Saturday 28 January 2006

Jarhead (2005) - ickleReview (cinema)

Sam Mendes directs a film about the US Marines in the first Gulf War in 1991, a war which lasted only four days, but for which over 500,000 US troops were deployed in the desert, some of them waiting for six months before they saw any action.

This is not an action movie. The Gulf War did not provide filmmakers with as much material as the Vietnam war. One wonders whether there will ever be as many movies about it. Mendes certainly draws on the conventions of the Vietnam film: boot camp (Full Metal Jacket, Tigerland), platoon life (Platoon, Hamburger Hill), life back home and after the war (Born on the Fourth of July, We Were Soldiers); but it never really outdoes any of its precursors.

The main flaw may be the novel on which the film is based. Simply not enough happens. One might therefore expect a deeper exploration of character, a greater sympathy with the "jarheads", as they are called (seemingly because their shavenn heads resemble glass jars; but, according to Wikipedia, the term comes from the Mason Jar Company, which manufactured the Marines' helmets for WWII). This never develops: the characters are too familiar, a little wooden and stereotyped. The boredom of the wait in the desert is never made really apparent: all there is is the occasional onscreen graphic about precisely how long they have been in the desert and how many troops there now are. Then when the Marines start to lose their minds, it's not wholly plausible. (This may be deliberate, however: an attempt to show the inexplicability of a soldier's reactions when living in a war zone).

What Mendes does with the material - together with his cinematographer Roger Deakins - is commendable. It is a beautiful film to look at. The stark desert provides some memorable images of the vast flatness - the Iraqi enemy (whom we or the Marines rarely, if ever, see) somewhere in the distance. When the oil wells are set on fire there is an eerie, infernal blackness in the glow of night, and the soldiers leave white footprints in the oil-soaked sand. Most of this, however, you can see in the trailer, which promises much more than the feature film delivers. Even the two great moments of potential tension fall flat: one never really believes the worst could happen.

It's difficult to know whom to blame for the film's shortcomings. Is modern warfare just too clinical to provide canon fodder for the movie camera? Were the book and the adaptation too faithful to fact, not willing to fictionalize in order to create drama and a more remarkable story? Does the film rely too much on Marine movie folklore to convey how much it means for an American to serve in the Corps? (There is a raucous scene just after the announcement that they are going to war when the soldiers watch the "The Ride of the Valkyries" sequence from Apocalypse Now to build up morale, cheering and whooping like a football crowd when the choppers descend on a Vietcong village, thirsty for enemy blood and their own opportunity to kill.)

A considerable part of the movie's message is how dispensable the footsoldier was in that war. Their presence in the desert was more symbolic than anything else: most of the fighting was done by precision aircraft bombing; there was no need for hand-to-hand combat or even scout snipers. Most soldiers got through the war without ever having to fire their rifles and without being in any serious danger. In fact, the only two Marine deaths in the movie occur during a training exercise and with friendly fire. And yet the war still ruined the lives of many of those who survived it.

The film begins and ends with a potentially striking voice-over - presumably transferred directly from the book by Anthony Swofford; but what's in the middle makes the conclusion weak and cursory - unjustified even - because the promise of how one's life is changed when one picks up a rifle is not fully articulated.

Nugget: on the whole a little disappointing - never really making the most of the talented cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, and a number of strong actors in supporting roles. Refreshing, however, to find that not everything that happens (friendly fire, a bombed convoy of refugees, the death on return home) has to be pedagogically explained.

I used part of this review to ping Blogcritics.

Saturday 7 January 2006

Rize (2005) - ickleReview (HD)

David LaChapelle documentary about the LA dance craze, Krumping. It started in 1992 when Tommy the Clown began performing hip-hop dances at kids' birthday parties. From there it grew into a wider movement with kids of all ages taking refuge from the gang-banging of the streets to a cleaner, safer life in this expressive dance form. It's very raw and energetic, shaking booty from the coccyx and waving the arms about in a crazy manner. The film begins with a warning that none of this footage is speeded up. It's quite tribal and looks violent, but appears to be a drug- and voilence-free release for these kids in a tough ghetto environment. There are rival movements which grew out of Clowning: the main one being Krumping, where the dress is more hip-hop oriented and the face-paint more warrior-like. There's also strip dancing, influenced by the more sexual style of lap-dancers, which girls as young as four perform. They compete in BattleZones - large dance contests where the two groups face off against each other. It is largely a movement for black kids, but at the end we see a white guy getting involved and some Asian groups as well.

Shot by a fashion photographer, this was always going to be a beautiful movie - and it is. Some of the sequences have obviously been set up - but that don't matter because it's such a spectacle. It's inspirational how these kids have risen up to find a good, clean way to express themselves creatively. It becomes for them a way of life, a return to their roots. Halfway through the movie, there is some brilliant inter-cutting with African tribal dancing, which really hits home how much this culture of tribal rivalry and expression is in their blood and spirit. Towards the end we learn that some of them find solace in the Church and Jesus as well, even taking a toned-down version of their Krump dancing into the chapel! Clowning and Krumping provides these kids with families and role-models, which sometimes their own fucked up lives can't provide for them. It's no surprise that the Church takes advantage of this; but maybe if it wasn't for that, the movement would become more confrontational. It's influenced heavily by hip-hop, breakdancing and the competitive street-dancing seen in that video of Run-DMC vs. Jason Nevins "It's Like That".

Nugget: great movie material, almost all of it with the feel of propaganda, but it's so compelling you buy into it.

Manhattan (1979) - ickleReview (DVD)

My favourite Woody Allen movie. Shot in black and white and with the best opening sequence I have ever seen: scenes of New York City accompanied by Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Allen's comical introduction: "Chapter 1: He adored New York City..." Allen plays Isaac, a TV comedy writer who's going out with a 17-year-old girl called Tracy (Mariel Hemingway - Ernest Hemingway's granddaughter) while trying to stop his second ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep) - who left him for another woman - writing a lurid book about their broken marriage. His best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is cheating on his wife Emily (Anne Byrne) by seeing a sophisticated New York feminist, Mary (Diane Keaton). When Isaac bumps into Mary and Yale for the first time at an art gallery, he really doesn't like her. Her taste in art is quite the opposite from his and her excuse for odd behaviour is "I'm from Philadelphia." Isaac of course winds up seeing her and having his own affair, before he realizes that Tracy is the girl he really wants to be with.

It's a classic Woody Allen plot, but what makes this movie is the splendour of its shooting. The composition in shot after shot is perfect, with beautiful, subtle lighting - some scenes shot almost in the dark with just the light from shop windows, a table lamp or a low-key spot in the planetarium when Isaac and Mary are sheltering from a sudden Sunday rain storm. Hemingway's performance is very cute; Allen mocks her mouse voice, but their relationship gives the appearance of real affection - despite the age gap.

Nugget: simply the best. This is not the first time I have seen the movie, and it won't be the last.

Sunday 1 January 2006

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask (1972) - ickleReview (video)

Woody Allen movie. Compilation of sketches inspired by Dr David Reuben's sex book. Loosely coheres, but might have been more successful - as much of the humour is verbal* - if it had remained in prose. There is a delicious parody of Hamlet by Allen as a medieval court jester: "TB or not TB, that is congestion. Consumption be done about it? Of cough, of cough. But it takes a lung, lung time." Most inventive sketch is about what happens during ejaculation, for which the production designer (Dale Hennesy) creates a Kubrickian laboratory of the brain and the body's various organs, operated by men dressed in white suits. Allen plays a sperm (probably what this movie is famour for). Oh, and the giant, killer tit.

Nugget: not Allen's best: didn't laugh at loud as much as I had expected.

* Compare the Little Britain radio series with its conversion to TV: it worked much better on the radio because the imagination had to work harder to picture the characters. On TV, it's just a repeated gimmick of two funny-looking guys dressed up, often in women's clothes, which gets more than a little tedious after a while.

subUrbia (1996) - ickleReview (video from TV)

Richard Linklater movie about disaffected suburban youth. Written by Eric Bogosian, whose portrayal of slackers is much clunkier than Linklater's brilliant Slackers (1991) and Dazed and Confused (1993), though this may be the result of the adaptation from stage to screen.

The film follows a few post-high school kids who hang out by the local convenience store, smoking, drinking and goofing around. It sounds smarter and more profound than it really is, but perhaps that's because it's now almost a generation old. They complain about how dumb and meaningless their lives are, yet don't seem prepared or willing to do anything about it. Jeff (Giovanni Ribisi) and Tim (Nicky Katt) are jealous and resentful of Pony's (Jayce Bartok) success as a rock star, with a limo, an MTV video and a life in LA (he'd been a geek at high school). Tim is the former high school quarterback and an army drop-out and Jeff is a college drop-out bum, unwilling to work, but with the apparent intelligence to know better. Buff (Steve Zahn) is a drunken fool, more like one of Linklater's characters from Dazed and Confused, a collegiate beer-head (who doesn't go to college but works in a pizza parlour). Sooze (Amie Carey) has the ambition to become a feminist performing artist and go to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts, but Jeff, her boyfriend, only discourages her. Bee-Bee (Dina Spybey) is a rather innocent-looking blonde who's already been put through rehab by her over-reactive parents.

It all takes place at night in empty parking lots, behind dumpsters and in the suburban wasteland - a metaphor for these wasted lives, when really, they have all the opportunity and privilege to do so much better. Like George Lucas's American Graffiti (1973) without the cars and the music.

Nugget: Linklater's much better when he writes his own material.