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8 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
More than there appears . . ., 20 April 2009

A difficulty in reviewing an avant-garde short is the danger of coming from the wrong mind-set. Some films are self-explanatory with varying amounts of attention. Some aren't. My first reaction on seeing this film – after falling in love with Deren's early, seemingly oneiric, stories – was not very positive.

But I could have been looking at something written in a foreign language and not known it. I dismissed it as artistic scribbles. Or perhaps I am not sufficiently steeped in film-making to recognise what she tried to illustrate.

Compared to Meshes of the Afternoon or At Land, I initially found A Study rather disappointing. I couldn't see it as an abstract exercise in 'creative geography' – merely a step down from something I had been able to relate to enthusiastically and immediately. I was wrong.

I take a second look at this well-regarded short some time later, when thinking about Sally Potter's ideas on the similarity of dance and film (in The Tango Lesson). Potter agonised over the moment before being, the blank slate, that hovering moment of 'becoming'. It made me think back to Maya Deren, this short film which unexpectedly sees a dancer transition through different surroundings.

Deren herself described her film as having, "the characteristic time quality of a woman." She explains it by comparison. "I think that the strength of men is their great sense of immediacy. They are a 'now' creature. And a woman has strength to wait, because she's had to wait. She has to wait nine months for the concept of a child. Time is built into her body in the sense of becomingness, and she sees everything in terms of it being in the stage of becoming."

There are (at least) two important features of A Study In Choreography For The Camera that make it interesting in this respect. They are interesting as part of the study – which the film is eponymously intended to be (rather than, say, just entertainment). The first of these is the transitions. A dancer raises his foot in a forest and puts it down again indoors – as part of the same step. He explores the museum. Then, with an intense spin, he returns to the outdoors, but without any suggestion of continuity in space. He does not leap so high physically that he escapes the walls of the museum. The outside simply is 'there' for him. The reality is that of the dancer, not of the external world. (The transitions are accomplished so skilfully that Gene Kelly was to seek her advice on how to approach them.)

"In any time-form, this is a very important sense. I think that my films, putting as much stress as they do upon the constant metamorphosis – one image is always becoming another – it is what is happening that is important in my films, not what 'is' at any moment. This is a woman's time sense, and I think it happens more in my films than almost anyone else's." Now, it is also possible to see the common train of thought between this and her earlier, more diegetic but equally challenging, films.

The second feature of the film which bears on time is Deren's specific decision to use slow motion. "Motion picture is a time form," says Deren. "Just as the telescope reveals the structure of matter in a way that the unaided eye can never see it, so slow motion reveals the structure of motion. Events that occur rapidly, so that they seem a continuous flux, are revealed in slow motion to be full of pulsations and agonies and indecisions and repetitions."

What better way to illustrate this than with the hidden exertions of a ballet dancer? Strength, concentration, even pain, all sublimated to look effortless and beautiful. Magnified and stripped of the illusion created by performance in normal time, the dancer becomes more like a moving sculpture. We can examine him at leisure. It is this focus which particularly separates the work from say, Shirley Clarke's A Dance in the Sun, which also explores a dancing moving through different locations but whose overall effect is to isolate energy and the state of mind of the dancer.

Like dancing, Deren's finished work appears so effortless that it is all too easy to miss its subtlety. (For a similar microscopic examination of the film-making process distributed after her death, an accompanying film, called Outtakes from A Study in Choreography for Camera, assembled 15 minutes of footage from which the final film had been distilled.)

The title points us towards yet another innovation. Instead of statically recording, the camera is an active participant (the subtitle of the film is 'Pas de Deux'). The 16mm Bolex is an equal partner to Talley Beatty, the dancer. Near the beginning, it makes some long pans. We see Beatty several times, among the trees. It is almost as if trick photography has been used, but in fact we are simply seeing him from the camera's point-of-view-as-a-dancer. The camera is not limited by space and time. Or as Deren more poetically wrote, "The movement of the dancer creates a geography that never was. With a turn of the foot, he makes neighbours of distant places."

Deren has used the principles developed in her earlier films to create a window within a film. We see the dance as separate from the surroundings, in order better to study its nature.

But unless such ideas excite you, A Study in Choreography for the Camera is not going to blow your socks off. "I make my pictures for what Hollywood spends on lipstick," she famously said. If however, you also harbour a suspicion that Hollywood "has been a major obstacle to the definition and development of motion pictures as a creative fine-art form," then maybe it's time to take a walk – or a leap – into the world of Maya Deren.

20 out of 22 people found the following review useful:
Godard classic, 16 April 2009

As the film opens Paul and Nana are going through a break-up. Each is filmed with their back to the camera. As Nana says she wants to die, it makes me think that, when we turn our back on the most significant person in our life, it can be like turning our backs on life itself. Such a big part of our identity is bound up with them that there seems nothing left. It is as if we have failed to heed the advice of Montaigne, quoted at the end of the opening credits: "Lend yourself to others and give yourself to yourself." Of course, Godard may not be intending for me to have such thoughts. For much of the film I get the distinct impression that he does not want me to interpret anything as anything, but just to accept it as it is. But the film, within a few minutes, has sparked off some interesting and worthwhile thought in me and I like this. It seems to be what art should do. And that it should do it simply by existing, not by trying to convey some message of its own.

For much of the film that follows, part of my mind is taken up with enjoying the crisp black and white photography. The streets of Paris, and other simple but finely observed detail. The lustre of Anna Karina's hair – she plays Nana – is as enchanting as if I were talking to her. And maybe talking about nothing very much in particular so that my mind could wander to such things. The quality of the print is sufficient to make out individual hairs – or hairline cracks in walls and furniture.

The overall effect – taken with some other devices that I only slowly become aware of – is to give a documentary-like feel to what the camera is seeing. Nana splits from Paul and drifts into prostitution. It happens without any big dramatics. She has been working in a record store, is having trouble paying her back rent, and, after a few other minor incidents, we see her with her first client. The look of repressed emotion on her face is one of the most stark and memorable images in the film. A bit like Edvard Munch's painting, The Scream. But sublimated into what is portrayed as a very everyday setting.

Later, in a rapid monotone, Nana's pimp even gives us a run-down of prices, laws, regulations and practices. It is almost the Brechtian splitting of the film into twelve chapters (each with long titles telling us what is about to happen), and Godard's increasingly frequent experiments that separate the sound from the image, that remind us this is fiction, not docu-drama.

For instance, towards the end and when Nana is with a young man she rather likes (and the attraction seems mutual, maybe love), their conversation is not heard by us but only seen on the screen as subtitles. They are communicating soundlessly perhaps, as lovers do.

There is a long scene where she discusses the meaning of language with an old man, a philosopher (played by Godard's former philosophy teacher). Although this is outwardly quite deep, I did not find the arguments nearly as profound or rigorous as in Godard's later film, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Prostitution is not used here, as it is in 2 or 3 things, as a political metaphor. Susan Sontag, in her aptly titled essays, Against Interpretation, suggests that it is, "the most radical metaphor for the separating out of the elements of a life – as a testing ground, a crucible for the study of what is essential and what is superfluous in a life." She sees Nana as having divested herself of her old identity and taken on her new identity – that of a prostitute.

In the version I watched, quite a few lines were omitted from the English subtitling, so my smattering of French came in useful. But I needed some of the subtler French puns on the 'life' and 'chickens' pointed out to me.

As the film came to its not untypically Godard-like abrupt ending, I wondered for a minute if it was as great as some people often claim. The celebrated critic Roger Ebert, for instance, singles it out as one of the great movies of all time. My mind wandered to such movies as Last Year at Marienbad, and Jules and Jim, both made about the same time and which have left quite a deep impression on me. But only for a minute.

Vivre Sa Vie is different, yet again, to any other work by Godard. But it is deceptively unassuming, and a remarkably solid piece of work for all its sense of transience (Godard compared cinema to a train rather than the station). It can also be seen as a love letter from Godard to his wife, the beautifully photographed Anna Karina.

Swing Time (1936)
4 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
classic - if you only see one Fred & Ginger film . . ., 16 April 2009

At the height of its television popularity, a New York TV station ran Swing Time twice a night for a whole week. Even before digital program recording, people were timing it, so they could tune in to every showing, catching the magical moment when Fred Astaire performs his legendary dance sequence in Bojangles of Harlem.

Later, they would wait for the wonderful pairing with Ginger Rogers, where chemistry would sparkle from beneath her long lashes to the tips of her toes. And although I've also enjoyed it on the small screen several times, nothing can compare with the wonder of experiencing it in a movie theatre. The dance becomes alive. We feel not only the rush of movement, but being caught up in the moment, and seeing the fine details of expression so hard to appreciate when reduced in size. Swing Time is rightly regarded by many fans and critics as Fred and Ginger's greatest movie together. A movie to laugh and cry with. It was even referenced in Barack Obama's inauguration speech. The story is imaginative, the good-natured gags bring a smile to your face when remembered, and the songs and dance routines live on forever. Fred and Ginger exude a joy of performance and a skill of execution that can make you gasp: "This is what dancing is all about!"

The dances are almost always performed in a single take, showing the whole dancer's body. No mistakes. No special effects. But dancing that sets the standard for generations to come. They look carefree and relaxed – as dancers should – but each move, each throwaway gesture and expression, had been minutely rehearsed until it was beyond perfect. It was perfect and then had added charisma, warmth, and acting infused into it. The charm of Fred Astaire's on-screen character (reputedly very close to his real life persona) and the unaffected femininity of Ginger Rogers make them the partners that every dancer longs to trip the light fantastic with. Astaire is the epitome of style, elegance and good taste. The embodiment of the 'gentleman' but without stuffiness. He woos the girl, gets out of problematic situations, and is a good friend. Witty repartee alights from his lips to disarm every attack and entice very woman into his arms, at once making her feel like the most special woman that ever lived.

Occasionally one wonders why Rogers achieved more fame in his arms than any of his other dance partners, many of whom exceeded her in professional training and maybe even looks. Perhaps the answer is that she is not just a perfect dancer, but a perfect partner. Who wants to dance with someone who just loves themself? Rogers, both in her performance of dance steps and in the attitude she emanates, dances as part of a partnership – seemingly made in heaven. As if both people are dancing from the same inner source. Watch her in their first dance together in Swing Time. After the initial gags, he takes her back into the dance studio to save her job in front of the boss. For the first section of the dance, she is the backdrop, discretely watching and following Astaire, the man taking the lead. (It's a basic polka with added syncopation and tap steps.) She is the tapestry upon which he shines. The good woman behind every good man. Then, as they relax into the routine, her steps become more decorative, sparkling jewels adorning their performance together. For those fond of the oft-quoted line, "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels," this is a great example, tap dancing in black high heels! By the end of the dance she is iridescent, a flower in beautiful bloom. The next scene is a suitably impressed studio manager arranging a top audition for them.

Their first dance has followed a farcical sequence when Astaire pretends he can't dance in order to get lessons from the beautiful dance instructor, played by Ginger Rogers. They repeatedly fall over, Astaire trying to arrange it so they fall ever closer to each other. All this is timed to the famous song line, "Pick yourself up, start all over again." It could almost be an anthem for every dancer who has ever failed – as every dancer must – as well as in life. Dramatically, this 'not being dissuaded by failure' is at the core of most rom-coms, as well as visually in much later movies like Flashdance). In Swing Time, it becomes iconic. The words of the song, the visual acting-out in dance, and the storyline. They combine to become something life-affirming, and also one of the quintessential qualities associated with the American attitude of 'never give up.' Or as Obama exhorted in the midst of the 2009 economic crisis, "Pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off!"

Rogers combines a down-to-earth, girl-next-door appeal, with some of the most ladylike qualities anyone could wish for. Her elegance of movement is matched by the elegance with which she handles situations. If the unbelievably crazy strategies to romance her aren't quite believable, she doesn't quite believe them. She can be politely formal rather than take offence or get angry. Her displays of emotion are tempered by gentleness and good taste.

Although the award-winning Bojangles of Harlem sequence was one of the favourites of the day, Never Gonna Dance is probably the climax for modern audiences – and the climax of the film. It is one of the great unsurpassed dance performances of cinema. It deserves to be seen by every aspiring dancer, amateur or professional.

This review will not give away any more hints to the storyline. You will have to see the movie yourself and enjoy the leaps of time and place as it launches from one situation to a deeper one, carrying you with it in one of the greatest Hollywood musicals of all time.

At Land (1946)
13 out of 15 people found the following review useful:
Finding oneself through film, 11 April 2009

A woman lies on the sand, left there by the tides and waves (and in a pose that would be copied in From Here to Eternity). She reaches up across tree roots and makes a difficult climb. Only to discover herself climbing horizontally along a long dinner table as bourgeoise black-tie guests chat and drink and smoke, oblivious to her. At the top of the table, a man is playing chess but abandons the game. Fascinated, she gazes at board, the pieces moving unaided. The woman chases a pawn as it falls to the floor. Falls down a waterfall. Is lost.

She meets a man on a path through a forest. They chat and go to a big house - at his suggestion - where the furniture is covered with white shrouds, as if no-one lives there. (The inside of the house is quite grand, although from outside it is a mere wooden shack). She stares at an older man lying under a white sheet.

The woman descends the cliffs to the sand dunes and the beach. Two women are playing a relaxed chess and having a good time. She caresses their hair seductively. They play without needing to look at the board. The woman then takes a pawn and runs across the dunes, triumphantly recalling earlier scenes but leaving only footprints in the sand. Maya Deren's second short film is perhaps the only one to resemble her more famous Meshes of the Afternoon in terms of structure and style.

While both experimental films have a surrealist narrative that is suggestive rather than literal, the oppressive, frightening tone of Meshes is here replaced with one of joyous discovery. In Lacanian terminology, it celebrates a healthy return to an inner essence. In this it is almost the reverse of the psychotic nightmare of Meshes. It has also been seen as one first films addressing feminine subjectivity, although an anti-materialist reading would be equally possible (Deren had also been a left-wing political activist in the thirties).

In her classic text, Cinematography: the Creative Use of Reality, Deren says, "In my At Land, it has been the technique by which the dynamic of the Odyssey is reversed and the protagonist, instead of undertaking the long voyage of search for adventure, finds instead that the universe itself has usurped the dynamic action which was once the prerogative of human will, and confronts her with a volatile and relentless metamorphosis in which her personal identity is the sole constancy."

Cinematically, the unmatched shots also create a sense of disorientation in time and space. The viewer is forced to form their own 'story' or 'meaning' according to her or his own ingenium. The use of surreal structure for Deren was not so much an artistic preference as a belief that cinema needs to find its own instrument as an art form, to relinquish its reliance on, "narrative disciplines it has borrowed from literature," and its, "timid imitation of the causal logic of narrative plots."

The fact that At Land works so well reminds us that Meshes was no accident: Deren understood the way symbols are used by the subconscious well enough to elicit direct, meaningful responses in an audience. Sadly for cinephiles, Deren mostly moved back to her other love, that of the dance, in her use of film thereafter. Yet it is particularly her two early surrealist classics that continue to provide inspiration to viewers and filmmakers alike, such that she is still often referred to as the 'Mother of U.S.-Avant-Garde.' She developed a new vocabulary of film images and a new syntax of film techniques. Things she continued to strive for and lecture on until the end of her tragically short life.

Contempt (1963)
21 out of 24 people found the following review useful:
The language of Godard, 11 April 2009

Most cinephiles, faced with a choice between an original language, subtitled film, and a dubbed version, will choose the former. But what if it is a multilingual film, released in different versions? Would you be tempted to choose the version of your own language? Such a choice with Le Mépris (Contempt) yields a radically different experience, well beyond the mere question of subtitles.

The story tells of the making of a movie in Italy with an American producer, an Austrian director, plus a script doctor and his beautiful wife. The French version is multilingual. Whereas the English-American and Italian versions are entirely dubbed. Crucially, in the English-American version, the producer seems to be followed about by a quirky assistant who paraphrases the somewhat vainglorious proclamations of her boss for the benefit of other mere mortals. Only in the French version, is it apparent she is an interpreter.

This is important, as one of the themes of Le Mépris is the breakdown of communication. Not only are the producer and director at odds with each other, but the marital breakdown of the script doctor and his wife (played by Michel Piccoli and the glamorous Brigitte Bardot) is placed under the microscope. Three further parallels are neatly woven into our story. One is the tale of Ulysses separated from his wife Penelope, in which he is protected by Minerva but threatened by Neptune (Homer's Odyssey is the subject of the film-within-a-film). Second is an examination of the gap between cinema-for-profit and cinema-as-art, partly mirrored in the Le Mépris' actual production as well as in its subject matter. And third are autobiographical references to Godard's personal life – both his love life and his life as a filmmaker. Whereas the French version of the movie raises serious questions about the film industry, about the relationship between man and the gods, and even explores some of the more challenging questions about love, life and Homer's work; in the English-American version these things become like added confectionery, arty flourishes for more passive audiences. Or for whom the challenge of discovering cinematic jokes within references to Rio Bravo and works by Fritz Lang (who plays himself as a director) become an intellectual conceit.

Brigitte Bardot here finds at once both a self-consciously iconic and a substantial acting role. On the one hand, her acting talents are utilised to greater effect than in many of her films. On the other, long (soft-core) nude scenes are both complicit in, and critical of, her sex-goddess status. The opening scene, where she teasingly asks her husband which part of her body he finds most attractive, was added at the insistence of the film's American co-producers. Yet its mocking style is almost a lampoon of the use of sex to sell big budget U.S. films. The film-within-a-film's American producer, Jeremy Prokosch (played by Jack Palance), is visibly more enthusiastic about scenes involving nakedness than any faithfulness to the spirit of Homer. Director Fritz Lang, in contrast, goes to great length to examine the essence of the Odyssey, using Dante's Inferno and a poem by Friedrich Holderlin. The gods are created by men, not vice versa, and create the challenges Odysseus is forced to face. It is an easy step to observe how the American producer, throwing his weight around in 'godlike' fashion, both misses this point and actually identifies with the lesser 'gods' of sex and wealth. These gods – in the form of a much-needed cheque for Piccoli's character and the dangling of Bardot's allures before Prokosch, threaten both the marriage and the integrity of the film-within-a-film. Contempt breeds among the characters and begets tragedy.

Piccoli also has a great line about exploitation: "Usually, when you see women, they're dressed. But put them in a movie, and you see their backsides." As if to underline the point, Prokosch casually has his assistant bend over so he can use her (clothed) backside as a table to sign a cheque. His imperious and lecherous attitude dovetails the 'Americanised' scenes that show naked women's backsides without explicitness. They contrast strongly against the clothed Bardot who is portrayed as an intelligent woman able to hold her own.

This film is one of the most rounded of any of Godard's work and can easily be viewed as 'mainstream' – the more philosophical riddles being purely optional. And if Godard is displaying contempt for the prostituting of cinematic art to big business – principally American big studios – the style is still reverential towards his American heroes: Le Mépris has been accurately described as, "Hawks and Hitchcock shot in the manner of Antonioni." Godard, like Ulysses and Piccoli's character, has both engaged with the enemy - American producer Joseph E Levine (Neptune, Prokosch) and prevailed. He has not 'sold-out' to big finance but, like Ulysses on coming home, merely disguised himself as a beggar to better elicit the truth. 'Minerval' wisdom shines through (especially from the mouth of his hero-in-exile, Fritz Lang, with lines that reflect Godard's philosophy). When Bardot's character Camille wears a black wig, she resembles Godard's wife Anna Karina. Her story, subjected to unwanted attentions while her husband is absent, parallels Penelope.

By many sleights of hand, Godard continues to 'explore the uninhabited world' and simultaneously produce a film for many different audiences. Le Mépris is very clever and enjoyable to watch, but does it have anything new to say? Or is it an exquisite exercise in admiring its own limitations? The films strengths are less obvious than the overtly cinematic and revolutionary Breathless, or the philosophically challenging 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. It has as much depth as you wish to find in it, and is more convincing than his disjointed political diatribes. But, unlike all those films, it can also be overlooked as little more than a pleasant experience. Especially by anyone who thinks it would be simpler if we all spoke the same language. Subtitles or not.

24 out of 25 people found the following review useful:
Through the meshes of your mind . . ., 14 March 2009

Meshes Of The Afternoon Meshes, according to Deren, is "concerned with the inner realities of an individual and the way in which the subconscious will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual occurrence into a critical emotional experience."

Have you ever stopped to wonder, when you see and touch a flower, what happens inside? Unless you are in purely botanical mode, it may very likely spark off something in your subconscious. The breath of spring. The beauty and harmony of nature. Perhaps something given with affection and gentleness. Maybe even a token of romance?

Maya Deren's wildly seminal work, Meshes Of The Afternoon, begins when a rather artificial looking hand places a flower on a pathway. The hand (and attached arm) pop out of existence, immediately alerting us to the fact that this is not a work of literal storytelling. The symbols of the next 14 minutes drill holes into our subconscious, where images speak louder than words, creating one of the most famous short films of all time.

A woman picks up the flower on her way home. At her doorstep, she drops her key. Once inside, she falls asleep in an armchair. Her dream-self sees her former self approaching the house. But the flower is being carried by a hooded figure whose only face is a mirror. Giving chase brings her no closer to the hooded figure – it just brings her to her doorstep. This time, when she ascends the stairs, we see her expression. No longer carefree, she is watchful, slightly suspicious.

A breadknife, previously cutting bread, lies on the steps. A phone off the hook, and the knife hidden in the bed. She sees her sleeping form and a gramophone playing endlessly with no sound. Through the cracked window she sees herself giving chase to the hooded figure and takes the key from her mouth. We look again. It become a knife with which she confronts two other images of herself. Eventually a man enters the picture.

The sight or touch of a flower reminds us that the subconscious mind works in symbols. Like images from a dream, the flower can bring certain feelings to the surface. Similarly a knife may be just an implement, or an implement with which we can feed ourselves, or hurt ourselves. Meshes Of The Afternoon soon evokes Freudian implications. Is the man coming home from work the fulfillment of her romantic dreams or their frustration? As an outside force, he can be a blessing or a threat, just as a mirror can show oneself or a reveal a hidden person. But Deren hotly denied it was surrealist. Whereas the surrealist is parodic, Deren is deadly serious. To her, their work was like doodling with symbols. Her polemics castigated surrealists for 'abnegating the agency of consciousness.' The role of the artist, she said, had degenerated. "His achievement, if any, consists in a titillating reproduction of reality which can be enjoyed in air-conditioned comfort by an audience too comatose to take the exercise of a direct experience of life."

The music (by Deren's third husband, and added 16 years later) adds to the sense of rising paranoia and dread. Its ritualistic feel has persuaded some commentators to suggest that the double characters and constantly changing identities stem from Deren's interest in Voodoo (her writings on the subject are still a leading authority - she was later initiated as a Voodoo priestess). Yet it wasn't until 1947, four years later, that Deren received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship that enabled her to begin visiting Haiti to study Voodoo. More likely they are indicative of an early grasp of psychology, a deep interest of hers and one which she shared with her father.

To signify the hooded figure as the Grim Reaper is also to trivialize and pigeon hole a symbol capable of many equally valid interpretations. Some feminist readings centre on the frustration of a woman left at home all day. Yet we can also look at it in the sense of someone coming to know themselves and risking their sanity in the process.

On a technical level, Meshes Of The Afternoon, shot on a miniscule budget, has almost non-existent production values and may fail easily to engage modern audiences. It has total disregard for Hollywood convention (the word 'Hollywood' in the opening titles could even be read as frustration with the barrenness of the industry there). There is an superficial similarity with works by Shirley Clarke or the early surrealism of Bunuel. Structurally, we can see its influence in Lynch's Lost Highway, where no explanation is given or needed for one thing (or person) turning into another (though some of the explicit symbols are explored more thoroughly in Lynch's later works, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire). By understanding Meshes Of The Afternoon, such 'populist' surrealism becomes child's play. As a journey of self-discovery with deep overtones, it follows a similar (though less tragic) theme to Nina Menkes' Phantom Love.

Some commentators have cast doubt over whether Deren was the primary artistic force in the film, saying it is largely the work of her husband Alexander Hammid. Deren's biographers disagree. Certainly it is her most famous, complex and mature piece of cinema, although her next film, At Land, maintained some of the enigmatic structure of Meshes Of The Afternoon. Later, her works would focus more on dance-film (except, perhaps, for her documentary on Voodoo, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti). But whoever was behind Meshes, there are few segments of 14 minutes that remain so disturbing, so infinitely re-watchable, and so influential to this day.

Watchmen (2009)
1 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
Mental, ethical and visual overload?, 8 March 2009

I wouldn't easily believe that yet another movie could squeeze a tear from me to the tune of The Sounds of Silence. In The Watchmen, a coffin of a murdered, unloved anti-hero is lowered into the ground. But the scene is juxtaposed with images of the U.S. in Vietnam, bringing to mind the terrific human sacrifice of that war.

What makes the song more poignant is the silent message. The film has rewritten history so that America achieves greater triumph in the war - with the aid of a super-being, Dr Manhattan. We are asked to mourn heroes victorious in death. But we know the reality to be much sadder.

Music is used throughout The Watchmen sparingly but always to great effect. Comfortably seated in the cinema, I thought I was still watching trailers as the film started. As an extremely unrealistic fight unfolds I make a mental note to avoid whatever film is being touted. But as the credits gather pace I struggle to come to terms with whatever is about to begin. In rapid succession, JFK is assassinated, Warhol heralds the pointless as fashionable, someone lands on the moon, Bowie ambles along outside a gig in a Ziggy Stardust mask and . . .

Masks. Always fashionable. In arts, literature and crime. Who can deny the lure of being anonymous? The flirtation for which you don't have to account. The character greater than yourself. For good or evil, masks are a liberation.

Suddenly Dylan's gritty, Times They Are a-Changin' cuts across the confusing tableau of history and fiction and we realize a joke is being played. The mask slips. We don't have to take it all so seriously. A grotesque ensemble of police officers pose for the camera. They will develop into a new breed of crime fighters to carry on where the police leave off. Eventually, as our story gets into full flow, they have evolved into 'The Watchmen' and one or two have picked up superpowers along the way. Dylan's compositions feature again later in the film with Hendrix's blazing All Along the Watchtower cover and end with a barley recognizable punk cover of Desolation Row by My Chemical Romance.

The film combines comic-strip with film noir. ¨The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood.¨ It's almost a Sin City with real people. It's a city that, ¨screams like an abattoir full of retarded children.¨ And the city is a pre- clean-up New York, though our tale will take us to Antarctica and Mars as the world hovers on the brink of nuclear war.

The Watchmen excels at defying expectations. If director Zack Snyder's previous offering, 300, was a little one-dimensional, The Watchmen almost suffers from the opposite. The film squeezes (with a few alterations) a dozen apocalyptically awesome comic episodes into a mammoth story, preserving much of the original's intention to question our assumptions about superheroes or the black-and-white nature of good and bad. Intellectually and graphically, it is comic-strip for adults.

But although Snyder has pulled off a remarkable achievement, The Watchmen almost suffers from the excess of its own success. The 'wow' factor is maintained for almost three hours and with little breathing space. Ham-acting is mirrored against genuine tear-jerking moments. Dialogue is edgy. Special effects are sheer brilliance. But after a couple of hours I was almost suffering from adrenalin overload. There were any number of moments when the credits could have rolled and I would have applauded an excellent ending. Not that any footage is gratuitous or wasted. Snyder hammers his points home as our sympathies are pulled by different arguments and different Watchmen. Can moral righteousness have a point if it doesn't work? Is there an alternative to a cynical view of man's animal nature? The questions are asked without once being patronizing or overly simplistic. But the experience may leave you somewhat exhausted.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Up there with the greats, 31 January 2009

Revolutionary Road is an exquisite piece of serious melodrama. Much of the emotional depth relies on what we don't see. Don't hear. And don't have explained. Characters control their feelings rather more than American cinema would usually like them to. That, will hopefully put off many a teenage cinemagoer who would be bored rigid by a lack of explosions. A lack of over-acting. A lack of subject matter one can relate to without at least one failed marriage, one relationship you get up for but would rather not, and a long period where the choice between emptiness and hopelessness stretches out like a life sentence. Di Caprio an Winslet are reunited. This time, it's not Titanic that fails to reach its destination, it's the American Dream.

Take a moment to recall a time when you had something all figured out. How everything would be just perfect. If only people would do it your way? Trapped inside individual visions of perfection, Frank and April communicate at emotional cross-purposes. They are an idyllically good-looking young couple in 1950s Connecticut, buying their first house. Expecting their first child. The world is opening up to them. Have you been there perhaps? Just a few adjustments. Tweak each other's views.

What do you do when you love someone and they won't see sense? Frank tries to disabuse April of her childish notions of being an actress, something she has trained for. She's awful at it anyway, he's right. Why can he not see that this is not the way to be supportive and loving? April slips jarringly from being the perfect wife to putting on perfection as a show. Then she has a bright idea. Let's start again. In Paris. Frank will have time to find what he really wants to do in life instead of an advertising job he hates. Deep down he loves her. If she can only just re-kindle that.

The problem with pretending to be nice is just that. If you have to pretend, then deeper issues are not right. Sooner or later they will come to the surface. Stuff about the symbolic nature of the title (the street where Frank and April live is called Revolutionary Road) could fill pages. But the film's strength is that any deeper meanings are secondary. There is sometimes a great temptation (certainly by this writer) to interpret films within a social context, to analyse their moral agenda. While this provides intelligent gratification of consciousness, it can blind us to the power of film as autonomous art, the precise use of a dramatic device for its own sake, the carefully crafted harmony of costume, lighting, sets, inflection and intonation, and the many formal techniques unique to cinema among the arts.

Winslet is here most diva-like, more self-assured than in many of her flamboyantly emotional parts. She delivers her lines with scalpel-like precision, and at last cuts the profile of an actress destined to become legend. Di Caprio is still underestimated as an actor in my opinion. Here, he plays off Winslet with the fire of a young Brando. As they throw emotional punches at each other, they are like two five-star boxers. A surgical jab to weeping wounds which hide tears. Pain inflicted without breaking rules. The cut and thrust of barbed words eliciting the worst. Is change possible without destruction? Bring on a neighbour's son, a mathematics Ph.D certifiably unsocial after repeated electric shock treatment to 'fix' him. Now a Village Fool like those of legend, who can speak the truth that no-one dares. Nowhere is such an occasionally theatrical device deployed more scathingly than with Michael Shannon's character, John Givings. A man who is past caring, towering over Frank and April physically and intellectually, he shreds any illusions we dare hold for their sake.

Perhaps I am wrong about teenage audiences. Some did walk out. But I remember Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. One of the first 'adult' themed films I saw as a young lad. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, bickering incessantly, and pointlessly showing off encyclopaedic command of words just to needle each other. I had to make myself sit through it. But the film made a deep impression and I look back on it now as a classic. I hope some young viewers will have the same experience with this Revolutionary Road.

0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Not to be missed, 25 January 2009

People who enjoy intellectual and emotionally stimulating films might not immediately be drawn to a title like Rachel Getting Married. But the misleadingly lightweight description belies a depth and fireball intensity that should only be avoided by fans of superficial rom-com. The unassuming title is typical of this under-sold, unpretentious, and unashamedly honest piece of film-making.

Anne Hathaway (Devil Wears Prada) plays Kym. She returns to the family home for the wedding of her sister Rachel. Kym's spent ten years in rehab and injects an edgy, biting presence to the atmosphere of harmony and joy. It is a film that combines caustic emotional intensity with genuine respect for American inventiveness where beautiful weddings are concerned. Rachel Getting Married makes us ask how far we would go in extending understanding to that sibling who threatens our happiness.

Determined to break formulas, director Jonathan Demme takes a freewheeling approach and provides documentary-like substance to this unusual family drama. "We never rehearsed before filming, and we rarely planned a shot in advance," says Demme. Techniques behind character creation in this excellent example of American art-house almost echo the improvisational methods of British filmmaker Mike Leigh. Explains Demme, " I told the actors that they had to take us through a complete wedding, and incidentally, they had to stage it themselves." The result is cohesiveness between the players and striking realism. At one point, when Hathaway was performing a high-voltage scene, she had complained to the assistant director that musicians outside were distracting her. Demme tells her to let her character do something about it. So, (in the film) she erupts at them, at the same time trying to explain and counter their incomprehension.

It's a powerhouse performance from Hathaway. Like a shipwrecked Amy Winehouse at a Queen's garden party. She is frequently free of make-up, and bereft of any port in her storm. Irritating as she is, we have to sympathise with this girl who everyone is tactfully desperate to unacknowledge. Prepare now for a new Hathaway that looks as if she has 20 years Broadway and London West End under her belt. There are elements of the articulate, intelligent unstoppability of Juno, but also the interiorised torment of Girl Interrupted. We are pulled between wanting an all-round reconciliation before the wedding day, and feeling thankful if we don't have a brother/sister/friend like that.

These two families are comfortably well-off, liberal, and educated. Rachel is studying for her Ph.D (intelligent, independent women can still marry) and he is a perfect husband-to-be and black. If they weren't both stereotypically good looking, it would almost be a PC check-box too many. But their ideals are stretched when along comes Rachel's sister Kym. She needs unconditional love like a policeman with bullet-ridden bodies needs to show they shot first. Kym is in the wrong. Always has been. As much as she intensely wants to show her love for them, she can't open her mouth without bringing pain and hurt.

The two girls bond across a gulf that keeps widening. A dysfunctional sisterly bonding, it recalls the masterly French film, I've Loved You so Long. But when we compare it with the established art-house stable we also see its limitations. Shot in HDVD, the production values are sometimes shoddy. It intentionally has the look of a very good home movie. Occasionally I have to strain to pick up critical lines of dialogue. Yet it works. We feel we have been dragged through hell and heaven to find a way for these people to communicate. We feel like we're there with them. The joy of the wedding plans is as realistic as the pain of Kym's interiorised stress and suffering. She can only truly relax at the rehab meetings. The families can only relax when she's away, losing themselves in the beautiful wedding plans as they take on a Disney-like perfection.

A diegetic soundtrack featuring jazz players, real samba dancers, and an excellent rock band feels like part of the family. (Many are friends of the director and crew). But although the journey is immensely interesting, there is little in the way of an overarching point beyond engaging melodrama. Symbolism is laid on with a trowel compared to similar European offerings. Constant concerns over the rain before the wedding, and Kym behind the wheel as she drives a disastrous middle path, leading nowhere. But given that most U.S. movies will not take a gamble on anything so adventurous, Rachel Getting Married still wants to boldly explore unknown territory and should be praised for it. It was well worth the ticket price. And the taxi fare across town. And it was well worth the effort to see this movie which is being unfairly ignored by the multiplexes.

Released at that time of year just before the Oscars when glitter can predominate over substance, this film, and Hathaway's grand entrance as a leading actress, is not to be ignored.

7 out of 15 people found the following review useful:
artfully arranged, well-acted lump of low-life fare, 19 January 2009

How low can you go – and still tart something up enough to interest people with good taste?

The French make wonderful delicacies out of animal parts. Most people would grimace in the other direction while depositing such offal in the trash. Turner-Prize hopefuls have entered aesthetically arranged urinals – and convinced us it is art. In the world of film, Trainspotting plumbed the depths of vomit, excrement and drug-taking – yet it was hilarious. The Wrestler, on the other hand, is clever but just plain foul.

It's clever because it features an outstanding performance by Mickey Rourke more or less playing himself. And because of some clever analogies between vicious wrestling and seedy lap-dancing – I kid you not. But it's still two hours of crowds lapping up grown men and women flogging their meat like animals. Rourke's character Randy cuts himself for the spectators, batters himself and opponents over the head with chairs and an artificial leg, and pumps his body with enough drugs to feed the whole of Colombia. Marisa Tomei as the lap-dancer with a heart of – whatever the hearts of trailer-trash single mothers are made out of – struts her stuff in front of abusive audiences. At one point she bends over and I am in serious doubt as to whether any dental floss still covers the space between her lower molars. I needn't have worried. The camera obligingly repeats the shot a few seconds later. Randy spam-for-brains has an emotional side. We are supposed to feel touched the way we might if an aunt with Alzheimer's lovingly made beef stew with dog-meat. So throw in a long-lost daughter who has had the good sense to tell Randy to f-off. Randy cries. He makes half-hearted attempts to win her back. Poor sod. A heart-attack momentarily jingle-jangles his single brain cell into thinking he should get a life. But a scene with him serving at a deli counter is woefully underdeveloped even if it's the best bit in the movie. Randy is, however, a believable individual. Tomei's storyline is a little less credible, even with superlative acting. Momentarily trying to transform herself into a Real Person and return the affection of Mr Meat-Paws runs counter to the background already created for her character. Both of them, having lived a life of falsehood, wonder what it would be like to come to terms with who they are.

But don't expect any happy endings from Mr Requiem-for-a-Dream Aronofsky. This is a director who has 20/20 vision to see art in a lump of poo. He is so totally not going to let you off the hook. Since he has obvious talent, one wishfully wonders how he might broaden his horizons. Say, to something inspiring, entertaining or mildly informative.

I have no objection to portraying violence, degradation, and even graphic sexuality more explicit than a coal-miner's w*nk-fantasy. Which is more than you get here. For instance, Hunger, a violent (and even more realistic) film about the Maze Prison, had uplifting themes of human courage. The gynaecological explicitness of Breillat's films questions our understanding of sex in real terms. Even Emmanuelle could break up a long night of boredom. But the Wrestler satisfies neither one camp nor the other. It doesn't, for instance, show us the mistakes he made for his slide into the Dumb Hulk. (A biopic of Mickey Rourke's real life would have been infinitely more interesting.)

Arofnofsky has let go of his artistic pretensions that at least started so well in Requiem for a Dream. After people found his next movie, The Fountain, too obscure, I think he maybe just gave up. Instead of admitting that artistic freedom involves mistakes and close calls, he has tried to make a mainstream hit. Unfortunately, the Wrestler has none of the greatness that made Rocky so memorable. It has none of the entertainment flair that made even Flashdance so watchable. And if you take your significant other to watch it, you may feel seriously embarrassed in the process.

The Wrestler will have its fans. People who rightly proclaim its realism (storyline excepted). Or are so swayed by Rourke's performance that they find the film more than bearable. And if you can no longer get your video of dog-fights with your under-the-counter porn, maybe this is just the movie for you.

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