Sunday, August 26, 2007

Breaking and Entering: broken

If there was ever a perfect example of why directors should not be allowed to write their own scripts (the Woodster excepted, naturally), Anthony Minghella's Breaking and Entering is it. The script is flabbier than January's first Weight Watchers class, more risible than Republican protests of sexual morality.

The problem is that they will be blind to the faults of their own script and thus fail to excise lines which anyone outside their head would instantly blue-pencil. The most egregious example was Jude Law's character, at a moment of emotional intensity, saying: "Perhaps that's why I love metaphor so much."

This is a line which has never been uttered in history by man or beast because it is unbelievably pretentious, bathetic and meaningless. Who doesn't like a nice metaphor? I think I actually missed the next few lines because I couldn't stop laughing.

It was the absurd icing on a ridiculous cake. The plot involves wimpy Jude Law's architecture practice being aerially broken into by a Serbian gang of teenage acrobats (well, freerunners), whereupon he embarks on an affair with Juliette Binoche, mother of one of the crims, and pushes away his icy girlfriend, Robin Wright Penn, who has an autistic daughter. With me so far? No, I don't care either.

Law appears to have given up any desire to be taken seriously as an actor, instead just looking sheepish, angry and torn (same expressions). He can probably blame the script, which allots him no real character or emotions (or backbone), while Penn is just made a post-Bergman cliché, the distant Scandinavian. The emotional destruction he wreaks - breaking and entering hearts, you see - hardly plays out, so it is left to Binoche to put some meat into her role. When Law says, "I have a dark heart you can't reach" (or some similar wishful thinking), it is impossible to believe.

If you give one person control of both the script and the shooting, almost inevitably they will fail to see - or fail to resolve - problems with either aspect. A scriptwriter given a camera will want to capture his whole opus, while a director will think all his lines are Shakespeare. The tart-with-a-heart east European prostitute who appears is straight off the shelf marked 'urban clichés', while remarks about foxes in urban landscapes are so heavily laboured Minghella must have written them with a chisel.

The freerunning is impressive, especially coming in the grim, forcibly evolving Kings Cross, north London landscape. The thieves do not jump from skyscraper to skyscraper but across gritty council estates and corrugated roofs, allowing Minghella to highlight both the depressed areas where gangs operate and the contrast with the green-free urbanscape Law's character is trying to create. Minghella as a director gets this perfectly. For more concentration on freerunning without a dull plot, try Banlieue 13.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Venice, aSmallWorld

There's a website called aSmallWorld, which is like facebook but très exclusif; here's a preview of the Venice film festival I wrote for it.

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The 64th Venice Film Festival is shinier, more progressive and more Anglophone than ever this year. Nearly half of the films in competition for the Golden Lion are from England or America, and there is a new Queer Lion for the best film with gay themes or characters.

Every star in the cinematic firmament is on show by the Lido in the festival’s 75th anniversary year. From leading men Brad Pitt and George Clooney to gamine Keira Knightley (above) and grande dame Vanessa Redgrave, the festival’s cast list reads like the Hollywood phonebook.

No fewer than ten of the 22 films in competition come from the home of the brave or the land of hope and glory, and all are bravely hoping for glory. Wes Anderson – the auteur behind the surprisingly dark The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic – will show The Darjeeling Limited, featuring his favoured consorts Owen Wilson, Bill Murray and Anjelica Huston.

Opening the festival is Joe Wright’s Atonement, based on Ian McEwan’s novel about a summer day’s tragic events (much like Enduring Love) starring Knightley and Redgrave. Kenneth Branagh offers up a remake of Harold Pinter’s Sleuth, with Michael Caine in the Laurence Olivier role and Jude Law in the Michael Caine role. No word on who’s playing the Jude Law role in the next remake.

Beyond the English-speaking world, Ang Lee – who put the ‘ouch’ in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – brings Lust, Caution, a Shanghai thriller. Youssef Chaine flies the flag for Egypt, while Italy offers work from young directors Vincenzo Marra, Andrea Porporati and Paolo Franchi.

Heading this year’s jury is Zhang Yimou, who directed the balletic, athletic Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Around the table with him are Catherine Breillat and Jane Campion, who have both explored female sexuality in film, and Paul Verhoeven, who is famed for his graphic representations of violence and sexuality in film.

After four years of ‘sensitive negotiations,’ Venice is ready to introduce the Queer Lion. The Berlin Film Festival has recognised this field for some years, but now Venice has stepped up after Brokeback Mountain took 2005’s Golden Lion.

Dozens of films are showing out of competition. Woody Allen’s latest attempt to get his groove back, Cassandra’s Dream, features Colin Farrell climbing out of his post-Alexander pit, while yet another cut of Blade Runner premieres.

There is a Spaghetti Western selection, with sore saddles guaranteed for anyone who sits through them all. Happily, Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood’s For a Few Dollars More is among them. There are also Bernardo Bertolucci and Tim Burton events, as Burton receives the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement.

There will be plenty to dazzle visitors outside of the screenings. The Palazzo del Cinema will get the shine treatment courtesy of legendary production designer Dante Ferretti. After years of working with Pasolini, Fellini and Scorsese, Ferretti brings his vision to the palazzo’s external façade with a giant steel sphere, which could well steal the show altogether.

Back for good (or ill)

Having been on a working holiday - hence the hiatus - I'm back, full of... ideas. So, expect some articles from other places, more reviews and overly-argumentative opinion pieces.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Hot sex central

A new post on the Guardian: the 50 hottest sex scenes in film...

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My computer screen was getting all steamed up as I was doing my research into a new list of the 50 greatest sex scenes in cinema, when my mother texted me the words: "In or out?" Either she's disturbingly psychic or we were at cross-purposes.

Either way, she was asking the right question - for more than the smutty reason. Which scenes were in this list, as determined by the Independent Film Channel and nerve.com, a sex, art and culture website?

Although Premiere Magazine put it top of its poll in 2003, the scene in Antonioni's Blow-Up where David Hemmings shoots Veruschka, who writhes around on the floor in bored ecstasy, doesn't feature. Evidently it must have been too coy for the IFC, or perhaps it has been ruined by Austin Powers. Is it too soon to say the exclusion would have Antonioni turning in his grave?

But back to the list. Many of the scenes are marked out by the disturbing nature of the sex. Take No 1 - Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland having grief-stricken sex in Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now. It's profoundly out of place given the rest of the film, yet it is tender, erotic and tells us about the characters, as meaningful sex scenes should.

The disturbances continue through the top 10: Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello pound away at each other on the stairs in A History of Violence (2), with all the layers of deceit and mistrust involved; Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring have surreal sapphic sex in Mulholland Drive (3); while Secretary (8) and Betty Blue (6) are chock-full of odd, unhinged sex. Perhaps most disturbing is The Night Porter (12), where Nazi guard Dirk Bogarde and concentration camp survivor Charlotte Rampling reconnect.

It seems that what makes a good sex scene - according to this list - is relevance. Most of the top 50 scenes are not bolted-on attempts to sexualise some of Hollywood's mannequins but vital expressions of character and advancements of plot. Where would Brokeback Mountain (23) be without all that unzippering? Doesn't paraplegic Jon Voight going down on Jane Fonda in Coming Home (16) tell us a lot about both love and war?

Originality of combination and location lifts scenes up this poll. The orgy in Shortbus (38) certainly scores on the combination side, although I think the threesome that ends with one guy singing The Star-Spangled Banner into another guy's ass takes the palm. Team America: World Police (14) gets a mention for being clever enough to include some great shots of puppet sex.

Anyone can film Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez sucking face, but it is those scenes that move away from your standard, heated, grinding fare that really are the greatest. Now over to you: which scenes (in mainstream cinema, not porn, thank you) sent your DVD player in search of a post-coital cigarette?

Friday, August 03, 2007

IMDb is full of emptiness. Or empty of fullness.

Self-professedly "Earth's Biggest Movie Database" (as opposed to where else?), the IMDb has inadvetently come up with a truth among all of Hollywood's fictions (and its movies, of course). It has created a new feature where readers can add detailed summaries of movies to each flick's page; until someone has done this, however, it reads 'This plot synopsis is empty'.

This was a ray of light on the page for The Brazilian Job, a sequel to the 2003 Italian Job slated for a 2009 release. Only now a sequel? How foolish of Michael Caine not to realise there was a lot of money to be made by saving his men from a cliffish descent and transporting them (and Charlize Theron) to Rio! (Don't ask why I was even looking up The Brazilian Job.)

Thursday, August 02, 2007

4 falls foul

Possibly my second favourite prose humourist of all time is Miles Kington. He graces the ever-diminishing audience of The Independent on weekdays with 500 words so funny (or at least witty or droll) that they counterbalance the rest of the paper's cardboard seriousness (and I speak as someone who's been reading the Indy for ten years now).

A while ago, he wrote a piece on how comedians are taking over Radio 4's light entertainment programmes:

I merely think that comedians are quick-witted people who have learnt how to think on their feet, to be at ease with a microphone, to be unfazed by an audience and, when all else fails, to come up with a relevant joke. They are ready made, pre-trained broadcasters.

So when a radio producer thinks: "Hmmm. I need a person who can react quickly and not dry up, to present Saturday Live/a travel programme/new quiz/chat show/series of trailers saying how much good comedy there is on Radio 4..." the first person who comes to mind will be, not these days, a broadcasting name; it will be Arthur Smith (or Paul Merton or David Baddiel or Sandi Toksvig or Sue Perkins or Marcus Brigstocke...).

This is fine and good because they can be very funny. But when these programmes involve conducting interviews (as does Chain Reaction, where one celebrity interviews another, who next week interviews a third celeb, ad nauseam), far too often interesting questions (especially those following up remarks of the interviewee) are left unasked.

Take this week's Chain Reaction, where semi-veteran comedian Jo Brand interviewed the fully-veteran comedian Barry Cryer. At one point, Cryer remarked that early on in his career he was on the same bill as Wole Soyinka performing Tom Lehrer's songs. Wole Soyinka, Nobel Laureate for Literature and Africa's greatest living writer. Performing Tom Lehrer songs. This is a story that's begging to be told - it has famous people in odd situations. It would crown any piece.

It isn't hard to work out why Brand didn't follow this up: she's trained to go for the next laugh, not the interesting stories. It's also quite possible that she didn't pay enough attention to Cryer's answers to know that she had let slip a possibly fantastic, unusual anecdote. As someone who has done a fair few interviews, I have learnt (through hard experience) that you must listen to what your subject says and not just plough on with your list of questions. By listening, you can actually pick up interesting remarks and follow them.

While I would hate to have interview-trained journalists (not all known for their humour) hosting comedy shows, it would be nice at least to have comedians who knew a little about interviewing.