The kids stay in the picture

Saturday, 24 February 2007 — 10:56pm | Capsule reviews, Film

Now that I can hardly ever find and justify the time to be as thorough as I used to be when writing about cinema (newcomers to the site can find examples here, here, here and here), capsule impressions will have to do. So here are a few brief thoughts on the five theatrical releases I’ve seen since my last summation of the sort. For a few words on the Oscars and my picks for the best films of 2006, skip to the end.

Pan’s Labyrinth: A masterpiece, the best film of 2006, and certainly in my top ten of the decade. Or is it? A second time through will confirm it. As a character study of fascist villainy, it’s on par with Schindler’s List. As a film about romance and fairytales crushed under the boot of a harsh and violent reality, yet resisting and persisting in a way that only the imagination can, I’m racking my brain and its repository of memories from hundreds of films for a treatment that operates at the same level of excellence as Guillermo del Toro’s, and the only one I can think of is Brazil. No small feat, considering that this has been one of the defining themes in all of literature since Don Quixote, or even further back, that Chinese wise guy who dreamed he was a butterfly (or however the story goes). It’s sad, it’s beautiful, it’s fantastic in a way that out-Narnias Narnia, and it’s resolutely human. I recommend it without any hesitation.

Happy Feet: Surprisingly good. As a non-Pixar CG motion-capture film with generally indistinct character designs marketed for its celebrity voices and suffused with pop tunes (a manoeuvre that worked for Moulin Rouge! and nothing since), a movie like Happy Feet is a hard sell for a tough customer like yours truly. For the most part, I was sold: there is a tremendous level of visual craftsmanship on display here, and it would be unfair to dismiss the film based on its motion-capture tap-dancing alone, though one would be right to question how convincing tap-dancing is when applied to animals that don’t even have legs.

Thematically there’s nothing new – just a gravitation from the usual message to the kids about conformity to a hero-quest about environmental consciousness. The former is a wash; it takes a film smarter than this one (The Incredibles, perhaps) to say something with more substance than “being different is okay.” As for the latter, it fares better simply because in its final act, the film’s stunning visuals manage to convey the sense that Mumble, our fluffy footloose protagonist, is on an epic journey to save his homeland – and that furthermore, this is worth doing. The state of mainstream computer animation after Shrek is such that we’ve seen the emergence of a dominant paradigm. While that set of conventions should go straight out the window, and is finally showing signs of collapse, Happy Feet is about the best it has to offer.

Tideland: This is the anti-Brothers Grimm, Terry Gilliam at his most rebellious and esoteric. I hope none of those bigshot executives with Hollywood money saw it; if they did, they’ll never fund him again. Like Pan’s Labyrinth, Tideland is a film about a child protected from the outside world by a shell of fantasy and adventure, and everything about it that works can be traced to the strength of an outstanding child performance by Jodelle Ferland. The cinematography is lavish, the musical score is not to be ignored, and I was sufficiently familiar with Gilliam’s oeuvre that the story worked for me in a way it won’t for most. However, it would be dishonest of me to overlook the fact that the film’s perverse indulgence in its Faulknerian grotesqueries is so disturbing as to deter me from ever seeing it twice. Human taxidermy, for crying out loud.

Letters from Iwo Jima: Cinema, especially American cinema, is so saturated with images depicting the Second World War that the test for every new war movie has become, “Does this film have anything to add?” In an environment where every WWII film is reverent, patriotic or nominally anti-war, do Clint Eastwood and company have anything novel to say? Letters from Iwo Jima says they do. Setting aside the fact that it is a film told in Japanese and about the Japanese, Letters is in many ways conventional in style and structure, but that is hardly a fault when in recent years, Eastwood has demonstrated a complete mastery of orthodox filmmaking, always finding a way to apply its lessons to new stories and unexplored ideas.

If I were to sum up the organizing idea of the movie – the “point,” if you will – I would call it the failure of the Japanese to maintain a façade of ruthlessness, discipline and honour at all costs. We saw shades of this fifty years ago in The Bridge on the River Kwai, and we see it explored from a more concentrated angle in Letters. Obviously, a film that portrays the Japanese on the defensive is going to humanize “the enemy” in the American imagination, but I don’t consider it anti-American or apologetic. The subtle reprimands of the conduct of soldiers and officers apply to any flag in any period of history, and that lends the film its power – as do the strong performances, appropriately dry cinematography and erudite screenplay. Deserving of its Best Picture nomination, and an effective advertisement for Eastwood’s other Iwo Jima movie, Flags of Our Fathers, which I now intend to see.

Dreamgirls: It’s fundamentally nice to see that musicals are alive and well. I couldn’t have said that six years ago, before Moulin Rouge! arrived on the scene and revived a genre that was presumed dead for the better part of three decades. Here, Chicago screenwriter Bill Condon adapts a Broadway musical with which I was not already familiar, so I saw it without any preoccupation with adaptation issues. I admire how fluidly it flows in and out of the songs, and how smooth the apparent transitions are from one scene to another within the same number. The camera is active and dynamic, and in spite of being a musical about stage performers, the film never feels confined to the stage. As a motion picture, everything seems to be in place. If I have any reservations about Dreamgirls, it’s that it doesn’t appear to have been a terrific musical to begin with. It’s not even so much that it’s a shallow story about shallow showbiz folk; on a perfectly superficial level, most of the greatest musicals on stage and screen were about precisely that. I don’t find the music or lyrics as challenging, diverse or cohesive as I’ve come to expect from the best of the format.

Is it because I have a prejudice that favours more traditional showtune writing over soul and R&B? No: see Rent for details (and for an example of what I mean by great musical writing). Is it because I’m not familiar with the source material, and I’m therefore not predisposed to find the musical numbers memorable? No: I never saw Chicago onstage either, and it stuck with me just fine. Is it because the large ensemble cast, with no clear lead, leaves the characters ill-defined? Not in the least. The performances are exhilirating enough that each of the major characters hold their own. Never mind that Jamie Foxx spends most of his time grimacing and being very heartless and businesslike: Jennifer Hudson is a commanding presence; Beyoncé Knowles finally acts and sings, and almost makes up for that boneheaded decision to let her croon all the Oscar-nominated Original Songs two years ago; Eddie Murphy is full of life, though an Oscar winner he is not. There’s nothing specific about why the film didn’t blow me away: it just didn’t, on a simple, holistic level. Still, Dreamgirls is good, colourful fun, and it is not my intent to discourage anyone from seeing it. Give it a shot and let me know what you think.

And that about wraps it up for 2006. Oscars are just over the horizon, and this year is too much of a crapshoot for me to do any thorough predictions; besides, I haven’t been following the precursor awards or the awards-season politics, neither of which can be ignored when placing bets. Of the five Best Picture nominees, Babel is my favourite. While I enjoyed all five, and they all deserve the accolade of being on the shortlist even if they’re not on mine, the only other one that I think would deserve to be elevated to the winners’ pantheon is Letters from Iwo Jima.

I don’t do Top Tens, though in the past I’ve occasionally done a February review of the year in film, like the one I did here for 2004. I’m not even going to bother justifying myself this time around – I’m just going to toss out the titles, and if I don’t feel the same way a month from now, tough. The order within the tiers is arbitrary… or is it?

The best of the best: Pan’s Labyrinth, The Fountain, Babel.

The best of the rest: Cars, Casino Royale, Brick, Children of Men, Letters from Iwo Jima, United 93.

Any questions?

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