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.