Sunday, October 29, 2006

Review - Shortbus

This is a promise to anyone who dares to see Shortbus - if you can stick with the film beyond the opening ten minutes you’ll be treated to one of the most extraordinary and memorable cinematic experiences of the year. Those opening ten minutes, however, will be a very stern test of most viewers’ sensibilities. The film opens with a rapid sequence comprising of the following activities: a man alone in an apartment strenuously trying to perform fellatio on himself, a man and a women engaged in vigorous and athletic sex in a variety of positions, and another young man who is being whipped by a dominatrix. Nothing is left to the imagination in these scenes, there is no careful blocking or attempts to hide the characters’ genitals; it’s just real, unfiltered sex delivered in a breathless montage. Two of the encounters end in an onscreen ejaculation, and while they come many viewers may be tempted to go.

I’ve never seen anything quite like Shortbus. Sex in the movies is nothing new, and hardcore sex has become more and more prevalent in cinema over recent years - with Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy and Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs breaking new ground in English-language films, while Catherine Breillat has led the way for a variety of international directors who wish to include erections and penetration in their stories - but Shortbus is a very different proposition to those pictures. While most of the previous movies to feature explicit sex have been pretty grim, joyless affairs, John Cameron Mitchell’s new film is an explosion of joy; an exuberant celebration of love, sex and humanity.

So what is Shortbus? Well, the title comes from a New York club which offers a place for all outsiders to go if they wish to relax, enjoy a spot of music, some conversation, or just partake in a full-on orgy. Two of the regulars are James and Jamie (Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy), a gay couple who are generally considered the most perfect pairing around. However, their relationship has entered a slightly rockier patch than usual; with James has suggesting they should start experiencing sex with different partners, and he seems increasingly distant as he obsessively compiles a film of his life. They visit Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist who has problems of her own, specifically the fact that she has never experienced an orgasm. She defines the term as pre-orgasmic (“does that mean you’re about to have one?”, asks a bemused Jamie), and when her new clients hear about this they instantly recommend a visit to their favourite hangout.

The club is presided over by Justin Bond (playing himself), the “mistress of Shortbus”, and he takes her on a guided tour of the establishment. She temporarily seems transfixed by a particular couple in the orgy room, and eventually she ends up in a room full of lesbians who are fascinated by her condition. Here she also meets Severin (Lindsay Beamish), the dominatrix from the opening sequence who has to suffer the obsessive attention of an annoying client and has never had a proper human relationship.

These are the characters whose quest for love and fulfilment will form the basis of Shortbus’ central narrative, and it’s that narrative which is the film’s major achievement. Instead of writing a screenplay, Mitchell and his cast worked together for two years prior to filming, improvising their characters and storylines, and their efforts have produced a gem. Each character is distinctive and fully realised, and the unfailingly honest performances from the actors in these roles instantly grab our interest and sympathy. Dawson brings real emotion to his part as the enigmatic James, particularly in the later stages, and DeBoy plays Jamie as a lovable dope. Sook-Yin Lee and Lindsay Beamish excel too as the major female characters, but it’s Justin Bond who gives the real scene-stealing turn. He has a monopoly on the film’s best lines, a couple of which occur while he’s watching an orgy - “it’s just like the 60’s, only with less hope” or “oh thank goodness, for a second I thought that man had one arm” - and he has some terrifically bitchy one-liners, with my favourite being “these bitches eat ass and suck cock all day long, and when they turn up at the buffet they claim they’re vegan”.

As is the nature of these things, the collaborative approach of the film’s creation does threaten to make it feel a little shapeless at times, but the characters and their situations are so engaging it’s a pleasure to follow them wherever the meandering story goes. Mitchell - who made the fine German transsexual musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch in 2001- has a real lightness of touch and an excellent ability to judge his film’s tone. He never allows Shortbus to spill over into camp excess, he handles the comic scenes with tremendous aplomb (a slapstick scene involving a remote-controlled vibrator is priceless) and he segues into emotional sequences without skipping a beat. The film is beautifully made too; with gorgeous animated shots of New York providing delightful interludes and giving the picture an almost fairytale feel.

But it’s the sex, obviously, that will get most of the attention when Shortbus comes up for discussion. The film has been described as a pornographic romantic comedy, but I don’t think that’s completely accurate. It certainly does do the romantic comedy aspects better than any of the genre’s offerings I’ve seen in years, but this film is definitely not porn. The sex in Shortbus doesn’t try to titillate or arouse the audience; it’s simply sex depicted in an open and natural way. In truth, the film is hardly ever erotic, because Mitchell’s concern is for his characters and his story above all else, and he makes the sex scenes an integral part of the narrative, with each one important for our understanding of the characters and their emotional journey. The sex depicted in Shortbus is funny and sad, passionate and lonely; it’s just completely real, in every sense of the word.

What a great film this is. A hilarious, thrilling and wonderfully uplifting piece of work which genuinely took my breath away. Some people certainly will be repelled by the frankness of the film’s sexual encounters (and the more patriotic American viewers may dislike the film’s rendition of The Star Spangled Banner), but this truly is one of the most generous and moral films of the year. It has a simple message, asking us to love each other for who we are, but it’s one that bears repeating, and rarely has it been displayed in such an exhilarating way. The film exhibits a wonderful sense of inclusivity in every scene as it builds to a climax which can only be described as orgasmic. John Cameron Mitchell has rewritten the rules of sex in cinema, and his sensational party is one to which everyone is invited. Just get on the Shortbus.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Review - Marie Antoinette

“Off with her head!”. That was certainly the prevailing mood when Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette screened at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. The director’s unorthodox account of the young queen’s life received a hostile reception from the French audience, with the crowd’s chorus of boos becoming the festival’s biggest talking point. Was the angry response a reaction to the flippant approach this American filmmaker has taken to one of France’s most iconic figures? Perhaps, but I think it probably has more to do with the simple fact that the French know a bad film when they see one.

Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is a very bad film, and yet it has numerous moments when you can see a genuinely gifted director at work. As such, it fits snugly alongside The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation; both beautiful, atmospheric films which gradually revealed themselves to be completely devoid of substance.

The best scenes in Marie Antoinette occur in the film’s first half, before the excessive running time throws the huge flaws and the complete lack of depth into sharp relief. Kirsten Dunst plays the 14 year-old Austrian Archduchess who is en route to France for an arranged marriage which will seal the relationship between the two countries. The process of Marie’s journey from Austria to France is well handled by Coppola; she is taken to a makeshift base set directly over the border and, after being stripped of everything that connects her to her former country (including her beloved puppy), she exits on French soil. Already this teenage girl seems burdened by the pressures ahead.

Her husband to be is the dauphin Louis-Auguste, later to become Louis XVI and played here by Coppola’s cousin Jason Schwartzman; and their initial meetings are slightly stiff and awkward, just like any teenagers on their first date. The pair are rushed into marriage and expectations are high for their wedding night, with Louis’ grandfather (Rip Torn) keen to see a male heir produced as soon as possible, but the night passes without consummation, something which immediately causes consternation in the palace. This added tension is the last thing young Marie needs as she struggles to come to terms with the demands of her position, and desperately attempts to get the hang of the bizarre rules and customs of her new home. Coppola has fun depicting the absurd rituals which define the queen’s day; in one terrific scene, she is left standing naked in front of an increasingly large crowd, the job of dressing her changing hands as various people of higher rank enter the room. “This is ridiculous” she complains when her dresser has finally done her job. “This, madame” replies the stern Comtesse (Judy Davis) “is Versailles”.

The opening section glides by painlessly enough and it features many of these enjoyable moments. As ever, Coppola ensures her film looks great, with Lance Acord’s slick and hazy cinematography perfectly attuned to capturing these minor details. Coppola also secured permission to shoot her film at Versailles and she certainly makes the most of the many gorgeous rooms and spectacular surroundings, with Milena Canonero’s brilliant costume designs filling the screen with colour. Frankly, every shot in this film is beautifully crafted - it really is a feast for the senses - but after a while you start to feel the need for something more nourishing than Coppola’s visual cake, and when you start looking for more meat beneath the film’s glistening surface, there’s absolutely nothing there.

Marie Antoinette is a “poor little rich girl” story in which we never get close to knowing the girl in question. Dunst spends the film giggling and simpering, which works well enough when she’s playing the bemused young girl at the start of the film, but she doesn’t imbue her part with any maturity as the story progresses. The film takes place over some twenty years, but Coppola fudges the chronology into one stodgy mess of storytelling, never giving us a sense of time passing, and the endless fretting over her inability to produce an heir is the closest thing the film has to a narrative thread. In fact, Marie’s baby woes nearly produces the one moment of emotion in the film - when the dauphine’s sister-in-law gave birth before she did, an incident which brought shame upon the royal couple. Marie rushes from the new mother’s bedside to a secluded room and weeps uncontrollably, but then Coppola quickly cuts straight into a breezy montage of Marie and her friends buying shoes and feasting on cakes to the sound of I Want Candy. Why bother crying when a spot of retail therapy will make things better right away?

Yet if Marie doesn’t show any sort emotion, or give us a hint that there’s anything going on in that pretty head of hers, then why should we care about this blank character? At times it seems as if Coppola’s aim with Marie Antoinette is to depict the queen as the celebrity du jour - the Paris Hilton of 18th Century Paris, perhaps. When the notorious (and probably apocryphal) quote of “let them eat cake” is mentioned, Marie says “I would never say that. Don’t they ever get tired of printing these ridiculous stories?”, and she sounds just like any contemporary starlet who has appeared in the gossip columns. But watching Marie Antoinette cavort with her frivolous friends for two hours is every bit as dull as watching Paris Hilton for the same amount of time would be, and no amount of flashy visuals or hip pop music is going to alleviate the gloom which rapidly descends.

What ultimately kills Coppola’s film is the lack of any discernable point. I can sort of see what she was trying to do, placing us completely in Marie Antoinette’s decadent world and therefore letting us be as ignorant of the growing political unrest outside the palace walls as the queen is, but the picture’s shallowness is simply exhausting. It’s an endless, bewildering rush of laughter and shopping, and the revolution appears tacked-on as an afterthought, as if the director was reluctant to interrupt the party. When the end does approach for Marie Antoinette it’s hard to care about the fate awaiting her or anyone else in the picture for that matter - none of them exist as believable characters. The distracting array of contemporary accents constantly prevents us from buying into the film’s milieu (although Marie’s daughter incongruously speaks in French), and whenever we see Jason Schwartzman, Rip Torn, Steve Coogan or Dunst herself, we only see the actors, not the people they’re supposed to be bringing to life.

You might think that making a film about Marie Antoinette without showing a guillotine would be like making a film about Joan of Arc without showing a stake, but Coppola perversely allows Marie to keep her empty head on her shoulders until after the credits roll. The film simply fades into irrelevance, and we wonder what the point of this long two hours was meant to be. By the end of the film, I’m not sure Coppola is even sure of what the film is trying to achieve, and while she has just about gotten away with her shallowness in the past, Marie Antoinette reveals the hollow centre at the core of all her work in embarrassing detail. Potentially, Sofia Coppola is a very talented director, but she won’t be a true filmmaker until she actually has something to say.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Review - New Police Story

There’s a scene in Lethal Weapon 4 in which veteran detectives Riggs and Murtaugh are licking their wounds after a particularly bruising encounter, and they begin reciting the mantra “I’m not to old for this shit, I’m not to old for this shit” to themselves, gradually getting louder and louder as if they’re willing themselves to believe that it’s true. I thought of Riggs and Murtaugh while watching New Police Story, and I imagined Jackie Chan sitting in his trailer just before every take, mumbling the words “I’m not too old for this shit, I’m not too old for this shit”.

Jackie Chan is 52 years old, and he was pushing 50 when he made New Police Story. He’s still doing the stunts that made him famous, but New Police Story is notable for having far less action than you might be entitled to expect, and instead the bulk of the running time is made up of dramatic scenes which give Jackie a chance to stretch his acting muscles instead of showing his fighting skills for a change. Is this a conscious decision on the part of executive producer Chan? An acknowledgement that his days of high-kicking may soon be behind him, and an opportunity to broaden his range? Whatever the reason behind these choices, they create an imbalance which pretty much kills the movie.

And it all started so well. The film opens with a funny and well-developed hostage situation which Chan foils in some style, and then we meet the crooks who will provide our hero with such a stern test over the next two hours. They’re a bunch of extreme sport-obsessed teenagers who use their skateboarding skills and computer know-how to execute a huge bank heist, and then they hang around until the police arrive so they can have fun killing a few coppers while they’re at it. They give themselves points for each cop they shoot; they treat everything they do as if it’s just another computer game.

Chan is Officer Wing, Hong Kong’s most celebrated detective, and he takes charge of the case, appearing on TV to reassure the city that these hoodlums will be brought to justice within days. He leads a team into the gang’s headquarters - a seemingly abandoned warehouse - and this leads to the film’s first excellent set-piece. The whole building is booby-trapped, with gang leader Joe (Daniel Wu) sadistically picking off Wing’s colleagues one by one from his computerised nerve centre. Wing can only watch, bemused and horrified, as his team-mates disappear, and he eventually finds himself in the middle of a huge open room with his fellow officers hanging from the rafters - wounded but still alive. Joe forces Wing to play games for their lives, and when he fails to perform the tasks set for him he must watch as their ropes are loosened and they plummet to the floor with a sickening thud.

This is a great sequence; tense, clever and surprisingly affecting - but then the movie just deflates in front of our eyes. Wing is traumatised by his failure to protect his team, and he slips into a drunken stupor, alienating his friends, colleagues and his young girlfriend; and for about an hour the film grinds to a halt as we witness the embarrassing spectacle of Jackie Chan displaying his emotional range. He drinks, he cries, he drinks some more and then, yes, he cries a bit more too. Chan seems to be in tears every five minutes in this film, but the glaring fact of the matter is this - while there are few more entertaining sights in cinema than watching Chan flatten opponents in a blur of fists, the man simply isn’t an actor. His inept attempts to signal depth and pain here see him constantly screwing his face up in a variety of ways, none of which express recognisable human emotions (apart from indigestion, perhaps), and every gesture is overblown and melodramatic.

With New Police Story often trying to favour emotions over action, Chan’s amateurish acting is a major flaw, and the film’s flimsy script doesn’t help either. The long scenes of exposition which makes up the bulk of the middle section are appallingly written, and character development (aside from Chan and his young partner Nicholas Tse) is scant. In fact some of the supporting players, such as Wing’s girlfriend, barely exist as characters at all, which causes the later scenes in which their lives are endangered to fall flat. Director Benny Chan shows little grasp of pacing or restraint, and he allows many scenes in this dire period of the film to trundle on far beyond their natural length.

Young actor Nicholas Tse does inject the film with a bit of life, though, and it’s the appearance of his character which motivates Wing to get his life back on track. Tse’s Frank Chen is a mysterious young police officer who turns up out of the blue and goes out of his way to support Wing, to re-ignite his passion for the case which defeated him a year previously, and to build bridges with his frustrated girlfriend. Wing’s fury is stoked when he finds out the criminals have turned the death of his partners into an online video game (necessitating some dire dialogue such as: “if we can just crack this level we can find out where the next heist will take place”) and he eventually resolves to take down this crew in typical Jackie Chan style. About time too.

The final half-hour is a lot of fun. Chan and Tse partake in a terrific barroom brawl, in which the young Tse’s fighting skills almost overshadow his illustrious co-star, and the rest of the film continues in this entertaining vein. There’s some abseiling down the side of buildings, and then we come to the film’s best set-piece; a barnstorming sequence which sees an out-of-control bus cause havoc while Chan desperately tries to stay on the roof. The film then builds up to a strong finale which features lots of Lego and makes good use of the Hong Kong Convention Centre’s spectacular architecture.

But the question remains: is it worth sitting through the numerous mind-numbingly dull and amateurish scenes New Police Story offers in order to enjoy those few entertaining sequences? I don’t think it is. The title might claim that this is a ‘new’ story, but it’s really just a watered-down version of the same Jackie Chan films we’ve seen so many times before; and those hoping that this would be a return to the form Chan showed in his earliest Hong Kong films, before he fell into a seemingly endless cycle of Hollywood buddy movies, will be sorely disappointed. While Chan doesn’t quite have the same spring and speed he once possessed, it’s still a thrill to see him jumping, kicking and falling in his own inimitable fashion; but the more sporadic nature of his action scenes here, and his over-reliance on his poor acting skills, makes one wonder what his future holds. He’s not quite too old for this shit just yet, but what will he do when he is?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Review - Sleeping Dogs Lie

Even if it does nothing else, Sleeping Dogs Lie surely offers the most intriguing cinematic paradox of the year. Bobcat Goldthwait’s film is a disarmingly sweet and funny romantic comedy, which is based upon an act of bestiality. In the opening scene we meet Amy (Melinda Page Hamilton), an attractive college girl who is sitting alone with a book one night when she suddenly has a strange idea. Her dog is stretched out on its back in front of her, and his posture appears to be distracting Amy’s attention. Then, for reasons best known to herself, Amy decides to drop her book, lock the door, and get down on her knees to perform fellatio on her bemused (and presumably very grateful) pet.

That’s the opening scene of
Sleeping Dogs Lie, and it will undoubtedly prove a test for many members of the audience. The actual act itself occurs off screen, but the movement of Amy’s head and the expression on her dog’s face precludes any confusion as to what is taking place, and when Amy rushes spluttering to the bathroom moments later to rinse her mouth out, many viewers will be feeling the urge to flee the cinema in a similar fashion; but to leave now would be a big mistake.

This opening sequence might give the impression that
Sleeping Dogs Lie is a sub-Farrelly Brothers gross-out comedy which threatens to take the genre to new depths, but it gradually grows into something much more valuable than that. As well as being very funny, Sleeping Dogs Lie is a surprisingly thoughtful and heartfelt examination of honesty and relationships, and while it can’t quite sustain itself for the entire running time, it certainly does enough to stand out from the standard American rom-coms.

Amy’s major dilemma occurs a few years after her canine experience, when she’s in the middle of a very happy relationship with John (Bryce Johnson), and thoughts of marriage are on the horizon. There is a problem, however, with John’s insistence that he and Amy should know every last detail about each other if they are to be a truly happy couple. He tells her embarrassing incidents from his past which he has never shared with anyone, but she is understandably reluctant to divulge her own misdemeanours; and her reticence only piques John’s curiosity, causing him to press her for details of the skeleton in her closet. She seeks counsel with her friends and family (none of whom know the true nature of her secret) and they all agree that complete openness and honesty is the only way for a successful relationship to flourish.

Amy makes her decision, and it proves to be one which will blow her hitherto contented life to smithereens. Her fiancé is repulsed, her family is ashamed and her life is in tatters; and the film loses a little of its edge once the “will she/won’t she” tension has been completely exhausted, but the hour leading up to the revelation is often excellent.
Sleeping Dogs Lie has been written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, the anarchic, shrill-voiced comedian best known for his part as Officer Zed in the Police Academy series, and his screenplay here is notable for its subtlety and perception. Once the early blow-job has been accounted for, Goldthwait gives us a believable central relationship which is rooted in an everyday ordinariness and he creates a sense of awkwardness and fear for his central protagonist which is very real.

That awkwardness and fear is never more evident than during the trip to Amy’s parents which provides the both the film’s comedic high-points and the stage for the dramatic announcement. Amy’s straight-laced mother and father are played to perfection by Bonita Friedericy and Geoff Pierson and these scenes are reminiscent of
Meet the Parents, but they’re funnier, in a more down-to-earth way, and laced with an extra layer of embarrassment. Jack Plotnick (who has a hint of Bobcat about his performance) adds a considerable amount of energy to the film as Amy’s drug-addled waster of a brother, and Brian Posehn’s turn as his dopey friend is good value too.

Unfortunately all of this occurs in the film’s first hour and when Goldthwait attempts to deal with the ramifications of Amy’s disclosure he stumbles a little. After handling the build-up to the revelation with such flair, Goldthwait allows the climactic third to drift out of his grasp, and he retreats into a series of unimaginative sitcom-style situations which lack the spark evident in the film’s earlier scenes. The various ups and downs of Amy’s relationship with John - and latterly, her burgeoning affair with co-worker Ed (Colby French) - aren’t particularly interesting and the laughs become thinner as the film progresses.

Thankfully, this slightly uneven picture does have one chief asset which helps to paper over the cracks - a delightful central performance from Melinda Page Hamilton. As her life unravels over the course of this story, Amy goes through a full range of emotions and Hamilton is never less than completely engaging. She comes across as a prettier, more charming and less annoying version of Renée Zellwegger, and her fragile, endearing turn here lends the film more emotional depth than you might expect.
Sleeping Dogs Lie is Goldthwait’s first film as a director since 1992’s Shakes the Clown (championed by Martin Scorsese and REM, no less) and while his directorial style is a little bland and flat, he wisely gives the talented ensemble enough room to carry the picture. His screenplay is witty and insightful, and it’s impressive for the way he ties this perverse subject into a fairly conventional romantic comedy structure.

In fact, that’s one of the chief pleasures
Sleeping Dogs Lie offers - it’s a romantic comedy with a little bite. This style of film has become a creative wasteland in recent years, offering predictable, unimaginative stories which follow the genre’s rules to the letter, and which are often lacking in both romance and comedy; so the subversive Sleeping Dogs Lie is a welcome breath of fresh air. Who ever thought we’d see the day when a romantic comedy is based on bestiality? God only knows which taboo will fall next.

Read my interview with Bobcat Goldthwait here.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Review - The Departed

“I don’t want to be the product of my environment, I want my environment to be a product of me”. So says Jack Nicholson in the guise of crime boss Frank Costello, the monstrous vortex of evil around whom everything in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed revolves. It seems to have taken a lifetime to finally bring together American cinema’s greatest filmmaker and the most iconic American actor of the past forty years, and the results are spectacular. Whether he’s brandishing a rubber dildo in a porn cinema, throwing clouds of cocaine in the air with two prostitutes, or idly playing around with a severed hand; Nicholson is outrageously, compulsively watchable. At one point he strolls nonchalantly into a crowded room covered in someone else’s blood and offers no explanation. Nobody dares to ask.

Nicholson’s performance sums up the kind of go-for-broke energy which makes The DepartedThe Departed is an inspired remake of the 2002 Hong Kong hit Infernal Affairs, a slick cat-and-mouse game with an ingenious premise which had already spawned a brilliant sequel and a spurious third entry before this film. But while screenwriter William Monaghan mostly stays faithful to the original film’s premise, this version grows into a very different beast indeed; it grows into something purely Scorsese. such a gut-wrenchingly brilliant ride. After two grand, sprawling period pieces failed to find their audience and were encumbered by Oscar expectation, Scorsese has scaled down his ambitions somewhat to focus on the kind of violent urban crime drama with which he is most readily associated.

The Departed retains the smart plot hook which lit up Infernal Affairs. Di Caprio and Damon play Billy Costigan and Colin Sullivan respectively, they’re both cadets in the Boston police force but their paths ultimately diverge dramatically. Costigan is sent undercover by the Special Investigations Unit to worm his way into Frank Costello’s gang, feeding back information which will help detectives Queenan (Martin Sheen), Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellerby (Alec Baldwin) finally snare the biggest fish in Boston’s underworld. However, Costello has pre-empted them by using Sullivan as his own mole in SIU, and he uses his inside information to help his mentor stay one step ahead of the exasperated cops.

From the moment Gimme Shelter plays out over the opening sequence this feels like the perfect film for Scorsese to make after his Oscar disappointments. Few directors are so adept at portraying the violent world of those on the wrong side of the law, and The Departed snaps and fizzes like Scorsese’s best work. Freed from the pressures and compromises which weighed down upon Gangs of New York and The Aviator, Scorsese seems so much more relaxed here, and his vigorous direction recaptures the kinetic, propulsive rush which characterised Goodfellas and the sadly underrated Bringing Out The Dead. It’s an exhilarating experience.

This is a markedly different film to Infernal Affairs, which was cool and understated where The Departed is brash and explosive. Many of the set-pieces will be familiar to those who have already seen the original, but Scorsese gives them all an extra bolt of energy, with only the central mobile phone sequence perhaps failing to hit the mark set by its predecessor. Scorsese continually looks for something fresh and new in every scene, and he invests the film with the same themes and obsessions which infuse all of his best work; the codes of masculinity, the emotional impact of violence, the tortured Catholicism. The Departed is an extremely violent film and Scorsese makes every act of bloodletting hit us hard, even when it’s occasionally played for laughs. He is without peer at showing us the seductive power of crime and then repelling us with the consequences, a paradox which is stunningly personified by Frank Costello.

It has been a while since I’ve seen an actor take a role and just run with it the way Nicholson does here. He pulls faces, waves daft props around, and generally looms large over every scene in which he appears. It’s an outrageously unrestrained performance which only Nicholson could pull off, but this isn’t just Jack being ‘Jack’ or going over the top for the sake of it, his Frank Costello is an extraordinary embodiment of evil whose sheer unpredictability keeps the film on edge at all times. There’s a tangible sense of tension in the air with nobody - sometimes not even his co-stars - seeming to know quite where Nicholson will take this character next. It’s a wonderful performance, twisted, hilarious and brutal.

As good as it is, however, a performance like this could so easily capsize the film if the rest of the cast didn't work so hard to keep it grounded. The Departed gives every actor their chance to shine and it offers many of them the best roles of their careers. Di Caprio and Damon are both magnificent in the lead roles; Di Caprio gives the most mature, convincing, psychologically nuanced display of his career thus far, and Damon's slimy turn as the duplicitous Sullivan is perfectly honed. Martin Sheen adds a touchingly paternal lilt to his small but effective role and Ray Winstone is an impressively feral presence as Costello's vicious right-hand man. The real surprise is Mark Wahlberg though, who delivers by far his best performance since Boogie Nightsand almost steals the whole picture. His Dignan has a innate sense of righteous anger and a sarcastic streak a mile wide, and Wahlberg gets a laugh with almost every foul-mouthed line he utters. He forms an unbeatable double-act with Baldwin, whose gets a few choice lines for himself, and the film's only weak link may be female lead Vera Farmiga as the psychiatrist who gets involved with both Costigan and Sullivan. She is an appealing presence but her part is unfortunately underwritten, and what should be a pivotal role tends to get lost in the general melee.

That’s one of the few caveats, and there are one or two more. It has been twenty years since Scorsese last made a film which ran under two hours, and his 150-minute The Departed is massively expanded in comparison with the 100-minute Infernal Affairs. Much of this expansion is positive, giving more background info on Costigan and Sullivan and making some significant changes to the plot towards the climax, but there’s no doubt that a couple of scenes could have been lost or trimmed and the film suffers from a slight sag halfway through. This dip in momentum is almost negligible but it could have been avoided, and the same goes for the odd visual pun Scorsese includes in the final shot.

But those are the only occasions The Departed slightly stumbles, and Thelma Schoonmaker’s incredible sense of pacing generally keeps the film flowing beautifully. This is a gloriously crafted film, with Michael Ballhaus providing mesmerising camerawork and the director’s use of music is as potent as ever.

Even though this is a rare Scorsese film which doesn’t take place in his native New York, it still feels like something of a homecoming, a return to crime genre which he has so often elevated to new heights, and with The Departed he shows the young pretenders who have followed him that the master can still do it better than anyone. Scorsese’s most recent films have been burdened by the question of whether he will finally win the Oscar which has been so long overdue; but frankly, who cares as long as he continues to make films which confirm his status as the greatest of all American filmmakers? That’s exactly the kind of film The Departed is. We should simply treasure it, and not worry about whether the Academy will finally act accordingly.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Review - The Devil Wears Prada

For three decades Meryl Streep has remained pretty much unchallenged as the greatest actress of her generation. Her extraordinary range, her dedication to the craft and her ability to disappear into a character has seen her win more Oscar nominations than any other actress; but it's her hitherto undervalued comic skills which will probably see her pick up nomination number fourteen early next year. The Devil Wears Prada stars Streep as the boss from hell, a legendary editor of a New York fashion magazine who makes mincemeat of anyone unfortunate enough to get in her way. It's a plum role for Streep, and her typically domineering display plays a huge part in making The Devil Wears Prada a better film than it has any right to be. This adaptation of Lauren Weisberger's novel - a thinly veiled roman à clef about Vogue editor Anna Wintour - is a painfully underdeveloped affair which offers a simple-minded morality tale and lacks any real satirical bite. However, Streep leads a cluster of excellent performances, and there are one or two moments of genuine class in the script which give this rather shallow film just enough energy to keep it alive.

The story itself is banal. Anne Hathaway is Andrea Sachs (or Andy), a young woman with dreams of being a journalist, but whose attempts to find work in that field have failed to bear fruit. Soon she's desperate to take a job anywhere, and her search leads her to the headquarters of Runway magazine, a glossy fashion periodical which is ruled over by Miranda Priestly (Streep). The vacancy is for Miranda's second assistant, and from the minute Andy is greeted by first assistant Emily (Emily Blunt) it's quite clear that she doesn't belong in this strange world. She doesn't care about fashion, she doesn't look or dress like any of the women already employed here, and she even commits the cardinal sin of not knowing who Miranda Priestly is. After a short and frosty interview Andy is sure her chances of employment are dead in the water, but Miranda sees something she likes in this rough diamond and she decides to take a chance on Andy.

That's when the fun starts, and the early part of The Devil Wears Prada is pretty good fun, in an unoriginal kind of way. Andy quickly realises that she's completely out of her depth in this demanding position; her ignorance of the fashion world means she doesn't have a clue what anyone is talking about ("could you please spell Gabbana?”), and she has to put up with constant snide remarks from her colleagues about her frumpy, unfashionable wardrobe - although jokes about Andy being overweight and plain are frankly ludicrous against the gorgeous Hathaway. Miranda is a nightmare to work for, swamping Andy with one crazy demand after another and she never gives more information than she needs to ("please bore someone else with your questions”). But Andy is determined to stick it out; she knows that having a good stint as Miranda Priestly's assistant on her resumé will open up a lot of doors for her in the future.

This is another step forward for Anne Hathaway in a bid to distance herself from The Princess Diaries, but the film's narrative arc doesn't offer much of a change. Once again she's the ungainly and unglamorous ingénue who is plunged into a world far removed from her own and - after a fair dose of knockabout comedy - she begins to thrive and learns a few important lessons along the way. Hathaway is a lovely heroine - her welcoming eyes and radiant smile instantly win the audience over - and she gives a fine performance here; down-to-earth, plausible and funny. Unfortunately, Andrea Sachs is not a particularly interesting character and the various ups and downs screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna gives her are disappointingly unimaginative. Andy starts to take control of her work, but her personal life predictably begins to suffer with her too-perfect boyfriend (Adrian Grenier) lamenting the amount of time they spend apart. She's tempted by a smooth-talking playboy (Simon Baker, in an awful role) and she eventually realises that success in the fashion world is costing her the values and integrity she once held so dear. Andy is left with the choice of making it big or doing the right thing - I'll let you guess which way she jumps.

It's all very tired and prosaic, and a screenplay this dramatically slender would be fatal for many films, but The Devil Wears Prada has a number of aces among its supporting cast. Meryl Streep is just wonderful here. She takes a character who could have become a scenery-chewing monster to rank alongside Cruella De Vil and she goes in the opposite direction, underplaying the role for maximum impact. She never raises her voice, and instead she unleashes her poisonous barbs in the same velvety monotone which doesn't alter throughout the film. Streep's timing is as impeccable as ever, and she produces most of the film's laughs through the subtlest looks or gestures. But this is no cartoon villain, and Streep has a fine scene late on in which she gives us a glimpse - just a glimpse - of the vulnerability hiding under Miranda's steel-plated armour.

Everyone else inevitably exists in Miranda's shadow, but Emily Blunt and Stanley Tucci give performances which almost steal the film. Blunt is terrific as Miranda's first assistant, whose bitchy demeanour scarcely conceals her panicky realisation that her dream job is hanging by a thread at all times, and Tucci offers tremendous support as Miranda's long-term colleague Nigel. His deadpan turn brings depth and tenderness to a man who has mastered the art of surviving Miranda Priestly, and what a breath of fresh air it is to see a gay character in a film set in the fashion world who is allowed to be camp without being turned into a shrieking stereotype.

Director David Frankel cut his teeth on Sex and the City, so he knows a thing or two about shooting attractive women in stylish clothes, and the film generally looks glossy and sharp. He doesn't have much spark in his direction but he does put together a few snappy montages which help to kick the film along, and he also handle the film's tone with some skill. In fact, one of the chief pleasures of The Devil Wears Prada is the way it presents a view of the fashion world which contains laughs, but is also surprisingly serious and authentic - never indulging in the Prêt-à-Porter-style spoofing which would have been so easy. When one of Miranda's assistants holds up two identical-looking belts and says "they're both so different”, Andy stifles a laugh, as do the viewers; but Miranda responds with a quite brilliant speech which explains how Andy's frumpy, unfashionable sweater is tied inextricably into the industry which she views with such disdain.

It's moments like that which save The Devil Wears Prada from itself. The film's bog-standard plotting threatens to grind it to a halt in the final third, but it keeps throwing up smart touches which revived my flagging interest. I even surprised myself by caring about some of the characters' fates, but probably not in the way the filmmakers expected. I wasn't really bothered by any of Andy's tired little moral dilemmas as they played out in such dull fashion; but I found myself really caring about Emily's thwarted desire to go to Paris, I cared about Nigel's attempts to get his dream job and, of course, I really wanted the imperious Miranda to keep her place on the Runway throne. Some people may be startled to hear that I cared more about the scheming ice queen than the doe-eyed sweetheart, but it shouldn't really be that much of a surprise. After all, the Devil is always so much more fun.