Dead Man (1995)

August 19, 2008 § Leave a comment

Dead Man is a wandering but fascinating artistic Western from director Jim Jarmusch (and, if you like one Jim Jarmusch film you’ll probably like them all). It’s a film with both amusing and horrific moments, built with a series of small, often nearly perfect scenes the way a poem is one careful line after another. It only suffers from a limited, repetitive score that begins to feel like the same guy hammering away on a guitar because, well, that’s exactly what it is. It was a bold move to score it this way, but the film deserves better than a self-conscious and distracting score.

There’s also a scene where one of the villains literally steps on and crushes a human head in a long, slow shot. Jarmusch has an admirable reputation for showing the moments between events and the images other directors might skip or cut away from, but this is simply a bit much in a film that’s already relentlessly grim. Setting the film in a period where life was cheaper and more of an ongoing struggle allows him to suggest certain thematic ideas: that we’re all doomed, it only remains to choose where you want to concentrate your desperate efforts before you’re gone. Despite a moment or two that might make you wince uncomfortably, Dead Man is a strong and memorable film, and well worth watching.

Children of Men (2006)

August 14, 2008 § Leave a comment

Children of Men is among the most terrifying films I’ve ever seen, mainly for the lack of faith and compassion pervading it.  There are always people around scoffing at the idea of religious faith, but I think the reality is that religious or otherwise people need some kind of faith (in goodness, in humanity, in art or society) to carry on, or at least to carry on humanely, happily, productively.

Children of Men is set in the near future, and though technically science-fiction it doesn’t feel like it in a heavy-handed way, any more than a film adaptation of 1984 would feel like it.   It’s a portrayal of a future where an eighteen year old is a celebrity simply for being the youngest person alive.  People have lost the ability to reproduce, leading to a gradual, increasing despair. Wisely, it’s never explained exactly how this happened, but the film witnesses a society soldiering on with the certain knowledge the end is near, meaning whatever you believe it, it’s coming to a close — there’s just one small, obscure hope that our central character stumbles across. It’s a grim scenario, and a flawlessly made, gripping film.  It works as a suspense film, as commentary, as drama too.  The acting and writing are also solid, with good performances from Clive Owen and Michael Caine as an elderly hippie.  The Michael Caine character is a complete relic himself, still trying to carve out and define a corner of the world according to his beliefs despite being nearly dead (and, at one point, the Owen character actually believes him to be dead when he’s asleep).

It’s possible to watch this relentlessly grim film and ask this question: what’s the point? And I have to admit, I’d have a hard time with the film if all this was for little purpose, but I think the portrayal of a world stripped of faith reminds us that it hasn’t gotten this bad yet, that there are still things worth fighting for. In a world where global warming, climate change, a lack of conservation and sustainable development all threaten to leave us impoverished, that certainly hits home, doesn’t it?

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

August 5, 2008 § Leave a comment

Look, I’m sorry. But the truth of the matter is, I’m not sure it’s possible to make a terrific Hulk film. The main reason is that however good the actor playing Bruce Banner, however complicated your plot (and, it never seems very complicated) and whatever heavy-handed allusions you make to male ego, repressed anger or primal whatever, there will always be the unsatisfying fact that your main actor is repeatedly replaced by a big hunk of CGI. And finally, a big hunk of CGI finishes off the film. Superman and Batman don’t have this problem — the audience gets to finish the film without visually abandoning the actor that started the narrative. Then there are the cameo appearances by Stan Lee (does he have to show up in every Marvel film?) and Lou Ferrigno that take you out of the film on a couple of occasions. As Bruce Banner, Edward Norton tries his best, both in front of the camera and behind it — he apparently wanted a slightly longer, more character driven film — and the first half of the film hums along pretty well, but by the time the Hulk appears for another long digital slug-fest at the end it’s all getting a little tiresome. Someone should tell studio executives that sometimes, less is more, and we don’t need to see one city block after another destroyed. But hey, including the sad, tinkling piano theme from the 1970s TV series was a nice touch.

Cloverfield (2008)

August 4, 2008 § Leave a comment

Cloverfield has the good sense to be short, given that it’s about fifteen minutes of character set-up, followed by a monster attacking New York. What sets this apart from some other genre films is the shaky-cam, shot by a character approach (making the film into something like “Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla”). There are certainly some impressive effects to be found here, as well as a fast pace and some comic relief that isn’t contrived enough to take you out of the film or seem out of place.  They’re also smart to refuse to allow the viewer to do more than glimpse the monster for the first half of the film, and in the most innovative move, flashbacks to a previous day at Coney Island are the result of bits of tape that didn’t happen to be taped over on the day of the attack.  This was my favourite element of the film, and I longed for them to be more weirdly significant or prophetic, though it’s perhaps best they weren’t too heavy-handed.

It’s also just barely believable that the characters would keep the camera going during some of the more intense sequences, and that the army might not confiscate it. The thing that hurts believability the most was actually that most of the cast are stunning, though the same time, it’s probably a small miracle they’re unknowns at all. And yes, it does seem a little odd to talk about believability when it’s about a monster attacking New York, but New York has been attacked, and the central premise here is that a small crew of friends managed to film it all. Nitpicking aside, Cloverfield is an entertaining ride. Maybe the inevitable sequel can do something with the unsubtle allusions to 9/11 introduced here.

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