Saturday, January 30, 2010

Review - Edge of Darkness

Whether he's taking a beating or dishing one out, Mel Gibson is an actor who's energised by violence. So, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that his first starring role in almost eight years is a film like Edge of Darkness, in which an ordinary man is driven to bloody vengeance, but we have every right to be disappointed. Edge of Darkness is not just a failure as a thriller, it's a failure as an adaptation of a TV series that was complex, imaginative and politically relevant – stripping away whatever nuance that series possessed and leaving behind a generic, familiar slog. It's hard to believe that the same man is behind both incarnations of Edge of Darkness, with Martin Campbell taking the reins once again 25 years on, and it's similarly hard to believe that Campbell was responsible for two of the best Bond films of recent years. His work here is perfunctory and careless.

Edge of Darkness also suffers from a basic conundrum – how do you compress six hours of storytelling into a two-hour framework? The overall arc of the story sticks closely to the original. Thomas Craven (Gibson) is a Boston cop enjoying a visit from his daughter (Bojana Novakovic) when she is gunned down by a masked assassin on his doorstep. The initial assumption is that Thomas was the target, but when the grieving father somehow gets himself assigned to the case and begins investigating his daughter's life, he discovers a darker truth. Emma was a low-level employee for a nuclear research facility, and it appears she was killed because she knew too much about their shady practices. Craven's continued probing soon uncovers a wide-ranging conspiracy, the kind concocted by corporate heads and government officials in clandestine meetings, and the kind we've seen depicted on film so many times before.

Everything about Edge of Darkness feels second-hand. The film's screenplay comes courtesy of William Monaghan, who brought such wit and liveliness to The Departed's convoluted narrative, but who opts for the obvious route at every turn here. From the clichéd nature of the characterisations to the hoary dialogue ("Who do you think you are?" "I'm the guy with nothing to lose!"), his script is utterly bereft of imagination. As soon as Craven begins digging into his daughter's life, the film's momentum stalls, and it never regains its footing. With Campbell directing on autopilot, it's left to the actors to try and bring a spark to the picture. Danny Huston gives a standard Danny Huston performance, grinning malevolently as the boss of the evil corporation as the centre of the plot, but the performance turned in by Ray Winstone is simply baffling. He plays Jedburgh, the mysterious government agent who materialises as and when he pleases, drinking a glass of wine and enjoying a cigar, while beginning most of his statements with lines like, "You know, Hemingway once said..." His parallel in the 1985 series, played by Joe Don Baker, was a stronger character and more active in the plot, whereas it's often hard to ascertain exactly what Winstone's motives or intentions are, or what purpose he serves.

As for Gibson – well, he still has a considerable screen presence, and there are times when he is the only thing keeping Edge of Darkness afloat. He's particularly effective when showing Craven's barely-contained grief at his daughter's death (and when he ditches his ill-advised attempt at a Boston accent), but the role hardly asks for much emotional depth, as the character quickly becomes another of Gibson's vengeful killing machines. The climactic bloodshed is ugly and often silly, but it is crucially lacking in any sense of weight or catharsis, mainly because it seems that Gibson – like the film – is simply going through the emotions. It's good to see Gibson back in front of the cameras, and he still has it within himself to pull out a performance when he wants to, but there's a weariness and sense of disinterest in his violent encounters here, suggesting that his days as an action lead may well be behind him. Perhaps Mel Gibson finally is too old for this shit.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Review - The Princess and the Frog

With The Princess and the Frog, Disney is getting back to basics, and aiming to repeat the formula that served them well through their various golden ages. The film is a return to traditional 2D animation, with this neglected arm of the studio being put to use for the first time since 2004's forgettable Home on the Range, and the narrative feels pleasingly familiar too. John Musker and Ron Clements, the film's co-directors, are veterans at this game, and they know exactly what's required to turn an old-fashioned story into a family hit, having already produced The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Hercules. The Princess and the Frog contains everything you would expect to find in this type of picture, from comical supporting characters to song-and-dance numbers at regular intervals – it even opens with a song that extols the virtues of wishing on a star, just to let you know exactly what you're in store for.

The film acknowledges that wishing on a star isn't all you need to succeed, however, and Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) knows that she'll need hard work to make her dreams come true. She's a young black waitress, who is working all the hours available as she inches closer to achieving her late father's dream of opening a restaurant, before matters are complicated by a voodoo priest (Keith David), a lazy prince (Bruno Campos) and Tiana's transformation into a frog. The Princess and the Frog is set in New Orleans, at some point in the 1920's, and Disney's keenness to highlight the casting of a black girl as the lead is rather undermined by the lack of nuance with which they handle race as a whole. Tiana could be any colour – she's a cardboard heroine defined by her spunk, determination, honesty and underlying romantic streak – and she's green for the majority of the film anyway. Her unlikely friendship with a rich white girl (Jennifer Cody) doesn't convince, while her burgeoning romance with the handsomely tanned prince offers an uncomfortable contrast with the menace provided by the dark, deep voiced voodoo master.

Questionable racial considerations aside, however, the film has other issues that prevent it from earning its place among the studio's classics. The simple story is told in a witty and lively fashion – even if it lays on the New Orleans flavour a bit thick at times – but it lacks any truly memorable moments, and for every character that works (Michael-Leon Wooley's jazz-mad alligator is a hoot), there's one that doesn't (Jim Cummings' snuggle-toothed firefly is an irritant). Another problem is the soundtrack provided by Disney regular Randy Newman, which rarely comes to life. Although a couple of early songs impress – like the spectacularly staged Almost There and Friends on the Other Side – the subsequent numbers all end up sounding the same, and waiting for them to end becomes something of a chore. The film's saving grace is its animation, which is simply gorgeous, and a wonderful reminder of how beautiful this now-unfashionable animated technique can be. The lighting and use of colour is a constant delight, and there are some beautiful effects on show. Aesthetically, this is a film to rank alongside the very best of Disney, but on a storytelling level, it's not quite up to standard.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Review - A Prophet (Un prophète)

A Prophet opens in disorienting darkness, as 19 year-old Malik (Tahar Rahim) begins a six-year stretch in a French prison for assault. His clothes and his possessions are taken from him, and he is asked a series of questions – does he have has any family, any friends on the inside, any faith? To each question, the bewildered and scared Malik replies "No." He hardly looks like someone who will last long within the tough and dangerous environment he is stepping into, but Malik doesn't just survive prison life, he prospers. His progression from vulnerable, illiterate nobody to well-connected criminal forms the narrative arc in Jacques Audiard's fifth and finest film. We follow Malik as he adapts to this new world, forms alliances, and soaks up every lesson like a sponge – watching, exploring and learning at every step of his journey. He is practically a new man at the end of the film, but the fact that we believe in his transformation is testament to Rahim and Audiard's considerable accomplishment.

Audiard's filmmaking mirrors Malik's experiences. The first part of the picture is directed with a tense, nervous energy, and with Malik frequently being filmed in shadow or pushed into corners, as he slowly comes to terms with his new surroundings. The film's depiction of jail life is utterly authentic and instantly gripping, full of telling details and a claustrophobic atmosphere. To survive, Malik needs protection, and that service is offered by César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), the veteran Corsican crook whose influence spreads far and wide throughout the prison. If Malik wants to be taken under his wing, however, he will have to lose his soul, and murder a fellow prisoner who is preparing to act as a key trial witness. The murder, with its unbearably tense build-up and violent execution, is a nail-biting sequence, and from this point onwards, Malik's path is set.

In a neat twist, Malik's first victim doesn't depart the scene after he has been murdered, instead hanging around in his killer's cell, smoking in a benign fashion (the smoke drifting out from the deep cut in his neck) and acting as a constant reminder of Malik's terrible crime. Fanciful touches like this help Audiard to break up the visual monotony of endless scenes set within the same grey walls. He also uses Malik's probationary day release to this effect, with his brief excursions in the outside world allowing the character to build up his contacts and giving Audiard the opportunity to widen the film's focus. His direction appears to become more expansive in step with Malik's growing confidence and influence, and as well as well as incorporating some superb set-pieces (a close-quarters shootout inside a vehicle being one highlight), the film shares his sense of excitement and wonderment at travelling in a plane, or feeling the sand of the beach between his toes for the first time.

Audiard's control of his film is so sure, misjudgements are rare, but they are not completely absent. His storytelling grows a little tangled at points, notably in the way Malik develops his criminal network and plays both the Corsican and Muslim factions of the prison simultaneously. Audiard also stumbles with a scene in which Malik appears to have a vision of the future, which is a too-literal reading of the film's title and an incident that feels jarringly out of step with the film's nature. These are minor wobbles, however, and our attention remains riveted throughout A Prophet, primarily thanks to the mesmerising performance delivered by Rahim. The young actor, who had only a few minor credits to his name before being handed this challenging role, has a cool, wary watchfulness that fits a character who learns to keep his eyes and ears open, and his mind working, at all times. He keeps Malik at a certain distance from us, making him a fascinating but enigmatic figure, and fully convincing us as his character is shaped by his experiences and environment.

Matching the newcomer stride for stride is Niels Arestrup, giving a fearsome and majestic turn as the intimidating Luciani, who unwittingly teaches Malik everything he needs to know, and then watches helplessly as the young criminal eclipses him. Such is the depth of Arestrup's performance, and the nature of Audiard's filmmaking, we are unsure how to feel about this turn of events. Should we feel sympathy for the old man? Should we see it as a triumph for Malik, even though he has sold his soul and is now set for a life of criminality? Will he eventually end up as Luciani did, ruling his tiny kingdom from the confines of a cell he will surely die in? Audiard leaves us to ask these questions as he ends the film with a masterful closing shot. He has hinted at the possibility of future films involving Malik, eventually developing into a crime trilogy, but I'd prefer to see him leave this absorbing film to stand alone. Instead, we can all speculate on the subsequent fate of the young man who entered prison with nothing, and who left with everything.

Committed Cinema: The Films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Today I received a copy of a new book entitled Committed Cinema: The Films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. It is the first English-language book to study the work of these great filmmakers in depth, and it contains a number of essays, articles and interviews with the brothers, covering their career from La promesse to The Silence of Lorna. Within these pages, you'll find my own interview with the Dardennes, as well as interviews conducted by Jonathan Romney and Geoff Andrew among others, and essays by notable writers such as Jonathan Rosenbaum, Manohla Dargis and the late Robin Wood. Edited by Bert Cardullo, the book is available on Amazon, and is highly recommended for anyone who has an interest in the Dardennes and their remarkable body of work.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review - Up in the Air

In Up in the Air, George Clooney plays a man who has made a virtue of isolation. His job has him travelling the length and breadth of the country, firing employees on behalf of companies who can't do it for themselves, and ensuring he spends at least 300 days of the year on the road – or, more accurately, in the air. "To know me is to fly with me," Ryan Bingham states in his opening voiceover; he has no use for the trappings of friends and family, or the comfort of home. In his sideline as a motivational speaker, he delivers a carefully prepared backpack metaphor, asking his audience to imagine themselves being weighed down by all of the unnecessary encumbrances we collect as we pass through this life. "Some animals were meant to carry each other to live symbiotically over a lifetime" he announces, "Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks."

Whether he's consoling a fired worker with glib sentiments or addressing an auditorium full of businessmen, Ryan Bingham is a smooth operator, and the role fits Clooney like a tailored suit. Pitch-perfect casting has made many films seem better than they are, and that's true of Up in the Air, which glides by on charisma and wit for close to two hours, but quickly slips from the memory afterwards. It is elevated by Reitman's undeniable ability to bring the best out of his exceptional actors, but is there anything substantial to Up in the Air beneath the admittedly immaculate surface? I'm not sure. At its heart, the film is a standard narrative about a self-centred man learning to question the way he has lived his life, with the love of a good woman and a period spent with his homely family being the catalysts for change. Up in the Air is at its best before it gets bogged down with Bingham's predictable transformation, when it is unafraid of displaying some ambiguity about his lifestyle choices. As it progresses, the film retreats into familiarity. It grows into something that's safe and unchallenging, revealing its depth and its resonance with current events to be little more than an illusion.

Having said that, I can't deny it is a pleasure to watch. Reitman is a pedestrian filmmaker, but he has a sharp ear for dialogue and, as he has shown in all three of his features, he's very much an actors' director. The two women who disrupt Clooney's contentedly lonesome life are beautifully played; Anna Kendrick hits exactly the right note as the ambitious but insecure up-and-comer whose plans threaten Bingham's carefree existence, and Vera Farmiga is sensational as the woman he begins a casual relationship with before losing his heart to her. Clooney is so often described as the modern-day Cary Grant, so it's surprising that more filmmakers don't take advantage of this by giving him a Rosalind Russell or Katharine Hepburn to star alongside. He always seems to raise his game when he has a strong female lead to spar with – look at Out of Sight or Intolerable Cruelty for proof – and the chemistry he shares with Farmiga's Alex is dazzling. A sharper, bolder and better movie would have taken this pair down a more interesting path, but that's not the game Reitman is playing. Up in the Air is exactly what the director wants it to be – a solid, effective crowd-pleaser; the kind of movie that hangs around just long enough to win awards, before quietly floating away.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Review - Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo)

Although I first saw Hirokazu Kore-Eda's Still Walking way back in 2008, when I named it as the best film of that year's London Film Festival, there's something fitting about the way it has appeared in UK cinemas now, during the BFI's two-month tribute to the work of Yasujirō Ozu. The influence of that great Japanese filmmaker (and that of his contemporary Naruse) is obvious in Kore-Eda's new film, from the deceptively simple shooting style to the familial subject matter. But this is no empty homage; Kore-Eda pays tribute to that earlier era of filmmaking while making Still Walking absolutely his own. It is a film that is both deeply personal and universally resonant, a film that has a classical style but feels completely modern. Still Walking may be indebted to the great directors who went before, but it also confirms Kore-Eda's status as a young master in his own right.

Still Walking documents 24 hours in the life of the Yokoyama family, brought together for a reunion that marks the 15th anniversary of the eldest son's death, making this another Kore-Eda film in which a person's absence is felt almost as much as those who are present. Junpei drowned while rescuing a young boy from the sea, and his death was particularly hard for his father (Yoshio Harada), as Junpei was undoubtedly the favoured son, the one who was going to become a doctor and inherit his father's practice one day. In contrast, Ryo (Hiroshi Abe) left the family to become an art restorer, something his father has not forgiven him for, and his parents disapprove of his marriage to a widow who already has a young son from her previous marriage. So it's no surprise to see Ryo dreading this get-together as he travels home on the train with Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) and Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka), preparing for an anxious weekend of tensions, petty resentments, and constant reminders of his failure to live up to the impossible standards set by his late brother.

These tensions do occasionally come to the surface, but Kore-Eda generally lets them simmer just underneath it. While we may be anticipating an emotional explosion to provide the climax to the drama, the director maintains an understated and quietly absorbing tone. He fills scenes with the realistic bustle of family behaviour, and allows the dramatic weight to fall on small gestures, moments of silence, or the occasional barbed line of dialogue, which slices through the nostalgic conversation. Kore-Eda orchestrates the dynamics between the three generations of the Yokoyama with incredible skill, providing us with authentic characters, all of whom have their own hopes and regrets, and making them interact with each other in a way that is totally convincing. Other characters drop by during the course of the film; an old family friend making a sushi delivery, and an overweight, awkward and sweaty individual who, we learn, is the man Junpei died trying to save 15 years ago. As has become a tradition, he has been invited on the anniversary to pay his respects, although Ryo is unsettled by the young man's obvious discomfort. "That's why we invite him," his mother (Kirin Kiki) tartly explains, "to see him suffer".

Still Walking is a film filled with a sense of loss, but Kore-Eda finds a pitch-perfect balance between sadness, humour and joy, giving us a picture that encapsulates so much essential truth about family life. Aside from the occasional flourish – such as a transcendent moment involving a butterfly – the director's handling of the material is marked by a beautiful simplicity. His compositions are faultless, and he generates an evocative atmosphere through the accumulation of tiny details – the chopping of radishes, the broken bathroom tiles, the flowers in the garden. Sometimes, his camera will cut away from the main source of the drama to find a character in isolation, but even then we can hear the family chatter echoing around the empty rooms and corridors. He makes us feel like a guest in the Yokoyama family home, and by the time the film has finished, we feel like we know these characters intimately, and yet there is still so much more to know. I have seen Still Walking twice now, and it becomes an even richer, more moving experience on repeated viewings, where the film's subtleties and nuances are ripe for re-examination. I was initially unsure about Kore-Eda's epilogue, which felt a little clumsy and out of place, but my second viewing dispelled those doubts. I can now see how it fits with neatly with the overall piece, and provides a satisfying resolution to a film that is nothing less than a modern masterpiece.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Review - Treeless Mountain

There's something magical about the simple childhood tale Treeless Mountain. So Young Kim's second feature is the story of two children who have to adapt to a new environment and a new way of life when their mother leaves them to search for their father, and the director has done an incredible job of ensuring her two young leads feel completely comfortable in front of the camera. Six year-old Jin (Hee-yeon Kim) and her younger sister Bin (Song-hee Kim) both seem unaware of the film that is being made around them, reacting to every situation with such authenticity that it doesn't seem fair to deem their contributions as 'acting'. Kim's film takes a naturalistic approach to telling their tale, with her unobtrusive camera staying close to the children's faces and letting them carry the drama at their own pace. Scenes frequently pass by without any major incidents occurring, but Treeless Mountain makes us see the world from the children's perspective, and as such, even the smallest developments can feel momentous.

When the children are first uprooted, they are sent to live with their 'Big Aunt' (Mi-hyang Kim). She is not exactly a cruel guardian, but she treats them as something of a nuisance and shows them little affection, often leaving them to take care of themselves for long stretches while she drinks. They manage to make friends with a local boy and learn to make some money by catching, cooking and selling locusts, with the proceeds going straight into the piggy bank their mother gave the girls before she left. She promised them that they would receive pocket money for good behaviour, and that she would return when the bank is full, and the sisters cling to this hope throughout, frequently checking the bank to see how close they are to a long-awaited reunion. There's a wonderful moment when they realise that their big coins can be exchanged for a larger amount of smaller coins, which will fill the bank up more quickly, but following this breakthrough, there can be few more poignant sights than the girls sitting at the bus stop, clutching their full piggy, and forlornly waiting for their mother's return.

Scenes such as this are all the more touching because Kim avoids sentimentality. Her patient, unobtrusive style never forces the issue, allowing us to share Jin and Bin's experiences and gradually become absorbed in their story. She has an eye for small details – Bin's favourite blue dress, or the girls' fascination at the sights of the fish market – and the sibling relationship the film depicts is utterly convincing. Treeless Mountain is a tribute to the unexpected resilience and determination of children, with the sisters eventually accepting their fate, and learning to come to terms with their new life. The final scenes are a perfect conclusion to this lovely film, with Jin and Bin finding happiness in their new surroundings, and discovering a use for the money they have been so dutifully collecting – a moment that is a quiet but deeply touching epiphany.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Review - Precious

The full title of Lee Daniels' Precious is actually Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, and if you think that's overkill, just wait until you see the movie. The catalogue of abuses that Daniels rains down upon this unfortunate girl beggars belief. Claireece 'Precious' Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is a morbidly obese and illiterate black teenager living in Harlem in 1987. She lives with her mother (Mo'Nique), a beastly figure who sits in front of the TV all day, smoking, eating, and hurting her daughter both physically and emotionally. Her father is mostly absent, but he does turn up occasionally to rape his daughter; she had a child by him at the age of 12, and she is currently carrying another. The first child was born with Down's Syndrome, and Precious calls her Mongo (Mongo!). Later, we learn that Precious' father is HIV Positive. Jesus, what a life.

The horrors inflicted upon Precious are painful enough to require no further embellishment, but Daniels doesn't seem to understand that, or else he doesn't trust his audience to get it without bludgeoning them into a reaction. The rape scene goes something like this: Precious is thrown onto the bed by a shadowy figure as her mother walks past the open door; we get close-ups of a Vaseline tub and a belt being unbuckled under a sweaty torso; the father grinds away on top of Precious ("Daddy loves you, baby") as Daniels intercuts shots of greasy eggs and bacon sizzling away on the stove. The effect to is undermine the seriousness of what is happening on screen, turning it instead into a lurid melodrama, which is too overheated to be taken at all seriously. Even while the power of the performances drew me into the film, the stunningly crass nature of Daniels' exploitative direction kept pushing me away. Precious finally lost me during a ridiculous scene that climaxes with Precious' mother trying to crush her daughter and newborn grandson with a TV. Many of my fellow audience members gasped at this point – I couldn't help but laugh.

Precious is at its best when Daniels gives his lead character some space and allows her to develop in front of us. At the start of the film, Precious is a monosyllabic lump who has responded to her abuse by withdrawing into herself and shutting down her emotions. Through her voiceover, we get a sense of the character's inner life, the one she is too afraid to reveal to the outside world, and Daniels shows us her imagination at work by cutting away from the misery with a series of fantasy sequences. In one, she pictures herself as a movie star walking the red carpet, in another she's a model posing for the cameras, while one fantasy – interesting, yet unexplored – has her wishing she was a thin white blonde girl. Unfortunately, these inserts are unimaginatively and cheaply shot, and some of them don't even make sense. At one point, Precious' mother, who watches nothing but TV quiz shows, is found sitting in front of an Italian neorealist movie, purely so Precious can have a black-and-white subtitled dream sequence.

The real stage for Precious' emergence is a remedial class she enrols in when her pregnancy causes her to be expelled from school. The class is run by the improbably named Blu Rain (Paula Patton), an idealistic teacher who never develops into anything more than a collection of clichés, and after an awkward introduction, Precious finds writing as the key to her self-expression. Gabourey Sidibe makes us believe in the character's transition with her utterly authentic performance, and there's something undeniably touching about watching this seemingly defeated person gradually come out of her shell. I do believe it was a mistake on Daniels' part to cast all of Precious' saviours as attractive, light-skinned people (Patton, along with Mariah Carey's social worker and Lenny Kravitz's nurse), but he does draw uniformly strong performances from his ensemble, with the interaction between Precious and her fellow students being particularly pleasing.

The one performance that seems likely to garner most of the headlines and awards attention is that of Mo'Nique, whose display as Precious' vile mother is a remarkable, all-or-nothing piece of acting. As written, Mary Jones is a one-note character, and Mo'Nique plays her with all of the hatred and rage that she can muster, but she also manages to suggests the occasional hint of depth and shade in the role, in her rare quiet moments, and she just about manages to pull Mary back from tipping over into caricature. Throughout Precious, there's a tension between Daniel's crudely simplistic approach and the hard work of actors capable of taking their roles to a deeper, more truthful place. If there is any reason to watch Precious, it is for this cast and for the performances of Sidibe and Mo'Nique in particular. They grab you by the collar, pull you through the muck and misery, and help you make it to the other side, but for all their efforts, you still might end up wondering if this was a journey worth taking.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Review - OSS 117: Lost in Rio (OSS 117: Rio ne répond plus)

If you saw and enjoyed Michel Hazanavicius' OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, it's fair to say you'll probably get a kick out of its sequel. Lost in Rio is pretty much the same film in a different location, with Hazanavicius employing the same blend of genre spoofery, broad gags and light satire to achieve the same results. For the uninitiated, OSS 117 is the code name of Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, the suave spy who would like to think he's the French answer to James Bond, but whose sexism, racism, arrogance and general obliviousness take him closer to Austin Powers territory. He is perfectly played by Jean Dujardin, delivering a fine comic performance that is inarguably the series' major strength, and in this breezily entertaining second adventure, he's off to Brazil to track down a microfilm that contains the details of French WWII collaborators ("It must be a small list, no wonder it's on microfilm" the proudly patriotic spy exclaims).

Subsequently, the film develops as you'd expect. The plot gives Hubert plenty of opportunities to embarrass himself and others, notably during his initial investigation (he blithely strolls into the German embassy and asks to see a list of former Nazis hiding in Brazil), or his inappropriate attempt to infiltrate a Nazi fancy dress party. Along the way, he gets a taste of hippie counterculture, frequently offends his Jewish companions, and comes under attack from a seemingly never-ending supply of Chinese assassins. Hazanavicius' direction ensures the silly plot moves at a smooth pace, and there's much to enjoy in the period details, from the evocative production design, camerawork and score, to the more specific movie pastiches, with Hitchcock being referenced heavily during the climax. As a director, Hazanavicius' sense of comic timing could be sharper, though. The film's humour remains hit-and-miss, and he often lets a scene drift awkwardly before cutting away, undermining the big laughs he has developed within it. Still, let us be grateful that there are big laughs to be had, and Lost in Rio – with scenes like the crocodile barbecue or a painfully slow hospital chase – is occasionally inspired. A third OSS 117 film is already in development, and as long as the filmmakers can keep things tight and funny, and keep Dujardin in the lead role, there's no reason why this series can't run and run.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Review - I'm Gonna Explode (Voy a explotar)

Gerardo Naranjo's I'm Gonna Explode is so preoccupied with paying homage to its influences, it almost forgets to tell a story of its own. The film is a familiar tale of two lovers on the run, and it makes no secret of the debt that is owed to its many predecessors, with Godard's Pierrot le fou being the most obvious touchstone. The camerawork, editing and use of music employed by Naranjo is unmistakably reminiscent of Godard, and the director injects a lively momentum into his film's opening half hour. Gun-toting Román (Juan Pablo de Santiago) is the rebellious son of a politician who harbours murderous fantasies and has been expelled from school, while Maru (Maria Deschamps) is lonely outsider who is instantly attracted to him. The pair decide to hightail it together, but they don't get very far, setting up camp on the roof of Román's family home, and watching their worried families from above. At its best, Naranjo's script captures the amusing gulf between the posturing of these characters and their actual adolescent naïveté, and the pair's passionate mood swings give the movie an engagingly offbeat tone. The two central actors are fine, but not quite charismatic enough to compensate for the film's dead spots, and before too long, it becomes clear that I'm Gonna Explode doesn't have much of a story underneath its self-consciously trendy surface. Too much of the picture is spent waiting for something to happen, and when it finally does – with a tragic final twist – it has been too clumsily telegraphed for the events to have any significant impact.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

The Best Films of the Decade: 10 - 1

So here it is, the final countdown. This decade review project has been the culmination of months of re-watching films from the past ten years, and the ten listed below are the ten that have etched themselves most vividly in my mind and in my heart. Some of these films are here because of their technical expertise, some of them are here for their emotional impact, others are here because they have a sense of mystery about them that keeps me coming back for more, and some combine all of these factors. To simplify, they are all here because they are extraordinary works of cinematic art, and they are the work of hugely talented filmmakers who will hopefully manage to emulate or surpass these achievements in the decade that lies ahead.

See 20 – 11 here.

10 – Code Unknown (Michael Haneke, 2000)
Michael Haneke's Code Unknown is an intellectually challenging but hugely rewarding piece of filmmaking, which is one of the defining films of the decade for the way it captures how we communicate with each other, or how we don't, in multicultural Europe at the start of the 21st century. Consisting of a series of loosely connected vignettes – each filmed in a single take – it is a stunning feat of direction, with Haneke displaying a masterful command of composition, and imbuing so many sequences with the threat of violence, even though no violent acts are shown on screen. The film's ideas are presented in an oblique fashion, with the viewer being invited to piece together the fragments of narrative that Haneke presents, and while the stories are ambiguous and open-ended, they demand our attention thanks to the emotional immediacy the flawless cast bring to every moment. Many of the actors are unfamiliar, but they all convince in their roles, and Juliette Binoche, who has to carry a number of emotionally complex scenes, gives what may be her finest performance. In the years since it has been released, Code Unknown now appears even more impressive and it repays repeated viewings magnificently. Haneke's film is subtitled "Incomplete tales of several journeys", and that sense of randomness, that idea that we are only glimpsing a small part of these individual experiences, is what makes the film so absorbing, and so thrillingly alive.

9 – Amores perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000)
In each of his pictures to date, Alejandro González Iñárritu has displayed a cinematic sense that marks him out as a hugely talented film artist, but he has never recaptured the blend of kinetic energy, engrossing storytelling and deep humanism that was evident in his debut. Amores perros was our introduction to Guillermo Arriaga as well, the screenwriter who later recycled this multiple-narrative structure, but in a far more schematic and less involving fashion. Here, the three stories are imaginative and individually compelling. We are introduced to a young man (Gael García Bernal) who dreams of starting a new life with his brother's girlfriend; a beautiful model (Goya Toledo) whose life is shattered by a car crash; an elderly tramp (Emilio Echevarría) who works as an assassin. All of the characters are convincingly drawn, and superbly played by the exceptional cast, and they bring an emotional power to the film that underpins Iñárritu's bravura filmmaking technique. With aid of Rodrigo Prieto's pulsating camerawork, and the brilliant soundtrack, he brings an irresistible flair and urgency to his direction, and weaves together his various narrative strands with remarkable skill. It stands as the electrifying pinnacle of South American cinema's vibrant new wave.

8 – Irréversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002)
I can still remember how I felt when I staggered out into the daylight after watching Irréversible. I was emotionally spent, I had a throbbing headache, and I felt physically sick, but I was also charged with an extraordinary sense of elation at being so deeply affected by this audacious work of art. Gaspar Noé is a filmmaker who will use whatever tools are at his disposal to ensure his work impacts upon the viewer in a visceral way, and this film is a directorial tour de force, with Noé utilising extravagant camerawork and invisible editing techniques to create the illusion of a film shot in impossible single takes. The combination of his ceaselessly swirling visuals and the low, dissonant rumble the director incorporates into the soundtrack will at worst make you ill and at best fill you with a deep sense of unease – and that's before we even get to the film's violence. Irréversible's two scenes of brutality are genuinely horrifying; we first see Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) savagely beating a man's head to a pulp, and then we see the rape of Alex (Monica Bellucci), which the pair are out to avenge. Both scenes are hard to stomach, but the nine-minute rape – during which the camera never looks away – is one of the most difficult viewing experiences I have ever had. So why recommend this almost unwatchable film? Because beneath the shocking imagery and dazzling technique, it is a profound, moving and moral piece of work. The reverse chronology adds a heavy sense of sadness to the final scenes, as Marcus and Alex make plans for their life together, unaware of the events that are about to destroy them. This is a vicious, confrontational nightmare of a film made by a bold and brilliant talent. Once seen, it is never forgotten.

7 – Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
Not only is Todd Haynes Far From Heaven set in the 1950's, it feels like it has been made in the 1950's. The camerawork, the score, the production design and the style of performance all look like they have come straight from a Douglas Sirk picture – but look closer. While Haynes captures the surface details of that auteur's cinema, his vantage point as a 21st century filmmaker allows him to explore the themes of sexuality and prejudice with a greater frankness than directors of an earlier era were allowed. The result is arguably the most unlikely masterpiece of the decade, a film that satisfies Sirk fans and cinephiles while also offering an accessible experience for anyone coming to it fresh. The story presents us with the parents of a perfect family, Cathy (Julianne Moore) and Frank (Dennis Quaid), whose life looks like it has come straight from the pages of a magazine. Haynes gives us the flawless surface, and then spends the rest of the film stripping it away; Frank's secret homosexuality is exposed, and the only person Cathy can turn to is her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert), which sets tongues wagging in a local community that barely bothers to conceal its racism. Far From Heaven is beautifully written, and Haynes, with the invaluable assistance of Edward Lachman, crafts every shot immaculately, with some stunningly expressive lighting being particularly praiseworthy. The score provided by Elmer Bernstein mimics the style of the time while capturing the film's fluctuating emotions gloriously, and that's the tricky balancing act the whole film manages to pull off with such miraculous grace. Far From Heaven is a tribute to the films of Douglas Sirk but, unlike some films of this nature, it never feels like a cheap parody or pastiche; it has a life of its own, and it would be considered as one of the great films whether we're talking about 1956 or 2002.

6 – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
I have lamented elsewhere the pitiful demise of the romantic comedy in this decade, so thank God for Charlie Kaufman, who made a masterpiece of the genre by completely rewriting the rules. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind manages to fragment time and turn a traditional narrative inside-out, but it also has a clear and true emotional through-line that goes straight to the heart. The film begins with a high-concept idea – jilted lovers having the memory of their relationships erased – and it uses this device to explore the fabric of relationships, and the way we love another person for their flaws as well as their virtues. As Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) undergoes the procedure that will permanently remove Clementine (Kate Winslet) from his thoughts, he suddenly has a change of heart, when he realises you can't lose the bad memories without losing the good – it's all part of the same experience. The bulk of the film takes place inside Joel's head, with him and Clementine desperately trying to cling on to each other as previous experiences are deleted around them, and this is where Michel Gondry works his magic, finding brilliantly inventive ways to bring Joel's mental anguish to the screen, and keeping the action moving forward at a breakneck pace. But this film ultimately belongs to Kaufman, who finds the same balance between madcap surrealism and honest emotion that distinguished Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, and simply takes everything to another level. The story of Joel and Clementine is superbly intertwined with those of the expertly acted supporting characters (Kirsten Dunst has never been better), and the film builds to one of the most perfect endings I've ever seen to a romantic movie. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a true original; magical and unforgettable.

5 – Lilja 4-ever (Lukas Moodysson, 2002)
The first two films he directed established Lukas Moodysson as a filmmaker with a strong streak of optimism and compassion. His third film, Lilja 4-ever, retained that sense compassion, but all of the optimism has been thoroughly drained away in this bleak but magnificent film. Lilja 4-ever is a shot of pure, heart-wrenching emotion. From the opening minutes, when a bruised and battered Lilja (Oksana Akinshina) runs through the streets to a cacophony of heavy-metal music, we start to care about this girl's terrible fate. "Mein Herz Brennt" roars the soundtrack, and Lilja 4-ever is a film that will indeed make your heart burn. The central character is an ordinary teenager from Russia who is abandoned by her mother and left to a life that eventually slides into degradation. Her only companion is Volodya (Artyom Bogucharsky), a young boy who is also an outcast, and their friendship is enough for both of them to get through the misery, until Lilja is offered a chance of a new life in Sweden. We can see what is coming, even if she can't, and by this point in the film we are so emotionally involved with this character, we are practically pleading with her to not go, but what choice does she really have? Moodysson's film deals with the issue of sex trafficking, but it is not an "issue movie". He makes us care about the subject by making us care about Lilja, and we are with her on every step of her journey. This is in part thanks to the astonishing acting offered by the two young leads, but it is also due to Moodysson's impassioned and vigorous direction, and the brilliant decision to bring a spiritual element into play late on, which leads us into the heartbreaking and transcendent climax.

4 – There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
An immense piece of cinema soaked in blood and oil, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is a one-of-a-kind epic. Anderson disregards any standard narrative structure, opening the film with a twenty-minute sequence containing no dialogue, and subsequently playing the film at exactly the pace that it needs to be played at. As in the director's earlier Punch-Drunk Love, he keeps us constantly on edge, the film's odd rhythms and the discordant tones of Jonny Greenwood's sensational score imbuing the film with a constant sense of tension, and ensuring we never quite know what direction it's going to explode into next. A staggering performance from Daniel Day-Lewis holds the film's emotional centre steady, and creates in Daniel Plainview a character both larger than life and richly, fascinatingly human. One of the most surprising things about There Will Be Blood is the way in which its scope is simultaneously epic and intimate. You can read it as a symbolic tale designed to suggest the times we live in (the film is driven by oil, capitalism, religion and greed), or you can see it as a character study, and a simple battle between two very different men; the monstrous, misanthropic prospector (Day-Lewis) and the weedy, self-righteous and petty preacher (Paul Dano). It succeeds on every level because Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most naturally gifted filmmakers currently working in cinema. He understands the need for quiet moments to set alongside the attention-grabbing set-pieces, he composes and cuts with breathtaking depth and intuition, and he has the talent required to pull off his most ballsy decisions. This is the man who rained down frogs on Magnolia, and his climax to There Will Be Blood is every bit as adventurous, but in his hands it feels like the only natural conclusion; the final explosion of violence and madness that has been threatening to erupt for the last two hours. For the film to end, Daniel needs to achieve his goal of being alone, of cutting his ties with every ally and competitor; only then can he, and Anderson, finally say "I'm finished".

3 – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
It is a sad fact of life that on the rare occasions when a major American studio produces a distinctive work of art, they are generally rewarded with mixed reviews, public apathy and a pitiful box office return. Such a fate befell Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a film that languished on the Warner Brothers shelves for almost two years while they haggled over the editing and tried to figure out what the hell to do with the strange beast they had on their hands. Eventually, it was dumped into cinemas, barely making back half of its production costs, but thoughts of such failure will gradually be forgotten over the years, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford already looks like a masterpiece for the ages. I was captivated by the film from its opening moments, with Roger Deakins' stunning photography and the wistful narration immediately announcing this as a special piece of storytelling. Andrew Dominik initially presents us with the legend of Jesse James (Brad Pitt), as we view him through the awestruck eyes of young Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), but as Ford's relationship with his hero alters, sliding into disillusionment and resentment, the film gradually deconstructs the myths of the era. The view of the old west that the film gives us is one that feels authentic and evocative while resonating with today's culture, and the classical story it tells, of a love that turns to hatred, is played out in a gripping fashion. Dominik makes so many unusual choices in terms of his editing, his visual style, and the mood of the whole piece, but all of these choices pay off. Everything in The Assassination of Jesse James just feels right, from the best cinematography Roger Deakins has ever produced, to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' lyrical, mournful score, and the stunning ensemble work. It may not have been a hit, but sometimes that's the price you have to pay for making a masterpiece, and the legend of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is surely destined to grow in stature as time marches inexorably forward.

2 – Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
From the remains of TV pilot, dumped by a confused ABC, David Lynch created a hypnopompic masterwork that intrigues and confounds in equal measure. The film is set in Hollywood, but it is as much the Hollywood of our dreams and our nightmares as it is the real thing. This is where an aspiring actress named Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives with her eyes on screen stardom, but she becomes drawn into a mystery when she meets the amnesiac Rita (Laura Harring), who has stumbled into her life with a bag full of money and vague memories of a car crash. The mystery is never satisfactorily resolved, with Lynch throwing in a number of red herrings along the way (what does that scary creature behind the diner have to do with anything?), and we are left to wonder if some of these storylines would have been fleshed out and clarified in the completed series? Perhaps, but given that this is David Lynch we're talking about, I suspect they would have only led to even deeper and more perplexing puzzles. Whether or not we understand Mulholland Drive on a storytelling level is ultimately unimportant. It is a film driven by dream logic rather than narrative logic, a film we feel rather than comprehend, and it works because Lynch taps directly into our emotions and plays them like a master. On some level, Lynch is dealing with the disappointment of dreams, the pain of betrayal, and the agony of unrequited love; themes that every audience member can understand and empathise with, whether the film makes sense to them or not. Even as the movie turns itself inside-out and characters begin switching identities, we remain compelled by Mulholland Drive, and I think the film retains this endless fascination because it somehow suggests that the key to the mystery is in there somewhere, sitting just out of reach. We re-watch the film repeatedly, being moved and surprised by it in new and different ways, and every time we wonder if this will be the occasion when we finally unlock the dark heart of Mulholland Drive, but David Lynch's masterpiece continues to have the final word. Silencio.

1 – The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)
The New World is not a film that I simply watch. It is a film that I can completely immerse myself in and come out on the other side feeling as if I have been transported to another time and place. In the story of John Smith's encounter with Pocahontas, Terrence Malick found the material for his greatest masterpiece, the ultimate depiction of his fascination in man's relationship with the natural world, and our inability to see the beauty that is all around us. The New World is partly about seeing, and it expresses a sense of discovery, of witnessing something strange and new for the first time, better than any film I can think of. Consider the first encounter between the colonists and the natives, who share a cautious curiosity with each other's odd clothing and rituals, or the later scenes, when Pocahontas and a group of fellow natives come to England. In a gorgeous and haunting scene, one member of her party wanders through an ornamental garden, staring with puzzlement at this alien land with its carefully sculpted trees. There is a moment halfway through the film, when Smith returns to the English camp, having spent a considerable amount of time with the natives, learning their ways and losing his heart to Pocahontas. He finds sickness, starvation, filth and madness there, and the shock is so jarring – like a cut from Heaven to Hell – that we realise we have been drawn as deeply into the Native American world as he has.

The New World has that ability to cast a spell over the viewer, causing you to forget all other distractions as you are lulled by its visual and aural splendour, and its strange rhythms. Some critics scoff at Malick's propensity for cutaways to disconnected shots of trees or water, but this is simply a core part of the director's cinematic language, along with his luminous cinematography (achieved with natural light only), ruminative voiceover, and boldly unconventional editing patterns. He places equal emphasis on telling us a story and on letting us experience the world in which the story is taking place. The strong performances from Colin Farrell and the amazing Q'orianka Kilcher as Smith and Pocahontas ensure the film has a strong emotional centre, but it's Malick's filmmaking that really moves me. The film's beauty is staggering, and the sublime way in which Malick assembles his picture reaches its zenith in the breathtaking closing sequences of death and rebirth; the camerawork, music and editing being combined to produce an overwhelming emotional force. More than any other film on this list, more than any other film made in this decade, The New World is pure cinema.