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.