Breaking the New Year In – January 1st, 2010

First gaggle of reviews for the new year – and the decade! Woo!

Birth is a film that seems to border just to the left of being unnerving, if only because of it’s neigh exploitation-esque sequences with Nicole Kidman’s character Anna in the bathtub with young Cameron Bright (yes, yes – lucky kid, and so on), but it never really gets there. This is a film very much from the staid, almost mechanical class of filmmaking that seems to come from Stanley Kubrick and his lesser-known predecessors, although – there’s something missing, here. Jonathan Glazer’s film seems to open with a the promise of a premise that may border on the metaphysical – at least, that seems to be the implication at the beginning of the film, with it’s hazy juxtaposition of a water-birthing ritual over the body of the main character’s fiancée lying in the snow. And, for rest of the film, this seems to be the outline that even Glazer has accepted – the film seems to disregard the questionable nature of the boy’s identity as Anna’s husband entirely, moving on to confront the debatable morals and ethics behind the situation. It’s only later on, as the film nears its conclusion, that the film decides to recant on its more luridly intriguing ethical notions in favour of a solution that, as Roger Ebert and almost everybody else noted at the time of the film’s release, doesn’t really make much sense, either emotionally or logically. Which is a shame, I think.

There’s a focus throughout on faces, and in particular Anna’s – isolated in-frame from everything else, as Glazer allows her reactions and emotions to fill the screen for far-prolonged moments in time. In one instance, during an opera, Glazer holds on her for three full minutes as she finally makes her decision to regard the boy as Sean incarnate, allowing the music from outside the frame to subtly punctuate her fluctuations in thought toward arriving at this conclusion. It’s a lyrical, artful shot, as is the tracking sequence near the beginning of the film – if Glazer had composed his film entirely of long, unnerving takes like these, which is what it seems like he wanted to do for much of the movie, then perhaps there’d be far more warmth to it. Which is strange, because when Glazer isn’t doing something formally interesting like that, and it is simply two characters at a table talking to one another, all of the people in this film come off as very cold, and robotic, even in scenes where they’re posturing and yelling in anger.

As it stands, I kind of want to say this reminds me very much of those pre-Film Code movies like Child Bride, albeit with far more craft and intelligence behind it, where it really seemed to be striving for that implicative area of film where The Tin Drum resides. It’s unfinished, that’s what it is. That’s what feels like.

Eiichiro Hasumi’s Oppai Volleyball seems very much like the Hong Kong cinema equivalent to all those great eighties coming-of-age films, set at the end of the final school year as a group of friends are set to go their separate ways. But,  it’s also a film that really indulges the director’s fondness for the more indecently humorous side of youth, painting it’s gaggle of youthful protagonists – who, I can’t tell if they’re supposed to be high-school age or what – not simply as rowdy or mischievous, but downright perverted, almost obsessively so. Which is pretty truthful for most teenage boys, to an extent – to a full extent, sure –  but, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never ridden down a hillside in a shopping cart to try and simulate the feeling of running my hands over a pair of jubblies. That’s me, however.

There’s an overwhelming sense of irreverent nostalgia to the whole thing, in the off-golden hues that Hasumi paints his story in – and, in the constant seventies J-Pop in the background. While the constant antics and played-for-laughs perverted obsessions of the kids do grow a little stale after a while, for the most part, the film seems to focus more on the way that the whole of the film’s central conceit – that of the boy’s convincing their young volleyball teacher to show them her breasts – seems to become more about these boys grasping to have something relevant to remember their parting-of-ways by, and about the volleyball teacher, and what effect this is all having on her, both in her work as a teacher and in her private social life. It’s a very familiar story, especially in American cinema – but, here at least, it’s well and enjoyably told, if a little grating in certain pieces.

It’s funny – for a film about a bunch of rowdy, perverted teenagers in the seventies, in Hong Kong, this is a film that’s almost remarkably tame – which, it could be said, is intentional, and related to what I said about the film above. But, damn dude. The whole film we’re looking forward to what seems like an inevitable conclusion, and it never comes. What – the – EFFF, mang?

Peter Weir’s Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World is a type of film we haven’t seen in a while, before or since. It’s set out in the early 1800’s, in a boat in the middle of the ocean – but, it’s not about pirates, no. Instead, it’s a return to the kind of vast, sweeping historical epics that seemed to bloom in the eighties and nineties, framed through the continuous relationship between commanding veteran Aubrey, and doctor Maturin. The film begins by plunging us right into the middle of the good ship Surprise – the dreary repetitiveness, marked only by brief occasions of battle, taking place from afar. Yet, there are very few sequences of battle, in the film – three, by my own count. Weir’s focus instead seems to be on sketching a full daily life, and a working community, on the ship Surprise – and, it’s the authentic nature of the ship and it’s inhabitants that lend the film such a deserving air, as it examines the whole of life in such a context; moments, short pauses, even during the more visceral sequences mentioned above. As a young deck-boy looks toward the opposing ship out in the fog and takes in the breadth of what’s about to come, he looks to his left and sees the grizzled longshoreman, hands clenched hard and staring up at him. Scrawled in ink on his fingers from left to right is, “Hold Fast.”

This is a bit too brief for a film of such a wide-spanning nature, I’ll admit it. And, while the ending doesn’t make much coherent sense, and it doesn’t, this is a film that deserves far more consideration – and, you bet your sweet bippy it’ll get it.

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