Jan 18, 2010

The Week in Movies 3

11 - 17/01/2010

The Leader, His Driver, and the Driver’s Wife
DIR: Nick Broomfield

The first of a pair of films (the second is His Big White Self) that Nick Broomfield made about Eugène Terre'Blanche, the leader of South Africa’s white supremacist party the AWB. This film is set in the final days of apartheid, and there is a sense of the AWB becoming more radical as the country moves further away from their repugnant position. Broomfield captures much racist ugliness, and the smiling faces behind which it hides. Unfortunately he doesn’t really probe, or ask challenging questions. Much of the film is taken up with repeated attempts to get an interview with Terre'Blanche, and when he finally obtains it Broomfield is five minutes late, which results in much of the interview being Broomfield apologising for his tardiness.

The Leader… is an ugly film about awful people. There are fascinating things here, particularly given the time at which the film was made, but Broomfield never probes deeply enough to get the best out of his subject.

By the People: The Election of Barack Obama
DIR: Amy Rice / Alicia Sams

This documentary gains impressive access to Barack Obama during both the Primary and Presidential campaigns. The primaries take up the great bulk of the running time, and make for a fascinating watch. Rice and Sams focus less on the candidate than they do those surrounding him, capturing everyone from the most lowly staffer (one lovely scene has a nine year old boy making calls on behalf of the campaign) to the campaign managers. The camera zeros in on moments of elation and of near despair, and chronicles the campaign in riveting detail.

There are a couple of issues. The first is the clear partisan nature of the film, there’s nothing negative here at all (which isn’t to say that there aren’t moments the campaign isn’t going brilliantly, just that they are all presented with a partisan gloss). This isn’t to say that the filmmakers should have done a hatchet job on the campaign, but a slightly more questioning nature would be a plus. There is also a tendency for the film to spread itself a little thin, we meet a lot of people, but there isn’t quite enough time to give all of them enough screentime to fully tell their stories (how, for example, does a 9 year old end up manning phones for the Obama campaign?) By the People is surely only the first film to explore the election of America’s first black president, and it’s a good start, but it certainly leaves room for other filmmakers to tell this story in the future.

Kiss of Death [‘95]
DIR: Barbet Schroeder

I haven’t yet seen the original (yes, I know), but I’ve got a soft spot for this remake of the apparently classic noir. David Caruso (best known for taking off and putting on sunglasses in one of the CSI shows) actually gives a decent performance as the ex-con trying to get his family out of the criminal life by turning informant and serving up crime boss Little Junior (Nicolas Cage, bulked up, goateed, and chewing up and spitting out all available scenery in a deliriously nutty turn) for the cops.

Schroeder handles the direction well, keeping things low key visually; a smart choice given that the screenplay and performances (Stanley Tucci’s DA comes to mind) can be rather overblown and in amongst the silliness there are a couple of strong pieces of acting. Kiss of Death is lucky enough to have an on the rise Samuel L Jackson in its cast, and though his role (as a cop injured busting Caruso, and now assigned to him) is thin he makes the best of it. Then there’s Kathryn Erbe, a fine actress who really ought to be much better known than she is. She’s excellent as Caruso’s young wife, again making the best of a nothing of a part.

Kiss of Death is by no means a great film, but it’s an enjoyable, if slightly silly, entertainment, and sometimes that’s all you need.

The Ladykillers [‘55]
DIR: Alexander Mackendrick

Well, it certainly makes the Coen Brothers 2004 remake look even worse than it already did, but for me this Ealing comedy still ranks as a bit of a disappointment.

That’s not to say that it isn’t funny, there are some wonderful scenes of farce as the criminal gang led by Alec Guinness are repeatedly interrupted during their planning by the well meaning little old lady (Katie Johnson) in whose house Guinness is lodging. The scene when the gang first arrive is priceless, as is an extended piece in which the gang has to attempt to recapture one of her pet birds.

The problem is that the film leans rather hard on this one note, and after a while it begins to grow less funny due to overfamiliarity. The performances, especially those of Guinness and Johnson, are excellent, and I laughed a lot in the first half hour or so, and at a scene in which all of Johnson’s friends come for tea, but The Ladykillers isn’t quite the classic I’d been led to expect.

Mystery of the Wax Museum
DIR: Michael Curtiz

This is the first version of a story most famously told in the Vincent Price film House of Wax (itself since remade). Viewed now, Mystery of the Wax Museum clunks horribly in parts (especially the awful scenes with Glenda Farrell as a fast talking reporter), but it’s also extremely entertaining in parts and historically interesting. This is an early colour film, made in the two strip Technicolor process. The colours aren’t always particularly realistic, but that actually aids the film, giving it an eerie air of unreality, and making the ‘wax’ figures work rather well.

Lionel Atwill gives a hugely overblown, but enjoyable, performance as the artist driven mad after his creations are destroyed by an unscrupulous business partner (in an excellent opening scene) while Fay Wray makes for a decent scream queen, and is more radiant than ever thanks to the colour. Perhaps the most famous image in the film, and the creepiest, is seen when Wray accidentally smashes Atwill’s wax face, revealing the scars beneath. It must have been a hell of a shock in 1933, and it still works now. Even at just 74 minutes this film can feel very slow, but it’s fascinating just to look at if you’re interested in film history, and boasts some great sequences.

DIR: Tim Burton

In the wake of Christopher Nolan’s (outrageously overpraised) take on the character Tim Burton’s Batman films have come in for a lot of stick. Batman is by no means a perfect film, but I’ll take it over Nolan’s films any day. Burton brings the darkness that was an important part of Bob Kane’s Batman, throwing out much of the camp of the TV show in favour of a colour palette dealing mainly in varying shades of black, and an attempt to treat the characters and especially the duality of Batman and Bruce Wayne with a degree of seriousness.

Where he scores over Nolan is that Burton never forgets that he’s making a superhero movie, he never forgets to make the film fun. Jack Nicholson has an absolute ball as The Joker, enjoying the mischief of the character in a hammy, but entertaining, performance. The costumes and props are appropriately outlandish and silly, but the design of the film is brilliant; sleek, gothic and beautiful in all aspects from Gotham itself right down to the Batsuit. Michael Keaton remains, for me, the definitive Batman and Bruce Wayne. He’s sidelined quite a bit, but manages to give both characters some psychological depth and make both sides of this person interesting.

There are problems; the plot is a mess, Batman is sidelined, the suit is clearly constricting, meaning that action scenes can lack a little punch, Prince is brilliant, but his songs are just out of place in this film, and Kim Basinger, though pretty, makes for a wooden love interest. It’s no masterpiece, but Batman is a better film than it’s been credited as lately.

DIR: Kirby Dick

Kirby Dick’s (This Film is Not Yet Rated) latest takes to task gay politicians who vote against gay rights legislation, calling them out as hypocrites. That’s fine to a point, but I think how much you end up liking this film will be more about how you feel about its methods than its content.

During the film Dick ‘outs’ several politicians he believes to be gay, some times on quite flimsy evidence. I felt rather uncomfortable with this, because someone’s sexuality is, I feel, their business, and coming out should be a personal decision. The thing is that, politically, I don’t really care whether someone voting to ensure that gay people can’t marry is gay him or herself, because it’s no less wrong if they are straight.

I agree with the thesis of Outrage; gay people in politics should be able to feel comfortable to come out, and they should feel comfortable to vote for gay rights. However, I’m not so on board with the way Dick goes about making this argument, and thus I can’t really recommend the film.

DIR: Jonas Akerlund

Music video director Akerlund’s serial killer thriller starts out stupid, and proceeds downhill from there. A miscast Dennis Quaid plays a homicide detective investigating some grisly murders, which seem to be linked to the passage in Revelation telling of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The film never establishes any identity for itself whatsoever; instead it is merely a gory riff on The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en, with a shade of Saw thrown in, as a way of throwing a bone to the gorehounds in the audience. Horsemen is relentlessly generic, with every scene seeming a shadow of a better one in an infinitely superior movie. Akerlund largely hangs back, seeming disengaged by the material, and the final twist is at once terminally stupid and hugely obvious.

There are two distractions while watching Horsemen. First, wondering how material this bad attracted a cast this good (Quaid, Zhang Ziyi, Lou Taylor Pucci, Patrick Fugit, Peter Stormare, Eric Balfour) and second, Zhang Ziyi, yes she’s a touch old to play 18 and yes, her talent is buried under her halting English, but dear God she’s beautiful, those eyes. Really though, the fact that the best thing about this film is gazing into Zhang Ziyi’s eyes doesn’t speak well of it.

Anne Frank Remembered
DIR: Jon Blair

This very sad, but authoritative, documentary about Anne Frank tells the well known story of her hiding, but where Jon Blair’s film excels is in the telling of what happened afterwards. Anne’s diary ends days before she was taken from her hiding place, ultimately to die in Bergen-Belsen at just 15. What’s so fascinating, and so horrific, about this film is that it provides a series of revelations, showing just how close Anne came to surviving the war (she died of typhus barely a week before Bergen-Belsen was liberated).

The film really hammers home the sense that you get from her diary, the here we lost a remarkable young woman who would have given much to the world. Like all documentaries about the holocaust, Anne Frank Remembered lives in the shadow of the monumental Shoah, but this is likely to remain the definitive film telling of this one very sad story.

Batman Returns
DIR: Tim Burton

Tim Burton’s Batman sequel is a great example of what happens when a filmmaker with a particular vision is allowed to do pretty much what he likes, on a grand scale. It’s a little messy, a little unfocused at times, but Batman Returns makes up in verve and in fun what it lacks in polish. For me the problem is that the story tips the balance towards Danny DeVito’s Penguin, rather than Michelle Pfeiffer’s more complex, more interesting and considerably better acted (and, let’s be fair now, sexier) Catwoman.

The look of the film is darker, and even more demented, than that of Batman and the blackly comic tone adopted by Burton is highly entertaining (as is Christopher Walken’s typically off the wall performance as Max Shreck; a sort of evil Bruce Wayne. Daniel Waters’ screenplay cleverly puts Catwoman and Batman together; two people who are going through many of the same things, but have ended up at cross purposes. It’s an interesting relationship, well played by both Pfeiffer and Keaton, and I wish they’d been allowed to explore it a little further.

There are moments (mostly with Penguin) that are just a little too silly, and the film is overcrowded with characters, but Batman Returns is a great entertainment, and a pretty smart one into the bargain.

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