Monthly Archives: August 2011

One Day: forecast – light drizzle

One Day is an adaptation by David Nicholls of his widely read romantic novel which tells the will-they won’t-they story of a pair of mutually attracted friends over the course of twenty years or so. The book’s popularity is largely down to Nicholls’s ability to inhabit his characters and let his readers care about the many ups and downs they go through – sadly, the film is somewhat less successful at engaging its audience (or this member of it, at least).

The principal gimmick in the book is that each chapter takes place on the same day – July 15th – of successive years, starting with the day that the two main characters first meet as recent Edinburgh graduates, and the film adheres to this structure faithfully. A little too faithfully, actually, as this means that the action is being broken up every five minutes or so by the on-screen titles that let the audience know where we are chronologically, and you can’t help thinking that the choppy and episodic feel of the piece could have been avoided by skipping some of the less eventful years and combining certain scenes into more freely flowing sequences. The film also suffers due to the unsympathetic nature of one of its protagonists: while Emma is bright, resourceful, funny and dedicated, and brought to life very nicely by Anne Hathaway, whose Yorkshire accent is surprisingly convincing most of the time, Jim Sturgess’s Dexter is near impossible to invest any kind of positive feeling in. He’s callow, vain, over-privileged and eminently hateable for most of the film’s running time. It’s possible that the character might have worked if he’d been played by an actor with the charisma of the young Hugh Grant and given genuinely witty dialogue but here he just comes across like an arse.

The movie’s not a total write-off though. It cracks along at such a pace that there isn’t much chance of anyone getting bored, and there’s some quality support work from Patricia Clarkson and Ken Stott as Dexter’s concerned parents, and Rafe Spall, who seems uncannily reminiscent of Little Britain‘s David Walliams as Emma’s hopeless boyfriend Ian. Readers of the book will want to know how one particular plot point is handled, and without wanting to drop any spoilers I can report that director Lone Scherfig gets the tone here precisely right. So, an average-to-OK movie from a pretty good book – probably not the first or last one of those you’ve come across.

The Skin I Live In: cutting an elegant figure

Anyone familiar with Pedro Almodóvar’s work will probably not be too surprised at the following adjectives that are applicable to his new film The Skin I Live In: lurid, operatic, lush and gender-bending. But even if he’s ploughing a familiar furrow thematically speaking this one’s still worth a look even if you’re up to here with vexed mother-son relationships, transsexuals, retina-searingly vivid costumes and bondage, as he sure knows how to tell an original story you’ll have a hard time second guessing with undeniable panache.

This one’s basically a classy and elegant horror film, I guess, as opposed to a comedy or melodrama, and the main point of reference is probably Georges Franju’s haunting 1950s shocker Eyes Without A Face, which like Almodóvar’s movie features a brilliant but obsessed plastic surgeon who appears to be conducting experiments involving human skin tissue in the seclusion of his opulent and isolated villa. The Skin I Live In is far from a remake, however: in contrast to Franju’s pared-down narrative, this film has a slew of baroque (and sometimes distracting) sub-plots involving colourful minor characters and has a complex structure, with many jumps back and forth along its time-line. This has the effect of keeping the viewer slightly bewildered as to what the relationships between the characters are until about halfway through, at which point the surgeon’s motivations and deeper intents become clear and the film seems to settle and really start to grip. It would be seriously unsporting of me to give away specific plot details, as Almodóvar has taken a lot of trouble to make sure that information is revealed in a particular sequence and by particular means, but it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the experiments portrayed in the film wouldn’t exactly get the approval of the medical establishment.

Even if the story-telling is slightly on the fiddly side, the film always holds one’s attention by virtue of the confident direction, the beautiful production design, the stylish photography and lighting, and some top drawer performances, particularly from a glowering Antonio Banderas as Ledgard the surgeon and the astonishingly beautiful and clear-skinned Elena Anaya as his mysterious private patient Vera. The script is also highly accomplished – on more than one occasion there are some unexpectedly funny lines of dialogue to be heard during otherwise tense or sober scenes that heighten rather than diffuse the mood. Only the ending seems slightly perfunctory, as though the writer couldn’t quite call up a traditional climax or denouement, but the film doesn’t really suffer. Almodóvar remains one of a kind, and The Skin I Live In is as surprising and affecting as anything I’ve seen by him.

PS: I should add that the medical procedures in the film are depicted tastefully, and there’s nothing very graphic in the way of body horror. I’m horribly squeamish, so if I could cope with it I’m sure you’ll be fine.

The Guard: good cop, lazy answering-the-door-in-his-underpants cop

The Guard is a cheerfully brash and irreverent comedy thriller from Ireland that manages to ring a few changes on the hoary old odd-couple detective routine. Brendan Gleeson has the starring role as Gerry Boyle, a long-serving, sardonic and resolutely non-impressed Garda sergeant whose normal day-to-day routine in the sparsely populated Connemara region consists of not much more than a few lattes in working hours and some beers and the odd call-girl in the evening, and he’s fantastic: world-weary without being embittered, and with a penchant for dropping staggeringly politically incorrect comments into delicate exchanges. The plot kicks in when the activities of some local drug barons attract the attention of the FBI, who send over bright and straight-laced agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) to intercept a multi-million dollar cocaine consignment, and inevitably conflict arises between his by-the-book methods and Boyle’s somewhat more informal approach.

This is not a film that takes itself very seriously. The plot and its mechanics are predictable and perfunctory and director/writer John Michael McDonagh and his cast clearly aren’t too bothered about it. It’s also true that, one or two flashy camera moves aside, the direction and editing of the film is pretty basic and sometimes decidedly choppy, with a lot of abrupt cuts and not much establishing of location or context (the start and end of the showing I attended were particularly sudden, and the print showed an unusual amount of grain, to the extent that it seemed like it was a dodgy pirate copy of the film that was being screened), and the colour schemes and lighting used throughout seemed designed to be deliberately jarring. None of this however matters too much, or detracts from the pleasure to be had here: the strength of The Guard is in its characterisation and its many highly enjoyable scenes featuring foul-mouthed yet witty dialogue. The closest point of reference for me is the unassailably wonderful In Bruges, also featuring Brendan Gleeson delivering yards of gleefully obscenity-ridden script (and possibly non-coincidentally written and directed by Martin McDonagh, brother of John Michael). The Guard never really gets near the formal brilliance of In Bruges (after a while you realise that the scenario is so thin that you’re never really going to invest yourself in the characters) but in places it’s just as funny, and it sure doesn’t outstay its welcome. There are some good support performances here too: Cheadle does a good job with the thankless straight man role, and Liam Cunningham relishes his part as the loquacious gang boss with an improbable interest in philosophy, plus you get Mark Strong doing his hard-man-for-hire bit as a disaffected and haughty English thug who takes every opportunity to express his disdain for Ireland and America alike. A film destined to be entertaining folk after the pub closes for some time I think.

Emma Donoghue: Room

Emma Donoghue’s novel Room presents a deeply disturbing and for the most part convincing scenario through the innocent eyes of a five year old child. Jack has spent the entirety of his life locked in a single room with his mother, their only fellow inmates being the fixtures and fittings which have been ascribed personalities in order to give the boy some kind of semblance of companionship: Door, Lamp, Skylight, Table and so on. They have a TV but otherwise no means or hope of contacting the outside world. Sometimes they are visited in the night by a forbidding presence referred to as Old Nick – on these occasions Jack hides in the wardrobe and can only listen to and report on the interactions this man has with his mother. Jack’s tone is generally happy and upbeat, but his descriptions of his situation are chilling and, as we know from certain recent real-life events, far from implausible.

I’ll admit that while reading the book I was dreading what I though the outcome might turn out to be, and was surprised by the plot that develops after the first long establishing section of the novel. This is undeniably gripping, unpredictable and page-turning stuff. I did however have a few niggly reservations that prevent me from whole-heartedly recommending the book, mainly to do with Jack’s sometimes rather unbelievable level of articulacy. I accept that a 400 page book constructed purely at the writing level of a five year old would be pretty unreadable, and that the author has carefully laid in the tip-offs to the reader that the boy is unusually advanced in this area for his age, thanks largely to his mother, but every so often one comes across a perfect transcription of sophisticated adult speech or use of a high-level term like “agonisingly” that does serious damage to one’s suspension of disbelief. It’s a shame, because the author is for the main part very skilled and very successful at making the character three-dimensional and likeable, and Lord knows I haven’t got the talent, imagination or application to have pulled it off. My other main issue with the book is that it seems to climax too early, with the second half not having the same narrative pull as the first. It feels like Donoghue recognises this as she includes a dramatic twist towards the end which seems a bit forced, although the last scenes of the book do provide a satisfying, er, closure. Definitely a good read though, despite my nit-picks.

Sarah’s Key: skeleton in the cupboard

The terrible but little known (by me, at least) rounding up and deporting of thousands of Jewish citizens of Paris by the French authorities in 1942 is the basis for Sarah’s Key, directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner and starring Kristin Scott Thomas as an American journalist who is drawn into resolving the mystery of the fate of one particular household when she uncovers links from this atrocity to her French husband’s family. The film cuts between wartime events and the present day framing story and is for the most part involving and often very affecting, though it must be said that there are certain plot contrivances and passages of exposition-heavy dialogue that caused me to wince a little.

The most successful sections are those that follow the Starzynski family as they are forcibly removed from their apartment and held first in an overcrowded and unsanitary stadium in the city and later in a concentration camp. These scenes are brilliantly realised and genuinely harrowing, with the weight of the story being carried mainly by Mélusine Mayance as the young daughter Sarah, whose desperation is heightened by her realisation that she may have made a terrible error in regard to the safety of her younger brother. Mayance’s performance is amazingly powerful, and she helps lift the film above melodrama into something gripping and occasionally very moving.

Unfortunately the modern day scenes that run parallel are nowhere near as effective, despite Scott Thomas’s best efforts and some nice location work in Paris and elsewhere. There just seem to be a couple of coincidences too many in the investigation, and the attempt to give the journalist a personal stake in the Starzynski’s story doesn’t really ring true. This story also doesn’t seem to benefit from the sub-plots to do with complications in her domestic set-up that have been grafted on – it’s interesting enough in its own right and setting up mirroring and/or complementary situations in the present day just isn’t necessary. Still, it chugs along fairly pleasantly and there are only a handful of moments that have you mentally screaming for the editor to come back from lunch. All in all, definitely worth watching if you’re at all interested in the subject matter.

Why In Bruges may be the greatest film ever made

Some people go for Star Wars, or My Fair Lady, or Some Like It Hot, or Casablanca, when they’re looking for something familiar and reliably entertaining to have on sort of in the background as a kind of audio-visual tonic. Others who prefer their soothing to be peppered with profanity, a little light violence and some reassuringly brilliant one-liners might choose Life Of Brian, or Withnail & I, or The Big Lebowski. Right now, I’m finding that my comfort film of choice is In Bruges. I must have watched it half a dozen times in the last couple of years and it’s not getting any less funny, and I’m seriously starting to think that it may be one of the greatest films anyone’s ever made.

Quick alert: I’m going to try to avoid spoilers, but will inevitably be going into bits of detail here and there. If you haven’t seen the film stop now and go and watch it. Honestly. It’s brilliant.

A bare description of In Bruges isn’t promising. Here we have two low-level hitmen who have been sent by their gangster boss to hole up in a bed and breakfast in the beautiful but not exactly buzzing medieval Belgian city after a job goes badly wrong. One of them, Brendan Gleeson’s Ken, is middle-aged and quietly quite pleased about having the opportunity to take in some culture and history – the other, Colin Farrell’s Ray, is younger and highly unimpressed by being forced to re-locate somewhere so far from any action. The first third or so of the film is mainly taken up by Ray’s desperate, but sometimes surprisingly successful, attempts to keep himself entertained and Ken’s increasing exasperation at Ray’s inability to keep a low profile. Eventually the plot thickens in ways that both arise naturally from the set-up and are completely unforeseeable, and we start seeing guns, stand-offs, chases and showdowns before the plot resolves itself elegantly and without unnecessary complications. Throughout the film pretty much every character drops four letter words and their cognates as if a prohibition on profanity was just around the corner.

So far, so Guy Ritchie. Sweary gangster films are not exactly a rarity, and most of the ones I’ve seen are wearying and cynical. In Bruges is however blessed with a script written by experienced playwright Martin McDonagh and Lord is it good: witty, pithy, surprising, free of clunky exposition and overabounding with deathlessly quotable lines. The actor Ralph Brown was once asked in an interview why he thought Withnail & I (in which he appeared as Danny the drug dealer) had achieved such resounding cult status and he replied to the effect that it was probably because “there are no crap bits in it” – the same applies to In Bruges. The first time you watch it you get a kick from the turns of the plot, the arresting dialogue and the believable, if somewhat heightened, characters and a second viewing is required to catch the details you might have missed because you were laughing so much the first. Thereafter, you’re familiar with the shape of it and the pleasure is more to do with anticipation: every new scene has you leaning forward, thinking “ooh, this is a good bit” – there’s absolutely no padding or drag in the thing at all.

It helps that the film is perfectly cast and that all the actors are up to the job of getting maximum mileage from the material they’re given. Colin Farrell’s CV is mixed to say the least (he’s often to be spotted in unappetising action films, seemingly as a low-rent substitute for Tom Cruise), but he nails the gormless, yet guilt-wracked, Ray perfectly. This character initially appears to be three parts naive thrill-seeker to one part sleekly efficient thug, but as the film progresses his inner turmoil is gradually exposed, and Farrell must be given credit for gaining the audience’s sympathy. In contrast, Brendan Gleeson cuts a reliable and avuncular figure as Ken, the voice of reason who appreciates the value of keeping one’s head down, but again this character is also eventually revealed to have a difficult inner conflict that will require a hard decision. The third lead is Ralph Fiennes’s ruthless and rat-like overlord Harry, who isn’t actually seen on screen until the second half of the film, but whose presence is felt throughout via an escalation of intimidating phone calls and messages. Harry could easily have been a one-note cliché, a variation on the terrifying Ben Kingsley psychopath from Sexy Beast, but yet again he’s given a moral framework, one that he’s bound to operate within despite the potentially extreme consequences to himself. This sense that the characters in the film are all following their own codes of honour, even if those codes are in some cases demonstrably warped, is one of the main factors that lift In Bruges above all the other possibly diverting, but ultimately empty, gangster flicks out there.

The other main reason you’ve got to see this film is the sheer quality of the dialogue. McDonagh puts words in his character’s mouths that will have you gasping with pleasure, whether it’s Ray’s gloriously unpolitically correct assessments of one of the best preserved medieval towns in Belgium, a local gun supplier’s obsession with nailing down the precise circumstances one should deploy the word “alcoves”, Ken’s referencing of Harry’s children during a dismissal of the possibility of his boss’s spiritual growth or Harry’s demand for highly specific information on Ray’s current lavatory status during a telephone call. I was going to use the actual quotes but on reflection that would be as bad as a plot spoiler. Plus I’d probably get taken down for obscenity.

McDonagh was smart enough to wangle himself the directing job as well, having recognised that that was where the bigger bucks were, and while In Bruges is first and foremost a film where people have conversations rather than a sumptuous visual epic it’s still worth noting his tasteful and restrained style. This could easily have been made as a dull sequence of two-shots, with the camera just sitting there taking in the actors reciting the script. Instead, McDonagh exploits his location to great effect. The film is set at Christmas, and the looming medieval buildings are shot to seem monumental and sometimes impassively threatening, and when the snow starts to fall the city really does fulfil the description Harry keeps ascribing to it as “a fairytale place”. There are occasional short sequences of local architecture and landmarks acting as buffers between dialogue scenes that really convey the sense of Bruges as a place slightly marooned out of time and these really help to add weight to Ray’s frequent diatribes against the place. This isn’t just a peerlessly funny film, it’s really quite a beautiful one too.

I guess I’ve gone on long enough and I haven’t even mentioned dwarves, blindness, irascible Canadians, overweight Americans or horse tranquillizers yet. Forget Citizen Kane and The Godfather and 12 Angry Men. In Bruges is where it’s at. It’s in Belgium.

Arrietty: genius borrows

Arrietty, an adaptation of Mary Norton’s much-loved children’s book The Borrowers produced by peerless Japanese animation outfit Studio Ghibli, is properly delightful and pretty much compulsory if you’re looking for wholesome, non-brainrotting fare to entertain your kids with this Summer. The book, which is concerned with the struggle for survival and liberty of a family of micro-folk who live unobtrusively in the margins of a middle-class domestic set-up, has been turned into both a TV series and a movie before, but however competent the special effects one could never quite suspend one’s disbelief when confronted with optically or digitally scaled down actors on screen. That’s not a problem here: with their typical artistry and attention to the finest of details Ghibli create a succession of beautiful and immersive environments and let the drama play out at a steady pace and with a deft touch that skilfully avoids the many opportunities for cuteness and whimsy that present themselves. I didn’t go into this with overly high expectations, as in my experience the Ghibli films not directed by Hayao Mayazaki or Isao Takahata tend to be slightly pedestrian (Arrietty was overseen by first time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi), but this is a pearl, with some amazingly tense sequences (the bit where Arrietty and her father purloin a sugar lump in a darkened kitchen bears comparison with the heist sequence in Jules Dassin’s Rififi) and shocks (quite a few involving the sudden appearance of birds, cats and insects) and subtle comedy. If for no other reason it’s worth watching for the care and precision with which the animators have represented the warped physics one might encounter if one were only a few inches high: the tiny teapot that dispenses tea a drop at a time, the effort required to open a simple window latch, the hugeness of a standard human living room. A brilliant film, and one that had me more involved in its world than anything I’ve yet seen presented in 3D.