Tuesday, 27 November 2007

review: across the universe (julie taymor, 2007)

A young man sits alone on a barren beach, beneath grey skies, and intones the words of a pop song become something grand, almost mythic. As he looks out at the waves, the music reaches a crescendo, and a montage of images and newsprint are superimposed on the waves, appearing and disappearing with their rapid ebb and flow. These riveting opening moments neatly encapsulate Across the Universe: a quasi-elegiac look at the myth of the 1960s, granting equal attention to a personal story of friendship, love and loss, and to the wider picture of a generation's dream and disillusionment, with the music of the Beatles (surely no better cultural, ideological and aesthetic metonym exists for the 60s) a constant, choral presence, both diegetically sung by the characters and as more traditional extradiegetic soundtrack. Above all these things, it is the most fun I've had in a cinema all year.

Across the Universe
is far from a flawless film, but it is a film I can't help loving wholeheartedly, despite its sometimes glaring issues. Closest in spirit to Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! (2001), it offers an LSD-fuelled vision of 1960s New York as unreal and fantastical as the earlier film's absinthe-fuelled vision of 1890s Paris. Taymor is not interested in demythicizing the era, nor in providing an in-depth examination of the social and cultural issues from which the youth movement was born. Its half-hearted attempts in this direction, notably a sequence depicting the July 1967 Detroit riots, while not exactly failures in execution, smack of tokenism - particularly, in that case, of attempting to introduce an element of race-consciousness into a very white-dominated film. Rather than providing any depth of social critique, these digressions from the main narrative succeed primarily in painting a backdrop of repression, authoritarianism and violence against which the main characters' actions gain weight and purpose.

Far more successful, in this regard, is a stunning sequence in which Max (Joe Anderson), having received a draft notice, reports to the local army base. Set to "I Want You (She's so Heavy)" and featuring (among many other things) singing Uncle Sam posters and rows of soldiers in identical G.I. Joe masks, this sequence demonstrates Taymor's undeniable talents at visuals, mise-en-scene and choreography. From her spectacular cinematic debut with the Shakespearean adaptation
Titus (1999), Taymor has demonstrated herself a relentlessly inventive visualist, eschewing subtlety or mundanity in favour of pop-expressionist flights of externalized fantasy and wonder. It is difficult to imagine a more perfect vehicle for her style than Across the Universe, and, unlike in Frida (2002), which only occasionally escaped the shackles of the conventional biopic formula, Taymor unleashes her imagination to the full, and pulls out all the stops to create an exhilarating sensual spectacle: we get swooping cameras, rich cinematography, psychedelic washes of colour, animation, CG-assisted visions, astonishing choreographies...and, of course, the music.

It is difficult to write anything in praise of the Beatles without sounding like either a fifty-something nostalgia-monger who stopped listening to new music in 1976, or a hype-spouting
Q reader. Nonetheless, I have to admit that this is one case where the hype and nostalgia are justified. The Beatles genuinely were a great, incredible band; their albums deserve their perennial positions in all-time top ten lists; and their music remains fresh, exciting, moving and beautiful today, undiminshed - in fact, almost enhanced - by the ponderous mythic status it has acquired. The music constitutes the emotional heart of Across the Universe, adding resonance and power to the film's events.

As it traces the rise and fall of a personal romance and of the counter-culture movement, Across the Universe encompasses heart-breaking beauty, love and happiness, and aching sadness, despair and melancholy. A sequence set to the grand, languid tones of "Because", one of my favourite Beatles songs, encapsulates both within a vision of almost painful beauty. Having taken Dr. Robert (Bono)'s magical mystery bus on a psychedelic road-trip to reach Mr. Kite (Eddie Izzard)'s, another drug guru, the protagonists lie in a golden, autumn-tinged field and dive in a crystal-clear lake. This is the apex of their escape from the social pressures that surround them into a psychedelic dream-land, and the moment is unutterably beautiful - and yet there is a palpable sadness underpinning it, with the realization that this cannot last. In Hunter S. Thompson's words, and to return to one of the film's opening images, this was the high-water mark of the revolution, and you could already feel the wave starting to ebb.

As I have said, as much as I love this film, it's not flawless. Its biggest flaw, apart from some smaller issues I have already touched upon, comes right at the end, when, after the film has reached a logical, affectingly sad ending, it proceeds to engineer a somewhat contrived happy ending. There's nothing wrong with this ending
per se, it's rousing, and it will leave you with a smile on your face - by this time you've come to love these characters and you want to see a happy ending - but at the same time, it feels like something of a let-down of the film's themes and its tragic movement.

This isn't exactly a minor flaw, but, perhaps despite myself, I found myself more than willing to forgive
Across the Universe its foibles. It's an earnest, endearing, exhilarating and lovable film, imaginative, beautiful, thrilling and affecting , the kind of thing I can see myself returning to again and again on DVD as comfort viewing. It may play into the myth of a 1960s that almost certainly never existed, and, like many other films that take its kind of maximalist sensual approach and earnest emotional tone, might seem faintly silly if you are predisposed to find fault. Accept it on its own terms, unconditionally, and perhaps, come the end credits, you genuinely will be inclined to agree that love is all you need. And be prepared to find yourself humming Beatles tunes for the rest of the week...

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

review: pan's labyrinth (guillermo del toro, 2006)

I have always been a fan of Guillermo Del Toro. From his innovative take on the vampire genre with Cronos (1993), to possibly the best of recent years' glut of superhero films, Hellboy (2004), through the masterful arthouse-Gothic trappings of The Devil's Backbone (2001), he has developed a unique voice, bridging the mainstream with the alternative, and giving new life to fantasy and horror genre elements - though the less said about Blade II (2002) the better. Having said that, there has always been the sense that Del Toro had not achieved his full potential, that there was a truly great film lurking within him that he had not yet managed to create. A remarkable achievement on all levels, one of the best films of last year and an instant classic, Pan's Labyrinth is that film.

Drawing as much inspiration from
The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973) as from Labyrinth (Jim Henson, 1986), Pan's Labyrinth has one foot firmly within the traditions each of the two embodies. It is a film about the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, and about General Franco's regime (personified here in the self-hating, patriarchal figure of Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), who becomes an almost monstrous avatar of authority, repression and tradition). It is also, and perhaps more importantly, a film about myth, imagination and their capacity to offer - not an escape, but a transcendence of the mundane, an untouchable imaginative space where the insurmountable problems of life (and there are plenty in Pan's Labyrinth) can reach a resolution and provide some sort of redemption for the soul. It is in this redemption that myth comes to be seen as the last unconquerable refuge of the individual, unreachable and always above tyranny and oppression, a place where the individual of moral and personal integrity can achieve some form of, at least internal, apotheosis.

Pan's Labyrinth also draws heavily from the literary and cinematic tradition of the fantasy as a coming-of-age narrative, typically of a female protagonist (Kira Cochrane wrote an excellent piece examining the film from this angle and within this tradition, here). Ofelia (played excellently by Ivana Baquero) is the centre of the film, which fundamentally follows the arc of her struggles to develop as an individual, by finding a space of her own within a rigid, patriarchal order in which she and her mother are little more than appendages to Captain Vidal, her stepfather.

In exploring these themes, Del Toro mirrors and parallels events in the "real" world in a fairy-tale narrative replete with tropic imagery and classical mythological resonances. These sequences see Del Toro unleashing his imagination to an extent unseen in his previous films. These sequences possess a power and an intensity rare in fantasy - Del Toro is unafraid to indulge in the wondrous flights of magic his story demands, but neither does he shy away from the darkness, horrific violence and underlying terror that permeate both the material and the fairy-tale realms.

The richness of Pan's Labyrinth's vision, its sensitivity towards its characters, its affecting and profound understanding of the intertwined relationships of fantasy, imagination and experience, its visceral impact, and its technical and cinematic excellence, all mark it out as one of the finest masterpieces of the fantasy genre, and of modern cinema. It is a remarkable achievement - a film that, like Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men (2006), erases the boundary between commercial genre cinema and the arthouse, exhibiting a uniquely personal, powerful vision on the scale of canvas usually reserved for studio-approved blockbusters, while simultaneously utilizing and transcending those same blockbusters' tropes. Del Toro has confirmed himself an auteur, and this is his masterpiece.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

review: stardust (matthew vaughn, 2007)

Although, at first, glance, Stardust might seem to fit in perfectly with the post-Lord of the Rings / Harry Potter glut of fantasy films, it is of an entirely different lineage. Whereas the noughties fantasy film is almost invariably a sombre, self-important affair, modelling itself on the epic (and I am not necessarily defining this as a negative point, as some critics have), Stardust more closely resembles the fantasy film zeitgeist of the eighties - half-serious, half-comic, lighter in touch and derived very clearly from the fairy-tale.

The most obvious point of comparison here is The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner, 1987), which walked a line between affectionate pastiche of the fairy-tale's familiar genre elements and unabashed adoption of the same tropes it gently mocks - in effect, allowing a cynical modern audience to be affected by these same old conventions through the veil of irony. Stardust achieves the same tightrope-balance, leavening its archetypal, mythical and resolutely unironic quest plot with a nice line of macabre humour, as well as somewhat more than the occasional wink and nudge. In doing so, it provides one of the most entertaining cinema experiences of the year.

It's not a perfect film. Gaiman's story is a complicated one, and in the transfer to the screen, a lot of what made sense on the page as a picaresque sort of narrative, on-screen seems like a random series of events linked by mere coincidence. The breathless rush of on-screen events also does not allow as much time as one wishes for the development of Tristan's (Charlie Cox) and Yvaine's (Claire Danes) relationship - though good performances from the two leads save their characters from falling flat, which would have been fatal to the film. This cramming of the story's emotional elements results in some scenes, notably Yvaine's monologue in the caravan towards the end of the film, falling into sentimentality, missing the innocent yet knowing wonder of Gaiman's novel.

One could also wish for a more distinctive look to the film - Charles Vess' excellent illustrations to the source novel could have provided the inspiration for a much richer visual tapestry to the film, and I can't help but wonder what someone like Terry Gilliam could have made of it. As it is, Matthew Vaughn does a solid enough job, managing the occasional breathtaking scene (thanks also to Ilan Eshkeri's suitably rousing score), but one still wonders what could have been.

These flaws conspire to make the film not quite the magical gem that Gaiman's novel is, but nonetheless, there's no denying its wit, imagination, energy and heart, and the excellent performances both from its leads and from a supporting cast clearly having a great time (especially Michelle Pfeiffer's gloriously evil witch, not to mention Robert De Niro's first memorable performance in at least twenty years).

In the end, it's not a modern fantasy masterpiece on the level I believe Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy of Alfonso Cuaron's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) to be. Nor is it quite the lovable fairy-tale that, say, The Neverending Story (1984) is - though I have to ask myself seriously whether I would have felt differently had Stardust also been a part of my childhood, or had I seen The Neverending Story for the first time yesterday. However, Stardust possesses a genuine heartwarming genuineness and love, both for its protagonists and for the enduring power of the fairy-tale, which makes it very easy to overlook its numerous flaws, root for the heroes and boo-hiss the bad guys, and have a huge smile on your face come the inevitable happy ending.

Friday, 2 November 2007

review: curse of the golden flower (zhang yimou, 2006)

Even by the increasingly ornate, florid standards of Zhang Yimou's films, Curse of the Golden Flower breaks new ground for baroque ostentation. I am pretty sure this is, by some distance, the most colourful film I have ever seen. It is often visually beautiful; however, unlike Zhang's previous films, even including his previous martial arts epics Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), his masterly grace is absent; Curse of the Golden Flower achieves its beauty through sheer, pummelling, piled-on spectacle. The camera swoops, pans and dollies, intricate textures and seas of colour wash over the spectator; it's an eyeful, certainly, but there's no real style or meditative thought to it. Nothing here achieves the austere loneliness of the palace in Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Zhang's best film, or the otherworldly stillness of the lake scene in Hero. Its beauty is a brash, loud, empty one.

An argument could be made, of course, for this being entirely intentional - the film, after all, tackles the theme of corruption hiding behind luxury, tradition and ritual, and the shallowness and sheer, ridiculous exaggeration of the film's aesthetic reflects that of the imperial Forbidden Palace in which it takes place. The colourfully-screened, richly-fabriced inner chambers and the majestic, flowered courtyards of the Palace are the venue for a melodramatic, frequently histrionic tale of corruption, deceit, incest, rivalry, jealousy and betrayal.

It cannot be denied that Curse of the Golden Flower has some resoundingly successful moments; the story isekf is an engaging one, on a simple potboiler level, and excellent performances from Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat help in humanizing and nuancing what could have descended into aristocratic soap opera. The sequences, towards the start, where Zhang cuts away from the protagonists to reveal dozens of servants toiling away behind the scenes to allow the imperial family to live their privileged life reminded me of similar thematic digressions in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels. Like the crumbling, labyrinthine castle of Peake's novels, the Forbidden Palace here takes on a life as a hermetic world of its own, defined by strict, hierarchical class divisions, ritual and the crushing weight of tradition governing every step.

There is also a strong and clearly thought-out system of images in the film; from Empress Phoenix's poisoned medicine being associated with the elaborate ritual with which it is served (it starts to seem as if it is the ritual itself that is slowly killing her), to the Emperor's oppressive army, that fights with immovable steel walls and binding ropes.

The problem is that this is territory that Zhang covered much, much, much better in Raise the Red Lantern, one of the greatest films ever made about ritualised, aestheticized oppression; in fact, one of the greatest films ever made. Curse of the Golden Flower is little better than a shadow to it, lacking its measured thoughtfulness, its gentle beauty, its calm surface hiding a deep, seething anger.

The other problem is that, after an hour or so as a good, if not great, drama, the film switches gear completely as it heads into an epic martial arts battle climax. Not only does this not fit the tone of the film, it is also executed surprisingly poorly and unconvincingly; it is difficult to believe this is the same director that brought us the astonishing, groundbreaking martial arts sequences of Hero and House of Flying Daggers.The ending seems tacked on, as if Zhang felt the need to continue in the vein of his recent
wu xia epics, while also feeling the need to return to his earlier dramatic pieces. The result is a film that lacks focus and subtlety, grace and emotion, and, while far from a disaster, is also far from the level we expect of Zhang.