Michael Winterbottom is certainly one of the more interesting directors working in the UK today, as well as one of the most productive. Genova tells the story of Joe (Colin Firth) and his two daughters, Mary and Kelly (Perla Haney-Jardine and Willa Holland) who, after the death of their mother in a car accident, relocate to Genova in Italy. Mary, the younger of the two, struggles psychologically with the loss, experiencing hallucinations of her mother, while the adolescent Kelly dives headlong into a summertime romance and generally behaves as irresponsible teenager, frequently leaving her sister alone in the city.
Colin Firth and Catherine Keener are the two older heads in the cast, and both put in generally good-quality shifts, but it’s the two girls who really shine, bringing a solid weight to the process of childhood grief. There is an improvised feel to Genova, as is common in Winterbottom’s work (see: The Trip and The Trip to Italy, where Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon dick around in restaurants), and combined with the hand-held roving camera, there’s a well-grounded naturalistic feel to proceedings. However, this same loose feel also means Genova lacks an overall structure or mood. Things happen, conflicts occur, and then the film just…ends without any concrete emotional payoff. Solid, if rather forgettable.
Polyamorous teens, witchcraft, science-fiction conspiracy theories, shoegaze soundtrack galore…yup, it’s a Gregg Araki film. Often shifting between nihilistic dramas and sprightly, wildly post-modern comedies, Araki is certainly one of the most unique and undervalued directors working today, and I honestly think that may have something to do with the sexually frank nature of his films, which embrace all types of experiences, something that’s too much for the sexually repressed nature of Western European civilisation. Kaboom is an amusing and well-crafted film with plenty of sly reference points. It’s a light work, but it hides a good deal of psychological complexity just beneath the surface, particularly in the way it depicts displaced anxiety over sexual identity and the supposedly liberating process of college in the US. A rushed and badly thought-out ending notwithstanding, this is a fine film from Gregg Araki.
Perhaps the pinnacle of Robert Altman’s style, Nashville is truly a great work of American cinema. How many other filmmakers have the confidence and guts to put together a movie with not one, not two, but 24 major characters? Even more staggeringly, Altman pulls it off without barely a hitch, stuffing his film with layer upon layer of minor revealing details, aided by actors who were every bit as invested in the project as he was. In addition (and its easy for me to say this as I do love me some country music), the songs are fantastic too; mostly written by the cast, they function as revealing moments of character development themselves, all part of a larger tapestry of an America that was then standing at crossroads between the cynicism of Watergate and the lost promises of Carterism. A stone-cold masterwork.
A film with a very special place in my heart…because it was this film I watched with my girlfriend on our very first date together. Whilst I might have been edging close to that scene in Taxi Driver where Travis Bickle takes Cybil Shepherd to a porn cinema—the sex scenes really are too long and narratively uninteresting—as far as films detailing the growth and collapse of a relationship go, few are as epic or in-depth as Blue is the Warmest Colour. Director Abdellatif Kechiche keeps most of the entire three-hour running-time in close-up, drawing us closely into Adéle’s (Adéle Exarchopoulos) world. Just as well then that her performance and that of her co-star Léa Seydoux, are astounding in their emotional honesty, lighting up the screen and holding the baggier parts of a flawed three-hour movie entirely together.
One of cinema’s greatest aesthetes, Zhang Yimou’s first feature film showcases the director’s eye as fully-formed from the start. Red Sorghum begins as a sumptuously-shot fable, with Yimou’s muse and leading lady, Gong Li, being married off to a leprous winery-owner by her poverty-stricken parents in 1920s China. As she is carried along in her sedan, she falls in love with one of the carriers, played by Jiang Wen. Told by a narrator, the couple’s grandson, the film has a fable-like feel, as if part of a memory partially obscured by the dust of the Chinese countryside. The winery-owner mysteriously disappears (we never even see him onscreen), and Red Sorghum begins to focus on the tale of Gong Li, taking control of the winery, and her elemental, charged relationship with Jiang Wen, who fluctuates between alcoholic despondency and romantic fervour.
Unfortunately, Yimou’s skills as a painter of gorgeous cinematic images have always been limited by his rather conservative storytelling abilities. He would go on to make equally sumptuous and grandly ambitious wuxia films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, again two gorgeously-shot films which suffer from a thematic conservatism. Here too, Red Sorghum begins to disintegrate towards the end, dovetailing into a war film where Japanese forces occupy and brutally oppress the area. The high-wire balance of gorgeous imagery and melodrama that Yimou achieves in the first two-thirds of the film is thrown away in favour of a simplistically manipulative third act set against the backdrop of war. It’s a shame, because although the sheer poetry of the film’s images are never less than breathtaking, the thematic conservatism and simplicity with which Red Sorghum finishes is wholly dissatisfying.
American Graffiti would make a fine double-bill with Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. Certainly, outside of the veneer of nostalgia there is in both films an air of sadness, of an innocence lost, although in Lucas’ film it is less pronounced. Not surprising, given that Lucas has always shown a strong desire to return to childhood, much like his good pal Steven Spielberg. What results then is a film with an brilliant sense of place and time—with some utterly beautiful cinematography to boot—and some strong performances, but a certain weightlessness to it. Lucas does not have nearly the same eye for social observation as Linklater does, and that is where the two films depart. Still though, I’ll take Chuck Berry over fucking Foghat any day.
The story of the production of Zulu is arguably more interesting than the film itself. Screenwriter John Pebble and director Cy Endfield were both blacklisted from Hollywood for Communist sympathies, and leading man Stanley Baker was himself staunchly left-wing. Filming in apartheid South Africa, the cast and crew were legally unable to pay their mostly black extras fair wages, so they devised other methods of fair compensation, whilst also risking jail-time if caught fraternising with other races. The film itself has dated badly. Although it’s not outright racist, it does betray some slightly patronising attitudes towards the Zulu nation that are endemic to the way left-wingers saw the developing world fifty years ago: well-meaning in its intentions, but still somewhat muddled in its representation. Looking past that, both Baker and Michael Caine put in fine leading performances and the location cinematography is frankly outstanding, but the film is still derailed by awkward pacing, stodgy editing, and dull battle scenes.
Navigating the Kafka-esque brutality of American high school, Richard Linklater’s cult hit has recently had a new lease of life thanks to the release of its spiritual sequel Everybody Wants Some! What strikes me about Dazed and Confused, aside from the brilliant sense of place and time that Linklater evokes through music and production design, is just how directionless all of its major characters are: people with hopes and dreams, standing only at the first gasp of their lives, ready to divide into a million directions. Few writer/directors are as adept as Linklater in evoking feelings of listlessness in his protagonists, and Dazed and Confused is one of his best in that regard.
The worst John Woo film is also the best thing Jean-Claude Van Damme ever did. Probably. This being the great Hong Kong director’s first movie in Hollywood, it still retains a lot of his earlier style (slow-mo, doves and pigeons everywhere, balletic gunfights), traits that he would rein in for later films. The plot is basically “The Most Dangerous Game”—rich folk hunt poor for sport—although any hope of intriguing socio-political analysis is forgone in favour of very wooden acting by all involved (save for scenery-munching Lance Henriksen) and some admittedly very fine action sequences. Entirely worth it for the latter, all told.