Monday, February 27, 2006

Review - Capote

In a small Kansas town in November 1959, four members of the Clutter family were brutally murdered by Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. Six years later, Truman Capote published In Cold Blood, his acclaimed non-fiction account of the incident which made him the most famous writer in America. It is those six years which form the basis for Capote, a fascinating new film which revolves around Philip Seymour Hoffman’s remarkable embodiment of the writer. The film explores Capote’s complex relationship with Perry Smith and examines the human cost of producing a literary masterpiece, which would prove to be the last book he would ever complete.

Like all the best biopics, Capote gives us a portrait of a man by focusing on a specific period in his life. The early scenes of Truman and his close friend Nelle Harper Lee (a note-perfect Catherine Keener) embarking on their trip to Kansas are lightly comical at first. In the dry, conservative atmosphere of Holcomb, this flamboyant dandy could have beamed down from another planet. The deadpan look local detective Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper) gives him when he first appears in his office is a treat. But as Truman and Nelle begin their investigations in a town rocked by the deaths, Dan Futterman’s brilliantly economical screenplay grows deeper and more complex with every scene.

We see how Truman effortlessly ingratiates his way into the affections and trust of anyone who could provide him with information. He flatters and charms them; in one case he audaciously offers a local prison warden a bribe, with the disclaimer that he doesn’t want to burden the town with the cost of his visits, and that the money is “to be dispensed as he sees fit”. Futterman and director Bennett Miller build everything around Capote and allow other characters to act as the conscience and voice of reason in the film. Lee was Truman’s childhood friend and she sees him for who he really is. Her ability to cut through all of Truman’s nonsense with one direct comment is exhibited on a number of occasions in the film; notably an early scene when Truman receives a compliment from a porter and she says bluntly “you paid him to say that”. When Alvin Dewey is told that the title of Capote’s book is In Cold Blood, he asks whether it refers to the murders themselves, or the fact that he is still pursuing the story for his own gains.

Capote really kicks off when Truman makes contact with Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.). He doesn’t seem too concerned with the fate of the other killer, Richard Hickock; in fact he barely acknowledges him when passing their adjoining cells. But he is inexplicably drawn to Smith, and begins to develop a deep bond - perhaps a love? - with him. Capote is fascinated by the articulate, sensitive and artistic Smith; he slowly draws out his story of abused childhood and wayward life, and their connection grows even stronger - “It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house” he remarks “and one day he got up and went out the back door and I went out the front”.

But Capote needs the story of that bloody night before he can finish his book, and he helps to find an appeal lawyer for Smith and Hickock in order to gain more time with them. Smith thinks he has found a friend, a saviour. Capote thinks he’s on the way to writing a book which will change writing forever.

The film is directed by Bennett Miller in unfussy, tidy style; but it shows a sense of insight and depth which is remarkable for a first feature. His camera makes great use of the wintry and haunting Kansas landscape, and he underplays every emotion as Capote’s mask slowly slips in the film’s increasingly powerful second half. Credit is also due to Mychael Danna’s pensive and understated score for adding to the film’s potent atmosphere. Miller is unhurried and subtle as he builds to a full account of the murders - in which the briefest flashes of violence chill to the bone.

Capote is well served by its cast, with not a dud performance in sight. Keener is as good as ever as Harper Lee, expressing her care for her good friend while also signalling her growing distaste for his actions. Keener’s sardonic delivery is perfectly suited to the role of a woman who never fails to tell Capote the truth of the matter, whether he wants to hear it or not. One man who has missed out in the Oscar rush is Clifton Collins Jr. whose magnetic display as Smith makes his frequent conversations with Capote gripping and moving. “I thought that Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman. I thought so right up to the moment that I cut his throat” Smith says, and Collins captures the agony of this naïve and heartfelt young man who is paying the ultimate price for his moment of madness. There is solid support from Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood and Bob Balaban - but let’s be honest, Capote is really all about one man.

This is, after all, the Truman show, and it takes an actor of some skill to take on a role such as this. The part of Truman Capote must seem both an irresistible and terrifying prospect for an actor. All those mannerisms, that voice, the opportunity to play such a flamboyant, complex role; but on the other hand, what could possibly be worse than a bad Truman Capote impersonation? It’s a real challenge for any actor and Philip Seymour Hoffman surpasses all expectations in the role. He perfectly replicates Capote’s uniquely quivering falsetto voice, his fey gestures and effects; but Hoffman goes much deeper and seems to fully inhabit Capote. It’s a staggering transformation which expresses all of Capote’s famed charm, intelligence and wit; but it also depicts his deceitfulness, narcissism, spitefulness and vulnerability. Hoffman takes a character which could so easily have lapsed into caricature and makes him live and breath.

Capote did eventually get the whole story from Smith; but then he desperately needed the pair to die so he could finish his book, and the years of appeals which postponed the execution began to tear away at his soul, hastening his slide into alcoholism. The final scenes in the film are devastatingly powerful. As Capote watches Smith hang from the gallows his relief is overshadowed by a gnawing sense of despair and guilt. He got his masterpiece, the last book he would ever complete, but at what cost? He left Kansas a broken man, and Capote is a spellbinding portrait of a writer who betrayed his subject, and in doing so betrayed himself.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Review - Good Night, and Good Luck

"We must remember always, that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another, we will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason. If we dig deep into our history and our doctrine, we will remember we are not descendant from fearful men. Not from men who dared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular".

The above comes from a speech by Edward R. Murrow, the popular and revered anchor of CBS news show See It Now. This programme was broadcast in the 1950‘s, but at first glance one could be forgiven for thinking these words were uttered yesterday, such is their relevance to the current political climate in the United States. George Clooney clearly hopes that Good Night, and Good Luck will strike a chord in modern America. His second film as a director is a nostalgic look at a time when a small group of men stood up against the actions of their own government, and it also acts as a call for more responsible and challenging reportage from the current news media.

Good Night, and Good Luck focuses on the actions of Murrow (played brilliantly by David Strathairn) and his producer Fred Friendly (Clooney) who, along with a number of co-workers, devoted an episode of See it Now to questioning the actions of senator Joseph McCarthy. In the early 1950’s, McCarthy’s communist ‘witch hunts’ were causing fear and suspicion to sweep across the United States; with people being accused of having communist ties without any hard evidence, and nobody daring to criticise McCarthy’s methods for fear of being incriminated themselves.

In 1953 See it Now broadcast a piece on a navy pilot named Milo Radulovich, who had been discharged without trial after being labelled a security risk. There was pressure from the military to drop the segment but CBS aired it anyway; and after McCarthy responded with his usual tactic - accusations of communist links against Murrow - the anchor and his producer decided to go after the senator himself. On March 9th 1954, See it Now broadcast a programme in which they revealed McCarthy to be a liar and bully who habitually used underhand tactics, and they did this entirely by using footage of McCarthy. They let him hang himself with his own words.

Both of Clooney’s features as a director have underlined his fascination with television and its relationship to America’s political agenda, but Good Night, and Good Luck couldn’t be more different in style to his debut. Where Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was bright, amusing and full of directorial tricks; his second film is a far more modest and austere affair. Shooting in stark black and white, Clooney delivers a convincing recreation of the CBS newsroom and surrounding offices where almost all of the action takes place. His approach here is understated and almost stiflingly dry. The film is made up of simple compositions and long, slow takes; so much so that when Clooney does throw in an extra flourish - such as his habit of letting the sound of one scene run over another, or the intermittent appearances of an unnamed Jazz singer (Dianne Reeves) - it feels out of place and has the effect of breaking the developing mood.

For the most part, Clooney’s film is fastidiously focused on a specific place and time; which is in many ways its biggest flaw. Despite the commendable verisimilitude of his film, the decision to set his film almost entirely within the offices of CBS gives it a claustrophobic feel. That’s not particularly a bad thing in itself, but the underpowered script (by Clooney and producer Grant Heslov) doesn’t give us the full context of the times the film is depicting. We never really get a sense of the fear and paranoia which the McCarthy trials had instilled in America at that point in time. There’s a subplot involving the characters played by Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson hiding their relationship at work, which is presumably meant to act as a metaphor for the prevailing atmosphere, but it fails to convince.

Clooney also neglects to mention the fact that McCarthy, though undeniably wrongheaded and misguided in his methods, was actually correct in his basic assertion that there were a number of card-carrying Communists in America. Of course, this is not really the point his film is trying to make, nor was it the main reason Murrow and co. went after McCarthy; but it’s another example of Good Night, and Good Luck’s tendency to offer a highly simplistic view of history which leaves it lacking in substance. Even at ninety-odd minutes the film feels stretched and many of the scenes not directly associated with the Murrow broadcasts feel like filler material.

At its centre, Good Night, and Good Luck benefits from a spellbinding performance from David Strathairn as Ed Murrow himself. The long-underrated Strathairn gives a wonderfully subtle and controlled display as Murrow. He perfectly captures Murrow’s trademark poise and the measured cadences of his sentences; and he expresses the inner torment of a man who knows what he’s about to do may cost him dearly, but he’s determined to do it anyway. It’s fortunate for the film that Strathairn is so good because nobody else in the cast is given anything to work with.

Aside from the roles played by Strathairn and Clooney himself, there is a serious lack of depth afforded to the supporting characters. Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson, two actors capable of brilliance, are left standing awkwardly in the background with only a half-hearted subplot to occupy them. Jeff Daniels is similarly underemployed, and when he re-appeared late in the film I had to remind myself what exactly his role was, having completely forgotten where he first turned up. Ray Wise brings a note of pathos to his small part, but the only member of the supporting cast who really makes an impact is Frank Langella, who adds depth and a touch of Machiavellian ambiguity to his role as CBS chief William Paley.

In fact one of Clooney’s best casting decisions proves to be in his use of archival footage. The role of senator Joe McCarthy goes to Joe McCarthy himself, as the senator’s only appearance in Good Night, Good Luck is through footage of his See it Now recording or his senate hearings. It’s a smart move, like Murrow himself, Clooney lets the sweaty, ranting McCarthy hang himself with his own words.

On balance, I liked Good Night, and Good Luck despite its many flaws. It’s a noble and intelligent effort, and Clooney has again shown that he has considerable skills as a director. The film also contains a wonderful performance from David Strathairn at its core which is fully deserving of an Oscar nomination. However, I’m baffled by the overwhelming praise and numerous awards the film has collected thus far, as it is little more than a solid and workmanlike piece of filmmaking. Clooney has put together a classy, authentic production, but he lacks the insight and maturity to really take us into the complex era of McCarthyism; and to show that the Red Scare was much more than a black-and-white issue.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Review - Proof

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Hollywood, it’s the fact that maths and mental stability rarely go hand-in-hand. If you are a maths genius who somehow manages to avoid schizophrenia or autism, then there’s bound to be some other ailment on the horizon to ensure your life is not to be a happy one. In Proof, we have mathematical brilliance and mental woe which may or may not span two generations. Robert (Anthony Hopkins) certainly went a little loopy after a stunning career in which he redefined the laws of mathematics twice over. His daughter Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow) has inherited her father’s numerical skill, but has she also inherited some less welcome aspects of his personality?

Whether or not Catherine is mad is the question which drives Proof, a mawkish and unconvincing translation of David Auburn’s acclaimed play. With Paltrow reprising the role she played to great success on the London stage, and reuniting with John Madden, the man who directed her Oscar-winning performance in Shakespeare in Love; we might be entitled to expect more from Proof than this simplistic and mechanical tale. It’s not the fault of the leading lady, who is excellent throughout, but Proof fails to stir the viewer’s emotions or intellect and simply appears as a maddeningly vague slice of Hollywood cheese which never adds up to anything significant.

The opening scene, which is possibly the film’s best, sets the tone for the running “is she or isn’t she?” questions the script asks of Catherine’s mental state. We first meet her lying on the sofa late at night, half-watching television in a daze. She is startled by the sudden appearance of her father who asks why she is spending her 27th birthday alone. The discussion eventually moves on to her fears about the possibility of inheriting her father’s malaise but he reassures her with the notion that she can’t be mad, because she is sane enough to ask whether she is mad. Catherine responds by pointing out that he is mad, and yet he can discuss his sanity quite openly. “Ah, yes” he replies with a wry smile, “but I’m also dead”.

It turns out that Robert died at the age of 63 after five years in which his once brilliant mind slowly crumbled. Is this conversation evidence of Catherine’s own mental fragility, or simply a side-effect of her grief? It’s a neat twist to throw in to the film’s opening moments but nothing else in the script manages to match this smart touch. The screenplay, by Auburn himself and Rebecca Miller, is a rigid and unimaginative adaptation which never lets us forget that we’re watching something which began life on the stage.

There are two other main characters in Proof, who we are introduced to in clumsy fashion. Hal (the suddenly ubiquitous Jake Gyllenhaal), appears from upstairs where he has been working in his now deceased tutor’s study. That’s not all he’s been up to however, and Catherine explodes with rage when she discovers him trying to smuggle out one of the hundreds of notebooks her father filled out during his illness. Hal believes that there must be a trace of genius hidden somewhere under all the gibberish, and he begs to be allowed to continue searching, but Catherine doesn’t want to know. Gyllenhaal is never really believable in the role of a self-confessed geek who is also athletic (he goes jogging) and cool (he plays in a rock band); and their half-hearted romance adds little spark to the proceedings.

The final character we meet is Catherine’s sister Claire (Hope Davis). We already know that Catherine can’t stand her and in Claire’s first appearance we are bluntly shown why. Claire is flying in from New York (where she has forged a successful career and found herself a Fiancé) for the funeral; she wears business suits and is first seen with a mobile phone stuck to her ear. In Proof’s simpleminded view, the sheer nerve of Claire to make a life for herself, and to try and help her sister achieve some sort of normality in her own life, is enough to portray her as a bit of an uptight bitch. The talented Hope Davis is stuck in a thankless role with this one-dimensional character.

With such underpowered supporting turns (Hopkins, all noise and bluster, doesn’t give us much either), it’s left to Paltrow to carry the film and she does it with some skill. Madden pays her close attention, moving the camera in to record the emotions flashing across her face and Paltrow’s honest, subtle work reaches a depth of emotion lacking in the script. It’s arguably Paltrow’s best work to date, with her stint as Catherine on stage making her completely comfortable in the character’s skin, and it’s a ‘tortured genius’ performance which is mercifully free from clichés and mannerisms.

She certainly deserves to have her performance recorded in a better film than this. The big question in the film’s second half is whether the breakthrough proof Hal finds in a notebook was the work of Robert or was actually devised by Catherine, as she claims. The truth of the matter is carefully spoon-fed to the audience in a series of flashbacks, all of which are completely lacking in tact or grace. The frequent recourse to scenes from the past also leaves the film with a problem in terms of generating any sort of momentum and the attempts to open out the play - by having Claire and Catherine take a shopping trip or by having Gyllenhaal run around like a maniac in the final half hour - feel tacked on and false.

Proof is the kind of thing which one can imagine having a big impact in the intimacy of the theatre, but the move to the cinema screen appears to have dulled its edges and flattened its dramatic peaks. The film has plenty of big emotional moments, such as the scene in which Catherine reads the work her father has been doing and her angry funeral speech, but none of them hit us as hard as they should. The biggest frustration of Proof is the fact that we never get a clear impression of what exactly the big deal was about the mathematic equation which is central to the plot. As far as I recall, we are told that if x is a prime number then 2x+1 will also be a prime. But what does this mean? Why is it such a breakthrough? We are simply expected to take it on trust that this proof is an amazing discovery and we should all be suitably impressed.

Without the mathematics being treated in a serious manner, Proof becomes little more than another tear-stained family melodrama. By the time we’ve found out who really wrote the proof, and how, and why; the only question left on my mind was “is that it?”. Is that what we’ve watched two hours of shouting and squabbling for? Despite Paltrow’s best efforts, Proof left me feeling completely empty. It’s a shallow, dull, unedifying slog which doesn’t shed any light on the murky world of mathematics - and fails to prove anything else along the way.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Review - Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Chinjeolhan geumjassi)

If revenge is a dish best served cold then Park Chan-wook has already given us two tasty treats with the bleakly nihilistic Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and the thrillingly kinetic Old Boy. After the tough and cold first two courses, this brighter and more colourful final entry in his vengeance trilogy might be seen as the dessert - literally, in fact, with the beautiful cakes the main character creates becoming a dominant metaphor in the film. Unfortunately Sympathy for Lady Vengeance doesn’t quite hit the high notes Park’s previous efforts have offered and, despite seemingly having the perfect ingredients, this muddled concoction leaves an unsatisfying aftertaste.
Right from the start Lady Vengeance declares itself as a more ornate and elegant film than its predecessors. The opening credits have beautiful flowers creeping across the screen and drops of blood which, in a similar twist to the opening of American Psycho, are revealed to be little more than an innocent ingredient being added to a cake. The hands moulding this dough belong, we are to presume, to Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae); a woman who has just been released from prison after thirteen years for the kidnapping and murder of a five year-old boy. Geum-ja went inside when she was just nineteen and time has hardened her once delicate features. She is greeted in comical fashion by a group of singing Santa Clauses and a preacher (Kim Byeong-ok) who supported her throughout her sentence. He offers her the traditional greeting of Tofu, which she throws to the floor. “Go screw yourself” she tells him. She certainly has changed.

Geum-ja has only one thing on her mind: revenge. We gradually discover that she was wrongfully imprisoned for this crime; taking the fall for schoolteacher Mr Baek (Old Boy star Choi Min-sik) when he threatened her daughter. Now she is making plans to punish Baek for his crime with the help of some colourful allies she met in jail, and to track down her lost daughter. Essentially, this is a rather linear revenge tale but, perhaps in fear of being seen to repeat himself, Park tries too hard to take his latest film into new territory and loses his way.

“It has to be pretty. Everything should be pretty” says Geum-ja when she asks the husband of a former fellow inmate to craft her a gun of her own design; and it soon becomes clear that this line neatly sums up the film’s raison d'être. Like its predecessors, Lady Vengeance is a visually stunning piece of filmmaking, but the style here is very distinct from the trilogy’s first instalments. Park shoots Lady Vengeance almost as if it were a fairytale, with his bright, vivid colour scheme and weirdly artificial atmosphere contrasting spectacularly with the grimy, dark worlds of Mr Vengeance or Old Boy. Park is a director of rare skill and he brings all of his customary flair and chutzpah to this film. The frequent flashbacks (each of the ex-cons Geum-ja enlists is introduced with a brief vignette telling their own tale) are linked to the main narrative with the help of clever, CGI-enabled trickery. But all the surface fireworks are servicing a tale which never comes to life in the way we expect.

The change in gender for this film’s main character seems to have caused Park to lose his nerve. After the gut-wrenching intensity of Mr Vengeance and Old Boy, the curious lack of bite Lady Vengeance displays is a disappointing development. One of the earliest scenes of violence is actually self-inflicted by Geum-ja - a further act of self-imposed penance - but then there’s little further action until the overextended finale. It’s as if the director can’t bring himself to depict a female character performing the same acts that characterised his two previous films. Instead of giving us action, Park gives us a huge amount of convoluted backstory, which is elaborated upon through numerous flashbacks - and this only ends up bogging the film down with a lot of unnecessary clutter. This is not to say that the film’s various flashbacks and sidetracks aren’t well done, they’re all brilliantly crafted and liberally sprinkled with a dose of dark humour, but they slow the film down and provide a frustrating build-up to the long-awaited vengeance.

And then, when we finally reach the moment for Geum-ja to exact her revenge, Park pulls the rug out from beneath us. The heroine catches up with her prey, holds him captive in a remote building, and it’s at this point that more details about Baek’s deeds are revealed and the script suddenly takes a severe left turn into tricky territory from which it never regains its footing. In the last half-hour Park takes the arguably laudable move of expanding his view from a tale personal revenge to question the larger issue of vigilantism. This is an interesting twist to throw at us but it doesn’t really work at all. It causes the film’s climactic third to sink into a series of debates over the rights or wrongs of people taking revenge into their own hands (perhaps a critique of capital punishment), and it has the unfortunate effect of making Geum-ja a bystander during the actual act of vengeance.

The meandering final third is a letdown, but park does show one new aspect of his filmmaking by investing Lady Vengeance with a genuine sense of emotion. This unexpected development is mostly created through the relationship between Geum-ja and her 13 year-old daughter Jenny (Kwon Yea-young), and with the help of the utterly brilliant central performance from Lee Young-ae. The actress gives a beautifully subtle and compassionate display, both as the delicate young woman who enters jail and the determined angel of death who leaves it. Geum-ja’s confession to her daughter is a deeply moving moment, superbly handled by Park who elects to focus on Young-ae’s face. It’s one of the few scenes in the film which isn’t trying too hard to impress, and it shows us that less is often so much more.

What a strange film Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is. It must ultimately be described as a disappointment even though it displays as much imagination, flair and sheer filmmaking skill than any other feature this year. In truth, Park is simply guilty of failing to match the high standards he has set for himself, and now he has finally put his ‘vengeance trilogy’ to bed we can look forward to seeing what else he has up his sleeve. This immensely talented filmmaker has unleashed bloody revenge on the world, it will be fascinating to see where he goes from here.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Review - Grizzly Man

“I will die for these animals, I will die for these animals, I will die for these animals…”
Timothy Treadwell: 1957 - 2003

Timothy Treadwell spent the last 13 summers of his life living among grizzly bears in a remote section of an Alaskan National Park. He saw it as his mission to protect the bears, to document their lives and to educate the wider world about the creatures he saw as his friends. This unusual lifestyle made him something of a minor celebrity, and when he appeared on the Dave Letterman show one of the first questions the host asked him was: "Is it going to happen, that we read a news item one day that you have been eaten by one of these bears?". It seems everyone who learned of Treadwell’s life instantly expected the worst; everyone, that is, apart from Timothy Treadwell himself. The sad inevitability of Treadwell’s fate was confirmed when, on October 6th 2003, he was killed along with his girlfriend by one of the bears he had devoted his life to.

Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man is a documentary which traces Treadwell‘s tragic story and attempts to unravel the psyche of a man who turns to a life like this. Coming from a filmmaker who has provided some of the most bizarre films ever made; it’s yet more proof that truth is so often stranger than fiction.

Even Herzog at his most idiosyncratic would have been unlikely to invent a character like Timothy Treadwell. With his floppy shock of blonde hair and puppy-like enthusiasm, he’s probably the least likely person you’d expect to find living out in the wilderness alongside animals who could tear him apart at any time. Yet he fits perfectly among previous Herzog heroes; an egotist, a dreamer, a man whose crazed ambitions lead to his downfall. He is a curious figure who only becomes more of an enigma as the film explores his life further. Throughout the last five years of Treadwell’s annual ‘bear expedition’ he filmed his experiences, and it is this astonishing footage which gives Grizzly Man its incredible power.

Treadwell never believed he would die at the hands of the bears. While he appreciated the danger they posed he also believed that he could gain their trust and respect if he acted as a “kind warrior”, displaying strength while also respecting their boundaries. Depending on your viewpoint, this was either an astonishingly brave or incredibly foolhardy practice, and to watch Treadwell interact with these enormous beasts is to witness a man flirting with disaster. Timothy claimed he had an affinity with the bears and he gave them all names like ‘Mickey’, ‘Wendy’ and ‘Mr Chocolate’. When he was around them he spoke to them like you would address a dog, or an infant: “You’re a big bear, yes you are..” he enthusiastically tells them in a camp, childlike tone of voice. When one of the bears makes a move to charge Treadwell he admonishes it by saying “bad bear, don’t do that!” in a stern tone of voice.

While his view of the natural world was certainly naïve in places, certain aspects of the footage he shot could support an argument that he did develop some kind of bond with the animals. There are wonderful sequences here where Treadwell plays with a group of foxes around his camp, and most scenes do indicate that the bears were comfortable with the presence of this stranger in their midst; but is this just animals being animals rather than a genuine rapport?

Herzog poses such questions in his lucid and pragmatic voiceover, which contrasts effectively with Treadwell’s idealistic view. “What haunts me is that in the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature” states Herzog over footage of Timothy fawning over one of his companions. But the director does pay tribute to his subject’s filmmaking potential; and it is fascinating to watch Treadwell stage and re-stage shots of himself walking up and down hills and posing in heroic mode. He seemed to be developing a movie version of his own life starring himself as the almost mythic figure risking his life to protect these bears, but his growing intimacy with the cameras often led to it being used as a kind of confidant, a confessional; which gives us a deeper insight into Treadwell’s life.

Through his own words and interviews with those who knew him we learn that Timothy was a failed actor who, in a bizarre development, spiralled into alcoholism when he came second to Woody Harrelson for the role of Woody in Cheers. Even stranger stories come to light; such as his development of an Australian accent for no apparent reason, and the revelation of his determined efforts to depict himself as being alone at all costs, despite the fact that some shots of him are handheld, presumably by girlfriend Amie Huguenard who perished alongside him. Treadwell also unleashes a shocking and unsettling rant towards the camera near the end of the film in which he rages against those who want to hurt the bears. His foul-mouthed volley of abuse is an amazing tirade which is initially amusing, then slowly becomes unsettling as his anger shows no sign of abating.

Grizzly Man can turn from being hilarious (Treadwell’s tearful lament for a dead bumblebee is a standout) to disturbing in a flash, and the scene which deals with Treadwell’s moment of death is the most harrowing of all. The camera was rolling as he and his girlfriend were attacked but, with the lens cap still on, only the audio of their death was recorded. In a heartbreaking scene, one of Timothy’s former girlfriends allows Herzog to hear things she has never allowed herself to hear. We watch as the director sits with a pained expression and describes what he hears. It’s an astonishing moment; Strangely theatrical, and yet a marvel of respectful restraint.

I’ve never seen anyone like Timothy Treadwell, and I’ve never seen a documentary quite like Grizzly Man. It’s an utterly compelling and haunting film which lays bare a whole life and lets us decide what to make of this man. Was he a brave, noble and well-intentioned man who served a purpose for the bears? Or perhaps he was a vain and reckless clown who did more harm than good? Both points are put forward in Herzog’s film but one thing is beyond dispute - Grizzly Man is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking. A stunning exploration of the inexplicable wonder of nature; both animal and human.

Review - Derailed

There is plenty of potential on show in Derailed. Director Mikael Håfström won rave reviews and an Oscar nomination for his debut film Evil, while screenwriter James Beattie’s last effort was Michael Mann’s hugely entertaining thriller Collateral. As for the cast; Clive Owen is appearing here after his Oscar-nominated turn in Closer, Vincent Cassel can be one of the most interesting actors around when he’s on top of his game, and Jennifer Aniston is a woman with something to prove as she tries to break free of her TV persona and establish herself as a serious film actress.

Where did it all go wrong? Derailed starts off badly and rapidly gets even worse. It’s a glossy, tired, yuppie-in-peril thriller; the likes of which we’ve seen a million times before. But we’ve rarely seen it executed in such a slipshod fashion, and as this sub-Hitchcock nonsense spirals out of control we come to realise that we’re watching a film of rare ineptitude. Derailed is the first train to depart from the Weinstein brothers’ new station, and it flies off the rails with startling ease.
In Hollywood films, the guy who cheats on his wife is generally made to suffer for it, and here Clive Owen plays the sort of role that Michael Douglas was making his own around 15 years ago. Owen is Charles Schine, a married father who has a good job, a loving wife (Melissa George) and a cute little daughter whose advanced diabetes is putting a serious strain on the family finances. One of the major early flaws of Derailed is the fact that Schine is a very hard character to feel any sort of empathy for. He cheats on his wife, and ends up risking the life savings they’ve built up which in turn threatens his daughter’s healthcare; most viewers will feel he deserves everything he gets.

What he gets is a whole lot of trouble. After forgetting his fare on the train to work one morning, Charles’ embarrassment is saved by an attractive stranger who offers to pay for him. Lucinda (Aniston) throws a shapely leg Charles’ way and he’s immediately smitten. She’s married too, but after a flirtatious lunch the pair’s relationship accelerates quickly and they book into a shabby hotel for a night of passion. However, their coitus is interrupted by French mugger LaRoche (Cassel), who beats Charles, rapes Lucinda, and makes off with their wallets. When both have recovered, Lucinda refuses to go to the police for fear of their affair being exposed; but Charles is soon being blackmailed by LaRoche and, as the price for the crook’s silence escalates, the normally placid businessman is forced to take drastic action.

I suppose there’s nothing really wrong with this set-up per se, it’s just that we’ve really seen it all before and Derailed never looks like doing a single imaginative thing with it. The film has been adapted from James Siegel’s novel, and I can only hope for the book’s sake that some semblance of plausibility and structure has been lost in translation. Stuart Beattie’s screenplay is an unbelievable and inconsistent jumble of plot holes and clichés, with a series of increasingly ludicrous twists being thrown in as the film progresses. With such shoddy material at his disposal Håfström tries to give it some surface style at least, and the film is certainly slick and polished, but Peter Biziou’s impressive noir-ish camerawork is better than Derailed deserves.

All of the film’s characters are wafer-thin, and none of them manage to gain our sympathy or interest. Viewers who were surprised by Owen’s witty and charismatic turn in Closer will be disappointed to hear that he appears to have only borrowed a personality for one film, and his non-performance here is stupendously dull. In contrast, Cassel turns everything up to eleven as the psycho behind all Charles’ woes. He taunts his victim at every turn as he stays one step ahead of the game, and his manic display at least gives the film a dash of unpredictability here and there. He also contributes to one highly amusing scene in which he takes Charles’ testicles hostage.

And what of poor Jennifer Aniston in all this? Well, here the film suffers a near fatal piece of miscasting by dumping this actress in a role she is woefully unsuitable for. Aniston may be many things - she is a perfectly adept comic actress for one - but a Femme Fatale she is most definitely not. Floundering in her attempt to make the most of her bland sexuality, Aniston never looks comfortable as the supposedly alluring seductress for whom men will risk everything. It’s a blatant attempt to explode her girl-next-door image which backfires horribly and while Aniston still looks the most likely Friends star to make it on the big screen, projects like this can only hinder, rather than help, her cause.

Derailed ends up looking like the kind of film Adrian Lyne has churned out on so many occasions but without any of the sex which normally comes as standard. The closest the film does get to including any sex is a particularly nasty rape scene which, since we don’t care a whit for these characters, comes of looking especially cheap and gratuitous. The final act is truly awe-inspiring in its feebleness, with Owen’s previously dull-witted stooge suddenly becoming a quick-witted killing machine, and by the time the filmmakers deliver the laughable final twist in the tale, few viewers will be able to summon up the energy to register even the merest hint of surprise or interest.

Is there anything of merit in this film? Well, Cassel is at least lively, and I liked the supporting turn from rapper RZA (who, along with co-star Xzibit, has a name more imaginative than anything in the script), but Derailed is lacking in so many areas that the few bright spots are quickly engulfed by the overwhelming sense of pointlessness the film provokes. It’s a lurid, lazy and incredibly stupid film; and its only saving grace may be that it can lay claim to possessing the most appropriate title of the year.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Review - North Country

You know the Academy Awards are just around the corner when a film like North Country hits the cinema screens. It’s ‘inspired' by a true story; it stars the beautiful Charlize Theron slumming it again, as she did to winning effect in Monster; it covers the topics of sexism, disability and female empowerment, and it manipulates the viewers’ emotions using every trick in the book. This may sound like cynical Oscar-bait of the lowest order but the big surprise of North Country is that, for an hour or so at least, it’s not that bad at all.

Much of what’s good about North Country is down to Theron who, along with Frances McDormand, is well worth her Oscar nomination. She plays Josey Aimes, a mother of two who takes the kids and splits from her abusive husband when he leaves her in a bloody heap on the floor one time too many. Josey heads back to her childhood home in Minnesota to stay with her mother (Sissy Spacek) and her father Hank (Richard Jenkins), who is not exactly sympathetic to his daughter’s plight and instantly assumes that she must have done something to earn her black eye. Soon Hank is even more aggrieved at his daughter’s behaviour because Josey, spurred on by her best friend Glory (Frances McDormand), takes a job at the local iron mine where Hank also works. He’s not happy to see women doing “men’s work”, and he’s not the only one.

Men outnumber women at the plant by about 30 to 1 and Josey is exposed to her male colleagues' leering and hostility from early on, with plenty of sexual innuendo flying around and the girls being subjected to a number of childish pranks, like dildos turning up in their lunchboxes However, she’s making good money for the first time in her life, enabling her to buy her own house, and Josey thinks she can probably ignore much of what her male co-workers can throw at her, as the rest of the women at the factory seem to be able to do. This proves easier said than done though and, as the sexual harassment grows, Josey tries to complain; but she’s ignored by male officials at every level. When her decision to speak out leads to even worse abuse, Josey becomes a pariah both at work and in the wider community. With no-one to turn to, Josey enlists the help of a washed-up lawyer (Woody Harrelson) to take her employers to court.

Before the sadly ham-fisted final act, North Country is a plausible and engaging, if rather one-dimensional, piece of filmmaking. As the abuse meted out to Josey escalates, director Niki Caro manages to keep things understated and compelling. With the help of Chris Menges’ sharp cinematography she portrays Minnesota as a bleak and unforgiving place and her direction smartly emphasizes the intimidating environment these women are thrown into. Caro is helming her first film since the surprise success of Whale Rider and she again shows a gift for straightforward, emotive storytelling and the ability to capture the essence of a particular location.

North Country generally feels realistic and is surprisingly unpleasant in places. The more extreme examples of harassment depicted in the film involve obscene remarks being daubed on the women’s locker room in faeces, semen in their clothes, and a horrible scene which has deterred me from ever using a portable toilet again. However, the film disappoints with the depiction of the men perpetrating these acts, with few of them allowed to be anything more than caricatures. Aside from Josey’s father and lawyer, and Glory’s husband (Sean Bean), pretty much every man in the film is a sleazy, ignorant, crotch-grabber; and tipping the scales so heavily in Josey’s favour detracts from the film’s emotional resonance. Fortunately, the cast manage to give it some weight.

This film is an obvious star vehicle for Theron, and the star responds with a quite brilliant performance which goes some way to covering up the film’s often naïve approach. Theron has developed into a fascinating actress over the past few years; even before her breakthrough role in Monster she was giving intelligent and soulful performances in films like The Devil’s Advocate and
The Yards, and was often the best thing in such mediocre fare as The Astronaut’s Wife and Reindeer Games. She has certainly showed a much wider and deeper range than most people tend to expect from a model-turned-actress, and the subtlety and detail of her displays seem to grow with every film. In North Country Theron gives a touching and believable performance as Josey and it’s hard not to cheer for her as she single-handedly takes on the chauvinistic men around her.

However, Theron isn’t the only first-rate performer here and the two moments in the film which really moved me were provided by two of the supporting actors, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins. McDormand provoked laughter when her first words in the film made her sound exactly like Marge Gunderson, but every McDormand performance has its own nuances and personality, and her determination in the face of a crippling illness here is quietly powerful. Jenkins is typically good also as Josey’s father, who is ashamed of her daughter for so much of the film before eventually seeing the truth about his long-time friends and colleagues and finally showing Josey the respect she’s been lacking all her life. With solid support from Spacek, Harrelson and Bean, the cast really work hard to make this a much better film than it has any right to be.

But what a shame Caro nearly throws it all away in the final third. Much of the film’s last act is taken up with the court battle and here the film is suddenly bombarded with every Hollywood courtroom cliché you can possibly imagine. We get showboating speeches from lawyers, secrets from the past being revealed, tears and fisticuffs, people standing as one and even - get this - a passionate speech from a paralysed woman who can’t speak! The film pretty much collapses at this point with the entire case being turned on Josey’s sexual history, and a revelation about the identity of her son’s real father provides an unnecessary addition to this already soggy climax.

North Country is a bit of a mixed bag then. For over an hour it’s an honest and interesting offering while the final act is a shambles; but the impressive cast and Caro’s sprightly direction just about manage to make it work. The true story that this film has been adapted from - with huge dramatic liberties - is undeniably an inspiring and important one, but North Country is a film which doesn’t really manage to do it justice. There is plenty to like in North Country; but once you dig under the gritty and earnest façade, the film is revealed to be just another slice of Hollywood hokum with its eyes squarely on golden statuettes.