Wednesday, 1 November 2006

October film roundup

The Cat Returns *** - What Douglas Adams did for both mice and dolphins - that is, give them a secret civilisation that humans couldn't see - Studio Ghibli now does for cats. For anyone who views cats with distrust, this is a great film - but it probably equally suits cat-lovers, too. It features The Baron, the cat figurine featured in Whisper Of The Heart, in a fantasy adventure that is both thematically similar and stylistically dissimilar from other Ghibli works, weaving in elements of Alice In Wonderland, The Wizard Of Oz and even - I'm pretty sure - Winnie The Pooh. At 75 minutes, it's very much shorter than the average Ghibli animation, suggesting that it is pitched at a younger audience. While it's fun, it's far too modest, lacking the usual Ghibli magic. As (mostly) usual, the English language dub is good, with a couple of well-known actors in the main roles (Cary "Dread Pirate Roberts" Elwes, who voiced The Baron in Whisper, returns in the role). But it can't avoid showing its roots: as a short film that's been expanded, it feels too slight compared to most of Ghibli's output. One for Ghibli completists and cat lovers.

Heaven *** - Tom Tykwer's latest film - co-penned by Three Colours director Krzysztof Kieslowski - is as beautiful and as infuriating as might be expected of the director of Run Lola Run and The Princess And The Warrior. Tykwer's obsession with coincidence and serendipity is much in evidence, as is his distinctive visual style. Cate Blanchett is wonderful; she makes a potentially hateful figure immensely likeable. But the film can't quite shake the fact that, as religious allegory (which is surely what it is - certainly there are unsubtle pointers) it simply doesn't work.

Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow ** - This experiment in combining live action with computer-drawn sets is handsomely painted but lacks plot, script, humour and heart. Things start promisingly enough with giant robots spectacularly attacking New York in some kind of alternate 1930s, but the film quickly goes off the boil with unlikely plot developments and some cringingly-bad dialogue. In style, this is close to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within which suffered similarly from a lack of any kind of plot or character development, not to mention some truly bizarre lapses in the "reality" of the scenario. In mood, though, this most represents one of those animé films (giant robots, lasers and retro-futuristic flying machines all present and correct) in which the English language dub has been severely dumbed down. When the aircraft she is travelling in is visibly diving perilously towards the sea, is it strictly necessary for Gwyneth Paltrow to say so repeatedly? It's moments like this that turn this into an earnest, risible and ultimately forgettable mess.

Threads (TVM) ***** - This BBC drama from 1984, directed by Mick Jackson - an acclaimed documentary filmmaker whose previous credits included the seminal The Ascent Of Man and whose later move to Hollywood would result in, er, The Bodyguard and LA Story - is a bold, thoroughly brilliant and extremely disturbing examination of the events in the days leading up to, and the several years following, a nuclear attack on the UK. Even though the fashions have dated somewhat and the 16mm photography lacks contrast and colour saturation, the film still seems years ahead of its time, both in plot (the US is facing a stand-off against hostile forces in Iran - OK, it's against the USSR in this case, but there are plenty of modern parallels) and in execution: presented in a serious yet matter-of-fact kind of way, like a documentary, which adds even more weight to the events as they unfold. The closing credits list a number of academics who contributed to the film, suggesting that this is just about the most truthful examination of nuclear war that one could expect to see. The two-hour run-time is split down the middle with the attack itself occurring right in the middle of the film and, subsequently, some horrific images of the immediate and more distant aftermath, including a nuclear winter and a return to mediaeval ways of life. No punches are pulled: the dead and dying are everywhere; things get violent and ugly as people realise that there is no food; traffic wardens are armed with machine guns to guard troublemakers in makeshift prison camps. But it's the first half of the film that is truly terrifying. In the days before the attack, the ordinary citizens of Sheffield casually go about their business, barely paying attention to the growing military crisis in the Middle East, even when the UK Government starts to bring in emergency powers (which, to an early twenty-first century viewer, may seem uncomfortably familiar, amongst them compulsory ID cards and the right to hold potential troublemakers without trial). By the time the attack siren sounds, very few people are prepared, most caught out in the open doing their weekly shopping. Again the film pulls no punches: private citizens and local government officials alike panic, scarcely believing what's happening. And besides, after the bomb drops, those who have taken some precautions fare no better than those caught completely unawares. Overall, this is harrowing, seriously horrifying material: this reviewer has never been as comprehensively terrified by a film before.