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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Short Takes – Recently Seen

Casino Royale
Simply put: the best Bond in nearly 40 years. It may not have the pop-classic panache of the first five Sean Connery films, but it shows up all the ones between starring Moore, Dalton, Brosnan, for the silly monstrosities they are. Daniel Craig is nearly perfect as a steely, scary, sexy 007 without a trace of camp. Martin Campbell’s direction, the photography, the editing are extraordinarily skillful. The only spy film to compare to it in recent years is Paul Greengrass’s equally amazing The Bourne Supremacy, which surpasses Casino Royale in artistry though not in pop fizziness. Although slick spectacles like this are not to be confused with art, let me quote Pauline Kael’s review of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the last really first-rate Bond: “I know that on one level it’s not worth doing, but it sure has been done brilliantly.” The only really shoddy element is the wretched theme song, which we have to endure twice.

Babel
Babel
’s heavy ache to be important and worthy reminds one of Crash, and like that widely overrated film, it has good elements: a strong cast, good photography and editing, the skill to hold an audience’s attention through multiple connected stories. But it only rarely seems spontaneous, or as stirring as it wants to be. The best scenes involve the two Arab shepherd boys who put the main part of the plot into motion; and also Adriana Barraza as the ill-fated Mexican immigrant nanny of two Anglo California kids. Tied for worst are the scenes set in Japan concerning a deaf teenager whose longing for emotional comfort turns into a dangerous (and ridiculous) obsession with sex; and Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as glamorously suffering American tourists in Morocco. Babel lacks the intricate jigsaw structure and cutting of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s previous film, 21 Grams, but it is also less annoying than that picture was.

Happy Feet
Some of the visuals are stunning, and there is the novelty of skilled tap dancing incorporated into animated animal characters using miraculous new technologies. But the script is far from being as compelling or delightful as Babe, George Miller’s earlier entertainment for smart kids of all ages. And I had a mixed reaction to the grab bag of contemporary tunes that periodically turn the movie into an Antarctic MTV for 8 year olds. Still, much of the comedy is charming and the adventure quest of our penguin hero will hold your interest.

The History Boys
Although this film has been nearly as overpraised as the slick, empty play it’s based on, it can be very entertaining if you don’t take it too seriously. The mostly excellent performances of the stage cast (playing the students and faculty of an English boys’ school in the 1980s) have been preserved for posterity, and especially in the cases of Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, and Samuel Barnett, the preservation is very valuable. Some of the more glaring examples of gay self-hatred that were woven uncomfortably tightly into the play’s script have been toned down or omitted, and I was happy to see this change, since these elements were not handled skillfully enough by author Alan Bennett to have much resonance beyond an unpleasant aftertaste. I think of The History Boys as a sophisticated sitcom, and its nominal subject, two approaches to learning represented by two teachers, seems to me just a McGuffin on which to hang the jokes, many of which remain quite charming. The look of the film is cheap and it feels like a rush job, but this is not too damaging to the breezy writing and acting that provide most of its appeal.

For Your Consideration
I’m not the biggest fan of Christopher Guest’s satirical mock-documentaries, but they all have moments and performances of sweet-sour charm and hilarity, and this is no exception. Wild-eyed, unpredictable Catherine O’Hara is the standout here, and it’s of course amusing that she is garnering year-end award recognition for a film that not-so-gently skewers Hollywood’s obsession with such awards. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the film-within-the-film, Home for Purim, is too silly and sketchy to be completely effective as satire. But there are plenty of laughs, and if you don’t expect too much, this is a pleasant little movie.

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