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Paranoia is the price of piety. Fanatics see mischief and insult everywhere, much as the repressed see licentiousness. Iranians have got into such a tizz over 300 that we, the democratic and decadent west, can only respond in the manner of a Michael Winner TV commercial. “Calm down dear, it’s only a movie.”
Iran feels that to represent its Persian ancestors – those who fought at Thermopylae – as a bunch of monsters and mutants led by a gay-as-pink-ink Xerxes is unfair. To which one might point out: this huge, implacable, Greece-storming army was held off by a mere 300 Spartans. Isn’t it better to suppose these particular ancestors were geeks or ninnies? That they were untypical of the noble pedigree from which modern Iranians descend?
But politics cannot be kept out of anything. Crackpots will cavil, pests will protest, and a stirring classical-history romp directed by Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, the remake), and based on a Frank Sin City Miller graphic novella, will be treated as “The Satanic Verses Part 2”. It is really “The Hollywood Digi-revolution Part Umpteen”, with an unprecedented persuasiveness in the way it kicks photo-realism into new shapes, colours and animation-like digitised movements.
Leonidas, King of Sparta, is played as a super-expressive side of beef by Gerard Butler, sporting enhanced pecs and biceps, glowering with camp authority and looking as if he could hold a thousands-strong invasion at bay with a pocket army. The battle scenes are a pictorial delirium: a mixture of grand gestures and livid grace-notes (a tree hung with bodies like a Chapman Brothers exhibit).
The Persians advance on battle-floats like a carnival of the deranged. They unleash here a giant, there an armoured rhino or elephant. Xerxes is a dandy, dangling with body décor even as he dandles his Greek prey in his be-ringed hands, knowing that,
eventually, the day will be his.
Any present-day nation that had a sense of humour would see this Xerxes as a rather dazzling ancestor. Never mind accuracy – who says the film’s Leonidas is “accurate”? Just feel the width of wit, cheek, and iconographic renewal. 300 is the kind of movie that gives Hollywood a good populist name. Pshaw to history and political correctness. Mint the new myth. Unleash the imagination.
Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha is that rarity, a romantic comedy about the comedy of romance. Most romcoms treat love as an unchanging verity. It is the pratfalls accompanying our pursuit of it (or its pursuit of us) that are funny.
But Bujalski – a new name on the lips of American talent-spotters – thinks love itself is the antic monkey. It molests those who don’t want its attention, it scampers away from those who do. Poor young Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer), a pretty postgraduate with a lonely heart, pines for fey and fickle Alex (Christian Rudder), while diffident yuppie Mitchell (played by Bujalski) vainly yearns across the office space at temping, tempting Marnie.
Bujalski’s dialogue defines his world. People talk in a lifelike welter of stammers, bubble phrases and displacement idioms: ”I mean,” ”I don’t know . . . ” The poetry of inarticulacy becomes a street version of Jamesian periphrasis, even though Bujalski’s people are middle-class and half the fun of Funny Ha Ha is in recognising that education educates no one, and never has, in the science of the heart.
Is it a coincidence that the word “sentence” means both a unit of speech and a spell in the slammer? The youngsters in I Want Candy stumble into self-damnation every time they open their mouths. Joe (Tom Riley) and John (Tom Burke) are students at Britain’s Leatherhead University who want to make a movie. Ignoring the short-film assignment set by their prattish teacher (Mackenzie Crook, very funny), they set their sights on a feature, although lowering those sights a little when logistics and bankability force them into making a porn film.
Shooting on the QT in Joe’s family home, they can only film when Mum and Dad, kept ignorant of the project, are out at work. The result is a Feydeau Britcom done with two left feet. The script limps a bit, the contrivances multiply. (Would a famous porn actress really sign on for a first-timer’s bog-standard sex film?) But we are left with a few giggles, some endearing performances and a sense of wonder – with both the film and film-within-film – that charm and persistence can do in the UK what talent has to do everywhere else.
Who abolished slavery in Great Britain? Was it William Wilberforce? Was it the ineluctable momentum of social change? Or was it the massed power of African indignation, acting like steam in a kettle?
Amazing Grace is an old-fashioned hagiopic, so it must be number one. William Wilberforce MP (Ioan Gruffudd) did it all himself, in the Houses of Parliament, with a golden glow of righteousness. It sounds like a Cluedo solution, and Michael Apted’s film from Steven Dirty Pretty Things Knight’s script is a bit like a Cluedo game. A starry group of players – Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell – move round the board, taking turns to bray declaratively and declare “game over” for man’s exploitation of man.
Wilberforce is all but canonised. And everyone is shiny-eyed with self-congratulation in the climactic scene in the House of Commons, a place where we accept – for the sake of international box office – that lords and commoners can freely mingle, and where wild clapping is allowed instead of that quaint waving of order papers.
Apartheid gets its quietus in Catch the Fire. We have attended its death before (Cry Freedom, A World Apart). The story is always the same: freedom agonises, freedom rises up, freedom wins. Here we get the truth-based tale of Patrick Chabusso (Derek Luke), a black worker jailed and interrogated for an act of sabotage he didn’t commit. Injustice politicises him. He joins the ANC and is trained to enact the deed that imprisoned him.
Although stalwartly directed by Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger), the film keeps turning into another pamphlet about the triumph of the spirit. The hero is given a few token anti-hero touches (an extramarital affair). The baddie – Tim Robbins’s fictive police chief – is given some risible humanisation, strumming folk-tunes on a guitar at a family picnic. But the force of sanctity is inexorable. We end with the swelling music, the Mandela stock footage, and the feeling that we should all be getting to our feet, or to our knees, whichever is the correct response to another crescendo of wraparound screen righteousness.