Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 Review - Part Two: The Best and Worst

Best Picture

1 – There Will Be Blood
A film whose ambition and execution dwarfs 90% of what American cinema has produced in the past decade

2 – No Country For Old Men
This is simply a flawlessly crafted picture at every level

3 – 4 Months, 3 weeks, 2 Days
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a stunning work; it is filmmaking stripped to the basics and yet it manages to be as gut-wrenchingly gripping as any thriller

4 – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
One of the year's most uplifting and exhilarating cinematic experiences

5 – Man On Wire
One of the most gripping, emotionally involving films of the year

6 – Gomorrah
Rarely has a single film provided such a vivid and engrossing portrait of an organised crime network

7 – Persepolis
Persepolis is a totally unique cinematic experience

8 – The Silence of Lorna
This is ultimately another rich and nuanced character study from two of the most valuable filmmakers in world cinema

9 – Hunger
There's something special going on in almost every scene

10 – Taxi to The Darkside
An alarming and gripping piece of filmmaking

Honourable Mentions
The Edge Of Heaven
Far North
Iron Man
My Winnipeg
Of Time And The City
The Savages
Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber Of Fleet St

Worst Picture

1 – Blindness
If the ghastly cinematography doesn't drive you from the cinema, then perhaps the crushingly unsubtle allegory will

2 – Rambo
It's jaw-dropping in its tastelessness

3 – Three And Out
A depressingly lame British picture that completely fails to capitalise on the meagre potential of its premise

4 – The Happening
The Happening is an indefensibly stupid film in every single way

5 – Righteous Kill
The whole movie just feels like straight-to-DVD junk

6 – Cassandra's Dream
The fact that Allen has signed this package off as being fit for release suggests a filmmaker bored by his own work
7 – Charlie Bartlett
Charlie Bartlett is stupid, derivative and empty
8 – Never Back Down
A soulless experience
9 – Savage Grace
At times the film became so boring I genuinely began to fear for my sanity
10 – Zack And Miri Make A Porno
Shabby, unimaginative and juvenile

Dishonourable MentionsAustralia
Diary of the Dead
Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull
Quantum of Solace
Step Brothers

Best Actor

Daniel Day-Lewis – There Will Be Blood
Javier Bardem – No Country for Old Men
James Franco – Pineapple Express
Michael Fassbender – Hunger
Robert Downey Jr. – Iron Man

Best Actress

Anamaria Marinca – 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Arta Dobroshi – The Silence of Lorna
Sally Hawkins – Happy-Go-Lucky
Tang Wei – Lust, Caution
Inés Efron – XXY

Best Supporting Actor

Max von Sydow – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Eddie Marsan – Happy-Go-Lucky
Vlad Ivanov – 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight
Jérémie Renier – The Silence of Lorna

Best Supporting Actress

Kelly MacDonald – No Country for Old Men
Marie-Josée Croze – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Laura Vasiliu – 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Vera Farmiga – The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
Anne Consigny – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Best Director

Paul Thomas Anderson – There Will Be Blood
Joel and Ethan Coen – No Country for Old Men
Julian Schnabel – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Cristian Mungiu – 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Steve McQueen – Hunger

Best Original Screenplay

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
The Silence of Lorna
The Savages
Pineapple Express

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

Best Cinematography

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
There Will Be Blood
No Country for Old Men
Far North
The Dark Knight

Best Editing

No Country for Old Men
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Best Musical Score

There Will Be Blood
The Dark Knight
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Best Visual Effects

Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Iron Man
The Dark Knight

Best Production Design

Hellboy II: The Golden Army
There Will Be Blood
Quantum of Solace
The Dark Knight

Best Costume Design

The Last Mistress
There Will Be Blood
Lust, Caution
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Surprise of the Year

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Iron Man
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Disappointment of the Year

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Righteous Kill
Quantum of Solace
Step Brothers

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008 Review - Part One

So how was it for you? Thrilling, surprising and eye-opening, or a bit of a disappointment? In retrospect, 2008 looks like a year of two halves, with the extraordinary wealth of brilliant films in the year's first few months setting a standard that couldn't be maintained, and leading to an inevitable sense of deflation as the year fizzled to a close. This is the pattern that seems to repeat itself year on year, as the biggest movies are positioned late in the released schedule in America so they can be fresh in the minds of awards voters, while the staggered release dates between the US and the UK mean they eventually find their way over here in January, February and March. I was prepared, then, for a general falling-off in quality after the first quarter, but the films up to that point had been so good, the subsequent drop was very, very sharp.

Consider this for an opening salvo: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Persepolis, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, The Savages, Walk Hard. I enjoyed all of these films immensely, but everything was overshadowed by two of the great American films of the decade: the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood. The pair were polar opposites – one is beautifully crafted with not a frame out of place, while the other is a pulsating and sprawling epic – but when taken side-by-side they stand as a stunning reminder of how good cinema can be when real artists are given the freedom to display their craft. Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of these films' production was the way they found an audience outside of the arthouse niche, which such unconventional fare might have been expected to reside in. Between them, the two pictures earned 16 Oscar nominations (winning six altogether), despite being far from the standard Academy fare, and both films provoked a fascinating and enlightening discourse on the internet, where their complexities and ambiguities were enthusiastically analysed.

Such analysis reinforces the important role critics have to play in our film culture, helping us appreciate and find new depths in the pictures presented to us, but 2008 was a bad year for film reviewers all round. As newspapers continued to feel the financial pinch this year, the arts section tended to be the first to find its head on the block, with such notable writers as Nathan Lee, Glenn Kenny, Dennis Lim and David Ansen finding themselves out of work. Mind you, one has to ask who would want to be a film critic anyway, as even those who did keep their jobs found themselves in the firing line this summer. The release of The Dark Knight was one of a number of films that seemed to unify the critical community and the public in a tidal wave of approval, but that wasn't enough for some batty Batman fans. When the first negative reviews started appearing, Dark Knight acolytes began jumping on them with a vengeance, aiming to discredit the author by labelling him as (a) pretentious (b) stupid or (c) just trying to gain attention by going against the flow. But the worst aspect of this rabid fandom was the onslaught of venomous and hateful comments readers began leaving on the reviews in question. Now, with awards season coming our way, those same fans are mounting their own For Your Consideration campaign, determined to end the movie's stellar year with a host of trophies (Ignore The Dark Knight At Your Peril, one online article was headlined). Whatever one thinks of Christopher Nolan's film, this obnoxious fallout from it doesn't do anybody any favours.

After all, if one film didn't need hordes of people jumping to its defence in 2008, it was The Dark Knight. I'm with the naysayers on this one – I still think there's an unignorable gap between Nolan's ambition and his abilities as a director – but there's no getting away from the fact that this film was a true cultural phenomenon, the kind of all-encompassing event we haven't really experienced since Titanic (whose box-office crown it threatened to dislodge). It was a perfect storm of elements; expectations were already high after the impressive first instalment, they were gradually stoked by an incredibly imaginative marketing campaign, and then they were sent into orbit by the death of Heath Ledger in January. This year we lost many well-liked and respected figures linked to the industry – Sydney Pollack, Anthony Minghella, Bernie Mac, Donald LaFontaine, Isaac Hayes, Anne Savage, Paul Scofield, Charlton Heston, Jules Dassin, to name a few – but it was the passing of Heath Ledger and Paul Newman that left the deepest impact. In Ledger's case, it was the tragedy of seeing a young life being snuffed out, and the knowledge that this hugely talented actor would never show us the full extent of his ability. The death of Paul Newman provoked a very different emotion, however, as the grief was more linked to the fact that we were bidding a fond farewell to a truly special character – a great star, a great actor and a great man – who had seen and done it all, and had nothing more to prove.

The Dark Knight was the big winner at the box-office, and in early 2009 the studio is planning to re-release the film to try and edge its way over that much-coveted $1 billion mark. Everything else had to make do with small change in comparison; but Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Kung Fu Panda, Hancock, Iron Man, Mamma Mia! (which I didn't see. I don't hate myself that much), Quantum of Solace and WALL•E all still managed to break the $500 million barrier worldwide. From that list, one might surmise the film industry is in rude health, despite the global credit crunch, but people will always go and see the biggest movies available, and as pockets are tightened it's the independent sector that will feel the major repercussions. Warner Independent, Picturehouse and Tartan Films were among the "specialty" divisions that were closed this year, while Paramount Vantage (which distributed both No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood) was folded back into its parent company. As these studios disappear, it's hard to see how a lot of smaller, more challenging films will get the distribution that might bring them to the audience they deserve, and we may see more filmmakers struggling to get their films made as the studios back away from anything that looks too risky. The great filmmaker Terence Davies has just returned to cinemas after such a period of exile, with his elegiac, deeply personal documentary Of Time and the City, but despite that film's success, he may find himself once again fighting for scraps in the near future, as the financial climate makes funding harder to come by.

It's impossible to say with any certainty what effect the financial crisis will have on cinema over the course of the coming year, but we can remain hopeful that artists will find some way to make their voices heard. Young filmmakers will still manage to perform miracles on a tiny budget, as Steve McQueen did with Hunger this year, or Asif Kapadia did in Far North, and perhaps we'll see a continued growth in the field of documentaries. This year, two of the very best films to be found anywhere were documentaries – Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Darkside and James Marsh's breathtaking Man on Wire – and that appears to be one of the most richly rewarding areas in cinema right now, as filmmakers try to come to terms with the state of the world around us, and tell truthful stories that are often stranger than fiction.

Even if the world is in a mess, a spirit of optimism always accompanies the arrival of a new year. As ever, the opening months of 2009 will bring a number of outstanding films our way, including The Class and A Christmas Tale from two of the best contemporary French filmmakers, and Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, which is a perfect tonic for the winter blues. The awards-chasing Hollywood contingent is represented by The Reader, Revolutionary Road and Doubt, while more adventurous fare is served up by Steven Soderbergh and the indefatigable Werner Herzog, who have travelled to the jungle and Antarctica respectively for their new features. 2009 will also see the return of many great filmmakers throughout the course of the year, including Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, James Cameron, Gaspar Noé, Michael Haneke, Lukas Moodysson and Michael Mann. By the time their offerings have all been and gone, we'll be approaching not just the end of the year, but the end of the decade, and one can only speculate what state things will be in at that point. After eight disastrous years, at least we can have faith that there will be a man in the White House who is capable of steadying the ship and leading the world in the right direction. Hope springs eternal.

Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Review - Australia

Epic in scope but pitifully small-minded, Baz Luhrmann's Australia wants to cast the same romantic spell over viewers that films like Gone With the Wind or Titanic have in the past, but the film it most readily recalls is Michael Bay's Pearl Harbour. Like Bay, Luhrmann is a director who obsesses over stunning images but who has no idea how to assemble those images in a way that's coherent or satisfying. He simply hurls everything he's got at the screen with a feverish intensity, swamping his film with glossy visuals, but his pictures have no depth beyond what we see on the screen. They are exhaustingly shallow, particularly when Luhrmann takes over two and a half hours to tell his story, as he does with this ridiculously overcooked national epic.

Australia's biggest failing is the way Luhrmann squeezes in enough content for three or four films while barely managing to generate enough drama for one. At its core, the film is a very old-fashioned love story, with two people from different classes and opposite sides of the globe falling for each other, as seismic historical events gradually creep up behind them. Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) is the prim, uptight Englishwoman who travels down under to take over her late husband's ranch Faraway Downs. The man who will eventually be her lover is a cattle driver know only as Drover (Hugh Jackman), and oddly we never learn his real name, even when the pair are living together as de facto man and wife ("Drover" she yells from the porch, as if summoning the family dog). Of course, their initial encounters are tetchy, with her thinking that he's nothing more than a brute, and him tiring of her snotty attitude, but the pair bond when Faraway Downs is threatened by evil cattle barons Bryan Brown and David Wenham, and after 90 minutes or so of silly, predictable shenanigans, they live happily ever after.

Except, they don't, because the film has more than an hour still to run, and Luhrmann chooses to fill that time with the Japanese attack on Darwin, in February of 1942. Outside of Australia, this assault – during which the Japanese dropped more bombs than they did at Pearl Harbour two months earlier – is not widely known, so one might be tempted to commend the director for choosing to bring the story to a wider audience, but it's another massive layer the picture doesn't need. Australia is already stuffed to the brim with Sarah and Drover's romance, the fight to save Faraway Downs, a long-winded cattle drive, the fate of a half-aborigine boy called Nullah (newcomer Brandon Walters), and half-a-dozen references to The Wizard of Oz; so this final twist, which comes encumbered by a couple of false endings, just ensures Australia outstays its welcome.

Luhrmann seems to have convinced himself that his film will be considered a grand romantic epic if it's big enough and long enough, but in all of his sweeping, soaring shots of the Australian outback, there is no imagination or artfulness, it's just cliché after cliché after cliché. The film is attractive in places but never impressive, and even that visual impact is tempered by some of the shoddiest CGI I've ever seen in a major studio release like this, with the dreadful cattle stampede being the most obvious example, but hardly the only one. That sequence is just one of many in Australia which runs longer than it needs to, and with the conclusion to each and every scene being signposted well in advance, the audience is continually leaping ahead of the action, and then waiting impatiently for Baz's lumbering behemoth to catch up with us.

This director just doesn't know the meaning of the word restraint. He doesn't seem to understand that a film needs to rise and fall, that the quiet moments are every bit as vital – if not more so – than the flashy showstoppers, and even the performances are pushed to broad excesses. Such an approach is bad news for Kidman, who provided a calming, soothing effect at the heart of Luhrmann's manic musical Moulin Rouge!, but whose role in the first half-hour of this picture is to shriek and flap her arms in an unbecoming manner. She gets better as her character loosens up, and she occasionally manages to eke something special out of the material (like her attempt to sing Over the Rainbow to Nullah), but she never seems entirely comfortable in the role. She is certainly outshone by Jackman, whose background in musical theatre perhaps makes him a better fit for the film's campy tone, but what can we expect any actors to do with characters as sketchily written as these? Both Sarah and Drover develop exactly as you would expect them to (she becomes passionate and sexy, he shows his sensitive side), with the alterations occurring seemingly overnight, and that's as deep as the characterisations go. Beyond the two stars, the film is filled with one-dimensional caricatures – the moustache-twirling villains (Brown and Wenham), the comedy drunk (Jack Thompson), the surly Russian (Jacek Koman), and the most suspect stereotype of all, a head-waggling Chinaman named Sing Song (Wah Yuen).

The presence of Sing Song is particularly noteworthy because Australia is a film with racial harmony foremost in its mind. In dealing with the story of Nullah, Luhrmann attempts to tackle the issue of Australia's infamous "lost generation", but the director is so determined to treat his aboriginal characters with sufficient respect, he has ended up giving us figures who practically glow with benevolence and wisdom. So much emphasis is placed upon their spiritual qualities and their oneness with the natural world, the film risks turning them all into the kind of "magical negro" that Hollywood films have so often been guilty of featuring. At least young Brandon Walters brings a touch of humanity and openness to his guileless turn, giving by far the film's most effective performance, and his charmingly naïve narration occasionally manages to cut through the bombast of Luhrmann's filmmaking style. Australia is cheesy, bloated, fatuous and frequently very boring, but Walters' Nullah hints at something deeper, and when he heads into the wilderness to begin his "walkabout", one suspects he's about to embark on a journey that's far more interesting than anything this nonsensical film has to offer.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Review - Changeling

Some true stories are so incredible they feel like fiction, and the mysterious tale of Christine Collins is as incredible as they come. In 1928, she left her nine year-old son Walter home alone when unexpectedly called into work, and when she returned a few hours later, the boy had disappeared. During a police search that lasted for over five months, Christine never gave up on her son, believing the boy was still alive somewhere, and her faith was rewarded when the LAPD announced they finally located young Walter. Now, here's where things start to get a little strange. At the reunion – organised to much fanfare by a police department desperate for positive publicity – Christine announced that the boy she had been presented with was not Walter. Fearing embarrassment, the police put her reaction down to shock and the changes Walter had gone through while undergoing his traumatic experience, and they finally persuaded her to take this boy home. When she continued to insist that the boy was not her son, and demanded that the LAPD continue to search for a boy they claimed had already been found, Captain JJ Jones had her committed to a mental asylum.

It's astonishing stuff, and it should be an open goal for any filmmakers worth their salt, so how on earth does Changeling get it so wrong? The failure is even more perplexing when you consider this is a Clint Eastwood film, a man who is currently going through one of the most remarkably prolific late blooms imaginable. His last picture was the ambitious and impressive Letters From Iwo Jima, a film that dared to explore beyond the confines of the Hollywood war film formula, but Changeling, in stark contrast, is clichéd and perfunctory from its opening moments. Those early scenes settle us into the daily routine of Christine (Angelina Jolie), the distractingly glamorous single mother who packs young Walter off to school before riding the bus to the telephone exchange, where she works as a supervisor. This initial section gives us plenty of time to admire the exquisite costume design and period details (such as the rollerskates and hands-free kit Christine wears at the office), but it all feels disappointingly rote, as if Eastwood is simply keen to get through the requisite preliminaries before getting down to the good stuff.

Unfortunately, Eastwood never quite rouses himself out of this early funk, and Changeling is as sluggish a film as he has ever directed. J. Michael Straczynski's screenplay ploughs through the basic points of Christine's story without ever illuminating the horror of it, and the film fails to generate the drama one would expect this tale to come loaded with. Despite adhering closely to the real events of this case, a lot of Changeling rings false because the screenplay hasn't put enough effort into explaining how many of these bizarre events took place; the film skims over the tiny but important linking details that would help mould it into a much fuller piece of work. With the script refusing to delve under the story's surface, much of the picture rests on Jolie's slender shoulders, but as valiantly as she tries, she can't provide the underwritten central role with the depth required to keep Changeling's engine running, she simply doesn't have enough notes to play. Jolie practically overflows with emotion, but her performance is exhausting rather than affecting, and her character barely undergoes any development in the process. There are only so many variations one can put on the line "I want my son back!" before it starts to get old.

Of course, as the wronged mother, we are expected to root for Christine Collins, but Eastwood and Straczynski can't resist stacking the deck in her favour anyway. She is painted as an almost saintly figure, whereas the authority figures she comes up against (Jeffrey Donovan and Colm Feore's arrogant cops, Denis O'Hare's sadistic asylum chief) are caricatures seemingly designed to elicit boos from the audience when they appear. Christine does get help from her own white knight, a crusading pastor named Gustav Briegleb who is played by John Malkovich (all Malkovich roles should have names like Gustav Briegleb), but he's not much of a character either. He sidles primly and unmemorably around Christine offering words of support, before rescuing her from the mental hospital she has been confined in. He turns up, you've guessed it, seconds before she is about to undergo electric shock treatment.

The asylum sequence is where Changeling finally falls apart, and it's where you begin to notice how hackneyed Eastwood's direction is. The hospital is full of frazzle-haired, dribbling old ladies aimlessly wandering around under the gaze of stern-faced matrons, while one tart with a heart (Amy Ryan, wasted) reaches out to the scared Christine and takes her under her wing. It all feels dully familiar, and the director keeps resorting to predictable visual tricks – the swing of a serial killer's axe is shown in silhouette, a startling plot revelation causes a detective's cigarette ash to fall to the ground in slow motion. Eastwood has rarely been so lax in his handling of a film, his recent work has been based upon the avoidance or subversion of genre clichés, and his ready acceptance of such tired tropes this time around perhaps suggest his heart isn't really in it.

Changeling is also horribly overstretched. After spending some ninety minutes detailing the Christine Collins case, it shifts into new territory later on when the focus moves onto the actual fate of Christine's son. This fresh direction unfortunately brings Jason Butler Harner into the action, as the serial killer behind the disappearance, and his twitchy, over-the-top performance threatens to turn the movie into a cartoon, before it finally climaxes with a duet of equally boring courtroom scenes. How did it turn out this way? This is material that seemed perfectly primed for the kind of morally ambiguous explorations Eastwood has offered us in the past, but Changeling is limp and disappointingly black-and-white. In fact, if it wasn't for the typically shadowy cinematography and the director's own tinkling score, there would be very little to identify this as one of his films at all, and it seems more akin to the work of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, both of whom serve as producers. We expect this kind of shallow, wishy-washy Oscar bait from them, but Clint Eastwood is surely better than that.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Review - Zack and Miri Make a Porno

The emergence of Judd Apatow as American cinema's king of comedy must feel like something of a double-edged sword for Kevin Smith. On the one hand, films like The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad have brought mainstream credibility to the kind of raunchy/sweet, pop culture-referencing, slacker comedies that were Smith's stock-in-trade for so many years. On the other hand, Apatow's refinement of the formula has left Smith's films looking more amateurish and crude than ever. His zero-budget debut Clerks remains his best work, almost by default, but it is dismaying to see how little he has advanced as either a writer or director during the subsequent 14 years, in which he has made eight increasingly unimpressive features. With the best will in the world, Smith is a bad filmmaker who shows no signs of developing beyond his current state, so maybe all you need to know about Zack and Miri Make a Porno is that it's just another Kevin Smith film, no better or worse than his standard fare, and that should give you an idea of whether you'll enjoy it or not.

At least the success of Apatow's films has given Smith a few new comic performers to work with, although he doesn't really know how best to use them. Both Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks – who play the title characters – are skilled comic actors who have developed strong screen personas that they utilise again here, and for a while, the film floats along on their charm alone. They're been friends since school and they now live (platonically) together in an apartment that they barely manage to maintain by working menial jobs. At the start of this film, their finances have finally begun to get on top of them, and when Zack thoughtlessly spends the last of his money on a sex toy, their water and power is cut, leaving them cold and in the dark, huddling around a burning trash can which sits in their living room. Desperate to find some cash before they are eventually turfed out of the building altogether, Zack suddenly hits on the idea of making their own porn film, after being inspired by meeting a gay porn star (Justin Long, whose brief performance is the movie's funniest) at a high-school reunion.

After tossing out various ideas (Lawrence of A-Labia? Fuckback Mountain?), Zack and Miri eventually settle on Star Whores, and they begin to put a crew together, with Zack's henpecked colleague Delaney (Craig Robinson) reluctantly putting up the cash when he's told he can oversee the "Titty Auditions", and Zack's pal Deacon (Smith regular Jeff Anderson) signs up as cameraman. The male half of the cast comprises of the effete theatre actor Barry (Ricky Mabe) and the sex-mad dumbbell Lester (Jason Mewes), while the leading female roles are taken by Bubbles and Stacey (real-life porn stars Traci Lords and Katie Morgan); but before they can get started, a stroke of ill-fortune forces them to relocate to Zack's coffee shop after hours, where they covertly shoot their re-titled film Swallow my Cockaccino. The big question here is whether filming a love scene together will finally force Zack and Miri to acknowledge the unspoken but obvious love that exists between them. This storyline is supposed to form the emotional backbone of Smith's film, but his cack-handed approach renders it useless, with the attraction between the pair being so blatant from the start, one grows weary of Smith's attempts to prolong the inevitable with the silly obstacles he throws in their way. Rogen and Banks are appealing, but together they generate little heat, and the film's big turning point, when their on-camera sex scene segues into something deeper, doesn't work at all. One is reminded of a scene late in The 40 Year-Old Virgin, when a bewildered but grateful Rogen encounters Banks frolicking in the bathtub, and that sequence is both funnier and sexier than anything Zack and Miri can whip up.

It's clear that Smith lacks the nuance or maturity to find any emotional resonance in his story, but Zack and Miri is also desperately unfunny. To be honest, I've never found much to laugh at in Smith's films; his dialogue is forced and obvious, and as Smith has no ability to direct actors, the delivery is often stilted. Choices cuts from Zack and Miri include someone asking "Can I have a" only for Craig Robinson to reply, "Can't you see we're busy...White?"; or how about one character saying "Can you believe this shit?" just in time for another, covered in faeces, to turn up and respond, "Can you believe this shit!". The "shit shot", as Kevin Smith has described it in interviews, is indicative of another of his flaws; the gag is set up and executed in such a laboured, feeble manner (Smith unwisely edits his own films, of course) it loses whatever impact it may have had in the hands of a skilled filmmaker. On the other hand, Zack and Miri's other attempt to shock the viewer falls flat for a different reason – the full-frontal male nude shot feels a little passé when the superior Apatow productions Walk Hard and Forgetting Sarah Marshall have already turned 2008 into the Year of the Cock.

Perhaps it's a little unfair to be constantly comparing Smith's work with Apatow's, but that's where the bar currently sits for this kind of film, and Smith falls short in every single regard. He doesn't help himself when he stages a confrontation between Robinson and Gerry Bednob that plays out like a pale imitation of a similar sequence Bednob shared with Romany Malco in The 40 Year-Old Virgin, but almost everything in Zack and Miri feels stale and irrelevant. I have nothing against Kevin Smith himself (he actually seems to be a very witty and likable individual, whose gift for spinning anecdotes makes his An Evening With Kevin Smith DVDs far funnier than any of his features), but the guy is not a filmmaker, and with every new shabby, unimaginative and juvenile offering, it seems increasingly obvious that he's simply wasting everyone's time.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Review - Transporter 3

As James Bond leaves behind the gadgets and quips to follow Jason Bourne down the path of gritty, no-frills realism, it's nice to have Frank Martin around to prove there's still more than one way to make an action movie. Authenticity may be the watchword for most modern action heroes, but for the Luc Besson-produced Transporter series – in which Jason Statham's Frank is the star – that word comes a long way down the list of priorities. Spectacle and Adrenalin are the key ingredients in these films, and the plot is generally treated as an annoying little inconvenience, which is only marking time until the next stunt or set-piece crashes into view. The whole package is given Besson's usual glossy sheen, and while it's hard to deny the Transporter films are little more than hollow and nonsensical cases of style over substance, it's just as hard to deny they're damn good fun.

For the uninitiated, here's a quick recap. Frank Martin is the transporter; a cool and unflappable ex-special forces operative who will guarantee delivery of anything, anywhere, anytime. He lives his life by a series of strict rules – never open the package, never use names, always work alone etc. – but throughout the course of his adventures, he usually breaks most of these at some point ("Why is everyone so interested in my rules?" he growls in this film when that issue is raised). His only colleague is friendly gendarme Tarconi (François Berléand), and at the start of Transporter 3 the pair are enjoying a spot of fishing off the coast of Marseilles, with Frank contemplating the nice, quiet retirement that lies ahead of him. His retirement is short-lived, though, and when the plot suddenly crashes into his living room he is soon forced to get back into the delivery service against his will, transporting an irritating Ukrainian teenager (newcomer Natalya Rudakova: a star is not born) from France to Budapest in his ever-reliable Audi.

The twist here is that the villain of the piece (Robert Knepper who cackles and sneers effectively), has fitted both Frank and Valentina with bracelets that will blow them to smithereens if they move more than 75 feet away from the car. It's the kind of simple conceit that worked for films like Speed (or Statham's own blatant Speed knock-off Crank), and if Transporter 3 doesn't quite exploit this gimmick as it might have done, it does add a different texture to some of the best sequences, like Frank pursuing his stolen car on foot and bicycle while trying to stay within the allotted distance. Scenes like that are the Transporter films' raison d'être; cheerfully ludicrous, inventively staged, and shot with an exhilarating kinetic charge. Taking on directing duties for this film is a man named Olivier Megaton (no, really!), who handles the audacious set-pieces skilfully, maintain ing clarity and generating real excitement through the various chase sequences. Even better is the hand-to-hand combat, with Frank often taking on multiple enemies at once, and each of these bouts benefit from Corey Yuen's choreography and some unexpected, amusing touches, including one particularly memorable incident wherein Frank removes his jacket, tie and shirt and uses them as weapons. Statham is in his element here – dressed to kill.

Jason Statham may not be a great actor, but the Transporter films don't need a great actor, they need a presence, and that's what he provides. Sleek, athletic and blessed with a deadpan delivery, he's a perfect fit for this kind of straight-ahead action hero role. The character of Frank Martin is cool and uncomplicated, and the last thing he needs is any kind of emotional depth, which is perhaps why the romantic angle that has been shoehorned gracelessly into Transporter 3 feels so misguided. After initially spurning Valentina's request to "feel the sex" ("You are the gay!", she exclaims when he refuses), the couple's relationship is eventually developed through no less than four separate cringeworthy discussions about food. Their tiresome romantic interlude culminates with Valentina forcing Frank to perform a hilariously embarrassing striptease on the edge of a cliff. Scenes like this are funny, sure, but they do tend to drag on the picture and leave the audience impatiently fidgeting in anticipation of the next action highlight.

As a result, Transporter 3 is a little clumsier and more disjointed than its predecessors, but for the most part it succeeds admirably within the boundaries of its own modest ambitions. The climax battle between Frank's Audi and a train brings the picture to an exceedingly entertaining close, and that's just one of the many sequences which offers more genuine fun that the retooled Bond could provide in Quantum of Solace. The Transporter films have carved out a nice little niche for themselves by providing explosive, over-the-top action in an era when so many of films in this genre are striving for something real. Transporter 3 just wants to dazzle the eyes and quicken the pulse, and Frank Martin has delivered the goods once again.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

"People who saw me holding the seal like a baby must have thought I was a looney" - An interview with Arta Dobroshi

When I watched the Dardenne brothers' new film The Silence of Lorna, I was struck by the astonishing performance by the unknown actress in the lead role. When I met Arta Dobroshi a few days later, I was even more impressed by her achievement – it was hard to believe the beautiful and light-hearted woman sitting in front of me was the same person who convincingly played such a tough, withdrawn character on screen. After winning her part in the Dardennes' fifth picture through an open audition process, Dobroshi has experienced an extraordinary rise to prominence this year, and one suspects this is just the start of an exciting career. I met the actress in London recently to talk about her remarkable performance, but as this discussion does reveal certain unexpected plot developments, I would advise readers to avoid this interview until they have seen the film.

To begin, could you tell me a bit about your background and experience before this film?

I finished the Academy of Arts acting and drama course in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, which lasted for four years. It's acting in general for film and theatre, and when I was studying I played in theatre and short movies all the time. In fact, the first time I took a drama was when I was 15 in America, because I lived there for a year as an exchange student, and then when I was 17 I played in this performance with young people, still non-professionals. I loved it so much, rehearsing for eight hours or more, and I said something must be wrong with me because everyone else was tired and I was saying, "I want more, I want more!" [laughs]. Also, my older brother is a director so I learned a lot from him, and when I finished the Academy I got a role in a feature film in Albania, which was a co-production with Germany and France, and then I got a second feature, a third feature, and then I got this one. When I got The Silence of Lorna I was in Sarajevo doing a play in Bosnian. The casting agent for the Dardenne brothers called me said they had seen some of my movies, and there is an open casting in Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia, all places where Albanians live. I went to Pristina, and the audition was open for everyone else, it was five minutes, and I just had to say, "I'm Arta Dobroshi" in French, but I didn't speak French. After that they called me again in two weeks and said they wanted to see me, and I was in Sarajevo, so they came and we shot all day long, and then they asked me to go to Belgium to do two more scenes in French with Jérémie Renier and Fabrizio Rongione. I learned the two scenes phonetically, and after I finished the two days of shooting they said, "Congratulations, you are Lorna".

How much time did you have to learn French before shooting the film?

I went on a two-week intensive course, it was eight hours a day, but I was also learning in the hotel doing double the work, and not going out at all. After two months I had to speak French, and I also had to cut my hair, because it was very long. It was the first time I cut my hair so short, and we cut it shorter and shorter, because they wanted to see my eyes and face, so they cut it really short, almost bald [laughs]. It was nice because I always wanted to cut my hair but I didn't dare, so this was my chance, and I wore a wig in one movie that was like Lorna's hair, and I liked it, but when I was getting my hair cut for real I thought, "Be careful what you wish for". Now I'm growing it, I haven't cut it since the movie, so I'll let it grow and we'll see.

Were you familiar with the Dardennes' work before you got this role?

Yes, because of the academy, but I hadn't seen their films. Just before I did the audition, I found a movie on DVD, because in the Balkans they aren't shown like in Europe, and the only way to find them in Pristina was on pirate DVDs. I mean, it's bad, but at the same time it's the only way to see the more arty movies, because we only get more commercial movies. I saw L'Enfant, and when I got the part I was so happy, because the character of Lorna is so good, and she's in every sequence. Nowadays there are more leading roles for males than females, so when you get a role like this, I had the feeling it was like Monster with Charlize Theron. She is very strong, and the whole movie is on her shoulders, so it was great.

As well as being exciting, was that an intimidating prospect, to be carrying the whole film?

No, it was just exciting. I think it's better if you're in every sequence and shooting every day, because every day you are Lorna, you don't have a chance to have a week off, and the movie was shot chronologically, so every day I could experience what Lorna experienced. The way I work is to be as close to the character as possible, so I tried to spend five months alone, I didn't go out, I didn't party or drink, and after shooting I went home or just walked on the streets that Lorna walks on. That doesn't mean I didn't have fun, we laughed a lot while we were rehearsing and shooting the movie, but I just tried to keep that rhythm that she has.

To shoot a film chronologically is a very rare opportunity in movies.

Yes, definitely, usually you shoot the last sequence the first day and everything is mixed. Maybe there were ten scenes we didn't shoot chronologically, but we started with the first scene in the bank and the last scene was the last scene, and it's great because the evolution of the character goes in a natural way. At the end you don't even have to communicate, everything goes so smoothly because you are so into it. When you wake up in the morning you are Lorna, and it was only Saturdays and Sundays I went to the pool to relax, but that's it.

Lorna's a fascinating character because she goes through so many changes, from assisting with a murder at the start of the film, to having a change of heart and possibly losing her mind at the end. What's it like to go through all of those emotions?

In the beginning she is like a robot, she does things very automatically, even the way she makes a sandwich. Then she starts to change, but I never thought about it, I just went with the flow, because I was so into the character that things went naturally. When Claudy died, even I as Arta was sad, but then you didn't have time to even think about Claudy, because I had new problems to solve, and things were changing without even realising that it was changing. The first time I saw the movie I saw these changes, but when you are so far inside the character you are not aware of it. That's how I work, I cannot work any differently. There are many scenes in the movie that are emotionally difficult to do, and after a scene sometimes I just felt like crying, but Lorna keeps her emotions inside, she does not let them out.

When you're doing such an emotional role, is it hard to switch off from that and forget those feelings when you go home at the end of the day?

No, I cannot switch off. Actually, I try to keep those feelings, that's good for me, because I keep the feelings and I can think ahead to the next day for Lorna, so purposely I was trying to save that mood. I could have gone out and had fun, but that was fun for me, the research is fun for me, and I always write the biography of the character – where was she born, what does she do, who were her parents – until the first scene of the movie.

If you were so in tune with Lorna's emotions, I suppose you had to believe in her baby as well.

Yes, I believed in it totally. For me, speaking as Lorna, I believe in it, and from the first moment we started shooting the scenes where Lorna thinks she's having a baby, I had this... how do you say it... a stuffed animal, a white one that lives in cold weather...

A polar bear?

No, she lives in cold water...

A seal?

A seal! Bravo! [laughs] A white stuffed seal, and the moment we started shooting, I psychologically needed to keep that as my baby, until the movie was finished. I kept it like a symbol and whenever we were going out to shoot I would think, "Oh, I forgot my seal", it was crazy, and people who saw me holding the seal like a baby must have thought I was a looney [laughs]. But you have to believe it or the audience won't believe you, and I believed it so much I was worried that my belly would start to grow. I read once that it exists, that women really believe they are pregnant and their belly starts to grow, so I thought, "Arta, you have to stop". I was a little afraid in that moment.

And how do you feel about that final scene? What does the future hold for Lorna?

For me when I was doing the scene, I had a feeling of peace, and I feel the ending is more positive. After everything that happened, she found her peace, and it is sad that she found peace with a baby that doesn't exist, but at least she found it. That's how I felt, and maybe I'm totally wrong, and the beauty of it is that the audience can decide. That was just my ending, and the audience may understand it in a different way. Maybe they will be wondering, "What's going to happen, will there be Lorna Part II?" [laughs]. We were thinking in Part II we should have Lorna with a Porsche, with three children, she has escaped all the trouble and finally she can party [laughs].

In this film, you're working with a number of actors who have already worked with the Dardennes before. Did you find it easy to join that group, and get to grips with their working method?

When I arrived the most important thing was how to develop Lorna in the best way possible, and then I met Fabrizio and Jérémie, and later Morgan who played in Le Fils with Olivier, and it was like we had already worked together before. We all sat down together and had coffee, just like we are now, and it was so cool. I have to thank them for being so open.

What's it like to work with two directors?

It's great, I think. It's better because for your character there are three minds working, yours and the two directors', and they go together so well. Sometimes I needed to ask Jean-Pierre something and sometimes I spoke to Luc, depending on the scene, but I really think it's great to work with two directors. They are saying the same thing but in different ways, and they fill you with so many emotions and ideas. I actually worked with two directors before, it was a father and a son for an Albanian movie that was shot in the Czech Republic, and that was the same thing. The father was 70 years-old and the son was 35, so it was two different points of view, but it was very good. It doesn't matter how many people are there, we are all just trying to do one story – the lighting guys, the cameraman, the decorators – it's for one story. So when you think about it, it doesn't matter how many directors there are.

They once described themselves as "One person with four eyes".

Yes, it's true! And then you become one person with six eyes or eight eyes because there are other actors working with each other. Sometimes Luc will be behind the screen and Jean-Pierre will be with us on the set, or vice-versa, it's never the same. People think it's divided and somebody will always stays behind the camera, but it depends on the situation.

What have you got planned next?

For the moment I'm travelling a lot for the movie, I haven't stopped travelling, and I have one more month of that. Then I'm reading scripts, and it's very important for me to choose a good script and to have patience rather than to hurry up just to do something. I would love to do something in English now, so we'll see. And French also, because now I speak French. It's good that you do a movie and you learn a language.

How many languages do you speak?

Only four.

Only four? That's not bad, you know.

[laughs] It's only four, but you learn then so naturally you don't even know you're learning them. I'm Albanian from Kosovo, and it's so complicated with the new states over there now, so our language is Albanian, and I speak Bosnian, which is the same as Serbian and Croat. I understand Macedonian because it is Slavic – I can't say I can speak it but I can understand it – and I speak English since I was little, from the movies and cartoons, and it was natural.

Will The Silence of Lorna be released in Kosovo?

Yes, it will come out. I don't know which month, It will be next year, but I'm not sure. It will be crazy, because when The Silence of Lorna was chosen in Cannes, people were really following the story every night on the news, it was "Cannes, Cannes, Cannes" as the main news. It's great because every time you always have bad news, like politics or the banks going down, and then you usually have Cannes at the end, so it was great.

And how have you been handling experiences like Cannes, and all of the interviews and travelling you have been doing for this movie?

It seems very normal, to be honest. Since I was 15 I travelled everywhere and lived all around the world, and when I started acting I always said, "I am a citizen of the world and I want to work everywhere". People said it would be very hard because I am from Kosovo and it doesn't have any real status in film or theatre, but the world is very small and I cannot wear blinkers. Everything is normal when you are an actor, you do movies or theatre and then you travel, you do festivals, I have already done festivals with other movies, so it feels very natural. I am very lucky to work in this profession because it is not easy to be working all the time, so for that I feel very lucky, and very happy.

"To enter human nature, that is what we like to do" - An interview with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are two of the most consistently brilliant filmmakers in contemporary cinema. The duo made their breakthrough in 1996 with La Promesse, and the realistic, starkly powerful style that would later win them such acclaim was already in evidence. Their tales of ordinary working-class Belgians forced to confront huge moral dilemmas have tackled themes of poverty, trafficking, love and revenge, but these themes are never the main issue, as their work is always focused on the complex and vivid characters at the centre of their stories. After La Promesse, Rosetta, The Son and L'Enfant, the Dardennes have now directed The Silence of Lorna, a gripping study of a young Albanian immigrant involved in a green card scam, and I met the two directors recently to discuss it. This discussion reveals a number of large and surprising plot developments (from the first question onwards), so I would recommend avoiding it until you've seen the film.

You often put us into straight the story with very little information, and we gradually learn who the characters are and what their situation is. When you are writing the film, do you imagine histories for your characters, more than we see in the finished product?

Jean-Pierre Dardenne
No, when we begin we have the general structure of the story, but it takes a long time and we are always changing things. The one thing we knew in this script was that when Claudy died, the story has to carry on, but we didn't know where she was going or what would happen to her, will she be killed in the end or not? We had always thought that even if she was going to be killed, it would be while protecting her child because she believes in it. Of course, by the time we are filming we have already worked out those scenes, but when we are writing we have to talk a lot, it takes several months.

And when you have finished the screenplay, does that ever change during the filming process?
Luc Dardenne After we have finished the structure we make the script, scene by scene, several versions, and then we film. We always film chronologically, and the script normally doesn't change that much, but in Rosetta, for example, we did cancel a character. By filming in chronological order we feel what we can and cannot do, it's the same for the actors as well, and maybe we take out one line, and then we work on the editing. The script stays the same, and there might be different versions in terms of mise-en-scène, but in general, I don't know why, we always have around 15 minutes less than we had in the beginning. When you see the film, you can allows yourself to make more abrupt cuts and perhaps throw the audience by losing certain things, and that's something you can't get on the page where you feel obliged to explain a bit more. Already with La Promesse, there was a producer reading the script and saying, "It's too fast", and we took even more out because we felt we were explaining too much.

At the start of the film Lorna is ready to help somebody be murdered, what do you think changes her mind?

LD There are several things. There's the fact that she lives with him, and the simple fact that Claudy asks for her help, if he hadn't done that I don't think she would have gone towards him. From the moment she does go towards him, she is going against all of her coldness and the plan she had established in her head. Of course, human beings don't go in just one direction, she can reverse her steps as well, and she sees him in the hospital, and also asleep. What's interesting is that no one helps her to go in that direction, Sokol says "he's just a junkie" and Fabio doesn't give a damn. Maybe the fact that she's alone helps her to find that moral ground, sometimes you need that solitude to think about where you want to go.

A number of your films feature these characters who are alone and have to make these life-changing decisions. Why do you like to explore these situations in your films?

It would be really stupid to respond "because we're interested in that and we can't do anything else" [laughs]. We are interested in the different possibilities and attitudes that are within a human being, and how do you deal with evil, because that's what she's doing. Her life is determined by a number of conditions which she can't master, and how do you work that out? How do you do it in relation to the desire you have to better your life? It's not just a little chat in a coffee shop, it's a real alternative, "I can have a better life, but in order to have this better life I have to participate in a murder of someone". So that's what we're interested in, how do our characters deal with such a situation, and when they realise they're facing another human being, do they realise too late? That's what happened to Lorna.

LD She lacks courage, that's the silence.

And because of her lack of courage she is left with a feeling of guilt. Is the guilt the reason she invents this baby in her mind?
LD I think so, yes. I think the return of the ghost of Claudy in her belly is guilt. She tried to forget him, with the dance, and the fact that Fabio gives her the money that she refused previously, she takes it from him now like the earlier Lorna would have done, but in doing so she is also calling the spirit of Claudy because she makes herself even more guilty. In the scene afterwards her happiness is broken.

That scene of the happiness being broken took a lot of people in the cinema by surprise, and nobody knew what had happened for a while. When you made that decision, did you intend to throw people off in that way?

Originally our challenge as filmmakers was to not show his death. How do we make the audience feel the disappearance of Claudy without showing that he has been killed? It seemed to us more interesting to make him come back very gently through Lorna's gestures, through the objects she touches, before we know what has happened. At the same time she confirms what we have already guessed, the feelings she has for this guy. It's true at that point, like the characters, the spectators are a little bit lost by the fact that we have dug this hole in the middle of the film. When we made the decision not to show Claudy's death, we hadn't yet made the decision about the baby, that's something that came later when we made him disappear so abruptly.

How do you work with your actors on the set, do you rehearse a lot?

Well, take this particular film for example. In this situation we have worked with a lot of the actors before, and then there is Arta, who is a professional actress, and who has worked in theatre a lot as well. We rehearse with Arta, Jérémie and Fabio, for a month to a month and a half before shooting, sometimes we work with them together and sometimes just Arta alone. We work in the actual sets where we will shoot the film, and these rehearsals are more kneading the dough, really. It's not a round table discussion on the psychology of the characters, it's more the movement, the gestures, how they will get from A to B, just mixing these things and trying them out. It's like a football team, where you need to train and repeat certain situations, so by the time you get to the match you are at your most free and available. We need the actors to be free, open and available. In the case of Arta Dobroshi, it helped her to see how we work with Jérémie, and to see how he worked with our approach. It helped her approach it a different way, not from a psychological angle, although there is psychology there, it comes from the roots upwards until she embodies the character.

Arta is amazing in the film. When you first saw her did you know she was Lorna?

LD No, there were many other actors. We were looking for an actress who speaks Albanian, and if we hadn't found her we would have looked for another language that isn't spoken in Western Europe. Lorna could have been blonde, tall, brunette, short, with glasses... we didn't really have an idea, except we needed her to be mysterious, and we needed in her face a coldness but also a gentleness coming through. She can be cold, but then she has a smile that can make her close to you. In cinema innocent faces can hide other things.

You do show a lot of Lorna's face in this film, and throughout the film the camera is much more still than it has been in your earlier films.

It was necessary to watch and look at Lorna and not be present in her energy, it was important for the different plotlines to resonate, there needed to be space for the meetings of Lorna with Fabio and Claudy. It was also necessary to watch Lorna in the city among other people, and to see her dancing with Sokol next to other couples, so the camera was further away, just observing.

I noticed a few other differences in this film compared to your previous work. In the final scene we hear music, and I don't think you've ever used music in any of your films before. Why did you make this choice?

LD It is true that this is the first time we've used music in a film. I think we felt we couldn't leave the spectator alone, and at the same time it was also not leaving Lorna alone. It's not a music that would bring some general conciliation, but it's music that enables you to share her thoughts at this point, and I find there's something that redeems her to some extent. You think, yes, she has changed, she has accessed her humanity, one could say.

Although you said the ending is redeeming, do you think it's an optimistic ending? She is also losing her sanity a little, so what does the future hold for Lorna?

LD I think her "madness" is a proof of her humanity. She becomes totally naive, there is no other solution than to become the mother of this child. At the same time, what she has done has been done, and she can't deal with it in any other way than to lose her mind like this.

You also moved from Seraing, where you made all of your previous films, to Liege for this one...

It's just ten kilometres [laughs].

But does filming in a capital city give you a bigger canvas to work on?

Seraing is an industrial town which has lost a lot of its power, so I don't think somebody coming from a country like Albania would wish to go to a place like Seraing if they wanted to make their dreams into a reality. Liege is not a huge city like Paris or London, but it's a city where you can meet other people and have the opportunity to find a job. Also, being a city, it's alive at night, and we needed that nightlife. The three characters all live at night, and we needed the artificial lighting, from the car lights and taxis, and to see people going out for a drink after work, so we could have Lorna in the middle of all these people. We couldn't do that in Seraing.

You started making documentaries before making fiction films, and your films often deal with very topical issues like poverty, immigration and human trafficking. Do you think fiction is a better tool to explore these themes than documentary?

One must never want to generalise, for example there is a very beautiful film coming out in France which tells the history of peasants in France, so what we're saying here only applies to us. For us, fiction is a way of telling things we wouldn't be able to tell in a documentary, there are human possibilities that we can explore in drama, like in La Promesse when a father convinces his son that it is better to let this guy die. We also love working with actors, and we create these people that don't exist. They exist with us during eight weeks of shooting, it's fantastic, and when it's finished they're all dead [laughs]. Every member of the crew and the team has given life to the characters, and we like that. I think the main reason is that, apart from the fact that we were getting frustrated with documentaries, we just love working with actors, professional and non-professional, to create the existence of people.

LD To enter human nature, that is what we like to do.

What filmmakers have influenced you?

There are a lot, but it always changes. We want to remain humble and modest, so don't compare us to this filmmaker, but there is a Fritz Lang movie...I don't know the English title...about the assassination of Heydrich...

Oh, Hangmen Also Die.

That's it. It plays with the false and the real, and I think his mise-en-scène must have run through our minds. There are a lot of filmmakers I appreciate, earlier on we were mentioning Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanours, but I can't say that's a direct reference, and we like Bresson as well.

Ever since La Promesse, there has been a three-year gap between each of your films. Should we expect another Dardennes film in 2011?

I hope so. Each time we finish a film we say the next one will be quicker [laughs], and maybe it will next time, but you are correct, since La Promesse there has been a rhythm that has installed itself. We will see in three years if your bet is right or not.

Review - The Silence of Lorna (Le silence de Lorna)

The start of a Dardenne brothers film is always a rather disorienting experience. They like to cut straight into the story, spending no time on preliminaries or introductions, and leaving us to gather details and learn more about the characters in a gradual process, until we are fully involved in their experiences. Their fifth feature, The Silence of Lorna, opens in a bank, with money being handed over the counter and a young woman telling the clerk that she will soon be a Belgian citizen. This is Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), who has come from Albania to live in Liege, and who has earned her citizenship through a marriage to Claudy (Jérémie Renier). The pair live together in a small flat, but there is little warmth in their relationship, despite Claudy's best efforts to win over his frosty wife. For Lorna, this is strictly business, and that business is a green card scam that she has become involved in at the behest of her real boyfriend Sokol (Alban Ukaj) and local gangster Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione). The plan is to get rid of Claudy as soon as he has outlived his usefulness, by forcing the junkie to overdose on heroin, and that will leave the way clear for Lorna to remarry and pass on her citizenship to another, with a Russian gentleman already standing by brandishing a big cheque.

At this point, Lorna starts to get cold feet, and she suggests a quickie divorce as an alternative to murder. We can see now that her feelings for Claudy are much more complicated than they first seemed to be, although it's hard to get an exact reading on those feelings. Has she fallen in love with Claudy? Does she simply feel sympathy for him? Or perhaps she has simply woken up to the monstrousness of the plot she is involved in, and she suddenly feels compelled to act for fear of losing her soul? In this respect Lorna finds herself in a similar situation to Bruno, the character Jérémie Renier played in the Dardenne brothers' L'Enfant – being guilty of committing a terrible crime and desperately searching for a way to make amends – and her steely determination recalls the heroine of their first Palme d'Or winner Rosetta. But Lorna is very much her own character, a figure as complex and compelling as any the Dardennes have given us, and in Arta Dobroshi, they have unearthed another extraordinary new star.

Dobroshi's face doesn't reveal emotions easily. There's a guarded quality about her countenance, which she only drops occasionally, but those moments are enough for us to see a mixture of conflicting feelings raging inside her character. Dobroshi attacks the role with a sense of conviction that drives the movie forward, and we completely believe that everything she does is coming from somewhere deep inside herself. Whether she is banging her head painfully against a wall – in the hope that an accusation of abuse will speed up the divorce procedure – or suddenly lighting up as she imagines her future running a small café, she is a luminous presence. She also works brilliantly with Renier, a Dardennes regular, who gives a stunningly empathetic display as Claudy, which shouldn't be overlooked. He makes his lovelorn junkie feel desperately real, there's a powerful tenderness about the way he yearns for Lorna's companionship, and a sex scene between the pair – the first the brothers have ever shot – is unexpectedly moving.

I feel we should tread carefully at this juncture, and I will make a great effort not to discuss any more plot specifics to ensure the film's biggest surprises remain undiminished for the viewer (be warned, some other reviews have not been so conscientious); but there is one sudden development that occurs during The Silence of Lorna, which I must bring up. The interesting thing about this twist is not so much the shattering event itself, but more the manner in which the Dardennes handle it, allowing it to occur off-screen and simply moving the film on without exposition, until we slowly put the pieces together. It is a truly daring move, and it threw the whole audience for a loop at the screening I attended, but it also had something of a jarring and counterproductive effect, taking us momentarily out of the drama, as we struggled to comprehend the story's new direction.

This film is also taking the Dardennes in something of a new direction. Although The Silence of Lorna appears to fit neatly into their oeuvre at first glance, the brothers have taken a number of risky narrative and aesthetic decisions that mark this as something new. They've toned down the restless camerawork, which followed the characters at close quarters, in favour of a more objective, classical approach, and it's probably a smart move from the filmmakers, whose style was in danger of growing repetitive by the time they made L'Enfant. This film is a little more detached than the brothers' earlier work, which is perhaps why it has received a slightly cooler reaction from critics, but it still displays their exquisite control of mood, and their ability to explore complex moral issues with an incisive and unerring eye.

The Silence of Lorna is more reliant on plot than previous Dardennes efforts, although the brothers' handling of this narrative is typically unconventional. Aside from the audacious ellipsis I mentioned earlier, they take the film into a number of surprising and hitherto uncharted areas, with Lorna's fragile mental state becoming increasingly unsound as the picture progresses. This is ultimately another rich and nuanced character study from two of the most valuable filmmakers in world cinema, and the fact that the Dardennes are trying to spread their wings with this feature – to shake up the old formula – is an exciting prospect that we should embrace. The Silence of Lorna might lack the immediacy of something like Rosetta or their masterpiece The Son, but it offers a different kind of satisfaction, and the film's unbearably tense final fifteen minutes leads to a beautiful and deeply haunting climax, which is among the finest moments they have ever given us. It has been weeks since I saw The Silence of Lorna, but I find my thoughts drifting back to it again and again.

Read my interview with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne here.

Read my interview with Arta Dobroshi here.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review - Blindness

My eyes! My eyes! It's all too easy to make jokes about Fernando Meirelles' Blindness being an eyesore, but unfortunately such a term is the most appropriate way to describe his inexplicably dismal new feature. This adaptation of José Saramago's highly acclaimed 1995 novel tries to find a suitably cinematic method to depict the sudden outbreak of sightlessness that spreads like wildfire through a nameless city, but whereas something like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly found a perfect visual scheme to place us in its central character's situation, Blindness overdoses on similar techniques until the movie becomes nigh-on unwatchable. The first character to go blind in the film is a Japanese gentleman (Yusuke Iseya) who suddenly loses his sight while sitting at a set of traffic lights. He describes the experience as "like swimming through milk", and Meirelles chooses to visualise this for us by flooding the screen with light, until we too can only make out the most indistinct shapes and blurry outlines in a sea of white.

Such camera trickery is not necessarily a bad idea in and of itself, but Meirelles and his cinematographer César Charlone return to the same gimmick again and again, repeatedly giving us confusing point-of-view shots and even marking scene transitions with a glaring whiteout. The approach extends to the production design as well, which is almost exclusively painted in shades of white and grey, and even Julianne Moore – one of cinema's most vibrant redheads – looks like she has been dipped in bleach before the cameras started to roll. She plays a woman married to the Ophthalmologist (Mark Ruffalo) who treats the Japanese man at the start of the film, and who is baffled by the apparent lack of symptoms he displays. When he wakes up in the morning, the doctor can't see either, and he warns his wife to stay away from him for fear of catching what is clearly a highly contagious disease. Bizarrely, she seems to be immune to the outbreak, and she seems to be the only one, as we watch a chain reaction of people who have interacted with each other losing their sight one by one. In case you are wondering why I haven't provided any character names in this summary, it's because there aren't any, which I guess we're supposed to take as a sign that this story could represent any group of people anywhere in the world.

So, if the ghastly cinematography doesn't drive you from the cinema, then perhaps the crushingly unsubtle allegory will. When Ruffalo is carted off to a quarantine facility for the blind, Moore decides to feign blindness in order to go with him, and the pair end up being the first inmates in a disused hospital that will quickly descend into a living hell. As the wards fill up with the newly blind, people start tripping over themselves, pissing and shitting in the corridors, losing their clothes and ultimately losing any sense of dignity. As the only sighted person in the building (a fact she keeps to herself), Moore does what she can to maintain order, and soon she and Ruffalo have set up a semi-stable society within Ward One, but some new arrivals in Ward Three upset the applecart. Led by the gun-toting, self-appointed "King of Ward Three" (Gael García Bernal), these inmates begin hording the food supplies and demanding payment for any rations. At first, the payment involves any jewellery and other valuables that people may still possess, but when that supply is exhausted, Bernal begins demanding women for food, and soon the female contingent of Ward One are lining up to be raped in order to secure some much needed sustenance.

The basic lesson of Blindness is obvious. This unexplained loss of sight is a simplistic metaphor for our inability or unwillingness to engage with – to really see – our fellow man, and in true Lord of the Flies style, a regression to a primal state leads to anarchy and savagery. Meirelles doesn't display much insight on this subject, however, and instead he just spends the bulk of two hours pushing our faces into the filth of human misery; showing us scene after scene of depravity without giving us any good reason to endure the endless barrage of nihilism. I suspect this kind of allegorical, heavily symbolic storytelling worked better on the page than it does on the screen, and in adapting Saramago's work, screenwriter Don McKellar has corralled the themes and incidents in a blunt fashion that leaves the film feeling didactic and preachy. McKellar actually serves double time in Blindness – he plays the thief who steals the Japanese man's car at the start of the film, before losing his sight soon after – but like most of the cast, he is given little to work with. Alice Braga (prostitute), Maury Chaykin (accountant), Sandra Oh (Minister for Health) and Danny Glover (wiser-than-thou sage) are among the name actors who inhabit the supporting roles, but all of them give shapeless, one-note performances, stumbling (literally) through the movie with no development or direction. The fact that none of the characters have names means we never really view them as characters at all; they're just a bunch of recognisable actors, playing blind to little effect.

Even Julianne Moore can't rise above the murk. As you'd expect, she throws herself completely into her role, but her character doesn't make much sense (as the only sighted person in the prison, why doesn't she stop Bernal before the mass rapes take place?), and her considerable efforts are ultimately wasted. After wallowing in despair, Blindness finally ends on a hopeful note with its deux ex machina finale, but this climax feels rushed and tacked-on, and hardly worth wading through the previous two hours for. It really is something to see such a collection of talent and resources coming together to produce a film that's so relentlessly alienating and misguided, but it isn't entirely a surprise given my reaction to earlier Fernando Meirelles films. He has always appeared to be a filmmaker more focused on the aesthetic value of his films than anything else, and when I reviewed his 2005 film The Constant Gardener I wrote: "In almost every scene the prime motivation seems to be visual impact over narrative soon starts to distract the attention from what’s being said in a scene when the director insists on flooding your eyes every few seconds". Blindness is simply the director taking this style to indulgent extremes, and his frantic over-direction completely overwhelms the story and pushes its audience further away at every turn. Meirelles wants his film to explore the darkest aspects of human nature, but he leaves the viewer stranded in the same desperate state as his characters, hopelessly lost without a guide, and blinded by the light.