Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Passion of the Mayan

A review of Apocalypto. Tricky, given Gibson's recent track-record.

Trickier, because it's really not a very good movie, and I hate to kick an anti-Semite when he's down. But not very much.

The good stuff first, though. Mel Gibson has strengths as a filmmaker, and it would be churlish to ignore them. He's especially good, for example, at evoking a time. Much has been made of his various historical inaccuracies and anachronisms (personal favourites include Jesus in Passion of the Christ stating that a new style of table, or maybe chair, would 'catch on', and a bizarre bit of Mayan dialogue here stating "I'm walking here!"), but his times and places always FEEL solid.

So, we have a wonderful evocation of an ancient culture. The first tribe we encounter are given the same treatment that Costner figured out for Dance With Wolves - make 'em just ordinary folks. They laugh, they joke, they have ghastly mother-in-laws. It's not an original approach, but it does make life easier on a director who wants you to feel for the characters without, y'know, having to teach you a load of stuff.

But this virtue is also a curse. Because Gibson has no real interest in sharing the nuances of the culture he's portraying. The 'good' Mayans are just like us, only they're not so fussed about covering their buttocks; the 'bad' Mayans capture slaves, paint them, and then make sacrifices up on a big building.

It has something to do with pleasing a god or gods, apparently. About preventing disease and crop failure and...well, who knows what else. Ingrowning toenails, maybe.

Oh, you can boast about how all your dialogue is in the original language, but this has all the accuracy of a Star Wars stormtrooper.

Still, let's stick to the positive for a moment longer. Apocalypto, regardless of the marketing, is a chase movie first - a basic genre that this film chooses not to embroider with additional levels or subplots. And in that, it is partially effective. The first tedious hour of the film spends too, too long setting up characters just to kill them off, then drags out a journey from village to city until you really start to wonder if it's worth walking out.

But, just as you've got your bags together, our hero - Jaguar Paw - escapes the clutches of the bad Mayans and races home.

As he fights to evade his chasers to get back to his pregnant wife and child (currently trapped down a hole and starving), fending off jungle terrors such as a pissed-off Jaguar and swamp mud, there's tension aplenty. Jaguar Paw becomes a primitive McGuyver, taking out bad guys with poison darts adapted from thorns and a captured frog. As Predator-esque chase, it works just fine.

This is helped enormously by Gibson's devotion to realistic, gut-churning violence. Not for him the nice wounds of modern action cinema - 12A rated, suitable for older children - this stuff is a hard 18 and it bloody hurts. It's a rare thing these days, with most studios worried about high certification stamping on their profits, and great to see. Kinda.

The performances is are fine, if not especially textured. Heroes, villains, scared kids, wives with inner-strength, blah, blah, blah.

And that's about it for the good stuff. So, what's wrong here?

Well, taking the latter half on its merits - a simple chase movie needs to make enough sense that the audience don't question until they leave the room. Here, Apocalypto already starts to fail. A gang of kids are left alive when the bad guys kill or kidnap the village population (this never happened, by the way; they didn't steal random innocent people to sacrifice). These kids are deliberately left, and watch their families get taken away.

And not once does our hero shout back to them "I left my wife and child in a hole behind my house - make sure you chuck her a rope." Nor do the kids, apparently, return home and notice her screaming. Then, later, as the rain comes down, her hole starts to fill with water.

Two things here. How much rain does it take for a rocky mud-hole to fill up over six feet? Quite a lot.

And doesn't the human body tend to, y'know, float?

As our wife character starts to drown, apparently taking her son with her (oh, and the unborn baby, which GETS born with a laughable pop during this scene), we sit in the cheap seats, popcorn in hand, and shout "SWIM!!!!"

Other times, smart action movie ideas are ignored to drag things out. Jaguar Paw, looking like death, arrives at a mass grave site, bad guys right behind him. And no, apparently he hasn't seen the same movies we have, because he never considers lying down and playing dead. (And, given that there's no evidence of these mass graves in the first place, you'd think Gibson'd do SOMETHING with them.)

What else? Ghastly contrivance means that out hero is saved from sacrifice by a handy eclipse. Seriously. There's always a moon around when you want one.

And what do our sun-worshiping (I assume) baddies do? They rejoice - the gods are pleased, the killing can end. So, just take these saved sacrifices out the back and kill them, would ya?


Now, this might be some kind of commentary on the mixed natures and hypocrisies of politics and religion - potential sacrifices become collateral damage - only, if it is, nobody seems keen on saying so.

What it ACTUALLY is, it turns out, is an excuse to set our hero on the run. Because when they DO take him and his chums out back, it becomes The Ancient Running Man, with men let loose in pairs to be shot down for the amusement of the bad guys.

I'm not kidding.

Nor am I joking when I say that the latter half of the film is foretold by a diseased infant.

Yep, a sick, smallpoxed kid in a wiped-out settlement provides a prophesy to our captives and their captors - all vague stuff about serpents and rising from the earth. And whaddya know, it happens!

Except...hang on. The whole film is built on an opening quote (see later) suggesting that the Mayan religion is a corrupted, nonsensical, bloodthirsty crock. There's nothing mystical, it says - WE know what an eclipse really is, they don't. They choose to see magic in what is, in fact, wholly explicable. Their actions for their religion is what makes them doomed already.

So how is this kid able to tell the future? If not something from the local faith? Well - I'll come back to that in a while.

But even sidestepping the how, the method is lousy. Who makes prophesy about the ENTIRE FUTURE OF A CIVILIZATION to a small team of passing killers and their prey? The message never gets back to the chiefs and priests, word never spreads to the populous. In fact, when the few guys who heard the kid speak finally figure out it's a real, genuine prophesy (by encountering said serpent and the rest), their time's almost up. They die minutes or hours later.

It's like Nostradamus predicting huge, vital things...and then only telling his mate Geoff in the hours before Geoff blunders off a cliff. Where's the virtue in a genuine, accurate prophesy that nobody hears about?

So, moving on - that first half of the film. You all saw Passion of the Christ, right? No? Oh, well then permit me a moment of tangential ranting.

Passion isn't a film I have a lot of time for. Not because I lack faith - I do, but that didn't prevent me loving Scorsese's magnificent Last Temptation of Christ - but because I resent the hell out of bad cinema. For its lengthy running time, what you see mostly is this: Christ hurts, Christ walks, Christ falls. Repeat and repeat and repeat.

Now, before we get into a big thing here, I totally accept that this is probably the way it would have gone down. Ignoring the film's appallingly prevalent anti-Semitism, the actual torture-and-pain progression is horribly realistic. That's fine. You do feel it.

What you never got, not from the movie, is WHY.

Again, it's not my personal religious myth of choice, and there's a whole congregation of people who paid to see this mess of a film who know exactly why the poor chap is going through it. But where Last Temptation brilliantly conveyed the weight placed on a divine being in a human body - showing, in the end, just how important his execution must be - Gibson's movie just lets it happen. It's visceral, but it isn't understandable.

Nor, for that matter, is it triumphant. We watch this guy go through the ringer, and when death finally - after too, too long - takes him, it should be a kind of triumph. He dies for our sins, he saves mankind, right? Shouldn't that have at least the sense of power that James Bond gives us when he stops a bomb going off?

One last time - not my faith. But in this case my problems are in the lousy filmmaking, not the mythology. If what he does is important, prove it. Show it to me on-screen. Show me it matters.

And that's also where Apocalypto fails. Crikey, this bound journey from village to city (once again headed for public execution; it happened in Braveheart, too, public murder fans) takes a long time. Eons, it feels like. And, once again, we watch it all thinking 'Well, it's all very nasty - but what exactly is the point?'

A series of events is not a narrative. Pain doesn't automatically convey meaning.

The worst part of all this is the arrogance of the director. The film begins with a quote: "A great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within". Suggesting a film that will comment significantly on that civilisation's downfall.

Nope. Wrong.

With all the bloodshed and murder, all the eclipse-driven decisions and body-painting, Gibson manages to say 'The Mayans were too sick to survive'. And just leaves it at that.

Because, while some reviewers have seen the arrival of the Christians at the end as negative, I think you'd be hard-pressed to take that away from the film's message. That's something we know for ourselves - the Christians turned up, and pretty soon disease and violent, sweeping murder was wiping out the indigenous population - but the film carries no such suggestion.

In fact, their arrival - little more than a few shots of ships at the climax - is viewed dispassionately. And, had the opening quotation not been included, that would have been the end of it. WITH that quote, though, it carries one ugly implication: 'What you have just seen is a society tearing itself apart from within. If it weren't already doing that, the Christians wouldn't be here.'

Carry that through, and you have 'Well, it was really their own fault'.

Already we're shown that the people are stricken with disease, which makes THAT not the fault of the arriving invaders. Now we're saying that their bizarre rituals and mythology (much of which, as I say, Gibson has made up for the movie) are the true cause of their downfall. They were already tearing themselves down. The Christians just...what? Watched?

So how was that kid able to tell the future? Whose words came from her mouth?

Couldn't have been the voice of God, could it?

And there it is. The objectional politics of Passion return and you really, really are watching a film by Mel 'Sugartits' Gibson. The Christian right are right, everyone else is wrong, and it's the cleansing fire of God that arrived on your shores that day.

That the film is badly paced, arrogant, and has pretences to both 'fact' and 'depth' is undeniable, and extremely irritating.

That it once again carries an under-message of such an objectionable nature - well, that's deplorable.

Save your money. Avoid this average film with its bitter aftertaste. And don't put any more money in Mel Gibson's pocket.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Never Diet Again

If you don't know Rob Grant, he's the co-creator of a certain SF comedy series, and the author of Colony (not-bad, not-awesome SF comic novel) and Incompetence (very decent SF comic novel).

If you DO know Rob Grant - think again. You really, really don't.

The novel is Fat. It's out just after Christmas. And it's incredible.

Three parallel stories are told - heavily overweight Grenville Roberts struggles to control his temper and risks his career, teenager Hayleigh is avoiding food wherever possible, and PR man Jeremy is in charge of marketing the government's new fat camp scheme.

The brisk, gentle storyline isn't the real meat of the piece, though. Each one gives Grant a chance to provide perspective on what has become a national obsession.

And what perspective it is. Fat is almost allergic to quick-definition labels. No fat, no thin, no tall, no short. Our teenager's precise age is left vague, and we NEVER see the word 'anorexia'. Grenville's job is unremarked-upon until it's needed. And Jeremy...well, when he calls himself a conceptuologist you know Grant's having some fun. (And maybe it's just me, but I took it as a tiny dig at Dan 'he's a symbologist' Brown.)

No labels. People are who they are and what they think far more than what they DO. Yet the book is fascinated by action and reaction, by what its people ARE doing.

There are many, many razor-sharp sequences as Hayleigh struggles to hide from every mirror in the house, to make and pretend to eat an entire cooked breakfast. (This continues throughout the story, and climaxes in a hospital bathroom with a heartbreakingly matter-of-fact descent in desperation.) Being inside the girl's head so credibly makes these escalations of events painfully compelling...and the relief when Gren throws an equally-escalating fit of pique acts as a counterpoint, a vent for tension.

And it is this this way that Grant not only improves on his previous books, he blows them off the map with a tactical nuke.

Where logical escalation became, in the end, a frustration in Colony (the main character, a head in a jar, was incorrectly hooked up to his new body - arms move when he wants to walk. Funny for two chapters, irritating after twelve) and Incompetence (a society of people who can't do their job is frequently hilarious; but character frustration shouldn't always lead to reader frustration), here Grant finds a way to frame that frustration so the reader is aware of it, rather than suffering with it.

The three strands of Fat balance the whole tricky business. Grenville's story is visceral, physical. It makes you aware of the body - the LARGE body - and it's functions and actions. Hayleigh's is emotional, irrational. (Yet played clinical and rational - her need to avoid food, to fake not only meals but also her long-lost periods, seems so horribly SENSIBLE.) She lives in her head. But the intellectual side, the sense and the facts, come from Jeremy's side...or, rather, the side of the remarkable woman he runs into.

Coupled with a 'what next?' chapter style - where you have to read on, but never in a cheap cliffhanger-y way - it's a remarkable cycle. You get a belly laugh, a heart flutter, then some food for thought. And round and round it goes, like some perfectly-timed waltz with rarely a step put wrong.

The clarity of formatting includes the book's three sections - a single day for parts one and three, a specific period for part two, all preceded with a menu of what will be eaten in the coming chapters.

There's the occasional, very rare, over-egging of the pudding. (Food metaphors impossible to avoid, I'm afraid.) Chapters taken from fictional recipe and anger-management books are a spoof to far, but it's hard to get too picky with such well-handled material. Grant has done his research (even if he can't remember that it was Ben Stiller, not Owen Wilson, who had the "Do it" catchphrase in Starsky and Hutch).

Like Ben Elton with subtlety, or Michael Crichton with a conscience, Fat is filled with facts. Unlike those writers, you rarely feel bludgeoned by them. In fact, by having the terrifying - for all the right reasons - information tumble from the mouth of a woman who just can't shut up, Grant finds an excuse to rant. That her audience of one is a guy more interested in getting her naked strips away the pretension. How can it be 'just' the author's manifesto when the only other character in the room is waiting for her to shut up?

Deeply cynical about the accepted facts, Fat is going to change the way you look at diet culture, about so much that you THINK you know. Salt is bad for you, fatty foods are destructive. Sure about that?

I'm not. Not any more.

Still, Fat isn't a lecture. It's three running anecdotes with a wonderful line in laugh-out-loud humour, plus some classy emotional weight that, hitherto, one might not have expected of the author.

If there's any justice, this is going to be THE novel of 2007. Fat should be on everybody's lips (*sigh*). Buy it for yourself. Buy it for friends. It's a wake-up call for the Weight Watchers generation.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Mister Bond, We Weren't Expecting You

You're going to have to give me a little leeway on this one. Casino Royale is the 21st Bond film, the first to star Daniel Craig as 007, and a movie I was bound to like. So, review or not, there WILL be gushing.

Still, I do still have a little perspective. I was the Bond fan who walked out of Die Another Day going "Erm, what the hell happened?" It's become known as 'that one with the invisible car', somewhat unfairly - it should be called 'the one with the director who doesn't understand action'.

(Die Another Day had some great ideas - Bond captured, tortured and traded, for example - but you can't get behind a film with CGI that bad, or that cuts away from a supposedly life-or-death car chase to watch the villain pack up his gear.)

For all the talk of reinvention, Casino Royale is smart enough not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The producers know their iconography, and are clearly aware that those touches are the difference between a Bond film and a generic action thriller. (Or, even, the unofficial 007 picture Never Say Never Again; Connery or not, without the music, catchphrases, titles and style it just ain't a Bond flick.)

They've also wisely ignored calls for a 'auteur' Bond film. These are producer films, not showcases for directors. All the talk about a Tarantino Bond was unfounded, but can you imagine anything more ghastly?

So when Martin Campbell was called back for Casino Royale - having previously helmed GoldenEye - it was always going to be his film second, the producers' first.

It's great to have this director back, though. He has a crisp, clean style that really works for Bond. As with GoldenEye, both the photography (by his long-term collaborator Phil Meheux) and and the editing style really add a snap to proceedings. But where, in GoldenEye, he was working with a 'greatest hits' script package, here he's been handed something far more complex...and he rises to its every challenge.

Because while GoldenEye's attempts to plumb 007's depths were kind of embarrassing - cod-psychology dialogue mixed with Brosnan's inability to get beyond TV-movie substance - here they're...well, if not revelatory, then certainly affecting and compelling.

Dialogue and depth can most likely be attributed to Oscar-winning writer Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby), who polished up an original screenplay by Purvis & Wade, veteran of Brosnan Bonds as well as powerful true-story brit-flick Let Him Have It. There's a palpable crackle to every exchange.

Characterisation is precise to a pin-point. Vesper Lynd has a history and a take on the world that's all her own. She's also achingly real, which means that she reacts pretty badly to the life of casual death she's stumbled into - never has it been more clear that Bond is borderline psychotic.

The villain has been misunderstood in some quarters, described as weak or insubstantial. But that is, surely, the point. Le Chiffre is a numerically-gifted banker, but it's always someone else's money. He's a pawn in a much bigger game, as per the novel. The high-stakes poker game around which the film centres is the final act of a desperate man - he's lost £120 million that wasn't his, and he needs it back before they kill him.

Mads Mikkelsen plays Le Chiffre as a sadist, a psychotic mirror of Bond (who could, in this incarnation, could be seen as a masochist). A small bundle of foibles - asthma inhaler always on-hand, and a malformed eye that weeps blood - back him up as basically weak, but driven to the edge. Yes, that's right, he's MOTIVATED.

M, also, returns to the original Fleming - only nobody seems to have noticed. Judy Dench may be back, but this is NOT the same incarnation of the character. She's exasperated, angry, and given to bouts of brilliant swearing. Female or not, this is M as the books describe, and the frisson with 007 is palpable.

On to the second teir. We have Villiers - M's chief of staff, and another novel regular, who rarely turned up in the film series - who Tobias Menzies makes likeable, if forever slightly startled. Rene Mathis, played by the terrific character actor Giancarlo Giannini, all understated French confidence and capability, dispatching with problematic people (alive and dead) remotely, just watching as they are dealt with while he carries on with his breakfast.

And just when you think it can't get any better, Felix Leiter makes his presence known.

While this Felix has yet to, ahem, bond with Bond, Jeffrey Wright makes it very clear where this relationship will be going. He's sharp, witty, and very likable, and his limited screen time just makes his likely return in the next film all the more desirable. Spot on.

And Bond himself? Wow.

I'm always loathe to compare Bond actors. Is Roger Moore's version - a guy who'd rather humiliate an assassin than shoot him - really the same as Connery's? And does it matter? I have huge affection for every incarnation.

But, okay, the script is as Fleming as can be, and that means Daniel Craig gets to nail the character in a way nobody's had to the chance to before. Which, along with a pitch-perfect performance, makes him the best screen Bond ever. Yes, EVERY actor has been 'the best since Connery' - Lazenby was by default, Moore then became so, Dalton then beat those two, and Brosnan came along and did it better than any of them (all debatable, obviously, but you see what I mean) - but Daniel Craig...sod the hair colour, he IS James Bond. And he's better at it than Connery.

Don't bother getting into a continuity tizz, by the way. There's been years of nonsensical debate among fans that the universe changed with each actor, or that Bond is a code name for several agents, or that Dalton's Bond was written over by the Cold War flashback at the start of GoldenEye. NO version makes full sense. If they're all the same guy, Bond would be at least 70 years old by the time of Die Another Day.

The way to look at the first 20 films is as stand-alone adventures with SOME shared history. But each film is of its time, and continuity can (and should) been seen as breakable.

So - this isn't a prequel. A lot of reviewers have this wrong, but then even the cast and crew seem unsure how it works. It's not 'Bond 0', not the film before 1962's Dr No. For the sake of tidiness, it's a reboot. But then, so were most of the other films. (Remember On Her Majesty's Secret Service? Bond goes undercover at Blofeld's HQ. Which is odd, seeing as they met in the last movie...)

But neither is really appropriate. What we actually have here is the start of a series that was never, really, a series before. Casino Royale is a film that leaves a few key questions behind to be picked up in a sequel. Yes, a sequel. Not just 'the next film', but a film whose narrative locks directly into the previously part. In that respect, you can call Casino Royale incomplete if you like. I don't mind.

I've heard the director call it part one of a two-parter. With Craig signed for three films, I hope it's a trilogy. Sure, he may do more films after that, but I say go with what you can be sure of. A trilogy has a definite shape to it, and it means risks can be taken with running story threads. A two-parter just means Craig's third film won't be directly connected to the first two. (Of course, what happens POST-Craig is anyone's guess. We can't do the origin story every time.)

Ah, but who to direct? Aiming for a 2008 release (guys, PLEASE don't rush the screenplay!), director Campbell has stepped away, and - producer-led series or not - we need someone who can match part one's style. But not a director so huge that it becomes THEIR film.

In years past I've talked up American F. Gary Gray. He's the guy behind the Italian Job remake - a film that balanced real-stunt spectacle with some fun humour and well-drawn characterisation. And if this were a Brosnan Bond, I'd still suggest him.

Only we need someone now with a slightly darker sensibility. And you know who I crave? Doug Liman.

The Bourne Identity was his. And if this new Bond has a touchstone, it's that film. Not the sequel - which I enjoyed immensely, but it went WAY too far with the documentary style and lost the cleanness of the original - but Liman's original (which he followed, oddly, with the 'Two Bonds at Home' comic action allegory Mr and Mrs Smith) shows you that he'd be the guy for the job.

Beyond that? Okay, I'd like Michael Caton-Jones on the list. He knows thriller (Basic Instinct 2 is nowhere near as bad as you think it is), he knows sexy, he knows British sensibility, and he can handle emotion and action (Rob Roy's is remarkable, and the look of The Jackal is smooth). Sure, the back catalogue isn't outstanding...but I'll say it again, these are producer movies.

Seriously, you need a gun for hire who's going to make the best of Eon Productions' concepts. THEY'LL nail the script, you just have to stick to it. Campbell did No Escape, for God's sake.

With that in mind, the rest of my hastily-constructed shortlist includes Jonathan Mostow (Breakdown, U-571, Terminator 3) for his gritty, solid style, and John Moore (Flight of the Phoenix, Behind Enemy Lines), assuming he can be made to hold off on the CGI.

These are hired guns. But I think they're realistic choices, and directors who would be able to maintain the work begun in Casino Royale.

That's big-picture, franchise stuff, though. I haven't exactly run through the film itself, have I? So here, for the patient and virtuous, is the quickie 'regular' review:

The opening scenes show Bond's first two kills, intercutting between a trashed bathroom and an under-lit office. The first kill (which, with the cutting, we actually see second - radical style for a Bond movie, as it goes) is brutal, violent, hand-to-hand. It's shot with a grain that the cooler office scenes don't have. And with one being dark and the other being neon-lit, it's absolutely designed for black and white. Nobody's getting lost - it's visual storytelling at its best, at its most simple.

By the second kill, James is already an icy killer. And already we're asking - is this right? Is what he does the only way? And how can he feel so little about it? There's something wrong with this guy.

Themes the movie will make good on. Oh yes.

We conclude with the gunbarrel shot - at the end of the sequence, rather than the traditional start - actually as part of the film proper. (Which makes you wonder if they picked the bathroom setting just to give Bond the traditional white background...) The blood runs down, giving our first piece of colour...and the song kicks in.

I won't hear a word against Chris Cornell's song, by the way. It's a ballsy, heaving, masculine track, with lyrics that nail the tone of the film. ("Arm yourself because no-one else here will save you...")

It also provides the backbone for the film's score by David Arnold. A powerhouse of excitement, tension and timing, and steadfastly only offering up fragments of the James Bond theme when 007 has earned them. After over-using those iconic notes (albeit to great effect) in the last three films, it's a great move, further cementing Casino Royale's new style, while still anchoring us to the history.

The titles are a work of art, by the way. Daniel Kleinman goes up and down in my estimation with each film - GoldenEye's are spot-on, and full of intelligent metaphor, while Tomorrow Never Dies' are pretty weak - but this newly-styled look, all playing card motifs and Bond silhouettes with not a floating naked woman in sight, works a treat.

Then we start running. Literally. Bond is on-mission and almost immediately forced to chase a bomb-maker and, apparently, part-time free-runner. It's an amazing sequence, marred only once by Brosnan-like excess when 007 gets behind the wheel of a digger. Otherwise, it's a perfect example of human-action filmmaking; Bond's unrefined physical style versus his slippery free-running opponent.

Here the style is cemented. To kill is a struggle. To fight causes pain. You will scrabble to survive, you will get hurt. And as things conclude in an embassy building, it becomes clear that 'victory' and 'defeat' are concepts too simple to live here.

An icy chat with M later, and Bond is off to the Bahamas. He wins an Aston Martin, does some real, proper detective work, seduces his quarry's wife (though NOT to conclusion)...then gets caught up in a race against time to prevent an airport bombing.

I know, it aches with contemporary relevance, doesn't it? And yet, just as Fleming's book held the mood of a post-WWII world, so this film has no choice but to land post-9/11. It's done with intelligence and power, though. So while the sequence again goes a step too far with the property destruction (and apparently yet more destruction was cut), there's tension and invention throughout.

That's movie one, then. The one where 007 kicks ass and forgets to take names.

Movie two is the one where Bond knows everyone's name...and gets HIS arse royally kicked.

Because the film is weirdly built up of two separate three-act stories. The first, described above, is all satisfying wham-bam. It DOES have substance, but is really a prelude to the the good stuff that's on its way.

I won't ruin this latter film, too much, though. It kicks off with some great chemistry between Bond and Eva Green's Vesper, then gets down to the business of playing poker.

Don't listen to anyone who tells you that the poker scenes are too long. That's only true if you're not invested. Let yourself be taken into the world - a world where both hero and villain HAVE to win - and the timing is impeccable. I don't play, or even understand, poker and even I followed every step of the game. There's some exposition, but it actually explains the wrong things; the camera and editing does the real work...and it's nail-biting.

Between games, Bond and Le Chiffre both fend off attacks (watch for a brutal fight on a staircase - wow), and at one point James looks certain to die...not from a bullet, but from something far more pedestrian. And thus more humanising. (And back to Fleming again.)

While the much-vaunted car stunt is amazing, the chase before it is over way too soon. Still, it does cause genuine does 'that' torture scene.

This Bond bleeds, sweats, cries and even vomits. He's not always right, and he doesn't always get the bad guy. But never is he better than when he's stripped of everything. Clothes, weapons, allies...all gone. And as Le Chiffre beats him from below, THAT'S when he becomes tougher than ever. With words, with performance, Bond fights back. His ego becomes a survival tool. And in those moments, we were never more proud of him.

He's also bloody funny. How can a film be so brutal, then wryly humourous, then so pulse-pounding? And then make you cry? Christ, this is top-notch stuff.

The only problem is, as I said before, the two-film structure. Because the second film is, at this point, only at the end of act two, we have a LONG way to go to get to our conclusion.

It would be more of a problem if this final section were bad. But the quality stays high, and it drags you over a couple of bumps - relocating to Venice - before concluding in a pumping climax. One that probably goes to far, given that we really just need to focus on emotion at this point, but still has some great action to offer.

And then the coda. And it's in the film's final shots that we are told, definitively, everything we came to find out. Yes, this IS Bond as never before...and at the same time, don't worry, feel safe, because Bond is Bond and he'll always be the same.

Think that's a contradiction? Not when you see it it isn't. The best is saved for last - these films have ended sadly (OHMSS, with the death of Bond's bride), and happily (all the others). But they've never ended with triumph like this. It may be hollow triumph, but it's all we have.

And Bond is all we have.

You won't agree with his methods. You may not even like him. He's a dangerous, amoral, borderline psychotic with a possible drink problem. You don't want to know him.

But you'd rather have him on your side.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Nothing Up Their Sleeves

So - a question. Is a movie with a major twist in its tail a failure if you see that twist coming?

Usually, probably.

With Christopher Nolan's The Prestige...well, that's the trick, isn't it.

Christian Bale (cockney chancer) and Hugo Jackman (all-American showman) face off as rival magicians in Victorian London. And it's magnificently painful to watch.

As one punishes the other back and forth - initially over the death of Jackman's wife, but later over pride, obsession and downright bad habit - we watch. And hurt. Blood flows quickly and sharply. Limbs break, appendages are sliced off - and, usually, there's a full-house audience to see it happen.

It's about obsession, then. And deception, naturally enough. It's also about love. Male-female (three female leads - two glamorous assistants and a viewer) and familial (father-daughter, father-figure-to-son).

The layered storytelling might lead you to doubt some of this. Nolan directs with the same flash-back-forward-and-sideways style that served him so well in Memento, Insomnia and even Batman Begins - so much so that some viewers will think that THIS is the trick.

But, actually, the framing devices (TWO journals, a pair of teasers up-front, and ruthless intercutting throughout) are just that. Nolan cuts, as Walter Murch always taught us - with the EMOTION.

His photography is always crisp, but it's not where the meat of the storytelling happens. Nolan uses the edit like Ridley Scott or Brian DePalma uses the camera. THAT'S where his particular brand of magic happens.

Events, feelings, moments are effortlessly joined. And somehow you never lose track of where or WHEN you are. Filming the whole thing with little interest in 'ooh, another period detail!', there's a vibrant energy to the look that put me in mind of Michael Winterbottom's Jude. It's modern-day just happens to be a hundred years ago.

The performances are joyous (yes, even the bizarre combination of David Bowie and Andy 'Gollum' Serkis). Sympathies bounce between out two male leads and they each out-anguish and out-obsess one-another. Meanwhile we ALWAYS feel for the real victims - the loved ones.

Scarlett Johansson seems to be getting some knocks, but I found her coping well with an English accent while forever seeming TOO luscious to deserve these men (and too marginalised by them both). That her role is not more tragic is down to the script's own agenda, not any particular failing on her part.

(And yes, I know - this is my second positive Scarlett write-up after The Black Dahlia. I'm far from being her biggest fan, but twice on the run I just happen to have found her ideally suited to the film she's in. Sue me.)

But we have two other female leads that NOBODY is talking about, but who arguable carry far more weight and significance.

Piper Perabo, the wife Jackman (and the audience) loses, manages to be so much more than character motivation. You love her as he does, or at least like her a lot, and you miss her when she goes. Rebecca Hall, meanwhile, becomes the wife to Bale's struggling innovator - and, again, does way more with the 'you're losing your family to your obsession' role than anyone could have expected.

These fantastic, amazing women surround them (not to mention Caine's doting mentor). That they can't see past their rivalry...well, that's what makes this whole thing a tragedy.

Still, let's not dump a genre label on it - it's also a gothic horror tale, a period drama, and (kinda) a science fiction story. It is just...The Prestige.

And yes, I'm afraid you WILL spot the twist. Moreover, you'll spot it at the one-hour mark. And just when you expect it to be revealed, the film just carries on.

It's the first time Nolan has missed his mark. Usually he's the first to be a step ahead. And if this were a lesser movie, the whole thing would end right then and there.

Thankfully there are other surprises in store, other pennies to drop, and further depths to plumb. Every one worth the ticket price.

So, while you may feel like you just saw the magician with a dove up his sleeve, you can still enjoy the rest of the show. You can even admire the dove trick when it finally happens.

And applaud.

Entering Lives and Breaking Hearts

Anthony Minghella returns to London and a smaller character story after a triumphant few years with thunderous (yet still intimate) period near-epics like Cold Mountain, The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley.

Breaking and Entering has Jude Law looking, frankly, as fallen and damaged as he ever has. Is he really a heart-throb? Seriously? Okay...but to me he's all inconsistent stubble, strange bone-structure, bulging eyes and receding hairline.

And I mean that in a good way.

Whatever else he is in this movie, he's fully-rounded as a character. Except that the character has an emptiness, a missing part to his life. But you get what I mean. He's not pretty, or especially sexy. But he's human as hell.

Martin Freeman is his best mate. A career path Freeman is undoubtedly going to get landed with after Hitchhikers' Guide failed to take off while The office really did. (He is, for the record, delicious. His comedy is tragic, his tragedy comic. There's a lightness and reality to everything he does.)

So, Law is married to Robin Wright Penn, playing daddy to her mildly autistic teenage daughter. (The kid's great, touchingly layered and far from cliched. Wright Penn does way more with her role, too, than simply be 'the wife'.) Then his workplace, his business, is robbed. Twice.

Law chases the kid responsible back to the home he shares with his mother...and goes about meeting her. Then falling for her.

It's Juliette Binoche. How could he not?

There follows some who-will-cross-who plotting, a little bit of forward movement, but really just enough to keep us going. Because what we really have here is a poem on modern city life.

Breaking and Entering is a film that makes your heart just ACHE. Because everything just seems so...hard. While at the same time we seem to tread water, we also seem beset with problems that constantly sabotage our chances to be happy.

I will happily concede to weeping repeatedly. But the kicker is this - I don't entirely know WHY.

In that regard, among others this feels like a cousin to Paul Haggis' Oscar-winner Crash. Again, crime and coincidence tying together lives of ill-ease, and the film asks questions without being able to throw up many answers.

Minghella beautifully balances the cinematic and the regular. This isn't rom-com chocolate-box London, but it DOES find the cinematic within the real - the thief is a street-runner, flipping his way around the city's rooftops. But it's something his mum thinks is cool.

And it's this real-world feel that stops the film from caving in. Every time you see something you KNOW will cause trouble (because you've seen it in a movie), it doesn't, quite. But the stuff you thought would be fine? THAT'S where you need to watch out.

There are great moments of humour, too. As Law begins hanging out in his car, waiting for his offices to be robbed again, he strikes up a bizarre friendship with a local prostitute. She brings him Starbucks, he lets he keep warm.

And yet it's all founded on credibility; and, maybe more importantly, on tonal resonance. Because relationships ARE co-dependant, even the hooker in the passenger seat is showing you a perspective on your life.

Once or twice the subtlety wanders away - usually when Law is given a quick monologue about his character's nature when those thoughts would be better off coming from another character's mouth - but this is just nigglesome.

The performances are great, the writing always good and often excellent (yet it rarely draws attention to itself), the direction near-faultless.

There's no question that this is not feel-good territory (though the film does tie things up more neatly than it probably should). But it is a dim light on a dark corner.

You'll relate. You'll cry. And you'll leave wanting to do...just a little bit better at the whole 'life' thing tomorrow.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

You Say Dah-lia, I Say Day-Lia

Brian DePalma has returned to the mainstream (ish) with The Black Dahlia. Welcome back, Bri.

Now, I'm a bit of a DePalma fan, but I'm massively aware that, like Cronenberg, you have to acquire the taste. If you don't, it's only the mainstream fair that gets your attention. For Cronenberg, those films were The Fly and Scanners. For DePalma, they were Carrie, The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible.

If these are the films you know their makers for, it goes without saying that I think you're missing out of some fascinating cinema. But that's a rant for another day.

The Black Dahlia is DePalma doing one of those accessible movies he does from time to time to fund a career of interesting misses (the saucy Femme Fatale, the joyfully bonkers Raising Cain). I love that he does them, not just for the fare they lead to, but also for what they are. And yes, cards on table, I loved Black Dahlia.

Still, there are some preconceptions to tidy up first.

Yes, it may be easy to compare this film to LA Confidential - same source novelist, same noir-ish Hollywood setting - but it's closest recent relatives are more unusual.

Far From Heaven and Down With Love.

Both films were slavish recreations of a particular style. Great, entertaining films that totally - and without irony (or, at least, any that wasn't there already) - embraced a long gone style.

Modern film noir is best known, I guess, through films like Chinatown and Body Heat. (I'm ignoring the sex-thriller mutation that followed with things like Basic Instinct.) But modern noir always seemed to want to be credible. It wanted to take place in the real world, more or less. And for me, that made the genre less interesting.

Away from Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, those 40s flicks with their voiceover heroes, flashbacks and pervading, unspoken sexuality, we eventually lost some of the richness of style. LA Confidential is a great, great movie - but it's almost a period drama, a procedural, rather than a noir.

The Black Dahlia has no such trouble.

DePalma grabs hold of the noir style with both hands - to embrace it, rather than to shake it up. The voiceover is utterly hardboiled, the flashbacks razor-sharp. Every character is in 'a film about a murder', they're not living it for real, they're in the movie. But again I say this is not intended ironically. It's just that, maybe, the style gets across the senses the way 'reality' and 'facts' never could.

(It's worth noting now that I have no opinion about the 'true story' the book and film is loosely based on. It's a work of fiction for me, and was watched as such.)

Aside from the more modern flavours of bloody violence, F and C words and nudity (more on these in a moment), this is a period movie as if it were made at the time. Dahlia's cast have been perfectly selected for a vibe that just screams 40s Hollywood. Hartnett is splendid -

Hang on. Let me type that again.

Yes, Josh Hartnett is GOOD in a film. With much of the smugness knocked out of him, he's a terrific leading man for the genre. It's unbelievable. But when his character puts his hat on for some post-coital, in-bed conversation, you realise how right he is. I may never think it again, but on this one day...he's ideal.

(The hat, by the way, is a symbolic gesture, too. After sex, he's back to work, questioning a suspect he just happens to be sleeping with.)

Scarlett Johansson, of course, always looked like she'd been cut out of 40s celluloid anyway. Nobody else so immediately carries with them the white-blonde hair, the pout, the curves, and that ice-cold-but-scalding-beneath attitude.

The same is true of Aaron Eckhart, who again feels like he's been beamed here from a Big Sleep casting session. His biggest flaw is limited screen time - as the character whose mind is torn apart by the Dahlia killing, we needed to see a little more of him, and it definitely feels like a scene or two got snipped. That aside - powerful.

Only Hilary Swank separates herself from this crowd. Unlike the others, she has to pull on her character like an outfit. She wears it well, but there's always a tickle that she's 'acting in the style of' rather than finding herself intrinsically part of the genre by nature. It's still a fine performance, but - not unlike Ewan McGregor in the aforementioned Down With Love - it comes from a gifted actor, rather than 'a star', and you can feel her trying.

Still, DePalma's the real star. The film is filled with his style, and yet not overwhelmed by it, as is so often his greatest flaw. As with the Untouchables or Carlito's Way, the director figures out when to tone down the flourishes and let the screenplay talk.

Than again, he also knows when to turn his own volume back up. Who better to employ film-within-film voyerism? (And how wonderfully creepy that the director himself plays the voice of the director heard in our dead girl's screentests!)

Anyone who's seen Hostel will know all about the limits of cinematic gore, or lack thereof. But showing a thing isn't, on its own, enough. Hostel's violence caused little reaction from me, save the odd shrug. "Prosthetic," I yelled. "Editing trick!" Because it may all be well-executed, but the technique itself...dull.

DePalma's camera, meanwhile, is never dull. His photography, editing and movement can have a visceral effect on the viewer, and here you WILL find yourself flinching, even turning away from the screen. Not because it's more gratuitous than Hostel, but because it's better made.

So there's tension and pain and voyerism and style. What of the director's usual bugbear - the coldness of his characterisation? Critics often, and usually with good reason, call him a technical filmmaker. Someone interested in technique and never emotion. And in the films where he's written the scripts himself, that certainly feels true.

(Ironic really, as his self-penned films really ARE the most personal. Taking autobiographical elements - photographing his mother having an affair - and scripting them to then be filmed.)

But with Josh Friedman's screenplay, we hover instead between style and substance. But, I say again, this is a movie about a case, it's not the case itself being filmed. Noir isn't first and foremost a character study. But it IS a study of characters.

Contradictory? I don't think so.

This isn't a genre that tries to get into the mind of someone you've never met, some new and layered character. Instead, it shows you a collection of people who represent aspects of our natures. It gives you men repressing their sexual desire. Women teasing it out - effortlessly, because in the end we're all just barking dogs on a leash, and ridiculously open to manipulation.

There are the rich and crazy people, and lives of secrets, rebellious daughters and tempting wives. There's masculine aggression - oh boy is there masculine aggression - and feminine sensuality. (This is, for the record, not a sexually explicit film. But it is the sexiest thing I've seen in the cinema for a while. The smallest gestures - hands and eyes - speak huge, horn-inducing volumes. Ladies, gents, take a partner. You will be steamed up by the time the credits roll...though you won't necessarily feel good about it.)

In the end, then, it's like the horror genre. It's about pulling bigger, grander truths, rather than filming the 'real'. And in this film we get a deliberate, willful, almost child-like insistence that the film WILL be made this way. To hell with 60 years of genre development.

So, while it will remain unappreciated by some audiences, and certainly by Oscar, this is, no question, cinema of WORTH.

Whether it's too your taste is something else...

Certainly you'll want to concentrate. Minor characters, quickly-mentioned names, all will come into play for the final revelations. Pay attention. I left wanting to see the film again right away. Just make sure that it's for the right reasons. Word is the screenplay was compressed significantly from the version David Fincher had, at one time, intended to shoot. Between that and the sense of scenes being removed or shortened, the pace is brisk (though not hurried), and a few more minutes would not have hurt.

Still, I had to see LA confidential twice, too - to make all the connections. So maybe I'm just too dim for noir. Hell, even Chandler himself never worked out who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep.

Me, I like the gangster movie. James Cagney, The Public Enemy. A genre that, actually, has undergone far less reinvention since it's arrival in the 30s. The Godfather maybe tried to legitimise the character side, but with Scorsese's Goodfellas and DePalma's own Scarface 'remake', it was still the same kind of movie - attractive and frightening, violent, blackly funny, and forever based around a big central performance.

In the gangster film, being alone is dangerous. And everyone lusts for MORE - more money, more power, more stuff. Thing is, the more you have the more alone you become. It's an inevitable, fatal cycle. I love it.

Gangster films - they still make 'em like that. Old-style noir doesn't really happen so much. So take the chance and see The Black Dahlia. You might not get along with it - it's certainly polarising audiences - but it's still easy to be impressed by the achievement.