This year's Oscar winner in the Best Documentary category, Errol Morris's The Fog of War (PG) is shocking, funny, gripping, weighty, deeply researched, and cleverly assembled. It also leaves the viewer with the uneasy feeling that they've heard only half of the story. The film is built around an interview with Robert McNamara, the infamous "architect of Vietnam". Just five weeks into his term as president of the Ford Motor Company, he was selected as America's Secretary of Defence, and served under John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson during the Cuban Missile crisis and the Vietnam conflict. Ever since, as the magazine cuttings that flash by inform us, he's been perceived as an unswayable robot who calculated military policy mathematically, without entering human beings into his equations.
That's not how he comes across in The Fog of War. Morris's use of archive newsreel and symbolic footage is of a typically high standard, but the film's power derives from McNamara himself, a formidable orator even at the age of 85. Clear-minded, clear-voiced and clear-eyed, he looks directly at the camera, jabbing his finger at us as he wraps his life story ("I lived the Cold War!") in a surprising amount of ethical enquiry. He stresses the importance of empathising with the enemy, he questions unilateral action, and he condemns some of the US's more aggressive operations - operations to which he was central.
It's utterly fascinating, but I'm still not sure what to make of McNamara - or the documentary. Structured as a series of lessons he learnt the hard way, it presents him as an honest broker who did his considerable best at every juncture - a civil servant who was only following orders. But is Morris asking us to take McNamara at his word? Why should we trust him? And why doesn't he express any regret in emotional, rather than intellectual, language? The fog still hasn't lifted.
Gothika (15) is a B-movie that's bagged itself an A-list leading lady. Halle Berry stars as Miranda Grey, a "brilliant" doctor who works in a women's psychiatric prison. She's logical and scientific - attributes which count against her in Hollywood - so she's fated to wake up one morning as an inmate in her own asylum, to be accused of a brutal murder she doesn't remember, and to be haunted by a ghost she doesn't recognise.
It's not much cop. The dialogue is almost literally unspeakable. The plot, most of which is lifted from The Ring and The Sixth Sense, has more holes in it than the murder victim. And I'm not keen on the film's proposition that doctors would be wiser and more humane people if they'd only believe those patients who claimed to be possessed by angry ghosts. Still, with a less celebrated cast, Gothika would stand up as a reasonably spooky scrap of trash that might be worth a punt if Dawn of the Dead were sold out. As it is, you expect more from a film that stars the Oscar-winning Berry and the Oscar-nominated Robert Downey Jr. Mind you, his lazy, smirking performance indicates that he, like Dr Grey, is trapped in the movie without knowing how he got there.
Gothika isn't as scary as The Cat in the Hat (PG), a live-action feature film that's been spun out of a Dr Seuss book not much longer than this column. The title role is taken by Mike Myers, who seems to have based his characterisation on a drag queen in a New York cabaret bar. Queasily misjudged as Myers's showboating is, however, a broader problem stems from the movie's director, Bo Welch. Up until now he's worked as a production designer, most notably on three Tim Burton films, and the Burtonesque look of The Cat in the Hat revisits that of Edward Scissorhands: it's set in a plastic 1950s city of identical, brightly pastelled, toytown houses. As well as increasing the film's general creepiness, Welch's stylising also makes it inappropriately sterile and synthetic. In Dr Seuss's book, a giant, talking feline brings anarchy to an ordinary family home, but in the film the house is already wackily artificial, and the Cat just adds another coating of artificial wackiness. When the walls are splattered with cupcake mix, each splat seems painted on with painstaking precision.
A better bet for the Easter holidays would be Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (PG), in which the groovy sleuths are menaced by several of the faux-ghosts they unmasked in the cartoon series. Could this be the revenge of an erstwhile foe who would have got away with it, too, if it hadn't been for those meddling kids? Short on laughs as it is, Scooby 2 has the requisite thrills and chills, and it's far closer to the spirit of the TV show than the first film was in 2002. I just wish it hadn't poured on quite so much moralising. None of the characters escapes without learning how important it is to be yourself - and that includes the CGI dog.
All Tomorrow's Parties (nc) is a Chinese thriller set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia ruled by a Taliban-like cult. I must admit, though, that I got most of that from the press release, the film itself being so incomprehensible that it could be an abstract video installation shot in an industrial wasteland by an experimental theatre group. I can tell you that it's stupefyingly slow and grey, and that it's the least fun film ever to have the word "parties" in its title, but beyond that I was baffled.Reuse content