Admirable Failures


  1. mumby1988
  2. Daniel

This is a list of films which are normally rated around the 40% or 50% marks, which are not the films they should be but should be admired despite their failings.

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1
Gandhi 1982,  PG)
Gandhi
In my review of Chariots of Fire, I remarked that "the legacy it has left behind for British filmmaking has not been one of unmitigated benefit." By this I was not referring specifically to the career of Hugh Hudson (what there is of it), but to the films which sought all too earnestly to recapture its Oscar success. While Chariots of Fire still stands as a landmark of British filmmaking, untarnished and proud, the sands of time have gradually revealed Gandhi for what it really is: an utterly well-meaning but overly cautious biopic, which relies too much on reputation and not enough on empathy.

It would be easy to dismiss Gandhi outright on the grounds I have just laid out. Like Chariots of Fire, the film had a very good night at the Oscars, scooping eight awards from eleven nominations including the coveted Best Picture. But it doesn't take too long to realise that the film was made for all the right reasons and with the very best intentions. Richard Attenborough had been trying to make the film for almost 20 years, and had a deep affection for both Gandhi and his story.

You also can't fault the ambition of the film in terms of wanting to cover the Mahatma's life in as full a sweep as possible. The film opens with a card saying: "No man's life can be encompassed in one telling. There is no way to give each year its allotted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record and to try to find one's way to the heart of the man." Despite this welcome modesty, Attenborough is not using the need for brevity as a means to cut corners.

The film famously holds a Guinness World Record for the number of extras involved, with more than 300,000 actors being involved at some level. Shot on 200 different locations over a period of six months, showing the passage of sixty-odd, it's the kind of epic filmmaking that we just don't get any more, for better or worse. Perhaps only Gone with the Wind was more ambitious in terms of time being covered and personnel involved - and unlike Gone with the Wind, Gandhi finished on-time and on-budget.

There can also be very little doubt that Gandhi is very handsomely mounted. Both Billy Williams and Ronnie Taylor were used to projects with great visual extravagance, having collaborated with Ken Russell on Women in Love and Tommy respectively. The wide shots are beautifully lit, taking in the variety of the Indian landscape, and Attenborough's choice of colour is much more engrossing than some of Sydney Pollack's choices in Out of Africa. You get a sense throughout of someone wanting to get every detail just so before the cameras roll.

One of the reasons that Gandhi had such a long gestation period is that Attenborough struggled to find an actor capable of playing the Mahatma. Paramount Pictures, in one of the aborted attempts to make the film, refused to give him the money unless Richard Burton was cast. Ben Kingsley was chosen in part for his Indian heritage, his birth name being Krishna Pandit Bhanji and his father being Gujerati. Regardless of the film's reputation it is hard to imagine anyone else playing Gandhi; not only does he achieve a physical resemblance, but he truly serves the character, carrying himself without a hint of ego or pretence.

On the basis of what we have covered so far, Gandhi seems to be shaping up as a well-made, well-performed and well-intended film. Unfortunately, when we start to dig a little beneath the surface, and question the execution of these intentions, the film begins to come a little unstuck. It never falls completely into the territory of Out of Africa, which rapidly descended into baggy nonsense with no sense of direction. But for all your good will about either Attenborough or the real-life Mahatma, the film will leave you feeling just a little unsatisfied.

The key to Gandhi's problems lies in a comment made by Attenborough when he was recently interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live. He remarked that E.T. was a better film than Gandhi, since the latter was "a piece of narration, rather than a piece of cinema". While Steven Spielberg's film is a genuine example of visual storytelling, which works in whatever language you see it in, Attenborough's film relies on some kind of foreknowledge of the real-life figure to achieve any kind of emotional impact. When we respond to Gandhi, we are responding to the man himself, not to the way in which his story is being told to us.

A good example comes in the early stages of the film. A young Gandhi is leading a meeting of protest against the policies of General Jan Smuts, which restricted the movements of Indians in South Africa and gave the police powers to search Indian property without warrant. Kingsley gives a nervous but resourceful speech which, if the film is to believed, marks the beginnings of Satyagraha or non-violent resistance. We find ourselves drawn in by the ideas, but it feels like we are listening to an idea rather than to a person conveying it.

Like many films that are based on a true story or which tackle key events in history, Gandhi very quickly becomes didactic. As good as Kingsley is at delivering dialogue, much of his lines feel like pre-meditated motivational speeches rather than something more spontaneous and human. Even if the real-life Gandhi never said a foolish word, and was the very model of decorum in the midst of great violence, his goodness is presented so unrelentingly that there is no way for us lesser mortals to bond with him emotionally.

The film is also blatantly hagiographic in its depiction of Gandhi as little short of a saint. Not only does he come to be adored by the British public, he comes out as the unconditional good guy among the politicians who would come to rule India and Pakistan. Jawaharlal Nehru is always characterised as being slightly insincere, and Muhammad Jinnah comes out almost like a Bond villain. In complete contrast to Christopher Lee's performance in the 1998 film, Jinnah is portrayed as essentially selfish and aloof, and when Gandhi remarks that he has "co-operated with the British", it is the closest he comes in the film to spitting out poison.

The problem is not that Mahatma Gandhi was not a great man. He was, and he may well have been the most well-meaning out of this small group. The problem is that the film treats him and depicts him as someone who should be deified and worshiped, when what we want is to understand how he became this way, and the flaws to him. The film skips over Gandhi's attitudes towards class and caste, his early remarks on race and his views on the role of women, just as it declines to comment on the elitism of Nehru and Jinnah, or how their attitudes were shaped by their English educations. All the really interesting ideas and entry points for discussion at either ignored or held at arms' length, lest they tarnish or puncture the myth that Attenborough wishes to uphold.

There are only two scenes in Gandhi in which Attenborough invokes any genuine emotional response beyond admiration. The first comes on the farm, where Gandhi threatens to throw out his wife for refusing to rake the latrine. They have an argument about obedience and love, and eventually reconcile, in a scene which gives an indication of humanity and makes Kingsley's performance feel less mannered. The other is the recreation of the Amritsar Massacre, which is appropriately brutal and difficult to watch. Attenborough devotes several minutes to the catastrophic event, and while he is never gratuitous, we get the message.

The other really troubling aspect of Gandhi is its tendency to express the nobility of the Mahatma by surrounding him with well-meaning white people. Again, the problem is not the fact that the real-life Gandhi met and knew these people - it is that these people are used as ciphers to hammer home something that speaks for itself. Ian Charleston's clergyman, Martin Sheen's journalist, Candice Bergen's photographer and Geraldine James' aristocrat all bring us back to the central problem: we need to see through Gandhi's eyes and feel what he feels, rather than be told how great he was by annoying people that we couldn't care less about.

Gandhi is perhaps the best example of an admirable failure. It's not a bad film by any conceivable stretch, and no-one can deny either Kingsley's talent or the good intentions of Attenborough behind the camera. But ultimately it relies on these intentions far too much, forgetting the basics of creating character empathy in favour of a dry, skewed history lesson coupled with its fair share of guilt-tripping. In short it takes a very long time to say far too little, and something about ideas this important shouldn't leave us so cold and ambivalent.
2
The Color Purple 1985,  PG-13)
The Color Purple
Throughout his career Steven Spielberg has proved that when it comes to popcorn thrills and light-hearted entertainment, there is almost no-one better on the planet. But when he turns his hand to more serious subject matter, he has a habit of pulling his punches for the sake of a sentimental cop-out, betraying an audience?s trust so that he can make us cry. That is the central problem with The Colour Purple.

Spielberg does not seem like a natural choice for this feminist tale of oppression and humiliation in 20th century Georgia. This is especially the case when you look at his previous film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Sure, Indiana Jones is the upmarket equivalent of a B-movie matinee idol, and hence women?s rights are not high up on the agenda. But at least both the other Indy films had the sense and decency to pair him with a strong-willed female character, rather than a damsel-in-distress.

To give Spielberg credit, the first half of The Colour Purple is very, very good. Danny Glover gives a powerful performance as ?Mister? (Albert), reminding you that beneath the Lethal Weapon exterior lies a talented and underrated leading man. Whoopi Goldberg, who was Oscar-nominated for her performance, is a great match for him. Every single act of oppression that Mister heaps on Celie is completely believable, and as Celie retreats further inwards your heart goes out to her. You genuinely sympathise with the character rather than simply feeling as if you should: there is great depth to Goldberg?s performance, and in the shaving scenes you could cut the tension with? well, a razor.

The art direction and cinematography are also great, really taking the audience into the heart of black culture. From the tumble-down state of Mister?s house to the juke joint on the riverbank, the sets seem to have been lifted straight out of the 1920s and 1930s. The bleak mood created by these harsh and simple surroundings further enhance the sense of despair at the heart of the story. These are people with not much to hope for, few prospects and little to cling to save their families and strict moral principles, however distorted and corrupted both things may be. Much like the opening of Saving Private Ryan, the audience feel like they are in the characters? personal hell. It?s a strange sensation, one which is simultaneously frightening and captivating.

But sadly, like so many of Spielberg?s films, it isn?t long before The Colour Purple collapses into a soggy pit of sentimentality, never to emerge. The second that Celie discovers the backlog of letters from her long-lost sister, the film falls apart and never recovers.

This may be a problem with the novel: it is never made clear why Mister kept the letters, rather than simply burning them and thereby permanently destroying Celie?s hope. As far as the film is concerned, this is a deus ex machina, a get-out-of-jail-free card for the director. The discovery of the letters confirms and restores Celie?s sense of hope, and allows her to stand up to her oppressors with seemingly minimal effort in the transition. This easy road to recovery cheapens the message of the film, removing the threat of retaliation and making the whole thing seem rather frivolous. There?s nothing wrong with the idea that hope overcomes all despair, but the film hasn?t earned the right to wave away the problem, at least not so flippantly.

All of which begs the question: if the survival of Nettie is assured, why does the film need to drag out for another hour-and-a-half? Spielberg himself doesn?t seem to know the answer, as long sections of the second half are crammed full of inconsequential rubbish. Why do we need the goofy comedy sequence in which Sophia?s ditzy mistress is learning to drive? Why do we need the scene of the juke band entering the church, which seems to have escaped from 1941? And why, oh why, do we need the sequence of Sophia and Harpo trying on pants?!

The only explanation for this is that Spielberg emphasises them to illustrate Celie?s gradual return to happiness. But as it is, these sequences only emphasise the lack of backbone in the second half of the film. Where the opening act or two was bleak and portentous, and almost as good as The Shawshank Redemption, the latter acts are shallow and inconsequential. Even when Celie and Nettie are united and the tears start rolling, you?re cross with yourself for crying because you know the film hasn?t done enough to make the tears seem genuine.

The Colour Purple stands alongside Schindler?s List and Saving Private Ryan as one of Spielberg?s admirable failures. Each of these films have great opening acts which feel genuine, are inhabited by truthful characters and look fantastic. But each of these falls down on their inability to develop a dark storyline without resorting to over-the-top villains or unjustified special effects. The Colour Purple is not an awful film; certainly it gets away with what it does for a whole lot longer than Schindler or Ryan. It?s just a real shame that Spielberg couldn?t follow through on the promise of the first half and deliver a film about hope which wasn?t cheatingly sentimental. That is the great success of Shawshank, to which The Colour Purple cannot hold a candle.
3
Schindler's List 1993,  R)
Schindler's List
You have to be very careful dealing with Schindler's List. It's not just the awards it received, or the talent involved, or the reputation it has gained. If your arguments are not clearly and carefully constructed, one risks being branded "philistine", "anti-Semitic", or "morally bankrupt".

So let's make one thing clear. Criticising Schindler's List and its portrayal of the Holocaust DOES NOT mean that I think the Holocaust was a good thing. The problems with Schindler's List do not lie in its intentions, which are entirely noble. Nor do they lie in the un-filmable nature of its subject matter. And neither is it the case that the film's execution is so bad that it would lead to some kind of shocking moral conversion, in which one sides with the Nazis in the absence of anything else genuine. The problems with Schindler's List lie in Steven Spielberg's inability to marry the darkness of the Holocaust to his personal filmmaking sensibility, resulting in what can only be described as an admirable failure.

Much like The Colour Purple, Schindler's List starts out by setting up some really dark themes in a way which is engaging and accessible. One of the biggest themes of the film is the bureaucratisation of human life, the conversion of human beings into numbers and characteristics and the resulting loss of human nature. It's a subject that has long been explored in film, whether in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, Michael Radford's 1984 or Terry Gilliam's Brazil. There are repeated scenes in the film of desks being set up, lines being drawn and people's faces in close-up as they give their names and collect their cards.

We also have the powerful theme of indifference and opportunism, embodied by the central character. Oskar Schindler is someone who uses the system to his own advantage; he is by his own admission a "profiteer", more interested in "presentation" than in morality. During the film he develops relationships with the workers, which forces him to become morally involved. It forces him to think about the implications of his actions and the cost, both personal and financial, of hiring these people.

Within this, there is also a regrettably underplayed comment about the concept of ownership and slavery. Schindler ultimately saves the small number of Jews by basically owning them, selling and spending all he has to buy their freedom. This is a startling idea which could and should have been further explored by Spielberg, but he seems either unaware of it or unwilling to talk about it.

The central problem with Schindler's List is summed up by Stanley Kubrick, a friend of Spielberg's: "Schindler's List was about success; the Holocaust was about failure." No matter how much of the harrowing nature of the Holocaust Spielberg puts on screen, the film is ultimately compromised by its rescue-based storyline and happy ending which seems to cheapen and oversimplify such a tragic event.

Take the shower scene, for instance, where we think the women will be exterminated and then water comes down instead of gas. The audience feels relief, and hope, but it's false relief and false hope because they know that was not the case in the widest sense. In order to invest in the characters as being true to life, we have to believe that their circumstances are not extraordinary; they just happen to be working for Oskar Schindler and that in itself will not give them protection. But although Spielberg does not shy away from showing us death in other scenes, he struggles to make any more than a superficial connection between these events and the characters who survive.

This is in part down to the jumpy editing of the film. Lots of quick scenes are cut together to make it easier to watch, the result being that we can't linger on the characters outside of Schindler and hence don't build them up as much as we'd like. In any case, Spielberg takes on too many characters -- we believe in Amon Goeth, and Isaak Stern, but the rest all come and go with only passing attempts to flesh them out. He simultaneously wants us to be aware of dehumanisation and make us care for everyone on screen, and in the end he doesn't really manage it.

All the things that are good and bad about the film are summed up in the clearing of the Krakow ghetto. There are many harrowing moments, like the little girl being hidden under the floorboards, the family swallowing the rings, or the people being shot in the street. There is also the hard-hearted, aloofness of Schindler, who watches all this from far away on horseback, and only turns away when his lady asks him to. He still only sees them as workers and as the fortune he stands to lose.

All this is ultimately spoiled by Spielberg's saccharine qualities. And the most unforgivable of all of these is... the girl in the red dress. This device is preachy, clunky and ruins all the film's momentum. Shooting her in colour takes us out of the self-contained world of the film, just like the ending sequence showing the relatives coming to Schindler's grave. The idea that Schindler should be pushed over the edge by this one girl is not only unrealistic, but it cheats the audience because it's far too easy. There is no personal loss that Schindler goes through surrounding this girl, and so her death isn't enough to prompt such a radical change of heart. If Spielberg had only shown her as red from Schindler's point of view, this might have worked better and made the transformation more powerful. Instead the image just sticks out badly, like Spielberg angrily wagging his figure at the audience.

From thereon in, all the brilliant moments of the film are compromised by out-of-place goofiness and baggy storytelling (unlike The Green Mile, the film doesn't earn the right to be three hours long). So on the one hand we have the scene where Ralph Fiennes attempts to shoot the old man; the gun keeps jamming, he gets more and more frustrated and then hits him in the head. Or the chicken scene, where the child steps forward and informs Fiennes that the man he just shot was the one who stole the chicken. These are fantastic moment, but on the other hand we have the montage of the typists being tried out, and the man treading on the piano keys as he comes out of hiding, which reminds you in a bad way of the "Good luck" moment from The Great Escape.

This saccharine goofiness also distracts us from some of the genuinely creepy scenes involving Fiennes, whose performance is the most complex in the film. There is an attempt made to explore the nature of power, in the conversation between Schindler and Goeth, which leads the latter to 'pardon' several Jews. This could have been explored in more detail, to show the mental delusion of Goeth, but instead it is worked through in five minutes and then forgotten about. It's the same story with his scene with Helen Hirsch in the cellar, in which Goeth cannot decide whether he wants to seduce her or not, and ends up beating her more down to frustration than racial hatred. Fiennes is terrific in that scene, but it doesn't feel well-connected to the rest of the film; it's a surprising and chilling vignette rather than something more substantial.

Like The Colour Purple and Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List is an admirable failure. One cannot deny Spielberg's skill, or his good intentions in dealing with this subject matter, but one must also acknowledge that in the end he was not really up to the job. The fact that Spielberg took ten years before deciding to make it, and tried to pass it on to different directors, shows that he himself was not sure he had a handle on the material. It falls between two stalls of 'Holocaust films'. On the one hand, it wants to be like Sophie's Choice and The Pianist, which take the harrowing elements to such an unrelenting yet beautiful extreme, that watching the film is almost unbearably powerful. And on the other, it wants to be like Life is Beautiful and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, in which the horror is shown through innocent eyes so that the darkest themes can be addressed in a way which is both warming and uncompromising. Schindler's List is not a disaster by any means, at least not on the level of Hook or 1941. It is pointless and reckless to hate it, but it's equally hard to consider it great.
4
Three Colors: White (Trzy kolory: Bialy) (Trois Couleurs: Blanc) 1994,  R)
Three Colors: White (Trzy kolory: Bialy) (Trois Couleurs: Blanc)
So much of Kyzstzstof Kieslowski's work flies in the face of Hollywood convention, whether in its themes, visual execution or character development. So it is odd that the middle film of the Three Colours trilogy should fall into the same trap as the middle instalments of Hollywood trilogies. Just as Back to the Future Part II and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom are overshadowed by their surrounding counterparts, so Three Colours -- White drops the ball by quite a long way. There are interesting elements throughout, but the result is ultimately disappointing.

White is probably the most personal of Kieslowski's trilogy, since it deals not only with French society but with his Polish homeland. Much of the film is concerned with the state of the Polish economy as our protagonist travels home to find his brother and take up a proposition by a strange man called Mikolaj. Kieslowski has a decent stab at showing how Polish society has changed since the end of the Cold War, mainly through little touches in the dialogue; for example, when the criminals mug Karol, they find his watch is made in Russia and quickly throw it away.

In its examination of capitalism and family, White could be described as a heavy-hearted eulogy to Poland, since the comedy is clearly affectionate but is solidly rooted in pathos. Although Kieslowski's early work ran into trouble with the communist authorities, he does not see its replacement as an unequivocal improvement. Certainly the presence of wealth and the free market doesn't seem to make life easier for Karol, who resembles Chaplin's little tramp in his combination of initiative and stupidity.

Aside from its elegiac feel, White is as visually stylish as Blue and Red. Edward Klosinski's cinematography alternates between the sparse snowy landscapes of rural Poland and the pearly-white columns of the Parisian law courts. White is seen as a symbol of simplicity, purity and impartiality, all of which converge in the film's central theme of equality.

Here, however, is the first problem with the film. Whereas Blue was absolutely clear in its examination of liberty, seeing it as something emotional rather than political, White somehow confuses the two and wrongfully intertwines them. Karol's motivation throughout the film is to win back his ex-wife, which is fair enough. But he chooses to achieve this by amassing material wealth and then faking his own death to draw her out in sympathy. There seems to be an assumption within the film that gaining economic or financial equality with someone will somehow make them re-evaluate you romantically; a cynical notion, to be sure, but one which jars with the optimistic tone of the central performance.

The theme of equality is communicated in a variety of ways over the course of the film. During the court scene, Karol accuses the judge of not giving him a fair hearing simply because he cannot speak much French. Kieslowski pulls a clever trick here by only subtitling the sections of dialogue which are in French, so that we instantly understand Karol's feeling of being shut out and unrepresented. The result of the divorce hearing, in which his cold-hearted wife gains everything, also reflects the way in which the system is skewed. This example is later taken to the extreme when his ex-wife torches her place of work and tells him that the police will believe he did it.

The biggest problem with White is that it doesn't quite know what it wants to be. Blue and Red have clearer intentions: Blue is an anti-tragedy which has an element of redemption but no textbook happy ending, and Red is an anti-romance in which the theme of fraternity is communicated through an unlikely platonic relationship between a model and a judge.

White attempts to be an anti-comedy, but it is stymied by its continued falling into comedy conventions. Although it is full of pathos and is therefore not laugh-out-loud funny, it is still ultimately comedic in the same way that The Kid or Modern Times are comedic; they are populated with characters whose predicaments we share and with whom we sympathise. Moments of White are textbook black comedy, including the multiple scenes of Karol being beaten up, and in the tradition of modern comedies it finishes with some form of happy ending.

Sticking with that ending, we come to the role of women in this story. Aside from the fact that Julie Delpy has less of a screen presence than Juliette Binoche or Irene Jacob (who wouldn't?), her role in the story is very limited and constrained. While Karol is portrayed as a man who earns his wealth and succeeds despite his weaknesses, she is presented as spoilt, self-interested, and driven to a large extent by a need for sexual gratification. She divorces Karol on the grounds that their marriage has not been consummated, and only seriously considers taking him back after they have slept together. Rumour has it that the ending was reshot by Kieslowski to make her character seem more sympathetic -- a decision which suggests a current of misogyny running right through this 'comedy'.

Much of White is mean-spirited in a way you don't expect from such an intimate filmmaker. For every moment of innocent joy for Karol, such as him playing his improvised mouth organ in the underground, there is another moment in which he temporarily becomes a monster. After he has been kicked out of his house, he watches an old woman try and fail to push a bottle into a bottle bank. Rather than get up and help her, he sits there smirking in the knowledge that there is someone worse off than himself. And that's saying nothing of the murky dealings by which Karol comes by a body with which to fake his own death.

On top of all this, the film is pulling in several directions with regard to its storyline. Although it is narratively more straightforward than the otherfilms, the central story of Karol trying to get back with his wife is often brushed into the background by the other stories going on around him. Some of these are worthwhile and important: the comic confusion of Karol arriving by suitcase in Warsaw is married to the harrowing scene where he has to shoot Mikolaj, in what is probably the most powerful scene in the film. But in all the scenes involving Karol's business, Kieslowski struggles to discern whether his actions aim for redemption or revenge, and the theme of equality gets lost.

Three Colours -- White is a good example of a film which has bitten off more than it can chew. It manages to stay restrained and dignified in its treatment of its themes, and the central performance of Zbigniew Zamachowski is generally convincing. But it ends up chasing a series of tails/ tales, never knowing which one to follow and to what end. As a visual exercise it is to be admired, and even Kieslowski's weakest attempts at comedy are preferable to the rom-com dross of Hollywood. But it is the weakest of the Three Colours trilogy and will frustrate both ardent fans and casual viewers.
5
Nixon 1995,  R)
Nixon
I've had a problem with Oliver Stone for many years. While many find his style and choice of films to be bold, gripping and intelligent, for the most part I view his work as blunt, broad and hagiographic. Stone's political films don't so much raise questions as shout opinions at the audience, and he frequently twists the truth for the sake of furthering his own viewpoint (just watch The Doors if you don't believe me). For all the admiration he garners for his conviction and fighting spirit, the fact remains: he's not a filmmaker, he's a lecturer.

The ironic thing about Nixon, therefore, is that it ultimately fails for exactly the opposite of all the normal reasons. Whereas JFK bashes you on the head for three hours until you break down and believe a totally spurious conclusion, Nixon doesn't really know what it wants to say, with its knee-jerk final act capping off an uncertain and rather aimless two hours prior to this. There are interesting moments or engaging ideas within said time, but ultimately the film is an admirable failure.

To his credit, Stone is upfront about the incomplete nature of existing accounts. The film begins with a statement about how relatively little has been made public from the Nixon administration, and how what follows is the closest possible replication of what happened based upon what is available. Even if Stone doesn't entirely follow through on this (for instance, in the plumbers scene), he deserves credit for announcing this upfront, rather than using it as an excuse to justify his conclusions. This was the mistake he made with JFK, embracing an already discredited theory and then trying to paint the film as being about the creation of myths, trying to start a dialogue that never materialised.

Nixon raises a number of interesting ideas around the nature and history of American politics, all of which are explored in some detail over the running time. One of the biggest themes is the relationship between the ordinary man and the establishment, something which is reflected in Nixon himself and in the students that protest against the policies of his government. Nixon is positioned as a man of humble birth, who had to work hard for everything he ever had and who, in his words, "never profited from public office". His plight is set against the fortunes of the Kennedy family, who are born with silver spoons in their mouths and seem to have success and popularity handed to them on a plate.

As much as Nixon paints himself as the common man, it becomes very clear very early on just how entrenched he is in the establishment, and how little he either can change it or is willing to change it. The political system is portrayed as one of deep-rooted, historical corruption, with a series of vested interests pulling strings, money changing hands and all kinds of loaded glances being exchanged. Stone can't resist slipping into caricature every so often - for instance, shooting all the scenes with Larry Hagman in deliberate shadow. But for the most part he lets the characters paint the picture, and it's not a pretty one.

One of the key scenes in Nixon comes when the President takes a late-night walk to the Lincoln Memorial, and is surrounded by angry students who are protesting against the Vietnam War. It's a painful scene to watch since it makes us resent both parties: Nixon comes across as out-of-touch, slippery and aloof, while the students are all obnoxious, slogan-spouting layabouts. But then Stone pulls the rabbit out of the hat, using our discomfort to explore the entrenched relationship between the state and the military, which results in near-constant demands for war being supplied by the state. It's a brief but gripping analysis of the military-industrial complex, leaving us a little wiser and a lot more depressed.

Nixon is anchored by the really good performance of Anthony Hopkins. It's an interesting performance because Hopkins manages to embody and inhabit Nixon, despite the fact that he doesn't really look like him. The voice may be a little different, but Hopkins nails Nixon's physicality, with the hunched shoulders, the forced toothy grin, the waving arms and the scowling mouth. He really captures the loneliness and insecurity of Nixon, with all his warmer scenes feeling like a thin disguise for the flawed, ruthless mind beneath the surface.

Hopkins is supported by a gallery of famous faces, of which a select few really stand out. Joan Allen really convinces as Nixon's wife Pat; she has to play the foil to Nixon's more gruesome moments, and gives the audience a way in through her occasional incredulity. James Woods is brilliant as H. R. Haldeman, being scarily driven in every scene and making us feel intimidated even when he's not saying anything. Bob Hoskins is enjoyable as J. Edgar Hoover; while he doesn't exactly nail the character, Hoover is more of a cipher in this film and Hoskins at the very least has fun with his lines. And Paul Sorvino, best known for his role in Goodfellas, is completely unrecognisable as the skin-crawling Henry Kissinger.

Everything that I've said thus far would make it seem like Nixon was a success, and that I had gone from being a Stone sceptic to an Oliver apologist. Sadly, this is not the case. Nixon is a film of interesting ideas - make no mistake about that - but it's also a film of great moments rather than an incrementally gripping story. In between those moments lies a meandering, shambling narrative that definitely overstays its welcome. Put simply, there is nothing about this film which justifies the three-hour running time.

I've often made the argument with biographical films that the best approach is to focus on one event or series of events in a person's life, and use them as a microcosm in which we can hint at wider events or aspects of one's character. The King's Speech, for example, worked because it was focussed around one event from which the ideas and themes could naturally flow. Had Tom Hooper attempted to tell the story of George VI from early life right up to that speech, it would have been far more cumbersome and less dramatically focussed.

While this film has a different focal point to Frost/Nixon, and is arguably more artistically ambitious, Ron Howard's work is ultimately superior because it has focus. It uses the Watergate interviews to tease out details about Nixon's character, as well as that of Frost and other figures in their respective professions. While Howard is giving you a little taste and allowing you to form your own conclusions, Stone prefers to browbeat us with information, trying to argue whatever point may be available by beating us and the plot into submission.

Even by Stone's standards, Nixon is ill-disciplined, not only in its length but in its lack of adherence to any kind of thesis. For the first two hours it stumbles from place to place, lurching between pantomime villain characterisation and a grown-up political drama. All the interesting ideas I mentioned before are raised in a specific scene or couple of scenes, but none of them are ever turned into a recurring theme or made a part of genuine foreshadowing. Then in the last hour, when Watergate begins to gather pace, the film turns into a knee-jerk hatchet job and ends far too abruptly.

This over-reaching on Stone's part has the unfortunate consequence of trivialising all the more sinister aspects of Nixon's rule. The film constantly treats the next scandal of the administration as if it is the worst thing possible, but Stone presents the events so clinically that it feels like a list rather than a downward spiral. Only the Watergate section has emotional weight, because it plays out at a pace that allows us to see the different shifts of the characters. Besides that, it's just a blur of lies, jargon and corruption with no way in for the non-political viewer.

For all the information he gathered for it, Stone has ultimately delivered a very empty film. He opens a discussion about Nixon, but because there's no focal point or commitment to a given theme, we come away feeling like we know as little (or perhaps even less) about Nixon than we did going in. The film reflects its central character's habits, jumping from one subject or line of reasoning to the next out of convenience or desperation - and every time it makes such a jump, it comes across as a little less structurally sound. Even with all the backstory and the flashbacks to Nixon's childhood, it all feels perilously thin.

Nixon is nothing more than an admirable failure, being as deeply flawed and elusive as its central character. It does boast several very good performances, and is the most successful of Stone's films about US presidents, being more interesting than JFK and less cartoonish than W.. But for all Stone's ambition in tackling the man, he ultimately comes away with empty hands and a very hollow result. Stone fans will lap it up, but the rest of us should opt for Frost/Nixon.
6
The Usual Suspects 1995,  R)
The Usual Suspects
All Bryan Singer films are deeply unsure of themselves: they attempt to marry several conflicting elements while never quite deciding what they want to be. Superman Returns can't decide whether it wants to be dark and moody like Batman Begins or a nostalgic throwback to the earlier films. Valkyrie flits between a romping B-movie about Tom Cruise blowing up Hitler and an intense character study about what it means to betray your country. And then there is The Usual Suspects, which claims to be the heist movie with the ultimate twist, but ends up as the ultimate disappointment.

When making a genre film or any kind of homage, there is a very fine line between playing with conventions and coming across as completely unoriginal. The ingredients of a heist film are among the most familiar and formulaic in cinema: the assembly of a team, typically for one last job, the heist being planned and executed, and then something going horribly wrong. One of the tests of a good filmmaker is being able to take a very clichť-ridden subject and do something interesting and memorable while being fully mindful of generic constraints.

There are two main ways to make a good heist film in the modern day. The first is to take a particular convention and break it. In The Ladykillers, the heist is barely planned and takes place off screen, with the majority of the film being focussed on the gang unravelling at the hands of Mrs. Wilberforce. The second is to use audience familiarity with conventions to one's advantage, using the heist as a springboard to explore something else. Inception may have a heist structure, but the actual crime which Cobb commits is only as important as the ideas surrounding it - the nature of dreaming, the fracturing of identity, the consequences of addiction and the pain of losing one's love.

From a purely mechanical point of view, The Usual Suspects is a very well-made heist film. All the pieces of the plot fit together very well: there are no gaping holes in either Kevin Spacey's account or the various encounters which persuade Gabriel Byrne to come on board for the big job. And taken in abstract, the final twist is fairly impressive. It's not a million miles away from the silly ending of Shattered, but it's carried with suitable grace and doesn't feel like an unnecessary contrivance, crowbarred in to bring the film to a speedy conclusion.

But here, already, we have the central problem with the film. The Usual Suspects may be mechanically sound, but it is so obsessed with being mechanically sound that it never allows you to bond with what is going on in the meantime. Singer spends so much time and effort ensuring that we go through the motions in the slickest way possible, that the actual characters become increasingly superfluous.

By keeping the characters at arms' length from the plot, a barrier between the story and the audience is created. Whenever the screenplay attempts to invoke ideas about the nature of evil, or fear, or the power of will, these ideas are quickly passed over or shot down as the film demands to keep pressing forward. Potentially fascinating explorations of the nature of underground crime are suppressed in favour of the next irrelevant plot point, making The Usual Suspects a decidedly hollow experience.

If we compare Singer's efforts to that of Quentin Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs, the significance of this problem becomes apparent. Like The Usual Suspects, Reservoir Dogs is a straightforward heist film whose distinctions are structural rather than aesthetic. But unlike Singer, Tarantino's work not only knew its place within a genre: it knew that the audience knew its place as well. By giving the audience a degree of certainty, Tarantino could get away with his outlandish dialogue and shuffled timeframes which would otherwise have thrown the audience a bigger curveball.

To use the analogy of a circus, Reservoir Dogs is like a show at the big top in which everything happens as expected, but always with a flourish. Instead of just a trapeze act, we get a trapeze artist doing triple somersaults - and instead of gangsters simply talking about the heist, we get them to dissect the meaning of Madonna's 'Like A Virgin'. The Usual Suspects is like a circus show in which the ringmaster is so keen to hurry the acts along that we have no time to admire them, and all that is memorable is the huge poles holding up the tent.

You only have to look at the characters to realise how much talent has been squandered here. The five 'usual suspects' are all quirkily drawn, whether in their dress sense, their accents or the way they conduct themselves within the group. Christopher McQuarrie's screenplay contains a number of potentially great scenes, laden with distinctively macho dialogue and criminal posturing. But the more time we spend in their company, the more you come to realise that they are quirky for its own sake: there is no narrative reason for Benicio Del Toro to speak like that. They are little more than archetypes in new suits, and like later Tarantino works, you are never convinced that any of them could really exist.

Without properly three-dimensional or believable characters, or much direction beyond rigidly following a formula, the one thing that could have saved The Usual Suspects would have been some kind of moral clout. Both this film and Se7en are thrillers in which the villain is prominent, or at least has a prominent presence which hangs over everything that unfolds. But what made Se7en work, aside from David Fincher's distinctive visuals, was its ability to make subtle contemporary moral points while honouring an old-fashioned hardboiled storyline.

The Usual Suspects has the potential - that word again - to have this exact kind of moral clout. The character of Keyser Soze, a criminal who operates underground through oblivious associates, is an intriguing creation which carries meaning about the way that evil infiltrates society. Kevin Spacey's long monologues contain references to the Devil and vengeance on a genuinely Biblical scale, painting Soze as a man that would make even Hannibal Lector flinch. But again, the film never allows these ideas to come out beyond brief suggestions - suggestions which are barely elaborated upon by either the story or the characters.

In the midst of all this, The Usual Suspects deserves some credit for its execution. Singer is not a terrible director, at least not from a constructional point of view: his camerawork is solid and the heist scenes especially are well-shot by his long-time cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel. As far as the performances go, Kevin Spacey gives his all in the meatiest of roles; his performance of a man with cerebral palsy is Oscar-baiting but convincing. Gabriel Byrne remains an enjoyable screen presence, even if his choice of films is somewhat less enjoyable, and it remains the best thing that Stephen Baldwin has ever done.

But in all, The Usual Suspects is a densely plotted disappointment. Singer can never make up his mind what issues he wishes to explore within the confines of the story, and the result is a film which claims a lot but delivers on very little. Through the best efforts of the performers and the decent visuals, you find yourself wanting to like it more, and you start looking for something or someone with whom you can engage. But for all your best efforts the film never lets you in, making The Usual Suspects little more than a well-made waste of time.
7
Saving Private Ryan 1998,  R)
Saving Private Ryan
It's a total lie that directors who seek primarily to entertain cannot be considered great filmmakers. But it's a lie that Steven Spielberg has bought for quite some time, and his career has suffered for it. Spielberg at a heart an entertainer, a circus ringmaster who excels at making light-hearted popcorn films with a rich and subtle heart. When he attempts to be 'serious', he just gets bogged down and loses his way, resulting in a number of admirable failures like Saving Private Ryan.

There can be no doubt that Saving Private Ryan was made with the very best intentions. In his earlier films about WWII, the conflict had served as the backdrop to light-hearted character drama complimented by action sequences, something especially true of Indiana Jones. In making this film, Spielberg was seeking to move the war film away from the action genre, to tackle the heat of battle head on and capture the fear and bravery of the men involved.

This intention is clearly evident in the great opening section involving the D-Day invasion of the Normandy beaches. Spielberg shot these 20 minutes without storyboards and completely in sequence: in a feat not attempted since Full Metal Jacket, his camera crew took the beach with the soldiers a few yards at a time over the course of two months. Most of the scene is shot in intense close-up with shaky camera, putting you right next to the soldiers. You get not only the adrenaline but the incoherence of being in a battle, and when people around you are getting killed or wounded, it feels terrifyingly real.

This realistic, documentary approach is reinforced by the grainy cinematography. Janusz Kaminski, who also shot Schindler's List, shoots the battle sequences in very pale colours, giving the impression that we are watching black-and-white footage which has been artificially colourised. This, together with the positioning of Spielberg's camera, blurs the boundary between reality and fiction, so that if you came in after the opening credits, you would swear you were watching The World at War.

A related strength of Saving Private Ryan is its cast. In the past war films have avoided going down the Rambo root of being ultra-violent star vehicles by casting little-known actors in lead roles - for instance, Matthew Modine in Full Metal Jacket. Spielberg, on the other hand, has both the star power to sell the film and the conviction (in his casting at last) not to let the stars take over the story. Tom Hanks is there in a good performance, but the other members of his company are unrecognisable in the best possible way. And that's before we've got to the well-blended cameos by Paul Giamatti and Ted Danson.

Up until the twenty-five minute mark then, everything is so far, so good. But like Schindler's List and The Colour Purple before it, there comes a point in Saving Private Ryan when Spielberg loses his nerve. He drops the ball momentarily, in a plot device or a particular image which undercuts the dark, weighty tone he had been going for, and after that the film never recovers its initial intensity. In Schindler's List, it's the girl in the red dress; in The Colour Purple, it's Celie finding her sisters' letters; and in this film, it's the moment when the Chief-of-Staff personally orders Captain Miller to bring Private James Ryan home.

This might seem an odd objection, considering that this order and the subsequent mission are the centrepiece of the whole film. But the objection is justified because it completely changes the tone and intentions of Saving Private Ryan, in a way which ultimately detrimental to the power and message of the film. Having started so confidently, this scene makes everything that follows seem contrived, imposing a generic Hollywood rescue movie onto something so resiliently un-Hollywood.

What results for the best part of two hours is a film pulling in two different directions. On the one hand, it wants to continue to be bleak and unsentimental in its depiction of war and death, trying to keep up the realism and put the audience through the mill. On the other hand, it wants to bring in the mainstream, giving us not just spectacle but sentimentality to take off the rough edges - the very rough edges that would have made the film more convincing. In the end, Spielberg never quite decides which one of these directions he would prefer: he tries to have it both ways, and gets nowhere.

The comparisons with Schindler's List are not only structural. There is a direct through-line between the films in the scene in the French village, in which a family ask Vin Diesel to take their young daughter away so that she will not be killed by the Germans - think Sophie's Choice, with the roles reversed. This could be a powerful image or scene, counterpointing the soldiers' refusal to take the child with their orders to liberate France. But as with the girl in the red dress, it feels instead like a clunky shorthand for the cost of war, a melodramatic insert designed to spoon-feed its audience instead of letting them soak up the horror for themselves.

That's not to say that Saving Private Ryan doesn't attempt to tackle a number of interesting issues, albeit ones which are familiar within the war film genre. The film tries to understand the mentality of the soldiers in Miller's company, from Upham, the nervous but intelligent fish-out-of-water, to Miller himself, seasoned and battle-hardened but plagued by the shakes. And in the final battle involving Miller and Private Ryan (a good performance by Matt Damon), there is an interesting discussion about confusing orders and the role of duty. The characters torn are between doing what was ordered (leaving with Ryan, thereby letting the bridge fall) and what is right (staying and fighting, at the risk of killing Ryan and failing their mission).

But again, there's a conflict in such scenes between Spielberg's intentions and the possibilities afforded by his directorial technique. Whether because of the shooting style or the frenetic pace of the dialogue, we never bond with the characters as much as we might like. We can only name half of them at any one time, and the speed at which people are killed leads us to feel that, dramatically speaking, it may not be worth our while bonding with any of them. This makes the quieter conversations interesting interludes but not something which is narratively cohesive.

A further problem with Saving Private Ryan is the goofiness of certain scenes which jar completely with the film's serious intentions. In the midst of trying to play things straight and grim, Spielberg leaves in certain moments which would be great in his lighter works but have no real right to be here. The sequence where Paul Giamatti pushes a plank of wood which knocks down an entire wall - the very one the Germans just happen to be hiding behind - is every bit as out of place as the man treading on the piano keys in Schindler's List. And then there's the epilogue, in which the elderly Private Ryan turns to his wife and says "Tell me I'm a good man" - a saccharine cop-out which makes that scene seem a lot less honest.

Like The Colour Purple and Schindler's List before it, Saving Private Ryan is an admirable failure. It is made with the very best intentions, and in both its visuals and its battle choreography, it is technically brilliant. But it never manages to live up to its opening section, settling for convention over character, sentimentality over sheer terror, and - worst of all - length over depth. One hopes that War Horse will be the moment in Spielberg's career when he finally manages to get the balance right.
8
Tideland 2005,  R)
Tideland
Sometimes it is fun to criticise films: one gets a certain snobbish thrill from kicking seven bells out of the latest Hollywood dreck. But with Tideland, probably Terry Gilliam‚??s least-seen film, such feelings do not come to the fore. This is the kind of film you want to embrace and adore, and you cannot help but admire its director. But it is still found wanting in so many ways; all attempts to justify its strengths ultimately come up short, and its failings are so prominent that they cannot be ignored.

With Tideland and The Brothers Grimm, we have the chalk and cheese of Gilliam‚??s career, in terms of what they represent and the reactions they produce. The Brothers Grimm is the product of endless in-fighting and uneasy compromise; it is the clash of a gifted auteur with heavy-handed producers, resulting in a ham-fasted, third-rate, pedestrian fantasy which barely hangs together. Tideland, meanwhile, is the product of an unlimited imagination, with no test screenings or product deals to worry about. Hence it is confusing, rambling, and at times very tedious, but you are at least satisfied by the presence of rough, artistic edges. Watching The Brothers Grimm produces anger; watching Tideland produces a different feeling, one of admiring disappointment.

Tideland shares a number of features with Pan‚??s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro‚??s masterpiece of fantasy horror. Both are essentially dark fairy tales with young female protagonists. Both start in positions of extreme darkness (the Spanish Civil War and a family of smack-heads) and then get steadily darker. And both are visually stunning, combining grim realism with stunning special effects and dreamy surrealism to create something truly unique. But Pan‚??s Labyrinth is by far the superior film, for two clear reasons.

The first reason surrounds the relationship between the audience and the central character. Both Ofelia‚??s quest for her former self and Jeliza-Rose‚??s bid for survival require us to completely relate to the central character before we start to accept the existence of fairies or demons, or ‚??monster sharks‚??. In Pan‚??s Labyrinth, we identify with Ofelia because there is so little background to either the fauns she meets or the soldiers with whom she lives. She is the only reliable witness we have, so we quickly accept her view and thereby begin to believe that what we are seeing is real.

Gilliam, on the other hand, seems unsure as to how much we should care about Jeliza-Rose, played superbly by Jodelle Ferland. By having both parents OD in the first half hour, we have little choice over whom we focus on, but the circumstances in which we find her are so repulsive and uncomfortable that we struggle to stay the course. The problem is not, as some have suggested, that films involving children should not be this dark. The problem is that Gilliam does not know how to marshal this darkness so that the true emotions of the character come across. Much of the film feels like Jeliza-Rose just play-acting, as if there is no threat or danger; when the real dangers arrive it is like being awoken from an increasingly irritating dream with no real beginning or end.

The second reason for Pan‚??s superiority lies in its thematic clarity. Although it is incredibly multi-layered, Pan‚??s Labyrinth is very clearly a film about innocence, identity and memory. Del Toro doesn‚??t shove these themes down the audience‚??s throats, but every single movement and development is so bound up with such ideas that once you are immersed in the story, it doesn‚??t take long to pick up on them.

Tideland, on the other hand, isn‚??t sure exactly what its themes are beyond the resilience of children. As a thesis about innocence struggling through darkness, it does partially succeed: the final scene with the train wreck is quite breathtaking, with Jeliza‚??s fantasy being finally ruptured with the arrival of more people. Her tears in this scene at leaving her childhood fantasy behind are beautifully handled, and this scene as a whole almost redeems the entire film.

Outside of this, however, the film is incoherent and extremely rambling. It seems so content to play out as a series of childlike fantasies between Jeliza-Rose and Dickens that it forgets to have anything else resembling a plot. After the departure of Jeff Bridges the film drags terribly, with many sections feeling repetitive and the dialogue becoming increasingly tiresome. There are some genuinely shocking moments, such as Jeff Bridges being embalmed or the Frankenstein-like dream sequence where one of the doll‚??s heads is fastened on the body of Jeliza-Rose‚??s dead mother, played by Jennifer Tilly. But none of these sequences feel like continuations of any kind of plot; like aspects of Alice in Wonderland, on which Tideland is based, they come out of nowhere with seemingly little purpose other than to turn one‚??s stomach.

The comparison with Alice (of which Gilliam is a huge fan) helps to illuminate Tideland‚??s problems with regard to characters. The characters in Alice are notably insane and off-the-wall, but with a couple of exceptions they are never tiresome or annoying. Whether in Lewis Carroll‚??s original novel or the numerous adaptations, they remain compelling and involving because their dialogue and personalities are well-constructed. They are never patronising or condescending towards Alice or by extension the reader, and their whimsy belies a twisted sense of darkness which makes Alice‚??s journey more compelling.

In contrast, most of the characters in Tideland struggle to remain compelling beyond their initial quirks. They are so exaggerated, so quirky and thereby so annoying, that it takes a huge amount of patience to put up with them, let alone unravel them. Gilliam is increasingly a director who is content to let actors play freely and go as far over-the-top as they like; an approach which frequently backfires, as seen from Heath Ledger‚??s work in both The Brothers Grimm and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

To this end, we understand Dickens‚?? mental instability very early on, but there is far too little character development beyond a fleeting ‚??romance‚?? (perhaps the wrong word) with Jeliza-Rose. Dell is scary in parts, like when she reveals her bad eye and talks about the bees, but her pious screaming at the dinner table tips over into clich√©d nonsense. Finally, too little effort is made over different aspects of Jeliza-Rose‚??s personality being represented by the doll‚??s heads. We get used to them talking without her lips moving, but when she begins to abandon them we are given little inclination as to what such gestures represent.

Tideland is, for better or worse, unlike any other film you have ever seen. Taken purely as an artistic exercise, it is a big improvement on The Brothers Grimm, because it is so uncompromising and so full-on. And you do have to admire Terry Gilliam for wanting to push the boundaries of what is both possible and acceptable with regard to children on screen. But in the end it is too long, too annoying and far too badly structured to compete with Brazil or 12 Monkeys. For all his best efforts and intentions, it remains an admirable failure, with moments of heartbreaking brilliance nestled among hours of uninvolving repetition.
9
I'm Not There 2007,  R)
I'm Not There
I've spoken in the past about the various problems associated with making biopics. In my review of Ed Wood I commented that there is a continual clash between "the supposedly objective, historical record of events and the subjective sensibility of the filmmaker", which can only be resolved if the filmmaker makes his or her intentions clear from the outset.

I'm Not There is an audacious twist on the biographical genre, which like its contemporary Capote maintains a level of distance and detachment from the character it is depicting or inspired by. Todd Haynes gives us a handful of characters or personas, each playing a different part of Bob Dylan's character in isolation from the others. Ultimately the film never quite comes together like Haynes' previous work, but it deserves a lot of credit for its originality and moments of brilliance.

Whether by merit or by reputation, Bob Dylan is one of the hardest celebrities to put on screen. He is in the company of Marilyn Monroe, Peter Sellers and John Lennon, being someone of so many identities and contradicting parts that any performance risks being just a good impression or pleasing caricature. And that's before we get into the legal battle surrounding the previous attempt to depict him, in the Edie Sedgwick biopic Factory Girl. Dylan's lawyers argued that the character Billy Quinn was a means of implicating Dylan in Sedgwick's death, and attempted to stop the film being released until they were satisfied that their client wasn't being defamed. Considering that the Dylan cipher was being played by Hayden Christiansen, you have to wonder why they bothered.

From this perspective, splitting Dylan into six different personas (none of whom are called Bob Dylan) makes perfect sense. It allows Haynes to have the best of both worlds, giving us all the detail we need in focussing on small sections of Dylan's life, and allowing the director to express his opinion in the demarcations he makes between the characters. We get from the very start that it's a personal interpretation of Dylan's life and legacy, and the amount of detail that goes into evoking each period compensates for any feeling that what we are seeing may not be entirely accurate.

In terms of the actual performances of 'Dylan', they are quite a mixed bag. The best performance by a county mile is Cate Blanchett, who takes on the Jude Quinn persona of Dylan circa 1965, when he was booed at the Newport Folk Festival for playing an electric guitar. Blanchett plays Quinn as a skeletal, disaffected, cynical Dylan, rarely seen without his cigarettes or sunglasses, openly mocking the people around him and seeming to not give a damn about what anyone says or thinks of him. Blanchett brilliantly conveys the feeling of someone whose success has painted them into a corner, and who responded by deliberately alienating his 'fans' - a tactic which culminated in the 1970 album Self-Portrait, which Dylan described in interviews as a joke to get people off his back.

The only downside to Blanchett's performance is that it leaves the other Dylans in the movie feeling overshadowed. Christian Bale is very good as both the young protest singer of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and the born-again gospel musician on Slow Train Coming. It's much more of an impression but is still convincing, especially considering he has the greatest character leap in the whole film. On the downside, Ben Whishaw feels underused and a little flat, Richard Gere effectively plays himself, and Heath Ledger doesn't look, sound or feel right. You might argue that on this last occasion it doesn't matter, since he's playing an actor playing the Christian Bale character. But there's something about his performance which feels forced, and we struggle to empathise with him during his scenes.

Whether in and of itself or because of the varying performances, the central device of I'm Not There sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. On the good side, the inclusion of Marcus Carl Franklin as 'Woody Guthrie' does make sense. Guthrie was Dylan's childhood idol, and by having the character played by a black actor, it conveys the idea that both artists have their musical roots in old slave songs and the blues. Guthrie's guitar case, which carries the slogan 'This Machine Kills Fascists', is a further reflection of the characters' shared interest in the politics of their day, whether the Great Depression or the Cold War.

The other interesting idea brought out by the device is the idea of celebrity being something intangible. Just as it can be hard nowadays to rationalise what certain people are famous for, so I'm Not There depicts Dylan's celebrity as something which cannot ever be fully grasped or described beyond the recognition that he probably deserves it. It's a welcome admission on the part of Haynes that someone as influential as Dylan cannot be reduced down to a single performance in a two-hour film - or at least, not one of this scope.

But here too there is a problem. Since Haynes is effectively admitting the impossibility of depicting Dylan, you could make the argument that the film could have just been made about the Jude Quinn character. Out of all the personas, Blanchett's is the most dramatically interesting, the most controversial, and the most in keeping with the central themes. The film would have been more thematically and narratively focussed if it attempted a deconstruction of this character and his mythos, akin to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. As it is, I'm Not There is a film of many interesting parts which only occasionally connect.

The part of the film which most indicates this shambolic feeling is the section which Roger Ebert described as "the Richard Gere cowboy sequence". Gere plays outlaw Billy the Kid, who has gone into hiding from lawman Pat Garrett. These scenes are intended to pastiche Dylan's performance in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, as well as conveying Dylan's nature as an outsider. But instead they feel like one long non-sequitur, with vague ideas about justice and rebellion coming to the fore but never being developed. Gere looks and feels out of place, like he had slept for thirty years and woke up thinking he was still in Days of Heaven.

This sequence points to the biggest problem with I'm Not There, namely that it never truly gets under the skin of its main character. The film has a similar problem to The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, in that it recreates key events from Dylan's life without explaining why they are so significant. While Dylan fans will relish in the detail and pick up on every reference to his back catalogue, the film doesn't provide any real way in for the casual viewer who may be coming to Dylan for the first time. And like Gandhi, it relies all too often on us being interested in the reputation of the man, when what is really interesting and engaging is the different aspects of his character. In short the film gives us a number of performances, all of them artistically interesting but none of them particularly empathetic.

The same goes for the some of the wonderful imagery contained in the film. One of the best moments comes when Dylan begins performing in Newport: his bands open their instrument cases, produce machine guns and proceed to open fire on their audience. It's a brilliant metaphor for the feeling of betrayal that surrounded Dylan's decision to go electric, and its rebellious quality recalls the ending of If..... But as much as we admire this moment, it still feels like a moment rather than a piece in a bigger theme or narrative. At its lowest points the film could just pass for a series of music videos, taking Dylan's music and pairing it with the oddest choice of images.

I'm Not There is an admirable failure which contains moments of brilliance and insight but never entirely pulls itself together. It is possible to enjoy it purely for the music, and Haynes' status as a visually intriguing director remains assured. But all the good moments, especially Cate Blanchett's performance, make its shortcomings all the more disappointing. Dylan fans will be glued to its every move; the rest of us will wonder what all the fuss is about.
10
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus 2009,  PG-13)
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
With all the bad things that have befallen Terry Gilliam, both here and in his career as a whole, one has to admire him and give him credit for even finishing this film. Few others would have the courage to carry on with such an ambitious and complex film after the death of its main star. Indeed you would have expected, after both The Brothers Grimm and Tideland, that Gilliam would downsize and take on smaller, less conspicuous films, much like Joel Schumacher did in the wake of Batman and Robin. But no ‚?? The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus arrives with an all-star cast, big-budget CGI and a lot to live up to.

So, we admire the director. And we admire the actors who stepped in to fill the void left by Heath Ledger‚??s unfortunate death. But none of this admiration, however well-placed or justified, can hide the fact that this film is a total mess from start to finish. It is convoluted, baggy, unappealing, garish, dull-witted, lacklustre and charmless. There is barely a moment in the whole two hours where you don‚??t feel criminally disappointed by what you have paid good money to see. No matter what Gilliam throws at the screen, no matter how bright the colours or how loud the sound, you still feel ultimately cheated by the knowledge that he can do so much better.

The opening 45 minutes are a dreary, dirge-some affair in which very little of any consequence happens. In Time Bandits and Brazil, the openings plunged you straight into the action by setting up a world and then having a darker, more fantastical one break through. In this, the world is already dark insofar as people have lost their love of fantasy; they are more worried about getting drunk, getting laid and getting stuff in shops than they are about dreams and the possibilities of the mind. But when Gilliam attempts to inject some lightness into this world, he chooses to do with characters which we care next to nothing about. The dialogue is so tired, and the actors who deliver it so fake and useless, that even before Heath Ledger is discovered hanging from the bridge, we have completely given up caring.

When Ledger does arrive on screen after far too much time, expectations of another Oscar-winning performance are quickly quashed. Whereas under Christopher Nolan, Ledger was edgy, fearsome and unpredictable, here he stumbles wetly around the scenery, changing his accent every 30 seconds, and giving us little or nothing to hold our gaze beyond his faded sex appeal. His performance owes more to A Knight‚??s Tale than to The Dark Knight, puncturing the myth that this typecast pretty-boy had suddenly transformed into one of the very best. There are moments in Doctor Parnassus in which his rendition of Tony is so loose and freeform, you‚??re unpleasantly reminded of Johnny Depp in the later Pirates of the Caribbean films.

As for the rest of the cast, they‚??re all either underperforming or simply not performing at all. Of the three actors playing the fantasy versions of Tony, Depp is passable, Jude Law is manageable, and Colin Farrell is irritable. Lily Cole cannot act, plain and simple; she comes from a background in modelling, and her performance does seem to be an exercise in looking pretty in the face of attention. She‚??s so bad she almost makes Sienna Miller look good. Tom Waits‚?? performance as the Devil is all on one note and you never, ever get a sense of real dread as the plot starts to resolve itself. Even Christopher Plummer, who has rescued many a bad film, cannot offer up anything beyond a series of miserable mumblings, which give the impression that he does not want to be there.

In past Gilliam films, the special effects felt a weighty and organic part of the world in which they inhabited. When you watch the sequence in Brazil in which Robert De Niro walks into a cloud of flying newspapers and then disappears, you don‚??t question it. The organic feeling of the effects marries with the believability of the fantasy world Gilliam creates, so that the audience accepts it and moves on. In Parnassus, the lengthy CGI sequences contain moments of delight, such as the ocean of discarded bottles or the dancing policeman. But these are squandered because they are placed around long sections of frothy, pointless twists and turns, all of which attempt to darken the mood but ultimately make no sense. You‚??d swear that Gilliam put the actors on green-screen, told them to say anything and then made up the animations surrounding them as he went along. I say this with a heavy heart, but it‚??s almost as though George Lucas directed those scenes.

The plot itself makes very little sense, which is odd because the story is ultimately simple: a man makes a pact with the Devil, loses his daughter and has to get her back. If Gilliam had restructured the story so that the daughter goes missing at the start, and if he had developed Tony‚??s character progression more thoroughly, and if he had limited himself to 90 or 100 minutes ‚?? then we might have been getting somewhere. But he doesn‚??t, choosing instead to give us a ponderously turgid first half, in which every single conversation pulls its punches. It‚??s almost as though the characters are afraid to stand around explaining the plot, for fear that it will reveal how little they have to stand on. By the time we start going through the mirror we almost don‚??t care what‚??s on the other side; however dumb and obvious the CGI is, it‚??ll be a damn sight more interesting than the dingy and soulless exchanges of the travelling show.

Of course, all of this may be my fault. It may be that, like the characters on the London streets, I am too close-minded and obsessed with things as banal as money and time to open my mind and fully appreciate what Gilliam has created. It may be on second viewing that the film is a masterpiece. But on the basis of how bad the first viewing is, few will be persuaded to see it a second time, let alone a third. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a near-total failure on the part of Gilliam. Like Tim Burton‚??s Mars Attacks!, it‚??s an example of an overzealous director who has lost touch with his roots. It is marginally better than Mars Attacks!, insofar as some of the performances are okay, and there are moments throughout where things do start to come together. But these moments never amount to anything more than passing flights of fancy; they are glimmers of hope in an otherwise crushing disappointment.
11
The Lovely Bones 2009,  PG-13)
The Lovely Bones
When I reviewed The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, I commented on how it was possible to admire the intentions of a director while acknowledging that their film simply doesn't work. Gilliam's good intentions and body of work maintain his status as a trusted filmmaker, even if his last three films have completely missed the mark.

It is much the same story with The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson's adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel which depicts a family in crisis from the viewpoint of a murdered girl. Jackson is a great filmmaker who has tackled this area before in Heavenly Creatures. He has demonstrated that he can film the un-filmable (The Lord of the Rings) and do justice to a much-loved and revered original (King Kong). And everything since The Frighteners has proved that he is skilled with CG effects, giving his films a consistent and believable physicality even in the most elaborate of circumstances.

Unfortunately, all of this goodwill towards both project and director make the reality of The Lovely Bones all the more infuriating. It is a huge misstep for Jackson, serving as ample ammunition for his critics who claimed the success of The Lord of the Rings had gone to his head and damaged his craft. In the end, like Gilliam's recent work, the film is an admirable failure, made with all the right intentions but so heavily flawed that the wound it leaves takes time to heal.

On the plus side, there are two very strong performances which effectively carry the film. Saoirse Ronan is terrific as Susie Salmon, giving a really nuanced performance which progresses through a series of challenging emotional developments with complete naturalism. Ronan was 14 when filming began, and yet she delivers lines and holds her face like someone who has been acting for 20 years. Her only real rival here is Stanley Tucci, whose serial-killer-next-door is skin-crawlingly creepy. His performance combines the eeriness of Richard Attenborough in 10 Rillington Place with the intriguing distance that he honed playing Stanley Kubrick in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.

The first also has a number of scary scenes which are initially well-handled and effective at shocking an audience. The best of these is the nightmarish sequence where Susie walks around the bathroom with her killer lying in the bath and blood stained on the sink. The walls are the same shimmering, intrusive white as in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, and the stillness of that scene goes some way in suggesting what kind of brutal acts have been committed. As Tucci slowly rises from the bath and takes the flannel off his face, there's not much you can do to stop gripping your seat in a desperate bid not to scream.

But the effectiveness of this sequence hints at the first big problem with The Lovely Bones. There are huge, unmanageable lurches in tone between the tough, melancholic scenes surrounding Susie's death and the attempts at cheery sentimentality in between. Like so many of Steven Spielberg's 'serious' films, what starts off as dark, interesting and downbeat is quickly compromised by various decisions which undermine or eliminate the film's emotional impact.

Susan Sarandon's character of the cantankerous alcoholic grandmother is a totally unnecessary attempt to bring quirkiness and eccentricity to the situation. What we want to see in the scenes not set in the afterlife are of a family struggling to stay together in the midst of total despair - kind of like Ordinary People, only good. But instead Jackson opts for goofiness over hard work, giving us a montage of Grandma playing in foam and setting things on fire, and thereby losing sight of the emotional thread.

A bigger problem lies in Jackson's decision about depicting heaven or the afterlife. Some films only hint at the afterlife, letting the imaginative power of the audience do the leg-work. Think of the ending of Faraway, So Close!, Laura's angel in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, or the Grey Havens in Jackson's The Return of the King. Other efforts depict heaven as somewhere universally recognisable but with a subtle twist, such as the busy black-and-white offices in A Matter of Life and Death, or the hospital-cum-railway station in The Exorcist III. In these films the familiarity of heaven is immediately comforting, but it feels different enough for it to not just be a different part of Earth.

Instead, Jackson opts for a computer-generated 'in-between', coating Susie's entire world in bucket-loads of digital animation which owe a great debt to Vincent Ward's What Dreams May Come. Jackson knows how to make special effects work, and in The Lord of the Rings every CG effect feels seamless and physical, or at least bound by the same physical rules. But the difficulty in depicting the afterlife is that such a place does not have to play by the same rules - we can have landscapes which defy gravity or roses flowering under frozen lakes. The result of this difference is that no matter how seamless or well-rendered the visuals are, it does feel like Jackson is making it up as he goes along, until eventually his whole rendering of 'heaven' looks and feels like a Day-Glo video game.

This wouldn't be so bad if the film established a convincing link between what happens in the real world and what happens in the 'in-between'. But Susie's world always feels disconnected from what happens to her family, and the film keeps changing its mind about where and when reality intervenes. When Mark Wahlberg smashes all his ships-in-bottles, that is carried over, but when the gazebo collapses there's no clear reason for it. Because Susie cannot influence her 'heaven' in any consistent or significant way, the version of 'heaven' on screen stops being her own perfect world and becomes neither more nor less than lazy symbolic shorthand.

Even more troubling than the visuals is the film's emotional heart. Films surrounding death and family disintegration are among the most manipulative when done badly, and The Lovely Bones continues this trend, serving up a brace of very uncomfortable moral messages which play out in a deeply insensitive manner.

Its first message is that death, or being murdered, can actually make a person happier. Although Susie is initially and understandably horrified by what has happened to her, she seems to get over it surprisingly quickly and only returns to the pain of her family towards the end. There have been a number of film which have handled the passage from life to death or explored death as a means to escape pain - think of Shadowlands or the ending of Return of the King. The Lovely Bones takes a potentially interesting concept and is so heavy-handed and preachy that it makes Ward's work look subtle.

The other, arguably worse message surrounds vengeance from beyond the grave. This is a staple of ghost and horror stories, and so you would again expect Jackson to do a half-decent job. But whether by bad judgement or the content of the book, what should be a story about forgiveness and catharsis becomes a film about revenge, hatred and judgement from on high. The prospect of Susie's family healing and moving on is only hinted at in the epilogue, while most of the film strives to make us wish death upon Tucci's character. His eventual comeuppance, involving the recurring image of an icicle, smacks of the kind of moral duplicity which long seemed to have died out with Cecil B. De Mille.

In spite of its massive failings, The Lovely Bones remains an admirable effort for Jackson. It may well be that the book is genuinely un-filmable, and that in years to come this effort will be held up as proof. As it is, the film doesn't work on any level, as a spiritual paean, a family drama or a straightforward whodunit, and it is easily Jackson's weakest film since Meet the Feebles. But in the midst of disaster, there are individual moments and performances which suggest that this is merely a very obvious false note, rather than the death knell of an entire career.
12
Watchmen 2009,  R)
Watchmen
Big-screen adaptations of Alan Moore's work have been a decidedly mixed bag, from the enjoyable V for Vendetta to the flawed From Hell and the excremental The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In bringing what is considered Moore's finest work to the big screen, Zack Snyder has made every effort to do justice to the graphic novel and satisfy the fans. But the finished project is found severely wanting in crucial areas, resulting in either a big, long folly or a missed opportunity.

Of all the Alan Moore adaptations, Watchmen has the longest and most troubled production history. The film was first mooted in the early-1990s when Terry Gilliam was approached by Sam Hamm, who had recently achieved success writing Tim Burton's Batman. Despite being initially interested, Gilliam concluded that the novel could only work as a TV mini-series; he left the project and Hamm's script was indefinitely shelved.

The project re-emerged in 2001 with a new script by David Hayter, which lay around for three years before Darren Aronofsky was attached to direct. He subsequently dropped out to make pet project The Fountain, and his replacement Paul Greengrass did the same a few months later, in order to make United 93. Snyder was first offered the project in late-2005, shortly after his success with the remake of Dawn of the Dead. The project was formally green-lit in 2007 after shooting wrapped on 300.

There is no doubt that Snyder and everyone involved in Watchmen wanted this to be the best possible adaptation of the novel. This is in spite of the fact that Alan Moore has disowned it, along with all other adaptations of his work (and looking at The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it's not hard to see why). Various stories have circulated about the cast having copies of the novel on set, so that it could be referred to directly whenever there were questions over plot or characters. The film was clearly made for the fans and not for the money: with an 18 certificate and a budget of $130m, no expense or effort has been spared to replicate the comics as closely as possible.

But in spite of this obvious affection, there are a number of big problems with Watchmen which render it at least a partial failure. The first and biggest problem is that Snyder is a fanboy. He loves the comic to such an obsessive degree that either he can't explain it to the rest of us, or he isn't willing to explain it.

As a result the story of Watchmen is largely impenetrable to anyone who didn't spend their teenage years immersed in comic books. Snyder is focussed so much on meeting fans' expectations that the backstories or reasoning of the characters gets buried or lost, not to mention the mechanics of the alternative universe they inhabit. This is particularly the case with Doctor Manhattan, whose origins are only touched upon about halfway through the film.

The second, deeper problem is with Snyder as a director. He is not the "visionary" that he is made out to be, being visually stylish but a very poor storyteller. While the novel is purported to have substance coming out of its ears, the film gives the impression that it is all surface and no depth, amounting to little more than people in latex hitting each other. One could say on these grounds that Snyder is the new Joel Schumacher - and for all its disinterest in the comics, Batman Forever is a better film.

On top of his irritating use of slow-motion, most of Snyder's visual decisions smack of impatience, incompetence or showing off. His impatience is seen in the constant cutting between multiple, similar angles in scenes which would flow much better with longer, simpler takes. His incompetence is found in beginner's-level mistakes: he shoots several scenes through windows, resulting in lens flare or distracting reflections. And his showing-off is evident in Veidt's interview being reflected through a lens of another camera, or a sex scene being captured through the glasses on the table. In each example the visual decisions are an unnecessary indulgence which contribute little, and in many cases detract from and undermine the story.

Regardless of how complex or multi-layered the story of Watchmen is, it does not require two-and-a-half-hours to be told. On the one hand, it feels like the film always wants more time to develop the characters, and Gilliam was probably right that it would have worked better as a miniseries. On the other hand, if Snyder was determined to make a manageable film, he would have accepted the necessary compressions and moved the character development forward. But he doesn't do this, at least not as much or as well as he should. We have to wait nearly two hours for things to come together with the twist involving Ozymandias and Doctor Manhattan, by which time most of us will have given up.

So much of Watchmen is window-dressing, confirming Snyder's pursuit of style over everything else. Rorschach's film noir narration might work in the comics, but it serves little to no purpose here: the end point involving the discovery of his journal is silly, and it does nothing to move the plot forward other than stating the obvious. Snyder's choice of pop songs on the soundtrack is lazy, particularly in the opening montage: he settles for Bob Dylan's 'The Times They Are A-Changin' where Quentin Tarantino would have put on something more entertainingly esoteric.

This feeling of superficiality, coupled with the unrelenting pursuit of style, causes all of the arresting themes of Watchmen to get buried. In fact, the story raises a number of interesting issues about the ethics of nuclear war and peace, the workings of mutually assured destruction, and in particular the role of "costumed heroes" and how they could be controlled or policed. The slogan "Who Watches the Watchmen?" recurs as graffiti throughout the film but is barely addressed in a constructive way.

The tone of Watchmen keeps flipping between flippant and portentous, with Snyder being unable to balance the dark or forbidding elements with the inherent silliness of a naked floating blue man. This is perfectly demonstrated by a scene halfway through on Night Owl's ship: Silk Spectre II makes a comment about impending nuclear war, which then cuts to her and Night Owl making love in their costumes. Such lurches in tone are akin to erotic fan fiction and threaten to drag the whole film into parody.

Because the flippant aspects of Watchmen are so prominent, scenes which are meant to be more thought-provoking lose much of their impact. During the scenes involving Richard Nixon, what sticks in your mind is not the threat of global destruction but his comedy rubber nose, which makes the war room scenes feel less like Dr. Strangelove than Spitting Image. More problematically, when the film has a near-rape sequence, or a child abduction, or any number of brutally gruesome deaths, Snyder can't pull himself together: he can't deliver the emotion punch that such scenes require to prevent them from seeming inexcusably adolescent.

Watchmen is a deeply flawed, over-long and often boring attempt to bring Alan Moore's vision to the big screen. Whatever the merits of the graphic novel, and regardless of his good intentions, Snyder was the wrong director and this adaptation will put many newcomers off the source material. It pales in comparison to both V for Vendetta and Christopher Nolan's Batman films, both as a comic adaptation and an attempt to explore serious political issues. Fanboys will leap to its defence, but everyone else will be bored, annoyed or confused.
13
The Deep Blue Sea 2012,  R)
The Deep Blue Sea
One of the hardest things to rationalise as a film reviewer is when a director you love suddenly gets it wrong. Reviewing the latest Michael Bay disaster, or Brett Ratner-driven slice of hackery, is pretty easy: simply string together four or five superlatives, add some moral outrage and leave it to stew in its own juices. What's not so easy is trying to explain how Terence Davies has gone from something as inspired as Of Time and the City to such an abject failure in The Deep Blue Sea.

Davies' output as a filmmaker has always been an acquired taste - which, in this context, is equally a loaded phrase and a straight-up compliment. Whether you like his back catalogue or not (and even he has mixed feelings), he has a distinctive voice and series of interests which set him apart from the mainstream. He has campaigned tirelessly for the promotion of British cinema, furiously refusing to accept the perceived dominance of Hollywood, both financially and artistically.

You couldn't put the failure of Davies' latest film down to him being out of his depth. He has dabbled in period drama before, most prominently in The House of Mirth 11 years ago. But more than that, he has an intrinsic understanding of 1950s Britain, retaining both a childlike fondness of its cinema and a very real understanding of its social problems, which he experienced as a child. Davies has frequently described his father as "psychotic", and in Of Time and the City he painfully records both the realisation of his homosexuality and his disillusionment with religion.

One thing that The Deep Blue Sea has clearly in its favour is the way it looks. Florian Hoffmeister's cinematography is lush, glossy and full of rich colours, which somewhat evokes the work of the late great Jack Cardiff. The period details are immaculate, whether it's the costumes the characters wear or the songs they sing in the pub. It's not, or at least it doesn't appear to be, a pretend version of 1950s Britain, either dreamt up by the tourist board or dropped in from Hollywood.

Equally compelling is Davies' choice of music. His films have been described as having a "symphonic" quality, which goes back not just to 1950s melodrama but to the silent films which ultimately inspired them. In this case Davies turns to Samuel Barber, peppering many of Rachel Weisz's scenes with those long, elegiac strokes of the bow for which Barber was rightly famed. You won't find the now-clichťd Adagio for Strings sneaking in under the radar, but what there is works resoundingly well.

But for all its lavish grandiosity, the big failing of The Deep Blue Sea is something so ironically simple: we just don't care about any of the people on screen. Whether because of the source material, the performances or Davies' approach to either, this is a damning indictment of Davies as a filmmaker. What has united all of his work in the past is an intrinsic connection to the characters - we can empathise with and understand them even in the most fantastical situations. This is the first film which Davies has made in which we have no connection to the characters at all, unless 'connection' can include emotions like contempt, anger and disdain.

Part of the problem lies in the casting of Rachel Weisz. Davies said that she was the only person who could play Hester Collyer, and looking at her you can understand why. Weisz does have a kind of classical beauty which recalls Deborah Kerr, and she wears period costume very well. But while she may look the part, she fails completely on a dramatic level, leaving us annoyed by every word and action of hers on screen.

When Weisz was performing in A Streetcar Named Desire, she gave an interview bemoaning the lack of dramatic filmmaking in Hollywood. She pointed to the paucity of adventurous drama in a time of obsession with genre, and in particular to a dearth of decent female leads. It's hard to argue against that, but someone urgently needs to tell her that 'drama' and 'moaning for two hours' are not the same thing. Hester does nothing but cry, moan, scream, smoke and stare mournfully into middle distance. Weisz is worse here than she is in The Lovely Bones, so much so that at times you wish her character would just get on with it and top herself.

The male characters in the film fare no better. Simon Russell Beale is a very talented Shakespearean actor, and as with Weisz he looks the part as the elderly judge firmly in his mother's pocket. But he very quickly drifts into a stiff-upper-lip stereotype, as the film makes no effort to challenge our expectations of his occupation or social standing. Tom Hiddleston gets an equally duff hand, starting and ending as a caricature, namely the pilot who can't get over the war and return to a normal life.

It would be tempting in light of this to put Davies in the same camp as Noah Baumbach. He is guilty of the same cardinal sin of The Squid and the Whale: giving us a film without any empathetic characters, let alone an interesting story. The difference is that Baumbach seems to have genuine contempt for his audience, branding them as philistines if they don't understand why it is engaging to watch over-privileged pseudo-intellectuals whinging about their massive houses and expensive educations. Davies shows no such contempt: he has just mis-steped in such a dramatic way that this would appear to be the case.

One could argue that the failure of The Deep Blue Sea is a failure of the source material rather than its cinematic execution. Terence Rattigan's later work, written after the Second World War, is by and large dated and uninteresting. Early-1950s theatre was an empty and nostalgic celebration of pre-war life, with plays which seemed to lack any bearing on or interest in reality. The Deep Blue Sea is no exception, and its celebration of the British stiff-upper-lip feels horribly stale in 2011.

While all of this is true, however, the responsibility of making a film work ultimately lies with its director. There have been many filmmakers which have taken average scripts and acquitted themselves perfectly well: either of John Hillcoat's films are reasonable examples. But Davies makes the fatal error of assuming that we should care or be interested, rather than giving us any reason to of its own accord. He plays everything so straight that there is no way in for a modern audience, for whom the wartime attitudes seem at best admirably outdated and at worst totally absurd.

The big dramatic problem with The Deep Blue Sea lies in Hester's frustration or repression - something Weisz would know all about from A Streetcar Named Desire. If you're going to show repression, there has to be a pay-off or some form of character development to make all this pressure worthwhile, whether it's a happy ending or a lonely suicide. But this moment never arrives; the central relationship is tedious, unbelievable, and goes absolutely nowhere.

The Deep Blue Sea reminds us of two great periods of British filmmaking. Firstly, it recalls the great work of Powell and Pressburger in the 1940s and early-1950s, as they grabbed the conventions of melodrama by the scruff of the neck and produced works of profundity, nuance and visual splendour. And secondly, it reminds us just how important the British New Wave was in eroding these conventions, removing the veils of ignorance, escapism and denial which blighted so much of 1950s cinema.

The Deep Blue Sea is caught between the devil and its title, lacking the brilliance of the former and the relevance of the latter. You sit there amongst the tedious story and annoying characters, yearning for Malcolm McDowell to burst in brandishing a machine gun and inform the characters that the world they knew and fought for is long gone. Only time will tell how damaging this will prove to Davies' craft as a filmmaker. It is at very best an admirable failure, being a beautifully shot folly for an audience that no longer exists.
14
Trishna 2011,  R)
Trishna
Ever since the success of Slumdog Millionaire, Freida Pinto has struggled to establish herself in roles of a similar calibre. While her talent and commitment are plain to see, she has very often ended up as the best thing in a bad production, such as Julian Schnabel's heavily flawed Miral. She finds herself in broadly the same position with Trishna, Michael Winterbottom's third attempt at adapting Thomas Hardy which fulfils on far too little of its great potential.

Winterbottom is no stranger to Hardy's work, but his attempts at adaptation vary greatly. His take on Jude the Obscure, Hardy's last and most controversial novel, was handsomely mounted but often boring, while The Claim (based loosely on The Mayor of Casterbridge) is immensely entertaining. Winterbottom got the idea for this take on Tess of the D'Urbervilles while shooting on location for his neo-noir Code 46. He was struck by the similarities between 21st-century India and 19th-century Wessex, and thought that such an unusual setting would bring something new to the story.

To be fair to Winterbottom, Trishna does get the beats of Hardy's story down pat. The opening sets up the difference in background between our two main characters and fated lovers. Trishna's humble existence, waiting tables, helping her father and living in the countryside with her family, is contrasted with Jay's affluent lifestyle in the relatively care-free and modern city. We are unsure of how much to trust Jay, wondering whether he is helping Trishna because he loves her or because he wants to sleep with her. His visits to temples and other ancient sites are intercut with him partying with mates or joyriding around in a jeep.

After Trishna finds work with Jay's father, she opens up to Jay bit by bit and becomes accepted by her new friends in the city. Jay is there to protect her, but he subsequently takes advantage of her, albeit not quite as literally as in Hardy's novel. Trishna spends the remainder of the film to-ing and fro-ing between her two lives, increasingly burdened by guilt, fear and shame. Eventually there is only one course of action she can take, though again this is altered slightly from Hardy's story.

Having got all the key plot points in place, Trishna makes an attempt to justify setting the story in India. And this, unfortunately, is where things start to come unstuck. The location seems to make sense in relation to the characters, and there are certain parallels that fans of the novel will pick up on of their own accord. But Winterbottom never adds anything weighty into the mix to justify the setting on top of the film being a decent transliteration.

One of the main themes of Tess of the D'Urbervilles is that of the countryside being exploited and eventually eclipsed by the vast progress and speed of city life. Hardy sought to demonstrate how industrial production and the growth in population were destroying traditional farming communities; this is usually conveyed through the breakdown of a family or, as in Far From The Madding Crowd, the insecurities of a female protagonist. Tess is a character caught between two worlds, being too gifted and ambitious for a life of simple rural pleasures, but too helpless and naÔve to make her way in the city. Her actions speak of panic and despair, and her death represents the triumph of urban Victorian society over the agrarian ones that preceded it.

With this in mind, it makes perfect sense to set a new adaptation in India. The country is undergoing a similar wave of rapid industrial and technological progress that made England once the fastest-developing nation on Earth. The gulf between rich and poor is widening, with the wealth generated in the rapidly expanding cities barely extending into the more traditional countryside. And despite the legacy of the British Empire in terms of bureaucratic and democratic governance, its infrastructure is still developing and taking shape.

Had Winterbottom applied himself, he could really have entrenched Hardy's story in India. He could have used the central romance to bring out the parallels between Hardy's Wessex and modern-day India, throwing in ideas about the erosion or persistence of caste, gender expectations for women and the role of religion among the young and upwardly mobile. But instead the story just sits awkwardly in India, like a Shakespeare play that has been set somewhere unusual as a gimmick. The parallels are there superficially, but Winterbottom either isn't able or isn't willing to let us get beneath the surface.

The next big problem, relating to this, is the editing. When Roman Polanski made his version of Tess in the late-1970s, he very consciously took his time, using the slow pace to convey the calmness of country life into which the destructive forces intrude. Winterbottom does the complete opposite, frequently jumping locations and cutting in the middle of scenes in an obvious bid to keep the plot moving. Rapid editing is not a bad thing in and of itself, and in certain cases like Moulin Rouge! it can be effective. But in this instance it is incredibly distracting and demonstrates a lack of faith in either the story or the director's chosen means of telling it.

Then we come on to the central performance. Polanski also benefitted in this department, getting Natassja Kinski at the very peak of her powers in what is to many the definitive portrayal of Tess. Freida Pinto is no Natassja Kinski - that's a hard act for anyone to follow - but she's also rather distant for a lot of the running time. She delivers her lines capably but her performance is all on one note until the final act. Riz Ahmed is the more charismatic and intriguing of the leads, successfully conveying a man standing on shaky ground, with plenty of insecurities, always in two minds and capable of great and jealous anger.

Pinto's performance is indicative of the overall tone. Even though it's half the length of Polanski's Tess, at 108 minutes the film feels flat and drags quite badly. With the exception of the climactic last ten minutes, the film feels like it is constantly going round in circles, with the characters not developing and the different events that occur seeming inconsequential. The central romance becomes like an episodic soap opera, a feeling exacerbated by the use of montage when Trishna is working in the hotels.

The main feeling that Trishna produces is frustration, because there are interesting ideas lurking in its make-up that would make for engaging drama. There are a number of moments involving Trishna herself which are genuinely tense or uncomfortable - being confronted in the street by four men only to be rescued by Jay, being given an abortion after Jay goes AWOL, or her eventual death by the same blade with which she murdered her lover. But while these moments are powerful in isolation, they all feel like isolated glimpses of what could and should be, bursting through a needlessly frothy and melodramatic surface.

Trishna is neither more nor less than an admirable failure. Relocating Hardy's story to India makes a great deal of sense, and the basic plot and character arcs are all capably replicated. But it ultimately fulfils on far too little of its potential, settling for superficial parallels over true substance and being mechanically unsound. Winterbottom has better films in him, and makes them quick enough to put this disappointment swiftly behind him. As for Freida Pinto, the search for a more deserving vehicle goes on.

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