SIGNIS REVIEWS JULY 2011-06-13
ALL GOOD THINGS
ANGELE ET TONY
CRAZY ON THE OUTSIDE
FAITH, FRAUD + MINIMUM WAGE
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 2
LAST CIRCUS, The (LA BALADA TRISTE DE LA TROMPETA)
LOVE AND OTHER IMPOSSIBLE PURSUITS/ THE OTHER WOMAN
MR POPPER’S PENGUINS
SPECIAL TREATMENT (SANS QUEUE NI TETE)
TRANSFORMERS, DARK OF THE MOON
TREE OF LIFE
ALL GOOD THINGS
(US, 2010, d. Andrew Jarecki)
A sadly ironic title. It refers to a shop that the central couple set up, a project dear to them but which was thwarted. It remained a dream for David Marks whose story this is.
All Good Things is one of those reconstructions of an American crime which remains a mystery. They are usually made for television. However, this film was for the big screen, especially with its strong cast, which makes the proceedings more interesting.
The film opens with an older David Marks being interrogated about a murder. We merely glimpse him, but the questioning goes on throughout the film, moving the narrative along. As the introduction indicates, the film is based on actual events from the 1970s to the 2000s.
For those of us (most of us) not familiar with the characters, we really don’t know what the crime is until later in the film – and then it turns out that the interrogation is for a different crime.
David Marks is played by Ryan Gosling. He seems a pleasant if very weak-willed man who has witnessed the suicide of his mother when he was little and has never really come to terms with this experience. This is exacerbated by his dominating father, a successful businessman, very respectable until we discover his dealings and protection racket concerning the clean up of New York’s Times Square. He has very little time for his son, continually disaparaging him, and in public. Frank Langella gives a convincingly arrogant performance.
But David meets a bright young woman, Katie Mc Carthy (a vivacious Kirsten Dunst), falls in love and marries. They eventually open their shop, All Things Good. It doesn’t last as David succumbs to his father’s pressure and acts as a bagman for the protection collections. His behaviour becomes erratic, with disastrous effect for himself, for Katie and his unwillingness to have a child. The marriage cannot last. And that is where the mystery emerges.
The scene shifts to 2002. David is living incognito and in female disguise in Galveston to avoid the media as the DA re-opens his case. He becomes entangled with a tenant (Philip Baker Hall) who comes to depend on him and, to prove it, gets rid of someone who seems a threat to David, a past friend who has written a novel that is close to what happened and is now demanding money. Which leads to more violence and a strange verdict.
Because the case is still open, the film has an unsatisfactory ending for those wanting certainty. However, in its delineation of character and suggested motivations, audiences can make up their own mind.
ANGELE ET TONY
(France, 2010, d. Alix Delaporte)
What’s in a name? Immediately, as the film opens, we see in a casual sex encounter that Angele is no angel. Within minutes we see her as bluntly aggressive and botching chances for some kind of self-betterment.
Of course, that is not the sum total of Angele’s character. There is a lot more as we get to know her, not necessarily like her, as the film creates a portrait of this 27 year old mother of a nine year old boy, out of prison and reporting to her parole officer, making some attempts at settling, but wary of people.
The characters in the film are ordinary people, people like those we might know or have met. And that is a great strength of the film. We are dealing with real people, real situations, messy and confusing as they can be. The way that the film has been written and filmed – and the director, Alix Delaporte had a previous career as a journalist, so she brings an eye for character and situations to her screenplay – is in a very naturalistic style. As we are shown a village street corner, as we travel on a Normandy fishing boat, as we notice the buildings where the characters interact, the film has a ‘documentary’ realism and an eye for detail. This is very impressive.
And Tony? He is a fisherman (where threats to the industry mean protests, strikes and arrests instead of the traditional fishing festivals, decorating of the boats and putting on of plays) who works with his brother, whose father has drowned but his body has not been found and recovered, who in middle age is living with his mother to support her. His mother works in the fish market.
Will Angele click with Tony? Is she the kind of woman he could love and marry? Will his mother accept her after learning about Angele’s past? Will her little boy accept her? Will he choose to live with his grandparents? Plenty of dramatic questions for the film’s brief running time. And all made interesting.
Clotilde Hesme has to carry most of the film. She is a tall and striking-looking woman and is able to communicate both aggression and vulnerability. When she is finally able to smile, her face (and our response to her) is transformed. Gregory Gadebois is a theatre actor but makes Tony a very ordinary, unremarkable when seen in the street, middle-aged fisherman. Evelyne Didi seems every bit the old-style fishwife but also mellows and shows her vulnerability. Antoine Couteau is effective as the young son and Patick Descamps a sympathetic grandfather.
By the end of the film, which has a nice surrealistic touch, as Angele, Tony and the boy clamber over the rocks and pools on the shore, we feel we have been there and got to know these people.
(France, 2010, d. Thomas Balmes)
What the title says is what we get. And, even the most curmudgeonly codger who finds children, let alone, babies, one of the banes of life, would probably be charmed.
This is a brief documentary, strong on images, with no voiceover commentary and, indeed, very few words heard except bits in passing from some of the parents. We are invited to look, to respond emotionally, to think, and to appreciate the wonder of life that is conception, pregnancy, giving birth and loving and rearing children.
There are four families we are invited to join: in Namibia, a tribal way of life in a desert village; in Tokyo, a quite affluent, technological way of life; in Mongolia, a family community out in the countryside (with large home tents like those movie buffs will remember from The Story of the Weeping Camel and The Cave of the Yellow Dog); in San Francisco, a home with the comforts that the average middle class can take for granted.
After we are introduced, especially to the four mothers and their giving birth, sequences are intercut throughout the film, following the timeline from the birth of the children to the period after their first birthday – and a nice postscript during the final credits of how they look after the film has been edited and ready for release.
Of course, it is fascinating to watch the newly born children immediately after their birth and how they gradually come to life in the succeeding weeks; then the beginnings of movement from crawl to standing to walking; then the gurgles and sounds and words. Children are basically the same in their development the world over.
However, we are shown more than sufficient footage to appreciate the mothers and their care, again according to local customs and ways and in the context of other children. Interestingly, we see no father in Namibia but rather the mother and her bonds with the other mothers, sitting in the dust, talking and sharing, and the children playing and learning to relate. We don’t see a father to all intents and purposes in Mongolia. It is the mother and the other children who are the key personal presence for the baby. After a while, the father is seen in San Francisco, especially his playing with his daughter and the outings, but the key presence is the mother and, again, with other mothers. From the outset in Tokyo, we see both mother and father, very young, with their daughter (whom we notice at ease on chairs near computers and other machines).
Everybody will bring their own agenda to Babies and that will determine the kind of response we make, how much interest, how much empathy, how much curiosity – and how much satisfaction that this is how the human race propagates itself and continues.
(US, 2011, d. Paul Feig)
There’s a trend, very popular at the world box-office (Western countries only, I presume) to have movies from the US about weddings. Well, not exactly weddings (though we find ourselves attending one are at the end), but what happens before the wedding. And this trend favours men behaving badly. There were Wedding Crashers, and now there are buddies of The Hangover and The Hangover Part II, selling tickets like mad. Women behaving badly? There was a British film earlier with Helena Bonham Carter called Women Talking Dirty. Which could be the title of Bridesmaids where there are American women talking dirty.
But, when it comes to women behaving badly on screen in movies like Bridesmaids, they are actually much better behaved than the men – and that’s despite a bout of stomach poisoning at a Brazilian restaurant with dire consequences at a wedding gown boutique (much less crassly explicit than one would be led to believe) and the maid of honour getting everyone put off a Vegas-bound flight because of the whiskey she was given to calm her apprehensions only to let loose her hidden loutish side. Plus various conversations.
Bridesmaids is much more entertaining than The Hangover 2. There is actually far more humanity here.
Perhaps the reason is Jud Apatow (who directed The Forty Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up) who produces here. There is what can be called ‘The Jud Apatow Syndrome’. The films start wit some pretty crass behaviour and language but gradually they show more heart and, by the end, some happy, even moral, resolutions.
Kristin Wiig, who co-wrote the screenplay has the central role of Annie, whose life has taken a quickly downward spiral. We immediately see her in a casual relationship with a callow male, in an awkward situation with her flatmates wanting rent, having closed down her cake shop during the recession, and making more than a hash of advising customers in a jewellery shop (projecting her uncertainties on to them). Her mother (Jill Clayburgh in a final role) fusses – and, though not an alcoholic, sponsors people to AA. Her best friend, Lilian (Maya Rudolph) is proposed to – and wedding plans are on.
Annie is to be matron of honour but finds herself upstaged at every turn by the wealthy, vain (but ultimately lonely) Helen (Rose Byrne very effective in a non-sympathetic role). There are three other bridesmaids, including the solidly builit sister of the bridegroom Megan, (Melissa Mc Carthy), who has a lot of the funny (and crass) situations but is one of the wisest of the bridesmaids.
In fact, a lot of the film is quite funny, some of it despite ourselves. It seems to reflect a lot of the 30 something angst about love and commitment, falling in and out of relationships that are shallow, finding the miseries in life. The males are in the background, though Chris O’Dowd? as a New York cop who will be Annie’s salvation after enduring her inconsistency and inconstancy makes a sympathetic male presence.
But, in Apatow-produced films, there is a do the right thing resolution of the problems.
CRAZY ON THE OUTSIDE
(US, 2010. D. Tim Allen)
Since television’s Home Improvement and a series of movie comedies including the Santa Clause films, Tim Allen has appeared in many a comedy. As he does here, but he also directs. He also gathers a strong cast around him.
The pun of the title refers to his character, Tom Zelda, getting out of prison as the film opens. He is a little crazy but he finds life on the outside much crazier. This is the case with his sister, Viki (Sigourney Weaver enjoying herself) who has made up stories to explain Tom’s time inside: that he has been in France and has a fiancée, Simone, who is an astronaut. These are not the only stories she invents throughout the film, much of it so that their Gran will not be shocked and have a heart turn. Viki has the final funny last line of the film in response to Gran’s being told the truth at last.
Tom has been inside for DVD piracy (quite a topical theme for a film) and done time for his boss, Ray Liotta doing is usual. Should he go back or not?
Then there is his tough probation officer, Angela (Jeanne Triplehorn) who has a matchmaking son, Ethan.
It’s a bit a succession of sitcom episodes: work at the Pirate Burger franchise – along with two dopey ex cons with whom he sets up a house-painting partnership. There is also his ex-girlfriend whom Viki told him was dead, and her boyfriend (a cameo by Kelsey Grammar).
It’s pleasantly amusing in an undemanding way.
FAITH, FRAUD + MINIMUM WAGE
(Canada, 2010, d. George Mihalka)
There seems to be a popular religious fascination with possible images of Jesus or Mary appearing in the least likely of places. This was the subject of Henry Poole is Here (2009) with Luke Wilson where the face of Jesus was discerned by many on a wall. Carl Hiassen’s novel, Lucky You, treats the whole phenomenon, focussing on a weeping Madonna, with rather quizzical irony. There are frequent investigations by diocesan authorities but very few receive any authoritative backing.
In this variation on the theme, written by Josh Mac Donald adapting his own play, the whole event is based on a prank. Casey (Martha Mac Isaax) is a teenage Catholic who has lost her faith. She lives in a Nova Scotia town. Put upon by the owner of a donut fast-food outlet (Don Allison as the unctuous Uncle Bob; he is a pillar of the Church, bossing the young priest around – urging the organist to start playing when the priest flounders during his homily), she angrily throws her drink at the diner wall. She rubs it a bit – and sees that one could find Jesus’ face there. She decides to alert people to it. Crowds begin to gather. People pray. Pilgrims arrive. Lots of devotion (while the Church is comparatively empty).
Casey has got in far deeper than she could have imagined. She is upset because her sister has been in coma for several years after a car accident. Her father (Callum Keith Rennie) is still distraught and his life has fallen apart. Casey has to work menially, sell Christmas trees to try to pay the bills.
The young priest is an interesting character, seemingly modern with joke attempts in his sermon and long hair which the diner manager tells him to cut. However, he is more anchored in reality than most and realises the hoax and tries to do something about it, especially helping Casey.
The film shows us a wide range of people in the town, lights on religious, faith and prayer issues – with Casey, still not a believer, reassuring shocked townspeople that God hears prayers whether the situation is revealed as a prank.
Not intended as a profound religious film, but it is a reminder that there is sometimes a fine line between faith and superstition.
(US, 2011, d. Joe Wright)
A very strong cast brings this very grim drama to life. It is a story of espionage from Cold War times, a story of violence and deception, a story of scientific experiments for the good of society and its protection (a variation on the themes of Never Let Me Go), a story of revenge and desperation.
That might not sound a likely scenario for director, Joe Wright, although many of those themes underlay his fine version of Ian Mc Ewan’s Atonement. His first feature was Pride and Prejudice. His previous film was The Soloist with Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. The director obviously relishes the opportunity to make an action feature with thoughtful drama.
This is clear from the opening in Finland where the young Hanna is out hunting with her father. She is a deadly shot, is being taught survival techniques and complete self-reliance in a remote environment with few comforts (except some books and some fairy tales which she treasures, especially Grimm stories which will be taken up when she ends her quest in Berlin). The audience has little time to wonder who Hanna is and why she and her father are living as primitively as they do. The house is attacked by heavily armed troopers. Thus begins a cat and mouse chase as Hanna is captured, her father escapes and Hanna is submitted to tests in an underground bunker facility and laboratory.
Hanna is played with complete conviction by Saoirse Ronan who came to prominence in Atonement and featured in Death Defying Acts, The Lovely Bones and The Way Back. Only in her mid-teens, she is an actress of extraordinary presence. She has to be because for most of the film she is on the run, putting her survival skills to extraordinary lengths, traversing Morocco, Spain and into Germany to meet her father again. She is pursued by a relentlessly ruthless American spy chief and her well-trained agents, including a seemingly effete but cruel Tom Hollander.
Interesting that the producers of Hanna have called on two Australian leads for their film. The father is played by Eric Bana who has to put his survival skills to the test as well, especially a violent confrontation in the Berlin Underground. And the heartless espionage chief is played by Cate Blanchett at her most menacing and cold.
There are some relaxing moments along the way, especially as Hanna makes friends with a Moroccan apartment block owner and with a travelling family, the parents (Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng) amusing in their application of permissive parenting of their two children. In fact, the two children are crucial to the plot in bringing the pursuit to a head.
The film keeps up its rapid pace, is intriguing in its portrayal of its three central characters and the mystery of their relationship, and inserts many action sequences that match any espionage adventure.
In taking us into a murky world of agents, double agents, the complexity of truth and lies, as well as the impersonal schemes created, allegedly for national security but with sometimes devastating personal effects on the subjects, Hanna gives its audience a lot to reflect on as well,
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 2
(UK/US, 2011, d. David Yates)
Well, that’s that.
We can presume that there will be very few Harry Potter fans who will not enjoy this grand finale to a series that began on the screen in 2001. This is the eighth in a series that has followed Harry Potter and his friends, Hermione and Ron, going to Hogwarts as student magicians, a series of struggles with the powers of evil, embodied in Lord Voldemort, that has seen their growing up, a number of sad deaths, lots of magic and spells and a conclusion that takes on issues of the battle between good and evil, willingness to lay down life for others, and an ending that offers happiness and peace.
Not having succumbed to the temptation to read the novels, I rely on well-read experts to discover whether the films follow J.K. Rowling’s novels closely or not. Current advice is that this final film is very close to the novel.
Part I began with drama and threats to Harry Potter and attempts by the Order of the Phoenix to protect him from Voldemort. Then it moved into a more quiet, slowly suspenseful mode as Harry and his friends sought the horcruxes which contained part of Voldemort himself. Then the film stopped. The second part is, one might say, both active and contemplative. The action and effects are impressive. One could single out the early visit and disguises for a visit to Bellatrix’s secret vault (and a dragon flight). The battles are impressive, with the tending of the dead and wounded looking like a World War I hospital scene. Then there are the wand battles (Maggie Smith especially relishing Professor Mc Gonagle’s duel with Voldemort). And there are the villains’ explosive deaths. It was also a pleasure to see flying brooms again.
As regards the contemplation, there was a lot to think about, especially for those who have not read the books, in the flashbacks, the explanations of Harry’s origins, the role of Professor Snape, Harry’s psychic connection with Voldemort and the strategy of Dumbledore (who turns up as a considerable presence in this film, along with his previously unknown brother) with Snape as regards Harry’s ultimate fate.
Practically all the main cast are back, even if for only short scenes (Gary Oldman’s Sirius Black). Ralph Fiennes has been an excellent Voldemort, Michael Gambon a persuasive Dumbledore and Alan Rickman, a mysterious Severus Snape. No need to despair, Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid eventually turns up. The only major new character is the Ghost of Helena Ravenclaw, played by Kelly Macdonald.
The other major thing about the series is that audiences over ten years have watched Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson grow up from age ten to twenty and have accepted them – and probably could not imagine their characters any other way.
A worthy end to the series and a special word of gratitude is needed for American writer, Steve Kloves, who has written all the screenplays except for The Order of the Phoenix, and for David Yates who directed the final four films which kept the audiences wanting more until the end.
(US, 2011, d. Tom Hanks)
Light and likeable.
For the first few minutes, there was Tom Hanks been Tom Hanksish in his old cheery, cheery way, being ‘have a nice day’ upbeat in a supermarket employee. He is Larry Crowne, 20 years navy experience straight after school, later working in supermarkets. Then, with some bad news for Larry, the film changes tone for the better and turns into a romantic comedy with stars in their more poised 40s and 50s rather than in the brash 20s and 30s. The film should appeal to older audiences wanting some relief from the younger shenanigans.
Not that there aren’t shenanigans here, but they tend to be nice shenanigans. The screenplay was written by Tom Hanks and Nia Vardalos (who was responsible for My Big Fat Greek Wedding). Hanks also directs.
When Larry decides to go to college, he is advised to take Economics 1 – with George Takei doing an amusing turn as a self-important lecturer. He also takes up a course on Public Speaking. And who should be teaching that course but Julia Roberts! Julia Roberts reminds us of how telling a screen presence she can be. Here is a bit of a spoiler: by the end of the film she has laughed raucously as we usually expect her to laugh. However, for most of the film, she is grim-faced, frustrated by life, alienated from her husband, grimacing at the students and their attempts at impromptus and debates. She is entertainingly serious with the grim.
But Larry gets mixed up with a young student after he sells his possessions and buys a motor bike. She is a bikie with a Latino boyfriend who runs a gang. They cruise the streets but are more interested in antiques and garage sales, especially that of Larry’s neighbour, played by Cedric the Entertainer. She arranges Larry’s makeover, haircut, clothes, tidy house.
So, not the most profound of movies, but Tom Hanks can play an ordinary ‘Everyman’ convincingly and audiences may identify with his troubles and his way of overcoming them. And he and Julia Roberts (who appeared together in Charlie Wilson’s War) work well together. And the end? Of course, you’ve guessed it, but you may enjoy the long way round to that final kiss.
THE LAST CIRCUS (LA BALADA TRISTE DELLA TROMPETE)
(Spain, 2010, d. Alex de la Iglesia)
The films of Alex de la Iglesia are an acquired taste. He had the graphic novel mentality before it became fashionable (Day of the Beast and the rather ugly Perdita Durango).
Ugly is one of the words that springs to mind while watching this film. De la Iglesia and many reviewers have opted for the word ‘grotesque’. And, if you are not up to ugly and grotesque, it’s best to give The Last Circus (or its more evocative Spanish title which translates, The Sad Trumpet Ballad), a miss.
The immediate grotesque images are those of the clowns in a circus, 1937. They cavort about and the children in the audience roar with laughter. The military suddenly interrupts the performance. Civil War has broken out and the clowns are commandeered. The principal clown has a son who is not so prone to laughing. The father makes a bequest of a career to his son before he goes into battle.
The time shifts to 1973. General Franco is still in control of Spain. De la Iglesia is offering some kind of fable or allegory about the Spain of the Franco era. And it is not a nice picture.
The son, Javier, is now grown up. He attempts to be the sad clown in the circus, is a threat to Sergio, the happy clown. Javier is also attracted to the tightrope artist, Natalia, who is with Sergio. It is the clash between the two men and the consequences which are the focus for the latter half of the film. There are brutal fights and disfigurements. Javier, grown fat, has a religious apparition, dons odd clothes, including a mitre and goes on a violent rampage, also pursuing Natalia. Sergio, despite his injuries, continues with the circus, though the managers and some of the entertainers, including a midget who is fired from a canon, are continually worried.
The final confrontation takes place on a giant cross above the town, a fight to the death, or to the deaths.
The style of photography highlights the ugliness, the grotesque and the garish world of the circus and of Spain itself. De la Iglesia makes idiosyncratic films that can satisfyingly disturb orquickly alienate his audiences.
LOVE AND OTHER IMPOSSIBLE PURSUITS/ THE OTHER WOMAN
(US, 2010, d. Don Roos)
This is an American drama with some edge. Written and directed by Don Roos (who made smaller budget dramas like The Opposite of Sex), it is a film about parenting, step-parenting, divorce and re-marriage and difficulties in forgiving family members who have been the cause of hurt. At the core is the sadness of infant death. The ‘other impossible pursuits’ of the title is ambiguous and not what we might have let ourselves be led to expect.
The central character, Emilia, is played by Natalie Portman who has developed from a striking child debut in Leon, through adolescence, to prove that she is a respected actress (and director) winning the Oscar soon after this film as the doomed ballerina in Black Swan. Here, she is a bright young woman who has married Jack (Scott Cohen) after his divorce from an icily demanding surgeon, Carolyn, played by Lisa Kudrow who shows she can do far more than her ditzy comedy for so many years in Friends. The further complication is Jack and Carolyn’s rather precocious young son, Will, who resembles his forthright mother.
After initial images of birth and the dawning realisation that the baby has died, we see a confrontation between Will and Emilia – he suggesting they sell the baby’s unwanted pram and other goods on e-bay. He has no realisation of the effect on Emilia. Despite this, the two begin to become friends, Emilia showing him a quite different affection from that of his mother.
But, Emilia’s blunt accosting of people (Jack points out she does this to those she loves most) puts a strain on the marriage, not helped by Carolyn’s acerbic confrontations. After an emotional ceremony in remembrance of babies who have died, especially, from SIDS, Emilia attacks her father in public for his treatment of her mother. She then tells Jack more details of the baby’s dying and her own feelings of responsibility and guilt.
While things can work out, especially with honesty and the difficulties of talking problems through, it is not easy – but is helped by Carolyn’s actually doing something kind for Emilia.
A lot of parents may identify
(France, 2010, d. Rene Feret)
In a fine Sherlock Holmes’ film, The Sign of Four, Holmes did an analysis of Watson’s alcoholic brother’s scarred watch and when Watson protested that Holmes had cheated and knew the identity, Holmes replied with calm apology and regret, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t know you had a brother’. Which came to memory while watching this film about the Mozart family and Wolfgang - ‘I didn’t even know you had a sister’. With this film, now we do.
Writer-director Rene Feret delved into the Mozart family archive and discovered letters written by the father, Leopold. The film opens with a voiceover of one of these as we watch the events he is recounting. Mozart is about ten and his father (surely one of the most avid showbiz parents of all time, though showbiz doesn’t sound particularly 18th century) and mother are on a tour of Europe to display the child prodigy, his compositions, his harpsichord and violin playing. They even spend some time at the court of Louis XV in Versailles, where some of the film was actually shot. Oh, and there is also the older sister, Maria Anna, called Nannerl.
So, Wolfgang, precocious as he is, and whom we see playing, becomes a supporting character. This is a film not only about Nannerl, but a film of deep regret that she has been forgotten, and a lament at the restrictions placed on women in the 18th century, especially a player, singer and composer like Nannerl. Her father did not believe that the violin was an instrument for women, nor that women should compose – and expresses himself quite heartlessly to his daughter while he thinks he is caring for her.
Did all this happen this way? Maybe, maybe not. Feret has drawn on fact and embellished it with imagination.
Music lovers and devotees of classical costume drama will relish this film. 18th century France lends itself to decorous costumes, to abbeys and chateaux. There is a lot of 18th century detail, even to the discovery of a toilet! The lighting is particularly striking, much of it re-creating the light at night in the obscure interiors, candlelight and shadows rather than brilliant spectacle. The spectacle is left for daylight.
Nannerl is fourteen as the film opens. She is enjoying the tour and her brother’s reputation and promotion. But, she is often frustrated in her attempts to be musically creative, except for the singing she is allowed to perform. When their carriage has a breakdown (perhaps too recent a word to describe what happens when the axle breaks), they stay in an abbey and discover several of Louis XV’s daughters have been relegated there. One of them, Louise, becomes a firm friend of Nannerl’s. Two of Feret’s daughters perform the rolesof Nannerl and Loiuse. The film skilfully shows us the loneliness of the girls, their loss of family, and how one of them would become a nun.
Then, at the court, while we see the prodigy amaze the music masters, Nannerl delivers a letter from Louise to a musician – though she has to disguise herself to enter the Dauphin’s rooms to do it. She becomes friendly with the Dauphin who disapproves of his father’s dissolute behaviour and forms a friendship with Nannerl.
But, according to the film, Nannerl is doomed to disappointment. The film ends and offers us more information, sad information, that she eventually did marry, looked after her father and collected the works of her brother, dying poor as an old woman.
Arthouse themes, an emphasis on visual and aural beauty, a trip to the 18th century – but, finally, a lament for ill-fated Nannerl, the ill-fate being that she was born female and not even considered capable and creative.
MR POPPER’S PENGUINS
(US, 2011, d. Mark Waters)
Those Ps in the title are important. Tom Popper’s assistant, Pippi (played by British actress, Ophelia Lovibond which sounds like a fictional name but is real), has a profound predilection for positing, placing and pronouncing P words. You find yourself waiting for her to say her lines, wondering how she will bring so many Ps into them – she does. But, that is not where the main focus lies. That is with the Popper penguins.
Mr Popper is played by Jim Carrey in something of a return to the Carrey of the 1990s, shades of Ace Ventura, but a little mellowed by time and experience. We first see Tom Popper as a young boy, admiring his adventurer father who makes radio contact from (very) far-flung destinations and sends a souvenir from them all. Tom seems a very nice boy, sad at his father’s absences. One didn’t expect him to grow into the adult Tom Popper whose skill is in snake oil conning people into selling their building assets. We see him doing this to Jeffrey Tambor with the sound effects assistance of Pippi. He expects to become a partner in a big firm but they first want him to buy the famous Garden on the Green restaurant in Central Park. Where are the penguins!
They turn up soon. You might have guessed that Dad sent them as a final souvenir from Antarctica.
Penguins these days seem to be number one favourite at the box-office: March of the Penguins, Surf’s Up, the cunning penguin pilots of the Madagascar comedies and Happy Feet, with Happy Feet 2 to come. Popper’s are very likeable penguins. They even get names, Captain, Lovey, Bitey (he does), Stinkey (causing childish merriment when he emits his stinkiness) and Nimrod who has seen too many Jim Carrey movies and is prone to excessive mugging as he bumps into things and overbalances. Some are real, others animatronic and it seems impossible to decide who is which.
Tom is separated from his wife of fifteen years, Carla Gugini. Of course, the penguins are going to be reconcilers, especially as Tom’s son and daughter love them. But that comes after some mayhem in Tom’s fashionable apartment, their intruding on a social event at the Guggenheim, their being abducted for exchange by a New York Zookeeper and an escape from the zoo.
Mr Popper’s Penguins may work quite well as a film for the family, something for everyone. And the added presence of Angela Lansbury at 85 playing the owner of the Garden on the Green with touches of the crochetty and the fairy godmother is a pleasure.
(Australia, 2011, d. Kriv Stenders)
There are two trailers for Red Dog, one a conventional trailer that indicates plot and characters and action, the other purports to be an audition of the dog by the director, with the dog being asked to do all kinds of faces and expressions for the film. The latter is definitely the one to watch before seeing Red Dog. You could feel the atmosphere all around the cinema as the audience warmed to seeing the dog (and their dog) on screen acting so cutely!
Actually, in the film, Red Dog is pretty endearing as well, even to non dog lovers.
This story has its origins in episodes in Western Australia in the 1970s. It was taken up by British novelist, Louis de Bernieres (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) and became a best-seller.
A young truckie in the West comes upon an old dog on the highway. He brings it to the next pub where a vet tries to help it. The locals all turn up and what happens is they all reminisce, something like a wake for Red Dog, and the story is told in flashbacks as each of the characters puts in their two bob’s worth. This means that we build up the picture of the stray dog that was collected by the pub-owner and his wife, was taken up by the workers in the mines and on the waterfront and who settled down with an itinerant American with whom Red Dog bonded.
Red Dog was not a shaggy dog, but many of the reminiscences are certainly shaggy dog stories, no less entertaining for that. It also fulfils the adage that a dog is our best friend, man and woman.
The stories are funny but they are also sad, and the latter part of the film shows Red Dog and his fidelity to his master no matter what the cost.
Some young Australian actors as well as some veterans make up the cast from Rachael Taylor and Luke Ford to Bill Hunter, Noah Taylor and Loene Carmen. Keisha Castle Hughes is in it. And Josh Lucas is genial as the travelling American.
The photography brings the region to life (though much of it was filmed in South Australia) as well as the period. It is a folklore story – with the statue of the dog (1971-1979) at Dampier to enhance it.
SPECIAL TREATMENT (SANS QUEUE NI TETE)
(France/Belgium, 2010, d. Jeanne Labrune)
The idea is probably more successful than the execution in Special Treatment (with its original title indicating, cock and bull). Not that it is not an interesting film with some fine performances, but it is more than bit schematic in its structure and the characters are often more enigmatic than real.
That said, the film’s main thesis (and it is a thesis) is that there may not be much difference between the prostitute and the psychotherapist in their dealings with their clients, working with their minds, the subconscious and conscious, taking money for services which allegedly are improving the client. We see something of both, though the film is suggestive of eroticism rather than erotic and suggestive of therapy rather than offering psychological insights.
We are introduced to Alice, making salacious puns in an antiques shop and taunting the owner. We discover that she is a prostitute with her own apartments and discreet contact with clients, some of whom she likes, others not, and adapts her interactions with them to their own fantasies. The poster has her dressed like a schoolgirl, which she does for one of the men.
We are introduced to Xavier, a rather pompous psychiatrist, who bores peoples at parties, talks shop, to the aggravation of his wife who is falling out of love with him. We see him at work, sitting behind his patient (clients of both professions lie down in their sessions), communicating boredom to the audience, with not even an ‘mmm’ to the patient’s stream of consciousness. He is probably thinking of some artwork he can now afford – as does Alice who likes beautiful objects in her flat.
There are several other characters, prostitute friend, clients, other psychiatrists. Since Alice is beginning to self-question, she approaches a mutual friend of herself and Xavier and seeks out the possibility for some therapy. Not everyone wants to take her on. Particularly interesting (and the film comes more alive) is an encounter with a doctor who works at a hospital for the mentally disabled, a good man with his patients. She has an outburst against him, alleging that he is refusing her because of her profession. However, he and some of his patients, serve as a catalyst for calming her down. In the meantime, Xavier has calmed down and reunion with his wife seems more than a possibility.
Bouli Lanners is convincing as the therapist in need of therapy. But, any film with Isabelle Huppert is dominated by her. The same here. She has made many, many films since the mid-1970s but is still one of the world’s most telling actresses. She must be as the film ends with a long close-up of her face – enigmatic and challenging.
(US, 2011, d. J.J. Abrams)
Those who were taking home movies before 1980 will recognise the cameras, with film stock, of those days. Probably, the intended audience of this film will not realise at first what the reference is. With video cameras coming in soon after, with young people filming now with I Phones and instant communication through social networks, they might also wonder about the walkie-talkies the youngsters communicated with then. They look like far more fun. The walkman might be more familiar.
This film is set in 1979 – and all the more entertaining for it, a touch of nostalgia for those not as young as they used to be – the Star Wars generation, although there is one lack of credibility in the film – the kids give no indication that they have ever heard of let alone seen Spielberg’s Close Encounters, even though have to live through a variation on this theme. Speaking of Spielberg, he is an executive producer and it is his kind of film. Had the screenplay been around in 1979, he would surely have made it instead of the rather unfunny 1941 – but he caught up in 1982 with ET. There are plenty of nods to ET in Super 8, even in the Amblin Films logo with the boy on his bike. Plenty of bike riding in this one.
J.J. Abrams was 13 when this film is set, so a nostalgia trip for him even though he one of the present whiz kids (comparatively speaking) with Lost, Mission Impossible 3 and Star Trek. The era obviously meant a lot to him.
We are in an Ohio industrial town near air force bases. There has been an accident at the factory and Joe (Joel Courtney in his first screen role proving a likeable hero) is mourning his mother. His best friend, Charles (Riley Griffiths) has Spielbergian ambitions and a super 8 camera and is making a zombie movie with his friends and with Alice (Elle Fanning getting better as she grows up). As they film at midnight at a station, a truck drives on to the rails and crashes into a train. Abrams’ instructions to the special effects crew must have been ‘give me the most spectacular wreck you can manage – and more’. And they did. It’s quite a crash.
Then things get more mysterious. The army intervenes. Things begin to go wrong in the town with power outages, dogs disappearing... But, the zombie film must go on. What complicates matters is that the kids found the driver of the truck on the rails, one of their teachers, who warns them to keep quiet or else danger for them and their parents. Joe’s father is the deputy for the town and discovers some clues about what the army is up to. Alice’s father has a bad reputation and was the occasion (not the cause) of the death of Joe’s mother. Fathers clash, forbid their children to see each other – but, ultimately, have to join forces to find their children.
Gradually, they and we learn more about the alien creature and what has happened. (Those who saw the comedy Paul will find this plot a bit familiar; those who saw District 9 will know that humans do not always warm to aliens.)
J.J. Abrams also knows his genres and their conventions and is able to combine a kids’ peer film (Stand By Me and The Goonies were still to come in the 1980s) with touches of horror (and a couple of jump out of your chair shocks) and with family values – but in an alien on earth setting.
Super 8 could well be round for a long time entertaining both young and old.
TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON
(US, 2011, d. Michael Bay)
Almost universally panned by reviewers. Almost universally liked by its audiences. This third in the series made over $200,000, 000 in the US in about ten days and twice that in box office takings around the world in the same time. As they say, a popular cultural phenomenon. And, as the reviewers say, there’s no accounting for tastes.
My previous experiences of Transformer movies was thunderously loud sound. For this third one, the projectionist kept it at tolerable. A great advantage.
Another advantage by this time, with a little help from a voiceover at the beginning, is that one has learned who the Autobots are and who are the Deceptikons and what they are doing on earth and how they relate to humans. You don’t have to be a genius, only a fan of The Transformer movies (that sounds a bit mean as I look at it!), to know that the Deceptikons are up to no good. This time they don’t want merely to take over the earth and make us humans their slaves, they want to bring their planet Cybertron down here. And, after decimating Chicago, they almost succeed. (After so many destructions of New York and, especially LA, even recently in 2012 and Battle for LA, there is a certain satisfaction in seeing Chicago the victim of spectacular special devastation effects.)
But, of course, the Deceptikons, especially Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving) have underestimated Sam Witwicky (Shia La Boeuf) who outwitted him before. Sam is out of a job, out of a girlfriend (since Megan Fox did not have her contract renewed), pestered by his parents, and jealous of his new girlfriend’s boss. She is played by British model Rosie Huntington –Whitely who is certainly going to win on the catwalk but is in real danger of a Razzie nomination for her lack of performance. But, she gets plenty of close-ups and is in on all the final action.
The mechanically-oriented are going to be satisfied with the transformations. The action-oriented have nothing to worry about. Plenty there. The special-effects-oriented are going to be satisfied. The screenplay-as-something-one-puts-one’s-mind-to-oriented will simply give up.
Michael Bay, prone to the very big, the very loud and the very smashing in his films, and whose scrapbook of favourable reviews is still very tiny, ensures that the legion of Transformer fans will not be disappointed.
One of the interesting things at the beginning of the film is the build up during the Kennedy era of the race to the moon and then the actual Apollo 11 flight. But, even more interesting for conspiracy theory addicts, is that the flight was not simply to get there and be there but that Buzz Aldrin (who appears as himself seeming to verify what ‘really’ happened, a nice coup) and Neil Armstrong, after the famous, ‘One small step...’ actually had to spend twenty minutes examining the giant Autobot spacecraft that had landed on the moon some time earlier and which NASA wanted to investigate. Capricorn One, years ago, posited the conspiracy that the moon landing was fabricated in a studio. The forthcoming Apollo 18 is going to posit some paranormal activity. The moon landing is a ripe field for conspiracy.
The cast goes a bit more up-market this time. John Turturro is back as is Josh Duhamel. But, here we have John Malkovich and Frances Mc Dormand with substantial roles, Leonard Nimoy as the voice of the treacherous Seintinel Prime and Patrick Dempsey as a smooth villain.
It has already made millions, so who needs a review!
THE TREE OF LIFE
(US, 2011, d. Terrence Malick)
Whether one likes The Tree of Life or not – and right from Cannes 2011 where critics split into both camps but the International Jury awarded it the Palme D’ Or – one has to admit that the film is ambitious in content and scope.
Those in favour see it as creative in ideas and cinema storytelling. Those not in favour prefer to see it as pretentious. But, one person’s pretentions are another’s earnestness.
With Kubrick’s 1968 2001: a Space Odyssey, which many quote in comparison with The Tree of Life, I found it immediately overwhelming. I didn’t find The Tree of Life overwhelming, but there was a great deal to respond to and to reflect on.
Terence Malick has not made many feature films. In the twenty years between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, 1978-1998, he made no films. Since then he has made The New World and The Tree of Life. Malick values the visual and is at pains to make every sequence perfect. He does not hurry over his films. This time has both poetic realism in his narrative about an average American family and special effects in his cosmological and biological portrait of the evolving world as well as a visit to a surprising land of life after death.
The film opens with a quotation from the Book of Job, chapter 38. The Job allusions would repay study. They are a challenge to humans in the face of the reality of God, creation and the sustaining of the universe. Who are we really? How do we compare with God? I wonder did Malick go to Job: 42 1-5. It contains the answer to Malick’s initial quotation. It is a profoundly humble acknowledgement of human empty-headed words in the face of the mystery of God. Job must be silent in the face of God’s grandeur and majesty.
Malick then follows this with comments on nature and grace. He states that nature can be competitive and destructive whereas grace offers a spirituality of humility, honesty and integrity and respect and regard for others. This is important for his portrait of the family.
As regards the universe, there is much to admire in his visualising of what looks like an interpretation of the Big Bang or a creative Theophany. The dinosaurs make an impression. The changing earth looks cosmically arresting.
Malick does not quite begin with the cosmology. It comes after our introduction to a family, the O’ Briens in the 1950s and so there is a jolt as we are taken back into prehistory. Once Malick establishes that our world has evolved and here we are.
The first episode in the life of the family is the news of the death of a son n war, the delivery of the sad telegram to the mother and the grief of the father. In a way, or in many ways, the story of the family is particularly ordinary. There is a value in our seeing the average family. There is a disadvantage insofar as this is not so engagingly dramatic.
The mother (Jessica Chastain) is a fine and beautiful woman, devoted to her husband until she has to face the challenge of his changing and his frustrations and the sometimes erratic treatment of his three sons. She seems the personification of Malick’s grace. The father is basically a good man who can face the reality of his failings and can apologise. He also lives through life’s ups and downs, his family growing up, his work achievements, humiliation in unemployment. This is an interesting role for Brad Pitt as he nears fifty, not a glamorous or celebrity role but rather an embodiment of the American male who is a personification of nature with moments of grace.
Actually, the real focus of the film is the oldest son. He is played with quite some intense hostility by first-timer, Hunter Mc Cracken.
Whatever it is in Mc Cracken’s face and eyes, I became mesmerised by him and his struggles with his love for and dislike of his father. Brad Pitt is very good in portraying the father who is torn by his strong-willed discipline which cowers his son and his deep-seated but too often unexpressed love. We see a lot of Jack and even viscerally share his tormented transition from young boy to teenager. Many of these scenes are with his brothers, the younger the one who is to die, the littlest just hanging in there.
As has been noted, this is not a particularly interesting family in itself or in what it does, but it can be seen as a typical, even archetypal average American family.
Since Malick does not seem to need narrative order, accuracy or coherence, we move in and out of flashforwards, to Jack as a middle-aged adult, working in skyscraper offices, puzzled by life and in a context which seems loomingly apocalyptic. So, this is how Jack turned out. And he is portrayed by a time-ravaged Sean Penn.
Since Malick has shown us his interpretation of the past, the recent past and the present, he then ventures into the future.
His afterlife is symbolic (we hope), people wandering an empty landscape, bypassing each other, but many connecting. It is hard to portray an afterlife on screen. Film-makers often opt for what seems a purgatorial state or experience, a prelude to what we might hope is heaven. The afterlife here is akin to ‘The In-Between’? of Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones. But, father and mother and the children arrive, wander, but are reunited with the adult Jack. It would seem that our lives and our after-lives are times of grace.
The Tree of Life (and there is a symbolic tree at the family home) is a religious film in the broadest sense. It would be interesting to hear an atheist’s interpretation, probably dismissal of these spiritual dimensions except in so far as they are the aspirations of most humans whether they are fulfilled or not. For the believer in the broadest sense (which includes the agnostic who does not disbelieve but claims that we cannot know God), there are many of what Peter Berger called ‘signals of transcendence’. Malick avoids much explicit connection to religion, but he is showing us a basically Christian culture, with reference to Job and the language of grace.
Christians can well appreciate his attempt to portray this religious perspective. After all St Thomas Aquinas, following the arguments of Aristotle, for a basic mover, cause and imaginer of the universe, acknowledges that people express this belief in their own ways. But he adds, for the Christian, this source of all being, we call ‘God’.
(UK, 2011, d. Michael Winterbottom)
A friend, given to rhetorical declamation, used to say, instead of simply, ‘Why?’, ‘To what purpose?’. This came to mind during the screening of The Trip. The impression the film gave was that, above and beyond the newspaper, The Observer, asking Steve Coogan to travel for a week around northern England and sample some B and Bs and the cooking, there was some deeper purpose. Was it any more than Coogan and actor, Rob Bryden (who had worked together in Michael Winterbottom’s clever film about the possibility of making a movie of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy – it had the title A Cock and Bull Story) improvising repartee that gave rise to some audience reflection, of providing some edgy as well as friendly interaction between two characters with some reference to their life, relationships and success in their careers? Or was that enough?
It will depend on how interesting you find the Coogan and the Bryden characters (while wondering how much is real and how much ‘fictitious’). It is easy to like Bryden. It is not so easy to like Coogan. Bryden is married with a young child and they miss him while he is away, very happy to have him back. Coogan’s current girlfriend is having a hiatus from the relationship and is in the US, though he does some improvising as well with two young women he encounters on the trip. While he visits his sympathetic parents, he goes back, alone, to his London flat. Which means there are some moral speculations and judgments made during the six days away.
This shouldn’t be a problem but they travel during winter and, I presume, others as well as myself were relieved when the sun finally came out and shone for a while on Friday – their first day away was Monday.
Both actors are skilled at improvising conversations, and The Trip was originally a six part series of 30 minutes each for British television. This compilation is skilfully edited, though this always raises curiosity about what was omitted. The two go through a range of moods, especially Coogan who seems to want some touches of the celebrity in accommodation and meals. Just a thought, but maybe some audiences will simply enjoy all the meals and their preparation.
There is a funny repartee about the phrase in war and historical films, ‘we rise at dawn’. The pair offer a range of variations that could be used,’ we leave at ten-thirtyish’... When Coogan talks too much about the geography of a landmark, he is confronted by a man with a neverending geological spiel.
One of the more enjoyable features of their journey, which covers quite a lot of ground and different buildings, rooms and dining places, is their capacity for impressions. They both do very good Michael Caines. Bryden is good at Hugh Grant, less so with Dustin Hoffman. And there are plenty of James Bond and Blofelds from them both.
So, at the end of The Trip? Something of a visual and verbal soufflé with hints of something more substantial.