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March 21, 2005

Dead Man's Shoes

2004.Britain.Meadows

3.0 / 4.0

Richard (Paddy Considine) returns to his quaint, English hometown after spending some time in the armed forces to take revenge on the local gang, lead by the fearsome Sonny (Gary Stretch), that tormented his brother (Toby Kebbell), in Shane Meadows’ bloody, British revenge fable.

And Dead Man’s Shoes is all about the ensuing mood. The characters, though well acted and distinguishable, aren’t terribly memorable and the plot is insufficient even for the film’s running time of less than ninety minutes. Judging by the surface, the film really shouldn’t be much better than the recent remake of Walking Tall starring The Rock. But it is.

Many critics single out Considine’s performance as the reason for this, but I disagree. For one, ex-boxer Stretch is more effective as a sleazy, tough villain than Considine as the reserved, quietly murderous Richard. And there isn’t enough credit given to Meadows, who sustains an almost unbearable tension through the film’s final hour.

However, the central reason that Dead Man’s Shoes not only works, but works well and packs the emotional wallop that it does is due to the script, co-written by Meadows and Considine, which wraps a predictable tale of revenge with layers of Christian symbolism and themes.

At one point, Richard drugs several of the gang members he set out to punish, and is toying with them when one looks him in the eyes and asks, “Jesus?” Richard shakes his head, but the question is meant to force the viewer to engage with the film’s religious aspect.

Dead Man’s Shoes is no less about Christ than Mel Gibson’s The Passion. It opens with Richard’s sombre statement of intent, “God will forgive them for what they have done, and he will allow them into heaven. I can't live with that,” and ends with a God-like point of view shot from the clouds accompanied by the sounds of a Church choir.

In Dead Man’s Shoes, Richard takes on the role of a vengeful God while his mentally challenged brother Anthony assumes the role of Christ.

The most striking connection between Anthony and Christ is made in a late scene in which Sonny’s gang mercilessly tortures Anthony near an abandoned farmhouse. Bringing to mind the suffering of Christ, the scene emphasises the belief that Christ chose, and was not forced, to die for the sins of humanity. There is even a Pontius Pilate figure, who has the power to stop the ordeal but does not.

Another similarity becomes apparent with a key revelation in the film. Although Anthony exhibits an appealing type of simplicity and grace from the beginning, Meadows grants him actual transcendence by the story’s conclusion. The many shots of Richard and Anthony walking through field and forest achieve a level spirituality.

As God, Richard is always distant from other characters in the film. He appears mainly to pass judgement on them, and the way in which he surprises and frightens his victims, those responsible for the “death of his son”, borders on the supernatural. He appears and disappears almost at will, and has an aura of invincibility. He doesn’t even flinch at the possibility of being shot. Juxtaposed with the exaggerated panic and fallibility of the gang members, Richard is cold and inhuman, but never entirely frightening. What Meadows stresses is Richard’s otherness.

The conclusion of Dead Man’s Shoes is interesting because it offers two endings. Without getting into details that would ruin the film, it is sufficient to say that one is entirely pessimistic and embroils us all in a terrible crime. The second, however, is quite the opposite. It offers comfort and redemption.

Dead Man’s Shoes is much more than its synopsis.

March 14, 2005

Rushmore

1998.USA.Anderson

3.0 / 4.0

Despite the flack that Wes Anderson frequently gets from unbelievers like me, at least he makes uniquely interesting films that bare the signature of their creator in nearly every respect. From common themes and motifs to a constant, quirky style, Anderson’s works make up a body of work that makes it possible and inviting to explore its components individually and as a group.

Unfortunately, Anderson hasn’t developed in the same way as other auteurs. His newest films aren’t his best, and his richest is still his sophomore effort Rushmore. Instead of building on, or even innovating, the style and content of that film, he has aped himself in The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The colourful cinematography and specific use of music in those films comes back to Rushmore, as does the Jacques Cousteau fascination that propels Life Aquatic and the relationship between father and sons that is key in Tenenbaums (and in Life Aquatic according to some).

Rushmore is the entire curve of Anderson’s career (so far), and each successive film merely a tangent.

By itself, the film stands as an entertaining, witty creation that has endeared itself to many film fans and critics. And while it has certainly outlived other comedies of 1998, such as Bulworth and Primary Colours, its reputation is overstated. Neither terribly affecting or poignant as a film aboutfirst love, friendship or growing old, or sharp enough to qualify as effective satire (like Alexander Payne’s 1999 Election), Rushmore is an odd nut to slice. Like its main character Max Fischer, the film is good at the extra curricular but falters at the basics. Max, for example, is a completely rounded character, with faults and virtues that make him at times despicable and at other times extremely loveable, and yet his relationship with Margaret is as unexplored as his relationship with Rosemary unresolved. His character is somewhat wasted as a result.

Anderson fills Rushmore with great moments that he can’t fashion into a great film. Luckily, the great characters and deadpan dialogue hold the better bits together, and the plot deals with enough serious material (Death, suicide, rape, Vietnam) to add just enough weight to balance the whimsy. Still, Rushmore is no masterpiece. It’s good and it may speak to people, but it’s also fuzzy and trivial.

March 01, 2005

The Aviator & The Hare

It's timely to be writing about The Aviator a few days after it was acknowledged but not significantly rewarded by the annual Academy Awards. Dodging the question of how much, and what kind of, merit the awards possess, it’s always interesting to see how Hollywood wants to present itself to America and the rest of the world. This year was no exception. Gathering a small collection of minor, technical awards, but losing out the more prestigious ones to Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, The Aviator was the victim of Hollywood’s attempt to distance itself from the blockbuster “event” films it has become synonymous with, and demonstrate that it can embrace introspective, smaller films on both scale and budget. Therefore, the forcibly emotional, extravagant and bloated The Aviator was shunned in favour of the forcibly emotional, and too obviously subtle Million Dollar Baby. Both are the products of the same system, but whereas The Aviator is a progressive film that also happens to be what is good about big Hollywood Studio productions, Million Dollar Baby masquerades as an exercise in intellectual “art” cinema while remaining firmly rooted in Hollywood restrictions. Million Dollar Baby is an extremely well made fraud that approaches neither the majesty of Hollywood or the intellectuality of good art cinema.

The white trash family in Eastwood’s film is as caricatured and overblown as the world in Scorsese’s The Aviator. However, The Aviator uses fantasy and artificiality for a purpose, to create a feeling of splendour and magic. Million Dollar Baby, convinced of its own importance, seriousness and grittiness, is rendered silly by unintentional artificiality. Scorsese understands Hollywood conventions and works within and around them. Eastwood pretends they don’t exist.

In terms of film style, not only are some of the scenes in The Aviator aesthetically astounding, but more meaningful than those in Million Dollar Baby. For example, the shot of a naked Howard Hughes clothed only by images from the film projector in his private theatre says more about celebrity and privacy than any shot in Million Dollar Baby about any of its major themes.

Million Dollar Baby isn’t a bad film, it tells a story well and knows how to generate an emotional response, but it’s more like what Hollywood typically makes than The Aviator, despite appearances. Employing continuity editing, based on a simple narrative and short on originality and ideas, Million Dollar Baby is closer to a common, mindless blockbuster than The Aviator, which has the definite imprint of its director, is infused with intelligence, and deviates from traditional film structure.

At the Academy Awards, Hollywood tried to shift the direction of its film industry. It decided to sever itself from its own past and stride in a new direction. Unfortunately, forever focused on only surfaces, it chose the same direction it has always been travelling in. There is no Howard Hughes, only his image.

In attempting to distance itself from itself, Hollywood has tossed away the extravagance of such memorable films as Ben Hur, The Sound of Music and even Titanic, but retained their shortcomings.

Hollywood has finally started believing in the myth of its own inferiority.