Friday, 1 December 2006

November film roundup

Passport To Pimlico *** - First of this month's triple-bill of classic Ealing comedies, this is a high-concept movie in which the London suburb of Pimlico declares itself to be an independent state. The situations start off funny (such as stopping Tube trains on the Victoria line for customs checks) but even across the slim running time the jokes start to wear thin.

Kind Hearts And Coronets **** - A wonderful and very funny piece of classic British cinema whose biggest achievement is encouraging complicity between the audience and the (at best, amoral) protagonist who seeks to murder his way to the inheritance he believes is rightfully his. Alec Guinness, as several members of the same dynasty, is exceptionally good. Thoroughly deserves its place on IMDb's Top 250.

The Ladykillers ** - This other well-known Ealing comedy starts promisingly, with a gang of thieves masquerading as unlikely concert musicians taking up residence in a boarding house with the intention of using their unwitting landlady in a daring million-pound heist. However, as the film descends into pure farce, the humour has dated less well and eventually becomes both tiresome and uncomfortable.

Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan *** - There is little left to be said about this film which has been thoroughly examined, re-examined, praised and criticised. Yes, the film is in places extremely funny, but also makes for uncomfortable analysis. Is it highly offensive or good satire? Is it ever right to manipulate people into condemning themselves without giving them the right to explain themselves? This is an entry into a growing trend in television comedy in particular, in which ordinary citizens are humiliated in the name of entertainment. The two best things that can be said for Borat are that its performer is utterly fearless and that it is a masterpiece of editing. The worst thing that can be said is that it is highly dangerous.

Brick ** - This is explicitly a film noir, transplanted into a modern Californian high school, complete with analogues for all the standard cast of characters of a noir, from grizzled policeman to femme fatale. Some of the cast provide fantastic performances, but the film overall fails to compel, because of the sheer effort that it demands from its viewer: the dialogue is swift and idiomatic (and there is no subtitle track on the DVD) which means that the plot is often baffling rather than exciting. This is a real shame, because in mood it does successfully recall not only classic noir but also contemporary works such as David Lynch's Mulholland Dr., with its cool, mysterious atmospherics and lingering cinematography; but without the ability to draw the viewer into its highly artificial world, it cannot maintain its sense of intrigue.

Tsotsi *** - More or less a South African answer to City Of God, Tsotsi follows a thug from the Soweto township near Johannesburg as he steals a car from a rich neighbourhood, only to discover that he has accidentally kidnapped a baby as well. As the film meanders towards his possible redemption, it takes some time to ponder both what has changed since the days of apartheid when the novel was written (the baby belonged to rich black parents) and what has not (the crippling poverty and squalor for millions of people). Unfortunately the impact of the film is lessened by a weak ending and by missing some opportunities to be as profoundly moving as it could potentially have been.

Wednesday, 1 November 2006

October film roundup

The Cat Returns *** - What Douglas Adams did for both mice and dolphins - that is, give them a secret civilisation that humans couldn't see - Studio Ghibli now does for cats. For anyone who views cats with distrust, this is a great film - but it probably equally suits cat-lovers, too. It features The Baron, the cat figurine featured in Whisper Of The Heart, in a fantasy adventure that is both thematically similar and stylistically dissimilar from other Ghibli works, weaving in elements of Alice In Wonderland, The Wizard Of Oz and even - I'm pretty sure - Winnie The Pooh. At 75 minutes, it's very much shorter than the average Ghibli animation, suggesting that it is pitched at a younger audience. While it's fun, it's far too modest, lacking the usual Ghibli magic. As (mostly) usual, the English language dub is good, with a couple of well-known actors in the main roles (Cary "Dread Pirate Roberts" Elwes, who voiced The Baron in Whisper, returns in the role). But it can't avoid showing its roots: as a short film that's been expanded, it feels too slight compared to most of Ghibli's output. One for Ghibli completists and cat lovers.

Heaven *** - Tom Tykwer's latest film - co-penned by Three Colours director Krzysztof Kieslowski - is as beautiful and as infuriating as might be expected of the director of Run Lola Run and The Princess And The Warrior. Tykwer's obsession with coincidence and serendipity is much in evidence, as is his distinctive visual style. Cate Blanchett is wonderful; she makes a potentially hateful figure immensely likeable. But the film can't quite shake the fact that, as religious allegory (which is surely what it is - certainly there are unsubtle pointers) it simply doesn't work.

Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow ** - This experiment in combining live action with computer-drawn sets is handsomely painted but lacks plot, script, humour and heart. Things start promisingly enough with giant robots spectacularly attacking New York in some kind of alternate 1930s, but the film quickly goes off the boil with unlikely plot developments and some cringingly-bad dialogue. In style, this is close to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within which suffered similarly from a lack of any kind of plot or character development, not to mention some truly bizarre lapses in the "reality" of the scenario. In mood, though, this most represents one of those animé films (giant robots, lasers and retro-futuristic flying machines all present and correct) in which the English language dub has been severely dumbed down. When the aircraft she is travelling in is visibly diving perilously towards the sea, is it strictly necessary for Gwyneth Paltrow to say so repeatedly? It's moments like this that turn this into an earnest, risible and ultimately forgettable mess.

Threads (TVM) ***** - This BBC drama from 1984, directed by Mick Jackson - an acclaimed documentary filmmaker whose previous credits included the seminal The Ascent Of Man and whose later move to Hollywood would result in, er, The Bodyguard and LA Story - is a bold, thoroughly brilliant and extremely disturbing examination of the events in the days leading up to, and the several years following, a nuclear attack on the UK. Even though the fashions have dated somewhat and the 16mm photography lacks contrast and colour saturation, the film still seems years ahead of its time, both in plot (the US is facing a stand-off against hostile forces in Iran - OK, it's against the USSR in this case, but there are plenty of modern parallels) and in execution: presented in a serious yet matter-of-fact kind of way, like a documentary, which adds even more weight to the events as they unfold. The closing credits list a number of academics who contributed to the film, suggesting that this is just about the most truthful examination of nuclear war that one could expect to see. The two-hour run-time is split down the middle with the attack itself occurring right in the middle of the film and, subsequently, some horrific images of the immediate and more distant aftermath, including a nuclear winter and a return to mediaeval ways of life. No punches are pulled: the dead and dying are everywhere; things get violent and ugly as people realise that there is no food; traffic wardens are armed with machine guns to guard troublemakers in makeshift prison camps. But it's the first half of the film that is truly terrifying. In the days before the attack, the ordinary citizens of Sheffield casually go about their business, barely paying attention to the growing military crisis in the Middle East, even when the UK Government starts to bring in emergency powers (which, to an early twenty-first century viewer, may seem uncomfortably familiar, amongst them compulsory ID cards and the right to hold potential troublemakers without trial). By the time the attack siren sounds, very few people are prepared, most caught out in the open doing their weekly shopping. Again the film pulls no punches: private citizens and local government officials alike panic, scarcely believing what's happening. And besides, after the bomb drops, those who have taken some precautions fare no better than those caught completely unawares. Overall, this is harrowing, seriously horrifying material: this reviewer has never been as comprehensively terrified by a film before.

Sunday, 1 October 2006

September film roundup

A good quantity of (mainly older) films this month of and wildly varying characteristics: none quite reach the standards achieved last month, but there's some fascinating pieces of filmmaking here.

The Safety Of Objects *** - I don't appear ever to have written a review of Panic Room (an unusual omission on my part) but I remember being slightly surprised, about three-quarters of the way through, to realise that Jodie Foster's young son was actually a girl called Sarah. Curious, then, that young actress Kristen Stewart's androgynous, tomboyish appearance is actually a crucial plot point in the previous year's The Safety Of Objects. There's no doubt at all, from the opening scene onwards, that we are watching the work of a female director (and, indeed, mainly female crew). It's yet another entry in the genre of films that contains American Beauty, Donnie Darko, Napoleon Dynamite, Me And You And Everyone We Know, Happiness, Ghost World and The Rules Of Attraction: that is, interlocking character pieces, mainly set in normal suburban lives with dark secrets. As such, it's not an especially interesting example of the genre, although there are some solid performances and a more optimistic ending than in many of the films listed. I guess I'm just not a fan of a genre that, by definition, relies on intricate cross-threading and hence, by restrictive screen time and a large number of strands to cover, doesn't allow the audience to develop intimacy with the characters.

Syriana **** - Also an ensemble piece, but in no way similar to The Safety Of Objects, this is a highly complex, politically-charged drama about America's dependence on oil. The structure is more tightly bound than Traffic, with which it shares a pedigree. If there's a fault, it's that it's such a complicated story - and such a complicated issue - that it demands a great deal of concentration and, consequently, leaves little time for the audience to develop much of a connection for the characters. Overall exhausting but extremely worthwhile.

V For Vendetta *** - Like Syriana, this sets out to show us some truths about the world we live in today - but does it through the medium of a near-future dystopian sci-fi / graphic novel adaptation. Now don't get me wrong: as a writer, I really like near-future dystopias, but V failed to convince for the first 45 minutes or so. Thankfully, things did improve in the second half, but instead of reaching the heights aspired to (a twenty-first century Nineteen Eighty-Four, I assume), it still managed, frustratingly, to come across merely as a big melting pot of ideas from Doctor Who added to a splash of the eponymous mysterious benefactor in Phantom Of The Opera and any number of masked-avenger stories. Briefly: the US and possibly the rest of the world has fallen into anarchy, leaving the UK in the hands of a totalitarian, Christian fundamentalist government who probably don't have the best interest of their citizens at heart. Actually, in reality, it's probably easier to imagine that the US has gone this way than the UK. There are occasional condescending fumblings that betray the American authorship; and some casting decisions are a trifle bizarre; but at least the film attempts to make effective and moody use of its London locations (yet also manages a liberal number of studio or digital sets that stand out a mile). The film's primary downfall is probably its deeply cold execution: it's supposed to be a story that invites its audience to think for themselves and make comparisons with the current state of the nation, but falls flat because it never lets us close enough to the characters to care. A film that heads for greatness but misses the mark. V. disappointing.

Good Night, And Good Luck *** - Yet another film that seeks to show us some truths about the world today, this time in a historical context. It's the 1950s and Senator McCarthy's witchhunt is in full swing. At CBS, liberal broadcasters attempt to discredit McCarthy's methods without themselves occurring his wrath and without losing their sponsors. It's really all about the ongoing self-interest of the media versus exposure of the truth, a topic with profound relevance today. Interestingly, one of the key criticisms levelled at the media organisations in the film is their unwillingness to report bad news. In the twenty-first century, one might argue that the opposite is true: that it's politicians' leaking of bad news and the media's propagation of it that leads us to the vastly inflated sense of fear in the West today. The drama is compelling enough but perhaps a little too constrained by its setting (almost entirely within the Columbia television studios). I'd love to see this as a stage play performed by these actors: it would be riveting.

Only Yesterday *** - Of considerably less universal importance is this Studio Ghibli animation (Omohide Poro Poro, literally (apparently) the beautifully poetic "Memories Of Falling Teardrops") about Taeko, a city woman in her late twenties, struggling to reconcile her memories of childhood whilst on a working holiday on a safflower farm. It's an occasionally eccentric and baffling film from the director of the brilliant Grave Of The Fireflies. Sandwiched in production terms between the highly enjoyable Porco Rosso and the equally wonderful Kiki's Delivery Service, this is heavily grounded in reality: so this is likely to be the first and probably only cartoon that discusses both agricultural economics and menstruation in the space of a few short minutes. The animation, too, is ground-breaking in its level of detail. It's certainly a beautifully drawn film whose main fault is simply that it's too introspective: for all the verbal and physical bullying the ten-year-old Taeko endures, she seems to have fared no worse than any other child on the cusp of puberty, which makes her reminiscences seem rather trivial and self-absorbed.

Les Parapluies de Cherbourg ***- Catherine Deneuve has appeared in several rather bizarre musicals in her lifetime. Even the likes of Dancer In The Dark and 8 Femmes don't quite prepare the viewer for this gloriously, self-indulgently artificial musical in which, rather than shoot on Technicolor to achieve that MGM look, the director opts to paint everything in dayglo colours and have his cast wear bright purple and pink clothes that, more often than not, match the wallpaper in whatever venue they happen to be: it's a bit like a prototype for Baz Luhrmann's brilliant but garish Moulin Rouge! Every word is sung, which heightens the artifice still further. (Early on, a car mechanic sings that he prefers films to opera, because he doens't like the way people sing all the time in opera - hammering the point home just a shade too much.) The story isn't particularly deep - but then, it doesn't need to be - and yet it shies away from convention and has a "happy" ending that isn't the one the audience might expect. Some of the music is pretty good and it doesn't outstay its welcome. Of course, the film is aided no end by the fact that Deneuve herself looks positively angelic (leading to this being allegedly the only musical in history with more male fans than female). But the primary colours and incessant singing can also add up to something of a headache: one would not want to watch this with a hangover. As a unique piece of movie fluff, then, it's good; but it requires some patience to overcome the initial bemusement.

Don't Look Now *** - This classic British psychological thriller stirs up requisite amounts of dread without resorting to blood 'n' gore. The plot centres around a couple whose young daughter may or may not be attempting to contact them from beyond the grave. As audience, we are more frequently frightened than perhaps the characters themselves as they are placed in increasingly (apparently) perilous situations and it becomes apparent that, while there may well be a perfectly innocence explanation for the various phenomena occurring, equally some or all may not be as it seems: anyone, from their friends to the police officers to the churchmen, might be a threat. Sadly the film has not aged well. The cinematography - shot with delibeartely washed-out blues and greens (but particularly garish reds) does turn Venice, which in summertime is a sumptuous and beautiful city, into an eerie, creepy, threatening place; but additionally, time has taken its toll both on the print quality and the soundtrack to Don't Look Now, which proves to be a distraction. The suspense builds well to the iconic closing scence, which will be familiar to even to first-time viewers as a result of repeated use on clip shows and in other movies, and in homage form in the likes of Mulholland Dr.

Barton Fink *** - Like the best of the Coen Brothers' output, this is a sprawling but enthralling tale with surreal undercurrents. The eponymous Fink is a playwright in New York whose critical success leads to him being lured to Hollywood, where he tries to write something meaningful for an audience that just wants the latest brainless blockbuster. It's a multi-layered film: part psychological thriller, part statement on the mass audience for film, part autobiography for the Coens (who, like Fink, had had one major critical success that they were attempting to follow up with this film). Structurally, the film gets across the nature of the artistic process: there are long periods in which nothing happens, followed by a frenzy of activity when inspiration strikes. However, it's this structure that hinders the film somewhat, making it feel somewhat uneven and even a bit dull in places. Fortunately it is redeemed by both an excellent cast and the Coens' unfaltering visual style.

Friday, 1 September 2006

August film roundup

What a month. August started out looking like a bit of a damp squib but quickly warmed up thanks to some of the best films I've seen in the past couple of years.

Happiness ** - A film designed from start to finish to make the audience squirm. For your consideration: domestic violence; obscene phone calls; rape fantasies; paedophilia; and full and frank discussion of burgeoning teenage sexuality which climaxes (ahem) in a now infamous shot of projectile bodily fluid. Oh, and divorce, theft, suicide and murder. This is, incidentally, billed as a comedy. The plot, such as it is, centres around three sisters and the friends, family and neighbours around them, of varying degrees of weirdness and / or criminality. It could be that, on the page, this looked like a daring, unique philosophical work. Unfortunately the film isn't even a fraction as clever as it seems to think it is and instead comes across as pretentious, unsubtle and too calculated to truly shock. Sadly, this turns the film into little more than a freak show in which the only emotion actually evoked is relief that real life just isn't this bad.

Heat **** - A long but surprisingly complex, moody and very effective cops vs. robbers thriller with the leads on each side played respectively by acting heavyweights Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. The tension ratchets up over the entire (nearly 3-hour) runtime and, brilliantly, the audience can find themselves rooting for both opposing parties.

March Of The Penguins *** - Well-regarded throughout the world as a formal theatrical documentary, this might come across as somewhat redundant to a UK audience who have grown up with David Attenborough and BBC Bristol. The story of Emperor Penguins' annual fight for survival whilst tending to their vulnerable single chicks is always a compelling one - and it's easy to anthropomorphise the creatures and believe narrator Morgan Freeman's description of this as a love story - but actually, we've seen it before and familiarity does indeed bring a degree of contempt. Certainly nowhere near as compelling as Grizzly Man.

Porco Rosso **** - In 2001, Empire magazine carried a brief article about the ongoing failure to release Princess Mononoke in the UK, in which a spokesperson for Buena Vista confidently claimed that none of the Studio Ghibli back catalogue would ever be released, as there was no demand for them in the West. Happily, she was quite, quite wrong: nearly all of the catalogue is now available on region 2 DVD. There is always going to be a market for the "alternative" to mainstream cinema, particularly when so well-executed that it puts to shame what most people would consider to be the gold standard of Western animated filmmaking, epitomised by Disney and more recently by Pixar and Dreamworks. Ghibli has been consistently turning out brilliant, near-perfect animations for two decades. Amongst my own humble reviews, the average mark scored by Ghibli films is astonishingly high; there is not a single one that could be considered as even slightly below average. Porco Rosso is one of the lesser-known works by Hayao Miyazaki and is certainly less celebrated than Spirited Away whose critical and commercial success was, in fact, the key factor in the eventual release of the majority of the back catalogue. But this film is, as near as makes no difference, perfect. Two years ago, I would have readily given this the full ***** score and the only reason I haven't is because I now have much more stringent requirements for that (which has resulted in only a single ***** film in the past two and a half years): and actually, Porco won't have universal appeal, even for some Ghibli fans. The title character is an ace pilot and bounty hunter in the inter-war era, battling pirates in the Adriatic and collecting his reward, living alone on an island beach. His real name is Marco, but due to a mysterious "curse", he has been turned into a pig, earning him the nickname Porco. (Of course, the curse can be perceived as a figurative device. We learn that he became a pig after fighting for the Italians in the First World War, when he lost many of his friends and colleagues - shown in a haunting, ethereal, near-silent scene in which they pilots and planes float away to Heaven in a shimmering cloud. His appearance is a physical manifestation of the guilt he feels. What, then, can break the "spell"? But Porco's physical appearance is also an unexpected literalism: he is a chauvinist pig; he is pig-headed.) After nearly losing his plane to an American hired by the pirates to shoot him down, he teams up with the feisty granddaughter of a plane builder and repairer, who happens to be a brilliant aeronautical engineer, as well as the most disgracefully tempting teenage animated character since, uh, Ariel. Overall, the mood is rather different, perhaps more adult and more personal than most Miyazaki films, although it contains many familiar themes (flying machines, no easy good vs. evil categorisation, and strong female characters) albeit without such grand environmental and social subtexts that he has favoured of late. Instead, it's a film about honour and about coming to terms with one's own past, which happens to sit snugly in its historical context, with Italian fascism on the ascent and the romantic, heroic era of early aviation not yet in descent. It's also probably the most beautiful of all Ghibli's animations in its pre-CGI era, which is high praise indeed. In the end, not a huge amount actually happens and the ending feels slightly too abrupt - we could have done with a more emotional pay-off, even if the existing conclusion is entirely in keeping with the character - but it's easy to forgive any minor flaws because it's otherwise so perfectly executed throughout. Even the English-language dub by Disney is successful, with Michael Keaton effective as Porco - who, come to think of it, is almost a Batman-esque avenger in his own right, hiding behind the mask of his curse. Modest as it is, I'm happy to call this the best "new" film I've seen this year.

The Princess And The Warrior *** - Cinderella for the twenty-first century, tied into a taut thriller, with the same director / leading lady pair as the brilliant Run Lola Run. It's not quite as original as that work but explores similar themes of fate and serendipity - this time in a romantic context, but again against a criminal background. The romance is realistic - awkward as much as sweet. But the intentionally dreamy nature of the film makes it feel too long and without the frenetic pacing of Lola it struggles to hold the interest.

Snakes On A Plane *** - Having gained a huge amount of publicity in advance of its release, the filmmakers decided to shoot a handful of new scenes to please the burgeoning fanbase. These scenes tend to stick out like a sore thumb. Whether this fact even matters depends on the viewer's point of view. If you take this as a "serious" disaster flick, it's diabolical, on a par with the very worst that genre has to offer. If you take it as a light-hearted riff on the stereotypical 1970s aeroplane-in-trouble film - which, post Airplane!, is probably the right way of thinking - then it's fun and enjoyably gruesome. The laughs tend to come from knowing the well-worn routines: death coming unexpectedly, or to the most irritating / bravest / stupidest of the supporting cast (with the lead cast never in much danger). There's even an Airplane!-esque "Can anybody fly a plane?" moment [*]. It's a good film in the way that From Dusk Till Dawn was fun and seems destined to find a similar niche market.

[*] Even though it rips off a joke I wrote in my first feature screenplay as far back as 1999. Although, actually, I nicked it lock-stock from Flight Of The Phoenix anyway.

Capote *** - At one time, Truman Capote was the most celebrated author in America, and possibly the world. He was, apparently, also a squeaky-voiced weirdo who struggled to reconcile his friendship with the subjects of his masterpiece, In Cold Blood, with the fact that he really needed them to be found guilty of murder and, preferably, hanged, so that he could finish the book. This biopic pulls no punches and works as a documentary, but whether it works as a film depends on how quickly the viewer starts to find Capote's endless self-absorption irritating. Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance is almost uncanny, but that doesn't make the character any less annoying. As with this year's other celebrated biopic, Walk The Line, some of the supporting characters are almost as interesting as Capote himself, including Capote's close friend Nelle Harper Lee, whom generations of schoolchildren will recognise as the author of To Kill A Mockingbird.

Munich ***** - A fictionalised account of the kidnapping and subsequent murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and, more importantly, Israel's subsequent response to it: Mossad sends a handful of its agents - disavowed, of course - to murder eleven Palestinians that they judge to be instrumental in organising the Munich kidnapping. As mentioned above, it's been a very long time since I issued a ***** review and even in this case, it was not without some agonising. Spielberg still, even now, can't do endings and the film could have been more tightly edited. But, apart from this and a couple of very minor but surprising technical glitches (parts of the dialogue soundtrack were a bit ropey), the film is near flawless. As a straightforward conspiracy thriller, it stands head-and-shoulders above anything else in the genre recently. It's always taut, as the characters must wrestle not only with their own belief systems but also with constant fear as the KGB and CIA appear to get involved in their plotting. As political piece, it's more lightweight, but the filmmakers have evidently gone to some trouble to humanise both sides of the equation. The violence is restrained at first, more bloody later, as the five assassins begin to warm to their task: so although we do not see the aftermath of the first bomb the group plants, we are not spared when they shoot a young woman and leave her, deliberately naked and splayed as a final humiliation. Near the film's conclusion, Spielberg unwisely links the themes of sex and murder in a way that might well have appealed to Kubrick. As with all Spielberg's films, this is about family and home: the lead assassin (played by Eric Bana) has a wife and young child to protect, as well as more broadly his homeland, and of course the Palestinians are mainly motivated by a land to call a home of their own. The film finishes with a shot of the New York skyline with the Twin Towers prominent: a trivial comparison, perhaps, but effective in context. It's a brave project for a top Hollywood director and an even braver one for a brace of mainstream studios to back (Universal, Dreamworks, Alliance Atlantis) but it works and it feels balanced without being unnecessarily restrained.

Tuesday, 1 August 2006

July film roundup

Grizzly Man *** - The story of one of America's most well-known experts in grizzly bears, Timothy Treadwell, who spent years living wild with the bears until - inevitably, really - he was killed and eaten by one of them, along with his girlfriend. The documentary is mainly footage shot by Treadwell itself. Remember when the Martin Bashir documentary on Michael Jackson was aired on ITV? There were two main reactions. The Daily Mail crowd, perhaps unsurprisingly, were utterly shocked by the self-evident paedophilia on display. More liberal observers might, on the other hand, have viewed Jackson as rather a sad character, so naive and lost in his own inner fantasy world that by default he could not possibly mean harm to any child. Well, Grizzly Man does for bears what Bashir's doc did for children, although with significantly less sensationalism (being narrated, after all, by a dispassionate German man, who reserves judgement until quite near the end of his story and who seems more inclined to a quasi-parental expression of disappointment in his subject than judgement). Treadwell, like Jackson, is shown to be increasingly withdrawing into a fantasy world which deliberately shuts out most human contact in favour of the company of bears. As eccentric as he is, it's impossible not to notice that some of the lesser characters in this story (such as the coroner who examined Treadwell's remains, and the narrator himself) are pretty weird, too. Eventually, Treadwell's mood swings (he seems prone to violent, obscene outbursts directed at his camera) become uncomfortable viewing and one begins to wonder what his motivations really are - leading to unanswered questions about how Treadwell and his partner came to die, particularly as this was recorded on audio but not video. Might he, perhaps, have deliberately provoked the bear into causing his own death, deliberately recording the sound only, to become a grizzly martyr? It would fit his personality. Or, even more sinisterly, might he even have been intentionally responsible for the death of his own girlfriend, but fudged the audio to make it sound like a bear attack? We can, of course, never know; his death is generally accepted to be down to misadventure, caused by a gross miscalculation on his own part about the level of danger he was in. Fundamentally, the whole premise, persona and execution of this one man's mission is so outrageous that it's difficult to take the documentary seriously, despite its tragic conclusion.

The Libertine ** - Johnny Depp insists in his opening monologue that "you will not like me" but then proceeds to attempt to disprove himself with what should be a sympathetic portrayal of the decadent Earl of Rochester: the audience is, I think, supposed to support him and, yes, to like him as he drinks and sleeps his way to certain death. It doesn't quite come off, however. Not because of his debauchery: that might almost be fun. Perhaps it is because, post-Pirates Of The Caribbean, it's difficult to see anything Depp does as being more than self-indulgent swagger on his own terms, which detracts rather from Rochester's own intense arrogance and self-belief. Sadly uncompelling.

Whisper Of The Heart **** - OK, so, we've established that I'm a fan of Studio Ghibli. We've also determined that every Ghibli film is, more-or-less, a remake of the one before (with a couple of notable exceptions - Grave Of The Fireflies principal amongst them). So why do I persist in rating them so highly? Why have I not long-since become bored with these repetitive "kids films"? Because they are so beautiful, so charming, so completely different to anything produced by an American studio. In this case, the story could hardly be simpler: two teenagers meet and fall for each other. What could be cringe-inducing turns out to be brilliantly, sensitively handled and not embarrassing at all. Perhaps the fact that it's an animation (unlike most other Ghibli films, with their creatures and spirits, it really need not have been) helps in this regard. The medium also allows for more detail, more humour and more flights of fantasy than live-action could provide. The English-language voice cast do a good job.

January 2nd *** - Independent film with a strong, infectious sense of humour, good use of location and some remarkably fine performances from its relatively unknown cast, but with too many flaws to make it to the big league of British film. A somewhat mismatched bunch of 30-something friends meet over a New Year weekend in the Welsh countryside. Revelations about prior behaviour and infidelities abound, shattering friendships and ruining relationships. There is a genuine claustrophobic sense that these people are here together in this great wilderness, far from the rest of civilisation, and it's anybody's guess whether they will resolve their differences by the conclusion. Overall a rewarding experience but the technical and logical errors will try the patience of most audiences.

Saturday, 1 July 2006

June film roundup

An even quieter month than last, at least I've made up for a lack of quantity with some better quality.

Wah-Wah **** - This autobiopic (is that a word?) from Richard E. Withnail Grant could have been an indulgent vanity project extolling the brilliance of life in late colonial Swaziland; or it could have turned into morbid self-examination, full of guilt and angst. That Grant steers a successful course between these murky waters is to his credit. The tragic aspects (such as his father's drink problem, violence and divorce) are handled sensitively and are offset by moments of warmth and humour (and sometimes out-and-out comedy). It may poke fun at the British class system, but on the whole this is not a political film, nor especially complex, preferring to tell its story through vignettes rather than epic sweep. The cast are universally wonderful.

My Neighbour Totoro **** - Two young sisters move to a new home and find it and the surrounding forest inhabited by strange creatures that only they can see. Critics have argued that animé master Hayao Miyazaki has made his reputation - and that of Studio Ghibli - by endlessly repeating the same story over and over. So it appears here at first glance, with many Miyazaki trademarks present and correct. If anything, this is more lightweight than some of his other films; there are no profound observations on growing up (Spirited Away, Kiki's Delivery Service) or mankind's impact on the environment (Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind). Instead, we are presented with a simple, uncomplicated but beautiful and tender portrait of childhood. My Neighbour Totoro is a sort of cross between Alice In Wonderland and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. It's not a comedy in the Disney sense of the term: when the viewer laughs, it is not likely to be for humour, but for joy.

Tuesday, 27 June 2006

May film roundup

May was not a particularly good month quantity-wise, but I was looking forward to a couple of the most highly-regarded films of the past year. Without further ado...

Brokeback Mountain *** - A slow-burning melodrama that, despite being as beautiful and unique as all the hype has made out, managed to feel rather insubstantial. Part of this was due to the deliberate attempts to keep the film sensitive and sympathetic both to the characters and to the worldwide audience. The "issue" the film addresses is, of course, that same-sex love is very rarely presented in mainstream cinema. But beyond the "issue", Brokeback Mountain does not offer much insight. For a tragic love affair, it is surprisingly unemotional, uncomplex and offers little insight beyond what we already know (which is that redneck middle-Americans are likely to react badly, maybe even violently, to "threats" such as homosexuality). A gay Romeo & Juliet this most certainly is not.

Lost In La Mancha *** - This documentary records the increasingly hopeless attempts by Terry Gilliam to make a film version of the Don Quixote story. Things commence badly with actors who can't (or won't) cooperate and a star who needs urgent medical treatment just as filming is due to start. By Day 2 of the shoot, when crew and equipment are almost washed away by unexpected rainstorms, Gilliam must have been starting to wish he'd never bothered. The documentary offers a glimpse of Gilliam's perfectionist personality and tantalising details of the film that might have been. However, the only real sting is simply to demonstrate how fickle Lady Luck can be.

The Constant Gardener ** - One of the most overrated films of the past couple of years. When the activist wife (Rachel Weiss) of the eponymous gardener / British civil servant (Ralph Fiennes) is killed in suspicious circumstances, he is plunged into the dangerous world of Big Business, in the form of an ethics-free pharmaceutical company. The story takes some swallowing (although we are told by author John Le Carré that what goes on in real life is much, much worse). In the latter sections (and even more so in some scenes that were eventually deleted), the action takes place across multiple countries and even continents at a highly frenetic pace yet still the film fails to drive home the essential element of menace: like director Fernando Meirelles' earlier City Of God, the handheld camerawork tends to be intrusive rather than naturalistic. Fiennes' performance begins lumpenly and unconvincingly and doesn't really pick up until the closing scenes. Fortunately he and the film are saved from severe awfulness by the brilliant and lovely Rachel Weiss, whose personality is sufficiently passionate and whose story (told mainly in flashback) sufficiently compelling to hold the viewer's interest. Overall, a botched opportunity for a really great film.

Saturday, 13 May 2006

Film roundup: the missing reviews, part 1

I try - hard - to review every film as I watch it, not least because it is only really possible to do justice to a film if it's still fresh in my mind. At the time of writing this entry, I have 46 unreviewed films, mostly watched between six and twelve months ago. I have extremely brief notes on these and will try to convey this as fairly as possible. This is the first in a series of minireviews in an attempt to catch up.

Perfect Blue *** - Unusually amongst the animé films I've seen, this is a character-based thriller. If Hitchcock had tried his hand at animation, the result might have looked something like this. A young "manufactured" pop star gives up her place in the most popular girl band around in order to pursue a career as an actress. Soon enough, she finds herself being stalked and people near to her suffering gruesome murders. Increasingly hysterical, it's never really clear whether she is in real danger or whether this is a manifestation of her own internal demons. It's a genuinely taut psychological thriller in which, ironically, the animation is the biggest distraction.

Teaching Mrs Tingle ** - A trio of cardboard-cutout schoolkids accidentally take their overbearing teacher hostage and then, unable to release her, play a series of psychological games on her. The scenario is not remotely plausible and this is best viewed as wish-fulfillment fantasy. Nowhere near the standard of other Miramax films of its time.

Pieces Of April *** - A young woman, misunderstood by her family, plans a Thanksgiving dinner for them, only to befall a series of disasters that threaten to prove what her estranged family thinks they already know: that she's an irresponsible mess. The success or failure of this independent film (shot on HDV) depends on the viewer's ability to imagine two parents who like and trust their daughter so little. The film labours its points a little too hard in places, but ultimately achieves its goal: we do feel sorry for April, and hope that the meal will be a success.

Million Dollar Baby **** - Despite having no interest whatsoever in boxing, I was mesmerised by this brilliant drama about an ageing boxing coach who reluctantly takes on a female student. Clint Eastwood stars and directs, proving once and for all that his extraordinary career is still going from strength to strength. Morgan Freeman is, of course, fantastic. But both are upstaged by Hilary Swank, whose Oscar-winning performance is heartbreaking and utterly compelling.

The Rules Of Attraction ** - On the one hand a fantastic technical tour de force, the only major problem with this film is that it's so incredibly unlikeable. Nasty, horrible, self-absorbed characters do nasty, horrible, selfish things to each other and everybody feels miserable. There are hints that the film is trying to be something more - an ignored lover who commits suicide could be seen as the equivalent of Miss Lonely Hearts in Hitchcock's Rear Window, the one true tragedy in a sea of otherwise rather meaningless lives. But actually, the back story (the central character is supposed to be Patrick American Psycho Bateman's brother) and the director's technical prowess are the only reasons to see this film.

Tuesday, 2 May 2006

April film roundup

K-19: The Widowmaker ** - Hollywood once again plays with the facts, not to mention casting the most implausible Russian submariners since Sean Connery, in this long and turgid film about a stricken nuclear flagship. The fact that it's a tragic true tale does not, sadly, make up for the lack of pace. The memories of the brave Soviet crew members who risked certain death by entering the reactor are not, on the whole, well-served by this film, which relishes in pointing out the obvious: that the most serious price of communism was the state's lack of compassion for the individual. Ironically, then, the film as it its most horrific and effective when pointing out these incidental details: a nameless quartermaster, finding no radiation suits in stores, supplies the boat with chemical protection suits instead, and it is in these, as useless as tissue paper, that the reactor repairs are carried out.

Maria Full Of Grace *** - As always with an "issue film", it's hard to separate the quality of the film from the gravity of the issue. Like Lilya 4-Ever this is about a distinctly late-twentieth / early twenty-first century phenomenon: in this case, young, desperate Columbian women are hired as drugs mules, forced to swallow huge quantites of drugs, and then sent into America. Despite showing the fates of two of Maria's fellow mules - one extremely grizzly - somehow the film fails to convince that Maria herself is in imminent danger.

Walk The Line **** - This acclaimed biopic of Johnny Cash is actually as good as the critics say it is. Joaquin Phoenix portrays the singer's inner torment well; there are delightful sidelines from Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis (not to mention producer Sam Phillips) that place the film in historical and musical context; and the music is great. But the real ace up this film's sleeve is Reese Witherspoon's performance as June Carter, the moral and emotional core of the film, who is so instantly adorable it's little wonder that the real Man In Black proposed to her more than thirty times.

Bound *** - Before The Matrix there was this. The opening section is pure porn-movie spoof; the latter part a fairly standard heist / double-cross movie that does, in fact, manage to spark a real sense of danger. But, directed by two of the geekiest brothers on the planet, the film never quite stops feeling exploitative.

A History Of Violence *** - David Cronenburg's latest starts promisingly with a small-town everyman turned reluctant hero finding himself and his family terrorised by gangsters from another state. Unfortunately, after building tension admirably for the first hour or so, it veers off into altogether more run-of-the-mill territory. We're left wondering what the long-term ramifications on this close-knit, loving family are likely to be: questions which the film ducks out of answering.

Serenity *** - This space fable from the pen of Buffy creator Joss Whedon - the big-screen spinoff from failed sci-fi series Firefly - plays something like a cold war version of Starship Troopers or the short-lived Space: Above And Beyond - which is no bad thing. A cast of complete unknowns helps (although, distractingly, they appear to have been cast based on their physical resemblance to various A-listers). Proceedings are lively but mostly unoriginal, borrowing heavily from Star Wars and Star Trek, and the seriousness of the film's "message" is but a veneer on something which is all-too-obviously intended to be eye-popping but shallow.

Collateral **** - Tom Cruise successfully plays against type in this violent and very tense thriller. Not dissimilar to phone booth (the majority of the action here taking place in a taxi), all the elements of really good thrillers are present and correct, especially the good guy being mistaken for bad, and the one "believer" in the good guy being despatched before the movie is out. Jamie Foxx, as the innocent taxi driver taken for a ride by Cruise's ruthless assassin, is superb, playing in turn outright fear, distraught defiance and, eventually, finding his own inner strength.

Sunday, 5 March 2006

March film roundup

Cold Mountain **** - Epic drama about the American Civil War (starring, bizarrely, a Brit and an Australian). As it becomes clear that the South is losing the war, an injured Jude Law deserts his unit and tries to make his way back to sweetheart Nicole Kidman. The cast is first-class throughout, with superb support from the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Jack White and Ray Winstone. Ironically, perhaps, the least convincing performance comes Renée Zellwegger, who won an Oscar for her troubles. The film depicts the war in all its horrific detail. The comparisons with films set in other wars, from the World Wars to Vietnam, is stiking and goes to prove that we humans never learn: we always assume that war will be glorious and mercifully brief.

The General ***** - Probably the greatest film-related experience of my life - until I get nominated for the Palme D'Or, that is - was seeing two silent Chaplin films with live symphony orchestra accompaniment. The fact that thousands of people were rolling in the aisles at a series of grainy frames shot nearly a century ago was moving and humbling. Much of the credit for this must go to Carl Davis' excellent original scores. But this was not the first occasion that he had written an accompaniment for a classic silent film. In the late 1980s, Thames Television on behalf of Channel 4 commissioned him to write the score for a new transfer of Buster Keaton's masterpiece The General, a film that has since been released several times on DVD but, until now, never with the Davis score. And "masterpiece" is truly the mot juste to describe this wonderful film, which makes a surprisingly good double bill with Cold Mountain: both films depict the Civil War from the point of view of the losing Confederates. The General is, simply, stunning from start to finish, with cinema's greatest chase sequence; a brilliant mirrored plot (in which elements of the first chase are reused when the hunter becomes the hunted); spectacular stunts (all performed live); and all offset by that gorgeous Davis score, which weaves in Yankee and Confederate themes such that the intertitles become completely redundant. A gem.

Howl's Moving Castle *** - Regular readers (both of them) will know that I love Studio Ghibli's work. I desperately wanted to love this film - which is to say that I wanted the press reports of it being confusing and over-long to be erroneous - but in fact it is a rather flawed film. It may be stunningly beautiful to behold, there are a few laughs and a few really spectacular scenes; but the story and, ultimately, the heart have been lost along the way. It's easy to see why Miyazaki was attracted to work on an adaptation rather than his usual original material, though: it contains many themes familiar from his work, including the central character of a young(-ish) girl who must learn to find her own inner strength; the European setting; the retro-futuristic steam-powered flying machines; and the wholly original mythology.

The Edukators *** - This could have been really great: a film about two activists who break into rich people's homes, not to steal, but in order to "edukate" them to social reality. The acting is really rather good, particularly Daniel Bruhl (Good Bye, Lenin!) and Julia Jentsch, who comes across like a German version of Kelly MacDonald. The film is let down by the shaky digital camerawork which, rather than instilling a genuine sense of urgency, is just irritating; by occasionally dubious soundtrack music; and by editing which could easily have been tightened considerably with no ill effects. Still, well worth seeing.

Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind *** - Early Miyazaki with many of his trademarks present and correct, with a competent English dub (yes, I'm pretty sure that is Patrick Stewart lending his gravitas to his role). A bit clunky compared to what we've seen in the genre lately but by no means bad.

February film roundup

La Haine *** - Meaning "hatred", this is, apart from the language, a film that could have been shot in many British cities. Indeed, there are several renowned directors working in the UK today who specialise in the "grim up north" kind of filmmaking to which this can be compared, grainy monochrome photography and all. The hatred in question in this case can be seen as racial or social, with a gritty council housing estate simmering with tension and anti-establishment feeling. The film manages to generate a genuine fear in the viewer, who can only hope that things will turn out well, against all the mounting odds.

Before Sunrise *** - Richard Linklater directs this slight, but interesting, story of two strangers who meet on a train and decide to spend the night together exploring a European city unknown to either of them. Although the partially ad-libbed script occasionally seems a bit clunky, the viewer does grow to care about the pair sufficiently that the ending, in which they agree to meet up again in a year's time, works as a genuine cliffhanger.

Before Sunset ** - Linklater teams up again with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy nearly a decade on to find out what has become of the young ideallists of Before Sunrise. It turns out the years have not been kind to either of them. Linklater adds a new element to his part-improv film this time - it's in real-time, which gives a more genuine sense of urgency over their time together. But this time, it's harder to care about two characters who have lost their youthful charm. Hawke and Delpy share the credits for the Oscar-nominated script.

Me And You And Everyone We Know *** - Falling into an indie sub-genre inhabited by the likes of American Beauty, Napoleon Dynamite, Ghost World and even Donnie Darko, this is one of those films about relationships between disparate and quirky individuals in which, inevitably, some of the characters self-destruct while others find redemption. The cast is distinctly non A-list, which does help draw the audience in. Special credit must go to Miranda July, who writes, directs and stars, but keeps her involvement unobtrusive.

Stickmen ** - It could be argued that there are too many Brit-flicks about violent gangsters and hard-men, without New Zealand weighing in on the act as well. This film - a sort of billiards-based version of The Big Lebowski - starts slowly but does eventually succeed inasmuch as the audience will be rooting for the good guys by the end.

January film roundup

Kinsey *** - Biopic about the famous sex researcher, who starts off trying to educate the students at the university where he teaches entymology about sex and relationships, but ends up compiling the world's largest dataset on sexual behaviour in human beings. The film explores the man's own relationships as well as the examining the establishment's attitudes to his research. Interesting but not especially profound.

Following ** - Before Christopher Nolan made the brilliant Memento, he shot this short black & white feature about a man who decides, for his own self-amusement, to trail complete strangers. Perhaps the most common mistake that first-time writers/directors make (I know I've done the same) is to take a structural idea - in this case, the time frame jumps between several different sequences of events - and over-use it. Such is the case here, although it does help to disguise the fact that the plot is quite weak.

Etre Et Avoir **** - Fantastic documentary about the teacher and pupils of a rural French primary school. The teacher's dedication to his flock is genuinely moving.

December film roundup

The Descent *** - Occasionally scary horror which, despite British credentials, is set in North America. Every year, a group of young women get together for an adventure holiday: white-water rafting etc. This year, they're going caving. Predictably, there are tensions amongst the group and, also predictably, certain corners have been cut in the planning of their trip, leaving them vulnerable to whatever lurks in the darkness. Whilst I have no doubt that being trapped without lighting in a cave inhabited by something intent on ripping one to pieces would be utterly terrifying, the filmmakers are hindered by the fact that the medium obliges them to show images most of the time, even in supposed absolute darkness.

King Kong *** - Poor Naomi Watts: although she's one of the world's finest dramatic actresses, she's also one of the most frequently imperilled. So it proves here, with her character contributing little more than (1) wide-eyed stares; (2) screams; and (3) standing around in a very wet dress. There must come a time in a successful director's career when he can get away without somebody telling him that it's all going wrong. Peter Jackson desparately needed someone to tell him to cut out swathes of the material here: in going for an epic feel, he ends up leaving in scenes that are of very limited relevance. Whilst undeniably spectacular in places, in other scenes the special effects don't seem all that special at all; there are particular problems when the CGI elements are supposed to interact with the humans. There are a few nice touches: when Jack Black, as the film director, is trying to find an actress for his film, Faye Wray is dismissed because she is "shooting a picture for RKO". But such moments are few and far between. It's also unexplained why it's set in the 1930s: sure, the original was, but that's because it was made in the 1930s. Finally, in going for a motion-capture Kong, played by Andy "Gollum" Serkis, they have invested the ape with too many human emotions; ironically, then, this hugely expensive bit of animation ends up looking like a man in a monkey suit.

Under The Greenwood Tree (TVM) **** - Effective adaptation from ITV that maintains Hardy's sense of humour.

8 Femmes *** - Bizarre whodunnit-style film about eight women stuck in a country house during a snow storm with a dead man; one of them must have committed the murder, but which? The film takes frequent, slightly surreal turns as it is also a musical, complete with song-and-dance numbers. However, overall it feels a little too much like a stage musical, relying on a single set.

Wednesday, 22 February 2006

TV review - Movie Lounge *

Waaaaay back in the day, I had this great idea for a new television programme about films that was based on BBC2's Top Gear. The thing about current TV shows about films is that, well, they're dull, which is a real shame, because films are anything but. Top Gear seemed like a good model because I love watching it, even though I have absolutely no interest in cars. A TV show format that can do that is a powerful thing.

Here's what's available in this arena at the moment: There's Film 2006, of course, which is the most reliable of movie review shows, but suffers greatly from having a single reviewer's point of view (Jonathan Ross now, Barry Norman before him) and also suffers from Ross' insistence on sucking up to his guests, or asking crass questions like, "Have you lost weight?"

There's Talking Movies, which is another BBC production concentrating on the latest releases on the other side of the pond.

On ITV, you have regular "behind the scenes" programmes, which are basically cheap filler, because they are provided essentially as advertising for the film in question. Channel 4 fills its film-reviewing remit through its weekend T4 strand, alongside a very nice website which, with the demise of FilmFour's production arm, seems to have taken rather a severe pruning recently.

So, up steps Five, with its new offering, Movie Lounge. At first glance, this seems to be exactly what I was hoping for: the Top Gear of film review shows, with celebrity guests offering their opinions, and a weird and wacky sense of humour underpinning the show.

That's not exactly how it turned out. The "celebrities" selected for tonight's opening episode were hardly experts on, or even very interested in, film. One of them, who was charged with the task of reviewing the critically-acclaimed, award-winning film Capote, confessed early on to not knowing who Truman Capote actually was, rendering his opinion of the biopic rather moot. His contribution became even more derisory when it emerged that he hadn't seen any of the other films under discussion. "I don't go to the cinema," he said, twice; "I stay at home and watch Antiques Roadshow." So, an ideal guest for a show about films, then.

Things got steadily worse as the host was repeatedly ridiculed by his guests for being "posh". As he struggled to keep the uninformed debate under control, he introduced "the most famous actor in the world... under four foot." I was expecting, as I am sure every other viewer was, Verne "Mini-Me" Troyer, but no, it turned out to be Warwick Davis, whose main credits are as Marvin in Hitchhikers' Guide To The Galaxy (in which he doesn't actually appear) and an Ewok in Return Of The Jedi (ditto). The format of this interview was uncomfortably similar to Jonathan Ross, inasmuch as it comprised mainly praise for Mr. Davis' work in a series of low-budget horror films called Leprechaun.

There was a brief diversion into the history of local picture palaces - a subject in which I am very interested - that went absolutely nowhere apart from a long and pointless plug for the presenter's local cinema. No mention of the fact that local cinemas are being shut down and demolished at an alarming rate, but an invitation to the viewer to submit the local fleapit for consideration for a future bit of irrelevant propaganda.

There were two moments that nearly saved the show. First, they had a teenage boy "reviewing" Into The Blue, which focused exclusively on the exact moments in that opus at which either Jessica Alba or Ashley Scott disrobed. That would have been moderately funny, were it not for the sinking feeling that the producers are going to re-use that gag every week. Then they had snooty art critic Brian Sewell on to rant about the latest multiplex-fodder, The Fog. He's always good value for money. Unsurprisingly, his scathing review appeared only to encourage the show's studio guests to go and see the film he hated.

The programme lasted 45 minutes but felt longer, even though it imparted absolutely no useful information whatsoever. It is utterly impossible to make a judgement on whether to go to see the films reviewed on the basis of the studio discussion shown here. One can't help but feel a scintilla of sympathy for the presenter, Giles Coren, who probably is a genuine cinema buff, who happens to have been landed with a dull, pointless TV show.

Movie Lounge (2006) *