Friday, 30 January 2009

Coogan's Bluff

I was very surprised by this film, coming so soon after the Dollars trilogy and recommended frequently, by reputable sources, as a transition between The Man With No Name and Dirty Harry. It is poorly scripted - and I mean the sort of dialogue and plot developments you would expect in a children's programme - and very naive, as if its portrayal of New York comes from a holiday brochure.

Clint Eastwood plays rule breakin', deputy sheriff, Walt Coogan from Arizona, sent to collect a prisoner from New York. After deceiving the NYPD into releasing him into his custody, the prisoner escapes. Coogan then proceeds to break more rules in his pursuit of him though the city.

We see the cliché's of New York paraded before us, and sixties staples are ticked off. The hippy club, the promiscuous and damaged teen, the unreasonable senior police officers... When you consider that this police fantasy was made in the same year as Bullitt, and Sergio Leone had gone on to make Once Upon a Time in the West, this film is inexcusable.

The plot is simply there to serve as a vehicle for Eastwood. It panders to the image his fans want to see, portraying him as a loose cannon who has to beat off the girls with a pointy stick. The prisoner is basically a MacGuffin - totally dropping out of the storyline until needed for a chase scene near the end - and any pretence at detective work merely moves Coogan from standard scene to the next - pool room fight, interlude with attractive woman, hooker in hotel room.

Interesting that its director, Don Siegel, would go on to make such films such as The Shootist and Escape from Alcatraz, and Dean Riesner, one of the two writers, would pen High Planes Drifter and Play Misty for Me. Coincidently, both worked on Dirty Harry as well. On the other hand, Herman Miller, the other writer, had as his last writing credit an episode of MacGyver, after dabbling in Knight Rider territory; do you think we found the weak link?

One thing in the film's favour though, was the excellent closing shot on the helipad. Framed and directed with aplomb, we then see the city retreat from view as Eastwood travels back to his natural habitat. Sadly, the direction of the film has this same picture postcard detachment from its stars, both human and geographic.

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Sunday, 18 January 2009

In the Mood for Love

Everyone has a few cinematic moments that change their perception of movies indefinitely, one of mine was the second Maggie Cheung walked down the alleyway to get take-away food from street vendors, with only the sound of Shigeru Umebayashi's Yumeji's Theme playing (make sure you follow that link!). It opened my eyes to the possibilities of soundtrack, cinematography, and minimalistic nuances portrayed in the faces of actors. This is a film in which the plot can be explained in one or two sentences, but would take hours to attempt to pass on the sensations it invokes.

Kar Wai Wong wrote, directed and produced this film set in 1960s Hong Kong, following the tale of two married neighbours who both suspect their partners of infidelity. They form a relationship based on denial and mutual sadness. Each scene that these two (Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai) share is charged with unspoken and withheld passion, hearkening back to old fashioned pictures like Brief Encounter.

You never see their partners' faces, only ever overhearing a few words, re-emphasising the focus back to our main two protagonists, and much of the film is shot with only one of their faces in the frame. This drives home the isolation they both feel, imposed by their marriage partners and themselves. It also serves to intentionally confuse matters when they start to act out confrontations with their partners.

What can be overlooked by their status as the victims of the piece, is the strange way they deal with their predicament. It hints at more peculiar currents that lie beneath the surface of these two seemingly innocent character, and yet is instantly forgiven.

The melancholy beauty of this study on the fragile nature of love and broken trust is effortless. Each scene so carefully devised, every performance so subtle, every powerful colour, gently flooding your senses, without overwhelming (Christopher Doyle and Pin Bing Lee produce wonderful results in cinematography, Doyle's style evident again in Hero, but never so restrained). The repetition of music and settings used effectively to replicate emotions and juxtapose narrative elements.

Someone compared this film to the Chinese gift of gift giving, presenting the most simple item in such style. This film is a gift of simplicity and endless depths.

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Thursday, 8 January 2009

Hotel Chevalier

The short that precedes Wes Anderson's, The Darjeeling Limited. It sets up Schwartzman's character for the main feature, and goes some way to explaining his liaison with Amara Karan's Rita later in that film.

Jack Whitman (Jason Schwartzman) sits alone in a Parisian hotel and receives an unexpected visit from his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman). It lasts thirteen minutes.

The sheer opulence of the visuals is intoxicating, soundtrack (Where Do You Go To, My Lovely) beautifully used, the scarcity of dialogue gives each phrase such dramatic weight, and the treatment of Portman is almost fetishistic. She is playing a similar character to that of Gwyneth Paltrow's in The Royal Tenenbaums, but alludes to even more complexity.

The tragedy of such a powerful short, is that The Darjeeling Limited pales in comparison, as can often be the case, consider some of the Pixar films that are outshone by their exceptional preludes. We learn far more about Whitman in these few minutes than in the rest of the film, where Anderson flounders amongst crude metaphors.

There is much unspoken, and more hinted at, and what dialogue exists, is spoken with power and economy. Portman says, "Are you running away from me?", and with immediate brevity, the response is, "I thought I already did."

I would love to buy this film alone, and leave the good intentioned, but didactic, main feature on the shelf.

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