Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada, Get Real and C.R.A.Z.Y.

[The Devil Wears Prada (David Frankel, 2006): Meryl Streep's much-loved performance as uber-bitch boss Miranda Priestly (reportedly, though according to author Lauren Weisberger NOT based on Vogue editor Anna Wintour) is the reason to catch this bitchy- though, in many ways, familiar- comedy, especially since it's garnering her Oscar predictions all over the shop. Anna Hathaway holds her own in a rather underwhelming role as her new assistant, fashion-unconscious journalist Andrea Sachs, who gets a job at fashion magazine Runway as a stepping stone to better things. The basic outline of Andrea's story is obvious- forced to fit in, she unintentionally alienates her boyfriend and friends, then ultimately realises the error of her ways- but screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna does sprinkle a few surprises in Miranda's much more interesting story, and throws in a terrific role for British actress Emily Blunt as Miranda's other assistant Emily, a girl who is devoted to Runway and desperate to look great. Director Frankel keeps things afloat well enough, though it starts to feel a bit overstreched at points and it's never really as funny as it should be. But it's a must-see purely for the performances of Blunt and Streep- the first of whom deserves just as much attention as her legendary co-star. Grade: B-]

[Get Real (Simon Shore, 1998): This cliched and rather slow British coming-out drama puts the interesting twist of having it's central character already totally aware and accepting of his sexuality- Steven Carter (Ben Silverstone) is sixteen and cruises for older men in his local park, though only his best friend Linda (a sharp Charlotte Brittain) knows he's gay- even as his classmates constantly throw the traditional homophobic remarks his way, they don't actually believe he's that way inclined. But when, one day, his next-door neighbour in the park toilets turns out to be school sports hunk John Dixon (Brad Gorton), screenwriter Patrick Wilde brings out the traditional cliches of a young man struggling to accept himself. Get Real essentially pares down to a spate of melodramatic speeches, which Silverstone and particularly Gorton, in a surprisingly measured and tender performance, cope with well but are never able to truly sell. As it builds towards it's predictable climax, the only pleasures in watching Get Real comes the unravelling of Brittain's sparkling turn and Gorton's sympathetic hunk. If this is life at a British secondary school, I obviously skipped it. Grade: C]

[C.R.A.Z.Y. (Jean-Marc Vallee, 2005): The Canadian submission to 2005's foreign film Oscar selection, this unfortunately missed a nomination, but for those who can get it, this compelling study of Quebecian family life is well worth a watch. Fantastic performances from Michel Cote as the traditional father, Danielle Proulx as the more accepting mother and especially Marc-Andre Grondin as the central character anchor this all-encompassing story, ostentatiously concerning Zac's sexual confusion but in reality bracing a variety of issues we face growing-up, from religion to drugs. Director Vallee has a fascinating directorial hand, neither too constricting nor too loose, letting his actors fill out their roles fully while also adding some fascinatingly off-kilter touches and a bright colour palette to truly evoke the era the film charts (1960s-1980s). The much-touted soundtrack (the reason for a lack of release in the US) is indeed fantastic, with David Bowie and Patsy Cline providing much more than just background noise. If my grade is low for all this praise, it's only because I never really felt a personal connection, and perhaps because the story occasionally flew off in unneeded directions. But don't let that put you off giving C.R.A.Z.Y. a look whenever you can. Grade: B]

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The History Boys and The Return

[The History Boys (Nicholas Hytner, 2006): Alan Bennett's play was a sweeping success when it hit Broadway, grabbing several Tony awards and gaining glowing notices. Bennett adapted it himself for this film version, and much of the cast was kept intact, with stars Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour reprising their supporting roles as teachers at a British school in the 1980s. Having just gained excellent A Level results, eight boys are being pushed by their headteacher (a hilariously selfish Clive Merrison) to get into Oxford and Cambridge, the best universities in the country, and to do so they'll have to stay one more term at their old school, preparing for the entry exams with their experienced, portly teacher, whom they have nicknamed Hector (Griffiths) and a new arrival, Tom Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), hired precisely to prepare the boys, but with the headteacher dangling a position as History teacher under his nose as incentive. The History Boys is a warm, affectionate film about a group of unruly boys and their equally unruly teachers; it's sharply and pointedly written and well-performed. But as, in it's second half, the film slides into a rather muggy quagmire of homosexual dilemmas between the two teachers and two of the boys, it rather loses its lustre, slightly loses its edge and ultimately takes on a rather uncomfortable aura of tragedy. But, nevertheless, it's well worth seeing. Hytner finds a surprisingly cinematic possibility within the film's stage origins, never truly overcoming them but adeptly using his camera, especially as he cross-cuts between various conversations in the school's corridors. As for the cast, Griffiths is excellent, a perfectly judged mixture of bouyant humour and deeply-hidden tragedy, while Moore, that enormously underrated actor from the enormously underseen Bright Young Things, follows up on the promise he showed there with a sharp and moving performance as a teacher who becomes as confused as his pupils. De la Tour isn't given enough to do but is very wily when she does appear: a terrific performance of an overlooked woman who wants the best for her boys, since she was never able to have it herself. Of the boys themselves, Dominic Cooper is ruggishly charming and, in his last scenes, alarmingly direct as Dakin, the object of many affections, while Russell Tovey, as the dimmest boy Rudge, finds surprising weight in his under-written role, and Samuel Anderson is an amusing highlight as Crowther, who seems to be the one everyone goes to with their problems. Maybe Bennett leans too much towards the provlocations of homosexuality in some characters and overlooks the others, but The History Boys is well worth seeing for it's sharp wit and solid performances when it comes round your way. Grade: B]

[The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2004): A notably chilly film, this took the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in its year and walked away with some positive comparisons to premiere Russian director Tartovsky. Ivan Dobronranov is superb as Ivan, a young teenager whose father (Konstantin Lavronenko) suddenly reappears after twelve years, unknown by Ivan and his brother Andrey (Vladimir Garin, who died in the very place of the opening scene just one day before the film's premiere) excepting one photograph. This familiar tale of a father returning from the wilderness is given an intriguing edge by director Zvyagintsev, who admirably refuses to give in to any desire to explain anything: the father sticks to his silence about where he was, and it is left to the audience to draw their own conclusions from the few visual clues we're given, and of course from Lavronenko's superb performance. The cool blue colour schemes are notably reminiscent of The Deep End, a thriller which also took place around a cold watery location and had similar themes of secrecy and mistrust. The Return is never predictable, despite occasions when it almost leans that way, but it's cool demeanour is rather off-putting and it's never as entrancing as it clearly wants itself to be- and, indeed, as you find yourself wanting it to be. Grade: B]

A Life Less Ordinary

A Life Less Ordinary (Danny Boyle, 1997)

In essence, I suppose Danny Boyle's follow-up to his breakthrough hit Trainspotting is no different to the many other romantic thrillers we've seen through the years, but, unlike them, A Life Less Ordinary doesn't even retain the pretence of trying to hide it's inevitability: of course, we always know that the lead pairing will fall in love, whatever obstacles have been haphazardly placed in their way,but somehow screenwriter John Hodge's decision to advertise this fact from before we've even met these characters loses the magic that can, occasionally, be present in this type of film. No, Hodge makes his main supporting pair of characters two angels, O'Reilly (Holly Hunter) and Jackson (Delroy Lindo), who are charged by their boss Gabriel (Dan Hedaya) of making two people fall in love, or else: if they fail, they'll be stranded on earth. So, of course, in the rather wacky, slightly heightened reality of A Life Less Ordinary, the central pairing must fall in love, because now the price is doubled: not only will they be unhappy, but these two angels will be too.

So who are this central pairing, this inevitably lovelorn couple, and how, exactly, are they thrust together? Well, Robert (Ewan McGregor, in his third straight film for Boyle) is a lowly cleaner with aspirations to write a trashy novel (he repeatedly spins a lame yarn about the lovechild of Marilyn Monroe and Bobby Kennedy growing up and solving a great mystery), but when he's fired from his job and replaced with a robot, he charges in and points a gun at his rich boss Naville (Ian Holm), and the whole thing transpires so he ends up kidnapping the man's beautiful daughter Celine (Cameron Diaz). Of course, Robert proves a rather inept kidnapper, but no worries: Celine is so smooth and confident, and I suppose rebellious, that she ends up taking charge of her own kidnapping... for a share of the profits, of course.

Strangely, for a film both written and directed by men, A Life Less Ordinary proves itself to be an oddly feminist film. Of course, this came when it was fashionable for the world to participate in reverse-sexism, a world where women are notably more intelligent and confident than the men, no matter what. (I have no problem with equality, but the current sexism towards men simply seems driven by revenge, which can hardly be what the suffragettes were aiming for.) Celine is so balanced, so relaxed, so coolly manipulative that she rapidly takes charge of everything, showing Robert what to do, easily escaping from her ropes and even offering a rather silly but convincing excuse to a curious neighbour who comes calling on their hideout. And so it is in the angels' pairing: O'Reilly constantly shushes a rather foolish Jackson when they visit Neville under the guise of bounty hunters. If Hodge's script had been more crafty, more elegantly written, and more sensibly compiled, it might have progressed beyond the simplistic exteriors of it's characters and created a more original film. But everything in A Life Less Ordinary seems pointless. Why draft in capable (and, in Hunter's case, consistently brilliant) actors if you're not going to give them anything to work with? The angel subplot certainly adds a fantastical interest to the film, but it never gels with the film, and Lindo and Hunter are reduced to mugging shots and soulless characterizations because there's nothing there for them to enhance. The script ambles along aimlessly, taking needless divertions into bitty scenes like Celine's forceful bank robbery and their visit to Stanley Tucci's rather unbalanced dentist. When, eventually, the film drops the kidnapping guise altogether, it totally falls apart, reducing itself to cliched romantic melodramatics and flat scenes of Diaz sobbing in her car.

I'm not sure if A Life Less Ordinary wants us to believe that it's actually spiritual or not. The ridiculous climax certainly points towards it, but it's almost so unbelievable that it might all be a joke. I can't exactly say that A life Less Ordinary is predictable, but it's plot turns are so stupid that I'd almost rather it had been. The cast, all a perfectly capable lot, are by no means awful, but they just dart around, aimlessly and rather half-heartedly trying to bring anything to their parts. Looking at the film's IMDB page, the current comment of choice describes the film favorably as "whimiscal and wacky"- if only the whimsy were charming enough to get excited about. Grade: D

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Crank, Volver and The Portrait of a Lady

[Crank (Neveldine/Taylor, 2006): I'm sure Crank is being hilariously ironic about all the movies we've seen before that pander to male fantasies of violence and sexuality, and I'm sure that someone with a better humour than me can delight in mocking all those wet-dreams that Crank is simultaneously rolling in the irony of and delighting in. I'm sure that someone with a less easily overwhelmed state-of-mind finds Crank an endlessly exciting thrill-ride; I'm sure that that someone didn't find, contrary to reports, that Crank is actually remarkably slow, timing out at regular intervals and failing to give it's desired impression of a heart that must be kept running on high. I'm sure that someone who loves Speed less than I won't despise the obvious parallels with that truly high-octane thriller- I'm sure that someone will delight in saying that "Oh, but Crank's better than Speed, 'cause this time it's actually a person that has to keep his speed-limit up!". I'm sure that someone that lets things go more easily than I won't question the plausibility of having an English hit-man (Jason Statham) living so successfully in L.A., and with a gorgeous girlfriend (Amy Smart) to boot. I'm sure that someone actually likes Jason Statham, that someone doesn't see him as a symbol of everything that's wrong with this type of movie, that someone finds him charming and actually worth 88 minutes of screentime. I'm sure that someone doesn't question the word "fucking" in every single sentance in this movie, that, oh, it's just how they are, or that someone takes the idea that Crank exists in a heightened reality (a very heightened reality) excuses all the despicable nonsense that the directors force upon us.

But you know what? That someone ain't me. Grade: D+]

[Volver (Pedro Almodovar, 2006): I went straight from the "ironic" horrors of Crank into my real reason for being at the theatre that day, and it was a blissfully different experience. My limited experience of Almodovar stretches to just his last two movies- Talk to Her was an odd experience, but a surprisingly human and delicate study of male fantasies and their relationships with women, while Bad Education, while featuring a stunning performance by a sex-filled Gael Garcia Bernal, was more of a jumbled study of male sexuality. This time, Almodovar turns his attentions to women- indeed, there is only one male character of any note, and his screentime his little and portrayal very basic. But it had no need to be. This character serves only as a plot device, because here, it's all about the women. Penelope Cruz gives a knockout performance as Raimunda, self-sacrificing wife and mother who has seemingly given over her life to her family. I'm sure you know the basic plot outline- Raimunda and Sole's (Lola Duenas) dead mother (Carmen Maura) appears to Sole after their aunt (Chsu Lampreave) dies. What is so wonderful about Volver is how unpredictable it is (and on that note, I'll not spoil it, for the joy is in the discovery). Almost every scene is a perfectly observed look at female relationships and hardships. But what makes Almodovar's writing come to life is the efforts of the cast, who justly won an ensemble award at the Cannes film festival. While Cruz carries the film with a performance of startling depth and strenght, as a woman who appears to carry everyone but is ultimately in need of carrying herself, Maura gives a beautifully judged performance of impish cheek and weary hardship, and Duenas, given a more comic role, does wonders. Yoahana Cobo, as Cruz's daughter, is also a lively foil, sardonically countering her impulsive mother, and Blanca Portillo, as kindly, tired neighbour Agustina, does well with a more dramatic sub-plot. Ultimately, apart from one off-balance 'revelation' scene, Volver emerges as an uplifting, charming but also movingly poignant experience, a superb study of womanhood and the impact of death. See it as soon as you can. Grade: A-]

[The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion, 1996): Jane Campion's follow-up to the beloved The Piano came in for a lot of flack (although Nick Davis gives it a superb defense), but I found it a compelling, beautifully made, if occasionally problematic, period film. Campion opens with an unusually offbeat opening- modern-day Australian girls discussing their love of kissing- which serves as a striking way to open the film, presenting you with confident girls of today and then switching to Henry James' actual story for the confident girl of yesteryear. American Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman) has just recieved a proposal from Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant), which she refuses on the grounds that she wants to live and see the world before she marries. Her cousin Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan), secretly in love with her, arranges for her to inherit a large fortune from his ailing father (John Gielgud), so that she can live out her dreams. Isabel travels to Florence, where she meets Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), a mysterious and seemingly rather reclusive widowed father to Pansy (Valentina Cervi). Thanks, it seems to the mysterious dealings of Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey), Isabel is persued by Osmond, and, after a year away in Egypt, she finds herself preoccupied with Osmond and agrees to marry him.

This only describes the first half of The Portrait of a Lady, and, indeed, the first half of the film is the more troublesome, for various reasons. Campion's directorial flair occasionally goes to far here, most notably in the short sequence portraying Isabel's travels in Egypt- presenting it as a 1930s-style news-reel, it features such bizarre and unnecessary oddities as talking kidney beans and a naked Kidman in the desert. The other major problem is Kidman- here she feels too often ill-at-ease, not comfortable playing a confident young woman too happy to realise her naiveity. Thankfully, the second half, as we jump three years into Isabel and Osmond's marriage, gives Kidman a more familiar part to her- a more downtrodden and depressed, weary woman who gradually becomes aware of her foolishness. Here, also, Campion's direction is more confident and useful- the shots, the movement is often exquisitely composed, combining to perfection with a deep blue and grey hues of Stuart Dryburgh's cinematography and portraying a disturbing glaciality that has come over everyone on-screen. Of all the performers, it is Hershey who gained the most accolades, and justly so: a delicate cocktail of deep-seated anger and sadness mixed with an outwardly courteous, affected manner.

Mary Ann Johanson criticized the film by saying it "is everything costume dramas always threaten to be"; but, in my eyes, The Portait of a Lady is everything that costume dramas usually aren't: visually daring, moody, and so cold it passes from the dangerous territory of dull into the more arresting territory of freezing transfixing. No, it is not perfect, but it's one of the best costume dramas you're likely to encounter, and once again proves that The Piano was thankfully no fluke for Campion. Grade: B+]

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Awards Season 2006: The Most Anticipated of the Rest of the Year

As the Toronto Film Festival unofficially marks the cinematic world's descent into the dark hell known commonly as awards season, I thought it was high time for my picks as the best to look forward to in the months ahead. Since it's only two days away, I won't be including my current "can't wait!" movie of the moment, The Black Dahlia, though I do hope with every fibre of my being that it lives up to my exceedingly high expectations. It currently occupies the desktop of my brand spanking new laptop, so it best be worth that honour.

Anyway, I scoured and scraped through the planned release dates, and I finally whittled it down to a grand total of 20 films that I simply can't wait to arrive at the multiplex, or, perhaps more preferably, the nearest art-house. These are the films I'd skip lectures to see (although let's hope it doesn't come to that)- these are the films I'd walk for an hour just to get to. These are my most anticipated of the rest of 2006.

Numbers 20-11
20. Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola) (release- UK & USA: 20th October)
Little more than a fattening confection (in the metaphorical sense), it seems, but what a gorgeous confection it looks like! Kirsten Dunst looks magnetic as the legendary French queen, who, from the looks of the trailer, gains the chagrin of her people as she has wild and frivolous parties. Infamously booed at Cannes, it has actually recieved some positive reaction, and, if it looks doubtful to recieve much awards traction, it should still be a fascinating experience.

19. Casino Royale (Martin Campbell) (release- UK & USA: 17th November)
Bond's back, blonde and, by the looks of it, better than ever. The trailers seem to promising a darker, rawer feel to the long series, and let's hope a return to Bond's beginnings mean a fresh start for the series itself. Daniel Craig looks a very promising choice, in my eyes.

18. Stranger than Fiction (Marc Forster) (release- UK: 1st December; USA: 10th November)
The concept is genius: a man hears the narration of what seems to be his own life, but when it seems to announce his death, he's forced to investigate. Will Ferrell? Let's hope he can tone himself down. The presence of stars like Emma Thompson (as the narrator) and Maggie Gyllenhaal should help.

17. Infamous (Douglas McGrath) (release- UK: TBC; USA: 13th October (limited))
Another Capote? Festival reports are saying this is just as good. Little-known British actor Toby Jones tackles the writer this time around, apparently focusing more on his sexuality and the attraction between him and murderer Perry Smith (hey look, it's Daniel Craig again!). Sandra Bullock is also getting positive buzz for her performance as Capote's best friend Harper Lee (the role that garnered Catherine Keener an Oscar nom last year).

16. Bug (William Friedkin) (release- UK: TBC; USA: 1st December (limited))
This fascinating-sounding adaptation of what sounds like an intense stageplay is from Exorcist director Friedkin, and stars Michael Shannon as a man who sees insects everywhere, and Ashley Judd as the woman who holds up with him. Hopefully this will be an uncompromising psychological piece, because that's what I like best. If it ever gets released here, of course.

15. Inland Empire (David Lynch) (release- TBC)
Lynch is always one to watch, whether it's a masterwork (Mulholland Drive) or a mystery (Lost Highway), and I'd be a fool it I didn't counter in this as one to watch. Lynch favourite Laura Dern and Mulholland star Justin Theroux are two actors who begin to confuse themselves with the roles they're playing. At a reported time of 172 minutes, will this transfix or will it bore? Let's hope it's released soon so we can find out.

14. Starter for Ten (Tom Vaughan) (release- UK: 13th October; USA- February TBC)
A terrific looking British film about James McAvoy in his first year at university. As someone who's about to start the experience himself, this should be an entertaining and insightful, and hopefully fun, look at someone who sounds a lot like me.

13. The Painted Veil (John Curran) (release- UK: TBC; USA: 19th January)
A delicious cast of Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber and Diana Rigg star in this adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novel, already adapted for Greta Garbo in the 1930s. I hope this isn't as stale and cold as Curran's previous film, We Don't Live Here Anymore, and hope the lack of buzz on it is just because no one's seen anything yet.

12. Scenes of a Sexual Nature (Ed Blum) (release- UK: 3rd November; USA: TBC)
This tiny little British film looks a tad slight- a cast of various couples on Hampstead Heath one afternoon- but it has a killer cast- Hugh Bonneville, Andrew Lincoln, Sophie Okonedo, Catherine Tate, Eileen Atkins, Gina McKee, Polly Walker and Ewan McGregor (playing gay once again)- and has been touted as an enjoyable affair.

11. The Last King of Scotland (Kevin MacDonald) (release- UK: 12th January; USA: TBC)
Idi Adim's regime as Ugandan dictator in the 1970s is the subject of this very positively recieved new film from Touching the Void director MacDonald, and Forest Whitaker is touted as a Best Actor nominee for his role as Adim. Looks fascinating.

And the Top 10:
10. Breaking and Entering (Anthony Minghella) (release- UK: 10th November; USA: 8th January (limited), Jan TBC elsewhere)
Minghella’s newest film looks like a more reticent, low-key affair than his previous efforts like The English Patient or The Talented Mr. Ripley, and unlike them it’s also not a period piece: instead, architect Jude Law is drawn to a young thief's refugee mother (Juliette Binoche), straining his relationship with girlfriend Robin Wright Penn. My excitement for this one rose considerably when Kris Tapley gave it a rave.

9. Apocalypto (Mel Gibson) (release- UK: 5th January; USA: 8th December)
After all Gibson's coverage in the media recently I'm surprised they're still pushing ahead with this one, but then they did put a shitload of money into it. I find the Mayans a distressingly untouched subject, and, although Gibson says this is more an action film than a thinking piece, it still looks terrific. I admire Gibson for sticking to his guns and making it in the Maya language, even if I don't admire him for his recent behaviour.

8. The Good German (Steven Soderbergh) (release- UK: 9th March; USA: 25th December)
What a Christmas present for you Americans! I'm pumped for the latest Soderbergh-Clooney collaboration for the simple fact that it's in black-and-white; and with Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire co-starring and an enticing plot mixture of mystery and romance, colour me excited. You've got long enough to do so, mind you- March 9th?!

7. Goya's Ghosts (Milos Forman) (release- UK & USA: TBC)
It seems Milos Forman's long awaited project is having trouble finding a US distributor, although whether this is because it's not very good- or perhaps too daring?- remains to be seen. Natalie Portman stars as the muse of Spanish painter Francisco Goya (Stellan Skarsgard) who is labelled an heretic by a monk (Javier Bardem). It sounds like juicy project, and certainly looks good from the few pictures released, and hopefully it will find release before it's too late for the awards season, which it should be a major contender in.

6. Paris, je t'aime (various) (release- UK & USA: TBC)
A jumble of 20 different stories, representing the 20 differing arrondissements of the romance capital of world (and the start of the title), each segment of this long-awaited film has been made by a different director, ranging from Alexander Payne to the Coen brothers and Olivier Assayas to Wes Craven, and they're all preoccupied with that fascinating subject: love. Stars including Natalie Portman, Gena Rowlands, Steve Buscemi, Nick Nolte, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Miranda Richardson and Juliette Binoche form the multi-national cast. I was so tempted to pop in and see this when in Paris earlier this year; let's hope I made the wise decision and it pops up with a release date soon.

5. Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (Steven Shainberg) (release- UK: 10th November; USA: 10th November (limited))
Nicole Kidman looks set to give another terrific performance as Diane Arbus, the artist who gained fame with her photographs of the marginalised people in the USA. The trailer shows a film with the same off-kilter edge as Shainberg's last film Secretary, and I hope that he's kept that same feeling that made Secretary's exploration of dark sexual behaviour so fascinating and interesting. Robert Downey Jr. co-stars as part of his renaissance.

4. Little Children (Todd Field) (release- UK: TBC; USA: 6th October)
After his emotionally devastating but ultimately rather distancing debut In The Bedroom, Todd Field here adapts an acclaimed novel about surburban adultery and parenthood, and has the rather indelible cast of directing Kate Winslet, yet again tipped for an Oscar nomination. The trailer is itself an expertly crafted piece of art, and it’s to be hoped the film follows suit. Reviews so far have been kind and cruel in equal measure, but the one thing they’ve all agreed on is Winslet’s wonderousness- and hey, if I’m going to sit through Flushed Away for her, I’ll most definitely sit through this.

3. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron) (release: UK: 22nd September; USA: 25th December (limited))
Due out very soon here in the UK, this has been promisingly moved to a December release in the US, and festival reports are saying that Cuaron’s dark-looking apocalyptic drama is one of the year’s best films. Starring a to-die-for cast of Julianne Moore, Clive Owen, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Caine, it’s set about thirty years in the future, where women are mysteriously infertile and the youngest person on the planet, an eighteen year old, has just died. This looks exactly like my kind of film, and rest assured I’ll be seeing it as soon as I possibly can.

2. The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky) (release- UK: 16th February; USA: 22nd November)
Darren Aronofsky’s long-awaited follow-up to his 2000 effort Requiem For a Dream, and his first collaboration with partner Rachel Weisz, was infamously booed at it’s premiere in Venice, but reports say it received just as much applause, and I personally can’t wait to see this, a film which sounds like it could be, and indeed is, so many different things at once. A multi-angled sci-fi time-travelling romance, it stars Hugh Jackman (certainly the one to watch this year) as a man who travels centuries to try to save his dying wife (Weisz). The charismatic duo of Jackman and Weisz are already demonstrating from this clip that they’ll make a transfixing pair, and Aronofsky’s incomparable visual style is sure to make this an experience not to be missed.

1. The Nativity Story (Catherine Hardewicke) (release- UK & USA: 1st December)
Two years ago, Mel Gibson (see #9) tackled the bloody end of the life of Jesus Christ- this year, Thirteen director Catherine Hardewicke explores the beginning of it, with Keisha Castle Hughes, in her first major role since her stunning debut in 2003’s Whale Rider, starring as Mary, mother of the baby Jesus. It is bound to be fascinating to see a cinematic representation of what we’ve all seen so many times at junior schools, and I hope and assume that Hardewicke’s raw style from Thirteen will add an intriguing new dimension to the tale. Whether this’ll satisfy my strange, atheistic interest in the subject, we shall find out this Christmas.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Welcome to Sarajevo, Far From Heaven and Barry Lyndon

Some more thoughts on recent viewings.

[Welcome to Sarajevo (Michael Winterbottom, 1997): Sarajevo was a war that, unusually for Hollywood, was overlooked for exploration, perhaps because, as we see here, it was so inhuman and shocking. The raw recreation of bomb sights, with vivid shots of feet hanging by their veins and holes in victims' heads is unnerving, and perhaps a bit exploitative, but Winterbottom is clearly aiming to impact the viewer, and this he certainly achieves. The first half of this rather slow drama is the best: Winterbottom and his cast explore the media's coverage of the event, examining the differing approachs of American reporter Woody Harrelson and British one Stephen Dillane; however, the change to a more personal drama, as Dillane becomes emotionally involved with a young orphan (Emira Nusevic), doesn't work, either because of Dillane's stiff performance or simply because it seems too familiar. Threads like Marisa Tomei's aid worker and Goran Visnjic's (a stellar turn) native driver are more interesting, but ultimately disappointing because Winterbottom keeps focus on Dillane. Ultimately, an occasionally powerful drama, but it feels unfulfilled. Grade: B-]

[Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002): Haynes' takes his cue from Douglas Sirk's famously lush melodramas of the 1950s and adds a slightly more contemporary angle: he, unlike Sirk, can tackle issues like homosexuality and race head-on, instead of leaving them in the subtext. Julianne Moore is transfixing as the housewife whose perfect life crumbles when she discovers her husband Dennis Quaid with another man, and, in her turmoil, rather unwisely turns to her black gardener Dennis Haysbert for support. Haynes perfectly recreates the 1950s setting, and, with cinematographer Edward Lachman and Elmer Bernstein's melodramatically flowing score exquisitely echoing the period, he explores the vicious underbelly of 1950s with precision. Moore, Quaid and Haysbert, as well as Patricia Clarkson as Moore's "best friend" and Viola Davis as her maid, are all exceptional, convincingly of the period but also relevant to today's as well. Perhaps a little more could have been made of Quaid's side of the story, and ultimately the emotional impact isn't as great as one would hope, but all in all, a gripping, sad little story. Grade: B+]

[Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975): As is usually the case with Kubrick, I think that Barry Lyndon needs to be seen on the big screen to be fully appreciated, because it seems that it's productional qualities far out-weigh it's narrative ones. Ryan O'Neal wobbles as the titular character, progressing from an Irish lad in love with his cousin to eventually marrying the widow of a lord and ruining his own life. The first half of Barry's story, as he ventures across countries as a deserter from the British and then Prussian armies, is quite compelling, as he encounters various characters (an interlude with Diana Koerner's abandoned wife is quite impressively melancholic), but when it settles into Barry's life with Lady Lyndon (a wasted Marisa Berenson) and his troubles with her son Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali) it starts to lose focus and indeed the audience's attention. Famous production designer Ken Adam's work is quite ravishing, but on a small screen it has little impact, and the attraction really remains a mystery. A fascinating oddity, nonetheless, with the highlight perhaps being Michael Hordern's sardonic narration. Grade: B-]

The Deep End, Light in the Piazza and Snow Cake

Some thoughts on recent viewings:

[The Deep End (Scott McGehee & David Siegel, 2001): A remake of Max Ophuls' 1949 film The Reckless Moment, this alternative version of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's novel of secrets and blackmail is clearly aiming for the type of feeling I love in my thrillers: slow-burning, gradually created thrills. But the story seems so predictable, and the characters so trite, that it's difficult to get involved. Tilda Swinton gives a solid, if frosty performance as a mother who is desperate to hide her oldest son's budding homosexuality, an aim made difficult when his lover (a short role for an impressively creepy Josh Lucas) is accidentally killed at their lake-side Taho home, and then a blackmailer (Goran Visnjic) turns up with a tape showing the pair en flagrante and a demand of $50,000. McGehee and Siegel draw an impressive desperation in Swinton's attempts to balance the demands of this blackmailing and Visnjic's increasing attention to her with the day-to-day tasks of a mother, but the thriller elements of the film fail on almost every count, and it's not helped at all by the story's strong inclinations towards romantic attraction between Swinton and Visnjic. There's a surprisingly engaging performance from young Jonathan Tucker as the aforementioned son, but the story never has a strong enough pull and the cast don't seem to be able to overcome it. McGehee and Siegel fared much better four years later with their enormously underrated Bee Season, which also turned it's attentions towards family life but was thankfully free of any attempts to thrill. Grade: C+]

[Light in the Piazza (Guy Green, 1962): This adaptation of Elisabeth Spencer's book is a strange concuction, framing it's entire story on an accident we never witness and then almost refusing to answer it's implications at all. An weary-looking Olivia de Havilland is fantastic as Meg Johnston, a wealthy American staying in Florence with her daughter Clara (Yvette Mimieux), whom she has taken away from the distractions of American boys because, as we quickly discover, Clara fell off her pony at a young age and is stuck with the mental age of 10. Nevertheless, her natural beauty soon attracts the attentions of a wealthy local boy, played by the much derided American George Hamilton in a highly convincing performance (complete with accent), and they fall in love. Meg is, of course, worried about this development, but, as she begins to see the possible realisation of her fantasy for her daughter, she stumbles and is reluctant to force them apart. This little seen film clearly wants you to embed yourself in it's more unusual dramatic elements, and indeed, interludes like the visit of Clara's father show us the darker effects of Clara's mental state, but ultimately it's just a sweet little romance and on this level, it succeeds. Mimieux and Hamilton make a charming pairing and it's almost impossible not to get swept up in the situation, especially with such a talent as de Hallivand to keep you watching. Perhaps the ultimate glossing over of what was for most of the film the central dilemma is a bit worrying, but this a pleasant, nicely shot and well performed film that would serve well for a Saturday afternoon. Grade: B-]

[Snow Cake (Marc Evans, 2006): This effort from Welsh director Marc Evans was financed entirely by the UK and Canada, and this low-budget, under-the-radar situation is perhaps, and unfortunately, going to lead to the overlooking of it's star Sigourney Weaver once again come awards season. This film rests pretty much on her shoulders, as she beautifully plays autistic woman Linda Freeman, whose response to a consolation on her daughter's death is a straightforward "I haven't lost her, she's dead", shocking the woman who offered this softened apology in the first place. Ostentatiously, I suppose, Snow Cake is about Alex Hughes, played by a subdued and uneven Alan Rickman, who was giving Linda's daughter (a bright Emily Hampshire) a lift when a truck hits the car and kills her but leaves him virtually unmarked. His guilt leads him to her mother's home, where her offbeat approach to human engagement leads to him staying with her until after the funeral. The film's strenght comes in the relationship between Weaver and Rickman, which, due to Linda's autism is constantly surprising and unpredictable, and often remarkably charming (in scenes such as Linda's "comic-book Scrabble"). Evans, or rather screenwriter Angela Pell trips herself up with an unnecessary subplot involving Rickman's involvement with Weaver's neighbour Carrie-Anne Moss (in a pleasant and natural but totally unneeded performance), and with the revelations involving Rickman's damaged past, but Weaver's performance is a marvel and alone makes the film worth the price of admission. Given a more approachable form of autism than Dustin Hoffman's famous role, she could easily coast through the role, but each moment is invested with a weighty darkness, unlikely coupled with a delightful child-like exterior. Grade: B]