Sunday, July 30, 2006

Review - The Death of Mr Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu)

“We're born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we're not alone.” - Orson Welles.

Mr Dante Lazarescu (Ioan Fiscuteanu) is a grumpy old Romanian who lives alone in his shabby flat in the centre of Bucharest. His daughter and sister have both moved away, his wife passed on a few years ago; and while Mr Lazarescu has a few cats to keep him company, they seem to spend their entire lives snoozing in every room, occasionally managing to rouse themselves for a snack. Mr Lazarescu is a month shy of his 63rd birthday, and his days consist of him sipping gloomily from whatever alcoholic beverages he can get his hands on. Mr Lazarescu does not have long to live.

One of the miraculous things about cinema is its ability to make us care deeply about a fictional character in such a short space of time. It’s a wonderful feat which too few filmmakers can achieve, but when a director can successfully create a person as vivid, as memorable, as real as Mr Lazarescu, the results can be devastating. At the start of The Death of Mr Lazarescu, we have no idea who this man is, and we might not care either. He’s not a particularly likeable man; he’s grouchy, dirty and a burden on his family and neighbours. But two and a half hours later, as Mr Lazarescu slowly slips away from this world, we have become so entwined with his fate that the sight of his demise is heartbreaking.
The Death of Mr Lazarescu is the second feature film from 29 year-old Romanian filmmaker Cristi Puiu, and it’s one of the most impressive and shattering works I’ve seen from a young director in some time. With incredible subtlety and patience, Puiu crafts a horribly authentic portrait of a lone man’s final hours of life; and in doing so he also delivers a hellish vision of a health system on the brink of collapse, and a sad study of society’s indifference to their fellow man.

When we first meet Mr Lazarescu, he is alone in his flat complaining of a persistent headache and nagging stomach pains. Believing his pain to be a reoccurrence of an old ulcer, he calls for an ambulance and waits. Later on he calls again, and waits. Frustrated by the lack of response from the emergency services, Mr Lazarescu wanders across the hall to see if his neighbours Sandu and Michaela (Doru Ana and Dana Dogaru) can spare a painkiller. They take him back to his flat and try to make him comfortable, but their domestic squabbling can’t be much comfort to the ailing patient. Eventually, the ambulance arrives, and a female paramedic named Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu) decides Mr Lazarescu’s condition is more serious than he thinks, and he must be hospitalised. Mr Lazarescu is loaded into the ambulance, and his dark odyssey begins; with the kind-hearted Mioara his only companion on the final trip he’ll ever make.

And so begins Mr Lazarescu’s long dark night of the soul. As Mioara and her driver Leo (Gabriel Spahiu) drive their patient around the city, they find themselves turned away by a series of overworked and understaffed hospitals; all of whom are suffering the impact of a massive traffic accident which has occurred earlier that evening. Nevertheless, Mioara will not give up on her patient, and she continues to try and squeeze Mr Lazarescu into any hospital she can, receiving a bewildering array of alternative diagnoses, and she often finds herself being admonished by a number of doctors for taking up their valuable time when they believe the patient’s heavy drinking is clearly the root of all his problems.

I get the feeling the name Dante Lazarescu is meant to ring a bell. The first name references the endless circles of hell Mr Lazarescu finds himself embroiled in; but unlike the character whom his second name resembles, there will be no resurrection for this poor man. There’s a grim sense of inevitability about The Death of Mr Lazarescu, with things only getting bleaker by the minute, but Puiu is smart enough to leaven the overwhelming sense of despair with frequent flashes of black and absurd humour. For a young filmmaker, he handles the fluctuating tone with incredible adroitness, allowing us a brief chuckle at one of the film’s comedic moments before again reminding us of Mr Lazarescu’s pain as he takes another step towards the grave. Puiu’s slightly detached filmmaking style helps him achieve this effect; as he shoots in simple medium shots throughout, using only natural light (a repeatedly failing light bulb produces one of the film’s funnier scenes) and no music. He simply allows life and death to play out across the screen.

At the centre of The Death of Mr Lazarescu are a pair of tour de force performances from Ioan Fiscuteanu and Luminita Gheorghiu as Lazarescu and Mioara. Fiscuteanu dominates the screen, giving an astonishingly believable performance as the titular character. He starts the film as a crotchety old guy who moans and gripes about everything, and by the end of the film he is simply a shell of a man. Fiscuteanu seems to fall apart before our very eyes, and you can almost feel his life slipping through his fingers. Alongside him, Gheorghiu is a model of staunch compassion as Mioara; her astonishingly selfless devotion to this stranger’s welfare is incredibly uplifting against the sea of apathy she encounters. In fact, all of the performances in this remarkable picture feel completely authentic and natural. From the two leads to the supporting actors to the various doctors, nurses and patients whom they encounter - nobody seems to be acting.

If Puiu makes an error in his handling of this material, it’s in the way he divides up the film’s running time. The opening hour, in which Mr Lazarescu waits to be taken away by the ambulance, unfolds in something close to real time; and the long night which follows is crammed into the rest of the film’s two and a half hour span. This ratio leaves the film feeling a little overlong and unbalanced, and makes the second half of the picture appear a little rushed as Lazarescu and Mioara conduct their whirlwind tour of the city’s medical facilities. But it’s a small quibble in an otherwise supremely well-handled film.

You may be sitting here, reading this review, and wondering why on earth you should subject yourself to this two and a half hour film about a man’s death? Well, the only reason I can offer is because Puiu really makes you care about Mr Lazarescu. During the film’s early stages I certainly didn’t fancy spending any time at all in this miserable old character’s company; but the film involves us so fully in the mundane details of his life and death, they make the latter stages unbearable to watch. I was furious as Mr Lazarescu was turned away by patronising doctors; I felt embarrassed for him as he began to lose control of his faculties, talking in gibberish and soiling himself; I felt a deep sorrow as the hour of his death finally approached.
The Death of Mr Lazarescu is a quite extraordinary piece of work, unlike anything else you’re likely to see in the cinema. It certainly won’t be to everyone’s liking, and it will be too dark and emotional an journey for some, but I found it to be an incredibly powerful and involving experience. Puiu wisely avoids showing us the actual moment of Mr Lazarescu’s passing, allowing him to perhaps maintain some vestige of his dignity even as he lies naked and alone on a hospital trolley; but there’s little doubt that his life will not extend far beyond the closing credits. With absolute authenticity and harrowing honesty, The Death of Mr Lazarescu is a painful reminder that the only certainty in life, is death.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Review - Cars

When you’re as good as Pixar have been for so long, anything less than the best tends to comes as something of a disappointment. With the exception of the anodyne A Bug’s Life, the studio has delivered hit after hit since 1995’s Toy Story, making technological leaps and bounds with every film as well as consistently creating heartfelt stories which sparkle with wit. How long can a company keep up a success rate like that, before one of their films fall short?
Cars is the latest Pixar film with the unenviable task of maintaining their winning streak, and on first glance it’s hard not to greet the film with a sense of deflation. This is not a film to rank alongside the high-water mark set by the Toy Story Pictures and The Incredibles. The story is banal, the laughs are fewer and more scattered than you might expect, and the film struggles to fully hold the interest over the course of two hours. But if that makes it sound like a stinker, then there’s one thing which Cars still has in its favour - Pixar’s films are so far above and beyond the CGI efforts of any other studio, even one of their weakest efforts still feels like a treat.
Cars’ central storyline - an uninspired blend of Doc Hollywood and Days of Thunder - is a disappointly insipid effort, especially coming directly after Brad Bird’s dazzling The Incredibles. Owen Wilson lends his voice to Lightning McQueen, a cocky young racer who is one victory away from winning the coveted Piston Cup in his rookie year on the circuit. His head is filled with images of the huge sponsorship deals, adoring fans, glamorous parties and mountains of cash which will surely follow his success. Lightning’s obnoxious behaviour has driven away his crew and he doesn’t have any real friends but, hey, who needs them when you’re as big a star as he’s about to become?

The race doesn’t go entirely to plan, however, and Lightning is involved in an unprecedented three-way tie with legendary car The King and perennial second-place car Chick Hicks. A rematch between the three contenders is scheduled in California one week later, but disaster strikes for Lightning en route; he gets lost and finds himself alone on Route 66, eventually getting himself into a spot of bother in the rustic, backwater town of Radiator Springs. He’s trapped there until he fixes up the damage he caused upon his arrival, and the prospect of winning the Piston Cup grows fainter by the day.

As I watched this all unfold my heart gradually started to sink. The opening section of Cars doesn’t immediately engage you in the way their films so often do, and as Lightning’s dreams of glory were visualised on screen in such a brash and loud fashion, I struggled to see how I could really care about these characters. This is the first Pixar film to take place in a world entirely free from humans and the initial effect is jarring. At the racetrack scene which opens the film, the cars are not simply doing the racing; they’re in the stands, in the pits, commentating on the action - even the tiniest bluebottles have four wheels.

John Lasseter, directing his first film here since Toy Story 2 (along with the late Joe Ranft), is clearly passionate about cars of every shape and size, but it takes a while for the audience to feel the same way. Pixar’s army of animators have a done a terrific job in anthropomorphising these vehicles - their grills and bumpers form their mouths, and the windscreen (not the headlights, a smart move) are their eyes - but even so, it takes a while for us to really believe that there’s a heart and soul underneath all that metal and glass.

Things start to look up when Lightning finds himself in Radiator Springs, and the supporting cast begins to make its mark on the picture. The real star of Cars is Mater, a buck-toothed, rusty old tow-truck voiced brilliantly by US comedian Larry The Cable Guy. Mater is an innocent character, trusting to a fault, who instantly adopts Lightning as his new best friend, and it’s at this point that the film finally starts to generate something resembling genuine emotion. The theme of friendship has been the main staple of Pixar’s pictures, and while the moral lessons inherent in Cars aren’t delivered with a great deal of subtlety, there’s a heartfelt sweetness about this central pairing which is hard to resist.

Other characters are good value too. Bonnie Hunt’s Sally is a sexy Porsche who wins Lightning’s heart, Paul Newman plays cranky old Doc Hudson with a suitable amount of grizzled gravitas, and a lot of laughs are provided by the Ferrari-obsessed Italian pair Guido and Luigi (Tony Shalhoub and Guido Quaroni). George Carlin stars as one of Cars’ most inspired creations - a multi-coloured VW van from the 60’s who speaks of conspiracies in his stoner drawl and makes his own ‘herbal’ fuel (“the 60’s weren’t good to you, were they?” suggests army jeep Sarge). The detail and affection with which these characters have been brought to life is Cars’ saving grace. As ever, each actor is a perfect fit for their role; and while the supporting characters may not prove as memorable as those from Toy Story or Finding Nemo, they’re certainly endearing creations in their own right.

As you might expect, Lightning’s stint in this dead-end town proves to be a blessing in disguise, as he begins to learn the error of his arrogant ways and starts to truly appreciate the important things in life, and the simplicity of the film’s narrative arc is its biggest flaw. Lightning’s dawning self-realisation feels rote, and the film’s lazy pacing allows the story to get sidetracked too many times on the way to its predictable destination. At least Cars gives you plenty to look at along the way though, with this film marking yet another brilliant achievement in animation. The cars themselves all look superb, from the old rust-buckets to the gleaming Porsches and Ferraris, and the astonishing detail in the near photo-realistic surroundings is simply beautiful.

Therein may lie the problem, though. Lasseter has created this film not only to celebrate the cars he loves, but also as a nostalgic homage to the attitudes and morals of a particular time and place which he feels has been lost in today’s modern world. But his desire to showcase these passions in all their splendour has robbed the film of much of its narrative drive; and there seems to be a lack of purpose to many of the scenes which help push the film’s running time towards the 120-minute mark.

There is just about enough Pixar magic left in the tank to carry this film successfully over the finishing line. Cars is an extremely patchy piece of work, but Lasseter swiftly moves up the gears in the final half-hour to deliver a big race climax which is as involving as it is thrilling. Most viewers will ultimately leave the cinema satisfied, and Cars certainly is a perfectly decent slice of family entertainment; but Pixar have set themselves the highest possible benchmark, and they should be aware that films as humdrum and straightforward as this are normally the domain of the animation houses lagging behind in their rear-view mirror. At the moment, however, there seems to be little danger of Pixar being overtaken; and it’s reassuring to know that they still guarantee a good time at the movies, even when they’re cruising.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Review - Miami Vice

Michael Mann has come a long way since Miami Vice. In the last twenty years this Oscar-nominated director has established himself as one of contemporary cinema’s foremost filmmakers; with his clinical, constantly evolving style marking him out as arguably the most technically proficient and meticulous American director since Stanley Kubrick. But Mann’s breakthrough came with the seminal 80’s cop show, which followed two detectives investigating Miami's crime underworld. He never directed an episode, but as producer he became the driving creative force behind the programme; ensuring its blend of gritty storylines, decadent production design, garish visuals and hip soundtrack became a hugely successful combination.

They say you should never go back, but Mann has never been afraid of drawing inspiration from his former works. His 1995 magnum opus
Heat was a revamped, big-budget version of his 1989 TV-movie LA Takedown, and now Mann has gone back to Miami to bring Tubbs and Crockett back to life once more. But this time he’s doing it on his own terms, unburdened by the constraints and conventions of television, and viewers who flock to the new Miami Vice looking for a nostalgia trip are going to be sorely disappointed.

This is not the
Miami Vice you’ve seen on TV. There are no palm trees or pastel shirts, the palette is a mix of muted blues and greys, and the tone is deadly serious. Mann’s fascination with the minutiae of police work has intensified with every crime film he has made, and Miami Vice is a cop movie which is more detailed, brutal and efficient than anything we’ve seen in years.

Michael Mann has stripped this
Miami Vice down to the bone, and he throws us right into the action without wasting time on introductions. Not a single credit or title card appears before we find ourselves in a Miami nightclub, as Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) take charge of a sting operation. We are fed the details bit by bit as the two detectives coolly observe the dance floor, watching their target do business right in front of them. The camera moves like they do - smooth, slick, wary - and the pulsating dance music energises the sequence. The man they are watching is a pimp, and when one of his heavies mistreats one of his girls, Tubbs is quick to react. He breaks the culprit’s fingers, Crockett snaps another man’s leg; but the main man makes a clean getaway. “His time will come” Crockett reassures the seething Tubbs; but right now, something bigger has just come up.

Crockett receives a phone call from former colleague Alonzo (John Hawkes) whose cover has been blown, and who in turn has blown the cover of two FBI agents working a drug cartel. He knows he and his family are as good as dead. Crockett tries to garner as much information as he can from the hysterical Alonzo and then calls it in (“it’s 11.47-o’clock on Saturday night, and this is the hand we have been dealt”). Summoned to a meeting with their boss (Barry Shabaka Henley) and FBI bigwig Fujima (Ciarán Hinds), they are given a new task. Fujima can no longer trust any of the units he has been working with until he finds the original source of the leak, and he needs two men to step into the breach. Tubbs and Crockett will pose as high-level drug transporters, and will endeavour to illuminate the operations of kingpin Montoya (Luis Tosar) from the inside.

This sounds like a pretty basic ‘undercover cops’ set-up, and much of
Miami Vice doesn’t stray from the narrative territory a number of standard films of this type have covered before - but those films didn’t have Michael Mann at the helm. Shooting in high-definition digital video, Mann and his superb cinematographer Dion Beebe (who also shot Mann’s Collateral) take potentially uninspiring material and manage to infuse it with such atmosphere, such beauty, such grandeur; that we are utterly intoxicated by it. From the glistening cityscapes which envelop the night scenes, to the spectacular oceans which stretch as far as the eye can see, the film has a strange, almost hyper-real quality at times which elevates the material far above the usual boundaries of its genre. Mann pulls off stunning visual coups in practically every scene, and his use of real-world locations gives the film a remarkable sense of place; even as this geographically twitchy picture leaps from one country to another with confusing haste.

Miami Vice is confusing for other, more basic reasons than its frequent globe-hopping. Mann’s script quickly gets bogged down in crosses and double-crosses until we - to paraphrase Tubbs - don’t know which way is up. The overall shape of the story remains clear enough, but Mann’s more intricate plotting is obtuse to the point of utter incomprehension at times. The film’s cause isn’t helped by the fact that some of the characters’ dialogue is inaudible, with lines often being mumbled by actors speaking in a variety of thick accents. There’s a fine line between complex storytelling and outright disarray, and Mann sadly crosses that line a few too many times.

Eventually, I felt the best course of action would be to forget about trying to follow the minor plot points, and instead I decided to simply appreciate everything
Miami Vice gets right. Fortunately, amid the confusion, Farrell and Foxx never fail to hold the viewer’s attention in the lead roles. In particular, Farrell comes out of his shell to deliver a compelling, confident, authoritative performance which dominates the film. His illicit affair with Montoya’s woman Isabella (Gong Li) becomes the film’s central focus during the second half, as Crockett risks compromising his goal for the sake of a dangerous romance. Farrell and the impressive Li (despite her halting delivery in her second language) spark up a tangible chemistry, and Mann directs a couple of brief sex scenes which are notable for their sensitivity and intimacy.

With Farrell taking centre-stage, Jamie Foxx is somewhat sidelined; but in his third collaboration with Mann, he gives another solid and assured display. However, the real treasures of
Miami Vice lie in the supporting roles. Luis Tosar - so powerful in 2003’s Take My Eyes - gives a cool and chilling portrayal of kingpin Montoya; the ever-impressive Eddie Marsan is enjoyably energetic in his brief appearance as a rattled snitch; Naomie Harris is fiery and soulful as Trudy - a member of Crockett and Tubbs’ task force as well as being Foxx’s lover; and John Ortiz excels as the dangerous middleman Jose Yero. Does any other filmmaker assemble his supporting casts as imaginatively and effectively as Michael Mann?

Miami Vice is ultimately too cluttered and impenetrable to really stand alongside Michael Mann’s best work, but a weak Michael Mann picture still beats most of Hollywood’s standard output. While it may be flawed, the film still manages to encapsulate everything I love about Michael Mann's films. I love the way his characters on both sides of the law are always consummate professionals (no bumbling crooks or wisecracking cops here), I love the way he shoots his locations to make them come alive in a way we’ve never seen before, and I love the way he handles big-scale action sequences - hurling you right into the hail of gunfire and making you feel the impact of every bullet.

Above all, it’s a pleasure to be watching a film made by a master director who is constantly pushing himself and all those around him to the limit.
Miami Vice is a summer film made by adults, for adults; and Mann doesn’t compromise his dark vision, while still managing to deliver thrills aplenty. The final forty-odd minutes are absurdly exciting, and I came out of the cinema feeling like this was the way Michael Mann had always wanted Miami Vice to be - dark, dirty and seductive. As one small concession to the nostalgia hunters, Mann ends the film with a Phil Collins songs over the end credits. It’s like the eighties never went away.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Review - The Break-Up

You don’t see many mainstream films taking risks these days. With such massive sums and stars’ profiles on the line, most filmmakers elect to stick to the tried and tested rules, and to churn out films which fit neatly into their assigned genres. So it’s hats off to The Break-Up for trying to do something a little bit different to the standard romantic comedy; instead of a couple falling in love, we get a couple falling apart; and it’s a film which aspires to the acerbic, tit-for-tat fun of something like The War of the Roses.

But while we may applaud The Break-Up for taking a different route, we can’t ignore the fact that the film is a miserable failure.

The couple in question here are Gary (Vince Vaughn) and Brooke (Jennifer Aniston). The opening scene tells the story of their first meeting; when Gary spotted her at a baseball game and sweet-talked her into dumping her boyfriend to be with him. His unorthodox approach must have worked like a charm, because the opening credits which follow are compiled of snapshots detailing their subsequently happy life together. When we next meet Gary and Brooke, they’re a couple of years into their relationship, and are living comfortably in the condo they’ve bought together. Then the cracks start to appear.

The cause of tonight’s tension is a dinner party at which Brooke and Gary’s families will meet for the first time. Brooke is exasperated with Gary’s unwillingness to help her prepare, as he slumps lazily in front of the baseball highlights after she has spent all day cleaning and cooking. The dinner is a twitchy affair, particularly when Brooke’s closeted but clearly gay brother makes Gary visibly uncomfortable; and after the guests have left, the inevitable clash occurs. Brooke finally unleashes all of her pent-up frustration as she chastises Gary for his laziness, his selfishness and his perceived lack of appreciation for her efforts. Gary appears bemused at first, then indignant; and the argument ends with their relationship appearing to be in tatters. Is there any way back for Gary and Brooke?
The Break-Up has been sold with the tagline “Pick a Side”, but the film makes it awfully hard to make a choice. We don’t really know who these people are, we know hardly anything about their relationship, and in the early scenes they bothcome across as fairly dislikeable people. He’s a lazy, self-absorbed slob. She’s an uptight, shrieking harridan. Which side are we meant to plump for here?

But let’s be patient. Perhaps the movie will eventually reveal a little more about these two characters, and maybe it will give us some sort of insight into the reasons their relationship has faltered. Alas, it’s not to be. The Break-Up instead settles into a slack rhythm of half-formed, ill-conceived comic situations as Brooke and Gary each attempt to get the upper hand, and to gain control of the apartment neither wants to lose. They divide up the property, with Gary taking the living room as his bedroom and - as it’s his territory - he childishly decides he can do what he wants in there. This includes playing rock music at full volume, leaving the place looking like a tip with his crisp packets and beer cans all over the place, and inviting his buddies over for evenings of pool and strip poker - with a group of actual strippers.

Brooke, oddly enough, believes there’s still some reason to try and get back together with Gary, and she starts a campaign to make him jealous enough to realise what he’s losing. This includes a bizarrely incongruous sequence in which she gets her pubic hair waxed and parades in front of him naked, and a series of dates with other men whom she always brings to the flat first to make sure Gary’s well aware of her intentions.

The question is, why is Brooke going to all this effort for a waster like Gary? She is more successful than him, she seems to be the only one putting any sort of effort into their relationship, and she has eligible bachelors lining up for her at the art gallery she works at - what on earth does she see in this 12 year-old she has somehow been lumbered with? The movie never gives us an answer to that, and even though the film has three writers credited (screenwriters Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender, along with Vaughn himself), none of them seem to have the faintest idea where this story is going. The Break-Up consists of individual scenes which are shoehorned into place whether they fit with the overall narrative arc or not; and when each supposedly humorous scene dies a lonely death, director Peyton Reed simply pushes it aside and moves us on to the next one.

With such a flimsy script, the filmmakers must have been banking on the rapport between real-life couple Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn to bring the movie to life - Bad call. Vaughn and Aniston may have fallen for each other during the making of The Break-Up, but whatever chemistry they share stays strictly off-screen. They spend 100 minutes arguing and screaming and shouting at each other here, but they may as well be acting in different movies such is the lack of heat the pair generate together. Aniston is OK; she at least manages to inject a little emotion into her performance, but her film performances are all becoming very similar and she doesn’t seem to be able or willing to really extend herself beyond the comfort zone of Friends’ Rachel. On the other side of this domestic war, Vaughn is disappointingly lacklustre, and his limited acting style - alternatively jabber-mouthed sarcasm or slack-jawed laziness - may work well in traditional comic roles, but not when his characters require a little more depth.

Vaughn does manage to build up a genuine sense of rapport with one of his co-stars though; his old Swingers buddy John Favreau, who turns in a nicely understated turn as Gary’s loyal but violent best friend, and their scenes together are probably the best in the film. The supporting cast is so often the saving grace of a bad romantic comedy, but unfortunately none of the other bit-part players here can match Favreau‘s efforts. Judy Davis overacts horribly as Brooke’s boss, John Michael Higgins can do little with his gay stereotype role (the film even recycles the old “gay man bursts into song at the dinner table” routine, to excruciating effect), and Vincent D’Onofrio has a few tics and mannerisms but no real character as Gary’s brother.

This curious film plods its way through the dull to-and-fro of Gary and Brooke’s relationship - like a simple-minded and severely diluted version of Scenes From a Marriage - until things finally run their course. I suppose you could say that the way The Break-Up chooses to end is quite interesting, but I really didn’t care by that point. The lack of empathy this film stirs up for its two protagonists really is startling, and late attempts to wring some sort of pathos out of this couple’s situation ring resoundingly hollow. What a strange piece of work this is, a romantic comedy utterly lacking in romance or comedy, and with no insight or emotion to fill the gap. It simply sits flaccidly on the screen, expecting us to care for this couple without giving us a reason to do so. It was never going to work; and while breaking up may be hard to do, The Break-Up is painful for all the wrong reasons.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Review - Superman Returns

At the start of Superman Returns, the Man of Steel has been away from earth for some five years. When a group of astronomers discovered what may have been remnants of Krypton, Superman (newcomer Brandon Routh) disappeared in an attempt to find some trace of home, to find his place in the universe. It proves to be a futile quest, and when he finds nothing but empty space out there he returns to earth, to the farm where he was raised as Clark Kent. But while much has remained as it was before he left, some important things in his life have changed dramatically. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) - the Daily Planet reporter who has long been the unwitting object of Clark’s affections while she pines for his alter-ego - has moved on since her hero’s disappearance. When Clark turns up for his first day back at the paper, he’s stunned to discover that Lois is engaged and she has a five year-old child. If that wasn’t already bad enough, she has also received the Pulitzer Prize for an article entitled “Why the world doesn’t need Superman”. Ouch! Clearly Hell hath no fury like a jilted journalist. Superman Returns has been a long time coming. Since his last cinematic outing, 1987’s unspeakable misfire Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, there have been countless aborted attempts to get the character back onto the big screen. Every actor and director in Hollywood seems to have been linked with the project at some stage, with various far-fetched scenarios considered and trashed. Now we finally have ourselves a movie. Bryan Singer, the filmmaker who helped revitalise the comic book movie with his brace of X-Men pictures, has taken on the gargantuan task of bringing this classic character to a new generation of filmgoers. But should the all the failed attempts at a new Superman movie over the past two decades have warned him that this is a poisoned chalice best left alone? In an age of brooding, complex comic book films; is there still room for such a straightforward character who nobly stands for “truth, justice and the American way”? After the hundreds of casting suggestions we’ve heard, can Singer find an actor capable of inhabiting the twin roles of Superman and Clark Kent, which Christopher Reeve so brilliantly made his own? In short, perhaps Lois Lane was on to something - does the world really need Superman Returns? Whether we need him or not, he’s back; and he’s not the only one. Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is back on the scene too, having escaped prison on a legal technicality and with his bank balance bursting thanks to his swindling of an elderly benefactor. Lex has a plan which, disappointingly, is a lazy rehash of the scheme Gene Hackman cooked up for the original Superman film of 1978. This time he has managed to get his hands on a few magical crystals which he uses for all manner of nefarious acts, such as cutting out the power to the entire city, and when combined with Kryptonite these crystal will help Lex create a new continent from under the sea; a continent people will pay through the nose for as much of the United States will be underwater. As plots hooks go, property development is pretty unexciting stuff, and it’s the first of many missteps Superman Returns will take. Singer has wisely decided to expunge any memory of the third and fourth entries in the Superman franchise, and his film is something of a continuation of Superman II, but it never really manages to find its own identity. The central story is banal and Superman’s periods of mournful self-examination slow things down further. This is often an unfocused, poorly structured piece of filmmaking which can’t seem to settle into a comfortable rhythm, and which finds its thin script becoming increasingly stretched as the 157 minutes trundle by. The pacing of the film is absurdly poor, with the various high points quickly being followed by frequent longueurs in which dull exposition or clunky dialogue is the order of the day. This is a shame, because when Superman Returns works it really does fly. The action sequences are tremendous. Singer’s direction of them is confident and imaginative, and he has a skill for generating the kinetic rush of Superman in full flight. The film’s first big set-piece, Superman’s rescue of a plane in peril, is a real show-stopper, and all of the important moments thereafter manage to hit the right note. A night-time flight with Superman and Lois is a lovely interlude, the enormous shockwave which rattles Metropolis is smartly done, and a late sequence in which a weakened Superman takes a beating from Lex’s henchmen is powerfully depicted. Superman fans can also take pleasure in Singer’s nostalgic efforts to link the film to the earlier pictures; Marlon Brando’s performance as Jor-El is resurrected, and it’s hard to hear John Williams’ classic theme without having the hairs stand to attention on the back of your neck. Throughout the film Singer strikes a careful balance between creating a film which acts as a continuation of those early pictures, whilst also delivering a blockbuster which stands on its own two feet. In this respect, the fact that Brandon Routh looks and sounds unerringly like the late Christopher Reeve works for the movie. Routh has some mighty big red boots to fill here. When I re-watched Superman and Superman II recently, I was struck by the subtle brilliance of Christopher Reeve’s performance. It’s not easy to play both an invincible hero and a clumsy weakling in the same picture, but the nuance and depth Reeve brought to both sides of his display really is the driving force behind those pictures. Routh doesn’t stray too far from that template. He never quite seems as comfortable in Clark Kent’s skin as Reeve was, but he certainly looks the part as Superman. But the earlier films didn’t just have Christopher Reeve, they also had Margot Kidder, who gave such a memorably feisty turn as Lois. Here, Kate Bosworth takes on the role and she instantly looks all wrong for it. She’s too young, too fresh-faced, too weak; Lois should be a streetwise, sassy woman, and Bosworth really struggles to get to grips with a character she couldn’t be more different to. She’s not a terrible actress, but she’s a pretty limited and uninteresting one, and she never strikes up the same sort of chemistry with Routh that Kidder had with Reeve. Having said all that, Bosworth gives a pretty decent performance under the circumstances, but when you’re miscast you’re miscast, and there’s not a lot you can do about it. Lex Luthor, however, is well cast. Spacey takes on the villainous role with a camp relish, and the visible enjoyment he gets from playing the part is infectious. He shouts and sneers and flounces his way through the picture, but he also tones down the affectations to provide a genuine sense of malevolence when he gains the upper hand on Superman late in the day. Spacey seems to have been languishing in the post-Oscar doldrums for quite some time now, with a series of soggy, message-laden pictures which didn’t do his abilities justice; but here he’s witty and sly, and it’s just a pity his world-domination plan is such a damp squib. There’s a terrific movie in here somewhere, but it’s buried under too many conflicting styles and overburdened by religious and mythical imagery. We get references to Prometheus, Icarus and Atlas among others; and the film’s religious symbolism is not hard to miss. These references are, of course, in line with the ambitions of Bryan Singer to make this more than a mere superhero movie - to make it a love story, an epic - but they confer a solemnity on the picture which tends to make it feel heavy-legged. The sloppy final 15 minutes is interminable, and almost scuppers the whole enterprise, ensuring the film fizzles out rather than having the rousing finale it needs. But I came out of Superman Returns liking the picture in spite of its myriad flaws. It’s a likeable film. It has been crafted with care and attention, it’s absolutely gorgeous to look at (credit Newton Thomas Sigel’s breathtaking cinematography), and the central trio of Routh, Spacey and, to a lesser extent, Bosworth give effective and charming performances. Ultimately, there’s simply no denying the thrill of seeing the man in the red cape zoom across the screen performing incredible feats, and Singer’s unwieldy film just about manages to overcome its deficiencies to make us believe a man can fly once again. It’s great to see Superman back on the big screen, even if it is only a slight return.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Review - District B13

There’s style over substance and then there’s Luc Besson. In the past decade Besson’s name has become a byword for flashy, slick and generic actions films which display a blatant disregard for such fripperies as character or story to concentrate on elaborate fight scenes and huge explosions. Besson hasn’t directed these films - having not directed since 1999’s atrocious Joan of Arc - but instead he has acted as producer and often writer on the pictures, allowing a number of young directors to take the reins.

Films like The Transporter, Transporter 2, Unleashed and the Taxi series have rarely provided anything worth commenting upon. They’re broadly entertaining, if you like that sort of thing, and they offer plenty of undemanding, slick and utterly disposal action. District B13 initially looks like it will just be more of the same from the Besson stable, but this one is a little different.
District B13 has a gimmick. The film has been selling itself as “the free running movie”, as the two central actors are experts in the field of Free Running, or Parkour as it was originally known. Parkour is the French sport - for some, a way of life - in which participants push their bodies to the limit as they attempt to get from A to B by going over, under or around any obstacles in as quick and fluid a manner as possible. There are elements of both athletics and martial arts inherent in Parkour, and the sight of experienced practitioners of the art leaping across tall buildings, up walls and through narrow gaps is a joy to behold.

Most British viewers will be familiar with Parkour through the Channel 4 documentary Jump London, which featured a small group of Free Runners defying gravity and logic as they gracefully jumped across such London landmarks as The Tate Modern, The Globe Theatre and HMS Belfast. For District B13, however, two Parkour experts are back on home territory.

The place is Paris, and the year is 2010. Social order seems to have broken down completely in this dystopian view of France’s future, and certain ghettos have been cut off from civilised society by huge walls. One of these subsections of the city is the notorious District B13, a lawless hell hole which is filled with every possible kind of criminal, thug and drug dealer. Even the cops have had enough and, in an echo of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (surely an influence), they’re packing up to let District B13’s inhabitants fend for themselves. Only one man seems interested in restoring law and order to the neighbourhood he grew up in; local ex-con Leïto (David Belle).

Belle was one of the original creators of Parkour, and within the film’s opening moments we see his extraordinary skills in full flow. Leïto is first seen destroying a consignment of cocaine which he stole from District B13’s Kingpin Taha (Bibi Naceri), and when Taha’s thugs come calling, he makes his escape in thrilling style. Belle hops, skips and jumps his way past the gun-toting characters on his tail. He bounces off walls, landing punches and kicks to his bewildered opponents; he flies through a window, hundreds of feet above the ground, and grabs a hanging rope to swing his way into another window. When Leïto finds himself in a tight spot - trapped in a small room with Taha’s men on the other side of the door - he astonishes us all by jumping through the transom window above the door! Buster Keaton pulled a similar stunt in his 1921 short The Goat, but Belle performs his incredible stunt feet first. In fact the comparison with Keaton is apposite. Both men are small, wiry characters with an extraordinary spring in their step; they’re strong as an ox, and yet seemingly made of elastic.

The opening to District B13 is a fabulous piece of action filmmaking, with first-time director Pierre Morel draining full mileage out of Belle’s ability to fly around the narrow stairwells and treacherous rooftops of his building. After a while, however, we have to stop all this high-kicking fun to allow something resembling a plot to unfold. To be honest, District B13 doesn’t have much in the way of story: a truck carrying some sort of devastating bomb has been hijacked and the bomb has found its way into the hands of Taha. Unorthodox Parisian cop Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) is given the task of smuggling his way into District B13, hooking up with Leïto along the way, and defusing the missile within 24 hours. Despite his initial mistrust, Leïto is willing to act as Damien’s guide to the district, but he has his own agenda, as Taha is holding his sister captive.

Have you all got that? Right then, let’s get back to the fun part. Once Damien and Leïto have joined forces District B13 slips into action mode and doesn’t look back. With such a flimsy foundation being provided by its second-rate Escape From New York-style script, it’s down to Belle and Raffaelli to keep us riveted, and they handle this task in fine fashion. The fights come thick and fast, and the film finds ever more ingenious ways to drop our heroes into peril. The great thing about watching this stuff is the fact that so much of it feels real. 90% of the film’s action sequences were created with no recourse to special effects or wire work, and the extra little thrill of knowing that Belle and Raffaelli’s athletic skills are all their own certainly adds to the film’s appeal. The pair are inexperienced as actors, but they deliver their lines in a suitably macho monotone. Raffaelli, a former stuntman, is passable as the upstanding Damien; but it’s David Belle who really shines as his partner. The brooding Belle displays a wider range of fighting and acrobatic skills, and he also exudes much more charisma than his occasionally wooden co-star. Perhaps a new action star is born?
District B13 has been scripted by Besson and Bibi Naceri (who stars as Taha), and it’s as light as you’d expect in the characterisation and plot department. The dialogue is generally awful, it’s a little too sadistic in parts, and I really disliked the whiff of misogyny which surrounds the film’s treatment of Leïto’s pretty sister Lola (Dany Verissimo). In fact the film is riddled with holes and would probably fall apart under any sort of scrutiny, but Morel keeps things moving at a rollicking pace - from the ultra-kinetic credits sequence onwards - and barely gives you enough time to let such flaws get in the way of the overall enjoyment. As a former director of photography, Morel ensures the film looks great, and it has that slick, polished sheen which Besson always brings to the party.

There’s one final thing which surprised me about District B13. This is a dumb, loud and shallow action film; but recent events in France, when racial and political tensions spilled over into widespread rioting, have almost given it a sense of relevance. Could this ludicrous and wildly entertaining film also be seen as a social commentary? Given Besson’s heavy-handed scripting, perhaps not. He gives Raffaelli a clumsy speech towards the end of District B13 which tells us that “violence doesn’t solve anything”. Noble sentiments Mr Besson, but those words may have carried a little more weight if the man delivering them hadn’t just spent 85 minutes kicking lumps out of anyone who got in his way.....

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Review - The Wind That Shakes The Barley

Congratulations to Ken Loach. The veteran British director was awarded a long overdue Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his latest film The Wind That Shakes The Barley. It is a fitting recognition for a filmmaker whose entire body of work has been marked by an intelligence, passion and refusal to compromise, which has seen his films shine like a beacon through the last four decades of British cinema.

What a shame Loach has received this honour for one of the weakest films of his career.

Ken Loach has never shied away from tackling difficult, pertinent issues in his films, and
The Wind That Shakes The Barley sees the director taking on a period in history from which the repercussions are still being felt today. The film takes place in Ireland in 1920 and details the fledgling days of the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, as they fought for independence against their oppressive British rulers. It is Loach’s most ambitious film since 1995’s Land and Freedom, a film with which it bears notable similarities, but while The Wind That Shakes The Barley has been made with sincerity and care, it rarely challenges or enlightens the viewer, and it never touches the heart.

The Wind That Shakes The Barley focuses its attentions on the O’Donovan brothers Damien (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Padraic Delaney), two young men from a small village in Cork. Damien is on the verge of fulfilling his dream of becoming a doctor, and will leave for his new position in London in a few days. After the friendly hurling match which opens the film, Damien receives a few good-natured jibes from his friends about working for the English, but most of the community is proud to see one of their own making something of himself. Their afternoon pleasure is short-lived however, as they are ambushed by a group of Black and Tans - British soldiers sent to suppress any thoughts of Irish independence - and when Micheail, a young man who only speaks Gaelic, cannot give one of the soldiers his name in English, he is viciously murdered in front of his family.

Damien’s friends’ determination to rise up against the British regime is only strengthened by this savage act, but pacifist Damien advises against such actions, given the British army’s superior numbers and firepower. A few days later, Damien is ready to leave for his new life in England; but his journey is interrupted by an incident at the station in which a train driver refuses to carry any Black and Tans on board, and takes a brutal beating as a result. Witnessing this terrible scene, Damien has a sudden change of heart and heads home to join his older brother Teddy in pledging allegiance to the IRA; and this small band of rebels begin staging guerrilla-style attacks on the British forces, their numbers slowly growing as Irish citizens around the country join their cause.

Loach’s depiction of Irish life in the 20’s is atmospheric and authentic, the film contains a number of striking sequences, and the performances throughout are heartfelt and effective; but these strong aspects of
The Wind That Shakes The Barley never quite come together to form a convincing whole. Paul Laverty’s screenplay offers sketchy characterisation and simplistic storytelling, and Loach’s passionate support for the underdog leads him to unbalance the film with his one-dimensional portrayal of the British.

Anyone who appears in
The Wind That Shakes The Barley wearing a Black and Tan uniform or speaking in a British accent will invariably be swearing, shouting, beating somebody up or finding some other way to abuse their power. There’s no doubt that the British soldiers did commit some brutal acts against the Irish in this period, and that the soldiers’ own experiences in the Great War may have informed their actions (a point Loach briefly acknowledges), but their portrayal here is too much. The Irish kill too, of course, but only when justifiable and their actions often lead to plenty of soul-searching afterwards. Even one of the few British characters who actually gets some sort of character to work with, landowner Sir John (Roger Allam), is still a painfully one-note bastard - a curled moustache away from being the villain in a 1920’s two-reeler.

This is not subtle stuff from Loach. There is little of the complexity or nuance he normally brings to his films and the morality is black-and-white. There is poor characterisation on both sides of the divide, and few of the Irish really come to life either. Cillian Murphy is once again impressive in the lead role, bringing dignity and tenderness to the part, but the transformation Damien undergoes is hard to swallow. He preaches pacifism when his friend Micheail is murdered, but then he gives up his career as a doctor and his socialist ideals to join the IRA when he spots a stranger being beaten at the station. Later, when his brother Teddy is ready to accept a compromise from the British, Damien continues fighting for complete independence. We never really fathom what drives this character as he goes from timid appeaser to passionate freedom fighter.

As Teddy, Padraic Delaney also gives a solid performance, and the film becomes much more interesting in the second half, when the relationship between the two brothers becomes the central issue. After the British declare a truce, offering partial independence, Teddy becomes part of the new Free State Army and finds himself and Damien on opposing sides. Their struggle escalates to a finale in which some tough choices have to be made, and it was around this point that
The Wind That Shakes The Barley finally started to come to life. This is what Loach does best; exploring issues and making political points by boiling the film down to the human drama at its centre. The director has been working this way for decades, but he seems to have lost his sense of focus here and the film never really engages on an emotional level.

There are things which
The Wind That Shakes The Barley does very well. The film is beautifully shot by Barry Ackroyd and individual scenes are exceptional. One standout is a sequence in which Damien and Teddy have to watch as a group of Black and Tans terrorise Damien’s sweetheart Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald) and burn her family’s home, as they don’t have the ammunition to take them on. Another scene which hits the right note takes place in a local court, during a money dispute between a landlord and elderly tenant. One side of the IRA fighters want to see the landlord appeased because they can use his money to buy arms, but another faction wants justice to be done, and a passionate speech from Dan (Liam Cunningham) questions the importance of winning independence if they won’t do the right thing by their own people. Cunningham gives one of the film’s finest performances, adding weight and gravitas where it’s most needed, and his delivery of this speech is passionate and powerful.

The Wind That Shakes The Barley rarely musters up the energy required to be passionate or powerful itself. Paul Laverty’s schematic screenplay is handled in a surprisingly stodgy, lethargic way by Loach, and the film ultimately offers a flat and empty experience. I’m astonished that this distinctly average film has won the Palme d’Or, and I think it’s a clear case of the jury rewarding the man rather than the film. That’s about right; Loach deserves every plaudit for his extraordinary career, but The Wind That Shakes The Barley doesn’t deserve any of the awards bestowed upon it.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Review - Hard Candy

There are few issues facing society today which provoke as much fear, anger and disgust as paedophilia. Nothing is more likely to strike horror into the hearts of parents, and a special kind of contempt is reserved for those who commit these terrible crimes. With such an emotive and delicate subject matter, it is imperative that cinema should tread carefully when venturing into this particular territory. Occasionally, filmmakers get it right, such as Todd Solondz’s bleak and brilliant Happiness or Nicole Kassell’s The Woodsman; but it’s very easy for a filmmaker tackling paedophilia to get it spectacularly, horribly wrong. Guess which category Hard Candy falls into?

Hard Candy is the controversy-courting tale of a fourteen year-old girl and a man two decades her senior. The film opens on one of their internet chatroom conversations - her using the name Thonggrrrl and him under the pseudonym Lensman - and the flirtatious, teasing banter between them suggests this is by no means their first encounter. The conversation ends with the pair making plans to finally meet.

The location for this rendezvous is a café named Nighthawks. Thonggrrrl is actually Hayley (Ellen Page), a softly-spoken, tomboyish teenager who aspires to be taken as an adult but still takes a childish glee in her chocolate dessert. Lensman soon appears in the shape of Jeff (Patrick Wilson), and he hardly fits the stereotypical view we have of what an internet predator looks like. He’s tall, handsome, intelligent and charming, and these early scenes are queasily plausible. The pair seem to share plenty of common interests, and Jeff is increasingly impressed with his young friend’s maturity. Ellen is alternately coy and brazen, and before long she has invited herself back to Jeff’s apartment. As soon as Jeff agrees to take her home, you know it’s a decision he will come to regret.

Screenwriter Brian Nelson has come up with a potentially clever conceit for
Hard Candy; a film about paedophilia in which the young girl is the hunter, not the prey. Jeff and Hayley knock back a few drinks at Jeff’s apartment, but then he makes the mistake of allowing Hayley to mix him a drink out of sight and, after losing consciousness, he awakes to find himself tied to a chair with a fierce and vengeful teenager standing over him. She is nowhere near as weak and defenceless as she first appeared, something Jeff is about to find out the hard way.

It’s just about this point at which
Hard Candy begins to unravel. The film’s collapse is gradual at first, with the unnerving set-up and skilful performances managing to maintain the viewers’ interest during the early stages. But Nelson and director David Slade keep boxing themselves into corners as they try to continually pull the rug from under the viewers’ feet and play with our emotions; and Hard Candy eventually spirals out of control, becoming more ludicrous and unpleasant every step of the way.

Hard Candy is a battle of wits between Hayley and Jeff. He’s a photographer who has a penchant for shooting semi-clad underage girls, but he claims its simply part of his job. Hayley accuses him of ‘grooming’ her over the internet, but he says he was genuinely interested in her, with their shared interest in Goldfrapp and Zadie Smith (this is one of the film’s oddest aspects; that Zadie Smith is held up as the height of sophistication) bringing them together. Throughout the film Nelson and Slade carefully hide the truth about Jeff’s alleged paedophilia; plenty of evidence is stacked against him, but much of it is circumstantial and he seems to have a convincing answer for everything Hayley throws at him.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to believe in any of this, and it’s even harder to care. If Hayley had been a more plausible 14 year-old then perhaps her actions would have carried more weight, but this is a 14 year-old girl who is a vengeful psycho, who knows every intimate detail about Jeff’s life, and who can lift an unconscious, fully-grown man into various positions and tie him up in knots. In truth, Nelson’s premise is not really strong enough to be stretched across this
Hard Candy’s 103 minutes, and although the subject matter is a pertinent one, the film ultimately emerges as little more than a cheap torture fantasy; a film which aspires to Takashi Miike’s Audition, but comes closer to the nasty amorality of Eli Roth’s Hostel.

The film’s centrepiece scene is one in which Hayley takes surgical measures to remove Jeff’s “weapons” and prevent him from committing more of the crimes which she believes he is guilty of. This is a horrible sequence and it proves startlingly effective thanks to Slade’s decision to focus on the two characters’ reactions and steer clear of showing anything graphic, but this is the exception for Slade rather than the rule. Too much of
Hard Candy's action is directed in hectic, abrasive fashion; with shaky camera work, colour filters and intrusive music making this unpleasant tale difficult to watch for all the wrong reasons.

Hard Candy
’s long and uncomfortable castration sequence is guaranteed to have male viewers wincing and crossing their legs, but it acts as something of a dead end for the film’s narrative, and after Nelson employs an outrageous cheat to get things moving, the subsequent action becomes little more than a run-of-the-mill slasher movie. The filmmakers seem to forget what the film was originally about at this point, and the final third could be any two anonymous people chasing each other around the house with knives. It’s generic, pointless and excruciatingly dull.

This is a shame, because there are two outstanding performances being thrown away here. When a film is a essentially a two-hander it’s imperative that both performers are right at the top of their game; and
Hard Candy benefits from two of the year’s finest pieces of acting (Sandra Oh has a late cameo, as possibly the world’s most stupid woman, but it‘s mostly confined to the central pair). As Hayley, Ellen Page gives an astonishingly assured performance which possesses a maturity beyond her tender years. Page’s ability to play both the innocent teen and the vicious torturer is a sight to behold, and she can switch moods without skipping a beat. Her victim Jeff is played with great sensitivity by Patrick Wilson, who infuses the character with feeling but maintains a level of ambiguity; it’s an extraordinarily committed performance from Wilson who acts as if his life, and his balls, really are on the line.

It’s just a pity the efforts of Page and Wilson weren’t devoted to a more worthy project.
Hard Candy is a nasty piece of work; utterly lacking in meaning and vaguely offensive for the way it uses this painfully serious subject for what is ultimately little more than an ugly exploitation flick. Nelson and Slade have nothing to offer beyond the initial disorientation of their set-up, and the film is just a long, distasteful wallow in pain and suffering. Hard Candy contains two of the best performances you’ll see anywhere this year, but they don’t offer enough to make me recommend this shoddy and empty exercise in provocation.