If it ain’t broken…

… oh, but it is. It is. In subtle but essential ways.

Okay, that’s probably way more cryptic than you would’ve hoped for – so let’s clarify things: Anthony Minghella’s latest, Breaking and Entering, a film that feels like it was made by Guardian readers for Guardian readers, gets some things very right. If you’re into urban decay, atmosphere, good acting, if you basically want to see a mood poem set in London, or indeed if you want to ogle Jude Law and enjoy his accent, this film is for you.

Abiding the Law

If you want a stringent story with credible character motivations and subtle writing… Meh. Not so much. It’s a shame, really, because the acting is there: I’m not usually a fan of Robin Wright Penn, but she makes her character’s pain credible, and the rest of the cast does a good, sometimes great job – but it doesn’t help that the film takes things that were already clear when they were only implied and makes them clumsily explicit. Also, one of the central two relationships seems to pop up out of nowhere in between scenes – and this, to me, almost crippled the film. (In fact, I felt like I’d fallen asleep for five minutes and had missed an important scene.)

What I really liked: the depiction of London; Martin Freeman’s character (oh so British!); Vera Farmiga’s character, miles away from her shrink in The Departed; Juliette Binoche (there are people, good friends of mine, who hate her – I’m sorry, guys, but I hope you forgive me for liking her acting a lot); the look and feel of the film. In some ways, I think I would have preferred Breaking and Entering if I’d seen it dubbed into some language I barely understand. If I could have watched the dialogues through some sound-proof window and taken in only the images and the soundtrack, I might have loved it.

P.S.: Minghella’s working on an anthology film called New York I Love You. Check out the list of directors, and give a good, hearty “What the…?”

Look at the size of those eyebrows!

It’s dangerous to go back to the things you enjoyed as a kid after decades, because chances are that you’ll want to tear out your eyes and lobotomise yourself rather than know that, boy, did you have crap taste when you were young!

Going back and watching the ’50s version of 20’000 Leagues Under the Sea isn’t nearly as bad as it could be. There’s still a lot in the film that works: many of the special effects, if not up to scratch nowadays, still have a certain realism, so that the film still looks pretty damn good. This is helped by the underwater scenes and the colour art direction which won an Academy Award. (Makes you wonder what other Academy Awards they gave back then – Best Racist Caricature in a Motion Picture? Best Gratuitous Use of a ‘Funny’ Seal Sidekick? Best Repeated Underwater Performance of Toccata & Fugue As Bach Never Wrote It?) The film’s atmosphere is still cool, and the kid in me still thinks it’d be fun to be on the Nautilus, at least if that Nemo guy stays off the organ playing for a few hours.

At the same time, I never noticed just how clunky the dialogues and much of the acting were. Not that I expect Dostoevsky from a Jules Vernes adventure movie, nor did I think, “This film could do with more Lee Strasberg-type performances…” But at times you wonder whether Richard Fleischer ever bothered  to direct his cast. I know that Peter Lorre can do better, as can Kirk Douglas… and James Mason mainly works due to his eyebrows and his snobbish British accent, which makes lines like “I am not what is called a civilized man, Professor.” quite funny – you expect him to follow this with, “Now let us have a snifter of brandy and read some Shakespeare, shall we?”

And the trained seal and that insufferable “Whale of a Tale” song are evil, I tells ya! Eeevil!

P.S.: Speaking of Captain Nemo, perhaps I should take a day or two to write a blog entry on Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier. Very little Nemo in that one, though… Shame.

The League, back when things were happy (in a dysfunctional way)

Coming attractions

To be honest, I’m not completely up-to-date on what will be coming to cinemas near you (and me) in 2008. Right now, I can only think of a handful of films that I know of, and even fewer that I’m actively looking forward to. Two of these I’ve already mentioned, namely The Dark Knight and No Country for Old Men.

However, the film that I may just be looking forward to most is the latest movie by Paul Anderson. Nope, not the guy who did Event Horizon or Aliens vs. Predator. The man who directed Boogie Nights (the best Scorsese film by someone other than Scorsese),  Magnolia (the best Altman movie not by Altman) and Punch Drunk Love (the best- sorry, I have no idea what to compare this film to… the best Adam Sandler film, perhaps?).

People have called Magnolia especially a self-indulgent piece of something or other, but to them I say, “Bosh! Flimshaw!” If art isn’t inherently self-indulgent, I don’t know what is. Punch Drunk Love mainly left me non-plussed, but the cast and trailer of There Will Be Blood (as well as the title, which is reminiscent of the Deadwood season 3 premiere, “Tell Your God to Ready for Blood”) definitely have me intrigued and excited.

Superheroes the world didn’t need

Elephant man! Elephant man! Does whatever an elephant can! Look out – here comes the elephant man!

Okay, I admit it… that was rather bad. Personally, I blame it on the effect of post-New Year’s Eve lack of sleep and a general tendency towards silliness when I’ve just got up. (Those who know me might say that this tendency generally lasts until I go back to bed…)

Elephant Man, together with The Straight Story, is one of the films by David Lynch that even people who don’t know Lynch and wouldn’t sit through five minutes of Lost Highway or Blue Velvet will have heard about. Regardless of this, though, the film is very much a product of Lynch’s aesthetic sensitivities. The many long takes of smoke and textured surfaces that aren’t immediately recognisable, the underlying mechanical sound effects (as if a large engine was powering the film and its world), especially the beginning and the ending. There are moments that recall his earlier works but also his later films. In this respect, Elephant Man feels more obviously like Lynch (if you know his films a bit) than The Straight Story, in which the Lynchian element is a lot more covert.

On a different note: why is it that half the hits to this website come about because people are looking for Miami Vice? Yes, I’ve posted two entries on the movie remake, but I’m surprised that a) people would find Eagles on Pogo Sticks and b)
Miami Vice would be such a popular search term. (Well, I definitely prefer folks getting here googling “miami vice” to those who find the blog googling “panty sniffing”. The latter are also more likely to be disappointed by the actual content of the blog, I think/hope…)

Marie Antoinette… She’s just zis girl, you know?

Apparently, Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette was booed in Cannes. Now that I’ve seen it, I am tempted to say that French film critics are pretentious shrinking violets with an utterly neurotic attitude to their own past. It’s not a great film, and I would rank it lower than both The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation (both of which I liked a lot), but it’s a well made film with some good performances, and it’s definitely beautifully shot and edited. Frankly, I don’t know what les critiques Françaises are on about.

However, Marie Antoinette has one big problem: the beginning is by far the strongest, most subtle illustration of the film’s main motif – a young woman taken into a world that is foreign to her and that regards her as an alien intrusion into their rules and conventions – and almost everything that comes after is much more obvious, much less elegant. Coppola’s use of anachronisms, especially in her choice of music (but also in one semi-witty image of a Converse sneaker among the hundreds of Baroque shoes the young queen tries on), works well enough, but once you’ve seen one scene indicating that “she’s really just a lost, rich, poor teenager… and in the end, aren’t we all?”, you’ve seen them all.

In addition, the film does suffer from being under-plotted. This may be strange coming from someone who loves Lost in Translation, hardly the most plotty of movies, but because Marie Antoinette sticks pretty much to history, there’s little of the smooth flow that a well-told story has. There’s a sense that you could walk out for five minutes, to get yourself a drink or have a bathroom break, and come back without having missed much. I don’t think that films have to be plotted tightly, and in fact many of my favourite movies aren’t, but if you know from the beginning where the story will end – off with her head, and all that jazz – then the film can’t really afford to meander.

On related news, I’m going to keep myself short on Deadwood and Six Feet Under. Just know that there are things more frightening in Deadwood than Al Swearengen on a good or bad day, Francis Wolcott, or even E.B. Farnum talking dirty to a leather bag…

This man couldn’t be scary… could he? Could he?

P.S.: Brian Cox should be a fun addition to the citizenry of Deadwood… I wonder whether he’ll ever get that theatre built – I’d love to see auditions for amateur night!

Stick insect: overrated after all?

Well, at least when it comes to her latest hit… We went to see Atonement yesterday. I think the book’s one of the best novels to come out of England in the last few years; it’s intellectually stimulating as well as moving, with some grandiose setpieces and a lot of subtlety in its characterisation. (The only Ian McEwan novel I didn’t like so far was Amsterdam, the one he won his Booker Prize for.)

It’s a hell of a book to adapt to the screen, though. So much of it – its narration, its style, its themes and motifs – is, at its heart, literary. It’s a novel about writing and about fiction, and some of this is likely to be spelled out or left out in an adaptation. Nevertheless, it’s disappointing to see how often the movie chooses to be bluntly explicit when a more implicit approach would have made things more interesting. Like the trailer embedded below, the film version at times seems to be written in large capitals telling its audience what is going on: Imagination! Accusation! Betrayal! And a hard-boiled egg! (Okay, I made that last bit up.)

Distressing how aesthetic war tends to be in the movies…

 Also, I honestly don’t see why people keep praising Keira Knightley’s performance in this film so much. I liked her Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice, but there’s nothing much in her Cecelia Tallis that we haven’t seen before. There’s stuck-up Keira, passionate Keira, angry Keira and languishing Keira, and that’s about it. Frankly, I thought her performance was fairly similar to Elizabeth Swann in the Pirates of the Caribbean films – not one of the Top 10 performances in movie history, in my opinion.

All in all, much of the first third of the film didn’t work that well for me. It takes a special skill in an actor to pull off “upper class” without falling into a caricature of the “upper class twit” worthy of school theatre and Monty Python. Many of those ageing RSC actors can do it, but in Atonement my main thought was, “If that’s what the British upper class is like, then the masses would have chopped off their heads hundreds of years ago… or otherwise they deserve them!” Every actor seems intent on showing the audience, “Class snobbery is wrong! These people are hateful, hateful idiots!” Which, frankly, I don’t need spelled out in ten-foot letters underlined three times.

However, the film gets a number of things very right. Many of the wartime scenes, especially the already famous long tracking shot along the beach, are quite stunning. There’s a dreamlike quality to some of these scenes that is miles removed from the literal-mindedness of the beginning and ending. The same goes for the scenes in hospital which do not flinch away from the horrible wounds of the soldiers coming home from France. While the cinematography is beautiful, it still gets across the ugliness of war in a few very effective shots.

Still, while there were things to admire, I have to wonder in the end: is such an Easy Reader version of Ian McEwan’s intricate, beautiful novel really necessary? And is it enough to be able to say, “Well, they didn’t screw it up too badly… They did quite okay”? And why, oh why, are so many reviewers infatuated with Keira Knightley?

P.S.: If my suspicion is correct, merely mentioning Keira Knightley in this blog entry should get me lots of hits.

P.P.S.: Sad, innit?

Going… going… gone!

First of all, my apologies for not updating my blog for the last two days. Things at the office and at home have been very busy, but from now on I should be able to update (practically) every day for the next two weeks. Promise!

And there’s enough to blog about, mainly the last film I watched at the cinema. Who’d have thought that Ben Affleck is so good at dealing with actors, especially after he didn’t exactly prove himself to be his generation’s De Niro? (Shades of Sophia Coppola, mayhaps…?) Gone Baby Gone is an accomplished first movie, with a brilliant cast and a wonderful set of moral grey areas to ponder for days after leaving the cinema.

Nah… still gone

For the record, I disliked Mystic River (which is also an adaptation of a novel by Dennis Lehane, just like Gone Baby Gone) intensely. I felt that Eastwood’s film at best paid lip service to the fact that many of its protagonist did pretty horrible things, but secretly it felt like the movie was condoning especially Sean Penn’s actions: after all, Tim Robbins’ character has been permanently broken by what happened to him when he was a kid, so a bullet to the head is in effect a mercy killing, even if done for the wrong reasons, right? Several people disagree with me on that reading, but I can’t shake it.

Gone Baby Gone is clearly by the same writer, and it shares many of the same concerns, but it’s more honest in addressing the moral dilemmas its characters are in. Many of the people involved try to do the right thing – but there is no right thing, so they try as hard as they can to go for the lesser of several evils. And the film doesn’t judge, which is quite amazing considering the story that it tells and the environment it’s set in. The Bostonian “white trash” isn’t looked down at or pitied as much as it is simply observed, just like the main character Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) doesn’t judge but simply tries to do what is right himself.

Casey Affleck is almost as brilliant as he was in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I was a bit irritated at the voiceover he had at the beginning of the film, because his voice is very characteristic and very specific. Its scratchy, somewhat adolescent quality (“You want fries with that?” – yup, that sort of voice) fit Robert Ford brilliantly, but I associated it with the character, not the actor. As soon as we actually saw Affleck, I was okay with it, though. It’s fascinating to watch his fundamentally decent character trying to figure out what the right thing is. When late in the film he kills a reprehensible character who has done an utterly evil thing, he doesn’t feel good or righteous, as would usually be the case in Hollywood films.

The rest of the cast is as fascinating. Much of the time you forget that you’re watching actors, as there’s something almost documentary about the presentation of the characters. Michelle Monaghan, whom I’d never noticed as much of an actress, makes her character into more of a Girl Friday/girlfriend type; Amy Madigan is as real as always; Morgan Freeman is remarkably short on Morgan Freeman-ness (Freemanity?), his usual, very pleasant style of (non-)acting; and Ed Harris seems to have swallowed Dennis Hopper whole, which is very disconcerting.

However, Gone Baby Gone may be a riveting film, but it’s not the most enjoyable film you could imagine. It’s less ponderous and heavy than Mystic River, but it leaves you with a very ambivalent ending, where those guilty before the law may be punished – but what is legal and what is right in this film diverges quite frighteningly. And chances are that the film will gnaw at your mind for a long time.

Chocolate-covered hobbits do Bollywood

I used to be a big Tim Burton fan. I greatly enjoyed his dark romanticism of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Batman Returns is probably my favourite Batman film. (Batman Begins does better action, but it lacks the inventiveness and the compelling relationships between characters such as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Selina Kyle/Catwoman. Michael Caine’s Alfred rules, though.) And even if Nightmare Before Christmas was directed by Henry Selick, it still oozed Burtonesque style from every semi-putrescent orifice. It had the Tim Burton soul.

Then came Mars Attacks!, a nice half-hour comedy stuck in a two-hour movie, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – a film that looked gorgeous (I never knew there were so many colours in grey before that movie) but had a meanness that hadn’t been in the previous films. The less said about Burton’s Planet of the Apes, the better. And Big Fish, even though lots of people liked it, always struck me as a smug, self-satisfied piece of schmaltz. It sides unequivocally with a self-infatuated, selfish boor who needs to stand at the centre of attention. (I very much saw where Billy Crudup’s character was coming from… Personally I would have strangled Daddy Storyteller in his sleep halfway through my childhood if I was him.) When I first saw the trailers for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I was suspicious. Actually, no. I was turned off. I thought they looked loud, crude, tacky and tasteless. None of that weirdo “I’m a goth, please give me a hug” sweetness of the early films. In spite of liking Roald Dahl, I gave Charlie a wide berth.

Wonka by name, Wonka by nature

Until they showed it on television last week. We watched it, expecting very little… but roughly five minutes into the film we both had silly grins on our faces. From the first scene, the snow swirling around the Warner Brothers logo and the strains of Danny Elfman’s orchestral score, it felt like the Tim Burton I’d come to love. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is by no means perfect, and there are moments that are too shrill for their own good. It’s also somewhat let down by an overly sentimental, almost Disney-ish streak of “Family matters”. But on the whole it gets the balance between quirkiness, whimsy and sentiment just right, helped along by the touching earnestness of the title character and an almost surreal, dark streak that comes from Willy Wonka, arguably one of Burton’s most troubled characters yet, and the Oompa Loompas.

Based on this movie, I can say that I’m again looking forward to the next film by Tim Burton for the first time in years.

He say you Brade Runner!

When I was a teenager, I loved Blade Runner. I loved the atmosphere, the plot, the characters, the lines.

I am still very fond of the film, but after watching the Final Cut (which came out recently) yesterday, I am sorry to say that the original magic isn’t there any more. The film still looks absolutely gorgeous, even more so on the new DVD release, which almost makes you wonder what all the fuss about BluRay or HD-DVD is about if DVDs can look this stunning. The atmosphere is still there. But somehow I can no longer get into the faux-noirish plot and characters. Deckard is a dick, but not a very complex one; Rachael is, well, Sean Young, not the most exciting of actresses at the best of times; and most of the characters, including the replicants, remain one-dimensional. Much of what I originally found intriguing and evocative now strikes me as a tad too facile: “Ooh, we’re being vague here!”

Sushi, that’s what my wife used to call me. Cold fish.

This probably sounds worse than it ought to, because as I said, I used to love the film, so it came as a bit of a shock to find that my feelings had changed. Nevertheless – the film still looks amazing. Judging from the DVD quality, chances are it never looked better. And somehow the coherence of the visual design even makes the ’80s booboos work: Pris’ and Rachael’s hair, the shoulder pads, the neon. Although, after first seeing the film in the late ’80s or early ’90s, the intro sequence with its caption “Los Angeles, 2019” made me think that we’re probably still not much closer to flying cars than we were back then. Well, we’ll see in twelve years or so…

What was fun, though: spotting the actors from series I’ve been watching since. I’d never realised that I’d first seen Brenda’s mom wearing some artificial snake scales, a transparent raincoat and very little else. (Helloooo, Mrs. Chenowith!) And for some odd reason, I’ve only seen William Sanderson in parts where his first name consisted of double initials: E.B. Farnum, J.F. Sebastian. (Perhaps he should next try his hand at P.T. Barnum.) Finally, even though I know that Gaff is played by Edward James Olmos, but apart from the pock marks I simply don’t see it – Gaff looks and sounds so much creepier than Admiral Adama. If President Roslin ever gets hold of a Blade Runner video (probably with the corners cut off), she’ll get quite a shock…