Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Best and Worst of 2010

Best Film

1 – Mother
I can't think of another filmmaker who handles drastic tonal shifts with such adroitness and confidence.
2 – Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
I've seen it twice now and on both occasions I have been moved in different ways by the picture
3 – Still Walking
Still Walking is a film filled with a sense of loss, but Kore-Eda finds a pitch-perfect balance between sadness, humour and joy
4 – Dogtooth
A shockingly brilliant and completely original piece of work that confounds every expectation
5 – Toy Story 3
Made with incredible love, care and attention, Toy Story 3 is the climax this series deserves
6 – The Father of My Children
So many scenes here are handled with a delicacy and insight that moved me to tears
7 – The Social Network
The Social Network is one of the most purely entertaining and stimulating movies of the year
8 – Carlos
A ceaselessly invigorating cinematic spectacle
9 – Mary & Max
A beautiful, imaginative and deeply moving achievement
10 – Enter the Void
Enter the Void is the most staggering display of filmmaking technique I have seen for a long time

Honourable Mentions
Another Year
Certified Copy
The Maid
Please Give
Shutter Island
Winter's Bone


1 - Alice in Wonderland
The only curious aspect of this misfire is how the filmmakers have managed to get everything so fundamentally wrong
2 - TRON: Legacy
There's nothing inventive or imaginative under the surface of this unspeakably boring update
3 - The Wolfman
A mongrel of a film
4 - Gulliver's Travels
An all-too-familiar slapdash assemblage of tired gags, haphazard plotting and phoned-in performances
5 - The A-Team
A crushingly boring cinematic experience
6 - Death at a Funeral
A tiresome retread of a movie that wasn't any good in the first place
7 - Dinner for Schmucks
The dinner may be for schmucks, but does the movie have to be made for idiots?
8 - The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
I found it impossible to maintain any interest in the film as it crawled towards its meaningless conclusion
9 - The Lovely Bones
The film gets worse with every passing minute
10 - Legion
A baffling action film with biblical pretensions that ultimately works best as an unintentional comedy

Dishonourable Mentions
Cemetery Junction
Despicable Me
Edge of Darkness
Knight and Day
Love and Other Drugs
Whatever Works

Best Director

1 - Apichatpong Weerasethakul – Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
2 - Bong Joon-ho – Mother
3 - Giorgos Lanthimos – Dogtooth
4 - Olivier Assayas – Carlos
5 - Gaspar Noé – Enter the Void

Best Actor

1 - Édgar Ramírez - Carlos
2 - Jesse Eisenberg - The Social Network
3 - Eric Elmosnino - Gainsbourg
4 - Louis-Do de Lencquesaing - The Father of My Children
5 - Jim Carrey - I Love You Phillip Morris
6 - Philip Seymour Hoffman - Mary & Max
7 - Nicolas Cage - Bad Lieutenant
8 - Tahar Rahim - A Prophet
9 - Casey Affleck - The Killer Inside Me
10 - Colin Farrell - Ondine

Best Actress

1 - Kim Hye-ja - Mother
2 - Sylvie Testud - Lourdes
3 - Juliette Binoche - Certified Copy
4 - Aggeliki Papoulia - Dogtooth
5 - Tilda Swinton - I Am Love
6 - Catalina Saavedra - The Maid
7 - María Onetto - The Headless Woman
8 - Noomi Rapace - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
9 - Jennifer Lawrence - Winter's Bone
10 - Lesley Manville - Another Year

Best Supporting Actor

1 - Niels Arestrup - A Prophet
2 - Christos Stergioglou - Dogtooth
3 - John Hawkes - Winter's Bone
4 - Andrew Garfield - The Social Network
5 - Oliver Platt - Please Give
6 - Doug Jones - Gainsbourg
7 - Colin Farrell - The Way Back
8 - Ned Beatty - Toy Story 3
9 - Yoshio Harada - Still Walking
10 - Alexander Scheer - Carlos

Best Supporting Actress

1 - Dale Dickey - Winter's Bone
2 - Tamsin Greig - Tamara Drewe
3 - Alice de Lencquesaing - The Father of My Children
4 - Nora von Waldstätten - Carlos
5 - Marcia Gay Harden - Whip It
6 - Olivia Williams - The Ghost Writer
7 - Delphine Chanéac - Splice
8 - Amanda Peet - Please Give
9 - Laetitia Casta - Gainsbourg
10 - Julia Hummer - Carlos

Best Original Screenplay

1 - Mother
2 - Still Walking
3 - Toy Story 3
4 - Please Give
5 - Mary & Max

Best Adapted Screenplay

1 - The Social Network
2 - Winter's Bone
3 - Shutter Island
4 - The Illusionist
5 - Whip It

Best Cinematography

1 - Enter the Void
2 - Tetro
3 - Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
4 - Dogtooth
5 - Another Year

Best Editing

1 - Mother
2 - The Social Network
3 - Toy Story 3
4 - Enter the Void
5 - Carlos

Best Score

1 - Mother
2 - The Social Network
3 - I Am Love
4 - Mary & Max
5 - Still Walking

Best Costume Design

1 - Carlos
2 - Gainsbourg
3 - Black Dynamite
4 - The Social Network
5 - Agora

Best Production Design

1 - Enter the Void
2 - Shutter Island
3 - Monsters
4 - Inception
5 - Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Cinema Experience of the Year

1 - Peeping Tom at the Curzon Soho
A screening of a beautiful new print followed by an onstage discussion with Martin Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker, Anna Massey and Columba Powell

2 - The Great White Silence at the Odeon West End
Herbert Ponting's record of Captain Scott's ill-fated Antarctic expedition, presented at the London Film Festival with a live score

3 - Metropolis at the NFT
The astonishing new reconstruction, finally allowing us to see the film in something like Lang's original vision

4 - The Leopard at the NFT
Luchino Visconti's masterpiece seen on the big screen for the first time

5 - Ugetsu Monogotari at the NFT
My first viewing of Kenji Mizoguchi's ghost story, which instantly became one of my favourite films

2010 In Review

Each December, as we look back at the 12 months that have passed us by, the same question arises: has this been a good or bad year for cinema? Well, that depends entirely on what you consider a 2010 film. After all, when I look at my own top ten list for the year, half of them were films I first saw in 2009, and one first appeared at the London Film Festival in 2008. The complex nature of film distribution means it's often hard to know what festival hits will receive a proper cinema run, and as I wait patiently for two favourites from LFF 2009 (Balibo and About Elly) to get the release they deserve, I have just heard that Lance Hammer's Ballast (for many, one of the films of 2008) will finally reach UK cinemas in February. So when I talk about the year in cinema it seems wise to restrict it to films that have been released in the UK between January 1st and December 31st, and on that basis, this has been a very good year indeed.

Of course, your perspective on the quality of a year's cinema depends entirely on how much you saw of it, and if you restricted your viewing to mainstream fare then you would have every reason to gripe about falling standards. It comes as little surprise that most of the films I hated this year were major studio releases, with so many of the year's biggest films feeling thrown together, with no thought given to plot, coherence or character, and driven by the belief that spectacle (often with shoddy 3D) will compensate for all sins. Alice in Wonderland, TRON: Legacy and Gulliver's Travels were guilty of this approach and all three ended up on my worst of the year list. It's not impossible for a 3D family entertainment to balance visual splendour with great storytelling – Toy Story 3, How to Train Your Dragon and Tangled (a 2011 release in the UK) all managed it this year – but why do animated films so routinely succeed where live-action blockbusters frequently fail?

The only live-action big summer movie worth talking about was Christopher Nolan's Inception, and while I have problems with Nolan as a director, I'm pleased he's out there trying to make serious, ambitious films on a major scale, and that he's resisting 3D and pushing IMAX technology in the process. I enjoyed Inception as I watched it but the film doesn't linger in the memory, unlike the year's other film to feature a traumatised Leonardo Di Caprio, Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island. One of the real delights of the year for me was seeing three of the great directors of the 70's – Scorsese, Polanski and Coppola – making films that showed they had lost none of their enthusiasm, skill or perceptiveness. In particular, it was a thrill to see Francis Ford Coppola producing the gorgeous, operatic and idiosyncratic Tetro, which is one of the year's most sadly overlooked pictures.

Aside from those pictures (and a few other gems, like Please Give and Winter's Bone), there's no doubt that the most exciting cinema in the world is being made outside America. My top three films of the year all originated from Asia, with Hirokazu Kore-Eda's Still Walking and Bong Joon-ho's Mother both managing to breathe fresh life into genre conventions, while Apichatpong Weerasethakul continues to ignore genre altogether and forge his own path. His Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives deservedly collected the Palme d'Or at Cannes and offered viewers a truly singular film experience. Such experiences are all too rare these days, but we were fortunate enough to have a few extraordinarily daring filmmakers pushing against the boundaries of convention in 2010. Giorgos Lanthimos presented us with the ultimate dysfunctional family in the dark and surreal fable Dogtooth, while Gaspar Noé gave us a mind-bending vision of life after death in Enter the Void, and Olivier Assayas kept us gripped for five and a half hours with his decades-spanning, multilingual epic Carlos.

The other key experiment that developed into a common cinematic theme this year was that of blurring the lines between documentary truth and narrative fiction. There was much debate surrounding the reality of I'm Still Here, the record of Joaquin Phoenix's year of living strangely, before Casey Affleck finally confessed that it was all a performance, but other filmmakers have been less easy to pin down. Is Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop a genuine street art documentary, or another one of the enigmatic artist's pranks? The makers of Catfish still maintain that everything we see in their film is occurring as it happened, but do you believe them? Other filmmakers have been much more open about the artificial techniques they have used, like Pedro González-Rubio, who built a fictional narrative around a real father and son in Alamar, or Clio Barnard, who hired actors to lip sync to real life testimonies in The Arbor.

The slippery nature of truth was also a key theme in one of the year's best pictures, David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network, which was 2010's most satisfying anomaly: a popular hit that is both entertaining and smart, and a film that deserves all of the prizes it will surely claim. Perhaps in years to come The Social Network will be seen as the film that defines 2010, but when I look back at the year, most of my memorable cinematic visits were to see older films on the big screen. I saw a brand new print of Peeping Tom and the reconstructed Metropolis; I experienced Visconti's The Leopard on the big screen and was thrilled by a nitrate print of Brighton Rock; I saw Mizoguchi's remarkable Ugetsu Monogotari for the first time and enjoyed The Red Shoes for the umpteenth time. When contemporary cinema disappointed me I could always take refuge in the great cinema of the past, often finding those films to be as impressive and relevant as anything being produced today. In the first weeks of 2011 I will be seeing Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century and DW Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, and I'm looking forward to those cinematic visits more than any of January's new releases. So maybe the lesson here is that talk of 'good years' and 'bad years' is ultimately pointless as there are always bold, interesting films being made and there is always a vast wealth of cinema history to become reacquainted with or to experience for the first time. Depending on how adventurous you are in your film viewing, and how determined you are to seek out these special pieces of work, every year can be an exceptional year.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Review - The Way Back

Peter Weir is a great director, but The Way Back is not quite a great film. In his first film since 2003's magnificent Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Weir has taken it upon himself to tell a fantastic story, but while The Way Back has the bearing of an epic adventure, it sometimes struggles to bring its narrative to life. Nevertheless, this is a handsome piece of filmmaking, with Weir once again displaying his consummate craftsmanship, and the story it tells is astonishing, whether it's true or not. The film has been adapted in large part from Sławomir Rawicz's memoir The Long Walk, in which he claimed that he and a group of fellow prisoners escaped a Siberian gulag in 1941 and trekked 4,500 miles to freedom in India, but historical records show that Rawicz wasn't released until 1942. Did he invent the whole story, or did he steal a possibly apocryphal tale and make it his own?

Whatever the facts of the matter, this is an extraordinary yarn and one that merits the big screen treatment. The opening section of the picture skilfully immerses us into life in the gulag and introduces us to the key characters. Jim Sturgess plays Janusz, a Pole convicted by spying after his wife, under torture, testified against him. He is sent to Siberia, where the guards warn the inmates that it's not the fences and the dogs keeping them imprisoned, but the unforgiving wilderness that surrounds them. The gulag is captured by Weir with a sharp eye for details, with the prisoners utilising whatever skills they possess to survive; an artist trades pornographic sketches, a storyteller recounts Treasure Island to fellow prisoners, while some – like thief Valka (Colin Farrell) – simply steal and kill to get what they need.

Although Janusz is the film's lead character, Valka is the most compelling protagonist, with Farrell delivering a lively and very engaging performance as the violent and staunchly loyal Stalinist who is allowed to join the escape party by virtue of possessing the only knife. The escape party Janusz eventually puts together is seven-strong, but my eye kept being drawn back to Farrell as he snarled away on the sidelines, and when the actor isn't on screen, the film really suffers for for his absence. Few of the other escapees really come to life as interesting, multi-dimensional characters, and so it's hard to be fully invested in their fates as they eventually succumb to the hardships of their journey. The film also has a real issue with pacing, which is perhaps understandable when you consider the challenge of compressing a year-long, 4,000 mile odyssey into a feature film. Some sections drag while other appear bafflingly curtailed, such as the group's trek across the Himalayas, which some viewers are in danger of missing completely if they pick that point to go to the toilet.

Having said all of that, The Way Back still holds the attention impressively well and Weir doesn't stint on showing us the pain and misery that these men endured as they slowly moved towards salvation. From sub-zero temperatures in Siberia to mirages in the desert, the film constantly reminds us of their hunger, their desperation, their swelling feet and blistered skin, as the increasingly ragged characters soldier on. When they find a source of food or water or a moment to rest their weary limbs, the sense of relief is palpable, and the arrival of Saoirse Ronan as a Polish refugee halfway through the picture is crucial, adding a fresh dimension to the group dynamic. This remarkably composed and confident young actress adds a sense of vulnerability to their band, and she shares some good scenes with Ed Harris, who is strong and understated as a grizzled American soldier.

It's the film's grand sweep that you'll remember afterwards, though. Russell Boyd, who won an Oscar for his camerawork on Master and Commander, takes advantage of the continent-traversing story to give us an extraordinarily rich variety of vistas, with the characters often being dwarfed by imposing mountain ranges or an endless desert. It's a feast for the eyes, and the rare contemporary film that recalls the work of David Lean, but I just wish it married the human story with the spectacle as successfully as Weir has done in the past. The Way Back is a striking and impressive tale of the human spirit triumphing over seemingly insurmountable odds, but we've come to expect more than this from Weir, and I certainly expected him to be above the kind of coda that gave us a potted history of communism before closing with such a silly, sappy climax.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Review - Gulliver's Travels

In 1726, Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels as a fable that used a tale of fantasy and adventure to satirise the society he lived in. In 2010, 20th Century Fox produced Gulliver's Travels as a multi-million dollar 3D family blockbuster in which Jack Black fights a giant robot for no fucking reason whatsoever. How far we have come in almost 300 years, Swift might have mused, and while it may seem unfair to compare a mainstream family movie to a classic literary work, there's still something thoroughly dispiriting about this dreadful offering. There's no reason why a contemporary take on Gulliver's Travels couldn't have been an exciting, imaginative adventure, but that would have required some thought and effort on the part of the filmmakers. Instead we have an all-too-familiar slapdash assemblage of tired gags, haphazard plotting and phoned-in performances, with the film being irretrievably skewed by its need to fit the dubious talents of its leading man.

The biggest problem with Gulliver's Travels is Jack Black and how you respond to the film may depend largely on how you feel about his shtick, because that's all you're going to get from him here. He plays Lemuel Gulliver, another directionless slacker working a dead-end job in the mailroom of newspaper in New York. He has no aspirations beyond his current position, apart from a vague romantic longing for travel editor Darcy (Amanda Peet). In a misguided attempt to win her affections, Gulliver applies for a vacancy in her department, and having convinced her of his talents by hastily plagiarising some online articles (Darcy, clearly, is pretty stupid), he is despatched to his first assignment: The Bermuda Triangle.

One splashy CGI storm later, Gulliver awakens on a beach to find himself pinned down my hundreds of tiny people. This is Lilliput, home of the miniature hordes who instantly make Gulliver a prisoner, only to later revere him as a hero when he puts out a fire (by pissing on the flames) and inadvertently defeats an invading army (the cannonballs bounce off his stomach and shatter their ships). Aside from a brief detour in Brobdingnag (where the roles are reversed and Gulliver finds himself trapped by a giant child), Lilliput is where the majority of the story takes place, but the paucity of ideas exhibited by the filmmakers as they try to milk some jokes out of his giant presence is pitiful. The tone is set very early on, when Gulliver falls backwards – arse crack exposed – and lands on an unfortunate Lilliputian. Much of the film's subsequent humour revolves around Gulliver using his real world knowledge to amaze the natives (he gets them to restage scenes from Star Wars and Titanic as scenes from his life), or uses the lyrics from Prince's Kiss to help lowly commoner Jason Segal woo princess Emily Blunt. These are not necessarily bad gags in themselves, but by the time the town of Lilliput is covered by billboards featuring Black recreating well-known posters (imaginatively renamed as Gulliver Chronicles and, er, Gavatar) any comical potential has been bludgeoned into the ground.

The film never displays a spark of life. Every actor (barring Chris O'Dowd, who at least tries to give a real performance) appears bored by the lines they are forced to repeat, with Emily Blunt barely attempting to disguise her disinterest. Above all, the increasingly ineffective Black seems completely bereft of inspiration, with his performance amounting to little more than a tired trawl through the expected motions – a few silly voices and some unnecessary bursts into song. The climax consists of Gulliver leading the Lilliputians in a rendition of War because...well, I suppose it's easier than writing a proper ending, and anyway, after the long fight sequence between Gulliver and Iron Man, Gulliver's Travels has already created the impression of a film that has forgotten what it was supposed to be about in the first place. That is, if anyone involved actually gave a shit about it in the first place.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review - Love and Other Drugs

Now that his name has become synonymous with explosive, message-driven action movies like Blood Diamond and Defiance, perhaps we can understand Edward Zwick's desire to try his hand at a few new genres, but did he really need to try them all in one movie? Love and Other Drugs never decides what kind of film it wants to be, and its indecision is crippling. The film wants to be a romantic comedy, as it charts the romance between arrogant Pfizer salesman Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) and free-spirited artist Maggie (Anne Hathaway), but it also wants to be a raunchy farce in which Jamie's obnoxious brother (Josh Gad, an insufferable vortex of anti-comedy) is caught masturbating to his sibling's sex tape. There's no reason why such disparate elements shouldn't mesh, of course, but here they blend like oil and water, and matters are further complicated by the film's attempt to capture the essence of America's mid-90's economic boom, or the dark cloud of Maggie's worsening Parkinson's disease. Love and Other Drugs will do anything to get a laugh or jerk a tear, and its desperation is embarrassing.

The strain also shows in Gyllenhaal's performance, as he attempts to bring a laid-back charm and charisma to his cocksure character that seems to be beyond his abilities. Jamie is going nowhere until he finds his calling as a pharmaceutical salesman working for Pfizer, with his smooth talk allowing him to seduce his way past receptionists and into doctor's surgeries, where he sneakily deposits his own drug while swiping the opposition's. Such unscrupulous behaviour makes Jamie a perfect match for Dr. Stan Knight (Hank Azaria), who even allows him to be in the room while he examines Maggie's breast. Maggie, instead of complaining to the authorities and getting the doctor struck off for his behaviour, also eventually proves immune to Jamie's charms, and the pair are quickly enjoying a no-strings-attached relationship.

Inevitably, that 'just sex' affair starts to develop into something more, even as Maggie attempts to resist any deeper connection. She knows her condition is only going to worsen over time, and this knowledge has led to her cutting emotional ties, fearing a future in which she will be a liability for her partner or will inspire only his sympathy ("You are not a good person because you pity-fuck the sick girl" she shouts in one of the film's few effectively acerbic moments). This is interesting territory for a mainstream Hollywood romance to explore – how do you overcome such obstacles to forge a successful relationship? – and Hathaway strikes the right note in her portrayal of Maggie, refusing to overdo the tics associated with her illness or play the victim. Love and Other Drugs only explores these issues in the most superficial way, though, and while we might applaud the film for giving screen time to real Parkinson's sufferers and allowing them to tell their story, the effect of such moments is undermined by the countless misjudged sequences, some of which seem to exist in a different film altogether. In one such scene, Viagra salesman Jamie is forced to run from a party holding a pillow over his uncontrollable erection. It's an utterly juvenile sequence in a film that seems desperate to be viewed as adult and sophisticated, and indicative of the picture's identity crisis.

Perhaps we should end with a word on the nudity in Love and Other Drugs. Yes, Gyllenhaal and Hathaway are naked for many of their scenes together, and Zwick clearly wants to present this as a casual, relaxed approach to nudity and sexuality, but it doesn't seem so casual when the film's stars are drawing attention to it by appearing nude on magazine covers, or discussing it at length in the press. Once again, we sense a tension between the film Love and Other Drugs wants to be – daring, ribald and sexy – and the immature, timid attitude that sees it failing to loosen up, failing to commit to a particular style and tone, and furiously hedging its bets. There's probably material for three or four decent movies in here, each of which would appeal to a very different audience, but the one we've got is a sorry old mess.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Review - Catfish

With The Social Network now having firmly established itself as one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, and a prime contender for the end-of-year awards, there's a danger that Catfish will forever be known as 2010's 'other' Facebook movie. This would be an unfair designation, because while The Social Network is about many things, it's not really about Facebook, and certainly not in the way Catfish is. While Fincher and Sorkin used that site's origin story to spin a compelling narrative of greed, friendship and betrayal, Catfish actually engages with some of the complexities of social networking, and explores the way interacting through the internet has altered our notions of truth and relationships.

The film itself seems to blur the lines of truth in its storytelling, although those behind Catfish maintain that everything happened exactly as we are witnessing it. I have my doubts and suspicions, but this is a fascinating and brilliantly told story whatever way you look at it. It begins as the story of Nev Schulman, a photographer living in New York with his brother Ariel and their friend Henry Joost, the film's credited co-directors, whose cameras follow Nev as he strikes up a friendship with 8 year-old Abby Pierce. A remarkably gifted young artist from Michigan, Abby has produced paintings based on Nev's photography, which she saw online. Nev maintains a regular correspondence with Abby's mother Angela, who sends him prints of every work Abby produces, and soon a romance begins to develop between him and Abby's older sister Megan, even though they have never met. "She seems pretty awesome" Nev states, "at least, from Facebook."

All they know about this family is what they have been told over the phone or presented with online, so you won't be surprised to hear that nothing is exactly as it seems. The exact nature of those revelations should be kept under wraps, however, as one of the chief weapons in Catfish's arsenal is its element of surprise. Just when you think the film is veering into My Kid Could Paint That territory, it slips out of reach and develops into something much more complicated, and more troubling. The filmmakers deserve a lot of credit for the way they reveal their secrets at the right time and the manner in which they sustain the tension and intrigue as Nev slowly begins to have doubts about his new friends. The filmmakers may insist that we are watching the story unfold as it occurred in reality, but the manipulation involved, and the sense of clever filmmakers guiding the narrative, is evident. How much does this matter? Catfish is not the first film to blend the techniques of documentary and narrative storytelling, or to make claims for a story's veracity while knowing otherwise, but it is the nature of Catfish's truth that makes its final reveal such uncomfortable viewing, and leaves the filmmakers open to accusations of exploitation.

Personally, I found it incredibly riveting and ultimately quite moving, and perhaps the best film yet made about social connections in the internet age. The internet forms Catfish's whole aesthetic, with Google Maps charting the protagonists' progress (like the red lines across maps that indicated plane journeys in the Indiana Jones movies) and when they introduce a character, they do so by showing their Facebook profile picture, and hovering a cursor over it until their name appears. Nev begins to piece the mystery together using YouTube and Google Street View – it's like a very 21st century detective story, complete with its own mysterious femme fatale. Catfish is a film that needs to be watched with as little knowledge of its climax as possible – and I fear I've said too much already – so I'll close by simply stating that this film deserves to be seen and it deserves to be discussed. It is a one-of-a-kind picture that finds the perfect style to tell its story, and it leaves its audience with both nagging unanswered questions and a complex set of emotions to sift through. When a film is capable of making such an impact, does it matter whether it's truth or fiction?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Review - TRON: Legacy

The original TRON was released in the same year I was born, and I hope I've aged a little better than the film has in the intervening 28 years. When I watched Steven Lisberger's sci-fi adventure recently in preparation for the release of its belated sequel, it appeared hopelessly dated, with the visual effects now looking very creaky, and the lack of a strong storyline or characters making for an empty and dull viewing experience. However, the film still possesses one memorable sequence, the light-cycle race, and at the very least, its then-groundbreaking attempt to engage with the newfangled world of computers has the feel of filmmakers trying to give their audience something new. TRON is not a good film, but it was a bold one with fresh ideas and a unique style, and that alone is enough to set the bar at a level that TRON: Legacy doesn't come close to reaching.

TRON: Legacy has no such ambitions. While no expense has been spared in ensuring the film looks as slick and polished as can be, there's nothing inventive or imaginative under the surface of this unspeakably boring update. An early scene proves to be disappointingly self-prophetic, as software giant Encom announces its plan to release an upgrade package that has no significant improvements on previous versions, but will be presented in such a way that the masses will still buy it. Has a similar philosophy been at work behind the scenes of this movie? Almost everything that exists in TRON: Legacy has been lifted from another film, and the filmmakers appear to be gambling everything on their shiny presentation being enough to paper over the cracks.

It isn't enough, although director Joseph Kosinski does have one fairly smart idea up his sleeve, with the opening "real world" sequences of TRON: Legacy being shot in 2D before 3D is introduced as we move into the computer world. I guess this is the 21st century update on the way colour was used in films like The Wizard of Oz or A Matter of Life and Death to differentiate between realities, but this approach can't add any depth to Garrett Hedlund's strictly one-dimensional performance. The stiff and sullen Hedlund plays Sam Flynn, the son of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who was the chief protagonist in the first film. Some twenty years ago, Kevin disappeared and his son inherited Encom, although he doesn't show much interest in the business side of things, preferring instead to sabotage their plans, live in a shed, ride a motorbike and parachute off the top of skyscrapers.

All of this is very tedious to watch because it simply feels like we're marking time as we wait for Sam to enter "the grid". Eventually he does, receiving a mysterious message from the disused arcade his father owned and being blasted by a laser into the universe his father created. This is where dad has been trapped for the past two decades, after his own avatar Clu (also played by Bridges, albeit digitally enhanced to look 30 years younger) decided to elbow aside his maker and take over the running of the place himself. So, Sam's quest is to liberate his father and stop Clu from making his way into the real world, although this simple plotl leaves myriad unanswered questions and loose ends hanging. How exactly does a human exist in the digital world, and vice versa? More to the point, where does Kevin get the food that he is seen enjoying? Why are we told that Clu's faceless goons can't leave the grid, only to see them searching Flynn's off-grid base moments later? What exactly is Tron's motive? Is that really Cillian Murphy sitting there, looking bored? And what will the excruciating Michael Sheen's next biopic performance be: David Bowie, Jimmy Saville or Peter Stringfellow?

Plot threads and ideas are picked up and discarded at random. We are told that Quorra (Olivia Wilde, this film's Trinity) is the last of some kind of master race that was wiped out by Clu, although we never get a sense of what the significance or purpose of this is; the notion seems to exist solely to give the narrative a gravity that it hasn't earned. TRON: Legacy's writing is lazy, lazy, lazy. Every line of dialogue feels hackneyed and trite – including the tiresome Dude-isms Bridges is lumbered with – and the rules of this world seem to arbitrarily change according to the whims of the screenwriting team as if none of it matters. The thing is, for some viewers who will be happy to just enjoy the light show, it really won't matter.

A lot of effort has obviously been expended on TRON: Legacy's visuals, the film's chief selling point, but they seem very unimpressive to my jaded eyes. Compared to the lush, inviting world of last year's Avatar, the world of TRON – all glass, chrome and neon – seems sterile and uninspired. The novelty of the film's setting rapidly wears off, and while Kosinski ups the ante on the discus-throwing and light-cycle sequences, there's no charge of excitement because they feel so inconsequential. The whole of TRON: Legacy feels like that: empty, flat and meaningless. After years of development, backed by a near $200 million budget, and driven by the most cutting-edge technology available, we've somehow ended up with a film that feels less ambitious and more regressive than its 28 year-old predecessor. Is this progress?

Monday, December 06, 2010

Review - For Colored Girls

Who is Tyler Perry? On this side of the Atlantic, the auteur is an unfamiliar name, but in the United States, he has quickly become one of the most consistently successful filmmakers around. His rapid rise to the top has been marked by critical derision, but the black audiences his films are made for continue to turn out in force every time he releases a new picture, which is often more than once a year. Clearly, a specific section of the moviegoing public has a taste for whatever it is that Perry has, but that attraction has remained a mystery to UK viewers, as despite the diverse population in this country, Perry's films have consistently failed to find distribution. That changed earlier this year when Perry's Why Did I Get Married Too? became the first of his films to hit British cinemas, although it barely made a dent at the box office and its arrival certainly went unnoticed by me.

All of which means For Colored Girls is my first taste of the Tyler Perry experience, and what a taste it is. Intense, melodramatic, shocking and powerfully acted the film may be, but it's also laughably unsubtle, clumsily directed and horribly written. Perry has assembled a formidable team of actresses to portray the women suffering at the hands of various men, but even these fine performers can't do much to elevate the stodgy material they have been asked to digest. The film is an adaptation of Ntozake Shange's 1975 stage play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf (yes, Enuf), and while Perry has thankfully cut that unwieldy title, his inability to edit judiciously severely hampers his misguided film.

Shange's play consisted of actresses delivering 20 poems that reflected the ongoing struggle of black women, and while it's easy to imagine such an approach being powerful in the theatre, monologues are a serious obstacle in cinema. During For Colored Girls, whenever a character reaches her lowest ebb, she begins reciting one of Shange's poems, which necessitates a drastic shift from the straightforward approach and banal dialogue Perry utilises elsewhere in the picture. When we see a soliloquy unfold on stage, we can appreciate it in its theatrical context, but here, in a more realistic setting, it feels hopelessly artificial. As we watch a 16 year-old recovering from a backstreet abortion (Tessa Thompson) or a battered rape victim (Anika Noni Rose) suddenly resort to unedited lumps of Shange's poetic text in a hospital or police station, all I could think was, nobody talks like that.

So the scenes that should be the most powerful in the film end up feeling false and overly stylised, which is a shame, because if Perry has one gift as a director, it lies in his ability to get everything his female cast has got to give. For Colored Girls takes place in New York, with most of the characters either living in the same walk-up or crossing the paths of those who do. There's battered wife Crystal (Kimberley Elise), promiscuous Tangie (Thandie Newton), barren social worker Kelly (Kerry Washington) and religious zealot Alice (Whoopi Goldberg) among others. These parts offer plenty of tragedy for such strong actresses to get their teeth into, and they all respond with passion and emotion, fleshing out roles that, as written, occasionally seem little more than stoically suffering martyrs. Perry clearly loves these women, and he shoots them in long takes and tight close-ups, all the better to see the bruises and the tears streaming down their cheeks, but his constant chasing of big moments eventually takes its toll.

Tyler Perry is not a subtle director, and throughout For Colored Girls he is always striving for impact. He is willing to play any card in the hope of jerking some tears, with his film covering domestic abuse, alcoholism, rape, HIV (apparently indicated by a tickly cough), secret homosexuality and – in a jaw-dropping scene that the film never recovers from – even a spectacular death for two young children. I'm struggling to think of a director who could frame that particular scene in a way that doesn't feel like a cheap and nasty stunt, but Perry, with his blunt and artless style, is certainly not the man for the job.

In the end, Perry's manipulative efforts are counterproductive. The film's desperate desire to move us feels just that – desperate – and with the repetitive poetic monologues constantly pulling us out of the drama, we never feel settled enough to involve ourselves in these women's stories. It's a disappointment, because some of the actresses among this ensemble are great talents who are too often saddled with token parts that fail to display their gifts, and while For Colored Girls is massively flawed, I guess I can understand why black women, starved of representation onscreen, take Perry's films to their hearts. However, I'm not sure what this picture has to offer for the rest of us. It's a lumpy, histrionic and overextended affair, and one that misses so many of the targets it aims for. I haven't seen the rest of Perry's oeuvre, but it feels like For Colored Girls is a self-conscious stab at a great work, a film that attempts to encapsulate everything about the black female experience in America. Sadly, long before the schmaltzy, tacky final sequence, the truth is exposed – for all of his lofty ambitions, Tyler Perry simply isn't good enuf.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Review - Easier with Practice

The most intimate relationship in Easier with Practice exists between two people who don't meet for the majority of the picture. Davy (Brian Geraghty) is a young writer who is touring America with his brother Sean (Kel O'Neill) to promote his self-published collection of short stories. He is a nervous, introverted young man, uncomfortable in his own skin, so there's a certain logic to the way he attaches himself to a woman who only exists as a voice at the other end of a phone. When Davy is alone is his motel room one night, the phone rings and the mystery caller introduces herself as Nicole. The scene that follows is shot in a single take, the camera remaining discreetly above waist-height as the bewildered Davy sits on his bed and slowly warms to the idea of engaging in phone sex with Nicole. After that, Davy is smitten with a woman he has never met.

It sounds implausible, but Easier with Practice is apparently based on the real experience of Davy Rothbart, who wrote about his unusual encounter in GQ. Kyle Patrick Alvarez's directorial debut is a portrait of loneliness and it is given a vital sense of weight by Geraghty's sensitive performance in the lead role. His Davy recoils at any sense of real, physical intimacy – a fact that seems to have damaged one relationship, with old friend Samantha (Marguerite Moreau) – but with Nicole he starts to relax, and to open up. Although her first few calls result in Davy having to find private spots in which to masturbate, their post-coital conversations eventually begin to become more important. Nicole remains in control of the relationship, though, refusing to give Davy her number and leaving him in an anxious state as the hours and days pass without his phone ringing.

Easier With Practice is often insightful and touching in its view of people unwilling or incapable of engaging with the real world who take solace in fantasy relationships, but the film often feels frustratingly underdeveloped. This is a slight narrative on which to hang a feature and Alvarez often lets his film drift when Davy and Nicole aren't in conversation. There are a couple of sharp individual scenes here, with Alvarez drawing some tension from an awkward game of Truth or Dare, but a number of scenes seem to lack a sense of purpose or definition. The director does show glimpses of an interesting visual sense, though, and his compositions are consistently well thought-out, but his efforts are not complemented by David Rush Morrison's rather drab cinematography.

Fortunately, the whole picture gets a much-needed lift in its final quarter with a clever climax. The scene in which Davy finally gets to meet Nicole gives the narrative a sly twist and reaffirms Alvarez's skill at handling moments of uncomfortable intimacy, with both performers giving affectingly nervous turns. Easier with Practice ends as a smart and surprisingly absorbing study of lonely souls and of the way people afraid of being hurt create and reinforce barriers with those around them. The film has its misjudgements and its longueurs, but there is conviction and talent on display here, and a real attempt to engage with some intriguing notions of what a relationship should be. Such qualities are too rare to be easily dismissed.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Review - Monsters

You might expect alien creatures to be the focal point of a film entitled Monsters, but one of the surprises offered by Gareth Edwards in his debut feature is that the monsters themselves are kept out of sight for much of the movie. However, their presence can be felt at every step of this inventive drama. As the film's two lead characters wander through Mexico, we see evidence of alien infestation that has lasted six years. Signs warning the public of quarantine zones, the debris of damaged tanks and fighter planes, even a kids' cartoon on a local television network that has incorporated the monsters into its story. Everything is depicted in a naturalistic and matter-of-fact manner and it is instantly convincing as a portrait of a world that has learned to adapt and accommodate this new element in their lives.

Monsters will inevitably draw comparisons with last year's District 9; both films are directorial debuts, both offer allegorical tales of mankind learning to live alongside alien creatures, and both successfully incorporate slick visual effects that belie their relatively small budgets. This is particularly true in Monsters' case, which was made (for a total that has been reported as anywhere between $15,000 and $500,000) with little more than a camera, a couple of actors and plenty of ideas, with director Edwards filling in the background details on his computer later. Whether it's just a result of his financial limitations or more indicative of his filmmaking personality, Edward's minimalist approach works wonders for Monsters, and makes it feel like a fresh discovery. In many ways it reminded me of early Spielberg and specifically Jaws and Close Encounters, which held back on the revelation of their creatures and instead focused on atmosphere and characters. If Steven Spielberg had made War of the Worlds in 1975 rather than 2005, it might have looked something like this.

Edwards relies heavily on his two actors to carry the film and Monsters often feels more like a road movie with romantic comedy undertones than a sci-fi picture. Cynical photojournalist Andrew (Scoot McNairy) and rich tourist Samantha (Whitney Able) are thrown together when Sam's father – the publisher of the magazine Andrew works for – instructs the photographer to ensure his daughter gets across the border to the US safely. A series of unfortunate events leave them with no other route north than through 'The Zone,' the quarantined area inhabited by the most active creatures, and so they venture into danger, occasionally hearing ominous sounds in the dark forest around them, or catching a glimpse of an alien tentacle in the river that they are nervously sailing down.

The improvised dialogue between McNairy and Able doesn't provide the characters with much depth, but they are a likable pair whose growing attraction and emotional attachment feels real as it develops throughout the movie. They do enough to hold our attention as Edwards' films proceeds at a surprisingly measured pace. He allows his characters to stop occasionally and take in their surroundings, from interacting with a family who offer them food and shelter to gazing in awe and fear at the ghost towns they pass through, or the enormous wall built across the US/Mexico border. The director is good at generating tension too, staging a nighttime attack on the guerrillas escorting Andrew and Sam and a later sequence in which an alien's exploratory tentacle lurks in uncomfortable proximity to the cowering pair.

These are the moments in which Monsters is at its most effective, when Edwards is displaying his firm grasp of filmmaking technique and utilising his visual effects sparingly but brilliantly. He is less surefooted when he tries to graft a clunky immigration moral onto this simple narrative, or too clumsily rams home his "who are the real monsters?" tone. He also struggles to bring his film to a truly satisfying climax, delivering an ending that feels weirdly abrupt, but it's easy to forgive a multitude of sins when faced with the kind of beauty Edwards unexpectedly throws up when he finally gives us our first unobstructed view of the creatures interacting with one another. It's the kind of moment that would be gorgeous and memorable on any budget, and it's the point that confirmed for me the fact that this guy is a real filmmaker, with an eye for lyrical, striking images and the skill to pull them off. Monsters is a remarkable debut, and it will be fascinating to see where Gareth Edwards goes next.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Review - Machete

The perennial problem with films based upon jokey conceits is that the joke will often wear thin when it is stretched to feature length. Machete is 105 minutes long, but perhaps it was a more natural fit for the two and a half minute trailer that originally introduced the character. That trailer was conceived by Robert Rodriguez as part of the Grindhouse package he and Quentin Tarantino offered to filmgoers in 2007, before discovering that the majority of filmgoers weren't particularly interested in their deliberately trashy homages. Nevertheless, it appears enough people subsequently pestered Rodriguez about the possibility of a feature length expansion on his trailer to make Machete a cinematic reality. Be careful what you wish for.

Anyone who has seen Machete in its trailer form will already know the story. This film sticks closely to the narrative already established there, even recycling a couple of shots and lines of dialogue, but it possesses a few more big names in the cast alongside Danny Trejo, Jeff Fahey and Cheech Marin. Those actors are important to Machete, because in his first starring role, Danny Trejo doesn't bring much to the party aside from some monosyllabic grunting and a face that looks like it has taken a beating from life. Granted, Rodriguez doesn't ask for anything beyond that from his leading man, but the lack of wit, passion or energy in Trejo's star turn has a deadening effect on the picture. He stalks through the movie wearing a permanent scowl, slicing off limbs and heads with his trusty weapon of choice, but watching scene after scene of such action does grow awfully repetitive.

Occasionally, Machete displays a sense of outrageous invention that enlivens the whole movie. In one scene, arguably the film's highlight, a cornered Machete jumps through a window and swings into the floor below by hanging onto a dying man's intestine. That sequence gets a big laugh, but Rodriguez too often lets the pace flag and lets the energy levels drop in between such gleefully over-the-top stunts, attempting to inject some social satire into the film with his depiction of America's reliance on its immigrant underclass, but that element of the film doesn't really take us anywhere. Rodriguez has a co-director credited on this production, with editor Ethan Maniquis stepping up, but it's hard to tell what effect, if any, that has had on the film. The direction, as is often the case with Rodriguez, is slack and uneven, making it difficult to discern exactly how much of the film's slapdash appearance is part of the bad movie tribute and how much is a result of the filmmaker's limitations.

Some mild relief is provided by that eclectic supporting cast. While a couple of them (like an alarmingly bloated Steven Seagal and a typically expressionless Jessica Alba) struggle to impose themselves on the film, the majority have fun with their roles, and their enjoyment is infectious. Robert De Niro, Jeff Fahey and Don Johnson are all on ripe form, while I particularly enjoyed Cheech Marin's turn as a shotgun-toting priest ("God has mercy. I don't"). However, these are just bits and pieces scattered throughout the film; entertaining scraps in a picture that cannot sustain the generous running time it has set for itself. Machete is lazy, self-indulgent and surprisingly dull, but I'll say this much for the film – it would probably make a great trailer.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Review - The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (Luftslottet som sprängdes)

During the course of this Swedish film trilogy, as the quality level has sharply declined, the one thing we've been able to rely on has been Noomi Rapace, whose star-making performance as Lisbeth Salander has often been the only element holding these shoddy productions together. Rapace is an actress who draws the viewers' attention at all times, bringing a quiet watchfulness and remoteness to her damaged, distrustful character, and making Lisbeth tough, resourceful and vulnerable as the role demands. Whenever Stieg Larsson's plot gets too silly – and it does get very silly – Rapace keeps the movie focused, providing it with a central protagonist who keeps us hooked on a deeper level than the flabby narrative can reach. All of which makes it utterly dismaying that the third and final film adapted from Larsson's Millenium Trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, gives its most prized asset so little to do. In fact, she spends most of this extremely long and utterly boring film sitting down.

Those who have followed the story up to this point will already know why Lisbeth is in such an inactive state. At the end of The Girl Who Played With Fire, she was shot, beaten and buried alive by her father (Georgi Staykov) and hulking half-brother (Micke Spreitz, still a ludicrous figure), before rising from beneath the earth like an avenging angel to attack her dad with a axe. The film closed with Lisbeth being carted away from the scene in an ambulance, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest picks up from that point, as she slowly recovers in hospital and finds out that she is facing a murder charge. Her only ally remains Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), the dogged investigative journalist determined to prove Lisbeth's innocence and to unmask the criminal conspiracy that wants to shut them both up.

This setup turns Lisbeth into a frustratingly passive figure, and the fact that she and Mikael are once more kept apart for the whole movie negates the relationship that was a key strength behind the series' first and best instalment, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Without that tension between the likable, lovelorn writer and the mysterious loner, the subsequent two films have felt unbalanced and lethargic, which suggests that Niels Arden Oplev, director of the first picture, was wise to hand over the reins when he did. His successor Daniel Alfredson has completely failed to juice up the inferior material at his disposal with any kind of cinematic verve. Under his direction, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest have been drab and sluggish ordeals, and whenever Alfredson attempts to enliven matters with an action scene, he botches it through some desperately unimaginative staging (I groaned inwardly when a woman pushing a pram walked out in front of a speeding police car).

Essentially, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is nonsense, and it's often quite distasteful nonsense, with the majority of male characters being potential rapists and paedophiles (Lisbeth is accused of harbouring "grotesque fantasies" at one point, which seems an apt description of the film). I found it impossible to maintain any interest in the film as it crawled towards its meaningless conclusion – even the comparatively enjoyable final ten minutes failed to suck me back in – and instead my thoughts turned towards the forthcoming American screen versions of Larsson's books. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (which is surprisingly being directed by David Fincher) is already in production, and depending on that film's success, the two sequels will surely follow. Will they provide a more consistently engrossing production, or will they be hobbled by the structural deficiencies and clumsy plot twists that are presumably ingrained in Larsson's novels? I have to say, I'm cautiously optimistic. The American films won't have the indelible presence of Noomi Rapace, but aside from that, there's room for improvement in every single department.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Review - Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee raleuk chat )

Within the first five minutes of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives you'll find my favourite cinematic image of 2010. The film opens at night, and we watch as a tethered ox breaks free and wanders into the woodland. He is eventually caught by his owner and led back from whence he came, but there is something else lurking in this jungle, and the sharp cut that introduces it is startling. He is a shadowy, ape-like figure, standing upright and staring directly at us. His eyes, like small red lasers, are the only distinguishing features on this mysterious silhouette. This is our first glimpse of the monkey ghost, and it is an arresting start to this amazing film, but it is by no means the last unusual happening that we'll experience as we venture into the world according to Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

What's remarkable – and delightful – about the presence of mysterious creatures in this film is the matter-of-fact way that Apichatpong, and his characters, deal with them. Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is a farmer living in a remote area of Thailand who is slowly dying of kidney failure. In his final days, he is being cared for by his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), his nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) and Jaai (Samud Kugasang), a Laotian immigrant. One evening, as they sit together at the dinner table, a spirit slowly materialises in the empty chair next to Tong. This is Huay (Natthakam Aphaiwonk), Boonmee's former wife, who died many years before. A few moments later, they are joined by a red-eyed monkey ghost, who wanders in from the night and takes a seat, before revealing himself to be Boonmee's long-lost son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong). This is the strangest of family reunions, but that's exactly how Boonmee and the others welcome these mysterious apparitions – as family – registering less shock than delight at once again seeing those they had lost. "Why did you let your hair grow so long?" is the first question Boonsong is asked.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul doesn't draw a line between any of the inhabitants of his jungle, whether they are humans, animals or spirits, and he suggests that it's the most natural thing in the world for one to flow into another. "I only know I was born here," Boonmee says, "I don't know if I was a human or an animal," and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives is a film driven by the ideas of Karma, reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. After the bipartite structure of his earlier works, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Pas Lives appears at first to be a more linear work, but the director is always ready to digress at a whim down some strange avenue, and one such tangent takes us into the story of a princess, distraught at her fading beauty, who has an encounter with a talking catfish. What is the relationship between this story and the main narrative? Is this an episode from one of Boonmee's former lives? Is he the catfish? That may be the case or it may not, but Apichatpong refuses to make anything concrete, preferring to leave his film entirely open for us to interpret as we wish.

I hope that doesn't make Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives sound challenging or impenetrable, because I honestly believe nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, it is true that this director makes films like nobody else, but all it takes to appreciate his work is a slight adjustment to the distinctive rhythm and openness of his style, and a willingness to follow the path he sets for us even if we know we may not understand everything we see. Apichatpong is not an elitist, deliberately withholding the meaning of his films from the viewer, he is actually an extremely generous filmmaker, simply making a film that feels right to him and then asking the public to take what they want from it. I've seen it twice now and on both occasions I have been moved in different ways by the picture. Some viewers will be touched by the meditation on death and the cycle of life; some will see resonant allusions to Thai history and culture; some will simply marvel at the lyrical weirdness of it all. All responses are equally valid.

The one constant in every viewing will surely be astonishment as Apichatpong's stunning technique, the careful way he composes his shots (when he shifts to handheld camerawork late in the film, the effect is startling), the hypnotic rhythm of his editing and the stunningly involving and atmospheric sound design. Even if you don't understand what you're looking at in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the film is so mesmerising on a technical level it's impossible to look away. This director has always had an impressive command of his craft, but after two viewings, this strikes me as his most accomplished work, full of extraordinary examples of Apichatpong's rich imagination at work.

Many of those amazing moments are saved for the final section of the film, which sees the characters venturing out into the jungle, so Boonmee can rest in the pace where he will finally leave this life. He is led there by Huay – the dead guiding the living from one life to the next – but the sadness of these scenes is tempered by the knowledge that he will return, in some form or other. Similarly, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a film that takes many forms and one that endlessly shifts as we try to pin down its meaning, but there's also a simplicity and an essential truth to the way the film deals with encroaching death and asks us to find beauty and wonder in the everyday. Each viewing yields new treasures and for that reason it is one of the year's great films, but even with the Palme d'Or behind it, will viewers be willing to surrender themselves to the film and allow it to work its magic? All I can say is – take a chance. Enter the wonderful world of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and you may find you don't want to leave.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Review - Carlos

Carlos might have been made for French television, but this is no ordinary TV movie. For a start, it has been made by a real filmmaker, with Olivier Assayas cementing his reputation as one of the most exciting and mercurial directors currently working. He invests Carlos with an irresistible, propulsive sense of momentum that rarely flags across the film's five-and-a-half hour running time. This film is a good deal longer than both Steven Soderbergh's Che and last year's double-bill Mesrine, but Assayas' decades-spanning biopic somehow manages to feel shorter than both of them. It switches countries and languages with a remarkable fleetness of foot, and introduces characters at a dizzying rate as it hurtles through its subject's eventful life. Don't be deterred by Carlos' epic length, for this is one of the most audacious and exhilarating cinematic events of the year.

It also contains a central performance as good as any other you'll see this year. Édgar Ramírez plays Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known by his nom de guerre Carlos, and he is utterly convincing at every step of his character's journey, possessing a swagger and physicality that reminded me of Brando and De Niro in their pomp. When we first meet Sánchez, in the early 1970's, he is a man driven by a clear ideology – "Behind every bullet we fire, there will be an idea" he announces early on – and that conviction drives him to commit acts of terrorism in the name of the PFLP. In the film's final section, he is a bloated shadow of that young firebrand; a man living in a changing world that no longer has any use for him. Carlos' narrative unfolds in a traditional manner, employing a three-act structure (the French TV presentation was in three parts) that depicts his rise and fall in a familiar fashion. But Carlos feels so much more alive than most screen biopics, with Ramírez's performance and Assayas' bravura direction energising the film.

In the film's opening third, Carlos the character rarely stays still (at one point, we see how he quickly he loses his shape and sharpness when he is forced to lie low for a period of inactivity) and Assayas' restless, dynamic camerawork matches him stride for stride. The film moves fluidly from Carlos' political motivations to his womanising and acts of violence, and lends each encounter the same sense of authenticity and the same gripping tension. At times, admittedly, the ceaseless rush of Assayas' filmmaking can leave us struggling to catch up, particularly when supporting characters – introduced with onscreen captions announcing their name and affiliation – appear and then disappear so abruptly. The director is less interested in explaining background details and offering exposition than he is in simply showing us Carlos the man and letting us experience his actions, but this approach can result in some areas of the film feeling murky and vague.

On the other hand, his style also fills Carlos with so many sublime moments, and it seems ridiculous to grumble about small deficiencies when confronted with filmmaking of this stature. In particular, Part 2 of Carlos deals almost exclusively with his most famous act, the taking of hostages at the OPEC conference in Vienna in 1975. Running to an almost feature length in itself, this is an indescribably brilliant piece of sustained filmmaking from Assayas, whose confident pacing and masterful control of tone develops and then maintains an electrifying sense of tension, even as Carlos and his cohorts sit motionless on an airport runway, their plan slowly crumbling around them. This sequence in itself would be enough to ensure Carlos' status as one of the films of the year, and as I left the screening room at this point for the interval, I wondered if Part 3 could live up to what had gone before.

I'm afraid to say it doesn't. That's not to say the third part of Carlos is bad – it's far from that – but after the explosive, sexy and thrilling action of the first two parts, it feels a little more laborious and it's the first time that Assayas seems to suffer from the constricting confines of the biopic as a cinematic storytelling form. It is fascinating to watch Carlos being cut off from his former allies as communist regimes fall one by one, and to see how lost this international terrorist is without the states that once shielded him, but it also feels like we're marking time as we wait for justice to finally catch up with him. The third act drag is a perennial problem in biopics that deal with the whole arc of a person's life, but it's particularly disappointing here after that life has been rendered so thrillingly for the preceding four-and-a-bit hours.

Again, however, I need to set those complaints against the frequent displays of the director's brilliance in Carlos, and the filmmaking comes out on top every time. I haven't even mentioned the roster of outstanding supporting performances, including Nora von Waldstätten as his wife and Julia Hummer as his volatile accomplice. I could have also gone into more detail describing sensational individual sequences, such as the Japanese Red Army's bank assault, Carlos' escape from the police after he is betrayed, or the botched attempts to blow up Israeli planes at Orly airport; there's simply so much here to digest. Carlos is available in two forms, both as a five-and-a-half hour version and as a cut-down 165-minute film. I haven't seen the latter, but I really can't imagine how you could chop almost three hours' worth of incident from this film without losing something special, because very little of it feels like filler. I'm not entirely sure if Carlos possesses the depth to match its length, but it's a ceaselessly invigorating cinematic spectacle, and an awesome directorial achievement.