Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Review - The Good Shepherd

With a story encompassing 22 years and a number of continents, a cast stuffed with first-rate talent, one of cinema’s most iconic figures behind the camera, and a running time approaching three hours, The Good Shepherd has the look and feel of an epic. This ambitious drama tells the story of the birth of the CIA, by focusing on a man who devoted his life to it, and it’s Robert De Niro’s first film as a director since his promising debut A Bronx Tale 13 years ago. One would like to see this long-gestating project rekindling De Niro’s passion for movies - his recent acting displays have seemed increasingly disinterested in the whole business - but I can’t see it getting a passionate response from anyone else.

The Good Shepherd is a film which has been made with great skill and care, but it’s an emotionally stunted picture which always keeps the viewers outside the story, never letting us get under the skin of the supposedly tortured figure at its centre. That figure is Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a CIA agent who goes about his business with the utmost seriousness and dedication. He rarely displays a spark of humour, he keeps his emotions firmly in check, and he doesn’t speak unless he feels it’s absolutely necessary. As we see over the course of the picture, careless talk costs lives.

The film opens in 1961, with Wilson involved in secret plans for a US invasion of Cuba. Of course, we all know how that particular misadventure panned out, and a few days later, after the Bay of Pigs has become a very public fiasco, Wilson and his colleague Ray Brocco (John Turturro) are tasked with finding the mole who informed Castro of the impending attack. That night, Wilson finds a package on his doorstep containing a grainy photograph and a muffled audio reel seemingly recorded during a lovemaking session. Could this be the “stranger in the house”? As the CIA’s technical boffins begin filtering the evidence to try and find some clues, the story flashes back to 1939, to find a young Edward Wilson at Yale University.

The Good Shepherd continues to employ this structure over the course of the movie; the 1961 narrative is frequently interrupted by significant incidents from Edward’s past, until the two strands of the story finally dovetail in the climactic act. Our first glimpse of young Mr Wilson is a surprising one - fully dragged-up as Buttercup in a student production of HMS Pinafore - but the frivolity ends there. Wilson is invited into the University’s ultra-secret Skull and Bones society, after an weirdly homoerotic induction featuring cast-offs from Eyes Wide Shut and a spot of nude mud wrestling. Wilson’s watchful nature and fierce concentration doesn’t go unnoticed, and he is soon recruited by the FBI (represented by Alec Baldwin) to help expose the Nazi beliefs of his benevolent literary professor (Michael Gambon). From here, Edward’s path is set; a Skull and Bones party brings him into contact with Clover (Angelina Jolie), his future wife, and he also has a fateful meeting with General Bill Sullivan (De Niro) who asks him to go to London on a mission for the OSS.

There is a lot of potential on show in
The Good Shepherd; and indeed, individual chunks of the film do live up to that potential. De Niro’s direction is confident and elegant: there are scenes here - such as a murder on a foggy London street, or the interrogation of a Russian agent - which really hit the mark, and he shows great judgement in the way his images and music are edited together. The whole film looks superb, with Robert Richardson’s typically excellent cinematography and Jeannine Oppewall’s production design proving particularly impressive, and as he showed in A Bronx Tale, De Niro has a good feel for the rhythms of a particular time and place.

Unfortunately, the problems inherent in
The Good Shepherd are ultimately too serious for the merits to compensate, and one of its main disadvantages is right at the front and centre of the picture. The character of Edward Wilson is supposed to be a man who loses his soul in the fight for his country’s freedom, a man who gradually shrinks into himself and pushes away all those close to him in the process; but Wilson begins the film as a stiff, colourless blank, and there’s nowhere for his character to go. We get scraps of information about Wilson’s inner life, like his fondness for ships in bottles, or the trauma he still feels over the suicide of his father, but aside from that early Gilbert & Sullivan sojourn there’s no life about him. He keeps his feelings contained, often with good reason (every sexual encounter in the film has bad consequences), but De Niro and screenwriter Eric Roth can’t figure out a way to let us peek behind the mask.

The frustrating opaqueness of Wilson isn’t Matt Damon’s fault, he gives a very intelligent and measured performance under the circumstances, but he can’t overcome his character’s essential coldness and it’s left to his co-stars to give the movie a human face. De Niro has assembled some of the most reliable supporting players in the business, and the turns offered by Baldwin, Gambon, Turturro, William Hurt (as Damon’s superior) and John Sessions (as a KGB defector, no less!) are top-notch. The director has even coaxed Joe Pesci out of semi-retirement to make his first screen appearance since 1998’s
Lethal Weapon 4, but his one-scene cameo is too brief to really make an impression; and despite the generally fine casting instincts displayed by De Niro, he does leave a few actors stranded with roles they are ill-suited to. Angelina Jolie’s flirtatious performance brightens up the screen when she first appears, but she remains far too glamorous and sexualised for her gradual transformation into a neglected housewife. Billy Crudup is ridiculously misplaced as an upper-crust British spy, with his attempt at a English accent sounding more German than anything, and the director’s own cameo is as flat as we’ve come to expect from his recent screen appearances.

The Good Shepherd’s biggest flaw has nothing to do with the cast, though, and it has everything to do with the film’s scale. At 167 minutes the somnambulant pacing De Niro imposes on the picture becomes increasingly hard to take, with the unwaveringly serious, downbeat tone making it something of a slog; and while the director shows himself to be capable of shooting some excellent scenes, he has little idea how to fit the pieces together into a seamless whole. It’s a clumsily cluttered picture, and despite the surface complexity of the narrative, there’s not enough meat on the film’s bones to justify its epic length. The film’s central theme - fathers continually failing their sons - is depicted in a simplistic and literate manner which carries little resonance, and by the time the source of the leak is discovered in the late stages it’s hard to really care about any of the characters’ prospects.

There’s an impressively authentic feel to much of
The Good Shepherd. The painstaking methods used by the CIA technicians to filter a photo or audio recording for clues are fascinating to watch, and the scenes in which spies surreptitiously pass information to each other are hugely enjoyable in a classic spy thriller way (Damon is asked for change of a dollar on the bus, when he gets to the office he uses the dollar’s serial number to decode vital information); but these are merely small moments of relief in a film which otherwise denies most of the standard filmgoing pleasures. It’s a character study with no character; a grim slog through the shadowy underworld of espionage which takes its cue from its central figure and ends up being nothing more than a heartless empty shell. As Edward Wilson walks down a grey corridor at the film’s climax, we’re supposed to be pondering the fate of a broken man, but we can’t bring ourselves to care because he remains such a remote figure. He could be any ordinary Joe walking to work, just another anonymous spoke in the wheel, and after spending 167 arduous minutes in his company, it’s not hard to feel a little cheated.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The 79th Annual Academy Awards - Review

So, that’s the whole jamboree over for another year. The 79th Annual Academy Awards have come and gone, and here’s how it all happened….

1.30am - The show kicks off with a resolutely unfunny montage featuring some of the nominees in which Clint’s effortless cool - “we’re nominated for picture, director, things like that” - outshines much of the showboating around him. Then we get to see the nominees applauding themselves - nice. Ellen Degeneres appears on stage with an opening monologue apparently co-written by Carrie Fisher. She seems a little nervous initially, but she grows into a fairly endearing and amusing performance, and her line “if there weren’t any blacks, Jews and gays there would be no Oscars, or even anyone called Oscar” gets a laugh. Unfortunately she ends on a rather flat note with a half-hearted song-and-dance bit. The sight of a completely shaven-headed Jack Nicholson is the most startling moment of this opening segment.

1.45 - Best Art Direction
A very pretty Nicole Kidman and a very serious Daniel Craig present the first Oscar of the night to Pan’s Labyrinth, which will hopefully bode well for its chances tonight. Eugenio Caballero gives a heartfelt and brief speech.

1.48 - Technical Awards
Maggie Gyllenhaal talks about the technical Oscars which were handed out at a secret bunker somewhere last week - well away from any of the beautiful people, of course. “It was a wild night” she says, apparently without a hint of irony.

1.50 - What the hell was that? Some silhouettes roll together and make a big Oscar statuette. A rather pointless interlude.

1.53 - Best Makeup
Will Ferrell, Jack Black and John C Reilly turn up for a musical skit about Oscars’ lack of recognition for comedy films, which is an unexpected highlight, and then they announce the second award of the night for Pan’s Labyrinth! That’s two out of two so far for one of last year’s best films. One of the winners thanks Guillermo del Toro about three times, and then gets played off by the orchestra before he can thank anyone else.

2.00 - Best Animated and Live Action Short
Awww…. Pint-sized stars Abigail Breslin and Jaden Smith are on stage to announce the winner for Best Animated Short. There’s some stumbling over lines and giggling before The Danish Poet is announced as the winner. Director Torill Kove bizarrely apologises to Tom Hanks during her speech, and then the Oscar for Best Live Action Short goes to West Bank Story.

2.11 - The Hollywood Sound Effects Choir, a group of people who make an impressive variety of sound effects with their mouths alone. Sadly, Sgt. Larvell Jones from the Police Academy films is nowhere to be seen.

2.14 - Best Sound Editing
Steve Carrell and Greg Kinnear’s intro, featuring a microphone cutting out, is predictable but fun; and then the Oscar goes to Letters From Iwo Jima. Only one of the recipients gets to make a speech, even though the other has a piece of paper in his hand ready to go. Shame.

2.14 - Best Sound Mixing
Jessica Biel and James McAvoy award the Best Sound Mixing Oscar to Dreamgirls. It’s the first award of the night for the former Best Picture hopeful, but probably not the last.

2.21 - Best Supporting Actor
Rachel Weisz announces the winner of the first big award of the night, the Best Supporting Actor Oscar - and Alan Arkin wins! I’m delighted for him, and his speech warmly pays tribute to the rest of the Little Miss Sunshine team. I’ve been pretty happy with the way the awards have gone so far.

2.30 - James Taylor performs his nominated song from Cars and he’s quickly followed by Melissa Etheridge’s effort for An Inconvenient Truth. I go to the kitchen for a much-needed caffeine injection.

2.36 - Leonardo Di Caprio and Al Gore appear on stage for an environmentally-friendly announcement, and Al displays some razor-sharp comic timing.

2.43 - Best Animated Feature
A darker-than-usual Cameron Diaz announces the winner of this award, and the animated characters appear in the audience, which is a nice touch. The winner is Happy Feet, with George Miller looking rather spiffy in an old-fashioned tuxedo. He offers a good speech too.

2.46 - Best Adapted Screenplay
Helen Mirren and Tom Hanks announce the Oscar for Adapted Screenplay. The full title and list of writers for Borat is quite a mouthful, and it’s weird to hear Hanks and Mirren reading brief excerpts from the screenplays verbatim. Very surreal. Eventually, they get round to the announcement, and the Oscar goes to William Monaghan for The Departed. It’s the first boost of the evening to one of the Best Picture hopefuls, but Monaghan’s rambling speech goes on too long and he eventually gets played off. Keep it brief, people!

3.00 - Best Costume Design
Emily Blunt and Anne Hathaway present this award - a bit of a conflict of interest, no? They engage the wonderful Meryl Streep in a little comedy and then the nominated clothes are modelled on stage, which is a tad strange. Finally they hand the Oscar to Milena Canonero for Marie Antoinette. Blunt and Hathaway strain to hide their disappointment. In her speech Canonero says “I want to thank everyone who had anything to do with this movie”, which is surely the best way to go about it.

3.05 - Tom Cruise presents a well-deserved honorary Oscar to Sherry Lansing who gives a rather dry speech.

3.10 - Ellen’s walkabouts among the audience are raising big laughs. She matches her earlier encounter with Martin Scorsese by involving Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg in a nice bit of japery.

3.12 - Best Cinematography
Gwyneth Paltrow gives this Oscar to Pan’s Labyrinth, the film’s third of the night. There’s no doubt that this is the film of the night so far, and I guess the Best Foreign Picture Oscar is looking like a safe bet now. Like all of the film’s winners so far,
Guillermo Navarro pays tribute to Guillermo del Toro’s vision. I was hoping Emmanuel Lubezki would collect this award for Children of Men, but for the second year in a row (after The New World) his extraordinary work is overlooked.

3.20 - Best Visual Effects
Naomi Watts and Robert Downey Jr. appears on stage to announce the winner of this year’s CGI-fest. Downey Jr. makes a funny, self-deprecating gag, and then the Oscar predictably goes to the overblown and deathly dull Pirates of the Caribbean sequel. The speeches are almost as smug and humourless as the film itself.

3.23 - Best Foreign Language Picture
Ken Watanabe and Catherine Deneuve add a touch of class to proceedings as they take to the stage to introduce a montage of classic foreign-language films. Oddly, they include clips of people giving each other the finger, and then pixel out the finger! What a curious case of self-censorship. Then Cate Blanchett and Clive Owen turn up to present this year’s award, although why they didn’t allow Watanabe and Deneuve to do it is anyone’s guess. In a shocking twist, Germany’s The Lives of Others beats Pan’s Labyrinth, which had previously swept all before it. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck gives a passionate and excitable speech, and seems rather overwhelmed by the whole thing. I feel sorry for Guillermo del Toro, though.

3.34 - Best Supporting Actress
George Clooney - debonair as ever - is on hand to present this award to Jennifer Hudson, whose victory had been predicted since the dawn of time. Hudson thanks God twice in her speech, and thankfully refrains from turning on the expected waterworks. The long-held foreknowledge of Hudson’s victory seems to have sapped some of the emotion from a presentation which was anticipated as one of the night’s biggest moments.

3.41 - Best Short Documentary
Gael Garcia Bernal is on stage with Eva Green - once again sporting far too much eye makeup - and this award goes to The Blood of the Ying-Zhou District.

3.45 - Best Documentary Feature
Jerry Seinfeld’s intro is typically funny and astute, one of the comic highlights of the evening so far. He announces that the best of the “five incredibly depressing movies” is An Inconvenient Truth, which comes as little surprise. Al Gore joins the director on stage, and he gives a rousing and earnest speech.

3.50 - Honorary Award to Ennio Morricone
Who deserves this more than Ennio Morricone, creator of some of the most memorable films scores of all time? Clint Eastwood rather fluffs his lines when presenting the award, but the montage of Morricone’s career which plays subsequently speaks for itself. What an extraordinarily diverse and innovative range of musical scores; displaying an ability to blend sound with imagery like few other composers, and giving vital weight to some brilliant films. Frankly, he deserves better than having Celine Dion mangle one of his works in her own inimitable way. Thankfully, Dion isn’t allowed to disrupt matters for too long, and when Morricone takes to the stage he delivers a humble speech in Italian which Clint translates. A remarkable character, and a well-deserved Oscar.

4.05 - Oh, I’m so tired….

4.06 - Best Original Score
This is quite an interesting category, which will be presented by Penelope Cruz and Hugh Jackman. The Oscar goes to Gustavo Santaolalla for Babel, his second victory in the space of two years. It’s not his greatest score, and I thought Pan’s Labyrinth’s music was a much better effort, but Santaolalla gives a nice speech.

4.10 - Sid Ganis tells us everything we cold wish to know about the Academy in under 60 seconds.

4.11 - Best Original Screenplay
Little Miss Sunshine looks to have this category in the bag, and once Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst have gone through the whole rigmarole or reading the scripts out loud, they surprise nobody by giving the award to Michael Arndt for this year’s indie hit. He’s struggling with a bit of a sore throat, but he manages to croak out an efficient speech which thanks all of the notable figures involved in the film as well as his family, whom apparently once drove 600 miles in a busted VW van. Could this award be a signifier for Little Miss Sunshine’s increased Best Picture hopes?

4.20 - Best Original Song
Jennifer Lopez - or J-Lo, to her friends - introduces a medley of Dreamgirls’ three nominated songs. It seems to go on forever with an army of backing singers and a cacophony of screeching from the performers. Poor old James Taylor only got a stool and a man on a piano to work with. When John Travolta and Queen Latifah open the envelope, it’s a fantastic surprise - Melissa Etheridge wins for An Inconvenient Truth. She gives a passionate speech, and seems genuinely stunned by the win. It’s a heartening result, and a very bad night so far for Dreamgirls.

4.35 - Michael Mann has created a short film on diversity in American cinema. An odd, interesting selection of clips, but the sequence has little impact. The standard of montages has been very poor this year.

4.41 - Best Editing
This is a crucial category, with Babel and The Departed looking for success here to give them an edge in the Best Picture chase. Kate Winslet - looking lovely as ever - is on presenting duties, and she calls out the name of Thelma Schoonmaker, giving her a third Academy Award. Once again, her speech is gracious and touching, and The Departed’s chances of taking the big prize now seem stronger than ever.

4.45 - In Memoriam
Jodie Foster introduces a film featuring the cinematic figures who have passed on in the last 12 months.

4.51 - Best Actress
If Helen Mirren doesn’t win this Oscar it would surely be the biggest shock since…well…ever. She has collected pretty much every award on offer over recent months, and her win here seems to be the safest possible bet. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s announcement doesn’t shock anyone, and Mirren accepts her award with customary grace and humour, dedicating her Oscar to The Queen herself. Mirren fully deserves this honour for an exceptional performance. In fact this has been a tremendous year for actresses, with a number of hugely impressive displays in this category.

5.00 - Ellen Degeneres, who has done well tonight after a shaky start, is hoovering under the nominees’ feet.

5.01 - Best Actor
Forest Whitaker seems set for this one, but can that crafty old Peter O’Toole stage a late run at the prize? Reese Witherspoon opens the envelope…. And indeed it is Forest Whitaker who makes his way up to the stage. He seems incredibly nervous and humbled by the award, but he holds it together long enough to give a moving speech. It’s nice to see one of the most consistent, and consistently underrated, actors of the past two decades finally gaining some recognition. Like the Best Actress award, it's a performance which richly merits an Oscar

5.07 - Best Director
As soon as Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas appeared on stage to present this Oscar, any doubts about its destination completely evaporated. This was three of the 70’s ’Movie Brats’ generation honouring one of their own. Finally, after thirty years of waiting, Martin Scorsese was announced as Best Director. “Could you double-check the envelope?” he asked after his standing ovation abated, and he then gave a lovely speech which was full of joy and gratitude. It was wonderful to see him there with that award in his hand, and unquestionably the highlight of the evening.

5.13 - Best Picture
Jack Nicholson is joined on stage by Diane Keaton, who proceeds to shout the nominees’ names in a rather disconcerting way. After victories in the Screenplay, Editing and Direction fields, there was no surprise when The Departed was announced as Best Picture. Was it the best picture released in 2006? Probably not. Was it the best of the five nominees? Yes, I think it was. It’s a brash, sharp, thrilling film - superbly made and acted - and it manages to do something too few films can do these days: it guarantees a highly entertaining time at the cinema.

And that was that. A relatively enjoyable night which ultimately ended on a high note. Martin Scorsese’s triumph will live long in the memory, and that moment alone made the decision to stay up to an absurd hour in the morning very worthwhile.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Review - The Good German

Herbert Ross’ excellent 1972 film Play It Again, Sam begins with Woody Allen in a darkened cinema, his mouth agape, his eyes wide open as he sits transfixed by the scene playing out in front of him. The scene in question is the climactic sequence from Casablanca, with Humphrey Bogart telling Ingrid Bergman to get on that plane, and Woody hangs on every word as the actors recite some of the most memorable dialogue in film history. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

That opening sequence came to mind as I watched
The Good German, a film which admires the classical Hollywood pictures of the 30’s and 40’s much as Woody stares lovingly at Michael Curtiz’s famous love story. Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation of Joseph Kanon’s novel is his attempt to make a Casablanca for a modern audience; but by the time the director has given us his own version of the scene referred to above, The Good German has long revealed itself to be a clueless and hollow pastiche. It’s a film which aims to slavishly recreate every technical aspect of those great films which have gone before, but in doing so it spectacularly misses the point of what made those films great in the first place.

The Good German captures the surface details of old Hollywood pictures, but it’s not those details which make films like Casablanca and The Third Man such established classics; it’s their slick writing, iconic performances and clear-eyed direction - all aspects which The Good German lacks. It also lacks any sort of involving story, with Paul Attanasio’s screenplay blandly sketching the links between plot points in a fashion which wouldn’t pass muster in any era. Jake Geismer (George Clooney) is an American reporter who has returned to Berlin to write about the forthcoming Potsdam peace conference. His driver Tully (Tobey Maguire) is a cocky young soldier just who loves this dirty town, with plenty of money to be made on the black market and plenty of women turning to prostitution in such difficult times. Tully, however, only has eyes for Lena (Cate Blanchett), a German woman who happens to be an old flame of Jake’s.

When Jake runs into Tully and Lena he’s also unwittingly running into a complex plot which is too dreary and incoherent to relate in any detail here. There are twists aplenty, duplicitous characters and hints at a larger conspiracy, but it all unfolds with a startling lack of grace and a thick fog of confusion envelops much of its narrative. In fact, one gets the sense quite early on that Soderbergh’s heart isn’t really in this film’s story, and instead we find the director obsessing over the minutiae of his production.

The Good German isn’t just a film set in the 1940’s, it has been produced as if it were a film made in the 1940’s. Soderbergh has aped the look and sound of the era, imposing strict guidelines upon his crew as he attempted to recreate the conditions under which directors of that age would have made their pictures. He even used original lenses, traditional boom mics and large, incandescent lights to bring a bygone age back to the big screen. Stylistically, the film frequently utilises a standard mise-en-scéne, with occasional swipe-cuts and stock footage being thrown into the mix; and the only concessions Soderbergh makes to the film’s contemporary status is the introduction of sex, violence and strong language (incongruously, Clooney gets to say “fuck a duck”) which would have been outlawed by the Hayes Code. But The Good German never feels like a 1940’s film, it feels like a soulless copy of a 1940’s film, which is exactly what it is. Even the supposedly meticulous recreation feels off; the lighting is too harsh, the set-ups are too static, Thomas Newman’s score is too generic - we’re never allowed to forget the fact that we’re watching a movie.

In truth, the closest point of comparison isn’t a film from six decades ago, but a film from just a few years ago. Todd Haynes’
Far From Heaven was another attempt to reproduce a certain style of filmmaking, namely the lush 50’s melodramas of Douglas Sirk, with some more modern sensibilities being carefully crafted onto a straightforward structure. But Haynes seemed to have an implicit understanding of the genre he was exploring; his production matched the Technicolor beauty of Sirk’s films, but it retained a life of its own; his actors gave performances which were studied in the 50’s style, but they were rich with subtle nuances; and the score by Elmer Bernstein recalled past efforts while also being completely in tune with the story’s emotions. Far From Heaven, despite being a film rooted in the past, was one of the freshest and purest cinematic experiences of 2002; but while Haynes’ film was an act of loving homage, The Good German never looks like anything other than a cold technical exercise.

In contrast to
Far From Heaven’s pitch-perfect performances, the actors involved in The Good German are all at sea. Clooney has movie star charisma to burn, but he’s always at his best in roles which allow him to play on the lighter side of things - he’s more Cary Grant than Humphrey Bogart - and he gives a stiff, buttoned-down performance here which does him no favours. “He didn’t look like a patsy” Tully’s voiceover muses when he first meets Jake, and it’s true - Jake doesn’t look like a patsy - but he’s not much of a hero either, and Clooney’s unsure display is fatal for the picture. The boyish Maguire is miscast as the rowdy, conniving Tully; and while Blanchett’s attempt to channel the spirit of Dietrich and Garbo is a little more enjoyable, none of the three principal characters are ever allowed to breathe. They each get a slice of the film’s voiceover, but their motives remain obscure, and the interplay between the characters remains lukewarm.

This is a hugely disappointing stumble for Soderbergh. He has had an extraordinary run since his mid-90’s Hollywood resurrection, but the best films in his long purple patch -
Out of Sight, The Limey and Traffic - have all been loose and sprightly affairs, which is what makes this film all the more baffling. In putting himself under such restrictions, Soderbergh has sucked all the spark out of his usually vibrant directing style; the film has no heart, and no life of its own. It’s just a stupendously dull stroll through a witless, directionless story peopled by characters you couldn’t give a damn about.

The Good German concludes on an airfield, with two former lovers standing in the dark while a nearby plane prepares for imminent departure. It’s practically a shot-for-shot replay of Casablanca’s famous finale; but while that scene went down in history, this version is one of the most anticlimactic endings it’s possible to imagine. The Good German is a dreadful, empty, pointless film; and while the pictures Soderbergh has drawn inspiration from are still revered six decades after their production, few people are likely to recall this insipid act of mimicry with similar affection. I guess they really don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

Monday, February 12, 2007


“I don’t know what happened” Laura Dern somewhere in the second half of INLAND EMPIRE, “it’s kinda laid a mind-fuck on me”; and most of the viewers who subject themselves to David Lynch’s latest film will know exactly how she feels. INLAND EMPIRE - the director prefers the title to be spelled in capitals - is Lynch’s first offering since his magnificent Mulholland Drive, and it’s the most challenging and experimental picture the auteur has produced since his debut Eraserhead, thirty years ago. It will probably divide people more than any other Lynch film; some will hail it as a work of genius, an avant-garde masterpiece, while others will hail it as a self-indulgent catastrophe. Most, I think, will pitch their opinions somewhere in the middle ground between those viewpoints.

But whatever you think of
INLAND EMPIRE, there’s no disputing the fact that this is one of the most difficult and uncompromising films David Lynch has ever made. The director has for decades stretched the limits of traditional storytelling, and here he blows any sense of narrative coherence or logic to smithereens, plunging viewers into a full-on three-hour nightmare. It will undoubtedly be too strong a brew for some viewers, but after two viewings of INLAND EMPIRE, I can’t get it out of my head.

So what is
INLAND EMPIRE all about anyway? An attempt to lay out this film’s plot may be a futile exercise, but on a basic level it’s about an actress named Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) whose flagging career might be set for a boost with a ludicrously titled movie called On High in Blue Tomorrows. The film opens with Nikki awaiting her agent’s call, and receiving a strange visitor (a vivid Grace Zabriskie cameo) who asks cryptic questions, speaks in riddles and tells Nikki that her film will feature a “brutal fucking murder”, despite the actress’s denials. On High in Blue Tomorrows is a southern romance which is being directed by Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) and co-stars notorious womaniser Devon Berk (Justin Theroux), but there’s a dark secret behind this seemingly straightforward picture.

Just before cameras start to roll, Kingsley tells his actors that the film they’re working on is in fact a remake of an unfinished Polish film which was abandoned after both of its leads were murdered; and after this revelation
INLAND EMPIRE begins to go down some very strange avenues. The lines between Nikki’s life and the film she’s shooting begin to blur, and on top of that they are mixed in with scenes from the Polish movie which met such a tragic end. Is that not enough for you? There’s also a bunch of prostitutes who spend their days lounging around a flat when they’re not spontaneously bursting into song, and Julia Ormond plays a woman who is adamant she’s going to stab somebody with a screwdriver - like the one which is currently sticking out of her stomach. Another young woman sits in a room weeping uncontrollably while staring at a TV screen, a group of travelling circus performers show up, and let’s not forgot about the six-foot rabbits in human clothes who appear to be starring in their own sitcom. INLAND EMPIRE is a movie within a movie within a.... well, you get the idea.

After the glories of Lynch’s
Mulholland Drive - the greatest American film of this young century - INLAND EMPIRE is inevitably something of a disappointment. At three hours the film is overlong, too much of it feels like material recycled from Lynch’s earlier films, and the picture occasionally threatens to slip into self-parody. INLAND EMPIRE’s narrative is a shapeless mess which unravels with wild abandon before the various strands overlap and devour each other - we see scenes repeated at different points, or perhaps replayed from a different perspective. This meandering approach leaves the film feeling a little baggy and repetitive, with the final hour in particular struggling to maintain much momentum, and Lynch makes some errors in his pacing of the film allowing a number of scenes to run on beyond their natural length. One sequence towards the end of the film exemplifies this problem perfectly; a badly injured woman collapses to the floor between two vagrants, who carry on with their inane conversation while she lies prone between them. This sight is funny at first, but it soon drags into tedium, and such longueurs pop up too frequently in INLAND EMPIRE.

And yet, for all its flaws,
INLAND EMPIRE has somehow managed to lodge itself firmly in my brain, staying with me while so many more refined and coherent films have drifted into obscurity. There’s something about David Lynch’s films that gets under my skin in a way few filmmakers can manage. He’s a master of atmosphere, and INLAND EMPIRE is dripping in that uniquely Lynchian sense of dread; that creeping feeling of terror which seems to grow out of the most innocuous situations. All of the director’s standard tropes are here - flickering lights, red rooms, a portentous soundtrack - and they have lost none of their potency. For most of INLAND EMPIRE I was enthralled by what I was watching - at its best, the film exerts an almost hypnotic power - and on a scene-by-scene basis, it contains as many brilliant moments as I’ve seen in any film this year. One inexplicably chilling scene sees Dern’s character wander into a room full of prostitutes, who shine torches in her face while making oblique comments, and the shooting of another character late in the film provides us with a truly nightmarish image. Lynch also punctuates the action with terrific musical moments: an impromptu rendition of The Locomotion, an inspired use of Beck’s Black Tambourine, and the end credits - set to Nina Simone’s Sinnerman - are simply fabulous. Visually, the film will be a test for some viewers. Lynch’s decision to shoot on low-tech Digital Video means the film lacks the glossy, dreamlike quality of the sumptuous Mulholland Drive, but it works for the picture in a different way. The harsh flatness of the DV image is jarring at first, particularly during scenes set in daylight, but as the film progresses it seems to accentuate the darkness being explored; giving an even eerier edge to the film’s endless murky corners. It might not be pretty, but it’s brutally effective.

Even if
INLAND EMPIRE isn’t the handsomest film around, it’s impossible to tear your eyes away while Laura Dern is onscreen. This is the performance of a lifetime; a multifaceted, stunningly complex, emotionally naked piece of acting which towers over anything produced by this year’s crop of Oscar contenders. Dern plays a wide variety of characters here - a Hollywood actress, a housewife, a battered prostitute - and she gives an astonishing performance in every role. She has a monologue late in the film, where she sits in a room and slowly describes the abuse she has suffered in a thick southern drawl, and she gives the speech such resonance it’s simply breathtaking to witness. There are outstanding performances right through INLAND EMPIRE - Justin Theroux’s smooth lothario is brilliantly played, Jeremy Irons makes the most out of a thin role, Harry Dean Stanton is hilarious - but Dern is the glue which holds this film together. It’s not the kind of performance they hand out Academy Awards for, but it’s a performance for the ages.

INLAND EMPIRE is pure, undiluted Lynch; and you can either resist the weirdness or simply surrender yourself to it completely. I’ve now seen the film twice, and I found it a much more satisfying experience second time around, when I gave up looking for some logical answer to the film’s conundrums and simply allowed myself to be swept along by the director. INLAND EMPIRE is massively flawed, but the more I think about it the more I like it; for better or for worse, this is a unique cinematic experience and I can’t wait to see it again. This is the work of an artist who is constantly exploring the boundaries of cinema, and his experiments here have thrown up sights and sounds which few other filmmakers would even dream of. Nobody in the world makes films like David Lynch, and it remains a pleasure to be baffled by him.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Review - Goal II: Living the Dream

When David Beckham recently signed for American side LA Galaxy, the makers of Goal II: Living the Dream must have had mixed feelings about the move. Sure, Beckham’s increased profile in the US might be good for the picture’s chances of making an impact there, but it does render this second instalment in the football trilogy even more outdated than it already was. Goal II sees Santiago Munez (Kuno Becker) making the move from the Premiership to La Liga, swapping the black and white of Newcastle for the all-white strip of Real Madrid; but along with the US-bound Beckham, the film sees Santiago lining up next to such players as Thomas Gravesen (now at Celtic), Julio Baptista (Arsenal), Jonathan Woodgate (Middlesbrough) and the great Zinedine Zidane (famously retired).

Such are the pitfalls of trying to make a feature film in the fast-moving football world, but that hiccup is the least of
Goal II’s problems. I rather enjoyed the original film, which saw young Mexican Santiago making the move to Newcastle after being spotted showing his skills in an LA park. The film’s fairytale narrative followed a traditional trajectory, with our hero overcoming every obstacle through sheer hard work and determination. It was nothing new, but the film did deserved some credit for its fine recreation of match day action - with the actors skilfully spliced into real-life footage and a number of players making cameos - and the general air of authenticity which Newcastle’s cooperation on the picture enabled.

Goal made little impact on its release in 2005, but part two had gone into the works as soon as production on the first film had finished, so here it is whether people are interested or not. The film opens with a display of skill that won’t be matched in the whole picture, with the opening credits running over footage of Ronaldinho’s single-handed destruction of Real Madrid in 2005 (he famously became the first Barcelona player to earn a standing ovation at the Bernabéu since Maradona 20 years previously). Clearly, things are not going well for Real, and one player under particular scrutiny is Gavin Harris (Alessandro Nivola), the new signing from Newcastle who has struggled to live up to his transfer fee.

Real Madrid manager Rudi Van Der Merwe (a blatantly uninterested Rutger Hauer) thinks the solution to Harris’ problems might be the purchase of his former team-mate Santiago Munez, and he begins to make arrangements for a swap deal involving Michael Owen. It’s a dream move for Santiago, but he soon finds the pressures of playing for one of the world’s biggest clubs are very different to those he faced in Newcastle. His fiancée Roz (a decent Anna Friel) struggles to settle, causing tensions to rise between the pair, and Santiago starts to get sucked into the playboy lifestyle enjoyed by the likes of Gavin Harris. He has problems on the pitch too, finding himself restricted to the bench and struggling to make a mark at his new club.

In other words, it’s nothing new, with only a sunnier
milieu marking the difference between this Goal and the original. Of course, we shouldn’t have expected Goal II to break any new ground, but this sequel feels like a serious regression from the (admittedly quite low) standard set by Danny Cannon’s film. The director this time out is Jaume Collet-Serra, the young Frenchman whose previous effort was the much derided horror remake House of Wax, but he doesn’t bring much to the film aside from a lot of flashy visuals and choppy editing. Few of Collet-Serra’s aesthetic choices are pleasing; the overuse of CGI in the football sections - with balls defying the laws of physics as they swerve into the net - makes the in-game action feel cartoonish, while a snowstorm during a European match in Norway just looks ugly, and there’s a bizarrely incongruous car chase sequence which comes out of nowhere halfway through the picture.

Goal II does make an attempt to give Santiago’s story some sort of emotional resonance in this film by introducing his long-lost mother (Elizabeth Peña), and the brother he never knew he had (Alfredo Rodríguez), but this strand of the narrative barely rises to the level of a Soap Opera. Kuno Becker’s mediocre performance also scuppers the film’s chances of developing any depth; he just about got away with his limited range in the first film, but here his handful of scowls, smiles and confused expressions quickly palls, particularly when Santiago is supposed to be going through such a difficult and transformative time. Thankfully Alessandro Nivola lightens the mood a little by reprising the character of Gavin Harris to winning effect. Nivola’s cocky, dopey star was the best thing about the first film, and he again manages to eke a couple of laughs out of the generally barren screenplay. In this picture Harris is worried about the ageing process, and the thought that he might lose his place in England’s World Cup squad to younger legs, and Nivola’s relaxed performance makes him a far more rounded and appealing character than Becker can manage with far greater screen time.

Aside from Nivola, there isn’t much fun to be had with
Goal II, although the star-spotting is always enjoyable. Few of the Madrid players are given much to do other than sitting around in the background of scenes, but Thomas Gravesen does engage in a nice bit of towel-swiping comedy, and the likes of Míchel Salgado and Iker Casillas handle their brief appearances with the minimum of fuss. The weirdest cameo of the lot comes from Steve McManaman, though. The Associate Producer pops up as Rutger Hauer’s assistant, and he seems to be lurking in the background of almost every single scene, finally excelling himself with some great “leave it, he’s not worth it!” action when breaking up a fight. And what of Mr Beckham himself? Well, after delivering his one line in Goal with all the confidence of a man who has never spoken English before, he has found himself back among the subs this time, only making wordless appearances. Never mind, David; just think of all those acting classes you can take in LA.

Goal II ends, as you’d expect, with a Real Madrid victory secured by a last-minute stunner (shamefully bastardising one of Arsenal’s great European performances in the process), but there’s no real sense of joy in this disappointing retread. For all its flaws, the first Goal had a degree of charm, plausibility and a lightness of touch which is completely missing from Collet-Serra’s glossier, emptier movie. Instead of advancing on the things Goal did well, the sequel just expands on the things it did poorly, and it’s a major backwards step for the series. Of course, we still have Goal III to consider - the action will be taking place at the World Cup, with Santiago and Gavin competing on the world’s biggest stage - but it’s hard to hold out much hope for the film after this instalment. “To be continued” the film promises as the credits roll - the question is, will anybody care?

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Review - Dreamgirls

Dreamgirls may only just be arriving in cinemas, but we seem to have been living with it for a long time already. Some time early last year we began to hear the first rumblings of the hype machine kicking into action, letting us know that something big was on the horizon. A few months later, many industry insiders were inexplicably hailing it as a guaranteed Best Picture winner before any footage from the film had even been seen; and before its official release date, Dreamgirls played a limited run at select US cinemas for $25 a go - it was a marketing campaign which seemed to be calibrated to perfection.

Then, the Academy Awards nominations were announced, and Bill Condon’s film found itself unexpectedly shut-out in the major categories, with 3 of its 8 nominations occurring in the Best Original Song slot. Over the next couple of days many people speculated on the reasons for Dreamgirls’ underwhelming Oscar showing, but there’s really just one reason which matters: Dreamgirls has its moments, but it’s really not much of a picture.
Dreamgirls is the story of three aspiring singers who have been performing together since the age of twelve, with little success. Deena (Beyoncé Knowles) is the beautiful, level-headed one with the good voice; Effie (Jennifer Hudson), the lead singer, is the larger, stubborn one with the titanic voice; and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) is the quieter, optimistic one whose voice is somewhat drowned out by her colleagues. Together they’re The Dreamettes, and the film opens with them suffering disappointment yet again when they lose a local talent show, but fate intervenes in the shape of Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a car salesman looking to make some headway in the music industry. He offers them the break of a lifetime, the chance to go on tour as backing singers with Jimmy ‘Thunder’ Early (Eddie Murphy); and so begins a journey which will lead the girls to both success and heartbreak.

As Curtis tries to push Jimmy’s music beyond the black stations which he has been restricted to, it’s his backing singers who begin to catch the attention of various managers and producers, and The Dreamettes are offered their own act, but only if Deena takes over the leading vocals from Effie. Curtis tells Effie that they’re simply looking for a lighter touch to appeal to mainstream audiences, but it’s clear that ‘lighter’ in this context means ‘whiter’, with Effie’s booming, distinctively black voice being dropped in favour of the blander and more conventionally beautiful Deena. Curtis then drops Effie for Deena in the bedroom too, and Effie is eventually forced out of the band, drifting quickly into obscurity and poverty.

Does this sound familiar? It may well do, because with Dreamgirls there’s a story behind the story. The 1981 Broadway musical from which this film is adapted was a thinly-masked depiction of The Supremes’ rise to stardom. Deena is Diana Ross (the group eventually morphs into Deena Jones and The Dreams) and Effie is Florence Ballard, who died at the age of 32, penniless and an alcoholic. Foxx is Berry Gordy Jr, Ross’ lover as well as the driving force behind The Supremes’ success; while Murphy seems to be an amalgamation of various R&B singers - taking a little bit from artists like James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Little Richard and Sam Cooke. The stage musical is a tough act to follow; it was a Broadway sensation, winning 6 Tony Awards and running for 1,522 performances.

Bill Condon’s attempt to translate this winning formula to the screen is seriously flawed, but most of those flaws occur in the film’s second half, and Dreamgirls’ opening act is pretty good fun. There’s an energy and exuberance to the picture, with most of it provided by Eddie Murphy, and after lending his talents to so many unworthy films over the past decade, it’s a pleasure to see Murphy recapturing some semblance of the abrasive, cocky attitude which defined his brilliant early performances of the 80’s. When Murphy is strutting his stuff on stage he energises the whole picture; in one brilliant moment, a backstage rehearsal segues seamlessly into a fantastic live performance. Murphy also brings a note of sadness to the part of a fading star trying to claw his way back to the top, but it’s his thrilling showmanship which really makes a mark on the film.

Murphy’s display is all the more valuable when held against the desperately poor performances turned in by the nominal leads, Jamie Foxx and Beyoncé Knowles. Foxx’s Curtis is a one-dimensional schemer, and the actor doesn’t imbue the part with any of the vitality or nuance he has displayed previously. His dreary, flat singing voice also rankles alongside his co-stars’ strong vocals, and Foxx never seems particularly comfortable in the role. Knowles looks and sounds like a dream when she’s singing on stage, but as soon as she’s taken out of that comfort zone and asked to act, her weaknesses are exposed. She’s an emotional blank, and she never develops much of a personality as the film progresses. Foxx and Knowles’ wan performances are damaging for the film, but the supporting players do some good work; Danny Glover and Keith Robinson give their supporting roles a touch of pathos as they watch Curtis and Jimmy ride roughshod over their dreams, and Anika Noni Rose gives a lovely performance as the third Dreamette, which unfortunately seems destined to be overlooked.

But Dreamgirls belongs to Jennifer Hudson. The former American Idol contestant is making her acting debut here, and what an astonishing debut it is, comprehensively stealing the film from the more established stars around her. Hudson gives a natural, funny, moving performance which provides Dreamgirls with its only source of real emotion. She also gets the opportunity to perform the song And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going, a song which she tears into with blistering intensity. Her powerhouse singing is by some distance the highpoint of the movie - even if it goes on too long - but it’s also something of a double-edged sword.
And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going is the kind of showstopper most movies would kill for, but it quite literally stops the show here. After this moment, which marks the end of Act 1, Dreamgirls staggers around for a while, as if it has been left punch-drunk by Hudson’s emotional outburst, and it never really recovers. After the fun of the movie’s first half, Dreamgirls’ second hour is a maudlin disappointment, with the endless unmemorable songs (even Hudson’s centrepiece is notable more for her lung-bursting rendition than anything else) failing to become much more than background noise. Condon lets his grip on the film’s pacing slacken badly in the final third, and the rushed chronology and poorly-drawn characters preclude any real emotional impact as the story hits all the clichéd beats you’d expect. Dreamgirls is the kind of picture which needs to build to a big finale, but Condon has already played his hand with Hudson’s explosive song, and he can’t find anything to match it as the picture drifts to a drab conclusion.
Dreamgirls isn’t really a bad picture per se. There is a lot to admire in the slick way the film is put together, a few of the performances are strong, and its depiction of the way black musicians watered down their music to appeal to a mass audience is interestingly depicted; but it’s a hard film to really get excited about. There’s nothing new here, nothing daring or ambitious about the way this story unfolds and, aside from one star-making moment, there’s nothing to really engage the emotions. Dreamgirls is a film convinced of its own brilliance when it truth it’s a strictly average piece of filmmaking, and it’s only when Hudson or Murphy take centre-stage that you can see the movie briefly displaying some soul.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Review - Bobby

Take a walk through the doors of the Ambassador hotel and you’re guaranteed to spot a few famous faces. Look, there’s Harry Belafonte and Anthony Hopkins playing chess, there’s Emilio Estevez walking his dog, and over there you’ll see Martin Sheen playing tennis with Helen Hunt. Let’s skip past William H Macy and Christian Slater having a row about racism and get something to eat; perhaps a meal cooked up by Laurence Fishburne will fit the bill? After that we can get a manicure from Sharon Stone, go and watch a drunken Demi Moore performing on stage, or maybe we could score some acid from stoned hippy Ashton Kutcher.

There are celebrities squeezed into every corner of Bobby, but none of them take the role of the titular character. In fact, despite the title, Emilio Estevez’s film isn’t really about Robert F Kennedy at all - the senator only makes fleeting appearances here, in archive footage or with brief shots of the back of his head. Instead, the film is about what Kennedy meant to the American people, and what his death meant to the country at large. Bobby is set on June 5th 1968, in the hours before Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan in the kitchen of the Ambassador hotel. With that assassination, Estevez suggests, the brightest hope for America’s future was cruelly snatched away.

There probably is a great film to be made about Robert Kennedy and his thwarted legacy, but Bobby definitely isn’t it. Estevez is going for something big here, a wide-ranging look at 60’s Americana which tries to depict the impact of an extraordinary man through the lives of ordinary people; but the final film doesn’t come close to matching his laudable ambitions. Bobby is a sluggish, clichéd and dramatically inert picture, and hardly a fitting tribute to its subject. It aspires to the status of something like Robert Altman’s masterpiece Nashville, but a better comparison would be Grand Hotel rewritten by Paul Haggis.
Bobby’s biggest problem is paradoxically something which might have been seen as its biggest asset - the cast. With some 20-odd characters at his disposal, Estevez struggles to find a proper place for every member of the starry ensemble, and as a result the appearance of so many household names is (a) distracting and (b) pointless. Few of the players are given the time and space required to breath life into their paper-thin roles, and none of them can create characters big enough to exceed their real-life celebrity status. Watching Martin Sheen and Helen Hunt argue over shoes is a curious experience when we only see the actors and haven’t got a clue who they are supposed to be playing; and this weird disconnect between performer and role pervades the whole film.

It’s no surprise to see the actors’ performances suffer under the circumstances, and the displays here are generally mediocre. The one star who does make an positive impact is Sharon Stone, surprisingly bringing soul and emotion to the picture, and she’s probably the one person who can view this picture as a success. The likes of William H Macy, Laurence Fishburne and Martin Sheen are hardly stretched with this material, but they’re reliably professional about it and at least they sometimes give their scenes a little spark; few others can even raise their game to that level, though. Demi Moore overacts horribly as the permanently soused diva, Lindsay Lohan and Elijah Wood are insipidness squared, Helen Hunt is annoyingly one-note, and Ashton Kutcher’s turn as a hippy is hilariously unconvincing.

Perhaps Estevez could have fashioned Bobby into something worth watching if he had simply cut down on the amount of things going on at the one time and allowed a few of the more relevant strands to develop, because there’s a lot of stuff here which feels ridiculously inconsequential. When the film is building towards such a tragic event, why are we supposed to care about Demi Moore’s drunken ramblings? Or the marriage of convenience between Lohan and Wood? Or Macy’s adultery? Given the fact that few of these walking clichés have anything to do with the subject at hand - except by the most tenuous of tangents - couldn’t Estevez have found time to at least play lip service to the motives behind Sirhan Sirhan’s attack? He was a Palestinian who was outraged at Kennedy’s pro-Israel standpoint, but all we get is an anonymous young man who turns up at the hotel out for blood, bumping shoulders with the director as he does so.

As a director, Estevez is sloppy and unfocused. His pacing is poor, he slips too easily into hackneyed scenes (like a hugely embarrassing ‘trip’ sequence after a couple of kids try LSD for the first time) and his habit of tossing endless cultural references into the film (The Graduate, Andy Warhol) feels like lazy name-dropping. As a writer, Estevez has a tin ear, allowing too much platitudinous dialogue to pass the actors’ lips, and many scenes in Bobby feature people sitting around literally discussing the picture’s major themes. Everyone gets the chance to deliver a speech on the importance of democracy, tolerance and humility; but the screenplay’s appallingly trite and unsubtle nature continually makes Bobby’s lessons and epiphanies ring resoundingly false.

There’s no doubt that Bobby is a very bad film, but it’s a very bad film which happens to have a very good ending. When the fateful shots are fired, Estevez suddenly shows himself to be remarkably adept at depicting the ensuing chaos and dismay; he cuts the sound, and allows the speech Kennedy made after Martin Luther King’s assassination to run on the soundtrack. It’s a brilliant move. “What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr’s cause has ever been stilled by an assassin’s bullet. No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders. A sniper is only a coward, not a hero; and an uncontrolled, uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of reason” he says in a speech which seems to prefigure his own fate just two months later. This intelligent, persuasive and moving oration gives Bobby an unexpectedly powerful climax, but it’s too little too late.

For almost two hours Bobby drags us through one misguided scene after another, with Estevez displaying his inadequacy at every turn, but in the final five minutes he finally manages to hit the right note by simply letting the man speak for himself. In fact, Bobby tells us more about its subject through the archive footage and voiceover work than any of Estevez’s witless little soap opera-style subplots can hope to manage. Bobby ultimately achieves its goal - it gives us an idea of why Robert Kennedy’s death was such a terrible loss - but what a shame one has to sit through two hours of ineptitude to see it..