Sunday, 24 August 2014

Four Rooms - Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino - 1995

The merits of anthology films – where different directors contribute linking short films in order to make up a feature length movie – are always debatable since without any seeming overall quality control there are always bad segments that drag the film down and Four Rooms is no exception. Based on an original idea by Alexandre Rockwell, four independent directors were given a room each in a fading hotel but with results varying from stodgy comedy to self-indulgent nonsense it’s hard to see what they were trying to achieve. We are introduced first to Ted the bellhop (Tim Roth), our link between the different rooms and stories, who proves very quickly to be a vain and irritating protagonist with a bizarre gangling walk that seemingly tries to place Ted next in the long line of cinema’s great physical comedians but instead just makes him look like a jerk. First up Ted ends up in the bridal suite for The Missing Ingredient, a limp sex-comedy from Allison Anders featuring a coven of sexy witches (led by Madonna in the first of the film’s dud cameos), one body fluid short for a magic potion, but the characters are too badly written and unimaginatively directed to sell either the concept or the comedy leaving little but Tim Roth gurning at gratuitous breasts. This is followed up by a visit to room 404 for Rockwell’s own contribution The Wrong Man which is surprising only for those who thought the film couldn’t get any worse. Rockwell may have been trying to create some sort of dark masochistic comedy about marriage but the end result is a tiresome twenty minutes of David Proval waving a gun around whilst Jennifer Beals is tied to a chair, none of which even makes sense let alone makes anyone laugh. Next up is The Misbehavers, a contribution from popular pulp director Robert Rodriguez that pits Ted against two sassy children in a well conceived farce, that aside from Roth’s grating performance, is actually mildly entertaining but sadly not memorable enough to save the film. The final entry from nineties wunderkid Quentin Tarantino, The Man from Hollywood, brings a whole new level of awkwardness by forcing the audience to watch Tarantino himself playing a Hollywood bigshot and self-indulging to the point of embarrassment. The last two directors at least have proven themselves talented in their own right, but if this is what happens when said talents are pooled, the film should stand outside Hollywood as a permanent warning for directors planning their next ego trip.

The Faculty - Robert Rodriguez - 1998

Having put himself on the map with his explosively violent double calling card of Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn, Robert Rodriguez’ next move was to cement his anarchic reputation with high-school comedy-horror The Faculty. Collaborating with screenwriter Kevin Williamson, fresh himself from revamping the horror genre in Scream, Rodriguez clearly relished the opportunity to celebrate the high-school and horror clichés we all know and love whilst simultaneously utilising his energetic style to give both genres a shake. Throwing together a cast of classic high-school stereotypes including the shy nerd (baby-faced Elijah Wood), the cocky rebel (Josh Hartnett) and the glamorous cheerleader (pre Fast and Furious Jordanna Brewster), The Faculty quickly and economically establishes the predictable cliques and rivalries that dominate the surprisingly shabby small town school but what makes these characters more enjoyable than most movie teenagers is the shades of adult humour that Rodriguez and Williamson use to give them an edge. Although the filmmakers are careful to avoid any overt sex or drug references, moments like Wood being caught with porn under the bed and Hartnett pushing chocolate condoms on a teacher as well as some hilarious swearing all round make these kids far more cool and relatable to other teenagers even whilst they happily conform to stereotypical expectations. Horror-wise the influence of Williamson is most noticeable as after a marvellously tense prologue that rivals the torment of Drew Barrymore in Scream, the film settles into a suspenseful slow-burn as the kids sense that something is wrong with their water-obsessed teachers and, being culturally savvy, begin to suspect the presence of aliens. With references to everything from Invasion of the Body Snachers, The Stepford Wives and, in a brilliantly subversive scene where the kids are forced to take homemade drugs, John Carpenter’s The Thing, the film progresses along familiar action-adventure rails and if the finale is a little confusing, the rest of the film compensates with an edge of danger that keeps the action thrillingly tense. Rodriguez would later divide his energies between the hyperkinetic violence of Sin Ciy and Machete for adults and the frenetic excitement of the Spy Kids franchise for children but has yet to combine the two sensibilities again. Judging by how much fun everyone has with The Faculty, that is a great pity.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Hitler: The Rise of Evil - Christian Duguay - 2003

Austrian dictator Adolf Hitler has been stock villain of the week in innumerable old war movies but most of these focused on his final years in the dark days of World War Two and glossed over what came before. Hitler: The Rise of Evil takes a different path, culminating at the moment Hitler finally achieved absolute power at the Nuremberg Rally in 1934 and beginning instead with a small and sullen Austrian boy, distractingly played by Thomas Sangster, the cute kid from Love, Actually. Happily director Christian Duguay doesn’t waste much time on these moments, skipping quickly through some brief shots of Sangster giving evils whilst ominous music plays and coming to rest with young Adolf, waking up poverty stricken in Vienna in the guise of Robert Carlyle. The Scottish character actor, best known at this stage for Trainspotting and The Full Monty would not be an obvious choice to play the infamous Austrian but he instinctively nails Hitler’s single-minded intensity in a powerhouse performance that perfectly captures both the vicious hatred of anyone who doesn’t fit into his world view and, in a series of alarmingly strident rants/speeches, the strange magnetism that drew people in regardless. For dramatic purposes Duguay cuts away a lot of the supporting figures who moved in Hitler’s circles as he rose to power throughout the twenties, instead selecting key figures to define how perceptions of him changed and where the lines became drawn between idealism and altogether baser motivations. Peter Stormare is a dignified figure of small-minded loyalty as Brown Shirt leader Ernst Röhm, happily bringing his men to Hitler’s cause when they could serve a purpose but suffering when events started moving faster than he could. In another subplot the power dynamic in the marriage of bourgeois Ernst and Helene Hanfstaengl (Liev Schreiber and Julianna Margulies) goes through a fascinating shift as his initial enthusiasm for Hitler begins to cool and her indifference is drowned by the fervour sweeping the whole country. Best of all is Matthew Modine as idealistic journalist Fritz Gerlich, initially bringing some bumbling charm with his marriage to the adorable Sophie (Patricia Netzer) but eventually breaking hearts when his determination to print the truth about Hitler takes him too far into danger. These supporting characters bring some much-needed emotional grounding that ensures that the film is always more than a history lesson but happily Duguay never lets them steal the show away from the terrifyingly charismatic Carlyle. Since Hitler is now so easily demonised it’s often hard to understand how he was ever able to persuade a whole nation to follow him to destruction. Watch Carlyle’s fascinating performance in Hitler: The Rise of Evil and it somehow makes sense. 

Monday, 18 August 2014

The Usual Suspects - Bryan Singer - 1995

Who is Keyser Soze? Having found critical success with their debut feature Public Access, the directing and writing team of Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie began running with an image of five guys brought together in a police line up and ended up with The Usual Suspects, one of the most intelligent and enigmatic heist films ever made. Five disparate criminals teaming up would normally signal the start of either a run of the mill shoot-em-up or a rehash of Reservoir Dogs but The Usual Suspects treads an entirely different path. The action when it comes is quick and brutally efficient; the characters bicker and banter backwards and forwards but never waste time going off on Tarantino style tangents, devoting their energies instead to scrabbling desperately at the sides of a hole leading inexorably to a fatal explosion in San Pedro Harbour. Opening in the aftermath of the battle, the tale is told in flashback by solitary survivor Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey deservedly winning his first Oscar) who sits mournfully in the local police station whilst down at the hospital a mysterious Hungarian, burnt beyond recognition, can do nothing but scream of Keyser Soze… Cutting between Verbal’s interrogation by increasingly irate customs man Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), and his activities with the gang he met in the line up, Singer starts innocently enough with some sub-standard criminal hijinks but it soon becomes clear that he is just luring us into a far more complicated web that neither us nor the characters is meant to understand, a web created by a mysterious criminal mastermind known only as Keyser Soze. Brilliantly built up in our minds by Spacey’s rapt narration and the increasing fear and alarm of both cops and criminals, Soze’s presence hangs over the film like a dark cloud never giving anyone onscreen or off a chance to do anything but stumble forwards clinging to what they think they know until Singer executes a dazzling double reversal to close the film on one of the most audacious twists in cinema history. Scene by scene The Usual Suspects is not perfect as Singer fails to make us empathise with any of the characters – only Spacey and Palminteri’s verbal duels are consistently interesting, most of the gang are little more than ciphers – and so the audience is only engaged on an intellectual not an emotional level. However as an exercise in discombobulating the viewer the film is fascinating, immediately demanding repeat viewings but never quite delivering the anticipated answers. This move may frustrate those not used to ambiguity in their crime films but for the more discerning viewer The Usual Suspects is a fascinating find. Who is Keyser Soze? Who knows. 

Saturday, 16 August 2014

The Importance of Being Earnest - Oliver Parker - 2002

Following up his successful adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband director Oliver Parker turned his attention to the writer’s most famous work, The Importance of Being Earnest, but sadly with more muted results. Parker’s mission as a director has always been to lift these great plays from their theatrical roots into a broader cinematic world and although that worked a treat with his last two films, the approach starts to feel a stretched when applied to the intricately plotted Earnest. Wilde’s play is a perfectly constructed comedy soufflé that builds witty line on top of line into a brilliant crescendo that is wonderful to watch on stage but when fleshed out in search of a bigger heart and soul the natural rhythm and pace of Wilde’s dialogue is broken up and a lot of the comedy loses its edge as a result. Rupert Everett and Colin Firth are a natural fit for leading men Algy and Jack and their easy going chemistry is a delight to watch but Parker breaks up their scenes to such an extent – music hall, street, bluebell wood – that the lines never really get a chance to sing and their story is only ever amusing when it has the potential to be laugh-out-loud funny. Continuing his habit of finding international stars for British parts Parker casts Reece Witherspoon and Frances O’Connor opposite Everett and Firth and both do an impressive job carrying off refined British accents and bring great charm and vivacity to Wilde’s independently minded ladies but again Parker piles in so much additional detail – Witherspoon’s historical-romantic fantasies frequently intrude into the action and, in the worst of many departures from the original story, O’Connor visits a tattoo parlour – that the characters are never allowed to shine. Judi Dench is a predictably brilliant choice to play the fearsome Lady Bracknell and works hard to take the character away from the battle-axe image personified by Edith Evans, opting instead to underplay some the most famous lines with wonderful waspish intensity that brings a fascinating new dimension to the character but leaves her, like everyone else, curiously unmemorable. Some of Parker’s additions do work wonderfully – Jack and Algy’s impromptu musical number is a particular highlight – but given the play’s reputation as a comic masterpiece the fact that this film is anything less can only make it a disappointment.