Film review: Water

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Water

In these times of rampant religious bigotry, it’s unfortunately no surprise that the production of Deepa Mehta’s new film Water was dogged by violent protest by Hindu fundamentalists. This film, the third and last in a trilogy by the Indian director after Fire (1996) and Earth (1998) shines a light on the milllions of Indian widows forced to live with social and cultural discrimination; a practice that shamefully continues to this day. How bad is the discrimination? Get this: widows must remain loyal to their deceased husbands or, according to ancient Hindi law, be reborn in the belly of a jackal. Ain’t religion great?

Filming began on location in Varanasi, on the banks of the river Ganges, but after the production was plagued by protest, death threats and political manipulation, had to continue in secret in Sri Lanka. It seems some were unable to accept the film shows certain Indian cultural practices in a poor light (perhaps they find the mindless garbage churned out by Bollywood to be a more fitting filmic ambassador for the country). Not to mention the fact that Hindu fundamentalists seem indisposed towards discarding a cultural and religious practice that, like the caste system, keeps the rich and powerful on top and the poor and disadvantaged on the bottom.

While Water is undeniably a political film, it also deeply romantic and quite beautiful. Sarala, an eight-year-old actress full of life and charm, plays newly widowed (yes, at eight) Chuyia, who enters the ashram and begins shaking things up. The stunningly beautiful—though, it must be said, very Western-looking—Lisa Ray plays Kalyani, a young widow forced into prostitution to support the other widows of the ashram, who captures the heart of a progressive Ghandi disciple and law graduate Narayana (John Abraham). There are moments of heart-rending beauty here—after Narayana first meets Kalyani, we see him walking, smiling, through the driving rain, intercut with Kalyani and Chuyia playing and dancing in their little hut. The pure happiness of the moment is beautifully captured, aided by music by A.R. Rahman.

When I walked out of the film there were still tears welling up inside me bursting to get out. The assured blending of personal romance and tragedy, the real knowledge of so many lives spoiled by ancient religious dogma, the beauty of the Ghats along the riverbank and the way they are filmed—all of these elements work together to make a stunning filmic experience. Highly recommended.

Also make sure you catch the other two films of the trilogy. Fire is excellent and tells a highly controversial (for India) story of a lesbian love affair. I’m still tracking down a copy of Earth.

Five rasgullas out of five.


Film review: V For Vendetta

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V For Vendetta

Oh yeah. Oh. Yeah. Take an 80s graphic novel by Alan Moore, set in an near-future alternative Britain under totalitarian rule, featuring the anarchist/terrorist ‘V’ in trademark Guy Fawkes mask, and influenced by Thatcher-era British politics. Make it into a film that breathes new life into the original themes and perfectly relevant to our times without spoon-feeding, yet still makes it work as both action-adventure and stylish future noir. Tough call, but V For Vendetta pulls it off.

V For Vendetta is a dense, multi-layered film directed by James McTeigue from a screenplay by the Wachowski brothers (the Matrix trilogy). I haven’t read the original graphic novel, and perhaps Moore’s desire to distance himself from the film is justified, but I can’t imagine how he could be unhappy with the rich experience this film delivers. The lynchpin is Hugo Weaving as ‘V’, who manages to create a fully fleshed out and fascinating character without ever revealing his face, with the help of an intelligent script that never once falls into ‘superhero stereotype’. Not far behind is Natalie Portman as Evey, the woman he rescues from creepy government ‘Fingermen’ and who becomes involved in his crusade to make the nation’s oppressed citizens rise up against their tyrannical government. Portman—her wooden turn as Princess Armidala in Star Trek now thankfully far in the past—has become an incredible actress with real presence and subtlety, and for me this is her best performance to date.

V For Vendetta manages to do two things at once—it challenges and inspires by appealing to universal themes like all good science fiction and fantasy, and yet at the same time it doesn’t spell out solutions or lead the viewer by the hand. By walking this thin line it challenges you to use your brain, to counter the ‘with us or against us’ mentality of those who think in black and white with reality, complete with all its grey areas. I’m sure there will be many who misinterpret the film as a result, who see it as exorting terrorists to blow up buildings. What it really is, however, is exactly what our force-fed culture needs—a good boot up the backside.

And there’s a cracking good knife-fight and some mighty explosions.

My rating? Of course—five fifth symphonies out of five.


Film review: Capote

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Capote

Philip Seymour Hoffman—what a bit of acting he does in this movie. Truman Capote was a man of memorable affectations, and an actor could have easily fallen into parody in portraying him, but Hoffman walks the finest of lines like an acrobat, bringing complexity and reality to his performance. Befitting a story that lies deep in life’s complex grey areas, he shows us a man that cannot be summed up in a sentence, even one as expressive as the man himself could write.

Capote focuses on his research for his last finished novel, the stunning In Cold Blood. If you haven’t got around to reading it, do so now; it’s one of the seminal books of the 20th century. Were the events of this time responsible for Capote never finishing another novel, descending into alcoholism and eventually to an early death at 60? We’ll never know, but the film makes a strong case for it. Like In Cold Blood, it also concentrates on the killers in the case of the murder of a family in Halcomb, Kansas in 1959; the murdered people have no voice. But the film is about Capote after all. It’s about his relationship with Perry Smith, a sensitive man who Capote developed a connection. And it’s about the Faustian path Capote found himself on when finishing his greatest work.

Capote doesn’t lead us by the hand towards pat solutions. It moves slowly and steadily through the events, yet without ever dragging or losing its way. It looks beautiful, grey and cold and desaturated; even the light on the Costa Brava, where Capote escapes with Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood), seems overcast and heavy. Catherine Keener puts in a quiet but strong performance as Capote’s friend Harper Lee. Bennett Miller’s direction is confident and quietly stylish. Perhaps Clifton Collins Jr. as Perry Smith is not quite as good, but then there’s a vacancy about the character which seems strangely appropriate.

I was mesmerised by the film from start to finish. Four and a half wide grey skies.


Film review: Brokeback Mountain

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Brokeback Mountain

Despite some flaws, I found myself unable to stop thinking about this slow, sad and beautiful film long into the evening after emerging from the cinema. Ang Lee, back in Ice Storm form after the confused Hulk, has crafted a deeply affecting tale out of a short story by E. Annie Proulx, and I’m sure she’s relieved to see one of her tales brought so sensitively to life after The Shipping News, which so effectively ignored the poetical prose of the novel.

The big surprise here is Heath Ledger, who is completely convincing as Ennis, the hunched, tight-lipped cowboy who spends the summer of 1963 tending sheep on Brokeback Mountain with Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and thus begins a forbidden love affair that is to last 20 years. It’s the first half of the film that is the strongest; the harsh beauty of the Wyoming mountainside, dark clouds gathering on the green slopes, the slow burning bond that develops between the two men, utterly believable despite their very different personalities.

It’s after the two men get married—Ennis to the sweet Alma (Michelle Williams) and Jack to the rich girl Lureen (Anne Hathaway), then after a four year separation meet again to find their love as strong as ever and begin years of regular ‘fishing trips’ together, that the film loses a bit of the initial magic. We start a fast-forward through twenty years which is sometimes a little confusing as the characters don’t age very convincingly, and we leave behind the slow, luxuriant pace of the first half. It’s no coincidence that this is the area where the screenplay elaborated most on the Proulx short story, and it shows.

However, these minor points aside, the film is a long overdue and deeply sensitive exploration of a previously—if not forbidden, then rarely explored more then superficially—love. It’s a testiment to the director and the actors that you pretty much forget that this is a film about gay love—it’s a film about love, pure and simple, and a love that has to face more insurmountable challenges than most. It’s also nice, for a change, to see male love portrayed as something more than a lifestyle of drugs, raves and leather harnesses a la Queer as Folk. Actually, the leather harnesses are here—this is a film about cowboys after all.

Four electric carving knives out of five.


Film review: King Kong

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King Kong

Peter Jackson must feel if he has to tell the story of how the 1933 King Kong inspired him to be a filmmaker one more time, he’ll explode. But there’s no denying it’s wonderful to hear about someone actually realising their fondest childhood dream—and let’s face it, out of all those fledgling flimmakers who played with plasticine and Super8 cameras as kids, how many of them go on to make a $200 million version of their favourite film?

It’s perhaps because of Jackson’s close emotional attachment to the original that King Kong isn’t a complete and utter success; it feels as if he’s been playing with these ideas all his life and isn’t willing to give up any of his toys. Yes, it is too long, at just over three hours. Let’s get that out of the way. I have nothing against long films, but in this case Jackson obviously ran out of time to finish and fine-tune the film. There are places where the compositing work is embarassingly rough, and I imagined how unforgiving the audiences of twenty years hence (hell, the audiences now) will be of those scenes—in much the same way the original’s effects now look naive. Since there’s a good twenty minutes of stuff in the film that could have been left on the cutting room floor, hard decisions should have been made about losing some scenes and allotting more time to others. It’s much like the Director’s Cut of Return of the King: that Paths of the Dead ‘skull avalanche’ sequence should have been trodden underfoot and never seen again. And talking about The Lord of the Rings, here there’s some of the same uncomfortably choppy editing we saw in that trilogy, especially in the film’s first third. In fact I felt things only started to hit a real rhythm at the appearance of the Skull Island natives, twenty minutes in.

There’s a lot of great stuff here, and almost of the great stuff has Kong in it. There’s no question Andy Serkis and the Weta animators have done an incredible job bringing him to life: so much so that he outshines the human actors in the depth of his character and acting. And here, it seems to me, is another lost opportunity. The other characters remain 1930s cardboard cutouts—especially Jack Black as Carl Denham (out of his depth here) and Adrien Brody as Jack Driscoll, who struggle with flat material. When the script tries to flesh out character it feels tacked on: especially when the Venture’s first mate starts quoting slabs of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It’s a huge credit to Naomi Watts that she manages to bring so much character to Ann Darrow. It can’t be easy getting all that emotion across when you’re in a green studio staring at a guy in an ape suit and fake fangs with motion control dots all over him. But there is a real repoire between Kong and Ann that gives us the only real emotional depth in the film; in contrast the touched-on love story between Ann and Jack is paper-thin.

Still, the action sequences are astounding, though perhaps a tad drawn out (and there’s one sequence that I found uncomfortably—and a bit too voyeuristically—violent), with Jackson repeatedly raising the bar on the action until you find yourself laughing in delight. Most of King Kong is an amazing ride.

It’s a great film, but with more disciplined editing, and more time, it could have been a classic. But then again it already was a classic. What we all want to see now is Jackson turn his talents, and that of his team, to something completely original. There’s a Blade Runner in him yet. Come on Mr Jackson, we know you can do it.

Four casually discarded blondes out of five.


Film review: Doom

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Doom

Really, really really bad.

Half a BFG out of five.


No, no, FrankenSTIEN!

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Frankensign

I just watched The Revenge of Frankenstein—Hammer Films, 1958, with the incomparable Peter Cushing as the good Baron. I did find it highly amusing however, that having escaped the guillotine at the start of the film, he proceeds to start a new practice in a good sized city as ‘Dr Stein’.

But wait, his twisted genius doesn’t end there. When he is almost killed by his patients and transplanted into the body of his latest creation at the end of the film, he then sets up shop in another city as ‘Dr Francken’.
Brilliant doctor—not so brilliant con-man.


Film review: Serenity

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Serenity

It’s not every day you get to enjoy Joss Whedon’s work on the big screen, so we did this one in style by seeing it ‘La Premiere’. For those of you who aren’t local that means large lounge seats, alcohol in the cinema, a tray of Turkish dips, and all the gold you can eat—well, not that last one.

You all know the back story by now … Joss Whedon creates scifi slash western series Firefly only to have it rudely pulled by brainless Fox executives before a single season is out; DVD goes on to sell truckloads; Whedon gets to make film version with the same cast. For those of you who for some bizarre reason have yet to make it to the cinema, let me place your minds at rest; the result is a bloody entertaining scifi flick that plays like a big finale to the series and will leave Firefly fans satisfied and, of course, clambering for more.

In fact that smooth transition to the big screen from the small is probably responsible for the film’s few flaws which, in the interest of impartial reviewing, I feel I should report. Those movie-goers not conversant with the fifteen episode backstory may find some of the characters don’t get as much development as they’d like, but then there’s a lot to squeeze into 119 minutes. The series fans can of course fill in the gaps and sit back and enjoy the further adventures of some of the best characters ever developed for TV, characters that have very quickly become like close friends. Also, Whedon has had to do a lot with a relatively small budget, so some scenes feel smaller than what we’re used to on the big screen, some of the sets feel a bit cramped, and not every effects shot is faultless (though Zoic Studios do sterling work, as ever). The Reavers—space zombies, basically—don’t come across as threatening as they did on television, and perhaps could have been better realised.

Small quibbles though. Basically, if you’re a fan of Whedon’s snappy, witty writing, you’ll love this film. It amazes me that reviews persist in comparing it with the latest Star Wars, which is like comparing a gourmet dining experience with MacDonalds drive-through. If you never ‘got’ Buffy and Angel and still think it’s some kind of 90210-meets-Charmed, you probably won’t like it it. I immediately suggest you get thee to the video store and start from Buffy Season 1, Episode 1. You’ve got a lot of wonderful viewing ahead of you that culminates in this film.

So what’s next Joss? Surprise us, we can’t wait.

Four badly translated Chinese curses out of five.


Film review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

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Willy Wonka

I’ll no doubt be pilloried for this, but the original 1971 film version of Roald Dahl’s book, starring Gene Wilder, did very little for me as a child. I remember that every time it came on TV I’d start watching it, but end up disappointed by the end—even then it seemed a little cheap, like a poor man’s Wizard of Oz.

Of course the book, and the film, are beloved by millions, most of whom will probably love this ‘re-imagining’ (or whatever you call them these days) by Tim Burton. The reviews have been great. But I hate to say it just felt like a tricked up rework that will rapidly date, and personally I’d like to see Burton turn his talents to something a little more original.

There are some nice bits of course; Charlie’s crooked little family house is charming, and the opening moments with his family are quite emotional. Depp is a weirder Wonka than Wilder (say that three times fast), even if Michael Jackson does keep springing involuntarily to mind. The kids are well cast, especially Freddie Highmore as Charlie Bucket. Deep Roy, endlessly digitally doubled, brings more gravitas than you could think possible to the singing and dancing Oompa-Loompas.

But let’s face it, this is an effects-driven family fun-fest, and is fine as such. I just feel like I’ve seen it all before (the glass elevator scenes, for example, so similar to Slartibartfast’s cherry-picker whizzing about in the recent The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). I came out feeling unsatisfied and I’d forgotten all about it in ten minutes. I guess you had to have loved the original.

Two Oompa-Loompas out of five.


Film review: War of the Worlds

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War of the Worlds

Spielberg is such an assured director, it’s always frustrating to see him make decisions which ultimately spoil the impact of his films. Thankfully, he made one fundamentally correct decision when adapting H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds—to stick close to the original book. Unfortunately, he made a few bad decisions too, but on the whole the film proves to be one of his most disturbing and powerful works.

A few changes can certainly be forgiven: Spielberg sets his version in contemporary America, where Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a dock worker and failed husband and father, finds himself fleeing with his daughter and son from the implacable alien invaders. I’ve always found Cruise a very average actor (and an annoying human being, but that’s by-the-by), but he does capable work here, and thankfully, apart from one ill-conceived moment, he is given no opportunity for grandstanding. Except perhaps to advertise himself as creative partner with Spielberg, but one suspects that like the rumoured Scientology tent on set, that’s a clause in the standard Cruise contract.

The best acting here is from ten year old Dakota Fanning as Rachel, who is utterly convincing as Ferrier’s daughter. Yes, not surprisingly, Spielberg has injected a family subplot—the father giving all to protect his children and discovering reserves of strength within himself to do so, a story thread that is far too neatly tied up in a bow.

But the real focus here, as it should be, is on the aliens. They are terrifying, huge, (almost) all-powerful and relentless. Humans are ants trying to escape an inevitable extermination. There are genuinely scary moments here, and Spielberg doesn’t sugar-coat the violence, our powerlessness, the loss of life, or what can happen to normal people when survival is at stake. Unfortunately, he does make the mistake of showing the aliens, which drastically reduces their impact. Once we are allowed to humanise the aliens, we are no longer quite so afraid of them, and the point of Wells’ novel, that this was an enemy for which there was no effective human response, is diminished. Certainly if I could have asked one thing of Spielberg it would have been to leave them in their towering machines.

But despite the errors of judgement—the casting of Cruise, showing the aliens, one Cruise hero moment, the neatly tied ‘family’ thread … and a slightly over-long sequence in a basement—the film has a powerful impact, and I came out of the cinema exhausted and drained. This time the changes ultimately do not spoil what is an eternally powerful science-fiction story, and this potent adaptation.

Four tripods out of five.


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