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Sunday September 9, 2007 in films | recent cinema

The film of Ian McEwan’s Atonement is a masterpiece – a true cinema classic.

Keira Knightley in Atonement

The 2001 novel is a favourite of mine, and Joe Wright (director) and Christopher Hampton (screenplay) lose nothing of the power and potency of the book. In many ways they succeed in improving upon it.

A blistering hot afternoon like yesterday might not be the best time for a trip to the cinema, but I have to take these chances when they come, and besides – like McEwan’s opening chapters the film brilliantly recreates a very similar summer day in 1935. Hot, still days where people think nothing of plunging into cool water; which is essentially what kickstarts the events in Atonement.

A young girl called Briony (Saoirse Ronan) witnesses three incidents that lead her to form conclusions surrounding a fourth. When her cousin is assaulted, she accuses a young man called Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) of the brutal deed. Wright emphasises the strength of fiction in Briony’s word and how her imagination can filter the truth into something else. The sound of typewriters echo through the film’s soundtrack, their sound hammering their importance in this story into us. And is is the typed word that gets Robbie into trouble; when a sexually explicit letter to Briony’s sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) accidentally falls into Briony’s hands and she later witnesses a sexual encounter between Robbie and Cecilia – in a library, another world of fiction and shaped truths – her imagination goes into overload.

Following Robbie’s arrest the film jumps ahead to the wartime settings of London and Dunkirk. Anyone who has read the book knows to expect that things continue not to be as they seem and Wright really begins to shine here as an artist. The long sweeping shot of troops on the beach at Dunkirk is already becoming something of legend and it really is that good; the scene of Robbie walking through this hell-like vision is breathtaking – visually stunning and also managing to add to some of the intellectual themes of the book. Soldiers play at an abandoned funfair, a broken doll’s house sits abandoned, a ferris wheel turns oblivious to the devastation around it. I want to see this part of the movie again and again to fully appreciate its brilliance.

The film (like the book) will no doubt attract some criticism for its ending, which features Vanessa Redgrave as the now dying Briony, now a celebrated author, in the present day. We’re asked bluntly to think about truth and fiction, what we have just witnessed for two hours, how we would possibly want Briony’s ending to be any different. There is a stunning scene involving the 18 year old Briony (Romola Garai) – now a nurse in wartime London as part of her self-imposed atonement – and a dying French soldier that I think holds the key to the whole story. It’s about misunderstandings and lies, and how sometimes we can do nothing other than give in to them.

What’s best about the whole experience is that a great novel is turned into a fantastic and cinematically clever film. Visually, water plays a part in several key scenes. Cecilia diving into a pond to provide the beginning to Briony’s misunderstandings, Briony jumping into a river to force Robbie to rescue her, a final tragic scene during an air raid in London and the two lovers on an empty beach, embracing as the waves rush around them. This last image one of the most moving I have seen in cinema for some time.

Please see this film – there are excellent performances all round and Joe Wright is a director to watch in the future. It’s unadulterated rich, stunning cinema.

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Into the Labyrinth

Wednesday July 25, 2007 in films | recent cinema

I had it all planned out…

This is my favourite time of the year for lounging, and due to a combination of having the house to myself for a while and being in the middle of a transition period (I am starting a new job in August), I’d decided to take it easy over a long stretch of summer evenings, reading in the garden as the sun set in front of me…

Well it hasn’t quite turned out that way, and it’s mostly been snatched moments in between rain, wind and cold. It’s cold now, and although not yet seven o’ clock I’m inside. No sunset worth seeing tonight.

But the nights drawing in a little quicker than expected has meant that I’ve finally got round to seeing Pan’s Labyrinth. This is a film that caught my eye sometime ago, and following several passionate recommendations from the film critic Mark Kermode (a man I have the greatest respect for, despite his extraordinary hairstyle) I decided to rent the DVD.

Pan’s Labyrinth, or El Laberinto Del Fauno, is a Spanish language film by the director Guillermo del Toro. I was expecting out and out fantasy from the trailers I’d seen and this is satisfied by a large part of the film. There’s some extraordinary imaginary creatures, both charming and terrifying. Perhaps the most well known image from the film is … well … this one:

Pan's Labyrinth

But this definitely isn’t for children; apart from the fantasy scenes being the stuff of disturbing nightmares there’s worse to come. The backdrop of the film is fascist Spain in 1944, and the fantasy world that a young girl called Ofelia buries herself in only hides her momentarily from brutal reality. Her mother is heavily pregnant and both are in the charge of a sadistic army captain called Vidal, brilliantly played by Sergi L√≥pez. Rebels haunt the nearby woods and Vidal makes it his duty to destroy them, resulting in some unforgettably powerful scenes in recent cinema.

Pan’s Labyrinth is an incredible film; Ofelia is scolded for the books she loves reading and the fantasy world she creates, but I left the film wanting to join her to forget the terrible darkness of the Second World War. It also made me question myself; did I find fairytale scares as chilling as real human brutality, was I enjoying cinematic violence (both real and imaginary) in equal measures – what’s real and what’s imaginary on the cinema screen?

Ultimately this film asked me, if you indulge in fairy tales and then meet a real life bogeyman, what do you do? The most frightening thing to face of all…


Bridge to Terabithia

Tuesday May 29, 2007 in recent cinema | children

For our Bank Holiday film treat, my daughter asked if we could see Bridge to Terabithia. I agreed, although I wasn’t expecting great things from this film, and was ushered into the cinema imagining a poor rehash of The Chronicles of Narnia. After the titles had rolled I realised we were in for something different. The trailers and posters had wildly misrepresented the film; no abuse of CGI, no over egging of the Fantasy pudding and no British actors in mildly villainous roles. Bridge to Terabithia is a quite brilliant children’s film that doesn’t simply rely on technical wizardry and British thesps hamming it up.

This is an adaptation of Katherine Paterson book, where Jesse (Josh Hutcherson) is a quiet schoolkid who befriends new girl Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb). While only child Leslie’s parents are dreamy authors, Jesse has three sisters and his parents are struggling with their debts. His father (played by Robert Patrick – still as creepy as he was in Terminator II) berates his son, a gifted artist, for dwelling too long in imaginary worlds and not gaining a foothold on reality. Indeed, Jesse and Leslie do make a fine pair, escaping from the harsh real world of classroom anguish and school bullies to their imaginary world of Terabithia, just a short rope swing across a backyard river.

Bridge to Terabithia keeps its special effects in check, relying instead on the two excellent leads. It’s a very well paced and thoughtful film. There’s also one of the most shocking twists I’ve ever encountered in a children’s film. No spoilers here – but be warned. This is a film that might bore the under-eights, especially if they’re expecting their fill of imaginary creatures and fantasy. But my daughter, thinking we were in for another Narnia, really enjoyed it. Something different from the usual Multiplex fare and well worth seeing.

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Pulp and Grind

Monday April 16, 2007 in recent cinema | quentin tarantino

Grindhouse is the latest collaboration between Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez (an enduring partnership that includes From Dusk Till Dawn and Sin City). Planet Terror is an all out tongue in cheek zombie film, directed by Rodriguez, that’s shown back to back with Tarantino’s Death Proof. And there’s more – fake trailers and advertisements to give an early 1970s exploitation feel to it all. It’s over three hours long and, although enjoyable, this is really one for the fans. USA Today reported that the opening weekend for Grindhouse was disappointing, but there’s no way that this will ever find a mainstream audience. Since Pulp Fiction, Tarantino is happy to go down his own little alleyway into the weird and obscure and to take his pal Rodriguez with him.

Planet Terror sets itself some tricky challenges – to be both a decent zombie film and to be an amusing parody. Zombie films are as ubiquitous as the walking dead that populate them, and there are a good few very good ones from the last 40 or so years if that’s your type of movie. There’s even been an enjoyable spoof with its own scary moments ( Shaun of the Dead ). Rodriguez does reasonably well, Planet Terror is certainly sickening enough, both with the amount of blood spilt and the gruesome humour, but this film outstays its welcome by a good forty minutes. It’s not that I didn’t get the joke. I did – I just stopped laughing quite early on. But if machine gun wielding one legged table dancers appeal to you, don’t let me stand in your way.

Death Proof is less of a parody of a particular genre and more of the type of film typical of Quentin Tarantino. There’s the smart and intricate dialogue, a wealth of interesting female characters, the clever soundtrack and the sense of unease; on first viewing you have no idea whatsoever of where things might be heading. There’s also Tarantino’s clever use of an established actor who you may not have rated too much in the past. Think of John Travolta and Bruce Willis – both excellent in Pulp Fiction – or Michael Keaton in Jackie Brown. In Death Proof it’s the turn of Kurt Russell, who is excellent as a very deranged stunt man, and causes one of the best car chases I’ve seen in cinema for a very long time. A review in the New Yorker mentions it in the same breath as Spielberg’s Duel.

Ultimately however, the people chuckling the most at Grindhouse are Tarantino and Rodriguez themselves. I didn’t really find the spoof film trailers that amusing, and the reason for this was that the real film trailers preceding the main feature were more absurd. How can you possibly be more ridiculous than:

  • A film starring Nicolas Cage with another one of his insane hairstyles where he plays a man who can visit and/or forsee the future
  • A hilarious comedy about two men who pretend to be gay in order to fool their employers
  • A remake of Halloween
  • A new Die hard instalment
  • A film about a haunted hotel room starring John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson

Hollywood films these days are spoof-proof.

The other jokes they throw our way also wear a bit thin; the deliberately grainy film quality, the spools that appear to jump and the ‘missing’ reels, segments of the films that just aren’t there. Rodriguez and Tarantino also lazily forget from time to time that we’re supposed to be in the 1970s, giving their characters convenient mobile phones and internet access. Or maybe that’s a joke I missed?

But I did enjoy Death Proof. I’ll need to see it again, but it could be one of Tarantino’s best. He’s not breaking new ground, but he’s not attempting to. He’s just having a great time being Quentin Tarantino. I still left the cinema with that post-Tarantino guilty feeling though; should I really have enjoyed all that easy carnage so much?


Fuzzy Monsters

Saturday March 17, 2007 in recent cinema | comedy

Hot Fuzz is the new British comedy film starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, last seen together in Shaun of the Dead. I was particularly interested in seeing Hot Fuzz because it was filmed on location in Wells, very near to where I work in Somerset. I like to play the spot the location game when watching British films, as well as playing:

The spot Bill Nighy and Jim Broadbent game

How long before Bill Nighy turns up on screen in a British comedy? In Hot Fuzz it’s exactly four minutes. A little longer for Jim to make an appearance, but he’s there within half an hour.

The spot the obviously themed soundtrack game

Wells is doubling for a fictional country village, with the usual fetes and village greens. The soundtrack includes Village Green Preservation Society and Village Green by The Kinks. Hmmm, not very original.

The quickly decide on the type of plot we’re in for game

Hot Fuzz explores the fish out of water scenario. An outstanding London policeman is promoted to Sergeant but relocated to work in the country. There he must adjust to the quieter pace of life and the eccentric ways of the locals. In many ways it is similar to the TV series Life on Mars, with the strange country life being just as alien to the hero as being stuck in 1973.

My games aside, I enjoyed Hot Fuzz very much until about half an hour from the end when the film decides to dance through as many film genres as it can. It’s a very funny comedy, but it just goes mad. There’s horror suddenly thrown into the mix, with violent murders taking place, and for a moment I thought it was going to descend into either The Wicker Man (there’s even a cameo from Edward Woodward) or The Hills Have Eyes. Eventually it settles for being a buddy-buddy cop film with cartoon gun battles. Not bad, but I would have preferred more of the gentle comedy and more use made of the excellent supporting cast who include Paddy Considine, Kenneth Cranham and Billie Whitelaw.

Apparently the team who brought us Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are working on a third film already. They haven’t revealed what genre they’ll be tackling, although I’ll still be playing my games when I go to see it.

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