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.