Film reviews

Moving images
Naqoyqatsi (below), dir. Godfrey Reggio.

The opening sequence is impressive: a long, slow travel across the facade of a ravaged, inky, multi-storeyed building. Its arcades and aspects are desolate, eloquent. Something has happened here. But what? The effect is like that of the disquieting photography of Australian Bill Henson. Enticing. Disorienting. You want to know more.

Okay so far. And there is Philip Glass’ score, haunting and coherent (not overbearing as it was in The Hours). And Yo-Yo Ma’s transcendent cello. Plus all the visual tricks that dedicated, multi-talented techs can deliver. A dutiful reviewer can’t close her eyes, lie back, listen to the music and forget the digital transformation of some 3.5 terabytes of information (no such obligation attaches to anyone else). And if you are a fan of MTV, fractal imagery and portentous abstraction, then by all means stay bug-eyed and receptive for the whole 90 minutes. And you can be admiring too, because this is very worthy stuff. Godfrey Reggio’s take on 21st-century existence is passionate, his commitment to justice patent. In this third of his trilogy with Hopi language titles (‘Naqoyqatsi’ means something like ‘each other-kill-many-life’) he constructs a relentless, wordless critique of technology, of human competitiveness escalating into brutish violence. And yes, he is aware of the irony of using ‘cutting edge’ technology to warn of technology’s catastrophic takeover. And he was for 14 years a member of a contemplative religious order so his values are all in the right place.

But it’s such a prescriptive onslaught. In the welter of manipulated imagery there is so little room to think. No space, for all the film’s inventory of natural wonders. Remember the scene in Carol Reed’s The Third Man, where the camera moves from the glint of a shoe slowly up the human body to Harry Lime’s (Orson Welles’) infinitely complex face? There is more menace and wonder in that one sequence of film than in all the artful construction of Reggio’s opus. Maybe because Reed better understood that the ideal play between director and audience, visual image and viewer, is dynamic, not passive.

Morag Fraser

Open heart surgery

Open Hearts (right), dir. Susanne Bier.

The Dogme manifesto was thrust upon the world in 1995 by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. Like the declarations of the Nouvelle Vague, or the Oberhausen Manifesto, it asserted itself as the cure for the corrupt state of contemporary film-making—a new New Wave. Based on a ‘vow of chastity’ eschewing such fripperies as lighting, sets, external music, props and costume and so on, it aimed (or so it said) to focus on the ‘reality’ of the inner lives of the characters, rather than exploding cars and special effects.

In practice, the ‘truth’ of many Dogme films consists of absurdly melodramatic performances generated in response to the most artificial and contrived of narrative set-ups. In the case of Susanne Bier’s new film, Open Hearts, the set-up turns on the shattering of Joachim and Cecilie’s soon-to-be-wedded bliss by a car accident that leaves Joachim quadriplegic. He pushes her away out of self-pity; she turns to Niels, a doctor at the hospital where Joachim is treated, who just happens to be the husband of Marie, the woman who ran him down. Joachim yells a lot and is rude; Cecilie cries a lot; Niels looks troubled and supportive; Marie alternates between sweetness, denial and distress (the most complex performance of the film).

Like most Dogme films, it is shot on digital video and looks pretty ugly. The obligatory hand-held camerawork and jump cutting doesn’t feel so much like ‘documentary realism’ as it does ‘video clip’—a feeling reinforced by the use of music as a substitute for emotion in the film itself. If there was some genuine exploration of the network of guilt binding the quartet of characters together, it might be an interesting film. But instead we get your basic wife-vs-lover story, with a quadriplegic sub-plot thrown in. There are some Dogme films that work on their own terms (Italian for Beginners, for example), but I suspect that this is despite, not because of, the manifesto or its vow. Open Hearts doesn’t have much more to offer than its ‘Dogme-ness’, and given that I suspect that the manifesto is von Trier’s idea of a joke on both the viewer and other film-makers, that’s not much of a recommendation. 

Allan James Thomas

Shooting with blanks
The Matrix Reloaded, dir. the Wachowski brothers.

The first Matrix was brilliant. It was one of the true originals, with a dark, bold story of dystopic conspiracy: full of archetypes, epiphanic moments and a twist on special effects that made them more than whizzbang. All those slo-mo and full-rotation camera angles created the flavour of something new, particular and vividly creative. Tribute was paid to its genius throughout the film and TV industry when those swooping faux 3D frozen moments were emulated, quoted, plagiarised and satirised. A new brand was born, a frame of reference was planted in the minds of everyone everywhere.

I suspect that the Wachowskis got too rich and successful, were courted by
bigger money and thought ‘let’s do more of the same but bigger’, forgetting that more is so often less, and often—as with George Lucas’ horrible prequel travesties cluttering the only two good Star Wars movies—becomes virtually nothing.

So what is so wrong with this sequel? Well, the edge is gone. There is no more real conflict, unless you count the glaring moral void when Neo (Keanu Reeves, that wonderful actor so curiously empty here) is given the choice of saving his girlfriend Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) or saving a quarter of a million human beings. He doesn’t even hesitate, let alone break a sweat: he saves Trinity and the rest of the human race can just die. But of course, you see, the script makes Nietzsche’s Übermensch look like Mother Teresa. We are reminded that Neo is ‘the one’ and various messianic images are perpetrated, as when he returns to Zion, the refuge of the remnant of human beings, and is besieged by devotees. They are treated in the film pretty much as ordinary fans are by Holly­wood—insignificant pests who want a piece of the superstar. No religious experience here, only empty reference without comprehension. And the mysterious, glorious Zion, spoken of in hushed tones in the first film, is simply a subterranean shanty town that likes to party hearty, a cave rave.

And the crowning failure is the car chase—14 minutes of complete lack of tension, so replete with computer effects that you almost expect to see a line at the end promising that no actual vehicles were harmed during the making of this movie. But there are so many failures to choose from: the ludicrous love scenes, complete with naked backs liberally decorated with black computer buttons; the predictable wire-assisted fight scenes lifted straight from the Hong Kong martial arts film genre; the black leather clothes, which looked so good in the first film and now look so try-hard. I could cite more, but really, I’d start to get as bored as I was sitting at Hoyts last week watching the damn thing. 

Juliette Hughes

Seamless lies
La vérité si je mens! 2 (Would I lie to you, again?), dir. Thomas Gilou.

This sequel to a 1996 film of the same name is an exquisite piece of French froth and bubble. Although handicapped by English subtitles, which distract from some hilarious dialogue, the vitality of the visual humour still carries the day.

A group of young garment manufacturers are struggling to compete with the multinationals in the Parisienne rag trade. Sell garments they might, but payment is slow. In desperation they approach a giant clothing chain, Euro Discount, with a trendy outfit featuring a catchy logo. The interest shown by the general manager of Euro Discount, Vierhouten (Daniel Prévost), is flattering and at first very promising. Then, however, the marketing giant begins to apply the screws, placing condition after impossible condition on the contract. The last straw is the rejection of their product for the contrived reason that the fitting is too small.

Predictably, they find their garments, bearing their logo, being sold everywhere in Euro Discount stores carrying a ‘Made in China’ label. They attempt to mount a court challenge, but this is unsuccessful.

Acknowledging that they have been duped, our heroes break up their business and go their separate ways, until Eddie (Richard Anconina) has an inspired idea for a sting that will cut the villainous Vierhouten down to size.

The execution of the sting itself occupies relatively little screen time. The action moves between Paris, St Tropez and Tunisia. Much of the film’s running time is devoted to the matrimonial problems and love interests of the five men. It is an ensemble effort, with the acting honours going to José Garcia who plays Serge, the delivery boy, who unwisely has an affair with the daughter of a wealthy family, pretending he has money to burn. It’s a frenetic performance. His role in the sting is absolutely manic.

Although there are no big names in the cast, there are some marvellous cameo performances. The movie audience has the opportunity to enjoy the company of this group of friends. Importantly, the cast members react to each other with infectious vitality.

And the final sting? It’s child’s play, so to speak. 

Gordon Lewis


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