Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Review - Death Proof

The publicity for Death Proof describes it as 'The 5th Film by Quentin Tarantino', but what we're getting here is really only half of the story. Earlier this year Tarantino teamed up with Robert Rodriguez to present Grindhouse, a three-hour extravaganza celebrating the scuzzy B-movie tradition which so enraptured the two filmmakers during their formative years. The idea was to offer two movies for the price of one, with Rodriguez's zombie movie Planet Terror preceding Tarantino's Death Proof, and a batch of fake trailers for similarly trashy fare popping up in between. In addition, the spirit of the grindhouse cinema experience was evoked by the scratchy prints, mismatched film stock, missing reels and deliberate continuity errors. Depending on your point of view, Grindhouse was the most eagerly anticipated film of the year, or an ill-advised vanity project. Judging by the film's miserable box-office returns, it turned out to be the latter.

In an attempt to rescue something from this mess, the two films have been separated, expanded and will now be released in isolation. Tarantino's Death Proof is the first of the pictures to arrive on these shores (Planet Terror has not yet appeared on the radar), with around twenty minutes of footage being added to his original Grindhouse cut, and one wonders if that extra padding is directly responsible for the film being such a tedious drone of a movie. There were many reasons why I hated Tarantino's Kill Bill – specifically the ghastly Volume I, although the second part left me cold too – but I could never justifiably accuse those films of being boring. Death Proof, on the other hand, is lethally dull in ways I could never imagine from this once vital director.

One of the film's chief problems is the fact that is feels like such a pointless exercise now it has been extracted from its Grindhouse casing. Divorced from the whole experience of Tarantino and Rodriguez's double-bill, Death Proof seems even more like a self-indulgent wallow in the director's own film fandom, full of references to his favourite movies (he even references his own back catalogue a number of times) and slavishly crafted to match the dubious style and aesthetic of those sleazy 70's pics. But while Tarantino is undoubtedly having a great time in the middle of all this, what's in it for the rest of us? The director may think we will all be as thrilled as he is by the sight of four young women sitting around a table discussing Vanishing Point for ten minutes, but his dialogue feels lazy and almost self-parodic this time around, and the result is a number of interminable gaps throughout the film in which people talk and talk and talk while saying nothing of interest.

There is a plot, of sorts, but in the spirit of old exploitation movies it barely deserves to be described as such. The film opens with a group of three feisty young women (Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd and Sydney Poitier) embarking on a night out. In the car they discuss sex, weed and their plans for the weekend, and then they settle down in a bar where they knock back shots and dance sexily to a number of jukebox tunes. They also meet Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell, doing much with little), a taciturn loner with a scar running down one side of his face who has been observing this female posse throughout the evening. Mike gets his kicks from killing young women with his 'death proof' stunt car, and after the slow build-up we are treated to the sight of Mike's modified car in action. He sets about a single young blonde first (Rose McGowan), giving her a lift and then hurling her around the car's passenger box like a rag doll until she collapses in a bloody, quivering heap. Then comes the coup de grâce – Mike shuts off his headlights and engineers a head-on collision with the car carrying the group of girls we met earlier. Tarantino lingers on the details in showing us what a 200 mile per hour collision does to four female bodies; he even cuts back a couple of times to let us enjoy each girl's grisly fate in unsparing slow motion.

It's cold and nasty stuff, and after enduring forty-odd minutes of tepid foreplay it provides a most unsatisfying climax, but there's still more to come. A caption reading "fourteen months later" leads us into Death Proof's second section, in which only the personnel seems to have changed. The narrative trajectory again sees Stuntman Mike pitting himself against a group of women, with the new female cast comprising of Rosario Dawson, Zoë Bell, Tracie Thoms and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. This half of the picture is a little more tolerable, even if it suffers from the same witless verbal diarrhoea as the first, and maybe that's because Tarantino forgets about aping the grindhouse look about halfway through and gives us something which actually resembles a real movie. The final car chase is the first time Grindhouse develops any kind of momentum, with some first-rate stunt work on display (Zoë Bell excels here, although her acting performance is atrocious), but it's still sub-par filmmaking from a director we expect so much from.

What happened to Tarantino? Ten years ago he made Jackie Brown, a film which seemed to display a newfound maturity in his hugely exciting career, but after a six-year break his Kill Bill and Death Proof indicates a dismaying regression into adolescent fantasy. They are all style and nothing else, with Tarantino grabbing bits and pieces from obscure old movies and tossing them together in a masturbatory fashion, leading to shallow movies lacking in any sort of internal consistency or coherence. None of his characters feel real – Tarantino would rather have iconic figures in his films than human beings – and the less said about his attitude to the women the better. His last three films (counting Kill Bill as two) have been notable for the frequent pain and suffering he has inflicted on his female characters; there's something really twisted and callous about it. In Death Proof he blithely tosses in the notion that Mary Elizabeth Winstead is about to raped off-camera without giving it a second though, and his salacious focus on female bodies being ripped apart in the film's big crash sequence is deeply distasteful.

Death Proof is a trivial waste of our time and a scandalous waste of its director's considerable ability. Tarantino might smugly assume that we are all as fascinated by the minutiae of exploitation pictures as he clearly is, or that we are as deeply entranced by his trademark dialogue as he is, but that simply isn't the case. A decade ago the idea of this filmmaker turning in a film as poorly structured, ugly, dull and vapid as Death Proof would have been unthinkable; but his latest film bears the mark of a man who knows everything about movies while knowing nothing about life, and his work will continue to decline until he widens his viewpoint beyond his own increasingly uninteresting obsessions. Quentin Tarantino remains a director capable of genuine brilliance, and his work is borne of a genuine love for the medium, but right now he's simply making films for himself and no one else.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Review - Superbad and Good Luck Chuck


So, the Judd Apatow domination of American comedy continues apace. The latest production from his prolific laughter factory is Superbad – the younger, raunchier cousin to this summer's hit Knocked Up – and while the film has been directed by Gregg Mottola, it's the influence of the producer that we feel throughout. Once again, Apatow seems to have found that most elusive cinematic balance, a mainstream comedy which scores with both the public and the critics. Why do the films bearing his name meet with such near-unanimous acclaim? For one thing, Apatow productions tend to be pretty damn funny, but they also work on another level too, usually underscoring the laughter with a recognisable element of pain and empathy.

Much of Superbad has that same ring of truth about it, perhaps because it is such a personal project for screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. The pair began writing the script when they were just 13 years old, and as befitting a film written by teenagers their central characters' prime concerns are booze and sex. For Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera), high school life is coming to an end, and their thoughts are preoccupied by the end-of-term parties at which they both have specific targets in mind. Seth has his eye on Jules (Emma Stone), planning to get her blind drunk in order to facilitate the seduction process ("did you ever hear a girl say 'I got so drunk last night, I never should have slept with that guy' – we could be that mistake!" he exclaims). Evan has different ideas, though; he respects women, and he wants to have success with Becca (Martha MacIsaac) without the help of alcohol.

Nevertheless, the desire for alcohol eventually proves to be the catalyst for the insane After Hours-style night which lies ahead for the boys. Seth secures an invite to Jules' party by promising her that he'll provide the drinks, and she even trusts him with $100 of her money to do so. Seth has made this pledge in the knowledge that fellow student Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is getting a fake ID, but their plan hits its first stumbling block when they see what Fogell has produced. His card lists him as a 25 year-old Hawaiian organ donor named McLovin - no first name - and their big ideas lay in tatters when Fogell finds himself involved in a liquor store hold-up, being carted away by two police officers (Seth Rogen and Bill Hader) as the distraught Seth and Evan look on. Contrary to appearances, however, Fogell isn't being arrested. Instead, these two idiot cops are taking 'McLovin' out for a night of drinking and unconventional law enforcement, while Seth and Evan end up at a party at which they might be lucky to escape from in one piece.

Seth, Evan and Fogell are such likable and funny characters, most audience members would be quite happy to follow them anywhere, but Superbad does lose a little something when they go their separate ways for the bulk of the movie. The opening half-hour – kicking off with a funky retro credits sequence – is side-splitting, and while Hader and Rogen are fine as the cops, the scenes involving them are nowhere near as engaging as the ones featuring the teenagers on their own. One reason for this is the fact that the three young leads seem to fully inhabit their roles, giving comic performances which couldn't really be better. Seth is a brash figure, driven by his animal urges and spouting profanities with every other word, and Jonah Hill – also superb as part of the Knocked Up ensemble – shines throughout. Michael Cera is equally impressive as the more intelligent and sensitive Evan, the understated Yang to Seth's turbo-charged Ying, and the dialogue which zings between them has the freshly-minted feel of improvisation. The main trio is completed by Christopher Mintz-Plass, a non-actor who was chosen from an open audition process, and he gives a remarkably distinctive, often very funny performance as Fogell, but his performance is also a little one-note, and he lacks the extra dimensions that Hill and Cera bring to their characterisations.

There's a kind of shapelessness about Superbad as well. The film could have used some tightening up of its rambling narrative to prevent it from feeling around 10-15 minutes longer than it should be; and some of the humour misses the mark, with Hill's encounter with menstrual blood feeling particularly ill-judged. But these are minor criticisms in a film which is hilariously funny for most of its running time, and it offers a number of comic situations which are simply priceless. Seth's mime show in his cooking class; Evan being forced to sing in front of some coked-up rednecks; or Seth imagining potential outcomes as he prepares to steal the promised booze – these were just a few of the scenes which had me in stitches. There's also a fantastic flashback to Seth's younger days, which – in conjunction with the closing credits – confirms Superbad's status as the most dick-obsessed movie ever made.

And then, in the closing scenes, Superbad reveals its softer side. During the wonderfully staged climactic party and its aftermath, the relationship between Seth and Evan comes under the spotlight, and both actors play their part in a couple of genuinely touching scenes. At its simplest level, this film is ultimately about the shifting dynamics of a friendship which has hitherto defined the lives of these two characters; and by the time the film has reached its close, both Seth and Evan are on the verge of growing up and moving on into new territory. Superbad isn't quite as good a film as either Knocked Up or The 40 Year-Old Virgin, but in its own modest way this very funny picture has some perceptive things to say about the awkwardness and fears of teenage life, and the way we leave it behind. Like the best of Judd Apatow's output, Superbad
does have a heart - although on this occasion that organ undoubtedly plays second fiddle to the penis.

Good Luck ChuckGood Luck Chuck is the age-old story of a man blessed with a unique gift, who then discovers that his gift is in fact a terrible curse. Our protagonist is Charlie Logan (Dane Cook), a handsome and successful dentist who can't seem to hold down a long-term relationship. But something funny tends to happen with the women Charlie dates – they keep finding love with the very next man they meet. This is how Charlie earns the sobriquet Good Luck Chuck, and as soon as his curious ability becomes common knowledge, Charlie finds himself plagued by an endless queue of single women, all hoping that a single night of sex with him will lead them to their Mr Right.
From the above description, this film probably sounds like the dumbest and most egregious male fantasy since Spike Lee's She Hate Me - and yes, it probably is - but there's no real reason for Good Luck Chuck to be as bad as it has turned out. The screenwriters have found an original enough concept for their story, and in the early stages I was intrigued by the narrative possibilities lying ahead; but after opening with a funny scene set in Charlie's childhood, the movie quickly shows itself to be devoid of ideas. The film's dramatic tension, such as it is, develops when Charlie is attending an old flame's wedding and he literally bumps into Cam, a penguin fanatic who is also the most accident-prone woman on earth. Cam is seemingly incapable of walking a few yards without knocking over a table, bumping her head or almost killing Charlie; but as she bears a striking resemblance to Jessica Alba, Charlie is instantly smitten. This leaves him with quite a conundrum: Charlie wants to have sex with Cam, but how can he do so without simply laying the foundations for her next suitor?

Unfortunately, the chemistry between Cook and Alba is non-existent, a factor which quickly skewers the romantic aspirations of the picture, so that leaves us with the film's comedy: an avalanche of increasingly desperate gross-out gags which are mostly distinguished by their sheer laziness. Good Luck Chuck aims for the low and obvious joke every time, with a worrying percentage of the film's humour displaying a barely disguised disdain for women. The film is already on dodgy ground with its premise – implying that 90% of single ladies are desperate and needy enough to have sex with a stranger if it will get them a partner – but first-time director Mark Helfrich spends most of time offering titillating shots of generically sexy babes, and then laughing at any fat woman who wanders into frame. The film's lowest ebb is its big comedic set-piece, in which Charlie has sex with a disgustingly obese and dirty slob in order to disprove the 'lucky charm' theory. It's not funny, it's just unpleasant and cruel and cheap.

There are one or two amusing moments to be found here, a few provided by the rambunctious Dan Fogler as Charlie's lecherous pal, but the laughs die out as the film progresses down an increasingly unimaginative road. Good Luck Chuck settles for a straightforward rom-com narrative in which various obstacles and crises are thrown in the central couple's path before being quickly dealt with. It even opts for one of the oldest genre gambits in the book – the last-minute airport dash to stop a lover from leaving the country – but none of this matters as we haven't been given any reason to care about this couple. The plotting becomes very shoddy in the latter stages too, indicating that neither the director nor the writers have any idea where to take their high-concept conceit.

When all is said and done, Good Luck Chuck is a stupid and fairly offensive movie; and that's a shame, because the potential was there for something a little different, and the cast is decent value. According to the press notes Dane Cook is "arguably the most popular stand-up of his generation" (I've never heard of him), and he's a pretty solid lead here, even if his smugness is rather off-putting. Fogler makes the most of the standard 'outrageous best friend' role, stealing a number of scenes, but the real surprise of Good Luck Chuck is Jessica Alba, who comes out of the film with her reputation enhanced after displaying an unexpected knack for physical comedy. Okay, so she's no Carole Lombard, but Alba throws herself into her frequent pratfalls with commendable gusto, and her disarmingly enthusiastic performance is unquestionably one of the film's few bright spots. I'm still not quite convinced that Jessica Alba is anything more than just a pretty face, but a career in comedy may yet be the making of her.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Review - 3:10 to Yuma

It has been a while since Hollywood produced a truly great western – in fact, it has been 15 years now since Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven became an instant modern classic – and the genre has struggled to escape from that film's long, imposing shadow ever since. A couple of films have come close to the high bar set by Eastwood, like Kevin Costner's undervalued 2003 film Open Range, but most have come off looking like poor imitations of the classics of yesteryear. With that in mind, perhaps it makes sense for today's filmmakers to reach back into the past for their inspiration, and that's what James Mangold has done by dusting off the 1957 Delmer Daves film 3:10 to Yuma for a modern audience.

3:10 to Yuma is the kind of film which is ripe for the remake treatment. Instead of trying to update old masterpieces, today's directors should set their sights on the second tier of films which offer a solid premise, but which also offer room for improvement. The original adaptation of Elmore Leonard's short story is a good film rather than a great one; it suffers from being rather on the slight side and displays some creaky plot mechanics. For this 50th anniversary version, Mangold and the screenwriting partnership of Michael Brandt and Derek Haas have expanded on the original premise, upping the action quotient and adding in the requisite 21st century cynicism and moral ambiguity. Those creaky plot mechanics, alas, remain intact.

For the most part, 3:10 to Yuma sticks rigidly to the original framework, pitting upright citizen Dan Evans (Christian Bale) against ruthless outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe). The film opens with Evans' barn being set alight, almost killing his horses, by a landowner who wants him off the property. The age of the railroad is coming and Dan's land is worth more without him and his family inhabiting it. Dan's farm is failing, his water supply has been cut off, and he owes money left right and centre; so when a chance encounter hands him the opportunity of making $200, he jumps at the chance. All Dan has to do is join a gang which is escorting Wade to a town called Contention. There he will be put on the titular train, and he will be sentenced to hang for the twenty-two robberies which have cost over $400,000 and countless innocent lives.

It sounds like a relatively straightforward task, but it is a journey which is fraught with danger. Wade's gang (led by an outstanding Ben Foster) is hot on their tail, and despite being shackled and unarmed, Wade is still capable of taking lives with ease and great relish. The ever-decreasing group of men must also negotiate a nighttime encounter with Apaches and a battle with some unscrupulous railway men (including an incongruous Luke Wilson cameo). These encounters occur during the middle section of the picture, which is where Mangold makes the most of the extra running time afforded to him by this remake. His staging of the frequent shoot-outs is generally confident and lively (although the murky Apache battle barely registers), and from the first major set-piece – a raid on a bullion wagon, armed with an old-style Gatling gun – the director keeps things exciting and violent.

However, 3:10 to Yuma's ballistic elements are not the film's strongest suit. The meat of the story lies in the tension between Wade and Evans - the animosity which grows into a grudging respect, and which gradually sees the pair forming an uneasy alliance. Both characters are stock types – Wade is the ruthless killer with a poetic, sensitive side; Evans is the decent family man trying to prove his worth – but Crowe and Bale are two of the best actors working in Hollywood right now, and they bring plenty of heft to their potentially slight parts. Crowe is superb, playing his villainous role with a devilish glint in his eye, but Bale (what an extraordinary run of form he has been on recently) matches him stride for stride in the perhaps more difficult role. Hobbled by a wooden stump where his left foot should be, the development of Dan's moral fortitude is brilliantly played by the actor, and his growing stature in the eyes of his son (a fine Logan Lerman) is a satisfying aspect of the picture.

In fact the whole cast is great (Peter Fonda delivers a fantastic, grizzled cameo), and their authentic, rough-hewn performances keep us the atmosphere grounded in the heat and dust of the old west. But the story is problematic in parts, and while the overall shape of it is OK, it turns on a couple of plot points which are hard to swallow. First, the manner in which Ben Wade gets himself caught is perplexingly cheap – when he has already been established as a man far more intelligent and cunning than most around him – but it sets the plot in motion so we'll let it slide. However, the twist in the final act is a howler, with Wade's redemption coming about in a single scene – seemingly prompted by a single line of dialogue from Evans – and his actions after this jarring switch never ring true. Earlier in the film young William pleads to Wade's better nature, claiming that he "ain't all bad", but Wade denies this even though we know it to be true. 3:10 to Yuma might have offered a far more interesting experience if it had allowed its villain to remain just that, and challenged Dan Evans to rise to the task. Sometimes, particularly in this genre, you just want to see the good guys putting the bad guys away.

The final twenty minutes is explosively staged, but the curious shift in Wade's behaviour saps its intensity, and the wildly implausible nature of the gunplay (just how many bullets do those six-shooters hold?) is a bit much at times too. The finale errs on the shoddy side, but for the most part 3:10 to Yuma grips and entertains. Mangold has brought the genre up-to-date with plenty of action and excitement, but at its heart the film retains an old-fashioned western spirit. It's about loyalty and honour; it's about taking the tough choices and seeing them through to end; it's about a man doing what a man's gotta do – the kind of things these films used to tell us all the time. 3:10 to Yuma falls some way short of being a great western, but at least we can take pleasure in the fact that Mangold has kept it on the rails for most of the journey.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Review - A Mighty Heart

The arrival in cinemas of A Mighty Heart is a welcome reminder that Angelina Jolie – humanitarian, mother, and all-round A-list star – is also a very capable actress, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who needed to be reassured of that fact. Over the past few years her high profile has been linked more to her various activities off-screen rather than her work on it, but is that a surprise when her choice of roles since 1999’s Oscar-winner Girl, Interrupted has been so dreadfully poor? With brainless fare such as the Tomb Raider movies, Original Sin, Alexander and Mr and Mrs Smith on her recent CV, Angelina the celebrity has well and truly eclipsed Angelina the actress. Fortunately, her starring role in A Mighty Heart goes some way towards redressing the balance.

A Mighty Heart is the story of Mariane Pearl, the woman who joined her journalist husband on his trips through Afghanistan and Pakistan shortly after 9/11, but when she left Karachi in February of 2002 she was a widow. Her husband Daniel (played, mostly in flashback, by an uncannily cast Dan Futterman) had been investigating links between shoe bomber Richard Reid and Pakistani intelligence agencies when he was abducted en route to a meeting with a Muslim cleric. He was held for nine days before being executed; his brutal decapitation being captured on videotape and released onto the internet for viewing by a shocked and repulsed world. His attractive wife, who was heavily pregnant at the time, naturally became the prime focus of attention for the world’s press, but Mariane maintained a calm and dignified façade in the media spotlight, and she later wrote about her experiences in the book from which this film takes its name.

This is a risky role for Jolie to take on, a role she hardly seems a natural match for, but under the careful direction of Michael Winterbottom she manages to confound every expectation. Jolie appears here with a black corkscrew wig, darkened skin and tinted contact lenses to overcome the physical disparity between herself and the French-Cuban Mariane, and this external transformation does wonders for her. For one thing, I’m not sure if Jolie has ever been more naturally beautiful on screen, but the second and more pertinent benefit is the way it allows her to slip inside a character for the first time in a very long time. This is a sensitive and unshowy piece of acting; Jolie plays Mariane with a conviction and intelligence, internalising her character’s emotions and never slipping into hysterics despite the devastating nature of the story. Her performance is the centre of the movie, but it doesn’t dominate it, and her quiet display of courage and resolve – even as hope for Daniel’s safe return slips rapidly away – is subtly shattering.

There are two moments in the film in which Jolie is allowed to crack; the first is a quiet scene in which she weeps softly in the garden, before composing herself and re-entering the house, the second is a volcanic explosion of pain and dismay when Mariane learns of her husband’s grisly fate. Jolie pounds the wall and collapses on the floor screaming “No! No! No!”, but Winterbottom shoots both of these emotional scenes from the rear, keeping Pearl’s tears away from the viewers and making us feel like intruders on her grief.

Winterbottom’s no-nonsense approach to A Mighty Heart is refreshing. He is a director who is as inconsistent as he is prolific, and his latest picture still bears many of the frustrating lapses that always seem to mark his work, but he makes the film tight and compelling nonetheless. Much of it plays like a procedural, following the work of the Karachi police force (led by a superb Irrfan Khan), a couple of American investigators and two of Daniel’s Wall Street Journal colleagues as they hunt for clues. The trail is bewildering, replete with false leads and red herrings, and it’s often hard to make sense of the way in which the search party join the dots from one lead to the next. Many of the investigative scenes are a cacophony of overlapping voices and indistinct action, which renders many of these scenes unnecessarily confusing, but on a wider scale Winterbottom manages to get across the enormity of their task, as they hunt for a single man in a bustling city of 18 million people.

For a Michael Winterbottom film set directly after 9/11, A Mighty Heart is surprisingly apolitical, although Winterbottom and screenwriter John Orloff do pay some attention to the pervading climate. Reference is made to torture being used as a method of interrogation, with Will Patton, whose performance seems oddly disconnected from the rest of the film, saying “I’d like a front-row seat when they hang them by the feat and beat them with sticks”; and Archie Panjabi gives a telling performance as Pearl’s colleague, who is constantly aware of her status as an Indian in Pakistan. But these are underlying themes, and the central focus of the film remains fixed on Mariane, as it should be.

Ultimately, A Mighty Heart is distinguished most by what it isn’t – it isn’t a vanity project, it isn’t a glossy take on a tragic story, and it isn’t a cheaply manipulative tearjerker. Some might accuse the film of slipping into sentimentality in its final fifteen minutes, but I felt it had earned the emotions stirred up by this climax; a climax I found incredibly moving and satisfying. A Mighty Heart is one of Winterbottom’s most impressive films, and it is something of a redemption for its leading lady, but above all this film acts as a fitting tribute to both Daniel and Mariane Pearl. It leaves us feeling sad and thoughtful, but above all we are left with a sense of great admiration for their courage and dignity in the most horrific circumstances; and in the case of Mariane, one can only marvel at her extraordinary grace under pressure.

Preview - The BFI London Film Festival 2007

The 51st annual London Film Festival kicks off on October 17th with David Cronenberg’s thriller Eastern Promises, and it closes on November 1st with Wes Anderson’s latest quirk-fest The Darjeeling Limited. In the two intervening weeks a remarkable variety of films from around the globe will be on show, and one glance at the full line-up, which was announced today, seems to suggest a particularly strong year. I’ve selected a few films below which I am particularly excited about, although one of the chief pleasures of the festival is always the fact that it can throw up gems in the most unlikely places.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
(Andrew Dominik)

Brad Pitt stars as James and Casey Affleck takes the role of his killer in this western from Australian director Andrew Dominik, his first film since his outstanding debut Chopper seven years ago. Pitt won Best Actor at Venice for this film, which looks like a throwback to the brooding, thoughtful genre entries of the 70’s. If nothing else, it certainly offers one of the best titles of the year.

Back to Normandy
(Nicolas Philibert)
Acclaimed documentarian Nicolas Philibert delves into his past for his follow-up to the hugely popular Être et avoir. In 1975 Philibert worked as an assistant director on a film called Moi, Pierre Rivière, ayant égorgé ma mère, ma soeur et mon frère..., and he now revisits the area in which that picture was shot, tracking down the participants and talking to them about their memories and experiences three decades on.

The Banishment
(Andreï Zviaguintsev)
This is the second film from Russian director Zviaguintsev who made one of the greatest films of the 21st century with his 2003 debut The Return. As a result, expectations are extremely high for this film, a loose adaptation of a William Sorayan story which examines an increasingly strained marriage. If Zviaguintsev's new picture is even half as memorable as his first then it will be one of the highlights of the festival.

Brand Upon the Brain!
(Guy Maddin)

A new film from Guy Maddin demands the attention, and his latest picture is his most ambitious effort yet. Brand Upon the Brain! has been presented with a live orchestra, celebrity narration and a foley artist at various international festivals; but it’s unclear at the moment if the LFF will be offering the full experience. However it’s staged, though, this is one film which is not to be missed.

The Edge of Heaven
(Fatih Akin)
Like his brilliant 2004 film Head-On, faith Akin’s The Edge of Heaven is another story exploring the lives of second-generation Turks living in Germany. It focuses on the relationship between a lonely man and a prostitute, and it one can be assured that this exciting young filmmaker will take this relationship to some unexpected and interesting places.

Funny Games
(Michael Haneke)
This one could go either way. One wonders why Haneke has felt the need to remake his masterful 1997 film on American soil, but if the picture was going to get an English-language remake then I suppose he’s the best man for the job. Naomi Watts and Tim Roth take on the lead roles, and Haneke is certainly good enough to ratchet up the tension a second time. It’s hard to see the point of it, though.

Glory to the Filmmaker!
(Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano)

Kitano has drifted away from the popular and gripping gangster films which made his name in recent years (his last film, Takeshis’, remains unreleased here), and Glory to the Filmmaker promises to be his most bizarre picture yet. It has been described as Kitano’s 8 ½, and God alone knows what that might be like, but I can’t wait to see what this unpredictable director has in store.

I’m Not There
(Todd Haynes)
Heath Ledger stars as Bob Dylan. So does Richard Gere, and Cate Blanchett, and three other actors... Haynes’s unconventional biopic, using a different actor to explore the various stages of Dylan’s life will certainly be a strange affair. Blanchett’s performance has drawn most of the attention so far, with Harvey Weinstein declaring, “if Cate Blanchett doesn’t get nominated, I’ll shoot myself”. Er, can we hold him to that?

Lions for Lambs
(Robert Redford)
Redford! Streep! Cruise! The LFF receives a shot of pure Hollywood glitz with this political drama, surely the highest-profile film yet to directly tackle the current war in Iraq. Redford is also directing - which could mean anything from the Legend of Bagger Vance to Quiz Show - but given the strong cast and the serious themes, let’s hope it’s more like the latter.

Lust, Caution
(Ang Lee)

The latest film from a director who has been one of the most consistently brilliant filmmakers of the past decade (okay, let’s forget about Hulk for now) is a spy thriller set in 1940’s China. The great Tony Leung stars alongside newcomer Tang Wei in a film which has already received notices for its sexual content. To their credit, the filmmakers have refused to cut their movie for its US release, taking the NC-17 rating and ensuring viewers will see the film as its director intended.

Things We Lost in the Fire
(Susanne Bier)
The central plot of Things We Lost in the Fire sounds like the stuff of cheap melodrama – a woman trying to rebuild her life after tragedy, who forms a friendship with a drug addict. However, this film has been directed by Susanne Bier, the Danish filmmaker whose ability to turn soapy plots into emotionally demanding dramas has seen her carve out a hugely impressive body of work over the past few years. Things We Lost in the Fire is her English-language debut, starring Halle Berry, Benicio Del Toro and David Duchovny, and one hopes the edginess and full-on intensity of Bier’s work doesn’t get lost in translation.


Steve Buscemi (whose new film Interview is playing here) will be discussing his work as both an actor and a director, Harmony Korine will be interviewed about his distinctive oeuvre, and Wes Anderson will be along for an interview ahead of the closing night gala. Robert Rodriguez will here for a chat (his Planet Terror is in the festival programme, although it still hasn’t received a UK release date), and Laura Linney, one of the best actresses currently working, will be appearing at the NFT to discuss her career. Paul Greengrass will be receiving the Variety UK Achievement in Film Award, and he will sit down for an interview after the presentation, while David Lynch and Donovan will discuss the ways meditation has changed their life and work (seriously!).

The Surprise Film

This, of course, could be anything, but it’s always pretty exciting to sit down in front of a film without having a clue what you’re about to see. Recent entries have been both good (School of Rock, Sideways) and not so good (Mrs Henderson Presents, The Prestige), so it's hard to predict how this screening will go. Generally, one starts the speculation by looking for a film which would normally appear in the main festival programme, and which appears conspicuous by its absence. So, with that in mind, I am on my hands and knees praying for the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men. Perhaps that’s too much to hope for, but we can dream....

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Review - Atonement

Atonement begins with the clickety-clack of typewriter keys, hammering out the opening credits, and we continue to hear this sound as the camera moves through the rooms of a stately country house, eventually settling on 13 year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan), who is putting the finishing touches to her first play. When she gets up to find her mother, the sound of the typewriter merges seamlessly with Dario Marianelli's music to sweep us through the building as Briony flits from room to room. It's a brilliant opening. Within moments Briony has been established as a storyteller, a child whose mind is constantly taking flights of fancy, and during the course of the film her propensity for telling tales will have destroyed two lives irreparably.

Ian McEwan's acclaimed but rather overrated 2001 novel Atonement has often been considered a book which defies adaptation, relying as it does on tricky literary conceits and a most unreliable narrator; but this screen version, from director Joe Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, is an admirable effort. The book has been condensed and streamlined in a smart fashion, and Wright - in only his second film - orchestrates the onscreen events with incredible confidence and verve. If the film never quite reaches the level of greatness it aspires to, it's certainly not for a lack of quality or imagination.

The first hour, in particular, is often stunning. The pivotal events in McEwan's narrative spring from a child misunderstanding the true nature of what she has witnessed, and the film has a neat approach to the multiple points of view the story requires. In the first, and most important, of these scenes Briony watches from the window as her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightly) and the gardener Robbie (James McAvoy) become embroiled in a heated exchange by the fountain. Inexplicably, Cecilia then strips down to her undergarments and plunges into the fountain, emerging seconds later and standing exposed in front of Robbie before hurriedly dressing and fleeing the scene. We see what Briony sees at first, but Wright then immediately cuts back to the start of the sequence to show us exactly what happened, and he uses the same tactic when Briony stumbles upon Cecilia and Robbie's intimate encounter in the library.

The cumulative effect of these incidents, along with Briony's interception of a note meant for her sister (the filmmakers, to their credit, haven't toned down the language used in this letter), leads her to make an false accusation against Robbie which has devastating consequences. The two lovers are wrenched apart as Robbie is arrested, but we don't really feel the pain of their split as the romance, seemingly born out of just two scenes together, feels underdeveloped. The pair of them are then separated for the bulk of the movie (although they do share one lovely, Brief Encounter-ish scene later on), as McAvoy goes to war and Cecilia becomes a nurse. Briony (now played by Romola Garai) also signs up for training as a nurse, but she is tormented by an ever-growing sense of guilt over her actions four years previously.

When the three principal actors are separated in this way, Atonement loses much of the intensity that it displayed in its opening section, and it never quite regains that early liveliness and ingenuity. The whole film is masterfully put together, with Wright finding a way to make every shot shimmer with a invigorating sense of beauty and sensuality, but as the film progresses one sometimes gets the feeling that he's a little bit too in love with his own visuals. There are a number of moments in the film's middle section which reek of self-indulgence, like the shot of a lonely Robbie silhouetted against a cinema screen showing Le Quai des Brumes; and the film grinds to a halt when Wright decides to take on a five-minute tracking shot along the beach at Dunkirk. It's an impressive sight, sure, but it's such a self-consciously swaggering display of directorial artistry I found myself considering the logistics of the sequence rather than engaging with the content of it. The parts of McEwan's book dealing with Robbie's wartime experiences were the most evocative and compelling in the novel, but for all his technical bravado Wright doesn't find a way to similarly express the horror of conflict.

In fact, the only sensation we get of the trauma Robbie experiences is by looking at the increasingly haunted expression on James McAvoy's face. This is a really superb performance from McAvoy, who has been fine in a series of recent films but he goes to new depths here with a completely authentic and emotionally dextrous piece of acting. As the object of his affections Knightly is somewhat less impressive. She is perhaps hindered by the emotional reticence of her character, but I remain unconvinced that she possesses the range and depth required for any serious acting performance (how she received an Academy Award nomination for her average work in Wright's Pride and Prejudice is still beyond me). The best female performances in the film come from the breathtakingly assured Saoirse Ronan and Romola Garai as the various stages of Briony. Late in the film, Vanessa Redgrave appears as the elder Briony (the casting of these three women as the same character is superb), who has committed her story to paper in a bid to atone for her misdeeds.

This climax, changing our perception of everything that has gone before, was unconvincing on the page and it flops badly again here. Hampton has probably taken the best possible route to bringing this final chapter to the screen, but for a tale of romance and lost love it carries no emotional force. It is, like many of Atonement's flaws, a problem inherent from the novel, but throughout the film the lack of a heart to the story is telling. We watch the film impressed but unmoved, admiring its style and intelligence while never really getting close to the characters involved.

It does remain an impressive film, though, and Atonement will undoubtedly receive numerous nominations when awards season comes around, most of which will be richly deserved. There is an undeniable thrill to be had watching a young British director working with such a breadth of vision, and it is a rare thing indeed to be presented with a film from these isles that genuinely feels like a cinematic event. Joe Wright has the eye and the talent to go far, and despite his tendency to be a little too enthralled with his own ability at times, he should be encouraged in his endeavours to bring a new, dynamic approach to British prestige pictures. I'm sure this director has a great film in him; on this occasion he is unfortunate to be defeated by his own source material.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Review - Lady Chatterley

Lady Chatterley is a name synonymous with sex and scandal. DH Lawrence's 1928 novel Lady Chatterley's Lover is infamous for the obscenity trial it sparked in Britain in 1960; the book's frank sexual descriptions and the liberal use of the word "fuck" clearly being deemed too much for the average British reader to take. As one high court judge asked during the trial: "is it a book you would be happy for your wife or servants to read?". Well, they did get to read it eventually, with the book winning its case and striking a blow for freedom of speech, but the whiff of notoriety has never quite left Lawrence's last work; and its two most well-known screen adaptations - Just Jaekin's 1981 film and Ken Russell's 1993 TV version - have revelled in its bawdy content, serving up buckets of sex for the discerning viewer.

Now, we have a third take on the
Lady Chatterley story, but this one is a little different. It is not from the third and most famous version of Lawrence's novel - the one which caused such controversy and inspired Jaekin and Russell - but it is in fact based on the second of the three books which the author wrote, John Thomas and Lady Jane. This book had more sex than the first draft, but not quite as much as the third, and the blunt language which was prevalent in Lady Chatterley's Lover was a little less evident in this middle entry as well. But if Pascal Ferrain's Lady Chatterley is anything to go by, any sense of passion and excitement was excised from this version of the tale as well.

The central thrust of the narrative remains the same. Lady Constance Chatterley (Marina Hands) lives on Wragby estate with her husband Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), who has come back from the Great War without the use of his legs. With her life being consumed by care for her husband, and with a complete lack of sexual gratification in their marriage (although it is hinted that this was the case even before Clifford's paralysis), Constance slips into a malaise, and a doctor recommends hiring help to relieve some of the burden on her weakened shoulders. After Mrs Bolton (Hélène Alexandridis) has been installed as Clifford's nurse, Constance starts taking walks around the grounds to revive her spirits, and during one of these constitutionals she sees the gamekeeper Parkin (Jean-Louis Coullo'ch). He is stripped to the waist, bathing behind his hut, and a startled Constance is seemingly so overcome with confusing feelings she bolts from the scene.

Clearly, the sight of Parkin's burly body unlocked something inside Lady Chatterley, and that evening she stands naked in front of the mirror, regarding her body as if she was looking at some stranger for the first time. She begins making excuses to visit Parkin on a daily basis, telling him that his hut is a lovely spot for her to rest, and asking him to find a spare key so she can stop by while he's away. At first he seems to consider her a nuisance, grudgingly affording her the respect demanded by her status while he tries to get on with his work; but there's something between the pair, and eventually they find themselves inside the hut, having sex on Parkin's dusty floor.

What's a little surprising about
Lady Chatterley is how long it takes for the central romance to kick in, and how long Ferrain can stretch things out afterwards. The film has been cut down from a four-hour French miniseries, but it still runs at an excessive 168 minutes, and the slow pace is a killer. Ferrain gives her film a kind of literary set-up, dividing scenes with chapter headings telling us how much time has elapsed and telling us where we are in the story, and occasionally a piece of narration from the book will be read by the director herself; but it's a bit of an awkward mix, and it makes the whole picture feel sluggish and episodic. So too does her habit of cutting away to shots of the natural world which surrounds her characters; it looks pretty - and the images of thawing snow, babbling brooks and blossoming flowers are occasionally effective in evoking Constance's awakening sexuality - but Ferrain is no Terrence Malick, and her inability to make this stylistic choice feel like an integral part of the film's structure ensures these cutaways become very tedious before the end.

In any case, every time Ferrain cuts away from Marina Hands she is doing her film a disservice. Hands is absolutely wonderful, detailing her character's thoughts and emotions through the most subtle yet engaging means, and Ferrain gives her plenty of room to deliver such a compelling display, but she doesn't extend such courtesies to the rest of her cast.
Lady Chatterley has the distinction of being the first version of the story directed by a woman, and Ferrain seems so enamoured by her leading lady she leaves the male members of the cast with little to work with. The casting of Parkin is curious, with Coullo'ch being quite unlike the hunky actors who have played this role previously. He has a large, angular head with a heavy brow and a grumpy demeanour; but what really matters is his lack of a tangible personality, and the dearth of chemistry he shares with Hands. He's a dull and inexpressive actor, and when a discussion occurs late in the film about Parkin being "too sensitive", one wonders if we are thinking about the same character.

To be fair to Ferrain, there is beauty here.
Lady Chatterley is a classily made film across the board, and it's easy to get lost in the visual splendour of some of its lazily paced passages. Crucially, Ferrain is excellent when dealing with the film's sexual scenes, generating a real erotic charge in the couple's encounters despite refraining from showing anything overly explicit, but Lady Chatterley's handful of compelling moments are too thinly spread over its long running time. The climax, when it finally comes, is a muddy puddle of inconsequence, and while the glorious Marina Hands does her best to keep us hooked, she is lost in a film which is unworthy of her. Lady Chatterley should be passionate and dangerous, sexy and alive; but without any drama or tension to drive its narrative, this version of DH Lawrence's scandalous tale is a dispiritingly limp affair.