Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
Or Reset Your Avatar
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Kaufman presents a dead bird
Charlie Kaufman can't tell jokes. Well, so what, you might say; according to some, nor could Shakespeare, and what of that? But then, Shakespeare never wrote a play consisting of nothing but jokes.
Of course, Kaufman the writer has been badly let down by Kaufman the director (although no more or less badly than he was let down by Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry, than whom he is at least no less talented) so it's hard to say where exactly the fault lies; but while watching this film one comes to the slow and dazed realisation that what it's attempting is humour.
For example: Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is raging about his daughter's getting a tattoo at an early age. Claire (Michelle Williams) takes off her shirt to reveal that her back is entirely covered by a bright red tattoo of Satan, which she says she got at the same age. Caden, who has been sleeping with Claire for several years: "Well, I've never seen THAT before." It's a joke right out of "The Simpsons"; one can imagine Homer Simpson delivering the same line. The difference is that in "The Simpsons" the line would have been funny, and we wouldn't have blinked, sat in puzzlement through whatever happened next (one ceases to care after a while) and perhaps even made it through the closing credits and out into the street before realising that this line was supposed to be funny. Kaufman presents jokes to us the way a cat might present a dead bird, then stalks off to bask in his own cleverness while we're struggling to work out what our reaction is meant to be.
Not one of Kaufman's jokes, conceits, or visual touches, not the one-liner about the tattoo, not the unexplained Zeppelin that weaves its way through the scale-model New York tenements, not the miniature portraits you need magnifying glasses to see, not the laboured basic premise of the film, has any impact or life. Anyone can come up with these ideas: philosophy postgrad students are already able to generate thought experiments of this kind by the dozen, and often tell them better. And, alas, the film is like conceptual art. Once I tell you what it's about you might as well not bother to watch it. You've already got the gag. And it's not funny.
There can be little doubt that this is unmitigated tripe.
Okay, not unmitigated. The shot of the swirling coffee was nice to look at.
It's not fair to judge Godard by this one film, but if one were to do so, one would be forced to conclude that he's a charlatan. A real artist wouldn't have to talk our ears off for two solid hours. He talks at us through his characters, through his whispered narration (that guttural whisper is really hard to take after a couple of minutes); and even his incessant cinematic doodling is a kind of pitilessly boring monologue (he'll suddenly turn the soundtrack off not so much for effect as to goddamned well SAY something about cinematic convention I don't know what, exactly; the point he's trying to make is surely a banal one, whatever it is).
Godard is so enamoured of language that not only does he use it blast it at us relentlessly; he has himself and his cast, when they run out of anything else to talk about, which doesn't take long, start talking about language. And what twaddle they talk on the subject! "I suppose these are my eyes. How do I know they're my 'eyes' and not my 'knees'? Because people told me. But what if they hadn't?" That's not really the best example of fatuous nonsense; I remembered those lines among all the others because, silly though they are, they at least made sense: they don't reveal a mind so muddied by bad philosophy that it cannot think at all, which is what most of the rest of the script reveals.
Poor Kenneth Branagh an undervalued director if ever there was one is likely to receive far more blame than he deserves for the way this turned out. To be sure, he must have signed off on the tacky, minimalist set design (maybe this would work, or seem to work, if you saw the movie on TV) which in turn forced him into a series of count-the-pores close-ups in order to get away from the bare surfaces and garish lighting. But this set basically echoes, admittedly in the most simple-minded possible way, the minimalist, engineered-rather-than-written screenplay which Harold Pinter manufactured out of Anthony Schaffer's vastly superior original. Schaffer's version was a stage firecracker, and so perhaps if looked at in the cold light of day it is a little mechanical and formulaic; but Pinter's re-working of the material is ten times more mechanical and formulaic; the chief difference is that there's no firecracker: Pinter doesn't want to run the risk of giving us something to enjoy. He seems to think the goal of black comedy is to mortify our flesh and dull our intellect.
Michael Caine is magnificent, but a large part of that magnificence consists in his ability to turn Pinter's stop-and-start dialogue into a performance of any kind, let alone a good one. How hard this task is can be seen by looking at Jude Law, who, without bad acting or any obvious misjudgement, utterly fails to do so.
Inland Empire (2006)
The people who gush over this film are simply not to be taken seriously.
Firstly, it's shot with hand-held digital cameras (not the kind of digital used in, say, the recent Superman, where digital comes close to being a passable substitute for film if you lower you standards only a hair's breadth; rather, it's the kind of lousy, cruddy, mud-o-vision digital which makes you wonder why you bothered walking into the theatre) - with an absurd overuse of fish-eye lenses. And it's not even in focus all the time. I know the out-of-focus shooting was deliberate - well, actually I don't know, but let's suppose it was - but it adds insult to injury: the image definition isn't anywhere near good enough for even a half second's out-of-focus shooting to be endurable.
Why do we stand for this kind of thing? Why don't people who pay good money to see a movie rise up in spontaneous rebellion when they find they've been swindled? It's one of those mysteries of modern life, like the mystery of why all modern buildings are ugly, when we certainly don't have fewer technical resources than our ancestors did when they made buildings that were beautiful.
And secondly, Lynch's latest is about (inasmuch as it's about anything) an actress, and about the production of a film. It's set in Hollywood and most characters are film-makers of one description or another. Does the resulting work consist of tedious, puffed-up, self-referential tomfoolery? Is there any serious doubt? Mulholland Drive was a more lifeless, inferior knock-off of Lost Highway chiefly because it was about Hollywood rather than something external to Hollywood: the most versatile directors in the world have difficulty making films about films without turning out something tiresome and trite, and Lynch, although he has on occasion been a great film-maker, and although he did make The Straight Story, is not renowned for his versatility.
One of the basic plot points is silly. Being based on a Polish folktale does not curse a production. Being set in Hollywood, does.
Lynch usually relies heavily on his is-it-real-or-is-it-a-dream ambiguity, but in this instance, there's nothing else - and the lousy digital images mean that even this stalwart gimmick doesn't stand a chance of working. Obviously, in excrement-brown digital, it's all a dream. Or might as well be. The digital cameras have robbed Lynch of his power to invest mundane items with menace (in digital, the mundane simply looks even more mundane); they've preventing him from using his slow, gliding camera; they've led him into the by now well-known just-let-the-camera-operator-follow-the-actors trap, and encouraged him to be self indulgently profligate in compiling more and still more footage for the thinnest script he has ever worked on.
You don't have to take my word for any of this, or trust my aesthetic subjective sense. Let's suppose for the sake of argument I'm a lousy judge of cinema. Nonetheless, the movie was shot on low-definition, muddy digital video: that's a known fact: look it up. The movie is set entirely in Hollywood and features actors, directors and technicians; again a known fact: look it up. You now know all you need to know to infer that Lynch has laid an egg.
The most morally reprehensible thing on Australian TV at the moment
I don't really have anything to say; read George Orwell's essay on "No Orchids for Miss Blandish" and discover why it's all been said before, better than I could say it.
Obviously the show is cruddy enough on aesthetic grounds: I don't know whether to blame the wooden acting or the 100%-exposition dialogue, so let's blame both. But people are willing to overlook such things on TV in the interests of fantasy. I am too. What's depressing is that people are willing to overlook the lousiness of the production in the interests of what they're really getting out of the show: the chance to watch the hounds chase the fox for an hour, until the latter collapses of exhaustion.
What's also depressing is that this show is part of a trend. In the past, a leading-up-to-the-trial kind of TV show would have focused on the defence lawyers; it's a shame that we're now getting a kick out of siding with the prosecution, especially when it's this bunch of deeply unpleasant people.
Perry Mason didn't have a mean streak.
The Road to El Dorado (2000)
Undervalued, like all hand-drawn animation
The "banter" between Miguel and Tulio felt very contrived at first, but that soon passed; there were moments of true humour, and the story was a good one. Animated films just aren't treated fairly. This (like its maligned Disney counterparts) was vastly better than the majority of popular Hollywood films, and deep down, we all know it.
Yes, I'm aware of the problems. While the art direction was decent, El Dorado wasn't as fabulous as it might have been; the aspects of the city most likely to give one a pure, adolescent thrill - things like the fantastic and colourful beasts, like the giant turtlish things people used to cross the lake, were neglected. It's not as though we in the audience particularly cared about the gold. (The other problem with the art direction, of course, was the CGI. It usually is.) The songs were a bad idea; note that for the most part, this isn't a musical, but one of those films in which the characters can't be bothered to express their thoughts and feelings by singing for themselves; instead, they get a pop star (Elton John here, Phil Collins in "Tarzan") to do so for them. (The songs are so ineptly worked into the story you'll cringe.) They weren't good songs, either. I'd thought of Tim Rice as being, at worst, workmanlike in his lyrics; here he slips a few notches, to lame.
But it's lush, it moves briskly, there's nothing really wrong with the plot, and the character animation is superb - much better than in "The Prince of Egypt". Note Chel, in particular: I'm glad to see ex-Disney animator James Baxter at work on a really sexy babe. (She has a tendency to waddle - I suspect because Baxter was asked to tone down the heat a little - but that only serves to make her cuter.) Hardly an animated classic, but compare it to - oh, I don't know, the live action "Road to" movies with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope - and it dazzles. Well, it glows invitingly, at the very least.
Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
Sorry - this film is disqualified.
If I hadn't had independent evidence to the contrary I would have sworn there was something wrong with the print. Unfortunately, the disgustingly desaturated colours (the kind of colours that look as though they've already passed through someone's digestive system, if you get my drift) were deliberate. Every print looked as hideous as the one I saw; every screening, therefore, was just as much a painful chore to sit through. It would have been far franker - and far kinder to the audience - to shoot in true black and white, rather than in the various shades of pale murkiness one might see in institutional carpets that have fallen into disrepair and haven't been washed since the 1970s. Occasionally, when we leave the island of Iwo Jima, we might see some foliage that you can tell without squinting is green rather than yet another shade of mouldy brown; the cinematography off Iwo Jima is still lousy and the footage still looks like photos that were under-exposed and then left in the sun for a few months, but by this stage we're grateful for the smallest of mercies.
This disqualifies the film from serious consideration as a work of real merit. Nothing this ugly can be worth watching - even if the musical score had been other than thin and banal (it isn't), if the story had been about anything (it isn't), if there'd been a single moment or idea or exchange that had been well conceived or energetic (there isn't), the colours alone ought to be enough to make any self-respecting critic or audience member to say: "Sorry, I'm not interested." The fact that this film had an audience is a sad comment on audiences.
To make my point, Eastwood's companion piece, Letters from Iwo Jima, is in principle a much better film: it isn't a kind of dour flag-waving exercise (people, this film is about a flag! a flag, for Christ's sake! it's not about human beings at all!); there's a genuine story with a central character one could reasonably take an interest in; by taking the viewpoint of the opposing side, Eastwood and Haggis have managed to get some freshness in their conception... but none of this matters: there's the same damned god-awful colour scheme to get past, and it can't be got past.
Why do you think so many people mistook this piece of hothouse patriotism for an anti-American work? A comment on the futility of war, or some such? It certainly can't be the film's content: it's because staring at various subtle shades of pigswill for two hours is enough to put anyone in a miserable mood.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
A film whose many flaws cancel each other out and become positive virtues
I knew I hadn't just bough a cinema ticket when I saw one of the opening ads, in which some second-string Australian celebrities stood in front of the audience to harangue us into reading the New Testament. "It changed my life," each one said in succession. The screen darkened and left me writhing in embarrassment, wondering what kind of naked, bludgeoning propaganda I'd just let myself in for. Would this be like it was sitting through "Triumph of the Will", with the addition of the uncomfortable feeling that some of my fellow audience members might actually be taking it seriously, and lapping it all up?
Then there was a trailer for an upcoming feature, and I relaxed somewhat.
As it happens the film is very much like "Triumph of the Will"; perhaps closer to pure propaganda. Both films are great, in a curious, disturbing way. One key difference is that Leni Riefenstahl was a great director, performing well below her ability in "Triumph of the Will"; with "The Passion" we have a mediocre director performing above his. Gibson didn't really do a good job, objectively speaking, and by rights his film ought to be dreadful. But Gibson's very failings, each individually enough to sink a film, collectively transform his film into something marvellous. This was a complete fluke; but so what? I've recently seen "Cold Mountain", a right shocker of a film even if there was a lot of genuine artistry in its component parts. Why should I be kinder to IT, just because its badness was something of an unfortunate accident? The mirror-image point applies to Gibson's film.
The controversy surrounding the film is pointless and silly but not quite too ludicrous to dismiss out of hand. This is NOT an anti-Semitic film; but it's worthwhile looking into why anyone thought it was. An obvious reason would be the scene early on, in which Jesus is captured and brought before the temple and we see a roomful of jeering, pantomime wicked Jews, not just acting broadly, but acting broadly in unison. The head priest makes some feeble snide comment at Jesus and it's as though everyone else in the room is a puppet controlled by the same set of strings, as they slap their thighs, flail their arms, bend at the waist and contort their faces into unnatural, apelike laughter. This effect is exaggerated by Gibson's two most obvious stylistic devices.
Firstly, his ridiculous overuse of slow motion. How slow is this film? I darted out to urinate at one point, halfway through Jesus's progression up Calvary; when I came back, he'd travelled perhaps three metres. Nobody in this film can be whipped, feel remorse, be inspired, crawl in the dust, laugh, cry, walk across the room or pay thirty pieces of silver without it happening lliiikke tthhiiisss
Secondly, there's the way Gibson uses Aramaic and Latin. You have to applaud his decision to film what is essentially a bilingual story in the correct, original languages. It's obviously the right decision. But this isn't a standard subtitled release. Watch a French film, and you'll see people talking with apparent naturalism in French, with the subtitles doing their best to translate with, inevitably, the odd word left out here and there, or the odd phrase condensed or simplified or simply unavailable for translation. But because this story was So Very Important, Gibson arranged things so that NOTHING was lost in translation. This means that people speak slowly, simply, emphatically, sparsely, as though they know they're acting for our benefit and want to make sure they say nothing that will be lost in translation or fail to be caught by the slower readers in the audience. This strange mode of speaking is unnerving after a while.
The result is, the Jews are like no people on Earth we can recognise. They come across as yet another exotic tribe from the Old Testament, with no obvious connection to anyone living to day; more than that, they aren't even like human beings as we know them. They seem to be aware they're living within the pages of the Bible.
But if this is true of the Jews is this is equally true of the Romans. More so, in fact. Gibson's sadistic, buffoonish, verismo-operatic Roman guards whip and mock Christ as though they've been heartened by the pantomime acting the Jewish extras have managed to get away with and wish to do them one better.
This is all very irritating at first, but the end result is to heighten the atmosphere and set the ground rules for what is, after all, a grand, dark supernatural fantasy. This is where Gibson's narrowness of vision is actually an asset. The story of Christ's sacrifice ON OUR BEHALF is one of the most ridiculous myths ever told. Tell the full story and it's hard to avoid asking questions like: "But why didn't God just repeal the eternal damnation he'd condemned us all to, WITHOUT putting himself through this vicarious torture first? He's omnipotent, right? And what possible connection could his decision to allow himself to be whipped have to his decision not to fry you and I for eternity, anyway?" Gibson vanquishes such awkward questions by simply presenting us the pivotal moment of the Christian myth, in all its gory detail, and letting the rest of the fantasy fall into vague shape by itself.
All that remains to object to is the final insert shot of Christ rising from the dead, as though he's about to stalk the land like Arnold Schwarzenegger in "The Terminator". But that moment can't erase or negate the strange, seemingly flawed, accidentally magnificent film that precedes it.
Travelling Light (2003)
Pointlessly nasty, or just pointless? Hard to tell, hard to care.
least, she stood out the front bravely enough BEFORE we'd all seen the film, and presumably stuck around for the screening itself, although I don't blame her if she didn't and her mere presence at the screening made me curiously reluctant to say anything bad about her film. But then I come here and read someone actually PRAISING this valueless work and my reluctance vanished.
Barring comments on Sacha Horler's performance, which I suppose is up to her usual high standards (not that that it's easy to tell in a film like this), the nicest thing that can be truthfully said about the film is that it accurately conveys what it was like to live in suburban Adelaide in the 1970s ... to people who lived in suburban Adelaide in the 1970s. And if you think THAT'S an artistic achievement of any worth, you obviously haven't thought very much.
We do manage to gather that suburban Adelaide wasn't a very pleasant place back then. Everything looked sterile, and every single person who ever said anything, said it in the context of a sterile conversation. What it's like to LIVE in this impossibly bleak and mind-numbing environment, it's hard to say; there's nothing human about the film, so watching it gives us no means of telling. What it's like to sit through 88 minutes of flat conversations flatly acted in flatly lit flat settings, though, is obvious enough. It's boring. Or if not boring, AT BEST irksome. It's not as though the individually tedious scenes ever connect with one another, to produce something more than the effect of very many of them in succession.
Lee's one idea that works allows him to ignore everything else that doesn't
There ought be something wrong with the split frames, the panning cuts, the jigsaw-like dissolves and all the tricks Ang Lee uses to keep reminding us that his film was based on a comic book. Bad ideas in principle, no? This may have been a comic book once, but it's a film now; these devices make no more sense than the old Hollywood convention of opening films like "Jane Eyre" with a shot of a big leather book being opened to the first page.
Yet we might as well drop whatever theoretical objections we may have and admit that (Ang) Lee's comic book fixation works for the film, and works well. There's a sense that every frame and every shot neatly and gracefully interlocks with its neighbours. It suits the kind of nothing-but-the-story storytelling that Lee's aiming for and somehow suits the material as well. And, much as I was prepared to hate it, it looks great. There are not only some stunning shots in this movie but they were laid out so as to enable me to best admire them.
A pity the film doesn't get over its main hurdle: the fact that Lee is a gifted, multi-talented director capable of taking almost any subject whatever and making it insipid and boring. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" IN PRINCPLE a thrilling, magical ride used the beauty of its individual shots to make us pretend (it even made me pretend, for a while) that it wasn't completely unengaging and forgettable so much tasteless rice pudding and "Ride with the Devil" managed to be, not just the dullest United States Civil War film ever made, but the dullest it's POSSIBLE to make. If "Hulk" is a better film than either of these it's not because Lee has learned how to make scenes come to life. Performances are somehow flat and pitched poorly against one another, none of the material sings, and if Lee had any idea why all this stuff interested him he didn't succeed in conveying it to me. Much of the film is so much finger-tapping while we wait for the inevitable to happen. When the Hulk REALLY goes berserk it's obvious enough what the solution is: do nothing and wait for him to calm down. This solution not only leaps to the mind of a child of three but it's already been employed in the film by the very members of the military, boneheads though they may be, who are in charge of what to do now so however much fun it might be to watch (FINALLY, after so much exposition!) the Hulk leap around a smash things to bits, it doesn't do much for us, knowing that we're just waiting for the characters to start doing nothing. It's not that this lapse of military intelligence is implausible, you understand. The generals did, after all, have their brains amputated years ago, when they became soldiers. But why should Lee insult us by asking us to think and feel at their level? A really skilled director, like Kubrick, would know that the way to make this extended farce exciting would be to distance us from it, to show it to us from the viewpoint of a god.
But if Lee knew how to make films exciting "Hulk" would be very different in many ways.
And yes, state-of-the-art CGI is still bad. We even get a shot of the Hulk's magically stretchable blue pants during a transformation scene in bright sunlight (somehow devoid of true shadows for anything computer animated), just to rub our noses in them.