Wednesday, 21 December 2005

December pre-Christmas film roundup

Stage Beauty ** - A film about the end of the era of men playing women's roles in Britain's playhouses and the start of the brave new world of women doing it instead, centred on the relationship between the leading female impersonator of the day and his dresser who, despite being an awful actress, is at least famous for being the very first. Neither Billy Crudup nor Claire Danes are at their best, but Rupert Everett has an absolute ball as the decadent Charles II and Richard Griffiths, as would-be theatrical patron Sir Charles Sedley, steals the screen. The film, which inevitably draws comparisons with the much superior Shakespeare In Love, makes half-hearted attempts to show parallels to the modern day, particularly in the "cult" of celebrity (Danes, having her portrait painted, is encouraged to expose her breast because that's what the punters really want to see). The recreation of London of the era is inadequate and stagey, although perhaps appropriate for a film such as this, particularly one made by a renowned stage director. But ultimately there is a terminal lack of sexual energy between the two leads.

The Majestic *** - Frank "Shawshank" Darabont's ode to an America that has never really existed is not amongst his best work, but does at least prove once again that Jim Carrey can be extremely powerful in dramatic roles. Carrey plays a blacklisted Hollywood writer of the McCarthy era who washes up in a small town where, suffering from amnesia, he is mistaken for the missing son of the town's cinema owner and given a hero's welcome. Darabont handles the story well and evidently has a good handle on evoking the appropriate era, but even in the context of his other films this is pretty implausible stuff.

Crash **** - Described fairly early on in 2005 as "film of the year", this is an ensemble piece about the theme of prejudice in twenty-first century Los Angeles - particularly, but not exclusively, racial prejudice. The interest comes from having an A-list cast in an essentially independent production, many playing against type - Sandra Bullock is a particularly nasty, elitist specimen. Some of the scenarios take on the horror of nightmares in their crushing inevitability. One scene in particular is a masterpiece of emotional manipulation on the part of writer/director Paul Haggis (author of the excellent Million Dollar Baby), leaving this reviewer deeply moved. The film's overall lack of cohesiveness is only a minor niggle: this quite possibly is indeed Film Of The Year.

The Forgotten *** - Bears an uncanny resemblance to an extended episode of The X Files, with grieving mother Julianne Moore investigating the air crash that killed her son and finding mysterious goings-on. A few jolts but, ironically, rather forgettable.

The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe *** - Suffers, as most adaptations do, from damaging comparison with the novel (or even the BBC television serial). Some ropey graphics makes it occasionally hard to care about the CGI-based characters and consequently Aslan's death, which is extremely moving in other versions the story, is curiously uninvolving. The New Zealand-shot battle scenes are highly unlikely to convert anyone who didn't appreciate The Lord Of The Rings. But some of the acting is rather fine, particularly Tilda Swinton, who relishes her role as the evil White Witch, and newcomer Georgie Henley as young Lucy, who, at only ten years old, provides an astonishingly mature performance.

Perfect Day (TVM) ** - While it's great that Five are investing in original drama, this is a bit of a dud, not only covering ground seen elsewhere a hundred times before, but doing it in a rather plodding manner. Set on a couple's wedding day, it's essentially a will they / won't they situation with the ending never in any doubt. The comedic elements are never as funny as the likes of Four Weddings even though they are often much the same, occasionally wandering into uncomfortable territory (there's a recurring "gag" on the idea of underage sex).

The Chorus  (Les Choristes) **** - This is, in essence, a French version of Dead Poet's Society with slight overtones of Mr. Holland's Opus, a smattering of Billy Elliot and spiced with the counter-authoritarian attitude of The Shawshank Redemption in which the inmates take delight in small victories over the oppressive regime. In this case, it is music that provides redemption for a bunch of orphaned and disruptive kids in an austere reform school in rural mid-twentieth century France. Despite all these antecedants, though, and despite the modern-day framing story, the film remains realistic and unsentimental. While the outcome is predictable, the journey there is entertaining and moving enough to keep the audience involved throughout. The memorable performances are all the more remarkable for the fact that the young actors do all of their own singing.

Wednesday, 14 December 2005

November film roundup

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride **** - It's frustrating to try and review this. I want to give it *****, because it's a brave project and, in its own way, a remarkable achievement. But I feel I ought to give it ***, because the story is weak: love triangles can never be resolved both happily and satisfactorily, and Corpse Bride ducks out. Neither the story nor the songs are as effective as Burton's earlier Nightmare Before Christmas, but the romance is sweeter and the animation inspired. If, in five or ten years time, Burton makes another animation combining the best elements of both films, then it will certainly be brilliant.

Mystic River *** - Clint Eastwood directs this rather depressing tale of three friends torn apart in childhood by terrible circumstances, then thrown back together as adults under equally appalling conditions. It's well made and brilliantly acted, but it is never clear what the overall message of the film is and offers no hope of redemption for its ultimately tragic hero.

Ghost In The Shell *** - An animé that pushes all the proper Japanimation buttons - cyborgs, violence, hi-tech futurescapes. The animation is, occasionally, stunning, but the plot, which draws obvious parallels with The Matrix, is too confusing and lacking in heart to be truly memorable.

Monday, 31 October 2005

October film roundup

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie *** - Fun, cool and sassy animé that seems to be drawn most obviously from Batman and, more specifically, The Joker. The only bum note is the computer whiz Ed who manages to be annoying in every single scene.

Office Space *** - A bit like Falling Down, only with fewer bazookas. Wish-fulfilment comedy that doesn't quite strike the right chord. (Is an intelligent, articulate computer programmer really going to feel more valued doing manual work salvaging fire-damaged goods?)

The Dukes Of Hazzard ** - Fun while it lasts, but instantly forgettable. Hopefully (but not obviously) the role of Daisy Duke - who exists solely to elicit vital information from male characters by wearing tiny denim shorts and / or exposing a lot of midriff - is a recurring joke rather than appalling cliché.

Swimming Pool *** - Enigmatic and mysterious, but beautifully shot, this is either patent stereotyping or brilliant subversion.

Somersault ** - Slow-burning drama about a teenage girl finding herself through running away and experiencing casual and not-so-casual sex. Well-acted but overall rings false.

Tokyo Godfathers *** - One of the least "animated" animations I've ever seen, this is an unusual way of celebrating the spirit of Christmas (complete with its own Holy Trinity and miracle baby) with doses of high humour and gritty realism.

Wallace And Gromit In The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit **** - Sounds a bit daft to say this about a film whose central character is a plasticene dog who knits recreationally, but somehow this film doesn't seem quite as "real" as W&G's earlier adventures. The animation, acting and script are all first-class.

The Castle Of Cagliostro *** - Hayao Miyazaki's first film is as beautiful as one might hope, allowing for the fact that it was made twenty years before Spirited Away. It also includes many of what would come to be regarded as the director's hallmarks: Young girl on the cusp of adulthood; flying machines; a European location.

Hotel Rwanda **** - Harrowing and shocking (and true) account of the atrocities in Rwanda that shows that the appalling treatment of one human being by another is not a feature limited to historical cases, but for some people is still a threat today. Inviting inevitable comparisons with Schindler's List, a more interesting parallel is The Pianist: in that film, one man is helped by dozens of people (who place themselves at massive risk, for no apparent reason) whilst in Hotel Rwanda, one resourceful and brave man uses every avenue open to him to save as many people as possible. Directed by Terry George, the author of The Boxer, which also invites speculation that he is comparing the situation in Rwanda with that in Northern Ireland and asking: If we can let this genocide happen, even under the watchful eye of the UN, what does this say about us as human beings? And are we not close to monsters ourselves?

Friday, 14 October 2005

Minireview - Napoleon Dynamite ***

The title character is a geeky, freaky high school kid who lives with his older brother (and whatever assorted relative can be bothered to look after the pair of them) in some kind of 1980s timewarp, where life is simpler, fashions are naffer, but the Internet still exists. He has one friend at school and, perplexingly, a girl who may or may not be interested in him - but otherwise, he lives in an isolated bubble, in which he even appears to be mostly free of the kind of torment that one might expect of an uber-geek in an average American high school.

Honestly? I have no idea whether or not I liked this movie. In fact, since I started reviewing every film I watched, I have seen and had an opinion (one way or the other) on more than 300 movies. Until Napoleon Dynamite, I have never come out of a film feeling quite so bewildered. I don't know whether I like the character or whether I'm supposed to be rooting for him. I'm unsure whether I buy the story.

Tacked onto the end of the closing credits is a significant coda - shot some time after the rest of the film - which subtly shifts the perspective we have on several key characters. It's a self-consciously odd thing to do at the end of a film that is inherently basking in its own oddness. For this reason alone, it fails to work effectively as either a comedy or a drama.

Minireview - Ghost World ***

Based on a graphic novel - what "cult" films coming out of America these days aren't? - this is a rather slight film about two misfit teenagers leaving school and starting to explore the wider world. While one tends towards a more conventional life - finding a steady job and spending the proceeds shopping for housewares - the other is determined to remain resolutely outside mainstream society. To that end, she strikes up a bizarre relationship with a weirdo older man, a jazz obsessive who she sees as being similarly marginalised by a society so demanding of conformity.

For the most part, despite the bizarre relationships, it's quite a believable film and engrossing in its own way. The performances of Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi, in particular, are compelling. However, a few points niggle. Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch aren't quite weird enough - or weird-looking enough - to seem plausible as social outsiders. Birch's character, Enid, is broadly unpleasant rather than simply counter-culture, making it hard to empathise with her; she treats strangers, her friends and her admirers with the same contempt.

Some cameo appearances and throw-away references to other comic books start to grate after a while - it starts to feel like an incestuous comic-book love-in. (Not surprising, given that the director's previous film was Crumb, about the graphic novel author Robert Crumb - who also cropped up as a character in American Splendor. Evidently, the world of graphic novels is a small and close-knit one.) But the main difficulty with the film is that there is no plot to speak of; rather, a series of occasionally self-destructive vignettes. That may well have been the raison d'etre of the original novel - the celebration of a tiny slice of a tiny life - but it makes for a frustrating motion picture experience.

Tuesday, 20 September 2005

Minireview - Akira **

This autumn looks like it's shaping up to be a bumper season for animation. In only a couple of short months, we have the long-awaited Wallace & Gromit movie, Curse Of The Were-Rabbit; Tim Burton's follow-up to his acclaimed Nightmare Before Christmas, a claymation musical with the morbid title Corpse Bride; and the new animé from Hayao Miyazaki, the Oscar-winning director of Spirited Away.

To get in the mood, I have been selectively expanding my collection of Japanese animations with films such as Perfect Blue and Cowboy Bebop: The Movie. But of all the films in the genre, Akira is supposed to be the definitive Manga animé - described by Empire magazine's reviewers as "no Akira, no Matrix" - so I had high hopes, which were rather rudely dashed by a messy, incoherent plot and unexpectedly sub-standard animation. Indeed, the biggest debt The Matrix appears to owe to Akira is in the persistent use of impenetrable quasi-religious mysticism, along with highly stylised, gratuitous violence.

It's a great shame, because there are some nice flourishes. But one of the reasons I got into animé films in the first place, via the works of Miyazaki, was that all the preconceptions I'd had about Japanese animation - violence, poor drawings, killer robots who shoot lasers from their eyes (nicely sent up in an episode of The Simpsons) - were completely wrong. The likes of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke were beautiful and thought-provoking; Grave Of The Fireflies proved that the medium could also be serious and moving. Akira, conversely, managed to fall exactly into my prejudices about Manga animé - the violence, shaky animation, teenage anti-heroes with big mouths and fixed fierce expressions.

I readily admit that, for much of the time, I wasn't quite sure what was going on. But, after two hours of trying to figure it out, I no longer really cared.

Wednesday, 31 August 2005

Minireview - Nowhere In Africa ****

A wannabe-epic autobiographical story of a dispossessed Jewish family during the Second World War, this almost, but not quite, succeeds admirably. Father, mother and daughter, with remarkable foresight, escape Germany just before the borders are closed and attempt to set up a new life on a struggling farm in Kenya, then under British rule. Whereas the young girl fits in quickly, making close friends with the native cook and local children, the mother cannot or will not except her dramatic change in circumstance and, horrifyingly, displays towards the local inhabitants the precise sort of racist intolerance that she herself has so narrowly escaped.

With the war itself raging a continent away, the historical action is progressed in the form of a long-wave radio and a few, sparse letters from relations as they are forced into ghettoes and eventually write no more. Meanwhile, with the start of hostilities, the family finds itself rounded up by the British and placed in prison camps, although these are, at least, relatively comfortable.

They are eventually released to manage another farm, this time with more success, and the daughter is sent away to an English boarding school, costing the family nearly all that they have. At the end of the war, the family must decide whether they now belong in Africa, or whether they should return to Germany and help rebuild it. And this is very much a film about belonging. The family start by finding themselves unwelcome in Germany and arrested in Kenya; by the end, they must decide where they are most accepted. In Africa, they still do not fit in, treated with contempt by the British, misunderstood by the natives, alienated because of their religion at school. There is strong sense that nobody truly belongs, certainly not the British ruling class, nor the native underclass that are forced to serve them.

A slow, beautiful ode to home and to family with great and occasionally moving performances all round, ultimately the only let-down is the lack of a sense of real threat, even during the arrests or when the letters from home dry up.

Minireview - The Machinist ****

A fine thriller that effectively crosses the state of mind of Fight Club with the building paranoia of Arlington Road. Made in Spain (presumably because no Hollywood studio would touch it) and released under the frankly bizarre "Paramount Classics" label, the film succeeds due to a fantastic performance from Christian Bale, not to mention an unprecedented dedication to his craft (manifest in his character's emaciated appearance, achieved by Bale losing 60lbs of weight before shooting). As a paranoid, obsessive-compulsive insomniac, Bale manages to be tortured yet sympathetic, spooky and sleazy yet occasionally caring and loving. And, unlike either of the films cited earlier, the reason for his state of mind is gradually revealed and proves to be a worthy and horrific conclusion to the film.

Highly recommended for fans of psychological thrillers in the Hitchcock mold.

Thursday, 18 August 2005

Minireview - Festival Express ***

I quite enjoyed Festival Express, although I can't say I would have made a particularly good rock 'n' roller myself. Watching Rick Danko, Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia laughing and singing together while utterly smashed may be historically interesting, particularly as they are all now dead, but it's not a particularly comfortable thing to see, any more so than being the only sober person at a party ever is.

This was one of those rare DVDs where the extra features were at least as important as the film itself, so in a way I'm glad I didn't see it in the cinema after all. The features doubled the length of the material with extra music performances and interviews which answered some of the questions raised by the film itself. Since the film was less than 90 minutes long, I'm surprised they didn't go for a longer edit - they obviously had sufficient material.

Apparently the rest of The Band and several members of the Grateful Dead decided not to travel on the train at all but made their own way from venue to venue, which seems to me to rather destroy the point of the enterprise.

Minireview - Grave Of The Fireflies ****

There's a tendency to assume that the only way that war (or, more accurately, anti-war) films can be effective is to show the horror of battle in all its gruesome detail: hence Apocalypse Now and the stunning opening to Saving Private Ryan. Only rarely, then, do we see an effective anti-war animation.

Grave Of The Fireflies is the first Japanese animation I've seen that's not directed by Miyazaki. I chose this because it's in the IMDb top 200 (#163 at the moment; Princess Mononoke is at #100, Spirited Away at a scarcely believable #41).

Fireflies is an excellent film, but a long way removed from the fantasy worlds of Miyazaki and is certainly not a children's film, despite being about two children. It's set during the final months of the Second World War and concerns a young boy, orphaned by the US firebombing of his city, as he misguidedly struggles to look after his four-year-old sister. With the film told in flashback, from the very first scene, we know it's not going to end well, as we see him die emaciated and alone in a subway just after the end of war.

The fireflies of the title feature in both a literal and figurative sense; fireflies being, as we are told, creatures that burn brightly and die too soon. It's powerful and horrifying material, definitely not the sort of thing one expects to see in an animation of any kind. In its analysis of the effects of conflict on the civilian population in general, and innocent children in particular, it turns out to be a potent anti-war film, as well as an intimate portrait of sibling love. Where once I described Life Is Beautiful as a comedy version of Schindler's List, I can now only describe Grave Of The Fireflies as a tragic version of Life Is Beautiful as the boy struggles and ultimately fails to protect his sister from the true horrors of war. In mood, the film closely resembles Raymond Briggs' When The Wind Blows. That, too, concerns two innocents - in this case, an elderly couple - failing to cope with the war being waged around them.

It's also allegorical inasmuch as the boy's blundering attempts to protect his sister are increasingly desperate, mirroring the misplaced arrogance of the Japanese military in their increasingly evidently futile attempts to win the war. Plus it is, of course, as beautifully drawn as any Ghibli film.

As devastating an anti-war poem as one could wish for, this is an essential part of my DVD collection, despite the fact that I can scarcely bear to watch it again. Recommended, but for when one is in a sombre mood.

Wednesday, 17 August 2005

Oscar Film Unit community site goes live

Andy Ga. has begun a new Blogger website for past members of Oscar Film Unit. It is intended to build up an OFU Reunited type of community around the site with photos, reminiscences and all the usual sort of abuse to which we've become accustomed. See it now at (and eventually at its own dedicated URL, too, maybe).

Meanwhile the old OFU website, written (in chronological order) by Paul Williamson, Rob Finnis, me, Jolyon Hunter and Scoot Geary, is preserved forever on the main IWroteThis website at Most of the links are broken (because they were hard coded) but I've fixed all 860 of them offline and will upload them soon-ish.