July 15, 2009 10:30 pm

Real life daring trumps wizardry

Burma VJ
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
The Informers
Cloud 9
Frozen River
Moon


What a week. Our attention is torn in two in a war-riven zone of life and death. Should we stay in the hospital tent as an old comrade – Harry, the last of the wizardly Potters in the nearly last chapter of his life – slips towards unconsciousness? Or should we join the living battle outside? We hear its din in the thrilling documentary Burma VJ: thrilling even if the speed of sound here is less fast than it might be, this bulletin from Rangoon headlining the monk-led riots of 2007 rather than recent clamours and unrests. (Shouldn’t we have had an update about Americans swimming rivers and Aung San Suu Kyi’s latest, most ominous detention?)

Dear Harry is now nearly catatonic. He gives out few signs of brain activity and in a 2½-hour vigil we press-show onlookers witnessed only a few disordered ravings: something about “Snape!”, something about “Dumbledore is gay!” (or was it “Dumbledore is slain!”) and a frothing five minutes here and there of delirious fantasising. The rest is inertia: more shortly.

More

Nigel Andrews

No, Burma VJ is the week’s hot spot. A daring band of camcording journalists called the Democratic Voice of Burma operates inside that junta-ruled country, though their mission base is in Thailand and their administrative HQ in Oslo. Anders Ostergaard’s documentary mixes a small amount of re-enactment – scenes of the Thai-based boss co-ordinating action by phone – with large amounts of scary, shocking or in some cases infamously celebrated footage (the Japanese reporter shot by police, the bloodied corpse of a monk lying face down in a stream). The video evidence was recorded at risk to life, limb and liberty.

The film focuses on one such endangered journalist, “Joshua”, though he clearly stands for all. The images he and his like capture – sent out to global television and the internet by satellite, then beamed back into Burma for bootleg viewing – are the only glimpse the world gets of a nation under military lock and key. Ruled by curfew and censorship, its cities give out their secrets in momentary screams of defiance – such as the September 2007 uprising – before the rule of terror, and the gag of the gun, are re-imposed. If some footage in Burma VJ is familiar, that only emphasises the difficulty of obtaining such footage at all. Here is a surreal land full of surreal reportorial soundbites – “The monks are on the move”, “I can’t see, it’s all smoke and pigeons” – in which the blind lead the blind and the one-idea man, he (or she) whose goal is freedom through truth, takes turns (depending on survival) to be the people’s king.

Back in Hogwarts, the Democratic Voice of Wizardry fights for truth, justice and the sorcerer’s way. But dear me, what a dull fight this has become. At points in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince I feared slipping into a persistent vegetative state. The now full-grown kids – Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), Ron (Rupert Grint) – sit around strategising in cloisters while the indefatigable super-troupers (Sir Michael, Dame Maggie, Goodman Coltrane, Badman Rickman) pop up for their party routines. Scenes of special-effects bravura have been rationed for the credit crisis. Scenes of hormonal romancing – the ex-child cast having reached that age – seem to go on forever. Movieland will have to regather its wit and inventiveness for the next two Potter adventures.

Bret Easton Ellis pens a mean tale, in all adjectival senses. His prose is artfully maleficent; he is a laid-back Severus Snape of the sex-and-drugs generation. You need a smarter directing hand, though, than Gregor Jordan’s – you need the brittle mischief of Mary Harron in American Psycho – to catch Ellis’s sardonic affectlessness. The Informers is the author’s dawn-of-Aids novel set among the doomed high-livers of early 1980s Los Angeles. In this world no one knows what he or she is doing, or beyond the imperative of hedonism, much cares. Pills are popped; sex is notched (on gay or straight bedposts); the cool art of prattle passes for meaningful conversation. Yet where the book was sometimes brilliant in its ironised inanity, the film is merely lacquered and starrily cast. Billy Bob Thornton, Kim Basinger, Mickey Rourke and Winona Ryder glitter away, while the tale’s tanned and teeming youngsters are nameless and interchangeable.

The contrast with Andreas Dresen’s Cloud 9 from Germany could not be greater. Beautiful people? Not here. In the surgical glare of HD video imagery, pudgy sexagenarian Inge (Ursula Werner) leaves her 70-something partner of 30 years Werner (Horst Rehberg) for a deepening fling with like-aged Karl (Horst Westphal). The sex is graphic, but so is the passion. Even those with free bus passes can know rapture. As in Fear Eats the Soul or Silent Light, We don’t know whether to look away or keep watching – and if we do keep watching, whether these wrinkly bodies and sagging protuberances make sex more touchingly and inspiringly human or more frighteningly zoological.

By the film’s end it hardly matters. Feeling has taken precedence over physicality. We are caught up in the emotional agonies of infidelity, which push everyone – betrayer and betrayed – through the spiritual mangler. Some will survive, though momentarily flattened like wet nightshirts. Others will be crushed, a reproachful memory of suffering for those who go on to recover their shape and sense of self. Marvellously acted, notably by Werner (who at times looks like Liv Ullmann after an all-night mugging), the film is a masterclass in unflinching observation. Hurry now: it shows in barely a handful of British cinemas.

The overpraised Frozen River, arriving from Sundance, has another age-weathered actress (Oscar-nominated Melissa Leo) doing the agonistes thing: this time as a wintry, penurious trailer-dweller smuggling immigrants from Canada into New York state. Her aim is to finance a new family home. Her co-smuggler is a young Indian woman with kindred dispossession problems. Early scenes have a raddled power. Later ones slip into a Chistmastide slush of contrivance and redemption.

Moon, starring Sam Rockwell as a crisis-torn lunar colonist, was directed by David Bowie’s son Duncan Jones. Psychedelic sci-fi? Glam rock goes off-world? No: wordy and overwrought like a radio play in space. And – ground control to Major Sam – less is sometimes more, even when you are playing a hero who sees himself in triplicate.

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