Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes, 2011)


Coriolanus
A personal project for Fiennes, who plays the lead character, Coriolanus is an attempt to make a rarely performed Shakespeare play more widely known. It’s one that I’ve not seen before and never completed reading – it’s a notoriously difficult text, and one that was apparently pruned extensively for this cinematic version, although all the remaining text is original Will. I was certainly able to follow the plot, in this version; though some of the dialogue was occasionally a little bewildering, the sense of what was being said always came through.

Like McKellen’s Richard III, this is a modern setting, with a generic-Balkans backdrop substituting for that film’s mash-up-1930’s Fascism. This has a few hiccups here and there, as the early-modern origins of the play butt up against the very modern warfare portrayed but it mostly works and has the benefit of making that warfare comprehensibly brutal, visceral and real.

We first see Fiennes’ Martius confronting a Roman crowd. He represents the forces of an aristocratic elite, careless of the suffering of the ordinary people but very aware of the threat posed to their city-state by rivals, especially the Volscians. After a successful war against the Volscians, led by Aufidius (Gerard Butler), taking the nearby city of Corioli, Martius returns home and is given the honorific “Coriolanus”. For successful Roman generals, a political career was expected, both as reward for prior service and as a further duty to the state, and this translates well to the modernised setting. The portrayal of the Tribunes, representatives of the common people, as utterly malevolent and devious villains, while perfectly in tune with Shakespeare’s writing, as far as I can see, looks a little like elitist and extreme right-wing propoganda but this is balanced as Fiennes’ film balances their treachery very well with Martius’ arrogance and callousness.

This callousness, we see, is partly down to his nature and also to his upbringing. His mother (an amazing turn from Vanessa Redgrave – again) inculcates in him an overwhelming sense of personal honour and the primacy of martial valour, with seemingly little or no value placed on domestic virtues.

This arrogant dismissal of the suffering of ordinary people and his extreme reluctance to pretend otherwise ill-prepares him for a life in politics and Martius finds himself out-manouvred to the point where he is stripped of his civic honours and is exiled (this is one of the points that doesn’t exactly translate to a modern setting). Leaving his city alone and vulnerable, Martius does the unthinkable and goes over to the enemy. Enlisting with Aufidius, he quickly becomes the Volscians’ hero as he leads Aufidius’ troops towards Rome.

I’m not sure this is quite so successful an adaptation as Richard III, which might be unfair since that is usually regarded as a better play in the first place, but it is pretty satisfying and I’ll feel more confident approaching the full text or performance in future.

Now for Timon of Athens…

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From the Life of Marionettes (Ingmar Bergman, 1980)


Marionettes

Despite its late date, after a garishly red opening, this is almost entirely in black and white which I presume to be an artistic choice, though it could equally be a financial one – Bergman made this in Germany rather than his native Sweden, so there might well have been some belt-tightening involved. It’s a tough watch, being an investigation of a brutal (fictional) murder of a prostitute through the eyes of friends, family and acquaintances of the killer. It’s bleak and we don’t get any strong insight into why Peter Egermann (Robert Atzorn) feels compelled to kill and unable to resist, despite clearly being afraid of this compulsion.

His psychiatrist claims that Peter is a repressed homosexual and that this is responsible for his internal demons, and the idea that Peter might be homosexual or bisexual had occurred to me, though the idea that this might be responsible for his killing rage seems simplistic and fatuous, and I hope that Bergman didn’t intend this as a pat answer. Given that the previous Bergman films I’ve seen provide more questions than questions, I think this is unlikely.

Likewise, Peter’s marriage is a stormy affair, with near-constant competition frequently escalating to all-out hostility, and yet there is also a mutual dependence between the couple – this is not a healthy relationship. Peter’s relationship with his mother is also in the spotlight, as he seems to be always in the sway of either wife or mother, both domineering figures who can’t stand one another. This all adds to the picture of Peter as a trapped and unhappy man, despite his apparent and material success, and there is an overwhelming sense of doom, over and beyond the fact that we know Peter will, by the end of the film, commit a horrific and senseless act. Surely it’s this kind of film that gets Bergman his reputation as gloomy and doom-laden.

Disturbing.

District 13: Ultimatum (Patrick Alessandrin, 2009)


District 13 Ultimatum
Or, since it’s a French film, Banlieu 13: Ultimatum, if you prefer.  This is a follow-up to 2004’s District 13, in which the two leads, a cop, Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli) and a small-time crook, Leito (David Belle), put aside their differences and work together to prevent a dirty bomb from being launched in the eponymous district, which is a dystopian ghetto, walled-off from ‘civilized’ Paris and left to become a mire of crime-controlled poverty.  At the end of the film, promises are made that the wall will come down and the district will be re-integrated into wider society.

So (surprise, surprise), at the beginning of this film, nothing much has changed.  If anything, the crime is worse, with the gangs fractured along ethnic lines into armed camps led by ‘warlords’.  The Defence chief and head of a special crime unit corruptly conspire with a building firm (rather obviously named “Harriburton”) to manufacture a crisis in District 13 so that they can justify utterly destroying it and offering the real estate for luxury development.  It is up to Damien and Leito, now friends, to come together again and save the day.

The first film was good, brainless fun, a thrill-ride of magnificent chase scenes, loosely held together by a pretty silly premise and plot.  The leads players in this film are acclaimed stunt-men, leading lights in the world of ‘parkour’ and, if you see a film in which a chase scene involves incredible and adrenaline-boosting bouncing up, down and over buildings, chances are that one or both of them are involved, since there are not many people who can do this.  Luc Besson wrote or co-wrote both films, which is not a recommendation for depth, since Besson is really only good for flashy fun films.  Unfortunately, this follow-up film seems to be trying to make a more ‘political’ point and it is pretty damn clunky when it does so.

There are still some fantastic chase scenes and some wonderfully choreographed fight scenes, even if they’re no more realistic than the fight scenes from The Matrix.  The problem is that everything between the fighting and chasing is boring, lucicrous or both – and there isn’t enough fighting and chasing to keep your mind off the dull absurdities of the plot.

I’d recommend watching the first but skip this one – it adds nothing.

Ted (Seth MacFarlane, 2012)


Ted
I was told, ahead of watching this, that if I liked Family Guy, I’d love it; otherwise I might find it offensive. As I *quite* like that show but find it all too often mediocre rather than challenging, I was pretty ambivalent about it, though it had received good reviews. My first impressions, as Patrick Stewart gave an “It’s a Wonderful Life” meets “Little Britain Tom Baker” narration, were very positive, though this narration was a little underwritten and Patrick, bless his heart, hasn’t quite so fruity a voice as Tom, so the comic effect had faded away by the time the narration ended and the film proper started.

The set-up is that Mark Wahlberg’s John Bennett made a childhood Christmas wish that his teddy bear was real and would be his friend forever, John being the kid that the bullied kids bullied and having no friends at all. Of course, the wish comes true and, years later, John is in a dead-end job – though with a beautiful and successful girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) – but Ted is still around having been, for a while, a TV sensation but now a foul-mouthed has-been. John and Ted are still best friends but they are ‘treading water’ in life, with Lori concerned that Ted is holding John back but not wanting to interfere with their friendship.

There aren’t any great surprises in the plot, which is pretty routine (there is a sub-plot about a creepy father wanting to kidnap Ted for his creepy son, and a running joke about the ’80s film, Flash Gordon), and there are few, if any, real standout scenes and yet I found the whole thing funny, pleasant and – strangely – charming. I suspect that Wahlberg and Kunis playing it straight and MacFarlane giving Ted a pretty good comic character – and the animation is terrific – mean that the comedy comes through naturally, with no laugh track to interfere either and it rattled along nicely throughout.

The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012)


The Dark Knight Rises
Another hotly anticipated and ultra-hyped arrival this year, the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of his Dark Knight interpretation of Batman. The look and the feel of this concluding part is very similar to previously, with a portentious, doom-laden feel, with few laughs (although there are some to be had).

The villain, this time round, is Bane (Tom Hardy), a mirror-version of the hero, seemingly psychologically damaged in childhood and having turned himself into a supervillain, aided by a mask that ensures he feels no pain. The film’s opening scenes featuring Bane, establishing the extent of his infamy and his ambition, with an extended action sequence that is as impressive as it is original, setting a breathtaking standard for the film to live up to.

We then switch to Gotham City, where the Batman (Christian Bale) has retired from crime fighting, having taken the blame for Harvey Dent’s death (at the climax of the last film), and also having retreated into isolationism as Bruce Wayne. Batman is reviled and Dent (wrongly) lionised due to an extended period of peace given to have been his legacy, although we are told that this has actually been achieved by suspending, or at least severely compromising, due process. Even when Wayne holds a party as a charity fundraiser, he remains unseen and solitary upstairs. This isolation is broken by a crime at Wayne Manor that is directly targeted at him. Then Bane’s appearance makes it clear that the Batman is needed again and Wayne comes back out into the world…

I’ll not go further into the plot – as usual, the less you know in advance, the greater the enjoyment – and concentrate on other things. In addition to Hardy, whose delivery is excellent, sardonic and brutal both, there are several other good roles in support. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Jack Blake, a young policeman, and Marion Cotillard as Miranda, a member of Wayne Enterprise’s board who tries to draw Wayne into supporting a clean energy project that he has mothballed for fears it could be weaponised, are both very watchable. Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine reprise their roles from the previous films, and are as good as ever. The most effective new support is from Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle / Catwoman. Hathaway is fine as Kyle but is amazing as catwoman, the perfect incarnation of grace and sensuality coupled with physical violence, though her character is perhaps a little underused.

The plot references both the previous films, calling on both to ensure that there is a real sense that this is bulding to a grand finale which, when it arrives, has a proper sense of grandeur that rounds of the trilogy very satisfyingly. One of the films of the year so far.