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Style over susbstance -
Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive stars Ryan Gossling as the nameless protagonist (much the same conceit as Ryan O'Neals nameless driver in Walter Hill's The Driver (1976). Critics have fawned over what could be described oxymoronically as an art-house movie; and Refn even received the prestigious director's award at this year's Cannes (nothing to do with Von Trier being persona non grata, of course). All in all, I was expecting a masterpiece. Instead, I was left with a limp, lifeless and boringly self-conscious menage of cinematic motifs, borrowed heavily from Tarantino, Lynch and Walter Hill. The result is an uninspired, embarrassing mess of a movie. It doesn't deserve to be seen in the same league as the infinitely superior Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, which Refn has plundered for purely aesthetic gains and nothing else. He even had the temerity to use Lynch's ex-musical partner, Angelo Badalamentti, who uses his typically Lynchian sounds to little effect. Intringuingly, at one stage, even Lynch's music from Inland Empire seems to have been deliberately mimicked as some kind of in-joke on Badalamentti's behalf (or perhaps an ironic riposte for not being chosen by Lynch to provide the Inland Empire OST). While Lynch offers abstraction and depth, Drive is all surface gloss and bokeh – there is no mystery to behold or engage the viewer; just the bland, vacuous features of Gossling, who is a blank canvas and nothing else. Critics have predictably lapped up its style and gratuitous violence as heralding a new talent, much like they fawned over Tarantino a decade ago. Take away the violence and uninspiring story, and what's left is nothing. Drive is ultimately all style and no substance. Avoid.
La belle personne (2008)
Back on Form
Christopher Honoré's La belle personne is a compelling curiosity; transposing the courtly world of Madame de La Fayette's classic 17th century story, La Princess de Cleves to a modern-day French lyceé (with its own courtyard), the film is a compelling observation of "courtly" love in a postmodern world; although it would be convincing to argue La belle personne is not very modern in its presentation of present-day bourgeoise Parisian etudiants. This is a world that exists in its own hermetically-sealed bubble, free from Facebook and the internet. It's a world where 60s navel-gazing reigns supreme.
The film follows the tribulations love brings, or perhaps more realistically, the tribulations of what one perceives as 'love', even if it's unconsummated. The title alludes to 17-year-old Junie (Léa Seydoux), whose aura and presence recalls a ghostly incarnation of Godard's muse Anna Karina (Perhaps a self-conscious homage to Godard by the FEMIS-teaching Honoré?). Following the death of her mother, Junie refuses to live with her father (for unknown reasons), choosing instead to live with her cousin, Mathias, in a haute-bourgeoisie Parisian arrondisement close to the school she and Mathias attend. ' Soon enough Junie becomes the default objet d'amour for the male etudiants, namely love-sick Otto (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) at first.
However, she soon troubles the cad-in-school Italian teacher, Nemours (the lanky yet ever-foppish Louis Garrel) with her otherworldly presence, prompting him to quickly end two amorous entanglements with a middle-aged fellow teacher and a stubborn 16-year-old female student. However, as one would expect fron the source material, tragedy foreshadows this story but it does not detract from this near-perfect made-for-TV drama.
Every performance is realistic and natural. Special kudos to Garrel and Sedoyx for their work here. Honore follows the mis-step that was Chansons D'amour with this elegant, masterfully composed concoction; even if you could argue La belle personne seems to be an inverse reworking of Chansons. With the ensemble of regulars (Garrel, Hesme, Mastroianni, Leprine-Ringuet etc), traversing both films, La belle personne perversely feels like a sequel somehow taking place in a parallel world to Chansons. In spite of some questionable if strained directorial nods to the Nouvelle Vague (mentioning them would spoil the end), Honoré shows restraint and an uncharacteristic sense of detachment. The way he directs Seydoux is a revelation. Her ghostly presence haunts the film in every aspect and should be noted as a performance of great integrity and resolve from this promising actress. As a modern-day exploration of courtly love, La belle personne, is worth seeing numerous times to catch the many subtleties it withholds on first viewing.
Le fil (2009)
Promises much but delivers little
Le Fil(aka The String) promises much but delivers little. This directorial debut by Mehdi Ben Attia is confused by what it wants to be. Starting as a commentary on quasi-French colonialism vis a vis Tunisian servitude, Le Fil then dabbles unsuccessfully in a range of conflicting cinematic genres – from melodrama to thriller to comedy. It seems to favour melodrama but masters none. Ultimately, the film wants to satisfy every genre but ends up a dissatisfying mess. The editing also feels rushed as if the film has to be under 90 minutes. There is not much of a plot to drive the narrative. What starts of as a restrained gay version of Mommie Dearest soon becomes something altogether different.
Claudia Cardinale is maniacal enough to maintain her bitchiness as the archetypal overbearing mother, whose closeted French-Arab architect son, Hakim returns home to live with her in Tunusia. Soon enough conflicts arise between both, and the Oedipal attachment is soon erupted by the son's longing for the Tunusian handyman, Bilal. The son is torn between his mother's approval and his desire to live as a gay man in Tunisia. The fact that he could easily have moved back to France with his handyman is not even mentioned. Instead we are treated to a dubious moral fable about the importance of family – the ties that bind can imprison us, but they also liberate us at a price: the façade of social conformity.
I also found the conceit of the string, real and imagined, was rather crude. As a symbol of the umbilical cord it might have a Freudian significance, but it felt clumsily realised and out of touch with the film's penchant for realism. The film feels like a reflection of many gay men's reality by saying that gay men must compromise their lives to live in a heterosexist world. In spite of the happy ending that reaffirms the conservative values of family, Le Fil climaxes as a depressing tale for gay men who want to be free of the strictures of family life.
Is this what French cinema has become?
This Gallic, Altman-lite, picture-postcard film might as well have been produced by the Paris Tourist Office. What we get is too many stories about the multiplicity of life in Paris. The film could easily have lasted another 30 minutes to sustain the stories it created and discarded, but after all, this is 'tranche de vie".
All the clichés are here - the ugly professor who falls for the beautiful girl, whose beauty is only skin deep. Yawn. How many French films have dealt with this cliché? Romain Duris' tragic story seems to be a direct lift from Francois Ozon's superior 'Les Temps Qui Reste'but lacks that film's depth of character. Duris, ultimately, is a poorly conceived protagonist, who, ludicrously seems to be straight, even though all the signs suggest otherwise. Yet again, a mainstream French film has shied away from portraying gay characters.
The other inter weaved stories are varied but dull, most concentrating on the disaffected bonhomie of the French bourgeoisie. The stories about the market traders seem inconsequential and piddling almost as if the director bowed to tokenism.
All in all, major disappointment and a further concession to Hollywood values.
O Fantasma (2000)
The heat is a lonely hunter
Set in the nocturnal, mundane world of Lisboan rubbish-collectors, this troubling and unforgettable study of erotomania leaves a lingering sense of mystery an confusion. The mystery is sustained by the nocturnal wanderings of the protagonist, Sergio, whose erotomania the film charts in a stylised and disturbing way.
The film never tells us what is fantasy or reality - the ever-present darkness envelopes every desire as Sergio hunts for sexual thrills and the unobtainable object of desire, which in this instance, is a handsome swimmer, oblivious to Segio's ways. And this state if unrequited love/desire triggers a downward spiral in Sergio, and is symptomatic of his enveloping erotomania.
Structurally, there is little story or plot. The film's sense of time is also slippery and non-linear. There are hints that the start is the actual end - so is what is seen in between a mixture of fantasy or reality or neither? Such questions remain unresolved in this provocative and atmospheric study of homosexual desire and alienation. Best seen at night.....
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Slumdog is seriously overrated
Now the Oscar dust has settled, what remains of Slumdog Millionaire? Nothing much. Slumdog was a victim of its own buzz and the hype that surrounded it was, naturally, unsustainable. Watching the film on DVD, I was aware of its severe limitations as a cinematic experience. Originally intended for a DVD/TV crossover, the film very much belongs to that genre. The biggest problem of the film is its adult protagonist played by Dev Patel. For UK viewers, he is best known as one of the ex-cast members of the overrated teen drama Skins, and it's this TV baggage he brings to Slumdog. Furthermore, he is not the charismatic hero of Bollywood film but very average looking and limited in his acting talents. His co-star Freida Pinto as the adult Latika doesn't have to do much except look beautiful, and she does that very well. Embarrassingly, both are upstaged by the trio of child actors who bring a daring self-effacement to their roles. Is is they who bring a haunting authenticity to the film, being slumdog children themselves; and it's this blurring of roles and reality that is so intriguing.
Why is it overrated? The film's central conceit of the Millionaire quiz and flashbacks is clever at the start but soon loses its effect. Director Danny Boyle is confused about where to reveal the origin of the answer – sometimes it's revealed after the question is asked; other times it's revealed before. There's an inconsistency about the flow of this narrative strategy and often I found myself guessing the outcome before it came and I don't want to be in this situation in a film.
The film's dynamic flow staggers midway and the linear narrative takes hold. What we get is a run-of-the mill Bollywood romance that seems too Hollywood for its own sake. The final scenes are desperately out of place in the film and seem insulting to the audience following many harrowing scenes. To say the film's ending is badly handled is an understatement. Boyle seems to have been confused about how to end the film, so what we get is an abrupt cutaway to the protagonist Jamal, sitting like a beggar in the station despite being the most famous TV star in Mumbai. Just didn't ring true. The Bollywood credits further reinforces the trivial tone. No wonder it won so many Oscars!
Eden Lake (2008)
Duff Chav horror
This is possibly one of the worst films ever made in Britain. Not only is it morally repugnant and predictable in its misguided tendencies to glorify evil, but it's also badly written.
There are too many plot holes to mention, but amongst many farcical scenes is when the protagonist somehow managed to jump on top of a disused cabin to hide from the Chav louts (Is she the bionic woman?). Such scenes border on farce and comedy.
The couple had every chance to leave the lake, and anyone in their right mind would have left but this is surely because this film has no hold on reality or truthfulness.
The couple are badly drawn and their descent into murderous behaviour is, yawn, a wet liberalist take on subversive middle-classes being just as bad as the vile working class. The film has issues with its location. although Eden Lake is supposed to be in the midlands, each chav has a different accent, and the parents' accents are Northern, more Yorkshire than Midlands. These annoyances are part of the wider failure of the film to retain consistency and validity. The chav ringleader has a Bristolian accent while his parents have a Northern one. Totally ridiculous! A better ending would have seen the woman charged with murder and the other chavs getting away Scot free - this is how things happen in sweet England, not the shoddy horror nonsense that engulfs this genre.
All in all, this film will infuriate anyone who cannot suspend disbelief when watching this tripe. Truly awful. The kind of film that many deluded film critics would praise for being worthy and socially relevant, but that is at the expense of a badly conceived story. Avoid like the plague.
Modern-day vampire story lacks bite
An insufferable female protagonist and a beguiling yet empty male romantic lead make up this ill-judged teen Vampire flick that lacks bite. Helmer Catherine Hardwicke has fashioned a modern-day Vampire allegory crudely linking burning heterosexual sexual desire to vampirism. This conceit is trite and dated and also surprisingly simplistic. The notion that its two romantic leads are just looking for love in spite of the vampiric element is crudely realised and formulaic and is no different than Romeo and Juliet - yawn.
Perhaps stiffled by the novel's limitations, Twilight fails to reinvigorate the Vampire genre and might as well have been released in 1987 given its rural setting and distinct lack of style. By their nature, Vampires reject any notion of sexual desire as mere impediment to their desire to extract blood from humans, but this point escapes Hardwicke's naive film. Furtehrmore, she didn't realise that Vampires are inherently bisexual by nature and the heterosexual love story it uses is as contrived as ever. A missed opportunity.
The Amityville Horror (2005)
An awful remake of the superior 19779 original. While the original was by no means a great horror film, it had genuine shocks and was far more believable in its characterization and evocation of mood and impending terror.
The remake leaves little to the imagination and suffers from the deluded philosophy that more gore is better. Of course less is more as the original showed us without the fancy trickery of the remake.
There are some silly scenes that leave little to the imagination and are just not scary. Ryan Reynolds lacks the requisite madness to make his role convincing while Melissa George does not do much at all. They are poor substitute for the stars of the original.
Avoid this rubbish.
Pola X (1999)
A Beautiful Disaster
Following the mixed fortunes of his previous film, Les Amands du Pont Neuf, Leos Carax returned with an adaptation of Herman Melville's controversial novel, Pierre, or the Ambiguities.
Unfortunately, for Carax and French cinema, Carax's film is a disaster. It may have visual flourishes and unforgettable images, but the film is a tale of two halves. While he first half is beautifully shot an d highly stylised; the tawdry second half is heavy-going and repulsive to watch, replete with brutal political statements that leave little to the imagination. Both halves seem like polar opposites. Maybe this was his intention, but Carax will doubtless lose many viewers after the second half.
Catherine Deneuve is criminally underused, even though she was marketed as the prime appeal of this dire film. Although Guillame Depardieu gives a searing performance, the film s too small and delusional for his towering performance to evolve as anything substantial. The notion of tragedy is clearly evident in the film, but Carax executes his vision poorly. A far better example of such an approach is Choses Secrets, which leaves Pola X in the dust.
The biggest problem with Carax as a director is his lack of subtlety or refinement as am auteur. Working with narrative does not suit his inimitable style as one of the proponents of "cinema du look', a term he most likely despises. What's problematic about his penchant for image over narrative, is the emptiness of his images for the most part. Devoid of meaning, his images are there in Pola X to engage our superficial desire to see rather than any intuition.
What's most disturbing in Pola X is the unrealistic progression from dream-like scenarios to brutal, unforgiving reality. What could have been a dreamlike, ambiguous piece becomes too literal and heavy-handed and embarrassing to watch in its mediocrity.
A pity, Pola X could have been more ambiguous as Melville intended.
Les chansons d'amour (2007)
Hit and miss musical pastiche
Christophe Honoré's follow-up to Dans Paris is a disappointingly affair, that knowingly borrows from Godard and Demy but does little to convince the viewer that Honoré has anything new to tell us about cinema today.
The main problem with this film is the inclusion of too many songs - 13 in fact, sung by most characters. Unfortunately, the strong narrative threads of the film suffer as a result of these constant musical interruptions which play as continuations of the realist style Honoré adopts. Unlike Dancer in the Dark, where musicality was an extension of fantasy, Honoré, in contrast, plays his musical interludes too close to the story and awkwardly cuts away unexpectedly on many occasions.
The menage á trois story is loosely constructed and unconvincing at times, while the conversion of the male lead to homosexuality is not convincingly realised.
After Dans Paris, I expected better but it's not to say this film doesn't have many great moments.
La pianiste (2001)
A stunning achievement
Haneke's stunning La Pianiste is an austere and shocking exploration of a volatile female sexual desire. As the protagonist, Erika, Isabelle Huppert gives a career-best, tour de force performance as the tortured Piano professor whose desire is in excess of social norms governing heterosexual couplings.
Many have seen the film as an expression of Erika's sexual oppression but this is far from the case. Erika is never afraid to indulge her dark, sexual desire, whether it be in a sleazy porn shop or while voyeuristically watching young lovers kiss in an open-air cinema. Erika's sexuality is in excess of her allocated neutered role in society and this is why she never achieves harmony with Walter, whom she loves in her own prescriptive way yet he cannot reciprocate her desire which is even more masculine than his.
Goverened by technicality and precision akin to her role as a respected Professor, Haneke portrays Erika as a subversive character but she is also a figure who enlists our sympathy and empathy; and herein lies the emotional power of Haneke's adaptation. Erika is all too human and in spite of her exacting and at times callous nature, she demands to be loved, even if her demands go beyond what is deemed normal in heterosexual unions where male/female equals aggressive/passive, dominant/subservient.
Hanke, as always, is a master of visuals and here he demonstrates his command of the form. There are many unforgettable scenes and innovative camera angles and also a a sense of dream-like intensity in some scenes that Haneke quietly brings in to the film at unexpected moments. The film ranks as one of Haneke's best but is not for the faint of heart.
Le divorce (2003)
It beggars belief that James Ivory would conceive of such a film in 2003. It all feels like a soft-focus Eurotrash/American melodrama from the 1980s, with its soft-focus lensing and European clichés. The acting leaves a lot to be desired and is often very wooden and awkward as the European actors strive to be convincing in the English language - Melville Poppaud in particular is miscast as the cheating husband.
Not even Naomi Watts can save the day. She is also miscast alongside her screen sister Kate Hudson. Both are above the material but fail to rise above the clichéd and mediocre script.
Le Divorce is a pitiful embarrassment and belongs on 1980s TV as a mini-series rather than a fully-fledged feature film.
Inland Empire (2006)
A towering achievement
After countless viewings I have come to the conclusion that INLAND EMPIRE is not quite as masterful as Mulholland Drive. Why? INLAND EMPIRE (hereafter IE) is more abstract than its predecessor but not as intuitive, as demonstrated by the plurality of theories, most of which are wildly divergent. Conversely, there was a consensus (most of the time) about the dream aspect of Mulholland Drive (hereafter MD) and the supposed back story, which was more transparent than the one Lynch deliberately obscures in IE.
While MD had a character we could empathize with in the guise of the Betty/Diane division, the dual identity of Nikki/Sue presented in IE is harder to grasp. Nikki doesn't endear us like Betty did in her wide-eyed innocence; while Sue is presented as a deeply disturbed, embittered woman, lacking in any redeeming features.
The story of IE is not as intuitive to grasp as MD's. Little is known about the 'real' story and how it relates to the Lost Girl and Poland vis a vis Sue's consciousness, and we don't really know whose viewpoint is privileged. In MD, we knew Diane was the central stream of consciousness; in IE, it's deeply ambiguous whether or not the Lost Girl is projecting her life to Nikki/Sue or if it's the other way around. Lynchian fans may grasp this ambiguity as part of the film's appeal, but for viewers who like to find meaning(s) after countless viewings, it's deeply frustrating and unrewarding. Surely film should reward any viewer's patience, not stifle it?
Technically, IE's digital video was a brave move for a director known for his visual flourishes and painterly approach to film. Mulholland Drive, without a doubt, is a visual feast and shows a masterful grasp of cinematography courtesy of Peter Demming. In IE the results are impressive but sadly inconsistent. The decision to film with hand-held DV cameras is well handled but there are times when there is a sense of technical ineptitude, where the camera is too jerky or out of focus in low-light, most notably in the torch scenes and the night scenes on Hollywood and Vine where Nikki sees Doris from afar hiding behind a tree for the first time. These are minor gripes. Only the most technically-minded person would notice them
In terms of editing, IE nearly matches MD. I can't think of any bad editing instances in MD, but in IE, there is a clear one that I was amazed Lynch/Mary Sweeney allowed. The edit in question is between the Nikki ('Damn this sound likes dialogue from our script") scene and the one in which Devon is told about the idiocy of the gypsy curse by Nikki's agent. When I saw this in the cinema, the transition was very abrupt, intensified by the music in the Nikki scene being cut to accommodate Nikki's agent in mid-flow. I sense this was a mistake and not intended, or perhaps it was, but it didn't feel right. This might be a minor gripe, but I expected perfection. Morever, the typically absurd Bucky J scene may provide light relief but does it really add anything to the film? The gibberish spoken by the bald-headed man on set was also baffling but something I half-expected, given Lynch's propensity for obscurantism.
I also think MD is more of an honest film than IE. MD takes us on a journey through a tortured world of a deeply disturbed woman who cannot find salvation or the light, only the brief hope of unrequited love, brutally cut by the netherworld that is Silencio. Conversely, IE takes us on a torturous journey where salvation is about self-discovery and finding the light out of the darkness. It may be more positive than MD's silencio, but sweet it surely isn't. Was there anything sweet about Sue's life? The surprising credits sequence further mystifies the film. Why Sinnerman? Do they matter? Are they really part of the film. I wish he ahd ended with Polish poem on a sombre note. Sweet felt like a reckless riposte to a film that was even darker than Mulholland Drive and didn't feel quite right yet as an in-joke it might have worked.
I enjoyed INLAND EMPIRE a lot. I still think it's a brilliant film, in the sense that it's Lynch's most ambitious film to date and one where he brings his dreamstate to narrative without the obvious conceit of the omnipresent dreamer. It develops and exceeds ideas in his earlier films. I just wish the film had ended before the credit sequence.
To close, IE includes many scenes that exceed MD, but as a totality, it falls just short but not by that much. A towering achievement nevertheless.
I expected better of Disturbia - in fact, the title, a clever portmanteau of disturb and suburbia, consciously evokes a Richard Linklater production, or perhaps a cool and edgy movie with pseudo-indie credentials. But this is mainstream Hollywood we're talking about and will they ever learn? There are so many things wrong with this film, it's difficult to start.
The protagonist Kale is a deeply unsympathetic character, and any empathy the audience might have with him is thrown out of the window when he punches a Spanish teacher and shows little remorse. So why bother? How can we identify with a spoilt WASP brat? In addition, his mother played by Carrie Ann Moss is cruelly wasted in this film as his his nubile co-star, Sarah Roemer,who just doesn't get enough to do, except drool, pout and swim in her pool. But hey. that's enough to satisfy the film's target audience - teenage boys. The token Asian friend is just that - there to foil Kale's grip on the film and become the predictable, zany and clichéd character expected.
The acting is also incredibly awful with the exception of David Morse as the baddie who is genuinely scary and disturbing in his understated lines. Shia LaBeouf (wtf is that name?) enjoys hamming it up as Kale but it becomes tireseome after 10 minutes.
Mood-wise, Disturbia cannot decide what it is. It wants to be new Hollywood cool but is too Hollywood to make that leap. What starts as a genuinely disturbing film about voyeurism soon falls apart and becomes a so-so Hollywood Horror theme park ride. There are plenty of shocks and jumps but precious little else in the final; 20 minutes. The comic elements also sit uneasily with the rest of the film's dark nature.
The end was just a cop-out and that's the biggest pity. When you pander to test audiences and demographics this is what you get. A film that is more about marketing than film itself.
La tourneuse de pages (2006)
The Page Turner A slow-burning but mesmerising Hitchcockian psychological thriller that borrows as much from Chabrol as it does from the aforementioned maestro. But it is also very much its own film, where music is more than music.... It is life. This is the brutal lesson learned by the protagonist Melanie ( as a 10-year-old budding child prodigy), an aspiring pianist who fails an exam at the conservatory when concert pianist and judge Ariane is distracted by an autograph hunter.
Many years later we find Melanie temping for Arian's husband in a law firm, ready to weave her elaborate revenge on Ariane and her family for that casual act of discourtesy that seemingly ruined her chances to become a pianist. Whether or not Melanie has planned her intricate revenge is a matter of debate but the film offers subtle clues to the viewer about Melanie's Machievellian machinations. This is where the film excels. It does not spoon-feed us with obvious motives. We expect things to happen, but they never do. Moreover, It disrupts our expectations of what should happen in such a genre- maybe because in a Hollywood film we would expect certain things to happen but this is French cinema where subtlety is key. However, what is most disturbing is the emotionless, passive-aggressive Melanie (a stunning, low-key performance of unrivaled menace by Catherine Frot), whose frozen, empty gaze signals a terrible void that the audience can only see.
Like Shakespeare, the film's strengths derive from its expert use of dramatic irony. Ariane goes from perpetrator to victim and this is where the emotional core of the film resides. She is the unwilling, unknowing victim in Melanie's Iago-like web of deceit and destruction. To conclude, The Page Turner is a stunning, ambiguous yet precise work.
I admire David Lynch's films but TP FWWM is a step too far. The film is a confused and confusing mess; a vain, self-indulgent attempt to reignite the hitherto successful franchise that was Twin Peaks. Unlike Mulholland Drive which successfully cast aside its TV roots, FWWM can't escape the burden of its televisual origins. Here Lynch has fashioned a messy prologue and epilogue to TP, destroying the enigma of Laura Palmer's death; and herein lies the problem with FWWM; it's simply too literal and overt for Lynch. There are some wildly inventive and unforgettable scenes but there are also too many scenes that flounder in their self-indulgence; scenes were muffled dialogue tries the patience of viewers. It's a slap in the face for viewers, one that insults our investment in the film.
The other central flaw is the structure. The dual story of Teresa Banks and Laura Palmer is clumsily told; and it often seems Lynch has fashioned two films in the first hour, bridging them together later on. The genesis of the film's turbulent production is also evident in the gluing of these two films together, and the haphazard use of Special Agent Dale Cooper role just doesn't work. Another flaw is Sheryl Lee's portrayal of Laura Palmer. As befits many Lynchian figures, she is a curious entity, torn between innocence and desire, but as is usual for most Lynchian characters, she lacks empathy and sympathy. It doesn't help that Sheryl lee overacts in a hysterical fashion which was probably the intention but it's still unintentionally hilarious to watch.
It's not all bad though. The framing is excellent as well as the audio. I know there is a campaign to restore this film to its original glory but it seems what can only save this film is to re-edit it further.
Superman Returns (2006)
Pales against the original
Bryan Singer's updated Superman is sadly an underwhelming, soulless experience bogged down in quasi-religious gestures and symbolism. eschewing the comic edge of the original, Singer, like Christopher Nolan's treatment of Batman, invests the eponymous superhero with a frailty and emotional core that seems at odds with the split between Clark Kent and Superman shown in the 1977 film. Not once does anyone make the connection between Kent and his alter-ego! A big hole in the plot that is discarded in favour of a silly Lois Lane love triangle that never is fully explored or resolved.
As for the effects, the flying is great compared to the original but the sets seems digitised and animated at times, especially the shots of what is supposed to be NYC ('Metropolis'). Lois Lane's house in Brooklyn never looked better! There is also a curious treatment of the art direction. By adhering to the art deco 1930 costumes of the original, the film feels anachronistic, lost in a time maze as plasma screens collide with 1930s set-pieces at the Daily Planet. The plane scene is well handled but is no more impressive than an episode of Lost. The bar is higher for special effects now but Superman Returns proves that not even the best special effects cannot save a film without a decent story.
Firstly, the villain Lex Luther played by Kevin Spacey is not evil enough. He gets the better of Superman but we never see the situation redressed as the original did. This is curious in terms of the film's propensity to moralise about goodness. In addition, there is not one standout character. Kate Bosworth is no Margot Kidder; while Brandon Routh as the superhero himself lacks the comic charm of Christopher Reeve. Parker Posey is criminally underused as Luther's sidekick. I think Posey should have played Lois Lane myself but heck she would play any role well.
The film is also a tad too long. Could have been under two hours with a tighter structure and perhaps a bit more comedy to offset its seriousness. Disappointing.
King Kong (2005)
King Kong should have been one of the great movies of the millennium. It was expected to be the biggest Box Office hit ever but it failed to meet the high expectations placed upon it by Hollywood insiders. So why was this Beast beaten by Narnia's Lion at the US Box Office?
Where do I start? The movie's biggest problem is egocentric director Peter Jackson, who stubbornly feels the genre of the epic film is synonymous with a monster movie. While the original film was tightly paced and constructed, Jackson's misguided attempt to recreate the magic of the original movie is a three-hour bore, bogged down by ridiculous special effects, poor character development and scenes that strain belief. No wonder people stayed away in droves and went to see Narnia instead. The movie just doesn't deliver. The journey to Skull Island is too long and takes itself too seriously. The silly Joseph Conrad reference is invoked with little subtlety and perhaps indicates Jackson's intention to make his version somehow more highbrow than it actually is. Worse still we don't care what happens on the ship. Oh no it's Titanic all over again minus a wet Winslet.
The best thing about the film is Naomi Watts, whose portrayal of Ann Darrow saves the film from total disaster. However she can only do so much with the ridiculous reinterpretation of the original story and I feel jackson has wasted the talent she showed in Mulholland Drive. The point of the original story was that Kong was obsessed by Darrow, while the heroine was terrified by this beast. Instead Jackson depicts her as a ball-juggling impresario, vying to tame the beast. In this misguided rewriting of the Kong myth, the movie misfires badly. By humanising Kong, the beast becomes a strange, ambiguous figure. Are we supposed to sympathise just because it fell in love with a blonde vaudeville performer even though he killed many more of the same ilk? Is he, oxymoronically, just a human barbarian? King Kong offers no answers.
What about the effects? Well disappointing. The sets look digitised and cartoon-like and there is something mechanistic about Kong's movements. However, the final scenes are the best though, even though NY at times looks like a Photoshop-enhanced Gotham city. I didn't expect much from Jackson and he delivered that expectation. Please bring out an edited version 90 minutes please with a proper director.
Art House Horror
Roman Polanski's first English language Repulsion is a tour de force of direction, framing and acting, especially from the then 22-year-old French star, Catherine Deneuve, who brings a sterile intensity to her role as the increasingly deranged and psychotic Carole, who lives with her older sister in a spooky rented flat in 1960s Kenisngton. Carole is a curious mixture of coldness and vulnerability and Deneuve manages to successfully imbue her role with these very qualities. In contrast to her sister who's having an affair with a married man, Carole shuns male interest and increasingly becomes lost in a nightmarish world of hallucinations and a rotting rabbit.
The claustrophobic atmosphere of the film is a sight to behold and is genuinely unnerving and disturbing. The flat becomes the locus of Carole's mental disintegration and Polanski makes full use of the walls, floors and windows as signifiers of Carole's condition.
What I found disappointing was the refusal of Polanski to provide a back-story for Carole's anxiety and repulsion. There are many suggestions why Carole is the way she is, but we are never given a grain of truth to let us empathise with her plight. Perhaps this was part of Polanski's agenda? In doing so, Carole is objectified, devoid of true sympathy. Her descent into murderous psychosis seems at odds with the seemingly sweet, naive girl depicted in the opening scenes. The ending shot of the family photo, though clever, is also rather shallow and prefigures Polanski's later preoccupation with amorality and evil. Carole becomes the dehumanised, demonised 'other'; separating herself from her family with that demolish, possessed gaze. Yet these are minor gripes in a very intense film.
Haute tension (2003)
Superior French Horror
Yet again French cinema takes an American genre and transforms it. In this case, Haute Tension recalls the heyday of American horror in the 70s but this brand of Gallic horror has a distinct twist. On the surface the film seems to be another horror gorefest with many contrivances and inconsistencies. There are some scenes that strain credibility and seem to be aping the conventions of the genre it recalls and later subverts via the twist ending. This is why the film demands at least two viewings. A first viewing will be visceral in its intensity while a second will yield many clues that lead to the twist ending. Cecile de Frances gives a tour de force performance as the "heroine" and holds the film together until the very end. The film has a flair for sound design and imagery as well, with a sense of foreboding captured by the cameras and use of audio. I wonder how America will remake this masterly French horror film? I suspect not as well.
Hard Candy (2005)
Worst film of the year
This tasteless and smug "psychological thriller" has been the subject of many rave reviews by critics who have little knowledge of what film actually is. Hard Candy thinks its daring and contemporary with its slick MTV visuals, but it resembles an advert more than a film in its self-conscious stylised mis en scene. But Hard Candy doesn't want to be shallow. It wants to be intellectual. And what do you get? A "heroine" who is as morally reprehensible as her victim. A heroine who spouts references and smart talk beyond her years. This just doesn't wash. Hayley, if we can call her that, is not really a character; she is a just a mouthpiece for Brian Nelson's pretentious dialogue. Her self-satisfied talk is annoying and unconvincing and is part of the reason why Hard Candy is such an astonishing failure of a film a fact supported by its dismal Box Office performance. Hayley is simply not a sympathetic character and neither is Jeff, and the film's penchant for ambiguity further clouds any sense of background and motive that might justify what is happening in this trashy, faux art-house film. The film also has no sense of irony and subtlety: Nelson could have made points about the hypocrisy of Hayley and the role-reversals she undertakes but that would have disrupted the smug dialogue.
Hard Candy is also one of the most implausible films committed to celluloid. I am not convinced why Hayley did what she did; how far she planned everything to the last detail and what her motives were. The film barely explains why she did what she did, save the stilted dialogue at the end which further reinforces the film's desperation to be ambiguous. Even the brief appearance by Sandra Oh as the inquisitive neighbour is an embarrassment. Why didn't she ask about the blood on Hayley's forehead? The script is to busy being smart to gloss over such inconsistencies. The acting is also very annoying, especially Ellen Page, who was a bit one-dimensional in her role. Avoid this nasty, amoral little film.
Le temps qui reste (2005)
Ozon's worst film
Following the disappointing 5x2, French auteur Francois Ozon felt the need to release this slight and poorly directed meditation on death. The biggest problem with this film is that it isn't a feature film. Had it been 30 minutes long it might have worked, but Ozon chose to stretch a thin premise beyond credibility. What should have been a film worthy to follow Under the Sand is really an embarrassing failure for Ozon.
Firstly, the film isn't that cinematic. Ozon is fixated on close-ups which belong to TV soap-operas rather than widescreen French cinema. The use of music is also obtrusive. We don't really care for the dying Romain. We may feel pity for him, but his stubbornness and arrogance make him an unsympathetic figure. Yes he is an anti-hero but it feels like a French cliché. Ozon also cuts away from emotive scenes as if they embarrass this film's high art cinema credentials. The reality is Ozon is afraid his material too sentimental.
The film's 77 minute length also glosses over many characters. Romain's mother is not really given a chance to show her depth. Moreau's grandmother role feels like the typical French diva. She brings too much baggage to the role and submerges Romain's presence in their scenes.
But perhaps the biggest problem of the film is the use of clichés. The sub-plot of the waitress and her husband is cringeworthy in its soap-operatic naffness and I was amazed Ozon even contemplated this strain. I also felt the main premise of the story was unoriginal - the life affirming nature of heterosexuality. Even the ending, which recalls Sand and 5x2, is a cliché with the setting sun suggesting death. A film that should never have been done, but perhaps a revealing insight into Ozon's eccentricity. All in all, a sombre soufflé.
Veers off course
Flightplan begins well as a dream-like meditation on loss; in which the realms of the imagined and the real are blurred in a mind-bending time warp. This effective, slick use of time and memory is confusing at first, but as the film progresses the reliance on this dream-like mood soon takes off in a new direction as Jodie Foster's recently-widowed Kyle, plunges into the realm of to paranoia and panic. And this is where the film veers off course. The plot intrigues as first. Is Kyle's daughter really alive? Was she ever on the plane? Logic tells us otherwise; yet the film teases us into doubting the validity of Kyle's mental state. Things are never what they seem, and after many red herrings a la Hitchcock, Flightplan finally reveals its true destination a run of the mill Hollywood thriller with Hitchcockian pretensions. The 'twist 'is so convoluted and implausible that it ruins the entire film, including Foster's uneven performance. The star of the film is the plane, whose high-tech backdrop is far more appealing than the unsympathetic Kyle. Worse still, the film has a blindingly obvious liberal agenda, most notable at the tacky and ill-judged ending. A disaster for all concerned.
A Numbing Bore
Everyone has a turkey, and Code Unknown is Michael Haneke's. Don't get me wrong I like his films but I had the misfortune of seeing Code Unknown after watching Hidden (Cache), Haneke's best film to date. In some ways Code Unknown is like a rough draft to the polished, finished product that was Cache, but Haneke would probably deny this. Why is it so bad? It just doesn't work as cinema, but this is probably what Haneke intended. However, it works as anti-bourgeoisie political propaganda but Haneke doesn't want us to identify with anyone in this film; they might as well be strangers, whose motivations remain as obscure as Haneke's direction. It's difficult to relate to what is seen; the air of detachment and ennui is inescapable and watching the disjointed narrative and self-referential scenes of Binoche in her film within a film become tedious. Hanke has zero respect for the audience; conversely, his pompous, authoritarian style destroys any sense of empathy. There are some powerful scenes but these are diminished by other plodding vignettes that reveal very little. Too many scenes linger for no apparent reason. Haneke could be projecting the lack of communication between people or it could be padding you decide. Binoche does the best she can but you sense she is just a cog in Haneke's anti-cinema wheel. She does rise above the material at times but this happens too little to merit any empathy for her. In his drive to render cinema as combination of pure art and political comment, Haneke has misfired badly here luckily Cache redeems his status.