Sunday, July 31, 2005

July movie roundup

Boy, am I out of date. Here’s what we saw in July:

Batman Begins

…is surprisingly good: it strips Batman down to bare he’s-just-a-man bones and mostly gets away with it, the whole slightly hokey martial-arts monastery part aside. Christian Bale is an excellent Bruce Wayne; and Michael Caine a suprisingly good Alfred. Liam Neeson, however, is pure cheese.

By steering a grittier, less fantastic path it escapes the fatal flaw in all the earlier Batman films: that the villains are brighter, more colourful, more interesting than the hero. This one’s all about the bat.

3½/5: forgettable, but entertaining.

War Of The Worlds

…is suprisingly bad, given how strong the underlying H.G. Wells story is and how well it’s been told in the past. The fundamental flaw here is that it misunderstands the role of the narrator in the original book. In Wells’ story, the narrator is a journalist. His role is as an observer, and we watch the story unfold around him through his eyes. Spielberg casts Tom Cruise’s narrator as a hero, actively involved in the story; a mistake. At one stroke, War of the Worlds’ massive scope—this is an alien invasion, remember—collapses to the tiny bubble of action immediately surrounding our hero. Wells avoids this by keeping his narrator at a journalistic distance: we see the war through a series of vignettes described by the narrator, but we never lose sight of the bigger picture.

And as this is a Spielberg movie, he makes the narrator into a hero by giving him a broken family, a move which keeps slamming the brakes on the story: never mind the aliens, Tom’s got some family issues to resolve. He wastes two of the most interesting characters in the book—the mad parson, who believes the aliens are a punishment by God, and the misguided artilleryman, whose ambitions of revenge and recovery far outstrip his abilities—by collapsing them into an uneasy composite, whose motivations he further muddies by giving him a faint whiff of predatory paedophilia.

Lurking below the surface, though: this is Spielberg’s post-9/11 movie. Terror, and war on terror, is never far away. In this version, the terrorising invaders were among us all along, buried and dormant underground; as Neva Cronin put it in the Chronicle, “Beware those underground cells, man. Watch out for immigrants.” There are other, more direct, references to 9/11: a lingering shot of a noticeboard full of pictures of the missing; empty clothes drifting down from the sky. Although the book’s original ending, in which the invaders are killed by Earthly bacteria, is retained, it’s tempered with some bizarre militarism. The U.S. Army has been wholly ineffective against the invaders, but they’re still given a symbolic victory in bringing down a teetering, and obviously already disabled or dying, tripod.

1½/5: nice effects, but sorry: apart from that, I hated it.

Me and You and Everyone We Know

…is very self-consciously indie and quirky. An odd series of interconnected stories, told with a light touch, some clumsy explorations of child sexuality aside. But I really liked the underlying message: everybody’s weird, and mostly that’s OK.

4/5. Odd, but compelling.

March of the Penguins

…is not as good as the buzz suggests. The story the documentary tells—of the emperor penguin’s epic yearly struggles to breed and raise chicks—is extraordinary. But somehow I didn’t really feel engaged with the penguins. The cinematography is stunning. But the narration, by Morgan Freeman in the U.S. version, is a little too syrupy, and a lot too anthropomorphising in ascribing human emotions to the birds. And worse: there’s just too damn much of it. Winged Migration was a much better nature documentary because it stood back and let the cinematography speak for itself.

3/5. Good; but not that good.

Categories: Movies