4.00pm: Requiem For A Dream
Thanks to some extended post-film beerage with Old Lag last night - plus Ken's vague hints that The Man Who Cried was, in fact, pants and not worth catching at a matinee - I only ended up seeing two films today, rather than the usual three or four you've come to expect. Can you forgive me? When they're as good as today's pair was, hopefully you can.
Requiem For A Dream is based on a novel by Hubert Selby Jr, author of Last Exit To Brooklyn: so straight away you know that this will be no easy ride. When we first meet Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) and her son Harry (Jared Leto), she's locking herself in a cupboard trying to stop Harry pawning her television to get cash for smack. But Harry can see the spiral he's dragging himself into, and starts looking to break out of it. Together with best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) and girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), the three of them resolve to cut back on the dope and move into the more lucrative area of narcotics retail. Meanwhile, Sara has begun preparations for a forthcoming appearance on her favourite TV show. Life is starting to look better for all of them. And then, very slowly, it all turns to shit.
This is Darren Aronofsky's second film: his first was Pi, which showed in the 1998 Festival. I didn't rave about it as much as some people did: there was obviously talent there, but it showed no signs of being harnessed in any way. Requiem For A Dream shows a level of total tonal control that simply wasn't there in Aronofsky's debut. Barquing described this film to me as "like having your face pushed into a meat grinder for two hours, but in a good way": but nobody could possibly watch a movie like that. (I've seen I Stand Alone, so I know.) Aronofsky starts gently, and then turns up the heat bit by bit: the ferocious power of the climax is intensified by your amazement at how far the characters have fallen without you really noticing it.
The same battery of visual tricks that impressed people so much in Pi is in evidence here, possibly even more so. Distorting lenses, cameras attached directly to actors while they're walking, objects in the same shot moving at different camera speeds, some understated use of split-screen: but here they all combine to provide a devastating insight into the wasted minds on display. The drug-taking scenes are done as ultra-fast montages, a technique that was used in Snatch for comic effect but here emphasises the whole repetitive nature of addiction. And the soundtrack plays an incredibly important part here: Clint Mansell's fabulous combination of electronics and the Kronos Quartet starts in a lyrical mode in the style of Michael Nyman, but becomes more distorted and atonal as the descent into hell progresses. (Hard to believe that a dozen or so years ago, this man was making records like Beaver Patrol with Pop Will Eat Itself.)
The three younger leads - Leto, Wayans and Connelly - are all very good indeed: you can't just dismiss them as mere junkie wasters, and it's harrowing to watch them fail. But it's Ellen Burstyn who picks up the award for Best Actress If The Academy Had Any Balls (which I suspect, sadly, they don't). Her story is even more harrowing because it's the only one you can't really predict after the opening couple of minutes. She's got some incredibly difficult scenes to pull off: most of them have no dialogue at all, and she has to make emotional sense out of alternately vegetating in front of meaningless TV infomercials and being mentally harrassed by her fridge. She succeeds in all this to become the pure emotional heart of the film. Like I said, not an easy watch: but if you can do whatever it takes physically and/or emotionally to sit through this film, you'll be rewarded with something quite extraordinarily powerful.
8.30pm: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
As Adrian Wootton said during his introduction, Ang Lee's more or less become a fixture at the London Film Festival these days: virtually all of his films (with the exception of Sense And Sensibility) have had their first British screening here. It's become a tradition that after a film of his has shown at the LFF, he's asked what film he plans next: and the response always gets a huge laugh from the audience, because it's in an entirely different genre from what we've just seen. So when he announced after last year's Civil War drama Ride With The Devil that he was going to follow it up with a kung fu movie, it was greeted with the inevitable giggles. But who's laughing now?
Legendary swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) has come back from a period of meditation determined to put an end to his martial exploits. To this end, he literally hangs up his sword, donating it to Sir Te (Lung Sihung). But within no time at all, the valuable sword has been stolen: the thief turns out to be Jen (Zhang Ziyi), a young woman who is the disciple of Li's sworn enemy Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei). Li is fascinated with Jen to the extent of wanting to take her on as his own disciple: a move that perturbs his close friend Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), who's had secret feelings for him for many years now.
Doomed romance, betrayed friendships, simmering revenge, and about half a dozen major fights: all the elements of traditional Chinese melodrama are present and correct here. What Ang Lee does is to bring his usual sharp eye for character and story to a hoary old plot and make it seem totally fresh. He's aided by a terrific cast. Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh have, of course, crossed over from Hong Kong fandom to international success, and are both in top form here: Chow, in particular, takes his comparatively small part and uses it to give the film a romantic dimension that probably wouldn't be there otherwise. But the real star is Zhang Yiyi, previously only seen in Zhang Yimou's The Road Home: she's being touted as the next Gong Li, but this film shows her totally at ease with both dramatic and action material. There's a terrific extended central flashback scene where she comes into her own: the subplot of Jen's courtship with the bandit Lo (Chang Chen), a courtship that seems to primarily consist of the two beating each other up until they give in.
If there's a flaw in the film, it has to be in the much-touted fight scenes. The critics at Cannes fawned all over these like they'd never seen kung fu before: maybe they haven't, which may explain it. Lee has assembled some of the best people in the business (headed by choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, fresh from his triumphs on The Matrix), and has come up with some fabulous locations for running battles (rooftops, a teahouse, even at the top of a bamboo forest). But having gone to all this trouble, he shoots the fights with rapidly moving cameras and fast cutting, making it really hard to tell what's going on. As he said in the post-film Q&A, this is more about visual choreography than violence: and as with dance, you need to lock the camera down every so often and let the people on the screen show their stuff. The master directors of Hong Kong action cinema understood that, and it's a shame that for the most part Lee doesn't do this. (The one exception is the climactic battle several hundred feet up in the treetops, which presumably benefits from the difficulty of having a moving camera at that height.)
This quibble aside, Crouching Tiger is a wonderful piece of entertainment which does exactly what we expected Ang Lee to do: bring some emotional depth to a somewhat cliched old genre. (And he even sat two seats away from me to watch it, which was nice.) Apparently his next film may well be a musical. The audience laughed when he said that. Haven't we learned anything?
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Big Kahuna
Old Lag - I am very curious about selling as it is a very important part of commercial life, but one that is often looked down on in the UK, and is something I probably would not be very good at. The Big Kahuna is a chamber piece of three salesmen in a hotel hospitality suite, selling at a convention. An excellent cast including Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito, the former the ambitious, abrasive middleaged salesman, the latter one who feels life has passed him by. The third is the young recent graduate. The young man meets and talks to the President of their target company, but does not try to sell to him or tell the other two. The story revolves around this, as the young man is set up to speak to him again. The film 'play' is about the conversations of friendship and loyalty, behaviour and belief. Most of it passes me by, did not feel the conversation was interesting or meaningful. David Mamet has covered working men far better in Glengarry Glen Ross (Salesmen) and Speed-the-Plow (Hollywood). So only one star for this attempt.
Ken - I really liked this film. Not because it was good – it was truly dreadful – but for a critic that makes it something to get your teeth into. The concept was a very good idea though. The life of a supermodel is portrayed (except for the very first and last scenes) entirely through TV clips and video footage. Very cleverly done. But the story is dull despite the fact that the model’s rise to stardom is attained largely by sleeping her way to the top. The actress playing the model (Jessica Paré) has all the acting ability of a supermodel - but perhaps I'm being too harsh. Maybe it was very, very good method acting? The movie's sound track is far too intrusive (particularly in the early scenes). This criticism from someone who rarely even notices that a film has a sound track.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Old Lag - A rip roaring Chinese mythical adventure movie, with female heroes, lashings of fights and two romantic sub plots. Director Ang Lee's latest film drew the most positive audience reception seen at the festival so far, clapping and cheering at the end and clapping during the film for some of the fight scenes. Have to confess that some of the fights were like Tom and Jerry, fast and violent, but no obvious damage, eg spurting of blood or flying severed limbs. One curious feature of the warrior magic was the large leaps and bounds up walls and over roofs that were slightly beyond human endeavour and which created a slightly mystical atmosphere. Near the end two of the main characters skipped through the tree tops, bringing a lot of laughter from the audience. Last year Ang Lee's western film Ride With The Devil brought comments that he was a competent director of many genres, and it was no surprise at the question and answer session that he was asked if he would be directing a musical next, to which he laughingly replied yes. Spank tells me that my spare and unsold ticket was next to the director as he watched the film. Bad slip up there.
The Prime Gig
Old Lag - The Prime Gig (director Gregory Mosher) was altogether a more satisfying movie than The Big Kahuna. Based in the world of telephone selling, the anti-hero Penny (Vince Vaughn) is selected out from a low rent operation to join a telephone selling dream team to raise $2.5 million dollars in a short greed fuelled time, from gold mine shares. The film examines ambition and working relationships and motivation, and a plot theme of who is taking who for a ride. Gregory Mosher is an established theatre director who says directing movies is great fun. It was interesting that he hung around outside the theatre at the end of the evening but it did not look like anyone had any questions for him.
|<-Back to Sunday 05/11/2000||Return to LFF '00 Index||Forward to Tuesday 07/11/2000->|