Saturday 31 August 2013


(Fred Cavayé, 2010)

Cavayé is brutally efficient in his storytelling. Point Blank is a brisk 84 minutes, and within 15 minutes of its hectic opening scene, everything is set up, each character established, the plot already motoring along. His style is correspondingly lacking in frills, almost perfunctory. There is no poetry here - a single tableau of a car against the fragile light of dawn seems almost shocking for its ostentatious beauty - but then Cavayé tells stories of a world without poetry, a cold, urban world, a violent world of fear and close death, a world of crooked cops, desperate innocents and cynical criminals. He tells those stories well.
Here he focuses on Samuel (Gilles Lellouche), an auxilliary nurse who has the bad luck to work on the ward where a gangster (Roschdy Zem) is recovering after an accident. When his gang kidnap Samuel's pregnant wife and threaten to kill her unless Samuel can get the man out of hospital, he finds himself on the run from both the police and some criminals, and forced into a strange alliance with his erstwhile patient.
When the opening shot depicts a man with a gunshot wound bursting through a door as he flees a couple of gunmen, you can guess that pace is going to be important to the way a film functions, and Point Blank is unrelentingly pacy. Cavayé is great at establishing characters in short scenes with a few lines of dialogue and some expressions and nuances which inform our immediate understanding of how the relationship dynamics work, and so we care about Lellouche's Samuel after a couple of scenes showing us the warmth of his relationship with his Spanish wife (Elena Anaya) and professionalism and humour at work. And we need to care about him as so much of the success of the film will depend on an audience desperately hoping that he gets away.
It helps of course that Lellouche is such a fine everyman. In sharp contrast to the unflappably cool Roschdy Zem, he seems truly tested by his ordeal, and the actor portrays his panicked determination and essential vulnerability with casually truthful believability, not least after the central action sequence, a long chase on foot through the Paris Metro, which ends with him vomiting in the street. That sequence works well, but Cavayé's blandly anonymous style and Klaus Badelt's usual Zimmer-aping score make it and a few other set-pieces feel very much like the kind of thing we see regularly in Hollywood cinema. That wouldn't be a problem if Cavayé's narrative skills weren't so singularly spartan and muscular.
But as it is, this effective thriller feels like it could and perhaps should be a bit more than that; if it was Korean, for instance, it would certainly have a distinctive style that would be instantly recognisable and different from anything still offered by American commercial cinema. Cavayé settles for a Hollywood approach to a Hollywood-style story, and that seems a bit of a shame to this viewer.


(Victor Erice, 2006)

The film essay as tone poem, Erice working his obsessions into a lovely contemplation of the power of art, memory and time, cinema and imagination.
It recalls Chris Marker in places as the filmmaker whispers his narration, sad and wise, over lovely black and white photographs of San Sebastian in the 1940s. We can just perceive Arvo Pärt on the soundtrack, and Erice's elegant mastery is obvious in how poetically he fits it all together; his voiceover, these tableau and the music eloquently, expressively suggest the themes he addresses.
The subject is his first encounter with cinema. In 1946, at the age of five, he saw Sherlock Holmes and the Scarlet Claw in a now-vanished palatial cinema near the beach in San Sebastian. He was terrified but enraptured, and he reflects on how time has treated that experience, what happened to the filmmakers, why that film was so resonant in a destroyed post-Civil War Spain, and how his memory has nurtured the whole experience.
It is a gently beautiful film, fascinating and moving; Erice is a master.

Friday 30 August 2013


(Shane Carruth, 2012)

In case his singular, incredible debut Primer wasn't enough proof, Upstream Color makes it clear that Shane Carruth is a visionary artist unlike just about anybody else working in modern cinema. In any cinema, ever, for that matter.
His technical command appears absolute, and combined with a uniquely poetic style - a little reminiscent of modern Terrence Malick but with key differences - it makes for cinema that is beguiling, impressionistic, visually stunning, and hypnotic. Consider the level of control required by Carruth; he wrote, produced, edited, photographed, scored, acted in and directed this film. This is genuine auteurism, and the artistic success of the result is a persuasive argument for the value of the multi-hyphenate.
It also means that Upstream Color is a film for grown-ups; it makes few concessions to a general audience. There is no exposition, and the storytelling is elliptical, driven by a free associative style which feels symphonic, and determined as much by tone and cumulative effect as it is by plot.
The story centres on Kris (Amy Seimetz, extremely moving) a graphic designer who has her life destroyed by an encounter with a thief. No ordinary thief, however. This one uses a drug harvested from blue orchids to infect roundworm. These roundworm then infect his victims from inside, rendering  them utterly suggestible to his commands. He has Kris turn her house into equity which he takes, empties all of her bank accounts, and helps himself to her collection of valuable coins. When he leaves, she is lured by a mysterious pig-farming sound recordist, who surgically removes the roundworm and implants it in one of his pigs. She returns to her life, unaware of anything that has happened, to find herself fired from her job, penniless and nursing a strange anxiety alongside several unconscious obsessions.
When she meets Jeff (Carruth), they find themselves drawn together, and it gradually emerges that something similar may have happened to him. The question then becomes: what has happened to them?  And how can they find some measure of peace together in the aftermath?
Like Primer, that plot contains a few ideas straight from sci-fi, but Carruth sets it within the real world, and his poetry is that of the beautiful mundane. He uses depth of field with an acute understanding of just how a focus pull can effect the way an audience takes a scene, and the long wordless passages here are Pure Cinema at its most effective. The scenes of the stumbling, detached courtship between Jeff and Kris are more meet-eerie than meet-cute, and their co-dependency as a couple becomes both moving and disturbing largely because of Carruth's visuals.
That is not to underestimate his skill as a dramatist; there are scenes here filled with a very human messiness, and the theme of alienation from the modern world and its cold public and private spaces bubbles under the surface here, alongside explorations of our relationship with nature and the way we are affected by sound.
The result is almost overwhelming; emotional, somewhat baffling but always gripping, it showcases Carruth's talent in all of the disciplines he has taken up. His score is by turns powerful and intriguing, his photography bold and startlingly impressive, the editing precise and poetic.
If the film is enigmatic and filled with secret depths, then that seems a positive thing as well, this masterful piece will surely repay obsessive fans and repeat viewings. But based on a first viewing, it is a cinematic rapture; lovely, disturbing, mysterious.

Wednesday 28 August 2013


(Antonio Campos, 2012)

Shot by shot, scene by scene, Campos is a formidably talented and intelligent filmmaker. Simon Killer is an ambitious, brilliantly made art film about a young American (Brady Corbet) in Paris after a traumatic breakup with a longterm girlfriend. The first act is terrific - Simon floats lonely and isolated around a wintry city, trapped behind the wall of music in his ever-present iPod earphones. What little the audience learns about his life and character comes from Simon himself, and he turns out to be quite an unreliable narrator indeed. He studied neuroscience in College, specifically the relationship between the eye and the brain, and much of the narrative here is centred on the gap between perception and reality. Not only what Simon perceives - he has a thing for objectifying women - but how people see him as one thing when he is in fact somebody altogether different. This only really slowly emerges when he meets and seemingly falls for Victoria, a beautiful, alluringly mysterious prostitute (Mati Diop). Here the film moves into another, less successful mode, with far more plot, as Simon convinces Victoria to begin blackmailing some of her clients, and the lies and manipulations begin to mount up. 
Campos' stylish direction ensures that even when the narrative becomes a tad too predictable and repetitive the film remains a fascinating, pleasurable experience. There is a lot of Michael Haneke here, in the precision of the framing and the control of the agonisingly slow zooms. Much of the action occurs in nocturnal Paris, starkly lit in a sickly yellow by sodium vapour lamps, and other scenes - notably in the club where Simon meets Victoria - are bathed in crimson. Simon is often isolated at the centre of the frame, but Campos likes to play with his framing; objects block out crucial information, faces and expressions are withheld from the audience. He favours long takes with fixed master shots, and over the course of the film this creates a claustrophobic sense of intimacy with Simon, who is revealed to be, at the very least, a sociopath.
Corbet is a strange presence and not quite a lead, but he has a half-glimpsed intensity that works very well for the character here. His performance grows more effective and unsettling as his character gets increasingly desperate. Diop is excellent as Victoria, her mix of vulnerability and strength evident in her very first scene, and their relationship - so unlikely in the abstract - is entirely convincing in its needy codependency. 
There are numerous other pleasures - the soundtrack is brilliant, Joe Anderson's cinematography is tactile and frequently stunning, and it is one of the great films of modern Paris, capturing something of the cities often chilly beauty.
But the main impression is of Campos' virtuosity; how he creates and maintains such a disturbing mood, how impressionistic and disciplined his style is, how he uses arty techniques without ever seeming pretentious.

Tuesday 27 August 2013


(Brian DePalma, 2012)

It might be better if DePalma took this seriously, but he never does. But then he's evidently an intelligent man, and the screenplay for Passion - written by DePalma himself, based upon Alain Corneau's 2010 French thriller Love Crime - is relentlessly ridiculous, full of unbelievable characters and hugely silly moments. DePalma plays the whole thing like a cut-crystal black comedy, encouraging leads Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace to ham it up (to occasionally very funny effect - McAdams in particular has a marvellous time as an uber-bitch) and indulging in his more baroque flourishes with real relish.
It is superficially a thriller. McAdams plays a manipulative, machiavellian advertising agency executive whose relationship with her protege (Rapace) evolves from rivalry to murder via flirting, love triangles and inter-office game-playing.
While the first act is a strangely stilted little drama, set in an unnamed City with a definite air of Euro-pudding, it improves once it goes up a gear in the later stages. The noir elements become more pronounced, the stylistic approach becomes bolder and more obvious, DePalma wheels out a couple of his famed set-pieces, one involving some ostentatious split-screen technology, and Pino Donaggio's previously irritating, overly-busy score suddenly makes a sort of Bernard Hermann pastiche sense.
But it remains curiously airless and thoroughly stupid, for all that it gestures at commenting on modern visual communication and female relationships. Really all it seems interested in is DePalma's own superb technical control. Without a strong screenwriter, his visual gifts often lead him down thankless paths, and so it has proven here.
The performances do little to help - both actresses stumble, for all that they seem to be having fun - and veteran Almodovar collaborator Jose Luis Alcaine's sharp cinematography only makes it all feel even more coldly clinical than it needs to be.
It seems a long time since DePalma made Femme Fatale...

Monday 26 August 2013


(Brian De Palma, 1987)

The Untouchables was released in the US in June 1987. That marks it out firmly as a Summer Blockbuster, or at least states that it was intended as one by its studio. But it seems to possess an insane pedigree and class for a Blockbuster. Directed by a controversial auteur who has always had one foot in the arthouse (Brian DePalma), written by one of America's greatest living playwrights (David Mamet), with a score by Ennio Morricone, costumes by Armani and a cast including two of the Twentieth Century's great male screen icons (Sean Connery and Robert DeNiro) alongside a couple of then up-and-coming new stars (Kevin Costner and Andy Garcia), the film almost seems too good to be true. And it has the temerity to be incredibly entertaining, with two fantastic DePama set-pieces, while also slyly getting in its digs at the hypocrisy of American political policies, both in the Prohibition and (by extension) Reagan eras.

It is a film of great moments and great scenes, which lessen the impact of its structural problems. After the departure of Connery's character, the narrative never really recovers the same drive, though DePalma's Odessa Steps Train Station sequence distracts the audience in the immediate aftermath of his terrific death scene. But we are buoyed by the numerous brilliant moments we have already witnessed. There is DeNiro's baseball bat wielding "enthusiasms" speech (based on an actual Capone execution of two seditious mobsters), wherein he seems to allow himself to coast and grimace and leer, almost caricaturing his own persona to highly entertaining effect. DePalma ends the scene with a beautiful aerial shot, too. Then there is Connery's selection of Andy Garcia's character for a place on the team, baiting him with ethnic slurs, until Garcia pulls a pistol on him and sticks it beneath his chin with the words: " Its better than you, you stinking Irish pig." Garcia is shy and charming here in a way he never really recovered in his career, grinning as Connery praises him. 

Then there is the gun battle on the Canadian border, in which Charles Martin Smith distinguishes himself in a berserker attack on two trucks of mobsters - DePalma depicting shotgun blasts as resulting in pink clouds of blood hanging in the air, Morricone turning in something akin to a Classical Western score, Connery ending a chase-scene with a volley of gunfire into the air and the words "Enough of this running shit." And then there is the exemplary first person POV stalking of Connery before he is assassinated, the director amusing himself with his facility with the medium itself, a filmmaker with enough maturity to take on a project like this, without the auteurist quirks and motifs of much of the rest of his work, and turn it into arguably his best "popular" film. 
But the best scene is a brief exchange of charged dialogue between Connery and Costner, sitting in a church-pew, captured by DePalma in a showy two-shot. Because it demands - and gets - the best from Mamet, from the two actors, and from the Director. It sets the tone for what is to come, defines the battle at the heart of the film, and lays out the crucial dynamic between the hero and his mentor. Later, just before they bust down a door into one of Capone's distillerys, Connery tells Costner that once the door is open, there can be no turning back. But really, that moment is already passed. It came when Connery laid out the fight for him and Costner asserted his desire for it.
Mamet is a proud son of Chicago, and there is a lot of that city's working class hard-boiled straight-talking in his dialogue. But much of his work as a Screenwriter for hire feels like the hackwork that it undoubtedly is, his touch barely discernible, as if he is trying to lose what makes him distinctive, subsuming himself for the good of the project. However, there is the sense that he feels something more for The Untouchables, key to the mythic history of his hometown as the story is. So his script is full of great one-liners, most of them given to Connery, and a couple of classic Capone monologues. It is also commendably tight and well-paced for much of its running time, excellent in establishing its characters concisely, and makes its odd conclusion - Ness has to break the rules, by murdering a man, in order to win - a crowd-pleasing moment. 


(Neill Blomkamp, 2013)

I love when a movie starts with a low burble of 1980s synthesiser. Which is exactly how Neill Blomkamp's Elysium begins.
After that, it dips a little. Sun-hazy scenes of children in a dystopian future Los Angeles and rapid world-building clutter the first act, establishing a 2154 world where the rich (mainly white) citizens of Earth have fled to Elysium, an orbiting "habitat" on a space station where there is constant sunshine, no sickness and none of the nasty Latinos who fill the overpopulated slums of Earth. That is where we find Max (Matt Damon) one of the children from those sun-hazy scenes. An ex-con now working in a factory, an industrial accident leaves him with only days to live, and Elysium and its miraculous machines becomes his only hope. To get there he undergoes surgery fusing him with an exoskeleton, giving him strength the equal of the droids patrolling both worlds as sentinels. But Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and the vicious Kruger (Sharlto Copley) stand in his way, and the need to get the terminally ill daughter of his old friend Frey (Alice Braga) to Elysium doesn't make it any easier.
The allegory here is perhaps too obvious and too simple, but at least Blomkamp is trying to say something, at least his film has something on its mind beyond its explosions and weak, predictable character arcs. Because for all that it is thematically a little trite, its major flaw is the cheesiness of much of its drama, from the awkward characterisation of players like Wagner Moura's frequently unintelligible gang boss Spider, to the dull, overly simplified politicking on Elysium itself involving Delacourt and William Fichtner's hollow cartoon of a spineless executive. The scenes showcasing Max's daily life recall similar scenes in other sci-fi films (last year's tepid Total Recall remake, for instance) without ever transcending them.
But Blomkamp is at home with action. He understands how it works and how to work it. He can make an action sequence really sting, and once the story proper gets underway here and Max is in motion, the film takes on its own momentum which renders some of the other complaints largely irrelevant. Blomkamp shoots action scenes which are coherent (a rarity in modern spectacle filmmaking), visceral and thrillingly nasty. Violence in his world has consequences. People get hurt, faces get pulped. But he is able to combine that brutality with a gee-whiz quality, indulging in cool shots and relishing the process of the fights he is depicting. Max is an amateur throughout, a little out of his depth even when augmented, which helps lend a pleasing edge of suspense to the climactic face-off with Kruger. Their fighting styles are individual too; Max doesn't really know what he is doing even as he grows more confident in his new strength, whereas Kruger is a specialist and perhaps overconfident as a result.
That they have an (immensely satisfying) final showdown indicates how well Blomkamp understands the needs of the action genre.
Damon is a massive boon to a film like this; an undoubted movie star, he combines a charismatic watchability with an everyman quality, and he has the acting chops to pull off Max's desperation and his slow journey towards acceptance of what must happen. Copley (as usual?) chews scenery throughout, but he does offer a scary sense of unpredictable threat which contributes to the tension of the last act. Jodie Foster, on the other hand, makes a series of terrible decisions, speaking in a weird accent, opting for oddly inappropriate or campy line-readings which rob her pivotal scene of much of its intended impact. Alice Braga is typecast here as the spunky-yet-soulful Latin spitfire we've seen her play many times before.
The technical credits are all strong, with the production design particularly inventive; underlining the allegory, this is a future-world that looks very much like now, and the differences between Earth tech (worn down, gritty, industrial) and Elysium tech (slick, seamless, digital) only add to the palpable textures of Blomkamp's film. That helps when it comes to the body horror element of the plot, which, as in his previous film, the similarly interesting but flawed District 9, is one of the strongest passages here.

Saturday 24 August 2013


(Marius Holst, 2011)

A period-Scum with a little Tigerland thrown in. Filled with prison movie cliches; only here they're done without any of the feverish pulpiness which can make them so enjoyable and exploitative. Here they're played utterly straight. "Straight" is an inappropriate word - theres a sizeable portion of intense homo-eroticism here, as in many examples of the genre, creating odd, interesting dissonance with the sexual abuse sub-plot that becomes important as the story draws on. But this is a strangely stolid product for a borstal film, wearyingly ardent in its need to be a prestigious piece of cinema, it is handsomely photographed, nicely, oh-so-seriously acted, and largely effective in its straightforward, emotive, manipulative storytelling.
The plot tells you all you need to know: in the early years of the Twentieth Century, the arrival of a strong-willed, charismatic new boy eventually leads to a violent uprising at a harshly disciplinary Norwegian Island borstal.
By the time that uprising occurs, the audience is willing it to happen, desperate to see the worm turn, eager to see some justice done. It perhaps overdoes things by adding to that a portrayal of friendship and a tragic twist, but it is generally a strong, well-made piece of storytelling.

Thursday 22 August 2013


(Patrick Hughes, 2010)

Young city Cop Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) and his wife relocate for personal reasons to the Outback town of Red Hill. On his first day on the job, he forgets his gun, antagonises his new boss, the Inspector Old Bill (Steve Bisley), who virtually rules the town, and finds himself in the middle of an emergency when feared ex-tracker Jimmy Conway escapes prison and heads straight for town, seemingly bent on some sort of vengeance.
Explicitly evoking the mood and narrative tropes familiar from a host of classic westerns, Hughes emphasises these similarities through the use of a Western-style soundtrack and some wonderful landscape cinematography. The Outback here is wild, brutal and beautiful, people isolated against its expanse and beneath its immense skies. When night comes, it comes as a black void above the huddled little town. The first act is paced like a Western - slowly and patiently establishing the setting and characters, allowing the tension to build during seemingly innocuous scenes until it bursts to life with Jimmy's arrival. Even then, it takes its time, preferring to generate suspense than indulge in spectacular action scenes. Hughes understands what works in genre filmmaking, meaning that there is a really effective mix here of Western iconography, thriller suspense and short, brutal modern action sequences. The characters may largely obey the considerations of a formula just as slavishly as the storyline, but for the most part, that approach works extremely well, and the tension holds throughout the second and third acts despite the regularity of the action scenes and the plot revelations and reversals breaking it up.
It may be extremely predictable, but it is generally very well done, with strong performances and beautifully effective direction from Hughes.
A modest, likably intense little b-movie then, with more impact than many bigger budget films in the same genre.

Friday 16 August 2013


(Wong Kar-Wai, 2012) 

I get the feeling that Wong Kar-Wai could take any story and turn it into a film about Tony Leung mooning around in period Hong Kong, remembering the various women in his life.
That’s not a bad thing; somehow director and star often seem capable of alchemy when they work together. But it doesn’t always make for an entirely satisfying experience.
Take The Grandmaster, for instance. It is Wong Kar-Wai’s first attempt at a martial arts film since Ashes of Time almost 20 years ago. That film is a bizarre, barely coherent clash between a directors sensibility and the demands of a genre. The result is delirious, beautiful and never entirely successful.
The Grandmasters is more accessible. It tells a story, following a handful of “grandmasters” – expert practitioners of different schools of Kung Fu – across a few decades in the early 20th Century. They include Yip Man (Leung), Gong Er (Zhang Zhiyi) and"the Razor"(Chang Chen). While other biopics have made much of how Ip Man resisted the Japanese, here his life as a warrior and his importance as a symbol and cultural figure is barely explored. The prologue features an extended and stunning battle between him and dozens of men at night in the rain. While this fight scene – visceral, beautiful and brilliantly choreographed – seems inspired by and then surpasses the climax of The Matrix Revolutions, it is entirely lacking in context of dramatic weight. It is unsurprising that this scene was used as a teaser for the film, since it works just as well as a standalone scene. Indeed it is never really explained who, when or why Ip was fighting those men.
Instead in the first act we alternate between learning about the contentment of his domestic life and the political strife in the Kung Fu community, where ageing masters try to settle upon dynamic new leadership while spreading understanding of the different styles across their immense country.
The narrative follows this pattern, elliptically cutting between different lives, times and places. Ultimately it focuses (but only to an extent) upon the relationship between Yip and Gong Er, whose early fight functions as a sort of consummation of a love that is never really acknowledged until it is too late.
There are problems with this approach. In his other work, Wong invests the characters with such intensity and emotional truth that when the romantic longing kicks in – as it always must – it feels earned and powerful. Here it feels a little tacked on, as if he was attempting to give a typical martial arts film some of his own personality with mixed results. You can almost feel him straining hard to find some resonance in this material, and the resulting thematic hollowness is the result. The way the narrative flips – that fight between Yip and Gong functions almost as a passing of the baton – makes it feel like two films stitched uncomfortably together.
But at least they’re two ravishingly beautiful films: the whole thing looks unbelievably good. Phillipe Le Sourd's cinematography is fabulous; and Wong chooses to shoot many of the fights indoors, ensuring that a rich, chocolatey palette predominates, an unusual look for a wuxia.
His cast are superb; Leung as deep and charismatic as ever, Zhiyi carrying much of the emotional weight and doing it easily. Both excel in the terrific martial art sequences, which do achieve some poetry amidst the flurries of lyrical physical action. Indeed, many directors more generally associated with the genre could learn a great deal from how these fight scenes are handled – always visually impressive, they never sacrifice physical coherence of visceral impact.
But this feels like Wong Kar-Wai compromised, trying to be something hes not. It is still lovely and full of good things, but it never feels quite right.


(Tobias Lindholm, 2012)

This enthralling, spare drama depicts the hijacking of a Danish freighter in the Indian Ocean by a band of Somali pirates.
As it starts, we think that Mikkel (Johan Philip Asbæck), the ship’s cook and an instantly warm and likeable fellow, will be our protagonist. But soon after he is introduced and before the hijacking occurs, Lindholm introduces Peter (Søren Malling), the CEO of the Company. He is a ruthless negotiator in the boardroom and something of a smooth operator, utterly in control of his business and each situation he finds himself in. We see the hijacking as he does – he is interrupted in the middle of a meeting with news that a ship may have been hijacked. All is confusion. Then Lindholm cuts back to Mikkel onboard, a Somali pirate waving an AK-47 in his face, and the twin strands of this narrative are made plain.
We see Peter attempt to negotiate with Omar, the English-speaking “translator” brought in by the Pirates, while Mikkel struggles to stay alive and sane as the days in captivity turn first into weeks and then into months.
Just as he did in his brusing prison drama R, Lindholm shoots this film with a raw, brutal efficiency; there is nothing ostentatious or flowery here. The storytelling is tight, the dedication to realism total. Performances are sweaty and emotional. Unexpectedly, while Mikkel begins to crumble in the face of the intimidation and depravation he encounters, Peter’s suffering mirrors it.
He is warned early on by a negotiation expert his firm has hired as a consultant that he must avoid emotional involvement, but he cannot, and the ordeal just about destroys him.
Lindholm makes great use of his confined locations, juxtaposing the filthy sweatboxes on board the ship with the sterile tension of the modern office the negotiators find themselves trapped within, just as the stained, ragged clothes the prisoners wear is contrasted with the tight tailoring of the executives we see in Copenhagen.
It’s a tremendously effective and gripping drama with a nasty ending and fine performances all round. On the strength of his first two films, Lindholm might well be a director to keep an eye on.


(Nancy Savoca, 1991)

Given that so many films are obsessed with relationships between men and women and detail meetings and deepening love, it seems odd that so few films really capture how it feels when two people truly connect with one another.
Perhaps this is because so many films prize snappy dialogue and a memorable meet-cute above any genuine sense of emotional engagement. Perhaps it’s just down to lazy writing and poor direction.
Somewhat against the odds, Dogfight gets it right. It’s based around a high-concept conceit; in 1963, the night before they are deployed overseas to what will ultimately be the Vietnam War, a unit of Marines organize a contest. This is the titular “dogfight”, wherein each marine brings the ugliest girl he can to a bar, treats her with politeness, and dances with her. The entrants are judged by a panel and the winner gets the kitty of several hundred dollars.
“Birdlace” Eddie (River Phoenix), struggling to find a worthy companion to take along, seizes upon Rose (Lili Taylor) after he spots her working in her Mother’s diner. Only their connection is instant and uncomfortably real, and Eddie tries to talk the unsuspecting girl out of accompanying him before it’s too late. Then, inevitably, she finds out about the contest, rages at Eddie, and storms out.
He follows her home, apologises and asks her to dinner to make it up to her. Over the remainder of the night, while his three best buddies indulge in typical shore leave behavior (brawls, tattoos, whores and booze), Eddie and Rose wander the streets of San Francisco and get to know one another better.
Their connection makes little sense; they are virtual opposites. Rose is sensitive and soulful, a lover of folk music and the peace corps, while Eddie is brash and cocky, though his inner vulnerability and need is obvious in Phoenix’s beautifully subtle performance. Every conversation between the two is a series of small revelations, yet their attraction is never in doubt, their chemistry a convincing, realistic portrayal of how these things just are. Their relationship comes at a pivotal moment for both and feels as important as it does true. Every nuance, every glance and pause seems expertly weighted and observed.
Taylor and Phoenix are both exceptional here. Taylor makes Rose a vivid, complex girl. Surprised by Eddie’s attention, she thrives on it, and the area in which they are best-suited is in their matching fighting spirit; the ferocity of her rebuke for his behavior is impressive, and may finally sway him to ask her out to dinner.  Her exhibition of how ridiculous Eddie’s swearing is while ordering dinner in an expensive restaurant is similarly brilliant. Taylor shows us how Rose grows in confidence and belief as the night wears on, and how she sees the good in Eddie. His machismo is part act, and she – and we, thanks to Phoenix’s sensitive work – can see this. Phoenix was every inch a future movie star; beautiful, charismatic and also incredibly talented, and this film may well be the best exhibition of his abilities.
Savoca’s direction never loses sight of their great work or of the chemistry between them, but it is also subtly suggestive of period without ever becoming kitschy (until the last act Vietnam-Haight Ashbury scenes). The characters remain human and warmly observed throughout, and the ending is moving without being cloying. That ending contextualizes all that has gone before, moving the action on several years to Eddie’s return from Vietnam. It suggests that though what happened to these little people on that one night might not have meant much when put against political upheaval, assassination and war; it meant an awful lot to them, and still does. It is a moving testament to the power of love and of love stories, and it makes Dogfight even a little transcendent. It seems amazing that a film this good could be so little-known.


(Richard Shepard, 2009)

Nice little documentary on the career of John Cazale, whose body of work might be the most consistently high-quality of any actor ever. He co-starred in 5 films – The Godfather I & II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter, then died in 1978 before the last of those films had even been released. Shepard’s documentary is basically just a load of (excellent) clips of Cazale being brilliant cut with interviews with his many legendary co-stars and friends.
But it really does help that those friends include the likes of Al Pacino, Meryl Streep (Cazale’s girlfriend in the last years of his life), Robert DeNiro, Sydney Lumet, Francis Ford Coppola and John Savage, and that the clips are from some of the greatest American movies of the 1970s. And it doesn’t hurt either that Shepard interviews articulate contemporary character actors like Sam Rockwell, Phillp Seymour Hoffman and Steve Buscemi on Cazale’s influence and impact.
It might feel a little like a glorified dvd special feature, but it does justice to the talent of an extraordinary actor and made me want to watch each of his flms again, which seems like mission accomplished.