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Rating History

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
6 months ago via Flixster

In my review of Still Alice, I complained about the way that Hollywood films often depict life-threatening illness, seeking to preserve the glamour of the actor or actress in question rather than trying to capture a believable portrayal of whatever disease they may have. Invoking the example of Gus van Sant's Restless, I said that "if the film is about, say, a cancer patient, the patient will look as healthy and as well-fed as any member of the cast before suddenly declining in the final reel and popping their clogs."

I am by no means the first reviewer to have carped about this tendency of Hollywood, which has led many a cinema patron to abandon the mainstream and seek out how the independent film scene deals with death. Here, though, there is another, often more irritating problem: many independent films go out of their way to make death as quirky or pretentious as possible, and we come to hate the ailing characters so much that it takes all our moral courage to not shout "hurry up and die!". Fortunately, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is not one of these films; instead it overcomes its early snarkiness to end up as surprisingly tender.

When I reviewed The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I complained that the film's characters were "frustratingly smug", with writer-director Stephen Chbosky going to great (and clunky) lengths to prove how well-versed he was about music and teenagers. The post-modern technique of drawing attention to Hollywood cliché to make a point about how un-Hollywood your story is has long started to grate, whether it's in a visual motif or a line delivered by the characters. This overbearing desire to be different (whether it's un-Hollywood or un-anything else) is present in spades in the opening ten minutes of Me and Earl; its turned-up-nose voiceover is almost enough to make you shut the whole thing off.

Fortunately, the film very quickly abandons this approach and settles into a pleasant rhythm which is offbeat without drawing attention to itself. Once it's proved its indie credentials - trying too hard to be Wes Anderson in the process - it emerges more confidently as its own story, particularly once the central triangle of friendships has been laid out. There are still familiar touches in both the narrative decisions and their presentation to the audience, but the film is more settled and mature with regard to them, calmly acknowledging and almost embracing its lineage rather than spitting in their face like a hypocritical, snot-nosed punk.

One of the main reference points for the film is Be Kind Rewind, Michel Gondry's film from nine years ago in which Jack Black and Mos Def have to re-enact old Hollywood films after accidentally wiping all the tapes in a rental shop. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon cut his teeth directing episodes of Glee and American Horror Story; while his character construction is a welcome departure from Ryan Murphy and his ilk, he shares with Murphy a deep love for cinema and an intrinsic understanding of how genre works. The enthusiasm between Greg and Earl as they create their little bits of cinema feels genuine because it reflects the director's own passion, without any of the artificiality that J. J. Abrams displayed on Super 8.

By making filmmaking such a focal point of the story - or at least, such a prominent means of moving the plot forward - Gomez-Rejon makes a point about just how emotionally powerful storytelling and narrative memory can be. He may essentially be paraphrasing or pastiching Cinema Paradiso in this regard; the sequence before Rachel falls into a coma uncannily follows the beats in the final twenty minutes of Giuseppe Tornatore's work. But he does it very well, bringing emotional warmth and believability to what in other hands could be an exercise in total indulgence.

One of the criticisms of Me and Earl has been that the film uses the illness of its female character to tell a very male story. Max Weiss, writing in Baltimore Magazine, summed up her review by saying: "Rachel's dying isn't really about Rachel at all. It's about Greg. In fact, everything that happens in the film is about Greg." You would certainly find its hard to argue that Greg isn't the central protagonist, or that his arc is the one which develops the most over the course of the film - the clue, after all, is in the title. But Rachel doesn't get completely short-changed in the way that Zooey Deschanel did in (500 Days of) Summer; she's still a well-written character whose actions are more than mere plot machinations.

What you get with Me and Earl is a handful of teenage relationships which are driven by an inability to communicate in a meaningful way. Greg and Earl work on their films because it is the only means they have of expressing their feelings towards each other; it is an adolescent form of engagement, which Earl grows out of by the end of the film, with their friendship endings as their means of communication is removed. Their confrontation towards the end of the film is a tearing down of emotional walls, releasing anger and compassion that neither character entirely knew that they were capable of feeling.

Equally, Greg's distance from Rachel is not just temporal, it is emotional; he cannot comprehend the right thing to say with confronted by something so serious, because pretending and being flippant is all he knows. Rachel has agency here too, having to deal with her illness in a way which is stoical while still true to who she really is. Their companionship, which blends sympathy and a sense of distance, is very touching, and the more time we spend with them the more we find ourselves enjoying their company, even amongst the odd line or action which causes us to roll our eyes in derision.

This awkwardness, reluctance and inability to either reach out or break through emotionally has been a feature of coming-of-age and counter-cultural filmmaking for decades. Me and Earl may not be the most groundbreaking film in its treatment of this condition of modern youth, but it is among the more honest and naturalistic offerings in this field. Its teenagers feel like real teenagers, and the moments in which they irritate older viewers (like myself) is in a way testament to the strength of their characterisation. This is not a film full of sanitised, model teenagers played by people in their 30s - it's a film made to resonate with people the age of its protagonists, at least in its approach to their interaction.

Where Me and Earl begins to score points in a more universal fashion is in its treatment of Rachel's illness. It isn't a Hollywood treatment of illness, with all the edges taken off, but neither does it try to be edgy or radical by shoving her symptoms down our throats in a desperate bid to induce empathy through shock. Like Julianne Moore's character in Still Alice, Rachel deteriorates gradually and at her own pace, so that all the down turns feel authentically sad and the brief moments of hope and life are all the more radiant. The make-up work is excellent given the film's relatively low budget of $8m, and the lighting is sensitive without telegraphing anything to the audience.

The other nice touch to the film is the role of the adults, who are just as emotionally inept as their offspring if not sometimes slightly worse. The spectre of Wes Anderson loom large over this portion of the film too; it's a similar pre-conception to that which he employed with some success in Moonrise Kingdom. But while Anderson used it as the basis for an off-puttingly clinical study of his characters, Gomez-Rejon uses it to promote what good qualities his young leads have. The way that all the adults seem either apathetic towards the kids' plight or dealing with it in all the wrong ways pushes us towards Greg, Earl and Rachel, if nothing else to give us comfort that we may deal with a similar situation in a better fashion.

There are a couple of issues with the film, besides its snarky opening, which prevent from being a total success. While the central three characters are believable, many of the high school scenes feel like the director settling for convention; they don't play an enormous role in the film, and you get the impression that Gomez-Rejon was happy filling them with stereotypes if it meant he could get them done and dusted more quickly. The subplot regarding Greg's college application also feels a little redundant; it adds a secondary character objective where it is unneeded and unwanted, and its resolution is far too neat.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a tender and charming independent effort which overcomes its irritating opening to leave us genuinely moved. Gomez-Rejon directs assuredly, balancing his life of his chosen art form with a desire to keep the characters at the centre, and he is ably complimented by a trio of good performances from his three leads. It isn't as good as Still Alice, and much of it is rooted in very familiar territory, but as an antidote to Hollywood's continuing attitude to illness, it is a very welcome offering.

The Untouchables
6 months ago via Flixster

Hollywood has always loved outlaws, from Billy the Kid to Bonnie and Clyde, and the outlaws that it has most consistently loved are gangsters. Gangsters tick all the boxes for classic Hollywood antagonists: they're stylish, dangerous, well-spoken, they combine history and nostalgia for the 'good old days' in the old country with weapons and schemes that are quintessentially modern. Quentin Tarantino was right when he called gangster films "parodies of the American dream": they hold up a mirror to American society and its ideals, letting it either question its very foundations or revel in its dark underbelly.

It's ironic, therefore, that despite decades of trying, Hollywood has never really done justice to Al Capone. Numerous directors have tried, including trash maestro Roger Corman, but Capone has always worked best as an incidental character in other people's stories. The Untouchables may enjoy a better reputation that Corman's work, thanks in part to Sean Connery's preposterous Oscar win. But it's still an immensely flawed beast which is watchable and empty in equal measure.

Part of the reason for the lack of a definitive on-screen Capone may because he has become the cliché of the Hollywood gangster. When Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat were creating Sherlock, they deliberately steered away from making their version of Moriarty identical to those in the original stories; they reasoned that, since he was the first supervillain, to whom every subsequent supervillain owes a debt, he had become the cliché and wouldn't scare audiences as he originally had done. Capone, the argument goes, has become a caricature, a parody of what American gangsterism means, so that any attempt to present him seriously could be unintentionally risible.

If we buy this line of reasoning, one of the greatest failings of The Untouchables is that it fails to deal with this problem. Casting Robert de Niro may have seemed like a no-brainer, given his brilliance in The Godfather Part II as the younger Don Corleone. But the part came at a time when de Niro was tired of playing gangsters, and had sought to diversify his portfolio through roles in Brazil and The Mission. What we get feels like a bizarre self-parody of de Niro's past roles, complete with his trademark repetition of lines - the 'I wan' 'im dead!" rant after the border raid stands in for the famous "are you talkin' to me?" speech in Taxi Driver.

De Niro's creative decisions aside, this is also partially down to David Mamet's screenplay, which is muddled and conflicted. The film cannot decide whether it wants to be a style-over-substance, silly gangster film, with all the stock characters and plenty of shoot-outs, or a serious drama about having to go above and beyond the law to bring someone to justice. De Niro is indulged during his scenes and comes across as more comical than threatening, with the score telegraphing to the audience how to feel in the baseball bat scene. When he's not on screen, Mamet tries to make things more macho, but here he is undone by another bad performance: Kevin Costner.

While de Niro is coasting (and Connery is largely playing himself), Costner is the dictionary definition of trying too hard. His critics like to assume that he became overly serious as a result of the Oscar success of Dances with Wolves, but the truth is that he's always been a wooden and limited actor. His performance as Eliot Ness is drab and dreary, having neither the presence nor the moral ambiguity of, say, Gene Hackman in The French Connection, which is what the role calls for. He spends the whole film with one facial expression (somewhere between bored and "but my Dad thinks I'm good"), and his line readings are flat and unconvincing. In the words of Sheila Benson, writing in The Los Angeles Times, "to Mamet and De Palma, goodness and dullness seem inseparable."

Admittedly, however, not all of The Untouchables' failings can be pinned on Mamet, Costner or de Niro. Some of the blame must lie with Brian De Palma, whose work from Scarface onwards is an emphatic case of style over substance. Where Martin Scorsese or William Friedkin would have properly marshalled their actors, building an intensity with the characters first and foremost, De Palma always seems more concerned with constructing incredibly stylish death scenes or paying homage to his favourite directors. Tipping one's hat to Battleship Potemkin does not in itself make the train station showdown exciting, and the use of slow-motion is less effective at building tension than the quiet minutes leading up to it.

Throughout his career, De Palma has always been fascinated by death; he likes putting his characters through the mill, as his idol Alfred Hitchcock did before him, and staging beautiful demises for them complete with razor blades, guns and plenty of stage blood. The train station offers a lot in this regard, with carefully positioned squibs, broken glass and blood practically oozing from henchman's mouths.

But the ne plus ultra of this is the gunning down of Malone, which is every bit as drawn out and ridiculous as Alan Rickman's pantomime death scene in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves four years later. We start with a protracted nod to Hallowe'en in the use of first-person steadicam, and end with one of the most contrived farewells of two characters in Hollywood history; no man, riddled with that many machine gun bullets, could have survived that long, let alone been in a position to relay such a vital detail.

In amongst all this indulgence and over-abundance of style, there are a number of qualities which make The Untouchables watchable. The first and biggest of these is the historical quirk of how Capone was caught, through tax evasion. The film does lose focus from time to time, particularly in the scenes with a high body count, but we do keep coming back to the theme of how the smallest error or indiscretion can lead to a person's downfall - something that's as true of Capone as it is of the police officers who allowed Frank Nitti to infiltrate their ranks.

The most interesting characters in The Untouchables are the minor players on both sides of the divide. Charles Martin Smith (who was very good in Starman) deftly conveys someone who is out of his depth but driven by the need to do good, turning his own skills to the advantage of the team. Andy Garcia's character is a little underwritten, but he takes what chances he can to portray a hot-head trying to turn his life around - ample preparation for his later role in The Godfather Part III. And Billy Drago, as a heavily fictionalised Frank Nitti, is one of the coolest, most underrated villains of the 1980s. Not only does he look tremendous, but his icy demeanour and playful sense of humour make his evildoing for Capone resonate all the more (his death, on the other hand, is riddled with disappointing wire work).

The Untouchables is a watchable but ultimately empty experience which has neither the substance nor the discipline of De Palma at his best. Lumbered by a problematic script and unintentionally silly performances by its main leads, it provides just enough drama to keep an audience interested while never getting to grips with its subject matter in a sufficiently deep manner. There are many Oscar-winning films which are far, far worse, but there's very little about this film which is truly untouchable.

Kingsman: The Secret Service
6 months ago via Flixster

When reviewing Burn After Reading in 2008, Mark Kermode theorised that the Coen Brothers had a bizarre dichotomy in their filmography between their genuinely great works (like Blood Simple, Barton Fink and No Country for Old Men) and their overly quirky misfires (such as The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou? and their remake of The Ladykillers). He opined during his appearance on BBC Radio 5Live that "throughout their career, whenever they do something great, they kind of have to go on the back foot and do something fairly lame in order to loosen up afterwards."

It isn't hard to see a similar see-saw effect at play in the career of Matthew Vaughn, who has emerged from the shadows of being Guy Ritchie's producer-of-choice to become a well-regarded filmmaker in his own right. His career post-Ritchie is a veritable oscillation between the outré, bad taste-driven comic book escapades of Layer Cake and Kick-Ass and his somewhat more well-behaved dramatic work on Stardust and X-Men: First Class. Kingsman: The Secret Service sees him trying to recapture the energy and innovation that Kick-Ass had in such rich volumes, and while not all of it works, it is a genuinely entertaining spectacle.

Reuniting Vaughn with comic book creator Mark Millar was a smart move, since both men have essentially built their careers on not giving a damn what anyone else thinks. Both share a love of over-the-top screen violence and a desire to properly interpret comics and graphic novels on screen in the most kinetic way possible. Whatever else may be true of Kingsman (as it shall hereafter be called), it never feels like a product of compromise, or lumbered by needless Hollywood convention in the way that Wanted was. You may not like the finished results in their entirety, but you have to give the filmmakers credit for sticking to their guns in what can be a very unforgiving industry.

For fans of Kick-Ass, Kingsman's visual sensibility will seem very familiar. It takes the juxtaposition of high-end comic book action and the often underwhelming reality of modern life and puts them in a distinctly British environment. Colin Firth's cut-glass accent and immaculate dress sense are the privileged, secretive and gentlemanly elite, tasked with training up Eggsy, the chavvy, carefree and largely directionless embodiment of the working class. Their relationship, like My Fair Lady with knuckle dusters, treads a fine line between parodying the class war dynamic and simply putting it in a fancy suit, but the script is just about strong enough to make it feel believable despite the familiar territory.

There are dozens of films which revolve around the concept of secret spy organisations or conspiratorial networks which are tasked with protecting humanity or enacting some sinister plan. These range greatly in quality, from the light-hearted, family friendly action of Spy Kids to the tedium of The Da Vinci Code or the utter contempt of The Ninth Gate. Kingsman's main argument for wading through this familiar water again seems to be two-fold; it has visual flair to spare, and it has the confidence to take the piss out of anything it likes regardless of whether it will get away with it.

If you try and read into the King Arthur symbolism in the character names and relationships, as you might with A Royal Affair, then you will very quickly draw a blank. Vaughn and Millar did not call Mark Strong's character Merlin to argue that the Bond series can trace its character dynamics back to Thomas Mallory, any more than the Kingsmen's origins in the aftermath of the First World War is meant to be seen as something portentous or historic. Such decisions are a combination of plot convenience (e.g. having rich founders explains why you can afford all this equipment) and to add an air of respectability to proceedings. This is a very British film, after all; being a private investigator or private military company would just be vulgar, darling.

The main reference point in Kingsman, unsurprisingly, is the Bond series. Given the direction in which the franchise has proceeded since Casino Royale, it's both convenient and coherent to believe that Vaughn's intention here was to make an old-school Bond film with modern technology and shooting styles. He borrows all the bits of Bond that he likes - the explosions, the talkative villains, the gadgets and the hero getting the girl at the end - but doesn't follow the visual grammar of the series as it stands now. Instead of grimly focussing on his hero's face and trying to weave in subtext, as both Martin Campbell and Sam Mendes have attempted, Vaughn gives us kinetic battle scenes which are impeccably choreographed, bookended by dialogue which is both postmodern and shamelessly old-fashioned.

It's not just the aesthetic of Kingsman which betrays that effective, if decidedly teenage, Bond fantasy. Valentine's plan to cull the human race, leaving alive only those whom he deems worthy, is only a hop, skip and a jump from Drax's plans for a new Ayran race in Moonraker. The climactic battle borrows heavily from You Only Live Twice and A View to a Kill, while the training with the parachutes nods clearly back to The Spy Who Loved Me. Other references are more sci-fi orientated, with the exploding heads being Scanners with jokes, and the SIM cards plot device being similar to the reinvented Cybermen from Doctor Who, in the two-parter 'Rise of the Cybermen' and 'The Age of Steel'.

These two examples point to both the biggest strength and the biggest weakness of Kingsman as a film. Its biggest strength, which it sustains all the way through, is the sheer brio with which it goes about its business and the striking quality of its set-pieces. The massacre in the church, in which Firth polishes off an entire, rage-driven congregation to the sound of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Freebird, is an absolute riot. It manages to sustain its substance - the idea that even the best people could be turned into monsters by the tiniest change in their brain - while giving us more inventive deaths than Quentin Tarantino has managed in a decade, and with a pace and sense of humour that only the climax of Hot Fuzz could hope to match.

Its biggest weakness, however, lies in that phrase "with jokes". At its most basic, the film is essentially taking a lot of plot points, character arcs and visual decisions from other, more straight-laced films and playing them for laughs. That would be fine if the film was an out-and-out parody like Airplane!, where even the most likeable characters are a self-acknowledged joke; we rooted for Ted Striker in that film while never being asked to take him seriously. But the more the film wears on and the more it wallows in its adolescent spectacle, the most frustrating and insufferable it becomes.

It may seem churlish, even absurd, to criticise a film which is billed at least in part as a comedy for not being serious enough. But constantly desiring to make a joke about something does not mean that one can abandon all internal logic. The best comedies, whether about spying or anything more grounded, always maintain a balance between the integrity of their structure and the content at which they are poking fun. Kingsman is a funny film, but it increasingly becomes a film which indulges its desire to make you laugh at the expense of desiring to make sense. It even goes after soft targets, just like Borat did: would Vaughn have dared to show Firth massacring a mosque full of Muslims, or a temple full of Jews?

Even in the most ridiculous Bond films - think the later Roger Moore efforts, or the worst points of Pierce Brosnan's tenure - there was always tried-and-tested convention to fall back on, a series of narrative beats which the audience could recognise. Die Another Day may still be a terrible film, but at least it is structured in a manner which makes it predictably terrible. Kingsman begins solidly and gradually flails around until it decides to end by blowing everything up (and an utterly pointless anal sex joke, which was cut from some versions).

The other fly in the ointment with Kingsman is its sexual politics. Since we are in Bond territory we do not expect equality on a plate, but given how Vaughn and Millar worked hard to give Hit-Girl agency in Kick-Ass, this is definitely a climb-down from their best work. Aside from Roxy, all of the female characters in this film are either helpless and pitiful (Eggsy's mum), cannon fodder (the congregation and Gazelle) or sex objects (Princess Tilde). You almost get the sense, given her Mary Sue-like qualities, that Vaughn was reluctant to include Roxy in too many scenes, lest she spoil this boys-own adventure.

Kingsman: The Secret Service is an enjoyable and visually spectacular film which is at once a throwback to a less-PC time and a thoroughly contemporary confection. It isn't by any means Vaughn's finest hour, lacking the narrative structure and discipline of his best work, and its character decisions and politics are likely to test the patience of anyone other than a teenage boy. But as a refreshing burst of bad taste in a genre that these days is often far too well-behaved, it's hard not to be entertained by it, at least for a short while.

The Departed
The Departed (2006)
7 months ago via Flixster

One of the many effects of winning an Oscar is that the person or film in question is tied indelibly to that achievement. For some actors or directors, the Academy Award can be a curse, a moment of brief and fleeting glory which their careers never recapture. If Michael Cimino hadn't won five Oscars for The Deer Hunter, fewer people would have had so much riding on the success of Heaven's Gate, and Hollywood could be a very different place.

The Departed is another example of a film whose award-winning reputation has overshadowed whatever qualities it may possess (though, unlike The Deer Hunter, there are many qualities of which to speak). Nobody who cares about film would deny that Martin Scorsese deserves the Academy's recognition for his body of work, and there are many that about The Departed which are worthy of praise. But set against both the film that inspired it and other films in Scorsese's oeuvre, one can't help but feel that the Oscar decision was motivated by a need to atone for not awarding it to better films he made in the past.

Taken purely as an English language remake of a foreign language film, The Departed comes close to the benchmark set by Christopher Nolan's Insomnia four years earlier. It takes the central dynamic of Infernal Affairs (the cop infiltrating the mob and vice versa) and successfully relocates it from Hong Kong to Boston. While the surroundings may have been Americanised, this doesn't feel like a dumbed-down mainstream remake, like the terrible American version of The Vanishing. It still feels like a Scorsese film, and Scorsese has respectfully recreated all of the murky intrigue of the original plot while the different acts play out in a more familiar setting.

In fact, The Departed is so much a Scorsese film that it often feels like a self-pastiche. All of the normal Marty trademarks are there: a pop music soundtrack, in which the choice of music often surprises and wrong-foots you; the affectionate nods to classic Hollywood films; a wide variety of intense and inventive camera angles; a kinetic yet measured editing approach; and a range of distinctive characters. It may simply be a consequence of how embraced and widely imitated Scorsese has become as a filmmaker, but these characteristics are so much at the forefront of the film that it can feel like he's treading water.

There are a couple of other indications that this film is Scorsese-lite - namely that the director is having fun without endlessly pushing the envelope like he did at his peak. The first is that the performances are much bigger, not to say riper, than he would have allowed in the likes of Goodfellas or Mean Streets. Jack Nicholson is allowed to chew the scenery in a way that he hasn't done in a serious film since The Shining; he takes William Monahan's script and turns Frank Costello into a grotesque, slug-like tyrant, somewhere between a Roman Emperor and Jabba the Hut. It's still an eye-catching performance, but you're always aware of how much room he has been given and how loose some of his scenes can feel.

The other indication is that The Departed feels much more of a procedural film than either Infernal Affairs or other similar films that Scorsese has made. Infernal Affairs had a metaphysical quality to it; the original title literally translates to "unceasing path", a reference to Avici, the lowest level of Buddhist hell, in which those present endure incessant torment and suffering. Directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak created an all-pervading sense of the two main characters constantly questioning their purpose, their decisions and what awaited them when it was all over. The existential questioning both provided depth and ended up driving a fair amount of the plot.

That's not to say The Departed is shallow or empty-headed, any more than procedural TV shows like Dragnet and NCIS are inherently inferior to more suspense-driven thrillers. The set-pieces are still exciting and well-structured, and Scorsese deserves credit for keeping the characters as central to said set-pieces as possible. But there's less of an emphasis on building atmosphere as an accompaniment to the plot, as there is in Chinatown or Angel Heart, and much more of an emphasis in watching all the pieces fit together like a Swiss watch.

Once you strip away the generic conventions and the Scorsese visual grammar, The Departed is fundamentally a film about dysfunctional families and father-son relationships. Sullivan's use of 'Dad' when talking to Costello (seeing him as a father figure, just as Henry Hill viewed Paulie) is mirrored by the lack of an upstanding father figure in Costigan's life. These are all characters who are staring into the abyss, doing what they can and trying to fill the void with whatever works at the time, whether it's women, power or simply getting one over on their enemies.

The very best scene in The Departed is also one of the least heated, featuring as it does none of the Costello-driven violence and no ear-bleeding, David Mamet-esque profanity at the hands of Sean Dignam (Mark Wahlberg in a good performance). It comes in the second half when the respective rats - played by Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio - speak to each other on the phone as their efforts to find the mole in each other's organisations begins to take hold. The initial conversation, which is wordless, is thoroughly well-played, and the follow-up is tense and loaded. Like the Billy Bats trunk scene at the start of Goodfellas, this is the point at which everything changes for the characters, and the subsequent reveal involving the envelope is executed fantastically well.

One of the main changes that Scorsese and Monahan chose to make from the original was to amalgamate the love interests for both Sullivan and Costigan. Given the course of these two characters, it is difficult to see how the filmmakers would have found the time to properly establish two meaningful romantic relationships. But if we accept this, surely the solution would be to simply take the romance out of the equation altogether, rather than creating a compromise character which makes things seem needlessly contrived.

Vera Farmiga is a fine actress, as her subsequent work in Source Code confirms. There is nothing wrong with wanting to give screen time to female characters in what is traditionally a male-dominated genre, and there is an argument for combining the two love interests to make a point about the two leads sharing some form of humanity outside of their allegiances. But as a result of having to fulfil two purposes within the plot, she is given less room to work with and ends up badly written. We are asked to believe that someone in her position could be completely oblivious to what is going on, and given her characterisation that simply doesn't wash.

The Departed is a gripping and engaging thriller which is entertaining in the moment while falling some way short of the best that Scorsese has to offer. It's hard to argue that it deserved the Oscar over many of his earlier works, but taken on its own merits it's a well-oiled, nicely-plotted piece of work and, alongside The Aviator, represents a partial return to form following the flabbiness of Gangs of New York. While it isn't the finest hour for any of its participants, it's easily deserving of your time.

When We Were Kings
7 months ago via Flixster

When you're making a film about an iconic figure, it's very easy to get caught up in the mythology of the person in question and lose sight of the real figure at the heart of the story. This becomes all the more impossible when that figure is Muhammad Ali, whose impact on the sport of boxing is matched only by his political reputation. It is impossible to write the history of America without at least devoting a chapter to Ali, but equally we have every right to ask whether he truly deserves the pedestal society has given him - or at least, whether he deserves one quite so tall.

When We Were Kings is an admirable attempt to document Ali at the moment of what is arguably his greatest triumph - his comeback against George Foreman in 1974, in what was christened 'the Rumble in the Jungle'. If Entertainment Weekly is to be believed, it took director Leon Gast 22 years to finance, shoot and edit the finished film, which went on to win the Best Documentary Oscar in 1996. But just as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is often more interested in guilt and cultural ennui than it is about actual spying, so Gast's film about boxing has less of the sport in it than you may expect, something which is both its most unique quality and its Achilles heel.

The first telling sign of Gast's true intentions lies in his choice of contributors. While a more conventional boxing documentary would have interviewed the two pugilists and their close associates (whether they be family, friends, trainers or whatever), Gast's cast of talking heads consists primarily of journalists and other cultural commentators, like filmmaker Spike Lee and The Village Voice co-founder Norman Mailer. By giving us a vicarious experience of the fight and its build-up, Gast is trying to avoid the trap of just letting the main players reiterate their self-aggrandising soundbites, and for the most part it works really well.

For people of my age, who grew up with the likes of Senna and the later, better works of Julien Temple, Gast's approach with regard to talking heads may come across as rather old-fashioned. But it avoids being televisual, thanks in part to his shooting style and the way in which he frames his speakers, often putting them in middle distance from the frame to convey a sense of perspective, rather than in an aggressive close-up. Mailer particularly benefits from this stylistic choice; you understand from his body language how passionate he is about his subject matter, to an extent that you would never get just from looking at his face and hearing him talk.

What becomes clear very quickly with When We Were Kings is that Gast is just as interested in the culture and politics surrounding the Rumble in the Jungle as he is in the actual fight. Much of the build-up concerns itself with the unstable political climate of Zaire and the unsavoury dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seke, with Mailer sharing a particularly forthright anecdote about the murder of criminals. Just like 'The Thriller in Manila' a year afterwards, the staging of the Rumble in the Jungle is one of two fighters with varying principles at war with each other against a backdrop of poverty and political corruption; money talked to make the fight happen, but once they enter the ring, their honour is the main thing on the line.

The film is also interested in the music of the era, including the cavalcade of musicians which played at the so-called 'Black Woodstock' festival which took place alongside the fight. We get some enjoyable clips of James Brown, B. B. King and others in their respective primes, and it's difficult not to be swept up in the atmosphere of the event. If nothing else, the abundance of this footage, together with the clips of African drummers and dancers, make us feel rooted in the build-up; we soak in our surroundings, and though we are never anything but tourists, we are not manipulated and sold a dummy version of what 1970s Africa was like.

The problem with having so much of this footage, entertaining and enjoyable as it doubtless is, is that the film becomes less focussed of the story in favour of wallowing in the atmosphere. Building up a palpable sense of tension in a thriller is a hard thing to do, but once you have it, it has to pay off in a satisfying way, and the same rules apply to documentaries. Having worked really hard to culturally and historically situate the fight, the film takes a surprisingly long time to get to the first punch being thrown, and the more footage of Ali and Foreman that we get before this point, the more restless and itchy we become.

When Alfred Hitchcock was interviewed by Dick Cavett in 1972, he expressed regret about a scene in Sabotage in which a young boy carries a bomb onto a bus and is blown up by it. Hitchcock described his decision to let the bomb go off (rather than be found and disposed of) as "a terrible mistake" - not because it involved the death of a child, but because he had put his audience "through the mill" and not given them the relief they needed. While the parallel is far from exact, it reflects the main issue with When We Were Kings; instead of getting to the boxing sooner rather than later - something which newcomers would rationally expect - we get a lot of (albeit pleasant) shoe-leather and not enough analysis of the fight itself.

The other effect of situating us so deep within the context of the fight - to the point where it is almost hypnotic - is that we get swept up in the mythology and mystique of Ali without getting an explanation to it. It is edifying to see Ali appealing to the common humanity of Africans and African-Americans, and to see people drawn towards him as a figure. But what we don't get enough of us is the ugly side of Ali - the same person who claimed to unite Africa would also stoop to calling Joe Frazier a gorilla just 12 months later.

It may simply be a factor of my background - as a white, lower-middle-class, British male born in the late-1980s - that I will never appreciate the real impact that Ali had within black culture. It's easy to resort to platitudes, particularly since his passing, and given the broad spectrum of people he has influenced, it would be difficult for any one film to convey his legacy. When We Were Kings made the right decision of focussing on one event and using it as a microcosm to analyse the man; however, you leave the experience admiring the man but with niggling doubts as to why you admire him, or whether that admiration is fully deserved. That may be a failure of mine, but it is also a failure of the film for not pulling in complete novices like myself.

Once we do actually get to the fight, Gast's talking heads hit their stride and we begin to get the level of technical and critical insight which we had expected all along. Mailer's account of the fight is excellent, from his description of Ali's dressing room ("it was like a morgue") to his analysis of Ali throwing right-hand leads to Foreman, and the connotations therein. The fight footage is framed intelligently and the denouement is fitting; if nothing else, it knocks the re-enactment of the fight from Michael Mann's Ali out of the ring and into a cocked hat.

When We Were Kings is an absorbing and intriguing documentary which is dripping with cultural context but sadly a little too light on insight. As a time capsule of the 1970s in general and of this particular era in boxing, the film is little short of brilliant. But as an attempt at deconstruction of a myth - whether Ali's or Foreman's - it doesn't go deep enough, and may leave newcomers to the sport slightly baffled. As an introduction to Ali's mystique, it's definitely worth your time; just don't expect to come out with more answers than questions.