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Ramsey reviews... My weekly film comments, are now on the BBC Online site
FRAILTY is directed by Bill Paxton, who also stars as a father convinced he has been given the power to identify people possessed by demons and destroy them. He involves his two young sons in the process, and Matthew McConaughey plays one of them in adulthood, narrating the saga to FBI agent Powers Boothe. Sam Raimi of EVIL DEAD fame describes FRAILTY as the most frightening horror film he’s seen since THE SHINING, and the comparison is apt: both are films about monstrous fathers, and both films aren’t quite able to contain the supernatural within a psychological explanation. The trouble is that when FRAILTY reaches the end of its revelations, all the unsensational acting, classically unfussy direction and ingenious storytelling proves to add up to mediaeval claptrap for the gullible. It’s just possible that the final shot is meant to identify the whole thing as a satire, but the rest of the film is too much for it to satirise.
I fear too many audiences will take the film as containing a grain of truth. They’ll also no doubt flock to SIGNS, the latest film by M. Night Shyamalan. For most of its length this is the most reticent and austere alien invasion film ever made, and looks set to show us no more than an out-of-focus video on a television newscast and a glimpse of an alien hand under a door. Imagine THE BIRDS with no more birds than we see during the siege of the boarded-up house, or the similar siege in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD with no visible zombies, and you’ll get the principle. Like Shyamalan’s SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE, however, SIGNS resolves everything by uniting elements scattered throughout the film in a final revelation. This time it involves ex-priest Mel Gibson’s crisis of faith, and I’m afraid the effect is preposterous. The other films work because the stories are small and personal, but SIGNS attempts to turn God into a plot twist or vice versa.
And Lord, God’s in A WALK TO REMEMBER too. This has high-school tearaway Shane West falling in love with deeply religious Mandy Moore despite the efforts of her pastor father (Peter Coyote) to intervene. The film is sensitively acted, and competently directed by Adam Shankman (director of the likeable widescreen comedy THE WEDDING PLANNER). The original novel was set in the fifties, and updating it does it no favours. How touching you find the romance depends on how irritating you find the young woman before she starts to reveal more of herself – there were times when I started imagining Bart Simpson playing the boyfriend and her as a daughter of Ned Flanders. By the time one of the characters starts dying beautifully and the script breaks out in homilies, the film looks like a Delmer Daves teen romance – A SUMMER PLACE, let’s say – with added religion. Three consecutive press shows of the above films form an unnerving experience. Is Hollywood determined to impress its Christianity on George W. Bush Jr? What dispirited me about all three films was the banality of their various notions of religious experience.
O (sadly, not THE STORY OF) doesn’t even offer that. It’s Othello for the David Beckham generation, restaged in Manhattan for those who subscribe to the fatuous notion that Shakespeare consists of his plots. Mind you, the makers find Shakespeare’s plotting wanting too, and add some date rape and cocaine as well as subjecting their Othello to a Slam-Dunk contest. The film expires of a surfeit of the perfect murder plan gone wrong.
You’re considerably better off with THE BOURNE IDENTITY, an unexpectedly sleek and succinct Robert Ludlum movie by the director of SWINGERS. Josh Hartnett plays a CIA agent who remembers all the moves but none of his own life earlier than a fortnight ago. In its visual sureness and narrative grip it often recalls Don Siegel, even if it tends to chop its action scenes to bits. The death of another agent, played by Clive Owen, is perhaps the most affectingly bleak scene in an austere film.
But the treat of the week is TALK TO HER, in which a ballet dancer in a coma and an equally comatose female bullfighter (bullfightress?) are attended respectively by a male nurse and a journalist. Relationships develop between more of these characters than most of us could imagine. Who else could have made this but Almodovar? It’s his simplest and most moving treatment of some of his themes, not least the discovery of the female in the masculine. He can still disturb when he chooses, believe me, but be prepared to weep as well. The film has a subtitled circuit release. May we see many more.
Few scenes in the cinema have been imitated so much as Hitchcock’s shower scene, but one competitor is the Sergio Leone-style final shootout, complete with imitation Morricone music. It’s initially therefore something of a relief that Shane Meadows’ ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE MIDLANDS proves to be based much more on the Hollywood western – specifically, those in which the non-violent protagonist has to find the strength to deal with the bad guy in town. Sadly, the film offers far less psychological insight, never mind excitement, than the best of the films it has in mind – I nominate THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE and THE FAR COUNTRY as its betters. It starts promisingly by revealing several of the characters on a Vanessa Feltz show I would like to believe is fictitious, but by the midpoint it has sunk to the level of that kind of cheap television, even if it’s rather better acted. That’s to say, Robert Carlyle, Kathy Burke and Ricky Tomlinson do what’s expected of them, while Rhys Ifans carries more of a film than usual and proves equal to the task without leaning too much on Welshness. Two delicate scenes between the character’s girlfriend (Shirley Henderson) and her daughter (Finn Atkins) provide the film’s real strength. It could have done with more of them. The final explosion of violence is feeble yet doesn’t feel especially anticlimactic, which only demonstrates the film’s overall lack of bite. We can only hope the film is a homage the director needed to leave behind.
Of course one kind of British film feels bound to imitate Hollywood models. THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST is the other: exportable Britishness based on a marketable literary classic, opened up for the cinema but not too much. It’s as amusing as a good theatrical production of the play, and pleasantly acted. Reese Witherspoon as Cecily blends in well, while Judi Dench says the handbag line as though she’s afraid Edith Evans may overhear. Apparently some of the extra dialogue is also Wilde’s. Oliver Parker seems to have little reason to film it in Panavision except to display his English Heritage locations, but I’m sure this will appeal to tourists.
On the whole it’s better value than MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, a mild comedy about cross-cultural marriage, adapted from her own stage monologue by and starring Nia Vardalos. The title makes it clear how any conflicts will be resolved, but in fact there aren’t many. Autobiography this good-hearted begins to look a little dishonest or self-indulgent, but perhaps that’s just me being cynical. It’s a pleasant, swiftly forgettable film that would have made a decent second feature in the days of such things.
The same might be said of SWIMF@N, at least in terms of its terseness, energy and attention to unsettling detail. A competitive swimmer (Jesse Bradford) gives in to a one-night stand with a new student (Erika Christensen) only to find she’s determined to destroy his relationship with his girlfriend (Shiri Appleby) and perhaps his life. This clearly recalls FATAL ATTRACTION – just add water – but is rather more sympathetically performed. It’s unclear why the director chooses to forego dialogue in a central scene and overlay music instead, but otherwise the film is compelling enough. In the press notes the makers say they wanted to make an intelligent film for teenagers. It’s hardly up there with GHOST WORLD or the films of Larry Clark, but it would make a good support for FINAL DESTINATION.
Let me also celebrate the new Mondo Macabro DVD label. Their first three releases are something of a rare feast of the grotesque. DR JEKYLL VERSUS THE WOLFMAN is the original Spanish version of one of Paul Naschy’s more outrageous films. Whereas Hammer used early Universal horror films as their starting point, Naschy’s roots are in the Universal monster reunions of the forties, where you got at least two creatures for your money. In this one his Wolfman (originally written for Lon Chaney Junior, who was past it) meets a descendant of Dr Jekyll, who turns him into Mr Hyde on the principle that this will exorcise his evil self. The sight of Hyde in swinging Soho is all the more unforgettable for his resemblance to a debauched Tony Hancock. The film also reminds us why we should never risk being trapped in a lift with a werewolf. The combination of forties horror with seventies explicitness and the use of real locations benefits from a fine widescreen transfer. Juan Lopez Moctezuma’s ALUCARDA resembles Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS at least as much as Bram Stoker, and is a remarkably graphic fantasy of possession among the nuns. In AWAKENING OF THE BEAST Britain gets to sample the work of the extraordinary José Mojica Marins at last. As frequently, he plays his alter ego Coffin Joe, an anarchic figure given to assaults on Brazilian Catholicism that sometimes suggest a kind of pop Buñuel. This film begins as a critique of Brazil as it was in the seventies but soon shades into the director’s unique brand of derangement. A touching documentary about his fall from fame is included. All three films have been passed uncut by the British censor, a pleasant surprise. I look forward to more from Mondo Macabro – a subtitled version of the Mexican EL VAMPIRO is promised. Their website is at www.mondomacabro.co.uk.
THE ROAD TO PERDITION is based on a graphic novel – which is to say, a long comic. I don’t mean in any way to denigrate the form, which has produced more than one masterpiece, but simply to suggest that such masters as Winsor McKay never seem to have felt driven to claim they were doing anything but producing comic strips. The one on which this film is based is an example of the cross-fertilisation of Oriental and Occidental media, possibly most strikingly exemplified by LAST MAN STANDING, which managed to be a gangster film translating a samurai movie that was previously remade as an Italian western, and all of them deriving from a Dashiell Hammett original. The comic of ROAD TO PERDITION is apparently a tribute to the Lone Wolf samurai films, now available mostly uncut on British video. The samurai theme is reconceived as the saga of a thirties gangster whose young son witnesses his involvement in a killing, which causes them to flee across America while the father plots revenge for the death of the rest of his family. As the father, Tom Hanks is more persuasive as the concerned father than the hit man – imagine Gary Cooper in the role and you may grasp the problem. Perhaps to compensate, Jude Law underplays his role as a photographer assassin hired to kill him, and does very well. There are also fine performances from (among others) Paul Newman as the fatherly gangster behind it all and Tyler Hoechlin as Hanks’ son. Indeed, much of the film’s power is rooted in the mass of family loyalties and betrayals underlying the carnage. As in AMERICAN BEAUTY, Sam Mendes’ previous and only film, the prevailing tone is elegiac. At times, especially in a rural idyll, it recalls BONNIE AND CLYDE, but develops that element further. It could be argued that the elegy is for the gangster film itself, now taken over by a British director. Certainly the film lacks the immediacy of Scorsese’s gangster films or de Palma’s, but its poetic restraint isn’t to be dismissed either. Overall, a worthy successor to AMERICAN BEAUTY.
NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VAN WILDER (which may or may not be released here as VAN WILDER PARTY LIAIASON) is the only film that has ever made me feel physically ill, something even the uncut PINK FLAMINGOS failed to do. This should not be construed as any kind of recommendation. Van Wilder is a charmless student party organiser played charmlessly by Ryan Reynolds, a performer I’m happy to have previously overlooked. Tara Reid plays a student journalist who exposes what little there is to expose about him, not including brains, and is required to look admiringly at him in the finale. I wasn’t persuaded. It’s the kind of teen comedy that makes me wish it would turn into a Friday the 13th film, and believe me, that’s desperation. Otherwise there’s nothing to point out except that the kind of disgusting humour it offers is far more typical of the original magazine than other National Lampoon films would have us believe. One offender used to be P. J. O’Rourke, but maybe he’d rather forget that. Then again, maybe he wouldn’t. Me, I just want to forget the film.
Marc Evans’ MY LITTLE EYE is the most frightening British horror film of recent years, even if its central situation will be familiar to horror buffs. Five young people are chosen apparently at random to live in a house for six months and never leave it after dark – they are each promised a million dollars if they succeed. This may sound like any number of recent television shows, but in fact it’s closer to THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (the first, non-supernatural version) and the many Old Dark House thrillers from which it derives. I said the film is British, but it’s set in America – a small price to pay for a horror film like this, which is willing to be as frightening as possible. It benefits from some of the most persuasively naturalistic acting since THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, a film its visual style somewhat recalls, though it’s by no means as seasick. It also offers an especially unnerving soundtrack, sometimes worthy of David Lynch but not an imitation of his method. Perhaps the eventual outbreak of mayhem is less oppressively menacing than the build-up, but not nearly as disproportionately as was the case with THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. The sight of a limping figure with an axe recalls THE SHINING, but this may suggest that the killer has based this on a film he’s watched, yet another unsettling idea in a generally disturbing film. I found the scenes in which we watch the victims through night vision lenses especially disquieting – a very powerful image that forces the audience to confront its own inevitable voyeurism. There’s more still to this ruthless movie that I won’t give away except to suggest it recalls the darkest fiction of Kim Newman. It more than makes up for recent derivative British horror films like LONG TIME DEAD.
Mondo Macabro’s latest DVD is a quite different kind of treat for horror fans. This is EL VAMPIRO, the 1957 Mexican film, with German Robles as Dracula in all but name. It has been pointed out that this precedes the first Hammer Dracula by a year, but more relevantly, it strikingly prefigures Roger Corman’s Poe movies. Not only is it set in a decaying cobwebbed mansion surrounded by a dying landscape permanently veiled by fog, but it even deals with premature interment. The fine atmospheric black and white photography is excellently restored on the widescreen DVD, which also offers an English soundtrack of the period or the original Spanish track with English subtitled. The film has a real sense of eerieness and several moments that startle even now. I thought it was a delight and something of a revelation – certainly a small area of film history needs rewriting. THE VAMPIRE was cut on its fifties British release, but this version is complete.
Another reissue that has only improved with age is CABARET. If you haven’t succumbed to DVD yet, don’t despair – the VHS reissue is in widescreen, and very handsome. However, the DVD has the edge, with two documentaries and a separate menu for the musical numbers if you want to isolate them. Still, it would be a pity to remove them from the context of what is surely the most confrontational musical film until DANCER IN THE DARK. Based on Christopher Isherwood’s study of Berlin during the rise of Nazism, CABARET centers on the triangle of Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles, her German lover Helmut Griem, and Michael York’s ambiguously reticent English tutor, in the middle in more ways than one. The film very gradually reveals both the depths of the decadence of the period and the fascist reaction to it in a kind of stealthy race behind the narrative. Bob Fosse’s angular choreography may not be quite as well served by his direction as by Stanley Donen’s, but the film as a whole is eloquently shaped. Liza Minnelli is alternately touching and mesmerising, and it’s no wonder that her voice cracks during her final performance of the title song, given the context. “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is certainly the scariest musical scene in the genre, but the way Joel Grey’s MC begins to turn anti-Semitic (presumably in an attempt to distract attention from himself as a potential Nazi victim) is still more troubling. Not the least of CABARET’s achievements is to remind us how fake THE SOUND OF MUSIC was as a musical that presumed to deal with Nazism. Watch CABARET and then try to resist running the musical numbers all over again – I didn’t. Resist, I mean.
ONE HOUR PHOTO is the second film this year to star Robin Williams as a criminal – to be specific, in this case a closet paedophile. More than INSOMNIA, it uses his mannerisms as an actor to depict a disturbing character, much as Hitchcock used the screen personalities of Cary Grant and James Stewart (for instance) to reveal their darker side. For instance, a shot of Williams giving his trademarked simper as Santa Claus is as chilling in this context as it would be winsome elsewhere. He plays a worker in a shopping mall who becomes obsessed with one of the families whose photos he develops, and in particular with their nine-year-old son. Initially the character seems related to the Tooth Fairy in RED DRAGON, and perhaps they share some roots, but the scenes between him and the boy make it plain that the subtext of this film – barely concealed if at all – is paedophilia. Eventually he switches his attentions to a different victim, but his final speech in the police interrogation room betrays that this simply displaces his real obsession. Williams manages to make the character chilling, nowhere more so than when he displays the actor’s familiar traits, yet pathetic, even moving. Some understated fantasy sequences are especially unnerving, and the one moment of graphic violence comes as a considerable jolt. If the film offers less insight into the relationship between photography and voyeurism in the cinema than Hitchcock’s various examinations of the theme (or PEEPING TOM or indeed MY LITTLE EYE), it succeeds as a suspense film more based in character than Hollywood usually gives us these days. It’s another offbeat success for Mark Romanek, who also made STATIC, about a television that apparently receives broadcasts from heaven. Inexplicably, it is being widely described as his first feature film.
The posters tout LILO AND STITCH as Disney’s funniest film. Maybe, if by funny they mean peculiar. Stitch is an alien entity created by a literally four-eyed scientist as an indestructible weapon of destruction. He’s exiled to Hawaii, where he learns that what he really needs is a family from a little orphan girl whose older sister is trying to care for her, not without a good deal of sibling conflict. In fact this may sound odder than it is: Studio Ghibli in Japan have made several animated films about young girls separated from their parents (in GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES by their death, in PANDA KOPANDA by some unspecified event). The Ghibli films are much less strident, however, and less given to manufacturing conflicts for the sake of plot. Still, LILO AND STITCH isn’t nearly as sentimental as you might fear, and adults may well find it endearing, not least for the soundtrack of old Elvis records that give the alien a chance to dress up as Elvis. I said it was peculiar. It’s also some fun, and looks delightful. The spaceships are especially splendid.
RED DRAGON is a remake of the first Hannibal Lector film, Michael Mann’s MANHUNTER. It’s directed by Brett Ratner, one of Jackie Chan’s Hollywood directors. Predictably, it moves Lector closer to the foreground, not least by beginning and ending with him, but otherwise it is truer to the original novel than the first film version was. Much of the credit goes to screenwriter Ted Tally, who also respected the plot of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS in his script for that film. Edward Norton does well as the investigator brought out of retirement, and Ralph Fiennes proves not to be too familiar a face to portray his quarry the Tooth Fairy. Whereas the Mann film was needlessly reticent about his activities, the remake celebrates the Gothic tendencies of the novel to the full. It also restores the false ending, though ironically, in between the two versions Dario Argento borrowed the scene for OPERA (about to be released uncensored on British video at last). Anthony Hopkins has a fine time playing the character he once said he would never play again. Don’t forget Brian Cox in the original, though, nor the film. Both versions are worth seeing.
On DVD from Metrodome we have TAPE and DAGON. TAPE rivals even Clive Donner’s film of THE CARETAKER for austerity, being set entirely in a nondescript hotel room. Ethan Hawke is the guest and meets an old high-school buddy (Robert Sean Leonard) there, only for an incident involving a young Uma Thurman to come between them. Stephen Belber’s adaptation of his own play is as deeply ambiguous as any Mamet, and Richard Linklater’s Dogma-style direction is as inventive yet austere as any film of a play I’ve seen, and anything but theatrical. The ensemble playing is fine, and Ethan Hawke’s performance is an especial revelation after the one he gave in Linklater’s BEFORE SUNRISE.
Despite the title, DAGON is based on “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, now a Spanish coastal town called Imboca. The same director’s film RE-ANIMATOR was often closer to Lovecraft’s original than was generally acknowledged, especially in its black humour, and a good deal of the first two-thirds of DAGON stays quite faithful to “Innsmouth”. The use of a real coastal location, in whose rainy streets we glimpse figures passing for human, is effective, and the central scenes take place in an impressively horrible hotel. Things do go awry towards the end: it makes sense for Lovecraft’s narrator to reinforce the door of his room with a bolt while nothing much is happening, but the protagonist of the film struggles to transfer a bolt as his pursuers mass outside the room. Maybe this is intended as a gag; later there’s a jarring one about a mobile phone. The final reel delivers gore aplenty amid echoes of “The Dunwich Horror” and “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”, and Francisco Rabal – his last performance – loses his face. No doubt Lovecraft would have shuddered at the introduction of sexual sadism into the finale, but the BBFC has let it pass.
And finally a warning, I’m afraid. The DVD of Roger Corman’s THE TERROR available from the Salford distributor Dark Vision is taken from a wretched print, and the transfer would be bad even for a budget tape. For a DVD it’s disgraceful. Avoid. There may be better versions on Region 1.
O was not a Hollywood remake of THE STORY OF O and nor, sadly, is SLAP HER, SHE’S FRENCH. Indeed, it seems unsure what it is. To improve her image, a Texan would-be newscaster invites the exchange student of the title to live with her family, only to have the other girl oust her from everything she cares about. The film occasionally recalls TO DIE FOR, but it’s mostly a thriller recast as a teen comedy, and doesn’t really work as either. The jokes are too few, and a scene in which the protagonist has her drink spiked with psilocybin by her rival is rather too disturbing for the context. The cast work earnestly but are mostly unknown to me or have given me no reason to remember them, apart from Michael McKean of SPINAL TAP and BEST IN SHOW, who plays a French master as if he doesn’t know what he’s doing there. I can hardly tell you how sympathetic I was. The only real surprise is that the film is almost as sour as TO DIE FOR. As a teen comedy at least it avoids the disgusting, apart from a puking scene that’s repeated in case we missed it. At one point a character scoffs at the French for admiring Jerry Lewis, but there’s more wit and inventiveness in his best films than in this one. At the beginning of the final credits there is a joke. A title tells us that no French people were harmed during the film. No, just the audience.
MY KINGDOM is the latest update of KING LEAR, which has previously been the grounding of such films as Anthony Mann’s MAN OF THE WEST and Kurosawa’s RAN. Here, as has befallen MACBETH in the past, Shakespeare gets the gangster treatment. Occasionally, as in a wake scene hilariously embarrassing enough for Ricky Gervais’s office, the film has something new to offer. Mostly, however, it simply checks off plot similarities when it isn’t quoting random bits of Shakespeare that feel like failures to come up with new dialogue. It seems to believe it’s something new in gangster film. In lacking excitement it is, relatively speaking. There’s nothing necessarily wrong if such a film refuses to use violence to excite the audience, but with its parade of mutilation, blinding, shooting, stabbing and throat-slitting, it begins to seem as if it lacks the courage of its own mayhem. The blinding is admittedly unsettlingly direct (which, given its closeness to the play, it perhaps had to be), but the mutilation is a muffled echo of RESERVOIR DOGS and DJANGO, and the fight between two of the warring daughters simply looks like an inability to stage action. The performances tend to flatness, but feel embalmed by the direction and at times theatrical – in sum, a bit pretentious. Richard Harris gives the impression that he would play Lear well, and gets to do a muted mad scene in a motorway café. The film does use its Merseyside settings more intelligently than THE 51st STATE did, but SHOOTERS is a more powerful unromantic Liverpool gangster film. As for Lear, I can only hope this is the only version that gives both him and Cordelia a happy ending. Doesn’t this rather damage the film’s veneer of seriousness?
xXx is director Rob Cohen’s second film with Vin Diesel after THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS. Diesel plays an anarchic criminal who plays daring tricks on the Establishment until he’s hired by scarred Samuel L. Jackson to infiltrate an anarchist terrorist group in Prague. Here he becomes involved with an ambiguous Russian girl (Asia Argento in dominatrix mode, perhaps as a reaction to her victim roles in her father Dario’s films). A third of the way through, xXx begins to resemble a James Bond film, but has some fun with the resemblance – for instance, in the way the two principals have to blunder through the uses of their gadget-heavy car. There’s less of an edge of vindictiveness than in Bond, and at times I was reminded more of Jackie Chan by the outrageousness of some of the stunts – Diesel riding down a banister on a metal tray, for instance, or sky-diving on a skateboard. The skateboard also takes him down a mountain just ahead of an avalanche in the film’s most astonishing sequence. The finale involving a speedboat loaded with biological weapons is equally exciting. You could well argue that the film is attempting to reassure us that America will save us from such weapons and that they can safely be forgotten once we’ve had our two hours’ entertainment. On that level it’s a guilty pleasure.
On DVD, Bertrand Bonello’s THE PORNOGRAPHER seems set to make at least a footnote to British censorship history. The film is a witty study of a filmmaker who saw hard-core porn as an aspect of sixties liberation but comes out of retirement to discover that commercialism has taken over. This is apparently best illustrated by an eleven-second closeup cut by our censor. The distributor, Metro Tartan, has issued the cut version on video with an 18 rating, but apparently proposes to release it uncut with an R18 to draw attention to the absurdity. One wonders how many people will pay inflated sex-shop prices for the sake of eleven seconds, but the point is made. The film gains a good deal of poignancy from casting Jean-Pierre Leaud, with all the echoes of Truffaut, Godard and Skolimovski that he brings with him, as the ageing pornographer.
Metro Tartan also have Pasolini’s GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST MATTHEW on DVD. This still looks like one of the most extraordinary and radical achievements of neo-realist cinema. The directness of the opening confrontation between Joseph and the pregnant Mary states the method of the film. It is also the Biblical film that most presents Christ’s words as profoundly challenging and revolutionary (though if Nicholas Ray had had his way, KING OF KINGS might have). Apart from one split-second flaw in the original copy, it’s a fine transfer of a fine film.
When I saw DONNIE DARKO at the Sitges Film Festival last year I suggested that it might be marketed as a comedy, since to some extent it is – to about the same extent as AMERICAN BEAUTY, which it somewhat resembles in its satire. Here the targets are small-town prejudice and hypocrisy, with Patrick Swayze playing an especially startling character. It is also a study of adolescent angst and a fantasy about the nature of time and destiny. Its hero has an invisible friend in the shape of a giant rabbit, but unlike James Stewart’s companion in HARVEY, this creature is skeletal and prefigures death – how specifically is not apparent until late in the film. This aspect, and a Halloween element, seem to have led the distributors to imply that it’s a horror film. In fact it’s pretty unclassifiable, and a remarkable debut for its writer-director Richard Kelly. On the basis of several viewings I’m happy to suggest that it’s as fine and rich a film as we’ve seen here from Hollywood this year. Richard Kelly invites us to see some resemblance to Philip K. Dick, but I was reminded of Vonnegut.
Also on the big screen is or are THE POWERPUFF GIRLS, a feature-length version of a Cartoon Network favourite. The trio are created by a scientist who aims to create perfect little girls but who tips in Chemical X by mistake, which gives them super-powers, not least the ability to fight the monsters that show up in episode after episode. The film refines the fifties look of the series in the direction of the abstract, and is a decidedly strange experience. The opening episode, in which they destroy most of the city while playing tag, has all the gleeful anarchy of Tex Avery at his best, but the combination in the dialogue of the faux-naïve and the sophisticated is just one reason why it’s difficult to decide what the intended audience might be. The plague of bizarre monsters in the second half presumably explains the PG rating. If you’re won over by the visual style and zany comedy, it’s quite a treat, and the only such feature that has persuaded me to seek out the original television series.
Finally, HIGH CRIMES has Ashley Judd as a civilian lawyer defending her husband against a military court for a massacre in South America. She gives a detailed performance, as does Morgan Freeman as her ex-alcoholic helper. The film is perfectly watchable, but THE VERDICT and A FEW GOOD MEN did various elements better. It’s a long way behind the incisiveness of Carl Franklin’s first film, ONE FALSE MOVE. It passes the time, but in that time you could be revisiting DONNIE DARKO. That’s worth it, believe me.
Somewhere around the middle of Danny Boyle’s 28 DAYS LATER, one of the small group of characters to have survived a virus that has turned the population of England into zombies remarks that one of the drawbacks of their situation is never being able to see a film that hasn’t already been made. Perhaps this is meant as a nod to anyone more knowledgeable than whoever is quoted on the poster as calling the film genre-busting. To be blunt, it’s the most derivative zombie film since the Italians had a spate of imitating George Romero. The scenes with the military directly recall his DAY OF THE DEAD, while a scene in a supermarket looks borrowed from DAWN OF THE DEAD, and the unexplained notion that the raging zombies are most dangerous in the dark takes us back to the fount of all such apocalyptic stories, Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND. All this wouldn’t matter if the film had more vigour, but it’s a pretty tepid imitation of its American models, and tends to substitute editing for staging (though a prolonged eye-gouging does recall EVIL DEAD). It tries to insist on psychological realism, yet makes its characters drive down an unlit highway tunnel for the sake of a set-piece not unreminiscent of Stephen King’s THE STAND. In the midst of all this, Christopher Eccleston brings some ambiguity to the role of the army commander, but his repopulation plan seems to have been suggested by THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS. For some reason I don’t understand, the film appears to be shot on video, which (presumably inadvertently) makes it resemble the low-budget zombie films of Andrew Parkinson (I, ZOMBIE and DEAD CREATURES). Now there’s a genuine British original, and one who deserves to be better known. Quite possibly his films would be too challenging and confrontational for Danny Boyle’s audience.
You’re considerably better off with THEY, a welcome return to the horror film by Robert Harmon, director of THE HITCHER. This is an honourable attempt to convey supernatural dread rather than the ghostliness of films such as THE SIXTH SENSE and THE OTHERS. Laura Regan plays a psychology student who becomes convinced that nightmares have physical existence (as Fuseli’s painting, glimpsed in the film, suggests) and mark people in their childhood to be hunted down as adults. The film sometimes suggests Lovecraft as filmed under the guidance of Val Lewton, a similarity acknowledged by a swimming-pool scene which, if it falls short of the original CAT PEOPLE, certainly beats the remake. There are flaws –the finale in the New York underground could be more strongly motivated – but the film is intelligently written, edgily directed and attractively played, and the coda is absolutely terrifying, the genuine stuff of nightmares. I think people who like my supernatural tales might well admire this film as much as I do.
CHANGING LANES is so much more succinct and incisive than the same director’s NOTTING HILL that it seems clear he’s as good as his script – in this case, one co-written by the excellent Michael Tolkin. Samuel L. Jackson misses a custody hearing and loses his children because of a vehicle mishap with sleazy lawyer Ben Affleck, only to discover that the lawyer has mistakenly handed him some crucial documents. The escalation of hostilities the situation provokes takes place entirely during Good Friday, and there are other tokens of moral seriousness that the film scarcely needs. It has been accused of racism and sentimentality, but Jackson brings too much innate dignity to his role to let the character be patronised, and the sight that makes Affleck relent is surely an image of everything he lacks, hardly just a convenient emotional effect. More to the point, the film is centrally concerned with moral choice and taking responsibility for one’s own actions, and there aren’t many if any more important themes just now. It doesn’t cheat on them. Perhaps it isn’t quite up to THE PLAYER or DEEP COVER – or Tolkin’s own remarkable film THE RAPTURE – but it takes some courage for Hollywood to confront its audience like this these days. Let’s hope Tolkin’s courage is contagious and marketable.
Fans of the first Harry Potter film will be content to hear that HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS offers more of the same. Why risk anything else? We again encounter Harry’s unpleasant guardians, and that’s not the only echo of Roald Dahl – indeed, an episode involving slugs outdoes The Twits for puerile disgustingness: even Shaun Hutson might be proud. Soon our somewhat more pubertal hero is back at school, where he has to battle another threat hidden within the walls. Most of the original cast returns; Dumbledore is the last we’ll see of Richard Harris, alas. The young leads perform professionally, and Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith and others do what’s expected of them, but John Cleese might once again not have bothered. Kenneth Branagh gives a convincing performance as a less convincing character, and Jason Isaacs makes an enjoyably hateful villain. All of them are rather overshadowed by special effects, too many of which are more technically proficient than magical, and the film is as visually uninspired as its predecessor. Given that the chamber of the title is approached through the girls’ toilets, we may suspect either a vulgar joke or a touch of the Freudian or both, particularly since the ultimate menace he has to confront is a blind snake. Before anyone objects that I’m analysing a children’s film too closely, let me note that the Miyazaki film KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE used witchcraft as a symbol of adolescence before Harry Potter was heard of, and contained far more magic at half the length. The snake is impressively frightening, though, and a scene with giant spiders outdoes EIGHT-LEGGED FREAKS for terror too. Still, I was left doubting that a film this lightweight could sustain two and a half hours. No doubt for people who haven’t met its ideas better done elsewhere, it may.
And now, a feast of DVDs. Two are by Milos Forman. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (apparently still saddled with an 18 rating because of a single word) is as potent as ever. A fine restoration reminds us how oppressively restricted Haskell Wexler’s colour photography was – no wonder the film needs its water symbolism to convey release. Jack Nicholson has seldom been better, but other actors who have since become familiar are equally extraordinary, Danny De Vito in particular. AMADEUS is not only remastered but restored, with a substantial amount of new material – the chapter listing usefully locates it. This remains one of the great films about creativity and its pitiless frustrations. The transfer to disc is superb. My only niggle concerns authenticity: given the care with settings and costumes, it seems odd to pair a fortepiano with a modern orchestra, even the excellent Academy of St Martin’s. Nevertheless, an essential package. Both Forman films have second discs with informative documentaries.
There are also several horror films. SOUL SURVIVORS is an intermittently effective American high-school supernatural film, more imaginative than most slasher movies but not up to the standard of FINAL DESTINATION. The most amusing extra on the disc recalls, of all things, Spinal Tap. This DVD is from Momentum.
We also have several from Anchor Bay, a mixed bunch. THE ULTIMATE HALLOWEEN collection contains the first six films of the series. The original is still a minor classic in its use of suggestion more than gore to produce real terror, and the wide screen has never been better employed to work on the nerves of the audience. The second most striking episode is HALLOWEEN III, the only one not to involve Michael Myers. Nigel Kneale wrote the script but repudiated the film, and one can see that the gratuitous violence wouldn’t have appealed to him, but a good deal of menace and inventiveness remains. Sadly, however, the film is both insufficiently widescreen and cut by some censor; for instance, the episode where an ill-advised lady gets zapped by a computer chip is decidedly incomplete. It and the second film have chummy commentaries by Steve Jones and Kim Newman, and fans of the sequels are well served by the transfers and in some cases new stereo soundtracks.
I’m afraid the boxed set of George Romero’s TRILOGY OF THE DEAD is yet more problematical. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is the version with irrelevant additional footage shot by the scriptwriter. An extra opening sequence does it no good. DAWN OF THE DEAD is a fullscreen version, missing all the footage cut on the original British theatrical release. DAY OF THE DEAD is correctly framed and appears to be complete, and an extra disc contains two documentaries.
Still, there’s always SUSPIRIA. This, the most delirious and expressionistic of all Dario Argento’s films, has been given the luscious transfer it deserves (though owners of DTS equipment may encounter a problem, in which case Anchor Bay will replace the copy). The disc also contains the documentary DARIO ARGENTO’S WORLD OF HORROR. It’s a must for anyone who loves the Italian horror film at its most visually spectacular and terrifying.
Nearly forty years ago Robin Wood skewered the James Bond films by comparing FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE to NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and that’s really all that needed to be said. Criticism seldom halts the tramp of commerce, however, and so here’s DIE ANOTHER DAY, the latest Bond. It confronts him with a somewhat more suave adversary than usual in the person of Toby Stephens, though only after having indulged in some frenzied plotting to produce the character. Halle Berry plays Bond’s eventual sidekick, and like Pierce Brosnan, rises to the occasion professionally enough. Judi Dench shows up to disapprove of Bond, but there’s no doubt whose side the film is on, and her character feels like a cynical gesture in the direction of the critics of the series. The film is directed by Lee Tamahori, who caught the eye with ONCE WERE WARROIRS but was soon matched to David Mamet’s efficient script for THE EDGE. Initially the Bond series employed safely styleless directors, and when people such as Michael Apted came aboard they seemed to leave their style behind. By contrast, Tamahori displays the odd flurry of it in DIE ANOTHER DAY, but it’s the kind we’ve had to suffer throughout film like THE 51ST STATE. Some of the action scenes – a fencing duel, for instance – look less like edited highlights than Bond set-pieces usually do, but the dialogue is harder to take. Whereas in the past only Bond got to make the puns, now all the principals seem to have dipped into the Talbot Rothwell CARRY ON joke book. SIGHT AND SOUND apparently thinks the film significant enough to devote an entire article to it, recalling the bad old days when one issue of the magazine dismissed MARNIE and gave three stars out of four to GOLDFINGER. If anyone thinks it’s unfair of me to compare Bond with Hitchcock, I fear I also prefer Rob Cohen’s xXx, which at least has more visual instinct for spectacle. There’s nothing in DIE ANOTHER DAY to compare with the avalanche scene in Cohen’s film.
On to more serious matters. I confess to neither having read THE QUIET AMERICAN nor seen Joseph Mankiewicz’s film, but the new version directed by Phillip Noyce feels a lot like Greene to me. It pits a British reporter (Michael Caine) against an American (Brendan Fraser) supposedly advising on optometrical matters in early fifties Vietnam. Typically of Greene, all the motives are morally messy, so that their confrontation has as much to do with their desire for the same Vietnamese girl as with American interference in the country. It’s incisively and economically filmed by Noyce, and whole stretches of the film suggest how Greene’s wry dialogue (or dialogue that sounds exactly like Greene to me, at any rate) helps him take a firm grasp of the material. Despite the darkness of its themes and its essential melancholy and fatalism, the film is often light both visually and stylistically – again, typically of mature Greene. Let me remind you that the same director also recently released RABBIT-PROOF FENCE. It’s a good year for him.
While watching THE SANTA CLAUSE 2 I kept thinking of it as CLAUS – THE REVENGE. Tim Allen once again plays Santa, now reverting to his old mundane self because his son back in the ordinary world is becoming malfunctional. At one point we’re actually told by a character that the point is how people have to balance their work life with their home life. I wish I could tell you I was able to find a subtext to compensate. At one point a reindeer collapses from excess of sugar before delivering himself of flatulence, and little further comment might seem to be called for. In the press notes the director says of Tim Allen “Between takes, he’s crazy funny.” A pity he didn’t save more of it for the paying audience. Parents may want to leave their young children to watch it, but perhaps they ought to be alerted that the Christian film review web site at www.capalert.com warns the film contains “imprisonment of elves”.
BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE is the new film by Michael Moore, whose documentary approach may reasonably be described as Louis Theroux with added leftist politics. Here he addresses the American cult of the gun in the context of the massacre at Columbine High School. The film raises more questions than it answers, even if you accept his analysis of capitalism. By the end he seems to have established that there are far more killings with guns in America than in other countries where guns are readily available, but not why. Perhaps one couldn’t demand an answer of the film, but I’d have liked to hear more about Moore’s membership of the National Rifle Association – I assume this is genuine rather than simply something he claims to ingratiate himself with Charlton Heston, who becomes the film’s final and rather pathetic target. Admittedly Heston seems to have at the very least been complicit in arranging NRA meetings far too close to the sites of gun crimes. The film is sometimes grotesquely comic, nowhere more so than in a scene at a bank where you’re given a free gun if you open an account, but the footage from the security cameras at the Columbine massacre overshadows it all. It’s certainly a challenging film and demands to be seen.
ENOUGH demonstrates what may happen to a serious theme when it becomes a star vehicle. Admittedly ERIN BROCOVICH demonstrated that needn’t compromise the theme, but here we have Jennifer Lopez attempting to protect herself from abusive and apparently all-powerful husband Billy Campbell. She flees halfway across America to no avail, and seems unable to defend herself – an absurd scene in which her six-year-old daughter manages better than her exposes the contrivance of this. In fact the central section of the film, which runs almost two hours, seems simply to be marking time until we get to the revengeful finale which I suspect was the actress’s reason for appearing. The point you might take from it is that all a woman needs to overcome a violent husband is a millionaire father, a crash course in martial arts, a flair for housebreaking and a bagful of electronic equipment. I was reminded that in Carol Ann Davis’s disturbing novel SAFE AS HOUSES a self-defence course did a victim no good at all. There are occasional compensations in the film – the scenes between Lopez and Juliette Lewis as her waitress friend feel improvised enough to come to life, and a gang of fake FBI agents are genuinely unnerving – but by the end Michael Apted’s direction suggests that he thinks he’s making another James Bond film. Why it should be so widescreen is anyone’s guess. At times I almost wished I were watching Ken Loach’s LADYBIRD, LADYBIRD instead, and believe me, that’s some achievement on the part of ENOUGH. I shall refrain from any number of puns provoked by the title.
DEATHWATCH is an impressive new British horror film which a few weeks ago I mistakenly referred to as a retitling of THE BUNKER. In fact it’s the first feature by writer-director Michael J. Bassett, which traps a group of British soldiers in a German trench during the Second World War. The trench proves to be haunted by a force that sets the soldiers against one another. It’s perhaps the most oppressively realistic depiction of trench conditions I’ve seen since KING AND COUNTRY, and the supernatural elements only add to the nightmare. They vary from the barely glimpsed – a terrifying moment in which a corpse wrapped in barbed wire starts to move – to graphic images not unreminiscent of Clive Barker. The ending is satisfyingly enigmatic, and overall it’s a powerfully serious addition to the genre. In a strong ensemble, Hugo Speer, Matthew Rhys and Jamie Bell (of BILLY ELLIOTT) seemed to me to do especially well. With work like this and MY LITTLE EYE, the British horror film is far from dead. Let’s hope we’re seeing the start of a renaissance.
Early in Stephen Frears’ DIRTY PRETTY THINGS a Nigerian receptionist at a London hotel discovers that the plumbing in one of the rooms is blocked by a human heart. It’s an unlikely and oddly contrived way of setting the film up as a thriller. Frears has done well in the genre before – the bleak GRIFTERS (from Jim Thompson) and indeed his first film, GUMSHOE – but here it seems subordinate to the aspects that interest him more, the lengths to which illegal immigrants and asylum seekers have to go make ends meet. On this front the film is consistently affecting, not least because of the performances: Chiwetel Ejiofor as the receptionist and part-time cabby, Audrey Tautou of AMELIE fame as the Turkish girl whose flat he shares, Sergi Lopez as a memorably oily hotel manager stand out. Like MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE, this film doesn’t make the mistake of presenting its protagonists as purely virtuous. The resolution of the thriller plot may be predictable but is all the more satisfying for it, and there’s a touching coda at Heathrow. Given the tendency of recent British cinema to ape Hollywood, it’s good to see that Frears has returned from there with his Britishness intact. We don’t have many living directors with so many worthwhile films to their credit.
Otherwise, this week it’s all DVDs. Let me celebrate some of the more enterprising releases. Two distributors, Tokyo Bullet and Warrior, have been making Japanese films available, often for the first time in Britain. Tokyo Bullet have several films by Takashi Ishii, not to be confused with the director of AUDITION. GONIN has a spectacularly ill-assorted gang rob a Yakuza boss, only to be hunted down by one-eyed Beat Takashi and his gunsel. The film demonstrates the director’s flair for eccentric characterisation, often displayed in unusually long takes, and unexpected emotional effects: a scene in which one of the robbers returns home to his family is straight out of an especially bleak horror film, and the final showdown on a tour bus is oddly affecting. BLACK ANGEL is more compressed, and its finale takes us as close to Jacobean tragedy as any Japanese gangster film. Its long takes range from the exhilarating – a dance routine in a hotel room – to the extraordinarily harrowing (experience it for yourself). Both films have sequels soon to be released by Tokyo Bullet.
Warrior has a considerable list of Toshiro Mifune films – not the Kurosawa classics, which are released by the BFI, but such lost works as Hiroshi Inagaki’s samurai trilogy, which received an Oscar in the mid-fifties yet appears to have had no British release until now. The films follow the fortunes of an outcast samurai (Mifune) to self-fulfilment in the seventeenth century. Their use of Japanese landscape is especially fine, and the night scenes are shot in colours of a muted intensity that the DVDs capture especially well.
The films of Kihachi Okamoto (SAMURAI ASSASSIN, SWORD OF DOOM) are considerably bleaker and more graphic, drawing on the director’s experiences in the Second World War. The final messy battle of ASSASSIN during a snowstorm is particularly gruelling. Warrior also offers Masaki Kobayashi’s SAMURAI REBELLION, where Mifune plays a samurai of whom the feudal system finally demands too much. It was released theatrically here as REBELLION, and this reissue is especially welcome.
Meanwhile the BFI is just as enterprising, not least in giving us the chance to judge the work of Ritwik Ghatak, much admired by Satyajit Ray. THE CLOUD-CAPPED STAR follows the downfall of Neeta, the daughter of a Bengali family who attempts to keep them all once Partition has driven them to Calcutta. The performances are generally fine, not least Supriya Choudhury as Neeta and Bijon Bhattacharya as her father, a curiously Chaplinesque figure without the sentimentalism that might suggest. The film is gently inexorable, and Derek Malcolm rightly praises its use of natural sound, but there’s some tendency to overstatement. I take it that the final view of the hills to which Neeta keeps alluding as a goal is meant to be perfunctory to communicate how she has reached them too late, but for me at least her final cry of distress would be far more powerful if it weren’t electronically multiplied. Still, it’s a film to see and perhaps see again. The BFI also has the director’s later film A RIVER CALLED TITAS on disc.
I don’t know whether political allegories are common in Star Trek episodes, but they certainly seem to be creeping into the films. STAR TREK NEMESIS pits the crew of the Enterprise against a power-mad dictator with a secret weapon of mass destruction with which he plans to obliterate, wouldn’t you know it, the Earth. (A long way to go even in hyperspace, you might feel.) At one point some battleships from the vicinity come to their aid, but it’s the intrepid U. S. S. team that wins the day. There are points of potential interest: the dictator, played by Tom Hardy like a progressively dissipated Richard O’Brien, turns out to be a clone of Captain Picard, which is presumably why he’s also bald, but this connection leads only to a sermon about human potential, the kind of platitudinousness into which Star Trek too easily falls. There are some spectacular effects along the way, but Stuart Baird directs in the kind of slight monotonous slow motion that seems to embalm most of the films in the series. It’s written by John Logan, who did better with GLADIATOR, perhaps because he had the example of THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE to follow. Followers of the series will no doubt swallow the film whole and be relieved how little it changes. As the late Bob Shaw was fond of pointing out, the various space voyagers in Star Trek may be able to travel faster than light, but they still haven’t rediscovered the seatbelt. Me, I’m afraid I found that much of Star Trek hasn’t survived being parodied in GALAXY QUEST.
SWEET HOME ALABAMA is more interesting as a sociological phenomenon than as a film. More precisely, its success in America is – the success of the notion that a New York dress designer’s real fulfilment is in returning to the Deep South and becoming a housewife and mother. It’s especially significant that by the end all the film’s residual animosity has focused on the other strongest female character, the mother of our heroine’s ex-boyfriend. She gets a crowd-pleasing punch in the face for her pains. Reese Witherspoon plays the designer, but even she can’t make this palatable, though she gives a decent comic performance. She and Candice Bergen (as the assaulted mother) deserve better – at least, they do unless they endorse the film’s ideology. Other perfectly good performers are involved – Fred Ward as the designer’s father, Patrick Dempsey as her New York fiancé and Josh Lucas as her Southern husband among them. I have now idea how they feel to be involved in what looks like yet another Hollywood attempt to placate George Bush.
A good deal more fun is to be had from François Ozon’s EIGHT WOMEN. This is an adaptation of a French country-house murder play in which (in the film, at any rate) each of the female characters performs a song, rather as though Dennis Potter (admired in France) had ventured into Agatha Christie territory. The only male character is the victim, who never faces the audience. As in Ozon’s SITCOM, the perverse underside of family life is ruthlessly revealed – indeed, the new film might almost be SITCOM remade for a bourgeois audience. It’s a feast of performances, with Isabelle Huppert proving her comic talent, Emmanuelle Béart having just as much fun as the housemaid, Danielle Darrieux reminding us of her great days with Max Ophuls, Catherine Deneuve adding to her mature characters, Fanny Ardant living up to a costume as red as Monroe’s in NIAGARA… Well, I could easily list the whole cast, but this is an ensemble piece to rival the best of Cukor, and the deer that wanders into the opening scene is straight out of ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, not the only similarity to Sirk. Catch it while it’s on the big screen.
THE TUXEDO is Jackie Chan’s latest Hollywood film. He plays the chauffeur of an undercover agent who acquires his employer’s wonderful suit, which enables him to perform martial arts and a great deal more while investigating a water manufacturer’s plot to take over the world. The device sounds sadly close to an admission of defeat, and far too much of the film consists of action scenes many actors could have brought off, not least two car chases. Possibly Hollywood won’t let Jackie perform his Hong Kong style of dangerous stunt, or possibly the director isn’t the man for the material. Even a routine in which Jackie tangles with some pipes or scaffolding rods is very perfunctory, shot too close, edited into too many apparent takes, and nowhere near as inventive as his best work. The final out-takes mostly offer his pitfalls with the English language, all too apparent in the body of the film. Jennifer Love Hewitt plays his sidekick who, for the purposes of the romantic sub-plot, could call herself Love-Hate. There’s mild fun to be had, but this is certainly not the Jackie Chan film to see if you don’t know his work. Try any of the DVDs available on Hong Kong Legends.
THE TWO TOWERS confirms THE LORD OF THE RINGS as one of the finest fantasies in English-language cinema, far superior to the second-rate Harry Potter films and the increasingly affectless and hollow STAR WARS films. This isn’t to say that Peter Jackson’s trilogy has no precedents, not least EXCALIBUR – indeed, John Boorman, the director of that film, intended for some years to film Tolkein. Just as Tolkein reinvented the elements from which his trilogy derived – sources as various as Arthurian legend, Wagner and Lovecraft – so Jackson reworks the novels in cinematic terms. His feeling for things British has previously surfaced in HEAVENLY CREATURES and the curious reference to “The Archers” in BRAINDEAD, but until we saw THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS we surely couldn’t have predicted his utter seriousness about heroism. There are few films more movingly serious about valour and its difficulties than his two RINGS films so far. Alongside these narratives we have the adventures of hobbits Merry and Pippin, often misread as failed comic relief. I don’t see much attempt at comedy myself – surely they represent small ordinary characters who still manage to make a difference (in this film, by bringing about the flooding of the devastated industrial landscape). This scene is the awesome climax of the series of battles that culminate in the extended siege of Helm’s Deep, which is resolved in another overwhelmingly powerful image, not the only one in the series that surely owes something to the paintings of John Martin. All these scenes, as well as the film’s splendid use of landscape, demand to be seen on as big a screen as possible, but the intimate scenes are equally affecting in their way, especially the preparations for what seems a hopeless siege. Gollum is both a remarkable collaboration between actor Andy Serkis and the special effects team and the film’s embodiment of the moral dilemmas at its centre. I’m happy to predict that the Jackson trilogy will last as a classic if the third part is worthy of the first two. In the future I assume it will lose some of its unnerving inadvertent relevance as a metaphor for recent world events – I take Tolkein to have had the loss of an idyllic sense of England after the two world wars in mind. Try if you can to watch the extended DVD version of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING first, a superb transfer and an important addition to the theatrical experience of that film.
On a much smaller scale and a much smaller release we have another essential film, the Brazilian CITY OF GOD. You may find this unsettlingly timely, given its theme of the growth of gun culture among street gangs in Rio de Janeiro from the 1960s onwards, and in particular the increasing youth of the gunmen. It’s shot with great documentary realism entirely on location (though not, apparently, the actual criminal ghetto, which is still too dangerous), and this makes the violence all the more shocking in its banality – nowhere more so than when the perpetrators or the victims are young children. It’s as bleak a study of street crime as Bunuel’s great Mexican film LOS OLVIDADOS, but whereas Bunuel’s style was austerely detached, Fernando Meirelles films with a kinetic vigour that has rightly been compared favourably with Scorsese. More power to the UGC cinemas for showing it subtitled.
CHICAGO is based on William Wellman’s ROXIE HART, in which Ginger Rogers (of all people) gave a spectacularly loud performance in the title role as a murderess with a hunger for publicity. It’s now a musical, of course – one co-written for the stage and choreographed by Bob Fosse. He might almost still be alive, because the dances, of which there are a satisfying number, look very like him at his most vigorously grotesque. Even if this is to some extent pastiche Fosse, we’re unlikely to see new dance scenes with more fun and excitement, not to mention cynical wit, in anything that’s imminent. However, it’s a pity that director Rob Marshall (whose only previous directorial work was a television production of ANNIE) can’t keep his camera angles still for longer. However long the takes the dances were shot in, they’re cut up into highlights almost as rapid as the shots in MOULIN ROUGE. I can’t imagine Fosse doing this, let alone his great collaborator Stanley Donen, and even Joseph Mankiewicz let the choreography speak for itself in GUYS AND DOLLS. Still, there’s no doubting the energy of the staging, and the score is superb. Renée Zellweger throws herself typically into the role of Roxie Hart, Catherine Zeta-Jones is equal to her as her rival for the front page, Richard Gere is suitably reptilian as their lawyer, John C. Reilly is winning as Roxie’s eternally masochistic husband. Indeed, nobody lets the cast down – certainly not Queen Latifah as the ambiguous prison warden. With only a tinge of resentment I can say that some of the dance action is presented so rapidly I’m sure the film demands a second look.
I won’t say the same of THE TRANSPORTER, though its editing is more frenetic still. The title role is played by Jason Statham, one of Guy Ritchie’s hard men. I found him resistible in Ritchie’s barrel film and its successor, and nothing has changed, I’m afraid. Qi Shu, a young veteran of Hong Kong action films, plays the girl he helps kidnap as his latest criminal driving job before, I’m sure you’ve guessed, being won over by her despite, or perhaps because of, her fearsome struggles with the English language. These are all the more striking because the dialogue is so rudimentary it could have been sent as a series of telegrams with one extra for the plot. Luc Besson is to some extent responsible for the script, and Louis Leterrier, one of the co-directors (for some reason uncredited) was an assistant on several Besson films. Onscreen the direction is credited solely to Corey Yuen, who has quite a few memorable Hong Kong action films to his credit, including SAVIOUR OF THE SOUL and several Jet Li epics. His association with Besson appears to have done him no good. The editing of the frequent combat scenes is so relentless the action is sometimes hardly visible, and there’s no knowing how well or otherwise it was staged. Since it’s the only potential merit of the film, I fear I can find nothing to recommend in it at all.
GANGS OF NEW YORK is notoriously the most fraught Martin Scorsese film since THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, although this time the problems appear to have come from within the studio. Rumours suggest that we may have to wait for his original vision until a director’s cut is released, theatrically or at any rate to DVD. Meanwhile there’s much to appreciate, not least an unusually literate and flavoursome script that I take to be rooted in mid-19th century American usage. Daniel Day-Lewis’s Bill (the Butcher) Cutting isn’t just a monster worthy of Dickens or Arthur Morrison, but a complex and by no means simply evil figure: indeed, Christopher Walken’s King of New York comes to mind. Scorsese’s career is punctuated with New York films: MEAN STREETS, TAXI DRIVER, and of course NEW YORK, NEW YORK, and this latest film reaches farther back into the city’s history than THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. It does touch upon the moneyed classes of that film in the shape of the Schermerhorns, David Hemmings’ family that is burgled by Cameron Diaz’s wily thief. Her relationship with Leonard DiCaprio’s flawed hero is the romantic centre of the film, if one whose brutality is worthy of Samuel Fuller. Indeed, if the film celebrates New York in its days of chaos, more like hell than paradise (just two of the religious references that keep surfacing), it also often feels like another personal journey through the movies by the director, with echoes of directors as diverse as Fellini, Ford and Vidor. Could the knife-throwing episode suggest that Scorsese saw CIRCUS OF HORRORS on 42nd Street as a boy? Despite the influences, there’s no mistaking the director of such scenes as the extraordinary single take that begins with Irish immigrants arriving in New York and ends with the unloading of the coffins of their predecessors in the American Civil War. This may be his most traditional piece of narrative in a while, but it deals eloquently with a considerable number of themes. I recommend two viewings.
8 MILE has been described as Eminem’s attempt to clean up his act for the mass audience. I’m not best placed to comment, but he and the film are impressive. It begins with his failure to deliver at a rap competition, and ends with his winning one by telling the truth about himself. This may sound more mawkish than it plays. The film is surprisingly raw for contemporary mainstream Hollywood, not least in the brief sexual relationship between Eninem and Brittany Murphy, consummated among factory machinery in no more than a coffee break. There’s also his oppressively Oedipal trailer-park relationship with his mother, played with a good deal of truth by Kim Basinger, who pretty well rediscovered her career in a previous Curtis Hanson film, L. A. CONFIDENTIAL. If there’s relatively little violence in 8 MILE, this may be because words take its place, and some of the film’s best scenes feel improvisational. There aren’t so many films about the power of language that this one should be underrated, and it’s sufficiently honest not to overstate its case; after winning his contest, the rapper goes back to finish his shift at the factory. I’m pleased to say I hope that doesn’t imply this will be Eninem’s only film.
There are also comedies. Sandra Bullock came to fame by taking over the driver’s seat in SPEED, but by now it feels as if she’s driving too many of her films from the back seat. TWO WEEKS NOTICE is both written and directed by Marc Lawrence, who wrote MISS CONGENIALITY for her to no very satisfactory effect. In the new film she’s a radical lawyer persuaded to work for property tycoon Hugh Grant by a promise that he’ll save a community centre in Coney Island. If anyone’s surprised by the ensuing developments, this is the film for them. To be fair, she doesn’t hog her scenes, but there’s little sense of genuine romance underlying the conflict or overcoming it either. As for humour, the film can’t sustain even its promising ideas – her attempts to get fired by behaving as badly as possible, for instance – and at one point flirts with intestinal comedy, the kind of thing best left to the Farrelly Brothers. You’re better off with I SPY, Betty Thomas’s reworking of the television series as an Eddie Murphy vehicle, certainly a more entertaining one than the disastrous PLUTO NASH. Owen Wilson works well as a foil – let’s hope the work enables him to write another Wes Anderson movie. I SPY is more comedy than thriller, but painless as either.
Still, the comedy to see is ABOUT SCHMIDT. Like Anthony Payne’s previous ELECTION, the humour is sometimes so subtle it can almost pass unnoticed. Jack Nicholson gives an unusually detailed and shaded performance as the titular widower, who undertakes to cross America in a mobile home to reach his daughter’s wedding. Many are the sly observations en route and on arrival. From a study of loneliness the film turns into a road movie and then, most unexpectedly, a kind of reinvention of FATHER OF THE BRIDE in which the father is even more thoroughly excluded. There’s even a version of that most Freudian scene in which Spencer Tracy struggles to put on his tie. By now the film has become pretty hilarious, helped by a family of entirely too convincing Californians overseen by Kathy Bates. The whole film might reasonably be described as a feature-length slow burn, but there’s rather more substance to it. Indeed, the comedy often poises on the edge of something much darker.
GHOST SHIP is the second film to be directed by Steve Beck. His first was the remake of 13 GHOSTS. Too much horror fiction is described as a rollercoaster ride, but that film was little more. GHOST SHIP has fewer ghosts and is intermittently more successful, partly by dint of stranding Gabriel Byrne’s salvage crew on a sinisterly deserted vessel, a setting that conveys far more of a sense of lurking menace than the elaborate mansion of 13 GHOSTS. If it never lives up to the awesome challenge of William Hope Hodgson’s classics of seagoing terror, it does have its share of ghostly jolts, and I found the finale unexpectedly haunting. It’s certainly worthy of a studio whose ambition is to revive the tradition of William Castle.
PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE is an experience to be undergone rather than described, and undergone it should be. Nothing in Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous remarkable career – HARD EIGHT, BOOGIE NIGHTS and MAGNOLIA – could have prepared anyone for this. It’s a romantic comedy – a romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler. Will it lead to the kind of reappraisal of the actor’s previous films that sixties Jerry Lewis vehicles encouraged some of us to undertake? Maybe it shouldn’t, since it would be unimaginable without the writer-director, who in the first reel has beset his leading man with seven sisters, a harmonium that arrives as the apparent result of a car crash, a vindictive sex-line worker and a possible salvation in the person of an apparently wholesome Emily Watson (the character, I mean: no aspersions on the actress). The film takes its genre to some kind of edge and threatens to push it off. The audience must decide whether and when this happens: I thought it did in the central love scene, in which the dialogue is as violently disconcerting as the very similar action in Claire Denis’s erotic cannibal movie TROUBLE EVERY DAY (see it if you dare now that the BBFC has passed it uncut). I ought to mention that PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE is frequently hilarious and that despite all its eccentricities it does play fair by its genre. It may be the most unpredictable and original Hollywood offering since DONNIE DARKO.
Nor am I about to dismiss THE BANGER SISTERS because it’s a more conventional comedy. Goldie Hawn loses her job as a Los Angeles bartender and drives to Phoenix for a loan from her fellow ex-groupie, Susan Sarandon. En route she picks up a would-be writer (Geoffrey Rush) who has a score to settle with his father. I’m anything but hostile to an actor who has played both the Marquis de Sade and a version of Vincent Price, and the sub-plot does echo the central theme of liberation or otherwise from one’s past, but it’s when the two main actresses share scenes that the film ceases to be mildly funny and becomes very. They’re helped by fine performances by Erika Christensen and Eva Amurri as the two teenage daughters who have helped mire the Sarandon character in suburbia. Full marks to the week’s second writer-director, Bob Dolman, for trusting his cast and celebrating their timing and visual comedy rather than editing too much or unnecessarily moving his camera. THE BANGER SISTERS is a welcome example of classical Hollywood comedy, right down to the ambiguously upbeat ending, where one may feel not all the liberation will last long.
Neither of these films will do for the children at half-term, but they could safely be left in THE WILD THORNBERRIES. The family of the title are conservationists in Africa. The heroine is a little girl with a head like a peanut on a stick and a secret ability to talk to animals. She’s sent off to an English boarding school, perhaps to bulk the film to feature length, but returns to confound poachers and save any number of animals. The animation, some of it computer-generated, varies from the graceful to the rudimentary, but perhaps this isn’t meant to matter in a film so ecologically aware and politically correct that I expected to see notes for class work and school projects instead of final credits. The film does work when it deigns to be exciting, but (as so often these days in animation) Miyazaki was first and did it better – certainly the ecological concern and (in KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE) the devastation of losing the magic of talking to animals. Still, very few English-speaking children will know that, and they may embrace the film’s message, which is stated with all the subtlety of several thumps on the head with a rhino horn. Others may just have some fun – one thing this film isn’t is slow. To be fair, I didn’t often lose my patience.
THE HOURS is Stephen Daldry’s second film as director, and an altogether more considerable piece of work than BILLY ELLIOT. Nicole Kidman plays Virginia Woolf, a fine performance in which without prior knowledge one might not recognise the actress, and not just because of her temporary nose. Her struggles to realise herself as a person as well as a writer are intercut with a day in the life of one of her readers, a fifties American housewife about to change that life for good (Julianne Moore), and a present-day bisexual woman’s preparations to throw a party in honour of a gay writer dying of AIDS (Meryl Streep and Ed Harris respectively). It may sound remarkable, even given the cast (all of whom are superb), that the film has achieved mainstream distribution, and it is certainly one of the more narratively demanding recent films to do so. It deals not only with issues of liberation but also whether art justifies life and the leaving of it, often very movingly. The full interrelationship of the three narrative strands only becomes apparent late on, and perhaps this will engross the audience rather than frustrating them. It’s certainly one of the very few successful films about writing I can think of (as distinct, for instance, from Fred Zinneman’s JULIA, which I’m afraid comes to my mind). It has been so popular in America that MRS DALLOWAY, one of its recurring references, is now a best seller. May both happen in Britain too.
Less widely released but well worth travelling to find, THE PIANIST is Roman Polanski’s recreation of life in the Warsaw ghetto. Polanski once commented on SCHINDLER’S LIST to the effect that Spielberg was wrong to film it in black and white, since one remembers in colour. He has, and THE PIANIST more than justifies his contention. Based on the memoir by pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, the film also feels like an experience the director has lived through, whether in its details of mundane surrealism – disabled Jews forced to dance in the streets, an insane woman obsessively asking people to write to her about her husband, a boy selling a single toffee from a tray – or banal horror: some of the most telling images are in the background of events, bodies lying unremarked in the streets, people hurriedly crossing to the opposite pavement when a Jew is being attacked by an SS officer. As the pianist, Adrien Brody is remarkable, especially in the latter stages of the film, as he is driven into ever sparser refuges once he has eluded transportation to Treblinka. It’s a film about survival, and makes no attempt to soften the process. Szpilman may not be a character with whom the audience especially cares to identify – apart from helping supply guns for the uprising in the ghetto, he is almost entirely a helpless spectator of the occupation and the war – but, if we’re honest, perhaps he is more like ourselves than the heroes we would like to be. It seems to me a more fully achieved film than Spielberg’s honourable attempt.
FINAL DESTINATION was an unusually intelligent and imaginative, not to mention frightening, teen horror film in which the characters are hunted down by Death, no less. That one of the characters was called Valerie Lewton suggested where the director had learned visual economy and restraint. He hasn’t directed the sequel, FINAL DESTINATION 2, but it is quite some grisly fun. This time we have to accept that Death plays people like chessmen and brings them together where they can be done most harm. The set-pieces are more elaborate than in the original: the opening disaster is spectacularly shocking, while the subsequent deaths are set up with an ingenuity that recalls silent comedy – Keaton, say, or Laurel and Hardy – at its most intricately constructed. Horror and comedy often overlap, but I haven’t seen horror veer so close to deadpan slapstick since the later EVIL DEAD films. The final scene may swerve too violently in that direction, but otherwise the film seemed to me to judge its tone rather well. It’s certainly fun for anyone with as black a sense of humour as mine.
Mark Steven Johnson, the GRUMPY OLD MEN man, has apparently been trying for years to direct a film based on the Marvel comic DAREDEVIL, and now he has. Perhaps if he had managed years ago the film might have been less afflicted with modish techniques – meaninglessly frenetic camera movements, relentlessly rapid editing. Some of the latter may be necessary to manufacture action scenes in which the stars appear to have insisted on performing their own stunts – a martial arts duel between Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner in a children’s play area is especially weak in detail – but even in scenes where I take CGI to have been employed, the cutting is so strenuous as to obscure what it’s supposed to help show. As the blind lawyer who turns costumed vigilante by night, Affleck is reasonably persuasive, and the villains (Michael Clarke Duncan and Colin Farrell) are suitably nasty. Indeed, this is a far darker and more violent affair than the previous Marvel production, SPIDER-MAN, and at least as ruthless, but much less affecting. Those excluded by the 15 rating should therefore content themselves with Sam Raimi’s film.
I fear I’m no great fan of most television series, and I preferred ANALYZE THIS to THE SOPRANOS. Alas, with the sequel to the Billy Crystal – Robert de Niro film my feelings are reversed. Here de Niro fakes insanity by singing far too much of WEST SIDE STORY out of tune in order to get himself released from Sing Sing into psychoanalyst Crystal’s custody. The gangster is both trying to discover who wants him killed and planning a new major robbery. All this might be too much for a 96-minute film, but the committee of scriptwriters makes far too little of any of it, not least Lisa Kudrow as Crystal’s long-suffering wife, though she does all she can with what she’s given. Add to the plot the gangster’s attempts to hold down a day job while on parole, and it looks as though the writers simply couldn’t develop any of their ideas. Very little in the film stands up to comparison with the original, perhaps because too much of it tries.
An English-language remake of the often terrifying Japanese film RING by the director of THE MEXICAN (even allowing for his first movie, the much funnier MOUSE HUNT) might not seem a good idea either, especially when the trailer betrays that the ring of the title is taken literally. To my pleasant surprise, that addition works perfectly well when the point is revealed, and indeed the remake sometimes improves on the original. The opening scene with the two students and the videotape that leads to the viewer’s death is wittily extended, and the seven days the viewer is allowed is given a credible reason. For once the Hollywood tendency to insist on tidy explanations for the supernatural doesn’t seem obtrusive or inimical to the mystery. In the Japanese version the central couple are investigators of psychic phenomena, an unnecessary contrivance the remake does without. The original does have the edge at the end: the final apparition, which shows just enough of its face to make at least this viewer grateful not to see more, is replaced by a spectre that looks distantly related to young Regan in THE EXORCIST, and it’s surely a mistake to intercut its inexorable advance with footage of Naomi Watts speeding to the rescue. Still, I should report that someone at the press show who hadn’t seen the original found the remake extremely frightening. See it, and then catch up on the Japanese film – three of them, in fact, on fine Metro Tartan DVDs.
I confess to not being as fond of BEING JOHN MALCOVICH as many people seem to be. At times it struck me as rather too conscious a bid for cult status. Spike Jonze’s second film, ADAPTATION, has not quite so quirky a central conceit but scores high for inventiveness. Nicolas Cage plays the screenwriter of MALCOVICH and also his non-existent twin screenwriting brother, who manufactures a serial killer film while the luckless protagonist struggles to adapt a book about an orchid thief. The book’s author is played by Meryl Streep, who is also seen in flashback researching it, and who clearly has fun with her role. Indeed, this is very possibly the funniest film about the struggles of writing, and also one of the truest. The last reel may seem relatively conventional until you grasp that this is part of the post-modern joke; it has succumbed to the advice of screenwriting guru Robert McKee, played by Brian Cox. In real life McKee turned John Cleese from the co-writer of FAWLTY TOWERS into the writer of A FISH CALLED WANDA and, worse, FIERCE CREATURES. You may feel that ADAPTATION gives him a sly and overdue comeuppance.
Jonze also co-produced the film JACKASS. All that needs to be said is that it lives up to its title, and so does anyone who pays to see it. Sadly, it proves that natural selection doesn’t work as well as one might like. At least the precedents it sets mean that our censor ought to pass Dusan Makavejev’s SWEET MOVIE uncut if it is ever submitted.
My other confession this week is not having seen Peter Mullan’s ORPHANS. On the basis of his new film THE MAGDALENE SISTERS, I certainly intend to. This deals with the laundries run like penal institutions by the Sisters of Mercy in Ireland, and proves that despite what my own schooldays led me to suspect, Ireland didn’t export all its robed sadists to teach in England. While the performances are persuasively naturalistic, the direction is often eloquently stylised, and the tension between the two adds to the film’s power. This is apparent from the opening sequence, in which the fate of a rape victim (just one of the kinds of girl the Irish Catholic Church apparently regarded as vile) is sealed without a single audible line of dialogue. Other moments, such as a screen-filling close-up of an eye with a nun reflected in it, or the extraordinarily protracted accusation of a priest at an open-air mass, also demonstrate how willing Mullan is not to depend wholly on his naturalism. Indeed, in a SIGHT AND SOUND interview he compares the film to Douglas Sirk. It’s also surprisingly true to that bugbear of the British censor, the women-in-prison movie: in particular a lengthy nude humiliation scene of which Jesus Franco might well have been proud pushes close to at least an 18 certificate rather than the 15 the film bears. Presumably it gets by because of the film’s crusading anger, which however doesn’t prevent Geraldine McEwan from playing the head nun as a layered character, and all the more terrifying for it. The various younger actresses – Anne Marie Duff, Nora Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh – are all remarkably fine, and Peter Mullan looks like a major talent to me.
While Mullan cites Sirk as a comparison, in his latest film Todd Haynes takes Sirk’s Technicolor melodramas as a model. FAR FROM HEAVEN takes Jane Wyman’s forbidden liaison from ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS and splits the character of her lover in two. Whereas the casting of gay Rock Hudson as the gardener lent the already thematically dense film an extra subtext, here the gardener is black, and it’s Julianne Moore’s husband (played by Dennis Quaid) who is gay. The effect of filming this drama in Sirk’s style feels like several kinds of rediscoveries of cinema. It’s worth remembering that Sirk himself was developing the kind of melodrama made by John M. Stahl. In his remake of Stahl’s IMITATION OF LIFE Sirk gave more of an emphasis to the theme of race, while his intense stylised use of colour derived from Stahl’s in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN. If Haynes adds one more level of self-consciousness, there is certainly no suggestion of superiority to the genre. Just as in Sirk, the visual distancing never robs the film of emotional power, and FAR FROM HEAVEN contains scenes as moving as any of his. It’s a particular delight to see such a film on a big screen, and of course you can catch some of the originals at the splendid FACT cinema in Liverpool.
As for Stephen Soderberg’s SOLARIS, I believe it improves on the Tarkovsky original. It’s considerably more succinct but at least as austere and challenging, not to mention enigmatic. George Clooney is excellent as the psychologist called to a space station to discover that the planet of Solaris is incarnating memories of the personnel, in his case his dead wife. Jeremy Davies is uncomfortably funny as the most tripped-out of the victims, but it’s Natascha McElhone as the reincarnated wife who brings a luminous quality to her role. Several adaptations of Philip K. Dick, not to mention related films such as OPEN YOUR EYES and the Hollywood remake VANILLA SKY, have dealt with the theme of the yearning of the other to be human, but it has never been so movingly conveyed. This, and the willingness not to explain why Solaris does what it does, are just two good reasons to support this film.
There are none to indulge EQUILIBRIUM, an absurd vision of a future that seems to consist of whatever notions the set designers and costume department had when it was time to film. It’s a future that seeks to outlaw emotion, but can’t free itself from the past – in particular chunks of unacknowledged Orwell and Ray Bradbury. The sole point of interest in the present climate is that its heroes are terrorists. Add to all this some of the sillier martial arts sequences of recent years and you have a film which is intermittent fun, but not enough. Christian Bale is suitably baleful as the protagonist. Sean Bean and Emily Watson get out as soon as they can.
And so to DVD. Among the latest feast from Metro Tartan we have an appropriately lush transfer of THE FOURTH MAN, one of Paul Verhoven’s most richly ambiguous and hallucinatory films. It can be seen as a first draft of his later BASIC INSTINCT, but offers more subtext and detail. The Austrian DOG DAYS subjects its suburban characters to a heat wave that drives them to acts of moral apathy and indolent violence. It’s often horribly funny, especially in the scenes involving an unstoppably loquacious girl who spends her life hitching rides, and as often disturbing. Viewers may want to be reassured that worse could happen than does. Surprisingly, this is also to some extent true of Takashi Miike’s DEAD OR ALIVE 2, only a nominal sequel to his jaw-dropping gangster fantasy. Here two hitmen return to the island where they were childhood friends and enjoy a brief idyll that recalls the elegiac passages of some of Takeshi Kitano’s gangster films. There are still some gleefully graphic moments, though, and nonchalant lurches into fantasy: when the pair decide to become avenging angels they literally sprout wings. For viewers made wary by the director’s reputation, this is probably the best of his films to start with. Fans shouldn’t be disappointed either.
CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND is the story – the audience must decide how much of one – of Chuck Barris, creator of such American television hits as The Gong Show and The Dating Game, the original of the British Blind Date. According to his own account, Barris was also a hit man for the CIA. Imagine Cilla Black accompanying the winning couple on their jaunt and using this as a cover to kill people, and you’ll have some idea of the situation. The film is written by Charlie Kaufman, but whereas Spike Jonze films Kaufman’s scripts with straight-faced naturalism, in his first work as director George Clooney underlines the artifice. It’s an appropriate and even unsettling method. The casting of familiar faces (Julia Roberts as a CIA agent, Clooney himself as Barris’s initial contact, even Brad Pitt and Matt Damon as unsuccessful contestants on The Dating Game) suggests the allure of fame at any price that Barris may be thought to have fallen for. Sam Rockwell’s performance as Barris gives real depth to an enigma without explaining it away. It’s presumably coincidental that the title recalls A BEAUTIFUL MIND, but one interpretation of the events is certainly that Barris, finding himself attacked for undermining American values, cast himself as a saviour of them. I should mention that the film is often hilarious and often disturbing, sometimes simultaneously. It’s an impressive directorial debut for George Clooney, and I hope we’ll be seeing more surprises from him.
The week’s other comedy of crime is L'HOMME DU TRAIN, Patrice Leconte’s study of the relationship between a retired small-town schoolmaster (Jean Rochefort) and a gunman (Johnny Hallyday) who rooms with him in preparation for robbing a bank. When the film was in development some British tabloid mentalities objected to the involvement of British money in a Hallyday film, and so it’s worth saying at once that the major pleasure of the film is the playing of the two lead actors. Their developing friendship is touching, funny and by no means unambiguous. It’s the gentlest film one could imagine on its theme, and the director’s commitment to visual simplicity pays off in the performances. I’ve heard no rumour of a Hollywood remake, grace a Dieu.
PERSONAL VELOCITY: THREE PORTRAITS is a rare contemporary example of the anthology film. Rebecca Miller has written and directed three terse tales on the theme of versions of freedom. Kyra Sedgwick does especially well as an abused wife who finds a slightly less abrasive lifestyle in the sticks, but Parker Posey is reliable and funny as ever as a publisher’s editor who edits her own life, and Fairuza Balk brings the film to a kind of conclusion by accepting someone else’s escape. I take the fact that the voice-over throughout the film is male to be a comment in itself, or is it meant to recall the director’s father Arthur Miller, since the film is dedicated to her mother? In any case, it’s a welcome piece of quiet independent cinema.
Other comedies around just now are less diverting. MAID IN MANHATTAN reduces the once interesting Wayne Wang to the status of chauffeur of a Jennifer Lopez star vehicle. It’s yet another retelling of the Cinderella story, which displays more life in its observation of the life of a hotel chambermaid than in its tepid romantic episodes with Ralph Fiennes. George Clooney would undoubtedly have been a better choice – remember OUT OF SIGHT.
JUST MARRIED sends newlyweds Brittany Murphy and Ashton Kutcher on a disastrous honeymoon to test their relationship. It does ring reasonably true as a heightened version of the process of adjustment marriage involves, but like MAID IN MANHATTAN, it doesn’t really make enough of its potential comic highlights. Whereas MAID asks us to believe only that a Republican politician would fall in love with a hotel maid, JUST MARRIED makes most of the girl’s moneyed family so convincingly hostile to the match that their change of mind seems at best contrived. Still, Brittany Murphy brings enough charm and humour to her role that the film remains watchable. It’s also brief.
So is BARBERSHOP, which the Reverend Jesse Jackson found objectionable – the comments of one character about several black icons, at any rate. These lines seem to be intended to convey the notion of the barbershop as a forum for uninhibited discussion, and at least they give the film some edge. Otherwise it’s a mildly entertaining ensemble piece in which Ice Cube sells the shop to a loan shark and then attempts to retrieve it in the course of a day. A subplot about two bumbling thieves and a stolen cash machine eventually demonstrates its relevance, but there’s too much of it, especially since its slapstick is limp; there’s even a repeated gag about a flight of stairs that won’t impress anyone familiar with Laurel and Hardy in THE MUSIC BOX. Essentially it’s a film that promises to reward the audience with a soft centre. Perhaps Ice Cube should rename himself Baked Alaska.
I would also place EVELYN among the comedies. Though it has Pierce Brosnan challenging Irish family law in order to win back custody of his children, it takes place in an Ireland more reminiscent of John Ford than of THE MAGDALEN SISTERS. There’s a token nasty nun and some entirely benign Christian Brothers. We must believe this, since it’s based on a true story. Brosnan plays with his screen image to persuasive effect, and Alan Bates as an ex-lawyer adds some crustiness. As the little girl Sophie Vavasseur is entirely charming, which she certainly needs to be, since she saves the day with a speech in court aided by a sunbeam inhabited by her grandfather’s spirit. I should like to think the director Bruce Beresford, who once filmed Barry Mackenzie, had some irony in mind.
THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE has Kate Winslet as a reporter who becomes convinced of the innocence of Death Row inmate Gale, played by Kevin Spacey. Her character is called Bitsey, which might be taken to refer to the editing style of the absurd montages that regularly disrupt the film, cutting together single words with vertiginous camera movements and proving that despite his protests, director Alan Parker is attracted by artiness if it’s sufficiently flashy and empty. The film also contains a party scene in which people fall in a swimming pool and an episode in which Bitsey thinks someone is hiding behind a shower curtain. At one point someone says “You just don’t get it, do you?” and elsewhere someone comments “This is not good.” Am I being unfair? The scenes between Spacey and Winslet, when Parker lets the actors get on with it undistracted, have some feeling, and especially those between Spacey and fellow anti-capital punishment campaigner Laura Linney. However, the latter prove to be just a way of setting up more plot, and the final twist makes nonsense of so much of the film I’d call it insulting. In any case, Fritz Lang dealt far more succinctly, clearly and eloquently with similar material in BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT.
Like AMERICAN PSYCHO, THE RULES OF ATTRACTION (also based on a Brett Easton Ellis novel) renders ennui with alienating bleakness. If it’s more fun than the preceding film, this may be because it was adapted by PULP FICTION’s Roger Avary, who has also directed it. It skips through less than a year in the lives of a group of New England college students, in the course of which their relationships become entangled to variously disastrous effect. The year is punctuated by several parties but not a single lecture, though at one point the Shannyn Sossamon character has a decidedly unacademic encounter with a tutor. All this may sound rather like any number of dire teen comedies, and part of the dark joke is that it does indeed resemble them but displays without comment the kind of behaviour they would play for comedy. Its detachment seldom lets the audience feel comfortable with being left to observe. I gather many of the players come from television, not least James Van Der Beek as another Bateman and Jessica Biel as the other main female figure. Ian Somerhalder takes care of the gay theme, and Kip Pardue is the centre of the funniest episode, a whirlwind tour of Europe lasting all of five minutes’ screen time. I would like to believe that the kind of film it implicitly attacks will now go away, but I doubt it. Let’s hope Roger Avary carries on directing as well as writing.
THE RECRUIT is Colin Farrell, tempted by Al Pacino’s recruiter into the CIA, where he finds nothing is as it seems, not least in his relationship with fellow trainee Bridget Moynahan. It’s good to see a thriller that manages to be engrossing with no more violence than warrants a 12A certificate, and Al Pacino struts his final monologue with all the vigour we’ve come to expect, but ultimately the film has none of the resonance of Alan Pakula’s essays in paranoia. Since ENEMY OF THE STATE tried to conjure up a similar sense of all-encompassing distrust and failed, perhaps Hollywood is no longer receptive to such a view of the world in the thriller, at any rate. Some recent science fiction films have revived it, however. Meanwhile, THE RECRUIT is perfectly watchable but, one might feel, too anxious to reassure us that the CIA consists of good guys. Still, CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND may serve as a riposte.
CRADLE 2 THE GRAVE has my vote as meaningless title of the year. Indeed, it conveys so little that at least one review I’ve seen mistakes it for a sequel to a film presumably called just CRADLE. It pits Jet Li against illegal weapons dealers, which we might find topically reassuring or alternatively too loaded a theme by half. Sadly, though the director Andrzej Bartkowiak previously filmed Li in ROMEO MUST DIE, and the action choreography is handled by his old director Corey Yuen, the film seems not to trust its fight scenes to stand alone: they’re too often intercut with more of the same or, in one case, a car chase. A graceful early scene in which Li descends the outside of a building demonstrates that he hasn’t lost his skill, but he needs to find a more sympathetic filmmaker. Nothing here equals the final confrontation in ROMEO MUST DIE.
Some years ago Peter Howitt directed SLIDING DOORS, a mild Gwyneth Paltrow comedy. He returns with JOHNNY ENGLISH, an equally mild Rowan Atkinson. The comedian plays the title character, not so much the leading British spy as the last available to combat Pascal Sauvage, a French pretender to the throne with ambitions to turn Britain into the world’s largest penal colony. If it’s good to see John Malcovich turn in a restrained performance as the villain, it seems as though Atkinson has been excessively restrained by too much plot for the running time. In the best Mr Bean episodes he has space to develop every variation on a gag in classic silent style, but here many gags are referred to more than developed. There are a few fine set-pieces at parties and a coronation, but elsewhere the film is more like middling Ealing than you might expect, especially in its visual reticence. It’s certainly more fun than most recent American comedies, though the sight of an American playing a comic French villain may pick up more timeliness than it deserves. It’s also barely convincing that the bumbling Johnny English continues to be employed, even given his romantic entanglement with fellow spy Natalie Imbruglia. Perhaps here at least the film could have used more plot. Otherwise I’d suggest that only those people who think Laurel and Hardy are best represented by WAY OUT WEST will prefer this to the best Mr Bean shorts.
The irrepressible folk at Mondo Macabro continue to lead the field in bizarre British DVDs. Their latest are LA PRINCIPESSA NUDA (“She’s all women to all men”). This is a seventies left-wing Italian exploitation satire on politics and journalism, starring the famed transsexual Ajita Wilson as the nude princess and the always reliable Luigi Pistilli as the reporter who learns the truth. Not the least of the surprises is the Antonioniesque use of Milan, but there’s more that you wouldn’t believe if I told you. This is also certainly the case with MYSTICS IN BALI, a legendary Indonesian horror movie previously available on a Dutch tape as BALINESE MYSTIC. I quote the Dutch sleeve: “The true Story of an AUSTRALIA girl who learn the mysticen of LEAK BALI. (Bali). The tremendous mysticen of LEAK Bali, is always feared the people of Bali ever and ever.” I couldn’t put it better myself, and let the Dutch sleeve also describe part of the plot: “Cathie is not aware that danger is coming to her as the Queen of LEAK keeps on using her head to be the blood sucker of the unborn babies of the nearby villages without her knowledge.” You will indeed see this, and much else that apparently derives straight from Indonesian supernatural tradition, depicted with exemplary enthusiasm in a fine widescreen transfer. “You’ve never seen a film like this before,” the British DVD case warns and adds three exclamation marks. Let them speak for me as well.