Sunday, March 25, 2007

Review - 300

Hollywood has mangled, altered and butchered as many works of literature as it has adapted over the years, but the work of graphic novelist Frank Miller appears to be sacrosanct amongst filmmakers. The last screen version of a Miller comic book was Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City; a cold-blooded, nihilistic movie which played more like a frame-by-frame reconstruction of the illustrations which inspired it than anything resembling a fresh film experience. Of course, fidelity to the source material is admirable, but the slavish attention paid to Sin City’s look appeared to be the film’s raison d'être, and no attempt was made to adapt Miller’s comic for a completely different medium. It resulted in a flat, episodic and hollow experience.

A similar fate befalls 300, an aesthetically striking film which tells the story of the 300 Spartans who bravely fought to the death in order to defend their country from a million-strong Persian army. I can’t vouch for 300’s credentials as a comic book, but as a film it’s a dispiriting, alienating experience. Two hours of purposeless visual trickery depicting people we don’t care about, in a world we don’t recognise, engaging in a series of barbaric acts. Fans of Miller’s work will undoubtedly be delighted to see his stories, once again, finding a their way to the multiplex intact - and I suppose, in a way, that can be seen as some sort of achievement - but that’s about the only thing 300 achieves.

300 is predominately the story of Leonidas (Gerard Butler), one of the few members of the titular group who is lucky enough to have some sort of character. The film opens by detailing his backstory; how he was trained to be a great warrior almost as soon as he could walk, how he was sent alone into the wilderness to prove his worth aged 7, and how he eventually grew to become the King of Sparta. It’s 480 BC and trouble is on the horizon. As Leonidas instils the same virtues of honour and bravery into his own son, under the loving eye of his wife Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), a messenger arrives with a handful of crowned skulls and a warning for the King. He tells Leonidas that Sparta will be destroyed unless it submits to the rule of King Xerxes, a man whose vast army has already conquered most of the surrounding lands, but Leonidas politely declines, pulling his sword on the messenger and his comrades. “This is madness” the now-worried stranger pleads; “THIS. IS. SPARTAAARGHH!” Leonidas replies before kicking him down a handily-placed well.

Thus, the stage is set. Leonidas selects 300 of his best men and heads north to intercept the marauding hordes, defying the orders of the priests and the council in the process. What follows is a lot of macho posturing, plenty of violence, and nary a worthwhile human emotion in sight.
300 has been directed by Zack Snyder, who brought a snappy inventiveness to his Dawn of the Dead remake, but given the curious translation of this story from page to screen, one wonders how exactly to analyse his role in the proceedings. He uses the illustrations of Miller’s comic as a guide and recreates the action in a literal fashion, but surely a director should do more than simply point and shoot? There doesn’t seem to be any interpretation of the material here, just a reproduction, and Snyder’s staunch, straightforward rendering of the narrative lacks any sort of personality or shape. 300’s pacing resembles a slow march, with one battle against numerous foes being followed by another battle against an even greater number, and the film simply repeats this pattern ad nauseum. Snyder throws in a bit of half-developed political intrigue to try and beef up the plot, but the lack of sophistication in the writing and the strictly mediocre performances from Headey and Dominic West (as a corrupt senator) render this aspect of the screenplay redundant.

With 300’s script failing to capture my attention it was left to the film’s other departments to try and impress. Gerard Butler certainly does his bit to grab the viewers with a loud, hammy, and oddly endearing piece of acting which gives the film a commanding central figure to work around. Butler’s performance shouldn’t work - he makes little attempt to hide his Scottish accent and he's constantly either shouting or grimacing - but he brings a certain gravitas to the film and he at least manages to inject a little wit into his performance. I liked the sight of Leonidas chomping on an apple while standing on a pile of bodies, and his statement that “there’s no reason we can’t be civil” as a vanquished foe is impaled yards away. But Leonidas is the only character who is endowed with even a smidgen of depth, and there’s no sense of empathy with any of the figures involved in this bloodbath. The battle sequences have no impact as a result; various anonymous figures are stabbed and chopped up and it’s all utterly meaningless, with Snyder’s attempts to wring a sense of pathos out of the later stages falling well wide of the mark.

Snyder has made every effort to ensure the carnage looks nice, though. Utilising the same green screen technology that Rodriguez employed for Sin City, 300 creates a whole world inside a studio, and the results are often impressive. The film is bathed in a golden light and some sequences work on a vast scale, with the sight of the Persians’ countless arrows blocking out the daylight being a particularly memorable image. But the visual splendour of 300 is somewhat undermined by the ugliness of its perspective. An undercurrent of racism, homophobia and fascism seeps through every frame of the picture (although the film does manage the rare feat of being comically homoerotic and homophobic at the same time). The enemy facing Leonidas and his army are, without fail, black, arab, deformed or gay; while the Spartan forces are, without fail, perfect specimens of masculinity whose toned torsos are shot with a reverence which would make Leni Riefenstahl blush. The Spartans preach complete devotion to the state and discard any infants born with imperfections, and the film plays up the grotesquery of the Persians at every opportunity, depicting Xerxes himself as a pierced, mincing queen.

Is there any sort of intention on the part of the filmmakers here, or are they simply respecting their source material? If the latter is the case, then what was Miller’s intention with this exaggerated juxtaposition of values? Of course, one could argue that the film is so divorced from reality there’s hardly any point in looking closely at such themes, but 300’s constant extolling of such virtues is a strange aspect of the picture which makes a very dull film even more unpleasant to watch.

300 is a film which arguably achieves what it set out to achieve - it faithfully adapts the work of Frank Miller for the big screen - but that’s a meagre accomplishment when it fails to offer anything beyond that level, and the film’s lack of respect for the basic pleasures of cinema is thoroughly depressing. What price a well-crafted narrative, evocative writing, rich characterisation, or emotional weight? 300 can’t find room for any of these notions in its endless orgy of violence. When Snyder shoots a sex scene between Leonidas and Gorgo he films it in the same mechanical, over-stylised method with which he shoots everything else - it’s lovemaking without any feeling - and one quickly gets the idea that it has been inserted purely to titillate the target audience before Snyder hurries along to the next testosterone-fuelled impalement, beheading or dismemberment. There’s so much blood spilled in 300, but it’s a movie without a soul.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Review - Factory Girl

Edie Sedgwick arrive in New York in the mid-1960’s with a head full of dreams and her rich family’s money behind her. For a few years this spiky young gamine was America’s “it” girl, captivating high society with her stunning looks and distinctive style. She soon became Andy Warhol’s muse and confidant, hanging out with his factory crowd and appearing in a number of his films as their fame grew in tandem; and she then romanced Bob Dylan, who wrote songs in her honour. Edie’s star burned brightly, but briefly; she had everything, and then nothing. In 1971 Edie Sedgwick died from a drug overdose at the age of 28.

This is undeniably a very sad tale, but is it a movie? We’ve surely seen stories like this told a million times before in various incarnations, and Factory Girl is just more of the same; another riches-to-rags story in we watch this beautiful woman slip further into degradation until she finally brings an end to her painful life. The only point of interest this movie may have is that it purports to tell the story of a famous socialite and, by extension, that it might reveal something about two of the era’s most iconic figures, Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan. But Factory Girl is a garbled mess which is too silly and unsure of itself to reveal anything of significance.
Factory Girl’s director George Hickenlooper has a background in documentaries - in fact, he was a co-director on the wonderful Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse - but he shows no documentary-style rigour in his handling of this story, preferring instead to present Edie Sedgwick in the most hackneyed way possible. He opts for a standard biopic structure, with Edie (Sienna Miller) recounting her experiences to a Cottage Hospital counsellor, reminiscences which provide Factory Girl with its narration. After a brief flashback to a Cambridge art college Edie goes to stay with her friend Chuck Wein (a miscast and clueless Jimmy Fallon) in New York, and her fate is sealed when she catches the eye of Andy Warhol (Guy Pearce) at a typically swinging party. How does Hickenlooper depict this fateful meeting? By having Warhol spot Sedgwick dancing in slow motion across the room. When she pulls out a cigarette, six men thrust lighters in her direction. The clichés just keep on coming.

While Hickenlooper bores us rigid with one lazy montage after another, the two actors at the heart of Factory Girl work hard to make us care about the story being told. For Miller, this is the perfect role at the perfect time; she too has achieved celebrity status by virtue of her good looks, fashion sense and association with others, and she seems perfectly comfortable in Edie Sedgwick’s skin. Miller attacks the role with gusto, capturing Edie’s voice and mannerisms, and under certain conditions she bears a striking resemblance to the film’s subject. Pearce looks the part too, with his pale blotchy skin and shock of white hair, and he plays Warhol as a cunning, arch manipulator; almost vampiric in the way he sucks Sedgwick dry and then brutally severs their friendship as soon as he feels he has no further use for her.

Both actors score highly for their impersonations, but they lack the depth and direction required to blossom into real living, breathing performances. They’re great recreations, but they have no inner voice. Miller pours plenty of emotion into the part as the naïve Sedgwick is used and abused by all around her, but it becomes increasingly hard to care about her plight because Hickenlooper and his team of screenwriters have failed to flesh out the character with the rote nature of their scripting. Pearce’s Warhol is initially intriguing, but the film never really tries to explores the artist’s character beyond the pathetically trite pop-psychology theories which litter the picture.

And then there’s Bob Dylan - or rather, there isn’t. Hayden Christensen first appears on screen walking offstage with a guitar in his hands and a harmonica around his neck, but according to Factory Girl’s credits this character is known only as “The Musician”, although he is referred to in the film as Billy Quinn. The motive behind this strange ersatz character was the threat of legal action from Dylan after he took a dislike to the film’s portrayal of his relationship with Edie, but the picture doesn’t actually reflect too badly on the singer. According to Factory Girl Dylan recognised Warhol’s manipulation of Sedgwick and tried to make her see the light, and when she later fell on hard times - long after their relationship had ended - he can be seen sending one of his aides to see if she needs any help.

On the other hand perhaps Dylan decided to sue the makers of Factory Girl when he heard that Hayden Christensen had been cast as him, which would of course be a perfectly valid reason for litigation. Christensen is hopelessly out of his depth in a part which should carry serious weight; his ill-fated attempts to play Dylan leave him looking and sounding like he’s half-asleep. There’s little heat between him and Miller, something which is never clearer than during the excruciating soft-focus sex sequence which sees the two actors bumping and grinding in front of a roaring fireplace. The whole Dylan/Billy Quinn farrago only serves to undermine Factory Girl’s credibility even further, but the longer this film continues the more one respects Bob Dylan for disassociating himself from it.

The stories of Factory Girl’s troubled production have already been well publicised. Not only have the filmmakers had to contend with the threat of legal action, but there have been many rushed re-shoots and restructurings ordered by the Weinsteins; so perhaps after all that it comes as no surprise to find a finished product which is such a witless and confused mongrel of a film. It looks cheap, it feels stale, it has nothing to say about the characters who inhabit its story, and it has nothing to show us except yet another story of someone who lived fast, died young, and left a beautiful corpse behind. Christensen’s Not Dylan tells Sedgwick at one point that her heart is as empty as one of her friend’s soup cans; and if he had been referring to George Hickenlooper’s film itself, then he might have offered Factory Girl’s single moment of insight.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Review - TMNT

Last year we had Miami Vice, later this year we will be treated to Michael Bay’s take on Transformers, and now the latest stage in cinema’s current 80’s craze is with us. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were a most peculiar phenomenon; four human-sized amphibious creatures who dwelled in the sewers of New York after an encounter with some toxic waste had turned them into crime fighters with a fondness for pizza. To add to the overall sense of weirdness, each turtle was named after a Renaissance-era artist, and they were guided in their heroic deeds by their sensei, a large Japanese rat named Splinter.

This bizarre mix of elements proved to be a winning formula, with Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s underground comic suddenly exploding into the biggest franchise of the decade. A cartoon series followed, with action figures flying off the shelves, and the Turtles’ images soon started appearing on everything from t-shirts to video games to lunchboxes. A surprisingly decent live-action film was one of 1990’s box-office hits, before two progressively worse sequels finally seemed to bring their extraordinary reign to something of a close.

Now the green heroes are back on the big screen, 14 years after their last feature film.
TMNT is a film which hopes to extend the Turtles’ appeal to a new generation of younger viewers while simultaneously capitalising on nostalgic twenty and thirty-somethings who are keen to relive their youth; but a misty-eyed view of the past can’t overlook this movie’s numerous failings. TMNT jettisons the impressive Jim Henson-created suits of the earlier pictures in favour of a complete CGI overhaul, but the story hasn’t received anything like as much attention as the aesthetics, and the result is a tepid, slapdash picture which never comes to life.

Time has not been kind to the central foursome, and their brotherhood is showing signs of strain at the movie’s start. Leonardo, the nominal leader of the group, has been away from New York for some time, being sent by Splinter to the dense jungle of Central America in order to hone his leadership skills. He spends most his time protecting local villagers from nasty clichéd bandits, and one day he bumps into former news reporter April O’Neil. She has turned her back on TV work and reinvented herself as some sort of archaeologist, running a precious artefacts service with boyfriend Casey Jones, and she fills Leo in on his brothers’ current positions.

Donatello is now stuck in a dull tech support job, Michelangelo spends his afternoons being beaten up at children’s parties while dressed as a cartoon turtle, and Raphael just sleeps all day - although he, unbeknownst to the others, actually spends his nights fighting crime as a vigilante called The Nightwatcher. Soon the brothers must swing back into action when the ridiculously tedious plot kicks into gear. An immortal billionaire resurrects a group of stone statues and hires Shredder’s former ninjas to recapture some monsters he unleashed 3,000 years ago in a series of dull flashbacks. Apparently these monsters have been terrorizing earth for the last three millennia even though nobody seems to have noticed them until now.

Writer/director Kevin Munroe’s screenplay lacks any sense of coherence or logic, and it arbitrarily switches direction frequently during the film’s uninvolving 90 minutes.
TMNT takes an age to get its central narrative into motion, with masses of exposition to wade through in the early stages, and it never really raises itself beyond a certain level of mediocrity. The film offers glimpses of a more interesting story when it focuses on the damaged relationship between Leonardo and Raphael, but that’s the only time it ever looks like bringing anything new to the party. The fight scenes are a particular disappointment; with the beautifully rendered CGI animation on show being let down by bad direction and cluttered editing which too often obscures the action.

There’s a distinct lack of excitement about this whole movie and, unfortunately, there’s a distinct lack of charm too. The Turtles themselves are a success; they have been well crafted by the animators and each of them has their own clearly defining characteristic, but Donatello and Michelangelo may as well not exist for the way Munroe sidelines them and focuses on the central animosity between Leonardo and Raphael. Elsewhere, the animation of the human characters is simply appalling. April O’Neil and Casey Jones are all elongated bodies, angular faces and twisted mouths, with poor Casey being lumbered with an enormous chin and a strange blue-ish tint to his hair. None of the supporting characters really make much of an impact; Patrick Stewart’s Max Winters is an unmemorable nemesis, and Zhiyi Zhang’s halting delivery in her second language does her ninja character no favours.

Instead of building to a big finale,
TMNT throws in a crazily incoherent climax in which the lack of a decent central villain is telling. Characters suddenly swap allegiances, things start blowing up, and April baffling turns into The Bride from Kill Bill - but the whole thing is a stunningly boring show. TMNT’s generic action and complete dearth of wit leaves the film looking like a wasted opportunity, and there’s only one moment which gives the film the shot of life it so desperately needs. The scene is a rooftop showdown between Leonardo and Raphael, with their bottled-up frustrations finally coming to the fore while the rain pours down - it’s a smashing sequence, but that’s all we get. TMNT tentatively hints at some semblance of depth underneath its glossy sheen, and then it decides to play it safe instead, crawling back into a shell which is as blandly anonymous as any other.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Review - After the Wedding (Efter brylluppet)

After the Wedding is a textbook example of a filmmaker excelling within her own comfort zone. The two films Susanne Bier has made before this picture - 2002’s Open Hearts and 2004’s Brothers - have been low-key but powerful dramas focusing on the family ties that bind, and in this regard After the Wedding is more of the same. Once again the director utilises an intimate, Dogme-style shooting style which is augmented with occasional aesthetic flourishes, and once more the screenplay has been provided by Bier’s regular collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen. With all of these familiar aspects in place it might seem as if Bier is simply repeating herself, but it’s hard to mind too much when the end result is executed with so much skill.

Like Brothers, After the Wedding is a story in which events in a far-off country have an impact at home. The film opens in India, introducing us to committed aid worker Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) who has spent the past two decades doing his bit for the impoverished local children. But times are hard, with Jacob’s orphanage on the brink of bankruptcy, and when a Danish businessman offers to donate $4 million to the cause it’s an offer Jacob can’t refuse, even if it means travelling back to a country he thought he had left behind for good twenty years previously.

The rich philanthropist is Jørgen (Rolf Lassgård), but from his first meeting with Jacob this slightly aloof and self-absorbed character doesn’t seem particularly interested in the orphanage, casting a disinterested eye over the video Jacob has prepared, and he’s understandably distracted by the thought of his daughter’s upcoming nuptials. He invites Jacob to the next day‘s celebrations, promising to discuss the orphanage afterwards, but the wedding itself changes everything. When he turns up at the ceremony Jacob is stunned to see that Jørgen’s wife Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is a woman with whom he has shared a very intimate history, and whose daughter Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen) is just about old enough to have been conceived at that time. That little surprise is merely the start of the revelations.

The fascinating thing about Susanne Bier’s films is the way they always rest on melodramatic incidents and plot contrivances which would have us rolling our eyes in the hands of most filmmakers, but she somehow makes them feel real. Anders Thomas Jensen’s screenplay is typically schematic - and arguably the weakest of his three collaborations with the director - and yet we still find ourselves wrapped up in the action, completely absorbed as the characters’ lives are turned upside down. Bier handles dramatic revelations as well as any other filmmaker working today, and the potency of these scenes is the key to her pictures’ success. When Jacob discovers the nature of his relationship to Anna it’s a tremendous moment; his eyes meet Helene’s from the back of the hall and the truth passes wordlessly between them.

Such scenes depend not only on the perceptiveness of the direction, but on the quality of the cast, and this is an aspect of Bier’s work which is set at a consistently astonishing level. Mads Mikkelsen - always a pleasure to watch - gives a reliably excellent leading display. It’s a marvellously subtle piece of acting as his self-affirmed outsider gets gradually drawn back into a life he never wanted, gaining new commitments and responsibilities in a breathtakingly short space of time. Lassgård is outstanding too; he initially comes across as rather bullish and dislikeable character, a man manipulating others for his own mysterious ends, but as the truth of his situation is revealed it becomes clear that his actions are motivated by love and fear, and the character’s final scenes in the film are deeply moving.

Bier traditionally gets great performances out of her female cast members, and After the Wedding is no exception. Knudsen excels as the mother whose past comes back to haunt her at what should be her proudest moment, with some dormant feelings being rekindled for this old flame, and Stine Fischer Christensen is extremely affecting in perhaps the film’s most difficult role. Her character, more than any other, is bombarded with a bewildering array of life-changing revelations in the space of just a few days, and she gives an admirable display; but the final surprise to hit Anna is also bad news for the film. The director overplays her hand slightly with this final twist of the emotional knife, and here the film threatened to slip into the kind of soapy melodrama which it had otherwise managed to steer clear of. That’s always the risk with this kind of picture, and Bier just about manages to get away with it here thanks to the strength of the characterisation and performances, but it does cause the picture’s final stages to feel a little overstretched.

There are other minor niggles which seem to be regular occurrences in Bier’s work; her frequent close-ups on aspects of the environment or the dead eyes of a stuffed animal don’t sit well with the rest of the film, and the juxtapositions in her staging are sometimes too obvious, but After the Wedding remains a film to get caught up in. It tackles the often complex relationships between family members - the secrets, the lies and the love - with as much insight and emotional truth as any film you’re likely to see this year, and it ends finally on a note of hope after a wrenching two hours. Susanne Bier might be operating well within her comfort zone, but with films like Open Hearts, Brothers and After the Wedding under her belt it seems churlish to complain.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Review - Letters From Iwo Jima

Winston Churchill once said “history is written by the victors”, and it is a quote which carries particular resonance when looking at cinema’s various visions of warfare. Over the years Hollywood has turned to war films time and time again to find inspiring tales of courage, or examinations of complex moral issues, but their stories of young men who have fought and died for their country have often tended to ignore those who did the same on the other side. In too many war films the enemy is given a short shrift, they’re little more than a unknowable horde which must be defeated. Letters From Iwo Jima is Clint Eastwood’s admirable attempt to redress the balance.

This is, of course, the second half of Eastwood’s hugely ambitious World War II double-bill, with Flags of Our Fathers a very recent memory. That film followed a more traditional route, following the story of the American soldiers who raised the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima, with the director attempting to undermine notions of heroism and glamour which generally surround tales from the battlefield.
Flags of Our Fathers was told from a strictly American point of view - we hardly saw a Japanese face aside from the few occasions when one would burst out from his hiding place with murderous zeal - and instead Eastwood has decided to offer a whole second film from the perspective of the vanquished foe.

Letters From Iwo Jima opens in 2005 with the discovery of letters written by the Japanese troops as they spent months in their underground tunnels, and these are the letters which will provide our narration during the course of the film. The picture then flashbacks to the island of Iwo Jima, a few short months before the US invasion, and the Japanese soldiers are already hard at work preparing trenches along the beachfront. One soldier with a shovel in his hand is Saigo (Japanese boy band star Kazunari Ninomiya), and when he begins lamenting his lot a little too loudly he soon finds himself being beaten by stern disciplinarian Lieutenant Fujita (Hiroshi Watanabe). Fortunately for him, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) is walking past as this punishment is being administered, and he puts a stop to it, reminding Fujita that an army with such depleted resources shouldn’t be in the business of crippling their own men.

Kuribayashi has been shipped to Iwo Jima by his superiors in order to co-ordinate the Japanese defence of this tactically crucial island, but it’s clear from the start he is fighting a losing battle. The army at his disposal lacks both the sufficient manpower and firepower to deal with the onslaught ahead of them, and many of their troops are suffering from dysentery with a lack of drinking water making life increasingly difficult. After a survey of the island, Kuribayashi tries to come up with a different tactical approach, ordering the troops to stop working on the trenches and to instead start constructing a series of tunnels inside Mt. Suribachi from which they will they will employ the element of surprise against the Americans. A radio announcement reminds the soldiers that they must fight for their country’s pride at any price, but none of the Japanese expect to survive the forthcoming battle. There is much discussion about the merits of dying with honour, but the reality of the situation is hard to bear for many of the younger soldiers, with Saigo sarcastically referring to a colleague who died of “honourable dysentery”.

This is unusual territory for the war picture, placing us side-by-side with troops whose death looms large on the horizon, and it’s this angle which gives
Letters From Iwo Jima the sense of weight and purpose which Flags of Our Fathers lacked. Few films in this genre have created such a sense of what it is to be utterly defeated, and to know that only the end remains. Eastwood’s direction plays on the claustrophobia of the situation, with much of the action taking place inside the dimly-lit tunnels to which the soldiers were confined, and the slow pacing successfully conveys the monotony of waiting for the shooting to start, with a feeling of foreboding gradually growing as the picture progresses. Letters From Iwo Jima contains less action than Flags of Our Fathers did, but it cuts deeper, with the isolated bursts of violence packing more of a punch than the first film’s widespread scenes of carnage. A Japanese private opens a hatch only to be engulfed by an American flamethrower, and another chastises his colleague for sitting around before realising his face has been blown away during an air assault; but the most shocking scene of violence in Letters From Iwo Jima is self-inflicted. With their fortunes looking increasingly bleak, a group of soldiers decide to take their own lives before the Americans have the chance to. Each of them holds a grenade to their chest and screams “Banzai!” before exploding to smithereens. It’s an extraordinarily powerful sequence.

Letters From Iwo Jima’s Japanese-language screenplay has been written by Iris Yamashita in conjunction with Eastwood’s regular collaborator Paul Haggis, and their work mostly hits the right notes, but they resort to unilluminating flashbacks which don’t add a great deal to the picture and only pull us out of the tense and compelling central drama. The central characterisations don’t stray too far from the established template for this kind of film either; Kuribayashi is the wise and humane leader, Fujita is his loyal and patriotic aide, and Saigo is the young innocent whose eyes are opened to the horror of war. It’s to the actors’ credit that they are able to flesh out the characters beyond these clichéd types with strong and authentic performances, but Shidô Nakamura’s Lieutenant Ito is a jarringly one-dimensional figure; a crazed fanatic who races out into the open, laden with mines, to single-handedly take down an enemy tank.

There has been much talk of
Letters From Iwo Jima attempting to humanise the notoriously sadistic Japanese soldiers, and there are a few moments when it feels like the film is stretching to highlight their “the enemy are people too” slant instead of letting it develop naturally. One scene sees Baron Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) - a famous Olympic gold medallist who fought and died at Iwo Jima - encountering a wounded enemy soldier and, instead of interrogating or killing him, he offers the American the last of their morphine supply and chats with him about horses. That scene feels like pandering, but it isn’t such a bad misstep until it is compared to a later scene which sees a couple of American soldiers shooting their own hostages in cold blood. Such a bald juxtaposition is a disappointingly trite element which feels out of place in an otherwise well-balanced picture.

Whatever the merits and flaws of
Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima there’s no question that the two films represent a remarkable directorial achievement from Eastwood. The overall sense one gets from this double-bill is the sheer pointlessness and waste of even a justified war, and while that isn’t a new notion among films in this genre, the grace and intelligence which Eastwood brings to this film has brought it home with startling clarity. Flags of Our Fathers ultimately felt like just another war film, but Letters From Iwo Jima has shown us the dignity and valour of those on the wrong side of a calamitous loss, and in that respect Eastwood has become the first director in almost a decade to give us something like a new perspective on the conflict.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Review Round-up - Hot Fuzz, The Science of Sleep and Ghost Rider

London has never seen a cop quite like Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg). He’s scarily proficient in hand-to-hand combat, high-speed pursuits and armed response; he treats his job with the utmost seriousness, and he has an arrest record which is 400% better than anyone else on the force. He’s good - in fact, he’s a little bit too good. Angel’s dedication has already cost him his girlfriend, and his startling efficiency is making his colleagues look bad. As a result, Angel’s superiors decide it’s rime to reassign him - he’s going to be the new sergeant in the small town of Sandford, the sleepiest of sleepy English villages.

The big joke in Hot Fuzz, the much-anticipated new film from the team behind 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, is the transposing of Hollywood action movie clichés into a genteel English setting. Alongside the village fetes and missing swans, we get ear-splitting shootouts, car chases, and a series of grisly murders; and the overall effect is like watching Michael Bay direct an episode of Midsomer Murders. It’s a simple conceit, but it’s a funny one too, and it’s one which is well exploited by Director Edgar Wright and co-writer Pegg; but their determination to pack the film with as much action, comedy and cinematic references as possible eventually sees the movie sliding into self-indulgence, with the wheels almost coming off in the second half of its two-hour running time.

Hot Fuzz is undeniably very funny though, and its biggest asset is the double-act of Pegg and Nick Frost, the same pairing whose wonderful chemistry helped gloss over Shaun of the Dead’s similar flaws. Here Frost plays local simpleton Danny Butterman, who has followed his father into the police force even though he is quite obviously unsuited to the task. In fact, Danny often finds himself waking up in the cells after a drunken night, and he seems bored and frustrated by the fact that life as a policeman doesn’t deliver any of the action he’s seen in his favourite Hollywood blockbusters. Danny is thrilled when he is assigned as Angel’s new partner, who he looks at with awe and asks questions like “have you ever fired two guns while leaping through the air?”.

The central relationship in Hot Fuzz mirrors that of many a buddy movie. Over the course of the picture the über-serious Angel gradually starts to soften, learning to lighten up and take life a little less seriously, and the lazy Danny begins to mature, learning to be more responsible in his role as a police officer. The development of these straightforward character arcs occurs in a predictable way, but Pegg and Frost play off each other brilliantly; and the pair’s developing relationship hints at the undercurrents of homosexuality which are evident in most of the films they gleefully pastiche - particularly Point Break and Bad Boys II, Danny’s favourite films and the two pictures which are alluded to most frequently here.

Aside from the fine work provided by Pegg and Frost, there are myriad other delights offered by Hot Fuzz. Sandford seems to be some sort of haven for British character actors, and the likes of Jim Broadbent, Edward Woodward, Olivia Colman, Paddy Considine and a supremely villainous Timothy Dalton all have great fun with their supporting roles. As in Shaun of the Dead and Spaced - the TV show with which this team came to prominence - Wright gives the film a cinematic sheen with his glossy camerawork and slam-bang editing style, and the careful attention paid to Hot Fuzz’s aesthetics is accompanied by an endless stream of film references, with pictures as diverse as Point Blank, Chinatown and The Omen all influencing the action here.

But too much of Hot Fuzz’s energy and invention seems exhausted by the time the film moves into its second hour, and it backs itself into a narrative corner when the motivation behind Sandford’s numerous murders (or “accidents”) is revealed. After piling the film with every cop-movie cliché they can think of for the first hour, the filmmakers suddenly shift the action into Wicker Man territory with some gothic weirdness being uncovered, and I grew more conscious of the film’s excessive running time as the script started running in rather aimless circles. Hot Fuzz does manage to rouse itself slightly in the final third - with a well-executed supermarket shootout leading to a model village face-off - but even then the filmmakers simply don’t know when enough is enough, and they fudge the ending by giving us two climaxes too many.

The best moments in Hot Fuzz are the small touches - gags like Danny’s ‘brain freeze’ or his novel use of a notepad; the inexplicably funny line “I’m all right Andy. It’s just Bolognese!”; or an amateur production of Romeo and Juliet which features a rendition of The Cardigans’ Lovefool. Such inspired moments sometimes feel out of place in the overall bombast of the production, and there’s a tension between the filmmakers’ desire to incorporate explosive action sequences and their fondness for silly gags which makes the final product feel a little unsatisfying. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright have bags of talent - and Hot Fuzz is a very accomplished, entertaining piece of work - but they need to instil some discipline into their work and give their stories a bit more shape before they can really achieve their potential. If they can do that, then they may yet be a comedic force to be reckoned with.

Another filmmaker riding the wave of high expectations with his latest picture is Michel Gondry. In 2004 he was in the director’s chair for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a dazzlingly inventive and achingly romantic comedy which quickly established itself as a modern classic; but not much of the credit for that great offering went to Gondry. Instead, Eternal Sunshine was perceived by most as a Charlie Kaufman film, with the screenwriter getting the lion’s share of the attention as well as an Academy Award for his efforts. So is The Science of Sleep Michel Gondry’s attempt to show that he can do anything Kaufman can do? The premise of a man’s dreams becoming indistinguishable from his daily existence certainly sounds a little - forgive me - Kaufman-esque, and the fact that the film follows two quirky characters as they edge towards a hesitant romance can’t help but recall Eternal Sunshine’s narrative trajectory.

Unfortunately, the similarities end there. The Science of Sleep starts of as an intriguingly strange proposition, complemented by beautiful visual effects, but it has none of the romance, none of the subtlety, and none of the heart that was evident in the 2004 film. There’s no doubting the director’s genius for visual trickery - and The Science of Sleep is wonderfully stimulating film on that level - but its interminable trips through various fantastical sequences never land on anything of substance.

The Science of Sleep is a film about the relationship between dreams and reality, but - crucially - it doesn’t try to differentiate between the two states. In this regard it mirrors the fractured psyche of its main protagonist Stéphane (Gael García Bernal ), a twenty-something misfit whose imaginative dreams tend to spill over into his waking hours. We start the film inside his head, watching him explain the genesis of dreams in a makeshift TV studio, and during the next 105 minutes we’re never quite sure whether the events on screen are to be taken as reality or fantasy. Stéphane dreams about a skiing holiday, and wakes up with his feet in a freezer; he needs cellophane to help neighbour Stéphanie (a sweetly understated Charlotte Gainsbourg) with an art project, and he produces it from his taps; he invents a ramshackle one-second ‘time machine’ and - miraculously - it works.

Such moments are occasionally delightful, but with this kind of whimsy a sense of balance is key, and Gondry keeps piling on the magic to the point of overkill. There’s a typically low-tech touch to the film’s visual effects, and the sight of an entire cardboard city coming to life is pure Gondry brilliance, but what do these sequences reveal about the character whose mind is creating them? Few of the film’s flights of fancy enhance our understanding of Stéphane or his relationship with Stéphanie, and the further the film goes into Gondry’s world the less it seems tethered to anything recognisably real. When Stéphane finds himself involved in a cardboard car chase, one of many irrelevant sequences which seem grafted onto the picture, it feels like the director was simply showing off the skills we’re already well aware of. The skills we really needed to see here were more to do with the writing half of Gondry’s credit, the ability to create substantial characters and real relationships, but the film’s central love story never came close to grabbing my emotions.

Gael García Bernal brings all of his usual charm and astuteness to the role of Stéphane, and he also displays some first-rate comic skills in a performance which really couldn’t be better, but there’s little he can do to with a character who grows more infantile and dislikeable by the minute. By the time the film had moved into its final section - a final section which feels twice as long as it is - his behaviour seemed to exhibit signs of genuine mental disability, and it’s hard to know how exactly to respond to his plight. As the film progressed my sympathies gradually shifted to Stéphanie for having to put up with Stéphane’s unpredictable and often obnoxious behaviour.

The Science of Sleep’s ending is opaque and meaningless, and it’s a frustrating conclusion to a gorgeous mess of a film. Gondry’s picture contains more imaginative sequences than any other film this year is likely to contain, but the director of this infuriatingly shallow picture can’t find a sense of truth underneath the surface flair, and he shows a surprising reluctance to dive into the turbulent emotional waters of real-life relationships. Michel Gondry has a special gift for creating dreams on the screen, but how can we make sense of those dreams until the director allows us to wake up?

Spare a thought for Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage), though. He can’t wake up because when night falls he doesn’t sleep like the rest of us, he transforms himself into a seemingly invincible vigilante with a flaming skull where his head should be. This is the Ghost Rider, a character who must collect damned souls at the bidding of Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda), and this is a role Blaze has to play after selling his soul decades earlier to save his father’s life. This is the valuable lesson one takes away from Ghost Rider - always read the small print.

The bar for comic book movies has been set pretty high in recent years by the likes of Sam Raimi and Christopher Nolan, and this effort from Mark Steven Johnson - responsible for 2003’s dreadful Daredevil - looks very inadequate in comparison. Sure, the effects are all very impressive, and one or two welcome moments of humour are allowed to shine through the gloom; but so much of it feels so wearyingly familiar. The plot is particularly uninspired, with Mephistopheles’ power-crazed son (Wes Bentley) trying to find some sort of contract which is worth a thousand souls, and the Ghost Rider’s task is to stop him at any cost. This is a particularly inopportune time for Blaze to be called into action - his old flame Roxanne (Eva Mendes) has suddenly reappeared on the scene - but he carries on with his mission when Mephistopheles promises to relinquish control of his soul if he succeeds.

The Ghost Rider does cut a rather striking figure, but the best scenes in this film occur when Cage is simply allowed to inhabit the lead role with no special effects getting in the way. The actor’s characterisation here is odd, to say the least. His Johnny Blaze has a hint of Elvis posturing about him, a fondness for The Carpenters, and he likes to unwind by watching monkey videos. While his crew knock back beers, Blaze likes to swig jelly beans from a cocktail glass, and when he wants a coffee he just walks over to the hotplate and drinks straight from the pot. It’s a bizarre performance, full of the actor’s trademark tics and mannerisms, but it’s a blessed relief to see Cage desperately trying to make the film interesting, and his quirky turn gradually grows surprisingly endearing.

Unfortunately Cage’s choices are pretty much the only surprising thing about Ghost Rider, and the rest of the cast bring little to the table. Wes Bentley resorts to staring and snarling in a cartoonish manner, Peter Fonda turns in a bland display, and Eva Mendes offers a dreadfully flat and grating piece of acting as romantic interest. Only Same Elliott can help alleviate the gloom with his enjoyably gruff cameo.

Ghost Rider is at its weakest when it’s at its most hectic. The various action sequences are loud and full of explosive incident, but Johnson’s resolutely unimaginative staging leeches them of any real sense of excitement. The Ghost Rider himself isn’t imbued with the same sense of personality as Cage’s Johnny Blaze, and all of the CGI-enhanced mayhem on show has very little effect, with the insipid churchyard climax being a particularly deflating way to end the picture. One wishes the makers of Ghost Rider had taken their cue from Nicolas Cage and tried to take their film down dome unusual avenues, offering us something a little different instead of more of the same. Alas, the efforts of one actor alone are no match for the relentless monotony of Hollywood formula.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Review - The Illusionist

As an act of cinematic trickery, The Illusionist is a nifty piece of work. This latest entry in the suddenly popular turn-of-the-century magicians genre is a film which casts a spell over the viewer; a film which lulls us into the story, even while we remain aware of its numerous flaws. Director Neil Burger pulls off this feat by employing charismatic actors, some gorgeous cinematography, and a lyrical musical score; all aspects which deceive the viewer into thinking there’s more to this old-fashioned drama than meets the eye - what a shame Burger almost blows the whole show right at the end, revealing the basic mechanics behind his act at the worst possible moment.

So The Illusionist isn’t a perfect film by any means, but at least it’s a lot more fun than The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s magician movie which displayed a distinct lack of magic as it followed the rivalry between two obsessively driven characters. There’s a touch more romance about The Illusionist, and it coveys a beguiling sense of wonder at the magician’s art. In this case, the magician is Eisenheim (Edward Norton) an extraordinarily gifted and enigmatic individual whose spectacular shows are wowing Austrian crowds in the early part of the 20th century. He makes doves appear out of nowhere, he causes an orange tree to grow on stage, and he has a fantastic trick involving a red cape and a mirror, but for this last one he needs a volunteer.

It just so happens that the volunteer emerging from the audience on one particular night is Sophie (Jessica Biel), someone who Eisenheim loved as a child and who was cruelly snatched away from him by her aristocratic family. Now, Sophie is due to marry the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) and she finds herself torn between the mysterious artist - who she has secretly pined for since their childhood romance was cut short - and the cold, ruthless heir who is tired of waiting for his time on the throne and is planning to stage a coup against his father. Not a tough decision, you might think; and when Leopold gets an inkling of Sophie’s illicit relationship with Eisenheim he orders local police inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to keep a close eye on him, but Eisenheim’s most spectacular tricks are yet to come.

This is a dangerously thin narrative on which to hang a 110-minute movie, and the fact that Steven Millhauser’s screenplay has been adapted from a short story hardly comes as a surprise. The characters are a little on the shallow side, and it’s left to the actors to fill out their parts, something they do with some skill. Eisenheim is an unlikely role for Norton, but it turns out to be one perfectly suited to his intelligent and somewhat inscrutable screen presence. The actor plays the inscrutable protagonist in an understated fashion, his watchful eyes and carefully-chosen words always suggesting a keen intelligence and some unknown motives lurking behind his cool exterior. He’s more than matched by Giamatti, who has fun with his part as the conflicted police officer. Uhl is conflicted because he respects and perhaps even likes Eisenheim, but he must follow the orders of Leopold, a man for whom such respect and likeability are in short supply. Giamatti brings a lot of charm to the movie, and the interplay between Uhl and Eisenheim is where the film works best.

The love story, though, doesn’t really work as it should do. Biel is an appealing, attractive presence - and perhaps the only person in the film not sporting some impressive facial hair - but she can’t do a great deal with the stock ‘romantic interest’ part she has been saddled with. The romantic angle of The Illusionist feels pretty rote and clichéd, and the third point in the central love triangle - Sewell’s Leopold - never grows into anything more than a cold and predictable villain.

But despite the laborious nature of these scenes, The Illusionist always manages to hold the attention, and it’s always pleasing on the eye. Dick Pope’s photography is absolutely spellbinding: he paints the film with a sepia-toned brush, the slight haziness and flickering nature of his camerawork recalling early silent pictures, and The Illusionist always maintains a strangely beguiling quality because of its lovingly crafted atmosphere. The film also delights in the act of magic itself, with some lovely low-key special effects utilised to bring Eisenheim’s illusions to the screen. These tricks are adventurous, stretching credibility without being entirely outside the realms of possibility, but when Eisenheim’s act starts to include apparent necromancy in the film’s second half - bringing ghosts to life on the stage, and causing them to walk amidst the public - the picture starts to wobble badly.
The Illusionist eventually builds to a twist ending which is a cinematic crime on two fronts. First of all, it’s a painfully obvious piece of rug-pulling which most viewers will have seen coming a long time before, and most will have been hoping in vain for something more original; and if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s also an ending which is explained to the viewer in a bewildering Usual Suspects-style avalanche of flashbacks, the effect of which is confusion as much as enlightenment. This an extraordinarily clumsy manner in which to end such a graceful piece of filmmaking, and it’s almost as if the filmmakers got cold feet at the thought of hiding the workings of their plot, instead deciding at a late script meeting to throw the audience a bone.
The Illusionist disappoints then, after a pretty strong opening hour, but it remains an enjoyable picture which is different enough from the norm to merit a recommendation. Fans of The Prestige may argue that Christopher Nolan’s film is more strongly scripted and more ambitious - and they’d probably be right in many ways - but I preferred The Illusionist because it feels like a film which possesses a greater sense of wit and invention, and seems to contain a little of that rare magical quality which was notable by its absence in The Prestige. Neil Burger certainly knows how to hold an audience’s attention, he knows how to dazzle them with some smart conjuring or misdirection, but he doesn’t quite know how to end his act; and The Illusionist would have been a much stronger film if it had resisted the urge to spill everything it had concealed up its sleeves just before the curtain fell. As any good magician should know, a trick never feels quite as special when the sense of mystery has been spoiled.