Monday, April 23, 2007

Review - This is England

As soon as This is England begins you just know it's going to be something special. The first figure who appears on screen is Roland Rat, and as the credits roll we see everything and everyone who made Britain what it was in the 1980's. There's Thatcher, Space Invaders, Charles and Diana, the Falklands war, Rubik's Cubes, aerobics videos, Yuppies and race riots - and these images are brilliantly edited to the sound of Toots and the Maytals' 54-46 Was My Number. It's an arresting, wonderfully energising opening, and from this point onwards This is England doesn't put a foot wrong.

This is England is the latest film from Shane Meadows, a filmmaker who made his debut just ten years ago with Twenty Four Seven, and with this picture he has fulfilled all of the promise shown in his work to date. Thematically and stylistically This is England can't be seen as a great forward leap for Meadows, but while he may be exploring similar territory to his previous work, his new film achieves a different level of complexity and maturity. With a typically witty and insightful screenplay, deft direction and devastatingly powerful performances, this picture firmly establishes Shane Meadows as the best British filmmaker of his generation.

Not only is
This is England Shane Meadows' best film, it's also his most personal, with the semi-autobiographical nature of the plot emphasised by naming the central character Shaun Fields. It's 1983 and Shaun (played by first-time actor Thomas Turgoose) is an 12 year-old with a lot on his mind. His father has been killed in the Falklands and he can't seem to stay out of strife, getting in a fight at school when another boy makes a callous joke about his dead dad. When he encounters a group of skinheads on the way home there appears to be more trouble on the horizon, but this group, led by Woody (Joe Gilgun), are sympathetic to Shaun's tales of bullying. They take him under their wing, giving him the requisite haircut and Ben Sherman shirt, and Shaun's delight at finally finding some acceptance is palpable. "Thanks for today" he tells Woody after spending an afternoon destroying derelict houses with them, "it's been the best day of my life".

Shaun's mother (Jo Hartley) is initially concerned by her son's new friends, but after meeting with them her fears are allayed, perhaps swayed by her son's newfound happiness. The fun doesn't last though, and a dangerous new element is introduced with the unexpected arrival of Woody's old friend Combo (Stephen Graham), who has just been released from jail. Combo has changed since Woody last saw him, and his stream of racist stories from the inside unsettles the group, particularly their black friend Milky (Andrew Shim). The next day Combo calls them all together and makes an impassioned speech about what it means to be English, demanding that they join him and all "true Englishmen" in taking the country back from the outsiders who have made it their home. Most of gang follow Woody in rejecting this racist rhetoric, but Combo's talk about Englishmen being killed in a needless war strikes a chord with Shaun.

From this point the film could have played out as a battle between Woody and Combo for young Shaun's soul, but
This is England doesn't go there. Instead Woody is barely seen in the film's second half and the film focuses on Shaun's unsettling relationship with Combo, and his inducement into the world of National Front politics. Meadows uses this relationship as a microcosm to depict what was happening in Britain at the time. Most skinhead groups were heavily influenced by ska, reggae and other forms of West Indian culture, but their look gradually came to personify the kind fascism and violence which reared its head during this decade. Combo's rightwing ideology gradually begins to seep into the film and makes its mark on young Shaun; but Meadows is careful not to paint Combo as a mindless thug, instead allowing him flashes of intelligence and articulacy, which in many ways makes him even worse. Like Edward Norton's character from American History X and Russell Crowe's role in Romper Stomper, Combo has a certain kind of charisma and a way of speaking which can win impressionable hearts and minds. He shares with Shaun the pain of an absent father, and he tells his awestruck young friend that looking at him is like looking in a mirror. Shaun hangs a St. George's Cross out of his window, gets a cross tattoo inked onto his fist, and takes part in their raids on local Pakistani-run shops. Combo watches his young friend's antics with an almost paternal sense of pride.

This is a truly extraordinary performance from Stephen Graham, an actor who has done decent work in various films and TV shows over the past few years but has never shown the kind of intensity and depth on display here. His character is a volatile ball of rage with a short fuse, displaying this dark side of his personality when he's driving home from a National Front rally, and one of his young passengers dares to question the validity of the speeches they've just heard - Combo's response is terrifying. But Graham gives his character depth and shade, and Meadows gives him one wonderful scene when he confesses his feelings for Woody's girlfriend (Vicky McClure) with whom he had a one-night stand some years previously. "It was the worst night of my life" she tells him, and Combo's heartbroken response might elicit unexpected feelings of sympathy from the audience. This is a compelling psychological portrait of a man filled with hate, and when Combo launches into the horrific act of violence with which the film climaxes, we see that he is motivated as much by confused feelings of loneliness, jealousy and emasculation as much as anything else.

Graham is a professional actor doing the best work of his career here, but one of the hallmarks of Shane Meadows' films to date has been his peerless ability to coax great performances from non-actors, and he has struck gold with Thomas Turgoose. Young Turgoose had no acting experience whatsoever before embarking on this project, but his performance is utterly remarkable. Cheeky and vulnerable by turn, he brings genuine emotion to the central role, and his character's development over the course of the picture is depicted with stunning subtlety, climaxing with the desperately moving final image: Shaun alone on the beach, the Flag of St George in his hand, the cold sea stretching out in front of him, his childhood far behind.

This is England is instantly recognisable as a Shane Meadows film, in fact it could almost be read as a summation of the director's career to date, but it also marks a clear step up from the his earlier works. There's the same narrative arc which defined A Room for Romeo Brass, with early scenes of easygoing camaraderie gradually turning into something darker; and it has the same everyday, naturalistic depiction of violence which Meadows utilised in Dead Man's Shoes. The cast is filled with actors who have worked with the director in the past, many of whom were given their debut by Meadows, and his use of music to evoke the atmosphere of a particular time and place is as powerful as ever. Again, Meadows uses a straightforward story in his native midlands milieu to explore universal truths; but here there's a sense of real weight and resonance which is something new for the director.

The only unfortunate note struck by
This is England is something for which nobody involved in the film's making can be blamed. The BBFC's decision to award the film an 18 certificate is a hugely disappointing one which excludes an audience who could possibly benefit most from seeing this picture. This is a film which confronts the issues of racism, bullying and adolescent confusion head-on, and yet it is deemed more offensive than such empty, sadistic 15-rated films as 300 and Snakes on a Plane. Such is the absurdity of the ratings system; but one hopes this stunningly fresh and honest film will find as wide an audience as possible, because it's as much a film about how we live now as how we lived then. With a story which touches on an unnecessary war, racial unrest and disillusioned teenagers looking for an outlet for their frustrations, it's little wonder that Meadows has called his film This is England.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Review - The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)

The Oscars aren't generally the place you look to for surprising results, and for the most part this year's ceremony was more of the same, but there was one award which managed to raise a few eyebrows. Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth was the biggest name among the five nominees in the Best Foreign Language Film category - with almost unanimous acclaim, strong box-office and multiple nominations in its favour - but the voters decided to look past those factors and they handed the Oscar to The Lives of Others; a film about life in Stasi-era East Germany from the tremendously-named director Florian Henckel von Donnersmark.

That Oscar has been just one of numerous international awards which Donnersmark's film has been receiving over the past year, and critics have been falling over themselves to shower it with praise, but I couldn't help feeling The Lives of Others is something of a disappointment. It's certainly a very accomplished piece of filmmaking - written, acted and directed with consummate skill and professionalism - but I can't really see much more than that, and it's hard to see why exactly this efficient thriller has been so fêted wherever it has played.

What's easier to see is the reason why The Lives of Others has been such a storming success in Germany. After films like Downfall and Goodbye Lenin, this is the latest attempt by a new generation of German filmmakers to get to grips with the misdeeds of generations past; and while The Lives of Others acknowledges the shadowy work done by the Stasi - the secret police and intelligence service of the GDR - it also manages to serve up this dark period in the country's history in the form of an uplifting narrative and an easily-digestible structure. The film plays safe, in other words, and that's a pity, because a little more inspiration and adventure really could have turned this into a picture worthy of the hype.

The central character in The Lives of Others is Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) a well-regarded and fiercely loyal Stasi captain who is given the task of spying on one of the country's leading playwrights, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Dreyman is generally thought of as an upright character, whose work doesn't tend to display the anti-government sentiment practised by many of his fellow writers, but Wiesler is ordered to find something under the respectable façade in a directive which has come straight from minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme). Hempf has his own reasons for wanting Dreyman out of the way - he has designs on the writer's actress girlfriend Christa (Martina Gedeck) - but Wiesler is the kind of man who just follows orders and doesn't ask questions, and his team goes to work bugging Dreyman's apartment and establishing a listening post in the attic.

These early scenes are terrific, giving the viewers a fascinating insight into a country ruled by fear and suspicion. The Stasi's effectiveness lay in part with the network of informants they had control over throughout the GDR; it is estimated that there were between 200,000 and 300,000 people at various points monitoring the activities of their friends, colleagues and neighbours and reporting any remotely suspicious behaviour. With some one in fifty members of the East German public under the employment of the government nobody knew who they could trust, and there was good reason to fear the prospect of being denounced by one of these spies. The Stasi could instantly blacklist or imprison anyone who the shadow of suspicion fell upon; the fact that Donnersmark sets his story in 1984 is surely no coincidence.

The writer/director expresses the pervading atmosphere of unease brilliantly through some well-executed scenes. The film opens with Wiesler interrogating a young man who has been questioned for forty hours without any sleep, and he cuts between this sequence and a scene of Wiesler using this interrogation as an example to the young Stasi students he is lecturing. One young man dares to ask if it is inhuman to keep a man awake for forty hours, and Wiesler casually places a mark against this student's name before answering. Heaven knows what fate might await him. Another nice scene occurs when Wiesler is having lunch with his colleague Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) and a young Stasi employee begins telling an anti-socialist joke before realising who is at the other end of the table. Grubitz insists on hearing the end of the joke and laughs heartily before his face drops and he asks for the young man's name and rank; and Donnersmark gives this interchange a neat punchline towards the end of the picture.

But while The Lives of Others is often excellent in the way it depicts the insidious, sinister machinations of the State's surveillance, and the difficulties faced by those living under its incessant gaze, Donnersmark's screenplay proves to be problematic in other areas. The main plot hook here is that Wiesler, during the course of his investigation, softens slightly on Dreyman and he begins fabricating reports in order to hide the writer's true activities from his superiors. Frankly, this idea of a Stasi captain risking his own life to protect people he barely knows is pulled straight from the realms of fantasy, and The Lives of Others never quite managed to make me a believer. We see Wiesler's soul being reawakened by art - he's reduced to tears by a passage of music being played by Dreyman, and he sneaks into the apartment to steal a book of Brecht poems - but these scenes are too trite to genuinely express the change of heart he undergoes, and there remains a jarring disconnect between the man he is at the start of the film and the man he is at the end.

Ulrich Mühe does a fine job in the central role though, and the fact that I was willing to overlook this central implausibility to some extent was predominately down to his exceptional work. His character is a closed-off man who lives alone in a shabby apartment and has little human contact outside of work (his mechanical session with a chubby prostitute is about as miserable and cold a sex scene as you'll ever see), and Mühe's performance in this role is wonderfully controlled. He etches the changes in his character's beliefs through subtle changes in his face and demeanour, and he constantly maintains the viewer's full attention. The performances are actually fine right across the board - Tukur and Thieme are particularly memorable as the despicable officials - but the film never really rises above a certain level of entertainment.

Donnersmark certainly knows how to put a film together, and The Lives of Others is nothing if not handsomely made; but there's a certain naïveté and shallowness to his screenplay which fails to match the quality of his classy, expansive direction. The film lacks the depth and complexity which gives something like Coppola's The Conversation (a clear influence on this picture) its devastating power, and that lack of emotional weight is damaging to the its overall impact. The final scenes of Dreyman trying to track down the man who saved him are dangerously sentimental, striving for an emotion the film hasn't earned, and they give this generally solid picture a disappointingly cloying finale. Having said that, there is a lot to like about The Lives of Others; it's a skilfully made piece of work which is always engaging, well performed and often quite exciting, but the adulation it has received so far continues to baffle me. Florian Henckel von Donnersmark has marked his filmmaking debut with an impressive thriller, but the Lives of Others is really no more than that.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Review - Sunshine

It gives us life, it is a constant presence in our day-to-day lives, and our world literally revolves around it - but for all of cinema’s various sci-fi escapades over the years, the sun has been conspicuous by its absence. While filmmakers have frequently taken us to the moon, Mars and myriad imagined planets, few have dared to tackle the biggest star in the galaxy. Perhaps it is the unfathomably intense heat of the sun which has precluded its involvement in any pictures to date - how do you tell a story about a star which is impossible to get close to? - but Danny Boyle’s Sunshine has found a way to work the sun into a fairly straightforward narrative, and the result is one of the most invigorating and impressively mounted films in the genre’s recent history.

Set in some unspecified time in the future,
Sunshine is the story of a small group of astronauts involved in one last-ditch attempt to save humankind. The sun is slowly dying, and earth is freezing over as the heat and light required by our planet grows gradually fainter. Some years earlier, an attempt to salvage the situation was launched with a ship called Icarus (tempting fate perhaps?) which aimed to fire an enormous nuclear bomb into the sun, effectively kick-starting it back to life. But this ship disappeared without a trace before achieving its goal, and now Icarus II is following the same treacherous path.

We only get one glimpse of the situation at home during the course of
Sunshine - a late shot of the Sydney Opera House covered in snow - and instead Boyle chooses to focus his attention entirely on the men and women on board Icarus II. The crew of eight comprises of Capa (Cillian Murphy) a quiet, introspective physicist who engages in plenty of alpha-male squabbling with engineer Mace (Chis Evans), much to the exasperation of the ship’s two females Cassie (Rose Byrne) and Corazon (Michelle Yeoh). The other four members on board are the ship’s captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada), his second in command Harvey (Troy Garity), Navigator Trey (Benedict Wong) and Dr. Searle (Cliff Curtis). It’s giving nothing away to state that few of these characters will survive the journey intact, but Sunshine is a film which frequently manages to surprise even while adhering to genre conventions.

In fact this remarkable picture manages to succeed even as it derivatively cribs from every sci-fi film you care to mention. Viewers will be reminded of
2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Event Horizon, Armageddon and Alien (to name just a few) as Sunshine’s story unfolds, but Boyle finds ways to make everything here feel fresh and exciting, even surviving some seriously shoddy storytelling late in the day.

Boyle’s best films -
Shallow Grave and Trainspotting - are essentially concerned with group dynamics, exploring the way people react to each other in pressurised situations, and the director brings that same sense of focus to Sunshine’s first half. With much of the action occurring within the cramped confines of Icarus II, Boyle develops a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere - etching the various tensions and relationships between the characters with simple strokes. In this instance, each character is aware that their own lives count for nothing when set against the amount of people who could be saved by the completion of their task, but the mishaps they meet along the way lead to some tough decisions as to who among them is expendable. They simply must reach their target at whatever cost, and the understated but evocative performances offered by the imaginatively chosen cast completely draw us into the conflicts this scenario generates.

But beyond the cast list, there’s only one real star of this movie, and this is the reason why
Sunshine must be seen on the biggest screen available. As the ship gradually draws closer to the sun, Sunshine brilliantly finds ways to make us feel the awesome power of this enormous furnace they are heading towards. This is a gorgeous, occasionally hallucinogenic piece of filmmaking which frequently left me slack-jawed as it brought the vast expanses of the solar system to life with a stunning use of visual effects and some breathtaking cinematography. There’s an observation deck on Icarus II from which the crew members can stare at the sun through a heavily-filtered screen, and at times Boyle invites us to gaze upon this burning star in a similarly awed manner, pulling off some wonderful visual coups such as the sun being reflected off the giant shield which sits at the front of the ship. Likewise, the sight of a lone figure floating to his death away from the ship expresses the gaping emptiness of the universe with a startling potency, and Boyle’s eye for these details makes Sunshine a constant feast for the senses.

Sunshine’s narrative is never quite as stimulating as its aesthetic grandeur, but it grips the viewers nonetheless. Boyle’s regular co-writer Alex Garland finds some inventive ways to dispatch his characters, and the director maintains a firm hand, rarely allowing the tension to drop. But the pair can’t quite keep the ship steady for the film’s entire 107 minute running time. The major plot twist which occurs in the second half necessitates a huge leap of faith on the part of the viewer, but I was happy to go along with it as Boyle handled the fallout from this revelation with some assurance, creating a powerful sense of tension and seemingly building to an affecting climax. However, the film didn’t stop at what had appeared to be its natural conclusion, and the next ten minutes of Sunshine almost blew the film apart. This overextended and baffling ending simply opens up a number of unnecessary plot holes, and the spatial cartwheels Boyle indulges in made the whole thing even more confusing. You can feel the emotional weight draining away with every passing second, and as I watched these sequences unfold with increasingly bemused eyes I wished I could have turned back the clock to finish the film minutes earlier.

Sunshine doesn’t end well, but for the ninety-odd minutes before it hits this bumpy stretch the film dazzles more often than not. This is Boyle’s best film since Trainspotting - it’s the first time since that seminal picture that he has found a subject matter to match his visual imagination - and on a relatively slim budget of $40 million the director has created a thrilling, beautifully designed picture which genuinely tries to cast a fresh light on an often stale genre. Forget about the film’s mishandled climax or its occasional patch of scrappy writing; Sunshine's searing imagery will burn itself into your memory, and it will stay with you long after other movies have faded into darkness.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Review - Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus

When is a biopic not a biopic? When it’s an ‘imaginary portrait’ of course. Plenty of films have been accused of manipulating the facts and fictionalising the stories of true-life characters in the past, but Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus gets its retaliation in first with the unusual step of including a disclaimer in the title. Just in case we don’t get the idea, another disclaimer precedes the opening credits which tells us that this film is meant as “a tribute to Diane that invents characters and situations that reach beyond reality to express what might have been Arbus’s inner experience on her extraordinary path”. In other words, don’t believe anything you see here because we’ve made most of it up.

In a way, we should be thankful for a film like Fur, a film which at least deviates from the standard biopic structure which has resurfaced with such depressing frequency in recent years. Steven Shainberg gave the romantic comedy genre a welcome boost in 2002 with the S+M shenanigans of Secretary, but his attempt to impose a similarly skewed perspective onto Diane Arbus’s story quickly unravels. The opening disclaimer mentioned above refers to Arbus as one of the most important artists of the 20th Century, someone whose work changed American photography forever, but the film gives us no evidence of this, instead deciding to offer us a tediously irrelevant story about a bored housewife and her hairy neighbour.
Fur opens with Diane Arbus (a miscast but very watchable Nicole Kidman) taking a bus ride out to a secluded nudist colony, hoping to photograph some of the residents. A nude couple run Arbus through the colony’s rules, including their request that photographers should be as naked as everyone else before they take pictures. Arbus agrees but asks for a little time alone before disrobing, and as the couple get up to leave the woman notices Arbus’s locket, which contains a tuft of hair in a red ribbon. “It belonged to a friend” she says, and the film then slips into a feature-length flashback which begins three months previously.

At this point in time Diane isn’t the photographer in the family, her husband Allen (Ty Burrell) is, shooting cheesy spreads for women’s magazines and advertisements for the furrier business run by her parents (Harris Yulin and Jane Alexander). Diane helps out with her husband’s preparations, occasionally advising him on his compositions, but it’s very clear from her demeanour that she’s a knotted ball of frustration. During the party being thrown at her place early in the film Diane slinks about in the shadows, observing the well-to-do friends of her parents, and Shainberg focuses in on the guests’ mouths as they slurp and scoff their food, the heightened sound effects turning them into grotesque figures - freaks, you might say. Later Diane seems to be on the edge of a breakdown when she finds herself at the centre of attention, and she flees the scene halfway through her explanation of her role in Allan’s work. She runs to the balcony and inexplicably opens her dress to bare her underwear to the world.
Fur portrays this pre-fame Diane Arbus as a woman whose inner passions are raging behind the prim façade she must present to the world in this stifling environment. Kidman can handle these buttoned-down emotions as well as anyone, and she brings her usual intelligence and dedication to the part, giving a sensitive, nuanced, appealing performance. Kidman’s desire to continually lend her talents to risky roles in films from inexperienced directors is admirable, but on too many occasions her skills haven’t been matched by the material. This was the case in 2004 when she gave one of the best screen performances of recent years in the otherwise muddled Birth, a similar fate befell her marvellous display in British misfire Birthday Girl, and the same unfortunate scenario transpires here. Kidman tries to make Arbus come to life but the film gives her no support.

At last, help arrives for Kidman in the shape of her new neighbour. She has already caught a glimpse of this mysterious figure wearing a bizarre patchwork balaclava on the night he moved in, and when Diane starts finding large lumps of hair in her pipes she is intrigued. The man upstairs is Chewbacca - sorry, I mean Lionel - and he is played by Robert Downey Jr, but you wouldn’t recognise the actor at first sight as he is covered head to toe in thick brown hair. Lionel suffers from a condition known as Hypertrichosis which causes excessive hair growth over his whole body. Lionel fascinates Diane, encouraging her to finally pull out the camera Allan gave her years ago and take some photographs, but Lionel refuses to have his portrait taken until they have fully investigated each other. Instead, he takes Diane to meet his friends - dwarves, giants and an armless woman who lights cigarettes with her feet - and she blossoms in his company, becoming increasingly comfortable in this hidden society, much to the horror of her family.

The point Shainberg seems to be making is that Arbus needed to understand society’s cast-offs and outsiders, to perhaps feel some sense of kinship with them, before she began to photograph them, but if that is the thesis of Fur (it’s hard to say for sure) then the filmmakers never really manage to sell it. Did Arbus’s pictures of various deformed and eccentric figures really carry the sense of warmth and sympathy such an understanding would supposedly lend them? Or were they more distant and anthropological, observing the subjects with a cold detachment - fascinated but unmoved. To be honest, if you have questions about Arbus’s true thoughts towards her subjects or the motivations behind her unusual approach, then this is not the movie to answer them. Diane barely uses her camera during the course of the picture and none of her genuine photographs are ever shown; so when the film refuses to treat the central figure with any sort of seriousness or any clear intent, what’s left?

There are things to like about Fur, and for the film’s first hour I was sticking with it, hoping - almost praying - that its loopy narrative was leading us somewhere of consequence. Shainberg maintains a fairytale atmosphere to his storytelling, referencing the likes of Alice in Wonderland and La Belle et la bête, but he also seems to be aiming for a mood of subdued eroticism, which is a pretty difficult pitch to hit successfully. This blend of different tones just seems awkward and flat, and the resolutely understated approach employed by Shainberg takes its toll in the second half with the picture looking increasingly lethargic. He does do good work with his actors, though. The very fact that Robert Downey Jr can show us any sort of emotions from inside that giant furball is something of an achievement, but he brings am odd sense of dignity to Lionel, expressing the pain of a lifetime of exclusion through the sadness in his eyes and the tremor in his voice. The best performance in the film comes from Ty Burrell though, who is excellent as Diane’s baffled husband, watching helplessly as his wife turns into a different person before his eyes.

But their performances amount to nothing in this frustrating film, and Fur loses its way completely in the final third. The long sequence in which Diane shaves Lionel is intended to be erotic and touching, but it simply comes off looking weird and creepy instead, and some murmurs of discontent started making themselves heard at the screening I attended. Those murmurs turned to sniggers when the now-hairless Downey appeared and hopped into bed with Diane, and it was clear that the film had finally slipped into the yawning pit of ridiculousness which it had been precariously hovering over for the past two hours.

Is Fur really a fitting tribute to a woman who, as the filmmakers say, changed 20th Century photography? The film at once asks us to take it as an imaginary piece of work, and yet claims to “express what might have been Arbus’s inner experience”, but it can’t achieve either of these aims. Fur fails to convince as a drama, it offers no insight into its subject’s personality or her work, and all it has in its favour is a collection of actors who fight valiantly against the rising waves of inanity. Actually, Fur did tell me one thing about Arbus which I didn’t know before, the correct pronunciation of her first name was actually Dee-ann; but whether it was worth sitting through the picture just for that earth-shattering revelation is another matter entirely.