Wednesday 24 December 2008

A week of excellent but heavy films (with a few more recent ones thrown in)

I didn't make it Monday night film club at the start of December, owing to a Festival planning meeting that clashed. Given the somewhat depressing fare of Hunger, I didn't view this as the end of the world. Odd, then, that I was so keen to see the next week's offering, which was hardly a gay romp.

Waltz with Bashir is an interesting and challenging film. Some might, perhaps, be put off by the use of animation to tackle such a serious issue as war crimes and mass murder. They shouldn't be. Director and writer Ari Folman has picked what is probably the perfect medium for his story. And it is very much his story. We open with the recurring dream of a friend, prompted by his time doing military service. Folman confesses that he never has such dreams and can't really recollect any of his service in the Lebanon war of the early 80s. However, that night he has a vivid flashback and this prompts him to embark on a journey of discovery of history and his small part in it.

As he travels he interviews people he served with and people he didn't and amid the dreamlike animation, events slowly come into focus. We see in stark colour the senselessness of war, especially in one sequence where retaliation follows retaliation follows bombing, each missing its target and sparking the next wave. Then there is the harrowing shooting of the no more than a child who has fired a rocket propelled grenade, meanwhile the music of Bach plays in the background.

At last we get to the massacres in the Beirut refugee camps and Folman's role on the edge. We see a situation in which many people knew, or had an inkling of what was going on, but nobody acted. It is horribly familiar from genocides before and since. Yet the soldier's eye view is a refreshing perspective.

As the credits roll it becomes clear that almost every voice is played by himself. It isn't clear if Folman has simply set the recordings of his interviews to images, but there is an implication, and this only heightens the impact. There remains only one question, and the perennial one for any first person narrative: how reliable is the narrator? Did he really remember nothing of all these events until the conversation in the bar? Nonetheless, it is a powerful and thought-provoking film.

It should be noted that the film is in Hebrew with English subtitles, but like all good subtitled films, you quickly forget.

The following night came an even more anticipated event for me (though not for the rest of the world, who have already seen it) in the DVD and Blu-Ray release of The Dark Knight. I like a good comic book film, as I'm sure I've mentioned before and they don't come much better than this film's predecessor, Batman Begins. One reviewer of the new film on Amazon commented that this wasn't the Batman of the comics. I can only respond that I don't know what comics he's been reading. It captures his trick of vanishing mid conversation as perfectly as the first first film, as well as playing on the playboy aspect of his lifestyle.

However, the outstanding quality of Nolan's Batman was not, for me, Bale's performance, it was that he got so many of the characters and relationships right. The Gordon/Batman dynamic (are they friends, allies, something else altogether?) or the complex bond between Bruce Wayne and Alfred, not quite father and son or master and servant but some strange combination of those, and of other things. Then there is Lucius Fox's unease as Batman goes too far. Batman's desire to save the city by being whatever kind of hero or villain the city requires. This was typified in the first film by the moment when Gordon mentions that he never said thank you, Batman's response: "And you'll never have to."

Into this mix was to be added the clown prince of crime, The Joker. He has had a chequered history in film. For all Ceaser Ramero's strengths in the 60s TV series, he played the clown prince of crime with the emphasis very firmly on the clown. Jack Nicholson wasn't bad for Tim Burton, per se, but he didn't really play the joker, instead we were treated to Jack Nicholson if he fell into a vat of chemicals. Heath Ledger is in another league. His joker is enigmatic and we never learn his name or the origins of his Glasgow smile (there is a moment early on he relates a story and it is disappointing until he tells an utterly different one a few scenes later). This joker is not driven by money, or a desire to steal Batman's girl (as Nicholson's was), he is instead driven by a love of chaos, portrayed as an elemental force of anarchy, and the more terrifying for it. Much of the time he seems to be placing Batman in dilemmas purely to toy with him. The only thing missing is his notorious laughing gas.

The action is good, though one feels that for the full effect the IMAX is needed. Chases involving the Bat-pod, Batmobile and a stunning shot of a truck being flipped over are all impressive, though they are not the greatest action sequences ever made. And, truth be told, that is not where the film scores its points. Its greatness is derived from character and drama. The extras proudly relate how they actually blew up a building at one point; the efforts of the filmmakers and their results are such that it seems churlish to point out that this is not new ground: James Cameron did this in Terminator 2 the better part of two decades ago.

The film's other high point is Harvey Dent (or Two Face, as he will become), whose transformation is meticulously crafted. Nolan convinces us that this paragon really could fall and that he really would decide life or death on the flip of a coin.

In sum, the film is nothing short of a stunning tour de force with no weak links to be seen. Watching it leaves you reeling and with two thoughts: how long will we have to wait for another and how can this be topped (and would it be a mistake for the team to try and follow it). This isn't simply one of the best superhero films of all time, it is among the finest films of all time.

Thursday of that same week saw us back to the cinema for A Street Car Named Desire, this time in the rival Filmhouse as opposed to our usual haunt, The Cameo. I've not seen it before (in any form), so was curious. I also didn't really know what to expect in terms of the plot.

The first marvel is Williams' writing, which flows off the page like music, though how well it might work if the actors' accents were not so flawlessly southern is an interesting question. The eponymous street car is absent save a brief cameo at the start, except, of course, in so much as it is a pervasive metaphor.

The performances are first rate with Marlon Brando (who I will confess is principally known to me for playing Jor-El, super-man's father) standing out particularly as Stanley Kowalski, who at turns shows you exactly why Stella has fallen for him and then a darker side. Kim Hunter's Stella and Vivien Leigh's Blanche (Stella's sister) are also very fine.

The film opens with Blanche turning up at her sister's for some respite and overstaying the welcome. The exact reasons for her presence are teased out slowly, along with the nature of who she really is. Around this Williams paints a picture of a horribly judgemental society and fascinating treatments of issues such as domestic violence and metal illness.

If you've managed, like me, to go without experiencing this masterpiece, be it on the screen, stage or page, you should correct the anomaly as soon as possible.

Things took a turn for the worse a week later in the form of Dean Spannley, a film in which I saw little redeeming merit, save that I rather enjoyed the title sequence, after which it went sharply down hill. That said, of the four of us who saw it, two liked it very much and the third was somewhere between us.

The plot is tough to pin down without giving it away, so you might wish to skip on a paragraph. Sam Neill stars as the eponymous Dean who appears to have been a dog in a previous life. For reasons that aren't entirely compelling to me, Jeremy Northam plies him with expensive wine in order to elicit reminiscences, which seem neither terribly interesting or profound. A friend suggests that it is the character's desire to avoid a closed mind that drives him, and I can sort of see this, if only I'd got something interesting out of it.

I would probably be more forgiving if I hadn't found the writing so clunky and inelegant, especially so in the Northam's narrator and his father, a horribly cliched performance from Peter O'Toole. Of course, this is an area where I am pickier than most. Then again, I fail to see why learning how his childhood dog died suddenly turns O'Toole into a nice person and instantly fixes their dysfunctional father/son relationship. It isn't exactly plausible.

There were some funny moments, but I'm afraid that for my part I was generally laughing at the film rather than with it.

Film club's final outing for the year came on Monday, and in the form of a fitting film, and another I have unaccountably managed to go without seeing: It's a Wonderful Life. For those who don't know the story it tells of Jimmy Stewart, who plays George Bailey, a man who has gone through life always putting others ahead of himself and now, on Christmas Eve is at his lowest ebb and contemplating suicide. Henry Travers is the angel sent to help him.

What is nice is the mix of sadness, which pervades the film, particularly at those moments where Bailey has once again to give up his dreams, and happiness, such as his romance with the lovely Donna Reed's Mary. Yes, it is a somewhat cheesy romanticisation of small town Americana, but it caries it off beautifully. This is due in no small part to Stewart, who plays the every-man role so beautifully, not to mention the fact that I could listen to his southern drawl all day.

Another fascinating point is how many things seem to have been influenced by this: the way the God and the angels are portrayed as flashing stars is exactly how God is portrayed in an episode of Futurama; when Mr Potter interview's Bailey and forces him into a low chair, it instantly invokes Jack Donaghy's use of the same tactic in a first season episode of Tina Fey comedy 30 Rock.

It also contains what must rank as some of the most beautiful love scenes on film. When Mary throws a rock through the window of the old house and refuses to reveal what she's wised for, it doesn't matter, we know. Even more so, there is the scene where George and Mary are both listening to a mutual friend on the same telephone, their heads pressed close together, their minds anywhere but on the conversation with the friend who is persuading them to invest in plastics; it has a little something of the chalk on the card table scene between Kitty and Levin in Anna Karenina.

It's rare for a film to draw a round of applause, this did in an unusually full Cameo 1 (for a Monday evening, anyway). Anyone who hasn't seen this should do so post haste.

There is much to look forward to in the new year, especially Milk (of which we have already reviewed the opera), Frost/Nixon and, with some trepidation, the adaption of Watchmen, an Alan Moore masterpiece and one of the great achievements in comic book writing, which I will doubtless have to see, if only to blog loudly about what a travesty it is. To paraphrase Cubby Broccoli, Monday night film club will return.

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