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.