Wednesday, April 01, 2009

March Round-Up

Gran Torino
Clint Eastwood has had an amazing career, both in front of and behind the camera, and in the course of forty-odd years he has picked relatively few duds, but for a long time I thought Gran Torino was going to be a rare turkey from this indefatigable filmmaker. It's so broad, clunky, and obvious – full of thin characters and variable performances – it makes Crash seem like a model of subtlety by comparison. But Gran Torino is anchored by Eastwood's magnificent central performance as the misanthropic racist Walt Kowalski, who snarls at anyone and everyone, who is unafraid of calling his Asian neighbours "zipperheads" and "gooks," and who walks up to a group of blacks teens and says, "What are you spooks up to?" It's so in-your-face the only possible reaction is too laugh, and I laughed a lot during Gran Torino, with Eastwood's dry, raspy delivery milking laughs from the bigoted one-liners that litter Nick Schenk's screenplay. I was having so much fun with the picture, I didn't notice the ways in which Eastwood was gradually deepening and darkening the mood, and the film builds to a moving climax in which Clint sets up an old wild west confrontation, before subverting our expectations. Gran Torino may well be the last time we ever see Clint Eastwood on the big screen, and it's a fitting final turn; a role which simultaneously acts as a celebration, parody and critique of his entire career. There will never be another film star quite like him.

In the City of Sylvia (En la ciudad de Sylvia)
The man sits at a café watching beautiful women at the other tables, staring at their backs, their faces, their arms, and their hair. He sketches a few of them in his notebook, then one woman catches his eye, reminding him of a lost love, and he is compelled to get up and follow her into the street. That's In the City of Sylvia's story neatly summed up, and one suspects it would have worked just as well – if not better – as a short, but there's something weirdly entrancing about José Luis Guerín mysterious film nonetheless. With very little dialogue, the film's pleasures are chiefly visual and aural, as Natasha Braier's cinematography makes superb use of sunlight and reflections, and the exceptional sound design turns this into a subjective and fantastically immersive experience as we follow Xavier Lafitte on his journey. In particular, the audacious midsection of the film, in which Lafitte pursues Pilar López de Ayala up and down the backstreets, is repetitive but mesmerising. In the City of Sylvia might not add up to much in the grand scheme of things, but it's a distinctive and hugely engaging film to experience, and by the end of the picture, we too have fallen under Sylvia's spell.

Afghan Star
While I have nothing but disdain for Pop Idol, X Factor, Britain's Got Talent and whatever other formats Simon Cowell has dreamed up to exploit the public and fill his own pockets; Havana Marking's excellent documentary casts different light on the power of TV talent shows. In Afghanistan, the ability to listen to music is a novelty in itself, with the Taliban-imposed ban on music and television only being lifted in 2004, so a show like Afghan Star has unsurprisingly captured the public's imagination, with the programme being proclaimed by many as a symbol of unity, self-expression and democracy. The film paints an intriguing picture of a country in which western culture is slowly taking root, and Marking's camera captures such odd juxtapositions as a woman in a head-to-toe burqa snapping pictures of her favourite contestant on a camera phone. That contestant is Rafi, and he's one of the four individuals Afghan Star focuses on, following his progress through the competition along with Hameed, Lema and Setara. Of these characters, the most interesting are the two female competitors Lema and Setara (three women were among the original 2,000 entrants), who are risking their lives by merely appearing on the show, and the open-minded Setara unwisely causes a major scandal when she uncovers her head during a performance and dances provocatively. She receives widespread condemnation and even death threats for her actions; and while such a unpleasant fate happily doesn't come to pass – we learn at the end that she has returned to Kabul to record an album – it seems freedom of expression in Afghanistan's new age only goes so far.

If Afghan Star reminds us how eye-opening and involving good documentary filmmaking can be, then Fuck is an unfortunate reminder of how crass and pointless the same format can be in the wrong hands. Steve Anderson's film purports to chart the history and development of the titular word, but it's a shallow, unenlightening trip, which has been shoddily constructed from glib celebrity soundbites, random clips, chunks of trivia, and irritating cartoon segments. Billy Connolly offers some respite by being genuinely funny in his passionate defence of the word ("Fuck off doesn't mean "go away." Fuck off means fuck off!"), but what does listening to Tera Patrick's husband listing sexual positions add to this debate? Perhaps the most perplexing thing about this dismal film is how dated it is. Most of the contributors bemoan the effect the Bush administration has had on free speech in America, which feels like a stale argument when the film is appearing in cinemas a few weeks into Barack Obama's presidency, but when I looked up Fuck on IMDB after the screening, the mystery was partially resolved – this film was made in 2005! It has been sitting on the shelf gathering dust for four years, so why the (excuse me) fuck did they bother to release it now? Fuck is an empty, juvenile, repetitive and amateurish take on a subject which even an imaginative filmmaking team would have struggled to turn into an interesting 90-minute feature. Regrettably, the film even hints at a sequel towards the end: "When are you guys going to make the 'cunt' documentary?" Drew Carey asks.

After watching Duplicity, the latest from Michael Clayton director Tony Gilroy, I've decided I don't really like this kind of film. You know the type I'm talking about – lots of twists, cons, reversals, flashbacks and double-crosses, as gorgeous movie stars in gorgeous locations try to pull a fast one on each other. My main problem with them is that so much of the viewing experience consists of straining to follow the tricky narrative, trying to work out who has the upper hand on whom, and there's very little room left to just enjoy the damn thing. Duplicity is supposed to be a breezy, romantic, star-driven caper, but I found it a tiresome chore, even if individual parts of it are undeniably impressive. There's a nice tension in the relationship between Julia Roberts and Clive Owen – as ex-spies who have fallen for each other but can't entirely trust each other – and Owen is terrific, but I've never liked Roberts as an actress, and a number of scenes are stolen by supporting players Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson and a particularly wonderful Carrie Preston. The whole film is a lush, slick, sharp package; but it's also a little too clever for its own good, and I spent the last third of the film – as I always do with this kind of story – just waiting for the final big twist to arrive. Duplicity isn't quite charming, romantic or funny enough to really pull us into its labyrinthine world, and perhaps the best analysis of the film lies in the following quote from Alfred Hitchcock:
"I dare say you have seen many films which have mysterious goings-on. You don't know what is going on, why the man is doing this or that. You are about a third of the way through the film before you realise what it is all about. To me that is completely wasted footage, because there is no emotion to it."

Now, you can't argue with the master of suspense, can you?