Monday, June 27, 2011

Blu-ray Review - Don't Look Now

The Film

There's a horrible, gnawing sense of inevitability about the way events transpire in Don't Look Now. Every moment in the film is driving its central characters towards a predetermined fate, and by the time John (Donald Sutherland) realises that the clues were there all along – if only he had opened his eyes to then – it is too late. Even when you know where Don't Look Now is leading us, even when you've followed Nicolas Roeg down those dark and narrow Venice pathways many times before, the film never loses its power to unsettle and shock. It opens with a scene of unimaginable trauma and closes with a startling revelation, and the intervening 100 or so minutes holds our nerves in its steady grip. At times it appears confusing or irrational in the way it develops, but its storytelling has the devastating logic of a nightmare.

In adapting Daphne Du Maurier's story, screenwriters Allan Scott and Chris Bryant found intelligent ways to expand upon the narrative and deepen our understanding of the characters. While John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) are already in Venice at the start of Du Maurier's novella, the film opens with the death of their daughter, who drowns in a backyard pond despite her father's desperate efforts to save her. It is a chilling scene, and one that taps into the most primal fears of its audience. This opening sequence also establishes some of the crucial recurring motifs that will form key elements of its structure later on – smashing glass, water, and the colour red that haunts John throughout.

Don't Look Now is not the kind of horror film that is continually searching for ways to make its audience jump. It spends time with the characters, allowing us to see how their relationship works and how they are dealing with their grief. Christie's Laura is a fragile character who finds a new sense of optimism and happiness when she receives an apparent message from their dead daughter, delivered via a mysterious pair of sisters (Hilary Mason and Clelia Matania). John is fearful of the effect that these women have had on his wife's state of mind and sceptical about any such connections with the afterlife. Their marriage feels real and lived-in, never more so than in the famous sex scene that occurs around half an hour into the movie. The intimacy that exists in this sequence has rarely been matched in other cinematic sexual couplings. It is frank without feeling gratuitous, and it serves a purpose in its portrayal of a husband and wife slowly learning to reconnect.

Much of the magic in this sequence, and much of the power inherent in Don't Look Now, comes from Roeg's distinctive editing patterns. His cuts feel instinctive, driven by the emotional needs of the story, and they lend the film a transfixing rhythm. From 1970 to 1985 Roeg went on a run of films that stands alongside that of any other filmmaker. Each of these pictures was a special achievement in its own way, but I think Don't Look Now is his masterpiece and his most perfect melding of form and content. It is the film in which his disorienting approach to time and space infused the deeply human qualities of the story being told, which gives this particular picture a richness and depth that his always dazzling films occasionally lack. It is often classed as a great horror film but Don't Look Now is much more than that; it is a love story, a ghost story, a puzzle to be solved and a work of art to be revered. It is a masterpiece, and it still has the power to chill to the bone as we watch John chase that small red-coated figure in the shadows.

The Extras

I was a little disappointed by the commentary track provided by Nicolas Roeg, whose rather dry, croaky delivery makes it something of a chore to listen to, and despite the best efforts of co-commentator Adam Smith, little of note is illuminated. The interviews on the disc more than compensate, though. In a collection of lengthy and wide-ranging chats, Allan Scott, Donald Sutherland, Pino Donaggio and Tony Richmond discuss all aspects of the production, while Danny Boyle speaks intelligently and enthusiastically about the film's influence on his own work. The two retrospective documentaries also give plenty of context to this remarkable film.

Don't Look Now will be released on Blu-ray on July 4th

Buy Don't Look Now here

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Blu-ray Review - Cœur fidèle

The Film

Cœur fidèle tells a familiar story of a love triangle that has tragic consequences, but it's the manner of the storytelling rather than the story being told that matters here. The joy of the film lies in watching Jean Epstein direct with a boundless verve and imagination, finding beautiful ways to express his characters' emotional states through his adventurous camerawork, lively cutting and often devastating close-ups. It is reminiscent of Murnau's Sunrise in the way it explores the romantic tribulations of its protagonists through an extraordinarily vivid mise-en-scène, with Epstein finding fresh angles and telling compositions to draw us into his tale. It is one of the wonders of the silent era.

The film takes place near the docks of Marseille, which provide an atmospheric backdrop to the drama. Marie (Gina Manès) was an orphan who has been raised by the owners of a local bar, but her upbringing was harsh and now she is exploited by them as a waitress. She also has to fend off the unwanted attentions of Petit Paul (Edmond van Daële), a local thug, who has designs on Marie. Our first sight of him is a point-of-view shot as Marie watches him through a window, shrinking back from him has he strides into the bar. Marie's heart lies elsewhere, with Jean (Léon Mathot), a dockworker, and their scenes together have a dreamlike, romantic feel. Cœur fidèle has a superb ability to switch tones in a swift, sometimes surprising fashion, and there's an edge of menace present when Jean confronts Petit Paul. Epstein builds the tension through a series of rapidly edited close-up shots – faces, fists, a bottle, a hand reaching into a pocket – as Jean is surrounded by Paul's cohorts and forced to back down.

One of the faces Epstein cuts to in that sequence is that of Marie, her features frozen in fear as she watches the man she loves walk into danger. Manès had an extraordinary face and Epstein never misses an opportunity to focus on it and examine the depths of those remarkable eyes. The director frequently cuts to her as she gazes off into the distance, her expression reminding us that her heart is many miles away with Jean while she is stuck on a fairground ride with Paul (the whole fairground sequence is a stunningly sustained set-piece). Epstein truly understood the power of the human face to convey thoughts and emotions wordlessly to the viewer, and his work here often recalls that of Dreyer in its intensity.

Cœur fidèle is an intoxicating blend of the realistic and the lyrical, as Epstein imbues his dark melodrama with stunning visual effects. He lets Marie's face play across the ripples of the ocean as Jean remembers her, or distorts it to show the effect of drunkenness. He also allows the emotions of the story to dictate the film's rhythm – languid at times, breathlessly energetic at others – as Maxence Cyrin's delicate piano score keeps time with the movie's fluctuating tone, finding the perfect melancholy note for the film's most tragic sequences. Cœur fidèle both dazzles the eye and pierces the heart. It is a film to cherish – as the writing on the barroom wall suggests – "for ever."

The Extras

The only extra on the disc is a gallery of photographs taken in 1923, but the Masters of Cinema discs have become famous for the substantial booklets they provide with each release, and this one is no exception. The 44-page supplement contains writing from Epstein himself and Henri Langlois, as well as fascinating tributes from Abel Gance and Jean Cocteau. The best thing about this blu-ray release is simply the stunning image of the film, though. It is almost inconceivable that a nearly 90 year-old film could look this sharp and clear. It is a breathtaking restoration and one of the finest presentations of a silent film that I have ever seen.

Cœur fidèle is released in a DVD/Blu-ray dual format edition on June 27th

Buy Coeur Fidele here

Review - Bridesmaids

When Hollywood isn't creating roles that fully maximise your comic potential, the only route left is to write one for yourself. That's what Kristen Wiig has done with Bridesmaids, giving herself a platform to finally prove what many have known for years, that she's the sharpest and funniest comic actress currently working in American cinema. As a showcase for Wiig, Bridesmaids is a knockout success, but as a film it's only successful in parts, and those parts don't always form a cohesive whole. On the one hand, this is a rather astute study of female bonds under duress and the doubts and fears that plague a single woman as she watches her lifelong friend move on with her life. On the other hand, it's a film in which women vomit on each other while another shits in the sink. It's almost like watching two different films, and only one of them really works.

More often than not, however, the film does work, and Wiig is a constant marvel to watch, attacking her role with enthusiasm and a complete absence of vanity. She plays Annie, a woman whose relationship and business fell apart at the same time and who now finds herself having to live with a weird English brother and sister (a cartoonish Matt Lucas and Rebel Wilson) and having occasional casual sex with a man who always treats her like dirt afterwards (John Hamm, playing the bastard to hilt). Annie's spiral of insecurity and self-loathing is exacerbated by the announcement that her lifelong friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) is about to get married. Wiig is brilliant at portraying Annie's mixed emotions about this development, her nervous laughter as the news is broken to her revealing the panic lurking under her enthusiastic demeanour. Lillian asks Annie to be her Maid of Honour and this is where the problems begin, for Annie and the film.

At Lillian's engagement party, Annie is introduced to the rest of the bridesmaids who will accompany her down the aisle. The key character here is Helen (Rose Byrne), the rich wife of Lillian's fiancé's boss and a woman whom Lillian has apparently grown very close to, unbeknownst to Annie. There's an instant flash of jealousy in Annie's eyes as she fears her position as best friend and confidant has been usurped. Helen is effortlessly glamorous and ultra-controlling, but Byrne, giving an exceptional and revelatory performance, plays her as a woman whose life is empty despite having it all and whose need for Lillian's affections is as deep and as painful as Annie's, for different reasons. The two become locked in an excruciating game of one-upmanship during the speeches, and the bitter, tit-for-tat competition that will drive the narrative – and drive Annie to further depths of humiliation – is set in motion.

All of which gives the rest of the characters very little to do. Melissa McCarthy makes the most of her opportunity as a randy, rotund bridesmaid, but the other two (played by Wendi McLendon-Covey and Ellie Kemper) barely register as characters at all and when they disappear from the movie in its second half they're not missed. There's also a romantic subplot involving Annie and a kind-hearted policeman (Chris O'Dowd), which is desperately underdeveloped, and some pointless scenes involving Annie's mother. Bridesmaids ends up feeling rather overstuffed and the pace of the film is slack. Many scenes run on a little too long and while there are great set-pieces (Annie's drug-induced misbehaviour on a plane is hilarious) and some fun recurring gags (the joke about men standing next to Annie being mistaken for her partner), the connective tissue between these highlights feels loose, with Paul Feig's TV-level direction doing little to tighten it up.

It's a shame that I felt disheartened when I looked at my watch after Annie's big wedding shower breakdown and saw that there was still half an hour to go, because I generally had a good time with Bridesmaids, it just needed to cut away some of the fat and focus on what's important. Scenes like Annie's aforementioned shower madness and the cripplingly unfunny explosion of bodily functions in a wedding dress shop feel too broad and crass against the subtle, incisive humour of that Lillian/Annie/Helen relationship, which is sometimes in danger of getting a little lost as Bridesmaids strives to have it all – the laughs, the raunch and the fairytale finale. All credit to Wiig and co. for ambition, but that expansive reach does threaten to dilute the very strengths that make Bridesmaids feel special in the first place.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Blu-Ray Review - Ice Cold in Alex

The Film

When Ice Cold in Alex was released in the United States in 1961, it was unrecognisable from the film that had made its debut in the UK three years earlier. The film was now called Desert Attack and it ran for a scant 64 minutes, meaning it had lost an hour of footage somewhere over the Atlantic. Of course, chopping the heart out of any film in such a manner is indefensible, but it seems particularly perplexing when you consider the nature of J Lee Thompson's classic war movie. This is a film in which every minute counts. We share every step of the epic journey the characters undertake and by the end of the film we are as exhausted as they are. Reviewing the gutted version in The New York Times in 1961, Eugene Archer wrote, "Suddenly, after practically nothing has happened, the bedraggled travellers arrive at their destination, talking mysteriously about their many arduous adventures and behaving as if they had just spent several years together on a desert island." What a shameful way to treat a great film.

Ice Cold in Alex opens in Tobruk, a British Base in North Africa that has to be evacuated after coming under heavy aerial bombardment from Rommel's troops, and its story is focused on four characters who leave in an old K2 ambulance and head for safety, which lies on the other side of a vast desert. The group consists of Captain Anson (John Mills), a tired and alcoholic soldier, and Sergeant Major Pugh (Harry Andrews), who are tasked with escorting two nurses, Sister Norton (Diane Clare) and Sister Murdoch (Sylvia Sims). Along with the mysterious South African Officer van der Poel (Anthony Quayle), these characters are involved in a series of tense adventures as they attempt to reach Alexandria in Egypt. But there's one other star in this movie – the ambulance itself, nicknamed Katy by Anson, and as much of a character in the ensuing drama as the human leads.

And what drama it is! Re-watching Ice Cold in Alex after so many years I found myself being gripped again by the expertly staged set-pieces that pepper TJ Morrison and Christopher Landon's script. There's a superb sequence early on that sees van der Poel taking an unwise step in a minefield, and the tension is orchestrated brilliantly by Thompson, with Gilbert Taylor's camera capturing every twitch and bead of sweat on the characters' faces. Ice Cold in Alex is an extraordinarily atmospheric film. The searing heat is almost tangible, as is the sense of fear, tiredness and thirst that the characters experience throughout their journey. Thirst, in particular, is a recurring motif, with Anson eagerly anticipating the drink he'll treat himself to when they finally reach Alexandria. We've all seen the famous scene, in which he finally knocks back a cool glass of beer, and few would argue that he hasn't earned it.

This is one of John Mills' greatest performances. His Anson is a complicated, sometimes irascible figure, but one who stands as a great exemplar of courage and dignity under duress. His performance is a standout in a note-perfect ensemble, with all of the actors brilliantly detailing the gradually developing nature of their relationships, which gives the climactic scenes their satisfying complexity and intensity. Ice Cold in Alex is a true classic; a rousing, nerve-wracking and hugely rewarding adventure that deserves to be considered alongside the very best British war films. Quite why the American distributors thought it needed to be shredded and renamed before being presented to viewers over there is beyond my understanding, but those bemused audiences in 1961 don't know what they were missing.

The Extras

A small collection, but the interview with Sylvia Sims is a real pleasure to watch. During the course of twenty minutes she offers a number of amusing anecdotes and fascinating bits of behind-the-scenes info, as she happily discusses a film she clearly has an abiding passion for. There's also some interesting home movie footage that Mills shot during the production that provides us with an intriguing glimpse of activities on the set. Beyond all of that, the chief reason to buy Ice Cold in Alex on blu-ray is for the superb restoration job Optimum have performed on the film's picture.

Ice Cold in Alex is available to buy on blu-ray now.

Buy Ice Cold in Alex here

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"I end up working with all of the best actors in Kinshasa because I am the only filmmaker!" - An interview with Djo Tunda Wa Munga

Djo Munga's Viva Riva! is a striking blend of the familiar and the new. At first, it appears to be a film built from a standard thriller template – as a young criminal falls for a dangerous woman and gets in over his head with a group of violent gangsters – but the fact that the film has been made in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo gives it a bracing freshness. Munga's documentary background and love of classic cinema allows him to detail the problems facing inhabitants of Kinshasa while telling a thoroughly entertaining story, and that approach has seen his film already become an unexpected international hit. I met Djo Munga this week to talk about his hugely impressive debut.

One of the things that is always exciting about watching films from around the world is seeing a great movie come from a country that has no cinematic presence. Is there any kind of film culture in the Congo?

There was a film culture when I was a child. In the 70's I used to watch television and go to the cinema, and in my environment, my family and friends, there was talk about which films were good and things like that. Thirty years after, there is no industry of cinema of course, but there is no culture of cinema either. When I say "culture of cinema," I mean there is no sense of 'this filmmaker is good' or 'I heard about that that film,' the cultural level has disappeared. We just have television, which is all American or all Nigerian. There is no culture of cinema. I think it is very important to have a film museum, a cinémathèque, where people can go and watch the classics, and then they would learn about the history of cinema.

So how hard is it to get a film made in a country with such a limited sense of cinema?

The good thing is that, while there is no cinema, there is a high level of unemployment and people need to work. In my company, for example, the person who is behind me is a lawyer. She is a smart woman but when she finished her training there was no work. I hired her as a trainee and she started working with me – a documentary here, a documentary there – and she started to enjoy it. Many people are like that, and the advantage is that in a poor country like this one, I end up working with all of the best actors in Kinshasa because I am the only filmmaker! [laughs] I can pick anyone. Eventually we have a great time together working on this film, but it is difficult when people are starting from scratch because you have start everything from the beginning, training people and going through the basics. It is also a good rehearsal for yourself, though, because at the end of the day you know what is really necessary on a film like this. All of the crap disappears because you don't have the time or you don't have the energy.

Your background is in documentary filmmaking. Did you feel that gave you a good basis for making a fiction film, or was it a completely different challenge?

I did work in documentaries because I needed to work. When I was at film school, if somebody said I was going to work on documentaries I would have said, "Oh no, I don't want that" but it was the only job available. I worked for the BBC on a documentary called White King, Red Rubber, Black Death as a line producer, and I learned so much and had such a great time. This training really helped me as a scriptwriter, because even if you are making a fiction film you want to focus on reality. You look at reality and create characters because you see the real dynamics of society, not characters you create in your brain because you watch too many films. Coming back to the history of cinema, the first films, the classics, were films where filmmakers looked at reality to write their stories, not like now when people make movies about the movies they've seen. That was very exciting, to work in the Congo and get a grip on reality.

You're working with a mixture of non-actors and experienced actors in the film. Did you have to work with them in a different way?

No, because the professional actors we had like Hoji [Fortuna] or Manie [Malone], they hadn't done big feature films before and they were new in Kinshasa, so for them it was also the beginning. I treated everybody the same way in the workshop and rehearsal, and the energy between everybody was nice, everyone was working at the same level and it was good in that sense. That was one of the cool things about working in Kinshasa. When we were testing actors we tested some who came from Paris, and they thought, "We come from Paris, we are proper actors" but they arrived in rehearsal and had to work with these non-actors. You can't pretend, you just have to jump in and swim, and some didn't survive so that created a bond.

It would be very easy for a documentary filmmaker to go to the Congo and make a film about the tragedy of the situation there, but you have the opportunity to engage and entertain an audience while showing them what is happening in the country.

Exactly, and to create a narrative is very exciting. You want to show a city that is functioning, exciting and sexy, and you want to create that atmosphere. The politics are there but in the background, and you don't want to get into a statement, you know, because that is a trap. It's too easy to say, "Oh, Africa is terrible, blah, blah..." and we have heard that before.

You present Kinshasa as a city that has corruption at every level. Even the priest gets involved at one point.

[laughs] That's true. The question about corruption is interesting, though, because at some level of poverty corruption is just a survival mode. A guy who is a policeman and never receives a salary, what's he going to do? He's just trying to make a living, you know? Even the church, which we would say is the strongest institution, operates with humans and they also need gas, because they're part of this environment. When you get down to a very human level they are all part of the same thing and all victims of the same mechanism.

The character of César is interesting because not only is he a great character to watch, he seems to represent a deep sense of prejudice that exists between Angolans and Congolese.

I wanted to talk about the racism among Africans. When you have a meeting like the UN you see a lot of Africans there, wealthy people, but when you look at their behaviour it's funny how Africans look down on other Africans. Certainly in my country, but also when I travel. We had this great idea in the 60's and 70's of pan-Africanism, this huge, fundamental idea that we are all together, but it is different now. I wanted to depict the complete opposite, that society has broken down.

You clearly have a great love of cinema and Viva Riva! is very much in the mould of a classic genre film. What influences did you draw on?

I often talk about Sergio Leone, because he was a very important filmmaker to me, but I could also talk about Kenji Mizoguchi, the Japanese filmmaker, because of his vision of women and the corruption of society. Kurosawa is a huge filmmaker and he influenced me in the development of Viva Riva! because of he made a gangster movie with a documentary approach in Stray Dog, and it influenced me in terms of construction. But when you look at Mizoguchi, and the Japanese filmmakers in the 30's, 40's and 50's, he talks about what you see between the lines of the perfect society, the corruption and prostitution, and what you see behind the curtain. I find that really fascinating. I was talking earlier about Ken Loach, who is not a director I'm inspired by, but I love his work and I love the way his lines are really pure in his films. I also love modern directors like Tarantino. The world of cinema is my influence, and I just enjoy movies. I also love Buñuel but I don't think my work is like Buñuel in any way [laughs].

It's interesting that you should mention Mizoguchi as an influence because he was a great feminist director and you have two key female characters in this film. Given the terrible situation for women in the Congo, was it important for you to have strong women in your film?

Yes it was. Of course, the situation of women is quite terrible in the Congo, but on the other side we never talk about how modern Congolese women are. I'm telling you, if these women were not there the country would be in much worse shape than it is now. That's what I wanted to represent, especially with the Commandant. She's just a regular woman who happens to be in the army, but for her loyalty to her sister she is ready to do whatever is necessary and she finds a way to manoeuvre in that society. Another character that we never talk about is Madame Edo, who owns the brothel. She has a kind of bond with Riva, a maternal link that has replaced his real mother. One of the things I like in Kinshasa is that it is still an open-minded society, even if it is a bit confused, and I wanted to show that through the sex in the movie.

The film is very frank in the way it depicts sex.

I think we have this very straightforward, open approach in Kinshasa. It can be quite crude, in a way, but it's very direct. So it's part of the culture, and if I had made that film in Mbasi, which is a city in the east, maybe the approach would be more...I don't know...more "Swedish" [laughs]. It would be more reserved, but in Kinshasa we're very direct.

What do you think the success of this film can do for cinema in the Congo? Do you think other filmmakers will be inspired to make films there?

It has already done amazing things for the Congo. The fact that we have been to Toronto and Berlin as the first Congolese film, and also that the film has been picked up for distribution in the US, Canada, England, Australia, Germany,'s already huge. It will open in ten African nations in September and it has already won six African movie awards. In Africa that means a lot because these awards are usually dominated by English-speaking countries – South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya – so for a French-speaking film to win the major awards it says that this is a change.

What are you planning next?

I am trying to make a thriller set in Kinshasa with a Chinese detective, a Chinese-Congolese story. I don't know if you know this, but in the last twenty years China has been the biggest migration into Africa, in terms of businesses and people, so I think that will be an interesting story to talk about. I know that the western media always depict China with this negative image, but the reality is much more complex than that.

Reality always is.

[Laughs] That's right, absolutely.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Review - Viva Riva!

Viva Riva! opens with a panoramic view of Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and it is presented as a city bustling with activity. The next two close-ups show money changing hands and gasoline being siphoned, and thus the key elements that drive the narrative have been established. In this city, everyone is looking to get their hands on those two valuable commodities, cash and fuel, and they will do anything to achieve that goal. One man who currently possesses both is Riva (played with insouciant arrogance by Patsha Bay), who arrives back in the Congo having stolen a few barrel-loads of gas from a group of crooks in neighbouring Angola. Angolan gangster César (Hoji Fortuna) is on his trail, but with beautiful femme fatale Nora (Manie Malone) in his sights and a thick wad of cash in his pocket, Riva is only interested in having a good time.

And a good time is all but guaranteed with Viva Riva!, the first film to be produced in the war-torn Congo for many decades. This setting does give Viva Riva! a particular flavour and atmosphere, even if its narrative trajectory and characters may seem to be drawn from familiar archetypes. Riva himself is a cocksure protagonist whose confidence is often undermined by his naïveté; unaware of the trouble he's walking into until he is knee-deep in it, but always confident in his own ability to wriggle free. Bay is a solid actor but first-time director Djo Munga was wise to surround him with a handful of more colourful individuals capable of sharing the dramatic burden. The most memorable of these is Fortuna's César, the sharply dressed criminal whose quietly menacing presence dominates most of the scenes he appears in. Fortuna has a great way of directing his gaze over his shades to intimidate those standing in his path, but even he can't avoid getting entangled in the complicated fabric of Congolese society, spending vital hours locked in a cell at the whim of a corrupt cop.

That's an example of how Munga uses his characters and the situations they find themselves to suggest the greater ills in Kinshasa at large without turning his film into a statement. César also reveals the sense of prejudice that seems to exist between Congolese and Angolan natives, while Munga uses other narrative strands to display the corruption that is endemic at every level of Congolese society (even the church is indicted), but the director has the confidence to let his story flow and to let political commentary exist in the background. His focus is on delivering an energetic, exciting portrait of criminal life in Congo's capital city, and in this respect he succeeds superbly. His direction is suitably brash and forthright, sustaining an engrossing momentum and punching up his story with frank doses of eroticism and bloodshed. It is a combustible brew.

The film's sexual element is particularly interesting. The grim situation for many women in the Congo is all too familiar, so it is notable that Munga has written two strong female characters in key roles. As the lesbian soldier forced to assist César in order to save her sister, Marlene Longange is a sly, quick-thinking presence sensitively played by the actress, while the object of Riva's affection, Nora, is a seductive, flame-haired beauty who uses her ability to transfix male admirers to her advantage. The fact that these strong-willed female characters exist in a film produced in the Congo may come as a surprise, but it's a sign of Munga's determination to do things differently and provide us with a fresh view of his country. Viva Riva! is a sleazily entertaining and eye-opening ride, and it's the work of a filmmaker with a strong understanding of genre dynamics who clearly has a bright future ahead of him. Perhaps the film's success will inspire other Congolese filmmakers to pick up a camera and tell stories about their troubled country, but if they do, I doubt many of the resulting films will be as much fun as Viva Riva!

Read my interview with Djo Tunda Wa Munga here

Review - The Beaver

How seriously are we supposed to take The Beaver? The fact that the film is about a man who wears a tatty beaver puppet on his hand for the duration of the movie suggests that there's comedy to be found in Jodie Foster's film, but Foster herself doesn't seem to see it that way. She and screenwriter Kyle Killen seem to go to great lengths to normalise this situation and use it to explore the traumatic family ties that bind depressed toy company CEO Walter Black (Mel Gibson) with his wife (Foster) and two sons. As I watched The Beaver, I kept waiting for its straight face to crack, but the film seems perversely determined to sidestep any hints of frivolity inherent in the premise. This is a drama about issues and a film in which everyone learns from their experiences to grow closer before the credits roll, but the potential was there for a darker, funnier and more incisive movie, and I spent much of The Beaver thinking about the road not taken.

It's little wonder my thoughts continually drifted to the movie The Beaver might have been, because the movie that actually played out on the screen was often too tedious and irritating to contemplate. Part of the film's problem is its skimpiness. At 90 minutes, there's not enough room to explore the themes raised in the film with any depth, and it comes of looking like an insultingly glib view of depression. When we first meet Walter, his malaise has already taken hold, so we get no sense of the man he was before he went off the deep end. A voiceover sets the scene as we watch Walter pack up his belongings and leave his exasperated but concerned wife Meredith (Foster), checking into a motel where he drinks himself into a stupor and slides inexorably towards the decision to take his own life.

Salvation is found in an unlikely source. Walter impulsively retrieved a tatty old beaver hand puppet from the trash on his way to his motel, and this beaver pulls him back from the brink just as he's about to end his life. To be more accurate – Walter starts talking to himself through the beaver, adopting a cockney accent and giving himself little pep talks. As arbitrary as this plot development is, the filmmakers run with it nonetheless, but they don't get far before the thinness of this conceit is exposed. Having failed to make me believe in the depths of Walter's depression, The Beaver similarly failed to make me believe in the cure. Why does he adopt this puppet as his communication tool, even going so far as to forge a doctor's note recommending the use of it? It feels like a contrived plot point rather than an organic, convincing development, and throughout The Beaver, Walter's fluctuating fortunes feel more like beats the screenplay has to hit than anything real.

None of the blame for this lies at Gibson's feet. He is as committed as possible to the role, and his puppetry is excellent, but he feels ill-suited to the character. Gibson has played characters teetering on the verge of insanity many times in the past, but while those characters have often displayed a dangerous, manic edge, Walter is disappointingly withdrawn, and Gibson's inert performance doesn't give him the opportunity to remind us what an excitingly unpredictable performer he can be. Even when Walter finds himself battling against his own beaver-clad hand – in a scene reminiscent of Ash's "Who's laughing now?" from Evil Dead 2 – he seems curiously lacking in energy. Mel Gibson remains a fascinating actor, and he'd be my first pick to play an emotionally unstable individual such as Walter, but Foster's direction saps whatever magic he might have brought to the role.

This is a curious project for Jodie Foster to take on. She has attacked her recent acting roles with a grim seriousness and she allows nothing to get in the way of the emotional uplift and universal learning curve that she pushes The Beaver's characters through. Even the film's quirkier elements (such as Walter's son Porter (Anton Yelchin) documenting similarities to his father in hundreds of post-it notes) feel calculated; and while the film may have found room to treat Walter's depression in a less trite manner had it entirely jettisoned its tedious subplot (involving Yelchin and equally troubled teen Jennifer Lawrence), I still think Foster's inability to find the required tone would have sunk it. For the most part, The Beaver feels like a terribly awkward and confused movie, never sure whether to venture into darkness or reach out for a hug and failing to commit to any tone satisfactorily. When I left the screening I felt The Beaver was a total fiasco, but perhaps that's harsh. All things considered, it just feels like a wasted opportunity, and in some respects that's even more disappointing.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Review - Senna

Towards the end of Asif Kapadia's documentary Senna, we see Ayrton Senna being asked whom he most admires at a press conference. Despite his years spent at the top of the Formula 1 world, the driver casts his mind back to his youth for the answer, recalling someone he raced alongside as a teenager on the go-kart circuit. A world away from the money, the fame and the technology that dominated the sport he now took part in, he and his fellow the go-kart racers took to the track for the sheer thrill of driving and testing their skills against their competitors. "It was pure driving" he states, "real racing," and we get the sense that this ideal stayed with Senna during his glorious but tragically short career. A deep love of his sport and a ceaseless pursuit of victory motivated him, and that mentality – combined with a God-given natural ability – is what tends to separate true sporting stars from the rest.

Senna is not really a film about Formula 1. The film's subject may have competed in that arena, but he subsequently became one of the rare individuals who managed to transcend their chosen sport to resonate with the world outside it, and Asif Kapadia's film deserves to achieve the same feat. It is a movie that should resonate with both Formula 1 devotees and those with no knowledge of or interest in the sport because it is a riveting character study of a complex and charismatic individual. We see how he lit up the sport of Formula one, how he affected everyone who worked alongside him, and how he became an icon in his native Brazil. Senna might veer close to hagiography, but the love and respect of those involved in the film feels completely genuine. It's impossible to watch the film without being touched by the story it tells, because Senna is, above all else, an exemplary piece of storytelling.

This is Asif Kapadia's first documentary feature, but it unfolds with the momentum of a great drama. Kapadia and writer Manish Pandey have focused in on the key points in Senna's life and shaped an absorbing narrative around them. The film contains all the elements of a gripping tale – a charismatic hero, an extraordinary rise to prominence, a bitter long-running feud, political chicanery, and a tragic denouement – and the filmmakers weave through each of these checkpoints with remarkable confidence and elegance. For an extraordinary subject, they have chosen to make an extraordinary film, rejecting many standard documentary tropes and electing to tell Senna's story in as streamlined a fashion as possible. There are no onscreen talking heads here to disrupt the film's flow; the whole movie is constructed from a treasure trove of footage (some of which, having been retrieved from the F1 vaults, has never been seen before), which makes sense as Kapadia has always been a very visual storyteller. He builds a portrait of Senna through official race footage, interview clips, home videos and behind-the-scenes shots, and the film is an editing masterclass, weaving together images from a wide variety of sources into a coherent and perfectly paced whole.

The portrait of Ayrton Senna that does emerge from the film is one of a natural born sportsman and star. He displayed his racing prowess at an early stage, and came to prominence at the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, when he drove fearlessly in treacherous conditions to move up from 13th place and into contention for the lead, before his assault on race leader Alain Prost was halted by a red flag. Prost subsequently became a key figure in Senna's career; the dour, pragmatic Frenchman frequently clashing both on and off the track with his more tempestuous rival. At the Japanese Grand Prix in 1990, Senna claimed Prost was being given an unfair advantage with the positioning of the first and second drivers on the starting grid, and the pair collided at the first corner, with Senna driving Prost off the track and into the gravel, securing the Brazilian his second world championship in the process. Senna professes his innocence in a later interview ("If you don't go for that gap" he tells Jackie Stewart, "you are no longer a racing driver.") but the incident reveals the steely determination that lay beneath the handsome, charming surface.

That determination is what drove Senna to one of his most iconic victory, when he overcame technical failures to win the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix in front of a passionate home crowd. The malfunction of Senna's gearbox meant he had to draw upon all his reserves of strength to keep his car on course, and it's an extraordinary sight to see him having to be lifted from his vehicle after the race, barely able to lift his arms and in incredible pain. He gave everything to win that race in his native country. No wonder the Brazilian people loved him. No wonder they felt such a profound sense of grief at his passing.

How difficult it must have been for Kapadia and Pandey to approach the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. We all know this is what Senna is building towards, the race that claimed the lives of both the film's subject and Roland Ratzenberger, but the filmmakers handle it with commendable sensitivity and tact. They don't need to overplay the emotions of this event. All they need to do is show us the stricken faces of Senna's teammates and rivals, let us hear the heartbroken recollections of his friends, and experience the astonishing outpouring of grief that was on display at his funeral in São Paulo. As we watch these scenes, we still feel the tragedy of his loss almost twenty years on. Formula 1 today is a sport characterised by technology, money, sponsorship and allegations of corruption, while the men driving the machines themselves often appear to be an afterthought. In such an environment, it's heartening to be reminded of a man who briefly illuminated the sport with his pursuit of "pure driving" and "real racing," and Senna is the most fitting tribute imaginable.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Review - Kung Fu Panda 2

If we must have endless sequels to Kung Fu Panda – and I fear DreamWorks' accountants insist we must – then we can only hope that they're all as sharp and enjoyable as Kung Fu Panda 2. This may be an unnecessary addition to a film that was a small pleasure on its own, but it's a painless affair as these things go. It also helps that chubby panda Po is Jack Black's most personable role, one in which he displays an endearingly naïve charm and some surprisingly dextrous voice work. In this second instalment, the newly crowned Dragon Warrior Po remains a lovably lazy and greedy creation, impressing the rest of the Furious Five in an early scene with his astonishing ability to fit multiple dumplings in his mouth rather than showcasing his martial arts skills. He gets the chance to display those talents soon after, however, when Po and the Five are called to defend a musicians' village from marauding bandits ("Play some action music," Po demands of one before the fight begins).

The speed with which Kung Fu Panda 2 dives into its first action sequence – and the breathlessness of the ensuing melee – is indicative of the way the movie carries itself. This is a much leaner and more direct picture than its predecessor, with director Jennifer Yuh spending less time on comedic set-pieces and instead focusing more on spectacle and plot, and the movie is often a real thrill. The many chase sequences and large-scale fight scenes are handled with real verve and energy, and the gorgeously detailed animation is a wonder throughout. The momentum rarely slackens, which is fun but also a little exhausting, and what downtime there is tends to focus on Po's origins, as the central protagonist begins to learn who he is and where he came from.

I was excited when I heard that Charlie Kaufman was going to be working on the Kung Fu Panda 2 screenplay, but alas, my vision of a film that takes place entirely inside Po's angst-ridden mind didn't come to pass. Instead, the plot introduces a new villain, a peacock named Shen (a well-cast Gary Oldman), who wants to rule all of China with his fireworks-based weaponry and once attempted to wipe out the panda race, making little Po an orphan. The revelation of Po's heritage does rather spoil one of the best gags from the original film – the unspoken weirdness of a goose fathering a panda – but it also gives the drama a solid emotional backbone that is skilfully developed. Po's relationship with fellow Furious Five member Tigress (Angelina Jolie) is given some weight too, and the panda's search for inner piece pays dividends during the involving climax.

Unfortunately, as in the first film, few of the characters surrounding Po are given a great deal to do. While Dustin Hoffman can make his mark in just a few scenes as Po's mentor Master Shifu, I can barely remember a single vital contribution from Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu or David Cross; the team of heroes essentially boils down to Po and Tigress, but that's ultimately all the film needs. Kung Fu Panda 2 is a movie that simply gets the job done – it builds efficiently upon the first instalment, offers an enjoyable standalone story, and sets the scene for further adventures. It's hard to bear a grudge against studios churning out sequels when they work as well as this, but can DreamWorks keep it up? I have a feeling this panda is going to run and run.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Blu-ray Review - Cross of Iron

The Film

In retrospect, it seems strange that Sam Peckinpah didn't make more war films during his career; it seems like a stage perfectly suited to his particular talents and obsessions. The director's only forays into the field of warfare were his compromised 1965 Civil War drama Major Dundee and Cross of Iron, his account of a German squadron fighting a losing battle on the Eastern Front. Peckinpah's protagonist is Sgt. Steiner (James Coburn, at his most forceful and charismatic), a tough, independent-minded soldier beloved by his men and tolerated by his occasionally exasperated superiors. One of those superiors is the aristocratic Capt. Stransky (Maximilian Schell) who has requested a transfer to the front in the hope of winning an Iron Cross for valour, but his dreams of glory don't sit well with Steiner. The grizzled Sergeant has seen enough to know that there's no glory to be had on the battlefield.

Who better to depict the inglorious nature of warfare than Peckinpah? His cinema has always been both enraptured and appalled by violence, and Cross of Iron finds him in his element. Tanks drive over half-submerged bodies in the mud, a child caught in the crossfire is riddled with bullets, wounded men display their butchered limbs at a military hospital and soldiers are blown into the sky. Much of the film's opening half-hour plays out to an incessant soundtrack of deafening explosions as Peckinpah immerses us in his hellish vision of battle. At times, it seems as if those constant detonations have thrown the story off course; Cross of Iron's narrative, adapted from Willi Heinrich's novel The Willing Flesh, is uneven and choppy. The tone of the picture is all over the place (as are the actors' accents), but this unevenness in itself turns the picture into a fascinatingly distinctive entry into the genre of World War II films.

It also allows Peckinpah to explore his primary fascination, man's cruelty to man, and Cross of Iron is very much a man's picture – indeed, one scene has Schell dreaming of "a world without women," while there are a couple of scenes in which soldiers kiss and fondle one another. Peckinpah seems to have little use for his female cast members, and the few women who do appear in the film have little of substance to do. One is a nurse who strikes up a relationship with Steiner during his brief respite from the front, while the rest of the female cast consist of an unlikely group of buxom soldiers whom Steiner's men stumble across in a remote cabin. The sequence that follows is, on the whole, pretty tasteless (does a dismembered cock count as a victory for feminism, Peckinpah style?) but, as ever, the director embraces matters of good taste and bad with the same conviction.

Surprisingly, however, something quite profound emerges from the chaos towards the pictures end, as the absurdity and ultimate futility of Steiner and Stransky's conflict mirrors the war that surrounds them. What can you do but laugh at the actions of men caught up in their petty pursuit of honour and glory while bodies burn around them? That's exactly what Peckinpah gives us, with Steiner's booming laughter echoing over images of death and destruction towards the end of the picture. Orson Welles called Cross of Iron "The finest anti-war film ever made," and while I wouldn't go that far, the film does indeed capture something about the nature of war and the depressing inevitability of it. "What will we do when we have lost the war?" Colonel Brandt (James Mason) asks during the film, "Prepare for the next one" comes the embittered reply.

The Extras

A superb collection of extras gives us a generous amount of time with Peckinpah and those who worked with him. The 45-minute Passion & Poetry documentary is replete with great anecdotes about a director who could be a dream and a nightmare to work with, both a hellraiser and extremely loyal. James Coburn's contributions are particularly enjoyable and there are additional audio interviews with Coburn, Peckinpah and others elsewhere on the disc. Vadim Glowna tells an amusing story about his kissing scene, and we get to see the letters that he and Peckinpah wrote to each other during the course of the shoot. An insight into some deleted scenes, a few short featurettes and a couple of trailers round out a fine package.

Cross of Iron is released on Blu-ray on June 13th.

Buy Cross of Iron here