Sunday 8 February 2009

Three Films

I have been to the cinema to see three films already this year. Must do this more often if they are all of the calibre of these three.

Frost/Nixon tells the story behind the famous 1977 TV programmes in which David Frost interviewed former President Richard Nixon. Though I was around at the time I must say I have little recollection of the event other than that I was aware that it took place. I don't remember ever having seen the interviews. So I came to this film without much background and not expecting too much. I was very pleasantly surprised. The film is very good with some outstanding performances. Though shot on location the key moments are all shot inside – hotel rooms or someone's living room. This gives the film a slight claustrophobic feel to it, as if you are eavesdropping. Michael Sheen is excellent as David Frost, playing him as a over confident playboy. It is not a particularly flattering portrayal, though Frost does come good in the end. The supporting cast is also very good, especially Matthew Macfadyen as a very convincing young John Birt and Kevin Bacon as Nixon's loyal protector. While Rebecca Hall is fast becoming my favourite actress – looking forward to seeing her in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. However towering above them all is Frank Langella in what must be the performance of his life as Richard Nixon. He doesn't have to do much in the way of action, but his voice, hand movements and his facial ticks are just perfect. He almost makes you feel sorry for Nixon. Almost, but remember the guy was a bastard. Nixon remains the true progenitor of the modern Republican party and the horrors of the George W presidency. Very good film though.

Slumdog Millionaire is a wonderful film. Shot at a terrific pace with a loud, vibrant musical score the film keeps you engrossed from start to finish. You just do not know what to expect next. Scenes move from tender playfulness to violent chases in quick succession. Set mostly in Mumbai's slumlands the film is mainly the backstory to the hero's successes in answering the questions on Who wants to be a Millionaire. The hero is of course not really a hero, but a mere chai wallah in a call centre – Jamal Malik. Essentially the film is a love story and a fairy story in which innocence triumphs over evil. In successive flashbacks we are shown the story of Jamal and his tough brother Salim as they emerge from the horrors of poverty in the slums of Mumbai. Salim escapes into the world of gangsters while Jamal ends up working in a call centre, but only as a tea boy. What keeps Jamal going is his love for Latika, a beautiful girl he helped when they were both children. The acting throughout is very good and the child actors in particular gave very moving performances. This is very much an ensemble piece in which no-one stood out apart from Anil Kapoor as the extrovert host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The rest of the cast all give very restrained and convincing performances. This is a hard hitting film which does not flinch from not just the proverty, but the brutality, the religious strife (as a Muslim, Jamal's mother is killed in an anti Muslim riot) and the corruption which underlies India's economic boom. The filming (or should that be cinematography) captures all of this and also the vibrancy and vivid colours of India. All in all this is a great film.

The Reader is the film version of the novel of the same title. I read the book a couple of years back so I was quite familiar with the story which tries to convey how post war Germans confronted the horrors of Nazism and in particular the Holocaust. From what I can remember the film is a pretty fair reflection of the book. This is a very powerful film and the vividness of the characters makes the film for me more compelling than the book – though I must reread the book to confirm this. The acting is excellent throughout. Kate Winslet as Hannah and Ralph Fiennes as the older Michael both put in very restrained, even understated performances. For me the revelation was David Kross, who gives a very sensitive portrayal of the young Michael as he develops from the rather gauche, innocent 15 year old to the maturing law student. Apart from a few early scenes shot in summer sunshine during the brief love affair between Hannah and Michael, the rest of the film is shot in either pouring rain or cold winter. Bitter weather which sets the tone for the inability of any the main characters to express their real feelings. This is quite a disturbing film as there is no sense of resolution at the end and the predominant mood is one of emptiness. This sense of emptiness comes from the moral ambiguity at its heart. Why did Hannah become and remain a guard in concentration camp? Is her shame at her illiteracy an excuse? An explanation? And Michael's refusal to meet Hannah during and after the trial – was this shame at his relationship, a feeling of guilt by association? As one of the legal students cries out What is there to understand? They murdered hundreds of Jews. What is there to understand? Can one fully understand and fully condemn at the same time? This is Michael's dilemma. The book and the film don't really provide an answer, perhaps because there is no answer – only individual stories with all their ambiguities. A compelling film which left everyone at the DCA in a state of stunned silence.

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