Sunday, July 31, 2005

Review - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Another day, another remake of a much-loved film from the past. However, this one is worthy of more interest than most as it is less of a remake than a new interpretation of the source material. While Mel Stuart’s 1971 musical Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory made a number of changes to Roald Dahl’s book (not least the title), Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory aims to be far more faithful to his enduring tale. It’s also a seemingly perfect melding of filmmaker and material, with Burton’s unique visual style and warped sensibility ideally suited to Dahl’s world. As a result, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the director’s best work in a decade, a flawed but often wonderful film which showcases all that’s good and bad about Burton.
You probably know the story by now. Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore, showing his performance in Finding Neverland was no fluke) is a poor young boy living in a tiny, ramshackle house with his parents (Helena Bonham-Carter and Noah Taylor) and four grandparents (who all seem to eat, sleep and live in one bed). The imposing sweet factory run by the mysterious recluse Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp) stands just down the road and is the cause of much excitement one day when Wonka announces a very special competition. Hidden inside five of his chocolate bars are golden tickets which will permit the child who finds it to take a tour around his amazing factory; an announcement which causes mass hysteria worldwide as people buy up as much chocolate as they can lay their hands on.

Soon the tickets start to be found by youngsters who, by strange coincidence, each exhibit the very worst personality traits to be found in children. Augustus Gloop is a gluttonous, enormously fat German boy, Veruca Salt comes from a rich English family and is spoilt rotten, Violet Beauregarde is cocky little girl who is encouraged to be the best at all costs by her ambitious mother, while Mike Teavee is only interested in television and computer games. Then a miracle happens, poor Charlie Bucket finds the final ticket and, accompanied by his Grandpa Joe (the wonderful Irish actor David Kelly), joins the other four kids on their tour. Unlike the rest of them, he’s simply happy to be there.

Burton brings Dahl’s tale to life with boundless energy and flair, making this as visually arresting an experience as you’ll have in the cinema. The majority of the sets were actually designed and built by Burton’s exceptional production designer Alex McDowell rather than created by CGI and, with the help of Philippe Rousselot’s crisp and bright cinematography, the result is a spectacular and completely involving environment. John August’s screenplay adheres closely to the template of the novel (except for one major instance, which we’ll get to later) and is full of witty lines and marvellous visual gags, making this the funniest of Burton’s films to date.

It’s a delight to see so many of the book’s greatest scenes recreated in such glorious fashion here. The squirrels’ attack on violet is a particular highlight, as is the television room where Mike Teavee gets his comeuppance, while Burton has skilfully used computer technology and one extraordinary performance by the 4’ 4” actor Deep Roy to create hundreds of Oompa Loompas, who are at the core of many of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s best moments. The Oompa Loompas provide a number of songs (actually performed by Burton’s longtime collaborator Danny Elfman) but the lyrics are often impossible to decipher, making the performances a disappointment despite the brilliant staging.

At the centre of all this is Johnny Depp, delivering the strangest display of his unusual career. God bless Depp for constantly going out on a limb - his swaggering, mascara-laden performance rescued the bloated and dumb Pirates of the Caribbean - but his Willy Wonka is something else entirely. Coming across like a twisted hybrid of Michael Jackson and Howard Hughes; his mannered, slightly aloof demeanour takes some getting used to. It’s an understandable approach, as Wonka has had no human contact in over a decade and is unsure how to interact with these people, but I’m not entirely sure it works. He’s often very funny, and many of the biggest laughs come from his facial expressions, but it’s a performance which precludes emotional involvement in his story and leaves the film struggling to find the right note at the climax.

And then there’s the film’s most troublesome aspect. August has only made one real departure from the book, but it’s a biggie. For some reason the filmmakers have decided to saddle Wonka with a backstory involving his difficult upbringing at the hands of his father, a rather zealous dentist (a perfectly-cast Christopher Lee). This is a really unnecessary addition and the flashbacks involved rob the film of the rollercoaster momentum the factory sequences develop. Burton tries to build to a father-son reunion but it is poorly handled and, as we don’t really feel anything for Wonka, the ending falls horribly flat.

Still, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a fun ride for most of the journey and manages to convey the spirit of Dahl much more than the 1971 version did. Burton is in his element at times, and this is such a relief after the misguided Planet of the Apes and Big Fish, but his inability to tackle the emotional aspects of a story in a subtle and complex manner still causes problems. Viewers of all ages will have fun at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but some may be disappointed when they take of the garish wrapper and bite into such a soft, gooey centre.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Review - Bewitched

When you consider the way cinema first reacted to the invention of television, the way it feared the competition the small screen would bring, there is a nice irony in the fact that TV now seems to be the major source of inspiration for desperate film producers. The studios’ feeding on the remains of long dead programmes has brought us big screen versions of Charlie’s Angels, Starsky and Hutch, The Avengers, The Saint, Thunderbirds and we have The Dukes of Hazzard to look forward to later this year. The unifying factor among these remakes is the fact that they’ve generally been dreadful, with the filmmakers failing to realise that characters and plots which were barely strong enough to carry a 30 - 60 minute TV show can’t fill out a multi-million dollar Summer blockbuster.

So with this in mind we should at least applaud the makers of Bewitched for attempting something a little different. Instead of just doing a straight remake of the TV show, this new version of Bewitched is a film about a remake of the TV show. But while we salute their attempt to be different it’s impossible to escape the fact that Bewitched is an awful film.

Will Ferrell plays Jack Wyatt, an egotistical, washed-up film star, who is hoping for a comeback with a starring role in the new TV series of Bewitched. Jack doesn’t want any talented or famous actresses stealing his limelight though, so he insists on hiring an unknown for the part of Samantha. The auditions don’t go well (it seems that not a single one of LA’s many aspiring actresses can wiggle their nose) and things are looking bleak until Jack bumps into Isabel and, after seeing her twitch her nose in the desired fashion, realises that she’s perfect for the part. However, little does Jack know that his new co-star is in fact a real witch.

Isabel has moved to LA to get away from the witching life and keeps promising her dad (Michael Caine) that she’ll stop using magic to get what she wants (although she can’t resist a little spell here and there to fix her television or tidy the house). She just wants to settle down to a normal person‘s life, and to find a man who wants and needs her for who she is. Isabel is naturally delighted when Jack chooses her for his new show, but when she realises that he’s cutting her lines to shift the attention onto himself she decides it’s time to resort to magic to get revenge.

Before it nose-dives into a sea of terrible plotting and dismal direction, Bewitched is actually pretty good fun for half an hour. The early scenes are snappy and fun with Kidman looking happier than you might expect in her role. Light comedy does not come easily to this actress, but here she appears more relaxed and seems to be having fun in the part. Her exchanges with Michael Caine, the best of which occurs in a supermarket, are highly enjoyable, as are her initial scenes with Ferrell, and the film maintains this early momentum right up to the point when Isabel decides to place a hex on Jack. Then it simply falls apart.

Let’s get things straight - Nora Ephron is not a good director. She has a certain skill as a screenwriter, and has definitely shown how adept she is in the romantic comedy genre, but she should have let somebody else call the shots behind the camera on this one. Bewitched required a director with a more savvy, cynical approach to make the most of this ‘TV show within a film’ material, but instead Ephron is hopelessly out of her depth. Her compositions are lifeless, her shifts in tone are jarring and her choice of music is thudding literal (the use of REM’s Everybody Hurts over a montage of Kidman and Ferrell looking morose is unforgivable). Any energy the film has is provided by the cast, especially Ferrell (who is funny when he’s allowed to cut loose, but seems straightjacketed for much of the film), but the momentum is destroyed by Ephron as she desperately attempts to force an unwieldy love story onto her fragile script.

It seems Ephron and her sister Delia (who co-wrote the screenplay) became overwhelmed by the concept of their story and simply lost sight of what the film was supposed to be in the first place. As a result, their script is littered with plot holes and strands of the story which are never explored. There is a hint that the actress playing Endora (Shirley MacLaine, on decent form) might be a witch herself, which doesn’t exactly make sense, but don’t worry to much about it because it’s swiftly dropped. The appearance of Uncle Arthur (a terrible waste of the talented Steve Carrell) is a damp squib as he’s shoehorned into the plot in the last ten minutes in a nonsensical role. Arthur could be a witch or a figment of another character’s imagination, we never find out and I’m not entirely convinced that Ephron was sure herself.

Ephron’s struggle with the fiction/reality barrier this premise presents continues until she finally gives up the ghost in the final third, and we simply wait for the film to limp to the climax. Bewitched is a mess, which no amount of nose-twitching could save. A waste of a decent premise and a talented cast which offers neither romance or comedy. Ephron chooses to accompany the end credits with Sting singing Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic. Alas, it’s not true. Every Little Thing She Does Is Tragic would be closer to the reality of Bewitched.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Review - The Descent

After scoring a surprise hit with his 2002 film Dog Soldiers, Geordie director Neil Marshall was hailed as the great new hope of British horror. I wasn’t as impressed with Marshall’s debut as others, feeling that the poor pacing and ill-advised attempts at humour robbed the film of much of its potency, but Marshall clearly showed promise and he has delivered on this potential in spades with The Descent. By cutting down on the comedy and focusing on the fear of darkness and enclosed spaces which almost everyone shares, Marshall has delivered a nasty, smart and remarkably effective horror which is guaranteed to have you cowering in your seat - when you’re not jumping out of it.
The Descent concerns an all-female group of friends who have a shared interest in extreme sports. The film opens with three of them on a white water rafting trip, which is followed by a tragic accident that leaves Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) devastated and an emotional wreck. One year later, Sarah is accompanying her friend Beth (Alex Reid) to America for a potholing expedition, but she still bears the scars of the previous year’s events, suffering nightmares and frequently hearing voices. Beth and Sarah meet up with Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza) and her companions Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), Sam (MyAnna Buring) and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder). This group of six head out into the mountains to start their adventure, having no idea of the nightmare they are about to venture into.

Marshall stages the first (extremely gory) shock within five minutes of the start and never lets up. The slick camerawork (this is a much more professional-looking film than Dog Soldiers) and spine-tingling music help the director build an stranglehold atmosphere of complete fear where you’re sure something terrible is about to occur at almost every turn. Marshall successfully portrays the trepidation of crawling through a tight passage with barely inches of room to spare into a dark unknown, making the first half of The Descent one of the most tense and uncomfortable viewing experiences I’ve had in some time. He also skilfully uses the lack of natural light to exacerbate the sense of dread, as the film is lit only by torches, flares or glowsticks and some scenes even occur in pitch darkness.

Marshall’s all-female cast are adequate enough, although they struggle a little with the scant depth offered to them in the screenplay and the fact that the characters are not particularly well delineated. Sarah is set up as the main character very early on, but the rest of the cast have few defining characteristics between them. Holly is impetuous and reckless, Juno is egotistical and selfish, but the other three are almost interchangeable. Marshall adds some complexity into the group dynamic late in the game, raising questions about one of the character’s motives, but this isn’t particularly well-handled and feels like a late addition tacked onto the proceedings.

In the second half of the film The Descent suddenly takes on a different dimension as the group, already lost and with an injured member, are targeted by a number of cave-dwelling beasts who start to hunt them down and devour them one by one. This is nicely done by Marshall (certainly these creatures are more effective than Dog Soldiers’ men in wolves' clothing), but it takes a little something away from the film. The idea of being trapped in a cave, unable to move back or forward and completely vulnerable, is something that all viewers can relate too. However, the addition of these fictional creatures takes the film into the realms of the unreal and, while proving extraordinarily violent, these later scenes aren’t quite as scary as the panicky, all-too-believable sequences Marshall had provided earlier.

Instead, the final third of The Descent becomes something of an action film, with the girls desperately trying to fight off the increasing hordes of attackers. It’s exciting stuff and I loved how Marshall used this context to depict one character’s slide into savagery as the only way she can survive. Marshall sacrifices his actresses one by one, despatching each of them in a gory and inventive manner, and he keeps springing surprises right up to the end, pulling a fast one at the death.

Overall, The Descent is a marked improvement on Dog Soldiers and definitely confirms the director’s ability in this genre. He still has improvements to make though, the main one being his struggle with characterisation. Can Marshall deliver characters who exist below the surface? People who are more than just bodies waiting to be sliced and diced? The Descent is an excellent piece of work in so many ways, but if Marshall could iron out those niggling deficiencies then he truly would be a force to be reckoned with. We know he can make us jump, can he make us care?

Friday, July 22, 2005

Review - 3-Iron (Bin-jip)

Fans of Kim Ki-duk’s earlier films might be wondering if the director has suddenly gone soft. His previous films, such as Bad Guy and The Isle, were violent, dark works, which invited accusations of misogyny and provoked outrage for their scenes of animal cruelty. Then, in 2003, Kim shifted gears to deliver his most accomplished work to date: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring. This was a beautifully measured, reflective and serious film, shot and crafted with exquisite care which achieved a transcendent state of grace. It was one of the year’s best films and seemed like a real departure for Kim, but his latest film is even more of a surprise.

begins in enigmatic fashion. Handsome young drifter Tae-suk (Jae Hee) spends his days wandering around town on his motorbike, and posting pizza delivery leaflets on every door. After a couple of days he returns and checks to see how many of the leaflets remain. Figuring that the owners must be away if they haven’t removed it, Tae-suk breaks into the home and spends a couple of days there. He never steals anything though, instead preferring to tidy the house, do the laundry and fix anything that might be broken.

Why does he do this? God knows, and we never come close to finding out either. Kim’s screenplay is deliberately short on details, adding an increased sense of mystery to the protagonist’s unusual behaviour, and giving the film the air of a ghost story. One night, as Tae-suk prowls around a house he’s found unattended, he fails to notice that somebody else is also there. This is Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yun), a young woman who is suffering at the hands of her abusive husband, and she watches the intruder with a quiet fascination as he goes about his business. Later, after seeing her husband beat Sun-hwa, Tae-suk administers some punishment with the golf club of the title and whisks Sun-hwa away on his bike. 3-Iron then follows these two as they fall in love and Sun-hwa takes to her new partner’s way of life like a duck to water.

Kim’s film is a slight, bizarre and utterly beguiling effort which blends various ideas and themes to dizzying effect. The two main characters never speak throughout the film (until Sun-hwa has a couple of brief lines right at the end) and their wordless voyage through Korean homes seems to expose the cold, lonely existence of everyone else. Kim plays with notions of fate and spirituality, but never seems too bothered about exploring these themes in any great depth. Instead the director simply crafts a gorgeous, intoxicating, often baffling romance which would probably collapse if subjected to any sort of close scrutiny.

It’s the kind of film which risks drifting into whimsy and inviting ridicule at every turn, but it just manages to remain anchored thanks to Kim’s sublime direction and the appealing performances of the two leads. Despite being deprived of dialogue, Jae Hee and Lee Seung-yun are both charismatic and have a tangible chemistry together. For his part, Kim creates some scenes which are just remarkable. The first meeting between the main couple is a tense and voyeuristic masterclass, while the occasional bursts of violence (yes, it’s that golf club again) are quick, blunt and handled with consummate skill.

3-Iron turns sharply into very different territory in its final third, which will prove difficult for some viewers to swallow. As the law and Sun-hwa’s vengeful husband start to close in, the film becomes a spiritual fable, which will require a leap of faith on behalf of the audience. But Kim has earned our trust by this point and repays those who do keep faith with a number of exquisite sequences. Tae-suk’s taunting of a prison guard is a captivating piece of filmmaking, as is his journey through the couple’s previous haunts, and 3-Iron builds to a beautiful, satisfying climax.

Despite the thin premise, 3-Iron is a treat. Endlessly imaginative, wonderfully made and featuring two cherishable performances; the film will offer great rewards to anyone giving it the chance. It marks another significant development for this enormously talented director and, as he continues in this more meditative stage of his career, we can only imagine what surprises he still has in store.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Review - Festival

Every year, thousands of wannabe’s, has-beens and never-will-be’s descend on Scotland for the Edinburgh festival. Away from the more commercial side of the festival - where comedians you’ve actually heard of will be competing for awards - the Edinburgh Fringe is the section of the festival where unknowns will be staging obscure shows in the hope that their big break is just around the corner. Festival, a rambling new black comedy from The Book Group creator Angie Griffin, follows a number of disparate characters who are connected to the Fringe in some way, from performers to judges, and charts the fluctuating emotions which they experience.

The first character we meet is Faith (Lyndsey Marshal), a pretty young woman who is performing a one-woman play about Dorothy Wordsworth (“who’s in it?” asks one punter), while another one-person show is being staged by Brother Mike (Clive Russell), who uses his play about paedophilia to deal with his own hidden desires. An avant-garde Canadian theatre troupe are renting a room from a frustrated woman who is suffering from post-natal depression (Amelia Bullmore), and a couple of Irish stand-ups - Tommy (Chris O’Dowd) and Conor (Billy Carter) - are looking to win the big comedy competition, but they have to beat ambitious young comedienne Nicky (Lucy Punch) who will do anything to succeed. Famous TV comedian Sean Sullivan (Stephen Mangan) will be on the jury for the comedy award, and he arrives with his downtrodden assistant (Raquel Cassidy) in tow. Finally, sarcastic radio host Joan (Daniela Nardini) will be interviewing participants and commentating on the events.

Director Griffin dips in and out of these characters’ stories as they cross paths over the course of the festival weekend. Her loose, semi-documentary style is a good fit for the material but the actual content of her script poses a few problems. There are a number of different story strands going on here, some stronger than others, and Griffin’s lack of discipline in choosing which ones to concentrate on makes the film feel flaccid and unfocused. The parts of the film involving Mangan’s bickering relationship with his assistant, or Nardini’s affair with O’Dowd, are smartly written and well performed. However, the trio of Canadian dancers are hopelessly underwritten and their scenes struggle to raise a single laugh. The Canadians’ story also leads into the subplot which revolves around Bullmore’s staid marriage which, again, is flat, uninvolving, and feels somewhat unnecessary.

Griffin’s film is all about the thin line between comedy and tragedy, and she seems a little unsure when the time comes to cross the line. Her deviation between the comic and dramatic portions of Festival are often blunt and clumsy, resulting in some jarring shifts in tone, and she also includes a number of needlessly explicit sex scenes (in particular, one involving glove puppets which is as bizarre as it is unpleasant). The director’s writing is not really strong enough to make us care for the characters in these darker moments, although many of the actors bring a welcome edge of pain to their roles.

In fact the cast is superb throughout, and most of the laughs to be had are derived from their performances. Mangan, Nardini, O’Dowd, Cassidy and Marshal make the biggest impression with perfectly-judged supporting performances from Lucy Punch and Deirdre O’Kane among others. There are occasions when Festival hits the mark and raises some big laughs. Griffin’s depiction of the kind of pretentious performance that is often evident in the festival is spot-on, and I loved the jury’s bitchy arguments as they made their decisions. Unfortunately, for every joke that works there are a larger number which fall flat and Festival ends up being less than the sum of its parts.

Griffin shot her film in the midst of last year’s Edinburgh festival, mixing footage of real performers into her film, and she successfully captures the energy and atmosphere of the town. It only serves to highlight what Festival could have been, an exciting, absorbing and hilarious celebration of the Edinburgh festival, but it lacks directness and never really comes to life. Perhaps a straight documentary following some real Edinburgh hopefuls would have been a better bet; a more eye-opening, compelling film may have been the result. It might have turned out a good deal funnier too.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Review - Silver City

What a cast and crew! What a disappointment! Silver City, the latest effort from indie auteur John Sayles, had enormous potential, but the finished film is bloated, cluttered and more concerned with lecturing the viewer than providing an entertaining, compelling narrative. Sayles’ film tackles government corruption and questions the lack of dissent from the mainstream media, but a surfeit of subplots and excess of characters hinder the film, leaving it feeling like a missed opportunity.

Silver City revolves around a politician named Richard Pilager (Chris Cooper) whose campaign for Governor of Colorado hits a problem when a dead body is found in the lake where he is shooting a promotional video. Pilager’s team (including Richard Dreyfuss and Billy Zane) instantly swoop into action in an attempt to cover up the incident and distance their candidate from the corpse, hiring investigator Danny O‘Brien (Danny Huston) to find out who this body was and where he came from. But Danny finds out more than he bargained for.

Danny discovers that a local businessman (Kris Kristofferson), who seemingly owns everything in the state, is ploughing money into Pilager’s campaign in order to ensure he gets exactly what he wants from the new governor. Danny’s investigations also lead him to a cave where toxic waste is being dumped and he discovers the full extent of illegal immigrants being exploited in the state. Danny also has to deal with his ex-girlfriend (Maria Bello), a reporter who is covering the Pilager campaign, and their feelings for each other threaten to surface once more.

Sayles’ films generally favour character and situation over plot, and Silver City indicates why that may be the case. The director’s development of the various plot strands here is unwieldy at best, and almost incoherent at worst. Far too much of the dialogue is expositional, with some characters seemingly introduced just to explain the background or let the audience know what’s going on. Even worse is Sayles’ tactic of getting the actors to repeat facts and events to themselves as a means of further exposition. When Sal Lopez finds his tyres slashed he says to himself "Someone's out to get me", and when Huston finds his ex-girlfriend has taken his couch and confirms with "She took the couch". This is an utterly redundant and inelegant way to write dialogue, which is incredibly disappointing from Sayles.

The cast is packed with fine actors, and most of them are on good form, but that's part of the problem with this overstuffed, misguided effort. Many of the characters feel underdeveloped and a number of actors who I would like to have seen more of are relegated to the sidelines. Tim Roth gets one great speech about his determination to "sow the seed of doubt", but has nothing else to do, Billy Zane is a revelation as the sly and smooth spin doctor, but he completely disappears halfway through while Miguel Ferrer's rightwing radio host make a big impression in just one scene. The reduction of these characters' roles is even more frustrating when you consider the overlong and less compelling sequences involving Darryl Hannah, Sal Lopez or Ralph Waite.

The film's main stars are excellent though. Chris Cooper's performance is little more than an obvious George W Bush impression but he does it superbly, and his muddled speeches are often hilarious (a number of his quotes are lifted directly from early Bush speeches). Richard Dreyfuss is outstanding as the brains behind the operation, Maria Bello does well with very little, and I grew to like Danny Huston in the role of detective after finding him slightly miscast early on.

Silver City starts well, and I liked the neat ambiguity of the climax, but the middle section often drags. All the characters seem to be connected but it's hard to believe that any of these relationships are much more than a scriptwriter's convenient contrivance. Sayles makes his political points in a blunt and surprisingly unsophisticated manner, making the viewer feel less like he's being enlightened than being repeatedly hit over the head with facts and figures. The name given to Chris Cooper's character of Pilager (one letter away from Pillager) gives some indication to the level of subtlety on show.

There are some things which Silver City does very well - The political machine which uses the candidate as a mere puppet is smartly depicted (Pilager is described as 'user friendly' at one point), the film gathers pace towards the end and a number of scenes work well individually, but it's generally a very poor effort. Sayles' passion for the subject matter is clear but he seems to have let it cloud his judgement here, resulting in a flat, didactic and often very dull piece of film-making. Silver City is all about people finding their moral outrage, and fighting back against dishonest politicians and big corporations whatever the personal cost, so it can be applauded for its intent. Unfortunately the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Review - The United States of Leland

Shortly after Kevin Spacey won the Best Actor Academy Award for his role in American Beauty, something about him changed dramatically. Up to that point, Spacey had established a reputation as and actor whose chief gifts were his sly wit and intelligence; attributes which he displayed to full effect in such films as Swimming with Sharks, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Usual Suspects, Se7en and LA Confidential. But in recent years he seems to have lost the techniques that made him one of the leading actors of the 90’s. He has starred in dire ‘issue movies’ (The Life of David Gale), given performances as sad-sack, inert characters which are a waste of his talents (Pay it Forward, The Shipping News), and produced a couple of embarrassing vanity projects (Ordinary Decent Criminal, Beyond the Sea). The wit now appears as a smugness, the laid-back attitude now simply seems lazy. Spacey only has a supporting role in The United States of Leland but, as he also acts as producer on the film, I feel he should take a fair amount of the blame for inflicting this dreadful effort upon us. It’s very much of a piece with his recent projects too; a navel-gazing, self-conscious, painfully earnest film which attempts to deal with a contemporary issue (in this case, violence among disaffected teenagers) in a trite and superficial manner. The film itself is the first time effort from writer/director Matthew Ryan Hoge and he shows himself to be utterly inept in both departments. The film is torturously scripted, clumsily executed, staggeringly naive, and I found it a genuine struggle to sit through.

The Leland of the title is one Leland P Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling), a detached teenager who, for no apparent reason, kills the retarded younger brother of his ex-girlfriend Becky (Jena Malone). Leland is sent to a correctional facility where he catches the attention of a teacher, and would-be novelist, named Pearl (Don Cheadle). Pearl smells a book in Leland’s story and starts to organise private interviews to try and coax the truth of the murder out of him. Meanwhile, the family of the murdered boy are trying to get their life back together again and Leland’s father, a respected but widely-loathed author (Spacey), is flying in to find out what’s happened to his son.

There’s enough there to keep a seasoned director busy, with a handful of plot strands all jockeying for attention, but Hoge’s lack of experience is shown up very early on and his handling of the narrative never seems confident. Hoge makes things even more difficult for himself with his ridiculous decision to play with the time frame and reveal much of the film through flashbacks, an approach which only makes things confusing and off-putting. The screenplay is light on characterisation (I spent most of the first half figuring out who was who, and how they were related to each other) and desperately thin on motivation, but it’s heavy on philosophy. Oh boy, is it ever heavy on philosophy. The United States of Leland is simply awash with pretension. Hoge attempts to fill every frame of this twaddle with meaning but has little idea about how or why he should do so. The lead character of Leland himself can’t utter a single line without it being heavy with significance and, as Ryan Gosling’s nasal whine also provides the narration, that’s a lot of profound dialogue. He says things like “There's another thing to learn about tears, they can't make somebody who doesn't love you any more love you again”, nobody in real life talks like this, so why does Leland? So poor is the writing on this film that we’re never even sure whether Leland is supposed to be some sort of higher being? Borderline autistic? An idiot savant? Gosling seems unsure himself and, with no help from the direction, he resigns himself to staring at everything in a curious manner. Cheadle is comfortably the best thing in the film, although he’s hardly stretched, and Spacey phones in the same performance he’s given in his last few films. Sensibly, Spacey keeps the handful of decent lines for himself and the only two scenes which provoked my interest were the ones which featured both Spacey and Cheadle. Even on autopilot, these two can elevate some pretty ropey material. The rest of the cast have nothing to work with and Hoge leaves them to their fate. Jena Malone tries valiantly to give her character some weight but fails, and Michelle Williams has a pointless role. On the plus side, the sight of Chris Klein attempting a dramatic scene is always amusing. The United States of Leland is dreadfully paced, false, preachy and badly-made rubbish; and yet I still watched in the vain hope that something would surely happen before the end of the film to make sense of this nonsense, to give some shape to this pointless film. But the silly, melodramatic ending is rushed through and we’re none the wiser as to why Leland committed his crime. Hoge might think he appears rather clever for not offering us a conclusion, as if he’s pulled one over on the audience, but I think it simply proves that he had nothing at all to say in the first place.

Review - Overnight

In 1997 a Los Angeles bartender named Troy Duffy had all his dreams come true at once. He wrote a script about Irish-American vigilantes called The Boondock Saints, and instantly saw it bought by Miramax chairman Harvey Weinstein. Duffy would receive $1million in total for his screenplay which he would direct, retain final cut and have his own band provide the soundtrack. Harvey even offered to buy the bar in which they finalised the contract for Duffy. Understandably, Duffy became something of an overnight celebrity; appearing on television, newspapers and magazine covers which celebrated this rags-to-riches story. Over the next three years Duffy managed to blow his golden opportunity in spectacular fashion.

Duffy spent the immediate aftermath of his big deal boozing with his friends and entertaining the numerous Hollywood actors who descended on the bar as soon as he became ‘the next big thing’. It didn’t take too long for Duffy’s new status to go straight to his head and he became an egotistical monster, alienating his family, friends, band members and anyone else who was unfortunate enough to encounter him. Understandably, Miramax’s enthusiasm for the project soon cooled as Duffy challenged their casting decisions, wasted their time and repeatedly insulted their staff. Weinstein pulled the plug and Duffy was out in the cold, having made a powerful enemy (as one interviewee states; “Harvey’s attitude is, ‘I made you - I can unmake you’”.

Overnight is the story of Duffy’s brief fling with fame and his long, inexorable slide back into obscurity. His rise and fall is captured in excruciating detail by documentary filmmakers Mark Brian Smith and Tony Montana, members of Duffy’s band and newly-formed music production company, resulting in a funny, fascinating but frustratingly uneven documentary which unfortunately suffers from a serious lack of perspective. Smith and Montana are among those who are used and abused by Duffy, and at times their film seems to focus too much on Duffy’s self-destruction alone, when it could also have exposed the inner workings of an industry which ritually chews up far more talented and appreciative filmmakers than Troy Duffy.

Despite the close access Smith and Montana had to this project, we never get a sense of how the big decisions are made. We don’t see a single meeting between Duffy and anyone from Miramax (how dearly I would love to view his initial meeting with Weinstein) and the 82 minute, choppily-edited film often feels horribly rushed. Instead, the bulk of the film focuses on Duffy’s boorish behaviour and his endless ability to shoot himself in the foot.

As a result, your enjoyment of Overnight may depend on your ability to tolerate 82 minutes in the company of an ignorant, foul-mouthed bully who can’t appreciate the golden opportunity millions of people would kill for. It’s hard to fully convey just how much of a jerk Duffy becomes as soon as he’s handed his 15 minutes in the limelight. On more than one occasion he claims he is set for ‘legendary’ status and remarks that he and his band are “doing something that has never been done before”. Duffy becomes a vindictive, snarling bully when he fails to get his way and he screws all of his friends and partners out of their share of the money (“You may deserve it, but you’re not gonna get it”).

Much of the film consists of Duffy branding Harvey Weinstein a “cocksucker”, though never to his face (in one of many cringeworthy scenes, Duffy tells Weinstein over the phone how much he respects him as his mentor), but by the end of the film I was siding with the Miramax chairman over this talentless fool. It’s little wonder that Weinstein chose to cut Duffy loose, he hardly needed the aggro that this arrogant, abusive director was bringing to the table, but I wish we had some perspective from his side of the table - to understand what he saw in the project in the first place.

Duffy eventually got The Boondock Saints made, at a fraction of the budget and with Willem Dafoe and Billy Connolly replacing his dream pairing of Kenneth Branagh and Ewan McGregor. Duffy took the film to Cannes where it was refused by every American distributor, eventually having a brief release on five screens. The band’s album was another disaster, selling 690 copies in six months - unsurprisingly, a record contract was not forthcoming. Duffy returned to anonymity, back behind the bar; bitter and friendless. Most viewers will feel he got what he deserved.

There is one pleasing final twist in the tale though, with The Boondock Saints eventually becoming something of a cult hit on video and DVD. Perhaps this was finally some vindication for Duffy? Not so, as his contract failed to give him a cut of any profits from home video sales or rentals. This means that the curious viewer of Overnight can rent The Boondock Saints safe in the knowledge that Duffy won’t be receiving a single penny. Ah, sweet schadenfreude.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Review - War of the Worlds

For Steven Spielberg, an adaptation of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds must have seemed like a project perfectly suited to his talents. Spielberg’s mastery of special effects makes him the ideal choice to helm a film about a devastating alien attack on planet earth, and the screenplay provided by Josh Friedman and David Koepp also gives plenty of room to the kind of parental issues Spielberg loves to include. This is the third time Spielberg has made a film about visitors from another world but War of the Worlds is a far cry from the territory explored in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET. These aliens are far less benevolent than those depicted in the earlier films, unfortunately they’re a damn sight less interesting too.

Spielberg’s latest focuses on Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a blue-collar dock worker in New York. Ray is selfish, arrogant, irresponsible and is a perfect fit for an actor whose best performances, from Rain Man to Magnolia, have seen him play arrogant, self-centred characters who come to re-evaluate their life over the course of the film. Ray is a divorced father of two and at the start of the film his wife (Miranda Otto) is dropping off the kids for the weekend (“take care of our kids” she tells him, more in hope than expectation). The kids aren’t too enamoured at the thought of a weekend at dad’s either; teenager Robbie (Justin Chatwin) makes no attempt to disguise his hostility towards his father while young Rachel (the creepily gifted 11 year-old Dakota Fanning) simply tries to make the best of a bad situation.

Fortunately for Ray, there’s no need to dream up some entertainment for the weekend because a bizarre electrical storm suddenly appears on the horizon, and everyone is fascinated by the enormous clouds and lightning flashes - until those lightning strikes get a little too close for comfort. Soon, the local families are all cowering inside while lightning hits the areas around their houses and knocks out all the cars, phones and electrical equipment. When Ray and the other residents go to investigate the damage, they find a crater in the middle of the town through which a giant robotic tripod creature emerges and starts to destroy the surroundings. Ray runs for home while people around him get vaporised and he manages to get his children into the only working car in the city before escaping.

The rest of War of the Worlds follows this trio’s attempts to survive while the full scale of the alien invasion is slowly revealed. Spielberg has a knack for swiftly sketching out a character in a few scenes and the early sequences of Ray attempting to bond with his family are witty and enjoyable. When the tripod does make its appearance and the family hit the road, Spielberg gives us a terrifying and spectacular series of explosions and near-misses which feature a number of heart-stopping moments. These early scenes also skilfully depict the growing panic which engulfs the city and the stunning effects brilliantly render the havoc wreaked by the invaders. Unfortunately, nothing else in the film can follow this opening third.

Simply put, Spielberg simply seems to run out of steam, or ideas, as the film progresses and the second half feels twice as long as the first. War of the Worlds grinds to a halt when Cruise and Fanning hide out in the basement of a gun-toting loony played by Tim Robbins, in a sequence which feels vaguely pointless and goes on far too long. After this, Spielberg trades the unifying sense of terror which characterised the early scenes for sequences where Cruise single-handedly performs a number of heroic acts - most ludicrously, his bravery when faced with an alien’s giant sphincter muscle - and these moments all seem to have strayed in from a much less sophisticated blockbuster.

There are a myriad of other problems afflicting War of the Worlds. The script is littered with plot-holes, lapses in logic (how come the initial attack didn‘t knock out one man‘s camcorder?), and the focus on the central trio alone means the carnage elsewhere lacks any sort of emotional resonance. Spielberg, normally so sound in dealing with emotional moments, bungles the big father/son scene when Robbie’s sudden desire to join the army is shoehorned into the plot, and his liberal use of Holocaust imagery and 9/11 references is crass and unnecessary. Of course, Spielberg is still a master of so many aspects of filmmaking and War of the Worlds contains a number of superb moments - aside from that opening sequence there is also a fine set-piece on a ferry and a wonderful shot of a burning train - but the overall film feels hacked together and flat.

Much of that is down to the climax, or anti-climax as it turns out to be. Spielberg’s inability to finish a film satisfactorily has plagued his work for years, as the damaging conclusions of Schindler’s List, AI and Minority Report will attest. Here the problem is a denouement which feels rushed rather than overlong, as the alien attack inexplicably falls apart in a couple of minutes, and I had no idea why until Morgan Freeman’s tacked-on voiceover helpfully explained matters. Even worse are the following scenes which once again see Spielberg trying to force some sort of happy ending onto the film in the most unsuitable of circumstances.

Spielberg very rarely makes a truly bad film, but War of the Worlds is distinctly average at best. Cruise gives a reliably strong performance, as does Fanning, and the film occasionally stuns with a smart set-piece or some wonderful effects work, but it never really does enough. The thrill of the opening third is cancelled out by an hour of anti-climax and the rushed, unsatisfying conclusion leaves the feeling that the film has been a pointless exercise - little more than a $130million homily on responsible parenting - and I think we’re entitled to expect a little more than that.