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.

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