Saturday, February 27, 2010

Review - Legion

A small diner in the middle of nowhere is the setting for all manner of apocalyptic silliness in Legion, a baffling action film with biblical pretensions that ultimately works best as an unintentional comedy. It seems that God has lost faith in humanity – in the words of one character, "He's sick of all the bullshit" – and he has concocted a plan to end it all. There is hope, however, in the form of Michael (Paul Bettany), a rogue angel who has defied God and come to earth determined to protect the unborn child on whose destiny our fate rests. Essentially, Legion is little more than a zombie movie that leans on its theological references in order to appear as something deeper. God's plan, such as it is, involves sending an army of angels to earth, where they inhabit human bodies and shuffle towards the diner, only to be picked off by the inhabitants' defensive gunfire. That's Legion in a nutshell, although sometimes the angels will surprise everyone by livening up their act; like the weirdly elongated Ice Cream Man (a Doug Jones cameo), or the sweet little old lady who takes a bite out of somebody's neck before scampering across the ceiling.

That scene drew big laughs from the preview audience, and laughter is often the only type of satisfaction Legion offers. The film is so preposterous, so clumsily written, and so lacking in internal logic, that your best bet is to try and have as much fun with the ridiculous action (Charles S. Dutton throwing a frying pan at an old woman's head) or risible dialogue ("You want me to explain the nature of a motherfucking pestilence?") as possible. In fact, the film might almost be worth recommending for its enjoyably trashy nature were it not for an extraordinarily dull middle section that kills the film dead. With all of the characters trapped inside the diner, Director Scott Stewart takes this opportunity to dole out exposition (and not before time: for the first twenty minutes I didn't have a clue what was going on) and to indulge in plenty of soul-searching, but the writing and characterisation is too poor for this to be anything more than a tough, slow slog.

Stewart is making his directorial debut with Legion. With his background in visual effects (he worked on Bong Joon-ho's brilliant The Host, among others), that aspect of the film is effective enough, but the director displays no imagination in his staging of the action and little confidence in his work with the actors, many of whom seems to be coming at the material from different angles. Bettany glowers through his one-dimensional role as the taciturn hero, while Dennis Quaid overplays his turn as the diner's owner, and Lucas Black is simply terrible – seriously, the guy can't even smile without making it look like he's having to think really hard about how to do it first. Every character is a cliché (a young black guy who carries a gun and is on his way to a custody hearing? Oh dear), and you can pretty much guess the order in which they'll meet their grisly end. Eventually, the angel Gabriel (Kevin Durand) turns up to carry out the Lord's orders himself, but given the fact that carries an enormous spiked mace and has razor-sharp wings that can deflect bullets, one wonders why he simply didn't come down and take care of business in the first place. He could have saved us all a lot of wasted time.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Oscar Predictions 2010

The Academy Awards are looming and I was recently invited to take part in an Oscar sweepstake organised by, where I can test my predictive abilities against various other film writers. I'll be giving my full take on this year's ceremony next week, but for now, here is where I think those small golden men will be going on March 7th.

Best Film Avatar

Best Director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker)

Best Actor Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart)

Best Actress Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side)

Best Suporting Actor Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds)

Best Supporting Actress Mo’Nique (Precious)

Best Foreign Language Film The White Ribbon

Best Animated Feature Up

Best Original Screenplay Inglourious Basterds

Best Adapted Screenplay Up in the Air

Best Visual Effects Avatar

Best Original Score Up

Best Cinematography Inglourious Basterds

Best Film Editing The Hurt Locker

Best Original Song The Weary Kind (Crazy Heart)

Best Documentary Feature The Cove

Best Art Direction Avatar

Best Costume Design The Young Victoria

Best Makeup Star Trek

Best Sound Editing The Hurt Locker

Best Sound Mixing Avatar

Best Documentary Short China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province

Best Live Action Short Miracle Fish

Best Animated Short French Roast

You can see how everyone else is voting here. There's a prize of £250 worth of Amazon vouchers to the critic whose predictions are most accurate, so here's hoping the above selection mirrors what happens on Oscar night.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"There is a restaurant across the road that serves meat, but I am only serving fish" - An interview with Jean-Pierre Jeunet

It's impossible to mistake the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet with that of any other filmmaker. With the exception of his ill-advised Hollywood sequel Alien: Resurrection, Jeunet has created a vivid and unique world in each of his features to date, and he has forged a reputation as a director capable of appealing to mainstream audiences while retaining the mark of an auteur. Before Alien, Jeunet made the dark and surreal Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children with Marc Caro, and then his collaboration with star Audrey Tatou and writer Guillaume Laurant led to a pair of brighter, more romantic films: the smash-hit Amélie and A Very Long Engagement. His latest film Micmacs has everything a Jeunet fan could ask for in one of his pictures, and it is yet another hugely entertaining adventure. Jeunet was in London last week to promote the film, and I had the opportunity to interview him just before he left for Scotland, where Micmacs was opening the Glasgow Film Festival.

After having such a productive relationship with Marc Caro you have now developed a strong relationship with Guillaume Laurent on your last three features. Why is it important for you to have a co-writer, and how do you work together on a screenplay?

You have to find the right partner, it's very important. It's just like finding the right lover in life, and when you have found that person you don't want to get divorced, you must keep him or her. It is important because it is like ping-pong. Guillaume is the perfect partner for me, and when I find an idea we immediately [makes rapid ping-pong motion] bop-bop-bop-bop-bop, so in the end I couldn't say whether it was my idea or his idea. But I need to find the concept first, because it is my film and I'm going to spend three years with the film. The concept for this one was a mix between three different ideas: the feeling to speak about weapons sellers, the feeling to have a band of silly people like the seven dwarves in Snow White or the toys of Toy Story, and the third one was to have a story of revenge, because I am a big fan of Once Upon a Time in the West. I said to Guillaume, "OK, we have the concept", but because I love the concept of Pixar or Disney movies to have one idea per shot, we opened our box of notes, because we note everything we hear in life. We have files of notes, of gags, of small bits of dialogue and all this stuff, and we think, "Oh, the story of the sugar in the coffee is perfect for this scene", you know, and when the box is packed with ideas we start to write. This is the best way to have a ton of details in the film. When we write, he writes the dialogue scenes and I write the visual scenes, and by email we change and rewrite our scenes.

Did you have the opportunity to research the weapons industry before filmmaking?

Just by luck I knew an ex-Minister of Defence in Belgium, and they were very open. They opened the door, we could take some pictures, and they explained everything. It was pretty weird because they showed us things like an arrow that goes through a tank, and it doesn't explode, it just gets the temperature so high that everyone burns inside the tank. We met so many interesting people, they had a passion for technology, in fact they completely forget the destiny of the technology, and when you say it's to kill people they say, "Yes, but we are on the right side. We work for the Minister of Defence not the Minister of Attack." They protect themselves like this.

Once again, you have come back to this theme of an orphan taking on a monster.

It's the story of all my films. Even Life of Pi, which I didn't do for the question of money, it's a story of an orphan and a monster; it was a tiger, this time it's a weapon seller, another time it's a butcher in Delicatessen or a slimy monster in Alien. I don't know why, it's not on purpose. Every time I write the story I think, "Oh shit! It's one more time the same story!" I hope one day to change, but maybe then it will just be shit. [laughs]

The central character of Bazil was originally written for Jamel Debbouze. When he was replaced by Dany Boon, did your perception of the character change?

No, not a lot, except that Jamel Debbouze has a handicap, because he had an accident with a train when he was a kid, and I changed the beginning of the film because Jamel was supposed to have the accident with the mine. They are very different in terms of physical aspect – Jamel is like a shrimp and Dany is like a bear – but in their minds they are very similar. They come from the street, and they have imagination. Dany is a writer, an actor, a performer and a director. I am very jealous, because he had 21 million admissions for his film Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis, can you believe it? Amélie was a huge success and it was 8½ million. Yes it was a good film, OK, but 21 million? Nobody can understand it. In the whole world Amélie is still a bigger success, but in France [shrugs] what can I do?

Did you immediately think of Dany for the role when Jamel pulled out?

Yes, because I am professional, and I could imagine Jamel could have an accident or refuse the film, so then Dany Boon was already in my mind. I discovered Dany Boon around 15 or 17 years ago doing his one-man show. He was playing a depressed guy and going [holds up thumbs and smiles] "I feel good, everything is good", and he was so funny. It's not funny when I do it, but he was funny. [laughs]

You are working with Dominique Pinon yet again.

I can't make a film without Dominique. It's not a question of superstition, it's just that he surprises me every time, and he has a beautiful face, for me it's beautiful, like an African statue. Marc Caro used to say to me, you have African statues and Greek statues, and we prefer African statues. It has become a kind of game between us; this time I threw him in the Seine and he even had to have injections for protection against the rats' pee. Also, you can't see it in the film, but under the water we had two divers to pull him to the bottom so he popped up like a bubble. He loves that, he pretends to be shocked but he loves it. Maybe the toughest part was the cannon, because he stayed for a long time inside the cannon, and sometimes we told him, "OK, we are going to eat, see you later!" [laughs]

Most of your regular crew are involved in Micmacs too, and even though you are working with a new cinematographer, Tetsuo Nagata, the visual style is very familiar from your other films. How do you work with your DP to achieve this look?

First, you choose a DP because you know he will be able to do that. I love Bruno Delbonnel, but Bruno was busy with Harry Potter, and I gave him my green light because it was very important for his career. Tetsuo Nagata is different, he's very stubborn, very Japanese, but the result is almost the same. I practiced before because we made together a commercial for Chanel N°5 – after Alien 4, Chanel 5 [laughs] – and it was a very personal film, I'm very proud of Chanel 5. We lost four months because Dany Boon was unavailable, and the same day Chanel called to ask me if I was available, so I said "Yes, for four months I am available", and the day after we were in New York. I wrote the story in ten minutes on the airplane and I had complete freedom on a short film with a huge budget, it was crazy. Look at the long version on the internet, it's two and a half minutes but it is like a feature.

How do you position Micmacs in your body of work, compared with your darker earlier films with Caro or the much lighter tone of Amélie?

I would say it's a mixture of everything I've made, a kind of conclusion, and now I need to make something different. I had some reproaches in France – "You always do the same thing" – and it's true, but I was supposed to make Life of Pi, and that would have been very different with the sea, the tiger, and the kid. For money reasons it didn't happen, but I felt I had to shoot something, so I opened my box and just put everything I love in this film. If you like my films it's OK, but if you don't then don't go to see this film. There is a restaurant across the road that serves meat, but I am only serving fish [laughs]. I thought about young...I don't want to say kids...but young people for this film, because it is a slapstick, a cartoon. Ideally, I would like to have the audience for Pixar movies – it won't be the same thing, I know – but I think it could be the same audience.

I loved Tiny Pete's animated figures. How did you create them?

In fact we didn't invent that for the film, because I knew a guy I discovered in an exhibition in Paris and he is an amazing artist. I called him and he lent us the four sculptures, and they are completely integrated in the set so nobody could imagine we didn't build that, but it was existing before.

I also enjoyed the Delicatessen reference...

Yeah, and I wanted to do Amélie, it would have been the funniest. I wanted to see Amélie with kids, babies crying "Waah!", and Mathieu Kassovitz sitting with a beer in front of the TV [laughs]. Of course, Audrey said no because she was shooting Coco Before Chanel, so I made it Delicatessen at the last moment.

And there are a number of billboards advertising MicMacs within the film. What was the significance of those?

It doesn't make sense [laughs]. You know, there was no limit for this film, because I just wanted to shoot it and I don't care. It's funny for me and it will be funny for some people. There are five posters, and if you don't see them all you have to buy the DVD to find out [laughs].

You've mentioned Life of Pi a number of times in this interview. Is that project completely dead, or is there still any possibility of making it?

I know they are supposed to make the film with Ang Lee, but I know they don't have the solutions. You have the three worst elements: a tiger, a kid, and the sea. It would be completely impossible, so we have to do everything with visual effects. In the end they asked me to produce it myself, so we made some research and we were less expensive, 59 million instead of 85 million, but in Hollywood they want to cut the budget, they want a cheaper budget, and I don't think it's enough. I don't know, I would like to make the film, but I really don't know. I think this is the kind of project we will speak about in ten years, and one day there will be the technology to make a fake tiger and you won't see the difference. In Narnia, you see a fake lion and it looks fake, but you don't care because it's a fantasy movie. In Life of Pi you have to believe in the tiger. We might have the technology but it is very expensive.

You already use some visual effects in your work, but your films still have a very real, handmade quality. Is it important to maintain that balance?

I need both. In Micmacs you don't see it, but there are 350 shots with visual effects. Sometimes it's just to erase something, and sometimes it's more difficult. In this film it's not the fake balloon like in A Very Long Engagement, it's not very difficult things, but there are lots of visual effects. It's a tool, and I use every tool, I love to play with everything. Orson Welles said a film was like an electric train, and for me it's a Meccano. I want to use everything in the box: the costumes, the casting, the dialogue, the music, everything. I don't want to leave anything in the bottom of the box.

After your experience with Alien: Resurrection, would you be willing to work in America again?

Why not? The freedom is the most important thing, because in France I have complete freedom, and by law you have final cut in France. For Alien it was different, it was the toughest day of my life every day, and one day I even drove past the gate of the studio in my car, because every day was a fight. In the end I am proud of the film, and I stayed friends with 20th Century Fox, they were helping me make Life of Pi, but I prefer the freedom. I would like to find a compromise because I would like to shoot with American actors. When I hear my American agent say, "There is an American actor, he lives in New York, and he would like to meet you. His name is Al Pacino." I say, "Oh, why not!" [laughs]. Michelle Pfeiffer, Forest Whitaker, Nicole Kidman, so many actors say they want to meet me, but only with the freedom. Maybe I could make a French production with an American actor, like Taken from Luc Besson, I am thinking about that, but it depends on what subject I can find. But I would like to change, I would like to change the spirit, I would like to change the way I shoot. I wanted to shoot with a handheld camera very fast, but my DP and a lot of people told me no, it was too jittery, and when I saw Slumdog Millionaire I was very pissed off, because I would have liked to do that. I like 3D also, because Micmacs could be in 3D, so why not? I need to change.

Review - Micmacs (Micmacs à tire-larigot)

In his new film Micmacs, Jean-Pierre Jeunet fills every frame with the product of his seemingly bottomless imagination. Visual gags both big and small are squeezed into the director's artfully constructed mise-en-scène, making this the kind of film you'll have to see twice in order to catch them all, but that's no hardship with a picture as entertaining as this. Micmacs is a comedy with black roots, beginning as it does with the story of a man whose life was destroyed by the arms trade on two separate occasions. When he was a child, Bazil's father was killed in action as he tried to defuse a landmine, and thirty years on, the unfortunate Bazil (now played by Dany Boon) finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and catches a stray bullet between the eyes. The projectile lodges itself in his brain, and after doctors decide that removing it is too risky (they make the decision on a coin-toss), Bazil is discharged; homeless, jobless and with a bullet in his brain that could kill him at any time.

Despite the potentially dark nature of this premise, Jeunet turns Micmacs into a breakneck farce, with the revenge plan cooked up by Bazil and his eccentric comrades being woven around a series of inventive and often hilarious set-pieces. Bazil wants to take down the two arms companies who were responsible for manufacturing the mine and bullet that cast such a shadow over his life, and to do this he entails the unique abilities of a group of outcasts. The place this collection of misfits call home offers us the first opportunity to enjoy the fastidiously constructed production design, and every shot in this film is gorgeously crafted, with the same lavish care and attention to detail that is always in evidence in Jeunet's work. His usual production team is on board once again here, and a new collaborator, cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata, films the action beautifully. This is a superbly crafted package into which Jeunet seems to have thrown every idea he and co-writer Guillaume Laurant could concoct between them.

There are times, however, when the film feels as if it has more ideas than plot. The narrative is a series of imaginative standalone sequences that strung together at a breathless pace, which Jeunet orchestrates with his typically idiosyncratic, Rube Goldberg-like direction. The story itself is extremely slight, though, and the jaunty tone contrasts sharply with the more serious thrust of the film, undermining the impact that the director wants his climax to have. The ending is perhaps an adventurous stretch too far for Micmacs; it is as cleverly staged as you would expect from Jeunet, but it feels rather forced and unconvincing, putting me in mind of the similarly underwhelming wish-fulfilment finale in Ken Loach's recent Looking for Eric.

Fortunately, such misjudgements are rare in Micmacs, and the film is buoyed along through its occasional thin patches by the excellent cast Jeunet has assembled. Giving a fine, Chaplin-inspired display as Bazil, Dany Boon is amusingly deadpan (if sometimes a little too deadpan), and every member of the rogues' gallery surrounding him has a vital role to play in Jeunet's clockwork plotting scheme. Among the finest performers are Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon as a manic daredevil, Omar Sy as a man who speaks only in proverbs, Michel Crémadès as a deceptively small strongman and inventor, and – best of all
Julie Ferrier as the remarkably flexible contortionist who harbours a crush on Bazil. They're an endearing, entertaining bunch, and it's a pleasure to watch the whole ensemble (including André Dussollier and Nicolas Marié as the arms manufacturers) working on such fine form. You could argue that Micmacs is nothing new from Jeunet, that it's simply a compendium of his favourite tics, gags and references, and that it takes us nowhere the director hasn't taken us before. That may well be true, but is it really worth complaining when the film is so much fun?

Read my interview with Jean-Pierre Jeunet here.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Review - Crazy Heart

Basing a whole movie around a single performance is an approach that offers both rewards and pitfalls. On the one hand, first-time filmmaker Scott Cooper has drawn a truly great performance out of the ever-wonderful Jeff Bridges, whose display in Crazy Heart is as rich and deep a piece of acting as you're likely to see this year. On the other hand, the superlative lead performance shows up the rest of the movie for what it is: underwritten, hackneyed and sentimental. Bridges' acting is the film's sole source of energy and resonance, and it ultimately becomes the film's raison d'être. This is a big performance being put to the service of a very small movie.

Not much happens in Crazy Heart, but that's not necessarily a criticism. In fact, the film's problems tend to occur when Cooper tries to inject a plot into a film that's doing just fine without one. The opening hour simply allows us to watch country singer "Bad" Blake as he drunkenly stumbles his way from one low-rent gig to another, rousing himself from an alcoholic stupor just long enough to perform in another grubby bar or bowling alley. The atmosphere in these sequences is lively and authentic, and Cooper's roving camera captures both the spark of Bridges' musical performances and the enjoyment of his small but fervent crowd – even if Blake occasionally has to rush off stage mid-song to throw up in a back alley. Although he prides himself on never missing a gig ("I've played sick, drunk, divorced and on the run"), Blake is a mess, and the film allows him to reach rock-bottom before giving him his shot at redemption.

Crazy Heart is at its best when Cooper allows the star to drive the film at his own pace. Other actors come into Bridges' orbit occasionally, but none of them feel as real as the lead, whose characterisation displays the charisma and uncanny decision-making that has defined his career. Every physical aspect of his performance – the voice, the walk, the gestures – feels like it has come from within Bad Blake, as a natural expression of the character. It's a completely lived-in and utterly engaging turn, and perhaps the only problem with it is the fact that none of the supporting actors can come close to matching up. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall do fine work in their small roles – Duvall, in particular, is a treat – but they drift in and out of the film without really making an impact. The nature of the resentment that lies between Blake and Farrell's Tommy Sweet, a onetime protégé who's now a huge star, is ill-defined, and Gyllenhaal's Jean is nothing more than a thin foil. It's hard to understand why she hooks up with Blake and allows this drunk into her life, and her son's life, so easily, and she seems to exist solely as a catalyst for Blake's reawakening.

The clichéd and lazy manner in which Cooper enacts that reawakening is disappointing beyond belief. There's a heavily signposted missing-kid drama that's completely lacking in tension, and when Blake decides he wants to clean up his act, it seems to take nothing more than one Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and a few cups of coffee. There's a great scene early in the film, when Blake returns to Jean's house having spent the day with her son, and as soon as he has offloaded the boy he races into another room to swig from his hip flask; the desperate need of the alcoholic displayed in a stark manner. Once he has been through rehab, however, he seems to take to sobriety without any semblance of struggle – what gives? Bridges portrayal of Bad Blake is too honest and deeply felt to be short-changed by such cheap plot elements. The whole second half of the movie follows its formulaic template so steadfastly it suffocates the air of spontaneity and realism that made the film's opening hour so watchable, and it continues to make predictable choices right down to the trite closing scene, with Cooper having discarded a seemingly perfect final shot just moments earlier. Crazy Heart will win Jeff Bridges an Oscar – and who could begrudge such an honour for this great actor? – but it is a performance that deserves to be part of a better movie.

The Running Man: Update

So, another milestone has been completed on my Marathon adventure, and the 26 miles I have to run in April doesn't seem quite as intimidating as it originally did (OK, maybe it does). Today I completed a half-marathon in Brighton, running 13 miles in around two and a half hours (we'll get our official times later in the week), and doing it in weather conditions that were utterly horrendous. The wind and rain did not let up from first minute to last, and running along the Brighton seafront is probably the last thing you'd want to do on such a day. Still, I did it, and I'm now sitting here with a sense of accomplishment that's helping to ease the various aching parts of my body.

There's still a long way to go, and I'd really appreciate it if you could lend your support by donating some money to a very good cause here.

Many thanks.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Preview - The Birds Eye View Film Festival 2010

After compiling my best of the year list for 2009, I was struck by an unusual occurrence. Out of the twenty films that I selected as the year's finest, five and a half of them (taking into consideration Sugar's co-director) had been made by women, meaning over a quarter of the year's best pictures were the product of female directorial vision. In a traditionally patriarchal industry, where female filmmakers are a distinct minority, this is no small feat, and with Kathryn Bigelow looking set to collect a well-deserved Oscar next month, it seems that female directors are finally pushing out of cinema's ghetto and into the mainstream. All of which means the Birds Eye View Film Festival feels more relevant than ever. This annual event, which celebrates female filmmakers from every corner of the globe, is now in its sixth year, and every passing year seems to bring a more eclectic and exciting programme.

I have already seen a couple of the features that are appearing in this year's festival, and while I was disappointed in Wanuri Kahiu's well-meaning drama From A Whisper, I was stunned by Jessica Hausner's bold and haunting Lourdes, and moved by Cherien Dabis' witty immigrant drama Amreeka. During the course of the festival, I am particularly looking forward to Map of the Sounds of Tokyo, the new film by Isabel Coixet, and Mia Hansen-Løve's The Father of My Children, while Drew Barrymore makes her directorial debut with Whip It, the festival's closing night film. These are just a few of the festival's intriguing offerings, although I'm certain I'll end up stumbling across an unexpected gem in one of the less high-profile features – maybe the Romanian Mall Girls, or Columbia's Entre Nos, will fit that bill.

But highlighting new features is only half of what the Birds Eye View Film Festival has to offer. Short films get their chance to shine in four separate programmes, and there are special strands dedicated to fashion and music, as well as a series of training courses. In partnership with the British Film Institute, the festival is staging a superb season called Blonde Crazy, celebrating the sexy, comical and violent history of fair-haired femmes on screen. The season runs the gamut from Jean Harlow to Sharon Stone via Marilyn Monroe, and a few of my personal favourites are included (including Ernst Lubitsch's glorious To Be Or Not To Be), as well as silent screenings of The Patsy, The Adventures of Prince Ahmed and Chicago, all of which feature specially-commissioned live scores. Perhaps the festival's biggest coup, however, is the appearance of Susanne Bier, one of European cinema's foremost filmmakers regardless of gender. Her work will be celebrated in a retrospective, and the director herself will be discussing her career in what is bound to be a fascinating masterclass.

The Birds Eye View Film Festival runs from March 4th – 12th at the ICA and the NFT.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Review - The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza)

Every life hits the occasional bump in the road, but for Verónica (María Onetto), the central character in Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman, one such incident throws her whole life out of sync. She is the only driver on a dusty road when she is distracted by her mobile phone ringing and her car suddenly hits something. The camera doesn't move from its position in the passenger side of the car as Verónica screeches to a halt. What did she hit? A dog? One of the children we saw playing in the prologue? She could go back and find out, but instead she drives on, leaving behind a question mark that hangs over every frame of what follows.

The Headless Woman is a disquieting portrait of psychological dislocation, with Verónica, either through shock or simply denial, moving on with her bourgeois life in a kind of daze. She briefly checks herself into a hospital before abruptly leaving, and when she interacts with friends and family she seems unsure of her relationship with them. Verónica dyes her hair – as if trying to cut her ties with the guilty woman – but the suspicion that she may in fact have killed a child continues to loom in the background, even though her well-connected husband insists that any evidence of such a crime would be easily dealt with.

The Headless Woman itself is not quite so easy to deal with. It is a wilfully oblique puzzle of a film, requiring a great deal of effort from its viewers without promising satisfaction, and it is certainly the least accessible of Martel's three films to date. It is also a formidably skilful piece of filmmaking, however, with Martel displaying an outstanding command of her craft, and it is a film that grows increasingly compelling as we are drawn into Verónica's point-of-view. What makes the film so challenging and disorienting for the viewer is Martel's refusal to offer us the slightest helping hand. We are given very few clues as to who this woman was before the incident, and therefore we are in the dark as she slowly re-enters her life. We know that she has a comfortable existence – a dentist, she lives with her husband in a large house with servants – but we are also offered clues that suggest darker wrinkles to her story. For instance, shortly after the accident, Verónica checks into a hotel, where she ends up having a tryst with a man who is not her husband. Later, she visits a cousin and is confronted by the cousin's daughter, who grabs her in a lustful manner and insists that, "Love letters are to be read or returned." The teenager is played by the fine Argentine actress Inés Efron, whose brief scene here is inflamed by the transfixing hint of danger that's constantly lurking in her eyes.

Holding on to the remarkable performance delivered by María Onetto is perhaps the only way we can get through The Headless Woman without completely losing our bearings. She gives the film an emotional anchor that proves to be crucial, and her subtle, often inscrutable portrayal of Verónica is a stunning display of acting. In an extraordinarily difficult role, she moves slowly and deliberately, wearing a deceptively calm smile, and yet always making us aware of the guilt, confusion and fear that is pulsating beneath the surface. She is the perfect foil for Martel, as she holds the centre steady while the director shifts the focus around her. Martel uses her cinematic sense to express Verónica's disconnection, utilising off-kilter framing, sharp and unusual editing patterns, and some superb sound design. The film continually keeps the viewer on edge and off-balance.

It is a remarkably effective approach, and although the film contains little in the way of action, it develops into something surprisingly riveting. This is a film that demands the audience's complete attention, and it is exciting precisely because so few films really ask us to watch them so intently, in the hope of finding some clue buried in the film's peripheral vision. Of course, there's no guarantee you'll find anything at all there, and The Headless Woman often risks being too impenetrable for its own good, but while the film's mysterious and unresolved nature will inspire nothing but frustration for many, I found it uncommonly mesmerising.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Review - Ponyo (Gake no ue no Ponyo)

Ponyo may not exist on the same level of complexity as Hayao Miyazaki's most acclaimed films, such as Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away, but the more simple charms of this animated fable are still beguiling. The story is aimed directly at a younger audience, and by the climax it begins to betray a certain thinness, but the film is so imaginative and so beautifully made, it seems churlish to dwell on its flaws. Indeed, it's almost impossible to avoid being swept along by the graceful storytelling and gorgeous visuals, and to be captivated by this tale of a magical goldfish. That fish is called Brunhilde, and she's an odd little creature. The product of a relationship between a human who has turned his back on mankind to live under the sea and a mysterious sea goddess, she is a small fish with recognisable human features and a mop of red hair. Insatiably curious, she peers upwards, desperate to find out what goes on above the waves, and when her father is distracted she makes a break for the surface, landing herself in trouble almost immediately.

That trouble involves Brunhilde getting trapped in a glass bottle which has been carelessly tossed into the sea, marking Ponyo as another Miyazaki film in which environmental concerns are paramount. Brunhilde's father Fujimoto hates humankind's thoughtless pollution of the waves, but Brunhilde's first encounter with the race – when she is rescued by a boy named Susoke, who gives her the name Ponyo – is far more amenable; so much so, that she decides she wants to become human. Although I described Ponyo as a simple tale, I have to confess I didn't quite grasp why exactly Ponyo's desire to leave the life of a fish behind and become a little girl was so critical to throwing the balance of the world out of sync. All I know is, things go haywire when Ponyo does develop hands, feet and a taste for ham, with the ocean suddenly rising up to swamp the land surrounding it, and this is great news for the film, as it allows Miyazaki and his army of animators to pull of some dazzling effects.

The ocean is a perfect stage for Miyazaki, allowing him to bring a wonderful array of creatures to spectacular life. Not only that, he even makes the sea itself into something of a living entity – watch the way the waves climb over each other to crash against the rocks – and the great flood that occurs halfway through Ponyo enables some strange and memorable sights, such as fish calmly gliding along on roads that used to be populated by cars. The English-language version of Ponyo that I saw has been overseen by John Lasseter's team at Disney, and the result is far more pleasing than dubbed versions of foreign films usually are. Liam Neeson's gravelly tones are perfect for Fujimoto, while Tina Fey brings wit and warmth to her role as Susoke's mother. There's no doubt that Ponyo begins to run out of steam slightly as it heads into its final act, and the climax is rather abrupt, but the film still maintains an infectious sense of fun, and a ceaseless invention that is nigh-on irresistible.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Review - The Island (Ostrov)

The Island has taken over three years to reach these shores, having been released – with some success – in its native Russia in 2006. This delay may suggest the picture is something of a tough sell, and that perception might be solidified by the film's aesthetic style, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the work of Tarkovsky. However, viewers expecting Pavel Lungin's film to be a hard slog may be surprised by just how light much of it is, with the central study of religious faith and guilt being offset by an unexpected, and most welcome, streak of absurd humour. This is mainly down to Pyotr Mamonov, a craggy old actor who plays the central role with remarkable energy and conviction. Mamonov is Father Anatoly, a monk living on a frozen and remote island that houses a dilapidated monastery. While the majority of monks who live here are pious and demur as you would expect, Anatoly is an eccentric who lives in the boiler room, rarely washes or changes his clothes, disrupts church services, and habitually plays practical jokes on his colleagues. For some reason – perhaps because his behaviour is so extraordinary – many locals have come to see Anatoly as a holy man with healing powers, and they line up for an audience with him.

Anatoly is a figure borne from the Russian tradition of the 'Holy Fool'; a seemingly unhinged character whose bizarre behaviour actually strikes at a deeper truth than that of the more pious and devout monks around him. His dedication to living without any luxuries embarrasses his fellow monks, and his advice to those who seek his help always demands some kind of sacrifice from them; one woman is told to sell everything she has and travel to Paris to be reunited with her husband, another told to spend the night at the monastery and risk losing her job in order to help her sick son. Lungin maintains a shroud of ambiguity around his main protagonist, allowing us to assume that he is simply kidding everyone, while also suggesting he may have some kind of divine influence. Mamonov's forceful and utterly believable portrayal keeps us guessing and keeps us entertained; at any given moment he could collapse to his knees in prayer or break out in an impromptu chicken impersonation.

There is a great deal to appreciate in Lungin's filmmaking, notably the manner in which the film's bleak and icy setting is captured with great beauty by his striking compositions. The Island throws up numerous fascinating ideas about the nature of sin, faith and redemption, but at a certain point Lungin seems to lose confidence in his narrative, and the film narrows into a deflating climactic third. For much of the film, Anatoly is tortured by the memory of a wartime crime he committed thirty years before, and the way the director returns to this incident at the film's close feels disappointingly contrived. The ideas that The Island attempts to deal with are too weighty and complex to be closed off by such a pat and conventional ending, but if Lungin is simply guilty of biting off more thematic content than he can chew, there are worse crimes for a filmmaker to be charged with.

*As a sidenote, the print of The Island that was shown to the press and is currently being screened at the Renoir cinema in London has a strange subtitling issue. At random, a number of lines are translated into Italian rather than English, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason for this. It isn't enough to spoil the film, but it is rather annoying, so if anyone knows what's behind this unusual discrepancy please let me know.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Review - The Wolfman

Limping apologetically into cinemas after a notoriously protracted and problematic shoot, The Wolfman is a film that seems to be defeated almost before it has begun. Having lost the original director Mark Romanek, the project ended up in the unimaginative hands of Joe Johnston, and that's just the beginning of the film's problems. Everything about The Wolfman feels rushed, half-assed and unfinished; the film constantly seems to be pulling in two directions at once – is it a restrained moody horror, or an all-out gorefest? – and it would take a more capable filmmaker than Johnston to make sense of it all. It lurches from one scene to the next without ever establishing a consistent pace or tone, and it wastes a leading man who seemed so perfect for this part.

That's the biggest frustration for me, the fact that Benicio Del Toro seemed like the ideal choice for this role. He's such a magnetic actor, and one who can bring a wild, feral edge to his performances, so it is somewhat bewildering to watch him plod through this movie in such a somnambulant mood. He seems tentative and unsure as Lawrence Talbot, who is a surprisingly passive figure for so much of the film. When he isn't covered in fur and tearing people to pieces, Del Toro's delivery is flat and his demeanour subdued, making Talbot an extraordinarily dull protagonist. There is supposed to be a sense of tension between him and his father (Anthony Hopkins) – with daddy issues, naturally, being a key plot point in the lazy screenplay – but there is no spark between them, as Hopkins once again serves up prime ham instead of anything resembling proper acting performance. In fact, there's an enormous disparity between the performances turned in by the whole ensemble, with Emily Blunt trying vainly to illuminate an underwritten role, Geraldine Chaplin grimacing and staring as a gypsy mystic, and Anthony Sher delivering a truly embarrassing display as a psychiatrist (I think it's supposed to be funny). The only actor who even comes close to finding the right note is Hugo Weaving, who plays his part with a wry sense of self-amusement, but his character is pushed into the margins too often to really make an impact.

The Wolfman could do with a little more of Weaving's dry sarcasm, in order to punctuate the air of dreary monotony that pervades the picture. Johnston's lame attempt to create a spooky atmosphere consists of shrouding the night scenes in mist and frequently cutting away to the full moon, before having something leap out of the shadows. He throws in these jumpy moments with the regularity of a metronome, but for all of the limbs ripped off and blood spilled, The Wolfman is never scary. In fact, it is often stupendously boring, and two days after seeing the film, I can barely remember a single scene that stands out for being original or exciting. The script follows a predictable template, and from the moment we discover Sir Talbot's own propensity for lycanthropy, we simply sit back and wait for the anticlimactic father-son duel, with two barely distinguishable beasties knocking lumps out of each other until one falls down – but who the hell cares by this point? The Wolfman is empty, clumsy and completely inert. It is a mongrel of a film, and the scars of its troubled production are all too visible.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Review - The Lovely Bones

The Peter Jackson who directed Heavenly Creatures may have made something special out of The Lovely Bones. The Peter Jackson who has directed it, however, is one who has spent the past decade using CGI to create breathtaking worlds, and who appears to be besotted with computer-generated splendour. After an opening half hour in which he gets almost everything right, Jackson swamps The Lovely Bones in spectacle, and the poor film never comes close to recovering from that onslaught. This is an adaptation of a novel by Alice Sebold that was the reading matter du jour on every mode of public transport a few years ago, but one that I never got round to picking up myself. A bare synopsis of the book (a 14 year-old girl is raped and murdered, and she narrates from the afterlife, watching life go on without her) indicates some of the problems faced by the filmmakers here. This is very, very tricky material to get right – material that would tax the abilities of most directors – and it appears to have completely defeated Jackson.

You can pinpoint the exact moment that The Lovely Bones begins to fall apart. It occurs after Susie (played by Saoirse Ronan) has been murdered by the local paedophile (Stanley Tucci), who lured her into the underground lair he somehow constructed, unnoticed, in the middle of a field. After the murder, which occurs off screen, Susie reawakens in a kind of ghostly passage between life and death – she sees her desperate father (Mark Wahlberg) scouring the streets for her, and although she calls out for him, he looks right through her. She then finds herself in a bathroom, watching her killer soak in a bathtub covered by the grimy and bloody evidence of his crime. It's a weird and creepily effective sequence, one that harkens back to Jackson's horror roots, but Susie then moves on to "the in-between", which is where she unfortunately spends the rest of the movie.

Jackson's depiction of the afterlife is a garish, overblown mess. Perhaps this view of the world we inhabit after we pass on to the other side is supposed to be informed by the imagination of a 14 year-old girl, but it doesn't convince from the first minute, and it is often embarrassingly kitsch. After a quietly impressive opening section – which establishes a believable family dynamic , touchingly handles the issue of Susie's first crush, and draws impressive tension out of her fateful encounter with Tucci's Mr Harvey – this leap into the fantastical totally unbalances the film. Hereafter, Jackson never finds a way to move seamlessly between his real and imagined worlds, and he never finds a comfortable harmony between his narrative's sharply conflicting tones. One minute Susie is joyfully racing around her gorgeous surroundings with new friends (some of whom were Mr Harvey's previous victims), the next she's watching with anguish as her distraught family struggle to pick up the pieces. The film asks us to empathise with that family's painful struggle, and then spoils it by dumping Rachel Weisz for half the movie, turning Wahlberg into a dopey amateur detective, and inviting Susan Sarandon to come blundering into the picture as a no-nonsense, chain-smoking, soused-up grandma. This film is all over the place.

To be fair to Sarandon, she has been given very little to work with, and she is at least trying to inject a sense of life into the picture. The same could be said for Stanley Tucci, whose character is the most obvious paedophile who ever lived, but this skilful actor manages to wrestle with his one-dimensional cliché and turn him into a chillingly watchable figure. As Susie, Saoirse Ronan again shows that she is a young actress with real poise and sensitivity, and it's a shame that she is engulfed by visual effects after delivering such an authentic and affecting portrayal of an ordinary 14 year-old in the opening scenes. She remains a talent to watch.

Little can stand up in the face of the sheer wrongness of The Lovely Bones, however. Aside from one exciting and beautifully edited sequence, in which Susie's sister snoops around Mr Harvey's house, the film is just a staggering compendium of bad filmmaking choices. Perhaps this is simply a classic case of material that works on the page, and in the readers' imagination, being impossible to translate and literalise onscreen without looking silly, but the film gets worse with every passing minute. The climax in particular becomes more laughable the longer Jackson drags it out (one character's demise reminded me of Homer Simpson failing to jump Springfield Gorge), and the whole ugly farce made me long for the adaptation that Lynne Ramsay was working on before Jackson declared an interest in the project. Perhaps her version would have failed too – as I said, this does seem like extremely difficult material to get right – but at the very least, she surely wouldn't have made half of the dumfounding decisions Peter Jackson is guilty of here.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Review - Breathless (Ddongpari)

Breathless is the word. Yang Ik-Joon's uncompromising debut feature barely gives its audience a chance to settle in their seats before hitting them with a scene that sets the tone for the entire movie. A man drags a woman by her hair into the middle of the street, and administers a beating while bystanders look on in slack-jawed impotence. One character decides to act, striding forward and attacking the wife-beater, but as soon as that job is done, he turns his attentions on the woman, slapping her around the face and asking, "Why do you just take it?" This is Sang-Hoon (played by Yang, the director), a man whose whole life is defined by violence. He is a debt collector and small-time gangster, who has few relationships and seems permanently on the verge of exploding with anger at the slightest provocation – or even with no provocation at all.

Oddly, this is how Sang-Hoon meets Yeon-Hue (Kim Kot-bi), a schoolgirl with whom he develops a tentative companionship that might just pull him out of his rage-filled abyss. They meet when Sang-Hoon spits at the girl as she passes, and when she complains, he punches her in the face. For some reason, Yeon-Hue is drawn to this stranger rather than repelled by him, perhaps because Sang-Hoon, for all his flaws, never treats her as badly as the older brother or disabled father she lives with. Both of these characters are trapped in an endless and self-perpetuating cycle of violence, and through occasional flashbacks to Sang-Hoon's youth, we see how the influence of his abusive upbringing has shaped his personality in this fashion. In the world of Breathless, violence begets violence, and this is the key point that Yang seems determined to ram home.

Breathless is not an easy film to watch, but not just because of the film's violent nature. Yang's direction is intense, filming in a tight fashion and editing abruptly to ensure the audience is constantly on edge, anticipating another savage outburst. As an actor he has a compelling screen presence, and he manages to convince as hints of humanity are gradually revealed under Sang-Hoon's vicious demeanour. To get to that point, however, you'll have to endure scene after scene of the character calling someone a bitch or a cunt before beating them up, and I'm not entirely convinced that the film's second half is worth wading through the first for. It appears that Yang is a filmmaker with balls and a distinctive vision, but he's also someone who doesn't know when to quit, and Breathless is often repetitively one-note. It is also outrageously overlong, and when he's finished assaulting the viewer, Yang slips into pure melodrama, resorting to such lame plot devices as the fateful decision to take one last job before retirement, and dragging out his climax interminably. By the end, I was bored of Sang-Hoon and frustrated with the film's lack of forward momentum, and while Breathless should be noted as an striking calling card for Yang, it's hard to find many other reasons to recommend it.