Wednesday, 19 August 2009


Released just five months after the Titanic sank, In Night And Ice recreates that very story as faithfully as possible, despite the lack of solid facts. Eschewing the newsreel style, the film presents us with a hero of sorts – the radio operator, whose concerned telegrams form a running narrative, intersticed within scenes aboard the ship. A subtle sequence shows the travelling families conversing in their luxury cabins, the camera emulating the rocking of the water. The collision itself (a hilariously underwhelming event in the film) marginally shocks the passengers, but as the ship fills with water, the reality sets in. The details get a bit muddy towards the end, but the last few shots show the captain helping a man board a lifeboat, refusing to join under the proviso that “this is my ship; I will go down with her”.

Whereas these days producers and film execs bide their time before snapping up the rights to large-scale disasters, supposedly for fear of appearing insensitive, director Mime Misu clearly had more of a business mind about him, although he was beaten to the punch by French filmmaker Étienne Arnaud, who released a short dramatisation (starring an actual survivor, no less) just a month after the disaster. Some might say it is distasteful to be so quick off the mark, but I actually found it less so than James Cameron’s slushy epic made 85 years later. Overall, not an outstanding film, but certainly deserves to be seen for the historical value alone.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009


The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is best known for its Gross National Happiness index, of which they are very proud. The concept was introduced in the seventies to encourage the population to celebrate cultural and social values rather than financial comfort, and still pervades much of the culture today. Filmmaker and lama Khyentse Norbu certainly embodies this with his second film, a road trip movie which lightly condemns the influence of consumerism. Dondup, a government official, is a vehement Americaphile who has grown disenchanted with his isolated Buddhist village and wants to escape to the States. When he bungles the first leg of his journey, he winds up making the arduous trek to the Bhutanese capital Thimphu, accompanied by an omnium-gatherum of curious characters. A monk he encounters tells him a story of a traveller who succumbs to the lure of the West, but this does little to shake his determination.

Unlike Norbu's other film The Cup, Travellers & Magicians was shot entirely in Bhutan, and his patriotism certainly shows through the cinematography. On the whole, the film is absolutely beautiful thanks in no small part to the breathtaking landscapes. The style changes between sharp fact and soft-focus fiction gets a little irritating after a while, but the experience is energising and actually more universal than expected. Lead actor Tshewang Dendup, bringing to mind Korea's cuddly leading man Choi Min-Sik (Oh Dae-Su in Oldboy), plays a believable, lovable character, and saves the film from being an existentialist Buddhist pamphlet.


Opening with a series of haunting shots depicting a war cemetery, Wooden Crosses tells of the companionship and solidarity within a French battalion in the First World War, and the hardships they endure. The men bond on their experiences with women, the wives they’ve left behind, the women they dream of being with. When orders call them up to the front line in Champagne, no amount of masculine swagger can prepare them for the horrors of war.

Although the core themes had already been dealt with by earlier films such as Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet On The Western Front, Wooden Crosses’ blunt and realistic portrayal of war still has the capacity to shock. Director Raymond Bernard creates and destroys his characters by denying them the heroism they yearn. The casual plucky aphorism is exchanged (“What does ‘equality’ mean, Sulphart?” “It means you can tell anyone to go to hell!”), but the men suddenly realise their vulnerability when on the battlefield. There are slight flashes of staginess, but the photography in general is outstanding, and the belligerent soundscape matches the tone of the image perfectly, an impressive achievement for a film made just five years after the dawn of sound. One criticism would be that the artillery is left to do the talking for a little too long. It’s powerful and effective, but the characters seem distractingly unemotional as a consequence. Nonetheless, the film fully deserves to be up there with the likes of Paths of Glory and Come And See.


I'm all for independent cinema - no matter how low the budget, no matter how tight the shooting schedule, there should always be a world of possibilities available when a rich imagination takes the helm. But if you can afford to cast Eva Herzigova, a woman whose net worth is $12.3 million (admittedly green in the acting department, but that's beside the point), surely a bit of quality control wouldn't hurt? Not so for this club-footed romantic drama. Christine is a moody femme fatale, whose irresistible frumpy charm wins over a father and son who come to stay at the house with her and her excitable mother.

And that’s pretty much it. The script is an abomination, each line necessitating heavy enunciation as if being read to a class of hard-of-hearing toddlers. Most of the characters are repugnant beings, making it difficult to identify with anyone – the sex-hungry mother is particularly unbelievable, having been ordered direct from the menopausal soap star catalogue. The cast do their best with awful material, but it’s all a bit futile really. Herzigova does her role some justice, and she certainly looks the part, but it’s not something she’d want to put on her CV. On the photographic side, the film wins back a few points for making good use of the gorgeous lighting. The film's prettiest moments are essentially VH1 music-video filler, and are luckily dialogue-free. To conclude negatively, you know a film’s bad when even Herzigova’s naked body can’t keep you from yawning.

Friday, 14 August 2009


Taking its inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe's famous short story, Jean Epstein's expressionist film follows protagonist Allan as he comes to visit his older friend Roderick, an avid painter who has fallen ill with a selection of disparate symptoms. Roderick has little else to do to pass the time except paint portraits of his reticent wife Madeleine (his twin sister in the original story). During his sojourn, our hero spots Madeleine wandering around in a trance on more than one occasion. He soon learns that his companion is held in the throes of something more powerful than illness, and can do little else except bear witness to the ultimate proof of love’s destructive influence.

Assistant director Luis Buñuel is famously supposed to have quit after learning how liberal Epstein planned to be with the source material, but in its extant form, the film is still an incomparable mélange of surrealism and gothic fiction. Epstein was one for trying new cinematic techniques, and in many ways he outdoes his German Expressionist predecessors, with handheld camera work, creative framing and superimpositions of the same image onto itself. The silky soft focus distorts whatever reality is left in the house, reducing Allan’s experience in the house to an illusory nightmare. One striking sequence sees curtains and books floating languorously while the two men dine, Allan’s eyes wrenched open in fear. The film is also significant for its exploration of one individual setting, something it achieves with great success. A near-perfect paradigm of horror.