Film Reviews

 These reviews appeared in the Brighton Insight Magazine in 2006

 

Behind the Mask

 V For Vendetta (2005) – Dir: James McTeigue, 132 minutes, Cert 15. Starring: Nathalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, John Hurt, Stephen Fry.

 

In 1982, comic-book visionary Alan Moore’s monochrome masterpiece V For Vendetta was published as a wake-up call to fascistic elements that were seeping into society via Thatcherite policy. Embodying these concerns was V, an enigmatic freedom-fighter (or terrorist, depending on who pays your wages) in a Guy Fawkes mask who sows the seeds of revolt against a near-future police state by blowing up the Houses of Parliament. Caught up in his wake is Evey Hammond; young, impressionable, and in V’s inscrutable eyes, an ideal candidate for the inevitable uprising.  But are his tortuous methods of induction actually any worse than those inflicted by the agents who initiated his own perverse and vengeful persona?

Now, as we live in an ever-paranoid age of constant surveillance (for our own protection, you understand), Big Lies and ‘extraordinary rendition’, The Matrix’s Wachowski brothers present an adaptation that literally explodes onto the screen – offering the dichotomous V as both cultural protector and violent voice of the unrepresented majority.

Complete with updated references to The Koran, Avian Flu and disaster conspiracies, it is eerie at this point in time watching only a slightly distorted mirror-U.K cowed by curfews, cameras and crap TV. Not quite as unsettling, but equally wearisome, is the affect that these restrictions could have on our speech – an increasing trait in American scripting being a desire to highlight English grit with a grating surplus of bollocks – usually uttered here by hangdog copper Stephen Rea, despatched to quell the revolt by a slavering PM figure (John Hurt, hamming it up to the hilt).

Although the often painfully prosaic dialogue niggles, nothing hinders the production as much as the misfortunate casting of Portman as Evey. If it wasn’t for the sinisterly-gleeful presence of V (masterfully projected by the perma-disguised Weaving) and the stimulating themes on display – the power of ideas, freedom from fear, the justification of violence etc – then the whole exercise would be sunk by a performance that makes the first dimension look positively holographic. As she endures the rigours of transformation, her considerable lip-trembling is wasted by the enormous effort involved in maintaining an accent that veers distractingly between Tunbridge Wells and The Transvaal – a commercial irony of a film that so startlingly challenges The System. Luckily for all, many of her scenes occur within the charismatic orbit of her mysterious host or that occupied by the film’s other engaging aesthete, a wily TV presenter played by Stephen Fry.

Suitably chafed by previously unfaithful realisations of his work, the uncredited Moore has vowed never to see the film. This is a shame, for despite its flaws, V For Vendetta retains a power and pertinence to do the source material proud. But in doing so – and echoing his mischievously-masked protagonist’s greatest hope – Moore can remain content in the knowledge that his Big Idea has finally infiltrated the mainstream.

 

Gort Expectations

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) – Dir: Robert Wise, 92 minutes, Cert U. Starring: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Sam Jaffe & Billy Gray.

A higher power descends from the heavens. With an air of benevolent detachment he reveals stark warnings to humanity whilst bestowing solutions to their plight and liberally sprinkling miracles amongst the unbelievers. Nope, not Jesus of Nazareth, but Klaatu the alien, proffering an alternative Easter treat in the form of sci-fi classic, The Day The Earth Stood Still.

America, 1951, and everyone’s a potential Commie, even your own Aunt Aggie. Fingers twitch nervously, not just above the Big Red Button, but over lurid Daily Mail-like headlines that boom, ‘Are we long for this world?’ Paranoia is so prevalent you may be tempted to shoot your own neighbour just to take your mind off the nagging suspicion that you might actually be a Soviet-lover yourself. It’s into this post-Hiroshima hotbed of hostility that Klaatu (chiselled Brit actor Michael Rennie) parks his smart silver spaceship in Washington D.C.  Flanked by silent robot henchman Gort, his offer of a gift to the President is rebuffed when a jittery soldier does what any self-respecting Earthling would do when confronted with a higher intelligence and shoots him.

Leaving the estimable Gort to guard the craft, the rapidly-healing Klaatu is escorted to hospital where he outlines his mission of gathering the representatives of Earth’s nations to a cynical politician. Noticing that the government prefers the anti-holistic method of controlled global influence, Klaatu decides he’d make better progress with more receptive types such as boffins and widowed housewives.  Escaping, the Christ comparison continues as he adopts the guise of one ‘Major Carpenter’ and settles down in a guest house, befriending apple pie-faced Bobby and his mom Helen (Patricia Neal), a widowed housewife who happens to work for a boffin.

As a media-fuelled Martian-hunt escalates, Klaatu impresses his superior knowledge onto Prof. Barnhardt, who knows a Nobel Prize in the offing when he sees it and organizes mankind’s best minds to witness the atomically-anxious Klaatu deliver his ultimatum before the authorities shoot him.

Flaunting elegant, iconic, art-deco design and buttock-clenching strings courtesy of Bernard Herrmann, T.D.T.E.S.S stylishly musters a palpable sense of growing unease, both globally and domestically, where tensions simmer as Cornetto-cleavaged Helen is drawn to her son’s alien friend.

Finally snapping in the face of manufactured fear – “I’m impatient with stupidity and my world has learned to live without it!” – Klaatu produces a major miracle that is sadly lost on those who favour betrayal and a front page spread over worldwide unification. When urged to think about the bigger picture, a traitorous soul tellingly replies that he doesn’t care about the rest of the world – the movie’s message snappily delivered in a script that never labours its point. And it’s here, as the film races towards a final ascension, that another Biblical marvel is delivered – a good thirty years before Spielberg resurrects it again for E.T.

From an era when newsreaders wore fedoras and actors boasted butch Christian names such as Lock, T.D.T.E.S.S remains as vital and poignant as ever.  

The Day the Earth Stood Still is available from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment as a generously-featured 2 disc set.

 

Secret Waltz

In The Mood For Love (2000) Dir: Wong Kar-Wai, 98 minutes, Cert PG. Starring Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung.

It’s Hong Kong, 1962, and immigrant ‘Shanghainese’ recreate their native communities in a tight-knit warren bound by social rituals and latent gossip. Amid this seemingly polite bustle, Chow (Tony Leung) and Su (Maggie Cheung) move next door to each other’s apartments, coincidentally, on the very same day.  As they discover that their respective spouses are embroiled in affairs, the first tentative steps towards a loving bond of their own are taken. But can such a relationship survive the shackles of enforced secrecy?

In mouth-watering detail, director Wong Kar-Wai presents a dense, beguiling dish in evoking the sense-memories of his youth. Before the cultural explosion of `66 his ears were influenced by Latin rhythms, Nat King Cole and traditional pingtan opera music; all lovingly blended in here.  The stunning range of colourful cheongsam dresses worn by Su suggest his young eyes fared somewhat better.

Enhanced by Christopher Doyle’s outstanding, tightly-framed photography, Leung and Cheung emit matinee-idol magnetism with a minimum of fuss. During the extended foreplay of meals and snatched conversations, emergent passions are only allowed release through the most delicate of gestures. Rarely have such abstract characterisations been offered to so powerful an effect. Passageways and corridors feature heavily; combined with clocks and globes these suggest a sense of time and travel that forge nebulous links with companion film 2046.

Much of the film’s appeal (or frustration, depending on one’s patience) is in what it decides to keep hidden – which is considerable. It should be hard to sympathise with the leading pair when we don’t know the half of what they get up to, and yet we still do thanks to an overall tone of yearning. This is in spite of Wong being mostly happy to keep us lurking behind them like a voyeuristic neighbour drooling for a clue. His many stylisms, including shadows, smoke and multiple reflections, vividly complement the couple’s necessary artifice in a world where inversions (like the irony that their love is borne from others’ infidelity) are rife. Perversely for a film about a secret affair, one’s senses are spoiled but the heart is ignored – the narrative skittering at times to jump-cut unexpectedly into another scene, which serves to reinforce the prevailing dream-like mood. However, it is in this respect that Wong shows kinship with Chow and Su’s suppressed passion – the only true craving on full view is his own hankering for an era forever lost. 

As the film climaxes, Chow leaves the labyrinths of city life to unburden his secret in the holy ruins of an ancient temple. Similarly liberated, the camera captures the scene breathtakingly and the viewer is swept along by an almost overpowering, alien beauty. Fittingly, it is by this means that the director finally reveals the beating heart at the story’s core.

Beautiful yet claustrophobic, this is a kaleidoscopic waltz through the narrow corridors of repressed love. And by allowing half the tale to occur in the viewer’s mind, In The Mood For Love is minimalist storytelling at its most intriguing.

 

  

A Bug’s Life

Herbie Fully Loaded (2005)  Dir: Angela Robinson, 101 minutes, Cert: U.  Starring: Lindsay Lohan , Michael Keaton, Matt Dillon & Justin Long.

A genuine automobile phenomenon, the original VW Beetle enjoyed unparalleled success for more than 60 years. Nowhere near as popular, but arguably just as endearing was Disney’s hippie-era ‘Love Bug’ Herbie, the pearl-white Number 53 with a mind of its own and a knack of facilitating the amorous intents of its various owners. Dealing motorised karma to fellow travellers against impossible odds but still somehow managing to win the race, Herbie symbolised its marque’s uniquely indefatigable nature. But as the Buckaroo and Battleship boomers gave way to a savvier MTV Cribs crowd, it seemed a racing cert that the old vehicle had picked up a one way ticket to the scrap-yard for good. Suitably, it’s this location that provides the latest pit-stop of Herbie’s grand tour at the outset of this breezy 2005 makeover.

 When jaded ex-race star Ray Peyton Sr (a curiously waxen Michael Keaton) buys unimpressed daughter Maggie (Lindsay Lohan) the clapped out car as a graduation gift, little can either estimate its intentions of helping her realise the racing ambitions that Pop strictly forbids. The Bug knows best though and directs Maggie to a nearby garage conveniently run by ex-school chum and buff nerd Kevin (Justin Long), who spruces Herbie up before it whisks the gifted gal-driver to a local rally. Shamed by her distinctly un-pimped wheels, Miss Peyton dons the disguise of dark helmet and jumpsuit and is soon goaded into a race by rascally racing pin-up Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon settling comfortably into middle-aged villainy). While her car convinces the doubting crowds that there is more under the boot than expected, the same cannot be said of the pneumatic Lohan, who might’ve benefited from some of Herbie’s newly-acquired computer-generated camouflage herself.

A noticeable departure from the franchise’s earlier innocence is a blatant double deception by Maggie; kids nowadays presumably having no problem with lying to dopey old Dad if winning is ultimately ensured. But the sentimental spirit of Disney is eventually uncorked when Maggie is forced to choose between selling out to Murphy’s Mob and running the very modern gauntlet of a Monster Truck hell-arena to rescue her wayward wheels.

Granted, it’s all conventional stuff but a devil-may-care approach assures a fun family distraction that only lapses into Carry On territory once when Herbie’s aerial struggles to contain itself upon meeting a sleeker, updated Beetle. Personally, I’d like to see a Night On Earth meets The Straight Story-style addition to the franchise, with the knackered old Bug spluttering across an apocalyptic USA in an allegorical odyssey of the oil industry’s fading grip. Whilst about as likely to happen as Dubya switching the Presidential motorcade to Ethanol, it could prove a more appropriate swansong than a souped-up ’63 Beetle triumphing at NASCAR.

Zippy of pace and thoroughly easy-going, Herbie Fully Loaded successfully emulates the car it so cheekily celebrates: a pretty cute product that you want to like more than is actually possible.

 

  

Blind Chance

INTACTO (Spain, 2001) Director: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 108 minutes, Cert 15. Starring: Leonardo Sbaraglia, Eusebio Poncela, Monica Lopez, Max Von Sydow. 

In the basement of a desert casino, shifty Federico (Poncela) confronts mystery owner and powerful father-figure Samuel Berg, a.k.a ‘The Jew’ (Von Sydow). He seeks independence from his master’s dominance, but this comes at a great price; for his mentor’s empire has been built from more than just the profits of conventional gambling. Sinisterly, his power derives from a more arcane means of extracting individual luck. Once touched by ‘The King of Fate’, your ‘gift’ is as good as stolen. To accumulate the good fortune necessary to revive his lost prestige, the banished Federico must test his faith in the fates by gambling with others’ lives.

As tricky to second-guess as a winning horse to the novice punter, Intacto opens ambiguously; inviting the viewer to make assumptions about its apparent randomness. But it quickly evolves into a stylish thriller about chance, faith and the challenging of fear. Uniquely, it offers the ace-up-the-sleeve notion that luck is an energy in itself; a wild, irresistible commodity that demands to be played for the highest of stakes.

Lured into this life-or-death lottery is Sara (Lopez), a grieving cop investigating a young criminal, Tomas (Sbaraglia), who just happens to be the sole survivor of a plane crash. Beating such improbable odds (1 in 237 million) also has him marked as a groom for the grasping Federico, who seduces the young man into a murky netherworld of raised-risk betting where people are ultimately regarded as mere assets to be stripped.

Fresnadillo’s debut feature is a confident, detailed mystery that never lets up with the questions. Given the elusive nature of its subject matter, this seems an entirely fitting, if occasionally baffling enticement. It’s visually rich too: the talents that so impressively raised the bar for zombie flicks with 28 Weeks Later are well showcased here by bizarre, unforgettable scenes such as a gaming den where players coat their heads with molasses and, most memorably, a challenge that requires its participants to run through a forest blindfolded.

Intensified by Von Sydow’s trademark gravitas, the spectre of Berg hovers throughout until a showdown beckons with new pretender Tomas. But one man’s good luck is often another’s tragedy. Berg’s grim countenance is a sympathetic reminder that it’s impossible to escape the Wheel of Fortune when you’re nailed to its very hub.