27 April 2010

Tuesday Title: Demons 2/Dèmoni 2: L'incubo ritorna

Each Tuesday I post a still from the opening titles of a film - as a celebration of great title sequences, cinematic use of typography and the feeling of anticipation in waiting for a film to start...

Today: Demons 2 (Lamberto Bava/1986)*

Archetypal '80s horror movie music - all tinny, dramatic synth, electric guitar and drum machine ungodliness that goes for a cheese-topped Gothic effect - it's grandly daft as only the opening of cheap 1980s Euro-horror can be. This music (by acclaimed musician Simon Boswell, who did an amazing 11 scores for Bava in four years), matched with the ragged and scratched lettering (it shakily pulls forward onto the screen), perfectly captures the type of horror flick that I lapped up during my formative scary movie-watching years. Talk about the feeling of anticipation in waiting for a film to start!

Lamberto (son of Mario) Bava quickly followed up his first Demons (1985) film with this sequel. Everything about it was fast and frenzied, choppy and cheerful. Both films' opening titles - and in fact both films - are as good as each other, in their own no-fuss, low-grade way - just the way I like them to be. But this sequel just edges out its predecessor as the slightly better film. It's a great entry in the trapped-in-a-high-rise-so-let's-fend-off-demonic-forces canon** (it sits just a floor beneath Cronenberg's Shivers (1975), for me). It's also notable for being Asia Argento's feature film debut, too (dad Dario wrote and produced).

* Some versions have the on-screen title as: Dèmoni 2: L'incubo ritorna (Demons 2: The Nightmare Returns).
** If there is such a canon - and in my world, there is.

25 April 2010

At the Cinema: The Joneses

The Joneses (Derrick Borte/2010) USA/96mins. *****

Whilst watching The Joneses (in which Demi Moore and David Duchovny are employed together as a "couple", with two teenage kids, and inserted into an affluent neighbourhood to sell a company's high-end goods - they are effectively selling the American dream) I kept thinking that there were at least two other, better films that could be made from its premise. The tone the filmmakers went for fell somewhere between light satire and (eventual) lighter romantic drama. The problem, though, was that it was too light either way. One way to go would be to have heightened the satire considerably, made the comic elements a touch broader so that they made more of a forceful point (this is the more commercially viable route); another way would've been to zero in on the apparent creepiness of the idea; there are, bubbling beneath its surface, several ominous undertones which, in the hands of, say, David Cronenberg or John Carpenter, could've flourished and been made more coldly sinister (this, of course, would be the less commercially viable option, though one with a whole lot more potential mileage).

There are many montage sequences where the family are seen carrying out their particular type of personalised product placement. All four fake family members target their respective social niches: latest teen fashions in daughter Amber Heard's high school cliques; son Ben Hollingsworth's jock-aimed guy-gadgets; Moore's chef-made, posh party nibbles and household must-haves; and Duchovny's middle-age crisis golf accessories. But these frequent montages appear to replace any meaningful character development. Two-thirds of the way in we know the family's sales aims, but what we don't know is how they interact on a personal level, apart from some late perfunctory issues (glaringly obvious from the start) treated with only surface care - and this is at a point when the audience is asked to make a deeper investment in their real selves. Knowing more about their reasons for joining up for such a life-jarring job option (aside from its obvious material perks) and a deeper display of characterisation may have made me care more for their situation.

Buy into this?: The Joneses welcome you and your wallets
But the film is rarely boring, and has some fine moments none the less. Moore and Duchovny are ideal for their roles, and both play to their strengths (him - cocksure confidence; her - icy determinism). The Joneses strong conceit is intriguing enough to just last its average running time, but it often feels padded out in flimsy narrative attire. Still, it gets points for attempting to point out a few material truths about the way people still covet the beautiful things in life despite the current shaky financial climate. Its release is perfectly timed, too - are we not currently at the height of the craze for the best and the newest lifestyle must-haves?

Although I think the filmmakers missed a trick in the promotion of the film. As far as I know there were no ad campaigns pushing The Joneses in any innovative way (the generic posters say nothing about the film). Its premise screams for a viral marketing campaign in accordance with its plot. The producers should've hand-picked members of the cinema-going public, as they often do when calling for test screenings (if production companies have to use test screenings, why not try and change tack, shake it up a little?) and sent them forth into cinemas, restaurants, show homes, anywhere the film's target audience might congregate, and do the one thing that's commonplace in Hollywood filmmaking in regards to attempting to create a hit movie (and which dovetails with the way the Joneses go about their sales techniques) and use one simple tool: word of mouth. The Joneses push its wares subliminally, but it could've tried for the hard sell.

20 April 2010

Tuesday Title: Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

Each Tuesday I post a still from the opening titles of a film - as a celebration of great title sequences, cinematic use of typography and the feeling of anticipation in waiting for a film to start...

Today: Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (Russ Meyer/1965)

Shadowed male faces ogle writhing Go-Go-Dancing women - shot from below, as if the camera is viewing them as statuesque be(s)hemoths (as indeed they are). Cut to a car radio, then to Tura Satana, as Varla, laughing maniacally in the driver's seat (and she was firmly in the driver's seat throughout the film): the opening title appears on the screen with a thud - to the tune of The Bostweeds' 'Faster Pussycat' - as Varla and her girls bomb down the highway.

It takes three scrappy, (im)perfectly cobbled-together typefaces to handle the words Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! The rest of the titles follow as the girl gang, intent on murdering, beating and kidnapping their way to finding a hidden stash of cash, race to a life of turning the tables on a world of man idiots.

Tommy: Look, I don't know what the hell your point is, but...
Varla: The point is of no return and you've reached it!

A Film by Russ Meyer indeed.

It's such a great film opening, completely redolent of his shabby, B-Movie style, and one that in its own demented, crazy-cool way perfectly sets up the titillating hijinx that follow.

Also worth another look, as ever, is this wonderful theatrical poster for the film:

"Don't race the fastest Pussycats -- they'll beat you -- to death!"

17 April 2010

At the Cinema: Whip It

Whip It (Drew Barrymore/2009) USA/111 mins. *****

Drew Barrymore has lived enough of a life surrounded by films and filmmaking that it's really no surprise she would direct her own film one day. Her debut, Whip It (which stars Ellen Page as a small-town Texas teenager reluctantly coerced into taking part in beauty pageants, looking for something meaningful in her life; and finding it in the Hurl Scouts, a Roller Derby skating team), is as much a truly entertaining and goodhearted first film as it is a glorious culmination, so far, of her particular talents. She's always conveyed a carefree and amiable onscreen presence - part punkish attitude, part goof-off girl - in her work as an actress, especially within the last fifteen-or-so years, and it seems as if it's all been lovingly instilled into the making of this film. It's neither a riotous comedy nor a straight-up indie flick, but a sweetly-conveyed concoction of the two, as based on Shauna Cross' semi-autobiographical novel.

It does, though, feel completely Barrymore's own film. Indeed, she's managed to take someone else's source material and successfully inject elements of her own persona into it with ease. (It's probably not wide of the mark to say that Page is standing in for Barrymore; she's an apt fictional incarnation through which Drew can interpret her story.) It is about an all-girl rolling skating derby, though it's fully embodied with her own sense of charm and personality; everything is infused with the agreeable disposition that's defined her work to date. To say that she could be a budding comedy auteur in the making may meet a few sniffs of derision from loftier types, but Whip It is a great first effort that shows signs of lasting individual directorial talent.

Daydream nation: Ellen Page and Landon Pigg in Whip It

It's not perhaps the most original story, but it stands out as significantly more easy-going and, for the most part, free of many of the quirky foibles of recent indie films. An obvious comparison would be Page's surprise Oscar-nabbing hit Juno from two years ago, or maybe a less tricksy - and female-centred - take on the burgeoning adolescent malaise seen in this year's Youth in Revolt (but without it's meta-character doubling, and replaced with a gaggle of riot grrrl-ish skaters!). But no one here waxes on about obscure foreign movies or overtly thumb their noses at typical teen mainstream interests. Well, not too much anyway - there is some love for semi-obscure '80s music and several alternative cultural references thrown around, but they're kept to a minimum and come across as voiced with enthusiasm and a genuine nostalgia.

The roller derby scenes are immense fun and are filmed with plenty of appropriate zest and sheer enjoyment. There are also wonderful details, and some seemingly inconsequential moments, within the film that are nicely spliced in and add to the charm on display in many of the more event-driven scenes: deflated from endless small-town burger serving, Pash and diner manager Birdman (Carlo Alban) indulge in a random kiss; Page giving her expensive pageant dress to a rival before a crucial contest; a nicely underplayed moment when Page discovers her dad's (Daniel Stern) secret sports-watching hideaway, and the surprise at finding out Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig) balances skating with being a mother. The characters open up in small, telling ways throughout the film, incrementally revealing more about themselves - and each letting any issues with one another evaporate in the face of what really matters to them. Such scenes, which could easily have been played as coy, eye-rolling revelations, take a well-balanced left turn and become nicely downplayed, relishable moments.

On a roll: Director Barrymore with Page and Kirsten Wiig

I'm one of the people who found Ellen Page's performance in Juno a touch on the irritating side, but here she shows that without the smarmy, know-it-all one-liners care of Diablo Cody she's an engaging screen presence. But every cast member fits their roles well and all deserve praise - again, this is certainly down to Barrymore's amiability as a director. I especially liked the relationships between Page and a laid back Stern, and with Marcia Gay Harden as her pushy mother; their interactions don't fall into cliché at any time despite occasionally threatening to head in that direction; both parents are portrayed as fully-rounded, life-worn characters. And I liked the casting of Andrew Wilson as the team's long-time oddball coach, Razor, too - a role that could've gone to a far more obviously zany actor, like Seann William Scott for example (or indeed Owen Wilson), but is performed with the right amount of humourous fatigue. But Juliette Lewis (as bitchy opponent Iron Maven), Kristen Wiig, Alia Shawkat, singer Eve, stuntwoman (and Tarantino fave) Zoe Bell, and Barrymore herself, as accident-prone Smashley Simpson, all contribute personable work, as do the remainder of the cast. (The names the roller gals give themselves are spot-on funny, too: apart from the above-mentioned names, there's Rosa Sparks, Eva Destruction, Bloody Holly and Page's own, Babe Ruthless.)

It feels as if Barrymore is both somewhat acknowledging her nowadays more veteran place in filmmaking (there is some comment in the film about age and still being willing to try out new things when you're well into your thirties) and graciously celebrating and passing the on-screen baton over to a younger generation of female stars. But it's the warmth of her personality (both in front of and behind the camera) and the pleasing verve in which she tells the story, consistently discernible in each scene of Whip It, that shine out the most.

15 April 2010

At the Cinema: Clash of the Titans

Clash of the Titans (Louis Leterrier/2010) USA/106 mins. *****

For the third time in a year Sam Worthington has bore a dull hole into the cinema screen as an action lead. After Terminator: Salvation and Avatar, he's now added Perseus - son of Zeus, saviour of the people - in Clash of the Titans to his trio of lead-man dullards. This new version soups everything up a hundred notches or so, as is the wont of today's blockbusters, and points to being enjoyably crummy fun from the off. But as it rushes through its back story (Perseus' adoptive family dies) and set-up (he wants revenge on mean old Hades who killed them) it rapidly becomes uninvolving and rather joyless. Events plays out in quick succession like an abridged, more plasticy version of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy: it's Gods of the Sword in microcosm (Liam Neeson's Zeus also seems to have little action figures of his puny earthlings to play with). Its narrative follows an iterative pattern - battle, pause, battle (with giant scorpions - actually this is a good bit), pause (for some depthless reflection on events), battle (with a limp, and limp-haired, Medusa), pause (for some light explanatory dialogue), battle (with the Kraken - or the Krahr-kern as Ralph Fiennes' Hades garbles it)... and so it repeats until, well, it stops. And pause - there could well be a sequel.

The Kraken's tail and a winged beast duking it out in mid-air in Clash of the Titans

All the mythical beasties are dispatched far too quickly and efficiently: they appear, some daft but exciting swordplay feels imminent, then it's all over in a flash. Done and dusted. On to the next beast, then to the end - but not before everyone has a right old woeful chuckle at something foolhardy in between. It's odd, though, that it should all feel so humourless. As soon as Neeson's Zeus (dressed in armour so shiny it looks as if it's lit from within) and Fiennes' Hades (who looks like Bill Bailey might do in 40 years time) appear, it looks as though we're in for some hoary old camp nonsense - with these two heavyweight stalwarts in Greek myth get-up dishing out thick slices of meaty banter; they're a couple of bearded hams, rasping and croaking at one another in such a strained, shouty manner that I placed bets on who would keel over and crumble into a pile of grit first - but no, it all sinks into a po-faced race to the flat finale.

It's a massive shame that Worthington has now wedged himself into audience's minds as the new go-to guy for fantasy cinema heroics. He showed immense promise in an early role in Australian drama Somersault, but hasn't as yet followed it up with a worthwhile part since. He now seems prematurely content to play the Lone Saviour of the People until something comes along that brings him back to the real world. Or until Russell Crowe retires and leaves available the gruff, Antipodean everyman role in action-adventure filmmaking. The rest of the cast hang around long enough to grab their payslips, and are then dispatched according to plot importance; the cheaper employees die first. (Although I think they missed a trick in making Medusa an all-CGI she-snake - this should've been a part ripe for a laugh for a game actress to sink her fangs into; Meryl Streep likes a giggle these days - ya never know she mighta...)

Liam Neeson and his shapely beard duking it out for acting honours in Clash of the Titans

Clash's slick superfluity is par for the course now in such speed release blockbuster entertainments. The quick decision to cash in on the novelty trail left by Avatar by shunting it into 3D is the most likely reason for this. (I deliberately chose to see the 2D version - I doubt much was reduced by seeing it as it was originally intended.) Part Pirates of the Caribbean, part The Mummy and all cheese; it's a mid-level romp, out before the summer big-hitters, positioned to whet our appetites for a probable franchise. But it's all too forgettable and too hasty (at a mere 106 mins. it's a thrifty watch for a big adventure epic) to make much of an impression. I was disappointed that it didn't keep the early campiness going throughout. You never know, it might have had the makings of a naff classic. The producers clearly felt the need to remake it, fair enough (there's little point in bemoaning remakes these days - they happen), but to then add a late-in-the-day 3D overhaul feels like merely bucking to trends. Maybe all that was needed, though, was to take Desmond Davis' 1981 original (with Ray Harryhausen's wonderful stop-motion special effects), give it a quick tart up and polish, and see it on its way to a glorious re-release. Out with the new, in with the old?

Wide Awake but Zoned Out: Richard Linklater's Waking Life

You know when someone starts telling you about a dream they had and there’s a split second, a fleeting moment, where you realise that you are going to have to sit and listen, however long it takes, and however much what they’re saying bears no relation to you or your experiences? Well, that’s how I felt about Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001).

Other people’s recollections, their recounting of events or images they’ve dreamt (or dreamt up), can occasionally be interesting, but usually only if there is some kind of shared ground, an innate connection which allows you access to their particular world view. If not, then it feels like a lot of just being talked at - which when stretched to an hour and a half (and on the subject of what reality means, the meaning of life etc) can be tiresome at the best of times. When the conversations are as blankly matter-of-fact and as unattainably distancing as those contained in Linklater’s film, then there’s only a slim entry point into it all. The more discerning, less tolerant viewer of this kind of introspective soul speak may feel left baffled in the cold.

The topics may be interesting enough for those that might want to join in on the portentous philosophic contemplation offered up, but it doesn’t allow for the kind of human-centred moments that might have added a touch of charm to a given scene. When it does allow this, on a few rare occasions, it works well enough but always remains a one-way, one-track dialogue. (I think he's much better suited to the kind of amiable, free-associative dialogue seen in Dazed and Confused (1993) and the Before Sunrise/Sunset (1995/2004) films.)

The person-to-person, loosely-threaded-chain approach was tried and tested better by Linklater in his debut Slacker (1991). The approach here is much the same - though we do have the central figure of Wily Wiggins guiding us along - but it misses out on the little touches of spontaneity which made Slacker’s random grab bag of drifters feel idiosyncratic and strangely funny. Here, because the visuals are “animated over” after the live action footage was shot, events have to adhere to a specific pre-set plot template. But there are certain visual tricks and embellishments that really flourish, and which wouldn’t be as inspired or even possible within live-action footage. Some characters become further ‘animated’ and excitable in conversation by the use of odd little cartoonish visual aids - flashes of brains, flames, sparks and many other kinds of whizzing objects pop up and flit across the film frame. This rather nicely breaks up the worthiness of the otherwise coldly tiresome nuggets of narrative. Although I thought the inventive rotoscope technique worked much more fluidly in Linklater's later A Scanner Darkly (2006) - and it was better matched to Philip K. Dick's source ideas.

The music, by Glover Gill, is lovely though; all jumpy bursts of accordion and violin which fuels and shuttles everything along, providing a flowing, segueing accompaniment nicely enough. Director Steven Soderbergh pops up to tell an anecdote about Billy Wilder and Louis Malle (quite funny it is, too) and Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reprise their Before Sunrise (pre-Sunset) roles as some sort of in-joke - although the natural way that conversations arose between them in those films are absent and replaced with more tedious theorising.

For all its lofty chat and endless, answerless questioning on life, death, dreams and reality, I was none the nearer to experiencing an approximation of what their waking life meant. It’s the smaller, more inconsequential details and moments which offer hope. Amid a fairly astute and attention-grabbing conversation on the nature of film and memory, one speaker (Caveh Zahedi) interrupts the other (David Jewell) by mentioning the appearance of a mosquito on the other’s face and offers to swat it for him before continuing in his lecture. The film is just about bearable for the few tiny instances of human interaction that raise a warm smile instead of a weary shrug. But, overall, maybe I just didn't get it. But I'm doubtful that there was actually anything to get exactly, anyway. Give me Monty Python's Meaning of Life (1983) instead.

13 April 2010

Tuesday Title: Pickup on South Street

Each Tuesday I post a still from the opening titles of a film - as a celebration of great title sequences, cinematic use of typography and the feeling of anticipation in waiting for a film to start...

Today: Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller/1953)

Pickup on South Street is an amazing film experience and one of my all-time favourite films. I love the way the opening titles boldly usher the film in with due haste as if its very playing out was a matter of utmost urgency. Which, really, it is. Quick drum intro, music starts: Twentieth Century Fox presents Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter...

Simple black-shadowed white type, grey background. It reads like a headline: Attention grabbing: in your face! Fuller knew how to make words matter. More than that he knew how to shoot words (titles, script, dialogue - the whole pocketful), turning them into some of the most abrasively significant images of the era.

Who are these three people? What happened on South Street? Watch the film to find out. And in keeping with Andrew Sarris' statement on Fuller, "[he] is an authentic American primitive whose works have to be seen to be understood. Seen, not heard or synopsized,"* it's much better to see why I adore this snappy opening title than for me to waste another word explaining it:

* The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, Da Capo Press Inc, USA, 1996 ed, p93

7 April 2010

They Live, I Watch

Excuse me Mr. Speaker, you've got a little something on your face.

It's good news to my ears that John Carpenter has a new film out later this year: The Ward (2010), about an institutionalised woman terrorised by a ghost; it's his first proper feature in nine years, so that'll do. (His last feature was the underwhelming Ghosts of Mars (2001), which was admittedly below par for him.) Nearly a decade is a long wait for a staunch Carpenter fan. During that time I've revisited many of his previous films as a way of filling the gap during his respite from feature filmmaking (although he did contribute two 60-minute entries - one excellent, Cigarette Burns; one half decent, Pro-Life - in the 'Masters of Horror' TV horror series in that time; and was no doubt prepping more new work, too). I've rewatched Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982), Escape from New York (1981), The Fog (1980), Christine (1983) and now, recently, They Live (1988) - which is still a much better film than its underpraised reputation suggests. It rarely gets mentioned in the same breath as the likes of The Thing and Escape (two of his much-cherished films among fans), but in its own way it's every bit as much fun, and as pertinent.

As Carpenter himself says, in a ‘making of’ featurette on the region 2 DVD, “it’s basically an action film.” Although by all common appearances it's better defined as a mid-budget science fiction, it's indeed the action scenes that impress the most. And Carpenter excels at inventive action scenes. What I love even more than that though is that it’s a crafty little polemic, delivered with just enough cheeky irony, wrapped up in a downbeat alien invasion film. One of the slogans in the film sums it up well: ‘They live, we sleep’. Laid back hero John Nada (Rowdy Piper) is an out of work workingman, short on luck and shacking up with the homeless of L.A. It all begins with him. In keeping with his name, his personality is kept to the bare minimum: he’s a pair of fists and a bad attitude. There’s no overlong intro or exposition, just him. Oh, and a league of alien beings disguised as humans intent on taking over the world - but not before turning everyone into passive consumer slaves.

Mullet, check. Lumberjack shirt, check. Look of baffled disbelief, triple check.

The narrative unfolds via Nada's viewpoint and allows for the film to set out its agenda well: are we being subliminally kept in check by warped powers from above? The scene where he puts on the ‘all-seeing’ glasses is a great film moment, and a whole lot of fun (as, too, is Piper's lengthy fight scene with Keith David - which stops the plot dead for five-or-so minutes, but makes for a nicely pugilistic interlude; both fight for real here, without stunt aid). Nada sees for real what the billboards and signs around him actually say ("Conform", "Sleep 8 Hours", "Consume", "Watch TV", "Obey"), a realisation which rouses him to take up arms and lead the combat against these bewigged, skeletal alien enslavers. Nifty, punchy, huh?

This is where the film's social commentary gets interesting and the real ballsy fun begins - and the put-upon pull out the big guns. It's all very daft (there are copious exchanges of lame dialogue, with many of the lines delivered in a rather wooden fashion), but to moan about this would be to miss the point: it's a concise and bluntly-paced film with time only to thrust forward its non-consumerist message in short, sharp blows. Carpenter lets his ideas go to work and executes everything else with a gutsiness that has little regard for panache. There’s nothing prestigious or ponderous about They Live, and thank god for that; nobody surely goes into a Carpenter film expecting to see it crop up at "high-end" awards ceremonies come the end of the year.

Aliens go for the hard sell in They Live.

Piper and David were right fits for their roles, and both take everything sluggishly in their stride, whilst not seemingly taking anything or anyone at face value (Piper’s mullet and lumberjack shirts were all the characterisation required), and it was nice to see Meg Foster in a deceptively small support role that made good use of her sharp and duplicitous scowl (she was the underrated B-movie bitch of the '80s). The performances, locations and gloriously dated 1980's sheen all work wonderfully cohesively, but at the same time They Live's rough-hewn qualities (it shows its age well, as it did even then) seem adrift in today's film world to the degree that it's more likely to get laughed at, not with. But another way to look at it is that it utilises its imperfect cinematic apparatus to make a comment on the potentially imperfect future.

I hope that whatever Carpenter's new film is like, he will some day return to making films with the sly, playful effectiveness as this one. It's an angry statement dressed in sci-fi get-up. The graffiti on the wall during the opening titles ("THEY LIVE" in white spray paint) is a desperate, rallying cry against materialism consuming the masses. The aliens infiltrate the higher echelons of society to influence those under them into accepting mundane order and zombie-like commitment to their cause. It says: money = this is your God. On its release the film was an effective dirty little fly in the ointment for the conservatism of the late eighties' Greed is Good ethos. But maybe it's just as pertinent now, albeit with a small shift in emphasis (especially if transposed to the UK). If Carpenter's film tried to challenge the unjustness of the phrase 'the rich stay rich, the poor stay poor', maybe we could do with borrowing a pair of John Nada's glasses for whenever David Cameron is on the television this coming election.

6 April 2010

Tuesday Title: Caché/Hidden

Each Tuesday I post a still from the opening titles of a film - as a celebration of great title sequences, cinematic use of typography and the feeling of anticipation in waiting for a film to start...

Today: Caché/Hidden (Michael Haneke/2005)

The title sequence of Michael Haneke's 2005 exploration of guilt and surveillance consists of just one shot which, in visual terms, simply and effectively encapsulates the entire thesis of his film. The image (and here the image is everything - and possibly nothing also) is a static, fixed perspective shot of a house situated among several others on a street (rue des iris) in a seemingly tranquil part of Paris' 13th arrondissement. The opening titles scroll out word by word over this one image, from top left to bottom right. It's unlike how titles normally appear in the majority of films: production companies, cast and crew names and the film's title itself all sit alongside one another in a solid block of text.

The shot lasts roughly between four and five mins., and nothing eventful occurs during this time - behind the text it's just a street scene. Or is it? After the titles all together finally fade - and after a few pedestrians enter and exit the film frame - the shot changes to a closer view of the house: a woman and man depart, then the man returns moments later alone. Suddenly we're aware that the same (film) image we've been watching has turned to that of a videotape image (diegetic film has morphed into non-diegetic VHS). Static fast-forward lines are visible: we are now rushed into the central mystery of Haneke's film.

What's so good about this opening is that its minimalism is both deceptively enthralling and frustrating at the same time. Nothing much is outwardly happening, but the very (stationary) image itself seems to be telling us more than we might initially assume. Is something vital occurring on the image's periphery? Do we need to pay close attention to the inactivity taking place? Is this just a rather dull and uneventful establishing shot - and are we being nudged in the ribs to infer a layer of meaning within it that isn't actually present? Haneke doesn't - here and by the film's close - explain what's what to any obvious degree. We are left to work out what we want to; he's just the one pointing the torch in the (generally?) right direction.

Are we meant to see something - a clue, a vital piece of information - amid the text on screen, as the title of the film itself hints at? What the titles do do is make us aware of both the limitations and the very expansiveness of the film frame. Haneke is effectively telling us to notice anything and everything that may happen in any corner of the (1.78:1 aspect ratio) screen, and at any time during the film. He's slyly pushing us to use our sense of detection, to search out hidden ideas and themes from the very start. He's saying, if you want a mystery here it is - but I'll make you do all the work.

It's a great opening shot: visually striking, foreboding and typographically elegant - and, in a cheeky, artful way, it embodies all the hard graft and vexation of a particularly unfathomable jigsaw puzzle. All eyes front and centre, everyone!

4 April 2010

Top Ten Films of 2009 - #1: 35 Shots of Rum

35 Shots of Rum/35 rhums (Claire Denis) France, 100 mins.
with: Alex Descas, Mati Diop, Nicole Dogue, Grégoire Colin

A few years ago I watched Claire Denis' Beau travail (1999) and Trouble Every Day (2001) and was bowled over by both for wildly differing reasons: outwardly they couldn't seem more different from one another, but both explore human desire and the need to possess and define others in bold, evocative ways; they are two of her very bests films. Between those two and 35 Shots of Rum, I didn't get the opportunity to see much of her work (on the whole her films tend to get limited releases here in the UK - mostly confined to London and the bigger cities). So when 35 Shots appeared at my local arthouse cinema I took the opportunity to catch it. I'm glad I did as it turned out to be my #1 film of 2009. It's an intimate, fascinating and exemplary film, full of many great moments of warmth, subtle human connection and vibrancy - it's simply filmmaking of the highest order. About two-thirds of the way into it, one scene set in a café (see below) convinced me that it was special. It confirmed that there's something indefinably unique and extraordinary in the way Denis films people merely existing, moving about in their own corners of the world.

Its simple narrative involves widowed train driver Lionel (Alex Descas) who shares a flat with his student daughter Joséphine (Mati Diop) on the outskirts of Paris. Ever since Lionel's wife died the father and daughter have lived harmoniously together in the apartment block; two neighbours Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), a taxi driver who has long held a candle for Lionel, and Noé (Grégoire Colin), a longtime friend of Joséphine's living in his deceased parents' flat, and who is secretly in love with her, provide them with close company. But there's a feeling that it's time for this set-up to end, or at least drastically change for the four of them. Over a period of several weeks (though it may be less, days even - timescales are gloriously hazy at best in Denis' films) these four drifting characters, plus the friends and strangers they meet, experience events both minor and major and gradually arrive at some truths about where they are and where they are going in their lives.

Momentous events in the characters' lives aren't depicted as any more or less significant than the smaller, more day-to-day events, however. A gift of a rice cooker or smoking a cigarette on the balcony of a flat are given as much - or maybe, discreetly, a little more - weight as Joséphine's eventual marriage to Noé or the suicide of Lionel's work colleague René (Julieth Mars Toussaint). Marriage, death, dancing, smoking, the giving and receiving of gifts are all levelled to the same plane: the grand and the matter-of-fact - sometimes easefully, sometimes problematically - co-exist at the same time, on the same day. This doesn't infer a stoic neutrality within the film's narrative, but an intuitive awareness that, simply, life is one continuous series of everyday shifts - meetings, departures, realisations and goodbyes - up and down, both accordant and disruptive. Denis has mastered such intricate expertise of her craft incrementally over her previous films and it's perhaps never been better delineated than in 35 Shots (well, to date anyhow). Her fluent, almost non-verbal knowingness in interpreting the complex tangles of human engagement is near unmatched in cinema. Nothing is overtly spelt out in any solidly tangible way, though with a little legwork it becomes endlessly involving. More than one viewing of 35 Shots - or indeed any of her films - is ideal and something to look forward to.

Above all, Denis captures with ease that beautifully languorous feeling of nocturnal endlessness - a night out without rules or definitions. The closing scene of Beau travail, where Denis Lavant frenetically writhes alone on the dancefloor to Corona's 'Rhythm of the Night', felt as if it could've easily lasted forever; and the early evening traffic jam that spontaneously results in a long night of passionate abandon for Valérie Lemercier and Vincent Lindon in Vendrei soir/Friday Night (2002) felt as if it happened at half the speed of the rest of the nightowls of Paris. Night time is Denis time. And here one of 35 Shot's pivotal and most wondrous scenes occurs at night: during an aborted trip to a gig (Gabrielle's taxi breaks down) the foursome end up seeking respite, and shelter from rain, in an after hours café; inside they are warmly met and are served food and drinks and music is played.

This scene sees the four almost wordlessly interact in a way they haven't before and arrive at truthful realisations about each other: they dance (Lionel with the beautiful proprietress of the café, then with Gabrielle; Noé with Joséphine) to the Commodores' Nightshift', then sit, together or separately, with each silently acknowledging the minute changes taking place in their relationships. It's a simple, deftly orchestrated scene (and possibly trickier to accomplish then it appears), that tells us so much about these people we've been spending the last hour with. The occasion of an impromptu night out, surrounded by people who work and play - and perspire with exhausted longing through both - creates in these characters the sudden whim to let on covertly what's going on, although with each not knowing what they'll be doing in ten minutes time, let alone the next day. The experience they were meant to have is happening elsewhere, but what they really want, the wonder of possibility, is right here. It's conducted as an accident with destiny.

Since seeing 35 Shots I spent time catching up on Denis' previous work that I'd missed: Friday Night (mentioned above), Chocolat (1988) and The Intruder/L'intrus (2004) were all equally as splendid, as are all her other films I've seen. She has shaped a body of work containing various themes, genres, ideas and tones, yet they are each one singularly hard to define. It's difficult to position her films to fit one all-encompassing pattern or motif. This reason, above many, is why she is one of today's most significant filmmakers; her films simply dwell longer in the mind than many others'. It's rare to find another contemporary filmmaker who uses core filmmaking elements in quite the same way she does, especially music and cinematography - care of her regular collaborators Stuart Staples (of the Tindersticks) and DoP Agnès Godard, respectively. The subtly muted colour palette stands out without being overtly highlighted, whilst also blending seamlessly into the environments of the characters (the inky early evening light cast over the train tracks where Lionel works, the dulled reds and blues of bedsheets, the interior of the after hours café aglow with life, and so on), and the affective score is nicely reverberant from scene to scene, and is nearly as intoxicating as the thought aroused by the film's title.

I'm in no doubt that this is one of the best films of last, or any, year. Everything about it works. The way Denis focuses on the tiny, apparently superfluous moments before or after significant events pleasantly sets it apart from many other, perhaps similar and more easily fathomable, family-centred mainstream films. She knows that the everyday instances of hard-won affection are, in the end, more meaningful on a personal level than the defining public occasions. But it's the particular way in which she portrays them - sometimes skewed, sometimes openhanded, but always honestly - that gives a film like 35 Shots of Rum its delightful, lasting potency. As Lionel says, after the wedding at the end of the film when Gabrielle asks him why he insists on drinking the thirty-five shots of rum: "It's an old story." We never discover the true implication behind the title of the film, but we somehow know why he finally allows himself his own personal celebration: it's the right way to let the story end.

That's one way of looking at 35 Shots, but here's another one - courtesy of this nice lady, who is far more concise about it than I was. (I really love what she says and like the way she becomes visibly more thoughtful and affected by it the more she talks about it.)

And here's the Commodores' wonderful song 'Nightshift'. (I had to include it since I went on about it so much.)