Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Review - Fred Claus

Even by the mediocre standards of most Christmas-themed Hollywood films, Fred Claus is a profoundly depressing experience. A scandalous waste of talent and resources, the film takes a premise full of potential and squanders it in the most cack-handed fashion imaginable, making ill use of a whole slew of reputable actors in the process. It has neither the heart of Elf nor the bite of Bad Santa – the two best Christmas comedies of the past few years – and yet it somehow conspires to run twenty minutes longer than the former and almost half an hour longer than the latter. Fred Claus is a garish, noisy and relentlessly unfunny disaster which is likely to make scrooges of us all.

The most frustrating thing about Fred Claus is the fact that there's a good idea buried in there somewhere. The film is a Christmas story which doesn't focus on the man in the red suit, but instead switches the spotlight to his older brother. Ever since they were kids, Fred Claus has always lived in the shadow of his brother Nicholas; an angelic child who gave his present to the poor, never misbehaved, and managed to outdo Fred at every turn. Naturally, Fred's frustration continues to grow inside him until he grows up and turns into Vince Vaughn, an embodiment of pure cynicism. He's a Chicago repo man – he takes while his brother gives – and with visions of his much-loved sibling assaulting him at every turn, this particular time of year is not a happy one for Fred. On the plus side, Fred is on the verge of sealing a potentially profitable business opportunity, but to do so he'll need $50,000 right away, and the only person he knows with that kind of money is living at the North Pole.

To get his hands on the money, Fred will have to pay the family a visit, and he's whisked off to the Pole where he comes face to face with Nicholas for the first time in many years. In an inspired piece of casting, Father Christmas is played by Paul Giamatti, whose sad-sack demeanour gives a different slant to the character normally portrayed as such a bundle of joy. It's a strangely soulful piece of acting, which stands out like a sore thumb amidst this film's coarseness, and a film in which this character was placed centre-stage might have been an interesting one, but Santa is sidelined here as director David Dobkin focuses on Vince Vaughn's none-too-hilarious antics. Far too much of Fred Claus consists of Vaughn fighting with elves, while another large chunk of it comprises of Vaughn dancing with elves. The star plays his usual motor-mouthed, wisecracking self here, just as he did so effectively for Dobkin in their previous collaboration The Wedding Crashers; but within the constraints of a kids' movie his acting is deprived of its edge, and without that edge Vince Vaughn looks helplessly lost.

Still, his frantic ad-libbing is much more fun than any attempt to follow the plot; a plot which manages to be both too simplistic and needlessly overcomplicated at the same time. Just as Fred turns up to cause chaos in the toy factory, an "efficiency expert", played by Kevin Spacey, arrives to investigate the way Santa runs the production line and threatening to put him out of business. Who is this man? What board does he represent? Since when has Santa (and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, apparently) been run by a committee? We never find out. Meanwhile, Fred also has to help chief elf Willie (John Michael Higgins) in his bid to woo Santa's little helper Charlene (Elizabeth Banks), who is the only fully-sized human in residence aside from the Claus clan. Again we might be entitled to wonder where this girl has come from and what she's doing working at the North Pole, but the film has no answer.

You might have gathered by now that the script is a illogical mess, but the filmmakers have still managed to draw a remarkably talented ensemble to the project. Aside from the actors already mentioned, the film features Rachel Weisz as Fred's on-off girlfriend, Miranda Richardson as Mrs Claus, Kathy Bates as the boys' mother (and, oddly, Trevor Peacock as their father), and Ludacris as the North Pole's resident DJ. It's hard to fathom so many talented actors seeing something worthwhile in the pathetically thin roles afforded to them by this picture and, unsurprisingly, few of them give anything like decent performances.

Fred Claus does have one very funny scene, and it occurs far away from Santa's winter wonderland. The setting is a sibling support group for those who bear resentment against their more successful brothers, and it features a couple of unexpectedly fun cameos, but it feels out of place in this picture. Fred Claus doesn't know what it wants to be, a film about sibling rivalry, a satire on globalisation and downsizing, or an good old-fashioned Christmas movie. It ends up making a dismal, half-hearted grab in all directions and, when that doesn't pay off, it goes for the predictably schmaltzy finale. Fred's little orphan buddy gets a puppy, and everyone learns the true spirit of Christmas, even mean old Mr Spacey. Bah Humbug, I say; and while it may only be November, my reserves of seasonal good cheer are already running dangerously low after viewing this dispiriting Christmas turkey.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Review - The Darjeeling Limited

The Darjeeling Limited is the latest film from Wes Anderson, and by this stage most viewers will know exactly what to expect from it. His style has barely evolved from his debut Bottle Rocket, and The Darjeeling Limited is the same blend of stilted compositions, strained deadpan humour, and colourful production design. It's not a mixture which has ever been to my liking, and the director's over-fussy style has grown increasingly ineffective with every film since Rushmore. Still, a number of people seem to like the guy's work, and with every new picture I sit in anticipation, hoping to finally get Wes Anderson. It hasn't happened yet, but at least The Darjeeling Limited feel like a minor step in the right direction.

Even if Anderson's approach hasn't altered much since his first films, the scale of his pictures has tended to grow more ambitious, and with The Darjeeling Limited he gives us more than just the main feature. Hotel Chevalier is a 13-minute short film which stars Jason Schwartzman as Jack Whitman, an American staying in the titular hotel, who receives a surprise visit from his nameless ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman). She's covered in unexplained bruises and there's tension between them, but they still have sex to the sound of Peter Sarstedt's Where Do You Go To (My Lovely), and they end the film standing on his balcony, staring out across the city.

It's a slight but enjoyable little film, and it serves as a handy prologue to The Darjeeling Limited, with Schwartzman playing the same character in the film, and making a number of references to his Paris experience. Jack is one of three brothers taking a train journey through India, a trip has been organised by Francis (Owen Wilson), in order to reunite him with Jack and Peter (Adrien Brody) for the first time since their father's funeral one year earlier. Francis wants this to be a "spiritual journey", but he has planned every step of it in ridiculously minute detail, even bringing an assistant (Wally Wolodarsky) along to produce laminated itineraries for the brothers every morning. It's tempting to view this characterisation as a sly self-commentary from Anderson on his own directorial style, with Francis squeezing the life out of the brothers' experience through his overzealous pre-planning.

That's the viewer projecting extra dimensions onto the character though, and as written they have little depth, each being given a couple of affectations and props in lieu of proper development. Francis is heavily bandaged after a motorcycle crash, Jack has a droopy moustache and spends the whole film barefoot without anyone seeming to notice, and Peter wears his late father's sunglasses despite the prescription lenses – even Francis' assistant is distinguished more by his alopecia than anything else. The actors don't bring a great deal of substance to their roles – although Brody gives the best performance of the three – and they aren't helped by Anderson's curiously standoffish direction. He's always keeping the characters at arm's length, never allowing us to get close enough to share in their emotions; and his writing is often both trite ("I guess I've still got a lot of healing to do" says the scarred Wilson after removing his bandages) and overly literal (the brothers have to discard their emotional luggage by, you know, discarding their luggage).

There are pleasures to be found in The Darjeeling Limited, though, and many of them are the result of Anderson's decision to set his film in India. The director has a good feel for the atmosphere of the country, and his work here is a little fresher and looser than it has been in the past, with a trip to a small Indian village providing The Darjeeling Limited with its only note of real emotion. It occurs when the brothers come across a tragic incident in which a local boy is killed, despite their attempts to stage a rescue, and they are invited to his home in order to attend his funeral. Anderson directs this sequence with admirable sensitivity, and he is aided by an astonishing wordless performance from the great Indian actor Irrfan Khan as the boy's grieving father. Anderson's depiction of his host country's society and culture isn't always as finely handled (would an Indian girl really fuck a stranger on a train as easily as one does here?), but this central vignette alone is classy and touching, and it caught me by surprise.

After that, the brothers' reunion with their estranged mother (Angelica Huston) doesn't give The Darjeeling Limited much of a climax, and while the late train carriage montage is a superb set-piece, I once again left a Wes Anderson picture feeling like I should be getting more from it. At 91 minutes The Darjeeling Limited never has time to be dull, and it's certainly a major improvement on the bloated The Life Aquatic, but Anderson's visual vocabulary remains infuriatingly limited. He continually resorts to the same slow-motion tracking shots, whip-pans and close-ups of the three main characters staring into the camera, and it's all set to the usual medley of 60's pop songs. Wes Anderson is unlikely to advance as a filmmaker until he starts to shed some of these stylistic tricks, or at least until he learns to adapt them so they don't feel so cripplingly routine. Then, perhaps, he'll finally make a film in which the substance matches the style, and hopefully I'll finally be able to see what others have seen in this intriguing but continually frustrating director.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Review - I'm Not There

"All I can do is be me, whoever that is" – Bob Dylan

It's much easier to love the concept behind I'm Not There than it is to love the film itself. Todd Haynes' multilayered quasi-biopic is, as the opening credits tell us, "inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan", but Dylan himself – as the title suggests – is not there. Instead, we are presented with six wildly different characters, each of whom personify a different aspect of his personality and career. The actors selected to play these roles range in age from 12 to 58, one is a woman while another is a black, and none of them are actually called Bob Dylan. It's an audacious conceit, with Haynes mixing styles and genres, overloading the film with references to Dylan's career, and fracturing the standard musical biopic structure beyond recognition. And all of this adds up to – well, what exactly?

I have to confess I'm Not There left me feeling frustrated, exhausted and bewildered when its kaleidoscopic tour of Dylan's world had finally concluded. Of course, films as imaginative and ambitious as this should be celebrated and encouraged, but there is something to be said for a little structure, and as Haynes' versions of Dylan overlapped and criss-crossed without ever seeming to take us anywhere significant, I felt my patience wearing thin. I'm Not There is a film which throws everything it has at the audience, and it damn near tears itself apart in the process; but could this film have been made in any other way? How could any straightforward biopic do justice to one of the most iconic, analysed and debated figures of the 20th century; a man who has continued to adopt and shed identities throughout his career, slipping off in a new, unexpected direction as soon as anyone threatened to pin him down?

In that light, Haynes' decision to employ such a variety of actors makes sense, but the finished product never quite coheres. The first Dylan stand-in we spend some time with is a young black boy (the superb Marcus Carl Franklin), who rides the boxcars, calls himself Woody Guthrie and carries a guitar case emblazoned with the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists". Another version of Dylan is a Greenwich Village protest singer named Jack Rollins (a surprisingly ineffective Christian Bale), who later becomes a preacher, and Heath Ledger plays a womanising, misogynistic actor who is starring in a film about the aforementioned Jack. A couple of the film's sequences are depicted in black-and-white, with Ben Whishaw playing an introspective poet styling himself after Arthur Rimbaud, and Cate Blanchett is Jude Quinn, the "Judas" who alienated much of his fanbase when he went electric in the 60's. Finally, there's Richard Gere – looking about as confused as I was – who turns up as Billy the Kid in a surreal and deathly dull vision of the west.

No attempt is made to connect these segments in any way (beyond the obvious link between the Bale and Ledger stories), and while they seem to exist in a more or less chronologic order, Haynes keeps mixing the order up, hopping between his characters with little rhyme or reason as far as I could see. He creates a fantastically detailed milieu for all of his Dylans to inhabit, and each of their individual narratives is marked by a separate aesthetic – Fellini-esque black-and-white for Blanchett, faux-documentary for Bale, 70's-era western for Gere, etc – but while Haynes' magnificent cinematographer Edward Lachman makes everything look equally sensational, the relative quality of each strand is damagingly inconsistent.

The best of the bunch is the one that has received most attention so far, with the praise surrounding Blanchett's uncanny channelling of Dylan proving to be entirely justified. Her section of the film is closely aligned with DA Pennebaker's 1967 documentary Don't Look Back, as Jude teases the British press (personified by BBC reporter Bruce Greenwood) with a series of non-sequiturs and riddles; and Blanchett comes closer than anyone to really capturing the spirit of the man, with the dry humour and cocksure swagger of her performance being brilliantly observed. Ben Whishaw does a pretty solid Dylan impersonation too, but he hasn't been given much of a role, as he is simply asked to sit behind a desk, facing the camera as if addressing an interrogator, and spout a variety enigmatic lines.

Of the other Dylan stories, the only one which really made a mark on me was the 'Robbie' sequence, featuring Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg as the couple whose marriage is crumbling. It's the nearest the film gets to the singer's Blood on the Tracks period, and Gainsbourg's touching performance is the closest the film has to an emotional centre. Perhaps that's the chief problem with I'm Not There; with so many Dylans whizzing around, each of them bearing so much symbolic weight, none of the six key figures ever manage to come alive as living, breathing characters. The film is all about what the characters represent, rather than getting down to who they are, and so the film is left feeling like a superficial exercise in which the few rare instances of emotional spark are provided by minor characters like Gainsbourg, or the Joan Baez-type played by a spot-on Julianne Moore. That feeling of cerebral disconnectedness is accentuated by the maddeningly allusive nature of I'm Not There, an aspect of the film which may be the biggest hurdle for those who aren't fully steeped in Dylan lore. I know enough about his life and work to pick up on the majority of the film's citations, but the sheer volume of allusions and in-jokes is rather overwhelming, turning I'm Not There into a reference-spotting game for Dylanites which non-fans may not want to play.

So what does all of this tell us about Dylan that we didn't know before? Not a great deal, I fear, and perhaps that's the very reason Dylan gave this project his blessing – it's a film which explores every aspect of his life while still allowing him to remain an enigma at the end of it. Personally, I'd rather stick with Martin Scorsese's magnificent 2005 documentary No Direction Home, but I still wouldn't want to discourage anyone from seeing I'm Not There, if only for the number of individually superb moments which are scattered throughout the picture. Ultimately, your enjoyment of Haynes' film will depend on your knowledge of Bob Dylan, the more you bring to the picture the more you'll get out of it, and there may be much more to be gained for those willing to dig under the film's surface. For this reviewer, though – a fan but hardly a fanatic – it doesn't seem like a puzzle worth solving.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Review - Once and Garage

You'd really have to have a heart of stone not to fall for Once. John Carney's low-key romance/musical has already struck a chord in America, being one of the year's most unexpected hits, and it's easy to see why so many people have been taken with it. The film benefits from appealing performances, fine music and, most importantly, buckets of heart – elements which make us completely forget the fact that it was put together on a miniscule budget. It is filmmaking stripped down to the basics, to the point where the leading characters don't even have names. Instead we have 'Guy' (Glenn Hansard), a Dubliner in his 30's who works in his father's hoover repair shop, but who spends every spare minute on Grafton Street with his guitar, busking for change in front of mostly uninterested crowds. One person does notice him though, a young Czech immigrant – credited as 'Girl' and played by Markéta Irglová – who is particularly taken by the more passionate tunes which he has written himself, the ones he only plays at night.

She's a musician herself, and after working the streets selling flowers and copies of the Big Issue, she often heads to a local store to tinkle the ivories on one of their many pianos. After listening to the girl playing, he joins her with his guitar and they partake in a duet, but this isn't the usual bursting into song that we find in standard musicals. Instead, we see them slowly putting the tune together piece by piece, gradually finding their balance and harmony; and although Once could hardly be a more different film from Brad Bird's Ratatouille, the two pictures share similar themes - a sense of delight in the act of creation, a shared wonderment in the artistic process. Some of the best scenes in Carney's film allow us to watch as Hansard and Irglová come up with their infuriatingly catchy songs. We see him sitting at his laptop, looking at images of the ex-girlfriend he still pines for while writing lyrics; and in a standout sequence, Carney's camera follows Irglová as she walks the street at night, listening to a piece of music he has written and attempting to find the right words.

As well as watching their musical collaboration, we also see their relationship developing during these scenes. Hansard has an open quality to his face, allowing his emotions to be easily expressed and read, and the way he gazes at this pretty girl leaves us in no doubt about his feelings. Irglová, in complete contrast, is a much more intriguing and enigmatic figure. She has a certain poise, a kind of toughness to her pretty features, and her situation is complicated by the young daughter she lives with and the husband who has remained in her native country. Between them Hansard and Irglová have just one prior acting credit to their names (his appearance as Outspan in 1991's The Commitments), and their performances have their limitations, but they also have real chemistry, the kind of onscreen magic you wish you could capture in a bottle.

Despite that tangible spark, though, the most pleasing aspect of Once is the manner in which Carney takes this couple down a more unexpected route than you might expect, letting the relationship simmer constantly without ever bringing it to the boil. He gives the actors plenty of chances to play out scenes of real intimacy, but he lets the plot develop in a down-to-earth, authentic manner, which is more all the more affecting for its refusal to settle for pat conclusions. Sure, Once isn't without its unconvincing moments or its occasional cheesiness (a sceptical producer's "Hey, these guys can really play!" reaction sticks out in this regard), but moments like that are the exception rather than the rule, and the big-heartedness of the film's finale is irresistible. Once left me feeling uplifted and satisfied, it left me with a smile on my face and a song in my heart; and whether it is made with millions of dollars or scraped together on a shoestring budget, isn't that what a great musical is meant to do?
From a thriving, cosmopolitan city to a small village in rural Ireland; from an uplifting story about a young couple who express themselves through music, to a darkly unsettling tale of a single man who can barely express himself at all. Garage is not a film which will raise your spirits in the manner of Once, but it will leave you with food for thought, and it marks an intriguing progression for another young Irish filmmaker. Lenny Abrahamson made his feature debut in 2004 with the brilliant black comedy Adam and Paul, following a day in the life of two junkies as they try to score on the streets of Dublin. It was a funny film, with two superb central performances, but it was also shot through with a biting sense of pain, and it climaxed on a note of genuine, unexpected pathos.

Just as they did with Adam and Paul, Abrahamson and his regular screenwriter Mark O'Halloran drop us into Garage without giving us a great deal of information. We aren't provided with any backstory for the film's central character Josie (played by Irish comedian Pat Shortt), but as soon as he appears on screen we start to get a sense of who he is. Josie is a simple, well-meaning character who has lived in this area all of his life. He works as the caretaker of a tiny, rundown garage – probably the only place he has ever worked – and he goes about his menial tasks with quiet diligence. Everyone else in the town seems to be well aware that his good nature is being exploited by the garage's owner, who comes around only to collect the takings, and at the start of the film Mr Gallagher (John Keogh) suggests that they should remain open later on weekends, a suggestion Josie readily agrees with. This is big news in Josie's life, but when he mentions it at the local pub later that evening he is met with mocking laughter ("I think they mentioned something about it on Sky News", one regular remarks). Josie chuckles along as he finishes his pint, but his forced laughter can't hide his loneliness or hurt as he is once again cast as the village idiot.

In moments such as this, Shortt reveals extra dimensions to Josie's character, showing him to be a man who has feelings, but who simply has no idea how to articulate them. In one lovely scene, he sits by the lake with an old man (Tom Hickey) who tries to tell him about the terrible pain his poor health has been causing him, but an uncomfortable Josie can only react by trying to move the conversation along with banal pleasantries. If you recognise Pat Shortt at all it will probably be from his part as one half of comedy duo D'Unbelievables, or as the star of Kilinaskully, and those who do know his work will be stunned by his revelatory performance here. His depiction of Josie is a million miles from the broad, caricature-based comedy he is renowned for, as he sinks deep into the character to create a carefully detailed portrait of an emotionally stunted man. Josie's day consists of standard rituals from which he never deviates, and he has no knowledge of the world outside of his own community (he views a long-haul truck driver from northern England as a somewhat exotic figure). He is an innocent in this world, and we fear for him.

Soon, though, he finds a friend, when 15 year-old David (Conor Ryan) is hired to work alongside Josie in a part-time capacity. Josie enjoys the company, and he tries to bond with the lad by offering him a can of beer after the working day is done. Later, Josie brings cans for all of David's teenage friends, and we can sense a change in his demeanour as he is tentatively accepted into this new social group. But Josie's relationship with David is irrevocably damaged when he crosses another boundary which a 15 year-old boy shouldn't be asked to cross. Josie can't seem to understand the error of his ways, but his actions have terrible consequences.

As these consequences become clear, Garage lets go of the light comic touch on display in its first hour and transforms itself into an unsettling tragedy. Abrahamson is a director who likes to suggest rather than tell, and Garage is an extremely spare and methodical piece of filmmaking which occasionally recalls the work of the Dardennes or Robert Bresson in its approach. The filmmakers have jettisoned anything superfluous from the picture as they follow the story's inexorable logic, and while this leaves a number of supporting characters feeling underdeveloped (Anne-Marie Duff's role, for example), it allows them to maintain a rigid control on the film's gradually darkening atmosphere. The final third plays out with a haunting sense of stillness, and the very last scenes in the picture are quietly chilling.

Once and Garage are films which make the most of their low budgets and tight focus, to draw us into a simple story and to send us out the other side with our emotions stirred. They are both films which portray modern Ireland as it is, not offering a tourist-baiting, postcard vision of the country; they are both films which stay true to the integrity of their narratives, defying audience expectations; and they are both films which address universal themes on an intimate, human scale. They stand as two of the most impressive Irish features for many years and - best of all - both have been made by directors taking the earliest steps in their careers. It will be fascinating to see if John Carney can successfully follow-up on the promise of Once, when the challenge of recapturing that cinematic magic is exacerbated by elevated expectations; but with only two films under his belt, I'm already getting the feeling that Lenny Abrahamson is the real deal.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Review - Beowulf

A 3,000-line epic poem which has been dated back as far as the 8th century, author unknown, and written in Anglo-Saxon English – Beowulf is not the most natural material for a Hollywood blockbuster. Most people who have attempted to plough their way through this dense work will testify to the fact that it is something of a fruitless chore, so the amount of fun I had with Robert Zemeckis' cutting-edge screen version came as a rather pleasant surprise. Zemeckis and screenwriters Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman have wisely streamlined the story and have used motion-capture techniques to bring it to life in a visually remarkable way. All in all, they've made a better job of Beowulf than anyone could have imagined.

In a case like this, we can hardly have expected complete fidelity to the source material, but the core details of Beowulf remain the same in this adaptation. The film opens with scenes of celebration; a party is in full swing in a Danish mead hall, and the intoxicated King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) is having a great time at the centre of it all. Some distance away, however, the grotesque monster Grendel (voiced with great pathos by Crispin Glover) seems to be suffering intense pain which is accentuated by the joyous sounds being carried on the wind. Eventually, he attacks, bursting into the mead hall with unstoppable force and turning its inhabitants into a pile of bloody corpses, although he stops short of killing the king himself. Enter Beowulf, looking every inch the Norse warrior with his long blonde locks and flawless physique. He's a fine figure of a man, to be sure, so who else could play him but our very own Ray Winstone?

That's the funny thing about this motion-capture business, you can cast people in the most unlikely roles and do whatever you like with them on screen. Winstone provides both the movements and the growly, cockney-tinged voice for the titular character, but the animated figure we see on screen is something very different. Zemeckis has gone down this road once before, with his dismal 2004 Christmas film The Polar Express – in which a gaggle of dead-eyed Tom Hanks clones did their level best to scare rather than cheer the intended audience – but these techniques appear to have advanced in considerable ways since that picture. Many people may question the validity of this filmmaking style, but it does allow Zemeckis to have the same actors playing characters over the span of fifty years, and it gives him the freedom to create a distinctive, richly detailed world which is realised through stunningly detailed animation.
It also allows him to bring a thrilling dynamism to the film's action sequences, recapturing some of the imagination and lightness of touch which made him one of the brightest directors of the 80's. After a carefully paced opening, in which the film seems to be finding its feet, Beowulf springs into life when Grendel attacks the mead hall, and the face-off between our hero and the monster is equally invigorating. In an odd twist, Beowulf decides to take on the beast unarmed and naked in order to make it an even contest (leading to plenty of amusing Austin Powers-style genital blocking) but the fight has a real sense of physicality about it, and throughout Beowulf the surprising amount of violence and implied sexuality pushes hard against the 12A rating. This particular battle ends in victory for Beowulf, after he has ripped Grendel's arm from his shoulder, and as a reward Hrothgar promises him the throne; but the monster's mysterious mother (Angelina Jolie) is hell-bent on revenge, and decades after the event Beowulf must face the ramifications of his actions.

Beowulf the movie diverges a little from Beowulf the text, with Gaiman and Avery drawing paternal links between a couple of characters, but these alterations help to shape the drama in a surprisingly satisfying way. At its heart, Beowulf's screenplay is on the simplistic side, but it does afford the central character an element of depth – emphasising his vainglorious personality and suggesting that it is ultimately his own lust for power and glory that proves to be his undoing – and in this respect Winstone proves to be an inspired choice for the role. The actor's best performances have always contrasted his physical strength with a core of emotional vulnerability, and he brings that quality to his vocal performance here. Most of the other actors – all of whom look pretty much the same on screen as they do in reality – are on-the-spot with their own contributions; John Malkovich is a slimy Unferth, Brendan Gleeson brings warmth and humour to his role as Beowulf's staunch ally Wiglaf, and Jolie vamps up a storm as the lizard-like seductress (the exception among this strong cast is Robin Wright Penn, seemingly an inexpressive actress in any medium).

So, Beowulf is a solid piece of entertainment, then, if hardly earth-shattering, but as a cinemagoing experience it is often breathtaking. Alongside its regular release Beowulf is being presented in 3-D, and when I saw the film – in its IMAX format – it struck me as the most impressive use of the technology yet. There's a genuine depth and lushness to the film's visuals, with Zemeckis taking every opportunity to hurtle his camera this way and that, and to pull the audience right into the spectacle. It's not quite the flawless, completely immersive experience the filmmakers may have been striving for – the images tend towards a slight blurriness at times, and the intensity of it left me with a slight headache – but it remains a hugely accomplished technical feat.

Will Beowulf be as impressive in a standard, 2-D cinema? I doubt it, but the question is moot. This is a film made to be seen in 3-D on the biggest screen you can find, a film to indulge in and to enjoy for what it is. The motion-capture still struggles to register subtle emotions, and its eye work is still hit-and-miss (which there's really no excuse for, when you think of the depth of feeling displayed in something like Peter Jackson's King Kong); but such nit-picking seems churlish when held against the overall experience the film offers, particularly in the final twenty minutes when it delivers a ridiculously exciting climax. After decades of failed attempts, today's filmmakers are finally finding the technology to make 3-D a viable cinematic tool, and with more directors dipping a toe in these uncharted waters – including James Cameron, whose forthcoming Avatar will be released solely in 3-D – the possibilities are fascinating. Beowulf is a grand slice of blockbuster entertainment, but the most exciting thing about it may be the future it heralds for cinema itself.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

"I did a lot of damage and fucked a lot of things up and I had a great time doing it" - An interview with Harmony Korine

Harmony Korine first came to public consciousness at the tender age of 22, when he wrote the screenplay for Larry Clark's controversy-magnet Kids. He followed this up with his own directorial efforts Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy, distinctive and twisted pictures which sharply divided opinion. That seemed to be it for Korine, as he rapidly disappeared from view, but after eight years he has returned with the whimsical and imaginative Mister Lonely. I met the director when he was in London for the film's premiere at the London Film Festival.

You've been away from filmmaking for such a long time, how does it feel to be back with a new movie?

It's exciting for me. Like you said, I've been out of it for so long, it's nice. The best thing is that the movie exists, and I'm really happy to be here.

And during that time you were away, did you always feel that you would eventually return to cinema, or was there a point when you felt that it was over for you?
Most of the time I thought I probably wouldn't make movies again. I wasn't sure about a lot of things, so for a long time I thought I wouldn't be back doing it again.

So what prompted you to write this story about a group of impersonators?
Well, it actually started with the nun stuff. Years and years ago I just had images of nuns jumping out of aeroplanes without parachutes, on bicycles and stuff. I wasn't really sure what I was trying to say but I started to come up with a story around it; you know, this idea of faith and testing that faith. And I've always been attracted to the obsessive nature of certain characters, people who live outside the system, create their own universe, so I started to think about impersonators. I guess everything starts with visual cues, you know. I see a guy on the street with headphones and no shoes and his stomach sticking out, and I start thinking, "Wow, I wonder what his house looks like, and how does he make a living?"; so I start building the story like that.

And you wrote this script with your brother Avi, which is the first time you've had a co-screenwriter. How was that process?

It was good. I had never written with somebody else before in my life, and he was a really good writer who was just starting out. His brain works differently to mine, and I thought it would be nice to have someone there who could motivate me and who I could bounce ideas off. I hadn't made a movie like Mister Lonely, in some ways it was more ambitious than the other films, and I really wanted to do something different, so I thought it would be good to work with him. Basically, my brother is really obsessed with boxing and Chicken McNuggets, so I said, "Avi, you watch boxing as much as you want when we're not working, and I'll buy you three months worth of Chicken McNuggets and honey", because he really likes this special honey. That's what he got for helping me [laughs].

As you said, this is a more ambitious project for you in a lot of ways, including the budget. What was it like getting the film funded?

It was difficult. I hadn't made a movie in eight years, and it's like all my films, I never really make straight movies. Also, it we shot it in four countries, and it was a large cast. Even though the movie didn't really feel like an expensive movie when I was making it, because I was still dealing with the same things I've always dealt with, it was logistically difficult, just getting it all together. But it's never easy.

Are you conscious of an added pressure on you when more money has been invested into you project?

Yeah, but what I'm really conscious of is just trying to make a good movie, to make the film I wrote and the film I imagined. Yes, you always hope the film will make money, but my only real concern is making the best movie I can make.

I was interested in the fact that agnès b, the French fashion designer, was involved in the financing. How did that come about?
I met her with my last movie, she really liked that film, and she came to the Venice Film Festival, and we got along really well. We both wanted to do the same kind of things, and we decided to collaborate and set up some productions and stuff. She's a really special lady.

Are you looking to produce projects for other directors in the future?

Maybe. I don't really have any desire to produce, it's just a bureaucracy and I've never been a businessman, but I have a desire to help people make movies if I think it's going to be something cool and interesting. I would definitely try to facilitate some projects like that. If it's a director I like and it's a good project I would do whatever I can do to help make the movie.

When you came up with these characters, these very iconic figures, did you have any specific actors in mind for the roles?

It was mostly done later, except I knew I wanted to work with Denis Lavant, so I wrote Chaplin with him in mind.

He's really good in the film, and he pulls off lot of the Chaplin moves.

He's just such a great physical actor, he kind of harkens back to this vaudeville era. There's something very Keaton-like about him, something beautiful about his physicality, so I wrote that for him.

Aside from the impersonator part of this story, you have this whole other strand with the skydiving nuns and Werner Herzog as a priest. This is the second time you've worked with Herzog, how did that relationship first come about?

Well my relationship with him started when I watched his movies as a kid, you know, I watched Stroszek when I was about 13. The first time I actually talked to him was right before Gummo came out, he had seen a copy of it, and he told me to come out to San Francisco where he was living to hang out. He's a hero, there'll never be another one like Herzog.

One of my favourite scenes in the whole film was the one in which Herzog is talking to that man whose wife left him.

That was actually an amazing thing that happened. We were setting up a shot at the airport, and as I was setting up I saw Werner talking to this guy who I had seen before, because my parents live in Panama, and I had seen him walking around with plastic roses. I had never spoken to him though, and I just saw him crying while Werner was talking to him by the side of this small airport. I thought "that's weird, what's going on?", and Werner said to me "Harmony, put the camera on me right now, this is something special". So that's what we did, and that scene is actually the truth. That guy – and I saw him in the same place just two months ago – he actually waits there every day for his wife to get off the plane, with plastic roses. Every day he thinks in earnest that she's going to step off the plane, and Werner had just started talking to him, so when you watch that it's like a truthful retelling.

That's what makes it so effective, you couldn't really write that kind of scene.

You couldn't write it, and it's a long scene, but I thought there was nowhere I could shorten it. It has a kind of organic quality, starting off funny and going somewhere touching, and I felt it was nice to watch that story unfold. So that's his real story, and he's there right now, I bet you, still waiting.

Are you always on the lookout for real things like that which you can incorporate into your movie?

Without question, the most important thing is making room for that. I'm always aware of the life outside of the camera, so whenever we're on location I'm very interested in incorporating pieces of real life into the story. A big part of it is leaving myself open to that.

Another aspect of this film that is different for you is the fact that you're working with a lot of well-known, professional actors. What was that like?
It's something that presents its own challenges, you know? I felt like I needed actors, for one thing to get the financing, but also because those parts demand that kind of discipline. I mean, I don't know if anything makes me happier than working with non-actors, because it's so exciting, you never know what you're going to get. It's a special experience, and when it works it's amazing, but I enjoyed working with actors as well.

How do you work with the actors on set, do you do much rehearsing or improvisation?
What I do is, I always think of the script as a kind of model kit, or a jumping-off point, and I like to encourage the actors to make it their own. It's just words, you know, and I'm not too precious about it. Sometimes I like to see where the actors can take it, sometimes to places you never imagined. A lot of the time it doesn't work, but I feel like you always have to give it a try. For me, I feel like it's a kind of anti-Hitchcock mode of direction, where the film is a living, chaotic exercise, you know? Part of the fun for me as a director is discovering it and making it up as I go along, that's a big part.

How has the public reaction to Mister Lonely been so far?

It seems good, you know? See, I always think when I'm making a movie that it's going to end up being like the sequel to The Shawshank Redemption. I guess I'm really delusional, but in my mind I'm thinking "Man, this movie is really going to resonate with the general pop, and win a few Oscars and Tom Hanks will love it!" [laughs].

It hasn't quite happened for you yet.

Right, exactly, the movie comes out and everyone looks at me like I'm crazy. I've long ago stopped trying to predict what the reaction to my films are because I'm always wrong. The first screening at Cannes was nerve-wracking.

What is the Cannes experience like?

It's insane. Sometimes I think it's too much energy for one person to experience, it's just so intense. You're getting so much energy from so many directions, good and bad. Obviously, it's a great place to release your films and if it's well-received it can be really good.

You've been linked with a number of projects in the past few years that haven't come to fruition, have you got a lot of old ideas lying around that you might go back to now?
You never can tell, it's hard to say what I'm going to do next. I don't really know. I have a script that I wrote that I might do next, and there's something else I'm writing now, and hopefully it won't be too long.

You're not planning on resurrecting the fight project, I hope.

No, that was pretty hardcore. I don't really have the same kind of devotion to pain that I once did [laughs].

What are your thoughts when you look back at that whole period of the mid to late nineties, from this vantage point of being older and wiser?

It was a crazy time, but it was good, you know? I did a lot of damage and fucked a lot of things up and I had a great time doing it. I would say to anybody who wants to make movies, I would encourage a brief life of crime first. Seriously, go see what it's like to rob somebody, or rob a bank or just experience some sort of crime, because I think that sets you up with all the resources you need, and I think it sets you up well for making films. You know, when I was living debased, living like a bum and a criminal, I was still pure of heart, and in the end I needed to put myself through all of the things I put myself through. I knew I had to go through that, and it almost killed me, but it made me a better person.

Have you looked back at your old movies since making them?

No, I have no desire to. I never look at my films, I don't even own any of my films, or any posters, books, anything that would remind me of them. What I've achieved only serves to bring me down. You know, my walls are bare in my house and it's nice because I can think of lots of new things. I have a lot of director friends who like to have posters and reminders, and that's the last thing I want. I mean, I did it, I put it out there, and I hope it finds an audience.

I once read a quote attributed to you where you said you could see yourself making around four or five more pictures in your career, and then you would completely stop making films after that. Do you still feel that way?

Yeah, I'll keep making movies as long as I have something to say, and I don't really know how much I have to say right now. I can never see myself making genre films; you won't see me doing a horror film, or a gangster movie, or a western. I just don't think like that, it's not my thing. I don't know how much more I've got so we'll see what happens, but four, five or six pretty much seems tops.

And do you have any idea what you'd do after that?

If I stopped making movies I'd probably turn to something else, like I'd mow people's yards for $10, something like that. Seriously, I'd try being a short-order cook, see what that's like, or I always thought it would be cool to be a lifeguard. You know, that kind of thing seems really exciting to me.

Review - Into the Wild

It's not hard to see why the story of Sean Penn has spent over a decade trying to bring the story of Chris McCandless to the big screen. An iconoclastic, single-minded and rebellious figure throughout his career, Penn surely saw something of himself in adventurous young man who rejected a life of material success and sought his freedom on the open road. For two years McCandless traversed the American wilderness, living by his wits and testing himself against the elements, before nature finally caught up with him in Alaska, where he lived out his final, painful days and succumbed to starvation at the age of 24. His story was told by author Jon Krakauer in 1996, and eleven years on it has formed the basis for the most ambitious work of Penn's directorial career; a daring, bloated, gorgeous, overlong, clumsy and occasionally touching mess of a film.

If Into the Wild were made twenty-odd years ago one could have seen Penn stepping into the shoes of Chris McCandless himself, but here Emile Hirsch takes on this demanding role. McCandless' journey began in 1990, and we pick up his story shortly after his graduation, with his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, solid in slight roles) dreaming of big things for his future. But Chris sees himself travelling down a different path, and he appears determined to shrug off this comfortable, conventional lifestyle, rejecting their offer of a new car and telling them that he doesn't want any of these "things, things, things". Abruptly, he decides to cut loose; he writes off his entire $24,000 college fund with a single Oxfam cheque, and leaves his family behind, never to have any contact with them again.

We retain a link with the McCandless family through the intermittent narration provided by Jena Malone, as Chris' sister, balancing out the central character's journey of discovery by allowing us to glimpse the pain of those left behind (Malone has a great voice for narration, having earned her stripes in last year's Container). For the most part, though, Penn follows Chris every step of the way, cutting back-and-forth between his last weeks in Alaska and the various people and experiences he encountered along the way; and with some of these encounters being a lot more interesting than others, Into the Wild often comes across as frustratingly episodic and disjointed. For example, the segment of the film in which Chris spends some time working for Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughan), a farmer with a wild streak, falls very flat, possibly because Vaughan's character feels poorly defined.

The rest of the supporting cast Penn has assembled give us some memorable turns, though. Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker (a non-actor who is a warm and natural presence) play a hippy couple whom Chris runs into a couple of times down the road, and they take him into their lives, with his presence compensating in some way for the son they lost. Keener is a always a pleasure to watch and she brings a real sense of loss and affection to her scenes, like the one in which she admonishes Chris for making a dismissive remark about his parents with the cutting line "You look like a loved kid. Be fair". Later, Chris ends up spending time with Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), an elderly leather worker, who has lived alone since his family died in a car crash many years ago. Ron develops a strong bond with this young traveller, and pleads with him not to take those final steps into the Alaskan wilderness, even asking Chris if he would like to live with him as his son; and Holbrook's incredibly tender and heartfelt performance is deeply moving.

It seems at times as if everyone Chris met on his journey towards death wanted to protect him, to act as surrogate parents, perhaps having experienced a sense of foreboding about his ultimate fate. As played by Emile Hirsch, though, it's not hard to see why so many people warmed to McCandless. The actor plays Chris as cocky and intelligent, but he's also a lively and endearing figure; and he seems to light up when he comes face-to-face with the splendour of nature. This is a hell of a big film for one young actor to carry the bulk of, but Hirsch throws himself into everything with complete dedication, and the sight of an emaciated, bearded McCandless inching towards death in the final scenes is shocking when held against the youthful exuberance of his earlier appearances. It's a tremendous piece of acting.

My problems with Into the Wild arise when Penn refuses to trust in the inherent brilliance of his cast, story and setting, though. His direction grows increasingly self-indulgent and gimmicky – Hirsch even breaks the fourth wall at one point – as the film progresses, cluttering the action unnecessarily when simplicity is the key to its success. The film is beautifully shot by Eric Gautier, but so much of Penn's direction is visually clichéd; with helicopter shots swooping around mountain peaks, while Eddie Veder's on-the-nose songs wail on the soundtrack, and Hirsch is repeatedly asked to stand with his arms outstretched in a Christ-like pose while Penn's camera gazes upon him adoringly. At one point, Hirsch stands in the water and shakes his head wildly in slow-motion while droplets fly off in all directions – and shots like this go beyond cliché into being something like kitsch. Directors like Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick have repeatedly shown us that the natural world has its own kind of magic and beauty, you don't need to take these measures to make it more interesting, and Penn's heavy-handedness is counter-productive.

In fact, much of Penn's rendering of this tale displays a real lack of subtlety – the depiction of Chris' abusive family life is seen through grainy Super-8 footage – and Into the Wild threatens to lose its way more than once before reaching its 140th minute, but the impressive performances and the sheer strength of the director's conviction pulls us through. The final twenty minutes are among the film's best, conveying the ultimate horror of Chris' ordeal through some visceral imagery, but I never really felt connected to Chris McCandless, who remains something of an enigmatic figure at the close. This is being hailed as a major leap forward for Sean Penn as a filmmaker, but I much preferred his excellent 2001 picture The Pledge, a film that really tried to get inside its central character's head rather than simply observing his behaviour in an approving fashion. In contrast, Into the Wild is essentially a romantic odyssey, with Penn portraying Chris McCandless as a heroic and admirable figure. He even gives McCandless something of a hero's death; lying facing into the sun, his features are frozen into an ecstatic, defiant smile, as the light disappears from his eyes.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Review Round-up - Mister Lonely, Lions for Lambs and Planet Terror

Mister Lonely

Well, look who's back. Harmony Korine, the enfant terrible of American independent cinema, is back in the director's chair some eight years after his indescribably weird and polarising Julien Donkey-Boy appeared to marked the end of his short filmmaking experience. In the mid-90's he burned brightly but briefly; his screenplay for Larry Clark's Kids making him a celebrity at 22, and his own directorial debut Gummo establishing him as a singular filmmaking talent two years later. But it all appeared to be too much, too young for Korine, and by the turn of the century he had pressed the self-destruct button, seemingly throwing away his nascent career in the process. Now Korine has returned with his third film as a director, and it looks like his years in the wilderness have done him no harm whatsoever, with this picture marking a real leap forward for him in terms of content and technique.

Mister Lonely opens with a slow-motion shot of a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) riding around on a miniature motorcycle, a stuffed monkey trailing behind him, while Bobby Vinton croons the title track. Michael (we never discover his real name) lives a solitary life, earning a meagre living by moonwalking his way up and down the streets of Paris, and occasionally delighting local pensioners with his lively retirement home performances. It is here that he bumps into a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton), who spends some time with him before telling him of a place in the Scottish highlands which has been established just for people like them, a place where they can be themselves and where they are currently preparing for the show of a lifetime.

They travel to Scotland in a rowing boat, and they are met by a gaggle of celebrity lookalikes. There's The Pope (James Fox), James Dean (Joseph Morgan) and The Queen (Anita Pallenberg), but the most interesting figure in this community is Charlie Chaplin (Denis Lavant), an aggressive character who is described at one point as being closer to Hitler than the lovable tramp. Chaplin is also Marilyn's wife – the pair have a daughter named Shirley Temple – and Michael's arrival unwittingly causes tensions to rise between the couple.

But let's forget about all of that for now, and turn our gaze to Panama, where a priest (Werner Herzog) is encouraging a group of nuns to jump out of his plane without parachutes to test their faith. There's no direct connection between this story and the impersonators, and to be honest I'm not entirely sure that there's much of an indirect connection either. Both narrative strands appear to deal with examples of irrational behaviour and the limits of blind faith, but Korine seems happy to just let the two halves of the story co-exist in a loose and abstract way, and this freewheeling style is his preferred approach throughout Mister Lonely. As a result, the film feels a little slack and wayward in places, and we're never quite sure whether Korine's whimsical fable is heading anywhere worthwhile, but it is stuffed with small pleasures at every step of the journey.

This is by far the most ambitious film of Korine's career, and he hasn't lost his ability to conjure up unique and striking imagery. From a row of painted eggs bursting into song, to the astonishingly staged sequences in which the nuns plummet through the sky, Korine's film has its share of visually arresting moments, and his brighter approach he adopts here – both in the film's aesthetics and overall tone – is a welcome development. Mister Lonely also sees the director working with a well-known and professional cast for the first time, and he elicits sweet, appealing performances from Morton and Luna. The supporting actors are a little more hit-and-miss – Lavant's angry Chaplin and Richard Strange's foul-mouthed Abraham Lincoln are the best of them – but the film is comprehensively stolen by Herzog, his idiosyncratic and resolutely deadpan delivery helping to make the South American segments of Mister Lonely both funny and oddly touching.

Mister Lonely is undeniably uneven and the sudden lurch into tragedy towards the film's climax doesn't really come off. It could have also benefitted from some less self-indulgent editing, with the film's legs starting to wobble in its second hour; but I think it still holds up as one of the more imaginative and intriguing films I've seen this year, and it displays plenty of evidence that Harmony Korine is a director maturing in positive ways. There's not much doubt in my mind that Mister Lonely is the most accomplished film of Korine's career, but it also leaves us with the pleasing notion that the best of this still-young filmmaker is yet to come.

Lions for Lambs

"Do you want to win the war on terror, yes or no?" Tom Cruise asks during Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs, "this is the quintessential yes or no question of our time". Some films like to sneak their political views into the cinema as subtext, but in Lions for Lambs the issues are right there at the forefront of the drama for 90 minutes. Redford's first directorial effort since 2000's The Legend of Bagger Vance – and his first worthwhile directorial effort since the superb Quiz Show – is a picture which wears its heart on its sleeve; a relentlessly earnest talkathon which focuses on the war, politics and public apathy, and which has little room for any extraneous material in its pared-down running time.

With three of the starriest Hollywood heavyweights on board for this project, many viewers might be surprised to learn that Lions for Lambs essentially consists of a couple of long conversations. In Washington, up-and-coming senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) has invited noted journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) to his office for an exclusive interview. He is willing to reveal to her a bold new strategy which is set to be implemented in Afghanistan, a strategy which, he believes, will finally ensure victory for American troops. We learn that Roth wrote an article some years previously which was instrumental in Irving's subsequent success, and here he is returning the favour with a sensational inside scoop. At the same time, in a Californian university, Professor Malley (Redford himself) is sitting down with a brilliant but apathetic student (Andrew Garfield), who is in danger of tossing away his considerable potential.

Redford cuts between these two discussions while also bringing a third narrative strand into the mix. In Afghanistan, two former students of Professor Malley – played by the likeable Michael Peña and Derek Luke – are among the soldiers taking part in Irving's new military offensive, and while they fly into the danger zone, Malley uses them as a cautionary example to the disillusioned student in his office.

Constructed in a tight, schematic way, and driven mostly by dialogue, Lions for Lambs is the kind of thing one could imagine working brilliantly on stage, but on the cinema screen it comes of feeling stilted and airless. With two thirds of the film taking place inside a pair of single offices, there's an oddly stultifying atmosphere about the picture, and the verbal back-and-forth between the film's high-profile actors never catches fire as the director no doubt hoped it would. In fact, the best scenes in the film are the ones in which dialogue is kept to a premium, with Peña and Luke managing to inject the only note of emotional resonance into the picture. Their Afghan experiences are more tense and involving than anything else in the film, perhaps because it's the only time we really feel like something valuable is at stake.

The rest of the time, Lions for Lambs is all talk. Matthew Michael Carnahan wrote the screenplay – making this film the intellectual flipside to his more gung-ho The Kingdom – and while it is a well-researched piece of scriptwriting, it has a habit of just skimming the surface of the many issues it touches upon in its back-breaking attempts to air every side of the various debates . The film could have really used some extra time in which to open things up and to explore its arguments in some depth, but instead we just get a series of headlines and soundbites, with the circular arguments leading us nowhere. The actors are adept enough to sell it, of course, and the performances are all predictably strong; Cruise's cocky arrogance plays well against Streep's cool cynicism, and young British actor Garfield makes a particularly strong impression among exalted company.

The most disappointing aspect of Lions for Lambs is the fact that there is a rather simple and relevant message struggling to find its way through all of this verbosity. Redford's film is just asking the viewing public to fully engage with these world-changing events, to question the stories they are being fed, and to be aware of the decisions that are being made in their name. These are noble sentiments, for sure, but Lions for Lambs just left me cold, and it's hard to see it making much of an impact on any sort of wide audience. For all its sincerity, Lions for Lambs is too stagey, too preachy, too thin and too inert; and films compromised by those kinds of flaws are unlikely to capture many hearts and minds.

Planet Terror

In hindsight, it probably wasn't such a good idea to give Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez millions of dollars for their Grindhouse experiment. The pair may have wanted to pay loving homage to the exploitation films they loved as youngsters but, as everyone quickly discovered, few filmgoers seemed to share their fascination with the genre, with the double-bill flopping in the US and Tarantino's stand-alone Death Proof being a box-office bust upon its belated UK release. Still, at least something has been salvaged from this whole embarrassing misfire, with Rodriguez's expanded version of Planet Terror emerging as a damn entertaining picture.

Grindhouse offered a handful of fake trailers to give viewers a full-on cinematic experience, and we get to see one of them before Planet Terror starts, a hilarious preview for a Danny Trejo-starring revenge flick called Machete ("They fucked with the wrong Mexican!"). The film itself then kicks off, and it quickly establishes a lively, irreverent tone which never abates. The story is tried-and-tested: a town's inhabitants are bein turned into zombies by the release of a toxic gas, and a small, rag-tag bunch of survivors is thrown together to fight back. This group includes characters such as a trucker with a dark past (Freddy Rodríguez), a local sheriff (Michael Biehn), a nurse (Marley Shelton) on the run from her violent husband (Josh Brolin), and an ex-stripper looking for a new career (Rose McGowan).

The reason Planet Terror works so well is the fact that Rodriguez totally embraces the trashy, B-movie spirit of the enterprise. Whereas Death Proof got bogged down in too much inconsequential chatter and an uneventful narrative, Rodriguez places the emphasis on action, delivering a visceral and pacey ride which keeps taking surprising turns. The violence is comically over-the-top, with the gore levels recalling the excesses of Peter Jackson's Braindead, Rodriguez also commits to the grindhouse feel from start to finish; he makes consistent work of the scratches and glitches that have been artificially added to the print, creating an atmosphere which is all of a piece with the films he is trying to emulate. The most self-conscious aspects in the film are well handled too, with the 'missing reel' – a throwaway moment in Death Proof – being the basis for a great gag here, as we come back into the picture having missed some vital exposition.

Rodriguez does stumbles badly a couple of times; the offhand manner in which a child is killed is a serious misjudgement, and I could have done without Quentin Tarantino's cameo as a rapist, but for the most part Planet Terror flies. It's a ceaselessly inventive picture and packed with incident, but Rodriguez is smart enough to give his actors room to breathe. Freddy Rodriguez gives a sharp and charismatic performance as the film's hero, Marley Shelton is terrific, and Jeff Fahey serves up a great supporting turn, but the film ultimately belongs to Rose McGowan. She starts the picture by dancing provocatively over the opening credits, and in the final reel she is blasting away bad guys with a machine gun where her right leg should be. The great thing about Planet Terror is that we don't even question the sight of a woman shooting zombies with an artificial limb; and McGowan – sexy, funny, and dangerous – is the perfect mascot for this riotous blast of a movie.