The murder of thirteen unarmed civil rights protesters by British soldiers at a peace march in 1972 marked the renewal of almost thirty years of civil war in Northern Ireland. Using handheld cameras and no artificial light, Paul Greengrass has made a film that looks like documentary footage, in some cases duplicating actual footage of the day, on the same spot where it happened.
It’s a provocative gesture, and demands no lapses into pathos, sentimentality, or obvious bias. Of course, bias is inevitable in a story with so much at stake, but Greengrass and his excellent cast manage to keep the film as close to the actual facts as possible.
Two glaring facts prevent Bloody Sunday from ever being a satisfying dramatic machine: no one knows who fired the first deadly shots that set off the fighting, and the marchers, despite their good intentions, were unable to control the youthful rioters who didn’t share their nonviolent philosophy, or the IRA gunmen who were waiting as anxiously and purposefully as the British military for things to go bad.
The colossal mishandling of the day’s events by the British - soldiers primed for violent action, loss of discipline and ignored orders, and a flimsy cover-up after the fact - is undeniable, however, and makes the film unusually powerful and emotional, even if the politics behind it all seem confused and tragically absurd.
Disney tries to address the often-ignored boy demographic with this futuristic, animated re-make of their classic live-action 1950 film of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story. Thanks to some nice vocal performances (by Emma Thompson, David Hyde Pierce and Martin Short, among others) and some stunning computer animation, it mostly works, mostly because the filmmakers wisely avoided grafting on any yucky romantic subplot, and concentrated instead on blaring, swooping action sequences and really nifty machines.
The Singing Detective
The world of the late Dennis Potter is an excruciating one, and never more so than in his masterpiece, the six-part miniseries The Singing Detective. Michael Gambon stars as the title character, a nightclub singer and shamus, in a colourful fantasy dreamed by Gambon as a failed mystery writer slowly dying of a gruesome skin affliction. It’s a fantastically bitter performance set in a story that positively glows with sexual unease, physical disgust, and the sort of tragic childhood peculiar to British writers, full of provincial brutality and emotional betrayal amidst postwar austerity. It’s not for everyone, but Potter’s raw, autobiographical stories are utterly unique, and can make any normal person’s anxieties seem like trifles.
The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum
You have to understand the vicious, paranoid atmosphere that dominated Germany in the 70s to really get Volker Schlondorff and Margarethe von Trotta’s drama about a naïve young woman whose life is destroyed after a one-night stand with a radical fugitive. Thankfully, Criterion includes a documentary about Heinrich Böll, the author of the novel that inspired the film, and interviews with the directors, which set the scene.
The movie’s clinical, cold settings only barely contain the growing despair of the title character, played by Angela Winkler, as her life is methodically destroyed by a sensationalist press working covertly with out-of-control police and government officials. Somewhere beneath all the blue-lit, roving camerawork beats the heart of a fervid, polemic melodrama worthy of Zola, but you have to squint hard to ignore the wide collars and mascara.
The Family Guy: Seasons 1 & 2
Futurama: Volume One
The hunger for a new "Simpsons" is the only explanation available for Seth MacFarlane’s "The Family Guy", an only occasionally funny animated series which nevertheless developed a following. The loutish dad, the commonsensical mom, and their troublesome brood are obvious enough impressions from the successful template, which MacFarlane and his writers tried to spice up with flailing stabs at topical or merely off-colour humour.
"Simpsons creator" Matt Groening tried to make lightning strike twice with "Futurama", with slightly better success, though the show’s relentlessly smirking tone and indifferent characters probably did as much harm as its constantly revolving time slots in preventing it from catching on like "The Simpsons". For Groening fans and animation nuts, its probably essential, but the bitter truth is that whiz-bang animation is no substitute for really great writing or wicked satire, as the crappy but hilarious - and still running - "South Park" ultimately proved.
Little Big Man
A Man Called Horse
Two films from the brief, anti-Western “Noble Red Man” period of the 70s, when Hollywood tried to address a counterculture demand for an antidote to John Wayne movies. In A Man Called Horse, Richard Harris plays a British lord kidnapped by Sioux Indians and forced to work as a beast of burden, who comes to respect his captors and their ways enough to join the tribe. The film features a psychedelic freak-out sequence during Harris’ “ordeal by pain” initiation ritual, and dialogue almost entirely in Indian dialect, but isn’t without strangely patronizing Hollywood touches, like Dame Judith Anderson as a tribal elder.
Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man is a bit more successful, and features Dustin Hoffman as a frontier screw-up constantly drawn back to the Cheyenne tribe who raised him, and whose world is being mercilessly reduced by frontier “heroes” like General Custer. As ambling and episodic as an 18th-century novel, Penn’s film is also wickedly funny, when it isn’t pitilessly brutal.