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The Invention of Lying (2009)
Remember that joke in Annie Hall where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are trying to flirt, and the subtitles reveal what they're really thinking? It's a charming little gag, right? Now imagine that it was extended across the whole film every single line of dialogue was captioned with an "honest" translation that punctured each character's attempt at wit, persuasion or self-promotion. It would be excruciatingly tiresome after a few minutes, right? If you suspect that the previous sentence is true, you don't need to read any further than this The Invention of Lying will bore you rigid, and you should avoid it at all costs. If you need more persuasion, perhaps I should bring out the big guns, an insult I don't deploy lightly: The Invention of Lying is the worst film I've seen at the cinema since Highlander II.
From the very first minute, I was distracted by the inconsistencies of the film's "high concept". It's set in a world where humans have evolved without the ability to lie, and so they seem duty bound to spout whatever's on the top of their head. It begins with Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner going on a date she, of course, immediately declares that she finds him unattractive and will not be having sex with him. It's a neat way to set out the rules of this world, but the flatness of the humour left me enough laughless minutes to get distracted, and it all collapsed. So, people deliver brutal statements of disinterest and verbal abuse at every turn, yet nobody ever gets offended? And still they prattle in with communication that is never met with a reaction? If total truth-telling makes people very efficient and utilitarian in their choices, why do people bother persisting on bad dates? Why is Gervais' boss nervous about firing him if nobody cares about causing offence? So, everybody believes everything at face value, never questions authority, yet human history has developed exactly as it has in the real world? Science and technology developed normally, even though there was presumably never a need for the curiosity and inquiry needed for such things? Can people behave deceitfully if they don't say untruths out loud? Ricky Gervais invented God so that people might have something to make them feel better about dying? Phew, that settles the possibility that making up fantasies to cope with the vicissitudes of a harsh and random universe is a natural human instinct. But where did that church come from? Now, I really shouldn't have been thinking about any of this. I should have been too busy laughing. I didn't sit through Woody Allen's Sleeper (another film in which a comedy writer built a plot around portraying himself as a privileged outsider who runs rings around a robotic, pliant society due to his exceptional grasp of societal instincts,) worrying about the impossibility of cryogenics and cyber-dogs. That's because Sleeper is full of great jokes. The Invention of Lying was met with almost complete stony silence, and that was in a city-centre multiplex on a Friday night. In a cinema that sells beer in the aisles. Personally, I laughed once, and that was during a cameo from Steven Merchant and Barry from Eastenders that is so daft and incongruous that it just lightened the whole mood by stepping out of the plodding, self-important movie that had clumsily tried to incorporate it.
Ricky Gervais has built a career out of self-mockery, but it's not fooling anyone when it's a sideways strategy to buy himself the right to schmaltzy, self-aggrandising plot lines where the world comes to recognise him for who he really is: of course he's a better, more rounded human being than everyone else he's written everyone else to be a self-absorbed, shallow wage slave and then placed them in a world that automatically justifies him lazily keeping them that way. It's an ego comedy in the tradition of What Women Want (Mel Gibson is the only man who can hear what ladies have in their brains! Imagine the possibilities!) Bruce/Evan Almighty (Jim Carrey/Steve Carrell becomes God/Noah! Watching them exercise their powers on an unsuspecting world is bound to be hilarious!), but there's also a hint that Gervais fancies himself as a Larry David-style, misanthropic sage, cutting through the bullshit of a boobytrapped social scene with his own brand of common sense (and bringing in celeb friends in the process). But in this script he's hidebound by sentiment and half-baked religious satire.
Chow lok yuen (2003)
I've seen some dodgy HK movies in my time, but this has to rank pretty highly in the roll-call of stinkers. An unstructured, clumsily-paced mess from start to finish, with little in the way of a plot and so much thunderous noise and self-conscious 'scary stuff' that it never comes close to creating the quietly unsettling atmosphere needed to set up the viewer for a scare. The bargain-basement 3-D effects (a surprise considering CGI-fiend Andrew Lau's involvement) simply don't work on a DVD viewing (and providing only one pair of glasses is pretty cheap!) due to the poor colour balance. I will think twice before snapping up any more gimmicky films from bargain bins...
The Evil Cameraman (1990)
When I first saw this, I assumed it was a film school short (now I see it's not) because of its look-at-me sensationalism and finger-painted handling of sexual politics and issues of voyeurism. Yet another hypocritical assertion that the camera is essentially a tool of violation and penetration, depending on the viewer's desire to see transgressive imagery while distancing itself from the plebeian viewers it wants to accuse of such desires by being hermetically sealed within an own upscale New York dance studio. Ironic misogyny is still misogyny.
Anna and the King (1999)
Historically, this is sponge-solid. Politically and ethically, it's finger-painted. But it gets by on star power. Jodie Foster is well-practised at mixing fierce independence with vulnerability, so her struggles always look emotionally tortuous rather than superhuman. Chow-Yun Fat collides with his acting limitations on occasion, but his extraordinary charisma, familiar to anyone who's ever seen his HK comedies or action films, makes him an imposing king. But special mention must go to the amazing Bai Ling, who gets a two minute courtroom scene that knocks the whole of Red Corner into a cocked hat.
Xia nü (1971)
For UK DVD viewers, this genre classic is finally available to own. Optimum's print is not perfect (slightly dim in places), and you can't turn off the giant subtitles (should you want to), but at least we can see the full version of King Hu's masterpiece. Anybody seriously interested in martial arts cinema must seek out a copy, since it represents one of the most elegant examples of its type, a few years before the international success of Asian fight flicks proliferated a slew of poorly dubbed, re-edited versions for Western markets, solidifying the stereotype of "chop-socky" films as plot-free, laughable foreign commodities. A Touch of Zen builds up for almost a full hour before so much as a punch is thrown. The story is narrow, but complex, and King Hu takes time to create atmosphere, and a sense of place and time which is often taken for granted in other period epics. Oh yes, and the fight scenes are great.
Le roman de Renard (1930)
I saw this last night as part of the Exeter animation festival. It was preceded by two great shorts, but nothing prepared me for the Tale of the Fox. You might expect stop-motion animation from 1930 to be stilted, with locked-off camera set-ups and slow, jerky animals with ruffling fur (see King Kong, for instance). Starewitch's (this, according to his grand-daughter's website, is the correct way to spell his name) characters are incredibly expressive, fast moving and dynamic, and he includes crash zooms, whip pans and close-ups to stunning effect. If you've studied animation before, you'll be blown away by the use of motion blur, and the compositing of animated creatures with seemingly flowing water, but for non-nerds there is a fast, very funny story to be enjoyed. The Tale of the Fox might just be the single greatest achievement in animation there has ever been. That includes Willis O'Brien, Ray Harryhausen, Walt Disney and perhaps even Hayao Miyazaki.
Felix Wins and Loses (1925)
I saw this last night at a programme of animated shorts with live musical accompaniment as part of the superb Animated Exeter Festival 2003. I'd never seen a full Felix cartoon on the big screen, and I wasn't disappointed. The influence of Chaplin can not be overstated - a hungry Felix mischievously steals food and is pursued by hoardes of generic Keystone-style cops. With improvised live music, this was one of the finest cinematic eight-minutes I've had for a long time...
Premiers pas de bébé (1896)
The first suspense film?
This short subject, whose title translates as 'The baby's first steps', has been jokingly referred to as "the first suspense film" by Bertrand Tavernier, and its easy to see why. When I try to teach students the basics of how early films were constructed around the technical limitations of the Lumiere Cinematographe, I always show them this film. To summarise, a young child walks falteringly along a path from the background to the foreground (the image contains a diagonal composition in depth typical of the earliest Lumiere films - think of the famous train arriving at a station), aiming to reach her doll, which has been placed at the end of the path, providing a quest-based micro-narrative. What this illustrates is the way these pseudo-documentaries were not randomly-shot travelogues and actualities. The distance the baby has to walk (guided by a nanny) has obviously been measured to allow her 'journey' to be completed within the (approximate) 50 second time-limit placed on the duration of films by the camera's capacity. But she only just makes it. The scene has been manipulated in many ways and is less a picture of Parisian infantile life at the end of the 19th century and more a study of how situations had to be manipulated and fictionalised to fit them into the restrictive set of technical options on offer.
Morvern Callar (2002)
I emerged from Morvern Callar ready to declare it the best British film since Nil By Mouth, perhaps even ready to go back even further. This may have been due to the wholly immersive nature of the film that feels fantastic while you're watching it but doesn't quite resonate in the same way for a long time afterwards. Still, this is rich, beautiful cinema, full of evocative sounds and images. Ramsay puts us, if not inside Morvern's mind, then at least in league with her senses. As in Ratcatcher, her photography deftly captures the tactility of earth, rock, sensations of warmth and light. The film also features one of the coolest soundtracks in recent memory, and conveys the feeling of being drunk at a party surrounded by self-absorbed strangers better than any film I've seen. Demanding a plot and motivation of such sensuous cinema seems like pedantry to me.
The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918)
Animation historians must view this film immediately, but I suppose if you can find one McCay cartoon you can find them all - they're compiled on the 'Animation Legend' video and DVD. 'Lusitania' is the film where McCay tries to escape the caricatural confines of the animated picture to produce a serious and moving film, and damn, he succeeds. The meticulous care which he put into the thousands of drawings necessary for this short cartoon meant that by the time it was finished, it was barely topical and WWI was over, leaving its calls for vengeance somewhat stranded. However, as a study of technique it is perhaps unsurpassed. McCay's animation has a dimensionality which is worlds apart from the character animation of Koko the Klown or Felix the Cat, perhaps a deliberate differentiation from such gentle entertainments. The grim monochrome images of the Lusitania's stern raised in the air while hundreds of people leap to their deaths while remind most audiences of shots from James Cameron's 'Titanic'. While the barely-concealed rage and maudlin tributes to the famous noblemen who died in the sinking (as opposed the penniless plebs who we can afford to forget) now appear unpalatably heavy-handed, the elegant curls of smoke from the stricken vessel are simply powerful cinematic touches which seal McCay's reputation as one of the great film artists of the silent era. If only he, and not Disney, had become the template for the future of American animation...