Cholera Me Bad

Director Mike Newell deserves a tip of the hat for bringing Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s long-thought unfilmable novel Love in the Time of Cholera to the screen at all, but given the quivering mess that results, perhaps the book was best categorized as being too deep for the cheap seats.

In Columbia at the turn of the last century, a young man named Florentino (Javier Bardem) falls in love, at first sight, with the beautiful Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). New to the town, she is guarded jealously by her merchant father (John Leguizamo), who wishes her to marry a wealthy man and gain respectability. Shy Florentino, prodded by his clucking mother, starts to write elaborate love-letters to his beloved, hiding them around the town. But on the day he was to ask for her hand in marriage, her father finds out about the affair, and sends Fermina to the mountains to live with her cousin Hildebranda (Catalina Sandino Moreno). The young couple’s untried love cannot survive the separation, and years later when Fermina returns, she has moved on. After a short courtship, conducted over her sick-bed, she marries the local doctor (Benjamin Bratt). Distraught, Florentino throws himself into a lengthy series of casual affairs, noting each new conquest in a little black book, but his heart remains forever unrequited.

Javier Bardem, who won the Oscar for his unforgettable Anton Chigurh in another literary adaptation, No Country For Old Men, does well initially with his disappointed suitor, his flat, steam-iron face and drooping eyes communicating an endless well of lovelorn misery. Later, however, Florentino loses our sympathy; a combination of his innate selfishness, laughable make-up and narrative tedium. Mezzogiorno, for all her early spirit and flashes of vulnerability, suffers a similar fate, established as a romantic ideal and then abandoned in the story as a prop.

The film is well photographed in that lush, golden light of the tropics, but Newell cannot find any poetry in his imagery. His production is handsome, but unremarkable. His pacing is steady but too slow. The absence of touch reduces the romance to a train of connectable developments, a slowly deadening trawl through one man’s self-absorption, buoyed occasionally by moments of lively smut and delicate absurdity. But for each of the few bright, honest moments in this sprawling timeline, there are long sections of awkward soap opera, over-cooked landscape photography or blank-eyed mooning.

Newell and his screenwriter Ronald Harwood have taken this classic of magic realism and somewhere along the way, forgotten the magic. Perhaps it got lost in the desire to cram the best of a fabulously complicated story into a running time just shy of two and a half hours. It could be the distractingly unconvincing make-up techniques used to age the actors fifty years. Maybe it’s the clumsy dialogue or the evaporating secondary cast (including Liev Schreiber, briefly), who come and go in the background without registering. In the end, it might be just the fundamental, literary nature of the source material. Any one of these problems would have damaged the film. All of them together scuttle it completely.

A Week On The Wild Side

Playwright Martin McDonagh makes his feature debut with this startlingly dark comedy drama about a pair of inept hitmen sent to cool their boots in Belgium after a contract killing goes awry. McDonagh, who won an Oscar for his short film Six Shooter and has armfuls of awards for his stage dramas, brings all of his considerable talents to this determinedly entertaining story, which might trail a long tradition of cinematic criminal capers, but is a true original, being smart, twisted, funny and fierce. In Bruges is some trip.

After the London job goes belly-up, Ken and Ray (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) are ordered by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to the small, quaint and out-of-the-way town of Bruges to lay low. Ken is delighted to get the chance to wander around the medieval town; taking a trip down the canal and rooting around the old cathedrals. Ray, on the other hand, is bored senseless, looking for something to do that doesn’t involve a guidebook. Eventually, he meets the pretty, savvy Chloe (Clémence Poésy), an assistant on an arty film being shot in the town that stars the irascible dwarf Jimmy (Jordan Prentice). Soon, Bruges seems like a lot more fun, as the two lads get involved in a few low-key scrapes, but there are black clouds on the horizon as Harry comes looking for answers and pay-back.

In Bruges is comedy written in shades of midnight, the bumbling to-and-fro of the interaction between the leads and the surreal idiocy of their situation gradually giving way to something approaching desperation, a panicky, fleshy sense of capture underlined by the synchronicities and ironies in McDonagh’s beautifully considered script. For all the twitching nerve endings and splashes of crimson gore, there are bright beams of precisely worded humour and, later, a gracious tenderness approaching a father and son bond in the relationship between Gleeson and Farrell.

Both leads are exceptional. We have come to expect it from Gleeson; his bluff, straight-edged ordinariness and his fluid command of his lumbering body, topped with his motile, agreeable face. Farrell, though, has a lesser recent pedigree but the younger actor overcomes a decidedly shaky start here to deliver one of the best performances of his career, being likeable, honest and unexpectedly witty. Later, as Ray’s story develops, Farrell goes to a sad, lonely place and faces it with extraordinary bravery. He’s really good here. Really.

McDonagh’s script unfolds in a distinct and deceptively unhurried series of revelations, finely handled plot movements placed in a constant flow of word-heavy dialogue scenes. Later, when a moment of silence descends, McDonagh creeps in to fill the frame with his faces and lets these portraits sit. The emotional effect is unsettling and brings about a nimble change in tone as the 'lads-on-tour' mood falls away. The film is strikingly photographed in these composed compositions by Eigil Bryld, giving way to a series of nimble chases. These later sections, heralded by the arrival of the snarling Harry, are carefully - perhaps too carefully - positioned as a series of dramatic synchronicities and referential ironies, but these are minor quibbles in what is a hugely entertaining film.

Blood And Fire

Nobody says anything for the opening fifteen minutes of Paul Thomas Anderson’s monstrous epic There Will Be Blood. There is no need. Over the first clanging notes of Johnny Greenwood’s discordant score, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) swings a pickaxe deep underground, chipping away at a thin seam of gold, the exertion etched on his face. Then, an accident, and Plainview must drag himself out of his pit and crawl back to town. The first theme of this extraordinary film is established – the earth is filled with treasures, for the man strong enough to extract them.

As he will do throughout, Anderson then brings us forward a couple of years to the late 1870s, where Plainview has converted his few ounces of hard-won gold into an oil prospect. There in the desert, with a few swarthy riggers, he makes his first strike – his raw hand covered in the blood-black oil, raised triumphant over his head, a powerfully simple image that calls to mind Kubrick’s hooting apes, champions of their own prehistoric wasteland, giddy with the thrill of discovery.

Now suited and booted, Plainview hones his tactics, adopting a young orphan HW (played with uncanny calm by Dillon Freasier) to establish himself as a family man, and with the help of his lieutenant Fletcher (Ciarán Hinds), builds his business throughout the West. One evening, Plainview is visited by a young man who tells him, for a fee, about a place where the oil is seeping out of the ground. With H.W. in tow, Plainview sets out, camping at the run-down Sunday family farm under the pretence of hunting quail. Soon he has bought the land, and the land around it and (in a scene largely improvised by Day Lewis) met with the townspeople and convinced them of his good name, his good intentions and promised them prosperity and happiness. Plainview has a master plan, to become independent of the oil distributors by buying all the land from the wells to the Pacific and building his own pipeline. His empire is nearly set, but he faces an opponent from the other side of the divide, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) a young firebrand preacher with a mission to bring God to the people of California. Sunday doesn’t trust Plainview but needs his donations to build his church, the first roots of a complex and destructive relationship that Anderson, with consummate skill and remarkable economy, establishes as a living, breathing contest, between the emptiness of God and the fruitless pursuit of Money, fought by two compromised, untrustworthy men.

Then, a series of incidents that bring us forward through the narrative. H.W. is injured in a derrick explosion and is cruelly sent away by his father to school in San Francisco. A man arrives at camp, claiming to be Plainview’s half-brother. A farmer, whose land stands between Plainview and the sea, refuses to sell. The preacher gradually builds his congregation, and sets himself against the oil man. In an exceptional year for cinema, this film stands proudly beside the Coen Brother’s No Country For Old Men as exemplars of today’s American cinema and shares with that masterwork the idea that money, and the pursuit of it, corrupts even the strongest of us. More than that, both films look to address the American character writ large through the notion of ‘finders keepers’ established by the first European settlers and distorted through the centuries by acquisition, accumulation and the pursuit of individual greed. In drilling his way to success, Plainview isn’t just chipping away at the ground; he is excavating himself.

There is so much more to say. Last week, Day Lewis won an Oscar for his performance, the finest of his career and one of the most exceptional in the history of cinema. He is in almost every scene and you cannot take your eyes off him, his fierce fighter’s stance and his rolling, soothing voice. The photography from Robert Elswit, another Oscar winner, is breath-taking in its simplicity, its sense of scale, composition and colour. Anderson corrals it all into an undying work of inestimable genius, in front of and behind the camera; a dangerous, daring film that you simply must see.

Barclay's Bankers

Although the opening credits of Roger Donaldson’s late-to-the-party cockney crime caper herald The Bank Job as being ‘based on a true story’, it is a yarn spun almost completely from whole cloth. Yes, in 1971 an daring gang of London criminals burrowed into the vault of Lloyds Bank in London’s affluent Marylebone and made off with more than half a million pounds of loot. And yes, their walkie-talkie chatter was overheard by a nearby radio ham, leading to their capture. But they were there for the money, having spotted a flaw in the bank’s security system, not to return compromising photographs of a royal princess to MI5 or snare a violent black civil rights leader as the script from veteran sit-com double act Dick Clement and Ian Lafrenais would have you believe. Likewise, shadowy corners of the secret service did not intervene on the criminal’s behalf and allow them to escape scot free, the robbers were quickly caught and all served lengthy prison sentences.

Isn’t the truth tiresome? Well, fiction in this case is barely more exciting. Assembled from the dog-ends of countless previous iterations of the same standardised geezer text and executed without a modicum of invention or heart by Donaldson, The Bank Job gathers a cast of mid-range British talents to grind through the motions without ever giving a convincing reason for having done so. Small-time criminal Terry Leather (Jason Statham) is in debt to the shady Mr. Jessell (Trevor Byfield), whose strong-armed gorilla’s force Terry into considering a complicated criminal proposition from his old flame Martine (Saffron Burrows) that promises a big pay day. Terry gets his old gang back together, recruiting photographer Kevin (Stephen Campbell Moore), former porn star Dave (Daniel Mays) and fake posh gent Guy (James Faulkner), to help put the job in motion. At the same time, we discover the nasty establishment puppeteers, who are worse than the bad guys, including MI5 maven Miles Urquhart (Peter Bowles), who has his lackey Tim (Richard Lintern) do his dirty work for him.

The simplistic, ponderous treatment – set-up, execution, aftermath - doesn’t give Donaldson much room for invention and his blundering, uneven film struggles to find pace, particularly in the dreary opening sections. Worse still, after a decade or more of copycat British gangster movies, The Bank Job lacks any element of style, novelty or surprise. With the story sketched in broad strokes, the actors struggle with the lack of any real characterisation beyond their wide-lapelled costumes and elaborate hairdos. Statham is a stereotype specialist, but growling through his short range of granite-jawed stares isn’t enough to convince here. Opposite him, Burrows wafts prettily through an underwritten, procedural part without a real moment of distinction. Keely Hawes flares momentarily as Leather’s tired wife but without more to do, is forgotten in the subsequent melee of cliché and cardboard tension. The rest of the gang appear to have wandered in from an entirely different film, Carry On Blowing The Bloody Doors Off, maybe. Well before the end, the film falls away to nothing; a limp rethread that is as economical with inspiration as it is with the truth.