Monday, September 26, 2005

Review - Land of the Dead

It has been twenty years since George A Romero directed Day of the Dead, the third film in his zombie trilogy, and concluded a series which confirmed his status as a legendary figure among horror directors. Now, after the box-office success of 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead and a remake of Romero’s own Dawn of the Dead, it was perhaps inevitable that the original zombie movie maestro would be invited to revisit the genre he made his own and scare us all over again. Unfortunately, Romero’s inspiration has deserted him on this occasion and Land of the Dead comes off looking like a pale imitation of his earlier work. The things that you expect to find in a Romero zombie flick are present and correct - Land of the Dead doesn’t stray too far from the tried and trusted template of blood, dark humour and social satire - but these elements seem duller and more forced than they did before.

Romero’s latest takes place in a nameless, ruined city where the undead have already been out in force for years and humans have learned to live with it. Most of the surviving population scrape a living in slums and ghettos which are guarded round-the-clock by armed forces, but the wealthier members of society take refuge in a gleaming skyscraper run by a nasty cliché named Kaufman (Dennis Hopper). Kaufman has a group of mercenaries (led by Simon Baker and John Leguizamo) who venture outside the city limits in an indestructible tank named ‘Dead Reckoning’ to retrieve various food and medical supplies. It’s a system which has been working rather well up to now but things are about to change; the undead are starting to develop communication skills and the ability to use weapons. Now they have united under the command of one zombie (Eugene Clark) to begin a major assault on the city.

So far so good, but Land of the Dead has hardly shuffled into its stride when some major flaws become apparent. Chief among these is some dreadful casting which cripples the movie almost instantly. In the lead role of Riley, Simon Baker is astonishingly bland and lacks any kind of presence whatsoever. His character is admittedly a fairly dull conception, but Baker brings nothing to the party and delivers an utterly forgettable performance. The rest of his team aren’t particularly memorable either, with Robert Joy failing to make his dim-witted character much more than a poor comic relief and Asia Argento displaying once again that speaking isn’t her forte. As the villain of the piece, Dennis Hopper sleepwalks through the picture and it’s left to John Leguizamo to carry the torch. Lord knows I’m no fan of Leguizamo, but he at least provided a little energy to this listless picture and his presence was always something of a relief.

On top of the poor performances and often dreadful dialogue (“They’re just looking for a place to go - just like us”, says Riley of the zombies), Romero has also lost his touch when it comes to the satirical elements of the script. His earlier Dead movies always contained a dose of thinly-veiled social commentary, but in Land of the Dead Romero makes his points in an obvious and heavy-handed fashion. The wealthy and privileged are safely enclosed in an ivory tower while the rest of the population is left to fend for itself in the ghetto below, Hopper’s Kaufman says “we don’t negotiate with terrorists”, Leguizamo threatens to “go jihad on his ass” and there is much talk about the amount of fatalities which would be caused if the tower were subject to a terrorist attack.

This isn’t really subtext anymore, Romero’s intentions are pushed right to the forefront of the picture where, frankly, they’re not wanted. The use of the human population’s reaction to the zombies as a metaphor for the way we live now is a device which feels tired and laboured and his relentless use of 9/11 references is an unnecessary and overused aspect of the muddled screenplay. All of this simply gets in the way of what people have come to see, some good old-fashioned zombie action.

And the zombies certainly are fun for a while, Romero still knows how to effectively stage his undead attacks and many of these scenes are occasionally tense and satisfyingly gory. But the director fails to make the most of one of his most interesting ideas, the notion that the zombies in this film have started to communicate and work together. At one point, the leader of these creatures stumbles across a field where a number of zombies have been strung up for target practice, and he lets out a roar of fury, sadness, dismay. Do the zombies have feelings now? Do they think and feel? We never find out, because whatever emotions they have developed are only fleetingly explored and for most of the time they are the same shambling, flesh-eating monsters we’ve seen so many times before.

It’s a sad fact, but it seems that Romero isn’t able to keep up with his imitators these days. Everything about Land of the Dead is sluggish and feels like it’s been recycled from Romero’s earlier, better films. Some of the climactic sequences, when the zombies break into the gleaming Fiddler’s Green tower, often feel like they’ve been ripped off wholesale from Dawn of the Dead’s shopping mall setting. Expectations were high for Romero's return to the genre and this is a huge disappointment. When Land of the Dead is over most viewers will be left with little more than a feeling of déjà vu, a creeping sense of boredom and the realisation that this is one franchise which should have stayed dead.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Review - A History of Violence

If ever a director was well suited to a film entitled A History of Violence then it’s David Cronenberg. After all, his work over the past thirty years has been littered with some of the most blood-soaked and provocative imagery in contemporary cinema, as the director has continued to explore his obsession with body horror and psychological trauma. His films have been consistently innovative, challenging and, unsurprisingly, have hardly set the box office ablaze. Now, with recognisable stars and a (deceptively) straightforward script, the studio-backed A History of Violence has been seen by some as a blatant attempt for Cronenberg to finally score a commercial hit. But don’t be fooled; while this is definitely the director’s most accessible and mainstream work since The Fly, it’s also a challenging and powerful film which handles the themes of violence and identity like no other American film in recent memory.

The plot revolves around Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a man who seems to have a perfect life. He and his loving wife Edie (Maria Bello) have two charming kids (Ashton Holmes and Heidi Hayes) and he lives in a small Midwestern town which could be the set of Pleasantville. Tom owns a local diner in which he serves coffee and chews the fat with friendly locals. However, we’re aware that Tom’s life won’t be remaining so sweet for long - as an opening scene of bloodshed has already set the tone - and sure enough a pair of violent crooks enter the diner one night and are about to start shooting when Tom leaps into action, killing the pair with blistering speed and efficiency. In fact his actions are so instinctive and natural that it almost seems like he’s done it before…

All I can really divulge about the rest of the storyline is that Tom becomes something of a local hero for a couple of days and his publicity brings the sinister Fogarty (Ed Harris) to town, convinced that Tom is not who he says he is. It would be wrong to spoil any more than that, because one of the chief pleasures of A History of Violence is the way Cronenberg constantly keeps us on our toes with his crafty handling of the material. A History of Violence may seem at first glance like a generic thriller, but the various layers which are subtly piled onto the basic framework of the film make it something very special indeed.

Cronenberg’s focus here isn’t really on the plot at all. He is far more interested in exploring the way normal people react to violence and challenging the standard cinematic depiction of violent acts. As a result, the bloodshed in A History of Violence really hits us hard. When Tom kills the two hoodlums in his bar, the scene is cut and shot with a skill that John Woo would be proud of and it produces an undeniable thrill for the viewer (even Tom takes a second to glance at his gun with a look that could be read as awe). But Cronenberg won’t let us enjoy the charge of the shootout for too long before cutting to a brief shot of assailants’ lifeless bodies. One of them is lying face down in a pool of blood with half his head missing. The excitement which we were all enjoying just a second ago has now caught in our throats.

This is not the way things are supposed to be done in Hollywood action movies. The shootouts are exciting for sure, but this time Cronenberg is going to make us view the results as well. Like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, A History of Violence is telling the viewer “if you’ve come to see violence, here it is”, and his handling of these scenes is sharp, brutal and often horrific. For Cronenberg violence is like a virus which starts to spread as soon as it arrives in the Stall family’s life. Teenage son Jack lashes out at a school bully whom he usually would run from while Edie seems to derive an erotic thrill from this dangerous new aspect of Tom’s personality. Cronenberg includes two remarkable sex scenes which brilliantly highlight the shift in dynamic between Tom and Edie. In the first, they are tender, playful and passionate together - the actions of a couple who know each other intimately - while their second coupling, which occurs after the film’s massive revelation, is a brutal and aggressive scene which leaves Edie bruised and in tears. She doesn’t know who her husband is anymore.

Viggo Mortensen is better than he’s ever been in the lead role. His low-key performance hits all the right notes as Tom desperately tries to maintain control of his identity, and his family. Mortensen’s open features lend a note of ambiguity to every scene, notably the haunting final shot, and he makes the often huge shifts in Tom’s character believable. Maria Bello lends a real emotional weight to the film with her display, making Edie a complex and fascinating presence, while newcomer Ashton Holmes is impressive in a difficult role. As two of the shady characters who intrude on Tom’s life, Ed Harris and William Hurt give wonderfully ripe performances which are both witty and chilling.

Cronenberg’s direction is faultless, his control of tone and mood is effortless and his deliberate pacing draws us into the story until we are fully enveloped in its clutches. It’s another masterful film from a master filmmaker who has never really received the recognition he has deserved, and those who blanched at the thought of Cronenberg doing an Hollywood action film can rest easy. With A History of Violence he has created a film as incisive, intelligent and provocative as you would expect from him; a film which gives the public what they want then chastises them for liking it. In the devastating, wordless final sequence we fully comprehend the effect that the film’s events have had on this family. They are different people now, their relationship changed forever by what they have seen and done, and things will never be the same again. That’s what violence does to people, It’s not like the movies.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Review - No Direction Home

“He’s pathetic”, “It makes you sick listening to this rubbish”, “He spends too much time on that wretched harmonica”. These English teenagers are delivering their verdict on the performance they’ve just seen from Bob Dylan, who they see as a traitor for turning his back on the protest songs and acoustic style with which he made his name. His performances on his UK tour are met with heckles and jeers by many in the crowd and Dylan is understandably distressed. “I just wanna go home” he tells his band after one show.

The UK tour was probably the lowest point of the five-year period covered by No Direction Home, an extraordinary new documentary on Dylan, and it’s a point that director Martin Scorsese returns to again and again, leading up to the infamous ’Judas’ shout which ends the film. Heroes are built up in order to be torn down, and Scorsese depicts this as the inevitable price that a young artist has to pay if he wants to develop his craft, explore new avenues and try to take his music in a new direction. Dylan doesn’t seem to care who he angers or what people think, he just wants to produce great music and if they don’t like it then that’s their problem.

It isn’t hard to see what attracted Martin Scorsese to a film about Dylan. Both are iconic figures in their respective art forms yet both have always been on the outside looking in, mavericks who have always been a little too abrasive and unpredictable to be fully embraced by the mainstream, and both are hugely talented artists who have a deep and abiding passion for music. This is probably why No Direction Home is such a wonderful film, Scorsese has always been at his best when he finds a strong connection with the main character in his film and this four-hour documentary finds the director on peak form.

The film is divided into two parts. Part One traces Dylan’s Minnesota roots and the early stages of his musical education. His influences were a wide mixture of musical styles and included such artists as Billie Holliday, Hank Williams, John Jacob Niles and, his biggest influence of all, Woody Guthrie. Scorsese has collected an incredible wealth of footage and he gives us generous clips of all these artists in action. “He was like a sponge“, says Tony Glover, “picking up people‘s mannerisms, accents“, and Scorsese puts together a lovely sequence in which clips of a number of artists are followed by performances by the young Dylan in which he has clearly picked up the style and inflections of the previous singer. The first part continues to chart Dylan’s rise to prominence but success doesn’t last forever, as we have been warned by the constant glimpses of those UK performances.

The second half of No Direction Home deals with Dylan’s struggle to handle the expectations of his new status. His early protest songs and appearances at politically charged events soon had people labelling him as the voice of a generation but Dylan was clearly not comfortably with this position. His passion was for the music rather than the politics and Joan Baez (who contributes some illuminating interviews) recalls how she could never persuade him to devote his attention to political issues as much as she wanted. “Are you going to participate in the demonstration tonight?” he is asked by one reporter, “I’ll be busy tonight” Dylan replies with a sly smile. His encounters with interviewers also provide some of No Direction Home’s highlights as he attempted to avoid being pigeonholed by the media. In one sequence Scorsese puts together a number of clips from press conferences in which Dylan tries to avoid answering inane questions from the assembled reporters such as “Why do you think you’re popular”, “How many protest singers are there in America?” and “Do you think you’re the ultimate beatnik?”. Much of the time the clearly uncomfortable Dylan mumbled sarcastic answers to these queries and this sequence is often very funny.

Dylan just wanted to concentrate on his music and described himself as a “musical expeditionary”, but the resistance he faced when attempting to explore new musical avenues forms much of the film’s second half. Scorsese uses Dylan’s consecutive performances at the Newport Folk Festival to show how the public reaction turned on him. His 1963 performance, which ends part one, is a triumph but his 1965 appearance so angered the audience and musicians that Pete Seeger threatened to cut the amplifier cords with an axe. The contrast between the highest and lowest points of No Direction Home couldn’t be greater. Scorsese completes his musical journey after the final UK performance and shortly before the motorcycle crash which led to his semi-retirement. The film finishes on a triumphant note with Dylan emerging to a cacophony of boos and comes up with the only logical response; “play it fucking loud” he tells the band, and they launch into a version of Like a Rolling Stone which turns the jeers to cheers.

Throughout No Direction Home we remain completely transfixed as Scorsese is in full control of this remarkable material. His selection of footage is outstanding and his legendary ability to fuse the music with the images is as good as ever. Some viewers may find fault with the film, perhaps pointing to the fact that the film fails to make any direct mention of drug use and little talk about his personal relationships (including his marriage), but when the material in the film is so priceless it seems ridiculous to complain. No Direction Home is a breathtaking film which provides the most telling portrait yet of Dylan and confirms Scorsese’s status as the greatest filmmaker of his generation. Two of the 20th century’s most important cultural icons have come together on this project, and the result is every bit as momentous as you could imagine.

*No Direction Home will be screened on Monday September 19th at the National Film Theatre and then will appear in two parts on Monday 26th and Tuesday 27th of September on BBC2.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Review - The Aristocrats

There is an infamous joke which comes in a short or long version. Here’s the short one:

A man walks into the office of a theatrical agent and tells him that he and his family perform an act which will amaze him.
“What do you do?” asks the agent.
“Well, my wife and kids and I come out onto the stage, pull down our trousers, shit on the stage, and take a bow to rapturous applause” says the man.
“Wow” says the startled agent, “what the hell do you call an act like that?”.
“The Aristocrats!” comes the reply.

That’s the short telling of the joke anyway. For the long version you’ll have to watch The Aristocrats, a new documentary which focuses on this single gag alone. The thing with this joke is that only two parts of it remain constant - the set-up and the punch line - and in between the teller of the joke has carte blanche to make his rendition the dirtiest, most obscene, most offensive version imaginable. Most of the versions told in The Aristocrats contain incest, bestiality, rape and bodily fluids - and that’s just for starters. Nothing is off limits for a person telling this joke and that’s what makes it so popular among comedians. It’s a joke they will rarely tell in public but instead they keep it among themselves, sort of a comic secret handshake, and it has attained legendary status within the comics’ circle.

The Aristocrats gives over 100 comedians the chance to give their version of the gag and to discuss the history and impact of “the world’s dirtiest joke”. Directed by Paul Provenza, the film is an insight into the mechanics of joke-telling and the evolution this particular gag has undergone as tastes change, taboos die, and people become increasingly hard to shock.

The thing with The Aristocrats is that the central joke is not in itself a very funny one. The weak punch line is liable to result in a blank look from anyone hearing it and so it becomes all about the middle section where the comedian is given free reign. As a result, most of the laughter the joke receives comes from the audience’s sense of surprise and incredulity at the unspeakable acts which are being described. Each contributor manages to run the full gamut of sexual acts, scatology and taboos, but when you start to adjust to the level of profanity the film contains, its deficiencies become all too clear.

The Aristocrats is a 90-minute film which has no right to be that length. Initially the structure adopted by Provenza and producer Penn Jillette works well, as it sets up the context of the joke and flits between various comics as they put their own spin on the matter. However, as the film progresses the novelty of the joke begins to pall and the endless barrage of vulgarity starts to wear thin. The Aristocrats becomes repetitive, messy and often quite dull the further it goes; and the hit-and-miss nature of the humour begins missing the target more often than not.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t some hilarious material here. The film works best when the performers take the premise into really interesting and unusual directions rather than just aiming to offend. A magician and a mime give two of the most original and engaging displays, Kevin Pollack does his in the style of Christopher Walken, while the most of the interviewees involved agree that the finest rendition was performed by Gilbert Gottfried at a Friar’s Club Roast for Hugh Hefner. It was an event which took place just weeks after 9/11 and after a joke about the attack didn’t go down well Gottfried launched headlong into this joke instead, one of the few public performances of the material which had the room convulsing with laughter as the comedian ad-libbed an extraordinary tale. It’s one of the best clips in the film and what gives it such potency is the setting, the context and the quality of the delivery. These are factors a good joke needs and ones which most of the efforts in The Aristocrats lack.

At times it seems that The Aristocrats falls halfway between two very good films while never deciding what it wants to be. The comics involved will often offer some interesting and insightful analysis on what makes the joke work but the filmmakers’ attention to this aspect of the film is superficial, and just when the film seems to be moving into potentially interesting territory late on - as it broaches the subject of race and religion becoming the new boundaries - it finishes, leaving this avenue frustratingly unexplored. Likewise, you sometimes just wish Provenza and Jillette would allow a couple of the comedians a bit of breathing space to do what they do best, but their constant leaping from one to another never allows any sort of rhythm to develop and The Aristocrats becomes an uneasy mixture of the two styles.

The Aristocrats never really gets its priorities straight and the end result seems a little redundant. The potential was there to make a documentary which explored the very basic concepts of comedy but Provenza’s film lacks weight and, although you will undoubtedly laugh on a number of occasions while watching it, few of the routines will linger in the memory afterwards. One of the film’s highlights is a version of the joke being told by South Park’s Cartman, one of the great comedy characters, and it only goes to prove that what matters in comedy is the teller not the joke. The only other thing The Aristocrats proves is that there’s nothing quite as dull as the feeling of being shocked all the time.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Review - Goal

Football and cinema have something of a rocky relationship over the years. While American sports have provided the backdrop to some great films it appears that the beautiful game is the hardest of all to get right, with most football-related films falling prey to hackneyed storytelling, unconvincing action, footballers who can’t act and actors who can’t play football. The latest attempt to bring the sport to the screen is Goal, an ambitious production which will eventually form a trilogy following a young man’s rise from nobody to global superstar. The team behind Goal have made every effort to make this the most realistic football film possible, securing the support of FIFA, The Premier League and Newcastle United to ensure authenticity, but the can it avoid the storytelling pitfalls which have afflicted previous football films?

For the most part, Goal works rather well. While it is hardly an unqualified masterpiece, the film is certainly one of the best attempts at bringing football to the big screen. The screenplay by British sitcom veterans Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais follows a predictable trajectory; a rags-to-riches tale concerning Santiago Munez (Kuno Becker), a young Mexican living in LA who lives for football alone. His blunt father would rather see him stop wasting his time and dedicate himself to the family business, but Santiago just wants to play and it’s during a local game that he’s spotted by a former Newcastle player on holiday. Glen (Stephen Dillane) likes what he sees and tries to convince Santiago to go to England, promising him that he will organise a trial with his former club if he turns up.

Santiago hardly impresses at the trial, finding the rough-and-tumble of the English game hard to take, and his dream of being a professional footballer looks like it’s about to die, but a couple of team-mates and staff who recognise his raw talent convince Newcastle’s Wenger-like manager (Marcel Iures) to give him a chance. Soon his brilliant ball skills start to make people sit up and take notice but he still has a number of obstacles to overcome. Can he establish himself in the first team? Can he stand up to the team’s bullying hard man (Kieran O’Brien)? Can he win the respect of his father? Can he stay on the straight and narrow or will he be led astray by the likes of playboy striker Gavin Harris (Alessandro Nivola)? And will he win the heart of the lovely team nurse (Anna Friel)?

Well what do you think? It’s giving nothing away to state that the answer to most of the above questions is “yes”. Danny Cannon’s film is a fairytale vision of football in which all of Santiago’s dreams will come true if he works hard, is honest and learns the importance of teamwork. This moral stance is perhaps understandable as the filmmakers would surely have had a tougher getting the support of FIFA and Newcastle United if their lead character was more George Best than Alan Shearer. For this, we should be thankful because the unprecedented access Goal gains within the club is what really gives it the edge over other films in the genre. To see the actors in and around St James’ Park, training with the real players, adds a sheen of legitimacy over the whole enterprise. The match sequences are impressive as well, with shots from Premiership matches cleverly spliced together with footage of the actors filmed in close-up. Of course, the games are all last-minute winners and 30-yard screamers but it generally works extremely well and successfully conveys the excitement of a big match.

But it’s the moments in between the games which are a little less convincing. The scenes where Cannon attempts to develop the narrative or create some drama are clunky and mishandled, and the film experiences particular problems in the second half when Santiago is overloaded with endless personal and professional setbacks in a breathlessly short space of time. Much of the dialogue is dire, sometimes hilariously so, and it seems the filmmakers never saw a sporting cliché they didn’t want to incorporate into the script. It still seems that while the creation of a realistic football environment on film is more achievable than ever, the ability to place a little of that realism in the mouths of well-rounded characters is still beyond cinema’s capabilities.

As the hero of the tale, Kuno Becker looks the part but he’s far more comfortable with the ball than with the acting side of the role. He lacks the emotional range to fully draw us in to his story and you can really see him straining in some of the film’s more taxing scenes. Fortunately, the supporting cast make amends with performances that make the most of their stereotypical roles. Alessandro Nivola gives the best performance in the film with a very funny and endearing display as the reckless and egotistical Gavin Harris, Marcel Iures is a strong presence as the boss and Anna Friel (despite sporting a Geordie accent which tends to wander at a moment’s notice) is pretty and effective as the love interest. There are a couple of pointless but highly amusing cameos too, with Alan Shearer and David Beckham getting speaking parts. Shearer handles his line well enough but Beckham delivers his with all the grace of a Dalek with a sore throat and his rabbit-in-the-headlights expression indicates that he shouldn’t consider giving up the day job just yet.

Goal deserves credit for being a serious attempt at giving us a credible football film, and it will be interesting to see whether they can take it further in the forthcoming instalments. Part II, which is currently filming, sees Santiago at Real Madrid while I understand the third film will take place in the 2006 World Cup. Whatever happens with the rest of the trilogy, the first part is a decent launching pad and hopefully the filmmakers can iron out the annoying flaws which remain; and if they do, then perhaps we’ll finally have a football film to cheer about. Now that really does sound like a fairytale.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Review - Cinderella Man

The last time Russell Crowe joined forces with the unholy trilogy of director Ron Howard, producer Brian Grazier and screenwriter Akiva Goldsmith; the result was the glossy, shallow and shamelessly manipulative garbage A Beautiful Mind. Predictably, this film was music to the ears of the Academy and A Beautiful Mind undeservedly won plenty of Oscars. So it looks like they’re aiming for the same sort of success with Cinderella Man, another schmaltzy biopic which is crafted to within an inch of its life and is determined to wring out those audience tears by any means possible.
This time our hero is James J Braddock (Russell Crowe, effortlessly better than the material) a boxer who was enjoying a nice run of success in the late 20’s before the great depression bought everything to a crashing halt. With his fortune gone, Braddock scrapes a living working on the docks while taking any low-rent fight his manager Joe (Paul Giamatti) can get for him. But when he breaks his hand in a fight even that source of income is lost, and Braddock’s fighting license is revoked by the Boxing Commission (led by the underused Bruce McGill). Braddock’s wife Mae (Renee Zellwegger) remains staunchly behind her man throughout the tough times, believing that he will find a way to end their woes and provide for her and their three children.

These were difficult times for sure but, just in case you weren’t aware of what people were going through, Goldsmith and Howard helpfully spell it out to you at every turn. The throng of workers jostling at the dock gates for work manage to avoid standing on a newspaper headline which screams “Unemployment Reaches 15,000,000!”; Braddock throws the milkman’s ‘past due’ note on top of a pile of final demand letters; Mae dutifully washes James’ only pair of socks. This spoon-feeding approach to storytelling is unsurprising from Howard but it still grates. He is determined to pile as much adversity and tragedy as he possibly can on the boxer’s shoulders so that his comeback will be all the greater.

And what a comeback it is! Braddock was thrown into a high-profile match after another fighter pulled out and, with his surprise victory, he was suddenly back in the fight game. This time around he wasn’t just fighting for his family, or his pride, but for the whole nation; as his phoenix act caught the attention of the unemployed masses and he became a symbol of hope for them - a personification of the American dream.

This is unquestionably a great story and Braddock’s tale deserved to be told, but it deserved a better rendition than this. Cinderella Man is well-crafted, well-acted and staggeringly banal in every way. I have nothing against a film adhering to a well-worn formula, but you have to add a little something into the mix yourself, and Akiva Goldsmith simply takes this underdog tale and fills in the gaps with cliché, after cliché, after cliché. He pads out Cinderella Man’s 144 minutes with some incredibly trite dialogue, with Mae Braddock’s “you are the champion of my heart” marking the film’s nadir. Renee Zellwegger’s shrill, one-note performance (in an admittedly one-dimensional role) doesn’t do much to sell lines like this either.

Other actors manage better with the words they’re given to say, and Russell Crowe delivers another accomplished performance. With his hangdog face and reluctant smile, Crowe plays the part of the humble underdog to the hilt and his sensitive, generous performance makes the saintly Braddock a compelling figure. Paul Giamatti is every bit Crowe’s equal as Braddock’s loyal manager and friend Joe Gould. Like a younger, more sprightly Burgess Meredith, Giamatti gives an energetic and unflagging display in Braddock’s corner and provides some much-needed humour to prick the pomposity surrounding the production. The scenes between Crowe and Giamatti come to form the emotional centre of the film, an honest and touching portrayal of friendship which is almost enough to convince you that the movie has a heart. Almost, but not quite.

But Ron Howard works like a demon to make us believe that there is something genuine under the polished veneer of this picture. He jabs away at the audience’s emotions but never comes close to landing a knockout punch. Howard is the most unremarkable and conservative of American filmmakers and his work in Cinderella Man is typically solid and uninspired. There is never a surprise in store, nothing close to ambiguity or complexity in the entire film. Braddock’s comeback fight was against the savage champion Max Baer (gamely played by Craig Bierko) and, just in case we weren’t on our hero’s side already, the film makes Baer a sneering Hollywood villain who hits low and makes suggestive comments about Mae Braddock. Howard’s determination to control every emotion the audience feels stifles any genuine sense of connection we may feel with the picture.

The director’s handling of the boxing sequences is fine, although anyone making a boxing film these days must cope with the fact that Martin Scorsese has already called all the shots in that department. The fights here are nicely staged and convincing enough, with the build-up to the climactic Baer bout effectively depicting Braddock’s new status as a man fighting for the hopes of a nation. But, again, Howard makes sure we get the point during the fight by inserting subliminal shots of the poor huddled masses, or images of Braddock’s family. If you didn’t know what he was fighting for then you do now, and it’s a move which sums up this film’s deficiencies. Crowe, Giamatti and James Braddock himself deserve much better than this simpleminded nonsense - and so do we.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Review - Red Eye

Red Eye is an 85-minute thriller which is happy to be just that. It has no pretensions, no desire to be seen as a ‘great film’, it simply wants to give us an enjoyable time, a rollercoaster ride, and in this intention it succeeds admirably. Director Wes Craven mostly focuses his film on two people in a confined space and - with the help of a couple of terrific performances - delivers a tense, witty and hugely entertaining piece of work.

The two people at the centre of the drama are Lisa (Rachel McAdams) and Jackson (Cillian Murphy), who meet-cute at an airport where both are waiting for a delayed overnight flight to Miami. Lisa is the manager of a five-star hotel while Jackson is a little more guarded about what he does for a living (although his surname of Rippner may give a clue - yes, that’s Jackson Rippner!). The pair kill time by sharing a couple of drinks but soon their flight is called and it’s time to depart, and the prospect of losing sight of this handsome and charming stranger clearly disappoints Lisa. Remarkably it isn’t too long before they meet again, as Lisa’s seat is right next to Jackson’s - what are the chances?

Well, it seems the chances were pretty high as this is all part of Jackson’s sinister masterplan. He’s part of a political assassination plot and Lisa has to ensure the politician in question is moved to a different suite at her hotel, one which will be more vulnerable to attack. If Lisa doesn’t comply then Jackson assures her that she will never see her dad (Brian Cox) again.

Craven sets up the plot with brisk efficiency, hooking us into the story before the plane has left the runway, and once we’re in the air he proves his mastery of the genre with his consummate handling of the various twists and turns that follow. This is something of a change of pace for Craven, and it proves to be a welcome one, while still giving him the opportunity to show the abilities which has made him a legendary figure among horror directors. He builds the tension with real skill, providing a couple of smart and ingenious set-pieces. Red Eye is full of plot-holes and much of the action is implausible, but Craven constantly maintains the film’s forward momentum and doesn’t give us time to question what we’ve just seen.

As the heroine and villain of this tale, up-and-coming actors Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy give tremendous displays. The beautiful McAdams is especially impressive as Lisa, brilliantly portraying her vulnerability and fear while also skilfully charting her developing strength and determination to salvage the situation. It’s a beautifully measured and subtle performance. Murphy is great too, laying on the charm at the start of the film and then using those piercing eyes to genuinely chilling effect when his true nature is revealed. The pair have a strong chemistry and the underlying sexual tension between them adds another dimension to their scenes together. There are a couple of actors on the plane who make an impression with their brief screen time and Jayma Mays, in her first screen role, gives a lovely supporting turn as the young hotel clerk who has to deal with the chaotic scenes at ground level.

Red Eye doesn’t stay airborne all the way to the finish, and it’s here that the film begins to disappoint a little. Like last year’s Collateral, the film is a model of taut efficiency while it centres on two characters’ interplay in an enclosed space and once it ventures outside it starts to slip into genre conventions. The film’s climax is hectic and violent, involving Lisa being chased around by the psychotic Jackson, and there is an air of familiarity to it all. It’s the kind of stuff that Craven can do in his sleep and has done better on numerous occasions in the past. The last twenty minutes or so feels rather flaccid and never manages to match the tension and excitement that Craven gave us earlier.

The disappointingly conventional climax doesn’t do too much lasting damage though and Red Eye is ultimately that rarest of things: a Hollywood thriller which genuinely thrills. Some Craven fans might see it as a minor work for Craven but it’s a treat to see a film which succeeds so well on its own terms. Red Eye is smart, tense, witty and there’s nothing that feels superfluous in its 85 minutes - sometimes that’s more than enough for a night at the movies.