Phil on Film Index
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
The Savages is the third film featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman to be released here in the space of two weeks, but that's no bad thing. The actor was on great form in both Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and Charlie Wilson's War, but in each case his impressive characterisation was wasted on a film in which he was by far the most interesting element. Finally, in Tamara Jenkins' new picture, Hoffman's best performance yet is complemented by equally superb displays from the rest of the ensemble, and a screenplay which tackles uncomfortable themes with astounding perceptiveness and wit. Hoffman and Laura Linney play siblings Jon and Wendy Savage. He's a downbeat theatre professor struggling to finish his long-in-gestation biography of Brecht ("well, he was a very complex man"), while she's a neurotic would-be playwright having an unfulfilling affair with a married man (Peter Friedman). They are brought together when their irascible father Lenny (Philip Bosco) starts showing signs of dementia – writing 'prick' on the wall in faeces during an early scene – and they have to struggle with the reality of caring for a man who never showed them much love when they were growing up.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney are two of the best actors working in cinema today, and the opportunity to see them playing off each other in this picture is one no lover of great screen acting should pass up. Hoffman is all crumpled cynicism while Linney is highly-strung and self-absorbed, and while neither character seems particularly likable on paper, the richness and nuance in their performances are completely absorbing. Every scene is pitched at exactly the right tone, both actors displaying a stunning ability to draw both humour and pathos out of any given situation as required, and their tangible chemistry is a joy to behold. Still, you can't blame Lenny when, in one scene, he switches off his hearing aid and turns his face to the car window while his offspring squabble like children next to him. At times, Jon and Wendy appear to be so wrapped up in their own dilemmas they are in danger of forgetting about the man whose malaise has brought them together, but Jenkins never allows us to forget about him. Lenny is cranky and abrasive, but Philip Bosco's performance grows increasingly touching as his character tries to hold onto some semblance of dignity in the face of his debilitating illness, and struggles to make sense of his brief moments of clarity.
Jenkins directs her own script with great sensitivity and openness. She has a fine eye for small, telling details – minor gestures which can speak volumes – and she tends towards hinting at the characters' backstories instead of spelling out Lenny's abusive past. The Savages does follow a straightforward narrative arc, with Jon and Wendy growing and changing as they grapple with their experiences, but Jenkins won't let her story slide into easy sentimentality or settle for pat resolutions. Her writing retains a toughness throughout and she gives her characters the opportunity to grow in organic, believable ways; but the film's biggest achievement lies in the tonal balancing act it walks with such grace. The Savages is moving and realistic, sure, but it's also frequently hilarious, finding unexpected humour in almost every scene, and Jenkins never errs in her shifts between this story's darkness and light. I could have done without the weak final scene, and Jenkins' decision to open with a strange set of dancing ladies hints at a quirkier, less engaged route that she (thankfully) doesn't take; but aside from those minor caveats The Savages is a satisfying, adult piece of work which is never less than brutally honest, and never less than seriously funny.
Monday, January 28, 2008
Dan Burns (Steve Carell), the lead character in Peter Hedges' Dan in Real Life, is a newspaper advice columnist, and in the language of cinema that generally indicates a person who has plenty of wisdom to offer others but who has no idea how to control his own life. Ever since his wife died four years previously, Dan has been left to raise their three daughters on his own, and while he's done a pretty good job, he's still having trouble handling the problems inherent in dealing with teenage girls. 17 year-old Jane (Alison Pill) is angry that he won't allow her to drive, and 14 year-old Cara (Brittany Robertson) is angry at his attempts to deter the boy she claims to love, so Dan only has youngest daughter Lilly (Marleen Lawston) on his side by the time they leave for a family gathering at his parents' luxurious home.
What a confusingly large family it is too. Dan's parents are played by John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest, he has two brothers (including Mitch, played by Dane Cook) – each of whom has a wife – and there appear to be a few dozen children racing through the building at any one time, although it's unclear who they belong to. No wonder Dan needs space, and when he takes time out at a local bookstore he bumps into the woman of his dreams, the beguiling Marie who, as she is played by Juliette Binoche in sparkling form, would probably be the woman of any man's dreams. There's one snag, though – Marie is Mitch's new girlfriend, and she's going to be spending the weekend with the family, which means she and Dan will have to put their obvious attraction on hold. Cue a lot of pent-up tension and plenty of scenes in which the pair are almost caught in compromising positions, and cue plenty of tortuous twists in the screenplay as writers Pierce Gardner and Peter Hedges desperately scramble to keep this thin story afloat for 98 minutes.
Hedges also directed the film and, as in 2003's uneven Pieces of April, he shows a knack for working with actors that proves to be the film's strongest suit. Every member of this cast is on fine form – even Dane Cook, a less-than-charismatic presence in films like Good Luck Chuck and Mr Brooks, manages to be tolerable as Dan's brother – and Hedges has struck gold with his unlikely central partnership. This is exactly the kind of film Steve Carell needed after going down with the ship in last year's bloated dud Evan Almighty. Dan is a likable everyman whom Carell plays with understated humour and a hint of the clumsiness and frustration that characterised his star-making turn in The 40 Year-Old Virgin. Alongside him, it seems strange to see the radiant Binoche in a film like this, but it's a rare pleasure, with her lightness of touch complementing her co-star beautifully. This couple has genuine chemistry, and that's why the contrived and false nature of the film they're starring in is such a letdown.
Dan in Real Life wants to be a comedy of awkwardness, but the film never gets the tone right. It veers from sitcom-level silliness (Dan and Marie trapped in the shower), to scenes in which Dan's emotions force him to act like a jerk, to sequences which aim to wring out the tears by any means necessary (that's the main purpose of cute little Lilly), and none of the above truly convinces. The screenplay is cluttered and overwritten, and prone to drawing lazy parallels in Dan's relationship with his girls (he tells one she can't be in love after three days, which then happens to him. He tells one she can't drive, and then she has to drive him during the hackneyed finale), and all of this only serves to highlight further how hollow the picture is. By the end of the film everything works out pretty much as you'd expect it to, and while there's nothing inherently wrong with conventional storytelling, Dan in Real Life would need to be a damn sight funnier than it is for its flaws to be overlooked. Peter Hedges doesn't exactly set high targets for himself with this film, and even with the best efforts of a perfectly capable cast, he still manages to miss those targets with dispiriting frequency.
Saturday, January 26, 2008
The flashbacks to Benjamin Barker's once-happy life are bathed in golden light, as if from a half-forgotten dream, and there's a later fantasy sequence which is vividly coloured; but whenever the film brings us back to the central story the colours are leeched out of the picture. Burton has always been at his best when allowed to work in black, white and shades of grey, and these are the predominant hues in Dante Ferretti's superb production design, Colleen Atwood's costumes, and Dariusz Wolski's cinematography, giving us an almost monochromatic picture which is dripping with atmosphere. Even the actors appear to have been drained of colour, and Depp certainly cuts a striking figure with his pale skin, darkened eyes and Elsa Lanchester wig. The character of Sweeney Todd fits perfectly within the stable of strange outsiders he and Burton have created over the years; he's another odd loner, viewing humanity from the outside and seemingly unable to connect with others on a normal emotional level, and Depp is remarkably good in the role. He's essentially playing a monster, a man driven only by thoughts of vengeance and hatred, but he manages to suggest a real humanity and soulfulness under the surface, doing some of his most impressive acting only with his eyes.
But what about his voice? Neither Depp, Bonham Carter, nor most of the other cast members are renowned for their singing talents, and it's true that they are unlikely to be taking Broadway by storm any time soon, but their voices have different qualities which are well exploited here. Depp's singing voice is deep and gravelly, but he compensates for his lack of real scale by infusing his songs with emotion. Every line he spits out in that cockney growl comes from deep within him, the tone and pitch of his performance giving us a resonant portrait of a tortured soul. Bonham Carter's voice is even smaller than Depp's, and more problematic – she has trouble wrapping her tongue around some of Sondheim's lyrics – and she is often noticeably weaker than her co-stars, such as during Not While I'm Around, in which the exceptional young actor Ed Sanders (playing her assistant Toby) out-sings her comprehensively. But Bonham Carter brings a tenderness to her character and there's a palpable sense of longing in her scenes with Depp, particularly during the wonderful By the Sea sequence.
This film version of Sweeney Todd doesn't need booming stage voices anyway, and Burton understands that. He makes his film an intimate drama, favouring tight close-ups in claustrophobic sets, and his staging of the musical numbers is terrific. He and editor Chris Lebenzon cut in rhythm with the score, generating a thrillingly kinetic energy in many of them, and presenting songs which flow beautifully. Some of these songs are amusing, like Pirelli's Miracle Elixir (Pirelli is played by Sacha Baron Cohen, trying another foreign accent and getting big laughs); some of them are plaintive, such as Depp's ode to his razors in My Friends, while others are deeply sinister. During the duet Pretty Women, Judge Turpin sits in Todd's chair, without knowing his true identity, and the pair both sing the praises of the same girl as the barber's blade moves swiftly inches from his target's throat. It's a devilishly clever sequence, and extraordinarily tense.
Not everything in Sweeney Todd works. The secondary romance between Todd's teenage daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) and his onetime shipmate Anthony (Bower) is an insipid strand of the story which pales in significance with the main narrative; occasionally it can be hard to make out exactly what's being said in some of the more intricate songs, and Timothy Spall overplays his hand as Turpin's creepy sycophant. But taken as a whole the film is a dazzling achievement. In its second hour, Burton cuts loose, showering the screen with fountains of blood as Todd despatches one victim after another – slicing their throats, flicking a switch, and sending them down a chute into Mrs Lovett's pie shop, where they land with a horrible crunch. These are extraordinary sights to be witnessing in a mainstream Hollywood musical, and the film escalates to a climax which is shockingly cruel, but totally apt. It would have been all too easy for the filmmakers to soften the pill a little by giving us a happy ending for the film's star-cross'd lovers, or for young Toby, but instead it closes with death and darkness, leaving the Demon Barber alone in a pit of his own despair.
Thursday, January 24, 2008
Our Daily Bread is documentary filmmaking in its most distilled form. There is no narration, there is no music; the film comes without any captions or interviews, and we are given no context for the pictures we're seeing. Instead, director Nikolaus Geyrhalter leaves everything open for audience interpretation, declining to offer any fixed perspective on the food processing practices his film depicts, and simply allowing us to observe the day-to-day life of those working in this industry as they pass before his dispassionate lens. We see animals being slaughtered, we see crops being picked, and we experience both the horror and the monotony of life on the production line in unsparing detail, as hi-tech machinery enables us to kill and package mass-market food in an ultra-efficient manner. It would have been very easy for Geyrhalter to turn Our Daily Bread into a Fast Food Nation-style exposé of the meat trade, turning our stomachs with grisly shots of dying livestock, but instead he has chosen to take his film down a much more ambiguous and intriguing route.
In a way, Our Daily Bread is like a minimalist slaughterhouse version of Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi (sans music), with wordless sequences of everyday incident being edited together to form a dreamlike, weirdly compelling whole. The film unfolds in long, elegant takes, often with the camera (operated by the director) remaining in a fixed position for the duration, and editor Wolfgang Widerhofer shows fine judgement in the way he cuts between scenes, often taking us to a vastly different location without disrupting the film's flow. The film exerts something of a hypnotic pull on the viewer as it examines the various processes food must pass through before it ends up on our plate; but in case talk of this detached, mesmerising aesthetic proves misleading, I should point out that Geyrhalter doesn't shy away from showing us the bloody reality of meat production. One of the most unsettling sequences shows a cow being stunned by a bolt to the brain and immediately collapsing into a twitching heap, before being moved away as another agitated animal takes its place. We also witness a seemingly endless supply of dead pigs being eviscerated in seconds by a fast-moving machine, a sight that is both impressive and disturbing, and we watch as a chicken is killed, plucked and cleaned. As I watched Our Daily Bread, I did worry on a couple of occasions that my barely-digested breakfast was about to make a surprise reappearance.
What these images make plain is the way food production of this scale has become a mechanised industry, where new technology has enabled humans to turn living, breathing animals into packaged meat in the most streamlined fashion possible. Geyrhalter's camera revels in depicting the clinical, sterile surroundings in which these practices take place – some of his compositions might have come from a science-fiction film – but he also finds time to focus on the specific roles people have to play amongst all of the conveyer belts and metallic slicers, and if you've ever complained that your job was tedious and unfulfilling, then Our Daily Bread is the film for you. One woman here is employed solely to chop the trotters from pigs' bodies as they pass in front of her, another has to tag thousands of chickens, and a particularly unfortunate soul has been given the task of pulling apart one cow stomach after another. None of these people seem disgruntled with their lot, though, they simply get on with the job at hand and go about their business with the minimum of fuss. Occasionally, Geyrhalter will show us one of these employees as they take a break, sitting with a cup of tea and a sandwich, chewing distractedly on their lunch before getting back to work.
The major obstacle faced by filmmakers aiming to depict monotonous action is that their film can easily grow monotonous in itself, and despite the beautiful visuals (one crop duster shot is a dazzling visual coup) and moments of humour (the baby chicks sequence is inexplicably hilarious), Our Daily Bread doesn't entirely avoid that trap. The rhythmic, repetitive pacing – so crucial to the film's effect – ultimately leaves it dragging in places, even with a relatively tight running time. Another of the film's bravest moves, Geyrhalter's refusal to editorialise his material in any way, also proves slightly frustrating, as a little contextualisation could have helped to give us some insight into the practices we're watching. But I suppose it's a rare pleasure to experience a documentary which is happy to simply document; a film which simply says "this is how it is", and then allows us to filter the information in our own way. Our Daily Bread is an inventive and admirable piece of work which offers us a genuinely eye-opening experience as it presents life in the globalised food industry; a strange, cold and fascinating world where human beings are mere cogs in the machine.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
A startling and horrible piece of news broke this evening, when Heath Ledger's body was discovered in a New York apartment. He was 28 years old.
Ledger was an actor who seemed to have the world at his feet, earning a richly deserved Oscar nomination for his performance in Brokeback Mountain, and excelling in a wide variety of roles, from Monster's Ball and A Knight's Tale, to Candy and I'm Not There. Later this year, he will be appearing as The Joker in The Dark Night, Christopher Nolan's sequel to Batman Begins, and the notion of this intense and skilful young performer taking on such an iconic role was a tantalising prospect which will now be very difficult to watch. One got the sense that the best of Heath Ledger was yet to come, and the realisation that his potential will never be fulfilled is a very sad thought indeed.
A few of our questions regarding the 80th Annual Academy Awards were answered today, but one huge one still remains. After today's announcement we know who exactly will be competing for this year's Oscars, but we still don't know if the ceremony itself will take place in the traditional manner, or if some alternative arrangements will have to be made. After all, the Writer's Guild strike claimed a major scalp when the Golden Globes was recently downgraded to a low-key affair, and now Hollywood's glitziest occasion is under similar threat. Often, that prospect wouldn't be such a big deal – everyone knows the Oscars is a bloated, self-serving circus in which the very best achievements are rarely rewarded – but this year feels a little different to me. For once, the Academy has nominated a high number of films, actors and craftsman whose work I admire greatly, and I think it would be a damn shame if the likes of the Coen Brothers, Julie Christie, Roger Deakins, Javier Bardem or many of the other worthy nominees weren't given an opportunity to enjoy a moment in the spotlight. One wonders why something like this couldn't have happened in the year Ron Howard beat David Lynch and Robert Altman to the Best Director prize, to pick one example from the long list of Oscar injustices.
Should have been nominated – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Should have been nominated – Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford)
Should have been nominated – Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild)
Should have been nominated – Angelina Jolie (A Mighty Heart)
Should have been nominated – Steve Zahn (Rescue Dawn)
Should have been nominated – Kelly McDonald (No Country for Old Men)
Should have been nominated – Knocked Up
Should have been nominated – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The fact that Atonement was widely regarded as a near-impossible book to adapt will stand in Christopher Hampton's favour here, but it's hard to see past the Coen brothers, whose adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men is virtually flawless. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is one to watch, but it's unlikely to split the main two contenders. As for the Original Screenplay category – well, my thoughts on Juno have been made pretty clear by now, and its weakest aspect is Diablo Cody's unconvincing, self-conscious and deeply unfunny screenplay. It's depressing to think that Juno is going to triumph here over such well-crafted pieces of storytelling such as Ratatouille and Michael Clayton, but that's the way it's going to be.
The controversy over this year's Best Foreign Language Film nominees has been well documented, but it's still hard to believe a film as amazing, accessible and vital as 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has been overlooked. I'm disappointed about Silent Light's omission too, and the only nominee that I've seen – The Counterfeiters – is good, but hardly Oscar-worthy. With France's Persepolis being snubbed here as well, I think Ratatouille is unstoppable in the Best Animated Feature category, and a worthy winner it would be too. The only other category I'm really interested in is the Cinematography Oscar, in which Roger Deakins has received nominations for both No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James. Either film would deserve a victory, and even if The Diving Bell and the Butterfly's inventive camerawork remains a danger, I think the Academy will recognise one of the best in the business with an overdue Oscar here.
When Walk the Line was released in 2005, the similarities between it and the previous year's Ray were undeniable. The films covered different topics – Johnny Cash and Ray Charles respectively – but structurally and thematically they were almost identical. Each picture presented a man haunted by childhood trauma, then it progressed through early struggles, before the central figure finally hit the big time, rubbing shoulders with the stars, and entering a period of substance abuse and womanising. Just at the point where it looked like our hero was about to throw it all away, both films finally ended on a note of redemption, re-establishing their subject's status as a musical legend. Of the pair, Walk the Line was far superior – thanks to sharper filmmaking and a romantic angle that gave it an emotional through line – but even that enjoyable picture delivered enough of the standard biopic clichés to make it a ripe target for spoofing.
Enter Walk Hard: The Dewy Cox Story, an entertainingly daft entry from the Judd Apatow stable which acts as a send-up of those two pictures in particular, and of the musical biopic genre in general. Its subject, Dewey Cox, is a man whose life seems to adhere to tick every one of the biopic clichés, beginning with a childhood incident in which 6 year-old Dewy accidently killed his brother with a machete ("I'm cut in half pretty bad" Nate observes from the ground, his legs standing next to him). That tragedy drives a wedge between Dewey and his father (Raymond J Barry) who never misses an opportunity to remind his son that "the wrong kid died", and it leaves Dewey with no sense of smell. When 14 year-old Dewey (now played by John C Reilly) scandalises the local community with a song about holding hands, he decides to take off with his 12 year-old girlfriend (Kristen Wiig) to follow his dreams in the big city. Of course, Dewey eventually succumbs to the pressures of fame, cheating on his comically fertile wife with sexy backing singer Darlene (Jenna Fischer, playing a tease to perfection), and he sinks ever deeper into a maelstrom of drugs and soulless sex, hitting rock bottom before, naturally, finding the strength to pull it all back together for one last show.
Films of this nature are a tricky beast to get right, and too often they settle for the lazy option of merely referencing other pictures in order to win some laughter via recognition. Just take a look at any of the atrocious Epic Movie/Scary Movie/Date Movie pictures which have littered the multiplexes like so many rotting corpses over the past few years for evidence of this type of comedy at its most pathetic level. Instead, Walk Hard manages to find a comfortable balance between spoofing and storytelling. The screenplay, co-written by Apatow and director Jake Kasdan, ensures Dewey's rise and fall matches the standard narrative arc for this type of film, with the specific allusions to individual films offset by bursts of unexpected, surreal humour and absurd visual gags. The picture develops a series of funny running gags during the course of the film, such as Dewey's escalating interest in drugs ("Get outta here, Dewy! You don't want any part of this shit") or his habit of tearing sinks from the walls whenever he hits an emotional low; and as it progresses through the musical landscape of the 50's, 60's and 70's, Kasdan and Apatow maintain an impressively high laugh ratio.
The filmmakers have also paid close attention to the fine detail of the eras they're exploring, with the visual style and the costume design of every stage in Dewey's journey feeling just right, and the film takes its central character through a remarkable array of transformations. During the sixties he emerges as a Dylan-like protest singer, and he later suffers a Brian Wilson-style descent into madness, as he locks himself in a studio and obsesses over an elaborate concept album ("I want 50,000 didgeridoos!"). Perhaps the most vital thing the filmmakers have got right, though, is the quality of music that Dewey performs during the course of the movie. The songs have plenty of silly lyrics and sly innuendos ("In my dreams you're blowing me.... kisses"), but they're also uniformly catchy and perfectly performed, and as in This is Spinal Tap (the gold standard for spoof music movies), the hint of authenticity which these songs possess is vital for our ability to engage with this character and his story.
The most common failing of parody films is their tendency to run out of steam before the climax, and that's something Walk Hard unfortunately falls prey to, with the final third of the picture dragging a little in comparisons to what's gone before, and the film lacks a really strong climax. Still, it's easy to forgive those flaws in the face of the fun Walk Hard offers. There's something amusing going on in almost every scene, and a particularly inspired sequence featuring The Beatles (Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Justin Long and Jason Schwartzman) is one of the comic highlights of the year. Ultimately, though, the best reason to see Walk Hard is to watch John C Reilly in the lead role. This is a long overdue chance for one of cinema's best supporting actors to carry a major film, and he responds with a multi-faceted and hugely appealing turn which keeps the picture's comedy grounded in a strong central character. Dewey Cox is a role which requires Reilly to sing, dance, get high, run through the streets in his underpants, and keep a straight face while talking to an exposed penis. He manages to do all of this and more with great aplomb and deadpan comic timing, and that's the real secret of Walk Hard's success.
Sunday, January 20, 2008
The best thing one can say about In the Valley of Elah is that it's a better film than Crash, but that's pretty faint praise. Two years after Paul Haggis' dumb anti-racism melodrama absurdly won three Oscars, the writer/director has found another hot-button issue to explore in own unsubtle way. In the Valley of Elah is the latest Hollywood film to examine the fallout from the current war in Iraq and, like most of the others, it's a ponderous, preachy and unsatisfying picture, adding little or nothing to the debate. The easiest thing in the world would be to dismiss it as just another mediocre middlebrow drama of no great relevance; but Haggis' decision to cast Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron is his saving grace. These two actors give exceptional performances that keep us watching in spite of the film's flaws, and in doing so they manage to raise the standard of the whole enterprise a few notches above its natural level.
Jones plays a retired army police investigator named Hank Deerfield who, as his name indicates, is a straight-arrow, patriotic American. Hank loves his country, and he's proud to have a son fighting the good fight in Iraq, but he's a little perturbed when he finds out that his son has gone AWOL a few days after returning from the conflict. So, after reassuring his wife (Susan Sarandon, squeezing some moving moments out of a thin role) that everything's probably OK, Hank decides to pack a bag and locate his son himself. However, when a dismembered body turns up his search turns into a murder investigation, and when Hank's enquiries are met with a wall of silence from the authorities, he hooks up with a local cop (Charlize Theron) to dig further into the case, growing increasingly disillusioned and bewildered with every new discovery.
Arriving in cinemas shortly after the Coens' No Country for Old Men, this is another great part for Jones. No actor can play weary disillusionment like he can, and he brings an extraordinary sense of complexity and gravitas to the part, taking us on every step of Hank's journey as his perception of his country and the war being fought in Iraq is altered dramatically. Hank's struggle to keep a lid on his grief is the most compelling aspect of the picture, and while Haggis gives us plenty of visual signifiers for his frayed emotional state (see how his clothes and bedding grow increasingly unkempt), our real connection with the character lies in the subtle power of Jones' performance. He can bring a sense of authority to the most hackneyed scenes that Haggis can dream up – such as his telling of the David vs. Goliath story, from which the film takes its title – and Jones is matched beat for beat by Theron, who takes her clichéd part (single mum, undermined by the male cops who suspect she slept her way into the job) and really makes it work.
Their performances are the best In the Valley of Elah has to offer, though. Haggis wants his film to work as both a thriller and a grand statement on the effects of war, but he can't find a seamless way to work the political aspect into the framework of the story. This often leaves the actors with lumps of clumsy anti-war dialogue to deliver, as in the bizarre scene where Theron explodes while interviewing a murder suspect, and the whole procedural aspect of the film just peters out towards the end as Haggis concentrates on making points. To be honest, though, I had lost interest in Hank and Emily's investigation by that point anyway, with the lethargic pacing and slack, arbitrary plotting rendering the film ineffective as a thriller. It almost comes to life in one scene, when Haggis stages a nifty chase sequence, but that's about as lively as the film ever gets. In the Valley of Elah is one of those movies about a grief-stricken character which seems to get bogged down by its own sense of mournfulness, a trap many pictures like this fall into, when a film like Atom Egoyan's masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter has shown how such a narrative can be handled with incredible delicacy and imagination. Haggis's direction never really rises above the adequate, though; and in a year when Roger Deakins has shown what he can do when working alongside directors with a genuine vision – in both No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – it's dispiriting to see him turning in such flat-looking work here.
In the Valley of Elah isn't really a terrible film, it just feels like a faintly useless one which is too bland to work on one level and too heavy-handed to work on another. Haggis wants to show us how war dehumanises everyone directly involved with it, but this is hardly a revelatory concept, and he doesn't have anything fresh to say on the subject. He is surely one of the most frustrating filmmakers around, a writer/director who earnestly wants to engage with serious issues, but whose style is so head-slappingly obvious you ultimately wish he hadn't bothered. I suppose we can be thankful at least that In the Valley of Elah is some kind of advancement from Crash and – who knows? – one day we may look at a Paul Haggis film and be genuinely stirred by what he has to say, but it's hard to take any of his messages seriously when he engages in the kind of crass symbolism on display in this film's final shot.
Sunday, January 13, 2008
We first meet Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson (played with laid-back charm by Hanks) in 1980, sitting in a Vegas hot tub surrounded by strippers and models. One might imagine there'd be enough there to keep him occupied, but Charlie's attention is suddenly taken by a conveniently-placed television which is broadcasting a news report from Afghanistan, detailing the sorry situation faced by refugees fleeing from the marauding Soviet forces. Exasperated by the pitiful levels of support the US is offering to the Mujahedeen insurgents, Charlie – with the help of a wealthy socialite (Roberts) and a disgruntled CIA operative (Hoffman) – masterminded a covert operation to supply the Afghans with the weaponry and training required to take down the helicopters that had been massacring their people. The process involved a lot of political string-pulling from Charlie, with Pakistan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt all being persuaded to join forces in this effort, but eventually they prevailed, and in 1989 the Soviet troops were finally forced to withdraw from Afghanistan.
What drove Charlie Wilson to do such a thing? Why did this Texan Congressman suddenly feel such a need to help these downtrodden people on the other side of the world? Charlie Wilson's War never really gets under the skin of its central character's motivation. The scenes in which Charlie visits an Afghan refugee camp to hear horror stories from scarred and limbless children are cheaply manipulative, and other sequences where we see Charlie crying alone in his hotel room seem to be reaching for emotions the film hasn't taken the time to explore. Instead, we are asked to simply enjoy the ride as this lovable rogue and his unlikely partners pull off their elaborate ploy, but the shallowness is irritating. Charlie Wilson's War suggests that United States' major failing was its reluctance to help stabilise the Afghan region after this conflict, and in its final scenes the film draws a line between this period and the current war on terror; but these aspects of the film feel rushed and tacked-on. All we get is a speech from Hoffman about unforeseen consequences, and then the film closes with a quote from the real Charlie Wilson which reads: "These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world. And the people who deserved the credit are the ones who made the sacrifice. And then we fucked up the endgame".
As a slice of undemanding entertainment, though, Charlie Wilson's War goes down easily enough. In its best moments – like a brilliantly choreographed sequence in which Charlie tries to hold two separate meetings in his office at the same time – the film develops a lively momentum. The screenplay is full of smart dialogue courtesy of Sorkin, and Nichols keeps things moving in a fluid fashion, even if his handling of the combat scenes (an unsuccessful blend of stock footage and shoddy reconstruction) leaves a lot to be desired. But it's Philip Seymour Hoffman who brings a real spark to the movie, even if the part of Gust Avrakotos is hardly a stretch for him. The best scenes in the film are the ones in which Hoffman and Hanks are allowed to play off each other, both displaying deft comic timing and turning in relaxed, appealing performances, which is more than can be said for Julia Roberts, who seems pinched and awkward in her role. There are fine actors peppered throughout the film's supporting cast too, although it's a sin to waste someone as lovely and talented as Amy Adams in the meaningless part she is given here.
Charlie Wilson's War is a fairly enjoyable ride, then, and it certainly is a rarity these days to see a star-packed picture such as this wrapping things up in a skimpy 97 minutes, but it seems to ultimately lack a sense of purpose. It gives us Charlie's story in an easy-to-swallow fashion but, once again, we have to wonder if the people involved in this movie couldn't have come up with something a lot more substantial. The glib, cartoony tone Nichols and Sorkin have adopted sits uneasily with the weight of the events they're describing, and it results in a picture which fails to satisfy and which is unlikely to live in the memory. There's a lot of untapped potential in this project, but – after getting their hands on a great story and pulling together a terrific cast – one can only conclude that the filmmakers have fucked up the endgame.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
All of which goes some way to explaining why I spent much of Juno's first hour hating a film I had really wanted to love. Jason Reitman's picture arrives here on a tidal wave of exultant reviews and its writer – ex-stripper Diablo Cody – is pretty much a lock for this year's Best Original Screenplay Oscar. It's this year's Little Miss Sunshine in more ways than one; for not only is it the latest slick indie comedy to find a wide audience, it's also another hollow shell of quirkiness which is only partially redeemed by an exceptional cast.
Oddly, Juno is the third film in the past year to base its comedy around an unplanned pregnancy. The title character Juno McGuff (Ellen Page) is a 16-year-old who has fallen pregnant after impetuously seducing her best friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera, brilliantly deadpan as in Superbad). She recalls this incident while swigging from a huge carton of Sunny Delight, and then she takes a third pregnancy test which confirms her worst fears. Standing behind the counter at her local convenience store is Rainn Wilson, who only has a couple of lines in this movie but who has been saddled with some of the worst dialogue imaginable. "Your eggo's preggo" he tells Juno with some glee, and he follows up that winner with "That ain't no etch-a-sketch. This is one doodle that can't be un-did, homeskillet". I'm tempted to cite Harrison Ford's famous "You can type this shit, George, but you sure can't say it" line in response, but I'm not even sure how dialogue such as that could have looked good on the page (I don't know what a homeskillet is anyway).
Nevertheless, that's the kind of dialogue that keeps popping up in Juno. The opening half-hour is hellish, with every character responding to some snarky one-liner with an acerbic retort of their own, and Juno herself is the worst offender. The biggest problem I had with the film is that this girl – this character I'm expected to empathise with – is insufferable. She's an obnoxious little know-it-all who responds to every situation with the same flippant sarcasm, and if you're not on board with this brand of self-aware humour then the ceaseless scenes in which she insults people or throws out another obscure pop culture reference can feel interminable. I can see what Cody is trying to do here, painting the character as a fundamentally insecure and immature girl who masks her feelings with this outer shell of cocky bravado, but Juno is so painfully overwritten the characters never feel real; they're only vessels for Cody's unconvincingly snappy banter. Ellen Page is a terrific young actress who does a marvellous job here of suggesting some degree of depth in this role, but I found her character's attitude alienating rather than endearing.
That Juno remains at all tolerable is mainly down to Page and the rest of the well-chosen cast who do plenty of heavy lifting to make their characterisations work. JK Simmons and Alison Janney have a pleasing directness which enables them to cut through the movie's phoniness to connect with something real, and both of them handle their big individual speeches in a classy fashion (even if Janney's put-down of an ultrasound technician feels resoundingly fake). Juno is perhaps most interesting when it focuses on the dynamic between the lead character and the couple she has selected to adopt her unborn child – would-be rocker Jason Bateman and his uptight, panicky wife Jennifer Garner, both of whom give fine performances. Reitman clearly has a sure hand with actors – he showed as much in his well-acted but lame 2005 satire Thank You for Smoking – and Juno improves immeasurably in the second half, when the film gives this excellent cast some breathing space, focusing more on the emotions of the situation than simply acting as a sounding board for Cody's torturous gags. Surprisingly, I even found some of its later scenes quite touching, proving that there is a story worth caring about buried in here somewhere.
But when I think about Juno in retrospect, it's the things I hated that linger for me. The way it featured characters who only exist in films like this (like the geeky Asian protestor outside the abortion clinic and – even worse! – the slutty receptionist inside); or the way individual quirks are rationed out among the characters, like Cera's obsession with Orange Tic-Tacs or Janney's obsession with dogs (both traits which, naturally, have a payoff at the end); or the repetitive visual gags, like the athletes constantly jogging in the background; or the awful soundtrack selection. Juno is a film which seems to encapsulate so many of the flaws apparent in Garden State, Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite, I ♥ Huckabees and all of the other films of this type; and, once again, my less-than-positive response to it leaves me in the small minority. Everyone seems to love Juno, but the high praise for it, and in particular the high praise for Diablo Cody's precious, self-satisfied script, has left me completely baffled. This is nothing like a great screenplay, it's merely an attention-grabbing screenplay – and that Oscar's in the bag.
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
American remakes of successful foreign films are nothing new, but I doubt many people would have picked Michael Haneke's Funny Games as a candidate for a US makeover. Haneke's 1997 film is notorious for delivering one of the most painful viewing experiences in contemporary cinema; setting up a standard thriller scenario before breaking the rules, and twisting the emotional knife at every opportunity. Funny Games is the story of a middle-class family who arrive at their lakeside holiday home, only to be confronted with two ultra-polite psychopaths calling themselves Peter and Paul. These two strangers, dressed all in white, tell the family that they will all be dead by morning, and they then proceed to play "games" with them, subjecting them to both physical and psychological torture. Haneke is unsparing in his handling of this vicious scenario; he offers us no hope, no possibility of escape, and he forces us to question our own appetite for onscreen violence.
Haneke always envisaged Funny Games as an American story – after all, it was inspired by the casual violence he saw in that country's cinema – but could a film of this nature be successfully adapted for the American market without watering down its strongest elements, and thus diluting the story's potency? Surprisingly, Funny Games US (as the opening titles label it) has now arrived in an English-language version, and Haneke himself is back in the director's chair to oversee this second version of his film. Of course, having the original director on board is no guarantee of retaining the first film's quality – remember George Sluizer, who castrated his brilliant thriller The Vanishing with a miserable 1993 remake – but Haneke has managed to bring his film to US screens without any compromises whatsoever, making a new version of Funny Games which matches the original shot-for-shot.
For those of us who have seen the original film, this new take on Funny Games will certainly rank as one of the strangest viewing experiences of the year. This time Naomi Watts and Tim Roth take the roles of Anna and George, while their son Georgie is played (very well) by a young actor named Devon Gearhart; and the two killers, Peter and Paul, are portrayed respectively by Brady Corbet and Michael Pitt. But from the film's opening shot – the unsuspecting victims in their car, with the classical soundtrack suddenly replaced by loud death metal screeching – Funny Games US slavishly follows the same path Haneke already mapped out a decade ago. As far as I could tell, Haneke uses exactly the same angles and setups, the costume and production design looks identical, and the film's dialogue appears to be the same (allowing for minor changes inherent in the translation from one language to another). As a result, your reaction to Funny Games US will depend on your familiarity with it. This new version is every bit as clinical and deliberately manipulative as the original, but for those of us who have seen the 1997 film, the narrative's most startling developments have inevitably lost much of the shock value which made them so effective first time around. Perhaps that's a moot point, though, as Haneke's intention with this film is not to appeal to those who have seen the original, but to reach a wider audience in America, and for those adventurous filmgoers who are viewing Funny Games for the first time it should provide an experience every bit as disturbing and provocative.
In any case, whether you think the film is successful in its aims or not, it's hard not to admire Haneke's rigorous filmmaking style, and it's hard not to be awestruck by the conviction in the lead performances. The knife-edge acting from Ulrich Mühe and Susanne Lothar in the first film is a tough act to follow, but Watts and Roth are both outstanding here, with Watts in particular throwing herself completely into the part. It's a brilliant, no-safety-net display from this extraordinarily versatile actress, and it again proves that she's willing to traverse the emotional depths like few others in Hollywood. As the two villains of the piece, however, Pitt and Corbet don't quite measure up to their predecessors. A miscast Brady Corbet gives a limp and strangely mannered turn which seems out of place in this company, and while Pitt does bring an insidious creepiness to his performance, it's nowhere near as memorable as Arno Frisch's supremely chilling turn in the first film.
That's another problem that won't be apparent to those approaching Funny Games US through fresh eyes, though. It's hard for anyone familiar with Haneke's first film to avoid playing a mental game of compare-and-contrast while this remake is unfolding in front of us, and it has to be said that Funny Games US holds up pretty well. While the picture's biggest shocks fell a little flat for me at the second time of asking, I still found myself getting caught up in the claustrophobic and fear-drenched atmosphere of the whole thing, and it does remain a fascinating piece of work. At the very least, we can take heart from the fact that a director as singular as Haneke has been allowed the freedom to bring his own vision to America, and if this remake introduces a wider audience to his work and opens up opportunities for him in the future, then that can only be a good thing. For Haneke aficionados, Funny Games US will feel like something of a sideways move rather than a progressive one; but for anyone approaching his work for the first time, it still has the ability to cut to the bone.
Sunday, January 06, 2008
Lust, Caution is set in Shanghai and Hong Kong during the brutal Japanese occupation, and it centres on a complex espionage and assassination plot in which Wong Chia Chi (the dazzling newcomer Tang Wei) is a central figure. In 1938, Wong was just an ordinary teenager with a natural aptitude for acting, which led her to a revolutionary theatre troupe aimed at staging propaganda plays ahead of the forthcoming war. Their plays are a great success, but fellow student Kuang (Lee-Hom Wang) thinks there's more that they can do for their country. He has heard about a Chinese official named Mr Yee (Tony Leung) who has been collaborating for the Japanese, and he persuades the group to do their patriotic duty by killing this traitor. So begins a tale which spans the next four years; posing as well-to-do wife Mrs Mak, Wong inveigles herself into the Yees' inner circle, partaking in shopping trips and mah-jongg games with Mrs Yee (a pitch-perfect Joan Chen), and before too long she has won Mr Yee's heart. This narrative bears a broad similarity to last year's Black Book, in which Carice van Houten played a double agent sleeping with the enemy, but that picture had a way of demanding our attention and making us experience the fear inherent in the central character's situation – a situation where discovery is death – and that's something Lust, Caution fails to do.
For the first hour or so, Lust, Caution does manage to cast something of a spell over the viewer. The superb production design helps to draw us into a convincing recreation of 1940's China, and Lee's direction is as classy and elegant as we have come to expect. However, as the film progressed I started to feel a little restless, with the slow-moving narrative never quite hitting the tension-filled high points that a story of this nature surely demands. The main reason for this is the fact that Lust, Caution runs for an absurd 158 minutes. That's about twenty minutes longer than any of Lee's previous films, and boy does it feel like it. It's never quite boring, exactly, but the film constantly delivers scene after scene from which a sharper editor would have gleamed extra layers of suspense and excitement, and instead of exerting a tighter grip on the emotions as Wong gets deeper into her double life, the film has a tendency to dissipate.
Things liven up, in more ways than one, when sex enters the equation. The first coupling between Wong and Yee is a near-rape, as he flings her to the bed like a rag doll and bounds her wrists with his belt; but in their later sexual encounters a deeper tenderness and feeling emerges, with Yee revealing something of the human being under the surface of this violent man. It's a role quite unlike any Tony Leung has been asked to play before, and the performance he gives is one befitting his status as one of the world's finest actors. It's a fabulously controlled piece of acting which exudes both charm and menace, and yet allows us glimpses of his character's soul. Lust, Caution's real trump card, however, is Tang Wei, a first-time actress discovered after a Scarlett O'Hara-style search in which ten thousand women were auditioned. She is a beautiful and intriguing actress, who carries the bulk of the film on her tender shoulders and she handles this demanding role with astonishing grace. Lee has unearthed a true movie star.
These two actors are on outstanding form individually, and they also share a rich chemistry, but the film never quite capitalises on this pairing. Lust, Caution does contain some brilliant moments; I loved the staging of Wong's play, or the scene in which she sings to Mr Yee (a scene as erotically charged as any of the sexual ones), and there's a wonderfully Hitchcockian sequence in which Wong's collaborators attempt to murder a man who just won't die. Aside from the sex, these are the sole occasions in which Lust, Caution generates any heat, though, and after making such a perfect job of translating Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain to the screen, Lee's adaption of Eileen Chang's short story is a huge letdown. The narrative is simply too slim to take the weight of this epic running time, and the urgency of the final scenes comes too late to drag us back into a story which has been told at such an unrewarding and cautious pace.
Wednesday, January 02, 2008
Sometimes a single piece of dialogue can speak for a whole movie, and in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead Philip Seymour Hoffman's line "I don't add up, I am not the sum of my parts" works as a neat summation of Sidney Lumet's lurid crime melodrama. The parts are all there – a fine collection of actors, a legendary director behind the camera, and a dependable old heist-gone-wrong narrative – but the finished product is strangely distancing and unsatisfying. Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play Andy and Hank respectively, two brothers up to their eyeballs in financial difficulty. Andy has been fiddling the books at work as he tries to provide for both his high-maintenance wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) and his own expensive drug habit, while Hank's troubles are more prosaic: he simply wants to pay for his daughter to attend a decent school and to stop giving his hectoring ex-wife (Amy Ryan) reasons to label him a loser.
Andy comes up with an answer to their prayers, a heist of their parents' jewellery store which should be a piece of cake as they know the store layout and the safe combinations, and their mother's elderly friend minds the shop on Saturday mornings. Of course, it doesn't quite run to plan, and the "victimless crime" Andy envisaged ends up claiming more and more victims as events rapidly slip out of the brothers' control. For a while, it's fun to watch, or at the very least intriguing, with screenwriter Kelly Masterson feeding us abstract pieces of information that only gradually fit together. Sidney Lumet has already given us the ultimate heist-gone-wrong film, with 1975's classic Dog Day Afternoon, and this picture never comes close to matching that masterpiece, but Lumet is good at handling the nuts and bolts of the narrative, and there's a surprising edge to his direction here. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead opens with the sight of Hoffman fucking Tomei from behind while admiring himself in the mirror – certainly one of the most startling introductions to a film in recent memory – and in the early stages, Lumet displays more vitality than any of his mundane recent films have offered. What a shame, then, that all of that vitality just seeps out of the picture about halfway through.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead's biggest flaw lies in its structure. Masterson has clearly set out to give us a complex, twist-laden story with her first screenplay, but her decision to hop back and forth in time hampers the film's development. At various points in the film, everything will suddenly come to a juddering halt before showing us how each character got to this point, and it often shows us the same incidents from a different character's point of view. As a result, the picture grows repetitive, inconsistent, and infuriating; and every time it seems as if Lumet is building some decent momentum or developing something compelling, the whole show just deflates, as Masterson's narrative takes two steps backwards. The fractured timeline is gradually emerging as the most overused filmmaking gimmick in the movies. It can work as a fine tension-builder when used sparingly, but these films often leave me wondering how the drama would have played out in linear fashion. Screenwriters might think it's clever to play with a film's chronology in this way, but there's nothing smarter than a good story told straight.
We're left with a handful of good scenes and few halfway-interesting ideas, but nothing is allowed to cohere. If anything does hold the picture together then it's Hoffman – the best actor around at playing sweaty, needy desperation – and he becomes more fun to watch as he grows increasingly frayed around the edges. Hawke seems less sure of himself, most of the time he just settles for grinning nervously, and Tomei has been hired to simply stand around in various states of undress (another terrible waste of this consistently undervalued actress); but Hoffman's turn at least gives the picture a solid centre to work around. It's not really enough, though, with Before the Devil Knows You're Dead growing sillier and more hysterical with every passing minute, and it becoming increasingly hard to care as this group of unlikable people carry on doing various unpleasant things to each other. Only the father of the two men – played by Albert Finney on fine form – comes across as anything like a sympathetic character, but even he has blood on his hands by the time this picture has come to an unfulfilling and mystifyingly abrupt conclusion.