Away We Go

Award ceremonies tend to favour the serious over the light-hearted, angst over humour, the weighty over the breezy. There may be many reasons for this, not least perhaps being a caution at being seen as intellectually inferior by honouring that which is lighter in tone.  If, however, the theory is correct that comedy and tragedy are but a heartbeat apart, then any biased by various awards bodies is all the more ignorant. Consider Shakespeare, for instance: Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo And Juliet have more or less identical plots, with marriage ceremonies conducted in secret, the underhand assistance of a member of the clergy and a faked death. The former’s only a more-or-less literal heartbeat away from the latter. Reading or viewing the two together inevitably deepens the experience, casting fresh light on characters and turnings of plot in both.

Sam Mendes isn’t Shakespeare, but it seems to me that he’s up to something of a similar nature. Revolutionary Road is the domestic chamber piece recast as an  All-American tragedy, where the death of dreams is equally as tragic as loss of a loved one. His latest, Away We Go is another close-up portrait of another All-American relationship, but of a sweeter, apple-pie, flavour. Others come into the couple’s orbit: in this one on the point of the birth of their first child as against the previous film’s house purchase. They are both couples let down  – the one by the suburban dream, the other by people. One couple spins helplessly and inevitably towards tragedy; while the couple at the centre of Away We Go bumble agreeably along, discovering that they’re the only really sane ones in a world that’s gone mad since they moved out to the sticks to be near the in-laws.

As always with a Mendes-helmed film there’s much to like – the cinematography, the performances, the script (especially as this one’s from married couple Dave Eggars and Vendela Vida, a kind of post-modern literary celeb-couple). Among the supporting cast there are some great moments as a variety of fine actors ply their trade – most memorably for me, Allison Janney. Taken separately these characters are fine; all together and there’s a danger of weirdness-indigestion, they’re existence and purpose being to highlight the  sane-ness of the central couple.

It is, though, the central couple who save it. I’ve heard it said that this film is for those with children, who will recognise various staging posts in that life transition; many without children have found this smug or alienating, Maybe. My wife and I, though, don’t have children and are fine with that. My overriding impression (my wife hasn’t seen it yet) was not of smugness but rather the cool refreshment of a central couple who are relationally healthy and emotionally balanced. We need more like them. In the context of the film,  that may have required some over-egging of the profile of the supporting cast, but no matter. Thinking now of the all too real relationships I recognised in Revolutionary Road, it makes me both cry and laugh all the more. The more I think, the more I wonder if Sam Mendes really is the poet our times need.

District 9

There was a time when it was felt that every American film made was really about Vietnam. Such was the scar on the national psyche, there was a time of shock and denial when it couldn’t be broached as a subject; then it became clear that even many of the films that weren’t about Vietnam were, in fact, about Vietnam. The same has happened in recent years regarding the Iraq war.

Imagine, then, the choices facing South African film makers. At what point do you stop making films about the traumas, struggles and issues of prejudiced and apartheid? Opinion within the country is divided – some say move on. There are other issues to talk about. Other say we must, as with the Holocaust, constantly find new ways to tell the story to new generations. We must never forget.

Along comes District 9, a South African film produced by Peter Jackson, telling the story of an alien ship stalled over Johannesburg, from where the derogatorily nicknamed ‘prawns’ (aliens) are taken and housed in shanty towns, and then, years later, forcibly relocated. They are not welcome in town, there are aliens rights groups, there’s misunderstanding and misinformation.  In one especially brave touch, the alien language is comprised of clicks  – one character even tells an alien to ‘slow down with the clicks’, eerily reminiscent of how some respond to the Xhosa language. This is a film about it’s country’s history and prejudice  – but (and here’s the film’s ambiguity, which may feel suspicious) what’s not clear is exactly what’s being said about this history.

It’s important to say this is a really good, intelligent and well put-together film. It’s exciting, the special-effects on a budget work well, the characters are engaging and there’s a nice line of dark humour.  I especially like the fact we don’t get explanations for everything – why’s the spaceship there in the first place, not least. It’s put together in the hand-held camera traditions of Cloverfield, using a documentary device; and that device works in a nice, unforced way. Like all good science fiction it does have concerns for issues wider than the story – not just South African history, but issues of immigration, gun-running and identity. The problem the film has, though, it uses those issues, it doesn’t do anything with them. It doesn’t say anything other than use them as a backdrop – which is at best careless or at the (highly unlikely) very worst, in danger of its own encouragement of prejudice. Given the inflammatory nature of these issues, that’s more than a little careless.

I’d like to think the inevitable sequel will go deeper, but I can’t see it. This is still one of the better films of the year, but it could have been even more.

(500) Days Of Summer

By rights, this shouldn’t work. It’s clearly cut from the same cloth as Juno – a cool, independently minded romantic comedy aimed that designed to appeal as much to men as it does to women. And, as we all should know, it’s always painful when we’re offered a film that’s ‘another’ of last year’s big breakout hit.

(500) Days Of Summer, though, is better than Juno. It is smart, funny and independently minded with a great soundtrack (off ‘sad British pop music’ as the narrator memorably intones at the beginning to explain the lead character’s outlook on life) – but actually feels more real than Juno’s enjoyable but unnaturally cool dialogue. It’s funny and clever in its use of what could have been a serious misstep of a dance scene. It gets away with so  much by perfect balance and self-control at all the right moments.

The real plus of the film, though, is in its point-of-view. This is all from the perspective of one character – the man (played by the always engaging Joseph Gordon-Levitt). That’s at least partly a marketing thing, obviously, but it works. As the narrative zips back and forward across the titular 500 days it slowly becomes clear that what we think is happening may not be – we, like the man himself, may be reading things the wrong way. He’s seeing things though the lens of his own desires and prejudices, and it lands him in all sorts of emotional trouble, culminating in a beautiful split-screen sequence showing the same scene from the perspective of both his expectations and the painful reality. Slowly the former gives way to the latter, and his world collapses with exquisite agony.

Of course, there’s stock character  – his two mates, for example. Both the central characters are typical of the genre also – but when the two leads (Zooey Deschanel as Summer) are as engaging as this, it doesn’t matter. So much just works, carrying you through the inevitable flaws: the soundtrack is perfect (maybe I’m just biased but any film with features The Smiths twice in the first half hour is on to a winner); the narration is occasional, beautiful and charming; the ending entirely appropriate and just ambiguous enough whilst still being unmistakeably upbeat.

So, see it. One of the very few romantic comedies to appeal equally to men and women; it will make you think about what you see and what’s real in relationships; and it will just make you smile. See it.

The Taking Of Pelham 123

Denzel Washington, John Travolta, remake, directed by Tony Scott. It’s pretty much what you’d expect – in a good way. It’s an efficient, well acted thriller that (I’m told) inevitably ramps up the violence of the original. It’s not profound, deep, or significant in any other way than the fact it’s at the top of the league of Thrillers This Year That Are ‘Just’ Aiming To Entertain (and nothing else).
It’s no worse for that – it’s perfectly good, gripping and entertaining. It’s not going to change any lives, but in the usual summer glut of over-hyped, half-baked money-making machines, this is perfectly fine. When you get the chance, enjoy.