Sunday, March 29, 2009

Review - The Class (Entre les murs)

Laurent Cantet's Entre les murs is being released in English-speaking countries as The Class, but a more accurate translation of its French title is Between the Walls, and that would be a very appropriate appellation for this remarkable film. For the majority of its running time, the drama in this movie occurs within the four walls of a single classroom, as Mr Marin tries to teach the feisty, combative and lively teenagers in his charge. Mr Marin is played by François Bégaudeau, a man with no prior acting experience, and if he appears utterly comfortable and natural in the role, that's because he's the real-life teacher whose memoirs inspired Cantet to make this film. Surrounding Bégaudeau is a cast of equally inexperienced actors, all of whom were encouraged to develop their characters through improvisation, and the performances the director has elicited from this ensemble are extraordinary for their lack of artifice. There's hardly a single moment in The Class that doesn't feel completely authentic and organic.

While the film looks and feels like a documentary, there is a narrative at work here, which slowly reveals itself about halfway through the picture. Before that point, we simply observe the day-to-day interactions between Marin and his pupils, and in these scenes, The Class differentiates itself from almost every other school-based film we've seen by making one simple choice – it actually focuses on teaching. In stark contrast to films like Dead Poets Society or Mr Holland's Opus, where the characters' private lives and extra-curricular activities drive the drama, The Class shows us Mr Marin trying to explain the intricacies of grammar to his students, and lets the film's themes arise from these discussions. When the teacher begins to talk to the students about the imperfect subjunctive, they are quick to question the merit of such knowledge, deriding it as bourgeois language which has no relevance to the way they communicate. When Marin uses the name Bill for an example sentence, his multicultural class take him to task for always using "whitey" names, and insist he change it to something more in tune with their African and Middle Eastern backgrounds, like Aïssata or Fatou. In The Class, the act of teaching is depicted as a constant battle, as Mr Marin searches for a way to get through to his students, as they try to find ways to outwit and undermine him.

A teacher would need the patience of a saint to contend daily with the kind of uncooperative, moody teenagers Marin is faced with here, but even though Bégaudeau is essentially playing a version of himself here, this is no idealised portrait. The Class is one of the rare films in this genre to offer us a flawed educator; Mr Marin is likable and well-meaning, but he's also weak and frequently unable to maintain his control over the students. In fact, the drama of the film's second half is actually instigated by his lack of professionalism, when he finally loses his temper and recklessly hurls the word pétasses towards the two girls whose behaviour had been getting under his skin. This one remark sends a shockwave through the movie; resulting in disciplinary action against one of Marin's students, and much tongue-tied babbling from the teacher as he tries to talk himself out of the hole he has dug for himself. He eventually finds himself facing his angry class and trying to convince them that the word has a much more innocent connotation than they believe, and this scene takes place not in Marin's home turf of the classroom, but outside in the schoolyard; the balance of power has shifted.

The kids are amazing throughout The Class. Standouts include Esmeralda Ouertani as the quick-witted but obnoxious Esmeralda, who is unafraid of offering her opinion on Marin's teaching methods; Rachel Régulier as the sullen Khoumba, whose refusal to read an extract aloud threatens to undermine the teacher's authority; and Franck Keita, as the volatile Souleymane, whose fate is the key question in the film's second half. Cantet has used non-actors in his films before – notably in his excellent debut Human Resources – and he has a wonderful knack for capturing spontaneous moments, the moments that make the film feel so thrillingly alive. The superb camerawork is involving but never intrusive, allowing the audience to share a sense of intimacy with the onscreen events, while the supremely sharp editing keeps the film in constant motion. The Class is a film with very little in the way of conventional action, but it's an exhilarating picture to watch nonetheless.
The Class covers a year in the life of a single Parisian classroom, but it is a film which could be taking place in any classroom in any major city. Its themes are universal, and the questions it provokes about cultural identity, discipline, and the way we teach and learn should resonate with any viewers who seek out this marvellous film. Cantet doesn't pretend to have any answers for these questions, and at the film's close, we are left to wonder what Mr Marin has accomplished in the time we've been watching him. Teacher movies throughout the years have instructed us to expect some kind of inspirational, uplifting moment to occur before the credits roll, but The Class doesn't offer us that easy get-out; some students have learned nothing at all, and some have been lost forever. And as the kids break free for the summer, Cantet's final shots remain in the empty classroom, allowing us time to contemplate all of the issues that his film has raised. He leaves us between the walls, and all is suddenly calm.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

"We're saturated with a degree of intimacy that we never would have expected" - An interview with Atom Egoyan

Although he remains best known for his Oscar-nominated masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter, Canadian director Atom Egoyan has produced an eclectic body of work over the past twenty years. Whether he's studying the boundaries of erotic obsession in Exotica, exposing Armenian genocide in Ararat, or toying with the tropes of film noir in Where the Truth Lies – Egoyan's stylish, often non-linear films have frequently provided us with intriguing explorations of human relationships. Adoration, the director's latest film, continues in this vein, telling the story of a young man's reinvention of his family history, and using this narrative to investigate the nature of truth, prejudice, and the role technology plays in our lives. I met Atom Egoyan during last year's London Film Festival to talk about his work.

Adoration deals with a number of different themes, some of which you've explored in the past. Was there one particular idea that inspired you to write it?

I was inspired by the fact that our son is turning 15, and of course you start thinking back to when you were 15, and when I was that age I started writing plays in school. I found that exciting and I had my friends join in, and we presented it to teachers, but I was thinking that if I was 15 now and was obsessed with drama, that wouldn't be enough. You would want to extend it to the widest audience possible, and the thing that's remarkable, and would have been unthinkable thirty years ago, is that you have a global audience, and you can broadcast it to the world. Simon is a young man trying to find out who his parents were, and that is somehow blocked or distorted by his grandfather; so, as often happens when you don't have access to something, you find a more creative way of finding that. He comes across this news story, which is presented to him by his French teacher, and he finds a way of creating this alternate persona and he's seized by that. I think I've been thinking a lot about the effects of certain teachers, and when I did start writing plays I was inspired by certain teachers who directed me in certain ways, but in this case the teacher is a very complex character who seems to be creating one project but is actually creating something very different.

Did you have an interest in the internet before you started this film?

I have an interest in technology generally, in terms of how it relates to characters. From my very first films I was interested in whatever were the cutting edge technologies of that time, so in the 80's it was teleconferencing and then video and particularly the texture of home videos. People were able to access their past through finding old tapes and manipulating the tapes, and the tapes themselves had a physical quality so they became these objects, and they became controlling metaphors for these young characters attempting to reformat themselves. The internet is wildly different, although it looks the same – it's still about looking at someone on a TV screen – it's not a hermetic or private system anymore. It's widely available, it's immediate, and there is no physical object, it just exists in its own ever-changing amoeba-like world. In a way, the first part of the film is using the form of the internet as well, there seems to be something random about the structure or the way events, ideas and times are chronicled and accessed, but as we leave the world of the internet behind, there's still a physical journey these characters have to go on. So, I'm interested in technology because I'm interested in how people communicate with each other, and I think the internet has radically changed not only the way we communicate, but the way we allow ourselves to create alternate personalities. Through a device like Facebook people suddenly have way more friends than they could ever meet in their lives, and that's not delusional, it's a viable network. Also, we don't have the space or time to consider things before we voice our opinion. I think that's one of the interesting things that the film is talking about, for instance this community of people who mourn the tragedy that never happened. If those people got into a car and drove to a clubhouse they'd eventually realise "Hold on, this doesn't make sense", but because the internet allows a spontaneous and immediate response, they're just reacting emotionally to something.

When you mention people creating alternate personalities, do you think there's an interesting paradox there? The internet is a tool that can bring people closer together, but if everyone is hiding behind fake identities then it can have a distancing effect. They're not making a true connection.

Yeah, but I don't know if it's a distancing effect. I think it's just that we're saturated with a degree of intimacy that we never would have expected, so we're trying to negotiate the fact that we're way closer to a complete stranger, and what does that mean? What does it mean to have a presence in the lives of people we're not physically connected to? How committed are we to what that relationship requires of us? I think that's one of the things that's touching about the film; there's one young woman who we gather might be Simon's girlfriend, who's quite hurt that he has created this fraudulent version of his life, and she's demanding a degree of sincerity, but there still seems to be something so performative about it. I think that's just the nature of people clamouring for attention. Yes, it's a very democratic way of expressing opinion, everyone gets their say, but it's still survival of the most entertaining, the most aggressive, or the most charismatic. It's just the nature of the way we respond to televised faces. 

How did you create those chatroom sequences?

We did a lot of research at various high schools, where we set up the equivalent of internet chats. I was convinced that by the time the film had come out this would be commonplace, but it still seems to be slightly in the future. There are chats you can set up on Skype where you can have up to nine people, although it's not as fluid as text chatting, but it will be soon, I think. We set up these mock video chatrooms at high schools, and I threw out this idea of Simon's constructed reality, and they immediately got it, I mean, it was shocking how quickly that was absorbed and how they were able to react. So a lot of the kids from high school that you're seeing, especially in the scene where he's eating cereal, those are real kids coming up with those ideas themselves. If it seems a little didactic it's because kids tend to be a little didactic in the way they think, and that's what they were saying. 

You also have the terrorism subtext in this film, and one scene recalls a lot of debates people were having directly after 9/11. Had you been thinking about making a film dealing with this issue since that day, and why did you want to explore it now?

I remember those conversations, and I remember the fear. To be perfectly honest that scene was completely shot and edited, and the conversation was very much about two cultures, with the grandfather classifying the whole religion of Islam as prone to violence, but the lines about 9/11 that begin the scene were actually added by ADR (automated dialogue replacement). It just seemed that's what would have provoked that discussion. It's interesting to me that as you're editing it's always shifting, and it occurred to us that if Simon's 15 this would have been just after 9/11, so it seemed very resonant.

You mentioned how films change during the editing process, and like much of your work, Adoration follows a non-chronological structure. How much of that is worked out at script level, and how much of it is developed through editing?

With these films – and when I say "these films" I mean up to and including The Sweet Hereafter and now Adoration – the editing is the final draft, absolutely, and things are still being modified. If you were to read the shooting script of The Sweet Hereafter, it's radically different to the finished film, and it's just because of the way plot is used, it is more malleable than it would be in a conventional movie. That was one of the things I found quite startling about Where the Truth Lies, nothing changed because it was so plot-driven, and there were so many bits of information that had to be deployed at a certain moment in time; you can't really change it because there's something so formulaic about that sort of film. With original scripts and original ideas, they lend themselves to a process where they're being shifted and played with until all the elements are finally in the mix, including the soundtrack, which is something that I'm anticipating, as it's an essential part of how the film is constructed. If you look at Adoration, The Sweet Hereafter and Exotica, the soundtrack and the motifs being developed are very much part of how the drama is being developed. There's always space in the editing to allow for the music. 

I'd just like to pick up on something about The Sweet Hereafter, as that's one of my favourite films. You said the shooting script was very different to the finished film, do you mean the script was closer to structure of the book?

No, what happened was that in the shooting script we started with the accident, with Nicole in hospital, and the whole thing was constructed as a letter to the lawyer explaining why she deconstructed his case. There are a number of shots you'll see in the film now where the camera is slowly moving onto Sarah's face, which were part of this voiceover, and when we put it together it really was awful. It just seemed way too literate, and it took away so much of the power of the film. It took us a long time to reorder it and to realise – miraculously – that those shots moving onto her face were far more powerful without text. On the other hand, I don't think we would have had those shots if we didn't anticipate the text, and certainly she was thinking those things as the camera was moving in. We also realised that with The Pied Piper, which wasn't in the novel either, we didn't need to have competing narratives, that was powerful enough. So it's a question of adjustments being made, and not relying on a formula which would prevent further exploration. 

I guess another effect of taking away that literal aspect is that it adds a layer of mystery to the film, and Adoration has an element of that as well. It takes us a long time to understand Sabine's motives, and you keep dropping fragments of information into the story. Is that sense of mystery something you enjoy working with?

I love that. I know some people don't respond to it, but I find it intoxicating. I find those scenes with Sabine and Simon, where she's trying to negotiate with him, and he knows there's something up but can't figure out what it is, and she knows she can't give away too much, and this whole ploy of testing the uncle's tolerance – you know there's something strange about those scenes, they seem false. But I think I'm really interested in false notes, ultimately, and I think that happens in The Sweet Hereafter with the incest scene in the barn. You know there's something wrong about that, and yet you can't really identify it. You are trying to enter the state of mind the characters are in, and it is disquieting for the viewer, and I hope they don't lose trust in what I'm trying to do. 

You're going out on a limb, though.

Yeah, we are. You're saying "this is actually a bad scene". When she comes up the first time and starts talking about Jesus being a prophet, and she makes that strange anti-Semitic remark, it feels false, and that is going out on a limb but I think that's exciting. What was great about last night was that people reacted to it with humour, and that just deflected the tension when something wasn't right, or didn't quite fit. It's not that it's not right in a generic way, like it's a device to have an unreliable narrator, because the problem is that if you make it obvious that it's a setup it takes away the onus on the viewer to engage themselves and to deal with their own stereotypes. That's what I'm trying to do, when you see the beautiful blonde and you see the dark Middle-Eastern character who seems quite manipulative, you jump to your own conclusions. You also jump to your own conclusions when you see the woman in the hijab, and I guess that's part of the conditioning I want the viewer to experience in order to go deeper into the drama. Certainly, going back to The Sweet Hereafter, it's very risky to present the abuse from the point of view of the victim, before she understands the nature of the trauma. One of the most disturbing things about the film for many people was that after the accident she's trying to understand why her father isn't touching her, as opposed to the book where she's dealing with her anger, and Nicole is very angry in the book and not in the adaptation, which is one of the major departures. They are risks, but I think a lower-budget film is the place to take those risks. 

Even though this is a low-budget film, there was a quote from you in the production notes where you talked about shooting on 35mm, and the particular attachment you have to it.

I am, but rather stupidly. I think the shooting is great, but I cut the 35mm negative, which I think gives you a better image, but people are just used to digital now, and when you deliver a cut 35mm print, they don't know how to deal with these imperfect cut points. That is clearly obsolete, but I think for as long as I can I'll shoot on 35mm. I saw a feature a friend shot digitally, 4k and projected impeccably, but it's just disconcerting not see grain. 

In Adoration, you're working with a number of actors you've used before, and then there are other actors with varying backgrounds and levels of experience. In that situation, how do you work with an ensemble to get a cohesive level of performance?

The most difficult thing is balancing the people who like a lot of rehearsals and a number of takes with the people you know are best on their first take. For example, the scenes between Rachel and Sami are single-shot, and the performances had to be rehearsed almost in a theatrical way. The scenes between Arsinée and Devon were tricky because Arsinée understands my language and the nature of the subtext, and we realised with Devon that the more we were rehearsing, the more mannered it was becoming. We eventually decided to do those in masters and not use coverage, because Devon was very good when he was just responding naturally on the first take. Those are the most difficult decisions to make, when you're looking at performance and realising you might have to choreograph things to accommodate certain strengths and weaknesses in your actors. 

Of course, you're working with Arsinée again...

Well that's just a pleasure, because I know what she's capable of, and it's a very particular instrument she has. She's the only person who could have played this role and it was written specifically for her, and that's a privilege. It's interesting too because I've seen her now in a number of other films with French directors and loved these other types of performances she can give, and when it comes to my material she's able to communicate that sense of being both emotionally connected and detached to the material, it's very particular. 

I'd like to ask you about your last film Where the Truth Lies, which I saw at this festival three years ago. Not only did I enjoy it, I actually thought it really had a chance of reaching a wider mainstream audience than most of your films.

So did I, and I think people do actually like that film, but I think it was bashed by a lot of people who just thought I shouldn't be making that kind of film – and maybe I shouldn't, I don't know. But I had a lot of fun making it, and I like those types of movies. I also think Alison [Lohman] was unfairly picked on, because she was exactly what I had in mind. I did make a slightly perverse decision – and speaking about taking risks, I'm still not sure about it – I had this idea of casting an actress aged 27 who could also play her 12 year-old self, which I was so excited by. We did double-shoot those scenes, we did have a child playing that part, but I was so entranced by the fact that it was Alison playing her 12 year-old self, and in retrospect it might have been stretching things a bit. This criticism that she's too young to play that part, I think it might have come from people seeing her as her 12 year-old self, and ultimately if it wasn't someone who these two powerful men believed they could fool, then you wouldn't really have the drama. I mean, I love the film, but I think you do have to start listening if enough people are criticising things, and having her on the telethon and having this relationship with Lanny as a hero, it might have added a seriousness to the film which wasn't really warranted; because that wasn't in the novel, where she's more of a classic femme fatale. So I don't know. I think what's shocking is when you look at the life it's had on DVD, and the responses it has had, people do enjoy the film, they just weren't given the chance to enjoy it in theatres, and that's sad because it's a beautiful film to look at as well. 

It seemed to me that when all the controversy started over the NC-17 rating, the film itself almost got lost behind the debate over the sexual content and censorship. Do you agree with that?

I do think that people are completely exhausted by that issue, and ultimately people are not that interested in seeing sex in cinemas anymore. People want to go to films for the emotional experience and how entertaining it is, and now you can see celebrities in hardcore on the net [laughs], so there's no value in paying money to go and see that. I mean, maybe you're right, and certainly it wasn't released as widely in the states, as the rating severely limited its distribution. That's just a North American phenomenon, though – it can't be advertised in the same way, it can't be promoted in the same way, and it's just marginalised. Again, I fault myself to an extent, because the offending scene was shot in a master, and I've since learned that if you're dealing with material that's controversial you should actually shoot it in a more extreme fashion so you can go back and say you've compromised, and you've tried to address some of their issues. That threesome scene was shot in a very beautiful and impeccably performed master, but there was nothing I could do with that shot, there was no coverage, and that's my own fault, I guess. 

Has that experience changed your perspective as a filmmaker? If you wanted to shoot a sex scene in a new film, would you have to be second-guessing the censor while you did it?

Oh, you would, and I'm also so grateful to go back to the type of filmmaking where the commercial pressures are not even a consideration. It does mean that you don't get that shot – I wouldn't shoot it that way again – which is a shame because I think it's quite visceral and powerful that way, and it feels real because it sort of is. But I'll tell you, if it was done through a studio, the moment they saw those rushes they would have demanded coverage, they would have anticipated that, so I was ultimately punished by the creative freedom I had. 

So what are you doing next, have you got another film planned?

I just thought of an idea this morning [laughs]. I mean, I do all these other projects as well, but did you see this production of Eh Joe I did? 

The Beckett play? I didn't see it but I did read about your production.

Well at least you knew I did it. I was shocked last night that a full audience was asking "So what have you been up to?"; I said I did this production of the Beckett play with Michael Gambon, and I realised nobody had heard about it, so that was kind of interesting. There's a lot things I'm involved with that people don't hear about. 

You also teach, don't you?

I'm in my last year at University of Toronto teaching a course called Transgressions, which is about the interdisciplinary practice between film, visual art, music and drama. There's also installation work, and I do opera. I did a production of The Ring Cycle, and there might be another project like that coming up in Berlin, so I'm pretty busy.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Review - Watchmen

Many fans of Alan Moore's landmark graphic novel
Watchmen undoubtedly feared the worst from a Hollywood adaptation. After all, cinema has not been kind to Moore's work to date – particularly Stephen Norrington's execrable League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – and the author has refused to have anything to do with the adaptations of V for Vendetta or Watchmen, even insisting that his name is removed from the credits (Dave Gibbons is oddly credited as the sole "co-creator" here). So those fans may be pleasantly surprised by what Zack Snyder has done with Watchmen. It's obvious that the director genuinely loves the source material, and his faithfulness to the world created by Moore and Gibbons is admirable, but the film's reverence is also its greatest flaw. One wonders if this is what Watchmen fans really wanted, a painstaking recreation of the comic book, or would they prefer something that works as a film; something that retells the story they've loved through fresh eyes?

Any chance of a fresh, imaginative take on the source material was lost when Zack Snyder signed on to the project. Although the trailers for
Watchmen have introduced Snyder as a "visionary director" – a truly laughable claim – the truth is that he's a technically proficient hack, who has all of the tools required to bring Moore's comic book panels to life, but is incapable of giving his images any sense of life under the surface. "You know how everything in the world fits together, except people," Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman) tells her atomic lover Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup) during the film, and the same accusation could easily be levelled at Snyder. His film has directly lifted everything from the pages of Watchmen, but it has no weight, no emotional depth, and as visually dazzling as it often is, the film frequently comes off as a pointless shadow play.

As someone who admires – but by no means adores –
Watchmen, I was most intrigued to see how Snyder and his screenwriters would tackle the problem of the book's narrative complexity, which follows a number of characters across a variety of timelines, and relies on such storytelling devices as a comic-within-a-comic, excerpts from a superhero exposé, and psychiatrist reports. The movie wisely jettisons as much of the extraneous material as it possibly can, but Watchmen still feels overstuffed, straining to include as many plot points as it can within the film's 160-minute running time. That plot takes place in an alternate vision of America in the 80's; a place where Richard Nixon is enjoying a third term in office, the world stands on the brink of nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union, and costumed heroes are a reality – or rather, they were, having been outlawed by the Keane Act in 1977. This legislation forced most crime fighters into retirement, with the exception of Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), but the murder of Vietnam vet. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is about to reunite the remaining Watchmen.

Watchmen opens with The Comedian's violent death, and then whizzes through much of the backstory and political context in a clever, wittily assembled credits sequence. Thereafter, the film actually begins at a steady pace, and does a decent job of setting up the main players in the narrative. After The Comedian's death, Rorschach begins his investigation by tracking down the dormant Watchmen, to warn them that someone is picking off costumed heroes, but few of them seem interested in donning their tights once more. Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson) is now living a quiet, lonely life, with his Nite Owl outfit stashed in the basement; Silk Spectre and Dr Manhattan are residing together at a military research base, although he has lost touch with humanity; and Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), formerly Ozymandias and still the smartest man on the planet, is a businessman who has exploited his superhero past to make billions of dollars. These are interesting characters, but Snyder appears to have cast his film by virtue of the actors' physical resemblance rather than their ability, and this has resulted in a mixed bag of performances. The standout is unquestionably Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach, whose best scenes are the ones in which we can see his tortured face, which unfortunately isn't often, while Morgan's Comedian has memorable moments. Billy Crudup – a talented actor – isn't given much of an opportunity to impress as his performance is submerged beneath the effects required to bring Dr Manhattan to life, but he makes more of an impression than Malin Ackerman or Matthew Goode, both of whom are severely out of their depth.

After a bright start, David Hayter and Alex Tse's screenplay eventually runs into some difficulty as it juggles all of these protagonists, and the film often feels extremely disjointed. It doesn't flow as a movie should, and that's because it hasn't been written as a movie should; the film has lifted incidents and plotlines directly from the book and placed them into the script, without making the changes necessary to smooth out the transitions between them. The same goes for the dialogue, which has been reproduced almost verbatim here, but while long, expository speeches are fine when spread across a number of comic panels, they are awfully tedious on screen. The film's determination to show absolute loyalty to its source material creates a straightjacket for itself;
Watchmen is so concerned with matching the look and feel of the comic, it has no life of its own.

And what does the "visionary" Zack Snyder bring to this? Well, he certainly proves he has an appalling taste in music, with
Watchmen's jukebox soundtrack offering such clangers as Everybody Wants to Rule the World in Ozymandias' lair, Ride of the Valkyries over a scene set in Vietnam, and an excruciating sex scene set to Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah (which, by this point, I don't want to hear in a movie ever again). He also brings along lot of slow motion, which he utilises in every other scene, normally so we can examine a shot and see just how like the comic it really is; but his most vivid contribution to Watchmen is the way he has ramped up the violence. This film is sickeningly violent, with Snyder's camera lingering on broken limbs and torrents of blood, and the sound design ensures we feel every single cracked bone. I didn't recall the book being anything like as gory as this, and when I went back to it to check, I realised this was because Snyder has actually inserted grotesque acts into the film that weren't in the comic. Instead of chaining the paedophile to the furnace and setting alight to his home, Rorschach now slams a meat cleaver repeatedly into his skull; instead of just knocking out the muggers and breaking a few noses in their alley fight, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre snap limbs and stab knives into necks; in the prison cell, one of Rorschach's assailants has both arms sawn off rather than his throat being cut. For a guy determined to stay utterly true to Alan Moore's comic, Zack Snyder sure knows what he likes to change.

The one major deviation
Watchmen makes from the book's plot – the ending – actually improves on the story Moore wrote, but that's about the only surprise this film has to offer. Most of the time it feels bloated, uneven and rather silly, and it may well leave a number of viewers wondering what all the fuss is about. No one can deny that Watchmen has been one of the most influential pieces of writing of recent decades, but while films like The Dark Knight, Unbreakable and The Incredibles – among many others – have drawn inspiration from it, the fact that this film is reaching cinemas after all of those imitators means it doesn't feel as fresh as it once did. Likewise, the cold war paranoia of the film's mid-80's setting simply doesn't resonate twenty years on (partly because we never sense the widespread fear of a world facing imminent destruction), but would updating the story have had Watchmen acolytes up in arms? We'll never know, because this shallow waxwork recreation is the only screen version we're ever going to get. Is absolute fidelity to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' work really the only thing Watchmen fans care about? Maybe it is, and in that case, maybe they're getting the movie they deserve.

Monday, March 02, 2009

February Round-Up

Vicky Cristina Barcelona
A return to form for Woody... no, I'm not even going to go there. People have been lamenting the current state of Allen's career for so long, it's easy to forget just how good he was before the rot set in, and if Vicky Cristina Barcelona isn't a return to the glory days, then at least it's not the embarrassment his recent pictures have been. After a jaunt in London, which didn't do anyone any favours, Allen has taken his late-career travelling road show to Spain, where American students Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are spending the summer. Vicky is the Woody stand-in – studious, neurotic, dry – whereas as the more free-spirited Cristina is after some fun and romance, which is why she's eager to say yes when hunky artist Juan (Javier Bardem) propositions the pair. The rest of the film's first half chronicles the brief dalliance each girl enjoys with Juan, while the second half is hijacked by the outstanding Penélope Cruz, who turns up as Juan's obsessive ex and reignites a film which was in danger of going nowhere. Truth be told, it never really does go anywhere significant, but it's a pleasurable viewing experience all the same. The performances are excellent, Javier Aguirresarobe's cinematography is sumptuous, and Allen gives his characters the kind of dialogue that doesn't make you cringe. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the incessant third-person voiceover, which flatly describes everything we're seeing on screen and comes close to crippling the whole movie. Allen no longer seems capable of showing rather than telling, but in many ways, the Spanish sunshine appears to have done him the world of good, and this admittedly forgettable affair is his most accomplished work in a decade. I'd like to see him continue his tour, perhaps taking himself to France, Germany, Italy and beyond, but he has returned to New York for his latest project (already in the can), and then he's coming back to London. Oh well, we'll always have Barcelona.

Tokyo Sonata (Tôkyô sonata)
After forging his reputation with a career in horror, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa has returned from a two-year absence with a very different type of film. Tokyo Sonata is a fascinating drama which begins as an exploration of the secrets and lies that exist within a family, before heading off in some strange and not entirely successful directions in its second half. The problems for the Sasaki clan begin when businessman Ryûhei (Teruyuki Kagawa) loses his job, but instead of telling his family, he still pretends to go to work every day, eventually taking on a lowly cleaning position at a shopping mall. Kurosawa's film is strong on the feelings of shame and guilt that haunt Ryûhei when he loses his position as the family breadwinner, and Kagawa's subtle performance evokes a sense of his masculinity being stripped away, which he tries to reclaim by angrily asserting his power over his family. The film is particularly potent in the current financial climate, but Kurosawa finds himself on shakier ground when he switches his attentions to Ryûhei's wife Megumi (Kyôko Koizumi), who finds unexpected liberation and illicit romance when she encounters a bumbling burglar (Kôji Yakusho). Koizumi is wonderful as Megumi, but Yakusho's turn is wildly over the top, and feels completely at odds with the measured tone Kurosawa has established. In fact, it seems to derail the whole film somewhat, with the plotting becoming increasingly bizarre and the tone getting broader as it moves into the final third. This is a pity, because I think Kurosawa was really onto something here, and before it started to lose its head Tokyo Sonata seemed to be setting itself up as one of the year's best films. Still, it rallies slightly at the close, and while the ending could easily be described as trite and sentimental, it still brought an unexpected tear to my eye.

King of the Hill (El rey de la montaña)
This ingenious Spanish thriller is built upon a simple premise, and it has been carried off with extraordinary confidence and style. The film has two main characters, Quim (Leonardo Sbaraglia) who is driving out into the Spanish countryside to patch things up with his girlfriend, and Bea (María Valverde), the girl he has a brief encounter with along the way and whom he suspects of stealing from him when she abruptly leaves. They are later reunited when they find themselves lost in the middle of nowhere, coming under fire from a seemingly omnipresent sniper. Director Gonzalo López-Gallego reveals the identity of the shooter late in the film, which dissipates the tension just a little, but audiences might be glad for a break from the film's unremitting anxiety by that point anyway. Most of King of the Hill's power derives from Gallego's assured command of filmmaking technique, relying on clever camerawork, sharp editing and – above all – some superb sound design to place us in the crossfire with Quim and Bea. For their part, the two main characters react as we probably would in such a situation – with bewilderment, fear and desperation – and there's little heroism on show from Quim (indeed, he could be accused of displaying outright cowardice at one critical juncture). With a running time of less than 90 minutes, characterisation is a casualty, and Valverde's Bea is particularly underwritten, but the actors bring a lot to the picture nonetheless, and we do begin to care about their fates as we watch their lives hang by a thread. The jabs at violent video games in the picture's final third are perhaps unnecessary, but as an example of pure thriller filmmaking, this is a classy and uncommonly exciting piece of work.

We see Meryl Streep's back before we see her face in Doubt, watching her stalk slowly through a church, preparing to administer a swift slap to a boy who's not devoting his full attention to the service. She looks like the Grim Reaper (The Devil Wears a Wimple?), and she may as well be for the sense of fear she inspires in her students. One of Streep's great gifts as an actress is her ability to play a role with broad strokes while still managing to paint within the lines, and Sister Aloysius is a plum part, allowing her to be menacing as she narrows her eyes and purses her lips, or hilarious as she finds the perfect pitch for her character's sarcastic lines. She doesn't have much time for the progressive and popular Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and when a naïve young nun (Amy Adams) offers evidence that he might have molested a boy in the rectory, she goes after him with a vengeance. Doubt originated as a stage play and it has been brought to the screen by playwright John Patrick Shanley himself, who also takes the directorial reins for the first time since 1990's Joe Versus the Volcano. His film is bolstered by four superbly realised performances, with Viola Davis completing the quartet as the mother of the boy Father Flynn is suspected of abusing; she only appears in one scene, but she nails it. There's a lot of fun to be had in watching such great performers as Streep and Hoffman acting at each other with full force, but I found less to love in the movie around them. Aside from not really buying the central conflict (As Hoffman says, there's a strict hierarchy in the church, and surely a phone call to the monsignor or bishop would be enough to put one uppity nun in her place), I didn't feel Shanley's direction was doing as much to bring the material to life as his actors were. He's not a natural visual stylist, and his attempts to make the film cinematic are taken straight from a Hammer horror movie – wind blowing through windows, creaking doors, crows on the church roof – while his habit of randomly throwing Dutch angles into the mix is extremely irritating. Doubt is not a particularly subtle piece of writing, and his direction exacerbates its flaws, whereas a real filmmaker might have found ways to smooth the edges out. Alas, I doubt any director could have done much with the final scene – and the final line in particular – which is dreadful.

On the surface, there's very little about Bolt which could be described as revolutionary. The film is a CGI-animated tale about a cute little doggy striving to be reunited with its cute little owner, teaming up with a wisecracking (and cute, and little) sidekick, and learning some valuable life lessons along the way – so far, so mundane. But Bolt is significant because it's a good Disney movie and, as the first film to be completed under the stewardship of the corporation's new animation head John Lasseter, one hopes it bodes well for the studio's future. Directed by Byron Howard and Chris Williams, Bolt has been made with considerable charm, wit and heart, and the voice acting provided by John Travolta (as the eponymous Bolt, a dog who mistakenly believes he has superpowers) and Susie Essman (as a tough alley cat) is great. The film is comprehensively stolen by Mark Walton, however, and if you're wondering why you haven't heard that name before, it's because he's a Disney animator rather than a star, and his hysterical performance makes Rhino the hamster one of the funniest sidekick characters to grace an animated movie for some time. This is a beautifully made film, and the animation gets a little added boost from the film's 3D presentation, which is put to better use here than it has been in most 3D films I've seen. Instead of just hurling objects at the screen for the picture's duration, the third dimension is utilised to add a sense of depth to the image, and to give the characters a lovely rounded quality. If 3D has a future, then this is how it should be used, drawing us into the story rather than being exploited for its gimmick value.

After the screening of Bolt that I attended, John Lasseter took to the stage to discuss the film, his love of 3D, and his career as a whole, with the most interesting portion of the conversation focusing on his plans for Disney's animation studios, which he now has complete creative control over. He spoke about his love of Disney and admitted that he was angered by the studio's habit of releasing cheap, straight-to-DVD sequels to their classic films, feeling that such behaviour tarnished the legacy they had built over decades. Lasseter insists he wants to put the production of Disney films back into the hands of artists rather than accountants, and he is resurrecting the company's hand-drawn animation arm, rehiring Ron Clements and John Musker – creators of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Hercules – to work on a new version of The Princess and the Frog, which is due for release later this year. Bolt is the best animated film Disney has produced in years, and it seems the company is now in very safe hands.