Sunday, 26 July 2009

Two weekends; Four films; Two outcomes

Public Enemies: Largely an empty, but pretty, spectacle. Setting out to make a film in which the hero is a well-known criminal requires that the film-maker addresses the criminality and either puts it into context, or presents some back-story of a troubled upbringing that, at least partially, tries to excuse it. This film does neither. What's worse it that, at least according to Wikipedia, the film's hero, John Dillinger, really did have something of a following among the masses, in part because he was targeting banks and bankers that many held responsible for the Great Depression. The film almost entirely overlooks this, leaving the viewer to empathise with Dillinger just because he's played by Johnny Depp, and because he appears to have a romantic streak. That's nowhere near enough for me. Also, the film plays very fast and loose with actual history, which is forgiveable on dramatic grounds when the story is broadly true in spirit, but completely unearned here. But it is quite pretty to look at, if I can damn it with faint praise.

Being There: This is one that I've wanted to see for quite some time, but it appears not to have been available on DVD until relatively recently. As far as its central concept goes (an idiot savant employed for his whole life as a gardener by a rich patron, suddenly finds himself out in the real world where, after a fortuitous meeting, he finds his gardening tips are mistaken for sagely advice by the powerful in Washington), it's fairly solid, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. It proceeds at a snail's pace; it's not difficult to see what's coming; it makes far too much use of (then) contemporary television; and, unforgivably, it has an overlong sequence set to a disco version of Also sprach Zarathustra. Also, its closing scene includes an intriguing event that presents something of a major disjoint from the preceding narrative. It leaves this completely unexplained, leaving the viewer (this one at least) with the impression that it's a cheap-shot at profundity.

Rachel Getting Married: Another one that I've been waiting a while to see (we missed it at the cinema because of a rubbish screenings schedule), but quite a different experience from Being There. Although it focuses on the event of Rachel's wedding, it's really centred around her troubled sister Kym (a never-been-better Anne Hathaway). Released from rehab to attend the wedding, the somewhat estranged Kym struggles to deal with her own feelings about the event, the often stridently-expressed feelings of her family towards her and with the lingering fallout of a family tragedy that she caused in her youth. While the film revolves about Kym and Rachel, it's fleshed out with an expansive and diverse cast that, notably, also takes in a large number of musicians because of the groom's vocation. And though it's underscored by deep memories and their painful attendant emotions, it also makes the wedding significant and invests it with a lot of love and fun. Stand-out scenes include an inter-generational dishwasher-loading competition, and a tender scene in which Rachel reverses her role and bathes Kym in preparation for the wedding. The only thing the film gets slightly wrong is the somewhat extended and excessive use of music during the post-wedding party. I suspect that the director had so much fun with assembled talented musicians that he couldn't bear to leave any footage on the cutting room floor.

Moon: A science fiction gem, compact but perfectly formed. And, unusually for much of the genre when it comes to the cinema (though not in print), very much focused on ideas. It does borrow significantly (or at least appears to) from the canon of science fiction cinema, but it chooses very carefully. From 2001 it takes its art direction. From Silent Running it gets its solitary protagonist and his faithful artificial helper. Its corporate ethics appear to be straight out of Alien. And the theme of mistreated creations (always one of my favourites) is amplified from Blade Runner. However, it also subverts some of these influences, notably making its passively-voiced artificial intelligence, Gerty, benevolent rather than malevolent. But if this description makes the film sound like a retread, it's really nothing of the sort. It blends them into a vision of its own, and stands perfectly without any viewer knowledge of these past classics. The film has a few missteps along the way (the central character under-reacts in my view to the film's key revelation), but it unfurls logically and stays true to its vision unlike so many other science fiction films.

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