Thursday, July 03, 2008


i suspect this is one of the finest films ever made. in a way it works like a well-constructed sonnet; the body of the film like a series of coolly uncovered revelations; the ending punchline - 'it's chinatown' - like a severed rhyming couplet that functions to wearily justify what has gone before. nicholson's final loaded facial expression, staring into the car where dunaway has just been shot, mixes acceptance, fatigue, anger. anger because he's lost another potential kindred spirit to the perils of the chinatown miasma, acceptance because he's also looking at what cross (john huston) has claimed as his own - the future. huston gropes the writhing daughter away from the car; his enormous hands smother discordant and horrible screams; he is back in control of secrets. it struck me watching the film again recently that the last words heard here are actually not 'it's chinatown', but the bellowed orders of a cop ordering bystanders to 'stand back' and to 'get off the street' as the police sirens arrive. it's the staple of so many action films to end in the glow of sirens & blue/red police lights; they signify that atypical narrative chaos is over & that the authorities are here both to recognise the discord in their own terms & to reclaim control. as he does throughout the film, polanksi toys with genre by introducing the screaming police sirens here. in this context the cops do the inverse of comforting the spectator - rather they ensure that the site of cross's reclamation is undisturbed by onlookers or people who might obstruct the inevitable advancement of rich men - "get off the street!". as dunaway wails moments before she is killed: "he (cross) owns the police!".

Monday, December 17, 2007


michael mann is an american master & this is a wonderful film. i made the fatal error of seeing the 'red dragon' remake a few years back & 'manhunter' follows almost precisely the same plot line (tho mann excludes the emphasis on Blakean decryption that dominates the remake). already knowing the outcome of various investigative revelation scenes didn't much help in my appreciation of 'manhunter' as a geuinely 'scary' film, tho i'm sure it was at the time.

i love directors that basically riff on a theme. in this respect 'manhunter' as a title is interesting. it's probably the worst title of mann's career (& it appears as if it was changed at the last minute to encourage some box office attraction), but it has slight ramifications for the rest of mann's career. his best films (heat/the insider/miami vice) have him 'hunting' after the spirit of brilliantly talented 'men' who can only become the men they want or can become by sacrificing connections with the women in their lives. it is probably the principal fault of mann as a dramatist that his women characters consistenly threaten to become little more than angelic obstacles to the proper exercise of male vocations. but this is slightly unfair; diane venora's character in 'heat' delivers the key soliloquy of that epic, summarising all that is grotesque about husband pacino's lifestyle, & the women in 'miami vice' are as much 'players' of the hyper-cool undercover game as the male leads. at the level of character development, however, 'manhunter' is almost wholly about will graham's ability to suspend familial easefulness such that he might get back on the 'manhunt'. indeed, momentary sequences (such as an astounding close-up of graham's disturbed face interlaced with scenes of mother/son innocence) hint at the potential impossibility of any reconciliation between what graham 'does' for a living with any form of familial ambition.

in 'heat' this impossibility is pronounced at the film's climax. de niro/pacino leave their respective women at the moment of potentially mending connection to conclude the 'hunt' once & for all (in pacino's case this instant is shown in a stunning, silent dash down a flight of steps). the 'hunt' ends in the only way it can, in a final shot suggesting perpetually combative asymmetry; one man dead, slouched, facing in one direction; the other holding the combatant's hand limply, facing in the opposite direction. what's fascinating is that 'manhunter' opens with exactly the same composition; two men sitting on a beachside log; will graham facing camera, his boss seated in the opposite direction attempting to coax him back into the 'male game'. all gestures at cross-connection are ultra-tentative; the boss's hand slides some photographs of the murder victims part-way across the pallidly fragile log, quasi-flirtatiously. the 'wife & son' arrive on the scene & an affair is delayed.

it's one of many examples (really, every scene is an example) of the stupendous suggestiveness of 'manhunter's' cinematography. i'll get to that soon enough.

Friday, January 06, 2006

the family stone

excepting the last extraneous 8 minutes or so, there is something genuinely moving and meritorious about this little bit of xmas fodder.

it's always a pity when a decent film can't sustain what it's attempting to do through a full 100 minutes or so. 'the family stone' falls slightly short of being a seriously good drama thanks to a few horrendously underwritten final scenes (the claire danes/mulroney 'love' scene in particular), as well as a tacked-on, semi-explanatory epilogue. sure, tight-knit comedy/dramas like this seem to demand some kind of pleasurable explanation - if the characters are at all memorable we want to know what became of them beyond the sunset future. the writing & the acting & the development of the characters up to a kind of blissful but ambiguous & still fallible xmas-night ending was just right - to go & spoil the lot by repeating what we already knew seemed both insulting & saddening. i mean you can literally see the spot where they should've called a final cut - luke wilson & sarah jessica-parker, lying together in the first grips of a weird love; wilson grinning, repeating to himself & pondering that ridiculous but oddly relevant line from 'joy to the world': "repeat the sounding joy". gorgeous scene.

back to what i think this film was 'attempting to do', then. the story gets its template from the countless 'boyfriend/girlfriend meets family for the first time' films that've emerged in the last 20 years; 'father of the bride', 'meet the parents' etc. the only ones i can remember are outright comedies. 'the family stone' puts some mild emphasis on the gags, but i'm pretty sure i heard more sobbing than laughing in the cinema i was in. which is just the thing - the meaningful reinforcement of some dramatic moral is usually just tacked-on in films like this. in 'the family stone' it's the comedy that's tacked on, if not seamlessly integrated into scenes of (honestly) tear-jerking drama. diane keaton (via 'father of the bride') has a history in films like this; she knows how to hold the whole together, allowing the supporting actors/actresses do their bit. & they're ALL good. claire danes is radiant; rachel mcadams is almost as good as she was in 'mean girls' (see it if you haven't); dermot mulroney, in one scene in particular, does some great crying.

not bad.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

war of the worlds

the usual disclaimer then - i know nothing about previous incarnations of 'war of the worlds'. i approached spielberg's remake looking for a bit of apocalyptic fun. i came away thinking it's one of the better spielberg films i've ever seen. better, because it's simply interesting & eyebrow-raising on a number of levels.

the apocalyptic genre went into a weird overdrive in the late 90's. at the time it seemed like spielberg missed the boat - known as the first great blockbuster director, i think he was too busy knuckling down on 'saving private ryan' to notice the surge of ultra-hyped films like 'independence day' & 'armageddon'. the other film contemporaneous to this lot was 'deep impact', which, though it cashed in on the tidal-wave-drenching-manhattan money shot, was a strangely intimate & emotional piece (when robert duvall starts reciting melville on the world-saving spaceship, you know something different is going on). 'independence day' & 'armageddon' were hilariously panoramic, all-devouring visions of against-all-odds collective human effort, complete with that mandatory montage of the 'arabs'/'russians'/'japanese'/'english' doing their military bit for the sake of humanity. 'armageddon' was unmistakeably the worst offender of this bunch - the characters & action came at you at such a ludicrous, music-video pace that you walked out of the cinema feeling slightly saturated.

'war of the worlds' is all interior, mysterious microcosm to 'independence day's' macrocosm of fighting-back fervour. & this is where things get interesting. while it is a kind of analytical cliche, 'war of the worlds' does make a successful effort to trace the growth of its main character (tom cruise) over the course of these quite sublime events. cruise has appeared in two spielberg films since 'eyes wide shut', since the death of kubrick ('minority report' & 'war of the worlds'). i can't help but think that spielberg saw kubrick did something interesting to cruise in 'eyes wide shut'; brought him back to a kind of meditative, emotional acting earth; took him back to square one; taught him that you can get just as much of your character across by an anxious, prolonged stare than you can doing the kind of things cruise characters have always been renowned for - sprinting ridiculously, winning a fight or an argument with a compact, ideal rejoinder.

'minority report' got the ball rolling, to some extent - yes, cruise's character in that film does a lot of running & problem-solving, but he also does enough serious deliberation with himself that you can't help but be moved by it all. in 'war of the worlds', it's as if spielberg (and his script writers, and his art designers) come to the introspective party as well. 'minority report' was neat & tidy; it had a plot of pristine resolution. 'war of the worlds' is, plot-wise, quite daringly panic-stricken for a 'blockbuster' film. through certain stages there's an ostensible similarity to another suspenseful, slightly left-of-centre blockbuster film based around a dysfunctional small family unit - m. night shyamalan's 'signs' - in which the terrifyingly fantastic things going on in an invisible wider world are chanelled solely through the experience of a few key characters. what 'war of the worlds' and 'signs' share, i suspect, is a lack of repeated watchability - they are both emotionally quite affecting films on first viewing, but for various reasons they lack punch on repeated viewings.

backtracking, then, it's through 'war of the worlds's' lead character that the film gains its most noteworthy edge. one is at pains to really identify at all with cruise's character at first - to be blunt, he's purposely played as a desultory cunt. & to some extent he only marginally 'improves' himself as the film goes on, his heroic son doing a lot of the work for him. spielberg deserves credit for running with this lead who never really responds ideally or heroically to any of the various terrifying set-pieces through the film.

what also helps 'war' on its way is an extravagant special-effects budget. & it's not as if the money is put to waste - importantly, the key design of the staple special-effect figure, the tripod, is toweringly terrifying; in its movements & its sonorous howling it is surely reminiscent of the original 'jurassic park' t-rex; sublime & awe-inspiring.

undeniably the film seems to lose its way towards a kind of tacked-on & abrupt climax; all said, given the way 'war' tries to defy certain apocalyptic audience expectations (and cinematic conventions), it's worth taking seriously.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

the saint (with digression)

let me preface by saying I know nothing about the original tv series of ‘the saint’.

from memory the film performed underwhelmingly at the box office when it came out around 1997. I was attracted to it just recently for a few reasons – a) I have a weakness for what blurbs call ‘intelligent’ action/dramas, b) the lead baddie is played by the same actor who went on to play the grotesque costume-shop owner in ‘eyes wide shut’ (indeed, not wanting to exaggerate, but the two characters are almost EXACTLY the same), & needless to say anything that pricked kubrick’s interest in formulating his final dream-epic deserves attention, c) ‘the saint’s’ treatment of its female co-lead is interesting in comparison to another recent-ish sophisticated thriller, ‘the bourne identity’.

a) & c) should be our main focus here. to be honest it’s hard to know what kubrick was thinking with relation to b). I’ve always suspected that ‘eyes wide shut’ has more to say about pop culture than people imagine (indeed, given his late-in-life reputation as uber-esoteric recluse, it’s intriguing to note the number of times kubrick references &/or subtly critiques ‘popular culture’ in his ‘mature films’, whether it’s US marines singing the mickey mouse club tune, jack torrance sardonically criticizing ‘television’ for teaching his distant son about cannibalism, alex the droog confidently wandering a hyper-coloured pop-record store in search of some ‘in-out’ – you can’t let kubrick’s stylistic straightness blind you to the fact he knew & had a lot to say about the mainstream; anecdotes suggest that for decades he had the latest sitcoms, series & even commercials mailed to his hideaway in England). I’ve said elsewhere that I think cruise’s character in ‘eyes wide shut’ was mildly influenced by his character in ‘the firm’, & there are other things – ‘strangers in the night’ playing wistfully in the background as cruise’s masked female-hero orders him to escape the sex mansion ‘before it’s too late!’ (which leads to the ridiculously anti-serious ‘I am ready to redeem him!’ scene); the fact ‘baby did a bad bad thing’ - sung by the most self-conscious crooner in recent memory, chris isaak – backs the only ‘sex’ scene between the leads in the whole film; the fact the film’s ‘fuck’ finale is set in a shopping mall during Christmas rush hour. frankly there’s a case for arguing that it’s kubrick’s most socially engaged film – the whole thing is underpinned by a commentary on the US class ladder, cruise’s status as a ‘medical professional’ (note the number of times he flashes his ‘medical card’) granting him access to nearly all arenas of urban life EXCEPT the house of complete sexual bliss, which is reserved for a kind of shady, impossible aristocracy – remember that the only actual ‘physical infidelity’ he partakes in is that beautifully rendered lip-kiss with a HIV-positive prostitute living in a seedy flat. the costume-shop owner, the bloke we are supposed to be talking about, as I say, it’s hard to know what he’s meant to represent – but the inference seems to be that he belongs to a grotesque underclass with a different sexual culture altogether; we of course discover late in the film that he’s happily selling off his daughter’s sexuality to a pair of completely comic & improbable Asian men. perhaps there was something about the bearded burbling of ‘the saint’s’ ribald bad-guy that kubrick was attracted to. perhaps.

I got sidetracked. I’ll cover a) & c) another time.

Thursday, August 25, 2005


In Eltham I ask for grass & a girl
says ‘You are in Eltham’.
‘So I’m like the foot soldier in City Hall
in the movie version
of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,
when he wants a cigarette & gets cartons
of regular & menthol?’

‘Yeah. So what are you after?’

We grow on our acre.
A rock remains a cool pillow
you don’t have to turn over.
‘That’s smooth for a ceramic bong’.
She runs craft classes
at a child care centre.
‘Guess you’re used to hydroponics;
all the chemical fertiliser’.

Told dad later about their in-ground pool.
Told him there’s green leaves for a jungle feel,
& he said ‘Sure!
Such an ecosystem takes time.’

Next to hair of cane kelp I recited:
“I was much further out than you thought”.
Kookaburras in the boarded house
belly-laughed a nightclub theme.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

toyota echo

My youngest sister & I, forever aggressively planet-xish
with regards our massive, disparate familial solar system
(there is a sitcom cool about everyone’s interaction –
we only acknowledge connections or cry at the reunions)
we are 8am commuting together to respective workplaces
in Geelong. This involves Australia’s most boring drive,
one hour along four west-headed lanes with immense auction-
group car yards, the furtherest urban outliers and, eventually,
the yellowed Port Phillip flatlands as scenery. You try
(I’m not driving) to make something out of it, imagining
what goes on in lonely highway-side paddocks at night,
whether some starry-eyed wits-end type has ever parked their car
illegally and wandered without a torch towards
the indiscernible horizon. I would want a windy cigarette
after twenty yards & I suspect it would be tough
keeping the nervous shit tingling from your arse. This
one time at school camp, the teachers made us sit
about half a K apart from each other in national park dark.
The first thing I did was piss, then sit down, then laugh
for the required half an hour at how the class bullies

had held hands & cried in response to the task. It was hilarious.
visitors since 26 august 04