Film reviews

Overshadowed by the book

dir. Bennett Miller.

‘I thought Mr Clutter was a very nice gentleman. Right up to the moment I cut his throat.’ A great and violent line from a nearly great, and violent (emotionally at least) film. Perry Smith (responsible for the above utterance) and Richard Hickock would be remembered by very few were it not for Truman Capote. And while Capote himself would be well remembered for much besides them, his real literary resonance is on account of his strange and extraordinary telling of their story.

 In 1959 Capote was drawn to the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, after reading a tiny newspaper article about the violent killing of a family by the name of Clutter. He planned to write an article about the murders for The New Yorker. But it wasn’t long before Capote realised this material was too big for an essay. It represented something much greater—in both subject and literary potential. This material was worthy of a book—In Cold Blood—that would do no less than change the way readers experienced non-fiction.

But that’s the book. The movie, Capote, is quite another matter. The film is about the experience of writing In Cold Blood and its being written (quite a different thing). But the book’s existence casts a long and murky shadow over the film. The film mixes (as does the book) the reality of Capote’s life and the violent events chronicled in the book. And try as I might, I couldn’t help but compare the two accounts. But there is no comparison. The book is genius, the film … nearly great.

What can be said for the film is that it is full to the brim with extraordinary performances. Needless to say, Philip Seymour Hoffman is breathtaking as the magnificently odd wit we know as Truman Capote. But he is not alone. Chris Cooper does what few actors can manage—a supporting role that defines the very meaning of the term. As the police officer Alvin Dewey he is discreet but essential. Catherine Keener plays Harper Lee with a dry confidence that suits (as well as one can know) the strangely inscrutable novelist.

Capote is Miller’s first feature. And as such he should be applauded. He directs this story with an unexpected rhythm that makes it much more than a standard biopic. Most scenes float with an odd grace that many a seasoned director would shy away from. And it works to a point. But ultimately I waited for something that never quite came. It suggested a great deal but didn’t quite deliver on its promises.

The script has some great moments and is performed without fault. And as a portrait of the difficult life of art and crime, it delivers enough.

In the words of the script itself—when Harper Lee asks Capote what he thinks of the film version of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, he mutters to himself, ‘I don’t see what all the fuss is about.’

Siobhan Jackson

Strange and wondrous

The March of the Penguins
dir. Luc Jacquet

Years ago I watched a David Attenborough documentary on the subject of emperor penguins. Attenborough portrayed their annual march through the unforgiving elements of Antarctica with such straightforward beauty that it moved me to tears. Jacquet’s version of these amazing events is less moving (in fact, I giggled where once I cried), but the penguins are so beautiful and ridiculous that they make any serious film-maker’s (and Jacquet is certainly that) effort worth while.

Every year, across miles of ice desert, the emperor penguin waddles and belly-glides to its breeding ground. By scores of thousands, the bird that swims but cannot fly heads to the selfsame blizzard-ridden spot that its ancestors have for thousands of years, to find a mate, lay an egg, hatch an egg and regurgitate for its hatchling—all in temperatures as low as 80 below. It’s no life—in fact, if Hell froze over … you get my snowdrift. Many die, but enough survive. And then it’s back to the comparatively balmy waters below the ice. Did I mention the ever-present giant petrels? And the oh-so-friendly sea lions?

Morgan Freeman narrates this tale of icy life and death with a jauntiness that is charming but a little saccharine. The script is not as magnificent as its subject demands. These noble beasts deserved less cutesy anthropomorphising and more straight story.

The Christian Right in America is championing The March of the Penguins, and the emperor penguins’ ‘lifestyle’, as an example of healthy living for us human animals. Apparently the penguins’ monogamous tendencies (for eight months in a lifetime, at least) and their stoic, egg-bound loyalty are appealing. I wonder what the penguins would make of it all?

Armed with glorious pictures and an extraordinary tale of nature, The March of the Penguins defies any human silliness. This film ain’t gonna teach ya nothin’ about human morality, but it sure does remind you what strange and wondrous things animals can be. And these animals truly are emperors of their breed.

Siobhan Jackson

Wasted talent

Inside Man
dir. Spike Lee

Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Willem Dafoe, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer—read like an A-team Hollywood wedding list? Well, it may as well be for all the good their presence does Inside Man. What a waste! Although I’m sure they’d buy excellent wedding booty should Lee choose to reaffirm his wedding vows. This is not Lee’s worst film (that honour goes to The 25th Hour—a true dog of a film) but I’m pressed to care for it more than a mite.

Inside Man follows the ins and outs of a ‘clever’ bank heist. Tough cop Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) pits his streetwise wit against the educated machinations of smart-crim Dalton Russell (Clive Owen). But all is not as it seems, and our bad guy seems like a good guy—or at least an admirable guy. What to do? Both lead protagonists can’t end up winning the day, or one is going to end up looking incompetent or complicit. A third party, perhaps? But enough with the plot—that is not the film’s problem.

Spike Lee has everything at his fingertips in this bank-robbery genre pic except his own ability to tread with a light cinematic touch. As a director he can certainly assemble a powerful team of great actors and fashion a reasonable piece of film craft. He just can’t keep anything on the artistic ‘down low’. He tells you how to feel and when to feel without giving you any convincing human reason to feel. Film art is not about giving lectures in human goodness or a class in bad morals. We see enough of that on TV. It’s a subtler art than that. It can accommodate questions that drift unanswered and ambiguities that remain just that—ambiguous. And with actors capable of genuine nuance, the only real crime committed in Inside Man is not shaping a film worthy of their talent.

The one thing I did enjoy was the bizarre inclusion of the Bollywood-style opening and closing music track. I guess there was an Indian bank teller. Maybe he was more significant than I suspected at first. Guess I’d have to grant that as an unanswered question.

Siobhan Jackson

Dark days ahead

V for Vendetta
dir. James McTeigue

The setting: Britain, in the near future. A fascist government blacklists books, music and films it deems a threat; it oppresses and persecutes those who do not conform to its dark, tyrannical vision: free thinkers, writers, homosexuals, political dissidents, human-rights campaigners. Secret police and their political masters conspire, and the media is homogenised into a right-wing propaganda machine, with belligerent pundits raving about the dangers of immigration and immorality, with government censors watching carefully and orchestrating what the public hears and sees.

Natalie Portman plays Evey, a young woman working at a popular television station run by her boss Deitrich (Stephen Fry). One night she is caught walking on the streets of London after curfew by several thuggish ‘Fingermen’ (as the secret police are called), who threaten to rape and assault her. She is saved by the enigmatic Shakespeare-quoting mask-wearing V (Hugo Weaving), who seeks, through what one could describe as a campaign of violence and terrorism, to depose Britain’s paranoid and violent chancellor (John Hurt), while simultaneously rousing the frightened population to fight the totalitarian regime that rules them.

‘The people should not be afraid of the government,’ says V. ‘The government should be afraid of the people.’ The masked hero/terrorist/madman (take your pick) characterises himself (with no small degree of irony) as a latter-day Count of Monte Cristo, invokes the name of Guy Fawkes often, and seeks to succeed where Fawkes failed. After hijacking a television station, V declares that the people are responsible for their own fate, implying that by their silence and inaction, they are complicit in the travesties inflicted by the despots in charge.

Director James McTeigue (who has served as first assistant director on the Matrix movies, among other sci-fi fare) has, with the help of the Wachowski brothers’ screenplay (they, of course, wrote and directed The Matrix), cast the original story in a contemporary mould, directly criticising the current foreign policy of the United States.

The anti-conservative themes encoded in V for Vendetta are, however, essentially the same as those in the complex book of the same name by highly talented writer Alan Moore. Many of his books have been adapted into movies in recent years—From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the upcoming The Watchmen. To date, they are poor imitations of the original, striking works. V for Vendetta will not be the last comic-book adaptation to hit the silver screen—keep an eye out for The Watchmen in the next year or so.

V for Vendetta is what I’d call a decent adaptation, but the odd cliché (the ‘birth by fire/experimental accident’) may obscure the film’s intent and annoy some viewers. For a genre adaptation, it’s a little risky, but the acting is of a high standard and cinematically it does deliver. Jaded audiences may roll their eyes at the political content, as they are wont to do; perhaps this is a movie that may raise a question or two for some viewers, or simply validate pre-existing ideas.

Now, on the other hand, you can forget that, ignore the allegories and go down to the cinema and enjoy yourself if you like a bit of action and Wachowski movie magic. If the story interests you more than that, sales of the dark, more challenging comic book are on the rise—it’s a good read, and can be enjoyed solely on its own merits.

Gil Maclean



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