Sunday, May 29, 2005

Review - Millions

Millions is Danny Boyle’s well-intentioned but hopelessly confused attempt at making a film the whole family can enjoy. After a couple of disappointing Hollywood efforts, Boyle seemed on firmer ground with the flawed but enjoyable zombie film 28 Days Later, so it’s a bit of a gamble to turn away from the kind of film he is most adept at and make a movie for younger audiences. His fable about the corrupting power of money has much to enjoy, but it falls into the trap of trying to appeal to both older and younger members of the audience, and satisfying neither.

Millions centres on two young boys, seven year-old Damian (Alex Etel) and his older brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon). They live with their father, played by the reliable James Nesbitt, and when the film opens they are in the process of moving house, hoping to start a new life after the death of their mother. They move to a newly built housing estate on the outskirts of Manchester, but Damian seems happier in his self-built fort near the railway tracks where his imagination conjures up the numerous Saints he has been obsessively studying (he responds to their appearance with nerdish delight: “St Francis of Assisi, 1181 to 1226!”).

Damian is in his fort one day, chatting to St Claire, when he is interrupted by a sports bag falling out of the sky and landing right on top of him. It’s filled with money, over £200,000, and Damian thinks it’s a gift from God. He immediately decides that the only thing to do is to use the money to help the poor, but his more financially-minded brother thinks they should invest it in property, or at least buy loads of cool stuff with it. However, they’ll have to hurry up because in less than two weeks Great Britain will be converting to the Euro (perhaps this fantasy is the hardest to swallow), and all their money will be worthless.

Just as they boys are having fun spending, the real reason for the money’s appearance emerges. It was part of a trainload of Sterling which was set to be destroyed and was stolen in a daring robbery. The bags of money were thrown out of the moving train to be collected by the waiting crooks, but one member of the gang (Christopher Fulford) missed his collection and now he’s after the kids to regain his stolen loot.

There’s an awful lot of incident packed into Frank Cottrell Boyce’s screenplay, turning what should be a light, fast-paced kids’ tale into a rather stodgy affair, over-burdened with plot and suffering from an inconsistent tone which makes it hard to fully engage with the story. Boyle’s stylised direction suits the story early on, with some lovely fantasy sequences depicting the boys’ boundless imagination. The cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle is also wonderful, making this one of the most visually rich British features in years. Above all, the film benefits from the quality of the two lead actors, Etel and McGibbon, who both give natural, unaffected performances. James Nesbitt is also fine as their father, and Pearce Quigley has a funny role as a local community officer, but Daisy Donovan is embarrassingly out of her depth in a major role and I could have definitely done without Leslie Phillips’ tiresome and unnecessary cameo.

Unfortunately, the spirited fun of the first half is soon forgotten as Boyle and Boyce get bogged down in the mechanics of the plot, and logic goes out of the window on a number of occasions (e.g. the criminal‘s near-omnipotence, the big currency exchanging sequence). Boyle’s attempt to maintain the whimsical tone soon starts to flag, and the film rushes with indecent haste towards the frankly awful climax, an ending which leaves many of the plot strands hanging.

It’s hard to know exactly what audience will appreciate Millions, a film at once too whimsical and cute for older viewers while probably proving too elaborate and complex for youngsters. The film’s release strategy does it no favours either, with the Christmas setting and Capra-esque tone sitting uneasily in a film released at the end of May.

Millions strongly recalls one of Boyle’s previous misfires, A Life Less Ordinary. Like that film, it tries to have it both ways, awkwardly and unsuccessfully trying to mix fantasy and reality. Boyle doesn’t seem to have learned his lessons from that film, and Millions is yet another frustrating disappointment from a director who is yet to reach his full potential.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Review - Friday Night Lights

Those of us who do not live in the United States may not think high-school level American football sounds like anything too important. It sounds like a youth set-up, a stepping stone to the real thing, and nothing more. However, success in the sport is often the only way for a teenager to break out and make a something of himself. The team’s most important players will often get good grades by default to allow them to concentrate on their game, and college scholarships will be on offer to the star players in a successful season.

Not only that, there is also the pressure of the local community to see the team succeed. This is a chance for the whole town to vicariously enjoy a taste of success, a spell in the spotlight, and an escape from the daily grind. The players and coaching staff will be treated like gods after every victory, and like pariahs after every defeat. It’s a hell of a lot of pressure to place on the shoulders of such young men and Friday Night Lights is a film which brings home this home with startling clarity. “You’ve got to lighten up, you’re 17” one player tells his colleague, “I don’t feel 17” comes the embittered reply.

Based on a true story, which was later reported in HG Bissinger’s acclaimed book, Friday Night Lights follows the Permian Panthers, a high-school football team from Odessa, West Texas. Gary Gaines, played with typical charm by Billy Bob Thornton, is the coach responsible for this year’s campaign and there is no doubt at the start of the film that expectations are high. The pre-season training sessions are swamped with television crews, the radio stations are full of callers proclaiming great things for the current crop of players, and Gaines cannot walk down the street without being bombarded with tactical advice. Odessa becomes a ghost town when there’s a match on, the place only ever comes alive inside the stadium on Friday nights.

This may sound like a typical, triumph-against-the-odds sports film, but nothing could be further from the truth. Tautly directed by Peter Berg, the film carefully avoids the pitfalls, stereotypes and clich├ęs of the genre, instead focusing on character and underplaying the emotion successfully. The screenplay, by Berg and David Aaron Cohen, is a model of economy. It presents us with a few distinct characters, each with their own traumas and obstacles, and carefully develops them until we are completely enveloped in their stories. Quarterback Mike(Lucas Black) has bags of talent but his ailing mother is a heavy load on his mind. Star player ‘Boobie’ Miles (Derek Luke) loves the spotlight until an injury threatens his season, and his future. Running back Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) has to deal with his drunken abusive father (Tim McGraw), who mocks his every effort on the field. Charles Billingsley won the state championship years ago and his life was an inexorable downward slide ever since. Pushing his championship ring aggressively into his son’s face is the only sign of potency he can muster.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Gaines as an easygoing character who has a burning fire he can unleash when he needs to. He takes the criticisms and the taunts after a defeat with gritted teeth and a smile, preferring to do his talking on the field. A gentleman in a brutal sport.

Director Peter Berg uses handheld cameras and a washed-out palette to fully immerse the audience in this world. He carefully balances the emotion with the spectacle and builds the tension expertly, delivering a big game climax which is both gripping and extremely moving. Only his use of music jars occasionally, with much of it being ill-chosen and intrusive. It’s an unnecessary embellishment, as the action speaks for itself.

Does it matter if you don’t know the first thing about American Football? Not a bit. By the climax I was as involved in this team’s efforts as if I had been a fan. This is not just a sports movie; it’s a film about broken dreams, hopes and fears; themes anyone can relate to and be affected by. The story of the Panthers’ 1988 season is a remarkable one, full of twists, setbacks and pain, but no viewer can fail to be impressed with the determination and desire these young men show throughout. It’s not just a sport for these boys, it’s everything. Bill Shankly may have been referring to another type of football when he said “it’s not a matter of life and death, it’s far more important than that”, but his famous words have seldom seemed so appropriate.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Review - Five Dedicated to Ozu

In his 2002 film Ten, Abbas Kiarostami stripped down his film to the bare essentials. Two cameras were fixed to the dashboard of a woman’s car, one facing the driver and one on the passenger, and the film consisted of ten conversations which took place in that environment. And that was it, simple yet effective.

However, it obviously wasn’t simple enough for Kiarostami’s liking. A reduction in the number of the title isn’t the only difference in Five, Kiarostami’s latest experiment. This one has no dialogue, no narrative and (on first glance) no editing. The film is made up of five sequences where a camera is pointed at a scene and we watch what unfolds in front of it. This is often not much; a piece of driftwood on a beach, some dogs in the distance, a moon reflected in water. Occasionally there is a flurry of activity, where some ducks or people wander across the screen, but that’s as animated as things get.

In the first scene of Five, a handheld camera follows a piece of driftwood on a beach as it is buffeted by the waves. In the second, the camera is fixed on a promenade and a number of people walk in front of it going about their daily business; a couple of them stop to chat. For the third we are back on the beach, watching a group of dogs in the distance as the sun’s glare seems to gradually grow. Part four is the most purely enjoyable, a very funny episode in which a group of ducks make their way along the beach. And finally, the longest part of the whole film is the one in which we see least. The reflection of the moon on the surface of the water is all we are given, but the soundtrack is full of activity as the various calls of frogs, insects and birds build to a cacophony.

The effect is disorienting, beautiful, soporific and quite unlike anything I’ve seen in a cinema before. In truth, it can hardly be classified as a film at all, being closer in spirit to a video installation in an art gallery (something Kiarostami has also dabbled in). Kiarostami has attempted to take the influence of the director away from the film and let nature take its course but this is not an entirely true analysis of events, as there is manipulation evident at many points.

Clearly, Kiarostami is pulling the strings on a couple of these sequences. The ducks change direction and quack on cue, the dogs are kept in place by some means, and isn’t it strange that the people in part 2 walk across in such fixed straight lines? Or am I now seeing manipulation where there is none? The most heavily edited piece is the final night scene which was actually shot over a number of nights to encompass a thunderstorm and daybreak, but knowing there are cuts present and actually spotting them are different matters entirely.

So what is the point of all this? Are we supposed to read some sort of meaning into these images, or just take them at face value and enjoy them? Kiarostami doesn’t claim any sort of hidden agenda or subtext but each viewer will undoubtedly take something different from the film. I found it to be an intriguing piece of work. It’s a calming experience which will only work if you completely surrender yourself to it, and there is also the genuine pleasure in seeing a filmmaker of Kiarostami’s standing throwing all the conventions of cinema to the wind and trying to truly take the art form into new areas. Of course, the idea of watching a 74 minute film in which almost nothing happens would be anathema to many cinemagoers, but the curious viewer, approaching the film with patience and imagination, will find much here to treasure.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Review - Mysterious Skin

How many people saw this coming? Gregg Araki is the director responsible for some of the most shallow, immature and nauseating films of the 90’s, with such puerile efforts as Nowhere, The Doom Generation and Totally Fucked Up. Araki was at the forefront of the ‘new queer cinema’ movement which emerged in the early part of the decade but his angry and often incoherent films lacked the skill and insight of some of his compatriots, such as Todd Haynes or Gus Van Sant. Mysterious Skin, Araki’s latest film, seems to promise more of the same. After all, it is another tale of disaffected, sexually ambiguous teenagers trying to find their place in the world, it’s shot with Araki’s typical flair and it contains a number of shockingly violent sequences.

But Mysterious Skin is something else entirely, a quantum leap forward from Araki’s previous work. It’s the first time Araki has adapted his screenplay from another source, in this case Scott Heim’s novel, which may explain why his characterisations are so much richer, and his screenplay so much more grounded, than usual.

The plot takes place in a small Kansas town and revolves around two young men named Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Brian (Brady Corbet). They don’t know each other, but they are connected. Ten years previously, at the age of eight, the pair both played for the local softball team in which the confident Neil was the best player and the sensitive, bookish Brian was the worst. That summer, they were both molested by the team’s paedophile coach (Bill Sage) and their differing reaction to this incident is where the drama of Mysterious Skin lies.

Neil has become a gay prostitute, hustling older men who hang around the local derelict playground, while Brian cannot remember anything from the five hours of his ordeal and has started to believe that he was abducted by aliens. He has been investigating his mysterious past and putting together clues from his dreams, which eventually leads him to Neil’s door.

Much of Mysterious Skin’s content is tough to digest and Araki’s presentation of these sequences is uncompromising. The scenes in which the young Neil is being ‘groomed’ by the predatory coach are sensitively handled and extremely powerful. Likewise, later scenes which deal with Neil’s prostitution are uncomfortable viewing (“Make me happy” groans an elderly man who simply wants Neil to caress his AIDS-afflicted skin), and one depiction of a brutal rape is almost unwatchable. But there is also a rare beauty present in Mysterious Skin; Araki coats his film in a golden light and adds some welcome scenes of surreal beauty, only a couple of which seem heavy-handed.

Central to the film’s success is the quality of the ensemble cast. As Neil, Joseph Gordon-Levitt dominates the picture with a revelatory display. The young actor, best-known from TV sitcom Third Rock From the Sun, exudes a brash arrogance and cynicism and his snake-hipped charm is perfect for the role. One of Neil’s friends remarks that “where most people have a heart, Neil McCormick has a black hole”, but it’s clear that his posturing, unfeeling demeanour masks a sensitivity and longing for human warmth (he describes the paedophile coach as the only person who ever really loved him). Brady Corbet is equally impressive as the confused Brian, whose dawning realisation of that night is movingly depicted. Michelle Trachtenberg and Jeff Licon make an impression as Neil’s closest friends while Bill Sage is remarkable as the enigmatic coach (we never learn his real name, only knowing as much as the kids know about him).

The film slowly develops a complete picture of the abuse these boys suffered and the effects it has had on their lives, building to a cathartic, transcendent climax. Araki’s direction is subtle, intelligent and brave, and with Mysterious Skin he has finally delivered a film which matches compassion and emotion to his visual style. The characters of Neil and Brian may be forever scarred by the events of their youth, and a part of them may always be stuck at the age of eight, but Gregg Araki has finally grown up.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Review - Kingdom of Heaven

Hollywood has not been doing too well with historical epics lately. Last year Troy and King Arthur proved to be two of the summer’s biggest disappointments while we’ve already suffered Oliver Stone’s spectacular misfire Alexander in 2005. Now Ridley Scott, who had enormous success with Gladiator, tackles the crusades of the 12th century for his latest film Kingdom of Heaven.

The story is standard stuff for the genre. Orlando Bloom plays Balian, a humble blacksmith mourning the death of his child and his wife, who committed suicide shortly afterwards. Out of the blue a knight of the crusades named Godfrey (Liam Neeson) turns up and announces himself as Balian’s father. Godfrey invites his son to join him as they travel to Jerusalem and Balian reluctantly agrees, hoping a prayer in the holy land will save his dead wife’s soul from eternal damnation. Along the way Godfrey gives Balian advice on how to be a good knight (always speak the truth, protect the helpless, look twice before crossing the road etc.) but he is killed during a battle and passes his mantle to his son.

Balian continues to Jerusalem and finds himself in the service of King Baldwin (Edward Norton) and quickly falls in love with the beautiful Sibylla (Eva Green) who, of course, is the wife of Balian’s fiercest rival Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas). Balian has idealistic notions of Jerusalem being a place where Christians and Muslims can come together in peace and harmony, but Lusignan, along with his violent partner Reynald (Brendan Gleeson), is determined to take his place on the throne and wipe out the Muslims completely.

It takes forever for Kingdom of Heaven to get to this point and then it takes forever to drag itself to a conclusion. William Monaghan’s threadbare screenplay, Scott’s overheated direction and some bizarre casting choices sink this overlong, dull and confusing picture. The film also struggles with the almost impossible task of trying to please viewers of every denomination with a post-9/11 film of the crusades. Add these factors together and you’re left with one unholy mess.

The biggest flaw lies with the casting, especially the choice of actor in the lead role. Orlando Bloom was well-suited to his breakthrough role of Legolas in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but since then he has shown no real talent or depth, giving a series of nondescript performances. Here he has to carry a massive picture and he is left helplessly, embarrassingly adrift. The charisma-free Bloom adopts a sullen demeanour and maintains it for the whole film in the desperate hope that it will portray depth or suffering. He has no screen presence whatsoever and it makes you realise how much of Gladiator’s success was down to the committed central display from Russell Crowe. Bloom’s bland performance in the key role is a handicap the film can’t really recover from.

But none of the cast exactly distinguish themselves. Jeremy Irons is on pretty good form, giving a performance which falls just short of the line marked ‘hammy’, but Brendan Gleeson marches heedlessly over the line giving a ludicrously over-the-top turn. Eva Green is stripped of all the joie de vivre which she exhibited in The Dreamers and her budding romance with Balian is laughably rushed (their love scene must count as the most perfunctory on record), while Marton Csokas plays the cartoon villain with a permanent sneer. And what on earth is Edward Norton doing in this mess? He’s hidden by a metal mask throughout as the leprosy-afflicted King and contributes nothing to the film.

I’m no expert on this particular time in history but it looks like you’d have to be in order to completely follow Kingdom of Heaven. I often had no idea where particular scenes were taking place, why and with whom. Much of this is down to the choppy direction but most blame should be attached to Monaghan’s screenplay, which is riddled with holes (how did Balian suddenly become such a great tactician then?). Monaghan also has to negotiate the tricky waters of religion without offending anybody and has delivered a laughably watered-down script in which nearly all the Arabs are peaceful while the Christian knights (apart from Balian, obviously) are mostly bloodthirsty savages. In attempting to adapt a 12th century story to a 21st century mindset Monaghan seems terrified of dealing with religion at all, which is a problem in a story of religious war.

Of course, Scott can handle epic scenes, and much of the film is spectacular, but away from the battlefield his direction is repetitive and sloppy and his pacing is lethargic. Scott pulls out all the stops for the climactic siege of Jerusalem and finally the picture springs briefly into life. It’s a technically impressive sequence but you have to sit through the preceding two hours to experience it, and afterwards the film still has a bit of time left to fizzle out into a drab conclusion. The final battle is too little, too late and can’t disguise the fact that Kingdom of Heaven is a staggeringly inept film. Horribly overstretched at 145 minutes, the incoherent and shockingly boring Kingdom of Heaven is sheer hell to sit through.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Review - A Dirty Shame

Well, at least the title is appropriate. John Waters, the director famed for bad taste, has returned with his first film in four years, and it’s a stinker. There’s nothing in it to match Waters’ high water mark of gross-out humour (transvestite Divine eating a dog turd in Pink Flamingos) but this film is shocking for another reason: the complete lack of laughs. Once again, Waters sets the action in his beloved home town of Baltimore. Tracy Ullman stars as Sylvia Stickles, a miserable, dowdy housewife who has no interest in sex, much to the frustration of her husband Vaughan (Chris Isaak). But things change for Sylvia when she is hit on the head and her resulting concussion awakens a furious sexual desire in her. A local mechanic named Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville) takes advantage of this and invites Sylvia to join his team of sex addicts, whose aim is to liberate the prudes around them and discover the holy grail - a sexual act which has never been done before.

There is so much wrong with A Dirty Shame that it’s hard to know where to start. Waters’ script is a major culprit; a monotonous, shallow and uninspired effort. OK, we don’t exactly expect sophistication from one of Waters’ screenplays, but this one is staggeringly low on decent gags. Waters has found a couple of jokes and repeats them endlessly in a desperate attempt to stretch the film out to feature length. For example, Selma Blair, as Sylvia’s trashy daughter, sports a pair of comically enormous breasts (credit to the makeup department). The first sight of Blair dancing in hot pants may provoke a bit of surprised laughter but it doesn’t have the same effect after the umpteenth viewing. Likewise, the fact that the characters zap in and out of sex addiction by banging their head leads to a number of unfunny slapstick scenes.

This all becomes very tiresome very quickly. Waters takes the tone of a sniggering schoolboy throughout, flashing words like W-H-O-R-E and V-A-G-I-N-A up on screen at regular intervals. Most of his efforts appear to have gone into compiling an encyclopaedic list of euphemisms and sexual perversions which he proceeds to trot out in place of witty dialogue. Of course, the film’s scattergun approach means one or two moments will raise an indulgent chuckle, but the ratio of duds to gags is embarrassingly unbalanced.

The cast don’t really help matters. Tracy Ullman attacks her role with a manic energy, which carries the film in the early stages, but her face-pulling and shouting wears awfully thin after a while. Johnny Knoxville is given almost nothing to work with and delivers a forgettable display, Chris Isaak and Susanne Shepherd are alright, while the rest of the cast are hit and miss.

The second half of the film becomes a zombie movie spoof, with the ‘neuters’ under siege from the sex addicts, leading to a chaotic climax involving head-butting and David Hasselhoff on the toilet. But by that stage I had completely lost interest in the whole business and was wondering how on earth Waters made such a mess of this? A Dirty Shame was a superb opportunity to take a swipe at the puritanical mores of the American right, but his film is too broad to work as satire and too unfunny to work as anything else. He had a premise loaded with potential and screwed it up completely. That’s the real dirty shame of this movie.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Review - Mean Creek

Mean Creek, the debut film from writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes, has much to recommend it. Beautifully shot and acted, the film is a serious, brave and compelling teenage morality play about a prank which goes horribly wrong. Unfortunately the film falls apart in the second half when Estes proves unable to handle the ramifications of his plot developments and can’t maintain the absorbing drama of the early stages.

The film revolves around a school bully named George (Josh Peck) who regularly administers beatings to those younger and weaker than him, often without any provocation. One of his victims is Sam (Rory Culkin), a quiet, introspective kid who doesn’t believe in fighting back (“if we hurt him, we’d be just as bad as him”). Nevertheless, Sam’s older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) does think that George needs to learn a lesson and, along with a couple of his friends, hatches a plan to humiliate him. They invite George to Sam’s (non-existent) birthday celebrations which will comprise of a boat trip up the river. He happily accepts and joins them on their journey, but along the way the kids start to see George in a new light and start to have second thoughts about their cruel prank. However, the group’s dangerous leader Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) is unwilling to be swayed from their revenge.

If the film has flaws then none of them can be attributed to the cast, all of whom give accomplished performances. Rory Culkin, the nominal lead, actually gives the least interesting display and finds the spotlight stolen by some of the less well-known actors around him. The real star here is undoubtedly Josh Peck who delivers a tremendous turn as George. As the film progresses, we start to see that George is more than just a malicious bully. He’s a sensitive, mixed up, lonely, fat kid with a learning disability and his cheery demeanour at the start of the trip, when he thinks he’s been invited along for friendship, is heartbreaking. But George is just as likely to turn on his companions, and is quick to leap on any sore spot or sign of weakness and exploit it. So should we feel sorry for this character?

Peck’s ability to create such a fully-rounded character and convey so many emotions with ease is startling and it makes the first half of Mean Creek an unsettling experience, not least in the extraordinarily tense game of truth or dare which spins out of control. And Estes’ touch is just as sure when it comes to the rest of his young performers. 14 year-old Carly Schroeder is astonishingly good as Millie, who becomes unwittingly involved in the revenge plot when she thinks she is set for a date with new boyfriend Sam. As the only girl on the trip, her presence also tempers some of the macho (homoerotic?) behaviour on board. Also deserving of praise is Scott Mechlowicz as the group’s surly, charismatic leader, whose beatings at the hands of his own older brother may explain his desire to see George get his just desserts.

This is a potent set-up, and Estes shows his skill in building the tension between the kids and successfully manipulating the audience’s emotions. But after the film has revealed its hand (it’s not really a twist as we can long see where the film is heading), it can’t replace the lost sense of menace it had so effectively developed. The air just goes out of the picture and we are left with a meandering final third with Estes failing to achieve the sense of profundity or psychological depth he is clearly striving for. What should have been a powerful climax fizzles out into a damp squib.

Clearly Estes has bags of talent. He can handle actors, build tension and his film looks sumptuous (the river journey recalls the films of Terrence Malick and David Gordon Green), but his inexperience tells when trying to sort out the narrative mess Mean Creek becomes embroiled in. Thanks to the precocious cast, Mean Creek is definitely a trip worth taking, it’s just a shame that Estes finds himself without a paddle for so much of it.