Sunday, 1 October 2006

September film roundup

A good quantity of (mainly older) films this month of and wildly varying characteristics: none quite reach the standards achieved last month, but there's some fascinating pieces of filmmaking here.

The Safety Of Objects *** - I don't appear ever to have written a review of Panic Room (an unusual omission on my part) but I remember being slightly surprised, about three-quarters of the way through, to realise that Jodie Foster's young son was actually a girl called Sarah. Curious, then, that young actress Kristen Stewart's androgynous, tomboyish appearance is actually a crucial plot point in the previous year's The Safety Of Objects. There's no doubt at all, from the opening scene onwards, that we are watching the work of a female director (and, indeed, mainly female crew). It's yet another entry in the genre of films that contains American Beauty, Donnie Darko, Napoleon Dynamite, Me And You And Everyone We Know, Happiness, Ghost World and The Rules Of Attraction: that is, interlocking character pieces, mainly set in normal suburban lives with dark secrets. As such, it's not an especially interesting example of the genre, although there are some solid performances and a more optimistic ending than in many of the films listed. I guess I'm just not a fan of a genre that, by definition, relies on intricate cross-threading and hence, by restrictive screen time and a large number of strands to cover, doesn't allow the audience to develop intimacy with the characters.

Syriana **** - Also an ensemble piece, but in no way similar to The Safety Of Objects, this is a highly complex, politically-charged drama about America's dependence on oil. The structure is more tightly bound than Traffic, with which it shares a pedigree. If there's a fault, it's that it's such a complicated story - and such a complicated issue - that it demands a great deal of concentration and, consequently, leaves little time for the audience to develop much of a connection for the characters. Overall exhausting but extremely worthwhile.

V For Vendetta *** - Like Syriana, this sets out to show us some truths about the world we live in today - but does it through the medium of a near-future dystopian sci-fi / graphic novel adaptation. Now don't get me wrong: as a writer, I really like near-future dystopias, but V failed to convince for the first 45 minutes or so. Thankfully, things did improve in the second half, but instead of reaching the heights aspired to (a twenty-first century Nineteen Eighty-Four, I assume), it still managed, frustratingly, to come across merely as a big melting pot of ideas from Doctor Who added to a splash of the eponymous mysterious benefactor in Phantom Of The Opera and any number of masked-avenger stories. Briefly: the US and possibly the rest of the world has fallen into anarchy, leaving the UK in the hands of a totalitarian, Christian fundamentalist government who probably don't have the best interest of their citizens at heart. Actually, in reality, it's probably easier to imagine that the US has gone this way than the UK. There are occasional condescending fumblings that betray the American authorship; and some casting decisions are a trifle bizarre; but at least the film attempts to make effective and moody use of its London locations (yet also manages a liberal number of studio or digital sets that stand out a mile). The film's primary downfall is probably its deeply cold execution: it's supposed to be a story that invites its audience to think for themselves and make comparisons with the current state of the nation, but falls flat because it never lets us close enough to the characters to care. A film that heads for greatness but misses the mark. V. disappointing.

Good Night, And Good Luck *** - Yet another film that seeks to show us some truths about the world today, this time in a historical context. It's the 1950s and Senator McCarthy's witchhunt is in full swing. At CBS, liberal broadcasters attempt to discredit McCarthy's methods without themselves occurring his wrath and without losing their sponsors. It's really all about the ongoing self-interest of the media versus exposure of the truth, a topic with profound relevance today. Interestingly, one of the key criticisms levelled at the media organisations in the film is their unwillingness to report bad news. In the twenty-first century, one might argue that the opposite is true: that it's politicians' leaking of bad news and the media's propagation of it that leads us to the vastly inflated sense of fear in the West today. The drama is compelling enough but perhaps a little too constrained by its setting (almost entirely within the Columbia television studios). I'd love to see this as a stage play performed by these actors: it would be riveting.

Only Yesterday *** - Of considerably less universal importance is this Studio Ghibli animation (Omohide Poro Poro, literally (apparently) the beautifully poetic "Memories Of Falling Teardrops") about Taeko, a city woman in her late twenties, struggling to reconcile her memories of childhood whilst on a working holiday on a safflower farm. It's an occasionally eccentric and baffling film from the director of the brilliant Grave Of The Fireflies. Sandwiched in production terms between the highly enjoyable Porco Rosso and the equally wonderful Kiki's Delivery Service, this is heavily grounded in reality: so this is likely to be the first and probably only cartoon that discusses both agricultural economics and menstruation in the space of a few short minutes. The animation, too, is ground-breaking in its level of detail. It's certainly a beautifully drawn film whose main fault is simply that it's too introspective: for all the verbal and physical bullying the ten-year-old Taeko endures, she seems to have fared no worse than any other child on the cusp of puberty, which makes her reminiscences seem rather trivial and self-absorbed.

Les Parapluies de Cherbourg ***- Catherine Deneuve has appeared in several rather bizarre musicals in her lifetime. Even the likes of Dancer In The Dark and 8 Femmes don't quite prepare the viewer for this gloriously, self-indulgently artificial musical in which, rather than shoot on Technicolor to achieve that MGM look, the director opts to paint everything in dayglo colours and have his cast wear bright purple and pink clothes that, more often than not, match the wallpaper in whatever venue they happen to be: it's a bit like a prototype for Baz Luhrmann's brilliant but garish Moulin Rouge! Every word is sung, which heightens the artifice still further. (Early on, a car mechanic sings that he prefers films to opera, because he doens't like the way people sing all the time in opera - hammering the point home just a shade too much.) The story isn't particularly deep - but then, it doesn't need to be - and yet it shies away from convention and has a "happy" ending that isn't the one the audience might expect. Some of the music is pretty good and it doesn't outstay its welcome. Of course, the film is aided no end by the fact that Deneuve herself looks positively angelic (leading to this being allegedly the only musical in history with more male fans than female). But the primary colours and incessant singing can also add up to something of a headache: one would not want to watch this with a hangover. As a unique piece of movie fluff, then, it's good; but it requires some patience to overcome the initial bemusement.

Don't Look Now *** - This classic British psychological thriller stirs up requisite amounts of dread without resorting to blood 'n' gore. The plot centres around a couple whose young daughter may or may not be attempting to contact them from beyond the grave. As audience, we are more frequently frightened than perhaps the characters themselves as they are placed in increasingly (apparently) perilous situations and it becomes apparent that, while there may well be a perfectly innocence explanation for the various phenomena occurring, equally some or all may not be as it seems: anyone, from their friends to the police officers to the churchmen, might be a threat. Sadly the film has not aged well. The cinematography - shot with delibeartely washed-out blues and greens (but particularly garish reds) does turn Venice, which in summertime is a sumptuous and beautiful city, into an eerie, creepy, threatening place; but additionally, time has taken its toll both on the print quality and the soundtrack to Don't Look Now, which proves to be a distraction. The suspense builds well to the iconic closing scence, which will be familiar to even to first-time viewers as a result of repeated use on clip shows and in other movies, and in homage form in the likes of Mulholland Dr.

Barton Fink *** - Like the best of the Coen Brothers' output, this is a sprawling but enthralling tale with surreal undercurrents. The eponymous Fink is a playwright in New York whose critical success leads to him being lured to Hollywood, where he tries to write something meaningful for an audience that just wants the latest brainless blockbuster. It's a multi-layered film: part psychological thriller, part statement on the mass audience for film, part autobiography for the Coens (who, like Fink, had had one major critical success that they were attempting to follow up with this film). Structurally, the film gets across the nature of the artistic process: there are long periods in which nothing happens, followed by a frenzy of activity when inspiration strikes. However, it's this structure that hinders the film somewhat, making it feel somewhat uneven and even a bit dull in places. Fortunately it is redeemed by both an excellent cast and the Coens' unfaltering visual style.