..Gary Dretzka
Noah Forrest
..Leonard Klady
..David Poland
..Douglas Pratt
..Ray Pride
..Kim Voynar
..Michael Wilmington

March 14, 2006
January 14, 2006
January 2, 2006
Nov 29, 2005
Nov 21, 2005
Nov 11, 2005
Nov 6, 2005
October 31, 2005
October 22, 2005
August 18, 2005



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 Ratner’s sequel.

Consider The Proposition

Cain and Abel never had it so bloody bad.

John Hillcoat’s 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 I’ve 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 that’s 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 Mikey’s life. There’s 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. Stanley’s 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 movie’s 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 country’s 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. Cave’s incautious ardor aims for greatness yet with a songwriter’s asperity. It’s 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 Proposition’s 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-liang’s What Time Is It There?; Tran Anh Hung’s The Scent Of The Green Papaya) makes sunlight a killing thing. Hillcoat’s chosen style of composition and cutting is all stride, no stutter.

Cave’s elemental script captures a catastrophe known to sun and mourned by starlight. Yet his score (with Dirty Three’s 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: Mikey’s fear, quaking behind curtains of hair; Guy Pearce’s Charley an almost-hallucination of mixed impulses; Hurt’s 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. Huston’s expressions as he learns a dying man’s features are inspired, indelible. Wenham’s 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, Winstone’s 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.)

It’s 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 Schepisi’s masterpiece, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.

Comics punchline

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: Accomplished.”

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 barbs—in 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 Pryde.

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."

Bad Code

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 Brown’s bleakly semi-literate, oleaginous conspira-pop novel is done justice by Ron Howard’s suffocating, airless, dull filming of Akiva Goldsman’s 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 McKellen’s, 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? Columbia’s 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

Reportedly inspired by the eclectic excess of Kill Bill, Oldboy (2003) director Chan-wook Park’s 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 child’s 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… That’s why I decided to deal with it.” His visual ferocity is unrelentingly impressive; his storytelling mostly incoherent, which is of course why the film’s promotions are larded with quotes from Ain’t It Cool News’ house torture-phile, Harry Knowles. It’s 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 Tarantino’s next full-fledged feature, if there ever is one. 112m.

May 24, 2006

- Email Ray Pride



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