Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Review Round-up - The Painted Veil, Straightheads and Magicians

The Painted Veil is one of those enormously frustrating films which is almost too well-made for its own good. This third screen adaptation of Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel is a beautifully crafted piece of cinema; the lush cinematography does justice to the film's superior location work, the evocation of China in the 1920's is rich and atmospheric, and the performances are first-class from top to bottom. But the film's elegantly crafted presentation seems to stifle the passions of this cruel and bleak tale, flattening out the story's emotional peaks and leaving us with a perfectly pleasant but disappointingly unaffecting drama.

Opening with a beautifully ornate credits sequence,
The Painted Veil is the story of Kitty (Naomi Watts) and Walter Fane (Edward Norton), two people trapped in a loveless marriage. Kitty was a woman heading towards spinsterhood in London, much to the despair of her parents, who married Walter in haste to avoid the shame of her sister marrying before her. The couple leave for China, where Walter works as a bacteriologist, but there is a constant awkwardness in their relationship, and Walter's habit of never speaking unless he has something to say means most of their evenings pass in uncomfortable silence. So it's little wonder that Kitty looks elsewhere for some sort of excitement in her life, and her roving eye settles on married British diplomat Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber), with the two beginning an affair.

The film's depiction of this affair epitomises some of
The Painted Veil's deficiencies. We see Kitty and Charlie engaging in flirty banter in a theatre, and then they are suddenly in bed together, but that's all we are given, with their first sex session also being the one in which they are discovered by Walter. Too much of Ron Nyswaner's screenplay seems rushed and underdeveloped, with the characters of Walter and Kitty feeling rather hollow as a result. The social pressures which force Kitty into marrying a man she doesn't love are never keenly felt, and Walter's unrequited love is only hinted at. Our lack of real empathy with these two characters is a major factor in the film's lack of emotional wallop, although the film improves significantly when Walter unveils his plot for revenge against his straying wife.

The doctor accepts a posting to Mei-fan-tu, a small Chinese village which is in the grip of a cholera epidemic, and he insists that Kitty must travel with him, or else he'll divorce her for adultery and leave her in disgrace. They take the longest possible route to get to their destination, with Kitty overcome by exhaustion and loathing for her husband, who gives her the cold shoulder at every turn. When they arrive at this disease-ridden outpost the film is enlivened by a few supporting characters, such as Waddington (marvellously played by Toby Jones), a sweaty ex-pat who acts as the Fanes' guide to this area, and the Mother Superior (Diana Rigg) who works at a local orphanage. These characters add a little colour to the claustrophobic story of the couple's deteriorating marriage, and the film also widens its scope a little here, often to wonderful effect.

The Painted Veil
has been directed by John Curran, and his work he is so much more expansive than it was on his last film, the dull and self-conscious We Don't Live Here Anymore. Working with cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh he exploits the film's beautiful locations superbly and gives us a very convincing recreation of a country going through a turbulent time, particularly in the film's portrayal of the almost impossible task faced by those attempting to control the epidemic. On top of all this visual splendour, Alexandre Desplat provides a truly lovely score, and there's no question that this is a pretty handsome package all round.

The Painted Veil never quite moves the viewer. We see Kitty and Walter gradually coming to view each other in a new light, but the film always seems to exist at one remove, keeping us at arm's length emotionally. The two leads work hard to inject some depth into their parts though, and Watts is particularly powerful, delivering possibly her best performance since 2001's masterpiece Mulholland Drive. It's a really wonderful piece of acting, sensitive and heartfelt, succeeding in making her initially self-absorbed character at least partially sympathetic. Norton is fine too, giving a tightly-wound portrayal of a man who keeps his emotions close to his chest. It's a very restrained performance, which is all the more impressive as a result, but neither actor can really do enough to fully draw us into their story.

The Painted Veil
's climax, as a result, is profoundly unmoving. Once again it feels rather rushed and not fully thought through; and it's frustrating to see this story of passion and pain, love and hate, being reduced to an elegant and tasteful piece of filmmaking which never gets the pulse racing. The Painted Veil is constantly enjoyable and often very impressive, but all it really leaves the viewer with is the frustrating sensation of wanting just a little bit more.

Dan Reed's debut film Straightheads also left me cold, but for very different reasons. The sheer unpleasantness of this loathsome vigilante thriller makes its 80-odd minutes a chore to sit through, and when the credits started to roll I was left with a single thought to ponder - who on earth is giving Gillian Anderson career advice? Since leaving The X-Files Anderson has given a great performance in Terrence Davies' The House of Mirth, and has been acclaimed for the BBC adaptation of Bleak House, but her big screen appearances have otherwise been restricted to small cameos here and there in various British films. Naturally, I assumed this talented and intelligent actress was simply biding her time, waiting for the right leading role to come along - but why on earth did she think Straightheads was the role for her?

This brutish film features Anderson as Alice, a successful London businesswoman who is having a high-tech security system installed at her swish apartment. The man doing this particular job is Adam, a loutish cockney geezer who is naturally played by loutish cockney geezer
du jour Danny Dyer. Even though Alice has only just met this boorish dick, she seems inexplicably attracted to him, and she asks Adam if he would like to accompany her to a party her boss is hosting in an isolated country house.

Frankly, nothing about this unlikely coupling rings true - particularly with the complete lack of chemistry shared by the two stars - and
Straightheads only gets sillier from this point onwards. On the way out into the country Alice stops to bend down next to the car to uinate ("are you watching me?" she asks Adam in a supposedly seductive tone), and after spending a bit of time at the party they have sex in the grounds, with Adam assuring Alice on the journey home that this is the best night of his life - the natural cue for everything to go horribly wrong. A stray deer steps out in front of the couple's car as they navigate the dark country lanes, and when they stop to remove the stricken animal from the road they are ambushed by three local thugs who savagely beat Adam and rape Alice, before leaving them bloodied and dazed in the middle of nowhere.

Six months later, Alice and Adam are still together, although he has lost the sight in one eye and has been rendered impotent since the attack. Alice has slowly been trying to rebuild her life, but when she returns home for her father's funeral she spots one of her assailants, and she begins to plot a suitable revenge. A suitable revenge, in this case, includes Alice anally raping one of the perpetrators of the original crime with a sniper rifle while Adam takes out his eye with a kitchen knife. An eye for an eye, and an arse for an arse, is apparently the way justice works in Reed's mind.

Perhaps the most depressing thing about this indescribably depressing picture is the sight of Gillian Anderson giving her all for such risible material. She brings an edge and ambiguity to her thinly-developed role, qualities which are in stark contrast to every other aspect of this knuckleheaded film. Alongside Anderson, Danny Dyer's performance is shown up for what it is - another lame piece of non-acting from a man with zero screen presence or charisma - and the three villains of the piece (Ralph Brown, Anthony Calf and Steven Robertson) are laughably one-dimensional brutes.

But it's Reed's handling of this repugnant material which really sticks in the throat. He seems to relish the opportunity to wallow in his characters' plight; he replays Alice's rape scene a couple of times, and Adam twice seems on the verge of a rape himself. What game is the director playing here? Is he trying to make some confused point about the emasculated Adam regaining his sexual potency through violence, or is it just another slice of shallow sadism? Frankly,
Straightheads has nothing to say, and it's hard to see any compelling reason for its existence. It aspires to the likes of Straw Dogs and Irreversible, but the complete lack of characterisation, subtlety or substance leaves it looking like a nasty, empty and purposeless exploitation flick, which is too long even at 80 minutes. Quite why the UK Film Council felt this film was worth National Lottery funding is beyond me; and the only bright spot one can gleam from a film like this is the hope that its leading actress might well take more care over her choices in future.

Of course Gillian Anderson isn't the first person to struggle with the transition from TV to film and she won't be the last. In fact, the British comedy duo of David Mitchell and Robert Webb have found themselves stuck at the same difficult juncture. The pair are on a roll as far as the small screen is concerned; their brilliant and innovative sitcom Peep Show recently completed a triumphant fourth series, and they received a BAFTA award last week for the sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look. Consider the additional fact that they're the face of Apple commercials in the UK, and things couldn't be much brighter right now for the duo.

Perhaps they felt now was the perfect time to capitalise on their popularity with a move into the multiplexes, but the vehicle they have chosen to do so with is an irretrievable dud which proves to be an inadequate showcase for their comic talents.
Magicians is another chapter in the current cinematic craze for tales of magic, but Andrew O'Connor's film operates on a far more modest scale than either The Illusionist or The Prestige. It is the tale of Harry (Mitchell) and Karl (Webb), two magicians who, as the opening credits tell us, have been inseparable friends since they were children. They have established themselves as a successful partnership, but their bond is destroyed when Harry catches Karl and his wife in a compromising position. During their next show the still-seething Harry makes a misjudgement during the guillotine trick, and his wife's neck pays the price.

Cut to five years later. Harry and Karl haven't spoken since that awful night, and both are struggling to make a new career work. Harry, working in a department store, tries to use his tricks to sell kitchen equipment, while Karl is attempting to jump on the Derren Brown bandwagon and reinvent himself as Karl the Mind-Monger. Both of them are in the doldrums, and fate - in the shape of a magic contest with a £20,000 prize - soon brings them together again. The pair reluctantly team up to try and claim the cash, but Harry's resentment at his former friend's betrayal is still evident.

There's the potential for a decent comedy in here somewhere, I'm sure there is, but it's hard to see any sign of it under the dull-as-dishwater visuals, slack plotting and the complete dearth of humour. The lack of laughs is all the more disappointing because the film has been scripted by
Peep Show creators Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, but there screenplay contains none of the ingenious plotting or sharp dialogue which that show has been characterised by. The film's narrative moves forward on straight and predictable lines, and first-time director O'Connor composes his shots with the emphasis on banality, rarely mustering up the imagination to find anything as visually interesting as Peep Show's trademark point-of-view shots.

The film does benefit from the partnership at its centre, though. Mitchell and Webb have a natural working relationship which manages to elicit a few laughs from the dreary material, and their decision to stick quite closely to their established personas occasionally works for the picture. Mitchell's Harry is the neurotic, socially-awkward one, while Webb's Karl is the dopier, more optimistic one, but their performances only take the film so far, and the supporting cast is grievously underwritten. Peter Capaldi, Jessica Stevenson and Steve Edge all have thin, directionless characters to play, and have little chance to make an impact on the viewer.

The worst thing one can say about
Magicians is the fact that it feels like a relic of the 1970's, when the British film industry, such as it was, churned out a series of big-screen spin-offs from popular sitcoms like On the Buses, Rising Damp and Are You Being Served?. But these filmmakers rarely attempted to make anything resembling a real movie in their rush to capitalise on a show's popularity, and Magicians stinks of the same cheapness and carelessness. Mitchell and Webb may yet have something to offer beyond the confines of the television set; but in a year when British cinema has produced the passionate and intelligent This is England, the low-budget thrills of London to Brighton, and the cinematically ambitious Hot Fuzz, such tired and lazily produced garbage as Magicians and Straightheads look like very meagre offerings indeed.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Review - Zodiac

The history of cinema's attraction to serial killers is a long, complex and abiding one. Ever since the days of the whistling child murderer in Fritz Lang's seminal masterpiece M - arguably the first and still the greatest film in this genre - the serial killer movie has become a steady staple on the big screen. Numerous filmmakers have used these gruesome tales for a whole range of purposes - social satire (American Psycho), the sensationalism of the media (Natural Born Killers), Freudian subtext (Psycho) or the voyeurism of cinema (Peeping Tom) - while many have simply settled for straightforward thrillers and good old-fashioned shock value. In 1992 The Silence of the Lambs - a film featuring a cross-dressing murderer, a man's face being eaten off, and semen being thrown at the female lead - won five major Oscars, confirming that the serial killer had firmly established himself as part of the Hollywood mainstream.

David Fincher's exceptional
Zodiac is one of the few films since that picture which really seems to be taking the genre into fresh territory; in fact, it's the best American film of its type since Fincher's own 1995 thriller Se7en, although the two couldn't be more different in their style and mode. Se7en was a film which took advantage of generic clichés in order to subvert them; it gave us two mismatched cops, a devoted wife, a killer who always seems to be a step ahead of the game, and an exciting chase sequence; but then it suddenly shifted gears and threw us off course in the final quarter of the picture, before hitting the audience square in the guts with an unforgettably bleak climax. In contrast, Zodiac is a methodical, painstakingly detailed procedural which is about more than just the mysterious murderer whose name appears in the title. It is about the men who found their lives inextricably caught up in a case which had no end; it's about obsession, frustration and, finally, the bitter taste of failure.

The Zodiac killer was responsible for at least five murders in the San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1960's and early 70's, and through his letters to the San Francisco Chronicle, he claimed responsibility for many more. The letters he sent were written in code, containing passages such as:
"I LIKE KILLING PEOPLE BECAUSE IT IS SO MUCH FUN IT IS MORE FUN THAN KILLING WILD GAME IN THE FORREST BECAUSE MAN IS THE MOST DANGEROUS ANAMAL OF ALL…". Jack the Ripper reputedly sent similar letters to London newspapers during his reign of terror, but The Zodiac was the first American serial killer to utilise the mass media in this way, maintaining the public's sense of fear and turning himself into a legend by constantly taunting his pursuers. The fact that nobody was ever brought to justice for these crimes is the final twist in a baffling crime story.

Zodiac views the case through the eyes of three characters. Detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) was the SFPD Officer in charge of this investigation, an intelligent and dedicated cop who also had a taste for the more glamorous side of life, being Steve McQueen's consultant for his role in Bullitt, for example. The second figure in the story is Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), the San Francisco Chronicle's star writer who Downey plays as a charming, hard-drinking dandy; and finally there's Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young cartoonist on the same newspaper. It was Graysmith who ultimately became consumed with the Zodiac mystery, obsessing over it long after the killings had stopped and the final communication had been received. His passion for the truth resulted in two books on the case, books which have formed the basis for James Vanderbilt's impressive screenplay.

This film isn't structured anything like your average serial killer movie. Most of the film's 'action' occurs in the opening third, with the long, fruitless investigation subsequently being allowed to play out over the bulk of
Zodiac's running time. This approach proves utterly compelling thanks to the way Vanderbilt filters the overload of detail in his script (this is one of the most information-packed films since JFK) and the superb handling of the material by Fincher, who has reigned in his usual trickery this time around. Fincher's aesthetic stylisations were a perfect match for his two magnificent 90's films - Se7en and Fight Club - but with the disappointing Panic Room it was almost as if his ability to push his camera through a keyhole or around a corner was the only thing keeping him interested, given the mediocre nature of the story he was working with.

Zodiac Fincher generally adopts a much more restrained style, cutting back on the flashy touches and trusting in the innate strength of his material, but his imagination and skill manifests itself in different ways. The CGI-created flyovers are breathtaking (I was amazed when I discovered there wasn't a single helicopter shot in the film), and Fincher also uses his mastery of visual effects to give us a couple of pleasing interludes - a brief scene in which the Chronicle office seems to be covered wall-to-wall in The Zodiac's letters recalls the IKEA sequence from Fight Club, and a remarkable time-lapse sequence of the Transamerica Pyramid's construction is a dazzling moment, and one of the most inventive "one year later"-type of shots I've ever seen. His handling of the murders is stunning as well; the first, occurring right at the start, is a masterpiece of slowly building tension, while a later lakeside killing is shocking, swift and brutal. Throughout Zodiac Fincher finds ways to make even the most potentially hackneyed scenes feel newly minted, giving them just a slightly different edge while keeping them resolutely real.

Fincher's more low-key approach to filmmaking here allows his cast to carry most of the film's weight, but the casting of Gyllenhaal as the nominal lead is one of the film's few misjudgements. He gives a decent, solid performance, but he just appears a little too callow and puppyish for the role, and the all-consuming obsession which later alienates his family doesn't register on Gyllenhaal's open features. Perhaps the deficiencies in his portrayal are highlighted simply because the performances from his co-stars Ruffalo and Downey Jr. are so sensational. In particular, Downey Jr. has enormous fun with the part of Paul Avery, and it's such a treat to see this actor - one of the most irresistibly watchable actors in American cinema - on such instinctive, endearing form. There are gems right down the cast list, with the excellent Anthony Edwards heading up a fine batch of reliable supporting players such as Brian Cox, Elias Koteas and Philip Baker Hall - and what a pleasure it is to see John Carroll Lynch being handed such a meaty role. But Fincher doesn't have much room for the female touch in this story, giving Chloë Sevigny little more than a thick set of glasses and a permanent scowl as Graysmith's disapproving wife, while Toschi's wife doesn't even get that much.

Zodiac does occasionally allow its delivery of information to grow congested, particularly in the final third when some judicious editing might have tightened things up, but that pacing does reflect the more diffuse nature of the investigation as the years dripped away and The Zodiac became an irrelevance for all but a few. In any case, complaints such as this are minor quibbles when held up against the high quality of the overall piece. From the old-style Paramount logo which opens the film, everything just feels right in this picture, with Fincher's fastidious attention to detail bearing fruit in the film's wonderful evocation of its era. The newsroom setting and investigative approach inevitably draws comparisons with All The President's Men, but the film which Zodiac brought to mind for me was Bong Joon-ho's 2003 masterpiece Memories of Murder. Like that film, Zodiac finds a way to draw tension and intrigue from a story which we know will end in injustice and disappointment; it sucks us in to the world of men whose lives are defined my the elusive villain they chase, and it lets us share their indescribable frustration at having so much evidence in their hands, but forever lacking that final piece of the jigsaw which will allow them to close the deal. Zodiac is an obsessive film about obsession, a gripping film about the refusal to let go. The picture may end with a whisper after opening with a bang, but it still carries a haunting, chilling power which is hard to shake.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Review - Black Snake Moan

Even if you haven't seen Black Snake Moan, and even if you have no intention of seeing it, you've probably seen the film's poster somewhere. It's an image which pulsates with provocation. Here we have a tall black man in a dirty white vest with a fearsome scowl painted across his face. He is holding a heavy chain in his hands, and at the end of the chain there's a young woman, wearing a skimpy cut-off t-shirt and tight shorts, pouting towards the camera with a sex-kittenish fervour. The whole package promises an explosive picture, a film full of sleaze and danger, with film's tagline assuring us that "Everything is Hotter Down South".

With that in mind, it comes as something of a surprise to find a rather tame and old-fashioned tale of morality and redemption lying underneath Black Snake Moan's lurid surface. Sure, the film delivers plenty of sex and creates a convincingly steamy atmosphere; but it doesn't really go anywhere new or daring, it doesn't really explore the issues it fleetingly touches on, and it never comes close to delivering on the salacious promise of its central conceit.

Black Snake Moan is essentially the age-old tale of two broken characters who find an unorthodox connection. We are first introduced to Rae (Christina Ricci) while she's engaged in a bout of frantic sex with her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake). These are their last moments together before he has to leave for a tour of duty in Iraq, and as soon as Ronnie has gone Rae is down on the floor, writhing and moaning in a fit of sexual hunger. It's an itch which Rae can't help scratching, and the next few night see her getting wasted and spreading her legs for any man who wants to sate her appetite. This behaviour inevitably leads Rae into trouble, and she finds herself in the wrong man's truck one night, taking a brutal beating before being left unconscious at the side of a remote road.

Enter the significantly-named Lazarus (Samuel L Jackson), an upright, God-fearing vegetable gardener whose wife has recently left him for his brother. When he finds the lifeless Rae outside his home, he takes her home and tends to her wounds, keeping a watchful eye over her while she spends two days with a high fever. But when he learns all about his new patient's reputation as the local slut, and sees for himself the ostentatiously sexual way in which she behaves, he resorts to some extreme therapy. Lazarus pulls a long steel chain out of his tool shed and shackled Rae to the radiator with it; she has enough room to move around the house, but no further - and she isn't going anywhere until Lazarus cures her of this 'sickness'.

The best scenes in Black Snake Moan are the ones in which the film's most potent elements are simply allowed to take centre stage. The two central performances from Jackson and Ricci are committed and full of passion - with Jackson in particular doing his best work in years - and the blues-driven soundtrack gives the picture plenty of life; but Craig Brewer's film fails through a lack of purpose, and a lack of courage in its own convictions.

After a rocky start, Black Snake Moan finds its groove about half an hour in, when Lazarus and Rae first go head-to-head over his bizarre approach to treating her malaise. The unusual nature of the situation instantly hooks the interest, and the contrasting styles of the two protagonists spark brilliantly off each other. Ricci's acting is sometimes a little to twitchy for my liking, but she does imbue her part with a tigerish intensity, and her ability to make some of her character's sillier scenes work should not be overlooked. When Rae finds herself at the mercy of her raging libido, her body starts to buckle and shake - as if possessed by a demon - and in one scene she even comes over all Regan MacNeil in the way she spits insults at her captor. These scenes are borderline ridiculous, but Ricci finds a way to gain the audience's favour and empathy. It's a brave and ferocious piece of acting.

Jackson is more subdued. His Lazarus burns with a sense of righteousness and dignity, but there's an undercurrent of anger and resentment after his wife's act of betrayal, an aggression which is constantly threatening to fight its way to the surface. Jackson has too often relied on his natural screen presence and charisma in recent years, but this performance has an air of authenticity and a core of genuine feeling about it. He keeps his character interesting even if his development, as written by Brewer, makes little sense. Ricci and Jackson are a highly watchable pair, but there's only co much you can do with a girl on a chain, and when Brewer tries to moves his narrative forward the hollowness and sketchiness at the centre of Black Snake Moan becomes glaringly apparent.

Black Snake Moan gets less interesting and less adventurous with every step it takes. Brewer gives his characters predictable arcs - Rae gradually gains some peace and self-respect, Lazarus gradually learns to move on with his life - and he tries to explain their behaviour in a pat fashion, tritely blaming Rae's antics on the sexual abuse her father inflicted upon her. The director also seems wary of fully examining the racial and sexual issues his initial premise throws up. Lazarus' complete lack of desire for the half-naked nymphomaniac curtails some of the threat which is inherent in the film's central scenes, instead allowing their relationship to play out in a standard surrogate father-daughter fashion. But Brewer wants to have it both ways, and Lazarus doesn't get a change of clothes for Rae until deep into the film's second half, despite his distaste for her near-nakedness, as this would prevent the director from lasciviously running his camera up and down her exposed flesh.

The issue of race is curiously absent too. Aside one instance in which Timberlake labels Lazarus a nigger, there doesn't appear to be any sort of black/white tension in this Deep South town. Instead, Black Snake Moan is yet another film which trades in that most egregious of cinematic clichés - the soulful black person changing the life of some needy white person. Rae's head is turned by Jackson playing the blues and the wise words of a local preacher (John Cothran Jr.); and while Brewer clearly has a deep fascination with black culture - as displayed in his massively overhyped Hustle & Flow - he too often settles for clichéd visions of African-American life.

Black Snake Moan is a strange, maddeningly uneven film which starts with a raw passion and a desire to shake the audience out of their seats, but then it just loses its nerve. The film is at its best when it yields to the melodramatic, steamy impulses at its heart; but as Rae's rough edges get smoothed out and she grows into a respectable young woman, the film grows more timid and conventional, offering no sense of satisfaction at its close. Craig Brewer clearly has talent, he knows how to direct actors and he knows how to give us the full flavour of a film's milieu, but while Black Snake Moan contains a handful of terrific moments, it never finds a way to exploit its full potential. As I left the cinema, frustrated and disappointed, I caught one more glimpse of the film's poster - full of carnality and fire - and I idly wondered what that movie might have been like.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Review - 28 Weeks Later

Danny Boyle's 2002 hit 28 Days Later was a film which was undone by the brilliance of its own opening act. When Cillian Murphy awoke in an abandoned hospital and wandered out on to the empty London streets it was almost as if he was the last man on earth. There was a special thrill to be had from seeing Murphy walking past Centre Point or strolling through Piccadilly Circus and not seeing another soul; 28 Days Later achieved the considerable task of allowing us to see a familiar city in a new way. So it was perhaps inevitable that the subsequent action - with an increasingly small group of survivors fighting against hordes of the undead - would disappoint. It gradually settled for a conventional 'Us vs. Them' face-off which was a whole lot less interesting than those haunting early sequences.

28 Weeks Later is the kind of sequel which usually sets alarm bells ringing - a film without the stars or the director of the original film - and sadly it justifiers those fears, being a lazy rehash of the first film which comes armed with a bigger budget but has no real intelligence or originality behind it. We get to see more of empty London and a number of bigger, louder action sequences, but the film can't buy the kind of novelty value and raw energy which gave Boyle's film its occasional impact.

The story picks up a short time after the original film ended. There are still a few survivors holed up in the English countryside, with one such group headed by Don (Robert Carlyle) and his wife Alice (Catherine McCormack). This couple have made the best of a bad situation, securely boarded inside a cottage while the Rage-infected monsters still roam around on the outside. Their idyll is interrupted by a young boy banging desperately on the door - he has escaped from his own zombiefied parents - and he is quickly followed by a large bunch of Infected who burst through the house's makeshift barricades. The sequence escalates nicely, building to an effective "what would you do?" situation, and there's a great helicopter shot of Carlyle feeling across the fields, with hordes of Infected appearing on the horizon, but this smartly-constructed opening does also display one of 28 Weeks Later's biggest flaws.

Directing duties on this instalment have gone to Spaniard Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, responsible for 2001's flashy-but-stupid Intacto, and in these early sequences he shows a worrying inability to handle fast-paced action set-pieces in a coherent manner. When the zombies attack Carlyle and his companions in the film's opening, Fresnadillo responds by shaking the camera as wildly as possible while his editors cut rapidly between assailant and victim. This approach can work well when utilised for close-combat scenes, as Paul Greengrass proved with The Bourne Supremacy, but with the messier encounters of 28 Weeks Later it's often hard to see who is doing what to whom. There's no sense of impact or spatial awareness, and the lack of bite - if you'll excuse the pun - on display in these scenes is an issue which will crop up throughout the picture.

Anyway, after that energetic introduction the film jumps forward 28 weeks to detail the repopulation attempt which is being led by US armed forces. We are told that the last remnants of the virus have now been destroyed, and the Docklands area has been designated as a safe zone, into which the first few thousand refugees will be assimilated. Among these returning Brits there are two kids, Andy and Tammy (Mackintosh Muggleton and Imogen Poots), and they're delighted to be reunited with their father Don, the sole survivor (he thinks) of the attack we witnessed at the film's start. Everyone is feeling pretty optimistic about their new life in a London which is slowly being rebuilt; everyone, that is, except for medical officer Scarlet (Rose Byrne). She thinks the repopulation effort has been mounted a little too hastily, considering they don't fully understand the virus yet, but her doubts are shouted down because otherwise we wouldn't have much of a movie.

Of course, the virus hasn't gone away and - after an extraordinarily stupid plot development - the Infected are soon rampaging through the streets, just like old times. With the US forces realising that they have completely lost control of the situation, they decide on a mass extermination which will get rid of everyone in London whether they carry the Rage virus or not. The US presence in the film, making a situation worse when they claimed to have it under control, could be seen as offering a kind of satirical slant on the film, but it's only of the most fleeting and shallow kind. The film then narrows its focus to a small band of survivors, including Scarlet, the two children, and a friendly US marine (Jeremy Renner) as they try to escape the city before their time runs out.

28 Weeks Later does kick along at a fair pace, pushing its characters through one scrape with death after another, but as slick as it all is, the film never really makes us care. It offers a few short, sharp shocks, but the effect is negligible, with the characters all too thinly-developed to have any sort of emotional pull on the viewer. Rose Byrne has a lovely pair of mournful eyes but no real depth, Jeremy Renner's gung-ho marine is pretty uninspired, and the performances from the two children are only average. Robert Carlyle gives the film's best performance in the first half hour, but the decision to turn him into some sort of über-zombie is a disastrous one which - in conjunction with the inconsistent behaviour of the Infected - damages the film's credibility.

During 28 Weeks Later's better moments, Fresnadillo stages some fine set-pieces, utilising this sequel's greater budget to gives us a couple neat sequences on an impressive scale. There's a tremendous bird's-eye view of London being firebombed which is a rather beautiful effect, and a later chemical attack on the city sees an ominous white cloud of noxious gas making its way around Westminster's streets. The film also has a little fun with a helicopter massacre which is daft but fun to watch - recalling the grand guignol of Peter Jackson's Braindead - and a creepy journey through the underground, with only a night-vision scope to see through, is well staged.

But these are mere episodes, strung together in the most basic way, and there's no real build-up of tension or fear as the actors are plunged into various awkward situations. 28 Weeks Later only offers cheap thrills; it doesn't add anything to the original film, just resurrects it with everything turned up to 11. There's a really nasty impulse driving many of the film's murders, with an early scene of eye-gouging seeming particularly excessive, and the fog of nihilism which descends on the film's climactic half hour deprives us of anything resembling a satisfying conclusion. The conclusion does, however, set the scene for yet another instalment in this series, with the virus finding its way across the Channel to France; presumably we'll find out what happens next in 28 Months Later. This redundant sequel is a thoroughly mediocre piece of filmmaking but, like a Rage-infected monster, it looks like the franchise is going to run and run.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Review - Spider-Man 3

The 2007 summer blockbuster season is here at last, with all manner of ridiculously expensive movies set to wow us over the coming months, and one could hardly imagine a better person to kick things off than your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. The first two films in the Spider-Man franchise were certainly a cut above your standard comic book fare; with Sam Raimi's ability to juggle large-scale action sequences and emotional intimacy giving his pictures a solid, character-driven centre. This was particularly true of Spider-Man 2, a film which ironed out the flaws of the original and delivered an almost perfect balance of spectacle and heart, making it one of the most satisfying comic book adaptations ever made, and giving Spider-Man 3 a tough act to follow.

But what a crushing disappointment this film is. Spider-Man 3 is a sloppy misfire which tries to pack too much incident into its horribly structured screenplay and ends up losing sight of the aspects which made the first two films such a pleasure to watch. The film's biggest misstep is the decision to introduce three villains for Spidey to face off against instead of one, and Raimi can't find a smooth way to dole out sufficient screen time to these characters as well as allowing the relationship between Peter and Mary-Jane to develop. Even with a running time of 140 minutes there doesn't seem to be enough space for anything in the film to breathe.

Still, at least things are going pretty well for Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) at the start of the picture; Spider-Man is New York's number one celebrity, Peter has found a way to maintain his college grades alongside his superhero antics, and his longtime girlfriend Mary-Jane (Kirsten Dunst) is starring in a Broadway play. But events take a downward turn when a meteor crashes to earth and unleashes some sort of black alien slime which inexplicably attaches itself to Peter's scooter and hitches a ride back to his apartment. Elsewhere, a criminal called Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) has escaped from jail and in his attempt to hide from the police he wanders into a Particle Physics Test Facility - which is never a good idea - and, after falling into a sandpit and having his molecules zapped, he emerges as The Sandman.

However, before Spider-Man tangles with Sandman he finds himself up against his old friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) who has harboured a grudge against Peter ever since he discovered he was responsible for his father's death. Harry has modified dad's Green Goblin outfit and he ambushes Peter one night, taking him on in a bruising battle which results in him being knocked unconscious. This one incident can sum up the problems inherent in Spider-Man 3's screenplay: Harry wakes up after his fight with no memory of what happened and - conveniently - no memory of his animosity with Peter. This absurd contrivance writes the new Green Goblin out of the plot until he is required again, at which point all of the old feelings come flooding back right on cue.
Spider-Man 3 is riddled with such examples of lazy, half-baked scriptwriting. The three villains on show all come saddled with their own backstory, and Raimi's attempts to set up each character's motivation are clumsily handled. Flint Marko isn't just a sand-based villain who must be stopped for the good of the city, he's also tied into Peter's own history by being named as the man who really shot Uncle Ben in the first film, which is a ridiculous and unnecessary link. The other new character fares a little better, with Topher Grace's Eddie Brock an amusing presence as Peter's rival photographer, but his moment of transformation into Venom is once again poorly conceived. It comes from his decision to visit a church at the exact moment that Spider-Man happens to be pulling off his black suit in the bell tower, with the space goo dropping down onto the unsuspecting Eddie.

That black goo is also responsible for the appallingly misjudged central section of Spider-Man 3, in which Raimi's usually confident hold on his film's comic elements backfires spectacularly. After a drop of the black stuff has taken hold of Peter his dark side comes to the surface, and in a flipside to Spider-Man 2's Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head sequence we see Peter strutting down the street like Tony Manero, with his hair brushed into a floppy fringe, and behaving in an arrogant, spiteful manner to anyone who crosses his path. The film arguably reaches its nadir during this period with Peter dancing in a jazz club to embarrass Mary-Jane. None of this is funny or enjoyable, it's just excruciating.

It's inconsequential material like this which makes Spider-Man 3 feel so bloated and diffuse. With so many different characters and themes jostling for attention in the screenplay, Raimi is reduced to randomly picking up and then dropping the numerous strands of the story as the film progresses, flitting between situations with the story's tone fluctuating badly. After the first hour a sense of discomfort and restlessness was noticeable among the audience I saw the film with - particularly among the younger viewers - and there were audible groans when the film threatened to adopt the Return of the King approach to multiple climaxes.

To be fair, there are moments when Spider-Man 3 does regain some of the snap and fun of the earlier films. The depiction of Sandman is a particular success; the rather beautiful CGI rendering of Marko's initial transformation into Sandman is the film's undoubted highlight, and two of his fights with Spidey - one in the streets, one in the subway - are imaginatively staged and exciting. It's a shame Thomas Haden Church's performance gets swamped somewhat by the visual effects, but the rest of the cast are solid. Tobey Maguire remains a charming lead - his scenes with Dunst have the tenderness and emotion of a real relationship - and series regulars such as JK Simmons, Rosemary Harris and Bruce Campbell (milking every possible laugh out of his cameo) give their usual strong turns. Credit is also due to Bryce Dallas Howard who does a fine job despite having an unflattering blonde wig and no character, but James Franco's typically stiff and inconsistent performance once again hits all the wrong notes.

The actors can't do much to save the film from its own miserable plotting, though, and my interest had waned significantly some time before the film's big climax. This ending brings together Spider-Man, Sandman, Venom, Harry, Mary-Jane and a few hundred bystanders for an overextended and hugely underwhelming sequence which is barely coherent and completely lacking in tension. As if confused by its own script at this point, the film even employs a news team to commentate on the action and carefully explain who is doing what here, and to whom. Poor Kirsten Dunst is reduced to screaming and falling for twenty solid minutes, and the whole sequence is, frankly, a mess. When it's finally over everyone - heroes and villains - forgives each other for their past misdeeds, and everybody cries.
Spider-Man 3 appears to have fallen into the 'bigger is better' trap that afflicts so many Hollywood blockbusters, but the multiple villains on display here just cancel each other out, with none of them managing to match the sense of threat or pathos which Alfred Molina brought to his Dr Octopus. Likewise, the many explosive action sequences in this film are technically impressive, but they can't come close to the kinetic thrill offered by Spider-Man 2's train-top fight scene. Spider-Man 3 is thirteen minutes longer than the second film and nineteen minutes longer than the first, and yet it feels emptier than either picture; it has plenty of action, but no real warmth. It would have been glorious to see this lovingly crafted and hugely entertaining series closing with the kind of film it deserves, but instead we are left with a slack and unfocused piece of hokum; a film which tries to give us more of everything for its grand finale, but instead it just gets horribly tangled in a web of its own creation.