The Savage Breast

Tamara Jenkins’ new film offers a coruscating analysis of a failed American family, where a brother and sister are brought together to care for their estranged father once he shows signs of Parkinson’s disease. Jon and Wendy Savage (Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) have fallen out of touch with one another, even though they both live in New York and are both writers of a kind. He’s a literary professor trying to finish a long-gestating biography of Bertolt Brecht, she’s an unproduced playwright who spends her time between temping jobs applying for, and failing to get, funding from arts institutions. Neither is married, although she is conducting a grimy affair with a married neighbour and he is about to say a muted goodbye to his Polish girlfriend, whose work visa has expired.

Then, late one night, comes the call that their father Lenny (Phillip Bosco) is behaving oddly, news not unconnected to the fact that his elderly girlfriend has passed away and he must move from the house they shared in suburban Arizona. So the siblings, awkwardly reunited, travel to Phoenix to collect their mean-hearted father and return him to a care-home on the East coast, a journey that at first is nothing more than a hassle and at second, a major pain.

I’d watch Linney and Hoffmann do anything, in anything. Both are among the finest American actors working today; brave, brittle, contemporary players with deep reserves of emotion to draw on. They are outstanding here as deeply damaged people, ruined by uncaring parenting, divorce, struggle and self-loathing. As a study of dysfunction and disagreement, The Savages heaps irony on embarrassment to create a vicious miniature portrait of a family that has learned the hard way that love and happiness are concepts from fairytales; that real contentment comes from wherever you can find it, a stolen bottle of painkillers, an imaginary success, a bad affair.

Writer and director Jenkins has a keen eye for faintly surreal detail, but never sentimentalises the material, taking on the deceit and delusion with the same clinical approach she applies to the business of caring for the elderly. In one recurring motif, she has each character stare out the window of a moving car; Wendy in a daze of psychotropic bliss accompanied by birdsong, Jon through a wintry city while listening to a Brechtian torchsong, Lenny blankly regarding bare trees before settling on a cross-strewn graveyard. As the story plays out, interest levels vary in line with the dwindling incident and an overly dyspeptic world view, but that's not to deny the acting talents on display, or their completion of difficult, spiky characters. There are jokes scattered among the miseries but they are the kind of ones that stick in your throat, like chicken bones or heartburn.

Making The Cut

Short, sharp and sour as little apples; arch-goth Tim Burton brings his kohl-eyed and cobwebbed sensibilities to Stephen Sondheim’s dark-hearted musical about the London barber turned serial-killer who wreaks a dreadful revenge on anyone who crosses him.

Burton’s favourite leading man Johnny Depp (Oscar nominated for the role) plays Benjamin Barker, returned from imprisonment overseas with a strange light in his eyes. Years before, the power-mad Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), took a shine to Barker’s wife Lucy, so hatched a plan to ship him off and steal her away. Now the wronged man is back, returned by ship with best mate Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) to his old, despised streets, seeking out his lost wife and daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener). Back on Fleet Street, having renamed himself, Sweeney Todd meets the scatterbrained Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter), a similarly pale-faced, smudgy-eyed sewer-rat, to discover that Lucy has killed herself and the now-teenaged Johanna has been imprisoned by Turpin and his sidekick Bamford (Timothy Spall) in a mansion house on Hyde Park. An encounter with a former acquaintance Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) brings Sweeney back to his old trade, setting up shop over Mrs Lovett’s pie emporium, with his ‘arm complete’ by his old set of silver straight-edged razors. Then, bloody mayhem.

Burton’s already fantastic world view might have been swallowed up in the artifice of a stage musical, but the director displays a sure touch in an unfamiliar landscape, burnished considerably by superb contributions from production designer Dante Ferretti and costume designer Colleen Atwood. The film looks fantastic but there are long moments of lumpy pacing, in part because everything must stop while the songs are sung. Burton and his cast gamely try to turn these unavoidable longeurs into true show-stoppers by introducing the riper aspects of his story – murder, cannibalism, deceit – in delicately choreographed scenes, some of which work wonderfully and some of which simply don’t. At times the staging feels enclosed, introducing an unnecessary air of stage-bound claustrophobia despite Burton’s compelling staging and coherent vision. He is at his best when he sates his appetite for the macabre, indeed the film is far more vicious and bloody than expected, even if the splashy murders are presented as sickly cartoons and the manufacture of the pies given a cursory, comical treatment.

The perfectly-chosen cast sing the many songs (abridged from the original to fit the time-frame of a screen adaptation) with considerable gusto, even if there are variations in vocal talent. It is odd at first to see Depp open his throat in an unsteady, half-spoken warble, but he soon settles, helped by the ever-present, energetic Bonham-Carter. A scene where she imagines a happy-ever-after for the gruesome couple is a delight, followed immediately by a darkening of theme and tone as Sweeney starts slashing necks. The final section, a confrontation between Rickman’s delightful villain and Depp’s desperate anti-hero, is as bleak and cynical as it is finely-wrought and dramatically satisfying. Blackly funny, beautifully crafted and decidedly weird, Burton’s morbid musical might not hit all the right notes, but there is still a lot to enjoy.

O Sages Standing In God's Holy Fire

After a run of flat and indifferent films, the Coen Brothers return to their best with their astounding adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men; a bleak examination of Western archetypes caught in the winding gears of vintage film noir. Their film – gripping from the opening frame - is a brilliantly executed treatise on the corrupting power of greed, scripted like poetry, told with trademark queasy wit and boasting some of the finest acting performances of the writing and directing brother’s long careers.

The movie opens with the lazy voice of Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) telling us a story of a teenage killer he once arrested, who admitted he had been planning to kill someone, anyone, for a long time. While telling us he remembers a time when lawmen didn’t carry guns, Jones growls a story that has nothing to do with what is about to happen, but nevertheless establishes the entire film – an awed examination of relentless evil and blind injustice.

That force, made flesh, is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a blank-faced hitman sent by gangsters to recover a suitcase full of money from the man who found it, deep in the desert. He is Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a redneck welder out hunting one morning, who comes across the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad. Finding the case in the back of a truck, he takes it home to the trailer he shares with his wife Carla Jean (Kelly McDonald). Then, he makes a mistake, one that sets in train a series of events beyond his control that make him a target. He flees, but it is hopeless. Chigurh, with his ‘oxygen tank’, his lank fringe and his dead eyes, will not be frustrated in his mission.

This is a deep, thoughtful film that gradually darkens into abject nihilism. There are no winners in this story and, as events continue, it becomes more difficult to judge who the Coens are most interested in; the fleeing cowboy, the chasing psychopath or the lawman following both trails. The bag of money is almost forgotten, with the film instead focusing on the motivations of the parties concerned; uncommon, unclassifiable forces that compel each line of the triangle together. There is terror here, but not the fundamentalist chaos of the evening news, rather a mood of all-pervading, unstoppable threat that once settled, is impossible to shake.

Together with cinematographer Roger Deakins, the Coen’s reach a new level of cinematic artistry. Boundaries slash the screen, borders, fences and doors that once crossed, cannot be uncrossed. The flat desert landscape becomes a character in itself, bleached white at noon or backlit in craggy mesas by a descending sun. From an early moment, when Chigurgh strangles a policeman, boots take on symbolic meaning, scene after scene starting or ending at ground level, signifying the relentless nature of the pursuer and the exhaustion of his quarry. From the various points of introduction, the narrative concentrates into a singularity of constant, terrible motion. Any escape, or even any traditional cinematic resolution, becomes impossible. There are no moral lessons, no pay-offs, no nothing.

Instead, we get glories; wonderments to be revisited for as long as there are movies. Moss chased by a fearsome dog, Woody Harrelson cracking wise across a hospital bed, Jones and his tremulous assistant Wendell (Garret Dillahunt) crouching to consider the vista in a scene worthy of Fargo. These characters, when they talk at all, speak in old wisdoms; meditations on loss and remembrance, stories and dreams, the natural laws of man.

This is a masterful film, the finest I have seen in a long, long time. It is simply unmissable.

Dublin Film Critics Circle Awards 2007

The Dublin Film Critics Circle, of which I am a member, recently announced the results of their annual vote. Each member votes for a top five, but I've only included the outright winners in each category here.

Best International Film: The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)

Best Irish Film: Garage (Lenny Abrahamson)

Best Director: David Fincher, Zodiac

Best Actor: Ulrich Mühe, The Lives Of Others

Best Actress: Julie Christie, Away From Her

Breakthrough Award: Saoirse Ronan, Atonement

The image above is Al Hirschfeld's caricature of the celebrated wits of the Algonquin Round Table, which bears no similarity whatsoever to the proceedings of the DFCC. Although it'd be great if it did.

All That Glitters

Opening with a deft introduction to the two trickiest concepts in Phillip Pullman’s brilliant source novel – the notion of parallel universes and daemons - the writer and director of The Golden Compass Chris Weitz then abandons any sense of nuance or mystery in breathlessly spelling out – moment by thudding moment – the adventures of Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), a pre-teen orphan girl caught up in an evil conspiracy who travels to the North Pole to save her friend from the cruel experiments run by the sinister Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman) at the behest of the all-powerful Magesterium. Her only guide is the last surviving Alethiometer, a magical device that shows the user the truth, a gift from her uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig). Later, she enlists the help of other forces for good, including a tribe of warlike witches, a noble armoured bear (voiced by Ian McKellan) and the Gyptians, a sea-faring band of gypsies.

Pullman’s dense, precise prose was never likely to lend itself to a blockbuster adaptation, with Weitz falling over himself to confuse and confound the writer’s careful positioning of his characters both in their alternate Victorian universe and their part in a wider, monumental mission. Cramming Pullman’s theories and concepts into two hours, his film seems unwilling to pause even for a moment to allow the complexities of the story to settle. The director struggles to find a way to communicate the novels ideas, with the script filled with long sections of talkative, plodding exposition. Worse, any spiritual connotations have been surgically excised to leave the bare bones of a common-or-garden quest saga.

As Lyra, the twelve year old British debutant Dakota Blue Richards gives an uneven performance, at times plucky and resourceful but lacking in charisma and compulsion. Her animated daemon Pan, voiced by Freddie Highmore, is a dependably cute companion, but the film fails to effectively communicate their unbreakable bond. Nicole Kidman projects a statuesque beauty as the evil Mrs Coulter, chiefly because her face appears set in immobile alabaster. She and co-star Daniel Craig achieve the same level of on-screen chemistry as they did in last year’s The Invasion, which is none at all. Combined, they left me so cold I put my coat back on.

Lyra and Pantalaimon race from one beautifully realised location to another, jabbering wildly with the encountered characters about developments in the plot before veering off into another action set-piece. The story is almost lost underneath a succession of mediocre battles, tricky computer-generated effects or high-tempo chases. We never get to know these characters, much less care about them or what they are doing. Craig’s feted professor Asriel is forgotten, returning briefly towards the end to a diminishing return. Sam Elliot as the charming cowboy adventurer Scoresby gets a few minutes of dialogue while Eva Green as the good witch Serafina Pekkala is given a scant introduction, an arrow-flinging sidebar in a clumsy battle and nothing else. Flat and one-dimensional, The Golden Compass succeeds only as a visual spectacle – positioned as a kind of art-deco science-fiction -and fails absolutely as storytelling. Things might improve with the two subsequent novels in the Dark Materials trilogy, should Weitz ever be given the opportunity to film them.