Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Gran Torino

US, 2008, directed by Clint Eastwood

It's not always subtle - the central character, Walt Kowalski, literally growls in displeasure from time to time, with Eastwood very consciously channelling characters past - but there's a bracing directness to Gran Torino, which manages to craft a deft portrait of a changing midwestern community without ever losing sight of its central narrative goals. Occasionally, Eastwood is forced to shoehorn awkward speeches into the film to fill in the backstory - two early scenes, one involving Kowalski's sons, the other a persistent parish priest, are especially obvious - but for the most part the dialogue - and there's plenty of it - emerges quite naturally from the developing interactions between Kowalski and his neighbours, members of the Vietnamese Hmong community. 

Although Eastwood may overdo the relationship between Kowalski's tortured past and his prickly yet benevolent present - revealing him as a bigoted salt of the earth character - he is able to use Walt to explore themes of immigration, integration, and working class culture that more usually fall to American independent cinema (if they crop up at all). Eastwood and his writer, Nick Schenk, also evoke the disintegrating Detroit suburbs with real care, and even humour, neither condescending to the residents nor indulging in false uplift. 

Friday, April 24, 2009


2008, US, directed by John Patrick Shanley
Although my own Catholic school experiences were in the 1980s in Ireland, there's no mistaking the sometimes bone-chilling discipline that writer-director John Patrick Shanley captures here, the idea that wrapped within the iron rod the nuns and priests have the best interests of the child at heart. That many of the teachers actually believed in all sincerity this didn't necessarily make the school atmosphere any more reassuring, and Shanley, among other things, adeptly explores the ways in which such attitudes resulted in an environment where paranoia and fear affected those at the head of the classroom as much as those behind the desks. Indeed, here the young students themselves are more or less a peripheral presence, for the film's concerns play about between adults.

Although he's generally very assured as a director, carefully revealing facts only when he wishes to show his hand, you occasionally wonder whether Shanley has full confidence in his material and his very fine complement of actors, particularly when he feels the need to underline key moments with Dutch angles, a rather jarring choice in what's otherwise a fairly ascetic visual approach. It's interesting that the Dutch angles in Slumdog Millionaire, which seem far more appropriate to that film's intent and energy, were the subject of far more negative reaction, whereas here they took me out of the otherwise compelling world of the film.

(As with any mainstream release, there's no shortage of online reviews of Doubt, but I thought Glenn Kenny's take on the film especially interesting.)

Monday, April 20, 2009


1995, UK, directed by Roger Michell
Released just before the mini-series version of Pride and Prejudice tore across screens, Roger Michell's adaptation of Jane Austen's final novel is altogether less light-hearted in tone, finding something quite dark in the often confined lives of its female characters in particular. It's been long enough since I've read the books to recall whether that's a characteristic lifted directly from Austen's work, but Michell's choices of music and lighting indicate that he's after something more than a vibrant romp (the essential tone of the Pride and Prejudice series is captured in the opening music).

Without entirely embracing a slavish period authenticity, Michell reminds us, subtly but insistently, of the physical reality of Austen's world: the mud and rain, the dimly-lit drawing rooms, the terror induced by what we would now see as minor ailments, and the sense of often debilitating familial regulation. He's able to switch between the queasy handheld camera that gives a sense of the jarring carriage rides that must have been a daily reality, and limpid shots that convey the almost endless parlour days of a life of leisured wealth. That constant concern for the real world makes his characters' dilemmas all the more concrete: we can see the limits within which they operate, and the careful delineations of class and wealth which are an obsession for some and an impediment for others. And, along the way, we're treated to several wonderful performances, particularly Amanda Root and an up-and-coming Ciaran Hinds as a very Austenian hero.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mercury Rising

1998, US, directed by Harold Becker

Bruce Willis always gives the requisite 110%, no matter how silly the set-up, and it's pretty silly here, as an autistic boy solves an apparently innocuous puzzle that compromises a top-secret US code (it says something about the movie that neither the audience nor the chief code guy - Alec Baldwin in one-note baddie mode - can figure out the absurdity that led to the release of the information in the first place). No matter: Bruce is on the case, ready to save the country, at least for the blue-collar beer-drinking classes (the wine drinkers are put firmly in their place). He'll take a bullet if necessary to protect the unfortunate child, who spends most of the film screaming in terror given that he's constantly being chased, shot at, and generally abused, frightening for any child never mind one with a disorder like autism. Ironically, given the neurological subject matter, this practically defines mindless.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


2006, UK/US, directed by Mark Palansky

Although the filmmakers might like to think Penelope is more social satire than fairytale, it succeeds pretty well in the latter vein: there’s real warmth to the performances from Christina Ricci and James McAvoy, especially in the early scenes where the characters haven’t laid eyes on each other due to Penelope’s apparent physical affliction. The film’s fantasy version of London populated with deliberately strange mid-Atlantic accents is also a compelling re-imagining of the location; Palansky recasts the city a little like Jeunet and Caro's appropriated a vaguely real Paris in their (more biting) Delicatessen, while he surrounds his leads with a great cast of character types (though I wish Richard E. Grant had ended up with a little more screen time).

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Grave of the Fireflies

1988, Japan, directed by Isao Takahata

A war film that focuses almost exclusively on the the civilian experience of war, Isao Takahata's film follows two orphaned children in 1945 Japan, with an older boy (Seita) desperately trying to care for his young sister (Setsuko) in a situation where adults are either absent or are unable to see beyond their own straitened circumstances to take the children in. What gives the film much of its power is Seita's attempts, despite his own terrible experiences, to create a protective cocoon in which his sister can still have some semblance of a normal routine and even hints of a childhood notwithstanding the fires and deaths that have destroyed the city.

There's great power in Takahata's resolutely unsentimental evocation of a country slipping deeper into privation, where food and money are desperately scarce, and the normal care systems - both governmental and familial - have been strained to breaking point and beyond. As the film notes, wartime ultimately shreds the social fabric, with individual family members looking only to their own instances, and generosity the rarest commodity of all.

While civilian suffering in the war was undoubtedly terrible, and is given deeply affecting expression here, I do wonder if the choice of child protagonists allows the film to skirt some of the issues of adult responsibility that have proved so difficult to navigate in postwar Japan. It's instructive to contrast the film with Kazuo Hara's extraordinary, taboo-breaking documentary The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On, released just a year before, which confronts the wartime roles of the military and political systems that ultimately created the conditions in which civilians suffered terrible fates.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Good Shepherd

2006, US, directed by Robert De Niro

De Niro's account of the early years of the inception and early years of the CIA is compelling enough, but you get the feeling it's all very over-determined, as though the central conflict has an inevitable outcome designed to show Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) the error of his ways. Wilson's a spectacularly humourless man - don't these super-spies ever crack a joke? - who's barely capable of expressing affection to his family, and the film ultimately runs further with than conceit than with Wilson's actual motivations and beliefs as he becomes integrated into the country's espionage bureaucracy. The film has considerable value in outlining the ways in which wartime created the conditions for the post-war apparatus of paranoia (a self-fulfilling paranoia at times) but it's less successful in revealing much about a man whose character has been sketched in broad strokes early on.


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States