Saturday, August 13, 2005

Review - Crash

“I am angry all the time and I don’t know why”. This is the statement Sandra Bullock comes out with halfway through Crash, and she could be speaking on behalf of every character in the movie. Everyone in this film is angry, frustrated and unhappy. Oh, and racist too. Crash opens and closes with a car crash (hence the title) and during the intervening two hours every character - Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Arab - will reveal the bigotry they manage to keep under wraps most of the time.
Set over the course of a day in Los Angeles, Crash is an ensemble drama following a dozen or so characters who cross paths (often in ludicrously contrived fashion). Matt Dillon is a bigoted cop who pulls over a black couple and molests the woman (Thandie Newton), much to the horror of his partner (Ryan Phillippe) and her husband (Terrence Howard). District Attorney Brendan Fraser and his wife Sandra Bullock are car-jacked at gunpoint by two black youths (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Larenz Tate) and she starts to have suspicions about any minority, including kind-hearted locksmith Daniel (Michael Pena). Don Cheadle is a local cop who finds himself being used as a political pawn. These characters repeatedly ‘crash’ into each other throughout the film, resulting in scene after scene of anger, hatred and prejudice.

Paul Haggis, a successful TV writer for many years, is best known for his Oscar-nominated screenplay for Million Dollar Baby, and Crash marks his first attempt at directing a feature. His film is ambitious in scope, tackles an important theme and features a starry cast, many of whom deliver their finest work in years. Unfortunately, Haggis is guilty of taking a preachy, heavy-handed approach which makes Crash feel like less than the sum of its parts. Given the nature of the film’s structure, Crash inevitably draws comparisons to the work of PT Anderson and Robert Altman, but the comparisons do Haggis’ film no favours. Anderson brought an epic grandeur and operatic sweep to Magnolia which helped make the often incredible coincidences and contrivances more palatable to the viewer, something Crash’s more realistic approach doesn’t manage, and while Altman filled his films with numerous themes and ideas, Crash has one thing and one thing only on its mind - racism.

The opening car crash sets the scene with Jennifer Esposito asking the Chinese driver in the other car if she couldn’t see over the steering wheel or see her ‘blake lights’ properly. The next scene features a Persian man being called Osama by the owner of a gun shop and told to “plan the Jihad on your own time”. It seems every person in this vision of LA resorts to racial stereotyping when pushed to the edge and Haggis just keeps it coming. In the opening half hour every scene seems to end with some kind of racist insult being hurled and it all becomes a bit wearying before too long. It doesn’t take long for the minor shock value of such robust racial language to dissipate and after that you have to ask Haggis “what else have you got?”.

The answer, depressingly, is not much. Haggis hammers home the same point with every scene, an approach which simply dilutes the power of the issue. He’s careful to paint every character in a shade of grey, with each of them shown making racist remarks as well as being on the end of prejudice themselves. Haggis is lucky that his well-chosen cast give such committed performances as they manage to raise his material a notch or two. Matt Dillon gives his best performance for a long time and shares two electric encounters with Thandie Newton, Sandra Bullock plays against type effectively, and Michael Pena is a soulful presence as the closest thing to a truly good character in the film.

Haggis struggles in the second half to ensure that all the disparate characters interact in some way, resulting in some ridiculous coincidences and plot developments which will strain audiences’ credibility to breaking point. Two of the film‘s ‘big’ moments - one involving an overturned car and one with a gun being fired - are handled in overblown fashion by Haggis, with syrupy music and slow-motion laying it on far too heavily. Finally, despite the writer/director’s intent to provide a gritty, edgy portrait of racism in contemporary USA, he goes soft at the end, and the film climaxes to the sound of many “I love you’s” and plenty of hugging.

Crash is undoubtedly very watchable, mainly thanks to the first-rate cast, but it never fully engages the viewer’s emotions and is nowhere near as brave or important as Haggis clearly thinks it is. Haggis loses the fight by trying much too hard, which is hugely disappointing as he can stage an effective scene when he takes his foot off the race pedal a little. The most compelling sequences in Crash are the ones that have the least to do with colour, a scene between a father and daughter or a mother and son, and show glimpses of what the film could have been, but such delicate moments tend to be swiftly lost under the juggernaut of Haggis’ overriding theme. With its broad strokes and ridiculous plotting Crash would probably work best if you don’t take it too seriously but - there’s the rub - Crash simply demands to be taken seriously. It likes to think of itself as being some sort of great statement on the issue of racism but, while it tries to say everything about race, it ends up saying nothing new.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Review - Dear Wendy

Dear Wendy opens with a teenage boy writing a letter to the Wendy of the title. From the longing, mournful tone of his voiceover we assume that Wendy is a girl he loved, a girl who broke his heart, and that Dear Wendy will be a rites-of-passage tale of teenage love. In a way, the film is a kind of love story - taking us from the first meeting and the early excitement of the romance to the betrayal and painful parting - but it takes on an extra dimension when you realise that Wendy isn’t actually a girl at all. Jean Luc-Godard once claimed that all you needed to make a movie was a girl and a gun, in Dear Wendy the girl is the gun.

Scripted by cinema’s chief provocateur Lars von Trier and directed by his fellow Dogme95 founder Thomas Vinterberg, Dear Wendy is another of von Trier’s scathing attacks on American values. This time his gaze has focused on the USA’s right to bear arms and von Trier builds a story about a group of teenagers who are emboldened and have their personalities defined by their obsession with guns.
The story follows Dick (Jamie Bell), a sensitive, lonely teenager living in a dead-end American mining town. Rebelling against his father’s wishes that he should forge a career in the pits, Dick (instead of turning to ballet) takes a position as a supermarket shelf-stacker. His co-worker Stevie (Mark Webber) initially appears uncommunicative and surly, but the pair find a common interest when Dick reveals the small silver pistol he likes to carry around. Stevie is a gun enthusiast, who has named his own wartime weapon ‘Bad Steel’, and he decides to open Dick’s eyes to the fun there is to be had from carrying a gun. Dick has never fired his pistol (he’s a pacifist) but soon the pair are down in the mines enjoying a bit of target practice before spending many hours discussing everything and anything on the subject of guns.

A firm friendship is formed, and both boys appear more confident as if simply carrying their ‘partner’ added a couple of inches to their stature. Their new found sense of self-worth encourages Dick to offer the same escape route to other teens in their situation, and he invites Susan (Alison Pill), Huey (Chris Owen) and Freddie (Michael Angarano) to get in on the act. Between them the kids form The Dandies, a group who devote their time to celebrating their weapons and forming a strong bond between themselves and their guns. The Dandies respect the power of their firearms though, swearing that they will never be brandished against another person.

Vinterberg captures the group’s developing togetherness and the formation of their new identity with real flair, delivering a stylish and entertaining opening half. Assisted by Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography, which gives everything a bright, dreamlike sheen, and the eclectic soundtrack; Vinterberg skilfully portrays the youths growing devotion to their weapons, which they treat almost like sexual partners, and builds up nicely to the point where it all inevitably turns sour for The Dandies. Unfortunately, it’s here that it starts to turn a little sour for Vinterberg too.

The first sign of trouble for the group occurs when the local sheriff (Bill Pullman) asks Dick to watch over a local boy who has just got out of jail. Sebastian (Danso Gordon) is uneasy with the rituals of The Dandies at first but Susan is instantly attracted to him and he wins over the others with a gift of some guns. But the when he fires Wendy, with an ease and accuracy that sickens Dick, the relationship between Dick and his weapon is damaged irrevocably. However, an even bigger crisis is about to hit The Dandies.

A good deed going awry is the catalyst for the carnage that occurs in the final third. Unfortunately, the nature of this twist is so ludicrous, and the fallout from it so unrealistic, that all sense seems to suddenly fly out of the picture. Dear Wendy suddenly lurches into a different kind of movie, one Vinterberg seems much less sure with, and for some time the film stalls and stutters as Vinterberg tries to manipulate events leading up to the climax. He stages an effective, Peckinpah-style shootout to end the film but it’s hard to see exactly how we reached that point and why. The film seems to fluff whatever messages it’s sending out, touching on any number of gun-related issues without ever exploring them in real depth, and despite the exciting climax I was left feeling fairly deflated and frustrated by Dear Wendy.

The young cast are fine throughout, with Jamie Bell giving yet another hugely impressive display, and Vinterberg keeps the film engaging while never really letting it catch fire, in the way von Trier would likely have done. The shadow of Lars von Trier hovers everywhere over this film and Vinterberg clearly struggles to do justice to his screenplay while still crafting a film that he can claim as his own. After the amazing Festen, it’s hard to know what to make of Vinterberg seven years and two films down the road. He still has a lot of unrealised potential but, while his films have become bigger and more ambitious, he seems to have regressed in terms of basic storytelling and still hasn’t developed a defining filmmaking personality of his own. Working with his mentor von Trier again, on such a potentially explosive issue as the United States’ fixation with guns, must have seemed like a great opportunity to get his career back on track after the dire It’s All About Love. Unfortunately, much of Dear Wendy finds both the director and screenwriter firing blanks.