Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Last Kiss and Tristan + Isolde

[The Last Kiss (Tony Goldwyn, 2006): Less of a vanity project for Scrubs star Zach Braff than his directorial debut Garden State was a couple of years ago, The Last Kiss kind of gives itself away in its title, but I suppose we can blame that on Gabriele Muccino's Italian original L'ultimo bacio (literally The Last Kiss) and not screenwriter Paul Haggis, whose involvement here seems somewhat odd based on his recent Oscar prestige (Crash and Million Dollar Baby, and possibly Flags of Our Fathers this year) but is nevertheless a sign that the film has more on its mind that empty-headed cliches. Though Braff does, indeed, get the most screentime, this remains a nice ensemble piece, with a cast of undeniably talented and surprisingly well-cast mix of old and young around him. Blythe Danner and Tom Wilkinson inhabit the mirroring middle-age saga with a quiet dignity and often movingly underplayed drama. Meanwhile, the underrated Jacinda Barrett (appearing in a slew of starkly different movies this year, including Poseidon and The Namesake) and O.C. starlet Rachel Bilson (in her film debut) are the two women in 29-year-old Braff's life, as he faces up to a family life with Barrett by dalliancing with Bilson. The Last Kiss is absolutely nothing new, but Haggis' script is pleasingly astute, and it's put across with solid and often moving performances; my main problem is perhaps the soundtrack- perfectly fitting, enjoyable songs (including Snow Patrol's Chocolate and Imogen Heap's haunting Hide and Seek) that are nevertheless enormously intrusive whenever they blare up on the sound-system. And if only Goldwyn had had the nerve to end it just ten seconds before he does... Grade: B-]

[Tristan + Isolde (Kevin Reynolds, 2006): Tristan + Isolde clearly wants us to see it as hip, if that trendy plus sign in it's title is anything to go by. Nevermind the fact that Baz Lurhmann's Romeo + Juliet actually warranted this idea, and that was made ten years ago. Nothing about Tristan + Isolde is hip; nothing about it needs to be. A tragic romantic tale apparently pre-dating Romeo and Juliet, the story has little of the impact of that classic tale, and it's native feuding between Ireland and Britain fails to impress on any level. In fact, that is the main problem here: the romantic tale is perfectly fine- often moving, constantly involving and well-played- but the film seems to be struggling with itself, far too intent on this warring battle which is something we've seen done better many times before. Nevermind that they have one excellent performance in Sophia Myles, who puts on a pleasant Irish burr as she tears herself up between her husband King Mark (Rufus Sewell) and his second Tristan (James Franco). Nevermind that Artur Reinhart's photography is gorgeous, a haunting mixture of blue and grey hues, hanging over the film like a warning. And nevermind that the film moves so briskly that it makes Braveheart look like Shoah. If Tristan + Isolde had reigned in it's focus to the tragic romance, it would have, ironically, been so much more. Grade: C+]

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Clean; Death of a President; Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

[Clean (Olivier Assayas, 2006): Assayas reunites with his ex-wife Maggie Cheung for this slow but engrossing study of a drug-addicted wife of a recently-dead musician, who desperately tries to get her life back on track for the sake of her son, who has been living with her husband's parents since he was born. Clean seems to have provoked intriguingly disparate reactions from the critical community, but suffice to say, this viewer found it strikingly off-kilter, eschewing the usual cliches of drug addiction and recovery and instead taking a more sublte approach. Cheung fits perfectly into this mould, never giving the audience anything obvious to latch onto and instead delicately constructing a painful, interior woman who can't quite let go of what she knows she must. Assayas' direction is genius- my favourite scene probably comes where Cheung meets up with her father-in-law (a rugged, impressive Nick Nolte) in a train station, and runs off suddenly only to sharply change her mind. Amongst the crowd, Assayas' camera tracks but often loses it's subject, but, symbolically, it always gets there eventually. Grade: B+]

[Death of a President (Gabriel Range, 2006): This controversial British-made psuedo-documentary debuted on tv over here, and after a while the advert breaks become less annoying than there are during the first half of the film. Range's take on the assassination of President Bush provides gripping viewing while the event itself is built up to and takes place- a seamless use of stock footage digitally integrated- but it totally loses itself when it tackles the ensuing investigation, eschewing the possibilities of social and political commentary for a streamlined, messy 'who-dunnit' situation, albeit with ethnic minorities. But it's exploration of race is far too surface, too obvious, and it finishes with the depressing feeling that it could have been so, so much more. Grade: C]

[Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (Pedro Almodovar, 1990): What seems to me an Almodovarian take on the screwball comedy, with the slightly psychotic Antonio Banderas heading straight for his one-night-stand Victoria Abril, a recovering drug-addict and ex-porn actress, with the intention of making her his wife. To ensure this end, he ties her to the bed and tapes over her mouth while he leaves, effectively kidnapping her in her own home. With usual Almodovar themes of twisted sexuality, madness, and the like, it's hardly a grand departure (when is it ever?), but it certainly struck me as one his most successful films. Drawing on the electric chemistry between it's two stars, the satirical edge of the film is brilliant, challenging Hollywood conventions of traditional romance right up to it's deliriously silly (and simultaneously romantic) ending. If you (like me) are exploring Almodovar's earlier works, this should jump to the top of your list. Grade: A-]

Friday, October 13, 2006

A Wong Kar-Wai Collection

The first film my new university course fellows and I was treated to, on our first day no less, was Wong Kar-wai's critically-adored, notably beautiful, but also (at least in this viewer's eyes) distressingly slim and uninvolving, In the Mood for Love. Nevertheless, the superb visual stylings and intriguingly deft direction left me with a strange hunger to explore more of his back-catalogue, which, thanks to the university library's dvd collection, I could now do on a whim. So I checked out the three available I had yet to see: As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild and Happy Together, and sat down and gorged myself, with sizeable breaks in-between, on a Hong Kong movie fest. The result proferred surprisingly unexpected reactions.

True to my anal-retentive fashion, I of course viewed them in chronological order, which offers an intriguing insight into a directorial development that is rarely found nowadays. Most directors, David Cronenberg for instance, hover around the same thematic moods but explore different subjects; but in Kar-wai, we see a director honing selective themes, never really losing ideas from his previous films but working them in a more precise fashion. Chungking Express, the first Kar-wai I ever saw, lives only in my memory for now, but that film's duet of romantic complications does indeed seem to fit in with Kar-wai's development.

[As Tears Go By (Wong Kar-wai, 1988): Kar-wai's first full-length feature (he had been a successful screenwriter beforehand) is a familiar Eastern gangster pic, a traditional balancing act between love and war. Wah (Andy Lau) is continually bailing out his ambitious little brother Fly (Jacky Cheung) but doesn't really have the drive to go far in the business himself. When his cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung) arrives to stay with him, they form a bond that leads Wah to go in search of her when she returns to her more rural home. The typicality of the film in terms of the gangster genre of Hong Kong at that time is quite surprising, and it seems to me that the film has only gathered favourable attention because it was Kar-wai's debut. It does have a few of his notable qualities- vagueness of plot, soft focus, slow-mo techniques- but it never coheres, striking a bizarre balance between the two plot threads and unfortunately never becoming particularly engrossing. Of the actors, Lau fares best in both role and performance- a young Maggie Cheung seems uncharacteristically lost. Grade: C]

[Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar-wai, 1991): With this film, Kar-wai reportedly wanted to break the excessive popularity of the gangster movie (that he had so conformed to in the film above) with a romantic drama. Days of Being Wild presents a more familiar Kar-wai, though he was yet to fine-tune his narrative vagueness into a coherent whole (perhaps because he was trying to set up an abandoned sequel). Like In the Mood for Love, though not as evocatively or prominently, Days of Being Wild takes place in the 1960s, where sexual predator Leslie Cheung dumps Maggie Cheung, who can't get her mind off him until she meets a policeman (Andy Lau), and moves onto the erratic Rebecca Pan, all the while pestering his adoptive mother to tell him who his true mother is. The more expressive emotional themes Kar-wai employs here lead unsurprisingly to a deeper film, filmed by frequent collaborator, and photographic maverick, Christopher Doyle in a gorgeous soft focus, but Kar-wai was, as mentioned, yet to form totally coherent plots- the film is almost too vague in it's emotional complications, never really sure of itself and jerking off in strange directions. Nevertheless, it's an engrossing watch, well performed and a fair indicator of where Kar-wai was eventually going to reach. Grade: B-]

[Happy Together (Wong Kar-wai, 1997): Happy Together was one of Kar-wai's most critically disliked films, but it happens to be one of his best, happily marrying a thin plot laden with emotion to Kar-wai's striking style. The slow but moving tale of two male lovers in a deeply problematic relationship in Buenos Aires gives Kar-wai plenty of room to employ what he likes best, and perhaps most immediatly striking is the contrast between colour and black and white. Starting the film with a sexually-explicit prelude which is both in Hong Kong and in black and white, Kar-wai employs perhaps the idea of a nostalgic point-of-view, as Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Cheung), the more reserved and unhappy of the pairing, reflects on what his relationship once was. Kar-wai constantly plays with perspective, not just through cinematography but through character- subtle shifts in performance tone perhaps clue us in to the idea that we have switched from one lover to the other, as Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung)'s selfish demands are dialled down and the negativity switches instead to Lai Yiu-fai's downcast reticence. This delicate imbalancing is just as due to the actors as to Kar-wai, and both Cheungs (no relation) acquit themselves extremely convincingly, sketching an entangled past without showing it to us and drawing a sad portrait of human dependancy. Grade: B+]

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

World Trade Center, L'Enfant and The Shawshank Redemption

[World Trade Center (Oliver Stone, 2006): Stone's earnest attempt to portray specific events of the 9/11 terrorist attack stumbles almost before it starts, with the rather pathetic casting of the inexplicable superstar Nicolas Cage, whom I have no shame in saying is one of my most hated actors. Even crushed under rubble for most of the picture, he becomes no more tolerable. However, Stone has managed to gather some positive talent: Crash's Michael Pena, stalwart Maria Bello (with some alarmingly blue contacts) and the rising star Maggie Gyllenhaal round out the central quartet of characters, with some impressive character actors like Michael Shannon (to be seen in a lead role later this year in Bug) and Viola Davis flickering at the edges. Stone eschews the gripping realism of Paul Greengrass's acclaimed United 93 for a more sentimental and Hollywood-ized view of things, with surprisingly populist themes like religion (Jesus appears to Pena in visions) in full view. The main problem is that Stone makes the necessary (Cage and Pena trapped) quite boring, and the unnecessary (their wives anxiously awating news) the more interesting side of things- but it never escapes the feeling that this shouldn't be part of the film. As the two wives (who meet only briefly) are played by Gyllenhaal and Bello, the level of acting is very high, although neither are able to avoid the melodramatic script and direction. As a film it's very well designed- the recreation of the ensuing rubble, under which we spend much of our time, is exceptional, although Stone never really maximises the obvious feelings of claustrophobia we should be feeling. I wouldn't say it does the brave people of the actual event a disservice, it simply doesn't convince us that we're watching them. Grade: C+]

[L'Enfant (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2006): L'Enfant's central conceit is an obvious one, though somehow I felt perversely proud about figuring it out so quickly- the child of the title is ostentatiously the newborn baby of teenage couple Bruno (Jeremie Renier) and Sonia (Deborah Francois), but isn't it really referring to Bruno himself, whom we quickly realise is still a child, but a child in the body and position of an adult. Bruno is a thief who refuses to work, and lives off his dealings with shady characters and Sonia's welfare. The child-like status of both Bruno and Sonia is quickly established: as the film begins and Sonia returns with her newborn baby Jimmy, we witness the immature, playful rapport between the lovers, constantly play-fighting and sparring with each other. It is Bruno's immaturity that ultimately leads to his downfall: clearly not understanding the delicate importance of the baby to Sonia (or indeed to himself), he sells the baby, which makes Sonia collapse and the hospital call the police in. Even in his quest to regain the baby, and then make his way with his young, school-age apprentice (Jeremie Segard) to get some more money, Bruno's naiveity and inexperience is clear. The daring decision to not include any non-diagetic music (indeed, the only music heard is the soothing classical music that is the subject of a playful disagreement between Sonia and Bruno) by the Dardennes, right down to the credits, adds to the pounding, desperate realism of the film, almost completely devoid of humour: we are not here to laugh, we are here to be aghast. And aghast we are indeed. Grade: B]

[The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994): Exactly what made The Shawshank Redemption such an enormous hit escapes me. A third, unscheduled viewing with my new flatmates at university perhaps weilded some answers: those who had seen it before chuckled and gasped at all the designated moments, while the newly initiated were more emotionally overwhelmed. Indeed, my first viewing (a while ago now) left me reeling, shocked at the developments (admittedly well disguised, in the same kind of way that The Sixth Sense is) and loving it. But a second viewing revealed the cracks: Tim Robbins' Andy Dufresne is an empty vessel of earnestness, the idea that life outside prison is unbearable for those who've been inside for so long seems perverse, and the film is often overwhelming sentimental. Morgan Freeman started his wise narration schtick here, and it was perhaps never more successful, as Red becomes the far more interesting character and you start wishing we could watch his journey instead. The overbearing hamminess of prison warden Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton) is rather painful; yet, despite all these problems, The Shawshank Redemption does actually work, though not as well as some may have you believe. It's 142 minutes are suprisingly speedy, and it makes you smile more than it makes your eyes roll. But don't go in expecting a masterpiece, if you happen to be one of the two people in the world yet to see this inexplicable phenomenon. Grade: B]