Saturday, 31 March 2007

The Departed

The Departed
Martin Scorsese's latest film, The Departed, won 'best picture' at this year's Oscars (and Scorsese finally won 'best director'). Leonardo DiCaprio plays Costigan, an undercover cop who infiltrates the crew of gangster Frank Costello (played with enormous relish by Jack Nicholson). Matt Damon is Sullivan, Costello's protege, a mole in the Boston police department. The film is a remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs.

Scorsese has directed some of the most acclaimed (Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), and most controversial (The Last Temptation Of Christ) films of the past thirty years. He is primarily associated with gangster films such as Mean Streets, GoodFellas, and Casino. His Hollywood biopic The Aviator was unusually glamorous for a Scorsese film, though The Departed takes him back to gritty crime territory.

There are parallels with GoodFellas - both films begin with a young boy initiated into gangsterhood, then cut to him as a man (Ray Liotta in GoodFellas, and Matt Damon in The Departed). There are also references to the classic Warner gangster film Scarface, with an 'X' appearing as a backdrop whenever a character dies. The Third Man is also referenced, by the shadows on the wall as Costigan is chasing Sullivan and when Sullivan's girlfriend walks past him after a funeral.

The Departed is DiCaprio's third Scorsese film, after Gangs Of New York and The Aviator. This is his best performance for Scorsese thus far, certainly better than his cherubic, unconvincing role as Howard Hughes in The Aviator. In The Departed, DiCaprio's character has the widest emotional range, from psycho violence to paranoia to vulnerability, all of which he pulls off successfully. In contrast, Damon's character is simply required to look smug most of the time.

Scorsese was apparently happy to indulge Nicholson's wild improvisations. So, Costello grins that trademark Nicholson grin and takes coke by the handful. (Nicholson's most famous addition, a rubber prosthesis, was censored in Thai cinema prints.) This performance, in which, at one point, he is up to his elbows in blood, is the direct opposite of About Schmidt.

The supporting cast is equally impressive. Martin Sheen is totally convincing as middle-aged detective Queenan. Mark Wahlberg is Queenan's abrasive deputy, Dignam. Costello and Dignam both swear more explicitly, more profusely, and more inventively, than characters in any other American studio film.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Dial M For Murder (2D)

Dial M For Murder
Dial M For Murder is a fascinating, though not premiere league, Alfred Hitchcock film. It was adapted from a play of the same name, and is classic Hitchcock material: the suave villain (played by Ray Milland) has hints of Charlie in Shadow Of A Doubt and Vandamm in North By Northwest, and the plot, involving a pact to murder a man's wife, is similar to Strangers On A Train.

The wife in question is Grace Kelly, the archetypal 'Hitchcock blonde'. Kelly worked with Hitchcock three times, on Dial M For Murder, Rear Window, and To Catch A Thief, and, of these, only Rear Window is truly outstanding, yet she has since become synonymous with the director's preferred female character: a blonde woman with a cool exterior and passion beneath the surface. It could be argued that, with his subsequent moulding of actresses (such as his total control over Tippi Hedren), he was attempting to recreate the Grace Kelly look (in the manner of Scottie in the quasi-autobiographical Vertigo).

In Dial M, Kelly wears pure white with her husband and bright red with her lover - a literal scarlet woman. As the film progresses and her plight increases, her clothes become increasingly plain. This choice of symbolic costumes was later echoed in Psycho, as Marion first appears in a white bra, though after she steals $40,000 she is seen in a black bra representing her loss of innocence.

Like Rope and Rear Window, Dial M's action is confined almost exclusively to a single apartment. It is one of Hitchcock's most theatrical films, with little attempt at innovative camera movement or montage. This style was dictated by the cumbersome 3D cameras used for the film. Hitchcock had no interest in 3D, though after the success of Bwana Devil, and with TV reducing cinema audiences, the studio requested that Dial M be a 3D film. Perhaps they wanted to lend credibility to the gimmicky format, which had previously been utilised only for cheap exploitation films.

Certainly, Dial M was one of the few prestige 3D productions. (I have only seen the 2D version, however.) Hitchcock framed the actors behind props such as lampshades and railings, to give a stereoscopic illusion of depth, and, during the murder scene, Kelly's hand reaches out into the audience in a dramatic 3D shock effect.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

This Film Is Not Yet Rated
Kirby Dick's documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated is a critical examination of the MPAA, the organisation that controls America's film rating system. Ironically, it was submitted to the MPAA and rated 'NC-17', though the version in current circulation is longer than the original (with additional material concerning the director's reaction to his 'NC-17' rating), and is unrated

The MPAA (previously MPPDAA, whose founding president Will Hays instigated the prohibitive Hays Code in the 1930s) classifies films both at the cinema and on video (VHS, DVD, etc.). The organisation was established by the major Hollywood studios to self-regulate the film industry. Its current rating system dates from 1968, when increasing realism in studio films rendered the old Production Code obsolete.

MPAA film ratings are not a legal requirement, though in practice it is almost impossible for an unrated film to attract advertising or theatrical distribution. On video, unrated titles are not stocked by the largest chain stores, Blockbuster and Wal-Mart, as a matter of policy. So an MPAA rating is a commercial necessity.

The documentary concentrates almost exclusively on the 'NC-17' rating, which was introduced in 1990 as an alternative to the previous porn-tainted 'X' certificate. The problem with 'NC-17' films is the same as that of unrated films: mainstream media will not advertise them, and retailers will not sell them. Thus, 'NC-17' is a substantial commercial liability.

In the documentary, several film-makers recount their frustrating experiences of receiving 'NC-17' ratings, unsuccessfully appealing against the decision, and cutting their films to reduce the rating from 'NC-17' to 'R'. (This was also the case with Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, and brief clips from the film are included in this documentary.) They contend that the MPAA operates a series of double standards regarding independent versus studio films and 'normal' versus 'unusual' sex scenes.

Matt Stone, co-creator of South Park, discusses his involvement with the MPAA both inside and outside the studio system. He submitted the independent film Team America and received an 'NC-17', and when he asked why, he was told that specific details could not be provided. However, when he later submitted South Park as a studio production, and again received an 'NC-17', he was given a specific list of cuts required to achieve an 'R'. This kind of preferential treatment for studio films has always been (unconvincingly) denied by the MPAA.

Less persuasive is a series of juxtaposed gay and straight sex scenes of roughly equal explicitness, the gay scenes being rated 'NC-17' and the straight scenes 'R'. The MPAA may well be homophobic and sexist, as the juxtaposition suggests, though the sex scenes included in the documentary are decontextualised, so we have no idea what specifically necessitated the 'NC-17' ratings. (Partly, of course, this is because the MPAA does not disclose specific rating criteria.)

Generally, the MPAA tolerates graphic violence yet forbids sex and nudity. In contrast, the BBFC (Britain's classification board) takes the opposite approach. The MPAA is also more secretive than the BBFC. Jack Valenti, MPAA president from 1966-2004, was the public face of the organisation, defending its decisions though refusing to open it up to scrutiny. James Ferman, BBFC president from 1975-1999, similarly personally courted the media yet maintained the privacy of the BBFC itself. Now, however, the BBFC is a much more open organisation, while the MPAA still refuses to let down its guard.

Kirby Dick challenges the secrecy of the MPAA by hiring a private investigator to uncover the names of the raters who decide each film's classification. The investigator stakes out the MPAA headquarters, following raters and filming them surreptitiously, even going through their rubbish bins in the middle of the night. No laws are broken during the investigation, though when the same tactics were used by the Daily Mail on the BBFC in 1996 (after Crash was passed for UK exhibition), they were strongly condemned.

An 'NC-17' is box-office poison in America, though the reason for this (as A Dirty Shame director John Waters points out in the documentary) is not the rating itself but the stigma attached to the rating (the same stigma associated with the previous 'X' rating), with distributors bowing to conservative/religious pressure-groups. If retailers stocked 'NC-17' films, the rating would be largely unproblematic. The alternative, to rate every adult film 'R', is unsatisfactory, as children can see 'R'-rated films if accompanied by adult guardians. Adding an extra classification, to denote explicit art films, is un-necessary, as that was the purpose of the 'NC-17' classification in the first place.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Jerry Maguire

Jerry Maguire
Tom Cruise is Jerry Maguire, a ruthless sports agent who has an epiphany. He writes a long "mission statement", accusing his company of chasing profits at the expense of quality service. Naturally, he's fired soon after, and sets himself up as an independent agent. After his dismissal, he calls his old clients to reassure them that he is still in business, though only Rod Tidwell (played by Cuba Gooding Jnr) sticks with him. (This is the scene with "Show me the money!", one of the most famous lines in contemporary cinema.)

With a single client (Tidwell) and a single assistant (Dorothy Boyd, played by Renee Zellweger), Maguire seems washed up, but all 3 of them are determined to make it work. And, of course, they do. But this is more than the usual love-against-the-odds, anti-corporate-greed story. Renee Zellweger is genuinely moving as Dorothy, Jonathan Lipnicki is great (and never annoying, unlike many child actors) as her young son, and Cruise's familiar cocky smiles are at least in keeping with his character. (He has plenty to be cocky about, of course, being the world's most popular actor. But generally he's better in serious films like Magnolia.)

Cameron Crowe, who hasn't directed anything else this good since, has produced a long (but not over-long) and emotionally rich romantic comedy.

About Schmidt

About Schmidt
About Schmidt (directed by Alexander Payne) stars Jack Nicholson as Walter Schmidt, an insurance actuary who reassesses his life following his retirement and the death of his wife.

Nicholson is almost unrecognisable as Schmidt. His trademark grin and wild mannerisms are gone, and his body language is totally transformed. If The Departed showed how manically excessive he can be, About Schmidt demonstrates that he can also be subtle and subdued. It must be one of his best performances since Chinatown and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. (When he orders a drink, the framing is the same as Nicholson's hotel bar scene in The Shining.)

Schmidt is a man who keeps his feelings to himself. It's a completely believeable against-type performance, capturing the frustration, bewilderment, and loneliness of late-middle-age. Only at the very end of the film is Schmidt given an emotional release, making this final scene incredibly moving.

The bland suburban locations (Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska) and slow pacing add to the film's realism, as do the naturalistic performances of the supporting cast. Numerous tiny observations (such as Schmidt's wife holding his hand at his retirement party, and the answerphone cutting out before he can finish recording a message) combine to create a wonderful, sad, funny, character-driven film.

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Scoop

Scoop
Scoop is Woody Allen's second film set and filmed in London, after Match Point. Both films star Scarlett Johansson; in Scoop, she plays Sondra Pransky, a slightly nerdy journalism student.

Pransky volunteers to take part in a magic act and, when she is alone in the magician's cabinet, the ghost of a dead journalist (Joe Strombel, played by Ian McShane) appears to her. Strombel passes on a scoop that he was unable to follow up before he died: that aristocrat Peter Lyman (played by Hugh Jackman) may be the 'tarot card killer'.

With the magician (Splendini, played by Allen) in tow, Pransky tracks Lyman down and ingratiates herself with him, searching for clues to prove his guilt. There is, of course, incriminating circumstantial evidence, though as Pransky and Lyman fall for each other she becomes convinced that he is actually innocent.

Scoop is much lighter than Match Point, and this helps the film enormously. Whereas Match Point tried and failed to make serious moral observations, Scoop is content with one-liners and a Manhattan Murder Mystery-style plot. Also, the Londoners of Scoop are more authentic than those of Match Point - there are no unintentional laughs here, unlike the earlier film (though there are still a couple of clunky lines).

Magic has been a regular motif in Allen's films. In Oedipus Wrecks (part of New York Stories), a magician makes Allen's mother-in-law disappear, only for her to reappear as a vision in the sky. In The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion, a fraudulent magician hypnotises Allen and Helen Hunt. In his interview with Stig Bjorkman (Woody Allen On Woody Allen), Allen discusses his childhood interest in magic tricks and cites But We Need The Eggs, a book by Diane Jacobs about the magic in his films.

The Grim Reaper, who appeared in Allen's earlier Love & Death and his acerbic Deconstructing Harry, turns up again here, though this time in a silent role. As the Reaper carries the dead along the River Styx, Strombel swims away to warn Pransky and Splendini. McShane gives a great performance in this bit-part. It's a shame that several excellent actors, such as McShane and Anthony Head (as a police inspector at the end of the film), have such small roles.

The film is generally a lot of fun. There are some great one-liners: Allen says "I was born of the Hebrew persuasion, but I converted to narcissism". Allen's character at times seems like a mouthpiece for Allen himself (as in many of his other films): Splendini explains how much he likes staying in London, and how nice Londoners are, but how he couldn't live there permanently.

The only problem comes at the end, when a series of implausible events takes place: Allen's character dies in almost the same (ridiculous) manner as Bela Lugosi's character in Plan Nine From Outer Space, and it transpires (unconvincingly) that Lyman is a killer but isn't the tarot card killer.

The Aviator

The Aviator
The Aviator is one of Martin Scorsese's most unashamedly mainstream films. (Luckily, his long-awaited Oscar was for a grittier production, The Departed.) It's not traditional Scorsese territory, though neither were Kundun or The Age Of Innocence. Leonardo DiCaprio (who also starred in Scorsese's The Departed and Gangs Of New York) plays Howard Hughes in this biopic of the aviator/film-maker.

Scorsese recreates the glitz of 1930s Hollywood, just as he did for 1970s Las Vegas in Casino. DiCaprio captures Hughes's determination and frustration, though you never quite forget that it's DiCaprio. Cate Blanchett is better, as the tomboyish, headstrong Katharine Hepburn.

The Last Temptation Of Christ

The Last Temptation Of Christ
Director Martin Scorsese's film The Last Temptation Of Christ begins with a written disclaimer that it is based on the fictional events in Nikos Kazantzakis's novel, and not on the Gospels.

The last temptation of the title refers to the devil's temptation of Jesus on the cross, offering him the chance to live a normal life with a wife and children, renouncing the burden of redeption. Jesus is deceived by Satan, and we see him having sex with Mary Magdalene. This image caused fierce protests around the world when the film was originally released, though the film makes clear that it's only a dream.

Jesus has been represented as sexually active in a 19th Century illustration of a naked Theresa embracing Christ on the cross by Felicien Rops, the engraving Nuptials Of God (the church symbolised by a naked bride, kissing Christ on the cross; 1923) by Eric Gill, the novel The Escaped Cock (describing Christ's sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene, 1929) by DH Lawrence, and the film Jesus Vender Tilbage by Jens Jorgen Thorsen (1992). Bill Zebub's films Into Thy Hands (advertised as Jesus Christ: Serial Rapist, 2004) and The Worst Horror Movie Ever Made (2005) both feature Jesus as a rapist.

Meet The Parents

Meet The Parents
Meet The Parents was directed by Jay Roach, whose career consists almost entirely of Austin Powers films. But fortunately the main attraction here isn't the director, it's Robert de Niro, playing retired CIA agent Jack Byrnes.

Robert de Niro is one of the greatest American actors since Marlon Brando. His performances in The Godfather II, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and GoodFellas are incredible. He parodied his gangster image in the comedy Analyse This (as did Brando, in The Freshman), leading to a series of comedic roles in Meet The Parents and others.

Much of the comedy in Meet The Parents derives from de Niro's intimidation of Ben Stiller, who plays his prospective son-in-law. (Stiller's co-starring role, coupled with a cameo by Luke Wilson, makes this a Frat Pack film, and it's not unlike Wedding Crashers.) Stiller is great as the world's unluckiest man, and de Niro (clearly enjoying himself in the role) is hilarious.

A Dirty Shame

A Dirty Shame
I'm a John Waters fan. I love his hilarious autobiography Shock Value, his no-holds-barred early films such as Pink Flamingos, and even his mainstream yet outrageous later films. But I just don't get the joke in A Dirty Shame.

After a perceived shift into tamer, conventional cinema ever since Hairspray (which has now become a Broadway musical, with Waters, like Warhol and Dali, turning himself into a brand), A Dirty Shame represents a reversion to the transgressive themes of his earliest work. The action takes place in suburban Baltimore (the director's home town), where residents alternate between repression and nymphomania whenever they are concussed. The nymphos are led by Ray-Ray, a Christ-like figure with healing powers (remember L'Age d'Or, with Jesus as a libertine?).

Waters seems to think that, by simply including terms such as 'sploshing' in the dialogue, he is somehow creating a scandal. (Anyway, the grossest terms have already been defined in The Aristocrats.) When he was promoting the film, he gave countless interviews in which he discussed all the naughty new practices he discovered on the internet. But I don't buy his faux naivete, and I can't imagine why he considers name-checking these terms even remotely taboo-breaking or daring.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

รัฐประหาร 19 กันยา

รัฐประหาร 19 กันยา
รัฐประหาร 19 กันยา: รัฐประหารเพื่อระบอบประชาธิปไตยอันมีพระมหากษัตริย์ทรงเป็นประมุข, edited by Thanapol Eawsakul, is a new anthology of essays critical of last year's coup. It is published by Same Sky, publisher of a magazine that was banned last year.

Friday, 9 March 2007

The Queen

The Queen
Helen Mirren plays Elizabeth II, and Michael Sheen plays Tony Blair, in The Queen, an account of the aftermath of Princess Diana's death. (Sheen has played Blair before, in the Channel 4 UK TV drama The Deal, from the same director and writer as The Queen.)

Director Stephen Frears takes us inside Balmoral and Downing Street to show us the private reactions of the Windsor and Blair families. Plausibility is maintained throughout, and the script was reputedly based on interviews with people closely connected to the real events. The Queen is stoical (maintaining the traditional British stiff upper lip), whereas Blair recognises that an emotional connection with the public is necessary. Against the advice of his wife and press secretary, Blair persuades the Queen to bow to tabloid pressure and pay tribute to Diana.

Living in Thailand gives a new perspective on royalty. Thai people are proud of their King and royal family, and public criticism of them is perhaps Thai society's greatest taboo. It would be impossible to make a film like this in Thailand about the Thai monarch, and I am even slightly surprised that it was made in England so soon after Diana's death, with Elizabeth II and Blair both still in power.

The Devil Wears Prada

The Devil Wears Prada
The Devil Wears Prada is based on the novel of the same name by Lauren Weisberger, a thinly fictionalised account of her former boss, Vogue editor Anna Wintour.

Wintour is known for her impossible demands, glacial demeanor, and dark glasses, all of which are adopted by Meryl Streep in the lead role, Miranda Priestly, editor of the Vogue-esque magazine Runway. The film's central pleasure is Meryl Streep's performance - she's clearly having fun playing such an icy character

It's the basic fish-out-of-water plot: innocent girl moves to the big city and tries to fit in, then it starts to change her, and finally she realises she doesn't want to fit in after all. A similar tale of working for a bitchy Vogue editor was the basis of the Sex & The City episode A Vogue Idea, and it's no surprise that the director of The Devil Wears Prada, David Frankel, also directed several Sex & The City episodes.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Cassell's Dictionary Of Slang

Cassell's Dictionary Of Slang
Jonathon Green is probably the world's foremost authority on slang. His first comprehensive lexicon, The Cassell Dictionary Of Slang, was published in 1998. This new book is a revised and expanded second edition, with a slightly tweaked title.

The new title is subtly though surprisingly different. The first edition was published by Cassell, so the title made perfect sense, though this new edition is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, an imprint of Orion (Cassell's parent company). The name Cassell doesn't appear anywhere except in the title. Also, "Cassell's" implies that the book was written by Cassell, not published by them. (Compare The Oxford English Dictionary - it would never appear as Oxford's English Dictionary.)

The text has been thoroughly revised, with many words being dated more specifically, including substantial antedating. The entries and definitions have also been dramatically expanded, from 70,000 headwords in the first edition to 85,000 in the second. A typical example is the phrase 'done up like a kipper'. In the first edition, it was broadly dated to "20C" [20th century], and had only two definitions: "beaten up" and "caught red-handed". However, in the second edition, it has been dated more specifically as "1980s+", and an extra definition has been added: "utterly defeated".

There are, though, some inexplicable omissions. While there are thousands of new headwords, some old ones have gone. Turning to my favourite word, for example, an incredible forty-three new variants have been added to the second edition, though four have been mysteriously removed. Also, the (albeit limited) bibliography from the 1st edition has been deleted completely, replaced by a concise history of slang lexicography. (Green wrote a longer history of the subject in his excellent Chasing The Sun.)

JE Lighter's Historical Dictionary Of American Slang, a multi-volume work-in-progress, expects to define 35,000 headwords upon completion - less than half the number in Green's single volume. Green's work is also more geographically inclusive, covering English-language slang from all English-speaking nations, rather than limiting its scope only to America. The only other heavyweight modern slang lexicographer, the late Eric Partridge, died in 1979, though a new, two-volume edition of his Dictionary Of Slang & Unconventional English has recently been published (retitled the New Partridge Dictionary). This ninth edition runs to 65,000 headwords, though it concentrates solely on post-1945 vocabulary. Green, on the other hand, documents 500 years of slang.

Lighter's dictionary, and the two-volume edition of Partridge, are both based on historical principles - that is, they illustrate their definitions with citations, literary quotations to indicate usage in context. Green's single-volume dictionary does not include citations, for reasons of space, though the good news is that he is currently preparing his own multi-volume slang dictionary, on historical principles, with at least 100,000 headwords, to be published (hopefully) later this year.