Phil on Film Index

Monday, January 30, 2006

Review - The New World

It has been seven years since Terrence Malick last blessed us with one of his unique cinematic visions. After his twenty year hiatus between 1978’s Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, this most enigmatic of American filmmakers is only now making his fourth film in over thirty years. However, what he lacks in quantity he more than makes up for in quality; Malick doesn’t make films often, but when he does they tend to be worth the wait.

The New World is Malick’s latest conundrum. On the surface the film is a retelling of the Pocahontas story, the tale of a young Indian girl who falls in love with Captain John Smith, one of the English settlers who arrives to establish a colony at Virginia in the 17th century. It doesn’t take very long though, for one to get the idea that the story is not alick’s main concern, and his latest film is yet another glorious meditation on man’s relationship with nature; less a ‘film’ in the traditional sense than a visual poem, a feast for the senses.
Like The Thin Red Line, Malick opens here on water, with a scene of serene Native Americans living in peace; the calm before the storm. Their attention is aroused by the sight of ships looming in the distance. One of these ships contains Capt. Smith (Colin Farrell), who is in chains and disgraced after making mutinous remarks. Farrell plays Smith as a brooding, sensitive man of few words - which makes him the perfect Malick hero.

The newcomers and ’the naturals’ - as Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) describes them - cohabit in harmony at first. The Indians are curious about their new visitors; they stalk about the English, touching their strange clothing and weapons, sniffing their unusual odour. Unlike his fellow settlers, Smith seems as interested in the natives as they are in him. His eyes fall upon a young girl who stands out from the crowd in terms of beauty and spirit. She is the daughter of the local chieftain. Her name is Pocahontas.

This may sound like the standard set-up to a traditional Hollywood historical romance, but Malick’s handling of this tale couldn’t be more unusual. Malick is a truly unique artist in American film. Many scenes in The New World unfold in silence, consisting of little more than the characters examining each other, or sitting in quiet contemplation. Malick will often spend minutes letting his camera drift across fields of grass, or come to rest on a flowing river. Despite the presence of many known actors (some in little more than brief, wordless appearances) the writer/director makes the natural world the true star of his film, with the characters’ fate appearing of secondary importance.

Malick and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki create some magical images here and, remarkably, do so shooting almost completely in natural light. The staggeringly beautiful visuals are complemented by James Horner’s inspired score, a blend of classical pieces with natural sounds and tribal music. This truly is a celebration of nature, and a lament for what mankind has lost. One of the overriding themes of Malick’s work has always been man’s relationship with the world around us and our systematic destruction of the Eden we were presented with. After Smith and Pocahontas’ relationship is torn asunder by the war between their tribes, Malick’s elliptical editing juxtaposes Smith’s torment with earlier scenes of his contentment in the Indian world, a world of innocence and purity which has been lost forever.

The New World could have easily been little more than a gorgeous shell, a series of beautiful images which tell us nothing, but Malick’s intelligence and seriousness ensures that the film has substance as well as style. One of the most extraordinary things about The New World is its incredible sense of period. Malick is not satisfied with his film depicting the year 1607, he transports us back to that time, making The New World seem like lost footage somehow recorded in a time before film even existed. Through the exquisite period detail, wholly convincing performances, and Malick’s abiding fascination with rituals and culture, we are fully immersed in the time the film occurs in. As Smith makes the first tentative steps towards communicating with Pocahontas, we watch spellbound, truly convinced that we are watching the first meeting between two vastly different races.

Malick doesn’t lose sight of the central love story which anchors his film. The early scenes between Smith and Pocahontas are tender and moving. He teaches her the English words for the things around her, she draws him into the Indian world. As their love grows it feels organic and true. After Smith departs, Pocahontas marries another Englishman, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), and is taken home to England where her exotic manner delights royal society. Malick shoots 17th century England as if it was a world as far removed from our own as Pocahontas’ native land. Her and her Indian companions gaze upon the carefully sculpted trees and beautifully manicured lawns; she has come to a land where nature has been tamed and imprisoned.

The role of Pocahontas would be a demanding one for any actress and Malick has unearthed a star in 15 year-old Q'Orianka Kilcher. This young actress has an astounding emotional range and moves between inquisitiveness and awe, joy and despair, with graceful ease. As Smith, Farrell gives one of his most impressive displays yet, mining real emotional value out of his love that cannot be. There are wonderful supporting turns from Christopher Plummer and David Thewlis, and Christian Bale’s appearance in the final third helps to give the film a touching climax.

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. Already its haunting images are swimming in my mind and enticing me to view it again. It will undeniably prove a test for many viewers who are unused to adjusting their taste to such an idiosyncratic piece of work; but anyone viewing The New World with patience and an open mind will surely recognise it as a masterpiece.

Review - Munich

After three decades at the top of the filmmaking world, Steven Spielberg has taken on the most potentially troublesome material of his career. Munich is concerned not with the tragic events at the 1972 Olympics when 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by the Palestinian ‘Black September’ terrorists, but instead examines the aftermath of that incident; when a group of Israeli assassins were ordered to hunt down and kill men who were suspected of being behind the terrorist attack.

Munich is a film fraught with problems. It has been adapted by the oddball screenwriting duo of Eric Roth and Tony Kushner from George Jonas’s book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team - the veracity of which has often been questioned - and the resulting script has difficulty maintaining a consistent tone while delivering a morally and ethically ambiguous take on the Israel/Palestine conflict.

The main focus of Spielberg’s film lies with Avner, an honest, patriotic Israeli operative with a heavily pregnant wife who is asked to head up the assassination squad carrying out this mission. He has four men to use, each of which has different specialities. Avner is played by Eric Bana in his first really impressive performance since his electrifying debut in 2000’s Chopper. The rest of the squad comprises of Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a toy maker turned bomb maker; Carl (Ciarán Hinds), the group’s cleanup man, and the squad is rounded of with Steve (Daniel Craig) and Hans (Hanns Zischler), whose roles are never as fully developed. “It is strange to think of oneself as an assassin” says Carl during their first meeting, “think of yourself as something else then” replies Avner; but for these men, distancing themselves from the acts they commit proves easier said than done.

The first hour of Munich is promising. Spielberg opens with a dramatic and convincing reconstruction of the terrorist assault at the Munich games. The director’s approach here is jumpy and tense, using handheld cameras to give his film the sweaty, paranoid feel of a 70’s-style conspiracy thriller. The film’s tight and nervy air continues as Avner receives his orders from the shady Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) and the group make their first hit; a superb set-piece in which Spielberg brilliantly expresses their inexperience, nervous energy and excitement. Unfortunately it’s not long after this before Spielberg’s grip on the film starts to slacken, and the less sure-footed sections in between the stylish set-pieces gradually becomes longer.

The problem with Munich is that Spielberg has never has been a natural political filmmaker. His gifts have always been his pure ability to tell a story, and his virtuosity with major spectacles, but in trying to deal with one of today’s most pertinent and sensitive issues he is playing to his weaknesses rather than his strengths, and it comes close to wrecking the film. Technically, Munich is a spectacularly well made film; Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is typically superb (despite Spielberg’s usual insistence on over-bright backlighting), the film’s evocative production design is exceptional, and the director himself handles matters with his customary slickness and professionalism.

However, this is supposed to be a film about ideas, about debate, and it’s here that Munich struggles. The film’s message seems to be that ‘violence begets violence’ and Spielberg argues that the policy of ‘an eye for an eye’ has left us all blind. This is a noble and important message for sure, but it’s not one we haven’t heard before and Spielberg doesn’t really bring anything new to the table with Munich. A number of contrived situations are enabled in which the words uttered by the characters sounds less like convincing dialogue and more like screenwriter’s points being forced into their mouths. In one scene Avner (pretending to be part of the ETA terrorist movement) has a discussion with a young member of the P.L.O.; and the group themselves have many discussions about the righteousness or otherwise of their actions. Few of these scenes ring true however, and the film gets bogged down for too long in unedifying ideological discource.

Spielberg may have had intentions to provide a balanced, even-handed film with Munich (although the script’s omission of the mistakenly murdered Norwegian waiter is a startling oversight which, combined with the sympathetic portrayal of the Israeli hit squad, seems to lean heavily towards a pro-Israel viewpoint); but his distanced approach lends the film an emotional coldness which sadly precludes audience involvement. I never really felt attached to the main characters in any way, despite the best efforts of the uniformly excellent cast, and for this reason the film struggled to maintain my attention as it ran through it’s needlessly self-important length. Normally one can expect a Spielberg film to play on the emotions before challenging than the intellect but, in trying to tackle this material which his is clearly unsuited to, the director seems to have sacrificed the usual economy of storytelling which has become his trademark.

Munich seems to bleed momentum from the opening hour onwards and Spielberg’s direction becomes progressively looser as the film hops from country to country and the kills stack up. The director can still orchestrate a set-piece as well as anyone, and there are some stunners here; an explosion which tears through a hotel and the moment a child nearly gets caught up in an attempted hit are vintage Spielberg moments, and the frequent murders are realistically, and bloodily, staged. However, only one of the many kills in the film really hit me with the intended impact, the murder of a female Dutch assassin which is one of the most shocking things Spielberg has ever done. She is not part of the plan and is murdered for revenge alone, and Spielberg gives the scene a horribly sexual aspect as she is killed while naked with incredibly phallic weapons. The scene is about revenge, sex and death, and it displays Spielberg doing what he does best - hitting our base emotions, not making political points.

Munich feels remarkably relevant, opening in the UK in the same week that the Hamas government was victorious in the Palestinian elections, but Spielberg muddles his messages and the film becomes an overlong disappointment. This is undoubtedly Spielberg’s toughest, most ambitious and interesting work since Schindler’s list, and there are frequent moments here when one can glimpse a great filmmaker at the top of his game; but it must unfortunately be marked as a failure. A noble failure perhaps, but a failure nonetheless.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Review - Shopgirl

20th Century Fox and Touchstone Pictures present Shopgirl, Steve Martin's adaptation of the novella by Steve Martin, produced by Steve Martin and starring - you've guessed it - Steve Martin. Despite the fact that Shopgirl is directed by Anand Tucker (making his first film since 1998's Hilary and Jackie), Martin's fingerprints remain visible on almost every aspect of it; so it's only fair that he should take the brunt of the blame for inflicting this nauseating comedy/drama/romance/whatever upon the unsuspecting viewer.

I wanted to like Shopgirl, I really did. I desperately wanted this to be Steve Martin's comeback, the film that would save this immensely gifted comedian from debasing himself in the likes of Cheaper by the Dozen and Bringing Down the House. Unfortunately the film's insistence on making bad decisions at every turn, its determination to strain for an epic grandeur it can never hope to achieve and - worst of all - the crime of wasting a stellar performance by Claire Danes, soon tested my patience to the limit.

The luminous Danes stars as Mirabelle, a struggling young artist who scrapes a living by working on the glove counter at Saks department store in Los Angeles. Actually, she doesn't seem to do a great deal of work and instead spends much of her time leaning on her counter watching the world go by. She's frustrated, bored and lonely. Mirabelle is so lonely that she accepts a date with Jeremy; a nervy, scruffy and broke young stencil artist who seems to have the mental age of a twelve year-old. Jeremy is played by Jason Schwartzman who recycles his irritating geeky shtick for the umpteenth time. Their date is hardly a success, but fate soon deals Mirabelle an alternative hand.

Fifty-something millionaire Ray Porter (Martin) enters the store and buys a pair of gloves from Mirabelle after asking her which pair she prefers. Mirabelle returns home that night to be surprised by a gift waiting at her apartment - the gloves! And they are accompanied by a note saying "I would like to have dinner with you”. When Ray next turns up at the store, Mirabelle surprisingly fails to ask him "how the hell did you get my home address you psycho?” and instead accepts his offer of a date. Now the hitherto lonely Mirabelle has suddenly found herself with two remarkably different suitors to choose from.

And….that's about it. Mirabelle begins a relationship with Ray while she frets about whether or not he really loves her, and an unlikely plot contrivance sees Jeremy hit the road with a rock band where he grows up a little. There's a distinct lack of incident in Martin's screenplay and while Brokeback Mountain recently provided an exemplary example of adapting a short story for the big screen, Shopgirl's painfully thin narrative fails to sustain the film's 104 minute running time. In a bid to fill time, director Tucker resorts to repetitive shots of the characters looking winsome and soulful which only serves to lend the film a sense of ennui rather than any sort of depth.

Tucker also has an annoying habit of trying to draw parallels between the disparate characters, like the cuts between Jeremy and Ray both watching the same football game on TV (Ray eating sushi, Jeremy eating McDonalds), or the camera panning from the skyline view Ray enjoys in his private jet to the view from Danes' bathroom window. This fussy formalism squeezes the life out of the film and Tucker only makes things worse by embellishing his sweeping camera moves with Barrington Pheloung's intrusive musical score, which seems to have been lifted from a different, more epic movie.

Shopgirl never lets us get close to the central characters, it never lets us learn who they are or why they behave the way they do. What does Ray see in Mirabelle? We never truly know, and Martin's surprisingly stiff and awkward display never looks like telling us. Martin has burdened the film with a voiceover through which an all-seeing narrator tries to explain the character's innermost thoughts - but whose bright idea was it to let Martin provide this service too? When this supposedly independent and omniscient storyteller is played by the same person as one of the characters it completely confuses the issue and seems to weight our sympathies with Ray when Mirabelle should be the real centre of the story.

Thankfully, Claire Danes is never in danger of letting herself be sidelined and her performance is the one aspect of Shopgirl which genuinely works. Danes has never been better than she is here and she grabs a rare opportunity to carry a picture with both hands, delivering a hugely sympathetic and believable display. She looks beautiful in a series of stylish dresses and her aching vulnerability briefly gives the film some heart, but the film never manages to complement Danes' effort with any genuine feeling of its own.

Shopgirl is not a very funny film, and not particularly romantic either, but what really destroys it is how unpleasant the whole film feels. With a 35 year age difference between the pair Martin's central relationship is already on unstable ground, and Ray's predatory behaviour often appears uncomfortably lecherous. When Ray pays off Mirabelle's student loan without her knowledge or consent she doesn't register any sense of surprise or caution, but instead reacts as if this is simply the most romantic gesture she could imagine. When Ray later breaks her heart she sulks at home until he calls, and then she hops right on a plane to be with him. Whose fantasy world is this film occurring in?

By the time Danes found herself laying naked on a bed while Martin caressed her body (an indescribably excruciating scene), I realised the truth of Shopgirl. This is nothing more than Steve Martin's middle-aged fantasy being played out on screen; and it ain't pretty.

Shopgirl is a utterly terrible film; a hollow, distant and faintly sleazy production which never engages our emotions and fails to live up to its leading actress. I spent the whole film wishing I could pull Danes out of this mess and place her in a film which really deserves her, but she's stuck there between Martin's wooden smugness and Schwartzman's tiresome clowning. By the time Mirabelle finally chose her man I couldn't help feeling that she would be better off without either of them.

Shopgirl is not the return to form for Martin which I hoped it would be, in fact it only offers more evidence of how far this once vital comedian's star has slipped. Martin seems to be running on empty these days - bereft of ideas, bereft of heart - and the saddest sight of all in this film is the onetime Wild and Crazy Guy appearing as lifeless and emotionless as a shop mannequin.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Review - Jarhead

War may be hell but, for the young marines in Jarhead, it seems that not going to war is even worse. Anthony Swofford, who served as a marine sniper in the first Gulf War, wrote about his experiences in his best-selling memoir Jarhead, which differed from other war memoirs by focusing on the boredom, frustration and fear of marine life rather than traditional acts of bravery. Swofford came back from the war without firing his rifle once and his book details the psychological implications of training a group of testosterone-filled young men into tightly wound killing machines, and then depriving them of an enemy to kill.

All of this made for an interesting and enlightening read, but with its subjective tone and complete lack of action or heroism it didn’t seem like ideal Hollywood material. Nevertheless, Sam Mendes has decided that he is the man for this particular challenge and Jarhead could be seen to form a kind of loose trilogy with his previous films American Beauty and Road to Perdition; each being films in which this British director attempts to subvert traditional American subjects and values. For Jarhead Mendes has surrounded himself with exceptional collaborators (Roger Deakins, and Walter Murch) and has enlisted a fine group of young actors headlined by Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard and Jamie Foxx; but the presence of all this talent on board only serves to make the final film an even greater disappointment.
Jarhead is a war movie which finds itself in the unusual position of containing no war. Instead Mendes and his screenwriter William Broyles Jr are faced with the problem of building their film around a series of non-events and anticlimaxes, and it’s an obstacle they never satisfactorily overcome. However, what ultimately scuppers Jarhead is not the lack of a war, but the lack of a point.

“Fuck politics. We're here. All the rest is bullshit” says Swofford’s buddy Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) when another member of his unit begins questioning the rights and wrongs of the US involvement, and it’s a statement which Mendes seems to have taken to heart. Jarhead never attempts to broach the wider issue of the war, a war from which the consequences are still being felt today, and the lack of any political shading or larger meaning to this film is perplexing. Once Mendes ducks that particular issue it’s hard to ascertain what, if anything, Jarhead has to say. Instead of delivering an anti or even pro-war stance, it seems that Mendes wants to give us an straightforward documentary-style look at the life of a marine; but the subject matter isn’t really interesting enough to sustain it.

Broyles’ adaptation is unambitious and simplistic. He does stick closely to many of the events depicted in the book, lifting a number of incidents and pieces of dialogue verbatim, but he fails to develop any sort of connecting narrative thread. Broyles also excises the flashback structure of the book which gave Swofford a distanced vantage point at which to view his experiences, and this alteration is another case of the film eliminating any sense of resonance. We are left with a series of almost self-contained sequences which don’t really develop our understanding of this war or the people fighting it.

One scene perfectly reflects that point; in which Swofford and his fellow grunts are ordered to play football for the TV reporters while fully clad in protective garb. The game quickly degenerates into a farce with the marines all stripping and clambering onto each other and providing embarrassing portrait for the cameras. However, in the book Swofford made it clear that this incident was their way sticking it to the authorities and unleashing all their pent-up aggression: “We aren’t field-fucking Kuehn: we’re fucking the press-pool colonel, and the sorry, worthless MOPP suits…..and President Bush and Dick Cheney and the generals, and Saddam Hussein…” he states as part of a magnificent rant. But the film gives us none of that, and instead plays the scene as a comic aside with a lot of strangely homoerotic grappling replacing all the pointed anger Swofford exhibited.

Mendes seems to lack any taste for the real messiness and insanity of war and, surprisingly for a director with his theatrical background, his depiction of the interaction between the central figures is weak. In fact the underdeveloped characters appear as little more than figures whose only purpose is to be placed by Mendes in one of his endless artful tableaux - which brings us to the one real triumph of Jarhead. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is simply extraordinary; with his bleached-out view of the daytime scenes brilliantly depicting the searing heat of the desert, and the night scenes providing some spectacular, almost surreal, shots of the burning oil fields and endless dunes. Deakins’ stunning work makes sure Jarhead is always a feast for the eyes, if not the mind.

Jarhead does make a little progress in the final half hour when the troops begin the long march into Iraq and Swofford and Troy finally get close to seeing some action. The single best scene in the film, in which Swofford is moments away from his first kill, occurs in the final third and the sight of the troops marching through the rain, half-blinded by the crude oil falling from the sky has a vivid quality. Unfortunately this section of the film is also where Mendes tries moralise about the effects of war and the sight of charred bodies and a dying horse covered in oil seem to be reaching for a sense of pathos the film hasn’t earned.

The cast are fine, although they’re given little to work with. Sarsgaard is the standout performer here with his nicely controlled performance building to one of the film’s most memorable moments after their first chance of a kill is foiled. Jamie Foxx offers solid and amusing support and Lucas Black is the pick of the actors in Swofford’s unit. Chris Cooper and Dennis Haysbert are among the familiar faces who are underused in little more than cameo roles, but Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Swofford himself isn’t entirely successful. Gyllenhaal is rather distant and emotionless in the lead role and his non-performance leaves something of a vacuum at the centre of the film. As we have seen before, Gyllenhaal is more than capable of bringing great empathy to his roles, but his attempt to depict Swofford’s desensitisation results in an oddly awkward and surprisingly unlikeable performance.

Jarhead is quite good on the details and peculiarities of Swofford’s memoir and it successfully conveys aspects such as the endless worrying over the faithfulness of wives and girlfriends, the fights borne of frustration, the frequent masturbation; but this isn’t enough to make a film. Mendes is a director who is more concerned with the aesthetics of his work than the humanity of it and I think it is becoming increasingly clear that the success of American Beauty (overrated, but still Mendes’ best) had more to do with the strength of Alan Ball’s screenplay than the direction.

Ultimately Jarhead’s attempt to portray the tedium and frustration of marine life only succeeds in producing a tedious and frustrating film. It makes several references to other superior war movies - such as Full Metal Jacket, Platoon and Apocalypse Now - but it only highlights the fact that Jarhead isn’t giving us anything we haven’t seen before, and it pales in comparison with David O Russell’s messy but admirable Gulf War movie Three Kings. Russell’s film was made from the gut and genuinely attempted to engage with some of the contentious issues surrounding the war, while Mendes’ more coldly cerebral approach sees Jarhead marching in circles - no clear direction, no end in sight.

Welcome to the suck indeed.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Review - Match Point

Sometimes a change can be as good as a rest. I’ve thought for some time that the poor quality of Woody Allen’s recent films is down to the ridiculous rate at which he churns them out, but perhaps the director simply needed a change of scenery to revitalise his spirits. For his latest film Match Point, Allen has left his native New York for England and has taken the opportunity to switch his focus from a bunch of neurotic, self-obsessed , upper class New Yorkers to…..a bunch of neurotic, self-obsessed , upper class Londoners.

Oh well, I suppose some things never change.

In fairness, Match Point does contain a number of aspects which mark it as a departure for Allen. Aside from the setting, the film is also a change of pace in terms of style and tone, a dark drama rather than one of his increasingly vapid comedies; and the presence of Scarlett Johansson seems to have inspired Allen to inject a shot of eroticism into his film which has scarcely, if ever, been present in his work. Unfortunately these surface changes don’t completely hide the fact that Match Point is still full of the deficiencies which have plagued Allen’s films in recent years.

Ostensibly set in London, Match Point actually occurs in the kind of Richard Curtis fantasy world which all-too-often represents the city on the big screen. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays Chris Wilton, an ex-tennis pro who is now teaching the sport at an exclusive London club. One of his students is Tom (Matthew Goode) with whom he immediately strikes up a friendship. Chris is invited to the opera with the rest of Tom’s extraordinarily rich family, and it doesn’t take long for him to begin dating Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). The family are rather taken with Chloe’s new man and Chris finds himself living the good life and being lined up for a high-powered job in the company owned by Chloe’s father Alec (Brian Cox). It seems that Chris’ life couldn’t be more perfect - until he spots Nola (Scarlett Johansson).

Nola is a struggling American actress who also happens to be Tom’s fiancée. She’s every bit as flirtatious and sexy as Chloe is uptight and reserved; and Chris is immediately smitten. The pair begin a brief but passionate affair which they end to save the feelings of their respective partners, but Chris cannot get Nola out of his mind. After some time has passed Chris and Nola once again rekindle their relationship and Chris starts to play with fire as he attempts to come up with endless excuses and lies to cover his tracks. Soon he’s out of his depth and when Nola starts putting pressure on Chris to leave his wife he has to take drastic measures to save his marriage and maintain the standard of living he has become accustomed to.

There’s more than a whiff of Crimes and Misdemeanours about this synopsis, but that’s where the similarities between Match Point and Woody’s masterpiece must end. The half-baked narrative here is underdeveloped and unfolds in schematic and predictable fashion, with every scene acting as little more than a way to negotiate from plot point A to plot point B. Allen’s screenplay is also ridiculously superficial; with Chris taking no time at all to seduce both Chloe and Nola and rise to the top of Alec’s company (doing what exactly?), the rest of the film requires plenty of unnecessary filler to carry us through to the climax. Allen passes the time by piling layers of heavy-handed philosophy on top of the action as he attempts to reinforce the central theme of how blind luck can shape a man’s life.

Another problem with Allen’s screenplay is the fact that, as Jack Lemmon said in Some Like it Hot - “nobody talks like that”. Woody’s inability to create, and write dialogue for, characters fifty years younger than him is cruelly exposed here and the frequent ruminations on Dostoyevsky and Sophocles make these so-called Londoners as believable as if they’d just beamed down from another planet.

The actors who have to breath some life into Allen’s cardboard creations manage with varying degrees of success. Pick of the bunch is Johansson who delivers a seductive and emotional performance as Nola. She brings real fire to the part and manages to convey the pain of being ‘the other woman’. Unfortunately, her efforts aren’t complemented by Jonathan Rhys Meyer’s portrayal of Chris. Meyers is too passive to hold the interest in the central role and for much of the film his weirdly-plastic looking features fail to register the merest hint of emotion. When the plot finally kicks up a gear in the final third Meyers does raise his game, but it’s too late for that. He’s such an aloof and emotionless blank for so much of the movie that it’s impossible to believe he has the any of the rage or passion required to perform the acts which he does later on - it’s almost like watching a completely different character. The other actors are fine, with Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton on particularly good form, but few of them aside from Johansson manage to gain our interest or sympathy.

Match Point, despite its flaws, remains watchable enough. Allen does occasionally deliver a scene of note - such as the passionate and charged embrace in the rain - and his handling of the developing tension in the climactic half-hour is sound. The film is also one of the more visually interesting Allen offerings for some time with Remi Adafarasin’s gleaming cinematography worthy of praise. It’s a pity Allen doesn’t give Adefarasin some more imaginative locations to shoot in though; restricting the action to the same tourist board vision of London that we’ve seen so many times (at least 50% of shots must have the Houses of Parliament squeezed into the background).

So Allen’s first trip to London ends in disappointment. Match Point is a collection of ideas and themes which the director has explored many times before and the result is a tired and unsatisfying rehash of Crimes and Misdemeanours which never threatens to become anything more than that. Many critics are praising this as that long-awaited ‘return to form’, but while he has thankfully pulled himself out of the quagmire of dreadful comedies he found himself in a few years ago his films still appear half-developed and aimless. Woody keeps ‘em coming - his next London-based film, Scoop, has been made already - but the level of anticipation drops a little more with every release. The truth of the matter seems to become more obvious with every film - one of the foremost filmmakers of our time simply has nothing more to say.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Review - Brokeback Mountain

Prior to its release, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain has been hailed by some as a landmark film and has been derided by others as “that gay cowboy movie”. In truth, neither description is fair. The lovers at the centre of this story may both be young men but under Lee’s guiding hand the film transcends the confines of gender and sexuality to deliver a film of universal resonance. It’s a tale of two young people who fall in deeply in love but, due to the pressures and prejudices of the society around them, are forced to hide their passion for years and live a double life which has tragic consequences.

It could be the outline to so many Hollywood love stories and, despite all the talk and debate which has surrounded it, Brokeback Mountain is just that - a great love story. 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.

Brokeback Mountain opens in Wyoming in 1963. Two young men, barely twenty years old, are hanging around outside the office of a local foreman who may have some work for them. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is an upright, silent, ruggedly handsome character who barely moves a muscle. Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) is slightly more animated, a little restless, and one imagines that he would be only too happy to strike up a conversation with this stranger. Not a word is said, however; with only a few suspicious, guarded glances being exchanged beneath Ennis’ broad-rimmed hat.

The foreman (an almost unrecognisable Randy Quaid) does indeed have work for the boys. Their task is to spend a couple of months up on Brokeback Mountain and ensure the grazing sheep are safe from predators. One of them must establish a camp at one position on the mountain while the other must pitch a small tent down with the sheep at night, and return to camp only for meals. As the bitterly cold nights take their toll the two of them begin spending more time together at the camp. Their initial reticence slips into an easy friendship and, one night, the pair’s growing lust takes over and they have rough, fumbling sex inside the tent.

Ennis and Jack’s first morning after is an uncomfortable affair at first. “You know I ain’t queer” Ennis insists, “me either” Jack replies; but their feelings for each other only deepen and the pair will spend the next twenty years attempting to live a ‘normal’ life while dealing with the complex emotions that have been formed on Brokeback Mountain.

Most literary adaptations have the task of choosing what to leave out of the source material without diluting its essence, but faced with Proulx’s short story Brokeback Mountain’s screenwriters Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana have been forced to add to the original in order to deliver a fully-rounded feature film. Proulx’s tale is hardly the most promising material for a motion picture; with the spare prose and lack of dialogue among a number of potential stumbling blocks, but the finished screenplay is a marvel. It fills in the gaps which Proulx left in her story - such as cause of Jack’s black eye or his trip to Mexico, which are only alluded to - and beefs up Jack’s personal life and relationships in order to add a sense of balance to a tale which was initially heavily weighted towards Ennis’ point of view. Fortunately these additions are seamlessly blended into a narrative which flows beautifully and effortlessly builds to its moving climax.

Handling this screenplay with consummate skill is the mercurial Ang Lee, whose work here couldn’t be more different from the cluttered and disappointing Hulk. Lee’s control of tempo and mood is complete and with the aid of Dylan Tichenor’s subtly effective editing he imposes a leisurely pace on the film which allows the viewer to become completely enveloped in the central romance. Brokeback Mountain essentially has three narrative strands running concurrently; Ennis and Jack’s relationship together, and both character’s heterosexual lives apart from each other, and he gracefully moves between them, ticking off the years through subtle changes in hairstyles, settings and character.

As ever with Ang Lee’s films, The cinematography (here provided by Rodrigo Prieto) is gorgeous, and successfully captures the vastness of the surrounding mountains which seem to represent the insurmountable gap between the lives Ennis and Jack want to lead and the lives they must live. The strumming guitars on the soundtrack are another atmospheric contribution, providing a plaintive and haunting soundtrack to this tale of forbidden love.

But what really gives Brokeback Mountain its emotional force is the cast. As the taciturn Ennis, Heath Ledger is simply a revelation. Permanently hunched and tight-lipped, he internalises every one of Ennis’s emotions before unleashing them with devastating effect at specific points in the film. Ledger’s extraordinary portrayal expresses his character’s confusion at these inexplicable emotions he can’t control; he almost shrinks into himself and is continually hiding his eyes behind the rim of his Stetson, as if to avoid any semblance of human contact.

Gyllenhaal’s role is more overtly expressive - Jack is far more comfortable with his feelings than Ennis and dreams about a life they could live together - and the actor plays it brilliantly. His optimistic view of what their relationship could be, despite the reality of the situation, is heartbreaking and his frustration as his dreams are constantly dashed is tangible. Neither actor has ever been as good as they are here, and the chemistry they establish together is the motor which really takes this film to another level.

The supporting cast also serve to give Brokeback Mountain an extra dimension. Michelle Williams plays Alma, Ennis’ long suffering wife, whose face is frozen in expressionless dismay when she discovers the truth about her husband, and remains so until she finally confronts him years later. Williams’ sensitive and open performance contrasts beautifully with Ledger’s buttoned-down turn. Anne Hathaway is given less to do as Jack’s wife but she does it well nonetheless, and a sneering Randy Quaid manages to make an impression with his brief cameo.

I’m trying to think of flaws but few spring to mind. Perhaps the film could do with losing a few minutes here or there, but a complaint such as that is churlish in the extreme. Brokeback Mountain is a triumph of sensitivity, honesty and artistry which will haunt viewers’ thoughts for days afterwards. It is a triumph for Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal whose understated and nuanced displays are easily the best of their careers; and it is triumph for Ang Lee. From the most potentially hazardous material of his career the director has crafted a heart-wrenching masterpiece which is as epic, impressive and unforgettable as the mountain itself. This is so much more than ‘the gay cowboy movie’; it is one of contemporary cinema’s greatest love stories - simple as that.