Reviews of The
Proposition, The Da Vinci Code, Lady Vengeance and X-Men: The
Last Stand, plus a few words with a couple of the young actors from
Brett Ratners sequel.
Cain and Abel never
had it so bloody bad.
The Proposition (****), an Australian Western set in the 1880s Outback,
with a screenplay by murder ballad master, musician Nick Cave,
is simply the most astonishing released film Ive seen so far this
year. It is spare and sorrowful, yet assiduously ambitious, a beautifully
paced gem, temperate of insufferable things.
Every frame has
steeped in brute feelings about justice, loyalty and revenge. A gunfight
opens The Proposition, one thats lost by renegade Charlie
Burns (Guy Pearce) and his simple, 14-year-old brother Mikey.
Ray Winstone plays the British Captain Stanley who offers Charlie
a proposition to save Mikeys life. Theres one missing Burns
brother, somewhere out on the front, the eldest, Arthur (Danny Huston),
the ringleader in their apparent raids of murder and rape. If Charlie
stalks and kills Arthur in the next couple of weeks, Stanley will pardon
them; otherwise, Mikey gets the rope on Christmas Day. Stanleys
pressured by headaches, a concern for the safety of his wife, Martha
(Emily Watson), aboriginal rumbles, and the demands of his boss,
the mealy Eden Fletcher (David Wenham). While trailing his brother,
Charlie also makes acquaintance of mad bounty hunter Jellon Lamb (a
memorably ripe John Hurt). Fletcher, inflamed by the proposition
Stanley made, insists that Mikey be flogged in public, which leads to
the movies already-notorious image of a cat-o-nine-tails being
wrung of blood.)
Hillcoat calls his
film an elegy of violence drawing upon the mythic
force of the rugged Australian landscape and the countrys brutal
history, one he felt could reinvent the Western in a specifically
Australian context. And good on him. This movie pulses. Blood
is a central force, blood that binds, blinds, sluices, spatters, gutters,
gathers and bakes in the sun that makes alkali of the earth. The primeval
imagery is ripe with glueyness and stain, bullet hole and fly-blow.
This is not an ironic film. Caves incautious ardor aims for greatness
yet with a songwriters asperity. Its rare to see brutality
captured in both suddenness and well-adjudicated measure. Violence is
sudden, the camera displays but does not linger: that is The Propositions
sandy poetry. Men are readily reduced to savagery when ambition outstrips
knowledge and kindness. This is how the great powers are forged: Many
hands build the mansions and there is blood on every palm.
This Australia is
a place whose perfume could only be admired by jackals. French cinematographer
Benoit Delhomme (Tsai Ming-liangs What Time Is
It There?; Tran Anh Hungs The Scent Of The Green
Papaya) makes sunlight a killing thing. Hillcoats chosen style
of composition and cutting is all stride, no stutter.
script captures a catastrophe known to sun and mourned by starlight.
Yet his score (with Dirty Threes Warren Ellis) is
of a piece, with interludes of his voice on the soundtrack failing to
find language, crooning murmur and ruin. The acting is precise and feral
amid bleak swagger: Mikeys fear, quaking behind curtains of hair;
Guy Pearces Charley an almost-hallucination of mixed impulses;
Hurts rank Lamb; and the ever-fascinating Danny Huston
(Birth, The Aviator, The Constant Gardener) becoming as rich
and stolid a character actor as his late father, John. Hustons
expressions as he learns a dying mans features are inspired, indelible.
Wenhams overseer is memorably fey, repeating in a pinched, precious
voice of a prisoner, What a lee-tle piece of feelth. What a lee-tle
piece of feelth. (He also finds just the superior tone for Speared
by a savage? How extraordinarily quaint.) And even as Stanley
dithers with love and self-doubt, Winstones odor of pained decency
serves the character, rather than the filmmakers imposing a superior
pissiness or an anachronistic pussiness. If David Lean were a
proud, unsentimental Aussie, he might have made The Proposition.
(There is one widescreen sunset, mandarin and tangerine and charcoal
and pearl, curried, combed with cirrus of gray, that is likely digitally
gussied-up, but Lean surely approves from on high.)
Its good that
Hillcoat and Cave and Co. have galling drive and ambition to spare,
and are willing to make one of the most febrile of Australian films
that I know, an equal, or perhaps even the better, of Fred Schepisis
masterpiece, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.
Three words come
to mind with Bryan Singer's first two installments of the X-Men:
You are different.
With X-Men: The
Last Stand (** ½), directed by Brett Ratner, the Rush
Hour, Rush Hour 2 and Red Dragon helmer, who took over deep
into pre-production after Singer migrated across the newsstand to take
on Superman Returns, the three words that come to mind after
its mad succession of scramble royales: Fiduciary responsibility:
With more than a
dozen characters/spin-off candidates and easily more than a dozen action
sequences, the result, which, inexplicably, is drably photographed by
Dante Spinotti (Heat, The Insider, Benigni's Pinocchio),
seems never to take a breath. While there could be some carry-over of
the emotional freight from the insistent, overarching theme of Bryan
Singer's movies-no matter how different you think you are, others
see you as even more different from the pack-the pace is punishing.
Still, within the
vortex of green-screen and improbable super-power effects that stud
the plotline about whether a virus to cure mutants would be a good thing
or not, there are glancing topical political barbsin the film,
Magneto's call for mutant Jihad is broadcast uncut by Fox News.
The welter of acting
styles maybe the production's most interesting aspect, with Patrick
Stewart's Dr. Xavier and Sir Ian McKellen's Magneto retaining
their dignity and Kelsey Grammer's Beast mixing Frasier and Niles
Crane under an expanse of blue dye and fur. Others have little time
to make an impression: a few beats of the naked-but-blue Rebecca
Romijn's Mystique; Halle Berry's stormy-storm Storm and Anna
Paquin's touch-pining Rogue. I can't bring myself to enumerate the
rest, except to say that Hugh Jackman looks ready to tap-dance
into the corner of the frames and it have been nice if he had. Sadly,
bright young Ellen Page is wasted, too, both for the talent she's
displayed in Marion Bridge, Mouth to Mouth and Hard Candy
and the name I recall well from reading comics childhood, Kitty
A few sunny afternoons
ago, Fox was promoting the movie in Chicago on the expanses of Navy
Pier, in the midst of Lake Michigan, and I asked a few questions of
a pair of actors with two of the most earnest performances among the
younger cast, Shawn Ashmore (Iceman) and Aaron Stanford (Pyro).
I've interviewed Brett Ratner in the past, and he's one of the
more emphatic, enthusiastic, even manic talkers I've ever encountered.
The actors say he's capable of exposing as much film as gab. "Honestly,"
Ashmore says, "Any other director, honestly, you do thirty takes,
I'd be done, I'd be over, I'd be so lost. I'd be frustrated and probably
wouldn't want to do it anymore. I'd just be, y'know, I'm not really
sure what I'm supposed to do. But he's very specific."
"He never gets
frustrated," Stanford says in a weary baritone. "I've never
seen him frustrated. Not once." "He's never like, 'Ohhhh,
this isn't working,'" Ashmore says, "He'll just keep on picking
at it until it's right."
"He's got this
tremendous confidence that he knows he's going to get it,"
Stanford says, "It's just a matter of time, a matter of the number
of takes, however many takes it's gonna take. He will get it."
Does that make him
an actors' director? "Ultimately, you know that you're not moving
on until he's happy with your performance," Ashmore adds. "Some
actors like to be stroked, 'Oh, you're doing a good job' and whatever.
He's not like that but you can trust that if a director's going to do
thirty takes, that means he's gonna go until he gets exactly what he
wants. And in a film like this, you have to put your trust in the director
because as an actor, there's so many elements, special effects, story
points, you have no control afterward. If you're putting your faith
in him, and he's not happy with this take, with this close-up, it's
a trust thing you develop."
But Ratner's energy
helps as well? "Totally," Stanford says. "His enthusiasm
and energy," Ashmore says, "is infectious. A movie like this,
honestly, I think that's one of the things that really helped us along.
When you're standing there for three days working on the same shots
over and over, you start to forget why you're there and what you're
doing. He's focused, even though he's all over the place with his energy."
There must be lessons
a younger actor can learn from someone more experienced, such as Sir
Ian, who manages to march around most of the movie with a purple helmet
on his head and never descend into camp amid the din. "He doesn't
have any methodology at all," Stanford says. "He's been quoted
as saying that he doesn't know anything about acting, he never trained,
he never went to school. He was never the type to pull you aside or
even to make suggestions. When you work within someone like him, you
learn things unconsciously. You certainly learn a lot about just how
to behave, as a human being, from him, he's just very dignified and
giving as an actor."
The best film to
incorporate Leonardo since Hudson Hawk, The Da Vinci Code (1/2
*) functions best as a chartered train to Sony Pictures intended
destination: the bank. Dan Browns bleakly semi-literate,
oleaginous conspira-pop novel is done justice by Ron Howards
suffocating, airless, dull filming of Akiva Goldsmans deadly,
chatty adaptation. Any director who can make Jean Reno, Paul Bettany,
Alfred Molina and Audrey Tatou less than watchable has a
dour gift. A greater gift is Ian McKellens, who, in a role
as Sir Leigh Teabing amps the camp and rises above the mealy
damp. I also imagine a still of Tom Hanks from this picture with
his beaver-tail-ish mullet being mounted in hair salons across the continents
as a cautionary case. And the greatest gift? Columbias got a worldwide
hit, which, as of Monday night, continued to topple records, especially
in countries in South America and Europe with large Catholic populations,
and by some estimates, is racing toward a quarter-billion dollar theatrical
gross. Consider the checks cashed. 149m.
Trilogy of auteur
by the eclectic excess of Kill Bill, Oldboy (2003) director Chan-wook
Parks Lady Vengeance (Chinjeolhan geumjassi)
(2005) (***), concludes his vengeance trilogy with a bracing,
formally thrilling cry of LOOOOOOOK AT MEEEEEEE! Lady
Vengeance is a splintered, fussy, often abrupt narrative about a
woman wrongfully imprisoned for the torture and murder of a child, who
spends her time behind bars befriending other criminals whose skills
can help her exact the perfect revenge on the true villain once she
is free. There are several moments that drove me out of the room, including
the depiction on video of the moments before a childs murder,
with supplementary dreadful bawling. (Conveniently, the sound was on
in the washroom and I was denied only the images, which may be worse.)
Park has written, In popular culture
people mention love,
forgiveness and reconciliation
Violence is another important force
Thats why I decided to deal with it. His visual ferocity
is unrelentingly impressive; his storytelling mostly incoherent, which
is of course why the films promotions are larded with quotes from
Aint It Cool News house torture-phile, Harry Knowles.
Its a nice set of inspired images for the emotionally stunted
and for directorial magpies. Expect many of the touches in this movie
to show up in Tarantinos next full-fledged feature, if there ever
is one. 112m.
Email Ray Pride