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 naïve 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.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Review - Flightplan

Honestly; you wait ages for an airborne Hollywood thriller and then two come along at once. No sooner has Wes Craven’s Red Eye left the runway than the much larger proposition of Flightplan looms into view. Everything about Flightplan is on a much bigger scale than Craven’s nifty effort; it contains a major star in the lead role, the plane involved is the biggest thing in the sky and the film features much more of the action you expect from a mainstream thriller. Unfortunately Flightplan seems burdened by these added features, resulting in a film which is as bloated and cumbersome as its predecessor was nimble and witty. And as the initially intriguing plot unravels before our eyes we come to realise that bigger definitely doesn’t mean better on this occasion.
Flightplan is the English-language debut for German director Robert Schwentke and he opens in portentous style, with the oddly-named Kyle Pratt (Jodie Foster) struggling to come to terms with the death of her husband. Kyle is boarding this plane with her six year-old daughter Julia to transport her husband’s body back to New York from Germany, where the family have been residing for the last few years. The tone of this opening is resolutely solemn with Foster’s face contorted in grief from the off. However, when Kyle and Julia board the plane Schwentke loses his fondness for slow zooms and arty transitions to slip smoothly into standard Hollywood action mode.

The action occurs because Kyle wakes up from a nap on board to see that Julia’s seat is empty. She searches for her daughter and when she doesn’t turn up anywhere Kyle’s confusion and fear grows until she’s convinced that somebody has snatched her little girl. Kyle has the increasingly annoyed cabin staff search every nook and cranny on the plane (of which there are many), until they discover evidence which indicates that Julia never got on the plane at all. Is Kyle losing her mind? Or can she prove that she’s the victim of a crime or - gasp! - a conspiracy?

Flightplan contains one quite intriguing moment which marks it out as a post-9/11 thriller, when Kyle’s suspicion falls immediately on two Arab passengers who she thinks may be using her to help with their terrorist plot. It’s a single moment of social awareness and potential ambiguity in a film which otherwise has nothing on its mind but Jodie running, Jodie shouting, and Jodie kicking ass.

That’s not so say the film doesn’t have its moments. Schwentke’s handling of the early tension is sound; his camera glides up and down the plane’s many aisles and levels and he smartly develops Kyle’s confusion and anguish as the search for her daughter continues with no success. For her part, Foster is as professional about all this as you might expect and her display gains the viewer’s interest early and maintains it pretty well. Foster’s steely demeanour always runs the risk of her characters appearing too cold, but on this occasion - as with the similar Panic Room - it acts to her benefit as she invests Kyle with a determination and spirit that makes her refusal to take no for an answer plausible and compelling.

For a while, Foster’s committed performance is almost enough to make you take the film’s many absurdities and plot-holes with a pinch of salt, but the point finally comes when any semblance of credibility is jettisoned and the plot spirals into a tailspin which can only end in disaster.

That point occurs with around twenty minutes to go and it’s a twist so ludicrous, so laughable, that it scuppers any goodwill the film has managed to build. Red Eye was similarly afflicted with a number of implausible moments, but it managed to get away with them thanks to the brisk pacing and dry wit which it displayed. Once the reason for Julia’s disappearance is finally revealed the audience’s only response can be “why?”, and we are lurched into a rushed finale which is utterly bemusing. The story simply does not make sense on any level and the climactic revelations only encourage the viewer to look back over the film and spot all the other nonsensical moments which slipped through first time around.

It becomes clear that this is little more than a flimsy skeleton on which to hang a number of chase and fight scenes. Kyle conveniently helped design this enormous aircraft so her knowledge of its layout enables her to lead the crew a merry dance around every shaft, aisle and lift; but while Red Eye took place in an average passenger plane and developed the drama by concentrating on two passengers sitting side by side, Flightplan’s more expansive setting comes off as a rather dull and unimaginative take on the likes of Die Hard (and Foster already has one of those under her belt with Panic Room).

It’s such a shame that Flightplan is so shoddily constructed because there’s some serious potential being wasted here. Sean Bean and Peter Sarsgaard are the captain and air marshal respectively who may or may not be trustworthy (both actors look like they should be playing villains even when they’re not), but their performances are one-note and they sound as bored of the uninspired dialogue as we are. Meanwhile Greta Scacchi has a pointless cameo and Erika Christensen is far too talented an actress to be fobbed of with such a nondescript role as this.

Flightplan so dearly wants to be measured as a modern day Hitchcockian thriller, and The Lady Vanishes is this film’s obvious template, but the staggeringly bad plotting throws away the promise of the decent premise and wastes a typically strong turn by Jodie Foster. I know a film should be measured on its own merits alone, but it is nearly impossible to avoid making comparisons with Red Eye and Flightplan comes off looking worse in every department. Those who have already taken the earlier flight offered by Craven have no reason to endure this one, it’s an uncomfortable long-haul flight which is only ever heading for a crash landing.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Review - Mrs Henderson Presents

When Hitler’s Luftwaffe were raining bombs on London day and night, and hordes of frightened young men were heading out to fight for their country, Mrs Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) knew what people needed - a saucy song and dance show full of show tunes and naked young women. After the death of her husband, wealthy widow Mrs Henderson purchased the dilapidated Windmill Theatre in London’s West End and, in conjunction with experienced theatre manager Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), defied the moral conventions of the time to produce a revolutionary adult show which ran round the clock and lifted the spirits of many young soldiers before they went to war.

Mrs Henderson’s story is one of determination, eccentricity, stiff upper lips and all the other typically British attributes which films made in these isles love to include. It’s a special story for sure but, despite being bolstered by a whirlwind performance from Judi Dench in the lead role, Stephen Frears’ Mrs Henderson Presents never manages to become special itself; finding itself bogged down by thin characterisation, slack direction and an unhappy attempt to blend typically British saucy humour with the pathos of war.

The film’s ultimately unsatisfying effect is extremely disappointing after things got off to such a promising start. The first half of Mrs Henderson Presents is a sprightly and amusing affair. The action opens with the funeral of Mrs Henderson’s husband in 1937. After the funeral Mrs Henderson takes a boat out into the middle of the lake to shed her tears in private, and then puts on a brave face before facing the friends and acquaintances at his wake. Her closest friend Lady Conway (Thelma Barlow) is intrigued to know how exactly Mrs Henderson plans to fill her time, suggesting that she might find herself a toy boy to fill the hole in her life, but Laura is nothing if not unconventional and her decision to purchase and rejuvenate the Windmill Theatre takes everyone by surprise.

The screenplay by Martin Sherman sets the plot in motion with skill and catches the attention with a healthy dose of wry humour. The film initially focuses on the theatre’s launch and the increasingly fraught relationship between Mrs Henderson and Mr Van Damm; as her feisty, interfering attitude continually tests his patience and undermines his authority. The script is littered with plenty of barbed dialogue and one-liners which are delivered with relish by Dench and Hoskins, and the highly entertaining repartee of this relationship is the motor which successfully drives the film forward for while.

Unfortunately this enjoyable tone can’t last and when World War II is added into the mix it throws the film’s deficiencies into sharp relief. The film attempts to lend some emotional weight to the characters at this point; revealing the death of Mrs Henderson’s son in the first War and linking Van Damm’s Jewish to the Nazi’s rounding up of Dutch Jews, but these elements are introduced with a clunking lack of grace and they stall the momentum which had been established.

Likewise, Frears attempts to wring plenty of pathos from the story of Maureen (Kelly Reilly), a young performer who gets herself involved in a tragic romance with a young soldier; but her character is far too sketchily drawn for this tangent to have any impact. The film fizzles out dramatically halfway through and the screenplay begins running in circles in an attempt to fill time, resulting in the dreadful and farcical sequence in which Mrs Henderson gets herself barred from the theatre and attempts to gain entry in a series of silly disguises - a sequence which marks the film’s nadir.

So thanks heavens for Judi Dench whose performance here is one of her finest. Mrs Henderson is a great character who blows through the movie like a hurricane and Dench is clearly having the time of her life in the role. The film’s witty, Wildean dialogue is perfectly served by her bone-dry delivery and she repeatedly gets big laughs from her perfectly pitched comments. Again, her character is not particularly well developed - there’s a hint of romantic longing for Van Damm which is never explored - but Dench is good enough to make a fully rounded character herself and she’s sorely missed whenever she’s not on screen.

Elsewhere in the cast, Bob Hoskins isn’t ideally suited to the role of Vivian Van Damm but he makes a fair fist of it and has a good chemistry with Dench. There’s a pleasingly droll cameo from Christopher Guest and good support from Thelma Barlow (whoever thought we’d see Coronation Street’s Mavis Riley making jokes about anal sex?).

In addition, the film also features a rather perplexing appearance from Will Young. The pop star is making his acting debut here and he hardly distinguishes himself with the handful of lines he’s given, although he’s much more comfortable when taking part in the musical numbers. All in all, not a debut which will encourage him to give up the day job and the more cynical members of the audience may suspect he was cast purely for the purpose of one joke about his character’s sexuality.

Mrs Henderson Presents ends with a whimper after its sparky opening. Stephen Frears’ direction couldn’t be more anonymous and his bland handling doesn’t ever look likely to lift the film out of the lethargic state it adopts halfway through. The film looks smart, with the hazy cinematography evoking a bygone age, and the CGI-enhanced vision of London is realistic enough, but the glossy exterior can’t hide the fact that this is a painfully limp and inoffensive film which clearly uses up all of its inspiration at a very early stage. Judi Dench almost manages to lift the whole enterprise single-handedly with her smashing display; but it’s a film which needs more than one firecracker performance to salvage it, and for this viewer the curtain couldn’t fall quickly enough on Mrs Henderson Presents.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Review - In Her Shoes

What is it about women and shoes? Why do so many members of the fairer sex have such a fixation on footwear? And why do they own so many pairs which they could never hope to get much wear out of? It’s a peculiarly feminine phenomenon, and In Her Shoes doesn’t make any attempt to answer this particular mystery. Instead, it uses shoes as a common bond between two sisters who only have the size of their feet in common.

“Clothes never look good, food just makes me fatter, shoes always fit” explains Rose (Toni Collette) when defending her propensity for buying shoes she’ll never get around to wearing. Rose is an uptight, workaholic lawyer who spends little time on her appearance and is insecure about her perceived unattractiveness to the opposite sex. Her younger sister Maggie (played by Cameron Diaz in full bimbo mode) is Rose’s polar opposite. She’s a leggy, slutty blonde who still lives at home, has never managed to hold down a job and lives her life through a series of drunken one-night stands.

After her latest binge, Maggie is ejected from the family home and is forced to move in with her sister. Rose grits her teeth and somehow manages to put up with Maggie’s messy, lazy behaviour and her half-hearted attempts at job hunting; but after a selfish and spiteful act breaks her heart, Rose finally sends her sister packing. Away from each other the pair begin to learn lessons about responsibility and making the most of life, and both of them begin to regret parting on such bad terms.

To many viewers this plot synopsis may sound absolutely ghastly, and in the wrong hands In Her Shoes certainly could have been sentimental Hollywood hogwash of the worst kind. Fortunately, this adaptation of Jennifer Weiner’s bestseller has fallen into the particularly safe hands of Curtis Hanson.

Hanson’s early films, while always well-crafted and performed with distinction, never gave us a hint that he would be capable of adapting James Ellroy’s mammoth crime novel LA Confidential into one of the best films of the 90’s. Since then he has taken his time over his projects, directing two pictures which seem completely at odds with one another (the rambling comedy
Wonder Boys and the Eminem vehicle 8 Mile), and In Her Shoes marks yet another successful change of pace for Hanson. Under his careful guidance In Her Shoes belies its origins to develop into a warm, smart and insightful treat.

Hanson keeps a firm grip on Susannah Grant’s screenplay; maintaining an understated, consistent tone which is a refreshing change for this kind of film. The characters are all given time to breath thanks to Hanson’s leisurely pacing and he never resorts to grand gestures or lets sentiment overwhelm the film. Instead, we are invited to enjoy a mature, intelligent film which completely focuses its attention on the characters at the heart of the story.

Those characters are particularly well-drawn here and the film also benefits from perfect casting. Toni Collette is reliably fine as Rose, offering a generous and completely convincing performance. Collette’s judgement is invariably sound, she doesn’t ever overplay whether she’s the neurotic lawyer we meet at the start of the film or the much happier and freer person she gradually becomes. As Maggie, Diaz is more than just the sexy sister and her display here is her best and most rounded work since Being John Malkovich. The pair are also believable as sisters, conveying the sibling love and rivalry with sensitivity and skill, and the film’s emotion is mostly derived from this relationship. But the film would still be little more than an above average comedy-drama if Hanson didn’t have his ace up his sleeve.

When Maggie is kicked out by Rose she heads to Miami and tracks down the Grandmother she’s only just discovered she had. Ella lives in a retirement community and is played by the redoubtable Shirley MacLaine, in a role that has Oscar stamped all over it. Maggie intends to play on her Gran’s guilt for missing out on so much of her life and milk her for as much money as she can, but Ella won’t crack; and Maclaine’s dry, sardonic delivery of some choice lines remains a delight. It would have been easy to paint a soft portrait of the retirement community as a place chock full of crotchety residents churning out homespun wisdom, but Hanson won’t patronise them and instead this witty section of the film has a streak of devilment running through it. Besides, you try patronising Shirley MacLaine on this form.

In Her Shoes comes in at 130 minutes and you can feel the wheels churning a little in the final third. Hanson and Grant seem to be endeavouring to tie up every individual story in a nice bow before the curtain falls and some scenes leading up to the climax feel a tad contrived and laboured. Nevertheless, I was willing to forgive it for much by that stage. In Her Shoes doesn’t try to do anything you haven’t seen before but it does it with a wit, understanding and genuine warmth that feels a little special.

Many of the scenes herein are potentially slushy and clichéd, but Hanson’s assured direction makes them feel real and fresh. The ending is a predictably happy affair which may require a hankie or two, but we never feel like we’re being manipulated into shedding a tear. We are moved by In Her Shoes because we’ve come to know these characters and care for them. We’ve seen who they were and we’ve watched them develop into somebody new. We’ve walked a mile in their shoes.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Review - The Constant Gardener

Fernando Meirelles made quite an impact with his directorial debut City of God; a technically proficient and visually arresting depiction of life in the slums of Brazil. The film received plaudits from around the globe and secured Meirelles an Oscar nomination for Best Director. However, I felt it was a seriously overrated case of style over substance and, while Meirelles clearly had a strong grasp of filmmaking technique and a keen eye, his flashy pyrotechnics diluted the emotional power of the central story.

For his second film Meirelles has chosen an adaptation of John le Carré’s thriller The Constant Gardener and again his style proves ill-suited to the source material. Many screen versions of le Carré’s work have been rather stuffy and stiff affairs, so the hiring of Meirelles was an interesting choice. It’s the opportunity to lend an outsider’s point of view to the story, and he certainly does give the material a different texture; utilising shaky, handheld cameras and a washed-out palette to instil the film with a sense of urgency and play on the lead character’s paranoia. It’s an approach that sounds fine in principle but proves problematic in practice.

Meirelles and his screenwriter Jeffrey Caine tell parallel stories here. On the one hand The Constant Gardener is a conspiracy thriller concerning the malpractice of major pharmaceutical companies in Africa, while the other half of the film details in flashback the love between uptight British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) and free-spirited activist Tessa (Rachel Weisz). They meet after Justin has just delivered a rather dull speech and Tessa stands up to ask some very angry and pointed questions about Britain’s involvement in Iraq. After everyone has left the hall Justin offers the emotional Tessa some kind words and a drink, and the pair end the day in bed. The film rushes through the unconvincing development of this relationship but Fiennes and Weisz are good enough to sell it and Meirelles fills in many of the gaps during the subsequent flashbacks. Before we know it the pair are married and Tessa asks Justin if she can accompany him on his posting to Africa. He is wary of letting her go anywhere, and rightly so because on an ill-advised trip to a small town she is brutally murdered. Overcome by grief and haunted by suspicions of his wife’s infidelity Justin begins to dig into the details of her life and discovers that she may have been killed for getting a little too close to the truth with her investigations.

It’s not a spoiler to reveal the details of Tessa’s death because it occurs in the first couple of scenes and is the catalyst for Justin’s transformation from passive diplomat to man of action. Meirelles is fortunate to have Ralph Fiennes in the lead as he’s the perfect actor to take the viewer on this character’s journey. At the start of the film Justin is a reserved, taciturn fellow who seems far more comfortable with his many plants than he is in human company; but the love of Tessa liberates something in him and her death galvanises him into doing what should be done regardless of the consequences. Fiennes’ intelligent and sensitive performance keeps the film grounded and makes the various stages of his development plausible. As Tessa, Rachel Weisz is excellent also, despite her character often seeming little more than a mouthpiece for the script’s social concerns.

Those concerns mainly focus on the plight of the African people who are dying of AIDS and TB while the world’s major pharmaceutical companies continue to get richer. The film details a conspiracy in which one company is illegally testing unfinished drugs on poor African villagers with fatal results, but Meirelles fails to make the most of this premise. The Constant Gardener is didactic, preachy and has a serious lack of thrills. Meirelles jumps backwards and forwards around the narrative in telling the two strands of his story but he never finds a comfortable pace for the film and some elements of the plot remain sketchy at best.

The main problem with The Constant Gardener lies with the Brazilian director’s determination to wring as much visual mileage out of the story as possible. In almost every scene the prime motivation seems to be visual impact over narrative coherence; the creative cinematography (colourful and vibrant for Africa, cold and grey for Britain) and probing camera are always looking for some sort of spectacular image, but the meat of the story is often left to trundle along under its own steam without any sort of firm direction behind it. Meirelles stages long conversations in locations as visually impressive as possible, which isn’t such a bad thing but it soon starts to distract the attention from what’s being said in a scene when the director insists on flooding your eyes every few seconds.

Clearly this kind of film is not Meirelles’ forte. The film is uneven and lacks any sort of tension, with an ineffective chase scene thrown in occasionally and a number of repetitive sequences in which an implied threat turns out to be something benign. There are moments when the film appears to be finding its feet but the hyperactive editing continually sets us back at square one, and the film’s increased tendency to grandstand in the latter stages makes the final third something of a slog. I’m sure Meirelles will one day find material which proves a perfect match for his considerable talents. He is a vibrant and interesting filmmaker who needs to start building his films on stronger foundations before making something which really deserves the kind of acclaim his two superficial efforts have received thus far. This film is a contrived and uninvolving thriller which only manages to hold the interest thanks to the sterling efforts of the two leads. It may often look spectacular, but The Constant Gardener never digs below the surface.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Review - The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté)

For years Hollywood producers have been greedily snapping up the rights to foreign films in order to remake them as their own, but The Beat That My Heart Skipped marks one of the very few occasions when a film moves in the opposite direction. The subject under revision here is James Toback’s 1978 debut film Fingers; an edgy, volatile picture which starred Harvey Keitel as a low-level enforcer who is torn between the violent acts his father asks him to perform and the opportunity to use the musical gifts he inherited from his mother in order to make it as a concert pianist.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped sticks pretty closely to this original template, but still manages to be a very different proposition to Fingers. Toback’s film is not a great picture by any means. It is an overwrought and wildly schizophrenic affair which bundles its way through a wayward and occasionally incoherent narrative. The sheer strangeness of the film keeps it fairly compelling, and the young Harvey Keitel provides a typically fiery and intense central performance, but perhaps the fact that the film has been so little-seen since its release has caused it to be claimed as some sort of lost classic when it is nothing of the sort.

Director Jacques Audiard takes a more clear-eyed and controlled approach to the story, smoothing out the rough edges of Fingers and losing much of the craziness inherent in Toback’s original. Instead Audiard tells the story in a more understated and elliptical style, creating an engrossing character study which is tender, passionate and smart.

Tom Seyr (Romain Duris) is a young man who works for his shady property-owning father (the excellent Niels Arestrup), but his duties are generally confined to scaring tenants out of various buildings his father wants to buy at a knockdown price and collecting errant debts by any means necessary. Despite his wired and brooding demeanour Tom actually has a far more sensitive side underneath, and he wants more from life than his father appears set to offer him. Then a chance encounter opens up the possibility of a new future for Tom, as he bumps into the man who managed his late mother during her days as a concert pianist. Mr Fox (Sandy Whitelaw) asks Tom if he still plays and offers him the chance to audition for a place in his prestigious music academy, but Tom’s other commitments threaten to destroy his dreams.

If the best thing about Fingers was Harvey Keitel’s powerful performance, then the main ingredient for the success of The Beat That My Heart Skipped is an indelible turn by Romain Duris as Tom. Duris’ performance is far more tightly controlled than Keitel’s exuberant turn but is equally effective, and it makes Tom a hugely engaging and compelling anti-hero. Duris internalises all of Tom’s anguish and portrays him as a character so tightly-wound he could explode at any moment. The actor often drums the table with his fingers and jiggles his leg while seated as he tries to channel the abundance of anger and nervous energy which is coursing through his body. The opportunity to produce music provides a means of release for Tom; he violently jabs at the keys and lets out a primal howl of despair whenever he hits the wrong note.

Duris never hits a wrong note in this film, giving a display of rage and sensitivity which reminded this viewer not only of the passion the young Keitel brought to his roles but also of early De Niro, particularly his Johnny Boy from Scorsese’s Mean Streets. The fact that Duris’ incendiary display doesn’t look out of place when spoken of in the same breath as these extraordinary performances is testament to its quality.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped is around 17 minutes longer than Fingers and by opening the story out and giving it room to breath Audiard and co-screenwriter Tonino Benacquista have developed a much more involving tale with fully-realised characters and a coherent, believable narrative. By cutting out many of the first film’s more ludicrous and unnecessary subplots Audiard can give more time to Tom’s growing involvement in music and his touching relationship with his tutor Miao Lin (Linh Dan Pham) a Chinese woman living in Paris who offers to help Tom prepare for his audition. Miao Lin doesn’t speak any French, and has only a few words of English, but as in his previous feature Read My Lips Audiard shows how a mutual respect and affection (if not, on this occasion, love) can overcome any language barrier.

Audiard keeps his hand-held camera tight on the action creating an intense and claustrophobic atmosphere and in conjunction with cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine his restless eye occasionally settles on some beautiful images. He is fast becoming one of the most interesting filmmakers in French cinema and The Beat That My Hearts Skipped marks another significant development for him, providing a much more complete and satisfying film than Read My Lips.

Audiard takes the film off in a different direction for the finale. It’s a brave move, as Toback’s closing shot of Keitel’s haunted visage is arguably the film’s finest moment, but here the decision to end on a more ambiguous (even hopeful) note is a smart one. We leave Tom bloody but unbowed and in the process of reinventing his life. Despite so many of his dreams being shattered his future finally looks bright for the first time in his tumultuous life. The Beat That My Heart Skipped is a film which gives us hope that a person can change his life, and as a study of a man torn between the two sides of his character - between art and brutality - it never skips a beat.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Review - Hidden (Caché)

The first image we see in Caché is a house. In a pleasant suburb of Paris, the camera maintains a long take on the outside of one particular house as the opening credits roll. The camera doesn’t move, it simply remains fixed on this image as cars and people pass by; and we wonder what is so special about this home that it should hold the attention for so long. Then the spell is broken, and we realise that what we’re actually seeing is the content of a video tape which has been received by the inhabitants of the house; the whole cassette is filled with nothing but a single take of their home.

Understandably, this leaves Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliet Binoche) bemused and a little unsettled. Why on earth would somebody film the outside of their house and then deliver the tape to them? Is it some kind of threat? or just a foolish prank, perhaps perpetrated by a friend of their 12 year old son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky)? The uncertainty and unease caused by this situation soon starts to create friction within the family environment, with George linking the matter back to a long-forgotten event from the past and Anne beginning to despair at her husband’s increasingly secretive behaviour.

Austrian director Michael Haneke, one of the most consistently brilliant and challenging filmmakers of the last two decades, takes this simple premise and builds a nerve-shredding and heavily allegorical film which grabs the viewer’s attention from the opening shot and refuses to relinquish its grip. Haneke plays with the notion of filmmaker as voyeur; he tackles themes such as guilt, fear, trust and responsibility (both collective and personal); he makes numerous references to the US war on terror; and he ties the whole film back to the French treatment of Algerians in the sixties. Not bad for a film which could also be described as Haneke’s most accessible and purely entertaining work to date.

On its most basic level Caché is a peerless psychological thriller. Haneke’s control is simply masterful and he slowly ratchets up the tension with consummate skill, creating a stranglehold atmosphere of dread which grips like a vice. Haneke uses static long takes which help to develop the almost unbearable tension; and he repeatedly blurs the line between the ‘real’ film footage and the images captured by the voyeuristic cameraman, continually disorienting the viewer and forcing us to reassess what we’ve seen, or think we’ve seen, in every scene. This all leads to a moment so unexpected, so violent and so shocking that it resulted in one of the most incredible reactions I’ve ever experienced in a cinema - a collective gasp of disbelief mingled with a few screams of horror. A moment this extraordinary is the spellbinding work of a master filmmaker, and we are mere putty in his hands.

Helping to draw us into the central drama are the uniformly exceptional cast, with special praise reserved for Daniel Auteuil who delivers the finest performance of his career. Georges is a smug, bourgeois TV presenter who refuses to take responsibility for his actions, and Auteuil makes us care deeply for him. His reaction to his growing torment is varied; he explodes with rage, he wallows in self-pity, he breaks down in tears, and the actor’s performance remains bottomless with subtlety throughout. Juliette Binoche is generally excellent in any situation and her display here is perfectly judged, reflecting the character’s anguish and sense of helplessness as her marriage slowly disintegrates around her. Lester Makedonsky is impressive as Pierrot, Annie Girardot has a delightful cameo, and Maurice Bénichou offers a superbly understated display, full of sadness and regret.

There is not a scene wasted in Caché, not a single moment when Haneke is not in full command of his story. The film feeds the audience information in small doses and we attempt to make the pieces fit in the same way the characters do. In the end we sense that the ‘whodunnit’ element of the film is irrelevant to Haneke, and many viewers will feel cheated by the film’s deliberately inconclusive finale, but the director has bigger targets in his sights with Caché. The allegory of the film is plain to see, best encapsulated by George’s threat of “terrorise my family and you’ll get it”, and Haneke also uses the film to challenge the complacent self-satisfaction of the French bourgeoisie and the western world’s refusal to shoulder culpability for their past wrongdoings.

Michael Haneke is a director who has developed and fine-tuned his craft over the past two decades to the point that Caché feels like the purest distillation of his filmmaking style. Haneke closes with a shot which causes the viewer to re-evaluate everything he has just seen, which throws apart all the pieces of the puzzle you thought you had managed to fit together. Caché is a stunningly clinical and intelligent film which commands the utmost attention throughout and will haunt the viewer’s thoughts long after it has finished. It is a masterpiece from one of contemporary cinema’s most important figures which plays on our deepest anxieties with devastating potency. For these reasons and more, it is essential viewing.

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.