Phil on Film Index

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 Review - Part Two: The Best and Worst

Best Picture

1 – There Will Be Blood
A film whose ambition and execution dwarfs 90% of what American cinema has produced in the past decade

2 – No Country For Old Men
This is simply a flawlessly crafted picture at every level

3 – 4 Months, 3 weeks, 2 Days
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a stunning work; it is filmmaking stripped to the basics and yet it manages to be as gut-wrenchingly gripping as any thriller

4 – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
One of the year's most uplifting and exhilarating cinematic experiences

5 – Man On Wire
One of the most gripping, emotionally involving films of the year

6 – Gomorrah
Rarely has a single film provided such a vivid and engrossing portrait of an organised crime network

7 – Persepolis
Persepolis is a totally unique cinematic experience

8 – The Silence of Lorna
This is ultimately another rich and nuanced character study from two of the most valuable filmmakers in world cinema

9 – Hunger
There's something special going on in almost every scene

10 – Taxi to The Darkside
An alarming and gripping piece of filmmaking

Honourable Mentions
The Edge Of Heaven
Far North
Iron Man
My Winnipeg
Of Time And The City
The Savages
Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber Of Fleet St

Worst Picture

1 – Blindness
If the ghastly cinematography doesn't drive you from the cinema, then perhaps the crushingly unsubtle allegory will

2 – Rambo
It's jaw-dropping in its tastelessness

3 – Three And Out
A depressingly lame British picture that completely fails to capitalise on the meagre potential of its premise

4 – The Happening
The Happening is an indefensibly stupid film in every single way

5 – Righteous Kill
The whole movie just feels like straight-to-DVD junk

6 – Cassandra's Dream
The fact that Allen has signed this package off as being fit for release suggests a filmmaker bored by his own work
7 – Charlie Bartlett
Charlie Bartlett is stupid, derivative and empty
8 – Never Back Down
A soulless experience
9 – Savage Grace
At times the film became so boring I genuinely began to fear for my sanity
10 – Zack And Miri Make A Porno
Shabby, unimaginative and juvenile

Dishonourable MentionsAustralia
Diary of the Dead
Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull
Quantum of Solace
Step Brothers

Best Actor

Daniel Day-Lewis – There Will Be Blood
Javier Bardem – No Country for Old Men
James Franco – Pineapple Express
Michael Fassbender – Hunger
Robert Downey Jr. – Iron Man

Best Actress

Anamaria Marinca – 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Arta Dobroshi – The Silence of Lorna
Sally Hawkins – Happy-Go-Lucky
Tang Wei – Lust, Caution
Inés Efron – XXY

Best Supporting Actor

Max von Sydow – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Eddie Marsan – Happy-Go-Lucky
Vlad Ivanov – 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight
Jérémie Renier – The Silence of Lorna

Best Supporting Actress

Kelly MacDonald – No Country for Old Men
Marie-Josée Croze – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Laura Vasiliu – 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Vera Farmiga – The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
Anne Consigny – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Best Director

Paul Thomas Anderson – There Will Be Blood
Joel and Ethan Coen – No Country for Old Men
Julian Schnabel – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Cristian Mungiu – 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Steve McQueen – Hunger

Best Original Screenplay

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
The Silence of Lorna
The Savages
Pineapple Express

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

Best Cinematography

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
There Will Be Blood
No Country for Old Men
Far North
The Dark Knight

Best Editing

No Country for Old Men
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Best Musical Score

There Will Be Blood
The Dark Knight
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Best Visual Effects

Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Iron Man
The Dark Knight

Best Production Design

Hellboy II: The Golden Army
There Will Be Blood
Quantum of Solace
The Dark Knight

Best Costume Design

The Last Mistress
There Will Be Blood
Lust, Caution
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Surprise of the Year

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Iron Man
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Disappointment of the Year

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Righteous Kill
Quantum of Solace
Step Brothers

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008 Review - Part One

So how was it for you? Thrilling, surprising and eye-opening, or a bit of a disappointment? In retrospect, 2008 looks like a year of two halves, with the extraordinary wealth of brilliant films in the year's first few months setting a standard that couldn't be maintained, and leading to an inevitable sense of deflation as the year fizzled to a close. This is the pattern that seems to repeat itself year on year, as the biggest movies are positioned late in the released schedule in America so they can be fresh in the minds of awards voters, while the staggered release dates between the US and the UK mean they eventually find their way over here in January, February and March. I was prepared, then, for a general falling-off in quality after the first quarter, but the films up to that point had been so good, the subsequent drop was very, very sharp.

Consider this for an opening salvo: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Persepolis, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, The Savages, Walk Hard. I enjoyed all of these films immensely, but everything was overshadowed by two of the great American films of the decade: the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood. The pair were polar opposites – one is beautifully crafted with not a frame out of place, while the other is a pulsating and sprawling epic – but when taken side-by-side they stand as a stunning reminder of how good cinema can be when real artists are given the freedom to display their craft. Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of these films' production was the way they found an audience outside of the arthouse niche, which such unconventional fare might have been expected to reside in. Between them, the two pictures earned 16 Oscar nominations (winning six altogether), despite being far from the standard Academy fare, and both films provoked a fascinating and enlightening discourse on the internet, where their complexities and ambiguities were enthusiastically analysed.

Such analysis reinforces the important role critics have to play in our film culture, helping us appreciate and find new depths in the pictures presented to us, but 2008 was a bad year for film reviewers all round. As newspapers continued to feel the financial pinch this year, the arts section tended to be the first to find its head on the block, with such notable writers as Nathan Lee, Glenn Kenny, Dennis Lim and David Ansen finding themselves out of work. Mind you, one has to ask who would want to be a film critic anyway, as even those who did keep their jobs found themselves in the firing line this summer. The release of The Dark Knight was one of a number of films that seemed to unify the critical community and the public in a tidal wave of approval, but that wasn't enough for some batty Batman fans. When the first negative reviews started appearing, Dark Knight acolytes began jumping on them with a vengeance, aiming to discredit the author by labelling him as (a) pretentious (b) stupid or (c) just trying to gain attention by going against the flow. But the worst aspect of this rabid fandom was the onslaught of venomous and hateful comments readers began leaving on the reviews in question. Now, with awards season coming our way, those same fans are mounting their own For Your Consideration campaign, determined to end the movie's stellar year with a host of trophies (Ignore The Dark Knight At Your Peril, one online article was headlined). Whatever one thinks of Christopher Nolan's film, this obnoxious fallout from it doesn't do anybody any favours.

After all, if one film didn't need hordes of people jumping to its defence in 2008, it was The Dark Knight. I'm with the naysayers on this one – I still think there's an unignorable gap between Nolan's ambition and his abilities as a director – but there's no getting away from the fact that this film was a true cultural phenomenon, the kind of all-encompassing event we haven't really experienced since Titanic (whose box-office crown it threatened to dislodge). It was a perfect storm of elements; expectations were already high after the impressive first instalment, they were gradually stoked by an incredibly imaginative marketing campaign, and then they were sent into orbit by the death of Heath Ledger in January. This year we lost many well-liked and respected figures linked to the industry – Sydney Pollack, Anthony Minghella, Bernie Mac, Donald LaFontaine, Isaac Hayes, Anne Savage, Paul Scofield, Charlton Heston, Jules Dassin, to name a few – but it was the passing of Heath Ledger and Paul Newman that left the deepest impact. In Ledger's case, it was the tragedy of seeing a young life being snuffed out, and the knowledge that this hugely talented actor would never show us the full extent of his ability. The death of Paul Newman provoked a very different emotion, however, as the grief was more linked to the fact that we were bidding a fond farewell to a truly special character – a great star, a great actor and a great man – who had seen and done it all, and had nothing more to prove.

The Dark Knight was the big winner at the box-office, and in early 2009 the studio is planning to re-release the film to try and edge its way over that much-coveted $1 billion mark. Everything else had to make do with small change in comparison; but Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Kung Fu Panda, Hancock, Iron Man, Mamma Mia! (which I didn't see. I don't hate myself that much), Quantum of Solace and WALL•E all still managed to break the $500 million barrier worldwide. From that list, one might surmise the film industry is in rude health, despite the global credit crunch, but people will always go and see the biggest movies available, and as pockets are tightened it's the independent sector that will feel the major repercussions. Warner Independent, Picturehouse and Tartan Films were among the "specialty" divisions that were closed this year, while Paramount Vantage (which distributed both No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood) was folded back into its parent company. As these studios disappear, it's hard to see how a lot of smaller, more challenging films will get the distribution that might bring them to the audience they deserve, and we may see more filmmakers struggling to get their films made as the studios back away from anything that looks too risky. The great filmmaker Terence Davies has just returned to cinemas after such a period of exile, with his elegiac, deeply personal documentary Of Time and the City, but despite that film's success, he may find himself once again fighting for scraps in the near future, as the financial climate makes funding harder to come by.

It's impossible to say with any certainty what effect the financial crisis will have on cinema over the course of the coming year, but we can remain hopeful that artists will find some way to make their voices heard. Young filmmakers will still manage to perform miracles on a tiny budget, as Steve McQueen did with Hunger this year, or Asif Kapadia did in Far North, and perhaps we'll see a continued growth in the field of documentaries. This year, two of the very best films to be found anywhere were documentaries – Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Darkside and James Marsh's breathtaking Man on Wire – and that appears to be one of the most richly rewarding areas in cinema right now, as filmmakers try to come to terms with the state of the world around us, and tell truthful stories that are often stranger than fiction.

Even if the world is in a mess, a spirit of optimism always accompanies the arrival of a new year. As ever, the opening months of 2009 will bring a number of outstanding films our way, including The Class and A Christmas Tale from two of the best contemporary French filmmakers, and Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, which is a perfect tonic for the winter blues. The awards-chasing Hollywood contingent is represented by The Reader, Revolutionary Road and Doubt, while more adventurous fare is served up by Steven Soderbergh and the indefatigable Werner Herzog, who have travelled to the jungle and Antarctica respectively for their new features. 2009 will also see the return of many great filmmakers throughout the course of the year, including Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, James Cameron, Gaspar Noé, Michael Haneke, Lukas Moodysson and Michael Mann. By the time their offerings have all been and gone, we'll be approaching not just the end of the year, but the end of the decade, and one can only speculate what state things will be in at that point. After eight disastrous years, at least we can have faith that there will be a man in the White House who is capable of steadying the ship and leading the world in the right direction. Hope springs eternal.

Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Review - Australia

Epic in scope but pitifully small-minded, Baz Luhrmann's Australia wants to cast the same romantic spell over viewers that films like Gone With the Wind or Titanic have in the past, but the film it most readily recalls is Michael Bay's Pearl Harbour. Like Bay, Luhrmann is a director who obsesses over stunning images but who has no idea how to assemble those images in a way that's coherent or satisfying. He simply hurls everything he's got at the screen with a feverish intensity, swamping his film with glossy visuals, but his pictures have no depth beyond what we see on the screen. They are exhaustingly shallow, particularly when Luhrmann takes over two and a half hours to tell his story, as he does with this ridiculously overcooked national epic.

Australia's biggest failing is the way Luhrmann squeezes in enough content for three or four films while barely managing to generate enough drama for one. At its core, the film is a very old-fashioned love story, with two people from different classes and opposite sides of the globe falling for each other, as seismic historical events gradually creep up behind them. Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) is the prim, uptight Englishwoman who travels down under to take over her late husband's ranch Faraway Downs. The man who will eventually be her lover is a cattle driver know only as Drover (Hugh Jackman), and oddly we never learn his real name, even when the pair are living together as de facto man and wife ("Drover" she yells from the porch, as if summoning the family dog). Of course, their initial encounters are tetchy, with her thinking that he's nothing more than a brute, and him tiring of her snotty attitude, but the pair bond when Faraway Downs is threatened by evil cattle barons Bryan Brown and David Wenham, and after 90 minutes or so of silly, predictable shenanigans, they live happily ever after.

Except, they don't, because the film has more than an hour still to run, and Luhrmann chooses to fill that time with the Japanese attack on Darwin, in February of 1942. Outside of Australia, this assault – during which the Japanese dropped more bombs than they did at Pearl Harbour two months earlier – is not widely known, so one might be tempted to commend the director for choosing to bring the story to a wider audience, but it's another massive layer the picture doesn't need. Australia is already stuffed to the brim with Sarah and Drover's romance, the fight to save Faraway Downs, a long-winded cattle drive, the fate of a half-aborigine boy called Nullah (newcomer Brandon Walters), and half-a-dozen references to The Wizard of Oz; so this final twist, which comes encumbered by a couple of false endings, just ensures Australia outstays its welcome.

Luhrmann seems to have convinced himself that his film will be considered a grand romantic epic if it's big enough and long enough, but in all of his sweeping, soaring shots of the Australian outback, there is no imagination or artfulness, it's just cliché after cliché after cliché. The film is attractive in places but never impressive, and even that visual impact is tempered by some of the shoddiest CGI I've ever seen in a major studio release like this, with the dreadful cattle stampede being the most obvious example, but hardly the only one. That sequence is just one of many in Australia which runs longer than it needs to, and with the conclusion to each and every scene being signposted well in advance, the audience is continually leaping ahead of the action, and then waiting impatiently for Baz's lumbering behemoth to catch up with us.

This director just doesn't know the meaning of the word restraint. He doesn't seem to understand that a film needs to rise and fall, that the quiet moments are every bit as vital – if not more so – than the flashy showstoppers, and even the performances are pushed to broad excesses. Such an approach is bad news for Kidman, who provided a calming, soothing effect at the heart of Luhrmann's manic musical Moulin Rouge!, but whose role in the first half-hour of this picture is to shriek and flap her arms in an unbecoming manner. She gets better as her character loosens up, and she occasionally manages to eke something special out of the material (like her attempt to sing Over the Rainbow to Nullah), but she never seems entirely comfortable in the role. She is certainly outshone by Jackman, whose background in musical theatre perhaps makes him a better fit for the film's campy tone, but what can we expect any actors to do with characters as sketchily written as these? Both Sarah and Drover develop exactly as you would expect them to (she becomes passionate and sexy, he shows his sensitive side), with the alterations occurring seemingly overnight, and that's as deep as the characterisations go. Beyond the two stars, the film is filled with one-dimensional caricatures – the moustache-twirling villains (Brown and Wenham), the comedy drunk (Jack Thompson), the surly Russian (Jacek Koman), and the most suspect stereotype of all, a head-waggling Chinaman named Sing Song (Wah Yuen).

The presence of Sing Song is particularly noteworthy because Australia is a film with racial harmony foremost in its mind. In dealing with the story of Nullah, Luhrmann attempts to tackle the issue of Australia's infamous "lost generation", but the director is so determined to treat his aboriginal characters with sufficient respect, he has ended up giving us figures who practically glow with benevolence and wisdom. So much emphasis is placed upon their spiritual qualities and their oneness with the natural world, the film risks turning them all into the kind of "magical negro" that Hollywood films have so often been guilty of featuring. At least young Brandon Walters brings a touch of humanity and openness to his guileless turn, giving by far the film's most effective performance, and his charmingly naïve narration occasionally manages to cut through the bombast of Luhrmann's filmmaking style. Australia is cheesy, bloated, fatuous and frequently very boring, but Walters' Nullah hints at something deeper, and when he heads into the wilderness to begin his "walkabout", one suspects he's about to embark on a journey that's far more interesting than anything this nonsensical film has to offer.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Review - Changeling

Some true stories are so incredible they feel like fiction, and the mysterious tale of Christine Collins is as incredible as they come. In 1928, she left her nine year-old son Walter home alone when unexpectedly called into work, and when she returned a few hours later, the boy had disappeared. During a police search that lasted for over five months, Christine never gave up on her son, believing the boy was still alive somewhere, and her faith was rewarded when the LAPD announced they finally located young Walter. Now, here's where things start to get a little strange. At the reunion – organised to much fanfare by a police department desperate for positive publicity – Christine announced that the boy she had been presented with was not Walter. Fearing embarrassment, the police put her reaction down to shock and the changes Walter had gone through while undergoing his traumatic experience, and they finally persuaded her to take this boy home. When she continued to insist that the boy was not her son, and demanded that the LAPD continue to search for a boy they claimed had already been found, Captain JJ Jones had her committed to a mental asylum.

It's astonishing stuff, and it should be an open goal for any filmmakers worth their salt, so how on earth does Changeling get it so wrong? The failure is even more perplexing when you consider this is a Clint Eastwood film, a man who is currently going through one of the most remarkably prolific late blooms imaginable. His last picture was the ambitious and impressive Letters From Iwo Jima, a film that dared to explore beyond the confines of the Hollywood war film formula, but Changeling, in stark contrast, is clichéd and perfunctory from its opening moments. Those early scenes settle us into the daily routine of Christine (Angelina Jolie), the distractingly glamorous single mother who packs young Walter off to school before riding the bus to the telephone exchange, where she works as a supervisor. This initial section gives us plenty of time to admire the exquisite costume design and period details (such as the rollerskates and hands-free kit Christine wears at the office), but it all feels disappointingly rote, as if Eastwood is simply keen to get through the requisite preliminaries before getting down to the good stuff.

Unfortunately, Eastwood never quite rouses himself out of this early funk, and Changeling is as sluggish a film as he has ever directed. J. Michael Straczynski's screenplay ploughs through the basic points of Christine's story without ever illuminating the horror of it, and the film fails to generate the drama one would expect this tale to come loaded with. Despite adhering closely to the real events of this case, a lot of Changeling rings false because the screenplay hasn't put enough effort into explaining how many of these bizarre events took place; the film skims over the tiny but important linking details that would help mould it into a much fuller piece of work. With the script refusing to delve under the story's surface, much of the picture rests on Jolie's slender shoulders, but as valiantly as she tries, she can't provide the underwritten central role with the depth required to keep Changeling's engine running, she simply doesn't have enough notes to play. Jolie practically overflows with emotion, but her performance is exhausting rather than affecting, and her character barely undergoes any development in the process. There are only so many variations one can put on the line "I want my son back!" before it starts to get old.

Of course, as the wronged mother, we are expected to root for Christine Collins, but Eastwood and Straczynski can't resist stacking the deck in her favour anyway. She is painted as an almost saintly figure, whereas the authority figures she comes up against (Jeffrey Donovan and Colm Feore's arrogant cops, Denis O'Hare's sadistic asylum chief) are caricatures seemingly designed to elicit boos from the audience when they appear. Christine does get help from her own white knight, a crusading pastor named Gustav Briegleb who is played by John Malkovich (all Malkovich roles should have names like Gustav Briegleb), but he's not much of a character either. He sidles primly and unmemorably around Christine offering words of support, before rescuing her from the mental hospital she has been confined in. He turns up, you've guessed it, seconds before she is about to undergo electric shock treatment.

The asylum sequence is where Changeling finally falls apart, and it's where you begin to notice how hackneyed Eastwood's direction is. The hospital is full of frazzle-haired, dribbling old ladies aimlessly wandering around under the gaze of stern-faced matrons, while one tart with a heart (Amy Ryan, wasted) reaches out to the scared Christine and takes her under her wing. It all feels dully familiar, and the director keeps resorting to predictable visual tricks – the swing of a serial killer's axe is shown in silhouette, a startling plot revelation causes a detective's cigarette ash to fall to the ground in slow motion. Eastwood has rarely been so lax in his handling of a film, his recent work has been based upon the avoidance or subversion of genre clichés, and his ready acceptance of such tired tropes this time around perhaps suggest his heart isn't really in it.

Changeling is also horribly overstretched. After spending some ninety minutes detailing the Christine Collins case, it shifts into new territory later on when the focus moves onto the actual fate of Christine's son. This fresh direction unfortunately brings Jason Butler Harner into the action, as the serial killer behind the disappearance, and his twitchy, over-the-top performance threatens to turn the movie into a cartoon, before it finally climaxes with a duet of equally boring courtroom scenes. How did it turn out this way? This is material that seemed perfectly primed for the kind of morally ambiguous explorations Eastwood has offered us in the past, but Changeling is limp and disappointingly black-and-white. In fact, if it wasn't for the typically shadowy cinematography and the director's own tinkling score, there would be very little to identify this as one of his films at all, and it seems more akin to the work of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, both of whom serve as producers. We expect this kind of shallow, wishy-washy Oscar bait from them, but Clint Eastwood is surely better than that.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Review - Zack and Miri Make a Porno

The emergence of Judd Apatow as American cinema's king of comedy must feel like something of a double-edged sword for Kevin Smith. On the one hand, films like The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad have brought mainstream credibility to the kind of raunchy/sweet, pop culture-referencing, slacker comedies that were Smith's stock-in-trade for so many years. On the other hand, Apatow's refinement of the formula has left Smith's films looking more amateurish and crude than ever. His zero-budget debut Clerks remains his best work, almost by default, but it is dismaying to see how little he has advanced as either a writer or director during the subsequent 14 years, in which he has made eight increasingly unimpressive features. With the best will in the world, Smith is a bad filmmaker who shows no signs of developing beyond his current state, so maybe all you need to know about Zack and Miri Make a Porno is that it's just another Kevin Smith film, no better or worse than his standard fare, and that should give you an idea of whether you'll enjoy it or not.

At least the success of Apatow's films has given Smith a few new comic performers to work with, although he doesn't really know how best to use them. Both Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks – who play the title characters – are skilled comic actors who have developed strong screen personas that they utilise again here, and for a while, the film floats along on their charm alone. They're been friends since school and they now live (platonically) together in an apartment that they barely manage to maintain by working menial jobs. At the start of this film, their finances have finally begun to get on top of them, and when Zack thoughtlessly spends the last of his money on a sex toy, their water and power is cut, leaving them cold and in the dark, huddling around a burning trash can which sits in their living room. Desperate to find some cash before they are eventually turfed out of the building altogether, Zack suddenly hits on the idea of making their own porn film, after being inspired by meeting a gay porn star (Justin Long, whose brief performance is the movie's funniest) at a high-school reunion.

After tossing out various ideas (Lawrence of A-Labia? Fuckback Mountain?), Zack and Miri eventually settle on Star Whores, and they begin to put a crew together, with Zack's henpecked colleague Delaney (Craig Robinson) reluctantly putting up the cash when he's told he can oversee the "Titty Auditions", and Zack's pal Deacon (Smith regular Jeff Anderson) signs up as cameraman. The male half of the cast comprises of the effete theatre actor Barry (Ricky Mabe) and the sex-mad dumbbell Lester (Jason Mewes), while the leading female roles are taken by Bubbles and Stacey (real-life porn stars Traci Lords and Katie Morgan); but before they can get started, a stroke of ill-fortune forces them to relocate to Zack's coffee shop after hours, where they covertly shoot their re-titled film Swallow my Cockaccino. The big question here is whether filming a love scene together will finally force Zack and Miri to acknowledge the unspoken but obvious love that exists between them. This storyline is supposed to form the emotional backbone of Smith's film, but his cack-handed approach renders it useless, with the attraction between the pair being so blatant from the start, one grows weary of Smith's attempts to prolong the inevitable with the silly obstacles he throws in their way. Rogen and Banks are appealing, but together they generate little heat, and the film's big turning point, when their on-camera sex scene segues into something deeper, doesn't work at all. One is reminded of a scene late in The 40 Year-Old Virgin, when a bewildered but grateful Rogen encounters Banks frolicking in the bathtub, and that sequence is both funnier and sexier than anything Zack and Miri can whip up.

It's clear that Smith lacks the nuance or maturity to find any emotional resonance in his story, but Zack and Miri is also desperately unfunny. To be honest, I've never found much to laugh at in Smith's films; his dialogue is forced and obvious, and as Smith has no ability to direct actors, the delivery is often stilted. Choices cuts from Zack and Miri include someone asking "Can I have a" only for Craig Robinson to reply, "Can't you see we're busy...White?"; or how about one character saying "Can you believe this shit?" just in time for another, covered in faeces, to turn up and respond, "Can you believe this shit!". The "shit shot", as Kevin Smith has described it in interviews, is indicative of another of his flaws; the gag is set up and executed in such a laboured, feeble manner (Smith unwisely edits his own films, of course) it loses whatever impact it may have had in the hands of a skilled filmmaker. On the other hand, Zack and Miri's other attempt to shock the viewer falls flat for a different reason – the full-frontal male nude shot feels a little passé when the superior Apatow productions Walk Hard and Forgetting Sarah Marshall have already turned 2008 into the Year of the Cock.

Perhaps it's a little unfair to be constantly comparing Smith's work with Apatow's, but that's where the bar currently sits for this kind of film, and Smith falls short in every single regard. He doesn't help himself when he stages a confrontation between Robinson and Gerry Bednob that plays out like a pale imitation of a similar sequence Bednob shared with Romany Malco in The 40 Year-Old Virgin, but almost everything in Zack and Miri feels stale and irrelevant. I have nothing against Kevin Smith himself (he actually seems to be a very witty and likable individual, whose gift for spinning anecdotes makes his An Evening With Kevin Smith DVDs far funnier than any of his features), but the guy is not a filmmaker, and with every new shabby, unimaginative and juvenile offering, it seems increasingly obvious that he's simply wasting everyone's time.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Review - Transporter 3

As James Bond leaves behind the gadgets and quips to follow Jason Bourne down the path of gritty, no-frills realism, it's nice to have Frank Martin around to prove there's still more than one way to make an action movie. Authenticity may be the watchword for most modern action heroes, but for the Luc Besson-produced Transporter series – in which Jason Statham's Frank is the star – that word comes a long way down the list of priorities. Spectacle and Adrenalin are the key ingredients in these films, and the plot is generally treated as an annoying little inconvenience, which is only marking time until the next stunt or set-piece crashes into view. The whole package is given Besson's usual glossy sheen, and while it's hard to deny the Transporter films are little more than hollow and nonsensical cases of style over substance, it's just as hard to deny they're damn good fun.

For the uninitiated, here's a quick recap. Frank Martin is the transporter; a cool and unflappable ex-special forces operative who will guarantee delivery of anything, anywhere, anytime. He lives his life by a series of strict rules – never open the package, never use names, always work alone etc. – but throughout the course of his adventures, he usually breaks most of these at some point ("Why is everyone so interested in my rules?" he growls in this film when that issue is raised). His only colleague is friendly gendarme Tarconi (François Berléand), and at the start of Transporter 3 the pair are enjoying a spot of fishing off the coast of Marseilles, with Frank contemplating the nice, quiet retirement that lies ahead of him. His retirement is short-lived, though, and when the plot suddenly crashes into his living room he is soon forced to get back into the delivery service against his will, transporting an irritating Ukrainian teenager (newcomer Natalya Rudakova: a star is not born) from France to Budapest in his ever-reliable Audi.

The twist here is that the villain of the piece (Robert Knepper who cackles and sneers effectively), has fitted both Frank and Valentina with bracelets that will blow them to smithereens if they move more than 75 feet away from the car. It's the kind of simple conceit that worked for films like Speed (or Statham's own blatant Speed knock-off Crank), and if Transporter 3 doesn't quite exploit this gimmick as it might have done, it does add a different texture to some of the best sequences, like Frank pursuing his stolen car on foot and bicycle while trying to stay within the allotted distance. Scenes like that are the Transporter films' raison d'être; cheerfully ludicrous, inventively staged, and shot with an exhilarating kinetic charge. Taking on directing duties for this film is a man named Olivier Megaton (no, really!), who handles the audacious set-pieces skilfully, maintain ing clarity and generating real excitement through the various chase sequences. Even better is the hand-to-hand combat, with Frank often taking on multiple enemies at once, and each of these bouts benefit from Corey Yuen's choreography and some unexpected, amusing touches, including one particularly memorable incident wherein Frank removes his jacket, tie and shirt and uses them as weapons. Statham is in his element here – dressed to kill.

Jason Statham may not be a great actor, but the Transporter films don't need a great actor, they need a presence, and that's what he provides. Sleek, athletic and blessed with a deadpan delivery, he's a perfect fit for this kind of straight-ahead action hero role. The character of Frank Martin is cool and uncomplicated, and the last thing he needs is any kind of emotional depth, which is perhaps why the romantic angle that has been shoehorned gracelessly into Transporter 3 feels so misguided. After initially spurning Valentina's request to "feel the sex" ("You are the gay!", she exclaims when he refuses), the couple's relationship is eventually developed through no less than four separate cringeworthy discussions about food. Their tiresome romantic interlude culminates with Valentina forcing Frank to perform a hilariously embarrassing striptease on the edge of a cliff. Scenes like this are funny, sure, but they do tend to drag on the picture and leave the audience impatiently fidgeting in anticipation of the next action highlight.

As a result, Transporter 3 is a little clumsier and more disjointed than its predecessors, but for the most part it succeeds admirably within the boundaries of its own modest ambitions. The climax battle between Frank's Audi and a train brings the picture to an exceedingly entertaining close, and that's just one of the many sequences which offers more genuine fun that the retooled Bond could provide in Quantum of Solace. The Transporter films have carved out a nice little niche for themselves by providing explosive, over-the-top action in an era when so many of films in this genre are striving for something real. Transporter 3 just wants to dazzle the eyes and quicken the pulse, and Frank Martin has delivered the goods once again.