The Dark Knight (US, 2008)

Interrogating evil

Interrogating evil

It’s heartening that the year’s big movie is going to be such a thoughtful film. Of course that doesn’t mean the millions of people who’ve seen the film have necessarily thought about it but at least it raises interesting questions compared to, say, last year’s Transformers which, despite some witty dialogue, merely painted by (American) numbers. The Dark Knight is an event movie on a number of counts: enormous hype built, partly, around Heath Ledger’s death; the immense box office (currently 2nd biggest non-adjusted at the North American box office); two and a half hours of superb blockbuster cinema.

The highlight for me was the ‘stand-off’ between the ferries; it doesn’t take much imagination to see this as a critique of the ‘hit ’em first’ philosophy that governs western (and Russian) foreign policy. And Ledger will probably deserve the Oscar he’ll get as it is a tremendous performance (best as a nurse destroying a hospital) – a sad loss.

There’s been a debate about the certification. When the BBFC introduced the 12A (in response to Spiderman (2002), they should’ve retained the 12 for films such as this as it isn’t suitable for most children under 12. However I don’t see the problem with 12+ with an adult.

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Ten (Iran-France, 2002)

Child as man

Child as man

Woman asserts independence

Woman asserts independence

Ten is terrific on both a formal level and in its content. Consisting of 23 hours of footage from two very small digital cameras attached to a car’s dashboard, edited down to 90 minutes, the film is anti-director; the mise en scene is the interior of the car and the passing landscape. Much of what we see and hear is improvised. However, there’s no doubting the clear message of the film, concerning a woman’s place in 21st century Iran.

The film doesn’t simply condemn Iranian society for its subjugation of women, it portrays the protagonist as complex and contradictory – as we all are. The boy, however, could do with strangling; he’s the only male present and its clear that the whining demands are typical of men who rely on women to do things for them – they want a wife for sex but also they want to keep their ‘mother ‘to look after them.

Ten can be regarded as an avant garde film in its anti-cinema stance, along with its materialist use of the lead-in as a countdown for each of the ten episodes. As Gonul Donmez-Colin points out, in Wallflower Press’ Cinema of North Africa and the Middle East (2007), here the director, literally at times, takes the back seat.

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, Germany, 2006)

Humanising the inhuman

Humanising the inhuman

It was no surprise that The Lives of Others should win an Oscar: technically proficient, superbly acted and humanist whilst bashing the ‘commies’. It is a gripping thriller but, as Anna Funder points out in Sight & Sound (May ’07) utterly ridiculous. The Stasi member who is humanised by music and a poem by Brecht! Great to think so: play that music to Bush!

Funder, who’s book Stasiland (2004) is excellent, also points out that the Stasi are currently trying to rehabilitate themselves and so this sympathetic portrayal of a member of that organisation is politically dubious to say the least. But the film’s excellent for the reasons cited above and who wouldn’t want to believe that art can humanise a monstrous system? Well, those who run that system I suppose.

Man on Wire (UK, 2008)

Living on an edge

Living on an edge

How do you make a thriller exciting if you know the outcome? Make it real. That’s the ‘trick’ of this stunning documentary because although we know Petit succeeds in fulfilling his idea fixe the intensity of the reconstruction – much of it contemporaneous home movie – is such that the enormity of the event is conveyed. The film consists of a mix of archive footage, reconstructions and interviews with the participants. Narratively it mixes the ‘coup’ of the Two Towers walk with the Petit’s original inspiration, as a teenager, and the preparations. Like his earlier WIsconsin Death Trip (UK, 1999) James Marsh makes the reconstruction of the past an often expressionist and surreal experience.

The Orphanage (El Orfanato, Spain, 2007)

Boy or ghost?

WARNING: THIS IS FULL OF SPOILERS. This movie pinned me back in my seat in the cinema but, as it’s an example of the ‘fantastic’ – where everything might simply be a figment of the protagonist’s imagination – I wondered whether it would work on a second viewing: it does. The opening half hour, certainly, is less successful if you know the ending, but after that the sheer craft of the film is more than engaging.

The film uses many of the tropes of the ghost story (though, as my son noted, ‘thank god someone in a horror movie has turned the light on’) and so, although there’s nothing supernatural about the ‘ghosts’, it is a truly horrific story as we find that the mother, who loves her son deeply, has inadvertently killed him. The moment of realisation is one the most chilling moments in cinema.

Couscous (La graine et le mulet, France, 2007)

Father-daughter love

This is a terrific film. I don’t think I’ve seen scenes of such emotional rawness since Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (1967). The improvisation gives certain scenes a documentary intensity.

The use of narrative is also striking: the two set piece ‘meal’ scenes go on for an extremely long time compared with the succinctness of much of the other action (eg Slimane losing his job). This also contrasts with the ‘thriller’ set up: there’s clearly doom lurking in the couscous’ journey to the restaurant and Slimane’s chase after his moped takes an age: on the one hand suspense is set up, on the other it’s unbearably stretched.

However, there are problems: the sexual objectification of Rym for example. Or maybe this is working in a Godardian way (such as in British Sounds, 1970) where the (temporally) long shots of a woman’s body leads the audience to question what they are looking at.

Blimey! A riveting family melodrama that links Wiseman to Godard.

West Side Story (US, 1961)

Ultra-stylised violence

Prompted by going to see this in the London revival later this week, I watched the Bernstein-Robbins-Sondheim classic again. It was even better than I remembered. Terrific music, choreography and book with stylish, often Expressionist, direction. Whilst there is a tension between the oxymoronic dancing-hoodlums, the emotion on show heightens the hackneyed narrative. Great acrobatics from Russ Tamblin and Rita Moreno’s Anita is magnificent.

It’s half a century old but knife crime’s high in the news agenda as is the position of immigrants in society. It’s a indication of failure that this musical remains timely. Let’s get all the thugs into to see the show and they’d see the futility of violence! ‘Ha bloody ha’.