Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Broken Flowers DVD *** (out of five)

Film: A deserving winner of the Jury Prize in Cannes 2005, Jim Jarmusch's film about a middle-aged Lothario shaken out of his lethargic existence by the news that he has a young son who may be looking for him, is a sharply observed and bleakly funny tale about loneliness and the fleeting nature of life. Personally I thought this wilfully enigmatic and superb ensemble piece was the finest film of last year.

Set in an unspecified city in present-day America, Broken Flowers tells the story of Don Johnston, the middle-aged owner of a computer business who is ostensibly affluent enough to spend the days in semi-retirement in his luxurious home. He has become so detached from life around him that when his latest girlfriend Sherri leaves him, he shows little emotion. A pink letter arrives in his mailbox that day, addressed to him by one of his former partners, who tells him that he has a son from their relationship twenty years ago and that the boy has gone on a road trip, possibly on the search for his father. Don shows the letter to his Ethiopian neighbour Winston who, being a fan of detective stories, is intrigued by the sender's refusal to reveal her identity. After comprehensive research, Winston arranges flights and accommodation for Don, and instructs him to pay his former girlfriends from that time a visit and to look out for some clues to solve the mystery. Eventually Don accepts and sets out on the long journey.

Broken Flowers
, like Cronenberg's A History of Violence before it, has been labelled in various quarters as its director's calling card for the mainstream, and it does - to some degree - represent Jarmusch's most accessible film to date. Yet it undermines the expectations of a mainstream audience so consistently and consciously that one is left with the reassuring feeling that Jarmusch has remained true to his own style and themes. In spite of its outward appearance (the cast assembled for Broken Flowers is the most renowned in Jarmusch's oeuvre yet), the picture is anything but streamlined; instead it's intriguingly, even teasingly enigmatic.

Don's reasons for making the journey after his initial reluctance are never clearly stated, nor does the film at any point give us a sense of location, of where Don lives and where he travels to. Jarmusch treats the mystery element of his plot in similar fashion: like Winston, we get hooked on the mystery of which of the four women might have sent Don the letter, and the search for his son. Like Winston, we see the colour pink (the letter is delivered in a pink envelope, written with a typewriter on pink paper) as the key to the solution, and Jarmusch cleverly uses it as a MacGuffin to construct a continuing story around it. But the film's real interests lie elsewhere, in the vignettes that follow as Don comes face to face with the women from his past, and ultimately, faces up to his own loneliness. Alienation and detachment have been a defining theme in Jarmusch's films, suggested here in Bill Murray's performance which is reminiscent of Buster Keaton in its minimalism and richness of expression. Most astonishing is how fresh it still feels after similar turns in the films of Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation.

The encounters with his former girlfriends are all about Don's realisation that somewhere along the line he has lost his life out of sight while everybody else has moved on. We can assume that one of the reasons (or perhaps the only reason) Don makes the trip is to reassure himself that he is still important to these women, yet the opposite is true, in spite of their differing reactions. All four meetings are subtly and memorably realised by Jarmusch and the performances from Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton are very good to excellent. Don's reunion with Dora Anderson is the strongest segment of all: Dora, a former hippie chick, has turned conservative, running a real-estate business with her husband, and lives in a stylish but clinical house. She is bewildered and slightly embarrassed by his presence, and the dinner with her husband only reinforces Don's disillusionment as he comes to realise that she has found her place in life and that he plays no part in it anymore. The scene beautifully captures the fundamental truth about our constant change as human beings and the transient nature of life, and it is played superbly by all concerned. Its tone, as that of the film as a whole, is one of understatement and finely balanced, intrinsically linked humour and sadness. Comic highlights include a charming performance by Jeffrey Wright as hobby sleuth Winston who is living a contented life with his family (in sharp contrast to Don who has everything and yet nothing) and from Alexis Dziena whose Lolita is hilariously uninhibited and not at all concerned about it. The soothing jazz soundtrack by the Ethiopian musician Mulatu Astatke which Don listens to on the road, contributes to the light mood, and offsets the film's bleakest moments. At the end, Don has come to understand that the past is irretrievable, the future uncertain and that one has to live life to the fullest in the present. He stands, as the final shot, a 360 degree pan, makes clear, literally and metaphorically at a crossroads, and it is a testament to the consistency and strength of Jim Jarmusch's delightful film, that it is left up to us to ponder which path Don will take. ***** (out of five)

Extras: We reviewed the Region 1 Canadian DVD from Alliance Atlantis but the Region 2 version from Momentum Pictures is identical in content. The DVD starts up with forced trailers for a few Focus Features films including Vanity Fair which can thankfully be fast-forwarded. The bonus features include the solid if a bit spoilerish theatrical trailer and an extended scene of the two girls talking on the bus which is nice to watch once but there's nothing to make you want to go back to it several times. Same goes for the quite repetitive outtake reel "Start to Finish" which I didn't find particularly funny. Most rewarding is the brief behind-the-scenes featurette about the farmhouse sequence with Tilda Swinton which contains b/w and colour 16mm footage of Jarmusch rehearsing and shooting the scene with the actors, and it's accompanied by a somewhat mumbled radio interview with the director where he talks among other things about his interests in the irrational and emotional elements of his scripts. All in all, the extras are decidedly underwhelming. (Note: the R1 disc has optional subtitles for all extras whereas the R2 does not) ** (out of five)

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Down in the Valley *** (out of five)

David Jacobson blends elements of the Western, romance and drama with intriguing if not always believable results in Down in the Valley: Tobe Sommers, a teenage girl, lives with her younger brother Lonny and her father Wade in the San Francisco Valley; one day, embarking with her friends on a trip to the beach, she meets cowboy drifter Harlan at a gas station where he works. Both feel drawn to each other and soon fall in love after touring the city's nightclubs and sleeping together at Harlan's motel room. He also becomes friends with Lonny, much to the disapproval of Wade, a cop and former war veteran, who distrusts the young man in spite of Harlan's reassurances that he has good intentions. When Harlan is wrongly accused of stealing a horse, Wade forbids Tobe to see Harlan again. Harlan can't bear Tobe's absence but upon visiting their house days later he only finds Lonny whom he takes on a riding trip. On their return, a furious Wade forces Harlan at gunpoint to leave the house, and events gradually begin to spiral out of control.

Down in the Valley, which Ed Norton produced and co-scripted with Jacobson, is hit-and-miss in about equal measure. Its first hour or so works extremely well; consider, for instance, the sequence that introduces the kids: Lonny asks Tobe what she is up to, and Tobe replies that she is going "nowhere", and both spend the day watching the motorway traffic from the bridge overhead. The implication is that they seem sort of content with their lives though they don't seem to know what to really do with it. It makes perfect sense that Tobe should be drawn to Harlan, both recognising a kindred spirit in the other. Jacobson's writing is flawed in many respects but he succeeds in making these two characters and their actions believable. What Harlan does is grounded in his view of the world and the people around him, his mentality and convictions, his own moral code. Harlan is a misfit who means well, a man who merely demands equal trust and respect in return, and yet he reacts to adversity in ways that portray his naivety and ignorance. He is, like the protagonist in Fight Club before him, another of the social outsiders that Edward Norton has specialised in playing throughout his career, and Norton's performance is still so accomplished that one doesn't tire of it.

The film's other assets include the strong supporting cast (David Morse, Evan Rachel Wood, Rory Culkin), evocative cinematography by Enrique Chediak (there is a good visual motif when the shadow that Lonny imagines at his window at night time becomes real when Harlan comes to see him), and a moody score from Peter Salett. On the other hand, it pays homage to Taxi Driver as well as recalling Sissy Spacek's voiceover narration from Badlands without achieving the nuances of either film; the pacing of the second half is off and the script relies on too many contrivances to get to the conclusion. The film overreaches itself but it's to the credit of the people involved that Down in the Valley is at least never less than watchable. *** (out of five)

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Update 27/06

Two updates for the blog with my review of X-Men The Last Stand which sadly is the huge letdown that many people feared it'd be with all the bad decisions that the studio took on this project.

Things got better with the week's other new release that I've been seeing this weekend: I just got back from the afternoon showing of Down in the Valley by David Jacobson, starring Ed Norton, and it's a decent film with strong performances. More on the film in the review which I'm hoping to get online some time tomorrow or Monday night.

Down in the Valley is now playing at the Cameo in Edinburgh and other arthouse cinemas across the country.

X-Men - The Last Stand * (out of five)

Whichever way you look at it, X-Men - The Last Stand (hereafter X3) is a mess of a film with a protracted and troubled production history (creative differences leading to first Bryan Singer then Matthew Vaughn leaving the film before Ratner took over) that stops this once-promising series dead in its tracks. As an end to Jean Grey's character arc and the climax to the Phoenix story, X3 gets it so spectacularly wrong that it negates the groundwork which the first two films had laid out so carefully.

It establishes two storylines: in the first, Cyclops and the other mutants try in the aftermath of Jean's death to cope with her departure and to move on while the military and mutant diplomat Hank McCoy aka the Beast attempt to trace Magneto's whereabouts, having captured his aide Mystique. The other plot strand concerns a young boy imprisoned in Alcatraz who has special powers and with whose help the scientist Warren Worthington has developed a serum that strips mutants of their abilities in order to help his son Warren jr/Angel. The two storylines converge when Cyclops resurrects Jean as the Dark Phoenix and Magneto uses the public announcement of the cure to declare war against humans and any mutants standing in his way.

This sounds all good on paper but in reality it's been so muddled and mishandled by the writers that you are only left to ponder how much better, let alone good the material might have turned out in more caring and suitable hands. Interesting ideas and scenarios are left unexplored, and even more so than in the second film, the new characters either have no backstory to spark our interest, or they appear and vanish again so quickly that they hardly even register (Angel, Colossus, Multiple Man). This is compounded by the utter lack of understanding of how a film should work by its director: X3 frankly has no shape whatsoever. It has no build-up, it completely disregards real flow and rhythm at all times: not once does Ratner allow a scene to play itself out properly. He has no feeling for dramatic weight and emotional resonance of a given scene, and when you bear in mind that the best that the writers can come up with to involve their audience emotionally is to kill off major characters, you get a pretty good idea of how dispiritingly empty this film is (the impressive setpiece in which Magneto unhinges the Golden Gate Bridge is the only really good scene in the pic).

It doesn't end there: the fight scenes are poorly choreographed (especially the duel between Storm and Callisto; if you can figure that one out, I'll tip my hat to you), the score by John Powell is overbearing, while the ending typically leaves room for another sequel which depending on how they resolve things in the next film could render corresponding scenes meaningless. The digital effects by WETA are impeccable for the most part (CGI was used to make Stewart and McKellen look twenty years younger for the opener though only McKellen realistically looks like it) while the cast is either good (McKellen, Kelsey Grammer in an inspired casting though - quelle surprise - not of Ratner's making), awful (Berry, Jones) or sidelined (Pacquin). All things considered, X3 is such a step back from its predecessors on so many levels that it'll pose a real challenge to whoever takes charge for further sequels to rejuvenate this franchise. * (out of five)

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Loathsome... in a wonderful sort of way!

Welcome to Burns and Johnson. I am your co-host, Burns aka Dave Rattigan.

Where my sidekick Johnson can be found in a darkened theatre at least once or twice a week, I'm more likely to be found in a darkened bedroom watching DVDs. That said, I do get out to an actual cinema occasionally, and my first review will be The Da Vinci Code, although it's anyone's guess why I should waste a rare excursion to a real cinema on such a - well, read the review, and it will become very clear what I thought of the movie.

I have many passions in film. My biggest love is for Hammer horror, although realizing its limited appeal, I will try not to go overboard talking about it (unless positively encouraged to, in which case I won't be able to shut the hell up). My current list of favourite films includes Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963) - a film that has hardly left my number one spot in the last five years - Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958), The Trouble with Harry (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955), Les 400 Coups (Francois Truffaut, 1958), Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998), The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), Maurice (James Ivory, 1987) and Broadway Danny Rose (Woody Allen, 1983).

Enjoy the blog.

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

Stunning, brilliantly formed and well worth watching. Unfortunately, that was just the guy who sold me my giant Pepsi. As for the film itself, it wasn't any of those things.

To be fair, there were one or two parts I enjoyed. It wasn't totally devoid of thrills, and it wasn't unwatchable - it was just mediocre, for the most part.

It was obvious from the start this was going to require a major suspension of my critical faculties if I was going to get any enjoyment out of it. The film opens with a lecture by symbologist Robert Langdon (Hanks), who asks his audience to identify a series of symbols, before deconstructing their interpretation. The interplay between Hanks and his audience (in the film) is embarrassingly unrealistic, and the first of several clumsy foils designed simply to fill in the cinema audience on Dan Brown's concepts.

In the next unbelievably clumsy scene, a detective interrupts a book signing to call on Langdon's assistance in solving a murder. None of this "May I have a quiet word, sir?"; rather, the detective slams down a gruesome photograph of the corpse in plain view of Langdon's entourage of fans, and announces the gory details of the case to anyone within earshot. I was beginning to worry if the preamble was so unconvincing in its details, how would I handle the conspiracy theories when they appeared?

And so it's off to the Louvre for Langdon, where the fun begins. He and his newfound cryptographer friend, Sophie Neveu, begin the quest to solve the enigma surrounding her grandfather's gory death. The chain of events from hereon is unintentionally hilarious, bearing all the sophistication of a Scooby Doo mystery. One clue leads to another, leads to another and then another, all in ridiculously far-fetched fashion.

So far, to be frank, the film is totally lacking in entertainment. It continues like this for about an hour, at which point Sir Ian McKellen arrives to save the day. Again, it all gets pretty clumsy here, for now Langdon is roped in as a foil, giving McKellen lots of opportunity to expand on the lengthy background to Dan Brown's conspiracy theories. However, McKellen is so enjoyable to watch that his appearances are by far the most entertaining parts of the film.

The rest of the film unfolds in a somewhat pacier way, but it gets going too late to redeem the picture, and even then it isn't terrifically exciting or suspenseful, just marginally more interesting. With the exception of McKellen, the actors are bland as can be, playing cardboard characters that we really could care less about. The film tries too hard to wow us early on, without bothering to give us characters we can relate to, and ultimately we only find out the barest essentials about who they really are - just the necessary contrivances to convince us that they play a cosmically significant role in Brown's incredible conspiracy.

It's also overlong. There are three or four endings before the actual ending, by which time all I could think about was getting another glimpse at the popcorn boy on the way out. I'm shallow, I know. But then, looked at logically and dispassionately, the prospect of a future with Popcorn Boy seemed infinitely more probable than anything on the screen.

Time To Leave (2005)

(Warning: this review contains spoilers)

Francois Ozon, one of France’s most prolific and versatile directors and best known in the UK for his Fassbinder adaptation Water Drops On Burning Rocks, the farce whodunit 8 Women and 5x2, a relationship drama whose events are told in reverse chronology, returns with Time To Leave.

It is the second film in a proposed trilogy about mourning, starting with 1998’s Under the Sand, and is a low-key drama about a renowned gay fashion photographer who learns early on that he has incurable cancer and only a few months left to live. Charting the stages through which he progresses from denial, anger and depression to eventual acceptance, the film is handsomely made and commendably restrained; Ozon avoids clichés and false sentimentality, but the plot lacks conviction and credibility in detail. Romain overcomes his feelings of denial too soon; and the subplot in which he visits his grandmother (played in a touching cameo by the 80 year old Jeanne Moreau), and confides in her alone about his illness on the grounds that she herself is soon facing death, is potentially interesting but as Ozon doesn’t develop this premise further, it ultimately carries no dramatic weight. When he befriends a waitress and her infertile husband and eventually helps them to father a child, it feels unconvincing in terms of his character traits: given his dislike of children, this final gesture of goodwill doesn’t ring true as a decisive step towards Romain finding inner peace.

The premise reminded me of Ikiru, Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 picture with the unforgettable Takashi Shimura, which also portrays a cancer sufferer’s internal struggle but it does so in more plausible terms and far greater emotional impact. Time to Leave is middle-rate by comparison but it has merits in the committed performances, the strong cinematography and Ozon’s confident direction. ** (out of five)

Mission Impossible 3 ** (out of five)

We are starting our reviews of theatrical releases with a look at Mission Impossible 3 (hereafter M:I:3) which I saw two weeks ago in a public late screening (fortunately, with a well-behaved crowd). As far as the first two films are concerned: I didn’t care much for the first which I found intriguing in places, dull in others and altogether unevenly paced and too ludicrous; although Brian DePalma seemed aware of how silly the picture got as it went on, and presented it with a self-deprecating, knowing wink, I ultimately found it too much to take. The second film, poorly scripted by Robert Towne, is probably the greatest failure of John Woo’s American oeuvre, a tired and tiring retread of the Chinese director’s signature style and themes. Most irritatingly, it pandered, like The Last Samurai after it, to Tom Cruise’s narcissism. For good or worse, the Mission Impossible films have each felt and looked different so that the latest film carries some curiosity value. David Fincher and Joe Carnahan were both at a time attached to the project but it ultimately fell into the hands of J.J. Abrams, best known till then for his two television shows Alias and Lost.

His film feels like the most anonymous and the least convincingly-shot of the three instalments: there is little in the film to suggest a distinctive voice at the helm, and the action scenes and stunts are often so tightly and/or confusingly shot that the effect comes to nothing (take, for example, the stunt that Ethan performs late on by sliding down a skyscraper building). The (putting it lightly) half-baked script doesn't make us care about the characters, and it too often asks the audience to suspend disbelief (for instance, we are told that Vatican City is under high surveillance, yet sections of the building are oddly deserted). M:I:3 is instantly disposable but in as far as the immediate experience of watching the film goes, it improves slightly on the first two: the pacing is frantic and relatively consistent, save for a dire and pointless stretch of exposition that follows on the gripping pre-title opener.

The against-the-type casting of Philip Seymour Hoffman as the ruthless black market dealer Owen Davian is an inspired choice, and for all the shortcomings of their script, Abrams and his fellow writers have given Hunt a real opponent. Cruise is still at the centre of things but the writers have nevertheless, and rightly so, emphasised the team effort that Hunt’s missions require, more strongly. This gives the proceedings a bit more credibility even if none of Hunt’s colleagues are real supporting characters in their own right, as likeable as Ving Rhames’ performance and Simon Pegg’s cameo are. There have been worse films of its kind but the pic’s ability to offer anything of lasting value remains highly suspect. ** (out of five)

"Wonderful... in a loathsome sort of way"

We wouldn't be surprised if you felt about us this way, as Rosalind Russell does about Cary Grant in Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940), after reading some of our reviews.. Hello and welcome to our film blog, which Dave and I've been planning for weeks and months, and at long last we've finally got it up and running.

We want to use this blog to write about film, and our experiences of watching films, whether it be in the cinema or at home on DVD or video; how we responded to those films and if they influenced or changed us in any way, or changed the way we look at things around us. I'm also hoping that through our reviews and articles we can perhaps alert you to films that you may never have heard of otherwise; in other words, we want to draw attention to a variety of films rather than just the mainstream pictures which get comprehensive coverage anyway. Hollywood has given us great films like The Incredibles and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but with each passing year they seem to become increasingly the exception than the norm. The films that get the major distribution and the media coverage, and are hence the most present in the eye of the filmgoing public, are almost always simply not worth it, whereas the pictures that do deserve our attention often go unnoticed or don't get the wider audiences they should rightly have.

To give a concrete example: Sony Pictures is the owner and distributor of both The Squid and The Whale (2005) by Noah Baumbach, and Ron Howard's The Da Vinci Code (2006). Baumbach's film was on several US critics' short lists for the best American film of last year, and has also received high praise from the UK critics upon its release this April; yet Sony released it with just a handful of prints in the States and watched it disappear without a trace, while over here the film has to hope for good word of mouth among arthouse audiences to make profits. In contrast, The Da Vinci Code has been released worldwide simultaneously on thousands of prints and with newspaper and internet coverage that Baumbach's film could only dream of. That Howard's film received a severe drubbing from almost all print and online critics, and is likely to suffer a 50-70 % drop in box-office takes come the next weekend, is scant consolation.

In short, I hope that we can do our bit to champion the smaller films that are deserving of a wider audience (on that note, we'll be reviewing the Region 1 DVD of The Squid and The Whale in the upcoming weeks). I also want to try to get people interested in older films and foreign-language pictures(by the reckoning of many people out there, that means anything before 1980, and heaven forfend, films in black & white and films with the dreaded subtitles). It goes without saying that we hope you'll feel compelled to write in to us, and to broaden our own tastes, and share your opinions and experiences with us.

In that sense, we hope that reading the blog will be as good an experience for you as writing for it is for us..


Johnson (aka Tim Kopp, Joint Editor)