24 November 2011

At the Cinema: Whores' Glory

Whores' Glory (Michael Glawogger/2011) Germany, Austria/110mins. ***

Whores’ Glory, the latest film from acclaimed Austrian documentary auteur Michael Glawogger, features three equally lengthy sections (about 35 minutes each) filmed in three different sex houses in three countries: the Fish Tank in Thailand, the City of Joy in Bangladesh and The Zone in Mexico. His camera follows a variety of women in each location as they navigate their lives impacted upon by religious duty and the men paying for the privilege of their time – whether in high-end and well-organised establishments or ‘quick-fuck’ back-street sex rooms. The locations are visited in turn and with a fluid matter-of-factness; comment on a variety of ‘issues’ relating to the women’s situations is implied through Glawogger’s inquiring filming style. The reasons for the women doing what they do and the matters surrounding them - the need to provide for their families, the pull between sex work and religious beliefs and the issue of ease with which these women can be sold (especially pertinent in the Bangladesh segment) - are presented as all of equal concern to Glawogger. Answers aren’t provided, but nor are they particularly sought after in the first place. Glawogger simply, and respectfully, observes from a bystander’s position and creates curious, free-associating and minutely functioning dramas out of the ladies’ and their clients’ everyday needs.

The soundtrack, mostly comprised of grit-friendly songs (but all very good selections), by the likes of CocoRosie (Beautiful Boyz, Miracle and Honey or Tar – the first included because it contains the words ‘whore’ and ‘glory’?) and three by PJ Harvey (Dear Darkness, Snake and The Whores Hustle and the Hustler’s Whore – the last included because it mentions the words ‘whores’?), make for thoughtfully apt, yet somewhat obvious and down-at-heel, stop-gaps peppered throughout the ‘narratives’. The final section in Mexico is the most rewarding, the most full of life and unguarded emotion. The women in The Zone in Reynosa, Mexico speak personally and at length – and far more frankly, and openly, than in the first two sections. These women are the film’s best talkers. They display a jubilantly bolshy and very prosaic attitude to their situations, yet not at the expense of any hidden pain or drama their lives may have seen. There’s, ultimately, perhaps a whole feature-length film to be made about any one place, or indeed any one person, here. Glawogger’s triptych structure is heavy on comparative reflection, but it all too rarely gets down to the real business of examining even one woman’s life in a refreshing, investigative and all-encompassing way – something which would’ve made a resounding world of difference to the outcome of the film. Life is hazily penned in by the necessity of artistic endeavour. That wasn’t something that affected Beeban Kidron’s 1993 TV documentary Hookers Hustlers Pimps and Their Johns, which I was reminded of on a few occasions during the film.

21 November 2011

Claws out for Catwoman

I recently revisited Catwoman (Pitof, 2004) for no real reason other than it sprang to mind amid all the casting shenanigans and mumur around Anne Hathaway getting the coveted role in The Dark Knight Rises. I wanted to see if it was as egregiously hyper-styled and as coherently wonky as I remembered. It was. So here I get five claws out for the film…

"Let's get drunk, that's gonna bring us closer. Don't I look like a Halle Berry poster." - Missy Misdemeanor Elliot

1. Catwoman’s narrative is gloriously ridiculous, but not very good. But of course. As only it can be in a film in which a person dresses as an animal to exact revenge on someone trying to conduct mass killing via the medium of face cream. Patience Phillips (Halle Berry) works as a designer in a company run by the wife and husband team Laurel and George Hedare (Sharon Stone, Lambert Wilson), who have created said cosmetic contraption. (Check the woe-are-the-perils-of-beauty angle: it’s so addictive that it causes the user's visage to disintegrate if they stop applying it.) This monumentally silly product is about to be released onto the market just as Patience stumbles upon their scheme; she is “killed” only to be resurrected as Catwoman, eager to wreak revenge on the perpetrators of her “human” demise. Her revival, by a hoard of cats that last appeared in an ‘80s Cure video, is thanks to wise and mystical cat-lady called Ophelia Powers (Frances Conroy). Frances, love, Ophelia Pain.

2. The film's main selling points are its many action sequences where Berry gets to show off her feline-tooled footwork. This aspect is addressed with fashionably high-stylized and frenetic direction. Although it doesn't ultimately add up to anything particularly thrilling or inspiring. Along with the misjudged editing, the constantly-in-motion camera gives the effect of glossing over the almost visibly gaping plot holes. If the camerawork took on a slinkier, more sophisticated approach after Phillips' transition to Catwoman (one that, say, mimicked the character's agile traits) the action scenes may have proved to be more entertaining, rather than just confusingly idiotic and topped off with Berry mouthing the word Meow. (When she utters this, either before or after confronting her foes, it’s meant to be ironically threatening and/or alluring, but it merely sounds as if she’s reading it off a Whiskas label.) Needless to say, better direction would’ve enhanced Phillips' progression from dowdy demeanor to avenging creature in a smoother, more effective manner.

Ophelia Powers is impatiently feeling Patience's powers. But not her fashion sense.

3. Lessons go unlearned from time to time. This is a lighter, tamer attempt at bringing Catwoman to life in her own stand-alone film. Although it discards any previous ties with the (then, as in pre-Nolan) existing Batman franchise, it could at least have done with taking a bit of inspiration from some of the more inventive aspects of the first two Tim Burton entries. (Catwoman does share a producer with Burton's films, Denise Di Novi, although her input appears scarce.) Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) built up a darker edge to the Bat-universe. It mixed dense shadows into the fairy-tale frivolity that the laughably wonky third and fourth films failed to maintain. Twelve years after, what we got was something more akin to the two Joel Schumacher installments, Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997); both movies of neon set-design suicide and royally fudged dialogue.

4. Despite Hall Berry being a stunningly felid and athletic presence, the part doesn’t entirely work. Berry’s take on Catwoman vastly differs from Michelle Pfeiffer’s in Batman Returns – the closest measuring stick, both chronologically and thematically. I’m glad, to some extent, as a direct retread of what went before wouldn't have been wise. (Pfeiffer had her own take on the role.) But Berry slices her ham thick here. It is neither an Eartha Kitt/Lee Meriwether/Julie Newmar exercise in gleeful theatrics nor an alternative attempt at psychological or tongue-in-cheek masochism. Bizarrely, it’s oddly erratic (Patience has no such trait that defines her name – she bolts into situations in an unfeasibly messy, stressed manner) and cautiously hemmed-in (can’t be too kinky, now!) at the same time. It falls short by a long way and results in a character unwisely taking it all too seriously, yet all the time having no real conviction to back it up.

Halle can't believe just how stony Sharon's being that she can't even look at her.

A side note, relating to casting: some of the themes of the film deal with the ideas of ageing and female empowerment. At one point Stone's character bemoans the fact that she had to stand down as the poster girl for her cosmetics company because she has turned 40. (Stone herself has made similar comments about the lack of decent film roles for actresses over a certain age.) Although this seems a topical reference point, the film doesn't expand on the idea. The chance to make a valid point about Hollywood's – or indeed any beauty-obsessed industry – fixation on youth and fixed-age looks isn’t taken.

5. It would be interesting to see how the film would have turned out with a prominent female presence behind the camera. A director like Kathryn Bigelow might have properly explored the limits of action spectacle waiting to bust out from under the Catwoman premise. But whether she would ever go for a comic-book movie is open to question. (She has an Oscar now, so it's unlikely.) To think that it could have achieved what the Batman films delivered under Tim Burton’s guidance (darker, more adult explorations of dualities and retribution), but ultimately doesn’t, is a shame. Instead, it approaches the hectic sloppiness of Schumacher’s double Gotham foul-up. But perhaps it wasn't the film's intention from the outset to mimic or mirror either Burton or Schumacher’s efforts at all. It would be silly to berate the film for not trying to feel like its own entity, especially considering that it plainly does what it set out to do: be a frothy, colourful take on a superhero film. It's just that it misses the opportunity to be truly different, to do something really interesting with a complex character. The cat may have got the (face) cream, but the audience is left with sour milk.

17 November 2011

At the Cinema: Snowtown

Snowtown (Justin Kurzel/2011) Australia/119mins. *****

The eruptions of violence in bold new Australian film Snowtown, from first-time feature director Justin Kurzel, come sporadically, intensively and often with gut-churning abstraction. But in between these outbursts the potential for brutality is palpable, sure as concrete. It’s an expertly crafted drama. A frank and corrosive study of evil’s many rhizomic strands. It charts the true tale of the murder of eleven people in a small, deprived Adelaide suburb (90 miles north of the titular town), between 1992 and 1999, by serial killer John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) and his accomplice, Robert Wagner (Aaron Viergever). The film’s central focus, however, is the beguilingly treacherous fatherly relationship Bunting instigates with Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), the teenage son of his lover at the time, Elizabeth Harvey (Louise Harris). Bunting embeds himself within this already messed up domestic set-up, intent on ridding who he believes to be a blight on the community’s lives – he lumps the disabled, paedophiles, transvestites, homosexuals, indeed anyone who he sees as societal scourge, all into a category marked ‘killable’ without really understanding anyone around him.

The bravely headlong approach to the infamous story of Australia’s worst murder case is deftly handled with breathtaking confidence and fluency of image. It’s intelligent filmmaking that questions a full range of unsavoury, hot-button subjects: over its two hours it takes in incest, extreme poverty, multiple serial murder, sexual abuse and animal cruelty. Suitable post-Xmas dinner viewing this ain’t. Kurzel’s smart, thoughtful directorial approach opens up many complex avenues of enquiry as to how we might first ponder then understand the events of the story. With keen assurance Kurzel utilises a variety of filmmaking techniques that equally dislodge and enthral our sense of grim spectacle as the film progresses. His often elusive and bluntly destabilised exploration of undiluted evil is difficult to fully get to grips with. But there lies its power. It has the potential to be endlessly fascinating. The filmmaking, all round, is exemplary. Slow-motion moments (John and Elizabeth dancing in a brightly-lit dancehall especially) have the effect of surreal narrative pauses; and speeded up imagery of the killers’ faces in queasy close shots act as a drastic quick-time portraits, confrontationally reminding us of their poker-faced coherency; shunting us without haste on to another scene we may not relish seeing. Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography is certainly bleaker than a hundred days of bad luck, but his lighting scheme is seamless, perfect. And the soundtrack, by Kurzel’s brother Jed, beats like an erratic sonic pulse and screeches like a death throe. Everything is grimly, aptly arranged for maximum effect.

As Bunting, Henshall is Snowtown’s charismatically obdurate and hyper-vile nucleus. He appears to be constantly simmering just below boiling point. The tension within his performance is perceptible - it’s evident from his sometimes coldly-smiling, other times entirely blank and seemingly vacant, expressions. It’s a galvanising performance; one of the year’s very best. The surrounding cast, in particular Pittaway and Harvey, are equally excellent. (It’s staggering to note that the entire cast, save for Henshall, have never acted prior to the film; and most of those who appear in the film came from the same area in which the events originally took place.) Snowtown depicts with convincing authority a whole repugnant mess bucket of issues relating to the murders and the knotty familial set-up around them; most of all Jamie’s indoctrination, his utter immersion, into a life of foul criminality. It’s this, the film’s central, unfalteringly bleak narrative thread that remains fixed in the mind for a long time after the film's last image: an almost indescribably saddening long-held shot of a person now lost to sheer complicit evil. This is caustic cinema: it's harsh, relentless and grips with a despairing force.

13 November 2011

Best Films of the Year: 1995

More of my intermittent, retrospective top ten best-of lists from the 1990s. I drew up these lists several years ago (although any standout films I've seen since then have of course been included; films originally on the list have duly, and perhaps sadly, been moved down the list). These will sporadically continue up to 1990 until the end of the year, just before the 2011 end-of-year top tens. The '80s, '70s, '60s and so on will most likely be posted up throught 2012 and beyond, perhaps. But for now, brief, in list format only and without fuss, here are My Ten Selections for Best Films and Acting of 1995:

01. Suture (Scott McGehee, David Siegel)

02. Ed Wood (Tim Burton) 

03. Spanking the Monkey (David O. Russell) 

04. Hoop Dreams (Steve James)

05. To Die For (Gus Van Sant)

06. La haine (Mathieu Kassovitz)
07. Post Cards from America (Steve McLean)
08. Exotica (Atom Egoyan)
09. I Love a Man in Uniform (David Wellington)
10. Dolores Claiborne (Taylor Hackford)

Five more in no order:

Second Best
Death and the Maiden
Six Degrees of Separation
Once Were Warriors

Male & Female Acting of the Year:

* Albert Finney A Man of No Importance
Dennis Haysbert Suture
Jeremy Davies Spanking the Monkey
Martin Landau Ed Wood
Will Smith Six Degrees of Separation

* Jennifer Jason Leigh Georgia / Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle / Dolores Claiborne
Nicole Kidman To Die For
Sigourney Weaver Death and the Maiden
Judy Parfitt Dolores Claiborne
Alberta Watson Spanking the Monkey

6 November 2011

Bafta 2011: Errol Morris

Last month I was asked to contribute an introductory piece for Bafta's Annual David Lean lecture; this year to be delivered by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris. My overview covers key titles in his career and hopefully acts as an enticing prompt for keen fans and newcomers alike to seek out his remarkable work. It can be read by clicking on one of the two links below. It's available to view as an eMagazine or as a pdf, so click on one of these links and read on...

This link takes you to the Bafta Guru site, an online hub for information and resources for Film, TV and Games as part of Bafta's website(Morris' lecture was live streamed on November 6th here and can be accessed now): Errol Morris lecture (with links) at Bafta Guru

Or, alternatively, here is a link directly to the page on the eMag containing my overview of his career

More info on the event here