Manhattan (1979) (R)

IMDb / Ebert 1 / Ebert 2
Written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman
Directed by Woody Allen

“You’re so beautiful, I can hardly keep my eyes on the meter…” So says Allen’s Isaac Davis in Manhattan, as a cab takes him and his date through the New York streets. It’s typical of a film which accentuates all human neuroses and cynical attitudes and places them front and centre – not to be celebrated, but to be acknowledged, something of a warts-and-all approach that doesn’t romanticise but leaves room for real romance. It’s deeply autobiographical, clearly, but I think it’s relevant to many of us.

Isaac is the central focus of the film. He’s nerdy, articulate, funny, neurotic – all these adjectives that have been applied to Allen over the years. He has no trouble finding women, but his relentless critical evaluations of relationships seem to derail them before they have a chance to be anything more than just sex and temporary companionship. Indeed, Isaac talks for almost the entire movie – he says so much so fast that it’s kind of hard to keep up with at first, but you get used to it as it goes on. In fact, I could say the same thing of the whole movie: I found it somewhat annoying at first, with its self-righteous, overly cerebral and incredibly narcissistic characters. That’s just who these people are, though. It isn’t as stagy as it first seems – there are people just like these in the real world, we know them, in a lot of ways we are them.

So it’s a film about relationships, but without any of the sappy nonsense we usually see in films. There are no sentimental moments, no turning points, and there is no real happy ending. People are right for each other in some ways, but totally incompatible in others. And of course, a relationship between two people encompasses more than just the people in it – others affect it directly or indirectly, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. No matter how open you are, there’s always more beneath the surface. To be honest, I could’ve just quoted dialogue to convey all this information. There’s so much of it, and so much of it is good. Funny, clever, and true, and delivered quickly but effectively by all members of the cast, particularly Allen and Diane Keaton (who had worked together before). Very occasionally the talking stops, and the ensuing silences are wonderfully used – characters have reached a point where words won’t do anymore, they just kind of look at each other, and it’s beautiful.

It’s not just a good screenplay, though. Allen’s decision to film in black and white was audacious, but tremendously effective; some sequences are almost completely without light, such that it is hard to make out what is happening on screen and you have to use the character’s voices to guide you, drawing attention to the excellent dialogue. The other brave choice he made was to shoot mostly from mid- or long-range, very rarely in close-up; rather than removing the audience from the action, it somehow makes it more real, more involving. Close-ups can make for great cinema, but that isn’t really what this script calls for – while not quite gritty realism, it’s a world that strongly reflects our own, and our lives are frequently composed of talking across a room or a table. So that’s what happens here. I really liked that.

As always, though, I have reservations. Some scenes end abruptly, some fall completely flat; most importantly, the final scene is a disappointment. It contains probably the weakest dialogue in the whole movie, and departs in tone from the rest of the film, when we should continue to be swept along in the entertainment. It doesn’t provide a conclusion, but that’s okay (and is often a good thing); what is not okay is that it doesn’t really leave any questions, either. All that had gone before was so engaging and thought-provoking, to end on that note feels very much like an anti-climax. It isn’t enough to sabotage the whole film, but it is bit of a let down.

This was my first Allen film. I’ll certainly be seeing more, particularly with the rave reviews of his latest, Match Point. Based on interviews I’ve read, he seems content to feel mediocre – he’s under no illusions that he’s become very much wiser over the years, and I guess that attitude shows in his films. In no way does he come across as superior; he’s just another guy making do with whatever happens. Manhattan, however, is an excellent reflection of the mediocrity of life. The Gershwin soundtrack is fantastic, too.

In My Father’s Den (2004) (H)

Based on ‘In My Father’s Den’ by Maurice Gee
Written and Directed by Brad McGann

It was Ma who first personally encouraged me to go and see In My Father’s Den. I remember her saying that she thought it was as close to a perfect film as she had seen – in strength of narrative, structure, acting, and directing skill. After several further positive testimonies, I did go and see it, and was still surprised by how good it was. Not perfect, because I found a few things to be distractingly out of place (which I’ll talk about later), but up there with the top few films made in this country.

It’s the story of a war photographer, Paul Prior, who returns home to a small town in central Otago for his father’s funeral. He intends to leave immediately, but is persuaded to stay and teach teenagers English – or, rather, educate them of a world that exists beyond the nearby hills. He strikes up a friendship with a girl in the class, Celia, with whom he has a connection that is gradually revealed. Then Celia goes missing, and the story takes a dark turn – you’ll have to see it to find out the rest.

Sounds somewhat formulaic, but upon this surprisingly complex plot is strung a highly effective film that expertly creates its own world, a time and place we can believe in without having to suspend disbelief. It’s not set in some obviously fake place where teenagers talk like 35 year-olds; among many nice writing touches, people use ‘fuck’ like people in real life (a lot, but not to sound bad-ass), and teenagers are narrow-minded and clear-thinking (if not always smart). The structure of the film is important too. Until the 50-minute mark, it is straightforward and mostly linear, but after that it regularly mixes in flashbacks, which are so often poorly used but are utilised to great effect here. It is a much better film from then on, more engaging, more complex. All of this is down to McGann’s abilities as a writer: in updating Gee’s novel, he has made additions and improvements to make it work better on film, rather than just trying to translate it.

Family and ‘the ties that bind’ play a big part in his screenplay. Paul’s relationship with his brother, both in the present and the past, is extremely well fleshed out: it steadily reveals itself without you having to think particularly hard, and is of course crucial to the film’s outcome. That is characteristic of the film, though, and I suppose is the point that I’ve been looking for – plot elements are slowly and carefully revealed at certain points, never heavy-handedly, and that is what makes it all work so well. You get totally involved in the story, then for days afterwards think about the themes raised – personal isolation, small town mentality, the hurt that can lie buried in families for years. Any screenplay that offers an engaging story and rewards thinking about it afterwards must be admired.

Thankfully, McGann isn’t just a talented writer; he shows some pretty well-honed directing chops as well. This is his first feature film after much work in TV and shorts, and this is clearly the work of someone who knows and understands film technique, not someone just finding their feet. Shots often show the moments before and after someone speaks, lingering on their face, suggesting much but revealing little – it’s fascinating stuff. There’s the odd unnecessary crane shot, or purely expository scene (particularly in the first third), but overall it’s a very assured debut. Particularly his use of contemporary music – the original score is plinky-plonky rubbish that derails a few moments, but whenever Patti Smith or Kiri te Kanawa take over, it adds so very much to the action. To all you young aspiring Tarantinos in America, this is how music should be used – not to compensate for the lack of quality of a scene, but to build upon it, emphasise it.

McGann is magnificently served by his actors. The supporting roles are filled by good NZ actors and reasonably well played, but In My Father’s Den relies on its two leads, and they are magnificent. Emily Barclay is remarkable as Celia, showing impressive range in a difficult role that could easily have become annoying; it’s the signal of a major new talent in NZ acting. As Paul, however, Matthew Macfadyen gets inside the character and gives one of the defining performances of the new millennium. He stutters, he blinks, all these things that are totally against acting tradition, and he uses them to hint at the hurt Paul feels inside. Never for a moment does it feel forced. If he can recover from the mis-step that was being cast as Mr. Darcy, he could go on to an illustrious career – but it’s hard to see him ever doing better work than what he does here.

I was moved to write this review, after weeks of umming and aahing, when I read the news that Brad McGann has been diagnosed with cancer. Read this at Lumière and go along to the screening if you have time and can afford it. It would be tremendously sad if we lost such a talented artist so young.

Doom (2005) (F)

IMDB / Ebert
Written by a Bunch of Hacks
Directed by a Talentless Mole

Here it is at last, the film I’ve been waiting for. A film to really sink my teeth into, to get me thinking clinically and brutally. This isn’t just the worst movie of the year; it’s possibly the worst movie I’ve seen in my entire life. Apart from a four-minute sequence that is like riding the Motion Master, and the abundant attention given to Rosamund Pike’s breasts, every last aspect is minimally thought out and ineptly executed.

Of its many sins, the most crippling is that it is painfully boring. It’s an action movie in which the action never threatens to excite or engage the viewer. Because it is shot mostly with very low lighting, it’s nearly impossible to get involved in any situation. Like, they’re moving along, and there are a lot of cold stares, then someone looks frightened, then there’s some gunfire and shouting, and then someone’s dead, and there’s more shouting. And I think to myself, what just… oh, I don’t even care. Is this the best you could do? Really? They are the laziest action sequences I’ve seen – put some guys in a dark space with guns, have them blind the audience with their flashlights (I shit you not, this happens several times), then get an unseen monster to kill one of them. It is insulting, but as I say, it is extremely boring, which is far worse. Insulting provokes a reaction in the individual; boring fails to do even that.

This film goes beyond asking you to fill in the gaps – rather, it asks you to create artificial bridges between chunks of information and make up a coherent plot as you go along. The names of the writers are Dave Callaham and Wesley Strick, and I hope they never work again after this mess. The basic plot is a bunch of Marines are called to Mars to secure a scientific facility which has been breached; when they get there, they find that through some sort of genetic research program, the scientists have created a race of super-strong beings that have wreaked havoc. There are obligatory revelations as the narrative progresses, but you know how when you’re being told a story at great length and the teller keeps adding details that just don’t matter and you’re tuning in and out, waiting for the story to end? That’s what this movie is like. A story is there, but it’s so threadbare and poorly told that I couldn’t give a shit.

The dialogue, too, is truly woeful. The last line of the film is “Almost home…” – that’s it! That’s the big, epiphanic finale that we were all waiting for, hoping for, praying that something cool would happen at the end to leave us a little more satisfied. Nope. “Almost home…” is all we get. Prior to that it’s all insults, exposition, and irrelevant nonsense. To compensate for the poor dialogue, the actors SHOUT IT as often as possible. Sorry, Dwayne, but shouting and yelling do not constitute good acting. I tell you, it’s quite bizarre to be saying that I came out of a movie thinking, “Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson wasn’t up to his usual standard.” He really wasn’t, though – after Welcome to the Jungle and Walking Tall I thought he was the new Arnie, but I may be sadly mistaken. He’s upstaged by our own Karl Urban, just, and by Rosamund Pike, particularly her fine figure. It sounds base, but seriously, that was all they were after when they cast her – not her evident acting skills, but because she is pretty and in good shape.

The so-called climax is the lowest ebb in a film of many bad scenes. Character A has just been injected with magic serum which makes him superhuman, and he comes up against Character B, his boss-turned-evil, who is supposedly equally strong. This limited logic that has been set up then goes out the window, as they alternate having the upper hand in new and ridiculous ways. You want to scream at the screen, “Can’t he just kick him off?” But they never do, the recovery is always something even more outlandish, usually involving a handy prop. At one point Character A is holding off death by sharp wire with one hand, and then – no shit – uses that hand to press a button, then brings it back to force back his opponent. What? Consistency with basic physical truths? Nah, we can leave that out – the audience won’t notice.

The director’s name is Andzrej Bartkowiak, a former cinematographer. He should never occupy the director’s chair again. It is appropriate that his (and everyone else’s) name is blasted by a shotgun in the closing credits, because that’s what his career should look like after this shit-fest. Most galling is that the games this film is based on (even Doom 3) are minimally referenced, such that this is almost completely separate from them. Except, of course, that four-minute first-person sequence. No sounds from the games – shit, hardly even any monsters, of which they had a great number of really cool ones to choose from.

I didn’t expect much, admittedly, but I didn’t expect it to be this bad. I suppose it doesn’t have any presumptions other than being a big, dumb action movie; thing is, it isn’t even that. It’s just dull, monotonous crap that we could all do without. Seriously, do not bother with this piece of shit, unless you have a desire to learn exactly what not to do with US$70 million. (Thankfully it didn’t come close to making that back, so there won’t be any sequel, or hopefully any word spoken of it ever again.)

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) (E)

IMDB / Ebert / Schulte
Directed by Werner Herzog

Here I am trying to write about a Herzog film again, despite the knowledge that the written word cannot do his films justice. I’ll take something of a different approach. The story: Dieter Dengler migrated to the United States from Germany, 18 and penniless, hoping for the chance to fulfil his dream of flying. He ended up going to Vietnam and getting shot down on one of his earliest missions; he then suffered torture at the hands of the Viet Cong and bore witness to some truly horrific incidents. He eventually escaped and, after several days hallucinating in the jungle, was rescued by an American pilot.

It’s an extraordinary tale, and as always in a Herzog film, it works on both levels: while we never lose sight of the man’s story and his incredible feat, wider truths are revealed about humans, nature and the universe. Much of the film is simply Dengler telling his story in (roughly) the locations where it happened, and as such is totally mesmerizing – in my opinion even more than if it was re-enacted in full. I love cinema more than anything else, but it has nothing on imagination, and Herzog exploits that exceptionally well, yet he does it in a way that is wonderfully cinematic and beautiful: there are re-enactments of a sort, but they are explicitly ‘just for the movie’ and only involve Dengler being put in similar positions to what he was back then.

There’s one particular scene, akin to the bear attack audio scene in Grizzly Man, where we follow Dengler (with his hands bound) and a collection of Vietnamese running through the jungle. Dengler’s voiceover tells us that if we could see his face, we’d see that he was uncomfortable with the memories the experience was bringing back. But we can’t see his face, so we have to just believe it; fortunately, trust is something you are happy to offer to Werner Herzog, so it isn’t a problem. Scenes like this really does break through being merely a film, they touch the most deeply inherent feelings we have within us. I find it impossible to explain, just as I thought I would, but maybe if you see the film you’ll understand me a little bit.

As always, there are moments of rare beauty, the likes of which can only be found in a Herzog film. One is where they are walking through the forest, and the sunlight streams through the trees above in discrete rays. Another is the final shot, from a helicopter, of Dieter surrounded by hundreds of planes at a massive airfield. My favourite, though, was just after Dieter told the story of the North Vietnamese getting his finger chopped off, he put his arm around the Vietnamese gentleman standing next to him and said gently “Don’t worry, it’s just for a movie.” As he says this, the man looks down and then up at Herzog behind the camera, and half smiles. Herzog’s camera lingers, closing in on the man, then moves past him to another man cooking rice in another part of the hut. It is just fucking beautiful. It filled my heart with warmth, sent several shivers down my spine, and left me totally speechless. There is so much in that one shot, so much ‘ecstatic truth’ as Herzog calls it – I’d go as far as to say it’s one of my favourite moments in movies.

As I suspected, I’ve ended up writing quite a lot about rather a little. Doesn’t matter. If it makes you see it, I’m glad. Herzog is currently making it into a feature film with Christian Bale as Dengler, and while I have no doubt that it will be an excellent film, I question why it is necessary – how could it be any better than (or add something more to) Little Dieter Needs to Fly? Because it is Herzog, I’m more excited than apprehensive about finding out. Oh, and the last paragraph of Ebert’s review is infinitely better than anything I wrote here – it’s truly illuminating.