Phil on Film Index

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Review - Baby Mama

In the past year, a handful of American comedies have drawn their laughs from the trials and tribulations of having a baby. Baby Mama is a little different to the likes of Knocked Up, Juno and Waitress though; while those films dealt with the fallout from unplanned pregnancies, this amiable effort is more concerned with the desperate need to have a child. The directorial debut from Saturday Night Live writer Michael McCullers stars Tina Fey as upwardly mobile businesswoman Kate Holbrook. She's a top executive for the Round Earth organic food corporation, but her personal life is predictably less successful. She's 37, single, and pining for a baby, a desire she spells out in all-too-honest way early in the film, leaving the poor man she's on a date with running for the exit. IVF treatment doesn't work for Kate ("I just don't like your uterus" a doctor repeatedly tells her), and her adoption enquires get lost in a mountain of red tape, so she decides to give surrogacy a try, eventually striking a deal with bubbly, naïve blonde named Angie (Amy Poehler).

Angie and Kate couldn't be more different, and that's the basic concept for Baby Mama in a nutshell; it's The Odd Couple with a highflying yuppie and white trash bimbo replacing Oscar and Felix. Angie moves into Kate's apartment when she splits up with her cheating boyfriend (Dax Shepherd), and standard culture-clash hi-jinks ensue, with Angie not taking kindly to Kate's healthy, sterile lifestyle, and Kate being appalled by the behaviour of her messy, lazy houseguest. McCullers doesn't bring any imagination to bear on this already stale scenario, and while his script does take the opportunity to satirically snip at various aspects of 21st century parenting, these sideswipes are pretty weak. A sharper, more experienced filmmaker may have squeezed more juice out of Baby Mama's screenplay, but McCullers' direction barely rises above sitcom level, with basic staging and an over-reliance on Jeff Richmond's syrupy score to highlight the film's emotional beats. The central narrative follows an obvious arc, with Kate and Angie growing together – one learning to loosen up, the other to mature – and although McCullers does have one plot twist up his sleeve, it doesn't do much to derail the film's disappointingly sappy ending.

In spite of all this, I laughed a lot at Baby Mama. It's not a great film by any means, but it's a damn funny one in places, and most of the time its flaws are gracefully covered by the superb central partnership of Fey and Poehler. The pair's contrasting characters meld brilliantly, and they successfully suggest a semblance of genuine feeling in both their friendship and their confrontations. Poehler has previously been seen hanging around the edges of films like Blades of Glory, and she makes the most of her step up to a more substantial role with a fantastic comic turn. She plays Angie in broad strokes but she always ensures the character retains a sweetness and likability that pulls her away from caricature. Many of the film's most notable moments, such as Angie struggling to cope with Kate's childproof toilet or trying to disguise her identity when Kate's boyfriend turns up at the apartment, are scenes which are elevated a couple of notches through Poehler's efforts alone. Alongside her, Fey is essentially playing the straight foil in this comic partnership, and it's a role she's more than capable of fulfilling. Baby Mama offers Fey the opportunity to play it safe while making her transition to the big screen, with the character of Kate Holbrook being almost indistinguishable from 30 Rock's Liz Lemon, and while it might have been nice to see Fey stretch her wings a little more, she's undeniably great at what she does.

In fact, Baby Mama could have surely benefitted from getting more out of Fey on the writing side of the project. She has already dealt with the theme of baby obsession in a 30 Rock episode – which was much funnier and more pointed than this – and it would have been interesting to see where she might have taken the scenario Baby Mama offers, with the hope that she'd avoid driving the film into the lame, sentimental cul-de-sac it eventually settles in. There was the potential for a far more interesting film in here somewhere, and Baby Mama does feel rather insipid after more daring pictures like Knocked Up, but it's a hard film to dislike, and it has at least one attribute that both surprised and delighted me. While there are fine comic performances all over the picture – from Fey, Poehler, Romany Malco and Sigourney Weaver – the biggest joy of Baby Mama was seeing a once-great talent finding some semblance of his old magic. Yes, that's an uncredited, ponytail-wearing Steve Martin as Kate's dippy, new age boss, and this scene-stealing cameo allows him to be hilarious for the first time in many, many years. A look at Martin's last decade in film is a profoundly depressing experience, but this is the sort of part he needs to get his career back on track: small, cleverly constructed character roles in films that make good use of his particular presence and delivery. Alas, The Pink Panther 2 is already in development, but at least Baby Mama suggests that Martin is still interested in giving us more.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Review - The Dark Knight

A dark cloud looms over The Dark Knight. Even if Heath Ledger hadn't died earlier this year, Christopher Nolan's superhero sequel would have been notable for its ultra-serious exploration of morality, and for the often startling levels of violence (physical, emotional and psychological) that it displays throughout, but the young actor's passing seems to have added an extra layer of tragedy to a film already mired knee-deep in death and fatalism. This film steps outside the comfortable surroundings in which we expect to find summer blockbusters, delivering a complicated and fascinating cinematic experience that takes the central character to some dark places, forces him to break his own rules, and then watches as he tries to cope with the consequences of his actions. For Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and his crime fighting alter-ego, this is a step into the unknown, and that void of uncertainty is personified by The Joker (Ledger), a harbinger of chaos who arrives in Gotham with no past, no motive, and only a keen desire to spread terror and destruction in his wake. As Bruce's butler Alfred (Michael Caine) astutely observes "some men just want to watch the world burn".

The biggest advantage for Nolan in returning to this story is the absence of necessary exposition. Batman Begins suffered from a clunky opening hour that showed us how Bruce learned his craft under the tutelage of Liam Neeson ("to conquer fear, you must become fear!") and the film only started to lift off when he began using those skills against Gotham's criminal underworld. The Dark Knight has no such obligation to set the scene, and Nolan, who wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan, pitches us straight into a city that has changed in unexpected ways since Batman began taking law enforcement into his own hands. He has inspired a number of copycat vigilantes, and the mob (led by Eric Roberts) has reluctantly joined forces with the unpredictable Joker to finally kill the caped crusader. Batman still has honest Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) on his side, and the idealistic new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Ekhart) offers a second ray of light in this murky place, but the burden of responsibility, and the increasingly hostile reaction of the public, has left Bruce Wayne wondering how much longer he can continue to live a double life.

Early in The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent remarks "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain", and this line becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy both for him and Batman. Nolan's chief interest in this film is to explore the self-imposed boundaries of those who wish to do good. Dent and Wayne are after the same thing, coming at it from different directions, but they both find their values being corrupted during the course of their battles with The Joker, and film grows darker and more introspective as it charts their fall from grace, to the point where I found it almost suffocating. The Dark Knight is a curious breed; it's surely the most subversively weird and thematically ambitious mainstream movie for many a long year, but I can't quite take it to my heart. While I have nothing but respect for Nolan's attempt to raise the bar for superhero movies, to practically redefine the genre, I think he falls somewhat short of those bold ambitions, and The Dark Knight is ultimately a much easier film to admire than to love.

It just feels so cluttered, so hectic and full of incident that Nolan can't find a smooth way to move between his plot points. His transitions are frequently abrupt and rarely graceful, he often cuts away at a point that leaves us with a nagging gap in the narrative, asking "how did that guy get out of there?" or "where are we now, exactly?", and he employs at least one outrageous cheat to overcome a particularly sticky story point. There's a lot going on in this film, and while Nolan does find time to alight on some striking, lyrical imagery – like The Joker gleefully leaning out of a police car, the despairing sight of Dent lying face down in gasoline, or the frequently breathtaking IMAX-filmed cityscapes – the film is more often in a desperate hurry, leaving the audience to play catch-up. The other big, big problem that arises from his direction is his handling of the film's action sequences, a major weakness in Batman Begins that is only partially remedied here. Nolan has no idea how to shoot these aspects of his picture in a coherent manner, and most of the combat scenes consist of a flurry of limbs, edited into oblivion, before somebody winds up on the floor. The opening bank heist, to be fair, is skilfully staged, but Nolan appears to be less sure of himself with each subsequent set-piece, as his inability to establish spatial awareness and to maintain it via the editing again comes to the fore. A useful comparison would be Paul Greengrass, whose work on the Bourne films has seen him utilise rapid editing techniques while never losing sight of where his characters are in relation to each other. In contrast, two of The Dark Knight's biggest action scenes – a car chase and a climactic skyscraper battle – are crippled by confusion, with the latter sequence being a flat-out disaster, additionally hampered by the use of a dreadful Bat-vision gimmick. These sequences should be the film's highlights, but Nolan doesn't come close to making them work.

Instead, The Dark Knight's highlights are to be found in other areas, parts of the film that make better use of Nolan's directorial skills. As a filmmaker, one gets the sense that the explosive demands of blockbuster cinema are the parts of the process that interest him least, and he's a far more potent director when he's simply exploring the dynamic between two people, with this being particularly true when one of those two people is The Joker. Heath Ledger's performance dominates The Dark Knight. He is both funny and disturbing, bringing jolt of electricity to the picture every time he appears; his smeared makeup and lank, greasy hair presenting a very different Joker to any previous screen incarnation of the character. Ledger employs a lizard-like flick of the tongue and a stiff, shambling gait in his walk, delivering the kind of instantly memorable performance that transcends genre, in much the same way that Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman did over 15 years ago.
The Dark Knight's finest moments occur when Ledger is allowed to go face-to-face with the other characters, pushing their buttons, getting under their skin, and espousing his own twisted philosophy. In these scenes Ledger is vivid and eerily charismatic, and he brings the best out of his co-stars, firing up Bale's Batman in their interrogation room scene, exuding genuine menace as he holds a knife to the mouth of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, not at her best but a step-up from the useless Katie Holmes), and partaking in perhaps the film's best encounter, next to the freshly-scarred Harvey Dent's hospital bed. As Dent, Ekhart gives the most surprising performance in the film, displaying a presence and sensitivity that has eluded him in previous roles, but I wish the filmmakers could have made better use of Two-Face, whose development is rushed, or at least saved him for a later instalment. One unfortunate effect of having so many distinctive, nuanced performances in the film (Michael Caine is reliably excellent, and Gary Oldman is superb) is that they relegate Batman to the position of fourth or fifth most interesting character on show. Bale remains a fine Bruce Wayne, but the deep growl he brought to Batman's voice in Begins reaches ridiculous levels here, even threatening to make his lines inaudible, and he is often absent or a bystander in the film's most interesting confrontations.

One confrontation that doesn't quite come off in The Dark Knight is a face-off between two rigged boats that The Joker sets up as a kind of social experiment late in the film. I didn't buy this situation, or the easy way it resolved itself, but The Dark Knight's exploration of such moral complexities does develop into its most compelling aspect as the film progresses, far more so than its muddled narrative or its obvious political overtones. Where do you draw the line, the film asks, between doing what's right and doing what must be done? Do we get the heroes we need or the heroes we deserve? The Dark Knight, for all its flaws, is a serious, provocative film made for adults (I can't quite believe it has been rated 12A. Don't bring any young kids), and I already feel like I need to see it again, to find out if I've missed some key element that will bring the movie together in a more satisfying way for me. Although I can't quite get on board with the critics hailing it as a masterpiece, the very fact that the biggest film of the year is such an ambiguous and conflicted piece of work does make it feel like some kind of achievement. To get an idea of The Dark Knight's worth, just ask yourself this question: how many blockbuster movies have left you wondering, as the credits rolled, who, if anyone, has emerged victorious from the events you've just seen? And at what cost?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Review - Man on Wire

It's summer, and for us filmgoers that means the cinemas are full of movies that have spent millions of dollars to dazzle our eyes; but for all of the CGI magic these movies have to offer, I doubt they'll be able to come up with anything as breathtaking as the thirty year-old photographs that appear in James Marsh's
Man on Wire. They show a man walking across a tightrope – nothing unusual there, you might think – but this tightrope is strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, over 1,300 feet above the New York streets. The man in the photo is Philippe Petit, and on August 7th 1974, he spent 45 minutes walking between these buildings, crossing his dangerous path eight times, and at one point he even lay down on the wire, casually waving to the dumbstruck masses below. It was an act of enormous bravery, bravado and skill – a once-in-a-lifetime achievement that stunned the world – and the highest compliment that I can pay Man on Wire is to say it completely does justice to Petit's story.

What kind of man would even dream about such a thing, let alone devote six years of his life to pulling it off? Well, Philippe Petit is clearly no ordinary individual. A garrulous, cocky, charming character, he is a wonderful interview subject. He relays his adventures in an excitable manner, wildly gesticulating and jumping out of his seat to recall a particular incident from behind a curtain. How, we might wonder, did he ever stay still long enough to walk across a wire? But when Philippe steps onto the taut rope he undergoes a startling transformation; he becomes eerily calm and almost unnaturally focused, confidently planting one foot in front of another in a situation where the slightest misjudgement can be fatal. As a teenager, Petit had been working as a juggler and acrobat on the streets of Paris, but the high wire was his calling, and before his most famous feat, he had already performed similarly spectacular stunts between the spires of the Notre Dame cathedral and above Sydney Harbour Bridge. On each occasion he returned to earth to the adulation of amazed bystanders, and the slightly less enamoured long arm of the law.

The World Trade Centre's two skyscrapers hadn't even been built when Petit was involved in these acts, but as soon as he saw a newspaper story detailing their construction, he felt they had been designed for him alone, they were his destiny. He persuaded some close friends to assist him as he prepared for his greatest challenge, and as Marsh lays out the various hurdles and twists that their plot involved,
Man on Wire develops with the pace and excitement of a thriller. Marsh is coming off the back of a drama – 2005's intriguing if muddled The King – and his debut film Wisconsin Death Trip was a documentary that contained a number of stylistic tricks more associated with fictional movies. In Man on Wire, Marsh blends various disparate elements to create a mesmerising whole. Much of the picture consists of conventional talking-head clips with Petit's friends and collaborators, all of whom provide candid and often funny anecdotes, while Marsh also utilises cleverly filmed reconstructions and Petit's invaluable home movie footage, all of which is scored to selected works by Michael Nyman.

The result is a film that flows brilliantly, never dropping a stitch as it shifts modes and tones, and it has the rare distinction of being a picture that can generate considerable tension even as we know how the story will end. The present-day interviews reveal to us that everyone involved survived the experience and is happy to discuss it, but I still felt an overwhelming sense of nervousness as the climactic wire-walk drew closer, a tightening of the chest as Petit prepared to take his leap of faith, and a remarkable feeling of exhilaration when it was over. All we see of the incident itself is a handful of photos, but that's enough to bring home the magnitude of it. Petit's high-wire act above Manhattan remains one of the greatest acts of individual courage and imagination imaginable, an example of what human beings can achieve when we reach for the stars, and when Petit's close friend Jean-Louis Blondeau and former lover Annie Allix are moved to tears by their recollections, it's hard not to be equally touched by the extraordinary nature of the tale they're describing.

As well as being one of the most gripping, emotionally involving films of the year,
Man on Wire is a picture that harkens back to what now seems a more innocent time. "I personally figured I was watching something somebody else would never see again in the world" says one of the New York cops who arrested Petit when he finally returned to terra firma, and of course he's right, particularly when you consider the stage for Petit's performance no longer exists. It is impossible to see images of the World Trade Centre now without being reminded of 9/11, but aside from one photograph – in which a plane passes perilously close to Petit as he stands between the buildings – Marsh doesn't references the attacks. In fact, he seems determined to avoid any mention of them, as they have no part to play in Petit's story, and one of the joys of this fantastic, transcendent documentary is that it allows us to remember the towers as they once stood, and to recall the part they played in allowing an ambitious young Frenchman to walk on air.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Review - WALL•E

The first teaser trailer for WALL•E took us back to 1994, to a lunchtime meeting between Pixar's head creative talents John Lasseter, Pete Doctor, Joe Ranft and Andrew Stanton. It was the year before Toy Story arrived in cinemas and completely changed the landscape of feature animation, and these four men, the trailer told us, were already thinking about what to do next. At that meeting they threw around ideas that eventually grew into A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo and the company's newest creation WALL•E, which Stanton has directed. In the 14 years that have passed since that meeting, Pixar has grown into one of the biggest names in film production but, in the most crucial ways, they've hardly changed at all. The films produced by this studio are built upon strong, original stories, populated by vivid characters and avoiding lazy pop culture references, and the marvellous technical innovations they make with every picture are there purely to serve the central narrative. These were the fundamental ideals that made Toy Story an instant classic, and they hold just as true for this remarkable movie about a lonely little robot's space odyssey.

Set some 700 years into the future,
WALL•E takes place on earth, but it's not an earth we recognise. With of levels trash and pollution spinning out of control, human beings have long since abandoned this planet, instead moving to gleaming space stations run by the "Buy n Large" corporation – the same company, incidentally, whose logo adorn almost all of the garbage that made earth uninhabitable in the first place. While they scarpered, the clean-up operation was left to a number of small robots known as WALL•E's (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class); and while most of the machines have since fallen into disrepair, one single WALL•E continues to trundle enthusiastically amid the wreckage, scooping up garbage into his compactor stomach, and piling the trash cubes into towers that stand alongside the empty skyscrapers.

What makes WALL•E different to his fellow machines is the sense of curiosity he displays. While he has spent 700 years dutifully doing the job he was designed for, he frequently takes time out to examine odd little trinkets his explorations turn up. At various points in the film, he is intrigued by a Rubicks Cube, a lightbulb and a bra, having no idea what their true purpose might be, and he takes anything particularly interesting back to his makeshift home, the back of an abandoned truck in which he neatly stores and categorises all of his findings. He can't, however, find the one thing he most desires: companionship. The only other living creature in the vicinity is a cockroach who follows WALL•E around like a pet dog, but he wants the kind of affection that he sees when he plays an old videotape of
Hello, Dolly!. When he watches the two humans on screen holding hands, his sense of longing is palpable, and astonishingly moving.

The reason we are so touched by WALL•E's situation is because of the superbly detailed work that has gone into his characterisation. At first sight he is a just a rusty old robot who looks a bit like
Short Circuit's Johnny Five, but I think he bears a closer resemblance to Spielberg's ET. With his enormously expressive eyes and cooing noises of curiosity, he explores his world with a childlike sense of wonder, taking great joy in the oddest discoveries (when he finds a diamond ring in a box, he chucks the contents away and plays with the box, like a kid at Christmas). It's a joy to watch him at work, but when the picture starts to explore the abject loneliness of his situation, it's almost too much to bear. There's a bleakness and a sense of melancholy about WALL•E that is extraordinary for a mainstream animated film, and Stanton strikes a vital balance between developing this sense of isolation while offering up sight gags and instances of physical comedy that ensure it doesn't get too dark.

Then, all of a sudden, WALL•E isn't alone anymore. A spaceship touches down, deposits a sleek-looking robot, and then leaves, while the white, bullet-shaped machine starts scanning the landscape. This is EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), sent to earth to ascertain whether it is inhabitable, and WALL•E is instantly smitten, although he finds it hard to get close to this new arrival at first due to her unfortunate habit of shooting anything that crosses her path. Could this, finally, be the companion WALL•E has been pining for? Someone to hold hands with at last? Their courtship is beautifully done, with WALL•E introducing EVE to the various treasures he has collected, and the pair learning to recite each other's names. "
Eeee-va!" WALL•E screams when the ship that brought EVE into his life returns to spirit her away, and he desperately clings onto the rocket as it blasts into space.

So begins the distinct second part of
WALL•E, and I must admit I didn't find it quite as enchanting as the first. In contrast to the vast emptiness of earth, with only WALL•E, EVE and a cockroach wandering about, life on the Axiom – the ship in which earth's population now resides – is hectic and cluttered. Humans, who have become immobile fat slobs after a life of inactivity and convenience, fly around on chairs that they never have to leave; their every whim is catered for by Buy n Large, and an army of small machines is always on hand to take care of the most menial tasks. It's a despairing look at humanity, and a fascinatingly cynical touch coming from a studio that has rarely been so explicit about its satirical or thematic concerns. WALL•E is a damning indictment of society's excessive, consumer-driven life of laziness, but it's to Stanton's credit that these ideas aren't handled in a heavy-handed fashion, they just exist as part of a story that never loses sight of its two main characters.

This second half of the picture is more conventionally entertaining than the first, though, and as the pace quickened I found myself missing the unusual atmosphere of the film's early scenes, and the delicacy of WALL•E and EVE's burgeoning relationship. There is one lovely moment in the later stages that sees the two companions embark on one of the most beautiful space flights since Kubrick's
2001, but I couldn't help feeling that all of the highlights in this picture has been front-loaded into the film's opening hour. I was deeply moved by the scenes in which WALL•E obsessively cares for EVE after she has shut herself down, it's like watching a mourning man tend to the corpse of his dead lover, and the rest of the film didn't have anything up its sleeve to match that impact.

Even if
WALL•E gives itself too much to live up to with its incredible opening hour, the film has enough invention and skill to ensure it doesn't fall too far short of the mark. From the trash piles of earth to the star-filled beauty of space, the picture looks absolutely gorgeous (Roger Deakins acted as a cinematography consultant here), and the outstanding visuals are complemented both by Thomas Newman's score and the sound design by Ben Burtt that invests WALL•E and EVE with such charming personalities. By anyone's standards this is brilliant filmmaking, but what's really great about WALL•E is the way it pushes the envelope in terms of what animation can be; exploring complex ideas, finding new and daring ways to tell stories, trusting the intelligence of its audience, and reaching emotional depths that seem far beyond the grasp of the studio's competitors. Yes, Pixar hasn't changed a bit – here's hoping they never do.

**As a sidenote, WALL•E, like all Pixar features, is accompanied in cinemas by a short film. In this case it is Presto, a blissfully funny film in which a magician's act is destroyed by his uncooperative rabbit. It is absolutely wonderful; a madcap wordless tribute to the spirit of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, with each hilarious joke being immediately topped by the next. It made me laugh more in five minutes than most comedies have in the past five years, and it's the perfect curtain-raiser for WALL•E.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Review - Taxi to the Dark Side

The taxi belonged to a man named Dilawar, a 22 year-old Afghan citizen whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. On May 5th 2002, Dilawar and his three passengers were stopped at a roadblock by guerrilla forces and arrested on suspicion of terrorist activity. The four men were taken to the Bagram military prison for interrogation, and on December 20th, Dilawar was dead. In Alex Gibney's superb documentary, the injuries Dilawar received from repeated kicks to the body and legs are exposed in sickening detail, with the damage inflicted on his "pulpified" legs being comparable to somebody who has been run over by a truck. Dilawar was actually the second prisoner to die while in American custody, with a man named Habibullah passing on just one week previously after suffering from similar abuse. "There was definitely a sense of concern because he was the second one", a soldier interviewed here admits, "You wonder, was it something we did?"

From these deaths,
Taxi to the Dark Side draws a line throughout Bagram, Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, following a thorny path that leads to the top levels of the American government. Included in the film is a television appearance from Dick Cheney, in which he says the following: "We have to work sort of the dark side, if you will, spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in. It’ll be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective". What Cheney is talking about here is torture as a means of procuring information: the use of water-boarding and beatings; denying suspects the right to sleep, drink or even sit for long periods; indulging in sexual humiliation of the captives; and basically breaking down these men until they are willing to talk – to say anything – in order to end their pain.

Gibney's film is angry and impassioned, as you'd expect, but it's also a remarkably clear-sighted piece of work that analyses the issues at hand in an intelligent and compelling way. Gibney has secured interviews with a number of soldiers who were directly involved in the interrogation of these men, and their frank, emotionally charged recollections paint a vivid picture of the situation they found themselves in. Damien Corsetti, a huge, imposing figure selected for the job on the basis of his intimidating presence, says his orders basically consisted of "Soldiers are dying. Get the information", and the interrogators were given increasingly vague parameters as to what they could and could not do in the pursuit of a confession. Basically, Corsetti and his colleagues were never told
not to do anything, but they were constantly reminded that the pressure was on to get results. Inevitably, people started to take their hazy mandate too far; as Sgt. Ken Davis suggests, "People were being told to rough up Iraqis that wouldn’t cooperate. We were also told that they’re nothing but dogs. Then, all of a sudden, you start looking at these people as less than human, and you start doing things to them you would never dream of. And that’s where it got scary".

Whenever stories of prisoner abuse broke – particularly when the notorious photographic evidence leaked – such behaviour was always put down to "a few bad apples", but
Taxi to the Dark Side makes short work of that argument, clearly showing how the fault lies at the top, with the Bush administration's rejection of the Geneva Convention. Bush told the world that "the United States doesn't torture", but he could only make that argument because his people has constantly attempted to redefine the term itself, questioning what, exactly, constitutes torture? The tragedy of Gibney's film is that nobody in a position of authority was made to pay for their crimes; the hammer came down instead on the young scapegoats who were simply trying to follow their unclear orders as best they could, and who lost their heads in an insane environment. Carolyn Wood, the officer overseeing the interrogations that cost Dilawar and Habibullah their lives, was rewarded with a Bronze Star and a transfer – to Abu Ghraib.

This is fascinating, shocking material, but in perhaps
Taxi to the Dark Side's most intriguing sequences, Gibney gradually moves away from specific incidents of abuse to explore the concept of torture itself. Through interviews with experienced interrogators and psychologists, it is debunked as a fatally flawed practice, in which the victim will only be prompted to tell the torturer what he wants to hear. The "ticking-bomb" scenario – the 24-style notion that torture can be justified in a race against time – is laughed off here as a pathetically flimsy defence, and torture expert Alfred McCoy offers a fascinating perspective on the psychological argument against such tactics. One example that highlights exactly why these techniques don't work is the 2003 incident in which a prisoner admitted to his interrogators that there were indeed ties between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, leading to Colin Powell repeating this confession in a speech to the United Nations. Later, it was revealed that this information was nonsense, something the prisoner came up with just because he thought it was what the Americans wanted to hear. Powell described it as the most embarrassing day of his life.

Alex Gibney is a fresh and exciting new voice in American cinema. His last feature, 2005's
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room was a superbly constructed documentary, in which the director approached his subject with journalist rigour and a filmmaker's eye for storytelling clarity. Those same attributes are on display in Taxi to the Dark Side, and Gibney's ability to create such an alarming and gripping piece of filmmaking from his use of photos, interviews, archive footage and subtle recreations is hugely impressive. This is surely one of the best films of the year, and, for Gibney, it's clear that it's a deeply personal one too. The director's father was a naval interrogator during the Second World War, and he has the last word here, saying "It's destroyed my faith in the American government. Behind the façade of wartime hatred, there was a central rule of law, and we believed in it. It was what made America different". He surely speaks for all viewers – American or otherwise – who are dismayed that such atrocities could be committed in the name of freedom. Taxi to the Dark Side is a plea for human decency.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Review - Hancock

John Hancock (Will Smith) is the superhero nobody loves. When crimes are taking place in Los Angeles, Hancock is usually found slumped on a bench, sleeping off a hangover, and he when he does finally rouse himself to save the day, the citizens of LA tend to wish he hadn't bothered. He smashes billboards and crashes into buildings as he flies erratically through the air, with a whisky bottle in his hand, and whenever he comes in for a landing, he leaves gaping holes in the road. Instead of being greeted by grateful applause from the public, he is simply booed and labelled an "asshole", and Hancock's latest destructive act – leaving a car full of crooks perilously perched on top of a skyscraper – seems to be the final straw, with the DA determined to put him in jail.

What we have here, essentially, is the opening section of
The Incredibles stretched to feature length. That film also explored the notion that superheroes might not be entirely welcome in normal society, that their abilities are more of a burden than a gift. The characters in Brad Bird's picture had to withdraw into a kind of superhero protection programme, living out a drab "normal" life, but in Hancock, the answer is simply good PR, with public relations man Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) offering the reluctant hero some tips on salvaging his tarnished reputation.

Hancock is the natural extension of the recent comic book theme in which the heroes have been brooding, angst-ridden figures, struggling to handle the great responsibility that their great power has thrust upon them. For John Hancock, this role is a thankless one, and in the picture's first half, director Peter Berg spends plenty of time showing us repeatedly how recklessly he deals with his role, and how much animosity his behaviour inspires. The screenplay develops a couple of running gags, like Hancock's slow-burning anger whenever he hears the word "asshole", or his repeated threat "If you don't move, your head is going up his ass", but hearing Hancock make that threat is funnier than seeing him carry it out; an example of the film's inability to know where to draw a line. While Hancock is occasionally funny, it's mostly just odd, with a weirdly uncertain tone that tries to blend crowd-pleasing explosive action with emotionally turbulent scenes of introspection, and Berg seems constantly unsure in his handling of the uneven action. The set-pieces are aggressively noisy but they lack impact, while he seems a little more comfortable adopting the handheld style he used in Friday Night Lights, for the quieter scenes in which Smith, Bateman and Charlize Theron (as Bateman's sceptical wife) are allowed room to simply act.

All of this begs one question – what kind of movie does
Hancock really want to be? It has the flashy effects required by this type of film, blending them awkwardly with downbeat dramatic scenes, and the whole concoction seems to be constantly straining at the limits of its PG-13 rating. About halfway through the picture, it inexplicably finds yet another new direction to fly into, and suddenly all bets are off. I won't reveal the nature of the plot's big twist for fear of spoiling viewers yet to see Hancock, but I'm also loathe to discuss it because I'm not sure I fully understand it. The choppy screenplay, by Vincent Ngo and Peter Gilligan, spends an age explaining the nature of this twist, but the more exposition they hurriedly cram into Hancock the more incomprehensible it becomes, and the less I cared. There's simply too much story squeezed into this 92-minute movie for any of it to be fully developed, and the film ends up snatching at plot points and leaving great narrative gaps in its wake.

Smith does his best to hold the film together. His performance is as good as it could have been under the circumstances, but he never feels like the right fit for the role; no matter how much this perennially wholesome actor glowers and grumbles as the misanthropic Hancock, he can't provide the edge of danger the character needs. His development into somebody willing to accept the responsibility he has to the public should feel like a real step forward, but instead it feels like the inevitable road that any Will Smith character is going to take. The real star here is Theron, who has been grimly authentic in most of her recent roles but who brings a radiant movie star quality to this one, particularly in the second half when it feels like she's the picture's sole guiding light. Alas, even she is subsumed by the finale, when all of
Hancock's misjudgements (Eddie Marsan is many things; a convincing villain in a superhero movie is not one of them) collide to catastrophic effect. At the height of the Summer filmgoing season, I guess we should be pleased to see a film like Hancock – not a sequel, not a remake, not based on a comic or TV show, not produced by Jerry Bruckheimer – but the film is so devoid of pleasure, and so wayward in its execution, it's impossible to find a positive angle on it. We can commend Hancock for not quite being the movie most of us would expect of a 4th of July Will Smith vehicle, but sometimes you just want a superhero movie to fly straight.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

"This big self-pitying cry from the heart was really all I was capable of doing" - An interview with Guy Maddin

It's safe to say nobody makes films quite like Guy Maddin. His surreal, Freudian melodramas, inspired by the early days of cinema, have steadily built up a cult following over the years, through Maddin's many shorts and features. His latest film My Winnipeg is a semi-documentary that explores both the history of his hometown and his own family history, with the two becoming inextricably linked as Maddin shares one outlandish story after another with us. Maddin was recently in London to promote the film, and the below interview took place the morning after My Winnipeg's screening at the National Film Theatre, an event for which Maddin provided live onstage narration.

How do you feel after last night's performance?

I feel alright. It's the last time I'll ever have to do it, so as I was saying each line I was checking it off as something I never have to say again, so that felt good. It feels nice to bring the movie to a public in person, it bridges a gap, and I somehow I feel like I'm holding hands between the audience and the screen, bringing everyone a little bit closer together. I also feel a little bit mischievous bringing a travelogue about my meagre little hometown to a world capital; it feels a bit silly.

It must have been quite an intense experience for you, because there's a lot of narration to get through in the film.

Yeah. I've never been much of an actor or a theatre person, but I think I feel the same way after my shows that an actor feels after a night on the boards. Beer tastes so good afterwards [laughs].

Did you do any of the Brand Upon The Brain! narrations?

I did one in Seattle, the city in which the movie was shot. It was always such an ordeal tricking celebrity narrators into narrating my micro-budget film, so I volunteered to do it once, figuring that least I'd bring some directorial authority to my voice, although it's not a great voice. Besides, I always wanted to see if I could do a better job than the narrators who were driving me crazy. It's tougher than I thought.

Did you always intend to use your own voice on My Winnipeg because of the autobiographical nature of it?

Yeah, it was determined pretty early. I was really hoping to use someone else, someone with a great classically trained voice or just a natural born speaker. If I could have somehow cloned James Mason or George Sanders, someone like that, and I also pictured Dennis Haysbert, you know, that great African-American voice form Far From Heaven. I don't know, I just wanted someone like that; but the movie had so many highly implausible episodes from Winnipeg's history and folklore that having someone else pretend to be me would have pushed it into the realms of mockumentary, and that was my biggest fear. So my producers made me do it, and it was the right thing. It's just been strange and it hasn't allowed me to abandon the picture, I've had to travel with it.

This live aspect has been such an important component of your last two films. Is that something you'll continue with in the future?

I'd like to play with it a bit more, and I think film festivals really enjoy having some kind of filmic event. There are so many festivals now, a film like Brand Upon The Brain! would have quietly come and gone had it not been a live event, and instead at the Berlin Film Festival it played to a massive sellout crowd at the Deutsch Opera in Berlin. It was the same with its other festival appearances, and it's been pretty nice. It makes me feel more like a showman rather than a filmmaker, and when you're up there on stage with an audience you feel it; you feel where you've been too self-indulgent and have missed a connection, and it doesn't feel good, so I think it's a healthy relationship for all involved.

I understand the film was commissioned as a straightforward documentary.

Well, it was never entirely straightforward, but it was just meant for a television broadcast on The Documentary Channel in Canada. But I was always encouraged from minute one to make a highly personal portrait of Winnipeg, in other words my own Winnipeg, and that enabled me to take on the project. I don't think I'm a very good documentarian, I don't like doing research, but when I was told to make a highly personal one I knew I could do all the research I needed just by looking into my own heart, and I didn't have to go looking through archives or books and coming to disinterested conclusions. That stuff didn't interest me at all. This big self-pitying cry from the heart was really all I was capable of doing and interested in doing, so it quickly turned into that.

Your work reminds me of Werner Herzog in a way, in that neither of you draw a line between fact and fiction in your stories.

I consider that a huge compliment by the way, thank you. It's the first time anyone has invoked Herzog's name, and he has always been one of the gods for me. Even in interviews he doesn't seem to draw a line between fact and fiction [laughs].

Do you enjoy playing with that reality/fantasy distinction?

I guess so, but strangely enough everything in the movie is true, even if it seems like it isn't. There is at least a Winnipeg Alexanderplatz-style 16 hours worth of things that are strange and true before I'd have to resort to making things up. I really like Herzog's idea of "ecstatic truth" being more useful and more true than just the facts, although there are obviously places for that too. It takes too long to sort through facts and they take on a dossier-like aroma which nobody likes, so for the sake of conveying a psychological, ecstatic or poetic truth, whatever you want to call it, it's better to keep engaging the audience.

Have you had a lot of people coming up to you after screenings and asking you which stories are true and which aren't?

Yeah, they'll say things like "were those horses real?", and I don't know if they mean "did it really happen?" or "is the footage real?" or "is it really archival footage?" you know? I just tell them "the footage is real", which is the most ambiguous thing you can say - It was footage, alright! [laughs]. It's strange, everyone is curious and nobody quite believes, but the only thing I lied outright about in the movie is that my mother is actually acted by somebody else. It was really important to contextualise my mother in this movie, and I really wanted Ann Savage, the old B-movie, poverty row legend to be my mom. I just wanted to go back in time and be born from her womb instead of my own mother's, for the sake of this film anyway.

Tell me how you cast Ann Savage, she hasn't been seen on screen for fifty years.

That's right, it was 51 years, except for some non-speaking cameos here and there for old friends. After kind of fetishising her famous movie Detour for so many years and writing the outline for this documentary, I was talking to a friend of mine who used to run the American Cinematheque in LA. I was bemoaning the fact that I really needed to cast somebody perfect as my mother, and the only person who could do it properly would be Ann Savage, and he said "Well, I was just married last week and Ann Savage was at my wedding". He had her phone number so I started a two or three months long wooing by telephone of Ann, and I got to know her gradually. We found out we had many tastes in films in common, she still goes to the movies all the time, watching contemporary films as well as having her TV welded to Turner Classic Movies, so we could whip up quite a bit of enthusiasm chatting about films. She also has a million stories, you know, she's friends with Mickey Rooney, and she lived next door to Eric Blore, that character actor who played butlers in a million movies. We just became fast friends, it reminded me of how quickly my friendship with Isabella Rossellini formed, and it's great having these ladies in my life now.

Was Ann familiar with your style of filmmaking before you contacted her?

She wasn't, but I sent her a big package and she worked her way through them, and we had a lot to talk about. I think she first really connected with my ballet version of Dracula, and then she enjoyed The Saddest Music in the World, so there was a lot of respect there. The thing that impressed her most, if she's being honest with me, was that all the scripts she'd been offered over the years were offered in the spirit of "let's get this souvenir from Detour into a project", but this script has nothing to do with Detour. This person playing an unwilling to perform mother in a documentary just offered her one more pretzel twist in her barrel, it was this kind of meta-performance that she was intrigued by, and I was just honoured that she was taking it seriously. When I finally got her to come to Winnipeg I just couldn't believe my eyes, seeing her with the familiar Winnipeg skyline behind her, it was one of the oddest moments of my life.

Do you know how a film is going to fit together as you're shooting it, or is it something you discover in the editing?

I have traditionally always followed my scripts, but more and more I'm just showing up on set now and it's kind of the way I remember Fassbinder worked, which used to terrify me just to read of it. He would show up without any storyboards, just knowing what scenes he wanted to do that day, and then he'd look at the room, look at his actors, and start attacking it, and that's more like what I do now. I used to always get the storyboards, but nothing less and nothing more, and now I get far more out of the movie by just showing up with my camera. I end up surprising myself, almost the way a football player would show up the pitch and wait for an action and reaction, and sometimes you have a good game and sometimes you don't, but at least you're capable of surprising yourself now and then.

Is it a challenge to edit the film together when you're shooting on such a variety of film stocks?

Luckily, in this case, since it is a documentary, it allowed me to switch from texture to texture a bit. If it was a fiction film I suppose it would be an annoying affectation to switch all over the place. There was no real challenge, although I shot a lot more HD than you see in the finished product, because I really wanted to use this documentary to help me break away from my addiction to film emulsion, but a lot of the anecdotes really seemed to belong in the world of film rather than video when I cut them together, so I projected the movie onto my fridge and reshot it on film. So, they end up having the vestiges of video about them, but they're still embedded in film now, and it all seems to rest in a murky twilight somewhere between the two media, and that felt better to me.

Is digital filming something you're still looking to move into at some point?

Yeah, I am, just because I liked the look of INLAND EMPIRE quite a bit, there was so much versatility and texture in the look he got. I'd like to just open up a whole new Pandora's Box of image-making for myself, but I've always kind of relied on the accidents on set as I'm ripping through things, but the only thing that's bothered me about video so far is the fact that I haven't been able to have any accidents. The cameras seem to be accident-proof somehow.

These modern cameras are just too professional.

Exactly. I need to take all of the safety devices off them and then I can have some fun.

What's it like for you making such a personal film? Is it an emotional experience to explore your past in this way?

Sometimes it is. Sometimes I think it's easy to confuse your eyes misting up and a lump in your throat with pride; sometimes you're just proud of yourself for getting something out and you think "wait a minute, I'm not having an emotional moment, I'm just choking up at how brilliant I am" [laughs]. Every aspiring artist has to kid himself now and then that he's a real genius, and that's always an emotional moment, but upon closer inspection it's a sickening moment [laughs]. Every now and then it gets pretty strange, and sometimes when I'm narrating I realise I just really, simply love these people and I miss them, and that's pretty emotional. There were other times, when shooting in my childhood home, I was really astonished that some of the smells survived decades after other people had been living there, smells of our family cooking and things like that. The most shocking thing of all was that my voice kind of echoed off the walls of these old rooms in ways that...I couldn't quite put my finger on it...but it just sounded like my home again. It's as if humans have some kind of sonic memory, and we're all a little bit like bats, something like that. It was just a different way of inhabiting a space that caught me off guard, and I found myself choking up over that. It was a really strange, nostalgic experience for me at times.

Aside from the humour and strange anecdotes in the film, there's a lot of anger when you deal with the destruction of the hockey arena that was so close to your heart. Was the opportunity to raise that issue a motivation behind the film?

Yeah it was, I really wanted to point out how annoyingly narrow-minded or corrupt some of the thoughts behind these civic actions were, but it was also – and I didn't expect this – a way of consoling myself. Getting into the arena while it was being demolished, being the only person allowed in there with a camera, being the last person to urinate in the men's washroom, it helped to make the place mine more, and it was almost like being the only person to attend its funeral. Getting it on film too really helped, because now I have it forever, many hours of footage. It was always going to go anyway, and there was nothing I could do to stop it, but without naming names I could at least point some fingers and rant a bit; but I've found that I've calmed down a lot now, maybe because it's been gone for a couple of years. I know it seems silly to complain about a couple of buildings going down, especially when I was performing this film in Berlin to a city which was completely flattened just one generation ago. To complain about a department store or old skating rink just seems self-pitying.

But I think that's something that actually gives the film a more universal resonance, the notion of something close to your heart being snatched away. It does feel like a piece of you has been demolished.

Oh, for sure, that's my biggest dream for this film coming true when people come up to me and say "that reminds me of my home". I really hoped the film – even if it's an Everest of Winnipeg specifities – would push through all of those specifics to reach other people, because I guess it's not just a documentary about Winnipeg, it's about home and our nostalgia for home.

What has the reaction been like in Winnipeg?

I showed it just the day before I left town to come here, and I was shocked, it filled a 1600 seat old vaudeville theatre and it got a very warm response. My mother was present as well, sitting up in the Abe Lincoln loge, and she got a five-minute ovation after the movie, and I was very touched. My mom acted like she gets standing ovations every day, she really milked it. She stood up, she's 92 years old, she waved to the audience, sat down, and then she stood up and waved some more [laughs]. I was very proud of her.

What are you working on now?

I do have a few things, but I'm not sure what I'm going to tackle next. I have a few short movie commissions that I'm going to get out of the way this Fall, but I want to work on a longer project. I have an internet interactive movie labyrinth, kind of a choose your own adventure affair, that I'm working on with the American poet John Ashbury. I've got a low-budget feature that I got a grant for from Leslie Wexner, the founder of Victoria's Secret lingerie, but I haven't chosen a subject yet. I have complete artistic freedom on that one.

So it doesn't have to be about lingerie, then?

[laughs] That might not be a bad idea, the more I think about it. I always picture the lingerie coming with Naomi Campbell, for some reason, but I'm sure there'll be someone else who'll look good in it too.

You mentioned an interactive internet adventure there. Are you interested in the internet as a filmmaking tool and means of exhibiting your work?

Yeah I am. I've always considered myself something of a pioneer, even though I'm always pioneering stuff from the 1920's. I feel like a time traveller. I like the idea of wandering into that vast frontier of the internet and pioneering some narrative forms there. It's nice and scary and there aren't any set rules yet, so it feels pretty good.

Do you have more stories to tell about Winnipeg and your own life, or have you exhausted them all by now?

Well, I might recede a little bit and remove my name from the cast of characters, and just tell stories. I'm not quite sure yet, but I've made three movies now where I'm basically the main character, I call it the "me" trilogy, and that feels like enough.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Review - My Winnipeg

Did you know Winnipeg has the highest rate of sleepwalking in the world? Did you know the city only has one hill, originally built out of garbage and grassed over? And have you heard the story about the horses who became frozen in an icy lake, with only their stricken heads visible above the surface for six months? Guy Maddin's
My Winnipeg is full of such tall tales. The endlessly imaginative Canadian filmmaker has made what he calls a "docu-fantasia", a travelogue in which we explore the town of Maddin's birth through the recounting of tall tales and (possibly) apocryphal anecdotes, all of which – the director insists – are true. Of course, many viewers may scoff when he makes such claims as we watch a sham Nazi invasion take place in the town, but the veracity of what we're seeing in My Winnipeg is ultimately beside the point. This is simply another of Maddin's uniquely constructed fever dreams; a freewheeling concoction bursting at the seams with inventive ideas, which acts as both a tribute to the city of the title, and an exploration of Maddin's own complex familial history. True, false, whatever – this is his Winnipeg.

It is also one of his most accessible and consistently entertaining pictures, although some viewers who haven't visited his world before might struggle to get their bearings in the opening scenes, which seem to keep pace with the city's somnambulant population. The central character is a Manitoban man named Guy Maddin who has boarded a train with dreams of escape filling his head. He wants to cut his ties, both with this city and with his domineering mother (Ann Savage), but as the train gently rocks its way out of the station, Maddin the director threatens to overload his film with repetitive imagery and motifs. He himself provides
My Winnipeg's narration, and at times it's more of an intonation – "the forks...the lap...the fur" – designed to lull viewers into the dreamscape he has envisaged. Some members of the audience will refuse to succumb, but as Maddin moves away from this scene to feature more personal individual stories, My Winnipeg becomes a fascinating and frequently hilarious experience.

Guy Maddin's films are unique. He delves into long-forgotten movie history and snatches bits and pieces from any kind of picture that tickles his fancy – silent curiosities, expressionistic masterpieces, hard-boiled noirs – before collating everything into one great patchwork of arcane cinema. With his 20's-style aesthetic and frantic editing style, his pictures have a fantastic, distinctive look, and the intensity of his storytelling is heightened via an insatiable taste for melodrama and a great deal of sexually ambiguous imagery. He is, to be sure, an acquired taste, but it's hard not to be thrilled by the energy and enthusiasm that he displays here, as
My Winnipeg moves quickly between a series of delightful vignettes. We laugh as a herd of sexually confused bison destroys the Happyland theme park, or as the hit television series Ledgeman comes to an exciting conclusion, but Maddin switches tone so adroitly to offer us passages that are touching, even haunting, in their execution. A séance that plays out as a ballet recalls Maddin's masterpiece Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary, while he utilises shadow-puppet animation to depict a fire that destroyed the racetrack, before the fleeing horses found themselves trapped in the ice. The image of their heads poking above the surface while locals skate happily around them is beautiful and unsettling.

As Maddin takes us on this phantasmagorical tour of his Winnipeg, he also allows us into the family home, to watch as he stages key events that defined his relationship with his mother. She's played by Ann Savage – who, in 1945's
Detour, gave us one of the most fatale of all screen femmes – and her chilly demeanour adds an extra frisson to these scenes, as she reluctantly takes part in Maddin's elaborate reconstructions. She is particularly effective in a wonderful scene where she interrogates her daughter after a late arrival home, hissing, "I wasn’t born yesterday, dearie. Where did it happen? In the back seat?" as the girl is reduced to tears. These familial sequences have a sense of honesty about them, and the surreal little details Maddin slips into them make them come alive; like the fastidious and perennially useless resetting of the rug, or his father's exhumed corpse lying on the living room floor, or the presence of a strange old lady who simply refuses to leave. My Winnipeg is uproariously funny at times, but as the film progresses, and Maddin reveals more about his family's life, the laughter becomes tinged with sadness.

Maddin's narration is understandably full of emotion – or at least it was at the event I attended, in which he provided his rendition live on stage – but one especially noticeable aspect of
My Winnipeg is the presence of something rather unusual in a Maddin film, a genuine sense of anger. Towards the end of the picture, Maddin suddenly becomes enraged as he details the city's destruction of buildings that hold a certain place in his heart, particularly the hockey arena in which he was born. Maddin accuses those in charge of making these decisions of committing a "blasphemy" and of betraying the city's heritage, and such invective can only come from a man who deeply cares about his hometown and can't bear to see it lose its soul. My Winnipeg may begin with thoughts of escape, but as we take a deliriously entertaining journey through this unusual town, the film ultimately ends up confirming what we already knew – Guy Maddin still loves Winnipeg, and he'll never really leave.

Read my interview with Guy Maddin here.