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.