Poem #1:- After the Living

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As I mentioned in the previous post on this blog, dated January 1st 2012, this blog will now be used for other writing on Books, Literature, Politics, Sport (particularly football, tennis and boxing) and bits of creative writing. You can now find all cinematic concerns at http://apercucinehilia.wordpress.com . What follows below is a short piece of poetry from 2009. 
 
 

After the Living

 

In the dark wood Night turned back last

And those whom had peopled came past,

Full gone to water and sand seeded sky,

As must all whom breathe and burn and die.

 

The waters catch cold and run here –

Green of mind, fine, worn and tinged sincere.

 

Many islets are to pictures presently disposed,

Till the blank of nocturnal blindness consoles.

 

RBC, Friday, September 4th 2009

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Film Review:- A Woman, A Gun and A Noodle Shop (2009)

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Dir:- Zhang Yimou

Starr:- Honglei Sun, Xiao Shen-Yang, Ni Yan, Dahong Ni, Ye Cheng, Mao Mao, Benshan Zhao

For the best part of a decade Chinese cinema has been growing in international stature, a process accelerated by the crossover smash Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, back in 2003. American remakes of South-East Asian cinema have been fairly common in recent years, with Hong Kong films such as The Eye and Infernal Affairs (the source for Scorsese’s Oscar-winner The Departed) joining a crowd of South Korean and Japanese horrors and thrillers in having an English-language facelift. A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop, however, bucks this trend, and in so doing potentially creates a new cinematic paradigm. This will be the first film that many ‘English-speaking’ audiences will have come across, that has made the reverse journey from America to China.

Based upon The Coen Brothers debut movie Blood Simple, this film is a bizarre hybrid of western, Chinese epic, film noir and comic folk tale. Whereas the original movie was a taut Texas-set neo-noir, that utilised its balmy southern locale to enhance its tense and claustrophobic atmosphere (much like The Big Easy), this Chinese remake takes place in the ancient past, in a remote part of the Chinese empire, amongst the servants and wives of a wizened old feudal lord, called Wang (Dahong Ni). Visually the differences between the two films are particularly pronounced, with the original using a dark and swampy palette to paint a murky world of misdeeds, misunderstandings and abstruse machinations. By comparison, A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop, is shot in a hyperreal blur of garish primary colours, that is both beguiling and more than just a little camp. This intensely coloured, high-gloss tone gives the adaptation the feel of a comic-book, which although a million miles from the sleazy, grimy feel of the original, does actually help to import much of that work’s carefully cultivated artifice.

It’s really not at all surprising that The Coen Brothers work could serve as the basis for such a cross-cultural translation. Of all the major modern American filmmakers, Joel and Ethan have, until A Serious Man, always appeared to be the auteurs most comfortable when creating new archetypes of older Hollywood forms (think of The Big Lebowski as a languid caper-comedy, or The Hudsucker Proxy as a Capraesque feel-good comic drama). Despite the surface eccentricities of their characterisations, or the snappiness of their terse Hawksian dialogue exchanges, the brothers have underscored their most successful works with a strong understanding of the potential ‘universality’ of certain story tropes (consider the sheer volume of classic literary references that form the foundation of their oeuvre, from Nathanel West’s dissection of Hollywood in The Day of the Locust, surfacing intermittently in Barton Fink, to the omnipresence of The Odyssey in O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Even though Blood Simple would appear to be, primarily as a result of the excellent location work, a particularly American movie, the Coen’s are really detailing a narrative that transcends place and time, thus making it ripe for this kind of cultural appropriation.

What is most unusual about this remake is the creative imagination behind the camera. Veteran Chinese helmer Zhang Yimou, who initially made his name with the extraordinary historical tragedy Raise the Red Lantern (parodic echoes of which can be felt here), moves away from recent forays into the big-budget, symphonic action epic, such as Hero and the breathtakingly beautiful, but almost entirely vacuous, House of Flying Daggers, to focus his undoubted cinematic talents upon what is, in effect, a tiny, chamber piece, of a movie. The film takes place in a hilly, desert landscape which is startling to behold, particularly as the near-crimson colour of the sand makes it appear like the surface of some alien planet. By selecting a few carefully composed establishing shots, Yimou manages to suggest a vast, desolate wilderness within which Wang’s modest palace is a remote oasis of civilisation. Similar to its cinematic source, the film revolves around the convoluted affairs of two young lovers, one of whom happens to be Wang’s favourite wife (played as a truly silly young woman by Ni Yan), and their seemingly simple ruse to divest Wang of his vast wealth. Into this most straight-forward of plotlines comes the complicating presence of Zhang (Honglei Sun), a supposedly by-the-book Imperial police officer (M. Emmet Walsh’s delightfully odious PI in the original) who sees an opportunity to exploit the situation for his own considerable gain. Corruption is the name of the game here, with money, in particular, seen as having the most corrupting influence. Xiao Shen-Yang’s Li initially cares little for material gain, rather showing a naive love for Wang’s wife. However, the seductive allure of the masses of metal currency Wang keeps stored up in his safe, proves too much for all of the servants Wang keeps under his roof, as well as the aggrieved police officer, to resist. To this end the adaptation could be seen to import a sly critique of market values, particularly as in such a bright and colourful movie, most of the filthy monetary transactions occur in the relative obscurity of nightfall, condemning them to be considered as in some way despicable.

Although Yimou does an admirable job of importing the main plot arc from Blood Simple and making it seem like an authentically Chinese narrative, one of the glaring failures of this exercise in cross-cultural pollination, is the way in which Ni Yan’s wife role operates within this different context. A subtle aspect of the original movie was its focus on the gradual evolution of Frances McDormand’s Abby, from a trapped woman almost completely reliant on the men in her life, to someone able to be self-reliant and possessing hitherto untapped inner capabilities to liberate herself. In Yimou’s movie, mainly as a result of the adaptation’s focus on comic and slapstick elements, Ni Yan’s role is completely lacking in such development, which turns the conclusion into a much less affecting, or rewarding, psychological experience, reducing it instead to a fine action set-piece. This difference in characterisation when placed alongside the markedly distinct use of landscape and locale, would appear to point up a cultural recalibration. The Coen’s original used the Texas locale and sweaty, claustrophobic interiors to show how men exert a degree of dominance over certain spaces, that then become an extension of their individuality (Visser’s car, Julian Marty’s club, Ray’s bar), as well as showing the way in which individual personality emerges from such terrain. Whereas, Yimou’s Chinese version dwarves individual identities against an intimidatingly gigantic landscape, placing much more emphasis on the action’s of the group rather than the action’s of individuals. This can lead to spectacular and hypnotic little sequences, such as the acrobatic noodle-making scene at the opening of the movie, but also leads to more ritualistic activity, such as the protocols of the palace, which make it harder to empathise with any one, particular character.

Yimou has an exceptional eye for the composition of cinematic shots, with some of the interplay between colours, such as the blackness of the blood at night and the interior decoration of the palace, being simply stunning. However, the movie does suffer from an unevenness of tone. The comic goings-on of the servants, seem to be occurring in a different film from Honglei Sun’s supremely self-contained and menacing performance as Zhang, whilst the elements of theatrical violence and slapstick comedy only really cohere in the climax to the film. Xia Shen-Yang and Ni Yan are both highly irritating presences throughout the movie, but they pale in comparison with the excruciatingly unfunny imbecility of Mao Mao and Ye Cheng’s distracting double act, as Zhao and Chen respectively. Part of the perceived failings of these roles, could be to do with an inability to read these characters within a set of Chinese narrative archetypes, potentially. Regardless, it will be intriguing to see whether this pretty little failure of an adaptation will become the initiator of a new cultural transaction paradigm between American and Chinese cinema. Big Trouble in Little Los Angeles, perhaps?

Film Review:- The Cove (2009)

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Dir:- Louie Psihoyos

Feat:- Ric O’ Barry, Louie Psihoyos, Charles Hambleton, Simon Hutchins, Scott Baker, Roger Payne

The Cove is a documentary that utilises elements of a suspense-thriller to hammer home it’s highly polemical point. It takes a fairly ‘safe’ subject matter by addressing the ‘unnecessary slaughter’ of dolphins and other cetaceous marine life in the coastal fishing communities around Japan’s south-eastern seaboard, with a specific focus on the town of Taiji. The difficulties that such a documentary faces stem from the assumptions that are made at the film’s outset and which have created diametrically opposed and absolutely entrenched points of view. On the one side of the argument is the very ‘western’ notion that dolphins are somehow creatures that warrant a ‘special’ status, like that which has been given to whales, primarily due to scientific research suggesting the animals are highly intelligent and most likely self-aware. Conservationists are also heavily involved with trying to highlight the plight of cetaceous sea-life due to the supposedly diminishing population numbers amongst many species. The antithetical view is held by the Japanese (who are at the very least implicitly demonised in the film) and more accurately their fishing communities, who claim to be preserving an age-old tradition of whale and dolphin culling, as well as providing their troubled seafood industries with sources of fresh meat. The positions at the opening of the film are so clear that it seems unlikely that any serious dialogue between the two can occur. However, that isn’t really Psihoyos’s purpose.

The Cove isn’t a film designed to prompt discussion, but rather it is an awkwardly realised propaganda exercise (regardless of the legitimacy of Psihoyos and O’ Barry’s position it is still a blusteringly evangelical film) that utilises a whole retinue of sophisticated documentary techniques to maximise the impact of its blunt assault. Psihoyos was a National Geographic photographer and filmmaker and The Cove does, at times, seem like a reassuringly old-school television wildlife documentary. There is literally nothing within the film that demonstrates an interest in cinematic aesthetics, with perhaps the sole exception being the random mysterious beauty of the opening nightvision shots (particularly the shot through a road tunnel). Mixing up talking heads segments and stock nature footage, with a flashy chronicling of the logistics involved in making the film, director Psihoyos banks the whole venture on the power of its message, which by the film’s end seems like a direct call to action. Intriguingly it is the powerful simplicity of the final third of the movie that validates Psihoyos’s approach, whilst simultaneously pointing up the relative ineffectiveness of the rest of the film. There is a sense that The Cove could have been a far more compelling thirty minute television essay, in the mould of the Unreported World documentary series on UK Channel 4.

The central human protagonist in The Cove, and the agit-prop instigator, is former Dolphin catcher and trainer, Ric O’ Barry. Having worked on the television series Flipper back in the 1960’s, O’ Barry portrays himself as a man who has operated on both sides of the moral divide in this issue. As, inadvertently, one of the main popularisers of the Dolphin-themed sea centres and parks, that proved to be such popular forms of entertainment in the latter half of the twentieth century, O’ Barry is clearly wishing to be seen as someone who has accepted the error of his ways and can thus assume the moral superiority (and occasional sanctimoniousness) of the zealous convert. As activists go O’ Barry is a non-stop whirlwind of nervous energy, which, for a man who was approaching seventy during filming, deserves some plaudits. For the best part of 35 years O’Barry has devoted himself to liberating captive dolphins around the world. It is O’ Barry that fixates upon the dubious activities that take place in a hidden cove up the coastline from Taiji, and it is O’ Barry who ultimately persuades Psihoyos to take an active interest in what is actually occurring there. The local fishermen, police force and various government bureaucrats all appear to have had run-ins with O’Barry, who has even developed a curious relationship with some of the men, such as a fisherman/provocateur that he simply refers to as ‘Private Space’, after the two words in English that the man repeatedly barks at any protestor-interlopers.

The conspiracy theory ‘cover-up’ activities of Japanese fishermen and politicians, that O’ Barry and Psihoyos are explicitly stating exists (and which have their clearest expression in the Japanese lobby within the IWC), would seem to have a grain of truth when you consider the seeming counter-espionage tactics of these crazed, fanatical marine mammal murderers from the Land of the Rising Sun. Yet this ignores the sly patterning of the documentary that by the middle stages of the film has adopted an approach to the difficulties of filming in the cove itself, by detailing the efforts of the technical crew, including two studiously edited ‘covert operations’ to install recording equipment hidden within fake rocks. Psihoyos and his colleagues, like Simon Hutchins and Charlie Hambleton, are all members of the deep-sea diving fraternity and have founded an organisation, called the Oceanic Preservation Society, that seems to style itself as the brave, patrolling ‘special force’ of the waves. The entire first hour of the documentary effectively engages in a hybridised form of old-school animal rights activism (O’ Barry’s attempts at trying to develop a human empathy for the creatures, as well as his mantra-like factual assertions about the annual slaughter) and new media crusading (Psihoyos’s ‘covert ops’), that is further emphasised by the clash between old-fashioned NG documentary and ‘reality TV’ self-referentiality in the structure of the doc. Psihoyos has done a little bit of homework regarding documentary tropes, as the soundtrack by J. Ralph seems to echo Phillip Glass’s score to Errol Morris’s miscarriage of justice masterpiece The Thin Blue Line. It’s incessant, wave-like harmonies soundtrack even the blandest of meetings between Japanese police and O’ Barry, as if the score alone can inject these non-moments with intrigue and mystery. The coda to the movie is straight out of the Michael Moore bag of publicly humiliating agit-prop tricks, yet it is actually one of the more triumphant scenes in the film, as it channels the power of the preceding slaughter sequence into a justifiable, and precision directed, rage, rather than a flaccid outpouring of maudlin hysteria.

Fundamentally the movie fails to justify itself as a cinematic, feature-length work, and a large part of this is down to the harrowing strength of the images, the capture of which the filmmakers have supposedly made the goal of the project. Psihoyos is only working within a proscribed documentary framework that has become popular since the late 1990’s, in which the purpose of the documentary often becomes indistinguishable from a cannibalistic approach to documenting, foregrounding the mechanisms of the documentary’s creation and manufacturing from this a mythos of struggle and achievement. In many ways it is nothing more than a technically accomplished version of the questionable docudrama tactics of cinematic documentary pioneers like Robert J. Flaherty. Psihoyos, and his team, are not necessarily presenting a fiction, but they are undeniably engaged in a polemical simplification that rides along the wave of instinctive revulsion that many non-Japanese audience members will feel toward the very idea of killing Dolphins. The incessant need to inform, rather than to show, is just one of the indicators that this movie isn’t necessarily all that it is pretending to be. Psihoyos shows up the flaws in early sequences, in which he foolishly allows the freediving pair of Mandy-Rae Cruickshank and Kirk Krack to inanely vocalise their horror at witnessing a dolphin dying in front of them, when he demonstrates the simple power of an image in the extended documenting of the carnage the fishermen unleash on the captive dolphins within the cove. In aiming at the feature-length documentary it has forced Psihoyos and his team to pad out a startling piece of film, with the kind of aimless talking head footage, crushingly obvious narration and visual dullness that has unfortunately become the default setting of modern documentary forms.

Aside from the difficulties of form there was also the issue of imbalance. Despite a few tacit attempts to show this fishing community as a microcosm disconnected from the wider Japanese population, there was a more pervasive sense, particularly in some of the talking heads that were chosen as interview subjects (such as the frankly outrageous former Antiguan representative to the IWC), that Japan was being set-up as a hate figure and bad guy in a Hollywood, black and white, morality play. This approach was frankly too easy for the filmmakers to take, particularly as the reasons as to why the Japanese want to protect the right to slaughter cetaceous sea-life seems so inscrutable to the outraged ‘western’ eyes behind the camera. The film refused to examine what props up this industry if, as the film claims, nobody knows what is done with a great bulk of the dolphin meat. Surely if there isn’t a complex of profits to be made somewhere then, no matter how important the tradition, it would have diminished in importance in recent years. The relatively low-key assault that the North American aquaparks and sea centres are subjected to, suggests a significant bias in the movie that no amount of inverted postcolonial/neocolonial criticism from West Indian academics will adequately haze out. Somewhat disconcertingly, the emotional distress of B-list Hollywood actress Hayden Panettiere and the ‘insightful’ wisdom of surf-dude Dave Rastovich is given more of a platform within the movie than most of Japanese society (only a slight exaggeration).

This is not to say, as has already been mentioned, that the movie does not have a more profound purpose (wishing to not only highlight the situation, but attempt to mobilise an active reaction), but much of the strength of the movie comes after an hour of footage that serves to trivialise or undermine that purpose. As much as Psihoyos manages to capture a compelling moment of seething revelation, when he confronts the Japanese bureaucrat, who offers up platitudinous explanations of Japanese maritime behaviour, using the undeniable film evidence of what is taking place in the cove, this doesn’t serve to define the movie in perhaps the same way that Errol Morris’s comparable gimmick did at the end of The Thin Blue Line. This failure is a direct result of poor, populist choices made earlier in the film. Aside from that brutally effective ‘candid camera’ capture of the slaughter, the most powerful impression that the film imparts is to do with the relentlessness of guilt. The dolphins may be The Cove’s mission statement and campaign, but the inadvertent focus of the movie becomes the former Flipper-trainer, O’ Barry, who has the slightly squirrely mania of a man still haunted by the guilt of his past misdeeds.

Film Review:- Chloe (2009)

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Dir:- Atom Egoyan

Starr:- Julianne Moore, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Max Thieriot

Sometimes a director leaves you so enraged you can barely put into words the fury that you feel toward them. It could be argued that on almost all such occasions that fury comes from a source of love. In short, I really have to accept that I’m over Atom Egoyan. Way back in the early nineties The Adjuster brought Atom Egoyan to my attention. Here was a dark, uncompromising movie about sex, power, authority, pain and loss that impressively married its insular poetic vision to an expansive understanding of humanity’s awkward ‘moral’ relationship with sex and violence. Egoyan seemed a brave new cinematic talent back then and although Exotica was a more obviously flawed work, his superb adaptation of Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter appeared to cement his reputation as one of modern cinema’s great auteurs, a man determined to explore, in almost forensic detail, the pain and suffering human beings endure for the sake of love and family.

However, after the oddity that was Felicia’s Journey, Egoyan’s work became increasingly dull, clichéd and condescendingly didactic, with both Ararat and Where the Truth Lies being guileless experiments in narrative chronology. Ararat, in particular, was such a dreadful movie that it forced me to reconsider the merits of those previous works I’d hitherto considered masterpieces (something that previously only the depressingly downward trajectory of Woody Allen’s output had managed to provoke).

In 2008 Egoyan appeared to be tantalisingly close to a critical comeback. Although that year’s Adoration was an uneven effort, it still managed to show enough signs of possible new thematic and stylistic developments to convince me not to give up entirely on Egoyan. Thus, on hearing that he was working with the wonderful Julianne Moore on his new release Chloe, I allowed myself to have high hopes for the project.

Chloe is the story of Catherine Stewart (Julianne Moore), a gynecologist, and the wife of the handsome and charming classical musician David (played with a fair smidgen of conviction by Liam Neeson), who becomes convinced that her husband is having an affair. After a chance encounter with a prostitute in a posh-hotel restaurant Catherine decides to hire this attractive young woman to try to seduce her husband. Getting evidence of her husband’s infidelities, Catherine embarks on a strange relationship with the prostitute, the eponymous Chloe, which ultimately has serious repercussions for her family when Chloe begins to insinuate herself into the affections of Catherine’s teenage son Michael (Max Stewart).

Central to Egoyan’s narrative explorations has been the way that memory interacts with, and shapes, experience, and in, Chloe, one of the more effective strands of the narrative involves the distance and disappointment that memory establishes within the confines of a lengthy marriage. Chloe is an adaptation of a recent French movie (featuring Emmanuelle Beart) called Nathalie. I’ve not viewed this version, but can surmise from some critical responses that it’s a little more risqué than this limp and lifeless attempt at a thriller. Borrowing the tried and tested blueprint laid down in Play Misty for Me, and carried off to some degree of success in Curtis Hanson’s The Hand that Rock’s the Cradle, Chloe is essentially a stalker-thriller, which does a reasonable job of appearing at first to have more ambitious narrative aims.

Egoyan casts two strong female performers in Amanda Seyfried (possessor of truly bewitching pale blue eyes) and Julianne Moore as the odd couple relationship at the heart of the movie. In one of those typically forced Egoyan encounters, Moore’s gynecologist meets Seyfried’s prostitute in a ladies bathroom and an immediate mutual fascination is struck up. The film assuredly handles the manipulations of power in their relationship, yet never really allows either actor to fully immerse themselves in their roles.

Moore is an old-hand at playing women perilously on the edge of reason and her descent into an almost morbid voyeurism is initially fascinating, particularly as it is coupled with the perversities of the vicarious nature of the women’s sexual relationship. Moore’s character is using Chloe in much the same way a male client might, because she seems to want to experience a little of her husband’s life which has otherwise become occluded from her.

These early exchanges between Seyfried and Moore are really the film’s sole strong point, as from midway through the movie Egoyan drops into the clichéd structures of the stalker-film, replete with ludicrous ending. This is doubly disappointing as Egoyan is not working from his own screenplay, but rather the work of Secretary screenwriter Cressida Wilson. In Secretary Cressida Wilson managed to capture some sparklingly witty and downright filthy dialogue that fitted the stylised nature of the movie perfectly. Somehow Egoyan has managed to drain much of that vitality from Cressida Wilson’s work, leaving the dialogue sounding eerily reminiscent to his own dire, ponderous and pretentious efforts in both Ararat and Where the Truth Lies.

Too often in the movie Egoyan refuses to allow the subtleties of the characterisation to flourish and rather seeks to bludgeon the audience with some embarrassingly obvious visual metaphors, such as the hair clasp that passes between the women, the compartmentalised architecture of the house and the attention given to a skinned knee. I’m sure that for a viewer unacquainted with Egoyan’s early work Chloe may well play out like a relatively slick stalker-thriller and thus be deserving of a little attention, but knowing the exceptional qualities of his best films I can’t help but feel, rather aptly, cheated.