Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Dark Knight

2008, US, directed by Christopher Nolan

Or In Which It Is Shewn That a Summer Blockbuster Is Not The Ideal Vehicle For Coherent Political Commentary. It's clear that Christopher Nolan aspires to something more than the average big-budget action flick, and that Batman and the cinematic universe in which he exists could be read as a partial analogy for the current US administration and, but it's not an analogy that hangs together all that well, with the political subtext ultimately subordinate to the need to ratchet up the thrills (I wonder to what extent I was influenced by David Bordwell's comments, which I read a few days before I saw the film; he makes a pretty good case for deliberately muddled movie politics). Nolan's directorial style also distracts from any subtler point he might be trying to make: his camera spins around in dizzying fashion, whether we're circling a tall building in Hong Kong or following the Joker as he swings wildly around the terrorised crowd at a party, and he has a tendency to underline every point in the action with loud, sometimes portentous music.

I won't deny that the film is good big-screen entertainment, best enjoyed with a crowd, but as soon as the closing credits roll, the seams start to come undone. Given that we're talking abut flying superheroes, realism is not the primary concern (though I did like the way the first film made some attempt to ground things in our own world), but even so the
timeline for some of the events seems utterly implausible: there's simply too much going on at any one time. While there are some striking visual images - that circling camera on the rooftops is quite impressive on the big screen, and there's a brilliant sequence where the lights shut down on Batman's lair - too many of the action scenes aren't sufficiently coherent: in one big chase scene, we're supposed to be concerned about the Joker's approach, but we never have the sense that he's actually in the same physical space so the menace is undercut.

Then there is the obligatory word about Heath Ledger's performance as said Joker. While his work is a fine bit of scene-chewing acting, all manic energy and wild mannerisms, it's also a very showy bit of work - presumably at the director's bidding - that seems to me far from his finest hour. I'd much rather remember him for his eye-catching work in the otherwise unappealing Monster's Ball or his exceptionally controlled performance in Brokeback Mountain. Or perhaps I'd best like to remember him as a high school kid in 10 Things I Hate About You, where he looks just like what he was: a kid off the plane from Australia who's just won the Hollywood casting lottery and is enjoying every second of the ride.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Dan in Real Life

2007, US, directed by Peter Hedges

Peter Hedges' fascination with family dynamics surfaces again in Dan in Real Life, although here he's primarily dissecting an actual group of relatives rather than observing the ways in which people create new and unique quasi-family groups as they leave their childhoods behind (with "real" and constructed families sometimes clashing). Hedges has a pretty sharp eye for much of the minutiae of family life - that rich texture of events and memories, highs and lows - and he captures the dynamics of a sprawling, lazy, sometimes tense family gathering with considerable skill.

It's hard not to see something of Steve Carell's character from The Office, Michael Scott, in Dan - while the latter isn't anywhere near as Crass as Michael, he does have that knack for saying utterly the wrong thing, and transforming himself into a social outcast even amongst those who should be most willing to tolerate his foibles. Juliette Binoche, too, is hardly stretched in playing the beguiling European stunner, smart, sexy, and capable of turning everyone's world on its head, and yet despite a degree of typecasting she's ultimately as bewitching as the movie needs her to be, convincing as the kind of person who could snap a man like Dan out of a profound funk. In the end, there's nothing all that new in Hedges' film (plot twists show up on cue) but the fine performances - including from the young actresses who play Dan's daughters - make the gathering worth sticking with.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Papy fait de la résistance

1983, France, directed by Jean-Marie Poiré

In her book French National Cinema, Susan Hayward notes that "[A]part from a couple of comedies", of which this film is one, French cinema of the 1980s did little to tackle the legacy of Occupation period, an especially troubled part of France's historical record.* It's a shame, then, that she provides no analysis of what these few films might have achieved; Papy fait de la résistance was a substantial box office hit on its first release, with that success augmented through subsequent television showings and the home video boom.

Jean-Marie Poiré attempted to deflect some of the controversy that surrounded the film by claiming that it was intended as a satire on films about the Occupation period, but it's clear that Papy takes on some of the well-honed mythologies of the difficult post-war period, particularly the scale of the Resistance. There are plenty of references to prior films set during the same years - particularly La Grande vadrouille, with which it shares major plot elements, and also dramas like Jean-Pierre Melville's intense, bleak L'Armée des ombres - but this film emerged from the often anarchic and rarely respectful café-théâtre movement, not known for its tendency to avoid sacred cows.

As with most of the café-théâtre films, Papy is primarily a set of sketches loosely strung together. Several of the briefer scenes seem designed expressly to allow appearances by members of the Splendid theatre troupe, and while Michel Blanc does a nice job with his few minutes of screen time, other such cameos -- Thierry Lhermitte's in particular -- fall much flatter. Of the main Splendid actors, only Christian Clavier and Gérard Jugnot have major parts, and the latter is especially amusing as a more-zealous-than-the-Germans local Gestapo functionary.

While there's a scattershot tendency to the humour that rarely allows for much genuine reflection on the Occupation period (and a casual homophobia to one of the characters), the film is occasionally inspired, whether in the song performed by Adolf-a-like Ludwig von Apfelstrudel, and especially at the end, when - Monty Python style - the modern world intrudes in the form of a televised debate that scathingly satirises then-contemporary discussions of France's wartime history and role, and which leaves no-one looking entirely admirable.


* p. 286 of Hayward's book; the book is a survey, so a lengthy analysis would hardly have been appropriate, but it still feels like a missed opportunity.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Definitely, Maybe

2008, US, directed by Adam Brooks

Adam Brooks also penned the screenplay for the dreadful Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (this must be Adam Brooks month for me); Definitely, Maybe might not win many awards, but it is, thankfully, a huge improvement on the earlier film. For a start, there's something approaching a coherent story, there's a real sense of place and time, and while Brooks doesn't do anything too radical, at least the film has the guts not to follow the easiest possible road as it ties up its loose ends.

I confess I was frequently nonplussed by the central storyline in which a father (Ryan Reynolds) tells the sanitized story of his past to his daughter (Abigail Breslin) as he prepares to finalize his divorce from her mother, perhaps the result of missing a key few seconds at the beginning, but Reynolds is charming enough to distract from the silliness of the set-up, and there's some decent support, particularly from Kevin Kline, enjoying himself as a roué. The unusual backdrop to his youthful romances - the 1992 Clinton campaign - is surprisingly effective, too, recalling a very different political moment but also depicting the erosion of youthful ideals.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Away From Her

2007, Canada, directed by Sarah Polley

In many debut films the director seems to throw every trick into the mix first time out, as if there'll never be another chance, with the unfortunate result that the story frequently gets lost in the process. Sarah Polley, though, has far more confidence in her material, and in her own ability to unfold the ties between her characters, never departing from a calm, almost hypnotic style that allows real - rather than paper - people to emerge as she narrates the story of a woman (Julie Christie) dealing with the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

While she doesn't sugar-coat the realities of the disease - particularly from the perspective of those forced to watch a loved one slowly disappear - Polley chooses not to depict Alzheimer's as simply a decline: instead, Fiona's illness becomes a revelatory experience, unveiling the depths of her love toward the man (Gordon Pinsent) with whom she has spent her life, despite his flaws, and in turns the lengths to which he is prepared to go to ensure his wife's continued happiness, even as his connection with her seems to slip.

It's extraordinary to realize just how young the director is, given her acute ability to portray the small transactions that regulate the lives of this long-married couple; her depiction, particularly, of the ways in which Fiona allows her husband to understand how she has come to terms with his behaviour is tender yet utterly unsentimental, as though her disease makes honesty not just possible but essential.

Christie has one of those extraordinary faces that seems to develop a new radiance with age; every moment she's on the screen, your eyes are drawn to her, while she moves and speaks with a quiet, dignified grace that has an unmistakable edge of steel. As her husband, Gordon Pinsent is a fine match for her, a man who looks as though he's been hewn from the Canadian wilds, but who is also, despite his mistakes, possessed of acute intelligence and sensitivity. It's a fine performance from an actor who has rarely had the opportunity to shine.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

2004, UK/US, directed by Beeban Kidron

I'm not sure if it's a symptom of the kind of project offered to female directors these days, or whether Beeban Kidron's early work, especially for TV, was something of a flash in the pan - she's been behind the camera for several undistinguished Hollywood projects by this stage - but this is just dreadful. It plods along with almost no sense of style or wit - it's not entirely impossible to inject a film like this with a little verve - and the script displays no indication that some of its more outlandishly offensive ideas (such as the scenes in a women's prison) are intended ironically. The scenario is ridiculous, and padded out far beyond the length needed, the actors seem tired (Hugh Grant gives things a minor lift, but it's a Sisyphean task), and this second Bridget Jones film reveals Colin Firth's character rather brutally for the pompous arse he is; if this is a man to aspire to, we're in worse shape than I thought.


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States