Sunday, October 30, 2005

Review - Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

Towards the end of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, director Shane Black stages the following sequence. Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr) is perilously hanging over a busy motorway, clinging for dear life to the arm of a corpse, which is poking out of a coffin, which is somehow stuck on the side of a bridge; and Harry is firing his gun at the bad guys who are in one of the cars below. It was about this point that I finally decided to give up all resistance and came to the conclusion that - all things considered - Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a pretty entertaining movie. I wasn’t always so sure; there were times when I hated this movie, times when its tricksy post-modern approach and Hollywood in-jokes irritated rather than amused. But Black manages to throw so much at the screen that some of it is bound to stick and, and the film somehow won my favour in the end - just.

You may or may not recognise the name Shane Black. He was the young scriptwriter who struck gold with his first screenplay, an action comedy named Lethal Weapon, and later saw his script for The Long Kiss Goodnight make him the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood history. After that film Black disappeared and has now returned with the kind of action-packed and comical buddy movie which made his name, only this time he’s directing his own work for the first time.

At first this seems like a bad idea. Black is clearly anxious to make an impact in his new role, but in trying too hard to impress he starts this movie about as badly as a director possibly could start a movie. Harry Lockhart is our lead character and our narrator, but with the post-modern slant of this movie he says things like “I’ll be your narrator, I don’t see any other narrators around here so shut up” or “don’t worry, I saw Lord of the Rings and I’m not going to end the movie 17 times”. This isn’t such a bad thing in itself but Black’s hectic filmmaking style in the opening twenty minutes - a chaotic blend of flashbacks, freeze-frames, visual trickery and self-conscious quirks - almost sinks the film before it has begun. Thankfully Black settles down into a rhythm after a while and remembers to tell something resembling a story.

Harry Lockhart is a small-time thief who is on the run from the law when he stumbles into a casting session and, in his traumatised state, is hailed as an exceptional method actor and packed off to Hollywood. He is lined up for a detective film and is scheduled to spend some time with a detective known as Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) for research purposes. Harry also comes in to contact with childhood friend Harmony (Michelle Monaghan) and between the three of them they get mixed up in an incredibly convoluted murder plot.

There’s little sense in trying to follow the intricate plots twists which subsequently occur, and when I realised that fact I suddenly started to enjoy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang so much more. Black’s film is an homage to Raymond Chandler stories (the film is divided into chapters, each named after a Chandler novel), an action movie, a buddy movie and a Hollywood satire with a touch of slapstick and romance chucked into the mix for good measure. It shouldn’t work but, thanks to some fine performances and the sheer enthusiastic glee Black brings to the project, it does.

The main reason Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang works as well as it does is down to the pairing of the always watchable Robert Downey Jr with Val Kilmer, an actor who has seldom been as watchable as he is here. Downey Jr is perfect for the lead role, bringing a deft comic touch to the proceedings and a slightly world-weary air which makes the bumbling Lockhart an enormously appealing character. As the second half of the central pairing, Kilmer gives one of the best performances of his career. It’s a treat to see this actor doing comedy again and he gives a carefully controlled performance as Gay Perry, refusing to play up the homosexual mannerisms as many actors would have been tempted to do and clearly relishing the opportunity to deliver some of Black’s dialogue (Lockhart: “So you must be Gay Perry. You still Gay?”, Perry: “No I’m up to my neck in pussy, I just love the name”.)

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang doesn’t work half as well when these two aren’t on screen together and the creaky machinations of its storytelling start to become more intrusive as Black attempts to wind things up. There is also the matter of the film’s increasingly queasy morality which invites us to laugh at one senseless murder while expecting us to feel pain at another. Black is trying to have his cake and eat it with this film and his flippant approach to the film’s abundant violence precludes the emotional involvement he tries to invest it with late on.

Nevertheless, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang has more invention than most Hollywood thrillers can muster these days. It is never more than the sum of its parts, but when the film does work the results are tremendous fun and it eventually built up enough goodwill to allow me to overlook many of its deficiencies. It’s a confident start to Black’s directorial career and it will be interesting to see where he goes from here. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is far too clever for its own good and massively flawed, but you can’t deny the fact that it delivers plenty of bang for your buck.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Review - Walk the Line

Walk the Line opens outside Folsom maximum security prison in 1968. As the camera crawls across the ground, over the prison walls and through the various corridors of the building, we become increasingly aware of a rhythmic rumbling sound. When the camera finally reaches its intended location, we discover the source of the noise. The prisoners of Folsom are all huddled around a makeshift stage which is presently populated by a couple of very nervous-looking musicians; and their clapping and the stamping of their feet threatens to bring the house down as they wait for their hero: Johnny Cash.

This is the brilliant opening sequence to James Mangold’s tender and involving biopic of the man in black. As the impatient noise of the prisoners grows, Cash (played by Joaquin Phoenix) waits quietly backstage and the viewers also begin to become impatient as we wait for him to perform. But, as Cash fingers a prison saw, Mangold jumps right into flashback mode and takes us back to Arkansas in 1944 and begins to tell the story of the youngster who would grow into a music legend.

This is the unfortunate nature of the biopic. We’ve come to see the great moments; the excitement of the performance; the romance, drugs and pain; but convention states that we have to go through the subject’s childhood as well, and these scenes in a biographical film are often an awkward stumbling block which delays the real meat of the movie. Fortunately Mangold seems to be hold the same opinion, and he deals with the early scenes in clinical and smart fashion. The director concentrates the early stages on the single major incident of Cash’s young life - the tragic death of his older brother - and sets up two of the film’s major themes; Johnny’s guilt over his brother’s death and his long battle to win the respect of his domineering father (Robert Patrick on fine form).

Then, with a single cut, we jump forward a decade to see Cash (now played by Phoenix) leave to join the army, and Mangold follows Cash’s ups and downs as he begins writing songs, gets married, attempts various jobs to make ends meet, and pines for June Carter. This is all pretty humdrum stuff and Walk the Line looks ready to be filed away as yet another mediocre biopic, but then something strange happens; as soon as Cash picks up a guitar and we hear that unique booming voice, the movie suddenly explodes into life.

It’s not just the film that comes to life when it begins to deal with Cash’s musical career, Joaquin Phoenix also starts to fully grow into the role. The early scenes where we first see Phoenix as Cash are a little awkward. I wasn’t wholly convinced by his performance at first, something about his appearance, his voice, his mannerisms, just didn’t fit. But Phoenix seems to come alive when on stage and his embodiment of Cash is uncanny. He’s got the baritone voice and the confident swagger down to a tee, it truly is a remarkable transformation. As the movie continues Phoenix never puts a foot wrong in his portrayal and will unquestionably be one of the main contenders when Oscar season rolls around, but Phoenix very nearly gets overshadowed by one of his co-stars.

In an inspired piece of casting, Reese Witherspoon takes the role of Cash’s lifelong love June Carter and her performance is simply breathtaking. As soon as she appears she injects a massive jolt of electricity into the film and every time she’s on screen Walk the Line kicks up a gear. Witherspoon is funny, vibrant, smart and defiant and her tangible chemistry with Phoenix gives the film a genuine spark. Witherspoon has been giving good performances for years (although none until now to match her breakthrough role in Election) but here she fully comes of age as an actress. She brilliantly captures the struggle of a woman who alternately loves, hates and fears for Cash; and her emotionally complex and stunningly nuanced performance is fantastic to watch.

After a while it becomes clear that while Walk the Line may be just a standard biopic, it works much better on the level of a love story. The romance between Johnny and June didn’t come easily - he was chasing her for the best part of two decades before she finally succumbed - but it provides some wonderful moments here. Their ‘meet cute’ when June literally runs into Johnny backstage, a hilarious scene when June discovers Cash and the band wasted hours before a gig and an excruciatingly frosty meeting between June and Cash’s wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin); all these sequences are engaging and compelling when they could have easily been awful in the wrong hands.

James Mangold’s direction here is confident and stylish. He has come on leaps and bounds from such fare as Copland, Girl Interrupted or Identity, and the chance to put Cash’s life on screen has obviously ignited something inside him. The slick editing and sharp cinematography gives the film a glossy sheen but Mangold doesn’t stint on the pain which always lay just beneath the surface of Cash‘s music, and Phoenix’s acting when depicting the more volatile and drug-fuelled moments is often terrifyingly real.

I loved Walk the Line. It is in so many ways a standard biopic which hits all the beats you expect - childhood, early struggles, good times montage, bad times montage, epiphany, triumphant climax - but it handles all the clichés of the genre with a passion and subtlety which is so often missing from these films (just compare this to the dreadful Ray). It’s a brilliant portrait of an artist and a touching love story. It portrays Cash as a hero, but doesn’t shy away from the more unsavoury aspects of his nature. Somehow, this seemingly conventional biopic has managed to do justice to a truly unconventional legend.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Review - Broken Flowers

Late in his career, Bill Murray seems to have found his groove. Over the course of the past decade Murray’s performances have gradually become more fine-tuned and minimalist; to the point when he hardly seems to be doing anything at all, just sitting there and letting the movie happen around him. If an actor could be described as an auteur then perhaps Murray fits the bill for the way his persona has shaped so many of the recent films he’s appeared in, and it’s no surprise that Jim Jarmusch has taken advantage of Murray’s singular talents for his latest picture. Both men specialise in films which are laconic, quirky and express bemusement at the world around them. Murray and Jarmusch should be a match made in heaven.

And it very nearly is. Certainly, Broken Flowers is one of Jarmusch’s most satisfying pictures in some time and in the central role it features one of Murray’s best performances. He plays Don Johnston, an ageing lothario whose latest girlfriend (Julie Delpy, in an all too brief appearance) has had enough of his lack of commitment and decides to leave him. Don hasn’t got much time to dwell on his current state though because he receives a mysterious letter on pink stationary which carries some startling news. Apparently Don fathered a child some years ago with one of his former conquests and his son, now 18, is trying to track him down.

Don has no idea which one of his former lovers has written the letter and it carries no clues, but his neighbour Winston (another typically sensational performance from Jeffrey Wright) won’t let that stop him. Winston is an amateur detective and he’s determined to help Don get to the bottom of the mystery. Together they come up with a simple plan; Don will visit the four former girlfriends who fit the bill and look for clues (a typewriter, a love of the colour pink) to try and work out which of them, if any, is the mother of his son.

Broken Flowers becomes a road movie and, in the tradition of such films, becomes a voyage of discovery for the main character in which the central plot is almost incidental. The movie may appear slight, but it slowly develops into an interesting and surprisingly touching portrait of ageing and loneliness. Don’s journey brings him into contact with four women whose lives have taken very different paths since they were with him. The first old flame he visits is Laura (Sharon Stone), a widow since her racing driver husband died; who now lives alone with her daughter, the aptly named Lolita (Alexis Dziena). His second encounter is with Dora (Frances Conroy) a former hippy chick who is now living a successful but horribly sterile existence with her husband Ron (Christopher McDonald).

Both of these encounters are masterclasses in observation and direction. The encounter with Laura is one of the film’s comic highlights with a fine performance from Sharon Stone as a widow drowning her grief in wine and an effervescent turn from Alexis Dziena. In contrast the scene with Dora - while still being hilariously funny - is a brilliantly controlled sequence with Conroy’s brittle, uptight performance superbly expressing the torment of a formerly free and easy-going person now trapped in her domestic cage. These two sequences are the best in the picture and overshadow what comes afterwards which lends the film an uneven feel.

Don’s travels take him to see Carmen (Jessica Lange) who is now an ‘animal communicator’ and may or may not be having a lesbian relationship with her secretary (Chloë Sevigny). This sequence contains a witty performance from Lange but seems the most false in the film and comes across as trying a little too hard to get laughs. The film rallies a little with the fourth woman on Don’s list (an almost unrecognisable Tilda Swinton) but Jarmusch has lost the spark which was present in the film’s first half and he struggles to regain it.

Despite this momentary lull which occurs in the film one thing remains constant throughout: Bill Murray. It’s easy to accuse Murray of simply recycling the same performance over the past few years and just as easy to claim that his lack of overt emotion invites us to look for a significance or deeper meaning where none is present. I don’t think that’s the case. When he wants to, Murray can make the act of doing nothing speak volumes and here his carefully nuanced performance draws us into Don’s story. It’s not that Murray’s doing nothing; it’s that he’s doing nothing unnecessary and is boiling down his performance to the bare essentials. The result is that even though we never get inside Don’s head, Murray somehow makes us care.

So if we never get inside the main character’s head, if he doesn’t come to some sort of resolution, what is the point of all this? Jarmusch has never allowed his films to be clearly defined and, despite this being billed as his most mainstream effort, he doesn’t change that policy. The director teasingly gives us the prospect of a resolution and then snatches it away. Many viewers will find the ambiguity of the climax frustrating but I found it far more satisfying than a pat happy ending could ever be. Jarmusch’s film takes Don full circle; he winds up back where he started and the viewers are left none the wiser, but that’s just the way the director likes it. Towards the end of the film Don explains his philosophy; “The past is gone, I know that. The future isn’t here yet, whatever it may bring. All there is is this”. It stands as an almost perfect summation of what Jarmusch’s films are all about.

Review - A Cock and Bull Story

Michael Winterbottom loves a challenge. This British director has jumped from genre to genre throughout his career; creating imaginative, idiosyncratic films with remarkable speed and ingenuity. However, an adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s famously ‘unfilmable’ 18th century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was surely even beyond his capabilities. This book - in which the title character attempts to tell his life story but, through a series of digressions and tangents never even gets around to describing his own birth - is an amorphous blend of bawdy humour and non-consecutive storytelling which seems the least promising material for a movie. Nevertheless, Winterbottom has taken a novel approach to tackling this material and the result is one of his most accomplished and entertaining films.
A Cock and Bull Story is not exactly a straightforward adaptation of the source material. Instead, Winterbottom elects to make a film about the making of a Tristram Shandy movie. So we have a number of actors playing themselves as well as characters in the story, and scenes from the book are mixed with sequences depicting the action behind the scenes. In truth, it’s the most logical approach to take when faced with such intimidating material and in Winterbottom’s hands it pays dividends.

The film is smartly structured. After an opening scene where Steve Coogan and co-star Rob Brydon discuss the colour of Brydon’s teeth, the film spends much of the opening twenty minutes recreating sequences from the novel in suitably playful and self-referential fashion. The scenes here mostly focus on the trials and tribulations surrounding Tristram’s birth and they are cleverly handled with Winterbottom creating an energetic and chaotic atmosphere, but the film really comes to life when it concentrates on the various occurrences taking place off the set.

Most of the film revolves around Coogan and he provides a generous and unflattering portrait of himself. Coogan has his girlfriend (Kelly MacDonald) and their young son in tow but he struggles to resist the charms of his flirtatious assistant (Naomie Harris); and he also has to deal with a tabloid reporter (Kieran O’Brien) armed with a steamy ‘kiss and tell’ story, which he’ll drop for an exclusive interview. There is a running gag about Coogan’s inability to drop his Alan Partridge persona and the overall depiction of him is as a pompous, egotistical and vain fool; which Coogan delivers with a funny and natural performance.

The rest of the cast are just as good. Rob Brydon also plays himself, as well as the character of Uncle Toby, and he gives a hilarious, scene-stealing turn. Coogan and Brydon have worked together a number of times before and their effortless repartee produces some priceless moments, notably the comparison of Al Pacino impressions or the debate over the height of Coogan’s shoes. It seems almost every British comedian has found their way into this cast list and further comic highlights are provided by Mark Williams, Dylan Moran and David Walliams in brief appearances.

A Cock and Bull Story manages to pack quite a lot of incident into its lean running time, with a lot of the film focusing on the troubles that can afflict a low-budget film. There is much debate with the financiers over the need for the battle scenes to be included and, when they are shot, they are something of a disaster (Coogan: “I think I saw a Roman Centurion at one point”). As a result, the script is hastily rewritten to include the Widow Wadman sequences from the book which leads to the hiring of Gillian Anderson (a brief but funny cameo) in the role. All of this could be in grave danger of sliding into irritating self-indulgence, but Winterbottom manages to keep things light and witty throughout, putting a smart spin on every scene and moving the film forward at such a pace that it never outstays its welcome.

A Cock and Bull Story isn’t a perfect film with some of the humour inevitably falling into the ‘hit and miss’ category and it’s hardly a film that’s going to live in the memory for long, but it’s still a funny, surprising and irreverent treat. Winterbottom continues to defy expectation and his refusal to be pigeonholed marks him as the most interesting and exciting talent in British cinema. Few would have expected much from an adaptation of Tristram Shandy, but by avoiding the pitfalls of making a straight page-to-film adaptation A Cock and Bull Story has exceeded those expectations and stands as an admirable achievement. In fact, by taking this post-modern approach and making such an anarchic, transgressive and self-conscious piece of work; they’ve actually captured the spirit of Tristram Shandy better than any ‘straight’ adaptation could possibly have managed.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Review - Manderlay

Welcome to America. Actually, to be more accurate, welcome to Lars von Trier’s version of America. The mischievous Danish director is back with the second part of his ‘USA trilogy’, a series of films in which he aims to challenge American values and expose the nation’s perceived hypocrisy and prejudice. Manderlay is von Trier’s latest provocation, the follow-up to the mighty Dogville, and this time it’s the turn of America’s attitude to race and history of slavery to go under the microscope. Some things have remained the same since von Trier‘s last film, the action once again takes place on a single soundstage with few props and markings on the floor, and one or two of the actors from Dogville pop up again here, albeit in different roles. Unfortunately too much of Manderlay seems familiar and it ends up feeling like little more than a recycled, watered-down version of its predecessor.

The film opens impressively enough. A huge map of America fills the screen and the camera slowly picks out a convoy of cars making their way across the states, with one of these cars containing Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard, replacing Nicole Kidman) and her gangster father (Willem Dafoe, replacing James Caan). They have left behind the devastation which ended Dogville and are passing through Alabama when they stop outside a small town named Manderlay. Here, Grace makes a shocking discovery.

Slavery may have been abolished 70 years previously but nobody seemed to inform the residents of Manderlay and the town is run like an old-fashioned plantation by the stern matriarch Mam (Lauren Bacall). Grace’s conscience and sense of moral indignation impels her to act. Disregarding her father’s advice to stay out of the dispute, Grace utilises the gangsters’ muscle to take control of the plantation; and it all seems to be too much for Mam who dies later that night. Grace’s father is anxious to leave but Grace decides to stay, and she convinces him to let her have a few of his foot soldiers to keep order and his personal lawyer in order to draw up contracts entitling the slaves to freedom. Grace’s plan is to stay with the slaves to help them get through the harvest and she takes it upon herself to teach them the basic tenets of democracy.

You may already expect that things don’t turn out as well as Grace would have hoped but the surprise of Manderlay is how tame it all is. Von Trier is tackling a very sensitive subject here, and he includes much more explicit sex and violence than he did in Dogville along with liberal use of the word ‘nigger’; but I never felt shocked or moved as much as I did with the first film. Everything here is a little too blunt, von Trier’s intentions are a little too obvious and everything feels a little too familiar to fully engage or surprise the viewer. Von Trier is a director who has taken a new direction with every film he has made thus far and Manderlay feels like he’s simply going over well-worn ground. Manderlay’s depiction of the race issue is incredibly trite and, as the film’s narrative follows an similar trajectory to Dogville, the action is predictable and often uninspired.

Though accused of being anti-American, Dogville was actually much more universal in its depiction of the darkness at humanity’s heart. In contrast Manderlay lays on the anti-Americanism thick with von Trier making his film a pretty overt allegory for the US occupation of Iraq. Grace is depicted as the self-appointed liberator, freeing those who perhaps don’t really want to be free - or at least aren’t ready for it. Grace is determined to plough on with her democracy lessons whether they like it or not (the slaves are hounded into the meeting hall by gunpoint) but giving them the ability to make decisions for themselves leads to disaster. The allegory is laboured and heavy-handed and only serves to burden an already unwieldy film with a layer it doesn't require.

Having said all that there are a number of things I liked about the film, notably the cast which is superb throughout. Bryce Dallas Howard had to follow an extraordinary performance from Nicole Kidman as Grace and she does well under the circumstances. Howard’s Grace is a slightly different proposition to Kidman’s, slightly softer and yet more resourceful, and she is impressive and always compelling; although she ultimately lacks the cool intelligence and emotional control of Kidman.

The supporting cast is also well chosen, with Isaach De Bankolé and Danny Glover the standouts. Unfortunately the characterisation is sketchy and most of the supporting roles poorly defined with few of the actors in the smaller roles managing to make an impression. John Hurt’s wry and sardonic narration is as enjoyable as ever but, in contrast to Dogville’s perfectly formed ensemble, von Trier is guilty of bringing too many ineffective characters into the mix resulting in a shapeless film which feels longer than Dogville despite running much shorter.

Manderlay never threatens to catch fire in the way Dogville did and it ranks as one of the disappointments of the year. It isn’t a terrible film by any stretch of the imagination, just an utterly mediocre one; and that’s a huge disappointment from von Trier. The director again chooses to end his film with a montage of photos depicting the dark flipside of the American dream to the sound of David Bowie’s Young Americans, but it only serves to underline that this is the first time in this mercurial filmmaker’s career that he can be accused of repeating himself. Manderlay is watchable and well-performed but ultimately a turgid and frustrating experience; and it leaves the viewer wondering whether it’s time von Trier left ‘America’ for a while.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Review - Lord of War

"There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That's one firearm for every twelve people on the planet. The only question is: How do we arm the other 11?"

That's the philosophy of Yuri Orlov, an international arms dealer who has made his fortune from supplying weapons for every major worldwide conflict since the early 80's. For Yuri there is no such thing as a bad war; he scours the newspapers for signs of impending struggles, cheers when hostilities break out and curses when he hears the dreaded phrase "peace talks". Yuri has a somewhat detached mentality when it comes to warfare. He dismisses the many deaths caused by his guns as being none of his business; and when he claims to have never sold weapons to Osama Bin Laden it was simply because Bin Laden's cheques always bounced rather than on any moral grounds.

As the main character of Andrew Niccol's Lord of War, Yuri is a smart and charming personality who's quick on his feet and possesses a nice line in dry, ironic humour. All of this is very good news for Nicolas Cage, whose best performances tend to fit the type of template described here, and he's on fine form in the lead role; making the amoral Yuri a fairly compelling and engaging - if not likeable - character. Unfortunately, little around Cage manages to click in this ambitious but muddled misfire.

Lord of War tells the story of Yuri's rise in the arms trade. Born in the Ukraine (thankfully Cage refrains from attempting an accent), Yuri's family moved to Brooklyn when he was a child and seemed relatively happy to live a simple life running a small restaurant. But that's not enough for Yuri; he's bored and when he spots some Russian gangsters making a hit he's inspired to make his money in the arms trade. It's small fry at first, a few machine guns here and there, but Yuri has big ideas and after bringing his younger brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) in on the act he begins supplying weapons to entire armies.

The way Yuri assembles his wealth and takes advantage of the various conflicts which occurred during the past two decades is smartly depicted by Niccol. Lord of War's opening half hour zips along in stylish fashion with Cage's almost continuous voice-over filling in the gaps in typically sardonic style. It's fortunate for Lord of War that it kicks off at such a pace because as soon as it starts to slow down we begin to notice just how empty it really is.

Andrew Niccol is unquestionably one of the most interesting talents to emerge from Hollywood in the past decade. His scripts have generally been intelligent approaches to the question of technology's impact on the society we live in. He is most famous for providing the screenplay for The Truman Show, which was eventually brought to the screen by Peter Weir, while he has also directed the intriguing Gattaca and the Hollywood satire S1m0ne (an embarrassing farce but one which at least had ideas in its head). Niccol clearly has plenty to say and his visually impressive directing style is always watchable, but Lord of War finds his various messages getting mangled in the delivery.

The problem with Lord of War is that Niccol has an endless amount of facts and figures at his disposal but he just rattles them out as if firing them from an Uzi. The director aims his satirical gun at too many wide-ranging targets and is only intermittently successful. We get the message early on, very early in fact; as the kinetic and inventive opening credits sequence follows a bullet's journey from the factory, through various countries, before ending up in the brain of an African child. It's an arresting opening and it sums up what Lord of War is about in less than three minutes, which makes the subsequent repeating of similar messages rather tiresome. Niccol's screenplay is a muddle of facts in search of a platform, and his film feels infuriatingly didactic as a result.

Lord of War also fails on a basic storytelling level; the cast fail to make us care about the underwritten characters which hampers Niccol's attempts at moralising in the film's second half. Cage is reliably solid in the lead role, giving an energetic and snappy display in a part which plays to his strengths, but Yuri's amoral stance means the rest of the actors have to provide the heart and conscience of the movie. Jared Leto is pretty one-note as Yuri's cokehead brother, Bridget Moynahan can do little with the part of Yuri's trophy wife while poor old Ethan Hawke's dogged Interpol agent is barely a character at all. Ian Holm pops up with an underpowered cameo but it's left to Eamonn Walker to inject the film with a touch of gravitas. His quiet and controlled performance as a Liberian dictator is chilling and brutally effective. Walker's scenes with Cage are the best in the picture and his calm demeanour is so much more effective than the hyperbolic sound and fury approach Niccol employs elsewhere.

Lord of War is a perplexing film. Niccol never quiet meshes the serious-minded lecture he holds in one hand with the irreverent black comedy he holds in the other. Occasionally impressive on the surface, the film is a hollow shell which Niccol uses to deliver age-old facts as if they were startling new revelations. The arms trade is a terrible thing which habitually exploits the world's poorest countries, and the governments of the world's richest countries are the biggest arms dealers of all. We know all this but what are we going to do about it? It would be harsh to criticise Niccol for not being able to provide all the answers, but the disappointment of Lord of War is that he has blown the opportunity to ask the right questions.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Review - Oliver Twist

Roman Polanski has claimed that he chose his latest project because he wanted to make a film that children could enjoy. Perhaps it is understandable that - after tackling the horrors of the Holocaust in The Pianist - Polanski would feel the need to make something a little lighter, but I wish he hadn’t picked Oliver Twist to do it with. Charles Dickens’ classic tale, which features a young boy being endlessly abused by a rogues’ gallery of grotesques, could have been a perfect fit for a filmmaker whose fascinating career has been marked by a taste for the macabre. Unfortunately, Polanski’s attempt to deliver a family-friendly experience has resulted in an uncharacteristically conventional and unadventurous film which adds nothing to the umpteen screen versions which have gone before.

For Oliver Twist Polanski has again teamed up with screenwriter Ronald Harwood (who collected one of The Pianist’s three Oscars) and Harwood has delivered a pretty lean and straightforward adaptation of Dickens’ book. The film skips along at a fair old pace in the early stages, as young orphan Oliver (an appealing Barney Clark) is thrown from the workhouse for the dastardly crime of asking for more gruel and ends up in the care of kindly undertaker Mr Sowerberry. Unfortunately, that arrangement quickly turns sour and Oliver soon decides to head off to London; arriving in the capital weary, bruised and hungry after his 70 mile walk. By a stroke of luck, Oliver makes a friend shortly after his arrival when he bumps into a young thief who calls himself the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden).

Harwood and Polanski’s decision to race through the opening scenes to reach this point makes sense, because they want to unveil the film’s star turn as early as possible. In this version of Oliver Twist the plum role of Fagin is taken by Ben Kingsley, and the decision proves to be one of the filmmakers‘ best. Under heavy makeup and sporting a hunched back, Kingsley fully inhabits the character; providing a vivid and memorable portrayal which finds a sense of humanity at the old villain’s core. His representation does have its own problems, with his Fagin lacking a real sense of menace and often coming across as little more than a kindly and misunderstood old man; but he does light a fire in the middle of the picture which is sorely needed.

In any case, Bill Sykes is the real villain of Dickens’ story and Jamie Foreman’s performance in this part is something of a letdown. Sykes is brutal for sure, but offers little else and this one-dimensional character is an especially disappointing aspect of Polanski’s film. There are delights to be had elsewhere in the well-chosen supporting cast; Jeremy Swift makes for a fine Mr Bumble (although his part is unfortunately truncated by the film’s early haste), Mark Strong’s Toby Crackit is a lot of fun, Edward Hardwicke delivers a good turn in the part of Mr Brownlow and Alun Armstrong is a triumph in his brief cameo as Magistrate Fang. However, these strong performers can’t make up for the lack of bite which the film displays too often.

It’s always interesting when a filmmaker of Polanski’s stature takes on a revered work of literature, particularly one which has been adapted so often, and Polanski’s track record inspires confidence (remember his full-blooded take on Macbeth) but this effort is desperately underwhelming. We look forward to the story’s signature set-pieces, to see what new twist (excuse the pun) Polanski can bring to them, but time and time again we are disappointed. He shoots all these moments in the same way countless directors before have shot them; the “asking for more” scene falls horribly flat, Oliver’s forced participation in the burglary on Brownlow’s house lacks tension and the climax is a damp squib.

Occasionally we catch a glimpse of the film this could have been. When we see Oliver wandering the harsh and lonely streets of London, keeping alive only through the kindness of strangers, it’s impossible not to picture the young Polanski barely surviving on the war-torn streets of Warsaw after escaping the ghetto; and an early shot of a cold and grey workhouse looks uncannily like it could be one of the Nazi death camps the young Polanski found himself in. These scenes seem to bring an all-too-brief personal touch to Oliver Twist, but that important touch is lacking elsewhere.

The film is nothing if not handsomely made, with Pawel Edelman’s rich cinematography and Allan Starski’s superb production design creating an evocative portrayal of 19th century England. However, Polanski’s Oliver Twist never manages to match the atmosphere created by David Lean’s benchmark 1948 version and it’s hard to see this as anything more than a decent TV production with a more lavish budget. Although its flaws are numerous, the film remains watchable throughout thanks to the power of the central story. No matter how many times we’ve seen or read Oliver Twist it remains a great tale, and it’s strong enough to survive this rather lacklustre adaptation intact - if only just.

Polanski has got the child-friendly film he craved, but it’s hard to find a good reason for this take on the story to exist. We already have at least two film versions which can be enjoyed by the whole family (Lean’s masterful interpretation and the 1968 musical Oliver!) which makes Polanski’s film seem redundant. One can only imagine what the Polanski who made Macbeth would have done with this material. His dark and twisted take on Shakespeare (which was made shortly after Sharon Tate’s murder) contains everything his latest film lacks: passion, intensity, and the director’s personality seeping through every frame.
Oliver Twist in comparison seems like it was made on autopilot and - this is something I never thought I’d say about a Roman Polanski picture - it feels like it could have been directed by anybody.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Review - Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

When Nick Park created the characters of Wallace and Gromit for a university project, he surely could never have imagined where the genial cloth-capped Yorkshire inventor and his faithful hound would take him. Park can now make a fair claim at being Britain’s most successful contemporary filmmaker, picking up three Academy Awards for his shorts (two for Wallace and Gromit and one for Creature Comforts) and making a pretty successful feature debut with Chicken Run. Now Park has turned once again to his much loved original characters for his second feature film, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

It has been five years since Chicken Run, but Park and his production team haven’t been slacking; they have been deeply mired in the arduous stop-motion process which brings their characters to life. This approach may seem like an anachronism in the modern age of spectacular CGI animation, but there is something wonderfully real about Wallace and Gromit which can’t be captured by a computer. The rough-around-the-edges appearance of the plasticine characters (sometimes you can spot fleeting glimpses of a fingerprint on their skin) gives them a sense of reality and depth, while the painstaking efforts of the huge crews involved in the animation seem to imbue the film with a genuine heart and soul.

Wallace and Gromit’s world is a small corner of Northern England which is preparing for the 517th annual Giant Vegetable competition. Our heroes’ new pest control service - Anti-Pesto - is in charge of security, which means keeping tabs on the pesky rabbits who have been causing so much damage to the local crops. Anti-Pesto provides a humane method of catching the rabbits, safely storing them at Wallace’s house (although storage is starting to prove quite a problem), and this is an approach which is admired by local toff Lady Tottington. However, soon an even bigger problem arises in the shape of a mysterious giant rabbit creature which is ravaging crops across the village at night. Wallace is determined to catch the creature through non-lethal means, but sneering cad Victor Quatermaine believes a gun is the only way to be sure, and he’s not happy to see a rival for Lady Tottington’s affections in the unlikely shape of Wallace.

Fans of Wallace and Gromit’s previous adventures will be delighted to hear that, in spite of this Dreamworks-backed offering being their big screen debut, they haven’t changed a bit. The scatter-brained Wallace is still beautifully voiced by Peter Sallis and his loyal partner Gromit is still the brains of the operation. Gromit may never speak (the poor chap doesn’t even have a mouth) but with his quizzical brow he possesses one of the most expressive faces in cinema, with a gift for deadpan to rank alongside Chaplin or Keaton. Curse of the Were-Rabbit does have a couple of bona-fide movie stars among the cast in the shape of Helena Bonham-Carter (Lady Tottington) and Ralph Fiennes (Victor Quagmire) but their presence is never allowed to overshadow the film; indeed, most viewers will be so caught up in the action that they’ll hardly know or care who is providing the vocal talents.

Curse of the Were-Rabbit doesn’t stray too far from the formula which served Park so well in his previous films with the pair. There’s a strong, distinctive strain of typically English humour running through the film with plenty of Carry-On style innuendo and cheesy puns littering the script, and it’s a blessing to see that Park and his co-writer/director Steve Box haven’t tempered the jokes to appeal to an international audience (Wallace’s copy of ‘Hello’ magazine is entitled ‘Ey-Up’). The film includes a number of fun references to classic horror films and every single frame is crammed with clever little sight gags, many of which speed past too fast to be caught on a first viewing. Once again, Park has proved himself a master of comic timing, which is a remarkable feat when you consider the frame-by-frame technique with which these scenes are put together, and in Curse of the Were-Rabbit he hits the mark every single time.

Park seems to have learned the lessons of the entertaining but ultimately forgettable Chicken Run and Curse of the Were-Rabbit is a much more streamlined film which manages to sustain the humour and action right up to the closing credits. The script is expertly worked out, delivering a nice twist just at the point when the pace threatens to flag and carefully building to a spectacular airborne finale. Park’s films habitually contain elaborate and exciting action sequences, which must be sheer hell to produce, yet they never make a big deal of these scenes and instead they almost throw them out as if they’re the easiest thing in the world.

Curse of the Were-Rabbit is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking. Take any five minute section from the film and you’re almost guaranteed to find more invention, wit and heart than any other studio feature has managed this year. The dedication shown by Park and his tireless team has once again produced a blast of pure cinematic joy which never puts a foot wrong and confirms Wallace and Gromit as one of the great double-acts. There’s a fair chance that this will win Park his fourth Oscar and it would be the very least he deserves for such a magical film. Curse of the Were-Rabbit is simply marvellous; kids will undoubtedly love it and adults will probably get an extra little kick out of it, because they’ll understand the work that went into it. It’s a grand day out for viewers of all ages.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Review - Innocence

Few films in recent years have had such a mysterious and intriguing opening as Innocence, the debut film from director Lucile Hadzihalilovic. The film begins with an eerily long, flickering credit sequence accompanied by an almost overbearing soundtrack of rushing water, and we enter a mysterious old building which seems to be deserted. After slowly making its way through some dank subterranean tunnels, the camera finally settles in a room which contains a large coffin. A group of pre-pubescent girls, all dressed in white and differentiated only by the coloured ribbons in their hair, enter the room and one of them unlocks the casket (this is clearly a ritual they have performed numerous times). Inside they find a girl no older than five or six, half naked and a little scared.

is set in a kind of all-girls boarding school which is cut off from the outside world by a dense forest and the high wall which surrounds it. The girls who stay there are aged between six and twelve and each of them wears a differently coloured ribbon in their hair to indicate how old they are. They don’t seem to have many lessons, and the entire school seems to be presided over by only two teachers; Mademoiselle Eva (Marion Cotillard) who teaches the girls to dance, and Mademoiselle Edith (Hélène de Fougerolles) who concentrates on teaching them science, particularly biology. Most of the time the children simply spend their time being children, but there is a strange atmosphere to this place and many mysterious occurrences with seemingly no explanation.

Innocence is dedicated to Hadzihalilovic’s partner and regular collaborator Gaspar Noe and his influence on her filmmaking style makes itself clear very quickly. The trick of opening with the end credits and the complex sound design recalls Noe’s Irreversible, but Innocence soon settles into a very different and distinctive piece of work. Set in an unspecified time and place, the film is a little hard to get a handle on at first as we strain to understand the meaning behind this mysterious set-up. What is the purpose of the school? Why does the headmistress come once a year to select a girl, and where does she take her? Why is Bianca, one of the elder girls, allowed to leave at night and where does she go? We see much of Innocence through the eyes of Iris (the girl who arrives in the coffin at the start of the film) as she attempts to understand her new surroundings, but explanations are not forthcoming.

Instead, Hadzihalilovic’s film becomes an allegory of a young girl’s development into womanhood, and when taken on this level the film suddenly becomes a great deal more interesting. The school seems to exist in order to prepare these children for the realities of adulthood, and Hadzihalilovic’s film becomes a celebration of the innocence of childhood and a mournful study of what children lose and leave behind when they cross over the threshold into the adult world. They must prepare for disappointments, betrayal, heartache and pain; and the ways the girls learn about these aspects of life are played out in a number of beautifully worked scenes. In her script, Hadzihalilovic seems to be sending out some rather strange and old-fashioned messages with regard to femininity - Mlle Edith tells the girls their duty is to reproduce while Mlle Eva says “obedience is the only true path to happiness” - but the most troublesome aspect of Innocence lies in the film’s visual depiction of childhood.

Many scenes in Innocence depict these young girls playing in nothing more than their knickers or dancing in white leotards, and one scene shows a number of girls frolicking naked in a lake. There is no doubt that viewing these scenes made me feel a little uncomfortable, and it is impossible to watch without wondering what certain members of society would make of them. While Innocence may often look like the stuff of paedophile fantasy, I never felt it was shot in an exploitative manner and Hadzihalilovic never eroticises the girls. This really is a film about innocence, about little girls who are nothing more than little girls, and you can hardly blame the director if some viewers attach a sexual connotation to the film which she hasn’t intended.

Nevertheless, the girls’ sexual awakening becomes the overriding theme in the second half of the picture with most of it focused on Bianca, one of the eldest girls at the school. As the girls perform a dance for an unseen audience in a darkened theatre, one man throws a rose at her and tells her “you are the prettiest”, a remark she responds to with a quizzical and curious look. It’s a wonderful moment and is the first point in the film that one of the girls begins to acknowledge her blossoming sexuality. Later Bianca, obviously still musing on this incident, stands naked in front of the bathroom mirror and studies herself, trying to come to terms with the changes her body is about to undergo. She is starting to leave her childhood behind.

With the impeccable cinematography and haunting sound design, Hadzihalilovic creates some incredibly potent sequences throughout Innocence and gets astonishingly natural and perceptive performances from the entire young cast. The lack of clear explanation for much of the film’s occurrences will undoubtedly test the patience of many viewers over the course of 115 minutes, but I found Innocence to be a remarkable, sensuous and bold work which defies categorisation and announces Hadzihalilovic as a truly singular talent. It’s definitely not a film for everyone - and one hesitates to imagine the reaction if the director was a man - but Innocence is a film that dares to be different, dares to let the audience fill in the gaps and dares to imagine a time when children truly were innocent.