Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Review - No Country for Old Men

"I was sheriff of this county when I was twenty-five. Hard to believe", a voice tells us over the opening images of No Country for Old Men, as we watch one shot of the stark Texan landscape dissolving into another. This is Sherriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) speaking; a lawman nearing retirement whose grouchy voice takes on an note of despair as he contemplates the times he is now living in. "The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure," he tells us, "you can say it's my job to fight it but I don't know what it is anymore". After his opening narration has concluded, we are invited to witness the kind of crime he is talking about; a prisoner, his hands manacled, strangles a cop to death with brutal efficiency. His wide eyes stare at the ceiling as he relishes the cop's dying breaths, and then the man calmly exhales in a satisfied fashion when the body goes limp. The sequence is violent, abrupt and deeply chilling.

Joel and Ethan Coen have rarely taken their material so seriously. This adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's gripping 2005 novel marks the first time the brothers have translated a book for the screen, and the task seems to have fired their creative juices and artistic sensibilities in ways we haven't seen since their masterful Fargo. The Coens find the perfect pitch for McCarthy's story, maintaining the novel's spare and clinical narrative style, and generating a level of tension, which is as surprising from these filmmakers as it is effective. Of course, the Coens still provide us with moments of their trademark deadpan levity – a couple of scenes will make you laugh out loud – but the directors never lose that fine balance, just giving us a cluster of humorous asides which come as a blessed relief amidst the film's pervading sense of fear and fatalism.

No Country for Old Men is set in Texas in the early 1980's. After being hooked by the opening scenes described above, we meet the film's central protagonist Llewelyn Moss (an outstanding Josh Brolin), the archetypal normal guy brought low by one mistake. He is out hunting in the afternoon sun when he comes across a grisly scene, a drugs exchange gone bad, with abandoned cars and dead bodies lying scattered in the dust. He finds a huge stash of heroin in the back of one truck, and some distance away he comes across a case containing over $2 million in cash. He takes the money, and in doing so he unleashes a chain reaction of bloodshed, with a relentless force of evil named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) hell-bent on tracking him down and retrieving the stash.

Chigurh was a compelling villain on the page and Javier Bardem's embodiment of this character is astonishing. He cuts an unusual figure with his floppy haircut, but he possesses a presence that sends shivers down the spine whenever he appears, and the methodical manner in which he goes about his business – killing his victims with a cold, professional detachment – is incredibly unsettling. In Bardem's hands, this soulless and terrifying psychopath lives up to both Moss's description of him as "the ultimate badass", and Bell's contention that he is almost like a ghost. He acts as the Yang to the Ying of Josh Brolin's essentially decent character, who quickly finds himself out of his depth as the plot escalates, but who is resourceful and intelligent, displaying the instincts of a hunter even when he is the prey.

No Country for Old Men is typically peppered with actors who make a vivid impression in supporting roles. Woody Harrelson appears as a cocky, swaggering bounty hunter; Stephen Root is strong as the businessman behind the drug deal that set these events in motion; and Kelly McDonald turns in an outstanding display as Llewelyn's wife, making her an affecting figure in just a handful of scenes. The Coens have always cast their movies well, though, and No Country for Old Men is more notable for the advancement in other key areas of their work. There's a pensiveness and restraint about their direction here; the film recalls the likes of Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, Fargo and The Man Who Wasn't There in spirit, but it lacks the layer of irony which those films displayed. It is also one of the rare Coen films which doesn't feel like it is constantly nodding to pictures or genres from a bygone cinematic age; instead, they play McCarthy's narrative with an admirably straight bat, and the result is mesmerising.

The Coens stage a series of sequences in this film which are a wonder to behold. Many of No Country for Old Men's most memorable passages occur during the cat-and-mouse games between Moss and Chigurh – involving much stalking through darkened corridors and adjacent motel rooms – and working in conjunction with the magnificent Roger Deakins (is there a better cinematographer in cinema today?), they craft a series of nerve-jangling set-pieces. Carter Burwell is again credited with the film's musical score; but beyond the end credits I can't remember any music. What I do remember is the frequent, eerie silence – the air thick with tension – and the subtly brilliant sound design: like the ominous hiss emitted by Chigurh's portable gas canister, just before we hear the horrible phud of his bolt-gun claiming another victim. This is simply a flawlessly crafted picture at every level.

But in spite of the peerless craftsmanship on show here, will No Country for Old Men still disappoint many viewers? McCarthy's novel has a habit of omitting key incidents, or giving them just a brief mention, and the story's ending intentionally leaves loose ends dangling and many questions unanswered. His violent tale is a messy one, replete with randomness and ambiguity – that's what allows it to get under the skin so brilliantly – and the Coens have translated it to the screen without trying to embellish or tidy it up in any way. This means we have a situation where the major climactic incident takes place off-screen, where the big face-off we have been anticipating never really occurs, and where the film ends in a quiet, melancholic fashion rather than closing with a bang. It is a picture that refuses to satisfy the audience in a straightforward or conventional manner, but it is easy to imagine this haunting film having a long life beyond the final credits.

This is exactly what the Coen Brothers needed after their clutch of recent disappointing comedies, and while I'm not quite sure yet if it is the best work they have ever done (I'll need a second viewing, which I really can't wait for) it is definitely their most distinctive and mature film to date. In Cormac McCarthy they seem to have found a kindred spirit, a writer whose work allows them to explore themes such as the cruel and random nature of violence, and to lament for old moral certainties being swept away by "the rising of the tide". We feel much of this simply by looking at the weary, defeated demeanour of Tommy Lee Jones, as he surveys the carnage surrounding him with an air of dismay and incomprehension. Rarely have this actor's particular gifts been put to such effective use; and, in a resonant epilogue, his face, voice and body language tell us everything as he recounts an ambiguous dream. He looks for all the world like a man who has borne witness to too much evil; a man who can never forget the terrible things that he has seen.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Review - Eastern Promises

David Cronenberg's new film Eastern Promises opens with two contrasting scenes of bloodshed. The first occurs in a London barbershop, the hapless victim being held down by one man as another slices his throat open with a straight razor. The scene then shifts to elsewhere in the city, as a barefoot young girl staggers into a chemist and asks for help in the few words of English she has, before passing out on the floor with blood dripping from between her legs. This is Tatiana (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse), a 14 year-old Russian girl who is about to give birth. She is rushed to hospital where the doctors manage to save the child but not the mother, and Anna (Naomi Watts), an English nurse of Russian descent, is left holding the baby. She is also left holding Tatiana's diary, which she found in the dead girl's belongings, but her attempts to get this diary translated lead her into trouble.

Eventually, Anna traces Tatiana's rape back to the Vory V Zakone, a criminal brotherhood headed up by restaurant owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel); but the most interesting character she encounters is the family chauffer Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), and it is he who gradually becomes the film's central figure. The reuniting of David Cronenberg with Mortensen will undoubtedly prompt many viewers to compare Eastern Promises with the director's brilliant A History of Violence, but such a comparison would be unfair and inappropriate. A History of Violence had a tightly wound narrative which gradually took on extra layers of complexity and ambiguity as it progressed, while Eastern Promises is just a thriller, and not a particularly special one at that.

That's not to say that the film is devoid of special moments – one scene in particular is already being hailed as a classic – but it generally feels pedestrian and unconvincing. Its main flaws lie with the story provided by Steven Knight, the screenwriter behind Stephen Frears' 2002 drama Dirty Pretty Things. The plot unfolds in an oddly conventional and unexciting way, hitting most of the expected beats, and Knight has a tendency to hint at background details, which either have little bearing on the main narrative or are left frustratingly unexplored. Knight also gives the film a fuzzy sense of perspective; Anna's amateur detective work initially appears to be the prime focus of the narrative, but the film then makes Nikolai its main protagonist – leaving Watts somewhat underused – and all the while an ill-advised, cliché-ridden voiceover gives us English excerpts from Tatiana's diary.

This is mediocre stuff, but it's a testament to Cronenberg's level of craftsmanship that he occasionally brings it to life. The film's show-stopping sequence occurs in a Turkish bathhouse, when a naked Nikolai is ambushed by two knife-wielding assassins, and he fights them off in a brutal encounter which is shot and edited with ferocious vigour. It's a trademark Cronenberg vignette; but despite the customary skill with which he directs this picture – and Eastern Promises is classily made throughout – I'm not sure if he was the right man for the job in the first place. Throughout his career Cronenberg has been fascinated with the intimate details of his characters rather than the places they live in – even in A History of Violence he painted the setting in broad strokes, intentionally suggesting a bland and clichéd vision of small town America – but Eastern Promises requires something more than that. The director doesn't make much of his London setting, shooting in dingy backstreets and coming up with a mostly anonymous view of the city; and he doesn't really delve into the culture and rituals of the Vory V Zakone in the way a filmmaker more interested in such things – a Scorsese or Coppola, for example – might have done. Stephen Frears delivered a much more authentic and intriguing vision of immigrant life in London in Dirty Pretty Things, and nothing in Eastern Promises ever feels as immersive, atmospheric or true as Cronenberg's last London-set feature, the superb and sorely undervalued Spider.

The characterisation is a little on the slim side as well, although the actors bring a lot of conviction to the film (perhaps too much, in Vincent Cassel's case). Naomi Watts is fine as the intrepid heroine, but this is one of the least demanding roles she has ever been given (compare this to her knife-edge performance in the forthcoming Funny Games), and her character doesn't really develop beyond a certain point. The ever-reliable Armin Mueller-Stahl brings a sense of understated menace to his acting, but there's nothing understated about the man playing his offspring. As Kirill, Vincent Cassel is usually drunk, shouting, or drunk and shouting (with a loose grasp on his accent), and the homoerotic subtext in his relationship with Nikolai is hardly played at a subtle level.

It's Mortensen who holds the film together, though, and his performance is the best reason to see Eastern Promises. Who could have guessed that this actor would be such a perfect match for this director? His exceptional display in A History of Violence was a quantum leap ahead of anything he had delivered in the past, and he is riveting in a different way here. As Nikolai, Mortensen gives a fantastically controlled, detailed and physical performance; every movement and gesture seems considered and pointed, and he speaks the language as if to the manner born. All of the best moments in the film belong to him: the knife fight, for sure, but also the cold manner in which he chops up a body early in film, the way he extinguishes a cigarette on his tongue, or that chilling "throat cut" gesture he makes at Anna's Russian uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski). Cronenberg's latest picture lacks suspense, excitement and surprises – and the climax is a mess – but Mortensen's Nikolai almost makes it work. He's the only character who feels like he exists beyond the confines of this narrative, and given what we learn about his backstory late in the picture, Eastern Promises ultimately feels like a frustrating prologue to a far more interesting movie.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Review - Rendition and Redacted

Take a look at the release schedules for the next couple of months and you'll notice plenty of American films with one thing on their mind: the war on terror at home and abroad. Some of the forthcoming pictures – like The Valley of Elah or Lions for Lambs – are high-profile propositions, with A-list talent using their clout to ensure stories far from the usual mainstream fare can be told. On the other hand, the war in Iraq has given rise to a number of documentaries and low-budget features purporting to give an edgier, less sanitised look at the conflict. Two films that neatly represent these philosophies are Rendition – a star-packed drama from the first category – and Redacted, a film which takes a daring, formally innovative approach to tackling this thorny subject matter. I've no doubt that both of these films were made with utter sincerity and the best of intentions from all concerned, but only one of them feels like it has anything useful to say, and it's not the one which most people will see.

Rendition concerns itself with the practice of "extraordinary rendition", a policy that allows the United States to extradite any suspected terror threat to an unclassified foreign jail where they will be subjected to severe interrogation methods. This is what happens to Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), an Egyptian now living in America, who is on his way home from a business trip when he is covertly snatched under the instruction of CIA bigwig Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep). He is swiftly despatched to North Africa where he is strapped to a chair, beaten, electrocuted and water-boarded in a dingy cell by a tough police captain (Igal Naor), while an inexperienced field agent (Jake Gyllenhaal) looks on uneasily. Meanwhile, Anwar's heavily-pregnant wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) is frantically looking for answers back home, and she turns to an old flame (Peter Sarsgaard) for help.

This is one of those criss-crossing films, like Syriana or Babel, which always seems to have a lot of incident happening at once, but which doesn't add up to a great deal at the end of it. Rendition has been directed by Gavin Hood, the South African filmmaker who inexplicably won an Academy Award for his dreary tearjerker Tsotsi, and he's at it again here, crafting another tepid drama which does just enough to suggest a real seriousness, while never being daring enough to explore the issues in any depth. The characters are simplistically drawn; Gyllenhaal's moral dilemma and eventual crisis of conscience feels trite, Streep's character is a one-note villainess (resulting in one of her worst performances), and Witherspoon – her natural perkiness drained away – is given nothing to do except to look worried to a variety of degrees.

Hood is a director who never takes a scalpel to a job where a sledgehammer is available. His overheated direction requires lustrous lighting in every scene and an orchestra of ethnic wailing on the soundtrack which reaches cacophonic levels at the picture's most melodramatic moments; and this glossy veneer is layered on top of a contrived screenplay, by Kelley Sane, which is pitifully one-dimensional. The closest the film comes to any sort of debate is when Streep tells us that 7,000 people are alive in London tonight because of information gained using these methods, but the film has already painted her as such a dark and untrustworthy character we are encouraged to boo and hiss no matter what she says. Rendition might have been more interesting if it had suggested that Anwar is not as innocent as he appears to be, but there is no place for ambiguity among this film's tidy moral judgements.

A few cast members manage to make the most out of their appearances here. Igal Naor is excellent as the torturer working on the similarly impressive Metwally, and in the American strand of the story both Sarsgaard and Alan Arkin are dependably fine. Hood and Kelley do manage to throw one surprising element into the mix, with a late twist changing our perception of the concurrent storylines, but it's the only unexpected move this blandly competent film makes. Rendition wants to shock us with its ripped-from-the-headlines premise, but is any of this stuff really shocking by this stage? In any case, the film is not damaged by the familiarity of its subject so much as the lack of perspective or insight it brings to the issue, and watching a batch of sketchy characters spouting platitudinous dialogue for two hours is a resolutely unedifying experience. Of course, we want to see Hollywood filmmakers grasping the nettle and tackling the most pertinent and contentious subjects affecting the world we live in today, but not if it results in movies like Rendition.

Maybe we need a new type of film to really grapple with this disastrous war and its messy consequences. Brian De Palma's Redacted heads straight to the frontlines of Iraq to look at the way war adversely affects those immediately involved with it, but while the theme of Redacted may be familiar, the methods used by the director certainly aren't. Much of the story is told through the video journal being shot by Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz), a young soldier who is documenting his experiences in the hope that the footage will secure him a place at film school. The director mixes this footage with sequences seemingly shot by a team of French filmmakers who are making a documentary named Barrage about American checkpoints in Iraq (these scenes come complete with French subtitles, philosophical voiceover and the haunting score from Barry Lyndon). On top of all this, De Palma gives us (deep breath) scenes filmed on CCTV cameras, point-of-view footage from the soldier's helmet-mounted cameras, Iraqi news reports, still photographs, webcam conversations with home, clips from Youtube-like sites and personal blogs. Mercifully, Redacted plays a lot better than it sounds.
Redacted is a fictional story which has its basis in fact. In March 2006 Abeer Qassim Hamza, a 14 year-old Iraqi girl, was raped and murdered by American soldiers who then killed her parents and her 7 year-old sister, before setting fire to the bodies. It was one of the most shocking incidents this conflict has produced, and two of the soldiers involved were later handed 90 and 100 year jail sentences. De Palma's Redacted screenplay bears a striking similarity to this incident, and the film itself bears a striking similarity to one of the director's own best films: 1989's Casualties of War. The characters in this film are drawn in clear strokes, each fitting a standard type for the genre. Angel Salazar is the likable private who acts as our eyes, Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney) is the straight-up soldier whose conscience is tested by the actions of others, Gabe Blix (Kel O'Neill) is the aloof intellectual, and the final two characters are the ones who set the chain of events in motion. Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll) is a wild-eyed hothead who has been wound up for violence and is desperate for some action, and his overweight pal BB Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman) is a sex-mad idiot who will happily go along with whatever Flake suggests.

The catalyst for their fateful attack is the sudden death of the platoon's popular sergeant, who is killed by a booby trap. De Palma first shows us the skilfully-staged event through Angel's camera, and then we see it replayed from a different angle on an insurgent website, the death having been filmed by those who planted the bomb. This incident sets the squad on edge, and it pushes Flake and Rush towards thoughts of vengeance. During a drunken poker game they decide to return to a house they raided earlier, and to rape the teenage girl they see passing through their checkpoint every day (whom Rush continually searches in a lecherous fashion). This sequence, as filmed through the camera on Salazar's helmet, is painful to watch; the night vision giving the scene an eerie glow and accentuating the fear and panic in the eyes of the girl and her family.

De Palma has never really been a subtle director, and the points he makes in Redacted are obvious, but the film has an angry potency which is tough to ignore. The director made one of his worst films last year with The Black Dahlia, but he seems to be fully engaged with this story in a way he hasn't been in some time, and his ability to juggle the many media involved in the film successfully helps to carry Redacted through its rough patches. There's an inevitable messiness about the picture's structure at times, and a sense of contrivance in its tricksy shooting style, but for the most part De Palma creates an authentic and involving picture of a soldier's life in Iraq, and the performances (particularly from Devaney, Carroll and Diaz) are very strong.

Ultimately, the reason Redacted works is the reason we criticise many films – it looks just like TV. There's something unsettling about watching this violent story depicted through the media which has filtered everything we have seen about the war in Iraq to date, and while many may decry Redacted as nothing more than a gimmick picture, I think it has enough of a payoff to justify the choices the director has made. This is far from a perfect film - and De Palma might have been advised to show a little restraint in places (one US soldier is beheaded in a very explicit manner, and the final few minutes consist of photos of dead Iraqi babies) - but it is a film aimed at shaking us up, and I doubt anyone who sees Redacted will be completely unaffected by it. It left me feeling upset and angry, and a few days after watching it much of the film has lodged itself in my memory. Redacted isn't anything like the definitive cinematic take on the war on terror, but at least it feels like a step in the right direction.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Review - Sicko

Michael Moore's Sicko opens with footage of a man named Adam who is sitting at home and is sewing up a wound in his own leg. We are then introduced to Rick, a likeable character who severed the tips of two of his fingers with an electric saw, and when he arrived at the emergency ward he was given a choice: he could have his middle finger reattached for $60,000, or he could have the ring finger reattached for a mere $12,000. Being a romantic type of guy, Moore jokingly suggests, Rick chose to save his ring finger. These two unfortunate souls are among the millions of Americans who don't have sufficient health insurance, but Moore's film isn't really about them. Instead, Sicko focuses on the vast majority of US citizens who do have insurance, but who are prevented from getting the care they need by a corrupt system; a system that values profit above all else, and a system that smothers those it should be helping in miles of bureaucratic red tape.

Ever since he made his film debut in 1989 with Roger & Me, Michael Moore has become American cinema's agitator-in-chief. He has attacked the country's gun culture in his Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine, and then he attacked the presidency of George W Bush with Fahrenheit 9/11, a shapeless rant masquerading as a serious documentary. Many people love Moore and his rabble-rousing ways, while others can't stand his blunt style, his preference for cheap shots, and his habit of placing himself at the centre of the story. Most people, I think, are of the opinion that Moore is a character you can love for the issues he tries to raise, while disliking the manner in which he does it. Like all of his films, Sicko is a film driven by a genuine passion and a justifiable anger at the ills of society, but it's no coincidence that this film is at its best when Moore himself takes a back seat.

Instead, many of the Americans who have suffered at the hands of this system are allowed to tell their own stories, a move which proves to be the film's trump card. When Moore advertised on his website for contributors to Sicko he was inundated with emails – over 25,000 in the first week – from people who wanted their voices to be heard, and from this large pool of protest, Moore has been judicious in his choice of anecdotes. Some of the stories in Sicko are so absurd they're almost funny, and the director knows how to milk the laughs from them. One woman recalls her HMO denying payment on an ambulance journey because it wasn't "pre-approved" – when was she supposed approve it, after she regained consciousness in her car? – while another interviewee recounts an incident in which payment for her operation was retroactively denied after an undisclosed yeast infection from some years earlier was discovered.

In an amusing way these stories highlight the ridiculous vagaries of the HMO policies, with the insurance companies searching every claim for a loophole which will allow them to deny payment. From the other side of the fence, Moore speaks to a doctor who testifies to a bonus scheme for those who make the most denials during the course of the year, and a call-centre worker is reduced to tears as she describes the pain of turning away dozens of needy applicants on a daily basis. But the real weight of Sicko's opening half lies in the more tragic stories Moore uncovers. He profiles Larry and Donna, a middle-aged couple who have been almost bankrupted by the cost of their healthcare, and who have been forced to sell up and move into their children's spare room. Moore later interviews a woman whose husband died from cancer of the kidney after being repeatedly denied treatment; and, most shockingly of all, he introduces us to Dawnelle, a mother whose 18 month-old daughter died because the hospital she frantically sought treatment from was not affiliated with her health insurer, and insisted she go elsewhere.

These frank interview pieces are harrowing and deeply moving, and Moore wisely avoids intruding on their grief. The director's style in the opening half of Sicko is so much more restrained and sensitive than we have become used to, perhaps because he realises that the honesty and emotion provided by the people he has spoken to is enough, and to over-egg the pudding would be counterproductive.

However, the usual Moore caveats gradually seep into the picture as Sicko moves into its second hour. After identifying the problem, Moore looks abroad for the solution, heading to Canada, England, France and Cuba to show his fellow Americans how a health system should be run. Moore's aim is to prove that US citizens have nothing to fear from free universal health care, despite repeated warnings to the contrary (in one gem from the archives, Moore produces an audio clip of then-actor Ronald Reagan warning people about the dangers of socialised medicine), but the simplistic manner in which he argues his case is infuriating. Wherever Moore goes he finds nothing but happy patients and contended doctors; the waiting times are short, the government is giving everyone what they want, and the fees are either tiny or non-existent. Much of the claims made in favour of these countries' health services may well be true, but Moore's decision to paint them as near-utopian societies where the system works flawlessly is reductive to the point of being offensive. Many documentarians would produce hard facts and statistics to back up their argument in a case such as this, to offer a compare-and-contrast with the American system, but most of the evidence Moore supplies is anecdotal. He asks one or two people for their opinion and we are expected to take their answers as gospel.

Much of this section of Sicko is hard to swallow. The scenes involving the director walking around an NHS hospital with his face a mask of wide-eyed naïveté are amusing but trite; we don't hear anything about underpaid nurses working 18-hour+ shifts, or the long waiting lists, or the poor levels of hygiene. Certainly, few would dispute that the British system generally works better for the people than the American one, but no system is without its flaws and its compromises, and Moore should at least pay lip service to these considerations. In France he addresses the notion that a universal healthcare plan would result in higher taxes by talking to one middle-class couple who tell him that they're perfectly happy with things the way they are - there you have it, case closed. The lack of a dissenting voice against Moore's own thesis has long been a factor in the director's work, but it's still disappointing to see a filmmaker as intelligent and capable as he is resorting to such lazy journalism and obvious manipulative tricks.

Of course, most people have already heard about the big set-piece with which Moore brings the film to a close, taking a boatload of ill 9/11 rescue workers out to Guantanamo Bay, the one place on US soil which offers its inhabitants free healthcare. It's typically attention-grabbing piece of theatre from Moore, but it's also a stupid stunt which has no relevance to the issue at hand. Moore then takes his 9/11 volunteers to Cuba where they are offered top-notch care and partake in a mawkishly staged love-in with Cuban fire-fighters. Is Moore really holding up Cuba as a paragon of virtue and generosity? Given that country's record on civil liberties and human rights, Moore should know better than to depict it in such glowing and uncritical terms, and everything about these sequences rings resoundingly false. By the time the end credits have rolled on Sicko, the director has again resorted to all of his usual tricks, including a shamelessly self-aggrandising moment when he reveals himself as the benefactor who anonymously wrote a $12,000 cheque to help his biggest critic in a time of need. The subject under discussion here is too important for Moore to make himself the star.

Few filmmakers frustrate me as much as Michael Moore. As a director he is sloppy, repetitive and shamefully blasé with the facts; but for all his faults, Sicko is a bluntly effective picture. Its power is derived from the personal testimonies of those who have been betrayed by the healthcare service they have placed their faith in, and in its own unsubtle way Sicko cuts to the heart of an essential truth which is indisputable. When a woman must watch her infant child die, in the richest country in the world, because she has been turned away from a hospital, then the system is seriously broken; and whatever you may think of Michael Moore or his methods, it's hard to argue with this persuasive call for change.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Review - The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher)

Earlier this year The Lives of Others caused quite a stir with its depiction of life in Stasi-era East Germany, winning an Oscar and near-unanimous critical acclaim, but not everyone was convinced of that picture's merits. I certainly appreciated the film's classy direction and strong performances, but beneath the glossy surface it boiled down to a too-neat morality play which never really caught fire. Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky is the latest filmmaker to examine a painful part of German history – the most painful of all, in fact – and The Counterfeiters strikes me as a film which lives up to the promises The Lives of Others made and failed to keep. Ruzowitzky's film is rougher around the edges, and more ambiguous in its approach, and the film is all the better for it.

We first meet Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) in post-war Monte Carlo, carrying a bag full of cash and winning plenty more at the card tables in his own quiet and enigmatic way. He catches the eye of a glamorous woman and takes her back to his hotel room, but she is startled by the telltale number tattooed on his arm, and this discovery sends Salomon into a flashback which then comprises the rest of the movie. Why do filmmakers continue to open pictures in this way? As in last year's Black Book, the decision to bookend the main drama with contemporary sequences allows us to relax just a little, safe in the knowledge that the lead character will survive whatever situations they subsequently find themselves in. This lessening of the tension is a misguided move when a film is set in a time and place where death is constantly around the corner.

When the film does jump back to Berlin in 1936, Salomon appears as a very different character indeed. He's a playboy, enjoying a decadent lifestyle which has been paid for by his skilful forgery, and he seems unconcerned by the pervading political climate. When someone asks him for his thoughts on what the Nazis are doing to "his people", he gives the flippant reply "I am me, and the others are the others". Despite his outward nonchalance he is planning to flee Berlin in the very near future, but he doesn't get the chance to do so, as he is arrested by the fraud squad led by a man named Herzog (Devid Striesow). Salomon is despatched to the Mauthausen concentration camp where he suffers stoically through the expected hardships – but in an echo of Polanski's The Pianist, the prisoner's artistry acts as his salvation.

The discovery of Salomon's drawing ability impresses the soldiers, and the man who hastily sketched this image can hardly believe his luck. Salomon finds himself in demand as various German officers sit for portraits, and he even finds himself being employed to paint a huge Nazi mural on one of the camp walls, with his rations of food and the promise of relative safety being all the motivation he needs. His talent then leads to his transfer to Sachsenhausen, another camp where he comes face-to-face with Herzog – now a captain – and is given a vital role in 'Operation Bernhard'. Salomon and a few similarly skilled prisoners are given comfortable surroundings and plenty of food as they set to work on producing counterfeit money for the Nazi regime. The plan was to destabilise the British economy by flooding it with millions of pounds worth of fake sterling and, when that had been accomplished, to move onto the dollar – the currency which Salomon was desperately trying to crack when he was arrested.

At this point the key moral quandary which drives The Counterfeiters is revealed. Salomon and his team can ensure their own survival by giving the Nazis the counterfeit money they need, but can they live with themselves when that money is being used to support the German war effort? What are their own lives worth against the lives of fellow Jews who are being destroyed by the regime they are currently collaborating with? The Counterfeiters has been adapted by Ruzowitzky from the memoirs of Adolf Burger – played by August Diehl, who gives a terrific performance – and his character acts as a counterpoint to self-preservation attitude favoured by Salomon. For Burger, there is no honour to be found in survival if it means selling one's soul to the Nazi war machine.

Ruzowitzky lets both points of view play out in a gripping, tightly constructed drama which is richly atmospheric and is generally told with a lack of sensationalism. His use of the camera and the impressive production design emphasises the sense of claustrophobia, and in a very effective move the horrors of the Holocaust are impressed upon us through mere glimpses or sounds (it's a pity he didn't lose the intrusive score completely). Even in the relative comfort of their barracks, Salomon and the rest of the forgers can often hear the sound of less fortunate prisoners being beaten and killed outside. On the occasions when we do see a German soldier murdering a Jew, we see it as if peering through a window or door, and these exposures to the inhumanity of the camps eventually take their toll on Salomon. This pragmatic figure gradually begins to widen his viewpoint beyond his own survival and he learns, for the first time, to consider the lives of others.

Karl Markovics is perfectly cast as Salomon. With his long, austere face and sunken cheeks, he offers a chilly characterisation at first, but he proves to be a strangely magnetic guide through the horrific landscape of the camps. Markovics reveals unexpected depths and emotions to the character in brief and carefully rationed moments, and we come to know his character almost as he comes to learn more about himself. Another exceptional performance which deserves praise comes from Devid Striesow as Herzog, the man who initially sent Salomon to the camps and then – by bringing him into the forgery operation – helped to save his life. Striesow gives a complex and finely drawn performance as this ambiguous figure, a man who was put on trial for war crimes after the conflict was ended, but who was set free after a number of the counterfeiters testified on his behalf. Ruzowitzky and his actors do a superb job of detailing the strange relationship – complicit yet antagonistic – which existed between these men.

The final fifteen minutes are compelling and evocative, but they feel a little rushed. The collapse of the camp, the departure of the Germans, and the first, tentative steps towards freedom for the prisoners are played out in a haunting fashion. The well-fed and healthy-looking counterfeiters encounter the skeletal captives who have suffered terribly in the rest of the camp, and Ruzowitzky gives us a moving sequence in which they sit together and listen to music, the emaciated prisoners staring into space like ghosts. After that, the short coda which rejoins Salomon in Monte Carlo feels a little unnecessary and flat, but the film has more than served its purpose by this point. The Counterfeiters is a taut and authentic picture which grips through its fascinating true story, but which also has the intelligence to pose some tough and thorny questions regarding the nature of courage, sacrifice and the importance of a single man's actions when held against a wider context. Wisely, The Counterfeiters doesn't attempt to offer any definitive answer to the dilemmas posed by the events it depicts; after all, without experiencing first-hand the pressures and horrors of a situation such as this, who could honestly say how they would react?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Review - Ratatouille

Why can't every film be as good as Ratatouille? Why can't every film be made with such attention to detail, such wit and imagination? A CGI-animated feature like Ratatouille is years in the making, with a huge team of animators constructing the picture frame by frame, so perhaps that's why it feels like such a minutely detailed labour of love – but if that's the case, then why are we subjected to such a torrent of substandard animated movies every single year? The single-word answer to these questions is Pixar, the studio which has produced an unbroken run of technically dazzling and hugely entertaining films since 1995's revolutionary Toy Story (even their weakest efforts in that period, like last year's Cars, have still been perfectly enjoyable); and with their latest picture they have produced a film which represents the very core ideals driving their work.

Brad Bird's deliriously enjoyable Ratatouille is a film about the unashamed pursuit of excellence, the joy of creating something which brings pleasure to others, and an acknowledgement that great artistry can come from the most unexpected places. In this case, the artist in question is a rat, surely the last character you would wish to find in the kitchen. Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) doesn't view food in the same way his garbage-munching clan does, though; he admires human beings – "They taste! They discover!" – and his fussy tastebuds provoke him into seeking out fresher and more exciting culinary experiences, a quest which inevitably leads him into trouble. When he is discovered in the kitchen of a small French cottage, Remy and his clan are forced to flee with a gun-toting pensioner hot on their tails, but during the pursuit he is separated from his family, and he finds himself lost in the dark French sewers, hungry and alone.

Remy isn't alone for long, though, and his overactive imagination conjures up the spirit of the late, great chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett). This particular chef has long been an inspiration for Remy, with his oft-repeated belief that "anyone can cook", and here he leads the rodent up to the streets of Paris, to the once-great restaurant that bears his name. Remy is in heaven, but no rat – however skilled he may be with herbs and spices – is welcome in a restaurant, and he has to find another way to get close to the smells and tastes being whipped up in the Gusteau kitchen. Fate leads him to Linguini, a hapless youngster employed in a menial role, and when a frantic mix-up over the soup results Linguini taking the credit for Remy's culinary skills, the pair strike an unlikely alliance. Situated under Linguini's toque, Remy controls his loose-limbed puppet via strategic pulls on his hair (resulting in some very funny slapstick), but their dishes cause such a stir they pique the interest of notorious critic Anton Ego (a marvellous Peter O'Toole), the venomous scribe whose biting critique of Gusteau's cooking hastened the chef to his death.

Ratatouille even finds a way to put a fresh spin on the Cyrano de Bergerac story, with Remy literally guiding Linguini towards a romance with driven sous-chef Colette (Janeane Garofalo), but while Bird allows the relationship between man and rodent to blossom, he never lets us forget that Remy is still a rat. Ratatouille anthropomorphises its non-human creatures just enough to give them personality, while keeping their movements suitably rat-like. To those of us who aren't particularly fond of these animals (that would be most of the audience, I'd guess) there are some surprisingly unpleasant sights to endure in Ratatouille. When the rats are seen scurrying en masse through the dank sewers their perfectly replicated behaviour is almost too real; and a genuine shiver went up my spine when I saw Remy and his pals clambering all over the kitchen shelves, tasting and sniffing the food.

We grow to love Remy, though, and in the final stages we even develop a soft spot for the hordes of rats who band together to help his cause. As a narrative, Ratatouille is slighter and a little more pat than we have come to expect from Bird, who has set a high benchmark for himself with his previous films, but the manner in which the story is told is faultless. It has become a cliché to say that the latest Pixar film breaks new ground in animation, but one can't talk about Ratatouille without marvelling over the quality of the film's visuals. This really is one of the most beautiful films of the year but – crucially – it is a film which wears its splendour lightly. The stunning realism of the settings, the gorgeous recreation of Paris, and the extraordinary levels of detail on show in every single shot – from matted rat fur to cuts and scrapes on the chefs' hands – the artistry is simply breathtaking. However, all of this visual wizardry is used solely to enhance the film's overall quality, to envelop us in a fully realised world, and one never gets the sense that we're being shown something just to display the filmmakers' technical skill.

That same lack of ostentation is evident in the casting decisions made by the filmmakers. While other CGI-created family films are stuffed to the gills with A-list stars and hot-for-the-moment celebrities, the lead roles in Ratatouille go to Patton Oswalt and Lou Romano; and even the more familiar names among the cast – Ian Holm, Brian Dennehy, Janeane Garofalo – are almost unrecognisable as they alter their voices to work for the characters. The best vocal performance does come from the biggest name among the cast, though, with Peter O'Toole lending his wonderful intonation a deeper rumble to personify the feared Anton Ego. Even at this deeper pitch, O'Toole's voice is unmistakable, and he gives every single line an edge and dimension that only a great actor can produce.

Anton Ego is also at the centre of Ratatouille's finest moment, when he finally sits down to taste the eponymous dish. Throughout the film Remy's taste sensations had been expressed through whirling, flashing lights which blend together as he mixes his flavours – a nice idea, that doesn't really work – but when Ego reacts to the food he has just tasted Bird pulls off something magical. It is a transcendent sequence which is dazzling both in its conception and execution, and it gives Ratatouille a climax which is satisfying in the most unexpected ways.

As he did in The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, Brad Bird uses Ratatouille to explore the themes of identity and destiny, introducing us to characters who are programmed to behave a certain way but who want to find their own path. Brad Bird is a perfect match for Pixar, using the studio's technical brilliance to tell new and adventurous stories which are as thematically rich and emotionally resonant as any live-action fare. Animation is often dismissed as being "just for kids", and even after the boom of the past decade it is rarely afforded the respect given to the more conventional awards-baiting films produced every year; but a great filmmaker is a great filmmaker, regardless of the tools he uses, and the fact that Bird works within the framework of the summer family movie should not denigrate his achievements one bit. "Anyone can cook, but only the fearless can be great," Gusteau advises Remy during the course of the picture, and a similar maxim holds true for cinema: anyone can direct a movie, but only an artist can make a Ratatouille.