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.