Aug 8, 2009

Review Post 38: Crossing Over / Coco Before Chanel

DIR: Wayne Kramer
CAST: Harrison Ford, Ray Liotta, Alice Eve, Cliff Curtis,
Summer Bishil, Jim Sturgess, Justin Chon, Ashley Judd

Many fine films have been made over the years that are also political statements, but if you are going to make a political statement with a film you have to remember to make a film first and a political statement second.  With Crossing Over, Wayne Kramer fails comprehensively in this respect.

Kramer’s multi-stranded narrative is most clearly influenced by Paul Haggis’ comprehensively overrated Best Picture winner Crash.  Like that film Crossing Over's social and political comment - this time on the theme of immigration rather than race relations - lands with sledgehammer subtlety.  Some of that may be down to the fact that Kramer was apparently forced to heavily cut the film before its release, notably losing an entire strand featuring Sean Penn, and has apparently largely disowned this available cut.  However, it is hard to see how reintegrating yet another storyline into what is already an overstuffed and unfocused film would help.  Crossing Over suffers from having a multiplicity of targets, which reduces the subtlety that each story is able to employ and the impact each story is able to have.

Kramer isn’t a subtle director at the best of times, even his much lauded 2003 film The Cooler had passages that were almost operatically over the top, and his 2006 effort Running Scared started out at a fever pitch of action loaded insanity, and only got madder as it ran on.  The key difference between those films and this one is simple; they were engaging, and entertaining to watch.  The endearing lunacy of Running Scared is gone, replaced by a declamatory tone more suited to a lecture hall than it is a cinema.

Perhaps the most heavy-handed story involves Summer Bishil, who gives an exceptional performance given the limitations of the screenplay.  She plays a Muslim immigrant who writes an essay that seems to support the 9/11 hijackers and reads it out in her high school class; a decision that ends up tearing her family apart.  It’s not so much the story itself as it is the way that Kramer paints the opposing sides; immigrant family and immigration control, in broad black and white brush strokes.  This is a problem with the entire movie, there are few shades of grey.  Everyone is either good; mistreated and misunderstood (Bishil’s essay doesn’t actually support the hijackers, rather it suggests we should try and understand why the hijackers did what they did) or they are corrupt and disgusting (see Ray Liotta as an immigration official who extracts sexual favours from Alice Eve, in return for fast-tracking her a green card).

While this, and an extremely irritating recurring image of intertwining motorways (I GET IT, WAYNE), make the films and, by extension, Kramer’s politics easy to see it is not good storytelling.  Because the stories aren’t really being told for the sake of telling the stories as much as they are for the sake of making a point there is no room for nuance, or for any real imagination.  Each story advances almost entirely as you would expect it to - try and tell me what happens to the Korean youth (Chon) who gets involved, against his will, in a robbery the night before his naturalisation.  Tell me what happens to the immigration attorney who has forged a connection with a young African orphan.  Tell me what happens to the tearaway daughter (Melody Khazae) of a family of Iranian immigrants.  Tell me what happens to the young Mexican immigrant (Alice Braga) who an INS agent (Ford) tries to help.  You’re almost certainly right in every case.   This makes Crossing Over, as well as a preachy and ham-handed film, a very boring film.

The only real compensating factor in Crossing Over is the handful of strong performances, with several actors turning in work far better than the script deserves.  Liotta is appropriately slimy and objectionable, and Melody Khazae, despite very limited screentime, injects a little genuine light and life into what is a dour and downbeat film.  It is the aforementioned Summer Bishil who walks off with the honours here though.  She takes a character who is little more than a political mouthpiece and gives her layers, personality and emotion which almost certainly wasn’t there on the page.  Kramer over indulges - to an almost pornographic degree - in the wrenching emotion of the final act of that story, but Bishil’s conviction makes it play.

Sadly to go along with the poor screenplay and the over earnest direction, there are a lot of poor performances to endure as well.  Most notable is Harrison Ford, who has seldom sounded more completely bored, he delivers his dialogue as if he’s reading it from cards and on the verge of slipping into a coma.  Alice Eve, whose role is totally exploitative, and whose breasts receive almost as much screentime as her face is also notably bad, with an Australian accent which sounds cockney in her first scene, and goes through several other permutations during the film.

Someone called Crossing Over ‘liberal guilt, the movie’. That implies that, as a staunch liberal, I probably should have felt more sympathy towards it, but I didn’t go to the movies to be lectured, and that’s what Wayne Kramer delivers here.  It’s a shame, because he’s a talented and interesting filmmaker.  Hopefully his next film, Evilseek, will allow Kramer to return to making batshit insane and highly entertaining movies.

DIR: Anne Fontaine
CAST: Audrey Tautou, Benoit Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nivola,
Emmanuelle Devos, Marie Gillain

My Mum and my step-dad will like this film, it’s very nice.

I, as anyone who has ever met me can attest, have less than no interest in fashion, and so I went into Anne Fontaine’s biopic knowing nothing at all about Coco Chanel.  Certainly this film gives you a decent overview of Chanel’s early life, but it feels so much a cookie cutter biopic that you have to question exactly how many liberties have been taken with the truth.  In particular one event, which comes near the end of the film, seems so much out of screenwriting 101 that, even if it is in fact true, it rings false in the context of a movie, and that is a problem that I felt in small doses throughout the film.

I like Audrey Tautou.  She’s too often seen as simply the gamine, but there are more layers, and more talent, there than she is often credited with.  At first it seems like her Gabrielle Chanel (the nickname comes later) might be the sort of simpering pixie that she’s played a few times since Amelie, but then we see the steel behind that fa├žade.  That’s the strongest part of Tautou’s excellent performance.  It seems to be the film’s contention that Chanel was a woman out of step with her times, and Tautou really puts that across, delivering both a personality and a performance that is different in approach to any other in the film, especially those of the women.  The excellent Emmanuelle Devos and Marie Gillain give broader, and more exaggeratedly prim performances, Tautou’s style of acting is more modern and subtler. It’s a fine ensemble, and one that allows Tautou to really shine.

The problem is that the film doesn’t really take full advantage of this fine performance, this could have been a fascinating character study, but instead the film contents itself with surfaces.  As a result it ends up too light and fluffy a concoction to really engage on any deeper level.  The love triangle story falls a little flat because while Benoit Poelvoorde (as Chanel’s rich, older, lover) and Alessandro Nivola (as the handsome English businessman she wants to marry) are both individually fine neither shares much chemistry with Tautou, and there is little charge to even the more romantic, and more sexual, relationship with Nivola.  Since this is the central thread of the film it does mean that many scenes fail to really engage the attention completely.

As befits a film with this subject matter Coco Before Chanel looks quite ravishing.  The pixieish Tautou has never looked better on screen than she does here, especially when clad in Chanel’s famous women’s suits.  The design and the photography are uniformly strong and it would be neither surprise nor injustice to see costume designer Catherine Leterrier among 2010’s Oscar nominees.

Anne Fontaine’s work with her cast is strong, but her screenplay (written with her sister Camille) and storytelling is a little ragged round the edges.  The biggest issue is one of timescale, which is never clear in either writing or visuals.  After a brief sequence set in 1893 we flash forward fifteen years, but the rest of the film could unfold over as little as two years or as many as ten, and it would be nice to have some clarification for that.  I have a feeling that there is a better film, one less interested in chasing a 12A certificate, to be made about Coco Chanel.  This by no means a bad film, and most of its many cracks are papered over by the excellent Audrey Tautou, but while it’s not dull it’s also got an ever present and frustrating air of unfulfilled promise.

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