Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Atonement Revisited

When I first saw Atonement, all the way back in September (Britain got it a few months earlier than America and most other countries), I was fresh off having read (and loved) the book- as usual with books that aren't prescribed parts of my course these days, it was only because they were making a film out of it that I read it. Naturally, the issue with watching a film of a book you've read is that you're naturally going to make comparisons- but reading the book so close to watching the film is possibly unadvisable, because it makes you even more prone to paper over the film's omissions (which are often necessary or effective ones) with pages that are still living vivid life in your memory. Characters seem more than they are because the versions the book and film offer up to you are different things- not a problem, perhaps, when watching at a studied distance, but the character of Cecilia, say, who was granted a greater deal of interiority than the film affords her, seemed less rounded and human on a second, more removed viewing than she did initially, because in my head first go round was still the Cecilia from the book.

Trying to make a truly faithful version of a book is always a mistake, really, because, as with plays, the whole thing generally comes off as too stilted, too formal and constrained, because you get the sense that the filmmakers are ignoring any possible artistry in an attempt to portray exactly what the book gives you. Atonement does not have this problem, because Joe Wright, its director, does not let it. This isn't to say, though, that it's not seeking to be faithful to the book in a disadvantageous way- it just goes an entirely different route towards achieving it. We learnt from Pride and Prejudice's famous circuitous long-take around the rural family home that Wright is a director often prone to flashiness- but here, with Atonement, he seems too often to go slightly overboard. He may not be keen to tell us the story, so to speak, but he is intent on showing it to us, and all too often his visual attempts to do so seem overbearing and unsubtle. Grone-inducing visual metaphors like Cecilia (Keira Knightley) diving into the swimming pool cutting sharply to Robbie (James McAvoy) sliding up from under his bath water, or the insistent close-ups of that infamous word that wasn't meant to be seen being typed across our screen, sit uncomfortably alongside the classical style Wright favours for most of the film- most egregious, possibly, is his reversing flashback of Robbie and Cecilia's separation, to not mention his infamous five and a half minute tracking shot around Dunkirk, which seems to serve no other purpose that proving it can be done. Dario Marianelli's score is for the most part delicate and effectively melancholic, but the typewriter sounds that spark up on young Briony's (Saoirse Ronan) appearances- which undoubtably are what won him the Oscar- are jarring and altogether too poundingly insistent. And Christopher Hampton's script is too often as unsubtle as Wright himself- particularly, it has to be said, in the coda, for which I previously placed too much blame on Vanessa Redgrave, but it's really the fault of having what was in the book revealed by a first person narration but is here forced to be revealed in one long, overt speech.

Atonement's productional credentials are generally faultless- impeccably-created sets, good costume work, ecetera- but ultimately the whole thing does feel a bit empty because there is barely an actual character to identify with. Robbie and Cecilia, even moreso than they were in the novel, are less humans than idealized romantic fiction, and, while that is the point that McEwan ultimately makes, he also invested time and energy into the pairing, using their perspectives to eschew the possibility of making them into ciphers for Briony's atonement. It's harder to pull off different perspectives on film without being overly explicit, and, even while spending most time with Briony, Wright refrains from actually entering any of the characters heads, and this means that the film loses any chance to understand either Robbie or Cecilia, leaving both McAvoy and Knightley asea amid clipped British accents and creaseless formal clothing. Obviously Briony is more of a rounded character, but here it's more a case of the actors letting the side down- Romola Garai is easily the best here, redemptive and haunted as her eighteen year-old Briony struggles with nurse training and contacting her estranged sister, but Saoirse Ronan, much-praised as the younger incarnation of Briony, works too hard to try pull off the adult-acting aspect of her character, which, in one of the novel's clearest ironies, is all a fallacy anyway. Ronan is good at portraying Briony's slightly lofty attitudes, but she's a tad too vacant, lacking any edge in her clearly-meant-to-be-meaningful stares out of the window, and not nearly as good at underlining the empathic moments of Briony as Garai is. And Redgrave, stuck as she is with that expositionary coda, works like a trooper to inject some emotion into her face as Wright holds steady on her close-up, but, not only is she undermined by an understandable but still foolish choice to have her basically look like an overgrown Ronan (same hair cut, swamping dress), there's just little she can do to make the words seem less deadeningly unrealistic than they are.

Atonement works, maybe, as the sweeping period romance that you feel the Academy probably took it for, but as the more subtle depiction of the devastating effect of falsehoods and misunderstandings the book proves itself to be, the film fails. There's no real sense of tragedy in Robbie and Cecilia's separation because they're never relatable, sympathetic characters. Indeed, the film's best moments belong entirely to Garai, as she depicts the tragedy she unknowingly did to herself- rather lamely sitting by a French soldier's bedside, unsure whether to go along with his delirious 'remembrances' of her; but especially in the film's coup-d'etat, Briony's confrontation with Robbie and Cecilia. Nathaniel highlighted this line reading in his recent awards, but it bears repeating for just how perfectly Garai captures Briony's wretched regret, her pathetic apology coming out as if she knows how redundant it will seem. It's a superb performance in a film that doesn't seem to want one, more concerned with the tragic romance and directorial flashiness than telling the story that McEwan told. C+

This interview is over.

Sienna Miller's construction in the tabloids- and indeed in any more respectacle arena that's criticizing the tabloids for focusing on her in the first place- makes her seem like such a waste of space (and, indeed, time) that it came as quite a shock last year to find that the poor, derided woman could actually act. And, lo and behold, here she is again, in yet another film practically no one cared to see, actually acting again! I can only assume the only reason people continue to ignore the fact that Miller is in fact quite good at what she does is that the world would probably spin off its axis if people didn't have good-looking party-girls to hate (see: Lindsay Lohan). Alright, so, as far I as I know anyway, so far Miller's range is remarkably restricted to characters whose surfaces are so close to her tabloid persona they practically are her- but she proved remarkably good at riffing off Edie Sedgwick's interior shallowness in Factory Girl, and here, in Steve Buscemi's Interview, she's asked to take the opposite tack of peeling back the layers to reveal a more complex, canny person beneath. Katya, shlock horror-movie star and press favourite, plays cat and mouse with Buscemi's political journalist Pierre, and Miller nails all of Katya's manipulative vocal cadences, her wildly fluctuating moods, and the (self-conscious?) hint of a darker core. It's less surprising, naturally, to see Buscemi on good form- he similarly unravels his arrogant, hard-nosed journalist and is particularly good at Pierre's desperate attempts to keep up with Katya's wilful fluctuations.

So it's a great shame, then, that these two diverse but equally interesting performances aren't put to better use. Interview seems to move in circles, getting to expected point of "she's deeper than he thinks she is" rather quickly but stubbornly refusing to move past it, instead going back and forward constantly to reinforce that one thin, obvious point. The film doesn't even reach an hour and a half in length but it starts to drag even before its halfway point, because there's only so long catty dialogue and unpredictable mood swings can sustain something. The aforementioned dextrousness of the performances keeps things alive, though, until the film reaches its ending and takes its final, deadening curve back to the surface point again, cheapening everything we've seen in a seemingly desperate attempt to wake the audience up with a 'shocking' twist. What you've been watching wasn't entirely uninteresting or bad in the strong sense of the word, but, as the credits roll, it does seem remarkably empty and useless, because any point that all the battling dialogue had has been eradicated. Nothing has been proved, nothing learned. This interview is over, and the tape is blank. C-

Monday, February 25, 2008

Didn't they do well?

I am shocked, SHOCKED to discover that not only is Marketa Irglova dating Glen Hansard, but she is only nineteen! (Well, twenty in three days, but still...) She's only a few months older than I am! I'm not saying she looks old or anything but I would never have said she was that young. I am utterly besotted with her now, though, after the look she gave at being cut off (stupid orchestra!) and how gracious she was when Jon Stewart brought her back on for a chance to speak. I didn't love Once but I loved the music, and the performance of "Falling Slowly" last night was just heavenly. I actually beamed when it was announced as the winner.

For some reason, though, my heart sank a little when No Country for Old Men was given the final, biggest prize... not because I don't like it (I do: it's either my second or third favourite out of a superb roster), or even because it meant I got my prediction wrong- but just because it was so. bloody. predictable. About the only surprising wins last night were The Bourne Ultimatum getting both sound prizes and The Golden Compass besting Transformers for effects. (And on that note: what the hell? I'm sorry but The Golden Compass had rubbish effects.) How I longed for something truly surprising... like, say, The Lovely Laura Linney (who, by the way, seemed to be beaming all night- the camera loved her!) winning, or something that wasn't No Country snagging BP. I can't really complain too much about the winners, who were on the whole a good bunch (well, I could moan about Marion Cotillard- who seemed rather complacent while still sitting down, if you ask me- but I won't), but it was just so... dull.

That said, I did love both Tilda Swinton's win and her acceptance speech ("Really truly the same shape head, and, it has to be said, the buttocks..."), the aforementioned Once win, the gorgeousity of Jennifer Garner, Javier Bardem transferring to Spanish for his mother, how hilariously nervous Katharine Heigl was, Helen Mirren (rowr), and those excited women who won for Freeheld. Best dressed? I'm hardly an authority on these things, but I loved Garner, Diane Lane, Cameron Diaz, and Mirren. (I didn't love, however, Hilary Swank, who, I'm sorry, has the biggest teeth and chin of anyone I've ever seen. Alarming in the extreme.)

Oh, and my predictions? 15 out of 24. (So what have we learnt? Never trust anyone Never take risks. They don't pay off.) That's one up on last year. If that trend continues, I'll get them all right in 2017. Maybe Kate will finally have won by then...

Sunday, February 24, 2008

You know, with DVD there's no need to...

Be Kind Rewind seems to be far more popular than you'd expect of a Michel Gondry movie- but then it is being shown with trailers for such delightful looking "comedies" like Semi-Pro and Meet the Spartans. But all the same, I'm not sure whether the marketing for this film makes sense or not- sure, it has Jack Black, goofy comedian at large, doing his patented loopy-loser schtick, but it also has a subplot that involves Fats Waller, which hardly strikes me as something a mainstream audience would be able to get behind. As it is, the marketers have gone for the money angle and thus marketed the film using the very thing that Gondry is making fun of- big budget Hollywood. You probably know the plot involves Black and Mos Def "sweding" all the film's in Mr. Fletcher's (Danny Glover) video store after the magnetised Black erases them, and in this, Gondry seems to set himself up in somewhat of a quandry. By aping the films, he seems to be simultaneously mocking them- a theme continued by having a game Sigourney Weaver turn up as a coldhearted Hollywood representative who slams them with copyright infringement- and affectionately petting them, celebrating the grand old tradition of Hollywood.

But these strange quandries don't really matter because for the most part Be Kind Rewind isn't really interested in any kind of deeper meaning. The majority of the film is simply the recreation of the films, rather sweetly but often also rather dully shown to use either in laborious sequences (Ghost Busters may contain the amusing spectacle of watching Black cock-up the theme tune, which you've probably seen on the ads, but the rest of the sequence proves to be rather listless) or in alarmingly quick- so quick it needs boxed titles of all the films be recreated- montage, and while Gondry and his cast (which also includes a kooky Mia Farrow and a slightly garish Melonie Diaz) mine a few chuckles out of all this, there's really nothing to get the juices flowing.

So it's left to the movie's final stretches to finally reap some satisfaction. Stripped of their tapes (Weaver oversees their flattening), the amateur filmmakers instead have the bright idea of making their own film- and so a communal project of a Fats Waller biography (of sorts) begins. Here, while Gondry ultimately lays in on a bit thick by doing his own erasion of dialogue and substituting it with syrupy music, we finally see some life, so meaning- and while it may be that age old story of the community's power against the faceless corporation, it still manages to work a little bit of the movie magic Gondry's been searching for all along. C+

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Scene Sunday: A Place in the Sun

I'd been meaning to see A Place in the Sun for a long while, but during a spontaneous perusal of the university library's impressive DVD collection a few days ago, I suddenly felt drawn to it, impelled to watch it. I haven't been watching classic films outside of my course recently and something had to be done about that horrendous fact. Of course, it helps to have Shelley Winters in a film: how I do adore her! Incidentally, since Shelley is not to be found in the scene I'll be looking at, I must mention now how absolutely terrific she is here. Possibly the film's best performance, and that's saying something. But let us move closer, now, children, and admire the dazzling central duo of Monty and Liz...

George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) has finally been noticed by his uncle and invited to one of their posh soirees. But George doesn't know no one, so he retreats to a deserted room with a pool table, and proceeds to show off his impressive, cheeky skills with a cue...

But who is that coming by the door? Why, it's Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), laughing with the friends she leads past the door... but at the clunk of George's cue, Angela reappears at the door and peeks in with interest. Director George Stevens never cuts away or zooms in on Angela as she passes the door, letting the audience notice even as the eye is with George as he does his party trick (which no one is there to appreciate... yet.)

As the ball clunks into the pocket, Stevens finally cuts to Taylor, her mouth slightly open, her eyes strangely transfixed, and she lets out a single, breathless word: "Wow."

Startled, George looks up- and so does Angela, both looking as surprised and faintly intrigued as the other. George slowly removes the cigarette that's been dangling in his mouth. Smiling coyly, Angela greets him with a sly "Hello."; quickly, he gives a cursory "Hello." back in a deep, slightly formal voice. George, it seems, is still in party mode, which means distant formality for this outsider.

Stevens cuts back to the long shot on the level of the pool table as Angela enters the room proper, leaving the door ajar and slinkily walking away from George, hand trailing lacksadasically upon the table as she breezily starts to chat. Taylor captures Angela's coy seductive tone beautifully here, head freely looking both at and away from George; her voice is light and teasing. "I see you had a misspent youth."

Still slightly wary, George seems to warm up slightly with his reply- an uninspired "Yes, it was."- and Angela starts to amp up the seductiveness, eyes innocently looking downward for a second as she asks, "Why all alone? Being exclusive?"

She gives him a coy look, her head bent as she lazily picks a nibble from the dish, and continues with her teasing. "Being dramatic?"

And, slowly coming to a rest before him, she finishes her list of suggestions for his loneliness with "Being blue?" Delivered by Taylor with a warm yet sultry smile, another slightly coy inflex of the head and a voice that needles both concern and suggestion, this words seem to disarm George for a second. "I'm just fooling around," he finally says, and then throws a little jibe of his own back: "Maybe you'd like to play."

But Angela's having none of it. Taylor leans against the wall with yet more breezy suggestion, nibbling self-consciously on her treat and looking over at him with a cool feeling of power. She's the one who'll do the disarming, thank you. "Oh, no. I'll just watch you. Go ahead."

Trying not to be put off, George puts the cigarette back in his mouth and bends down to play... but he just can't concentrate, Clift's eyes flicking back, his back stiffening. Angela watches with a trace of amusement but more still with continued suggestion in mind- she's all too knowledgeable about the power she has over him. "Do I make you nervous?"

George gives up the charade, standing, turning and looking up at her with embarassment, admitting with a shy laugh, "Yes." But still, Angela plays it cool and slow, on her own terms. "You look like an Eastman. Are you one of them?" she asks, keen interest in Taylor's tone as she has Angela interlace her fingers and place them innocently before her stomach.

"Uh-huh," replies George, seeming to warm up in his tone now he's stopped trying to battle her, "a nephew. My name's George."

"I'm Angela," she replies, walking forward and giving another of her coy looks to the table, picking at the cue chalk. "Vickers," George finishes for her, gaining a surprised whip round of the head from Angela. "I saw you here last spring." Here, while Clift is positioned at right angles with the camera, facing Angela, Taylor's body is facing the camera, her head turned so she can talk to George. Keen with honest interest, Angela comments, "Oh, I don't remember seeing you before." Taylor's body turns just slightly, a little more angled towards Clift as Angela is drawn into conversation.

George laughs and says softly, "No, you wouldn't," briefly echoing her coy looks with a shy look down. "You've been away, haven't you? Took a trip with your parents."

This seemingly intimate knowledge gets Angela to turn slightly again as she asks, "How did you know?"

"I read about you in the papers," replies George, and Clift's eyes seem to shine with adoration, roaming across Taylor's face as he speaks. Smiling slightly, Taylor shifts more noticeably now, perhaps projecting a conscious decision on Angela's part as she moves to face Clift directly, and Angela moves back to the suggestive: "What else do you do?"

Stevens now cuts away to a mid-shot of Clift, who smiles with slight bemusement and continued adoration as George rather uselessly replies, "The usual things."

And here, perhaps, is this scene's crowning glory: in a marked difference from the mid-shot of Clift, still in context of the slightly blurred door and wall, Stevens shoots Taylor's shot closer, in dreamy, beautiful soft focus, and she doesn't seem to be existing in any known world at all. This both reinforces the idea of this as George's story (Angela seen through his gaze), but also the foregrounding of Angela's beauty as what makes George fall in love with her, and with Taylor's existence as a glamorous movie star. In the same movie, we have Clift, the method actor, the realist, and Taylor, the beautiful, idealized movie star. Bizarrely enough, they do not retract from each other, but compliment.
"You look unusual," Angela compliments softly, a statement which Taylor prefaces with the most enticing pause as she cocks her head slightly. The words come from her mouth like honey, seductive yet honest.

And this disarms George so much that he can't even look at her for embarassment, laughing and looking down at the floor again. "That's the first time anybody ever said that."

"You keep pretty much to yourself, don't you?" Angela asks, still in dreamy focus, voice still a seductive whisper. "Yes, sometimes," replies George, with a touching acknowledgment in Clift's voice, as though George is just realizing Angela's statement is true. Stevens has cut back from his singular shots to the familiar mid-shot of the two facing each other. Already, we sense their time together is about to be cut short.

"Blue?" asks Angela, repeating her earlier words. With a coyness that seems more honest this time, she looks down at her hands and says "Exclusive?". Without really expressing anything verbally, Taylor quickly conveys that Angela has moved from surface interest to a deeper intrigue, now truly interested in how George feels, and why he was alone at the pool table.

"Well, neither right now-" George starts to say, leaning in slightly and smiling, but, in classic fashion, someone has to cut short the budding romance. "Oh, here you are, George!" interrupts his uncle genially, and the pair look round.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

I have a soft, slightly acerbic side too, you know...

Definitely, Maybe may have a rather odd and insistently quirky title, but the film itself is actually rather good: warm and gentle but trying its best to skirt cliche, and even throwing in a surprisingly prominent political side plot to ground its central characters in a tangible, realistic existance. It helps, in that, that this is a story told in flashback that actually specifies when its taking place, so, instead of having characters drifting around in a vague abstraction of a world, they're contextualised within real events and some development is actually drawn from them. It may be Working Title but Definitely, Maybe doesn't really subscribe to the usual familiar boy-meets-girl plotting, acknowledging from its outset that love doesn't always work out- Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds, subdued and therefore more likeable than usual) is telling his daughter (Abigail Breslin) the story of how he married her mother through the disguised prism of the disguised identities of the three main women who were in his life, prompted by the fact that the couple are now getting divorced. Perhaps the best thing to say about this film- which I admit does to some extent capitulate to familiar arcs and is distressingly vague in one of the three women's characterizations- is that, for at least the other two women, it creates identities that are not defined by quirks or surface observations but actually embues them with some depth. And, in this, you do- or at least I did- actually care what happens in the end, for the film has craftily navigated its way around the stories of Will and the three women (played by Elizabeth Banks, Isla Fisher and Rachel Weisz), letting all four characters make mistakes but never villanizing, and eschewing the familiar bait-and-switch turnarounds that these films are so oft falling prey to. At one point the film actually skips ahead by four years, leaving its characters to change and fester instead of forcing them into situations that just wouldn't have fit. Alright, so having an eleven year-old girl repeatedly spouting words like "slut" is a little discomfiting, but it's hardly unrealistic with the world in the state it is today. Definitely, Maybe may be a romantic comedy, but it's a good one, and it does at least acknowledge, even while it gives in to heart-warming conclusions (but by that time you want them), that the world is not perfect, that people are flawed, and that mistakes are not always so easy to forgive. B

Oh, and I think I may be totally in love with Isla Fisher now that she's finally played an actual character as opposed to a nymphomaniac or someone stuck in a bonkers mess, so there's an excuse for you to disregard the previous, if you want one. Not that you should, you cynics.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A brief holla about Yella...

Possibly contains vague spoilers for Yella. Maybe.

A lot of people seem to hate Yella, at least if you go by the IMDb (but then we all know that's not exactly a wise thing to do). I was more baffled by it than anything- here is a film coming in at a brisk 89 minutes that fills much of its running time up with business meetings in clinical, sparse board rooms, occasionally interrupted by overwhelming, disorientating rushes of sound. Is this what David Lynch films would be like if he'd once been a systems analyst? (Or something, I mean I know nothing about business, which might be why I often zoned out. I mean, "personal capital"? Please. I don't watch movies to be given a business degree.) It seems like it might, especially with its elliptical ending- only here, devoid of Lynch's unique atmospheric aesthetic, said ending seems more a cop-out than anything, if it actually meant what I think it did, which to be honest I'm not sure about. But even if it did, really, I'm not sure that I really think that Yella is up to much- Nina Hoss won Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival, and she's fine, but too often the character just seems like a vessel for looking utterly perplexed when the director goes off on one of his interruptus sonorus. The strong plot element of Hoss' eponymous heroine being stalked by her husband adds a strangely farcical element that really doesn't fit with the smooth, eerie atmosphere the rest of the film, with its modern fittings and sleek cars as the main spaces, is trying to project. The film does hold some kind of strange compulsion, though, perhaps through this odd twinning of elliptical theme and straight business, for it's so rare to see a film go off on such a tangent that's so easily described as "dull" and actually manage to make it interesting by threading in into the characters' existances and relationships. The plot elements that form the ending seem to mirror themselves in a way that suggests the kind of justificatory explanation for the whole thing that most people have favoured, and this does indeed make Yella stronger, more than the rather pallid figure it would otherwise project. The film is oddball yet strangely ordinary, mystifying in its business suit, bizarre in its modern sleekness. C+

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Scene Sunday: The Purple Rose of Cairo

Okay. So, although I got no comments, the first post in this new series was actually mentioned elsewhere in the blogosphere with some nice words, so that means that it wasn't a total disaster. So I present the second edition. I was planning to pick a scene from 2007 release Yella, but, through a combination of workload and procrastination, I haven't actually watched it yet, so that flew out of the window. So, in its place, I've instead picked a bonefide classic. (And I've sheared the screencaps of those ugly black borders this time, too!)

The Purple Rose of Cairo may be my favourite Woody Allen film. Perhaps Annie Hall and Manhattan are more auspicious both technically and script-wise, but I think Purple Rose is closest to my heart. It's most likely because the film, like me, is so in love with the movies- oh, it recognizes the danger of escapism and the effect it can have on your life, but it also rejoices in the magic, and its the combination of these two elements, surely familiar to any cinephile, that make the film itself so warm and connectable. And, for this week's scene, I've picked the epitome of this movie's magic: the moment where a film character actually walks off the screen and into real life.

Cecilia (Mia Farrow) has just been fired from her waitressing job. So, as she always does, she retreats to her comfort food: the movies. She may have already seen it twice, but we quickly cycle through two scenes from 'The Purple Rose of Cairo' (the film within the film)- including a hilarious one where the maid (Annie Joe Edwards) asks Rita (Deborah Rush) whether she'd like her bath of "the big bubbles or the asses' milk"- and then seem to be repeating the first again. Only this time it's slightly different.

Mia Farrow looks at the screen with such wistful longing, so transfixing a stare, that it's obvious without words that Cecilia is utterly besotted with this film she's been watching for hours on end. She's on her third straight viewing and there is no trace of fatigue or boredom in Farrow's eyes- Cecilia would be nowhere else for anything in the world.

Henry (Edward Herrmann) and Rita are progressing through the scene as normal, but when we reach Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels)...

He moves across the room, looking around him with slight awe. "Well, I am very impressed. I really am. You have yourself quite a place here." He chuckles quietly to himself.

"You know, I still can't get over the fact that twenty-four hours ago I was in an Egyptian tomb, I didn't know any of you wonderful people-" Here, Baxter suddenly, inexplicably, flicks a hopelessly obvious, slightly bewildered and maybe just a bit fascinated look into the audience, and his speech slows. Allen, for his part, has so far kept both Cecilia and the movie screen embedded within his frame, grounding both within the context of the movie theatre- Tom is still just part of a movie, and Cecilia just part of the audience.
"- and here I am now, I'm on the verge of a madcap... Manhattan... weekend." He finishes almost reluctantly, now staring abandonly at Cecilia. She, baffled, even looks behind her, as if so derogatory of herself that while she can believe that a movie character is suddenly breaking the fourth wall, she can't fathom that he might be looking at her.

But Baxter's words can't apply to anyone else. "My god, you must really love this picture."

"Me?" Cecilia asks squeakily, causing the other members of the sparse audience to turn in surprise.

Tom smiles. "You've been here all day, and I've seen you here twice before."

Allen finally closes in on his heroine, emphasizing Farrow's innocent, perplexed expression. "You mean me?"

He closes in on Tom too, omitting the entire frame of the movie screen. The film has suddenly cut out the peripheral, has engaged in the romantic duet we think we're embarking upon. "Yes, you, you... this is the fifth time you're seeing this!" Tom explains, a sly bit of snide amazement apparent in Daniels' tone.

But Baxter isn't the only character who can break the wall. Allen keeps close-in on a short cut to Rita, as she hisses "Henry! Come here, quickly!", accompanied by a lovely mixture of shock and possible fear in Rush's expression.

"I gotta speak to you," declares Tom, and then the line between fiction and reality is broken, irreparably:

Tom literally seems to step off the screen, black-and-white becoming colour before our eyes, and although this transition is clearly illogical (he was enormous on-screen yet is regularly sized as he walks down the aisle), it reinforces the blurring of the two worlds, mystifies the process.

The expected gasps, screams and an "Oh my god!" are heard but not seen, although Allen treats us to the quick comic moment of the above woman screaming and doing a dead faint sidewards.

"Listen, old sport, you're on the wrong side!" calls Henry, but Tom doesn't look back as he walks towards Cecilia, dismissing his fellow character with "Hang on, I wanna have a look around, go on without me." Even Henry's response- "We can't continue with the story!"- is cut across by Tom's question to Cecilia, as Allen tightens the frame, focusing our attention solely on our central couple. Side-lit by the projector, Tom still seems romanticized- our (and Cecilia's- though they are much one and the same) ideal romantic hero.

"Who are you?"

Amazed, baffled, stunned, but still rather besotted, Farrow looks up at her movie hero with wide-eyed adoration, and answers with a stutter: "C-Cecilia."

Allen inputs another comedic little aside here: the usherette (Juliana Donald) does a fantastic little staccato action, announcing dramatically: "I'll go get the manager!"

Background still blurring out all others, Tom suggests "Let's get out of here and go somewhere where we can talk." Well, suggests, but he waits for no response as he pulls Cecilia up the aisle and out of the theatre, dismissing her weak protestation- "But you're in the movie!"- with a dramatic, liberated little exclamation:

"Wrong, Cecilia, I'm free! After two thousand performances of the same noxious routine, I'm free!"

And, illuminated from behind by the glow of the screen, Tom and Cecilia escape the cinema, Allen's camera still back where it had been when Cecilia had been sitting down. They might be escaping, but Allen's going to hang around for a second...

Rita vainly calls after Tom, and, in a fantastic comic moment- but also one that quickly establishes the internal 'laws' of this suddenly different universe- she pushes her face up against the screen, trying to follow him out. No such luck.

May you be in Heaven half an hour...

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a Greek tragedy- at least that's how it seems. Kelly Masterson's surprisingly complex (you might say convoluted, but the winding back and forth seems to simultaneously become less important and more coherent as the film progresses) screenplay presents little sympathy for her characters, sidelining those who might possibly be a hook for the average audience, or otherwise paring down aspects of character that might tend towards pleasant. These are dirty, nasty people, but Masterson, along with director Sidney Lumet, maneuvers them somehow into some kind of verbose epicity.

This is not a bad thing. The film, necessarily, focuses at first on the film's central event- a robbery- which it frames its entire conceit around. Titles inform us both where we are in relation to the crime, and who, ostensibly, we are "seeing" this part of the film from- although never, really, does the film actually seem to enter these people's heads. You can't blame it for not wanting to. Masterson and Lumet keep us on the outside looking in (much like Marisa Tomei's Gina often does), watching the greed and selfishness of the leading duo of brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) unfurl into pain, danger and death. There were a few walkouts of the screening I attended, and I think that makes clear that the filmmakers are not making it easy for the audience here- they don't want you involved, so to speak, but they want you transfixed, unnerved, horrified. And, ultimately, as I sat there chewing on my knuckles, that is exactly what happened.

It initially seems as though Masterson is simply adopted the familiar schematic of three different viewpoints on one story- the two brothers, and their father (Albert Finney)- but, as the film progresses and time crosses over itself, the narrative structure seems more unbalanced, and fittingly more dangerous. It shows you things and then doubles back, comprehending an understanding of something that possibly seemed out of place before. This is particularly the case with Hoffman's character: at first he seems somewhat of a vulgar dullard, but then moments highlight his crafty selfishness, and further progression reveals his self-destructive volatility. One particularly clever moment- and this won't really spoil anything- sees Hoffman's Andy shoot a pathetic sleeping figure who is clear echo of himself. Even these characters dislike themselves, for all they want is to escape- and, as Tomei makes abundantly clear in her final scene, they don't even know how to do that properly. These may be a collective of unlikeable, or else vague and unknowable, people, but there is no joy or happiness found in this- the tragic crescendo is almost a release, an escape as volatile and crass as the characters have proved themselves to be.

It helps that those involved are on such pitch-perfect form. Hoffman, in a role very different from his other 2007 performances (in The Savages and Charlie Wilson's War), moves through the character like a ferocious bulldog, understanding how greasy his Andy is when trying to be charming, how unbalanced he is with regard to his emotions. Andy is often shown red-faced- not from embarassment, but from the sheer fatuousness of his life. Andy wants more than he deserves, and he cares about no one in getting there. Hawke, meanwhile, may not bear much of a physical resemblance to his 'brother', but he knows his character just as well, reflecting a strange mirror image of Andy in his character Hank- Hanks hates his life, himself, is terrified and nervy, and, at one point, is such a wreck that Hawke's facial muscles seem to go into spasm. (Lumet keeps close up on this- you can't escape the trembling consequences.) Finney is somewhat undermined by having his character turn into a one man vendetta, but earlier in the film he is poignant and just a little bit aggressive like Andy (his lesser favourite). And Tomei, while without her own titles or insight, turns a possibly one-dimensional character into somewhat of an enigma who doesn't even know herself- the film doesn't ask what she wants, but maybe that's just as well, because Gina doesn't seem to know either.

Carter Burwell's score is as exactly verbose as the story, and his grand melodies really aid in amping up the feeling of Greek tragedy mentioned earlier. You get the sense that Before the Devil Knows You're Dead isn't meant to be treated as real, but as high drama, or some kind of morality tale- don't do this shit, kids, Lumet would be saying, if he weren't so horrified himself that any explicit finger wagging is thankfully excluded. For such a grand old age (83!), Lumet seems to have found some kind of energy again, for his direction is tight and controlled, keeping the different pitchs of performance balanced out, toying slyly with his audience with some truly shocking moments, and gliding effortlessly through the story's tragic pitches. This really is a filmmaker on the top of his game once more.

It's not easy to like Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. But, somehow, that's what I've ended up doing. It's grimy depiction of a New York gone desperate is hardly uplifting, but I certainly found an emotional release in the story, a perfect culmination of two hours of unbalanced nastiness, and I walked out feeling, not happy, but shaken, somehow changed. B+