Monday, June 30, 2008

Review - Kung Fu Panda

The opening few minutes of
Kung Fu Panda's point towards a different kind of DreamWorks animation, and for a while, the movie delivers on that promise. The company's logo is given a clever Asian-style spin right at the start, and the film utilises that same animation style for the initial sequence, in which a fearless warrior named Po defeats hordes of marauding villains with his kung-fu skills, blinding bystanders with his handsomeness and "awesomeness" in the process. Such antics cannot last, however, and this adventure is quickly revealed as a dream from which Po – a chubby panda with the voice of Jack Black – awakes, plunging him back into the humdrum monotony of his real life. Po lives above his father's noodle shop, in which he reluctantly works and is expected to inherit one day, but all of his dreams revolve around the Furious Five, a group of legendary kung fu masters who train under the tutelage of the wise master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman).

For reasons too silly and complicated to get into here, Po finds himself clumsily blundering into a ceremony at which the Dragon Warrior is set to be named. This is a great honour to bestow upon any kung fu fighting animal, and there is much speculation as to which of the five great figures will receive it; would it be Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) or Crane (David Cross)? Perhaps Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) was put off by the unoriginality of their names, and instead he points his withered finger at Po, choosing the hapless panda as the Dragon Warrior and enraging Shifu, who instantly resolves to break Po in an unforgiving training programme.

What follows is standard-issue. Plenty of pratfalls and hi-jinks as Po is pushed to the limit by Shifu's methods, and a gradual sense of self-discovery in which Po finds the wherewithal to challenge the villain of the piece: Ian McShane's Tai Lung. That the film feels as fresh as it does is a pleasant surprise, and it's a credit to the filmmakers Mark Osborne and John Stevenson, who maintain a swift pace and pepper the picture with clever gags, steering clear of the toilet humour and pop-culture references that plague so many films of this type. Instead, the film's jokes are sold on the back of excellent comic timing and a very enjoyable performance from Jack Black in the central role, who finds the perfect tone for Po. Dustin Hoffman is great as well, and Ian McShane is an effective baddie (although I spent most of the film convinced he was Jeremy Irons), but it's a shame the script couldn't find more for the film's big-name cast to do. The Furious Five are a letdown; Jolie seems bored reading her drab dialogue, and I can barely remember any contribution from her colleagues.

They're all superbly designed, though, and throughout
Kung Fu Panda the visual scheme is a constant delight. Stunning animation might be the norm rather than the exception among these big-budget CGI movies, but the levels of detail and beauty on display in the sweeping scenery, facial expressions and inventive set-pieces is still something to behold. In particular, Tai Lung's thrilling escape from jail and his battle with The Furious Five on a rickety rope bridge are smashing pieces of filmmaking in which the dynamic camera and inventive staging work wonders; while Po and Shifu's tussle over a dumpling is a standalone sequence that manages to be exciting and terrifically funny at once.

Kung Fu Panda, then, is a lot of fun, but once it was over, I couldn't escape the nagging feeling that this appealing picture had played it too safe. The film's story sticks rigidly to a tried-and-tested "follow your dream" template, to the point where the plot points and twists feel like they're simply arriving on cue, and every narrative cliché is embraced before the film's close. That, I feel, is the film's fatal flaw, and the one aspect of Kung Fu Panda that prevents it from making a lasting impression. No amount of technical wizardry can make the film's basic skeleton feel like anything more than a retread of a hackneyed theme; and while one can enjoy the film's jokes and inventive touches, it's hard not to feel disappointed that the filmmakers haven't dared to spread their wings a little more. While Pixar continue to break new ground in both animation and storytelling, producing unexpected magic from the most unlikely concepts, and taking risks wherever possible, DreamWorks seems to be stuck in a mindset that links cute talking animals to straightforward stories and simplistic morality. As I said, I had a pretty good time watching Kung Fu Panda, but it is rapidly falling away in my memory, and by the time Pixar's WALL•E arrives on these shores, I fear it will have been long forgotten.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Review - Zoo

In July 2005, a man was rushed to a Washington hospital with severe stomach pains, and within hours, he was dead. The cause of the man's death was a perforated colon that led to heavy internal bleeding, and it later transpired that this injury was inflicted earlier that day, when the man engaged in anal sex with a fully-grown stallion. Ouch. His named was Kenneth Pinyan, a divorced 45 year-old who lived a double life. Unbeknownst to his friends and family Mr Pinyan also went by the pseudonym "Mr Hands", and he used this name when he sought out those who shared his fetish for horses over the internet. These zoophiles would often meet for parties in which they drank, swapped stories, and took occasional trips down to the barn, where their animal encounters would usually be videotaped. When the investigation into Kenneth Pinyan's death revealed this whole subculture of bestiality, the reaction was understandably one of revulsion and disbelief – how could anyone even think about such a thing? – but Robinson Devor's Zoo is a film that bravely tries to tell this story from the viewpoint of those who were part of it, and to let the men who love horses too much explain themselves.

What a shame the film is such a bore. Devor's intention – to explore the zoophile world and to cast these outsiders as something other than freaks – is admirable, but his film is exasperatingly passive, and the director's desire to avoid any hint of sensationalism in his handling of this story prevents him from really getting to the heart of the matter. Instead, he tip-toes daintily around the edges of his subject for 80 minutes, seemingly afraid of getting his hands dirty by delving deep into the issues this topic raises (although we can be thankful that a brief glimpse of fuzzy footage is the most we see of a sex act in progress). Part of the problem lies in Devor's style of filmmaking. With the subject of his story already dead, Devor has elected to recreate the events of Pinyan's life, hiring an actor named John Paulsen to (wordlessly) portray Mr Hands in a series of moodily lit and artfully staged sequences.

Such a tactic isn't rare among documentaries, of course. The great Errol Morris has often made superb use of skilfully re-enacted sequences that help to draw us into the story and shed fresh light on the events being described, but Morris' films usually benefit from much more focused filmmaking and tighter editing that Zoo possesses. The film unfolds at a languid pace, in time with Paul Matthew Moore's Phillip Glass-style score, and while it's often beautiful to look at, the effect is ultimately soporific. As this is all going on, the film is narrated by the zoophiles themselves, with "H", "Coyote" and "The Happy Horseman" among those willing to offer their side of the story. But these men seem to be incapable of articulating emotions which perhaps they don't even understand, and as they laboriously attempt to justify their "love", the film starts going around in circles. The zoophiles frequently reiterate that the horses were well cared for and that their sex acts were consensual, but as no horses can offer a rebuttal or confirmation of such a statement, the arguments take us nowhere.

The most interesting character to emerge in Zoo is Jenny Edwards, the animal rescuer who removed the horse involved in Pinyan's death after the story broke (the unfortunate animal was gelded for his trouble). Mrs Edwards is a woman who cares deeply for these animals, and in one revealing segment, she recalls a time when she was suffering from a serious illness, and she would often spend nights alone in the fields with her horses. She would draw great strength just from being close to them, just by holding them, and she seems to be suggesting that there's a fine line between that kind of love, and the kind practised by those who don't honour the same boundaries; but Zoo won't make the connection. It can't show us how, or why, people would start having sex with horses, and as a result it feels increasingly pointless. "I don't know how I feel about it" Jenny Edwards says towards the end of the film, "but I'm right at the edge of being able to understand it". Good for her, but few viewers will gain any similar sense of understanding from this fuzzy, empty documentary.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Review - Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis

Who could have guessed that this mild, amiable and rather forgettable comedy would smash box-office records in its native France? When it was released in February of this year, Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis became an instant smash among French cinemagoers, and has subsequently roared towards the decade-long box-office crown that James Cameron's Titanic has held in that country. Such a success can only be attributed to the way Dany Boon's film touches upon national stereotypes and prejudices. Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis is based around the perception that life in the south of France is nothing much gorgeous sunshine and happiness, while the north of the country is a cold and miserable place to be; but Boon, a native of Nord-Pas de Calais, wants to show us that things aren't as grim up north as many might think.

Such a scenario inevitably doesn't hold as much resonance for viewers outside of France, but Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis possesses a warm, Ealing-esque sense of humour that should translate for most audiences. Kad Merad plays disgruntled post office manager Philippe who, at the constant urging of his wife, has long been lobbying for a transfer to one of the much-coveted positions in the Côte d'Azur. Hoping to gain an edge on his competition, Philippe pretends to be wheelchair-bound in his interview, but when his ruse is uncovered he is punished severely: transferred to the reputedly inhospitable northern town of Bergues. Judging by the grim look on his wife's face, one would suspect that Philippe was being sent to the frontlines, never to return, when he says goodbye to her and his young son. On the motorway Philippe is stopped by a policeman for travelling too slowly, but when he hears about the driver's final destination he can only offer his commiserations and wave him on his lonely way.

Here's the thing, though – Bergues isn't that bad after all. After a rocky start in which Philippe finds himself knee-deep in misunderstandings and struggling to grasp the area's unique dialect, he soon finds his bearings and is given a warm welcome by his fellow post office employees. These include Antoine (Boon himself), who struggles to escape his overbearing mother's grip and is deeply infatuated with Annabelle (Anne Marivin), often drowning his sorrows on the job when she rebuffs his advances. In helping to straighten out various characters' little problems, Philippe becomes a contented member of the Bergues community, but for some reason he feels compelled to maintain an unhappy façade in front of his friends and family back home, regaling them with horror stories on his weekend visits. Inevitably, these tall tales come back to haunt him when his wife (Zoé Félix) decides it is her duty to stand by her man in this hellhole.

There are two or three hilarious sequences in Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis. One occurs early on when Philippe's attempt to play his non-existent disabled card descend into slapstick; another sees Philippe and Antoine cycling haphazardly around Bergues while growing increasingly inebriated; and the big set-piece in which the whole town try to convince Philippe's wife that life here is every bit as horrific as she's heard is very funny indeed. Aside from those instances, however, the comedy in this picture is of a determinedly gentle variety, and while it's far from unappealing it isn't quite amusing enough to distract from the film's laziness in other areas. The opening scenes seem to set us up for a classic farce, and I greatly enjoyed Philippe's first encounter with Antoine, in which both sexual and linguistic confusion come into play. The linguistic element of the film is particularly important. The Ch'ti of the title refers both to the natives of Bergues and their distinctive patois, where the letter "s" is pronounced "ch", and numerous words find their meaning completely warped. The film's subtitlers have obviously endeavoured to retain this core component of Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis' humour (office is confused with fish, for example), and the potentially parochial gags Boon likes to trade in come across remarkably well.

Boon's screenplay is extremely simplistic, however, and the stretches in between his occasional flashes of inspiration can irritate, with the writer allowing his plot to slacken badly before he resolves things in a too-neat fashion (the ending is dreadful). As a director he uses broad and unimaginative strokes, and he can't find any ways to make this standard fish-out-of-water tale feel fresh. Thankfully, the acting is very strong across the board, with Boon being a dab hand at playing the likable dolt (as he showed in Patrice Leconte's My Best Friend), and he is assisted by particularly strong work from both Merad and the heart-stoppingly beautiful Marivin. The ensemble's efforts ensure Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis is always a charming work, but this is nothing more than a passable comedy for which the French reaction has been nothing short of baffling. Great comedy can be universal, but something here has obviously been lost in translation.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Review - California Dreamin' (Nesfarsit)

California Dreamin' is not quite the film it might have been. Before the picture starts, a title card tells us that director Cristian Nemescu died in a car crash on August 24th 2006, and that the movie we're about to watch is presented as it was when he passed away. One wonders what changes Nemescu would have made to his engaging debut had he been allowed more time to work on it; perhaps he would have tightened the structure, cleaned up some of the narrative strands, and eliminated the flashbacks that feel like an unnecessary burden for the picture to carry. Such speculation gets us nowhere, though, and instead let's simply take California Dreamin' on its own terms; as an enjoyable, skilfully acted drama that just about avoids outstaying its welcome.

Loosely based on an incident that occurred in 1999, Nemescu's film follows a trainload of American NATO troops who have been assigned communications equipment that must be urgently delivered to Kosovo, where the war continues to be fought. The squadron is led by Captain Jones (Armand Assante) who runs a tight ship and is determined to meet the deadline that he has been set, but he unexpectedly runs into trouble in the tiny Romanian village of Capalnita. The local stationmaster in this town is a corrupt character named Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu), and he refuses to allow the train passage when he discovers they don't have all of the required customs papers. The furious Jones tries to find a diplomatic solution, and he makes phone call after phone call in an attempt to untangle the red tape he has become embroiled in, but the officious Doiaru will not budge.

From this premise, Nemescu spins a variety of individual stories, perhaps too many for his film to handle. As Jones and Doiaru find themselves at an impasse, romance blooms between Doiaru's teenage daughter Monica (Maria Dinulescu) and Jones' second-in-command David (Jamie Elman), and the town's mayor organises a welcoming party for the visiting troops, hoping to use their presence to boost Capalnita's profile and economy. California Dreamin' is an unwieldy picture that sometimes seems to be pulling in too many directions at once, but even at 155 minutes I was never bored. The central theme of communication is explored by Nemescu in a number through a number of funny, clever sequences; best of all during the party that forms the film's centrepiece. As a Romanian Elvis impersonator tries to make the Americans feel at home, the town's female population swarm around the soldiers like flies, not letting the language barrier stand in the way of their desires, and Nemescu stages this sequence brilliantly, allowing his camera to roam between the various encounters that are taking place in the square. Most of California Dreamin' is shot in a realist fashion comprising of long takes filmed on a handheld camera – mirroring other recent Romanian films such as The Death of Mr Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days – but Nemescu allows some fantastical elements to creep into the picture as well. During a sex scene between Monica and David, the city outside the window seems to pulsate in time with their racing heartbeats, and as the loved-up pair run through the streets later, a jet of water explodes out of every manhole cover the oblivious couple pass.

Such switches in tone leave the film feeling uneven, but the strong performances Nemescu has drawn from his cast keep it anchored, with Armand Assante's increasingly frustrated Captain being the picture's main driving force. As California Dreamin' progresses, Nemescu adds layers of complexity to the characters and generates tension in a steady fashion, but the ending is a let-down; it seems rushed and I didn't feel the sense of tragedy that was clearly intended. Again, we have to wonder whether a sharper edit would have found a more effective movie under the one we have, but in its current state California Dreamin' remains an intelligent, funny and textured satire, and to describe it as the weakest example of the recent Romanian new wave probably says more about the high quality of the other films than it does about this one. This picture might not have reached its full potential, but there's certainly enough here to suggest that Cristian Nemescu was a filmmaker with a lot more to say.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Stan Winston: 1946 - 2008

One of my most memorable cinematic experiences as a youngster came in 1993, when I sat down to watch Steven Spielberg's
Jurassic Park, and for two hours I was completely convinced that impossible things were taking place right in front of me. It was the wizardry of Spielberg, of course, that made me believe in the long-extinct creatures rampaging across the screen, but he couldn't have done it without the work of another great film magician, whose fingerprints can be found on some of the most innovative and ingenious pictures of the past twenty years. Stan Winston, who died today at the age of 62 from multiple myeloma, was a brilliant visual effects and makeup artist who created monsters, robots and aliens that have proved remarkably durable against the passage of time.

He worked on many great films, but my favourite examples of his craft came in his collaborations with James Cameron. He created The Terminator and helped Cameron produce the stunning effects that made the sequel such a groundbreaking feature, while some of his best work came in Cameron's 1986 masterpiece
Aliens. Remember those hordes of beasts closing in on Ripley and her crew? And that climactic showdown between the lead character and the alien queen herself? If a film like Aliens were made today it would be easy to imagine these elements being completely CGI-d, but that would risk losing the expressiveness, depth and tactility that Winston's creations possessed. Aliens won Winston one of his four Oscars, with the others coming for Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 (which earned him two statuettes). He was also nominated for his unforgettable makeup work on Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns, while just this year he was lending his expertise to Jon Favreau's Iron Man. Stan Winston once said "I don't do special effects. I do characters. I do creatures", and that was the beauty of his art.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Review - The Incredible Hulk

The Hulk is back! And this time he's...well, he's still pretty angry. It seems five years has been long enough for the dust to settle on Ang Lee's ill-conceived Hulk, and now Marvel, in their second production as an independent studio, has decided to try a fresh approach to the character. Lee always felt like an odd choice to direct a summer blockbuster – his interest in character and subtle emotions apparently at odds with the explosive demands of the genre – and the resulting film was an interesting failure that was met with little more than a shoulder-shrugging reaction from critics and the public alike. The Incredible Hulk, directed by Louis Leterrier, is a film far more likely to find favour with the masses, being a slicker and more action-oriented take on the story, but the reinstatement of the word "Incredible" into the title is something of a misnomer. The Adequate Hulk or The Not As Bad As Expected Hulk would be more appropriate.

The Incredible Hulk is a sort-of sequel to Lee's film. It's set five years after the events of that picture, and it opens with Bruce Banner (Edward Norton, replacing Eric Bana) on the run from the US government, but we are encouraged to disregard the earlier instalment with the details of his accident being altered and squeezed in under the opening credits. Bruce is currently living in a sprawling Brazilian favela (first depicted in an breathtaking establishing shot) and trying to maintain a low profile. It has been 158 days since his last "incident", and while Bruce spends his days working in a bottling plant, he fills his spare time with meditation, learning Portuguese ("Don't make me hungry, you wouldn't like me when I'm hungry" he warns one confused local), and striving to find a cure for the monster that lurks inside him. Despite his best efforts to remain incognito, Bruce can't hide from General Ross (William Hurt), the father of his former love Betty, who suddenly turns up at his door along with Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth, having fun), a tough SAS commando who rather fancies a dose of Hulkiness for himself. Blonsky is described as half-British and half-Russian, which is like a perfect storm of Hollywood villainy.

Leterrier is a straight-ahead action director, and he doesn't share Lee's interest in exploring the tormented psyche of Bruce Banner, instead preferring to focus on action and incident. The resulting film is arguably more enjoyable than Lee's
Hulk, but it's also a much less ambitious and interesting piece of work. The opening Brazil-set section of the picture displays the best aspects of Leterrier's direction. He builds a great chase sequence through the backstreets between Banner and Blonsky's gun-toting troops, before we get our first glimpse of the titular beast. That's all we get at this stage – a glimpse – as Hulk charges through the shadows and hurls various large chunks of scenery at Blonsky's beleaguered men. The decision to keep our views of Hulk at a minimum is a wise one, and the film never again achieves the kind of suspense and excitement that is generated in this early set-piece.

After Bruce awakes far from the scene of the incident and drags his weary body away to the nearest town, he heads back to the US to find the data from his original exposure. He also finds Betty (Liv Tyler) in a relationship with another man, and he runs into General Ross once again, with a souped-up Blonsky ready for round two. The ensuing clash is loud and frantic, but Leterrier doesn't really do anything imaginative with it, he just keeps ramping up the volume.
The Incredible Hulk becomes more predictable after this point, and while it's never really boring – Leterrier keeps the pacing fluid throughout – there's nothing particularly exciting about the various action sequences and trite dramatic interludes that the film comprises of.

Norton, whose clashes with the studio have been well documented, is solid in the leading role. He does as much as he can to express Banner's inner conflict, although Zak Penn's screenplay – on which Norton did a lot of uncredited work – doesn't like going down those avenues. It does throw up a couple of little character touches that I enjoyed, though. There's a running gag about Banner's never-ending search for suitably stretchy pants, and a scene in which he has to refuse sex with Betty because too much excitement might cause his alter-ego to appear at an inopportune moment (now
there's something for the sequel!). Despite these efforts to add a few extra shades to Banner's character, The Incredible Hulk falls prey to a familiar problem, which is perhaps an insurmountable one for any cinematic depiction of this particular superhero. Whenever Banner transforms he ceases to be Banner and simply becomes a CGI creation, and it's impossible to reconcile the two. The Hulk depicted here is a little less cartoon-like than the "Shrek on steroids" that rampaged through Lee's film, but it's still a pretty unconvincing proposition, and neither big-screen version of this character has had the impact that Lou Ferrigno and a tin of green paint could bring to the part. The TV Hulk might have been a huge, snarling green man, but at least we could recognise that he was once a man.

As such, the final battle between Hulk and the creature Blonsky transforms into (he kind of looks like a plastic Hulk who's been left sitting on the radiator) is a crushing bore. The two CGI beasties turn over cars, throw each other through buildings and do all of the standard things eight-foot tall monsters do when they get together on a weekend. It all feels utterly empty and pointless, and an interesting comparison can be made with the climax of Marvel's other big summer movie Iron Man. That picture also climaxed in an unimaginative fashion, with the two main characters slugging it out in robotic suits, but Favreau kept reminding us that Robert Downey Jr. and Jeff Bridges were inside those suits, and that was enough to keep us focused on their fight.
The Incredible Hulk can't do that, and the climax eventually peters out in a baffling fashion before Leterrier starts dropping heavy hints about the sequel. That sequel is pretty much inevitable because The Incredible Hulk is a film that gives the fans what they want – it listened to the criticisms levelled at Ang Lee's Hulk and vowed to avoid the same pitfalls – but that fear has produced a generic and ultimately forgettable movie. The last-minute reference to Iron Man only reminded me how much wittier and smarter that picture was, while nothing the picture had to offer was as exciting as the trailer for The Dark Knight that ran before the show. Yes, the standards are high for comic book movies these days, and a middle-of-the-road effort like The Incredible Hulk simply doesn't measure up.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Review - The Happening

"This is my happening, and it freaks me out!"
– Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

That M Night Shyamalan's career has been following a steady downward trajectory since his extraordinary success with
The Sixth Sense is pretty much beyond dispute, but I'd argue the director has now managed to arrest that inexorable decline. Not because his new film The Happening is any good, you understand, but simply because it's not any more terrible than his previous two pictures, The Village and Lady in the Water. He seems to have plateaued at a particular level of awfulness, and if there's no sign of his work actually improving in the near future, at least we can take comfort in the notion that it surely can't get any worse.

After basing his previous plots around dead people, aliens, cloistered societies the hell those
Lady in the Water creatures were, his new film features a far more intangible plot device. One crisp morning in Central Park, everything suddenly seems to freeze; joggers come to a standstill, children stop playing, and conversations abruptly cease. After a few seconds of this, everyone starts to kill themselves with whatever comes to hand. Across town, a man falls to his death from the top of a building, and as bystanders look on in horror, dozens of others follow suit, dropping like lemmings and hitting the pavement with a horrible crack.

As these scenes unfolded, I started to feel a curious sensation, one I hadn't experienced in quite some time – I was enjoying an M Night Shyamalan movie! The opening ten minutes of
The Happening are surprisingly effective, and there's something genuinely disquieting about the sight of so many ordinary people calmly and inexplicably taking their own lives. As is so often the case with Shyamalan, the basic premise of his film has plenty of potential, but he has no idea where to take it, and the route he eventually chooses had me shaking my head in dismay. After those initial sequences had elapsed, the film quickly starts to collapse in on itself. Mark Wahlberg is uncomfortably cast as Philadelphian science teacher Elliott, and he's trying to engage his class in a discussion about the mysterious disappearance of bees ("Don't you have an opinion on the bees?" he earnestly asks one bored student, recalling some of Michael Caine's classic dialogue in The Swarm). He is interrupted by the news from New York, and by this stage most people suspect it to be the work of terrorists who have released some kind of nerve toxin, although one member of staff is a bit more vague, telling us "There appears to be an event...happening". Elliott's colleague (John Leguizamo) decides to get out of town with his daughter, and he invites both Elliot and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) to join him as they try to escape from whatever's, you know, happening.

One of the observations often made about Shyamalan is that he should move away from his own material and start taking on stories written by others, the implication being that he's a talented director who happens to be a lousy writer, but I can't see any evidence to support this theory. People often defend his work on the basis that his films are so handsomely staged, but if you hire Roger Deakins or Tak Fujimoto then that's half the battle as far as I'm concerned, and as a director Shyamalan has an infuriatingly limited array of tools at his disposal. He'll maintain a slow tracking shot and then make you jump with a quick edit, or he'll throw something into a hitherto unoccupied part of the frame – there's no talent in that, it's just a cheap hack trick. His pacing is incredibly poor, and he has no idea how to build or sustain a sense of tension, but the most significant criticism one can make against his directorial abilities is this: M Night Shyamalan is simply clueless with his actors.

In 1999 Shyamalan received a lot of praise for the understated, measured displays he elicited from his cast, particularly from Bruce Willis, but in every film since then he has forced his cast to play their roles in the same register; people are always whispering or murmuring in Shyamalan's films. Presumably the director believes his ridiculous dialogue will gain added credibility if everyone utters it in hushed, reverent tones, but he just forces any sense of life out of the actors. This is a particularly catastrophic turn of events for Zooey Deschanel, one of the loveliest and most effortlessly charismatic young actresses working today, who has somehow been guided towards one of the worst screen performances in recent years here. It's as if she has been lobotomised in preparation for the role; she wanders around with her eyes wide and her mouth open, often twitching and stumbling over her words. Wahlberg is equally ill-used by Shyamalan; he wears a permanent look of befuddlement which I suspect belongs to the actor as much as the character. I'm not sure which single moment stands out for me among his personal highlights reel, but the scene where he tries to formulate a scientific theory under pressure is a hoot, as is his one-way conversation with a plastic plant, and his slow-motion "NOOOO!!!" when a gun is fired at another character. Together, Wahlberg and Deschanel share a couple of fine head-slapping moments, with one being Alma's tearful confession that she had dessert with a work colleague – a revelation Elliott takes as full-blown adultery. I was greatly cheered by the idea that a humble tiramisu may be cited as grounds for divorce.

That last incident also embodies the fact that Shyamalan seems to have no idea how people really talk, think or act; and it's impossible to engage with his characters because they don't behave in anything like a rational way. When Elliott works out the true nature of the suicide toxin – it's being released by the plants as revenge for our butchering of the planet – he makes one nutty decision after another, ending with him and his group racing through fields desperately trying to outrun the wind, but none of this makes sense on a practical level or a metaphorical level. Shyamalan never gives his concepts any depth or structure, he doesn't do the spade work required to make sure they hold up to scrutiny, he simply expects us to take what we see on faith and not ask too many questions. Every five minutes somebody will say something like "It's just an act of nature, and we'll never fully understand it", but that doesn't paper over the gaping holes and illogical tangles that plague the screenplay.

This is the sixth film Shyamalan has made since he first came to mainstream attention, and it's getting increasingly hard to see how he can pull himself out of this creative rut.
The Sixth Sense feels like the work of a different filmmaker, and it's as if Shyamalan's subsequent films were made by somebody who desperately wanted to ape that success but had no idea how he had gone about achieving it. The Happening is an indefensibly stupid film in every single way; it doesn't work as a thriller, a horror, or as a finger-wagging treatise on saving the environment, and it doesn't even have the patented Shyamalan twist; things just continue to build to a certain point, until they stop, and then he finally brings the film to a close. This is a film made by a man who has completely run out of ideas, and who seems more lost with every passing picture. Less than a decade ago he was being hailed as the heir to Spielberg and Hitchcock. Hey, shit happens.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Review - Gone Baby Gone

Some five years after the world laughed in unison at Gigli, Ben Affleck has recently taken small but significant steps to turning his career around by sticking to material that suits him best. In Hollywoodland he was well cast as doomed Superman star George Reeves, and he acted within the parameters of his own ability, giving a modestly self-effacing performance that contained a surprising amount of gravitas. Now, for his first feature as a director, Affleck has chosen a thriller that allows him to shoot in his native Boston, and his kinship with the area is one of the prime reasons Gone Baby Gone works as well as it does. From the opening scenes, the film has an air of authenticity about its setting, with Affleck's decision to draw a number of his cast members from the local community adding to the picture's vivid sense of place.

Affleck's feel for the setting and characters in Gone Baby Gone is the most impressive attribute on display in his handling of this story, and it's enough to help the picture transcend some of its more awkward elements; areas in which the director's inexperience is a little more exposed. An adaptation of Dennis Lehane's 1998 novel, Gone Baby Gone features Casey Affleck, the director's brother, as low-rent Private Eye Patrick Kenzie. When a four year-old child is snatched from her bedroom one night, while the mother (Amy Ryan) visited a neighbour, Kenzie and his partner (Michelle Monaghan, in a painfully underdeveloped part) are approached by the child's aunt to help, the idea being that they might be able to dig into areas of the community in which the police are not welcome. His presence is frowned upon by the two cops leading the official investigation, Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) – head of the Crimes Against Children unit – and the fiery Detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris); and Doyle warns him that the already slim chances of them finding the girl are fading by the hour. The case does come to a conclusion, kind of, within the first hour of the picture, but something about it doesn't sit right with Kenzie, and his desire to dig even deeper into the case exposes him to some complex dilemmas.

The thorny quandaries Gone Baby Gone throws up are the compelling elements that hold the film together as the story unravels. The director, who co-wrote the screenplay with Aaron Stockard, lets the narrative unfold at a steady pace. His handling of the procedural aspects of the picture, at least initially, is excellent, and on a scene-by-scene basis Gone Baby Gone features a few moments of real force, many of which are provided by the excellent Amy Ryan, who elicits both our anger and empathy as the neglectful mother. In general, Affleck leans heavily on his cast, giving them the space to bring a sense of depth to their roles, and even if he indulges some of them a little too much – Ed Harris leaves tooth marks in the scenery with his wild-eyed turn – the results are impressive. In particular, the younger of the Affleck siblings offers another hugely impressive piece of acting in the central role. The film doesn't afford Casey Affleck the range to be as expressive as he was in last year's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (in which he gave the best performance of the year), but he does imbue Kenzie with a hard-bitten determinism that belies his youthful looks, and helps the character serve as an effective moral compass at the film's heart.

The first half of Gone Baby Gone is great – involving, mature and rich in gritty atmosphere – but at key points in the picture Affleck struggles to make the right choices. The pivotal scene that takes place at a quarry is clumsily edited, to the point where it's unclear what has taken place even when we are allowed a second glimpse of the incident later on. Such flaws may be put down to inexperience, but in the second half of the film Affleck also runs into more basic narrative problems, relying too much on expository dialogue and flashbacks to illuminate a tale that contains a couple of hard-to-swallow twists. As a result, the overall film doesn't feel quite as polished or coherent as other recent Boston-set crime dramas such as The Departed, or Clint Eastwood's own Lehane adaptation Mystic River.

Of course, comparing Affleck's debut feature with the work of those directors is unfair, and taken on its own terms Gone Baby Gone stands as a considerable achievement from the novice director. Now that it has finally arrived in the UK (the film has been delayed by months because of its similarity to the ongoing Madeline McCann case) it really deserves to be seen in spite of its flaws, mainly because it's a rare Hollywood thriller that dares to ask something of its audience. In the final scenes Kenzie is faced with a horrible choice, a decision in which he must weigh up the rights of a child against the rights of a parent, and at the same time every person in the cinema will doubtless be struggling with the same conundrum. Should Kenzie do the right thing, or should he do the right thing? Affleck offers up that question in a way that's potent without being heavy-handed, and he deserves our respect for continuing to probe the moral ambiguities of this story right up to the striking, hauntingly sad final shot.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Review - The Last Mistress (Une vieille maîtresse)

One of the great joys of cinema is the way it can transport an audience back to a distant time and place, making us believe that we are experiencing a story set many years before we were born; perhaps even before the birth of cinema itself. Over the past few years, we have been blessed with a number of films that have mastered this art; films like There Will Be Blood, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The New World all managed to immerse us in a flawlessly realised world. Sometimes, though, something will stick out – a single performance, or even a single line of anachronistic dialogue – that can have the effect of shattering the illusion created by the filmmakers, and such an occurrence can be found in Catherine Breillat's new film The Last Mistress. In it, Asia Argento gives a fair performance as a fiery seductress, and the film's makeup team have obviously gone to great lengths to cover her many tattoos, but somebody appears to have missed a spot. Late in the film, during a sex scene (this being a Catherine Breillat film, there are a few), a huge piece of body art can be seen emblazoned across Argento's lower back. It's certainly not the kind of thing you'd expect to see in 19th century Paris.

Then again, one wouldn't expect to find Catherine Breillat in 19th century Paris either. Her 11th feature as a director is quite a change of pace from the kind of film she is most readily associated with. Breillat has been making films for over thirty years, but her major breakthrough came in 1999 with
Romance, an envelope-pushing picture that was at the forefront of the crossover between pornography and arthouse cinema. Her work since then has occasionally been brilliant (I was ready to hail 2001's À ma soeur! as a masterpiece, before the inexplicably awful final ten minutes soured the experience), but it has mostly been criminally dull and self-important, with her last effort, 2005's Anatomy of Hell, being one of the worst films I have ever seen. So, it's refreshing to see this obviously intelligent and thoughtful filmmaker branching out, taking her distinctive style into a genre usually known for its taste and refinement, and the end result is a very watchable costume drama with a couple of terrific moments.

The Last Mistress does take an awfully long time to get going, though. Breillat's adaptation of Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly's novel forces us to sit through a great deal of dull exposition before the story starts to heat up. Most of the film's first half unfolds in flashback, as the young aristocrat Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) recounts his long, tempestuous affair with Spanish demimondaine Vellini (Argento). He is telling this story on the eve of his wedding to the beautiful, chaste heiress Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida, making her third film with this director), and he assures his listener – Hermangarde's grandmother – that this relationship has now ended, with only his bride-to-be now being worthy of his love and devotion. If this claim were true, though, we wouldn't have much of a movie, and Marigny spends the rest of the film vacillating between the two women in his life, as Vellini maintains an irresistible grip on his heart.

Perhaps we shouldn't be altogether surprised that Breillat's take on the costume drama only starts to get interesting when the clothes start to come off. The first scene that really caught my attention in
The Last Mistress occurred after Marigny had been injured in a duel, and Vellini leaps onto his prone body to lick the blood from his wound with vampiric vigour. Asia Argento isn't a great actress, but she has an undeniably effective screen presence, and Breillat capitalises on that, using it to give Vellini a fiery, exotic quality. At times, she actually seems like the most masculine figure in the film; Breillat's choice of lead actor, non-professional Fu'ad Ait Aattou, is an androgynous presence, while Hermangarde is presented as a virginal, angelic figure – the ideal of femininity in contrast with Argento's seductive whore.

As Vellini gets her hooks into Marigny, the film gradually starts to get its hooks into the viewer.
The Last Mistress is a pleasure to look at, with the first-class set decoration and costume designs being well served by Giorgos Arvanitis' cinematography. In all respects, this is a much classier and more restrained piece of filmmaking from Breillat, and it's all the better for it. She respects the traditions of the costume drama genre while still playing the game by her own rules, and the few scenes in which we see Breillat's true nature coming to the fore are all the more powerful for being part of a less confrontational whole. The film features a stunning interlude set in Algeria, in which Vellini and Marigny's relationship is struck by tragedy, and Breillat brings a harsh emotional intensity to a number of scenes in the final third.

However, despite those individual moments of intensity,
The Last Mistress as a whole doesn't quite have the impact I was hoping for, perhaps because it's too easy early on to see where the story is going. Breillat has made a compelling, handsome costume drama with more edge than most, but she can't manage to pitch it above a certain level. Still, this is a welcome change of direction from this filmmaker, and one wonders if Breillat – who suffered a stroke prior to the filming of The Last Mistress – will now continue to find new avenues for her keen interest in sex and sexuality. In a recent interview she described Anatomy of Hell as "the end of a necessary cycle", and the next cycle in Breillat's career might be the most fascinating yet.