Saturday, November 28, 2009

Bright Star: A Joy Forever

Bright Star is an engaging experience. Writer/director Jane Campion has crafted a beautiful film, as lyrical as a Romantic poem. We glide through this tender love story, sharing the passion, despair and sublime joy that the only young can generate. When poet John Keats meets 16 year-old Fanny Brawne, they spark from the beginning. We follow the waves of their romance to its inevitable and final separation. Not even Planet Hollywood could spin this piece of literary history into a happy ending.

The cast give stellar performances. Abby Cornish presents the feisty, independence of Elizabeth Bennet, combined with the obsessiveness of first love. Ben Whishaw is a very credible dying youth. He has the look, as well as delivering a lyric or two with some sensitivity. Janet Frame’s collaboration with Jane Campion began brilliantly in An Angel at My Table. She continues this success with a very spirited portrayal of Mrs Brawne.

Just as John Keats’s poetry isn’t for everyone, this film is not for the action movie crowd or costume soap opera. Its two hours running time moves with a modulated pace that matches the narrative perfectly.

The opening sequence has Fanny sewing her latest fashion creation. Campion’s close-ups, especially of hands and eyes, give the film an added intimacy. With its timeless quality, the film takes us well beyond the usual period piece. Nevertheless, its sets and costumes more than match its rivals and are sure to win awards.

The essential elements of rivalry and jealousy are realised not in other women but in the form of Keats’ close friend Charles Brown, played with suitable intensity by Paul Schneider.

Like a Jane Austen novel, the letter is a vital player in their courtship and his absences. Fittingly there is a letter competition on the website. Nothing beats love letters from a poet. Campion is not afraid to let Keats’ poetry speak for him.

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art--
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors--
No--yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever--or else swoon to death.

However, it’s not just a romance. Keats struggles for everyday survival not just fame. His enemies are poverty and disease not just the critics. Fanny is his brightest star and Jane Campion brings her to life in a masterful way.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story - revolution postponed

It was a sympathetic crowd at the cinema in Melbourne's posh Brighton suburb watching Capitalism: A Love Story. They must have been either chardonnay socialists or from the other side of the tracks. Maybe they lost a bundle on the stock market last year or watched their superannuation shrink. Perhaps some were the kind of Catholic who follows the Sermon on the Mount. Michael Moore's latest documentary has something for all these groups.

Moore is no captive to ideology: the union factory occupation adjourns for mass and communion; a Sheriff refuses to evict people; the credits roll to the strains of the Internationale; the people’s revolt starts with peaceful pressure on their representatives on Capitol Hill over the bailout.

As a filmmaker he is master of the simple visual image: the confrontation at the headquarters of the Fat Cats of Wall Street and industry; the family grieving for lost loved ones or the home from which they are being evicted; the dispossessed moving back as squatters into their houses; the bulldozed factory where his father worked.

True to form, Moore takes on the big end of town in his comic citizen-arrest pieces and mock showdowns. He wraps the crime scene in Manhattan with police tape. It is, of course, the New York Stock Exchange. It could have been the guarded citadels of Citigroup, AIG, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, General Motors or any of the other gangster dens of this documentary. All your humble security guards recognise MM immediately. His tilts at revolving doors have become a cliché for them and us. The drama and the humour have been sapped from this kind of satire. We all know the joke.

Sadly we never find out exactly what 'derivatives' are but it seems to be a synonym for theft. Karl Marx called property theft. Some irony. There appears to have been a lot of property stolen. However, Moore must only be a closet Marxist. He only mentions the other “-ism”. He sees 'democracy' rather than socialism as a solution to capitalism’s evils: worker participation and ownership, unionism, transparency. His website's "Action Plan: 15 Things Every American Can Do Right Now" is not exactly revolutionary stuff.

But it's meeting the victims of the system that has the most impact. Moore is at his best when he talks to ordinary people: those suffering and sometimes fighting evictions, the unemployed, the un-paid families of 'dead peasant' life insurance schemes, workers taking direct action in the workplace. His faith, indeed his roots, is with the powerless.

With god, the union and the law on his side he shouldn’t fail. However, for all its heart wrenching stories of ordinary people and its compelling indictment of Big Capital and High Finance, Capitalism: A Love Story doesn’t nail the culprits. Barack Obama was the great hope when the film was made. It’s revolution postponed. A sequel would paint a sorry picture of free enterprise American style post 2008.

However, it is time to read the big print. See this if you can.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Moon: Good Old-fashioned Sci-fi

Moon is a sci-fi film that doesn’t rely on spectacular computer graphic action and aliens for its impact. It’s an entertaining and thought provoking experience.

In a near future, our energy problems have been solved. Earth uses non-polluting fusion reactors powered by Helium-3 mined on the moon. Sam Bell is the sole worker for Lunar Industries on the dark side of the moon. As he nears the end of his 3-year contract, things start to warp badly around him.

He has been out of direct live contact and has to rely on recorded messages. His only companion has been the computer system GERTY, voiced by Kevin Spacey, a less sinister version of HAL 9000. It is torn between its role of helping him and its instructions from the company.

Director/writer Duncan Jones has created a film with attitude. It’s an old fashioned movie in many ways, which may help to explain some critic’s negativity. The sets have the look and feeling of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien. Model miniatures with CG effects layered on top were used to create this engaging atmosphere.

The pace glides along. There is no video game speed here. Moon is as much about the human condition as it is about technology. Jones is clearly a Ridley Scott fan but rather than Blade Runner’s replicants he uses a more realistic scientific twist to explore what it means to be human.

It took only 33 days to shoot but it’s not a complex story and its minuscule cast hardly needed coordination. Sam Rockwell as his namesake protagonist puts in a first class performance.

Some of the plot is a bit hard to accept. For instance Lunar Industries have spent an extraordinary amount of money on their deception. It’s hard to figure out the cost/benefit.

At the end we hear a radio broadcast from earth complete with a shock-jock airing familiar populist prejudices. It’s a nasty way to bring us back to earth. I really enjoyed the trip.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

In Search of Beethoven's genius

You don’t have to be a fan of classical music to know and have enjoyed Ludwig van Beethoven’s music. Whether it’s Symphony No.9 in Clockwork Orange or the 5th in Picnic at Hanging Rock or numerous others movie scores, it has popular appeal beyond the concert hall or classic CD collection. Moonlight Sonata, Ode to Joy and many more are generally recognised.

As a follow-up to In Search of Mozart, Phil Grabsky brings us a monumental 139 minute tribute to Ludwig van Beethoven. In Search of Beethoven is detailed, informative, entertaining and thought provoking with a comprehensive, chronological introduction to his life and his works. There are 55 performances from some of the world’s best orchestras and artists.

However, it’s too long for the cinema. Long enough to make a worthy three part TV series. There are too many talking heads. Perhaps Grabsky didn’t want to offend any of the multitudes of experts by leaving them out.

It’s beautifully filmed but relies heavily on the clichés of this documentary genre. It isn’t easy to match the aural majesty with enough visual splendours. Inevitably it falls back on: orchestras in every state of rehearsal or performance; close ups of pianists, cellists and other performers; the rear view of numerous conductors' torsos; paintings interspersed with modern day exteriors of Vienna and similar locales. He also seems to favour chopping off the tops of heads unless they are entrants in the competition for the most disheveled male Beet hairstyle.

Fidelio, Beethoven’s only finished opera, brings some much needed drama and visual engagement.

Juliet Stevenson’s narration is crisp and fresh, perhaps too detached at times given the passionate nature of the subject.

Mercifully Grabsky has steered clear of re-enactments. Nor has the use of David Dawson as Beethoven’s voice been overdone. In fact more of the story in Beethoven's own words might have helped our understanding of his true character. The filmmakers’ claim that it uncovers the myth of the “heroic, tormented figure battling to overcome his tragic fate, struck down by deafness, who searched for his 'immortal beloved' but remained unmarried. It delves beyond the image of the tortured, cantankerous, unhinged personality, to reveal someone quite different and far more interesting.”

However, this search for the real person falls short. We do not really get into Beethoven’s heart or mind. In fact we learn more about his drinking habits than his attitudes to women, marriage or children. There is little revealing material from his own writing or those who were close to him such as his nephew or his romantic interests.

Don’t be put off. Watch this one for the joy of the music.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Greenaway Reconstructs Leonardo's Last Supper

Peter Greenaway's Installation Art Captures Melbourne

Leonardo's Last Supper has come to Melbourne for the International Arts Festival this year. It's one of Peter Greenaway's image technology installation art projects. It follows the success of his multimedia event 'Rembrandt's The Nightwatch at the Rijksmuseum' in Amsterdam in 2006.

Greenaway calls these art forms, "speculative painting-cinema dialogues". Greenaway has reinvented himself as a new Da Vinci. Had Leonardo been alive today, "an investigation into the continuity and correspondence between the language of painting and the language of cinema would have been obligatory for him".

Da Vinci Cloned

Unfortunately it could not be the original masterpiece. However the reproduction is cleverly forged, in both senses of the word. It is claimed to be, "a perfect, three-dimensional sculptural clone of Milan's crumbling, 510-year-old chapel wall and painting."

The half hour show alternates between caressing and interrogating the painting. The micro-accuracy of the the video projections is astounding. Today's audio-visual presentations are certainly light-years ahead of the old slide projectors.

Is Cinema dead?

Ground-breaking film director Greenaway declared cinema dead as early as 2003. This seeming about-face may have been a consequence of his 1999 movie, and perhaps last true cinema production, 8 1/2 Women. It received a drubbing from most reviewers at the time.

His cinema triumphs include the beautiful The Draughtsman's Contract where his early training as a painter brought magnificent scene scapes to this period piece. Drowning by Numbers drew on his skills as a film editor in constructing its elaborate storyline. The Cook, the Thief, his Wife & her Lover became a cult movie very quickly. The Pillow Book is perhaps his best film, as he mixed media to telling effect. It weaves traditional Chinese and Japanese poetry and calligraphy into an exploration of sensuality by its extensive use of body painting.

Last Supper Highlights

There are many highlights during the half-hour with Jesus Christ and his twelve apostles. The exploration of the hands is particularly striking. The opposite wall hosts a cascade of highly detailed close-ups of the painting's grainy texture. It reveals a fascinating perspective that is
usually hidden from an audience. The painting itself started to disintegrate not long after it was finished in the 1490s. Since the effects of numerous restorations have been removed, The Last Supper is now close to the original except of course for its fragmented state.

The audience crowds around a table of food and drink dividing the installation room. Bread and wine are the essentials.

Nine Classic Paintings Revisited

The other art works in the proposed Nine Classic Paintings Revisited series are: Veronese's The Wedding At Cana, Picasso's Guernica, Velasquez's Las Meninas, Seurat's La Grande Jatte, Monet's The Water Lilies - Nympheas, Jackson Pollock's One: Number 31, and Michelangelo's The Last Judgement.

For the multitudes that can't attend one of the original venues, hopefully there will be traveling versions that match the high quality of this Melbourne event.

Peter Greenaway is performing the last rites for the cinema a little prematurely. But it's a performance that's well worth attending.

(This article first appeared on Associated Content)

Departures Intimate Touch

Departures (Okuribito) is a Japanese film that everyone should see. It is about death and grieving but don't be put off by the subject matter. It's about family, relationships and identity, plus the role of tradition and ritual in everyday lives. The story also explores the role and importance of work in our lives. It does so with a gentle touch and good humour.

This movie has a stellar cast. Masahiro Motoki won the Japan Academy Prize for Best Leading Actor 2008 for his role as cellist turned novice mortician Daigo Kobayashi.

Tsutomu Yamazaki plays his master Ikuei Sasaki. This veteran actor captured the award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance. His best-known role outside Japan is probably that of the trucker in the classic noodle film Tampopo. He continues his romance with food in this part.

Ryoko Hirosue as Daigo's somewhat insipid wife Mika, is a previous best supporting actress winner from 2000. Apparently her fame started with a series of cosmetics advertisements. Coincidentally makeup is a skill that Daigo has to acquire in his new job. It's hard to judge her ability, as this role doesn't offer much with its confining stereotype. It is the weakest part of a mainly robust script. The other major blemish is the predictability of the plot. That seems to be inevitable with this kind of soft-centred drama.

When Daigo's orchestra is disbanded he leaves Tokyo for his small hometown Sakata. There he inadvertently applies for a job in "departures". It turns out to be working in decoffination, a funeral ceremony that prepares the deceased for burial. It is normally conducted with the family and close friends present and involved. The story is his journey of self-discovery as he becomes a professional.

Fortunately there is a current of humour that helps to elevate the movie from the potential for melodrama. Motoki's facial expressions are a key element in pitching the right level of levity in a story that has death as a central theme. The departure ceremony is deftly handled, showing both the intimate and touching side of saying goodbye and the potential for explosive behaviour among the mourners. Both actors perform the elaborate rites in an extremely convincing manner.

Another veteran of Japanese cinema, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, plays bathhouse owner Tsuyako. She refuses to sell her business for condominiums despite pressure from her son. Takashi Sasano brings more cinema experience as her best customer and friend Shokichi, whose own occupation takes on significance at the conclusion of the story. This sub plot builds on the theme of traditional Japanese culture that the film is exploring.

Departures is a moving journey into the world of death and funerals. However, its 130 minutes could have been chopped. The first hour and a half flies by, with tight direction from Yojiro Takita. The last thirty minutes or so is sometimes irritatingly slow and repetitive. For example the giving of stones symbolism is overworked. It has become more than obvious that Daigo's father gave him a rough and heavy burden to carry through life.

It was a unlikely winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars. It is a journey that is well worth taking.

(This post was first published at Associated Content)