Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Review - Maria Full of Grace

Maria Alvarez (the spellbinding Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a 17 year-old Columbian girl who works a tough, unfulfilling shift at a flower processing factory. What little money she makes is often taken by her family for her unmarried sister’s baby and, as if things weren’t difficult enough for Maria, she soon finds herself pregnant. Her boyfriend Juan offers to marry her but admits that he doesn’t really love her and she walks away from him. Maria wants more than life seems prepared to offer her and is understandably intrigued when a local young man tells her about a well-paid job which involves the chance of travelling. The job is smuggling drugs into the United States.

Maria is unsure at first but discusses the matter with Lucy (Guilied Lopez) who has made the trip twice. “How did it go?” Maria asks, “I’m still here” comes the reply. Maria agrees to make the journey and, telling her family she’s been offered a job in the city, prepares for the task ahead. Maria, her friend Blanca (who has made the trip much to Maria’s anger) and Lucy board the plane for the united states, each carrying dozens of condom-wrapped cocaine pellets in their stomachs. But the ordeal is only just beginning for Maria as their plans go awry and she must live by her wits to survive in New York.

This astonishing debut feature from American filmmaker Joshua Marston has been collecting numerous awards around the globe and it’s easy to see why. The stripped-down direction focuses on character above incident and tackles its subject matter with a refreshing frankness. Marston takes a documentary-style approach to the scenes of Maria’s Columbian life, slowly building a convincing portrait of day-to-day life there. The film has a strong sense of place and the casting of non-actors, often in roles similar to their own lives, pays dividends with a number of honest, and unmannered displays, notably Orlando Tobon as a local Mr fix-it and Patricia Rae as Lucy‘s pregnant sister.

Of course, with so much of the film focusing on Maria alone, Marston’s casting of the lead role was imperative to the film’s success. After a long search Catalina Sandino Moreno, who had no acting experience, was discovered and she responds with the performance of a lifetime. She has a strong, soulful screen presence and effortlessly holds the viewers’ attention from first frame to last. Maria is beautiful, determined, fiery, stubborn and smart, and Moreno makes this complex character a fully-rounded human being who can gain the sympathy of the audience despite the illegal acts she is involved in. She fully deserved her surprise Oscar nomination and hopefully she will realise her enormous potential in years to come.

The same could be said of the man behind the camera, Joshua Marston. His screenplay is smart and well-paced and his confident direction invests the story with urgency and emotion. Marston shows his true ability during the wonderful sequence depicting Maria’s flight to the US. As she tries to stay calm on the plane the film ratchets the tension up to a gut-wrenching intensity, which Marston manages to maintain with consummate skill. Later in the film, he displays his ability to deliver a scene full of high emotion without tipping into melodrama.

Critics of the film may argue that its approach is too narrow, focusing on one character alone and ignoring the wider implications of her acts, but this is still a hugely impressive piece of work. Maria Full of Grace is a beautiful, distinctive and moving film which features numerous outstanding performances and gives us a lead character we can care about without ever excusing or apologising for her acts. Marston sheds light on the factors which force so many women down this route, but never offers any easy answers.

The end of the film is a little disappointing, but perhaps that’s because we don’t want it to end there. As the camera fades out on the defiant face of Catalina Sandino Moreno, most viewers will be desperate to know what will happen next. But what kind of life awaits Maria, and the thousands of girls like her, is anyone’s guess.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Review - Melinda and Melinda

“A return to form for Woody Allen”. How many times have we heard that cliché uttered in recent years? How many times have Allen’s fans allowed themselves to believe that, this time, the great man was going to get it right? How many times have those fans been disappointed when Allen has produced another dire comedy? Too many times to mention. Nevertheless, the release of a new Woody Allen film is always highly anticipated and Melinda and Melinda has been receiving rave reviews prior to its release. Could this film mark Allen’s long-awaited return to form? Well, yes and no.
Certainly, Melinda and Melinda is leagues ahead of the insipid comedies Allen has been producing at such a ridiculous rate in recent years, although that’s not saying much. The film opens in a restaurant where two writers, one comic and one dramatic, are discussing the relative merits of their differing approaches to life. Another member of the party offers a hypothetical situation, a swanky dinner party which is interrupted when a distressed woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell) turns up unannounced. From here, Allen spins two stories, one comic and one tragic, which share similarities but only really have the character of Melinda in common.

In the comic tale the party is being held by filmmaker Susan (Amanda Peet) and her failed actor husband Hobie (Will Ferrell) in order to impress one of their guests, a potential investor in Susan’s new movie. Melinda, a young woman who has just moved in downstairs, turns up after swallowing a number of sleeping pills. After helping her recover and letting her stay for dinner, Hobie has fallen madly in love with her while his wife is determined to set her up with a rich dentist.

The dramatic story also starts with a dinner party, held by Lee (Johnny Lee Miller) and Laurel (Chloe Sevigny). Lee is an actor hoping to impress a director and is unimpressed when one of Laurel’s chilhood friends arrives at the door (Melinda again). She is suicidal after she lost custody of her children and her relationship with her lover broke down. Laurel attempts a bit of matchmaking, but problems are caused when Melinda falls for pianist Ellis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) because Laurel herself has fallen for the same man.

Allen has mixed comedy and tragedy before, notably in his best film Crimes and Misdemeanours, but this doesn’t really match up against his previous efforts. As the comic half of Allen’s film is so much better than the tragic half, the picture is fatally unbalanced. Allen’s comic tale is full of his trademark witty one-liners and offers some hilarious situations such as Ferrell’s farcical attempt to hear what’s going on in Melinda’s bedroom. Because it delivers a number of laughs this portion of the film can be forgiven for some contrived, predictable plotting and a trite climax, but it isn’t so easy to forgive such flaws in the dramatic section of the film. Despite some fine performances, this part of Melinda and Melinda is self-indulgent and dull and soon starts to drag the whole film down.

As with all of the films in which he doesn’t appear, Allen has enlisted an actor to be his onscreen representative. This poisoned chalice has previously gone to John Cusack (who did ok), Kenneth Branagh and Jason Biggs (who didn’t). This time it’s Will Ferrell’s turn and he handles it well. Despite occasionally appearing constrained by having to reproduce Allen’s mannerisms and speech patterns, he is genuinely funny and proves to be an excellent romantic lead. Chloe Sevigny and Chiwetel Ejiofor also impress, and share some fine scenes together, but the rest of the actors on show struggle to make an impact.

But this film really belongs to lead actress Radha Mitchell who gives two stunning performances. The former Neighbours actress has given strong displays in many films but has never really received the recognition she deserved for them. That should all change after Melinda and Melinda though. In the comic half of the film Mitchell is light and charming as the object of Ferrell‘s affection and she’s compelling in the tragic part, giving a convincing performance as the tortured heroine. It’s a remarkable dual display and it’s unfortunate that it may well be forgotten by the time next year’s Oscar season rolls around.

However, this is only a patchy effort from a once great filmmaker. The Allen of old would have played around with this conceit and explored the ways comedy and tragedy can blend and impact upon each other. Here, it seems sufficient to just run two parallel storylines with only the most tenuous connections.

He’s still churning them out at a rate of one per year (his latest, Match Point, has already been completed) and perhaps it would be better if he took a little time and fully devoted his attentions to a film befitting of his status. Melinda and Melinda is definitely a step in the right direction after Allen’s recent films, but we’re still waiting for that return to form.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Review - The Machinist

Stories of method acting madness are the stuff of cinematic legend. Robert De Niro piled on the pounds to play Jake La Motta, Daniel Day-Lewis spent the whole shoot of My Left Foot in a wheelchair while Robin Williams traumatised a number of terminally ill children in praparation for Patch Adams (possibly). Now you can add Christian Bale to the list of actors who have suffered for their art. For his role as a paranoid insomniac in The Machinist, Bale lost 63 pounds, a third of his body weight.

The first sight of Bale is startling, he looks almost skeletal. His ribs and shoulder blades poke through his skin, his eyes appear to be hollowed into his skull. It’s a shocking and disturbing transformation. For a while it has the effect of taking the viewer out of the movie; I wasn’t concerned about the fate of the lead character Trevor Reznick because I was more worried for the health of Bale himself.

Anyway, when I did manage to fix my attention on events surrounding Bale, I found The Machinist to be an intriguing and stylish psychological thriller. Trevor Reznik (Bale) is a factory worker who hasn’t slept in a year. Still, he manages to get by, although his life is a rather lonely existence, with his visits to local prostitute Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and some late-night banter with a waitress (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) at an airport diner acting as his only real links with the rest of humanity. The two ladies worry about his appearance; “if you were any thinner,” they both tell him at different points, “you wouldn’t exist”.

Soon a mysterious third party enters the equation. Ivan (John Sharian) is a new employee at the factory and he engages the hesitant Reznik in conversation one afternoon. Later, Reznik gets distracted by Ivan at one of the machines and causes a terrible accident in which a co-worker loses a hand. But none of his colleagues seem to know who Ivan is, and strange things start happening to Reznik; not least when he is almost killed at one of the machines himself. Is he the subject of a conspiracy cooked up by his co-workers, or is he losing his mind?

So he sets out to prove Ivan exists, while also attempting to hang on to his own sanity, and the film becomes a highly enjoyable, if derivative, thriller. Writer Scott Kosar and director Brad Anderson take great delight in wrong-footing the audience as they set up the puzzle of what happened to Reznik and they manage to create some memorable moments along the way. The horrific fairground ride, a bizarre hit-and-run and Reznik’s near-death experience at the factory are the standout sequences and all are confidently handled by Anderson. Throughout the film Anderson, helped by the stark and moody cinematography and evocative score, successfully creates a bleak and haunting atmosphere.

In addition to the fine direction, the cast do their best to make the film work. Leigh is reliable as ever, she may be typecast as a kind-hearted hooker but she does it well, and Gijon gives a sweet performance as the other woman in Reznik’s life. John Sharian, with his unnerving grin and imposing presence, is impressive as the mysterious Ivan, but this film belongs to Christian Bale. It’s not just his beyond-the-call-of-duty weight loss that marks this performance out, it’s the utter conviction, dedication and intensity he brings to the role. He perfectly conveys Reznik’s increasingly crazed state of mind, giving an incredibly authentic and sympathetic display.

His bravura performance holds the movie together when the various contrivances of the plot threaten to spin out of control. Kosar and Anderson can’t quite manage to keep it up right to the finish line and the film definitely starts to drag a little as they attempt to tie up loose ends. The twist, when it arrives, isn’t that much of a surprise and it certainly is disappointing to see the film wrap itself up so neatly in the final five minutes.

Still, I wasn’t bothered too much by it because I never really felt that the plot was the filmmakers’ main priority. The Machinist is more concerned with placing the viewer in the mind of a deeply troubled man and it succeeds admirably. The film is a dark and often unpredictable journey and, thanks to Bale‘s expert performance, it’s one you won’t forget in a hurry.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Review - Downfall (Der Untergang)

Sixty years after the end of the second world war, Germans have recently been making numerous attempts to come to terms with their country’s past. Downfall, the new film from Oliver Hirschbiegel, is the first German film to deal directly with Adolf Hitler since GW Pabst’s Der Letzte Akt in 1955. Adapted by writer/producer Bernd Eichinger from the memoirs of Hitler’s personal secretary Traudl Junge (who was also featured in the excellent 2002 documentary Blind Spot), the film portrays, with breathtaking accuracy, the final twelve days of the Third Reich.
Traudl Junge herself (here played by Alexandra Maria Lara) is our guide throughout Downfall. The film opens with her being hired by Hitler (Bruno Ganz) as his personal secretary in 1942 and then leaps forward three years to a Berlin on the edge of collapse. The city is being pummelled from all sides by the advancing Russian troops and is falling into anarchy. The reign of the Third Reich is coming to an end. Below the crumbling city, in his fortified bunker, Hitler struggles to maintain control. Hunched over a map and riddled with illness, he relays orders to units who no longer exist. His high-ranking officers all believe he should abandon the city or make a truce but Hitler himself believes he should “be on stage when the curtain falls”.

Elsewhere in the bunker, a myriad of subplots play out. Hitler’s lover Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler) whirls surreally through the corridors insisting that everyone should eat, drink and party their sorrows away. Joseph and Magda Gobbles (Ulrich Matthes and Corrina Harfouch) decide what the best way is to end their lives - and the lives of their children - when the end becomes inevitable, while outside the confines of the bunker, a Nazi doctor (Christian Berkel) is fighting impossible odds to stem the rising death toll and a young boy (Donevan Gunia) is living by his wits to survive the onslaught.

This description doesn’t do justice to the density and complexity of Hirschbiegel and Eichinger’s approach to this difficult material. After his 2001 thriller Das Experiment Hirschbiegel was hailed as a talent to watch, but nobody would have expected him to be capable of a film like Downfall so early in his career. He expertly develops the different strands of the narrative without ever allowing the tension to slacken or losing sight of the emotional core of the film. The film is incredibly detailed too, with the spectacular production design and Rainer Klausmann’s brilliant cinematography placing the viewer right in the heart of war-torn Berlin and making us feel like a fly on the wall in Hitler’s corridors of power.

However, the bulk of the praise for Downfall must go to Bruno Ganz for his astonishing portrayal of Der Fuhrer himself. He seems to have physically shrunken for the role, his left hand, rendered useless by Parkinson’s disease, flutters nervously behind his back. It’s an extraordinary transformation for this Swiss-born actor, who we normally recognise from more romantic roles such as Wings of Desire. But his physical recreation of Hitler’s mannerisms is only half the story.

It’s the depiction of Hitler as a kindly, human, flawed character which has attracted controversy in Germany. There are moments, such as the scenes when Hitler is betrayed by his generals or the scene when he puts down his beloved dog, where I had an odd sensation; I felt sympathy for this man. One of the accusations levelled at the film is the idea that ‘humanising’ this character somehow dilutes his atrocities, a ridiculous notion. As soon as one feels a tinge of sorrow on Hitler’s behalf he explodes in an anti-Semitic rage or claims the German people have failed him and “will pay with their own blood”. Downfall simply gives us a fully-rounded, completely believable portrait of Adolf Hitler, and surely the fact that he was only one man, not a monster, makes his crimes all the more terrible. Hirschbiegel’s direction is determinedly non-judgemental, he simply shows us how events unfolded, documentary style, and allows us to draw our own conclusions.

Ganz aside, the rest of the cast all give stunning performances, with the actors playing Traudl Junge, Eva Braun, and the Goebbels proving to be the standouts. In particular, Corrina Harfouch is stunning as the chilling Magda Goebbels, a horrifying embodiment of the fanaticism which Hitler inspired. In one of the most sickening, powerful sequences of the year, She kills her six sleeping children, one by one, by placing a poisonous capsule between their teeth and closing them down on it with an audible and horrible crunch. She does this because she doesn’t want them to live in a world without National Socialism, and she does it without a flicker of emotion on her face. Her heart lies, first and foremost, with Der Fuhrer.

Downfall is an awesome achievement, a relentlessly intense, unflinchingly honest film which sheds light on a world which we’ve never seen before. It is a masterpiece of historical accuracy and an intelligent, powerful drama which commands the viewer’s attention from first frame to last. Unquestionably one of the year’s finest films, it’s also one of the most important. Only by truly understanding what happened in Germany from 1933 to 1945 can we hope to prevent anything like it from ever happening again.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Review - 5x2

When Gaspar Noe unleashed his devastating Irreversible on an unsuspecting public, one of the key ideas driving the film was the notion that “Time destroys all things”. Another of French cinema’s brightest young talents, Francois Ozon, has now come up with his own take on the same theme. 5x2 comprises of five scenes in the life of a crumbling marriage, starting with the signing of the divorce papers and then taking us back in time to witness an uncomfortable dinner party, the birth of the couple’s child, their wedding and finally ending on their first meeting. Ozon presents these snapshots and lets us figure out how the loving, hopeful couple we see at the end of the film became the resentful and loveless pair we met at the start.
Once labelled the Enfant Terrible of French cinema, Francois Ozon has been making great strides with every feature since his breakthrough hit Sitcom. While films such as Under the Sand and Swimming Pool have displayed an increasing maturity and thoughtfulness in his work, the excesses of his early films never seemed too far from the surface (as proven by his camp extravaganza 8 Women), and that’s precisely why 5x2 is such a revelation. Here, Ozon has delivered an intelligent, serious and adult study of a relationship which stands as one of the finest films of the year.

The central couple are Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) and Gilles (Stephane Freiss), and the film revolves around the first-rate performances of these actors, especially the remarkable Tedeschi whose performance here is truly stunning. As Marion, she gives an incredibly subtle and complex display and she really does seem to ‘de-age’ as the film travels back in time. Compared to the carefree character in the final scene, she seems beaten and emotionally hollow by the time her marriage has turned sour. The light has gone from her eyes, it’s a magnificent piece of screen acting.

Ozon may well be the best director of women since Cukor, and it’s inevitable that co-star Freiss suffers a little in comparison. It’s not his fault, he gives a strong and believable performance, it’s just that we never get inside his head, and Gilles doesn’t develop as fully as Marion. Or perhaps that’s the point? Is Gilles' inability to change one of the reasons behind the failure of the marriage?

Because that’s exactly the sort of question Ozon invites us to ask with 5x2. Wisely, he never makes the cause of the breakup explicit, preferring to drop little clues here and there, evidence the viewer can then piece together. We re-evaluate what we’ve seen as the couple’s previous experiences are revealed to us. Why did Marion agree to the post-divorce sex session which opens the film? Is the orgy story, which Gilles tells at a tense dinner party, true or just a cruel attack on Marion? Why did Gilles avoid the birth of the couple’s child and what did happen on their wedding night? By the time the credits roll, we know the answer to some of these questions while others remain shrouded in mystery.

The film’s deceptively simple structure disguises the complex emotional and intellectual content. Ozon handles the backwards narrative with effortless skill, short blackouts mark the passing of time and some well-chosen pieces of Italian music provide touching interludes. This is the most satisfying film Ozon has made yet, intelligent, tough and true. Far from being an Enfant Terrible, he can now stand proudly among the first rank of contemporary filmmakers.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Review - 9 Songs

Few directors can claim to be as versatile, adventurous and prolific as Michael Winterbottom. Since his feature debut in 1995 (lesbian road-movie Butterfly Kiss), Winterbottom has racked up an astonishing 12 films with a thirteenth already in post-production. These films have ranged from small-scale contemporary dramas to science-fiction, a war film, a film about the 80’s music scene in Manchester, two Thomas Hardy adaptations and a semi-documentary on the plight of Afghan refugees; and Winterbottom has consistently worked wonders with unpromising material and a small budget. 9 Songs is his most audacious experiment yet, the story of two lovers told simply through sex and music. Unfortunately, it’s also the first Winterbottom film which can be classed as a complete failure.
You’ve probably heard about 9 Songs already. After all, it is (as the poster proudly states) “The most sexually explicit film in the history of British cinema”. This is no exaggeration, 9 Songs really does leave nothing to the imagination as it documents the various sexual acts Matt (Kieran O’Brien) and Lisa (Margot Stilley) engage in. The 9 Songs of the title are provided by the likes of Franz Ferdinand, The Dandy Warhols, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Primal Scream and (rather improbably) Michael Nyman. These bands and more perform in the gigs which the couple attend when they aren’t at home having sex.

And that’s it. No narrative, no backstory, no characterisation, just plenty of sex and music. It’s hard to know just what Winterbottom is trying to achieve with this film. There certainly is a good film to be made about a relationship built on sex, indeed there have been a number of classic films which do tackle the subject intelligently and provocatively, such as Last Tango in Paris or Ai No Corrida. But both those films benefited from strong character development and at least one superb performance (Tango is Brando’s finest hour while Eiko Matsuda is extraordinary in Nagisa Oshima’s film), and these are aspects that are sorely lacking in 9 Songs.

There is a facile attempt to give some sort of shape to 9 Songs. The film opens with O’Brien’s Matt in Antarctica thinking back to the time he spent with Stilley’s Lisa. Matt is in Antarctica because he is some sort of geologist but also because it gives him the opportunity to spout such clumsy metaphors as “Claustrophobia and agoraphobia in the same place - like two people in a bed”. Matt meets Lisa at a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club gig and they go back to his place for sex. They then repeat this pattern for the rest of the film. Winterbottom’s approach of juxtaposing the sex scenes and the musical sequences might have worked if the songs commented on the various stages of the relationship, but they appear to be fairly random, or the connection was so tenuous that it escaped me.

But the flaws of 9 Songs’ structure are the least of the film’s problems. The main reason it doesn’t work is down to the poor performances and total lack of chemistry between the two stars. Admittedly they don’t have much to work with, as character development does not seem to rank highly on Winterbottom’s agenda, but Matt and Lisa are such a dull, irritating couple that it is impossible to care what they get up to. The two actors are unconvincing and the heavily-improvised dialogue is utterly dismal (sample conversation: “Those glasses look stupid” “I’m trying to look stupid”, “They look ugly” “I’m trying to look ugly”).

Finally, the sex itself is just much ado about nothing. Is it really worth getting worked up about the sight of two adults having consensual, safe sex? Anyone who has seen any of Catherine Breillat’s films, or Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy, will not be shocked by the sight of real sex in a mainstream (i.e. non-porno) film. The only real boundary 9 Songs crosses is the sight of an onscreen ejaculation but, again, so what? What may be interesting is the line the BBFC have crossed in passing 9 Songs uncut, surely they can never again block a film on the grounds of sexual explicitness.

I’m sure Michael Winterbottom had good intentions with 9 Songs, but his experiment has turned up a dull, shapeless mess of a film which would surely have disappeared from sight completely if it wasn’t for the fuss over the sexual content. Disappointingly, that sexual content may mean more people actually want to see this than any of Winterbottom’s previous, superior films. And that’s a real shame.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Review - The Chorus (Les choristes)

Clement Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot) is an idealistic teacher who arrives at boys’ boarding school shortly after the second world war. He is immediately startled by the brutal methods that are employed by the fierce principal Rachin (Francois Berleand) to keep these troubled boys in check. But Mathieu sees some potential in his students; after hearing them sing he notices a couple of them possess good voices. Perhaps this former musician could shape them into a choir?

It is giving nothing away to say that The Chorus has a happy ending. Mathieu is following in the footsteps of Glenn Holland (Mr Holland’s Opus), Mr Chipping (Goodbye Mr Chips), John Keating (Dead Poet’s Society), Louanne Johnson (Dangerous Minds), Mark Thackeray (To Sir, With Love) and countless other inspirational movie teachers. All these characters enter a difficult environment filled with troubled youths and face great resistance at first, but soon their influence unlocks the students’ inner talents and has a profound effect on each of their lives. Done well, this kind of formula filmmaking can certainly be moving and thought-provoking but to do that a film must still attempt to add a little something of their own to that formula. It’s here that The Chorus fails.

First off, let's discuss the things that The Chorus gets right. In the lead role Gerard Jugnot is hugely impressive as the well-meaning Mathieu, giving a humane and completely believable performance. He seems to have a genuinely good relationship with the kids and the rest of the adult cast manage to give strong displays too; especially Berleand, who makes the best of a one-dimensional role. The children themselves are well cast, with Jean-Baptiste Maunier proving to be the real standout as Mathieu’s star pupil. The whole thing is nicely shot by Dominique Gentil and Carlo Varini, and there is a definite, if sickeningly manipulative, emotional pull in the final stages of the film.

But all this is to the service of a depressingly conventional, clumsy, shallow screenplay which simply has nothing new to say. The film begins with one Mathieu’s former students (Jaques Perrin), who is now the world’s greatest conductor (a series of magazine covers bluntly reinforce the point), returning home for his mother’s funeral. Here he meets one of his fellow classmates, who has bought Mathieu’s old diary along, and the pair start to reminisce the whole story. The plot then crawls from predictable storyline A to predictable storyline B without a single surprise along the way.

The direction, from first-timer Christophe Barratier, is heavy-handed and bland and the film fails to make the most of its setting. Other than a couple of occasions, when reference is made to children losing parents under Nazi occupation, there is no sign that this film is set in a country which was ravaged by war only four years previously, and where collaboration was still a major issue. The Chorus could be taking place in any country, at any time, and no attempt is made to place this simple-minded film in any kind of historical context.

The most depressing aspect of The Chorus is the notion that this simplistic, corny film has been made so obviously with the American audience in mind. The filmmakers have attempted to make it as palatable as possible to a public which normally wouldn’t dream of seeing a foreign-language film, and it has proved predictably successful. Shockingly, the French even selected it as their official entry for the Academy Awards, ahead of immeasurably superior fare (such as Cedric Kahn’s Red Lights, Agnes Jaoui’s Look at Me or Francois Ozon's magnificent 5x2), and it ended up as one of the five nominees for Best Foreign Language film. Clearly, they knew the audience they were aiming for.

There is one thing which prevents The Chorus from being a complete write-off, and that is the uplifting score provided by the boys themselves. It will stay with you long after the pre-programmed, dishonest sentimentality of the rest of the film has been forgotten.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Review - Kinsey

The knives were out from certain conservative groups in the US for Kinsey, the new film from writer-director Bill Condon. “For its mocking treatment of decency and morality, Kinsey deserves box-office oblivion," wrote Stephen Adams of online magazine Citizen, arguing that Alfred Kinsey’s “mainstreaming of promiscuity and perversion opened the way to the breakdown of the family and a flood of adultery, divorce, sexually transmitted diseases, illegitimate births, abortions, condoms in classrooms, the multibillion-dollar pornography industry, gay marriage and paedophilia”. Ouch.

Others were similarly unimpressed. "Alfred Kinsey is responsible in part for my generation being forced to deal face-to-face with the devastating consequences of sexually transmitted diseases, pornography and abortion," claimed Brandi Swindell, spokesperson for rightwing group Generation Life, the poor dear.

So viewers settling down to watch Kinsey may in for a surprise when they discover that the film is nothing more than a well-made, superbly acted but still extremely conventional biopic, and hardly the assault on moral decency that the film’s critics would have you believe.

The film documents the life and times of Alfred Kinsey (stunningly played by Liam Neeson), who achieved fame in the 1950’s after his exhaustive study of the public’s sexual habits led to two books and a greater understanding of human sexuality. He started out as a biologist, a career path which greatly disappointed his oppressive father (John Lithgow), and taught a class on the gall wasp. This brought him into contact with Clara ‘Mac’ Macmillan (Laura Linney) who proved to be just as liberated and intelligent as he was. The two married but had a difficult wedding night (a first experience for them both) and sought help from a doctor, whose advice led to a full and varied sex life.

Kinsey decided to offer his newfound knowledge to some of his students but was shocked at their ignorance (“What position do you most enjoy?”, he asks one couple, “you mean there’s more than one?” comes the startled reply) and the blatant lies they had been fed (one student believes oral sex leads to birth defects). Resolving to do something about it, he decides to begin a massive scientific survey of American sexuality. He discovered that such taboo subjects as masturbation, homosexuality and extra-marital affairs were common and also learned that every individual had their own ideas on what constituted ‘normal’ sex.

This is ripe material for a biopic and once again, as with his excellent Gods and Monsters, Bill Condon shows an ability to condense plenty of information into his well-paced, witty script. The framing device of Kinsey being subjected to one of his own interviews, which serves as the film’s narration, works well and - aside from a couple of, perhaps unavoidable, lapses - manages to avoid most of the biopic clichés. Condon does acknowledge the darker aspects of Kinsey’s work, such as the affair Kinsey had with his assistant (Peter Sarsgaard), the trouble his encouragement of partner-swapping caused for his team of researchers and his progression into making (and participating) in sex films (surely this is where his scientific interest spilled over into personal obsession). But for the most part these situations are only hinted at and not explored in any real depth. It’s one of Kinsey's flaws, along with Condon’s rather uninspired direction and his fondness for montage sequences, but doesn’t leave too much lasting damage.

The main reason Kinsey works so well is the wonderful cast which has been assembled. Neeson gives the performance of his career in the title role, giving great humanity and complexity to this fascinating character. He’s riveting throughout and can count himself unlucky to have been passed over at Oscar time. He also has a great chemistry with Laura Linney (who was Oscar-nominated) and she delivers yet another excellent display. The supporting cast all pull their weight, with Peter Sarsgaard confirming his status as a young actor to watch with a sensitive and subtle display as the bisexual Clyde and there are typically fine turns from reliable supporting players such as Oliver Platt and Dylan Baker. But it’s John Lithgow who stands out as Kinsey’s tyrannical father. His role seems like a stereotypical one at first, the kind of pompous, sarcastic turn Lithgow can do in his sleep, but there is a beautifully written and acted scene late on which makes us see this man in a new light.

Kinsey is not only a well-made picture but it’s an important one too. Condon’s script is full of lines such as “The forces of chastity are massing again”, a warning which is clearly aimed at modern USA as much as the one of the 1950’s. These lines especially resonate when you consider the hysterical reaction to the film’s release from certain influential groups. Kinsey certainly shows us how far we’ve come in the last 50 years, but it leaves us pondering how far we still have to go.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Review - The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Some directors are an acquired taste. I haven’t understood the acclaim which has greeted Wes Anderson’s previous three pictures - Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums - and his latest effort once again leaves me cold.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou stars Bill Murray as the Jacques Cousteau-like character of the title, an oceanographer and documentary filmmaker. During his latest expedition, Team Zissou encountered a ‘Jaguar Shark’ which ate Zissou’s crew member and best friend (Seymour Cassel). Zissou vows that his next adventure is to track down and kill the shark, but the lack of interest in his films is making it harder to find funding. Things are getting worse for Zissou as his wife Eleanor (Angelica Huston) has left him for his smarmy rival Hennessy (Jeff Goldblum) and a pilot called Ned (Owen Wilson) has turned up claiming to be his illegitimate son. But Ned has his late mother’s inheritance burning a hole in his pocket, so Zissou makes him part of the team and they set off on their mission.

Right from the start, The Life Aquatic is clearly a Wes Anderson picture. The brightly coloured production design, quirky characters, distinctive costumes and strange offbeat humour is all present and correct. But it all feels so familiar and so forced by this stage. Anderson has barely developed at all from Tenenbaums and much of this film is a chore to sit through.

The main problem with The Life Aquatic is Anderson’s over-stylised direction which squeezes the life out of all the characters and situations. Everything here is so crafted, so detailed and precise that the film never seems spontaneous or alive. Visually, it’s a treat, with Robert Yeoman’s lush cinematography making every scene interesting to look at. Anderson also pulls of some terrific shots here and there, not least the magnificent view of the entire ship which the camera glides around to give us a guided tour of the Belafonte’s inner workings. The film is incredibly detailed, and there are lovely little touches such as the Zissou brand trainers or the blue outfits and red hats which constitute the team’s uniform. But Anderson has clearly spent so much time on such visual flourishes that he’s neglected the more important aspects of his film.

The meandering, inconsistent plot drags like you wouldn’t believe. It’s an oddly random creation, losing focus of the story to run off on an extended tangent involving pirates which is desperately unfunny and features some bursts of violence which sit uneasily with the tone elsewhere. It’s almost as if Anderson has stitched together a couple of different film ideas without any regard for narrative coherence. Plot points, such as Anjelica Huston’s line about Zissou firing blanks, which questions the legitimacy of Ned being his son, are dropped as soon as they are raised without further discussion.

The characters are also underdeveloped and some very talented actors struggle to inject life into them. Bill Murray is Bill Murray, giving the same deadpan, sarcastic performance he’s been delivering for years, making for a bland centre to the movie. Owen Wilson and Cate Blanchett are both mediocre and their relationship is half-developed. Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon and Bud Cort are all given thankless roles, and it’s up to Willem Dafoe to give the film’s best performance. Dafoe is Klaus, Zissou’s over-protective German crewmember, and he has the monopoly on all the film’s genuinely funny lines. His finest moment comes when he misunderstands proceedings during the ship’s mutiny, and he always raises a smile when he appears. It’s wonderful to see Dafoe succeed so well with a rare comic role but he is sadly underused here.

Dafoe apart, The Life Aquatic is all at sea. It’s laboured, uninvolving and dull, and will do nothing for those who already dislike the work of Wes Anderson. Of course, his fans may well lap it up, there was certainly a lot of laughter at the screening I attended, but I still fail to see the appeal. While it is certainly heartening to see an American filmmaker producing such distinctive, personal films, I fear that Wes Anderson is an acquired taste I may never acquire.