Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sidney Pollack: 1934 - 2008

Sidney Pollack, who lost his long battle with cancer yesterday at the age of 73, was often said to be a consummate actor's director. As a filmmaker, he had a patchy record, occasionally making movies that were too tasteful and refined for their own good; but a consistent factor among his films was the strong level of performance he drew from his cast. Perhaps this was because Pollack was an actor himself, appearing regularly on television from the late 1950's. Television was where he first stepped behind the camera too, directing episodes of
The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and The Fugitive among others, and he made his move into cinema in 1969, with the remarkable dance marathon movie They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Two great collaborations with Robert Redford followed, a beautiful 1972 western called
Jeremiah Johnson, and the brilliantly paranoid thriller Three Days of the Condor in 1975, but as the years went by Pollack's work became more conventional, and when he worked with Redford again in 1985 he had settled on the ideal Oscar formula. Out of Africa is the worst kind of epic – bloated, self-regarding and tedious – and it predictably won plenty of Academy Awards, but perhaps this was just Pollack getting overdue recognition. Three years earlier he had directed Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, one of the greatest of all American comedies, and he was unfortunate to be nominated in one of the decade's strongest years (the other Directors nominated were Richard Attenborough, Steven Spielberg, Wolfgang Peterson and Sidney Lumet). Over the next twenty years Pollack established himself as a reliable producer of solid middlebrow entertainment; moving between slick thrillers like The Firm and The Interpreter, and tepid dramas like Sabrina and Random Hearts. His affectionate 2005 documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry is a pleasing anomaly in his oeuvre, but arguably his most interesting work during this period came as an actor.

Pollack had often taken cameos in his own films – memorably, he was Dustin Hoffman's exasperated agent in
Tootsie – but in the 90's he began taking on strong roles for other directors; he was outstanding in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, and a compelling presence in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. He gradually became one of the most dependable character actors around, and I particularly cherished his cameo as the ailing Johnny Sack's hospital attendant in The Sopranos, while just last year Pollack was on fine form in Michael Clayton – a film that earned him a Best Picture nomination. Like his late friend and producing partner Anthony Minghella, Sidney Pollack was a man who did everything with a degree of class, warmth and dignity, and he will be missed, on both sides of the camera.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Review - Cassandra's Dream

Another year, another Woody Allen film, and another opportunity to see just how far from grace this once great director has fallen. Cassandra's Dream is the third consecutive film that Woody has shot in London, after the bafflingly acclaimed Match Point and the still-unreleased Scoop, and it's so painfully amateurish one wonders if Allen himself is even bothered about the standard of pictures he knocks out at such a consistent rate. As Cassandra's Dream shuffles apologetically into UK cinemas, its director is in Cannes promoting his latest effort, while the cameras have already started rolling on his next film, and every new release tarnishes his reputation a little more.
Cassandra's Dream is another stale reworking of Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanours, with Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor starring as two brothers up to their necks in trouble. Ian (Ewan McGregor) feels trapped in his dad's restaurant and he has his eye on some ambitious investment deals, with his need for cash becoming more urgent when he falls for high-maintenance actress Angela (Hayley Atwell). His brother Terry (Farrell) is in a financial hole of his own making, with his gambling habit leaving him in debt to some dangerous people. With both brothers desperately looking for a way out, the appearance of Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson, chewing the scenery as if his life depends on it) seems to be the answer to their prayers. He's a multi-millionaire who made his fortune in the plastic surgery business, and he's happy to help his nephews, but only if they do him a favour in return. Howard is currently under some sort of investigation (the details are kept hazy), and he's particularly worried about a former colleague who's planning to testify against him, a situation that could be easily resolved if Ian and Terry agree to silence him permanently.

In the build up to this murder – which naturally doesn't run according to plan – Allen manages to generate a decent amount of tension, which piqued my interest a little, mainly because I was relieved to see something actually happening. The first hour is all talk, which isn't unusual for Allen, but as he seems to have no idea how people in this country speak, it does turn into something of a chore. "Isn't funny how life has a life of its own?" one character muses, while another suggests "Life is nothing if not totally ironic", and let's not forget "The whole of human life is about violence" – Allen's dialogue, which used to be so full of wit, has simply become a method for spelling out the themes of his pictures. He uses his references to Greek tragedies and classic literature in the same way, forcing his characters to discuss Euripides and Medea at one point, while Hayley Atwell's character actually says "The whole point of my character is to create erotic tension". Thanks for pointing that out, Woody.

There's little any actor could do with lines like that, but given the wide range of awful performances in Cassandra's Dream one wonders if Allen's actors were directed at all. McGregor underplays his part to the point of inertia, he barely seems to understand the shifts in his character and he certainly doesn't know how to transmit them to an audience, while Farrell fails in a different way. Frantic, edgy and occasionally incoherent, his acting starts to unravel rapidly as Terry begins to crack in the film's second half, and both actors fail to keep their accents within London's boundaries at crucial points, with Farrell's taking a tour of several countries.

But the actors can't be saddled with all of the blame. Surely a director of Allen's experience should have seen the disparity between the kinds of performances he was getting, or realised that some of his scenes were a few retakes away from finding the right tone, or even noticed the occasions when his actors appear to stumble over their lines. It's all put together with some remarkably shoddy editing, and the fact that Allen has signed this package off as being fit for release suggests a filmmaker bored by his own work; keen to get his job out of the way so he can move onto the next one, and the one after that. There's no joy in Allen's work, no sense of life, and this picture's crazily abrupt ending seems to neatly encapsulate the half-assed nature of the whole production. For years people wondered when Woody Allen would return to making films like "The early, funny ones", but right now most of us would just settle for something competent.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Review - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Old action heroes never die – at least, not while there's money to be made from sequels. While Jason Bourne has led the way for thrillers in the 21st century, the rest of the big names in this genre all appear to be men who first appeared on screen over two decades ago, with the ravages of age proving to be no barrier for characters whose death-defying antics remain an irresistible cinematic proposition. In the past year John McClane has pulled on his vest once more, and John Rambo has returned from exile, but the one we were all waiting for was Dr Henry Jones Jr., the intrepid archaeologist whose fedora, whip and rugged charm made him one of the most iconic film characters of all time. Nineteen years after The Last Crusade (will that now be re-titled The Penultimate Crusade?) Harrison Ford steps back into the role of Indiana Jones, in a film that has been the subject of much speculation and a sense of anticipation that has been building for a very long time.

There's something inherently exciting about Indiana Jones, and I felt a tangible tingle of joy right at the start of this fourth instalment, as the old-style Paramount logo faded into a molehill, just as it faded into a mountain before
Raiders of the Lost Ark. Throughout Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Steven Spielberg drops in dozens of such touches that inspire a little nostalgic thrill, reminding us of the things we've loved about this series to date, but it has the effect of making this fourth instalment feel like a shadow of its predecessors. It was probably inevitable that a new Indiana Jones film, coming two decades after the last, would fail to match the energy and invention of the trilogy, but the most disappointing aspect of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the fact that it fails in the most basic, avoidable ways.

The new film takes place in 1957, allowing Spielberg, George Lucas and David Koepp (who wrote the screenplay) to place their main character in new and unfamiliar territory.
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull opens with Elvis Presley on the soundtrack and the story allows the filmmakers to reference many of the major concerns of the day; namely the Red Scare, the nuclear race and – disastrously – the existence of alien life. All of these themes are touched on within the lively opening half hour, with Indy once again on the trail of a priceless artefact that would have terrible repercussions were it to fall into the wrong hands. In this instance, the wrong hands are tucked inside the leather gloves of Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, giving a weird performance that just about works), a sword-wielding Soviet psychic with a Louise Brooks bob. Their first encounter takes place inside Area 51, where Spalko has ordered Indy to locate the prized possession, and it subsequently takes them to Peru, to a lost city that acts as the rightful resting place of the titular skull. At some point along the way, the picture just stops working.

I'm not sure where exactly
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull goes wrong, but after maintaining a lively pace in its opening hour the film seems increasingly unsure of itself and the story turns into a choppy, implausible affair. That opening hour is a blast, though. Spielberg is without peer when it comes to this kind of action, and he directs Kingdom of the Crystal Skull's set-pieces with the kind of wit and clear-eyed staging that distinguishes his best work. In a scene that's probably the film's highlight, Indy stumbles on to a nuclear testing facility just as the countdown is commencing. His panicky attempt to survive the blast is both chilling and funny, and the sequence ends on a strange, breathtaking image of the hero silhouetted against a mushroom cloud. The film never tops that sequence because it refuses to push Jones into any directions as unlikely or daring as that one, instead falling into a standard quest narrative that mimics Raiders and Crusade beat for beat.

Although the film drags badly around the midpoint it does receive a welcome boost from Karen Allen, returning here as Marion Ravenwood, the feisty love interest from
Raiders. The first scene in which he lays eyes on her is a delight, and she has one or two nice moments, but for most of the film's second half she's given nothing to do. Even Spielberg seems to forget about her during an overextended jungle chase: one minute she's driving a car, the next she's nowhere to be seen until she suddenly reappears at the sequence's end. A similar fate befalls Ray Winstone, whose role is appallingly written, and John Hurt's loony-tunes cameo is tiresome. The one supporting character who does get a proper taste of the action is Marion's son Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), and while I feared the worst when he first appeared – posing, embarrassingly, as Marlon Brando in The Wild One – he actually acquits himself well, with his presence lending the film some of the father/son dynamic that we saw in The last Crusade.

Of course, Indiana Jones is on the other side of that relationship now, and while the film makes a couple of early cracks about his advancing years (escaping from a tight spot "won't be as easy as it used to be" he admits), he's mostly just the same old Indiana. This probably the character people want to see – and Ford wears the role like a comfortable suit – but the sprightliness and dexterity he displays in running away from enemy gunfire, leaping from one vehicle to another, or taking a beating from a muscular Russian soldier makes his character feel slightly less real than he did in the previous films. There's no sense that he or any of his entourage is in grave danger here, which lessens the tension considerably, and the film feels like it's simply going through the motions as it places them in dangerous situations that they then slip away from with disappointing ease.

For the most part,
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull's biggest crimes are its sloppy storytelling, over-reliance on in-jokes and underwritten characters, but in the final twenty minutes it takes a sudden left turn and simply destroys itself. There are so many logical holes in the film's climactic scenes I simply don't know where to start, but the basic presence of extra-terrestrial life in an Indiana Jones film just feels wrong somehow. This might sound like an odd statement – considering I bought the acts of divine intervention that ended the first and third films – but this CGI-dominated sequence is silly, unimaginative and borderline incomprehensible. For all of its nostalgia and occasional flashes of the old genius, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull is ultimately exposed for exactly what it is – a deeply unnecessary retread of a series that already found a perfect conclusion at the end of the third film. This addition to the trilogy adds nothing to the character and only subtracts from our warm memories; and the frequent unsubtle hints that point to Mutt as Indy's potential successor in future movies left me with a heavy heart. Everybody loves Indiana Jones, but perhaps the lesson we should take from his continuing adventures is that it's often a bad idea to start digging up the past.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Review - In Bruges

Bruges is an unlikely setting for a chase sequence involving a gun-toting cockney gangster and an Irish hitman, but that's exactly what comes to pass towards the end of Martin McDonagh's
In Bruges, and it was roughly the point where my patience with this exasperating movie finally snapped. Prior to the last twenty minutes – which is where the wheels completely come off – I'd found plenty of things to enjoy in this pitch-black comedy, but they were all just individual moments, and every time the film struck gold it would almost inevitably spoil the mood with a crass error of judgement in the next scene. McDonagh won an Oscar in 2004 for his short film Six Shooter and he re-teams with Brendan Gleeson for his feature debut, the great Irish actor starring as world-weary assassin Ken, who has arrived in Bruges with young partner Ray (Colin Farrell) after a botched hit. For Ken, this is a wonderful opportunity to explore "the best preserved medieval city in Europe" and to drink in its many cultural delights, but for Ray this quaint town is a crushing bore. With his hands stuck fast in his pockets and a permanent frown creasing his brow, Ray follows his companion around like a sulky child, while his thoughts constantly drift back to an innocent victim, caught in the crossfire on a recent job.

This is a much more relaxed and likable Colin Farrell than we've seen in recent movies, and perhaps the simple opportunity to play a role in his native Irish accent has allowed him a sense of freedom that gives his character a roguish charm. While he and Gleeson give comically astute performances, they also give their characters an edge of vulnerability and self-doubt, with Gleeson's Ken looking for a new direction in life, while rookie Ray wonders if he's actually cut out for this occupation. Most of the attention paid to
In Bruges will focus on McDonagh's snappy dialogue and the film's violent twists, but one of the most pleasing elements for me was the way the two central characters kept the film anchored with a solid emotional core. The parts of In Bruges I enjoyed most were the ones that let the two characters simply play off each other; the surrogate father-son relationship that slowly develops between them might be obvious and hackneyed, but it feels warm and real.

Such moments are little respites of calm amid the storm. McDonagh likes to prod and tease his audience in the hope of getting some kind of reaction, and he certainly can't be accused of playing it safe with this screenplay.
In Bruges is avowedly non-PC, with McDonagh finding a way to cram in gags about dwarfs, gays, fat people, prostitutes, blacks, Americans and child abuse; and while some of this stuff is very amusing, it occasionally feels like the film's plot has been sidetracked purely to let the director indulge in a spot of button-pushing. McDonagh has a gift for profane dialogue, though, and – aided by his cast's expert delivery – most of the lines he provides for In Bruges manage to be smart and funny without feeling overwritten; with the most notable exceptions being those uttered by Harry (Ralph Fiennes), who turns up in the film's second half. Harry is Ken and Ray's boss. It was he who sent them to Bruges in the first place, and it's he who answers the question "Why don't you both put down your guns and go home?" with the words "Don't be stupid, this is the shoot-out". It's a line that sound self-conscious and false – reminding viewers that this is only a movie – and, come to think of it, self-conscious and false are the words I'd use to describe Fiennes performance as a whole. As soon as Harry appeared on screen I was reminded of Ben Kingsley's Don Logan from Sexy Beast, and the comparison does Fiennes no favours. Logan was a force of nature, while Harry just seems like a stiff, second-rate imitation; and in a film that takes such care over its central characters, this third party doesn't feel like he belongs.

Harry arrives in Bruges late in the film to take matters into his own hands after being left unhappy by the way Ken and Ray are handling things, and from this point onwards
In Bruges lurches into a tailspin from which it doesn't recover. McDonagh puts himself through a ridiculous amount of contrivances to bring his characters together for the climactic scenes, and it hardly seems worth the effort when half of them wind up dead in the carnage that follows. I thought I was going to hate In Bruges early on, after seeing the callous way a child's death was handled, but its humour and style slowly managed to win me over before this nonsensical finale ripped apart all of the good work McDonagh and his cast had put into the picture. The arbitrary and implausible death of a supporting character felt like a particularly tasteless blow, and it ensured I left the cinema feeling dejected and betrayed by a film that promised more. I still think Martin McDonagh promises more – much more – and it will be interesting to see how his career develops as he hones his considerable talents; but we probably won't see his best work until he stops trying so hard to impress.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Review - Charlie Bartlett

Charlie Bartlett opens with a fantasy sequence and closes with the staging of a school play. In between, the title character (played by Anton Yelchin) is expelled from a private school and forced to join a local high school, where his tie and blazer makes him an incongruous figure, and he falls afoul of an older authority figure, but his unique personality and inventive ideas gradually win over his classmates. If that synopsis sounds familiar then you're probably thinking of Rushmore, Wes Anderson's 1999 debut, and Charlie Bartlett does indeed feel like a pasty retread of that picture, with a large dose of Ferris Bueller's Day Off thrown into the mix for good measure. But Jon Poll's film has none of the wit or charm that has seen those films achieve cult status, and it also lacks a memorable, or even appealing, central figure, with Yelchin's performance rarely shifting from a single, grating register.

This lack of development in Charlie makes his transition from nerdy outsider to school hero difficult to accept. The shift in public perception is brought about when Charlie persuades his various therapists to prescribe drugs that he then begins to distribute in school and, in addition to this service, he sets up an office in the boys' bathroom where he acts as psychiatrist to troubled teens. A better movie than Charlie Bartlett might have taken this opportunity to examine the issue of teenagers using prescription medication as a quick-fix solution for their problems, but Gustin Nash's screenplay doesn't dare to dip more than a toe in those waters. The subject is treated in a glib manner until one of Charlie's classmates tries to kill himself, an action rendered irrelevant by the fact that he has barely existed as a character until this point. In fact, hardly any of the film's characters come to life. Kat Dennings' appealing performance as Charlie's girlfriend is the best the film has to offer, with Downey Jr. wasted in a role that gives him absolutely nothing to do, and Hope Davis turning in a career-worst display as Charlie's vacant mother.

John Poll is an editor making his debut in the director's chair here, and he fails to give the move any shape. Both the plot and the characters are developed in a haphazard fashion, with the narrative being almost completely incoherent at points and the film's messages growing increasingly confused. Poll also lacks flair as a filmmaker, and he embarrasses himself on the few occasions that he does try to spice things up visually – like the scene in which Charlie takes Ritalin for the first time, a sequence shot and cut like Dr Jekyll's transformation into Mr Hyde. This is a profoundly depressing picture; the product of people who watched too many old teen movies and thought "Hey, I can do that!", without having any sense of what made those films work in the first place. Charlie Bartlett is stupid, derivative and empty, but it does at least pull off one dubious accomplishment – I didn't think I'd encounter a more annoying, self-satisfied teen than Juno MacGuff this year, but Charlie has now taken that particular crown, and if there are other challengers out there, I sure don't want to meet them.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Review - Three and Out

Messily scripted, indifferently directed and shot with all the grace of an ITV sitcom,
Three and Out is a depressingly lame British picture that completely fails to capitalise on the meagre potential of its premise. Paul Callow (Mackenzie Crook, taking an awkward step into leading man territory) is a tube driver and frustrated novelist who dreams of escaping his dreary London existence and heading for an isolated cabin in the Scottish highlands. Every now and then, Paul will stare longingly at a photo of said cabin and a blast of panpipes will appear on the film's soundtrack. Alas, Paul has even more reasons to miserable when a man falls under his train one morning; and then, just a few days later, a second unfortunate commuter follows suit. These two deaths are a heavy load for Paul to bear, but he spots a silver lining when a colleague mentions the "Three and Out" rule, a little-known London Underground policy in which drivers responsible for three deaths in a single month are offered a severance package worth ten year's salary.

So, Paul starts scouting around for a suicidal character willing to become his third victim, and he happens upon cranky tramp Tommy (Colm Meany) just as the latter is about to throw himself over a bridge. The pair strike a deal, with Paul offering Tommy £1,500 to enjoy his last weekend, as long as he's in the right place on the right time on Monday morning. That last weekend sees Tommy taking Paul on a "heart-warming" jaunt around the country, as he bids to mend his fractured relationships with estranged wife Rosemary (Imelda Staunton) and daughter Frankie (Gemma Arterton); but this drawn-out trip is both emotionally flat and cripplingly unfunny. The decision to move the action to Liverpool and the Lake District takes the film away from the only thing that distinguished it in the first place – the fact that it was centred on the life of a tube driver – and at this point the screenplay, by Steve Lewis and Tony Owen, rapidly runs out of legs. Most of the film's musty humour would shame a 70's
Confessions Of... film (the script has a weird emphasis on homophobic gags); and the crudeness of Jonathan Gershfield's direction can be summed up by the way he handles the first death in the film – cutting straight from the sight of a man falling under Paul's train, to a splat of ketchup on his plate.

Mackenzie Crook cuts a lonely figure at the film's centre. The weight of the central role causes his scrawny shoulders to buckle early on, and his limited range of expression is exhausted within the opening half hour. Most of the other casting choices range from the bizarre (Anthony Sher as a gay French cannibal!) or inexplicable (a nails-down-the-blackboard cameo from the ghastly Kerry Katona), and the only performances worth a damn come from Meany and Staunton. They're both great actors, managing to find a common note of grace and depth in their scenes together, and the fact that their nostalgic conversation is cut between Arterton and Crook's budding relationship only highlights what an anaemic pair the latter are. At this point the film – never a fleet-footed beast – stalls completely, and a chase sequence that sees Crook jumping naked out of a window before falling into a cowpat neatly encapsulates the sense of desperation that surrounds it.

So what's new? Plenty of rubbish comedies get made every year in this country, and usually such a lazy, ugly effort would be quickly consigned to obscurity;
Three and Out, however, has inexplicably become one of the most over-exposed pictures of recent weeks. An absurdly widespread advertising campaign has seen Mackenzie Crook's face staring at us from almost every bus, billboard and TV screen in London, and the film's central subject has drawn fire from train drivers, with a protest being staged at its Leicester Square premiere. Frankly, the whole business beggars belief. Three and Out is nothing more than another useless British movie, and it has already received much more attention than it deserves.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Review - Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Forgetting Sarah Marshall bears all the hallmarks of a Judd Apatow film, but a Judd Apatow film it is not. Like Apatow's two hits The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, this picture follows the journey of an adult male stuck fast in an unfulfilling situation, who is faced with a crisis and who must tackle it head-on in order to mature and develop. Peter Bretter (Jason Segel, who also wrote the movie) is a slacker musician who has settled into a two-year relationship with Sarah (Kristen Bell), an actress on the CSI-style show that Peter provides music for. At the start of the film, Peter is set to welcome Sarah back from her location shoot, and he meets her fresh out of the shower, gleefully dropping his towel in anticipation of some fun, but she has other ideas. Sarah has chosen this moment to end their relationship, and she has fallen for decadent British rock star Aldous Snow (the irritatingly ubiquitous Russell Brand, basically playing himself).

Devastated, the jilted Peter allows himself to sink into a deep depression before his brother (Bill Hader) suggests a holiday, with Peter finally settling on Hawaii as a place to start afresh. Things start to look up when Peter encounters the gorgeous hotel receptionist Rachel (Mila Kunis), but it seems this resort is a surprisingly small place, and everywhere he turns Peter finds himself bumping into Sarah and Aldous, who have chosen the same spot for a romantic getaway. For all of its raunchy gags and full-frontal nudity, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is the most conventional effort yet from the Apatow stable, and one of the most inconsistent. The gags are OK, but the execution of them is often slapdash, like Peter's naked breakup scene, for example; a difficult sequence that never really finds the right note, or perhaps the amount of pre-publicity this scene has received spoiled it for me ("Segel's penis is exposed for 73 frames!" the hysterical reports announced. Honestly, can't we all just grow up?).
Forgetting Sarah Marshall has been directed by Nicholas Stoller, a first-timer who lets the film droop in too many places, with many scenes feeling like they could do with some sharper editing to heighten the laughs. Presumably, this picture was shot in the usual Apatow manner, with the screenplay augmented by plenty of improvisational touches from its familiar cast members, but Stoller is less astute in his attempts to craft these elements into a slick, cohesive whole, and even though the picture is shorter than both The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, it feels longer. There are some really funny moments on display, though, with the nicest touches being clever spins on familiar scenes; like the CSI spoofs starring William Baldwin, or Rachel persuading Peter to sing his Dracula song in a local bar. As ever, the supporting cast is great value, and credit is due here to Jack McBrayer (a newlywed terrified of consummating his marriage) and Jonah Hill (an over-attentive waiter); but Paul Rudd's permanently spaced-out surfer ("When life gives you lemons, just fuck the lemons and go surfing") was the highlight for me, stealing pretty much every scene with a perfectly pitched turn.

Unfortunately, it's not hard to steal a scene from Segel, an able supporting player in previous Apatow productions who flounders a little in the major role here. He's an uninteresting actor who spends too much of the film with the same hurt, lip-quivering look on his face, and he could do with a little of Seth Rogen's comic spark to liven things up. Peter's essential dilemma – trying to build a new relationship with Rachel while still pining for his ex – doesn't ring true either, because the filmmakers have stacked the deck so heavily against Sarah they make the choice a seemingly straightforward one; she's depicted as uptight, shallow and neurotic, while Rachel (beautiful, lovely, funny, lovely, exciting and... just lovely) is a dream. When Segel contrives a late threat to their budding romance – following the standard rom-com formula – it's hard to feel a great deal of sympathy for the guy.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall proceeds to wear out its welcome from this point on. The climactic scenes are criminally lazy, with the big puppet set-piece being rather tedious and overdone in comparison to the simple amusement offered by Peter's song earlier on. It's not exactly a bad film per se, it has enough sporadic bursts of laughter to hold our interest, but it's a sloppily assembled, overlong and unfocused piece of work. Maybe this is a consequence of elevating a solid, second-string actor to a role beyond his capabilities, or maybe it's the result of placing the project in the hands of an untried director (Walk Hard, overseen by Jake Kasdan, showed no such dip in quality). Whatever the reasons for Forgetting Sarah Marshall's failure, it's a rare misfire from the Apatow factory, and with so many forthcoming productions bearing his name, one hopes the bar will be set a little higher than that reached by this eminently forgettable picture.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Review - Iron Man

At the start of Jon Favreau's
Iron Man, Tony Stark hasn't yet become the titular hero, and his behaviour is more in line with that of a traditional villain than a figure who'll save the day. Stark is a billionaire who has made his fortune from the arms trade, spending much of his time inventing ever more ingenious and explosive ways for American troops to secure victory in war zones across the world. Snappily dressed, with a tight goatee and supercilious sneer playing across his lips, Stark lives the playboy lifestyle his wealth allows, absently buying up priceless works of art, just so he'll have them, and flying across the world in a private jet with stewardesses who double up as pole dancers. He seems blithely unconcerned about the consequences of his product, smiling smugly when a reporter asks him how he feels about the nickname "Merchant of Death". Naturally, he ends up bedding that particular reporter, an encounter he describes as "doing a piece for Vanity Fair".

This guy is our hero? Well, yes he is; and to be honest it's hard not to forgive Stark his indulgences because he's played by Robert Downey Jr., an actor who has gradually developed over the past decade into one of the most charismatic, likable and irresistibly watchable stars in American movies. He may have seemed an unlikely choice to headline a £150 million summer blockbuster, but he wears the part of Tony Stark like a second skin, giving a leading performance that ranks among the best yet seen in a comic book picture. From the minute he appears on screen – cracking wise in the back of a Humvee with awestruck American troops – we can relax in the knowledge that we're in safe hands. That vehicle is making its way through Afghanistan where Stark has just shown off his latest hi-tech missile The Jericho, when his group is suddenly ambushed by unseen assailants and Stark himself is almost blown to kingdom come by a bomb that bears his name. He awakes in a dingy cave, where his life has been saved by a fellow prisoner (Shaun Toub) who installed a small motor in his chest to keep pieces of shrapnel away from his heart. The incident has also caused Stark to undergo a change of heart in other ways, and he decides it's time to use his expertise to help the people his weapons have put in jeopardy.

So, when the bruised and battered Stark is ordered to build a bomb for his captors, he decides to build something else instead. With the help of Yinsen, his saviour, he quickly constructs a ramshackle metal suit, somehow managing to keep the whole thing under wraps until the very last minute from the men who have him under constant surveillance. When the time comes to reveal his creation, Stark bursts out of his prison and mows down the insurgents who run screaming from this terrifying apparition, before hitting the boosters and propelling himself to safety. After some time wandering around in the desert, Stark is spotted by a rescue team led, coincidentally, by his best pal Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard).

Back in America, we meet the two other significant figures in Stark's life, both of whom have been blessed with the silliest names imaginable. Obadiah Stane is the top executive at Stark Industries, and he's none too happy with Stark's public declaration decrying their company's product. His assistant, meanwhile, is just happy to have him back; her name is – seriously – Pepper Potts (did her parents lose a bet?), and she's played by Gwyneth Paltrow, which at least confirms
Iron Man's cast list as one of the classiest in this genre. With three Oscar-nominated actors and one winner contributing their best efforts, the performances are intelligent and sharp, and each actor manages to bring something interesting to their roles. Bridges is an alarming sight – with his head shaven bald and complemented by a big, bushy beard – and it's no surprise when he's revealed as the true villain of the piece, but his natural affable charm does a good job of masking his character's malevolence. Paltrow brings warmth and a light comic touch to her role as the assistant with a soft spot for her boss, and while Howard's part is a little less well-defined, his banter with Downey Jr. is fun.

In fact,
Iron Man's best scenes are the ones in which these fine actors are given a chance to act, and Favreau is a smart enough director to know that this cast is his trump card, so he makes sure the amount of time his leading man is inside the suit is kept to a minimum. There's a long, funny sequence in which Stark starts building his new and improved suit back in the lab, and Downey Jr. gets plenty of mileage from the comic opportunities this scenario affords. Favreau is a smart filmmaker who has been responsible for one of the best family films of recent years (2003's Elf) and one severely underrated effort (2005's Zathura), and the strong emphasis on story and character that could be found in both of those films is evident here. Everything in Iron Man plays out on a pleasingly human level, with the smaller, more intimate moments – Pepper helping Stark change his chest battery, or the pair dancing at a charity ball – being the most memorable in the picture, far more so than the action set-pieces we expect from a picture like this.

Of course,
Iron Man does eventually get round to delivering the CGI money shots, and some of it is well handled. An encounter between the hero and a couple of jets is terrific, but the final battle between Downey Jr. and Bridges – both tooled up inside iron suits – is a sorry mess. Hectically staged and frantically edited, the showdown is mostly incoherent, and I still haven't quite figured out how Stark managed to prevail. Actually, the whole climactic section of Iron Man does show signs of strain and perhaps it's simply a case of too many cooks, with two pairs of screenwriters contributing to the finished script. Those niggles aside, Iron Man is a grandly entertaining piece of work, slick and polished but full of clever touches and humorous asides. It's a solid base on which to build a sequel – something that the final scenes in this film all but guarantee – and all the ingredients are already in place. Iron Man has a good director, an excellent cast, and a story with promise; and above all, it has Robert Downey Jr., an actor who has found a role perfectly attuned to his particular gifts. It gives him the chance to show a large audience just how funny, cool and entertaining he can be, and he's the man who can make this franchise fly.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Review - Persepolis

A common theme uniting some of the past year's most acclaimed films has been the experience of life under an oppressive regime. Unfortunately, a disproportionate amount of attention has been lavished upon Germany's overpraised Oscar-winner The Lives of Others, but this subject has also given us two masterpieces, with Cristian Mungiu's Romanian thriller 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and now Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. Brilliantly adapted from Satrapi's two graphic novels, the film shows us the changing face of Iran through her eyes; as a ten year-old observing the Islamic revolution, as a rebellious teenager leaving the country for Europe, and as a woman returning home only to find a country that she feels like she doesn't belong in anymore. "I was a stranger in Austria and in my own country too", Marji says in the film; she still has great affection for the place of her birth, but she hates what it has become.

Satrapi's ambivalent attitude towards Iran is evident in the opening scenes, when an adult Marji (voiced from adolescence onwards by Chiara Mastroianni, with Gabrielle Lopes playing the child) arrives at a French airport to board a flight home before hesitating, and sitting in a nearby café to reminisce about her life so far. These contemporary bookends are depicted in colour, but the majority of
Persepolis takes place in stark black-and-white, with the reliance on simplistic, traditionally drawn animation suggesting the pages of Satrapi's graphic novel sprung to life. Many comic book adaptations have tried to ape the visual style of the material they're drawn from – like the recent Frank Miller films Sin City and 300, for example – but rarely have they exploded onto the screen with this much feeling. Satrapi's approach to animation is deceptively simple. The characters are constructed through clear, simple strokes, with each of them being given just enough detail to feel real, and the gorgeous expressionistic backgrounds place those figures in a stunningly realised world, allowing Satrapi's memories to be recreated with boundless invention and style.

Those memories begin in Tehran in the late 1970's, where young Marji – playful, cheeky, inquisitive – watches with wide-eyed fascination as a revolution takes place in the streets. Marji's liberal parents oppose rule of the Shah, and her uncle Anouch has been held as a political prisoner, so they are all full of hope when he is toppled, but it doesn't take long for the fundamentalist regime that has replaced it to exert an even tighter control over the freedoms of its citizens. This transition is displayed by Satrapi in a single effective shot, of a dozen Iranian woman dressed in burqas, and standing shoulder to shoulder as they beat their chest in unison. That scene is a perfect example of the way Satrapi and her co-director Vincent Paronnaud use this distinctive animation style to give us small vignettes that are packed with meaning and emotion. Later in the film, the filmmakers show themselves to be equally adept whether dealing with the carnage of the Iran-Iraq war (silhouetted soldiers falling on the battlefield), the first pangs of teenage love (Marji literally floating on air) or the heartbreak that follows (a hilarious rehash of the previous sequences, with a much more bitter slant).

The scenes of teenage romance take place in Austria, where Marji, too outspoken and troublesome to be safe in Iran, is sent by her parents to continue her studies. The film's focus narrows at this point to detail Marji's own personal experiences rather than the wider experiences of Iranians as a whole, but the film is no less engaging for that shift. Marji navigates the relatable bumps and byways of her adolescence, and she filters every detail through her typically imaginative, self-deprecating humour – such as the exaggerated growth spurts that see her toppling to the floor with cartoonish features.
Persepolis is structured in an episodic fashion, and if the film has a flaw then perhaps it's simply too short. I think the film could have used an extra ten minutes or so to let Marji's story flow a little more, and to develop some of the supporting characters, as only her amusingly straight-talking grandmother (Catherine Deneuve) is given any kind of depth.

In Austria, Marji eventually finds friends and a new way of life, but she always feels like an outsider, and after some years abroad she begins pining for home, but when she does return to Iran, Marji is appalled by what she finds. We see her dismay at the state of her native country through a number of small absurdities, like her experiences at an art class where the students are asked to paint a still life of a burqa-clad model, and their study of Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" is hampered by the censorship of everything below the neck. But we also witness the more serious consequences of the Islamic rule; when Marji accuses a bystander of lechery to save herself from the police, he is carted off to a prison camp in an incident that enrages her grandmother. Marji finds it increasingly difficult to find her place in this society, and once again she must look abroad for a new life.

Persepolis is a totally unique cinematic experience. It is an eye-opening personal journey through a turbulent time of social upheaval, but Satrapi constantly balances the picture's heavy emotional load with wonderfully unexpected comic asides, like the explanation of the Shah's origin's as a puppet show, or the sight of Marji suddenly breaking into a Rocky-style training montage while singing Eye of the Tiger. Incidentally, that latter sequence takes place in English, and one suspects that it won't have quite the same impact for audiences who see Persepolis in the dubbed version that has been put together for the film's UK release. I find the act of dubbing a film insulting at the best of times – particularly so when cultural identity is a core theme of the film – but if it brings Persepolis to a wider audience, then perhaps it is a necessary evil. Satrapi's wonderful film should be seen by all, as it puts a human face on a nation that is too often depicted in the western media as a society full of terrorists and extremists. One of the best ways to understand a foreign culture is through its art, and Persepolis is, in every respect, a remarkable work of art.