Monday, May 07, 2007

Flags of Our Fathers, Harsh Times, Painted Veil, Science of Sleep, Notes on Scandal, Last King of Scotland

Flags of Our Fathers
Clint Eastwood's film is slight and at times uninvolving, but it has a lovely, elegiac quality, and contains some of his best work as a director. Where Eastwood's films used to be characterized by rather clunky ungainly scenes—what I would call slick amateurism (evident even in some of Mystic River)—since Million Dollar Baby he has evolved into a genuinely gifted film artist, with new levels of restraint, subtlety and artistry to draw upon. Apparently, on his way to being 80, he has come of age as a filmmaker. Flags doesn't deliver on the action sequences—it can't outdo Saving Private Ryan—but it has an abundance of genuine feeling, poignancy and pathos, that Spielberg's film lacks. Rather than an anti-war film per se, this is a meditation on war—clearly the work of a man in the twilight of life with the time (and the need) to look more closely at values (e.g., patriotism) that shouldn't be taken for granted.

Science of Sleep
A self-indulgently inspired surrealist jaunt from Michael Gondry (Eternal Sunshine), this is a film that needs to be persisted in to be enjoyed. If you get through the first half hour, you will probably be glad you stuck it out, because the film belongs to its very own species, being neither comedy nor sci-fi nor drama. It probably gets away with more "quirkiness" than it deserves, thanks to Gael Garcia Bernal in the main role, who manages to ground the self-consciously avant-garde humor and silliness in something more real. Also Charlotte Gainsbourg (daughter of the famous coupling of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin) as the love interest adds something unique to the mix. Like Eternal Sunshine this is a refreshingly close-to-the-bone take on romantic infatuation, and herein lies its greatest strength (the lovers never share a screen kiss). As an attempt at George Méliès/Gilliam/Burton style fantastic cinema, however, it is only partially successful. It attempts far more than it pulls off, but its awkwardness is often touching rather than simply annoying. By all means not for everyone—overall this is an experimental work disguised as a mainstream movie.

Notes on a Scandal
A rather colorless melodrama that I might have found more gripping had I not seen the trailer, which (as is the norm these days) gives away the entire story, twists and all. The only thing this film has going for it, besides the performances, is the morbid fascination of its story (school teacher has an affair with a fifteen-year-old boy and consequently falls into the clutches of a neurotic lesbian). The script by Patrick Marber (Closer) is disappointingly devoid of insight or acerbic wit, and the direction, by Richard Eyre, is at best functional, at worst dreary Channel 4 TV show standard. Judi Dench is flawless, of course, but her character is really little more than an older, lesbian retread of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction—the sexually obsessed predator role, which however realistic, always ends up seeming rather tedious and melodramatic. Cate Blanchett is lovely and ethereal and convincing throughout, but never really affecting, because her character never really comes alive for us. The same goes for the movie.

Last King of Scotland
Another overrated work that I was expecting more from, and despite Forrest Whitaker's sterling performance as Idi Amin (and a very pleasant appearance by the divine Gillian Anderson – blonde with suntan), this is a fairly routine affair. Considering the nature of the material, it's actually rather tame, with none of the searing, scathing intensity of (say) Salvador or Under Fire. The main character played by James McAvoy is unappealingly callow, and although admittedly this is right for the part, the result is that—besides Amin, who is never quite real to us—the film lacks an emotional center. It skirts around the Uganda atrocities (for the very good reason that the central character doesn't know about them until the end), and instead of going for political expose, opts for a more character and suspense driven tale. But frankly, the director Kevin MacDonald (Touching the Void) doesn't have the skill for it. He does a proficient job but no more. Besides a delightful moment in which Amin gives in to a live-saving burst of flatulence, the film has few real surprises.

The Painted Veil
The first hour of this film—based on the book by Somerset Maugham—is rather flat and lifeless, and you may wonder what could possibly happen to justify all these high-production values and prestigious players (Naomi Watts, Edward Norton—always worth watching—and Liev Schreiber). The director, John Curran, rushes through the early scenes without putting much into them, and it's obvious he is trying to get the preliminary business (the courtship, marriage, and infidelity) over with and move on to the real story. Once the disenchanted couple moves to a Cholera-inflicted area—the embittered cuckold's revenge on his bored, frustrated wife—things pick up dramatically. Ironically, the husband's hatred and anger introduces real passion to the affair, and a strange, resentful kind of love slowly develops between them—at which point the film and the performances begin to soar. By the end, something remarkable has happened. In the process of showing how these dried up, desperate characters begin to suffer and feel, how they come alive to each other and themselves, the film begins to cast a lazy, melancholic spell. By the end, we may feel our own hearts slowly breaking. A film that stays with you afterwards, with all the niggling persistence of a doomed love affair, this is a work of restrained beauty and depth.

Harsh Times
Another undiscovered gem, with a phenomenal performance by the ever-amazing Christian Bale, as Jim Davis, a US soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, returning to Los Angeles to look for work and hang out with his former buddies. The film builds slowly to its inevitable, catastrophic climax, and although some of the devices used to show Davis' increasing paranoia and psychosis are formulaic (shaky camera, yellow filters, etc), Bale's performance is subtly affecting. Bale is so real he never allows the film to descend into banality or cliché. Harsh Times is a terrific piece of dark psychodrama, with an unusual degree of authenticity to the scenes. The writer-director, David Ayers, has a solid talent for raw, believable characters and simple, no-nonsense action. He abandons himself to cliché at the end, overdoing the final shoot-out with operatic slow-motion effects when brutal realism would have sufficed (and in fact been far more effective); but for most of the film's length, he keeps us on a razor's edge—the same edge that Davis is walking. Bale's Davis is part Travis Bickle ("solider of the apocalypse"), part Richard Boyle (James Woods' character in Salvador: Davis takes time out in Mexico with the woman he wants to marry), part John Wayne and part American Psycho. He's the all-American fuck up. A far cry from Batman Begins, this is the kind of role Bale should stick to (he also exec-produced the film) if he wants to develop into what he is: one of the best actors working in movies today.


Anonymous said...

>>Flags doesn't deliver on the action sequences—it can't outdo Saving Private Ryan—

Speak for yourself! It did for me and Flags' battle scenes were also more imaginatively utilised in a narrative that characterised war as a perennial nightmare for the survivors.

Also I have no idea what you mean by 'slick amateurism' when you refer to Eastwood's direction - unless this is a jab at the fact that Eastwood doesn't indulge at all in the kind of pointlessly flashy camera moves and tricks that sadly distinguish so many other contemporary directors.

jake horsley said...

Well fair enough, I found the battle scenes in Flags somewhat muted and unexciting, but that is not necessarily a flaw, since they may have been more realistic for that very reason.
As for "slick amateurism," I don't see how anyone who has seen Eastwood's work, pre Mystic River, couldn't agree. I love High Plains Drifter for example, but it's basically a self-conscious, clumsy work. Bronco Billy and Honkytonk Man are the best of his 70s/80s work; Unforgiven has some great scenes with Harris and Hackman, but much of it is, again, creakingly staged. His films are almost always glossy and well-shot, but with a sort of clunky, unconvincing quality to them (most especially the performances, e.g., the child actors in Mystic River) that can be quite charming but, to my mind, has always shown Eastwood to be merely a craftsman, not an authentic film artist. Much as I love the guy, I could never really take him that seriously as an "auteur" director, until his last three or four films, that is.