Thursday, 28 March 2013

Lincoln

Lincoln
Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg, portrays Abraham Lincoln's campaign, in the last few months of his life, to pass the thirteenth amendment to the US constitution. The amendment, which outlawed slavery, was passed shortly after the end of the American Civil War, in 1865.

Lincoln is played, definitively, by Daniel Day-Lewis. Spielberg worked again with his regular collaborators, composer John Williams (whose score is, thankfully, used relatively sparingly), editor Michael Kahn, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, and producer Kathleen Kennedy.

This is Spielberg's second film dealing with slavery, the first being Amistad, in which former president John Quincy Adams defended rebellious slaves in court. Lincoln is also essentially a courtroom drama, with the court replaced by the House of Representatives. As in Amistad, the emphasis is on legal arguments by politicians rather than the lives of the slaves themselves.

The script was written by playwright Tony Kushner, and the film feels more stage-bound than Spielberg's previous work. Characters speak in long, declamatory monologues, using arcane polysyllabic vocabulary. The cinematography - backlit hot windows, underlit interiors, smoky exteriors - and even the creaking floorboards also suggest a theatrical atmosphere.

Lincoln was not the only slave-related film released last year: Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained is the antithesis of Lincoln. Lincoln is a self-consciously worthy period drama, the type of 'prestige film' released by studios eager for Oscars. Django, on the other hand, is a revisionist exploitation film, with gleeful provocation in place of earnest historical realism.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Encounter Thailand

Encounter Thailand
Since the start of this year, I have been editor of Encounter Thailand magazine. My previous articles were published last year, in October, November, and December.

I've written two features for the February issue. Play It Again, Siam (on pages 38-40) discusses Thai movie remakes. Filming The Tsunami (on pages 42-44) reviews the recent film The Impossible and compares it to previous movies about the 2004 tsunami.

[Note: for reasons of space, the tsunami article omits the films Vinyan and Hi-So; the remakes article omits the Telugu film Photo, and was published before the release of Bangkok Traffic Love Story: Redux.]

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Thursday, 14 March 2013

Amour

Amour
Amour, directed by Michael Haneke, takes place almost entirely within the Paris apartment of retired couple Georges and Anne. (The central characters in most of Haneke's films - Amour, Cache, The Seventh Continent, Benny's Video, Code Unknown, Time Of The Wolf, and Funny Games - are called Georges and Anne, or slight variations of those names.)

In the opening sequence, police break open the door and find Anne's body laid out on her deathbed. The film then shows us the last few weeks of Anne's life, after she suffers a series of debilitating strokes. The practical and emotional realities of coping with terminal illness are slowly revealed, as Georges cares for Anne while her condition inevitably deteriorates.

Georges and Anne are an intellectual, cultured couple, unlike the superficial bourgeois characters Haneke often depicts. They are the opposites of the faux-intellectual couple from Cache, for example: they read books, rather than using them as decorative status symbols. Amour is an emotional and tender film, not Haneke's more familiar 'epater les bourgeois' approach (seen most directly in Funny Games and its American remake).

We first see Georges and Anne in long-shot, in the audience for a piano concert. As in the ambiguous final sequence of Cache, we have to search the frame looking for the protagonists. The rest of the film is a chamber piece, as Georges and Anne deal with the final stages of their long marriage. They are occasionally visited by their daughter, played by Isabelle Huppert, though visits from her and other outsiders feel like intrusions. Huppert also starred in Time Of The Wolf and The Piano Teacher; in Amour, Anne is a retired piano teacher.

The two leading actors, both more than eighty years old, give brave and moving performances. Jean-Louis Trintignant dominates the film, though Emmanuelle Riva (who starred in the New Wave classic Hiroshima Mon Amour) is arguably even more impressive. Her physical vulnerability and emotional intensity are profound.

Amour won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year (three years after another Haneke film, The White Ribbon). It was screened at the Clap! French Film Festival, and as part of the Bioscope Theatre season.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

500 Must-See Films

500 Must-See Movies
Last Saturday and Sunday, The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph published a two-part supplement titled 500 Must-See Films. Their 500 films include top-twenty lists chosen by the newspapers' film critics (Robbie Collin, David Gritten, Jenny McCartney, and Tim Robey) and categorised into genres (musical, comedy, western, British cinema, thriller, horror, biopic, animation, film noir, silent cinema, war, crime, directorial debut, children's non-animation, action, films about film, tearjerkers, sequels, science-fiction, and documentaries).

The critics' lists mostly contain foreign-language classics that don't fit into the main genre categories. There are actually only 499 films listed, as Out Of The Past mistakenly appears twice. The list is much more credible than The Sunday Telegraph's previous attempt, 100 Best Films. Contributor David Gritten was responsible for the 2008 Halliwell's Film Guide and the final nail in Halliwell's coffin, The Movies That Matter.

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Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The Art Of Pop-Up

The Art Of Pop-Up
The Art Of Pop-Up: The Magical World Of Three-Dimensional Books, by Jean-Charles Trebbi, includes a concise history of pop-up books (by Jacques Desse) and a survey of contemporary examples. (Pop-up books are now produced for young children, though the earliest examples were interactive infographics.)

There are hundreds of photographs, including numerous fascinating historical examples, though an obvious drawback is that the illustrations are all 2D: ironically, no actual pop-ups are included (although there is a fold-out historical timeline). The book was originally published in French, as L'Art Du Pop-Up & Du Livre Anime.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Supernatural

Supernatural
Thunska Pansittivorakul's latest film, Supernatural, explores themes familiar from his earlier work, though stylistically it marks a significant departure and progression. It's his most ambitious film and his most artistically mature work to date.

Thunska's previous films were either documentaries (This Area Is Under Quarantine, The Terrorists) or semi-documentaries (Reincarnate), and Supernatural is his first entirely fictional narrative. Also, his previous naturalistic, hand-held camerawork is superseded by Supernatural's meticulous compositions and stylised lighting.

Supernatural is a science-fiction film (another first for Thunska, who has not previously worked within a conventional genre), imagining Thailand's development over the next century. The film is divided into chapters, each taking place at fifty-year intervals: one chapter, 2060, was screened in isolation last October, just a few days after it was filmed.

Thailand's future is depicted as glossy and sterile, with human interaction replaced by communication with online avatars. (The title, Supernatural, refers to futuristic virtual-reality software.) This is a dystopian future, inspired by George Orwell's 1984, with a totalitarian state ruled by "the Leader".

Like all futuristic sci-fi, Supernatural is also a comment on the present: Thunska's critique of unquestioning obedience is a brave political statement, though the lèse-majesté law makes a public screening in Thailand unlikely. (The film will not be submitted for classification in Thailand. Thunska's This Area Is Under Quarantine was previously refused classification.)

As in The Terrorists, Supernatural directly criticises some of Thailand's military figures (the sanctimonious Chamlong Srimuang and the unrepentant Pallop Pinmanee) for their various crimes. The characters in Supernatural are all gay, though the film (also like The Terrorists) is more political than sexual. There is one brief sex scene, though it's more subtle than Thunska's earlier films.

With a considerably higher budget and a longer schedule than previously available, Thunska has produced a visually stunning film. Almost every scene is beautifully lit and framed, though a sequence featuring a backdrop of multi-coloured spotlights is particularly effective.

Formal compositions, attempted in brief sequences in Reincarnate, are sustained throughout Supernatural. Reincarnate's metaphysical ending is also expanded in Supernatural, as Reincarnate was adapted from an early draft of the Supernatural script. The final sequence, set in a desert, evokes the conclusion of The Tree Of Life.