Dead Presidents (US, 1995)

Vietnam and gang movie

The Hughes brothers have only made two features since this sophomore effort 15 years ago. Their first two films offered a political dimension to conventional narratives – maybe that’s why they’ve made so few films – and this film has an interesting visual style. This first half is a sensitively portrayed ‘coming of age’ film and takes in the Vietnam war; the second half shows the protagonist’s decline and fall into gangsterism. It’s a fairly cliched narrative but it’s difficult to present a snapshot of a decade in any other way. Apocalypse Now (1979), in particular, has colonised images of Vietnam, but the Hughes brothers have enough savvy to not pale in comparison. The film is particularly gory but it does serve the narrative rather attempt merely to shock the audience.

A strong cast who, to my eyes, stray too far into African-American stereotypes; but as these types are being utilised by black filmmakers, I shouldn’t complain. Excellent film; well worth seeing.

Bechdel test: Fail (8/4)
Protagonist: Male (2/7)

Alice in Wonderland (US, 2010)

Evil v good? Yawn.

I don’t know the original well enough to comment on what’s actually been changed in Tim Burton’s version, but clearly  the episodic nature of Carrol’s fantasy has been replaced by a conventional good v evil narrative. The boredom this instills is epitomised by the way the Jabberwocky pauses to roar like all CGI monsters.

What a disappointment from Tim Burton and the cast seem to be going ‘through their numbers’ though I think Mia Wasikowska, as Alice and seen in the first series of the brilliant In Treatment, could be a star in the making.

Bechdel test: Pass (7/4)
Protagonist: Female (2/6)

Skeletons (UK, 2010)

Rattling closets

After a summer when Hollywood seemed even more constipated than usual, writer-director Nick Whitfield’s debut feature is a wonderful blast of daftness and pathos. Mixing Dickian (ie Philip K) ‘reality’ with very English mundane humour (though the conversation between the protagonists does have a whiff of Tarantino), the film follows two characters who reveal what skeletons are in people’s closets. Its all done in a low budget-low tech way but Whitfield’s direction, aligned with an excellent sound design, more than adequately conveys the supernatural aspects of the narrative.

Narratively it is very interesting in that it approaches events tangentially, and it must be about 20 minutes into the film before it’s (er) clear what’s going on. The cast is uniformally excellent, featuring newcomers Andrew Buckley and Ed Gaughan as well as Jason Isaacs and Paprika Steen (from Festen).

If you’re interested in the imaginative and quirky go see Skeletons; a top class debut film.

Bechdel test: Fail (7/3)
Protagonist: Male (1/6)

The Illusionist (UK-France, 2010)

When everything's behind you

Sylvain Chomet’s beautifully animated Jacques Tati tale has ‘retro’ impregnated as firmly as the word ‘Blackpool’ in its eponymous rock. It’s beguiling, elegaic and deeply conservative so my guess is its appeal, which is almost universal amongst UK critics, will be limited to the middle aged. Like Tati’s films, Chomet’s adapted an unfilmed Tati script, there’s barely any dialogue, non verbal communication tells us all we need to know and the comedy is mild; very gentle slapstick.

I don’t mean to sound negative, if that’s how you’ve read the above, as I urge you to bathe in the film’s nostalgia; though you may be too young for that. Set in Edinburgh, mostly, in 1959, a city that seems to be populated by French-looking people (!), the story recounts the end of the music hall era as the ‘illusionist’ comes to understand ‘disillusion’.

Bechdel test: Fail (6/3)
Protagonist: Male (1/5)

Genova (UK, 2008)

Gripping grief

This is a terrific dissection of dealing with grief  that portrays a family’s attempts to come to terms with the loss of a mother. Her two girls and  husband take a sabbatical in Genova: the eldest daughter starts exploring her sexuality; the youngest is ‘haunted’ by her mother’s ghost and guilt. Despite the haunting this isn’t a horror movie, though there are several moments of suspense.

Genova is portrayed as a beautiful and threatening, to the newcomers, place and the narrative skips between events, offering slices of the family’s life. There’s no need to spell out the father’s (Colin Firth) discomfort at his eldest daughter’s behaviour as he tries to accept that his eldest is no longer a little girl, it’s implied through performance and scenes where nothing happens, such as of him waiting for her to return. Firth is excellent, as are the actors playing the girls. Catherine Keener is marvellous as the friend who obviously longs for the dad; she reminded me of Barbara Bel Geddes’ character in Vertigo.

I particularly liked the used of sound, the mix sometimes highlighted the ambient sound to disconcerting effect and this was emphasised by jump cuts in the editing.

Bechdel test: Pass (5/3)
Protagonist: Female (1/4)