Monday, March 29, 2010

Review - I Love You Phillip Morris

"This really happened" a caption tells us at the start of I Love You Phillip Morris, before being followed by an insistent, "It really did." You can understand the filmmakers' desire to push that point home. Even when you know you're watching a story that has its basis in fact, many of the events that occur in this larger-than-life tale are still hard to swallow. It begins normally enough, with Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) recounting the story of his life, a life that seems to conform to the American ideal. A church-going police officer, Steven and his doting wife (Leslie Mann) appear to have it all, but the first cracks in this perfect façade can be spotted when we witness Steven vigorously screwing somebody from behind in a motel room. The person he's screwing isn't his wife. The person he's screwing isn't even a woman. "Oh" Steven's voiceover announces, "did I forget to mention I'm gay?"

Steven's whole life has been a lie, and when a car crash forces him to re-evaluate the choices he has made, he decides to embrace his long-hidden homosexual desires. Leaving his family and moving to Miami, Steven begins living it up with his new boyfriend Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro), but he soon discovers the disappointing downside to his new world; "Being gay is really expensive." As Steven becomes a master fraudster to fund his lifestyle, switching identities and faking insurance claims, Jim Carrey is in his element. The actor finds a frantic comic edge in Russell's most desperate moments, but he never overplays, and he keeps the character recognisably real; a man driven to ridiculous extremes by his deep obsessions, which is where the title character comes in.

When Steven's trail of forgery finally catches up with him, he ends up in jail, but as a man who sees every angle it isn't long before Steven is enjoying a comfortable existence on the inside. In a very funny sequence, Steven gives a nervous neophyte inmate a guided tour of his new surroundings, telling him the price of everything and then revealing the alternative price: "or you can suck his cock." It's only with the appearance of Phillip Morris – some half an hour into the movie – that Steven discovers a new destiny, and he dedicates himself to pulling whatever stunt is necessary to keep them free, together and affluent. Phillip is played by Ewan McGregor with a sunny, slightly feminine charm, and McGregor actually does well to make his character register in the movie at all. Despite being eponymous, the filmmakers don't seem particularly interested in Phillip Morris. We never learn a great deal about him, and he basically exists as a catalyst for Steven's criminal behaviour. Crucially, Carrey and McGregor work brilliantly together – the intensity of one meshing with the fey vulnerability of the other – and between them they manage to sell the deep infatuation that is beneath Steven's increasingly outlandish antics.

The core of real emotion they provide also helps to keep
I Love You Phillip Morris on course whenever it threatens to spin off the rails, which is often. The film marks the directorial debut of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the pair who wrote Bad Santa, and whose latest film is characterised by the same unlikely mixture of pitch-black humour and sentimentality. They can switch from light to dark at the drop of a hat, via gear changes that are sometimes jarringly abrupt, but they lack discipline in their storytelling, and the narrative is often allowed to spin off at strange tangents and get bogged down with a flurry of incidents. At a certain point, Steven escaped from prison and was re-caught so many times in such a short space of time that I started to lose track, and this habit of flitting from one con to another without a pause for breath makes the film feel unfocused and shallow. There's also a critical structural flaw in I Love You Phillip Morris, concerning a wild last act twist that marks Steven's voiceover as the work of a hugely unreliable narrator. As a piece of writing, it feels like a cheat, although given that this is a story about a man whose life was an endless web of deception, perhaps that's the point.

Ficarra and Requa's uneven storytelling does prevent
I Love You Phillip Morris from developing into the fully satisfying gay romantic caper it might have been, but their style does have its virtues too, and the very unpredictability of the film ensures it holds the interest. I Love You Phillip Morris is consistently funny, clever and surprising, and it's also rather daring in its straightforward depiction of a homosexual relationship. The love affair between Steven Russell and Phillip Morris is defined not by the fact that it's a gay relationship, but simply by its passion, lust and tenderness, and you never get the sense that the filmmakers or the actors are playing safe or pulling their punches in the way they have approached it. Sadly, such a bold take on the subject has also ensured the film's chances of getting decent distribution have been severely damaged, and the filmmakers reportedly had to make cuts to earn an R rating ahead of a limited American release. Are we really so squeamish about seeing same-sex relationships depicted on screen? Can we not just all grow up and take the film on its merits? I Love You Phillip Morris is a comedy with balls, a heart and a sense of purpose, and for all its flaws, I hope it finds an audience.

What's On in April

The first in a monthly feature detailing exciting happenings in the film calendar.

The BFI will spend April paying tribute to two legends. Throughout the month, Paul Newman will be celebrated with a retrospective of his work, from his star-making turn in Somebody Up There Likes Me to classics such as The Hustler, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, Cool Hand Luke, The Verdict and The Hudsucker Proxy. The extraordinary range of brilliant performances showcased in these films again proves that Newman was both one of our greatest actors and one of our greatest movie stars. The other legend being honoured by the BFI in April is Alfred Hitchock's Psycho, which turns 50 this year. Their season A Classic in Context offers us the chance to see films that may have inspired this indelible chiller, as well as subsequent works that owe a debt to Hitch's masterpiece. This approach has yielded an eclectic and fascinating collection of movies, and I'm personally looking forward to seeing Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground for the first time, as well as enjoying my favourite Orson Welles film, Touch of Evil, on the big screen. The other intriguing event taking place at the NFT this month is a weekend devoted to HBO, the US cable network responsible for the most groundbreaking and brilliant television of the past decade. Highlights include a preview screening of David Simon's Treme and a showing of the first two episodes from the new war drama The Pacific. HBO bigwigs Richard Plepler and Mike Lombardo will be present to discuss the secrets of their success, while the great Larry David will be appearing for an onstage interview that is sure to be memorable.

Elsewhere, the Barbican is hosting the 2010 London International Documentary Festival – which will be opened by Abel Ferrara's Napoli, Napoli, Napoli – as well as highlighting the work of Jane Campion in a retrospective. The ICA have planned a short season entitled Movies + Music = Morricone, which will give viewers the welcome opportunity to see The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, The Battle of Algiers and The Thing, while the weekend of the 24th and 25th sees the staging of Fan Fest, which is billed as the The Ultimate Spy and Sci-Fi event. Taking place at The London Film Museum, the weekendwill be heaven for James Bond fans, with confirmed guests including Richard Kiel, George Lazenby, Honor Blackman, Jesper Christensen and Sir Christopher Lee, who will be receiving a lifetime achievement award and taking part in a Q&A session. The legendary Ray Harryhausen will also be appearing at this event, and there will be memorabilia on display from a wide variety of classic films and TV shows. Finally the East End Film Festival kicks off on April 22nd, with eight days of new films and Q&As from local talent. Michael Nyman and Paul Andrew Williams will be among the guests appearing at this year's festival.

If you know of any upcoming film events that you'd like me to include in future articles, please let me know at

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Review - How to Train Your Dragon

This summer, DreamWorks will release Shrek Forever After, the fourth film in a series that had already become creatively bankrupt by the time of its first sequel. This week, however, the company will release How to Train Your Dragon, which is exactly the kind of film the studio needs to be producing if it is to ever match the standard set by the all-conquering Pixar. How to Train Your Dragon is not a film voiced by megastars, it's not a film full of gimmicky devices or pop-culture references, it's not a sequel, and its script isn't laden with knowing gags aimed at the adults in the audience. It is, quite simply, a good story told in an entertaining, imaginative and heartfelt way. Now come on, DreamWorks; was that really so difficult?

How to Train Your Dragon is set on the island of Berk, which is described as being located "twelve days north of Hopeless and a few degrees south of Freezing to Death." For the Viking community that inhabits this island, life is tough, with harsh weather all year round to contend with, but the biggest challenge facing the Vikings is the frequent dragon attacks. The film opens with one such assault, as a horde of dragons swoop down from the night sky, setting homes alight and swiping sheep in a sequence that carries a thrilling rush thanks to the sharp and beautifully lit 3D animation. When the dragons appear, the Vikings, led by Stoick (Gerard Butler), are quickly into action, bravely charging into danger and showing no fear as they take on these marauding monsters. One Viking who would dearly love to be out there fighting dragons is Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), Stoick's clumsy, weak and generally useless son, whose fervent desire to prove himself a worthy Viking is constantly undercut by his inability to do anything right. What kind of Viking can't even kill a dragon when it's lying immobile in front of him?

Hiccup does eventually discover a method for controlling the dragon problem, but it's not one that would please his no-nonsense father. The teen inadvertently injures a dragon during a raid, and in caring for the wounded creature he learns that they are far from the vicious monsters that Viking lore has long claimed. It took a while before I realised who Toothless – the dragon Hiccup essentially adopts – reminded me of; its facial features are a dead ringer for Stitch, the alien from Disney's underated 2002 film Lilo & Stitch. That film was also directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, and How to Train Your Dragon again showcases this duo's ability to balance comedy and characterisation in a well-paced story. The script – adapted from Cressida Cowell's book – is cleverly constructed, with the bond between Hiccup and Toothless being established as Hiccup learns all of the tricks that can turn a fire-breathing dragon into a docile, puppy-like pet, and later putting these techniques to good use in the training arena, where young Vikings are exposed to dragons of every type.

The colourful array of dragons How to Train Your Dragon contains is symptomatic of the film's imaginative design. The characters are memorably drawn in cartoonish strokes, with Stoick sporting a huge red beard and his close companion Gobber (Craig Ferguson) having various wooden appendages where his limbs should be, and the voice acting fills out the characters in fine style. There is a slightly odd disconnect between the strong Scottish brogues that the elder Vikings sport and the American-accented younger generation (it smacks of a loss of nerve on the filmmakers' part); but Jay Baruchel brings the right amount of vulnerability and pluck to his performance, and the relationships that he has with both his disappointed father and lively love interest (America Ferrara) give the film an emotional resonance. That's the real secret of How to Train Your Dragon's success. Too many big studio movies today seem to be labouring under the delusion that spectacle is enough – just look at the rush of films hurriedly converting to 3D as that bandwagon speeds by – but it's not the extra dimension that gives a film depth. How to Train Your Dragon is an involving story that builds to a tremendously exciting climax, but the superb animation and staging of this final battle is only half of the story – ultimately, it works because we care.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Review - Kick-Ass

After the deluge of huge, effects-laden superhero blockbusters that has dominated cinemas in the past decade, there's something pleasing in seeing the modestly budgeted Kick-Ass come out of nowhere to provide more imagination and entertainment than almost all of them. Matthew Vaughn's film also outstrips its competitors in terms of bloodshed and profanity, and the picture's no-holds-barred approach is sure to make it an instant hit among viewers tired of mainstream cinema's safety-first approach, but that edginess isn't Kick-Ass' sole distinguishing feature, and it doesn't explain why this film is such a success. Kick-Ass works because it is based upon a clever, well-structured screenplay, the direction and pacing is excellent, and it boasts a handful of perfectly pitched performances. All in all, it's a dazzlingly effective piece of popular entertainment, and perhaps the only weak spot is the leading man himself.

Our hero, Dave Lizewski, is an average teen living a mundane high school existence. Despite being played by the perfectly good-looking Aaron Johnson, Lizewski claims that his only superpower is his invisibility to the opposite sex, notably Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca), the chief object of his affection. Tired of being a nobody, and of being mugged by local thugs, this misguided youth arbitrarily decides to become a crime-fighter, unperturbed by his lack of powers, and counting on nothing more than his optimism, naïveté and a makeshift green costume as he takes to the streets. As Kick-Ass, Dave discovers that the world is a far more unforgiving place for masked avengers than his comic books would suggest, and his first encounter leaves him bloody, beaten and hospitalised. Nevertheless, with some reinforced metal plates shoring up his damaged bones, and broken nerve endings leaving him impervious to pain, Kick-Ass is ready to have another go at cleaning up the streets, and when one fight is caught on camera, he becomes an internet sensation.

The problem with having a central character such as Dave is that things just tend to happen to him for much of the movie. After making the decision to don his green wetsuit and become Kick-Ass, he spends most of the subsequent narrative trying to cope with the consequences of his actions, and although the character's fluctuating emotions are convincingly drawn, his passivity makes him a frustrating figure to base a film around. This problem is exacerbated by the supporting characters, all of whom manage to eclipse Kick-Ass within moments of appearing on screen. The crime boss that Dave unwittingly runs afoul of is played by Mark Strong, who brings all of his customary menace and presence – as well as some underplayed wit – to the role of Frank D'Amico, while Christopher Mintz-Plasse offers a slight variation on his usual shtick as another teen inspired to create a heroic alter-ego. There are two other significant performances worth discussing in the film – both of which are so good I'll deal with them separately – but the bottom line is that the titular character is only the fourth or fifth most compelling figure in the movie.

Such complaints become less significant as Kick-Ass builds up its breathless momentum. In adapting Mark Millar's comic book, scriptwriter Jane Goldman has crafted a first-rate screenplay that weaves the fates of its multiple characters together skilfully, and strikes a fine balance between the film's comedy and action. In the places where Goldman struggles to make a smooth transition between the disparate tones, Matthew Vaughn manages to provide some finesse with his direction, which displays an energy and inventiveness that it has never possessed before. I have to admit, after the stylishly hollow Layer Cake and the flaccid Stardust, I didn't think Vaughn had it in him, but he excels in his handling of this material. The director's control of the action sequences is a real highlight, they are shot and edited with a kinetic rush and bone-crunching impact, and I was impressed with the way Vaughn utilised the time leading up to these set-pieces to develop a sense of tension that makes the climactic fights even more satisfying. Beyond the action, Vaughn's clear and bright framing respects Kick-Ass' comic-book origins without feeling like a tired, Zack Snyder-style facsimile, and there are numerous enjoyable little touches dotted throughout the film, like the lovely animated introduction to one character's backstory.

Speaking of character introductions; what about those two key figures I referenced in passing earlier? Well, these two are responsible for a large portion of the film's excitement, humour and heart. Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz) are a father-daughter team who were dressing up and fighting crime long before Kick-Ass arrived on the scene and, unlike the eponymous character, these two really know what they're doing. They use their large arsenal of weaponry with deadly efficiency as they eliminate D'Amico's henchmen, and there's a hilarious contrast between this brutality and the homely sweetness of their domestic scenes together, which is perfectly captured by both actors. After his brilliantly deranged turn in Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant, this is a slightly more restrained Nicolas Cage, but he's terrific as Big Daddy, especially when he's in full costume and channelling Adam West. Moretz, however, is the movie's real revelation. As the foul-mouthed and utterly ruthless 11 year-old, she electrifies the film with a performance of brash attitude that makes Hit-Girl one of the most vivid and memorable screen heroines of recent years. It's no coincidence that she's at the centre of the film's most memorable moments – including a sensational attack in complete darkness – and she'll be the name on everyone's lips as the credits roll. The movie may be entitled Kick-Ass, but don't be fooled – this is Hit-Girl's movie all the way.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Review - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor)

Stieg Larsson is one of the most popular and successful authors in the world, but he didn't live to see his creation become a literary phenomenon. Larsson died of a heart attack in 2004, leaving behind the manuscripts for three novels, the first of which was entitled Män som hatar kvinnor. Perhaps sensing that Men Who Hate Women isn't a particularly bestseller-friendly title, Larsson's publishers changed the name of the first book to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and that's the title of the film now hitting the screen less than five years after Larsson's novel became a huge hit. Clearly, the production company behind this adaptation have been conscious of striking while the iron is still red-hot, and films adapted from Larsson's two equally successful sequels have already been completed. But this doesn't feel like a rushed job or a cash-in; The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a solid thriller performed by a group of actors who all feel like a natural fit for their roles. Larsson would surely approve.

Given Larsson's career as a crusading left-wing journalist, it's hard not to detect a hint of wish-fulfilment in his casting of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's hero as...a crusading left-wing journalist. Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is a writer for Millennium magazine, who is facing jail time at the start of this story, having been found guilty of libel in the corruption allegations he aimed at a businessman. With a few barren months until his sentence starts, Mikael answers a curious invitation to meet with the wealthy and reclusive Henrik Vagner (Sven-Bertil Taube). Forty years ago Henrik's great-niece disappeared, and as she vanished while the whole family was in town for a board meeting, he suspects the villain to be a member of his large, vindictive clan. Having been promised a large payment whether he cracks the case or not, Mikael begins his investigations, but he doesn't get anywhere with this seemingly impossible task until he gets a little unsolicited help.

If Larsson created Blomkvist as a thinly veiled avatar for himself, then one has to wonder who on earth inspired the story's other lead character. Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) is a young computer hacker with a mysterious, but clearly troubled, past. Whatever trauma she has experienced in her youth has led to her being placed under state supervision, and in the care of a lecherous lawyer (Peter Andersson), but as soon as he oversteps the mark she shows us exactly what she is capable of. As played by the excellent Rapace, this punky, dark figure is an instantly compelling character, and the film starts to motor along appealingly as soon as she and Blomkvist have joined forces. The sexual relationship that abruptly develops between them might not convince (more wish-fulfilment, perhaps), but they make a thoroughly engaging pair of investigators nonetheless.

The biggest compliment one can pay to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is that the film is so competently made it's easy to forget just how ridiculous the plot is. Director Niels Arden Oplev doesn't possess a particularly distinguished or inventive visual style, but he's a safe pair of hands who is capable of driving the film from one incident to the next with the minimum of fuss. That plot is a problem, though – more specifically, the amount of plot the filmmakers have had to cram into the generous running time is the issue. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's narrative sometimes reminded me why I don't read many novels of this type. It's so plot-heavy that it eventually collapses into a conveyer belt of clues and revelations that come thick and fast, and the screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg does congeal at a certain point in the second half into a thick stew of plot points that is arduous to wade through. That's a flaw inherent in this kind of material, though, and if you're not bothered by such storytelling you probably won't find a great deal else to complain about here. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is about as good an adaptation as it could have been, and it sets a respectable bar for the upcoming sequels, both of which will be in cinemas before the end of the year.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Review - Green Zone

Green Zone begins with Shock and Awe, and Paul Greengrass tries to maintain that tone for the rest of the movie. Anyone who has seen this director's previous collaborations with star Matt Damon (The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum) will know what to expect from their new picture, but their third time isn't a charm. I'm not sure why the techniques I found thrilling on two previous occasions feel so unsatisfying this time, but I think it has something to do with the setting and the genre that Greengrass is working in. Green Zone opens on March 19th 2003, the night that US forces launched an airstrike on Iraq before the Coalition invasion of the country began. Choosing to open with this date is a statement on the part of the filmmakers that this is a film set very much in the real world, and that what we are about to see has some basis in fact. As a result, the subsequent spiral into false heroics feels both inappropriate and insulting.

Paul Greengrass brought a bracing sense of reality to his two Bourne pictures, but those films still had one foot in the fantasy world of the spy genre. Green Zone is an awkward mix of ripped-from-the-headlines storytelling and action movie thrills, although it's hard to deny that Greengrass can still direct that action better than almost anyone else. This time, Damon is playing Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, although the character is very much cut from the same cloth as Bourne – brave, square and honest, and willing to go rogue if things aren't to his liking. He is part of a team assigned to locate WMD in the sites that US intelligence has highlighted as being full of stockpiled weapons, even though we all know what a futile task this will be. When three searches on the spin come up empty, Miller begins questioning the faulty intelligence, although these questions are the kind that those in power – such as Pentagon lackey Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) – don't want to hear. Aligning himself with an equally sceptical CIA chief (a shakily accented Brendan Gleeson) and a reporter who was herself duped by the intelligence (Amy Ryan, looking bored), Miller decides to look into the veracity of the US intelligence source himself, and he uncovers a conspiracy that suggests the government knowingly used the fictitious WMD reports to justify the war they wanted all along.

The screenplay by Brian Helgeland is unsubtle and shallow, but for a while Green Zone hurtles along efficiently enough on the momentum that Greengrass creates. The impressive scale of the picture allows the director to create a thoroughly convincing portrayal of life in Iraq during the first weeks of the invasion, with the citizens desperate for water, with looting rife throughout the city, and with the dark nights lit only by the flares of rockets fired overhead. Greengrass manages to make us feel part of this environment, in the same way he did with 1970's Derry in Bloody Sunday, and his typically restless direction conveys the chaos and confusion that characterised this period. Other familiar aspects of Greengrass' filmmaking that reoccur here include a strident score by John Powell, rapid-fire editing courtesy of Christopher Rouse, and a strong central performance from Matt Damon. He is the most plausible action hero in American cinema right now, and his performance here is marked by the actor's customary empathy and intelligence, which helps give the rather one-note Miller a few extra shades.

Green Zone is also genuinely thrilling in places. Greengrass is a master of building tension and staging action sequences at maximum velocity, and while Green Zone is a little lighter on action that his previous films, there are still some marvellous set-pieces here. The film climaxes with a superb sequence involving a rescue and a chase through the backstreets between Miller and Special Forces agent Briggs (Jason Isaacs, sporting a magnificent moustache), which is a supremely gripping piece of filmmaking. However, the more Greengrass gets into his blockbusting groove with this film, the more it feels detached from reality, and it's a shame the verisimilitude that was so impressive in the film's recreation of Baghdad circa 2003 doesn't extend to the storytelling. When Helgeland wants to make his political points he tends to drive them home with blunt force, but the film's biggest misstep is its climax. Given his background in serious journalism, I'm surprised that Greengrass has willingly made a film that rewrites recent history in such a clumsy way, but I guess nobody's going to give you $100 million to make a war movie if your hero doesn't get to be a hero. After two hours of attacking US policy, the need to give the material a positive spin has led Helgeland and Greengrass to graft on a bullshit ending that suggests the truth about WMD could have been exposed a lot sooner if only some soldier had displayed the tenacity and investigative skills of Matt Damon. It's far too trite a conclusion for a film about a conflict that is still a raw, gaping wound seven years later. 20/20 hindsight is easy, but real life is an awful lot messier.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Review - The Father of My Children (Le père de mes enfants)

At the start of Mia Hansen-Løve's heartbreaking film The Father of My Children, Grégoire Canvel (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) is a man in a constant state of motion. He talks incessantly into the mobile that is permanently glued to his ear, trying to solve the myriad problems that a man in his position has to face every single day. Grégoire is a film producer whose company has hit a financial wall. Their debts are steadily mounting with no sign of respite, a situation exacerbated by a temperamental Swedish filmmaker whose mercurial methods on a behind-schedule shoot are costing €20,000 a day ("He's a genius," Grégoire says in the director's defence). The producer tries to remain optimistic and positive in the face of seemingly hopeless odds, but he is a drowning man, and as the film progresses he gradually begins to realise it.

Only with his family can Grégoire attempt to leave behind the pressures of his profession. The pleasure of spending time with his wife Sylvia (Chiara Caselli) and three daughters does much to relieve the burden on his shoulders, but the realities of work still creep in to his home life. During a family holiday, Sylvia loses patience with his habit of constantly disappearing to make phone calls, and de Lencquesaing's superb performance charts the alterations in his character's outlook in subtle, compelling ways. Everything that happens in the first half of The Father of My Children feels honest and organic. Mia Hansen-Løve allows us to spend plenty of time in the company of the Canvel family, enjoying the warm and loving relationships they share with one another. The director's style is quietly impressive in its ability to place us right in the middle of Grégoire's two worlds and make them feel so immediately authentic. This is a deeply personal story for Hansen-Løve, who has based it closely on the life of a former mentor, and perhaps that's why the story's emotional undercurrents are so potent; she really makes us care about Grégoire and his family, and therefore the plot developments she sets in motion halfway through the film are both shocking and deeply affecting.

Choosing to place such a large and significant twist at the centre of your film is a bold move. It's one that could easily rupture and unbalance the picture, but Hansen-Løve handles it with remarkable grace, shifting the focus of the narrative with ease and drawing us into a film that is suddenly a very different experience to the one we were originally watching. The director shows herself to be equally adept at handling the fresh emotions that this second half of the picture throws up, as well as the probing questions that it asks of its characters and audience, and so many scenes here are handled with a delicacy and insight that moved me to tears. Part of the reason the familial relationships are so believable is because one of Grégoire's daughters, Clémence, is played by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing's real-life daughter Alice. I had already taken note of this young actress in Olivier Assayas' exceptional Summer Hours, and here she proves herself capable of carrying a great deal of dramatic weight. Clémence has to cope with an increasingly responsible role within the family, as well as facing startling revelations about her father, and her performance as a teenager on the cusp of womanhood who is not quite ready for the world that lies ahead is a marvel; just watch for the beautifully observed scene in which she tentatively orders a coffee.

Tellingly, the last line in the film is "We don't have time". The Father of My Children is very much a film about having enough time; enough time to find a balance between your work and personal life, and to ensure that you can enjoy the happy domesticity that you have spent so long trying to attain. Beyond that, however, the film is a perceptive study of grief, and of the psychological pressures that financial instability can bring about, making it feel like a picture keyed-in to the world we're currently living in. But ultimately, and I think most powerfully, Mia Hansen-Løve's The Father of My Children is a film about love; the kind of love that can bind a family together in times of crisis, and allow them to look forward with defiance and resolution at whatever the uncertain future is going to throw at them. Que Sera, Sera.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Review - Exit Through the Gift Shop

I pass a piece of Banksy street art on my way into work every morning, and there's another just around the corner from my flat. In both cases, as with most of the work I've seen by this artist, I find myself being impressed by the guerrilla technique used, and by his ability to create and sustain a sense of mythology and intrigue around his persona, but I'm less impressed by the results. Banksy's first film Exit Through the Gift Shop left me feeling the same way. The film is a pseudo-documentary in which Banksy, appearing onscreen in silhouetted form and speaking in an altered voice, recalls his encounter with a French filmmaker named Thierry Guetta, who had already spent years capturing the work of various street artists, even becoming their accomplice on occasion. For Guetta, filming was an obsession, and he had already shot thousands of hours of footage – telling his subjects that he was compiling the definitive street art documentary – before he finally made contact with the reclusive Banksy.

The film that has emerged from this encounter may well be seen as the definitive street art documentary – or the first half of it might, at least. Guetta's camera has caught numerous artists in the act as they pull off their daring nighttime raids on public locations, and some of the footage is remarkable, despite being lumbered with a lethargic voiceover from Rhys Ifans. It offers an interesting glimpse into this clandestine culture and the film has been assembled in an entertaining fashion, complete with some judicious musical selections. Nobody involved in Exit Through the Gift Shop has actually been credited with the role of director, but the hand of Banksy can be felt throughout in the shaping of the film's narrative and tone. How much of what actually takes place in Exit Through the Gift Shop is real is open to speculation, but it's hard to believe that Guetta's decision to become an artist himself late in the film is anything more than a Banksy construction. It fits perfectly within his standard MO, allowing him to stay out of sight while making a satirical stab at the shallowness of the art world and the commercialisation of street art culture.

Even if Exit Through the Gift Shop is nothing more than a Banksy con job, you have to give him credit for pulling it off so effectively, but he can't quite sustain the premise for a full 90 minutes. The final section of the film focuses entirely on Guetta's attempt to reinvent himself as Mr Brainwash, but he becomes an increasingly tiresome presence as he gets more time in the spotlight, and the climactic scenes drag badly. The liveliness and inventiveness of the opening hour dissipates, and as is often the case with this artist, the joke quickly wears thin.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Review - Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island is an A+ production, but this is still a B-Movie at heart. The film is set in 1954, and the picture's roots extend deep into the cinema of that era, particularly the dark, tortured, paranoid world of horror and noir. Keen-eyed film buffs will note the references to Sam Fuller, Alfred Hitchcock, Jacques Tourneur, Val Lewton and Powell & Pressburger among others, but Scorsese isn't held captive by his influences. He has made a film that pays homage while succeeding on its own merits as a gripping psychological thriller, a film in which he can simultaneously ape the studio style of that bygone age while pushing his own directorial aesthetic to the limit. The director has surrounded himself with a cast and crew that couldn't be bettered, and turned Dennis Lehane's novel into a gloriously cinematic experience.

That's not to say Shutter Island is without flaws, however, or to ignore the sense of disappointment that Scorsese is bringing his considerable talents to bear on a story that is, essentially, pure hokum; but there is an undeniable charge to be had in watching a master filmmaker displaying such a total command of his craft. Scorsese makes his intentions clear in the opening moments, with a loud crescendo of ominous music accompanying a ferry as it emerges from the thick fog. The vessel is heading towards Shutter Island, a remote location that houses a mental hospital for the criminally insane, and the dialogue uttered in this early sequence is delivered in portentous tones. "This ferry is the only way onto the island, or off," we are told, before we see the gothic building emerge in the distance and hear the grim warning, "There's a storm comin'." The two men bravely making this foray into such an unsettling environment are US Marshalls Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). They have been summoned to investigate the seemingly impossible disappearance of a woman (Emily Mortimer) from her cell, despite it being locked from the outside and guarded throughout the night. "It's as if she evaporated" head psychiatrist Dr Cawley (a superb Ben Kingsley) tells them, "right through the walls."

The mystery surrounding this missing patient is a mere red herring, though. Shutter Island quickly concerns itself more with the danger surrounding Daniels himself, as he starts to lose his grip on his fragile emotional and psychological state, and it grows into an exploration of the very nature of insanity. Traumatised by the death of his wife (Michelle Williams) and by the horrors he witnessed during the war (he was part of the troop that liberated Dachau; Scorsese finds some horrific and haunting images here), he comes under siege from memories, nightmares and delusions. It is in these sequences that Scorsese really starts to unleash his full visual arsenal. Daniels' encounters with his dead wife are filmed in stunningly vivid hues by master cinematographer Robert Richardson, and the director pulls off a number of striking touches; in one, Daniels tenderly holds Dolores as she turns to ash and crumbles in his arms. These delirious scenes are edited for maximum intensity by Thelma Schoonmaker, but as Shutter Island progresses, Scorsese allows the real and the imagined to bleed into one another, until we are as disorientated and desperate for the truth as Teddy is. Through Richardson's astonishing camerawork and Dante Ferretti's imposing production design, the whole movie – from the architecture to the tumultuous weather – becomes an expression of the central character's mental state.

As a result of this psychological torment, Leonardo DiCaprio is pushed to the edge in Shutter Island. In each of his collaborations with Scorsese, DiCaprio has become a stronger, braver actor, and he finds new depths in his performance here. Daniels' first words in the picture are, "Pull yourself together, Teddy", but following his own advice is no easy task, as the sinister events he finds himself embroiled in tear away at Teddy's tenuous grip on his own sanity. DiCaprio makes his character's gradual crack-up convincing and even emotionally affecting, while the large cast of characters surrounding Teddy toy with him mercilessly. What an extraordinary cast Scorsese has assembled here! As well as the marvellous actors I've already mentioned, Shutter Island features roles for Patricia Clarkson, Ted Levine, Jackie Earle Haley, Elias Koteas, John Carroll Lynch and Max von Sydow, and every performer is given at least one scene in which to shine. Acting honours are arguably stolen by DiCaprio, Kingsley and Clarkson, but it's perhaps unfair to spotlight individual achievements amid such a magnificent ensemble.

Shutter Island is a very strange and distinctive piece of work, particularly when considered against the average mainstream Hollywood thriller. Few features of this type are so bold and unconventional in their pacing and mise-en-scène, and the odd rhythms of the film allow Scorsese to develop a disturbing intensity. In truth, the film might have been even more intense with a tighter construction. Surely Scorsese of all people should know that the 50's genre pictures he's referencing never ran to 140 minutes (80-90 mins was more like the norm), and there is no real reason for Shutter Island to do so either. (I was surprised to discover recently that Scorsese hasn't directed a feature shorter than two hours since The Colour of Money, which just scrapes in at 119 minutes, and the delightfully brisk After Hours) The scale sometimes feels at odds with the schlocky, B-Movie twists, and the bloat makes itself felt in a slightly baggy midsection, but the film's occasional lags are offset by the visceral thrill of Scorsese's style. He has reached a stage in his career where he has nothing to prove to anybody but himself, and in Shutter Island, his filmmaking is at full throttle. It is an exhilarating ride.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Review - Alice in Wonderland

No expense has been spared on Tim Burton's lavish production of Alice in Wonderland. Every penny of the film's sizable budget can be seen up there on the screen, as the director brings the full force of his distinctive sensibility to bear on this classic material. He is working in the third dimension for the first time, and he has employed his now-customary blend of American stars and British character actors to bring Lewis Carroll's memorable creations to life. It certainly sounds like an ideal combination, but for every single minute of Alice in Wonderland, I didn't feel a thing. The film didn't excite me, it didn't make me laugh, it didn't move me or show me anything that felt fresh, imaginative or bold. I simply sat there as a passive observer, dumbly staring through my 3D spectacles as one empty parade of CGI was swiftly followed by another, and so it continued ad nauseam. "Curiouser and curiouser" Alice exclaims as she wanders into Wonderland for the first time, but the only curious aspect of this misfire is how the filmmakers have managed to get everything so fundamentally wrong.

The problems begin with the screenplay through which Linda Woolverton has tried to impose some kind of order on Carroll's nonsensical rhymes and riddles, reshaping it as a dull Narnia clone with feminist overtones. Burton's film is actually a sort-of sequel, introducing Alice to us as a 19 year-old (Mia Wasikowska), who has suffered from strange dreams – featuring talking rabbits, tea parties, and suchlike – ever since she was six years old. Now, she is a rebellious young woman who pushes against the stifling conventions of Victorian society, and just as she is about to be pressed into an unhappy marriage, she spots a white rabbit tapping his pocket watch, and she leaves her husband-to-be standing as she follows the darting creature down a rabbit hole.

She lands, of course, in Wonderland. Actually, make that Underland as, for reasons that I never really understood, this is what Carroll's world has been renamed as here (Alice "misheard" it the first time, we are told). Whatever it's called, many familiar elements are still in place, with the size-altering "Drink Me" and "Eat Me" offerings appearing within a few minutes, but there's something rote about the way the film ticks off all of these devices. Burton never manages to imbue Alice in Wonderland with any sense of life or excitement, and there's an odd flatness about every supposedly fantastical encounter Alice has. The wan, blank-faced Wasikowska is a sullen lead who goes about her business with a dutiful air, and although the various British actors who play the creatures are well-matched to their roles, the performances they turn in are acceptable at best. Nothing in the film feels special.

Then there are the two actors without whom no Tim Burton film is complete – Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Of the pair, Bonham Carter, with a comically enlarged head, fares better, playing the Red Queen with a childish petulance that recalls Miranda Richardson's Queen Elizabeth I, but Depp's Mad Hatter is a flop. The actor has done some great work with Burton in the past, but he never clicks with this character in a satisfying way. It feels like a rare case of the actor trying a little too hard, filling his performance with tics and a variety of accents without any of them feeling quite right. His performance is manic but dismally unfunny, and the half-assed attempt to explain the Hatter's madness is yet another misjudgement that should have been vetoed at the script stage.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Alice in Wonderland, however, is its lack of impact as a visual spectacle. Burton paints every inch of the screen with his usual enthusiasm, but Wonderland doesn't seem to exist as anything more than a computer-generated backdrop. The film has the misfortune to be appearing in cinemas just after Avatar has raised the bar for both CGI-created environments and the use of 3D as a cinematic tool (the 3D conversion here is distracting), but even without that comparison, Alice in Wonderland just doesn't feel right. I think it's ultimately the sense that the filmmakers don't seem to have any real purpose behind any of the decisions they have made. The film is a compendium of choices that feel haphazardly thrown together, and the film's climactic Jabberwocky battle is unspeakably dreary in its predictability, while the final coda is simply baffling. We have reached a point in cinema where technology allows anything and everything to be brought to the screen in a convincing way, but that is not enough, and we still rely on the creativity and ingenuity of the artists using that technology if we are going to be truly transported to another world. In Alice in Wonderland, a beloved story has been desecrated by a complete poverty of imagination.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

The 2010 Oscars - Out With The Old And In With The New...Or More Of The Same?

On Sunday night in Los Angeles – or Monday morning, for those of us in the UK – the Academy Awards will be handed out to those responsible for American cinema's greatest achievements of the previous 12 months. It should be a time for all film lovers to celebrate, but as the night finally edges closer, after a build-up that has been as dull as it has been repetitive, I can only muster a weary shrug of ambivalence. I can't remember the last time an impending Oscar night filled me with such disinterest, but this is simply the result of a growing malaise that has afflicted the Academy Awards for years. The producers, in their panic over falling ratings and a perceived lack of connection with the average moviegoer, have frantically reshaped the ceremony into something that – they think – we want to see; but most of those decisions have only served to dilute the show's potential interest further.

The biggest obstacle the Academy Awards broadcast faces is the lack of a surprise element. Think back over recent ceremonies and try to recall the number of announcements that genuinely caught us off guard. There was Adrien Brody – the underdog in a heavyweight field – winning Best Actor in 2003 (a nice surprise), and there was the Best Picture Oscar going the way of Crash in 2006 (not so nice); but by the time Oscar night rolls around every year, the general feeling is that we know how things are going to pan out. There are so many critic awards and guild awards being tossed this way and from January to March, and a quick totting up of the scores – multiplied by the person's likability/overdue factor – allows any of us to accurately predict the results. I recently posted up my own predictions, simply because I was invited to do so (I had planned to ignore it completely this year), but writing down the same names that I had seen everyone else coming up with was a very dispiriting endeavour. Is there really no room for an unexpected winner?

Perhaps I'm wrong, and I hope I am. I'd love to see everyone's predictions blown out of the water. As much as I love Jeff Bridges, how amazing would it be to hear Jeremy Renner's name read out? Wouldn't it be an incredible moment if Gabourey Sidibe was named Best Actress? Dream on. The Bridges/Bullock/Waltz/ Mo'Nique group have their names pretty much set in stone now (even if there's a quiver of uncertainty about Bullock's claim), and it has been that way for weeks. All that's left for those who know they've won, and those who know they've lost, is to wait for the announcement and go through the motions. I'd be able to forgive a lot of this if the categories themselves were more interesting, but once again the Academy have gone down a generally obvious route (Morgan Freeman's nomination was assured the moment Invictus was announced, regardless of his performance), overlooking actors who gave performances that are truly special. Didn't Sam Rockwell do more in carrying a whole film on his shoulders than George Clooney did in a role designed for his persona? Wasn't Mélanie Laurent's work in Inglourious Basterds more vivid and exciting than anything Maggie Gyllenhaal could do with her underwritten Crazy Heart character?

The accusation that The Academy Awards repeatedly reach for the Oscar-bait over more deserving and more popular fare is one that stung last year, and left a notable scar. The outcry that greeted the lack of nominations for critical and commercial successes such as The Dark Knight and WALL•E – in a year when the Best Picture category contained films like Frost/Nixon, The Reader and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – is the obvious motivation behind this year's biggest change. For the first time since 1943, ten pictures have been nominated for Best Picture, and instead of filling those extra five categories with more of the same, the Academy have settled on an unexpectedly varied bunch. There's ambitious sci-fi (Avatar, District 9), middlebrow indies (Up in the Air, An Education), earnest issue movies (Precious, The Blind Side), animation (Up), a contemporary war movie (The Hurt Locker), and original films from idiosyncratic directors (Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man). It has turned out to be a pretty good snapshot of the cinematic year, and there's something in there for everyone to support. All it's really missing is a foreign-language film.

But for every positive decision the Academy makes, it manages to make a number of backwards steps. The chase for ratings, the need to please the network, and the desire to appeal to a younger demographic have led to choices that undermine the show as a whole, with one in particular feeling like a massively ill-advised move. In their infinite wisdom, the show's producers have decided to cut the award of the honorary Oscars from the main broadcast, and instead they handed them out to the very deserving recipients at a non-televised ceremony back in November. Gordon Willis shot the Godfather films as well as many of Woody Allen's greatest pictures; Lauren Bacall is a true movie star who certainly deserves to be honoured ahead of mediocre actress such as Sandra Bullock; and Roger Corman...well, that one makes me sickest of all. I was thrilled when I heard he would be given a lifetime achievement Oscar, this B-Movie legend receiving an ovation from the Hollywood A-list, and wouldn't it have been perfectly appropriate, given how many of the filmmakers in that room his work has surely inspired? We won't get to see that, because the show organisers have decided it doesn't fit with the more youthful, streamlined show, but hasn't honouring those that went before always been an integral part of this ceremony? If the Oscars can't give us any surprises, can't they at least ensure some memorable moments? These decisions seem to suggest that the producers are so focused on winning new viewers, they have forgotten why the old viewers watched the show in the first place, and if they do that, they are only increasing the danger of being forgotten about themselves.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Review - Ondine

Ondine is the first original screenplay Neil Jordan has written since he won an Oscar for The Crying Game, and it also happens to be the best film he has made in years. He has set this story in his own backyard, with the action unfolding within a few miles of the director's West Cork home, and it is very much a Neil Jordan film – for better and for worse. Ondine mixes reality up with fantasy in the way this filmmaker loves to do, and the biggest surprise the film has to offer is how well he sustain this balance, keeping his romantic fairytale rooted in something earthy and recognisably real. The fact that he can't quite keep it up to the finish line will be little surprise to those of us who have often been frustrated by the failure of Jordan's impressive individual parts to cohere into a satisfying whole, but he comes closer here than you might expect.

This is the story of a fisherman who finds an unexpected catch in his nets one day. Syracuse – dubbed 'Circus' by most in the community – is an ex-alcoholic who lives alone and dotes on the disabled daughter (Alison Barry) who lives with his still-soused ex-wife Maura (Dervla Kirwan). Syracuse is a decent guy who wants nothing more than a simple life, but his life is complicated in a dramatic fashion by the discovery of a woman lying among the fish in the bottom of his net. She's alive, just about, and when she has regained consciousness she tells Syracuse little about who she is or where she's from. Her name is Ondine (Farrell's real-life partner, Alicja Bachleda), and she insists that nobody apart from Syracuse should be allowed to lay eyes on her. Baffled but intrigued, the fisherman allows her to stay at his remote cottage, and to accompany him on his trawling trips, which proves to be a very wise decision when her otherworldly singing fills his nets with a haul beyond his dreams.

The question raised by Ondine's magical effect on Syracuse's life is whether or not the mysterious stranger might be a Selkie. For those that don't know, Selkies are creatures from Gaelic mythology, formerly seals that have shed their skin to take on a human form. Jordan skilfully weaves the motifs and traditions of this mythology into his script, with pointers for the audience being delivered by young Alison Barry, who turns her character's unlikely preciousness into a charming affectation rather than an irritating one. Her scenes with Farrell are buoyed by a genuine sense of warmth, and throughout the film, Farrell manages to bring a powerful emotional core to his performance, one that is vital for such a whimsical picture. In the years following his breakthrough with Tigerland, I feared we had lost the talented Farrell to the world of mainstream mediocrity – with films like The Recruit, Daredevil, SWAT and the dismal Alexander – but he has found his way again since those dark days, establishing himself as one of the finest actors around in the process. As Syracuse, he gives a wonderfully understated display, full of charm and wounded romanticism, and he gives us a character to care about and to root for. It's a lovely piece of acting.

Ondine is a film that has been crafted with extraordinary care. The atmospheric cinematography by Christopher Doyle captures the harsh beauty of the landscape while suggesting a sense of magic in the air, while Sigur Rós' Kjartan Sveinsson provides an appropriately distinctive and haunting score. All of these elements combine to accentuate the film's sense of mystery and ambiguity, and it comes as a jarring shock when reality comes crashing in on the captivating world Jordan has constructed, particularly when it comes with an edge of violence. Ondine is not a thriller, and those aspects of the picture feel damagingly out of place alongside the earlier dreamlike tone, but Jordan's biggest misstep is to try and explain in the picture's final act who Ondine is and where she really came from. It is a massively deflating revelation, and I was left wishing that that director had instead followed through on his film's more fantastical ideas, and had disregarded the rules of the real world in favour of a climax more daring and imaginative. After all, when a fairytale is as beguiling as this, who on earth needs reality?