30 August, 2009

¿Usted no habla Español, verdad?

So here's the thing.

There's a scene in Jim Jarmusch's new film, The Limits Of Control, (see the simultaneously misleading and much too spoiler-filled trailer here) that I found rather fascinating. In it, the unnamed central character sits at a table at a Spanish cafe. He orders two espressos, in separate cups, for himself. After a while, someone sits at his table, and ask in Spanish "You don't speak Spanish, do you?" "No," the man says. The new person then starts talking for a while about whether wooden instruments (like violins) retain the memory of every note ever played on them. Meanwhile, the man sits silently, unengaged in the matter being talked about. Eventually he pulls out a box of matches and puts it on the table. After a while, the other person finishes his conversation, picks up the matchbox, replaces it with a different matchbox, and leaves. The man opens the new matchbox, and finds a small piece of paper folded up. He unfolds it to find a short coded message. He reads it, folds it up again, eats the paper, and drinks his coffee.

There's another scene that I found similarly fascinating. In it, the unnamed central character sits at a table at a Spanish cafe. He orders two espressos, in separate cups, for himself. After a while, someone sits at his table, and asks in Spanish "You don't speak Spanish, do you?" "No," the man says. The new person then starts talking for a while about dreams and about how she enjoys watching old films because they give an insight into a long-gone world. Meanwhile, the man sits silently, unengaged in the matter being talked about. Eventually he pulls out a box of matches and puts it on the table. After a while, the other person finishes her conversation, picks up the matchbox, replaces it with a different matchbox, and leaves. The man opens the new matchbox, and finds a small piece of paper folded up. He unfolds it to find a short coded message. He reads it, folds it up again, eats the paper, and drinks his coffee.

But I really have to tell you about this other scene in which the unnamed central character sits at a table at a Spanish cafe. He orders two espressos, in separate cups, for himself. After a while... well, you get the idea.

What's interesting about these scenes (which play out maybe six or seven times throughout the film, usually at a cafe but not always, and with a different person sitting at the man's table each time) is that the only obvious point of difference in each variation on the scene is the subject of conversation. And our main character isn't interested. There's clearly no meaning, no hidden code in the conversation, since the only point of actual importance in the exchange was the opening codeword question about speaking Spanish. The various conversations, which range in topics from the origin of the term 'bohemian' to whether you could study the molecules in something to discover everywhere it ever was, are clearly just points of obsession for the different characters.

But there's another interesting series of scenes in the film. The Lone Man (as the character is credited) comes to his hotel room to find a naked woman on his bed. She's one of his contacts, who has arrived several days early, and she is unhappy to learn he doesn't have sex when he's on a job. Cut to a shot of the woman (whose role is listed in the credits as Nude) sleeping naked next to the fully-clothed Lone Man. The Lone Man goes out the next day. That night, she models a entirely transparent raincoat for him, naked under the coat. Cut to a shot of the woman sleeping naked next to the fully-clothed Lone Man. The Lone Man goes out the next day. That night, she swims in the hotel pool, naked, while the fully-clothed Lone Man watches her. Cut to a shot of the woman sleeping naked next to the fully-clothed Lone Man. The Lone Man goes out the next day. That night, she sits, naked, on the couch next to the fully clothed Lone Man. Cut to a shot of the woman sleeping naked next to the fully-clothed Lone Man. The Lone Man goes out the next day. And this day the Lone Man actually acquires the object he needs to give to her, and she gives him the information he needs in return, and then she leaves.

Basically, what I'm trying to express to you is that there's a lot of repetition in the film. In a lot of ways, the level of repetition probably makes the film sound quite boring, although it wasn't. The Limits of Control is one film where I walked out unsure whether I liked it or not, although the more I think about it the more I realise I really did enjoy it. I think. Far from making the film boring, the repetition really added to the film, establishing a rhythm in the film and giving it a comfortable feel. And Jarmusch plays with the repetition, using variations in the routines as the source of a surprising amount of humour. (There's a very funny moment involving the Lone Man's developing interaction over time with a waiter that may be one of my favourite moments in the festival.)

And yet, for a film that (if we're honest) is largely plotless, a bunch of encounters where almost all of the substantive dialogue consists of irrelevant monologues, there's a very clear sense of direction in the film. We as viewers don't know exactly what his ultimate task will be (although it's not exactly difficult to guess), but despite that uncertainty there's a real sense of dread that increasingly fills the film, even as we sit through these bizarre scenes with his various contacts. It's going somewhere, every interaction may appear meaningless to the audience but they all move the Lone Man forward, bringing him one step closer to his ultimate goal. Even having seen the film, I don't know exactly why he had to do what he ultimately did, what the events were that justified the hiring of the Lone Man, nor exactly who hired him.

But I think that's part of the point of the film. This film belongs to a very specific, recognisable genre, but it's stripped of everything extraneous to the core of the genre. And I mean everything. Hitchcock used to talk about the McGuffin in a film - it's a term that refers to that thing around which the film's plot revolves, the device that motivates the action in the film, but that the audience itself doesn't actually care about beyond its role in actually starting the film's events. And The Limits Of Control is so stripped to its bare bones that even the McGuffin is absent - the reasons why the Lone Man has to do what he does are irrelevant to us as viewers, it just matters that he does them. The characters aren't actually characters, but just stand in the position of characters.* In that way, the pointless but enjoyable conversations seem almost like a commentary on the way this genre, or indeed any genre, relies on pointless irrelevancies to fill the screening time and provide the elements of interest in the film.

* (In addition to Lone Man and Nude, the film's other characters are named in the credits as Creole, French, Waiter, Violin, Blonde, Molecules, Guitar, Mexican, Driver, American, Second American, Flamenco Club Waitress, Flight Attendant, Street Kids #1, #2, and #3, Flamenco Dancer, Flamenco Singer, and Flamenco Guitarist. Not one person in the film actually has a name.)

I do have to mention the cast. The film has a great cast, with people like Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael García Bernal, and Bill Murray making appearances, and everyone gives very good performances. It can't be easy to play someone who by definition is just a bare cypher, especially when most of the actors really only get a scene or two to play with, but as they deliver their monologues the characters come alive - they feel like they could be real people breaking through the plot devices they might be expected to be. In some ways, that almost seems like part of the film's commentary on the genre - where most films focus on the main character and dismiss those people that make a single appearance as simple plot functionaries, here we walk out of the cinema knowing more about the personalities of each of the Lone Man's contacts than we do about the Lone Man himself. (Indeed, the final scene in the airport seems to suggest that the Lone Man may be a very different person when he's not working than the silent professional that we saw. Assuming, of course, that that was the real-life Lone Man we saw.)

Now, this film is not for everybody. In fact I suspect it's not for most people. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 39% rating, while Metacritic gives it a score of 40. And I can completely understand the film getting this type of poor reception. As I said, it took me a few days to decide whether or not I even liked it. But I do feel that, once you realise what the film is doing, and just allow yourself to be subsumed into this film world, recognising the constant repetition as providing the base for some interesting variations on a theme, then I think the film can work for you. At the very least, it's both familiar and unlike anything I've seen before. The films of Jim Jarmusch are an unfortunate gap in my cinematic knowledge, and I've been meaning to address that failing for a while but never quite got around to. But someone who could make a film like this as fascinating and intriguing as it was is someone whose work I really need to explore further. I don't feel that I've even begun to grasp what Jarmusch is doing in the film, but it's stayed with me a lot more than a number of festival films that I unequivocally liked, and I look forward to grappling with the film in the future.

18 August, 2009

Take your protein pills and put your helmet on

So here's the thing.

Sam Bell is tired, he is alone, he is 250,000 miles from home. As the sole resident of a fully-automated moonbase mining an essential mineral for power generation back on Earth, Sam's not really needed - his only job is to keep an eye on any problems with the mechanised works. So he spends most of his time watching television, exercising in the gym, or building an intricate model of a small town. Problems in the communications systems mean all contact he has back home, whether with his bosses or his family, is limited to pre-recorded video messages. His only real-time conversation is with GERTY, the robot that actually runs the moonbase. But Sam is coming up to the end of his three-year shift - soon his replacement will arrive and he can return home. And it's about time - the isolation seems to have left him going a little crazy, suffering from disturbing hallucinations. After being involved in a terrible accident while outside the base, he wakes to find himself in the infirmary, with GERTY assuring him all is fine, although the robot does seem to be hiding something. And then... Well, I can't say what happens next, because to do so would ruin the surprise and joy of watching one of my favourite films in the festival unfold.

Moon (please do not watch the far-too-spoilery trailer here) is the first film from director Duncan Jones, son of another famously space-obsessed artist. But while his father is someone who was definitely interested in spectacle, Jones seems almost uninterested in the wonder offered by the film's location. The film ventures out onto the moon's surface only rarely, when absolutely required by the plot, and mostly stays firmly within the confines of the moonbase. No doubt it's partly a money-saving exercise - the film may use (rather impressive) modelwork instead of expensive CGI, but shooting on set has still got to be cheaper for a low-budget film - but Jones also seems aware that focusing the film on the spectacle of the moon as a location would have distracted from the film's focus as a character piece.

And it absolutely is a character piece. So often science fiction films present space as the final frontier, an exciting world to explore. And no doubt it is, for those pioneers who are breaking new ground in space exploration. But Moon presents us with someone for whom space is just where he works. Sam would probably have been excited when he first arrived, "Oh my gosh, I'm on the moon!", but three years later, he barely even thinks about it. He just gets up and goes to work, never even thinking about the phenomenal view out the windows, because (strange as it seems) he's actually become bored by it. But on top of the mundane day-to-day existence, there's also the isolation. Watching the film, I was reminded of the documentary In The Shadow Of The Moon. In one part Michael Collins (the third astronaut on Apollo 11) spoke about being left alone to orbit the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin went down in the lunar module. He talked about being the loneliest man ever, with not a single human being within thousands of miles. In making Moon, Jones was clearly very aware of the sense of isolation that comes from being so far away from even the possibility of human contact. Humans are essentially social beings, so how do you cope when you're a quarter-of-a-million miles from the nearest human being, and you have been for over a thousand days? What kind of toll would that take on you?

At the centre of the film is Sam Rockwell, an actor whose presence automatically makes any film a little bit more interesting. And in Moon, he is the film. After all, he has no interaction with anyone on Earth - the prerecorded nature of all messages from the planet make him a passive viewer for any such scene. He occasionally talks to GERTY, a robot that speaks with the calmed tones of Kevin Spacey, but for huge chunks of the film he has to carry the film alone. I don't know how many scenes in the film consist entirely of Sam Rockwell talking to himself, but there's a lot of them. And it's a credit to Sam Rockwell, and the intelligent and challenging script that he's working from, that these scenes are as compelling and convincing as they are.

One of the problems with modern films is that the twist ending is so prevalent a storytelling device, which means that whenever watching a film that establishes some type of mystery the viewer finds themselves expecting that the explanation will be held back until the end. In that mindset, there was a moment where I was worried the film would disappoint me. There is a pivotal development that comes in the film, not long after Sam wakes in the infirmary, that frustrated me largely because as soon as it happened it became clear to me as a viewer what was actually going on (to be honest, it's not exactly an original scenario). And so watching our main character walk around asking himself "What's going on?" became frustrating, because I thought it was so obvious what was happening, and years of twist-endings had me expecting the film to hold back the revelation until the end. Instead, after only a couple of minutes, Sam himself articulates what is happening, and this is confirmed not long after. And this means that the film can move on to more interesting material, as the film can start to focus on the implications of the revelation. It's not "What is going on?", but "How would someone react, cope with this knowledge?" And that makes the film much more interesting. You see, in a way, Moon is one of the purest science-fiction films out there. It's not a big adventure film, a space opera, or a space western. Instead, it's unmistakably about humanity, using the science fiction setting to explore questions and issues about who we are as humans, what is it that makes us human. And that's what pure science fiction has ultimately always been about.

The most exciting news around the film is that it seems Duncan Jones has not finished with this world yet. I can't find the reference right now, but I remember reading reports that Moon may be the first of a trilogy of sorts. And while these days an announcement of a trilogy to follow a single successful film is the norm (and almost invariably proves disappointing), in this case I'm rather positive about the idea should it eventuate. And that's partly because, in Moon, Jones has crafted an intelligent, thoughtful, and challenging film, and I see no reason to expect him to do any less in the future. But it's also because it seems he's not talking about a direct sequel per se. It sounds like they will be new stories that will take place in the world established by this film, but he won't be going over the same ground. Certainly Sam Rockwell has confirmed that his character will be making a short cameo appearance in the second film, but that it won't revolve around him at all. And that's good, because that will force the sequel to move into new directions, explore new ideas and concepts. And I'm excited to see just where Jones takes us next.

11 August, 2009

If our team don't break stories first, there are consequences (updated)

So here's the thing.

Last week, the Stuff news website dangled someone off the sixth story of a central Auckland building. The whole thing was part of a promotional campaign about how Fairfax reporters are so dedicated to getting the news stories to the reader fast, not because they're good journalists who believe in the role of an independent fourth estate working hard to ensure an adequately informed and up-to-date populace, but because their bosses terrorise them with threats to their wellbeing if the NZ Herald website reports a story one minute before Stuff.

For some reason, Fairfax thought this was a good promotion for the Stuff website, and so chose to highlight it extensively. They wrote an article about it in which they made the threats pretty explicit ("In today's case, ... we had to use a stunt man. But the Stuff team know they won't be so lucky in the future"). You can even watch video of the stunt. And it's highlighted at the top of the website, right next to the site's name, as you can see in the image to the right. (In the interests of full disclosure, I did delete some white space between the site's name and the "consequences" box, but otherwise, that's how it appears on the site.)

But the good news is that the intimidatory efforts of Fairfax executives seem to be working. Looking at the articles highlighted on the home page of the website, the dedication pours off the screen. It's not just that they've got the hard-hitting stories that you need to know, it's that they are constantly working to ensure the story is up-to-date. If there's new information, new angles to discuss, they don't just dismiss it, say "I've already written that story". No, they update their article, make sure that the reader always has the key information to grasp the most essential issues of the day.

Here's what I mean.

Yes, this really is a story that, as I post this blog post, is highlighted on the home page of the Stuff website. Exactly as I show it.

And yes, the story is exactly what you would imagine. It's 12 photographs of dogs that, if you happen to like dogs rather than regarding them as the miserable dangerous killer mongrels that they are, might be regarded as "cute". And they are accompanied with captions telling us about the dogs - their names, their ages, and how cutey-wutey they are wif their tiny-winy itty-bitty wittle paws, ohhhh, don't you just luv them?

No I f**king don't.

And they felt the need to update this story. What, did they initially only have ten photos, but feel they hadn't adequately explored the pressing issue of the cuteness of dogs? And so they had to highlight it on the homepage just so that everyone knows that there's new information to be gained?

But it turns out this isn't a one-off story. Stuff is dedicating its full investigative resources into identifying every possible aspect of this matter. That's why they've got an entire f**king section dedicated to photos of animals. And every f**king month they show us that month's CuteStuff dogs and CuteStuff cats, and sometimes they'll even do a special f**king feature on CuteStuff pets in the snow or some such bulls**t.

[EDIT: 12 August 2009, 7.49pm - Indeed, right now, on the homepage, they are now highlighting a f**king CuteStuff Cats article, and once again, they felt the need to update the f**king thing.]

This isn't f**king news, Stuff. If someone had set the f**king dogs on fire, or if they had won a f**king dog show, then it would be f**king news, but this? This is Facebook bulls**t for tweens who heart animal pictures. This is f**king LOLcats without the marginal attempt at humour. You're just a garish coloured font and a pink background away from being a f**king Geocities site from ten years ago. Do you really want that? All those "best news website" awards you keep trumpeting on about having? You need to return the f**king things because this bulls**t invalidates every single f**king one.

So here's the thing. Stuff, feel free to abuse your journalists as much as you want, if that's the image you want to project. Just as long as you also extend the same treatment to the bastards responsible for this bulls**t. Basically, I want you to take the CuteStuff team and dangle them out of the sixth floor window.

And then let the motherf**kers go.

06 August, 2009

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

So here's the thing.

One of the difficulties with going to the movies is that, all too often, it can be difficult to separate out the knowledge that we take in and just assess the film on the basis of what we actually see on screen. Instead, we find ourselves viewing the film through the prism of what we expected to see.

I had that problem when I went to see the new John Woo film, Red Cliff (see the trailer here). The film is based on a true story of a famous Chinese battle from the early 3rd century AD, in which Cao Cao, Prime Minister to the Emperor, led the Imperial Army to destroy a number of rebel warlords trying to set themselves up as rulers over the southern regions. The film version was impressive, huge, epic, with extraordinary battle scenes, exceptional cinematography, and just a great experience on the Embassy screen.

The problem is, going into the film, I knew that it was released in China in two parts, nearly five hours long in total. However, in the international version being shown at the festival it had been cut down to just 148 minutes. That means literally half the film had been cut. And you can't cut a film in half just by trimming out minor subplots. You need to start cutting into core character and plot moments.

And knowing that fact, it became all too easy to look for signs of that editing. The film opens with clumsily inserted narration (in English). Now that's fine, many films open with some sort of narration or on-screen scroll to provide vital scene-setting information, particularly with films like this that require an understanding of the complex political context that led to the central conflict. What's less common is when, ten minutes later, the film cuts to the other side and we again get voiceover narration providing new information about the characters that we're now seeing. At that point it feels very much like they're using the narration to cover over explanatory scenes that were cut from this version. Similarly, core characters are introduced to us with on-screen titles identifying them - an understandable device, since most of these characters are introduced to us in the heat of battle where there is no time to actually establish who these people are. However, it again felt like a clumsy device to accommodate the elimination of, I assume, pre-battle scenes that would introduce us to the characters in a more elegant manner. It also felt very much like those editing the film (understandably) prioritised the spectacle of the battle sequences over the smaller character moments, so it felt like the central characters were very thin sketches, without the level of detail and realism that I assume was in the original version.

But worst of all were a number of dialogue scenes that felt like they had been trimmed to the bone. These weren't conversations, these were individual statements, maybe 6 or 8 sentences in total in some cases, pieced together to get across the point of the conversation in the shortest possible time. In the most frustrating examples, they would actually fade away from the person speaking to show, say, a closeup of the rain outside dripping off the roof or a hand preparing tea, before fading back to the scene, often to the exact same shot as before, as the same person starts speaking the next sentence. It was a strange device, very dissimilar to the editing in the rest of the film, that to be honest seemed to add almost a dreamlike unreal feel to some important scenes that was just distracting. The only reason I can come up with for that type of editing is that they cut several sentences between each line of dialogue, but the fade away was needed to disguise the otherwise obvious cut in a single shot.

Now, I do need to emphasise, I've not seen the full version, and all this is just conjecture. For all I know, these scenes could be exactly the same in the complete film. But the film really felt like it had been awkwardly edited to cut its running time. And I found that frustrating.

Which was a shame, because despite these flaws I really did enjoy the film. His Hollywood output (Face/Off excepted) doesn't really show it, but John Woo is one of the great action directors, and in Red Cliff he seems determined to prove his reputation is deserved. It's a common complaint that modern action films are shot and edited, all quick cuts and rapid camera movement, in a way that makes action sequences incomprehensible. While that's not normally an issue that bothers me, it's still nice to watch a film where the director actually allows time to show what's actually going on. In the midst of giant battlefields, the viewer is always aware of the wider battle context and the various one-on-one conflicts the individual characters are involved in.

Plus, as someone unaware of the history of the Battle of Red Cliff, it was a nice surprise to see that the battles were ultimately won, not by superior numbers of warriors, but by considered tactics and outthinking the opposition. Although we get glimpses of the various plans, it's never clear until each individual battle what they are planning, which leads to some thrilling reveals (In one scene, one side has to steal 100,000 arrows from the other side, and the reveal of the actual plan as it is being executed may be one of my favourite film moments of the year.)

Yet in some ways, the film occasionally overdoes the "winning by outthinking" aspect - especially since Woo has claimed the film to be a more realistic account of the battle than some of the fanciful romances written about it. In one of the most frustrating scenes, one character is able to predict, almost to the second, the moment the winds will change direction. Either the ancient Chinese had some spectacular weather knowledge long-since lost to modern meteorologists, or the film is just being silly. But despite such small problems, as well as my larger issues about the editing of the shortened version, I really enjoyed this film, and hope to be able to see the complete version one day.

One of the things that makes the screening of the shortened Red Cliff so frustrating is that I can't help feeling that they should have been able to show the whole thing. After all, they managed to show the complete Che (see the trailer here), and that's only half an hour shorter.

As you can probably guess, the film tells the story of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the iconic revolutionary who played a pivotal role in the Cuban revolution and bringing Castro to power, before going to Bolivia and dying while leading a failed revolution in that country. The film is excellent, and Benicio del Toro in the title role manages to be even better than I was expecting (and I was expecting a lot). Steven Soderbergh manages to balance the huge spectacle of big battle scenes with the smaller character moments, and reminds us just why he is one of the more important and talented American directors working today.

But in writing this post, the more interesting thing to write about is not that it's a great film (suffice it to say it is). The thing I found really fascinating was the way the film was made.

I haven't mentioned it yet, but Che is not actually a four-and-a-half-hour film. It's actually two films, each running about 130 to 135 minutes, which were screened back-to-back with an intermission. The first film, which according to the credits is just called "Che: Part One" but which has acquired the sub-title "The Argentine" in its promotion, tells the story of Che meeting Castro and fighting in the Cuban revolution. At the end of that film, they've won, and Cuba is in their hands. "Che: Part Two", also known by the sub-title "Guerrilla", opens several years later, with Che resigning his ministerial positions and sneaking into Bolivia to try to lead the revolution there. As you can tell, each of these is a very self-contained story. Indeed, the title character is the only person to appear in both films, they have very different settings, and each film is clearly designed to be able to be viewed and provide a satisfying cinematic experience in and of itself.

But what I found fascinating is the extent to which they are seperate experiences. Soderbergh knew that the film would have its general release in the two parts, and so clearly approached each film as separate films rather than one part of a whole, considering the story of each film and filming it in the best way to tell the story. And this means that there are huge differences between the films. Part One has a framing device, where we see black-and-white footage of Che giving an interview about the revolution during his visit to New York to speak to the UN. Part Two contains no such device. The effect of this is significant - even if you can forget what we know about Guevara, the framing device in Part One gives us the safety of knowing he survives the Cuban revolution, and its absence in Part Two makes the events more immediate and more unsafe, since we don't have any in-film certainty about whether Guevara will survive (which, obviously, he doesn't).

But it's not just framing devices and storytelling techniques, or the lack of, that show the differences in the film. The very visual styles of the film vary wildly. Part One is very fluid, very smooth in the camera movements, clearly making good use of dolly tracks and the steadicam. Meanwhile the film's visuals are extremely rich and colourful. Whether in the forests or towns of Cuba, the picture is lush and beautiful. The whole film feels bold and confident. But right from the start of Part Two, it changes. Much of the film feels like it was shot handheld, almost shakycam, where even in still shots the camera is subtly moving and bobbing up and down. Meanwhile, the image is stark, washed-out. It all leaves the viewer on edge, never at ease, perfectly suited for a film in which the title character finds himself in a situation spiralling out of his control.

And there's even more. The most surprising difference was that there was a change in aspect ratio between the films. The first film was shot in the wider 2.40:1 ratio of films like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. This means that the image has space, has a cinematic scope to it. But when we arrive at Part Two, the image changes to a 1.85:1 ratio. Now, this change wouldn't be quite as effective in your typical multiplex cinema or at home on DVD, where the screen has a constant width and the second film would, if anything, appear larger than the first. But on a constant-height screen like that at the Embassy, where the sides press in to create the smaller image, the change is very noticeable. The second film doesn't have the space of the first, screen compositions become tighter, giving the feel of the forces pressing in on Guevara. All these elements combine to give us two films that are stylistically completely unrelated, unlike in almost any aspect, and each creative decision is made solely for the benefit of the specific film that it relates to, Part One or Part Two, without making any concessions to the whole.

And yet, it's not like these films are unrelated. They were filmed back to back (although I believe Part Two was actually filmed first), and they were always conceived as being one whole. And despite the drastic stylistic changes between the two parts, it clearly works much better as one 265-minute film. It's a richer experience. With the first film fresh in your mind, the second film isn't just a sequel, but a natural continuation of the story. Watching the two together, it's obvious how Che approaches the revolution in Bolivia with many of the same tactics that worked for him in Cuba, and we can therefore consider what the differences are that allowed them to work in Cuba, but fail in Bolivia. And each film is necessary to provide counterpoint and clarify the other - Che almost seems superhuman in the first film, impervious to harm, and so the second film is needed to make him real. And so much of the second film rests on Che's reputation, a reputation that is largely unearned in Part Two and relies entirely on an awareness of the events in Part One.

The final image of Part Two, and thus the film, proves how much these films depend on being seen as one single movie experience. As we see Che's dead body (sorry about the spoiler), the film fades to a wordless scene of Che on a boat, looking at a couple of people. If you were to watch Che Part Two as a film by itself, that image would be meaningless to you, because the scene is a flashback to the first film, and the people he's looking at don't even appear in the second film. The scene only really holds meaning to a viewer that has watched both films.

So it's a fascinating film. Soderbergh managed quite successfully to make a two-part film where each of its parts is a satisfying experience in and of itself, and yet as a whole make a rich enveloping experience far beyond that of the component parts. I'm glad I saw the complete version, but in any form, this is possibly one of the most essential films of the year.

02 August, 2009

When I was your age they would say we can become cops or criminals

So here's the thing.

The other Wednesday night, a friend of mine went to see the film Still Walking. This film, which she said was excellent and well worth seeing, was a Japanese film about "family". Now, the thing is, "family" is pretty much the cliché subject matter for an arthouse or a film festival movie. (Basically, arthouse films are about the trials and tribulations of family life, whereas film festival movies are about the trials and tribulations of family life, but in French.) Now, no doubt these are all very well made, intelligent, charming, thought-provoking films. And I managed to see a wide variety of films in the festival outside the family drama genre. But even so there is a very definite festival film type. Even a science fiction thriller film like Moon would never be mistaken for a multiplex film - it's too slow and deliberate (and the better for it).

Which was why I went to see the Korean film The Chaser (see the pretty awful UK trailer here, or the much-better-but-in-Korean trailer here). I'd never heard of it until reading its listing in the programme, but the film quickly became my most anticipated film of the festival, largely because it seemed like a film that should never be in the festival. If people asked what I was going to see in the festival, I would always mention this one. And then once the festival started people would ask me whether I had seen the film yet. All based solely on one sentence contained in the film description:

"A disgraced cop turned pimp racing to rescue one of his girls from a slacker serial killer."

Isn't that the greatest description of a film ever? I wasn't surprised to see the notices on the cinema door stating that they had added extra screenings of the sold-out film, because once you read that description, how could you not want to see it? Especially since, in a festival filled with slow important films about "family", this is something quite different. Other than the fact that it's in Korean, this could play in any shopping mall cinema anywhere. (No surprise that the Hollywood remake rights have already been sold.)

There were three words in that description that really made me want to see the film. Slacker serial killer. I don't know abut serial killers in real life, but your typical cinematic serial killer is definitely no slacker. As a result, I just couldn't conceive of what a slacker serial killer would look like. And now I know what it looks like. It's pretty much what it says on the box, a slacker, albeit one who likes to kill people. He constantly looks bored, a bit out of it, not terribly interested in anything. When calling local pimps for a girl to be his next victim, he reuses the same phone number over and over again, making identification surprisingly easy. He barely cleans up after himself, leading to a scene where the film's main victim finds the scalp of the previous victim in the shower. When he commits his crimes, he finds their struggles to be an irritation. After a particularly bloody killing, he doesn't even change his blood-stained clothes before leaving to drive somewhere. At one point in the film, in a particularly impressive display of "don't care", he voluntarily admits to being a killer in certain circumstances where most people would stay silent. Everything about this guy marks him as a fairly typical, non-descript, somewhat dull young man, who seems just as bored when killing people as when sitting watching TV with a blank expression. (In fact, it was a disappointment when, late in the film, they come across a room where the killer used to live, and find he did some redecoration. Covering your walls with paintings of bloodied body parts is typical serial killer behaviour, but not very slacker-y.)

Having established just what a slacker serial killer looks like, I come to look at the rest of the film, and find that it was pretty great. With any thriller, the key issue is whether the film is suspenseful, and it absolutely is. In particular, there's a moment about 40 minutes into the film where the plot takes an unexpected turn, causing the film to develop into something entirely unexpected and quite brilliant. The film is the debut from director Hong-jin Na (the film appears in the New Directions section of the festival, which is dedicated to first- and second-time directors), and he displays a clear confidence and certainty in his direction. Since the film is a race-against-time film, I was particularly impressed with the director's ability to subtly communicate that passage of time, raising the tension in the audience, without feeling like he was being obvious about it. Hong-jin Na also co-wrote the screenplay, which manages to develop convincing characters while constantly surprising with unexpected yet natural plot developments, and even managing to find time to offer some nice social commentary about contemporary obsessions, vigilantism, and bureaucratic systems. And there's even a small bit of humour running through the film, due in part to a pretty funny subplot focused around a protester that threw human excrement in the face of the mayor (it's funnier than it sounds).

And I think that small level of humour is pretty essential to the film, because it's a dark film. I wouldn't go so far as to call the film gory, but it's definitely grisly. But it's more than just being a film where unpleasant images are put on screen - there's a fundamental cynicism and fatalism in the film's worldview. In the world of The Chaser, hope is just something to keep you going a little longer until you take the next battering. And with the exception of the film's main victim, the clichéd "prostitute with a heart of gold and an adorably cute child", no-one comes off well. Our film's hero is not just a pimp accustomed to everyday brutality, he's so certain in his belief that previous victims have only run off with his money that it's surprising how long it takes him to realise what this guy is actually doing. Meanwhile the cops, who should be trying to help find this girl that may still be alive, instead become obsessed with ripping up huge areas of concrete in the search for long-dead victims.

Anyway, it's a really enoyable movie, a thoroughly engaging, well-crafted work by a new filmmaking talent who I look forward to enjoying in the future.

01 August, 2009

You might want to sing it note for note

So here's the thing.

I came across this video this morning and, it's pretty cool. Bobby McFerrin, who to be honest I've only ever heard of in connection with the "Don't Worry, Be Happy" song that he released back when I was 10, enlists the audience at the World Science Festival in a pretty enjoyable demonstration of our instictive understanding of the pentatonic musical scale. It's fun to watch.

World Science Festival 2009: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale from World Science Festival on Vimeo.