In my review of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I spoke about… MoreIn my review of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I spoke about the misconception that darker films are inherently better or more substantial. If Steven Spielberg's film demonstrates that darkness can severely backfire in stories of a light or silly nature, we might logically assume that the opposite is true - namely that a serious (or in this case factual) subject matter can be handled in a fun, light-hearted way while still getting its substance across.
This brings us on to Catch Me If You Can, a later Spielberg effort covering the early life of teen fraudster and con artist Frank Abagnale Jr.. It takes the potentially grim and gritty subject matter of confidence tricksters and spins us a merry yarn about the excesses of youth whose protagonist is always empathetic. While it perhaps doesn't go as far into its subject matter as perhaps it could have done, it's still a sterling piece of entertainment with a lot of heart behind it.
Catch Me If You Can has an interesting production history, in which any one change could have drastically altered the finished product. Having been passed around the studios for 20 years since the book rights were first optioned in 1980, the project began to gain traction in 2000 when David Fincher signed on to direct. Fincher later jumped ship to make Panic Room, being replaced first with Gore Verbinski, then Lasse Hallstrom, Milo Forman and finally Cameron Crowe before Spielberg himself opted to direct.
In each case, the director's subsequent output gives us some idea of how they would have approached Abagnale's story. Fincher would have brought an edgy undercurrent to proceedings, focussing on the mental state of Abagnale and the ease with which he was able to fool the system. Verbinski would have handled the story incompetently while doing some justice to the period detail, just as he would later do with Pirates of the Caribbean. Both Hallstrom and Crowe would have made things much more sentimental, playing up the father-son relationship at the expense of the actual cons. And Forman... well, on the basis of Goya's Ghosts, it would have been rather dull.
In the end, Spielberg was the right person to direct this film. Regardless of his reputation or the influence he wields over the industry, the story of Catch Me If You Can is perfect for his sensibility. It has many of the elements which have characterised his best work: light-hearted adventure, a celebration of American values, a son searching for his father and a dry, often joyous sense of humour. While direct comparisons with Indiana Jones are a little misleading, this is as close as he's come to Indy for some time, at least in terms of entertainment.
The first big success of Spielberg's film is putting us in the period. The opening credits are quintessentially 1960s, with animated versions of the characters dancing out of the way of the various names. John Williams' score is playful and upbeat but with a whistful undercurrent, bringing to mind the iconic theme music for the Pink Panther series. While Monsters, Inc. used the 1960s look as juxtaposition to its funky CG animation, Catch Me If You Can uses it to great effect to acclimatise us before we've even seen our leads.
The good visual work continues after the credits with some lovely period details. Janusz Kami?ski, who has worked with Spielberg since Schindler's List, offers up a colour palette of appealing pastel colours, harking us back to a more innocent, carefree time. Having been a teenager in the early- and mid-1960s, Spielberg clearly has a firm understanding of the fashions, manners and institutions of the period. No skirt seems too short, no car too modern, and no expression out of context or added purely to make the characters seem old-fashioned.
While it doesn't revolve around the FBI enough to properly constitute a spy thriller, Catch Me If You Can is still the closest that Spielberg has come to making a James Bond film. He'd expressed an interest in doing so after 1941, with George Lucas pitching the original idea for Raiders of the Lost Ark as "better than James Bond". The film is fantastically paced so that two-and-a-half hours just fly by, with the thrill of the chase being beautifully balanced by more thoughtful and suspensful moments.
It would be foolish, however, to think that Catch Me If You Can was all about surface, with no deeper ambitions other than recreating the period setting or providing a thrilling chase. Arguably the best thing about Spielberg is his ability to convey meaningful, often complex ideas through scenes and stories which appear to be totally frivolous. In this instance, he returns to one of his familiar themes of a father-son relationship, using a familiar device in his work to tease out the deeper motivations behind Abagnale's tomfoolery.
Much like E. T. twenty years before it, Catch Me If You Can examines how divorce can severely impact the well-being of the couple's children. In the midst of Frank's great capers, which con honest people out of millions of dollars, we get scenes of Frank having often torturous discussions with his father, whose fortunes decline as Frank's rise. These meetings are a device on Spielberg's part: in reality, Abagnale never saw his father again after leaving home at 16. But the change comes with the blessing of the real-life Abagnale: even at the height of his exploits, he would fantasise about his parents getting back together.
Frank begins conning as an act of determined rebellion against the old order. He sees his father, an upstanding pillar of the community, suffering as he goes through life doing things the right way; as much as he loves his father, he resolves never to end up like him. There's a through-line with Goodfellas here, with both films justifying their protagonists' illegal lifestyles on the grounds that living a legitimate life causes more trouble and unnecessary effort. Equally, there's a comparison with Death of a Salesman, with Leonardo DiCaprio standing in for Biff and Christopher Walken doing a very fine job in the tragic role akin to that of Willy Loman.
But while Martin Scorsese's film was deeply ironic and sought to deglamourise the life of Henry Hill, Spielberg actively courts our sympathy for Frank's actions. Spielberg commented in interviews that people were "more trusting" in the 1960s and that the film wouldn't be deemed instructional to con artists of today. While this latter statement is definitely true, there's no denying that the film is far more sympathetic towards Frank than it is towards the FBI agent hunting him down. Carl Hanratty is depicted as being like Frank's dad: seperated from his wife, driven by work, doing his best but still on the losing side (until the end).
We might dispute the value of being so sympathetic, given the differing intentions of the stories and the nature of their protagonists. But one area where Catch Me If You Can does falter a little is the mechanics of Frank's forgeries. It explains the cons in enough detail for us to follow, but it always puts the thrill of the chase over a deeper examination of how Frank managed to pull off any one scheme. On an intellectual level, it's much more Lethal Weapon 2 than To Live and Die in LA.
While there is an awful lot of pleasure to be mined from just following the chase, there are moments in the film when we are conscious of Spielberg substituting depth for something less enticing. There's no issue at all with Frank seeing his father on a regular basis, but the fact that he keeps running into Carl on Christmas Eve is so contrived that even Frank Capra wouldn't touch it. Likewise, the ending drags a little, with Frank attempting one last escape in the midst of coming to work for the FBI. Had this section been trimmed, the film might not have needed the end cards explaning Abagnale's actions after reforming.
Ultimately, these problems are allayed or rendered somehow less important through the charm of the central performances. DiCaprio's early career had seen him pandering to his pretty-boy image, but here he strikes a very good balance between fresh-faced charisma and emotional depth. Tom Hanks, fresh from a more demanding turn in Cast Away, turns in a typically fine performance as the downtrodden, long-suffering and frustrated Hanratty. Most impressive, however, is the Oscar-nominated Walken, who keeps things reined in tight to create one of his most meaningful performances in years.
Catch Me If You Can is a rollicking good romp with a good amount of heart and a trio of fine male leads. While it's ultimately as light-headed as it is light-hearted, it does get to grips with some of the deeper issues with Frank's lifestyle as well as serving up much in the way of thrills and spills. While it's not Spielberg's best film by any stretch, it is a good example of how good he can be when he just decides to have fun.
One of the traps with reviewing cinema outside of the Hollywood… MoreOne of the traps with reviewing cinema outside of the Hollywood mainstream is assuming that difference equates to higher quality. We're so used to the American approach to storytelling and characterisation, with Hollywood-style films being made all over the world, that the second someone comes along with a slightly different approach, we assume that it must have some greater value. This over-valuing can lead to greater misconceptions about the cultures from which such films emanate, leading us to regard as paradigm-shifting art what said culture regards as derivative, third-rate trash.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came at a time when American audiences were starting to gain a new-found familiarity with 'Asian' or 'Eastern' cinema. Together with Spirited Away, it was a watershed for bringing Chinese, Japanese and Korean films to greater attention in the West. While you might have cause for debating exactly how ground-breaking it is within its given genre of wuxia, it is still a great film with a well-told story which finds director Ang Lee at the peak of his powers.
I spoke about Lee's directorial style in my review of Life of Pi, for which he eventually won the Oscar for Best Director. With the possible exception of Hulk, Lee has always managed to strike an enviable balance between visual poetry and detailed characterisation. While the narratives in his films aren't always the most complex or profound, he has a knack of continually pulling us back toward the underlying story, where many lesser directors would get lost in the pyrotechnics.
Whatever else is true about it, Crouching Tiger (as it will be known hereafter) is very pretty. Peter Pau, who won an Oscar for his cinematography, fills the screen with natural shades and then lights them in an almost ethereal manner. The way that the greens of the bamboo and Li Mu Bai's sword seem to shimmer beautifully reflects the dream-like quality of Lee's storytelling and the epic, melodramatic feel that he was going for. This is all the more extraordinary given that Pau previously lensed the horror-comedy Bride of Chucky and Warriors of Virtue, a tedious affair noted for its incoherent, blurry action scenes.
Much of the appeal of martial arts films lies in their physicality and choreography. Many people who went to see Enter the Dragon weren't particularly interested in its story - they were simply taken in by how Bruce Lee could move in the fight scenes. Crouching Tiger benefits in this regard by the presence of Yuen Woo-Ping, the same man who choreographed The Matrix trilogy and later lent his talents to Kill Bill.
While the Wachowskis were off experimenting with 'bullet-time', developing the work of Lee's contemporary John Woo, Crouching Tiger takes a more balletic approach. It treats its martial arts like an elaborate dance, in which the violence perpetrated by sword, dart or hand is as much an end in itself as a means towards a more elaborate series of steps. The film almost draws your attention to the fact that many of the moves being performed are physically impossible, prolonging the length of jumps and glides that could only be achieved by highly-skilled wire work.
Of course, it's possible to appreciate the beauty of characters performing impossible stunts as an aesthetic exercise, such as the running and flying through the bamboo. But Lee manages to keep our disbelief suspended by investing so much time in the characters before the really outstanding fight scenes come along. Even if the story is painted in broad, epic strokes, it's strong enough and feels genuine enough that the dramatic scenes matter, whereas in a weaker film they would merely book-end the set-pieces.
A good example of this comes in a conversation between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi about halfway through the film. During a conversation about the latter's character getting married, Yeoh deliberately allows a small bowl or dish to fall from the table. Ziyi's character grabs it instantly in mid-air, preventing it from smashing on the floor and demonstrating her great reflexes, unintentionally and perhaps unconsciously. This small but impressive action confirms in Yeoh's mind her suspicions about the identity of the Green Destiny's thief - suspicions which we had entertained for some time, and which turn out to be correct.
This example also illuminates the storytelling technique employed by Crouching Tiger. It is melodramatic, insofar as the characters operate within clearly-drawn archetypes and their character development is reasonably clear from the outset. We can probably guess that the love between Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien is destined to be unrequited, just as the thief's identity can be quickly ascertained by the very deliberate close-up on the eyes. While the plot isn't exactly spelled out for the audience, it is possible to spot most of its major points before they occur.
Many films at this point would fall apart because the characters aren't interesting or appealing enough to rise above their generic limitations - films like The Snows of Kilimanjaro, A Place in the Sun, or to a lesser extent Gojira. But Crouching Tiger uses its restrictions more proactively, using our foreknowledge to justify its emotional arcs all the more. Lee repeatedly uses very tight close-ups to force us to read into the characters' faces, and Zhang Ziyi in particular is very adept at making even the slightest smile or tiniest flicker of her eyes seem deeply meaningful.
Crouching Tiger explores a number of interesting themes which bring a greater depth to these kinds of character interactions. One of its big themes is hidden talent, with talent either hiding in plain sight (Jen Yu) or taking every precaution to stay in the shadows (Jade Fox). The title of the film is a literal translation of the original Chinese, which properly translated refers to "a place full of talented and extraordinary people hidden from view."
Within this is a comment on the manner in which women are underestimated or misjudged. Wuxia films incorporate many elements of chivalry, which traditionally depicts the male protagonists as heroes defending the honour of the women. Jen Yu and Yu Shu Lien both sword-fight, but the former consciously rebels against the accepted order, talking back to seasoned warriors like they were naughty schoolboys. The sequence where she lays waste to dozens of fighters in the inn (along with most of the inn itself) is much more empowering than anything that Tarantino has managed when he has dabbled in martial arts.
The film also examines the dominance of teachers over their students, even when the student shows tremendous ability. Most of the characters have some kind of grudge or burden relating to their masters. Jade Fox was sexually assaulted by her master, which makes her bitter, twisted and hateful of all men. Jen Yu doesn't want to be anybody's servant, rebelling against Jade Fox and longing for the more equal and respectful relationship she enjoyed with Lo in the desert. Li Mu Bai's solemn demeanour comes from his vow to avenge his master's death, with his search for justice ultimately leading to his own untimely end.
There is a recurring motif later in the film relating to poison. Poison is both the method used by Jade Fox to defeat Li Mu Bai and a symbol of her corrupting influence over the young Jen Yu. Li Mu Bai's desire for inner peace and clarity is in stark contrast to the chaotic, scrambled mind of Jade Fox; her actions are impulsive, desperate and cowardly, while his are controlled, effective and noble. It's a film about how passion can lead to destruction, whether by the hand of one's enemies or one's own choices. Jen Yu ends the film by diving off the waterfall, hoping to rejoin Lo; her passions have only brought her death and isolation from her friends, and she can no longer deal with either.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a great film which successfully conveys the conventions of wuxia to a Western audience. While those more familiar with the genre may not find it quite so remarkable, it remains a gripping romantic epic with memorable characters, interesting themes and visual beauty to spare. It's also a great introduction to cinema outside the English language or the Hollywood sphere of influence, and essential viewing for anyone interested in martial arts.
In my review of Taken, I spoke about two growing trends in mainstream… MoreIn my review of Taken, I spoke about two growing trends in mainstream filmmaking: "older protagonists as a reaction to a market saturated with youth, and weighty actors downsizing into trashy B-movies." The Expendables series and Liam Neeson's recent output find some of the most beloved actors of their period taking on roles that would have once been filled by people half their age and a quarter as talented.
Into this market driven by nostalgia and the need for pension plans comes Red 2, a sequel to one of the more slow-burning hits of 2010. Reuniting the original cast with a couple of new faces, it aims to bring a more overtly comic-book feel to a sub-genre built around nuts-and-bolts action thriller plots. The result is a little disappointing, not to say a little dull, but it's not without a few good moments.
As much as I objected to Taken, on grounds both structural and moral, I fully acknowledge the appeal of seeing older action stars - nay, just older actors - on screen in prominent, active and entertaining roles. Because so much of mainstream cinema is shaped around the demands of teenage boys, the range of roles available to actors becomes more restricted as they age. Unless you want to carve out a career playing Basil Exposition or people's grandparents, you're pretty much dead in the water by the age of 50.
A good benchmark from this perspective would be the films of Nigel Cole, such as Saving Grace and Calendar Girls. Both of these films are driven by older characters, who conform to some generic conventions but still feel like real people. While neither of these films are the most disciplined or structurally sound, they tell interesting stories which charm us and lead us to forgive or overlook their shortcomings.
While Cole's output wins outright in a fight over well-written female characters, Red 2 does have as much going for it behind the camera. Dean Parisot's output has been uneven, but he did helm the highly entertaining Galaxy Quest, once described by J. J. Abrams as "one of the best Star Trek movies ever made". Alan Silvestri, the film's composer, has a great record with Robert Zemeckis and more recently with Marvel. And the film is shot by Enrique Chediak, who did a really good job on 127 Hours and 28 Weeks Later.
Sadly, for all this build-up, none of the talent involved in Red 2 comes close to matching their reputations, on either side of the camera. Whatever the merits of its predecessor, this film is ultimately rather lacklustre in both its story and execution. While it's assembled in a workable enough manner to pass a couple of hours, it is in the end pretty forgettable fare, and considering who is involved that is the last thing that it should be.
Part of the problem lies in the attitudes of the cast. Todd Gilcrist wrote in his review that Bruce Willis "seems unmotivated to smile at all, much less offer a series of emotions that constitute a believable or compelling performance." While you may not agree with Gilcrist word for word, he does hit the nail on the head: none of the actors look like they're having fun. That wouldn't be a problem if the film were a sombre, depressing existential parable, but it is a problem when you're trying to make an upbeat action thriller with lots of jokes.
Much like Sean Connery, Willis is an actor who clearly betrays when he does and doesn't want to be in a given film. When he's confident in a script or having a blast on set, such as in Die Hard, Twelve Monkeys or Looper, he holds himself much more precisely and seems far more natural in his movements. When he's doing something purely because he needs the money, he slumps his shoulders, narrows his eyes and is much less responsive to his fellow actors. While this is by no means his worst performance, let alone his worst film, it does give off vibes of him only doing the part because he has to be that.
It's not just Willis that seemingly doesn't want to be involved. John Malkovich has been tetchy and irritable in other films (such as Shadow of the Vampire), but there's a weariness to his performance here which doesn't gel with the character's dynamic dialogue. Helen Mirren doesn't get a greal deal to do, and her attempts at deadpan humour just come across as flat readings. The only main actor who commits and engages to the required level is Byung-hun Lee, and his character seems to have escaped from a far better, far more interesting film.
The plot of Red 2 is decidedly episodic. Much of the film is built around set-pieces, either involving Lee's character wanting revenge on Willis or a third party becoming the target of either side. The set-pieces are technically accomplished, with good pyrotechnics, decent CGI and some realistic sound design, but there's not enough of any substance to link them together in a meaningful manner. To borrow from Shakespeare, it's a lot of sound and fury, signifying very little.
In slightly different hands, this could have been handled better. The red mercury buried beneath the Kremlin is a neat little plot device, and Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins do wring the most they can out of their supporting roles, channeling the more thoughtful, more British spies present in The Ipcress File. All the little twists involving people changing sides which could have been used to drive the film are instead presented like the action sequences - as distractions, and nothing more.
The same goes for the romantic subplot-cum-love triangle that the script tries to tease out. There is potential (albeit well-worn potential) in both the female characters' main conceits, i.e. the inept love interest who finds herself caught up in events, and the old flame who puts the cat among the pigeons. But while Catherine Zeta-Jones takes to her costume well, it's ultimately a lot of under-developed flash, and Mary-Louise Parker isn't all that convincing.
In the midst of all this, it is more than possible to enjoy Red 2 as empty, disposable spectacle. It's clearly not trying (and failing) to make a lot of important political points, and its lack of pretension is to be applauded as much as its lack of ambition should be decried. If you only go to the cinema to see explosions, car crashes and famous people in various slow-motion poses, this will satisfy your appetite.
Red 2 is a disappointing action thriller which finds both cast and director falling short of their past potential. While the action is technically sound and there are a few witty or impressive moments (mainly involving Lee's character), it's ultimately too lackadaisical and episodic to cut the mustard. In the end it's not a bad film per se, just an aimless one which could have been a lot better with a tighter script and a stronger hand at the helm.
When I reviewed Gregory's Girl, I argued that coming-of-age movies are… MoreWhen I reviewed Gregory's Girl, I argued that coming-of-age movies are both thin on substance and have a limited lifespan. Films as varied as American Graffiti and Dirty Dancing revolve around the same old stories of young love and heartbreak; the ones that last are not just those that evoke their period, but which contain some kind of deeper truth about the process of growing up.
Being a young man still very much within the coming-of-age bracket, it is hard to me to say how good Scott Pilgrim vs. the World will look in ten years' time, when the gaming world has moved on and young people no longer talk like extras from Juno. All that can be said right now, four years on, is that this is one of the best coming-of-age comedies in a long, long time.
For starters, Edgar Wright has managed to make a film about video games which doesn't feel like a video game adaptation. The plot on paper does seem like a video game: defeat a series of bosses to win points and get the girl. But unlike, for instance, Tomb Raider, the film doesn't feel like you are watching someone else playing a game and expecting you to be interested. The fight sequences feel like natural continuations of the story, and the character development in-between is a damn sight more complex and insightful than the swathes of exposition in something like Silent Hill.
The film has an extraordinary visual style which is somewhere between Tron and Sin City. Like Tron, you feel at moments like you are inside a video game rather than just a spectator. And as in Sin City, the film retains a very literal comic book structure, albeit without the dull pomposity of Robert Rodriguez's film. The video game elements in both the design and content of the battles are used to complement and enhance the conflict; the powers gained and used by Scott and his foes do not become distracting goals unto themselves.
Like the comic it is based upon, Scott Pilgrim jumps from one form of reality to another without warning. There are many flights of fantasy which are either poignant or hilarious, and the film explores issues of love and death with a fascinating alacrity. It makes no bones about its comic book violence, shooting the battles in a playful and entertaining manner with minimal focus on any lingering amount of pain. We still believe the characters are in danger, but as in Christopher Nolan's Batman movies there is no real need to demonstrate their danger beyond stylised forms of suggestion.
Several moments in the film really stick in one's mind. Towards the end, Pilgrim is 'killed' by Gideon, the last of the evil exes played brilliantly by Jason Schwartzman. He finds himself in some kind of desert, identical to the dream in which he first saw Ramona. He then uses the 'life' he had gained before to replay all the previous events and finally defeat Gideon. Having the exes shatter into piles of coins when defeated is ingenious, as is the spectacle of sound waves forming into two dragons and taking on a giant aural gorilla during the Battle of the Bands.
Despite its large quantities of geeky references to video games and the like, the film gets away with it for the simple reason that it doesn't take itself too seriously. So many other films with video game elements fail as much from being po-faced as they do from being plotless. For all its visual style, Silent Hill is not scary, and for all its seeming intensity, Max Payne is not exciting. Scott Pilgrim, on the other hand, has an incredible and knowing lightness of touch. It drifts like its central character from one scene to another, paying enough attention to follow what's going on while still finding time to escape into fantasy and have fun.
The film is laugh-out-loud funny from beginning to end, with jokes coming so thick and fast that you struggle to keep up or breathe. The humour comes in all shapes and sizes, from physical slapstick to witty one-liners. We have Wallace, Scott's gay roommate, who hits on everyone's boyfriends and can seemingly text Scott's overprotective sister even whilst slipping into unconsciousness. We have Todd, the third evil ex, whose status as an arrogant vegan has given him psychic powers. We have the Japanese twins, who look like a bizarre marriage between Kraftwerk and Siegfried & Roy. And we have all of Scott's embarrassing verbal slip-ups, such as confusing 'love' for 'lesbians' and asking Ramona if she's into drugs.
Jokes like this drift very close to the more putrid adolescent comedies, like National Lampoon's Animal House, Porky's or Superbad. But despite all the moments where we cringe at the characters' actions, Scott Pilgrim is not out to make us wriggle uncomfortably in our seats. The more intimate scenes, including those of Ramona in her underwear, are shot with an underlying sense of respect. The film treats its female characters on a level playing field, not just by demonstrating they can fight as well as the men, but by refusing to fall into the trap of laughing at their misfortune during the break-up scenes.
In the midst of all its belly laughs and eye-popping visuals, Scott Pilgrim is a very tender treatment of young love, demonstrating not just how to get the girl but how to deal with the baggage that goes with all relationships. Both Scott and Ramona have issues with commitment, with the latter admitting that she went through a phase of being a total bitch. And like in Gregory's Girl, there is the faint suggestion that the girl Scott falls for may not be the one he is destined to be with. In the original draft of the screenplay, which preceded the final comics, he ends up with Knives instead.
In defeating the evil exes, Pilgrim is not just standing up to other people's demons but also confronting his own insecurities, and in doing so gaining self-respect. The film genuinely conveys the sense of heartbreak on both sides which comes at the end of a relationship, and it doesn't pretend that our heroes are perfectly compatible and therefore destined to be together. Ramona's changing hair colour and tendency to withdraw at crucial moments both represents the fragile nature of love and encapsulates the modern age of complicated relationships and how hard communication can be, despite (or perhaps because of) new technology.
The performances in Scott Pilgrim are all of a high calibre. Michael Cera, who can be annoying, puts in his best performance since Juno, taking his familiar dweeby character and refining it to make Scott genuinely empathetic rather than simply pitiful. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is terrific as Ramona, possessing a sense of mystery while being completely natural and down-to-earth. Kieran Culkin is hilarious as Wallace, and Brandon Routh is very good as Todd, turning in a performance which is a million times more charismatic than his work in Superman Returns.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is one of the best films of 2010 and is destined to be a cult classic. It isn't quite a masterpiece, being slightly too long and feeling somewhat rough around the edges. It takes time to adjust to its peculiar execution, and I would be hard-pushed to say it was Wright's best film. But as a document of teenage love and insecurity, it is up there with Juno, and is therefore essential viewing for anyone in their early-20s.
As a film enthusiast, you're always looking to be surprised. The more… MoreAs a film enthusiast, you're always looking to be surprised. The more one learns about a given medium or art form, the more one risks falling into cynicism, focussing solely on the conventions and limitations of said form until the only surprises in life are the crushing disappointments. I hinted at this in my review of The First Day of the Rest of Your Life, arguing that sometimes it is best to go in completely cold.
I find myself in a similar predicament with The Ringer. Like Remi Bezanšon's debut from six years ago, there are a lot of aspects to its surface which could cause any sensible film fan to write it off. From any angle it's not a great film, just as you wouldn't expect any of the individuals it showcases to be great athletes. But when given the chance to show what it can do, it is surprising and genuinely touching.
While ostensibly helmed by Barry W. Blaustein, The Ringer is at heart a Farrelly Brothers project. It's shot and constructed in a very similar manner to the Farrellys' own directorial efforts, and nods towards many of the themes and motifs which are explored in the likes of Dumb and Dumber or There's Something About Mary. These include: the lengths to which men go to be with women, how childhood trauma impacts on people in adult life, and the social status of people with disabilities.
It's fitting, albeit in an unfortunate way, that I should be reviewing this film so soon after the tragic death of Rik Mayall. Both Mayall and the Farrellys have aspects of their ouevre which appear outwardly to be puerile, adolescent and stupid - Bottom being the clearest example in the former case. But in both instances, the toilet humour can be regarded as superficial, a way-in for the mainstream to explore issues which would not be raised so aptly in lesser productions.
It is, of course, perfectly easy to view Bottom as just an endless string of knob gags and rude words. But it is just as possible to view it as a modern-day Waiting for Godot, exploring as it does the existential angst of two lonely men with no discernable purpose or special qualities. In the same way, we can write off The Ringer as just another predictable film about an adolescent man-child, hooking up with a woman who's out of his league and being offensive along the way. But beneath this predictable surface, its treatment of issues surrounding disability is admirable, if not reasonably sophisticated.
There are many aspects to The Ringer which are annoyingly predictable. Its characters are painted in broad strokes and feel very one-dimensional, at least for the first 30 minutes. Brian Cox in particular gets very little to work with: we get the set-up of his dirty dealings with the Mob, which explains his slave-driver nature, and he has to spend the rest of the film being sleazy because that's the purpose of his character. The main characters are all archetypes and the film doesn't make a great deal of effort to challenge these archetypes or make them distinctive beyond the talent attached.
The plot of The Ringer is equally formulaic. Because Johnny Knoxville's character is positioned so strongly as the good guy, we know from the start that he's not going to follow through with things. The romance with Katherine Heigl's character is merely an extra incentive to excuse what we know is going to happen. While his final speech about being a cheat is mercifully short - compared to similar speeches in Oscar-bait movies - there is nothing really new being said here.
This formulaic feel is reinforced in Blaustein's direction. We get the inevitable training montages, with first Steve's dad and then his fellow competitors putting him through his paces. It's possible to do these scenes well and make them funny (in A Knight's Tale, for example), but here they feel flat and are edited in an all-too-conventional manner. The awkward conversations between Lynn and 'Jeffy' are framed in tight, off-angle close-ups, just like any teen comedy you care to mention.
The cinematography to The Ringer also has an oddly plastic quality to it which makes aspects of the film seem all the more unbelievable. The film is shot by Mark Irwin, a frequent Farrelly collaborator who began his career shooting some of David Cronenberg's best work. But this is 'plastic reality' in a bad sense: the primary colours look garish, many shots are slightly overexposed, and the sets have a very tacky feel to them.
But in spite of all these problems or shortcomings, there is much about The Ringer which can and should be praised. First and foremost, it handles its central concept (a man pretending to be disabled) with taste and dexterity. In Lars von Trier's The Idiots, people pretended to be disabled in a misjudged and ill-conceived statement of rebellion; we were expected to like Stoffer, who led the movement, but very quickly dismissed him as a pretentious oaf. Here, on the other hand, the filmmakers never condone what Steve is doing, demonstrating the flaws in his father's ableist arguments and using their offensive nature to poke fun at such small-minded attitudes.
While many Hollywood productions would ask their actors to mimic a disability, Blaustein and the Farrellys actually cast actors with the same disabilities as the characters they play. If Spinal Cord Injury Zone is to be believed, there are over 150 actors with intellectual disabilities who have supporting roles in the film. Crucially, the film doesn't draw attention to them or give them special treatment; they're treated like every other actor in the film, and that is just as it should be.
This reflects the central message of The Ringer: that people with disabilities, of whatever kind, are just as capable of leading a normal and successful life as anyone else. Each of the Special Olympic athletes who get a decent amount of screen time are built up as rounded characters, with their own personalities, aspirations, flaws and power structures. Blaustein and the Farrellys deserve a lot of credit for holding their nerve, putting in the hard yards and never using the characters' disability for any kind of cheap, nasty gag.
Knoxville is also a pleasant surprise in the leading role. You'd think that the man behind Jackass might not have the chops to hold our attention beyond the physical set-pieces, let alone charm us. But Knoxville acquits himself well, gradually winning us over and lending at least some credibility to his relationship with an equally decent Heigl. Sure, he's no Robert De Niro, and the script itself isn't great, but as with so much of this film, he's better than we had any right to expect.
The Ringer is a slight but pleasant surprise, taking a premise that could have been deeply misjudged and turning it into something respectful and passingly entertaining. While not a great film by any standards in terms of its storytelling and production qualities, it does handle its subject matter with respect without resorting to high-and-mighty rhetoric. If nothing else, like Animal House before it, it proves that bad taste does not always mean bad quality.
Hollywood has long been criticised for its conservative, money-driven… MoreHollywood has long been criticised for its conservative, money-driven mindset. By prioritising the commercial success of a given venture over its artistic or critical merit, it has produced an inordinate number of bad or mediocre films over its long history, which exist purely because the numbers add up on a balance sheet. It's a fallacy that if loads of people see a film then it must be good, but Hollywood has played upon this fallacy for decades.
We are living in a period in which this continual promotion of mediocrity is reaching absurd and aggresive levels. But it is foolish to believe that it is only a recent phenomenon; rather, it is something seemingly inherent within the Hollywood model of filmmaking. All of which brings us to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which manages to be longer, duller and more episodic that its already disappointing predecessor.
At this juncture, it may be perfectly natural for you to accuse me of dismissing the film on the grounds of its reputation. Chamber of Secrets was created by the same people who made Philosopher's Stone, with principal photography starting merely three days after the latter had been released. It retains the same cast and largely the same crew, is produced by the same studio, and is still very much a product of Chris Columbus' imagination, or lack thereof.
But despite my feelings about Columbus as a director (which I have already discussed at great length), I actually believe that this film had a chance of being better - nay, should be better - than its predecessor. Having spent so long in the first film trying to set up all the different concepts surrounding Hogwarts and the world of wizards, we should now be able to go deeper into the characters without having to worry about all the jargon. While new ideas are still introduced throughout The Two Towers and The Return of the King, they do not faze us because we accept the rules of the universe from which these ideas come forth, based upon the knowledge we garnered from The Fellowship of the Ring.
Chamber of Secrets does have a number of interesting ideas buried in it, many of which foreshadow later developments in the franchise. Where Philosopher's Stone focussed on the threat posed specifically to Harry, the threat in Chamber of Secrets is much more all-encompassing, with the whole of Hogwarts at the mercy of some insidious, inexplicable evil. In the right hands, this film could have made more of the idea of Harry's special nature and how that places the people he cares for in increasing amounts of danger.
This film is also significant for introducing the concept of horcruxes, items which contain a fragment of Lord Voldemort's soul, through which he can live forever (unless they are destroyed). It's an idea that has a great deal of precedent in fiction, from Sauron's ring in The Lord of the Rings to the Necronomicon in The Evil Dead, which causes Deadites to rise up when its passages are chanted.
In whatever form it comes, the idea is an appealing one because it gives us a blend of tangible and intangible evil - a physical object which is either inherently evil or evil by association with a purely supernatural force or being. It raises all kinds of questions about the way that evil manifests itself, how temptation works, and how we should approach evil in our quest for good. At the very least, it's an interesting McGuffin which should serve as the basis for a compelling fantasy adventure.
Unfortunately, just like its predecessor, Chamber of Secrets is a film which could and should have been a lot better than it is. And once again it's Columbus' overly faithful, almost literal approach to the material which lets the film down, turning what should have been a gripping, creepy adventure story into a pedestrian, episodic and frankly tedious outing. For all the criticisms that fans might have about the later films' decisions regarding adaptation, the fact remains that this is not by any definition a good example of cinematic storytelling.
Many of the problems with Chamber of Secrets amount to the same flaws that plagued Philosopher's Stone being present for much more screen time. Because there is more plot to deal with this time around, we get a lot more scenes of lazy and confusing exposition in the corridors of Hogwarts. The scenes with Harry, Ron and Hermione discussing what is going on and plotting what to do next are all shot in the same fashion, with extremely similar pacing, camera movements and marks for the actors. Because it's hard to tell one from the next, we assume that we could watch them in any order and it wouldn't make a difference.
Likewise, the big magical set-pieces still feel like conscious intrusions on the plot rather than integral parts of it. The quiddich match may have a visually impressive chase in it between Harry and Draco Malfoy, but Columbus lets it go on much longer than it needs to: it simply isn't that important to the plot to warrant so much screen time, but Columbus indulges himself because that's what's in the book. Equally, the scene with Aragog the giant spider may be creepy on some level, but it's only a moment of terror rather than an incremental step towards a memorable climax.
Both of these elements together contrive to make Chamber of Secrets feel incredibly episodic. As before, Columbus' camera is chasing after the material in every shot, having seemingly no idea where the story is heading beyond the beginning and end of a given scene. You simply don't get the sense that Columbus knew what the focus should be and how to shape the film accordingly. Instead various plot elements move in and out of our attention for the best part of three long hours, and after a handful of special effects the film stops in a thorougly uncathartic place.
In all of these respects, Chamber of Secrets seems like the dictionary definition of 'more of the same'. This broadly extends to the visual sensibility: while there are more visually darker scenes and a number of obviously Gothic touches, the film retains the safe-Dickensian feel of its predecessor and is still pushing for a family audience in spite of all the creepy moments. There are even moments where you'd swear the sets for Philosopher's Stone had been reused to create a different setting this time, with the Chamber of Secrets itself looking remarkably like the wizards' chess board in the first film.
If Chamber of Secrets was just 'more of the same', it would not automatically warrant a lower score than the first film. What tips this over into being the worst Harry Potter film is the lack of logic in many of its climactic scenes. We're used to adventure stories which have one deus ex machina, and can just about tolerate it if it's used in a sophisticated way. But this film tests our patience by giving us numerous anticlimaxes, in which a difficult situation is dealt with in a manner which is either too straightforward or downright perplexing.
Some of these instances are caused by a contrived coincidence, such as Gilderoy Lockhart casting a spell with Ron's broken wand, causing it to backfire and bury him under rubble. Others give characters powers that were never explained beforehand and are not referenced again, such as Dobby preventing Lucius Malfoy from harming Harry after the former has been freed. Others still find the film simply pulling a solution out of thin air because it needs our hero to succeed, such as a sword magically appearing in the sorting hat so that Harry can kill the basilisk. Each of these examples on their own are disappointing, but the more they keep coming the less confidence and interest we have in the resolution of the story.
As before, the saving grace with Chamber of Secrets is the cast, who do a generally decent job with material that has not been properly shaped for the screen. Emma Watson deserves special credit for her performance as Hermione: she does her best with the reams of exposition and makes the character less of a grating goody-goody than before. Kenneth Branagh is underused as Lockhart but he does occasionally get the chance to prove his acting chops in amongst all the goofy humour. And Richard Harris acquits himself well as Dumbledore, in what would prove to be his final performance.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a step down from the first film, being longer, more episodic and altogether less engaging. All the problems which dogged the first instalment are present in greater form here, and Columbus' uninspired approach to the material is likely to please existing fans a great deal more than any newcomers. While it's not quite awful, it remains the weakest of all the Harry Potter films, and provides a good case for all the changes that came with Prisoner of Azkaban.