Friday 30 September 2011

Barefoot in the Park (1967)


Neil Simon is probably one of the most successful writers of the 20th Century. The man behind numerous Broadway plays, films and some TV series, Simon built much of his career on own his life, creating a very particular style of writing comedy that has since been translated as the template for sitcoms as we know them. At one point in the 1960s, he actually had four successful plays running on Broadway simultaneously: Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Sweet Charity, and The Star Spangled Girl. He’s won Golden Globes, WGA awards and the Pulitzer, and been nominated for Emmys, Oscars and Tony awards. His third play, written in 1963 and based on his experiences of his first marriage, was Barefoot in the Park, which was then adapted by himself for the screen in 1967.

Paul Bratter (Robert Redford) is a stodgy young lawyer; Corrie Bratter (Jane Fonda) is a fun-seeking free spirit; and the pair of newlyweds are just starting their lives together in their new apartment. Their new home is small, cold, has a hole in the skylight, and is at the top of a five-storey building with no elevator, and all of their neighbours are eccentrics and oddballs. It’s here that they have to start their new lives.

I first saw Barefoot in the Park many years ago, and whilst I remember enjoying it, the only thing I could remember clearly was a brief back-and-forth between Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. He needs to get to work, but she wants him to stay and have fun (which is essentially the whole dynamic of their relationship). She says they should do something wild and crazy, but he says they’ll do it tomorrow night. “Like what?” she asks. He answers, “I’ll come home early, we’ll wallpaper each other.” I think that’s a funny line, classic Neil Simon and Redford delivers it just right. Now, it may just be due to my fondness for dry, absurd humour, but it made the whole film stick in my head. As such, it’s one of the many I’ve acquired over the years. Having given it a viewing today, there is one thing that is clear… it’s aged terribly.

When I said that Neil Simon helped to perfect the standard form of the sitcom, I’m not kidding. Many of his comedies are based on bringing together two personality types that are diametrically opposed, having them share the same space, and surrounding them with a succession of quirky characters and off-the-wall situations. There would also be no real story to drive them, instead having them simply react to each other and whatever happened to come through the door. The Odd Couple is often regarded as the standard to measure such projects against… well, Neil Simon wrote that. In fairness to him, this was just his style and he built a very successful career on it, and it was a method adopted years later by studios looking to create the most easily exploited situation for comedic purposes. Sit-com, get it? Anyway, this is exactly the format of Barefoot in the Park, however there is just no getting past the fact that this is too much a product of its time to be watchable today.

Like I said, there is no story to the film, since it’s meant to be character driven. Two newlyweds begin their new life in a new apartment, but they find out that living together may not be as easy as they think. This is indeed a situation, but there’s nothing that occurs externally to push things along. Oh, some of you out there may be thinking to yourself, “hang on, this all sounds very much like Dharma & Greg.” You’re not alone in that. Many people have since made that particular connection, and it’s no small wonder. I can only imagine that Chuck Lorre caught Barefoot in the Park on TV one night and decided to do his own version. Hell, the film even got its own brief sitcom spin-off, which lasted for 12 episodes in 1970. This is basically what you’ve got in Barefoot in the Park, a feature-length episode of a sitcom with any laughter, applause and funny material removed. So, sure, things happen to them, but nothing more serious than their furniture not being delivered until the next day. As such, it’s entirely down to the characters to create the conflict. So, what are the characters like?

Paul is a stodgy lawyer type, young and looking to make his way in his new firm. That’s pretty much it. He loves his new wife, but clearly finds her eccentricity to be a bit much every now and then. Well, when I say every now and then, I mean pretty much constantly. Every time they’re together, she clings onto him like a leech, and he tries to drag himself away because he has a job to go to. Frankly, given his reaction to her, and hers to him, it is virtually impossible to believe that they actually met before the film started. Physical attraction aside, they have nothing in common. This ultimately becomes the thing that comes between them and is conflict to be resolved - they are so unlike each other. Apparently he’s so straight-laced that Corrie has only ever seen him drunk once, and she didn’t find that out until the next day when he told her he was. He claims that he can have fun and be wild, that he once got so drunk he punched out an old woman and… wait a minute, what? He got drunk and punched out an old woman? This is the example he uses to prove that he can get drunk and have fun? Was that meant to be funny? That’s not funny, that’s horrible. He may act like the mature one in the relationship, but he apparently can get quite abusive when drunk… but it’s okay, that just means he’s having fun… Christ. As it is, Redford does a fairly good job in the role. He’s a likable guy, and makes Paul somewhat relatable, and he understands the rhythm of Simon’s writing very well. He’s no Jack Lemmon, but he works… when he’s not punching out old women.

Corrie’s mother, Ethel, is the most (read as: only) sympathetic character in the whole film. She’s patient and kind, if a bit melodramatic at times. She also seems to be a bit sickly, needing to sleep on a board for her back, and suffering from some mystery ailment that seems to be exacerbated by the incredibly long climb to her daughter and son-in-law’s new place. To some degree, she actually gets a bit abused by the film, having her endure discomfort, illness and a fall down the stairs (you see, it’s funny cause she could’ve been killed) in the interest of creating conflict. Mildred Natwick was the only person to receive an Oscar nomination for her work her, and whilst it wasn’t worth a win, it’s still a fine performance she gives.

Victor Velasco is the upstairs neighbour to Paul and Corrie, living in the attic of the building. He’s meant to be a kind of charming foreign guy, polite, gracious and possessed of the same lust for life as Corrie. However, he is also incredibly creepy, giving the first impression of a sex pest. Seriously, he first meets the couple when he tries to enter their apartment so he can climb through their window to get onto the roof to get to his place because the landlord changed the locks because he hasn’t paid rent in four months… wha-oh, never mind. Now, picture the scene – it’s 2am, the doorknob rattles as if someone is trying to enter. Corrie, dressed in a shirt and some socks, opens the door (I know, I know) and finds a well-dressed older man at her door. Now add the following dialogue:
Victor: Tell me... does your husband, uh, work during the day?
Corrie: Yes.
Victor: In an office?
Corrie: Yes.
Victor: Good. I work at home during the day. I predict interesting
complications. Am I making you nervous?
Corrie: Very nervous.
Victor: Ha! Wonderful. Once a month I try to make pretty young girls
nervous just to keep my ego from going out.

Now, question for the ladies out there, at what point would you have called the police on this thoroughly unsettling fellow? Honestly, this is all meant to be endearing or quirky or oddball or funny? No, this is the preamble to a sexual assault. Suffice to say, Victor does little to redress the balance in the rest of the film, only showing up to act crazy again. Charles Boyer portrays Victor Velasco and, although he certainly never intentionally projects any kind of disquieting predatory aspects, the facts of the character speak too loudly to be overcome. Boyer does what he can to make Victor worth liking, but it was a losing battle from the get-go.

Easily the most grating character of the film is Corrie, who is irritating as all hell. She’s whiny, clingy, immature, and kind of nuts. This is all meant to have her come off as kooky, fun-loving, and ultimately loveable for all her zest for life. However, it’s simply annoying and incredibly off-putting. One of the first things she wants to do in her new building is go to every one of her neighbours, pound on the door and scream for the police… what? What the hell kind of utter fruitcake actually does this? That’s not funny or charming or cute; that’s just a great way to instantly piss off everyone who lives in your building. She’s also got a habit of thinking that people that don’t constantly want to experience life and try new things are wrong and should be dragged into doing so. For example, when Corrie, Paul and Ethel have gone round to Victor’s for drinks and food, she chastises Paul for not wanting to eat some eel (“Paul, you have to try everything!”). In fairness, this is really down to Fonda’s weirdly intense delivery. When Victor suggests that they go somewhere “unusual” for dinner, a clearly unwell Ethel expresses some concern, which Corrie completely ignores: “That’s what we want… the unusual, right, Mother?” Oh, and if you’re wondering why the three accepted the invitation from Victor to visit, it’s because Corrie wants to set her mother up with him… that’s right, Corrie wants to set her mother up with the creepy guy that she met when he tried to enter her apartment at 2am, expressing delight at how nervous he was making the mostly undressed young woman. What in God’s name is wrong with this woman? Honestly, I could go on, but I’ll just move on. Jane Fonda’s performance is a bit awkward. Whilst she does commit to the peppy energy and excitement of her character, she doesn’t have the same feeling for Simon’s dialogue as the others do. As such, she often goes too far, turning what’s meant to be excitable and upbeat into crazy and strangely accusatory. Fonda has given some fine performances in her life, but this simply is not one of them.

Just to add one final blow to proceedings, Gene Saks’ direction is really very lacking. As is a typical problem when adapting a stage play to the screen, the director has treated it liked he’s filming the stage play, rather than making a film, so things just look blocky. Now, to be fair, this was Saks’ first directing gig, and it’s certainly not as bad as it could have been. However, the film still looks flat, stagey and lacking any decent form of composition. That Saks’ would go on to direct three more film adaptations of Neil Simon plays, with Simon doing the scripting duties, including The Odd Couple, is kind of weird since it is by no stretch a good job.

Barefoot in the Park is an incredibly infuriating film to watch. Though it was received much better at the time of its release, time has been very unkind. The characters are annoying, creepy or just insane; the direction is stagey and unpleasant; and it’s simply not funny. Some of the lines are okay, and the performances from Redford, Natwick and Boyer are varying degrees of good, but Fonda has no feel for the material, making an unpleasant character pretty much unbearable. Sadly, this will always be regarded as one of those "forgotten classics" or "overlooked gems" that never gets as much recognition as it deserves, but it just isn’t good enough to warrant that kind of reputation.

Thursday 29 September 2011

Baise-moi (2000)

In the movie Dodgeball, when Peter LaFleur is trying to come up with ways of making money to save his gym, a friend suggests that they sell blood and semen. After receiving some disgusted looks from the group, the friend clarifies: “What? Not mixed together.” Indeed, selling blood and semen separately can probably make you some money. However, if you try selling them mixed together, all you’ll get is shocked expressions and a heavy dose of controversy. Such was the experience of filmmakers Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi, who released a thriller in 2000, based on Despentes’ novel, that courted near worldwide controversy and criticism for its use of pretty graphic violence and real sex. See, blood and semen, I wasn’t just talking nonsense.

Two women, occasional porn star Manu (Raffaëla Anderson) and part-time prostitute Nadine (Karen Lancaume), go on a spree of sex and murder after they each lose their last links with society when Manu gets raped and Nadine’s only friend is shot and killed. Meeting by chance, they get in Manu’s car and take off in a nihilistic voyage, robbing, killing and seducing all manner of people that they meet and trying to stay ahead of the law.

A few days ago, I was due to review a particular film in this journey through all I own. Unfortunately, when I went to watch it, I found the DVD had been damaged, likely done in a house-move a few years ago, rendering it unusable. As such, I was forced to move on through the list, and re-buy the broken film. Now, this would all simply be something of an annoyance at the best of times, but there was an extra point that made this especially galling… I don’t like Baise-moi. I watched it for the first time some years ago, aware of the controversy surrounding it (it was banned... a lot) and wanting to see it for myself. Good times when I found it for very cheap. However, those good times turned bad when it turned out I hated it. Until today, that had been the one and only viewing I had ever given it, hence the reason I was unaware that it had been sitting on my shelf with an almighty crack in it. However, since beginning this endeavour to give some sort of critique or review to all the films I own, Baise-moi was one that I rather looked forward to watching again, if only to try and engage with it more critically than I did the first time around. When you see a film that you seriously don’t like, there is always the temptation to completely destroy it on every level, which is only compounded when the film shows so much sex and violence, which some don't care for. The severe emotionality of such a reaction can occasionally get in the way of offering fair criticism, although it shouldn’t be ignored entirely, either. As such, I shall attempt to consider the film as fairly as I can… so here we go.

First off, I’ll consider the visuals of the film, which is perhaps the least contentious facet of the production. Baise-moi had a very low budget, being filmed on digital video with no extra or artificial lighting, and all on location. This, coupled with camerawork that’s clumsy and amateurish, does make the film look pretty bad, but it does rather add to what seems to be the overall effect. The world of Baise-moi is a pretty awful place, filled with low-down bars and unpleasant hotels, and the characters are equally awful. There is almost no one who is without some sort of guilt or objectionable personality. These are disagreeable people moving through an indifferent and fairly cruel world. That the visuals are so crummy does help to convey this sense that it’s a very crude world we are in. It’s nasty to look at, but I think that’s part of the point.
The characters… what am I meant to make of them? Neither of them is particular pleasant, really. Taking Nadine first, she’s pretty lazy, kind of a pothead, a bit of a drinker, and something of a user of people. She’s a pain in her roommate’s ass, who complains about Nadine watching porn and masturbating all day in the living area instead of her bedroom. Nadine says she’s tired of having to do it there. From these points, you’d guess that she is someone who doesn’t like hassle, likes the freedom to do what she wants without people annoying her about it. She’s also a part-time prostitute, which isn’t really a big deal, although the filmmakers would perhaps seem to suggest that there is some connection between sex with a prostitute and rape (during a session with a client, Nadine watches a movie on TV that shows a violent sexual encounter), as if the man is assaulting Nadine by using her sexuality for his own gratification. Nadine has one friend, a junkie (or drug dealer, I’m not sure) for whom she writes out fake prescriptions to be filled at his convenience. I would say that this is not a reason to like her any more, since she’s still committing a crime, regardless of how okay she seems to be with her friend. Especially since she has not long strangled her roommate and ran off with the rent money. So, she’s a lazy, unpleasant, thieving murderer and a hooker (though it’s the film that has the problem with that part). I fail to see why I should care about her, then.

What about Manu? She actually does have a bit more to be angry about. She’s kind of a slacker, not really wanting to get a real job, and so makes some money by doing work in porn films or borrowing from her brother. Her brother is a dick, overbearing and abusive for no real reason. And, although she doesn’t back really back down, she does take some abuse from random people in the street who are looking for her… friend? Again, I’m not really sure on that one. Manu also does experience a genuine assault, when three men take her and her junkie friend to a warehouse, where they are both raped. Whilst the friend screams and writhes, getting her a severe beating for her trouble, Manu takes it without sound, movement or complaint. One of the attackers says that having sex with her is “like fucking a zombie”. Afterwards, she tells her clearly traumatised friend that they didn’t take anything from her because she removed everything of value from her sexual self, so there was nothing to take. It rather does sound like she’s dead inside, and voluntarily so. Shortly after, when at her brother’s house, he realises what happened (although his automatic leap to rape is a bit flimsy) and, finding his gun, asks her who did it. When she refuses to tell him, he implies she enjoyed it. Manu takes the gun and kills him, and then steals his savings. I am more inclined to feel sympathy with Manu than Nadine through all of this, although she’s still not an entirely a nice person. That said, she doesn’t really have to be entirely nice. In fact, her character is drawn fairly well in the beginning. It’s only as things go on that you care less about her.

You can pretty much pinpoint the exact moment things start to go off the rails, and it’s about the time that Nadine and Manu meet. Walking in opposite directions at the train station, post-murders, Manu stops Nadine and almost right away asks her if she knows how to drive because she has a car and they could drive away. This scene just feels odd, too simply done. Later Nadine remarks how strange it was that the two met the way they did, to which Manu replies that it wasn’t, that it was then or never… what does that even mean? It’s not an affirmation of pre-ordained fate bringing them together, because it acknowledges the possibility that they might not have met. So, it was just coincidence, so it was strange for them to meet in that way, so it is illogical nonsense. It would have made more sense if they had met as they were independently on the run, bumping into each other as they try to escape or lay low, instead of just on the street, where clumsy dialogue forces them into an initially unnatural union for the purposes of story progressing.

It’s interesting to note that, in some places like the US, the title of the film was translated as Rape Me, although the filmmakers and many people who liked the film hated this title. Rape is, for those who don’t know, a crime driven not by lust or physical attraction, but by power. The whole point is for the aggressor to force themselves on the victim, taking from them the power to stop it from happening. Now, Nadine and Manu are often said to be, for lack of a better word, “agents” of a feminist spirit, out to reclaim their own identity and sexuality from the male populace, who have subjugated and oppressed the female populace for so long. Effectively, the pair is out to take back the power that was stolen from them, even completely turning the tables on others. Theirs is a thrill-ride, with both parties drunk on freedom.

Personally, this is why I think things crumble after the pair meet and go on their spree. After they get together, the film exists in a world where they just go around doing whatever they feel like, regardless of what that may be or why. I suppose that we’re meant to take this as both women enjoying the full reign of freedom that they never had before, but it just becomes tedious. At one point, both Manu and Nadine say that everything they did was somewhat pointless because they don’t really feel any different. Now, I’d be willing to accept this as a statement that, after adopting the mindlessly violent characteristics of their male oppressors, they feel ultimately unfulfilled by their actions because it did nothing to erase the pain they have felt all along… but this doesn’t really hold up too much because they’ve clearly been having a great time with themselves, having sex and stomping faces. For them to suddenly say that it was all for nought rather comes out of nowhere. If there was a hint of desperation in their activities, with them trying to reclaim their initial thrill at their first taste of freedom (which was killing a woman), then I’d be able to accept it more. However, the whiplash-inducing shift in their feelings smacks of an attitude that we should really start trying to end this thing. Once again, it’s this crummy leap of logic stuff that gets in the way of telling the story effectively, so it’s tough to take it seriously.

What is incredibly interesting, though absolutely typical of the internet, is the fierce conflict of opinion of those who have seen the film. Many decry the film as sick, perverse, immoral, stupid, badly made crap; others call it a masterpiece, a brave and courageous work shining a light on aspects of society that others are afraid to talk about. Many people who like the film often employ the argument that those who don’t like the film are prudish, reactionary, or simply too stupid to engage with the themes and events of the film. I will agree that some of the negative opinions do come from a particular knee-jerk sensibility, causing the speaker to voice an opinion before mulling things over appropriately, but many people don’t like it because they simply don’t like it. The people that love the film are generally possessed of a rather smug sensibility that I actually find even more distasteful. A regular comment I find somewhat perplexing and kind of funny is when they say that people who don’t like the film probably just want films with great lighting and good camerawork and effects and Oscar-winning acting and for things to be explained. It’s odd because, aside from admitting the poor quality of Baise-moi’s lighting, camerawork, effects, acting and ability to make sense, it tries to make some sort of virtue of them. Just because something looks like crap and doesn’t have big names in it, doesn’t mean it’s any good.

“Why did they make this film?”… it’s a question that is asked regularly of the most controversial films to be released. Ones deemed to be too violent or graphic or offensive or any number of other crimes that people throw around in such circumstances. More so than any of the other accusations of immorality on film, this is the question to which it ultimately breaks down. Why would the filmmakers unleash such a nightmarish work upon the world, filled with such inflammatory and offensive material? Shock value is often suggested as a reason, since using seditious images is a virtual guarantee of much publicity. Really, they would have to release it because they have something to say. Rarely is something so contentious released without reason. There is also the school of thought that would suggest that, if a piece of art can inspire such a vast amount of discussion and criticism, then it does hold some sort of worthy place in society, even if the piece is deemed “bad” and the discussions are on topics that most find uncomfortable. Indeed, Baise-moi hits on virtually all of the taboo subjects like it’s ticking them off a checklist. It’s use of violence and sex and blood, and the apparent enjoyment in such nefarious acts as murder and rape, does force the viewer to confront some pretty nasty things. However, does it really try to offer any sort of comment or observation on these things? Is it enough to simply show something terrible happening, and then place the onus on the audience to discuss what they see? If it were, then there’s no need to attempt any kind of storytelling, or concern yourself with how things may be perceived or considered. You could just show a rape and see where the feelings land.

I generally don’t see too much evidence for any kind of engagement from the filmmakers’ side about what it is they want to achieve from the film. Is it a porno? Absolutely not, since it’s in no way arousing, and it was clearly never the intention. Is it an effective thriller? Not really, because it quickly becomes kind of boring since the storytelling and characterisation goes all to hell from the minute the pair get together. Is it a good feminist text? I just don’t know about that. Certainly, it shows two women striking out on some sort of march of freedom that happens to include murder and theft, apparently taking power from a society that victimises them, but it’s hardly a positive one. Besides, it seems to be angry with everyone in general, occasionally glancing in the general direction of feminist principles as a sort of theoretical alibi.

… well, I sure seem to have talked myself in all manner of directions on this one. To a degree, I think that this is what most people would do when trying to engage with Baise-moi, though smarter people than I would do a much better job of things. After all of that, talking about it as much as you think you can as an intellectual property, there is still one last thing to consider, the thing that I said from the beginning couldn’t be entirely ignored from the process: the emotional reaction.

Honestly, when all is said and done, I still don’t like Baise-moi. For my money, as a film, the script is clunky and a complete stranger to logical storytelling, the direction regularly loses focus on what’s meant to be happening, and the acting is of a standard that mostly lands only on passable. I don’t think it’s brave, just a bit more willing to exploit things others would know better not to. I also get the feeling that I’ll end up putting much more effort into getting any meaning than the filmmakers did in conveying them. More than anything, though, I just get the feeling that this film doesn’t like me very much, and its reasons for that are pretty scattergun.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

The Banquet (2006)

Okay, a little bit of background… Wuxia is a broad generic term for tales of martial artists and fighters, concerning themselves with the codes and ethics of their varied disciplines, which began as literature thousands of years ago and gradually spread to other art forms as their popularity grew. Inevitably, this would reach the film world. Although they had been around since the early days of cinema in China, it was mainly after the massive success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000 that there was suddenly a greater global appetite for wuxia films. In 2006, director Feng Xiaogang took his first crack at the historical epic wuxia movie with The Banquet.

In 10th Century China, amidst the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, the imperial family is in crisis. Crown Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu) puts himself in exile after his father takes his love Wan (Ziyi Zhang) as his Empress. Whilst gone, the Emperor’s brother Li murders his brother, taking the throne and Empress. After an unsuccessful attempt on Wu Luan by Imperial assassins, he returns to the court. When Wu Luan learns of his uncle’s treachery, he decides to avenge his father’s death.

As I said, post-Crouching Tiger, wuxia films became big business to the rest of the movie-going world. In order to meet this fresh demand for big themes and superb fight sequences using wire-work, many filmmakers appropriately looked to the past for inspiration, adapting wuxia stories from long ago or dramatising events and legends from the country’s history. Zhang Yimou made the next big splash with 2002’s Hero, telling the tale of an assassin’s attempt to kill the man who would become China’s first emperor. What this film did was bring another prominent element to the genre: unbelievable cinematography and vivid colour. A few years later, there came another three big films that sat in almost direct competition with each other on the international stage: Chen Kaige responded with The Promise in 2005, Zhang Yimou came back with Curse of the Golden Flower in 2006, as did Feng Xiaogang with The Banquet.

What set Feng Xiaogang’s work apart from the other two films was the source material. The Promise was based on a wuxia romance story from the 9th Century, and Curse of the Golden Flower was based on a 1934 play called Thunderstorm by Chinese playwright Cao Yu, but The Banquet got its basis from a more Western source… William Shakespeare. The Banquet is basically a loose adaptation of Hamlet, with action transposed to the Tang Dynasty, albeit set in a fictional Imperial household. The adaptation was handled by Qiu Gangjian and Sheng Heyu, who have done a very good job of shifting the action to a different time and place, although such specifics were never really what Hamlet was about. Thematically, the story is about murder, betrayal, lust, madness, familial discord, death… there’s a reason it’s often considered to be the greatest play ever written.

However, I did say it was a “loose” adaptation, so there have been several changes made. To begin with, the role of Gertrude has been altered significantly, giving her some of the ambitious scheming normally associated with Lady Macbeth. Also, she has been made younger (four years younger than the Crown Prince), though this will partially come from the fact the role was turned down by Gong Li and accepted by Ziyi Zhang. There is also the extra dimension that she and Wu Luan were once together, but the Emperor took her for himself, turning Wu Luan’s girlfriend into his stepmother. This creates a completely different dynamic between the two, which does give the characters a new set of motivations to work in. I’ve heard that some felt that this change actually acted towards undermining the purity of the relationship between Wu Luan and Qing, who would be the Ophelia of the piece, but whilst I think I see their point, I disagree. The triangle created is handled really quite well, with Wu Luan driven by both vengeance and the possibility of winning Wan back, thereby ignoring Qing, who so obviously wants to be with him. All of this is echoed nicely by a song Wu Luan learns, about a love lost between two people because one doesn’t notice the existence of the other. He believes Qing won’t understand the meaning, and that Wan will. Wan also uses Wu Luan’s feelings for her as a bargaining chip with Emperor Li, as well as against both Qing and Wu Luan himself. Really, Gertrude just became more savage and power-hungry.

There is much of the structure of Hamlet retained in the film, with the initial murder of the King/Emperor by his usurping brother, the quest for revenge by the Prince, the play-within-a-play scene and, of course, the big final banquet of the title all utilised well. However, there are enough changes in the piece to create its own story. Indeed, if spend the film trying to find the Hamlet in everything, you’ll just end up confusing yourself.

What director Feng Xiaogang does with The Banquet is offer something of a comparatively sombre film when measured against its contemporary rivals. With both The Promise and Curse of the Golden Flower, these films tried to recapture the success of Hero and House of Flying Daggers with the vibrant colour and rich visual stylisation. Feng Xiaogang’s vision is less ostentatious, more modest. There is still a great use of colours (red is commonly used in denotation of blood, passion, desire), but they are surrounded by a much darker setting, which makes them stand out more. Also, whilst there is still a great deal of fighting and violent bloodshed, it spends more time as a dark drama, resting more with the head than the sword.

There also rests a great deal of ambiguity to the whole, with much left unsaid or unfinished by the film. For example, there is a scene that would suggest that Wu Luan, in an act of frustrated anger, rapes Qing. He chases her, pulls at her clothes, and his intentions are more than clear. Even Qing obviously seems to be trying to escape from this attack, but a dissolve shows the two post-assault, Wu Luan being cradled in Qing’s arms. Did she submit, or was the whole act by force? We never really find out. Certainly, Qing desire to be with Wu Luan never diminishes. Also, the better-known point of ambiguity comes from the ending. Now, I won’t give away anything, but suffice to say that the final act of violence comes from an unknown source. Ideas and opinions vary, from handmaidens to fallen generals to the ghost of Wu Luan’s father.

Given the weight of the role, Ziyi Zhang stands up very well as Wan. She’s always been seen as very spirited and rebellious characters, but there’s rarely been much in the way of layers to them. Here, Wan is a very textured character, appearing as subservient wife, embittered widow, scheming villain and seductress. That’s a fair amount for a fairly young actress to handle, but she does a fine job. Given that Wan has become the primary character of the piece, Daniel Wu has less to do as Wu Luan, but he still does well, projecting his sense of loss and quiet anger nicely. You Ge, mainstay of Feng Xiaogang projects, starts the film well, as the cruel and lustful Emperor Li, but gradually diminishes in power as the character seems to soften. It’s true that he comes to feel more secure in his position and, to his peril, lets his guard down, but it feels more like this has happened because of vulnerability as opposed to hubris. It feels like a misstep, but not a major one. Perhaps the best performance comes from Xun Zhou as Qing, the handmaiden in love with Wu Luan. It’s wonderfully underplayed, but you still feel all of the love, hurt and defiance in her character. She is genuinely the most sympathetic and affecting person on show, and Xun Zhou makes everything she can from the role.

When The Banquet was on release, it seemed to get rather buried between the two bigger films that were released on either side. The Promise was, when it came out, the single most expensive film China had produced since 2002’s Hero. This was surpassed again the next year by Curse of the Golden Flower. However, The Promise was something of a failure, making little impact elsewhere in the world. Curse of the Golden Flower, with its higher production values and more internationally recognised cast, received greater publicity and attention. It’s rather a shame that The Banquet didn’t get as much of a release since it certainly deserves a wider audience, with some fine performances, solid direction, and an intriguing story.

If you can, really try and give this one a go. It does deserve more attention that it received.

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Bandits (2001)


Today, we reach a milestone… the 100th review on this poky little blog, so let’s get on with it. Yesterday, we looked at Bande à part, a story about two young wannabe criminals who coerce a girl they know into assisting them in robbing the house where she lives, with the situation becoming complicated when both guys try to woo the girl. Today, we’re looking at Bandits, a story about two career criminals who wind up taking a strange woman along on bank robberies, with the situation becoming complicated when both guys try to woo the girl… it’s a funny old world we live in, isn’t it?

Two escaped convicts, the charismatic Joe (Bruce Willis) and the hypochondriac Terry (Billy Bob Thornton), begin a bank robbing spree under the plan of kidnapping bank managers the night before, then going with the managers in the morning to rob the banks. When a getaway goes wrong, they wind up bringing a bored housewife, Kate (Cate Blanchett), along with them, which only complicates things further when an awkward romantic triangle develops between them.

Of course, I’m not actually suggesting that Bandits is some sort of remake of Bande à part. The original conception of the project was actually to adapt the novel Bandits by Elmore Leonard, to which Bruce Willis owns the film rights. However, it was apparently deemed that it was too weak a story to adapt, so they simply kept the title and brought in a new writer to come up with a completely new concept. The writer they brought in was Harley Peyton, known best for working on Twin Peaks in the early 90s, with the bulk of season two coming from him. His other work was sporadic after the end of that show, and Bandits was his first film of the 00s. There may have been some degree of influence going on with Bande à part, but perhaps it’s just sheer coincidence that I happened to see both of these films one after the other, thereby making it seem way more relevant than it actually is. Certainly, it’s no stretch of a writer’s imagination to have a story of two thieves whose work gets compromised when a third party comes between them.

As it is, Bandits is a relatively clever script, although it actually does have just as many downfalls. The characters are pretty well drawn, distinctive and fairly memorable. Joe is the doer of the team, possessed of confidence, charisma and a willingness to get the job done, although he’s also got a bit of a problem with anger management. Terry is the thinker, a very smart guy, but often crippled (sometimes literally) by an array of insecurities, allergies, fears and neuroses. Of the two, Terry is the better character, primarily because he has more potential for comedy and drama, given that he’s more prone to bouts of mild hysteria and panic than his cooler partner. Joe can still fly off the handle, but it never comes at a time that would cause untoward conflict. The character of Kate is somewhere between the two, a woman of great spirit and passion, though it’s buried under so much domesticated unhappiness and boredom. When she runs into the criminal pair (well, one of them, anyway), she rather quickly jumps on the opportunity for some excitement and thrills in her life. The reasons for her domestic hell is obvious when we see a news broadcast featuring her husband. With everyone believing she has been kidnapped, his plea to get her back includes the point, “I’m going to Spain next week, so if your kidnappers would like to contact me, they can get in touch with my people, and you know who they are.” Classy guy. Like I said, these characters are pretty good and all have decent motivations behind them.

There are a handful of other characters to proceedings, of varying degrees of importance, although they are more hit-and-miss in the overall picture. Joe and Terry’s lookout/getaway driver is Harvey, Joe’s cousin. Harvey is a stuntman with a penchant for pyro work. He’s also an idiot. Honestly, Harvey is one of the ‘miss’ characters mainly because of that last point, since he does stupid things that are a bit infuriating, like leaving the getaway vehicle because he sees a girl he likes, though I’ll get to this in a bit. On the other side, one of the ‘hit’ characters would be Mildred, a bank manager who is genuinely thrilled to meet the famous bank-robbing duo, but refuses to go along with their plans because she can’t take them seriously. She tells Joe that everyone knows that he wouldn’t hurt anyone, so she isn’t that frightened. A point on this, though, since we have seen that Joe has anger management issues, you’d expect more of a reaction than a frustrated sigh.

As to the actual story of the film, it’s got an interesting central premise around which to build some good stuff. The romantic triangle dynamic can yield some fine conflict on its own, but that it’s set within the context of a series of bank-jobs does give it an extra boost. What does create something of an imbalance is that there’s never a definite tone struck in the picture, which makes things feel a bit uneasier than they should, though this is as much the fault of director Barry Levinson as it is Peyton. Levinson has normally shown himself to be quite adept at nimbly juggling tonal shifts without problem, but there’s the odd fumble here and there. And I swear, the first time Terry and Kate spend time together being intercut with Joe taking his frustrations out on a makeshift punch bag is similar to something done in Double Impact, a Jean-Claude Van Damme film from ten years prior.

This is where Harvey’s own romantic subplot could have had the most direct effect. With the primary love triangle, the problem in tone comes from what seems to be the indecision of the filmmakers as to whether or not it’s mainly comedic or mainly dramatic. The amount of time spent on it would suggest the latter, but the lack of real engagement would suggest the former. If they wanted to make it more comedic, they could have easily cut back on the three leads and given a bit more time to Harvey’s time spent chasing a blonde hitchhiker in pink boots. Like I said, this is in need of further development if we’re to believe in it more. As it is, there’s a couple of moments (not scenes, moments) where Harvey doesn’t pick the girl up, then eventually one where he does, and then suddenly they’re living together as a couple… wait, what? That’s a lot of off-screen relationship building for us not to be in on it. That this relationship does have some importance in the final 20 minutes or so just puts more strain on the already thin link. With just a bit more time spent here, the relationship between Harvey and the pink boots girl would feel more authentic, and put less weight on the leading trio to cover all generic bases.

You’d maybe think that this all amounts to a pretty lacklustre film, with good moments and bad fighting each other for supremacy. As it is, the film is more enjoyable than not mainly because of the fine performances given throughout. Bruce Willis still has a great line in wry smirks and easy charm, coupled with a solid physical presence, so Joe is ably handled. Billy Bob Thornton is on great form as Terry, showing off an array of tics, twitches and fast-talking that makes his feeling of simmering panic ever so slightly infectious. Cate Blanchett goes for Kate with a great abandon, offering bad dancing and singing without a hint of shame because it’s finally about her character being free to do so. And, as much the character can occasionally annoy, Troy Garity does give Harvey some kind of humour, which he needs so as not to be completely off-putting. That all of the performances are strong and that the characters are (for the most part) likable goes a long way to raising the game of the whole film. It doesn’t solve all of the problems, but it makes much more enjoyable.

Bandits is a bit messy when it comes to finding the right overall tone to the picture, and the script has its share of drawbacks, like a secondary romantic subplot that’s so underdeveloped it could qualify as a sub-sub-subplot. That said, there is enough fun there to keep it entertaining, it is pretty brisk for a two-hour film and the central performances are thoroughly enjoyable, especially in Billy Bob Thornton. It certainly could have been much better, but it’s far from a complete disaster.

Monday 26 September 2011

Bande à part (1964)

Back in late 1950s France, there came La Nouvelle Vague, or the “New Wave” of filmmakers. It was a term used to describe a group of French critics-turned-filmmakers who, taking influence from the Italian Neo-realist movement and classical Hollywood fare, sought to question and reject the accepted form of film grammar as it stood. One of the most radical members of this group was Jean-Luc Godard, whose own filmic output was amongst the most iconoclastic and challenging on offer, possessed of a deep-rooted political and philosophical point of view. In 1964, Godard released what is generally seen to be his most approachable and accessible film, based on the pulp novel Fool’s Gold by Dolores Hitchens - Bande à part.

Franz (Sami Frey) meets Odile (Anna Karina) in an English class, where she casually mentions that she lives with some wealthy benefactors, and that one of them keeps a pile of money in his room, unguarded. Franz tells his friend Arthur (Claude Brasseur) about this, decide to rob the house. As they put pressure on Odile to assist them in their heist, they also both attempt to romance her, leaving her torn between resistance and defiance.

As well as being the most radical member of La Nouvelle Vague, he is also one of the most endlessly quoted. Like most people who write about film (hello there), he had some very resolute opinions on cinema and its potential for major cultural influence, and he would often share them in a manner most concise. Here’s a selection of some of his better-known quotes:
• “Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.”
• “Every edit is a lie.”
• “I don’t think you should feel about a movie. You should feel about a
woman. You can’t kiss a movie.”
• “It’s over. There was a time maybe when cinema could have improved
society, but that time was missed.”
• “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in
that order.”

Just look at some of them. There’s the clear love of cinema and what it can do, but it’s tempered with a rather abrupt cynicism. A kind of ‘yeah, it’s good, but what’s the point’ attitude. He was often accused of being too cynical in his critical work, once getting into a feud with François Truffaut because Truffaut believed Godard was too harsh on other people’s work simply to put more attention on his own. This all speaks to the kind of filmmaker Godard was: an outspoken rebel, an iconoclast, someone who questions and challenges the standard way of doing things. Take a look back at that last quote again, which is a pretty concise way of showing his feelings on standard narrative construction. It’s also a favourite line of every film school in the world, trying to make students think outside of the proverbial box when it comes to film structure. Another one of Godard’s oft-quoted remarks on film is “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” Bande à part is something of an exercise in whether or not this is true… and it kind of is.

More specifically, though, it’s an adaptation of a 1958 pulp novel, Fool’s Gold, by Dolores Hitchens, an American mystery writer. Godard took a great deal of influence from such books, and the whole American pulp sensibility in general. For example, his male characters were often petty criminals who consciously affected the look and demeanour of characters from American noirs and B-movies. Bande à part featured two such characters that set out to rob the home of one of their classmates after she mentions a large sum of money that’s kept in the house. However, Franz and Arthur aren’t career criminals; they’re essentially two wannabe tough-guys and fantasists who figure that this kind of score will set them up for life. Along the way, each of them vie for the attentions of Odile, the girl whose home they plan to rob. Naturally, they try to bring her in on it, making her their spy in the house, bringing them details about how much money there is, where it is, and whether or not anyone will be home for the robbery. Odile herself seems to be getting pulled by different feelings: some guilt over accidentally initiating proceedings; a hint of happiness about the possibility of escaping her dull life; and attraction to the two would-be thieves, though she often fluctuates as to who she likes more. The plans for the robbery get complicated further when Arthur’s uncle finds out about his plans and decides to pull the job himself, forcing the three to go ahead with it before they’re ready.

It’s a rather intriguing premise, and the plot does unfold nicely, however it’s clear that Godard has little interest in this. The plot is really just an excuse to let him follow three young people around Paris a bit, and offer some of his less contentious perspectives on film. There are three moments in the film that everyone talks about, all of them pure Godard. The first is in a café when the three decide to have a minute silence and the film itself joins them, with all sound completely cutting out. The second is in the same café, immediately after the silence, when Franz puts on some music and the three dance together for a while. The third is the scene when they decide to try and beat the record for going through the Louvre, which they go tearing ass through, despite some protests from a guard. I’ll come to my thoughts on these scenes in a bit.

The three main players in this film do their work admirably enough. Both men offer quite restrained performances, in keeping with the influence of Hollywood genre anti-heroes. Sami Frey is the more stylish, but cold Franz, who wishes he could be warmer for the sake of getting closer to Odile. Claude Brasseur is Arthur, a more masculine presence, and more comfortable in his exchanges with Odile, though he is actually the more ruthless of the two. Anna Karina, though, does give something more. A gorgeous girl with big eyes and nice smile, she brings out the awkwardness of Odile very well, projecting this sense of vulnerability that’s in a near constant state of ebb and flow. It’s a downright enchanting show from Karina, who was actually Godard’s wife at the time.

There are things that I do struggle with in Bande à part, though. The continuity is off every now and then, such as Odile’s socks and stockings, which seem quite inconsistent. And there are a few edits that seem to be screw-ups, with the cut going back on the previous few seconds. As such, you’ll get a moment where Franz and Arthur start to cross the street, the camera cuts to a different position, and the two are back where they started, about to cross the street again. Another instance comes in the classroom, where a student’s response to a question is shown from one angle, but repeated with the camera now on the teacher. Moments such as these are simply too big to go unnoticed, which would make me think that it was done on purpose. As I mentioned before, Godard was someone to challenge ways of working, so this could be something in this vein. I say this because the alternative is that Godard and his three editors had a collective moment of crass amateurism and never noticed the problem. However, if this really were intentional, what would be the point? It doesn’t add anything. The only thing I can think of is that Godard left these mistakes in as a message that we all make mistakes, and it’s no big deal… yes, I agree, that’s a bit thin. Even taking into account his “every edit is a lie” concept, it still just amounts to him saying to us “remember, it’s all a lie”, which I’ve never really appreciated. All of this points towards a more general problem I have with Godard.

Honestly, I find that, nowadays, whilst Godard’s work is still interesting to me, it is only in a purely theoretical sense. I can’t really say that I enjoy his films as much as I used to, and Bande à part is included in this. You look at all the words written about the film and the adjectives in most constant use are “accessible”, “charming”, and “enjoyable”. However, there are also a few qualifiers in there, like “weirdly” and “peculiar”, as if the people found themselves enjoying the film against their better judgement. As for me, after viewing the film today, I think it’s lost some of its charms. The famous dance scene that spawned a few imitators does nothing for me. Neither does the Louvre sprint scene. The minute of silence I still find a little funny, but largely just because of the faces of the trio as they sit there. As it is, I just spend some of these moments wanting to get back to the story, which I doubt Godard would appreciate.

I think that the reason I feel this way about Godard’s work in general comes simply from the fact that I’ve grown up. I don’t mean to say that Godard’s work is juvenile, because it’s absolutely not. He was, and still is, a serious man with serious opinions about the filmic medium. What I mean is that the things Godard is trying to make the audience think about (narrative, editing, intertextuality, etc.) hold less sway as you grow as a viewer. As you get older and you see more films or read more books, your opinions on what makes them work become more solidified, depending on your own tastes. Of course, it is important that you challenge yourself every now and then, question your own standards of what you think works and what doesn’t, so to this purpose Godard’s films will always be important and always have their place. I just find that I have grown out of the questioning nature of Godard’s work because I have considered what he talks about and made up my mind on the subject, one way or the other.

I think that Godard’s filmic sensibilities are best experienced at a younger age than I am now, back when his musings and questions about the medium have a more profound impression on the viewer because they seem new. As I am now, I am less inclined to be bowled over by his radical tactics in narrative trickery or editing rhythm. I have seen his points, and how they have evolved, and I have decided whether or not I think they work for myself.

Bande à part is a good film, and part of the body of work that should be seen at least once. The story is intriguing and the acting is very good, especially from the wonderful Karina. However, I just can’t say that it had too much of an impact on me as I am now. I do believe that Godard is still an important filmmaker for people to see, particularly those who are serious about their films, like film students. So, if you’re looking to expand your filmic horizons, starting with Bande à part would be a wise move.

Sunday 25 September 2011

The Balloonatic (1923)

Note: The film that I was originally due to look at today was damaged, so I had to move on to the next one of the list. I’ll get to that other one when I can.

Today, we return to the world of silent comedy, although we now take our first foray into the world of the Master of Deadpan - Buster Keaton. Like many of the original stars of silent comedy film, Keaton had his beginnings in vaudeville, where it’s said that Harry Houdini himself gave him the moniker of “Buster” after helping the young lad after a fall… the story isn’t true, but it’s part of his legend. In 1917, through Fatty Arbuckle, Keaton came under contract with Joseph M. Schenck, who eventually gave Keaton his own production unit to make his own short films. In 1923, he made one of his final short films, The Balloonatic.

A young man (Buster Keaton) endures a few romantic setbacks at an amusement park, where he accidentally winds up in a hot air balloon. The balloon carries him into the wilderness, where meets a young woman (Phyllis Haver) on a camping trip. The two undergo a number of adventures trying to prove to each other their survival skills.

It’s sort of important to note that this was one Keaton’s last short films, having already begun a transition into feature length films. Taking this into consideration, it’s not entirely surprising that The Balloonatic is not particularly good. The underlying story is virtually non-existent, really serving as a flimsy framework to work some gags around. Keaton begins the film in a “House of Trouble”, which essentially seems to be a sort of haunted house that you wander through for a bit before being unceremoniously ejected via a slide that dumps you onto the sidewalk. Keaton’s young man walks around the amusement park, trying to be chivalrous and whatnot with some of the female clientele, but all to no avail. So then he winds up in a hot air balloon… wait, what? What has this got to do with anything that we just watched? Okay, he’s single, polite and looking for someone, but is that it? Couldn’t this have been most concisely set up? And there’s not much that you’d really say was actually funny.

When he eventually finds himself in the wilderness, having accidentally shot a hole in his balloon whilst hunting birds, his man versus nature shenanigans begin, with occasional cuts away to Phyllis Haver fishing more successfully or going swimming or cutting a small tree down on herself… wait, what? Let’s temporarily overlook the fact that these cutaways from Buster offer nothing that’s actually funny, but it shows a weirdly inconsistent character of the young woman, who can comfortably make her way in the wilderness, but doesn’t know she shouldn’t crouch in front a tree she’s cutting down. You may be tempted to brush this off as a product of a time when such things were less important. These things were always important; this film just completely drops the ball.

Again, it’s quite apparent that Keaton had begun to concentrate on features, because The Balloonatic feels lazy. He stills throws himself around with his usual abandon, but it’s nothing he hasn’t topped already. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was something to finish up a contract for a pre-determined number of shorts. I’m a big fan of Keaton, and many of his films are real classics, showcasing a brilliant sense of comedy and tremendous bravery when it comes to physicality of performance. To see him plod through something this lacklustre is very disappointing.

The Balloonatic is pretty bad, on levels of story and character, but also simply because there’s little you can comfortably call genuinely funny. There are a few nice images, like Keaton standing atop the giant balloon or the waterfall, but this does not make it worth the time. Even at 22 minutes, it drags. It’s not helped by some shoddy production values, with repeated frames and clumsy cuts. It doesn’t matter when it was made, this is amateurism in any age.

Saturday 24 September 2011

Badlands (1973)

The true exploits of criminals and their crimes have long been a fascination to people, from the continued mystery of the case of Jack the Ripper to the birth of the non-fiction crime novel with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Filmmakers are no exception to this rule. Just look at the films we’ve already looked at over the journey so far: All the President’s Men, Anatomy of a Murder, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, all with their beginnings in a true life criminal act. Even American Beauty was partly inspired by the case of Amy Fisher. In 1973, first timer Terrence Malick wrote and directed a film that took its inspiration from a killing spree that lasted two months in the late 1950s. It would also be the inspiration for two of Quentin Tarantino’s scripts (True Romance and Natural Born Killers). The film in question was Badlands.

Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen), a young garbage collector, meets Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) and instantly fall for each other. When Holly’s father expresses his objections to their relationship, Kit murders him and the pair flee the house. Making their way to the Badlands of Montana, they leave a trail of bodies in their wake, making their attempts to stay ahead of those chasing them.

Though it was not actually acknowledged at the time of the film’s release, the story of Kit and Holly was loosely based on the real-life murder spree of 19-year old Charles Starkweather and his 14-year old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, which began in December 1957 and ended with their capture in January 1958. Although the pair became a much-feared presence across Nebraska and Wyoming, the couple seemed to exist within their own world, equally infatuated with each other and separate from everyone else. Though from a happy home, Starkweather was an awkward boy growing up, cursed with bowed legs, a speech impediment and no ability for schoolwork. Developing a severe inferiority complex, he began to identify himself as an outsider of society, a rebel, an image very much constructed by his viewing of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Fugate herself was no great success in school, and found herself drawn to more exciting boys, the more rebellious type, boys like Starkweather. When the two got together, both of their parents advised Fugate against the relationship, knowing that Starkweather was bad news. Ultimately, these warnings proved true, as the pair would eventually go on a two month long spree that saw them kill a total of eleven people, including Fugate’s mother and stepfather. After being caught, Starkweather was eventually executed for his crimes, while Fugate was sentenced to life in prison, though she was released after 17 years… hell of a story, isn’t it?

The thing that drew Terrence Malick to the story of these two, often compared to some degree to Bonnie and Clyde, was not so much the actual criminal aspect of their journey, but their ‘lovers on the run’ story. In choosing to tell this tale, Malick focused on the nature of the romantic relationship that this pair could have whilst so dispassionately killing several people. The idea that Starkweather tried to make himself look and act like James Dean was a big part of this. Unlike Starkweather, Kit actually does look a little like Dean. His hair is similar; he holds a cigarette in his mouth in the same way; his dress sense consciously aping that of the big screen’s most iconic figure of youthful rebellion. He sees what he wants and isn’t shy about going for it. This is a big part of the attraction that draws Holly to Kit. A relatively closed off girl, still in school and easily led by a figure possessed of strength and charisma, she sees Kit as some with a sense of purpose, aimless as it may be. He doesn’t know where he’s going, but by God he’s getting there just as soon as he can. And Holly is an attractive prospect to Kit. He sees in her a kindred spirit, a restless soul looking to break free from whatever bonds happen to be holding her down. By “freeing” her, he gets to act out a kind of heroic fantasy to counteract the sense inferiority and rootless abandonment he feels; and she gets to accept a life more dramatic than her last one, where her mother is long dead and her father is a distant figure.

The real question about the couple, though, that lies very much at the heart of why Malick took on this story is this: how can these two people be in love when they are so cold and dispassionate about almost everything? Both Kit and Holly show little feeling one way or the other about what they’re doing, or even each other. On one of their afternoons by the river, before their criminal path begins, they have sex. Holly’s first time, she asks him if it went the way was supposed to, that that was all there was to it. He says it did, and yes. Holly doesn’t see what all the fuss was about. Neither does Kit. When Kit kills his first victim, Holly’s father, and takes the body down to the cellar of the Sargis home, he comes back upstairs with some news: “I found a toaster.” The unemotional reaction they have to almost everything is disquieting to say the least. Long into their spree, Holly describes herself and her situation: “At this moment, I didn’t feel shame or fear, but just kind of blah… like when you’re sitting there and all the water’s run out of the bathtub.” She’s currently on the run with a murderer, whom she certainly seems to be in some sort of love with, but this is how she appraises her current situation. It’s quite chilling.

The subtle cine-literacy of the film does a lot to push this mildly dreamlike haze of fantasy that rests over the film, since it is so important to both Kit and Holly that this journey they are on feels like a movie, at least to them. Kit’s allusion to looking like James Dean is mentioned more than once, and not just by Holly. He even adopts a stance like Dean’s character in Giant, shotgun resting across both shoulders with hands draped casually over both ends. Holly also constantly reads movie magazines, reading aloud parts she thinks Kit will like, like the facts and falsities of who loves whom in Hollywood. She even acts as our narrator, describing events in a manner akin to someone who’s read much but experienced little, utilising romantic clichés to recount the journey, referring to Kit as “from the wrong side of the tracks” and the importance of keeping their relationship from her father. Although Kit tells Holly that he likes her because she is mature for her 15 years (no giggling), she is still very much a young girl who has been dazzled by the easy laconic nature of someone who seems to have just walked off the movie screen. This is what keeps their relationship going. It’s what stops her from running any chance she got, and stops him from killing or otherwise abandoning her. Similar to the couple in Godard’s À bout de soufflé, this couple are kept together by the feeling of living beyond the rule of regular societal dictates.

However, what carries us along here is the barren nature of how the film unfolds, matching the strikingly empty backdrop of Montana. This sense of isolation here effectively means that we latch onto the two characters making their way across the state, just as they are getting lost in each other. It also encases us in the same feeling of separation from the influence of outside society and rules. Just as Kit and Holly come to know each other only within the context of miles of open sky and dustbowls, we too get to share in this insular world of their own making. Indeed, when they first spot a police helicopter that just happens to come along, there is a genuine feeling of something intrusive, of a world being shattered. For so long, Kit and Holly have went where they pleased, living off the land and what they could take from others, allowing themselves into anywhere they wanted, so when their world is now the one being invaded, it feels like something interrupted.

Malick’s hand over the film is one of an easy poetic style, but it matches his characters for a sense of emotional distance. Thanks to the two superb performances from Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, we can see everything about these two as they relate to each other and what’s around them. Malick’s script also gives us the required insight into how Holly feels about this boy who has swept her off her feet, in a manner of doing so. However, the visuals offer a more restrained look at the two. Whilst showing the gorgeous landscape of Colorado, we can also see what Holly doesn’t, either by choice or because she can’t. From here, we can see Kit’s simmering intensity, so often smoothed over by his easy-going affect. We see Kit’s need to make his mark, sometimes literally, in the world. He records messages for police to explain his motives and dispense the sage advice of the world-weary drifter. He also has a bizarre need to make marks with rocks. After the two have sex by the river, Kit grabs a huge rock and suggests they both smash their hand with it, so they’ll remember the day. When he is eventually caught, done by his own choosing, he waits for the police to catch up by building a small pile of rocks by the side of the road. Why? So they will always be able to tell where they caught the outlaw Kit Carruthers. When an officer tells him, “You’re quite an individual, Kit,” he answers, “You think they’ll take that into consideration.” It’s a strangely defiant line, as if Kit jokingly expects a certain degree of leniency because the judge likes his style.

Badlands is a great film, so subtle and sparse that it’s barely told at all. It’s a slow and steady pace, beautifully shot and showcasing two superb performances from Sheen and Spacek.

Friday 23 September 2011

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (2009)


Some films you simply don’t think would ever really hit the remake track, and you’d certainly have to think of Bad Lieutenant as one of them. A story about the downfall of an amoral and reprehensible police officer, brought on by years of pent up religious guilt and instigated by a horrific sexual assault on a nun? Doesn’t exactly spring immediately to mind when thinking about what can bring in the box office. That said, Werner Herzog never really seemed to be one to take the easy road. Indeed, his other films are infamous for the difficulty in getting them made, involving stories of injured stuntmen, heated battles with actors, and indigenous shamans offering to murder his star… and that was just one film. Given this pedigree, he’s clearly the kind of person to accept that job.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans police Sergeant Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) tries to rescue a prisoner from the flooded jail, but severely injures his spine in the process. For his heroism, he is promoted to Lieutenant; for his pain, he is given painkillers. He swiftly becomes addicted to both, cranking up his drug usage and abusing his position for personal gain. Only his prostitute girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes) offers him any kind of relief. When an African family of small-time dealers and their two children are executed, Terence is assigned to investigate, but he has some trouble in locating the one witness and building a case against those responsible.

There was a lot of controversy and caterwauling surrounding the news of an apparent sequel/remake to Bad Lieutenant, with none more viciously scathing than the creator of the original, Abel Ferrara. On hearing the plans to tackle that character again, Ferrara spoke openly to any media outlet that would listen, saying that, “I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar, and it blows up.” Harsh. He also took verbal swings at both Nicolas Cage and Werner Herzog, saying that they had no right to even attempt such an endeavour. Obviously, his ire was plentiful. However, when those same media folks questioned Werner Herzog about the ferocity of Ferrara’s words, his response was typical: “I have no idea who he is.” Clearly, Herzog knows that the best way to undermine the torrent of abuse from an angry person is to completely cut their legs out from under them, basically saying that they aren’t even on his radar.

Herzog always denied that the film was a remake, or a sequel, and actively fought for a name change, though without success. Apparently, he talked of it as a “rethought”, a spiritual cousin, a film that shared the same basic idea - a corrupt cop trying to stop his world from caving in - but taking it in a completely different direction. From this perspective, he’s correct. There’s little attempt to make something that bears resemblance to Ferrara’s gritty ‘Catholic guilt and redemption’ thriller. If anything, steps have been taken to distance the new film from the old. Where the original was a film slowed by the weight of religious metaphor and damnation, the new one is choked up on hallucinogens and hysterical mania.

Many critics have said that to try and compare the two is useless, as if it would like comparing a Swedish 1855 Three Skilling Banco stamp printed in yellow to an apple... and that’s pretty useless. I’m not sure I agree that it’s an entirely fruitless undertaking, although I do agree that it can get in the way of enjoying the film as is. I’ll consider this film on its own merits for now, but I’ll come back to this point later.

For The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans, the action has been shifted, as the title says, to the city of New Orleans, post-Katrina. This is a city that, in its current state, Nature seems to be trying to reclaim from its human populace. The effects of the water are still apparent, with a significant portion of residents having left for drier pastures, and the sense of a humid climate pervading the homes of those that stayed. Even the animal kingdom seems to be making its move. Iguanas are everywhere, and an alligator meets its end by being run over as it crossed the highway, all watched by a fellow reptile. In fact, the opening shot of the film sees a snake riding the waters into a waterlogged jail, kind of like it’s checking out its new digs, much to the distress of the lone prisoner they forgot to evacuate. And this is how we meet Terence McDonagh.

Because this one prisoner needed to be saved, and McDonagh was the only one willing to help, he ends up injuring himself badly. McDonagh messes his spine up, giving him a permanent hunch in his shoulders and a life-long pain problem, for which he gets medicated. You’d be tempted to think that this act of benevolence is evidence of McDonagh’s formerly good self, that he was a good man broken physically by an accident, and then corrupted by a dependence of painkillers. As it is, that’s not true. As the prisoner begs and pleads to be rescued, water already lapping around his neck, McDonagh shouts down that he doesn’t want to get his very expensive underwear dirty, and then starts making bets with his partner about how long before the water takes him. Yes, in the brief moments we see him before his accident, he’s still an amoral dick, just without the metaphorical spinal injury. He does come round and do the right thing, almost crippling himself doing so, and that would seem to be where his desire to do the right thing ends. Once burned, twice shy.

For the rest of the film, McDonagh is a hunched degenerate junkie and thoroughly abusive presence. He steals drugs from junkies, dealers and the police evidence room; he harasses a girl into masturbating him in a parking lot at gunpoint, whilst her boyfriend watches; he gets high on any drug going every chance he gets; he blackmails a local sports star to help him win; he even threatens to shoot an old woman, whilst cutting of the oxygen of another old woman, for information. He really is a nasty piece of work. However, there is some kind of balance to him. For all his corruption, he’s still a damn good cop; and he does find some solace in the arms of Frankie, his girlfriend. The fact that she’s a prostitute doesn’t bother him. She accepts him for his faults.

Throughout, Herzog’s tone in the film is one of a dark comedy, with a regular excursion into mild surrealism. Only someone like him would give a few minutes of the film to close-ups of alligators and iguanas as they stare back at us, the action having seemingly halted briefly in the background. There’s even a point later when, immediately after a shootout, McDonagh watches the soul of one of the fallen continue to breakdance until he’s shot again. It’s absurd, but hilariously so. And there’s also the feeling that he couldn’t care less about the story, which acts merely as an excuse to follow this very messed-up individual around. Nowhere is this more evident than in the giddy manner in which everything is tied up in about two minutes towards the end, every character grinning manically as they relay their news.

As Terence McDonagh, Nicolas Cage is better here than he had been in a long time. He’s always been one of the most fearless actors going, but this has often worked against him. Never one to shy away from intensity and going over the edge, this is an approach that saw him appear like some cackling maniac. However, this makes him the perfect choice for McDonagh. There are few other actors, if any that could match him for his sheer force of crazy. He really does offer a great unpredictability to proceedings, which is exactly what’s needed. In this role, for this director, Cage is outstanding.

Okay, I’ve stalled enough. I said before that I thought that there is something to be gained from a comparison. If we are going to compare the two films, what happens?

Ferrara’s film is a dark, grimy, very heavy film, driven by the torment of a bad soul shown the possibility of redemption. The concern with religion and guilt soaks the film through to the bone. The central character is so tortured primarily because he is so incredibly weak-willed, a defect that none can cure except for God. However, Herzog’s film steers clear of such concerns. His world is less dark and grimy, rather more possessed of a bright but still mottled, slightly rotten visual sensibility, almost like the damp has soaked into the lens. The use of religious iconography is still present, but to a far lesser degree, and in fact holds no sway over proceedings whatsoever. Although Herzog claims that he had never seen any of Ferrara’s work before, it’s almost as if he has consciously adopted an aspect of his film just to show how little it matters. This New Orleans is a city that God abandoned long ago, leaving it to the animals and criminals that chose to hang around. As such, any redemption experienced comes from the characters themselves, and not some deity. Just like McDonagh’s attempts to find a spoon hidden somewhere in his father’s shed, the ability to change comes from looking inward. Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant is a moralistic film; Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant is a humanistic film. The two films don’t really rest comfortably side by side, but rather in opposition. As such, they can be considered as separate entities, but there is still an interesting exercise to be had in going over their differences.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans is a bracing and downright invigorating film, pervaded by a wonderfully dark humour, and holding an interesting treatise on a corrupt character that is driven by stirring and superb performance from Nicolas Cage. I tell you what, these bad cops sure make for some damn good watching.

Thursday 22 September 2011

Bad Lieutenant (1992)


For many an artist with some sort of religious influence in their lives, at some point they will consider the topic of redemption. Rather more specifically, how far does one go before they are beyond redemption? Is that even possible? Can someone be bad for so long, but still be offered a saving grace? Does the possibility of redemption depend wholly on the amount of torment that person suffers as a result of their sins? These would be the questions that act as the central concern for Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film Bad Lieutenant, where a police officer is tormented by his own demons, but seems incapable of rectifying his mistakes.

A police Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel) goes about his day in a less than typical fashion. He has little interest in stopping or investigating crimes, but instead is more concerned with pursuing his own vices, like drugs, hookers, gambling and generally abusing his position of power. He is in serious debt, accumulated through ill bets on baseball, continuously doubling-up to recoup his losses. When a nun (Frankie Thorn) is raped in a church, the attempts to investigate the crime force the Lieutenant to reconsider his life and the choices he’s made.

Abel Ferrara is a not a subtle man, and he prides himself as someone who makes uncompromising films beyond the edge of what many believe to be proper. Released in 1976, his first feature was a porno called 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy, starring his then-girlfriend, some of her friends and about a half dozen men, which included himself, albeit reluctantly. His next film got him instant attention, particularly in the UK. His 1979 horror flick The Driller Killer wound up on the infamous ‘video nasty’ list, with the conservative populace decrying it for its amoral and corruptive influence. However, the idea of Ferrara’s work being amoral is somewhat misleading. Whilst it is true that he has a predilection for characters who are self-destructive and corrupted, and that his stories take place in a harsh, bleak world, there is still a moralistic influence that runs through his work. In fact, it’s partly because of this sense of morality that this is what cripples the characters.

Ferrara was raised a Catholic, and brought up on the streets of New York, and both of these factors figure heavily into his work. Religion is a regular thematic influence and many of his films take place on the harsh and gritty streets of his home city. In Bad Lieutenant, the film that will probably be forever regarded as Ferrara’s best, these two influences are exploited to their fullest potential. The film charts the gradual downfall of a character that has long ago receded into his own desiccated moral self, cursing his soul with every act of violence and depravity. The character is also an officer of the law, a role that is meant to reflect goodness and honour, which just makes his descent all the greater. He is never even named, credited only as The Lieutenant, marking him not as a specific individual, but as a representative of a more general corruptive authority, which is another fairly regular Ferrara preoccupation.

There is little goodness to find in this character. No goodness at all, really. Within the first twenty minutes, we see him act in ways that you’d be hard pressed to like. He yells and curses at his kids, takes bets at the scene of a double homicide that he’s supposed to be investigating, does a lot of drugs, ignores the actions of a car thief as they happen right in front of him, and engages the services of two hookers that he barely seems to notice. And this is at the highpoint of his day. Over the course of the film, he does even more drugs, loses tens of thousands of dollars on bad bets, interrupts a convenience store robbery so he can take the money himself, shoots out his own car stereo because of the baseball score, and tries to steal drugs from the scene of a crime. His most unsettling actions come from when he pulls over two young girls for a busted taillight. Neither of the girls have a licence to drive, so the Lieutenant makes them a deal: one of them strips a little bit to show her ass, and the other simulates giving a blowjob, all whilst he masturbates in front of them. And this is all in the middle of the street, albeit at night. It’s a very uncomfortable scene, made worse by the long drawn out nature of the editing. It’s also indicative as to how he operates. He steps into the situation under the guise of authority, but quickly turns this position to abusive advantage. At no point do we ever see him do anything that you could regard as good. It’s very important that we not like this man.

It’s important because we must believe him to be beyond saving, out of reach of a redemptive hand. Indeed, this is how he sees himself. Although he will identify himself as a Catholic, he must believe himself to be beyond help or hope. It’s the only way he can continue to do what he does, be what he is. However, when he hears of the brutal rape of a nun, this kicks in something of a religious crisis in him. It’s not because of the act itself. In fact, when he first hears about it, his initial reaction is to call the church a scam and say that if the victim weren’t a nun, no one would really care. What completely throws him is the reaction of the nun to her ordeal. Believing this to be an opportunity to show the divine grace of God to those that violated her, she forgives them and refuses to identify them. That their victim forgives these two rapists so quickly and without hesitation causes the Lieutenant a great deal of pain. Until now, he believed everyone to be corrupt, so he had no real need to worry about his fate. However, the nun’s actions show that there can be redemption for anyone – maybe even him. In the end, what causes the Lieutenant’s moral crisis isn’t really the toll of his wicked ways; it’s hope that breaks him. As some sort of last-ditch attempt at rebalancing his world, he goes to the nun, who he finds in the middle of prayer. Completely out of his mind on booze and drugs, he tells her that, if she tells him the identity of her attackers, he will deliver her true justice (i.e. kill them). When she refuses, he tries everything he can to get her to change her mind, pleading to her need for revenge, asking her to protect future victims, questioning her right to forgive these people for their crimes. That she steadfastly refuses to accept his offer causes him to have a complete and utter break with reality, hallucinating that Jesus now stands silently before him. There’s a line in John Milton’s Paradise Lost that goes, “abashed the Devil stood and felt how awful goodness is.” This is the root of the Lieutenant’s anguish. He now has to face the fact that for all of his power, his authority, his muscle, he is the weakest person in the film, and the thing that took him down was an act of inconceivable kindness to someone as morally repugnant as him.

Harvey Keitel’s performance in Bad Lieutenant may be one of the bravest in cinema, and perhaps the best of his career. He engages fully with hideous nature of the Lieutenant, tackling it all without fear or hesitance or judgement. He’s a violent man, a hypocrite and an utterly reprehensible human being… and Keitel holds nothing back from his performance. It’s not just in the harsh nature of the character that Keitel excels, but in the searing anguish that sits at his centre. When he finally breaks down in the church, crying and yelling at the image of Jesus in front of him, his pained sobs show just how lost and devastated he is. Keitel is on absolute fire in this film, and should probably receive way more credit than he actually does for his work here.

As to the concerns about religion and morality, that’s something worthy of a bit more discussion. It would seem that Bad Lieutenant proposes the idea that Catholicism is the saviour. Although the nun is not protected by her status or position in society, it’s her calling that allows her to deal with her trauma. Indeed, she is the one with most justification to be angry, but she chooses to follow her faith to help her cope. The nun is really the only character in the film that isn’t a hypocrite. Whilst that is rather commendable to a degree, it does start to get a little uneasy in other areas.

The rapists, having been forgiven for their crimes, receive no punishment. In fact, what they receive is protection. With their victim having forgiven them and prayed for them, they do indeed seem to find protection and help. The Lieutenant, being the bad soul that he is, finds his situation becoming darker and more insurmountable as he goes on without asking forgiveness from those he wronged. Therefore, his fate is sealed. There’s also a sense in the film that there exists two laws: those of Man and those of God. The former laws are shown to be hollow, weak, being enforced by the whims of the flawed people that wear the badge; the latter laws are stronger, have more resonance, are represented by individuals of character and grace. From this perspective, it seems to espouse an idea that can be found in some of the very devout – that by following the laws of God, you don’t need to fear the laws, or actions, of Man. This has never been an idea to sit too well with me, since religious rules are as open to interpretation as the rest of them. Plus, it’s this kind of thinking that can lead people to kill doctors who work in women’s clinics because they believe it’s their moral responsibility to protect the unborn. As such, I really can’t take to the ideas presented in this film.

Bad Lieutenant is a raw, gritty, powerful and unsettling film, with an absolutely superb performance from Harvey Keitel at its core. Those looking for a good story may be somewhat disappointed, since the film more follows the apparently disjointed actions of a severely unhinged character rather than an actual narrative. However, the character is thoroughly intriguing in the most hideous terms. The heavy-handed use of religious iconography in the film can lead to some uncomfortable conclusions, but it does at least present an opportunity to engage with these ideas. It’s not for everyone, but it is something that should perhaps be experienced once, if for no other reason than to appreciate the great skill of the central performer.