Saturday, September 30, 2006

Review - World Trade Centre

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who winced when they heard Oliver Stone was about to make a film based on the terrible events which occurred on September 11th 2001. He has made many films about iconic moments in American history, but surely a director who is as confrontational, unpredictable and iconoclastic as he would be the last filmmaker you’d trust with a subject that is still an open wound five years after the event? Stone is also one of cinema’s most inconsistent filmmakers, frequently capable of brilliance but rarely managing to produce a coherent film; and his last effort - Alexander - was the biggest critical and commercial flop of his career. This year has already seen Paul Greengrass’s dignified and almost universally acclaimed United 93, but what on earth would happen when Oliver Stone took on 9/11?

Stone’s World Trade Centre is the inspiring true story of John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, two New York Port Authority police officers who were in the wrong place at the wrong time when the towers collapsed, and they somehow lived to tell the tale. It’s an extraordinary story of courage on a day when New Yorkers from all walks of life went above and beyond to help strangers in need, and one wonders if Stone has the requisite sensitivity and subtlety to tell such a story. It’s hard to say, because World Trade Centre doesn’t feel like it was directed by Oliver Stone at all.

Clearly Stone is aware that he is treading on very thin ice when dealing with 9/11, and this knowledge appears to have caused this normally bullish director to retreat into his shell and create the kind of conventional, meek and sentimental film I never thought he’d produce. World Trade Centre is an old-fashioned disaster movie which celebrates the heroism of McLoughlin and Jimeno while carefully ignoring any causes, consequences or political impact of 9/11 (aside from one ill-advised point, which we’ll get to later). But in trying so hard to make a film which will please everyone, Stone has made a desperately dull and insipid movie which fails to do justice to the heroes at its core.

This is a shame, because World Trade Centre starts brilliantly. The opening half-hour is notable for its understated sense of normality, as Stone shows McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), Jimeno (Michael Peña) and various other officers gearing up for another average day. None of them could have had any idea of the storm they were about to walk into, and these early scenes manage the considerable task of taking us back to that pre-9/11 time when everything was just fine. After their roll-call, assignments and standard locker room banter, the cops head out onto the streets and a few minutes later their world changes forever. We don’t see the plane collide with the tower, just a fleeting shadow as it passes overhead, and we experience the low rumble as it hits the target. The cops are all called back to base and they stand around television sets as we all did that day - open-mouthed, speculating, hardly believing what they see.

McLoughlin leads a group of men down to the towers to take part in the rescue and evacuation process, and what follows is simply stunning filmmaking. With breathtaking authenticity, Stone has recreated the scene around the World Trade Centre on an enormous scale. The brilliant production design and seamless visual effects present us with a scene which is probably the closest we’ll ever get to knowing what it was like to be right there on 9/11. The sky is filled with dust, paper and smoke, bloodied survivors stagger away from the chaos, and as the small group of police officers approach their faces are filled with awe and terror. McLoughlin takes a couple of men on a search and rescue mission, but as they make their way across the concourse between the two buildings the first tower collapses, burying them under tons of rubble.

It’s about this point that World Trade Centre falls apart completely. With its two leading characters immobile, and with us already knowing the outcome, the film’s narrative momentum stops dead after the first half an hour. Debutant screenwriter Andrea Berloff blatantly struggles to work her way around this troublesome detail, and the tricks she resorts to are staggeringly banal. McLoughlin and Jimeno chat to each other, hoping to keep both themselves and each other alive, but the words Berloff puts into their mouths are mostly of the “tell my wife I love her/don’t you die on me” variety, the kind of stuff Hollywood disaster movies have been engaging in for decades. The actors do what they can in this difficult situation and Cage, unable to utilise the mannerisms which often afflict his performances, gives a heartfelt and gritty display which is one of his most effective pieces of acting in years. Peña is a likeable presence and he makes the most of his more expressive role; but neither actor can make this dialogue or their thinly-sketched characters come to life, and Stone can’t do anything fresh or interesting with these rote scenes.

McLoughlin and Jimeno spend much of their time underground having soft-focus flashbacks of their wives Donna (Maria Bello) and Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and the ladies’ frantic worrying as they wait for news of their husbands’ fate gives Stone the chance to expand his film beyond the confines of Ground Zero. Unfortunately, neither woman can really give World Trade Centre the emotional depth it so badly needs. Again, it’s not the actors’ fault - the reliable Bello is exceptional once more and Gyllenhaal is good despite being hamstrung by a badly-written character - but Berloff’s script here is once more low on characterisation while high on cheap emotional manipulation, and Stone’s unfocused direction drifts between Donna, Allison and their husbands without letting any strand of the film build up a head of steam.

Admittedly, there are times when World Trade Centre stirs the emotions and brings a lump to the throat, but I found that those times were linked more to the film evoking my own memories of 9/11 rather than Stone effectively engaging us in this story. The tremendous opening sequence is powerful precisely because it is such a vivid re-enactment of what we all saw on that day - it’s almost a Pavlovian reaction which causes these images to tug at the heartstrings. The most powerful moment in United 93 for me was simply the shot of the second plane hitting the tower, and the sight all those people watching stunned and impotent, as we all were that day. The reality of 9/11 is something so powerful no drama can really hope to match it, and certainly not when it is given the tacky treatment Stone indulges in here.

It’s strange to see Oliver Stone dealing with the most important event of the past decade and not engaging in any political commentary at all, and perhaps it’s a blessing that we aren’t getting the usual paranoid, ranting conspiracy theories which would be most inappropriate here. But halfway through the film we meet Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon, storming around the place like a wild-eyed serial killer), an ex-US Marine who watches the events unfold on TV and then decides he is needed at the scene to do what he can. “I don’t know if you know this” he tells his co-workers as soon as he sees what’s happening “but we’re at war”, and after he has helped rescue Jimeno from the wreckage he says “they’re going to need some good men out there to avenge this”. We are then told that Karnes re-enlisted in the Marines and subsequently served two tours of duty in Iraq, and this seems a strange aspect to suddenly introduce into the film. One of the saddest things about 9/11 is the way the Bush administration has shamelessly hijacked the incident to justify their war in Iraq, and after Stone has been so carefully apolitical in his direction of World Trade Centre it seems an odd, and somewhat crass move to draw this direct link between 9/11 and the war so unnecessarily.

But I suppose that sums up the kind of muddle this film is. There are moments when you can see the old Stone pulling off the visceral and stylish pieces of filmmaking he’s capable of, but otherwise this unspeakably bland film could have been directed by any hack in Hollywood. Oliver Stone has made worse films than World Trade Centre, he has made some which are downright unwatchable, but I don’t think he has ever made one as uninteresting or anonymous. His attempt to make a mainstream, crowd-pleasing picture has seen him completely surrender his artistic sensibilities to produce a film unworthy of the events it tries to honour. I suppose you could forgive an American filmmaker if he used a 9/11 film for a spot of flag-waving, but who could have guessed Oliver Stone’s flag would be white?

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Review - Keane

Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane (which thankfully has nothing to do with the former footballer or the painfully insipid band) is a film about the kind of person we see on the streets every day. You know the type; head down, purposeful stride, muttering incoherently under his breath. Occasionally he’ll try to engage a stranger in conversation, or start ranting at some imaginary foe, and most of us will simply do our best to ignore him, avoiding eye contact as we hurriedly walk away.

But this time Lodge Kerrigan won’t let us look away. In his sensational, riveting film, Kerrigan places William Keane (Damian Lewis) front and centre, making him the focus of every single scene, making us see the world through his eyes. Almost a year ago William’s six year-old daughter Sophie disappeared while she was in his care at a New York bus terminal, and he has subsequently become a man on a mission. Wracked with guilt, he spends his days searching every nook and cranny of the area in which Sophie was last seen; he accosts baffled passers-by with a old newspaper report, pleading with anyone and everyone for information on the little girl in the photograph. When his perennially fruitless days draw to a close, William Keane loses his nights in a haze of booze, drugs and random sex.

William Keane is not an easy character to like or even empathise with at first, and many viewers will understandably balk at the idea of spending 100 minutes in the company of such an obsessive, unstable character; a man whose grip on sanity is tenuous at best. Kerrigan doesn’t make it easy for us either; shooting with handheld cameras, no musical score, and utilising natural light only to ensure no hint of fakery can shroud the film’s raw emotions. It sure is a tough journey, but those viewers who do stick with Keane will be richly rewarded.

In fact, there is one very good reason to give Keane your full attention. In the challenging lead role Damian Lewis produces a display of staggering skill and bravery, giving an incredibly authentic depiction of a man staring into the abyss. Kerrigan keeps his camera close to Lewis, probing away inches from his face as if he’s literally trying to get inside his head, and the actor responds by inhabiting the role of William Keane to an unnerving degree. He mutters unintelligibly to himself like a man possessed, a tangible sense of fear and confusion is constantly recognisable in his eyes, he seems completely lost in his own thoughts. Sometimes his brittle self-control slips, and he lashes out violently at anyone who gets too close. These outbursts are abrupt, unpleasant and terrifyingly real.

For the first forty-odd minutes of Keane, Lewis’s remarkable performance is all we have to work with. Kerrigan doesn’t take time to indulge in any sort exposition or scene-setting before throwing us into William Keane’s story, and for a while we find ourselves as disoriented as the central character. Slowly, Kerrigan feeds us scraps of information, and we gradually begin to piece together this portrait of a man whose life is defined solely by this quixotic quest he has dedicated himself to. At one point he catches sight of a piece of purple cloth lying in a field - just like the jacket Sophie was wearing when she disappeared - and his explosion of excitement at this brief ray of hope all but cracks the lens, until the crushing disappointment second later when he discovers nothing but a tatty old piece of cloth. Still, his search continues.

Wisely, Kerrigan understands that the viewers’ patience with William Keane’s futile search will probably not stretch to feature length, and halfway through the picture he throws a couple of new characters into the mix. William makes contact with Lynn (Amy Ryan) a woman living in the same run-down hotel as him while her husband is away looking for work. He has been gone for some time now, and when William hears that she is struggling to pay the rent he happily lends her some cash. Lynn is not alone, though, and she has a young daughter named Kira (the amazing young actress Abigail Breslin) in tow, a girl who is pretty much the same age as Sophie was when she disappeared. The introduction of these new faces into William’s life gives Keane some sort of narrative shape, and takes the film into increasingly troublesome territory.

Soon after their first meeting, Lynn asks William to pick up Kira from school when she’s unable to do so, and she also entrusts him with her daughter’s care when she has to go out of town unexpectedly. This plot development will require a leap of faith on behalf of the audience, as they watch a mother hand her daughter over to a man she barely knows, but we are so involved in Keane’s story by this point that few will quibble. William treats Kira with care and attention, and we see glimpses of the caring father he must have been for Sophie. The pair grow closer and William appears to be using her as a lifeline, to slowly ease himself back into the real world. William still has moments when he comes close to snapping, but the presence of this girl seems to calm the waters which rage beneath his surface. Some filmmakers might give this relationship between an unbalanced stranger and trusting child an exploitative paedophile shading, but even when William washes Kira’s hair in the shower his affection never seems anything other than paternal.

There is, however, a final twist which makes the film’s closing moments even tougher to experience than what has gone before. Despite his best efforts to look after Kira, William makes some decisions while she’s in his care which place her in peril, and Kerrigan ratchets up the tension in this final 15 minutes to an almost unbearable pitch. It is astonishing, emotionally lacerating filmmaking which left me breathless.

The final words in Keane are “I love you”, and the film fully earns the tears this emotional climax provokes. Kerrigan ends the film on a conciliatory - even hopeful - note, rewarding those viewers who have invested so much in William Keane’s journey. This is one of the best films of the year - an unflinching and gripping drama which completely immerses us into this man’s tumultuous world. When we were first introduced to William Keane we might have been quick to dismiss him as ‘crazy’, and be unlikely to care about the circumstances which made him this way; but when the final credits have rolled we just see him as a damaged soul, as human and fragile as any one of us. That is the true triumph of Keane.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Review - The Black Dahlia

Once upon a time, Elizabeth Short was just another aspiring young actress arriving in Hollywood with dreams of stardom. Those dreams were never realised, but Short didn't just sink into obscurity as so many women like her have done down the years. Instead, her death made her something of a legend. On January 15th 1947 Elizabeth Short was murdered. She wasn't just murdered though; her body was bisected, her internal organs were removed, her blood was drained and her mouth was cut from ear to ear, giving her corpse a grotesque smile. Dubbed 'The Black Dahlia', the case perplexed the Hollywood police force, and the perpetrator of this shocking crime was never found.

And that was it, until James Ellroy decided this unsolved murder would be the perfect basis for a crime novel. He created a story around Elizabeth Short's death which followed two fictional detectives who become too involved emotionally and psychologically with the case. The result is one of his finest books; a gruesome, twisted and immensely readable tale of sex, violence and corruption. The Black Dahlia was part of Ellroy's 'LA Quartet', a quartet which also included LA Confidential.

The shadow of LA confidential looms large over Brian De Palma's screen adaptation of The Black Dahlia. James Ellroy has never been an easy writer for Hollywood to swallow - his books have all the elements which make great thrillers, but his dense plotting, psychological complexity and extreme violence have seen few filmmakers willing to take on the challenge of bringing his books to cinematic life. That all changed in 1997 when Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland turned Ellroy's LA Confidential into one of the best Hollywood films of the past decade. Their screenplay is a consummate lesson in how to effectively adapt a labyrinthine novel, by cutting away anything remotely extraneous, smoothing out the narrative and boiling the story down to its essential ingredients. The Black Dahlia is a consummate lesson in how not to adapt James Ellroy.

Hanson and Helgeland excised and condensed a huge amount of plot to make LA confidential work, but The Black Dahlia's screenwriter Josh Friedman has just thrown sizeable chunks of undiluted Ellroy onto the screen, creating a lumpy, inconsistent film which gets bogged down in details and never finds a satisfying rhythm. To be fair, the film starts promisingly, with the boxing match organised between detectives 'Bucky' Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) allowing Bucky to ruminate on their first meeting, a meeting which occurred during an skilfully depicted riot. During this flashback we are also introduced to Lee's girlfriend Kay (Scarlett Johansson), a seductive blonde siren, and the trio become seemingly inseparable friends. But when the Elizabeth Short case rears its ugly head, the film quickly has trouble managing the various subplots and ramifications which come with it, and it grows increasingly strained, before slipping into outright hysteria.

The Black Dahlia simply gets lost in a haze of exposition. Friedman tries to compensate by writing a lot of explanatory voiceover for Bucky, but there's far too much of it, and Hartnett's passionless reading quickly grates when it pops up with such frequency. Ellroy's pacing of his story was flawless, allowing his characters and their relationships time to develop while never losing sight of the investigation at the centre of the story, and he times his revelations for maximum impact. But De Palma's film grows more wayward and unsure of itself with every passing minute.

The actors also seem to get lost along the way. Surprisingly, Josh Hartnett actually pulls out a decent performance here; his monotone, straight-up style might not be particularly apt for the constant narration, but it fits the role of Bucky quite nicely, and he manages to give his part much more depth than his usually callow displays have managed. The other performer who stands out is Mia Kirshner who makes brief appearances as Elizabeth Short in brief audition footage and a clip from a porn film she made. Kirshner brings heart and ambiguity to the film, making Short an intriguing and touching character despite her scant screen time. What a shame everyone else shows up with the worst performances they can muster.

Aaron Eckhart can be a witty, effective actor, but here he expresses Lee's increasing obsession and instability by grimacing, shouting and repeatedly throwing things across various rooms; and Scarlett Johansson is woefully miscast as Kay, the supposedly irresistible woman who comes between the two detectives. It's as if De Palma's sole direction to her was "just stand over there and look sexy”, and Johansson responds by pouting, lounging across various pieces of furniture, and standing uneasily in her underwear, all of which is done in as cold and unsexy a manner as you can imagine. She never seems to have a grasp of what function her character is meant to serve, she speaks her lines as if it's her first time reading them, and she doesn't know quite what to do with herself when she's not the focus of the scene. De Palma occasionally occupies her by shoving a cigarette holder in her mouth. He might have taught her how to handle one first.

Hilary Swank also pops up to show that a two-time Oscar winner can gives just as bad a performance as these young bucks, but there's only one actor in The Black Dahlia whose efforts will stick with you when the credits have rolled. Fiona Shaw plays Ramona Linscott, the wife of a rich construction magnate and mother of the character played by Swank, and in her two scenes she offers a performance so over-the-top, so unsuitable, so plain weird, it simply beggars belief. I guess Ramona likes a drink or two, and Shaw stumbles around the set, pulling faces and slurring her words until they become almost unintelligible. Not a single piece of scenery remains unchewed, and Shaw's insane turn throws the whole climax of the film off-kilter. It really is one of the most misguided pieces of acting I've ever seen, and if The Black Dahlia wasn't such a bore I'd almost recommend it for the sheer novelty value of Shaw's circus act.

Alas, it is a terrible bore, and not even De Palma's trademark flashy tricks can liven things up - we get the usual Hitchcock references, we get point-of-view tracking shots, we get depth of field split-screen shots. Intermittently, something will spark, and De Palma does pull off one or two stylistic coups. There's a terrific crane shot which reveals the discovery of Short's body while Bucky and Lee are staking out a place around the corner, and De Palma brings some of that Untouchables/Carlito's Way magic to a well-crafted staircase shoot-out.

The story of The Black Dahlia will continue to intrigue and confound long after this film has been forgotten, and anyone looking for a gripping tale of violence and obsession from Hollywood's seamier side is advised to visit their nearest bookshop instead of their nearest cinema. Brian De Palma's film is cold, limp and forgettable - It's everything James Ellroy's novel isn't.

Review - The Queen

Where were you on August 30th 1997? The day Princess Diana died in a car crash has become a milestone day in recent British history, the day a nation mourned not only the loss of a princess, but also the loss of a celebrity and icon. The momentous seven days which followed saw the country turn itself inside-out with grief, an unprecedented outpouring of emotion which brought life in this country to a standstill. Millions of inconsolable people flocked to London, mountains of wreaths were laid at Buckingham palace, and Elton John made some adjustments to his Candle in the Wind. It was a strange, strange time.

But during all the hullabaloo, there were a few notable people who were conspicuous by their absence. The Royal Family were staying in Scotland at the time of Diana's death, and while London was being overwhelmed with mourners, they refused to break protocol and make any public declarations on the matter. As the days went on, the silence from the Royals was deafening. Newspapers openly demanded some reaction from The Queen, the public were dismayed that there was no flag at half-mast over the palace, and national confidence in the Monarchy was being eroded by the day. While new Prime Minister Tony Blair took advantage of the nation's mood to cement his popularity, the Royal Family was facing its biggest crisis in years.

Diana's death, and the craziness which followed it, are the focus of Stephen Frears' hugely enjoyable The Queen. Scripted by Peter Morgan, the film successfully recreates the weird atmosphere which enveloped Britain at that time, and it allows us a peek behind the scenes to give us an idea of what exactly was going on in the corridors of power when some tough decisions were being made.

Frears opens the film on May 2nd, on the day Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) came to power with a landslide victory. The Queen (Helen Mirren) makes no attempt to disguise her suspicion at Blair's talk of 'modernisation', and their first meeting after his victory is a wonderfully tetchy encounter in which Her Majesty lets this young upstart know where he stands in no uncertain terms. But after Diana's death, modernisation quickly becomes the crux of the issue. The Queen believes in tradition, believes that things should be done a certain way, but she had never before dealt with an situation like this, and she quickly discovers that her views are completely out of touch with the mood of the nation.

By contrast, New Labour judges the prevailing atmosphere perfectly, and with Alistair Campbell (Mark Bazeley) manipulating events they manage to spin this enormous event to their advantage. The film becomes a complex battle of wills between the government and the monarchy; Blair urges The Queen to make some gesture of grief to satisfy the baying crowds, but she refuses to back down. Diana was no longer a member of The Royal Family, she reasons, why should this be anything more than a private matter? Why should she drop everything and rush to London before she has tended to the well-being of her grandsons? She is supported by The Duke of Edinburgh (James Cromwell), but Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) disagrees with her refusal to compromise, and he allies himself with Blair in a bid to win her round.

Both The Queen and Blair were trying to find their way through uncharted waters during this time, and Frears' reconstruction of a tense and sensitive period is smart and evocative. With judicious use of archive news footage he reminds us of the remarkable scenes which occurred around Buckingham Palace, and the splicing of the actors into this footage is smooth and effective. Frears' direction here is low-key and unobtrusive; he simply does what he can to allow Peter Morgan's gem of a screenplay to shine. He is also smart enough to realise that his cast are good enough to carry the film, and he's dead right about that.

This is by far the most intimate and audacious film portrait of a living monarch, and Helen Mirren has the intimidating task of bringing this intensely private woman to life. The Queen is depicted as strong-willed and reserved, but also witty and sarcastic on occasion; she keeps a tight rein on her emotions, and in one touching scene the film allows her to shed a few tears, but only with her back to the camera, refusing to articulate the real reason behind the incident. Mirren takes the role and works wonders with it. With a wig and a bit of padding she looks uncannily like Her Majesty, and she gives a performance which goes beyond mimicry, she breathes life into a woman we have only really seen from a distance and makes her a complex, fully-rounded human being.

Mirren will undoubtedly be in the frame when awards season comes around, but Michael Sheen's hilarious portrayal of Tony Blair deserves some recognition too. Sheen has been here before with Frears, he played Blair in the 2003 TV drama The Deal, which focused on the Prime Minister's relationship with Gordon Brown, and he reprises his role in The Queen with great relish. His Blair is bouncy, twitchy and eager-to-please, but he also possesses a keen sense of public relations and a steely determination to guide The Queen into new territory. Sheen nails the Blair mannerisms and voice, but like Mirren he generates a whole person beyond the public image. The two main characters in this power play couldn't be more different, and their central conflict is utterly compelling.

The supporting cast is brilliantly chosen too. James Cromwell is a hoot as a grouchy Prince Philip, and he gets big laughs with many of his lines, particularly when he dismisses the guest list for Diana's funeral as "a chorus line of soap stars and homosexuals”. Mark Bazeley wears a permanent smirk as a sly and sneaky Alistair Campbell, Alex Jennings adds an unexpected note of emotion to his role as Charles, and Roger Allam is excellent as The Queen's aide, whose loyalties waver when he realises the weight of public opinion is turning against the Monarchy. As well as being a smart and incisive look at the private sides of public figures, this is also one of the year's funniest films, with some lovely gags tossed into the mix. My favourite came up when Blair was told that Gordon Brown was on the telephone for him, and he replied with "tell him to hang on”. He's still waiting, Tony.

Eventually, The Queen came to London, made a speech, and life went back to normal. What The Queen gives us is a thought-provoking look at what a torrid time this must have been for the Royals. The public were quick to dismiss the Monarchy as cruel and unfeeling when they failed to put their grief on display for all to see, but who's to say they weren't suffering themselves as they experienced a seismic shift in public perception, threatening hundreds of years of tradition which their lives had been built upon?

There are a few flaws here and there, such as an occasional lapse into obvious metaphor and a clumsily handled outburst by Blair late on, but so much of the film is a triumph, and it feels churlish to quibble over minor details when we are presented with a British film of this rare quality. The Queen puts a human face on the Monarchy and tells the story in a balanced, intelligent and ultimately quite moving fashion. In their first scene together The Queen tells Blair that she has seen ten Prime Ministers come and go before him, and with Blair calling it a day next year she'll soon be able to chalk up number eleven. The Queen is still there, for better or for worse, and one can only have respect for the way she handled herself in these difficult times. As she says during the film, "this is how we do things in this country. Quietly, with dignity”.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Review - Children of Men

Cinema’s view of the future has never been a particularly optimistic one. For decades we have been presented with endless bleak visions of dystopian worlds plagued by violence, ruled by fear, and lacking in human warmth. Filmmakers have taken a look at the world we live in, and from that they have extrapolated only harsh times ahead for the human race. The future for planet earth is not bright.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men ticks all the usual boxes for a cinematic view of times ahead. There’s a society falling into anarchy, rebel violence on the streets, a yawning gulf between the few haves and the many have-nots, and a decline into oblivion which seems irrevocable. Children of Men takes place in a world where human beings can no longer procreate, no child has been born in over 18 years, and society has begun tearing itself apart as the inevitable end approaches. But this is not as distant a nightmare as you might imagine: This is London in the year 2027.

Why is the human race infertile? We don’t know, and we never find out. Pollution, genetic testing and drug use are suggested as possible factors, but for the most part it’s simply presented as a fact of life which has driven Earth’s population to madness. A TV screen displays scenes of terror and violence from around the globe, and refugees fleeing their homelands are flooding into London, only to be held in immigrant camps liked caged animals. Many Londoners seem to have accepted their fate, and adverts are widespread for an easy-to-use suicide kit called Quietus, providing a peaceful way out for anyone who can’t bear to stick around for the end of days.

But for most people life, such as it is, goes on; and one man just trying to get by is Theo Faron (Clive Owen). When the film opens he narrowly avoids being blown up in one of the regular acts of random violence which punctuate daily life, and a rattled Theo takes refuge with his old friend Jasper (Michael Caine), an ageing hippy who has plenty of theories about infertility and talks about the mythical ‘Human Project’ which may yet save us. Theo doesn’t seem interested in these ideas, but he’s dragged into the midst of the struggle when he is contacted by Julian (Julianne Moore), his former partner who now runs with a rebel/terrorist group, and who needs his help. They have an African refugee named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) who must be smuggled out of London to meet up with the Human Project. Miraculously, Kee is eight months pregnant.

Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón and British crime writer PD James may seem an unlikely match, but his adaptation of her rare foray into science-fiction is an inspired piece of work which transcends its genre conventions to create a genuinely thrilling, moving and provocative look at the future we’re making for ourselves. Cuarón has shown his taste for the most unlikely material - going from raunchy road movie Y tu Mamá También to Harry Potter with ease - and Children of Men is his best film yet. The director infuses the action with a nervous energy and paranoia, shooting entirely with handheld cameras, and he presents us with a vision of London in 20 years which is all too plausible.

The brilliance of Children of Men’s production design and camerawork cannot be overstated. In imagining what the London of 2027 may look like, the filmmakers haven’t overhauled the capital’s architecture or décor, but they’ve made subtle changes which reflect the crumbling society and sense of despair which is prevalent. Through the suitably grey and dreary cinematography, we see locations we recognise but not as we’ve ever seen them before; Admiralty Arch is now a heavily guarded checkpoint and Battersea Power Station is a refuge for a rich art collector. Cuarón often just gives us brief glimpses of the surrounding decay through the windows of buses and trains; glimpses which are more than enough to paint a scarily realistic picture of a city on the brink of collapse. He links many of the film’s images and themes back to the subjects of today’s headlines - fertility rates, immigration, pollution, terrorism - arguing that this world is what awaits us if these issues are left to fester.

Cuarón’s ability to craft a convincing environment for his film isn’t in doubt, but with Children of Men he also displays an extraordinary ability to create breathlessly thrilling action sequences, most of which are shot in long, unbroken takes. In particular, there are two scenes in this film which rank among the most exciting and nerve-wracking pieces of filmmaking I’ve seen for some time. The first occurs when the car Theo, Kee and Julian are travelling is ambushed on a country road, and their desperate attempts to escape are filmed in one seemingly continuous take with the camera never leaving the inside of the vehicle. Instead, Cuarón swings his camera around the car’s interior to focus on the passengers’ panic-stricken faces. It’s a bravura sequence, but the best is yet to come. Late in the film Theo finds himself in the middle of a refugee uprising, forcing him to make his way through a war zone to be reunited with Kee, and Cuarón films his perilous journey in a single jaw-dropping 12-minute take. Gunfire pings around his ears, buildings explode, people die by the dozen, and we follow Theo every single step of the way as this incredible passage of filmmaking leads to a moving conclusion. When the sequence had ended I was left exhausted, exhilarated and tearful; it’s simply magnificent stuff.

The director also does wonderful work with his actors. The shambling, sleepy-eyed Theo may not initially seem a likely hero, but Owen’s sensitive and nuanced performance gives him a depth and decency which grows throughout the film as he comes to realise the importance of his role. As Jasper, Michael Caine is having the time of his life, and his enthusiasm is infectious; and young Claire-Hope Ashitey is impressive in the pivotal role of Kee. In fact, the one misstep may be from the usually excellent Julianne Moore. She’s not bad in her role, but she’s a little cold and distant and never really comes to life as a character; and her chemistry with Owen is negligible. However, there are terrific supporting turns from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Pam Ferris to enjoy, and Peter Mullan’s fantastically funny/scary cameo is a treat.

Cuarón’s ability to walk that funny/scary tightrope is superb, and he never fails to give the film’s standard set-pieces or genre clichés a neat little twist - for example, a car chase in which Owen has to push his rickety old banger for half of it, or the decision to have the hero in flip-flops for much of the film. There are lovely little sight gags too, like the faded old ‘London 2012’ top which Theo wears. Thoughtful touches like this give Children of Men a genuine sense of life, setting it apart from the usual futuristic fare.
Children of Men is about as intelligent, gripping and adult as mainstream cinema gets; it’s a film which delivers a spectacular visual spectacle, but also touches the heart and leaves you with food for thought. How far away are we from a world which resembles this? If this is what awaits us, then how can humanity alter its slide towards self-destruction? Children of Men does offer a small note of hope in a world gone mad; but it reminds us that our fate is ultimately in our own hands, and the future is just around the corner.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Preview - The BFI London Film Festival 2006

The 50th annual London Film Festival kicks of on October 18th with Kevin MacDonald’s portrait of Idi Amin The Last King of Scotland, and it closes on November 2nd with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel. In the interim over 180 films will be screening across the capital, and here are my thoughts on a few of the more interesting offerings at this year’s LFF.

For Your Consideration: A new film from Christopher Guest and his team of collaborators is always a cause for celebration, and For Your Consideration sees Guest taking his faux-documentary style to Hollywood, with a comical look at a low-budget film’s road to the Oscars. Usual suspects Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, Eugene Levy, Parker Posey and Bob Balaban will be joining Guest among the cast; and the film also features Ricky Gervais making his film debut.

Hollywoodland: Ben Affleck was a surprise winner at Venice for his performance as ill-fated Superman George Reeves, and this film takes a look at the events surrounding his mysterious death. Adrien Brody, Diane Lane and Bob Hoskins fill out the classy cast, and this should be a treat for anyone who enjoys the sleazy side of Hollywood (let‘s face it, that‘s just about everyone).

Container: Lukas Moodysson’s first three films constitute one of the greatest opening runs any director has ever managed, but his last film A Hole in My Heart was a self-indulgent mess. Moodysson seems to have foregone the carefully structured humanism of Show me Love, Together and Lilja 4-Ever to make more experimental fare; and Container is a black and white, 70 minute film which may be a disaster or a return to form. We can only hope this brilliant filmmaker is back at the top of his game.

Bobby: Emilio Estevez’s film takes place on the night Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, and focuses on various characters who were also at the Ambassador hotel that night. It looks like Estevez has chosen to direct a fairly adventurous film, and he has assembled an interesting and eclectic ensemble to help him pull it off. This could be something of a comeback for the former ‘Brat Pack’ star, who seems to have disappeared from view for much of the past decade or so.

Red Road: Andrea Arnold won an Oscar for her short film Wasp, and Red Road is her feature debut. Rising stars Natalie Press and Martin Compston star this dark Glasgow-set tale, and it could announce the emergence of a major new British talent.

The Nightmare Before Christmas in 3D: Jack Skellington’s adventures, Danny Elfman’s songs, Henry Selick’s animation and Tim Burton’s twisted sensibility are brought to life in a special 3D presentation; an event which will surely be one of the festival’s highlights.

Infamous: Also known as Capote II: Electric Boogaloo (or is that just me?), this film has the unenviable task of telling the same story as last year’s acclaimed Capote, and Toby Jones has the unenviable task of stepping into the role which won Philip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar. So what does Infamous have in its favour? In the main, it appears to possess a starrier cast - Sigourney Weaver, Sandra Bullock and Daniel Craig in support - and the trailer promises a slightly glitzier affair than Bennett Miller’s sombre and haunting film. Can Infamous escape its predecessor’s Oscar-winning shadow? We shall see…

This is England: Shane Meadows is one of England’s brightest young filmmakers, and after his compromised mainstream effort Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, he appears to have found his groove again with the kind of stripped-down, personal filmmaking with which he made his name. His latest is This is England, a story of a young boy who falls in with a gang of skinheads in 80’s Britain. Details on the film are scarce and the cast is made up of unknowns, but any film from a director with this much integrity and heart is unquestionably worth seeing.

Fast Food Nation: The mercurial Richard Linklater changes gears again with this adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s eye-opening bestseller, and his ensemble piece will focus on various people connected to the fast-food industry in some way. Greg Kinnear, Patricia Arquette, Luis Guzmán, Ethan Hawke and Bruce Willis will be among the many big names donning their paper hats and hoping to get little stars on their name tags.

Stranger Than Fiction: Will Ferrell is just about my favourite comic actor in films right now, particularly after the fantastic double whammy of Elf and Anchorman, and Stranger Than Fiction is an interesting vehicle for him. He plays a man whose life is being narrated by novelist Emma Thompson, and she’s planning to kill off his character in her new book. Dustin Hoffman, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Queen Latifah take supporting roles, and director Marc Forster takes another chance to branch out into new territory.

The Boss of it All: Little is known about this Danish film in which the owner of an IT company hires an actor to play the company’s president, but this is the latest film from Lars von Trier, and therefore it demands full attention. His mischievous, wry approach should be perfect for this office-based satire.

Brief Round-Up
The delightfully idiosyncratic Aki Kaurismäki is back with Lights in the Dusk
Ryan Gosling stars as an idealistic teacher with a dark side in Half Nelson.
Romanzo Criminale is an ambitious look at two decades of organised crime in Italy.
After years of churning out Hollywood schlock, Paul Verhoeven goes back to his roots with Black Book.
And Peter O’Toole gets a role to really sink his teeth into with the Hanif Kureishi-scripted Venus

Archives: There's the welcome opportunity to see some classics on the big screen; with Dr Strangelove, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Hearts of the World and Distant Voice, Still Lives among the many films on offer.

Talks: There will be the usual roster of interviews, Q+A’s and master classes during the festival. Forest Whitaker, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Verhoeven, Richard Linklater, John Cameron Mitchell and Tim Burton will be a few of the names stopping by for a chat.

Surprise Film: This is always one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the festival, but this year it has been given a little twist in recognition of the LFF’s 50th birthday. The selection for this spot in recent years has tended to play it safe. There have been great picks such as The Insider and Far From Heaven, but the organisers have mostly plumped for generic crowd-pleasers such as Meet The Parents, School of Rock and last year’s deflating Mrs Henderson Presents. Hopefully this year’s film will be something genuinely surprising.

But what about that twist? Well, this year the surprise film will be screened simultaneously at 50 venues around the capital, a move which should ensure the festival ends on a high note. My ridiculously early prediction? I have a sneaking suspicion for Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep.

Watch this space…..

Monday, September 11, 2006

Review - Little Miss Sunshine

Is there such a thing in independent cinema as a 'normal' family? A dysfunctional clan has long been de rigueur for this kind of film and the Hoover family, stars of Little Miss Sunshine, certainly fit the bill. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker convinced a forthcoming book deal will make him famous, but he has an unfortunate habit of inflicting his 'inspirational' catchphrases on his own family. His father (Alan Arkin) is a foul-mouthed, randy old geezer who moved in with his son when he was kicked out of his retirement home for snorting heroin. Also moving into the family home is Richard's brother-in-law Frank (Steve Carrell), a depressed, gay Proust scholar who is recovering from a failed suicide attempt; and he has to move in with teenager Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence until he achieves his dream of becoming a jet pilot. What a family; no wonder Richard's wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) is at the end of her tether.

And then there's sweet little Olive (Abigail Breslin). She's Richard and Sheryl's bespectacled cutie-pie of a daughter whose desire to be a beauty queen kick-starts the film's plot. She came second in a regional final for the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant but, due to a scandal involving some diet pills, the winner was forced to forfeit and now she has been invited to take her place at the main competition in California. For various reasons, all of the Hoover family must go along for the ride in an rickety old VW minivan, and in the grand tradition of the cinematic road trip, they'll learn a few things about themselves along the way.

Little Miss Sunshine was the big hit at this year's Sundance festival, receiving rave reviews and a $10 million-dollar distribution deal, and it's every inch a crowd-pleaser. It's a bright, jaunty indie film which features a first-rate cast and should provoke both laughs and tears before the credits finally roll. It contains a number of standard uplifting messages - "it's not winning and losing that counts”, "real beauty is within” etc. - and there's no doubt it's a cut above much of the mediocre fare American cinema has served up this summer.

Unfortunately, it's still not great. Little Miss Sunshine is a good film, a very likeable film, but it's a faintly unsatisfying one which hits all the requisite buttons while still feeling somewhat hollow at its core. The main reason Little Miss Sunshine never quite comes together is the fact that so much of it feels so calculating. The characters aren't really characters at all; they're archetypes, the kind of people who turn up in so many films like this, and they're given a few tics and props in lieu of genuine development. Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris open the film with a few brief vignettes to give us a grasp of who everyone is, but for too much of the picture they all seem to exist purely on the surface.

Aspects of the film like Dwayne's vow of silence, or Frank's admiration of Proust, are mere affectations and are never put to use in terms of developing our understanding of these characters. They're all just set-ups for gags which will pop up somewhere down the road, and the screenplay by first-timer Michael Arndt is often too neat in its desire to link everything up, and to give each person their moment in the spotlight.

Thankfully, Little Miss Sunshine's perfect cast rescues the situation by taking the thin portraits they have been presented with and investing them with as much heart and soul as they can muster. This film sees some of American cinema's most personable actors on show and it's their presence which lends weight to the film's rather strained and self-conscious air of kookiness. Kinnear and Collette are reliably fine; he successfully depicts Richard's upbeat sloganeering as a mask used to hide his innate insecurities, and she does well to make an impact at all given the lack of any sort of character.

But the film really belongs to three actors in particular. Alan Arkin, who hasn't had a role worthy of his talents for some time, is really terrific as the crotchety old grandfather. He has fun with the outrageous dialogue he has been given and he plays the role in wonderfully sardonic fashion; but he still expresses a deep-rooted love for his family, and his relationship with Olive is full of warmth. For her part, Breslin gives a delightfully guileless and charming performance which is impossible to resist. With this role and her turn in Lodge Kerrigan's forthcoming Keane, she has shown herself to be a remarkably talented young actress. But it's Steve Carrell who really stands out, even in this exalted company. Hitherto known for his more straightforward comedic roles, he displays new depths and nuances here, giving an understated and quite touching performance as Frank.

So it's the cast which really saves this movie. The script is more a loose collection of embarrassing moments than a satisfying narrative, but even when Arndt awkwardly engineers an unlikely meeting between Frank and the young lover who spurned him, Carrell manages to make it work and - even better - make it hurt. Alas, there's little the talented ensemble can do with some of the film's scenes which seem to be shoehorned into the plot and serve no discernible purpose. When the film needs to maintain momentum as it hits the final third, an implausible and unfunny scene with a traffic cop is the last thing it needs, and the comedy gambit of stealing a corpse is as tired as it gets. The often flat and unimaginative direction employed by Dayton and Faris is also guilty of letting the film dawdle when it could use a bit of a boost.

Eventually the family do make it to their destination, with each character allowed a moment of drama and self-realisation along the way; and they've predictably come together as a family by the time they reach California where the Little Miss Sunshine pageant is predictably portrayed as a freakshow. With all the girls hidden under six inches of make-up and sporting scarily fixed smiles, Olive and her family appear to be the only remotely human characters on show. The film's satirical intent becomes strangely uncertain at this point too, deriding the doll-like girls on show for their behaviour and then lauding Olive for doing something which is pretty much in the same territory, if not worse. Frankly, it all becomes just a bit too much, and the film had lost me a little by this point. All the contrived set-pieces and various epiphanies had taken their toll; I was all epiphanied out.

I hope that all doesn't sound too critical. I didn't hate the film at all, and to be honest it's a pretty hard film to dislike. There are lovely moments here and there, its heart is ultimately in the right place, and despite its numerous flaws Little Miss Sunshine does have a kind of puppyish charm which sneakily gets under your defences. The bulk of the credit for that must go to a group of actors who give the film more substance than the writer or directors can provide, and if you've ever wanted a good example of casting rescuing a misguided film, then here it is. Little Miss Sunshine isn't quite the bright spot I was hoping it would be, but thanks to the cast it does provide enough warmth to occasionally break through this summer's cinematic clouds.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Review - The Host (Gwoemul)

There have been so many monster movies down the years, so many films in which a horribly mutated creature emerges from the depths to wreak havoc upon a terrified city, that viewers familiar with the genre may feel that it has nothing more to offer, no more surprises up its sleeve. Well, prepare to be surprised.

Korean writer/director Joon-ho Bong established himself as a talent to watch with his masterful 2003 film
Memories of Murder, and while The Host never looks likely to reach that astronomical benchmark, it’s still a rip-roaring tale which is packs more imagination, flair and effects-driven entertainment into its two hours than any of this year’s mediocre Hollywood blockbusters could manage. No matter how many monster movies you may have seen, you’ve never seen anything quite like The Host.

As ever, it’s the careless use of toxic material which acts as the catalyst for the subsequent mayhem. Six years ago, on a US army base somewhere in Korea, a feckless American soldier orders a hapless lab assistant to dump a huge amount of chemicals which have long passed their sell-by date. His nervous flunky offers a small word of caution against releasing such a dose of toxic waste into the Han river, but his superior doesn’t seem to care. It’s a big river, he reasons, what harm could it possibly do?

Six years on, the residents of Seoul are about to suffer the consequences. In particular, the dysfunctional Park family will be at the centre of the ensuing chaos; and what a motley crew they are. Patriarch Hie-bong (Hie-bong Byeon ) runs a small snack bar on the riverbank along with his layabout son Kang-du (Kang-ho Song), but Kang-du isn’t much help to his father as he spends most of his time asleep or eating. He’s also something of a disappointment to his 14 year-old daughter Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko), and she’s further embarrassed by the drunken behaviour of her unemployed uncle Nam-il (Hae-il Park). At least she can take solace in the success of her aunt Nam-ju (Du-na Bae), though. She’s a talented archer who is on the brink of glory; what a shame her unfortunate habit of hesitating just before taking her shot keeps hampering her chances.

Odd as they are, The Parks are ultimately a family just like many others, and their life is pretty humdrum. This day is different, however, and Kang-du’s attention is drawn away from his daily duties by a large crowd congregating by the edge of the river. They’re all transfixed by a huge, unidentifiable blob which is hanging from the bridge, a blob which then unfurls and sinks into the water. Nobody has a clue as to what it might be. They’re about to find out.

Bong’s first unveiling of his terrifying creature is a joy. He gives us a slow, deliberate build-up, and focuses his camera on the Kang-du’s bemused expression for a few beats before exposing the lizard-like beast rampaging towards him, swallowing a number of people along the way. This long sequence depicting the creature’s first assault on the city is a
tour de force. Bong keeps his camera on the move, capturing both the spectacular carnage caused by this strange mutant and expressing a genuine sense of panic. Within these scenes he displays all of his filmmaking virtuosity; plunging his characters into a number of inventive life-and-death situations, and ensuring his direction remains fresh and surprising throughout. The CGI effects used to bring the monster to life are stunning, and Bong integrates them so seamlessly into the action that you’d swear the beast himself was actually roaring its way around the set.

During this horrific spree the monster snatches up Hyun-seo and then races away to its lair in the sewers, leaving the rest of her family inconsolable. Kang-du gets the majority of the blame for failing to protect her, but a glimmer of hope appears when Hyun-seo manages to make a phone call from her underground location. It seems she is among a small group of people that the monster is keeping alive, and her family immediately launch a rescue attempt. It won’t be easy though, as the Parks are being hunted down by government forces who believe they’re carrying a disease spread by the monster.

From here, T
he Host develops into a staggeringly enjoyable roller-coaster ride, and while many may see this as a major departure for Bong after Memories of Murder, it still showcases so many of the aspects which made that film such a memorable experience. The characters are once again lovingly drawn and perfectly played, with Song as good as ever in the lead and the supporting players - particularly 14 year-old Ko - each giving vivid and believable turns. Bong creates a number of fantastic set-pieces and fills the film with striking imagery, but as in Memories of Murder it’s the director’s handling of the fluctuating tone which lives longest in the memory.

Memories of Murder may have been every bit as grisly and violent as you would expect a serial killer film to be, but it was also the funniest film I saw that year; and its ability to shock you in one scene while making you laugh out loud in the next was incredible. Bong manipulated the constantly shifting mood with ridiculous assurance, making us laugh and flinch - sometimes within the same scene - without ever letting the transitions feel forced or abrupt. The Host also benefits from this strange and beguiling blend of laughter and drama, and Bong again changes gears repeatedly as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. In one standout scene, the director observes a family traumatised by the loss of a loved one, and the scene gradually grows funnier as the family grow ever more grief-stricken. A scene like this takes such delicacy, bravery and sheer chutzpah - how does Bong get away with it every single time?

There are a few flaws in
The Host which cause it to fall short of the standard Bong has set for himself. It's is a little more uneven and nowhere near as resonant as Memories of Murder, and there is a certain point in the film’s second half where the narrative threatens to spin out of control. Bong pushes all of his characters down wildly different paths and he nearly loses his grip on the various threads, leading to a middle section of the film which feels a tad bloated. Nevertheless, he rides over the bumps in the road without too much lasting damage and he successfully brings everything together for a rousing climax.

Joon-ho Bong elevated the serial killer film to new heights with
Memories of Murder, and once again his filmmaking panache and unique sensibility have managed to subvert and revitalise a tired old genre. Bong continues to spring surprises every step of the way, avoiding all the clichés you expect to find in an Asian monster movie, and he has produced yet another fabulous picture. There really is nothing to touch The Host for sheer entertainment value in the cinemas right now - don’t miss this terrific monster mash.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Review - The Wicker Man

Why? That was the question on my mind as I sat down to watch The Wicker Man. Why bother remaking a film which is so well crafted and so much a product of its particular time and place? Of course, Hollywood has never shown a great deal of thought or imagination when revamping films from the past; but even so, a Hollywood version of The Wicker Man never seemed like a good idea. What could writer/director Neil Labute bring to a new version of The Wicker Man which would make its existence worthwhile?

After viewing this startlingly inept remake, I was no closer to answering those questions. The film strips away everything that made Robin Hardy's 1973 film feel so special, and what's left on screen is a ghastly mish-mash of flashbacks, red herrings, bad acting and atrocious storytelling. The film has been given a weird feminist slant which doesn't work in any way, and even when The Wicker Man comes with one of cinema's most chilling endings already as part of the package, Labute and co. still manage to screw it up.

This new take on The Wicker Man follows the original's basic story but doesn't capture any of its soul. Nicolas Cage is traffic cop Edward Malus, and the film opens with him failing to rescue a mother and daughter from a burning car (after a crazily implausible accident). The incident leaves Malus traumatised, and a traumatised Nicolas Cage is not a pretty sight. Right from the start it's quite clear that Cage has been horrendously miscast, and his attempt to act his way out of trouble is painful to watch. The actor has been on a good run of form recently, giving understated and smart performances which display his strengths; but this brash turn, full of face-pulling and fluctuating speech patterns in which he'll turn one line into an croaky drawl while belting out the next at full volume, is a horrible performance which is all wrong for the picture.

But let's get back to the plot, shall we? While taking some time off to recuperate, Malus receives a letter from a old flame who is now living on the remote island of Summersisle, begging him to come to the island and find her ten year-old daughter who has disappeared without a trace. Intrigued, Cage decides to take the plunge, but from the minute he sets foot on Summersisle it's clear he would be well advised to hop right back on that seaplane and get the hell out of there. This is one strange place, and while the original Wicker Man presented us with a community that was just a little odd, and then slowly developed the sense that something dreadful was about to happen, Labute's version tries to give us the creeps right away. It fails.

Neil Labute always seemed like an odd choice to write and direct this version of The Wicker Man, but he tries to make his presence felt by focusing on the sexual politics of Summerisle, which he does with his usual lack of subtlety. The main product on the island is honey, hence the large amount of beehives dotted around the place, and the structure of the human population also somewhat resembles that of a beehive. Sister Summerisle (Ellen Burstyn) acts as queen bee, and the society she lords it over is a matriarchal one in which men are simply mute drones, used only for manual labour and breeding. Perhaps it was the desperate desire to be seen as a fresh take on the story which inspired Labute to go down this route, but it's a major misjudgement. The island's set-up is silly and never for a moment convincing, and it leads to some unpleasant scenes later on. I know these crazy ladies are trying to kill him, but I really don't need to see Nicolas Cage karate-kicking a 23 year-old woman in the face and knocking another woman out with a punch to the temple.

A remake of The Wicker Man seems like a particularly inappropriate outlet for Labute to display his usual tiresome misogyny., and despite the island's strong female presence Labute leaves his actresses adrift without a decent character or line between them. Burstyn is second-billed after Cage, but her role is little more than an extended cameo and she can't match the dignified presence or understated menace Christopher Lee brought to his Lord Summerisle in 1973. Burstyn is also hindered by the badly CGI-d bees which provide a distracting presence during her scenes, especially when they cause a bug-eyed Cage to repeatedly slap himself in a comical fashion. Elsewhere, a coolly effective Molly Parker is probably the pick of the bunch and her scene in the classroom is one of the film's highlights; but Frances Conroy, Leelee Sobieski and Kate Beahan make little impact.

It seems Labute and Cage have completely lost sight of what made the original film such a terrific experience. Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man blended together a number of unlikely elements - religion, sex, folk music, paganism - and gave it a Hammer horror edge to create something truly unique. Edward Woodward's Sergeant Howie was a repressed, pious and officious character who pushily made his investigations round the island, experiencing a deepening sense of outrage at their godless antics but failing to see where his own path was leading; and his resistance of Britt Ekland's temptation sealed his fate. The film is a surprisingly multi-layered examination of faith, and it's this subtext which really drives it and gives the climax its powerful charge. The sight of the deeply religious Howie screaming "Oh God! Oh Jesus Christ!” when he first sees the Wicker Man is a more powerful moment than anything this remake can offer, and when Labute chooses to excise all of these elements in his new version, he's losing the film's raison d'être.

Instead, the film is utterly lacking in tension and atmosphere. Labute tries to generate a bit of drama with frequent shots of Cage jogging around the island like a man who's just missed his bus (or cycling, when it gets really exciting), and he awkwardly shoehorns a number of near-death experiences into the narrative, none of which seem particularly threatening or interesting. The story is clumsily put together, with far too many flashbacks bogging down the narrative, and Labute's constant recourse to cheap jumps and scenes in which Malus mistakenly thinks he spots the girl are insultingly rote. In fact much of The Wicker Man is so clumsy and misguided it provokes unintentional laughter. In the final half-hour Nicolas Cage resorts to running around the island with his arms flapping and eyes bulging while shouting every single line at the top of his voice; and if The Wicker Man does nothing else, then at least the sight of Cage stumbling through the woods dressed as a grizzly bear is guaranteed to brighten up your day.

But what about that ending, how can you possibly mess that up? Well, the central horror of what happens during The Wicker Man's climax is such that the recreation here can't fail to have some sort of impact, and these final moments are indeed the only scenes in the picture which seem alive, which seem to have something genuine at stake. But Labute still does his best to destroy the gift finale he has been handed. The sound of Cage being tortured off-screen is hilarious when it should be brutal; but after the Wicker Man had burnt to the ground and the screen had faded to black, I felt the sequence had still retained much of its potency. However, Labute isn't quite finished yet, and we're saddled with a "six months later” coda which is senseless, stilted, badly acted and feels like something tacked on at the last minute just to soften the blow a little. It saps whatever power the climactic scenes had managed to generate, and it's just the last in a long line of terrible decisions which turn this film into a joke.

The original version of The Wicker Man is a classic, and one can only hope this new release will cause those who haven't seen it to seek it out. As for Labute's film? It's a redundant and witless travesty which only deserves one fate - let it burn.