October 17, 2007 5:03 pm

Rhapsody on a shoestring

There is a tendency, one that goes back at least as far as the cursed Elizabeth Taylor picture Cleopatra, to review certain films through their budgets, specifically their budgetary excesses. While this is not a healthy habit, it is nevertheless irresistible to point out that the most striking, moving film of the week was made with a budget that would scarcely have covered the catering costs on most of the other releases, Stardust notable among them.

Once is a largely successful attempt to present something old-fashioned – a romantic musical – in a modern way and on a budget that stops some distance short of six figures. The setting is Dublin, which also provided the backdrop for The Commitments, another largely realistic musical drama with fully integrated songs. The slender story concerns the friendship between an unnamed thirtysomething busker (Glen Hansard, a singer-songwriter whose only previous acting gig was as one of The Commitments) and a similarly anonymous young woman in her 20s (winsome newcomer Markéta Irglová).

Each is lonely, lovelorn and sees in the other a soulmate, if only a temporary one. Their friendship, forever teetering on the edge of romance, is cemented, enhanced and commented on in the songs that they sing, together and apart, these songs being presented in an almost entirely naturalistic style. Once would make for an intriguing double bill with Woody Allen’s experimental musical Everyone Says I Love You, and writer-director John Carney may have had Woody Allen’s film somewhere in the back of his mind when preparing this production – aside from anything else, it shares with Everyone Says a sequence in Venice, although in the case of Once it is very fleeting indeed.

Like Once, Blame it on Fidel inevitably brings many other films to mind, to begin with the politically themed thrillers with which the director’s father Costa-Gavras made his name in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But as the story progresses, it increasingly evokes memories of Lukas Moodysson’s wonderful Together, a partly autobiographical story of the director’s experience growing up in a commune in Sweden in the 1970s. The setting of Blame it on Fidel is Paris in the academic year of 1970-71, a year in which Anna (the highly impressive Nina Kervel), a prissy, bright nine year old, has her life turned upside down thanks to her parents’ sudden immersion in political radicalism, specifically their desire to see Allende seize power in Chile. Unfortunately for Anna, this means her own needs are neglected and her place at the strict Catholic school that she loves is put under threat. Gavras is an experienced maker of documentaries, but this assured, intelligent film marks an auspicious beginning to her career in fictional features.

Politics and drama are blended to rather good effect in Rendition, a moderately successful attempt to address a weighty contemporary theme through what appears to be a conventional thriller. The central issue is that of extraordinary rendition, the story concerning the attempts made by an ordinary American wife and mother (Reese Witherspoon, in a somewhat underwritten role), to discover the whereabouts of her Egyptian-born husband, who went missing on his way back from South Africa.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays a greenhorn CIA analyst forced by circumstances to confront his own attitude to torture, and Alan Arkin and Meryl Streep add a touch of class to the proceedings as a decent senator and a sinister/pragmatic CIA bigwig respectively. This certainly isn’t dull, but it is a touch uncinematic and more than a little preachy. The strong cast and some nifty plotting don’t disguise the basic fact that the natural home for this kind of storytelling is the small screen.

If Stardust has any kind of natural home, it is presumably in the realm of the video game. This folly was apparently made in homage to The Princess Bride, making it a peculiar pastiche of a pastiche. Here the sprawling story concerns the various characters who cross between the English village of Wall and, via a convenient local portal, the parallel fairytale kingdom of Stormhold. There is plenty of energy and an impressive roster of stars from both sides of the Atlantic, including half of television’s Green Wing, but be warned the film contains strobing effects, narrative incontinence and an undignified cameo from Robert De Niro.

Mining the same vein of Anglo-centric cod-mythology, and boasting similarly strong casts of Brit actors – indeed both featuring the splendid James Cosmo – are The
Last Legion
and The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising. The former is a bloody, sub-300 type affair following a raggle-taggle band of Roman warriors led by Colin Firth (in perhaps his least likely screen role so far), who are trying to bring the once and future young emperor to safety in Britannia. Ben Kingsley hams it up shamelessly as the youngster’s supposedly mystical mentor. Equally silly and camp, although a little more coherent, is The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising. Adapted from Susan Cooper’s novels, it is the tale of an adolescent American boy in rural England who finds himself chosen as the one to fend off the forces of darkness, led by Christopher Eccleston. In order to accomplish this task the boy needs to locate and gain possession of the magic-imbued “six signs”; a story that comes across as an uncanny and unholy blend of The Fifth Element, The Sixth Sense and The Seventh Seal.

Nancy Drew may appeal to pre-teen girls in that the eponymous young sleuth is played by Emma Roberts, star of the kids’ sitcom Unfabulous, although the more sophisticated among this potential audience may well be put off by the film’s chaotic narrative and half-baked ideas, notably the intriguing but undeveloped notion of Drew as some kind of living anachronism. Razzle Dazzle, a mockumentary set in the world of Australia’s apparently thriving world of dance schools, in effect Best in Show fused with Strictly Ballroom with a dash of Little Miss Sunshine, isn’t quite up there in the Christopher Guest league but has some hilarious moments, almost all of them courtesy of Ben Miller as a gauche teacher specialising in politically themed dance spectaculars.

Elsewhere there is André Techiné’s The Witnesses, an engaging if somewhat inchoate drama set in the early years of Aids, which features Julie Depardieu as the leading character’s opera-singing sister, who is seen to better effect as Anna’s mother in Blame it on Fidel. Receiving a limited release is the wretched, borderline racist Polish romantic comedy Extras, not to be confused with the television show of the same name starring Ricky Gervais, who shows up alongside De Niro in Stardust. This film will be hard to track down and is conveniently enough best avoided, whereas Sea Monsters in 3D: A Prehistoric Adventure is a wondrous big screen experience, well worth seeking out at your nearest Imax cinema.

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