Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Flightplan goes into tailspin...

(dir: Robert Schwentke. With: Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sean Bean, Erika Christensen, Greta Scacchi)

[Note: contains minor spoilers]

For the difference between silly and just too silly, crafty and bungled, compare 2005’s double bill of panic-in-the-skies Hitchcockian suspensers, Red Eye and Flightplan. The plot of Wes Craven’s movie was, in the proper manner of a Hitchcock McGuffin, thoroughly tossed-off: Cillian Murphy’s crazed assassination scheme was really just an excuse to get Rachel McAdams where Craven wanted her, pinned right there in her seat, and the movie rattled by in a way that discouraged us from probing its internal logic too bullishly.

, whose premise is an outright steal from Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, has a far more elaborate set-up, raising all sorts of paranoid possibilities in its first hour, but doing so in the crudely italicised fashion of a movie whose ambiguities are merely for show. The reveal is practically bound to be a let-down; certainly the film is happiest when falling back on its audience’s imagination for solutions to the central mystery, and for a while there’s ticklish pleasure to be had eliminating various answers and coming up with more original ones than the screenwriters look set to deliver.

But the film’s strangest details – the ones that spawned, at least in this viewer’s mind, the most tantalisingly baroque conspiracy theories – are revealed in the end as just maddening symptoms of its illogic. Why do Foster’s character and her daughter take their seats, unseen, before anyone else? Not because events have been so predetermined, but because the plot simply requires them to. How is it that Foster, a jet propulsion engineer, knows the whole plane – right down to ceiling panels in loo cubicles – like the back of her hand? Because it’s the only way the kidnapper’s masterplan can possibly work. Crasser still is the way the backstory of her character’s bereavement – obliquely and rather amateurishly shuffled into the opening credits – is first exploited to raise possible insanity as a red herring, and then subordinated into the daft mechanics of the actual plot against her.

Until this is uncovered, a moment less chilling than mundane, it’s possible to make allowances for the tacky overstatement of Schwentke’s direction (he made the dubious Tattoo, a German thriller about internet skin-art trading), because there’s still the slim chance that he might be up to something rather insidious, and because devices such as the twice-used 360
° twirl around Foster in a moment of panic seem almost too hoary, too absurdly 1992, to be taken at face value. Plus, some 65 years old though it might be, the movie’s basic concept is strong enough that even bad staging occasionally works in its favour. The sky really is an excellent place to relocate Hitchcock’s plot, and don’t airline staff always look conspiratorial? Try this: for a good 40 minutes after Foster wakes up to discover the empty seat next to her, there isn’t a single exterior shot of the craft or view out the window. Is it even necessarily airborne? That’s the kind of sneaky lateral thinking thrillers like this thrive on, but the outright terrible final act retroactively erodes any confidence that we’ve been toyed with by a director who actually knows what he’s doing.

The problem is not so much that Flightplan is jerry-rigged – so was David Fincher’s The Game, a film I find taut, fascinating, and barely vitiated at all by being patently implausible from start to finish. No, the problem is more that Schwentke’s film, far less suspensefully handled than either Craven’s or Fincher’s, gives us very little else to grapple with that might divert our attention away from those games of spot-the-plot-hole pedantry. Like Fincher’s Panic Room, it has Foster, frontally positioned and giving it her all, but, even more so in this case, her emotional expressiveness seems ratcheted up to a point where it’s too obviously overcompensating for the script’s shortcomings. Again we get the now-obligatory shivers of new-world-order anxiety, including two Arab passengers on the plane who meet with Foster’s suspicion – though any post-9/11 thriller which has to actually trot out the words “post-9/11…” to clinch those resonances isn’t going about its job too delicately if you ask me. And we get Sarsgaard, who’s here, one assumes, to thank screenwriter Billy Ray for giving him his best role yet in Shattered Glass. This is his worst.

What made
Flightplan look superficially inviting, I began to realise, was the shinily hi-tech production design by Donnie Darko’s Alec Hammond, but the promise of any real frissons being found up this plane’s capacious fuselage gradually becomes a vain one, not least because of the movie’s ballooning ineptitude in other technical departments. Worse, really, than the nonsensical plot logic of that last act is its sheer ugliness, with Foster and the villain playing cat-and-mouse around a set which inattentive editing and gimmicky cinematography conspire to make barely recognisable. Schwentke caps this spatial muddle with arguably the lamest and least pointfully deployed CG effect in a major movie since Die Another Day, and then an embarrassingly ham-handed apologetic coda involving Foster's fellow passengers. Let's put it this way: if Flightplan were a flight plan, it would entail cruising along pleasurably enough for about an hour before nosediving suicidally into the ground. Funnily enough, it’s the crash you remember. C–

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Toronto: Day Eight (and goodbye)

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
(UK, Nick Park and Steve Box, 85 min. With (voices): Peter Sallis, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Peter Kay, Liz Smith)

C’mon, look at that picture! Who could resist? And it's much better than Chicken Run. B+

Hostel (US, Eli Roth, 95 min. With: Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, Eythor Gudjonsson)

Roth introduced this as a work in progress. He can smooth out the rough spots for as long as he likes, but he’ll be polishing a turd. After the queasy and at least half-promising Cabin Fever, this is breathtakingly unreconstructed – basically Eurotrip with slaughter – and it achieves precisely zero cumulative dread. I half-suspect Roth’s trying to satirise European hostility to Americans by cutting bits off these frat boys, but all the movie ends up saying is “They’re all depraved sex freaks anyway, so who gives a fuck?”. Undiscriminating horror addicts may well lap it up, but you’ll need to really like breasts and torture. D–

Little Fish (Aus, Rowan Woods, 113 min. With: Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Martin Henderson, Sam Neill)

Negligible junkie drama, marking the point where I begin to get Really Quite Bored with Cate Blanchett. Conversely, the usually intolerable Weaving is amazing as her former sports-star stepdad. But having sat through Olivier Assayas’s Clean I just couldn’t cope with any more of this stuff. Apparently something happens in the second half. (C–)

Lord of War (US, Andrew Niccol, 122 min. With: Nicolas Cage, Jared Leto, Bridget Moynahan, Ian Holm, Eamonn Walker, Ethan Hawke)

I’ll throw this in, even though I shelled out ten good Canadian $ to see it as a putative reprieve from Little Fish. But good Christ, it’s tedious. Credit to Niccol for making a movie about an arms dealer who doesn’t grow a conscience, but did he have to make this one? It’s two hours of statistics and deadpan cynicism, trading off the supposedly witty insight that gun-running is a business like any other, and coming to the earth-shattering conclusion that the US government likes to arm its enemies’ enemies. Cage picks random syllables to shout, and everyone else just looks bored. I did learn that an AK-47 is the same thing as a Kalashnikov. That was it. D

Toronto: Day Seven

Slow Burn
(US, Wayne Beach, 93 min. With: Ray Liotta, LL Cool J, Mekhi Phifer, Jolene Blalock, Taye Diggs, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Bruce McGill)

Sorry, but WTF? Beach seemed like a perfectly nice fellow introducing this wannabe-sultry Montreal-shot policier, but I can’t go easy on its moth-eaten flashback structure and grisly, try-hard dialogue. (Sample line: “A flaw!” whispers Liotta, noticing a scar above Blalock’s nether regions.) It plays like a spoof of The Usual Suspects, and, much as we love him, LL Cool J sure ain’t no Keyser Soze. The last reel is a hellish pile-up of mutually cancelling plot twists – I overheard fellow audience members trying to puzzle it all out as I left, and they had my sympathies. F

Transamerica (US, Duncan Tucker, 100 min. With: Felicity Huffman, Kevin Zegers, Fionnula Flanagan, Graham Greene, Elizabeth Peña)

The fest’s best acting in an otherwise modest movie comes from Huffman, as a pre-op male-to-female transexual bonding on the road with rent boy son Zegers. It’s a bold, and I think brilliant decision to cast a woman; Cillian, Gael et al get congratulated for pulling off drag, but how much trickier to make a transitional state believable and affecting from the opposite direction. There are other good things – Flanagan’s poisonous grandmother is amazingly well played within a very narrow range – but the film is too fundamentally pat and issue-conscious to excite much. B–

Mrs Harris (US, Phyllis Nagy, 94 min. With: Annette Bening, Ben Kingsley, Chloë Sevigny, Mary McDonnell, Philip Baker Hall, Ellen Burstyn, Frances Fisher, Cloris Leachman)

Quite a day for leading ladies. Hell hath no fury like Annette Bening, convincingly ageing 20 years in hands down her best performance ever as Kingsley’s possibly murderous mistress. Nagy’s fascinating and tartly scripted cause célèbre mystery (shades of Reversal of Fortune) is a wee bit clunky technically, but tonally it’s a masterclass. The idea of this woman finding herself stuck, in love, and with no way out gets unexpectedly moving as it goes along, and the mock-doc inserts with various friends and relatives giving their pennies’ worth never descend into arch point-scoring. The real tragedy is that such a tremendous star turn – and really good film – are getting shunted straight to HBO. B+

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
(S. Korea, Park Chan-wook, 111 min. With: Lee Young-ae, Choi Min-sik)

Well, it’s no Oldboy. This one really only has a third act, and it’s a pretty strong one owing a bit to Murder on the Orient Express, but the build-up is disappointingly bitty and humdrum, and Park does rather overdo the ironically deployed classical music. I liked some of the symbolism towards the end. Call this a more messily human, less machine-like narrative than the director’s previous rampages of revenge, but there’s no getting round the fact that it’s less of a tour de force, too. B–

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Toronto: Day Six (in which I slack off a bit)

In Her Shoes
(US, Curtis Hanson, 135 min. With: Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette, Shirley MacLaine, Mark Feuerstein, Brooke Smith)

Yeah, it has its problems. Do we need Collette to have self-esteem issues again? Must there be quite so many scenes involving shoes and dogs? (And I really, really like dogs.) There's also too much gruff fun with the elderly. But get past them chick-lit trappings a tall order for many male critics of my acquaintance – and it's smoothly entertaining, solidly developed, and a breeze to watch even at two and a quarter hours. Diaz – charming and funny at the press conference this afternoon – isn't afraid to make Maggie even more of a pain in the arse than the movie strictly needs her to be. But the secret Fox haven't let out of the bag yet? It's Collette's film, all the way. I just love her in this, however demeaningly dowdified the part, and whenever the movie's singing her tune – which is at least half the time, Oscar category watchers – it's smashingly on song. Tonight: the premiere party, at which I declare my undying love for this consistently sublime actress and get slapped with a restraining order. B

L'enfant (Belgium, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. With: Jérémie Renier, Fabrizio Rongione, Déborah François)

Can these guys do no wrong? 20 mins in, I'll confess, I feared it might be just a smidgeon less dramatically taut than their last three films, that another beautifully constructed Christian allegory about absolution was on the way, and that I was going to find it just quietly admirable. Not so. The Cannes jury must have had a hell of time deciding between this and
Caché. A

Toronto: Day Five

Walk the Line (US, James Mangold, 135 min. With: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick)

Unembarrassing. But I'm sick to death of these broad-brush biopics; the crisp focus of Capote is so much more satisfying. Here we get Ray all over again, right down to childhood sibling trauma in the Deep South, and the supporting roles are so undernourished and Mangold's direction so formulaic and plodding that large chunks of the movie fade right off the screen. Phoenix starts uncomfortably, and his singing is frequently inadequate; both vocally and dramatically the performance is much better in the lower ranges. Witherspoon's sweetly perky June Carter doesn't have any. And surely this is the least remarkable period of Cash's career? It sure feels like it. C

The Gronh
ölm Method (Spain, Marcelo Piñeyro, 115 min. With: Eduardo Noriega, Najwa Nimri, Natalia Verbeke, Ernesto Alterio)

Arrived half-way through, but quickly got the gist. It's a corporate Survivor, sort of a balloon debate between prospective employees all trying to screw each other over. Reasonably sharp, funny and watchable, which is more than can be said for most Spanish comedies starring Natalia Verbeke, but didn't score any knockout punches from where I was sitting. (B)

River Queen
(NZ/UK, Vincent Ward, 114 min. With: Samantha Morton, Cliff Curtis, Temuera Morrison, Stephen Rea, Kiefer Sutherland)

A troubled production, and you can tell it's choppy, dramatically inert, and the rhythm keeps conking out. Dispenses with most of the minor roles in the first reel, so it's basically Morton going downriver in search of her Maori son, to bursts of glorious choral music. Gave it an hour, then decided it was an occasionally gorgeous shambles and left it at that. (C)

Wassup Rockers
(US, Larry Clark, 111 min. With: Jonathan Velasquez, Francisco Pedrasa, Milton Velasquez, Carlos Velasco)

Seven South Central skater boys squeeze into tight jeans and piss around. I have some time for Clark (particularly Another Day in Paradise) but this starts out wilfully conforming to what his detractors most froth over - the roving camera practically licks its subjects. I have no real problem with Clark being a salacious perv, but I do have a problem with him being a boring one, and the first hour of this is frankly terrible. It improves massively on turning into a kind of knockabout exploitation comedy, but I do wish it had got there sooner. Not a good day. C

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Toronto: Day Four

North Country
(US, Niki Caro, 123 min. With: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, Sean Bean, Woody Harrelson, Sissy Spacek)

We’ve certainly been here before – it’s Norma Rae meets Silkwood, with a dash of Erin Brockovich, as Theron leads fellow maltreated steel workers in a sexual-harassment class action. Compassionately done, Charlize is strong, and arthritic martyr McDormand steals supporting honours from a wheelchair. Caro is good again on community politics and entrenched male privilege. Sure, there’s no urgent reason for it to exist, but it works: it gets you very angry, eliciting a more visceral indignation than any judicial verdict can hope to assuage.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (UK, Michael Winterbottom, 91 min. With: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Shirley Henderson, Elizabeth Berrington, Dylan Moran, Gillian Anderson)

Starting like a scene from Ricky Gervais's Extras with the magnificent Brydon angling for top billing ("It's a co-lead!"), this announces itself straight off as a fairly shapeless postmodern doodle, more para than meta, like one of those DVDs where the outtakes are more fun than the actual feature. So the film-within-the-film (Tristram Shandy, or highlights thereof) is deliberately underwhelming, and it says a lot that the single best bit is the end-credits sequence with Coogan and Brydon swapping Pacino impressions. Certainly Winterbottom's most enjoyable movie since 24 Hour Party People, but there's a distinct risk of Full Frontal smugness as it goes along, and it often finds itself reprising 24HPP's comic tone wholesale. (There's even a Tony Wilson cameo.) I'll need to, well, read Tristram Shandy before crediting Winterbottom with crafty thematic parallels in the off-camera bits, but that's probably the idea. As it was I spent most of my time scribbling down some choice context-specific one-liners: "There's a shoe issue"; "I'm a medieval craftsman with a Porsche"; "The pockets can be both technically accurate and still look contrived". The same could be said for this kind of cinematic horseplay. B

Bee Season (US, Scott McGehee, David Siegel, 104 min. With: Richard Gere, Juliette Binoche, Flora Cross, Max Minghella, Kate Bosworth)

McGehee and Siegel made the promising
Suture and the vaguely frustrating The Deep End. Their decline into airily overconceptualised artplex guff continues. Family means not having to dot all the "i"s? You're so much better off with Spellbound. The mystical overlay with Cross getting letter clues from CGI'd origami birds paints the movie into a daft corner, and the subplot with aloof mum Binoche randomly breaking into people's houses like the guy from 3-Iron is pure padding. Marvellous if completely detachable opening credits sequence, but overall it's the kind of movie trade papers call "intelligent" and "upscale" because they can't think of anything better to say. C

Vers le sud
(France/Canada, Laurent Cantet, 105 min. With: Charlotte Rampling, Karen Young, Ménothy Cesar)

Female sex tourists in Haiti? An odd shift for Cantet after the wonderful L'emploi du temps; it feels more like Claire Denis territory (shades of her Chocolat), but without the sticky sense of lust. The approach - typified by faux-interview monologues for four significant characters, though curiously not for chief stud Cesar - is more than a shade novelettish and overstated, and when the dialogue switches to English you hear the clunk. But it's subtly sexy, refreshingly nonjudgemental, and ends splendidly. A slight disappointment, for sure, but we can live with pretty good. B(

Dave Chappelle's Block Party
(US, Michel Gondry, 100 min. With: Dave Chappelle, Erykah Badu, Mos Def, Kanye West, Lauryn Hill et al)

Was heading bedwards when I saw punters queueing for this and suddenly remembered there was a Michel Gondry film in the festival, and that it hadn't been press-screened. Needless to say, I hung around, and a couple of very kind Aussie distrib people managed to smuggle me in. The biggest audience-pleaser I've seen, it's a riot, and I speak as someone who normally can't stand concert films. Or Dave Chappelle. To be fair I've only ever seen the man peddling his schtick in stuff like The Nutty Professor and Undercover Brother before. But I hereby declare him a huggable comic genius. Just not to his face. The intercut stuff with him inviting randoms to the bash by megaphone is unbelievably funny. A lot of the music I can take or leave, to be honest, but any film featuring a mesmeric Lauryn Hill recital of "Killing Me Softly", of all songs, has got to be doing something joyously right. B+

Monday, September 12, 2005

Toronto: Day Three

(France/Austria, Michael Haneke, 117 min. With: Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Maurice Bénichou, Annie Girardot)

Formally ingenious but also humane. Auteuil and Binoche are both at their best in ages as the haute-bourgeois couple under hidden-camera surveillance; the way the tables of victimisation are turned is really compelling, as is the way latent distrust in their relationship comes under the microscope. Some find the ending frustrating; it made my skin crawl, and it's very Haneke. A

(short) (Canada, Byron Lamarque, 10 min) D

A Simple Curve
(Canada, Aubrey Nealon, 92 min: With: Kris Lemche, Michael Hogan, Matt Craven)

Slot-filler, and I could have done worse. British Columbia scenery made for a nice battery-recharger, and there's some smart dialogue, but this earnest father-son dramedy is no one's idea of essential. Does feature the unanswerable argumentative retort "You ate my placenta." C+

The Proposition
(Aus, John Hillcoat, 104 min. With: Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Emily Watson, David Wenham, John Hurt)

Hillcoat's outback western is evocatively shot and well-cast, but I found Nick Cave's dialogue more stilted than elegant, characterisation's sketchy to say the least, and the brother-betrayal plot never really accumulates enough force. Pity. Still, I'd like to have been able to stay for the whole thing. (C) SEEN IN FULL 26/10/05. Strong last reel, in which Pearce and in particular Watson come into their own. It's not bad, but the pacing's still too slack and the Huston character too much of a wild-man cipher for the civilisation-vs-savagery idea to really come off. B-

(US, John Madden, 100 min. With: Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hope Davis)

This always felt like something of an obligation, but who knew it would be quite so fiercely uninteresting? Mathematicians are a bit nuts? Er, don't stop the presses. Gwyneth's fine, but was far better doing depressive-genius duties in Sylvia, Hopkins splutters out his lines like he just wants out of here, and Davis's role redefines thankless. Oddly, it's left to Gyllenhaal, relaxed and watchable, to hold the side up as the only one of them who looks like he's ever opened a maths book. The academic trappings are as specious as they are embarrassing, and Madden just drearily tots up two and two. Honestly? It struck me as a bad play badly transferred. D+

Harsh Times
(US, David Ayer, 119 min. With: Christian Bale, Freddy Rodriguez, Eva Longoria)

Noxious dick-measuring from Training Day hack Ayer, who someone has inexplicably let behind a camera. He goes at it like a rabid bulldog. Bale squanders a lot of his Machinist and Batman cred with a lame, posturing perf; Six Feet Under lightweight Rodriguez just stands around calling him dude. Repeating TD's door-to-door episodic structure, it's smarmy, horribly overblown, and patently turned on by the very machismo it purports to interrogate. "Tonight we will experience the raw power of cinema," promised one of the programmers. Did he mean stench? D

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Toronto: Day Two

Imagine Me and You (UK, Ol Parker, 93 min. With: Piper Perabo, Lena Headey, Matthew Goode)

Or: One Wedding and a Lesbian Florist. (It’s your funeral). Comedy highlights in this terminally inoffensive British Kissing Jessica Stein include Perabo signalling her sudden switch to the other team by renting gay porn and even asking her husband for a beer. I can’t entirely hate any film which ends with The Turtles’ Happy Together kicking in as its lovebirds clinch in some heavy traffic near Bank tube, but they haven’t even screwed! C()

Tideland (Canada/UK, Terry Gilliam, 122 min. With: Jodelle Ferland, Jeff Bridges, Janet McTeer, Brendan Fletcher)

Try and imagine a Nickelodeon version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas crossed with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Go on, try again. Gilliam’s grotesque rural fantasy/horror is nothing if not defiantly uncommercial, but it’s also frankly a bit of a slog: there’s a lot of mooching around to sit through before the blecch highlight of Ferland (who’s excellent) stuffing doll’s heads into the open stomach of dead dad Bridges’s dried corpse. I’d love to claim it’s worth the wait. Throw in paedophilic frissons with brain-damaged boyfriend Fletcher and cue walkouts (there were many). A lot of it, particularly McTeer’s role as the embalming witch, struck me as ripped off Philip Ridley’s amazing 1990 horror oddity The Reflecting Skin. And I really prefer Gilliam when he’s setting fire to large quantities of someone else’s cash rather than trying to do this sort of down-home surrealism on the cheap. Still, at least it’s genuinely off the wall. C+

Mary (France/USA, Abel Ferrara, 83 min. With: Juliette Binoche, Forest Whitaker, Matthew Modine, Heather Graham)

I came out with my head spinning, but that may have been the lingering effect of a nasty cold. On reflection, though, this is pretty interesting, and Ferrara’s best film since The Funeral. Structurally you think satire, with Modine laying it on a bit thick as a Mel figure who’s just released his Christ epic (“This Is My Blood”) and Binoche difficult to get a read on as a Mary Magdalene who can’t shake the role. But it belongs to Whitaker, at his brooding best as the TV journo trying to get a fix on which version of Christ we’re talking about anyway. Hell is New York, nightmarishly visualised by one Stefano Falivene, and we all have our crosses to bear, and, well, let’s just say it’s Ferrara doing what he does best – thrashing about, tossing up some pretty essential questions, and socking them to us as viscerally and troublingly as he knows how. B

The Shore (US, Dionysius Zervos, 100 min. With: Lesley Anne Warren, Ben Gazzara, Izabella Miko)

Blind luck (and an arresting still in the fest catalogue) led me to pick up tickets for the public screening of this, a spellbinding feature debut and the first part of a projected trilogy from Zervos. This man is already in total control of his medium, using the disappearance of a young girl on a New Jersey beach to anchor an astonishingly composed mood poem about loss and isolation. The way he has characters continually vacating the frame to leave us with an aching void is worthy of Antonioni, and the sound design’s startlingly rich and suggestive. Similar material to Ozon’s Under the Sand, but I really think this is even better, and Warren’s portrait of fragile denial at least the equal of Rampling’s. A revelation on every imaginable level - I’ll be lucky to see a better film in the whole festival. A

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Toronto: Day One

Well, day two for the fest, day one for me. Got in Thursday mid-afternoon, collected my badge, and immediately went "What the heck?" on one look at the press and industry screening schedule, which has been compiled by malicious imps. It's clash city. Seem to have missed Deepa Mehta's Water and Shopgirl, but hoping there will be a chance to catch up with those later. I plunged straight in with my Telegraph top hat on:

Mrs Henderson Presents (UK, Stephen Frears, 103 min. With: Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins, Will Young (!), Kelly Reilly, Christopher Guest)

Dench knocks this out of the park as a widowed moneybags who became a vaudeville impresario in wartime London. I'm not normally a fan, but she's a scream here - imperious, catty, slightly filthy - particularly when bargaining with Hoskins's artistic director and Guest's Lord Chamberlain to put nude girls in the show. Martin Sherman's screenplay is sparklingly funny for about half an hour. So it's a great shame Frears lets it all slump into Full Monty miserablism when the Blitz happens. All life's sucked out of the thing - it becomes stage-bound and Being Julia-ish - and the escapism it's preaching isn't ultimately practised. C+

Breakfast on Pluto (Ireland/UK, Neil Jordan, 135 min. With: Cillian Murphy, Liam Neeson, Stephen Rea, Brendan Gleeson)

I'd heard dire things, and was prepared to duck out if the worst was true. Which it pretty much was - Jordan's adventures of an Irish transvestite comes shrieking out of the gate with one of the most aggravating first reels I can remember, rattling through chapters from Patrick McCabe's book in a caution-to-the-winds caffeinated frenzy. Smacked mainly of desperation, and Murphy wasn't cutting it for me either, so I scarpered (U) to see...

Winter Passing (US, Adam Rapp, 99 min. With: Zooey Deschanel, Ed Harris, Will Ferrell)

Very pretty, very uneventful distaff Garden State, marginally less annoying, with indie darling du jour Deschanel staring out of windows lots as a self-harming sex junkie popping home to see her brilliant reclusive novelist father. This is Harris, living in the garage and wearing a white fright wig that makes him look like the narrator of Tales from the Crypt. Rapp can write, but boy do we get to hear about it: this is overscripted thin gruel, every scene ending with cued guitar sensitivity seguing into more staring. Ferrell sings! His amusingly solemn perf as Harris's bouncer/caretaker is one of few plusses. C

Capote (US, Bennett Miller, 110 min. With: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr, Bruce Greenwood, Chris Cooper)

I got literally the last seat in the house for this, and it was touch and go until some guy failed to turn up and claim the one being saved for him. I was quickly thanking my lucky stars. Hoffman becomes an instant favourite for Best Actor I'd wager a year's salary on it and there won't have been a more deserving winner since Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. On an impersonation level the performance is so inspired you just keep laughing the falsetto trilling, the twitching nostrils, a half-laugh that flutters up from deep in his voice but there's a lot more to it than that. And the movie about (Truman) Capote's involvement with the In Cold Blood case, particularly his relationship with Perry Smith (a heartbreaking Collins) is much more than a lead turn, too. Bennett Miller, working from an award-worthy screenplay from, of all people, minor indie actor Dan Futterman (Urbania), probes incisively into Capote's conflicting motives, asking how artistic egotism may have turned him into a vampiric opportunist first and a clear-eyed chronicler of human fallibility second. It's an excitingly cerebral, astutely handled piece of work. And believe me, the Hoffman Oscar lock is just a matter of time. A

Elizabethtown (US, Cameron Crowe, 135 min. With: Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer, Alec Baldwin, Jessica Biel)

Crikey. I'd heard bad things from Venice, but this is Vanilla Sky II. A moderately entertaining first 15 minutes has shoe designer Bloom spectacularly falling from grace when his new trainer's recalled. But it's such a hyperbolic opening it leaves the movie with precisely nowhere to go, except to our man's very dull Southern birthplace where (yet more Garden State) he rediscovers some folksy home truths. Crowe seems to think he's remaking The Apartment, with Dunst's scarily perky flight attendant a dismal Shirley MacLaine substitute. She makes Bloom look good. Not sure what resemblance this day-glo world of Crowe's, with its overeager mix-tape soundtrack, is really meant to bear to our own, but I'd had enough of the various discrepancies after an hour or so. (D+?) SEEN IN FULL 31/10/05. Somehow gets worse. I think it might actually be one of the most annoying films ever made. F

Brokeback Mountain (US, Ang Lee, 130 min. With: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid)

It's nearly excellent. Lee and Larry McMurtry have done a tremendous job fleshing out that strenuously terse Annie Proulx novella, but there are moments of overdeliberateness, and the movie sprawls towards the end when it should be summing up. Fears that it would all be a bit airbrushed have proved misplaced: the cowboy sex has a rushed, hungry quality that seemed pretty convincing to me. And it's sexy. Jake is a bit too Jake, but has some nice jaunty moments and gets more touching as it goes along; Heath, as everyone's saying, is the revelation, pulling off his mumbled Marlboro Man delivery with surprising skill and finding a lot more depth and shading in the better-written of the two parts. Williams, as his wretched wife, is invaluable in support, and even Hathaway isn't too bad. Outstanding Judy Becker production design. Lovely Gustavo Santaolalla score. As this inventory of Good Things might suggest, it's all beautifully done, but I still left wanting more. Still, the screen I saw it in was way too small; Rodrigo Prieto's glorious landscape photography definitely deserves a bigger canvas, and the film a second look. B(+)

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Taking Stock of 2005

With just a few days to go until Toronto, where I hope to be cramming in a mad variety of new stuff, it seems like a good moment to recap on the year so far in movies. I'll keep it simple. Here's what a top ten would look like if I had to compile one right now, graded and linked to reviews where available (some of them just fairly cursory Telegraph capsules, I'm afraid, which I hope to expand into fuller appreciations towards the end of the year).

1. The Sun (Aleksandr Sokurov) A
2. The Holy Girl (Lucrecia Martel) A
3. Adam & Paul (Lenny Abrahamson) A
4. Howl's Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki) A
5. Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel) A
6. Kings and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin) A
7. The Secret Lives of Dentists (Alan Rudolph) A (finally released in the UK this year)
8. Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki) B+
9. The Edukators (Hans Weingartner) B+
10. Primer (Shane Carruth) B+

And coming close: Head-On (Fatih Akin), The Keys to the House (Gianni Amelio), the way-underrated Friday Night Lights (Peter Berg), and The Beat That My Heart Skipped (Jacques Audiard) (all B+ish). I can't decide whether to include Raoul Peck's devastating HBO Rwanda drama Sometimes in April, though it's well up into the A range, because it doesn't seem to be getting a UK cinema release of any kind. And Tsai Ming-liang's incredibly bizarre sex comedy musical The Wayward Cloud, which I kind of adored when I saw it in Berlin, has curdled so oddly in my memory it's going to have to wait until I've seen it again for reassessment.

Observations? Three films from Germany? A Sundance-winner? A Gregg Araki film? What have I been smoking? Unlikely though it is that all of these will make it through to end-of-year honours, their inclusion at this stage is a pretty clear sign of what an oddball eight months we've had. That said, the top two films here would be dead certs in any year, thematically rich and formally irreproachable masterworks which couldn't have been directed by anyone other than Aleksandr Sokurov and Lucrecia Martel. The beautifully-pitched junkie tragicomedy Adam & Paul takes twenty minutes to find its feet, but it's straight-A from then on, and I loved Howl's Moving Castle in such a pure, uncritical way that the minus is only really there to put a safety cap on my enthusiasm until I've gone back for more.

This roster boasts an embarrassment of stunning work by lead actors: Issey Ogata in The Sun, Bruno Ganz in Downfall, Tom Murphy in Adam & Paul, Campbell Scott in The Secret Lives of Dentists, Mathieu Amalric in Kings and Queen, and Romain Duris in The Beat That My Heart Skipped will all be fighting it out to get into my year-end top five. I use the word embarrassment advisedly, because cherchez la femme and you'll find almost nothing, beyond the very good Maria Alche in The Holy Girl. There were some standouts in lesser films: I was highly impressed by Jennifer Connelly in Dark Water, because she managed to rescue an otherwise disappointing horror movie with an unexpectedly harrowing portrait of psychological breakdown. And Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi was amazing in Francois Ozon's 5x2, which makes it doubly annoying that I counted her last year already. Invaluable in smaller roles were Michael Peña in Crash, who I've already blogged about; Corinna Harfouch, indelibly chilling as Magda Goebbels in Downfall, and Lucy Punch, for the second year running playing an opportunistic ingenue to the hilt, previously in Being Julia, presently in Annie Griffin's scabrous Festival, and fast becoming my favourite young comic actress in Britain.

That's it for now. Expect more, and soon. But please fire away with reactions, rabid disagreements, your own lists, whatever. Let the season of awards geekery begin...

Friday, September 02, 2005

All Hail the God of Online Criticism

Traffic to this site has more than doubled since my friend Nick Davis linked to it yesterday. It's an honour to be sharing the same Internet with this man, whose astonishingly addictive reviews site has been the chief inspiration for this blog as well as a daily stomping ground of mine for some while. It won't take eagle eyes to spot that I've blatantly cribbed his gradings system, for starters, but that's very much the tip of the iceberg, influence-wise: he's my favourite prose stylist this side of a small handful of old dead guys. Whenever I'm stuck in mid-sentence and a point just isn't coming out right, I ask myself, "How would Nick put it?" or look to one of his peerlessly articulated long reviews for help. Nick, you rock! And, any other stray readers, why are you wasting your time here? Get thee now to Nick's Flick Picks. You won't want to leave.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Does Last Days last days?

I had tried to avoid reviews of Last Days, Gus Van Sant’s tricky minimalist dirge about the troubled passing of a Kurt Cobain-like grunge musican, because critical responses to his Gerry and Elephant (the first two parts of a loose trilogy) had, I’m pretty sure, goaded me through sheer polemical overstatement into a distorted take on both movies. The debate about Elephant’s aestheticisation of a Columbine-esque high-school massacre had yielded fiercely polarised reactions in Cannes, ranging from Todd McCarthy’s finger-wagging pan to a good number of rhapsodic raves, the Palme d’Or and the Best Director award. My own thoughts are here, and for the record I much preferred Gerry, which tended to elicit a more puzzled brand of admiration from those who didn’t dismiss it outright (and unfairly) as a confoundingly tedious exercise in auteurist self-gratification.

Cobain-like, Columbine-esque: Van Sant has a habit of hedging his bets around the “truth” value of these youth-and-death narratives, in pursuit of a higher philosophical truth that, in the case of Elephant, I believe ultimately eluded his grasp. Not forgetting that Gerry was also based on a true story, I wouldn’t want to suggest that the obscurity of the source material Van Sant was working with there was the movie’s chief asset conceptually, but there’s no denying that it gave him more imaginative breathing room; Elephant got so hung up on the vexed question of motive, and was so keen to position itself as essentially anti-explanation, that it began to seem mainly like a reductive and tail-chasing rebuttal to all that post-Columbine editorialising.

Last Days is faced with a similar problem, in that its portrait of Blake (Michael Pitt) tallies in so many of its essentials with what we know about Kurt Cobain’s death that the movie, for all its demurrals, has to be considered – sorry, Gus – at least partly biographical. Intentionally or not, it keeps throwing up parallels which return us to Van Sant’s source of artistic inspiration rather than taking us past it, an inevitably distracting interpretative avenue which Pitt’s minutely Cobain-a-like hair-do and smeggy wardrobe do very little to navigate us away from.

Curiously, though, the moments in which these thoughts intrude most damagingly tend to be those in which Blake himself isn’t present – the scene in which his bandmate Scott (Scott Green) answers a phone-call from a pointedly irate (unnamed) girlfriend, for instance – and these are always the moments in which Van Sant’s film fails most baldly to do justice to its own rather good idea. Irksome though Elephant’s circular rhetoric was, its precise divisions of perspective, and narrative backtracking, always seemed like part of a perfectly clear and organised aesthetic strategy; Last Days spends the bulk of its time shambling around with Blake, but repeatedly breaks up its own flow with jarring leapfrog shifts to the activities of his fellow band members. The first few scenes of Blake on his own – stripping for a swim in the nearby stream, doing a spot of gardening, pouring himself a bowl of cereal then distractedly sticking the box in the fridge – are carefully framed by Harris Savides to enfold us into a sort of glazed, companionable subjectivity that’s actually very different from the glacially gliding arm’s-length approach he took on Elephant; it reminded me more of the sort of subtly implicating first-person cinema attempted, and brilliantly, by David Cronenberg, Peter Suschitzky and Ralph Fiennes in Spider. When it’s working here it’s nearly as good: Blake drifts around the house like a bored ghost, utterly indifferent to the random clamour in other rooms, and responding to the occasional burst of interrogation from whatever corner of the frame only through an impermeable gauze of disaffect. The film’s best scene has him shuffling down the road to a gig in a nearby warehouse, where he’s accosted by (yikes!) Harmony Korine, their conversation (or rather Korine’s monologue) transpiring in a single side-on shot which entirely obscures Blake’s face behind a comical green hood and every word Korine is saying underneath a sonic foreground of oppressive grunge.

When Blake is just a mumbling clump of blond hair being confronted with stuff, the movie is really onto something, pushing its unexpectedly funny slacker minimalism further and further down the line towards a complete and tragic (if almost irrelevantly tragic) effacement of personality. Like the hard-to-please skeptic I am, though, I couldn’t help wondering whether the paucity of facial close-ups wasn’t really dictated by the problem of Pitt’s performance, which is too noodly and self-conscious to make Blake a blank slate for anyone’s empathy but the actor’s own (and perhaps Van Sant’s). He’s certainly no Ralph Fiennes, and all the Method muttering amounted for me to a wannabe performance-art exercise missing most of the necessary art.

If he’d coaxed a genuinely compelling central portrait from Pitt, Van Sant might have stuck to his guns, followed Blake from the first frame to the last, and given us something as good, as cherishable, courageous and beautiful as Gerry. But a yawning uncertainty of focus lures him into making cheap, judgemental points about the vultures and leeches Blake has surrounded himself with, as if exposing the demonstrable lack of musical genius or human feeling in his retinue were a way of implicitly endowing Blake with even more of all that. Having built up suggestive ambiguities in the moments just before and after Blake’s apparent suicide, Van Sant shoots himself in the foot with a terrible scene in which Scott worries about getting the blame while a TV news report blares on and on about the senselessness of Blake’s death. The chilling unconcern of Blake’s colleagues can’t be symptomatic of the same pathology that drove him to kill himself, since the rest of the movie has gone out of its way to contrast their behaviour – so why spend time with them in these crucial last minutes? Why, earlier on, let the camera rest on a vapid R&B video for a full 30 seconds, when the point about faked torment in love ballads versus the “authentic” kind Blake’s laying claim to is grasped within three? The movie’s proposition is quite beguiling, but it seems divided against itself, as addled and strung-out as its own suicidal subject.

Last Days: B-
Elephant: B-
Gerry: A-
Spider: A