Friday, December 30, 2005

2005 - The Best and Worst

1 - A History of Violence
2 - Downfall
3 - 2046
4 - Innocence
5 - Moolaade
6 - No Direction Home
7 - Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
8 - King Kong
9 - 5x2
10 - Mysterious Skin

1 - Alexander
2 - A Hole in my Heart
3 - A Dirty Shame
4 - 9 Songs
5 - The United States of Leland
6 - The Producers
7 - Closer
8 - Kingdom of Heaven
9 - Bewitched
10 - Sin City

1 - Bruno Ganz - Downfall
2 - Kevin Bacon - The Woodsman
3 - Joseph Gordon-Levitt - Mysterious Skin
4 - Paul Giamatti - Sideways
5 - Romain Duris - The Beat That My Heart Skipped

1 - Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi - 5x2
2 - Maria Bello - A History of Violence
3 - Connie Nielsen - Brothers
4 - Naomi Watts - King Kong
5 - Radha Mitchell - Melinda and Melinda

1 - Thomas Haden Church - Sideways
2 - Ulrich Matthes - Downfall
3 - Josh Peck - Mean Creek
4 - William Hurt - A History of Violence
5 - John Lithgow - Kinsey

1 - Corrina Harfouch - Downfall
2 - Shirley McClaine - In Her Shoes
3 - Carly Schroeder - Mean Creek
4 - Virginia Madsen - Sideways
5 - Zhang Zhiyi - 2046

1 - No Direction Home
2 - Rocky Road to Dublin
3 - Murderball
4 - Inside Deep Throat
5 - Rize

1 - Mysterious Skin
2 - In Her Shoes
3 - Friday Night Lights
4 - Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
5 - Red Eye

1 - A Hole in My Heart
2 - 9 Songs
3 - Sin City
4 - War of the Worlds
5 - The Constant Gardener

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Review - The Producers

Very few people will be buying a ticket for this new screen version of The Producers without any prior knowledge of the Mel Brooks comedy classic. If they haven’t seen the hilarious 1968 film which marked Brooks’ directorial debut, then perhaps they will have been fortunate enough to see the stage musical which has been a roaring success on Broadway and in London. Having seen both the stage and screen version, I was curious to know what a third interpretation of this tale could possibly offer that would make its existence worthwhile.

Unfortunately it’s clear from very early on that this effort has little of the first film’s inspiration, and not much of the musical’s boundless energy has managed to make the leap from stage to screen either. In fact it soon becomes obvious that this film is sorely lacking in almost every department.

How on earth can somebody make such a mess of The Producers? The central conceit is comic gold, the ultimate bad-taste gag. Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) is a down-on-his-luck Broadway producer licking his wounds after yet another of his productions has failed to run past the opening night. Enter Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick), a nervy, uptight accountant who has been sent to have a look at the almost bankrupt producer’s books. While examining the figures, Leo throws out an odd observation which is immediately seized upon by Bialystock as a quick escape route from his financial woes. Bloom notices that a producer could feasibly make more money by producing a guaranteed flop than a hit, which is music to the sleazy Max’s ears.

Max puts together a cunning plan. He and Leo find the worst play ever written; Springtime For Hitler, a musical romp penned by an insane neo-Nazi (Will Ferrell), and they hire the worst theatrical director they can possibly find (Gary Beach). Max raises $2 million by sweet-talking a bunch of rich and randy little old ladies and the ploy seems faultless, until their dreadful play is taken for a satire and becomes an unexpected smash.

This plot is so silly and ingenious that, like Max’s plan, it seems impossible that it could fail as miserably as it does here. This film opens things out by making Swedish secretary Ulla (Uma Thurman) a love interest for Bloom and by beefing up the role of the show’s director Roger De Bris, but while these additions weren’t a problem on stage they make the 2005 film of The Producers a flabby and overlong affair.

The main problem lies with the decision to let the director of the stage show, Susan Stroman, handle things here too. Without any previous film work to her name and seemingly lacking in any grasp of cinematic language, Stroman makes little attempt to alter the show for the new medium. Her approach seem to consist of pointing a camera at the same sets from the stage show and letting the actors get on with, in the belief that what wowed a theatre audience will work just as well on the silver screen. There is a brief attempt to expand the film’s horizons by taking the action into Central Park during the ‘We Can Do It’ number, but other than that this is probably the most unadventurous adaptation of a stage show that I’ve ever seen. Stroman, Brooks and Brooks’ fellow screenwriter Thomas Meehan seem to believe that changing lines like “Why does Bloom move so far stage left?” to “why does Bloom move so far camera right?” is enough to translate the show from one format to another. It isn’t enough.

The film looks cheap, with two cinematographers somehow conspiring to make the visuals utterly drab and lifeless throughout, and the musical numbers fail to dazzle as they should. The editing takes a beat after every supposed show-stopper, as if to appreciate the applause coming from the paying public, but when none is forthcoming we are left with a clumsily paced and leaden film which spreads itself lugubriously over a painful 134 minutes.

The major selling point of this film will obviously be the opportunity to see the two actors who made it such a smash on Broadway, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. Lane is passable as Bialystock, but his performance is another aspect of the film that hasn’t altered in translation and he projects everything to the back of the second balcony. Having said that, his turn is an acting master class compared with Matthew Broderick’s performance. Broderick is simply terrible in this; he spends the entire film with a pained expression and an odd, whiney voice which changes pitch at will. Their misbalanced double act makes one pine for the fine-tuned brilliance of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in Brooks’ original.

Elsewhere in the cast Gary Beach and Roger Bart manage to make the most of flamboyantly gay stereotypes which were borderline tiresome in 1968, while the two big names added to the cast bring little to the party. Will Ferrell overplays his hand in irritating fashion as Franz Liebkind and Uma Thurman (not much of a dancer, not much of a singer) is miscast as Swedish bimbo Ulla.

But perhaps the most damning indictment one can level at The Producers is to point out the complete lack of laughs on offer. Every wisecrack dies as soon as it leaves the actors' lips and their incessant clowning quickly palls. The one part of the film which survives the butchering on display elsewhere is the centrepiece Springtime for Hitler, a slice of comic genius which still provokes laughter today. However, if that’s the one thing of value in this excruciating affair then why bother with the imitation when you can rent the original at a fraction of the price?

The Producers is a travesty; a shambolic, overblown and pointless take on an old classic. Some viewers may watch it in the hope that it will give them a taste of the stage show, but it fails to express any of the exuberance, energy or joy which the theatre production generated. This hollow and cynical imitation has nothing new to offer and a cash register where its heart should be. It’s one of the worst films of the year and, despite all the noise and bluster on display, it’s also the laziest.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Review - King Kong

“I’m sitting on top of the world, just rolling along, just rolling along…”

Over an evocative depiction of depression-era New York, Al Jolson’s jaunty tune opens Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and the lyrics could also describe the director’s own exalted position in Hollywood. After the astonishing success of his Lord of the Rings trilogy Jackson was given carte blanche to make the film of his dreams, and he chose to remake his own favourite film, the movie which inspired him to become a director. Merian Cooper’s iconic King Kong has already been remade once, with the regrettable 1976 version showing how not to do it, but this remake is the product of a director with a deep love and reverence for the original - and it shows.

Jackson’s King Kong sticks closely to the original story and the screenplay, by Jackson and his regular collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, simply fleshes out the central characters and expands on the details of the first film. A slightly miscast Jack Black takes the role of egotistical and underhand film director Carl Denham, whose epic movie is threatened with closure by producers unhappy with the spiralling budget and lack of decent footage. Denham’s madcap plan to shoot on an uncharted island is the final straw and when he realises that he’s on the verge of failure he rushes his crew onto a rusty old steam ship before anyone can stop him. Unfortunately, Denham lacks a leading lady and his movie will be sunk if he can’t find one before the ship sets sail.

Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is a struggling vaudeville actress performing slapstick routines in half-empty theatres for uninterested punters. She dreams of something more - perhaps a part in a play by the renowned writer Jack Driscoll (a lifeless Adrien Brody), for example - and fate lends a hand when Denham spots her in the street and decides she’s going to be his new star. She is unsure at first, but Denham’s revelation that Jack Driscoll himself is writing the screenplay persuades the star-struck Ann to take the plunge.

The boat sets sail and after a close shave with some rocks they find the mysterious Skull Island populated by hordes of dark-skinned savages (perhaps a nostalgic touch Jackson could have toned down), who capture Ann and offer her up as a sacrifice to the mighty gorilla King Kong. It’s an offer that’s happily accepted by the beast and as he hightails it off into the wilderness with Ann in his grip, the rest of the crew follow in a desperate attempt to save her.

The major differences between this King Kong and the original are in terms of scale and length. Jackson’s Kong comes in at 187 minutes - almost twice as long as the 1933 film - and for a while it seems like the excessive running time will be the film’s fatal flaw. The opening hour certainly could do with a little tightening. The script labours over bringing the three principle characters together and the surfeit of unnecessary supporting characters squeezed in around the margins of the narrative don’t help matters, leaving the first act feeling a little bloated. Jackson’s scene transitions are occasionally on the clunky side, and it’s a relief when Skull Island, and the real reason we’ve come to see the film, finally looms into view.

Once the mighty ape disappears into the jungle with Ann, King Kong kicks up a gear and never looks back. The relatively wobbly opening hour is soon forgotten as Jackson floods the screen with breathtaking action sequences and displays his full command of the spectacular CGI effects. The visual magic used to bring this version of King Kong to life simply beggars belief. Many scenes, such as the extraordinary spectacle of Kong protecting Anne from multiple dinosaurs, were completely computer-generated but Jackson manages to seamlessly integrate them into the whole and these sequences have pleasingly weighty and realistic feel to them. Jackson delivers scene after scene of incredible exploits and he occasionally threatens to go too far, with the film often seeming in danger of being overwhelmed by the relentlessly intense nature of this rollercoaster ride, but for the most part his control is exemplary.

Despite all the thrills, spills and wonderful effects on show here, what really makes King KongLord of the Rings’ Gollum, Andy Serkis provides the movements for the gorilla and his portrayal makes Kong an incredibly realistic creation. The scenes between Ann and Kong are just wonderful. Ann is understandably terrified of Kong at first, but she soon grows to see him as her protector and a deep bond begins to flourish between them. The vaudeville act she performs for a bemused Kong is a treat; the pair’s quiet awe as they contemplate the beauty of the sunset is majestic; and a later scene in New York which mirrors it is heartbreaking. something special is the central relationship between Ann and Kong. As Ann, Naomi Watts delivers a sensational performance and the tangible chemistry she develops with Kong is this film’s strongest asset. Like

After a tricky start Jackson truly delivers with the second two hours of his monstrous monster movie. The scope of his ambition is so immense, and the bravado with which he carries it off so impressive, that one can’t fail to be swept up in the whole experience. Jackson is leagues ahead of his contemporaries in terms of this kind of epic filmmaking and his passion for the source material seeps through every frame. Jackson restores the original’s famously cut ‘spider pit’ sequence in all its creep-crawly glory (much of the film will be too intense for some younger viewers); he paints everything on the largest canvas he can possibly find with Kong facing seven planes at the climax instead of the original three; he never shows the viewer something once if he can show it twice. You can call this kind of filmmaking excessive, you can call it overkill, or you can just sit back and be thankful that there are still filmmakers like Jackson aiming for the stars.

When all is said and done, King Kong is much like the beast itself; huge, loud, unwieldy, capable of moments of grace, and so powerful that resistance is futile. The film is flawed, overlong and crazily self-indulgent - but who cares when it delivers such magnificent action and the most touching love story of the year? For better or for worse, Jackson’s grand folly has to be seen to be believed.

He’s still sitting on top of the world.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Review - The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

After taking successful trips to Middle Earth and Hogwarts, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood realised that the magical land of Narnia might be a profitable place to visit. Walt Disney Pictures have taken the plunge but they haven‘t committed themselves to all seven of the books, waiting instead to see how their adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe fares. Under the guidance of Shrek director Andrew Adamson, the big-screen version of this much-loved tale is an effects-laden fantasy reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings. However; despite a couple of strong performances and some effective moments, the film struggles to achieve the epic status it so dearly hopes to attain and never comes close to matching the verve and conviction of Peter Jackson’s trilogy.

CS Lewis famously dreaded seeing his work adapted for the screen, and he may have had mixed feelings about the way Adamson and his team of screenwriters have gone about it. The screenplay is broadly similar to the novel but a few extra sequences have been tacked on in order to pad the rather thin narrative out to feature length (although one could justifiably quibble about the necessity for a running time of 140 minutes). One of those new additions opens the film, introducing us to the Pevensie family as they cower from German bombers in Blitz-ravaged London. The four children - Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) - are soon evacuated out of the city to the mansion of an elderly professor (Jim Broadbent), but they find little fun available with the cranky housekeeper permanently on their case.

In an effort to pass the time the children play a game of hide-and-seek during which Lucy takes refuge in an enormous old cupboard and stumbles into a wintry land known as Narnia. After taking tea with a faun named Mr Tumnus (James McCavoy), Lucy races home to amaze her siblings with her story - a story which unsurprisingly produces a sceptical reaction. However, the four children eventually find their way into Narnia and are surprised to find that they are there for a reason; not only have they stumbled straight into the middle of a Christian allegory but - perhaps more pertinently - a prophecy has foretold that two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve would arrive to save Narnia from the hundred year winter imposed by the evil White Witch (Tilda Swinton).

The Lord of the Rings has set the benchmark pretty high for this kind of film and comparisons do The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe no favours at all. However, even when examined on its own merits the film can be described as little more than a respectable adaptation; a decent, competently assembled fantasy film which errs on the side of safety at all times and lacks anything to make it truly special.

Adamson begins his first live-action film in promising fashion. The early scenes are atmospheric and nicely paced and Lucy’s first entry into Narnia is a delight, as it should be. The director is helped in no small part by Georgie Henley’s adorable performance as Lucy. In her screen debut the ten year-old radiates innocence and a genuine sense of wonder throughout the film. Her emotions feel real and unforced and her tremendously natural display is by some distance the film’s best (she certainly outstrips the bland portrayals of Peter and Edmund). In fact the film’s best sequences occur in this early passage when Henley meets another of the most endearing characters, Mr Tumnus, who is played with sensitivity and charm by James McCavoy. These scenes have sweetness and honesty which is lost among the larger-scale events later on.

Among the adult cast Tilda Swinton is a smart choice to play The White Witch and she gives an enjoyably twisted performance, growing increasingly comfortable in the role the longer the film continues. Ray Winstone and Dawn French find just the right level of comedy as a pair of bickering cockney beavers while the voice of Aslan is provided by Liam Neeson. Neeson has a great voice but I’m not sure it really fit the character, as it lacked the resonance I felt the role required.

After an interesting, if unspectacular, opening half the cracks in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe begin to appear when The White Witch declares war on Aslan, and the film has to try and deliver an epic fantasy battle without seeming like a Lord of the Rings retread. New Zealand is again standing in for a mythical land here and once more we are bombarded with endless sweeping vistas of the wonderful scenery; but while Peter Jackson gave the story enough gravity to back up the surface prettiness, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe feels unnaturally stretched and the pacing often has a flurry of activity followed by long periods bereft of drama. Donald McAlpine’s cinematography ensures the film looks stunning throughout but Adamson lacks any genuine spark in his direction, his framing is predictable and he fails to inject a sense of urgency into the chase or action sequences. A scene on a frozen waterfall (an addition to the book) is badly fudged and the climactic battle sequence goes on forever. Adamson’s over-reliance on slow-motion coupled with the occasionally shoddy CGI work makes the bloodless and passionless final encounter an insipid affair.

Then there’s the question of the film’s rather obvious religious overtones. Disney clearly see this as an opportunity to rake in the Christian dollar in the US but the imagery is thankfully not overdone. Of course, with its central themes of self-sacrifice, resurrection and ascension; the onus placed on faith throughout and the lessons of betrayal and redemption; the allegory is not hard to spot but, if anything, the filmmakers have chosen to underplay these scenes at every opportunity. This has the unfortunate effect of making the major scene of Aslan on the stone table being less involving than it should be but it’s still a relief that Adamson chose to play the allegorical side of the film at such a subdued level.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe ends up being nothing more than an average fantasy film which withers in the imposing shadow cast by Jackson’s trilogy. The film may well be a box-office success but it lacks anything truly memorable to make it stick in the mind and I’m not sure it will encourage further adaptations of the Narnia series. Adamson has done his best with the material but his lack of a unique vision for the project means that this is a fantasy severely lacking in any sense of magic. At the end of the day what prevents the film from being a failure is the strength of the source material itself which manages to shine through. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is still a cracking story, it’s just a shame one can find so many faults with this rendition.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Review - Breakfast on Pluto

Some people have a relentlessly positive outlook on life. For Patrick ‘Kitten’ Braden (Cillian Murphy), the glass is always half full. Even when life deals him a bad hand, even when he’s taking a ferocious beating, he never loses his belief in the innate goodness of people. As the na├»ve young transvestite at the centre of Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto, Patrick glides through war-torn Ireland and the sleazy backstreets of London with the conviction of a man who believes that happiness and true love are always just around the corner.

The problem with making a film about a such a whimsical character who refuses to engage with the harsh realities of life is that you run the risk of your film becoming carefree and inconsequential in itself; and that’s a trap which Jordan’s adaptation of Pat McCabe’s novel unfortunately falls into. With the Irish troubles providing the backdrop to an examination of sexual identity, Breakfast on Pluto has echoes of Jordan’s earlier The Crying Game - but this overlong and confused disappointment is unlikely to achieve anything like the same acclaim.

Patrick’s story begins when his mother dumps him as a newborn on the doorstep of parish priest Father Bernard (Liam Neeson), whom it is clear is more than just his spiritual father. As Patrick grows up he begins to show a fondness for women’s clothing and makeup, much to the horror of his stern foster mother Ma Braden (Ruth McCabe) who attempts to provoke Patrick’s interest in more traditional pursuits such as football (prompting a fantasy sequence in where Patrick plays a match in a shimmering evening gown). This isn’t just a phase for Patrick though, and his cross-dressing antics as a teenager make him an outcast in the town and infuriate his teachers.
Patrick forms a close bond with three other outsiders; Charlie (Ruth Negga), Irwin (Laurence Kinlan) and Laurence (Seamus Reilly) but he soon spots a chance to leave town by hooking up with a travelling band called Billy Hatchet and the Mohawks, with whom he performs. He also develops a romance with Billy (Gavin Friday) himself, much to the rest of the band’s dismay, but when Billy’s IRA loyalties begin to intrude on this relationship Patrick decides to try and track down his mother in London.

This is a film full of highs and lows and the screenplay, by Jordan and McCabe, struggles to bring the disparate elements together. Jordan’s decision to structure the film in 36 chapters only serves to highlight the jumpy and disjointed nature of the narrative as Patrick stumbles from one bizarre and dangerous situation to another. There are also some very problematic shifts in tone as the film jumps between Patrick’s comical adventures in London and IRA murders back home to jarring effect. “I wish everyone should stop being so serious” Patrick says whenever a hint of reality breaks into his fantasy world; but when he refuses to take anything seriously it’s hard for the audience to do so and Jordan clearly has difficulty striking a healthy balance between these contrasting aspects of his film.

Having said that, Breakfast on Pluto does contain buckets of imagination and is often very engaging. Chief among its treasures is rising star Cillian Murphy whose performance here is a tour de force. With his dazzling blue eyes and prominent cheekbones, the lithe and slender Murphy makes a convincing woman and as the film progresses he develops the winsome Patrick into a sympathetic and intriguing character. Murphy injects just the right note of sincerity and pain into his high-pitched voice and his appealing performance drags the audience into the story for a while.

This being a Neil Jordan film the cast is full of the best Irish talent. Liam Neeson is reliably strong as Father Bernard but the best supporting roles come from Brendan Gleeson and Jordan regular Stephen Rea as two of the odd characters Patrick meets on his odyssey. Gleeson plays a volatile children’s entertainer who can’t control his temper or foul language even when dressed as a womble, and he’s at the centre of the film’s funniest sequence. Rea is more subdued but no less effective as a downbeat magician who hires Patrick as his glamorous assistant and exploits his innocent nature.

Unfortunately none of these adventures really take us anywhere. Patrick’s refusal to acknowledge the reality of the world he lives in stunts the film’s emotional growth and leaves us with a series of vignettes which often feel insubstantial and meaningless no matter how amusing they may be. This lack of narrative drive begins to become a major problem the longer the film progresses, and at 135 minutes its increasingly repetitive nature becomes wearing. The consistently jaunty and upbeat tone would have fitted the film far more easily if Jordan had been a little more disciplined with the editing.

There are numerous terrific moments in Breakfast on Pluto - with Patrick’s rendition of his own conception and a fantasy sequence in which he appears as a perfume-wielding supervixen being highlights - but they never look likely to come together into a satisfying whole. Jordan never seems to get a steady hand on the blend of fantasy and reality his film presents and by the time he attempts to deliver an emotional climax the film had lost my interest.

Breakfast on Pluto is generally watchable thanks to the sharp cinematography and fantastically eclectic soundtrack; but everything feels like it would blow away in the slightest breeze. Murphy’s wonderful turn fights valiantly to give some genuine heart to the picture, but on far too many occasions in Breakfast on Pluto he’s all dressed up with nowhere to go.