I love it when a film raises the stakes. Done with wit, it can drag you back in to a film you might have been drifting away from. Done with smarts, like Susanne Bier’s Danish drama In a Better World, it can drag you to the edge of your seat.
About two-thirds in to the film there’s an event that forces a central character to confront his own principles – values he has been carefully (and selflessly) teaching his kids – and he has to question whether those principles are really doing him any good in a world that refuses to honour them in return.
The character is Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a Swedish doctor working in a sub-Saharan refugee camp where – in addition to the usual litany of drought-related problems – he’s patching up pregnant women brutalised by the local warlord. He’s troubled by the circumstances but smug about his role in the aid process. Perhaps he should be paying more attention to back home though, as his oldest son Elias (Markus Rygaard) is being bullied at school and taken under the wing of cold-eyed psychopath Christian (brilliant William Jøhnk Nielsen), grieving the cancer death of his mother and taking his quiet rage out on the world.
One of the benefits of a marginally-classical education is that when someone makes a film about King Leonidas and The Battle of Thermopylae I have a vague idea what they’re on about before I go in but nothing could prepare me for the sheer visceral “total” film-making on display in Zack Snyder’s extraordinary 300. Involving and repellent by turns, it’s a thrilling testament to full-on masculine male manliness; unspeakably violent of course but extreme in almost every other way imaginable too.
Based on Frank Miller’s $80-a-copy graphic novel (recreated frame for beautiful frame in many cases), 300 follows Leonidas and his hand-picked Spartan army as they try to defend a disinterested Greece from a million Persians, their slaves, elephants and transexuals.
Leonidas is played with considerable star-making charisma by Gerard Butler (Dear Frankie); Aussie David Wenham narrates as if he got punch in the throat as well losing an eye in the battle and the beautiful Lena Headey as Queen proves that Spartan women were made of the same perfectly formed but psychologically incomplete material as the men.
Fresh from the Showcase, The Namesake is a lovingly rendered (if overlong) adaptation of the novel of the same name by Jhumpa Lahiri featuring Kal Penn (given name: Kalpen Modi), veteran star of juvenile rubbish like Epic Movie and Van Wilder. Penn proves he really can act as Gogol Ganguly, New York-born Indian searching for an identity that doesn’t involve his embarrassing first name.
In the initially bewildering Stomp The Yard, Columbus Short plays DJ, a young hoodlum and gifted dancer who is given one more chance after the death of his younger brother in a dance-related brawl. That chance involves enrolling in Truth University, the legendary African-American centre of learning and culture where the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Michael Jordan set the highest alumni standards.
At Truth he finds his dancing skills are tested in the National Steppin’ Contest (a kind of team dancing unique to Black America) and his romantic skills are given a tweak by the beautiful April (Meagan Good). I’m about as far away from the target market for this film as can be imagined but, once I’d worked out that this dancing stuff was actually serious, I quite enjoyed it.
Meanwhile, Vitus is a little sweetie from Switzerland about a gifted child who desperately wants to be normal. A lovely performance from twinkly Bruno Ganz is worth the price of admission and Teo Georghiu as 12-year-old Vitus really has the chops to make that old joanna sing. Remarkable.
Finally a couple of disposable items for the school holidays: TMNT is actually the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and it boasts video-game quality animation and a slumming Patrick Stewart on villain-voice-duty. I found the turtles really annoying but, then again, they are teenagers. It’s sort of the point.
Much more entertaining is Disney’s Meet the Robinsons, an anarchic affair that unlike other animated films has a kind of improvised quality, bouncing along chucking jokes in random directions and a few of them stick. 12 year old orphan Lewis is a gifted inventor desperate for a family. When his latest invention is stolen by mysterious Bowler Hat Guy, young hot-head Wilbur Robinson arrives from the future to help set things straight (and help Lewis find his mother).
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on 11 April, 2007.