Monday, December 31, 2007

Fracture

2007, US, directed by Gregory Hoblit

Director Gregory Hoblit has been here before, mining material similar to that of his first feature film, Primal Fear (which featured a memorable debut from Edward Norton). As in that film, Hoblit ensures that the narrative tricks play second fiddle to the confrontation between the two lead actors, Ryan Gosling and Anthony Hopkins (playing a young prosecutor and a wealthy murder suspect, respectively).

Hopkins, his voice rich in his original Welsh accent, is much better here than is often the case when he's on the Hollywood dollar, referencing his original turn as Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs but toning down the subsequent ham, while Gosling has held on to something of the rawness of his recent turn in Half Nelson, investing his character's hard-scrabble back story with more than usual conviction. Hoblit shoots the film in a calm, precise style, lingering over surfaces and shadows, of which there is no shortage in Hopkins's remarkable house, where the film's plot kicks into gear. It's a nice contrast to the more frenetic style that's so characteristic of recent Hollywood storytelling, allowing ample room for the actors to work, rather than reducing them, Bourne-like, to a single expression for the duration of the movie.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Shoot 'Em Up

2007, US, directed by Michael Davis

Rating: **

With just under 90 minutes of frenetic over-the-top gunplay and stunt work, Shoot 'Em Up would like to think itself a throwback to the glory days of Hong Kong action films, right down to the hero carrying a baby as he blasts everything in sight. Although some of the set pieces are carried off with chutzpah, particularly the opening sequence when an apparently unremarkable bystander - Clive Owen - turns out to be a master with a weapon, the filmmakers unaccountably graft on a plot about, of all things, gun control. Director Michael Davis no doubt finds this extremely witty, along with his very literal mother/whore (Monica Bellucci) and a running joke wherein the ultra-violent villain (a remarkably poor shot when the plot requires) gets nagging phone calls from his wife. Like the high-octane Hong Kong movies on which it models itself, the film exists in a world completely divorced from the one we inhabit, with shootouts prompting not even passing police interest. It renders the average James Bond adventure surprisingly credible, and a lot less bloody.

River of No Return

1954, US, directed by Otto Preminger

Marilyn Monroe makes a rare appearance in a western here, directed by Otto Preminger making his only outing in the genre; old hand Robert Mitchum is there to keep things on track (a good thing, since Monroe's unusual diction sometimes seems to belong to a different film). In plot terms, it's a fairly conventional tale, with Mitchum trying to escape a troubled - though not dishonorable - past in the Canadian Rockies, along with his young son, but getting himself dragged into someone else's tale of greed.

While the film succeeds admirably as entertainment - Mitchum's performance is particularly good - I can't help thinking that the auteurist case for the film has been perhaps a touch overstated. The narrative arc that conveys bitterly-won knowledge from father to son seems a typical Hollywood contrivance, while many of the individual incidents, are standard western fare (which is not to say that they aren't enjoyable, nor that they aren't stitched together with care).

By contrast, the director is more obviously present in the insistently mobile camerawork. The early scenes, in a gold miners' camp, are especially strong, and a sequence when the camera roams through the makeshift bar where Monroe performs is exquisitely choreographed. For all his tilting at moral convention elsewhere, though, the sexual politics here seem decidedly old school, particularly in the sequence where Mitchum first imposes himself on Monroe.

[Update: Via girish, I read Dan Sallitt's post on Henry Hathaway, and it seems to me that he's suggesting some of the same issues with auteurist evaluation of a filmmaker. It reinforces my sense that River of No Return may be a decent illustration of some aspects of Preminger's visual style without necessarily being a great primer on some of his thematic interests. I read somewhere that he made the film under contractual obligation, and wasn't that interested in the project, but I need to find a solid source for that speculation.]

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Once

2007, Ireland, directed by John Carney
A small but infectiously enjoyable film about a serendipitous artistic encounter, Once is also a quietly pointed commentary on Ireland in the age of the Celtic Tiger. The slight story revolves around the meeting between a Dublin busker (Glen Hansard, lead singer of the Dublin band The Frames, and sometime Commitment) and a young Czech immigrant (Markéta Irglová) who proves to be a talented musician. It's a pretty familiar tale of growing attachment and dreams of the big time, but director John Carney keeps the film consistently anchored in reality, creating a deft, humorous portrait of life on the fringes, that results in a thoroughly satisfying payoff.

The film adeptly captures the air of Dublin circa 2006, a city with a burgeoning immigrant population (most notably, in recent years, people from Eastern Europe), and a newfound wealth. Carney, a former member of The Frames himself, isn't taken in by tales of gold in the streets, however: even within the world of the film, dreams of musical success lie not in Dublin but in London, tempering the images of economic boom. The director is also insistently accurate in his account of Dublin geography: the characters accurately navigate the city's streets while walking from one location to another, as if to reinforce the idea that the film is grounded in a particular place and time.

Given how natural they seem onscreen, it's tempting, too, to conclude that Hansard and Irglová are playing thinly-veiled versions of themselves, though they can't conceal their musical talents. Carney allows their work free rein, playing several songs in their entirety (the film's main weakness is perhaps the overuse of musical montage, even allowing for the fact that it's more a musical than a drama). For the most part, he films the action in stripped-down style, using a handheld camera and sometimes minimal lighting (a sequence where a group of musicians eat, drink, and play together one evening has a wonderful shadowy warmth). He does nonetheless allow himself the occasional directorial flourish, particularly near the end, but also early on in a beautiful slow handheld shot that advances on Hansard as he busks on Grafton Street after dark, moving in on the singer's face as he reaches his song's climax.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Speed

1994, US, directed by Jan de Bont
A B-movie action flick with an A budget, Jan de Bont's directorial debut is a good exercise in making the most of what you have in the Hollywood context. Though Keanu Reeves has his moments as an actor, the director wisely keeps Reeves's dialogue here to a minimum, since he's far more convincing as a cop of action rather than a cop of words (Graham Yost's script, full of irritating verbal tics, most notably a running series of "pop quiz" remarks, doesn't help Reeves's cause).

While the premise, as in many an action movie, is absurd, de Bont moves the plot along so swiftly - and so clearly - that there's little time to reflect on the inconsistencies. He's helped enormously by the serendipity of a catching a young actress on the rise, the more so given that Sandra Bullock has tremendous onscreen chemistry with Reeves (by contrast, Dennis Hopper is a laughably manic villain).
It's refreshing, too, to rewind a few years and watch a movie that depends more on old-fashioned sleight-of-hand and stuntwork than on CGI effects. Perfect post-Christmas bloated-stomach brain-detached watching.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Tiger's Tail

2006, Ireland, directed by John Boorman

Since their highly successful 1998 collaboration The General - based on the life of the Dublin criminal Martin Cahill - Brendan Gleeson has been a fixture in John Boorman's work; The Tiger's Tail returns him to center stage, and to Dublin, for a rough-edged satire on modern Ireland. It's an uneven film, full of unexpected shifts in tone, sometimes bluntly funny, then disconcertingly serious, but when it hangs together it's compelling, and enjoyably disrespectful of sacred cows.

Gleeson plays Liam O'Leary, a highly successful property developer emblematic of the Celtic Tiger, who becomes convinced he sees his doppelgänger at every turn, causing him to call his entire life into question. As with a film like Emmanuel Carrère's La Moustache the film is a very serious kind of fable, that hinges entirely on suspension of disbelief. Unfortunately, it only works up to a point: it's difficult to take the double's infiltration entirely seriously, particularly in a deeply questionable - even in the satirical context - rape scene involving O'Leary's wife (Kim Cattrall), though Gleeson does a fine job distinguishing between the two characters.
Gleeson always seems on strongest ground when he's at home - his accents sometimes leave a little to be desired, though that's not the case here - and he carries the film through many of its weaker patches, accompanied by a veritable galaxy of Irish character actors in the smaller roles. As you might expect with Boorman, the film is visually strong, with atmospheric camerawork from Seamus Deasy, who also shot The General (in beautiful black and white).

The film is most successful as an indictment of the direction of contemporary Ireland - it's no accident that O'Leary is a developer, driving property prices ever higher in a fragile pyramid of excess - with Boorman turning an especially jaundiced eye on his adoptive home (he counters the accusation of rose-eyed nostalgia with an acid commentary on the social values of the past, too). Two sequences stand out in particular: the puking excesses on a weekend night in Dublin's Temple Bar, and his hellish vision of a hospital casualty ward (though the plotting required to take the viewer there seems contrived). The Temple Bar segment is a brilliantly conceived living nightmare, where drunken young people stagger around like the zombies of Shaun of the Dead (with Shaun initially unaware that they are any different from the average blear-eyed Londoner), while the casualty scenes might have been lifted from the accounts of dreadful hospital experiences that regularly grace the pages of The Irish Times.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Painted Veil

2006, US/China, directed by John Curran

As in his previous films, sensitive literary adaptations all, John Curran's primary pre-occupation in The Painted Veil is the secrets and compromises at the heart of relationships. He has drawn his inspiration from a wide range of literary sources, with the raw material on this occasion coming from W. Somerset Maugham's eponymous novel, already filmed a number of times. Ron Nyswaner's script makes substantial changes to the original book, however, while preserving many of the best lines, even if they are attributed to different characters.

Most obviously, the film opens up the novel's perspective, which is focused almost exclusively on the character of Kitty Fane (Naomi Watts), and reduces almost everyone else to a supporting role. This filmed version places her husband, Walter Fane (Edward Norton), on a roughly equal footing. The film also changes the setting of the early portions of the film, moving the action from Hong Kong to Shanghai (Maugham initially had to invent a fictitious locale after a colonial official took legal action around the time of the book's publication, but modern editions of the book have restored the original setting).

More importantly, the filmed version makes substantial changes to the ending, abandoning the original coda entirely. The new conclusion injects a dose of Hollywood uplift that Maugham denies his characters, while the final sequence showcases an independence of mind perhaps desired by modern audiences but likely unattainable in 1920s Britain. It also reduces the spiritual journey at the heart of Maugham's work to a more conventional tale of self-realisation.

By contrast, there is a satisfying addition in the form of a vein of commentary on the emergence of Chinese nationalism in the 1920s, a theme only hinted at in the novel, which makes but a fleeting reference to anti-foreigner riots. Curran is more fully invested in the idea of a story that takes place in China than Maugham ever was; the book requires a distant location, but often fails to move beyond a fairly simplistic exoticism. Curran delves a little more deeply into Walter Fane's motivations as a scientist, drawing a portrait that has more than a hint of Albert Schweitzer - not necessarily, these days, an unblemished positive. Fane, who makes no effort to speak Chinese, is persistently surprised when those local people with whom he works display wit, intelligence and cosmopolitan sophistication; despite his labors on behalf of those afflicted by a terrible cholera epidemic, he's condemned to remain apart, whereas his wife is ultimately willing to plunge in to local life in an more enveloping way.

The filmed version is perhaps most faithful to the original in its remarkable cast: Watts and Norton skilfully capture the nuances of class and social pressure that have entrapped Kitty and Walter, while there's a horrible tension to their interactions after the revelation of Kitty's unfaithfulness, with neither person equipped to discuss the problems that beset them. The smaller parts, too, ring true: Liev Schreiber may be a touch too dashing as Kitty's paramour, but he's convincingly caddish once things go awry, while Toby Jones mixes weariness with shrewd humanity as Waddington, the only other foreigner once the Fanes decamp for the countryside, and the cholera, in the aftermath of Kitty's infidelity; the great Hong Kong star Anthony Wong also has a nice, if small, turn as the local police captain.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

I Am Legend

2007, US, directed by Francis Lawrence


More than anything else, I Am Legend is a testament to Will Smith's considerable star power: for much of the film, he's the only identifiable character, as in Tom Hanks's similar solo turn in Cast Away (Smith at least has the benefit of an eerily de-populated New York and an expressive dog as support, where Hanks had to rely on a ball as straight man). Smith, a tremendously appealing performer, is also a solid actor, and he's convincing as Robert Neville, New York's last remaining resident, a resourceful man of action. Despite a carefully honed routine, he's prey to his own mind - driven half-mad, on his bad days, by the necessity of sustained paranoia and the lack of human company.

The film is on surest ground while Smith is alone - his daily explorations of the city are suspenseful and strange, whether driving the wrong way up weed-infested Manhattan streets or exploring the homes of those killed by the devastating virus that has swept all before it, save Neville, who is trying to understand his own immunity (Emma Thompson makes a brief, uncredited appearance as Dr. Krippin, the virologist who's to blame; her name is reminiscent of another famous killer who found himself on the wrong end of an earlier technology of global reach). Halfway through, the film switches gears, abandoning much of its subtlety in favour of more mundane (and too obviously) computer-generated thrills; the film's budget doesn't stretch to the kind of authentically thrilling denouement of 28 Weeks Later, with which it shares some thematic similarities, though less filmmaking chutzpah.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Adam and Paul

2004, Ireland, directed by Lenny Abrahamson

Set over the course of one twenty-four hour period, Lenny Abrahamson's film follows two drug-addled Dubliners on their increasingly desperate attempts to gather enough money to score another hit. Adam and Paul - invariably referred to as one undifferentiated person, Adamandpaul, by everyone else - owe much to Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon, trying desperately to fill the hours that seem to stretch endlessly before them (Abrahamson's only prior film, the 1991 short Three Joes, similarly gave an absurdist spin to an apparently ordinary setting).

The film is not simply a re-working of Waiting for Godot, however, but rather a conscious counter-narrative to the prevailing mythologies of the Celtic Tiger, in which Abrahamson is determined to illustrate the realities of life for those left further behind by the rising tide of prosperity (themes given more recent expression in his 2007 television series, Prosperity, scripted by Adam and Paul's screenwriter and - taller - co-lead Mark O'Halloran). Ireland's economic boom is experienced exclusively as something outside the two men's sphere of existence, from which they are sometimes literally excluded; it's a story that inhabits the same universe as some of the finest of Damian Dempsey's songs, providing a trenchant alternative perspective on modern Irish life.


Though it is often extremely funny, in an utterly bone-dry way, the film is careful to avoid any hint of sentimentality. It acknowledges, often quite movingly, Adam and Paul's remaining shreds of humanity but never looks for simple emotional exits. It doesn't flinch, either, from the manner in which they're apt to turn on each other or on those few people more vulnerable than they. Though O'Halloran provides able support, Tom Murphy's performance as the second of the titular pair steals most of the attention: his work is a brilliant balance of deadpan humour, desperation, and a terrible, gnawing sadness. It's one of the finest film performances by an Irish actor in recent years; sadly, Murphy, best known as a stage actor, died in late 2007, a few months shy of his 40th birthday.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Venus

2006, UK, directed by Roger Michell

Rating: **.5

Though intermittently enjoyable as an actors' showcase, no amount of script padding can conceal the fact that Roger Michell's film is terribly thin, and thus maddeningly repetitive. While there is considerable poignancy in the film's depiction of an older man's attempts to cling to his more youthful passions, as well as a consciously discomfiting suggestion that even those of advanced years might have sexual feelings, Hanif Kureishi's script too frequently takes refuge in easy amusements such as having his old codgers swear like sailors.

It's hard not to conclude that Peter O'Toole is playing a slightly more down-at-heel version of himself - one hopes he's squirreled away a little more cash than the still-working bit part actor he plays here - and as such it's a carefully-judged performance devoid of vanity from one who started his career as such a stunningly handsome man of action. There is a genuine warmth in his interactions with the rest of the cast - whether the youthful Jodie Whittaker, or his fellow oldsters Leslie Phillips, Richard Griffiths and the ever-luminous Vanessa Redgrave; the actors are almost able to lift the film over its fundamental weaknesses.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

American Gangster

2007, US, directed by Ridley Scott

The spectre of The Godfather hangs over American Gangster, with Ridley Scott unsubtly channeling Francis Ford Coppola, particularly as his picture nears its climax, which intercuts a church scene with a series of police raids. Indeed, given American Gangster's carefully evoked 1970s New York setting, you half expect one of Scott's characters to emerge from a screening of The Godfather, though they're mostly far too driven to enjoy their leisure hours. Like Martin Scorsese's The Departed, American Gangster ultimately can't hold up in comparison to earlier, stronger films, though Scott's film at least avoids the over-the-top antics of a Jack Nicholson.

As with many other films about criminal life, American Gangster sometimes runs the risk of glorifying that which it seeks to depict; as if in conscious counter-balance to this, Scott includes several montage sequences that outline, in squalid detail, the ultimate consequences of the drug trade. Similarly, just as the eponymous gangster, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), threatens to become too sympathetic he carries out one of his most arbitrarily violent actions, undercutting his store of charisma.

Scott attempts to explore the wider political backdrop against which Lucas rose to power - most notably the Vietnam war and the aftermath of the 1960s - and while he's capable of making the occasional telling point (there's a recurring joke about the police's inability to believe that a black criminal could possibly be in overall control of such a drug network), for the most part the effort to stitch Lucas's story into the broader fabric of American life remains schematic. If the title didn't so consciously strive for greater import, it might be possible to appreciate the film as a simple chronicle of New York criminal life (Scott is a sufficiently accomplished storyteller that the film's ample running time never seems excessive), but it doesn't have the conviction to match its ambitions.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Ratatouille

US, 2007, directed by Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava
Perhaps because this time he's tweaking mythologies that are more profoundly anchored in another country rather than in his own, Ratatouille doesn't have quite the deeper resonance of Brad Bird's previous films, The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. Still, there's a level of visual invention at work here that's far beyond that of most mainstream animation these days, accompanying a quietly-delivered message about tolerance, and a paean to simple, uncommercialised food. The film's set pieces, in particular, are dazzlingly constructed and executed, far exceeding the imagination on display in most non-animated action films; sequences in the sewers and on the Seine are especially breathtaking. Given the hero's diminutive stature - he is on the smaller end of the rat spectrum - much more constricted spaces, such as a restaurant kitchen, also serve as a theatre for alarming encounters with humans, and the backdrops are quite beautifully rendered, giving the film a wonderful sense of depth. The copper pots gleam with almost photo-realism, while the shelves are stocked with lovingly-detailed animated versions of every gourmet ingredient the most demanding rat or restaurant patron could desire.

Rémy, the central character, is richly imagined, with a full arsenal of Gallic gestures and expressions, and an appreciation for the finer things in life that befits his national origin; his mid-American voice, provided by Patton Oswalt, is unfortunately much less resonant. The voice casting in general is a little eccentric: some performers, like Oswalt, speak in unaccented American voices, while others, like Janeane Garofalo as Colette, adopt over-the-top fake French accents (when they don't waver into entirely different nationalities). In such company, Peter O'Toole's voice comfortably steals the show: as the ghoulish Anton Ego, the film's much-feared restaurant critic, O'Toole positively salivates over every syllable. The remarkably clever, poignant moment when Ego first tastes the film's signature creation is something to particularly savour.

Index

List of all movies

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States