Phil on Film Index

Thursday, October 30, 2008

LFF Update: Part 3

Italian politics is rife with corruption! American teenagers are unhappy! These are just two of the startling revelations offered by the following collection of films:

Il Divo
Before Il Divo begins, director Paolo Sorrentino puts a glossary onscreen that is supposed to explain who everyone is in the complex story he's about to unfold for us, that story being of former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti and his alleged ties with the mafia. Frankly, it didn't help me much, and I did struggle to keep up at numerous points during the subsequent two hours. The occasional fog of confusion didn't hurt my viewing experience, though, because I absolutely adored this film. Fans of Sorrentino's earlier pictures The Consequences of Love and The Family Friend will already be aware of the incredible confidence and imagination he can bring to his direction, and he's firing on all cylinders here. He seems to be simply incapable of shooting a dull or ordinary scene, and every single minute of Il Divo is energised by his ceaselessly dynamic camerawork, creative compositions, and startling soundtrack choices. It's not all bravado though, he includes a few beautiful, quiet moments – particularly between Andreotti and his wife – and at the centre of the picture, Toni Servillo gives another mesmerizingly understated performance. Absolutely entrancing.

The first test Che had to pass at its gala this weekend was to survive a frankly disastrous screening in which the projector broke down twice, once in each half. I'm not sure how much we missed as a result (the first breakdown appeared to leave Che with a mysteriously broken arm), but I doubt it would have made that much of a dent in this picture's four-and-a-bit hours running time. For the most part, I was impressed and absorbed by Che, although it lost me somewhere around the three-hour mark and never quite drew me all the way back in. The first half cross-cuts between Che's role in the Cuban revolution, and his 1964 appearance at the United Nations (shot in newsreel style black and white), while the second jumps ahead a few years to focus on his attempt to spread the revolution to Bolivia, a campaign that ultimately ended in failure and his own death. Che is a remarkable accomplishment in many ways. Soderbergh approaches the subject with his customary intelligence and his HD digital cinematography captures the lush, vivid hues of the Cuban and Bolivian jungles in which he fought. Each half has a couple of standout set-pieces which are superbly orchestrated, but the film remains strangely muted throughout, which is perhaps why I felt a sense of fatigue midway through the second section. I'm not entirely sure that Che needed over four hours, and I'm not sure that Soderbergh's film really gets into his character or expands our view of him beyond what we already know, but the film is utterly fascinating, and del Toro's quiet, commanding central performance is superb. You know, I'm still digesting Che and I haven't quite made up my mind about it, but thank God there are still American directors around like Soderbergh who are willing to make such ambitious, uncompromising and stimulating fare.

American Teen
American Teen is a documentary following four stereotypical high school students – the blonde bitch, the basketball star, the unconventional misfit, the lonely über-nerd – in their last year before graduation, but I use the term "documentary" loosely. A lot of this film felt false to me, and it seemed obvious that much of the incidents had been staged (or at least, acted-out by the participants) for the benefit of Burstein's camera. Of course, many documentary filmmakers have incorporated fictional elements into their films – consider Herzog's quest for "ecstatic truth" – but this felt more insidious; an attempt to generate false drama in a story that has precious little of its own. Not only is American Teen a lame, uninteresting piece of work that fails to illuminate its subject, there's also something morally dubious about it.

Before American Teen started, a short documentary called Kids + Money played. This 32-minute film, directed by Lauren Greenfield, is compiled from interviews with dozens of teenagers living in LA, in which they discuss their attitude to money and consumerism. The kids often speak with an amusing lack of self-awareness, but occasionally they'll offer an insightful comment that sheds light on the pressure they feel to conform, and the way material possessions act as a status symbol in their lives. Nothing particularly eye-opening, but it's a frank, tightly edited and funny piece of filmmaking, and it gave me more food for thought than American Teen could offer at three times the length.

The Brothers Bloom
I was one of the naysayers who didn't think Rian Johnson's Brick was quite as successful as many people felt it was, although it undeniably displayed a lot of promise, and I think his follow-up The Brothers Bloom is more of the same. It's clever, occasionally impressive and frequently amusing, but it also seems inordinately pleased with itself, the story doesn't make sense in a lot of places, and the ending is a mess. Johnson has an obvious love of words, with his screenplay containing a number of neat lines, and the bigger budget afforded to him here allows him to display his strong visual sense in a variety of global location. The film is horribly uneven, though, and the nature of the piece – everything is a con, except when it isn't – keeps us at an emotional distance, anticipating being hoodwinked, and just waiting patiently for the next twist to arrive. Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo put in a decent shift as the conmen siblings of the title, but it's the women who are the film's strongest suit, with Rachel Weisz and Rinko Kikuchi both turning in fantastic, surprising performances in the kind of quirky roles that could have gone very wrong in other hands (I think this is the best display of Weisz's career). This is a passable caper movie, and Brick fans will probably find a lot to love in it, but I'm still waiting for proof that Rian Johnson is anything more than a crafty sleight-of-hand artist.

The Silence of Lorna
After four extraordinary films in a row – including two Palme D'Or winners – perhaps the Dardenne brothers felt it was time to shake up the old formula a bit. Although it explores similar territory to their earlier work, The Silence of Lorna feels like a step in a new direction, with a more plot-heavy narrative, some audacious storytelling decisions, and camerawork that is more restrained than usual. The story centres on Albanian immigrant Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), who has married a junkie called Claudy (a wonderfully sympathetic Jérémie Renier) to get Belgian citizenship as part of an ongoing green card scam. The gangsters she's working for plan to kill this addict and make it look like an overdose, so Lorna will be free to marry a Russian who has paid for the privilege, but she has started to get cold feet as her feelings for Claudy have intensified. Halfway through the picture, the Dardennes throw in a plot development that's so jarring and unexpected it seemed to throw the whole audience into a state of confusion for a short period, and after that The Silence of Lorna develops into a quite different film, and moves into risky, uncharted territory for these siblings. Fortunately, their command of the medium is as formidable as ever, and they draw astonishing, breathless drama from some of the later scenes; and while the ending will divide opinion, I found it to be a brave and haunting climax. At the centre of it all, Lorna is one of the Dardennes' most intriguing characters, and in the luminous Arta Dobroshi, they have discovered a new star.

The day after The Silence of Lorna's premiere at the festival, I was fortunate enough to meet both Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, and then I sat down for a chat with the film's enchanting star Arta Dobroshi. Both of those interviews will be published within the next few weeks, but both discussions did cover some of the major plot points in some detail, so I would recommend avoiding them until you've seen the picture.

Coming up this week – We're into the final stretch, and the last LFF update will include trips into the crazy minds of both Charlie Kaufman and Hunter S Thompson (Be afraid, be very afraid!), before Danny Boyle closes the festival with his Indian fantasy Slumdog Millionaire.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Review - Burn After Reading

After their Oscar-winning Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men, whatever Joel and Ethan Coen chose to do next was likely to be a disappointment, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Burn After Reading might have been something of a disappointment whatever the circumstances. This pitch-black farce is a comic riff on the Coens' favourite theme – a bunch of fools falling over themselves in the pursuit of money – and as amusing as it is, there's something missing at the heart of it. Set in Washington, the plot spins on a disc that belongs to ex-CIA man Osborne Cox (John Malkovich). He has just seen his career go up in smoke after his superiors suspected him of having a drinking problem ("You're a Mormon" he responds to one of them, "next to you we all have a drinking problem"), and he has decided to resign in protest and work on his memoirs (or, as Malkovich deliciously pronounces it, "my mem-wah"). He's oblivious to the fact that his wife (a chilly Tilda Swinton) is carrying on behind his back with married federal marshal Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), who, unbeknownst to her, also trawls internet dating sites looking for one-night stands.

As ever with the Coens' films, nobody knows anything, but two employees of Hardbodies Gym – Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) – think they have the upper hand when they find the aforementioned disc, and believe they can use it to blackmail Cox. Linda thinks this is the answer to her prayers, the fastest possible route to getting the cash she needs for the extensive plastic surgery she desires, while Chad thinks – well, it's hard to know what Chad thinks, if anything. He has the goofy, carefree demeanour of a man who doesn't really like to give his brain much of a workout, and he is beautifully embodied by Pitt, in a performance that is undoubtedly the movie's highlight. After playing sad wistfulness in films like Babel and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the addition of a haircut that resembles his Johnny Suede pompadour miraculously seems to have de-aged him by twenty years, and he plays Chad like a clueless overgrown child. It's a pleasure to watch because Pitt has always had a gift for comedy (which has been sadly underused for many years), and he has some smashing moments here. Watch the way he narrows his eyes in what he believes to be a threatening manner when he first meets Cox, and watch how those eyes cloud with confusion when Cox angrily turns the tables on him; it's a terrifically funny piece of acting.

The Coens have always had a knack for creating such roles, of course, the kind of characters that seem perfectly suited to the actors selected for them; they seem to tap into something hitherto unrecognised in that actor, and that so often has a freeing effect on the cast. The same trick works for Malkovich, who probably gives his best performance in this film since he played, well, John Malkovich (his repeated line of exasperation-"what the fuck!"-is almost always funny). But while the gags are frequent, they're generally mild, and occasionally the Coens make the audience's chuckles stick in their throat when they suddenly bring a violent edge into the picture. This is nothing new, of course, as anyone who remembers Steve Buscemi's encounter with a woodchipper will testify, but in Fargo the violence was offset by the deep sense of compassion Frances McDormand brought to the role of Marge. You could say the same about the Leo and Tom's relationship in Miller's Crossing, or the funny, oddly touching friendship between The Dude, Walter and Donny in The Big Lebowski. Burn After Reading doesn't have that core of emotional truth to hold it steady while the characters hurtle around and careen into each other at an increasingly frenetic pace, and as a result, the offhand way in which the Coens deal with two of the film's most likable characters just comes off as cruel.

So we laugh, but the laughter is hollow. I don't really get the sense that Joel and Ethan care about this plot or the people involved in it, and aside from Pitt and Malkovich, the characters are thinly conceived. McDormand's performance is one of her most strained, and George Clooney isn't pushed very far by his turn as an ageing lothario. The real pleasures are to be found in small moments, in the dialogue between two befuddled CIA agents played perfectly by JK Simmons and David Rasche, or in the completely unexpected reveal of an odd contraption that Clooney's character has been building in the basement. But Burn After Reading is just a collection of fitfully amusing touches, rather than the kind of fully-formed, byzantine narrative that we know the brothers are capable of, and it never recovers from an abrupt, bloody twist about an hour in. "Report back to me when... I don't know... when it makes sense" Simmons tells his underling halfway through the picture, but it never really does entirely make sense, and that doesn't seem to matter. The disappointing ending just feels like a half-hearted shrug, and I responded in kind as the credits rolled.

Friday, October 24, 2008

"Liverpool is completely alien to me now, I just don't know it anymore" - An interview with Terence Davies

Over the past thirty years, Terence Davies has only made six films – if you count his Trilogy as one feature – but that small collection has been enough to see him regarded as one of the greatest of all British filmmakers. His work is unlike anyone else's; the Trilogy, his masterpiece Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes are all deeply personal films drawn from his own childhood experiences, and structured in a way that reflects the passage of time and the nature of memory rather than following any standard narrative rules. After making those films, Davies moved into the world of literary adaptations, and 1995's The Neon Bible was a disappointment, but as the director himself admitted, it paved the way for his spellbinding version of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth five years later. That film should have opened up more avenues for Davies, but instead he found himself out in the cold for eight years, until a commission to make a documentary about his native Liverpool brought him back into the spotlight. I met Davies last week to discuss Of Time and the City, his childhood memories, and the poor state of a film industry that can neglect one of its true artists for almost a decade.

This film is a very subjective story about your own memories of a particular time and place, and yet it has received a great reception at a number of festivals around the world. Why does this picture resonate?

Gosh, I honestly don't know, because it was made with the most modest of intentions, and a very modest budget I might add. Perhaps it's because I think people recognise truth. I've tried to be as truthful as possible, and I think that may prick their own memories, and make them remember their hometown. That's what it seems to do, but I don't know how that's achieved, because that certainly wasn't the intention, it really wasn't. It's odd things – like a lot of people pick up on the pomegranate, but it was exotic, because you only had fruit at Christmas as that was the only time you could afford it. We had one pomegranate that we cut and we ate it with a pin, as I recall. That seems to prick a lot of memories, but how that's achieved I have no idea, and I'm as bemused as anybody else [laughs].

Memory is a funny thing, and you can never tell what will spark something off in a person's mind.

No, but if you're true to it, people will respond, and – while I'm not saying I'm in their class – you don't have to be Russian to like Chekhov or German to like Schubert, because they're saying something which is universal. People have been kind enough to say this is saying something universal, but I never thought it would. I just tried to be as truthful as I could be, but it was subjective. Someone said at one of the early shows that we didn't show the Toxteth riots, but that didn't affect me. What people don't seem to realise is that when you grew up in a certain part of the city in the 50's, you very rarely left it. You know, you went to school, you went to church, if you were Catholic, you went to the movies – and there were eight within walking distance of my house, not counting the eight in town – and Toxteth was a long way away, so if you had no reason to go there you didn't go. All I was trying to do was to make an honest, subjective account of the time I lived there, from 1945 to 73, and that's all I ever said I wanted to do.

You mentioned you were fortunate enough to have eight cinemas within walking distance. What was it that cinema gave you in those years, was it an escape from your life? Was it a glimpse of another world?

It wasn't an escape, because even though I had grown up in a slum, in those days you weren't told you were deprived, and you didn't feel deprived. Everyone was in the same boat so you accepted that and everyone helped one another when they could. You never, ever thought of yourself as deprived. Actually, I didn't realise it until Mark Kermode said it to me, "You seemed to go to the cinema like you went to church", I was just mesmerised by it. My first film at seven was Singing' in the Rain, that was the very first thing I saw, and if that's not enough to mesmerise you for life I don't know what is. We were a lot less sophisticated then, so when I was eleven and one of my sisters took me to see Young at Heart – which was the first time I saw Doris Day, and fell absolutely in love with her – a lot of the street scenes were actually shot in the studio, but we didn't know that. We just though that's what America looked like. There was nothing like the information technology that there is today, and we believed that's what it was like – they all lived in these fabulous houses, they were all rich, they all had these wraparound teeth, and they all had big kitchens. Of course, when I went for the first time I was disabused of that! [laughs]

When you talk about going to the cinema like you went to church, do you mean that cinema filled the void when you lost your faith?

I didn't lose my faith until I was 22, so it wasn't as synchronous as that. I'd always loved films since I was introduced to them at seven, and I didn't lose my faith until 1967, which was a long time later. I had always fought against it because I had been told "That's the devil's work. If you have any doubt at all, it's the devil", and that was a long process, the seven years from 15-22 were awful and I never ever want to go through anything like that again. It was a great, huge doubt, wanting to be forgiven even though I hadn't done anything, and wanting to be made like everybody else. There was nothing. It was an awful period.

Do you still get the same thrill from cinema today?

No, it's gone. I've lost my ability to suspend my disbelief. Now I'm conscious of syntax, and if it's wrong, if I feel the tracks or cranes are used wrong, I just get into such a fury I can't concentrate on the film. I just think, "Why are you tracking, for no reason? Why are we looking down like this? Whose point of view is it?" I get very angry about that. I get angry about sloppiness as well, and I can't abide sentimentality. I mean, it's so easy to make people cry, it's much more difficult to move them, and just before a person cries we usually hear the same music on the piano and we think, "Here we go again". Can't I be moved because I feel moved, and not because you're telling me to? And there's very little now that I feel is cinematic. Certainly, a lot of cinema language has been absolutely destroyed by television, because they use syntax all over the place, and that has demeaned it and cheapened it, so it's very difficult to see something cinematic now. The charm has gone, the magic has gone, I wish it hadn't but it has.

I was reading about the way Of Time and the City was funded, and over 150 parties applied for this commission. After the trouble you've had getting anything made over the past decade, how confident were you during this process?
I just assumed we wouldn't get it, and then I couldn't have been disappointed. [laughs] I just thought, why would they give money for a documentary to someone who's never made one before? They did, I'm very glad to say, because it was the first work in eight years, which is a long time, but I never really believed we would get it, if I'm being absolutely honest.

As you had never made a documentary before, how did you approach this film? It feels to me like a film very much of a piece with your fictional work; you could easily stand this film alongside Distant Voices, Still Lives.

Thank you, that's a compliment. I just tried to be true. Looking at material which is not your own is very liberating, because you didn't shoot it, and it's not your eye. I was astonished at how beautiful a lot of it was, really astonished, both black and white and colour. I said, "These are the areas I want to deal with", and then new material came in, and that pricked new ideas, which was fantastic. In a way, I was writing the film and the narration as we were cutting it. The problem was to make the sequences work. The first sequence that came to me was The Folks Who Live on the Hill, I was in the car at the time and I was about to ring Sol Papadopoulos (the producer) and say, "I can't do it, I've got cold feet". Then that sequence came to me and Sol rang me and I said, "We've got a film". I've always been fascinated with memory and the nature of time, ever since I heard The Four Quartets read aloud, on television, over four nights, from memory, by Alec Guinness in '62.

You wouldn't get that on TV these days.

You certainly wouldn't! And no autocues, he actually memorised them. It was a fabulous reading. The only other reading that came close to it, and possibly equals it, was about two years ago when Paul Scofield did the whole of The Wasteland and The Four Quartets, on radio, and he was as good. It was such a revelation. But I am obsessed with the nature of time and memory, and what gets me angry about films which are supposed to be about memory is that they're always linear. Well, memory isn't linear, it's cyclical and associative, it doesn't go in a straight line, and that's what makes it fascinating. And how do we perceive time in reality and in film, where the cut always implies the next thing that happens? What if you subvert that? What if you dissolve, and then use a series of cuts to subvert that, and begin cutting again? Which time are we in? Are we in parallel time, are we in time gone by, are we in time future – where is time? That really does fascinate me. If you dissolve, people know time has passed, and nobody has told them, they just know. How do you get over that sense of time passing, while sometimes making time feel suspended? Because as a child, you're not aware of time passing, it's as if you're living in the same continuum all the time, so how do you get over that? I love that, I think I'll always experiment with time and memory because it's eternally fascinating.

That style of putting films together to reflect the cyclic nature of memory sets your films apart from any others. What are your influences? Do they come from film or is it more from other art forms?

I've drawn more from other art forms, particularly poetry and music. If you listen to a symphony you don't have to be a musician to follow it, you can follow with your inner ear and your emotions. I was influenced in roundabout way by musicals because that's what my sisters loved, and it's what I loved because I was taken to them all the time, and the melodramas of the 50's like All the Heaven Allows. We didn't know what directors did, so nobody could have given a toss who Douglas Dirk was, we just went because Jane Wyman was in it and she wore a wonderful frock, because it was Technicolor, and because you cried at the end, that's why we went. In those days, you had what was called the big picture, and the supporting picture. The big picture was always American, except when it was a comedy, because British comedies were better. And everyone went, literally everyone went; and people like Margaret Rutherford, Alistair Sim, Joyce Grenfell – they were loved. You could feel this love for them as they came on the screen, it was real love, and they were intrinsically funny. Very often they didn't say anything, but they were funny, and as soon as you saw them you were primed to laugh. So there were those influences too, and also listening to northern women, who are funny. I was brought up by my mother, my sisters, and their friends, and I love listening to women talk, particularly northern women, because they're so funny. It's all of those little things which combine to come through your refracted psyche and your eye.

Speaking of the influence of music, it is such an important element in the construction of your films. How does that work; do you know the songs you want to us before you start, or are they inspired when you see the footage being put together, or does it happen more instantaneously than that?

It's a mixture of all three, really. The big thing that happened in the late 50's in most northern towns was that the slums were cleared, and these estates were built which we thought would be the new Jerusalem. I thought of The Folks Who Live on the Hill because I'd known it since I was a child, and that was absolutely instantaneous. When I was at drama school in 73, I used to go and borrow records from the library, because I couldn't afford records and I was only on a grant. I discovered the Bacarisse Guitar Concertino, which I've loved ever since, particularly the slow movement, and when that sequence was written I had that piece in mind. At other times the sequence came first and the music after, and sometimes the music came first, but it's always instinctive, and I know when to say "Stop it now". I said to Liza (Ryan-Carter) who cut it, "When we do cut these sequences, cut it mute, and then put the music on, and see where the cuts fall". That's always very exciting, because sometimes they fall in exactly the right place, or sometimes we have to tidy it up a bit to ensure that when we fall on a certain phrase we start on new image.

Where did you find all of that footage?

Literally all over the place, the source was huge. I lost track of where it came from to be honest with you, there were so many sources.

Some of the footage is incredible, and I guess for someone like me who's of a younger generation, the shocking thing is that these slums were still being inhabited within the last 30-40 years. It's quite recent history.
It was startling to me too, because I grew up in one and didn't realise how bad they were, it was awful. When you grow up in one that's your only world and you have nothing to compare it with, but even I was horrified by them. It was just awful.

And one particularly pointed sequence you include juxtaposes the Royal Family celebrating the coronation in 1948 with the terrible conditions the Queen's subjects were living in.

It just shows what a parasitic institution the monarchy is. She's always going on about doing her duty, which is just nauseating nonsense. If she had done her duty, she would have said "Right, I'm going to go around that kingdom now, see how people live, come back to parliament and say "Do something about it"". That's what she should have done, but of course they never do.

I think you've blown your chance of a Knighthood now, Terence.

[Laughs] Well, they might make it a Damehood, which would be very tempting.

You left Liverpool over thirty years ago, does it still feel like home?

18 Kensington Street is my home, and that'll never change, because that's where I was happiest. Well, for four years anyway, between the death of my father in 52 to the moment I went to secondary school in 56, those were wonderful years. That's my spiritual home, but it's long gone and it's in a Liverpool that doesn't exist anymore, other than in my imagination. Liverpool is completely alien to me now, I just don't know it anymore.

During the past eight years when you've been away from cinema, how close were you to getting films made?
Some things were commissioned for a small amount of money, and then you'd spend literally years waiting until people finally came back to you and said no. It was pretty awful, but what was shocking was the level of ignorance. 25 year-olds who know nothing telling me how to write a script, and that is really hard to take. You just want turn around and say "How many scripts have you written? How many films have you directed?" They've done some tedious media degree or else that Robert McKee crap, and then they think they have the right to tell you how to write a script. That's the hardest thing of all, the level of ignorance, especially when it's allied to arrogance, it's awful. It's little Britain trying to do Hollywood on the cheap and we can't do it, Rank lost a fortune trying to do it in the late 40's. Why don't we have the courage to look at our country, to look at stories that arise naturally from these islands? We've always got to be validated by America – why? We're like the 51st state, with all the indignity that implies. If we're not careful, within the next twenty years whatever culture we have will disappear, and we will just be like Hawaii but with lousy weather.

I saw your appearance on Newsnight Review recently when you said "For one Brideshead Revisited you could make three real films", and that must have been the most frustrating thing for you, seeing these films getting made and thinking about what you could do with a fraction of the budget.

Not so much me, but others. I mean, where does a young filmmaker go now? I have no idea how they get their first film off the ground. That could have helped talented youngsters, that's what's depressing, and it is so formulaic. Given the fact that it is about the privileged classes, do you really care about someone floating around Oxford with a teddy bear? I can't get worked up about that. Now, had they told it from the point of view of the teddy bear I might have been interested [laughs]. Each time they kept cutting to the liner I was hoping it would be the Titanic, but alas, no such luck [laughs].

Have you been given any indication that the success Of Time and the City is having might reopen some doors for you?

I've written three scripts in the last eight years, and we were very close to getting the closing finance on the first one, which is a romantic comedy. You come back to England and what do you get? "Oh, I really want to see the script, please send the script", and then they say they've used up all their money, so you wonder why did they ask to see the script, and you're back down to earth with a bump. It's the same old nonsense.

After doing such a marvellous job adapting The House of Mirth, are there any other works of literature you have a particular desire to do?
Yes, there's a Scottish novel called Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, which everyone in Scotland knows but it's considered one of the great unknown novels. They did it on BBC1 on Sunday nights in 1971, and I lived for Sunday nights, it was wonderful. I've done an adaptation of that and I'd like to do that, because it's a great work. I'm also in the process of adapting an Ed McBain novel called He Who Hesitates.

Is that one of the 87th Precinct novels?
It is, and it's the only one which is told from the point of view of the murderer. I think it will be very interesting indeed.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

LFF Update: Part 2

My second update from the London Film Festival features a crazy Christmas, a nightmarish wedding, and an American President who is all too real.

A Christmas Tale
In his onstage introduction, director Arnaud Desplechin said his latest film was inspired by the work of Wes Anderson and Ingmar Bergman – how's that for an odd couple? – but such a description doesn't prepare you for the film itself. A Christmas Tale sees a whole dysfunctional family coming together to celebrate Christmas and to see if anyone has the compatible bone marrow that might save the life of matriarch Catherine Deneuve; and from this setup Desplechin subverts every expectation to deliver one of the most dazzling and satisfying pictures of the year. The emotions are complicated but true, the characters are richly drawn, and the director audaciously juggles the tone – slipping comedy into a dark scene, undercutting lighter moments with tragedy – in a way that might make your head spin, if he wasn't so sure-footed in his approach. Desplechin uses every trick at his disposal – split-screen, irises, puppetry, characters talking direct to camera – and it's both impossible and unfair to single out members of the cast for praise, as they are all individually magnificent, and they create a magnificent ensemble. This is staggeringly brilliant filmmaking.

Waltz with BashirAri Folman's animated documentary was a huge hit at Cannes this year, but I got next to nothing out of it. I'm not sure why it left me so cold; the film has a striking opening sequence and much of the animation is imaginative and beautiful. But that animation only really worked for me in the fantasy sequences, or in the recreations of Folman's wartime experiences, and when he used the same technique to depict the straight-to-camera recollections of those involved with this incident, I simply wondered what the point was. The animation doesn't work in these sequences, it gives the people a flat, dead-eyed look and strips them of personality, and their dialogue seems oddly stilted. The whole premise of the film feels contrived (Folman is trying to remember a massacre he wasn't present at), and much of the sequences between the director and the people he visits appear scripted to fit his narrative. Only the insertion of real-life footage – something I could see was real – held any impact for me, and I felt completely detached from everything else. Underneath the vivid aesthetic, Waltz with Bashir is repetitive, vague and disappointingly dull.

Rachel Getting Married
After I got home from this screening I looked up a few reviews for Rachel Getting Married, and I came across Roger Ebert's, which includes in its opening paragraph the question "Wouldn't you love to attend a wedding like that?". Well, no is the answer as far as I'm concerned. Honestly, I thought this film was hellish and it often felt like it would never end. Jonathan Demme tries a little too hard to reinvent himself by adopting a shaky camcorder approach that's supposed to make us feel like we're a guest at Rachel's nuptials, but it worked too well for me, because I felt trapped within the most boring and drawn-out celebrations imaginable. Does every guest have to make a rambling, uninteresting toast? Does every guest have to perform a musical number? What the hell is this, a wedding or an open mic night? This is ridiculously indulgent stuff, but even when the film isn't turning into an amateur revue, it still misses the mark. Screenwriter Jenny Lumet generates conflicts and blowups out of some deeply contrived and unconvincing situations, and the film rarely manages to be either witty or insightful. The performances are uniformly very good (although others impressed me more than the much-praised Anne Hathaway), but in almost every other respect, the film is a dead loss.

Two Lovers
I like James Gray as a director, but I'm glad to see him moving in a new direction after a couple of decent crime pictures. His new film Two Lovers is a romantic drama that showcases the director's strengths while still displaying some of his limitations. He doesn't have a particularly strong visual sense, but he does know the place he's filming in, and Two Lovers benefits from that strong, authentic atmosphere. Once again he teams up with Joaquin Phoenix who gives an impressive (if slightly overplayed) performance as a man torn between the nice Jewish girl his parents have set him up with (Vinessa Shaw), and the sexy, slightly crazy drug addict who lives upstairs (Gwyneth Paltrow). Of course, it's hard to feel too sorry for a guy whose most painful decision is to choose between Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw – either way, he's got a pretty nice consolation prize. Two Lovers is formulaic stuff and the ending is both flat and predictable, but it's very well done for the most part, and the cast is excellent all the way down (Isabella Rossellini and Elias Koteas lend strong support).

Wendy and LucyAfter the superb Old Joy, writer/director Kelly Reichart returns with another low-key film that manages to grip in an understated way. Michelle Williams gives an outstanding performance as the young drifter trying to make her way north, sleeping in her car, and with only her beloved dog for company. Reichart draws great drama from the obstacles that stack up in Wendy's path, and alongside Williams, there are excellent supporting turns from Will Patton and Wally Dalton. The film really makes you care about what happens to Wendy and Lucy, showing us a world where the tiniest act of kindness can mean everything, and the final scenes are deeply affecting. A modest but memorable piece of work, and Reichart is clearly a filmmaker to watch.

Achilles and the Tortoise
It's good to have Takeshi Kitano back. After losing his way slightly with bizarre, self-obsessed works like Takeshis and Glory to the Filmmaker, Kitano is back on track with this very enjoyable film. OK, so it's not really less self-obsessed – Kitano himself takes over the lead role in the second half of the film, and all of the paintings we see are his – but it's a much more straightforward and engaging piece of work. The film follows the life of a painter, starting with his early introduction to art as a child – drawing and painting anything and everything – before tragedy disrupts his development. Later, we revisit him as a student struggling to find his voice and growing increasingly disillusioned with art school, and finally "Beat" appears as the middle-aged painter still obsessively painting but failing to find any success, and gradually losing the support of his family in the process. Achilles and the Tortoise is overlong and it grows more repetitive and narrow as it progresses, but there's a lot of good stuff here. Kitano keeps throwing tragic curveballs into the generally light-hearted mix – sometimes to jarring effect – but his direction is full of typically surreal touches, and some of his character's attempts to break new artistic ground are very funny.

Still WalkingThe third film in this article to start with the same premise – a large family, haunted by a past bereavement, is drawn together for a specific event, and we watch as they interact, with little tensions and secret disappointments appearing in their relationships. Whereas A Christmas Tale is boisterous and hyperactive, Still Walking is a quiet study; calmly yet incisively observing as the story unfolds at a steady pace . Still Walking is the new film from Hirokazu Kore-Eda, who made one of the decade's great films in 2004 with Nobody Knows, and who once again shows an incredible ability to draw perfect, unaffected performances from actors both young and old. The film is utterly captivating from the opening minutes, with Kore-Eda brilliantly developing his characters in authentic and natural ways, and giving his marvellous cast dialogue that is both witty and insightful. There's hardly a false note in the film, and it left me with that rare feeling of elation one feels after watching a near-perfect work of art. Ozu, whose films are a clear influence, would surely approve.

There's a better film to be made about the presidency of George W. Bush than this; but on the other hand, W. is a much better film than you'd expect a rushed Oliver Stone biopic to be. Stone's broad-strokes approach charts the life of Dubya, depicting his aimless days as a drunken youth trying to escape his father's shadow, his rise as the governor of Texas, and his first term in office, up to and including the invasion of Iraq. The film's narrative leans a bit too heavily on the relationship between Bush and his father (an excellent James Cromwell), but Stone generally finds a decent balance between the different time zones his picture exists in, and the picture is consistently enjoyable all the way through. The biggest success lies in the casting, with Josh Brolin working wonders in the central role, and Elizabeth Banks is impressive as Laura. Elsewhere, Bush's administration is superbly brought to life by Richard Dreyfuss (Cheney), Thandie Newton (Rice), Jeffrey Wright (Powell) and Scott Glenn (Rumsfeld); and the film ultimately depicts its subject as a well-meaning but naive character, who is easily pushed and manipulated by his inner circle (Colin Powell is shown as the sole voice of reason). The psychological profile of Bush never goes deeper than that, and there are important gaps in the story (the 2000 election gets a single mention, and the film ends before Katrina), but I suppose that's to be expected in a film that was frantically made to meet a deadline, and which is unable to get a wider perspective on the sitting president. W. is no Nixon, but it's a solid, intriguing piece of work.

Not a bad week then, with at least two of the festival's best films on show, but the highlight for me was the opportunity to meet two directors I have great admiration for. On Monday I interviewed Terence Davies, to talk about his new film Of Time and the City, his Liverpool upbringing, and his painfully long absence from cinema, and that interview will be published in full next week. Then, the following day, I met Atom Egoyan and we spoke at length about Adoration and some of the director's earlier films (that interview will also appear here in due course). How pleasing it is when you meet people you respect and they turn out to be as open, intelligent and thoughtful as these two were.

Coming up this week – Steven Soderbergh's Che, Hunter S Thompson, corruption in Italy, African boxers, The Brothers Bloom, and Steven Soderbergh's eagerly awaited sequel: Che II: Electric Boogaloo.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

LFF Update: Part 1

The London Film Festival started on Wednesday, and in the first of a series of despatches from the LFF, here's a brief rundown of what I've seen so far. Consider these brief summaries as teasers, as I'll be writing full reviews of these pictures in due course.

A powerful performance from Frank Langella lends an illusion of depth to this superficial and rather flat adaptation of Peter Morgan's stage play. Ron Howard directs in his usual bland fashion, doing little to add a sense of urgency or life to the drama, and the first hour is a drag, with much clumsy expositional dialogue and some unwelcome straight-to-camera segments. After while it settles into a slicker, more enjoyable rhythm, and the interview scenes between Langella's Nixon and Frost (well played by Michael Sheen) are always engaging, particularly the last one. Is it Ron Howard's best film in years? Undoubtedly, probably because the story and actors are just too good for him to screw it up, but judged against more normal standards of excellence it doesn't seem very impressive.

The ClassLaurent Cantet's Palme D'Or winner is a marvel. Set over the course of a single school year, the film observes teacher François Bégaudeau (a real-life teacher, the film is based on his book), as he educates a multi-cultural classroom in an often combative fashion. The film is primarily set within that single room (the film's French title, Entre le murs, literally translates as Between the Walls), and Cantet's three unobtrusive cameras catch the fast, fiery exchange of ideas between François and these teenagers as the film touches on race, gender, national identity, class, sexuality, and ultimately a teacher's responsibility towards his students. The fascinating thing is the way Cantet portrays François as a flawed character, who often loses control of his boisterous charges and whose reaction is occasionally downright unprofessional. The result is a portrait of school life that is realistic, complex, and exhilaratingly alive.

Miracle at St AnnaWoefully clumsy, preposterous, contrived, weighed down with subplots and ridiculously bloated, Spike Lee's war epic is also the loudest film I've seen this year, with both the sound of battle and Terence Blanchard's fucking incessant drums and trumpets being played at ear-splitting volume. Having said all that, I found individual parts of it to be absolutely brilliant, and a reminder of how vital a filmmaker Lee can be, but those isolated highlights feel awfully insufficient when set against some of the bewildering choices the director makes as he trudges through this 160-minute ordeal. There are about six different narratives jostling for position at any one time, the film is riddled with anachronisms and distracting cameos, and while the performances are generally good, the characterisations are broad rather than deep. Sure, the final scene bought a tear to my eye, but I hated myself for it, feeling I'd been hoodwinked by a manipulative and ridiculous film.

Atom Egoyan's beautifully structured new film focuses on a teenager who creates a new past for himself, telling friends and classmates that his father was a terrorist, before the story spirals out of his control. Egoyan's direction is crisp and elegant as he moves between different time zones and parcels out fragments of narrative information. He draws superb displays from his actors, including his wife Arsinée Khanjian and Scott Speedman, who suggests real layers of anger and pain in his underplayed performance. Adoration's plot is convoluted and some may balk at the coincidences and revelations that come into play, but the film is fluid, touching, and full of intriguing ideas. If you don't like Atom Egoyan's films then you probably won't like this. But I do, and I did.

BronsonCharles Bronson is Britain's most notorious prisoner, a man who has spent 34 years of his life in jail, mostly in solitary confinement. As Bronson (real name Michael Peterson) has spent a lifetime creating a persona for himself, Nicolas Winding Refn's film plays less like a biopic, and more like a vision of that life filtered through his own skewed perspective. It's a brave idea, but it doesn't work at all. The framing device has Bronson (played by a physically transformed Tom Hardy) appearing on stage in front of an audience, often in clown makeup, to tell his story, and these surreal sequences are mixed up with repetitive scenes in which the central character violently takes on groups of prison guards single-handed. The only part of the film I really liked was a central segment in which Bronson struggled to readjust to life on the outside, but the film never gets inside the mind or under the skin of its subject. The one unqualified success in the picture is Hardy, who offers a display of stunning authority and charisma, but as good as his performance is, it's clear the filmmakers don't have a clue what to do with it.

As well as seeing these films, I spoke to James Toback last week about his new documentary Tyson, and that interview will be published here closer to the film's release date.

Coming up this week – We spend Christmas with Arnaud Desplechin, Rachel gets married, Oliver Stone tackles Dubya, and I meet one of Britain's greatest filmmakers.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Review - Tyson

"Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!"

– Oscar Wilde

You don't expect to hear Mike Tyson reading Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Gaol, but then much of what you see and hear in James Toback's Tyson is pleasantly unexpected. This complex and fascinating portrait of the fighter, who hit dizzying highs at such a young age before sinking to such pathetic lows, is essentially a single monologue, in which Tyson himself tells his version of his own life story. The only time Toback cuts away from Tyson's face is when he shows us footage of the fighter in action, and reminds us how fast and brutal he was, the way he used to tear into his opponents like a bulldog. The Mike Tyson who sits in front of Toback's cameras to recount his tale is older and sadder, speaking with unfailing honesty and occasionally struggling to find the right words as his emotions threaten to overcome him. He seems so vulnerable, and it's hard to reconcile this man with the one who was the most fearsome fighter on the planet.

And boy, he was fearsome. Tyson opens with footage of the boxer's greatest night, November 22nd 1986, when he destroyed Trevor Berbick to become the heavyweight champion of the world. He moved with jaw-dropping speed and landed his punches with stunning accuracy and ferocity, defeating Berbick in the second round to claim the title. He was twenty years old. Tragically, the man who helped Tyson towards that championship was not there to enjoy the glory, as his trainer Cus D'Amato had died a year before, and it's tempting to view his passing as the major turning point in Tyson's life. D'Amato had taken the young fighter under his wing and nurtured him, helping him refine his fighting style, and eventually becoming a surrogate father figure for him. As Tyson sits in front of Toback's camera and recalls his relationship with his mentor, he chokes back the tears but he soldiers on, determined to bear his soul. For many, this will be the first, startling sign of humanity that we've seen in a man who has so often been depicted as an animal.

Tyson feels like a confessional. Toback keeps his camera tight on his subject's face, and Mike Tyson looks right at us as he remembers every unsavoury incident that has coloured his eventful forty years. He takes us back to streets of Brooklyn on which he grew up, surrounded by crooks and dealers, and falling almost inevitably into a life of crime. He talks about the breathing problems he has suffered from ever since he was a child, and how he used to attack his opponents from the first bell, desperate to finish the fight early before his shortness of breath became a factor. And he recalls an encounter from his youth when he beat down a kid who killed one of his beloved pigeons; remembering the sense of power and confidence he felt when he defeated this early opponent and saying "No one was ever going to fuck with me again, because I'd fuckin' kill 'em".

There are flashes of anger throughout Tyson, notably when he talks about Desiree Washington, the woman who accused him of rape in 1992 (a charge he still denies), or whenever the name of Don King pops up. He also displays unpleasant bursts of misogyny, talking about how he likes to dominate women "like a tiger devours its prey", and admitting he fought Berbick while suffering from gonorrhoea that he contracted from a liaison with "a prostitute, or some other filthy lady". But at other times the fighter can be surprisingly articulate and even charming in the way he occasionally stumbles for more grandiose words (like skulduggery, which he misuses) with which to express himself. The portrait Tyson gives us is of a confused, self-critical and searching man, keen to come to terms with his own failures.

James Toback has occasionally been guilty of putting a little too much of himself into his movies, but here he simply acts as a silent off-screen witness as his friend opens his heart. The film has been compiled from more than thirty hours of interviews, and Toback makes impressive use of archive footage, much of which shows Tyson at his very worst (including a press conference that ends with him hurling aggressive homophobic insults at the reporters). Sometimes Toback edits for effect, with his frequent use of split-screen and overlapping voices doing little to enhance the viewing experience, but his handling of Tyson's fight footage is frequently brilliant. In a couple of sequences, we watch Tyson in action as he narrates, describing his emotions and thoughts as he enters the ring and prepares to fight, and his description fuses brilliantly with what we see, drawing us into the mentality of a fighter. There's a great scene when we watch Tyson staring down his opponent prior to a bout, refusing to blink or look away as he seaches for that tiny chink in his armour – suddenly, we see the other fighter turn his eyes downwards, "and at that moment," Tyson recalls with satisfaction, "I knew I had beaten him".

Tyson continues through the prison sentence, the conversion to Islam, the Holyfield fiasco, and the final, money-driven fights in which he appeared as a sad shadow of his once-great self – and what, ultimately, does it say about Mike Tyson? The film seems to portray him as a classical tragic figure, destroyed by hubris and his own flaws, and doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, but the final act shows him trying to find the right path, one step at a time. After viewing Tyson, will you like the man any more than you did before you watched it? Maybe not, but you might understand him a little more, and while this documentary lacks the opposing points of view that would have lent it objectivity, the picture remains a compelling character study built upon the openness and intensity of its subject. One wonders where Mike Tyson will go from here, as he tries to rebuild his broken life, and to defeat his inner demons. "The past is history" he says ruefully, "the rest is a mystery".

Read my interview with James Toback here.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Review - Of Time and the City

Of Time and the City is Terence Davies' first documentary film, but it feels indistinguishable from the director's great body of fictional work. It has the same intensely personal feel, the same mixture of reminiscence, humour and pain, and the same non-chronological structure, with Davies' favourite music providing a connecting thread. In short, it is another jewel from a director who should be considered a national treasure in this country, but who has found himself out in the cold for most of his frustratingly sporadic career. In the eight years since Davies' last film, the superb but sadly undervalued The House of Mirth, he has fought unsuccessfully for financial backing and gradually fallen out of sight. In those years, this country has produced films such as Sex Lives of the Potato Men, Fat Slags, Rancid Aluminium, Maybe Baby, Honest, Straightheads and Three and Out. When set against such a contemptible list, the British Film Industry's almost decade-long shunning of Davies is as infuriating as it is bewildering.

Finally, Davies has been allowed to bring his vision to the screen once more, thanks to Liverpool's status as the 2008 European Capital of Culture. The director was commissioned to make a documentary about his native city, but in typical fashion, Of Time and the City is a film less about the city as a whole, and more about his own heartfelt memories of it. The film is driven by Davies' emotions, as he himself narrates over a wide and beautifully compiled selection of archive footage, and quickly lulls us into the flickering black-and-white world of his past. This is no mere wallow in nostalgia, however, as Davies is always quick to alight upon the wounds – emotional and spiritual – that marked him as a child; particularly his struggles with his own sexual urges, which put him at odds with both the law and God.

Fittingly, Of Time and the City opens inside a cinema, for that was where young Terence went to escape the grey, grim bleakness of post-war Britain. The allure of the silver screen has always been a powerful component in Davies' work, the glamour of Hollywood contrasting sharply with the banality of everyday life, and in Of Time and the City he once again remembers the pleasure of losing oneself in those faraway fantasies "where it is always Christmas, and always perfect". But he also recalls seeing Dirk Bogarde in Victim, and feeling a spark of recognition that contextualised those stirrings he felt as he watched the sweaty grappling of a local wrestling match. Born and raised a Catholic, Davies could find no solace in the church ("only Satan smirking behind corners and saying: “I’ll get you in the end""), and he felt himself cast as both a sinner and a criminal, cringing when his grandmother says she fancies Quare Times in the Grand National, and silently begging to be spared the wrath of God.

Davies growls that final line – making it sound more like "The wraaarth of Gooord!" – and his throaty, irascible narration is key to Of Time and the City's success. He imbues every line with passion, whether he is quoting from TS Eliot, Emily Dickinson, or simply allowing his own memories of tiny, seemingly insignificant incidents to spill forth. He recalls bonfire nights, Christmases (with the annual exotic pomegranate), and trips to New Brighton, where he recalls boarding the ferry in black-and-white, and disembarking in colour, with the footage suddenly switching to match the vivid mood. For Davies, memory is a circular, nonlinear phenomenon, and he weaves his personal recollections freely with matters of more national interest. Most of the major events that occurred in Britain between the end of the second World War and the end of the 60's are covered in some way by the film, and many of them allow Davies to be at his tetchiest. The Royal Wedding of 1947 – "The Betty and Phil Show" as he dismissively labels it – is regarded as a shameful display of opulence at a time when most of the country was living in abject poverty, and the rise of pop music, something Davies abhors, is given equally short shrift ("yeah, yeah, yeah" he sarcastically drawls over footage of The Beatles).

Despite his anathema to some of the most widely loved music this country has ever produced, Davies has worked wonders with his own soundtrack selection once again. All of his films have the director's favourite music deeply ingrained into their souls, and in Of Time and the City he mixes snatches of Mahler and Brahms with songs such as Dirty Old Town and He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother to both reflect upon and underscore the emotions his visuals stir up. Another superb choice is Peggy Lee's rendition of The Folks who Live on the Hill, which plays as the Liverpool slums are replaced with ugly, towering high-rise flats, prompting Davies to muse upon "the British genius for creating the dismal".

There is no doubt, however, that Davies still possesses a genius for creating great art. Of Time and the City perhaps lacks the overwhelming emotional force of his 1988 masterpiece Distant Voices, Still Lives, but it is still a wonderful piece of work. "As we grow older, the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated of dead and living" Davies says, and that quote from Eliot seems to perfectly sum up the wonderful gift this director has for intermingling the past and the present, and infusing all of it with a complicated mix of joy and sadness, yearning and regret. We have few enough genuine artists working in the film industry in this country, so the fact that we have left a filmmaker the calibre of Terence Davies out in the cold for eight years is something of which we should be profoundly ashamed. We can see that Terence Davies has lost none of his passion, wit or vision in his wilderness years, and now he is behind the camera again, it is our duty to keep him there.

Read my interview with Terence Davies here.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Review - I've Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t'aime)

I've Loved You So Long is an actors' movie. In his debut film, French writer/director Philippe Claudel displays his ability to tell a story in an intriguing, subtle fashion, but it is the performances he draws from his cast that really makes the picture work. That cast is led by Kristin Scott Thomas, who will undoubtedly receive numerous plaudits for her display here, but it is by no means a one-woman show, and the pleasure of the film lies in watching the way the whole ensemble works together, creating rich characterisations and complex relationships. When first meet Juliette Fontaine (Scott Thomas) she looks pale and drawn, nervously smoking a cigarette as she sits alone in an almost empty cafe. She is waiting for her sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein, outstanding) with whom she is going to live for a period of time despite the fact that she hasn't seen her in 15 years, and the reason for that absence, we swiftly learn, is that 15 years was the length of Juliette's jail sentence.

"15 years? You must have done something really serious," a prospective employer tells Juliette; and it's true, she did do something serious, perhaps unforgivable, but I won't reveal what it was. Juliette may have paid her dues in the eyes of the law, but this crime still hangs over her head as she tries to rebuild her life, colouring the perception of others, and making it even harder for her to shake off the past. A job interview ends abruptly when her misdeed is exposed, Léa's husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) is unhappy with the idea of this woman living under the same roof as their children, and she must constantly bat away questions from friends of the family, keen to discover where this mysterious woman has been for the last decade and a half. One of those friends is Michel (Laurent Grévill), a colleague of Léa's whom Juliette eventually trusts enough to confide in and slowly build a relationship with, but most of the time she prefers to be alone as she tries to reconnect with the world on her own terms.

Watching Juliette make this journey is fascinating because, as played by Scott Thomas, it's like watching a woman slowly come back to life. At the start of the film she's a shell of a woman who is still living by the rules of prison life; she flinches from human contact, occasionally snapping angrily when she feels like somebody is getting too close. As I've Loved You So Long plays out, we see how she softens and grows in plausible, interesting ways, with Scott Thomas touching on so many tiny details to establish and develop her character, and her relationship with Léa is a touchingly honest portrayal of sisterly love. Claudel shows a real skill for handling characters and group scenes, and I was also convinced by the way the changing attitudes of those around Juliette were written – so much of the film feels natural and true. Claudel isn't much of a visual stylist, and his writing can occasionally be clumsy (Léa is a literature professor, purely so her students can have a long debate about Dostoevsky and Crime and Punishment), but he does stage a couple of great scenes, like the uncomfortable dinner party interrogation Juliette suffers, or her fraught reunion with her mother.

Unfortunately, the director can't find the right way to end, and after skipping over a point that seemed to offer a perfectly appropriate conclusion to the picture, he closes instead on a note of cheap melodrama, explaining the reason behind Juliette's crime. It is an explanation that is deeply unnecessary, one that closes off the intriguing sense of ambiguity the film had possessed, and it ensures the film climaxes in a fashion that's tear-stained but too contrived to be emotionally unsatisfying. One of the main reasons Kristin Scott Thomas' performance in I've Loved You So Long is so impressive is that she never looks for the audience's sympathy, and she maintains a sense of mystery about the character's past, which only serves to make her a more interesting proposition. In contrast, Claudel's collapse into convention in the final ten minutes sees him desperately rush to fill in the blanks, and to give the audience closure before the credits roll, but in doing so he dilutes his drama and betrays a lack of faith in his audience. He should know that a happy ending is not a prerequisite, sometimes it's enough for a film to be convincing and thought-provoking, and sometimes the most stimulating part of the cinema experience can come afterwards, when we fill in the blanks for ourselves.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Review - Righteous Kill

Oh dear, did it really have to come to this? The careers of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro have been sliding into mediocrity and beyond for at least a decade now, so the fact that their latest collaboration is nothing special will surprise nobody, but what on earth compelled them to appear in such a miserable dog of a film? Surely they should have realised an onscreen reunion was something that film fans had long been anticipating, and therefore might have put a little extra thought into their choice, but to sign up for such a cheap hackjob is a betrayal of their talents and their status. Righteous Kill is another lazy outing for the two stars, with Pacino coasting by on crumpled charm while De Niro grimaces like man who has been suffering constipation for a month (or two months, in the really intense scenes). In short, they're little more than miniscule variations on the kind of performances the pair have been giving for years, and at this stage in their lives, one wonders if they have anything new to give.

In Righteous Kill, the two stars play tight-knit LAPD detectives who generally go by the nicknames Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino). They're hunting a serial killer who seems to be targeting undesirable members of the community – crooks, rapists, dealers – who have somehow evaded justice, and this killer has a penchant for lame poetry that he leaves at the scene of the crime. Coincidentally, a number of these victims (including, amusingly, one called "Rambo the Skateboard Pimp") are linked by cases that Turk and Rooster worked in the past, which leaves us with the inevitable question: are the two veteran law enforcers taking justice into their own hands? Young cops John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg certainly think so.

It's a fairly trashy premise as it is, and Russell Gerwirtz's screenplay indulges in cop movie clichés while sketching a narrative that is both laughably silly and despairingly predictable. The film has been directed, if that's the word, by Jon Avnet, a witless hack who stages and edits his scenes in the most rudimentary fashion imaginable, hoping the booming score will distract viewers from the cracks in the picture. The characterisation is almost non-existent – all we learn about De Niro's Turk is that he likes rough sex with fellow cop Carla Gugino (the role she's given is a disgrace), and we don't even get that level of depth when it comes to Rooster. The whole movie just feels like straight-to-DVD junk, with actors such as Brian Dennehy and Oleg Taktarov filling out the decidedly underwhelming cast. Speaking of underwhelming performances, rapper Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson remarkably manages to display even less emotion in his acting here than he did in his film debut Get Rich or Die Tryin', which counts as some kind of dubious achievement, I suppose.

These supporting acts are irrelevant, though, because the only reason anyone is going to watch Righteous Kill is for the two leads, and it's hard to describe the sense of disappointment one feels when watching them go through the motions in such a tedious manner. When Michael Mann directed the pair in Heat, he got it exactly right, shaping the two performances individually and heightening tension through a cautious game of cat-and-mouse, before giving us the payoff with that electrifying coffee shop scene. With no such strong director to push them, and with the whole movie to share, Pacino and De Niro settle into doing the minimum amount of work required in Righteous Kill, and the utter lack of chemistry between them is astonishing. I must confess, the film was so dull at one point I did feel my eyelids growing heavy, and I did start to drift off, before being awoken a few moments later by lots of shouting and gunfire. Maybe I missed their one great scene together while I dozed, but I'm guessing I didn't.

As I watched Righteous Kill, the recent death of Paul Newman was still playing on my mind. I was thinking about how few bad movies that great actor made, and how remarkable it was that he managed to sustain his career for 50 years, in many respects getting better with age. There's no reason why Al Pacino and Robert De Niro shouldn't have extended their careers in a similar fashion, but while they have shown flashes of the old brilliance in the past decade (mostly from Pacino), they have more often been guilty of giving paycheck performances in films that shouldn't even be mentioned in the same breath as actors of their calibre. Just imagine what it would have been like to see these two firebrand actors going head-to-head like this in the 70's, and remember what an event it was in the 90's. Now, it's just a little bit sad.