Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Julia's Eyes (Los ojos de Julia)

Guillermo del Toro is one of the most distinctive artists working in cinema, so any appearance of his name on a movie's credits should be a thrill, but that's unfortunately not the case. Be warned, there is a clear difference between a Guillermo del Toro production and a Guillermo del Toro film – for starters, the former is much more prevalent than the latter, and it rarely displays the same level of craft and imagination. The latest film to bear del Toro's name as a producer is Julia's Eyes, a Spanish horror based around a common and age-old fear: the loss of sight. The film opens in a promising fashion, with a scene set in the dark basement of a house, as a woman is menaced by a silent and invisible presence in the room. As the song The Look of Love plays, this lonely, terrified woman is prompted to take her own life, without her assailant needing to say a word.

This unfortunate soul is Sara and she is played by Belén Rueda, who also takes the role of Sara's twin sister, the titular Julia. Both women share the same degenerative eye defect, but Julia refuses to let that handicap deter her from investigating her sister's death, which she views as suspicious even as everyone else is prepared to write it off as a suicide. Accompanied by her sceptical husband (Lluís Homar, who played a blind man in Almodóvar's Broken Embraces), Julia drives out to Sara's house and begins digging for clues. What's the real story behind this mysterious boyfriend people remember her being with? How much does the blind old lady next door know? What of the other creepy-looking supporting characters; are they as malevolent as they appear, or simply red herrings?

The answers to those questions don't make a great deal of sense, and as Julia's Eyes progresses I got the feeling that all of its tricks, twists, shocks and double-bluffs were covering up for a story that isn't really there. In many ways, Julia's Eyes is very reminiscent of The Orphanage, Juan Antonio Bayona's successful 2007 film, which similarly cast Rueda as a woman coping with loss who finds herself trapped in a nightmare, and is forced to solve a puzzle in order to find a sense of peace. But that film had a consistent emotional through line and a more solidly assembled screenplay, elements that Julia's Eyes lacks. Director Guillem Morales tries to detract from his film's deficiencies by placing the emphasis on directorial technique, and he throws in a couple of effectively stylised sequences, such as the shadowy shots of Julia's murky point-of-view, when a stressful situation has caused her eyesight to fade. Such trickery only makes the film feel like an empty exercise in style, however, and when Morales apes The Silence of the Lambs in his climactic sequence, it suggests he has run out of ideas.

By that point in the film, I'd had more than had enough of Julia's Eyes, with the final avalanche of ludicrous twists stretching my patience beyond breaking point. Rarely has the unmasking of a killer or the revelation of his motives seemed more irrelevant and nonsensical. Julia's Eyes is a two-hour film that is totally bereft of imagination, emotion or genuine scares. You'll have to keep your eyes peeled to spot any of del Toro's influence on this project. I could see nothing to indicate his presence beyond his name on the closing credits, and if you're expecting anything close to the vision, imagination or style of his work, you're bound to be sorely disappointed. I know I have never walked out of a Guillermo del Toro filming feeling so angry at having my time wasted in such a manner.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Win Apocalypse Now on Blu-ray

In the annals of cinematic depictions of war, Apocalypse Now stands alone. Francis Ford Coppola's singular, hallucinatory trip into the madness of Vietnam has become a legendary endeavour for both its visionary brilliance as a piece of filmmaking and the notoriously troubled nature of its production. Now, 32 years after its initial release, Apocalypse Now is back on the big screen, with Optimum Films re-releasing the movie on May 27th, before it finally makes its debut on Blu-ray on June 6th. I've had the new 3-disc Blu-ray here for a couple of weeks and it is a spectacular set, offering both the original and Redux cuts of the film as well as Eleanor Coppola's essential making-of documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. The range of extra features is staggering too, with Coppola delivering an enlightening commentary track and every aspect of the movie being covered in some way by the excellent interviews and documentaries. You can read my review of the Blu-ray here.

Phil on Film has got two of these sets to give away, and to be in with a chance of winning one all you have to do is answer the following question.

Martin Sheen plays Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now, but which actor was originally cast in the role, even shooting a number of scenes before being replaced by Sheen?

This competition is now closed

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"Art can change values, open minds and just help people live" - An interview with Monia Chokri

Much of the discussion around Heartbeats has centred on its director Xavier Dolan, which is perfectly understandable. After all, the precocious writer/director/actor already has two feature films to his name by the tender age of 21, displaying an unerring confidence and ability both in front of and behind the camera, but the talent that stood out when I watched the film at the London Film Festival was that of his leading lady. Monia Chokri plays Marie, a seemingly confident but secretly insecure young woman who finds herself falling for the same man as her gay best friend. Chokri's skilful and witty performance expresses her character's complicated desires through subtle gestures and glances, and she's certainly an actress I'm hoping to see more from in the future. I met Monia Chokri in London this week to discuss her breakthrough role.

Have you been doing interviews all day?

Yeah. I mean, it's normal and it's part of my job, but it's a movie that I like and I'm happy to talk about it. It's a movie I haven't talked about in a while, actually. It was released in June in Montreal and September in France, so it has been a few months and now I need to dive in again.

When you made this movie did you imagine you'd still be talking about it more than a year later?

No! [laughs] It's funny because I was speaking with the distributor in France, you know another one is taking care of international distribution, and I told him I was going to London to promote the movie, and he was like, "What?" It's the longest promotion for a movie ever! But it's cool, I like to travel and see what reception the movie is getting.

Do you find it's the kind of film that speaks to people from different countries and cultures?

Yeah, there's something universal, at least in the western world. Younger generations have really been able to relate to it.

It's the first time I've seen you in a film and I know you were a stage actress before you started working in cinema. How have you found that transition from stage to screen acting?

Well, I was always a cinema fan and I did a few shorts and smaller roles, but this was my first lead role. The difference is minor, it's really about technique, but the way I create my role is the same. It's the same process.

So what was your process for creating the character of Marie?

It was really an instinct thing. There wasn't that much about her in the script but Xavier wanted Marie to be dressed in a certain way, and from these clothes, these dresses, I found that there's a natural way to stand and a way to relate to people. I decided that this character is someone who plays a role in life, so what was interesting as an actress is that I had to create the personality of Marie, and then she is not really herself in front of people so I had to capture the person she's playing in life as well. It's like playing two characters. There's a fragility also that I wanted to show in her eyes at certain points, like she's a kind of a sad clown, you know? I think I always put something comical in my characters too. I always like to do that. It wouldn't be interesting for me to play someone really confident or either too fragile. It's interesting to hide it, and I hope when people get to see the movie they see the subtlety of that character. That's what I'm trying to do.

You mentioned the costumes and Marie has a deliberately old-fashioned style that makes her stand out from the people around her, and even the people Marie and Francis reference are classic stars like Audrey Hepburn or James Dean. Where did the idea of those anachronistic attitudes for the characters come from?

Xavier wanted to have this mix-up of generations in the movie. Even in the music you have Dalida, which is from the 60's, and you have The Knife who are a Swedish band from 2010. I think Xavier wanted to show that this kind of love story could happen in any time. Actually, people who were 25 in the 60's were really touched by the movie because they felt they were young again and they recognised themselves in the movie, and the same goes for people who are 18 or in their early 20's. They recognise themselves in this postmodern life because our generation is like that. We are not really in our time; we are always looking back with nostalgia.

Can you tell me how you first met Xavier?

We met because we had a friend in common. He was 17 and I was 23 or 24, I can't remember. He was brilliant, I mean, he was exactly who he still is, but all of his energy was less focused and I think he has grown a lot with what has happened in his career. This guy came to me when he was 17 with a screenplay called I killed My Mother. He asked me to read it because he knew we had the same taste in cinema and art in general, and when he showed me this screenplay I was just amazed by his writing. He knew what he was doing already. He's a really inspiring guy because he knows exactly what he wants and he's just doing it, and each moment I spend with Xavier I feel that life is short and I really need to be doing stuff, you know?

How does he compare to other directors you've worked with? I'm guessing he's the youngest person who has ever directed you.

Yes, but I never felt his age because he's really mature. He knows exactly what he wants on a set, how he's going to film it, artistic direction. He's probably the most precise director I've ever worked with. Each night after the day of shooting we had the rushes of the day before so we were constructing the movie while we were doing it and that was exciting. It's rare to be involved that much in the movie.

Now that this film has been such a success, have you noticed a big impact on your career? Are you being sent a lot of scripts right now?

Yeah, of course. I mean, I was a happy stage actress before but when you do cinema I guess more people get to see you. I have an agent in France now, and of course it's easier to meet people when you want to meet them, but the important thing in our job is doing it for the right reason and not being absorbed by the vanity of this industry. I was in France last month and my friends were saying, "You should come to Cannes," but I didn't have the instinct to go. I could have gone but for what? I don't have a movie there. There's a funny thing on TV in France where this guy films the people in Cannes who do the red carpet and don't go to see the movie. They just go out a little door at the back and he's filming them asking, "Was the movie good?" It's ridiculous and I hate that. I hate all of those magazines that are all about who wears the best dress, it's just vanity and there are so many parasites in this industry. What I like is art. The moment I was most happy was when I was on set, it wasn't the premiere or the Cannes Film Festival, even though I was very proud to be there. I want to die and say that I did something for people, because some movies changed my life, and art can change values, open minds and just help people live. So I decided to stay in Paris and write rather than go to Cannes to drink champagne and try to be loved by people who don't really care about me [laughs].

I understand you're working with Xavier again. How far along is that process?

We shot in March and April and right now he's editing the first half of the movie. We're going to shoot the rest of the movie in September and October because of the seasons, he wanted the winter and fall and a little bit of spring. That's why it's taking so long, five months between shooting.

I guess we'll have to wait a while to see that one then?

No, he's fast. I think he edited an hour and a half of it in two weeks. He's crazy [laughs]. It will be released in 2012.

So you might end up going back to Cannes after all.

Maybe, who knows? I think there is something between Cannes and Xavier, they love him and they love the way he sees cinema, but as I was saying the important thing is the movie and just sharing the movie with people.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Review - The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is finally here, but I can hardly believe it exists. I can't believe that a major American film starring two of Hollywood's biggest names can look and feel like this, that it can reject the conventions of cinematic storytelling so comprehensively, and that it can be so intimate on such an immense scale. It is the fifth film Malick has directed in 38 years, and it is simultaneously his most nakedly personal and his most audaciously ambitious piece of work. Throughout The Tree of Life, this extraordinary director is as fascinated and awestruck by the contours of a newborn baby's foot as he is by the creation of the universe itself. All life to Malick is a miracle and a precious gift to be cherished, which is why the sense of loss that exists at the heart of this film resonates in such a devastating manner.

The Tree of Life is a film driven by memories. Sean Penn's Jack O'Brien is a modern-day architect and perhaps the most startling aspect of the film (although there are many) is the sight of sleek, gleaming skyscrapers in a Malick film. It's startling because all of Malick's previous features have taken place in an earlier era, and while he shoots those skyscrapers in the same way he shoots so many trees – always gazing upwards, reaching for what lies beyond our reach – he seems suspicious of these unfamiliar surroundings. We see workmen planting a tree in the middle of this concrete jungle, and Jack reaches out to touch a blade of grass as his thoughts drift back into the past. Jack is a man unable to escape his memories. In particular, he keeps remembering the days of his childhood in 1950's Texas. These memories are occasionally idyllic, sometimes unsettling and often confusing – in short, they reflect the way so many of us recall our childhood.

It's hard to describe the structure of The Tree of Life. At times I did think of other filmmakers, like Andrei Tarkovsky or Terence Davies, but I think a more appropriate reference point would be the writing of Marcel Proust, whose desire to show us how memories are sparked and fold into one another finds a cinematic equivalent here. We experience much of The Tree of Life through the eyes of young Jack (Hunter McCracken) who lives in Waco, Texas with his tough father (Brad Pitt, giving an alternately tyrannical and tender performance), loving mother (the ethereal Jessica Chastain) and two younger brothers (Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan). The Tree of Life is many things, but above all else I think it is one of the greatest evocations of childhood ever depicted on screen. Malick captures these boys at play in an environment meticulously recreated by Jack Fisk, and he watches as they revel in their freedom to explore their surroundings, with Emmanuel Lubezki's camerawork constantly alive to almost imperceptible changes in tone and mood (this film proves, if proof were needed, that Lubezki is some kind of genius). There is a story to The Tree of Life, but it doesn't play out in the manner we have been conditioned to anticipate. Instead it unfolds as a series of individual moments – often wonderfully serendipitous – that gradually develops an accumulative force through Malick's elliptical editing and imaginative musical choices, and the heartbreaking authenticity of the performances (watch the look on Eppler's face as he tells his older brother "I trust you" during a game of dare). It's hard to discern exactly how autobiographical The Tree of Life is, but many of these scenes feel specific and true in a way that can only be drawn from personal experience.

This aspect of The Tree of Life is so good it would be enough to declare the film as a great work on its own, but Malick is after something bigger here. He has chosen to set his family drama against the backdrop of nothing less than the birth of the universe – which he depicts through images and music in an incredible 15-minute sequence – and the presence, or absence, of God in the lives of the people who pray to him. Like his previous films, The Tree of Life is partly about a loss of innocence, with young Jack's existential anxiety growing as he witnesses death for the first time and becomes increasingly dismayed at the cruelty he sees around him every day. "Who are we to you?" Jack asks of his creator, "Why should I be good if you aren't?" The characters in The Tree of Life are yearning for a connection with God but Malick places them within the context of the universe, reminding us that while our own personal triumphs and tragedies may seem like everything to us, they are simply part of a great continuum that moves inexorably forward with or without us. People come and people go, but life goes on regardless.

The remarkable thing about this blending of the cosmic and the seemingly mundane is how Malick approaches them both in exactly the same manner. He has created a work of art that is truly unlike anything I have ever seen; a film that encompasses the familiar and the unknowable into one singular experience, in which every sequence is infused with the director's benevolent spirit and insatiable curiosity. He is constantly striving to show us something new and to present the world in a way that we haven't seen before, and The Tree of Life feels like a kind of apotheosis for Malick, whose increasingly idiosyncratic approach to storytelling and steadily expanding vision has seen him reinvent cinematic grammar with each new film.

Does that make The Tree of Life sound like hard work? That's not my intention. It may be challenging in its construction but it's universal in its emotional reach and in the truths it tries to express. It's the kind of film that gets inside your heart and mind and stays there, with its bottomless mysteries and ambiguities continually provoking further thought. How you react to The Tree of Life will depend on your upbringing, your faith and your ideas about cinematic art; each person will find something in the film that speaks to them alone and it's the type of film that will change as you change, and as you bring your own life experiences to subsequent viewings. A week after seeing Malick's latest masterpiece I'm finding it hard to shake it from my thoughts and I feel I've barely scratched the surface of the movie. It is the stuff of life itself, and I desperately need to see it again.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Review - Win Win

Win Win is a character-driven film blessed with real characters. The people in this film are people we can believe in and care about as they face obstacles and deal with relationships in the best way they can. The film's writer/director is Tom McCarthy, who showed in his previous two films The Station Agent and The Visitor that he has a knack for blending humour and pathos in a low-key manner. His third film is cut from the same cloth and displays the same virtues that distinguished its predecessors. Chief among these is a tangible sense that McCarthy really loves his characters, and that sense of warmth permeates every corner of the picture. Even when his lead character Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) does something unethical, his actions are rooted in good intentions.

Mike is a suburban lawyer struggling to make ends meet who suddenly has a potential solution to his financial woes fall into his lap. One of his clients (Burt Young) has encroaching dementia and Mike, under the guise of rescuing Leo from life in a care home, offers to become the old man's legal guardian with his eyes on the $1,500 per month benefit payment that comes with the position. Once that bit of business has been settled, Mike moves Leo into a care home anyway while still pocketing the additional income and, for a while, that seems to solve his problems. Despite this deceitful behaviour, it's almost impossible to dislike Mike, which might have something to do with the fact he is being played by Paul Giamatti, one of the most endearing leading actors in the business. It's hard to imagine anyone else being so perfectly suited to the part; Giamatti is heartfelt and genial, and when he lies we see a look in his eyes that tells us how much he hates himself for it.

McCarthy is not a visual director, and Win Win is a very average piece of work in that regard, but he really knows how to work with actors. Win Win's talented cast is moulded effortlessly into an exceptional ensemble, with Amy Ryan subtly turning Mike's wife into an emotional ballast for the film while Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor develop an extremely funny double-act as Mike's pals, who assist with his coaching of an entirely useless teenage wrestling team. McCarthy's writing for all of his characters is generally sharp and believable, but his plotting can sometimes be too neat, and when Leo's grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) turns up having run away from his junkie mum (an excellent Melanie Lynskey), it feels like a clichéd setup. When Kyle turns out to be a wrestling prodigy whose ability might transform Mike's team, it feels like a strained contrivance. But such worries are quickly allayed by the manner in which McCarthy handles these aspects of his film, and by the fact that first-time actor Shaffer invests Kyle with an odd, unpredictable attitude that makes him hard to read but fascinating to watch.

The other part of the film that feels a little too neat in its construction comes right at the end of the film. McCarthy is guilty of giving his characters a happy ending that feels incongruous following the messy emotional entanglements he has laid out. However, that desire to see the characters are OK comes directly from McCarthy's genuine empathy with and affection for them. Win Win is such a warmhearted picture, which makes the BBFC's decision to give it a 15 rating an extremely baffling one. During the course of the film, the phrase "Whatever the fuck it takes" becomes a key phrase for one of the characters, but the repetition of the word "fuck" has seen it earn a higher certification for "strong language." In the past year, I've watched as numerous mainstream Hollywood action films featuring gruesome acts of inconsequential violence arrive in UK cinemas with a 12A rating, while some contextual and entirely justified swearing apparently merits a 15. We live in troubling times.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Blu-ray Review - Apocalypse Now

The Film

Apocalypse Now stopped being thought of as a film many years ago. It is now a legend, a work of art that is simultaneously an established classic and a cautionary tale. How can we watch the film now without instantly thinking of the stories and myths that surround its notorious production? We view the opening sequence and think about how Martin Sheen was really having a drunken breakdown as the cameras rolled, punching a mirror and cutting his hand for real. We watch Brando's giant, dome-like head loom from the darkness and we immediately recall anecdotes about how unprepared and overweight he was when he finally arrived to film his scenes, and how Francis Ford Coppola spent three days reading Heart of Darkness to him. We think of the typhoon that flattened the set, Sheen's heart attack, the shooting scheduled that ballooned from four months to three years, and the budget that escalated in a similar fashion, prompting Coppola to put his own personal fortunate at stake. Coppola's wife Eleanor has made a film (Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse) and published a book (Notes on Apocalypse Now) that ensure we know as much about the making of this film as we do about the film itself.

All of which suggests that it's high time we shift the spotlight back to where it belongs and to remember that there's a movie – a crazy, ambitious, indelible movie – buried underneath these layers of turmoil. Apocalypse Now was born under the pen of John Milius, who adapted Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and placed it in the context of the Vietnam war. The original idea was for George Lucas to direct Milius' script (on the new Blu-ray, Milius explains that Lucas "didn't want to go where they have many different varieties of poisonous insects.") but Coppola took the reins on the picture in 1976. The movie that finally emerged from the chaos three years later was like no war movie before or since; a wild, psychedelic attempt to approximate the madness of warfare.

The story sends a restless young soldier on a journey. First glimpsed going stir crazy in his Saigon hotel room, Captain Willard (Sheen) is a man desperate for a mission: "and for my sins they gave me one." He has been ordered to travel up the river and deep into the jungle to locate and assassinate Colonel Kurtz (Brando), a former Green Beret who has gone rogue. The journey is both a literal and metaphorical one, with Willard sinking deeper into "the horror, the horror" of war as his boat gradually gets closer to Kurtz's jungle compound. They encounter spear throwers, a tiger leaping from the shadows, a surf-obsessed colonel wearing a Stetson and shades who barks orders through a bullhorn (the great Robert Duvall); but most of all they face themselves, and the darkness that lies within all men in the midst of war.

Watching Apocalypse Now again on Blu-ray, some years after my last encounter with the film (which was probably the release of Apocalypse Now Redux, back in 2001), I was stunned by the intensity of the film, which rarely lets up for most of its first half. Coppola whips us into a fervour immediately, starting his film with one of the great opening sequences in cinema history - The Doors, the napalm, the emotional and spiritual pain of Sheen, and the whup-whup-whup of those helicopters merging with a ceiling fan. Coppola directed Apocalypse Now and Milius wrote the screenplay, but I think Walter Murch should be considered a co-author of the film for his invaluable contribution. His editing is peerless throughout the film, maintaining a tension that suggests an undercurrent of insanity (that occasionally spills over) in every scene, and his sound design has already become a part of history, essentially creating the 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound system that has become the cinematic standard today. When you factor in Vittorio Storaro's vivid and surreal cinematography, you have a film that looks and sounds like nothing else.

It plays like nothing else too. You could argue that Apocalypse Now is uneven, and I think that's fair observation. The film peaks around halfway through with the beach attack scored to Ride of the Valkyries and at times after that it seems to stagger along, as if the film itself has been stunned by the sheer, unmatchable bombast of that unforgettable sequence. But then there's Brando, waiting for us at the film's climax, huge and unknowable. The whole movie has been building to this confrontation, but here Coppola undercuts our expectations once again. Ask yourself this: what other movie would build its climax around TS Eliot poems being read in the dark, the ravings of a drug-crazed photographer, a bull being slaughtered in a tribal ritual, and a final shot that ends the film on an eerily unsettling note. I called Apocalypse Now's start one of the great opening sequences in cinema; the ending isn't far behind it.

Apocalypse Now was a film made by people slowly losing their minds and it feels that way. I think the Redux re-edit was a mistake – it allowed those people to take a considered, sane view on a film that was never meant to be considered or sane in the first place – but the 1979 original feels as fresh and essential today as it ever has. Like few other war films – say, Malick's The Thin Red Line or Klimov's Come and SeeApocalypse Now seems to get and express something about the nature of war rather than simply tell a story about it. There is something pure and primal in this film, and that's down to the manner in which it was made, the fact that the men who made Apocalypse Now poured their souls into the making of it and had no chance to step back, to take an objective view. Willard's journey into darkness became Coppola's journey into darkness, and whenever we revisit this extraordinary masterpiece, it becomes ours.

The Extras

Where on earth do I start? The new Blu-ray package from Optimum is everything an Apocalypse Now fan could ask for. The three discs include both versions of the film, Hearts of Darkness (complete with a commentary from Eleanor Coppola and an older, more rueful Francis) and a stunning array of extra features. There are too many to go into here, but they cover every aspect of the production, including some fascinating insights into the sound design, the casting, and visual style. We see Brando reading The Hollow Men, we hear Orson Welles' radio production of Heart of Darkness, we get some deleted footage, but there are a couple of extras I really want to highlight. Coppola takes part in two hour-long conversations on the second disc, one with John Milius and one with Martin Sheen. The Milius one offers a terrific insight into the origins and development of the film, with Coppola generously giving credit for most of the film's key sequences to the writer. The Sheen discussion is a hilarious and quite touching exchange of anecdotes, as the actor looks back with affection at a role that nearly killed him but ultimately made him stronger. In both, Coppola is a pleasure to listen to – he's one of the great movie talkers – and his commentary track (which runs across both Apocalypse Now and Redux) is yet another essential element of this fantastic package.

Apocalypse Now will be re-released by Optimum into selected cinemas on May 27th 2011. It will be released on 3-disc Blu-ray on June 6th.

Buy Apocalypse Now here

Monday, May 16, 2011

Review - The Way

"Life isn't something you choose. It's something you live" Daniel Avery (Emilio Estevez) tells his father Tom (Martin Sheen) during a flashback sequence in The Way. Tom is a doctor, and he always wanted his son to follow in his footsteps, or at the very least decide on a career and stick to it. Instead, college dropout Daniel left for Europe to embark upon the Camino de Santiago, an 800km pilgrimage that runs from the Pyrenees and across Spain's northern coast before ending at the cathedral where Saint James is buried. Daniel started this journey, but he never ended it, dying in a fall near the start of the route. The Way focuses on his grieving father, as he travels to France to collect his son's ashes and decides to continue the journey himself, carrying Daniel's remains to his intended destination.

The Way is clearly a personal project for Estevez and his father, both of whom have approached it with a tangible sense of heartfelt commitment. The film is built around Sheen's commanding performance as a tough character with closed-off emotions, who barely seems to register the spectacular scenery around him as he trudges determinedly forward. Tom is alone and he intends to remain that way, but the plot keeps throwing companions into his path, who insist on joining him for at least part of the journey. The most enjoyable of these supporting characters is Joost (played with an abundance of good-humoured charm by Yorick van Wageningen), an overweight Dutchman who is walking the Camino in the hope of slimming down before his upcoming wedding. There's also Jack (James Nesbitt), a blocked Irish writer who overcomes the most appalling introduction to grow almost endearing by the film's end, but such development eludes the frequently annoying Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger, looking unhappy throughout).

Plot-wise, not a great deal happens in The Way that can't be anticipated a long way down the road. Tom keeps his distance from his travelling partners but gradually thaws, but not before a rather embarrassing sequence in which he drunkenly rages at each of them, a scene that feels like it has been inserted for effect rather than emerging naturally from the drama. Too many sequences in The Way have that feel; comedy interludes are overplayed and Estevez's attempts to inject some suspense into the movie (Tom loses Daniel's ashes twice) lack urgency. In fact, the whole film lacks a sense of urgency, although its resolutely old-fashioned style and easygoing pace may be enough to endear it to a number of viewers. In truth, it's a hard film to really dislike; as distinctly average as the film is, it has been made with sincerity and honesty, and it yields a handful of affecting moments. Ultimately, you'll know how you're likely to react to The Way by taking a glance at the film's soundtrack listings. James Taylor, Alanis Morissette and David Gray are all present, which neatly sums up the kind of movie it is.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

DVD Review - I Saw the Devil (Akmareul boatda)

The Film

Korean cinema's raised international profile in the past decade has been largely driven by the twisted revenge dramas of Park Chan-wook. His Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Old Boy and Lady Vengeance might not be the best films produced in the country during the past ten years, but they have been the most widely popular, with Park's dazzling stylistic virtuosity and the bleak, violent content striking a chord with audiences in the west. It's impossible to avoid thinking about those movies while watching I Saw the Devil, a picture that shares key themes with Park's trilogy as well as many of those film's aesthetic virtues, but one which is also riddled with many of the same flaws. I Saw the Devil could almost pass for an unofficial fourth instalment in the trilogy, but it comes at a point when the series feels like it has been done to death.

The director of I Saw the Devil is not Park Chan-wook but his similarly gifted contemporary Kim Ji-woon, whose last three films – A Tale of Two Sisters, A Bittersweet Life and The Good, the Bad the Weird – have shown him to be a skilful and eclectic filmmaker. The opening scene of his latest offering is deeply promising too, presenting us with a young woman sitting alone in her car at night while she waits for the breakdown service to come to her aid. She spends the time chatting with her fiancé Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee), a secret service agent, but she is interrupted by another man, who suddenly steps out of the shadows and offers to help. The man is Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), and after she has finished her call he smashes her windscreen and savagely beats the terrified woman with a hammer.

It is a vicious sequence, handled with sensational skill by Kim, who knows exactly how to tease an unsettling sense of pervading fear out of the scene before ending it with a frenzy of violence (and the glance that passes between killer and victim is devastating). The whole of I Saw the Devil's opening hour is like that – taut, vivid and filled with shocking imagery. Soo-hyeon takes it on himself to find the killer, drawing up a short list of suspects and getting into vigilante mode. He brutally deals with two men in cases of mistaken identity before he finds his way to Kyung-chul, and the film brilliantly ratchets up the tension as we wait for the two central characters to go head-to-head.

And that, it saddens me to report, is the point at which I Saw the Devil starts to lose its way. The best part of an hour has elapsed before Soo-hyeon and Kyung-chul meet and have their first bloody tussle, but the curious choices made by Soo-hyeon (viewed to this point as 'the good guy') take I Saw the Devil into stranger and more unconvincing territory. The detective plants a tracking device on his foe and leaves him free to carry on his murderous spree, but every time he finds himself on the verge of committing another crime, Soo-hyeon suddenly pops up to inflict more damaged on the increasingly battered and confused killer ("This guy's a psycho!" he complains). I Saw the Devil is constantly walking a fine line between horror, thriller and pitch-black comedy, but at times it seems almost cartoonish, which ensures its later attempt to meditate on the corrupting and self-defeating nature of revenge feel hopelessly hollow.

With no sense of weight beneath it, the film comes off as sadistic and ugly more often than not, and even Kim's hugely impressive directorial flourishes can't compensate. He stages a series of outstanding set-pieces – there's a cat-and-mouse chase through the home of another killer, and an audacious murder within a moving car – and he gets excellent performances from his two leads. In particular, Choi Min-sik is a pleasure to watch. He's such a magnetic presence on screen, and he plays his character here with great relish, but neither Kyung-chul or Soo-hyeon feel entirely real and, ultimately, neither does the movie. There simply isn't enough narrative here to sustain a film that runs for almost two and a half hours, no matter how astounding the picture may be in every technical department. We're supposed to share Soo-hyeon's sense of profound emptiness at the end of the film, as he realises his long-sought revenge has given him no real catharsis, but all I felt was the emptiness and frustration of another dazzling but shallow Korean revenge drama.

The Extras

The 18-minute making-of feature has a lot of great footage from the set, showing Kim Ji-woon working out his shots and the cast having a laugh between takes. There are also a couple of short and not particularly illuminating interviews with the director and his two leads

I Saw the Devil is available on Blu-ray and DVD now

Buy I Saw the Devil here

Monday, May 09, 2011

Review - Attack the Block

The riskiest decision Joe Cornish has made in his debut feature Attack the Block is the manner in which he introduces us to the film's protagonists. The movie opens with a female nurse (Jodie Whittaker) walking home alone at night through a South London estate and being confronted by a gang of hooded teens who threaten her at knifepoint before stealing her purse, phone and jewellery. At this point in the film, our sympathies lie squarely with the victim of this crime, and we instantly hope that the muggers will quickly get their comeuppance, but they are actually the good guys in this tale, and they're characters we are asked to empathise with as their lives are subsequently placed in danger.

The danger comes from the skies, with the mugging of Sam being interrupted by an unidentified creature plummeting to earth. The gang, all bravado and pumping adrenaline, make light work of this single alien, but it is merely the first of its kind and soon they are descending meteor-like all over the block. Cornish doesn't waste much time setting this plot into motion, and there's a pleasing economy about his style overall, as he rarely slackens the pace throughout a trim 88 minutes. The downside of his streamlined approach is that there isn't a great deal of room for variation and the film does start to feel a little one-note after a while. Too many scenes of the kids being chased by the creatures or hiding out in their block of flats while the monsters lurk outside have a tendency to blur into one another, and there are few genuine surprises to be found in Cornish's narrative. Similarly, Cornish struggles to imbue his characters with any sense of depth. Aside from the gang's leader Moses (ably played by John Boyega), few of the central characters are given the dimensions required to make an impact individually, but the actors playing these roles give confident and enthusiastic turns nonetheless. They certainly don't look out of place alongside their more experienced co-stars Whittaker, Nick Frost (as an easygoing drug dealer) and Luke Treadaway (a posh white boy whose painful attempts to connect with the gang are milked for laughs).

The most memorable figures in the film, however, are the monsters themselves. The design of these creatures is brilliant in its simplicity; they are essentially a black, featureless mass with glowing fangs, and that lack of definition ensures they work on a number of levels. They remain a mysterious entity throughout, and Cornish exploits their appearance to stage a number of striking sequences with some very impressive lighting (top marks to cinematographer Thomas Townend, doing superb work in his first film). Attack the Block proves that Cornish is a genre-savvy director with ideas and a keen eye for effective details, but while it is a promising debut feature, it never develops into anything beyond that. Still, it is a rare British picture that allows its young, black, inner city characters to ultimately leave behind the stereotypes associated with their milieu and actually become the heroes of their own story. It only took an alien invasion to effect such a transformation.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

DVD Review - The Theo van Gogh Collection

The Films

Theo van Gogh died on November 2nd 2004. He was assassinated in response to his frequent criticisms of Islam and his short film Submission, which dealt with Islamic violence against women. As van Gogh's feature films failed to find much of an audience outside his native Holland, the manner of the director's death is what he is best known for worldwide, but now that three of his films have been packaged together on DVD for UK release, perhaps that will change. One might expect these films to be confrontational, provocative pieces of work, but they're actually much more intimate and low-key than you might expect, and they are provocative in subtler ways.

Essentially, the three films in this box set are two-handers, and although a couple of extra hands occasionally get involved, van Gogh is always focused on the dynamics of the central relationship. The most-stripped down (and, I think, most effective) of these films is 1-900, in which Ariane Schluter and Ad van Kempen play a lonely pair who become acquainted via a phone sex chatline and subsequently maintain their relationship with regular Thursday night calls. How much of themselves each character is revealing in the talk that surrounds their erotic fantasies and masturbation is constantly in question, which seems to be the key theme in van Gogh's work. Reality and fantasy are played with in all of these films, and people wear masks or play roles to hide the truth of who they are.

In Blind Date, a couple (Renée Fokker and Peer Mascini) meet each other regularly after placing ads in the personals section of the newspaper, and at each meeting they appear to be playing a different role. It quickly transpires that they are actually a grieving married couple (their dead daughter narrates, in one of van Gogh's less wise decisions) and that this is their method for dealing with the unspoken emotions caused by their loss. Again, van Gogh gradually peels back the layers to reveal the pain that lingers within each character, although the gimmicky, theatrical nature of their recurring meetings detracts from the film's emotional heft, and it could be argued that van Gogh misjudges the climax.

Interview is probably van Gogh's most well-known film, as it was remade in 2007 by Steve Buscemi, with Sienna Miller taking on the female role. Both films essentially tell the same story, focusing on an embittered war reporter who has to interview an actress he views as little more than an empty-headed bimbo with plastic tits, but I'd recommend the original version for the superb performances from Katja Schuurman and Pierre Bokma. In fact, the quality of acting on display in these films is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Theo van Gogh Collection, with the director drawing exceptional performances from his actors in challenging, multi-faceted roles. It is worth viewing these films to see these actors at work, but it is also an opportunity to experience a director with a keen grasp of male-female relationships who explored those relationships in a frank, funny and compelling manner. Theo van Gogh was certainly a filmmaker with a distinctive voice, before it was brutally silenced.

The Extras


The Theo van Gogh Collection is released on DVD on May 9th.

Buy The Theo Van Gough Collection here

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Review - 13 Assassins (Jûsan-nin no shikaku)

Takashi Miike is a filmmaker who churns out movies at an incredible rate – often three or four a year – and occasionally one of those films breaks through and makes an impression on the public at large. The last Miike film to receive widespread acclaim was his creepily compelling Audition, which found an appreciative audience in the UK in 2001, although films such as Ichi the Killer and The Happiness of the Katakuris have achieved some degree of cult status in the past decade. 13 Assassins, however, has the potential to be Miike's most popular hit to date, and deservedly so, as this samurai epic is one of the most thrilling pieces of filmmaking you'll see all year.

The film's breakthrough potential is helped by its apparent conventionality, of course. 13 Assassins is a remake of a 1963 Eiichi Kudo film, and its setup is satisfying in its simplicity. The sadistic Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) is about to ascend to a position of power, where his already insatiably taste for rape and murder will have free reign. How sadistic is Naritsugu? We see evidence of his brutality early on, when a young woman, her limbs severed and her tongue cut out, is brought before ageing samurai Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) to convince him that this man must be stopped. Holding a paintbrush precariously in her mouth, the woman scrawls the words "total massacre" on a sheet of paper, and even though 13 Assassins unfolds as a very traditional picture, this sequences feels like a distinctively perverse Miike touch.

In order to take this bastard out, Shinzaemon recruits a team of samurai and prepares for what will probably be a suicide mission ("You've entrusted me with your lives" he tells his men, "and I'll spend them at my disposal"). He is not fearful of this prospect, but inspired; Shinzaemon was a swordsman without a purpose, and Kôji Yakusho's magnificent performance shows us the fire that has been reignited in this character by the promise of a glorious death. All of the warriors who sign up for the task share their leader's sense of duty and adherence to the samurai code, but few of them share his depth as a protagonist. With 12 characters to incorporate into the story, a few of them are, by necessity, little more than sketches. In fact, aside from Shinzaemon, Naritsugu and Shinzaemon's nephew Shinrouko (Takayuki Yamada), the only character who really feels alive in 13 Assassins is Koyata (Yûsuke Iseya). He's a bandit and vagrant who joins the merry band as they march into battle, becoming the 13th assassin, but he spends much of his time mocking the samurai before revealing himself to be as worthy a warrior as any of them. Koyata offers a sense of comic relief, but he also gives the film one of its most appealing and human characters.

The version on 13 Assassins that has played at some festivals is apparently 20 minutes longer than the released film, and while I don't know what exactly has been lost in that edit, I'm glad we're getting a slightly shorter cut. You don't expect to be bored watching a Takashi Miike film – and don't get me wrong, I wasn't bored here – but I was feeling a little restless by the film's halfway point, as the whole process of putting the team together felt a little rote, and I started eagerly anticipating the climactic action. It's a deliberate tease by Miike, giving us a slow build-up before unleashing the explosive samurai action we have all come to see, and the only question that arises with this tactic is whether the climax will be worth the wait.

Oh boy, is it ever. The last 45 minutes of 13 Assassins is essentially one long set-piece in which the heroes take on hundreds of foes in a town rigged with bobby traps and cattle on fire (seriously). Amid the mud and rain, the battle is relentless and it is captured with astonishing skill by Miike, whose camerawork and editing ensures we are right in the thick of the action and constantly aware of where the characters are in relation to each other. I can't recall the last time I saw a sequence in an action film that was so stupendously well orchestrated, or one that balanced bloody violence with moments of humour and pathos, let alone one that sustained these qualities for such a long period of time without threatening to outstay its welcome. It is a breathtaking display of artistry and craftsmanship from a director who has often been lauded for the amount of work he produces rather than the quality of it. One gets the sense that Miike moved beyond this film the minute he put together his final cut (he has subsequently completed two features and has another in development), but anyone who appreciates great filmmaking, 13 Assassins is likely to leave a more lasting impression.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Review - TT3D: Closer to the Edge

The Isle of Man TT has claimed over 230 lives since it began in 1907, and watching the new documentary TT3D: Closer to the Edge it's easy to see why. The bikers bold enough to tackle this 37-mile course do so at speeds of almost 200mph, barely taking their foot off the accelerator as they race down narrow village roads and lean into hair-raising corners. In Richard De Aragues' slick and frequently astonishing film, we meet a few of the riders who willingly put their lives on the line every time they take to the road. What drives them to take such risks? Is it the glory, the thrill, the danger, or some indefinable combination of all three? One thing becomes clear when watching TT3D – motorbike racing for these men (and one woman) is an obsession, and one they can never shake.

De Aragues has based his film around the 2010 competition, following a handful of competitors with varying degrees of fame and experience as they vie for the top prize. There's John McGuinness, the sport's current no. 1, who has won 15 TT's and is still hungry for more; Conor Cummins, the 23 year-old local boy; Ian Hutchinson, a softly spoken but determined and exciting young biker. TT3D gives each of these characters their share of screen time to talk about their philosophy of life and racing, and he follows their progress during the climactic races, but the film is ultimately dominated by one man. Guy Martin is the start of TT3D, no doubt about it. He's charismatic and funny, and his maverick attitude has made him something of a celebrity on the TT circuit. He's appealingly unselfconscious in front of the camera, sharing stories of masturbation and his mate who almost taught his dog to speak, and much of the film's subsequent drama revolves around his attempt to win his first TT race.

The inevitable side effect of having such an exuberant character at the centre of your film is that all other subjects look a little lifeless in comparison, and that happens here, to an extent. The other contributors to TT3D have neither the natural wit or screen presence to compete with Martin, and they subsequently seem to be sidelined as the film develops into a one-man show. Fortunately, all competitors are equals on the track, and it is here that De Aragues' film really shines. The camerawork superbly lets us get close to the action and expresses the exhilaration of the races. The 3D adds a little to the visual side of the film, but not much; the extraordinary sight of bikes crashing, exploding into fireballs and – in one particularly astonishing turn of events – hurtling off the side of a mountain (!) would draw gasps from the audience in any amount of D.

Most of the riders involved in these incidents emerge from the wreckage (relatively) unscathed, but some are not so lucky, and while TT3D may sometimes appear to be all about Guy Martin, it's another figure from the film who will stay with me. Bridget Dobbs is the widow of Paul, a 39 year-old who lost his life during the TT, and she agrees to be interviewed in the film following his tragic death. But Bridget is not angry at the sport that has taken her husband from her; she knows he died doing what they both loved, and she accepts the circumstances of his death with a grace and honesty that is very moving. In her scenes, we see what it is about this sport that inspires such passion in those who love it. The excitement and the heightened sense of risk go hand-in-hand, and if you took away that ever-present danger then it simply wouldn't be the same. Late in the film, we see one rider crash on the circuit and then have his leg run over by an onrushing bike, but he admits his first thought was to ensure they didn't dare amputate his mangled limb as he wanted to get back on the bike as soon as possible. All of these competitors know that death or glory lies around every corner, and they wouldn't have it any other way.