Thursday, 7 January 2010

FILMS 0F 2009: THE SILVER AWARDS

See here for the Bronze awards.
Gold awards coming soon!




Milk

The only criticism I’d make of Gus Van Sant’s quite splendid biopic of gay rights activist Harvey Milk is that it succumbs to the standard movie depiction of crowds. Cinema crowds are always painted as less than the sum of their parts, a Freudian regression into brute instincts who require leadership and direction from a few great men. It’s like they’re wary of the assembled audience ever discovering it’s collective identity, looking to each other rather than that shiny screen.

Though there’s little in modern research to give credence to this view, it seems our society is so dependent upon it that it must be maintained at all costs. Admittedly other films play up this cliché to a far worse degree than here, but it’s disappointing to see it in a film that is otherwise so socially progressive.

Watchmen

Yep, the comics adaptation we know-all fans said should never be! Maybe it’s a good job no-one listens to us after all. (My full review here.)




District 9

To me the genius of this South African SF black comedy didn’t lie in the ‘alien apartheid’ theme everyone else has commented on, but in making such a geek the hero. Though the character is reasonably well played by Sharlto Copley, what makes it is the jarring context he’s put in. We watch him travel from petty bureaucrat, a semi- tolerated imposition upon his colleagues, to despised pariah and finally... well okay, no plot spoilers! Socially speaking, he is the alien.

Tales From the Golden Age

Romanian director Cristian Mungiu comes up with quite a change of pace from his earlier bleak docu-drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days This is a blackly comic portmanteau of urban myths told during the days of the Ceausescu's dictatorship, all seeking to highlight it’s absurdity with laughter. The absurdity of the final image of the first tale will stay with you for a while, and perhaps even remind you of Even Dwarfs Started Small. Interestingly, some tales also seem to retain a folkish undercurrent, with their insistence on the fall of those who fail to follow the rules.



Up

Pixar pull it off again! If not quite the absolute best of their films, this may well be the maddest - crammed full of crazy images and sequences. True, you can see references in it. The take-off scene, with its combination of the adventurous with the cosily domestic, recalls the suburban moonshot of the first Wallace and Gromit. There must also be an influence from the famous early Keaton, where he takes the concept ‘moving house’ so literally. And the bird which everyone is hunting is surely Road Runner.

But, in what’s probably the key to Pixar’s success, the whole film started with a personal daydream - Director Pete Docter would imagine that he could somehow upend and fly off anytime other people got annoying. As he comments:

“One of the things that's really important to me in everything that I've worked on is finding some relatable thing that the audience can identify with, ... that they understand is true for them in their own life.”

This leaves even such a madcap adventure feeling – if you’ll forgive the phrase – grounded.

The Inferno of Henri-Georges Clouzot

Truth can be stranger than fiction even when it’s about fiction. This documentary focuses on acclaimed director Clouzot (“the French Hitchock’s”) attempt to make his mid-Sixties masterpiece - Inferno.

Of course it all goes terribly wrong. As the title here hints, the study of a man on the brink came more and more to be made by a man on the brink. Given an unlimited budget but a strict timescale, Clouzot obsessively re-shot a small number of scenes over and over while fixating over technical tests, until struck by a heart attack which scuppered filming. Watching both the reconstructed story and surviving footage, you feel strangely torn. You ache to see the finished film while being aware that in one way it all went terribly right - the story simply feels so much more appropriate played out as a grand folly.

Despite their dry description, the technical tests are actually one of the most interesting aspects. Clouzot wanted to portray psychological states on the screen by playing with colour and form. It’s reminiscent of the way psychedelic music of the era would use the studio as an instrument rather than a recording device, treating and reshaping the sound it captured, though in this Clouzot was ahead of the curve – filming happened in 1964.

(Shown as part of Brighton’s Cine-City programme.)


Paranormal Activity

PLOT SPOILERS! (For this review only)

Sound-bite description: imagine the creepy attic noises from The Exorcist given their own spin-off movie.

Despite the generic title, and the suggestion that this ‘faux-found-footage’ horror could just be another Blair Witch Project knock-off, this film succeeded quite remarkably. For one thing, the swapping of Blair Witch‘s woodland setting for suburban house sounds counter-intuitive but works well. It relies on the paradoxical estrangement of suburbia; though surrounded by other houses, the central couple might as well be in the middle of nowhere.

But there’s a bigger difference. Blair Witch was ultimately about age, about adults being reduced to children, fearful of the dark. Their totems of adulthood, their camcorders and maps, their ‘project’, help them not at all. This film, with its demon-haunted woman, is much more about the gender divide.

It’s even mildly reminiscent of Charlotte Perkin’s Gilman’s classic early feminist short story, The Yellow Wallpaper. We’re told that the girlfriend is studying to become an English teacher, leaving the implication that it’s the boyfriend who is paying for their expensive home and it’s many mod cons. (Though there’s only one passing reference to him trading.) The paranormal scenes terrify her, but drive him to ‘take control of the situation’.

His gormlessly literalist disregard for the demon’s disembodied status becomes almost a black joke. He lays talc on the floor to capture its footprints, like it’s a stray mouse. It responds by leaving impossible prints, which stop tauntingly in mid-stride. It’s surely no accident that his interventions provoke the demon as much as they annoy her. The demon is surely her subconscious rejection of him and his domineering tendencies. (Though interestingly this interpretation relies heavily upon the ending we have now, which was only suggested post-hoc by Steven Spielberg.)

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