Sunday, September 28, 2008

Review - Hunger

Steve McQueen's
Hunger is a film built on mesmerising images, both horrible and beautiful. In telling the story of the IRA prison protests and the 1981 hunger strikes, the director leans on a visual filmmaking language rather than dialogue – he elects to show rather than tell – and the result is one of the boldest British films of recent years. When such a dispiriting number of films produced in this country are so aesthetically flat and thematically unambitious, a film like Hunger – even when it reaches slightly beyond its grasp – feels like a rare tonic. The picture has been made by an artist with a definite directorial vision, and with the collaboration of an extraordinarily skilled and committed group of actors, and there's something special going on in almost every scene.

The first half of
Hunger immerses us into The Maze, the Northern Irish prison dedicated to holding paramilitary prisoners, giving the audience a shocking and vivid recreation of the constant battle between prisoners and guards, but McQueen keeps shifting focus early on, making us wonder who the main players in this drama will be. The film opens with prison warden Ray Lohan (Stuart Graham) soaking his battered fists in a basin of water, before checking for bombs under his car while his wife watches with trepidation behind the curtains. When he gets to work, we see exactly how he damaged his hands, and after tussling violently with the prisoners, McQueen cuts to Lohan outside the prison, sucking fretfully on a cigarette while flakes of snow melt on his bloody knuckles. That's one of the remarkable moments of visual poetry McQueen and his excellent cinematographer Sean Bobbitt find in Hunger. McQueen is making his directorial debut with this film, and his virtuosity behind the camera is stunning. He follows the action with extended, often wordless takes that draw the viewer into the picture. The film is superbly edited by Joe Walker as well, who often allows scenes to run on longer than you'd expect while always finding the perfect moment to cut, preventing Hunger from falling into self-indulgence.

These attributes are all in evidence when McQueen introduces us to Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan), a new prisoner arriving at The Maze for a 6-year stretch. In line with the IRA policy, Gillen refuses to wear the prison uniform, and after being stripped of his clothes, he is led through the corridors with a blanket to hide his nakedness. When he arrives at his cell, he discovers a small room in which the walls have been covered with excrement, and he finds a fellow inmate similarly naked and crouched under a blanket. Since the late 1970's, IRA prisoners had been engaged in a series of protests aimed at highlighting their cause and forcing the British government to recognise them as political prisoners rather than terrorists. The blanket protests and dirty protests saw them refusing to wear anything but their own clothes, refusing to wash, and smearing faeces on the walls of their cells. McQueen puts us in this filthy setting and creates an atmosphere so pungent one can almost smell it, as the prisoners use the only tools they have – their bodies – to fight back against the institution holding them.

Hunger essentially takes place in three acts. The first third is as outlined above; a gripping and detailed look at the daily routine of abuse that took place in this prison, as the guards try every trick in the book to break the prisoners' spirit, and the inmates refuse to bend to their will. As the IRA's demands for political status continually fell on deaf ears, one prisoner decided to take things a step further, and that's when Act II of Hunger begins. We first see Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) as he is hauled out of his cell and held down while his hair is brutally chopped off, before being forced into a bath and then chucked back into his cell, bloody but unbowed. It was Sands who formulated the series of hunger strikes aimed at raising their profile to new levels and forcing Margaret Thatcher to acquiesce to their demands, and this decision is the driving force behind Hunger's most astonishing cinematic coup.

In a film that keeps dialogue to a minimum, it is perhaps ironic that
Hunger's signature sequence will be a single long conversation, but it's impossible to look past the brilliance of this central portion of the picture. The scene finds Sands sitting at a table across from a priest (Liam Cunningham) as he lays out his plan for the hunger strike that he will begin on March 1st 1981, with other prisoners joining in at staggered intervals. As he makes the case for this form of protest, Father Moran futilely argues against it, claiming Sands is looking for martyrdom and that this slow suicide will have no positive long-term effects, and as they bat their points of view across the table, McQueen keeps his camera rolling. The discussion unfolds in a single take, which runs for something like twenty minutes, but it is utterly captivating. These characters are laying out the key opposing arguments behind the film, but it doesn't feel didactic, it feels compelling and real, with the audience hanging on every word. It is a tour de force of filmmaking, and the performances from Fassbender and Cunningham are simply beyond praise.

"There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing or political violence. There is only criminal murder, criminal bombing and criminal violence". Margaret Thatcher's famous quote on the IRA prisoners appears in
Hunger, but this doesn't really feel like a political film, it feels like an intensely personal film. The final section of the picture deals almost exclusively with the painfully slow death of Bobby Sands, sparing us no grisly detail as Fassbender's skeletal body crumbles before our eyes. This is the only part of the film that seems to give McQueen some problems, as he starts incorporating death-related imagery that feels less imaginative and triter than that which has gone before, but it doesn't detract from the power of these scenes. It is as moving a depiction of encroaching death as I have ever seen in a film, and this is ultimately what Hunger is about. Beyond the historical context and beyond the political ramifications, McQueen's film is concerned with the human body, its ability to endure, and the tragedy of its demise.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman: 1925 - 2008

Paul Newman once joked that his epitaph should read "Here lies Paul Newman, who died a failure because his eyes turned brown". It was an example of the actor's typical brand of self-deprecating humour, but there's little doubt Newman's piercing blue eyes, along with his strong, handsome features, made him one of the most iconic movies stars of all time. Newman – who lost his battle with Cancer today – received his big break after the death of another 50's idol, James Dean, who was set to star as Rocky Graziano in
Somebody Up There Likes Me. The role went to Newman instead, and his compelling turn was just the first of many marvellous performances that he would produce in a glorious career. But as Newman became a cinematic giant, he remained a humble person at heart, happy in his 50-year marriage to frequent co-star Joanne Woodward, and fervently committed to helping others through his charity work. With the death of Paul Newman, we mourn the loss of a great actor, but more importantly, we mourn the loss of a great man.

The roles Newman made his own are legendary. The actor studied his craft under Lee Strasberg (who famously suggested his good looks prevented him from being as great as Brando), and in 1958 he made both
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which earned him his first Oscar Nomination, and The Long Hot Summer, in which he co-starred with Joanne Woodward for the first time. It was 60's, however, which provided us with Newman's first batch of truly great performances. He was cool and cocky as Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler, an amoral anti-hero in Hud, and in the great Cool Hand Luke he gives a towering performance as a rebellious prisoner. Along with 1968's Rachel, Rachel, Newman amassed four Academy Award nominations in this decade, and it united him with one of his best ever co-stars, Robert Redford. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a hugely enjoyable western that was propelled by the dazzling chemistry between the two stars, which made this wry, snappy partnership one of the most enduring in cinema. The pair reunited in 1973 for another smash-hit – the Oscar-winning con-man caper The Sting – and for years there was talk of a third screen collaboration, with Redford reportedly keen to work with his old friend on an adaptation of Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. Sadly, it never happened.

The drunken lawyer Newman portrayed in Sidney Lumet's
The Verdict earned the actor his seventh nomination, but once again he went home empty-handed. It is not unusual, of course, for the Academy to overlook great acting for years in favour of handing out an overdue award, and that's what happened to Newman, with his return to the pool halls in 1986's The Colour of Money winning him the Best Actor award. Newman seemed to have lost interest in the whole process, though, and he didn't turn up for the ceremony, instead asking his friend Robert Wise to collect the Oscar on his behalf. When he was tracked down and asked to comment later, Newman said "It's like chasing a beautiful woman for 80 years. Finally, she relents and you say, 'I am terribly sorry. I'm tired'".

At this stage in Newman's career, he had plenty of other things to occupy his interest. He was always fascinated with motor sports, and he spent much of his spare time both driving and owning a racing team, but his most lasting legacy away from cinema is his extraordinary charity work. In 1982, Newman established the "Newman's Own" range of salad dressing and sauces, from which all profits would be donated to good causes. "The embarrassing thing" Newman once quipped, "is that the salad dressing is outgrossing my films", but there is nothing embarrassing about a product that has raised something like $200 million for those in need. His philanthropy didn't end there; he founded The Hole in the Wall Gang, an organisation for seriously ill children, and in 2004 he briefly appeared with Zippo's Circus at Highbury Fields to raise money for children's charities. Not many of the biggest movie stars in the world would come to London to dress up as a clown in a small circus, but Newman appeared to love every minute of it.

I wish Newman had made more films in his later years. After 1990's
Mr & Mrs Bridge (the 10th and last film he made with his wife), he only appeared onscreen six more times in 12 years. He gave some wonderful performances in that period, though. He's on great form in 1995's Nobody's Fool, hilarious as the cigar-munching Sidney J Mussburger in the Coens' The Hudsucker Proxy, and in the little-seen thriller Where the Money Is, he formed a terrific screen partnership with Linda Fiorentino. Like Orson Welles, Newman's final role came in an animation – he voiced Doc Hudson in Pixar's Cars – but the last time we actually saw him in a feature film was in 2002, when he gave a masterful performance in The Road to Perdition. I found Sam Mendes' film to be cold, bloated and criminally dull, but I was riveted every time Newman appeared, bringing a sense of class and truth to the picture, and with a fire still burning behind those famous eyes.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Review - The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

As a rule, I try to avoid spoiling the end of a film whenever I write a review. That's just common sense, you may think, but it does leave me with something of a dilemma when I write about a film like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. It's almost impossible to deal with Mark Herman's adaptation of John Boyne's bestseller without talking about that ending, a climax that completely changes the tone of the picture and leaves the viewer stunned. For much of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' running time, I watched the story unfold through eyes that were impressed but unmoved, appreciating the dedication with which the actors and filmmakers had gone about their business while never being completely drawn into the story. When the end credits started to roll, I felt like I had been hit by a truck.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a film about the Holocaust, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by the film's emotional heft, but it does seem like a surprisingly heavy load for a film aimed at a younger audience. After all, the film, like the book, is targeted primarily at children around the ages of 10-12, and therefore it is faced with the difficult task of portraying the Final Solution in a way that's palatable for younger viewers, while not simplifying of softening the true horror of it. It's a challenge The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas generally handles quite well. The central character is Bruno (Asa Butterfield), the 9 year-old son of a German officer (David Thewlis) who has been placed in charge of a concentration camp. When he gazes from the bedroom window of his family's new home, Bruno can see a strange farm beyond the forest, where everyone seems to be wearing the same pyjamas.

Despite warnings from his mother (Vera Farmiga) to stay within the confines of the house, an overpowering mixture of boredom and curiosity compels Bruno to explore the surrounding area, and when he comes up against the fenced perimeter of the camp, he meets a young boy named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon). The circumstances that allow the friendship to blossom between these two boys takes some swallowing – with this secluded corner of the camp seemingly free from any kind of patrols – but the two child actors give performances that invite us to accept such a situation, eager to see where this companionship will lead.

For Bruno, it leads to confusion and self-doubt. His pleasure at finding a friend is tempered by the anti-Semitic rhetoric he heard from his tutor, the stories Shmuel tells him about the camp contradict the propaganda film he sees his father screening, and when he is given the opportunity to stand up for Shmuel, he backs down, fearful of the intimidating soldier Lt. Kotler (Rupert Friend). The more Bruno tries to find out the truth, the more troubled he becomes. He is baffled by a Jewish prisoner (David Hayman) who seems to have given up a career as a doctor to peel potatoes for the family; he wonders what could be causing the foul-smelling plumes of black smoke that occasionally arise from the camp; and he is shocked when Kotler violently turns on a Jew who spills some wine while serving dinner. Through incidents like this, Bruno gets glimpses of the camp's true nature, while never quite being able to understand it or completely believe that it could be true, and Butterfield is often remarkably convincing as his character undergoes a difficult journey.

Herman's approach of suggesting such horrors without explicitly tackling them is effective. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas suffers from the occasional authenticity issue (the characters all adopt strained English accents, which takes some getting used to), but as a family-oriented Holocaust drama it is smartly done. Herman's direction is efficient while lacking any real cinematic sense, although his filmmaking style does fit with the level of the production as a whole, which generally resembles a fairly classy BBC drama. He also draws fine performances from his actors, and aside from Butterfield and Scanlon, he is the beneficiary of some superb work by Vera Farmiga, and a turn from David Thewlis that grows in stature after an uncomfortable start.

Everything is overshadowed by the ending, though. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' tone shifts into a darker register in the final ten minutes, and it left me reeling, not only because of what happened, but the way in which the filmmakers seem to set up one kind of climax, before sucker-punching the viewer with another. It's a tough move, and it ensured this decent drama – which had been nothing but tasteful throughout – suddenly ends up being one of the most unexpectedly upsetting pictures of the year. I'm still not sure about my own feelings towards this development, it is powerful, sure, but it also carries a tragic weight that is perhaps too much for this slender movie to bear. Whether or not final scenes of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas entirely work, one hopes they will have the intended effect of encouraging parents to discuss the Holocaust with their children, to ensure it is never forgotten by younger generations, and one can only admire the filmmakers for following through on their story which such conviction.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Review - Pineapple Express

When David Gordon Green made his astonishing debut with George Washington, few of us could have speculated that we would find him, less than ten years later, taking the reins on a stoner action comedy. The filmmaker's early films were deeply personal pieces of work, full of artistry and a vivid directorial vision, but it is a vision that fewer and fewer people appear to be buying into, and the buzz surrounding Green's pictures has decreased with every subsequent effort (his last, Snow Angels, didn't even get released here). So perhaps it's the right time for Green to move onto new pastures, and he has followed the path recently trodden by Greg Mottola and Jake Kasdan towards the comic haven of Judd Apatow. In Pineapple Express, Green directs a screenplay written by Superbad creators Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and produced by Apatow, and the combination proves to be a very productive one. To be honest, Green's directorial hand is mostly absent from view in Pineapple Express. The film looks good, but it lacks the kind of visual flair his excellent cinematographer Tim Orr brought to their previous collaborations, and Green generally seems happy to just keep the film moving and to maintain a loose, irreverent tone throughout. By those standards, he is perfectly successful, but Pineapple Express does occasionally come close to veering off the rails.

As well as writing the film, Seth Rogen stars as Dale, a process server whose main interest is smoking pot. For this, he visits Saul (James Franco), his dealer, who has just received a shipment of something special, a brand-new product called Pineapple Express. "This is the dopest dope I've ever smoked" Saul rhapsodises, and when inviting Dale to sniff the packet he blissfully states, "it smells like God's vagina". The good news for Saul is that he's sitting on an exclusive - he's the only dealer in town with access to Pineapple Express - but the bad news is that this lands him in trouble when Dale witnesses a murder and, while fleeing the scene, drops his joint at the feet of the killer (Gary Cole). With their lives in danger, Dale and Saul decide to hit the road, with help/hindrance coming from soft-hearted dealer Red (Danny McBride), and their every move being tracked by bickering hitmen Budlofsky and Matheson (Kevin Corrigan and Craig Robinson).

Watching the way these characters interact is the most pleasurable aspect of the film; nobody involved in the picture seems to be cut out for this kind of business, and that's what makes it funny. Corrigan and Robinson bicker like a married couple as they pursue their targets; Matheson is constantly complaining about the irregular hours his job entails, which prevents him from going home and eating dinner with his wife, and the criticism this invites from Budlofsky is perhaps tinged by a hint of jealousy and regret. The film's primary relationship also plays heavily on its homoerotic undertones, with Saul and Dale's bond growing through stages that mirror a more romantic movie (including a tearful breakup montage and uplifting reunion), and some lines of dialogue that spell out this subtext in rather more blunt terms ("They say, like, don't dip the pen in company ink" Saul states, "I'm totally glad I dipped in your ink, bro").

As a double-act, Rogen and Franco are superb. Rogen is pretty much the straight man, while Franco's wonderfully laid-back turn is a revelation after watching the annoyingly over-earnest style of acting he has adopted in most films to date. He brings a touching sense of vulnerability to Saul, who is a total innocent lost in an adult world, and he is a joy to watches as he enthuses about new leaps in stoner technology ("the cross joint") or waxes lyrical on the wonders of Pineapple Express ("It's almost a shame to smoke it. It's like killing a unicorn... with, like, a bomb). He and Rogen have a beautiful comic chemistry, and some of the film's funniest sequences are those in which the screenplay's circuitous, occasionally non-sequitous dialogue comes to the fore, where incongruous lines like "Fuck Jeff Goldblum!" or "You threw up in my printer!" can get big laughs. The back-and-forth between them is a delight, and their encounters with Danny McBride's hilarious Red are particularly brilliant.

It's so much fun, in fact, that it almost seems a shame to spoil it with a plot. Occasionally, Pineapple Express remembers it's supposed to have a narrative, but when it does shake itself awake and focus on story, it shows its weakest side. Everything is kind of strung together in a haphazard way, and most of the scenes that don't involve the main three characters are a letdown, with Gary Cole and Rosie Perez being given scant material to work with, and the turf war between Cole and the Asian dealers seems to be a dull irrelevance until it impinges on the main action late on. It's perhaps this aspect of Pineapple Express that causes the film to feel a little longer than it is, and when Green tries to stage an explosive finale to the picture (this is, after all, supposed to be an action comedy), he falters badly.

Throughout Pineapple Express there's a curious tension between the action and comic portions of the picture. It is in its element when it's just looking for laughs, but when things get a bit more serious nobody seems entirely sure how serious they should get. An early fight scene between Saul, Dale and Red walks this line well - it's messy and brutal, but it's mostly ridiculous and funny - but in the final half-hour some of the violence seems overly harsh for a film with such a gentle demeanour. When Green, Rogen and Goldberg have shown such generosity to its characters, it leaves a nasty aftertaste when we watch these characters being killed off in a frequently arbitrary and violent way. This bloodshed almost derails the picture, but I think Pineapple Express had been so enjoyable up to that point in the proceedings, it allowed me to overlook its less appealing aspects. The moments that will stick with me are those built upon surreal comic inspiration, such as Dale's foot sticking out of a broken windshield during a car chase, or the playful, Malick-like interlude in which Dale and Saul frolic in the forest; and the utterly brilliant final sequence is good enough to forgive a multitude of sins. The picture's last moments find the perfect note to close on, and this scene - one of my favourite individual sequences of the year - manages to save Pineapple Express from its own worst excesses.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Preview - The London Film Festival 2008

Has a year gone by already? It seems only a few months ago that I was perusing the line-up for 2007 London Film Festival, and eagerly anticipating films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. When you consider last year's Surprise Film was the Coens' No Country for Old Men, it seems unlikely that this year's festival could match the high standard set in 2007, but the full programme for the 2008 LFF, announced today, does contain plenty of exciting prospects from around the cinematic globe. Here's my take on the films to look out for.

Opening Night/Closing Night Gala

The festival opens with
Frost/Nixon, a re-enactment of the interviews David Frost conducted with disgraced president Richard Nixon in 1977. The good news is that this adaptation of Peter Morgan's fine play stars the two actors who brilliantly inhabited the roles on stage; the bad news is that Ron Howard is directing. Still, with such solid material to work from, surely he can't miss with this one. A few weeks later, the LFF closes with Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle's story of an Indian boy who appears on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and raises suspicious eyebrows when he correctly answers a series of tough questions. Boyle is one of the most hit-and-miss filmmakers around – even when he's good, he's often bad – but Slumdog Millionaire has received some exceptional early reviews, and the unusual story does intrigue.

Other Films

Che (Stephen Soderbergh)
Originally screened as a four-hour rough cut in Cannes, Stephen Soderbergh's epic account of Che Guevera's life will probably be split into two parts –
The Guerrilla and The Argentine – for its theatrical release. At the LFF, however, we're offered a choice of seeing those two instalments at separate screenings or (gulp!) throwing ourselves into the whole thing and experiencing all 252 minutes of Che in one go. However you do see Che, it's likely to be something special; a passion project for Soderbergh with Benicio del Toro seeming to be the perfect choice for the lead role, but at the moment I'm leaning slightly towards the full-on Che double-bill. It's a decision I might later regret.

W. (Oliver Stone)
I can't wait for this. Stone has been all over the map for years now, but few films at this year's festival have piqued my interest as much as his George W Bush biopic. Josh Brolin plays the drunken young tearaway who somehow blundered his way to the presidency, and a starry cast portrays both his administration (Richard Dreyfuss is Dick Cheney, Jeffrey Wright is Colin Powell) and his parents (James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn, no less). The film rushed though production this summer in order to make its bow just before Dubya finally leaves office, and the crafty, tongue-in-cheek trailer/poster campaign has whetted my appetite. Of course, with Oliver Stone at the helm this could easily turn out to be an embarrassing fiasco for all involved, but I can't remember the last time I looked forward to one of his films as much as this.

Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)
Anne Hathaway stars as an ex-junkie turning up at the titular wedding in Jonathan Demme's drama, which has been receiving strong notices, both for the film and its star. Demme's style is well-suited to this kind of thing, and Hathaway is an actress who seems to be improving all the time, so this should at the very least provide an engaging, emotional family drama. The set-up does remind me slightly of Margot at the Wedding, one of the year's worst films, but I'm sure it won't be as bad as that.

The Silence of Lorna (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
The Dardenne brothers are among the finest filmmakers in the world today. Twice winners of the Palme d'Or, their stories of ordinary working-class Belgians trapped in situations that are bigger than them have provided some of the most gripping dramas produced anywhere in the past decade. Their new film is called
The Silence of Lorna, and that's about all I want to know about it right now. Part of the pleasure of the Dardennes' films is the experience of going into them completely ignorant of the plot details, and holding your breath as they and their constantly amazing actors take you on a remarkable journey.

The Class (Laurent Cantet)
Laurent Cantet's new film surprisingly won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes, and my huge admiration for the director's previous work (combined with my soft spot for inspirational teacher movies) ensured this film was marked down on my list as soon as it was announced. The story of a young teacher dealing with a mixed group of adolescent pupils in a Parisian inner-city school should be a perfect match for Cantet's keen observation and intelligent social commentary.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen)
It's Another Woody Allen film; and while I can't really muster up any enthusiasm for the man's work these days, I should note that
Vicky Cristina Barcelona has been well-received so far, and has been labelled more than once with those oft-repeated phrase: a return to form for Woody Allen. His latest takes place in Spain and stars Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem and the director's new muse Scarlett Johansson. Will it be any good? Probably not, but least Woody has finally left London.

Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman)
A film dealing with Folman's personal memories of Israel's war with Lebanon,
Waltz With Bashir is distinguished by its use of animation rather than contemporary documentary techniques. This was one of the most acclaimed films at Cannes, and the film's aesthetic style does seem to have produced some remarkable visuals. It will be interesting to see how those visuals help to illuminate the film's serious subject matter.

A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin)
Arnaud Desplechin's films are always full of life and incident, and his latest picture reunites many of the actors who starred in 2004's
Kings and Queen. Expect more of the same discursive, freewheeling storytelling, with a superb cast helping to bring emotional depth to the drama.

Synecdoche New York (Charlie Kaufman)
Undoubtedly one of the LFF's hottest tickets, this is the inimitable Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, and it has proved to be such a head-scratcher so far there was an early fear that no distributor would be brave enough to pick it up. Thankfully, the film is here and should be one of the festival's true originals. It's the story of a theatre director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who tries to create a life-size replica of New York inside a warehouse while his life falls apart. It doesn't make much sense on paper, and one wonders if it will all add up to much on the screen. Either way, the prospect of Charlie Kaufman giving full rein to his wild imagination is a thoroughly exciting one.

Tokyo! (Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, Bong Joon-ho)
A collection of three short films set in Japan. I don't have much to go on here, but just take a look at the directors involved! Bong Joon-ho is one of the world's most exciting filmmakers, Michel Gondry is an extraordinary artist whose gifts are probably ideally suited to a shorter format, and Leo Carax...well...OK, I can't get excited about him, but at least two of these instalments should be fun.

Three Monkeys (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan is one of the most visually exciting directors around, and his new picture should once more benefit from his moodily evocative cinematography and potent compositions. Having said that, I've felt let down at times by the stories lying underneath the stunning surface of Ceylan's films, so the test of
Three Monkeys is for Ceylan to bring a more lasting sense of substance to his work, and to give us a level of emotional content that deserves to stand alongside his remarkable aesthetic style.

Michael Sheen will discuss his remarkable collection of biopic performances, and Peter Morgan, the writer who has provided him with so much material, will also be interviewed. There's a link between two of the other interview subjects as well, with Danny Boyle and his Trainspotting star Robert Carlyle offering separate talks. The most exciting event on offer, however, is a masterclass with the great screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, but as that occurs on the same evening as the North London derby, I'm afraid I'm going to miss out.

Surprise Film
The first thing most of us do when the LFF programme is revealed is to see what major pictures aren't there, as they might provide clues for the festival's Surprise Film. Last year
No Country for Old Men was an obvious omission from the line-up, and the absence of major pictures like the Miracle at St Anna, The Wrestler, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno seems to name them as prime suspects. I'm going to take a stab at something else, though, and I think Joe Wright's The Soloist ticks all of the boxes for a Surprise Film, so that's my 2008 tip.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Review - XXY

It's not unusual for teenagers to feel uncomfortable in their own skin, and to feel like they don't quite fit in, but 15 year-old Alex (Inés Efron), the central character in Lucía Puenzo's quietly captivating XXY, has more reason to feel that way than most. Alex is a hermaphrodite who has moved with her family from Argentina to a small Uruguayan coastal town in an effort to deal with her condition as privately as possible. Outwardly, Alex looks like a rather tomboyish girl, with small breasts and a skinny, angular body, but hidden under her clothes are both male and female genitalia, and she is at an awkward juncture in her life where her parents want her to decide which gender she should ultimately assume. To aid their decision, Alex's mother (Valeria Bertuccelli) has invited a friend who happens to be a plastic surgeon to stay with the family for a few days and to discuss medical possibilities, and Ramiro (Germán Palacios) arrives early in the film with his wife (Carolina Pelleritti) and his own 16 year-old son Alvaro (Martín Piroyansky). The new arrivals are watched by Alex from a concealed position, her eyes blazing with curiosity and suspicion, and throughout the film, these eyes act as a powerful conduit for the character's conflicting emotions. As the troubled teen in the middle of this drama, Inés Efron gives an astounding, vividly unpredictable performance. She maintains a confident, bullish persona to mask her character's sense of vulnerability, and she is still upset about the recent betrayal of a close friend she confided in, who received a broken nose when he betrayed her trust. Efron's display takes on extra dimensions when she begins to make sexual advances towards the nervous Alvaro, although it's clear her actions are borne as much from a sense of intrigue she has with regard to her ever-changing body (Alex has stopped taking her hormone control pills, and her male side is exerting itself). Alvaro himself is similarly attracted to Alex, but also he finds himself wracked by sexual confusion when he discovers the truth, and all of this builds towards a sex scene that is among the most remarkable in recent cinema, both shocking and oddly comical. This coupling is discovered by Alex's father Kraken (the great Argentine actor Ricardo Darín), who is the film's most significant secondary character. Kraken is troubled by his wife's decision to invite the surgeon into their home and to ask their advice about his daughter's future, because he just wants Alex to have a chance of happiness without going under the knife, to be comfortable with who she is. He is furiously protective of his daughter, taking up the fight against a group of teenage boys when Alex is almost raped by them on the beach, and touching bond between father and daughter gives XXY its emotional centre. It's a shame, then, that Puenzo feels the need to use Kraken's position as a marine biologist to insert some clumsy symbolism into the film, frequently bringing up intersex sea creatures to no real effect, and she ill-advisedly follows one discussion about Alex's potential operation with a shot of a carrot being chopped. The name Kraken is also derived from a legendary sea monster, although it is unclear what the director wants to infer, if anything, through this connection. Puenzo doesn't need to decorate her story with such crass imagery, because her direction is generally sensitive enough to allow it to unfold in a compellingly understated fashion. The cinematographer Natasha Braier shoots the film in tight close-ups and occasionally finds some striking compositions – such as Alvaro watching Alex undress through a window – and the picture is often erotic without being titillating. It would have been so easy for XXY to mishandle this taboo subject matter, but aside from the occasionally clumsy aspects referenced above, Puenzo's depiction of the choices faced by Alex, Kraken and Alvaro is intelligent and sensitive, and at its core, it offers a performance by Inés Efron that is among the year's finest. XXY is the story of a teenager being asked to choose a path, but Efron's beautifully ambiguous display helps it to develop into something much more complex and profound, and it eventually becomes a powerful study of self-acceptance.