Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Review - Hellboy II: The Golden Army

To watch
Hellboy II: The Golden Army is to overdose on imagination. The imagination, that is, of Guillermo del Toro, which is surely among the most fertile and beguiling in contemporary cinema. Take the opening prologue, for example. Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt, making a brief but welcome appearance) tells young Hellboy a bedtime story, which mostly consists of the kind of thing you'd expect to find in a picture like this – an ancient war, an uneasy truce, a portentous warning of reprisals – but the story itself is less remarkable than the manner in which del Toro depicts it. Bruttenholm's words are being filtered through the imagination of the young demon-child hearing them, and so we see this great battle being fought entirely by wooden puppets. It's a gorgeous sight, one to immediately strike a chord with the child inside all of us, and throughout Hellboy II, del Toro finds fresh ways to make the screen come alive with fantastical sights.

Hellboy himself is as fantastical a figure as they come, of course. Played once more by Ron Perlman, he's a bright red monster with pared-down horns and a sledgehammer right fist, although his intimidating appearance masks a surprisingly sweet soul, as evidenced by the kittens that roam around his messy quarters. Those quarters are located in the bowels of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence (BPRD), a covert government agency that Hellboy and his freakishly gifted pals work for. The combustible Liz (Selma Blair) and Hellboy have become an item since the first film, but their relationship has hit a rocky patch when this sequel opens, and Liz is keeping the fact that she's pregnant (the mind boggles!) a secret from her partner. However, she can't keep it hidden from Abe Sapien (played both physically and vocally by Doug Jones), the highly intelligent amphibian who can telepathically know things beyond human comprehension, but who struggles to understand basic emotions. These are the central characters in the action, and one of the most pleasant aspects of
Hellboy II is the way del Toro devotes plenty of attention – at least in the film's first half – to exploring their own dilemmas and conflicts, creating the kind of drama that can't be conjured via the magic of CGI.

There's something of a plot too, but it isn't anywhere near as evolved as Del Toro's visual sense, and at times we can sense the strain as the screenplay creaks under the opulent decoration that it has been adorned with. The story told in that prologue comes back to haunt Hellboy when Prince Nuada (Luke Goss, sadly not wearing bottle tops on his shoes) arrives in modern-day New York to break the truce his father hatched between the worlds of demons and humans. He's after the various segments of a crown that, when united, will grant the wearer complete control over an indestructible golden army that currently lays dormant deep in the earth's bowels. His twin sister Nuala (Anna Walton) gathers up the crown's crucial third segment and flees into the sanctuary of the BPRD, where – in the film's most pleasing development – she becomes Abe Sapien's first ever love interest. Some of my favourite scenes in the picture were the ones that featured Doug Jones as a lovesick Abe, attempting to come to terms with the feelings Nuala stirs in him, and resorting to Barry Manilow songs in his quest for comprehension (a rendition of
Can't Smile Without You is a definite comic highlight).

Abe isn't the only character struggling with his emotions, as Hellboy is suffering from his own identity crisis, something that seems to be
de rigeur for superhero sequels these days. His moment of truth comes when he finally reveals himself to the American public and doesn't quite get the hero's welcome he was anticipating, but I was disappointed with how little del Toro actually did with this strand of the narrative. Essentially, it boils down to one scene, when Hellboy – in the midst of battling an enormous escapee from the Little Shop of Horrors – is invited by Nuada to question his place in the world. Does he belong with the humans – as a freak, an outsider – or is his place with the demons, where he can be a king? This dilemma isn't explored much beyond that scene, though, and soon Hellboy is back kicking monstrous ass.

The action sequences in
Hellboy II are much tighter and sharper than they were in the first picture, and while the sequence outlined above is a standout, special mention must go to the encounter with the swarm of tiny "Tooth Fairies", whose method of extracting teeth is far more disturbing than their benign name suggests. One can see the influence of Pan's Labyrinth in their design, and the shadow of that great film looms over other areas of Hellboy II, with del Toro clearly revelling in a greater freedom to paint the screen with his stunning images. It's a shame that the film stops being quite so explosively imaginative in its second half (shortly after the Manilow duet in fact), and begins adhering more to a shop-worn formula. The climactic sequences are disjointed and hampered by shoddy plotting, and the final showdown is let down by both Nuada's lack of real menace, and the fact that del Toro leaves Abe and Liz standing around like dummies while Hellboy and new colleague Johann Krauss (voiced by a German-accented Seth McFarlane) take on the golden army.

Hellboy II is not a perfect film, then, but I liked it more than the first, which always felt unusually flat to me, and I think there's still more to come from this franchise. Hellboy remains a great character, beautifully captured by Ron Perlman's cranky cynicism, and the world del Toro creates around him is stunning to behold. Watch the "troll market" sequence here and marvel at the stunning detail and imagination packed into every corner of the set – what I really want to see is a Hellboy film in which the story matches that kind of showmanship, where the plot is ambitious enough to complement the film's cinematography and art direction. Hellboy II loses its magic whenever it starts following the rules, it begins to feel like just another big-budget blockbuster, and del Toro's vision is too weird and special to suffer that fate. I'd love to see a third Hellboy film, but one hopes the director will finally go all the way for that one, to give these characters the send-off they deserve, and to fully envelop us in his beautifully twisted dreams.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Review - Tropic Thunder

It has been suggested that the idea for Tropic Thunder has been festering inside Ben Stiller's brain for more than a decade, and at times during the film I wondered if every single thought he has had in the intervening years had somehow made it into the final cut. Stiller's fourth film as a director is one of the most ambitious mainstream comedies in years; a lavishly budgeted satire that lampoons actors, directors, producers and anyone else who dares to make their living in Hollywood, and Stiller is so keen to stick his satirical knife in, he doesn't even wait for the movie to start. Before Tropic Thunder begins, we are presented with a commercial and three trailers that neatly introduce the picture's main characters while sending up aspects of advertising and cinema that have become all too familiar. A rapper named Alpa Chino (Brandon T Jackson) appears on screen to promote his soft drink Booty Sweat; fading action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller) resurrects a tired franchise in Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown; a Chris Farley/Eddie Murphy style comic called Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) dons various fat suits for flatulent comedy Fatties: Fart II; and five-time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr) swaps lustful looks with Tobey Maguire in gay monk drama Satan's Alley.

Although one might question the wisdom of Stiller making jibes at unnecessary sequels (look out for Night at the Museum 2 and Madagascar 2 later this year, folks!), these ads are spot-on parodies, and they're perhaps the most effectively sustained comic sequences Tropic Thunder has to offer. When the film finally gets underway, it becomes something very different, spoofing war films, the business of making war films, and the business of making films altogether. The above actors have all come together to make a Vietnam epic under the hapless direction of British filmmaker Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), and when we join the action, we learn the shoot has already fallen a month behind schedule after just five days of shooting. This simply isn't good enough for obnoxious producer Les Grossman (a piece of stunt casting, which we'll deal with later), and when he threatens to shut the production down, Cockburn and grizzled veteran Four Leaf Tayback (grizzled veteran Nick Nolte) decide to dump their pampered stars into a jungle rigged with hidden cameras, a plan which goes awry when the actors find themselves facing off against a Cambodian drug gang.

The notion of actors falling unsuspectingly into real-life danger is nothing new – see the criminally underrated Galaxy Quest, for example – and in many ways, Tropic Thunder is a surprisingly conventional production. The film's sprawling satire generally hits its targets in familiar places – actors are indulgent/neurotic/stupid, directors are pretentious/clueless, agents are venal and producers are angry blowhards with dollar signs in their eyes. It's nothing new, in other words, and the film's only truly transgressive act probably lies in the casting of Robert Downey Jr, whose Kirk Lazarus is such a dedicated method actor ("I don't drop character 'till the DVD commentary") he has undergone a skin colouration process to portray the platoon's black soldier. Blackface is always dodgy ground for a comic film, but Tropic Thunder makes it work with some careful writing, the astute casting of Brandon T Jackson – who acts as a mouthpiece for any criticisms of this stunt – and the brilliant performance from Downey Jr. The idea is not to poke fun at blackface but to send up the self-importance of actors who go to extreme lengths for a role, and Downey Jr's portrayal plays on his character's arrogance and lack of self-awareness as he spouts such idiotic lines as "I don't read the script, the script reads me".

Stiller, who co-wrote the film with Justin Theroux and Etan Coen, can't find anything half as interesting for the rest of the cast to do, though. Jack Black brings plenty of energy to the picture but he has nowhere to put it, and Stiller himself is surprisingly dull in the role of Tugg Speedman; his muscles are impressively shaped but he falls too often into the kind of "Blue Steel" staring that was more fun in Zoolander. After the first hour you've seen everything he's got, and the film similarly slips away from its moorings as it progresses, repeating gags and ideas rather than expanding on them. One of the picture's funniest interludes features a film called Simple Jack, in which Speedman made a disastrous attempt to gain credibility by playing a retarded farmhand, and it acts as a sharp dig at the kind of shamelessly manipulative disability roles that actors have taken on in the desperate grasp for Academy Award glory. Downey Jr's Lazarus has a hilarious speech in which he explains to Speedman where he went wrong with the role ("You went full retard, man. Never go full retard"), but after all of the juice has been wrung out of this joke, Stiller has Speedman recreating scenes from Simple Jack late in the film. Much of Tropic Thunder's second half hits the same beats repeatedly, and it ultimately outstays its welcome.

It would be completely disingenuous to say Tropic Thunder isn't funny, I found parts of it absolutely hysterical, but the biggest laughs for me came from exchanges of dialogue between characters rather than the bigger, flashier bits, and the film leans more towards the latter in its second half. I always found myself expecting the film to be a little funnier, a little more inventive, but instead it became an explosive, borderline incoherent spectacle, and the whole thing really careens off the rails in its final ten minutes.
Tropic Thunder is not a great satire – Stiller nibbles rather than bites the hand that feeds him – and it's too messily inconsistent to be either a great comedy or a great war movie, but I found it compulsively watchable all the same. John Toll's lush cinematography gives it the feel of a true Vietnam epic, and Downey Jr is a constant delight, but there is one other performance that really stands out. Under heavy makeup, Tom Cruise makes an uncredited appearance to play the fat, balding, aggressive producer Les Grossman, and while it's wonderful to see this actor cut loose in a way he hasn't since Magnolia, it's disappointing to see how little the filmmakers do with this opportunity. Cruise is simply asked to shout obscenities and to dance in an embarrassing fashion, and his scenes stop being funny very quickly. Instead, I found myself cringing as his bizarre act dragged on, but his cameo also has a car crash-style quality that is weirdly compelling, and it seems to sum up my feelings about Tropic Thunder almost perfectly. It's both adventurous and juvenile, knowing and crass, and it doesn't know when to quit – and, for one reason or another, I couldn't take my eyes off it.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Review - Get Smart

Whatever compliments I pay towards Get Smart, it sounds like I'm damning the film with faint praise. I could say it's pretty good for a spin-off from an old TV show, or I could say it's not bad as far as mainstream action/comedies go, and while both of those statements are true, they're unlikely to send hordes of eager moviegoers racing to the box office. Those statements are about the best I can come up with for Get Smart, though. It's fun but forgettable, a slickly made, entertaining concoction which has enough charm to overcome its almost chronic lack of imagination and ambition. A Get Smart film was, I suppose, inevitable. Almost everything in Hollywood feels second-hand these days – it's all remakes, sequels and comic book/TV show adaptations – so it was only a matter of time before Mel Brooks and Buck Henry's 60's spy spoof popped up on the schedule.

I have vague, but fond, memories of the original programme. The central character was Maxwell Smart, or Agent 86, a confident but incompetent spy working for the top-secret government agency CONTROL. In every episode, Smart would get involved in some elaborate plot – normally hatched by crime organisation KAOS – and he would always end up saving the day more by accident than design, often with the help of his smarter female colleague Agent 99. Most of the elements that made that show work are present and correct in this update, except for the fact that Smart (played by Steve Carell) is not agent 86 at the start of the picture. Instead, he's a CONTROL data analyst who desperately yearns for the opportunity to make the grade as an agent, but whose dedication and fastidiousness makes him far more valuable to the organisation in his current role. A tragedy opens the door for Smart, when half of CONTROL's agents are wiped out in separate attacks. As somebody whose identity hasn't been compromised, Maxwell Smart is asked to step up, and to accompany Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) on a mission to Russia.

If you're wondering at this juncture why Agent 99's identity hasn't been compromised, that's all explained away in an unconvincing backstory involving plastic surgery, although perhaps this is actually a screenwriter's attempt to explain the almost otherworldly beauty of Hathaway. Either way, characterisation is not Get Smart's strongest suit. Take Maxwell himself, for example; in the original TV Show he was a clueless, self-regarding buffoon, whereas here he's more of an everyman and he's often quite, well, smart. At times the film's screenplay can't seem to decide how clever or stupid he's meant to be; he shows himself to be remarkably adept at dealing with a tight situation one minute, and then he's doing something unutterably idiotic the next, with his only consistent trait being extreme clumsiness. Agent 23 (played by Dwayne Johnson) finds himself in the same boat. His entrance is a treat, strutting imperiously through the CONTROL offices, and dazzling a wide-eyed secretary with a wink, before walking straight into a wall. From that little introduction I assumed he's be depicted as a superspy who's nowhere near as suave as he wants to be, but he plays the rest of the film with something of a straight bat, offering no more slapstick chuckles.

Such inconsistencies are hugely disappointing, because the film is brilliantly cast. Steve Carell was the obvious choice to step into the telephone shoes vacated by the late Don Adams; he manages to give his character the kind of consistent voice the screenwriters can't manage. Carell's Smart is more awkward than clueless, bearing a strong resemblance to The Office's Michael Scott, and the actor makes a number of scenes much funnier than they otherwise might have been. I doubt I would have laughed as much at Smart's shambolic attempts to operate a tiny crossbow, his encounter with a rat in a laser-filled room, or his display of surveillance skills at a urinal, had they been performed by someone who doesn't share Carell's gift for deadpan bemusement. Crucially, he shares a lively onscreen chemistry with Hathaway, an actress who has been adding various strings to her bow in recent years with performances in Brokeback Mountain and The Devil Wears Prada, and who makes Agent 99 seem like the best Bond girl Bond never had.

Get Smart has plenty of good jokes and hack director Peter Segal is smart enough to know that his best bet is to just direct traffic and not try anything too flashy. The film whizzes along pleasantly, but it could really do with both a stronger plot and a stronger villain. It does have Terence Stamp as KAOS chief Siegfried, and I felt sure that they were saving him for some kind of veteran punch-up with CONTROL chief Alan Arkin, but it doesn't happen, and instead these two actors are left mostly on the sidelines. The waste of such talent gives us hints at the kind of movie Get Smart could have been had it shown a little more ambition, but it does manage to achieve the modest targets its going for, and I wouldn't be opposed to the sequel this film seems to be edging towards in its final stages. This time they missed it by that much, maybe their aim will be a little steadier in a second adventure.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Review - Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite)

"God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That's flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character"
– Adaptation (2002)

While the above line – spoken by Brian Cox as Robert McKee – overstates the case somewhat, it's easy to sympathise with McKee's sentiment when faced with a film like Elite Squad. Voiceover narration can be a potent tool in a filmmaker's arsenal, but it's one that must be handled with kid gloves. For every perfectly pitched film like Days of Heaven, Goodfellas or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, there are dozens of films in which the soundtrack chatter feels like a lazy shortcut; more of a distraction than a guide. In Elite Squad, the central character is a Brazilian police captain named Nascimento (Wagner Moura), who commands the marine-like BOPE squad, a highly trained elite unit that's unafraid to go where regular officers fear to tread. Set in Rio in 1997, the film follows Nascimento as he searches for a young replacement to take the reins after his impending retirement, and every step of this journey is narrated by the character in the same droning, emotionless tone. Nascimento's ceaseless commentary explains in detail his character's thoughts, feelings and actions, and then – as if that wasn't bad enough – the seemingly omniscient narrator offers the same service in scenes that have nothing to do with his character, dutifully spelling out the stories of young cadets Neto (Caio Junqueira) and Matias (André Ramiro).

The way director José Padilha leans on Nascimento's non-stop narration suggests he lacks confidence in his own ability to tell this story. This is a shame, because he showed in his previous feature – the outstanding Bus 174 – that he is capable of handling narrative with a lighter, more intuitive touch. He tries to maintain some semblance of documentary-style rigour in this would-be exposé of Brazilian law enforcement, employing a gritty, unvarnished aesthetic, but while Elite Squad's authenticity is never in doubt (former BOPE captain Rodrigo Pimentel helped bring his own book to the screen) its value as a piece of cinema is harder to determine. After opening with an onslaught of loud music and aggressive, heavily edited camerawork, the picture quickly goes limp. For all of the brutality on display the action is repetitive and lacking in real impact, and as Padilha develops his separate story strands involving Nascimento, Neto and Matias, he doesn't give us enough time with any of them to really get a sense of them as people. Most of the time Elite Squad just feels like an inferior version of TV's The Shield, sorely lacking that show's strong characterisations and its ability to skilfully interweave its disparate story elements.

About an hour into Elite Squad, Padilha finally begins to give his movie a sense of shape. The so-so storyline of the opening half – the desire to clean up Rio's streets ahead of the Pope's visit – is unceremoniously dropped, and the director finally focuses on more personal dramas. The boot camp sequence, in which Nascimento puts a group of wannabe cadets through a punishing regime, is the first really engaging section of the film, and the subsequent revenge mission Nascimento launches against local kingpin Baiano (a snarling Fábio Lago) is reasonably compelling. Aside from this efficiently staged action, Elite Squad does have some interesting points to make. It presents the Brazilian police force as being as corrupt and sadistic as the criminals they hunt, and it firmly addresses the hypocrisy shown by students who protest against gang violence, when the drugs they purchase help to keep those same gangs in business.

But what, ultimately, is Elite Squad trying to say about the BOPE themselves? Is Padilha admonishing their fascistic tactics, is he revelling in them, or is he collapsing clumsily somewhere between those two stools? The film's lack of a solid, coherent viewpoint works against it, and there's really nothing here – in terms of storytelling or filmmaking – that distinguishes Elite Squad from other recent South American films that have covered similar territory, such as Carandiru and El Bonaerense. Of course, the picture looks particularly weak when held against its most obvious influence, Fernando Meirelles' City of God. That film wasn't perfect, but it told its story with a clear artistic vision and a bracing kinetic energy. In contrast, Elite Squad simply wants to pummel us into submission.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Review - Savage Grace

Watching Julianne Moore in
Savage Grace is a depressing experience. This is not because she gives a bad performance – quite the opposite – but because her brave, unflinching turn is on display in a film that's completely unworthy of it. Moore has pretty much cornered the market in terms of tortured, post-war American wives, and in Savage Grace she plays real-life socialite Barbara Baekeland. The film opens in 1946, with Barbara and her wealthy husband Brooks (Stephen Dillane) enjoying a night out, but perhaps "enjoying" isn't the right word, as the pair snipe incessantly at each other over dinner to the quiet embarrassment of their aristocratic friends. They leave separately, with Barbara hailing down a car and impetuously deciding to spend the rest of the evening with the young men inside, an act of revenge for Brooks' earlier comment that he would sleep with another woman for a million dollars. The tension and simmering spite between the couple is palpable, and this is the environment into which Anthony Baekeland (played as an adult by Eddie Redmayne) was born.

Anthony was an infant when the above episode took place, and his narration guides us through the story as
Savage Grace details five significant episodes in the lives of Barbara and her son, with their increasingly close relationship developing into an incestuous and ultimately fatal one. But for all of the turbulent emotions swirling around this story, I never felt a thing during Savage Grace, aside from irritation, boredom and an increasing sense that I was completely wasting my time on this empty freak show. The film has been directed by Tom Kalin, whose only previous feature was another true-life tale of murder, 1992's Swoon. He shoots Savage Grace in a glossy style which has a weirdly sterile quality to it, and throughout the picture he maintains something of a hands-off approach to this story, as if he is as repelled by these characters as we are. Everything about the film feels hollow, the characters are never fleshed out and they don't appear to alter in any way across the film's near 30-year span. We are mere observers – voyeurs, actually – as Kalin plods through the various sexual shenanigans that make up the Baekelands' home life.

The utter vacuity of
Savage Grace is surprising, because one would have thought any halfway competent filmmaker could have spun something interesting out of this tale, even if it were just interesting in terms of its salacious sensationalism. The Baekelands' sexual entanglements are certainly intriguing, after all. The film suggests that Barbara's, shall we say, overeager interest in this area of Anthony's life began as a fear that her son was gay, and that her later incestuous encounters with him were part of her attempt to "cure" him of this homosexuality. During the "Cadaqués, 1967" sequence, Barbara and Brooks can be seen encouraging him to go to bed with a local girl (the talented Elena Anaya, in a nothing part), but she later hooks up with Brooks instead. Anthony goes back to men, while Barbara lives alone with her gay companion, before these three all end up in bed together (!), and finally the film leaves us alone with Barbara showing Anthony a little too much motherly love. Phew! With so much bed-hopping going you'd have thought Savage Grace would have generated a little bit of heat, but the sex in the film is dealt with in the same clinical manner as everything else. "Are you in?" Barbara asks Anthony as she straddles him, later enquiring "Did you come?" in the same flat, emotionless manner.

Quite why Kalin has forced his actors to speak in this affected, stylised manner is beyond me. He seems determined to leach any instances of emotion out of his film, to turn his characters into opaque puppets, although he doesn't have to work very hard where Eddie Redmayne is concerned. The wan-looking actor, last seen as Matt Damon's son in The Good Shepherd, is about as underwhelming a leading man as you could imagine, and he fits all too comfortably into Kalin's milieu. Thankfully, Moore manages to elude the director's deathly touch for long enough to give a fearless, intermittently powerful performance as Barbara. Alternately monstrous, brittle and pathetic, Moore is a magnetic figure, and the best scenes in
Savage Grace are hers rather than the film's as a whole. Watch how she reaches breaking point while forcing young Anthony to read a passage from de Sade's Justine for guests, or the way she loudly lambasts Brooks and his "little Spanish cunt" in front of an airport full of stunned bystanders.

These were the only scenes to spark some kind of life into
Savage Grace. At times the film became so boring I genuinely began to fear for my sanity; scene after scene of painfully stilted line readings almost drove me out of the cinema, but I remained to see if Kalin was building towards any kind of point. Instead, it seems his sole desire was to present this sordid tale to us so we can look at these people and say "Oh, how ghastly they all are!", before moving on and clearing our heads of such unpleasantness. He offers no insight, no perspective, and no resonance; Savage Grace is a heartless, pointless film, and not even the luminescent Moore can redeem it. She's magnificent, but she deserves a much better stage than this.