Monday, August 20, 2007

Review - The Walker

Paul Schrader has described Carter Paige III, the central figure in The Walker, as a continuation of the kind of character the writer/director has explored in many of his earlier films. In Taxi Driver, for which he provided the screenplay, the character was a young and angry loner; in American Gigolo he was a narcissistic sex worker revelling in the shallowness of the 80's; in Light Sleeper he was an anxious drug dealer struggling with his own insecurities. Now, in a natural extension of the homoerotic undertones which have often lurked in the background of these films, the character has come out of the closet. Carter Paige (played by Woody Harrelson) is another one of Schrader's outsiders; a lonely man drifting along on the outskirts of society, observing the lives of others while being unable to find any comfort in his own.

This time Schrader's protagonist is a 'walker', a man whose sole purpose is to act as companion and confidante to Washington's rich and powerful women. He accompanies them to social events, offers advice during shopping trips, and partakes in a weekly canasta game with three ladies (Kristin Scott-Thomas, Lauren Bacall and Lily Tomlin, all on good form), which is really an excuse to wallow in the latest slice of salacious gossip. Carter also has an on/off relationship with a photographer (Moritz Bleibtreau), although it's hard to ascertain what, if anything, these two have in common. It's a pretty comfortable existence for Carter but, in an echo of
American Gigolo, his world is shattered when he finds himself wrongly accused of a murder. In an effort to protect his friend Lynn's (Scott-Thomas) reputation, Carter tells the authorities that it was he who discovered the body of her murdered lover, but this act of loyalty to a friend is his downfall, as he starts hearing "the sound of doors closing all over town".

Aside from the central plot hook, the similarities between
The Walker and American Gigolo are obvious, but Schrader insists on continually drawing attention to them anyway. His direction is similarly cool and detached, he utilises a number of familiar visual tropes, and he even gives Carter a meticulously choreographed undressing sequence which acts as a clear counterpoint to Richard Gere's iconic dressing montage in the earlier film (the removal of Carter's hairpiece gives this one a neat punch line, though). In fact, The Walker is another handsome piece of work all round, but like Carter Paige himself it's just a stylish-looking shell.

There simply isn't anything going on here which is different or interesting enough to hold the viewers' attention; the plot is talky and pedestrian, and it's hard to invest any energy in following it when everything is unfolding in such a flaccid manner. Schrader's attempts to jazz things up generally consist of him tilting the camera at odd angles here and there (notably during a weirdly lethargic chase sequence), but
The Walker requires more than that to bring its moribund narrative to life. Much of the supporting players - including reliable pros like Willem Dafoe and Ned Beatty - are mere bystanders, and such background characters as Bleibtreau's photographer and William Hope's aggressive District Attorney are poorly developed. While the plot drifts towards a fuzzy conclusion, the director spends a little time taking pot-shots at the sour state of George W Bush's Washington, but they feel like empty gestures.

Where's the fire? Where's the danger? Where's the complexity which characterises Schrader's best work? The film's uninteresting plotting and flat direction is hard enough to take, but the most disappointing aspect of
The Walker is its inability to work as a character study, which is where Schrader generally excels. The casting of Harrelson, in a role which is unlike anything he has ever done, is a risky move which doesn't pay off. His performance is full of physical and vocal affectations, but his characterisation is all external, and it never feels like he gets inside Carter's head; he never successfully expresses the internal conflict his character is supposedly suffering from, and it gives the movie a dead centre. It's simply impossible to care about such a cold fish of a character, and Carter himself sums up his inadequacy as a compelling protagonist when he tells us "I'm not naïve, I'm just superficial". The Walker, unfortunately, is both.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Review - License to Wed

There's no doubt that License to Wed is a miserable failure for everyone involved, but it does count as an achievement of sorts for Robin Williams. Prior to this astonishingly inept comedy, Patch Adams was generally seen as the film in which Williams gave his most unfunny and charmless performance to date, but in Licence to Wed's Reverend Frank we may have a new winner. Reverend Frank is the near-psychotic priest to intervenes when young lovebirds Ben and Sadie (John Krasinski and Mandy Moore) decide to tie the knot. Sadie has always dreamed of holding her wedding in the same church her parents married in thirty years before, and as luck would have it a late cancellation has opened a window in Frank's schedule. But before they can go ahead with the ceremony, Ben and Sadie will have to pass the reverend's unique marriage crash-course; a course which threatens to end their marriage before it has even begun.

The tasks Frank lays out for Ben and Sadie include the following: making them take care of two animatronic babies, who come complete with bodily functions; encouraging Ben to insult Sadie's whole ghastly family during a word-association exercise; and forcing Sadie to drive across town blindfolded (seriously). He prods the happy couple into an argument at every opportunity, and bugs their apartment to ensure the 'no sex' rule is being adhered to. All in all, he's the most obnoxious character you could ever wish to avoid, but the makers of
License to Wed seem convinced that we'll find his wacky antics hilarious. We're encouraged to view Reverend Frank as an ultimately well-meaning character, who is only trying to help Ben and Sadie understand the pressures of a marriage; but as personified by the aggressively manic Williams he simply comes across as a sadist and a pervert, whose determination to drive a wedge between this couple is frankly disturbing.

No wonder John Krasinski looks so miserable, his character seems to be the only person in the whole film who can see Frank for the twisted individual he is, or perhaps the actor's despair comes from the realisation that he has left a well-written sitcom for a film which is barely written at all. He seems out of his depth in the lead here, uncomfortable with the pratfalls and struggling to ignite any sort of chemistry with Mandy Moore. His female co-star is usually a likeable presence, I've enjoyed her performances in films like American Dreamz and
Saved!, but her character's complete obliviousness to her fiancé's misgivings leaves Moore with nothing to work with; she just smiles and frowns as the plot dictates.

In any case, both actors are often reduced to mere props as Williams dredges up the same old tired, irritating shtick which just isn't funny any more. I doubt Williams even finds this stuff remotely amusing these days. His silly voices and wild gestures feel so rote by this stage, and Williams has the deadening look in his eyes of a man who is going through the motions simply because it's what's expected of him. He can be a fine actor, but when was the last time he was in a really funny film? The only one which comes to mind is Mike Nichols'
The Birdcage, when a surprisingly restrained Williams allowed Nathan Lane to take on the more extravagant role, but that was over ten years ago, and the subsequent decade has seen his comedic stock falling like a stone. With License to Wed it hits rock bottom.

License to Wed has been directed by Ken Kwapis, who worked with Krasinski on The Office (many of that show's cast appear in small roles here), but you'd be hard-pressed to find any sense of direction in this witless film as it careens recklessly from one lame set-piece to another. Everything about this picture is inept; it looks cheap and ugly, it's horribly edited, and there isn't a single laugh in the film's torturous 90 minute running time.

But the most amazing thing about
License to Wed is the revelation, in the closing credits, that no less than five writers have claimed credit for this film's story and screenplay. Look further down the credits and you'll see that the amount of producers listed runs into the double figures; and as I saw these names passing before my eyes I realised that nobody involved in this production seems to give a damn about the quality of the product they're serving up for us filmgoers. It's a hugely depressing thought, showing complete disdain for the public, and yet License to Wed managed to pull in over $40 million at the American box-office despite being one of the year's worst reviewed movies. Maybe we get the romantic comedies we deserve, but if none of the filmmakers care about the shit they're shovelling into the multiplexes, then why should we?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Review - The Bourne Ultimatum

It has been three years since we last encountered amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), in Paul Greengrass' superb thriller The Bourne Supremacy, but this third and best instalment in the series plunges us straight back into his story as if no time at all has passed. The Bourne Ultimatum picks up the action where the second picture ended, following Bourne as he limps away from the destructive car chase which formed the climax of that film (Supremacy's New York-set coda is cleverly utilised elsewhere) and skilfully eludes the Russian police as violent flashbacks from his dark past continue to plague him. The only route left for Bourne to take is to face his demons; to hunt down the men who made him what he is and - as he promised - to take the fight to their door.

So he does just that, taking a roundabout route - via Turin, Paris, Tangier and London - before returning home for a top-notch New York showdown; and while Bourne leads his pursuers a merry dance across the globe, he leaves the audience exhilarated, stunned and often slack-jawed with astonishment. There really has been nothing to touch the Bourne trilogy for mainstream thrills over the past five years. Doug Liman's The Bourne Identity was an efficient and slickly entertaining adventure, but it was Greengrass who took things to another level, with his dynamic and formally daring approach establishing The Bourne Supremacy as new touchstone for the genre (indeed, the film was frequently cited as a major influence on the tougher James Bond). Remarkably, the British director has managed to surpass his own high standards with The Bourne Ultimatum, a film which is as gripping and technically dazzling as anything I have seen in a cinema for some time, and a film which already feels like a classic.

Perhaps the most surprising element of this franchise has been the transformation of Matt Damon into an iconic action hero - really, who saw that coming? The fresh-faced star of Good Will Hunting and The Talented Mr Ripley had proven himself as a fine actor long before being cast as Bourne in 2002, but Matt Damon as a lethal assassin sounded like stretch. Those fears have long been cast aside, of course, and one can now see how vital Damon's intelligent and rigorously controlled performances have been to this series' continued success. He has developed his character in gradual shades, and in The Bourne Ultimatum the traumatic events this character has been pushed through are etched all over his face. There's a ruthlessness in his eyes, a single-minded determination in his movements, but he continually expresses a core of humanity at the heart of this killer, as he desperately tries to discover who he is.

The trail leads him to London, where a Guardian journalist named Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) has uncovered details about Treadstone - the covert agency which trained Bourne and his fellow 'assets' - and an upgraded version named Blackbriar, without realising exactly what he has stumbled into. Bourne contacts him and arranges a meeting at Waterloo Station, which initiates the first of The Bourne Ultimatum's many brilliant set-pieces. In a gripping sequence, Bourne guides Ross through the busy concourse of the station by phone, trying to extract information from him as well as protecting him from both a CIA hit squad and a lone gunman who is targeting them both. Using his trademark restless camerawork, Greengrass puts us in the middle of the action as the various players close in on one another and the throngs of commuters confuse the issue, but the director never confuses the viewers. Greengrass thrives on creating an edgy, chaotic atmosphere, but it is always a controlled chaos; he always ensures we know where the key figures are in relation to each other and their surroundings, and Christopher Rouse's masterful editing escalates the tension while maintaining a constant forward momentum.
The Bourne Ultimatum just never lets up. We are treated to a chase through the streets and over the rooftops of Tangier which is mind-blowing in both its logistical challenge and execution, and Greengrass can switch modes in an instant, cutting from large-scale set-pieces to bone-crunching fights. He stages one such sequence when Bourne and another assassin go toe-to-toe in a hotel room, tearing the place apart as Bourne uses whatever he can find - a book, a candlestick, a towel - to fend off his opponent. The scene is not accompanied by any music, we just get the sounds of desperate breathing and crunching impact, the bone-shuddering sound of bodies being broken. This realistic approach to violence has become one of the Bourne series' hallmarks. Every punch and kick makes its mark, leaving scars both physical and psychological, and the effect is often sickeningly authentic. When Bourne defeats his assailant in the violent tussle at the centre of this picture, the camera cuts to his ally Nicky Parsons (Julie Stiles) who stares with a mixture of shock, awe and revulsion; her reaction probably mirroring that of many viewers.

Stiles is one of the familiar faces who is returning to the franchise here (she is given a little more to do this time), and the other is Joan Allen who is again pitch-perfect in her role as Pamela Landy, the CIA operative who is growing increasingly conflicted about the hunt for Bourne. There are new additions to the cast in David Strathairn, Scott Glenn and Albert Finney; and while their roles may be little more than stereotypical 'shady government types', these three fine actors play their villainous parts with the expected level of professionalism and class. It's hard not to cheer for Bourne as he gets his comeuppance on these characters, but in the final third Greengrass and his writers - including Tony Gilroy, who has scripted all three films - subvert expectations, with a climax that is well thought-out and satisfying in spite of its ambiguity.

The way Greengrass chooses to end this trilogy is a testament to the director's commendable and refreshing avoidance of genre clichés. Of course, a few slip through the net here and there, but their scarcity makes them more palatable; and while The Bourne Ultimatum's plotting does suffer from some credibility-stretching and logic-defying in parts, Greengrass' ultra-kinetic, invigorating direction never gives us a minute to question what we are seeing. We are completely engrossed in Jason Bourne's world, following every car chase, punch-up and revelation with rapt attention. But what of that closing shot, which seems to leave the door open for further Bourne adventures? The character has been resurrected in a set of new novels, written after Robert Ludlum's death, but any attempt to bring him back to the screen would, I fear, be a mistake. As it stands, the Bourne series is an almost perfect cinematic trilogy, and the sense of closure offered at the end of this film feels like a note-perfect way to draw a line under it. After five years of running Jason Bourne has confronted the ghosts lurking in the shadows of his past, and has finally found himself. There is nowhere else for him to go.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Review - The Hoax

The story of Howard Hughes is a compellingly strange one in itself, but it also managed to spin off a couple weird little stories which are just as intriguing. Take Clifford Irving, for example. It was he who told the world that he was working on the most important book of the 20th century in the early 1970's, an authorised biography of the reclusive Hughes which he alone had been asked to write. Naturally an exclusive such as this was big business, and Irving received a $100,000 advance for his trouble with another $400,000 cheque being written up for Hughes (which Irving accepted on his behalf). There was just one problem with this exciting scoop - none of it was true. Irving had never had any contact with Hughes, his book was simply the product of painstaking research, clever forgery, and an unshakable confidence in his own lies.

This is a pretty good story, and it's a story with the potential to be a pretty good film. Orson Welles thought so, using the tale as part of his 1974 semi-documentary
F for Fake, but Irving's hoax hasn't received a proper cinematic rendition until now. Perhaps fittingly, The Hoax has taken a loose approach when dealing with the hard facts at the centre of this story, and the filmmakers have been quite open about the fact that many scenes depicted herein are a complete fabrication. It's easy to quibble when such liberties are taken, but it's equally easy to forgive those liberties if the result is a fun movie, and The Hoax is a lot of fun.

In Lasse Hallström's funny and sharp picture, Irving is played by Richard Gere who is a perfect fit for the role. I've always found Gere a more engaging, interesting actor when he has stepped away from the standard Hollywood leading man role to embrace a slightly shiftier persona. It's something the actor has done all-too-rarely in his career (his best role before this one was still 1990's
Internal Affairs) but he's on grand form here. The film opens with one of many invented sequences, the extensive preparation of the McGraw-Hill building for a visit from the elusive Mr Hughes himself. The carpets are removed, the windows are blacked out and every surface is rigorously cleaned as Irving stands on the roof assuring everyone that, yes, his interviewee will show.

The Hoax then jumps back a few months to show us how these events came to pass. According to the film Irving's decision to go down this route was an act of desperation. His novel had been turned down by McGraw-Hill, and as the financially stretched writer scrambled for something to hook their interest he came up with the bright idea of a Hughes biography. He makes it sound plausible enough - claiming the eccentric billionaire contacted him after reading one of his books, and told him that he would communicate with him and him alone - and in any case, the publishers are too busy dealing with the dollar signs dancing in their eyes to pick any holes in the story.

It was a brilliant ruse, and Irving came so close to pulling it off. As played by Gere and as written by William Wheeler we are encouraged to view the con-man as a heroic, almost Quixotic figure. As the stakes get bigger and he paints himself into increasingly tight corners, Irving has to think on his feet to keep the story rolling on, and he comes up with such gems it's hard not to cheer. Hallström stages a bravura sequence halfway through the picture when Irving and his panic-stricken friend Dick Susskind (Alfred Molina) are called to the Time Life offices to have their claims authenticated. Nervous and sweating profusely, Dick inexplicably blurts out the line "he gave me a prune!", and without missing a beat Irving manages to spin a tall tale - mixing the fact he has researched with large dollops of fiction - about Hughes and that prune, a tale which has the Time Life executives in the palm of his hand.

Gere is in his element here; his sly and charming display sucking us into Clifford's elaborate fantasies. This is probably the best he has ever been, but he's fortunate to have so many strong actors around him to play off - Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, Julie Delpy and Stanley Tucci are all enjoyable - and he almost sees the whole picture stolen by Alfred Molina's Dick Susskind. Molina brings a sharp comic momentum to his best scenes, like the one in which he helps Clifford steal documents from a government building, or another in which he tries to take Noah Dietrich's memoirs from under his nose (here Dietrich is played by Eli Wallach, raising the pleasing notion of Wallach as the elder John C Reilly, who played the role in
The Aviator). The Hoax has the light air of a caper movie in these sequences, with its central pairing desperately scrambling to stay ahead of the truth, but Molina also manages to successfully express the strain this web of lies has placed him under and he brings a moving vulnerability to his later scenes.

But it's Clifford's own breakdown which causes problems in
The Hoax's final third. When Clifford starts having imaginary encounters with some shady government officials (after uncovering information linking Hughes to Nixon), this lively and neatly-constructed film starts to falter, and Gere's limitations as an actor become a little more evident he is asked to move into more demanding territory. Then, when Clifford's hoax is discovered with twenty minutes to go, the film just about deflates completely, and it rather crawls to a conclusion which is hardly befitting of the fun to be had in its opening two-thirds.

The Hoax has built up enough goodwill by this time to overcome the draggy climax though, and it's the film's most enjoyable elements which linger after the credits have rolled. This is Hallström's best film in years, the cast is a constant pleasure, and the story of Clifford Irving's near-hoodwinking of the world remains fascinating enough to pull the film through its rough patches. Does it matter that the filmmakers have altered or invented large chunks of that story for this cinematic version? Maybe, but it didn't bother me much, and perhaps the very nature of the story here allows for such a free hand, with the film mirroring Clifford's own loose approach to the truth. Bearing that in mind, it might be perfectly appropriate that The Hoax is never as much fun when reality intrudes on Irving's fantastical tale.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Review - Knocked Up

If Judd Apatow's 2005 hit The 40 Year-Old Virgin was all about one man's struggle with the very idea of sex, then his latest film is all about one man's struggle with the consequences of it. Aside from that small difference, Knocked Up and The 40 Year-Old Virgin are almost the same film. Both pictures have the same central theme, with their male protagonist being asked to leave their arrested adolescence behind and embrace the world of adult responsibility. Both pictures see that protagonist falling for a woman who seems almost too perfect, and nearly blowing their chance before they realise what they have; and the two films also share the same blend of vulgarity and heart, with a large, talented ensemble constantly playing around on the fringes of the main narrative. The most crucial similarity is this, though - both films are very, very funny.

Knocked Up is all about the anxieties and pressures of an unplanned pregnancy, and Apatow opens his film by contrasting the kind of lives led by his two central characters. Ben (Seth Rogen) is an unemployed slacker who spends his days getting stoned and goofing around with his equally unmotivated buddies. Ben does have one great entrepreneurial plan, a website he has been working on which will list the details for every nude scene to be found on film, but he's sadly unaware that such a site already exists. In contrast Alison (Katherine Heigl) has a thriving career. She works for E! Television (Ryan Seacrest contributes a fun, self-mocking cameo here) and she has just been offered an on-camera presenting role. Her career is on the rise while Ben is going nowhere, and under normal circumstances these two characters would probably never even be aware of each other's existence.

They do meet, though, at a nightclub where Alison is celebrating her promotion with sister Debbie (Leslie Mann). She likes Ben, he's charming, polite and funny, and after a night of dancing and drinking the inebriated pair head back to Alison's place. This is where their lives change. Ben is struggling with a condom when he mistakes Alison's "just hurry up and do it" as a request to go ahead without protection (as a side note: there's a constant modesty about Apatow's sex scenes, which contrasts oddly with the explicitness of the birth). The next morning the pair part after some awkward small talk, never to see each other again, but when Alison almost vomits on James Franco during an interview a few weeks later she realises that this one-night stand is going to have long-term consequences.

This is the film's trickiest juncture. The spectre of "the A word" ("rhymes with shmashmortion") is briefly raised but, probably realising that abortion is a comedy dead-end, Apatow only gives it a fleeting consideration. Once Alison decides that she is keeping the baby, the film's focus shifts to the budding relationship between her and Ben. The evolution of this central pairing might be hard to swallow for many viewers, as a genuine affection blooms quite rapidly between these two very different people who have been yoked together by circumstance, and Heigl shows considerable patience as she tries to mould this man-child into something resembling a model father; but we are encouraged to go along with it nonetheless, and the strong chemistry between Rogen and Heigl makes it palatable. Their performances are exemplary: Rogen, such a memorable supporting player in
The 40 Year-Old Virgin, steps up to the leading role here with confidence and skill, and the startlingly beautiful Heigl is a better match for him than anyone could have imagined. Between them they give real depth and nuance to their characters and their relationship, as they head out into these choppy, confusing and uncharted waters.

But the real magic in
Knocked Up - as in Apatow's previous film - is the brilliant ensemble work. The director gives his actors the freedom to improvise their way through scenes, taking the film down unexpected tangents and bouncing off each other with an irresistible verve. The hilarious dialogue which abounds in the scenes featuring Ben and his pals has the feel of dialogue thrown around among long-term friends, with Jason Segel, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill and Martin Starr all bringing something vital to the film. The endless stream of gags directed at the heavily-bearded Starr ("You look like Martin Scorsese on coke"; "You look like Robin Williams' knuckles") being emblematic of the laid-back, freewheeling atmosphere they create. But Apatow never lets this improvisation get out of hand; the film has a rambling, shaggy feel to it but the overall shape of the story remains intact.

Filling out the cast are Apatow's wife Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd, as Alison's sister and brother-in-law respectively, whose primary role is to act as a kind of continual cautionary tale for Ben and Alison. Their marriage has gone a little stale after the birth of their two children, and the tension between them threatens to have a knock-on effect for the central couple, as Ben sides with the funny and affable Pete while Alison understandably stands alongside her more highly strung, occasionally shrewish sister. Debbie's suspicion of Pete's infidelity is well-played, but does it belong here? This subplot pulls a little on the main narrative, and as much fun as
Knocked Up is, I started to wonder if there was a little too much of it by the time Ben and Pete were on their way to Vegas for a spot of male bonding in the final act. The 40 Year-Old Virgin occasionally felt overstretched as it clocked in around the two-hour mark, and Knocked Up begins to feel a little saggy as it approaches its 129-minute running time. Even if Apatow has no intention of shortening or tightening his pictures, he could learn to use his ample time more effectively, as Rogen's eventual maturation into father material feels disappointingly rushed here, pretty much being squeezed into little more than a single montage shortly before the climax.

The climax is a good one, though, and it quickly causes any thoughts of the film outstaying its welcome to evaporate. The birth scenes which bring the film to a close are both side-splitting and touching, and I was once again left pondering Apatow's incredible ability to have it both ways. He revels in the bawdiest of humour (a sex scene in which Ben is afraid of hitting his unborn child had me helpless with laughter) and yet he manages to pull off a story which rings true with heartfelt emotion. The secret of this director's success, I think, is the generosity of spirit, the satisfying sense of inclusiveness, which courses through the veins of his films. There's nothing mean-spirited, smug or cheap about his comedy; he doesn't patronise or belittle the people in his film. Judd Apatow really loves his characters and, after two hours in their company, so do we.