Friday, 23 October 2009

Film Review: The Apartment

Split almost entirely between two buildings in New York, each home to a different type of male-affronted skullduggery, The Apartment, written, directed and produced by the great Billy Wilder, symbolized the dominant belief of the great man; that all a great film requires is a great script. However, if your leads are the fantastic Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine, it sure helps.

Lemmon is at his wry, self-effacing best as C.C.Baxter, a lonely insurance-firm desk-jockey, who divides his time between admiring from afar Maclaine's sweet and winsome lift-attendant, Miss. Kubelik, and lending the key to his apartment to colleagues who require his convenient Upper West Side apartment to spend some quality time with their mistresses. Baxter keeps stum, predicting correctly that by greasing the palms of his superiors with free use of his apartment he will shoot up the corporate ladder. When Sheldrake, the smarmy boss with all the charm of a used-car salesman and all the empathy of a snake, becomes aware of this arrangement, he immediately solicits use of the apartment to romance Miss. Kubelik.

Lemmon is quite excellent at portraying the terribly lonely C.C Baxter, adeptly masking his unrequited love for Miss. Kubelik underneath a cheery disposition and quirky manner. At times, this film is heartbreaking; in one such scene Baxter waits like a master-less puppy outside a theatre for a prearranged date with Miss. Kubelik, horribly unaware that she is mid-cocktail with Sheldrake. Bill Wilder once said, 'If you're going to tell people the truth, be funny...,' and that the Apartment adroitly straddles the tightrope of irony and tragedy sustains the film for its 2-hour-plus runtime.

The Apartment is emotionally rewarding because the audience is drawn into a relationship with Baxter. Because of Miss Kubelik's seeming reluctance to choose the right man – Kiss him Shirley, Kiss him! - and because Kubelik seems to be oblivious to Baxter's loneliness or obvious attraction towards her means that the film is empathy-inducing but never manipulative.

Produced in that era when successful films were successful because they were written well, and before directors could rely on special effects – or even colorization, which Wilder famously despised - to tide over any dramatic lulls, The Apartment is a classic of cinema. Though thematically gutsy for a romantic comedy, with recurring motifs including corporate ethics, adultery, infidelity and suicide, it is one such motif which will lead Baxter to eventual happiness, forcing him to reconsider the use of his apartment as a no-go area for morals and ethics, and choose between his career or the love of his life. With one of these options represented by the slimy, adultering Mr. Sheldrake, and one by Miss. Kubelik, I think he makes the right decision. And the devil-may-care immorality that dominates the personalities of all but the two main players in this romance is washed away with an innocent, childlike game of gin rummy on New Year's Eve.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Photography: Shizuka Yokomizo

I visited Nottingham Castle at the weekend, a beautiful building set in lovely grounds, and whose interior seems to serve as a storage space for pictures, photographs, silver, pottery and any other assorted obets d'art that have somehow found themselves in Nottingham. As is so often the case when visiting a museum, the item that caught my eye was something I didn't expect to find.

The above photograph, Stranger (8) is part of a somewhat eerie study on the space that exists between strangers by Japanese artist Shizuka Yokomizo. She sent letters to random addresses in suburban Japan inviting the inhabitants of said addresses to stand by a specific street-facing window at a specific time, promising that she would be there to take a photo. The photograher and photgraphee never spoke, and their contact was limited entirely to this fleeting moment that spanned a camera flash. If the subject of the photo attempted to make contact with Yokomizo, she discarded the photograph. Because while post-photo contact wouldn't affect the photograph itself, it shatters one of the barriers between these two strangers.

There is something admirable in the trust in which the inhabitants place in Yokomizo, trust that her intentions are pure, and acceptance that their likeness will be used for whatever ends she chooses. Women's hands are clasped nervously; young boys stand chests out; we know nothing of the subjects but what the photos tell us. We can peer behind them into the interiors of their houses, flats, lives, but the reality is we know as little as Yokomizo herself. 

Of course, for all the lonely isolated figures that are portrayed in the photographs, it is important to remember that  Yokomizo herself is on the other side of the window. The only difference is that she wields a camera. In a way the window that separates the two individuals is like nothing more than a mirror, reflecting our own isolation back at us.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Trailer: Watchmen:Tales of the Black Freighter

Tales of the Black Freighter was my favourite part of the excellent Watchmen graphic novel, so I'm understandably delighted that a) it's been made b) will be released as a standalone DVD and c) has a trailer.


Photography: An American Index of the Hidden or Unfamiliar - Taryn Simon

Taryn Simon's photographs are obtrusive. Actually, that's not strictly true; her photography is obtrusive. Her photographs are simple, and let the subject speak with little elaboration, flamboyance or context. Indeed, without the detailed descriptions that accompany her records in An American Index of the Hidden or Unknown, you might not believe that what you were seeing was even real - or might not want to.

But the act of her photography is obtrusive. She visits spaces unknown, unaccessible or restricted to the American public and photographs them. They are spaces from the world of medicine, law, politics, government, entertainment, nature and security. You get the impression that Simon shouldn't actually be in some of these places - a woodland filled with corpses used for decay-rate analysis; a vast underground greenhouse used for growing cannabis for governmental study purposes. It seems like an overbearing security guard or government agent is actually standing over her shoulder in some cases - and they probably were. By all accounts, Simon gets turned away from as many of these secret spaces as she photographs.

One of these was the home of magic itself - Disney. Simon wanted to photograph the underground belly beneath Disneyland Florida - where Mickey Mouse gets changed or smokes a cigarette; where the rowdy or drunk get stored in a special holding cell. Somewhat understandably, Disney rejected her, citing a need to protect 'the magical spell cast on guests...' (Excerpted from a faxed response from Disney Publishing Worldwide, July 7, 2005).

Some of her photographs display systems that are functional, necessary, or downright crucial to human existence, yet which rarely cross the mind of the general public - like the Transatlantic Submarine Cables Reaching Land. VSNL International, Avon, NJ. These are cables that are capable of carrying 60 million simultaneous voice communications from Saunton Sands in the UK to New Jersey in the US.

Transatlantic Submarine Cables Reaching Land. VSNL International, Avon, NJ

Cryopreservation Unit, Cryonics Institute, Clinton Township, Michigan

This icy vault holds the bodies of Rhea and Elaine Ettinger, mother and wife of the cryogenics pioneer Robert Ettinger. Their bodies are frozen, safe from decay, hopefully to be reanimated when medical advances allow such phenomenon.

Research Marijuana Crop Grow Room, National Center for Natural Products Research, Oxford, Mississippi 

Nuclear Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility Cherenkov Radiation, Hanford Site, U.S. Department of Energy, Southeastern Washington State

Submerged in a pool of water at Hanford Site are 1,936 stainless-steel nuclear-waste capsules containing cesium and strontium. The pool of water serves as a shield against radiation; a human standing one foot from an unshielded capsule would receive a lethal dose of radiation in less than 10 seconds. Hanford is among the most contaminated sites in the United States.

All photographs and descriptions © Taryn Simon.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Review: King of New York

King of New York, released in 1990 is a real era-film, and one that has not aged terribly well at that. Its stylistic flourishes are similar to 1994's The Crow, and like that film, tries gainfully to create a menacing atmosphere with a dark palette broken by splashes of lurid colour. It only partially succeeds. Part of this success is thanks to Christopher Walken, who bestrides the film with menace and power as Frank White, the King of the title.

White is a latter-day Robin Hood, who has his fingers in various cocaine pies across New York. He wants to use his ill-gotten proceeds to save a hospital that is threatened with closure due to lack of funds, as he sees it as a crucial part of the neighbourhood - little matter that his spurious dealings supply half of the patients.

The film paints a powerful picture of Frank, a man who occupies a residence at the Plaza Hotel, who mixes with the hoodlums, but also the politicians. There are some ideas worthy of exploration here - the man at ease in both politics and gang culture, trying to haul New York forward. The police don't agree with his methods, but seem helpless to stop him. There are echoes of modern day cop shows, highlighting the difficulty police have in taking down lawless drug kingpins while slaloming between waves of red-tape and due process.

The young, swashbuckling cops ignore the tape, and get killed. But the wise old Chief Bishop seems to have accepted his fate at the hands of gangsters like Frank from the first scene. He pops pills incessantly, staving off nature; his trudging gate and furrowed brow seem to betray a helplessness at the white tide overcoming his city. He leaves his fellow cop's wedding early, seemingly to philosophise on the hopelessness of it all in the corner of a dark room somewhere. Though a wreck, he is determined not to let Frank win. The shambling, bedraggled cop versus the elegant, sophisticated criminal is an oft-repeated motif (see Columbo, The French Connection), but it provides dramatic impetus here in a pit of unlikeable characters.

The film is disjointed, however. Ruthless cuts were made in order to lower the certificate for theatrical release. As a result, the film is oddly proportioned; Frank's love interest, a city councillor seems to disappear half way through. And after the Collateral-like finale on a Subway train, the film seems, like Frank, to ramble aimlessly before its silent end.

Worth watching, but not worth buying. If only for Laurence Fishburne's super-fly homeboy.


Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Preview: Watchmen

Why do comic book films, like video game adaptations, invariably disappoint? Such rich, immersive mediums as comic books or video games are very subjective: you can take away something different each time you play or watch, and you can feel an empathy with the story that lacks in other mediums - especially with video games, which are interactive. A disappointing film adaptation can destroy this empathy, and the film appears to pale in comparison to the original format.

Supposedly, 93 comic book films were slated for production in 2009. How many of these existed merely as pencil on the back of a producer's napkin before being dismissed I don't know. Everyone knows comic book movie are disappointing. Look at Spiderman 3, a film which seemed determine to stumble into self-parody with a 'dark' be-quiffed and 'emo' Peter Parker. The Batman reboot is the exception. Superman (2006) flaunts the rule. Everyone knows this the same way everyone knows that Rorschach is the best Watchmen character. Who doesn't like the masked, trench-coat wearing, creepy vigilante, who shows little emotion and wastes fewer words, who refuses to compromise, has a troubled past, Noir-ish sentiments, and cares for no-one, is deceptively strong and quick but vulnerable....I'm getting carried away.

But thats why comics are great: they carry us away. At least as effectively as books or films, the best - and those in the know know that Watchmen is the best - combine the immersion of a good book with the emotional  manipulation of a good director. If you haven't read the 1986 Watchmen comic, which examines the morality surrounding the superhero myth (a myth that sustains even in this comic - none of the heroes bar one have super powers); are heroes above the law? Do they have the right to dish out their own brand of justice? And as the tagline roars, who watches the Watchmen? If you haven't read it, read it.

Now: the film. Directed by Zack Snyder, who oozes stylistic flourishes from every pore (he directed 2007's 300), Watchmen, like the comic, follows a group of costumed vigilantes, forced into retirement by a law banning superheroes, who fancy that one of their own is killing off their number one by one. This while Cold War tensions heat up between the US and Soviet Union. A conspiracy is uncovered which threatens the world as we know it.

 Getting the film made has been a struggle; Terry Gilliam dismissed it as unfilmable (though Terry Gilliam directed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, also deemed unfilmable). Directors, writers, lawsuits and copyright thefts later, the film is slated for release worldwide on March 6, 2009.

But I'm still excited about this one. Director Zack Snyder originally wanted to include the Watchmen's comic-within-a-comic Tales of the Black Freighter (in a world of superheroes, comics feature pirates) in the film, but as this would have increased the runtime catastrophically, it is being released as a standalone DVD. The very fact that Snyder sought to include what is arguably one of the most enjoyably clever and symbolic aspects of the Watchmen comic in the film is exciting fanboys no end. Similar to the way that Hamlet puts on a play-within-a-play which mirrors the events of his father's death to stir the emotions of the murderer King Claudius, Tales of the Black Freighter mirrors the Watchmen story in damning, swashbuckling and desperate style.

Lets hope Watchmen subverts the trend, and becomes The Dark Knight of 2009: the benchmark for the genre.

Review: Dead Man's Shoes

Like the creepy mask that Paddy Considine's ex-army protagonist wears in Shane Meadow's accomplished thriller, the placid countryside setting of Dead Man's Shoes conceals a melting pot of anger and tension. Set, like most of Meadows' films, in the Midlands, Considine plays Richard, a bearded, grim-looking ex-squaddie who returns to his hometown, to find it still being rousted by the same gang of petty thieves as when he left. They run a small time drug-dealing business bossed by the slick Sonny, all leather jackets and hair gel. It becomes clear through a series of subtle black-and-white flashbacks that the gang, led by Sonny, inducted Richard’s mentally-vulnerable brother Anthony into their fold whilst Richard was away, and systematically abused him.
This explains the furious rage etched under Richard's beard which threatens to boil over whenever he encounters a member of Sonny's crew in the local pool hall or out in the street. He begins systematically haunting them, his purloined army gas mask lending him an ominous, sinister quality. Unsatisfied with purveying simple scares, murder follows naturally, and Richard begins dispatching members of the gang by axe and knife.
The artfully-handled final third of the film gradually and skilfully reveals the predominant theme here: guilt. This film is as much about fraternal relationships as it is about growing up on a council estate where the bad boys at school become the petty drug-dealers, and of the unspoken desire everyone harbours of 'getting out'. Richard feels restrained by Anthony; the overriding emotion of Anthony's simply brain is that of brotherly pride.
There is more heart, and ultimately regret, to this film than the initial, brutal revenge fa├žade suggests. Anthony brings Richard his rare moments of happiness, yet also his tragic thrust. And why do we wear masks? To hide our face from others, or to hide it from ourselves?

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Preview: The Road

John Hillcoat, who cut his teeth creating music videos for Nick Cave, is directing the 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic doom-novel The Road. Hillcoat's previous directing role came in 2005's well-received Aussie western, The Propsition. Producer Nick Wechsler was no doubt struck by how well Hillcoat handled the thematic similarities between that story and McCarthy's western novel Blood Meridien. As critic Roger Ebert points out, The Proposition comes close 'to realizing the dread and despair...of that story.' Fitting, then, that Hillcoat has turned his directorial hand towards The Road.

Cormac McCarthy has seen success in Hollywood recently, with the Coen Brothers' to-the-page take on No Country For Old Men receiving critical acclaim. That the movie was ported, chronologically, scene-for-scene from the novel indicates just how McCarthy's linear and direct style of narrative lends itself to the movie screen.

The Road, then. The novel, which won the 2006 Pullitzer Prize, is a post-apocalyptic tale which follows the actions of a father and his son over the course of several months as they pick their way across a North America ravaged by an unexplained catastrophe that we assume has wiped out the majority of life on earth. The sorry duo aim to reach the sea, where they seek solace from the cold. There is no food left on this barren landscape; gangs roam, killing and consuming any survivors. An atmosphere of unease and tension haunts the novel; the main emotion is that of hopelessness. The novel is about nothing if not the relationship between father and son - the father strives to protect their bond as if it is the ember of the last fire on earth.

Viggo Mortensen plays 'the man'; Kodi Smit-McPhee his son. Mortensen, who received an Academy Award nomination for his committed performance as Nikolai Luzhin in Eastern Promises, will hopefully bring the same quiet intensity to the role. Smit-McPhee is best-known for his role as Raimond in the 2007 movie Romulus, My Father, and he received the 2007 AFI Best Young Actor Award for the film. Supporting players include Charlize Theron as 'the wife'; Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, and Michael K. Williams, known to most as Omar Little from acclaimed television series The Wire.

Perhaps feeling that the movie-going public did not need such a bleak and intense picture in the economically-interesting 2008, the movie was pushed back to an early 2009 release. Presumably, if the terrifying subject matter and general sense of doom that pervades the novel is transferred successfully to film - and all the signs say that it will - audiences can seek some solace in the fact that things could get much, much worse.