Monday, August 28, 2006

Review - Volver

There’s a lovely joke during the early stages of Volver, which occurs just after a Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) has been cleaning up the aftermath of a bloody murder. A neighbour knocks on the door to drop off some keys, and when Raimunda answers the door he notices drops of blood on her neck. He asks her if she’s OK, and she flatly tells him it’s just “women’s problems”. That, in essence, is the central theme of Pedro Almodóvar’s work: the problems of women. No male director since Cukor has been more naturally attuned to the trials and tribulations of the fairer sex, and Volver sees Almodóvar plunging once more into femininity after the male-dominated Bad Education. The result is simply glorious.

The word Volver means ‘to come back’ or ‘return’, and it proves to be a most appropriate appellation. Not only does the film see Almodóvar telling a female story once more, it also marks a return for the writer/director to his native La Mancha; and it reunites him with Carmen Maura, his former muse, who last worked with him on 1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown before the pair had a very public falling-out. With Maura and Cruz on board for a passionate tale of love and death, this is everything you expect from a Pedro Almodóvar film and more.

In a career-best performance, Penélope Cruz stars as Raimunda; an unfulfilled woman, living with her layabout husband and teenage daughter, whose life is about to be turned upside down. Raimunda’s mother Irene (Carmen Maura) died in a fire three years ago, but local gossip suggests her ghost has been spotted in the town, a claim backed up by Raimunda’s Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), who says Irene has paid her a visit and even helped with the cooking and cleaning. Raimunda dismisses this as the ramblings of an old woman on the brink of senility; and in any case, she has much more pressing matters to attend to. When Raimunda returns home one night she finds her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) in a distressed state, and in the kitchen she sees why. Paula’s drunken stepfather tried to force himself upon Paula, causing her to defend herself with a kitchen knife, and his lifeless body is now lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

This is where the plot begins to spin into all sorts of directions, with Raimunda’s comical attempts to dispose of the body followed by her finding a new lease of life when she takes charge of her neighbour’s restaurant. Meanwhile, her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas), a part-time hairdresser, has a vision of Irene for herself; and Augustine (Blanco Portillo), who has just discovered that she is suffering from terminal cancer, beseeches Raimunda to find out what happened to her mother, who vanished shortly after the fire which claimed Irene’s life.

Having made his name with films notable for their garish, camp excesses, Almodóvar’s work underwent a startling transformation with his 1997 film Live Flesh, and since that point his films have grown in maturity and substance, while still maintaining the hint of melodrama which he handles so well. Everything since Live Flesh has been a indisputable triumph for the director, with All About My Mother and Talk to Her winning Academy Awards, and if there’s any justice Volver will achieve similar acclaim.

Almodóvar presents us with a number of disparate plot strands and spends two hours weaving them together in leisurely fashion. His control is absolute, and by this stage in his career it feels almost effortless. Returning to his native La Mancha - where, it is said, the constant high winds drive the women of the town to madness and early graves - seems to have given Almodóvar an extra surge of creativity, and he lets Volver reach a higher pitch of emotional intensity than his most recent pictures have managed. As ever, your reaction to the film will depend on your ability to buy into the story Almodóvar insists on telling and accepting all of the absurdities, fantasy elements and far-fetched plot developments which he incorporates so seamlessly into the narrative; but those who do so will be handsomely rewarded.

In any case, Penélope Cruz is on hand to anchor the picture with a performance which absolutely took my breath away. I’ve never really been impressed by Cruz before now; she’s been fine in a couple of Spanish-language roles, notably her previous collaborations with Almodóvar, but her performances have been nothing special, and the less said about her attempts to act in English the better. But in Volver - Wow! Working with Almodóvar on this picture appears to have completely transformed Cruz; she achieves a subtlety of performance and reaches depths of emotion which she has never before seemed capable of. Almodóvar has saddled her with a prosthetic backside to give her a curvier shape, and he shoots her adoringly throughout. She’s sexy, strong, resourceful and sympathetic; she has never acted better or looked more beautiful. It’s unquestionably one of the year’s finest performances.

Almodóvar is a generous director, though, and he never allows the rest of his cast to be overshadowed even if Cruz is quite obviously the picture’s star. Carmen Maura makes the most of her opportunity to work with the director once more, and she appears to be having a whale of a time as the flatulent ghost whose reappearance causes so many complications. Whether she’s hiding under the bed or pretending to be a Russian immigrant, Maura gives a sprightly and charming performance; and when family secrets are revealed late on, she instils her scenes with a genuine sense of sadness and regret. The dependable Lola Dueñas is terrific here, offering a brilliant display of comic acting, and Blanco Portillo is heart-rending as the ailing Augustina. What an extraordinary roster of female performances Volver contains; no wonder the Cannes jury awarded the Best Actress prize to all of them.

But while Volver sees its entire female cast on such supreme form, the film is really all about Almodóvar. His mastery of filmmaking technique is a joy to behold; and his ability to slip from comedy to tragedy with such ease and such fluidity never fails to impress. As ever, his style is very easy on the eyes and ears; José Luis Alcaine’s cinematography is vibrant and evocative, with Almodóvar’s use of primary colours as effective as ever, and Alberto Iglesias’ score is a perfect accompaniment to the onscreen action - not least the Bernard Herrman-style strings which are used during Raimunda’s body-disposal efforts.

This is just a wonderful film. In truth, it’s doesn’t really mark any sort of advance for Almodóvar on his previous work, but when he does what he does so well it seems churlish to complain. Nobody else in the world makes films quite like Pedro Almodóvar, and Volver is yet another brilliant effort from a master filmmaker who just seems to get better and better. If All About My Mother was dedicated to mothers everywhere, then Volver is a paean to all women - an acknowledgement of their strength, spirit and compassion - and this splendid tribute is one in which we can all take pleasure in sharing.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Review - Lady in the Water

An old proverb says "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me”. Over the past six years M Night Shyamalan has fooled an awful lot of people. He came out of nowhere to write and direct The Sixth Sense, an affecting modern ghost story with a humdinger of a twist; but the greatest trick Shyamalan has pulled so far may have been his ability to fool people into thinking he's still the great filmmaker which he himself appears to think he is, and to convince the public that his films still have some sort of worth, even as the quality of his output has deteriorated at such an alarming rate.

The standard of his films reached their absolute nadir with The Village; a ponderous and baffling turkey which slowly built to one of the most nonsensical twists imaginable. At least, we all thought, Shyamalan couldn't get any worse. Could he?

Shyamalan's latest film is called Lady in the Water, and whether on not it marks a new low for the director is hard to fathom. My head is still reeling from the sheer awfulness of this picture, but I'm still not exactly sure what it is that I've just seen. What on earth is Shyamalan trying to pull with this insane tale of Narfs, Scrunts and stuttering superintendents? He has billed Lady in the Water as a 'bedtime story', after developing the film from a tale he told to his children - were they as utterly perplexed and bored during the telling as I was? I suppose Shyamalan can count his film as a success in one respect at least; his bedtime story is a pretty strong incentive to drift off into a blissful sleep.

For what it's worth, this is the story. The action takes place at The Cove apartments, which are run by a stammering superintendent with the rather Dickensian name of Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti). Cleveland is a kind-hearted old lump, shambling amiably through his daily chores, but an innate sadness and air of loneliness seems to be weighing him down. Cleveland lacks a sense of purpose in his life, but a chance to change all that occurs when he discovers a naked young lady swimming in the pool after hours. This is Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a water nymph or 'Narf' who has travelled from the Blue World on an important mission. Now, pay attention.

Story must find a writer who is writing a book called The Cookbook - only it's not a real cookbook, it's actually a collection of thoughts and ideas which will one day inspire a US President who will change the world for the better. The writer of said tome is living somewhere in The Cove, and a number of other residents have some sort of pre-ordained role to play in this cock and bull tale, but Story doesn't know for sure who any of them are. Story also has to deal with the presence of a 'Scrunt' who will stop at nothing to stop her from fulfilling her task. A Scrunt is a vicious dog-like creature which lurks in the bushes and is very hard to spot as it is completely covered in grass. There's still a chance the Scrunt may be ambushed by the Tartutic, though; they're a trio of evil monkeys who are also lurking in the surrounding trees somewhere. All Cleveland has to worry about is helping Story in any way he can; she needs to inform the writer of his importance before the giant eagle arrives to take her back to the Blue World. I am not making any of this up.

The extraordinary thing about Lady in the Water is the way Shyamalan fills scene after scene with exposition, and yet it still doesn't make an ounce of sense. The explanations start even before the opening credits, with a short sequence of stick figures detailing the backstory, but Shyamalan's attempts to clarify this preposterous tale even further only serve to muddy the waters. Cleveland learns the purpose of Story's visit in chunks from a pair of ill-advised Asian stereotypes, and these scenes are simply excruciating to endure (in particular, Cleveland has to pretend to be a child to hear the story. It's worse than you can possibly imagine). The film keeps explaining and re-explaining itself, but nothing ever adds up. Shyamalan exacerbates this problem by arbitrarily changing the rules of his imagined world in order to navigate the holes in his narrative. It's a cheap trick, which kills the film stone dead. You can spin a tale as fantastical as you like, but it must maintain some sense of internal logic to really work; and when the person telling the story is continually moving the goalposts, any semblance of tension or consequence is quickly lost.

The more one looks at Shyamalan's career, the more The Sixth Sense appears to be a fluke. It caught us off guard, and its biggest asset was the central trio of understated, touching performances from Bruce Willis, Hayley Joel Osment and Toni Collette. But Shyamalan has struggled to catch that same lightning in a bottle a second time, and his subsequent work with actors has never been as strong. Lady in the Water does benefit from the casting of Paul Giamatti in the central role - he really tries to invest Cleveland with a sense of warmth and dignity, and he comes closest to making his character appear to be a real person - but the rest of the cast appear to be carved from stone, as if Shyamalan has seen dead people and decided to place them all in his movie.

Bryce Dallas Howard, the one bright spot in The Village, has nothing to work with here and she spends most of the film staring dumbly ahead, her attempts to express serenity leaving her with a permanently glazed expression. Such fine actors as Jeffrey Wright, Bob Balaban and Freddy Rodríguez are given embarrassingly short shrift; but Lady in the Water's most astonishing casting decision lies elsewhere. Shyamalan, who has mostly restricted himself to Hitchcockian cameos thus far, has decided the pivotal role of the writer whose work will change the world should go to none other than himself. It's either an act of staggering hubris or rank stupidity, but the man simply can't act to any level of competence, and his inert performance and complete lack of screen presence drains the life from every scene.

What a pointless, vapid waste of time this is. Is it meant to be scary? It isn't. Is it meant to be funny? It isn't. The film seems completely rudderless, as if Shyamalan simply wrote down every idea that popped into his head one night and set himself the challenge of giving it all some sort of narrative shape. Whatever he is trying to do with Lady in the Water he fails in every possible way. It doesn't even offer the sheen of professionalism which his previous films displayed. The great cinematographer Christopher Doyle gives the film a flat, dull look; and the night scenes are so murky it's often hard to follow the action. James Newton Howard's score fails to instil the film with any atmosphere, or give it any extra dimension. The dialogue, almost without exception, is lousy. Lady in the Water is a dull, humourless and utterly incoherent slog.

But of course, this is all grist to Shyamalan's mill. At times it seems Lady in the Water has been created solely as a sneaky retort to all the critics who finally exploited the holes in Shyamalan's work when they slammed The Village. Bob Balaban's character is a snide, smug and conceited film critic who is held up as a figure for derision, and who ultimately finds himself face to face with a Scrunt for having the gall to voice his opinions. "What kind of person would be so arrogant as to presume the intentions of another?” Shyamalan asks through Jeffrey Wright's character, and this is the crux of the issue. To truly appreciate Shyamalan's work, he seems to be arguing that we must see it through the eyes of a child, to lay down our critical faculties and regress to a state of unquestioning awe.

Sorry Mr Shyamalan, but it just doesn't wash; there's no way this worthless, self-indulgent and amateurish piece of work can be defended with such a facile argument. Writing these words may incur the wrath of the Scrunts, but the only conclusion one can reach after witnessing this mind-boggling folly is that Lady in the Water is a complete washout.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Review - Tideland

In 2003 Terry Gilliam signed on to direct a big-screen version of The Brothers Grimm for Bob and Harvey Weinstein, and most viewers saw it as a move which paradoxically could be seen as both a marriage made in heaven and a marriage made in hell. Surely Gilliam's unique filmmaking style and twisted sensibility could meld beautifully with the dark fairytales of the Grimms; but could he successfully implement his vision on the film under the fastidious control of the Weinsteins?

Predictably, production on The Brothers Grimm was dogged throughout by acrimony and frustration; and the film finally limped into cinemas in 2005, only to limp away shortly afterwards, having been derided by most critics as a hectic and confused mess. It was the same old story for Gilliam, a man whose work has never fit the Hollywood system, but this story has resulted in a curious side note.

During the six month stand-off which occurred between Gilliam and the Weinsteins, the director went off to make Tideland; a smaller film which he has said was something of a cathartic experience for him, an opportunity to escape all the constraints which surround big-budget productions and to rekindle his passion for filmmaking. But if Gilliam has indeed cut himself off from the usual obstacles which plague his films, then we can only assume he must take full responsibility for producing this barely watchable garbage.

Adapted from Mitch Cullin's novel of the same name, Tideland is the story of young Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland) who lives at home with her two junkie parents (Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Tilly). Her dad Noah is a burnt-out old rock star who is obsessed with taking a trip to the mystical Nordic fjords, while her mother is a shrieking and bloated woman who passes the time between her fixes by gorging on chocolate in bed. This life may seem an unhappy one to the outsider, but Jeliza-Rose seems happy enough; helping out dad by cooking up his heroin and preparing the needles for his 'vacations'.

Right from the start, the problems which blow wholes in Tideland's ambitions are all too evident. The performances are over-the-top, every action is thrust aggressively in the viewer's face, and the tone is relentlessly loud, loud, loud. This is Gilliam at his most, shall we say, idiosyncratic. He's a director who has never been the master of understatement and in Tideland he goes for broke, pushing everything to the very limit. If you like Gilliam's style then this may sound like a delicious prospect; but if you're not on board with Terry's magical mystery tour from the very first minute, you'll be in for a very, very long two hours.

At least things improve slightly when Gunhilda (Tilly) suffers an overdose and dies early in the picture, ensuring that at least one insufferable individual won't be bothering us any more. Jeliza-Rose dissuades her father from giving his wife a traditional Viking burial which would also burn the house down, and instead Noah whisks his daughter off to his childhood home on the prairies, leaving his former spouse to decompose in peace. Once the pair arrive at the house in which Noah was born and raised, they find it to be nothing more than a dilapidated shack, uninhabited for years. Noah sits down for another of his 'vacations', and Jeliza-Rose dutifully helps prepare his fix, but this vacation turns out to be a permanent one; and as Noah sits slowly rotting away in his armchair, Jeliza-Rose has to find other ways to entertain herself while she waits for daddy to wake up.

Jeliza-Rose's subsequent adventures manifest themselves through a series of fantastical scenes in which her imagination runs wild. But it is just a young girl's fervent imagination on display, or is insanity taking hold of Jeliza-Rose? Does she really believe her father is just sleeping, or is she simply unwilling or unable to contemplate the truth?

Gilliam attempts to filter everything through Jeliza-Rose here, to make us view the movie through her eyes alone, but he fails miserably. Jodelle Ferland is a bright, precocious presence; but her performance is much too mannered and theatrical, and it quickly becomes cloying. As she spends so much of the film alone, Jeliza-Rose has a group of dolls' heads which she has given names and wears as finger puppets, and she chats ceaselessly to these inanimate friends. Ferland has to carry the picture on her shoulders - appearing in almost every scene - but Gilliam has directed her to perform at such a pitch that nothing ever seems real. She is supposed to be displaying a whole kaleidoscope of emotions throughout the film; but whether Jeliza-Rose is feeling fear, awe or enchantment, nothing really registers with the viewer.

Frankly, Jeliza-Rose's trips into fantasy worlds never convinced me because they never seemed like genuine products of this young character's imagination. Instead, you can feel Gilliam straining to leave his mark on every frame of the picture, whipping up every scene into such a frenzy that at times the young lead looks as bemused as the rest of us. This is a staggeringly self-indulgent, grating and ugly piece of work. The effects look cheap and thrown together, the cinematography is alternately harsh and dull, and there isn't a straight camera angle in the whole damn picture. Rarely have I seen a film thrown together so haphazardly, by a filmmaker who really should know better.

Poor Ferland is at the mercy of her director's instructions, but some of the other actors in the cast should also know better than this. I've always thought that Jeff Bridges is an actor who can be relied upon to deliver a good performance, no matter how bad the film he's starring in may be. I shall have to revise this theory after Tideland, because Bridges' turn here is surely the nadir of his career. He's a boorish and immediately dislikeable presence when he appears on screen, and he shambles his way through his handful of scenes, spewing his lines out of the side of his mouth in an almost unintelligible drawl. In fact, I preferred Bridges once his character had died and was simply sitting motionless as his body wasted away.

The cast of characters is rounded out by Dell (Janet McTeer), a local witch who has an unhealthy interest in taxidermy, and her mentally handicapped brother Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), who strikes up a potentially dangerous relationship with Jeliza-Rose. The relationship between this childlike adult male and ten year-old girl may stray into shocking territory for some, but I was too bored by this point to be shocked by anything Tideland could produce. I had given up trying to engage with any of the characters or trying to find a single identifiable emotion in the film; and none of the increasingly extreme and madcap set-pieces Gilliam throws at the screen in the latter stages were going to overcome my antipathy.

Gilliam fans have claimed in the past that this director has been prevented from creating masterpieces by studio bosses who try to control him and prevent him from realising his wild visions. But what Tideland needed, more than anything, was for somebody to say no to Gilliam; for somebody to point out when he'd taken things too far. Instead, he was left to his own devices, and the result is two hours of almost unendurable bullshit which may test the patience of Gilliam apologists to the limit. Gilliam has spent years playing the role of the reckless rebel, claiming the whole world is against him; but the time may have come to acknowledge the fact that Terry Gilliam really is his own worst enemy.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Review - The Notorious Bettie Page

Who was Bettie Page? Well, most people will be able to tell you that Page was one of the most famous, or infamous, pin-ups of the 1950’s; notable in particular for her bondage pictures. From Mary Harron’s film The Notorious Bettie Page, viewers may learn that Page was born into a strictly religious Nashville family, suffered from all manner of sexual abuse during her formative years, and, after achieving fame with her saucy photos, she turned her back on the world of pornography and became a born-again Christian.

Those looking for anything other than the most basic information on Page’s life are advised to look beyond
The Notorious Bettie Page, as Harron’s infuriatingly shallow film doesn’t come close to giving us anything of substance.

The Notorious Bettie Page opens in 1955, towards the end of Page’s modelling career, and it finds our heroine (fetchingly played by Gretchen Moll) nervously waiting to be called before a senate enquiry into the affect of pornographic images on juvenile delinquency, which is being chaired by senator Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn, again proving the 50’s is his milieu). To while away the time Bettie begins reading a letter from her sister which opens with a memory of their childhood, providing Harron with the opportunity to segue clumsily into Bettie’s early days. These scenes could be interesting, the years in which the austere religious environment and the sexual abuse meted out to Bettie by her father would surely have had a huge bearing on her later attitude to sex and sexuality, but Harron seems determined to skip past all of this to get to the fun stuff.

Harron soft-pedals the sexual abuse situation to the point where we’re not exactly sure what, if anything, has occurred; and when Bettie is taken into the woods to be raped by a group of boys, Harron again fails to instil the picture with any kind of sexual threat. Coming from the director who made
American Psycho, a film which glistened with understated menace, the lack of any sense of impact or consequence from these incidents is a curious omission. As in both American Psycho and her earlier film I Shot Andy Warhol, Harron attempts to adopt a detached tone in her direction, viewing her subject in an objective, if slightly ironic, way. When allied to Christian Bale’s stunning performance in American Psycho, this approach worked a treat, brilliantly emphasising the coldness and lack of a moral centre to Patrick Bateman’s world; but here it seems to flatten the picture, preventing us from ever really getting under the subject’s skin.

The film’s early stages are humdrum and forgettable, and it only starts to find its feet when Bettie starts to shed her clothes. This is pretty apt, because Bettie herself seems a different, more vibrant character when she’s posing in front of a camera. Bettie stumbles into her career when she’s spotted by a policeman who moonlights as an amateur photographer on the beach. His suggestions about the way the light reflects off Bettie’s forehead leads to her adopting her famous hairstyle, and the modelling jobs soon start to pile up. A bikini-clad Bettie pouts from the front of magazines with such ‘wink-wink’ titles as
Batchelor, Whisper or Flirt, and she makes money with private sessions with a male photography club; but it isn’t until she hooks up with Irving and Paula Klaw (Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor) that her notoriety begins to grow.

The Klaws specialised in particular niche markets of photography, and bondage was the name of the game as Bettie and a couple of other girls tied each other up while wearing leather corsets and nine-inch heels, and took part in shabbily shot S+M films with titles like
Sally’s Punishment and The Second Initiation of the Sorority Girl. It was all a long way from Bettie’s wholesome God-fearing upbringing, but we never really learn what this sweet southern girl really made of all this stuff.

If you believe Harron’s film, Bettie Page was naïveté personified. When a photographer hesitantly asks her if she’ll remove the top half of her swimsuit, she thinks for a moment before replying “where’s the harm? It’s only a piece of cloth” and gladly unhooks her bra. When her boyfriend later discovers pictures of Bettie bound and gagged, she seems completely bemused by his reaction and she reassures him that it’s “just like playing dress-up” and tells him that they were “giggling all the time” during the shoot. She approaches every kinky shoot with the same wide-eyed, innocent girlishness; but did Bettie really not see the darker sexual aspect to her poses? Did she have
any opinion on the rights or wrongs of her career? She utters a few bland lines such as “Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden” and “God gave me the talent to pose and it makes people happy”; but it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re not being told anything like the whole story.

The Notorious Bettie Page doesn’t give us much food for thought, but it at least offers some pleasure with a delightful central performance from Gretchen Moll. She may not have seemed the ideal actress for this part initially, but when she dons a black wig Moll strikes an uncanny resemblance to Page, and she offers a supremely perky and lovable performance which helps hold the viewers’ interest while the movie flails in no particular direction. Moll really sells Page’s innocent demeanour and transforms herself when she’s posing in leather bondage gear, or in nothing at all. She seems completely relaxed and carefree in her nudity, and her enthusiasm is infectious. The Notorious Bettie Page gives Moll a few good supporting characters to work with too; Cara Seymour gives her usual strong turn as Bettie’s friend Maxie, and Jared Harris is hilarious as sleazy photographer John Willie. What a shame their performances are let down by the material.

The Notorious Bettie Page looks smart, with fine period detail and cinematography from Mott Hupfel which flashes between slick black-and-white and Douglas Sirk-style Technicolor. Unfortunately, the grainy stock footage which is occasionally spliced into the picture lends it a whiff of cheapness, and Harron introduces a number of kitsch montage sequences, set to a toe-tapping soundtrack, which are carefully placed to gloss over the holes in her narrative.

The Notorious Bettie Page is a huge disappointment; a mundane and uninvolving effort which barely skims the surface of Page’s life. Late in the film we see Bettie pick up a random Hispanic man on a Florida beach; who is this guy? Why did Page choose him? Page and this anonymous character are later seen living together but we still don’t know who he is - and this incident is symptomatic of the lack of depth and basic sloppiness which courses throughout the entire picture. Mary Harron’s film asks us to believe that Bettie Page breezed through life in a state of blissful ignorance and innocence, and only by viewing The Notorious Bettie Page through similarly unquestioning eyes could we really get anything from it. As a cinematic experience, it’s about as edifying as spending 90 minutes looking over the titular character’s old photos; and when the credits roll and the lights go up, Bettie remains a blank Page.