Monday, December 31, 2007

2007 Review - Part Two: The Awards

Best Films

Honourable MentionsAfter the Wedding
The Counterfeiters

Letters From Iwo Jima
Michael Clayton
Southland Tales

Worst Films
Dishonourable Mentions
December Boys
Factory Girl
The FountainFur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane ArbusMagiciansRendition
The Good ShepherdThe Tiger's Tail
The Walker
Best Actor
Casey Affleck – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Thomas Turgoose – This is England
Viggo Mortensen – Eastern Promises
Chris Cooper - BreachEmile Hirsch – Into the Wild
Best Actress
Marion Cotillard – La Vie en rose
Carice van Houten – Black Book
Ashley Judd – Bug
Maggie Gyllenhaal - Sherrybaby
Best Supporting Actor
Robert Downey Jr. – ZodiacStephen Graham – This is England
Steve Zahn – Rescue Dawn
Hal Holbrook - Into the Wild
William Hurt – Mr Brooks
Best Supporting Actress
Rinko Kikuchi – Babel
Cate Blanchett – I'm Not There
Saoirse Ronan – Atonement
Tilda Swinton – Michael Clayton
Romola Garai – Atonement
Best Director
Andrew Dominik – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
David Fincher – Zodiac
Carlos Reygadas – Silent LightBrad Bird – RatatouilleShane Meadows – This is England
Best Original Screenplay
Michael Clayton
This is England
Knocked UpOnce
Best Adapted Screenplay
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The Bourne Ultimatum
Best Cinematography
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert FordI'm Not There
The Illusionist
Silent Light
Best Editing
The Bourne Ultimatum
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
I'm Not There
Best Original Score
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The Bourne Ultimatum
Best Visual Effects
BeowulfThe Science of Sleep
The Fountain
Best Production Design
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
I Am Legend
The Good Shepherd
Best Costume Design
The Golden Compass
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
This is England
I'm Not There
Best Surprise of the Year
Ten Canoes
Southland Tales
Disappointment of the Year
The Good Shepherd
Spider-Man 3
The Good German
The Science of Sleep
Death Proof

Sunday, December 30, 2007

2007 Review - Part One

On July 30th of this year, the cinematic community mourned the passing of two of its most revered figures when Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni passed away within hours of each other. Both men had lived to a grand old age, and neither had made a film for a couple of years, but the coincidence of two great directors dying on the same day prompted a number of articles to be written about the end of cinema's great age. They were seen as two of the last bastions of challenging, existential, spiritual and searching filmmaking, and with their passing, many wondered if we had any such directors from the modern era who were willing or capable of living up to this benchmark. So if we were to take the pulse of contemporary cinema based on what we've seen over the past twelve months, what conclusions would we come to regarding the medium's current health?

If today's generation of filmmakers does possess an heir apparent to the likes Bergman, Antonioni or Tarkovsky, then perhaps it is Carlos Reygadas, the Mexican director who made his most accomplished film this year with Silent Light. Reygadas' long takes, intelligent mise en scène, and his embracing of the film's spiritual elements, recalled the work of the great directors mentioned above, and one suspects that there is more interesting work to come from this preciously inconsistent auteur, as he continues to refine his gifts. Reygadas' use of the Mennonite community in his film also shed light on a society which had previously been unexplored in cinema, and Rolf de Heer's Ten Canoes was a similarly enlightening experience, being the first Australian film to feature an all-aboriginal cast and to be made solely in their language. In fact, most of the great foreign-language films to be released over the past few years have come from newer filmmaking territories – Romania's renaissance continued this year when the outstanding 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (released here in January) won the Palme D'Or at Cannes – and these pictures are currently putting offerings from the more traditional cinematic powerhouses in the shade.

This year's batch of French cinema was particularly disappointing. La Vie en rose contained an top-notch central performance from Marion Cotillard as the tragic Edith Piaf, but the film itself was a clumsy biopic; Pascale Ferran's new version of Lady Chatterley was overlong and passionless; and the acclaimed Gallic adaptation of Harlan Coben's Tell No One was little more than a bog-standard thriller. It took an American to make the best French movie of the year – Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Feb 2008) is a beautiful and deeply moving account of Jean-Dominique Bauby's near-total paralysis. For much of the year, German cinema was riding high on the back of one film in particular. The Lives of Others won an Oscar in February and has received incredible critical acclaim wherever it has played. It has appeared on most critics' top ten lists and everyone who sees the film seems to be amazed by it. Have a look at this quote from Mark Cousins, who selected the film for Sight and Sound's 2007 top ten:

"I looked in vain for the names of Billy Wilder and IAL Diamond on The Lives of Others, which I saw later than most critics, but I could not find them. They must have, modestly and posthumously, refused the credit. Could any living filmmaker have written a scene of such dramatic and ironic complexity as the one in which Christa-Maria goes into a bar and is approached by her secret fan and observer? Surely not. Surely those precise skills are gone".

Apart from the sheer craziness of Cousins' quote, the overwhelming adulation heaped upon The Lives of Others throughout 2007 left me wondering if I saw a different film to everyone else. As far as I could see, The Lives of Others was a polished, well-made, fitfully intriguing drama which wasn't worth getting particularly excited about. It certainly pales in comparison with The Counterfeiters, a rougher but far more compelling German film about Jewish prisoners forced to collaborate with their Nazi captors; and it has nothing on Edge of Heaven (Feb 2008), the new film from Head-On director Fatih Akin whose story crosses between Turkey and Germany, bringing the strands together for an unexpectedly touching finale.

Much of 2007, as ever, was dominated by American cinema, though, and unfortunately it seems that the only thing worse than Hollywood not tackling major issues is, well, Hollywood tackling major issues. The war on terror was a central theme among many films this year, with unsatisfying results all-round. I was expecting more from Robert Redford's Lions for LambsRendition was a simple-minded attempt to bring the issue of extraordinary rendition to the public's consciousness, but the public wisely steered clear. Paul Haggis tried to make a film which functions both as an anti-war polemic and a straight-ahead thriller, but despite sterling work from Tommy Lee Jones, than a 90-minute lecture set in a couple of small rooms, and Gavin Hood's In The Valley of Elah (Jan 2008) fails on both counts. The only worthwhile dramatic feature on the subject so far has been Brian De Palma's Redacted (March 2008), an anguished howl of a film which is far from a perfect picture, but at least it has more to it than empty, heavy-handed speechifying. In any case, the failure of every one of these films at the box-office poses the question of whether people actually want to see these films? Perhaps the cinema-going public is suffering from a bad dose of war fatigue as this endless conflict drags on, and there doesn't seem to be a receptive audience for films that place the subject front and centre. The first wave of great Vietnam films started to appear in the late 70's, years after that war had ended, so perhaps we'll only get some cinematic perspectives on this issue when the dust finally settles on the conflict, if it ever does.

For the most part, American filmmakers are at their best when they work within traditional genres, and that was certainly the case this year. Films like The Bourne Ultimatum and Michael Clayton might be little more than thrillers, but they are thrillers made with real intelligence, vitality and skill, and Tony Gilroy – who wrote one film and directed the other – has certainly made a name for himself this year. Another staple of American cinema is the western, and we were told that they had made comeback this year – but have they ever been away? Every few years a batch of westerns will tend to surface, and 2007 just happened to contain a couple of good ones, with James Mangold's entertaining remake of 3:10 to Yuma and Andrew Dominik's astonishing film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Dominik's picture is beautiful, unconventional and thrillingly ambitious: predictably, it died a box-office death.

Some people liked to lump the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men (Feb 2008) in with this bunch of films as further evidence of a western revival, but despite the Stetsons, their picture doesn't really fit the mould. It is, however, a stunning return to form from the brothers after hitting their lowest ebb with 2004's The Ladykillers, and Javier Bardem's embodiment of Chigurgh – the relentless killer created by author Cormac McCarthy – is one of the year's most indelible performances. With the Coens turning to the darker side of life this year, it appears comedy in America belongs to one man alone right now, and Judd Apatow's double-bill of Knocked Up and Superbad (which he produced) has certainly established him as the premier comic filmmaker in contemporary cinema. Everything Apatow touches seems to be gold right now, and with his name attached to plenty of upcoming projects (including David Gordon Green's next film), it appears there are plenty more laughs to come.

Overall, the most exciting aspect of American cinema in 2007 was the sight of so many filmmakers breaking out of their comfort zones, to push themselves in new ways as they attempted to offer us a genuinely new experience. Some directors, like Wes Anderson, seemed happy to play with the same old toys, but elsewhere Todd Haynes gave us I'm Not There, David Fincher gave us Zodiac, Richard Kelly gave us Southland Tales, Darren Aronofsky gave us The Fountain, and of course Andrew Dominik's marvellous Jesse James picture fits into this category too. Not all of these films succeeded by any means, but they all felt fresh and different, and they were all made by single-minded filmmakers who desperately wanted to put their vision up there on the screen. Whether you loved these films or hated them, you have to respect that.

PT Anderson is another American filmmaker moving into new and unchartered waters, and his teaming with Daniel Day-Lewis for There Will Be Blood (Feb 2008) is the most exciting prospect for 2008 at this early stage, but there are plenty of other reasons to be optimistic about the year ahead, and about the state of cinema in general. On a technological level, Pixar continue to lead by example with Ratatouille blending jaw-dropping animation with perfectly formed storytelling; and Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf was the biggest step yet in making 3-D a viable cinematic tool, with exciting possibilities lying ahead in that field. But the most reassuring thing we can take from this year of film is the fact that all of 2007's best pictures were based more on strong, engaging, emotionally resonant storytelling than effects or spectacle. The old masters may be gone, but as long as we have compelling stories being brought to life by imaginative, intelligent filmmakers, then the future of cinema appears to be in safe hands.

Review - Silent Light (Stellet licht)

The most gratifying thing about Carlos Reygadas' spellbinding new film Silent Light is that it marks the point where a talented but difficult young filmmaker matures into a major cinematic artist. We already knew that Reygadas was a gifted director with a distinctive view of the world, from his intermittently impressive but bloated debut Japón and his provocative but clumsy follow-up Battle in Heaven; but with Silent Light he seems to have found the perfect balance in his approach. The slow, long takes and artfully composed tableaux serve an engaging tale of infidelity and faith here, and as Reygadas unfolds this narrative in his typically languid and unhurried fashion, he creates a film that is both ravishingly beautiful, and profoundly affecting in the most unexpected ways.

The director's predilection for the unexpected is obvious right from the start. He opens the film at night, staring up at the starry sky, before his camera moves downwards and peers into the darkness ahead. A chorus of birds and crickets can be heard, although these sounds gradually die away as the camera slowly moves towards the horizon and dawn breaks. It takes about six or seven minutes for the sun to rise and the sky to fill with light, and Reygadas doesn't alter his pace as he creeps forward, inviting us to drink in the natural beauty of the scene in front of us. It is just about the most beautiful opening shot imaginable; a sublime piece of cinematic magic which completely captivated me for its duration.

Reygadas repeats the trick in reverse at the end of the film, taking a similar amount of time to watch the sun set, plunging the world into darkness once more, and in between he has a straightforward story to tell.
Silent Light focuses on the troubles of a particular family living among the Plautdietsch-speaking Mennonite communities of Northern Mexico. Johan (Cornelio Wall) is a good man, he loves his wife Esther (Miriam Toews) and their six children, but he has also fallen in love with Marianne (Maria Pankratz), a local waitress, and he doesn't know which way to turn. His father advises Johan that this temptation is the work of the devil – "the implacable enemy" – and he has attempted to turn away from his mistress, to solely devote himself to his wife who has forgiven his transgressions; but Johan cannot deny his overpowering feelings for Marianne, and when he does rekindle their affair, it has tragic consequences.

This is a slight narrative to stretch over a 136-minute film, but despite its methodical pacing and mostly uneventful content,
Silent Light is never dull, and in Reygadas' hands it becomes a fascinating study of faith, redemption and rebirth. His direction is restrained and focused, in marked contrast to the sometimes ostentatious use of tracking shots in his previous films. In Silent Light, the camera often doesn't move at all, it simply sits and observes as life goes on in front of it, and the director appears to take his cue from the steady rhythm of Mennonite life. Some parts of the film have a documentary-style flatness to them, as we watch Johan and his family milking the cows, harvesting the crops or bathing at a local pool, but the narrative seems to unfold in moments out of time. One scene occurs with a thick layer of snow on the ground, while in the next it appears to be harvest time; and Reygadas apparently waited for months for the torrential rainfall in which one of the film's most powerful climactic moments was filmed.

As is clear from these inconsistent shifts in setting and atmosphere,
Silent Light doesn't adhere to the usual tenets of narrative or character. Dialogue is basic and minimal, and Reygadas often lets his camera rest upon the enormously expressive faces of his non-professional cast, allowing them to unveil their emotions in their own way. Reygadas is used to working with untried actors, of course, but the level of performances he has drawn from his contributors here is remarkable. Miriam Toews – better known as an author – is particularly moving as Esther; she spends most of the film suffering silently with the knowledge of her husband's indiscretions, and only occasionally does she make her true feelings known, quietly calling Marianne a whore under her breath towards the end of the film. It's surprising that Reygadas obtained such cooperation from the Mennonite community with this film, given the themes of sex and infidelity, and his handling of this film's sex scene is far less graphic than it has been in his previous work. We focus on Marianne's face during the act – ecstatic, but displaying the conflicted emotions of a woman who knows what she's doing is wrong. "This is the happiest time of my life" she tells Johan, "but also the saddest".

Many viewers will draw comparisons between Reygadas' work here and the work of such greats as Bergman and Tarkovsky, but the most obvious parallel is with Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose 1955 masterpiece
Ordet is explicitly referenced a number of times here. Silent Light's narrative shifts into more daring territory in its final third, and the audience will need to take a leap of faith in order for this development to work, but I was happy to accept these transcendent events because Reygadas has the rare ability to make the miraculous feel real, to suggest the presence of God. Carlos Reygadas is a serious filmmaking talent, and this is both his most accessible and most accomplished work. Silent Light is a film quite unlike anything else you'll in see in cinemas this year, and viewers willing to explore the world Reygadas has laid out for them may be richly rewarded by a film that is often as simple, beautiful and awe-inspiring as the dawning of a new day.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Review - Rescue Dawn

Throughout his magnificently eclectic career, the one consistent factor in Werner Herzog's work has been his unpredictability. He has delivered some of the strangest and most compelling films to be found anywhere over the past 40 years – both in fiction and documentary – and he has travelled to some of the most inhospitable places on earth in the process, often pushing himself and those around him to the edge of madness and beyond. With every film he has taken us to somewhere new and mysterious, which makes Rescue Dawn perhaps the most surprising move of his career to date, marking the closest Herzog has ever come to repeating himself.

Rescue Dawn
is the story of Dieter Dengler, a German-born American immigrant who joined the US air force to fulfil his dream of flight. He signed up just in time for the Vietnam War, and forty minutes into his first bombing raid, Dieter Dengler was shot down and captured by the Pathet Lao, who held him in a Laotian prison camp where he was frequently subjected to torture. His story was originally told by Herzog in his superb 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, in which the director took Dengler back to the scene of his imprisonment, asking him to describe and recreate both his experiences and his daring escape. In the film, Dengler came across as a warm and engaging character who was philosophical about the experiences he had been through, and the resulting documentary worked as both a fascinating character study and a powerful testament to the human spirit.

Herzog clearly feels he has unfinished business with this subject, though, and now he has reworked it as a dramatic feature, with Christian Bale taking on the lead role. Why has Herzog decided to revisit this particular story? Perhaps it is an attempt from a director who has always worked at the outside the margins of the cinematic establishment to finally reach a wider audience. After all, the story of Dengler's escape from the camp and subsequent rescue is one that lends itself well to a straightforward action movie narrative, and on first glance that's exactly what Rescue Dawn is. The film spends little time on the preliminaries before Dieter takes to the skies on his ill-fated mission, survives the crash by the skin of his teeth, and is captured by the Pathet Lao. He is marched through the jungle to the camp, where he refuses to sign a statement denouncing America's actions in the region ("I love America" he says, "America gave me wings"). Dengler is then incarcerated alongside two fellow US soldiers, Duane Martin (Steve Zahn) and Gene McBroom (Jeremy Davies), both of whom are bearded and shockingly emaciated after their time in captivity.

Is it even appropriate to call Jeremy Davies an actor anymore? As far as I can tell he's nothing more than the same mumbling, irritating bag of tics and gestures in every single film, and he's no different here, giving a painfully annoying display which renders much of his character's dialogue unintelligible. Fortunately, Gene exists mostly in the background for much of the film, and it's the tender companionship between Dieter and Duane that gives
Rescue Dawn its emotional centre. This is just the latest in a string of remarkable performances from Bale, who again throws himself completely into a challenging and physically demanding role. He plays Dieter as cocky and indefatigable, smiling in the face of his torturers and maintaining a heroic sense of optimism and determination even as he wastes away before our eyes. Bale doesn't quite go to the extremes here that he did in The Machinist – thank God – but in a way this weight-loss is more shocking, because we can see the weight falling away from the healthy, fresh-faced character who met at the start of the film.

We have come to expect such acting from Bale, but on this occasion he is matched every step of the way – and perhaps even outdone – by his co-star Steve Zahn. An actor who has been known for funny supporting turns in comedy films up to now, Zahn delivers an absolutely knockout display as Duane, a man driven to the edge by his time in captivity and clinging on to life by his fingernails. Zahn's soft and likable persona works for his character here by making Duane a heartbreaking figure; with the skin hanging loosely around his bones and a thick, tangled beard covering most of his face, we mostly experience Duane's emotions by looking into his eyes – and those eyes are wide with bottomless pain, hunger and fear. Together Bale and Zahn create an honest and resonant bond, to the point where the offering of a single broken shoe can work as a deeply moving act of friendship.

After their escape, as Dieter and Duane drag themselves through the wilderness, Rescue Dawn takes on a different tone, perhaps one more recognisably "Herzog". Nobody else in cinema has ever shot the jungle quite like this filmmaker, and when Duane warns Dieter that "the jungle is the prison", he ensures that we experience it that way. A weak and weary Bale and Zahn hack their way into the undergrowth, delving into their reserves of strength and courage to overcome this unforgiving terrain; and as they stumble through dense foliage, mudslides and raging rapids, there's an ever-present edge of danger which is particular to very few directors. Rescue Dawn lacks the operatic excess and offbeat tone of some of Herzog's previous jaunts into the jungle, but he still manages to create some haunting and delirious moments, crafting a textured atmosphere which elevates this straightforward tale into something more haunting.

Rescue Dawn sticks pretty closely to events as recounted by Dengler himself, although Herzog has excised a couple of anecdotes which may have been powerful on screen. We don't see the bear who became such a significant figure for Dengler ("the bear meant death to me" he says in the documentary, "and in the end it was my only friend"), and we don't experience Dengler's vision of his dead father who guided him to safety. Instead, the stripped-down narrative of this film has a directness which complements Dieter Dengler's own dogged survivalism, and it sucks us into his experiences before allowing us the emotional uplift of his tale's extraordinary climax. This is not quite a film to rank alongside the classics in Herzog's oeuvre – it lacks the uniqueness of pictures like Aguirre, The Wrath of God, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser or Fitzcarraldo – but it remains a true Werner Herzog film. It plays like an exciting, mainstream war movie, but at its heart Rescue Dawn is very much about the same themes the director has always explored – man against nature, truth against fiction, and our own capabilities when pushed to the very limits. Dieter Dengler's story is a gripping, powerful and inspiring one, and the hands of this great, great filmmaker, it is a story that is well worth a second rendition.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Review - Southland Tales

So just how bad is Southland Tales? Richard Kelly's follow-up to his widely acclaimed debut Donnie Darko was an unmitigated disaster when it made its Cannes debut in 2006, a 160-minute wreck of a film which baffled audiences and swiftly left the festival accompanied by resounding jeers. Kelly sheepishly took his film back to the cutting room, delivering a new version of Southland Tales which is twenty minutes shorter and – we can only presume – a film which makes more sense than its widely derided predecessor. Having said that, the picture is still 90% incomprehensible, and there's no doubt that most viewers will choose to echo the views of the Cannes audience, but it really is worth taking a risk on Kelly's demented creation. Southland Tales is overlong, self-indulgent, inconsistent and ultimately rather pointless – but it's nowhere near as terrible as you may have heard.

In truth, Southland Tales' biggest flaw is that it tries to do too much. Kelly seems to have thrown every idea he has ever had into the film, and it's bursting at the seams with half-baked notions and sketchily developed narrative strands. The film opens with a parallel universe-version of July 4th 2005, when a terrorist attack in Texas led the United States into World War III. Kelly then cuts to the future, July 2008 (although it doesn't seem quite as distant now as it did when the film was originally screened), where the country is under martial law and on the brink of an election. The government is monitoring everyone's movements through an all-pervading surveillance system called USIdent, and rebel neo-Marxist groups are fighting back. Natural fuel resources are running dry, necessitating a renewable kind of energy source which harnesses the movement of the waves, and this whole chaotic milieu is observed from a rotating gun turret by scarred Iraq veteran Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake). He is our narrator, given to quoting lines from the Book of Revelations, and at a number of points in the picture he also (mis)quotes TS Eliot with the line "This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a whimper but with a bang".

Kelly gives us a handful of characters to follows through the lunacy. Boxer Santaros (The Rock, credited here as Dwayne Johnson) is an amnesiac Hollywood action star who is married to the daughter (Mandy Moore) of a Republican senator (Holmes Osborne). However, Boxer has recently shacked up with porn star/pop star/chat show host/entrepreneur Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), and the pair have written a screenplay together which foretells the end of the world. Krystal also has ties with the neo-Marxist rebels, who have kidnapped a cop (Sean William Scott) and they have enlisted his twin to impersonate the officer, implicating him in a racist attack in order to spark an uprising. Have I forgotten anyone – oh yes, there's also that weird scientist (Wallace Shawn) who seems to have a hand in everything, and an arms dealer (Christopher Lambert) who sells rocket launchers out of an ice cream truck. Also, there's a rift in the fourth dimension and people have been throwing monkeys into it.

All of the above, and more, occurs within the boundaries of the film, but much of the backstory has already unfolded in another medium. Southland Tales starts with Chapter IV: Temptation Waits, and it appears the opening three episodes of this six-part saga took place in a comic book produced by Kelly prior to the film's release. Frankly, the best environment for Southland Tales to exist in would have been television, where I could see it developing into a Twin Peaks-style cult hit; but Kelly's compression of everything into one 144-minute film has resulted in a wild ride of concentrated weirdness. The writer/director blends high and low art indiscriminately, engages in unfocused political satire, delivers two musical numbers, and ends the picture – of course – not with a whimper, but with a bang. It's fair to say that a lot of this stuff doesn't work, but Southland Tales' scattergun approach inevitably means some of Kelly's ideas are going to hit the mark, and when they do the film can be an exhilarating, hilarious experience.

There are some terrific standalone moments on display here. Timberlake's Busby Berkeley-style rendition of The Killers' All The Things That I've Done is a superb interlude, as is the later sequence – very reminiscent of David Lynch – in which Johnson, Gellar and Moore dance on stage while Rebekah Del Rio sings The Star Spangled Banner. Kelly directs with real flair, staging a magnificent tracking shot late on which unites most of the characters in one space, and almost every scene is interesting to look at even if you don't have the foggiest idea what's going on. It's also fun to see such an eclectic range of actors giving such odd performances, even when they themselves don't seem to know what role they're supposed to be playing in the wider drama. Sean William Scott, Wallace Shawn and Jon Lovitz are all very good, and Dwayne Johnson gives a terrific performance as the picture's central figure; I loved the little fluttery gesture he did with his hands, and his Shatner-esque delivery of some amusingly bad dialogue ("The fourth dimension is going to collapse on itself, you stupid bitch!"). As he showed in the otherwise dreadful Be Cool, Johnson can be a very witty and self-aware comic actor, and his appealing performance is vital for Southland Tales.

But will it be appealing enough for the majority of viewers? There certainly were plenty of walkouts at the screening I attended, and to be honest I couldn't really blame them. Lord knows, Southland Tales is a mess, but it's a fascinating mess made by a brilliant – if wayward – filmmaking talent, and even at two and a half hours the film is too reckless and unpredictable to ever be boring. Kelly's crazed vision of a nation destroying itself has provided as invigorating a cinematic spectacle as I've seen anywhere this year, and in the final fifteen minutes, as a pair of Sean William Scotts ride their battered ice cream truck into the fourth dimension, the film achieves a weird kind of transcendence. I hope the vehement negative reaction to Southland Tales doesn't deter Richard Kelly from following his own cinematic path, because he's clearly an ambitious director with a lot to say, even if he doesn't quite know how to say it at times. On this occasion, Richard Kelly's reach has exceeded his grasp by some distance – but at least he's reaching.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Review - The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass is an adaptation of Northern Lights, the first book in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, but it's obvious that the film has drawn just as much inspiration from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. Ever since Jackson's epic take on JRR Tolkien's tales proved to be an irresistible proposition for both filmgoers and Oscar voters, the major Hollywood studios have been searching for the next big fantasy franchise, and New Line Cinema – the company who gambled and won on the Rings trilogy – are pinning their hopes Pullman's acclaimed novels. Unfortunately, this workmanlike attempt is unlikely to capture the imagination in the same way Jackson's monumental trilogy did, and while I can't comment on the faithfulness of Chris Weitz's adaptation, I can comment on the picture's poorly confused and rushed storytelling, its lack of depth and, most disappointingly of all, the absence of any real sense of magic.

Maybe The Golden Compass' problems are a result of it being the awkward prologue to a story that will probably take shape in the coming chapters, and there certainly is a considerable amount of exposition and scene-setting to wade through in the early stages. A voiceover explains that this fictional world is not like ours, and the chief difference lies in the nature of the soul, which lives outside the body of its host and takes the form of an animal named a "daemon". Everyone has one of these creatures constantly perched on their shoulder or strolling beside them, and for children this animal will constantly change shape depending on their moods and emotions, until it finally settles into a representation of their personality during their teenage years. The story's central character Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), for example, possesses a creature named Pantalaimon, who can take the form of a ferret, a mouse, a cat or a bird, as the situation dictates, and his swift transformation from one creature to another is one of film's most effective visual effects.

In this aspect, and in many others, it's obvious that Philip Pullman has created a vividly detailed and textured world in his novels; and while Weitz and his production team have made a good stab at bringing this alternate universe to the screen, their handling of the dense plot may leave those who have no foreknowledge of the story feeling rather lost. In the frenetically paced first half we are introduced to Lyra, an orphan residing at an English college, whose uncle Asriel (Daniel Craig) has discovered a magical substance called Dust near the North Pole, which may provide a link to another world, or something. The Magisterium – the religious cabal in power over the country – is perturbed by this revelation, decrying it as heresy, and they even try to poison Asriel before he sets off to continue his expedition. Lyra is then invited to a grand dinner where she meets the sinister Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman, on good form as the icy villainess), and within five minutes of their introduction she has been invited to join Mrs Coulter on her own expedition to the North. Before departing, Lyra is given an alethiometer, the compass of the title, and this device, which allows its owner to see the true answers to any question, becomes a very sought-after object.

The Golden Compass is that rarest of big-budget movies: a film which could really do with being a little longer. Weitz's picture runs for less than two hours, and with so much explanation and incident being crammed into the screenplay, it never has time to take a breath, to let the audience get their bearings in this meticulously crafted fantasy world, and it never come close to attaining the sweeping, epic nature of Jackson's films. Instead, the characters find themselves being pushed from one plot point to the next, often in a clumsy and arbitrary fashion which prevents the story from ever finding a consistent flow. It also results in some irritating structural lapses; for example, Daniel Craig's Asriel abruptly disappears in the film's first half before his whereabouts is explained in the final fifteen minutes; and Eva Green comes out of nowhere to share one conversation with Lyra, before departing the scene and not showing up again until the last reel, when her and her fellow witches appear right on cue in the climactic battle.

Large parts of The Golden Compass don't make a great deal of sense, but with its impressive cast and production values it remains a watchable picture. Holding the film together is debut actress Dakota Blue Richards who makes Lyra a likable and feisty heroine and gives the picture a valuable human fulcrum amid the CGI wizardry. The supporting cast is full of the requisite collection of British veterans (Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Tom Courtenay and Christopher Lee all show up), and Sam Elliott reprises his role as The Stranger from The Big Lebowski – but their performances are all generally acceptable rather than exceptional, a description which also goes for the film as a whole. During its long development period, director Chris Weitz left the project following doubts that he was capable of handling a film of this scale, and perhaps he should have trusted those instincts. Nothing in his directing past has pointed towards an affinity for this kind of filmmaking, and his timid, competent work here suggests a director who lacks the ambition and subversive streak required to turn this story into a real cinematic experience. The much talked-about anti-religious sentiment of the books is so nondescript here it barely merits a mention, and instead The Golden Compass just feels like just another average Hollywood fantasy film, almost indistinguishable in style and tone from 2005's disappointing Narnia adaptation.

There are two more books in Pullman's trilogy awaiting adaptation, but it's hard to muster up much enthusiasm for those forthcoming films after the cursory treatment this initial instalment has received. The novels have their dedicated fans, but whatever magic the books must possess seems to have been lost in translation, and we are left with a cluttered, haphazard piece of non-event filmmaking. Perhaps things will improve with the subsequent films; after all, this story does leave the viewer with a number of questions which those pictures will presumably answer. "I still want to know what Dust is" Lyra tells her friend in the final scene – you and me both, Lyra, but unless the filmmakers drastically raise their game with The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, I don't think I'll be coming back to find out.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Review - Bug and Sleuth

When anyone decides to adapt a stage play for the big screen they are wandering into delicate territory. What works perfectly in one medium will not necessarily translate into another, and there's always the temptation to 'open out' the drama, to make it more visual appealing to the moviegoer, but that approach runs the risk of diluting the intimacy which made the piece work within the confines of the theatre. It's a tricky business, but William Friedkin's new film Bug succeeds largely because it stays true to its roots. We are always aware of the film's stage origins thanks to its minimalist setting and occasionally overripe dialogue, but Bug ultimately works because of the claustrophobic intensity it generates, and it plays on the nerves with remarkable skill.

Bug is essentially a two-hander. Sure, a few extra hands are involved from time to time, but our main focus lies with Agnes (Ashley Judd) and Peter (Michael Shannon), two unstable individuals driving each other to distraction in the shabby motel room she calls home. At first, Agnes is alone, plagued by sinister silent phone calls which may or may not be coming from her violent ex Jerry (Harry Connick Jr), who has just been released from jail. She is glad of the company when her friend RC (Lynn Collins) turns up with stranger Peter for a night of boozing and drug-taking, but when RC is called away she is left alone with Peter, who most viewers will have already pegged as an odd character. He's very courteous and polite – and he insists that he doesn't want to be anything more than friends with her – but there's something rather off-kilter about him, and the audience sits in anticipation of Peter revealing his creepy side at any moment.

Of course, we might be harbouring these suspicions because Peter is played by Michael Shannon, a man whose distinctive features give him an air of barely contained mania from the outset. He has a slightly bug-eyed face (excuse the pun), a face that always seems to be contorted into a twisted grimace, so when we see him playing such a reserved and seemingly nice guy – as he does in the early stages here – we instantly suspect the worst. Shannon played this part on stage in Tracy Letts' play, and he is completely comfortable in the role, charting every stage in the development of Peter's psychosis with quick, adroit gear changes. The first major shift occurs after Agnes and Peter have finally acquiesced to the inevitable and had sex. He wakes up with a start, complaining of bugs in the bed, and even though Agnes can't see the "rogue aphids" which he is being disturbed by, he is so convincing in his mania that she begins to believe, and once she has taken that step there is no way of turning back.

It's hard to come to terms with the fact that Bug has been directed by William Friedkin, a filmmaker who has given us little of value in the past twenty years, and for whom the glory days of The Exorcist and The French Connection seemed a very distant memory. Bug seems to have revitalised him, and he attacks Letts' adaptation of his own play with unexpected energy, revelling in the chance to play with the film's intimate surroundings, and his smart of tight camerawork and eerie lighting plays a huge part in the film's strange pull on the viewer. Friedkin's wisest directorial decision, though, is to stay out of his actors' way, giving them the space they need to produce electrifying performances. Collins, Connick Jr and Brian F O'Byrne (in a late cameo) are all convincing, but the best reason to see Bug is for Ashley Judd's fearless, lacerating turn as the emotionally unhinged Agnes. It has been a long, long time since this actress has been given a role as meaty as this, and her deeply empathetic acting creates a intriguing character whom we can feel for, which makes the devastating deterioration of her mental state surprisingly powerful.

The film's final third sees both characters spiralling into the abyss; Peter starts digging into his skin to remove the insects he believes the government has planted there, and Agnes starts drawing links between events they have experienced in order to back up his crazed rantings. The film's tone escalates to a pitch of manic hysteria, but it never falls apart; it risks ridiculousness at every turn, but the utter conviction of the performances and the taut, clammy atmosphere hold it together. Bug is a creepily effective portrait of an emotionally bereft woman losing herself in the paranoid fantasies of another, and while we never actually see the bugs in question, it made my skin crawl like few other movies this year.

The other notable stage adaptation to hit the screens recently is a new version of Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth, the latest step in Jude Law's bizarre mission to convince the world that he's the Michael Caine du jour. One would have thought a dismal remake of Alfie would have been enough to deter Law from ever stepping into the legendary actor's shoes again, but here he is, blithely marching into another disaster by taking on the role of Milo Tindle, a part Caine played onscreen in 1972. This time we have the opportunity to make a direct comparison between the two actors, with Caine himself appearing as Andrew Wyke – who was played by Laurence Olivier in Joseph L Mankiewicz's film – but neither actor is done any favours by the disastrous picture cooked up by director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Harold Pinter.

The bare bones of the plot remain unchanged. Stylish young hairdresser Tindle turns up at the opulent home of reclusive thriller novelist Wyke, the man whose wife he has been seeing for some time. Tindle wants the old man to grant his estranged spouse a divorce, but Wyke is having none of it, and he has his own plan in place to gain revenge on this cocky philanderer. The two men become ensnared in a tightly contested game of spite and humiliation, with the stakes continually being raised until the evening ends in murder – or does it?

It's an inherently stagey set-up, and quite intentionally so, with Shaffer's original play being very much about the kind of role-playing and deception which occurs so naturally in the theatre. Mankiewicz's film was a perfectly fine, if overlong, screen version, so what purpose does this new picture serve? It brings nothing new to the concept, its modernisation is lazy, and even after excising over fifty minutes from the original production Branagh has produced a film which outstays its welcome. In his determination to spice things up visually, the director indulges in an array of self-consciously tricky camera angles, and he employs a garish lighting scheme which only threatens to induce headaches among the audience. In addition, the production design is simply absurd, with Wyke's minimalist home resembling the lair of a 1970's Bond villain, and under all of this clutter nothing is ever allowed to breathe.

Another of Sleuth's major selling points is the presence of recent Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter, who has freely adapted the play in his own inimitable style. Pinter has lost the playfulness of the original and has turned the film into a much blunter, coarser object. As usual, Pinter's manneristic language inevitably leads to the actors.... pausing in.... odd places; and his habit of throwing a handful of "fucks" and "cunts" into the mix is tiresome. He has made changes to the story's structure too, with the tone lurching all over the place as the film heads into the climax, where the whole embarrassing spectacle slides into homoerotic lunacy.

Sleuth's biggest flaw, however, lies with the acting: to be more specific, it lies with the acting of Jude Law. He has proven himself as a capable, if limited, performer in the past, but he's just terrible here, delivering a histrionic turn which is wildly inconsistent from one scene to the next. Law seems to have a devil of a time getting the cadences and rhythms of Pinter's dialogue right, and he compensates by going over-the-top with a performance that just gets worse as the picture progresses. Thank heavens, then, for Michael Caine, who counters Law's schoolboy shouting with an understated performance that allows his innate screen presence to do much of the legwork. While Law frantically chews the scenery to little effect, Caine shows us how much he can do with a wry gesture, or a cool line reading, and his professional display is the closest this film has to a saving grace. Jude Law might still fancy himself as the new Michael Caine, but it appears the apprentice is still no match for the master.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Review - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

"It was Robert Ford, that dirty little coward,
I wonder how he did feel,
For he ate of Jesse's bread, and he slept in Jesse's bed,
Then he laid poor Jesse in his grave."
- The Ballad of Jesse James

In Andrew Dominik's extraordinary western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, we see the iconic outlaw through the eyes of his killer. Set in the final months of his life, the opening part of the film gives us Jesse James (played brilliantly by Brad Pitt) as the legendary figure of the old west. An omniscient narrator (the perfectly-pitched Hugh Ross) tells us that “Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them, rain fell straighter, clocks slowed.”, and a 19 year-old named Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) gazes upon his hero with a look of unadulterated awe. Robert and his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) have been inducted into the James gang prior to their final train robbery, in September of 1881, and the younger Ford boy is eager to impress, to prove his worth as an honorary member of the group.

But as the story progresses our view of Jesse James begins to distort and darken; the layers of myth are stripped away, revealing the increasingly paranoid, sociopathic and fatalistic man underneath. At the same time, Robert Ford begins to see his idol in a different light, and his hero-worship is gradually superseded by a gnawing sense of resentment, and a desire for his own place in the spotlight. "I can't figure you out" James tells him at one point, "do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?"; but he knows exactly who Robert Ford is and what he wants, and the pair move inexorably towards a violent pas de deux which will underline their names in history.

We have always tended to romanticise gangsters and criminals, to revel in their dastardly deeds while occasionally overlooking the unpleasant consequences of their actions, and Jesse James was one of the first real superstars in American culture. The legend of "The Gentleman Outlaw" was cultivated through pulp novels detailing his exaggerated escapades, and Robert Ford devours these stories, keeping the books among the collection of James memorabilia under his bed. Ford is Jesse James' number one fan, worshipping the outlaw with the fervent intensity of a stalker. He stands in front of his mirror, aping his hero's gestures, wearing his hat in the same fashion, even pretending to have a missing finger in the same place; and he knows every little detail of the James family history. At a creepy dinner table performance, he is encouraged to list the similarities between himself and Jesse James – same height, same eye colour, both the youngest in their family – and Jesse seems both intrigued by and wary of this odd youngster.

The casting of Brad Pitt in this role cleverly plays on his own celebrity status, and the actor delivers a movie star performance in the best sense of the term. He lets his natural screen presence and star quality work for the character, making him a commanding, quietly menacing figure; our eyes are always drawn towards Jesse James even when he's doing no more than sitting silently in an old rocking chair. As the film progresses, James becomes increasingly unstable and dangerous – firing bullets into the ice he stands on, beating a young boy senseless before crying inexplicably – and Pitt brings a real edginess to these scenes; the weird, almost maniacal laughter which explodes from him after threatening Ford's throat with a knife sends a shiver down the spine. As James, Pitt looks at those in his company as if he could see right down into their souls, and as his character's ultimate fate looms on the horizon, Pitt's performance becomes increasingly haunted by an ineffable sadness and disillusionment – his acting has never possessed such gravity and potency.

Pitt, however, is eclipsed here by a truly stunning display from Casey Affleck as Ford, and if there has been a better piece of acting in a film this year then I haven't seen it. There's something needy and weasel-like about Robert Ford, with his crooked smile and his drowsy eyes, and at times he's like an annoying child in the way he fawns sycophantically over James or lingers at the fringes of the group. But as Ford becomes consumed by his self-loathing and feelings of rejection, Affleck expresses the conflicting emotions coursing through this character with astonishing insight; his Robert Ford is not an easy character to like by any means, but he's endlessly watchable. Throughout the film, there isn't a false note among the picture's brilliantly-chosen cast, with Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider and Sam Shepard (a brief but vivid cameo) all providing rich characterisations as members of the James gang.

The Assassination of Jesse James is not a contemporary film which sets out to tear down or deconstruct the legends of the west. Instead, this adaptation of Ron Hansen's speculative novel embraces the myth and then digs beneath it, and expands upon it, to create a fully immersive vision of Jesse James' twilight months. It is also a film which plays on an epic scale while focusing on the intimate; taking its time to investigate the tense and insidious relationship between Jesse James and Robert Ford, and favouring atmosphere and detail over action. This is Andrew Dominik's second film as a director, coming seven years after his excellent debut Chopper (another film dealing, in part, with the hollow fame of a criminal), and it's one of the boldest, oddest and most distinctive pieces of filmmaking to come from an American studio for some time. Dominik's direction recalls the introspective, thoughtful westerns of the 1970's such as McCabe and Mrs Miller, The Hired Hand and Days of Heaven. He gives the story ample room to unfold at a measured pace, the violence occurs in quick, brutal bursts, and the characters are distinguished by their moral ambiguity. The spirit of those 70's pictures is also evoked by the beautiful images conjured up by Dominik and master cinematographer Roger Deakins, who makes every scene a dazzling play of light and shade. The name of Roger Deakins has been a guarantee of quality for many years now, but his work here takes the breath away like never before, with many scenes – particularly the incredible night-time train robbery – being near-miraculous in their execution.

Even with its 160 minute running time The Assassination of Jesse James is as dramatically compelling as it is aethstetically remarkable. Dominik gives so many scenes an unexpected slant, particularly during the final third when the titular assassination – and its consequences – dominates proceedings. An uneasy tension pervades the film's atmosphere as the act itself plays out, and it is given a biblical resonance by James' seeming complicity in the act – both men go through the motions as if the whole incident has been preordained. The film doesn't end with the death of Jesse James, though. We stay with Robert Ford as he tries to come to terms with the fame his actions have bestowed upon him. He tours the country with Charley, re-enacting the assassination onstage for the paying public, but the public are a fickle bunch, and his reputation quickly leads to hostility. While the Jesse James legend expands after his passing, Ford is vilified in the famous ballad (performed here by Nick Cave, who also wrote the superb score) as "The dirty little coward" who shot Jesse in the back, and he spends his last days drowning his sorrows in grim bars, reflecting upon the empty rewards of his infamy.

I love this film. The Assassination of Jesse James is an exquisitely crafted slice of Americana; a film in which every element – the performances, the cinematography, the music and the flawless production design – come together to produce something evocative and haunting and deeply satisfying. It retells a legend which has been fodder for books and films for over a century, but it tells it in a fashion which makes us feel like we're experiencing it anew. Perhaps unsurprisingly, with its long title, longer running time, and its elegiac, poetic tone, the film has failed to find its audience among the masses; but I think it's going to be a piece of work which will succeed over time, as more people discover it and take it to their hearts. Films as beautiful, imaginative and ambitious as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford are all too rare in American cinema – cherish it.