Saturday, 29 May 2010

4321: Review

Following the release of 2006's Kidulthood, cinema mythology recounts that writer, director, actor and all-round thesp Noel Clarke was summoned to a meeting where it was put to him that his female characters were 'unrealistic' and 'very negative'. Granted, it was hard to find many positive representations of indeed anyone in that grimy street-yarn, but Clarke was incensed all the same. Compelled into 'speaking to women', Clarke scripted an ambitious and heavily stylised adventure-thriller focusing on the individual and collective misadventures of four young, aggressively empowered female friends. It's a whirlwind ride, flitting between London and New York as the girls get caught in the midst of an international diamond heist. The pace is relentless from the off and an expressive edit maintains this dirvish- but 4321 is ultimately a triumph of style over an appalling lack of substance.

Throughout each of their three days, our four leads experience all manners of impediments: back-story sourced from family issues, self-esteem, boyfriends and depression. Explication is a slow burn- due to the film's 'split-narrative' structure: four simultaneous accounts of each girl's story. As such, 4321 is content for ambiguity to enshrine it's character's motivations until it's narrative climax rounds these distinct threads together. Cassandra (Tamsin Egerton), a glamorous and suitably wealthy pianist, flies to the Big Apple in search of both entrance to a prestigious musical academy and (of far greater import) a mystery internet boyfriend. Shannon, portrayed by the smouldering Ophelia Lovibond, is a exercise in perpetual indie-angst, bearing the brunt of her parent's divorce. Kerrys (newcomer Shanika Warren-Markland) is a feisty and empowered sapphic with street-smarts and guile, but an overbearing family. Finally, Joanne (Emma Roberts) is a unassuming but 'take no shit' American ex-pat forced to begrudgingly wile her life away behind the tills in a convenience store co-managed by Tee (Clarke). You might have guessed: Clarke indulging that same 'sup blud?' line in British "Boyz N the hood" gangsta that he seemingly revels in.

Besides the seeming improbability of these four girls from totally disparate backgrounds and cultures finding common ground and striking up close bonds, there's more than a hint of unrealism both in the construction of their characters and in their respective portrayals. With exception of Lovibond (who could teach Twilight's Kristen Stewart a thing or two about pent-up trauma), the acting on display is deeply inexpressive. But Egerton looks fantastic as Cassandra and makes no bones in getting her kit off for a wonderfully voyeuristic camera (at the same time, masterfully, as the film offers a critique of voyeurism). Indeed, 4321 resonates with sex appeal- the pumping soundtrack and heavy edit complement both the casting and cinematography. Perhaps the whirlwind pace of the film's edit contributes, but little time is allowed for resonance to set in. In one particularly troublesome scene, Cassandra comes-to after being drugged in New York, her possessions stolen- and there is the briefest of instants between her tears welling up and her embarking for vengeance. Other films may portray similar scenarios with more sensitivity and grace; in 4321, Cassandra 'deals' by tying her tormentors to a post and kicking them between the legs. It's a literal kind of empowerment at best, most adeptly served through physical retribution. When characters falter, it's simply down to their naivity. And after overcoming adversity, it's all high fives for the girls.

If 4321 is Clarke's attempt at writing for women, it's a profoundly masculine perspective. From its glib recounting of secret abortions (used merely as a plot device) to steamy lesbian sex scenes (made for the DVD 'skip scene' button), there is a real danger that these four girls are merely caricatures spurred on by single moments which are, in Clarke's view, inherent to 'The Female Condition'. To pick out one example, it's a mystery how Shannon goes from one scene in which she very beautifully graffitis a touching ode to her aborted child, to then unthinkingly chasing the affections of a noteworthy playa (think N-Dubz Dappy). These two moments, frankly, just don't add up- and sadly leave each character feeling disappointingly one-dimensional. There's enough detail inherent in these characters to merit more reflective portrayals, yet 4321 skims the surface. "Oh, damn- you had an abortion? Riiiight, I get it now".

Similarly, whilst the narrative arcs around an ambitious format (that four-strain overlapping narrative split) and attempts to carry it through with well-edited montages which recount each girl's 3 days before moving on to the next- it's a fairly damp squib when one considers the implausibility of the plot itself. This narrative style, if nothing else, is a way of drawing intrigue into a story where little exists. However, rather than offering the kind of postmodern storytelling made hip by Christopher Nolan's Memento, Noel Clarke here provides nonlinearity for the Hollyoaks generation. It's not that Clarke holds back story elements for the sake of plot, rather that the film's narrative technique justifies itself by holding these facts back. This is a catch 22 situation where insistence on editing style has acheived greater prominence than finding the best way of telling a story: sadly reminiscent of Kiera Knightley's post-production wetdream Domino. Whereas classic nonlinear films like The Usual Suspects hold out it's big reveal after asking an initial question (who is Kaiser Soze?) and offer limitless re-viewing potential (embedded clues!), 4321 merely exhausts you by it's conclusion.

4321 is then, a quite remarkable film, despite- perhaps because of- it's vapid unremarkable-ness. Aspiring to create a stylish and zeitgeisty piece of contemporary British cinema, Clarke has instead created the polar opposite: a tragically missed opportunity for him to write compelling female leads. A patronisingly comic storyline with worryingly lifeless caricatures- the whole thing carried forward by insistence on style for style's sake, the director seemingly convinced of both the film's authenticity to it's subject and it's relevance and importance in a wider cultural context. 4321 deals with serious issues with all the profundity of a Skins episode. Whilst it may provide light entertainment, a few giggles (the rolling news graphic that Chelsea FC had been liquidated) and keep your interest up much in the same way sitting in front of E4 on a Sunday morning would- it's an ultimately tiring journey that doesn't go anywhere you hadn't been before.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Bad Lieutenant Port of Call New Orleans: Review

With his latest foray into dramatic storytelling, Werner Herzog seems intent on both insulting tradition and confounding expectation. Port of Call is, in essence, a narrative refranchising of the cult 1991 Abel Ferrara movie Bad Lieutenant; a guilt-trip in which Harvey Keitel's morally bankrupt policeman indulges most of the film by destroying his own humanity against a backdrop of Catholic imagery. Herzog's reimagining has irked many- Ferrara included, exclaiming that "It's like when you get robbed. It's just a horrible feeling and I don't understand why they would do it" - but perceived intellectual piracy aside, there is a great deal that is original and distinct about Port of Call.

This is a reimagining, rather than retelling- in the vein that one James Bond film does not replace a previous- instead, you take that central character and immerse them in new situations. With a degree of arrogance, Herzog claims not to have even seen the original. But rather than merely shifting the incidentals (Port of Call is set in a Katrina-stricken New Orleans, rather than Ferrara's New York) Herzog offers a tonally distinct Bad Lieutenant- and whilst the 1991 original can be considered a somewhat morbid portrayal of moral denigration, Herzog presents here a black comedy of some considerable whimsy.

In the role of our bad lieutenant, Terrence McDonagh- Nicolas Cage is a revelation. Following his award winning turn in 2002's Adaptation, you could argue that Cage made some bad decisions and was thrown into thesp's wilderness. The abysmal Wicker Man remake compounded the perception of Cage as a cult joke: comically overacting and doomed to be typecast in 2nd rate thrillers. But Cage is back and more himself than ever; last year's criminally underrated sci-fi opus Knowing and his star turn in surprise-film-of-the-year candidate Kick-Ass proudly showing off all that make Cage an uniquely engrossing force. Port of Call is a foil upon which his neurosis are allowed to shine, a script seemingly deigned for his rendition. McDonagh is one corrupt murder po-lice; hopelessly addicted to gambling, drugs, sex and violence: It's hard to imagine anyone else filling this role so adeptly.

Port of Call ambles through it's 2 hours with pace and intensity, never losing momentum or direction. It's comic overtones are reminiscent of the Coen brothers work, but rather than derive humour from plot- Herzog here employs character as the focus. Like much of Herzog's dramatic work, Port of Call works through the exposition of character. This is especially evident in the director's infamous and fraught collaborations with actor Klaus Kinski; a relationship that Cage is quick to allude to. As Herzog instilled in Cage throughout shooting, McDonagh exists through and revels in 'the bliss of evil'. The relationship between director and actor is never more apparent than in the scenes where Cage is given reign to fly off the handle and improvise. In one scene (no doubt to be revered in the expanding Herzog mythology), Cage unexpectedly pulls a gun on two elderly women and treats them to an ad-libbed shower of expletives. They were genuinely frightened.

It's this taught relationship between comedy and repulsion along which the central performance is posited. Although the film is overtly comedic in places, dialogue and situation combining to revel in the absurd (a masterfully surreal scene in which a whacked-out McDonagh hallucinates crooning iguanas at a crime scene comes to mind) - Cage was careful not to fetishise or glamourise the protagonist's indulgences. Extensive research into addict's tics (lip smacking, fast talking, poor attention spans, slurred speech) empowered Cage to portray the ugliness of rampant smack, coke and crack addictions- but this is in no way a treatise on drug-use. McDonagh is a maverick, a grotesque joker that, whether you like him or not, gets results. The pervasive horror of his descent is instilled as much to round his character with a sense of realism as it is to provide by-turns comedy. Much in the same way that Chris Morris' Four Lions employs absurdity to hack at the truth of the matter, Cage's over-the-top performance works in favour of a profound realism.

I found it hard to hold any firm expectations before seeing Port of Call. The combination of cult director, enigmatic lead, the controversy surrounding the 1991 original, the choice of politically 'in-vogue' New Orleans as location- all seemed to contribute towards a sense that 'this is going to be great'. And, in truth- Port of Call doesn't disappoint. It's a deeply engrossing character-led film that shirks the moral quest of Ferrara's original in place of a realist black-humour that is as relentless as it is shocking, as impressive as it is pitiful. And while it's directed with all the grace and humanity that one would commonly associate with Werner Herzog, it is perhaps Nicolas Cage's finest hour.