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.