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.

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