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8/10
Lands successfully between crime thriller, gangster saga and character study
26 September 2009
*REVIEW OF BOTH PARTS*

There is a short paragraph that opens both "Mesrine" films; the exact wording escapes me, but it says something like "no film can accurately portray the complexities of a human life". This seems to be a pre-emptive defense, as if Richet anticipates criticism for a lack of depth or some glaring omissions. After all, Jacques Mesrine is apparently still a famous name in France, and his public persona lives on. If even half his supposed exploits were true, the story would still be crying out for a definitive dramatisation. As such, Richet has wisely avoided making any real ethical judgements of Mesrine's character, focusing instead on the sex, violence and publicity that he thrived upon. But it's Vincent Cassel's committed and exuberant performance that develops this meat-and-potatoes content into an unbiased character study of excess and, over all, a very fine pair of movies.

"Mesrine" may not seem to be particularly even-handed at first because of the glamour, the wisecracks, and the endless charisma, all of which are drawn from the rich stylistic tradition of the Gangster Movie, and used very skilfully in its favour. The fast pace of the story ensures we are either seduced or repulsed by the central character, and rarely anywhere in between. Sympathy or pity is irrelevant, and he is too brutal and trigger-happy to be rooted for as a regular protagonist. The first film is the slicker of the two, and the more visually satisfying due to the wonderfully stylish recreation of early 60s Paris (and elsewhere). Cassel plays Mesrine with youthful vigour here. He's all style and brash confidence, as endearing a wiseguy as any of Scorcese's characters. It's "Goodfellas", in fact, that "Killer Instinct" is most reminiscent of, with its sharp-suited mobsters (including a brilliantly grizzled Gerard Depardieu) and episodic year-hopping narrative.

By the half-way point, Mesrine is still something of an enigma. It's only in "Public Enemy No. 1" that the pace slows down and we can see, through a few intimate and contemplative scenes, what he has sacrificed to live as a superlative criminal. "I wasn't much of a son, I'm not much of a father either." he says, while in disguise visiting his own ailing father in hospital. He gradually alienates his closest friends and accomplices by trying to maintain the outlandish public profile he cultivated, rambling pseudo-revolutionary politics to journalists and threatening to kill judges and destroy all maximum security prisons. The "Goodfellas" ensemble of the first part becomes the isolated, ego-driven "Scarface" of the second as Cassel skilfully matures his character into a man resigned to the fate he knows must be coming.

The over all impression left by "Mesrine" is that it manages to land successfully between crime thriller, gangster saga and character study. This is achieved by the virtue of a standout central performance, as well as Richet's shrewd application of an American film-making style to a very French story. It ought to go down among the top crime dramas of the decade, or at the very least raise the (already decent) international profile of its impressive leading man.
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8/10
Lands successfully between crime thriller, gangster saga and character study
26 September 2009
*REVIEW OF BOTH PARTS*

There is a short paragraph that opens both "Mesrine" films; the exact wording escapes me, but it says something like "no film can accurately portray the complexities of a human life". This seems to be a pre-emptive defense, as if Richet anticipates criticism for a lack of depth or some glaring omissions. After all, Jacques Mesrine is apparently still a famous name in France, and his public persona lives on. If even half his supposed exploits were true, the story would still be crying out for a definitive dramatisation. As such, Richet has wisely avoided making any real ethical judgements of Mesrine's character, focusing instead on the sex, violence and publicity that he thrived upon. But it's Vincent Cassel's committed and exuberant performance that develops this meat-and-potatoes content into an unbiased character study of excess and, over all, a very fine pair of movies.

"Mesrine" may not seem to be particularly even-handed at first because of the glamour, the wisecracks, and the endless charisma, all of which are drawn from the rich stylistic tradition of the Gangster Movie, and used very skilfully in its favour. The fast pace of the story ensures we are either seduced or repulsed by the central character, and rarely anywhere in between. Sympathy or pity is irrelevant, and he is too brutal and trigger-happy to be rooted for as a regular protagonist. The first film is the slicker of the two, and the more visually satisfying due to the wonderfully stylish recreation of early 60s Paris (and elsewhere). Cassel plays Mesrine with youthful vigour here. He's all style and brash confidence, as endearing a wiseguy as any of Scorcese's characters. It's "Goodfellas", in fact, that "Killer Instinct" is most reminiscent of, with its sharp-suited mobsters (including a brilliantly grizzled Gerard Depardieu) and episodic year-hopping narrative.

By the half-way point, Mesrine is still something of an enigma. It's only in "Public Enemy No. 1" that the pace slows down and we can see, through a few intimate and contemplative scenes, what he has sacrificed to live as a superlative criminal. "I wasn't much of a son, I'm not much of a father either." he says, while in disguise visiting his own ailing father in hospital. He gradually alienates his closest friends and accomplices by trying to maintain the outlandish public profile he cultivated, rambling pseudo-revolutionary politics to journalists and threatening to kill judges and destroy all maximum security prisons. The "Goodfellas" ensemble of the first part becomes the isolated, ego-driven "Scarface" of the second as Cassel skilfully matures his character into a man resigned to the fate he knows must be coming.

The over all impression left by "Mesrine" is that it manages to land successfully between crime thriller, gangster saga and character study. This is achieved by the virtue of a standout central performance, as well as Richet's shrewd application of an American film-making style to a very French story. It ought to go down among the top crime dramas of the decade, or at the very least raise the (already decent) international profile of its impressive leading man.
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7/10
A decent movie that rewards patience and attention
23 July 2009
Warning: Spoilers
"35 Rhums" (2008) Dir.: Claire Denis

'35 Rhums' is a slow, elliptical and deliberate film revolving around the four tenants of a house in what appears to be the greater Paris area. At its core are a father (Lionel) and his late-teenage daughter (Josephine), with the middle-aged taxi driver Gabrielle and the impulsive young Noe, living downstairs with his cat, rounding off a kind of extended family. They seem closer than your usual co-tenants and there's a suggested intimacy behind their functional and un-dramatic interactions, though this is all left unexplained for quite some time; indeed, so much so that it's tempting for the viewer to wonder if they've missed some crucial dialogue or failed to infer something that Claire Denis has intended them to. But this is a film that rewards not only patience but also a keen eye for behavioural detail. The realism of '35 Rhums' lies in its understatement of the relationships, shared histories, and occurrences (large and small) that make up the story. This is, I think, one of the finer points of the film, though it only became apparent upon further reflection.

Lionel is a train driver and his daughter is a student. The absence of a mother in the apartment is immediately clear but, like many other aspects of the film, the specifics are not elaborated on as part of the setup. Neither is the wistfulness of Gabrielle as she chain-smokes and awaits Lionel's return home from nights at work, where his co-worker Rene is depressed about his upcoming retirement. (We see that the colleagues are as close-knit as the tenants.) Noe is restless and muses on his tendency not to settle anywhere too long. In an amusing scene, he discovers his aged cat has died in her sleep and offhandedly decides to take a job in Angola because there's nothing to stick around for any longer. This upsets Josephine, and she takes off to Germany with her father for a few days.

All this occurs within a fairly short time frame, and in between we are shown glimpses of the unexplained histories that made the first half of the film a little vague. In fact, there is a particular scene where I felt that the movie really connected itself: Gabrielle's cab breaks down on the way to a concert, and the four co-tenants are sheltered from a rainstorm in an empty bar. Resigned to the evening's ruined plans, they eat and drink away, and over this long set piece all the hints and glances and suggestions of the preceding scenes are brought together and made into something tenable.

From here, '35 Rhums' leads us successfully through moments of comedy, tragedy and finality. Crucially, it never changes its pace or its observational filming style after this point. To do so would cheapen the tone of the introductory hour, and be rather jarring at that. It reaches its end without any great resolution, which could be seen as a weakness by anyone still expecting a traditional climax by this stage. But if you're already this far into the film (and this review), that probably doesn't apply to you. We are left to assume that the characters' lives simply go on, though not unchanged by certain events and discoveries that I won't spoil for anyone here.

The impression I came away with is that '35 Rhums' is an intimate film about the culmination of people, events of the past and present, and how these can close off little chapters of our lives and sometimes go unnoticed. It is not for everyone, and it is definitely not flawless - there's some dangling symbolism to do with rice cookers (yup, you read right), and I can't work out if Claire Denis is trying to make a social point with the virtually all-black casting. Aside from a short scene at the university where students are discussing the Third World debt, it seems to be entirely incidental (which, in turn, makes the dialogue in that scene appear incidental also). But my knowledge of urban French societal make-up is nil, so I can't comment further. It is essentially a decent and touching work, very well acted and captured, and if you have patience and aren't averse to a definite French style, then it could be your kind of movie.
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Many Wars Ago (1970)
7/10
An unpleasant and inhumane war film, exactly what it needed to be
16 April 2009
Warning: Spoilers
"Many Wars Ago" (1970) Dir: Francesco Rosi

The First World War has been the subject of countless works of art in the last ninety years, and with good reason. It's the conflict we remember from our studies as the most needless of all: years of reckless leadership, territorial stalemates and extremely high casualties, all reverberations from a single political assassination in Sarajevo. If ever there was a true story that could be used to illustrate the horrors of war and the societal implications of diplomatic one-upmanship, the Great War was it. It was a conflict without ideologies, where millions died simply because they felt obliged to represent their country. With this film, Francesco Rosi addresses the fundamental foolishness of blind obedience in the bluntest way he can. We are not shown the characters' civilian lives, nor are we privy to their hopes and dreams. There is very little psychology explored either, and no moments of empathy for the enemy. "Many Wars Ago" is almost devoid of humanity; the soldiers we follow simply trudge onwards, advancing and retreating, abandoning vantage points only to reclaim them the next day. In this way, it is a pure war movie because it excludes all but the faltering military machines and the devastation they cause across forgotten fronts.

The film focuses on the futile actions of an Italian division in the Balkans. There are many slow shots of the dirtied infantry marching onward into the mist, then we cut to an Austrian ambush or an Italian offensive at varying times of day. Some are over hills, some in the forests. General Leone is in charge and seems eerily invincible as well as violently mad. His patriotism is the only excuse necessary for putting thousands of men in unnecessary danger (even in the context of a difficult open combat situation), and sending many to their deaths for cowardice, insubordination or mere clumsiness. Two lieutenants are the closest the audience will get to traditional protagonists, and they are compellingly played as downtrodden and pragmatic. They are never passionate because the war has sucked it out of them, they only try to make the best of Leone's wild commands and save as many lives as possible.

There is rarely respite in the bleak delivery of this material. It makes war seem utterly wretched and that's exactly what it's supposed to, for which Rosi should be commended. It is a serious war movie free of sentimentalism and cliché, although it may be too clinical for some viewers. In the eyes of Lieutenants Ottolenghi and Sassu we can see a back story that most directors would be happy to include if only in a monologue or a brief, stilted conversation, but not here. Rosi gives us nothing in the way of emotional reference points - these soldiers are young but weathered, and we can only guess at what made them this way.

Two especially decent scenes should be mentioned: one in which we see the soldiers showing Leiutenant Sassu that the Austrian snipers have their guns aimed precisely to fire through a tiny metal shutter in the Italian defensive wall, and another at the end of the movie where Leone discovers that Sassu has fought in all of his conflicts without being wounded. Both of these scenes cleverly exemplify the edgy, near-mutinous condition of the ailing Italian forces at this point in the war. They are debilitated and disillusioned, the pointlessness of it all is staring them in the face, and the audience has no idea how their movements affect the bigger picture of the Balkan front, or the rest of the war, at all. This may be the film's most skilfully communicated concept - there is no sense of scale, no back story, only mountains and cavalry and suicidal charges and endless mist, mutiny and strafing gunfire. That's why this is one of the darkest Great War movies ever made. Rosi tells us that his beginning is not a beginning, that his end is not an end, and that the machine of war pushes onward through the ever-developing chaos.
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8/10
Experimental, visually exhilarating, and still polarising after nearly 50 years
15 April 2009
"Last Year at Marienbad" (1961) Dir.: Alain Resnais

When it comes to cinema, I'm neither a philistine nor a scholar. I'm happy to read into a film's artistic context in preparation for watching it, but it must be self-evident, and not reliant upon anything but its own merit and communicability to be considered a success. In practice, this means I will certainly read the hype, but I won't necessarily believe it. And it's a good job, because "Last Year at Marienbad" remains one of the most hyped, discussed and debated movies of all time. People disagree over virtually everything about it - the pace, the narrative structure, the individual performances, the pretense, even the plot points. Yes, that's right, after forty-eight years people still argue over what actually happens in this film, let alone what it all means and how successfully it is presented to us. So I decided to ignore the minefields of audience opinion (which is largely positive anyway, if wildly diverse) and dive in without fuss, volunteering to watch this movie from the 'philistine' end of the spectrum and if I didn't like it, screw it. It's only one film anyway.

When it became clear what I was watching, and how many traditional storytelling criteria were obviously not going to be fulfilled by "...Marienbad", I felt like I had burst in to the film's aristocratic country retreat wearing torn jeans and waving a bottle of tequila around, but ended up having an awesome time in a completely unexpected way. Make no mistake, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. It is a near-perfect realisation of a very, very dense and ambitious concept, and Resnais should be proud that he and his film-making team were able to make it. It is stately, baffling, elegant, sinister and brilliant.

Not that I could tell you what it's actually about, of course. Most people seem to think it's about the tricks and subjective nature of the memory, and the inherent flaws in how we cross-reference events with other events over time. These broad, elemental themes are the only ones I feel sure enough about to include in this review, which is illustrative of "Last Year at Marienbad"s disorienting effect. We are taken on an endless stroll through the rooms and corridors of a cold, strange country manor where the upper classes take their holidays and engage in card games and theatre. Their discussions are empty and meaningless, yet they go on forever. Time is not present in a recognisable form as the unnamed narrator loses track of how long he has been there, and how long he has attempted to persuade the unnamed woman that they met before, and that she had promised to run away with him. "Wait for one year," she'd supposedly said. "Next year I will leave with you." But the woman has no memory of him or her promise. She appears to be married to another man, who is tall, dour and imposing. Despite this, she keeps the unnamed narrator at arm's length, drawing him in and then pushing him back as if she does indeed remember something of him but is unwilling to accept it. His struggle to awaken some kind of acknowledgement of their shared past is the premise of the film.

"Last Year at Marienbad" is a bizarre maze of half-recollections and inaccuracies, where words and events are repeated several times in different situations and everything we see is very possibly on an endless loop, eventually folding in on itself and collapsing into a kind of incomprehensible singularity. We have no frames of reference for what we are seeing other than what has already been seen, and we are never to know what's 'now' and what's a memory because the characters cross over between the two. As a result I found myself trying to draw a line between reality and false memory up to about half way through the film, after which I abandoned it as a futile exercise. This is one of its key strengths - it demands so much of the viewer that we are forced to build a structure for it in our own heads, and our efforts are routinely dashed.

This all sounds terribly oblique and ridiculous, and in a sense it is; its detractors have regularly labelled it as such and that's a valid conclusion to reach. But it is spectacular on the eye, and this carried my attention right through the difficulties and to the end of the movie without so much as a pause. The camera sweeps down hallways and bursts out across garden terraces without even a jolt, it literally dances its way through the film as if it were another character. There are odd touches, too, that contribute to the striking atmosphere of the film, like Resnais' decision to have his supporting actors and extras remain completely static until they are speaking or in the company of the main three characters. He also skillfully breaks the pace by accelerating towards several shuddering climaxes in the last half of the film, which renew the viewer's attention and string us further along towards an ending that we hope will allow us something more definite to grasp.

Whether it does or not, I will withhold. It's one of the many reasons to watch this film. But beware, it is genuinely challenging viewing – and in fact, its esotericism is the only reason I won't rate this higher than I have.
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Tokyo Drifter (1966)
6/10
A garish and baffling Yakuza movie - fun but not essential
9 March 2009
Warning: Spoilers
"Tokyo Drifter" (1966) Dir: Seijun Suzuki

Lured by Criterion's promise of an ultra-cool "free-jazz Gangster film", I sat down to watch "Tokyo Drifter" a couple of days ago and when it was done I had to resist the temptation to watch it again, or at least flick through it. This used to happen a lot when I watched films as a kid - I'd pick something weird and deliberately over my head, barely comprehend what was going on at all, and spend the next few days rewinding the tape to rewatch the best parts. I had no idea whether to like these films or not, and after my first viewing of "Tokyo Drifter" I feel the same. The only difference is, I'm old enough now to realise that this is not necessarily a good thing.

The plot is a pretty linear Yakuza tale. The boss goes straight and decides to buy a building complex in the heart of Tokyo, but a rival gang wrestles the property deal out of their hands. Some violence and a little blackmail later, the ex-gangster Tetsu is forced to leave the big city to keep the heat off his reformed boss. But it's too late - he's made enemies and they're not going to let him just walk away. He is pursued into the county, and a few more fight scenes ensue before he inevitably returns to Tokyo to put things right.

But who are we kidding, we're not really here for the storytelling. The strident and forceful use of colour, whip-crack editing and self-conscious 1960s imagery has been widely praised, and widely drawn upon for inspiration. Tarantino is the most well-known of this film's direct or indirect followers, and since the 1990s this kind of overtly cool and stylish/stylised film-making has become a staple of our cinema-going experience, for better or worse. The truth is, "Tokyo Drifter" is glossy and shallow, with no real attention paid to the actual characters. It's also wilfully unexplainable, which is not automatically a bad thing but I did find it difficult to excuse in this context. It's obvious that Suzuki is not shooting for character depth or realism, so what does he want to do with this film?

Firstly, he wants to do music. The Westernised theme tune is used plenty of times throughout: whistled and mimed by the main character, soundtracking a montage of neon lights, wistfully delivered by Tetsu's nightclub-singing non-character of a girlfriend, and several more. The wonderfully gaudy dance hall owned by the rival Yakuza is constantly playing the exact same rock 'n' roll tune. Secondly, Suzuki wants to find the line between 'clicheed' and 'timelessly cool' and stamp all over it. The enemy boss always wears black sunglasses, and is the object of many hilariously over-stylised zoom shots. Tetsu is capable of dodging intense close range fire by doing well-timed forward rolls into an open area. He is also completely unfazed by barrages of punches to the face and overhead chair-smashings. It all starts to get rather fun after a while, as one inexplicable situation leads into another. I think that's why people like this film - it's a mess of charming logical oversights, and it exists for its visual impact and surreality alone. The final shootout takes place in a very large, almost bare room that keeps changing colour. Tetsu hides behind randomly placed Roman pillars that are far too thin to effectively use as cover. As such, the best parts in "Tokyo Drifter" come when it acknowledges its own preposterousness and runs with it.

I probably will watch this again, just like those other films I saw when I was a kid. The bizarre editing makes the already thin plot quite difficult to follow, but that will alleviate on further viewings. I still can't call this film a success because it provokes more laughter in me than it does awe, or excitement. It's undeniably unique and it certainly is pretty cool, though, which ultimately works in its favour. Despite this, it comes across more as a curio than anything else.
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6/10
An occasionally brilliant but largely uneven metaphor/B-Picture/social commentary
27 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
"Shock Corridor" (1963) Dir: Sam Fuller

Posterity has treated this movie well. It has a place in the National Film Registry and has been treated to a Criterion Collection DVD reissue - both are a kind of cultural Seal of Approval, commending "Shock Corridor" as a work that delivers beyond the standards of its own medium. Sam Fuller's drama, set in a mental health ward, addresses themes like the Cold War, the relative nature of sanity versus insanity, and socialisation into bigotry. It is bold and brash, the lack of subtlety being its most obvious connection to the world of pulp fiction and B-Movies in which it was produced. And while its ambition is commendable, "Shock Corridor" ends up as something of a muddle.

The plot is straightforward - Johnny Barrett, a journalist, is prepared to have himself committed to a mental institution in order to interview the witnesses to a murder that occurred within the hospital. He convinces his devastated girlfriend to pose as his sister and claim he is trying to sexually harass her, and once inside he works hard to get the murderer's name from his volatile fellow patients. Along the way he becomes obsessed, as the question of "Who killed Sloane in the kitchen?" acts upon him like a mantra. Predictably, he begins to call his own sanity into question. He must continue to appear mentally unsound to the attendants and doctors, but the environment begins to wear upon him as he nears his goal.

Like the patients in the ward itself, this film has moments of great brilliance and clarity. They occur sporadically and show great control and promise, but rarely stick around too long. I had two main problems with "Shock Corridor". The first is that it seems unsure how much should be spoon-fed to the viewer and how much should be left for us to interpret. Johnny's internal monologue, featured so prominently as a narrative method, imparts mostly obvious and arbitrary information that would be far better delivered by allowing the actors the time to... well, act. When they do, the results are frequently excellent. For example the first witness, Stuart, has retreated to the personality of a Confederate officer, and the scene where he snaps out of it and very lucidly, with great emotional depth, explains to Johnny how he became disillusioned enough by Southern bigotry to defect to the Communist side while serving in Korea, is played to virtual perfection by both actors. But aside from a couple more scenes and smaller touches like this, the psychology-heavy storyline isn't delivered with as much depth as it could have been.

My second problem is more to do with the production and writing of the movie itself. The editing is plain bad, and there are numerous plot holes. Cathy's phony complaint must rank as literally the quickest Mental Sectioning ever dramatised. The use of colour montages in a black and white movie cannot be explained away as simply as Fuller tries - it smacks of vault-clearing opportunism. The scenes with the three witnesses are quite obviously the centrepieces of the film, and seem flimsily supported by what comes before and after them. Also, the scene where Johnny accidentally wanders into a room full of young women, pauses, and internally delivers the line "Nymphos!" is laughable. There's nothing wrong with bittersweet humour in a film about mental instability, as the excellent scenes with Barrett's charmingly opera-obsessed neighbour attest to, but the Nympho attack scene is more Russ Meyer than Milos Foreman. And how exactly is this research going to get Johnny a Pulitzer Prize anyway?

"Shock Corridor" is frustrating because its best scenes are genuinely great, and at points I felt like it could really accelerate towards a finale that would assure the film as something of a trailblazer. But it's uneven. Consider that Roman Polanski's nerve-wracking "Repulsion" is only two or three years younger than this film, and there is a gulf of difference between them in terms of successful delivery of what is attempted. And I do understand what the three witnesses represent in the context of the American 1960s - post-McCarthyist, post-WW2, with progressive opinions burgeoning to the fore. It is certainly a timely film, which perhaps is the main reason it appears in the Library of Congress. For all its promise and occasional brilliance, it remains a B-Picture.
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Se7en (1995)
9/10
One of the best Serial Killer films ever made
25 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
"Se7en" (1995) Dir: David Fincher

There's no cinematic theme I can think of that has run the gamut from Trash to High Art (via Blockbuster) quite like the Serial Killer movie. Throughout the history of the medium, many of these films have failed to captivate large audiences the way that "Se7en" did and continues to do, usually because they were either shamelessly exploitative or far too deliberately psychological in their approach for most viewers. It's a tough balance for a filmmaker to strike, but with "Se7en" David Fincher made it look so simple. It is one of the best Serial Killer movies ever made.

Part of the reason film-goers consider Freeman, Pitt and Spacey so highly today is because of "Se7en". All three actors excel in their roles. Freeman's Detective Somerset is a week away from retirement when he becomes involved, alongside his own replacement Detective Mills (Pitt), in what is surely the most horrific multiple murder case of his long career. Mills is determined not to shy away from his first case in town, and is shown to be more impulsive than the erudite Somerset, who immediately connects the killings to several great literary works including "The Divine Comedy" and the writings of St Thomas Aquinas. They are always lagging behind the killer, walking solemnly through endless downpours to survey the crime scene of these increasingly sick murders, barely able to grasp the calculated depravity of the man they are chasing.

There are brief meditations on human apathy by both Freeman's character and the killer himself but aside from these, "Se7en" is essentially plot- and character-driven. This works to its great advantage - too much philosophy would have affected the momentum of the film, which is expertly weighted and allowed to accumulate at the right points. Nothing is clichéd, and there are no simplistic 'red herrings' to stretch the action out. It is a thoroughly modern crime film that borrows the religious themes from Horror and parts of its aesthetic from Film Noir, successfully widening its appeal in the process.

I've learnt to slightly concede in my critical judgement over years of watching silent films, art films, propaganda films, slow-moving European epics, counterculture movies et cetera, and so part of the reason I enjoyed "Se7en" so much is that I didn't need to concede anything while watching it. Quite the opposite, I was never anything but totally gripped by it. This is the power of really decent American film-making when it successfully balances visual style, directorial control, individual performances and, above all, a great story (which I won't spoil for you any further by elaborating upon in this review!)
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Days of 36 (1972)
7/10
A good film, but you'll probably need to read up on 20th Century Greek history first
23 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
"Days of 36" (1972) Dir: Theo Angelopoulos

I was led to "Days of 36" after reading about "The Travelling Players", Theo Angelopoulos' first major international success, highly regarded as one of the key European epics of the last fifty years. But I decided to see "...36" first as the opening part of a trilogy that "...Players" continues and, by all accounts, elevates to something far greater. This is not to say that "Days of 36" is a weak beginning, it's anything but. It has an assured self-confidence in the slow, deliberate way it tells this very confined story: a man is arrested for the assassination of a trade unionist, after which he manages to hold a politician hostage in the prison. The warden, the minister and several prison guards attempt to diffuse the situation, aware that their response will have political reverberations beyond the isolated incident itself.

The title is the only reference to the historical setting of the film, and no specific location is announced. The implications are clear; the viewer is assumed to know the significance of 1936 in Greek history. Whether this hostage taking really occurred or not, the incident is clearly supposed to be illustrative of a certain political and social situation that exists beyond the walls of the film itself.

"Days of 36" is calm, patient and strikingly impersonal. The sun beats down constantly upon anonymous uniformed men as they stride from building to crack-walled building, delivering messages, rendezvousing and deftly carrying out clinical official functions. Much of the 'action' (I use the word generously) takes place within the confines of a dusty prison, far from the regular society we see very little of. The accused assassin's lawyer ventures out into the barren streets and derelict buildings to find out who brought the gun to his client in jail. He finds no answers among the vague network of dispersed criminals. Tellingly, we never find out if his client actually killed the trade unionist or not - he swears he fired into the air.

The real point of the film is the minister's inability to end the situation without killing the hostage taker. He informs us that the Conservative Party and the Democratic Party are literally opposing each other on how best to deal with the situation, leaving the assembled team certain to upset at least one Party. When I found out that in 1936, Greece was on the cusp of its first period of 20th Century dictatorship, Angelopoulos' film made more sense - faced with a crucial problem that will affect the political balance of an unstable country, they decide to kill it. This film was made during Greece's second period of 20th Century dictatorship. I'll leave you to fill in the blanks.

All this leaves me with the question: if I have to research historical context in order to understand a film, why do I judge it a success? Well, it uses the architecture and landscape to visually bolster some very effective sequences, usually shot in very long takes. A failed breakout from the jail is set against near silent, rolling cornfields, as is an execution scene. The inmates rattling the bars on their windows after music is played in the yard, only to be dramatically silenced by the guards firing rifles in the air, is another key scene. "Days of 36" is unapologetic and uncompromising in its static approach to a story devoid of any real human element. Glimpses of emotional depth are hinted at, then passed by. Once I settled into the pace, I was not going to stop watching until I found out how the siege ends, and when I did I felt a little indignant and blank - not at the film itself, but at the anonymous uniformed men carrying out these actions; cold and workmanlike ad infintum.
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Fitzcarraldo (1982)
8/10
A top drawer achievement for both Herzog and Kinski
20 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
"Fitzcarraldo" (1982) Dir: Werner Herzog

I suppose I should have researched "Fitzcarraldo" more closely before I delved into it. This is only the second Herzog film I've ever seen, and my impressions of the first ("Aguirre...") definitely coloured my expectations for this, the penultimate Herzog/Kinski collaboration. I was wondering when the crew of the Molly Aida would start succumbing to dysentery and hallucinating, when the captain would catch a spear to the chest and when the drunkard cook would unceremoniously drown. Nothing like this happens. Ultimately, when the steamboat returns to great fanfare, triumphant and battered, to the point of its launch, I realised that "Fitzcarraldo" is the better film for this positivity.

That Klaus Kinski is wonderful in this film cannot be overstated. He is constantly the centrepiece, and when he is off screen (which is rarely), the viewer is always anticipating his arrival in shot. His character, Brian Fitzgerald, is one of the most charismatic leads I've ever seen. His supreme confidence and authority never wavers, despite the warmth and fragility we see in the earlier scenes. He is always played with a strong, sympathetic humanity that never boils over into madness, despite the madness of the task itself - to hoist a steamboat over the Amazonian hillside and back down into a parallel river.

Herzog assembled a film with many emblematic visual features, presumably for the purposes of enhancing the aesthetics. It works wonders, frankly, as I'm sitting here struggling to think of a gramophone, a white suit or a steamboat in any other context than in "Fitzcarraldo". It is set in the tropical heart of Brazil, and the crux of the plot is a daring and rather reckless plan to harvest the natural rubber from a region considered completely inaccessible. The profits from this would then go towards building a venue in the Amazon for the performance of Fitzgerald's favourite music - opera. Bizarre concept for a movie, right?

Despite some clunky dubbing and a few supporting performances that look about fifteen years behind (stopping me from awarding it a 9), this strange premise is very successfully realised by Herzog's full-scale immersion into the daunting, endless and unreal rainforest. As soon as the boat sets off, the film kicks into gear. We are treated to a long succession of very beautifully composed shots as Fitzgerald and company plunge through the jungle in their majestic white 19th Century vessel.

I don't want to reveal too much to those who have not yet seen this film, so I'll spare this review any further plot points. "Fitzcarraldo" should be seen for Kinski's defining performance, the superb visual touches that colour its best scenes, and for the sheer spectacle. It is undoubtedly a fine, grand movie in which all events orbit around, and gravitate towards, the central character himself.
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Medium Cool (1969)
9/10
'The Age of Awareness'
19 February 2009
"Medium Cool" (1968) Dir: Haskell Wexler

When I first saw "Medium Cool" I was far too young to appreciate it for what it actually is. I loved it anyway, perhaps partially because it baffled me. I was born in suburban England in 1986, and thus had no frame of reference for the setting of social unrest that is used as an omnipresent main character, alongside Robert Forster's brilliant John Cassellis - news cameraman, modern professional, and casual womaniser. Critics of this film have said that the plot is too thin and unlikely to support its pretensions, and that the final scenes are merely opportunistic instead of profound. I disagree with this, but not directly - it does have pretensions, and it is a little thin on plot. But the final scenes are literally stunning, and have deservedly assured this film's place in history.

Cassellis is clinical about his job and cynical towards his employers. In his own words, he loves to shoot film. He documents occurrences without judging them. In a way, he is like Gene Hackman's Harry Caul character in the equally brilliant "The Conversation", who doesn't care what people are talking about as long as he gets "a nice fat recording". But Cassellis is not an obsessive. Throughout the course of the film, he grows to accept the cultural and philosophical impact of his profession as a kind of vessel for public information. When he discovers his tapes are being viewed by the authorities, his principles are violated. We are shown the mutually antagonising relationship between 'the people' and 'the news media' as John realises the implications of what he has been contributing to. This sounds less than exciting, but the backdrop itself is Chicago circa 1968 - a city so restless and colourful that this fairly heavy concept is counterbalanced by the images themselves. We watch Cassellis and his soundman cover the National Guards' riot training, the morale-raising songs of a civil rights protest group, campaigners for Robert Kennedy, and more. A particularly memorable sequence involves the black residents of a tenement block explaining to the cameraman how he, as a representative of 'the media', carries the baggage of institutionalised prejudice through their front door. Sure, the tenants are actors (as is Peter Boyle as the Gun Clinic Manager) but they fit seamlessly. In this scene, as in most of the movie, the "cameraman" being spoken to is both the character of Cassellis, Haskell Wexler himself, and by extension everyone who is watching.

How Harold and his mother Eileen relate to all of this is a more abstract and difficult question - they are natives of West Virginia, and the flashback scenes of deep country woodlands and old-fashioned religion seem to suggest that they represent the past, the "age of innocence" in the movie's tag-line. But this isn't the effect they have on the plot. They are out of place in this volatile city, but so is everyone else, John included. And when we are plunged into the heart of the riots for the last scenes of the film, we have no time to speculate on what exactly Wexler was trying to say; because he himself is there - the director is holding the camera, dodging tear gas and avoiding the batons of the riot police, and filming the injured protesters. Its significance is elevated beyond mere entertainment. The fiction in "Medium Cool" exists mainly to highlight the intimidating labyrinth of fact.

There is technical boldness to be admired too: the cinematography is an impressive framing of undiluted reality, and the editing and soundtrack is inspired. The performances of Forster and the young amateur Harold Blankenship are equally captivating, with Verna Bloom not far behind.
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More (1969)
7/10
Flawed, but very memorable
17 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
17/02/09 "More" (1969) Dir: Barbet Schroeder

For a film that most viewers have agreed is pretty average, I'm impressed by quite how many differing interpretations have been offered of it. I've only scoured the web quite briefly and I've already been informed that "More" is: a 19th Century-style romance, an allusion to the story of Icarus, a plain film full of dull people, and of interest only to Pink Floyd completists. It's fair to say, then, that critical reception is mixed. I would argue that these wildly disparate readings of Barbet Schroeder's 1969 directorial debut are proof enough that "More" is anything but a pretty average film.

Neither is it a masterpiece, of course. I approached "More" as I did "Easy Rider" and Antonioni's "Blowup" - as a 'time-capsule' film, a snapshot of an era - despite the differences in pace, style and content between these movies. They all have similar flaws - either vague or downright unlikeable characters, acting that seems slightly adrift from reality, relaxed editing, and abrupt endings that have left viewers indignant. These movies never try to be persuasive or meet the audience half way - they are what they are, man. This in itself is not a problem as long as we are left with a souvenir of the experience. Thankfully, "More" offers several truly memorable images, sounds and suggestions to the viewer, and this is what saves it.

Stefan is a young man who arrives in Paris fresh from his studies in Germany. The first part of the film follows him as he falls in with a group of French hipsters, accompanies them to devastatingly cool and self-conscious parties and bars before meeting Estelle. The two characters become sexually and romantically involved and he promises to follow her to Ibiza, against the advice of his friend Charlie. This is where the Icarus thing comes into play - she is the Sun, he is pursuing her. You may now be able to guess how this all ends.

Ibiza is an idyll so far away from the bustling urgency of the over-populated Paris that the naive Stefan knows he must be on to a good thing. Estelle remains elusive and erratic, and the island has a less desirable underbelly. Up until now I had cared little for either of these characters and their unfocused pursuit of somewhere to be really free, but once the action is pared down to just these two the film becomes poignant quite suddenly. During just one single wistful exchange of dialogue in the remote villa they inhabit, the place where their volatile love crystallises, I went from watching with a fading optimism to being utterly enraptured. I can't think of many other films that have done this.

The relationship between Stefan and Estelle is real and human in that we can see it go from life-defining intimacy to disillusionment and cruel coldness. They take a lot of drugs and cavort naked on the terraces, the rocks and beaches. Their lives revolve around nothing but each other and the beautiful Mediterranean surroundings. For a while, their situation is the very essence of freedom, emotional openness and experience for its own sake. But Stefan is not in control, and this is the downfall of more than just his future on Ibiza.

Pink Floyd's score is a perfect fit for the exoticism, the intimacy, and the foreboding of "More". It is one of the most memorable inclusions, along with the mosquito netting around Estelle's bed, and their hallucinogenic exuberance around the windmill (which appears on the soundtrack album's front cover). A scene in which they take acid to escape from heroin withdrawal is illustrative of the fundamental flaws of the couple - they cannot 'land' without a crash. Maybe they've come too close to what they wanted.

Stefan never makes contact with any family or friends from before his arrival in Paris. We are left to presume they have no idea where he is. While other 1960s Counterculture movies dwell on debauchery, excess, the media and voyeurism, Schroeder has instead presented us with a story focused upon one man, who backs himself into a little corner somewhere in the world and quietly disappears.
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