Monday, June 27, 2005

Review - Batman Begins

Eight years ago, it seemed the Batman franchise was dead in the water. Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (an ominous title if ever I heard one) and Batman and Robin was a one-two punch which knocked all credibility out of the character thanks to Schumacher’s incompetent direction, the increasingly ludicrous design of the Batsuit (moulded nipples anyone?) and poor casting choices which saw the series slide into self-parody. It was all a far cry from the films delivered by Tim Burton, whose Batman and Batman Returns offered a brooding central performance by Michael Keaton, memorable villains, striking production design and Burton’s uniquely twisted sensibility, which papered over many of the cracks in the often weak plots. Unfortunately all his work was systematically dismantled by Schumacher, who turned The Caped Crusader into a laughing stock - where on earth could Batman go from here?

The only logical answer is to go right back to the start. Batman Begins delves into the backstory of Bruce Wayne, showing how the billionaire was affected by the death of his parents and how he confronted his own fear of bats to create his crime-fighting alter ego. This new film is co-written and directed by Christopher Nolan, who showed enormous potential with the thrillers Following, Memento and Insomnia, and he handles the move to the big-scale event movie with ease. Batman Begins is a dark, gripping and intelligent film, as much a character study as a summer blockbuster, and it is the best Batman film made yet.

We first meet Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) languishing in a Chinese prison, from which he is rescued by a mysterious businessman named Ducard (Liam Neeson). Ducard takes him to a mountaintop temple where he is trained to become part of the ‘League of Shadows’, a group of warriors dedicated to purging the world of decadence and corruption by any means necessary. Bruce begins training and learns to face his fear of bats, a phobia he has had ever since he fell into a cave filled with the creatures as a child, eventually emerging as a finely-tuned fighting machine.

After an altercation with Ducard, Bruce returns to Gotham to find it riddled with crime and teeming with corruption at every level. Crime boss Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) is running the city, using a corrupt psychologist (Cillian Murphy) to get all his crooks declared insane and out of jail. In fact, it seems there are only two honest characters still fighting the war against crime; Bruce’s childhood friend Rachel (Katie Holmes) is an idealistic young DA while Officer Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) is a world-weary cop who seems resigned to the way things are - until the appearance of a masked avenger gives him hope that Gotham can be saved.

It’s almost an hour into the film before Bruce actually dons his suit for the first time and Nolan uses the time to set the foundations of Bruce’s psychological trauma and carefully fleshes out each of the many characters. Nolan proved himself more than capable at developing a fractured narrative with his clever Memento, and here he handles the numerous flashbacks and plot strands with consummate skill. Once Bale does start to put his new persona together, it is done in a smart and witty way with Morgan Freeman adding a touch of class as Wayne Enterprises’ weapons expert.

Nolan gets quality performances from his imaginatively chosen cast throughout, with Bale excelling in the lead role. It’s nice to see Bale with a bit of meat on his bones after his emaciated appearance in The Machinist and it’s his brilliant performance as Bruce Wayne rather than Batman which sets him above other actors who have taken the role. Bale brings a smoothness and ambiguity to the part and expertly expresses the character’s troubled existence. Also worthy of mention is Michael Caine who is clearly having a ball as the Wayne family’s loyal butler Alfred, and he injects real emotion into his relationship with Bale. Gary Oldman and Liam Neeson are both give the kind of first-rate performances you would expect from these excellent actors, while Cillian Murphy is charismatic and chilling as the villainous Scarecrow, although he isn’t really given enough screen time. In fact the only actors who don’t make a mark are Wilkinson, who is miscast, and Holmes who fails to make her love interest role into anything memorable.

Once Batman hits the streets, Nolan’s lack of experience tells a little with his heavily-edited fight sequences often proving hard to follow and lacking impact. Nolan does stage an effective car chase and exciting climax, but it’s still something he may want to work on before the inevitable sequel. Much more interesting is Nolan’s depiction of the effects of Scarecrow’s fear-inducing drug which is often quite nasty, and the climactic scene when the toxin causes mass hysteria is genuinely chilling. Batman Begins is far darker and more contemplative than the average summer movie and tackles the major themes of fear and revenge with surprising subtlety and thoughtfulness.

Despite its few flaws and the occasional lapses into genre clichés, Batman Begins is an excellent film and a welcome return to form for this character. A smartly written, compelling, adult film which contains quality performances, is mercifully short on CGI, and actually has something to say - who could ask for more from a Summer blockbuster? After Schumacher had seemingly left the series dead and buried, this franchise truly has begun again.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Review - Undertow

A teenage boy and girl sit crossed-legged across from each other in a field, the evening sun setting behind them. They are in the first flush of young love and are making plans to escape this dead-end town. “We should disappear”, says Chris (Jamie Bell), “go someplace where we can see everything”. “Let me see your knife” Lila (Kristen Stewart) replies, “I’d like to carve my name into your face“. This is how people talk in David Gordon Green films.
Only two films into his fledgling career and Green was already hailed as the most exciting talent in American cinema. His first film George Washington displayed his strong grasp of character-driven filmmaking, his patient, leisurely approach and - in conjunction with his close friend and cinematographer Tim Orr - an ability to conjure images of luminous beauty. Green followed his acclaimed debut with All The Real Girls, a wonderfully heartfelt and subtle romance. There was no great drama and the film had no big declarations of love; it simply followed two young people as they found each other, fell for each other, and, when it didn’t work out, got on with their lives. Shit happens in Green’s films, and life goes on.

So the opening sequence I outlined above seems to indicate that Undertow will be more of what we‘ve come to expect from this director. The two young lovers gingerly and tenderly talking around the subject of love recalls a number of similar scenes in his previous work, but soon Undertow’s differences become evident. Green’s third feature is his first to employ a number of recognisable actors, his first to have something resembling a plot and it’s the first time violence has come crashing into Green’s idyllic world. This is also the first time that Green has directed a film from somebody else’s original story, but Undertow is still instantly recognisable as a David Gordon Green film.

As a director, Green seems constantly distracted, always looking for something more interesting and unusual than the basic story allows. It’s as if he wants to get that pesky plot out of the way as quickly as possible, so he can watch a kid eating paint, or playing in the mud. That plot, such as it is, revolves around the Munn family, who are scraping a living in a rural southern backwater. The father John (Dermot Mulroney) has his hands full raising two kids alone and trying to keep the farm going, but eldest son Chris isn’t helping matters with his constant run-ins with the law and rebellious attitude. It seems like something of a mixed blessing when John’s brother Deel (Josh Lucas) turns up, having been released from jail. John is happy to have an extra pair of hands around the place but there is clearly some bad feeling which has been festering between the pair.

Soon Deel has outstayed his welcome. He is too lazy to help with the renovations and is too irresponsible to look after the kids. Even more seriously, his real motivation for visiting the family is coming to the fore. John inherited a set of antique gold coins from their father years ago and now Deel wants his share. He interrogates the children but gets no answers and the two adults finally confront each other in a violent encounter. Chris grabs the coins and his younger brother Tim (Devon Allen) and escapes the farm with Deel in hot pursuit.

Undertow becomes a chase picture, the kind of film which traditionally follows a fairly straightforward and conventional narrative. But Green seems desperate to stray from the path and explore the surroundings, and it’s this tension which makes Undertow his most problematic picture. Green’s handling of the storyline's twists is often arbitrary and it seems like his heart isn’t really in it. However, thanks to his intelligent and unusual direction, and the strong cast, he manages to inject a sense of urgency into the film which helps to paper over some of the cracks in the narrative. It’s hard to watch this film and not think of Charles Laughton’s classic Night of the Hunter or Terrence Malick’s Badlands (Malick’s credit as executive producer only encourages comparisons) and these references don’t really help Undertow find its own voice.

Fortunately, the cast is exceptionally good throughout. Jamie Bell, sporting a fine Georgia accent, is excellent in the lead role, showing an impressive range and comfortably carrying the film. It’s a performance which should help him break out of the shadow of Billy Elliot once and for all. Also on fine form is Josh Lucas whose Deel first appears as a charismatic and mysterious character before showing his true colours and becoming a genuinely threatening villain. Lucas’s confident demeanour and shark-like grin has never been put to such good use. The rest of the actors are strong but often have too little screen time to make any lasting impact.

There is some great stuff in Undertow - the breathless and tense opening sequence is a superb piece of filmmaking and Green skilfully stages a realistic and violent fight between John and Deel - but it remains the weakest film Green has made yet. It looks beautiful of course, the score is a delight, and the performances are fine, but the fact that Green is forced to adhere to the main story when you know he’d rather be somewhere else makes it a frustrating affair. He certainly is the most exciting young talent in American cinema, hopefully his future films will show exactly why.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Review - Inside Deep Throat

This is the story of the most profitable film ever made. A film which incurred the wrath of the government, the religious right and the feminist movement, inspired the name of an FBI informer, and almost landed its lead actor in jail simply for appearing in it. The release of the infamous Deep Throat remains a seminal moment in the history of American cinema. It was the point where porn crossed over into the mainstream, it laid the foundations for the multi-billion dollar porn industry we have today, and it turned the simple act of buying a ticket into a political statement.
Inside Deep Throat, a slick new documentary from the makers of Party Monster, makes a fair stab at exploring the film’s murky background and the incredible impact it had on American society. The film offers an excellent range of interviewees - as well as most of the people involved in the shoot and the aftermath we also hear from Norman Mailer, John Waters, Hugh Hefner, Gore Vidal and Carl Bernstein - and it is put together with snappy editing and a hip (if occasionally too literal) soundtrack. But filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato lack the investigative edge required to really dig into some of the darker aspects of the story.

First, lets give a little background for Inside Deep Throat. Gerard Damiano was a ladies’ hairdresser who had the notion of making a film and the cheapest, easiest and most potentially profitable option was to make a porn film. Damiano managed to get the money together and went looking for his cast, which led to his meeting with a young actress named Linda Lovelace. He watched her in action and was stunned when he saw her technique for performing fellatio. Her ability to take a whole erect penis into her mouth and right down her throat inspired Damiano to create an entire film around her special gift. He came up with the name Deep Throat and wrote a script about a girl who could not achieve orgasm, because her clitoris was actually located at the back of her throat.

And the rest is history. The film was shot in less than a week for $25,000 and it went on to make, at a rough estimate, over $600 million. Inside Deep Throat, narrated in typically laid-back style by Dennis Hopper, presents Damiano’s film as a victory for freedom of expression. The Nixon administration went after Deep Throat as the main symbol of their clampdown on smut, but this only served to inflate the film’s reputation and increase those queues around the block. As one of the interviewees states: “Deep Throat succeeded because the government went after it“. Shortly after their assault on the film itself failed, a federal obscenity case was launched against lead actor Harry Reems and he was faced with serving five years in jail simply for daring to star in the film.

Bailey and Barbato handle all of this in nimble, informative fashion, and the first half of Inside Deep Throat flies by. But their grip on the narrative falters when dealing with the consequences of the film. In particular, their flippant dismissal of Lovelace’s claims that she was abused and forced into doing the film is a little hard to swallow (excuse the pun). The filmmakers have clearly set up the makers of Deep Throat as being on the side of all that is right and good, and Lovelace’s claims, and her subsequent move into feminism, are depicted as being nothing more than the behaviour of a woman unhappy at not getting a bigger piece of the financial pie. Also, the issue of organised crime members muscling in on Deep Throat’s profits is left frustratingly unexplored.

Inside Deep Throat finishes by comparing the sense of innocence and adventure the 70’s films were made in with the soulless porn industry of modern times. The filmmakers of the earlier era genuinely believed that they could make porn with some sort of artistic merit, but that has gone by the wayside as the modern producers simply knock out cheap porn for the masses. “It became a factory” notes Damiano, “and they didn’t need filmmakers anymore”.

Deep Throat remains a milestone in cinema history, and for the most part Inside Deep Throat does it justice. It’s a witty, intelligent and well-made film about a time in America when the topic nobody talked about became the topic everyone was talking about in the blink of an eye. “Thank God there was such a thing as sex” recalls Damiano. Everyone already knew that “sex sells”, but it took Deep Throat to show people just how true that was.

Review - Baadasssss!

In 1970 Melvin Van Peebles was one of the first black filmmakers to make a studio film with his surprise hit Watermelon Man. After the success of this picture Paramount were set to offer him a three-picture deal and were keen to know what his next project would be, hoping for something in the same comedic vein as his previous effort. Melvin, However, had other ideas. He wanted to make a film a film about a “real street brother” which was relevant to a modern black audience, which reflected their struggle against oppression and bigotry. Fuelled by the eye-rolling, subservient black caricatures which had populated Hollywood films for so many years, Van Peebles began work on his new script. ''Hollywood liked to show us clowning,'' Melvin recalls, ''but America wasn't in a laughing mood - especially black America.''
The result was a film called Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the story of a righteous black stud who attacked two racist policemen and went on the run, exposing the racist underbelly of America in the process. Sweetback came out of nowhere and hit a nerve among black the black community in the post-Vietnam, disillusioned USA. With the support of the Black Panthers, Sweetback became the biggest independent hit of the year and kick-started the profitable Blaxploitation genre of the 70’s.

Over thirty years later, the story of Sweetback is revisited by Melvin’s son Mario in his affectionate recreation/homage Baadasssss!. Playing his own father, Mario Van Peebles tells the story of the sacrifices, obstacles and arguments which went into the making of his father’s most celebrated work. Like his father, Mario both directs and stars in what is clearly a labour of love for the younger Van Peebles. Unfortunately, Mario’s cinematic love letter never catches fire and, despite benefiting from the more sophisticated filmmaking techniques, it lacks the passion or energy which characterised the 1971 film it depicts.

Mario gives himself a problem from the start with the semi-documentary approach he adopts, cutting interview segments with the characters (played by actors) into the film to comment on the scenes which have just been depicted. This is a clumsy method which doesn’t really work at all and only has the effect of interrupting the movie’s flow and draining whatever energy Van Peebles may have developed. Elsewhere, Mario’s direction is at best uninspired and at worst amateurish. His pacing is poor, the film is visually flat, and it never comes close to conveying the vibrancy and excitement of this crew making a film by the skin of their teeth. Van Peebles was on set when all this was going on but his script is sketchy on details. He will often end scenes with lines like “somehow we managed to shoot the scene” or “somehow we got away with it”, but we never really learn how.

However, if Mario Van Peebles fails to impress as director then he partly makes up for it with his leading performance. Up to this point I’ve found Van Peebles to be a rather bland, stiff actor, but he gives a charismatic and compelling turn as his father in this movie. Mario doesn’t shy away from the less appealing aspects of his father’s character either, depicting him as a man who would willingly lie, cheat and bully his crew and family to get what he wants. The most interesting aspect of Baadasssss! is the relationship between Melvin and the young Mario (well played by Khleo Thomas). Mario was thirteen at this time and was forced by Melvin to participate in an explicit sex scene with a prostitute. It’s clear that Mario still feels a little resentment to his father for this and some more insight into their relationship at this level would have been welcome. Instead Baadasssss! follows a bland triumph-against-the-system formula familiar from countless biopics.

There are pleasures in the supporting cast, especially the beautiful Joy Bryant who makes a big impression as Melvin’s secretary, a woman who makes an audition from every entrance. TK Carter captures the mannerisms of the young Bill Cosby, Rainn Wilson is enjoyable as Melvin’s stoned friend/producer Bill Harris and there is a bizarre cameo from Adam West. Occasionally, something in Baadasssss! will spark, and there is some fine dialogue in Mario‘s script (“Is this something negative, Priscilla? Because if it's negative, I can't even deal with it right now. I'm a broke, pissed off nigger from Chicago, and I'm down to my last cigar“), but too much of the film feels superficial and ordinary.

Clearly, Mario Van Peebles had his heart in the right place when he made Baadasssss!, but his heart has ruled his head and he fails to do justice to his father’s legacy. Mario’s film is bursting with good intentions but it is also messy, clumsy and poorly directed - he is truly his father’s son.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Review - Moolaadé

The latest film from African director Ousmane Sembene, a towering figure in the history of black cinema, tackles a very difficult and provocative subject matter with subtlety and grace. Moolaadé is a film about female circumcision, a process which is known among those who perform it as ‘purification’. The consequences of this act are serious; girls often suffer enormous haemorrhaging and die during the operation, and it can cause numerous problems during intercourse and childbirth in later life. This ritual is still commonplace in 38 of the 54 African countries, a fact which clearly appals Sembene. His film is an attempt to bring this subject to the attention of the wider world, and a plea for this barbaric act to be abolished.

Have I already lost you? I agree that an African film about female circumcision doesn’t sound like the best evening’s entertainment, but Moolaadé is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking which will surely touch anyone who experiences it. For sure, Sembene’s film is an angry, polemical slice of political cinema, but it is also a beautiful and compelling human drama, and an eye-opening look at day-to-day African life.

Moolaadé is set in a small village in Burkina Faso. The process of ‘purification’ is thrown into chaos when six young girls flee the ceremony. Two of them escape to the city, while the remaining four run towards the home of a local woman named Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly). Colle was purified as a child and, as a result, lost two of her children in childbirth. Seven years ago, Colle refused to allow her daughter Amsatou (Salimata Traore) to be cut, and the children seeking refuge with her now hope she’ll extend the same Moolaadé (protection) to them. Colle runs a simple piece of coloured cord along the gate of her house and refuses to give up the children. The elders and the Salindana (the women who perform the ritual) cannot cross the line for fear of invoking the curse of Moolaadé.

So the stage is set for a tense stand-off in the village, as Colle’s actions defy the wishes of the menfolk and upset the traditional hierarchy of the society. This is all laid out by Sembene in an accessible, intriguing and entertaining manner during the film’s opening twenty minutes. The arrival of a local tradesman, known as Mercenaire (Dominique Zeida), is a cause of local excitement as he brings them food, clothes and batteries, but at vastly inflated prices. Mercenaire also hangs around during the film to provide an outsider’s viewpoint, and observes the atrocious practices with increasing astonishment and anger. His conscience eventually forces him to act, whatever the consequences, and this character who began the film as a comic aside, a touch of light relief, becomes a major and tragic figure.

Such is the beautifully simple and effective way Sembene creates these characters, and develops the various tensions between them. The village elders decide that the women’s rebellious spirit is fed by disruptive outside influences and they order all their radios to be burned, but when a native returns from Paris after proving a successful businessman, he brings even more outside influence, and his more enlightened views on the issues facing the village threaten the order of things even further. The winds of change are blowing through this village, and they grow stronger with each stand Colle takes.

What a wonderful film this is. Sembene, at the age of 82, puts his story together with effortless grace and makes his points in an understated but incisive manner. Moolaadé also benefits from Dominique Gentil’s glorious cinematography, which celebrates the vibrancy and beauty of the African way of life, and the marvellous musical score of traditional music. Throughout, the authenticity of the film is never in doubt, the performances are enthralling, and the pain on display is very real - but so is the indomitable spirit of these people.

Perhaps critics will argue that the women’s rebellion against the general order of things would not be tolerated so easily in such a patriarchal society? Perhaps, but Sembene is clearly biased in his presentation, and who wouldn’t be, given the terrible aggression against femininity the film depicts? When I saw the film, a number of audience members cheered at the rousing climax, and it’s easy to understand why. This is the reaction great cinema can provoke.

Moolaadé is unquestionably one of the finest films of the year, and I cannot overstate how much it is a work of such vital importance. Ousmane Sembene’s ability to take this subject matter and make such a moving, mind-expanding work of art from it is testament to the director’s filmmaking craft, his wit and intelligence, and, above all, his humanity.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Review - Sin City

Sin City, the long-awaited film version of Frank Miller’s cult comic, is “Shot and cut by Robert Rodriguez”. Miller himself shares a directing credit with Rodriguez, along with “Special guest director Quentin Tarantino”. From these credits alone you know that Sin City is a different type of comic-book adaptation; made by fans, for fans. Perhaps the fact that I have never read Miller’s work is why this film didn’t work for me, or perhaps it’s the fact that, beyond the spectacular visuals, Sin City fails at the most fundamental levels.

Certainly, the fans can’t quibble about how faithful Rodriguez has been to Miller’s dark vision, he has slavishly adapted these stories frame-by-frame. Shooting in black-and-white, Rodriguez has used digital cameras and green screen to fully create Basin City - a pulpy, noir-ish netherworld where it’s always night, and it’s mostly raining. Occasionally, something in the shot will come alive with colour, such as the breathtakingly beautiful opening sequence where a young girl in a red dress stands shivering on a balcony and stares out at the city below. Elsewhere, other items will be picked out in colour - a girl’s blonde hair, a pair of blue eyes - while one character is covered head-to-foot in yellow. Sin City isn’t just a live-action version of the comic, it is an exact replica of those pages on the big screen.

Unfortunately, while Sin City’s adherence to the source material is admirable, it is also the film’s biggest handicap. Among the opening titles you may notice that there is no screenplay credit. Rodriguez has taken Miller’s comic as gospel and simply re-created the stories as they are laid out on the page, making no attempt to adapt them for a different medium and delivering a poorly paced, clumsily constructed film which is often downright boring.

Tarantino may have guest-directed one sequence in Sin City, but his influence can be felt elsewhere, as the film apes the triptych structure of Pulp Fiction, but more awkwardly built and lacking the wit of its predecessor. We open with Hartigan (Bruce Willis), a good cop with a heart condition (comic-book shorthand for having a heart). He’s aiming to bust a paedophile (Nick Stahl) who has kidnapped an 11 year-old girl. We then dip into another of Miller’s stories, this one starring Mickey Rourke as Marv, a massive, hulking ex-con with a face carved from granite. He goes to bed with a prostitute named Goldie (Jamie King), but when he wakes up she’s dead and the cops are at his door. Marv heads out into the night to find her killer and avenge her death, helped by a naked policewoman (Carla Gugino), and coming face to face with a terrifying killer (Elijah Wood).

Marv’s story is probably the best of the three, despite feeling a little rushed, and features two of the film’s most memorable performances thanks to Rourke and Wood. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from here.

The next strand of the film stars Clive Owen as Dwight, a killer who teams up with a gang of gun-toting prostitutes to punish the villainous Jackie-Boy (Benicio Del Toro). This section of the film is, frankly, a mess. Some characters are forgotten about while others are introduced at inopportune moments, the messy plot goes nowhere fast and Owen’s performance is embarrassingly wooden - with his wavering American accent proving ill-suited to the hard-boiled dialogue. Finally, we have the resumption of Hartigan’s story, the most morally queasy of the three. Eight years after he saved Nancy from the paedophile, she is a pole dancer, the paedophile is completely yellow, and Hartigan has to save her all over again.

But by this point, I had grown tired of the endless mumbling voiceover, the two-dimensional characters, the misogyny and, given the fact that all three story strands follow a very similar narrative arc, the predictable nature of the film. Above all, I had tired of the violence. More specifically, I had tired of the way the violence was depicted. Sin City is a film full of violent acts; barely a scene goes by without a bone-crunching beating, a decapitation, a stabbing, a shooting or a castration - but it is a film utterly without pain. We don’t feel a single one of the many punishments dished out, instead Rodriguez wants us to find it amusing, or cool, when a man’s head is beaten to a pulp or a face is scraped across gravel. Surely one of these incidents should make the viewer wince a little? Just once?

Instead the violence becomes meaningless and repetitive, and the film drags itself towards the disappointing conclusion. Given the scrupulous care and attention to detail which Rodriguez has lavished on the film, it’s a real shame to have to point out its many flaws. The technical prowess and innovate techniques employed by Rodriguez gave him the perfect platform to deliver a gripping, twisted modern noir but, while he dazzles the eyes, the heart and mind remain untouched. You will leave the cinema with a head full of spectacular imagery but little else. Sin City’s sparkling visual style will deservedly receive high praise, but once you look beneath the surface it’s as flat as the paper Miller’s stories were originally printed on.