06 September 2008

A month of moving pictures

In the weeks since my return from Russia I’ve managed to grind out the trip reports on the various sections of my July travels – it took me long enough! – and I’ve also managed to spend a bit of time at the cinema, enjoying a few films.

After work one day I met up with Craig and Claire at the Odeon Panton Street near Piccadilly Circus to see the American indie black-and-white comedy romance, In Search of a Midnight Kiss. While its flashes of Kevin Smith-style humour might turn some viewers off, I enjoyed the classic Hollywood screwball romance aspect of the film, in which the protagonists warily circle each other in conversation, never quite sure if the other is a soulmate in waiting or a complete jerk. Or, as is often the way, somewhere in between. And you’ve got to like a movie that ends on New Year’s Day with a bunch of hungover flatmates singing an a capella rendition of the Scorpions’ ‘Winds of Change’ not entirely un-ironically.

A few days later I visited the Prince Charles, the scene of most of my movie-going, to watch Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. Leigh’s films are usually exquisite kitchen-sink dramas with low-key casts and exhibit a resolute reluctance to pander to the audience by shoe-horning a happy ending in no matter what. His gritty school of social realism has given audiences powerful films like the family day of reckoning Secrets and Lies, and the sensitive yet gripping tale of 1950s abortionist Vera Drake, for which Imelda Staunton won the Bafta for Best Actress in 2005, and received a Best Actress nomination for the Oscars in the same year (losing out to Hilary Swank in the solid but melodramatic Million Dollar Baby). But in Happy-Go-Lucky Leigh has opted for optimism, and in casting the versatile and likeable Sally Hawkins as his lead character Poppy, he chose wisely. Hawkins, who also appeared in Vera Drake, is thoroughly believable as the effervescent primary school teacher Poppy, and it’s a remarkable testament to Hawkins’ acting ability that the bouncy, always-upbeat Poppy doesn’t end up grating and trying the viewers’ patience. Happy-Go-Lucky is entertaining as a portrait of an optimistic young woman who is happy with her life, but also attains greater depth in its depiction of her relationship with a troubled driving instructor with problems of his own. There’s also a scene-stealing turn by Karina Fernandez as a combustible flamenco instructor.

I also jumped at the chance to see a screening of the 2006 New Zealand film No.2, the story of Pacific Island matriarch Nanna Maria and her demand that her family stage one last joyful family gathering at their ex-state house in the Auckland suburb of Mt Roskill, so she can name her successor as head of the family. The central role is played by veteran American actress Ruby Dee, who has a long and distinguished career and recently came to prominence for her Best Supporting Actress nomination in 2008 for American Gangster. Her role in No.2 garnered her the jury award for Best Actress at the Atlanta Film Festival in 2006, and it’s a testament to her skill that her Polynesian accent was entirely believable (to a Palagi listener like me, at least). The film is a small treat, particularly for those familiar with multi-cultural Auckland, but anyone could enjoy its combination of family drama mixed with a healthy leavening of humour, music and a pinch of romance. I’d have loved to have seen the original stage version with Madeleine Sami a few years back – several people I’ve mentioned the film to saw her performance and found it riveting.

My next film was supposed to be Guy Maddin’s ‘docu-fantasia’ look at his hometown, My Winnipeg. Having enjoyed his wilfully strange and mysterious film festival treat The Saddest Music in the World a few years ago, I was looking forward to a more personal – yet still knowingly absurdist and surreal – take on Manitoba’s finest. Guess I’ll have to wait though, because when I turned up to buy my ticket at the Prince Charles I was told that the print hadn’t been delivered in time for screening. Drat!

A couple of weekends ago I visited Aberystwyth in west Wales (on which, more later) to catch up with Wellington pal Lauren, and we took in the prime Saturday night billing at the town cinema. The Commodore is a low-rise brick construction from the nuclear fallout shelter school of architecture. It has some nice small-town touches, like the snack hatch to the left of the screen at which patrons can purchase more sweets after the adverts and before the main feature runs. We were there to see The Dark Knight, the second Christopher Nolan Batman movie starring Christian Bale in the black suit. Nolan has quite a pedigree, having directed Memento, Insomnia and The Prestige in addition to the two Batman flicks. The Dark Knight has been tearing up the box-office figures in America and around the world, and will soon top US$500 million in the US alone. The producers needed the boffo box-office though: aside from Bale and Heath Ledger, the film also boasted expensive talent like Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman in supporting roles, and actors on the cusp of the A-list like Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Gary Oldman got a lot of screen time too, and he wouldn’t come cheap.

Only the most uncynical of observers would miss the connection between the huge success of the movie and the massive publicity surrounding the sad death of Heath Ledger. But this should not obscure the success of his performance. While it would be an unwise and overly sentimental knee-jerk reaction to nominate Ledger for Best Actor for this role, the fact remains that he inhabits the Joker’s skin with far greater aplomb and verve than Jack Nicholson in the original Batman movies. It’s a top performance. As for the movie itself, it held my attention for most of its length, although the fetishisation of excessive screen violence brought back memories of the similarly flawed V For Vendetta. The Dark Knight was also without a doubt Just Too Long. Perhaps the running length was allowed to spool out because of the money and talent at stake, but at 152 minutes it was a good 20 minutes too long for my liking. That said, aside from the violence I emerged with a favourable impression, and was impressed that Nolan had kept alive a seemingly bankrupt franchise. And as Lauren pointed out, they also fixed the problem of the last Batman by giving his character a voice synthesiser so all his Gotham City pals wouldn’t recognise Bruce Wayne’s voice every time they heard the caped crusader speak!

Lastly, a few days ago I ventured into town to see the French animated film Persepolis, the autobiographical story of Marjane Satrapi, her upbringing in Iran and her eventual move to Europe to escape the growing social and political repression in her homeland. It’s an impressively-produced story worth viewing: aside from the interesting personal tale, and the skilful mixing of wry humour with biting criticism of Iran's slide into intolerance, it's also appealing in that it will educate movie-goers who might not be familiar with the story of the deposing of the Shah and the Iran-Iraq war. Ancient history! Plus it contains an ace Iron Maiden riff illustrating the girl's tennis-racquet guitar solo technique. What more could you ask for? Just make sure you see the subtitled French original rather than the dubbed American re-recording for the sake of authenticity, although Catherine Deneuve plays Marjane’s mother in both the French and American versions. And to be fair, it’s not as if the film’s dialogue was ever in Persian – it’s a French production from the original source material, a graphic novel.
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