Thursday, November 30, 2006

Casino Royale

2006, US/Germany/UK/Czech Republic, directed by Martin Campbell

It's no mean task to breathe new life into a franchise that's in its forties, but the producers cannily brought back several of the key personnel (most obviously director Martin Campbell) who dragged Bond into the modern era with 1995's Goldeneye, and give them further freedom to develop a new tone (with another new Bond). Where Pierce Brosnan's Bond played the smooth angle to the hilt (with Brosnan later trashing that image in films like The Matador), Daniel Craig (whose features might have typecast him as a Boer cop) brings back some of the raw thuggery of the first Bond films. The fights here are as brutal as the famous sequence which pitted Connery against Robert Shaw in a cramped train compartment in From Russia With Love and serve as a salutary reminder that violence, even in a Bond movie, shouldn't be taken too lightly. The early going also features some spectacular parkour stunt-work, performed by Sebastien Foucan who, unusually for a stunt player, gets an opening credit for his work.

Just as the violence is a touch more realistic, the plotting focuses on a criminal banker whose interests lie in financial gain rather than the kind of world domination that became so laughably repetitive in previous entries; it's a refreshing return to earth, not least because it eliminates silly sequences in which Bond escapes from elaborately choreographed death and destruction. It takes some time to get used to Daniel Craig as Bond: he's not just new but genuinely different (as my wife commented, it's not hard to imagine that "James Bond" is itself a code name, just like 007, since there's no sense of a past history), but by the end of the film Craig has made the role convincingly his own. He's surrounded by an unusually good group of supporting actors, who are, crucially, given interesting things to do; Eva Green and Mads Mikkelsen are especially strong. The main flaw is length; like many recent Bond entries, Casino Royale overstays its welcome and there's a tacked-on sense to some of the closing sequences, where you constantly expect the closing credits to roll.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

2006, US, directed by Ron Howard

After all the baying at the time of The Da Vinci Code's theatrical release, it's no surprise to discover that underneath the noise this is a solidly-told version of the blockbuster book, a tad too respectful of the source material (like the first Harry Potter films), but good, honest fun nonetheless (and it never seems to take the pseudo-religious shenanigans too seriously, unlike some viewers). Director Ron Howard's film choices aren't always inspiring, but he's a more-than-competent Hollywood storyteller, who marshals disparate plotlines with skill; despite what some critics wrote, the narrative is clear, and the visual methods used to convey the various puzzles are sometimes very effective. That said, there's no doubt that it's overlong, mostly as a result of the filmmakers' unwillingness to jettison aspects of the book: the series of puzzles that remains quite intriguing on the page is repetitive onscreen (unlike, say, the boxing matches that punctuate Howard's Cinderella Man). Tom Hanks is fine as Robert Langdon: he's not stretched by any means, but he's well cast as a figure of trust. Audrey Tautou, by contrast, seems less at ease as Sophie Neveu. She's perfectly suited to gamine roles, but she seems out-of-place here, especially when she's weighed down by some clunky dialogue, while it's frustrating that Neveu often defers to Langdon though she's supposed to have abundant smarts of her own. The supporting cast is dependable if not much more; Ian McKellen plays a cinematic version of who we think Ian McKellen to be, which I suppose is fun if you can get paid for it, but he's too good an actor for that kind of thing. A gaggle of familiar French faces also get some screen-time, and presumably fatter-than-usual pay packets.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


2006, US, directed by Frank Coraci

Another of Adam Sandler's attempts to move beyond the infantile comedies of his early career, Click squanders an intriguing concept by failing to decide between drama, sentiment and crass laughs. Sandler plays a workaholic father who acquires a remote control that allows him to control his entire world, an intriguing philosophical dilemma which the film does try to grapple with, but which is constantly undercut by crude humour (not to mention the fact that it's hard to feel all that sorry for a character who uses the device to behave like a bully even at moments when he's supposedly absorbing the Life Lessons that the remote confronts him with). Sandler isn't a dislikeable performer - he was especially good in The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates with Drew Barrymore as a foil, while Spanglish wasted a good outing - but the supporting characters are given almost nothing interesting to do, and his own familiar shtick is over-extended without the presence of some of his familiar cast-mates. Notwithstanding the inconsistent tone, director Frank Coraci's work is much more polished here than in The Wedding Singer, no doubt partly the result of a bigger budget, though it's still hard to figure out why a film like this costs $75 million or so to get to the screen.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Déjà Vu

2006, US, directed by Tony Scott

Every 'serious' film fan probably has a few pleasures that will never make the year-end lists at the highbrow movie publications, though usually they're labeled 'guilty'. I have a particular, and guilt-free, fondness for Tony Scott films, which often seem to boil down to boys-with-toys exercises wrapped up in slick, if nonetheless carefully imagined, visual style.

On one level, it seems absurd to see the credit 'A Film By Tony Scott', but at the same time it's hard to ignore the unity of purpose, both aesthetically and with regard to content, that runs through so many of his films. This film, like the increasingly prescient Enemy of the State in particular, returns to the territory of super-secret spy agencies, and although the film has fun with the possibilities therein, it's also uneasy about the consequences of such abilities to penetrate the veil, even where the intentions are good. Here, a government agency has enlisted a group of academics and most of the electricity in the New Orleans area to create a time-travel window that may assist in the investigation of a major terrorist outrage.

Unlike, say, the generally light-hearted consequences of time-travel in Back to the Future, there's a haunting sense of loss over every glimpse into the past, and Scott uses lighting and colour with skill to delineate the different moods (Scott never tires of visual experimentation, perhaps a result of his advertising background, but here the effects serve a purpose, whereas I found them ultimately distracting in his previous collaboration with Denzel Washington, Man on Fire). Past and present come together in an absorbing and original chase sequence that delivers the thrills you'd expect from such fare (along with the often questionable use of major disasters for entertainment purposes), but it's the rich atmosphere that lingers after the credits roll.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Lost in Time

2003, Hong Kong, directed by Derek Yee

I'm not all that familiar with the 'relationship drama' genre of Hong Kong cinema, but this is a well-regarded 2003 entry, and if the set-up is a little contrived it still features two fine lead performances. Cecilia Cheung gets her first really meaty dramatic role as a young woman dealing with the consequences of her fiancé's death (particularly caring for his young son and trying to pay the bills on his minibus servcie), and she acquits herself well: the sense of frustration and confusion her character experiences is palpable, though there's also a vein of grit that's very appealing. She has able support from Lau Ching-Wan, more familiar from action and comedy roles, as a sympathetic minibus driver who takes her under his wing; his unconventional looks are especially charming in this film. Lost in Time doesn't do anything radically new - although the very slow romantic burn is a nice contrast to the wham-bam style of Hollywood - but the gentle pacing allows us to build up a credible sense of the two main personalities, and director Derek Yee has a nice eye for the small details of the minibus trade (that, in itself, is a nice contrast to the usual movie professions, and adds considerable local colour). The film also looks extremely good: Kwon-Man Keung's cinematography has the clean appearance of a much bigger budget.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Brassed Off

1996, UK, directed by Mark Herman

One of the angriest, and perhaps one of the best, British films of the 1990s, Brassed Off gulls you with the promise of a Northern comedy in the mould of The Full Monty, complete with a romantic subplot, and rams those expectations back down your throat as it delivers a blistering attack on the dismantling of the British coalmining industry by the Thatcher government (and its successors). The film focuses particularly on the communities affected by hundreds of pit closures, and paints a vivid picture of the crumbling of one small town faced with the end of its mining industry - and as a consequence, much of its community fabric, exemplified by the local brass band.

The film shares the same unpatronising view of working class life as the films of Ken Loach, and although there's a small amount of sugar-coating, the sense of anger and hopelessness isn't radically different. Director Mark Herman, who has returned to similar territory a number of times with less success, judiciously balances the comic and dramatic elements, creating a real sense of the human consequences on single-industry towns; the closing sequences, filled with fury and pride, are extremely moving, without the film ever losing its bitter sense of humour. Pete Postlethwaite delivers one of his finest performances as the stubborn conductor of the brass band, with able support from a large gathering of character actors; Postlethwaite's climactic speech is, even on film, a show-stopper (I first saw the film in a packed cinema in Leeds, where clearly more than a couple of people in the audience identified with the onscreen action).

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

2005, US, directed by Andrew Adamson

I wonder if there's something in the British character that has inspired the writing of so many rich fantasy epics, whether the series from which this film is derived, or the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or His Dark Materials cycles. It's hard to avoid the sense that in some small way, the more elderly epic literature is still alive through these modern interpretations (while much has been made of the Christ allegory in this particular film, it wears the story lightly, using the strengths of that shared mythology to powerful effect without ever seeming overtly religious). Despite such lofty underpinnings, the film is clearly family-minded, at least in the early going, as four London children discover another world through the back of a wardrobe in the country house to which they've been dispatched to escape wartime bombing. Once they confront an evil witch, however, we're left in no doubt as to her wicked intent; the manner in which she deals with enemies is especially chilling. In bringing C.S. Lewis's story to the screen, the filmmakers clearly owe a debt to Peter Jackson, both in terms of shooting locations and with regard to some of the hordes of the evil armies. The battle scenes, though, have an energy all their own: the sight of the advancing army led by the two boys, cheetahs darting out in front, is absolutely thrilling, and the fighting quickly leaves childhood behind. The young performers are winning without being excessively winsome, while there are nice voice performances from Ray Winstone, Dawn French, Liam Neeson and Rupert Everett, who lend their talents to several animated characters. Director Andrew Adamson is best-known for Shrek, so it's no surprise to hear him coax good work from these actors, but he also handles the large-scale live action work with surprising skill given his inexperience with such fare.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Back to the Future

1985, US, directed by Robert Zemeckis

There's no point in pretending to be objective about Back to the Future: I was hooked from the opening credits in 1985, and the film remains, to me, as fresh as it was more than 20 years ago; it's one of the best pop films of the 1980's, and underlines the fact that a Hollywood entertainment can be made with care, craftsmanship and intelligence.

Director Robert Zemeckis sets up the story with remarkable economy, packing a tremendous amount of information into the early scenes without ever allowing the action to seem cluttered. He and script-writer Bob Gale then allow themselves full rein to have fun with the consequences of sending their lead character back to the 1950's; while virtually no time-travel tale stands up to microscopic scrutiny, they tease out the implications of the journey with some care, and have a great eye for the little details that separate the decades. The performances, though, are what truly breathe life into the film. It's hard to believe that Michael J. Fox was simultaneously shooting episodes of the sitcom Family Ties given the energy he pours into his portrayal of Marty McFly, while he is given able support by Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover, who delivers one of the most enjoyably odd performances that you'll see in a mainstream feature. Threaded through the film, there's a hint of social commentary, most especially about the nefarious effects of the television on the American family, but there are also a few subtle pointers that the American economy of the 1980's isn't quite as balmy as its 1950's counterpart, however hard President Reagan (the butt of more than one joke) might have tried to sell that illusion.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Tracker

2002, Australia, directed by Rolf de Heer

I find that Rolf de Heer's films are sometimes more interesting on paper than in the final execution, but if anything the reverse is true in this case: The Tracker is a fully realised revisiting of the (Australian) western, with a stunning central performance by the great Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil; he's had a run of strong material in the past decade, but this film allows him to finally fulfill the promise shown in Nicolas Roeg's 1971 Walkabaout. The action is stripped down to the point of mythology, underlined by the characters' names (The Tracker, The Fanatic and so forth), as an Aboriginal tracker leads three white men in search of another Aboriginal man, who is accused of killing a white woman.

The white men vary in their view of native Australians, but none of them is unable to confront the contradiction between their view of Aboriginal people as savages, and their reliance on the tracker's acute intelligence and knowledge. The tracker himself fully exploits this contradiction, unsettling the men with his self-awareness, and wickedly black humour, while also making use of the white men's fear of the Australian bush (the malevolence of the outback is a recurring theme in Australian cinema, crystallized in films like Picnic at Hanging Rock but appearing in completely different contexts like that of Wolf Creek too). De Heer's script avoids easy answers, and is careful not to portray the Aboriginal people in insultingly saintly ways: violence is not unknown in their culture, either, for example. Visually, the film is stunning, and arresting in the way in which it cuts away to paintings at moments of violence. The soundtrack also contributes to an uniquely textured film, with Gulpilil's intelligent performance adding rich layers of emotional nuance.

The Navigators

2001, UK/Germany/Spain, directed by Ken Loach

The Navigators is Ken Loach's largely successful attempt to provide a sense of the human losses created by the privatisation of British Rail in the mid-1990's, focusing on the workers in one small Yorkshire maintenance depot as they deal with new market realities in the post-Thatcher era. Although the film slips occasionally into didacticism for the most part it has the authentic feel of the trackside, with convincingly salty banter from the generally solid acting crew. Loach's sense of the destruction of craftsmanship and skill in the new economic circumstances is acute, and quite moving, while there's real anger in his portrait of the means by which, increasingly, the costs of employing people are being passed on to workers themselves rather than being assumed by the employer. Loach does tend on occasion to reveal his own class prejudices, with the salt-of-the-earth working men contrasted somewhat heavy-handedly with the out-and-out misbehaviour of senior management; like his fellow Englishman, Loach isn't skilled at rounded portraits of even the middle classes. The final plot developments are telegraphed rather obviously earlier in the film - and are a bit too rigorously deterministic - but the point about the disastrous consequences of rail privatisation on every level is well-taken - and underlined too frequently by British newspaper headlines.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Breaking News

2004, Hong Kong, directed by Johnnie To

Perhaps Johnnie To was working, even by his standards, to an especially demanding schedule when making Breaking News, for it's a truly stripped-down affair, with a perfectly-paced 90-minute running time and action that takes place over the course of just a few hours (although it can be confusing to keep track of the various branches of the Hong Kong police that move in and out of the story, the plotting is generally pretty solid as well). To indulges himself with an eye-catching seven-minute opening shot that must have required a great deal of careful choreography, but doesn't relax afterwards: his command of the material is assured throughout, deploying cramped space to great atmosphere-building effect, and marshalling knots of police and reporters in clever formation. The film unspools, for the most part, inside an apartment building where some gangsters have taken a family hostage and in the police command station where the spin doctors are hard at work selling their version of the story to the assembled cameras. While the film is occasionally a touch simplistic in its commentary on the machinations of the media machine, the general point that such manipulations aid little in the construction of a truly participatory democracy is sharply made given the local context. To rarely lingers, though, on such ideas, given the headlong pacing and tightly-constructed action sequences.

The World's Fastest Indian

2005, New Zealand, directed by Roger Donaldson

Based on a true story, The World's Fastest Indian is the enjoyably shaggy tale of Burt Munro, a New Zealander who set land-speed records on a souped-up elderly motorcycle while of pension age himself. As with any Rocky-esque tale, there's a dose of sentimentality here, but it doesn't overwhelm the film, which is driven by a solid performance from Anthony Hopkins as Munro. He's a shy, half-deaf fellow, stubbornly determined to live out the dream of racing his bike across the salt flats at Bonneville, in Utah. Getting that far, though, takes up most of the film's running time, and the film unspools as a light-hearted road movie in which Munro, the innocent abroad, disarms all those in his path with his quiet, humorous manner; although it's hard to believe that the reality was quite as kindly, the film tends to sucker you in with its easygoing charm. The movie is a return to form for Roger Donaldson, who is capable of excellent work (whether in the early New Zealand films Sleeping Dogs and Smash Palace or the Cuban missile crisis re-enactment of Thirteen Days); he's never tempted to force the pace, even if he does press the "emotional music" button a bit too readily. It's not hard to understand why the film did well in New Zealand: the notion that an old fellow from Invercargill could beat the world with a bit of Kiwi ingenuity and boot polish tends to burnish the national self-image; it's equally appealing to those, like myself, from other small former British colonies (especially when Munro casts aspersions on the "pommies").

Sunday, November 12, 2006


2006, US, directed by Larry Charles

While I can't help but admire those who sit down and write up 1,200 word reviews of Borat complete with an analysis of the film's distinctly Jewish sensibility, I can't help thinking that Borat wouldn't mind deflating such work given half a chance. After all, if you think a movie is funny, just say so. The film is uproarious - even when audiences are wincing at some of the material - but it's not going to change the world, and it doesn't contain evidence of much beyond tremendous comic chutzpah on the part of Sacha Baron Cohen. After all, even if they haven't been strung together in 80-minute form before, many of the jokes are familiar to those who've seen Borat's British and American TV appearances; the thin additional plot isn't a major innovation. For every Bible-thumpin', rifle-shootin' racist homophobe the filmmakers manage to turn up (not, let us say, the most innovative of satirical targets), they also inadvertently emphasise, time and again, that most people (in this case Americans, but the original targets were Brits) are polite and hospitable folk who bend over backwards to accommodate an unusual guest. In the end, it's best not to look too long or hard at the social satire, or indeed the somewhat queasy methods by which the spontaneous materials were acquired, but sit back and enjoy some bad-taste comedy in the dark of a packed movie theatre.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Fulltime Killer

2001, Hong Kong, directed by Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai

Early in Fulltime Killer, one of the protagonists mentions a film he had seen a few years previously. "Not the best movie, but I like the style," he opines, and it is as good a way as any to summarize the present film. Explicit movie references abound - everything from Le Samouraï to El Mariachi by way of Léon - in a cheerful acknowledgement of the constant borrowing that characterizes Hong Kong cinema (with the favour returned by Hollywood, France and other movie producers). The film boasts a top-notch opening in a Malaysian train station, swiftly followed by an over-the-top-notch entrance from the second lead (Andy Lau), who wreaks havoc in a Thai police station. Throughout the film, there's a self-conscious effort to formulate the bloody assassinations as opera, a leaf taken from the John Woo playbook. If Fulltime Killer never quite lives up to the promise of that pair of opening sequences, it's still got style to spare and directors To and Wai never allow the action to flag, which helps to paper over the flimsy plotting, while co-lead Takashi Sorimachi (also, like Lau, a pop star) is excellent. This is, incidentally, the first Hong Kong movie of any stripe that I've seen since reading David Bordwell's Planet Hong Kong. I can't recommend the book highly enough as a tool for thinking about that territory's film production; that it's also a supremely enjoyable read is a huge bonus.

Les Vacances de M. Hulot

1953, France, directed by Jacques Tati

Although Jacques Tati is often seen as France's supreme comic filmmaker (at least outside France, since so many of that country's huge comic hits are barely known in the English-speaking world), it's interesting that his influence often seems most obviously apparent in British comedy. It's hard to imagine performers like John Cleese or Rowan Atkinson without Tati, and more specifically without Monsieur Hulot and the chaos that constantly accompanies him. For all the manic energy of a show like Fawlty Towers, it's also based on the kind of acute human observation that makes Les Vacances de M. Hulot such a treasure: Hulot himself, with his Tintin-esque hairdo, is a wonderful creation, but Tati is just as fascinated by the other residents of the beach town where the film takes place, casting his generous eye over everything that happens, and weaving gags from the most unlikely sources. Those visual jokes emerge organically from the loosely connected scenes: there's no obvious punchline much of the time, emphasizing that the humour is really just a lightly burnished version of reality rather than something that draws attention to itself. Tati also pokes gentle but insistent fun at the regimented nature of French holiday habits: Hulot, by contrast, seems to take things as they come, and the disruptions that follow him have the happy effect of shaking up everyone's routine. The gags are beautifully constructed - the timing is perfect, scene after scene - but the film also looks wonderful: Tati is a true visual artist rather than just a simple humorist.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

L'Année dernière à Marienbad

1961, France/Italy, directed by Alain Resnais

One of the most challenging films to emerge from the French New Wave, L'Année dernière à Marienbad pushes back conventional notions of cinematic storytelling, prioritizing form absolutely above content. The script, by novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, is a carefully constructed set of themes and variations, rigorously structured, and employing repetition to create a disorienting atmosphere. The nominal plot involves a man's attempts to convince a woman that they met a year before - and perhaps had an affair - but the script is far more interested in playing with our own expectations than in resolving this essentially simple problem. The film is shot in stunning black-and-white by Sacha Vierny, with Resnais employing an exceptionally mobile camera that glides up and down the corridors of the luxury hotel where the film is set, caressing the architectural details and the rich decorations. Although the film's concerns are not those of a more conventional narrative, it nonetheless creates an unsettling sense of oppressiveness, underlining the essentially joyless interactions of this group of wealthy vacationers, whose days are filled with empty pursuits. It's hard to avoid the sense that Resnais and Robbe-Grillet probably aren't the most entertaining pair with whom to share a drink - unless, perhaps, the film also functions as a kind of wicked joke at the expense of our intellectual pretensions.

Le Goût des autres

2000, France, directed by Agnès Jaoui

It's refreshing to see a smart, talky French film that's not set in Paris, but rather in a fully realized provincial town with its own distinct artistic milieu (the film was shot in Rouen, not entirely out of the Parisian orbit but large enough to have its own set of priorities). Like her more recent, and even more polished, Comme une image, Agnès Jaoui's début feature tells several interlocking tales, with a local bar forming, in many ways, the intersection point. The script, by Jaoui and partner Jean-Pierre Bacri, isn't quite as openly comic as some of their other collaborations, but their generous view of humanity - the willingness to see both flaws and generosity in almost everyone - is intact. The rich characterisations surely helped, too, in attracting such a wonderful cast: it's not hard to imagine actors clamouring for a role. Bacri, one of the cinema's great curmudgeons, is predictably top-notch in a self-tailored part, and he's well-complemented by Jaoui's radiant barmaid and the less familiar Anne Alvaro as the object of his character's affections. Gérard Lanvin and Alain Chabat form an amusing tandem as Bacri's bodyguard and driver, respectively; Lanvin's world-weary charm integrates surprisingly well with Chabat's naïveté, and it's nice to see both of them working with an intelligent script, given how sorely under-used their skills are on occasion.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

2005, US/UK, directed by Mike Newell

The running time creeps back up again with the fourth installment of the Harry Potter film franchise, after a relatively breezy third episode, but that's hardly surprising given that this is the point at which the books become unwieldy (in the literal sense): even at over two-and-a-half hours, great chunks of the source material are omitted. There's no time at all to re-capitulate events from the previous films, which means that some references and characters are pretty confusing, and major on-the-page events are compressed into a few brief scenes onscreen (that's especially true of the abbreviated treatment given to the Quidditch World Cup).

The young actors are all more than familiar with the material at this point, and their acting talent is also that much clearer as they grow into the more adult parts; Daniel Radcliffe is fine as Harry, but Rupert Grint and Emma Watson outshine him as his best friends Ron and Hermione, and both are particularly good in the scenes, midway through the film, centered on a gala dance. As with the previous films, about half of the British film industry seems to appear in the adult roles, with Ralph Fiennes and Irishman Brendan Gleeson the key additions this time around (familiar faces like Robbie Coltrane and Alan Rickman get minimal screen time, though, which is unfortunate). As you'd expect, the action moves along nicely with veteran director Mike Newell at the helm: the main focus is on an event called the Tri-Wizard Tournament, and the key scenes of the contest are quite dramatic (particularly the menacing appearance, near the end, of evil wizard Voldemort himself), as befits the increasingly ominous overall tone. Newell also ups the local colour of the series, with some amusing little details - like the tea-lady on the train - drawn from a very recognizably British reality.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


1984, US, directed by Joe Dante

Gremlins is one of those huge 1980's hits - like Ghostbusters or E.T. - that has been happily interpreted and re-interpreted by critics, who see everything from an allegory of parent-child relationships to an environmental commentary in what is, at heart, a great big B-movie that takes most of its pleasure in playing with a host of venerable Hollywood traditions, from monster movies to Christmas tales, with a few buckets of exploitation-grade goop thrown in to the mix. The gooey violence, in particular, reveals director Joe Dante's low-budget origins, and there's a great sequence where Mom defends herself in the kitchen that parallels any number of women-in-peril scenes; this is one mama the gremlins do not want to mess with. The opening parts of the movie, set in a backlot Chinatown and snow-covered small town, are especially good; the local colour is sketched in with economy and wit, setting up the perils to come. Dante also shows a healthy disrespect for convention: the small-town idyll is punctured by a freeloading cop and tales of rent problems and factory lay-offs (despite the film appearing during the alleged Reagan boom years). While the special effects inevitably seem rather quaint now - some of the effects were old-school in 1984, never mind in the age of CGI - Gremlins remains a tremendously entertaining comedy/horror blend, and it's a movie-lover's delight, with direct or indirect references to dozens of films (everything from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to, in one of the movie's funniest jokes, Cocteau's Orphée). The scene, near the end, when the gremlins sit, rapt, in a movie theatre singing along to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is, perhaps, a touch of genius.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


1973, Senegal, directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty

Although it's an exceptionally challenging, and provocative, piece of work, Touki-Bouki retains an extraordinary freshness and power more than 30 years after its release; there's still a palpable sense of anger at Senegal's post-colonial circumstances. The country's relationship with its former 'master', France, is at the core of the film, particularly expressed in the conflicted hopes and dreams of young Africans, torn between tradition and the promises (or illusions) of wealth and opportunity as embodied in the idea of France (or more specifically Paris; Josephine Baker sings "Paris, Paris, Paris" to ironic effect on the soundtrack). Although Diop Mambéty's vision is disorienting and experimental, the tale at the heart of his film is simple, with two young lovers figuring out how to get ahead. The film is shot through with a vein of rich, black humour, and if it lacks the perfect humanist simplicity of his beautiful final work, La Petite vendeuse du Soleil, it does nonetheless have a sense of visual poetry that's often quite mesmerizing. In many ways, too, the film is a keystone to understanding Diop Mambéty's later works, especially Hyènes. Those who are sensitive about the conversion of animals into meat should probably give the film a wide berth, though; the film is blunt about the realities of life in both broad and specific terms.


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States