Thursday, November 30, 2006

Review - Hollywoodland

When Matt Damon and Ben Affleck collected Oscars for their Good Will Hunting screenplay in 1998, they both seemed to have startlingly bright futures ahead of them, but it didn’t really work out that way. Damon has done pretty well for himself; he has slowly matured into one of the best young actors currently working, he has a successful action franchise under his belt, and he has worked with Spielberg, Soderbergh, Scorsese and De Niro.

For Affleck, things haven’t run quite so smoothly. He was doing OK for a while, giving decent low-key performances in films like Boiler Room, Changing Lanes and Shakespeare in Love, but in the space of a few years a number of poor film choices and his very public relationship problems turned Affleck into something of a joke. A run of films which includes Pearl Harbour, Daredevil, Paycheck, Gigli, Jersey Girl and Surviving Christmas is likely to do lasting damage to anyone’s career; and with the rather wooden acting style and limited emotional range he had exhibited previously, who would have dared to predict an upturn in Affleck‘s fortunes anytime soon?

Well, things can turn around very quickly in Hollywood, and Hollywoodland is a film which may well change people’s perceptions of what Ben Affleck can do. He plays George Reeves, the man who is remembered for just two things: the fact that he played Superman on TV in the early 1950’s, and the fact that he committed suicide a few years later - or did he? As far as the LAPD were concerned, the out-of-work Reeves, depressed by the downward spiral of his career, shot himself in the head on June 16th 1959 while his friends partied downstairs; but there has always been more than a hint of mystery and suspicion surrounding the death of Superman, and it’s this uncertainty which Hollywoodland tries to exploit.

Did George Reeves really pull the trigger? Or was it pulled by his fiery young fiancée Leonore (Robin Tunney) during one of their many arguments? Alternatively, perhaps Reeves’ death was ordered by MGM Vice President Eddie Mannix (an effectively gruff Bob Hoskins); after all, his wife Toni (Diane Lane) made no secret of her long-term affair with Reeves. These are a couple of the scenarios which run through the head of sleazy private eye Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), a semi-fictional adjunct to Reeves’ tragic true story, who is hired by the star’s mother to investigate his death. After years of dealing with dull little infidelity cases, Simo sees this as his big break ,and he begins using every trick in the book to get his name in the papers; but as the investigation continues to bring Simo nothing but trouble, his emotional state becomes increasingly strained.

Writer Paul Bernbaum and director Allen Coulter are both making their feature debuts here after years spent in television; and they have shown plenty of ambition in their approach to Hollywoodland, attempting to tackle this story on two fronts. One half of the picture follows Reeves, from the night he met Toni Mannix to the night he died, while the other follows Simo’s investigations; but in splitting their narrative down the middle Hollywoodland’s makers have presented themselves with structural problems they never satisfactorily overcome. Coulter’s transitions between the film’s two time periods tend to be clunky and jarring, lending the film an exasperatingly inconsistent and unfocused feel. But the biggest problem with Hollywoodland’s twin strands is the fact that one is half of the film so much more engaging and involving than the other; and while the Louis Simo scenes splutter and stall, the scenes concerning the life and death of George Reeves take flight.

“He was handsome” claims Reeves’ agent Art Weissman (Jeffrey DeMunn), “Not like these mumblers we have today - a movie star!”; and the casting of Affleck as Reeves couldn’t be better. His square-jawed, blandly masculine persona is beautifully suited to the part of Reeves, but Affleck also pulls a surprise by adding depth and weight to his character. He’s charming, witty, modest, and he also brings a touching sense of wounded pride to his role as a man slowly realising the limits of his own mediocrity. He also shares a sizzling chemistry with Diane Lane, who is devastatingly good as Toni Mannix, and it’s Hollywoodland’s depiction of their evolving relationship which lights up the movie. Initially, Reeves believes Mannix can help his career, and she sees him as a relief from her dormant marriage; but as Superman makes Reeves a star, Lane movingly expresses Toni’s fear of losing her young lover with an unflinchingly brave and complex piece of acting.

There are some wonderful scenes in Hollywoodland - Reeves’ discomfort when hecklers disrupt a screening of From Here to Eternity, or the flash of panic in his eyes when The Man of Steel is confronted with a real gun - but they all occur when Affleck and Lane are on screen, leaving the picture feeling fatally lopsided. Nothing in the Louis Simo story ever threatens to grab the viewer in the same way; it’s not that it’s bad - there’s certainly a bit of fun to had as Simo charms and finagle his way through the investigation - it’s just that it never really seems to serve any purpose. While the George Reeves story has a definite and quite involving arc, the lack of resolution to Simo’s narrative leads the film in ever decreasing circles, and it doesn’t help that many of the situations the detective finds himself in feel clichéd and unimaginative. Brody can be a fine actor, and he’s well suited to the role of the cocky Simo, but his character is sketchily written, and the time spent on his relationship with his ex-wife and son feels like time wasted.

The difference in quality between the two halves of Hollywoodland is exacerbated by the fact that Coulter gives more screen time to the Simo narrative than the Reeves one, which means the two most interesting characters in the film are pushed into the margins. I’m not sure Affleck’s acting chops would have stretched to carrying a full-on George Reeves biopic, but I wish Coulter had at least shifted the balance of the picture the other way, and minimised the amount of time spent with Brody’s private eye. But nothing ever really coheres in this disjointed affair, and at times the Simo and Reeves segments could be completely different movies. Coulter sloppily allows a number of scenes to run on longer than they need to, and the end result is an irritating patchwork in which the standout moments are too scattered and disconnected to have any lasting impact.

It seems Hollywood just doesn’t seem to know what to do with Superman these days. After Bryan Singer made a laudable but massively flawed attempt to bring the character back to the silver screen earlier this year, Hollywoodland is a similarly unwieldy offering; another picture which overreaches itself and displays feet of clay when it really counts. While George Reeves’ life ended with the bang of a gun, Coulter’s picture ends with a whimper. Simo considers the various suicide/murder theories in the final third, but the film refuses to show any conviction in settling on a scenario, and Coulter allows the story to drag itself to a deflating climax. Ultimately, Hollywoodland leaves us none the wiser about the way George Reeves departed this life, and it only occasionally sheds light on who he was when he was alive. You’ve got to feel pretty sorry for the guy - four decades after his death, and he doesn’t even get to be the lead in his own life story.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Review - Pan's Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno)

Her father is dead, her pregnant mother has moved in with a sadistic fascist, and the country around her is gripped by violence - no wonder Ofelia (Ivana Banquero) feels the need to flee her surroundings and escape to a world of fairies and magic. She’s the heroine of Pan’s Labyrinth, the new film by Guillermo del Toro which juxtaposes the harsh realities of warfare with a story of fantasy and myth. It’s a daring, almost foolhardy blend of styles and genres - a blend which could have clashed horribly - but del Toro weaves his remarkable story together like it’s the most natural thing in the world, and it has resulted in an utterly intoxicating experience which is impossible to resist.

The story of Pan’s Labyrinth takes place in 1944, but it opens with a brief “once upon a time”-style prologue. Hundreds of years ago, in a mystical ancient world which exists below the surface of our own, a princess disappeared into the world of humans and never came back. Her devastated father opened up a number of portals in the hope that her soul would one day return - and now, in the shape of Ofelia, perhaps it has. Ofelia is the young girl whom we first meet on the way to her new home. Her weak, heavily pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) is starting a new life with Vidal (Sergi López), a Capitán in Franco’s army, but he’s a cruel stepfather. When he and Ofelia first meet she makes the mistake of offering her left hand to shake, and Vidal almost crushes it in his vice-like grip. He has no feelings towards either Ofelia or his new wife; he simply wants the son which she is carrying in her womb.

Vidal has set up his base in the Spanish countryside to weed out the few rebel groups who still resist the fascist regime. The main fighting of The Spanish Civil War has been over for some time, but frequent skirmishes still take place in the nearby mountains and the guerrilla fighters also have a pair of collaborators who are working right under Vidal’s nose - his seemingly loyal doctor (Álex Angulo) and housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdú). It’s Mercedes who befriends the frightened and lonely Ofelia and tells her about the mysterious labyrinth which stands at the back of the house; and it’s at the centre of this labyrinth where Ofelia meets the faun (Doug Jones), a creature who informs her of her destiny and explains the dangerous tasks she must perform in order to reclaim her position in the kingdom.

Guillermo del Toro has spent the last few years trying to impose his dark sensibility on Hollywood genre films, with his patchy Blade II and Hellboy, but in trying to adhere to a mainstream code he hasn’t come close to matching his 2001 benchmark The Devil’s Backbone. Pan’s Labyrinth acts a kind of sister piece to that picture, once again setting a supernatural tale against the backdrop of Spanish conflict; but this is a much more fully realised film, a picture which finds the director using every one of his filmmaking skills to maximum capacity, and his story grips from the start. The opening sequence sees a small insect-like creature following Ofelia as she explores her new surroundings, and when he appears in her bedroom one night he takes on a human form right in front of her eyes. It’s a genuinely magical moment.

Del Toro fills scene after scene with startlingly imaginative moments like this, and he pitches each one at higher level than the last. This effort to top himself with every step of his picture could have led to him going too far and taking Pan’s Labyrinth over the edge, but he shows unerring judgement throughout, and his approach simply sees the film exert an increasing power over the viewer as the stakes for Ofelia grow inexorably higher. It’s not just his brilliant handling of his fictional world which impresses either, del Toro also paints a plausible picture of Ofelia’s unhappy life in the real world. Grounded by Sergi López’s vicious and compelling performance, del Toro doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of 1940’s Spain and much of this half of the film is extraordinarily violent. In fact, perhaps some of the violent acts here are a little too extreme - one of the earliest scenes in the film bears comparison to Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible - and the explicitness of these incidents has a slightly jarring effect. When del Toro shows such skill in managing the film’s tone elsewhere, moments like this stand out badly.

That’s a minor quibble though, and there’s too much pleasure to be had in Pan’s Labyrinth to linger on such small deficiencies. Chief among its many assets is the glorious central performance from 11 year-old Ivana Banquero whose sensitive, guileless display carries the film. She’s wonderfully natural and the audience really starts to care for her welfare as various external dangers begin closing in around her. She interacts brilliantly with her adult co-stars - including the excellent Verdú - but the most compelling relationship in the film occurs between Banquero and Doug Jones; the American actor who proves to be such a magnetic presence as the faun who acts as Ofelia’s guide. Sometimes a performance can get lost when actors are required to perform under a ton of makeup, but Jones exudes an air of calm authority as well as an enigmatic sense of menace. He also excels in his other role, as the mysterious Pale Man with whom Ofelia has a terrifying encounter. With eyeballs in the palms of his hands and the skin hanging loosely from his bones, the Pale Man is one of the most extraordinary creations I’ve seen in recent cinema, and the sequence containing him is a masterpiece of slow-burning tension.

The whole of Pan’s Labyrinth is beautifully designed. Del Toro draws inspiration from Borges and Goya, as well as stealing motifs from the likes of Alice in Wonderland alongside traditional fairytales, to create an incredibly rich milieu which is brought to life through masterful visual effects and production design. The spectacular effects never overwhelm the story though; they’re sparingly used and merely act as a means for del Toro to tell his tale in the most effective way. The director also places heavy emphasis on the uterine symbolism and maternal theme which runs throughout the picture; and while the political context and allegory doesn’t match up to that offered by The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro compensates with a more involving and emotionally affecting story.

As Pan’s Labyrinth moves into its latter stages del Toro allows his real and imagined worlds to bleed into one another (literally), and the director creates an almost unbearable tension during the final act as he builds to a devastating climax. This is the work of a filmmaker who has reached a new level of maturity in his work, a filmmaker who is pushing his abilities to the limit, and his picture is overflowing with creativity and passion. Pan’s Labyrinth is a stunning fantasy film, a powerful slice of civil war drama, and a compelling depiction of the resilience of the human spirit, all incorporated into one completely satisfying whole. Above all, and perhaps most movingly, it’s a celebration of imagination and escapism; and as Ofelia dreams herself away from the pain of her everyday life, we desperately long for her to dream herself to a better, safer realm. The world can be a terribly cruel place, never more so than when seen through the eyes of a child.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Robert Altman: 1925-2006

The story, as the director liked to tell it, went something like this. In a Hollywood screening room in the late 60’s a number of studio executives are sitting down to watch a rough cut of their new war picture. It’s a timely film, it has a hot young cast, and it’s based on a witty, irreverent novel. Some two hours later the lights go up, and the studio heads are aghast at what they’ve seen. It’s a mess, a disaster, and they are in no doubt that the blame lies squarely with the unknown filmmaker who has overseen this calamity. One anonymous member of the audience utters the immortal words: “That idiot's got everyone talking at the same time”.

That ‘idiot’ was Robert Altman and the film which was met with such disdain was M*A*S*H, the picture that would go on to be one of the year’s biggest hits and would later be revered as a classic. Altman was a true maverick, and he would undoubtedly have taken pleasure in the adverse reaction his film caused for those studio heads mentioned above. His entire career was marked by a refusal to compromise and a uniqueness of approach which resulted in the most eclectic and idiosyncratic filmography imaginable. Sadly, there will be no more additions to that remarkable filmography, because Altman passed away on Monday November 20th at the age of 81. He had shown no signs of slowing down in his old age - his last film, A Prairie Home Companion, was released to warm reviews earlier this year - and whenever an interviewer raised the prospect of retirement he scoffed at the very idea: “retirement? You’re talking about death, right?”.

Robert Altman has left us with an extraordinary body of work which covers three and a half decades; a body of work which features comedies, dramas, satires, musicals, and some films which hardly seem to fit into any genre. In truth, Altman’s career is littered with almost as many terrible films as great ones - and some of his worst features are nigh-on unwatchable - but when a Robert Altman film really comes together, there’s nothing quite like it.

Altman came to prominence, like so many great filmmakers, in the 1970’s. He was never really part of the celebrated ‘Movie Brats’ crowd - being 45 years old when he turned M*A*S*H into an unlikely success - but his work exhibited a youthful zeal and reckless ambition which more than matched his young contemporaries. Altman was interested in capturing something like real life on film, blurring the boundaries between truth and fiction. His plots were messy and amorphous, characters wandered in and out of the story at will, and, yes, the idiot had everyone talking at the same time. In the 14 (fourteen!) feature films Altman directed between 1970 and 1979, he displayed a blatant disregard for the standard practices of narrative storytelling. He had spent years working as a writer and director in the world of television, a medium he disliked for its rigid limitations, and when he was presented with the bigger canvas of the cinema screen almost by default (he was given the M*A*S*H job when practically every other director had declined the offer) he decided he was really going to use it.

The next decade saw one masterpiece, a handful of great films, and a few pretty bad ones; but each and every one of them was instantly recognisable as a Robert Altman film. His marvellous revisionist western McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) was muddy to look at and featured chunks of indecipherable dialogue, but it’s a film rich in atmosphere, and already we could see how Altman’s style benefited the actors working with him, as both Julie Christie and Warren Beatty turned in outstanding, fully-formed performances. In 1973 he subverted yet another genre in his own inimitable way, with his loose and lively adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye; and two years after that he produced his finest work, the definitive Robert Altman film. For the incredible Nashville, Altman allowed his actors to improvise and enhance their roles as the movie developed - they even wrote their own songs - and the result is perhaps the apotheosis of Altman’s desire to capture the messy randomness of real life in a movie.

And yet, for many years after Nashville Robert Altman’s career seemed in terminal decline. Few of his films in the late 70’s (including his interesting 3 Women) found an audience, and the trend continued for much of the 80’s. His attempt to pull off the near-impossible - a big-screen version of Popeye - was a costly flop, despite it being a quite brilliant film in many ways (certainly the performances from Robin Williams and Shelly Duvall couldn’t be bettered); and yet, Altman didn’t play it safe in order to claw back some credit with Hollywood, he just carried on making the films he wanted to make. 1984’s Secret Honor is a one-man show which features a stunning turn from Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon, Vincent and Theo is a captivating biopic, and Tanner '88 was a groundbreaking television series; but it seemed Hollywood still wasn’t interested anymore.

That changed in 1992 when Altman hit on the perfect film to appeal to the vanity of the Hollywood hierarchy - a film about Hollywood itself. The Player was a star-packed picture which presented Tinseltown as a back-biting world full of slimy lowlifes; and the film resurrected Altman’s career with every major star desperate to work with him. The next 14 years saw Altman make Short Cuts, Cookie’s Fortune, Gosford Park and The Company - those films could easily have come from four completely different filmmakers, and it’s only their quality which unites them. Of course, Altman wouldn’t be Altman without a few flops among the hits, and he stumbled with films like Prêt-à-Porter, The Gingerbread Man and Dr T and the Women; but perhaps that’s one of the things we most loved about Robert Altman, the fact that you genuinely didn’t know what you were going to get when you sat down to watch one of his films. It could be one of the best things you’ve ever seen or one of the worst, and finding out was always a thrill.

And now, there will be no more. It is fitting, perhaps, that Altman finished with A Prairie Home Companion, the kind of ensemble piece with which he is most readily associated, and one look at the cast list - for a small-scale film about an obscure radio show - tells you everything you need to know about the high regard Altman was held in by people who know their craft inside-out. He was always an outsider, viewed as an iconoclast and a troublemaker by those higher up the Hollywood food chain, but he finally received recognition from his peers earlier this year when he was given an honorary Academy Award after five unsuccessful nominations. As he stood on the stage clutching his overdue prize, this great filmmaker announced the fact that he had undergone a heart transplant ten years ago and he had received the heart of a woman half his age. “By that kind of calculation” he joked, “you may be giving me this award, too early. Because I think I've got about 40 years left on it. And I intend to use it”.

If only it were true.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Review - For Your Consideration

“Oscar is the backbone of this industry, an industry not known for its backbone”

Is there anything crazier in Hollywood than the ridiculous hullabaloo which traditionally surrounds the awards season? Some films get made, get released, and then quietly go away after their time in the cinemas has run its course; but when a picture starts picking up ‘Oscar buzz’ - often months before any footage from the film has even been seen - the publicity machine goes into overdrive. The stars are shunted from one talk show to another as they promote both the movie and themselves; ‘for your consideration’ posters are produced which practically beg voters to choose this particular film in every available category, and sometimes smear campaigns are even run against other films which have the temerity to put up some sort of competition. By the time the ceremony itself has finally arrived, the notion of a film winning purely on its merits has almost been forgotten. The Oscar campaign is a process which reveals Hollywood at its most self-obsessed, shallow and avaricious.

All in all, this tacky Tinseltown circus should be perfect material for Christopher Guest. He has already trained his satirical eye on the world of amateur dramatics, dogs shows and folk music; and while Guest has tried his hand at Hollywood satire before - with 1989’s underrated The Big Picture - this is the first time he has done so with the talented ensemble that has become his trademark.

Speaking of trademarks, however, the first thing one notices about For Your Consideration is the fact that Guest has dropped the faux-documentary style of filmmaking which served him so well in Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. Instead, For Your Consideration runs along more traditional narrative lines, following a small group of actors and filmmakers who allow an internet rumour of Oscar potential to take over their lives.

The film which is subject to speculation is Home for Purim, a terrible southern Jewish melodrama which features veteran actress Marilyn Hack (Catherine O’Hara) as a dying matriarch and Victor Allan Miller (Harry Shearer) as her devoted husband, who prays that their ne’er-do-well daughter Callie Webb (Parker Posey) will come home to see her mother before it’s too late. The film shoot is progressing in unremarkable fashion, and during a break the director of photography casually mentions to Marilyn an internet rumour which he spotted that weekend. Apparently a spy for a Hollywood gossip site was on the Home for Purim set and he was so impressed with Marilyn’s performance he instantly tagged it as having Oscar potential.

Marilyn is immediately flustered by the news. After years of relative anonymity (her role as a blind prostitute in the 70’s was the only one which made any impact), could this finally be her time in the limelight? Soon rumours are spreading like wildfire around the Home for Purim set, with Victor and Callie also being touted as potential winners. Victor instructs his agent (Eugene Levy) to stop accepting commercial and radio voiceover jobs, and Callie’s relationship with co-star Brian (Christopher Moynihan) is strained when her profile begins to rise. The Oscar buzz has an impact on other aspects of the production too, with a studio bigwig (Ricky Gervais) suddenly appearing to ask if the film’s ‘Jewishness’ could be toned down just a little - not the easiest thing to do with a film called Home for Purim.

Guest fans may be aghast when they hear about the auteur’s decision to drop his usual ‘mockumentary’ approach for this film, but it proves to be a very wise decision for a number of reasons. For one thing, it allows Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy to be more focused in their storytelling, developing a clear narrative thread while still leaving room for their large cast to have fun on the margins. Guest and Levy achieve a smart balancing act with their screenplay; managing to maintain the plot’s momentum even as they flit between minor characters, and they pack quite a lot of material into For Your Consideration’s brisk (perhaps too brisk) 86-minute running time. This isn’t exactly the most biting Hollywood satire you’ve ever seen, though; the script mostly settles for affectionately lampooning some of the more absurd sides of the filmmaking world, and while the targets attacked in For Your Consideration might be unimaginative, easy picks, it’s still fun to see Guest and co. at work.

And it’s fun for one big reason - the cast Christopher Guest has assembled over the course of his recent pictures is one of the funniest ensembles imaginable. The actors are completely in tune with the director’s filmmaking style, and their performances appear effortless; bouncing off each other without skipping a beat. The unmatchable Fred Willard and Jane Lynch are hilarious as the hosts of a garish TV entertainment show, John Michael Higgins produces some of the biggest laughs with his weird and wonderful turn as a strange publicist, and Jennifer Coolidge, as one of the film’s producers, again proves peerless in the ‘dumb blonde’ role. There are fine actors tucked away in every corner of the film - Ed Begley Jr. is a camp makeup man, Bob Balaban and Michael McKean are a pair of frustrated writers, Guest himself is a neurotic director - and they all get their chance to tickle the funny bone without ever proving an unbalancing or distracting influence on the film’s central story.

Guest has always focused his attentions on the self-deluded dreamers of the world, painfully optimistic souls who fully believe that their moment of glory is just around the corner, and For Your Consideration is no different; but this time the film dares to explore some of the pain which shattered dreams can cause, and in doing so it achieves a rare poignancy. As the three characters at the centre of the Oscar attention, Catherine O’Hara, Harry Shearer and Parker Posey give wonderful performances which offers a surprising amount of depth and feeling. Shearer lends a quiet dignity to Victor, maintaining a jocular façade even when his publicity tour sees him cavorting uncomfortably on an MTV youth show; and Posey is superb as the actress who derides awards as meaningless before the rumours start, and then finds them becoming increasingly important to her as the speculation mounts.

But the film belongs to O’Hara who gives the performance of her life as the sad, misguided Marilyn. Her barely-concealed joy at her possible nomination is a delight, but the film grows more caustic as she allows herself to be mangled by the Hollywood machine in the desperate pursuit of that golden statuette. There’s a certain reveal - late in the film - which is genuinely shocking and rather disturbing, and O’Hara’s brave display only grows in stature as Marilyn’s dreams slip out of her grasp.

Some gags work better than others in For Your Consideration, and some fall flat completely (the less said about Ricky Gervais’ tiresome cameo the better); but even if it didn’t always keep me laughing, it consistently kept me smiling, and that’s a rare pleasure in a cinema these days. Even better is the way the film unexpectedly sucker-punches the viewer with the emotional waters it dares to venture into, and the fact that it is held together by a brilliant piece of acting from Catherine O’Hara. What a sweet irony it would be if O’Hara’s performance was given the consideration it deserves over the coming months.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Review - Container

Whatever happened to Lukas Moodysson? Where did the director disappear to after creating three of the most beautiful and moving films of the past decade; and who is this miserable, tactless and aggressively charmless filmmaker who has stepped in to direct his last two pictures? As personality shifts go, the change that occurred between Moodysson’s 2002 masterpiece Lilja 4-Ever and 2004’s horrible A Hole in my Heart is a drastic and baffling one. The latter film displayed none of the humanism, subtlety, wit and intelligence of his first three pictures, and the result was a nihilistic and repulsive ordeal which seemed to be created solely as an empty provocation.

And yet, we still held out hope for this extraordinary young filmmaker. Every director stumbles once or twice in their career, and perhaps Moodysson would regain some of those former qualities with his next picture. Alas, Moodysson’s latest is just as depressingly awful as A Hole in my Heart. Actually, no; I think it might be even worse.
Container is a black-and-white film which runs for little over 70 minutes, but that’s just about 70 minutes too many. There’s no narrative here, just a series of murkily shot monochrome images which feature two people: a fat man (Peter Lorentzon) and a lithe Asian woman (Mariha Åberg). We don’t know who they are or what relationship they share at first, they’re just two random strangers who are filmed sitting in a messy apartment, making their way through a rubbish tip, or strapping a plastic foetus to their faces. Sometimes they’re together, sometimes they’re apart, sometimes they crawl on all fours, sometimes the man carries the woman on his back. The man is often seen wearing women’s clothing and, perhaps, the woman he carries around is an embodiment of the female trapped inside him. Who knows? Who the hell cares?

This is barely a ‘film’ in the traditional sense at all; there’s nothing to grab hold of, nothing to draw our interest and no attempt to shape these images into a meaningful whole. The whole farrago is accompanied by a whispering voiceover from American actress Jena Malone, which is possibly the only interesting thing about the film. Malone’s ceaseless narration is a stream of consciousness which touches on a wide variety of barely connected topics - the Virgin Mary, the Holocaust, pregnancy, etc. - and she also seems to take on a variety of roles as she talks. At first, it’s as if she is acting as the inner voice of the fat man, but then she introduces herself as Jena Malone, telling us that she has come to Sweden for the first time in order to record this narration. Her specific role in the proceedings becomes even more blurred as Container progresses and the monologue seems to take her down a series of blind alleys.

This aspect of the film is slightly more engaging because Malone has a great delivery. Her measured reading is soft, wistful and slightly erotic; and in conjunction with the surreal visuals, it could have produced something quite unsettling and haunting. But Malone’s running commentary rarely - if ever - aligns with what we see on screen. It’s just a frustratingly opaque collision between sound and imagery, and it’s almost impossible to figure out what on earth Moodysson is trying to say.

In truth, I don’t think he has anything to say. A Hole in my Heart was undeniably repugnant, but at least it seemed to come from a place of genuine anger and emotion, and it was provocative in a way few films manage to be. When Moodysson filmed the horrible act of one character vomiting into another’s mouth, and then set it against the glorious, exhilarating sound of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, I didn’t know what I was supposed to think or feel about the sight in front of me - but by God, I sure felt something. Container offers nothing on that level. It offers nothing at all. The film just sits lifelessly on the cinema screen. It’s a flaccid, ugly and ridiculously soporific fiasco which may be better suited to an art gallery; a place where people can wander past, observe a few minutes of the film, and then walk away. They might laugh at the self-indulgent and meaningless pretension on show, but the choices Moodysson is making in his work are no laughing matter.

In a way, perhaps it’s all Ingmar Bergman’s fault. It was he who described Moodysson as “a young master” when he burst onto the scene a few years ago - high praise indeed from such a legendary figure - and Moodysson now seems determined to rebel against the expectations people have of what his career should be. The director has stated in interviews that he reckons Container will find an appreciative audience of about seven, as if it’s something to be proud of, and it’s disheartening to think that this film is nothing more than a wind-up, with Moodysson taking a childish delight in pissing people off. I hate the thought of Moodysson continuing to squander his considerable gifts on this kind of pointless fare, but he seems to be a law unto himself and who knows what his next move will be? Whatever type of filmmaker he chooses to be from this point on, at least he has given us Show me Love, Together and Lilja 4-Ever - three wonderful films to cherish. I just hope we see the old Lukas Moodysson again some day.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Review - Breaking and Entering

Anthony Minghella has been away from London for a long time. After his debut film (irritating weepie Truly, Madly, Deeply) became a hit, Minghella quickly hightailed it to America where he has spent much of the subsequent 15 years receiving rapturous praise for unsatisfying films. He struck Oscar gold with The English Patient (the attraction of which completely eludes me) and his other epic - the turgid Cold Mountain - also picked up a few nominations despite being a complete mess of a film. Even the director’s best picture, his adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley, is only half a great movie.

Now Minghella has returned to his roots. Not only is he making his first London-set film for a decade and a half, he’s also shooting his first original screenplay in that time. The good news is, Breaking and Entering is an improvement on Cold Mountain. The bad news is, it still suffers from the flaws which have plagued the director’s films up to now - a lack of emotional involvement, poor pacing, and an overwhelming sense of self-importance which ultimately smothers everything in sight.

Set almost entirely in and around King’s Cross, Breaking and Entering stars Jude Law as Will, an architect who is at the centre of a project aimed at revitalising an area of London associated with crime, poverty and prostitution. Along with partner Sandy (Martin Freeman), Will establishes a swanky new office in a dilapidated area of the city, and after the launch party goes swimmingly, the inevitable happens - a group of free-running thieves break into the building and disappear with armfuls of electronic equipment. Will and Sandy are understandably furious - particularly as Will’s stolen laptop contained many of his family photos and films - but the insurance will cover it and they just put it down to bad luck.

However, a few nights later they suffer another break-in, and when the police fail to make any progress with the case Will decides to stake out the property himself. The tactic pays off. Will catches the acrobatic young thief in the act and gives chase, following Miro (Rafi Gavron) back to his home and catching sight of his beautiful mother Amira (Juliette Binoche). Over the subsequent weeks Will’s growing friendship with Amira gives him some respite from his depressed wife (Robin Wright Penn) and troubled daughter (Poppy Rogers), and their companionship quickly blossoms into romance; but when Amira discovers the nature of Will’s interest in her son, she resolves to stop at nothing to protect him.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Breaking and Entering is Minghella’s decision to shoot his film in the King’s Cross area. It is a part of London which is changing rapidly - its longtime reputation as a place of vice and squalor being glossed over as modern offices, apartments and the new Eurostar rail link attempt to completely rejuvenate this part of the world. As such, it is a place in a state of flux, and Minghella’s attempts to capture the essence of London by focusing on the contrasting faces of King’s Cross are generally very successful. Through slick cinematography and excellent location work, Minghella gives the film a cinematic sheen which makes it feel fresh and new. From the dingy backstreets, to King’s Cross station, to Camden council estates; Breaking and Entering admirably finds new and intriguing ways to look at places we might walk past every day. This smart visualisation of contemporary London is a treat - unfortunately, the patchy nature of Minghella’s script lets the film down badly.

“I don’t know how to be honest, maybe that’s why I like metaphors” says Jude Law late in the film, and there’s no doubt Anthony Minghella loves his metaphors. The dialogue in Breaking and Entering generally consists of metaphors, platitudes, and trite symbolism; pseudo-philosophical language which sounds nothing like real life. Much of this dialogue comes out of Jude Law’s mouth, and his overly earnest, cripplingly uncharismatic performance can’t really sell it. His Will is never interesting or sympathetic, and Breaking and Entering’s lack of a substantial leading performance badly stalls the film. The promising opening hour gradually unravels as Will continues to agonise over his infidelity, but there are still some bright spots surrounding this central vacuum.

The women fare much better than the men in Breaking and Entering, with Binoche and Wright Penn working wonders in their roles. Binoche is just superb as the harassed and desperate Bosnian mother whose love for her son is tangible; in fact, one of the best aspects of the film is the way she and co-star Rafi Gavron create a plausible and natural mother/son relationship which elevates their scenes together. Wright Penn has a difficult role to play - her constantly miserable wife could have come across as dangerously one-note - but she handles it with subtlety and skill, and her strong acting dominates the many scenes she shares with Law. Breaking and Entering also features a variety of talented actors in supporting roles, but they are severely short-changed by some of Minghella’s curious editing decisions.

For example; why does he abruptly drop Vera Farmiga’s vivacious prostitute from the film halfway through, when she has been by far the best thing in its opening hour? Why doesn’t he give Ray Winstone a proper role instead of a moped and some half-baked speeches? And why does he take the time to build the relationship between Sandy and his cleaner in the first half hour and then completely forget about it until Sandy arbitrarily mentions it late in the film? This last move is particularly hard on Martin Freeman as his infatuation is the only extra dimension his character has, and as a result he becomes a rather pointless figure.

These decisions are baffling, and Breaking and Entering’s second half is something of a chore, but I was still with the film as it approached its climactic scenes, and I was still curious to see how Minghella would bring his contrived tale to a close. Frankly, I wish I hadn’t stuck around to find out, because the final ten minutes of Breaking and Entering are so ridiculous, so head-slappingly stupid, they blow the whole picture. I have no idea why the director suddenly decided to try and fashion a happy ending for every single character from this story of crime and adultery, but his actions pretty much undermine whatever good work the film has put in up to that point. Minghella doesn’t seem to want to deal with the real, messy consequences of two families disrupted by infidelity, and instead he waves away their troubles with a single stroke of his pen. Breaking and Entering started life in the dark and dirty streets of King’s Cross, but those final ten minutes take it away to some bourgeois fantasy world which I don’t recognise. Let’s call it Minghellaland. It’s not a place I want to revisit anytime soon.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Review - Starter for Ten

Who would have believed that University Challenge could provide the central plot hook for a sweet romantic comedy? The long-running BBC quiz show has been parodied before on the small screen - remember that classic episode of The Young Ones featuring ‘Scumbag College’? - but now it makes the unlikely leap to the big screen in the unoriginal but amiable comedy Starter for Ten. In adapting his own successful novel, screenwriter David Nicholls places the programme at the climax of a story which hits all of the requisite rom-com beats with a thudding predictability; but the film manages to carry off the clichés of the genre with a sense of humour and understated charm which is ultimately hard to resist.

“Ever since I can remember I’ve wanted to be clever” says working-class Essex boy Brian (James McAvoy), sounding like a nerdier version of
Goodfellas’ Ray Liotta, at the start of the film. He avidly watches University Challenge as a child and throughout his adolescence he continues to devour every piece of information he can find, until he finally achieves his dream in 1985 when he is accepted at Bristol University. After a brief settling in period, Brian joins the University Challenge team which is being chaired by the pompous Patrick (Benedict Cumberbatch), and he instantly falls for one of his team mates; flirty blonde bombshell Alice (Alice Eve). But does his future really lie with her, or is he missing the chance of true love with his down-to-earth political activist friend Rebecca (Rebecca Hall)?

You don’t have to be a University graduate to figure out where
Starter for Ten’s story is going - indeed, most of the major plot points can be easily predicted about an hour before they occur - but the film still contains plenty to enjoy. Chief among its pleasures is the perfect cast, all of whom give convincing, heartfelt and intelligent performances which imbue their characters with depth. As the gauche know-it-all Brian, James McAvoy gives a wonderful turn, full of warmth, and his strong display holds the attention even if a number of the situations Brian finds himself in are trite. McAvoy handles the comical slapstick scenes with aplomb and he brings a surprising amount of emotion to his role; the scene in which he comes close to tears when talking about his dead father could have been horribly mawkish, but McAvoy makes it genuinely affecting.

The young actors who make up the supporting cast all pull their weight too. Eve and Hall excel as the two women in Brian’s life, both ensuring their ‘love interest’ roles grow into something considerably more substantial, and Cumberbatch effectively indulges in a spot of broad comedy as the toffee-nosed Patrick. TV comedienne Catherine Tate makes a convincing bid to be taken seriously as an actress with her performance as Brian’s mother, a funny turn which has a nice touch of pathos about it; but the really remarkable performance in
Starter for Ten comes from League of Gentlemen star Mark Gatiss, who inhabits the role of Bamber Gascoigne with startling accuracy. Buried under a large pair of glasses and a thick wig, Gatiss looks unerringly like the venerable presenter, and he perfectly replicates his voice and mannerisms too. His hilariously on-the-nose portrayal plays a big part in enlivening the film’s third act.

Starter for Ten director Tom Vaughan is making his feature debut with this film after learning the ropes on TV dramas such as the BBC production He Knew He Was Right and ITV's Cold Feet, but his handling of matters here is anonymous. The blandly generic cinematography makes the film looks like any other British romantic comedy, and the soundtrack is comprised of all the expected late 70's/early 80's hits. In fact, the only times Starter for Ten exhibits any signs of being directed at all is when the film seems to have been over directed. Vaughan's unoriginal eye occasionally slips into cliché mode, with Brian making two long runs towards the object of his affection (one in the pouring rain, naturally), and his clumsy handling of a naked Charles Dance and Lindsay Duncan blows the A Fish Called Wanda-style set-piece at the film's centre.

Vaughan could certainly have used a lighter touch in his direction of
Starter for Ten, but the neat screenplay by David Nicholls comes through unscathed. Aside from a few mild stabs at Britain’s class system, Nicholls generally focuses his attention on his characters, and he generously doles out some witty dialogue for most of them along the way. The structure of his script is, admittedly, resolutely formulaic, but there’s little wrong with adhering to a formula when it’s done to a high standard, and Nicholls hits the mark more often than not. There’s even a smart plot reversal during the climactic game show which took me unawares and cast an unexpected slant on the subsequent scenes; Starter for Ten may only have one surprise up its sleeve, but it uses it well.

There’s really nothing here you haven’t seen before, but what’s here is funny, charming and features a batch of rising British talent giving impressive displays. This mildly diverting little film will surely fit the bill for anyone looking for a fun romantic comedy as well as nostalgia hunters looking for an evocative trip through the 80’s; and perhaps it could kickstart a whole new genre. We could be seeing
Blankety Blank: The Movie, or even Starter for Ten II: The Paxman Years, coming to a cinema near you soon…

Friday, November 10, 2006

Review - Casino Royale

"I'll have a vodka martini” says the man in the tuxedo as he takes a seat at the bar. "Shaken or stirred?” the barman asks; "Do I look like I give a damn?” comes the brusque reply.

Yes, Bond is back but this time he's a little different. After Pierce Brosnan's tenure as everybody's favourite spy ended on a sour note - with 2002's abysmal Die Another Day - the powers that be have brought in a different type of actor to play the role, and they've promised us a different type of Bond. This film will be grittier and more realistic, we have been told, a Bond film which favours character over spectacle, a film in which the leading man has to rely on his wits rather than a set of handy gadgets. Statements like this indicate a desire to breathe new life into a franchise which sorely needed some freshening up.

In order to achieve this overhaul the producers have decided to take Bond back to his roots. Casino Royale was Ian Fleming's first Bond novel, and this adaptation details the character's uneasy early steps into the dangerous world of espionage. Played to great effect by Daniel Craig, Bond starts the film as an arrogant loose cannon - causing M (Judi Dench) to wonder if she made a mistake promoting him - and he ends the film as the Bond we know so well: cool, controlled, deadly. The film could easily have been titled Bond Begins.

In truth, despite all the claims of this being a new type of Bond film it doesn't risk straying too far from the tried-and-tested template. We still get a fistful of gorgeously shot far-flung locations to drool over (Prague, The Bahamas and Venice, among others), and of course there's a few gorgeously shot women on hand to necessitate a little more drooling (Eva Green and Catarina Murino). The huge explosions and spectacular stunts are all present and correct, and the film's screenplay still offers the occasional patch of muddy plotting alongside a few cheesy one-liners. But there is a different feel to it all this time around; it seems to take place in the real world, with a few flesh-and-blood characters, and the frequent acts of violence appear to carry some genuine weight. Casino Royale was never going to match the stripped-down vérité style of, say, The Bourne Supremacy, but it's still the most engaging and thrilling Bond film in years.

The plot this time is on a smaller scale too: no dreams of world domination here, just the endless pursuit of cold, hard cash. After making a botched attempt to capture an arms dealer in Africa, Bond goes against orders to track down Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a banker to the world's terrorists who has unwisely been gambling with his clients' funds. When Bond's intervention in a terrorist attack causes Le Chiffre to lose a serious amount of money, he organises a high-stakes poker game at the titular casino where he believes his card skills will easily raise the cash he needs to appease his angry customers. As the best poker player MI6 has at their disposal, Bond is instructed to take part in the game and take all of this dirty money; but M has him on a tight leash after a few too many irresponsible acts, and they send accountant Vesper Lynd (Green) along to keep an eye on him. Inevitably, the initially frosty relationship between Bond and Lynd soon melts into something considerably warmer, and their deepening connection forces him to make some tough decisions when Le Chiffre decides that getting her is the best way to get Bond.

Of course, the main focus of attention with every Bond film is on the man in the title role, and this focus has been intensified prior to Casino Royale's release with many hardcore fans protesting against the choice of Daniel Craig. Their fears were unfounded. Craig is probably the best actor to have taken on the role so far, and his excellent display here makes him the most impressive Bond since the heyday of Sean Connery. What's great about this performance is the way it develops over the course of the film; we see the rough edges and the inexperienced mistakes gradually fall by the wayside as Bond grows from a reckless hothead into a slick killer. Craig also brings a welcome amount of depth to the role, shading in Bond's personality in a deft and convincing way. A telling scene occurs just after he has dispatched two assailants in a frantic and bloody fistfight; he seems shaken as he stands alone in front of his bathroom mirror, needing a stiff drink to compose himself before he emerges looking as sharp as ever. Bond may kill in cold blood, but Craig always reminds us that he's only human.

The film is pretty well cast across the board. Mikkelsen has been one of the most consistent actors in Europe for years and he plays Le Chiffre in a brisk and contained manner. The villain has the usual physical deformity (a scarred eye which actually cries blood, no less) but Mikkelsen doesn't let him become a caricature, and there's a chilling efficiency about his dark deeds. After a shaky start, Eva Green seems to grow into the role of Vesper as her relationship with Craig develops, and she's ultimately a more effective Bond girl than most. Many fine actors pop up in smaller roles, some little more than cameos, but their presence is pleasing all the same; Jeffrey Wright is Felix Leiter, Giancarlo Giannini plays one of Bond's contacts, and Judi Dench offers typically excellent support as M. The film wisely dispenses with the likes of Q and Moneypenny as well - this Bond doesn't seem to have time for such distractions.
Casino Royale has been directed by Martin Campbell, and the decision to give him the reins is as important to the film's success as the choice of Craig. Campbell is an old hand at this kind of thing (he directed Goldeneye, the best of the Brosnan Bonds) and his direction here is everything it needs to be: professional, clear and with a keen eye for the spectacular. Campbell presides over two action sequences in the first half which are among the best of the series - a thrilling Parkour-inspired chase through a building site which is later topped by a gripping airport sequence with a great punch line - and he keeps the pace lively and sharp throughout, while also ensuring we can see everything that's taking place in a given scene, no matter how hectic things get. Casino Royale also lets us really feel the impact of Bond's actions, and the violence, from the inspired black-and-white opening sequence onwards, has a satisfyingly raw edge to it. Of course, Casino Royale also gives us the most notorious scene from Fleming's book, in which a naked Bond is tortured in a very specific and painful way, and the film really makes us feel as if our hero might be in danger of losing his double-oh's.
Casino Royale isn't a great film by any means. It suffers from a baggy midsection in which the misjudged length of time devoted to the central card game threatens to slow it to a standstill, and it also appears a little lopsided with the majority of the film's high points occurring in its first half (the Venice-set climax seems a little flat by comparison). There are other flaws too, but many of them are the kind of quibbles which are pretty much inherent to this franchise - like the odd dodgy plot development and the cheesy love scenes - and most are forgivable when the film is this enjoyable. Casino Royale is a refreshing change of pace after the recent, bloated Bond films - movies which seemed more concerned with their blockbuster status than staying true to the character's unique qualities - and in Daniel Craig it gives us a perfect embodiment of the man dreamed up by Ian Fleming so many years ago. For that, we should be thankful.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

"I don’t think I’ve untapped this big whole world of bestiality..." - An interview with Bobcat Goldthwait

Bobcat Goldthwait achieved fame in the 1980’s as the shrill-voiced Officer Zed in the Police Academy series, and the anarchic comedian later gained notoriety when he set fire to his chair on Jay Leno’s TV show; but the passing years seem to have mellowed Goldthwait somewhat, and his new film Sleeping Dogs Lie reflects that, offering a surprisingly perceptive look at some serious themes. I met the writer/director shortly before the film’s UK premiere at the this year’s London Film Festival, and we spoke about the zero-budget bestiality comedy which seems to be having a big impact wherever it screens.

Sleeping Dogs Lie is a very different type of film to the kind you’re normally associated with; much more thoughtful and low-key compared to the more outrageous comedy you’ve done in the past. Was this a conscious decision on your part?

It wasn’t really an effort to reinvent myself or anything like that, it was just the kind of movie I was interested in making. So no, it wasn’t like I was trying to get people to perceive me in a different light. I’ve been directing a bunch of television stuff in the States - all comedy - and this was just something that we shot in two weeks and it was just a fun thing to do, and it continues to be a fun thing to do, so I’m pretty lucky.

And as well as making the film in a short amount of time you made it with hardly any money at all.

Yeah, we just used our own money and stole a lot of stuff. Well, not really ‘stole’ because we returned most of the stuff we took from various television shows, and things like that.

What were your expectations when you made the film?

I had no expectations. I truly never thought I’d see it in a theatre, I never thought I’d see it in any film festivals. What I thought was, I’d get it done and maybe I could sell it to a company who would put it out as a DVD so Marty (Pasetta), the other producer, and myself would make our money back and not lose money, that was the only real goal. So it has just exceeded all my expectations, you know. I thought it would be something where I could say to my friends “you want to see something fucked-up? Come over to my house and I’ll show you this movie I made in two weeks,” that’s really all I thought it would be.

The film started to take off when you entered it into Sundance.

Yeah, we entered it into Sundance. I didn’t think it would get in, and when they called to tell me it was in I was working on The Jimmy Kimmel show, and Jimmy Kimmel’s really big on pranks, so I thought maybe he had one of the writers calling and saying they were from Sundance. So I said “I’ll call you back”, and I got his number because I wanted to call an office to see if it was real. Because Jimmy does a lot of pranks, he does a crank phone call show called Crank Yankers, I don’t know if you know that?

Yeah, we get that over here.

Jimmy produces that, and he and I did a prank movie on this guy, so I thought it was just another one of his pranks.

The audience reactions have been great so far.

It’s been really crazy, we’ve had some really nice reactions. I’ll be interested to see what translates, what people laugh at, because tonight will be the first time I’ve seen it with an audience in the UK, so I’ll be interested to see what plays and what doesn’t play.

The screening I attended seemed to be a combination of people laughing, but also being slightly uncomfortable with what they’re laughing at. Is that a kind of comedy you like to explore?

That’s the only comedy that really interests me, to make people uncomfortable, I don’t know why. Robin Williams is a friend and we were talking about different comedies, and we were discussing our neuroses, and he really wants approval from everyone, and I’ve never been too concerned with that. I’ve almost been more concerned with annoying people. We were laughing, I said “you know, your neurosis is way more lucrative” [laughs].

I suppose the studios are a bit more likely to stump up the cash for one of his films rather than yours.

Yeah, although I guess it is kind of funny that I made this dark, weird movie which ends up quasi life-affirming. That might be the ultimate joke.

What do you think it is that has caught the public’s imagination with this film?

Um, I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve untapped this big whole world of bestiality…[laughs]

Maybe you have.

Well, yeah, but if you’re into bestiality I think you’re going to be greatly disappointed, as it all happens off-camera and is tastefully done. It’s not an exploration of bestiality, it’s an exploration of relationships, and not just romantic relationships, but your relationship with your family and stuff. I think all families have this stuff you never talk about and it’s always there, you know. I like the Mom who is in total denial that her son is on drugs, and I like the dad’s total denial, you know, his perception that his wife is virginal, and there are just all these lies we tell ourselves to get through. The funny thing with these lies is that we know they’re lies, you know, it’s not even a lie that we hope is true, we know it’s a lie.

And the film argues that it’s often better to lie to save someone else’s feelings, so perhaps it’s that different viewpoint which people are buying into?

It’s funny, I don’t run into people who have a problem with bestiality - I’m sure they’re out there - but the people who have a problem with this movie get really mad over the idea of being dishonest with a spouse. I don’t understand that; I think full disclosure is a way to hurt the other person and it’s also a pretty good way to end a relationship.

Was there something which inspired you to write something on this topic of lies and relationships?

I think it’s probably inspired by a whole bunch of lies I’ve been dealing with for years. You can be in a bad relationship and be constantly telling yourself that it’s a good relationship, so I think that’s probably what inspired me to write this [laughs].

One of the main reasons the film works so well is the casting, particularly Melinda Page Hamilton as Amy, how did you come to cast her?

She actually came in and auditioned, and she auditioned with that scene in the car where she actually tells the boyfriend her secret, and she added that nervous laugh that’s not in the script, and when she did that I was like “Oh my God, she’s got to do the movie”. I was afraid that somebody would talk her out of it, like an agent or a family member. You know, it’s not me being self-loathing but I’ve been around this business too long and I know this movie will eventually just be a footnote as her first movie, I truly believe she’ll have a great career. And her career will be any way she wants, if she wants to make indie films and arty films she can do that, if she wants to make big pop movies she can do that, and I know that. I mean, I don’t know if I’m talented at directing or anything like that, but I have in the past hired people before they took off, like Adam Sandler was in my fine alcoholic clown movie (Shakes the Clown), and just other people that I’ve hired, and there’s no way that won’t happen to her. She just got nominated in New York at the Gotham awards for breakout performance.

It’s well deserved. And that scene she auditioned with is a really emotionally demanding scene, where she’s doing a lot of things at the same time.

It’s really funny because, it’s exactly what you’re saying, there are so many things going on in her face, and that’s all her. There’s subtext in that scene but I only wrote one thing, all that other stuff is what she brought to the party.

The casting of the rest of her family anchors the film, particularly the parents who appear so conservative and rigid at first and then their layers are subtly revealed.

Geoff (Pierson), the guy who plays the dad, he was the only actor in the movie that I wrote the part with him in mind; I had worked with him on a television show years ago. Most of the big roles were actually people who auditioned, but there are some comedians that are just friends of mine in the cast, like Brian Posehn who plays the friend of the brother Randy.

He gives a very funny performance.

He’s really funny, and that whole thing where he’s talking about midgets and monkeys not getting along, we were having lunch while we were making the movie and he started telling that story and I said “don’t tell the end of that story, there’s a scene coming up and I want you to tell this story”. So I told the cast it would be a montage scene with music playing but there wasn’t, I just wanted them to stay in character and listen to him, so that’s how that scene was shot. It’s just Brian being funny, and he added so many lines of his that weren’t in the script like when he says “I kissed a dead body once”, which is one of my favourite lines, and “you look really pretty when you’re sad” which is one of those things where it’s not funny but I really love that line.

Were the crew also just people you had worked with previously?

Half of them were kids from Craigslist.

And they were just recent graduates?

Yeah, and not graduates too, some of them were in school. I said “if the cops come, us older guys will hide and you guys tell them we’re shooting a student film”, and they go “we are students” and they all whipped out their college IDs. I said to one guy “how old are you?” and he said “well my ID says I’m 27, but it also says my name is Gary”, and his name was Drew. So in the movie he’s credited as Drew/Gary. But half of them were friends I’d worked with. In fact, it was kind of funny because there were some guys who were 15, 20 years older than me working with the college kids, and normally on a set the older guys would the guys with the big titles, you know? On our movie the big titles like the cinematographer and the gaffer were all young kids. These older guys would come in and it was a great learning experience, it was really cool and really fun, because the young kids would tell the old guys “you know what? That’s kind of hacky, that’s in everyone’s student reel”. It would be really funny.

It must be great to have that fresh perspective coming in from the younger crew members.

Yeah; I mean, I don’t know if people like the movie or not, it certainly has its flaws, but I truly can’t think of a more fun way to make a movie. I said that when we wrapped, I said “it doesn’t matter if this movie never comes out because I feel this was a pretty successful movie”. Nobody yelled when we made the movie, and we all laughed, and the wrap party was me buying underage people beer [laughs].

Well, you say you had a great time making it but obviously you had to employ some guerrilla tactics to get it done too. Was there any time when you thought you could be getting yourself in trouble?

There’s one scene, the scene in the garage, we were filming at Marty’s house but he didn’t have a garage. I said “what’s the deal with that empty house across the street?”, and he said they had sold the house but nobody had moved in yet. So…um…I’m not going to admit to anything…but somehow the lock fell of the garage and we rolled the car in, and during that scene I was actually a little nervous about getting busted because there was an actual crime being committed. I said to the crew “we’ve got to be quiet tonight because this is a key scene and it’s really heavy, and we have to respect the actors”, and one of the crew kids said “you don’t have a permit again, do you?” and I said “dude, I don’t even know whose fucking house this is” [laughs]. And when you’re doing stuff like that it doesn’t actually add to the tension, it does the opposite, because everyone thought it was really funny and was giggling. We had nicked so much stuff from various productions that Bonnie (Bonita Friedericy), who plays the mom, she was really bummed out that she hadn’t stolen anything from another TV show. Eventually she brought something in - I can’t remember what it was, a piece of wardrobe or something - but she was just so excited to have a stolen item.

It’s like a rites of passage, you have to steal something to be accepted.

Yeah, it’s kind of like being blood brothers, we were all in it together.

Obviously, the canine blowjob occurs in the very first scene, were you ever worried it might be too much for the audience to deal with right at the start and it could throw them off from focusing on the subsequent story?

A little bit. I mean, maybe that’s why it’s not so graphic. I thought it would have been dishonest to an audience to reveal it 20, 30 or 40 minutes in, I thought it would be short-changing them like “Oh my God, I’ve invested in this woman and now you’re telling me this?”. So, in order to not have the audience go through the same thing all the other characters do, judging her, it was done in a really odd and simple, not very lecherous or scandalous way. It was almost made boring.

Was the secret always going to be a dog blow-job, or did you weigh up other possibilities?

No, I couldn’t really think of anything else. I wanted something that would be a deal-breaker for some people, but at the same time didn’t really involve another person, because I’m lazy and didn’t feel like developing another character [laughs].

It’s much easier to write for a dog.

Because nobody’s asking “where’s the dog now?”, nobody worries about that.

Maybe that could be scope for a sequel.

Yeah, telling the dog’s story [laughs].

You’ve been directing a lot of TV in recent years but you haven’t done many films, aside from Windy City Heat

Yeah, Windy City Heat, which is a prank movie.

And your only feature before that was Shakes the Clown which was 14 years ago.

Yeah, I’m not really prolific. I mean, that’s the other thing I learned from making this movie - I don’t have to wait. I can go and make another movie, and just get down and dirty and just continue. I’d really like to still do what I’ve been doing, keep working for other comedians on television as a director, and then go off and make my own small little movies.

Are you still working in front of the camera and doing stand-up?

No, I really try not to at all. It wasn’t really acting that much anyway, but it just doesn’t interest me. I have more respect now for actors than I ever had after this movie. I know it sounds like I’m having a pity party, but I really don’t think I’m that good of an actor that it’s worth pursuing, and I really like directing.

Have you got anything planned for the near future?

No, I’d just like to just keep writing and directing. I heard rumblings that there’s a sketch show in the states starting up so I might get involved with that. It’s a group who have just started up and they’ve got this sketch show for MTV, they contacted me, but I don’t know if I’ve got the job yet. That would be cool too because I’ve never done that, I’ve worked with individual comedians but I’ve never had to juggle a whole bunch of comedians before, so that would be pretty cool.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Review - Little Children

What a perplexing film this is. Little Children is the second film from Todd Field, whose 2001 debut In the Bedroom won critical acclaim and Academy Award nominations. This adaptation of Tom Perotta’s novel features a first rate cast, who tackle the powerful and troubling storyline with considerable skill; and it’s a classy piece of work too, one which displays numerous moments of genuinely brilliant filmmaking.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? So why on earth did this movie leave me feeling so unsatisfied? The ingredients are all there, but they just don’t gel, and the result is a wildly uneven movie in which the brilliant moments mentioned above sit side-by-side with misjudged lumps of melodrama, unconvincing subplots, and a final third which throws the film’s slow-burning tension to the wind in favour of outright hysteria. During the early stages of Little Children I was convinced I was watching one of the films of the year; two hours later I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the film I had just watched. It’s unbelievably frustrating.

Little Children is a tale of infidelity in a small American suburb. Kate Winslet is Sarah, an unfulfilled woman who has all but given up her academic ambitions in order to be a full-time mother to her daughter Lucy, but taking care of “this unknowable little person” is hardly a role she’s suited too. Sarah spends her mornings at the local playground, casting a superior gaze over the other three mothers who congregate there, and her life seems to have settled into a fairly drab routine. Then, things change. Brad (Patrick Wilson) strolls into the playground, pushing his young son, and the three mothers alongside Sarah are instantly agog. They’ve admired him from afar for some time - they’ve nickname him “The Prom King” - and they are stunned when Sarah dares to strike up a conversation with him. He's a little stunned too, she’s the first person who has spoken to him in all of his visits.

Sarah and Patrick start to meet regularly at the playground and later at the local pool, the friendship between their children merely a handy pretence to hide the true intentions behind their encounters. Both of them feel like they’re not getting enough from their marriages - Sarah is tired of her stuffy husband Richard (Gregg Edelman), and Brad’s wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) seems to have lost all interest in sex since their son was born - and their affair is entirely predictable, but Field handles its development in brilliant fashion. He builds their relationship in a flowing seamless fashion, employing some beautifully fluid camera moves and sharp editing, and the arch narration from Will Lyman lends the film a witty edge of satire. This is a far more ambitious film visually than Field’s In the Bedroom was, but it never feels self-conscious or pretentious, it’s there purely to aid the story’s construction. There’s a genuine sense of chemistry and sexual tension between Winslet and Wilson too, which provides the motor for the film’s central narrative.

However, there’s another narrative thread present in Little Children, one which is both less conventional and more unsettling, and it causes problems for the film’s overall framework. The film opens with news reports of convicted paedophile Ronnie McGorvey (former child star Jackie Earle Haley) moving back into the area to live with his mother, in a house which is too close to the park and the swimming pool for the local parents’ comfort. A local retired cop (Noah Emmerich) has taken it upon himself to force Ronnie out, launching an almost nightly campaign of intimidation which is growing in intensity.

In many ways Ronnie becomes the most interesting and compelling character in the film. While this isn’t quite as daring as the best screen portrayal of a paedophile in suburbia - Dylan Baker in Todd Solondz’s Happiness - it’s still a complex characterisation which for the most part avoids glib stereotyping. In the early part of the film Ronnie appears to be a rather mild individual, fully aware of his impulses and trying to keep himself in check, and he hardly seems to be the monster for whom the local residents have been demanding castration. He loves his mother (the excellent Phyllis Somerville), he’s polite and seemingly in control of himself; but later scenes reveal the old urges still raging under the surface, particularly during a blind date arranged by his mother which goes terribly wrong (the woman in question is Jane Adams, who must be Hollywood’s go-to actress for bad date victims). The whole date sequence, and its aftermath, is superbly realised, but there are other times in which Field can’t quite keep a lid on the simmering tensions wrought by Ronnie’s release.

A notable scene occurs at the swimming pool, which is full of children on a hot summer’s day, and Ronnie suddenly appears clad in a snorkel and flippers. He goes for a dip and it’s some time before anyone seems to spot this rather inconspicuous character - but all hell breaks loose when they do. Every panic-stricken mother calls her child from the pool, and the mass exodus which follows is a frenzied scene which recalls similar scenes from Spielberg’s Jaws. This sudden explosion of melodrama is slightly at odds with the otherwise effectively understated tone of the film, almost throwing things off balance, and this attempt to balance the smart and evocative atmosphere of the film’s first half with the melodramatic contrivances of the second is a battle Field loses as the film nears its climax. The final twenty minutes is where the whole thing goes off the rails; a climactic section which necessitates various characters behaving stupidly, some cheap emotional shots, and an awkward dovetailing of the film’s two plots which just comes across as audience manipulation of the worst kind. I always felt that the jarring final scenes of In the Bedroom somewhat detracted from the excellence of its first two thirds, and the same thing occurs here - except it’s much worse, ending the film on a flat, unsatisfactory and deeply unpleasant note.

And yet, while I can’t wholeheartedly recommend Little Children, I can’t not recommend it either; there are too many good aspects to the film for it to be written off completely. The cast is superb, with Winslet again proving she is simply one of the best actresses in the world right now, giving a completely believable and vanity-free performance; and Wilson is also exceptional, although the constant dopey passivity of his character is rather infuriating. It’s Haley who dominates the film, though, with a touching and yet genuinely creepy piece of acting, at least until the script pushes him over the edge in the final third. Other actors are fine too, even though their characters are underdeveloped. Edelman barely gets a character at all as Sarah’s husband, and Jennifer Connelly is badly underused as well; but Connelly does at least have one superb scene, a brilliantly uncomfortable dinner party at which she first suspects her husband’s infidelity. It’s a scene which is written, directed and acted to perfection.

That’s just one of many individual scenes which live in the memory after Little Children has ended - Brad’s triumphant football game is another, as is Brad and Sarah’s first sexual encounter - but frustration is the abiding sensation the picture left me with. It’s infuriating to see filmmaking as good as that, and acting of this calibre, dropped into a movie which can’t quite handle them. Field never looks likely to pull all the disparate elements together into a satisfying whole, and Little Children is a stunningly uneven picture. It’s a potentially great film which is massively flawed; a film which offers us some of the best cinematic moments of the year, and then lets it all slide away, leaving us wondering what might have been.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Review - Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

2006 may ultimately be remembered as the year of hyperbole. After the mere title of Snakes on a Plane was enough to spark an internet frenzy earlier this year, a new film has now arrived on the scene which has caught the imagination of the cinemagoing public. That film is Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Early word on this picture heralds it as a slice of comic genius; a film so funny, and so offensive, it has to be seen to be believed. Borat himself has appeared in an endless stream of newspaper and television interviews, and news networks have run stories on the controversy that has been stirred up by the Kazakhstan government taking offence to their country‘s depiction in the film. All this has served to keep the publicity fires burning nicely, but can any film really live up to this level of expectation?

Borat certainly can’t. It’s not that the film isn’t funny - it often is - but it’s only intermittently funny, and even with a running time of around 85 minutes this crudely assembled movie has been stretched far beyond its natural length.

Borat is the brainchild of Sacha Baron Cohen, the British comedian who first came to prominence with his Ali G character; a brainless white rapper whose comedy interviews enlivened Channel 4’s dismal The 11 O’Clock Show. Ali G quickly became something of a cultural icon and Baron Cohen was rewarded with a series of his own, a series which necessitated the creation of some new characters. One of those characters was Borat Sagdiyev, an intrepid Kazakh TV reporter determined to learn all he can about western culture, and he proceeded to blunder his way through interviews with unsuspecting members of the public, spouting misogynistic and anti-Semitic views as he did so.

But there is more to Baron Cohen’s shtick than mere clowning. In the process of making offensive comments in his innocent way he often allows his subjects to reveal traces of bigotry themselves; he simply gives them enough rope to hang themselves with. His whole act is an ambush; from the fake production company and release forms which are provided to the ‘victims’, to way Baron Cohen remains completely in character throughout. Occasionally, you get the feeling the people duped by Baron Cohen get what they deserve - like rodeo manager Bobby Rowe, who openly makes racist and homophobic remarks when advising Borat on ways he can fit into American life - but often his antics come across as little more than a cruel, childish prank on people whose only mistake is to be trusting and welcoming to a foreign stranger. How funny you find Borat might depend on how mean-spirited you think Baron Cohen’s humour really is.

In any case, Borat is at least an improvement on Baron Cohen’s last big-screen venture, the appalling 2002 film Ali G Indahouse, and it seems lessons have been learned from that misfire. Instead of trying to place their character into a completely fictional narrative, as they did with Ali G, Borat sticks very closely to the tried-and-trusted fake interview approach which served the character well on TV. There is a storyline here, of sorts, but it’s a thinly sketched affair which only serves as a link between the various sketches. We first meet Borat in his home town of Kusek, where he kisses a blonde woman who he then introduces as his sister (“number four prostitute in all of Kazakhstan”), he shows us the local rapist (“naughty, naughty”, he admonishes), and he presents his monstrous wife, who promises to snap off his cock if he is unfaithful. Borat loves Kazakhstan, but he admits it has many problems - “economic, social and Jew” - and so the government has decided to send him to America to learn lessons which may aid the development of his native land.

With his bear-like producer Azamat (Ken Davitian) in tow he arrives in “US and A”, New York to be precise, and begins his great American adventure. He causes hidden-camera havoc on the underground when he tries to extend greeting kisses to male passengers (many of whom threaten violent retribution), and releases the chicken he had stored in his suitcase. Baron Cohen shows a knack for smaller, more subtle comic touches too, such as mistakenly believing the elevator is his hotel room, or attempting to negotiate the escalator for the first time - and he produces a concentrated hit of anarchic comic energy late in the film when he and his producer engage in a remarkable naked wrestling match - but the real meat of the movie occurs during his many interviews.

These sequences are hit-and-miss, very much dependent on how the subject reacts to Borat’s behaviour, and for the most part they just seem a bit baffled. Humour coach Pat Haggerty smiles politely and tries to deal with the odd situation in front of him in as professional a manner as possible, as does driving instructor Mike Psenicska, but others don’t react as well, such as the feminist group who take umbrage at Borat’s comments on the inferior brain capacity of women. They chastise him before leaving the interview, but he seems nonplussed: “I could not concentrate on what this old man was saying”, he complains.

These scenes are pretty amusing, but they’re nothing new, and they don’t stray far from the territory Baron Cohen already covered in his television appearances. But the bigger canvas he has been presented with here seems to have only given him a bigger appetite for bad-taste gags, and too much of the humour in Borat is derived from a childish desire to shock. The stream of anti-Semitic jokes in the film has been defended by many on the basis that Baron Cohen is himself Jewish, but I still wonder why he feels the need to fill scene after scene with this kind of humour. He opens with a traditional Kazakh festival called ‘The Running of the Jew’, in which a Jewish caricature lays an egg and the local children are invited to smash it before the Jew chick hatches. Later he and Azamat check into a Bed and Breakfast and they fear for their lives when they discover the couple running the house are Jewish. When Borat buys a gun he asks “which one is best for killing Jews?”. At first these scenes provoke laughter, the kind of laughter that springs from surprise and shock as much as anything, but the repetition and predictability quickly palls.

Even worse is the way Baron Cohen treats some of the interviewees who do nothing to deserve his nastiness. Borat is invited to a dinner party at which he is made to feel as welcome as possible even while he makes insulting remarks, but then he returns from the bathroom and presents the female host with a bag of excrement - that’s not funny, it’s simply horrible, and even then she tries to deal with it in as kind and graceful a way as possible. And did Baron Cohen really needs to start pratfalling his way around the antique souvenir shop run by an old couple, smashing items in a tiresome fashion? Is this really the best he can come up with?

The thing is, Sacha Baron Cohen is a gifted comedian, and he could be producing something much better than this. His embodiment of Borat is a wonderful piece of comic acting; he completely invests himself in the character, coming over like an amalgamation of Peter Sellers and Andy Kaufman, and he displays a fair amount of bravery to pull off some of his stunts. The best moments in Borat are the ones where he just improvises his way through a meeting with random members of the public, like the scene in which he happens upon a yard sale and believes the woman of the house to be a gypsy - “Why did you shrink this woman?” he asks, picking up a Barbie doll - but too much of Borat feels lazy and obvious. The scripted sequences in between the sketches are terribly weak and many of the supposedly impromptu scenes have more than a whiff of fabrication about them.

Borat’s final section is painfully poor, involving a dull encounter with some drunk and obnoxious college students and a (probably staged) meeting with Pamela Anderson. This certainly isn't the comedy classic many have claimed it to be and, while I did chuckle occasionally, I generally found it quite unpleasant, smug and tiresome. Sure, it might be fine for a Friday night if you’re looking for a few cheap laughs, but Borat really isn’t worth all the fuss.