Wednesday, 3 June 2009

The Harsh Truth Of The Camera Lens

OK: well I have a new semi-regular thing I’m thinking of launching, but I have not quite decided on the optimum time and date for this – so in the meantime, and since I’ve been banging on about film recently, I thought I’d bring you a couple of reviews – 2 on recent films that I’ve seen and one on my all-time fave. (NB: I'd appreciate comments relating to your fave films and recent viewings in response)

Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood)

The Plot:
Clint Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, an embittered and recently bereaved Korean war vet. Estranged from his two sons, his community and his faith Kowalski finds himself living in an area where the insurgence of immigrants has left him surrounded by people who, to him at least, look like the very people he was fighting against.

He prefers his own company and keeps away from his new Hmong (Asian ethnic group in the mountainous regions of southeast Asia) neighbours, until an act of kindness towards their daughter Sue (Ahney Her) brings him into closer contact. This is cemented when their oldest son Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang) is put under pressure by the local Hispanic gangs to prove himself worthy of joining – by stealing Kowalski’s prized possession: his Ford Gran Torino.

When this attempt is foiled by Kowalski (nearly shooting the intruder in the dark) the Hmong family are so shamed by their son’s actions that they force him to work off the debt. As the young man begins to work off his debt the two form an unlikely and often spiky friendship.

OK: so far, so buddy movie: and if this was all there was to the film then it really would be just another self-indulgent bitter bad-ass hero bulls**t movie (which so many are) and, as such, instantly forgettable. However: a couple of things pull it above the norm.

Firstly there’s Clint Eastwood himself. His performance as the grumpy, racist (although technically he’s anti-everyone equally) and outspoken Kowalski is note perfect: where most actors would take a mallet and a chisel to the armor of the character Eastwood is content to use a pin. UK film critic Mark Kermode (the first man to get a Degree in Horror Films) said of the performance “the only reason he didn’t get an Oscar was because he makes it all look so easy”. By the end of the film you still may not like Kowalski or agree with his views, but you do at least understand why he feels the way he does and can sympathize to some degree. Kowalski’s own xenophobic feelings are put into perspective by the pressure on the Hmong family from other races in the area and by his actions to help the family, regardless of his personal feelings.

As a director Eastwood also knows when to take a back seat and the other characters, particularly Sue and Thao, feel like fully rounded and believable people rather than just ethnic stereotypes.

With its underlying themes of acceptance (both of the past and the present), belonging, racial tension and repercussion Gran Tourino is a film that asks many questions of its audience without seeking to impose an answer. Although some of the views and opinions voiced in the film may be uncomfortable and cause offence this is at heart a very intelligent film that has the guts to stick to its guns and follow through whilst respecting it’s audience.

If you enjoyed this film you’ll like this: Million Dollar Baby

Slumdog Millionnaire (Danny Boyle)

The Plot
Well I guess that by now most people will know the plot of this one, but for those of you living in a vacuum-cleaner here it is:

Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is a slumdog – IE he comes from the slums of India and works in a call centre as a tea wallah and socially assumed to be stupid or of low education. One question away from winning a fortune on a quiz show he is rushed away by the police, accused of cheating and tortured. From there on the film tracks back the events in his life that have led him to the answers. Along the way we see the pressures that were put on him and his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) and his attempts to find his childhood friend Latika (Frieda Pinto) and rescue her from her life of prostitution.

In some ways Slumdog covers a lot of the same ground as Gran Torino: dealing with social exclusion, sticking to your beliefs and winning through, and also dealing with prejudice. However, whilst Dev Patel’s (and the younger actors) performances are solid I did not enjoy this half as much as I thought I would.

Perhaps it was because I saw it on the back of Gran Torino, but I had more than a few problems with the film: firstly Salim’s descent into crime and murder seemed to come from nowhere instead of developing slowly (which would have made his final realisation of what he had become more realistic). Secondly the character of Latika felt oddly two-dimensional (to me at least). She seemed to exist only as a prize to be won. Whilst it could be argued that this was part of a larger theme connected to the quiz show it made it hard to care about her fate – especially when it was very obvious from the start where things were going (any one who didn’t see the final question and resolution coming a mile off was watching a different film)

Finally, and most importantly, the Quiz show element felt like a clumsy way to tell Jamal’s story and was the weakest element. The film would have been more interesting if it had just told the story straight (and yes, I know it was based on a book) – This was a real shame as it was only in the scenes on the streets of poverty-stricken India where the film really worked.

To be fair the film is a perfectly enjoyable piece of work, nicely shot and with some very good performances throughout – but for me it was just missing that special something that would turn it from a good film to a great one.

If you enjoyed this film you’ll like this: Sadly this doesn’t live up to Danny Boyle’s infamous Trainspotting, but if you like Bollywood movies then you’ll probably like this

Brazil (Terry Gilliam)

Shortly after the success of Time Bandits Terry Gilliam and then co-writer Charles McKewan began working on a series of ideas to follow in the interim whilst they raised money for Time Bandits II (still to surface).

The idea they eventually hit upon was initially titled 1984½

And the best advice I can give to anyone watching Brazil is that if you watch it with the mindset of 1984 On Drugs in mind you will have at least some understanding of what it is all in aid of.

The plot revolves around Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a very small cog in the machinery of a dystopian future and, on the whole, happy to remain that way. By day he is the man who keeps his boss (Ian Holm) in a job whilst resisting the efforts of his well-connected mother to see him promoted, whilst by night in his small flat with badly working technology and over-complicated plumbing Sam is subjected to a recurring dream of being a superhero, fighting again and again to find and save a mysterious girl.

Things start to get out of control for Sam when the Ministry of Information (effectively the Secret Police) accidentally arrest the wrong man for interrogation, leading to the man’s death. Whilst on a mission to issue compensation to the family Sam finds himself face with the girl he has been dreaming about. It is this encounter, compounded by Sam’s decision to allow Harry Tuttle (Robert DeNiro), the wanted man and renegade plumber, to repair his flat’s plumbing that leads to Sam’s life spiraling further and further out of control as he tries to find and warn the girl and begins to lose his grip on the difference between reality and his dreams.

Brazil is a film that definitely benefits from repeated viewing, as I guarantee the first time you watch it you will end up with your mouth wide-open saying “what the ****” to your TV screen. But the more times you watch it the more you get out of it, and the more layers you see.

There’s so many things that I love about this film that I really don’t know where to start: from the 1950s film-noir costume and sets, to the chaos-theory basis of the story where absolutely everything that happens leads irrevocably and inevitably towards the film’s dramatic conclusion. Every time I see it I’m forced to ask more questions and to re-assess events in the film: just exactly how much of it is what I think?

The main performances are great, especially Jonathan Pryce as the well-meaning but over-enthusiastic Sam Lowry and an unnervingly sinister Michael Palin as Sam’s friend Jack and the use of angle and perspective from the camera add to the unease and surreal feel.

This is a film that you will either love or hate – there is very little inbetween (if you’re merely stupefied watch it again). The story goes that the studios were unhappy with Terry Gilliam’s final cut and tried to force him to change it – Gilliam immediately threatened to burn the negative rather than do so and still feels that the studios deliberately refused to promote his next film (The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen) to teach him a lesson.

If you enjoyed this film you’ll like this: Blade Runner, Time Bandits

On a final note for this post please please take my advice and, whatever you do, no matter how bored you get - never never never watch a film called Pret-a-Porter. It is unsavably shit


the watercats said...

Haven't seen any of these, but will keep them in my mind. I think Terry Gilliam did a thing called Tideland.. fecking excellent film! He's a good-un on the directing front.. cheers for the tip offs!

Lydia said...

Have seen only #1. #2 is on our list to rent. Don't know about #3 except from your (excellent) review.

You have me curious as to what you have in the works.....

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

watercats - indeed, Tideland is Terry Gilliam's most recent film. He's just finishing off The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parsnuss - which is the first film he's worked with Charles McKewan on since Brazil and features the final performance of Heath Ledger

Lydia..You never said what you thought of #1

As for my idea - y'all come back friday xx

Argent said...

I think I was in the room when Brazil was on once upon a time, but I'd need to see it again as I can't remember any of it. Still wanting to see Slumdog (despite your review) and I daresay Mr Eastwood's oeuvre will be on Sky soon - if it hasn't already.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

Argent - yep: you probably need to see it again!

Lisa Allender said...

SYNCHRONICITY! I just watched "Gran Torino" the other afternoon with my honey. We loved it!
I totally agree with you on "Pret-A-Porter". What a snore!
Worst film I ever saw(and even walked out on!); I saw this at a local(Atlanta, Georgia, USA) "arts-y" cinema. I believe the film was from UK, but not sure:
"Naked". It had no redeeming charcters, the "plot" was convoluted, I just could not "care" about any of the characters, at all. What a waste of one hour(I left half-way through it!).