The Graduate (1967) (C)

IMDb / Ebert 1 / Ebert 2
Written by Calder Willingham
Based on the novel by Charles Webb
Directed by Mike Nichols

Inches away from being a grand Fail, The Graduate is the worst film I’ve seen since Doom, and the most annoying and insipid since Millions. There is so much praise out there for it – it almost always comes up in a list of great American films – but at film’s end my reaction was worse than feeling unmoved: I felt cheated. Cheated by a writer who set up an intriguing situation then pissed it away by descending into cheap fantasy, cheated by a director whose track record suggests he is incapable of producing an insufferable film, cheated by the legions of fans who led me to see what all the fuss was about.

The tagline reads: ‘This is Benjamin. He’s a little worried about his future.’ I assume that implies that the audience will be, too; I wasn’t. From the beginning I couldn’t care less, even when my current situation – (near) graduate looking for what to do next – mirrors his to a degree. Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock is surely one of the most annoying characters in movies: his awkwardness, meant to be adorable, is frustrating. His attitude towards his parents is immature. The things he says are off-putting and often stupid; the things he does are flat-out ridiculous. This is mostly due to the scriptwriter’s (lack of) craft, but Hoffman needs to shoulder some of the blame – it could have been an interesting character, one we at first distance ourselves from but eventually come to associate with, but he did not pull that off.

What angered me most was the inconsistency. One moment Benjamin is a stuttering fool, wandering through a hotel lobby totally unsure of himself; the next he’s taking a girl to a strip club on their first date, sunglasses fixed on his face, cigarette hanging out his mouth, the supposed epitome of don’t-give-a-shit cool. Then he’s back to stuttering and awkward, then confident, and back and forth and so on for the rest of the movie. None of it makes any sense! Why would he do that, or that, or that? Why would he say such stupid things? Why wouldn’t he say such an obvious thing? I can’t understand it, or why it struck a chord with anyone.

Anne Bancroft did well in her challenging role – very well – and Katharine Ross is beautiful and wonderful right up until the inane closing minutes. Unfortunately, the story takes too many stupid turns to allow them to keep shining. And what was up with the music, man? Legendary Simon & Garfunkel score? Bullshit. It was three, or possibly four, songs repeated two or three times each, and only once – the opening credits – did they work well with the image. Next time The Sound of Silence comes on the radio, I’m going to break it, because I heard it enough times in this movie to last the rest of my life.

As for Nichols, I’m not familiar with much of his work – only Closer, which I enjoyed despite its theatricality – but I read that it almost always cuts into the deeper channels of modern society. Not this one. And his technique is particularly unsubtle – the slow zoom is used a couple of times too many, and the fast, clumsy zoom is used distractingly often. Some compositions are nice, the most obvious being the famous legs/Benjamin shot on the poster, but others beat you over the head (Benjamin sitting on a bench, alone, at Berkeley with Old Glory fluttering in the foreground sticks in the mind).

Yes, all that saves The Graduate from the lowest rating are some interesting, informing points of technique (I didn’t know Kubrick ripped it off for 2001) and some good support acting. Everything else is pointless, dated trash that may have been edgy and provocative in its time but is almost completely inconsequential now, not to mention utterly nonsensical. This is a rare film that makes me think today’s best films are better and more profoundly effective than those of previous decades – give me Eternal Sunshine, Lost In Translation or Before Sunset any day over tripe like this.

Capote (2005) (W)

IMDb / Ebert / Cale
Written by Dan Futterman
Based on a book by Gerald Clarke
Directed by Bennett Miller

I’ll make it immediately clear that Philip Seymour Hoffman deserves to win the Best Actor Academy Award for his role in Capote. His work here is the most impressive in an already distinguished career despite his comparative youth; usually offered supporting roles, here he grasps the opportunity to carry a film with both hands and really does walk off with it. His long overdue success comes in a film that, while impressive enough, lacks a certain something – it isn’t that it’s bad, it’s just less than it might have been.

I get the feeling most of the problems lie at the script level. Futterman is a first-time writer, and it shows; while the dialogue is economical and sparkling, the pacing is uneven – while years pass in the lives of the characters, it seems like very little to us watching. Also, a film which unfolds at a languid pace should offer considerable detail (of anything) to the viewer, but come the end I felt like I’d missed something.

That’s all the bad stuff, though. Hoffman is so good that it must be seen to be believed – note particularly how he uses props (cigarettes, glasses of alcohol) and gestures to convey the inner workings of the character, not to mention the mastery of Capote’s unusual voice. It’s a masterclass. The supporting parts are filled out by actors that are always worth watching – Clifton Collins Jr., Catherine Keener, Bruce Greenwood, Chris Cooper – but apart from Collins, we don’t see as much of them as we would like as they get written out of the action.

Miller, a first-time director (very much a freshman effort, this film), hints at a potentially glorious career. His compositions frequently reminded me of Brokeback Mountain, a comparison which he himself is not surprised by, because he has studied Ang Lee’s films. There are plenty of worse directors to imitate, that’s for sure. I’ll watch keenly to see what he does next.

I did quite enjoy Capote, but as the brevity of this review shows, it hasn’t really stayed with me. While a more focused and less forgettable portrait of a famous person than Walk the Line, it drifts at times, seeming a bit padded despite its relatively short running time. Many critics have lavished great praise on it, so on their opinion and the strength of the acting it is worth seeing, but for this particular viewer I don’t expect it to linger in the mind. I did, however, get to see the trailer for Caché, which threatens to be the greatest film of the year – I really cannot wait.

Walk the Line (2005) (C)

IMDb / Ebert / Cale
Written by Gill Dennis & James Mangold
Based on ‘The Man in Black’ and ‘Cash’ by Johnny Cash
Directed by James Mangold

Take last year’s Ray, change the central character from a black man to a white man, add a few more redemption clichés, and you have Walk the Line. It’s remarkable how similar these two films are. There’s the death of a sibling at a young age, the strained relationship with the father, the escape from down-home obscurity to stardom, the womanising, the drug addiction, the crawl back to normality on the back of that sweet gal. On this basis, one might also think that the lives of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash were also practically identical. They weren’t. It’s just that the similarities between their lives are what Hollywood biopics thrive on. I would imagine that a film about any famous person would be the same, if their stardom followed a parabola (a great start, followed by decline, and finally redemption).

I knew this would be the case, though. So why did I go along? Well, because of the music, basically. I love Johnny Cash’s music. He’s one of my favourite recording artists. Thankfully, the moviemakers got that part absolutely right: the musical interludes are remarkably close to the original recordings, which is amazing given that Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon sung and played their instruments for real. I was hoping for more than that, however. I wanted some kind of insight into Cash the man, something more than the standard biopic clichés that you can see in a hundred other films. Unfortunately, it just isn’t there; I suppose this means I should read more.

Not to say that Phoenix and Witherspoon aren’t very good. They pretty much nail their parts, the mannerisms and the emotions, all the while connected with the drama of each scene. Thing is, they’re making the best out of a pretty poor script. The dialogue is forgettable, and everything feels glossed over – pretty much the same problems I had with Ray, except that was longer and slightly better acted so it gets more points in my view. I’m on side with Matt Cale’s suggestion that a better film would’ve focused solely on the events surrounding the concert at Folsom Prison – more and more, I feel that if you narrow your focus and concentrate on getting everything right within that smaller focus, you’re more likely to hit the deeper truths present in the material. A thorough examination of one day in the life of an individual is always more compelling than a shallow overview of their entire life.

Seeing this on the same day as Brokeback Mountain brought home to me how good that film was. It was everything this film could’ve been: nuanced, meditative, involving, affecting. Walk the Line is a showcase for two actors offering their best work, and little more. Besides their performances, it offers nothing you couldn’t get from reading a few articles or the books written by the man himself. Having seen most of this year’s multiple Oscar nominees (only Capote and Memoirs of a Geisha to go), I would suggest that this is the one that is least worth your time.

Brokeback Mountain (2005) (R)

IMDb / Ebert / Cale
Written by Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana
Based on the short story by E. Annie Proulx
Directed by Ang Lee

Ennis: “I figure we got a one-shot deal going here.”
Jack: “It’s nobody’s business but ours.”
Ennis: “You know I ain’t queer.”
Jack: “Neither am I.”

I want to say these are two simple, uncomplicated men, with simple lives and simple desires, but it just isn’t true. To say that would confound us all as being simple. We reach for simplicity, for plain happiness and peace of mind, but the reality is never quite like that, and the case of Ennis and Jack is no different. Love isn’t ever straightforward, and it can become so complex that it rips you apart. You will have heard Brokeback Mountain described as ‘that gay cowboy movie’, but to be honest, sex/gender is irrelevant to a large extent. It’s about two people who long for and love each other, and how no matter how strongly their love is tested, it will not die.

This is a film remarkably free of pretension or obviousness. The direction is careful and restrained, as one expects from Ang Lee; working in tandem with one of my favourite cinematographers, Rodrigo Prieto, he crafts stunning compositions that are truly beautiful to behold. From a wide shot of sheep being herded through a valley, to a tight closeup of an actor’s pained performance, to one of the best final shots I’ve seen in a film, he uses the full frame superbly to extract the most out of every scene. Everything is placed perfectly: the actors, a campfire, a pack of cigarettes, a bottle of beer. It all adds up to some of the most impressive images in recent memory, particularly as most of the subjects are everyday things that one wouldn’t normally give any thought to.

In the steady hands of an assured director, all the actors shine. Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway are good as the wives of Ennis and Jack, and Linda Cardellini and Anna Faris offer good support in brief roles. However, the movie is about the characters played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, and they absolutely nail their roles. Ledger is garnering most of the praise in the press for his subdued, grunting performance, and I can understand that as it is some distance away from his real-life persona. For me, though, Gyllenhaal’s turn is marginally more impressive. He shows sensitivity, fragility, strength, and a deep sadness and regret; I’d be quite happy to see him take him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. They both are really very good, though. Their scenes together, right from the film’s opening, are compellingly well-acted and affecting.

I wonder how people are reacting to this film. I’ve read about religious zealots condemning the film (and in a couple of cases refusing to screen it), but I’m not interested in them. I want to know what the average male cinemagoer feels when a movie gets him to care strongly about – and love – two male characters. Has it provoked angry reactions, or maybe rethinks of personal philosophies? Personally, a heterosexual, I welcomed the opportunity to empathise with gay men in a film, as it challenges me and forces me to consider things I would otherwise avoid. Anyway, as stated earlier, gender was pretty much stripped away by the sensitivity of the portrayal. That’s the way it should be. It’s love, just as we know it – intoxicating, difficult, impossible to predict or prevent. There are significant elements in the plot concerning homophobia and the concealing of the relationship, but they are an aside, rather than the crux of the story. The focus is on the struggle of two people, and the effect their struggle has on the people close to them.

Overall, it loses a couple of points for covering a long period of time in too short a time-frame and for being a little episodic. Brokeback Mountain isn’t a great film, but it is a very good one – a serious, thoughtful, mostly subtle exploration of the Greatest of All Things. It deals with homosexuality in a very mature manner: while it plays an integral role in the characters’ lives, it isn’t what defines them. Their love for each other is what defines them, and ultimately, what destroys them.

Farewell My Concubine (1993) (R)

Original title: ‘Ba wang bie ji’
IMDb / Ebert
Written by Lillian Lee, Bik-Wa Lei & Wei Lu
Based on the novel by Lillian Lee
Directed by Kaige Chen

This is the second film I’ve seen recently that relates to opera and China, the other being the disappointing M. Butterfly. Thankfully, Ba wang bie ji is not a confused adaptation of a confused stage play; rather, it is a quality adaptation of a popular novel. Unfocused and abrupt in some sections, but expertly orchestrated in others, it tells an involving and epic story with often stunning visuals and confident direction.

While I was watching, I was struck by how much more substance was present than in Yimou Zhang’s recent epics, Ying xiong and Shi mian mai fu. Those films are stunningly beautiful and extremely entertaining, but they just don’t have the depth of Ba wang bie ji. Very basically, it’s a love story – two characters and their loves for the opera stage, a woman, and most of all each other – but their detailed exploration makes it more than that. These are complex characters, full of hope, sadness, regret, and great love that spills all over the screen; I remember someone referring to those Zhang films as ‘China discovering Shakespeare’, but to me this is more Shakespearean because it deals in important themes while telling a good story.

Because Mandarin is so different from English, I usually find Chinese acting stilted and awkward and lacking in emotion. Not so here. The three leads (Leslie Cheung, Fengyi Zhang and Gong Li) are compelling and offer affecting portrayals of tragic characters; the child acting in the earlier Full Metal Jacket-esque scenes is also very good. In particular, Cheung is superb as the confused Dieyi; he has too much love to give, and it is heartbreaking to watch as it slowly destroys him. It is particularly sad to watch now, as he committed suicide three years ago.

I’m particularly unfocused with this review; perhaps that’s because the last half hour covered too much ground too quickly. A film of nearly three hours should feel complete and satisfying, and such feelings are nearly impossible when it crams a lot of plot development into the final reel. By that stage the themes are well established and we are just waiting for them to be rounded out, but the introduction of these plot elements is distracting. It’s not enough to derail the film, but I would like to think they could’ve spent a bit less time further back in time in order to give the later periods better coverage.

Overall it’s worth seeing, at the very least for a few scenes which were so good they sent shivers down my spine. It’s the best film I’ve seen from the Republic, and probably better than any Hong Kong film I’ve seen, too. Kaige Chen shows that he is an extremely capable director (I couldn’t believe this was the same guy who made Killing Me Softly), and the actors offer impressive characterisations. I guess my lack of focus with this review shows that I wasn’t completely struck by greatness, but then again, maybe I shouldn’t have watched it in two goes. Another viewing, a complete viewing, would probably make my opinion more solid. It doesn’t matter; it’s good cinema.

Munich (2005) (R)

IMDb / Ebert / Cale
Written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth
Based on ‘Vengeance’ by George Jonas
Directed by Steven Spielberg

I hate it when movies are lumped with political agendas. Nothing distracts more from a good story than obvious political content, and it is equally frustrating when that content is forced upon the film by statements in media. Munich suffers from the latter, but tellingly, not the former. (Here and here are two very insightful pieces of comment by Spielberg himself, defending his film.) Words have been spoken at length in the press about its supposed defamation of Palestinians, or of Jews, etc etc etc. I was aware of all this going in, and to my delight, these statements were proved to be totally reactionary. This film sides with no group or individual; it sides with humanity, our collective desire, and shows how misguided we can become in our pursuit of the fulfilment of that desire. It’s a film made by people who care about people, not a piece of propaganda designed to convert minds to a different way of thinking.

Munich is based on true events – the series of hits carried out in the wake of the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. However, its focus is not so much political, but more on the implications of these incidents on one man. And, in keeping with my own philosophy for filmmaking, this refined focus offers a more inclusive and substantial view of the human condition than a wider scope could have. We watch as Avner (Eric Bana) leads his team through several hits, his life becoming more and more complicated; we don’t condone his actions, and neither does the film, but we sympathise with him because he has real concerns that we can relate to. Family, morality, legacy. The big issues, the ones that really matter.

The screenplay drives the film forward nicely, becoming more focused as it progresses (which I like); it also has room for brief moments that do nothing to advance the plot, but flesh out the characters infinitely better. The acting is decent; Bana is not a great actor, but he is a good one, and he carries the film well – we want to know what happens to his character, and we understand what’s going on through his eyes. It’s every inch Spielberg’s film, though. Many shots are masterfully composed, shifting our focus from one character to another with considerable skill and a great deal of style. It moves at a swift and even pace, making the long running time fly past. And, as I have stated many times already, it is very well focused for a film tackling such grand issues. My hat is off to the guy; he’s hardened a lot since E. T., that’s for sure. Of particular note are the assassinations: they are brilliantly executed, exhilirating set pieces that linger long in the memory.

A few overly dramatic choices bring it down a bit. The sex scenes that bookend the film are gratuitous, especially in that they are integral to the overall message; there had to have been a more toned down way to get the point across. Some of the accents were not very convincing, especially Daniel Craig’s – a minor quibble, but it is distracting. And occasionally, the violence is a little bit too brutal. It’s horrifying and realistic, but too much of it can be numbing, and Munich comes close to reaching that stage.

Some of us may have a collective goal, but are we justified in doing everything in our power – including killing other people – to obtain that goal? And how does it compare to watching our children grow up, or looking into the eyes of a friend and knowing that there is mutual trust and respect? Munich raises many questions, none of which have simple answers. Like The Constant Gardener, it promotes an awareness of what atrocities are being committed in the world, and it promotes a better attitude towards each other and ourselves. Everything isn’t just going to be all right if we carry on like this, so let’s all do something about it. Classic Spielberg themes, in a way, but rarely have they been better handled.

Ran (1985) (E)

IMDb / Ebert 1 / Ebert 2
Written by Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni & Masato Ide
Based on ‘King Lear’ by William Shakespeare
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

I was first introduced to King Lear at age 15 (I think) when the Pumphouse Theatre in Takapuna put it on. I remember thinking it was a great story, awesomely tragic and powerful, but I wondered if all productions of it were so disjointed and confused. A fuller understanding of the play came at age 17 when we studied it in Mrs. Keith’s 7th form English class, and I enjoyed it very much. Mrs. Keith made sure to let us know that she’d never seen it performed well, and wondered if it was possible for it to be done; she wondered aloud about a Japanese film from the 80s that supposedly did a good job of it, but she hadn’t seen it, so she couldn’t say.

Ran is the film she was referring to, but it wasn’t just her mention of it that led me to eventually see it. Recently I was exposed to the above image, and was so captivated by it that I immediately went to the library and put a request in for the DVD. Having now seen it, I can say that it lives up to all the hype. It is a particularly fine Lear adaptation, conveying the madness and eventual tragedy of the Lord, the treachery of two of his offspring, and the nobleness of the third. It is also visually a remarkable film filled with such extraordinary images as the one above; indeed, that shot is only one part of an extraordinary battle sequence, surely the one of the most incredible ever filmed, and there is another at the end of the film which rivals it.

It’s the scale of it all that astonishes me. You look at Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the battle scenes are amazing, but 70-80% of them is created solely on a computer, and there’s plenty of cutting that makes it easier for them to convey chaos. Ran, on the other hand, is all real, except for the blood. Those are real people charging around, falling off horses and being trampled, shooting vast numbers of arrows into the enemy’s ranks. Virtually all of it is shot from a reasonable distance, so you can always see what’s going on, and you can marvel better at the audacity of it all. Look again at that above image: that’s a real castle (built especially for the film) burning to the ground, so they only had one shot at getting it – and they got it.

The carnage only comes in brief bursts, though. Ran focuses more on the human elements of the story, cutting to the heart of Shakespeare’s themes and displaying them clearly through the characters. As Lord Hidetora, the film’s Lear figure, Tatsuya Nakadai offers a remarkable range of facial expressions that one feels Western cinema could never pull off without seeming overly broad; they are somewhat over the top, but they do a better job of getting us inside the character’s head than any subtle underplaying would. The rest of the cast also performs well, particularly Mieko Harada in a Lady Macbeth-type role; her icy words are chilling, and her eventual fate is superbly handled.

This is my fourth Kurosawa film, after (in this order) Shichinin no samurai, Ikiru, and Rashomon. They have been phenonemal works, clearly showing a director very much in total command of the art form. Rashomon is probably still my favourite, but only just; in any case, I plan to own them all one day, and I plan to see all of Kurosawa’s films before too long. If you haven’t seen any, what’s the deal? Get on it. This guy really does deserve his reputation as one of the top few film directors ever. An interesting fact: as he was a trained painter, his storyboards for all his films were full paintings. It shows. There is a perfection to his images, a clarity of purpose, a genuine cinematic beauty. Even Herzog only manages it a few times per film; with Kurosawa, it’s present in nearly every frame.