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The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) February 23, 2009

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Directed by: Gabriele Muccino

When it comes to exemplifying that title, few stories do it better than Chris Gardner’s.  As a down on his luck salesman, Chris just can’t shift the expensive hospital bone scanners he is tasked to sell, after spending his life savings buying into the resale scheme.  As a consequence, his wife chooses to end their relationship, leaving a financially strapped Chris to look after their son.  Despite losing everything, Chris is determined to provide for his child, even during an existence that sees them living in and out of homeless shelters.  But there is a ray of hope – a highly competitive, 6-month stockbroker internship that Chris has managed to talk his way into.  If he is successful, he may land a high salary job.  But there’s a catch: the gruelling internship is completely unpaid.

All the marketing and promotion for this movie made quite clear its intention to be a kind of modern day American fable - but with the distinct advantage of being based on a real story.  Following that path, they’re happy for it to be considered as a movie about the classic American dream, and one that proves the historical hope and possibility associated with the country is still alive today.  So maybe the strangest twist behind the film was hiring Italian director Gabriele Muccino.

In actuality, the producers seem quite proud of the paradox, and are pleased to point it out in the DVD’s special features.  In the end, it has made little difference to the final effect of the story, which is as powerful and emotionally reassuring as required.  I do think there’s a questionable relationship to the traditional American dream scenario though, mainly because Chris Gardener, despite his many hardships, was in fact a very intelligent man.  He’s hardly the everyman that represents the opportunities available to all who reside in the United States.

But that is by the by, and not really a criticism of a film that is very well put together and acted, if a little flawed in its conclusion.  Director Gabriele Muccino handles the visuals with a keen sense of style and effective shot choices.  What he captures best is the raw emotion in a scene, be it the increasing turmoil of Gardener’s situation, or the light-hearted and sweet relationship between father and son.  As much as he might be considered a left-of-field choice for this American tale, the decision to use him was unquestionably the right one.

This film also benefits from very strong performances by the central cast.  Will Smith, particularly, get a chance to shine in a role that demands something different from the hardened action-men and sarcastic heroes that we are used to seeing him play.  As Chris Gardener, he brings a great sense of the irrepressible underdog to the screen, but what makes the film truly special is the relationship he has with his son, Christopher.  This is almost certainly because Christopher is played by Jaden Smith, Will’s real-life son, but still he does an equally great job and marks himself out for following in his father’s footsteps.

The rest of the cast are worth mentioning too, including Thandie Newton as Chris’s wife Linda, and Brian Howe as the olive-branch-extending business exec, Jay Twistle.  The Weatherman writer Steven Conrad has done a solid job of adapting Chris Gardener’s book from which the movie takes its title (for spelling perfectionists, the mistake is intentional), although if there’s one glaring omission it is the feel-good factor that would make this film a genuinely uplifting experience.

Unfortunately, come the end of The Pursuit of Happyness, it turns out to have been all pursuit, leaving very little time for happiness.  We barely get a chance to bask in the warm glow of Gardener’s eventual success, before the credits are ushering us out of the film and back into our everyday lives.  For a movie that deals in so many forms of emotional pain, it is a shame that we don’t get to spend just a little time soaking in the redemption.  As strong a story as this is, its use as an exemplification of the American dream is surely questionable.  Unless, of course, you can count the success of Gabriele Muccino, for whom this low-key film should be the doorway to much more US work in the future.  Maybe it is still the land of possibility, after all.

Revolutionary Road (2008) February 16, 2009

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Directed by: Sam Mendes

Revolutionary Road marks a homecoming of sorts for Oscar winning director Sam Mendes, who returns to the world of suburban disharmony and marital imbalance with which he made his name.  The film offers plenty of comparisons to his 1999 drama American Beauty, but comes served minus the black wit and modern setting of its predecessor.  Whether or not this mid-fifties take on matrimonial mistrust really adds anything new to the argument is debatable, yet it reveals itself in such a way so as to be infinitely engaging.

Set in 1955, the story introduces us to Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio & Kate Winslet), a married couple living a life that, on the outside, appears perfect.  But behind their picket fence on Revolutionary Road lies a wealth of suppressed emotions.  Frank hates his job, while April’s failed attempts at acting find her hanging around the house all day.  Desperate to break free of their mundane existence, the pair make plans to start a more bohemian life in Paris, where both parties can discover their true purpose.  But as the move draws nearer, it seems that fate is determined to split the cracks in their already fractured relationship.  After seven years of marriage, Frank’s dormant feelings make an explosive rise to the surface, causing April to take matters into her own hands.

True to its word, Revolutionary Road can be a rather bleak and dour movie at times and one which, despite its numerous highs, always finds a way back to sadness.  It is also quite clearly intent on dissecting its central couple, and the pressures put upon them by each other and their well-meaning friends.  And yet, just when it looks set to finish on this point alone, there’s a final scene which suggests that maybe the film is about more than just Frank and April, and is actually pointing out the difficulty of managing a relationship’s inherent harmonic disparities.  Which, really, is a statement that exemplifies this film – a series of constant tonal shifts which reveal a fated couple at their best and their worst.

Writer Justin Haythe adapts the novel by Richard Yates, turning it into a ruthless piece of drama that isn’t afraid to pack its 120-minute running time with emotive outbursts.  One consequence of the strict 1950’s setting means the script often sounds ripped from the stage, complete with its orderly arguments and hat-tipping pleasantries.  The book may well make an excellent play; with limited locations and a small character list, there’s no reason it wouldn’t.  But it’s also important to realise that only the casting of such a character-oriented piece could truly make or break any production of it.  Revolutionary Road is very much an actor’s film, with its long, drawn out sequences of dialogue and powerful scenes set at both ends of the emotional spectrum.  Luckily, that poses no problem for the cast here.

Kate Winslet may be garnering the awards attention for the double-whammy effect of this film and her post-WWII drama The Reader, however, her strong-willed and expertly played character is easily matched, if not bettered, by Leonardo DiCaprio.  His turn as the confused husband is wonderfully pitched throughout, from his uncomfortable silences right through to his blood vessel bursting moments of rage.  Some may say that the acting is just that: “Acting!” – in the pompous and slightly self-important sense.  But so light on anything but the central relationship as the script is, maybe some “acting” is exactly what’s required here – that necessity to shake the back rows out from their waning interest.  To their credit, Winslet and DiCaprio never back down from the challenge, or each other, turning a rather basic set-up into something entirely engrossing.

Also making a big impression but with rather less screen-time is Michael Shannon, playing the mentally unstable son of the Wheeler’s friendly real-estate agent.  His character is one of those natural standouts – an opinionated and rather brash force of nature.  But what Shannon adds is a touch of the former intelligence we are told he possessed, making the character more sympathetic, yet still defiantly correct about the hypocrisy he loves to highlight.  Plus there’s Kathy Bates playing his mother, the cheery woman who has so much faith in the strength of the Wheeler’s relationship.  It’s a point made by the film on a few occasions, but only Bates’ character really embodies the way people naively assume they understand others.

It would also be remiss not to mention acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose visuals are a step removed from the wide open vistas he recently shot for No Country for Old Men [review] and The Assassination of Jesse James.  This film is much simpler, with plenty of mid-shots and a fondness for the slow push-in, usually to emphasise a particular piece of dialogue or moment.  All the same, Deakins knows how to work with space, and he finds plenty of it surrounding his characters, especially during their most awkward scenes.  The airy atmosphere fits neatly with the sense of stillness, just waiting to be punctuated by fits of manic rage.

Revolutionary Road is a surprisingly effective piece of drama.  In the strongest moments, it really draws you into its world, enveloping the audience in a story of love, hate, desires and betrayal.  Despite all the ups and downs, the feeling of anticipation for what is coming next seems ever-present, which is quite an accomplishment in a film that could simplistically be boiled down to ‘two hours of arguments’.  Sam Mendes has indeed found his niche, and that niche appears to be human dissatisfaction.  Although how he finds any time to relate to it, given his current award-courting life situation, is anybody’s guess.

Revolutionary Road is currently on UK general release.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) February 11, 2009

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Directed by: Woody Allen

If the titular conflation confuses you, it’s: Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona. Or maybe better yet: Vicky and Cristina in Barcelona.  Not that it really matters, as Woody Allen’s latest comic drama requires about as much time setting itself up as the 73 year old director needs to develop a new movie.  Which is to say, not very much.  At his unrelenting production rate (one film a year), it would be unfair to expect continuous quality, but since his partial mid-naughties return to form with Match Point [review] we’ve been wanting after something a little more substantial.  Vicky Cristina Barcelona offers frothy fun, but treats substance in the same way its title treats conjunctions.

Set, rather predictably, in Barcelona, the story finds best friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) spending a two-month summer amongst the sun and the sights of Spain.  Little do they realise their easy-going vacation will quickly be disrupted by an assertive local artist, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem).  He invites the women away for the weekend; an offer that Cristina must convince happily engaged Vicky is worth taking.  However, while there, both women fall for his charms, setting up a potentially awkward love-triangle – made worse by the sudden reappearance of Juan Antonio’s feisty ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz).  Her violent moods and intense previous relationship with Juan Antonio might just prove too much – even for the liberal minded Cristina.

It’s a film that revels in pontificating about love and life, but always from an unreliable viewpoint.  Cristina is flighty and slightly unrealistic about love, while Juan Antonio is clearly some kind of sexual predator, which makes both the arty characters a little untrustworthy.  While our uptight Vicky, on the other hand, barely learns anything from the whole experience.  And don’t get me started on Maria Elena, who’s so crazy that you’d be better taking life lessons from Genghis Khan - although they do share a similar passion for killing, apparently.  So who, amongst this raucous rabble, is supposed to provide us a through-line?  Nobody, as it turns out.

What’s most disappointing is that the film spends so much time setting itself up for Penélope Cruz’s inevitable entrance that it doesn’t really know what to do after that.  There are a few burgeoning plotlines, but nothing that keeps you hooked to each scene in anticipation.  You’re dragged through their summer in Spain to a rather flat concluding point that may make some question why they bothered to take the trip at all.  Sure, there’s a little bit about human freedom, and the excruciating upheaval of love and commitment, but it’s not enough to form a rewarding experience for either the characters, or the audience.

Meanwhile we have Woody Allen, clearly at this point in some kind of unofficial exile from America, throwing up his characteristic old-school eccentricities such as the classic black title cards and a flat, front-focussed sound mix.  The film is pitched as a comedy drama, but it is hardly rolling in either humour or dramatic tension.  In fact, Penélope Cruz gobbles up the film’s entire quota of both, so it’s a shame that it takes forty-five minutes for her to show up.  Even then, her presence is only really emphasised because she bestows a much-needed breath of manic air into a rather serene piece of filmmaking.

As much of a let down as the script is, Allen has at least positioned his aimless tale in a beautiful location.  Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe brings out the very best of Barcelona’s sun soaked streets and countrified locales.  You may argue that he has little work to do, given such an interesting and artistic city to work with, but that doesn’t undermine the achievement.  If nothing else, the Spanish tourist board should be all over this, handing out holiday brochures to gullible cinemagoers as they leave their screenings (this idea based an actual occurrence at my screening of Australia [review]).  Even In Bruges [review] apparently helped solidify the Belgian tourism market, and that movie had people getting shot at in the street.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an odd movie, defined heavily by its distinct characters and not by its slight story.  And just so you know that’s the case, a rather authoritative voice of narration keeps popping up to fill you in on the details, so the characters don’t have to do it themselves.  I guess this helps keep things moving, but it also acts as a reminder that everything you are watching is fictional, so detached from the action is the all-knowing voice.  Outside of acting as a glorified holiday video and the inclusion of Penelope Cruz’s absurd comedy character, the film offers little more than lightweight, airy entertainment in a gorgeous setting.  Of course, on these cold February nights, that might be exactly what you’re looking for.  And yet, for exposing the tribulations of romance in a European setting, you could always watch Julie Delpy’s 2 Days in Paris [review] – a film with similarly laidback pretensions, but which actually makes good on its comedic promise.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is currently showing in London, & goes on UK general release from February 13th.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) February 6, 2009

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Directed by: David Fincher

“My name is Benjamin Button, and I was born under unusual circumstances”.  He’s not kidding either.  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button may be the most technically sophisticated movie of the year, but that’s not what carried it all the way to thirteen Oscar nominations during its US release last Christmas.  More likely, it was the breadth of its story, or the sincerity of its characterisation that captured so many imaginations.  But while this is an undeniably heartfelt piece from maestro director David Fincher, it also suffers from a lack of total engagement.  There’s magic in the images, but curiously, not always in the storytelling.

The film’s protagonist is, as the title suggests, not exactly normal.  Born as a tiny, frail old man, Benjamin is left at the steps of a retirement home by his recently widowed father.  There, he is taken in by the kindly Queeny, who works at the home and raises Benjamin as just another of the residents.  But while they are all getting older, he is mysteriously getting younger.  More agile and mobile with each passing year, the time eventually comes for Benjamin to flee the nest – but not before he says goodbye to his special friend, a young girl by the name of Daisy.  As time passes, Benjamin finds his thoughts returning to Daisy and the hope that as she ages and he returns to youth, the opportunity presents itself to find each other somewhere in the middle.

Told as a kind of autobiographical account, the film uses the tried and tested ‘dying relative’ method of storytelling.  While watching her ailing mother slip away in a hospital bed, daughter Caroline reads aloud from Benjamin’s hand-written chronicle of his life.  It’s not a diary, just his life in story form, starting from birth and ending at the point where he wrote it all down.  This might not be the most inspired method of pitching the tale, and, of course, Caroline’s mother is revealed early on to be an integral part of the story, but it serves its purpose for allowing us to dip in and out of Button’s life, throughout the various stages of his rejuvenation.

And herein lies the film’s biggest challenge: creating a world where Brad Pitt can age backwards, while everyone else matures.  Since the movie takes place over eighty-or-so years, many characters are seen at various stages of life, presenting a test of both traditional make-up effects and modern computer graphics.  Director David Fincher is known for a dedication to technical wizardry, his CG camera work for Panic Room eclipsed only by the seamless backdrop and location effects employed in the subtler Zodiac [review].  This film combines elements of both, with particular emphasis on the amazing ability to bring youth and age to both Pitt and Cate Blanchett, the film’s other consistent character.

Also deserving much praise is the set design and general aesthetic feel of the locations.  Fincher, as a renowned stickler for detail in all aspects of his filmmaking, applies his reputation to every frame of Benjamin Button.  The music too, is a rich collection of period tunes and simple piano themes that carry the film through its rather long two hours and forty-five minutes.  If it wasn’t for the conviction of its ideas, and the interesting nature of its central character, this may have been a more demanding ask.  As it is, Benjamin’s unique timeline keeps you wondering how he will cope with the future, as the running time quietly slips by.

The events which fill that running time, however, are rather more contentious.  Despite originating as a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the screenplay here was adapted and written by Eric Roth.  It has been structured in the Forrest Gump style of storytelling, where we constantly return to a fixed location in which the account is being retold, often guided in and out by the character’s voice-over.  In fact, if you care to poke around online you’ll find numerous references to the many ways Benjamin Button is like Forrest Gump, including both the events in his life, and the characters used to portray those events.  This may be considered incidental, until you discover that Eric Roth has been Oscar nominated four times, but has only won once: for writing Forrest Gump.

With this in mind, it is worth noting that the film is not necessarily like Robert Zemeckis’ 1994 hit, even if it follows a similar formula.  The trouble is that it also doesn’t pack anywhere near as much achievement or resonance into the tale.  There’s not always a weight to what happens, with some scenes only existing to show that some things do happen.  Much of Benjamin’s life is lived just simply drifting and, apart from a fleeting experience of war, in relative safety.  For all its flirtations with fantasy, the actual case of Benjamin Button is no more curious than the point of his existence.  He lives and dies like any other, with the most potentially devastating effects of his condition often missed as the narrative leaps forward in time.  From twenty-something to twelve year old, we never get the full sense of what he is losing, especially as authorship of the tale switches to Daisy for the final years.

There are other curiosities too.  A small sequence that describes the uncontrollable nature of happenings and interaction in the world is very nice, but rather removed from the rest of the story.  It is a point far too existential for a tale which inextricably concerns itself with the harsh matters of life and, mostly, death.  For this very reason it is not entirely a feel-good movie, ending with hope, but still on an inevitable low.  If nothing else, this may form its defining point from Gump – Button’s rather more quiet and reserved view on the wonders and miseries of life.

There’s definitely a sense of fairytale enchantment to the film, but not always the required level of emotional intensity.  For all the technical praise that it so surely deserves, this is a film that should have been much more intimate, putting the audience right alongside Benjamin, rather than distancing you from him.  At least Fincher has created a work that keeps you engaged in being a mere spectator to Benjamin’s regression, with some sly humour and plenty of meaningful moments, which, as the film’s tagline suggests, are how life is measured.  It’s an admirable film, but not Fincher’s best.  On this occasion, he may take heed that his central character’s wisdom outreaches the boundaries of the film: “Life is defined by its opportunities. Even the ones you miss”.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is on UK general release from today.

The Spirit (2008) February 2, 2009

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Directed by: Frank Miller

Frank Miller on the page and Frank Miller on the screen should be one and the same, and yet each is treated with surprising disparity, even by fans.  As a comic book writer and illustrator, Miller has worked on his fair share of famous characters, many of whom have had their own movie outings: Batman, Spider-man, Daredevil, and Electra, to name a few.  And while The Spirit marks his solo-directing debut, it was his previous directorial credit that really carried him to this point.  As co-director on the hugely popular film of his own personal comic work, Sin City, Miller made his first real move into Hollywood.  But note the ‘co’ in that credit.  It is not to be underestimated.

The source material for this film, surprisingly, is not his own, but rather that of Will Eisner, whose pulpy comic creation started life as a simple newspaper strip.  Adapted by Miller for the screen, the detective noir element stays, while the visual style now feels strangely reminiscent of his previous feature.  The story follows Denny Colt, a police detective who returns from the dead to discover that he is close to indestructible.  Hiding behind a new identity, The Spirit, he protects the city which he calls his own from the villainous Octopus, who would like nothing more than to get rid of his nemesis, and take over the world.  Yes, it’s pure Saturday morning cartoon material.

Sin City was commended for its ability to so accurately reproduce the look and feel of a comic book on screen; some feeling it was the closest we’d ever come to combining the elements of graphic art and filmmaking.  But crucially, the look it was reproducing was specifically of Miller’s work: matte blacks, bright whites, crude shapes, and a lack of background detail or sometimes none at all.  The tone too, was pure Sin City: brooding, with darkly comic overtones and a lyrical quality to the narration.  Taking that ethos and overlaying it with the world of the Spirit might seem like a good (if a little unimaginative) idea in general, but the execution just isn’t quite there.

Almost immediately it begins to feel like Sin City Lite, with a more openly direct attitude to comedy and a rather restrictive 12A (PG-13) certificate jarring against what is expected from the style that made comic book movies for adults seem cool.  And while, on occasion, the design and cinematography can be exciting, it all too often falls on the side of lacklustre.  Despite borrowing heavily from its cinematic cousin, a good deal of the depth and reality of the locations has disappeared.  So much of The Spirit feels like it is taking place inside a soundstage, or a small black box, rather than the sprawling city that we are supposed to believe exists.

Which brings us back to that ‘co’.  You see, Sin City had a champion at its helm in the form of (co-) director Robert Rodriguez, a talented and highly visual filmmaker who took Miller’s comics and brought them to life.  It was Rodriguez’s ability to construct a kind of ‘comic reality’ that made Sin City leap off the screen (he works as his own DP), while Miller and cinematographer Bill Pope can’t quite match his lead.  When it’s good, it’s pretty good; but when it’s bad, it’s downright boring.

And this is just the start of a cavalcade of problems, including a screenplay by Miller which is full of knowing silliness, but done in such a way that preserves none of the irony.  The Spirit is constantly talking to himself in order to keep the plot moving, while villains too are forced to explain every evil machination they are about to commit.  The stupid henchmen – all cloned from one specimen – are incredibly unfunny and annoying, plus there’s the addition of strange cartoon-inspired sound effects, including, at one point, a legitimate use of the ‘record scratch’ to interrupt the flow of a scene.  Beyond the childishness of it all comes a strange addiction to violence and scantily clad women – it’s a mixture that just doesn’t sit well.

Which leaves it up to the cast to save the day – something that they don’t really achieve.  Gabriel Macht makes quite a good Spirit, managing to control his awkward scenes of comic book dialogue, while Eva Mendes has little to offer the rather boring character of Sand Serif, The Spirit’s old flame.  Faring worse still is Scarlett Johansson, who really seems to have no idea what she is doing here and so comes off looking very stilted and out of place.  Only Samuel L. Jackson completely gives himself over to the ridiculousness or it all and, as The Octopus, actually manages to pull off his wild comic persona.  You’ve gotta’ love him.

Maybe ironically for a comic book movie, The Spirit just falls flat.  Neither its story nor its theatrical characters can make up for such an emotionless movie, broken only by moments of cringe-worthy comedy and misplaced sexuality.  Like last year’s Max Payne [review] it’s a film that believes just its existence is enough to justify it – yet some sections in The Spirit still feel like a test before they go and shoot the real thing.  If you can appreciate it for its kitsch qualities and comic-strip-meets-kids-cartoon dialogue, then you might find something to like here.  For everyone else, let The Octopus sum it up for you: “There’s shot to hell, and there’s shot to hell, and there’s just plain ridiculous”.  On this occasion, it’s hard to argue with him.

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