Thursday, January 31, 2008

American Gangster: A gangster film that even if it bears the signs of the directing mastership of Ridley has few things to offer

A black man manages to import the purest cocaine from Vietnam and sell it in America. His enterprising spirit and the teaching of his old boss (the previous black mafia chief) help his ascend to the higher levels of the social ladder and to gain the status of the most important gangster of America. His organization combines elements of both Italian mafia and crime in the black ghetto. From one hand he bases his works on his family as Italians do, and he claims territories as smaller criminals do. In the end he is discovered and arrested by an incorruptible policeman. He decides to cooperate with the police and help bring to justice not only his fellow criminals but also the corrupted policemen.
Ridley Scot manages to build a film that is fairly interesting even if it is not arresting or special. The spectator can easily watch that film even id he doesn’t really get involved in the story. The script is well enough written, coherent and with good character building but with no twists and turns and no big surprises. It remains rather flat throughout the whole duration of the film rendering rather slow. Both leading actors, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe do a really good acting job and this is one of the serious plus of the movie
In Ridley’s Scot mob film the super gangster the chief –surprise, surprise-is black. Would any one believe that racism could effect the preconceptions about a gangster? It actually does. Somehow no one would expect the biggest gangster to be black. In American film black are small time crooks they are not into organized crime. Italians as (supposedly) more sophisticated are specialized in this. The Denzel Washington character even if is a major drug dealer and a ruthless killer somehow is presented in a light almost positive. He follows the American ideal by being hard-working, inventive, loyal to family and friends, humble and in some peculiar way even just. After all these good elements the spectators are pleased to find out that the cop that arrested him and made a deal with his ended up defending his in court and getting him out of prison sooner that the court had decided in the first place. How can a gangster a killer can end up as a persona that the spectator can relate to and sympathize with is a thing beyond my comprehension.
All and all American gangster proves that even a great director and two actors don’t always make a great movie. The delicate balance of a masterpiece or even of a great movie is hard to achieve.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Orphanage:Juan Antonio Bayona does a horror film that mixes beautifully the tricks of the horror tradition and the twists of modern films.

As usual I read the reviews about this film before going to the cinema and as sometimes happens this was a mistake. The critics were very enthusiastic about his film and praise was freely given. As a result as soon as the film finished I felt a disappointment. I had expected too much. Many times before I have claimed that a good film stays with you getting stronger by day. In the case of The Orphanage I realized that my initial disappointment was false. The next two days after the film images kept creeping on me and surprising me. Then after a week it finally faded not into a haunting memory but into at least to a fond one.
What makes a good horror film? Most of all and above all its atmosphere. In a nightmare what scares people is the feeling in the air. When one is trying to explain what made him uncomfortable in his nightmare he finds it difficult to explain. He usually has to result to the phrase: “you had to be there”. Orphanage manages to create threatening pictures of simple incidents and built up the anxiety of the spectators. The first sequence of the film is not only very cleverly shot but is an ingenious motif that is repeated at one of the most terrifying and intense scenes of the film. Nothing is more innocent than a children’s play. Still Juan Antonio Bayona manages to transform it into a sinister experience. The children play a game that is known to all the nations of the world. Someone is counting and the others are moving. When he stops counting he turns to look. The others must stop and remain completely still. This goes on until one of the children approaches enough to touch the child that counts. The he runs and the counting child must catch all the other children in order to win. In the first scene of the film a small girl is counting on the bark of a tree. The other children are approaching but the director keeps then out of frame. In this way the spectator doesn’t see who is approaching until the very last moment and the anxiety keeps increasing. Later on the grown up heroine plays the game with the ghosts of the children. She counts and in the beginning she can’t see her playmates. As noises are heard the spectator knows that the ghosts are there. Counting over and over again she and along with her the spectator sees the dead children approaching. We are forced to keep our breath since we know that in the end the ghost will have come close enough to touch the heroine. This touch is something that the spectator completely intoned with the heroine both wishes and dreads. A child’s play takes a whole new meaning. In many scenes we see and hear the wheel squeaking and turning. This image of a child’s’ toy emphasizes the lack of children in the yard, their absence firstly and their supernatural presence later on.
The images are intense but they are not entirely new. They belong to the long tradition of the horror film. In the Nightmare of the Elm Street, for example a kids’ song about the boogie man of the dreams takes a terrifying meaning in world where Freddy Cruger stalks the dreams. In Fritz Lang’s M the balloon a toy again becomes the symbol in the begging of the kid’s presence and then of it’s disappearance and murder.
Other tricks up Juan Antonio Bayona’s sleeve are the chilling scenes. A door is banged on the fingers of the heroine making her finger nails break and bleed. Even if this is a minor wound most people reflexively find this incident disgusting. The deformed child with the covered head is another fear factor. Killers and paranoids the cinema has taught us that are freaks heavily deformed usually masked. The car accident and the sudden death of the strange woman are used to provoke a shock to the spectator.
The new thing in the recent horror films is that the power that traditionally is threatening proves to be not only innocent but even helpful and sympathetic. Dead people and ghosts are not the threat as seen in Sixth Sense or the Others. The gravest threat and the source of evil are people. Beyond death there seems to be no hatred and no wish for revenge only a different set of rules. Orphanage is following this new lead proving that a stupid incident and not the ghosts of the children leads to the devastating end.
When someone analyses the ways the director used to create the atmosphere he realizes that orphanage takes advantage of the usual ideas of the horror genre without really offering something new. Even its twist and turns are something fairly used in the latest horror films. On the other hand it has a clever script, great actors intelligent directing a terrifying atmosphere and arresting images. Asking for more than that might just be avarice. I might just as well admit it: Some times over education spoils all the good old fun.
Favorite phrase and scene: Unos des tres, tocca las pares

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The phenomenon of Cinema Series

With the opportunity of Golden Compass I want to discuss a new cinematic phenomenon: the series. The return Of Jedai was probably the first film that didn’t have an ending but prepared the spectators for the next episode. Nowadays, there are more and more series on the screen. The three films on middle earth (The Fellowship of the Ring, The two towers, The return of the King) seem to have created a new trench. Now we have the MatriX trilogy, Narnia, Harry Potter, Golden Compass, Xmen and so on. These film are a little bit different from the James Bond Series or the horror series of the 80’s (Nightmare on the Elm Street). They were conceived from the beginning as series. Sometimes the film does not have an ending. Spectators have to wait for the next film to have a satisfying end. On the other hand James Bond or horror series got a new episode only because they were successful in their first attempt. They were not preconceived as series. Moreover these films have an ending even if it is an open one that will allow some continuance. I wonder how the film companies decided to take the risk of creating a film with no ending. Didn’t they think that the spectators would be annoyed? I remember someone telling me that he chose not to see the trilogy of the ring until all films were finished and out so that he could see them all together. Since then though I have heard no other complaining about the no ending thing.
Series offer a sense of security. When you go to see a film you take a risk. I am not talking about the risk of not liking the film you chose to see. The more grievous risk is whether this film will make you comfortable or create an anxiety. Will you be able to take it in and handle it or will it unbalance you more than it should? In a series you have a feeling of security. More or less you know what you will see. You are already familiar with the heroes and the situation. There is no risk involved. It is like getting your old slippers on. They are comfortable and warm and cozy. An episode is already safe and familiar but has the advantage that will offer something new, a development on the same old story. You don’t have to take any risks. You don’t have to make the extra effort to get to know the character and recognize them. You don’t have to invest emotionally into them all over from the beginning.
On the other hand art (and cinema is art) should be dangerous so that there is some edge and clarity at the experience it offers. And there are so many different options, characters to get to know, new experiences to live through fantasy and film .Why should you stuck to the same over and over again? In film you are already on the side of the security since it’s the hero that suffers the consequences not you. You have the chance to live his experiences without any real suffering. Why would the extra safety net of the series be needed? Is our world so exhausting emotionally that we don’t manage to do even that: invest in different films with various characters and plots? Do we need the safety of security provided by series and even remakes? The big brains of Hollywood have found the new lure. We go to cinema in order to get re united with people we already know facing the problems that faced the previous year and the year before. Then we complain that our daily life is repetitive and dull. Isn’t that strange?

The Golden Compass: if you "need" to see it wait for the dvd

Philip Pulmans’ trilogy imitates the style of Tolkien and Lews. It is only logical that after transferring Middle Earth, Narnia and Hrry Potter’s world into the screen some Hollywood brain would discover the trilogy of the world. I wonder who will be genius enough to remember Jordan’s Wheel of Time (12 books hopefully) or Kind’s Sword of Truth (9 books). In this way spectators will be able to watch cinema series for the rest of their lives.
I am the first to admit that I have read all these series of epic fantasy and even more and that I will be the first to be tempted to see them on the screen even if I know before hand that the film won’t be good. This is the case of the Golden Compass. I knew that the film would be bellow mediocre but somehow I couldn’t resist seeing my fantasies and the images of the book alive. I am so angry with myself for being such an obedient victim of –a not so clever- marketing but here it is.
The film was all covered with a golden dust that supposedly managed to create the magical atmosphere of the book and raise the admiration of the spectator. Well not really! If everything is golden the result is not magical just kitsch. The scenario was coherent and slightly interesting only for those that had already read and liked if not loved the book. Great actors like Nicole Kidman do as always their best. They manage to render some credibility in the whole effort but little more.
In conclusion next time I feel an urge for junk food I will try to restrain myself and watch the film on tv. Such films find their way into dvd or tv channels quite soon.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Persepolis: An adult cartoon worth seeing

Persepolis narrates the story of a young Iranian girl. By telling her story it also narrates the recent history of the Iranian country. Iran from a liberal country has ended up as one of the more strict non-liberal muslin countries. And who is to blamed about this development? The west! Bravo!
Don’t get fooled by the fact that Persepolis is a cartoon. The film has nothing childish into it. The script rapidly explains the recent history of Iran so that the spectator can understand the weird twists and turns the life of a little girl takes. She begun her life in a liberal, influenced culturally by the west environment. She gets into her teens and the regime has grown strict, religious and totalitarian. The freedom of speech is withheld, her favorite uncle gets executed and she buys the new Airon Maiden album at the black market. As she can’t stop being rebellious, her parents sent her to Europe. She is an underage political refuge and she has to face all the misconceptions that the “superior” Europeans have for her country. Even more she is a teenager that tries to find her place in the world.
The nice thing about the script of Persepolis is that it proves that even in the most difficult situations human don’t stop being human. Wars and dictatorships do not make the typical problems of a teenage woman more menial. Beside the fact that she had relatives killed by the regime and she is a refugee, she still has to accept herself, fell in love, have her heart broken and face many more mishaps in the process of growing old. when she returns to Iran the government is more totalitarian than ever which forces her into a wrong marriage and then into a divorce. As a result she has to leave her country once more.
The bad thing about the script is that it is trying to convey too much in a too little time. As a result the spectator is not completely immersed into the film. He\she doesn’t identify with the girl that even if she has to face all the problems that most people face while becoming adults.
Two phrases have stuck into my mind from this film. The heroine says that even if two wars and a dictatorship in her country didn’t manage to kill her a simple banal thing like love almost did. This phrase manages summarize all the meaning of the film. In one of the last scenes of the film her parents tell her to leave Iran for a second time. Her mother tells her that she forbids her to ever come back. Iran is not for her. When she says that, she knows that she will never see her daughter again. She still has the courage to offer her daughter the most precious gift, freedom. Leaving your country and being a refugee, means leaving back the people you love. In Persepolis the protagonist has done exactly that.
Persepolis script is strong and intense because it has much to say. On the other hand if someone expects to find the exquisite perfection in the technique of design that characterizes the films of Disney or Dreamworks or Pixar will be severely disappointed. The design of Persepolis is coarse. In its simplicity however, manages to become enchanting. The plastic perfection and the illustrious pictures of the American cartoon would probably not fit this darker and much more adult cartoon and people should realize that before criticizing the lack of quality in design. All and all judging back on the films that I have seen since the beginning of the film season I would say that Persepolis is probably one of the most interesting films. Even if it has its weaknesses it remains an amenable effort and a worth seeing film.

An Apology

I feel the need to apologise to the (probably few) people that are reading this blog. Even if I still go to the cinema and watch films it takes me a really lot of time to write about them. So I have seen Persepolis, The Golden Compass, The orphanage, My bluberrry nights but I have not managed to write my opinion on any of these films. My only excuse is that I have started writting my phd. And I have given up my day job. As a result the only thing I do day after day is writting on my computer about films. Imagine now that I want to take a break from that! What should I do now? Lets write some more on my computer about films! Well you see my point! Still I kind of miss my blog and after of two years that i am writing it, it has become something like a "project". I am thinking that if i keep doing this in some years time i will have written all the reviews of the films that i will have seen. It will be quite something! Besides some read these reviews and amazingly enough think them usefull. Having paid such a compliment how can I ever let you down. Therefore I solemny swear that i will try to write my reviews more on time. Stay tuned and thanks for all your patience.