It's been a busy week, movie wise. Watched a couple of films while I was in New York for the weekend, and then caught two more this week in Philly . A combination of a sudden spurt of good movies hitting the theatres and my having the time to watch them (isn't Winter Break wonderful?). Quick thoughts on each, in the order in which I watched them:
1. The Queen
We are very mildly amused. My principal reaction to Stephen Frears quasi-depiction of the most fretful week of that most horribilis of years for QE2 is - who cares? Okay, so the British Royal Family aren't petty and heartless, they're just silly, maladjusted and woefully out of touch, okay so Tony Blair isn't just a smarmy bastard, he's a smarmy bastard with a heart of gold. So what? Based on the reviews The Queen has been getting, I went into the theatre expecting a witty, insightful and / or sensitive portrayal of the monarchy; what I got instead was a dull, ham-handed and obvious faux-documentary - a movie that in its best moments manages to be somewhere between the droll and the bathetic.
Oh, Helen Mirren's performance is exquisite, and the very clarity of her presence in an otherwise mediocre effort makes this a film far more sympathetic to the Queen than the script would seem to justify. You come out feeling that you're on the Queen's side, but that has, I suspect, mostly to do with the fact that Mirren is the only person in the film who manages to seem like a real human being rather than a cheap caricature.
2. El Laberinto del Fauno
Easily the best film I saw this week was Guillermo del Toro's El Laberinto del Fauno (playing under the fairly dubious translation of Pan's Labyrinth). A stunning fable about innocence and war, El Laberinto is a masterpiece of magic realism on screen. Set in World War II Spain, it is the story of Ofelia, a young girl who has come to live with her stepfather and pregnant mother in a small forest outpost where her stepfather, a petty yet sadistic tyrant, is the military commander. Soon Ofelia (and the viewer) is inhabiting two worlds - the real world where her stepfather's high-handed atrocities are being valiantly combated by the guerillas of the resistance and an imaginary world where Ofelia is a lost princess come back to claim her throne, but forced to undertake a series of trials before she can do so.
As the film progresses, these two worlds - the shadow world of the rebel underground and the secret world of Ofelia's imagination become allegories of each other and transfixed between their parallels the story plays out in a dazzling spiral of mirrors. Reflection is everything here - the rebels are dreamers and the dream is a form of rebellion, and El Laberinto successfully blurs the line between the real and magical, sharpening both to the quality of legend.
The risk the story faces is that it could end up trivialising the horrors of war, making them seem childish and sterile. El Laberinto avoids this vividly and in style, providing a fable that is both brutal and unflinching. In the pre-Disney world, there was always something savage about the fairy tale, something bloody and monstrous, and El Laberinto returns to that intuition with flair. There are some fine performances here - Ivana Baquero is mesmerising as Ofelia, Maribel Verdu is captivating as Mercedes, and Sergi Lopez more than pulls his weight as Capitan Vidal - and while there are a handful of scenes that are rather silly, and the ending is a little too upbeat for my taste, El Laberinto del Fauno is, overall, a fascinating achievement.
3. The History Boys
What can one say about a film as delightful as The History Boys? How can one not love a film where characters quote Auden and Keats and Hardy at random, and where every line of dialogue crackles with a crisp combination of erudition and humour. Alan Bennett is a fine writer - at once witty and clever in a preternaturally British way (in a profile of Bennett in the NYRB in May last year, David Lodge describes Bennett as "quintessentially English writer" comparing him to such stalwarts as Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis) - and what he has created in The History Boys is a smorgasbord of verbal delights, an endless lark machine that rattles and hums with infectious enthusiasm. Oh, I'm sure there's a point in there somewhere about the nature of history or the meaning of education or even, perhaps, the eternal conflict between the Appolonian and the Dionysian, but sod it, life is too short, this film is too much fun, and wasn't it Wittgenstein who said that whereof we cannot stop laughing thereof we should not speak seriously?
When I first read about / saw the trailer for Babel, I decided I wasn't going to bother watching it. Then it garnered all these Golden Globe nominations and ended up on a bunch of top 10 film of the year lists and I figured I should at least give it a try.
I should have stuck with my instinct.
I intend to shortly vent about the film at greater length over at Momus, but in the meantime let me say that Babel is a desperately contrived and largely pointless film whose governing idea seems to be that if you juggle fast enough the audience won't notice that you're holding lemons. Whether or not you find the film moving, is, I suspect a function of how you feel about people who are stupid and irresponsible, but not really bad people at heart - if you have sympathy for people like that, you'll probably find the film 'touching'; if, like me, you have no patience with them, you'll find the whole thing unspeakably (heh!) tedious. I can only assume that those Golden Globe nominations are a reflection of the fact that people raised on a diet of Hollywood blockbusters think movies with subtitles are a neat idea.
 I'm only counting films I watched in theatres. I also saw Indochine on DVD - liked it, didn't love it, thought it would be a much better movie if they put in an intermission and left out the entire hour and a half before it - but that was more by way of curing post-New Year's hangover.