Wednesday, May 31, 2006


Chopper by Andrew Dominik, 2000.

Chopper is my first taste of Australian Cinema since I have arrived in Sydney. I, of course, have seen other Australian films in years past (Mad Max anyone?) but this is probably one of the only recent Australian features that I have had to the chance to see up unto this point.

Forging a path that crosses genres, Chopper manages to blend elements of the crime/gangster genre with a nice splash of black comedy. The film is about the real Chopper (Mark Brandon Read) who seems to feel that it is his responsibility to dole out justice. While there is some question to what crimes Chopper actually committed and what he made up for the sake of publicity, there is no doubt that Chopper is a hardened criminal through and through.

The film opens with him giving an interview on TV and intercuts this with Chopper watching the same special from his jail cell. Obviously proud of himself, Chopper grins from ear to ear at each moment he feels is particularly brilliant on his part.

It is from this point that the film jumps back in time and follows Chopper's story until it completes the circle of ending where the film began. It is here that the film, on a technical standpoint, falls a little short. It is sometimes difficult to tell if what you are viewing is in the present, past, or a particular spin on a event that Chopper is narrating. In many films this is a purposeful narrative choice, but in the case of this film I came away with the distinct feeling that temporal confusion was not the desired goal of the director.

What truly carries this film, and causes it to stand on its own in the recent deluge of gangster/criminal films is the character of Chopper and the absolutely superb performance turned in by Erik Bana. No matter how crazy, cruel, and volcanically violent Chopper can be you can't help but find yourself still liking the character on some level. Chopper is also the source of the very dark humor that permeates the entire narrative. After stabbing a fellow inmate brutally in the neck several times Chopper stands back, as if in shock at his own actions, and then asks the inmate, "Are you ok? You're ok, right mate," and then proceeds to light a cigarette and try to give it him. The humor is somewhat lost in the translation from screen to my brief description, but it is this type of awkward, inappropriately absurd politeness that manages to make even the most brutal scene comical in its execution.

I found the film to be a completely thrilling story, all the more engrossing due to its foundation in real life events. If you aren't squeamish, and are in the mood for a gritty yet funny piece of cinema consider Chopper.
***Three Stars

Friday, May 19, 2006

In the Mood for Love/2046 - Wong Kar Wai

Slow. Boring. Nothing happens. All style, no substance. I have seen these critizisms and others levied against the films of Wong Kar Wai. I couldn't disagree more.

For those unitiated in the world of Asian art cinema, it is understandable how people could come away with the types of feelings listed above. In a culture where we are inundated with Hollywood cinema and the traditional Hollywood narrative structure, films such as WKW's In the Mood for Love and 2046 would seem to be slow and monotonous. However in the canon of American cinema there resides those directors who approached the medium of film from a similar angle, if not through a similar means of execution. John Cassavetes immediately comes to mind.

Those directors who believe conflict, violence, and action are inconsequential to the power of the cinematic apparatus to focus, in minute detail, upon the basic existence of our lives on this planet. Much like Cassavetes, WKW's films focus on the emotional beats that play out ever so subtly in a moment of contemplative silence. The camera focusing on the face of an actor or actress as the a range of conflicting emotions washes across the character. Or how in a given scene the emotional range that is played upon, changing from instant to instant as two human beings try to navigate the always complex waters of interpersonal communication.

In the films In the Mood for Love and 2046, this plays out through a focus on the character of Chow Mo Wan (the superb Tony Leung). The reason why I have grouped these two films together is because they are, in essence, two halves of a whole. While each film can stand on its own, I highly recommend viewing In the Mood for Love before you see 2046, since the first film provides background and depth that enriches the viewing experience of 2046.

The story follows Chow Mo Wan as he discovers his marriage is not exactly as it seems and he sets out on a relationship with the woman who lives next door to him. Expertly playing on the tensions that come with the voyage into a new relationship, WKW leaves things ambigous as to the true nature of the relationship. 2046 picks up several years later as Chow Mo Wan is still working as a writer. The film jumps between him remembering the past, and writing a story set in the future. Again the focus is the male/female relationships that occur in the film.

WKW goes about telling these stories in a highly stylized manner. Even the films biggest protractors admit these are absolutely beautiful pieces of cinema. Using a pallete of lush, vibrant colors, WKW's framing of scenes plays out much like the soft brush strokes of a painter. Often making unique off center framing choices much of these films take on an overtly voyeuristic tonal quality. At times you feel like you are witnessing priveleged, private moments you shouldn't be.

WKW is also a fan of altering the frame rate. I personally feel that cinematic tricks such as slow motion are these days generally over used and heavy handed (The Passion of the Christ or Brotherhood of the Wolf anyone?), however WKW has a distinct flair for the technique. In a manner that calls up Brechtian philosophy, WKW will choose particular moments to slow the screen almost to halt. The choice of scene and its affect on pacing causes you to never truly be submerged in the filmic reality. Instead, he distances the audience through these techniques while simultaneously maintaining the delicate bubble of illusion that is the film. You are forced to stop and think about what you are witnessing unfold and yet you find yourself admiring the absolute beauty of the image before you.

No review of WKW's films would be complete without some mention of his use of music. Opting for quality over quantity, WKW carefully chooses 5 or 6 pieces of music that he will repeat throughout the film. Whether a certain piece marks a character or specific emotional moments, the repetition serves to create the sense of a tapestry being woven, distinct threads being woven together to form something else entirely. In reality, however, his music is not something that can truly be adequately described, rather it is something you need to hear for youself.

Godard is often mentioned as a major influence in WKW's films, and there is definitely something to be said for that. Wong Kar Wai himself has talked about that influence. However, I find myself more often noting elements of Ozu in WKW's work. The haunting sense of space, the lingering shots after the 'action of the scene' is over, the way the camera dolleys to the right or left, leaving the scene to focus on some aspect of the filmic space - all these seem to be subtle reminders of films such as Ozu's Late Spring or Tokyo Story.

So, if you're looking for the next big action flick, witty comedy, or typical melodrama...don't watch these films. If you're willing to give a shot to something that is incredibly foreign in its pacing, but incredibly rewarding in its payoffs, give them a shot. If you do and find they are just as boring as some people said, well don't blame me, and I won't blame you. After all 'To each their own'.
In the Mood for Love****Four Stars 2046*** and a half (four if you've seen In the Mood for Love prior to viewing).

The Squid and the Whale - Noel Baumbach, 2005

Well here I am again posting about a movie months after it has left the theater. Sue me. I'm busy...with stuff...and things.

So I watched The Squid and the Whale for the first time last night. I'd been meaning to see it ever since I knew Noah Baumbach was the driving force behind the project. I have to say I'm sorry it took me this long to get around to the film.

Coming in at just under an hour and a half The Squid and the Whale is the perfect peak into the life of a family going through divorce. It is here that I have to admit that I am somewhat biased towards this film as I myself come from a family of divorce.

It took a short time for me to really get absorbed into the film, but slowly and surely the understated dialogue, and quick acidic humor seeps into you. Drawing you through the frame and into the lives of two kids, and mother and father who are at turns infuriating, funny, and sharply tear inducing.

I think ultimately what particularly won me over in regards to the movie is the disparate paths the two kids take in the film. One mimics everything his father does, swallowing what he has to say without bothering to question it. The other is resentful of his father and sides with the mother. Ultimately each discover that in these situations neither parent is 100% right or wrong....after all, as the saying goes, "It takes two to tango."

I could see how those who haven't personally experienced a family torn by divorce might not be able to relate to the characters in the same way, and ultimately find them frustrating, but if you have had personal experience in this arena, I highly recommend this film.
*** Three stars