Thursday, November 30, 2006

Starter for Ten and Borat

[Starter for Ten (Tom Vaughan, 2006/7): I read a critique of Starter for Ten almost immediatly having watched it which advised "Great for Americans; avoid if you're a Brit though" and continued to savage the film for not being the next Trainspotting or A Clockwork Orange. This interesting perspective has one good idea and one bad: perhaps Dudley Nicholls' story paints England as a bit too picturesque, a bit too unchallenging- nothing serious ever invades the lives of these supposedly realistic characters, but then, nothing was ever meant to. To go onto the bad idea of this argument: Starter for Ten was never intending to be a serious look at British life, it was simply content to be a slightly Americanized, predictable cross between a coming-of-age story and a romantic triangle. And on these bases, it's hard to deny that Starter for Ten is successful. James McAvoy, that young Scottish star who seems to have appeared from nowhere to take the world by storm, is effortlessly charming as Brian Jackson, a young man who braves Bristol University in 1985, young in experience but eager to learn. An afectionado of British tv quiz University Challenge, he immediatly seizes the opportunity to get on the team, and there meets the beautiful Alice (Alice Eve), a girl who he immediatly falls for and who may or may not feel the same. Into the frame, however, comes Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a headtrong political student who sagely comments on Brian's life whenever she sees him, but who is not above being charmed by his unconventional approach. Starter for Ten unfolds in a straight, easy-to-follow trajection; it's so predictable that Vaughan might as well have had characters holding up arrows to point the way. But the three leads are almost unexpectedly charming: Alice Eve and Rebecca Hall provide obvious counterpoints to each other, but both have their own expressive qualities that should serve them well in the future. When the film comes to its obvious conclusion, its hard to keep a smile from brimming on your face, because, predictable or no, the best conclusion has come. Grade: B-]

[Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006): The hyperbole surrounding the critical and audience sensation of 2006 became so great that my desire to see it faded to nothing between the weeks of its release and my eventual trip to see it. Said trip was taken with my younger sister, who had already seen (and liked) it, but was happy to sit through it again so she could see Pan's Labyrinth with me afterwards. Said trip was also for the 11:00am showing, which meant, unsurprisingly, that the cinema was rather bare: a few people dotted around and two teenage groups huddled at the back row. Unstandably the laughter that these people could possibly illicit wasn't exactly going to be racuous, but I got even less than I expected, and it was not hard to see why. Forget what you've heard: Borat isn't funny. Oh, I won't deny that occasionally I chuckled, but surely this is damning next to praise like "so funny it'll burst half the blood vessels in your face" (Empire). Worse still are all the claims that Borat is an incisive cultural commentary: it's not. It's just a selectively edited trip around America, occasionally encountering bigoted people who are surprisingly fluid with their opinions, but the film doesn't use this to actually say anything. So there are bigoted people in America- there are bigoted people everywhere! And in the sections in which Borat isn't encountering these people, he's embarassing perfectly acceptable human beings in the name of comedy which is rarely even funny. For Borat's main claim is that it's a comedy- the problem being, it's not funny. Grade: C]

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Piano (1993)

The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)

Jane Campion's The Piano is one of those rare, wonderful films that not only stands up to repeated viewings, but it gets better every time, never losing its power but somehow building on it. The infamous 'finger' scene is, on first viewing, perhaps simply sickening, but on a third I found it deeply unsettling, and a rapidly-following fourth viewing led me to actually weep while I watched it. Campion takes the traditional genre of a melodrama, or perhaps more specifically a 'woman's picture', and bends it, almost pulling a veil over your eyes, so that it's never really recognisable as such. Her dextrous visual style makes the film flow with an unsettling lucidity, both fitting in and standing incongruously with the narrative. Campion has said that she wanted the film to seem as if it were taking place underwater- hence the moody blue-green photography, but the sense of drowning is a constant one, as Holly Hunter's Ada McGrath tries to surface from the barren, dull landscape of the muddy New Zealand hills and her marriage to the simply-minded Sam Neill, whose failing to understand Ada's relationship to both her piano and her daughter (Anna Paquin) proves to be his undoing. If the stereotyping of the Aboriginals perhaps seems a bit racist, look again: yes, Campion's script does paint them as naive, inexperienced foreigners, but then this is a film from the perspective of the colonizers, not the colonized- to Ada, and indeed Neill's Stewart, the Aboriginals are strange and perhaps stupid, but at least they fit blissfully into the nature around them, something Ada struggles valiantly to do and that Stewart is so jealous of, perhaps, or more fittingly unable to comprehend, that he cuts it down and builds barriers within it. I, for one, know I love a film when I can pick out specific moments of performance or visual style that I love: here, I love the way the square-on camera loses its breath along with Ada when Stewart jumps out from behind a tree; I love Paquin's fiery delivery of the line "To hell!"; I love Paquin's galling sobs after the 'finger' scene; I love Hunter's smile to herself when Baines (Harvey Keitel) walks out of the village hall;... . The performances of The Piano are so deeply seated within it, so different in style yet so perfectly fit together; the style is creepily moody yet beautifully flowing; the music is rythmic yet unsettled; everything about it might seem initially unwielding, but Campion weaves a beautiful tapestry out of all these different elements, creating a film that is at once deeply haunting and deeply satisfying. It leave you with the idea that in the days, like Ada, you will feel happy and contented with it; but at night, when only the darkness surrounds you, you will be haunted by the unease of the film, the complexities of its emotion, and the contradictions seeping through its every pore. Grade: A

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Random Harvest

Random Harvest (dir. Mervyn Le Roy, 1942)

A representative staple of old Hollywood tearjerkers, Random Harvest has maintained a surprisingly strong reputation since it's release over sixty years ago, probably because of its notably barmy plot, which involves amnesia, amnesia, and a bit more amnesia. Amnesia, of course, is a very handy plot device, because it can instantly make a character forget- and indeed remember- at the drop of a hat; all you need to do is knock them over, and ta-da! In Random Harvest, however, amnesia is not simply a plot device, it IS the plot, almost body and soul. We open in a British asylum, where an unnamed WWI veteran is spending the last few days of the war, retained inside solely because he has nowhere to be sent, having lost any memory of his former life in 1917 while at the battlefields. On the day the war finishes, the man (Ronald Colman) somehow manages to slip out unnoticed into the rejoicing town below, where a friendly stranger named Paula (Greer Garson) saves him from being returned to the asylum, and kindly takes the bewildered man back to where she's performing that night. Rapidly becoming aware of the danger her new friend is in, Paula takes him away to the country, where, to no surprise, they fall in love and get married.

I'll ignore the blaring question of how it's possible to get married when you don't know your own name and simply say that to enjoy Random Harvest, it's necessary to take it with a large pinch of salt. As tearjerkers go, it is for the most part remarkably restrained, thanks in no small part to Greer Garson, who, when the film does an abrupt u-turn and knocks Colman's memory into reverse- he suddenly remembers that he's Charles Rainier, an aristocrat, but forgets all about Paula and his infant son- is asked to shoulder the large majority of the film's emotional wallop, and she does so with her usual committed underplaying. A remarkable scene places Charles side-on near the camera, with Paula stationed just behind; here, Charles is unknowingly discussing his past with his wife, who of course he doesn't know his wife, and he is in fact happily engaged to Kitty (Oscar nominated Susan Peters). Garson flickers desperation across her face, desperately but silently searching for any sign in Charles' face that he remembers, sadly recognising that it's a lost cause but looking all the same. Garson, who was overlooked by Oscar (she won for William Wyler's Mrs. Miniver the same year, so it can hardly be quarrelled with), is one of the great forgotten actresses: I've yet to see her less than radiant; even when given an obvious role (Blossoms of the Dust), she makes it something special. Here she gives possibly her best peformance, deeply devoted and desperately sad, the emotional core of the film as Colman is forced to be the unknowing ostensible centre.

As I said, amnesia is an easy plot device to work with, which perhaps makes it quite a surprise that the film so delays its resolution; indeed, despite Garson's committed work, the film can't help but begin to drag somewhat- after all, it should be obvious to everyone from the start that everything will work out in the end, and it becomes quite a chore waiting for the obvious to occur. The film is also rather weak at properly portraying passages of time: over ten years is skipped at one point, yet no-one seems to have aged a day and it takes a while for anyone to inform us of this leap in time. This is another chance for me to highlight the excellence of Garson; she's dextrously able to imply years of silent suffering with just a few glances. Colman, by contrast, isn't as able; whenever asked to actually portray the sadness of a lost memory or unexplainable doubt in his actions, he never really succeeds, at one key point simply staring off into the distance. Peters is solid enough if not particuarly notable in a role than never gives her much to work with; and the only other person of note is Henry Travers, and simply because your probably response will be "It's Clarence!" (as, indeed, my mother's was).

By the time is reaches its suprisingly brief emotional reunion, Random Harvest has put you through the wringer in two very different ways: while Garson is busy gently but wrenchingly sliding you through the rollers, the editor has his feet up and his hand firmly on the crank. As a representation of its genre, the film is recommended, but make sure your seat is comfy and your mouth not ready to yawn. Random Harvest is completely hokey, but it knows it, and the gusto that all involved have thrown into is to be admired, even if it ultimately proves difficult to straight-forwardly enjoy. Grade: B-

Little Children, Scenes of a Sexual Nature and Slither

[Little Children (Todd Field, 2006): The initially middling grade I gave Little Children probably sprung for my intense desire to want to like it, to admire it, to say that the acting here covers up the horrendous mess of the script and direction. Kate Winslet is undoubtably my favourite modern actress, and maybe it just wounds me too much to say that even she can't make up for the deficencies here. There's nothing particularly wrong with her performance here; indeed, it's probably as good as it could have been, save perhaps for the scene where, ironically, she shows the most emotion. (The moment feels so odd, fitting in I suppose with the histrionics the script constantly visits; but in the context of repressed surburban housewife, it's jarring.) There's little, indeed, wrong with most of the performances here: Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Phyllis Somerville, Jane Adams, and particularly Jennifer Connelly (able, as always, to mine so much out of an underwritten and marginalized role) are all fine, often excellent- only Noah Emmerich is bad, a garish performance which suits the film around him better than do the other actors- but they're all slaving away in service of a confused, puzzling mess of a film which thinks it knows so much when it knows so little. It throws you off right from the beginning, the stale, sage narration of some always-unknown quantity striking up at irregular intervals and never, really, serving a purpose apart from highlighting things the audience should be left to understand on their own. But what's worst about Little Children is it's smugness- Todd Field and Tom Perrotta's script (adapted from Perrotta's well-recieved novel) sits there, laden with a strange bitterness and pessimism that is never explained, winding it's way through a serious of rather unexciting events concerning- and how ironic this is- adults acting like "little children", selfish and irresponsible, all wanting to feel needed and loved, trying to make their lives worthwhile. Even before it reaches it's bizarre and conflicted climax, Little Children navigates various levels of over-egged histrionics and self-involved events, abandoning all sense of balance to the talented cast to try and sort out- it's not their fault, I cry, vainly trying to convince myself that it deserves attention; but really, there are better performances out there that warrant attention, and Kate the Great will have to wait a few more years for that thin golden statuette. Grade: D+]

[Scenes of a Sexual Nature (Ed Blum, 2006/7): Even worse than the smugness of Little Children is the smugness of Scenes of a Sexual Nature, which has even less claim to the idea of knowledge than Todd Field's unweilding mess. No, here is a film which, like Little Children, has employed a talented cast- Ewan McGregor, Polly Walker, Sophie Okonedo, Andrew Lincoln, Eileen Atkins, et al- to act out its complacent "ideas" about sexuality, this time in the form of seven criss-crossing vignettes between various couplings. The first false note is struck by the sickeningly twinkly and whimsical score, which, as one review I read commenting, "will make you want to kill yourself". The script is hollow and empty, full of cliched lines and situations- most of the vignettes seem like the more boring scenes from a common romantic comedy, the bits you'd sit sighing through waiting for the amusing comedic side-kick to re-appear, because they're the real reason you paid the ticket price. The talent of the cast, and the reasonable performances they give, somehow makes the whole thing even worse- how, I ask loudly, could all these actors be conned into starring in this horrific mess? Oh, and I never, ever want to go to Hampstead Heath, thanks. Grade: F]

[Slither (James Gunn, 2006): The delirious joys of Slither take a while to kick in, but when they do, oh-ho-ho, they don't let go. In the spirit of '80's alien horrors, but without their laughable effects (Slither looks, at times, frighteningly realistic), James Gunn's debut is a witty, exciting ride, expertly balancing comedy and horror and never over-dosing on either. The cast is game, with Serenity's Nathan Fillion playing the hero with a reluctant gusto, and Elizabeth Banks is both a funny and sympathetic straight-face as the wife of the man-turned-monster (and, naturally, the object of Fillion's affections). Overall, Slither's narrative goes in a predictable direction, but Gunn has a lot of fun in the intermediate scenes, constantly springing gory surprises that provide for some hilarious lines. To use a familiar expression: no, it's not Citizen Kane, but there's a lot of fun to be had by all. Grade: B]

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Quinceanera, Ask the Dust and Half Nelson

[Quinceanera (Wash Westmoreland & Richard Glatzer, 2006): Quinceanera, or Echo Park L.A. as it was bafflingly re-named for Britain, plays like a lot of tv dramas do: a low-rent cast plays out predictable and pedestrian histrionics, occasionally hitting a true note but mostly succumbing to the familiar and unloved script. I suppose I should give it points for trying to tackle subjects like the gentrification of the Latino area of L.A. and teenage sexuality, but haven't we seen these things before? The pieces of the puzzle never really fit together: Magdalena (Emily Rios) is thrown out just before her quinceanera (fifteenth birthday) because, miraculously, she is a pregnant virgin; meanwhile her cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia), thrown out of his home because his father discovered he was gay, starts sleeping with his new landlords. And their new guardian, kindly Uncle Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez), gently tries to reconcile his breaking family and their ties to their religion. Magdalena is ostensibly the centre of the piece, which would explain why Carlos' thread is almost left in thin air; and is the depiction of his landlords as a promiscuous couple taking advantage of a hot young cholo exactly a positive message from these two gay filmmakers? The whole thing concludes itself obviously and perfunctorially, at least giving Garcia a short chance to impress, but Quinceanera's surface depiction of its themes ultimately leaves you feeling distant and disappointed. Grade: C]

[Ask the Dust (Robert Towne, 2006): Ask the Dust isn't just an adaptation of a book to screen, it's an adaptation of book about someone who writes books, and I'm not sure it's possible to get less cinematic than that. Luckily (or unluckily) most of it doesn't actually focus on the writing of a novel, more the inspirations that our central character, Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell), tries to find for his writing. Arturo, by the way, is supposed to be an Italian living in L.A., which makes the casting of Farrell even more perplexing than his complete blankness in the role: an Irish man playing an Italian who sounds entirely American. Salma Hayek is more handily cast as a Mexican waitress named Camilla Lopez, whom the script tries to convince us has a turbulent relationship with Arturo. The early part of this relationship plays out in the restaurant where Camilla works, and where a down-hearted Arturo, down to his last nickel, comes to drown his sorrows in a cup of coffee. The bizarrities of these scenes are so strange that I'd suggest you see for yourself if I weren't of the strong mind that no one should ever see this film, so let us just say that they mostly involve shoes. There then follows an appaulingly lit sequence where both Hayek and Farrell strip off and frolick in the sea, playing out their tempestuous love-hate thing once again, only wet and without clothes. The major problem is that Towne becomes convinced of their intrinsic attraction almost before it's even started, and certainly far before his audience have been convinced, and instead the script just takes it as a given that these two's stars are entwined. So when the film abandons Camilla for a brief while, we are treated to an almost-as-bizarre interlude with Idina Menzel's physically scarred nutcase, who lives next to a fairground and serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever. Donald Sutherland serves even less purpose in his role as Arturo's slightly unbalanced and clearly unwashed neighbour, while Eileen Atkins is wasted in the background as Arturo's landlady. Ask the Dust is never horrifying awful, if just for the fact that it's so lifeless that even to get horrified would make it more worthwhile. Nothing inside it ever comes off, from the script to the set decoration, and the actors wonder around inside a hollow shell without even bumping into its sides, because, well, that'd actually be interesting. Grade: D-]

[Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, 2006): Half Nelson has gathered attention mostly for the impressive performance of hot young thing Ryan Gosling in its central role; but Gosling is hardly the sort of actor who wants to be a star, and I highly doubt he took this role with that aim in mind. It's easy to see why it has gathered press, though: Gosling's performance is a precisely measured but never obvious one, perfectly portrayed but never portrayed as being portrayed. He's almost matched, though, by young Shakeera Epps, as the student who discovers his secret and finds herself stuck between two avenues of life. Half Nelson's emotional distance is occasionally too much, as Fleck and Anna Boden's script becomes too sparse for its own good, but Gosling and Epps keep everything grounded and compelling. Most impressively, the film is never judgmental, simply presenting the dark dilemmas of the two characters as fact and seeing how they deal with them. Sometimes, a matter-of-fact approach is more effective than a moralising one, and that's certainly the case here; the film is so far from trying to make a point that it its the viewer who makes one for themselves. Grade: B]