Thursday, December 28, 2006

2006 Review - Part Two: The Awards

Best Picture

1 The New World
The New World is a truly astonishing work of art. Malick’s filmmaking language is unlike anything else in contemporary cinema and his latest film is a breathtakingly imaginative, visionary and beautiful achievement which took my breath away

2 Brokeback Mountain
This adaptation of Annie Proulx’s devastating short story is one of the purest and most emotionally affecting romantic films to hit the big screen in living memory

3 Pan’s Labyrinth
This is the work of a filmmaker who has reached a new level of maturity in his work, a filmmaker who is pushing his abilities to the limit, and his picture is overflowing with creativity and passion

4 Caché
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

5 Keane
It is astonishing, emotionally lacerating filmmaking which left me breathless

6 Shortbus
John Cameron Mitchell’s new film is an explosion of joy; an exuberant celebration of love, sex and humanity

7 Grizzly Man
I’ve never seen anyone like Timothy Treadwell, and I’ve never seen a documentary quite like Grizzly Man

8 Children of Men
Children of Men is about as intelligent, gripping and adult as mainstream cinema gets

9 The Death of Mr Lazarescu
It certainly won’t be to everyone’s liking, and it will be too dark and emotional a journey for some, but I found it to be an incredibly powerful and involving experience

10 London to Brighton
This is the first film from writer/director Paul Andrew Williams - made on a shoestring budget with a cast of unknowns - and it’s a truly astonishing debut.
Honourable Mentions:
Casino Royale
A Cock and Bull Story
The Departed
The Host
Inside Man
The Queen
Red Road
The Squid and the Whale
Worst Picture

1 Tideland
This is a staggeringly self-indulgent, grating and ugly piece of work

2 Container
Container is a black-and-white film which runs for little over 70 minutes, but that’s just about 70 minutes too many.

3 The Wicker Man
A ghastly mish-mash of flashbacks, red herrings, bad acting and atrocious storytelling

4 Lady in the Water
The film seems completely rudderless, as if Shyamalan simply wrote down every idea that popped into his head one night and set himself the challenge of giving it all some sort of narrative shape

5 The Da Vinci Code
The Da Vinci Code is an illogical, uninteresting, borderline incompetent film which is a failure on almost every level

6 X-Men: The Last Stand
If this is, as the title indicates, the last in the X-Men series, then it’s a sad way for a once promising franchise to end

7 Shopgirl
This is nothing more than Steve Martin's middle-aged fantasy being played out on screen; and it ain't pretty

8 Hard Candy
Hard Candy is a nasty piece of work; utterly lacking in meaning and vaguely offensive for the way it uses this painfully serious subject for what is ultimately little more than an ugly exploitation flick

9 The Break-Up
Even though the film has three writers credited, none of them seem to have the faintest idea where this story is going.

10 The Black Dahlia
De Palma stopped being an interesting filmmaker about twenty years ago, and he stopped being a remotely competent filmmaker about ten years ago.
Dishonourable Mentions:
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Breaking and Entering
Marie Antoinette
Match Point
Nacho Libre
Two for the Money
World Trade Centre
Best Actor
1 Damian Lewis - Keane
2 Ioan Fiscuteanu - The Death of Mr Lazarescu
3 Heath Ledger - Brokeback Mountain
4 Philip Seymour Hoffman - Capote
5 Jeff Daniels - The Squid and the Whale
Best Actress
1 Helen Mirren - The Queen
2 Penélope Cruz - Volver
3 Ivana Banquero - Pan’s Labyrinth
4 Kate Winslet - Little Children
5 Lee Young-ae - Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
Best Supporting Actor
1 Jake Gyllenhaal - Brokeback Mountain
2 Mark Wahlberg - The Departed
3 Michael Sheen - The Queen
4 Ray Winstone - The Proposition
5 Johnny Harris - London to Brighton
Best Supporting Actress
1 Amy Adams - Junebug
2 Q’Orianka Kilcher The New World
3 Michelle Williams - Brokeback Mountain
4 Georgia Groome - London to Brighton
5 Emily Blunt - The Devil Wears Prada
Best Director
1 - Terrence Malick - The New World
2 - Michael Haneke - Caché
3 - Guillermo Del Toro - Pan’s Labyrinth
4 - Ang Lee - Brokeback Mountain
5 - Alfonso Cuarón - Children of Men
Best Original Screenplay
1 - The Queen
2 - Caché
3 - Pan’s Labyrinth
4 - Volver
5 - London to Brighton
Best Adapted Screenplay
1 - Brokeback Mountain
2 - Children of Men
3 - The Departed
4 - Capote
5 - A Cock and Bull Story
1 - Grizzly Man
2 - Once in a Lifetime
3 - Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
4 - Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait
5 - Pucker Up: The Fine Art of Whistling
1 - The New World
2 - Miami Vice
3 - Superman Returns
4 - Pan’s Labyrinth
5 - Red Road
1 - Caché
2 - The Departed
3 - United 93
4 - The New World
5 - Shortbus
Original Score
1 - The New World
2 - Grizzly Man
3 - Brokeback Mountain
4 - The Proposition
5 - Superman Returns
Visual Effects
1 - Pan’s Labyrinth
2 - Children of Men
3 - Superman Returns
4 - The Host
5 - World Trade Centre
Production Design
1 - Children of Men
2 - Casino Royale
3 - Pan’s Labyrinth
4 - World Trade Centre
5 - The Queen
Costume Design
1 - The Devil Wears Prada
2 - Marie Antoinette
3 - The New World
4 - Brokeback Mountain
5 - Casino Royale
Best non-2006 cinema screening
1 - Sherlock Jr. (1924)
2 - The Fallen Idol (1948)
3 - La Belle Noiseuse (1991)
4 - I am Cuba (1964)
5 - The Dead (1987)
Cinema Experience of the Year
1 - Kinoautomat: One Man and His House
2 - Shortbus
3 - The New World
4 - Superman Returns (IMAX 3D)
5 - Caché

2006 Review - Part One

There’s something about the first couple of months in the year, when the disparity between UK and US release dates floods Britain with quality films, that always raises one’s hopes for the prospects of the cinematic year. January, February and March tend to be the months in which the high-profile Oscar contenders and prestige movies from the tail-end of the previous year make their presence felt, and the first quarter of 2006 saw a particularly interesting bunch of films arriving on these shores - they included Brokeback Mountain, Caché, The New World, Capote, Munich, Grizzly Man and the George Clooney double-bill of Goodnight, and Good Luck and Syriana. Not all of those films lived up to the high expectations which preceded them, but they were intelligent and daring efforts which seemed to bode well for the year ahead.

A number of these pictures were in contention at this year’s Oscars, and there was much talk about the film industry growing up with their Best Picture selection. “Look at us” the Academy seemed to scream, “we’ve nominated a film about a gay love affair, another about a gay writer, a film about McCarthyism and a picture about the Israel/Palestine conflict!”. Unfortunately, while the Academy recognised Brokeback Mountain and Capote in various categories, they then proceeded to undo their good work by handing the big prize to Crash, a simpleminded and dumbly contrived take on race relations in contemporary LA. So much for a new maturity at the Oscars.

Of course, the rest of 2006 couldn’t really live up to the benchmark set by a couple of those films and it quickly settled into the standard formula: a few gems poking their heads above the surface in a vast sea of mediocrity. When I Looked back at the films I saw this year, I was astonished by how many pictures I barely remember. In trying to recall films like My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Pavee Lackeen, Romance and Cigarettes and Lemming, I can only grasp a few minor details, and sometimes it’s hard to remember whether I liked the picture or not. I even had to go to the IMDB to check out a film called Love + Hate, as my mind drew a complete blank at the title (it turned out to be a dull interracial romance drama set in Blackburn - well worth forgetting).

In some ways, anodyne pictures like that which fail to provoke a strong reaction one way or another are almost worse than the films which inspire outright disdain - at least those efforts make their mark on the viewer. That’s one of the pleasures of doing a review of the year like this, it offers the chance to take a second look at the films of the previous 12 months and perhaps reassess the initial reaction they received. I’m sure I underrated some of the pictures I criticised during the course of the year (United 93 and Munich are possible entrants in this category) and there were other occasions when I got a little carried away and perhaps overpraised a particular film (Miami Vice, stunning visuals and great action aside, hasn’t really stayed with me at all). It’s also a chance to study some of the prevalent themes which occurred during the cinematic year, and finally to look ahead at the months to come, to see what delights and disasters may lay in store for us there.

One of the big stories of 2006 was the sight of Hollywood finally getting to grips with the events of September 11th 2001, with no less than two pictures tackling the subject head-on. First off the runway was Paul Greengrass’ United 93, an austere and serious account of events inside that doomed flight. Greengrass has already shown himself to be an intelligent and talented filmmaker, and his take raw, edgy take on that fateful day was a compelling and respectful tribute to the bravery of the passengers on board United 93. I didn’t find the picture quite as powerful as many did, but it’s impossible to deny the integrity and skill of Greengrass’ work - and it looks like a masterpiece next to 2006’s second 9/11 film. Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre was everything United 93 wasn’t - overblown, manipulative and riddled with clichés. There were cries of “too soon” when these pictures were announced, but it’s never too soon as long as the treatment is right, and now that Hollywood has finally broached the subject let’s hope future films on 9/11 are closer in spirit to United 93 than World Trade Centre.

It wasn’t just those films which bore the shadow of September 11th though, many other pictures also dealt with the issues arising from that day in a less explicit fashion. Films like Munich and Jarhead may have been set in a particular period, but they were made with a very clear post-9/11 sensibility and the filmmakers obviously had one eye on reflecting contemporary events. Elsewhere, films as diverse as Syriana, Caché, Inside Man, Shortbus, Paradise Now, Children of Men and American Dreamz all attempted - to differing degrees - to encapsulate something about our relationships with one another in the uncertain times we live in today. 9/11 is an event that has completely changed the world we inhabit, and we will be feeling the effects and consequences from it for years to come, so it will be interesting to see how filmmakers rise to the challenge of depicting the changing shape of our environment in future films.

Summer is traditionally the time when Hollywood gets a headache from thinking about serious themes and takes out its biggest and brightest toys instead. This year’s blockbusters were a disappointing batch, though. Bryan Singer’s decision to leave the X-Men franchise for Superman Returns was a brave one, and the resulting attempt to resurrect the Man of Steel was admirable in many ways, but it was also a crazily inconsistent and unsatisfying experience. In his absence, the lethal Brett Ratner took the reins on X-Men: The Last Stand, and in doing so he managed to follow two thoughtful, ambitious comic-book pictures with a ugly, soulless collision of ropey special effects and incoherent action. In fact, few of this summer’s event movies managed to deliver the requisite thrills; Cars felt like a lazy effort from the usually peerless Pixar, and The Da Vinci Code was a laughably cack-handed attempt to translate Dan Brown’s bestseller to the screen. Tom Cruise did deliver plenty of fun with the snappy and exciting Mission: Impossible III, but it seemed as if the star’s off-screen antics had deterred some of his usual fans, and the film was ultimately considered something of a box-office disappointment. I thought that was a shame; because no matter what you might say about Tom Cruise’s personal life, the man is a true movie star - one of the few we have - and he produces the goods more often than not.

In contrast, the bloated sequel Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest became one of the highest-grossing films of all time, raking in the cash even while it received mediocre notices from the critics. The same “bad reviews = big money” paradox occurred with The Da Vinci Code, and perhaps 2006 was the year in which the role of the film critic was brought into question like never before. New Line Cinema tried to cut out the reviewers completely on their way to the multiplex with Snakes on a Plane, the title of which inspired hordes of internet fans to do the company’s marketing for them; and an increasing amount of pictures - including the deeply unnecessary remakes of The Wicker Man and The Pink Panther - cancelled pre-release press screenings completely in the hope of avoiding bad reviews. Even the directors started to give critics a good kicking, with Bob Balaban’s film reviewer coming to a grisly end in M Night Shyamalan’s witless fairytale Lady in the Water.

The critics were in tune with the audience on one occasion though, with Borat’s adventures in America becoming a huge hit as well as being one of the best-reviewed films of the year. I still can’t get my head around the reaction to this one; I found Borat crude, mean-spirited and only intermittently funny, but I’m definitely in the minority on this subject, and Sacha Baron Cohen certainly seems to have found the secret to striking gold with a cheaply-made picture - just make ‘em laugh.

Another British creation made a big impact in 2006 - his name was Bond, James Bond. The ailing franchise was given a much-needed boost by Casino Royale, a film closer in spirit to the stories created by Ian Fleming than the empty blockbusters the series has given us recently. Daniel Craig confounded the naysayers with a display of depth, strength and sensitivity, and for the first time in a long time the words “James Bond will return” don’t cause the heart to sink. There were plenty of reasons for heartache elsewhere in the world of film this year, though - notably the death of Robert Altman in November at the age of 81. Altman had a ridiculous amount of ups and downs during his long and eclectic career, and he went out at the top of his game; directing a big-name ensemble in the warmly received A Prairie Home Companion. Altman was one of a kind - innovative, single-minded, reckless and brilliant - and his passing leaves a huge void in the cinematic landscape which is unlikely to be filled by any of his imitators.

In the last few months of the year one’s thoughts tend to drift towards the various films which will be vying for attention at next year’s awards ceremonies, and 2006 is notable for providing some particularly strong roles for women. The Best Actress Oscar will probably go to Helen Mirren for her bravura performance in the intelligent and witty The Queen, but she might face some competition from Penélope Cruz for her role in Almodóvar’s terrific Volver; from Meryl Streep, who turned a cartoon harridan into something memorable in The Devil Wears Prada; and from Kate Winslet who again showed why she is one of the best actresses around with her emotionally complex turn in Todd Field’s uneven Little Children. The early buzz all seems to be surrounding Clint Eastwood’s brace of Iwo Jima pictures and Bill Condon’s musical Dreamgirls, but elsewhere there’s little consensus on where the prizes will be going which seems to indicate an unusually open field. Perhaps The Departed will finally win a statuette for Martin Scorsese, and I’d love to see Children of Men and Pan’s Labyrinth among the awards. Any nominations for Christopher Guest’s For Your Consideration would also add a pleasingly ironic twist to the proceedings; but the film which really thrilled me towards the end of 2006 is one which won’t be anywhere near the Oscars. Paul Andrew Williams’ debut film London to Brighton displays a verve, intelligence and skill which is all too rare in British cinema, and it again proves that sheer ability and passion can make something genuinely special on a miniscule budget.

2006 will ultimately go down as a decent year for films; no more, no less. The high points may have been fewer and further between than in some years, but the good films were of a particularly strong standard; and it was a pleasure to see so many excellent movies coming from some of our more established filmmakers - with Scorsese, Malick, Haneke, Herzog, Lee (Ang and Spike), Almodóvar and Frears all delivering some of their best work. Next January we’ll start the whole process again; we’ll take a look at an early schedule which includes The Last King of Scotland, Bobby, Dreamgirls, Letters From Iwo Jima, Notes on a Scandal, The Good Shepherd, The Fountain, The Good German, Zodiac and The Science of Sleep, and we’ll be salivating yet again for the prospects of the year ahead. This time next year, I’ll probably be complaining once more when nothing matches the standard set by the films released in January, February and March. Everything changes, and everything stays the same.

Have a great new year, everyone.

Review - Flags of Our Fathers

Few directors embark on the most ambitious project of their career at the age of 75, fewer still would decide to shoot two epic, complex war movies back-to-back; but that’s exactly what Clint Eastwood has done with Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, two World War II films which will explore the conflict from both an American and Japanese perspective. This isn’t an entirely new idea - 1970’s Pearl Harbour film Tora! Tora! Tora! depicted the attack from both an American and Japanese point of view, even hiring Kinji Fukasaku to act as co-director - but it’s still rare for an American studio to take such an even-handed approach to ‘the enemy’, and Eastwood’s brace of films is a fascinating proposition.

Letters From Iwo Jima will be arriving on these shores in the new year, so for now let’s focus on the American half of Clint’s double-bill. The very idea of Clint Eastwood directing a war movie is an intriguing one; after all, this is the filmmaker who made his name in the western genre and then subverted the genre so brilliantly in his revisionist masterpiece Unforgiven. Too many contemporary war films fall prey to the same old clichés and hackneyed storytelling, and Eastwood’s career as a director has been all about defying audiences’ expectations, so perhaps this melding of filmmaker and subject could offer us something fresh in a tired genre?

Unfortunately, Flags of Our Fathers - while well-made, noble and never less than watchable - is a rather stodgy and uninvolving lump of storytelling which never quite succeeds in its attempt to tear down accepted notions of heroism. In fact, after an opening hour which layers the action with plenty of cynicism and stark unsentimentality, the film loses its sense of focus in the second half, and it ends up settling into a standard-issue war movie groove that’s as disappointing as it is conventional.

They say the camera never lies, but Flags of Our Fathers is all about the truth behind the myths which surround a famous photograph. Joe Rosenthal’s snapshot of six American servicemen raising the flag on Iwo Jima is one of the most iconic pictures ever taken. When it was reproduced on the front page of every newspaper in 1945, this triumphant image had a galvanising effect on a public which was losing its appetite for war, and the picture was immediately seized upon by the government as a perfect symbol with which to raise funds for their final push. Three of the six figures who raised the flag on February 23rd were dead within a month, but the survivors were tracked down and shipped back to the US in the hope of encouraging the American public to buy $14 billion worth of war bonds.

Flags of Our Fathers follows these three figures on their journey from the battlefield of Iwo Jima to the frontline of the publicity drive. Navy corpsman ‘Doc’ Bradley (Ryan Philippe) is haunted by the sights and sounds of the conflict he has left behind; runner Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) revels in the spotlight, aiming to use his new-found fame to set up post-war career opportunities; and Native American soldier Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) continually drowns his own trauma and self-doubt in alcohol, while taking every opportunity to display his contempt for the media circus he has been plunged into. They are the three characters who carry the film - what a shame they barely exist as characters at all.

As Ira Hayes, Adam Beach has the most fully-developed part of the trio. His character seems to come with the most complex emotional makeup, and he also has the added dimension of being labelled a hero by the media but still facing racism when he tries to buy a drink from a bar that “don’t serve Indians”. Beach plays Hayes effectively, exhibiting a sense of righteous anger which is always simmering under the surface, and he’s one of the few actors in the film whom manages to inject a note of unforced emotion into their role. But alongside him, Philippe and Bradford never really come to life, and our lack of engagement with their emotional and psychological turmoil is a damaging blow for the overall picture.

In fact, we never really get to know any of the characters very well at all. Actors like Jamie Bell (an endlessly optimistic young soldier), Barry Pepper (a sergeant loyal to his troops) and Neal McDonough (a tough captain) make an impression when they’re on screen, but the impression is fleeting, and for too much of its 132-minute running time Flags of Our Fathers lacks a central point to hold the sprawling storyline together. The problems caused by the baggy narrative are exacerbated by the occasionally clumsy structure employed by Eastwood as he cuts between the film’s three distinct time periods; there are scenes set on the battlefield of Iwo Jima, scenes set during the three main characters’ fundraising tour, and scenes from the present day, in which Bradley’s son interviews survivors for the book he is writing about his father. Eastwood is often judicious in the way he cuts between the empty razzmatazz of the various press events to the harsh realities of war, but as he continually resorts to this trick it starts to feel increasingly rote, and as the film moves into its second half too many of the flashbacks feel like they’re appearing on cue. The jumbled narrative does gleam some fine touches though; the image of the flag-raising is shown to us in a wild variety of ways - a papier-mâché reconstruction, a painting or, amusingly, an ice-cream mould - before we actually see the incident itself recreated. Flags of Our Fathers also gets plenty of mileage from its deconstruction of that unforgettable photo - the fact that one of the men named in the picture didn't raise the flag at all, the fact that a previous flag was raised at this same position before being removed, and the fact that the battle for Iwo Jima lasted a full 35 days after this ‘victorious’ shot had been captured.

Aside from those few mildly interesting insights, however, Flags of Our Fathers doesn’t really have a great deal to say about war which we haven’t heard before: war is hell, soldiers are exploited by those in power, the real heroes are the unspoken thousands who lie dead on the battlefield. We have seen too many war films for any of this to have any real impact, and Flags of Our Fathers doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from those which have gone before. In particular, the one movie which casts a shadow over this one is Saving Private Ryan (the similarities are emphasised by Steven Spielberg’s role as producer here) and comparisons with that flawed but superior picture don’t do Eastwood’s effort many favours.

Flags of Our Fathers attempts to match the verisimilitude of Saving Private Ryan’s battle sequences, but for all his gifts as a filmmaker Eastwood lacks Spielberg’s technical virtuosity and instinctive style. There are some strong aspects to the film’s depiction of the bloodshed on Iwo Jima, particularly the brooding sense of foreboding as the soldiers first arrive at the seemingly empty beach - and I loved Tom Stern’s cinematography which is surely as close to monochrome as a film can get while still being a colour picture - but when the bullets start to fly Eastwood lets the action lapse into incoherence too easily. The CGI-enhanced shots have a fuzzy, indistinct edge to them, it’s hard to keep track of any of the characters in the thick of the action and, while the frequent deaths are bloody and realistic, the film never quite achieves the “you are there” quality which Saving Private Ryan managed so brilliantly.

Flags of Our Fathers is an ambitious and in many ways admirable picture, but its flaws are too manifold for it to really leave any lasting impact, and it’s a disappointing entry into this fascinating late phase in Eastwood’s career. He is too good a filmmaker for the film to be disregarded completely, and individual moments are superb, but they tend to be the quieter, more introspective moments, and anything outside of that comfort zone seems to find the director reaching beyond his grasp. Ultimately, the film fails to stray from the well-worn path which endless war movies have travelled in the past, but the Japanese portion of Eastwood’s Iwo Jima two-hander may yet prove to be the project’s saving grace. Cinema has given us a western view of World War II over and over and over again; perhaps it’s high time we looked at the conflict through the eyes of another.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Review - London to Brighton

A quick glance at London to Brighton’s synopsis may well cause the average moviegoer’s heart to sink. The central plot seems to indicate yet another tired cockney thriller which will wallow in the depths of violence and misery; and the principal characters all appear to be cut from the same stereotypical cloth that we've grown so wearily used to. There’s the hardnosed hooker with a heart, the young innocent who needs protecting, the sleazy pimp, and the cold-blooded local gangster whose distaste for the criminal lowlife around him is tangible. Surely we’ve seen this all before?

Perhaps we have, but rarely have we seen this kind of material handled in such explosive, gripping and intelligent fashion.
London to Brighton opens with an attention-grabbing scene which instantly hooks us into the narrative, and it maintains an extraordinary pitch of gut-wrenching tension until the final scene. The film takes the clichés alluded to above and transcends them with its plausible storytelling, blistering direction and magnificent acting. This is the first film from writer/director Paul Andrew Williams - made on a shoestring budget with a cast of unknowns - and it’s a truly astonishing debut.

London to Brighton opens with a bang. At 3.07am two desperate figures burst into a grimy public toilet somewhere in the capital. Kelly (Lorraine Stanley) is a tough blonde prostitute with a horribly swollen black eye and blood seeping from the side of her mouth. Alongside her is Joanne (Georgia Groome), an 11 year-old girl crying hysterically, wearing torn clothes and with makeup smeared on her face. Kelly desperately tries to calm her terrified young companion, reassuring her that they’ll be safe as soon as they manage to get on a train away from the city.

As this scene unfolds we are left with a number of questions. What is the relationship between these two characters? What are they running from? Why are they so scared? Williams is reluctant to give us all the information at first, instead preferring to place us firmly in Kelly and Joanne’s position, and the suspense the film generates in these opening scenes is quite remarkable. Kelly tells Joanne to lock herself into the dirty cubicle and sit tight while she goes out to earn the train fare, although few punters are willing to pay full price when they see her battered face. Joanne does as she’s told, almost jumping out of her skin whenever anyone tries the locked door; but her protector eventually returns with enough cash for a train to Brighton, and once they're on their way Williams takes the chance to introduce the two characters who will be quickly on their tail.

Derek (Johnny Harris) is a small-time pimp working out of a dank flat in a London suburb. When we first meet him he is talking to a nervous blonde at the kitchen table in a quiet, almost tender fashion, cajoling her into having sex with the two men in the next room. His breakfast is interrupted by the appearance of two tough characters at his door, who summon him to a meeting with notorious gangster Stuart Allan (Sam Spruell). Stuart’s dad was the man who asked for a young girl last night, and now he’d dead; and Derek is given 24 hours to track down the two fugitives or he’ll end up the same way.

Williams’ development of the story is superb; he confidently lets the action unfold in its own time, with the tension building steadily, and his carefully placed flashbacks fill in the gaps at specific points in the picture. We stay with Kelly and Joanne until they reach the temporary sanctuary of Brighton, and then we jump back in time 24 hours to see how they met; with Derek ordering Kelly to find a young girl at very short notice, for a client he doesn’t want to disappoint. After a brief search down by Waterloo, she spots Joanne, a young runaway, and offers her the chance to earn £100. Joanne claims she has sexual experience beyond her years when quizzed by Derek, but Kelly sees the truth behind this naïve little girl’s feisty façade. The horrible truth of Joanne’s encounter with millionaire Duncan (a tremendously creepy Alexander Morton) is held back until the film’s final third, and revealed in a subtle but disturbing manner. This approach of drip feeding the plot details into the picture helps Williams maintain the film’s taut momentum, we’re never sure quite where the story is going or what decisions the characters will take next, and the tension grows to an unbearable level as the story heads inexorably towards its violent climax.

Indeed, this film will be too violent and nerve-shredding for many viewers - it’s hard to honestly describe it as an ‘enjoyable’ experience - but it remains grimly compelling at all times. The main reason
London to Brighton works so well is its extraordinary cast; all of whom excel themselves with knife-edge performances. Lorraine Stanley is magnetic as Kelly, her tough exterior slowly cracking to reveal a more protective maternal side lurking underneath. Stanley is a powerful presence, and the careful development of her relationship with her young co-star gives London to Brighton a sense of heart which offsets the darkness surrounding its characters. Debutant Georgia Groome also plays her part with a performance full of raw emotion; she is subjected to some terrible ordeals during the course of the picture, but she shows wonderful resilience and manages to maintain a sense of childhood innocence.

The film’s depiction of its villains is also sound; they’re painted in much more believable strokes than the kind of stock gangster types who populate the films of Guy Ritchie and his sundry imitators. Sam Spruell is brilliantly contained as Stuart Allan, an unpredictable character who is a fascinating mix of sadism and self-loathing. He performs every task with the minimum of fuss, such as the gash he slices open on Derek’s leg early in the film as a statement of intent; the cut is quick, and he doesn’t display a flicker of emotion as he methodically wipes his blade clean. In contrast, Johnny Harris’ Derek is a volatile mass of nervous energy, desperately doing anything he can think of to save his own skin. Derek likes to think of himself as a tough character, but he’s really small fry against the likes of Stuart, and there are a number of neat touches in the film which reinforce this point; when Derek’s gun is taken away from him by one of Stuart’s heavies he plaintively asks “can I have it back, please? It’s not mine”.

Shot for £80,000 in just 19 days,
London to Brighton is a stunning achievement. It’s a work of gritty and painful reality, but Williams finds space for a few grace notes amid the bleak atmosphere - such as the striking shots of the English countryside outside the train window, the scenes of Joanne’s pleasure on the cold Brighton beach, or the unexpected burst of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata as she is led to her fateful meeting with Duncan. It’s this unexpected emotional dexterity, this careful balancing of light and shade, which sets London to Brighton apart from so many other films of this type.

Williams may stumble a little with the twist in the final scene, and the prolonging of Joanne’s agony in the final act is borderline exploitative, but the climactic twenty minutes had me holding my breath and gripping the arms of my seat in a way I haven’t experienced for a while.
London to Brighton grabs you by the throat and ties your stomach in knots for 85 minutes; it’s a fantastic piece of work and, perhaps, it could signify the emergence of a major British filmmaking talent.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Review - Black Book (Zwartboek)

After two decades in Hollywood which have seen him direct a series of science-fiction films, one of the most iconic thrillers of the 90’s, and the “so bad it’s good” cult classic Showgirls, Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book is a real change of direction. This WWII thriller is the first film Verhoeven has made in his native Holland since 1983’s The Fourth Man, and it’s a surprisingly restrained and old-fashioned affair for much of its running time. But there is a specific point in the early stages of the picture which clearly marks this as a quintessential Paul Verhoeven film; when the film’s heroine must dye her hair blonde to avoid detection - all her hair - and the director lets us watch as she dutifully colours the area between her legs. I suppose old habits die hard.

That heroine is Rachel, and it’s her extraordinary adventures which provide the central drama of Black Book. We first meet her in 1956, living in a kibbutz in Israel, and a chance meeting with an old friend sparks a film-long flashback detailing her wartime experiences. This decision to bookend the drama with scenes of Rachel living in Israel isn’t a great one, it reveals that the heroine survived all of the ordeals we’re about to witness, and that saps a little tension - particularly when a number of major characters do meet with surprising deaths. It doesn’t do too much damage though, and for the most part Black Book is a terrifically exciting picture.

The main thrust of the narrative takes place in Holland in 1944, with the southern half of the country already liberated. Unfortunately, a number of Jews must remain in hiding in the north of the country, which is still in German hands, and Rachel is one of them, spending her days in the farmhouse of a kind Catholic family. However, Rachel’s fortunes change dramatically when her sanctuary is destroyed in a bombing raid, and she goes on the run, meeting up with her family who have discovered a way to cross the river into safe territory. It seems too good to be true - and, of course, it is. The boat is ambushed by Nazis who slaughter the passengers and raid their dead bodies for valuables, with Rachel surviving by the skin of her teeth and swimming to safety.

Phew! That’s two near-death experiences for Rachel already and the picture has barely started. Paul Verhoeven and co-writer Gerard Soeteman claim that Black Book has been based on real events - a number of which were stories they uncovered when they were doing research for their previous war film Soldier of Orange - but I get the feeling they’ve been a little liberal with the facts. Black Book is a succession of scrapes and cliff-hangers strung together in breathless fashion, with logic and plausibility often being stretched to breaking point as Rachel gets thrown from one tight spot to another; but the occasionally daft nature of the plot doesn’t annoy because Verhoeven never allows the forward momentum of the picture to slacken. This is a brilliantly paced piece of filmmaking; there’s hardly a dull moment in its 145 minutes, and - for about two-thirds of the film at least - Verhoeven admirably manages to maintain a clear narrative thread even while the plot twists build up left, right and centre.
Black Book also benefits from a stunning performance from Carice van Houten in the central role which gives the film a rock-solid centre. Van Houten is beautiful, charismatic and sly - and she imbues her part with an hefty dose of intelligence and emotion. It’s a role which really asks van Houten to stretch herself in every department, and she’s never found wanting. She certainly needs to utilise all of her virtues when she hooks up with a group of Dutch resistance fighters; they need her to use her womanly wiles to seduce a German commanding officer, and gain a position within his office in order to relay vital information back to her comrades. With her newly dyed blonde locks in place and under the pseudonym Ellis de Vries, Rachel begins to put the moves on Müntze (Sebastian Koch), but he soon reveals himself to be a decent and honest man in spite of his position within the German army, and Rachel finds her loyalties put to the test when she falls in love with the man who she has been ordered to deceive.

The romantic angle of the film works like a charm, thanks to the superb performances from van Houten and Koch, and their strong chemistry keeps emotions running high as the film lays various obstacles in front of their relationship. Black Book is a throwback to the kind of old-style Hollywood movies which blended daring acts of heroism with romantic melodrama to create a heady brew, and it’s a mixture Verhoeven pulls off with aplomb. Of course, he throws a fair amount of sex into the mix - van Houten seems to spend a quarter of the film with her breasts exposed - but, surprisingly, it rarely feels gratuitous, and the development of the central relationship is convincingly drawn. At some €16 million Black Book is the most expensive Dutch film ever made, and the money is all up there on the screen. The excellent production and costume design helps create an authentic depiction of wartime Holland, and cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub (who, like Verhoeven, has spent years working on mainstream Hollywood films) gives the picture a classy sheen which is always easy on the eye.

Now, a lot of people who are reading this review may be surprised to see words such as ‘classy’, ‘restrained’ and ‘old-fashioned’ used in conjunction with a Paul Verhoeven picture, but this really is completely different style of Verhoeven film, one which shares more common ground with his acclaimed Dutch films than his recent American ventures. However, Verhoeven can’t seem to keep a lid on his sensationalistic and voyeuristic impulses all the way through, and in the final third of the film Black Book begins to slip out of his grasp a little. The picture seems to develop nastier edge as it proceeds, with a number of deaths growing increasingly graphic and sadistic, and the same goes for the treatment Rachel is subjected to. The film’s tipping point occurs when the heroine is at the centre of a horrible, completely repulsive act of degradation which - in my view - was taking things too far. Of course, war films which aim to depict the terrible reality of their stories have often shown us things we don’t want to see, but these darker aspects are out of step with the adventurous slice of derring-do the director has served up previously, and it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. As well as the troublesome shift in tone, Black Book has problems with the increasing amount of double-crosses and triple-crosses its plot throws at the viewer in the closing stages, and the hitherto well-crafted narrative begins to visibly strain under the weight of its own contrivances. The climax lacks the punch one feels it ought to possess, but van Houten’s sterling efforts help imbue many of the final scenes with a note of raw emotion, which is some consolation at least.

Despite its flawed climactic act, Paul Verhoeven’s return to his native land must ultimately be seen as a triumphant one, and one which goes a long way to redeeming his reputation after too many bad movies. Black Book is an admittedly lopsided effort - and Verhoeven almost derails the whole thing by giving into his basic instincts towards the end of the picture - but I came out feeling like I’d had my money’s worth with its exciting and surprising story. It offers us romance and intrigue, plenty of tense and thrilling sequences, and a knockout of a central performance; and Verhoeven even throws in more cock jokes than you could ever expect to find in a WWII film, and a bullet removal scene which will have you helpless with laughter. Really, who could ask for anything more than that?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Review - Stranger than Fiction

When it comes to writing a movie a great idea is only half the battle; the real test of a screenwriter’s mettle comes when that idea must be put into practice. Can you take an ingenious premise and make it work over the course of two hours? Can you give the most far-fetched notions weight and plausibility? Can you find a satisfying way to bring this story to a climax? That’s the challenge screenwriter Zach Helm has set himself with Stranger than Fiction, a literary romantic comedy which explores the boundary between truth and fiction and ends up struggling to contain the can of worms its high-concept premise opens up.

The film grows gradually more disappointing as Helm’s inability to handle the consequences of his central plot hook becomes apparent; and that’s a shame, because
Stranger than Fiction’s premise is a smart one. Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a rigid, anal IRS agent who maintains a fastidious routine in his day-to-day life. He rises at the same time every morning, brushes his teeth with the same amount of strokes, takes the same amount of steps to work, eats at the same time, and then goes to bed at 11:13pm every single night. We know all this because the film’s female narrator (Emma Thompson) tells us the intimate details of Harold Crick’s life as he goes about his daily business. Then, one morning, Harold starts to hear her voice himself.

The voice belongs to Karen Eiffel, a reclusive, neurotic novelist who is working on her first novel in ten years, and Harold Crick is her central character. As Karen writes the story of Harold’s life, he starts to hear her narration inside his head, providing a running commentary on his every minor action. This leads to bemusement at first, then annoyance, before he finds himself shouting at the sky, begging this voice to shut up and leave him alone. Fortunately, literary expert Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) is on hand to help him out, and he suggests Harold should first determine whether the story being narrated is a comedy or a tragedy. It seems pretty plain to Harold that his life is a tragedy, particularly when he can’t make his feelings known to sexy baker Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and things get even worse for our protagonist when Karen Eiffel announces his imminent death.

In making
Stranger than Fiction, Helm and director Marc Forster are pretty much asking for the newly-formed adjective “Kaufmanesque” to be applied to their work. Few people get their name transformed into a descriptive term, but Charlie Kaufman’s dazzling screenplays for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind have seen him positioned as contemporary cinema’s most original and imaginative creative force. That’s a high benchmark to live up to, and it comes as little surprise to see Stranger than Fiction starting to flag as it reaches beyond its grasp. The problems begin to arise when the structure of Helm’s meta-fictional comedy comes under any sort of scrutiny; some suspension of disbelief may be an obvious requirement when faced with a story such as this, but film still needs to make us believe in the central conceit to some extent, and that’s something Stranger than Fiction struggles to do.

“I’ve written eight novels” Karen Eiffel laments towards the end of the picture, “have I committed murder eight times?”. It’s an interesting point, but it’s not one that
Stranger than Fiction ever explores. How exactly does this thing work? What was Harold Crick’s status before the author began writing her book? What about the secondary characters involved in Harold’s life; aren’t they Eiffel creations even though they feature in the novel being written? Why is Eiffel unaware of the primary cause of her leading character’s misery, namely the constant narration running through his head? Perhaps most pertinently, why do people refer to Eiffel’s book as a masterpiece when the extracts we hear are staggeringly banal and amateurish?

Asking questions such as these may seem rather pedantic, but they’re all examples of niggling little holes and inconsistencies which popped up with dispiriting frequency during the picture and impinged upon my enjoyment of it.
Stranger than Fiction never dares to explore the boundaries of its own internal logic, and as a result it feels curiously underdeveloped. Marc Forster gives the film a self-consciously quirky look with his frequent visual tricks and on-screen graphics; but despite the clever set-up Stranger than Fiction actually follows a pretty basic romantic comedy structure, with a standard-issue “straight-laced guy learns to loosen up and enjoy life” theme driving it along. The thing is, the film is at its most enjoyable in those brief moments when it stops playing about with half-baked metaphysical crises and just lets the romance at the core of the movie blossom.

The main reason the romantic aspect of
Stranger than Fiction works so well is the central pairing of Will Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who work hard to give the film a warm centre. They seem a most unlikely couple - the uptight taxman and the spiky free spirit - but their sweetly nuanced displays make the development of the relationship plausible and rather touching. Ferrell is particularly impressive in his attempt to follow Robin Williams and Jim Carrey down the straight acting road; he is restrained and subtle, and the sense of innocence which worked so well for him in Elf similarly gives his taxman an endearing quality here. Ferrell is still very funny - his confused reactions when the voice first appears in his life are a treat - but it’s a different, and more affecting kind of funny, and his smart underplaying gives the movie a solid centre. Emma Thompson is a little less successful as the troubled writer - her highly-strung performance is overly mannered - and they seem to have completely forgotten to write a character for Queen Latifah, but Dustin Hoffman offers a bit of comic relief with a relaxed and mildly eccentric supporting turn. His scenes with Ferrell are some of the film’s most enjoyable, and Helm has fun playing around with literary references whenever Hilbert is on screen.

There’s nothing really new here, though. The film doesn’t take its premise anywhere particularly adventurous and it continues to play safe as it builds to a climax which is all-too-neat. Actually, that’s not strictly true - the film does offer us the briefest glimpse of a darker, more daring finale, but then it gets cold feet and instead settles on an ending which is poorly written and woefully unconvincing. It’s a flat climax to a frustrating film; a picture which has a wonderfully promising premise in its hands and then hasn’t got a clue what to do with it. It’s so disappointing to see a film with this much potential slip blandly into trite moralising and a cop-out happy ending; and while Zach Helm deserves some credit for making his first screenplay as enjoyable and intriguing as it is, the sad truth of
Stranger than Fiction is that it’s simply not strange enough.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Review - Hollywoodland

When Matt Damon and Ben Affleck collected Oscars for their Good Will Hunting screenplay in 1998, they both seemed to have startlingly bright futures ahead of them, but it didn’t really work out that way. Damon has done pretty well for himself; he has slowly matured into one of the best young actors currently working, he has a successful action franchise under his belt, and he has worked with Spielberg, Soderbergh, Scorsese and De Niro.

For Affleck, things haven’t run quite so smoothly. He was doing OK for a while, giving decent low-key performances in films like Boiler Room, Changing Lanes and Shakespeare in Love, but in the space of a few years a number of poor film choices and his very public relationship problems turned Affleck into something of a joke. A run of films which includes Pearl Harbour, Daredevil, Paycheck, Gigli, Jersey Girl and Surviving Christmas is likely to do lasting damage to anyone’s career; and with the rather wooden acting style and limited emotional range he had exhibited previously, who would have dared to predict an upturn in Affleck‘s fortunes anytime soon?

Well, things can turn around very quickly in Hollywood, and Hollywoodland is a film which may well change people’s perceptions of what Ben Affleck can do. He plays George Reeves, the man who is remembered for just two things: the fact that he played Superman on TV in the early 1950’s, and the fact that he committed suicide a few years later - or did he? As far as the LAPD were concerned, the out-of-work Reeves, depressed by the downward spiral of his career, shot himself in the head on June 16th 1959 while his friends partied downstairs; but there has always been more than a hint of mystery and suspicion surrounding the death of Superman, and it’s this uncertainty which Hollywoodland tries to exploit.

Did George Reeves really pull the trigger? Or was it pulled by his fiery young fiancée Leonore (Robin Tunney) during one of their many arguments? Alternatively, perhaps Reeves’ death was ordered by MGM Vice President Eddie Mannix (an effectively gruff Bob Hoskins); after all, his wife Toni (Diane Lane) made no secret of her long-term affair with Reeves. These are a couple of the scenarios which run through the head of sleazy private eye Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), a semi-fictional adjunct to Reeves’ tragic true story, who is hired by the star’s mother to investigate his death. After years of dealing with dull little infidelity cases, Simo sees this as his big break ,and he begins using every trick in the book to get his name in the papers; but as the investigation continues to bring Simo nothing but trouble, his emotional state becomes increasingly strained.

Writer Paul Bernbaum and director Allen Coulter are both making their feature debuts here after years spent in television; and they have shown plenty of ambition in their approach to Hollywoodland, attempting to tackle this story on two fronts. One half of the picture follows Reeves, from the night he met Toni Mannix to the night he died, while the other follows Simo’s investigations; but in splitting their narrative down the middle Hollywoodland’s makers have presented themselves with structural problems they never satisfactorily overcome. Coulter’s transitions between the film’s two time periods tend to be clunky and jarring, lending the film an exasperatingly inconsistent and unfocused feel. But the biggest problem with Hollywoodland’s twin strands is the fact that one is half of the film so much more engaging and involving than the other; and while the Louis Simo scenes splutter and stall, the scenes concerning the life and death of George Reeves take flight.

“He was handsome” claims Reeves’ agent Art Weissman (Jeffrey DeMunn), “Not like these mumblers we have today - a movie star!”; and the casting of Affleck as Reeves couldn’t be better. His square-jawed, blandly masculine persona is beautifully suited to the part of Reeves, but Affleck also pulls a surprise by adding depth and weight to his character. He’s charming, witty, modest, and he also brings a touching sense of wounded pride to his role as a man slowly realising the limits of his own mediocrity. He also shares a sizzling chemistry with Diane Lane, who is devastatingly good as Toni Mannix, and it’s Hollywoodland’s depiction of their evolving relationship which lights up the movie. Initially, Reeves believes Mannix can help his career, and she sees him as a relief from her dormant marriage; but as Superman makes Reeves a star, Lane movingly expresses Toni’s fear of losing her young lover with an unflinchingly brave and complex piece of acting.

There are some wonderful scenes in Hollywoodland - Reeves’ discomfort when hecklers disrupt a screening of From Here to Eternity, or the flash of panic in his eyes when The Man of Steel is confronted with a real gun - but they all occur when Affleck and Lane are on screen, leaving the picture feeling fatally lopsided. Nothing in the Louis Simo story ever threatens to grab the viewer in the same way; it’s not that it’s bad - there’s certainly a bit of fun to had as Simo charms and finagle his way through the investigation - it’s just that it never really seems to serve any purpose. While the George Reeves story has a definite and quite involving arc, the lack of resolution to Simo’s narrative leads the film in ever decreasing circles, and it doesn’t help that many of the situations the detective finds himself in feel clichéd and unimaginative. Brody can be a fine actor, and he’s well suited to the role of the cocky Simo, but his character is sketchily written, and the time spent on his relationship with his ex-wife and son feels like time wasted.

The difference in quality between the two halves of Hollywoodland is exacerbated by the fact that Coulter gives more screen time to the Simo narrative than the Reeves one, which means the two most interesting characters in the film are pushed into the margins. I’m not sure Affleck’s acting chops would have stretched to carrying a full-on George Reeves biopic, but I wish Coulter had at least shifted the balance of the picture the other way, and minimised the amount of time spent with Brody’s private eye. But nothing ever really coheres in this disjointed affair, and at times the Simo and Reeves segments could be completely different movies. Coulter sloppily allows a number of scenes to run on longer than they need to, and the end result is an irritating patchwork in which the standout moments are too scattered and disconnected to have any lasting impact.

It seems Hollywood just doesn’t seem to know what to do with Superman these days. After Bryan Singer made a laudable but massively flawed attempt to bring the character back to the silver screen earlier this year, Hollywoodland is a similarly unwieldy offering; another picture which overreaches itself and displays feet of clay when it really counts. While George Reeves’ life ended with the bang of a gun, Coulter’s picture ends with a whimper. Simo considers the various suicide/murder theories in the final third, but the film refuses to show any conviction in settling on a scenario, and Coulter allows the story to drag itself to a deflating climax. Ultimately, Hollywoodland leaves us none the wiser about the way George Reeves departed this life, and it only occasionally sheds light on who he was when he was alive. You’ve got to feel pretty sorry for the guy - four decades after his death, and he doesn’t even get to be the lead in his own life story.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Review - Pan's Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno)

Her father is dead, her pregnant mother has moved in with a sadistic fascist, and the country around her is gripped by violence - no wonder Ofelia (Ivana Banquero) feels the need to flee her surroundings and escape to a world of fairies and magic. She’s the heroine of Pan’s Labyrinth, the new film by Guillermo del Toro which juxtaposes the harsh realities of warfare with a story of fantasy and myth. It’s a daring, almost foolhardy blend of styles and genres - a blend which could have clashed horribly - but del Toro weaves his remarkable story together like it’s the most natural thing in the world, and it has resulted in an utterly intoxicating experience which is impossible to resist.

The story of Pan’s Labyrinth takes place in 1944, but it opens with a brief “once upon a time”-style prologue. Hundreds of years ago, in a mystical ancient world which exists below the surface of our own, a princess disappeared into the world of humans and never came back. Her devastated father opened up a number of portals in the hope that her soul would one day return - and now, in the shape of Ofelia, perhaps it has. Ofelia is the young girl whom we first meet on the way to her new home. Her weak, heavily pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) is starting a new life with Vidal (Sergi López), a Capitán in Franco’s army, but he’s a cruel stepfather. When he and Ofelia first meet she makes the mistake of offering her left hand to shake, and Vidal almost crushes it in his vice-like grip. He has no feelings towards either Ofelia or his new wife; he simply wants the son which she is carrying in her womb.

Vidal has set up his base in the Spanish countryside to weed out the few rebel groups who still resist the fascist regime. The main fighting of The Spanish Civil War has been over for some time, but frequent skirmishes still take place in the nearby mountains and the guerrilla fighters also have a pair of collaborators who are working right under Vidal’s nose - his seemingly loyal doctor (Álex Angulo) and housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdú). It’s Mercedes who befriends the frightened and lonely Ofelia and tells her about the mysterious labyrinth which stands at the back of the house; and it’s at the centre of this labyrinth where Ofelia meets the faun (Doug Jones), a creature who informs her of her destiny and explains the dangerous tasks she must perform in order to reclaim her position in the kingdom.

Guillermo del Toro has spent the last few years trying to impose his dark sensibility on Hollywood genre films, with his patchy Blade II and Hellboy, but in trying to adhere to a mainstream code he hasn’t come close to matching his 2001 benchmark The Devil’s Backbone. Pan’s Labyrinth acts a kind of sister piece to that picture, once again setting a supernatural tale against the backdrop of Spanish conflict; but this is a much more fully realised film, a picture which finds the director using every one of his filmmaking skills to maximum capacity, and his story grips from the start. The opening sequence sees a small insect-like creature following Ofelia as she explores her new surroundings, and when he appears in her bedroom one night he takes on a human form right in front of her eyes. It’s a genuinely magical moment.

Del Toro fills scene after scene with startlingly imaginative moments like this, and he pitches each one at higher level than the last. This effort to top himself with every step of his picture could have led to him going too far and taking Pan’s Labyrinth over the edge, but he shows unerring judgement throughout, and his approach simply sees the film exert an increasing power over the viewer as the stakes for Ofelia grow inexorably higher. It’s not just his brilliant handling of his fictional world which impresses either, del Toro also paints a plausible picture of Ofelia’s unhappy life in the real world. Grounded by Sergi López’s vicious and compelling performance, del Toro doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of 1940’s Spain and much of this half of the film is extraordinarily violent. In fact, perhaps some of the violent acts here are a little too extreme - one of the earliest scenes in the film bears comparison to Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible - and the explicitness of these incidents has a slightly jarring effect. When del Toro shows such skill in managing the film’s tone elsewhere, moments like this stand out badly.

That’s a minor quibble though, and there’s too much pleasure to be had in Pan’s Labyrinth to linger on such small deficiencies. Chief among its many assets is the glorious central performance from 11 year-old Ivana Banquero whose sensitive, guileless display carries the film. She’s wonderfully natural and the audience really starts to care for her welfare as various external dangers begin closing in around her. She interacts brilliantly with her adult co-stars - including the excellent Verdú - but the most compelling relationship in the film occurs between Banquero and Doug Jones; the American actor who proves to be such a magnetic presence as the faun who acts as Ofelia’s guide. Sometimes a performance can get lost when actors are required to perform under a ton of makeup, but Jones exudes an air of calm authority as well as an enigmatic sense of menace. He also excels in his other role, as the mysterious Pale Man with whom Ofelia has a terrifying encounter. With eyeballs in the palms of his hands and the skin hanging loosely from his bones, the Pale Man is one of the most extraordinary creations I’ve seen in recent cinema, and the sequence containing him is a masterpiece of slow-burning tension.

The whole of Pan’s Labyrinth is beautifully designed. Del Toro draws inspiration from Borges and Goya, as well as stealing motifs from the likes of Alice in Wonderland alongside traditional fairytales, to create an incredibly rich milieu which is brought to life through masterful visual effects and production design. The spectacular effects never overwhelm the story though; they’re sparingly used and merely act as a means for del Toro to tell his tale in the most effective way. The director also places heavy emphasis on the uterine symbolism and maternal theme which runs throughout the picture; and while the political context and allegory doesn’t match up to that offered by The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro compensates with a more involving and emotionally affecting story.

As Pan’s Labyrinth moves into its latter stages del Toro allows his real and imagined worlds to bleed into one another (literally), and the director creates an almost unbearable tension during the final act as he builds to a devastating climax. This is the work of a filmmaker who has reached a new level of maturity in his work, a filmmaker who is pushing his abilities to the limit, and his picture is overflowing with creativity and passion. Pan’s Labyrinth is a stunning fantasy film, a powerful slice of civil war drama, and a compelling depiction of the resilience of the human spirit, all incorporated into one completely satisfying whole. Above all, and perhaps most movingly, it’s a celebration of imagination and escapism; and as Ofelia dreams herself away from the pain of her everyday life, we desperately long for her to dream herself to a better, safer realm. The world can be a terribly cruel place, never more so than when seen through the eyes of a child.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Robert Altman: 1925-2006

The story, as the director liked to tell it, went something like this. In a Hollywood screening room in the late 60’s a number of studio executives are sitting down to watch a rough cut of their new war picture. It’s a timely film, it has a hot young cast, and it’s based on a witty, irreverent novel. Some two hours later the lights go up, and the studio heads are aghast at what they’ve seen. It’s a mess, a disaster, and they are in no doubt that the blame lies squarely with the unknown filmmaker who has overseen this calamity. One anonymous member of the audience utters the immortal words: “That idiot's got everyone talking at the same time”.

That ‘idiot’ was Robert Altman and the film which was met with such disdain was M*A*S*H, the picture that would go on to be one of the year’s biggest hits and would later be revered as a classic. Altman was a true maverick, and he would undoubtedly have taken pleasure in the adverse reaction his film caused for those studio heads mentioned above. His entire career was marked by a refusal to compromise and a uniqueness of approach which resulted in the most eclectic and idiosyncratic filmography imaginable. Sadly, there will be no more additions to that remarkable filmography, because Altman passed away on Monday November 20th at the age of 81. He had shown no signs of slowing down in his old age - his last film, A Prairie Home Companion, was released to warm reviews earlier this year - and whenever an interviewer raised the prospect of retirement he scoffed at the very idea: “retirement? You’re talking about death, right?”.

Robert Altman has left us with an extraordinary body of work which covers three and a half decades; a body of work which features comedies, dramas, satires, musicals, and some films which hardly seem to fit into any genre. In truth, Altman’s career is littered with almost as many terrible films as great ones - and some of his worst features are nigh-on unwatchable - but when a Robert Altman film really comes together, there’s nothing quite like it.

Altman came to prominence, like so many great filmmakers, in the 1970’s. He was never really part of the celebrated ‘Movie Brats’ crowd - being 45 years old when he turned M*A*S*H into an unlikely success - but his work exhibited a youthful zeal and reckless ambition which more than matched his young contemporaries. Altman was interested in capturing something like real life on film, blurring the boundaries between truth and fiction. His plots were messy and amorphous, characters wandered in and out of the story at will, and, yes, the idiot had everyone talking at the same time. In the 14 (fourteen!) feature films Altman directed between 1970 and 1979, he displayed a blatant disregard for the standard practices of narrative storytelling. He had spent years working as a writer and director in the world of television, a medium he disliked for its rigid limitations, and when he was presented with the bigger canvas of the cinema screen almost by default (he was given the M*A*S*H job when practically every other director had declined the offer) he decided he was really going to use it.

The next decade saw one masterpiece, a handful of great films, and a few pretty bad ones; but each and every one of them was instantly recognisable as a Robert Altman film. His marvellous revisionist western McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) was muddy to look at and featured chunks of indecipherable dialogue, but it’s a film rich in atmosphere, and already we could see how Altman’s style benefited the actors working with him, as both Julie Christie and Warren Beatty turned in outstanding, fully-formed performances. In 1973 he subverted yet another genre in his own inimitable way, with his loose and lively adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye; and two years after that he produced his finest work, the definitive Robert Altman film. For the incredible Nashville, Altman allowed his actors to improvise and enhance their roles as the movie developed - they even wrote their own songs - and the result is perhaps the apotheosis of Altman’s desire to capture the messy randomness of real life in a movie.

And yet, for many years after Nashville Robert Altman’s career seemed in terminal decline. Few of his films in the late 70’s (including his interesting 3 Women) found an audience, and the trend continued for much of the 80’s. His attempt to pull off the near-impossible - a big-screen version of Popeye - was a costly flop, despite it being a quite brilliant film in many ways (certainly the performances from Robin Williams and Shelly Duvall couldn’t be bettered); and yet, Altman didn’t play it safe in order to claw back some credit with Hollywood, he just carried on making the films he wanted to make. 1984’s Secret Honor is a one-man show which features a stunning turn from Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon, Vincent and Theo is a captivating biopic, and Tanner '88 was a groundbreaking television series; but it seemed Hollywood still wasn’t interested anymore.

That changed in 1992 when Altman hit on the perfect film to appeal to the vanity of the Hollywood hierarchy - a film about Hollywood itself. The Player was a star-packed picture which presented Tinseltown as a back-biting world full of slimy lowlifes; and the film resurrected Altman’s career with every major star desperate to work with him. The next 14 years saw Altman make Short Cuts, Cookie’s Fortune, Gosford Park and The Company - those films could easily have come from four completely different filmmakers, and it’s only their quality which unites them. Of course, Altman wouldn’t be Altman without a few flops among the hits, and he stumbled with films like Prêt-à-Porter, The Gingerbread Man and Dr T and the Women; but perhaps that’s one of the things we most loved about Robert Altman, the fact that you genuinely didn’t know what you were going to get when you sat down to watch one of his films. It could be one of the best things you’ve ever seen or one of the worst, and finding out was always a thrill.

And now, there will be no more. It is fitting, perhaps, that Altman finished with A Prairie Home Companion, the kind of ensemble piece with which he is most readily associated, and one look at the cast list - for a small-scale film about an obscure radio show - tells you everything you need to know about the high regard Altman was held in by people who know their craft inside-out. He was always an outsider, viewed as an iconoclast and a troublemaker by those higher up the Hollywood food chain, but he finally received recognition from his peers earlier this year when he was given an honorary Academy Award after five unsuccessful nominations. As he stood on the stage clutching his overdue prize, this great filmmaker announced the fact that he had undergone a heart transplant ten years ago and he had received the heart of a woman half his age. “By that kind of calculation” he joked, “you may be giving me this award, too early. Because I think I've got about 40 years left on it. And I intend to use it”.

If only it were true.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Review - For Your Consideration

“Oscar is the backbone of this industry, an industry not known for its backbone”

Is there anything crazier in Hollywood than the ridiculous hullabaloo which traditionally surrounds the awards season? Some films get made, get released, and then quietly go away after their time in the cinemas has run its course; but when a picture starts picking up ‘Oscar buzz’ - often months before any footage from the film has even been seen - the publicity machine goes into overdrive. The stars are shunted from one talk show to another as they promote both the movie and themselves; ‘for your consideration’ posters are produced which practically beg voters to choose this particular film in every available category, and sometimes smear campaigns are even run against other films which have the temerity to put up some sort of competition. By the time the ceremony itself has finally arrived, the notion of a film winning purely on its merits has almost been forgotten. The Oscar campaign is a process which reveals Hollywood at its most self-obsessed, shallow and avaricious.

All in all, this tacky Tinseltown circus should be perfect material for Christopher Guest. He has already trained his satirical eye on the world of amateur dramatics, dogs shows and folk music; and while Guest has tried his hand at Hollywood satire before - with 1989’s underrated The Big Picture - this is the first time he has done so with the talented ensemble that has become his trademark.

Speaking of trademarks, however, the first thing one notices about For Your Consideration is the fact that Guest has dropped the faux-documentary style of filmmaking which served him so well in Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. Instead, For Your Consideration runs along more traditional narrative lines, following a small group of actors and filmmakers who allow an internet rumour of Oscar potential to take over their lives.

The film which is subject to speculation is Home for Purim, a terrible southern Jewish melodrama which features veteran actress Marilyn Hack (Catherine O’Hara) as a dying matriarch and Victor Allan Miller (Harry Shearer) as her devoted husband, who prays that their ne’er-do-well daughter Callie Webb (Parker Posey) will come home to see her mother before it’s too late. The film shoot is progressing in unremarkable fashion, and during a break the director of photography casually mentions to Marilyn an internet rumour which he spotted that weekend. Apparently a spy for a Hollywood gossip site was on the Home for Purim set and he was so impressed with Marilyn’s performance he instantly tagged it as having Oscar potential.

Marilyn is immediately flustered by the news. After years of relative anonymity (her role as a blind prostitute in the 70’s was the only one which made any impact), could this finally be her time in the limelight? Soon rumours are spreading like wildfire around the Home for Purim set, with Victor and Callie also being touted as potential winners. Victor instructs his agent (Eugene Levy) to stop accepting commercial and radio voiceover jobs, and Callie’s relationship with co-star Brian (Christopher Moynihan) is strained when her profile begins to rise. The Oscar buzz has an impact on other aspects of the production too, with a studio bigwig (Ricky Gervais) suddenly appearing to ask if the film’s ‘Jewishness’ could be toned down just a little - not the easiest thing to do with a film called Home for Purim.

Guest fans may be aghast when they hear about the auteur’s decision to drop his usual ‘mockumentary’ approach for this film, but it proves to be a very wise decision for a number of reasons. For one thing, it allows Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy to be more focused in their storytelling, developing a clear narrative thread while still leaving room for their large cast to have fun on the margins. Guest and Levy achieve a smart balancing act with their screenplay; managing to maintain the plot’s momentum even as they flit between minor characters, and they pack quite a lot of material into For Your Consideration’s brisk (perhaps too brisk) 86-minute running time. This isn’t exactly the most biting Hollywood satire you’ve ever seen, though; the script mostly settles for affectionately lampooning some of the more absurd sides of the filmmaking world, and while the targets attacked in For Your Consideration might be unimaginative, easy picks, it’s still fun to see Guest and co. at work.

And it’s fun for one big reason - the cast Christopher Guest has assembled over the course of his recent pictures is one of the funniest ensembles imaginable. The actors are completely in tune with the director’s filmmaking style, and their performances appear effortless; bouncing off each other without skipping a beat. The unmatchable Fred Willard and Jane Lynch are hilarious as the hosts of a garish TV entertainment show, John Michael Higgins produces some of the biggest laughs with his weird and wonderful turn as a strange publicist, and Jennifer Coolidge, as one of the film’s producers, again proves peerless in the ‘dumb blonde’ role. There are fine actors tucked away in every corner of the film - Ed Begley Jr. is a camp makeup man, Bob Balaban and Michael McKean are a pair of frustrated writers, Guest himself is a neurotic director - and they all get their chance to tickle the funny bone without ever proving an unbalancing or distracting influence on the film’s central story.

Guest has always focused his attentions on the self-deluded dreamers of the world, painfully optimistic souls who fully believe that their moment of glory is just around the corner, and For Your Consideration is no different; but this time the film dares to explore some of the pain which shattered dreams can cause, and in doing so it achieves a rare poignancy. As the three characters at the centre of the Oscar attention, Catherine O’Hara, Harry Shearer and Parker Posey give wonderful performances which offers a surprising amount of depth and feeling. Shearer lends a quiet dignity to Victor, maintaining a jocular façade even when his publicity tour sees him cavorting uncomfortably on an MTV youth show; and Posey is superb as the actress who derides awards as meaningless before the rumours start, and then finds them becoming increasingly important to her as the speculation mounts.

But the film belongs to O’Hara who gives the performance of her life as the sad, misguided Marilyn. Her barely-concealed joy at her possible nomination is a delight, but the film grows more caustic as she allows herself to be mangled by the Hollywood machine in the desperate pursuit of that golden statuette. There’s a certain reveal - late in the film - which is genuinely shocking and rather disturbing, and O’Hara’s brave display only grows in stature as Marilyn’s dreams slip out of her grasp.

Some gags work better than others in For Your Consideration, and some fall flat completely (the less said about Ricky Gervais’ tiresome cameo the better); but even if it didn’t always keep me laughing, it consistently kept me smiling, and that’s a rare pleasure in a cinema these days. Even better is the way the film unexpectedly sucker-punches the viewer with the emotional waters it dares to venture into, and the fact that it is held together by a brilliant piece of acting from Catherine O’Hara. What a sweet irony it would be if O’Hara’s performance was given the consideration it deserves over the coming months.