Monday, April 21, 2008

Review - Happy-Go-Lucky

Four years after Vera Drake, one of the saddest and most downbeat films of his long career, Mike Leigh has returned with Happy-Go-Lucky, a film that – as its title suggests – is concerned with the lighter side of life. Leigh's films have always struck a careful balance between humour and pain, but he has rarely tipped the balance so favourably towards the happier end of the spectrum, and in his latest picture he flatly refuses to undercut the perennially optimistic central character with any sense of irony or cynicism. Poppy Cross (Sally Hawkins) is a 30 year-old primary school teacher who lives in a rented North London flat with best friend Zoe (Alexis Zegerman, who makes an excellent foil for Hawkins). While most people of Poppy's age are thinking of settling down and starting a family, she's just enjoying life as it comes; partying with her pals at the weekend, exercising on a trampoline after work, taking flamenco lessons (featuring an over-indulged performance from Karina Fernandez), and dreaming up fun activities for the kids in her classroom. Of course, not everyone finds Poppy's relentless "cheer up, it might never 'appen!" attitude so appealing, and in the opening scene she is given the cold shoulder by a bookseller as she tries to make small talk. It doesn't bother her, though, she simply wanders out of the shop with a smile on her face and heads off to brighten up somebody else's day.

As Poppy strolls through Leigh's meandering plot, brimming with
joi de vivre, she may prove to be as much of a test for the audience as she is for those around her. She's A gawky free spirit who habitually responds to most remarks with a silly pun or quip, and her high-toned voice and squeaky laugh seem designed to grate on the viewers' nerves. The fact that she doesn't become unbearable is a credit to both Leigh and Hawkins, who have crafted a character that grows on us almost imperceptibly as the film progresses, with Hawkins' marvellously game performance bringing an extraordinary sense of life to the part, and allowing us to see different shades to her character. In the classroom, Poppy is attentive and engaged with her children, particularly when one reveals a troubled home life; and she seems genuinely interested in everyone she meets, keen to share their experiences or understand their situation. Happy-Go-Lucky is a portrait of genuine goodness, and Leigh's film asks us why we generally view someone like Poppy with suspicion, or insistently ask them to "grow up" when they embrace life's pleasures with such childlike glee.

One person who views Poppy in this way is Scott (Eddie Marsan), the driving instructor whom Poppy calls when the theft of her bicycle ("I never even got a chance to say goodbye", she laments) forces her to take the lessons she has been putting off for so long. Scott is as tightly wound as Poppy is free-spirited, and as he tries to educate Poppy using his rigid and didactic methods, he grows ever more frustrated at her blasé attitude. Their scenes together are a study in contrasts, but Leigh doesn't labour the point, instead allowing their encounters to breathe and their odd relationship to develop naturally. Hawkins has rightly won great acclaim for
Happy-Go-Lucky, but I think the most extraordinary performance in this film comes from Marsan as the misanthropic and rage-filled Scott. The grim-faced instructor rages at the ills of society as he views it with disgust from the inside of his car; he rants about multiculturalism – urging Poppy to lock the door when he sees two black teenagers cycling past – and he sneers at the hedonistic lifestyle enjoyed by Poppy and her friends. For her part, Poppy seems more amused than upset by his views (responding with her frequent refrain "What are you like!"), but Scott's barely repressed anger takes both of them to some dangerous places.

Marsan's performance is stunningly detailed, and it's clearly a product of Leigh's improvisational working methods in which he and the actors build their characters and the story from the ground up. At times
Happy-Go-Lucky displays the very best qualities this practice has to offer, producing lived-in performances and relationships that feel real, but it also displays a couple of the flaws that always seem to exist in the director's work. Leigh has so often displayed an unfortunate willingness to caricature his more upwardly mobile characters, and here Poppy's pregnant sister and her under-the-thumb husband take on those roles. She's snippy and materialistic, while he's a wet fish, and Leigh also works in a scene wherein the sister takes Poppy's celebration of a responsibility-free lifestyle as a personal dig at her, resulting in an argument that feels like it has been forced into the narrative. Some of Leigh's other choices are curious too; for example, he includes a bizarre scene in which Poppy meets a tramp, and while it's very well played and atmospheric, it doesn't feel like it belongs here at all. I was also disappointed that the director failed to follow-up on the subplot involving the boy being bullied by his mother's boyfriend and taking it out on the other kids in the class. There's an wonderfully powerful scene in which Poppy and a social worker coax the truth out of him, but then that strand of the narrative is quickly dumped, its sole purpose being to introduce Poppy to the social worker who acts as her love interest.

It feels like a cheap bit of plotting, but the ensuing relationship is played with great charm.
Happy-Go-Lucky is that sort of film; its flaws tend to slip away in the memory as the picture's overall sense of warmth lingers on. It's the most uplifting and joyous film Leigh has made since 1999's Topsy-Turvy – still his greatest work – and its feelgood nature seems genuine in a way most "heartwarming" films don't. Leigh has also given us two more characters to treasure; Poppy can be take her place next to Beverly from Abigail's Party, Cynthia from Secrets and Lies, or Vera Drake as one of his great females, while Scott is a darkly compelling figure to rank alongside Naked's unforgettable Johnny. In the opening moments of Happy-Go-Lucky many audience members might be pleading for Poppy to shut up, but it's hard not to fall for her as she ploughs on in the face of grumpiness and despair, with her indefatigable attempts to find happiness taking on an almost heroic status. "You can't make everyone happy, you know" Zoe tells Poppy late in the film; "I know", she replies, "but you can try, can't you".

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Review - Leatherheads

Leatherheads is George Clooney's third film as a director, and like his previous efforts its most appealing aspect is the classy and nostalgic reconstruction of a bygone age. After immersing himself in the world of television in Good Night, and Good Luck and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Clooney's latest picture is a tribute to a golden era of cinema. More specifically, it's a tribute to the screwball cinema mastered by filmmakers like Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges; madcap pictures in which the only thing faster than the plot developments was the dialogue rattling out of the actors' mouths. For Clooney, this seems like an ideal vehicle, on the back of his Grant/Gable-esque performances in the Coen Brothers' O Brother Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty, and his reputation as the most old-fashioned of modern-day movie stars; but Leatherheads is not the nutty treat I was hoping it would be. The film is sluggish and wayward when it needed to be tight and pin-sharp, and a film that desperately wants to be light on its feet ends up stumbling towards the goal-line with its boots caked in mud.

Clooney's picture is set in 1925, and he introduces us to this milieu by contrasting the fortunes of its two lead characters, both American football players. Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) is an ace college player whose record as a war hero and clean-cut good looks have made him a star, with thousands of adoring fans turning up to see him play and his manager CC Frazier (Jonathan Pryce) has ensured the lucrative sponsorship deals keep rolling in. It seems like a completely different sport to the kind played by Dodge Connelly (Clooney) and the Duluth Bulldogs, with "professional" football basically boiling down to a rag-tag bunch of toilers grappling shapelessly in the mud, before the matches almost inevitably end in a mass brawl. The spectators are sparse, and in the game that opens this picture the most interested onlooker is a cow (who provides some very funny reaction shots), so it comes as little surprise that the Bulldogs are on the verge of financial collapse, with Dodge and his teammates facing the terrifying prospect of rejoining the workforce.

In desperation, Dodge gambles on Carter, signing "The Bullet" up for the Bulldogs in the hope of drawing some crowds; but he gets more than he bargained for, with Chicago Tribune reporter Lexi Littleton (Renée Zellweger) already on Carter's tail, intent on debunking his war hero story as a myth. Inevitably, both men fall for Lexi, and this seems like the perfect setup for a screwball comedy from the classic mould, but Leatherheads has no spark. Part of the problem lies in the dialogue found in Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly's screenplay, which isn't anything like as witty or imaginative as it needs to be. Much of the repartee – including exchanges like "I didn't come here to be insulted", "Oh? Where do you normally go?" – is too predictable, and few such back-and-forths manage to raise a laugh. Clearly, Clooney is aiming for His Girl Friday territory with this project, and while there's no shame in looking like a poor relation next to that classic, the zinging lines in Leatherheads feature a disproportionately high number of duds that flop sadly onto the screen as soon as they've been uttered.

The actors are at fault as well, though, and – try as I might – I still remain completely resistant to the supposed charms of Renée Zellweger, who just seems all wrong for the role of Lexi Lexington. Sure, it's a tricky role to take on, requiring a style of acting that doesn't come naturally to today's actresses, but it can be a glorious if the actress in question is really gets her hands around it (watch Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy for proof). Zellweger doesn't come close, though; her face is constantly pinched, her mannerisms unsure, and her weak voice – half croak, half whisper – doesn't give the dialogue any weight. She's neither likable nor interesting in a role that requires some fire in the belly; and while her co-star Krasinski is given very little to do, he at least plays his all-American boy with personable good grace. As you'd expect, Clooney himself is in his element with the central role, and for large chunks of the film he seems to be holding the whole rickety production together through the sheer strength of his charm alone. One wonders if he hasn't spread himself a little thin by taking on both directing and leading man duties for the first time, though, and this performance is far from his best, with some of his line readings coming off as lazy and smug.

The great thing about Clooney is that he's not afraid to look silly, though, and many of Leatherheads' best moments are derived from the actor embracing his goofy side. He resurrects his funny "punched in the face" reaction first employed in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and I liked the well-stage sequence in which Dodge and Lexi flee a speakeasy raid, ending up on a window ledge above a suicidal man. The film has other incidental pleasures to offer – a drunk Carter confronting the two leads, or a pianist continuing to play during a barroom brawl, pausing only smash a stranger's head with a bottle – but that's the problem; at times it feels like the film is built out of nothing but incidental pleasures. There's no consistency in its storytelling, bursts of manic energy are followed by long, sluggish stretches; and while the period detail is wonderful (Newton Thomas Sigel does typically brilliant work), the picture as a whole just seems happy to trundle along in second gear. Even at the film's close, when you'd expect the big-game finale to rouse the picture out of its stupor, Clooney just doesn't seem interested in picking up the pace. The final match-up, played in ankle-deep mud, is messy and dull; lacking forward momentum, and with both teams struggling to make any mark on the scoreboard. How very apt.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Review - Never Back Down

Djimon Hounsou is an actor with genuine presence. He has that rare ability hold the viewers' attention by simply appearing on screen, in a way that can't be taught or faked. In
Never Back Down, Hounsou even manages to lend vital grace to the most knuckleheaded of knuckleheaded kickboxing flicks; but his typically professional turn is little more than a mild tonic in a singularly depressing film. He plays Jean Roqua, a gym owner who schools Californian youths in the ways of Mixed Martial Arts (or MMA, to those in the know). One such teenager is Jake (Sean Faris) who has moved with his mother and younger brother from Ohio, in the hope of escaping his troubled past. Unfortunately, Jake's reputation as a brawler has preceded him, and within days of his arrival he finds himself taking a beating from local bully Ryan (Cam Gigandet), with the two men scrapping like roosters over regulation eye candy Baha (Amber Heard, capable of better). Jake and his wounded pride find their way to Roqua's gym, and he takes the youngster under his wing, teaching him the importance of discipline, self-respect and – best of all – plenty of nifty MMA moves he can unleash on Ryan at the film's rowdy climax.

Never Back Down is formulaic to its very bones. Director Jeff Wadlow plays everything loud and in-your-face, but at script level the film leaves no cliché unturned as it navigates the same path The Karate Kid travelled down so many years ago. Chris Hauty's screenplay is replete with original, freshly minted lines like "Walking away and giving up are not the same thing" and "Sometimes fighting the fight means doing the one thing you don't want to do"; and the various narrative obstacles he throws in his characters' path are dispiritingly over-familiar. Of course, we expect a film like this to hit the usual beats, and there's nothing wrong with a story sticking to a tried-and-true template, but an underdog-fights-back narrative like this requires a protagonist we can really get behind, and Never Back Down doesn't have that. Faris looks and acts like a young Tom Cruise, but his cocksure and surly performance hardly invites audience empathy. As his nemesis, Cam Gigandet serves up a hammy Tyler Durden impersonation, which is at least a little more fun, but who are we meant to care for amid all of this ludicrous macho posturing?

Only Hounsou succeeds in imbuing his hackneyed character with any smidgen of depth, bringing considerable power to the expected revelations about his own painful past, and he acts as an anchor for this soulless picture whenever he's on screen.
Never Back Down remains a soulless experience, though; it's as slick as they come – with Wadlow putting together plenty of flashily-edited training montages to an incessantly pumping soundtrack – but the repetitive action and homiletic dialogue becomes increasingly hard to bear as Wadlow and Hauty take two hours telling a story we could probably map out in the first five minutes. If you like this sort of thing, then this is probably the sort of thing you'll like, and the blend of hi-octane action and scantily clad teens is sure to draw a sizable Friday night crowd. But if you really must see Never Back Down, then at least try to avoid sitting in the cinema's front rows – the risk of drowning in testosterone is dangerously high.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Review - Shine a Light

"Can you see yourself still doing this when you're sixty?" the interviewer asks; "yeah, easily" the fresh-faced young rock star replies. The man answering the questions in this clip from the early 70's is Mick Jagger, and, true to his word, Martin Scorsese's Shine a Light finds him and the rest of The Rolling Stones still doing what they do best, with each member of the band well into their seventh decade. Actually, that last bit isn't quite accurate, as Ronnie Wood was a sprightly 59 when this picture was filmed back in 2006; the event being a concert in aid of the Clinton Foundation (Bill and family are in attendance) at New York's Beacon Theatre. Shine a Light is comprised of two performances, over consecutive nights, which have been classily compiled into a seamless, frequently exhilarating whole by Scorsese, and surely no director alive could be more qualified to shoot this band. Think of Johnny Boy swaggering into the bar in Mean Streets, Henry Hill coked up and paranoid in Goodfellas, or Nicky and his gang indulging in a Vegas crime spree in Casino – Scorsese's films have pulsated to the music of The Stones for over thirty years.

In the opening moments of
Shine a Light, however, this project appears to be causing the venerable director a few headaches. The first twenty minutes, shot in grainy black-and-white, allow us to take a look behind the scenes as Scorsese, the band, and various technicians, work out the logistics of staging and filming the show. Mick is concerned about the audience's view being obstructed by the cameras ("it would be nice to have a camera that moves" Scorsese remarks), while the director himself is more worried about the suggestion that the onstage lights might overheat ("No" he states firmly, "we cannot burn Mick Jagger"). These scenes are lively and amusing, offering us a view of the band away from the stage, preparing for the show in minute detail. I was particularly taken with the sight of Jagger poring over his set lists, carefully divided into categories like "obscure songs", "songs for Marty" and, intriguingly, "songs we'd rather not play again", and those set lists are a bone of contention throughout this opening segment, with Scorsese constantly pleading for a copy ahead of the show, and repeatedly being rebuffed.

I thoroughly enjoyed this backstage peek – even if some of feels a little hokey and overplayed – but
Shine a Light is really all about the performance. When The Stones take to the stage, the film flips – Wizard of Oz-style – into glorious colour, and it certainly is glorious, with Scorsese employing a breathtaking roster of grade-A cinematographers for the production. Emmanuel Lubezki, Robert Elswit, Stuart Dryburgh, John Toll and Andrew Lesnie are all on board, working under the supervision of the great Robert Richardson; and they ensure Shine a Light is both a visually resplendent movie – particularly in its IMAX format – and a surprisingly intimate one, with the 18 cameras catching the band from a number of unexpected angles (although, did we need the shot that lets us count every filling in Jagger's teeth?). David Tedeschi, who edited Scorsese's outstanding Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home, performs a similarly fluid job here, and he picks up on some lovely throwaway moments; like Keith Richards spitting his cigarette out in a haze of sparks, or Charlie Watts – the calm centre of the Stones' storm – puffing out his cheeks after a particularly strenuous set.

In between songs, Scorsese cuts in some well-chosen archive footage of the band being interviewed down the years, often to hilarious effect. The question "how long can you keep this up?" becomes something of a running joke, and the young(er) Stones have fun playing a straight bat with the endlessly inane questions ("What's the last thing you do before you go on stage?" one interviewer asks Keith; "Wake up", he replies, deadpan). As you'd expect, Scorsese has dug up some gems here, but I could have done with either more of these cutaways or less, because the director does quickly lapse into a rather repetitive pattern, going from song to interview to song to interview – repeat to fade.

Such a structure does leave
Shine a Light suffering from a little drag around halfway through the picture – coincidentally, around the point where Mick hops off for a break leaving Keith to hold court for a while ("It's nice to see you," he tells the crowd, "it's nice to see anybody!") – but the band's music manages to spark the movie back into its groove whenever it threatens to stall. Occasionally, they'll shake things up by bringing a guest into play, but only one of these turns really worked for me, Buddy Guy's fantastic rendition of Champagne and Reefer, with his and Jagger's contrasting styles clashing beautifully. It seemed to me that Mick got much more enjoyment out of Christina Aguilera's brief appearance onstage, though, if his frankly disturbing gyrations next to her were anything to go by. Aside from these cameos, the rest of the film is all about The Stones, and it's mostly terrific stuff. It's a damn shame to note the absence of Paint it Black or perennial Scorsese favourite Gimme Shelter, but the band make up for it with electrifying performances of Jumpin' Jack Flash, Sympathy for the Devil and Brown Sugar. When they really get going, the band generates a contagious, invigorating energy, and Scorsese's ability to capture that is what really makes Shine a Light tick.

It's true that
Shine a Light isn't much more than a straightforward concert movie at the end of the day; the film doesn't feel as unique or personal as Scorsese's The Last Waltz or as exploratory as No Direction Home, but it isn't trying to work on those levels. The director doesn't want to dig beneath the band's reputations or investigate their relationships with each other, he just wants to share the experience of a live concert with us; and if nothing else, Shine a Light exists as a remarkable testament to the group's age-defying brilliance. Jagger remains a wonder to behold, snaking androgynously across the stage and dancing manically with a seemingly bottomless reserve of energy; while Keith, Ronnie and Charlie haven't let age wither their precision or skill. Do The Rolling Stones still have another decade of performing still in them? I wouldn't bet against it.