Monday, December 26, 2005

Review Revue

With winter break in full swing, I'm busy working on my new film, and also watching a bunch of films. So, here's the latest stuff I've seen.

King Kong - There was a really great movie in there, but I feel like there was way too much fat to make it an enjoyable film experience. First, it took way too long to get to Kong, there were a ton of scenes that felt like stuff I'd usually see in a deleted scenes section and say "Yeah, I can see why they cut that."

I feel like the dinosaurs took away from the majesty of Kong. If we've already got a giant ape, why do we need dinosaurs, it just felt gratuitous and added nothing to the film's emotional center, which was Kong and Ann Darrow. The stuff with the dinosaurs was completely pointless, not cool enough to justify its existence, and certainly not relevant to the narrative.

I think Naomi Watts was phenomenal in this movie, they used a lot of very tight closeups on her and you could see everything that needed to be said in her face. And Kong too was amazing, totally convincing. The stuff with the two of them worked wonderfully, and the ending sequence was a real highlight. The sensation of height was conveyed so well that I was actually feeling uncomfortable, with the shot of Ann on the broken ladder as a particular highlight.

I would have liked to see about 45 minutes cut, to bring the focus on Kong and Darrow, without the distractions of the other people. The crew was never particularly developed, but there was a ton of time spent on them, and then they just disappeared once the movie went back to New York, meaning there was no payoff for all that time spent. It's like two seperate movies, one about King Kong, the other about random people fighting stuff.

Heavenly Creatures - Mixing it up, I checked out some earlier Peter Jackson. This was made in 1994, before he rose to fame with Lord of the Rings, and even though it's a much more conventional drama, you can see a lot of both the stylistic and narrative trends that would flower in his work on LotR. The film's about a very close relationship between two girls who together create a fantasy world. The thing that makes the film work is the depiction of the relationship, it sets up a really strong us vs. the world vibe, as the two girls become closer and closer. This was one of Kate Winslet's first roles and she's great, you can see why she would go on to become a star. Whenever she's on screen, the film has a lot of energy.

The main thing holding the film back from greatness is the sort of haphazard narrative progress. A whole bunch of events happen, but becuase things take place over such a long period of time, it's sometimes difficult to piece together exact cause and effect, meaning that a lot of events pop up out of nowhere. However, pretty much every issue is redeemed by the haunting ending, particularly the final titles which leave you with a really odd feeling. So, it's not Lord of the Rings, but it's a disciplined, character based emotional film, that does have a large scope, even though it's just about two people.

The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc - Continuing with the slightly insane girl theme, I also saw this film. Messenger was directed by Luc Besson, who directed Leon: The Professional, one of my absolute favorite films ever made. Messenger was not well received, but I really liked it. Cinematically, the story of Joan of Arc is most notably represented in Dreyer's Passion of Jeanne D'Arc, a really powerful silent film. However, that film focused on her trial, while Messenger takes a wider view, showing her rise to glory and ultimate fall.

The thing that made the film effective for me was the innovative filmmaking. There's a lot of dream moments, and the imagery in these is phenomenal, some cool time lapse and lush lighting. Towards the end of the film, Dustin Hoffman appears as some kind of supernatural being, who forces Joan to question all her beliefs. She believes she's doing God's will, but he basically poses the idea that she is actually insane, and has tried to see God where there is nothing but coincidence. Throughout the film, Joan is rather emphatic, believing herself to be God's servant and not considering an alternative. So, at the end, her self doubt is logical and interesting to watch.

The more conventional parts of the film are also interesting. It's got a lot of medieval action that recalls Braveheart or Lord of the Rings, but it's all well done and entertaining. Most importantly, the action is used as a way to develop Joan's character, we're more concerned with seeing the men get behind her than seeing her actually win. It's like the real battle is making them believe that they can win, if she does that, then the actual fight is easy. The film is a bit long, but the images are so strong that I was never bored. Besson shoots in a really dynamic, engaging way, so that the emotion of the visual moment is more important than the narrative. When every frame has interesting construction, there's always something to engage with.

Naked Lunch - This is David Cronenberg's take on the William Burroughs novel. I haven't read the novel, so I'm not sure if this is a strict adaptation, though I read that a lot of the film's events were actually taken from Burroughs' own life. Regardless of whether this works for a Burroughs fan, it's also got to work as a film too, and I feel like this movie runs into a lot of the issues that plagued Last Days, where you need to know a lot about the person going in. However, I feel like Last Days is enhanced by knowledge of Cobain, whereas this movie just doesn't make sense if you don't know about Burroughs.

Now, I love films with difficult, symbolic narratives, but the thing is, you need to have some kind of grounding. In Lynch's work, it's usually emotion. So, we might not be sure what's happening in the last episode of Twin Peaks, but we understand where the characters are emotionally, same thing in Mulholland Drive. However, here things just make no sense and you have no idea of where Bill's hallucinations begin and the real world ends. This means that it's difficult to engage with the movie. The unreality serves no purpose other than to just put forth a bunch of strange things. The film is so deliberately impenetrable that it's impossible to relate to the characters emotionally, and that means that we wind up just watching a bunhc of stuff happen, with little knowledge of what is real or unreal.

This wouldn't be such a problem, except the movie isn't particularly good looking. There's some wacky stuff, like the typewriter monsters, but on the whole, it's conventionally shot and designed. That means that you've basically got a standard movie, except with no logical narrative or characters. Basically, with a film, you've either got to have a good narrative, good visuals, good characters or a good emotional hook. With at least one of those, you'll have a good film, and when you've got two or three, you've got a great film. This has none of those characteristics.

This is definitely one of those be careful what you wish for movies, since I always said, why couldn't Lynch make a film that's all like Club Silencio, however without the narrative grounding, that scene would be meaningless, like this movie.

Days of Heaven - This is a film from Terence Malick, who's got his new movie, The New World, out this week. Days of Heaven was made in 1978, and has a lot of hallmarks of American cinema from the 70s, de-dramatized narrative, focus on individual visual moments over strict service to the narrative. I loved this movie, the first thing you notice is that it's absolutely gorgeous. Malick shoots the farm were events take place as a paradise on Earth, a beautiful field of endless wheat, where at first, it seems like there's no problems.

The central conflict of the film is underplayed, but is even more emotionally devestating for it. None of the characters ever really say what they feel, meaning that the emotions fester under the surface, and also means that we get some really strong visual storytelling. So, when we see the farmer looking at Bill and Abby from a distance, we know what he's feeling, the jealousy evident on his face. Abby is caught in a really difficult emotional place, because she loves both men, and if she were to choose one, it could mean losing them both once the deception is revealed.

As things come crashing down, we get more phenomenal images, the burning field at night, the locusts and ultimately the stark images of Bill and Abby on the run. The whole film is underscored by a voiceover from Linda, who speaks in a really odd accent. Her words give things a more epic feeling and unify things a bit. Like Heavenly Creatures, it's a film about things that are relatively small in big picture terms, but for these people, the things that occur are massive.


amon said...

If you get the chance, go back and take notice of the camera work in all of Peter Jackson's films. Bad Taste, Heavenly Creatures, Meet the Feebles and Brain Dead all employ very erratic and kinetic cinematography. The Frighteners uses this technique in only one scene, when Jeffrey Combs' character is freaking out. Forgotten Silver is a completely different entity so it's not used there at all.

One interviewer asked Jackson in 2001 if he was going to use his style for LotR, and he responded that he didn't know what his style was. But with his selective use of it on the Frighteners, I think he knew full well what the interviewer was referring to. The loss of the "seasick" camera work is what I miss most about the "old" Peter Jackson. I haven't seen Kong yet, but I suspect it's not in there, either.

I didn't like how they turned Joan of Arc into a female Rambo in the Messenger, making her mission a "you killed my sister" revenge story. Especially when the murder scene was played for laughs. The historical inaccuracies were extremely blatant — the real Joan didn't even have a sister, all the French had full suits of shiny fantasy armor, there were too few English archers, etc. Then the portrayal of the English in this film could easily be interpreted as racist.

Dustin Hoffman was terrible in this. His accent is often an endearing quality for him, but here it's just annoying considering he's supposed to be the conscience of an illiterate French farm girl (or God, or the devil... they didn't have the guts to say). There was also a shot near the end where he comes sliding into frame on a dolly track and he's noticeably jolted when it hits the brakes.

Anyway, just a couple of random points there for you. You usually do a pretty good analyses of things, even if our tastes are miles apart. But sometimes you completely skip the points that I thought were the most important.

Patrick said...

Kong has some shaky camera stuff. He uses a bit of the slow shutter speed technique that Wong Kar-Wai used in Chungking Express, but doesn't push things too far. I haven't seen any of Jackson's early stuff, but I'm definitely going to check it out, even though I'm not a huge Kong fan, everything I've seen by him has been entertaining.

As for Joan of Arc, I would agree that the rape sequence seemed a bit out of place, but I think it was meant to tie in with the question of whether or not she was delusional, which seemed to be the film's central question. Without that scene, she would have no particular reason to want the English out, but with it, we'd have a reason for her to want a justification for going to fight the English.

As for Hoffman, I'm a sucker for that type of character, someone who represents fate or conscience, that sort of thing. His accent was weird in that context, but I think it worked to boost the mystery of the character. The film certainly has some problems, but on the whole, I think it works.