Film reviews

Screen Greene
The Quiet American, dir. Phillip Noyce.

Now that it has secured release in the United States one can begin to think critically instead of politically about Phillip Noyce’s translation of Graham Greene’s famous 1955 novel. No more alternating anxiety and indignation that a fine film might sink because of distributors’ blue funk—or worse. Not that the politics will go away. Greene’s caustic account of love, treachery and high-intentioned CIA terrorism in mid-20th century Saigon was shocking when it was published, and it remains so. Little wonder that American audiences couldn’t stomach the film in its try-out screenings after September 11th.

At the heart of The Quiet American is a scene of sudden, ferocious carnage. Greene tells it in myopic detail. Noyce, wisely, does the same. The camera catches fragments, shards of the moment that lodge in memory, like shrapnel. And despite all that we know now about horror, what happens remains in some way unassimilable. That is Noyce’s extraordinary achievement. He doesn’t sate the imagination: he sharpens it. And we reel.

Noyce is a veteran director of action movies (Patriot Games, etc.) and knows every special-effects trick in the deck. But here he distils horror by showing it in slow passage through the ageing, reptilian contours of Michael Caine’s face. Caine (above, with Do Thi Hai Yen) plays Greene’s English journalist, Fowler—routinely sardonic, curious, but too long-standing an ex-pat to be ambitious, or even surprised. Then suddenly, the rind is peeled off the man’s face and mind.

Caine’s performance is subtly stellar, but not upstaging in a film full of angular and beguiling acting. Brendan Fraser, as the quiet Alden Pyle, is both bumble-footed and ominous—culpable innocence more frightening than anything Machiavelli could manage. Fowler and Pyle share a compromised passion for the beautiful Phuong, played with dignified allure and just enough fatalist pragmatism by Do Thi Hai Yen. Graham Greene would, I think, have owned them all. 

Morag Fraser

Frog principles
Tadpole, dir. Gary Winick.

The eponymous Tadpole, otherwise known as Oscar Grubman (played by newcomer Aaron Sanford), is a precocious 15-year-old who lives on the Upper East Side, speaks French, quotes Voltaire and doesn’t like girls his own age. In short, he’s a bit of a pill—like a lot of teenagers.

He wouldn’t be very interesting at all except he harbours a grand passion: Tadpole is in love with his forty-year-old stepmother, Eve (Sigourney Weaver). On the night he decides to declare his heart, however, our Lothario-in-waiting wavers, gets drunk, and almost by accident goes to bed with Eve’s best friend, instead—the gorgeous and sexually pragmatic Diane (Bebe Neuwirth).

But Oscar is no ordinary boy. Putting honourable intention above hormonal impulse he shuns the prospect of regular sex and continues to pine for the impossible. Hard to believe, but that’s the plot.
To its credit, Tadpole isn’t simply a coming-of-age comedy; it’s just as much about the weariness and compromises of middle age. Oscar is attractive to the older women in the film because of his vitality and naivety; as the film-makers make clear, he’s a conduit to types of happiness and sadness that they know they’ll never experience again.

Unfortunately, though Winick’s film aims for charm, it all too often delivers preciousness. If the maestro of New York romantic comedy hadn’t become so lightweight himself in recent years, you might damn Tadpole as Woody Allen Lite, but at just 78 minutes, the film is too short to really overstay its welcome and the performances are uniformly excellent.

Tadpole also throws up some interesting questions about the digicam aesthetic of American ‘indie films’. What is the point of them? Cheap and easy to shoot, they get made because they can get made—an achievement in itself, I suppose—but they look terrible up on the big screen. Television’s The Sopranos, for example, is better filmed, just as well acted, and ultimately not as ephemeral.

Brett Evans

Pottering about
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, dir. Chris Columbus.

When I heard that Spielberg had wanted to collapse the first three Potter books into one film, set the plot in the US, and cast Haley Joel Osment as Harry, I was relieved that Columbus’ first effort (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) had been a tad on the homage-ish side. The sequels were bound to be better, I reasoned: the books tended to deepen as the characters matured. There was reason to be optimistic about this sequel. The first film’s rather subdued acting could be excused by the fact that it had had to set the scene, give the background to the few stylites and anchorites who’d never heard of the stories.

So many characters had to be introduced and it had to contend with knowledgeable fans and fervent demand for it to be faithful. Columbus’ team of art directors succeeded wonderfully with the look of it, making it a delight to watch. The acting was a worry, though. How on earth did Columbus
manage so to tone down the likes of Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters and Maggie Smith? Some performances survived the numbing touch of his direction: Alan Rickman as Snape, Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley and Tom Felton playing bad lad Draco Malfoy were the only ones who still had a bit of life in them.

Now in the second episode, the special effects are still fine (although the basilisk looks all wrong—more like a conger eel with a Jurassic Park head). But the acting has descended to wooden, even leaden (especially when Columbus, time and time again, gets clunky reaction shots from the children: ‘Look scared.’ ‘Look pleased.’ ‘Look surprised.’). Only Kenneth Branagh survives the numbing-down; he is perfect as the charlatan Gilderoy Lockhart, though I suspect even he was told to hold back. The exception to this enforced restraint is poor Rupert Grint, who, with a comical Mickey-Rooneyish face, is forced to grimace and mug endlessly.

The next episode will be directed by Alfonso Cuarón, a bold choice. Perhaps he will allow the actors a little more expression, but who will he choose to do Dumbledore now that Richard Harris is dead? The children’s bet is on Ian McKellen, who does a great Gandalf. In fact, it would be a good thing if the next Harry Potter director took some hints from Peter Jackson on how to adapt a book with fidelity
and divine fire. 

Juliette Hughes

Body-wise
Lovely & Amazing, dir. Nicole Holofcener.

December is the month of critic-proof blockbusters, films for kids reviewed by adults, and early Christmas turkeys which are leftovers from a distributor’s too-hard basket. Lovely & Amazing is an exception. In a neatly honed 90 minutes it has more impact, more memorable scenes and more sheer class than any of the lumbering two-and-a-half-hour-plus epics now about. Although billed as a comedy, there is at times a fine line between a laugh and a lump in the throat.

Jane (Brenda Blethyn) and her three daughters all ooze personal insecurity. Jane, loving, maternal and quite daffy, thinks that the only path to self-respect is through liposuction of ten kilos of fat from around her middle. To her mind, the very prospect of this reduction will make her attractive to the doctor who is doing the job.

Michelle (Catherine Keener, who was wonderful in Being John Malkovich) can’t sell her artistic endeavours, knows that her husband is cheating on her, and, approaching middle age, is flattered by the attention of an under-age youth with whom she works. Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) is a struggling actress/model who is her own body’s greatest critic and thinks that lack of sex appeal is the reason for her lack of personal and professional success. The youngest sister, Annie (Raven Goodwin), an adopted eight-year-old African-American, is overweight and turns to McDonald’s for comfort.

This mishmash of insecurities results in some hilarious scenes, while other moments make you squirm in your seat. The film is dominated by the strength of the character development and, despite my irritation with all the characters at one time or another, they stand up to the ultimate test: I cared about them.

I won’t forget one scene in which Elizabeth invites her sleazebag actor-lover to inspect and criticise her naked body. She stands before the camera nude and vulnerable and unprotestingly accepts his comments, as the camera coldly probes what she perceives to be her imperfections. It is a brave scene which she carries off with delicate, childlike naivety. One day Emily Mortimer will be very famous indeed.

Despite the strength of the performances, the film might invite the criticism that ultimately the story goes nowhere. But the reality is that for 90 minutes you are utterly involved in the lives of all four characters and you leave the cinema feeling that you haven’t had enough. Don’t let Lovely & Amazing slip through without your seeing it. 

Gordon Lewis

Ringing success
The Fellowship of the Ring, dir. Peter Jackson (extended version DVD/VHS release).

We watched this as a family, hobbit-lovers all: nudging each other with excitement as it began. Hopes were high, because all we’d asked last year of the cinema version was more: more of Jackson’s vision, so like the pictures in our heads when we read the book. And we were well satisfied: he gives more time in Lothlórien, more background in Hobbiton, a filling-out of dialogue, a pace that lets you observe more. The extended version is around four hours, giving an extra half-hour—which is all gain, because this could be one of the most beautiful films ever made.

Interiors ravish: Rivendell, seen autumnally, elegiacally, its beauty and melancholy evoking the end of the age of elves in Middle-earth; the cosy polished curves of Bilbo’s hobbit hole, Bag End. And with all New Zealand to play with there are huge vistas that feel familiar yet have an essential strangeness. It starts you musing on other breathtakingly beautiful films: The Big Country, Gone With the Wind, Dersu Uzala.

But none rivals Jackson’s Ring in sheer scope and intensity, the almost Hitchcockian attention to detail (as when the ring of power falls to the floor, with a leaden thud that belies your expectation of a bright gold bounce).

And the actors are given range to explore the characters: Sean Bean’s Boromir is a study in sheer tragedy; Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel is utterly right in its depth of regal maturity; Orlando Bloom’s Legolas is perfection. Elijah Wood’s youthful Frodo is full of pain that never lets one forget the burden that is the ring; Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is definitive; Viggo Mortensen’s quiet, intense Aragorn is all the more powerful for its subtlety.

Beauty, power, fantastic imagining, wonderful realisation, morals firm yet utterly compassionate: I found all these in it. Jackson should take a few years off to teach other film-makers how to adapt a book properly. He was wise to release the shorter version as the first offering: he won a new following that will be led to the extended version and to the books. Now we are all counting sleeps to Boxing Day, when The Two Towers is released.    

Juliette Hughes

 

 

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