The Films of Paul McGuigan
The Acid House
Gangster No. 1
The Reckoning (March 9/04)
The Reckoning is a marked improvement over director Paul McGuigan's first two efforts, The Acid House and Gangster No. 1. Both were guilty of favoring style of substance, turning them into films that were impressive visually but completely dull storywise. With The Reckoning, though it falls apart towards the end, McGuigan has finally crafted a film with intriguing characters and a plot worth following. Set in the 1300s, The Reckoning follows former priest Nicholas (Paul Bettany) as he encounters a troupe of actors (led by Willem Dafoe's Martin) and eventually stages a play based on a local woman's court case. It's the mystery element of The Reckoning that works best, as Nicholas and company attempt to discern the truth in this matter. It plays out like a pre-civilized society version of Law and Order, except with a bunch of theater folk instead of detectives. There's a fascinating sequence about midway through the film, involving a performance of the play based on the case, in which the town's citizens are finally able to speak their minds regarding what they perceive to be a great injustice. It becomes clear that the townspeople are relieved to finally have a forum to express their thoughts, as they live under constant fear of punishment. McGuigan keeps the stylistic flourishes to a minimum, choosing instead to focus on the characters and story. The look of this small town feels authentic; the gritty and dirty atmosphere seems to be an accurate representation of how things would've been back then. Along with cinematographer Peter Sova, McGuigan does a nice job of staying true to the squalid conditions of the time without turning the film into an unpleasant visceral experience. But The Reckoning eventually becomes tiresome, exacerbated by an incredibly anti-climactic conclusion. The film seems as though it's leading to an electrifying confrontation between Nicholas and the legitimate perpetrator of the crime, but we're instead rewarded with a dull theological debate that goes on far longer than it should. The over-the-top melodrama of the film's final act doesn't really gel with what came before it, and ultimately turns the movie into a disappointment. The performances are good, if unspectacular; the actors aren't doing anything here we haven't seen them do in better films. That sense of been-there-done-that is what eventually sinks The Reckoning, though there's no denying that it's certainly a step in the right direction for McGuigan.
Wicker Park (December 22/04)
That Wicker Park becomes as engrossing as it does is particularly shocking, given the almost interminable opening hour (which revolves almost exclusively around a character played by Josh Hartnett, a performer decidedly lacking in charisma). But somewhere in the film's final 50 minutes or so, the story takes a sharp left turn and becomes an entirely different animal; amid a series of unexpected revelations, the film drops the mopey tone in favor of something that's far more mysterious and ultimately compelling. Based on the French film L'Appartement, Wicker Park casts Harnett as Matthew - an investment banker who fell in love two years ago with Lisa (Diane Kruger), only to have her vanish mysteriously one night. He's now engaged to Rebecca (Jessica Paré), but that relationship is thrown into jeopardy when Matthew spots Lisa at a restaurant one night (at least, he thinks it's Lisa). Along with Lisa's best friend Alex (Rose Byrne), Matthew sets out to discover what really happened two years ago. Wicker Park's been directed by Paul McGuigan, a tremendously uneven filmmaker whose previous efforts have veered from mediocre (The Reckoning) to flat-out awful (The Acid House). And though Wicker Park suffers from the same sort of oddball pacing that seems to plague all of McGuigan's films, there's no denying that - perhaps for the first time - the director has found a story to match his overactive sense of style. Brandon Boyce's screenplay, despite a build-up that's ridiculously overwrought, features a latter half that's crammed with flashbacks and a labyrinthian structure that's challenging and engaging. Consequently, a film that was previously far-from-enthralling becomes absolutely riveting as the viewer is encouraged to try and figure out just what's going on. But unless one is willing to embrace the manner in which Boyce's script reinvents itself, it seems highly unlikely that Wicker Park will emerge as anything more than a vanity project for some impossibly attractive stars.
Lucky Number Slevin
Lucky Number Slevin stars Josh Hartnett as a distinctly unlucky figure named Slevin, who - within the space of about a day - loses his job, girlfriend, and apartment. After arriving in New York, where he's made arrangements to stay with a friend, Slevin finds himself embroiled in a complicated scheme involving two sinister mob bosses (Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley), a deadly assassin (Bruce Willis), and a tenacious detective (Stanley Tucci). The majority of Lucky Number Slevin consists of quirky, colorful characters spouting screenwriter Jason Smilovic's overly clever and thoroughly stagy dialogue, with the end result a film that's sporadically intriguing but mostly tedious. The broad performances generally reflect this vibe, though Freeman does bring a fair amount of depth to his role (Kingsley, on the other hand, goes over-the-top early and often). And although much of the film's first hour is generally disposable, the third act - packed with twists and revelations - is surprisingly involving and a big improvement over virtually everything that came before it (one can't help but wonder if the movie would've worked better had some of the twists been revealed at the outset). In the end, Lucky Number Slevin is just as ineffective as director Paul McGuigan's previous films - though it is a considerable improvement over abominable early efforts such as The Acid House and Gangster No. 1.
Though it boasts a striking visual sensibility and a number of admittedly thrilling action sequences, Push suffers from an uneven sensibility that essentially holds the viewer at arm's length virtually from start to finish. This is despite an opening half hour that's actually quite promising, as screenwriter David Bourla emphasizes a series of individually-compelling set pieces that prove effective at establishing the movie's off-kilter alternate reality. The film, which follows several paranormally-gifted characters (including Chris Evans' Nick Gant and Dakota Fanning's Cassie Holmes) as they attempt to unravel a sinister government conspiracy, benefits substantially from Peter Sova's kinetic cinematography and François Séguin's future-punk production design, and it's consequently not a stretch to label Push a cinematic cousin to Michael Winterbottom's similarly-themed sci-fi endeavor Code 46. Such comparisons inevitably prove to be unfounded, however, as the middling midsection eventually gives way to a third act that's almost absurdly convoluted - with the increasingly underdeveloped characters preventing the viewer from forming an emotional attachment to the various protagonists. The needlessly frenetic conclusion only cements Push's place as a headache-inducing piece of work, which is certainly a shame give the talent both in front of and behind the camera.
Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool (January 18/18)
Based on a memoir by Peter Turner, Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool details the final days of one-time movie star Gloria Grahame - with a specific emphasis on her unusual relationship with a struggling actor (Jamie Bell's Peter). Filmmaker Paul McGuigan is clearly mining very familiar territory here and indeed, large swaths of Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool come off as hackneyed and meandering, and yet the proliferation of positive elements ultimately does make it difficult to dismiss the movie entirely - with the solid performances and handful of compelling sequences going a long way towards keeping things interesting. McGuigan's lively directorial choices often lift the movie out of its seemingly self-imposed doldroms, to be sure, as the filmmaker infuses a number of interludes with a spellbinding feel that transcends Matt Greenhalgh's by-the-numbers screenplay (eg a flashback revealing Gloria and Jamie's breakup from the former's perspective). On the whole, however, Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool doesn't bring a whole lot new to the May-December Romance table - which ultimately does, in the end, confirm its place as a passable yet predominantly forgettable piece of work.