Phil on Film Index

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Review - Transformers

Transformers is a Michael Bay-directed movie about huge robots who come to Earth and cause widespread mayhem and destruction. I knew this before I entered the cinema, so perhaps it's churlish to complain about the film when it has delivered pretty much what you'd expect from the above description. But as I left the screening, my head spinning from 140 minutes of loud explosions and incoherent plotting, I couldn't help feeling that the film had blown a golden opportunity. Transformers certainly delivers all the giant robot action you could ever wish to see - along with some of the most incredible visual effects you'll ever see - but why oh why couldn't this technical virtuosity be tied into a story which makes some sort of sense? Why couldn't the film give us more than one half-decent character? Why did this project find its way into the hands of Michael Bay when Steven Spielberg - arguably the world's greatest practitioner of effects-driven cinema - is on board only as a producer?

The frustrating thing about Michael Bay is the fact that few other directors share his breadth of vision in terms of pure cinematic spectacle; but he has no lightness in his touch, no finesse to ease the endless barrage of CGI-enhanced blockbusting which his films inevitably consist of. Everything in his movies - be they action sequences, or moments of intimacy - is pitched at the same in-your-face, hysterical tone, and handled with the same crunching lack of subtlety. Transformers is one of his more endurable efforts, though; and for a while it almost seems as if Bay has found his perfect match in these destructive machines, until the same flaws which plague all of his pictures begin make their presence felt.

The backstory to Transformers is delivered by the dulcet tones of Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) who tells us that the planet of Cybertron is in peril, and it can only be saved by a pair of 80 year-old spectacles. Well, that's not really true; but the glasses do hold the key to finding a cube which contains the power to save Cybertron, and it is the search for these spectacles which leads the robots to Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf). Sam is a high school kid who only wants a car with which to impress the sexy Mikaela (Megan Fox), but the rusty old Camaro Sam chooses - or rather, the car that chooses him - is actually an Autobot named Bumblebee who has been assigned as Sam's protector in preparation for the Decepticons' arrival.

That arrival occurs in Qatar, where a rogue helicopter turns into a giant robot who lays waste to an American army base, before transforming into a scorpion-like creature and chasing a couple of soldiers (including Tyrese Gibson and Josh Duhamel) all over the desert. This scene gives us the first opportunity to gawp at the extraordinary detail which has gone into Industrial Light and Magic's photo-realistic mechanical creations. It's not just that the Transformers themselves are extraordinarily well-realised - though they are - it's the fact that they are integrated seamlessly into the environments which they destroy so thoroughly. We can feel the impact as the Decepticon hurls tanks across the base and blows buildings to smithereens, and there's no doubt that this is where Michael Bay is in his element. He is a supreme architect of destruction, and one can't deny his brilliant handling of the action sequences which propel much of this picture.

It's a pity the filmmakers couldn't imbue the Transformers with a little more personality, though. The Autobots' leader Optimus Prime is given the best scenes and the biggest share of the dialogue, and he is the most developed of the robots on show (his counterpart Megatron is sadly introduced too late), but aside from Sam's pal Bumblebee not many of the film's large metallic cast manage to linger in the memory. There is one Decepticon who stands out, a dreadfully annoying little creation who scuttles around the place like a cross between R2D2 and Short Circuit's Johnny 5; but as the battle between the 'bots began to rage in the film's second half, I occasionally struggled to distinguish one machine from another, with the sight of two greyish lumps of metal engaging in combat being particularly confusing. Admittedly, I was never a huge fan of the Transformers franchise and I'm sure the more savvy viewers won't have the same issues, but it is unfortunate to have so many wonderfully inventive machines running around with so little personality between them.

I suppose that's the Michael Bay method, though. He's happy to wallow in noise and fury, viscerally hammering the audience into submission, but his attention to the more basic pleasures of characterisation or story is often negligent. In this instance Bay is fortunate to have Shia LaBeouf on hand, a young actor who works overtime to give this film a little human warmth. LaBeouf's Sam feels like a Spielberg touch; an ordinary kid, something of an outsider, who is thrust into the centre of potentially cataclysmic events. The actor's charming and humble performance feels wonderfully real, full of typical teenage awkwardness which gradually slips away as he rises to the challenge set by these visiting behemoths. Sam Witwicky is a solid character to place at the centre of this sprawling picture, but he's forced to carry the whole load on his own slender shoulders, a burden which is too much to bear. There simply isn't one single other character in the film who is given the barest hint of depth. Megan Fox is simply there to show off her toned and tanned torso, the soldiers portrayed by Gibson and Duhamel have a tendency to disappear for large portions of the film without ever being missed, and minor characters such as the computer hackers played by Anthony Anderson and Rachael Taylor serve little purpose. Even the veteran actors among the cast are poorly served; with Jon Voight simply being asked to stand around repeating his lines, and the usually wonderful John Turturro giving a truly awful display as a cartoonish bureaucrat

Turturro's appearance sadly typifies Transformers' approach to comedy, with the various ham-handed attempts to inject some humour into the piece mostly hitting the ground with a resounding thud. Thanks to LaBeouf's appealing work, Bay just about gets away with an early Love Bug-style scene in which Bumblebee helps Sam in his pursuit of Mikaela, but many of the 'comical' touches are excruciating. Did we really need the painfully dragged-out sequence in which Sam tries to hide the Transformers from his parents, while these supposedly sophisticated machines accidentally destroy the garden? One can't help feeling that screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman would have been better advised to spend less time looking for gags and more time developing the film's narrative. Transformers' plot is a garbled mess which has stopped making sense long before the climax, and that's even with the help of frequent scenes in which Bay stalls the action completely to allow everything to be spelled out in lumpy chunks of exposition.

But will people care that this gorgeous shell of a movie has been built on sand? I guess Transformers delivers the goods if all you're looking for is a series of breathtaking CGI battles; but how much more involving would those battles have been if we cared about the outcome, if we had been engaged by the twists in the story and had some vested interest in the characters' fate? As it was I found myself checking my watch as the climactic showdown set about destroying every last building in Los Angeles, and I began to get that sinking feeling of dissatisfaction as the whole spectacular show petered out into a sequel-friendly ending. There were times during Transformers when I was absolutely thrilled by what I was seeing, and in other places it left me feeling bored and frustrated - but what did I expect? This is a Michael Bay film after all, and there really is no more to this movie than meets the eye.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Review - Die Hard 4.0

In 1988's Die Hard wisecracking cop John McClane defeated an army of terrorists in a single tower block. In the sequel two years later he had to do the same in an airport, and in 1995's Die Hard With a Vengeance McClane was on hand to save a whole city from a mad bomber. The stakes keep getting raised in the Die Hard series, but the films themselves have been getting progressively weaker, and that pattern doesn't seem to bode well for Die Hard 4.0, the latest instalment in a series which we last encountered 12 years ago. Once again this picture sees the action occurring on a bigger stage for McClane - after a skyscraper, and airport and a city, this time the whole of the United States is under threat - but thankfully Die Hard 4.0 bucks the trend as far as the series' declining quality goes.

It has been almost twenty years since Die Hard took a beautifully straightforward premise and turned it into the defining action film of the modern era, and the world has changed a lot since then. Recognising this, Die Hard 4.0 is all about bringing John McClane (played by Bruce Willis, naturally) into the 21st century. The plot hinges on technology, with America's infrastructure, defence systems and financial foundations being threatened by a group of 'virtual terrorists' who have hacked into every major government system. This plan is the brainchild Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), whose motives will become clearer - without ever really crystallising - over the course of the picture. But how does our man McClane fit into all of this? Well, he's just finishing up his shift when a favour gets called in: the FBI want every known hacker to be rounded up immediately as they investigate the breaches to their security, and McClane is the nearest man to Matt Farrell's (Justin Long) place of residence.

It seems like a simple pick-up job, but of course it isn't. McClane arrives at Farrell's home at the exact moment a group of hitmen turn up to wipe the computer nerd out. They have been sent by Gabriel to clear up any loose ends from the operation (we've already seen one hacker meet his end earlier in the picture), and after a ferocious and explosive gun battle McClane and Farrell escape by the skin of their teeth. The job still isn't done though, and McClane soon finds himself on the run with Farrell, taking the fight to an increasingly exasperated Gabriel; a fight which becomes personal when the villain of the piece takes McClane's daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) hostage.
Die Hard 4.0 pitches itself as a battle between the old and the new, with McClane being described as "an analogue fly in the digital ointment", and that description could easily be applied to the film itself. Director Len Wiseman (whose work here is a quantum leap forward in terms of clarity and coherence compared to his Underworld movies) has tried to give Die Hard 4.0 an old-school edge in order to distinguish it from the CGI-heavy competition, and that means a reliance on breathtaking stunt work and carefully choreographed action sequences which have a sense of real weight and consequence. Sure, much of the action on show here is utterly preposterous - watch Bruce Willis leap from a truck to the roof of a passing jet! - but the buzz in seeing these scenes played out in such an expert fashion is undeniable. The film is also brilliantly paced, moving smoothly from one set-piece to another without ever letting the plot drag. In comparison with the bloated Spider-Man 3 or Michael Bay's exhaustingly bombastic Transformers movie, it's a pleasure to see a film which delivers continual thrills with such a sense of wit and inventiveness.

The eclectic cast is also a huge factor in the film's success. Willis is once again in his element as McClane, the character he seems to have been born to play, and his natural air of charisma and authority instantly gives the film a rock-solid centre to build upon. His partnership with Justin Long is a lot of fun too; the young actor initially comes off as a whiney and annoying sidekick, but he grows on you over the course of the film much as he grows on McClane, and his gradual maturation is well handled. Timothy Olyphant's decision to underplay his role as McClane's latest nemesis is a great one, his Thomas Gabriel is a sly and intelligent creation; and two of the more pivotal supporting roles are capably filled by Kevin Smith, in a surprisingly effective cameo, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whose feisty turn as Lucy McClane is a welcome change from the usual daughter-in-peril performance.

Admittedly, there are plenty of flaws to be found in Die Hard 4.0 if you care to look. Mark Bomback's screenplay is witty, efficient and replete with fun touches (I particularly liked the US Presidents montage), but it does suffer from narrative holes and scenes which stretch plausibility to the limit. I suppose that's par for the course for this kind of picture though, and as long as the film makes enough sense to keep us engaged between explosions I'm not sure many viewers will mind. However, there is also the far more basic problem of the film's frequently dreadful audio looping, with the dialogue being noticeably out of sync in a handful of scenes. This slackness is all the more surprising when the film is so technically proficient in every other area.

I am loathe to point up the lesser aspects of Die Hard 4.0 though, because the movie is such a blast; an adrenalin rush of a picture which is one of the most purely enjoyable films I've experienced this year. While it was never likely to match the peerless original, I'd say this is the best of the three sequels and by some distance the best of this year's blockbuster offerings. Above all, it's a pleasure to see Bruce Willis - one of the most severely underrated leading men in American cinema - bring the great John McClane back to the big screen. Like Rocky Balboa earlier this year, Die Hard 4.0 trades on our affection for a classic character, and Willis' revival of his signature role is a joy. In the two decades since Die Hard no action hero has quite managed the blend of indomitable spirit, no-nonsense attitude and sardonic wit which the actor has brought to these movies. To steal a line from Die Hard 4.0 - it's what makes him that guy.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Review - La Vie en rose (La môme)

Making a biopic of a famous figure is a tricky proposition. Do you go down the childhood-to-death route, and try to give a full picture of a person in the space of a feature-length movie? Or do you narrow your focus to a particular period in your subject's life, and hope that this method will reveal their inner self in more minute detail than the more expansive film of this type? It's not an easy choice, both approaches have their merits and their faults, but let's not forget the third way: just take a random bunch of incidents from a person's life and throw them at the screen with as much cinematic flair as possible in the hope that something will stick. This is the road Olivier Dahan has ventured down with La Vie en rose, a striking but hugely frustrating account of the tragic life of Edith Piaf.

There's no doubt that Piaf's story merits the celluloid treatment, few artists have packed so many highs and lows into such a tragically short lifetime. Abandoned by her mother at a young age, she found herself living in a brothel run by her paternal grandmother, where she overcame a bout of temporary blindness and formed a close bond with one of the prostitutes. But just when she seemed to have found a sense of stability in her life, Edith was forced to join her father's travelling circus and later - after he had fallen out with his fellow performers - she found herself literally singing for her supper on the streets. Here Edith was spotted by a club owner who put her on the road to stardom, but Edith's rocky road to the top was constantly marked by drink, drugs, insanity and death, before she finally passed away in 1963 at the age of 47.

That's a lot of incident to pack into a single film, even one which runs to an arduous 140 minutes, and Dahan has a devil of a time trying to make all the pieces fit. For reasons best known to himself, the director has decided to adopt a structure which sees the picture hopping back and forth in time, cutting between scenes of Piaf's upbringing and scenes depicting the increasingly debilitated Piaf's last years. We open with Piaf (played in adulthood by an astonishing Marion Cotillard) collapsing on a New York stage in 1959 before skipping back to the sub-Dickensian squalor of her childhood years, and this exasperating back-and-forth continues right throughout
La Vie En rose, robbing the picture of coherence and dramatic momentum.

It also makes the film extraordinarily difficult to follow in places, dropping characters after they have barely been introduced to us and giving some seemingly important events only the most fleeting of examinations before jumping off in another direction. For example, the murder of Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu), of which Piaf was briefly suspected, comes out of nowhere and is just as rapidly dropped; Edith's childhood friend Mômone (Sylvie Testud) leaves her after an argument and is later seen back in Edith's circle incongruously dressed as a man; and one scene halfway through the movie opens with Edith married to a man we have not seen before, and whom we barely meet before he leaves the story. This fragmentation of events in Piaf's life reaches its nadir in the final ten minutes, when the fact that she had a child who died of meningitis is suddenly shoehorned into the climax in the most ill-timed and inappropriate way.

Why did Dahan decide to slice up Piaf's story in this way? One would have thought the facts of the singer's life would carry enough power to drive the movie without this cinematic dressing, and the choppy nature of things only dilutes its edges. It would have been interesting as well to see the evolution of Marion Cotillard's performance over the course of the picture - from gawky teenager to decrepit has-been - instead of just repeatedly skipping from one incarnation to another, but whatever way you look at it there's no denying the brilliance of the actress' work here. The biopic is the acting community's genre of choice, offering roles which are generally catnip to the awards voters, and sometimes we can be guilty of overpraising a piece of acting just because it's an accurate impersonation of the subject. Cotillard will no doubt receive plenty of recognition at the Oscars and elsewhere for this turn - but she deserves every ounce of praise for a staggering piece of acting.

This pretty, 31 year-old French actress is magnificent here both as the energetic young Edith and the frail woman who looked like she was 80 years old when she was really in her 40's. She has the bug-eyed expression, the slightly buck-toothed grin and the angular, hunched gait; and even though she's much taller than the famously tiny Piaf, Cotillard's complete dedication to the role makes us believe in the illusion. She doesn't do her own singing - who could match the real thing? - but she lip-syncs expertly to the soundtrack and the effect is flawless. This is really a one-woman show, and whatever emotion the film possesses is derived directly from the leading lady's
tour de force performance.

La Vie en rose doesn't do its main star any favours though, and the flashy editing style and jumbled chronology makes the film feel like hard work, when it should be sucking us into the emotionally wrought story. Individual moments manage to spark across the picture - the sequence in which Piaf learns to use her hands as a means of expression; her romance with boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins); her delight at hearing je ne regrette rien for the first time ("It's me! It's my life!") - but these moments never really connect with one another in this disjointed affair. The one time Dahan's directorial flair pays dividends is when he shows us Piaf's reaction to the news that Cerdan has been killed in a plane crash. The distraught singer wails and thrashes around her hotel room, staggering down a corridor and onto a stage to sing in front of a packed audience, all in a single take. In one dazzling cinematic coup Dahan makes the point about Piaf's personal pain feeding her art, but this is a rare occasion in which the filmmaking style works for the film, offering us some insight instead of distracting us from the main focus.

Dahan does stage a nice climax, with a performance of
je ne regrette rien being cut between Piaf on her deathbed and memories of her past, and it is undeniably affecting; but are we being moved by the film or the music? Olivier Dahan's film is classy and impressive, but it's also a shallow and crazily unfocused piece of work which feels like a missed opportunity; and La Vie en rose is never better than when it stops playing tricks with time and simply allows us to watch the uncanny Cotillard miming to that unique voice. It's a voice which has a purity and emotional directness that is missing from this muddled biopic, and it's a voice which takes us places that this film never looks like reaching.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Review - Captivity

Poor Elisha Cuthbert, she seems destined to spend her career in a state of impending danger. After making her name as 24's bad luck magnet Kim Bauer, Cuthbert's latest attempt to stake a claim for big screen stardom sees her in a predicament which tops any of the close shaves she experienced on that TV show. In Captivity Cuthbert stars as Jennifer Tree, a model/actress/party girl whose face is plastered on every billboard, television and magazine cover in New York. But is she happy? Of course not. Jennifer bemoans her lonely lot to her pet dog ("you're the only one who loves me"), and when she arranges to meet her boyfriend at a swanky party he stands her up with a text message at the last minute. Jennifer's glamorous life is really a hollow and lonely one, but things are about to get significantly worse.

At the aforementioned party Jennifer's drink is spiked by an unknown stranger, and after she stumbles out of the bathroom she is grabbed and whisked away from the scene without anyone seemingly batting an eyelid. When she wakes up, the model finds herself in an elaborately-designed torture chamber with no means of escape and cameras watching her every move. Every now and then Jennifer's sadistic captor subjects her to some sort of despicable torment - threatening her face with acid, burying her in sand, forcing her to drink an offal smoothie, that sort of thing - and her only ally in this situation is a fellow prisoner: Gary (Daniel Gillies), who is similarly trapped in an adjoining cell.

I can guess what you're thinking at this point - you're probably thinking that you've seen this movie plenty of times before. And yes, if you've seen any of the Saw movies or Hostel then there's absolutely nothing in this witless picture to intrigue, excite or terrify in the expected manner. The rise of the 'torture porn' film over the past few years has been one of the most dispiriting trends in recent American cinema; films whose sole raison d’être is the desire to punish the audience with a series of sadistic acts, pushing the boundaries of violence and explicitness in a nihilistic and dehumanising fashion. The importance of story and character takes a back seat to spectacle in these films; they're as close as one can get to watching a snuff film without the acts themselves actually taking that final step.

And yet, I somehow expected more from Captivity. I'm not sure why I thought this film would be a step up from the recent batch of horrors; perhaps it was the fact that the likeable Cuthbert had chosen this as her first attempt to carry a movie on her own shoulders. Or perhaps it was the unlikely marriage of B-movie veteran Larry Cohen, who wrote the screenplay, and Oscar-nominated director Roland Joffé, who is making his first film in seven years here. Joffé is best known for such prestige pictures as The Killing Fields, The Mission and… er… Super Mario Brothers, so surely it's fair to assume there must be a good reason that the director is choosing this material to mark his return to Hollywood?

Whatever that reason is, I can't see it. The problems begin with Larry Cohen's trashy, straight-to-video screenplay and never really end. One might hope that Joffé would have a fresh angle on this well-trodden ground; but from the grisly prologue, through the dingy Se7en-esque opening credits, to the predictable staging of the torture scenes, the director seems to be going through all of the familiar motions. The direction is also surprisingly slack, failing to generate the requisite tension or suspense in even the most extreme of its scenarios, with the film's signature 'sandpit' sequence proving to be a complete dud, entirely lacking in any sense of claustrophobia. This curious lack of impact is partly down to the way Cuthbert's character reacts to the violence; we never get a sense of the effect these cumulative horrors are having on the central figure, who changes her clothes every five minutes and whose hair and makeup remains glossy into the fourth day of her ordeal (must be that special model training). The tortures follow a repetitive pattern: Jennifer passes out after each one - either through drugs or fear - and when she regains consciousness it's almost as if she's simply waking up after a night's sleep, ready for the next torment. Captivity is often very gory and unpleasant, but it never cuts deep enough to be genuinely scary.

To be fair to Cuthbert, she gives the film plenty of effort and it isn't the actress' fault that her wafer-thin role has been so poorly developed and has been so badly handled by the filmmakers. Jennifer is never more than a lonely rich girl and the rapid escalation of her romance with fellow captive Gary is ridiculous, leading to one of the most laughably inappropriate sex scenes you'll ever see. Cuthbert has shown herself to be an appealing, capable actress in 24 and The Girl Next Door, and despite struggling visibly with such an ill-conceived character she still manages to be the most accomplished performer here by some distance. Gillies is just awful, delivering an overwrought and wooden performance, and Pruitt Taylor Vince - usually a reliable weirdo - obviously felt it was sufficient to just turn up in a dressing gown.

But even high-class performances couldn't have saved this dire film. Nothing in the picture makes sense, and as the increasingly ridiculous twists began colliding with one another in the film's calamitous final third the sound of derisive laughter started to swamp the cinema in which I watched this tawdry spectacle play out. Defenders of Captivity will claim that the film is all about female empowerment - seemingly on the basis that Jennifer gets to kick her assailant in the balls and shoot him, yes, in the balls - but that's a bullshit defence for a film which has little redeeming value. Captivity is a film which simply strings together a series of sick stunts in a cheap and slapdash way, without ever attempting to provide us with a sense of character, depth or cohesion. Is this what horror films have become? Has our expectation of what a film experience should be sunk so low that garbage like this will suffice? Captivity cares nothing for humanity and only displays contempt for its audience, let's allow it to die a mercifully quick death.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Review - The Tiger's Tail

"We've got the Celtic Tiger by the tail" Liam O'Leary (Brendan Gleeson) announces early in John Boorman's Irish oddity, "and if we let go now it'll turn around and bite us in the arse". This premonition is certainly true for O'Leary himself, a man who has taken advantage of the booming Irish economy to establish himself as a property magnate worth millions. He has a grand house, a beautiful wife (Kim Cattrall) and an intelligent, if stroppy, teenage son (Gleeson's own offspring Briain). When the film opens Liam is receiving an award for his entrepreneurial success and he uses this platform to criticise the officials who are standing in the way of his new project, a national football stadium he intends to build on a site he has recently purchased for €45 million.

On the surface Liam appears to have it all, but his life is a lie. His company is financially stretched to breaking point by the stadium project, his marriage has gone stale, and he has a fractious relationship with his anti-capitalist son. Life then takes a turn for the surreal when Liam starts spotting his doppelganger - a scruffier, meaner-looking version of himself - and although most people suspect it might just be the stress finally getting to him, the double quickly turns out to be very real. He wants his more successful look-alike's life, and he begins stealing Liam's identity with bewildering speed; cuckolding his wife and leaving the former millionaire on the streets without a penny or a friend to turn to.

Oh, what rich potential is being squandered here. As a longstanding John Boorman fan - particularly of his previous Dublin-based film
The General - I couldn't wait to see what this always-interesting director would do with the multitude of possibilities offered by this story. Unfortunately he makes a complete hash of it. The Tiger's Tail is an existential drama, a thriller, a knockabout comedy and a social parable - it's all of these things and less.

Boorman's main aim with
The Tiger's Tail is to expose the rotten underbelly to the massive economic growth Ireland has experienced since the early 1990's. Liam O'Leary has ridden the metaphorical Celtic Tiger to a life of luxury, using every trick in the book to make his riches ("whatever happened to good old honest corruption?" he moans in the opening scene), but Boorman wants us to see how uneven the distribution of wealth has been for those outside of the wealthy top rank. Liam's gruff double represents the masses who are on the outside looking in, and when this stranger (during the film 'X' is as close as we get to a name) looks at Liam's life he wonders why it isn't he who is experiencing this lifestyle. After 'X' has forced the switch of roles between the pair, both men get to see how the other half live. Liam spends time in a halfway house run by his old friend Father Andy (a reliably fine Ciarán Hinds), gets arrested, gets institutionalised, and finds himself in an overrun and understaffed hospital ward. For his part The Double finds out that his new life isn't the dream it appears to be, and his attempts to swipe some ready cash out of the situation are doomed by the fact that Liam's empire has been built on debt and dishonesty.

This all too obvious, though. These points may be relevant and potent, but Boorman makes them in a horribly heavy-handed and didactic way. The director goes for blatant signifiers in order to ram home his argument, and too much of his dialogue rings false as the issues are spelled out. In particular, the character of Connor, Liam's politicised son, is barely a character at all, more a mouthpiece for various cautionary slogans and clichés (until his story takes a turn for the dramatic late on when it's far too late to care about him); and Boorman's staging of many sequences - such as the bloody and raucous hospital setting - is too overblown to connect with anything recognisably real.

The film's failure to land any satirical punches isn't necessarily its downfall though - the crummy plotting and unsure tone does that job nicely. In the early stages the intriguing nature of the central double-act's relationship is enough to keep the film flowing, but when the two men switch places Boorman has a tough time keeping his narrative in check. The plotting gets increasingly stretched as Boorman tries to manouevre his two Brendan Gleesons into a series of contrived situations, and many of the developments are hard to swallow (The Double can seemingly make huge purchases in Liam's name just by looking like him).
The Tiger's Tail does benefit from the introduction of Liam's mother and sister - both Sinéad Cusack and Moira Deady give lovely performances - but other characterisations are sketchily developed, with a half-arsed office romance between Sean McGinley and Cathy Belton feeling unnecessary.

On the plus side,
The Tiger's Tail does have Brendan Gleeson, and this eminently watchable actor is clearly having a great time in the film's two central roles. As Liam O'Leary Gleeson is arrogant and selfish before he is brought low by circumstances, and the actor charts his character's changing perspective with a growing sense of charm and humour. As his own nemesis, Gleeson doesn't gives us much more than pugnacious ruffian with a growling Yorkshire twang to his accent, but it's another fun portrayal, and Gleeson is certainly more accomplished than his female lead at least - an unfathomably-cast Kim Cattrall. She certainly is a bizarre choice for the role of Liam's uptight Irish wife and she is never less than awkward in the role. Her Irish accent occasionally sounds plausible, but it tends to waver without a moment's notice and one can sense a permanent strain in her voice as she struggles to keep it in check. Cattrall is also at the centre of the film's most deeply misguided moment - when The Double enters her bedroom as Liam and forces her into bed. It's a scene which skirts dangerously close to rape before Cattrall begins moaning in ecstasy, delighted at Liam's new-found sexual voracity.

This sequence is the worst of the innumerable bad choices Boorman makes as he fights a losing battle with the film's conflicting styles and tones. The director doesn't seem to have a clue what kind of movie he's making here, and instead of taking us on the dark journey which his establishing scenes seem to promise, he tries to graft a happy ending onto the film in which everyone gets to share having learned some important lessons about life. John Boorman has made a number of bad movies during his eclectic career, but rarely have I felt such a keen sense of disappointment after viewing one of his films.
The Tiger's Tail is a result of the director's passion and ambition, but in trying to pack so much into his State of the Nation piece Boorman loses direction badly, letting the story's potential slip through his fingers as he frantically chases his own tail.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Review - Ten Canoes and Jindabyne

"A long, long time ago in a place far, far away" intones a serious-voiced narrator at the start of Ten Canoes, as the camera slowly makes its way along a wide and deserted river. It's a phrase which instantly recalls the opening of Star Wars, but then the narrator collapses into laughter and reassures us that he's "only joking", for this picture is about as far, far away from George Lucas' space epic as it's possible to imagine. This marvellous Australian film does transport us to a world completely apart from our own, but it's a journey deep into the past, exploring traditions of storytelling which stretch far back into Aboriginal culture. The film has a pace and tone unlike anything else you're likely to see, rambling away from the beaten track whenever it feels like it, but completely captivating the audience like a good story should.
Ten Canoes has been directed by Dutch-born filmmaker Rolf de Heer, but despite his presence this is a film told entirely from the point of view of Australia's Aboriginal people. De Heer developed the story through close collaboration with the Ramingining community, creating a film which - aside from the English voiceover - is the first indigenous-language picture the country has produced.

That voiceover is our guide as we pass through time, and it is provided by the famous Australian actor David Gulpilil. He introduces us to ten of his ancestors, in an unspecified time long before any white men had set foot on Australian soil, and they are in the midst of a goose egg-gathering ritual which necessitates the creation of the titular canoes. One of the participants is Dayindi (Jamie Dayindi Gulpilil), a young man on his first such trip, and it quickly transpires that he has his eye on the youngest and most attractive of Minygululu's (Peter Minygululu) three wives. To prove to his young companion that such a relationship isn't a good idea, Minygululu begins to tell a story; a story which takes us even further back into time, a story which introduces us to the ancients. The story within the story is about a young man named Yeeralparil (Dayindi again) who lusts after - you've guessed it - the youngest and prettiest wife of his brother Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kerddal).

Of course, things don't turn out very well for the characters in this cautionary tale, but Ten Canoes is in no hurry to show us why. The sections of the film involving Dayindi and Minygululu are told in black-and-white, while the story Minygululu unfolds is depicted in colour, and de Heer switches back and forth between these two strands of Ten Canoes throughout. Often the storytelling will simply stop while the business of canoe-making and egg-gathering must be attended to, and the film possesses a constant desire to explore all of the tangents which shoot off from this story before it bothers with anything so prosaic as a narrative thread. In his voiceover, Gulpilil compares the telling of a story to a tree, with branches growing in all sorts of directions, and the comparison is as close as you might get to capturing the essence of Ten Canoes, because this is a film which almost impossible to categorise in any traditional way.

By this point my description of Ten Canoes will have proved to be a massive turn-off for many people. It sounds like a dry, anthropological study - a film which is more laudable for the intentions behind its making than the merits of the picture itself - so perhaps it's time to mention how funny Ten Canoes is. The film is full of laughs, with much surprisingly ribald humour being based around farting, shitting and cock jokes. Gulipilil's narration is also wittily integrated into the piece, with the actor often chuckling at the onscreen events, and de Heer gets plenty of mileage from speculative sequences which imagine various potential consequences for a given situation. Certain characters also bring a dash of eccentricity to the party, such as the huge-bellied elder Birrinbirrin (Richard Birrinbirrin), whose insatiable appetite for honey is a fine running gag., and throughout Ten Canoes the performances from the cast of non-actors, most of whom had never seen a film, are as good as they need to be.
Ten Canoes is a remarkable achievement for Rolf de Heer, a filmmaker who is probably best known for his utterly bizarre 1993 film Bad Boy Bubby and whose direction here is so good it makes you wonder why he has struggled to make any sort of impact in the intervening years. De Heer's work on this picture is even more admirable due to the sensitivity surrounding the depiction of Aboriginal culture on screen, and he treats his collaborators with complete respect, never condescending or simplifying their traditions, and never imposing a 'whitefella' viewpoint on their story. Despite the meandering nature of the tale, de Heer keeps a sprightly and constantly intriguing edge to his direction; his slow pans down the river or through the trees recall Malick, and his documentary-style observation of a strange culture recalls Herzog. De Heer also produces a couple of genuinely wonderful moments here, most of which occur during the film's final third. The spear-throwing 'payback', with two character frantically trying to dodge the onslaught, is tremendously orchestrated; and the film creates a haunting, otherworldly atmosphere during the death dance towards the end of the film, suggesting a genuine sense of transcendence as a man's soul is released from his body.

By the time Minygululu has finished telling Dayindi this story the lessons at the heart of it have been learned by the young listener, and even if Ten Canoes climaxes in a rather unexciting way, the film argues that the telling of the story is as important as the story itself as it gets passed down the ages, the lessons of the past influencing the thoughts and actions of a younger generation. Ten Canoes is a mesmerising film which entranced me for 90 minutes, transporting me to a different time and place, and it's a unique experience which will surely be embraced by anyone tired of conventional cinematic narratives. "It's not like your story, it's my story" the narrator tells us, "and my story, you've never seen before".

On the subject of storytelling, stop me if you've heard this one before. A group of men head out into the wilderness to partake in a spot of fishing. This weekend, away from their wives and day-to-day hassles, is one of the highlights of their year, but on the first night their enjoyment is disrupted by a shocking discovery. The body of young woman is spotted floating in the river near their camp, she is naked and has been murdered. The obvious thing to do in this situation would be to report the incident to the authorities, but with no desire to disrupt their weekend of freedom, the men instead tie the girl to a log to prevent her from floating away and vow to report the discovery as soon as they return home.

The story I'm relaying here will be instantly recognisable to many as So Much Water So Close to Home, the Raymond Carver short story, and even if they've never read it then most people will be familiar with the tale from its appearance in Robert Altman's Short Cuts. In that 1993 film, Altman made this particular story part of his LA-based Carver mosaic, but the new Australian film Jindabyne gives it a movie all to itself; transferring the action to Australia and layering on a number of extra themes and subplots in order to expand the source material to feature length.

The title comes from the New South Wales town which was relocated in the 1960's due to the damming of a nearby river, a move which left the site of the original town lying under a deep lake. This is the place that Irish former rally driver Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) relocated to some years ago with his wife Claire (Laura Linney), and it is he who discovers the body while fishing with three of his friends. When the group has returned home and the news about their finding has broken, a media circus blows up around them with the local community shocked by the callous nature of their act. Their decision even seems to take on racist overtones when it is revealed that the young girl is of Aboriginal descent, and the whole business puts an intolerable strain on Stewart and Claire's already shaky marriage.
Jindabyne has been directed by Ray Lawrence, his first film since 2001's superb Lantana, and even though the film is classily made and superbly acted, it can't help feeling like something of a disappointment. The main problem here is the way Lawrence and screenwriter Beatrix Christian have chosen to stretch this film out to an excessive running time. There is a lot of extraneous material here which only detracts from the purity of Carver's original story. Using the buried town as a metaphor for hidden secrets and the ever-present shadow of the past, Lawrence imbues the film with a ghostly atmosphere which is personified by a creepy child (a very good Eva Lazzaro) who carries herself with a preternatural air; and the director also embellishes the material with a number of half-developed backstories for his characters, and a couple of ineffective red herrings which feel like cheap shots.

The one addition which really does work for the film is the decision to make the victim an Aboriginal girl, and Lawrence successfully exploits the racial tensions this factor brings to the film. It makes the men's decision to leave her floating face-down for a couple of days even more unpalatable given the suspicions and rituals with which death is associated in that culture, and the way Claire and Stewart find themselves excluded from the community - even as Claire tries to make amends - is skilfully depicted. The cast is also extremely strong with Byrne and Linney giving hugely impressive performances, and as in Lantana Lawrence proves himself extremely adept at working with a large ensemble.

But despite the power which is present in a few of its individual scenes, Jindabyne generally feels flaccid and unsatisfying, and all life seems to have seeped out of it by the time the two-hour mark has been and gone. So Much Water So Close to Home is a brilliant piece of writing; a story so deceptively simple and rife with moral complexities that any attempt to augment it with some extra drama or tension is surely unnecessary. Robert Altman understood that when he played the tale straight and made it just one part of his wide-ranging jigsaw puzzle, but Lawrence's attempt to open out the story only dilutes its unique power, turning a potential firecracker into a cinematic damp squib.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Review - Paris je t'aime

How many directors does it take to make a feature film? In the case of Paris, je t'aime, the answer is 21. A diverse army of auteurs has been assembled from all corners of the globe for this intriguing production, and they have each been handed roughly five minutes of celluloid in order to tell a short story about love in Paris. The idea behind Paris je t'aime is for each of the city's arrondissements to be represented by one of the picture's tales; but with two films being dropped before the final edit we are left with 18 shorts which are tightly crammed into just 120 minutes of film. The result is an odd, uneven but ultimately beguiling compendium which is unashamedly romantic and, with such a diverse ranges of styles on offer, guarantees something to please every viewer.

Generally, one approaches a film like this with a fair amount of trepidation. Few of these things are ever really successful and even the better efforts are often hamstrung by at least one dreadful segment (Think of Francis Ford Coppola's ghastly contribution to the otherwise fine New York Stories). Paris je t'aime cleverly manages to avoid most of the pitfalls one might anticipate by keeping everything short and snappy; there are some weak efforts on show here of course, but there aren't any out-and-out stinkers and, with everything zipping by in just a few minutes, none of the entries can be accused of outstaying their welcome.

The film doesn't start particularly well, though, or maybe it just took me a while to adjust to its peculiar nature. Either way, the first three vignettes are three of the film's poorest. French filmmaker Bruno Podalydès didn't do much to grab my interest with the opener, setting up a banal situation and failing to expand on it in any interesting way; and while the second effort, directed by Gurinder Chadha, is a little more interesting, it makes its political points in a rather obvious and dull manner. As I watched Gus van Sant's insipid short pass vapidly in front of my eyes I started to feel a creeping sense of dread, with 15 films yet to come and no sign of anything above the ordinary on the horizon.

Thank heavens for the Coen brothers, who enliven the whole picture with their contribution. Steve Buscemi gives a wonderful dialogue-free performance as an American tourist who gets involved in a terrible mix-up on the Metro, and the film escalates beautifully with surreal touches and great visual gags. This film marks the point at which this whole odd experiment starts to find some sort of direction, and as Paris je t'aime progressed I gradually found myself surrendering to its charms.

The sheer variety on display here is what really makes the film sparkle. The best films in the collection divide sharply into two types: those which succeed because they bear their director's unique fingerprints, and those which triumph through superb acting. In the first category we find Sylvain Chomet's Tour Eiffel, which sees the animator behind Belleville Rendez-Vous making his live-action debut but still working with a cartoonish fervour, and his tale of two mime artists falling in love is a wacky delight. Tom Tykwer's Faubourg Saint-Denis recaptures the kinetic thrill the director displayed in his Run Lola Run as it details relationship between a blind Frenchman and an American actress (Natalie Portman), and Vincenzo Natali's Quartier de la Madeleine is a beautifully-filmed slice of gothic romance. Some directors come unstuck with their attempts at idiosyncrasy though; Christopher Doyle's film has plenty of noise and incident but no cohesion, while Alfonso Cuarón's single-take entry is more notable for its technical skill than the rather dull motions Nick Nolte and Ludivigne Sagnier are asked to go through.

Many of the films are more performance-driven, and there are some wonderful pieces of acting on show here which provide the engine for the stories containing them. See the way Catalina Sandino Moreno's touching performance elevates Walter Salles' simplistic tale, for example, or the way the unlikely pairing of Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant manage to make sparks fly amidst Richard LaGravanese's disappointingly shapeless concoction, or how Maggie Gyllenhaal's sharp display lends Oliver Assayas' film some welcome edge. There is also the opportunity to see some real old-style movie star charisma playing out at a leisurely pace in one of the most low-key shorts, which is also one of the most delightful. Quartier Latin, co-directed by Gerard Depardieu, features Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands as a couple meeting in Paris to sign their divorce papers. This segment was written by Rowlands and it contains some terrifically tart dialogue as these two old pros go head to head, giving Paris je t'aime a welcome touch of Cassavetes spirit.

What else is there? Well, Isabel Coixet offers a sweetly-played story of love rekindled under unlikely circumstances, and Oliver Schmitz's tale is well structured and effective; but there's also the disappointment of seeing Wes Craven making little of his graveyard-set vignette, and the sheer dismay at seeing Juliette Binoche being wasted by Nobuhiro Suwa in a mawkish piece of whimsy. These weak segments don't really detract from the overall package, though; in fact, they oddly add a little something to the film's cumulative charm. By the time Alexander Payne's elegiac, beautifully observed piece had brought the picture to a perfectly-judged close, I felt the whole had grown into something so much more than the sum of its parts. Paris je t'aime shouldn't work at all - it is undeniably inconsistent and overstuffed - but it works better than one could ever imagine, and there's an indefinable sense of magic about it which can suck even the most cynical viewer into its world of wild fantasy and heady romance. For the sake of brevity, let's just say it has a certain je ne sais quoi.