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.