Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
I watched Barack Obama's Presidential inauguration on 20th January. The first half of the live coverage was mainly political commentators commenting as various political figures emerged from the Capitol building, including Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George Bush. When former President George W. Bush walked out, a correspondent in the crowd reported muted boos. I was a little disappointed. Only "muted"? Given that Bush, Jr. is one of the most unpopular Presidents of recent years, I was expecting something a little more enthusiastic. A little more contemptuous.
I had a similar reaction to W., Oliver Stone's recent biopic of George W. Bush. It is an oddly opinion-less film; it tries to walk the fine line between caricature and sensitivity, but strays into both often enough that the film loses any sense of purpose. Straight scenes such as the cabinet meeting in which Dick Cheney reveals his exit plan for Iraq ("There is no exit plan.") sit side by side with lighter scenes, many of which include some of Bush's now immortal quotations ("Rarely is the question asked: is our children learning?"), and the audience is left wondering where Stone is going with all of this.
Part of the problem is Josh Brolin's performance as the (now) former President of the United States. It is a fine performance, uncanny at times; but Brolin largely plays Bush as a lovable buffoon, bumbling through an ever-rising political career in a desperate attempt to please his father (James Cromwell). Now, Brolin is compelling as W. Bush; if you were to close your eyes at certain points in the film, you could swear you were watching the six o'clock news. And maybe I'll look back at W. in ten or twenty years' time and appreciate Brolin's performance as a sensitive and accurate one, perfectly reflecting the man in question. But right now, with Bush still fresh in the world's memory, I can't be the only one craving a harder portrait of the ex-President. And surely a film should a reflection of its own cultural moment?
Politics and purpose aside, W.'s supporting players are uniformly brilliant. Their skill elevates W. above the stilted reconstruction it could have been. Deserving of special mention are James Cromwell as Bush, Sr.; and Richard Dreyfuss, who gives a scarily accurate portrayal of Dick Cheney. On a negative note, however, Ioan Gruffud seems entirely out of place as Tony Blair, in a brief cameo that feels awkward after Michael Sheen's spot on take on the former Prime Minister in The Queen (2006).
But, good or bad, the performances all seem like wasted effort, as W. searches frantically, ultimately failing to discover its true purpose. In a way, Stone's reluctance to avoid either of the two extremes is understandable. A harsh indictment of the Bush legacy wouldn't say anything we don't already know; and its probably too early for the sensitive, "honest" approach. But I can't shake the feeling that Stone, knowing that the Bush administration was coming to an end, rushed the film through. Had he waited, had he spent more time finding the note he wanted to strike with the film, maybe he would have had something memorable. As it stands, though, W. is a bit of a mess.
Vals Im Bashir (2008)
Waltz with Bashir
A pack of snarling stray dogs bounds down city streets, saliva dripping from their bared fangs. At first there are only a few of them. Then more join, until there must be twenty or thirty. Cars swerve to avoid them. Mothers shrink back and shield their children from the sight of the beasts. What do they represent? Are they the dogs of war, sweeping through the streets, heralding coming battles and death? The pack arrives at an apartment building,. A lone man stands at a window, looks down at the dogs.
Cut to a bar in Israel. Filmmaker Ari Folman sits with a friend, who is describing a recurring dream. The dogs are a part of this dream. Each of the twenty-six dogs (for he knows that there are twenty-six) represents a dog that he shot during the 1982 Lebanon War, to stop it from alerting its masters. After listening to his friend's dream, Folman is hit by a strange realisation: he has no recollection of his own involvement in the war. He knows that he fought, that he was a part of the Israel Defense Forces; but he has no actual memories of the conflict.
So Folman sets out to recover them. He begins with a single image: it is night, he is wading in the sea, the cityscape is eerily let by flares. He tracks down the only other person he recognises from this image; and, from there, visits all his old friends, in an effort to reconstruct not only his own experience of the invasion, but a collective experience.
So Waltz with Bashir is a documentary. But it is no normal documentary. Instead of the usual talking heads and archive footage, it is entirely animated. (There are one or two talking head segments, but these, too, are animated.) Folman's style is stark, with ample use of noirish chiaroscuro that gives the film an almost expressionist feel. The relative realism of Folman's visits with his friends contrasts with the often surreal style and imagery of their accounts of the war. Waltz with Bashir owes more to Apocalypse Now than Saving Private Ryan.
The use of animation might seem odd to some, even pretentious. But given the harrowing subject matter, especially in the Sabra and Shatila massacre, it really drives home the horrors of war. It is reminiscent of Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies (1988): both films use animation to portray the deeply disturbing effects of war. What is usually a medium for cutesy kids' stuff is used to show to the audience graphic images of violence and death. It is this incongruity that makes Waltz with Bashir all the more horrible.
It is also a deeply personal journey. Folman is Jewish, and in coming to terms with his involvement in what was essentially genocide, he is reminded of the Holocaust, an act of genocide through which he and his parents lived. Though he was not directly involved with the massacre in Lebanon, Folman is concerned that he may, in the words of one his friends, have "played the part of the Nazi".
The massacre was actually carried out by Christian Phalangists, while the Israel forces (Folman among them) watched on and lit flares, so that the Phalangists could see who to shoot. Neither the Israel forces nor the Phalangists are demonised, and it could be argued that Folman isn't critical enough. Indeed, several scenes go as far as almost implying that the IDF's brutality was merely the result of youthful folly a squad of soldiers fires round after round into a family car more out of fear than anything else. But the graphic and deeply saddened nature of the final scenes shows that Folman is on the side of neither the Israelis, nor the Phalangists, nor the Palestinians. He is one the side of humanity; and he, like us, prays that we can put an end to events like this.
It's difficult to work out what The Chaser wants to be. Is it a cat-and- mouse thriller in the vein of David Fincher's Se7en? Or is it a satirical indictment of South Korea's incompetent and corrupt police force? Hong-jin Na, making his directorial debut, handles both elements with skill, and they do gel somewhat. But at times it feels that The Chaser is suffering from the cinematic equivalent of multiple personality disorder: it thinks it's two films.
Both films follow Joong-ho Eom (Yun-seok Kim), an ex-cop turned pimp whose girls have been disappearing recently; he thinks someone's selling them. When he gets a call from the guy he thinks is doing the selling, Joong-ho sends Mi-jin Kim (Yeong-Hie Seo), telling her to text him the address. But before she can, Mi-jin finds out that the client, Young-min Jee (Jung-woo Ha), isn't selling Joong-ho's girls he's killing them.
Mi-jin now lies dead in a filthy bathroom. But Joong-ho thinks she's only been sold, so he sets out to track down Young-min and get her back. He finds the killer fairly quickly, and proceeds to beat him up, for which he is promptly arrested. Though at the station Young-min confesses to the murders of Joong-ho's girls, the police are more concerned with saving face (a protester has just thrown feces at the mayor, for which someone needs to take the blame) than with convicting a wanted serial killer.
It's these interactions between Joong-ho, Young-min and the police that really stand out in The Chaser. Not that the gritty cat-and-mouse game is badly done; it's handled quite capably by Hong-jin Na. But these parts of the film try too hard to be like other violent thrillers, like those of Chan-wook Park's Vengeance trilogy.
The police procedural aspect of The Chaser, however, does seem unique. Maybe it isn't in South Korea; perhaps the South Korean box office is jam-packed with scathing satires of the police. But such comedies in the West are rarely, if ever, so critical or cynical. The obsession with a slight incident with the mayor over a confessed serial killer; senior officers demanding that vital evidence is fabricated; and roomfuls of police shouting obscenities at each other and the suspects The Chaser does not paint a pretty picture of its national police force.
Of course, I call it a satirical, but it's hard to tell if this is an accurate representation of law enforcement in South Korea. The small West Midlands audience with whom I watched The Chaser certainly found it a humorous representation; but I doubt that any of them, myself included, knew if they were watching something that even remotely resembled reality.
That's the problem with exporting films to foreign markets: they'll be subject to completely different cultural climates to that in which they were made. Which is why I'm already curious about the American remake that has been announced. It'll be interesting to see if it retains The Chaser's odd and sometimes jarring mix of thriller and comedy, but I doubt it will. American cinema tends to like its thrillers less violent, and its satires less scathing.
Iron Man (2008)
Tony Stark, billionaire American industrialist, is kidnapped by terrorists whilst demonstrating Stark Enterprises' newest missile system in Afghanistan. The terrorists force Stark to build them one of his weapons. Instead, he builds a giant armoured suit and escapes. Flying over the desert, the suit malfunctions, and Stark crashes. He wanders around for a bit, and is rescued by American troops.
Upon returning to America, Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) feels guilty about his company's warmongering, so develops a new version of his suit which he can use to destroy those of his weapons that have fallen into the hands of terrorists.
Finally, you might say to yourself, a comic book movie that deals with current political issues. Unfortunately, no. After Stark repents and devotes himself to ridding the world of the evil that he has helped create, we are treated to an hour and a half of Robert Downey Jr. flying around in what amounts to a humanoid racing car.
Admittedly, any Hollywood blockbuster that attempts to explore the politics around the "War on Terror" deserves some respect. But I can't help but feel disappointed when a film goes so far toward a critique of US foreign policy, only to pull it back in the final third in favour of the obligatory action-packed climax.
Politics aside, Iron Man is entertaining enough. Downey Jr., a controversial choice at first, is well-cast as the billionaire playboy- cum-superhero. (I wonder where they got characterisation?) Rumours that much of the film's dialogue was improvised seem likely, as Stark has all the wise-cracking charisma we're used to from Downey Jr. The problem is, Downey Jr.'s star persona, even in Stark's private moments, never lets any real emotion to the surface. We never get a genuine sense of why a man would throw away his entire life to fly around in a robotic suit.
The film tries to use the supporting characters to represent other aspects of American politics, but it can't quite pull that off, either. Colonel Rhodes (Terrence Howard), Stark's best mate, is a by-the-book military pilot, and obviously meant to represent the dilemma the American military finds itself in, forced to fight unnecessary and unwinnable wars. But he does absolutely nothing. And Jeff Bridges' Obadiah Stane, Stark's business partner and analogue of militaristic capitalism, always seems one step away from holding a white cat and laughing maniacally.
Jon Favreau has certainly crafted an entertaining comic book movie. The decision to set Iron Man in California, instead of the otherwise seemingly obligatory New York, does give the film a distinctive feel. It's just a shame that a film that, in its opening scenes, proposes to deal with important political issues, eventually wimps out and descends into the same old blockbuster chicanery. In that respect, summer 2008's other movie event, The Dark Knight, shows us how it's done. Christopher Nolan's film keeps its political viewpoints under its belt, only allowing us a peak when the narrative demands, and so allowing us to make our own interpretations; while Iron Man wears its political heart on its sleeve, and therefore shows the world just how shallow it really is.
La antena (2007)
Some would argue that Argentinean director Esteban Sapir's La Antena is an exercise in anachronistic futility; that, while the silent films to which Sapir's pays homage were at the cutting edge of cinema when they were made, they are outdated today, leaving La Antena a meaningless oddity.
I would disagree. Fervently. La Antena melds the conventions of the silent film with 21st century technology, making it the ultimate exercise in post-modern film-making.
The film is set in the timeless "The City Without a Voice", so called because the citizens have been rendered speechless by Mr. TV, a dictator/media mogul with his hair painted on. The City resembles the titular one in Fritz Lang's seminal Metropolis (1927), perhaps 100 years before that film. It is all expressionist skyscrapers, TV aerials, and animated billboards.
The citizens of the City are mollified by La Voz (The Voice), the only person with the gift of speech. Her face perpetually shrouded by a hood (kept on even when she is naked), La Voz is forced to sing on Mr. TV's television network. But when Mr. TV concocts a plan to steal the written word as well, La Voz and her eyeless son join forces with a renegade family in an attempt to return the freedom of speech to the people.
La Antena is nothing but pure cinema. Burdening himself with the conventions of the silent film, Sapir has to rely upon images to tell his story. There is sound, most notably in the almost continuous score by Leo Sujatovich. It evokes the best of silent movie music, as well as ingenuously working itself into the film's diegesis, such as the beeping of car horns, or the rhythmic ra-ta-tat-tat of gunfire. And, underlying the whole film is a familiar whirring, as if it were being shown on an ancient projector.
There is a fair amount of dialogue as well. But instead of using intertitles, Sapir has the characters' words appear in the frame. They are larger or smaller, filling the screen or hovering meekly in the air, depending on what is being said. Think a more imaginative version of the subtitles in Night Watch (2004).
Thankfully, the words don't distract from the images. Which is very fortunate indeed, because La Antena boasts some of the most creative and original images we've seen in a long time, all captured by Cristian Cottet's sumptuous black-and-white photography. There are the expressionist cityscapes. The hooded singer and her eyeless son. There is the city's abandoned aerial, which looks like the decayed remains of some colossal spider. And there's the sinister Dr. Y, whose jabbering mouth is displayed on a television screen attached to his face.
La Antena has been criticised for relying too much on its imagery, while skimping on the allegorical depth. But, again, I would disagree. It is true that the sudden appearance of a mind-control machine shaped like a swastika, or the eyeless boy seemingly crucified on a Star of David, feels out of place, a tad over the top in what is otherwise merely a well-crafted fairy tale.
But the lack of overt symbols (the two previous examples aside) works in the film's favour. It allows us to make up our own minds: to decide whether to infer political meaning, to see La Antena as an allegory for fascism, the danger of capitalist monopolies, and the power and responsibility of the media; or to just take the film at face value, as a visually stunning adventure through a world simultaneously unique and familiar.
The sacrifice of explicit depth in favour of unique imagery may seem like a compromise. But, really, when a film looks as good as this, it's hard to care. There is more imagination and artistry in every frame of La Antena than Hollywood can shake a derivative stick at. Evoking films almost 100 years old might be futile, but in doing so, Sapir may be showing us what is lacking in the films of today. He may be telling us that it is time for another artistic revolution. And he may be right.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
If only Hollywood filmmakers had even half the imagination that Mexican director Guillermo del Toro possesses. Then perhaps the crop of lacklustre blockbusters that assault us every summer would be able to rise above their empty narratives. Like the brilliant Pan's Labyrinth (2006), Hellboy II: The Golden Army is a tour through del Toro's eye-achingly vast imagination. The sheer delight of watching the myriad creatures and locations flit across the screen is more than enough compensation for what is really nothing more than an average plot.
After a couple of title cards explaining Hellboy's origin, we open on army base on Christmas Eve, 1955. A young Hellboy is put to bed by his surrogate father Professor Bruttonholm (John Hurt) with a bed time story about an ancient battle between humans and mythical creatures. In a stroke of creative brilliance, Hellboy, whose only experience of the world outside the army base is 1950s children's television, imagines the characters in the story as wooden marionettes.
As Bruttonholm's story goes, Balor, king of the Elves, built an army of 70 times 70 indestructible clockwork warriors (the Golden Army of the film's title), which could be controlled by those of royal blood as long as they remained unchallenged. The Golden Army was so merciless in its destruction of the human forces that Balor called for a truce: the humans would keep the cities, and the creatures would keep the forests. Balor took steps to prevent the Golden Army being raised again, but his son, Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), resented his father's peaceful ways and went into self-imposed exile, vowing one day to finish off the humans.
Fast forward to the present. Prince Nuada has declared war on humanity, and begun work on resurrecting the Golden Army. Cue Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and the B.P.R.D. (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense). As in the first film, it is their job to save the world from otherworldly forces. But there are other problems. Not only does Hellboy have to come to terms with the fact that he may never be fully accepted by those he is trying to help; but he also has to deal with his burgeoning relationship with Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), his on-again, off-again girlfriend of the first film.
What stands out most in Hellboy II is the sheer inventiveness of Guillermo del Toro's designs. It's in the aforementioned prologue, and it's in almost every other scene in the film. There is such a huge attention to detail, that you'll need to see the film several times before you see everything there is on offer.
This is especially evident in the "Troll Market" sequence. Hidden beneath Brooklyn Bridge, the Troll Market like a folklorish Mos Eisley, with every kind of creature you could imagine, and then a load you probably couldn't. It's a sequence made for DVD: you could rewind and watch it again and again and notice something new each time.
But what is most impressive is that a large portion of these peoples and places have actually been built, as opposed to rendered with computers. From your run-of-the-mill trolls and goblins, to fantastically original designs such as the Angel of Death (one of the best creature designs I have seen in any film), they are there, interacting with the other characters, and that's more than impressive in today's CGI-driven cinema.
Special mention must also go to Doug Jones, the actor behind not one, not two, but three of Hellboy II's creatures: Abe Sapien, the Chamberlain (a pale-skinned, rectangular-headed officiator), and the Angel of Death. He was also one of the humanoid insect things in del Toro's Mimic (1997), as well as both the Faun and the Pale Man in Pan's Labyrinth. Jones is surely one of cinema's greatest living performers: he gives his characters each their own personality, despite usually being buried underneath prosthetics.
That the look of Hellboy II is its best aspect is a blessing, because the narrative is nothing to get excited about. It's not bad, by any means; the story moves along nicely, and the characters are likable enough (especially the three main leads: Perlman's Hellboy; Blair's Liz; and Jones' Abe).
Standard Operating Procedure (2008)
Standard Operating Procedure
In 2004 the media was full of accounts of the abuse, torture, and even murder of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison by Military Police. Photographs surfaced depicting prisoners naked and wearing cloth hoods, and being forced to masturbate, stand on boxes for fear of electrocution, and forming human pyramids. Twelve soldiers were convicted, and the commanding officer at the prison, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, was demoted to the rank of Colonel. Errol Morris' documentary Standard Operating Procedure attempts to examine the atmosphere surrounding the abuse, the people involved, and whether it was all down to a few "bad apples", or if it was reflective of the American military as a whole.
Morris keeps his authorial influence to a minimum, instead allowing his subjects to speak for themselves. He has interviewed several of the soldiers involved, including Lynndie England, who can be seen in many of the photographs smiling, pointing, giving a thumbs up. She and the other soldiers interviewed describe, with remarkable candour, what it was like living in Abu Ghraib prison, their relationships with each other and the prisoners, and the events and tensions surrounding those incidents depicted in the photographs. It all paints a picture of the prison as a dark and stifling environment, one just waiting to bring out the worst in people.
The real centrepiece of the film, though, are the photographs. Even four years after they dominated every front page and bulletin, they have lost none of their power to appal and disgust. Some, like the picture of a man forced to stand, arms outstretched, on a box with a cloth bag on his head, are surreal. Others, like a photograph of Sabrina Harman giving a thumbs up over a dead prisoner, are simply disturbing.
And hovering above all of this are the OGA, or Other Government Agencies, an often used euphemism for the CIA. It was during the CIA-led interrogations that the most heinous of human rights infractions were most likely carried out. But there are no photographs of these incidents. Standard Operating Procedure raises the point that it is these individuals who should have received the full brunt of the punishment, but it was simpler to lay the blame on lower ranking officers like England and Harman.
It is here that the main point of contention with Standard Operating Procedure arises. It is true that no one above the rank of Staff Sergeant was convicted. And it is true that this should not be the case, that those higher-ranking officers who let this abuse play out under their noses should be held accountable. But Morris tries to divert too much of the blame away from those who were convicted. While England, Harman and the others were just following orders and living in a deeply affecting environment, they are also human beings endowed with free will. They could have said no at any time, and just walked away.
That Standard Operating Procedure raises these arguments means that it is worthy of our time. It presents the facts as perceived by those involved, never itself commenting or judging. It leaves that to us, so that we can make up our own minds. So that perhaps we can learn from the mistakes made by others, and prevent them from happening again.
Genre-defining moments in any medium are a double-edged sword, leading as they do to herds of imitators and pretenders. Punk, visceral and anti-establishment in the 1970s, gave rise to a plethora of bland Blink- 182s in the '90s. The Lord of the Rings, the grandfather of epic high fantasy, spawned shelves full of bland paperbacks. And Raiders of the Lost Ark, a wry reinvention of 1930s adventure serials, led to swarms of bland action-adventure films. A recent example of which is Sahara, a film that fails on the adventure, but succeeds admirably on the bland.
Sahara centres on laughably-named adventurer Dirk Pitt, played by Matthew McConaughey. McConaughey must have some sort of appeal, perhaps to young women, or teenage boys who like their role models slimy and irritating. He plays Pitt how we might imagine Indy to be, had he spent his time at archaeology school getting drunk and playing video games. Pitt is joined by his best mate Al Giordino (Steve Zahn). Zahn appears to be making a name for himself playing comic sidekicks who are distinctly lacking in the comic.
Pitt is obsessed with lost Confederate ironclad warship CSS Texas, which he believes, after the American Civil War, made its way to West Africa. Obviously. While searching the African coast, Pitt and Giordino come across Eva Rojas (Penélope Cruz), a doctor with the World Health Organisation investigating an epidemic in the area.
One of the problems with Sahara's plot (and there are many) is that these two elements, Pitt's warship and Rojas' epidemic, are never linked. It is implied early on that the ironclad (dubbed the "Ship of Death" by the locals) could be the cause of the mysterious disease, but this is never followed through. Instead, Pitt's search for the ship becomes an arbitrary and derivative subplot that occasionally interrupts the film's main narrative.
A main narrative that is also arbitrary and derivative. Sahara eventually deals with malevolent African warlords, toxic waste, and a potentially global environmental catastrophe. So, nothing we haven't seen before. And certainly nothing we haven't seen done better. The action is decidedly mediocre, never reaching the level of creativity or excitement achieved in the classic adventure films Sahara so badly wants to be.
This mundanity might have been forgivable, were the film carried by memorable and engaging characters. Unfortunately, it isn't. McConaughey and Zahn have an undeniable chemistry, but their characters' relationship is juvenile and lacks any real depth. Cruz's doctor seems more interested in her predictable relationship with Pitt than in the epidemic sweeping across West Africa, making her role as a physician less than believable. Even William H. Macy, usually eminently watchable, phones it in as Pitt's exasperated benefactor.
Sahara's biggest problem, though, is it's questionable politics. It is true that adventure films have never been the most politically correct in the medium, presenting non-western countries as dangerous, and their natives violent, ignorant, or both. But these films were either made at a time when this was acceptable; or set at such a time, and use hindsight to mock this conservative tendency.
Sahara, however, was neither made, nor is it set, at such a period. So why is it that when Pitt saves Rojas from assassination, it is strongly implied her African assailant is about to rape her? Why are the native Tuareg a cowardly lot, unwilling to fight against the film's oppressive warlord. And why is it that the only people who can defeat this warlord are three minimally equipped white people?
It could (and will, no doubt) be argued that all this is irrelevant when taken in the context of the film's (alleged) sense of fun. But I find it dismaying that the entertainment perpetually pumped into the eyes of the movie-going public is as insidiously racist and nationalistic as Sahara.
When all is said and done, I'm sure that none of this will matter. The people handing over their money to see Sahara aren't interested in the politics of racial representation in Hollywood. They want constructed, meaningless mediocrity. And Sahara has that in spades.
The Matador (2005)
Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) is a hit-man. Or a "facilitator of fatalities", as he prefers to be called. He is also a drunk, a womaniser, and in the middle of a mid-life crisis. On a job in Mexico City, he bumps into Danny White (Greg Kinnear), an unconfident businessman who thinks he's just nailed a recent pitch, but is unsure. They meet in the hotel bar late one night, after they've both had a few too many margaritas.
Sounds like the set-up for a by-the-numbers comedy thriller, doesn't it? But it isn't. Instead, The Matador is a funny and sometimes touching character study. It avoids every twist that the above summary would suggest, sometimes even setting them up just to gleefully tear them down. It is a film that respects it characters enough to just let them get on with it, without feeling the need to shove them into needless plot contrivances.
Brosnan's hit-man will inevitably be compared to his Bond, but this is unfair to both performances. Bond is a half-formed idea, a product of all that has gone before; while Julian is a fully-formed character with his own motivations and flaws. He has existed in his own shadowy, seedy world for so long that he has forgotten how to talk to another human being.
When he meets Danny in the hotel bar, he sees his opposite: a normal guy with a normal job and normal problems. He envies Danny; the hit-man has become fed up with his life, sees himself edging ever closer to his inevitable "burn out", as he puts it. But when Danny opens up about the death of his only son, Julian tries to change the subject with a dirty joke. He is a man who has, in his own words, been "running from any emotion." Kinnear holds his own opposite Brosnan's performance, and injects Danny White with his effortless everyman charm. He is the perfect foil to Julian; while the latter is drunken bravado and hedonism, Danny is down to earth, with just a hint of eccentricity. But he too goes deeper than his established persona, showing us how far the everyman will go when faced with financial and familial ruin.
There is real chemistry between Brosnan and Kinnear. It is most visible in the film's three key scenes: the hotel bar; a bullfight, during which Julian tells Danny what he does for a living, and takes him through a dress rehearsal of an assassination; and a scene in which Julian turns up at Danny's house six months later. This scene also introduces us properly to Danny's wife, Bean (yes, Bean). In another example of how much The Matador respects its characters, Bean (Hope Davis), instead of panicking at the presence of a hired killer in her house, merely asks with forced calm, "Did you bring your gun?" The script isn't quite as good as could have been after maybe another rewrite. One or two lines seem a little forced, and a couple of the jokes need a little more work. But in the scenes where Julian and Danny (and later Bean) just talk, the writing is superb. The film feels no need to put the characters in any outlandish situations (other than meeting a hit-man, and said hit-man turning up on your doorstep). It just lets them talk, gently nudging them toward necessary plot points.
There is action, but only when it reflects on the characters. One notable instance is when Julian botches a job in Budapest because he keeps seeing himself through his rifles scope. The rest of the film is about the characters, how they interact, how they each affect one another. And, ultimately, it is about friendship, even in the most unlikely of places. At one point Julian tells Danny that he is his only friend. And he really means it.
La graine et le mulet (2007)
Abdel Kechiche's tragicomedy is a film of contradictions and contrasts. It is both quiet and boisterous, with a script that is both understated and energetic, and which explores (among other things) how communities both accept immigrants, and yet remain suspicious of them.
Couscous follows sixty-something Slimane Beiji, a Tunisian-French shipyard worker in the French port town of Sète, played with reserved dignity by Habib Boufares. Despite being divorced, Slimane still spends a lot of time with his ex-wife and their extended family. The rest of his time is spent with his girlfriend and her daughter, who own a quayside hotel.
When Slimane is laid off, it comes as the last straw in a life that has become increasingly redundant. Left with nothing to lose, he hits upon the idea of opening a restaurant on an old boat. The project becomes a focal point for Slimane's extended family: his sons lend a hand with the boat's renovation; his girlfriend's daughter helps acquiring the necessary bank loans and official documents; and his ex-wife will cook the restaurants signature dish the eponymous couscous.
The restaurant works as a symbol of the hopes and dreams of immigrants how all they want is to integrate and work in their new community, whilst still retaining the culture and customs of their homeland. But it also signifies the duality of a community's attitude toward immigrants. During a party thrown to promote Slimane's restaurant, the guests all compliment their host and try their hand at a little Arabic; and yet, when Slimane's back is turned, they whisper amongst themselves that "he's not from around here." But Couscous really shines in its extended scenes of dialogue. At several points during the film we join Slimane and his family as they sit in kitchens or dining rooms and do nothing but talk. And it is a joy to watch. The script shows an eye for authentic dialogue, meandering through topics as diverse as racism in the workplace, the extortionate price of nappies, and using Arabic in the bedroom. The genuine performances from the supporting cast draw us further into these scenes, and the cinematography keeps us there. The camera squeezes between family members, getting the kind of intimate close-ups that give a real impression of a loud family dinner.
This light-hearted attitude, present in the early scenes, contrasts with a grimmer final third, in which situations get progressively worse. And as things get worse, family relationships start to break down.
This also reveals the film's ultimate irony. Slimane's family is a close-knit unit when the members each live separate lives. But when the restaurant brings them together, family unity dissolves and they resort to serious bickering.
Heat isn't a romance, but in another time and place, it could have been. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) never meet during the film's opening acts, although each is aware of the other. When they do finally meet, Hanna asks McCauley out for coffee. They sit in a café and discuss their jobs, their personal lives, and their relationship. The film then speeds toward its inevitable conclusion.
But Heat isn't a romance. It's a crime drama. And Hanna and McCauley are not lovers. Vincent is a police lieutenant, while Neil is a professional thief. The two's cat and mouse relationship forms the core of Michael Mann's masterful crime saga, one of the best in recent years.
Cop and robber first become aware of one another after a botched job, during which, after a new member's mistake, McCauley and his crew are forced to execute the guards of an armoured car. McCauley is now the proud owner of $1.6 million in anonymous bonds, which he plans to sell back to their original owner (William Fichtner).
As they begin to set this up, and plan one last "retirement" bank heist, McCauley and his crew come under surveillance by Hanna and his Robbery-Homicide squad. But it is not long before McCauley becomes wise, and Hanna ends up watching McCauley watching him.
The most interesting thing about Heat is the way it represents Hanna and McCauley as two sides of the same coin. Obviously there is the idea that they are essentially the same person, just on different sides of the law. But Mann's script presents us with a plethora of other contrasts and mirrors between the two antagonists.
Their personal lives, for instance. Hanna, an officer at the peak of his career, wants to be there for his third wife and her teenage daughter, but his devotion to his job gets in the way. On the other hand, McCauley, on the cusp of retirement, adheres to his philosophy of never having anything that you can't walk away from in thirty seconds, if you feel the eponymous heat around the corner. And yet, as he plans his final job, McCauley starts a relationship with a young graphic designer.
Pacino and De Niro are, of course, brilliant in their respective roles. De Niro, as the dignified and introverted McCauley, plays the same character he's been playing for years, but he plays it with impeccable skill. On the other side of the coin, Pacino has great fun with the more outgoing Hanna. Most of the time Pacino plays it straight, but once in a while there is a burst of almost maniacal ferocity, which places Hanna firmly in the role of the hunter.
While Heat is primarily a character study, centering largely on its two leads, that doesn't mean that there's no action. McCauley's bank robbery, and the following gun battle that plays out on the streets of L.A. between the thieves and Hanna's squad, makes for one hell of an action sequence. It is meticulously set up; the cinematography strikes the perfect balance between controlled and frenetic; and the fact that Mann manages to keep it up for over ten minutes is staggering.
This sequence, and the climactic showdown between Hanna and McCauley, form the action centrepieces of the film. But it is the carefully studied relationship between these two antagonists that raises Heat above the rest of the genre. A different situation, they could have been the best of friends. But as it stands, Hanna and McCauley present us with one of the greatest rivalries in recent cinema.
As an aside, Heat is also up for the "Loudest Gunshots in Cinema" award. Less auditorily stalwart viewers may want to consider earplugs.
Troy is essentially two and a half hours of burly men harping on about how their actions will ensure that their names are remembered for millennia. Which is ironic, because for all the characters' talk about the immortality of fame, the film's sheer mediocrity ensures that it will be remembered little beyond the end credits.
The plot is common knowledge, so I'll be brief. Paris (Orlando Bloom), son of Priam, king of Troy (Peter O'Toole), kidnaps Helen (Diane Kruger), wife of Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), king of Sparta. So Menelaus' brother, Agamemnon (Brian Cox) unites all of Greece and lays siege to Troy. During the siege, a rivalry develops between Hector (Eric Bana), Troy's best warrior, and Achilles (Brad Pitt), the greatest warrior in the world. Ever.
The primary source for all of this is, of course, the Iliad, Homer's ancient epic poem that uses the Trojan war as a vehicle for the exploration of honour, camaraderie, grief, and compassion. All of which director Wolfgang Petersen and writer David Benioff decided they could ignore, in favour of the aforementioned drivel about immortality.
The best example of this complete misinterpretation of the Iliad is Troy's seeming inability to decide which side, the Greeks or the Trojans, is most deserving of our sympathy. While Homer's poem shows great compassion for both armies, Petersen's film abandons this idea, instead making the Greeks war-hungry oafs, the Trojans cowardly layabouts erroneously defending Orlando Bloom, and both sides utterly unworthy of our support.
This isn't helped by the level of acting present. None of the performances are bad, per se; but none of the actors manage to infuse their characters with the kind of humanity needed to engage the audience. The only actor who come close is Peter O'Toole as King Priam, but he is so underused he never gets a chance to develop the character.
Also missing are the Greek gods, whose intervention was the driving force behind the events of the Iliad. Leaving them out probably made sense in the script meetings; the days when Lawrence Olivier could put on a bed sheet and declare himself Zeus are gone. But in the Iliad, the gods weren't just childish super beings. They were symbols, metaphors for different aspects of human nature. When Ares, the god of bloody slaughter, would join the Trojans in battle, it signified that they were overcome by an insatiable blood lust. When Athena, goddess of heroic valour, descended into the Greek ranks, we know they are fighting with honour. Without these symbols, the battles of Troy are empty and meaningless.
They don't even look that good. Sure, the CGI is impressive, but what CGI isn't these days? Cinema has become so saturated with hordes of computer generated warriors hacking each other to pieces that not even "the largest army the world has ever seen", as one character probably boasts, can truly excite audiences any more.
Troy is the epitome of Hollywood's recent spate of blockbuster epics; it is bland, empty, meaningless, and any other word you might find in a thesaurus under "dull". We can't even enjoy the end credits, that final release from a bad film, because there's an awful, awful song.
"My kind of horror isn't horror anymore." So says Boris Karloff in Peter Bogdanovich's Targets. This statement holds as much truth today as it did back in 1968: how can "painted monsters", as Karloff puts it, stand up against mass-murdering snipers, or car bombs? Targets follows to separate story lines. Byron Orlok (Karloff) is an ageing and disillusioned horror film star preparing to retire. Bobby Thompson (Tom O'Kelly) is a Vietnam veteran who takes to sniping drivers from a water tower. Both stories eventually converge at a drive-in movie, where Orlok is making his final public appearance and Thomspon goes to escape the police.
Karloff is more than convincing as an embittered English gent, but it is O'Kelly that forms the film's core. The scene atop a water tower, bearing obvious similarities to Charles Whitman's shooting of 14 people from the University of Texas' administrative building just two years early, is genuinely riveting cinema. Shot entirely without dialogue, Bogdanovich gives us an idea of how insignificant O'Kelly considers his victims by filming them in long shot. It is only during the film's climax at the drive-in that the camera joins them in their terror.
Forty years on, Targets, Peter Bogdanovich's debut feature, has lost none of its power to unnerve. And its central theme is more relevant today than ever. The likes of the Saw series, and the influx of Asian horror, seem completely arbitrary when real terror (or so we're told) can strike at any moment.
The Dark Knight (2008)
The Dark Knight
A retrospective look illuminates a not wholly unsurprising parallel between the progress of the comic book film, and that of the comics industry itself. From highly successful beginnings in the Superman and Batman franchises, the comic book film moved into less auspicious territory in the 1990s, what with juvenile monstrosities like Captain America, The Phantom, and Batman and Robin an era not dissimilar to the similarly juvenile comics of the 1950s and '60s.
Then, like the '70s, in which some welcome maturity was injected into comics, the late '90s and 2000s saw a boom in more grown-up and technically accomplished comic book films, such as Blade, Hellboy, and the X-Men and Spider-Man series. But something else was started with Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan's sombre reboot of the Batman franchise. Something akin to Alan Moore and Frank Miller's revitalisation of comics in the '80s. Something that has come to full fruition with Nolan's follow-up to Begins, The Dark Knight. Yes, The Dark Knight may just be the Watchmen of comic book films.
The film picks up at an unspecified, but assumedly brief time after Begins, with Batman (Christian Bale) continuing his crusade against a weakened and desperate mob. In an early scene, he apprehends a somewhat unhinged Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), now reduced to peddling his fear toxin to Gotham's drug dealers. The Caped Crusader is "assisted" by a gang of Batman wannabes - a positive but unwanted sign that Gotham's citizens are being inspired by Batman's example.
But Batman believes that the time is coming when Bruce Wayne can hang up cape and cowl and call it a day. He hopes to pass the beacon of hope on to chiselled District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Dent is a man not afraid to go that extra mile in the fight against crime; at one point he manages to convict over five hundred criminals at once.
Of course, it's not long before a wrench is thrown into the gears. A wrench in the shape of a scarred sociopathic madman known only as the Joker (Heath Ledger). Adorned in a purple suit, white make-up, and a red rictus grin, the Joker first manages to once again unite the mob, then has the citizens of Gotham cowering in terror from his reign of pure chaos.
Posthumous Oscar nomination aside, Ledger's performance is a dark and sometimes disturbing gem that deserves every bit of praise that it's getting. The heavy make-up that obscures the actor's face is only an exterior symbol of the extent to which Ledger fearlessly dives into the Joker's psyche. The young man who charmed his way through A Knight's Tale, and mumbled his way through Brokeback Mountain, is nowhere to be seen.
Instead, Ledger licks his lips, moves with an edgy, unpredictable grace, and snaps from comical to creepy in the blink of an eye. He spreads disorder throughout Gotham, taking character's moral codes and twisting them into impossible situations. As the Joker says himself, "The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules." But, contrary to recent press coverage, this is not solely Ledger's show. Christian Bale, returning to the Batsuit, is just as good as Bruce Wayne/Batman as he was in Begins, if not better. He is not as tormented as in the previous film, having found in Batman a effective outlet for his anger and grief; but he still smoulders with the intensity required to make this difficult character believable. Gary Oldman also stands out, having a much more significant role this time around; Lt. James Gordon seems to occupy the moral middle-ground between Batman and Harvey Dent, two characters prepared to bend, and maybe even break the rules in their pursuit of justice.
The film's supporting roles are also above par. Michael Caine's fabulously dry Alfred adds some welcome humour into the otherwise totally bleak proceedings. Morgan Freeman continues to exude class as Lucius Fox. And Maggie Gyllenhaal's spunky Rachel Dawes is vast improvement over Katie Holmes' ingratiating version of the seemingly superfluous character (Dawes is much more important this time around).
The narrative drive of The Dark Knight, however, belongs to Dent. Eckhart is perfect in the role. He has the charisma and integrity to pull off the crusading D.A., and the pathos and emotion to make his descent into the vengeful Two-Face a truly tragic turn of events. And when it comes to the all important scarring well, Tommy ain't got nothing on this.
Other directors might have treated all of this as nothing more than popcorn entertainment. But not Christopher Nolan. Right from the opening shots, Nolan declares that The Dark Knight is not just a comic book film, not even a sophisticated comic book film; but rather a sophisticated crime drama. The neo-noir visuals, the dark urban settings (shot masterfully by cinematographer Wally Pfister), and the carefully staged action sequences could more easily have come from something akin to Heat or Se7en as a summer blockbuster.
It seems strange comparing a Batman film to cinema's great crime sagas, but there is no way around it. Nolan and his brother Johnathan have written a perfectly crafted thriller that uses its otherwise outlandish characters to explore the very nature of morality, and especially that nature in terms of our governments' war on terror. One of Batman's tools will certainly spark debate concerning our progressively more pervasive surveillance culture. And when was the last time a comic book film sparked any kind of serious debate?
I said at the beginning of this review that The Dark Knight is the Watchmen of comic book films. I can think of no better way of putting it. Alan Moore's graphic novel showed readers that comics can be dark, complex, and intelligent. Similarly, The Dark Knight will prove to audiences that comic book films aren't just mindless flashy entertainment; they can engage us, explore the very nature of humanity. And most importantly, they can make us think.
I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK
Cha Young-goon thinks she's a cyborg. She works in a factory, where the employees all wear bright red and sit in neat, identical rows. One day, she slits her wrist and inserts an electrical cable into the wound in an attempt to recharge herself. Unsurprisingly, she is committed to a mental hospital.
The hospital is coloured in a similar stylistic vein, with lovely pastel shades of primary colours. It's all very different from writer/director's Park Chan-wook's previous films; his bleak Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance fades into black and white half way through the film. I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK is definitely a radical departure, although it does retain Park's visual quirkiness.
Young-goon has Cher-like hair, and wide, innocent eyes; we instantly fall in love with her. Once committed, she begins talking to vending machines and strip lights, using her grandmother's dentures. She also refuses to eat, preferring instead to lick batteries. This attracts the attention of mask-wearing Park Il-sun, fellow patient and kleptomaniac. But Il-sun is not your average, run-of-the-mill pickpocket; he steals the intangible, such as memories, table tennis skill, or politeness.
It is not long before Young-goon enlists Il-sun to steal her sympathy. You see, Young-goon needs to rescue her grandmother, who has also been committed, and kill the doctors holding her prisoner. But she can't stop worrying that her victims have grandmothers of their own. And, as we all know, sympathy is one of the seven deadly robotic sins. (The others include thankfulness, hesitation, and useless daydreaming.) It's all very strange. Refreshingly strange, in fact. Two odd highlights are a yodelling interlude, and an extended Peckinpah-style bloodbath, complete with finger guns. The unusual plot and set pieces are complemented by an equally unusual look. Park's idiosyncratic visual flair translates well from the darkness and violence of his vengeance trilogy, to the lighter world of this romantic comedy. The mental hospital looks like no hospital I've ever seen, with bright green padded rooms, deep red maintenance corridors, and even a hiccupping grandfather clock. The CGI, whether due to budget constraints or artistic choice, has that artificial quality seen all too often, but here it adds to the films carefully crafted aesthetic. It's almost as if we're seeing the hospital through the eyes of the patients; everything seems not quite real. Or perhaps too real.
There is a shaky start, though. Throughout the first half of the film, as we are amused by Young-goon's robotic shenanigans, we are also distanced from her. I'm a Cyborg's charming eccentricities threaten to overwhelm the proceedings, bury the characters in their own strangeness. Thankfully, the really quite genuine relationship between Young-goon and Il-sun injects some much needed humanity, and as the film progresses, we begin to learn more of, and sympathise with, Young-goon's plight.
I'm a Cyborg is one of those rare and welcome films that you cannot help but smile through. Young-goon's innocent eyes, the hospital's pastel-coloured walls, the glorious flights of fancy; it all makes for one of the most charming, and definitely the oddest, romantic comedy I have seen in a long time. Odd in the good way, though.
Irina Palm (2007)
Maggie (Marianne Faithful) has "the best right hand in London". Which is a tad disturbing, considering she is a kindly, middle-class grandmother. But it's OK, because she's only pleasuring men in Soho so that she can pay for her dying grandson's medical treatment. Which is a shame, because Corey Burke, the young actor playing the grandson, is quite irritatingly bad, and the money would be better spend on acting lessons than life-saving procedures.
Thankfully, Kevin Bishop and Siobhan Hewlett inject some authenticity into the proceedings as Tom and Sarah, the devoted parents. Sarah is quietly optimistic, trying not to let the strain affect her son or her marriage. And Tom is quietly despairing, almost accepting his son's fate. Until, that is, his mother hands him a huge wad of cash and refuses to tell him where it came from.
Of course, none of this really matters. Nobody will walk into the cinema wanting to see a family come apart at the seams dealing with the possibility of their son's death. No, the punter's will buy their tickets for Irina Palm to see how a grandmother deals with giving the best hand jobs in Soho.
It's all done very quaintly. Maggie winces her way through her first few clients, before getting to grips (pun intended) with her new profession. And all the while her relationship with her stuck-up friends at home deteriorates, while her friendship with Miki, the club owner, blossoms.
It's all very predictable, really.
Entertaining, though. The script seems a bit forced at times, as do the performances, and the occasional attempts at some kind of social commentary aren't as successful as they could have been. And the soundtrack is oddly bleak, given the film's comedic bent. In fact, there's quite a list of faults. But somehow, Irina Palm manages to entertain, and there's not a lot more you could ask for.
Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Gone Baby Gone
One of the problems with the film industry is the oft unavoidable delay between inception and release. Whether it be an overlong production, or some outside influence or controversy, the gods of fate will all too often cause a film dealing with or alluding to a current event, to be released after said event has ceased to be current. Such is the case with actor Ben Affleck's directorial debut Gone Baby Gone, whose plot bears striking similarities to the case of four-year-old Madeleine McCann, who was abducted just last year.
This parallel, still fresh in the media memory, is bound to bring just as much publicity as the director, who until 2006s Hollywoodland, had made a career on decidedly lowbrow roles. So it would makes sense that, following one of his few serious roles in the aforementioned film, Affleck would turn his attention to helming a just as serious piece.
And serious it is. Gone Baby Gone, with its urban setting and seedy themes, could easily be described as noir. But absent are the expressionist shadows, fast-talking private eyes, and veiled allusions to unsavoury criminal activity. Instead we have the rundown neighbourhood of Dorchester, Boston. As private investigators Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angela Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) scour the community for clues as to the whereabouts of kidnapped four-year-old Amanda McCready, the neighbourhood almost becomes a character in its own right. As shots of neighbours gathered on doorsteps and children playing in the streets contrast with darkly-lit discussions of drugs and child abuse, we really get a sense for the living dichotomy of the neighbourhoods we so often see on the evening news.
Neither does the film shy away from the question that always threatened, but never surfaced during the already mentioned McCann case: how little chance is there of finding this little girl alive? As Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) tells the two investigators, if the child isn't found within twenty-four hours, only ten percent are ever recovered.
The film's performances perfectly capture this sense of hope, despair, and desperation. As can be expected from his recent Oscar nomination, the younger Affleck makes the role his own. The shy and awkward youngster who half-smiled his way through a myriad of uncomfortable silences in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is still there, but Casey moulds this persona into something tougher, but still hopeful and, in some ways, naïve. Freeman is obviously as professional as ever as the police captain in charge of the search. And Ed Harris delivers another reliably solid performance as a jaded police detective partnered with the private detectives.
But then there's Michelle Monaghan, something of a weak link. This is not a slight against her talent or ability; on the contrary, she is a fine actress, as is most readily observable in the unbelievably entertaining Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. No, the problem comes in the validity of the character. Gennaro has little to do throughout the vast majority of the film. When she is used, she acts as more of a conscience for Kenzie than as a physical element in the narrative. She questions her partners actions, or reassures him when he himself questions them.
Having said this, Gone Baby Gone does sometimes benefit from the presence of a walking, talking moral compass. As the film progresses, our own moral stance is challenged. Without giving the plot away, we join Kenzie in re-evaluating our preconceptions about who is right and wrong when it comes to the protection of children. Please don't take this as meaning that the film sides with child abductors; that would be absurd. But when the parents are distant and neglectful, who is to say what is best for the child? This tricky moral quagmire is accompanied by an equally tricky narrative one. While the first half is a simple search narrative, Gone Baby Gone's second half snakes around so many twists that it is difficult for us, not only to keep track of the plot, but too keep track of who is right and wrong. Characters who seemed good turn bad; characters who seemed bad turn good; and some who seemed good but turned bad, turn good again.
The confusion finds its way into the older Affleck's assured camera work. For the most part, the cinematography adheres to that loose, semi-documentary style that has been favoured in recent years. But occasionally, when the action threatens become as confusing as the plot, we are treated to an almost nauseatingly shaky camera: the characters are unsure of what is going on, and so are we.
When it comes to tally up the box office receipts, it is a shame that a large portion of the money Gone Baby Gone will make will be due to its parallels with recent media events. Because this is a surprisingly well-crafted and assured debut from the always polarising Ben Affleck, and it deserves to be watched and judged under its own merits, of which there are many. As a thriller you could not hope for anything more. And as an exploration of the moral pitfalls of investigating child abuse, well, thoughts will be provoked.
Inside Man (2006)
The perfect heist. But the perfect heist movie?
I've read a few reviews and general opinions on Inside Man, and it would appear that most people don't get the film, or at least they don't get it the way I did. The general consensus seems to be that Spike Lee has crafted an entertaining but flawed heist movie. But to me, that's all wrong. Spike Lee, to my eyes, has thrown the usual concept of building up detailed backgrounds on both the cops and the robbers, and instead has written an essay on the perfect bank robbery.
The movie opens with Clive Owen's Dalton Russell giving a soliloquy from what appears to be a very small room. But as we find out, "there is a vast difference from being stuck in a tiny cell and being in prison." This monologue turns out to be the key to the whole film. Russell tells us that he has, in the events about to fold out on screen, planned and executed the perfect bank robbery. Why? Because he can. "And therein, as the bard tells us, lies the rub." The rest of the film follows both Russell and hostage negotiator Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) as they play in a battle of wits, where the prize is, seemingly, the lives of the hostages. Other characters come into the fray: Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), the bank owner who's past (most people would have you believe) is integral to the heist; John Darius (Willem Dafoe), in an understated role as the officer in charge of proceedings; and Madeline White (Jodie Foster), an enigmatic business woman who's role is never explained, and doesn't need to be. The robbery itself includes such eccentricities as dressing up all the hostages in the exact same outfits the robbers are wearing (making the planning of a raid later on in the film rather difficult for the police) and broadcasting an Albanian president's public address when the police try to bug the bank.
But all these little details do is disguise the robbery's true purpose: to be the perfect bank robbery. This fact was most evident, for me, in the film's music (by Terence Blanchard). Most of the time it's reminiscent of a Seventies' cop show, orchestral mixed with guitar riffs. But there are times when the music will swell, and the audience is confused as to what the meaning of this is. To my ears, it all became clear when we are shown a shot of Owen standing in the door of one of the bank's vaults. The music swells to almost epic proportions, and we are unconsciously told that there is something more than money going on.
I won't go any further into the inner workings of the film, for fear of spoiling it for you. Safe to say that there are a few more surprises other than the ones listed above, and Spike Lee, it would seem, couldn't help sliding in some social commentary; at one point a Sikh argues with police that he is not an Arab, after they remove his turban for "safety".
The film, of course, is not without its flaws. The ending is a little too drawn out, as it tries to wrap up story arcs that could have been left loose and still given the film a satisfying conclusion. But overall, Inside Man is one of the better heist movies I've seen (not that I've seen a whole lot; they're not really my thing). You might not interpret it as I did, but you'll still have fun.
Children of Men (2006)
A Political Hideaway
2006 has been a good year for politically minded films: we've seen George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck.; the not-as-anarchist-as-the-comic-but-still-pretty-good V For Vendetta; and the emotionally charged United 93. This month, Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men joins these thought-provoking films, and quite rightly, too.
The year is 2027 and, one generation from now, the entire female population of the planet is infertile. The youngest person in the world has just died at 18, and most of the world has been ravaged by war, turning Britain into a Daily Mail reader's paradise; the government as made outlawed immigrants, and broadcasts its neo-fascist propaganda over digital billboards in streets and buses. In the middle of all this is Theo Faron (Clive Owen), an ex-activist, now an alcoholic working in an office. After narrowly escaping a terrorist attack in a café, Theo is kidnapped by a group of "Fishes" (freedom fighters), headed by his activist ex Julian (Julianne Moore), and thrust into the centre of a plot to get the first pregnant woman in 18 years to the mythical Human Project.
If Children of Men has one flaw, it is that it won't draw in the action crowd that made V for Vendetta a moderate success. If, however, you're looking for a politically and emotionally charged story, depicting a scarily realistic vision of what the future could be, Children of Men is highly recommended. Following in the footsteps of Fernando Meirelles and his fantastic The Constant Gardener, Alfonso Cuarón has blended a riveting story with a strong political message. Anyone who feels a knot of fear in their stomach whenever they see a Daily Mail headline will be moved by the images of immigrants locked in cages. And almost paradoxically, the climax expertly puts across the film's theme of humanity over any political agenda.
Technically, the film will not disappoint students of film. In an expository scene in an abandoned school, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), our pregnant protagonist, is almost too-perfectly framed in a shattered window. The technical highlights, though, are the film's two main action sequences. One in a car and the other in a building under attack, both are filmed in single takes, and have a documentary feel. We, the audience, are taken right into these scenes, which make their emotional climaxes (especially in the latter) even more real and moving.
If you're looking for a political hideaway from the past summer's lacklustre blockbusters, you definitely cannot go wrong with Children of Men. Cuarón has infused his work with a realism and emotional quality rare in films of this type, and fantastic performances from the main cast, as well as smaller characters such as Michael Caine's pot-smoking hippie Jasper make it a more than enjoyable experience. Hollywood needs more films like this.