Phil on Film Index

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Review - Inside Man

There’s something about the average Spike Lee film which tends to leave me unsatisfied, but I’m not sure what exactly it is that leaves me so cold. Lee is clearly one of the most provocative, intelligent and talented filmmakers to emerge in the past twenty years; his films are always fascinating, and often filled with moments of brilliance; and his films are, almost without exception, supremely well acted. Yet, with the exception of 1989’s searing masterpiece Do The Right Thing, few of his films have really come together in a satisfying way for me. I think it’s the case that Lee is occasionally a little too provocative for his own good; allowing his polemical anger and righteous filmmaking style overwhelm the basic story we’ve come to see.

Lee’s career recently reached its undoubted nadir with She Hate Me, a confused and utterly contemptible diatribe against, well, everything, which seemed to indicate that Lee’s once bright star was waning fast. Who could have imagined that he would bounce back so quickly? Inside Man feels nothing like a Spike Lee film. It’s a slick, cool and taut thriller which more readily recalls the work of directors like Sidney Lumet and Michael Mann than Spike himself. It’s the most purely enjoyable film of the year so far, and it ranks as one of the best Lee has ever directed.

Inside Man is a heist movie with, as is customary, a twist. The scene is a major Manhattan bank on an ordinary day, with various customers and employees plodding through their daily routine. Few of them pay any attention to the group of painters, dressed in overalls, who enter the bank carrying trolleys full of decorating equipment. They only begin to suspect something is amiss when one of the group begins locking the doors, but by then it’s too late. The gang of painters are actually a highly organised group of thieves, and they are now in the midst of a hostage situation.

The detectives on the scene are Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and his assistant Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Frazier is under something of a cloud at work pending an investigation into some missing drug bust funds, so perhaps a good showing during this incident could work in his favour? However, Frazier’s nerves are tested to the limit by Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), a criminal who seems to be forever in control, and as the situation escalates one question keeps nagging away at the back of Frazier’s mind: What do these criminals actually want?

For this is no ordinary bank heist, and the truth of the matter is ingeniously unfolded. Inside Man has been scripted by first-time writer Russell Gerwitz, and it’s an auspicious debut; offering a skilfully worked puzzler of a plot, laced with some welcome doses of humour and memorable characters given their space to shine. Gerwitz puts the plot together with efficiency and his ability to throw numerous twists into the mix, keeping the audience on their toes while keeping the action plausible and logical, is impressive. There are little lapses here and there, when the boundaries of reality are stretched a little and a couple of characters’ behaviour proves a little odd, but for the most part Gerwitz delivers a snappy and tightly constructed screenplay which is constantly involving and inventive.

With this solid foundation in place, Lee has assembled a classy cast whose contributions help elevate this material even further. Washington, of course, is a class act. He exudes intelligence and his Frazier is a charming, intelligent, flawed character who is wholly believable. He’s a character who never lets his guard drop, is always waiting for a sign of weakness to appear for him to grab hold of, and we see this in action during the post-crime interviews Lee drops in at various points during the action; when Frazier engages in light-hearted banter with his interviewee, but pounces as soon as he spots the slightest opening. It’s a performance of consummate professionalism which gives the film a rock-solid centre.

As the criminal mastermind, Owen gives a much more assured display than one can usually expect from him. It seems like he has finally found a role for which his one-note style and coldly detached demeanour is well suited. He spends most of the film with his face hidden behind a mask, and his carefully controlled delivery lends Dalton an ambiguity which livens up the cat-and-mouse exchanges between he and Frazier considerably. The rest of the well-chosen cast all perform admirably. Jodie Foster is slightly hamstrung by having a role which is never clearly defined, and often seems like little more than a character created simply to help smooth over some niggling plot details, but her lively portrayal is always interesting; and there’s fine support from the ever-excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor, Willem Dafoe and a typically supercilious turn from Christopher Plummer as the bank owner who has more to lose than most in this raid.

But one comes away from the film remembering the small moments, the almost incidental asides which make up the whole; and this is where Lee’s direction really bears fruit. He fills the smaller roles with a smart selection of New York character actors and they’re each given their chance to shine. There’s the old lady who puts up a fight when all the hostages are forced to strip; there’s the local street cop who first raises the alarm and hangs around to tell Frazier an anecdote, unfortunately revealing a few prejudices along the way; and there’s a builder who is forced to call his ex-wife to help out the police, leading to one of the many well-played comical scenes. Lee’s feel for New York, his ability to capture its energy and spirit, sends a real surge of life through Inside Man; and in a year when a film like Crash can win Best Picture at the Oscars, isn’t it wonderful to see a film which celebrates a city’s multiculturalism while giving a realistic portrayal of race relations?

The old Lee is still in there; he’s still making his racial points, but here they are simply pointed side notes to the main event. The director’s work on Inside Man is cool and understated, and all the better for it. One moment, when he cuts to a child’s violent videogame recalls the unfortunate excesses of Clockers, but it’s over an a few moments and we’re on with the show. Lee’s restrained style is a welcome change of pace, and it makes his occasional directorial indulgences really stand out as they should.

This is new territory for the director, a straightforward genre picture, and he almost loses his way late on. The final ten minutes, in which Gerwitz and Lee labour over tying up various loose ends, is a disappointingly flaccid climax which threatens to spoil the whole show. Inside Man ends with a whimper rather than a bang, but the rather deflated effect it leaves is fleeting. For the bulk of its running time it’s a punchy, smart and brilliantly entertaining piece of work. Spike Lee has made the most un-Spike Lee type film of his career, and it‘s a change of direction which should satisfy everyone.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Review - Tsotsi

There’s a certain kind of film which tends to walk away with the Oscar for best foreign film each year. It’s usually an ‘issue’ movie which is just about exotic enough for the Academy to feel like they’re rewarding something different, whilst also playing by the rules and being safe and generic enough to avoid alienating those who wouldn’t normally see a foreign language film. The ridiculous vagaries of the Academy’s selection policy, in which the various countries put forward one film for consideration, seems to result in every nation selecting the film which most closely meets these requirements.

The nominations therefore have tended to be rather bland affairs, and this year was no exception. There was no sign of such acclaimed films as Caché, 2046 or Head On among the nominated films; and the Oscar instead went to Tsotsi, a South African film concerning the redemption of a violent gangster.

Tsotsi has been adapted from Athol Fugard’s novel of the same name, a book published over a quarter of a century ago and set in the 1950‘s. Director Gavin Hood updates the story to modern day Johannesburg and sets most of the action in the decrepit shantytowns on the edge of the prosperous city. The film opens with a bang. Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) is a small-time teenage hoodlum who, along with his three cohorts, heads out into the city to commit their daily crime. The pounding soundtrack gives an visceral charge to the sequence as Tsotsi leads his gang through the streets, strutting imperiously and giving the finger to those who make mocking comments as he passes. Once they reach the train station they soon identify their prey; a heavyset gentleman who is failing to be discreet enough as he flashes the cash from his newly-acquired pay packet.

The following robbery is superbly orchestrated by Hood. As Tsotsi and his gang follow their victim he slowly begins to realise - only too late - what a grave situation he is in. The crime, which is committed on a packed train, is a brilliantly tense and riveting piece of filmmaking. Shortly afterwards Tsotsi beats his friend Boston to a pulp for daring to suggest that he has some human feelings under his cold façade, and he then steals a car, shooting the female owner in the process. It seems that Tsotsi is setting itself up as a grim examination of life on the crime-ridden streets of South Africa, and then it suddenly goes soft.

As Tsotsi races away in the car, he hears an unfamiliar sound coming from the back seat - the owner’s baby is still in the car. After considering the possibility of leaving the baby by the side of the road, Tsotsi decides to take him home, despite having no idea how to take care of a child. The first cracks in his heartless demeanour begin to appear.

Tsotsi begins the film as a brutal, vicious character; happy to dish out severe punishment to all and sundry without a second thought. As the titular character, Presley Chweneyagae gives a superb performance, his baby-faced appearance (recalling Richard Attenborough’s ‘Pinkie’ from Brighton Rock) belying his savage nature. But Tsotsi’s path to redemption is as hackneyed and schematic as any old Hollywood melodrama, and the film’s violent edges are gradually smoothed out as the character undergoes a drastic change in personality.

The early scenes of Tsotsi attempting to deal with his new arrival will horrify any parents watching. He carts the child around in a shopping bag, wraps newspaper around him as an impromptu nappy, and at one point the leaves the baby under his bed for the day only to find him covered in ants when he returns. Clearly Tsotsi is unable to provide for the child alone so he drags a local woman named Miriam (Terry Pheto) into the situation, forcing her to give up her breast milk at gunpoint. While this may sound like an unpleasant tale, the inevitability and simplicity of the film’s narrative never leaves us in any doubt that the baby will be fine throughout, and that Tsotsi will turn out to be just a big softie at heart.

Tsotsi’s sudden change of heart is bemusing. Just the presence of this child in his life appears to be enough to make him melt before our eyes and Gavin Hood doesn’t attempt to make his about-face any more plausible for us, clearly expecting that we’ll take this cornball stuff at face value and be too tearful as the credits roll to question what we’ve seen. But Hood’s handling of this material is far too trite and unconvincing to really have any impact.

This is a shame, as Tsotsi is at its most effective when detailing the character’s darker side. Tsotsi barely speaks for the film’s opening section, letting his dead-eyed gaze do the talking for him; and certain scenes, such as his intimidation of an elderly cripple, or the flashback in which we see his alcoholic father at his worst, are compelling and brilliantly handled. The performances are also top-notch throughout, with first-timers Chweneyagae and Pheto giving effortlessly convincing displays, and there’s able support from Mothusi Magano and Kenneth Nkosi as two members of Tsotsi’s gang.

Unfortunately we know exactly where Tsotsi is going as soon as he picks up his inconvenient little bundle of joy, and it offers few surprises to maintain audience involvement as it travels along its straight narrative rails. The film ends in an avalanche of sentimentality, with Tsotsi completely (and arbitrarily) renouncing his wayward life; and the baby is reunited with his family during a shamelessly manipulative, tear-stained finale which left me distinctly unmoved.

“Decency” is a word which crops up occasionally in the film, as Tsotsi’s friend Boston asks if he knows what the word means. Gavin Hood certainly knows the meaning of the word; his film is so avowedly decent that the potential shown in the electrifying opening sequence is completely washed away to leave us with yet another unremarkable, middlebrow film about a bad guy with a heart of gold. You can see why it won the Oscar.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Review - The Proposition

“Australia.” growls Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) as he gazes out into the barren wilderness before him, “What fresh hell is this?”. These words, uttered in The Proposition’s opening few moments, prove to be entirely appropriate. The Proposition bears many hallmarks of a traditional Western, with shades of Peckinpah and Leone throughout, but it’s really a descent into hell; an odyssey through a searing, blood-drenched wilderness, where life is cheap and heroes are nonexistent.

The Proposition is written by Bad Seeds frontman and professional misanthrope Nick Cave, whose work here marks his first screenplay since 1988’s Ghosts…of the Civil Dead. Like that film, this tale has been directed by John Hillcoat, but it’s Cave’s twisted, dark personality which seeps from the pages and onto every frame of the film.

Set in the late 19th Century, The Proposition revolves around the relationship between three brothers of Irish heritage, the notorious Burns gang, who are wanted men after the horrific rape and murder of a family. As the film opens we are plunged straight into a bloody and frenetic gunfight, after which two of the brothers, Charlie (Guy Pearce) and younger sibling Mikey (Richard Wilson), find themselves in chains and facing the local police chief Captain Stanley. Mikey is tearful and wounded, while Charlie appears unnaturally calm. Stanley doesn’t intend to take the pair of them to jail though, for he is willing to strike a bargain. He’ll keep Mikey behind bars and if Charlie is willing to track down and kill his elder brother Arthur (Danny Huston), then he’ll pardon them both. The savage Arthur is the real prize and Stanley is going to let his own kin do the dirty work.

There’s a simplicity about Cave’s screenplay which is both refreshing and infuriating. His characters are starkly drawn in broad strokes and it is left to the actors to fill them out with real emotion, something some of them manage better than others. Although Guy Pearce does a fine job with his thin characterisation and sparse dialogue, and Huston gives an impressive, feral, display; the film is really dominated by Ray Winstone whose complex and powerful portrayal of Stanley often gives this oddly-paced film a much-needed boost. Winstone plays Stanley as a decent man with honourable intentions (he desperately wants to civilise this land) but he has been forced to take a violent and unsavoury route to achieve his aims. When he is with his wife Martha (Emily Watson), we see a dignified character, who is always trying to spare her from knowing too much about the work he must do. In every scene Winstone makes Stanley appear both terrifying and vulnerable, giving a crucial human element to the film.

Without Winstone’s display Stanley may have ended up as a rather two-dimensional villain, something along the lines of Jellon Lamb (David Wenham) in fact. Lamb is Stanley’s superior; a primly dressed, sadistic Englishman with a permanent sneer. It’s here that the lack of depth Cave has afforded to his characters becomes more damaging. Lamb, Mikey, Arthur and most of the other supporting characters (the less said about John Hurt’s barking cameo, the better) are never satisfyingly fleshed out and the resulting lack of engagement we feel with the cast makes the film feel as dry as the scenery which surrounds them. The characters’ relationships are often murky, particularly between the brothers themselves, and their motives are often opaque.

The Proposition opens in unusual fashion, with a pre-credits disclaimer warning those of aboriginal descent that they may find images and scenes in the film shocking. Cave has intertwined aspects of Australia’s early history around his relatively straightforward Western template. In a way this film could be seen as Cave’s Birth of a Nation, with its examination of the bloody settler past that his country was founded upon and with simmering racial tension a constant factor, he is clearly hoping to strike a few nerves in his homeland. This blend of revisionist history and Western cliché is an interesting mix and it sets The Proposition apart from other recent attempts in the genre.

What also sets the film apart is the setting itself. Hillcoat and his cinematographer Benoît Delhomme skilfully capture the intimidating, arid bleakness of the Australian outback and superbly express the searing heat which occasionally seems in danger of burning the celluloid. The Proposition also offers up some striking imagery at times - Stanley and Martha’s small cottage, surrounded by a picket fence, which acts as a little corner of England in this unforgiving land; the sight of blood being wrung out of a whip during a gruelling flogging; and the thousands of flies which are always on the scene, providing a constant nervy buzz on the soundtrack.

The rest of the haunting soundtrack is provided Warren Ellis and Cave himself, and if there’s one thing The Proposition really gets right then it’s atmosphere. Every frame seems marked by death and pain, and Hillcoat’s ability to completely envelop us in this nihilistic world is an impressive display of direction. But the violence, which occurs frequently and bloodily, often has a jolting effect which disrupts the film’s flow and breaks the connection Hillcoat and Cave had carefully cultivated with the viewer. The film’s violent acts are staged in extraordinarily realistic and savage fashion, but when we don’t care for any of the film’s characters - save Winstone - these scenes only provide a short, sharp shock followed by a sense of emptiness where the feeling of loss or pain should be hitting us.

With all of these interesting elements clashing together, and a dose of misguided cod-Irish mysticism layered on top, The Proposition remains a strangely fascinating and grimly compelling tale at least until the flat climax. There are some quite wonderful aspects to the film, but they’re mixed with an equal amount of moments which appear underdeveloped (Cave boasts that he wrote the screenplay in just three weeks) and poorly judged, and it’s frustrating to see a film with so much potential lose its way so readily.

The Proposition is certainly a worthwhile and interesting effort, but much of it has left my memory since I saw it. In fact, despite all the gunfights, the bloodshed and epic scenery; the moment I’ll take from the film is the tiny flinch Stanley gives when he sees his wife naked in the bathtub. That look, and the sense of discomfort etched across his face, tells you in an instant everything you need to know about the couple’s sexless marriage; and it’s another example of Winstone giving us so much more through his performance than the rest of the film can offer. This is a great actor on top form, and The Proposition just can’t keep up with him. If only Cave and Hillcoat had managed to raise the level of everything surrounding Winstone to match his quality, then we could have been talking about The Proposition as something akin to a modern masterpiece.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Review - The Weather Man

During the coming year the major Hollywood studios will (one hopes) produce a number of films which are much better than The Weather Man, but I doubt we’ll see another mainstream offering as downright peculiar as this for some time. The film has been billed as a comedy but, although it is often very funny, it really is anything but. It is a portrait of a man struggling to make sense of his life; attempting to make a connection with his kids, desperately trying to win the respect of his father, and hoping in vain that there his broken marriage could still be salvaged.

The film stars Nicolas Cage in a role which plays to his strengths. With his long face and weary demeanour he is perfectly cast as a man who has lost all sense of direction and is searching for a way to turn things around. The choice of director is more of a surprise. Gore Verbinski, taking time out from his Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, takes the reins here and anyone looking for the straightforward exuberance he has displayed thus far in his work will be disappointed. The Weather Man may be just another story about a middle-aged man coming to terms with his life, but I’ve rarely seen such a film make so many bizarre decisions.

The man who’s reaching breaking point here is Dave Spritz (Cage), a Chicago TV weatherman. Dave doesn’t have a degree in meteorology, he simply gets told what the weather is likely to do and then stands in front of a green screen to tell the city what to expect in the coming days. Dave is well aware that he is overpaid for his ludicrously easy job and he often begs the station’s meteorologists to explain why the weather does what it does; but they fob him off and let him get on with the one thing he’s good at - standing in front of a camera and smiling. Even the status of minor celebrity doesn’t do anything for Dave, it only encourages a series of random strangers to pester him in the street and hurl fast food at him.

Dave is unhappy at work, and his home life offers little respite. He has separated from his wife (Hope Davis) and struggles to connect with his two children; teenage son Mike (Nicholas Hoult), who has gone off the rails and is in a rehab program, and his twelve year-old daughter Shelly (Gemmenne de la Pena), who is overweight and miserable. Then there’s his father Robert Spritzel (Michael Caine), a renowned author who seems to be constantly disappointed in his son; and Dave would do anything to win his approval, just once. Perhaps his upcoming interview for the weatherman job on the Hello America programme is Dave’s opportunity to make a fresh start?

The film takes place during a harsh Chicago winter and Verbinski opens with the beautiful and haunting image of ice chunks floating on the surface of the river, one of the many visual metaphors he returns to throughout the film. Dave’s world is a cold and bleak one, and The Weather Man is a surprisingly chilly movie. Perhaps in an attempt to distance himself as much as possible from his previous films, to show his development as a mature filmmaker, Verbinski has chosen to paint his picture with a distinctly grey and washed-out palette. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael - who shot Alexander Payne’s recent midlife crisis movie Sideways - makes everything overcast to give the film a wintry and gloomy air.

So why should we watch such a downbeat film concerning self-pitying TV presenter? Well, because it’s surprisingly good actually. In so many respects The Weather Man is an excellent film. Steven Conrad’s screenplay is smart, droll and insightful; offering sharply-drawn characters who engage with each other in a believable way. Viewers may balk at watching another film in which a man spends all his time questioning his place in the world, but Dave comes across as being a deeply flawed individual who is really trying to make the right choices, and the way the film addresses his existential woe feels true.

Much of the film’s success in sustaining our interest is thanks to Nicolas Cage, who gives an excellent display in the lead. In last year’s Lord of War, Cage made an arms dealer interesting and likeable, and here his innate charm and affability thankfully leavens Dave’s maudlin self-loathing. Cage has got such a distinctive face and he utilises it superbly here. There are times when you can really see the desperation and sadness in Dave’s eyes, and his cheesy grin at the end of every broadcast is hilariously insincere; it’s a terrific display. The rest of the cast is offer good support, although Michael Caine still can’t do a decent American accent, but it’s Cage’s picture and he carries it brilliantly.

But earlier on I described The Weather Man as a strange and peculiar film and you may be wondering why. Well, it comes down to the film’s treatment of Dave’s two children. Certainly, Mike and Shelley are among the most convincing depictions of a 15 and 12 year-old to turn up in a movie like this for a while (and both very well acted too), but the plot strands which they find themselves in are troubling. In Shelley’s case the film initially pokes gentle fun at her weight problem - without being cruel - but then it starts trying to get laughs from the fact that her too-tight clothes reveal a little more than they should of her genitalia. It’s a bizarre development, especially when looked at in conjunction with what happens to Mike.

Mike has a ‘trendy’ counsellor named Don (a nice performance from Gil Bellows, sadly misused) who is making every attempt to become friends with him. Soon we learn why, when he asks Mike if he can photograph him with his shirt off and makes a pass at him. What’s so damaging about this element of the script is not the subject matter, but the staggeringly facile manner with which it’s handled. This subplot is skimmed through, as if Verbinski doesn’t feel quite so confident in the murky waters he has suddenly waded into, and we are left with no sense of how this incident has affected the individuals involved. In fact it appears that this whole unsavoury episode is cooked up solely so Dave can win his son’s respect by bashing the perv on the nose; a development which is misguided to the point of being offensive. From being a smart, insightful character study The Weather Man almost lapses into some kind of mainstream Todd Solondz film, and the switch is jarring.

The Weather Man lost me a little after that, which is a shame. Conrad and Verbinski make some more strange judgement calls towards the end, and although their refusal offer a pat and redemptive climax is admirable, it causes the film to fall flat right at the end, and the lack of any sort of emotional impact is disappointing. The Weather Man is an odd concoction; an uneven affair which is hard to categorise, and even harder to love, but it’s certainly one of the most unusual mainstream offerings I’ve seen for a while and worthwhile for its willingness to venture into rather different territory for this kind of film. It’s a pity that The Weather Man’s cold front never allows a little warmth to shine through, but it still works as an interesting and perplexing depiction of an ordinary man, just trying to get by in the bleak midwinter.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Review - Syriana

This is quickly becoming the year of George Clooney. After the rapturous acclaim which greeted his Goodnight, and Good Luck, he has followed it up by co-producing and starring in Syriana, another ultra-serious, politically-driven film. These combined efforts have garnered a number of Oscar nominations and people have been falling over themselves to bestow the highest praise on Clooney for his intelligence, bravery and vision.

In the publicity which has surrounded both Goodnight, and Good Luck and Syriana, Clooney has stated in a number of interviews that he aspires to make the kind of films produced by directors like Sidney Lumet, Alan J Pakula and Sydney Pollack in the early 70’s. However, there is a big difference between those films and Syriana which prevents Stephen Gaghan’s film from reaching those heights. Films like Three Days of the Condor, Network and The Parallax View
all made their points while also managing to make narrative sense and maintain the viewer‘s interest; something
Syriana fails to do.

Stephen Gaghan won an Oscar for adapting the Channel 4 miniseries Traffik for Stephen Soderbergh, and Syriana is a similarly multi-stranded affair. Once again Gaghan attempts to weave together the stories of a number of disparate characters, with the multinational oil industry providing the connecting thread. There’s Bob Barnes (Clooney), a jaded CIA field agent working in the Middle East who begins to question the morality of his actions. We are also introduced to Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), an oil broker who takes advantage of a personal tragedy to become the personal advisor to an Arab prince (Alexander Siddig). Elsewhere, Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is a lawyer charged with investigating the legitimacy of a merger between two US oil giants; and if all that wasn’t enough then there’s also a subplot concerning two unemployed Pakistani youths who become involved with a group of Islamic extremists.

In addition to that, Gaghan manages to squeeze in roles for Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer and Tim Blake-Nelson (overacting again) as three of the shady businessmen involved in this merger; Amanda Peet turns up as Woodman’s long-suffering wife, William Hurt appears out of nowhere as some sort of Deep Throat character, and Mark Strong has a chilling cameo.

With Traffic, Gaghan did a terrific job in adapting a very complex six-part series for the big screen, but he would have been well advised to do the opposite with Syriana. There is the potential for a great miniseries here, and the various plot strands could only have benefited from being given an hour or so in which to develop. Instead, they are all crammed into the space of two hours resulting in a stodgy, unwieldy piece of filmmaking.

Gaghan has all the right ingredients here but he has no idea how to shape them into anything resembling a cogent narrative. The story jumps from Washington to Beirut to Geneva, to various other locations, and back again with head-spinning speed; and as a result I spent the first few moments of every scene trying to figure where everyone was, who they were talking to, what they were talking about and why. After a while I began to long for the kind of clear-eyed direction Soderbergh brought to Traffic. In that film, the complex storyline was reduced to three distinct strands, featuring fully-formed characters we could develop an emotional engagement with.

There are no such characters in Syriana, just a series of ciphers and mouthpieces. We are plunged right into the action with nothing to hold onto and none of the characters here are given room to breath. It’s not the actors’ fault - they mostly do fine work - but it’s Gaghan’s habit of flitting from one subject to the next while never letting the action settle and never giving us the chance to know these people. The nominal lead, I suppose, is Clooney who has bagged an Oscar nomination for gaining weight and a beard. He’s fine in the role, and his character is probably the closest thing the film has to a moral centre, although it’s well into the second half before he has an attack of conscience and decides to act, and by that time the film had lost my interest.

In fact, despite all of the talented actors on show here, the only performance to really make an impact on me was provided by Mark Strong, who does more in his five-minute appearance than most of the cast are given a chance to do.

Syriana looks impressive, with Robert Elswit’s hazy cinematography giving every scene an interesting look, and Gaghan has picked up an number of Soderbergh’s elliptical editing effects which he employs here effectively. In fact, much of Syriana is brilliantly directed with Gaghan showing real flair in a number of scenes, but the parts never add up to a whole. Ultimately, I was left wondering what Syriana really had to say about the world we live in. We see that the oil business is corrupt, that the West is exploiting the Middle East for their own gains - but this is hardly news. I came out from the film with the same understanding of the oil business and the situation in the Middle East as I had when I went in; no more and no less.

Gaghan thankfully manages to inject some dramatic impetus into Syriana late on, resorting to the age-old ‘race against time’ trick to build tension in the final act. But I was so far outside the drama at that point that nothing was going to drag me back in. Syriana is a horrible mess; its depth is an illusion and it spends two long hours hopping around the globe in self-important fashion, randomly losing subplots as it travels, and never saying anything of significance. Gaghan presents us with the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, but then keeps moving them around as we try to assemble them; and by the time he finally began putting things together in the last half hour, I just didn’t care anymore.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Review - Two for the Money

“Hoo-Hah!”. Two for the Money is Al Pacino’s latest film and unfortunately it’s a film we’ve seen many, many time before. Pacino has found himself a comfortable niche in the past decade playing ambiguous father figures who take a young protégé under their wing before revealing a shadier side to their nature. Aside from Donnie Brasco (which featured one of his best recent displays), the actor’s performances in City Hall, Devil’s Advocate and The Recruit have varied only by tiny degrees, if at all.

Two for the Money gives us more of the same; with Pacino grouching his way through a hackneyed screenplay which unsuccessfully tries to blend elements from Wall Street, Jerry Maguire and a hundred other movies - and comes off looking like a bit of an indigestible mess. But even if you feel like you’ve seen Pacino play this role too many times before you’ll probably be quite happy to endure it on this occasion; because even an off-colour Al is always watchable, and there are times in Two for the Money when he’s the only thing that is.

This time Matthew McConaughey is the young innocent who gets seduced by Al’s promises of fame and fortune. He plays Brandon Lang, a former footballer whose promising career was cut short by a terrible knee injury, and he now scrapes a living picking winners for a gambling hotline. Brandon is good at picking the teams, eerily good in fact, and his prowess soon catches the attention of the mysterious Walter Abrams (Pacino) who invites him to come and work for his own large-scale gambling operation in New York. Walter is a fairly unconventional boss, and when Brandon first enters his office he’s on the phone trying to get an elephant from the circus for his daughter’s sixth birthday - what a ker-azy character!

The ensuing narrative is resolutely uninteresting. Brandon is a roaring success in his new role, bringing in plenty of money for Walter and becoming something of a celebrity under the guise of ‘John Anthony’; the pseudonym he adopts when giving out tips over the phones or on Walter’s cable TV show. Before too long this once polite and decent young man undergoes something of a character change; he loses his distaste for bad language (Pacino: “it was alright for Chaucer, 600 years ago!”) and gets a liking for sharp suits, fast cars and faster women. The alteration Brandon undergoes is cleverly highlighted by director DJ Caruso (not David) in a scene where he chomps on a big cigar while abusing the tailor working on his suit. Subtle.

Caruso clearly doesn’t believe that subtlety or nuance have any place in this masculine world. The cinematography is glossy and slick, accompanied by a pounding soundtrack, and Caruso spends most of his time putting together montages filled with a laughable surfeit of macho posturing. Even the production design, with its gleaming personal gym and endless rows of plasma screens, seems to have been cooked up by someone who has read to many copies of Esquire or Maxim. However, at least Caruso manages to keep the film moving until Brandon’s fortunes start to take a downward turn, and then things completely fall apart.

Brandon gets cocky. He starts to take less care over the teams he picks to win and, from being a virtual licence to print money, he embarks on a spectacular losing streak. His sudden inability to pick a winner coincides with the company’s biggest financial weekend of the year and lands Brandon in hot water with one of its most lucrative gamblers, gangster Mr Novian (Armande Assante). But at this point in the proceedings Dan Gilroy’s screenplay begins flailing clumsily in all directions, picking up plot strands and then dropping them with wild abandon.

We are given a scene in which Novian threatens Brandon after he has lost a huge amount of money on his tips, and the scene ends with the promise that the gangster will return to collect his debts. But Novian never appears again - what on earth happened there? In similar fashion, Pacino coughs and splutters his way through a number of scenes, taking pills for his increasingly ailing heart, but these build-up scenes again come to nought; and Brandon’s brief fling with an attractive young woman (Jaime King) is quickly forgotten before being reintroduced over an hour later when it is more convenient to the plot.

At the centre of all this poor plotting and stylistic bombast, Matthew McConaughey looks baffled and overawed. All teeth and biceps, he seems most comfortable when taking part in one of the many ‘pumping iron’ montages Caruso drops into the narrative , but when called upon to actually act he fails to impress. McConaughey is obviously supposed to be playing a character who becomes a charmless, arrogant son of a bitch, but this doesn’t really work when we don’t like the guy he was in the first place. He is wooden and one-dimensional in an admittedly poorly-written role. Two for the Money has Rene Russo listed as executive producer, and her husband wrote the screenplay, so couldn’t she have got herself a more interesting role? Russo, who can be great when given the chance, plays Walter’s husband and spends the entire film throwing disapproving looks his way while almost getting involved in a romance with Brandon which neither actor can muster up the energy for.

Still, at least we have Pacino. Even though he’s playing the role at half speed he at least appears to have a pulse, which already gives him an advantage over the rest of the film. It’s a surprisingly underpowered Pacino turn - a shambling, croaky display which always seems to be building to a “Hoo-Hah!” that never arrives - but he does have the monopoly on any interesting or amusing touches which Two for the Money may possess. When bawling out one of his employees (Jeremy Piven, doing well with nothing), he shouts “your customers are jumping ship, you lactose-intolerant fuck!”. You what? It’s a line so arbitrary and nonsensical that it thankfully relieves the boredom the film had induced. There are other good Shouty Al lines - “you want something from me you’re going to have to rip it from my talons” - and a nice scene when he hands out his business card at a Gamblers' Anonymous meeting; but his efforts can’t sustain a turgid tale which runs over two hours.

Two for the Money gets more wayward and incomprehensible as it wears on. It loses the plot completely at the climax, where attempts to wring a sense of pathos from this tale are doomed to failure. There are attempts here and there to explore the father/son dynamic between Walter and Brandon but anything even remotely meaningful or interesting quickly gets lost in the general cacophony. Two for the Money is loud, dumb and long; and I’m pretty sure that the majority of people who do subject themselves to this testosterone assault will come to regret it. In fact, I’d be willing to bet on it.