Babel at Hoyts, Broadway

Babel was a powerful film. It was full of damaged, displaced people, and with a strong sense of imminent tragedies (not all of which ultimately came to pass).

The way the stories were intercut with each other, and not quite running on the same timeline, made it a bit challenging to watch – but in a good way, not a frustrating way. It was more a case of staying alert for the clues as to how everything fit together (which wasn’t actually that difficult) than of being so focussed on working it all out that you lost touch with the story. And, unlike with 21 Grams, I really did care about the characters.

The Holiday at Hoyts, Broadway

I thought The Holiday was a pleasant, if somewhat unremarkable, romantic comedy.

Actually, I really enjoyed the Iris-Miles-Arthur storyline. It had a lot of heart to it – and a lot of humour – though I guess it was maybe a little bit lacking in bite. But I thought that Kate Winslet, Jack Black and Eli Wallach gave fine performances, and you could really see and believe in the relationships they had with each other (if not so much in the Iris-Jasper and Miles-Maggie unrequited passions). And I loved the way Arthur had Iris watching old movies with strong female leads. And the Writers’ Guild ceremony. It was a complete “feelgood” story.

I was less impressed with the Amanda-Graham story. At best, I found it only mildly amusing, and I didn’t much like either of the characters, so I didn’t really care whether or not they got together.

I wonder if the DVD release will have a “make your own cut” feature, so I can just watch the story I liked? Unfortunately, I doubt it …

Reunion (David Mamet) and A Kind of Alaska (Harold Pinter): Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf Theatre

In their different ways, I found both Reunion and A Kind of Alaska somewhat unsatisfying.

Of the two, I think I enjoyed Reunion more. Both performances (Justine Clarke and Robert Menzies) were strong, and it was a wonderful use of awkward words and uncomfortable silences. Unlike some of the other plays we’ve seen, in this one, the director (Andrew Upton) clearly made a deliberate decision not to use American accents, or even nationality-neutral ones. This play was very definitely done in Australian. I don’t know if the text was changed at all (though I suspect not, as there were one or two slightly jarring US references), or if the character of Bernie was in any way subverted by this change, but overall I thought it worked very well with Bernie as a blue-collar, rather inarticulate Aussie Bloke. But although the production was good, it was still ultimately unsatisfying becuase it wasn’t really a story. It was just a snippet – a brief window into a moment of these two people’s lives – but with no real plot development or climax. Obviously that was the intention, and it was not uninteresting, but somehow it just wasn’t quite … enough.

A Kind of Alaska, on the other hand, did build up to a climax. But – and I don’t know if this was the performances or the play itself – at no time did I care as much about any of the characters as I did about Caroline and Bernie in Reunion. Possibly it also suffered from the fact that the last play we saw was Woman in Mind. Because Deborah in Alaska was in a not dissimilar situation from Susan in Woman in Mind – for different reasons, they were both in a world that wasn’t making sense to them. But with Susan, you saw everything from her perspective – you were literally inside her head with her – whereas Deborah was at more of a distance, and it was harder to engage with her, or with either of the other two characters. It’s probably not a fair comparison to make, as the two playwrights were aiming for totally different effects, but it’s one that I couldn’t help making, and which probably had a detrimental effect on my reaction to A Kind of Alaska.

Happy Feet at Hoyts, Broadway

I was pretty much unmoved by Happy Feet. Yes, the animation was great, and the singing was kind of cute, and the environmental message was important (if done a bit heavy-handedly). But at the end of the day, I didn’t care that much about Mumble. I think the main problem was that he didn’t really interact with anyone much. The scenes with his parents, and even with Gloria, were pretty minimalist. And Ramón and co were comic relief caricatures – they were quite funny, but they didn’t really have enough depth to be the main ongoing relationship for Mumble. (Actually, they reminded me a bit of the Wikked Tribe in Tad Williams’ Otherland books. Zany and manic and fun, but in no way resembling rounded characters, and therefore not providing anything much for the three dimensional characters to work with.) But because you didn’t see much of Mumble dealing with other “real” characters, he, himself, didn’t fully develop either. Maybe it would have worked better if Gloria had had a bigger role – after all, in Otherland the Orlando Gardiner story would have been nothing much if it had just been him and the Wikked Tribe. It was his relationships with his parents and Fredericks that made you understand him as a character, and care what happened to him.

Casino Royale at BCC, Carindale (plus some thoughts on the original Ian Fleming book)

Casino Royale was definitely the best Bond film since GoldenEyeGoldenEye is probably still my favourite, but it’s hard to do a direct comparison of the two, as they are completely different types of film. Daniel Craig made a great Bond, Judi Dench just gets better and better as M, and I liked Eva Green as Vesper and Mads Mikkelsen as Le Chiffre. Overall I though it had the right balance between action, characterisation and snappy dialogue. I found the opening credits song a bit bland, but not unpleasant, and I liked the visuals that went with it. I also liked the way there were just hints of the Bond theme music throughout the film – generally when standard Bond things are being established (eg the dinner jacket) – but that it didn’t play in full until the very end. There were a number of scenes I really, really enjoyed: in particular, the parkour-inspired chase sequence in Madagascar, which was brilliant, and the exchange between Bond and Vesper on the train, which was very reminiscent of Bogart-Bacall scenes. The opening, black-and-white scene was also very strong, but had a bit less impact because I was already familiar with it from the trailer. And the poker scenes worked well – as a poker ignoramus, I still found that there was enough context provided that I wasn’t actually confused by what was going on. In principle, I would have preferred them to stick with baccarat, as in the book, but I guess it made commercial sense to change to a game more people are familiar with.

If I have an active complaint with it, it is that, at 144 minutes, it was really too long. I thought the action sequences in the airport and in Venice could definitely have been cut back a bit. Possibly some of the romance scenes near the end could also have been trimmed, though that might have affected the balance a bit much.

In preparation for the film, I re-read the book a little while ago. I had also read it a couple of years back, for a uni course, but before that it had been years since I’d read it, or any other of the Bond books. Possibly because of the films, it’s very easy to be dismissive of Fleming as a writer, but on re-reading Casino Royale I do find that there is a richness to it that I had forgotten. It’s extremely visceral. Bond had a sensuous enjoyment of food that never appears in the films. Also, one of the scenes that I did have a strong recollection of before this re-read was the explosion (which didn’t make it to the film) because you really get the impact it has on Bond’s senses – the smell, the raining flesh, all the things you don’t get when you see an explosion in a movie.

A number of people have said that Daniel Craig is much more like Ian Fleming’s Bond than his predecessors were. I don’t actually think this is true – or, at any rate, it’s not true of the Casino Royale Bond. Daniel Craig was something of a blue-collar thug, with a very thin veneer of sophistication. I thought this worked very well for the film, but it was no closer to the Bond of the book than any of the other interpretations. I know Pierce Brosnan, and maybe also Timothy Dalton (whose Bond might have come close to Fleming’s, if he’d ever been given a decent film) were interested in doing a Casino Royale. With the script as it was written, I don’t think either of them would have done as good a job as Daniel Craig. However, with certain shifts in tone to suit their different styles, I think either one could have put in a good performance that would have been at least as true to the book – in different ways – as this one was. Actually, probably any of the Bond actors could have. The plot of the book is so slight that it could have been adjusted in any number of directions, while still remaining true to the emotional centre of the original work. Nevertheless, I thought Craig was brilliant, and I just hope he isn’t let down by future scriptwriters/directors (as Brosnan was after GoldenEye, and Dalton was for both his films).

One of the things I read in the lead-up (which made me think it could be really good) was that they had promised to keep the torture scene and the last line of the book. As it turned out, I found the torture scene in the film far less confronting than it was in the book. This is probably a good thing, but it did leave me feeling a bit dissatisfied.

I also felt that they’d copped out somewhat over the ending. Warning: spoilers follow. The book finishes with the line “The bitch is dead now”, and I find it a very powerful, if bleak, ending. As promised, they did have this line in the film, and I thought he delivered it with the right level of bitterness, but it was immediately softened by what M says, which brings back some of the emotion, and then by the triumphant closing scene. The ending they gave it is very cinematic, and I can certainly see that they wanted the audience to go out on a positive note, rather than feeling depressed. It wasn’t even inconsistent with the book (where, after reading Vesper’s suicide note, Bond decides that “Here was a target for him, right at hand”). And the last image of him standing there with the gun, and finally uttering the immortal line “The name’s Bond, James Bond” which launches the theme music and the closing credits, was great. I certainly can’t say I didn’t like it – I thought it was wonderful. But … I do kind of regret losing the downbeat ending from the book.

Flags of our Fathers at Hoyts, Broadway

I was expecting Flags of our Fathers to be a very strong film, and I wasn’t disappointed. The cinematography was amazing, and the muted colours gave the war scenes in particular a very powerful effect. I can’t really say whether this film or Saving Private Ryan had “better” combat scenes, but taken as an overall piece of cinema – visuals, story, acting – Flags of our Fathers was unquestionably superior.

It seems very presumptuous to have any criticism of a film about real people, who went through experiences I can’t fully imagine or comprehend, but I did have two minor concerns with it, at least while I was actually at the cinema. The first was that while I was watching it, I felt that the three main characters seemed to fall almost too neatly into roles that were in some ways almost cliched – the glory hound, the one who couldn’t take the pressure, and the one who handled it best, even though he was profoundly affected by the experience. At the time, this made me start to question the level of truth to the story. And yet, judging by the Wikipedia entry – and also by the book, which I am partway through reading – this really is what they were like. Maybe the film gave Doc Bradley a couple of extra central moments – I am thinking of the way he sort of became the spokesperson for objecting to the mix-up between Hank Hanson and Harlon Block – but in general, it does seem like it actually was a true representation.

The other thing is that I didn’t feel that the film told me anything new about the nature of heroism. I think what it had to say was important, and certainly bears repeating and thinking about anew, but ultimately it never gave me one of those “I never saw it that way before” moments. I’m not sure if I should even call this a criticism – certainly it in no way detracts from the power or the value of the film – but somehow the publicity had made me think I was going to get some new insights out of it all.

All in all, though, I thought it was an excellent film that I would certainly recommend. I am also finding the book (with a couple of reservations) profoundly moving. Once I finish reading the book, I may want to see the film again. And I am very much looking forward to Eastwood’s companion film, Letters from Iwo Jima.