, therefore, to come from a combination of the two sets of reasoning I mentioned in my opening paragraph – firstly my fascination in flawed cinema, my admiration for enthusiastic and well-intentioned cinema, and also my enjoyment of the film as a whole, both in its humour derived in numerous flaws and its simmering, grim, atmosphere. Monte Hellman once said that when he sees a movie he comes out having had an experience unique to him – if someone asks him what the film was about, he may not be able to tell them, but he had a hell of a time watching it. Perhaps I went somewhere my friends didn’t while watching Bangkok.
Monday, 13 August 2012
The hypocrisy of the privileged, sexuality, religion, fidelity and abortion are just some of the issues addressed in this overambitious drama from John Schlesinger. Overambitious maybe, but entertaining nonetheless. The story of Diana Scott (Julie Christie), a bored, selfish clinger-on, willing to be dependant but not pinned down, and her various lovers, the film flits between serious issues and flamboyant artiness. This mix is sometimes uncomfortable, and often misses the mark, but it travels at such a pace we don’t really mind – like Scott herself, the film never stays in one place for very long. Bogarde seems bored and unengaged, but in context this works well, and he is still a riveting presence. Christie is at times unbearably whiny, and the voiceover grates (some of the ‘clever’ devices now seem laboured). In all, a mixed bag, with experiments galore, both visual (with extensive use of documentary-style shots) and structural (hopping around from location to location). Just sit back and enjoy the ride – there’ll be something in here for you.
Three Days of the Condor (1975)
Robert Redford is subdued throughout this twisting, snappy thriller, but Joseph “The Condor” Turner’s low-key demeanor doesn’t detract from the suspense, it adds to it. The story of an unassuming bookworm caught up in a CIA-sponsored assassination plot, Three Days of the Condor manages to be both playful and illuminating, a fun rollercoaster ride but one that hints at the darker side of America’s foreign policy in the 1970s. Today it retains relevancy, and even gains deeper meaning in light of current controversial military presence in the Middle East, something that Higgins emphatically denies is being planned. Slowish pace, but exciting intrigue and strong performances (Sydow is riveting) add up to a satisfying experience. Bizarre choices of music sometimes clash with the action, but if you enjoyed Klute, Marathon Man or The Conversation, you’ll forgive it and soak up the 70s style.
In the Loop (2009)
Rarely-heard raucous gales of laughter surround me: this is something special. Seething, smart satire is rattled off by an outstanding cast in this political comedy from TV legend Armando Iannucci. Linton Barwick editing minutes to suit his bloodthirsty agenda is painfully funny, because its real. In the Loop impressively treads the fine line between comic genius and dark satire. Hellish depths of hypocrisy and corruption are alluded to, but not at the expense of the film’s humour. Watch Gandolfini heave the burden of war-lunacy on his broad shoulders with dignity, and marvel as Simon Foster’s personal tragic arc is crammed in – seduced by power, struggling with morality, it rings true as a bell. Shot with energy to match its buzzing performers, and sparkling with honesty, this is refreshing stuff in a world where the media tows the line, and accountability is a vague memory. Essential.
Hidden (Caché) (2005)
Gripping from the first frame, Haneke eases us into his uncomfortable world with lingering shots that force us to ponder everything we see. We are given a question, a half-answer, and then time to think. Our brains work overtime to puzzle out the unfathomable, to powerful effect. Binoche is a strong anchor to Auteuil’s superb, riveting performance as the depressed and guilt-ridden bourgeois TV-man. As he strides the streets of Paris, grappling with demons from the past, seeking out an unknowable entity, we cannot look away. Unsurprisingly, Haneke’s confessed aim as a filmmaker is to force an audience to examine their own reaction to cinema, Hidden certainly does this. My intense desire for that tantalizing last piece of the mystery to be resolved cannot spoil the hypnotic quality of this film. Both infuriating in its incompleteness and masterful in its slow-burn, gloomy density, this is one to seek out.
David Wenham’s smug, unpleasantly nihilistic narration was just one of many problems I had with Zack Snyder’s silly comic-book adaptation. Too faithful to the source material, what worked on paper certainly doesn’t zing on screen: with an uncomfortable mix of inaccurate historical epic and half-baked monster stuff, 300 comes across like a clumsy oaf of a film, blundering and blustering, and ultimately drowning in its own quest for cool. Ideological qualms aside, the action left me cold. Plenty of spurting computer-generated blood (in tedious, overused slow-then-fast-mo), but even as Gerard Butler screams, no real pain is felt – these warriors are shining plastic action models, not people. A few brief thrills as metal crashes into tearing flesh are not enough to save it from indifference. At an unnecessary 117 minutes, this is a brilliant reminder of how even the glossiest of pictures is null and void without a soul.
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
As a stony-faced Meryl Streep strides through immaculate glass doors at the start of this fluffy fashion flick, we know just what’s coming, and if this is your thing, The Devil Wears Prada does not disappoint. Nothing revelatory, but a fun, escapist look at a world in which a grim tyrant can ultimately be melted by the naïve charms of Anne Hathaway’s sweet wannabe-journalist. Perhaps Emily Blunt’s English bitch wears a little thin, and the moral message is over-simplified and clumsy, but these are minor problems in a shamelessly sugary story. The fashion-concious will lap up the dazzling (or bewildering) array of colourful fabrics and handbags and whatnot, but there is enough charm here to entertain everyone else too. While other dressing-up movies (say Confessions of a Shopaholic) fail because there is nothing under the glossy surface, this has just enough heart to sweeten the bitter taste of materialistic overload.
Gaspar Noé doesn’t want to shock, he wants to scorch: by the end of this excessive, nausea-inducing mindfuck, we have experienced a nightmare of the worse kind. In reverse. As the sickening, wheeling camera settles down for a five-minute rape scene, we are uncomfortable in our own skin, squirming in the darkness and wondering how long this can possibly go on. The point seems to be push the viewer until breaking point, subjecting us to a variety of unpleasantness including a gruesome beating that creeps into the shaking frame like snuff. As the opening credits start to tip, one is at a precipice, and as the grimy red light and the pounding bass whines into gear, we are falling, hooked, unable to look away until the final, insane, visual onslaught, leaving us exhausted, exhilarated, and dirty. Challenging and thought-provoking cinema: you can’t enjoy this, but you might love it.
Standard Operating Procedure (2008)
Errol Morris’ examination of the notorious Abu Ghraib torture is unpleasant viewing, with the ghoulish photographs given much lingering screen-time. This is important subject matter, but perhaps Taxi to the Dark Side was more intelligent, and ultimately more successful in its quest for truth. Here the impact is dampened by being too grisly – like the zoned-out interviewees, we feel numb by the half-way mark. Not until the end do we get a sense of how these young men and women seem to be pathetic scapegoats for an unaccountable military system whose very policies involve creating chaos and confusion. Heavy use of reconstruction, and mixing actors with real interrogators doesn’t sit well but the interviews are powerful – desensitized souls, their faces stretched like masks, straining to understand their own terrible actions, we get a profound understanding of how easily soldiers can become psychological victims of a senseless war.