Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Breaker Morant

1980, Australia, directed by Bruce Beresford

A fascinating, morally complex film, Breaker Morant affords an illuminating glimpse into some of the confusions and contradictions of Empire, centered on a trio of Australian soldiers (one English-born) tried under British military law for their part in events that occurred during the Boer War in South Africa.

In so far as the historical record can be trusted, the provides a fairly accurate account of the actual events that led to the trial, and while the overall tone suggests at least agreement with the notion that Breaker and his colleagues were folk heroes of a kind, their violent actions aren't soft-pedalled. Beresford is more interested, instead, in examining the demands placed on men at war, and the standards of behaviour that they are supposed to uphold.

Unlike Kubrick's Paths of Glory, the men at the centre of Breaker Morant are accused not of cowardice but what might be termed excess of zeal; what unites the films is the way in which military administrations use disciplinary procedures against their own men. There's also, in Breaker particularly, an important class element, with the British hierarchy both profiting from and condemning the more free-wheeling Australian attitude to soldiery (the film takes place against the backdrop of the federation of Australia, although it plays with the timeline somewhat to cast the men as political pawns in a broader game; that's hardly necessary, given that they are already pawns in the hands of the military administration).

The film is drawn from a stage play, and while Beresford "opens up" the play by roaming far from prison and courtroom to dramatise the events at the core of the trial (those scenes are beautifully shot by Donald McAlpine, using South Australia as an effective stand-in for South Africa), he also uses a variety of striking shot choices to avoid a stage-like presentation - close-ups, shots from the side, overhead angles, all of which also contribute to a sense of disorientation in the courtroom which reinforces the sense the justice and logic are being upended. Beresford is also blessed with an extremely strong cast, with two of the mainstays of Australian cinema, Jack Thompson and Bryan Brown, doing some of their best screen work here, abetted by English veteran Edward Woodward as the eponymous "Breaker".

Monday, March 21, 2011

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

2009, US/UK, directed by David Yates

After the relatively brisk previous installment, the running time for the sixth film in the Harry Potter creeps back up again as director David Yates struggles to deal with the huge amount of plotting in J.K. Rowling's source novel; as a consequence, several plotlines are given extremely short shrift, so much so that at times you can't quite figure out how the characters got from one location to the next (all that magical disapparation presumably helps). The need to cram in all the action lends a breathless tone to much of the the film, though Yates is nonetheless able to find time to craft a number of evocative sequences, particularly one in the "room of requirement," a cluttered, musty place used to hide objects: even if the outside world begins to loom larger for Harry and his friends as the film advances, the filmmakers always seem on surer ground within Hogwarts, an atmospheric location if ever there was one.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


1987, US, directed by Paul Verhoeven

Paul Verhoeven has always struck me as the ultimate have-your-cake-and-eat-it director, and perhaps never more than in his debut American film, a satire on, among other things, the violence of American life that's one of the most violent -- although often cartoonishly violent -- films of the 1980s.

His ostensible main target, though, is the violence of corporate America, content to re-shape cities and people for its ends - and certainly the choice of Detroit as a location lends the film sustained relevance today, given how that city has been transformed, or more accurately chewed up, by the arrival and then the slow, catastrophic departure of industry. Despite the fact that today's media landscape looks nothing like the future imagined on film - network TV still looks like the norm - many of the adverts have the ring of truth nearly 25 years on, while their very ubiquity for a viewer in a world where every TV show, baseball half-inning and website seems to have a corporate sponsor feels entirely on the nose.

The filmmaking has a terrific visceral edge, never more so than in the sequences set in an abandoned steel mill, the camera racing through the decrepit locations. The sequence which introduces us to RoboCop, seen entirely through the machine's eyes, is also a clever taste of what's to follow, although some of the subsequent special effects look a little creaky now, closer in spirit to Ray Harryhausen than to the CGI which began to dominate soon afterwards.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Sixty Six

2006, UK, directed by Paul Weiland

More interesting in conception than execution - a Jewish coming-of-age set against the backdrop of the 1966 World Cup in England - Sixty Six generally makes good use of what's clearly a pretty limited budget, and finds a nice niche in the gentrifying Jewish East End, but suffers from inconsistencies of tone: it can't decide whether to be a pretty wry comedy or a depressive drama, with some characters fitting poorly into the overall scheme of things, while the slow tone drains the drama which should be key to any film driven by the rhythms of a sports tournament.

Friday, March 11, 2011


2009, US, directed by Ruben Fleischer

There's little cinematic or other substance to Zombieland, which never pauses to assess the wider implications of a society falling prey to rapidly spreading infection (this is no 28 Days Later or even Shaun of the Dead), but I must confess that it was not difficult to set such questions aside and enjoy what's mostly a pretty breakneck (literally and figuratively) affair. Jesse Eisenberg's a typecast nerd, albeit one who can wield a shotgun with some skill, Woody Harrelson's an equally typecast wild man, and Emma Stone's already displaying the zest with which she infused Easy A; the cast look as though they had a blast coming to work each day, and sometimes that's just enough to keep me amused, too.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011


2010, UK, directed by Gareth Edwards

A testament to the triumph ingenuity over budget - it helps when you only give credit to two onscreen players and when the director can wear four other hats - Monsters doesn't for a moment feel like a movie shot on a relative shoestring, making virtues of its limitations and using its Central American locations to atmospheric, often poignant effect. Edwards also realises the critical importance of a good soundscape: whether in scenes of battle or quieter jungle sequences, the sound palette is enveloping and frequently eerie, harking back to the creative use of sound in Orson Welles's radio version of The War of the Worlds. There's also a real sense of interest in the Central American locations - although the protagonists are moving as fast as they can toward the US, the film gives a clear sense of life for those who don't have the same opportunities, and the ending might be read as a metaphor for the experience of crossing onto US soil at the end of an arduous, hope-filled journey.

[Note: This movie received no special consideration despite the director's terrific first name; I was named after another Gareth Edwards].


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States