Monday, 1 October 2007

Quarterly film roundup - July to September 2007

Tideland ** - At the beginning of the DVD of this self-consciously macabre, fiercely-offbeat film by Terry Gilliam, the directory himself pops up onscreen. He pleads with the audience to see the film for what he is, and he delivers a heartfelt (if excruciating) expression of gratitude to the little girl at the centre of the story. And small wonder that he feels the need to excuse his work and to thank his star (or his character); this child is placed through the sorts of indignities one wouldn't wish on anyone, from looking after her dead and decomposing drug-addict father, to exploiting the sexual urges of a local simpleton. This is a deeply troubling, voyeuristic film and whether or not Gilliam intended it to be a celebration of childhood resilience - of the ability of a young mind to protect itself by wrapping itself in fantasy - doesn't make it any less uncomfortable to watch. Like Pan's Labyrinth, the exotic fantasy cannot begin to atone for the grim reality.

Dirty Pretty Things **** - A British immigrant makes a grim discovery in the bathroom of the hotel where he works illegally and is faced with an impossible dilemma. He cannot go to the authorities, yet he cannot allow such inhuman barbarism to continue. Showing an underbelly of British culture rarely explored on screen means that it is hard to judge the true-life accuracy of the story. But the central performances are extremely compelling, and the lines between good and evil are sufficiently blurred to allow for the outcome to be in some doubt.

Volver *** - A young girl kills her abusive father and is protected from the obvious consequences of the crime by her mother. Life starts to improve, despite being overshadowed by a mysterious - maybe even ghostly - figure from the past. Like many Spanish dramas, or so it seems, this one deals with strong women characters and about the relationship between child and mother. Its benign supernatural element, rather than adding a new dimension to the drama, seems more like a quirk deliberately inserted to give more depth, but this does remain a slickly-executed film.

The Simpsons Movie *** - Every once in a while, a film is so eagerly anticipated that it can only disappoint. The question then is, by how much? What margin for failure does a television show as successful and beloved as The Simpsons have? On the plus side, there are plenty of strong laughs to be had. But it's not a particularly memorable experience, particularly when the TV series does have so many memorable gags, albeit ones that have been repeated ad infinitum. One is left desperately hoping that the forthcoming Futurama television movies will offer something more substantial.

Die Another Day ** - Even by the standards of most Bond movies, this is wildly-implausible - sometimes even completely baffling - entry in the girls 'n' gadgets genre. Nothing, from the opening credits onwards, gels properly or makes much sense. And, seen with the hindsight of the excellent Casino Royale, it is perhaps a very good thing that this was Brosnan's last outing as the suave superspy.

Lovers Of The Arctic Circle *** - A film about coincidences, about tiny choices having profound effects, and of life's occasional savagery. It's mostly a handsome production, but the deliberately obfuscated conclusion greatly lessens its dramatic impact.

Paris, Je T'Aime *** - Eighteen leading filmmakers from around the world shoot a short film each, each on the topic of love, here strung together into a single two-hour anthology that seems to go on much longer. The best of the stories are humorous, memorable, and moving. Some are just surprising. The problem is not even that some of the stories aren't very good: it's more that there are just too many. Pick and choose eight or ten and you might have a superb film. Hopefully the DVD will allow just this; maybe it will even have a jukebox function. But over the course of eighteen segments, the ensemble's flaws are obvious. For a start, it's too uneven. And even the rules laid down by the producer haven't been followed consistently. While most directors have chosen the topic to mean romantic love specifically, this is not always the case. However, as a quick introduction to directorial style, it works surprisingly well: Tom Tykwer's segment is like having the essence of Run Lola Run distilled into five minutes, for example, and the Coen Brothers, Sylvain Chomet and Gurinder Chadha likewise. But at no point does it convey the supposed magic of Paris; with only five minutes or so each to tell a story, none of the directors felt like allowing their romantic backdrop more than a mere glance of screen time.

Road To Perdition *** - A frustrating, but meticulously made and beautifully shot, gangster film, whose biggest crime is to depend overly on cliché. As a result, key plot points will be obvious to most viewers well in advance. Its roots as a graphic novel are occasionally exposed, with an uneven story and line sketches where characters should be. For all its pulchritude, Road To Perdition lacks the depth it aspires to. There are many better examples of bad-man-as-good-guy films out there.

Friday, 27 July 2007

Gloucester floods

I'm very touched by the sheer quantity of emails, text messages and Facebook posts from friends across the UK expressing concern following the recent severe flooding in Gloucester. Even people I haven't spoken to in months or years have been getting in contact to ask if I'm OK. Some people who haven't even been to Gloucester have been asking after me, and after my Gloucestrian friends and colleagues, and offering all sorts of help. Even friends and acquaintances from Gloucester itself have been getting in touch to ensure I'm OK. I am extremely grateful for each and every message of support.

The truth is, I've had it very easy indeed compared to the vast majority of people in this city. My house is some twenty metres above the level of the Severn with only very small feeder streams anywhere nearby. I've spent most of the week putting on weight in a guesthouse in Sussex (it's a combination of the fried breakfasts and the expense account that does it) and enjoying the hot shower there. As a result of this cowardly exodus, much of the rest of this text is based on second-hand information.

I've arrived back this Friday evening to discover that I still have running water. To all intents and purposes, then, I haven't had any interruption to my water supply at all. I'm extremely perplexed by this state of affairs, as the next roads to the east, south and west are all still being supplied from bowsers in the streets, and Churchdown, the next village to the north, is ditto. I can only assume, until I'm told to the contrary, that Severn Trent have managed to fill a local reservoir (Chosen Hill?) with non-potable water. This is in direct contradiction with their own website, which has me right in the middle of the drought zone. It's all rather mysterious. Severn Trent's press release says that the temporary measure in place in Tewkesbury cannot be expected to supply the majority of the 130,000 affected homes across north Gloucestershire - and I'm nowhere near Tewkesbury.

This text was supposed to be a photo-journal of the current situation, but after two hours of motorcycling around Gloucester and Cheltenham this evening, I honestly couldn't find anything that was worth snapping. If you've seen one roadside water tank that looks like a large blue plastic Dalek, well, then you've seen them all.

The weather here right now is fine, although heavy rain is expected over the weekend once more. The roads are certainly dry, apart from a couple of places outside of town where small streams are draining from fields. Apart from the bowsers all over the place, and the occasional person wandering around with a couple of buckets trying to find a full one, you'd be hard pressed to identify anything wrong. Gloucester Festival is currently in full swing, and although it's muddy in the fairground in Gloucester Park, it's nothing out of the ordinary.

Look more closely and there are a few other clues. Many businesses, especially pubs and restaurants, have closed their doors. Others (including my own place of work, but also several pubs that I passed) have hired in portable toilets. In one outlying village, a particularly thoughtful parish council has hired in toilets for the use of the villagers. But many places are, somehow, just getting on with it. Plenty of local hostelries have that tell-tale gaggle of smokers outside their front doors, indicating business as usual.

The situation unfolded like this.

Last Friday afternoon, the weather was so spectacularly inclement that many colleagues opted to leave early in order to get home. This turned out to be a very good idea. My team, being highly conscientious employees, stayed until the usual finishing up time - well, almost - before trying to depart, only to discover that every route north of Gloucester was blocked. The M5 was so badly congested that hundreds of people had to sleep in their cars overnight. Other routes, including the A40, A417 and A46, were closed due to flooding. Minor roads, including Churchdown Lane near to my home, had deep water collecting in dips and were impassable. The A38 on the west side of Gloucester was open, but unreachable from the east side. Initially, everyone thought that it would be best to get some dinner at the pub and try again later. With the rain continuing and traffic still not moving by late evening, however, P. and S. both sensibly decided to stay at my house overnight. L., meanwhile, was trapped at work, due to a deep torrent of water running down the road cutting her off from her own car (actually, T.'s car, which she'd borrowed for the day). She cracked open the wine and tried to make the best of it.

On Saturday, the weather was considerably better. Gloucester city centre was bustling and busy during the day, with no obvious signs of the weather beating it had received. However, it was on Saturday that the (possibly apocryphal) story emerged of an idiot who approached a bridge with a water depth marker reading just below seven feet. He carefully moved a line of cones out of the way of his car and proceeded into the floodwater, only to crash immediately into a completely submerged vehicle in his path. That the story has already taken on the status of urban legend is indicated by some of the embellishments that I've heard, including that, as he was pulled from his terminally-damaged and now submarine vehicle, he tried to fend off his rescuer with the words, "Never mind me - what about my car?"

By Sunday, the extent of the devastation was becoming clear. The beautiful market town of Tewkesbury was almost completely submerged. H. in Quedgeley and R. in Tuffley, in the southern parts of Gloucester, reported that power and water had been cut. There were angry scenes at supermarkets across the city as fights over bottled water began to break out. People began to fill their baths and whatever vessels they could find with the last of the mains supply.

On Monday, businesses were trying to establish how they could function effectively without a fresh water supply. Bowsers started to be deployed, although Severn Trent was finding it difficult to keep them filled: their tankers were too large to fit into the residential roads where they were sited.

It was at this point that yours truly, having filled a very nice collection of old wine and beer bottles with drinking water, decided that the best course of action was to run away for the week.

A. reports that on Tuesday, although most people had their power restored, there were still queues panic-buying water at supermarkets. At Morrisons in Abbeydale, customers near the front of the queue were loading their trolleys with all the water they could physically carry, then selling the bottles to people further back in the queue at a markup of 500%. This is probably not what is being described as the "Blitz spirit". One "entrepreneur" attempting to sell water from the back of a van was reportedly hounded out of Gloucester by an angry, violent mob.

On Wednesday, news reports and some personal anecdotes indicated that there was some vandalism of water bowsers. Furthermore, A. reports, some local youths were deliberately draining all of the water out of bowsers as soon as they were filled. The BBC reported that one idiot had broken the seal on the top of a bowser and urinated into it. Both these tales make it into the list of the week's most depressing stories (along with the tragic case of the man shot dead for asking people not to smoke) that prove once and for all that mankind is doomed.

On Thursday, the police were handing out bottles of water to passing motorists. This seems to me to be a bizarre policy. After all, driving along in a private motor car is one of the times when one would not expect to have access to fresh drinking water. One might have assumed that the police had better things to do, and that fresh drinking water would better be targetted at the elderly, the infirm, and the housebound.

This brings us up to date. By Friday, things are evidently considerably more organised. Supermarkets have larger water tanks, while the vans of local companies are supplementing those hired by Severn Trent to keep bowsers filled. The bowsers are mainly blue plastic, standing on their own moulded plastic base or mounted on a trailer. Some are older metal tanks, on loan from other water companies. Larger containers are either the Dalek-shaped ones previously alluded to, or are mounted within a metal frame with reflective strips. Many have pieces of paper attached reading "WATER", although only a few bother to add "BOIL BEFORE USE".

There are bowsers at intervals along major roads. Groups of smaller roads have their own bowsers at a suitable junction. Severn Trent is maintaining a list of their locations. Some are sited in peculiar places, such as one on Abbeymead Avenue, away from any of the junctions with residential streets.

Despite the reports of vandalism, there is not much in the way of an obvious police presence at most. One bowser on Bristol Road had a couple of PCSOs standing nearby when I passed, but they appeared merely to be chatting amiably to the man filling his bottle. In fact, the only possible sign I saw of any disturbance was at the former B&Q on Trier Way. Being a large disused car park central in the city, several large tanks are sited here and there was a significant police presence, although even here, the officers seemed mainly to be managing the traffic rather than dealing with any unpleasantness.

So that's that: it's not the apocalypse, although it might well seem like it to those who live near to the Severn or Avon at Tewkesbury. There are plenty of stories of quiet heroism (although the best one - the rescue of 150 cats and dogs - actually occurred during the last round of flooding in June) and many stories of barely credible stupidity and quite spectacular selfishness.

Update 30/07/2007: Today's news about flooding in China puts the entire disaster into perspective. 119 million people affected, 450,000 homes destroyed, 650 dead.

Fascinating fact of the day. The word "bowser" is defined both by Chambers and by as referring exclusively to portable containers for fuel, not water.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Quarterly film roundup - April to June 2007

Children Of Men **** - I'm a fan of the genre I like to call near-future dystopia, and this one's fantastic, not least because, despite an unlikely central plot device, it all seems scarily plausible. It's set two decades hence and the world is in the grip of a terrible and mysterious affliction: no new children have been born for years. Faced with the possibility of the end of the human race in its entirety, civilisation has largely broken down. Britain has turned into a run-down police state with entire towns huge concentration camps for asylum seekers. What's especially terrifying about this vision is that an entirely realistic futurescape is created simply by shooting particularly run-down parts of London, adding minor dressings to familiar objects (such as metal grilles to red London bus windows) and shooting on a cool grey-blue film stock. But by making the familiar so oppressive, the filmmakers also show us that this is really a fable about today's fears and concerns - and a satire, and a warning. The fact that it's also great sci-fi and a solid action piece place it firmly as one of the best films of the past couple of years.

United 93 ** - This 9/11 film's much-praised sense of realism and urgency is derived from three components. First, events unfold almost in real time; second, the dialogue is either taken from actual transcripts of events or is partially improvised; and third, the photography is entirely on handheld cameras. Unfortunately, not one of these ideas actually succeeds in helping to create a watchable cinematic experience. The real-time simply means that there are sections in which very little seems to be happening. The dialogue is distracting and sometimes plain wrong. And ever since The Blair Witch Project, audiences have been aware that handheld camerawork, done wrong, can be irritating and nauseating. There is, sadly, very little to be learned from this film and many areas that could have been improved. Extremely disappointing.

Thank You For Smoking **** - A timely, and very funny, examination of the role that media spin plays in shaping public opinion. Although the nominal target is cigarette smoking, the lessons could be applied to almost any other area of public concern, including the so-called War On Terror. Top-notch satire.

Spider-Man 3 ** - A disappointing mish-mash that goes on too long and introduces too many new characters - which is a shame, because the previous two installments were model comic-book adaptations, carefully rationing the number of villains and balancing the action sequences with the series' thoroughly human moral (with great power comes great responsibility). It's all too easy to imagine some unimaginative business suit at Sony insisting on more special effects, less talk.

Pan's Labyrinth *** - This is, in essence, what Life Is Beautiful would have looked like if Roberto Benigni's character in that film had turned out to be a wizard, who could really conjure up a fantasy world for his young son, rather than merely pulling off an elaborate hoax. Billed as a sort of Alice In Wonderland for adults, this really boils down to an unexpected combination of genres: on the one hand, a bitter, highly (and explicitly) violent war film, and on the other, a fantasy which is, in places, no less difficult viewing. The success or failure of the film would always hinge on how well the parts were integrated and although the filmmakers manage some success, the realities of the outside world never mesh with the fantasies of the young girl as successfully for the audience as they do for the character. The setup of the first couple of reels, in particular, is considerably over-done. Overall, an occasionally fascinating and moderately moving story is undermined by the gruelling and relentless graphic horrors of the real world, while the fantasy world cannot sufficiently capture the audience.

Sunday, 1 April 2007

March film roundup

Little Miss Sunshine *** - Yet another dysfunctional suburban family dramedy (see also: Happiness, Napoleon Dynamite, The Safety Of Objects). This has more substance than most, with strong morals about being true to oneself and one's family, and it has one crucial ingredient that cannot fail to be funny: a bright yellow VW camper van, that's malfunctioning as badly as the family that owns it. But it's also a strangely amoral film in certain regards, and its sideswipes at the utter ridiculousness of junior beauty pageants will seem to UK audiences to be picking on a very easy target indeed.

Look Both Ways *** - With the visual inventiveness of Tom Tykwer at his best, this film nonetheless very obviously has a woman director - which is no bad thing, dealing as it does with everyday fears and emotions of normal people, particularly when confronted with death at close hand. The Australian cast may not be well-known in the UK, but that's also a good thing, investing the film with an intimacy and immediacy that would be lacking if they were all stars. The nightmarish animated flashes that haunt the lead character are very obviously an extension of the director's earlier short animation (also included on the DVD) but are an effective and expressive medium. A compelling and promising directorial feature debut.

Layer Cake *** - Not being a massive fan of the great British gangster drama, I did not have high hopes for Layer Cake - but fortunately it is amongst the more slick and interesting of that genre. It's notable nowadays mainly for being Daniel Craig's biggest pre-Bond role, and he's pretty good, although since absolutely everybody else sports a cockney accent, it's not absolutely clear that he's the right man for the role. There are a couple of spurious asides that don't quite work amongst the twisting plot. There's a couple of nice little jolts at the end too, although hardly on a par with Fight Club or The Usual Suspects.

An Inconvenient Truth *** - Neither as boring as it sounds (it's a slideshow by Al Gore, interspersed with his thoughts on climate change) nor as convincing as it should be, this documentary inhabits a strange position in US and world politics. "Hi, I'm Al Gore, and I used to be the next President of the United States," says he, to a ripple of laughter from his audience - and he seems relaxed and spontaneous, even though he undoubtedly uses the same line every time he presents this show. Unfortunately, the points he makes about climate change (increased temperatures, massively increased species extinctions, and the end of the gulf stream) are chosen for shock value and he fails to back up a single one of his assertions with evidence of causality - a crucial requirement for convincing the climate change sceptics. He might be forgiven for sticking to a resolutely non-technical argument, in order to reach the widest possible audience, but this merely means that inevitably he alienates those hungry for more detailed information. Despite best intentions, it's going to change nobody's opinion.

Hot Fuzz *** - Fans of Shaun Of The Dead will be well pleased with this comedy action adventure, which amply does for police buddy films what Shaun did for zombies. Anyone left underwhelmed by the earlier work, though, won't find anything particularly new here: it's hilarious in places, but not nearly consistently funny enough across its running time. And the "surprise" twist ending (or at least, the bit before the climactic gun battle) will be familiar to anyone with more than a passing knowledge of the works of Agatha Christie.

Thursday, 1 March 2007

February film roundup

A Scanner Darkly *** - A deliberately confusing, overly serious but visually stunning examination of drugs dependency, given a sci-fi sheen by author Philip K. Dick. It's surprisingly heavy going, and the inclusion in the closing credits of a list of friends fallen (to drugs) is embarrassing, but it's still a thought-provoking film and you're guaranteed never to have seen anything quite like it before.

Ray *** - Despite a superb central performance by Jamie Foxx as the eponymous Ray Charles, this is less succesful than the other recent acclaimed musical biopic Walk The Line. Like the subject of the latter, Johnny Cash, Ray had his fair share of troubles as his success grew, including drug addiction and extra-marital affairs. The difference here is that the script makes him more a pathetic victim whose redemption lay in his music - whereas WTL had a more romantic streak. It's not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, and of course the music is great, but it just misses the heights to which it aspires.

8 Mile *** - Also a music documentary of sorts: 8 Mile could be seen as a veiled biography of its star Eminem (at least, it's easy to get the impression that it was a very simple casting decision). I'm not generally a fan of the music or the lifestyle but there was plenty to hold the attention and actually I did rather enjoy the soundtrack. The outcomeof the protagonist's struggle is pleasingly left in some doubt until very near the end, with a pleasantly ambiguous finale.

Thursday, 1 February 2007

January film roundup

The Last Samurai *** - A beautifully-shot but rather heavy-going genre-crossing historical war epic / romance / martial arts picture. In mood and weight, it would likely appeal to fans of the likes of Braveheart or Dances With Wolves, but whether you can stomach it depends on whether you can stand the idea of American soldier Tom Cruise becoming an honorable samurai.

The Terminal **** - Showing the lightness of touch displayed in Catch Me If You Can, Steven Spielberg's gentle romantic comedy is a genuine crowd-pleaser that's as far removed from his subsequent Munich is it is possible to be. Tom Hanks, playing a principled foreigner stuck in an airport departure lounge due to a coup in his own country, delivers a heart-warming peformance despite (or perhaps because of) his ridiculous accent.

Monday, 1 January 2007

December film roundup

Casino Royale **** - I have yet to even bother seeing Die Another Day, so disappointed was I with the previous installment in the enduring Bond franchise. Happily, Casino Royale disproves my assumption that the series was on its last legs. Following the successful format of recent how-it-all-got-started superhero stories such as Batman Begins, Spider-Man and the small-screen Smallville is a great idea, even if it messes with the audience's perspective on Bond continuity. (And surely Bond is a superhero, of sorts.) The action is fantastic, the Bond girl is beautiful (and no caricature either) and if the film is a little over-long, with several false endings, it doesn't matter because it's constantly entertaining, as well as unexpectedly intelligent.

When The Wind Blows **** - A throroughly moving animation from Snowman creator Raymond Briggs, this stands beside Grave Of The Fireflies as a masterpiece in examining the effect of weapons of mass destruction on innocent civilians and, as such, is as bitterly relevant today as it was twenty years ago. Jim and Hilda Bloggs (apparently the same couple as in Briggs' graphic novella Gentleman Jim) are retired and living in a countryside idyll, during the last few days before the outbreak of nuclear war. Drawing on the only experience they remember of war - WWII - they follow governmental advice to the letter in preparing for the worst. Of course the advice is useless. The highly stylised scene in which the bomb actually drops is just as disturbing as it is in Threads, but the animation style in general is revolutionary, with 2D cell animation drawn on top of 3D model sets against watercolour backgrounds. This, along with Jim's frequent flights of fancy, lend the whole film a beautiful, slightly ethereal atmosphere that only makes the ending even more heartbreaking.

Changing Lanes *** - Do unto others... is the moral of this thriller in which a car accident precipitates a tit-for-tat exchange between two strangers that soon escalates into dangerous territory. It's an obvious message and the two leads are both quite unlikeable, but the execution is good enough to hold the attention.

Requiem For A Dream *** - Possibly conceived as an American Trainspotting, this lacks the humour and depth of the Edinburgh version. Clever tricks with camera and soundtrack isolate the audience from the characters' plight so that it's hard to find much sympathy for them.

American History X *** - A disturbing look at neo-Nazism is suburban America, this also suffers from having a cast of mostly unlikeable characters. Just as sympathy for reformed skinhead Ed Norton starts to build, we are presented with a timely flashback to remind ourselves just what a nasty piece of work he was. And while an explanation for his extremist views is eventually given, it doesn't redeem his behaviour in any way.

The Sum Of All Fears *** - A nuclear bomb may or may not have been smuggled onto US soil and it's up to rookie CIA agent Jack Ryan - previously portrayed on-screen by Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, but here played by Ben Affleck - to convince his seniors that it's not the Russians that are to blame. As such, it's a similar problem to that presented in Hunt For Red October, albeit with considerably more dire consequences if Ryan fails. It's tense enough but let down by some plot holes and the fact that it's hard to suspend disbelief.

The Virgin Suicides *** - Sofia Coppola's first film is an unusual romantic tragedy, that is intended to be as baffling for the audience as it is for the narrator. At its heart, a sort of love triangle between some boys in their early teens, the beautiful teenage sisters who live opposite, and the older kids from school who briefly attempt to break the sisters out of their parents' oppressive, religious upbringing, before the girls all simultaneously commit suicide. As such, it makes for thoroughly depressing viewing. It does, however, successfully capture just how hard being a teenager can be (or at least, seem): for the boys, their first crush and a loss of innocence; for the girls, a struggle for survival in a world that doesn't seem to fit them.

Superman Returns *** - Full of contradictions, the film is alternately earnest and humorous, slick and shoddy. Intended to be a direct follow-up to the Christopher Reeve films, but set in a recognisably twenty-first century Metropolis, somehow this fails to live up to the energy and excitement of at least the first two in that series, even with John Williams' original score being liberally deployed to keep things moving along. Kate Bosworth is beautiful but woefully miscast as Lois Lane, being too young and insufficiently world-weary to be a mother, let alone a Pulitzer-winning journalist.

The Living And The Dead *** - Simon Rumley's first theatrical feature since his Strong Language trilogy is a (possibly deliberately) frustrating experience. The idea is compelling: a disabled woman is left alone in a huge, rambling mansion with her mentally ill son who, soon enough, stops taking his medication and starts "caring for" his mother in a way that suggests that, following her death, he might well go a bit Norman Bates and continue "caring" for her. The cinematography is often remarkable, alternating between beautiful, almost serene visuals and manic, disturbing spasms of noise and movement. The ending is pleasantly ambiguous, too. But the sheer manic energy of the ill son is wearing from the start and played without subtlety. Like all of Rumley's films, this one has split audience reactions down the middle and it may require repeat viewing to tease out its highlights.