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Film Reviews 2008

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SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS: JANUARY- FEBRUARY 2008


27 DRESSES
ALIEN VS PREDATOR:REQUIEM
ARCTIC TALE
AS IT IS IN HEAVEN
ASTERIX AT THE OLYMPIC GAMES
BATTLE FOR HADITHA. The
BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD
BET, The
CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR
CLOVERFIELD
CLUBLAND
DAN IN REAL LIFE
DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, The (LE SCAPHANDRE ET LE PAPILLON)
FOOTY LEGENDS
FINAL WINTER, The
GAME PLAN, The
GOOD NIGHT, The
HUNTING AND GATHERING (ENSEMBLE, C’EST TOUT)
ITALIAN, The
KOKODA
MAN IN THE CHAIR, The
MARGOT AT THE WEDDING
NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS
OVER HER DEAD BODY
PENELOPE
PS I LOVE YOU
ROGUE
ROMULUS, MY FATHER
SAVAGES, The
SEPTEMBER
ST TRINIANS
SWEENEY TODD
THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE
TWICE UPON A TIME (DESACCORD PARFAIT)
UNDERDOG
WALK HARD




27 DRESSES

(US, 2008, d. Anne Fletcher)

Good advice is what I need.

I am still not sure whether the term ‘chickflick’ is sexist and/or stereotypical. In the past there was ‘a woman’s picture’ but that now sounds discriminating. On the other hand, it seems all right to refer to a ‘man’s picture’, especially if it is full of gung-ho action. That one could also be called ‘one for the boys’ or ‘one for the boyos’. But there is still a problem about how to refer to 27 Dresses (screenplay by the writer of The Devil Wears Prada – what else? – and directed by choreographer, Anne Fletcher).

Let me venture my reaction. I have a good friend who passes on police thrillers to me. Sometimes she hesitates and tells me that a book is probably too ‘girly’ for my taste: it is probably filled with ‘women’s business’, secret or otherwise. Anyway, ‘girly’ was the word that came to mind within a few minutes of the film starting. A predeliction for bridal wear is fairly necessary for this film. The title’s 27 dresses are in the wardrobe of the main character, bridesmaid’s dresses. A habit and tolerance for fashion magazines would not go astray either.

Since I have started the review with very personal responses to the film, I will take the liberty of adding a further distraction. As I watched the charming Katherine Heigl’s absolute dedication to wedding planning, wedding attendance and wedding obsessions, the number two came to mind. For those who are involved in the Enneagram, she is an extreme example of a 2! – and for Myers Briggs devotees, she is a living ESFJ.

What more can one say? Katherine Heigl (who was so good in the funny, Knocked Up) has fine comic timing, can seem an ugly duckling only because the screenplay says she is, gets entangled with multiple weddings on the one evening (taxiing back and forth between them), is silently in love with her boss (Edward Burns), finds her sister engaged to him and is pestered by a cynical reporter that she can’t stand and who is the likeliest contender (despite their screwball comedy spats) for her walking down the aisle to wed. He is played with toothy and smiling charm by James Marsden from the X Men movies (and the grinning MC from Hairspray and the humorously two-dimensional Prince Charming from Enchanted).

The reviewer who sat next to me is definitely into realism and plausibility. She also definitely dislikes films which initially criticise some issue and finally indulge in it. She was not amused. I think I was, but, beyond that, I leave it to the connoisseurs of 27 or more dresses.

ALIEN VERSUS PREDATOR: REQUIEM

(US, 2007, d. Colin and Greg Strause)

Aliens – bad. Predators – good. Victims – humans.

In Alien versus Predator in 2004, film-makers drew on the popular series of Alien films as well as the less distinguished Predator films. The two strange monstrous groups engaged in battle in the Antarctic with collateral damage for humans.

This special effects dominated sequel re-runs the same basic plot except that the attack is in Colorado and (with the help of the IMDb synopsis outline rather than the confusing film itself much of which occurs in the dark) aliens come to earth, destroy all but one predator who then tries to turn the table on the aliens who are infiltrating humans, killing them off as well as doing multiple repeats of that famous scene in the original Alien where the monster emerges from John Hurt’s stomach.

There is a group of less than interesting humans along with a poor sheriff who is trying to make sense of what is happening. But, this is one of those films where nice people (and children and a pregnant mother) are attacked by the aliens not just the nasty characters.

Lots of special effects (this has been the previous career of the two brother directors), some shock editing and a rousing highly orchestrated score. It is really only for those obsessed with this kind of science fiction.

ARCTIC TALE

US, 2007, 96 minutes, Colour.
Narrator: Queen Latifah,
Directed by Adam Ravetch and Sarah Robertson.

When the March of the Penguins made such an impression worldwide, it might have seemed inevitable that some film-makers would take themselves off to the Arctic and study the animals that populate that remote part of the world. Where the Penguins’ story was ‘humanised’, especially by the English-language commentary from Morgan Freeman and the paralleling of bird behaviour to human actions and motivations, the Arctic Tale goes further and sets up a conflict drama between the walrus and the polar bear. This is a device that can keep the younger audiences attentive and interested. It may seem too ‘cute’ for serious adult viewers.

However, some of the photography is quite spectacular and the commentary does inform us about the life cycles of the animals – and about their extraordinary capacity for endurance of cold, of lack of food, of ability for travelling over the floes and through the Arctic waters. The film shows the mother bear’s hibernation, the early struggles of the cubs, their growing up, hunting and, eventually, being able to stand independent of their mother. But, not all survive. The walrus family is important and the family that hunts together stays together. Otherwise, death is inevitable.

As the bears hunt the walrus and, as the previously unseasonable warming melts the ice, the search for prey for food becomes an enormous struggle.

The commentary is by Queen Latifah. It starts quite objectively but then moves into almost equating the animals with humans and takes on an American colloquial touch. But, it is the visuals which count.

AS IT IS IN HEAVEN

(Sweden, 2005, d. Kay Pollak)

Swedish Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, this absorbing drama has proven very successful in unexpected markets (staying on in some Australian cinemas for almost a year). It has a great deal going for it, not least the music and the story of the development of a choir.

The focus of the film is a very talented musician, Daniel. The opening shows him as a little boy playing the violin in a wheatfield and then being bullied. As he grows up, tended by a loving mother, he wins music exams and eventually becomes a famous (and demanding) conductor. A physical collapse sends him back to his village in Sweden where he has bought the old school.

The film shows Daniel settling in, the response of the villagers, the approach of the pastor to ask him to help. Daniel gradually acclimatises and thaws in his relationships. He accepts the post of cantor and proceeds to train the ramshackle choir as if they were to be professionals. Some of these sequences are quite exhilarating as is their growing sense of worth and their improving performances.

However, there is a great deal more drama going on.

As the tile quote from the Lord’s Prayer indicates, this is a film about religion. And, its message is quite subversive – but very much in the spirit of the gospel and Jesus’ message. (One might note that, popular as the film is, it is more critical of authoritarian religion and its impositions than The Golden Compass., and rightly so).

The figure of contention is the pastor who shows that a married minister of religion may still be prim, prudish and puritanical with a severe Augustinian view of sexuality compounded by some Reformation strictness. There are some powerful scenes with his wife where he equates sexuality with sin. His wife is very critical of the concept of God and sin (rigid and unforgiving) that her husband lives by. This leads to his antagonism towards Daniel and his alienation of his community who have been thrilled by their awakening in the choir and are prepared to form their own community where gospel values and joy are paramount.

This has a profound effect on Daniel and on the young woman who runs a local shop and whose relationships have been the scandalised talk of the town. She is obviously a parallel character with some of the less respectable characters in the gospel – and she learns that love and compassion overcome a multitude of sins.

Audiences will enjoy the singing, especially the song sung by the battered wife of the man who bullied Daniel as a boy. There is a final united harmony sequence where competing choirs all hum as one – a glimpse, perhaps, of ‘as it is in heaven’.

ASTERIX AT THE OLYMPIC GAMES

(France, 2008, d. Frederic Forrestier and Thomas Langmann)

Asterix and his fellow villagers from Gaul have been popular in comic strip form, then as a series of animated films and now we have the third in a series of live action features (following Asterix against Caesar and Asterix (1999) and Cleopatra (2002)). They have been lavish, big-budgeted affairs, recreating ancient Rome as well as the remote village in Gaul. This time we have the added benefit of Athens and then Olympia. Nothing has been spared on costumes, set design (including a huge stadium filled with CGI spectators) and stunt work, including a Ben Hur-like chariot race.

For the fans this will be a delight. For those who don’t quite know Asterix and co, it is a hearty introduction. And, for those who don’t like it – too bad!!

One of the advantages of having subtitles is that one reads the clever and funny names of many of the characters (which don’t always correspond literally to the French but are witty equivalents). Besides the chief, Asterix, and his rotund offsider, Obelix (a part that Gerard Depardieu does perfectly for the third time), we have the smitten hero, Lovesix, the Druid Getafix and the pet poodle, Dogmatix.

The plot is easy enough. The Greek king wants his daughter, Irina, to marry Julius Caesar’s son, Brutus. Brutus is a nincompoop (a clever, farcical performance from Benoit) and is continually plotting against his father to boot – hence a long line of defunct food tasters, bath and mirror testers…

When Lovesix accepts the challenge that the winner of the Olympic Games will marry Irina, he goes home and pines. However, the village rally round and they can go legitimately to the games as they are Gaul Romans!

There is a great deal of fun to be had from the plots, from the cheating and a whole lot of farce and pratfalls. And there is a very strong comedy performance from the now over-70 Alain Delon as Caesar. He has a lot of self-parody lines which also play on his past good looks and potential vanity. And his salute is ‘Ave, me’.

There are also amusing parallels with contemporary sport and doping, tests, cheats and corruption of officials. But, as Caesar remarks, ‘these games might not last 2000 years but they are very amusing’.
The chariot driver from Germania, whose chariot looks like a modern car and which needs efficient pit stops, is played by Michael Shoemaker!

The final ten minutes does go on a bit too long, especially with actual sports stars like Zidane turning up and one of the officials inventing feetball and handsball.

THE BATTLE FOR HADITHA

(UK, 2007, d. Nick Broomfield)

For many decades, Nick Broomfield has been making feature documentaries many of which have had considerable cinema commercial release (Soldier Girls, Aileen Wuernos, Kurt and Courtney, Biggie and Tupac). More recently, he has been reconstructing true stories in documentary style. This is especially true of his previous film, the excellent Ghosts, about the illegal Chinese migrants who were drowned off Morecombe in northwest England while collecting cockles. He has now done it again, focusing on three days in November 2005 when a group of marines in Haditha in Iraq went on a vengeful rampage killing innocent Iraqis after one of their comrades was killed by a roadside bomb.

With his years of experience (since the early 1970s) of filming actual events, he brings a powerful sense of immediacy to his cinema verite filming of the reconstructions. For most of the film (unless you pause to give thought to the question), you feel as if you are in the middle of the actual events. This also means that the performances of all the cast also give the impression that this is the real thing.

Since, there is still an investigation in progress about what really happened with these trigger-happy Americans and their seemingly callous commanders who interpret this exercise of might as going by the book procedures, it is a critique of the American presence in Iraq and raises questions about how marines should be trained to be a peace-keeping occupying force. These men show little respect or consideration for the locals. They are racist in their presumptions and epithets and not allowing for locals who do not speak English. It is occupation by bullying despite the real provocations of insurgents.

The film also raises the questions about the actions of insurgent leaders and their seemingly cold ambitions and quick saying that the dead are martyrs while they seem to have little intention of immediately dying for their cause - and someone saying that when the Americans leave someone worse than Saddam could assume power. There are also the insurgents themselves who may or may not be in good faith – and who may not have thought through the consequences of their actions.

There are three main strands of the film. The first is the introduction of the two bombers and the detail of their obtaining their bomb, hiding it at checkpoints, burying it and exploding it – and the aftermath. The second strand is a portrait of some of the local people of Haditha, especially families, extended families, and the celebration of a child’s circumcision. This puts faces on the victims so that they are not merely headlines and statistics. It shows how this kind of slaughter will never win the hearts and minds of the Iraquis.

But most attention is given to the third strand because this is the marine group itself and its leader, Ramirez, who is already suffering battle fatigue, can’t sleep and is refused permission to see a doctor until his tour his over. He is only twenty and has served several tours already. What is this young American doing in Haditha? What does he really know about the people and the issues? He himself says he doesn’t know why he is there. Some of the other marines are much more offhand and callous. They congratulate one another on sniper accuracy – on innocent targets. While the Americans have a good deal of surveillance equipment, they are not always accurately informed and make rash decisions.

With the moment-by-moment attention to detail over the three days, Broomfield takes us into the ordinary/extraordinary reality of these years in Iraq. There is plenty to discuss, plenty to question.

At the same time, Brian de Palma made Redacted, a companion piece well worth seeing, quite like this film in many ways, close-ups of the Americans, the victims and the reprehensible behaviour of vengeful marines.

BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD

(US, 2007, d. Sidney Lumet)

After working some years in live television drama, Sidney Lumet made his feature film debut in 1957 with Twelve Angry Men. He had made his mark with his first film, a director with a skill in storytelling, dramatic tension and characterisation. During the fifty years that followed he has made a number of outstanding films which range from classic dramas like O’Neill’s? Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Miller’s A View from the Bridge (from the 1960s) to Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon in the 1970s, as well as his Oscar-nominated Network, Q and A and Prince of the City from the 1980s, Night Falls on Manhattan from the 1990s. At age 83, he has released Before the Devil… Lumet is a master screen storyteller.

This one is tough stuff. It boast s a strong cast with Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris as parents who own a jeweller’s shop in a mall in Westchester. They have two sons, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman in yet another excellent and different performance) who works in real estate in Manhattan and Hank (a gaunt Ethan Hawke) as the spoilt son who has become one of life’s losers. Marisa Tomei is Andy’s wife.

The structure of the screenplay plays with time. We are introduced to the two brothers and then we are told it is the day of the heist. A masked man robs the jeweller’s shop and fatal shots are fired. We then go back several days in time and the screenplay develops the characters of the brothers and explains the set up for the heist. Just as we seem to be advancing chronologically, we take more steps back and fill in the background, being offered more and more clues to explain what has happened and why.

No good comes of this heist. The consequences are lethal and lead to downward moral spirals of most of the central characters. The ending is tragic as the audience is dismayed at what has happened and wonders why – and who could have made a move to stop the seemingly inevitable disaster.

The film is a fable about the moral crisis in contemporary society, the moral vacuum in so many people’s lives. It is a story about appearances and reality, about greed and unscrupulous manipulation of people. And it also highlights American gun violence. With most films, there is some hope for redemption. This seems to elude most of the characters here. The devil has made the acquaintance of the two brothers long before they are dead.

THE BET

(Australia, 2007, d. Mark Lee)

With its contemporary setting in Sydney amongst the money movers and shakers, this is a film with an interest especially for those who share the same age and preoccupations as the central characters: those in their 20s and 30s. Older audiences may find the film a reminder of the past, successes and/or failures with, maybe, something of regret that people have to go through crises, personal, occupational, financial and moral – and fail.

Aden Young plays a wealthy executive who challenges a colleague and sometime friend (though his callous self-interest and disregard of others really means that friendship is not his strong point) to a bet about who can make the most money in 90 days. Matthew Newton plays the friend and the focus is principally on him and what he does and does not do – and what motivates him. It is a kind of junior Wall Street, Sydney style.

The narrative of the film highlights the days passing. Newton is supremely self-confident, moves with conscious ease among his peers, always veering towards the arrogant. He has a more ‘humble’ background than others and basks in his social opportunities, parties, golf, clubs. He enters into a relationship with an enterprising lawyer (Sybilla Budd).

He is frequently offered the opportunity to drop out of the contract, but this seems to make him more daring. Needless to say, he becomes entangled with financial complications, possibilities for insider trading, some industrial and legal espionage, led on by associates and their ambiguous friendship, until…

Newton is bright-eyed and hopeful, a stock trading enthusiast. Young is at times amiable, at times sinister. Roy Billing has a good role as Newton’s father, a reminder of reality in a too highly speculative world.

The film was directed by Mark Lee, best known for his role in Gallipoli.

CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR

(US, 2007, d. Mike Nichols)

It is difficult to know what to make of Charlie Wilson’s War. For the Golden Globe awards, it was listed under comedies. While there is some verbal repartee, it is not exactly an overall comedy. In its picture of a ‘good-time Charlie’ congressman who gets himself involved in the Afghan struggle of the 1980s against the Russians, it presents as a kind of hero or anti-hero a man who did deals for upping the budget appropriations for covert operations to defeat the Russians. Admirable? Despicable? Hero? Patriot? American who acted self-confidently according to the national doctrine of ‘manifest destiny’, guilty of a huge presumption?

Tom Hanks has developed a screen personal of the upright American, so it is more than a bit disturbing to see him snorting cocaine in a jacuzzi full of strippers and receiving the highest award from the organisation of covert agencies. Julia Roberts can act Brockovich-tough, but who is this wealthy Houston woman who takes up an interest in the Afghans and pressures legislators and donors behind the scenes, declares she is a born-again Christian but whose behaviour gives born again a double standards name? These are very ambiguous characters, of ambiguous moral stances, who are seen as the true anti-communist patriots – which may justify everything.

So, this means that Mike Nichols’ film is quite unsettling. And, with Philip Seymour Hoffman giving another of his outstandingly different performances as a disgruntled CIA operative who finds a cause worth manipulating for in Afghanistan, it is even more unsettling.

Clearly, we are meant to be thinking about American policy in both Iraq and Afghanistan post-September 11th, and that makes the film more disturbing. What is going on now? Covert and overt? We have seen Redacted, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah and, especially about Afghanistan, Lions for Lambs.

At the end, the CIA agent warns that with the retreat of the Russians in 1988 after the American-supplied arms brought down so many Russian planes and helicopters and destroyed so much artillery, that mad crowds were coming into Kabul. Charlie Wilson suggests a modest appropriation for building schools in Afghanistan but the DC powers that be have lost interest in the country and in the people. And, so, enter the Taliban.

I hope Charlie Wilson’s War is not passed over as an American comedy. Its themes are far too deadly for that.

CLOVERFIELD

(US, 2008, d. Matt Reeve)

What a sweet title for a film, all pretty and pastoral. Actually, it was initially a code name during the production taken from a street near the producer’s office. But, word got out about the film and this unintended title stuck. It is nicely deceptive for those who don’t know what the film is about (which, more or less, was how I saw it) but, with box-office news and saturation advertising, most moviegoers well know that this is a monster movie.

It certainly fits into the mood of the times (and there must be a solid PhD thesis somewhere here). Why is it that there are quite a number of high profile films these days, especially from the US, which are featuring menace, disaster and the end of the world? With continued threats of epidemics like SARS or bird-flu, with natural disasters and fears from climate change hurricanes and other phenomena, the post September 11th response to sudden and unknown terrorist attacks, maybe audiences need this kind of story up there on the big screen to process feelings about it all. That’s what the producer says and he may well be right.

By the way, when we say ‘on the big screen’, we should note that it would be a great pity just to see Cloverfield on a screen which is smaller than we are. It is meant to be seen on a big screen with the stereo sound vibrating all around us. We should be there in the middle of it.

Actually, the film takes about twenty minutes to get going. That is, we introduced to the 20-something characters through some video camera footage dated April 27th and then, in great (too much?) detail, at a farewell party in upper Manhattan on May 22nd. Just when one is tempted to say ‘enough already!’, there is reverberating quake and the whole movie changes. The monster has appeared and, in the vein of Godzilla or Gorgo or those huge rampaging monsters, wreaks havoc on the city.

What makes this film completely different and a tour-de-force of film-making is that we know the characters who are not just going to be mere monster-fodder. And one of them is holding the camera and, for the best part of an hour, we are visually limited to what his camera can see. Everything is limited to the span of the camera lens, sometimes seeing a lot, often just missing out (especially the monster itself which is now and then quickly glimpsed), confined to the dark in subway tunnels, with the night light revealing the attack of some mysterious creatures, or following the large group of people fleeing and the small group which is trying to get back to the apartment to rescue their friend.

This means that the technology is up-to-date: cameras, cell phones, emergency power generators that work… And a significant placement for Nokia! The producer refers to this phenomenon of having the ability to photograph everything and put it on the net, the ‘Youtubification’ of today’s culture.

The psychological effect of all this for the audience is that everything is seen (except for some TV helicopter footage) generally from the ground level where the New York buildings loom (and are seen to be destroyed as is the Brooklyn Bridge), from the small powerless position of ordinary human beings. When we finally see the monster, we stare up at its towering figure and gaping maw just as the camera lens does.

Godzilla, War of the Worlds, The Invasion, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, The Day After Tomorrow, I Am Legend, even World Trade Center and, now, Cloverfield. What is this trend mirroring? What is its challenge?

CLUBLAND

(Australia, 2007, d. Cherie Nowlan)

The Clubland of the title includes the clubs in and around Sydney. Brenda Blethyn plays Jean, an ageing mother, who remembers that she might have made it big in stand-up comedy back in England when she was young. But, she fell in love with an Australian singer (Frankie J. Holden), moved away from home, had two children, one mentally handicapped, Mark, and separated. She now works with friends at a canteen. At night, her other son, Tim, drives her to clubs where she goes through her routines – she knows how to play this kind of veteran club audiences who enjoy the old (and risqué) routines. Her son acts as chauffeur, coach, reviewer, flatterer and general support.

This way of life has to come to a head.

The crisis is precipitated when Tim (Khan Chittenden) is attracted to a young woman (Emma Booth who won the AFI Supporting Actress award for this performance) who uses his truck-moving company (himself) to transfer furniture. His mother has thwarted his past relationships. This time he takes a stand and seeks support from his father. Meanwhile, his mother puts on turns, tantrums and pleads the case for his looking after Mark (Richard Wilson). At the same time, her agent (Russell Dykstra) organises a big audition and an old flame (Philip Quast) turns up to support her.

Plenty of plot – though not unfamiliar.

Actually, the whole thing is a bit too raucous. Maybe we have seen Brenda Blethyn do this kind of thing before (most noticeably – and even more monstrously – in Little Voice). Maybe it is too much a rough and ready show and it is a bit hard to empathise with the characters, though Khan Chittenden is good as the put-upon son and Richard Wilson does his best as the impaired Mark. Frankie J. Holden is always a genial screen presence. However, we do leave the film cheered up as Jean has something of a change of heart and everybody sings and kicks up their heels at the final wedding sequence.

DAN IN REAL LIFE

(US, 2007. d. Peter Hedges)

Writer director Peter Hedges has written some very humane films: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Pieces of April (which he also directed). Dan in Real Life is in that vein.

The film is a star vehicle for Steve Carell who has proven his comic talents in TV’s The Office as well as his funny turn in Bruce Almighty. He has starred in The Forty Year Old Virgin and was Evan Almighty.

This time he is a widower who still grieves for his wife after four years. He is also finding difficulties in raising his three daughters. Jane the oldest is desperate for a driving licence but Dan fears accidents. Cara, the 15 year old is desperately in love with a classmate and Dan dismisses it as an infatuation. Lily, the youngest, is not desperate but rather is a study pillar for her father. Dan in Real Life is the column he writes for a paper, giving advice on family problems. He is about to be syndicated nationally.

So far, so good and bad. He packs up with the girls to drive to the extended annual family reunion. This family has to be seen to be believed – and serve as an encouragement that the family that plays together stays together. There are the three generations, about fifteen in all – and they enjoy one another’s company.

Enter Marie. Dan has already encountered her in a book shop and, over a cup of coffee, has poured out his life story to her. Her arrival upsets him. He tries to keep his emotions under control but an unpleasant and rude side of his character emerges. Dan has difficulty coping with real life.

Juliette Binoche seems to relish the relaxed atmosphere of the film and having time off from her more serious roles. John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest are the ideal grandparents. Dane Cook is sympathetic as the wronged brother and Emily Blunt has a cameo as a brash doctor.

But, despite the heavier overtones, the film is light, entertaining – something of a ‘if only the world could be more like this’ kind of romantic comedy.

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (LE SCAPHANDRE ET LE PAPPILON)

(France, 2007, d. Julian Schnabel)

This is a fine film, well worth seeing. It is demanding and harrowing, but excellent.

Oscar-nominated writer, Ronald Harwood (and winner for The Pianist), was commissioned to adapt the autobiographical book of the same name by Jean-Dominique? Bauby. Since Bauby, at the age of 42, a successful editor of Elle magazine in Paris, was unexpectedly cut down by a stroke with the consequence of a rare condition, lock-in syndrome, which meant that his only way of communication from his still clear and active mind was through the blinking of one of his eyes, Harwood thought that the screen adaptation was an impossible task. However, he decided to follow the book and tell the story, especially for the first part of the film, from the confined point of view of Bauby.

It is to the credit of the writer, the director, American artist and painter, Julian Schnabel, and the intense control of actor, Matthieu Amalric as Bauby, that this way of storytelling involves the audience fully in Bauby’s experience and creates an extraordinary empathy. Later, the film will move a little away from the confinement, but it works so well initially, that this sense of sharing Bauby’s hardships and his creativity stays with us.

And his creativity is important. Initially, shocked to find himself so limited, he is tempted to despair. His plight is more severe than that shown in Javier Bardem’s character in The Sea Inside where the plea is made for assisted suicide or Hillary Swank’s paralysed boxer in Million Dollar Baby which shows an assisted suicide. Yet Bauby, tempted by suicide, opts for life. He loses the use of an eye but, when carers realise that they can get his answers to questions by his blinking letter by letter, he begins to communicate intelligently. He lets his imagination wander and he writes, letter by slow letter, his book. He uses the diving bell as the image for his paralysed situation. He uses the butterfly as the image of his unfettered imagination.

If ever there was a film that advocated life and a quality of life, it is The Diving Bell and the Bell Jar.

Harwood wrote the screenplay in English. When the decision was made that it would be more appropriate to make the film in French, the screenplay was translated, American Schnabel quickly learnt French – and the film was nominated for and has won some awards for Best Foreign Language film. Schnabel was named best director at Cannes, 2007.

Matthieu Amalric does eventually have the opportunity to appear in flashbacks, showing the stroke, showing his relationship with his wife, children and lover. Particularly moving is a flashback where he shaves his father, an emotional moment, especially with a very fine cameo by Max Von Sydow as the father.

While so much of the film is confined to the hospital, the film is not restricting. And the fine performances from the carers and the women in Bauby’s life (awkwardly communicating with each other to know how he is) complement the focus on Bauby.

An extraordinarily life-affirming film.

THE FINAL WINTER

(Australia, 2007, d. Brian Andrews and Jane Forrest)

After Footy Legends, another film about Rugby League. Once again, it is not necessary to know the finer points of the game (or any of the less finer points), though, for those who do, the connection with actual Sydney teams and the changes since the 1980s where money has become more important than the sport will make some impact.

The action takes place over a week and charts the professional crisis (accompanied by a crisis at home) for professional player Grub (played by Matthew Nable who wrote the screenplay). Receiving a reprimand for striking in the Saturday match, he has to face the greedy wheeler-dealer owner, a tribunal, his younger brother and his being poached for another team. He also has to face the fact that he is getting older, that the game has changed. He also has to face the fact that he is like many Australian men, loving his wife and children but hesitant in expressing it, alienating his children and exasperating his wife. It is not an unfamiliar story but in its Australian straightforwardness and grittiness it works well as a local drama.

Performances are strong and John Jarratt appears as the club owner.

There is a lot of nostalgia in the screenplay for a time when the game was a game, rough and tumble yes, but a game and a code. While a modest film in scope and scale, it holds the interest.

FOOTY LEGENDS

(Australia, 2006, d. Khoa Do)

The fact that this film was made and distributed is itself a tribute to the two brothers, Khoa Do and Anh Do, born in Vietnam but who have become part of Australian culture, Anh Do the comedian and writer, Koah Do, the writer and director (born 1979, who was named the 2005 Young Australian of the Year).

This is a small film with a Sydney feel, about a football code which is limited to a few states but which has an international following, Rugby League. But, with all feelgood films about underdogs and competitive sports, you don’t have to know much about the game to enjoy the film.

And, that is what Footy Legends is. A group of outsiders who went to school in the Sydney suburb of Yagoona and showed some potential at footy band together some years later to win a competition. This will give them self-respect but also some money so that our talented hero (played by Anh Do) will have some money to look after his little sister and save her from going to social welfare (embodied by Claudia Karvan). Needless to say, he is tempted along the way to play for a superior team (embodied by Peter Phelps). But, the ragtag team keep trying – and get a mighty suburban response at the grounds and, especially, down at the pub.

The Do brothers made two films about Cabramatta in Sydney, a Vietnamese centre (see Little Fish, for instance), a short, Delivery Day and a feature with three stories about Vietnamese, Forgotten People.

While it is all predictable – and nice – the performances give a greater warmth and comic touch to a collection of funny situations, some sentiment and, what everyone hopes for, the underdogs to win.

A more serious look at Rugby League is in The Final Winter (2007).

THE GAME PLAN

(US, 2007, d. Andy Fickman)

Disney 21st century storytelling.

With Billy Elliot we had the confrontation between football and ballet leading to a sensational victory for ballet. The Game Plan takes on the same confrontation but… Football and ballet are not mutually exclusive; they both have an extraordinary athleticism; there is a place for mutual admiration. They can be reconciled and live in harmony. And this comes courtesy of that good sport (in all senses) Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.

This is a film which needs a warning that audiences who can’t stand sweetness and light, who can’t stand precocious, dominating American children, who dislike the predictable and, especially, happy endings all round, will find it hard to sit through. On the other hand, those who don’t mind all these ingredients at all (well, the domineering children are still pretty hard to take) will find it an audience-friendly film.

Dwayne Johnson has shown quite some versatility in his acting since he was one of the silent heavies in the Mummy franchise as well as being The Serpent King. He did a very funny turn in Be Cool. He brought his sporting authority to The Gridiron Gang as well as providing strong male role modeling. Here he is one of the most narcissistic of sportsman, a footballer whose name is (symbolically) Joe Kingman (emphasis on the King). Needless to say, his favourite singer is Elvis. And his self-adorned apartment has to be seen to be believed. His performance makes you wonder about many of the highly overpaid real life sports celebrities and their pampered egos. He also transcends W.C.Fields’ warning against acting with children and animals. The Rock more than holds his own with a little girl and a dog.

That accounts for the football.

Enter his unknown eight year old daughter. She is eight going on fifty in her worldly wisdom, her skills in manipulation, her handling of the press, her ambition… Are many American little girls really like this? She accounts for the ballet. Actually, Joe is roped in to perform in the school concert as a dancing tree much to the amusement of the team who finish up applauding wildly. Reconciliation.

There is quite an amount of slapstick – and pratfalls at Joe’s expense. There is really no need to say that Joe mellows and looks forward to parenting (though I am not sure that the daughter mellows – perhaps she will with a strong father-figure).

Kyra Sedgwick does a caricature turn as a sports agent which would make the unreformed Jerry Maguire envious!

The ending has the whole cast singing and dancing to an Elvis song which leaves everyone in a happy mood for dancing in the aisles.

THE GOOD NIGHT

(US, 2007, D. Jake Paltrow)

An odd kind of film. More than a bit of the glums. Some dashes of glamour. A mid-life crisis fantasy.

During the final credits, a man in our audience stood up and yelled at the screen, several times, ‘Rubbish’. He was wrong but he was certainly making the point that if anyone was wanting a nice light night out, The Good Night was not a good night for them. It has a frowning, serious tone, the characteristic of its leading man, Martin Freeman.

The basic plot is quite familiar. A middle-aged musician who has greater hopes for his life is stuck composing jingles for commercials. This kind of thing does not worry his money-oriented womanising agent and friend (played by Simon Pegg). It does worry his girlfriend who has ambitions of her own in mounting an art exhibition – and she feels that they should take time out. She is played quite unglamorously by Gwynneth Paltrow.

In compensation, the musician starts having a series of dreams in which glamour personified by Penelope Cruz appears, communicating without words (while we have subtitles) and leading our hero on and on to compensatory fantasies. Then he meets her in real life and discovers that reality is more down to earth and ordinary than exotic dreams.

The film is well acted and mounted. It is just that it is all rather downcast – and could be mistaken for a European film which might get it a larger audience prepared to take it seriously. It was written and directed by Jake Paltrow, Gwynneth’s brother.

HUNTING AND GATHERING (ENSEMBLE, C’EST TOUT)

(France, 2007, d. Claude Berri)

Claude Berri directed his first film, Le Poulet, in 1962. 45 years later he has directed this quite charming film after a prolific career not only as director but producer and actor. While always interesting in his work, he achieved a great feat in bringing to the screen Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources in the 1980s.

This film is much more modest in scope. The focus is on a sweet young woman, Camille (played by, who else, but Amelie herself, Audrey Tautou). She finds herself sharing a room with the offhand Franck (Guillaume Canet). Needless to say, something will come of this mismatched friendship. There are two catalyst characters for this change: one is Philibert, a stammering would-be comedian from a wealthy family who looks down on him; the other is Canet’s ailing grandmother. They support Philibert who is coached, performs and falls in love and marries. The grandmother, on the other hand, has to move out of her house and go to a home where she longs for her home. Watching Camille’s tender care for the old woman and getting her home is quite emotional and satisfying.

It is often hard to know what one really means when one says that a film is particularly French in subject, treatment and style – but Ensemble, C’est Tout is particularly French.

THE ITALIAN (ITALIANETZ)

(Russia, 2005, d. Andrei Kravchuk)

An emotional film about children from Russia. It has found audiences outside Russia and won a number of awards at children’s festivals. It was the SIGNIS winner at the 2007 Hong Kong Festival.

The Italian seems something of a misleading name for a Russian film. The reason for the title is that at the orphanage where young Vanya lives there is a scheme to raise money through adoptions to foreign couples. The children dream, of course, about being adopted. When an Italian couple arrives and chooses Vanya, there is a time delay for the process. And, in that meantime, Vanya sees another child find his real mother. Vanya wonders whether he could find his mother.

The main part of the film is Vanya’s attempts to find his mother. His trying to read so that he can look at his own documents – and the difficulty of getting access to those. There is his flight from the orphanage and his using his wits to survive on the streets until he arrives at the address he has found. And, for some time, he eludes the orphanage authorities who want him back for the deal with the Italians.

Kolya Spiridov is one of those screen charmers who draw such an emotional response from the audience that his being on screen commands attention.

Italy is a land of sunshine – and a place for dreams. Russia, the Russia of this film, is cold, dark and run-down. The film’s sometimes austere style is in the manner of the great Russian cinema masters which gives it a mature quality even as the plot focuses on the little boy and other children.

KOKODA

(Australia, 2006, d. Alister Grierson)

Kokoda is not a name known much beyond Papua New Guinea and Australia. Yet, it holds for Australians, an importance and significance that places it alongside Gallipoli. The Kokoda trail in the highlands of New Guinea is where the Australians fought during World War II, many of them volunteer workers, reservists rather than fully trained soldiers (who did eventually arrive) and, with the help of the locals (called gratefully for their carrying the wounded to safety, the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’) and stopped the Japanese advance on Port Moresby and an invasion of Australia.

Clearly, Kokoda is a story that demanded to be turned into a film. Hopes might have been for an equivalent of Peter Weir’s Gallipoli.

However, the film-makers have made a different option. They have stayed with a small group of men, confined the action to the muddy jungle and the continually falling tropical rain, to the unrelenting pressures of an unseen enemy and the continual physical discomfort of weather, lack of shelter, lack of food and perennial dysentery. In 90 minutes, the audience is taken into the experience in so much of its hardship so that they could say they had become aware of what that action meant in terms of pain and endurance.

However, this is at the cost of a clarity of plot and the clear identification and delineation of characters. We have a fair idea of what is happening but are not always certain. We see the characters but it is a bit hard to know who is who. We see the action, have the motivation explained to us but this is not always easy to feel dramatically. William McInnes? delivers a fine laudatory tribute at the end.

In fact, the film is frequently quite gruelling to watch and it would not be surprising if many, even though wanting to watch and sympathetic to the enterprise, gave up on the experience.

It means that this version of Kokoda is most worthy but too demanding.

THE MAN IN THE CHAIR

(US, 2007, D. Michael Schroeder)

While this pleasing film starts off a little gruffly, it soon moves into an entertainingly sympathetic experience. It is a film which shows the bridging of the generation gap – and could prove popular to both ends of this gap. In fact, the gap is less between parents and children (although that theme is present as well) than between teenagers and the grandparent-aged generation.

The two ends of this spectrum are a young teen, Michael Angarano, something of a tearaway who with a friend has entered a competition for making a short film to get a college scholarship and Christopher Plummer as Flash who used to be an assistant to great Hollywood film-makers, including Orson Welles on Citizen Kane. They both go to old movie theatres which show classic movies – and the boy discovers the cantankerous old man who shouts at the screen. The boy follows the old man and, gradually and reluctantly, they form a bond and together they begin to work on the project.

Both are something of rebels – the boy risking crime while Flash has a passion about rescuing abandoned dogs. They also meet a veteran writer, played by M. Emmett Walsh in a genial performance, who has not written for a long time. The sequence in which the boy introduces him to the internet and shows him the entries about him has a wonderful feeling about it.

In fact, the film is a tribute to the elderly. Many of the cast live in one of those homes around Hollywood for ageing actors and technicians of the industry. As they become more involved in the boy’s project, they come alive as they find a purpose as well as feeling affection for the young. The boy learns a great deal from the experience of the elderly. While there are plenty of references to old movies for the older generation, the contemporary musical score is for the younger.

The cast includes Robert Wagner as a producer.

For writer-director Michael Schroeder, previously a director of straight-to-video actioners, this film was a labour of love. He sold up his possessions in order to be free to make this story which had great appeal for him. It was well worth it.

MARGOT AT THE WEDDING

(US, 2007. d. Noah Baumbach)

Margot at the Wedding is a puzzling film. Not that there is anything wrong with that. However, between puzzle and satisfaction, the swing is much more towards puzzle.

Noah Baumbach made that very good film about a dysfunctional family, The Squid and the Whale. Margot at the Wedding is something in the same vein, except that a principal focus is on a mother (Margot) and a son (Claude) about to move into adolescence. This film also focuses on the relationship between the mother and her previously estranged sister whose wedding she decides to attend. In the foreground is her sister’s intended and her pre-teenage daughter. In the background is Margot’s husband and a writer with whom she is having an affair. There are also some cantankerous neighbours.

This means that there is plenty of plot. But, it is plot by way of a succession of episodes rather than any dynamic character-driven or situation-driven narrative. Which means that the film could just stop whether issues are shown to have been resolved or not (and it does). Margot is described as often changing her mind – and this happens to the other characters as well. It means we leave the cinema thinking about the characters – or not - depending on how interesting and engaging they are (or not).

Nicole Kidman gives another strong performance as the capricious Margot. She is in turns mollycoddling her son or humiliating and embarrassing him. She is self-absorbed, a writer who has exploited all the family traumas in her stories. She dominates and then pouts at criticism accusing everyone of picking on her. Kidman makes Margot believable but not someone you would not like to know in real life.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is her sister, less moody and with her feet more firmly on the ground. She wants the friendship of her sister after years of non-speaking but she also has her distraught moments. Jack Black gives another variation on his large slob with potential performance as he prepares to marry but is off-put by Margot. John Turturro is sympathetic in his short screen time. Ciaran Hinds is the writer whose interview with Margot in a bookshop precipitates the final emotional crisis.

Baumbach has an ear for dialogue, especially the dialogue of conflict. This gives a literate quality to the film and the performances. But, these characters, their antagonisms and their emotions are still a big puzzle.

NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS

(US, 2007, d. Jon Turteltaub)

When you’re on a good thing…, make a sequel. It’s much of the same as the very successful National Treasure. The principal cast are back plus Ed Harris as a villain and Helen Mirren as Nic Cage’s mother.

This is contemporary matinee escapism: adventures decoding documents, uncovering coded secrets and then, whoosh, into Indiana Jones territory and action.

National Treasure came out in the wake of The Da Vinci Code, taking another historical (and hugely questionable) hypothesis and comically going where it led. And one wonders why millions of readers believed the absurd and exaggerated theories of Dan Brown and would not dream of taking the hypotheses of the National Treasure films seriously. Clearly the latter are preposterous, entertainingly so. But, The Da Vinci Code!

After the family found the Templar’s treasure in the crypt of the church in New York’s Wall Street (because they were able to decode the message on the back of the Declaration of Independence which they were able to steal), they now need to clear the family name when an upright ancestor is implicated in John Wilkes’ Booths assassination of President Lincoln. Clues and codes? Clues on the side of the statue of liberty in Paris. Codes to be found in the desk of the queen in Buckingham Palace and the desk of the president in the Oval Office. This necessitates visits to England, a car chase through London, infiltrating the White House. A great opportunity was lost when the intruders into Buckingham Palace did not see Helen Mirren as the queen in a cameo!

The climax is at Mount Rushmore in the Spielberg vein.

Nick Cage, Jon Voight, Justin Bartha, Diane Kruger, Ed Harris and Helen Mirren all find themselves in all kinds of dangers and adventures. Nonsense, but enthusiastic derring-do nonsense.

OVER HER DEAD BODY

(US, 2008, d. Jeff Lowell)

An undemanding romantic and ghost movie designed for an easy night out. It is also a Hollywood attempt for Eva Longoria to make a popular transition from television and Desperate Housewives to stardom on the big screen. She seems to be enjoying herself in the role of Paul Rudd’s fiancée who, even on their wedding day, is such a control freak that her interventions are the death of her (literally). She may or may not have seen Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit or even Ghost, but she does a fair bit of intervening in her fiance’s life, always to protect him, of course, but more than a bit possessive when it comes to dealing with the potential rival.

The rival is played by the vigorous Lake Bell (also from television, from Boston Legal). She is a would-be psychic who runs a catering business on the side with friend, Jason Biggs. She tries to help the forlorn almost-husband but her psychic skills do not work. When she starts falling in love with her client, the ghost steps in with a vengeance (literally).

Nothing particularly original, but it is not that kind of film. Rather, it relies on some charm from the stars, the humour of some awkward situations, especially the ghost having to communicate to her fiancé via a parrot (whose voice is credited to the writer-director!) and the audience wanting to see how the ghost gives up, does her good turn and gets to heaven (almost).

PENELOPE

(US/UK, 2006, d. Mark Palansky)

It is difficult to know who to recommend this film to. It’s one of those eccentric little films that one passes over or belongs to the ‘Catch it on Cable’ list. Probably, it may appeal to pre-teen and young teen girls who think they are ugly in some way. The message, of course, is to be one’s true self and let everyone see the inner beauty.

Filmed in England, it is set in one of those ‘capitals’ which have the look of London with a lot of American skyscrapers. While the plot about ‘blue bloods’ sounds as if it belongs in England, most of the characters, including some of the British, speak with American accents. Perhaps it’s something of a contemporary Atlantis, somewhere out there between North American and Europe.

It is also set up as a fairytale with, Once upon a time, the visualising of a curse long ago (where the dastardly deed of an ancestor means that the first girl descendent will be born looking like a pig). The voiceover is from Penelope (Christina Ricci) who is that girl. Her laid-back father (Richard E. Grant) and her dominating mother (Catherine O’Hara) bring her up in secret and mother wants to marry her off to a blue blood because the curse will be overcome by ‘one of her own kind’. Suitors are repelled, run screaming from Penelope or hurl themselves out of windows. Actually, despite the trim snout, Penelope still looks quite pretty so this is a huge over-reaction.

What will Penelope do? Can she break the spell? Can she go out on her own?

The rest of the rather complicated plot involves a whole lot of stars turning up in unexpected roles, including Nigel Havers, Russell Brand, Ronni Ancona, Nick Frost, Lenny Henry and Reese Witherspoon. However, the main villain is Peter Dinklage as a journalist who wants to expose Penelope and James McAvoy? is a young man who could break the spell. Before that happens (not in the way we were anticipating), there is some raucous comedy, some sweet soul-searching and some false starts on the marriage market.

Christina Ricci is able to carry the whole thing off more plausibly than one might have imagined and James McAvoy? (before Becoming Jane and Atonement) plays the forlorn hero well.

But, it is still difficult to tell who the film will really appeal to.

PS I LOVE YOU

(US, 2007, d. Richard LaGravanese)

This is an unabashed love story that is meant to tug on the heart strings – and will for most audiences who like to surrender to love stories.

The film opens with an argument between Holly (Hilary Swank) and her husband, Gerry (Gerard Butler, late of Phantom of the Opera and 300 where he was Leonidas with a Scots accent). They bicker, reconcile, show that this could be a vigorous happy marriage and then the credits come on. Then, after a few minutes, we are told that Gerry has died of a tumour. No, this is not a ghost story, but Gerry and his spirit do linger long in Holly’s life and grief.

Her tough mother (Kathy Bates) and her close friends (Gina Gershon and a comic Lisa Kudrow) try to shake her out of her reclusiveness and provide a birthday cake – and a letter from Gerry. He has left a series of letters (all with PS I love you) and the film shows how Holly follows their lead and is able, not to bring him back to life, but allow herself to be brought back to life by his loving letters. Since Gerry was Irish, this involves a trip to Ireland with her friends and the chance to meet his family – and an old musical friend (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

Hilary Swank, we know, is quite a strong screen personality so Holly comes across forcefully even in her grief. Harry Connick Jr has a good role as a barman who suffers from a syndrome that leads him to blurt out the blunt truth of what he is really thinking. And he provides a shoulder for Holly to cry on.

This is a mixture of laughter and tears – and there is a nice piece of information at the end which gives some deeper meaning to what has happened to Holly.

ROGUE

(Australia, 2007, d. Greg McLean)

The end credits singing of ‘Never Smile at a Crocodile’ took something of the edge off the scary experience of imagining oneself with this group of tourists menaced by a giant rogue crocodile. Obviously, the film-makers wanted us not to take the film too, too seriously.

Well, maybe the film-makers did but the Northern Territory government certainly would not. After all, the tourism trade must have suffered something of a blow after Greg McLean? terrorised his characters and the audience with the dire torture and deaths at Wolf Creek. Come to think of it, it is amazing the government let him back into the territory to make Rogue after Wolf Creek. At least this time there is no compulsion for tourists to go on a river ride to see crocodiles. Having been on the Daly River some years ago and looking at the (rather small) crocodiles basking on the banks, I was ready to empathise with the characters and the dangers – and did.

We open with an American travel writer (Michael Vartan) who has strayed into Crocodile Dundee territory and finds himself with the Crocodile rather than the Dundee and in a Jaws situation. A motley group of tourists begin their ride under the guidance of the vigorous and engaging Rhada Mitchell. (Oh, and for a momentary scare, who should be one of the passengers but John Jarratt, late of Wolf Creek, with a sinister moustache and hat – but he is one of the good guys so we can relax, momentarily).

The film is brief. The territory landscapes and river are stunning – and inviting for the tourists. The crocodile does his expected thing, crunching a couple of the characters before an eventual battle of wits between the American and the rogue.

I suppose we expected a bit more this time from Greg McLean? but the film has its moments (and for those who don’t like crocs, there are quite a number of moments).

ROMULUS, MY FATHER

(Australia, 2007, d. Richard Roxburgh)

Coincidence? Signs of the times? The two main award-winning Australian films of 2007 both centred on migrant stories of the 1960s, both focused on two young boys – both of whom had loving but dysfunctional mothers. One concerned migrants from Asia, the other from Europe. Home Song Stories is Tony Ayres’ autobiographical story of his life in Australia with his mother who could not stay in one place but had a profound effect on him. Romulus, My Father is philosopher Raimond Gaita’s memoir of his father and of his depressive, wandering mother.

At a time when the whole world is experiencing extraordinary shifts of people around the globe, these stories of the 1960s in Australia make for interesting alerts to the contemporary families on the move, families and their attempts to settle in foreign, even alien, new surroundings.

Gaita’s book was a popular success. The same should be true of Richard Roxburgh’s sensitive film, from a screenplay by Nick Drake. It is a credit to Roxburgh, better known as an actor (Doing Time for Patsy Cline, Moulin Rouge, Van Helsing) that he should have chosen this story for his cinema directorial first feature and that he should have made it so insightful and finely emotional.

We are taken back to the towns of central Victoria, Castlemaine and Maryborough, 1960, and to the surrounding countryside where families like the Gaitas (father from Romania, mother from Germany) tried to eke out a living on the land, living in fairly basic conditions. The film looks and feels authentic.

The characters are complex. Eric Bana won the Best Actor award for his portrayal of Romulus, a good man, an upright man, a forgiving man, but a man for whom ‘this bloody place’ became too much. Franka Potente (best known for Run, Lola Run) is sympathetic even though she does all the wrong things by her husband, by her son, by the man she goes to live with, by the daughter she bears. Much of the success of the film depends on the young actor, Kodi Smit-McPhee?, who plays Raimond around the age of 9-12. On screen for so much of the time, he is convincing as a young boy who could survive such difficulties as a child and still emerge as a celebrated adult academic.

The film keeps moving, short sequences moving into one another, often suggesting so much of what is happening to the characters while they are frequently silent and reflective, the camera focused on them so we do the strong responding. This means that the film is full of minute attention to details of plot and character, including Romulus’ friend and support (Marton Csokas, Best Supporting Actor award), Russell Dykstra as his ill-fated brother.

Bana’s portrait of a ‘new’ Australian trying to find his place in Victoria is well worth seeing. Also, Kodi Smit-McPhee?, who won an award for Best child performance. There are small clues as to Raimond’s future as we see him interested in books, reading by night at boarding school, listening to his father’s brief reflections on the cosmos and the inner life and meaning of things. But this is, principally, the story of a love between father and son that is finally able to transcend hardships and pain.

THE SAVAGES

(US, 2007, d. Tamara Jenkins)

It is a pity that the ironic overtones of the name of the focus family, The Savages, indicates more of a barbarity than they actually display. Lenny Savage, the ageing father slipping into dementia, has acted in savage ways towards his children when they were growing up and has become a cantankerous old man who taunts his (not always kindly) carer by smearing insults on the bathroom wall with his excrement. But, his two children, who have to face up to the reality of his condition and their filial responsibilities, are by no means savage. In many ways, they treat him far better than he deserves.

We are introduced to the two Savages. Wendy is late 30s, unmarried, living in New York City, a would-be playwright (about her childhood), a temp who keeps applying for literary grants and who is having an affair with a married neighbour. John, on the other hand, is early 40s, a theatre professor in Buaffalo writing on Brecht, living with a Polish woman who is about to be deported. As played by Laura Linney (receiving an Oscar nomination) and Philip Seymour Hoffman, they are well-delineated characters whom the audience gets to know very well indeed. Philip Bosco is excellent as the obstreperous father.

The film is about middle-aged children coping with their father’s decline, the problems of moving him into a care institution, how to overcome their past hostilities, spending time with their father while coping with their own problems. Many people face these issues every day and deal with them with common sense and commitment. Americans tend to overdramatise the ordinary, making such situations more sensational than they are actually are. Wendy and John behave melodramatically at times. Wendy is moved by feelings and equates responsibility with guilt feelings. John, on the other hand, is more practical, thinks things through and acts decisively.

However, there are many powerful scenes as the children communicate with their father and he slips in and out of reality. Wendy is fortunate in the support she receives from a Nigerian born carer who works well with the father. The experience with their father and with each other brings Wendy and John to some kind of mid-life peace.

With the two leads, there is quite an amount of verbal sparring, some of which is cleverly humorous. There is also soul-searching and facing the true self which is cleverly serious. Audiences who have experienced similar situations will resonate with the issues.

SEPTEMBER

(Australia, 2007, d. Peter Carstairs)

A beautiful film, modest in scale, a portrait of a period which raises significant Australian issues. It is a story with few words and a great deal of contemplation of the countryside and the characters.

The story takes place in 1968, a year after Australians voted that aborigines should have the vote (something forbidden in the 1901 Commonwealth constitution). However, rights for aborigines and the overcoming of racism and racist superiority are matters still in progress. Part of the Australian examination of the past and a basis for apologies to indigenous Australians is looking at stories like this.

The plot is straightforward. Two teenagers, one black and one white, are friends. They share a lot of time together, especially afterschool boxing and sparring – the white boy’s afterschool time since the aboriginal boy works on the farm all day. The work of their fathers symbolises their status. The white man is the farm owner. The aboriginal man works for the white man and lives in a house away from the main house.

New neighbours arrive including a young girl who has an attachment to the white boy.

New legislation comes in whereby aboriginal workers are to be paid just wages. The owners feel that they cannot pay and let their workers go.

Both these events cause a distance between the two friends, a growing hostility and, unfortunately and inevitably, a separation.

While September is a West Australian harvest month and is the beginning of spring, the tone of the film and its issues are rather autumnal.

ST TRINIANS

(UK, 2007, d. Oliver Parker and Barnaby Thompson)

Older reviewers often succumb to the temptation of living in the past, especially where old movies are concerned. The older film is the classic. The remake is beneath contempt. Often they have not seen the older movie for decades and might be surprised to discover how creaky in style it really is.

Audiences who have not seen the 1954 Belles of St Trinians or its rather raucous sequels may find this farce quite amusing. But for those who enjoyed the old film in its time, who can replace Alistair Sim with his characteristic doddering and fussing or even George Cole as Flash Harry? We found this film uproarious, especially as we enjoyed the cartoon books of Ronald Searle on which the film was based.

The credits for the 2007 version state that it is based on the original film and there is a debt of gratitude expressed to Ronald Searle. But, this crowd of monstrous girls at the hell school to end all schools are too 21st century knowing rather than the little school thugs of more simple times. That said, this St Trinians starts slowly, emphasis on the adults and then gradually moves to the girls and their scheme to steal Scarlett Johannson, well actually Vermeer’s The Girl with the Pearl Earrings from the National Gallery while Stephen Fry is comparing TV’s School Challenge.

This time the brother cad to the headmistress, Miss Fritton, is played by Rupert Everett – and, in the tradition, he plays Miss Fritton. He gives it his best but he does not have the befussed manner of Alistair Sim. Everett is rather calculating. Colin Firth does the minister for Education in his usual serious style and there are some Pride and Prejudice jokes as he comes out of the water as he did in the series – and Miss Fritton’s dog who keeps attacking him is Mr Darcy. The girls make a reference to him by name since he starred in The Girl with the Pearl Earrings. A number of other film and TV jokes as well. Russell Brand makes a fair fist of Flash Harry. Firth and Everett singing Love is in the Air over the final credits is nicely amusing.

Lots of farcical behaviour, noisy, silly – more, perhaps less, in the spirit of the original St Trinians. (And director Oliver Parker who made a creditable Othello and An Ideal Husband also made the execrable Importance of Being Earnest with Everett and Firth).

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET

(US, 2007, d. Tim Burton)

A most impressive film in all departments but one that is definitely not for the faint-hearted nor for those who feel squeamish at the sight of blood.

The story of Benjamin Barker who was transported unjustly from 19th century London because a corrupt judge lusted after his wife and took his daughter as his ward. Barker then escaped from Australia and returned to London for vengeance as Sweeney Todd, aided by Mrs Lovett above whose pie shop he set up his murderous barber’s shop. This tale may have been based on fact or may be fiction or London legend. However, after a play in the 1970s by Christopher Bond which was used by Hugh Wheeler in his 1979 collaboration with the celebrated Stephen Sondheim, Sweeny Todd became very well-known in theatrical circles and the world of music theatre. Sondheim’s musical won eight Tonys and was filmed for television with the original leads, Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury.

Now it is has come to the cinema screen, pared down from three hours to two to accommodate it to audience response to screen as different from response to stage – and with Sondheim’s approval.

Since the director is Tim Burton, his fans know that this will be Gothic horror, musical Grand Guignol. The Oscar-nominated sets and costumes create an eerie London, a squalid East End and Fleet Street with its grimy houses, dirty shops, its markets and sewers. There is a little contrast with the wealth of Judge Turpin’s house but there is some welcome relief in some light-filled and pretty flashbacks to Todd’s married life and the betrayal by Judge Turpin. Later in the film, there is an imagined sequence as Mrs Lovett imagines what life might have been like with Todd by the sea and in a green grass landscape. But, for most of the film, the atmosphere is grim.

Since this is a musical, we do not expect realism. Rather, the heightened stylisation of sets, costumes, characters and their behaviour have the disconcerting effect on the audience that makes it seem not entirely unreal. Most of the dialogue is in song, with Sondheim’s melodious (but not necessarily hummable) songs and his witty wordplay lyrics that also demand a different kind of attention.

The performances are admirable. Johnny Depp continues to display his surprising versatility, an obsessed, morbid Todd whose bitterness leads to physical tragedy and moral mayhem. Depp’s collaborations with director Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Charley and the Chocolate Factory, The Corpse Bride) have produced a gallery of sometimes sinister, sometimes endearing eccentrics. His melancholy as Todd is palpable, leading to some kind of sympathy for him which he forfeits as the killings begin. Helena Bonham Carter, also doing her own singing, has also appeared in many Burton films. She is credible as the widow who leads a slatternly life but is infatuated with Todd but who also craves her own family. She finally faces her moral dilemma, an option for Todd or for the orphan, Toby, she has taken in to help with her prospering shop once her pies (filled with Todd’s victims) become famous.

Alan Rickman is well suited to the role of the Judge, Timothy Spall his callous and fawning Beadle and Sacha Baron Cohen creates a different comic character as the charlatan Pirelli.

Sweeney Todd holds a unique position in theatre, a macabre classic musical. Burton, Depp, Bonham Carter and the cast and technical crew have made it a unique piece of cinema.

THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE

(US, 2007, d. Susanne Bier)

There are some films which immediately click and you know you are going to stay with them and enjoy them. There are others which take a long time to get into and you are not sure whether you will become fully involved. I was actually thinking this through during the first half hour or so of Things We Lost in the Fire and deciding that it was not a must-see film but it would be interesting if one happened upon it.

I am not sure at which point my opinion changed but, by the time of the final credits, I had a much greater admiration for the film and what it was communicating.

Though there is a reference to the garage fire of the film’s title early in the film, it is not until towards the end that the meaning is made clear. As might be guessed, the screenplay says that it is only ‘things’ that are lost in fires; we still have people and relationships that keep us going.

The first part of the film moves around quite a bit time-wise. Almost immediately we discover that someone we thought was going to be a central character has died. The explanation of what happened is not given until later in a tragic flashback. What we have is the widow grieving, comforting her two children and dealing with those coming to the funeral. She decides to send her brother to inform and pick up her husband’s best friend, someone she has detested for years. He and her husband grew up together and despite his being a failed lawyer and heroin-addict, her husband never gave up on him. He also becomes a link to her dead husband.

In fact, there are quite a few flashbacks to the happy 11 year marriage, the love between husband and wife and their relationship to their children, much of which is quite moving.

However, the bulk of the film is the tension between the widow and the addict. She invites him into her house to keep the link with her husband. He is marvellous with the children – which she then resents. He goes to Narcotics Anonymous meetings where a recovering young woman befriends him. A neighbour also befriends him and offers him a job. In this kind of film, it seems that the children always resent the new presence or potential parent-replacement – but, not at all, the children here respond well to him. It is their mother who has the problems which have some devastating consequences for him.

The film has been directed by Danish Susanne Bier (who made the fine films, Open Hearts, Brothers and After the Funeral). It is her first English-language film. Trained in the austerity of the Dogme manifesto, she brings a European sensibility to this American story as well as more intimate techniques of hand-held camera, frequent close-ups of eyes, lips, profiles as well as a feminine sensitivity to characters, especially to the wife and daughter.

And the performances are fine. Halle Berry has not had such a good role since she won her Oscar in 2001 for Monster’s Ball. David Duchovny brings great warmth to his scenes as the husband, a good man who loves his family, who is completely generous to his seemingly unredeemable friend and who dies trying to help someone else. John Carroll Lynch brings depth to the neighbour bewildered by the death and harassed by his snobbish wife.

But it is Benicio del Toro as the addict who gives a truly memorable performance, full of nuances which illustrate the weakness and the addiction as well a great deal of innate goodness. His cold turkey scenes are convincing and harrowing.

One of the wise words of advice in the film is the urging of characters to ‘accept the good’. There are other wise themes: that all of us, no matter in what poor light we see ourselves or how low we fall, are lovable; that an untimely death can be the occasion for someone else’s coming to life again; that life is basically about love, second (or more) chances and about hope.

DESACCORD PARFAIT (TWICE UPON A LIFETIME)

(France/UK, 2006, d. Antoine de Caunes)

A British/French co-production, spoken in both French and English though most of the action takes place in a very photogenic England.

This is a piece of entertaining, sophisticated fluff with a plot line that most audiences will twig very soon into the film. The enjoyment comes in knowing what has happened behind the scenes and what will happen when all is revealed.

The stars are Jean Rochefort and Charlotte Rampling, an odd couple. In the 1970s, she was his star, muse and protégé. He was her director and lover. Then suddenly she disappeared, returned to England to a marriage and a life of wealth and celebrity.

He is to receive a life award in London and powers that be (who obviously had not read the gossip columns) think it a good idea if she makes the award. Result: initial tantrums in the haughty Charlotte Rampling grande dame style with plenty of acid comments and a humiliating speech. Result: he, being a good actor and director, ingratiates himself into her home. In farcical Gallic style, what will happen? It is all a bit like 30s screwball comedy in the 21st century.

Rochefort can look hangdog, genial, intense, something that has endeared him to many audiences. He has to presume on this talent a bit here since he has been a bit of a cad. Charlotte Rampling has no need to try hard. She does this kind of thing as to the manner born. The late Ian Richardson appears as her husband.

It’s all a bit in one eye and out the other, but lightly enjoyably so.

UNDERDOG

(US, 2007, d. Frederik du Chau)

No, this is not a sports film about an unexpected champion who seems to have come out of nowhere. But, it is about a champion whose career markedly resembles that of Clark Kent/Superman as well as Peter Parker/Spiderman. The difficulty with this parallel is that it should read Superdog and Spiderdog. Yes, this is the story of a nerdish security dog named Shoeshine who fails some of the basic tests for his job but who is mysteriously transformed by the experiments of a (very) mad scientist, Dr Barsinister (Peter Dinklage) and his dumb henchman (Patrick Warburton).

While Clark Kent had his foster parents and Peter Parker his aunt and uncle, our poor hero has to find a family that will take him in (and persuade them that he can actually talk). Fortunately, Jack (Alex Neuberger) whose mother has died and whose former policeman father (Jim Belushi) is now a security guard at the laboratories where the made scientist works befriends him. He is also supportive when the dog discovers his special powers and rescues the young girl our hero is attracted to - and her dog which our superdog finds even more attractive. Before you can say ‘krypton’ or a word to that effect, our canine superhero is the darling of the populace, feted by the media, relied on by the police. But, modestly, he chooses the name ‘Underdog’.

Needless to say, it all builds up to a confrontation in Washington DC with the president under threat as well as the girlfriend. Underdog versus the mad scientist and his mad sidekick.

Jason Lee is the voice of Underdog and Amy Adams the voice of his dogfriend. I hope that younger audiences enjoy it. I did.

WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY

(US, 2007, d. Jake Kasdan)

This is a movie spoof but a spoof with a difference. It is better than most.

While watching those funny Leslie Nielsen send-ups of all kinds of genres (Repossessed, Spy Hard…) or the hit and miss, often crass, Scary Movie or Epic Movie series, a nagging question recurs. Would this have been better if the makers took the spoofing more seriously and produced an intelligent parody? And, if they had actors of substance, would that make a difference to the quality of the send-up.

Walk Hard provides the answer: yes.

Of course, it has a solid basis in the biopic of Johnny Cash, Walk the Line. The plot of Walk Hard follows Walk the Line with quite some attention to detail. However, with John C. Reilly as Dewey Cox, the film has a first-rate actor who can do the serious as well as the comic and makes a good fist of the serio-comic, earning himself a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical.

The film also has its absurd moments, especially when Dewey cuts his brother in half with a machete and has a heartfelt conversation with the torso. But, the absurdities of the life and career of a country and western star, the women, the drugs, the self-absorption, also get the serio-comic treatment.

Jenna Fischer is the equivalent of June Carter. Raymond J. Barry as Dewey’s unforgiving father and Margo Martindale as his doting mother have good roles.

Reilly did all his own singing, which is also creditable – and the title song also earned a Golden Globe nomination.

Those audiences who wanted a kind of Scary Movie comedy were disappointed – but Walk Hard has something to say as well as something to make us smile.



BERLINALE 2008

BALIKBAYAN BOX
BE KIND REWIND
BOY A
CAOS CALMO
COROBOREE
DEREK
DREAM BOY
ELEGY
FEUERHERZ
FIREFLIES IN THE GARDEN
HAPPY-GO-LUCKY
HEY HEY IT’S ESTHER BLUEBURGER
IL Y’A PLUS LONGTEMPS QUE JE T’AIME
JERUSALAMA
JESUS CHRIST ERLOSER
KABEI – OUR MOTHER
KATYN
LADY JANE
LEMON TREE
MAN JEUK (SPARROW)
NIGHT AND DAY
OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, The
RESTLESS
SLEEP DEALER
STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE
SUMMER BOOK
THERE WILL BE BLOOD
TIRADOR
3 ZAN


BALIKBAYAN BOX

(Philippines 2007, d. Mes de Guzman. Berlinale: Forum)

A balikbayan box is used by Philippinos living outside their country to send home goods to their families. This theme of migration is in the background of this slice of life in the Philippine provinces. A woman returns laden from Japan. Another woman wants to go to work in Hong Kong but can’t afford the placement fee. And, at the end, the box has some sad symbolism.

This film is an observation of village life, focusing on three boys. They play together. They work together. They watch action Tagalog films in a hut, paying their money to an old woman who takes their coins and sits them on benches to watch a world that is so different from theirs.

The film is quite long and the camera wanders over the village, the water, the plantations, the homes, so that we feel we have been there. Some of the characters come alive, especially the boys as well as the father who poaches vegetables from an estate while the armed guard is sleeping or drinking.

The drama heightens at the end and we are left with a mixture of impressions of a simple life, provincial poverty, ambitions and tragic casual violence.



BE KIND REWIND

(US, 2008, d. Michel Gondry. Berlinale: Special screening)

Michel Gondry has built up a reputation in his native France and in the US for offbeat, whimsical comedies that can delight as well as offer food for thought, films like Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep. They don’t appeal to everyone. It is probably best to have a ‘different’ sense of humour, a bit fey, a bit childlike/childish and a pleasure in the non-predictable.

Be Kind Rewind is one of his slighter films that will either irritate no end or exert a fatal charm that will draw you in. The irritation factor is compounded by the fact that the star is the irrepressible Jack Black – at his most Jack Blackish.

We remember those old movies (from Capra and others who show a mixed response to human nature and are mistaken for optimists) where there is an old man, a little old lady or a family which is holding out against the authorities who have pulled down every other building to promote luxury apartments and progress. The little olds own the only house not bought up – and they wont’ sell.

This time it is it is the grizzled grey-haired Mr Fletcher (Danny Glover) who owns a dilapidated video story, called Be Kind Rewind (no DVDs yet), in a dilapidated corner building where, allegedly, Fats Waller was born.

Can he save the shop and the building? Is it worth it in Passaic, New Jersey (the screenplay adding insult to injury by running down run-down Passaic)? Can his slow but nice assistant (Mos Def) and his oddball friend Jerry (Jack Black) raise enough money for repairs?

When Jerry tries to sabotage the local power plant, he gets sabotaged himself, electrified – which has disastrous effect on all the tapes for rent in the shop. When Mr Fletcher’s friend, Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow of all people) wants to rent Ghostbusters, they don’t have it, try to borrow it from their large, upmarket rivals (which Mr Fletcher has gone to spy on to get ideas about how to run a modern store). Refused, they get the brainwave (no, ‘brain’ is far too flattering) to make their own version. This is pretty silly but does the trick. Once they start doing their own versions of Rush Hour 2, King Kong, Driving Miss Daisy and 2001, with loads of others on their production slate due to public demand, the audience will either opt out or start to enjoy the film immensely.

Speaking of Ghostbusters, Sigourney Weaver turns up as the Trenton official who reminds the would-be directors about copyright laws and huge fines.

The ‘little people’ have their day when the locals all turn up, inside the shop and out on the streets in crowds, to watch the home-made film about Fats Waller – who was not born in the building at all. So, that’s a Michel Gondry film.

BOY A

(UK, 2007, d. John Crowley. Berlinale, Panorama: Ecumenical Prize winner)

Already screened on British television, Boy received some more promotion by its inclusion in the Panorama section at the Berlinale. It is a strong, well-made film, directed by John Crowley (Intermission) with a screenplay by Mark O’Rowe? (who wrote Intermission) adapting a novel by Jonathan Trigell. Audiences familiar with the Jamie Bolger case in England, where two young boys killed a little boy will be thinking of parallels, especially the outcry when the two boys had served their terms and were released into the community with changed identities.

We first meet Boy A when he is released. No one knows who he is or what he has done. He does not make contact with his family. The person who helps him is a kindly parole officer who helps him with job interviews and accommodation. He tries to blend in but is awkward, lacks some social graces and tends to follow some of his rowdy co-workers. The screenplay is sympathetic is inviting us to think about the problems facing a person who has done the time for his crime.

But we still wonder what the crime is. The screenplay provides the answers is flashbacks inserted at different times throughout the film, a cumulative effect for when we really know what the crime was. By this stage, Boy A finds the pressures to heavy to deal with. The final part of the film challenges the audience to think what they would have done had they found out the truth about him. How many chances does he deserve?

The boy is played by Andrew Garfield who then went on to be directed as the young student in Lions for Lambs. Peter Mullan is the parole officer who has problems with his own son which then become tied into the tragedy of Boy A.

CAOS CALMO (QUIET CHAOS)

(Italy, 2008, d. Antonello Grimaldo. Berlinale: Competition)

Quiet Chaos seems a highly unlikely title for an Italian film! However, it begins vigorously with two women saved from drowning at the beach followed by the accidental death of another woman. The result is a quiet chaos for her husband and her young daughter – and the puzzle of the father about his grieving or not grieving, whether he really loved his wife, and the effect that this all could have on his daughter as she keeps going to school and acting as if nothing had happened.

The father, played by Nino Moretti, who showed audiences what grief was in his La Stanza del Figlio (The Son’s Room), is a high-powered executive involved in talks about international mergers, firings, competitiveness for chairmanships, with resignations in the background. There is also his carefree brother (Alessandro Gassman), a jeans model, and his neurotic sister-in-law (Valeria Golino).

The father opts to wait outside his daughter’s school and continues to do this every day (with business associates and family coming to him much to the astonishment and the suspicions of a young woman who walks her dog there every day). He becomes a fixture in the life of the park and the piazza.

There are touches of humour (a pleasant daily game with a Downs syndrome boy), touches of intrigue as his associates (and the boss, Roman Polanski) negotiate with him, and a change of pace for him and his daughter. There is a bizarre scene where one of the drowning women comes to him – is it real or a sexual dream?

The film dramatises grief and emotion in a more quiet Italian way.


CORROBOREE

(Australia, 2007, d. Ben Hackworth. Berlinale: Forum)

An experimental film which does not rely on narrative but rather impressions, performance and sketches of characters and situations.

A young man, Conor O’Hanlon? (and billed as himself) travels to a country town with instructions from a dying director to entrust himself to a group of women at a holiday house. After he settles in, the role plays begin (again with instructions from the director). The young man is to represent him in re-enactments of events in his life. They include an encounter with his mother, a sexual encounter with a young woman, a conversation with an older woman, his treatment by a doctor. The women play these roles.

The cumulative effect of these impressions is some understanding of the director. It is also a showcase for the actresses who, as themselves, talk and interact, sometimes seriously, sometimes with humour. They also enter into their assigned roles with some relish.

Conor seems rather unaware of what this all means but gradually enters into the spirit of the role plays, eventually splattered with blood and naked.

In the meantime, we see glimpses of the dying director himself, being chanted over by the women, himself watching the proceedings unobtrusively. There is also a nurse looking after him as well as a young man who is a cook.

The director explained that ‘corroborree’ was a word coined by the white settlers to refer to the aboriginal rituals of dance and mime that represented all facets of their lives.

Puzzling while it is going on (and a little more exposition would not have gone astray) but the film ultimately achieves its effect of drawing us into this theatrical and ritual process.


DEREK

(UK, 2008, d. Isaac Jullien. Berlinale: Panorama)

Derek Jarman was a major force in UK independent cinema from the mid-197s to his death in 1994. A painter, a designer, experimenting with super 8 film and moving on with the technology of the period, he created a unique body of work that merits serious consideration.

In 1990, diagnosed as HIV positive, he allowed himself to be interviewed for more than ten hours by Colin McCabe?. Significant excerpts from this interview have been incorporated into this brief but interesting portrait of Jarman. It has been assembled by artist-director Isaac Jullien. The framework of the film is the speaking of a letter she wrote to the Guardian in 2002 by Tilda Swinton who appeared in a number of Jarman’s films, something of a muse to him. It is a tribute that is both poetic and rhetorical, enabling Tilda Swinton and Isaac Jullien to roam about London and visit Jarman’s home and garden in Kent.

Jarman tells his own story during the interviews with quite some detail and personal revelations. Born in 1942, he experienced the 1960s both in the US and in the UK. He was a willing participant in those ‘swinging times’. He traces the development of his art and talks about learning film-making when he was invited by Ken Russell to be the set designer for The Devils.

While many of Jarman’s films were narratives (The Tempest, Caravaggio, Edward II), he was far less interested in plot development than in being painterly with the camera. Much of his work is experimental/. This pervades his feature films.

One of is earliest films was made during the 25th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, giving him the opportunity to offer glimpses of England that echoed the times as well as being critical. This was true of two of his 1980s films, Jubilee and The Last of England. He also made a version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Jarman died from complications from AIDS. He was outspoken about his sexuality and this pervaded his films beginning with the strange, Latin-spoken, homoerotic Sebastiane in 1975. In this documentary, his comments on Edward II and his death are on this theme. For him, the most important film on this theme was The Garden (which received an OCIC commendation at the Berlin Festival of 1991). As with Terence Davies and Paul Verhoeven, the point of reference is Jesus and his Gospel message. Jarman explains how he spent a year, aged 8, at a Catholic school and was versed in Catholic imagery – and during this film Tilda Swinton remarks that he should have been a Catholic. Jarman eschews the church and Jesus but sees him as a rebel, a social justice stirrer and, therefore an icon for homosexuals, someone who willingly accepted the lepers, the unclean of his day. Jarman uses images from the passion of Jesus to make his point and some images are included here.

This film has the advantage, within 75 minutes, of offering biography, tribute and images and assessment of Jarman’s life and work.

DREAM BOY

(US, 2008, d. James Bolton. Berlinale: Panorama)

Based on an autobiographical novel by James Glimsley, this is a story of sexual awakening and dependence. Glimsley grew up in the American south as did the director, James Bolton, and their memories of growing up as homosexual boys are a mixture of secrecy and feeling repressed.

This film opens with a 15 year old coming to a small Louisiana town with his oppressive father and his timid mother. It emerges that the family has secrets. However, the first part of the film reflects the adolescent wondering as the introverted boy is attracted to the farm boy next door and they begin a secret relationship.

Half way through the film, there are some dramatic changes and the film builds up to a climax that is both violent as well as literally haunting.

Stephan Bender (the young Clark Kent in Superman Returns) and Max Roeg (son of director Nicolas Roeg and Theresa Russell) are the two boys who do quite well in creating characters who are uncertain about themselves and struggle with their feelings and their families.


ELEGY

(Spain/US, 2008, d. Isabel Coixet. Berlinale: Competition)

While watching Elegy, for some reason The Human Stain by Philip Roth came to mind so it was not a great surprise during the end credits to find that this film is based on Roth’s The Dying Animal. It is set in one of those Roth worlds, New York academia, and has, again, the intelligent professor who can lecture on literary critique but who has skimmed through life, leaving wife and son, seeing marriage as a high security prison, engaged in seductive sexual relationships with undergraduate students while in a spasmodic relationship with a friend for twenty years. His closest ally and confidant is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet who sometimes offers sound advice, sometimes sardonic advice but who serves as his sounding board.

The story is about a man ageing. At first David (Ben Kingsley) is more an emotional and commitment failure. With a questioning and quizzical voiceover commentary by David, we review his life, watch his sometimes inept behaviour and become almost complicit in his seduction of an attractive Cuban student (Penelope Cruz). She touches him as no one has before which ultimately leads to his jealousy and a separation. He has ignored his rather righteous doctor son in the past but who now confesses to him that he is having an affair and reaches out to his father.

At the end, we are faced with themes of illness and dying and, perhaps, a modicum of hope, eliciting some sympathy if not empathy for David.

There is a strangely eclectic cast. Besides Kingsley and Cruz, there are Dennis Hopper in good form as the poet, Patricia Clarkson as the longtime companion and Peter Sarsgaard as the son.

The screenplay has been written by Nicholas Meyer (Time after Time, The Seven Percent Solution) and direction is by Spanish Isabel Coixet (My Life Without Me).


FEUERHERZ (HEART OF FIRE)

(Germany, 2008, d. Luigi Forlani. Berlinale: Competition)

This is an emotional film about war in Eritrea. It is based on a memoir by Senait G. Menari. On its publication, controversy arose, questioning its veracity that the author spent time as a child soldier.

At the launch of the film in competition in Berlin, the Press Conference with the makers offered a definition of a child soldier, especially in view of the Eritrean government’s denials and literature distributed outside the screening. The definition is that any child under the age of 18 involved in any war effort (not just the bearing of arms) is a child soldier. The filmmakers also wanted to stress the point that in Eritrea, unlike in Uganda and Sierra Leone, children were not forced to take up arms but that many children did so voluntarily and became involved in war.

The makers also made another point, that the film was ‘inspired’ by the book rather than being a factual version and that they had called the little girl Awet rather than the name of the author.

This said, the film is a vivid picture of Eritrea, beginning peacefully at an Italian school in Asmara, then moving to the countryside and villages, then to camps and conflicts between the opposing groups of liberators from Ethiopia.

One of the man reasons for the impact of the film is the screen presence and performance of Letekidan Micael as Awet. She is quite a dynamic actress. As a schoolgirl in Asmara, she is intelligent and questioning, one of her key ideas being that Jesus was wrong about turning the other cheek. She shows how it is physically impossible. However, a local sister explains that it would be a backhanded slap and that this was a symbol of master-slave striking and that turning the other cheek is a defiance and a symbol that there should be no slaves.

Awet has many opportunities to test this when her sister takes her from school to go back to the family village to their father. Later she goes to a military camp. In each plays she readies her cheek for the second strike.

The film shows rebels, the children training with both chores and gun drills, raids – and deaths. It makes a plea against war as the children try to flee the military action and go to Sudan.

The title refers to Awet’s strong spirit. However, a symbol is also offered: a cloth picture of the heart of Jesus (and we also see a picture of the Sacred Heart in close-up) with Mary on the reverse side. Awet treasures it and finally offers it to the nomad leader as a gift for taking the group to freedom.

The film was directed by Luigi Forlani who co-directed The Story of the Weeping Camel.


FIREFLIES IN THE GARDEN

(US, 2008, d. Dennis Lee. Berlinale: Special screening)

The advertising tagline for this film is: a family has to break apart before it comes together. This is a smart saying but not entirely accurate for this hard-edged American dysfunctional family drama.

Told in flashbacks (or flashforwards from the starting point), it begins with a young boy, Michael (Cayden Boyd) and centres on him as an adult (Ryan Reynolds). Typically, perhaps, or typically enough, the opening scene sets the tone quite powerfully: the awkward boy with the thick glasses (deliberately not using them), his domineering and exacting father complaining about him and ridiculing him, the mother supportive but acquiescent. The boy is ousted from the family car into a cornfield in the rain and has to walk home. How will this family turn out, especially as the mother is pregnant and her younger sister comes to spend the summer with them?

There is a shock plot development that brings the adult family together – a time for tensions, a time for flashbacks to more hurtful experiences, with an even greater pressure how the academic father humiliates his son and physically punishes him.

There are a number of parallels in the contemporary story between Michael and his nephew. The screenplay does not pull its punches as the characters interact and the harshness of family life is on display.

While these are the themes, it is the performances which brings them to life in unexpected ways. Ryan Reynolds shows an adult, now competent, but who is emotionally hamstrung by the traumatic experiences of his childhood and who still finds himself the butt of his father’s contempt. As Willem Dafoe plays the father, his portrait is of an arrogant man with high expectations for all of his family, even details of written rules for behaviour in the house. Michael is his great disappointment. Julia Roberts has more of a cameo role as Michael’s mother but more is revealed in the flashbacks about her relationship with her husband and some more secrets than we might have expected. Others in the cast include Emily Watson as the grown-up sister (Hayden Pannettiere as the younger woman), and Carrie Ann Moss.

There are a number of happy moments (even with actual fireflies in the garden) but there is a pervading unhappiness – until there is some emotional relenting on all sides so that happiness might be possible.


HAPPY-GO-LUCKY

(UK, 2008, d. Mike Leigh. Berlinale: Competition)

Mike Leigh has done it again. A fine, real and realistic portrait of ordinary Londoners, ordinary people.

But… the title? It sounds like the winner of a competition for the least likely title for a Mike Leigh film. Happy is not a word that one readily associates with Mike Leigh films, let alone happy-go-lucky. There is no question, however, that Leigh has made an extremely happy and happy-go-lucky film.

The cast must really have enjoyed Leigh’s process for developing the screenplay: having the cast create responses to situations he suggests, find the dialogue, find the wit, find the emotions and interactions so that he can fashion a tight script from their creativity.

And he is blessed, as usual, by a marvellous cast and a totally persuasive performance (as happened with Brenda Blethyn for Secrets and Lies and with Imelda Staunton for Vera Drake) from Sally Hawkins who had appeared in the cast of Leigh’s recent films. Like Brenda Blethyn and Imelda Staunton, she won a Best Actress award for her performance, this time in Berlin. From the opening credits where she is seen cheerfully riding her bike through the streets of a sunny London to the end where she is rowing on a lake with her room-mate, Zoe (Alexis Zegerman in a more quiet but perfectly complementary performance), Sally Hawkins commands our full attention. Her Polly is a woman of happiness, zest for life which is admirably optimistic, geared to helping others through laughter but not taking herself too seriously. She is wonderfully extraverted but could be more than a bit wearing for those who cannot emulate her exuberance.

Yet, you know that at some stage, she will be challenged by people who are more serious-minded, who feel threatened by her joie-de-vivre. But, you hope she has the goodness and the moral resilience to take criticism on board, absorb it and be the better person for it while it does not quench her spirited zest.

So, this is a few weeks in Polly’s happy-go-lucky life. The screenplay is quite episodic and some sequences seem arbitrary to the plot, like that of her chance meeting at night in a deserted space, without fear, with someone most of us would find too frightening and avoid, a homeless and mentally unstable man. Yet, we are glad the episodes have been included.

Just a list of a few of Polly’s encounters gives a flavour of her life: at first joking with a most taciturn bookseller, then her girls’ night out dancing and drinking, talking and laughing, with her sister and friends, then her preparations for her class with primary school children learning about birds (complete with home-made bird masks). She also has to deal with a little boy bully in the school yard and the social worker who comes to work with him, then a liaison with the social worker…

And her driving lessons! Who else but Mike Leigh could engross his audience in driving lessons? It is here that the clash between the over-jovial and the over-serious comes into play with Eddie Marsan giving yet another of his completely different performances as an angry, rigidly uptight instructor who makes the intensely aggressive speeches in the film, exasperated by Polly’s chat, laughter and his feeling she did not take him and the lessons seriously enough. Polly’s pregnant sister is also a controller, of her husband as well as visitors to the house and reacts hypersensitively to Polly’s easygoing love and support.

And Leigh makes a Flamenco lesson a highlight of his film, amusing but then hilarious as the Spanish instructor lets loose with an exhortation to her motley class for intense passion for the story of the dance – along with some very funny observations on British pronunciation and reserve. The audience at the Berlinale press screening burst into loud spontaneous applause as the sequence climaxed.

Leigh has always believed in human nature and has never been afraid of showing its darker side, especially in Naked. And now, believe it or not, he is not afraid to portray the profoundly happy-go-lucky.


HEY HEY IT’S ESTHER BLUEBURGER

(Australia, 2008, d. Cathy Randall. Berlinale: Generation)

This is an accomplished first film for writer-director, Cathy Randall, drawing on her Sydney school experiences after she moved from South Africa to Australia aged 7. Her memories of going to a private school and not fitting in has led to her creating an eccentrically lively Australian screen character.

Esther Blueburger is Jewish as is Cathy Randall, This is an important (and so far rather unusual) focus for an Australian film: the Jewish family and their beliefs, preparation for the Bar Mitzvah for both boy and girl, the ritual, the party (full of humorously stereotypical older Jewish mothers), the ignoring of invitations by the schoolgirls, the Jewish school for Esther’s twin brother – and his adolescent fervour for prayer and for kosher meals. This is interesting and entertaining, something of a breakthrough for Australian cinema (Norman Loves Rose and Two Brothers Running were made in the 1980s).

The film is an M-rated for Australian audiences with a smattering of swearing and some allusions to adolescent experimental sexual behaviour – enough to raise discussions for teenage girls, parents and teachers.

Danielle Catanzariti is a real find. She gives a totally self-possessed performance for her first film. She exudes confidence but, under the surface, are a 13 year old’s uncertainties: not accepted by the accomplished Australian version of WASP girls; not normal - although Normal is what she calls her pet duck who is forbidden to go to her Bar Mitzvah and who turns up as a featherless specimen for a class on the digestive system; exaggerating and lying to her parents; happy to find a friend and secretly transferring to the public school (under the cover of a Swedish exchange student!).

It is this friendship with Sunni (Keisha Castle-Hughes? very different from Whale Rider and her role as Mary in The Nativity Story) and her mother (a strong cameo from Toni Collette) that disrupts her life. At first it is fun. Then she responds to taunts and dares from her new friends and becomes two-faced when she bullies another girl and then basks in acceptance at her old school (these girls think she is a spy in an experiment).

Esther is lively but by no means perfect and she has to learn – especially through a shock tragedy and her being unmasked and having to face and accept herself.

This is a very cheerful film that will appeal to adolescent girls who can identify with Esther (rather than the conformist elitist girls) in her exuberance but also in having to face up to reality. (The film was a great favourite in Berlin in the Kinderfestival in the section for 14 and over with 4 screenings.)


IL Y’A PLUS LONGTEMPS QUE JE T’AIME

(France, 2008, d. Philippe Claudel. Berlinale: Competition. Ecumenical Prize)

Highly recommended for audiences who appreciate a strong human drama. It is insightfully written, powerfully acted and impeccably crafted. If anyone has wondered about the screen presence and acting ability of Kristin Scott Thomas, then this performance should persuade them of her talent.

Novelist Philippe Claudel has created a screenplay with autobiographical elements but focuses on the relationship between two sisters. The older, Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas) has been absent for fifteen years. The full details of her story are revealed only gradually, step by step, the final and full story coming at the end of the film. The younger sister, Leah (Elsa Zylberstein), a professor, married with two adopted Vietnamese daughters, welcomes her sister back. She has been alienated from Juliette by her parents but brings her into her home, an opportunity for rehabilitation.

The relationship between the sisters as they confront the past and try to beuild their love again is intensely moving.

The supporting cast is rich in characters: Leah’s initially reluctant husband, Luc; the reserved professor, Michel, who proves to be important in Juliette’s reconstructing her life; the talkative divorce police captain who wants to pour out his soul but ends in tragedy; Luc’s benign scholarly father, mute after experiencing a stroke; and the two little girls, vivacious and loving. Then there are the hostile, suspicious, the rude people that Juliette encounters as she tries to find employment.

This is the story of a woman in mid-life, burdened by extraordinary suffering and trauma, being urged to come alive again through a supportive family and an opportunity for healing. It is the kind of film the French do so well.


JERUSALEMA

(South Africa, 2008, d. Ralph Ziman. Berlinale: Competition)

Jerusalema is a traditional African song played and sung several times throughout this contemporary South African gangster story. There are references to the Psalms, especially Psalm 137, a lament for those who have forgotten the true meaning of Jerusalem. And Johannesburg, which is the setting, should have been, especially in the post-apartheid era, a new Jerusalem.

At one stage, a master gangster who trained in Russia before the fall of Communism watches a scene on TV of Michael Mann’s Heat, a truck crashing into a security van so that thieves could more easily make off with the money. The Johannesburg criminals imitate the movie, successfully but brutally and bloodily.

So, it is no surprise that the avowed intentions of the film-makers here are to construct their South African film along the lines of the Hollywood models – and show they have learned their lessons well – in staging, editing, pacing. This means that this is an effective example of the genre.

But, of course, beyond the genre and its conventions, the film is most interesting because it is based on actual characters and events. The device of a journalist interviewing the central character is familiar but it allows the story to go back to 1994, to elections, Nelson Mandela and the hope for a new beginning. But, in Soweto and the townships, despite improvements, much has not changed and the new generation of South African youth does not have as many opportunities as hoped for.

The plot focuses on Lucky Kunene who receives a University entrance but no scholarship. He starts to steal cars with a friend to help feed his family and then they are recruited to participate in that particular crime of Johannesburg, carjacking.

After ten years, Lucky is a crime boss. This time he is taking over squalid buildings from care-less owners. He settles poorer families in them and takes the rent, amassing a fortune. He also falls for a white woman. Drug deals are out for him but the police are intent on capturing him.

There is a sense of realism about the film but also, especially at the end, more than a touch of cynical observation.



JESUS CHRISTUS ERLOSER (JESUS CHRIST SAVIOUR)

(Germany, 2008, d. Peter Geyer. Berlinale: Panorama)

Although the film version of Klaus Kinski’s one-man performance of Jesus Christus Erloser was not released until 2008, it belongs in content and style to the 1970s. The stock footage was edited by Kinski’s biographer, Peter Geyer, and premiered at the Berlin film festival in February, 2008.

On November 20th 1971, in Berlin’s Deutschehalle, German actor Klaus Kinski (who was soon to appear Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God and later in Herzog’s Nosferatu and Fitzcarraldo) presented his 30 page verbal portrait of Jesus. The performance turned out to be disastrous with heckling and interjections, criticism of Kinski as a person and as a rich film star talking about poverty. There were gibes about his career in crime movies and, finally, that he was a fascist. People shouted that they wanted their money back (10 marks). Kinski had a ferocious temper and hit back at the audience, inviting critics on stage. To one man who had said that Jesus was patient, Kinski shouted that he also took up a whip to beat people and that is what he would do. Later in the night, another man came to the microphone and quietly denounced Kinski saying that by their fruits you shall know them. Kinski started again but walked off stage a second time. He waited. The management asked those who had come merely to complain or protest to leave. Eventually, at about 2.00 am an exhausted Kinski did his performance for the hundred or so people who remained.

Kinski is said to have worked on this project for a decade. He began it in the 1960s when there were very few Jesus films. His portrait is closest to that of Pasolini’s in Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo. By the time he performed in Berlin, the Jesus movement had led to Jesus Christ, Superstar (Kinski proclaims that he does not see Jesus as a superstar) and Godspell.

It seems generally agreed that Kinski portrayed odd, even mad and obsessed characters on screen, and that he was something like this in real life. For this performance he is dressed oddly in a flamboyant shirt with coloured sleeves and purple pants. He had a frighteningly intense face, always serious. He had a powerful voice and, when he increased his intensity and volume, his rhetoric sounded not unlike Hitler’s.

Kinski opens his description of Jesus as Besugte, ‘Wanted’. He emphasises Jesus’ revolutionary bent, his social consciousness, even his anarchic behaviour and teaching. He gives a verbal outline, referencing distinguishing features as ‘scars on his hands and feet’. He names different titles including Son of Man, Messenger of Peace, Light of the World. Nationality: none. He states that Jesus may have been parentless, that his mother may have been a whore and that his father may have been a convict living in a commune. Jesus was a worker and wore no uniform. He welcomed everyone for company, prostitutes, junkies, bums, people on death row and (a category he names several times) Vietnamese mothers. Kinski says Jesus was not a Negro, not a Communist, not of the Christian party, not a Protestant, not a Catholic, not present at party conventions, not a Church Jesus. The Church is people.

While Kinski speaks of love, his emphasis in fact is on Jesus and truth (much like Pasolini). He quotes Old Testament prophets about the blind seeing, the deaf hearing. Listening to and watching Kinski, one does think of Old Testament prophets. Were Amos to have preached Jesus’ message, he may well have looked and sounded like Kinski. He keeps up the attack on the status quo, listing people who claim ‘Jesus is here’. This includes the Pope who, he says, asks Jesus about following him into eternity. Jesus responds with ‘Shut up and follow me’. He exhorts soldiers to throw away their uniforms. He also says that anyone who has information about Jesus and his sedition should go to the police.

As regards the Gospel texts that Kinski bases his piece on, they are generally from Matthew’s Gospel. He quotes the Sermon on the Mount especially concerning prayer and fasting, about giving away clothes, about not serving God and money (with some gibes at the Vatican and its treasures and palaces full of priests). He also refers to the story of the rich young man and the text about not worrying what you are to eat, to wear… Needless to say, he draws on Matthew 23 with its ‘Woe to you…’.

Kinski uses only one parable and it is from Luke. He speaks a variation on the parable of the man who built bigger barns but who was called by God before he could enjoy his wealth. Kinski has the man investing in many offshore banks (his equivalent of the barns).

There are only two encounters that Kinski alludes to. The first is Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman who was a prostitute in the city (Luke 7) and, of course, the woman taken in adultery (John 8). Kinski has been referring to his hecklers as ‘big mouths’ and suggests that the big mouths cast the first stone. He stays with John towards the end and makes reference to Jesus’ sayings during the Last Discourse, especially about eternal life.

Peter Geyer introduces the end credits but it is not the end of the film. He then shows the last part of the evening where Kinski describes the Passion. The camera focuses more on the reactions of the audience than on Kinski himself. Kinski’s voice is subdued, even reverent. Previously, he had referred to Jesus not exploiting his body on crosses everywhere. Now, he describes Jesus’ suffering and death, Jesus commending his spirit to the Father with questions about the meaning of his death yet his readiness. And that he has been dying for 2000 years.

While the performance comes from the 1960s and 1970s with particular references to wars and changes of the period, Jesus Christ Erloser can still strike many chords today.


KABEI – OUR MOTHER

(Japan, 2008, d. Yoji Yamada. Berlinale: Competition)

A very genteel film about a very different period in Japanese history. Director Yoji Yamada brings a delicacy of touch to the characters, not just the patient and loving mother but to her two daughters, her sister-in-law, to a sketch of her professor husband and the gentle kindly scholar who supports the family in trying times.

These trying times are the years 1939-1941 during which there was the Japanese ‘crusade’ in Manchuria, ‘the China incident’, meaning the invasion of Manchuria and the signalling of Japan’s ambitions for world domination. Then comes Pearl Harbor and war is declared with immediate joy for victories like the fall of Singapore. However, it becomes a period of hardship, especially at the end of the war amid the ruins and the hunger and the American presence.

Most of the action takes place in a simple Tokyo house, in the streets, a restaurant and the police precincts and gaol, although there is a cheerfully sunny beach holiday in 1941. The director keeps some grim moments of war action until the last minutes of the film.

The gentility of the film is reinforced by dignified performances by the adults and the constant courtesy, bows, tea drinking, which characterise the politeness inherent in the Japanese tradition.

What makes the film more interesting is the professor who is arrested, separated from his family and kept in squalid prison conditions because he is a dissident, calling the China incident a war and being guilty of what are designated as ‘thought crimes’. The repercussions of these crimes are devastating for the family, his wife having to teach in a primary school and being cut off by her pompous police chief father because of gossip about her husband’s fate.

The two daughters are 12 and 9 at the start, the younger speaking the voiceover memoir. The friendly scholar, accident prone and almost drowning during their holiday, shows a devotion beyond duty into love.

The film is very emotional in its ending – continuing the tribute to the mother during the final credits in a letter form her husband. The style is in the classical Japanese tradition.


KATYN

(Poland, 2007, d. Andrej Wajda. Berlinale: Special screening)

For more than fifty years, Andrej Wajda has chronicled the history of 20th century Poland. Initially, in the 1950s, he told stories of World War II and the Polish resistance. Later he ventured back into earlier history but, in the 1970s, he took up themes of the Soviet dominance of Poland, propaganda and the unrest that led to the Solidarity movement (Man of Marble, Man of Iron). As he grew older, he dramatised 19th century historical battles and epic poems like Pan Tadeusz.

At the age of 80, he has returned to World War II, a personal as well as a national quest, as his father died in the massacre that he now portrays.

It deals with events not known by those outside Poland and, as the drama shows, an event that was covered up for half a century.

The key event was the capture and subsequence execution of over 10,000 Polish officers. Victims of a secret pact between Berlin and Moscow in 1939, the Russians executed these men, burying them in mass graves. When Russia and Germany became enemies, the Russians changed the official dates of the killings
and attributed them to the German forces. During and after the war, this was the official line, the truth being revealed only in the late 1980s with Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s finally acknowledging what happened.

As might be expected, Wajda keeps the re-enactment until the end of his film. Most of the film is not about the officers (there are some sequences establishing relationships, tensions and uncertainties). Rather, it is about the families affected by the long absence, the list of names of the dead and the sadness and loneliness: the wife and daughter of one officer; his mother and his interned professor father; a nephew turning up after the war wanting to study; the wife of a general and her being urged to sign a document accusing the Germans of the atrocities; the sister of a victim trying to set up a tombstone stating the truth; the comrade of the officer who has survived the war and is a Russian soldier.

This episodic style is often difficult to follow as characters suddenly turn up without our knowing exactly who they are. While this can be dramatically disconcerting, there is no doubting the intensity of the re-creation of the period, the war atmosphere in Kracow and, ultimately, the savage massacre.


LADY JANE

(France, 2008, d. Robert Guediguian. Berlinale: Competition)

Lady Jane is not your typically French title. It refers to a Rolling Stones’ song but, more specifically, to a boutique in Ais, managed by middle-aged Muriel who lives with her fifteen year old son. When her son is abducted, we learn that Lady Jane is also a criminal code name with its distinctive gang tattoo.

Robert Guidiguian has been something of a chronicler of life on the Marseilles waterfront and its neighbourhoods. Now he has opted for a change in theme and treatment, a drama of crime and revenge.
He still brings some vivid life to this part of the city and brings to life those who live and survive there, many with shady pasts.

He also plays with the time sequences so that audiences have to be on the alert to what has happened in the past and what is happening in the present. It is not what the audience might assume.

Guediguian uses his regular stars and crew whom we have seen quite often in this world before – especially his wife Ariane Ascaride who plays Muriel.

Strong on atmosphere and character, some twists in the plot and questions about the violence and the emptiness of revenge.


LEMON TREE

(Israel, 2008, d. Eran Riklis. Berlinale: Panorama)

For anyone who wants to appreciate different point of view of the state of Israel an d the attitudes towards the Palestinians, this film is well worth seeing. It also contains vividly alarming vistas of the separation wall, higher than one might have thought, a fortress wall keeping people in as well as out.

The plot is both realistic and symbolic. The new Israeli Defence Minister owns a mansion on the border with Palestine on the West Bank, looking straight out on a lemon grove inherited by Salma (Hiam Abbas) from her father. The Israeli Secret Service declare that the grove is a security risk for the Defence Minister, a cover for intrusive terrorists and the military decrees that it should be cut down. Salma takes a firm stand and eventually appeals through various courts up to the supreme court in Jerusalem.

The background to the story is the Israel-Lebanon? war of 2006 with its sense of heightened tension. On the Israeli side, the minister is taking his job very seriously while trying to give a genial media impression about the lemons. His lonely wife has more empathy with Salma.

On the Palestinian side, Salma employs an eager young lawyer and finds him personally attractive (while being sternly warned against this by the local Palestinian authorities).

Hiam Abbas (Free Zone and Anna in The Nativity Story) is a woman of great beauty and bearing making Salma a woman of character and significant stature. The drama is movingly humane.

The political interest is in the Israeli courts and the drastic issues of security, the role of the media and the potential for freedom of the media in reporting a more sympathetic Palestinian perspective to an Israeli readership.

But, in the end, the wall cuts through between the minister gazing out at it and Salma on the other side in the grove looking at its looming presence.


MAN JEUK (SPARROW)

(Hong Kong, 2008, d. Johnnie To. Berlinale: Competition)

Probably every review of Sparrow will start with a question concerning the way Johnnie To’s many action fans will react to his different kind of film, one that (one might say) eschews his customary excitement and violence. Then they will probably comment on his ‘change of pace’, his change of genre from police and gangster thrillers to comic petty thieves who work in public places and in sunny daylight. Some of the reviewers will probably see the film buff references to Hollywood light caper films, plenty of charades, arabesques and mirages. But, there will be more references to a hero who takes photos (and whose arm goes into plaster) and who looks out rear windows, how it takes a thief to catch a thief, as well as vertiginous stairwells and rooftops. There is no Hitchcock blonde but an Audrey Hepburn style brunette. And there are enough McGuffins? to fill several Masters theses.

Some reviewers will comment on To’s new vision of Hong Kong, the cityscapes, the cars and buses-filled streets, the fine black and white photos our hero takes.

The four comic thieves (with some indulgence in slapstick) are what Mario Monicelli called long ago ‘I Soliti Ignoti (the usual unknown suspects).

I may be wrong in suggesting that reviewers will note these things. If not, I have.


NIGHT AND DAY (BAM GUA NAT)

(Korea, 2008, d. Hong Sangsoo. Berlinale: Competition)

This is a very long film, almost two and a half hours. It is well-acted, well-crafted and has some interesting themes. However, to be sharing the questions of the central character, who is a rather ordinary man and not portrayed particularly empathetically, is something of a hard slog. It is not that he is unlikeable. It is just that his quest is haphazardly presented and not always so compelling.

The structure is that of A Korean In Paris or glimpses over a seven weeks period (September-October, 2007) of the intermittent diary of a painter. He has fled Korea and his wife after being reported for smoking marijuana at a party. He phones his wife from Paris every day (his night, her day). He meets a former girlfriend by chance and toys with renewing the friendship though she is married. His kindly landlord introduces him to a young cousin, an art student. He is then smitten by her room-mate. He wanders Paris. He visits the beach at Deauville with the two art students and has to mediate their dislike of each other. He reads the Bible, tries oysters… and then goes home when his wife tells him she is pregnant.

The film uses a Beethoven sonata throughout which, beautiful as it is, has a life of its own and seems a presumption on the part of the director to use it to support the quest of a semi-interesting man in search of himself. A long two months’ journey through night and day.

THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL

(UK, 2008, d. Justin Chadwick. Berlinale: Special screening)

Most audiences know the ending for Anne Boleyn, so it is how it began and how it developed that are the important matters here. Prolific writer, Peter Morgan (The Deal, The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, Longford, Frost/Nixon) has adapted a historical novel by Philippa Gregory – which leads to a strange disclaimer at the end of the film that this is a fiction and any resemblance…!

Already filmed for television in 2003 with Johdi May as Anne, Natascha McElhone? as Mary and Jared Harris as Henry VIII, this is a lavish screen version catering for what one commentator called the audience appetite for Tudorbethan dramas. Costumes, décor, locations should please those who want to see and visualise history.

The story is intriguing (in both senses). While the younger, married, Mary Boleyn, was designated by her ambitious and greedy family to be Henry VIII’s mistress after Anne, originally the choice fell out of favour, and bore the king a son, she is the other Boleyn girl. However, early in the film Anne refers to herself in this way. However, she eventually outshines and outmanoeuvres Mary. Anne is first chosen by the ruthless and blunt Duke of Norfolk (an alarmingly steely performance from David Morrissey), forcing his weaker brother-in-law, Thomas Boleyn (a credible Mark Rylance) to prostitute his daughter to the king to win favours and pay off debts. Norfolk’s sister, Elizabeth (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a strong woman but tends to accept this status quo.

Henry VIII’s desire to have a male heir to consolidate his kingdom is well-known and the core of this story. Catherine of Aragon (an effectively controlled performance by Ana Torent, the fine child actress from the 1970s in The Spirit of the Beehive and Cria Cuervos) bears her daughter, Mary, but only stillborn males.

This screenplay makes Anne and her shrewd and ambitiously scheming and Henry’s unruly passion for her the motive forces for defying the Pope and separating England from the Catholic Church (Peter Morgan’s explicit screenplay statement). Wolsey and Cranmer do not figure here, but the plot makes a strong case for Anne’s power and influence. With the birth of Elizabeth and a miscarriage, Anne knew that a king who had discarded his wife and her sister, Mary, would discard her too.

Eric Bana is a quieter Henry VIII than might have been expected. Scarlett Johansson is credible and quite effective as Mary, portraying her as a more decent and heroic woman given the treatment by family and king. But Natalie Portman is mightily impressive as Anne, charming, self-confident, wily and, given the momentum from the Duke of Norfolk’s plan, more than an accomplice, taking over and dominating until she marries and is crowned as queen. Then she reaps the consequences of her flirtatious whirlwind.

The other strength of the film is the dynamic between the two sisters, loving, a sense of betrayal, hostility and jealousy, dependence and reconciliation. An interesting and entertaining contribution to screen Tudor history.


RESTLESS

(Israel, 2008, d. Amos Kollek. Berlinale: Competition)

The films of Amos Kollek, which sometimes veer between Israel and New York, between Hebrew and English, can be tough. This one is. It is also a 2007 view on Israel and Israelis in the Middle East, highlighting what he sses as a confusion of identity in recent years. And he makes this confusion apply to Jews as well who have spent years in the US and to the younger generation in Israel.

As with so many directors of Israeli films, they are against hardline Zionism, pro a more secular culture and lifestyle in their faith and are prone to offer images of mutual humanity with their ‘enemies’, especially Palestinians. There is a questioning of the political heritage and the status quo. This is part of being ‘restless’.

Restless is an interesting drama, sharply written, sympathetically played, even for characters who would try the endurance of Job in real life.

At the centre is Moshe (Moshe Ivgy), a middle-aged Jew, born in Morocco (and more than adept in making Moroccan soup), educated in Israel, who married a Polish wife and, restless and not ready for married life or fatherhood, abandoned them and made his way to New York, eking out a lonely life by deals and by busking sales in the streets, not paying his rent, being abusive to friends and foes, drinking, womanising, surviving.

He would like to be a stand-up comic and gets the opportunity in a friend’s bar with his badly rhyming poems and his sardonic remarks that question Jewish assumptions. He even persuades the tough manager of the bar (Karen Young) that he is worth considering.

When Moshe’s wife dies, his son (Ran Danker), a crack sniper in the army, discovers Moshe’s address. He is advised to leave the army because he is so angry and uptight. He decides to confront his unknown father in New York.

The film does not take easy ways out but it is not without hope.


SLEEP DEALER

(US, 2008, d. Alex Rivera. Berlinale: Panorama)

First-time writer director, Alex Rivera, says that his father migrated to the US from Peru looking for work and his experience made his son realise that America wants the work but not the workers. This notion led him to some key ideas for a (slightly?) futuristic drama that blends social realism in the backblocks of Mexico and the squalor of the outskirts of Tijuana with a special effects world and action.

This is a world where individuals can be processed, inserted with nodes (like Johnny Mnemonic) and can be tuned into a global network where memories (visual and verbal) can be stored and accessed on a site, Trunode. But the nodes are also a means for transferring energy. Hispanic workers living behind a separating wall from the US can be linked electronically to working robots in the US on building sites and other workplaces. The military can do the same thing with drone planes used to bomb suspicious sites and kill enemies. The Hispanic workers gyrate and do the work motions while the skyscrapers are built in the American cities.

Topical in its themes of third world poverty and deprivation in the Mexican provinces (where rivers are dammed and local farmers have to go to collect and carry water and pay a price for it for their fields and groves) as well as themes of migration for work and the exploitation of labour in the towns, the film also contains a romance as well as defiant protest. (For these reasons, Amnesty International gave it its award in Berlin.)


STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE

(US, 2008, d. Errol Morris. Berlinale: Competition)

It didn’t happen while the Vietnam War was going on: big name directors making feature films or documentaries about the war and its consequences. But, it is happening on a significant scale with American films, many with mainstream stars, with films not just about the invasion and occupation of Iraq or the bombing of Afghanistan, but critical of these events and of American behaviour at political and military level (Redacted, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah, Battle for Haditha (from the UK)).

Now Oscar-winning documentarist, Errol Morris, brings a detailed consideration of what happened in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, especially after the publication of the notorious, humiliating photos around the world and the trials where US military personnel were found guilty and imprisoned – though, as so often noted, no higher official was held to account.

Morris is able to show not only the photos on the big screen but has drawn together a cast to re-enact aspects of the scenes, not in a melodramatic way but with staging, light and shadow, in a style that takes its cue from the photos with the audience feeling that they have seen the actual events. Occasionally, this is heightened with the extreme close-ups of the toothy maws of the snapping guard dogs.

The basic situation of Abu Ghraib is introduced, especially through a 2003 visit of Donald Rumsfeld and the concern of American authorities to capture and imprison Saddam Hussein. (In one of the interviews, it is pointed out that the military found Saddam not through any information gained from torture.)

The bulk of the film, however, consists of interviews (intercut with the photos and re-enactments) conducted by Morris over several years with key personnel responsible for the prison, with participants in the action photographed, especially the now well-known Lyndde England, with Sabrina, one of the key photographers with quotations from her letters of the time, with an American interrogator and with an expert on photography who prepared the data for the prosecution.

One of the guards remarks that the situation must have been grave if it led to the US President apologising to the world.

So, the film is a questioning and an indictment of American policy (and lack of it), unpreparedness to deal with the post-invasion situation, especially in terms of personnel training – and the critique of a tradition that has accepted torture. It is hoped that we are becoming more sensitive to these brutal and humiliating realities.


TATIL KITABI (SUMMER BOOK)

(Turkey, 2008, d. Seyfi Teoman. Berlinale: Forum)

A pleasing glimpse of provincial Turkish life in a town that has its own style and is not dependent on tourists. The film begins and ends with school children. While a little boy is central, the film quickly introduces a wide range of local characters. They go about their daily routines, picking lemons in a grove, buying and selling in the shops as well as welcoming home an older son from military service. He creates some tension in his home, especially with his father, when he wants to go to university instead of continuing in the army.

There are many familiar family themes and tensions but we see them in a Turkish setting with Turkish sensibilities and pace. This makes it an interesting first film by.


3 ZAN (3 WOMEN)

(Iran, 2008, d. Manijeh Hekmat. Berlinale: Panorama)

A vigorous film about women from the director of Women’s Prison.

While staying within the bounds of the restrictions of dress, position and influence of women in contemporary Iran, this is a glimpse of three generations of women, women who are becoming stronger and
more independent in each generation. It is a dramatic view of tradition, of current enterprise and of the possible future.

The action takes place over only a few days. The focus is on the busy woman, Minou (Niki Karimi), involved in carpet making and an expert in authenticity verification to detect illegal sales out of the country. Her mother is senile, due to go for a doctor’s appointment but, when her daughter is caught up in stopping a sale, she wanders off with a carpet. She takes a bus back to her village. She represents the traditional past.

Minou has also lost her daughter, Pegah, and discovers to her dismay that Pegah had been failing courses at university for several terms and had dropped out, that she has an apartment as well as a job as an industrial photography. As Minou goes to visit friends and her daughter’s associates, she discovers more about herself and her attitudes than about her daughter.

Meanwhile Pegah has driven on an impulse out into the countryside, gives a lift to a young archaeologist, discusses serious matters with him. They also take care of a woman who is ill after an illegal abortion and carry her back to her village where the elders discuss stoning her because of her sin. Freer in spirit than her mother, she has a sense of responsibility which ensures a stronger future.

Then the film stops. It is not as if we cannot appreciate what has happened and what will happen to the three women. But, the film just stops.


TIRADOR (SLINGSHOT)

(Philippines, 2007, d. Brillante Mendoza. Berlinale: Forum)

Tirador is Tagalog slang for thief. It literally means a slingshot. Director, Brillante Mendoza, says that his very low budget video film, made with the assistance of friends, is ‘guerilla filming’. While it looks as if the director and crew came straight in from the streets and started filming for the long opening sequence, in fact, actors and crew went into this impoverished and squalid area of Manila, made friends with the locals and gained their trust and co-operation. They rehearsed, choreographed and blocked this sequence (a police night raid on some very unsavoury premises) with chaos, noise, fights, as the (mainly) men try to escape. Three cameras were filming in the middle of the action. It is a tour-de-force.

For the rest of this comparatively brief (80 minutes) film, we take up with a variety of characters, glimpsing part of their stories which are mainly to do with thieving. They offer a brief but compelling picture of a cross-section of the inhabitants: a middle-aged man and his gang who are pickpockets (and who gives his mother medication for a sick child); a young man who snatches a purse to pay for his pedicab debt instalments; a womanising young husband who is more interested in drugs; a woman with new dentures who drops and loses them lamenting how she had stolen money to get them; a couple who steal DVD players from shops; a young boy whose father is crushed to death during a Palm Sunday procession; a group of students who bully and rob a timid boy – and one is arrested and beaten but who then puts it over the corrupt cop who has interrogated him.

In many of the socially-minded Tagalog films, there is a preoccupation with sexual behaviour. This is not the case here. The poverty, the needs of the people, the preoccupation with money are the central focus. Again, in many Tagalog films, the Church is conspicuously absent except for devotional pictures. However, here the Palm Sunday liturgy and an afternoon procession are featured. The film was made during Holy Week, 2007.

Political favour forms part of the background, local members bailing out prisoners, handouts to the poor for votes, personal influence in difficult circumstances. The film (made during the last days of the 2007 election campaign) culminates at the mass religious rally of the charismatic El Shaddai movement which proclaims several of the senatorial candidates (ensuring them a million votes, it is said) who are shown in some clips making speeches and promises.

But the film ends with a tirador pickpocketing a wallet at the rally.



SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS MARCH 2008


ACCIDENTAL HUSBAND, The
ANCHE LIBERO VA BENE
BAKER, The
BANK JOB, The
BUCKET LIST, The
DEFINITELY, MAYBE
FADE TO BLACK
FOREST OF DEATH
FOUR MINUTES
GARAGE
GEORGE A. ROMERO’S DIARY OF THE DEAD
GRAIN ET LE MULLET, La (THE SECRET OF THE GRAIN)
JUNO
MANG SHAN (BLIND MOUNTAIN)
MATRIMONY, The
MISTER LONELY
OSTROV (ISLAND)
PROFESSOR AND HIS BELOVED EQUATION, The
RAMBO
SEMI-PRO
THERE WILL BE BLOOD
TIME TO DIE
UNTRACEABLE
VANTAGE POINT
WATER HORSE, The
WAZ


THE ACCIDENTAL HUSBAND

(US, 2008, d. Griffin Dunne)

Just when you are thinking that this is a 21st century variation on the screwball comedies of the 1930s, you read the publicity notes and find that this was what the director was thinking all time!

This is familiar enough territory (actually it is a rather attractively scenic New York City) and the focus is on a strong minded woman. She is a radio counsellor on love and relationships and has the brashness of her convictions to dispense free advice even if it means the calling off of weddings and ruining people’s lives. Obviously, before the final credits she is going to learn to give up on abstract theorising and learn from experience.

When she ruins a fireman’s life, his teenage hacker friend, sets up documents on the internet to show she is married to him. Since she is applying to marry her publisher, a series of screwball situations follows until the wedding day when she… But, to know you will have to see it, preferably on an undemanding but pleasant night out.

Uma Thurman is the radio counsellor. Colin Firth, strange to see in a New York setting but keeping his stiff upper lip and accent, is the fiancé and Jeffrey Dean Morgan is the fireman, something like George Clooney auditioning to be one of the heroes of The Sopranos. His is the charm. Firth’s is the British good-
heartedness.

The fireman lives above the Samosa Palace owned by a large Indian family which leads to meals, to a celebration that brings Bollywood to Manhattan as well as quite a number of Indian songs. Just that touch more exotic than usual.

ANCHE LIBERO VA BENE (ACROSS THE RIDGE)

(Italy, 2006, d. Kim Rossi Stuart)

There is a long tradition of Italian film-makers directing insightful films about children. One thinks of the pathos of De Sica’s Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves. More recently, Kim Rossi Stuart starred in a fine film about a handicapped child and care, The Keys of the House. That experience must have emboldened him to take on the task of co-writing, directing and acting the role of the father in this film.

It is a slice of life, very well-written and acted, a glimpse of two young children, especially an 11 year old boy, dealing with the tensions in a home where the mother has walked out several times, returns promising never to leave again. But the little boy knows she will not stay. The father is a temperamental photographer, loving his children but so stressed that he flares up at the least provocation.

A very telling performance has been coaxed out of Alessandro Morace as Tommasso, the introspective, sensible young boy. We share his joys, his bewilderment at the behaviour of his parents and his pain, especially when his angry father hussles him out of the house. He has one of those faces which is not only expressive even when he is not speaking but a face which invites the audience to like him, to sympathise with him and to try to understand him. Marta Nobilil is also very good as the older daughter who is devoted to her mother and can scarcely contain her happiness when her mother returns. Barbora Bobulova has the difficult role of a mother who is insecure, does love her children and even her husband but who cannot settle.

Kim Rossi Stuart shows great sensitivity in his direction as well as in the sequences with his children.

Not that there is anything particularly new in this glimpse of parents and children and their difficulties. However, it is so well done that audiences will value seeing it and thinking about it.

THE BAKER

(UK, 2007, d. Garth Lewis)

Just as they used to say that there were a lot of ‘quirky’ little Australian comedies, so there are quite a lot of small-budget, sometimes hit-and-miss, British comedies. This one is set in Wales.

When 30 year old hit man (Damian Lewis) lets a target live because he feels he needs a change of outlook and job, his mentor (Michael Gambon) sends him to an undercover destination in Wales. He is to lodge as the new local baker. All might have gone well if the local arms nerd hadn’t discovered the baker’s cache of guns and if news hadn’t travelled round the town in an instant, the baker might have taken a second chance on life.

Naturally, he falls in love with the local vet (Kate Ashfield) but, less naturally, most of the villagers have someone in mind that they would like to get rid of and, thinking you ordered a hit by ordering a chocolate cake for their target, they set off a chain reaction. It becomes more complicated when a rival hitman who feels emotionally jilted by the baker also turns up to provide a violent climax – which, being the quirky comedy it is – is turned into a mini-farce with the medieval re-enactment team coming to the rescue.

Just one of those light under 90-minute entertainments with touches of black comedy that will be a hit for some and others won’t mind missing.

THE BANK JOB

(UK, 2008, d. Roger Donaldson)

This is a very interesting thriller. It has a lively style and pacing that keeps the audience involved. It is also an intriguing conspiracy drama. It opened in the United Kingdom the week that members of MI6 gave testimony in the Diana, Princess of Wales, inquest because of the accusations of plots by the Royal Family and British security against her. The suggestions seemed laughable – and then along comes this kind of conspiracy plot!

Jason Statham, whom action audiences are more used to seeing as a tough guy in routine action thrillers like The Transporter films or The War, has a very good role as a petty criminal who, along with two friends, is led into agreeing to rob a Baker St bank by an old flame (Saffron Burrows). She doesn’t know. He doesn’t know but, from the start, we the audience know that it is a set-up, a secret set up by British security agencies to recover some compromising photos of a member of the royal family cavorting scandalously in the West Indies.

A crooked West Indian has stored the photos as a precaution against his being prosecuted for a range of crimes.

What seems like a simple plan becomes what always happens to simple plans. They go wrong and have disastrous consequences. Not only are officials and politicians involved, they have their own Profumo scandal type problems with photographic evidence against them which are also in a box in the bank vault along with a book recording all the payments to corrupt policeman by a Soho club racketeer (played with sinister charm and ruthlessness by David Suchet).

The clever and intricate screenplay, with a tone of sardonic humour, was written by veterans Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais who have been writing films and television series (like Porridge) since 1964 and directed by Australian Roger Donaldson who captures the atmosphere of 1970s London. His cinematographer has a tone and muted colour that visitors to a cloudy London will recognise as authentic.
The performances by a large cast are uniformly fine.

The film is complex, many strands of plot but it all comes together to make us feel we had been there.

BLACK WATER

(Australia, 2007, d. David Nerlich and Andrew Traucki)

Black Water, like Greg McLean’s? Rogue, which was made at the same time, is about crocodile menace. Whereas Rogue used the conventions of the terror film and of menace, a tourist group with some whining complainers and some heroic leadership, Black Water confines itself to a family group of three with a guide. This means that most audiences could very readily identify with characters, the dangers, the sense of hopelessness – and no foreseeable rescue. This could happen if you were in such circumstances, an easy excursion for fishing in allegedly safe waters, the crocodile attack, deaths, being stranded on the mangrove branches with no one knowing you went out – plus heat, mosquitoes, thirst and the horror and look of the crocodile, its teeth and its maw.

This gives the film a blend of documentary style and home movie tone that makes it more real than the disaster genre realism. The small cast does all that is required of them in terms of fear and resignation to fate. This does make watching it not only uncomfortable but creates a definite sense of unease and fear.

BUCKET LIST, The

(US, 2007, d, Rob Reiner)

Most audiences would enjoy this film, even though it received very short shrift from older male critics who found it too sentimental - or where they just self-conscious about its subject? The subject is ageling, terminal illness and death.

We know this from the first moment as Morgan Freeman’s familiar voiceover tells us of the death of his friend Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson). But Edward was not always his friend. When we are introduced to Cole, we realise that he would not be our friend either. He is a cantankerous millionaire who begrudges any improvements or comforts in the chain of hospitals he owns, especially his rule, without exception, that there are to be two beds in each room. Yes…, he collapses and finds himself sharing a room with Carter Chambers (Freeman) who has been in hospital for experimental surgery and treatment some months after a collapse from cancer.

Of course, initially, it is a case of the odd couple, reinforcing our views of each character: Freeman fine, Nicholson nasty. (By the way both men, 70 at the time of filming, look their age, through Freeman looks far fitter than a now rather pudgy Nicholson.)

When Edward discovers Carter making a ‘bucket list’ (what to do before you kick the bucket), they decide (much to the upset of Carter’s nurse wife) to try out everything on the list. The first is skydiving and the second driving a very fast car on a racing track. Once we get those out of the way, the list becomes more serious. Fortunately Edward has the millions to finance this kind of trip – perhaps that is what irked the critics!

They travel the world – and have the luxury of travelling through an animal reserve in Africa. What is more important on the list are the answers to two questions Carter proposes: did you have joy in your life and, more importantly, did you bring joy to someone else? Of course, Carter has and we get a resume of his life, its career disappointments but its joy in wife and family. Edward, of course, has not, too rich and ambitious to treat his wives well and alienating his daughter. And, he has a long-suffering assistant whom he is continually mocking and firing, played by Sean Hayes in a rather straighter version of his Will and Grace character, Jack.

By the end, we realise that the introduction to the film has been a little misleading – and makes us sad (unless we are the unfeeling critics who, according to their expressed views about sentiment, should go home after the preview and hate their families instead of experiencing the joy the characters in the film feel!).

Nicholson and Freeman are actors at ease with themselves and their characters. Watching them together is experiencing something of a masterclass in acting.


DEFINITELY, MAYBE

(US, 2008, d. Adam Brooks)

Young Maya (Abigail Breslin, who has made such an impact in such films as Keane, No Reservations and Little Miss Sunshine), tells her father, William (Ryan Reynolds) that the story he is telling her and the audience is a romance and a mystery. She wants to know how he and her mother (who are now getting divorced) met and fell in love. She wants to know whether he had other girlfriends – and is shocked at times in his telling of the story to discover that he smoked, drank and, according to her standards, was the male equivalent of a slut.

Poor old William wasn’t quite that bad but we are in an age where a huge past scandal is smoking!

The way William tells Maya his story is to narrate it in linear fashion, (which we see in the extended flashbacks) without giving away which of the women he describes is actually her mother. There are three candidates. There is childhood sweetheart, Emily (Elizabeth Banks), whom he leaves in Wisconsin when he goes in 1992 to work for the Clinton campaign in New York. There is Emily’s college friend, Summer (Rachel Weisz) who is in a relationship with her drinking and womanising professor-author-critic whose name is (symbolically) Roth (Kevin Kline). And then there is April (Isla Fisher) who has no political convictions but has a basic common sense about life in general but who really needs to grow up and put her talents to good use.

I guessed wrongly about the mother, but the ending reassured me that I had actually read the film correctly after all. You will have to see the film to find out the ending – although it is one of those light comedy romances that is not essential viewing at all, though there is a bonus in the comments about Bill Clinton, campaigning, Monica Lewinsky etc as well as a joke at George W. Bush’s expense – and the US’s and for all of us).

The performances are quite good. Isla Fisher does kooky rather well (Wedding Daze, The Wedding Crashers). Rachel Weisz can do sophisticated charm as can Elizabeth Banks. The impact of the film rests on Ryan Reynolds who can do very crass (Van Wilder Party Liaison, Waiting), comic action (Blade 3), nice comedy (Just my Luck) as well as intelligently serious (The Nines). He does a pretty good job here. Writer-director, Adam Brooks, wrote Wimbledon and Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason.

FADE TO BLACK

(UK, 2007, d. Oliver Parker)

A what if…? thriller, with an actual movie setting linked with politics, sounds like interesting entertainment and a boon for movie buffs. This is what Fade to Black achieves.

At the centre of this film is Orson Welles (played with a blend of arrogance, smarminess and self-deprecation by Danny Huston). It is 1948. He has just been divorced from Rita Hayworth (with posters for her Gilda all over Rome). He has come to Italy to play the magician Cagliostro in Gregory Ratoff’s Black Magic. Is his promising career almost dead?

Welles believes in himself and gives free advice to Ratoff as to how to make his film. Approached by an extra, he is shocked when the man is soon murdered on the set, whispering (‘Rosebud’-like) a final word in his ear. Is it just a murder? Is it political because this is the time of the 1948 election with vigorous anti-Communist campaigns, remnants of the defeated Fascists trying to make a comeback and the Christian Democrats poised for victory? Are there conspiracies in the background? The possibilities of armed coups? Black market in-fighting? And, of course, there is the American presence (personified by Christopher Walken) backing the Christian Democrats, opposing any show of Communism and throwing around their political weight and financial backing.

Welles is interrogated by the police but decides to pursue the mystery himself, along with a young assistant who was in the resistance (Diego Luna). He also encounters the Italian star, Lea Padovani (Paz Vega) and her silent screen star mother (Anna Galiena). From here on, it becomes even more complicated, with American GI deserters, arms caches, drug deals, bashings and threats, political rallies where Welles is asked to perform his magic tricks for the public. And, as well, Welles has decided he would like to make Othello in Italy and powers that be offer him financing in return for support.

It might not be the greatest murder mystery but there are sufficient twists, sinister motivations and behaviour and an unexpected solution to satisfy fans of this kind of thriller.

It was written and directed by Oliver Parker (Othello, An Ideal Husband) whose recent films have been the awful Importance of Being Earnest and the remake of St Trinians (with another in the pipeline).

THE FOREST OF DEATH

(Hong Kong/Thailand, 2007, d. Danny Pang)

With a title like this, one knows that one is in the Pang Brothers’ territory. They have made ghostly thrillers like The Eye and The Messengers as well as a rather deeper, imaginative thriller, Recycle. Forest of Death is produced by the Pang Brothers, Oxide and Danny, but is co-written and directed by Danny.

It’s one of those well-crafter Asian stories of spirits. This time the spirits are in the forest and in the trees. A young scientist and his assistant are conducting experiments to find and interpret the sounds that the trees and the plants make in the forest. In the meantime, the scientist’s girlfriend is an ambitious television host and is introducing a ratings-boom series on ghosts and on a spate of suicides in a local forest. In the further meantime, a young detective is investigating a rape and murder in the forest. She thinks that the scientific methods may lead the accused to confess his guilt if he goes into the forest and is tested by the machines.

That is more or less what happens except that the reporter becomes jealous of the detective, tries to push her way into the police site in the forest and is rejected. She herself undergoes a terrifying experience as she is lost. There is also an old man who puts up notices on the trees warning people against suicide – he had lost his daughter who had killed herself there.

To sceptical eyes, it looks like a load of nonsense. However, Danny Pang keeps it moving and, with the Asian predilection for mysterious spirits, there is enough eeriness to satisfy the market.

FOUR MINUTES (VIER MINUTEN)

(Germany, 2006, d. Chris Kraus)

An intense film with two intense and powerful central characters. The setting is a women’s prison – which has some oppressive guards and some vicious inmates. The theme, however, is music which makes for unusual counterbalances in the dramatic interactions.

Hannah Herzsprung plays, very convincingly, Jenny, a hard bitten young woman who has experienced an abusive childhood and is in prison for murder. Monica Bleibtreu (aged 62 at the time of filming) portrays Mrs Krueger, an 80 year old woman, who has been teaching piano to prisoners since the end of World War II. When Mrs Kreuger discovers that Jenny has been a child pianist, she does everything in her power, even to defying the authorities, to train Jenny for a young musicians’ contest. And she does it in a very impassive yet passionate, thorough and relentless German way. Much of the drama is the relationship, tense and tentative, between the two women.

There are sub-plots concerning the warden holding on to his position and a guard who is trained in opera quotations by Mrs Krueger for his appearance on a television quiz show and who becomes harshly antagonistic towards Jenny.

There are flashbacks to Mrs Krueger’s war experience when she was a medic, especially to the end of the war when the Nazis imprison her Communist friend, a trauma that has marked Mrs Krueger for life and partly explains her uncompromising devotion to Jenny and her music. (She is not without her racist prejudices from the old days and forbids Jenny playing what she disdainfully refers to as ‘negro music’.)

The editing of the film in the early part cuts roughly and quickly between several characters and incidents which makes it edgy viewing until we focus on the two women.

An acknowledgement should be made to Annette Focks for her score, her playing (mimed expertly by Hanna Herzsprung) and for the unexpected grand finale at the competition.

GARAGE

(Ireland, 2007, d. Lenny Abrahamson)

A brief portrait of a simple Irishman in a small town. But, a very fine and finely made film.

Playwright Mark O’Halloran? worked with Lenny Abrahamson on the previous small-budget comedy about two strung-out addicts in Dublin, a kind of Laurel and Hardy stoned duo, Adam and Paul, which showed their skills in creating offbeat characters, witty dialogue and slapstick situations with pathos. Now they have pared this all down to a minimalist local comedy-tragedy.

They have been blessed with comedian Pat Shortt. Younger middle-aged, dumpy, with little conversation, his Josie is a naïve innocent who has nevertheless absorbed some of the locals’ crudity which will be his downfall. He works in a garage which is his little kingdom where he is meticulous and attentive to customers. He is respectful to the owner and agrees to late night openings on the weekend. This is the kind of drama that is his life.

He likes Carmel who works at the local store and gives him apples – which he feeds to an old draught horse who is probably his only real friend. He chats with truck drivers who bring him blue movie videos from the continent. He goes down to the pub where most understand him but one of the regulars enjoys taunting him. He lives alone, quietly and simply. He is really a simple and slow man.

The owner asks him to take on a rather taciturn 15 year old to help on weekends. Awkward at first, they strike up something of a mild friendship. But, this is not to be – and the film in its last 20 minutes takes us more deeply into Josie’s character, and with great sadness.

Only 85 minutes and those who like things kept moving on the screen may become impatient at Josie’s slow and quiet life but the portrait is a rewarding and sad look into a very, very ordinary man. (Winner of an Ecumenical Commendation at the Bratislava Festival, 2007.)

GEORGE A ROMERO’S DIARY OF THE DEAD

(US, 2008, d. George A. Romero)

In 1968, George A. Romero made a small-budget, black and white film about contemporary zombies in US cities, The Night of the Living Dead, which is now considered one of the principal horror films of the 20th century and a huge influence on film-making. Romero continued his fascination with horror, particularly the living dead, in the 1970s with Dawn of the Dead, the 1980s with Day of the Dead, a remake by Tom Savini in 1990. While there was a living dead lull in the 1990s, this present decade has seen something of an industry! Romero himself has made Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead (with a sequel for 2009 announced) and there have been some remakes as well as experimental and 3D tinkering with Romero’s original. It is as if Romero’s dead films keep coming back to life.

Where this one is different is that it shows the influence of The Blair Witch Project style of film-making, handheld cameras, the audience being taken into the film-makers’ confidence that they are seeing footage of real events which have been edited into a feature film. Hence the title’s use of ‘Diary’. (This method was recently used to substantial effect with the rampaging monster in New York film, Cloverfield.)

This time there are very few living dead crowd scenes as in the city streets and malls of the previous films. There are a few, but the action is confined to a small group of college film-makers who are trying to make a Mummy horror film as an assignment, ridiculing the conventions of the genre (which, of course, are repeated later in the film ‘for real’). When their dormitory has been abandoned, they drive with their professor to reach the family of the main character whose voiceover tells us that she has edited the material shot by her boyfriend as a record of what happened.

There are, of course, some gory and gruesome moments but fewer than in some of the previous films. This one relies on our sharing the experiences, fears and threats with the group who are a bit more individual and distinctive than might have been expected: on the road, an eerily empty hospital, an Amish community and barn, a warehouse with survivors, a group of national guard and the final visits to the homes.

By using this kind of immediate film within a film genre and its techniques, Romero has been able to give new life to his 40 year long fascination with the living dead.
LA GRAIN ET LE MULLET (THE SECRET OF THE GRAIN)
(France, 2007, d. Abdel Kechiche)
This is an intriguing film. It is very long, the last 30 minutes sometimes testing the patience of the audience, especially with the long belly dance as well as the highly emotional outburst of one of the central characters. (While the outburst is justified, the stridency of the performance in the way that it is filmed is very demanding on the audience; the belly dance also contributes to the tension of the film and the situation, but it is also very long.)
The film is set on the Mediterranean coast amongst the French-Arabic? community. It focuses on an older man, a worker on the docks for thirty-five years.
It highlights his work, his skills. It also highlights his difficulties with the changing work patterns of the 21st century, the role of Arabic workers, and the role of the French.
The film is very strong in its portrayal of the extended family (while the central character is divorced, we see his ex-wife, nagging) as well as his various children and their families. One of his daughters is happily married but is exasperated with her child’s toilet training. Another daughter is very glamorous and poised in life. Another is quite young. There is also a happily married older daughter with her non-Arabic husband. There are two sons, the older who works on the docks and as a tourist guide is unfaithful to his Russian-born wife. It is she who has the outbursts. The other is a genial young man.
The father also lives in a hotel, is in a partnership with the owner of the hotel and a father figure to her daughter.
The central focus of the film is the older man’s decision to turn a wrecked and dilapidated boat into a restaurant. The municipal powers are against him. However, he perseveres. With family and friends, he is able to transform the ship. He also holds and inaugural dinner for 100 guests, many of them municipal authorities coming, with the help of his ex-wife making the couscous which is her specialty because she knows the secret of the grain. The rest of the family also do help as do friends from the bar. However, there is a crisis when the older philandering son takes the car to avoid seeing his mistress with the couscous in the back. This has crisis effect for the dinner itself and the final half hour of the film is the way in which the crisis is handled. Then the film suddenly ends, leaving interpretation for the future open to the audience.
The film uses handheld camera quite a deal, with great fluidity in conversations and, especially, the family meal. With the close ups, there is an intimacy and an intensity in the characters’ expressing themselves both seriously and comically. To this extent, the film is quite a detailed and intense exploration of characters and their interrelationships, in the context of contemporary France and the issues about migrants, especially from North Africa.
Winner of the Jury Prize at Venice, the FIPRESCI prize and a SIGNIS commendation.



JUMPER

(US, 2008, d. Doug Liman)

First impressions of Jumper is that it is noisy nonsense. Final impressions are that it is very noisy and non-sense nonsense.

How could this be since the director is Doug Liman (Swingers, Go and, much more in this vein, The Bourne Identity)? And the writer, David S. Goyer, has written a range of science-fiction and horror films.

The premise has promise: a group of special individuals who can move instantly throughout space, Jumpers, and a group of religious pursuers who what to destroy them, Paladins. Unfortunately, and irritatingly, very little explanation about these two groups is given. Since the film runs for only 88 minutes, they could have given more time to exposition.

Further, the hero (Hayden Christensen) who initially seems to be a pleasant nerd, suddenly becomes a self-centred hedonist who robs banks to give himself a comfortable lifestyle as he flits (only quicker) from Rome to Tokyo to Fiji… and shows that he could care less about people’s sufferings. On the other hand, he meets another Jumper, the much more sympathetic Jamie Bell who has spent most of his life eluding Paladins.

The Paladins are represented by a white-haired Samuel L. Jackson who spends most of his time pursuing our hero and his girlfriend and who does not seem to be any great heroic improvement on his target.

Lots of effects for the teleporting. Lots of tourist locations. But, to what purpose…?

JUNO

(US, 2007, d. Jason Reitman)

To simply say that this is a film about teenage pregnancy (which it is) would not do the film or its themes justice. This is a film which is able to deal with teenage behaviour and mistakes and take a hopeful view, especially about pregnancy, birth and life.

The screenplay is very matter of fact about the situation, acknowledging its difficulties but not saying that this is the end of the world. Juno is 16, an intelligent, offbeat girl, who has a quick and blunt wit. She has really organised the sexual encounter with a sympathetic, quiet boy (Michael Cera) and accepts the consequences. After briefly considering an abortion, she and her friend Lia (Olivia Thirby) check out some advertisements placed by couples interested in adoption. She acts quite swiftly, moving through the awkwardness of telling her father (the always agreeably sardonic J.K. Simmons) and her stepmother (the always welcome and strong-minded Allison Janney). She then moves swiftly in contacting potential parents played by Jennifer Garner (desperate to have a child) and Jason Bateman (not so desperate).

The film moves through the four seasons, following Juno’s progress and pregnancy and schooling. In a way, nothing particularly startling happens. Rather, there are glimpses of all the main characters – whom we get to know very well, part of the skill of the witty screenplay which draws us into the situation and the characters’ lives.

This is not at all difficult to do with Juno. She is so well played by a confident Ellen Page that we enjoy her company, relish her comments, appreciate her decision to have the child and, because of her immaturity, offer it immediately for adoption. By sharing the progress of her pregnancy without the melodrama of angst or self-pity and trauma, we find a decent pro-life perspective that celebrates the developing child. Ellen Page received many award nominations including an Oscar nomination.

The film must have touched American audiences with a view on real situations. It quickly made over $100,000,000 at the box-office. That’s food for thought about American issues and morals.

MANG SHAN (BLIND MOUNTAIN)

(China, 2007. d. Yang Li)

This is a fine but very grim and demanding film from China. It is the second film of the writer director. His first film in 2003 was Blind Shaft, a powerfully ugly story of miners who kill workmates, make the murder seem like an accident and take the financial compensation.

This time, the director takes us out of the city, sharing the bus ride of the young woman who believes she is going to a village to work. However, she is drugged and abducted, forced into a marriage and trapped in the village, trying to escape but failing, her letters never delivered. The film makes its audience share in the detail of the humiliation, the suffering, the degradation of the woman. It is highly emotional, a cry for human rights.

The characters, mostly sinister or obnoxious, are drawn vividly which makes the experience all the more harrowing. And the film does not let up. It is a strong cinema contribution to the theme of human slavery in the 21st century.

THE MATRIMONY

(China, 2007, d. Hua-Tao? Teng)

Another story of spirits. This time it is Chinese rather than Japanese or Korean and draws on 20th century Chinese history as well as beliefs about the dead and reincarnation.

It is very elegantly designed and filmed, using quite atmospheric sequences of Shanghai in the 1930s. It also brings radio and 16mm film into the plotline.

However, most of the action takes place in a large country house where the hero retires to after the death of his girlfriend in a street accident. His mother comes to visit and has made him marry a young woman from the servant class who cares for him along with the cook. He resents her and pines for the dead.

Up to this point it is very much like a Chinese variation on the Rebecca story with the cook treating the new wife in sinister Mrs Danvers fashion and their living in a remote version of Mandalay.

But, then the haunting starts. There is some dialogue about spirits being just human, neither good nor bad. This is, of course, misleading. Whoever heard of nice spirits in this situation? However, the dead woman does make a plausible case to the young wife to let her possess her for the sake of the man. This leads to some sinister experiences, needless to say.

The writer is able to play with the audience because the narrative is really a story told by the young woman on a radio program and we are left dangling a little as to whether this is a fiction or this is what really happened.

Actually, if you are going to make an elegant and atmospheric Chinese ghost story, then this is a good way to do it.

MISTER LONELY

(US, 2007, d. Harmony Korine)

In the mid-1990s, Harmony Korine was something of an enfant terrible of cinema. He gained notoriety as the writer of Larry Clark’s controversial story of the sexual and drug behaviour of New York teenagers in Kids. He followed up with a strange film, Gummo, and then made julien, donkey boy, both of which were bleak in outlook. Then only a TV special and a music video for some years.

Now, moving away from the grim realism and the use of dogme techniques of film-making, he has moved into the world of whimsy and fantasy – but it is his characters who live in a whimsical world of their own making who catch our attention. In a gentle but telling spoof of how fans emulate celebrities, the characters here become their chosen show business or historical celebrity and form a commune in Scotland. This could be idyllic, but nowhere in the world can the dream idyll be lived. If not difficulties amongst themselves, there is the clash with the people who do not understand, who feel threatened and who attack.

At the centre is Diego Luna as a Michael Jackson lookalike who encounters a Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton). It is she who invites him to the commune where she lives with a Charlie Chaplin (Denis Lavant) and her daughter who is a Shirley Temple. Other members include James Fox as the Pope and Anita Pallenberg as the Queen of England. There are funny moments, sad moments and some moments which may strike realists as too fey.

But, there is another narrative in the background concerning the nuns who looked after the hero when he was a boy. It concerns missions of charity, a dedicated priest (played by director Werner Herzog who had appeared in julien donkey boy) and miracles. This part of the film (including the Virgin Mary habits of the nuns and a final accident) is definitely not realistic.

Pleasant and accessible – despite the vagaries of fantasy and imagination.

OSTROV (ISLAND)

(Russia, 2006, d. Pavel Lungin)

Island is a very impressive film, the closing film for the Venice film festival in 2006.

The film was directed by Pavel Lungin, noted for much more boisterous films like Taxi Blues and The Wedding. This film is the exact opposite.

The opening is set in World War Two, a difficult moral decision for a mate on a ship faced with the Nazis. He decides to save himself rather than a comrade. The film then moves a quarter of a century later where the man has retired to a Russian Orthodox monastery and lives an ascetical life. He is also an eccentric compared with the other members of the community. He has developed a reputation around the countryside of being a holy man, even a healer.

The film is fascinating in its presentation of life in the monastery, the role of the man who is an eccentric and something of a hermit, the interactions of the other monks and their lives.

The surprise of the film is when the man that he thought had been killed arrives and asks his intercession for his daughter who is ill. What follows is the possibility of reconciliation and forgiveness.

This film is an interesting presentation of religion, church, spirituality emerging from what once was the centre of the Soviet empire.


THE PROFESSOR AND HIS BELOVED EQUATION

(Japan, 2006, d. Takashi Koizomi)

Please do not be put off by the title.

If you had heard that a film with a title like this was about numbers, mathematics, equations, memory loss and baseball, you might well be puzzled. But it is – and it has to be one of the nicest films (in the best sense) in a long time.

The film opens with students settling down to a maths class with a new teacher. He introduces himself and proceeds to entrance the class and the audience with the story of how he came to be a maths teacher. It involves his single mother who worked for a housekeeping agency and was given the task to look after a maths professor who had been in a car accident and had lost the memory of all that happens after the accident (except for 80 minutes’ retention before it goes and he has to start again). She is a good woman, devout, devoted, listens eagerly to the professor’s theories about amicable numbers, prime numbers, perfect numbers and how maths is interior and is a revelation of truth.

She also brings her ten year old son who is coached by the professor in maths – and then in baseball, which is the sport the professor played when young and which he loves (and remembers all the pre-accident statistics). His sister-in-law, who was made lame by the same accident, is an embittered woman and tries to sabotage the friendships.

While this is an overview of ‘what happens’, it does not do justice to the ‘how it happens’. The performances are rich and rewarding, perfectly credible. The deep humanity and joy that pervades the film has a wonderful effect on the audience’s sense of goodness. There is enough dialogue to suggest the transcendent and the infinite in our world, with the quotation from Blake about the world in a grain of sand and the professor noting that he has been ‘allowed to peep into God’s notebook’.

The film, beautiful to look at, especially with ocean, water, mountains and blossoms, is in the classic tradition of contemplative naturalistic filming of Ozu.

Well-worth seeing and reflecting on.


RAMBO

(US, 2008, d. Sylvester Stallone)

Sylvester Stallone proved that at age 60 he could revive his iconic creation, Rocky Balboa, after five movies over a thirty year period. He adjusted the character of Rocky to his late 50s and made an agreeably emotional fight film.

At age 61, he resurrects his other iconic character, John Rambo, after three films over a 25 year period, still doing battle but not nearly so genial as Rocky.

Both characters are instantly recognisable world-wide – Rocky the emblem of underdog success (along with Bill Conti’s theme music), Rambo the emblem of fierce aggression, fighting for the underdog and, with the exception of the initial film, First Blood, amassing a huge body count.

For his final Rambo actioner, Stallone has Rambo working anonymously in Thailand. He is approached by a group of US evangelical missionaries (whose need to do good seems more important than the needs of the people) to take them into Burma with medicines and religious books. We know it will be a fraught journey because we have already been exposed to the ruthless Burmese army attacking the Karen rebels (which has been going on for sixty years and has been called a genocide), massacring, burning and looting and taking the young men for military service.

When the village where the missionaries are working is attacked, Rambo goes back with a group of tough mercenaries to rescue them. This happens in the rain and in the dark – and then they are pursued by a huge number of soldiers. All might seem lost until Rambo finds a machine gun nest and it is almost no contest.

This is where the violence becomes fierce and then brutal as the blood lust, no matter what the justification, takes over the characters – and, probably, the emotions of many in the audience. Stallone has his heart in the right place in supporting the Karens against the government and military, but his trigger finger is…

SEMI-PRO

(US, 2006, d. Kent Alterman)

For most audiences, all they need to know is that this is a Will Ferrell film. Either you love him or loathe him. This one is in the line of Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Blades of Glory. The difference is that Semi-Pro? is based on actual events and characters (more than I would have guessed while watching the film making me quite surprised as I read of the history of the basketball league troubles and changes of the 1970s). And, this makes the film that much more serious than the other Ferrell comedies. The comedy is a bit light on here though Ferrell mugs a great deal as usual, some of the humour very funny, much of it raunchy and much of it rather strained. The film turns into one of those sports underdog movies. Will they win, will they win at the last moment, will there be final crises and tensions, who will throw the winning basket?

This also means that it helps a lot to be something of a basketball fan, otherwise the mood and the ethos seem a bit distant – which emphasises that Semi-Pro? is designed for US audiences and not really beyond American shores.

Semi-Pro? is really for the Will Ferrell completist.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD

(US, 2007, d. Paul Thomas Anderson)

An epic piece of Americana that has impressed critics, audiences and award givers – especially for Daniel Day Lewis’ intense performance.

Based on the novel, Oil, by Upton Sinclair, this is a story of oil exploration and entrepreneuring skill at the beginning of the 20th century. It is not a sweeping saga with romantic overtones like Giant. Rather, this is a picture of grim and constant hard work, of men completely committed to success with oil, who are rugged and competitive and who pay the price emotionally for their obsessive quest.

Daniel Day Lewis does not make many films but has that chameleon-like quality for letting his own personality disappear into a full-on characterisation. He was Christy Brown, the poet with cerebral palsy in his Oscar-winning performance in My Left Foot. He was the rugged pioneer in Last of the Mohicans and the New York aristocrat in Age of Innocence. He was also the ruthless gangster in Gangs of New York. Here, he is Daniel Plainview, a loner who prospects for minerals, then for oil. He adopts the baby of a man who dies in an accident and brings up the boy. When the boy loses his hearing during a shaft explosion, he cannot face it and he lets this relationship go.

More powerful is his conflict with the shrewd son of a rancher who sets up his Church of the Third Revelation, determined to control Plainview, bring in donations and build his own church empire. Paul Dano has the surface innocence and goodness but also the steely determination and competitiveness that mark Daniel which lead him beyond his capacities. Another interesting character is Daniel’s half-brother, Henry, with whom he might have made a relationship after breaking one of his rules and speaking about his past life and his feelings.

This is an American male world, a world of achievement founded on the American dream and establishing American capitalism.

The location photography suggests a past long gone. The musical score has a wide variety of styles that drives the action or lets us rest and pause before the next intensity. (And Daniel Day Lewis’ performance becomes more and more intense leading up to a theatrical violent climax.)

Paul Thomas Anderson received a lot of notice for his Boogie Nights and then his extraordinary covering of many stories in Magnolia. He has adapted Sinclair’s novel and directed a film that offers significant images of American history and its manifest destiny culture.

TIME TO DIE

(Poland, 2007, d. Dorota Kedzierzawaska)

Here is a fine film about ageing and dying. The director has dedicated the film to her grandmother so one presumes that this is something of a memoir and a tribute.

Shot in expressive black and white, most of the film is confined to the old home in which the 91 year old old lady lives. We get to know the rooms, look out through the framing of the windows, go out into the grounds now and again and visit the adjacent old house on her property. What might seem a limited plot and viewpoint becomes a fine film.

The impressive performance of Danuta Szaflarska holds the film together as well as holding audience attention throughout the film. Supporting characters appear only briefly. However, the other principal character is the dog who serves as a companion, something of a guardian angel and the surrogate for the audience as it listens to the old lady’s reminiscences and the manifestations of her thoughts and feelings. The dog is superbly photographed, limpid eyes, licking lips, soulful looks. Some have suggested a worthy candidate for a Best Supporting Actor award!

As the old lady looks back at her life, she feels more alone and disappointed. Her son is a negligible presence, dominated by his wife and saddled with an overweight, surly daughter whom her grandmother tries to like and help but who gives up (long after we the audience have given up on this greedy, bored, self-centred eight year old). The house which she loves is in need of repair, something which is not likely. While she has a spirited attitude towards life (especially invigorated by going out into a storm and relishing the beating rain), she is tempted to give up and literally lie down and die. Her reflections on her life at this stage are sadly pessimistic.

But, there is more to the film. There is some hope and the exhilaration of the last part of the film as the old lady decides how she can give meaning to her long life reminds us that life is worth living.

UNTRACEABLE

(US, 2008, d. Gregory Hoblit)

This is quite an alarming film, not only in its topic and treatment but in its implications about the use of the Internet.

One of the problems of this kind of story is that it deals with ugly realities (or ugly hypotheses) and it is difficult to know how much detail to show, how much should be presented by suggestion rather than straightforwardly so that the impression of exploiting the material rather than exploring it is communicated.
The intentions of the film-makers here are not exploitative but the nastiness of the theme will make many audiences wonder.

This is a film about a serial killer, something that is not particularly new. What seems like a number of random and cruel killings are eventually found to be linked. The FBI are on the case with a range of agents, especially those now employed to investigate computer crime. Principal agent is played by Diane Lane, a widow with an 8 year old daughter, who uses her wits but also experiences physical danger. It is a role that in the past would have been played by a man. Diane Lane does it with effective concentration and vigour, especially in some final heroics.

The problem is that the insane killer is abducting victims and showing the torture and deaths on an untraceable website called Killwithme. The alarming aspect is that the killer (who is revealed to have more than a grudge against the television media) invites people to log on to watch, the more hits on the site, the more quickly the victim dies exposed to the sick and/or curious gaze of the net surfers and warped customers.

One of the realities in making a film which crusades about a cause is that it can be done quite effectively as a documentary but will have a limited audience. It is more cogent if made as a story in a feature film format which engages audience interest and works on their emotions. The trouble here is that, despite our revulsion at the behaviour of those who log on (in their increasing millions) and who watch torture and death, we are tantalised, at least on the level of curiosity, and this can be alarming to our image of ourselves.

This is why Untraceable might be a useful film for discussion of these dreadful issues with audiences knowing in their mind how revolting this is but having to admit that we can be caught up in such experiences.

Gregory Hoblit has made a number of tough crime thrillers after his experiences on television series like Hill Street Blues. His Primal Fear is one of the best of courtroom dramas and murder mysteries. His 2007 thriller, Fracture, with Anthony Hopkins trying to cover the perfect murder were well made, thought-provoking films on disturbing subjects.

Not the kind of film one can generally recommend but it is well-made, horrifying and raises themes which need fearless facing and which need to be dealt with.

VANTAGE POINT

(US, 2008, d. Pete Travis)

Quite a breathless film, only 90 minutes of action during a presidential assassination at a peace conference in Spain. What makes it different is that it shows differing vantage points, different perspectives on the events, with the audience having the final advantage vantage point of having seen all the stories.

Filmed in Mexico using a double, a set of Salamanca’s main square, the action confines itself to the square, the hotels, the streets surrounding the square. Nevertheless, it has a great deal of action and pace with the shooting of the president, bombs exploding and a speeding car chase in the inner city.

However, this is more than just an action film. It wants the audience to think about issues as well. Taking the realities of terrorism today as its basis, it shows the president (William Hurt) as a man of peace and some restraint compared with his hawkish advisers who want to bomb, immediately, a terrorist site in Morocco. It also shows a picture of terrorists who are calmly fanatical but who have no hesitation in causing widespread killing and destruction.

It also has a picture of how important the electronic media are today, especially television news, in providing instant information, edited by a producer according to station policy. Sigourney Weaver is the hard-working, hard-hitting producer. However, the world today is a video camera world with bystanders filming everything as well as a mobile phone world for photos, texting and calls – and for setting off explosive devices. Forest Whitaker is a tourist in the square whose video material is valuable for the Secret Service.

The film also highlights the role of the Secret Service (film buffs remembering the fine 1990s Clint Eastwood drama, In the Line of Fire), their training, alertness, risks, on the spot assessments as well as the pressure to work within acceptable bounds of pursuit and weapon fire. Denis Quaid is the agent who has taken a bullet for the president and stands in the (exaggerated) tradition of the American loner who pursues the enemy, pulls off the rescue, rights wrongs, and overcomes any trauma from the past to become the hero.

French, Spanish and Israeli actors portray the terrorists.

Needless to say, one can pick holes in the screenplay after the event (and some during) but Barry Levy’s script shows a great deal of meticulous attention to detail to bring together what seem remarks in passing or accidents and incidents when first seen. With each of the vantage point stories, there is a literal rewind, but each of the stories advances the main plot (in all senses of plot) and each finishes with a cliffhanger. And there are a couple of twists along the way that most will not foresee.

There is an ironic note at the end about a lone gunmen which reminds viewers of conspiracy plots and the Kennedy assassination. The film was directed by Pete Travis whose film, Omagh, on the fatal bombings in Northern Ireland in 1998, is well worth seeing.

THE WATER HORSE

(UK, 2007, d. Jay Russell)

Dick King-Smith? is best known for his story of the pig who wanted to be a sheep-pig, Babe.

The Water Horse is his story of Crusoe, a Celtic legendary water horse, only one of whom lives at any one time. Hatched from an egg, it grows into what we best know as the Loch Ness monster. In fact, this is something of a tongue-in-cheek Loch Ness monster story, told by an old man in a pub to two American tourists.

The main story takes place in 1942 in the highlands of Scotland (with some local footage but New Zealand standing in for Scottish lakes and mountains). Young Angus McMorrow? finds a mysterious egg on the rocks and takes it into his father’s old shed. His father is away at the war and his mother and sisters find they are suddenly billeted with British soldiers led by a rather pompous David Morrissey. They are assigned a wounded war hero as a handyman.

There is a lot of what you might expect in this kind of story: the boy is attached to the creature but finds he has to let Crusoe go into the wild of the lake; the handyman tells him the legends and becomes an ally, along with his sister, for keeping Alex’s secret from their mother; when the army mascot (called Churchill) scents Crusoe there are chases, pratfalls and mayhem; some of the locals try to photograph Crusoe so that, after the war, tourists will come to Loch Ness to see the fabled monster; Crusoe is mistaken for a German submarine in the loch and is fired on. But, even if it is familiar, it is all done so nicely with a more sensible British approach to matters – and with a Scots burr.

The scenery is attractive, the period of the war well re-created, and Crusoe has been manufactured by Weta Studios in Wellington which, since The Lord of the Rings, has been doing non-stop work for New Zealand and overseas movies.

Alex Etel plays Angus, a rather serious but endearing actor – who was so good at seeing the saints in Millions. Emily Watson is his mother and Ben Chaplin the handyman.

There is something for most audiences, children and parents and audiences who enjoyed the exhilarating rides of Whale Rider and Free Willy won’t mind the similarities and the excitement of Angus riding Crusoe over (and under) the loch.

WAZ

(UK/Ireland, 2007. d. Tom Shankland)

A very well-made film of its kind (not one that appeals to ordinary cinemagoers but of great interest to horror fans) – with some ideas as well as terror. It is a down-market Se7en and an up-market Saw. While it does have some grim corpses and some gruesome torture moments, the makers say that they are not so much interested in the torture as in the experience of pain and the motivation for decisions about saving one’s own life at the expense of the life of a loved one.

The title of the film refers to an equation used by social scientists to measure altruism in animals and human beings, the capacity for self-sacrifice. Characters reflect on the meaning of this theme.

The film is a police investigation in New York City (with some location photography but much of the film made in Belfast with a British cast). Eddie (Stellan Skarsgard) is a grizzled detective who has seen a lot of murder. Westcott (Melissa George) is his partner, new on the beat, courageous but wary and putting up with the sexism in the squad room. When several bodies are found with the equation cut into them, they investigate a scientist which gives them a lead to the killer. The motive is revenge for a horrendous crime by a gang whose members are being executed. Eddie’s contact with one of the members, Danny (Ashley Walters) leads him into a dangerous confrontation with the killer and a testing of his own emotions.

A dark film (much of it taking place at night, on the streets and in ugly basements and apartments), it is a film for those interested in the genre rather than a general audience.




SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS APRIL 2008


10,000 YEARS BC
11TH HOUR
ASSEMBLY
AVRIL
AWAKE
BEAUFORT
CHILDREN OF GLORY
COTTAGE, THE
DRILLBIT TAYLOR
DR SEUSS’ HORTON HEARS A WHO
FIRST SUNDAY
FUNNY GAMES
GO MASTER, The
HOW SHE MOVE
LARS AND THE REAL GIRL
LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA
MEET THE SPARTANS
MISS AUSTEN REGRETS
MY BROTHER IS AN ONLY CHILD
ORPHANAGE, The
OUT OF THE BLUE
SON OF RAMBOW
SOUS LES BOMBES (UNDER THE BOMBS)
SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES, The
STEP UP 2

Added : Commentary on The Passion from BBC.



10,000 BC

(US, 2008, d. Roland Emmerich)

The trouble with prehistoric stories is that we know they have to be made up since there are no records. All during the 20th century there were all kinds of films from ‘lands that time forgot’ about ‘people that time forgot’, locations in ‘the valley of Gwangi’ and even Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC. Which means that the present contender for prehistoric film champion comes 990,000 years later!

This is the kind of film that ‘sophisticated’ types look down their noses at. And they will do so with this one. Risking lack of sophistication, I found myself enjoying 10.000 BC much more than expected – although distractions like thinking that the first part was like John Ford’s The Searchers or that the latter part was like a less blood and gory Apocalypto compensated with cinema buffery.

Omar Sharif, with his characteristic accent and tone, is the narrator. He takes us back into unsophisticated times of hunters who relied on the mammoths for food and hides. (One German journalist, perhaps making this up before he saw the film, called it a mammoth failure! – which, of course, it isn’t.) They also believe in rituals and mystical identification with leaders and spiritual myths.

Reality intrudes after a rousing computergraphics mammoth hunt and stampede (well worth seeing) and a group of slavers capture the hunters. The hero, not always heroic but learning to mature (Steven Strait), pursues the captives, especially the special woman (Camilla Belle) who is a focus of prophecy. Cliff Curtis is the wise mentor and Nat Baring the adolescent runaway.

All this happens in the snow clad mountains of New Zealand’s south island which looks quite majestic. The transition is to the jungle (filmed in South Africa) where computergraphics produce monstrous ravenous birds and a giant sabre-toothed tiger. Later (in the dunes of Namibia), they encounter a tribe of hunter-gatherers and together they find the captives working as slaves (along with the mammoths again) on early days elaborate palaces and pyramids.

Battle ensues with a cast of computer thousands, all spectacular (along with the mammoths which are a real attraction) and, finally, the hunters return home with seeds for crops and the next era is under way.

It was directed by Roland Emmerich who has been into spectacles in all eras with Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow as well as having Mel Gibson beat the British as The Patriot in the War of Independence.

ASSEMBLY

(China, 2006, d. Feng Xioagang))

Feng Ziaogang has made some impressive films in recent years, broad comedy in Big Shot’s Funeral, the story of remote areas of China in World Without Thieves and a sumptuous historical variation on the Hamlet story, The Banquet. This time he has taken on 20th century Chinese history, particularly the civil war of 1948-49 which led to the formation of the People’s Republic of China and the emergence of Mao Tse Tung.

The first half of the film is a re-creation of battles. This is film-making in the Saving Private Ryan vein but goes beyond Spielberg, almost an hour of intense close-up fighting, ebbs and flows between the two sides, traps and snipers, explosions and the horrible injuries and deaths and loss of friends that war brings. The point of view is not so much antiwar as presenting the realities in as graphically real way possible.

The film changes tone half way through. Politics and war have been settled in China but the Korean war is being waged. When it ends, China moves into a reconstruction period in the mid-1950s.

The film focuses on Guzidi, an officer who had made a hard decision in the civil war. Some of his men said that they had heard the Assembly call for a retreat. Guzidi did not hear it and the squad stayed and were destroyed. Because Guzidi had been wounded and taken to hospital, the squad was deemed as simply disappearing in war. Guzidi now decides that he must find the bodies of his men and rehabilitate their reputation.

His quest takes him back to the scene of battle, now looking beautiful in comparison with how we have seen it in the horror of battle. However, the coal mine on the site is being closed and there seems to be no way of finding the men’s bodies. With the help of authorities and the widow of his intelligence office, he perseveres.

This makes the film a tribute to the men and all those who died in the wars of the past.

The film is certainly worth seeing for the war sequences despite their being so vividly gruelling. It is worth seeing for gauging a 21st century view on the revolutionary past.

AVRIL

(France, 2006, d. Gerald Hustache-Mathieu)

Avril is the name of a 20 year old French girl, born in 1968, an orphan left at an enclosed convent where she has been brought up and is now a novice about to take her vows. She is also a painter. One of the sisters questions her about her maturity and her experience before making her vows but, in her innocent, naïve and ingenuous way, she sees everything clearly. However, the sister reveals to her that she has a twin brother and tells her where she can go to find him, slipping away during her fortnight’s solitude retreat. She does.

The convent is an old style French convent reminiscent of those 19th century communities where the superior’s will was everything and mortification predominant. We are told that the order was disbanded but that the superior has gone on her own way and kept the convent running. And, of course, Avril is the daughter that none of the sisters had.

Avril’s odyssey takes her into a world she is quite unfamiliar with but her simplicity initially lets her glide through this without any harmful effect, including getting a lift from an elaborately tattooed worker in a paint shop, discovering that her brother is gay and deciding to stay in the lighthouse where he is on holidays.

We know that Avril is going to discover the world, relationships, the less ascetical delights of good food and cooking, music, dance, teaching children art and play and learning to swim as well as to come to consciousness about her bodiliness.

It is to the credit of the screenplay that this is done in a quite credible way – except, perhaps, for the actual ending which moves into a fey atmosphere of fantasy and art. It is also to the credit of Sophie Quinton that Avril is a believable and dignified character. It is a subtle performance, completely convincing in its innocence and leading us along with Avril in her discoveries and her personal awakening.

For a Catholic audience, it may come as something of a surprise and, yet, it makes the valid point that most Vocation Directors have had to learn, as have so many religious who stayed in their congregations or who left, that one cannot live in a spiritual vacuum and that vocation is to be discerned and tested by reality rather than simply accepted.

AWAKE

(US, 2007, d. Joby Harrold)

The publicity for Awake recommends that those who are to undergo surgery would be wiser not to see this film. They are right. Not because it is not an entertaining thriller, but there are some scenes of surgery which may be offputting (to say it mildly) and the opening gives a range of statistics about the use of anaesthesia – and how about 30,000 people a year stay awake, paralysed during their operation!

This is enough to give qualms to anyone, even those not due to go to hospital.

This is a film with heart – and without heart – in the sense that the operation concerned is a heart transplant. The subject is a very rich young New York financial entrepreneur, Clay Beresford, played convincingly enough by Hayden Christianson, who is looking much older than in his Star Wars days. He has a dominating mother, Lena Olin, who wants the best (and most boastfully arrogant) surgeon in the city (Arliss Howard) to perform the operation. Instead he wants his friend Jack (Terrence Howard) who has already saved him during a heart attack. In the meantime, he has secretly married his fiancée (Jessica Alba who does get the chance to develop her character) – just before the news comes through that a heart is available.

As we expect from the title, Clay stays awake during the operation. His voiceover is often alarming and, at one stage, like a near death experience, he exits from his body, watches the operation and re-lives key moments of his life.

Then there is a twist in the plot which makes it even more interesting, enough to make the audience even more edgy. But, you need to see it to find out what happens.

BEAUFORT

(Israel, 2007, d. Joseph Cedar)

Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film, 2007. Beaufort is an austere film about the 2000 withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon. Beaufort is an old crusader castle (which has seen many wars over many centuries) and is in Lebanese territory. During the occupation from 1982 to 2000, it served as an impregnable fortress though the continued target of Hezbollah rockets.

The film confines its two hour running time to the castle and the preparations for leaving, the continued bombardment, defusing bombs, packing, dreams of what the soldiers will do in the future. The commander, very young, is psychologically affected by the orders to leave and the seeming surrender of the castle as well as the final orders to blow it up.

The film remembers the war with Lebanon, its 18 years and the cost to Israel and the difficulties for some Israelis for face the withdrawal whereas others welcomed it.

Finished before July 2006, Beaufort has very strong resonances with what happened in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon last year and the confrontation with Hezbollah and the question of whether that is the right way to go and how futile it is.


CASHBACK

(UK, 2007, d. Sean Ellis)

CHILDREN OF GLORY

(Hungary, 2006, d. Krisztina Goda)

Children of Glory is a rousing film about a key period in the history of 20th century Hungary. It has been made in a very popular universal movie style rather than in the more austere European style and should prove of interest and popularity quite widely.

The immediate focus is on the water polo team and their clash with Russia in Moscow where politics entered into the refereeing and Hungary lost (not without some bitterness and fights). On their return home, the star of the team is interrogated by the secret police.

It is a tense time in the capital and students are organising protests which eventually lead to political demonstrations and battles, with Russian soldiers and tanks ruthlessly putting down this rebellion.

It is also a tense time, October 1956, because the water polo team is booked to go to Melbourne for the Olympics.

This dramatic tension is played out in the central character, his meeting with a student at the forefront of the fight and his love for her, his opting out of the team and the repercussions for his family.

When the revolution seems to have been won, the team flies to Australia and only then hears that the tanks have returned and that the revolution has been totally crushed. The semi-final Olympic match then becomes a sports and political event with the hard playing Hungarians beating their rivals on the world stage.

This is rousing patriotic stuff on Hungarian identity.


THE COTTAGE

(UK, 2008, d. Paul Andrew Williams)

An innocuous title for what is certainly not an innocuous entertainment.

Paul Andrew Williams received quite some critic acclaim for his debut film, the small-budget drama, London to Brighton. What to do for a second film which many warn will not live up to the first film? The answer with The Cottage seems to be to go for broke – or beyond!

It begins semi-quietly enough with an abduction and a ransom demand. David and his timid brother, Peter (Andy Serkis and Reece Shearsmith) seem to have it all covered. However, our potential criminals are not the best planners in the world and become the victims of Murphy’s law. Everything goes wrong and more wrong than they could imagine.

Then it gets worse.

The gangster boss whose daughter they have taken is alert to what is going on and has sent two Korean goons to dispatch them and his stepson (who is even more accident-prone). That doesn’t happen. Worse – and the eerie villagers do warn David but who listens to such eccentrics out in their dressing-gowns around a public telephone?

When they move out of the cottage where their abductee has now vanished from with Peter, the film becomes creepy with scary happenings and death in the woods. It is night, of course!

When the girl and Peter ignore trespasser warnings and go into a cottage with lights ablaze, we know that something is afoot (well, not exactly because Peter loses half one of his). It looks like a haunted cottage – but there is a trapdoor and a cellar and the director wants to prove that the UK can do an equivalent of Texas chainsaw massacring kind of terror show. And, then, it becomes a ‘gasp-they-couldn’t-go-any-further’ gorefest. If that appeals (and there are a lot of laughter-inducing moments despite oneself and a lot of tiresome, witless swearing), then go ahead. If it doesn’t, you might not last all through the final section. And, if you have gone to see it – but, if you are one of those who as soon as writing appears at the end and credits roll compulsively leave the cinema, you will have missed some final minutes and the whole of Steven Berkoff’s performance apart from a few words he spoke on the phone earlier!

DOCTOR SEUSS’ HORTON HEARS A WHO

(US, 2008, d. Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino)

According to Dr Seuss’ fans this is a faithful adaptation of his story and captures the spirit of his characters and plots, the drawings and the verses. The more recent versions of Dr Seuss’ stories have not been so impressive with the overdone The Grinch who Stole Christmas with Jim Carrey and the not very charming The Cat in the Hat with Mike Myers. Perhaps telling the stories through animation makes them seem more like fairy tales and bedtime stories than live action.

This should be a happy experience for younger children. Their parents should enjoy a lot of it as well, more particularly the voices of Jim Carrey as Horton, the large, lovable and lumbering elephant, his arch critic the self-important and self-righteous Kangaroo, voiced with her aplomb and sardonic tones by Carol Burnett. But, what is a kangaroo doing in a jungle with an elephant and monkeys? Oh well, that’s fairy tales for you.

Horton is good natured and discovers a speck on a flower which contains a whole town of little people. When he hears the mayor speak (in Steve Carell’s voice) and the bumbling mayor of Whoville hears him, the two strike up a friendship – even though nobody believes either of them. As the kangaroo says in self-satisfied atheistic tones, ‘If you can’t see it, smell it or hear it, it doesn’t exist’.

Well, Whoville does exist and the town is threatened when the kangaroo does a deal with an Eastern European accented buzzard, proud of his teeth and violent prowess, called Vlad (amusing voice of Will Arnett) to get rid of the speck. Adventures, chases, threats and many comic touches follow until Horton and the mayor are vindicated and the kangaroo has to learn humility and is still treated in a kindly way by Horton.

DRILLBIT TAYLOR

(US, 2008, d. Steven Brill)

Three kids and their first day at high school. The trouble is that Wade is gangly, Ryan is definitely not and Emmett is just too small. The worse trouble is that they attract the menace of the school bullies who then make their life hell. Empathetic audiences will be feeling uncomfortably vengeful – although Ryan, who wants to be called T-Dog? and is too immaturely worldly-wise is sometimes hard to take.

In this cyberworld of ours they find a solution, bodyguard ads on the net and so interview a number of tough guys who apply to guard them at school. We have already been introduced to Drillbit Taylor who lives on the streets (or in the grassy hill at the back of the streets) and is, to all intents and purposes something of a sponging bum. Him they can afford.

Most of the film is about his conning the boys out of their money, in training them in attack and defence, even posing as a substitute teacher (which he enjoys) and falling for the English teacher. He is not particularly ept at the job. His bum friends rob Wade’s house. But, even though the boys become disillusioned with him, and Wade has a stepfather who proudly tells him that he himself was a bully at school (and if he met the boy now the boy would probably thank him!) and Ryan has an absent father, it is clear that Drillbit has been quite an effective supplementary male figure in their lives.

Drillbit is played by Owen Wilson at his best. He is droll. His timing is good. He can get a lot out of a throwaway line. He can be convincingly cowardly and heroic. It’s not the greatest Owen Wilson vehicle, and the final fight is somewhat bone-crunching (and little finger severing) but, if you happen upon it, it has its moments.

(Seth Rogen who can be very funny co-wrote the screenplay – the sad thought is that the young characters here will soon grow up to replay Rogen’s Superbad!)

THE 11TH HOUR

(US, 2008, d. Nadia Connors, Leila Connors Petersen)

For some time Leonardo di Caprio has been an activist for environmental concerns. He has teamed up with documentary film-makers and sisters, Nadia Connors and Leila Connors Petersen, and fronts this 90 minutes film that challenges its audience not only on global warming, as did Al Gore with his An Inconvenient Truth, but on a ranger of wide issues concerning Earth and its future. The film states that in terms of the long history of the planet we are at the 11th hour and it is after five minutes to midnight.

Di Caprio is preaching to those who like him and his movies and who may not yet have appreciated the crises in the environment. He is not centre screen so much, which makes his interventions more modest and persuasive.

There is a great deal of footage of natural disasters as well as the ravaging of earth and sea. There are a great number of talking heads – which means that the audience has to concentrate more than they might anticipate if they are to listen to so many opinions and try to establish their own. They come from all fields and sciences including better known spokespersons like Stephen Hawking and David Suzuki.

The film is not all gloom and doom. After all, the 11th hour in the history of the planet could last a long time in terms of centuries or even millennia, so there is a need for action. There are more hopeful landscapes and seascapes in the last part, more information about practical plans and schemes for energy saving, lowering of greenhouse gas emissions, repairing ravaged territory.

The audience can walk out of the film with a sense of shock and urgency but also with some confidence that they are people out there who are doing their best to remedy situations, and that we make our own efforts to support those who are doing good for the earth – and for the future of the human race.

FIRST SUNDAY

(US, 2008, d. David E. Talbert)

This is a particularly local film and does not travel too well beyond the ‘hoods of the American cities.

It has its heart in the right place and is an African American comedy drama that serves as a moral fable about violence and robbery as anti-social. It has more than a dollop of religion. It is a variation on the inspirational movie for its target audience: poorer black families in the suburbs and their children.

The style and sensibility are distinctive and could prove popular to groups in other countries who find themselves ghettoised as well as targets of overt or hinted at racial prejudice.

Ice Cube as actor has been appearing in more and more of this kind of film and has his own company Cube Vision who produced First Sunday. He plays a Darrell, a man who has spent a lot of time in homes and gaol and who can’t settle down, a lot of the fault being his school friend Lee John who gets them involved in harebrained schemes which finish up in court. Lee John is played by comedian Tracy Morgan (30 Rock and Saturday Night Live) who is often in your face – and you wish he would just shut up now and again! This is all highly extraverted stuff from most of the characters. Darrell doesn’t want his son to go with his mother to live in Atlanta, away from Baltimore. So, what do they do? Decide to rob the local church – and a more inept robbery on screen has yet to be seen.

But, you know it is going to end happily but may well be wondering how. There is lots of exuberant African American religious music, clapping and dancing, praying and quoting the Gospel. There is plenty of forgiveness and making amends – and in 2008 a glimpse of a lot of people who will vote for Barak Obama.

FUNNY GAMES U.S.

(US, 2008, d. Michael Haneke)

Michael Haneke regretted that his 1998 Funny Games did not reach American audiences which, in his rather severe and finger-pointing opinion, was where it was needed. He has taken the opportunity to remake it exactly in English, with a better known cast, and set in New York state. Since it is almost an exact re-make (and this is what theatre directors do when they restage a play with a different cast, sometimes in the one season), it seemed the right thing to do to look up the 1998 review. It fits this version:

There have been many films about families terrorised in their homes, films like The Desperate Hours, with recognisable stars who help us share the frightening experience. This Austrian film from Michael Haneke, the director of Benny's Video, an alarming film about a boy obsessed with video violence and its consequences, is about a terrifying night as an ordinary family goes to their holiday house, where two seemingly ordinary young men come in and proceed to torment them physically and psychologically. Because the situations and characters are so ordinary, some audiences have condemned the film as exploitative. It is a very unpleasant cinema experience, but it is a dramatising of what happens and is a continual challenge to wonder why such seemingly purposeless malevolence can drive people to violate the innocent. A specialist film that may be too alarming for many audiences, but a powerful reminder of violence in the suburbs. Of interest now is the fact that in the original the father is played by the late Ulrich Muhe, the East German agent in The Lives of Others.

This version is very well acted. Naomi Watts is convincing as the brutalised wife and mother. Tim Roth (who twenty years ago might have been one of the intruders) is quietly effective as the husband and father. Devon Gearheart gives a strong performance as their young son. As the intruders, Michael Pitt (Murder by Numbers, Last Days) and Brady Corbet (the abused boy in Mysterious Skin) are frightening, all the more so for being initially ordinary and menacing. As with the original, the intruder Paul (Pitt) turns to the audience to eyeball them about what we are feeling; at another stage, after a shooting, the film rewinds and continues in a different way; it ends with a calm discussion between the two after their extraordinarily repellent behaviour about fiction and reality. Finally, Michael Pitt stares in a freeze frame at the audience.

Haneke makes very serious and strong films critical of the electronic media and its effect on makers and viewers (Benny’s Video), a sado-masochistic teacher (The Piano Teacher) and two OCIC and SIGNIS award winners, Code Inconnu and Cache (Hidden). He is a bleak and serious satirist in the sense that he is a perfectionist in his expectations of human nature and portrays, extremely, dramas which underscore his disappointments and these expectations. Concerning Funny Games, he has made the point about his visual assault on the audience that today screen violence has been tailored to what is ‘consumerable’.

THE GO MASTER

(China/Japan, 2007, d.Zhuangzhuang Tian)

‘Zen’ was a helpful suggestion to keep in mind while watching this film. It is a meditative kind of film with moments of contemplation: of the game of Go (a traditional Chinese game that many liken to chess), of prayer, of the beauty of the Japanese countryside, of the simplicity of life of the central character.

The central character, who is glimpsed at the opening of the film at age 92 with his wife, is Wu Qingyuan, a Chinese expert at the game of Go. Born in 1913, he showed skill at the game and was sent to Japan in the 1930s where he began to win competitions. A simple, even naïve young man, he is befriended by a spiritual and Go master and his wife, suffers from bouts of TB, begins to win the principal competition in the late 1930s and continues as a master during World War II (actually playing in Hiroshima as the bomb fell with the referee urging the players to continue the game) until 1955. He remained in Japan, married and had a child.

His naivety was manifest when he became a devout member of a religious sect. It flourished until the priestess became corrupted by what one character calls ‘delusions of grandeur’ and the sect is attacked and is dispersed.

Captions appear throughout the film highlighting the political realities in Japan. Captions also appear with some reflections by Wu on what was happening in his life and in his commitment to Go. These are more than helpful since the style of the film, while slowly-paced, moves from one episode to another without filling in gaps in any detail.

Demanding close attention, this is a tribute to Wu but, Zen-like, the film observes some moments of the Go games but leaves it to the audience to respond without learning anything of the way the game is played.

HOW SHE MOVE

(Canada, 2007, d. Ian Iqbar Rashid)

Sometimes film reviewers become more expert in areas that they don’t necessarily aspire to. It’s just that they see so many films. How She Move is a case in point. In recent years we have seen Step Up, Step Up 2: the Streets and Stomp the Yard. We know something about ‘Stepping’, a kind of stomping, athletic style of dance movement that has become something of a visual version of rap, with ‘crews’ and ‘teams’ from the streets vying with each other. It can sometimes be a new type of artistic gang competitiveness, if not warfare.

Set in Toronto, this variation on the theme (much the same plots with plenty of energetic step scenes) focuses on a young woman who has high hopes and good results for going to medical school. She has been able to get out of the neighbourhood. However, her older sister dies of an overdose and the family money for her course is used up. She tries for a supplementary exam for a scholarship but, in the meantimes, gets caught up in ‘stepping’ with the possibility of winning the $50,000 competition prizemoney. Along the way, there are plenty of dramatics, hostility from friends, rivalries in the crews, pressure from her mother.

Rutina Wesley gives it all she’s got for another morale-boosting story for people to have more self-confidence and benefit by their talents.

LARS AND THE REAL GIRL

(US, 2007, d. Craig Gillespie)

Most reviewers (and some internet bloggers who really like the film) offer warnings not to be put off by any film synopsis that readers come across. This review would offer the same advice, a case of not being put off by descriptions of ‘what’ the film is about but checking on the ‘how’ it is done.

This does give a reviewer some space to say that the film is about a socially undeveloped young Midwestern man who buys a lifesize doll (called Bianca and who comes with her own back story of being a Brazilian teacher), presents her to his brother and sister-in-law and proceeds to relate to her as a real person, always within the proper bounds of behaviour, but talking with her, telling others what she is saying and always being most attentive.

Clearly, this kind of film has the potential to be odd at the least and offputtingly bizarre at the most – the French actually did make this kind of bizarre film in the 1970s called Lifesize with Michel Piccoli. However, this is a film which can be recommended to a wide audience.

Ryan Gosling has shown that he is a versatile actor in such films as The Believer, The Notebook, Fracture and Half Nelson. Here he makes what might be a rather unbelievable character credible. Lars lives near his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and his wife Karen (Emily Mortimer) but stays within himself, resisting Karen’s efforts to have him over for meals, has very few social graces even though he is polite. He goes to his local Lutheran church. He goes to work. And that is about it. Yet, everybody warms to him and is concerned about him.

This is particularly the case with the arrival of Bianca. Once Gus and Karen have got over their shock and allowed Bianca to stay in their spare room, Karen providing clothes, the word gets round. This is where the film enters the realm of fantasy – in the sense that everybody is kind, understanding, plays along with the make-believe in a way that, unfortunately, most people would not. Bianca is welcomed at the hairdresser’s, at the church (as the minister asks a group, ‘What would Jesus do?’) and the school board.

The reason for all this is that the doctor (a sympathetic Patricia Clarkson) tells Gus and Karen that Lars has a mental illness. He is suffering from a delusional disorder. And the screenplay is at pains to let the audience know something about the condition (Gus googling it, others discussing it). The doctor urges them to accept Lars’ behaviour and to accept Bianca. In the meantime, she has informal sessions with Lars where he is confident in opening up and revealing his feelings and, especially, his inability to let anyone touch him physically. His recounting of Bianca’s story parallels his own life.

Without going into detail on the progress of Lars’ therapy because it is better to experience it along with Lars, it should be said that this is a film which shows the potential for community to combine and contribute to the therapy and healing of someone in need rather than ridiculing or ousting that person because they are different. In fact, Bianca has a good effect on more of the townspeople than Lars.

So, a film about a shy and awkward young man and a lifesize doll? This one is recommended for its humanity.

LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA

(US, 2007, d. Mike Newell)

This is a sweeping film, ranging from 1879 to the 1930s. It is based on a novel by Nobel Prize winner for literature, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and has been adapted by prolific playwright and screenwriter, Ronald Harwood (whose work included an Oscar for The Pianist and the adaptation of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). It has been directed by Mike Newell who has made films in all genres including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire).

Garcia Marquez was born in Colombia, in the city of Cartegena where this story is set. The film was made on location there and captures the atmosphere of the Latin American city, its history and culture and the rivers and countryside.

The title is arresting (and, maybe, for some, offputting). The film is certainly about love, about unrequited love with its obsession and passion. There are also outbreaks of the cholera epidemic. How is this a metaphor? That love is like an outbreak of infection, making the patient suffer, difficult to heal and to recuperate from…?

Because the time span of the action is so long and the film runs almost two and a half hours, one expects to settle into the film and absorb atmosphere at something of a leisurely pace, with space to contemplate and reflect. However, the way the screenplay is written does not lead to this pace. Rather, there are many episodes, some of them very brief, so that the film is like a patchwork at times, moving from one event quickly to another. So many of the episodes seem like snippets. And, in some of the snippets there are moments which may have been in the novel but suddenly appear and seem disconnected from the flow of the film. It is the same with some characters (like the Chinese who suddenly wins a poetry prize and is booed by the citizens – and that is all).

That said, there is a lot to enjoy in the film, watching how the metaphor works itself out. The weight of the film is carried by Javier Bardem as Florentino, the young telegram clerk who falls in love at first sight with Ermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and she with him. But, her rough and ambitious father (John Lequizamo) intervenes and exiles her. By the time she returns it is too late and she tells Florentino that their love was an illusion. She marries the doctor who treats her (Benjamin Bratt) and moves into another sphere in the city. In the meantime, Florentino pines for her but also becomes highly promiscuous as a way of assuaging his sorrow and loss. He also becomes rich, inheriting a river boat company from his uncle (Hector Elizondo).

And 51 years pass and the doctor dies (he dies in the opening scene of the film and most of the film is flashback). What can now happen between Florentino and Ermina?

The film is full of many more characters and incidents. It does not all quite ‘click’ but there are a number of pleasures in watching it.

MEET THE SPARTANS

(US, 2008, d. Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer)

This is the kind of spoof that does not need a review. Most critics hate it and with the public it will be a hit or miss movie depending on tastes and senses of humour. It is for the undiscriminating – or the discriminating taking a break from discrimination.

This team of writer-directors has been producing a spoof movie every year where it be Date Movie, Epic Movie, Scary Movie… They are full of jokes, many crass, many corny, some really good ones (like the blue screen here for the digital Spartans and Persians). A whole lot of satirical barbs are launched at public figures (like George Bush or Tom Cruise) and there are impersonations of Brittany Spears, Paris Hilton (as the betrayer of the 13 – instead of 300), Ellen de Generes, Paula Abdul.

The targets are a lot of American TV shows, especially American Idol (with Simon Cowell thrown into the pit of destruction), Deal or no Deal and Dancing with the Stars.

And, while the whole thing is low-budget, it probably could have been paid for by all the companies who booked product placement.

Basically, it is, as the screenplay says, ‘a cheap rip-off of 300’, the characters, the confrontation with the Persians and the homoerotic atmosphere. It follows the plot fairly directly intercutting the farce and the send-ups. It is not Anthony and Cleopatra and many critics review it as if it were aiming to be. It’s just a parody of 300.

MISS AUSTEN REGRETS

(UK, 2008, d. Jeremy Lovering)

Another Jane Austen film, this time made by the BBC and focussing on the latter years of Jane Austen’s life.

One could say that more recently there has been something of a Jane Austen industry producing films for cinema and television, many versions of her novels, like Pride and Prejudice in the 1990s for television and then in 2005 for cinema. There have been films adapting her stories to different settings and cultures, from Clueless with US teens based on Emma, to the Bollywood Bride and Prejudice. The Jane Austen Book Club had members who commented on a book a month and whose lives resembled those of the books they read. 2007 saw a fictional biography of her early years and romance, Becoming Jane, with Anne Hathaway.

By the time of Miss Austen Regrets, Jane had gone back on an engagement, stayed at home with her sister Cassandra and her mother and had been highly successful and well paid for her novels. At this point she is finishing Emma.

Jane’s niece Fanny comes to her for advice about marrying. We find a rather sardonic and somewhat worldly-wise Miss Austen who is resigned to her choices in life despite their loneliness and frustrations and relishes her literary career. However, she also appears quite flirtatious, irreverent towards the clergy and fond of a glass of wine. She is not the prim, perhaps puritanical, figure that literary tradition might have imposed on her. Rather, she has the spirit of Elizabeth Bennett with the touch of the interfering Emma.

Olivia Williams has charm, cheekiness and melancholy as Jane. Greta Scacchi is her sister and Phyllida Law is her mother who has rather desperately wanted her to marry and does not appreciate her books.

It is an interesting addition to the Jane Austen screen cult.

MY BROTHER IS AN ONLY CHILD

(Italy, 2007, d. Daniele Luchetti)

In the early 1960s, a number of Italian directors, some of them soon to be big names like Bolognini and Pasolini, made films about disaffected young men in and around Rome (Il Bell’ Antonio, Accatone). This was the non-dolce vita Roman experience of the times. These directors were the inheritors of the neo-realistic style of the post war period but which delved into the poverty, the politics, the sordidness of the lives of the people they portrayed. These films serve as a contemporary mirror of the times.

Forty years later, Italian directors are still fascinated by stories and characters from these backgrounds. This is certainly true of Daniele Luchetti’s film My Brother is an Only Child. It was co-written by a prolific team, Stefano Rulli and Sandro Petraglia whose impressive credits include The Best of Youth, Rosi’s La Tregua and two strong films for Gianni Amelio, Il Ladro di Bambini and Le Chiavi di Casa). This film has proven popular at the Italian box-office.

It opens in 1962 (actually the year that the Second Vatican Council opened). It has a church and anti-church beginning typical of the times: the younger brother goes to a junior seminary, his parents proud of him and happy to have a priest in the family; his older brother is opposed, taunts him, leaves him a photo of an actress and the teenager recognises he will have sexuality problems and leaves the seminary. Apart from holy pictures on walls, that is the end of the presence of the Church in these young men’s lives.

What inspires one is the Communist party, Italian style, full of sound and fury but idealistically wanting to signify something – brought to a head in the film in the student revolutions of 1968 and a scene of the occupation of the Rome conservatory and a performance of Beethoven’s Song of Joy with new lyrics which begin with, ‘Mao, Lenin, Stalin…’. That is the path of the older brother who works in a factory, develops skills as a political demagogue, has a girlfriend from a wealthy family in Turin but who gets caught up in the struggle, letting it consume his life at the expense of family.

What initially inspires the younger brother after his return home and his continual fights with mother, sister and older brother is a Fascist friend who fills his imagination with Right-wing enthusiasm. He joins the party and absorbs the ideology.

Luchetti has the advantage of two very strong emerging young actors to embody these characters and their political and emotional conflicts: Elio Germano as the younger, Riccardo Scarmarcio as the older.

Luchetti has remarked that this story contributes to the general Italian biography, the life of Italy (or, at least Rome and Lazio) during the changes of the 1960s and the early 1970s. He says that the film does not take a political stand: it shows people who take stands – ‘I believe this was my key, finding the human element which is personal and emotional at the core’.

The characters can be both irritating and frustrating for the audience – and that is one of the strengths of the film. The other is the strong drawing of the supporting characters, the boys’ angry mother, especially her outburst at the corruption that has prevented poorer families from moving into government build housing; the kindly father, the sympathetic girlfriend of the older brother; the local Fascist and his wife who initiates the young man.

Audiences who are familiar with 20th century Italian history will find the film an emotional story that will remind them of Italy’s political and social change. The film ends just as the neo-terrorist groups are beginning their attacks.

THE ORPHANAGE (EL ORFANATO)

(Spain, 2007, d. Juan Luis Bayona)

This is an eerie ghost story reminiscent in many ways of that other fine Spanish ghost story, The Others, with Nicole Kidman. This time the focus is on Belen Rueda as Laura, who spent her younger years in the orphanage and has now returned with her devoted husband and seven year old adopted son in order to open it up again to young children. While everything seems sunny, the little boy is sick and plays with invisible friends. One day he discovers another ‘friend’ in a cave by the seaside. At a masked party for prospective clients, the little boy seems to menace his mother and then disappears.

The film builds its atmosphere, relying on lighting, editing and suggestion rather than by any effects.

When a former employee, looking particularly sinister, visits, suspicions are aroused and various clues, including some home movies of the time when Laura was a girl reveal a new story.

It is Laura who has to hold the film together. She becomes increasingly morbid and frantic about her son as the months pass. Finally, she consults a medium (Geraldine Chaplin) who, against the advice of her rational psychologist and of her husband, tells her that she must first believe and then she will see. The rest of the film is what she sees, what she discovers and what she decides to do.

As with eerie films like The Innocents, The Sixth Sense and The Others, we enter into the mind of someone who has ‘other world’ experiences where it is hard for the audience to know what is real and what is not – and create their own film, so to speak.

This is a very good example of this kind of horror by suggestion film.

OUT OF THE BLUE

(New Zealand, 2006, d. Robert Sarkies)

Out of the blue seems a rather quiet title with a suggestion of some surprise. This is how the opening of the film works, a leisurely look at a small New Zealand town near Dunedin which wakes up one November morning in 1990. There is a glimpse of a cross-section of people doing very ordinary things, breakfast, getting ready for work, kids going to school. Most audiences can identify with this kind of day.

One of the characters glimpsed seems a little odd. David Grey is a loner, living in an isolated house, with many books, some guns and military magazines. The film follows him going into the city by bike and bus, with some taunts from the kids in the school bus. He goes to the bank and, on being asked to pay an extra charge, he erupts and storms out. He checks on a gun he has put aside to buy later and returns home.

Later that morning, he is confronted by a neighbour and he explodes, shooting the man, his wife and some children. A siege begins which lasts all the day, through the night and is only resolved with Grey’s death the next morning.

There are suggestions about what made Grey the way he was, living along, preoccupied with guns and military magazines, edgy in his mental illness. His behaviour is unpredictable, firing shots yet quietly entering a house and sleeping the night there.

What impresses about the film and its treatment of the terrible events is that it does not glamourise them in any way. People are frightened and uncertain about what is happening and what to do. The police are doing their best but have to work out strategies for something they have never anticipated. They are fearful, sometimes hesitant, but courageous. Wounded people are stranded. An old woman is trapped in her home but keeps in touch by phone.

The media also descend on the town.

Editing and pace are just right to make this a tribute to those involved, a memorial for those who have died. (In the 1980s two other films about murderous outbreaks in New Zealand were made, Bad Blood and Beyond Reasonable Doubt.)

RUN, FATBOY, RUN

(UK, 2007, d. David Schwimmer)

Simon Pegg has been emerging recently as a very successful British comedian. He led Shaun of the Dead and was an excellent hapless policeman in Hot Fuzz. He has also gone to Hollywood and appeared with Gwynneth Paltrow and Martin Freeman in The Good Night.

This is a pleasantly self-deprecating romantic comedy about true love, losing weight and running a marathon! And it has been directed by American David Schwimmer in his life after Friends. (He and Pegg had appeared together in the caper comedy, Big Nothing.)

Pegg is Dennis who jilted his pregnant fiancée (Thandie Newton) at the altar. Five years later he realises he is still in love with her and is determined to rival her new boyfriend (Hank Azariah) by upstaging him by running. He has trouble getting into shape but is aided and hindered by his gambling friend (Dylan Moran) but egged on and trained by his large Indian neighbour (a comic Harish Patel). There are some running gags and an all-out effort in winning races and girlfriends.

I suppose it could be called a comedy for the middle-aged and middle-aged-spread-challenged and a moral fable about not giving up even if you have made stupid and selfish mistakes in the past!

SON OF RAMBOW

(UK, 2008, d. Garth Jennings)

This is a very entertaining story of two young boys and their friendship – though it raises the perennial questions of how much movies influence behaviour, attitudes and desensitising because of violence.

This is the 1980s when First Blood was released, the first of the Stallone Rambo films. Lee Carter (Will Poulter) lives with his brother in a care home for the elderly. He has a video camera and we first see him pirating First Blood at the cinema. Meanwhile, Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) stands outside the cinema to read the Bible with other members of the Plymouth Brethren. A series of accidents and misbehaviour (not on Will’s part) brings the two boys together, Lee being something of a con man, a shoplifter and a bully. Will is not even allowed to watch TV documentaries in class so, when he happens to see the pirated First Blood and learns that Lee is making his own film to enter in a BBC competition, his horizons open up considerably.

He is an imaginative sketcher and making a film about Rambow (he gets the spelling wrong) and a growing friendship with Lee becomes his preoccupation. In his imagination and in their film he becomes Son of Rambow with one of the elderly acting as his father (Eric Sykes in an enjoyable cameo). He has to escape his mother’s vigilance and that of Brother Joshua of the Brethren. Complications arise when a group of French exchange students come to the school and a flamboyant boy, Didier (Jules Sitruk) who has everyone doing his beck and call wants to star in the film. Then everyone wants to be in it. Will becomes the celebrity and it goes to his head. Lee is on the outer.

Plenty of emotional complications for Will (whose father is dead) with warnings to his mother from the Brethren to correct him. He clashes with Lee. You know it is going to have a happy ending – but it is a nice one as well. The boys act very well indeed and, though you keep wondering about their aping of Rambo and Colonel Trautman and the action scenes, the stronger themes are those of honesty and friendship.

SOUS LES BOMBES

(France, 2007, d. Philippe Aractingi)

Sous les Bombes was filmed soon after the war in Lebanon in July 2006. Its great value in alerting its audience to the realities and hardships consequent on the three weeks of bombing of Beirut and the south of the country is the presentation throughout of the bombs, the ruins and rubble, the bulldozers, the finding of bodies and burials, the attempts to get the country back in order. This is very moving (and alarming) as more than 1000 people were killed in Lebanon compared with a much smaller number in Israel.

The film-makers have used this realism and documentary evidence as background to a familiar war story. A mother finds her way back from Dubai through Turkey and employs a taxi driver to take her south (where other taxi drivers are unwilling to go) to find her sister and her six year old son. He bargains for money – and also has a roving eye as it emerges when they stay at a hotel during their journey. In the meantime, she is in mobile phone contact with her husband, a developer in Hong Kong. This provides an international flavour to the story while the images on Lebanese television are hostile to Israel and critical of its breaking of the cease-fire.

The mother is distraught, becoming more so as the journey takes them following further and further leads, to collapsed buildings, to cemeteries, to hospitals and, ultimately, to a monastery refuge.

Dramatically, the obsession of the mother will either draw audiences in with sympathy (who could fail to be moved?). However, her tunnel-vision and pig-headedness (understandable) means that she is willing to ignore good advice and press on, no matter what the consequences. The performance is something of a one-note portrayal. However, the taxi driver’s character develops from a go-getting attitude (even trying to cadge medicines from a supply ship), through a sexual encounter with the hotel receptionist, to a greater appreciation of the mother’s pain and a revelation about his own family and children.

The film is a valuable document of the war and its aftermath but the drama, while important, makes the desperation too dominant for full empathy despite the ending.

THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES

(US, 2008, d. Mark Waters)

This is a very satisfying magical adventure for all except the very young and the very impressionable – it has the elements of fairy tales and nightmares.

The prologue introduces the plot, the atmosphere and the mystery very well. Arthur Spiderwick (in the 1920s) is completely absorbed in examining all kinds of mysterious creatures and writes a manuscript, a Field Book, explaining the ‘other world’ around him.

80 years later, along comes a ‘typical’ broken family, separated mother with three children who are poor and need to live in the Spiderwick mansion that they have inherited. The screenplay and the performances quickly establish the characters and their interactions (initially a lot of bickering), something a bit difficult to achieve because Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland, Charley and the Chocolate Factory, August Rush) is playing twins. But he is a young actor of great presence and skill and shows the angry and cantankerous Jared as quite different from the calmer and reasonable Simon. Sarah Bolger is Mallory, their older sister. Mary Louise Parker is their harassed mother.

It is not too long before Jared hears noises in the walls, travels up to his grand-uncle’s secret room via a dumbwaiter and has discovered not only the manuscript but an elfish creature, Thimblestack (voiced by Martin Short). Out in the woods is another friendly creature, Hogsqueal (voiced comically by Seth Rogen). What Jared discovers is that the Goblins, led by Magarath (Nick Nolte) want to get the book in order to have absolute power, even if it means getting rid of everyone else.

The adventure begins and soon involves the three children. There are fights and chases and, ultimately, a siege of the house but not before Jared is able to summon up a wonderful flying griffin who takes them to see their grand uncle (David Strathairn). They also find his daughter (Joan Plowright) in an institution where she gives them good advice.

Well, maybe this is not entirely new in the era of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. But this film, based on five novels by, Tony DiTelizzi? and Holly Black, is full of energy, races right along, has excellent effects and creatures and is carried well by Freddie Highmore in his two roles. The director has moved along from family and teen comedies, Freaky Friday and Mean Girls. Very entertaining – though, of course, not for ‘realists’.

STEP UP 2: THE STREETS

(US, 2008, d. Jon Chu)

It’s certainly exuberant and the cast are certainly agile – and even that is too simple a word to describe their dance acrobatics.

It’s certainly much the same as 2006’s Step Up. It has a Baltimore setting, dancing in the subway to the shock of commuters, dancing in the rough neighbourhoods (where the losing dancers take to graffiti vandalism and bashing instead of sublimating their anger in their dance as they usually do), dancing at the School of the Arts and, finally something that the athletic dancer and choreographer Gene Kelly would approve of: dancin’ in the rain.

The dialogue runs very much to formula and practically all of what happens is quite predictable, but that will not deter fans who don’t go to hear dialogue but to identify with the characters, their problems, what they do, what they wear and how they dance.

TOWARDS ZERO (L’HEURE ZERO)

(France, 2007, d. Pascal Thomas)

There is a long history of films from Agatha Christie mysteries. The Internet Movie Database has 109 entries under her name with the first film being made in 1928 (and that does not count the 60 episodes of the Poirot series with David Suchet).

Here is a French adaptation with the action and characters transferred to Brittany. Even though set in the present, it retains something of the old world Agatha Christie atmosphere. It opens with some speculation about blind justice and the thoughts of a judge about murder and how the murder is the end of a process. It then moves to a mansion on the Breton coast, introduces a range of disparate characters, a number of whom dislike each other intensely, has a dinner where all are present and, soon after, as might be expected there is a murder.

An eccentric police officer on holidays is asked to look into the case. Arrests are made and then the arrested are released. As always with Agatha Christie, she does her best to draw attention away from the guilty by all kinds of tricks (and there are a few here) until everyone is gathered for the final revelation.

It is amazing how this still works eighty years after the first Christie film adaptation.

What is interesting here is the French cast. Danielle Darrieux (who made her first film in 1931) was 89 when she made this. Upcoming star Melvil Poupard is the heir apparent and Laura Smet is his unbearably moody wife contrasting with Chiara Mastroianni as his dignified first wife. There are some comic French servants. But Francois Morel holds his own as the detective.

Nothing new, but it is a pleasure to watch a serious but light version of Agatha Christie.





THE PASSION

(BBC/HBO Series, 2008, directed by Michael Offer)

In collaboration with the American HBO, th BBC produced an ambitious series which was shown during Holy Week 2008 and repeated on Easter Sunday afternoon before the last episode screened that evening. As with so many biblical films, it was made in Morocco, taking advantage of the Mediterranean locations, the desert and buildings which easily stand in to Judaea. Directed by Michael Offer and written by Frank Deasy (who had a Catholic background), The Passion in fact did not focus solely on the events of the Passion as did Mel Gibson’s film. Rather, it opens with Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the donkey and the first half of the film covers Jesus’ preaching and actions until the Last Supper. The second half begins with the Last Supper, has 40 minutes on the Passion. The final 30 minutes are on the Resurrection. The cast would have been known to viewers of British television or the London stage. Jesus was played by Joseph Mawle (who was thirty three when the film was in production).

Adapting the Gospels for television

As with any version of Jesus’ life, it is ‘based on’ the Gospels rather than an exact following of them. Not even Pasolini’s Gospel According to St Matthew did this. As the early Christian communities did, the film-makers omit, add, create dialogue and incidents. They interpret. This is the interesting point for the viewer, the challenge to the viewer’s ideas and presuppositions. The Passion screenplay certainly picks and chooses. It also creates some incidents and coincidences.

The style of the film is determined by television conventions using a great many close-ups but the backgrounds add a touch of the spectacle but do not dominate. In most ways, the filming is visually traditional. The actors speak in a variety of British accents although James Nesbitt’s Pilate has the actor’s natural Ulster accent which is a more than a little disconcerting and distracting. Pilate was a foreigner in Judaea, but with such an accent?

In many ways, there is too much in the first half of The Passion. Many of the things that Jesus does did not take place in the Gospel texts during his final days. To that extent, the action seems crammed. Added to that is the inclusion of so many of the sayings of Jesus that preceded this week. It is a value of have these teachings spoken on screen but they come, one after the other, without enough time to absorb them and their meaning.

While the presentation is in the line of The King of Kings and the Jesus Project, what is always interesting and worth watching is what the film-makers do with the familiar texts and how they interpret Jesus and the principal characters.

Here Jesus is very ordinary. At first, he does not stand out. In fact, he is only moderately charismatic or magnetic. The actor relies on an inner conviction and strength rather than dramatics, except when he throws the moneychangers and sellers out of the Temple, but this episode stands out in the Gospels themselves as not ‘typical’ of Jesus. At first it is difficult to distinguish Jesus from the apostles (and the apostles, except for Judas) are not quite distinct until the Last Supper. The impact that Jesus makes is not instant. Rather, it is a cumulative effect until he is dying on the cross.

With the focus on the last week of Jesus’ life, the characters of interest are Judas, Pilate and the religious authorities.

Pilate, Caiaphas and Judas

Sequences with Pilate give some background to the Roman occupation, the contempt of the Romans for the Jews, their lack of understanding and tolerance for Jewish religious beliefs and practices. Yet, Pilate has to keep the peace as well as watch his back at the court of the emperor. The spirit of Zealot revolt is also on Pilate’s mind. Barabbas, called Jesus Barabbas, is shown with his followers with their violence and rioting. Pilate’s wife is a strong influence on Pilate and the film emphasises the Gospel story where she has the dream of Jesus and tries to dissuade Pilate from executing him. But, Pilate is capable of executing criminals without any compunction as we see when many are brought before him and he, almost offhandedly, condemns them to crucifixion.

This version presents a much more rounded portrait of Caiaphas than most Jesus films. He is played by Ben Daniels as a dominating religious leader who prides himself on walking the difficult path between his people and the Romans and keeping the peace in Judaea. In that light, Jesus is a threat to peace. His followers are potential rioters who will antagonise the Romans. Jesus constantly refers to the Temple, speaks of destroying it and rebuilding it and throws out the buyers and sellers. Caiaphas says that the only way Jesus can be saved is by his renouncing everything.

Caiaphas is shown as money preoccupied. His pregnant wife is the person who reminds him that Jesus is only one man and, therefore, expendable. Caiaphas is shown as acting according to his lights for the political good (and, therefore, the religious good). He has many advisers in the Sanhedrin, some of whom challenge his stances, especially Jospeh of Arimathaea. His father-in-law, Annas, is much more conniving. Ultimately, he is shocked by Jesus’ claims and uses all his diplomatic skills and cunning to persuade Pilate not to antagonise the Emperor Tiberius and to crucify Jesus.

As with Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, there is a fictional character who represents those who plotted against Jesus. This character is played by John Lynch as part-police, part-thug, part rabble-rouser. His vicious hitting of Jesus after his response to Annas is far more brutal than the ‘slap’ of the Gospel.

Judas (Paul Nicholls) fits into this plan. He is caught up in the same ideas as Caiaphas and is presented as seriously concerned about Judaea and what Jesus was doing. Judas has personal conversations with Jesus. He tells Jesus that they all believe. They want to. But Jesus answers, ‘When you look into your heart, what do you see?’. Judas says, ‘forgive me, Lord’. ‘You are forgiven, now tell me what do you see inside?. Judas has no answer. And Jesus says, ‘Im, sorry, Judas’.

Judas feels that he is a true disciple but that he needs to speak with the authorities. With his role as the purse-keeper and his rebuke of Mary anointing Jesus with the expensive ointment, his motives are mixed. When he betrays Jesus, he spits on those who give him the silver. They say they do not want to be in his debt and that he can give the money to the poor. At the Last Supper, Jesus sends him away before the breaking of the bread. ‘Judas, you have to go.’ Judas hurries out but, in a surprising dramatic moment, he suddenly vomits in the street. Resigned to what he has done, he kisses Jesus in Gethsemane with some force but then collapses morally, drinking, encountering Barabbas, wandering the streets, finally coming to a well and using the rope for the bucket to hang himself down the well.

Disciples, Men and Women

These are the characters around Jesus who make much more dramatic impact than the apostles who appear as his group of followers, have more prominence at the Last Supper, the washing of their feet and Jesus giving them the bread as his body – with some of them muttering that they do not understand what Jesus is doing. They join in the melee with swords in Gethsemane but, afterwards, are shown fearful in the upper room, some wanting to go back to Galilee where they say they had a life, others sympathising with Jesus’ fate. John rushes with Mary, Jesus’ mother and Mary Magdalene to the foot of the cross.

The women play a not insignificant role during these days. Jesus’ mother is shown as ageing and matronly, shown talking with Jesus privately after he comes out of the room where he is preaching. This invented sequence places Mary in her role as mother but also as stepping back. Jesus says that God asks everything of him and she touches him, ‘Is there anything I can do?’. She is given some lines which led to controversy, that she didn’t know what was happening until she felt the child in her womb. ‘I never asked for you. What if Joseph had said ‘no’?. She is seen in the upper room and, on the news of Jesus’ crucifixion, hurries to Calvary. Her line is, ‘My beautiful son’. She screams and rushes to the cross, kissing Jesus’ feet. Jesus’ line is, ‘John would you look after her as your own mother. Mother, this is your son’. Jesus also adds, ‘Love one another’.

Mary Magdalene is shown as a close friend of Jesus, always present and supportive, especially as she farewells him after the Last Supper. The earlier part of The Passion has Jesus pass a brothel and encounter the ‘woman who was a sinner in the city’. She taunts but is struck by Jesus’ sincerity and is able to leave her work, feel affirmed and follow as one of the disciples. When one of the apostles taunts her as Jesus is dying, that she will soon go back to work, she says strongly that she will not. She has a new life.

A portrait of Jesus

And the portrait of Jesus himself? We first see him with the group and then riding triumphantly into Jerusalem, the crowds acclaiming him. He quotes many of the Gospel teaching passages, almost as conversation pieces in passing – the film-makers presuming knowledge of these texts and their being able to absorb them as they are reminded of them, passages especially from the sermon on the mount about the law. Jesus also speaks of his Father and that the Father will never abandon him.


At times, he glimpses crosses already on Calvary. His character and mission are seen more forcefully when he encounters the prostitute and there is a raid on the brothel. The woman is initially defiant, ‘plough, not preach’. But Jesus says to the woman, ‘You have suffered enough already, your sins are forgiven. Your faith strengthens mine’. He is also forceful in the Temple, calling the merchants a nest of criminals. ‘Is this how you honour God?’ And then he goes into action against them.

Familiar episodes are introduced. A dwarf comes to challenge Jesus about paying the tax. Jesus kneels below the dwarf’s eyeline and gives him the answer of rendering to Caesar and to God. When he tells the parable of the lost sheep, someone remarks that a shepherd would guard the ninety nine and the lost one would come back. Joseph of Aramathaea admires him and Jesus asks him what is the greatest of the commandments. He speaks the parable of the vineyard while holding a child. Jesus also begins to attack the religious leaders along the lines of the condemnations of Matthew 23. He also begins to speak about destroying the Temple and raising it up again.

The Last Supper and the Agony in the Garden

As the week is coming to an end, Jesus is anointed by Mary with ointment and Judas makes his criticism. But then the time of Passover approaches and Jesus sends Judas to buy a lamb for the sacrifice and for the upper room to be prepared for the supper. As they gather, there is a lightheartedness and jokiness about Galilee that we do not usually associate with this solemn meal. Jesus says, ‘I wanted to enjoy this last meal together’. He first washes the feet of the apostles with Peter protesting. The screenplay offers a précis of Jesus’ words after the supper: love one another, learn from me… But, Jesus suddenly speaks in a more theological language: ‘this will be your sacrament. This will be how you will bring me back to you when I am gone’. Yet some of the apostles say, ‘I don’t understand’. And ‘the wine can’t be his blood’. Jesus also tells them not to be too hard on themselves. They have to let him go. He adds, ‘Don’t hunt for the traitor’.

In his agony, Jesus first holds on to the trunk of a tree, ‘Is there another way?... Release me from this pain. Can you forgive me if I refuse this path. Your will. You give me nothing. No sign? Silence. I am begging you, release me from this.’ After going to the disciples who excuse themselves for sleeping, ‘Forgive us, we’re just tired’, he prays again, this time face to the ground, ‘Give me strength to do your will, to be light to the world’. When Judas comes Jesus greets him, ‘Peace be with you’ (which he also says to Barabbas when they pass each other in the cells).

Passion, Death and Resurrection

During the trial sequences, Jesus is silent, the camera focusing on his face. He is like a patient icon. While Pilate tries to save Jesus, ‘truth is what men make it’, Caiaphas persuades him to condemn Jesus after the stirred up crowd cry for Barabbas’ release. Jesus is scourged (only two strokes heard and the camera on Jesus’ face). He carries the cross beam to Calvary where a bystander tries to smooth his face and is thrust away by the soldiers. He falls and there is a brief flashback to his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. He is nailed through his wrists. Again the camera focuses on Jesus’ face and his scream. He is taunted by one thief, comforted by the other. Jesus is shown as semi-conscious. He refuses the wine though the soldier tells him that it is more easy to die when drunk and that he will be screaming for it later. When Jesus does scream later, the soldier says that he told him so.

The sky darkens. Mary, Mary Magdalene and John arrive. When Jesus cries out, ‘My God,why have you abandoned me?, his mother cries out, ‘Jesus, no’. Joseph of Arimathaea looks on. Jesus’ final words are, ‘Father, I give you my spirit. I love you with all my heart’.

After Jesus’ death, a considerable amount of attention is given to the burial of Jesus: Joseph of Arimathaea ashamed of not coming forward that morning and asking Pilate’s permission to bury Jesus; Caiaphas confronting him about this; the taking of Jesus from the cross; the procession to the tomb, the guards (at whom Mary sneers as they warn her away) and the closing of the tomb. The drama of the faith-less apostles is interesting and striking, bringing home just how weak their loyalty to Jesus was. With Mary Magdalene at the sepulchre, Peter and John running to the tomb and the disciples on the way to Emmaus, the drama uses the device of having a different actor portray Jesus when he is not recognised and Joseph Mawle appearing once Jesus is recognised. The final words of Jesus, spoken principally to Peter (an arresting theological emphasis) take place as Peter is caring for the sick at the poor where the infirm gather.

In some ways, this is a more reserved presentation of Jesus than an extroverted American drama or a more baroque and emotionally exuberant Italian version.




SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS MAY 2008 (PART ONE)

21
BALLAST
BOARDING GATE
CORDERO DI DIOS (LAMB OF GOD)
CORRECTION
DEATH DEFYING ACTS
DECEPTION
DOOMSDAY
FLASHBACKS OF A FOOL
FOOL’S GOLD
FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL
GONE BABY GONE
IRON MAN
LEATHERHEADS
MADE OF HONOR
MANUFACTURING LANDSCAPES
MIST, The
NIM’S ISLAND
ONE MISSED CALL
P2
PATHOLOGY
REC
SMART PEOPLE
SONG OF GOOD, A
STREET KINGS
VISITOR, The




21

(US, 2008, d. Robert Luketic)

21 (for those who are not gambling-informed, 21 is not the age for adulthood but the total for cards to win at blackjack). This is a film about blackjack, about systems and gambling, about ambition and greed and about lives coming undone.

Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe, The Other Boleyn Girl) plays Ben Campbell, an intelligent student who needs a scholarship to go to Harvard medical school. He is diligent, has some good, if nerdy, friends who are caught up in robotics for a science competition. The head of the scholarship board thinks that Ben is competent but asks to be dazzled by his life and initiative. Ben tells this story of 21.

Handpicked by smarmy maths lecturer, Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey doing his thing) to join an elite group who are working on counting card techniques to win at blackjack in Las Vegas, he hesitates and then agrees. Lots of blackjack sequences and lots of winning – and consequent self-indulgent celebration.

However, behind the scenes is a tough security programmer (Laurence Fishburne) who has no scruple about bashing to get information from cheats at the casino tables. It is inevitable that the security man and Ben will finally have to deal with each other. This provides some twists and some possible (temporary?) respite for Ben. His life is complicated by his covering his tracks about visits to Vegas, his attraction towards one of his partners (Kate Bosworth), his ignoring his friends and deceiving his mother. He also falls foul of Professor Rosa which heads us towards a sleight of hand and a climax.

While the film revels in the winning system and the hedonistic rewards of lots of cash, it offers some warnings about gambling and its consequences, especially the unforeseen consequences from outside intervention.

It is well acted and has its suspenseful moments – and another bit of self-indulgence at the end when it seems that gambling and its winnings are an end in themselves for everyone, no matter what.

BALLAST

(US, 2008, d. Lance Hammer)

Ballast is necessary for smooth and safe sailing with an even keel. This is not true of the African American family from the Mississippi delta portrayed here. The film opens with a twin killing himself and the other, grieving, shooting himself but not fatally. The conflict has been between the dead man and his estranged wife, who has taken out a court order to prevent him going near his son. The son is curious and tries to get to know his uncle. When the mother loses her job, she wants to sell the family store and home and make a new beginning.

Kind gestures from the uncle bring about, first, a change of mind, as the woman decides to work the store with her son. As she succeeds and the two make an agreement to home school the boy, barriers begin to break down. Forgiveness is possible, especially when past events (including her addiction) are spoken of truthfully. The final image of the three in the car going to the store indicates that truth leads to reconciliation.

The locations are atmospheric, winter in the poverty of the delta, and the cast is drawn from local amateurs who are completely persuasive.

Winner of the SIGNIS award at the Buenos Aires festival, 2008

BOARDING GATE

(France, 2007, d. Olivier Assayas)

An irrelevantly misleading title. Forget about boarding gates although there is a key flight from Paris to Hong Kong but no immigration or security problems.

Rather, this is a combination of old style film noir (decked up in more colourful 21st century mode) and a Hong Kong action film. The noir part is mainly in Paris in two (too?) very long conversations between a businessman (a rather jaded, oafish Michael Madsen) and his former lover, Asia Argento who is, as usual, rather slinky and sullen and sexual whom we should eventually despise but, when she is betrayed and shows some quick-witted handling of pursuers and then some vulnerability, we are momentarily sorry for her. But, like the film, that will pass.

When the action travels to Hong Kong, the city is filmed with great attention and the drama is out of Johnnie To and other Chinese action directors.

Directed by Olivier Assayas who used to make arty and historical French films, this is just an international crime drama with a femme fatale.

CORDERO DI DIOS (LAMB OF GOD)

(Argentina, 2008, d. Lucia Cedron)

A country that has needed truth and reconciliation is Argentina. After the dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s, followed by the Malvinas/Falklands conflict, the oppression and the disappearances, the country has continued to come to terms with this past with its violence and betrayals. This has been a central feature of Argentinian cinema for almost twenty years.

Lamb of God is an evocative title for someone who sacrifices their life for another in the manner of Jesus. Cordero di Dios moves from 1978 to 2002 and back and forth. In 1978, a couple work for the underground movements and the husband is killed, the woman blaming her father for his betrayal. In 2002, her father is kidnapped and her daughter has to pay the ransom. The mother returns from exile in Paris (and intends to come back home to testify in hearings against the 70s authorities). She is hostile to her father and unwilling to ransom him. She undergoes a profound experience of realisation that vengeance harms only herself and her daughter and that she must forgive unconditionally. The audience knows at the end the father’s motives for betraying his son-in-law. They are more noble than we had expected but are even more tragic because of this.

The film is a portrait of a tormented family with the sinister undertones of the injustice of the dictatorship, spying and violence.

CORRECTION

(Greece, 2008, d. Thanos Anastopoulous)

A minimalist film in style that begins deceptively. The audience thinks it knows what is going to happen. A man is released from prison, makes his way through the detail of busy city streets to a refuge and then follows a woman and her daughter. We assume a relationship.

However, when the man asks the little girl what grade she is in at school, it is not quite so clear. In the background are TV reports of hooliganism at football matches and comments on the presence of Albanians, their rising birthrate and taking jobs in Greece. The ex-prisoner, it emerges, has been a member of a gang and taken the rap for other members when an Albanian fan was murdered in the streets after a match. We realise that the woman is his widow – which explains her anger whenever she encounters him and her desire to kill him in vengeance even though he expresses his regret.

When he is bashed by the gang who leave a mobile phone with the pictures of his killing the Albanian, the woman takes him in and cares for him, a wholly unexpected picture of unconditional forgiveness.

DEATH DEFYING ACTS

(Australia/UK, 2008, d. Gillian Armstrong)

Actually, the title is a thoughtful play on words. It obviously describes succinctly Harry Houdini’s escapology performances. His audience was incited to gasp with amazement and fear, with astonishment, as Houdini not only held his breath for a long time under water but also extricated himself from chains and straitjackets (whether he used a hidden key or not).

This film about his visit to Edinburgh provides some well-recreated examples for us to wonder at.

But, Houdini was devoted to his mother and, like other luminaries of the period, including Conan Doyle with whom he went to séances and supported the children who saw and photographed fairies at the end of their garden (Harvey Keitel portraying Houdini in Fairies: a True Story), he believed in contact with people in the afterlife. He wanted to defy death .

In this pleasant Scottish story, Houdini encounters a bright young girl (Saiorse Ronan who was so stiking in Atonement) who introduces him to her vaudeville performer mother (Catherine Zeta Jones) with whom she does a ‘revelation from the dead’ act which has been well-researched in the library and ‘guaranteed’ with the return of a lost object which the daughter had pickpocketed.

Houdini, who claims to believe in a scientific approach to contacting the dead, offers a large reward to anyone who could reveal his mother’s last words to him. Plenty of phonies turn up but mother and daughter are determined to win the money.

Houdini is fascinated by the little girl and becomes infatuated with the mother who is able to mellow him from the driven celebrity he had become.

Guy Pearce looks gaunt as usual as Houdini making him both moody and suddenly friendly and charming. Timothy Spall is good as his cantankerous and protective manager.

Edinburgh in the early 20th century makes for a picturesque historical setting, many actual locations being used for this imagining of a Houdini episode. Direction is by Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, Oscar and Lucinda, Little Women).

DECEPTION

(US, 2008, d. Marcel Langenecker)

Deception has a lot of things going for it, but it does not quite add up to the erotic thriller that we might have expected. It is in the vein of Basic Instinct, relying on the fact that people are motivated by baser instincts.

Ewan McGregor? plays a meek and devoted audit accountant, bespectacled, who, by chance it seems, meets up with a smart outgoing and charming lawyer, played effortlessly by Hugh Jackman. The accountant begins to come out of himself and enjoys the patronage of the successful man. When the latter goes to London on business and they have picked up each other’s mobile phones, the accountant receives calls that lure him into an anonymous sex club. And we know what will happen next… (except for Charlotte Rampling turning up in a cameo).

However, he meets one of the members (Michelle Williams) and falls in love with her – which entangles him even further with the lawyer. This gives Hugh Jackman the opportunity to change from charm to smooth psychopathic behaviour and bring about the expected confrontation (in fine Madrid settings).

The film is glossy, well-acted and has a certain intrigue but the last ten minutes could have been written with so much more edge which means that the plot and its resolution just trail off.

DOOMSDAY

(UK, 2008, d. Neil Marshall)

The title comes on big and booming and the film builds up from there! The action takes place over 28 years so it is rather like Doomsyears.

Writer-director Neil Marshall has a penchant for horror stories. His first film, Dog Soldiers, had werewolves. His second film, The Descent, had ghouls in subterranean caves. This one, with a far bigger budget and production values, is something of a collage of homages to (imitations of?) some of his favourite films. It begins with a 28 Weeks Later scenario plus some desperate attempts to flee like Escape from New York, moves to a London virus and political expediency situation from Children of Men, then turns into a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome circus and, before it culminates in a Mad Max, road warrior chase, it visits a retro-medieval castle and community that is a mixture of Gladiator and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

While the plot rushes along from the desperation of a plague epidemic in Scotland (2008) and the sealing off of the country to an outbreak in London (2035) and the need for a mission to Scotland to try to find an antidote, it is punctuated by some rather grisly effects that many will find offputting, some grotesque behaviour from Scottish survivors and some sadism in torture and cannibalism.

Marshall has secured the services of a strong cast. Rhona Mitra has a sure authority as the leader of the expedition, another female warrior, a futuristic Xena. Adrian Lester is her deputy. Back in London there are Bob Hoskins, David O’Hara? and Alexander Siddig while the king of new medieval Scotland is Malcolm McDowell?.

The plot and production are strong. It is just that the treatment is geared too exclusively to a frantic Playstation mindset.

FLASHBACKS OF A FOOL

(UK, 2008, d. Baillie Walsh)

One of the key words in a diatribe by his agent to self-destructive Hollywood actor, Joe Scott (Daniel Craig), is ‘squandered’. An evocative word for the failure of a man who has little to show for his life except a selfish indulgence in sex, alcohol and drugs. The title of the film refers to Joe’s reaction to the death of a childhood friend and his reviewing his adolescent life.

Well-crafted and filmed in South Africa, standing in for both Los Angeles and the English coast, the film also has strong performances by a British cast, especially from the women. However, while the intentions of the writer-director, Baillie Walsh, are clear, there is not enough drama to substantiate the memories of Joe and the possibilities for some redemption.

While the initial picture of Joe’s callow, selfish and self-indulgent life (and harsh judgment from his housekeeper) is filled in and his agent’s (Mark Strong) verbal attack on him consolidates this impression. However, when we go back twenty-five years to the fifteen year old Joe (Harry Eden) and his friend Boots, it is a comparatively brief flashback, suggesting the friendship with Boots in glimpses of crass practical jokes, home visits, pool games, fishing and a falling-out fight. It is not enough (dramatically) to give force to what happens to the older Joe. What is important in the flashbacks, which have a great deal of atmosphere of the house kitchen and housework and visitors chatting around the table, is the lonely and sex-hungry married Evelyn (Jodhi May) who seduces Joe and is the occasion for her personal tragedy as well as Joe’s running away.

When Joe returns for the funeral (and is, as always, late) there are some effective scenes with his mother (Olivia Williams), his sister (Keeley Hawes) and Boots’ widow, his old girlfriend (Claire Forlani doing very well in two scenes).

The points are clear but the treatment of the core issue is too thin.

FOOL’S GOLD

(US, 2008, d. Andy Tennant)

The PR says that this is ‘an aquatic adventure’. Well, it is but, while it is one of those entertainments for a rainy afternoon and many audiences will enjoy it for relaxation, it is still not very good.

In the wake of National Treasure hunts, this one is for sunken Spanish treasure in the Caribbean – and to be fair to the film, there is a lot of recapping the story of the fleet and its cargo and what might have and did happen to it to give the proceedings some intellectual and historical credibility.

However…

The makers have decided that a farcical tone best serves the action and performances, which make it all rather silly a lot of the time. Matthew McConnaughey? spends most of the time shirtless, diving, fighting and playing the fool. An over-solariumed Kate Hudson does her best with the role of the exasperated ex-wife. And then there are the weird accents: Donald Sutherland trying to do a British toff; Ewan Bremner being a Ukrainian; Ray Winstone doing a southern US twang. Then there is Alexis Dziena overdoing an in-your-face bimbo. Plus a number of unpleasant toughs.

Plenty of fine scenery (courtesy of Queensland), action sequences and some broad comedy and that’s about it.

FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL

(US, 2008, d. Nicholas Stoller)

For many US comedy fans, it is now simply enough to invoke the name of Judd Apatow. As writer, producer and director in recent years, he has built up quite a reputation. He has also built up a group of actors who appear in many of his films like Jonah Hill, Bill Hader and Paul Rudd who do cameos in this one. Jason Segel appeared in Knocked Up and this time is writer and star.

Some of Apatow’s films are very funny – but, on checking out with friends and reviewers, different films have very different impact. This reviewer enjoyed The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up but found Superbad far too crass. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is somewhere in between – with more moments to the good than the bad or superbad. They are raunchy. The makers are certainly not afraid of making jokes about sex. The film’s are usually about gawky and awkward men (gawkward) who are either inhibited in their relationships with women or are too crass and need to learn respect which can move into friendship and love.

Segel, a tall and biggish man, plays a song-writer who is in love with a TV series star (Kristen Bell – who has been in several TV series so knows how to spoof them – along with some help at the beginning with William Baldwin and at the end with Jason Bateman). When she breaks with him for a British singer (Russell Brand doing his uninhibited and often hilarious schtick from his TV appearances in the UK), Segel goes into downward spiral of lack of self-image, desperation and a whole lot of poor-me male clichés. Mistaking the attentions of the courtesy officer at the Oahu hotel where he is advised to take refuge as a date, he becomes infatuated with her. This is not difficult as she is played with some verve by Mila Kunis (who is also a face from television having appeared in 200 episodes of The 70s Show and 92 of Family Guy).

This is more of a hit-and-miss comedy since Segel does not have the please-like-me charm of Steve Carell or the crass-but-reformable Seth Rogen. But, as in the Apatow comedies, despite the moments of crass and gross, the men have to grow up and discover both responsibility and love.

GONE BABY GONE

(US, 2007. d. Ben Affleck)

Sounds like a pot-boiling title and, at moments, the film is a pulp fiction. But, it is more.

The name of crime-writer Dennis Lehane became well-known with Clint Eastwood’s film version of his Mystic River. Set in a gritty Boston, that film explored crime but it also delved into and probed the characters and the consequences of their behaviour. Gone Baby Gone does the same. While Brian Heligoland (LA Confidential) wrote Mystic River, the writers of Gone Baby Gone are Aaron Stockard and the director of the film, Ben Affleck.

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon won an Oscar for their screenplay of Good Will Hunting. Affleck not only shows adaptation and writing skills here, but this is a solid achievement in directing. He has sometimes been badly reviewed for his performances, a somewhat stolid and wooden presence, although he was acclaimed for his turn as TV Superman’s George Reeves in Hollywoodland. He won the Best Actor award at the 2006 Venice Film Festival. On the basis of Gone Baby Gone, he has a lot more mileage in him as a film-maker.

The star is his brother, Casey, who has been building up a reputation for some years in a range of films including the Ocean’s series, with an Oscar nomination for his performance as the Cowardly Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James.

He makes the central character his own. He plays a young private eye who knows his Boston neighbourhoods and the motley types there, doing local investigations with his partner, Michelle Williams. When a baby is abducted and disappears, it is not the grieving but good-time girl mother (Amy Adams, Oscar nominated) but her relentless sister-in-law (Amy Madigan) who is dissatisfied with police efforts and media coverage and seeks out the local detectives.

The case is not only a complex one, there are several quite unexpected twists and turns, lies and cover-ups which the diligent young man follows up. The results finally challenge his integrity concerning justice and vengeance but, more, his integrity as a man of principle who can take a stand despite pressure and the opinions of those he loves.

With the police cast led by Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris (another fine performance) and John Ashton, this is an excellent example of the US crime genre.

IN BRUGES

(UK, 2008, d. Martin McDonagh)

While being able to say that this is a very entertaining, well-crafted and acted film, it is necessary to warn potential audiences who do not take kindly to screen swearing that this is a film with a great deal of swearing, a great deal. It is in that Irish tradition of expletives introducing any remark as if it were the perfectly natural thing to say (as we found with the language in The Commitments in the early 1990s). The writer-director is the English-born of Irish parents, the award-winning playwright, Martin McDonagh?, who has a tendency to the boyo-in-your-face kind of drama.

That said, In Bruges is reminiscent of the work of another playwright in the Irish tradition who loves words (as, of course, did James Joyce ad infinitum) for the sound of them, the play with them, the associations and the wit, Samuel Becket. Waiting for Godot might come to mind as we watch two Irish hitman arriving in Bruges to lie low after a particularly difficult hit for the newcomer, Ray (Colin Farrell). The flashback to his killing gives us a shock (and the shock is repeated at the end of the film). Ray’s associate is Ken (Brendan Gleeson), an older, more genial man. However, both of them are loyal to their code of killers for hire.

As they hide out in Bruges, Ken is most appreciative of the beauty of the architecture and art of the city. Ray can’t see this at all and is bored. He tags along and listens to the guided tour kinds of speeches but is much more excited at seeing the locations for a film about a dwarf and the young woman on set, who turns out to be dealing drugs to cast and crew.

The waiting for their boss to ring them for the next hit sets up the suspense. We first hear the boss on the phone, a rough gangster who is unscrupulous but also follows the code (as he does, most surprisingly, at the end). He is Harry, played with some venom by Ralph Fiennes.

There are a great number of funny bits in the film which don’t really add to the plot at all but give us glimpses of the two hitmen and their characters – one, a particularly funny criticism of some obese American tourists who want to climb the church tower, works very well and indicates that lines of so-called political correctness are not to the fore. And this is true of the dwarf sequences where Ray continually refers to him as a midget.

There is also a local arms supplier, the dealer’s thug boyfriend and a friendly pregnant hotelkeeper.

Brendan Gleeson is always good and portrays an Irishman with some heart who got caught up in a deadly profession. Colin Farrell is at his best and completely believable as the boyo killer.

In Bruges is both serious and funny. It is thoughtful, something of a meditation on the meaning of life and some awareness of conscience. Despite Ray’s continually running down the wonders of Bruges and likening hell to staying there forever, the local authorities should be pleased at how beautifully it is photographed (with audiences thinking to themselves that they should visit the town).

IRON MAN

(US, 2008, d. Jon Favreau)

The Marvel Comics company must be more than marvelling at how successful their movie franchise has been over the last ten years or so: X Men trilogy, Spiderman trilogy, Daredevil, Ghost Rider, more Batman films, Wolverine coming up soon and plans for a number of the popular comic books to be brought to big screen life.

And here is Iron Man to make a strong contribution to the success.

One of the good things about Iron Man is that he was not genetically modified by any bites. He doesn’t have any unearthly powers. Rather, like Bruce Wayne who becomes Batman, Tony Stark is a wealthy (that takes care of his labs and technical and technological developments), highly intelligent (that takes care of his inventions being more than we can anticipate), patriotic (he is in the arms production and distribution business) and, generally a hail-fellow-well-met.

However, he is more than something of a playboy (not like the austere Bruce Wayne). Since the film has been updated from Vietnam to the present, the focus is on war in Afghanistan. Out there to arrogantly and vainly present his latest missiles, he is captured, tortured and sees for himself what damage his arms do. In 2008, with opinion against the war in Iraq and occupying forces in Afghanistan, the film takes a turn for more peace-oriented issues. Tony Stark is a changed man and, despite Wall St stock losses, his interest is in developing his iron man flying suit for positive purposes.

Gwynneth Paltrow is his noble and faithful assistant, not exactly a Lois Lane but rather the attractive equivalent of Bruce Wayne’s butler and secretary.

When we hear Jeff Bridges’ voice and look at the screen, many of us do a double take – just who is this bald and grey-bearded man? Yes, it is Jeff Bridges, all set up to be the villain of the show (in something of a parody of Dick Cheyney and his vice-presidential power behind the throne and the companies he has been associated with having huge contracts in post-invasion Iraq).

Which leaves us to comment on Robert Downey Jr being a superhero. He is not exactly the actor who comes to mind to portray a superhero (and neither was Michael Keaton, a comedian who made a rather grim Batman). However, Tony Stark is more extraverted and Downey is obviously relishing the chance to be the man about town turned zealous patriot and do-gooder. He also gets the opportunity to do a lot of stunts as most of the action in the latter part of the film has him testing his suit as he flies to Afghanistan, checking out its possibilities both in the lab and in the skies above LA and, finally, in his combat with a villain in a giant-sized iron man suit.

Some wit in the screenplay and performances from the cast who are presenting it all quite seriously means that this is one of Marvel’s entertaining blockbusters.

THE KING OF CALIFORNIA

(US, 2007, d. Mike Cahill)

This is a small-scale and quirky comedy drama on the American dream. While it is about treasure (and is in the vein of National Treasure in suburbia), it is also about madness, a modern-day mini Treasure of the Sierra Madre in terms of obsession. If the star had not been Michael Douglas, it might never have been made or received much prominence. But, star Michael Douglas it does.

He portrays a man coming out of an institution where he has read a lot and discovered a journey and a map from the times of the 17th century California missionaries. He is determined to find their treasure even if it is under the concrete floor of an outlet warehouse. Mad treasure seekers make mad plans, so we follow his dream and his antics. The person who has to accommodate to all of this is his young daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) who has had to look after herself for the two years he was away and now has to nursemaid him.

The film is more of a time-passer than a gripping entertainment, interesting to see an eccentric ageing Douglas and the emerging Wood.

LEATHERHEADS

(US, 2008, d. George Clooney)

This is a light mixture of sports story and screwball romantic comedy. The setting is 1925. The sport is professional American football. The romance is one of those sparring-then-falling-in-love situations between George Clooney and Renee Zellwegger.

Leatherheads may be more popular at home in the US, because, unless an audience is up on the history and the techniques and plays of football, it won’t have quite the same impact. There is some interest in seeing something of the transition from amateur college teams to raggedy, then more streamlined money-making clubs (and the end of free-for-all and the introduction of inspectors and rules).

George Clooney is an ageing player who loves the game and sees that a college champion who was a hero in World War I could be such an advantage for his Duluth team that it would lead to a huge fan following. He persuades entrepreneur, Jonathan Pryce, to invest and the young man, John Krazynski, to give up his studies and play the game. In the meantime, ambitious journalist, Renee Zellwegger, is given the commission by her editor, Jack Thompson, to write an article exposing the war hero as a fraud.

Predictable in its way, it is nevertheless a pleasant off-kilter romance, with some sharp lines and audiences feeling sorry for the young player and his crisis and some background to the development of football. (Leatherheads from the leather helmet protection they wore in those days.)

MADE OF HONOUR

(US, 2008, d. Paul Weiland)

Lots of weddings on screen from the US these days. This is another, quite congenial and, ultimately, strongly in favour of marriage and life-long love and commitment. It would make quite a double feature with 27 Dresses.

However, this is more male-oriented than 27 Dresses, although the central character, Tom (Patrick Dempsey) and his macho basketball playing friends have to learn to recognise and cultivate their feminine side.

In 1998, Tom is at college, the campus Lothario, who is, to say the least, very promiscuous. His moral sense in terms of exploiting women is nil. However, he has rules (such as they are) about his casual relationships and has a more important rule of always telling the truth.

When he encounters a decent woman (mistaking her for her callow roommate), a genial and attractive Michelle Monaghan, he learns a bit of truth about himself. It doesn’t change him but he gains a good friend. Hannah even goes to his serial marrying-and-divorcing father’s sixth wedding – Sidney Pollack enjoying himself and even getting a rueful and regretful speech for his son. Tom and Hannah work together, talk together but neither of them thinks of marriage to the other.

When Hannah has to go to Scotland for work and falls in love with a Scottish duke, Colin (Kevin McKidd), and brings him back to New York, Tom has just realised that he loves her and wants to propose. Instead, she invites him to be her Maid of Honour at the wedding – and to fulfil all the duties of preparing the bridal shower (his friends do help him), going shopping, meeting the minister and collaborating with the bridesmaids. He also tries to outshine his rival who, it seems, has no skeletons in his closet, is charming and learns to slam dunk baskets (which Tom and co cannot do).

The scene shifts to Scotland and the scenery will have many in the audience making mental notes that they should visit the highlands. Tom takes a chance at beating Colin at the elaborate highland games – and almost does. But, he doesn’t.

The question in the audience’s mind is how is he going to persuade Hannah not to go through with the wedding and marry him instead. You will just have to see Made of Honour to find out.

The very light touch, the charm of Patrick Dempsey, the attractiveness of Michelle Monaghan and the New York settings and Scottish locations all help considerably.

MANUFACTURING LANDSCAPES

(Canada, 2007, d. Jennifer

A documentary that is exciting to the eye and stimulating to the mind.

Canadian director, Jennifer , features photographer, who in recent times has travelled the world to produce images of landscapes that have been affected by human behaviour, spoiling and destructive behaviour even if the intention is human progress. The photos are always striking and the film shows the artist at work, exhibiting his work in galleries and commenting on his intentions. At times, the photos are disturbingly beautiful.

They raise, of course, all kinds of questions about the environment and human responsibility for conserving nature even while development is needed.

The main locations for this film are in China. The film opens with an eight-minute tracking shot across the various aisles in an electronic factory, row after row after row after row. Then outside, the workers, thousands of them, are all lined up and briefed on efficiency in their work.

Most of the film is shot at the sire of the Three Gorges dam, the biggest project of its kind in the world. The Yangtsze has been contained to stop flooding, to provide hydro-electric power and to aid transport. A million people have been transposed to other towns and cities as the waters have risen over a hundred metres. The people, social-minded and supportive of the state, worked to demolish the buildings before they moved to new housing.

Another very interesting view of this work and the consequences for poor families as well as the new generation who work on the tourist ferries for the wealthy visitors is to be seen in Up the Yangtsze, directed by .

The final section of this film is set in Shanghai, the most rapidly growing city in the world.

In the last year we have seen An Inconvenient Truth as well as The 11th Hour which focussed on global warming and on the effects of climate change. Manufacturing Landscapes adds awareness of the transformation of our world through progress.

THE MIST

(US, 2008, d. Frank Darabont)

Frank Darabont made a great impact in the 1990s with his version of a Stephen King story, The Shawshank Redemption. Here he has adapted King again but that is where any resemblance ends. The Mist has a plot like the B-Budget? science fiction and monster movies of 50 years ago. Not that that is not a good thing. It is just that a writer like Darabont ought to be able to do smarter writing than this. The production values are of a higher class than some of the conventional and cliché dialogue (which echoes the shocks and fears of the past) but Darabont has been saving time and energy instead by scripting with less intelligence and wit, dishing up an over-expletive-filled screenplay which grates rather than communicates the terror the protagonists are going through.

Quite a long film, it spends most of its time in a supermarket where a group of shoppers are trapped when a mysterious mist descends after a ferocious storm. Some terrified people take refuge in the market after friends had disappeared. It soon appears that there are monsters in the mist and it is too dangerous to leave.

With a group like this there are the heroes, the villains and the annoyers. Thomas Jane is the hero (with a small son) along with Toby Jones as the manager of the supermarket. They dig in and barricade against the monsters. Frances Sternhagen is the elderly schoolteacher who tells people what’s what. Included in the villains is William Sadler as a cowardly tough who resents city people who make his town their holiday home. But it is the annoyer who steals the show by her incessant annoyance, aggravation, religious fervour and apocalyptic warnings. Marcia Gaye Harden plays the local born again leader (who also has a mouth for expletives despite God being on her side) and lays it on – though she terrifies many of the shoppers into conversion.

The monsters are actually monstrous (blame military experiments) and there is quite some tension as we watch (and wonder what we might do in such – impossible , we hope – circumstances).

The ending does not let us off.

THE MOURNING FOREST

(Japan, 2007, d. Naomi Kawase)

The Mourning Forest is a quiet, meditative film that has some lively sequences and some comedy, but is, finally, a contemplation of love, memory and death. This is the mark of many of Naomi Kawase’s films. Early in this film, a distinction is made by a Buddhist teacher between ordinary living and the meaning of being alive.

When a young woman who has lost her child in an accident goes to work in a home for the elderly situated near a beautiful forest, she becomes the target of an old resident who interprets her actions as trying to be like his late wife. However, with the help of the head caregiver who tells her that there are no rules in the running of the home, she befriends the old man with whom she plays games (including hiding in the rows of hillside greenery).

The film then becomes a two-hander as the young woman takes the old man for a drive. When they are stranded, he runs off into the forest and she has to run hard to keep up. They stay in the forest (and her mobile phone can get no signal) until the old man reaches his goal, his wife’s grave. There is great pathos in this experience of the old man and of the woman who has become attached to him. She is left reflecting on what has happened and what it means to him and to her as she listens to the melody from his music box.

A gentle and genteel focus on life and death.

MY ENEMY’S ENEMY

France, 2007, 87 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald.

A documentary to catch particularly if one is interested in the stories of Nazis who committed atrocities and their escape to another life after the war (especially in Latin America) and dreamed and/or plotted for the rise of a Fourth Reich. It is the history of Klaus Barbie.

For someone who remembered a little of the treatment of Barbie in 1987 for his crimes against humanity as ‘the Butcher of Lyon’, it came as something of a shock to learn of his being protected and being used as a source of information by anti-Communist US secret agencies, let alone his 30 years in Bolivia, his contacts with ex-Nazis in hiding (though not unknown to authorities) and his part in the 1979 coup in Bolivia.

The film uses a great deal of interesting archival footage and intercuts a series of interviews from historians and journalists who investigated Barbie.

When his trial is shown, we hear some harrowing stories and see Barbie’s calm exterior and presence in the dock and his short address to the court urging them to forget and leave the past in the past.

Any account of Nazi cruelty and torture is disturbing but this portrait and study of Barbie is intelligently forceful. And for those of us (despite Ludlum, Forsythe and Jack Higgins) find it still hard to believe that government agencies in the real world are corrupt, manipulative and believe the end justifies the means, the stories of governments (especially the US government) using war criminals with impunity is still shocking and scandalous. But, then what about Saddam against Iran, Pinochet against Allende, the Taliban against the Russians in Afghanistan?

The film (basically a French production in French) was directed by top documentary maker, Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September, Touching the Void) who moved into feature film-making with The Last King of Scotland.

The extraordinary defence lawyer (who has to be heard to be believed but who makes many valid criticisms of governments) is Jaques Verges whose long and strange career defending the almost indefensible is the subject of Barbet Schroder’s must-see documentary, Terror’s Advocate.

NIM’S ISLAND

(US, 2008, d. Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin)

Nim’s Island is based on a popular children’s novel by Wendy Orr. It should appeal to a younger girls’ audience who can identify with the story’s heroine, the lively Nim. She is played with confidence by Abigail Brselin (who already has an Oscar nomination for her performance in Little Miss Sunshine). She is at the centre of the film. Her island (well equipped with mod cons and electronic technology) is a kind of neo- Swiss Family Robinson home where she and her widowed father (Gerard Butler) live a pleasantly isolated live – although she has all her animal pets and friends. He is a scientist, exploring the seas for specimens. He brings in many books for her to read and she is especially enthralled with the adventures of a hero, Alex Rover. She imagines a lot of these stories – and Gerard Butler plays the part of Alex Rover.

Meanwhile, the author of the books, Alexandra Rover (Jodie Foster) is an obsessive, agoraphobic eccentric in San Francisco who emails Nim’s father for information about volcanoes. Father is away on an expedition which runs into a huge storm. Nim answers, anxious about her father. Alexandra puts fear to one side and braves the trip by taxi, plane, boat and helicopter and, finally, rowing boat to reach the island. This gives rise to a lot of slapstick comedy – which, on the evidence of her performance, is not Jodie Foster’s forte.

There is an interlude where a boatload of tourists arrive for barbeque and games on the island and Nim does her best (or her worst) to get rid of them.

The appeal of the film and characters is for girls. Boys might not be so tolerant. Parents who accompany their daughters will be fitfully amused as the film is not at all geared to them either.

ONE MISSED CALL

(US, 2007, d. Eric Vallette)

A PG 13 (US) horror film which is a welcome change from so many of the grisly and gory films (often with disposable young people) that continually pervade our screens.

It is a remake of a Japanese film – from a culture which has a strong belief in ghosts and their interventions, often vengeful. There have been a lot of Japanese films and American remakes of films on these themes, like The Ring films and The Grudge films.

This one has more interest in its characters and their fears when they receive a phone call which anticipates the way in which they are to die. The focus of the film is Beth (Shannyn Sossoman) who is a strong-minded woman who has had some bad experiences in her past. As her friends die, as predicted on their one missed call on their mobiles, she begins to fear that her turn will come. In the meantime, she is helped by a sympathetic detective (Edward Burns) whose sister was the first victim. More time than usual is spent on their searching for information about a little girl who was saved from a hospital fire at the opening of the film and whose mother seems to have been abusive. Perhaps it is her spirit that is wreaking vengeance. Just when you think it is all over, there is a good twist which sets up a final call and a dramatic ending.

Horror fans complained that it was too mild a terror film which means that it might be enjoyed by ordinary audiences who are after an acceptably scary movie.

PATHOLOGY

(US, 2008, d. Marc Schoelermann)

It’s probably fair to say that one needs to investigate one’s own pathology for being interested in seeing a film like this. It is a terror story but one that is set in the pathology rooms of a city morgue with quite some close-up attention being given to cadavers, body parts, cutting and slicing and sewing up, probably much more than any of us are going to see in real life. Not that that is a reason for going. The reason for the film is to provide something of a terror movie with some gory scenes.

It is a bit different insofar as we are not waiting for some unknown perpetrator to reveal him or herself. Rather, this is a story of a group of arrogant, amoral rogue doctors who pride themselves in their knowledge, skills and their ability to kill people deliberately or at random so that their peers will enjoy the puzzle of a post-mortem autopsy to determine how they did it. They call it ‘the game’.

The film has a rather cynical tone with the central character introduced as the ideal young American – who then joins the game and proves himself more capable than the leader of the group. As with so many terror films, young film-makers are producing an exercise in fear rather than a human drama.

P2

(US/Canada, 2008, d. Franck Khalfoun)

P2 is an area in a parking lot. It is Christmas eve and Angela (Rachel Nichols) is conscientiously working late though expected at her sister’s with a Santa Claus costume and gifts for the children. By the time she is ready to leave, she comes down in the elevator with Carl the supervisor (and we guess, rightly, that the next time we see him he will be dead). Then her car won’t start – we knew it wouldn’t. She looks for help and finds Tom, a security guard (Wes Bentley) who kindly offers her jump leads. But, we guess he has tampered with the car and when she calls for a taxi and he invites her to share a Christmas eve meal with him, we know that it is going to be a long night, that she is going to be harassed and assaulted, flooded in an elevator, hidden in the boot of a car, chained… and that he is a mad ‘collector’. When the taxi does come, the automatic doors of the building don’t work, the taxi goes off and…

This is female in peril stuff with some rather bloody sequences, some overpowering cruelty on Tom’s part, some desperation on Angela’s but, despite everything, she uses her wits and her strength to confront Tom.

The film is really an exercise in terror film-making with effective sets and pace (and some audience jumps, especially with a vicious dog) and reasonable performances. It will be too scary for some, too bloody for others and, over all, there is a brutal atmosphere and some sadistic sequences. The film comes, as the poster boasts, from the makers of Switchblade Romance – so, this is either an enticement or a warning off.

REC

(Spain, 2007, d. Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza)

Rec is the recognised symbol on the camera for ‘record’. This is how this film is made, all on a handheld camera with all its directness, lopsidedness, falling to the ground and the cameraman running to catch the action, everything from the point of view of the camera operator.

It starts quite blandly as the TV reporter fluffs her lines on screen and repeats them. She and her cameraman, Pablo, are filming a segment on firemen and their night work for a Barcelona program called ‘While You Sleep’. They receive a call to rescue an old lady from an apartment block. Once there, the mayhem breaks out. The old lady is covered in blood and then viciously bites one of the police. Suddenly, the building is sealed and the police will not allow anyone out. No explanations are given to the bewildered tenants and the increasingly frantic reporter. (Luckily, the cameraman stays calm and avoids the increasing danger and keeps on filming.) The group try to find ways out as their number continues to diminish because of bites and the rapid infection.

The film runs for less than 80 minutes but, after its calm start, it is most effective in recreating the situation as if it were really happening in the moment, the terror of the tenants, the attempts of an intern to help the sick, the policeman desperately trying to stay in charge and resenting the TV people – and the reporter continually chasing the story.

Ultimately, an explanation of what has gone wrong is given which satisfies audience curiosity. However, the film really does its work well both technically and in terms of giving audiences some ‘realistic’ scares and maintaining an atmosphere of fear. The technique was used in many films including The Blair Witch Project and the recent Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead. This is a very good example of the genre, but not for the fainthearted.

SMART PEOPLE

(US, 2007, d. Noam Murro)

Dr Janet Hartigan, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, remarks to English Literature Professor (Dennis Quaid) that they are supposed to be smart people. They have the academic qualifications and the professor has no hesitation in letting others know about his knowledge but, in terms of life and values, they are not particularly smart at all. Which is the point of the ironic title.

This is a brief, rather light, drama about smart people and their mistakes.

Dennis Quaid, looking very much the worse for wear and sometimes sounding like Jack Nicholson playing the part, is a widower with two teenage children. He really takes little interest in his son (Ashton Holmes) who writes poetry and lives in a university dorm. His daughter (Ellen Page) is sitting for her final exams, hoping for entrance into Stanford and continually taking her father as her serious role model. She too is no slouch at letting others know how intelligent she is and making elitist demands on them (even asking two girls out at a bar what it is like to be stupid!).

Into the picture comes the professor’s slacker adopted brother (Thomas Hayden Church) who, though quite unreliable and seemingly unable to communicate at any deep level, is actually rather life-smarter than the others.

The film has some quite intellectually sounding dialogue and references to English literature and American poems that will not have come into the ken of the film’s potential audience and may quickly brand the main characters as snobs and their lives not particularly interesting outside the walls of the university.

However, since the plot shows the professor trying to relate to the doctor and become less self-preoccupied and pompous in his utterances, there is some interest in watching his transformation. More interesting, perhaps, is the loosening up of the prim daughter following the lead of her uncle and misunderstanding his intentions. As played by Ellen Page, she is quite different from her recent Oscar-nominated performance as Juno. It is Thomas Hayden Church, however, who gives the most persuasive performance – which means that it is rash to judge people, smart or not, on first appearances.

A SONG OF GOOD

(New Zealand, 2008, d. Greg King)

In many ways this is quite a conventional film, a small-budget, short running time film showing a New Zealand suburban slice of life. Beginning symbolically, with the central character, Gary, seemingly drowning, it shows Gary’s decline into the depths – and further. In his quest for drugs, he attempts to burgle a neighbour’s house and in a moment of angry desperation, suddenly rapes her. This abrupt and shocking event stays in the audience’s mind even though it seems to fade from Gary’s memory. However, he does make a resolution to clean up, get a job, care for his sister and nephew and his disbelieving couch-potato father.

The drug scene is the familiar one. What makes it different is seeing it in the local setting, in the commonplace lives of rather ordinary people.

When the film is about to end, Gary decides to deal with the guilt of his rape. What follows is a confession of truth to the woman. He believes she has forgiven him for being honest but, in the meantime, she has notified the police. Then Gary weeps and embraces her – and momentarily before the final credits we see the woman’s hands move to complete the embrace. Truth, forgiveness and reconciliation may be possible.

STREET KINGS

(US, 2008, d. David Ayer)

Another LA police drama and, again, about the ambiguities in applying principles of law and justice on the streets of the city.

Writer-director has contributed to such strong films on these themes like Training Day, S.W.A.T. and Dark Blue. He also directed the very tough Harsh Times – so we know what to expect. Ayer spent his teenage years on the streets of LA South Central.

The star is Keanu Reeves as Tom, proving that in middle age Reeves can be a solid screen presence. We see him wake, do a gun deal with some shady Koreans, get involved in a shootout with them – and then find his team arriving with back-up as well as ‘cleaning up’ the scene and making sure the evidence points to ‘what it looks like’ rather than ‘what is’. The chief of the team is played by Forest Whitaker in his Last King of Scotland vein, a seemingly benign police chief but one who enjoys the exercise of power and commanding this group of somewhat rogue cops. Reeves is his chief protégé and has been for years.

However, enter Internal Affairs in the form of Hugh Laurie (in House form) who begins to open Tom’s eyes, especially when his former partner is found to be giving information to IA and is brutally killed. While Tom is an opportunist as regards crime busting, he is also a bitter man especially about his wife and seems not to care about precautions. This leads him into deeper trouble, revealing more corruption and manipulation than he thought and into danger, even from the team.

This is what is called gritty action drama. Sympathies of the audience could go either way, especially as Tom is no saint and, yet, tries to be a man of principle. Are principles a valuable asset for a cop and for a detective in such a city as Los Angeles?

While the core of the drama is resolved, the way of solving is also open to moral judgment, not only for Tom and for his chief but also for Internal Affairs and its methods.

Strong, well-acted and grim and a challenge on the level of values and principles.

THE VISITOR

(US, 2007, d. Thomas McCathy)

A fine film to be recommended. It is small-budget and modest but it has a strong impact emotionally and is a challenge to the audience’s sense of humanity.

Thomas McCarthy? is a full-time actor but he made his first film, again one with great humane appeal, The Station Agent, in 2003. Now he has written The Visitor, a screenplay that is often understated but is intelligent and rings true in its attention to character detail as well as directing it.

McCarthy? says that he had actor Richard Jenkins in mind while he was writing the character of Walter. Jenkins is a frequent supporting actor but this is his opportunity for a leading role, one that he fully justifies. It is a well-rounded performance. He is a sixtyish widower who lectures at a Connecticut college, but who has withdrawn into himself and into the stale routines of academia. His main attempt to come out of himself, to learn to play the piano, comes to nothing.

Actually, music is a key factor in the drama. Walter’s wife was a concert pianist. When he finds two illegals occupying his New York apartment, he is shocked but offers them some temporary refuge. He is rewarded by finding that Syrian Tarek (a charismatically genial Haaz Sleiman) plays drums. It is wonderful (and encouraging for those who are not as young as they used to be and who sometimes feel stuck in their ruts) to watch Walter open up as a person as he shares the life of the two and learns to play the drums himself.

But Tarek and his Senegalese companion (Danai Gurira) are continually wary about being picked up by the authorities and subject to detention or, even worse, deportation. When Tarek is suddenly detained, it has a profound effect on Walter who makes many efforts on his behalf. Tarek’s mother (the dignified Hiam Abbass of The Syrian Bride, Free Zone, Lemon Tree) comes to New York and, as she is helped by Walter as they go to a lawyer and as Walter visits Tarek, Walter warms to her and is introduced to a completely different world.

In a post September 11th 2001 America, authorities are necessarily wary but overly suspicious – and many officials seem to assume that rudeness and rough treatment is a way of combating terrorism. The treatment of Tarek neglects some basic human rights and Walter is shocked at this. So, there is a pervading melancholy at the end of the film.

It is a pity that so many moviegoers’ budgets are eaten up by the big blockbusters which they enjoy when they could also invest in a moving and satisfying film like this one.




FESTIVAL DE CANNES: REVIEWS

24 CITY
ADORATION
A FESTA DA MENINA MORTA (THE DEAD GIRL’S FEAST)
AFTERSCHOOL
BASTARDOS, Los
BLINDNESS
CHASER, The
CHE
CONTE DE NOEL, Un
DELTA
DIVO, Il
ENTRE LES MURS (THE CLASS)
EXCHANGE, The
FRONTIERE DE L’AUBE
GOMORRAH
GOOD, THE BAD AND THE WEIRD, The
JOHNNY MAD DOG
HUNGER
LEONERA
LINHA DE PASSE
MIL HADHA AL-BAHR (SALT OF THIS SEA)
MUJER SIN CABEZA, La (THE HEADLESS WOMAN)
MY MAGIC
OCEAN FLAME
OFRIVILLIGA, De
PALERMO SHOOTING
SANGUEPAZZO
SERBIS
SILENCE DE LORNA, Le (LORNA’S SILENCE)
SOI COWBOY
SURVEILLANCE
SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK
TING CHI (PARKING)
TOKYO!
TULPAN
TWO LOVERS
VERSAILLES
VICKI CRISTINA BARCELONA
VIE MODERNE, La
WALTZ WITH BASHIR
WHAT JUST HAPPENED?
WOLKE 9 (CLOUD 9)



The winner of the Ecumenical Prize was Atom Egoyan’s Adoration: The citation read:
Simon, an adolescent with a complex family history, attempts to create his identity while
overcoming cultural stereotypes. His invented personal story, which he presents to his
class, explodes in Internet forums. He must contend both emotionally and intellectually
with the issues raised. Using a poetic cinematography, the director presents traditional
and contemporary symbols and objects to invite us to re-evaluate existing clichés about
the Other or that which is foreign in our own culture and religion.

The 2008 Ecumenical Jury:
René Aucourt (France), President Alyda Faber (Canada)
Margrit Frölich (Germany) Marie-Thérèse? Kreidy (Lebanon)
Lukas Jirsa (Czech Republic) Joël Baumann (France)





24 CITY

(Competition. China. Director, Jia Zhang Ke)

A serious and seriously-paced Chinese documentary on the transition of a large armaments factory to new premises, the demolition of the old building and the reminiscences of managers and workers and people associated with the factory over the years. The three generations of women presented are not actual characters but actresses performing. The site is to be used for re-development and a 5 star hotel, 24 City. The location is the Chinese city of Chengdu.

No Michael Moore histrionics or intrusions here. No Morgan Spurlock expose, humour or banter here. The series of interviews, quite long and detailed, of men and women are beautifully mounted and framed. There are momentary inserts of action, like scenes of smelting or a young girl roller-skating. But, it is mainly listening attentively to the talking heads.

The factory was part of state secret activity, especially for armaments and repairs to planes from the time of the Korean War. It continued to grow until the 70s and war with Vietnam. When arms needs fell (this comes as something of a surprise because China is still an arms supplier around the world), the factory changed to household goods like fridges and washing machines but it still wanted (and wants) to maintain its standards in aeronautics. Workers born in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s bring their working era to life though their memories.

What is revealed is something of the history of Communist China from the 1950s and its adoption of socialism, the cultural revolution and more recent changes that have absorbed a great deal of capitalist ethos. This is especially true of the final (fictional but very real) interviewee who was born in 1982, is a fashion buyer in Hong Kong for the rich women of the city and hopes to manage a revolving restaurant at the top of a Chengdu tower.

Director Jia Zhang Ke has a reputation for documentaries and won the Venice Golden Lion for his fiction feature on the building of the Three Gorges Dam, Still Life.


ADORATION

(Competition. Canada. Director, Atom Egoyan)

For over twenty years Atom Egoyan has been making significant films which often contain themes of family relationships – and an interest in how developing technology influences ordinary life. He has remarked that when he was making Speaking Parts in the 1980s, with video and the beginnings of what became the internet, people were witnesses to an increasing availability of images whereas at the beginning of the 21st century, people are creating images and making them available, both instantly and universally.

The writer of the press notes for Adoration has a helpful list of themes and threads for the film: the differences between appearances and reality, the subjective nature of truth, fragmented structures, multiple time frames and points of view, rich and complex characters and the dynamics of family. He might have specified also: fact and fiction, realism and imagination, performance and truth, racial and religious prejudice, personal intolerance, the role of education – and terrorism. They are all present in Adoration and quite substantially treated.

The film is both an intellectual puzzle as well as an emotional challenge. And very satisfying on all counts.

Devon Bostick convincingly portrays Simon, an adolescent who is concerned about the death in a car accident of his parents. His dying grandfather (Kenneth Welsh), whom he is filming in interview, accuses Simon’s father of being a killer since he doted on his daughter and belongs to a middle-eastern culture and religion. The opportunity is provided by a creative teacher (Arsinee Khanjian) for Simon to rewrite a story as if the parents in the story (the father being a terrorist bomber) were his own, enabling him to reflect on them. He also places the material on the internet where it is the subject of a great deal of teenage discussion and argument as well eliciting interviews from holocaust survivors to holocaust denyers.

The situation is further complicated since his uncle, despised by his own father, has been rearing him since his parents’ death. A situation to test his tolerance is arranged – and he fails. However, by a series of what seems coincidences but which are not, Simon is able to free himself from his grandfather’s influence (which has specific Christian overtones), reconcile with his uncle and discover more complex truths than he (or we) anticipated.

This means quite a tight script that offers all the clues but reveals its truths step by step.

Adoration is a word with transcendent overtones. Egoyan is using it in a more this-worldly sense, a sense of respect, of awe, of connection and of meaning.


A FESTA DA MENINA MORTA (THE DEAD GIRL’S FEAST)

(Un Certain Regard. Brazil. Director, Matheus Natchtergaele)

For those in search of bizarre stories, here is one that certainly fits the bill.

We spend a day on Brazil’s Negro River with a small community. They are preparing for and then celebrating the 20th feast of the Dead Girl which centres on a young man whom they regard as The Saint. Years earlier, the boy had retrieved only the tattered dress (which is kept as a relic in a shrine) of a girl mauled by a mongrel dog. They considered that her spirit was in The Saint. He is reputed to be able to heal and to tell the future.

This is a picture of religious syncretism in action. While there is a basis in Catholicism, with signs of the cross, statues and devotion, there is also a strong foundation of nature religions of the Amazon, the presence of divine powers in all of nature, which is also echoed in the prayers. While the celebrations have been updated with small rock concert style entertainment, there is a great deal of drinking by the men, and the people still want The Saint to bless them and to reveal something.

However, The Saint himself (who is pampered by his aunt, exploited, even sexually, by his father and criticised by the dead girl’s brother) is a spoilt and petulant character, completely self-absorbed until a visit from his allegedly dead mother disturbs him.

This is not your usual story. The narrative is something of a hodge-podge of incidents but the picture of this community and its religious practices is intriguing.


AFTERSCHOOL

(Un Certain Regard. US. Director, Antonio Campos)

An accomplished film by 24 year old Antonio Campos who had made a number of short films, including Buy Me Now, which received some international commercial release. This first feature film is much more ambitious.

We are in a privileged school (and the director draws on his own experience – and includes his own preoccupations in his central character) with some old-fashioned stances and regulations. However, Robert is a serious, rather introverted boy who likes looking at YouTube? kinds of clips, some realistic, some violent and many pornographic. He is a friend to his more outgoing roommate, David.

All students have to be involved in an afterschool sport or project and he chooses video.

However, his life becomes more complicated as he is attracted to Amy, one of the students, is aware of drug-dealing in the school and comes across twins who are dying through drug trouble. This haunts him. Part of his afterschool work is to make a tribute in video to the two girls but his teacher lambastes his efforts (it has no music!) and a more respectful and sentimental video is made and shown to the school.

Robert is tense, fights with his roommate, is tested by the counsellor and warned by the principal. What will his future be? Which is where we are left. But, the picture of this school life, the characters and their immaturity and development are worth seeing. The film is measured in it style – Campos says he does not like hand-held intrusive camera techniques. He says he tends to see life as in a composed frame. This gives them film a calmer and deeper atmosphere.


LOS BASTARDOS

(Un Certain Regard. Mexico. Director, Amat Escalante)

A very blunt drama about illegals in Los Angeles, their trying to get day work, the work itself, the relaxing afterwards. Then it turns into a melodrama as two of the men go to a house as hit men.

On the level of picturing the range of Mexicans and other Hispanics who wait on street corners for Anglos to arrive and take them to job sites, argue for the payments and the lift back to the street corner and the conscientious work they do for rather superior and bigoted employers, the film is an interesting sociological kind of drama.

When the film shifts to look at a white mother preparing a meal for her disinterested teenage son, it changes tone and style completely. But, then the two men arrive and it is a ‘Funny Games’ situation as the men take their time to do the hit, swim in the pool, have a meal, tease and torment the woman and molest her.

The two men are played by non-professionals.

The ending is sudden, graphic, and shocking. Which was the intention of the film-maker – to raise questions about this huge migration of Central Americans into the US, their uncertain status, their being exploited and their own desires to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible. And these are the results.

BLINDNESS

(Opening film. Canada/Brazil/Japan. Director, Fernando Mireilles)

A fine but very uncomfortable film to watch, disturbing. Based on a novel by Nobel laureate Jose Saramago, Blindness has an urban apocalyptic plot that has been popular at the box-office in recent years, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, The Day After Tomorrow, Doomsday, Cloverfield and the predilectioin for Zombies. These have incorporated blockbuster elements and/or horror. There are moments for reflection but then the action continues.

Blindness is a film for reflection. With its blindness (both real and symbolic) coming upon victims suddenly and its being contagious, it invites its audience to identify with the characters and their traumatic experiences, visualising how difficult it is for sightless people to deal with practical and ordinary things unless they are familiar or they receive help, let alone an epidemic, isolation and danger. As Saramango says, ‘People who can see, but don’t see.’ What would we do in these circumstances?

This becomes more philosophically and ethically demanding as the plot continues. How can a growing group of suddenly blinded people, herded together in a rundown institution and virtually left to themselves, manage? The strengths and weaknesses of basic human nature are revealed. Calm or volatile temperaments make a difference. Will people be generous to one another when food is rationed, when hygiene, both washing and sewerage, are almost impossible? Will the group become cohesive? As more divisions are made and numbers increase, will conflict break out? And, what if a jumped up demagogue with a gun takes over, demanding obedience, robbing people for provisions and, most powerfully, manipulating the hungry so that the groups give up their women to his mini-empire?

And what of society which is motivated by fear and then terror? And guards ill-equipped to manage situations like this and trigger-happy? At first we see a government minister making statements but this line of plot disappears from the film just as it disappears from the life of the blind. And, should they get out, what kind of blind world will they find, a wrecked world and the blind rummaging in the wreckage?

All these issues and more are present in Don McKeller’s? screen adaption (and he plays a particularly obnoxious character who steals the first blind victim’s car while offering to drive him home). They are given a somewhat ponderous explicitation by Danny Glover’s solemn and rhetorical voiceover, elaborating the questions and explaining some of the behaviour for those who have not picked it up by watching.

This is Fernando Mireilles’ film. After the Rio urban upheaval of his City of God, then the exploitation of medical experimentation in Africa in The Constant Gardener, Mireilles stays with his theme of society in disarray – and the challenge for some humane, even if fallible and slow, leadership to emerge. In Blindness, we are introduced to an eye doctor (Mark Ruffalo) but it is his ordinary wife who does not go blind but who is the backbone of this abandoned society. She is played by Julianne Moore, unmade up and looking haggard, who gives the film great strength. Her group could not have survived without her. But, what is the meaning (real and symbolic) of a Godlike (?) person who can see and direct the lives of those in need around her?

There are some religious implications in the screenplay. Julianne Moore says that the condition’s technical name sounds like agnosticism… Some of the peaceful survivors take refuge in a church where the statues of the saints and of Jesus on the cross are blindfolded… And, in the final moments, we are unsettled again and wonder whether this Christlike woman has to take the similarity as far as it will go.

THE CHASER

(Out of Competition. Korea. Director, Na Hong-jin)

First it was Hong Kong, then Korea which turned out (churned out) efficient, exciting and well-crafted crime and police thrillers. Here is another Korean one considered sufficiently good to merit a special out of competition screening in Cannes.

This one has some interesting differences. A vicious serial killer has been killing women around Seoul. The Chaser is not a mystery as we learn very quickly the identity of the killer and we see him at work in some brutal scenes. The Chaser himself, literally running after the killer, fighting him and pursuing him, is not a policeman. He was a detective but was involved in a racket, a pimp supplying women to callers. Some of his girls have disappeared. As a last resort, he sends out a woman with a seven year old daughter, realising that she has been hired by a suspect client. He also informs his friends in the police.

In the meantime, the police are guarding the mayor of Seoul who is visiting a night market when a protestor throws excrement at him. The powers that be are more concerned with the mayoral incident and thwart the murder investigation. And many of the police are presented as incompetent. The Chaser continues to pursue his quarry to save the life of the prostitute and to care for her daughter.

The film doesn’t pull its punches in presenting the ugliness and fatality of the crimes though it gives few clues as to the ultimate motivation of the killer and the determination of the chaser.

Perhaps sometimes too graphic for a broad audience, but it is one of the well-crafted Korean police dramas.

CHE

(Competition. US. Director, Steven Soderbergh)

Che is two films in one. The first part portrays the Cuban revolution, especially Che’s choices and leadership. The second part is his guerrilla warfare in Bolivia culminating in his death there in 1967.

While the project is ambitious, Soderbergh offers a rather classical cinema portrait of Che. During the Revolution, we are able to follow the years of skirmishes then battles, the emergence of the Castros (both Fidel and Raul, providing interesting background in the light of subsequent history) and the support of the Cuban people for the uprising. The film provides a detailed look at the events. However, it also offers some material for judging Che by constant flash-forwards (in black and white) to his 1964 visit to the US, the television interviews and his speech and rebuttal of arguments at the United Nations. There is a lot of reflective material here in Che’s own words and in the journalist’s questions and the UN members’ critique.

While Che’s idealism is to the fore, his clear policy of armed attack as the only way to be rid of corrupt governments with the consequent violence and executions is put in his own mouth as well as the condemnations of others. In retrospect, it is interesting to wonder what might have happened had the US withdrawn the sanctions (and even moved out of Guantanomo).

The second part is not so gripping because, paralleling what actually happened, it shows the haphazard activities of Che in Bolivia, the revolution not really sparking and the small crusade waged by him and his followers (with the disapproval of the Communist Party against armed attack). The action meanders from one encounter to another, the Bolivian Andes contrasting with the Cuban terrain.

Benicio del Toro has an important role as Che. However, Soderbergh does not always place him centre screen – which fits in with his tendency not to be a leader like Castro. And he does not come across as highly charismatic as anticipated. Rather, like a missionary, he has his ideals, his zeal, his complete dedication to the people he wants to free and is prepared to die for all of this.

UN CONTE DE NOEL

(Competition. France. Director, Arnaud Desplechin)

A film especially for the French and French sensibilities. Much of it will have an appeal beyond France but may appear to the outsider just one of those many family sagas where everyone irritates everyone else, there are fights, reunions, illness and concern, visitors who observe. In fact, the Americans did Hollywood versions of this kind of thing in Home for the Holidays or The Family Stone.

The film is quite long with a number of sub-plots. The early part is spent in introducing the various members of the family, especially the death of the oldest child from leukemia and the consequent effects on parents and the next three children. Stylised scenes from the past are included with framed portraits and captions. One needs to pay attention here. Soon there are flashbacks and exposition of themes which require some more concentration.

The matriarch is played by Catherine Deneuve in her beautiful grande dame manner. Early in the film she is diagnosed as having leukemia and there is to be testing of family members for a bone-marrow match. And it is Christmas and the family patriarch (Jean-Paul Roussilon) is attempting to get the whole family together, especially the next son, Henri (Mathieu Amalric) who has been banned from family gatherings by his family-protective sister, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny). He brings a Jewish girlfriend (Emmanuelle Devos). Melville Poupard plays the youngest child, Igor, who comes with his two children and his wife, Sylvie (Chiara Mastroianni) and a cousin who is infatuated with Sylvie. Elizabeth’s husband (Hippolyte Girardot) travels a great deal and their son has had a nervous breakdown.

Put all these characters, played by a top-flight French cast, and situations into the melting pot, add some shopping, a Midnight Mass, a family concert and assorted clashes and fights and there you have it, a Christmas story a la francaise.


DELTA

(Competition. Hungary. Director, Kornel Mandruczo)

A film that cineastes admire for the beauty of its photography, the unrelenting treatment of its grim theme and its uncompromising ending. However, this Hungarian film, photographed in the Romanian Danube delta, takes us into a harsh world with hard characters who can be brutish. A man returns home to find his father remarried and a sister he did not know of. He builds a house and his sister comes to join him (being roughly raped by her stepfather on the way). While the couple find some happiness, the workers on the delta disapprove. This comes to a nihilistic climax on the night of a celebration of the new house. This is an Eastern European sensibility which is difficult to identify with.

IL DIVO

(Competition. Italy. Director, Paolo Sorrentino)

A fascinating film. But, principally for audiences who follow Italian politics. Otherwise there are so many different characters, names and dates that it may be too difficult to follow.

However, Paolo Sorrentino, who wrote and directed, does his best to offer a portrait of Giulio Andreotti which, while it does not give his biography and provide a linear outline of his career, does offer many insights into an enigmatic figure who was not only a power behind the throne but, as prime minister seven times, was a power on the throne.

Long acclaimed an edifying public figure in the Christian Democrats and lauded as a devout man, accusations were raised in the 1990s that he had strong Mafia links and was connected to many deaths (including those associated with the Vatican Bank scandals). After many trials and appeals, he was acquitted of all charges.

However, as one journalist puts it in the film, how much random chance can there be in Andreotti’s links with so many deaths and so many scandals, especially bribery and corruption in his inner circle. Andreotti who seems to have rarely smiled, let alone laughed, always has a wisecrack and an ironic comment on most matters and remarked that even Jesus had Judas in his inner circle.

Toni Servillo does an intriguing imitation of Andreotti, something like a semi-embalmed automaton in appearance, manner and speaking. Generally silent, always observant, taking note of everyone and everything for his archives, absolutely ambitious, seemingly pious, the representation sometimes seems like a ‘mockumentary’.

Fashioned like a cinema jigsaw, this study of Italian politics and intrigue resembles the enquiries into corruption, a hint here, a statement there, a revelation somewhere else. Given the picture of Italian argument in the parliament alone and the lobbying and cajoling, the accusations against Andreotti could be completely true or completely false.

ENTRE LES MURS (THE CLASS)

(Competition. France. Director, Laurent Cantet)

The last film to be screened in competition and the winner of the Palme d’Or.

Entre les Murs is a documentary at heart, but offers its audience a compelling narrative. Based on a book by journalist Francois Begaudeau and the experience of following a class through an academic year, the film recreates this situation under the eye of director Laurent Cantet who won multiple awards for his 1999 social drama, Resources Humaines and directed the film about middle age and finding one’s personal values, Emploi de Temps.

The children portrayed in the film worked with the director for the year. Most of the parents are themselves. The group workshopped the situations with the director, finding ways to express their characters, their frustrations, their hopes, for the film drama. Begaudeau himself plays the part of the principal teacher.

He teaches French and the screenplay gives a great emphasis to the meanings of language, asking the group to write their portraits (rather than their autobiographies) and finally gets them all to express something that they have learned during the year.

Francois is generally genial but has a tendency to irony if not sarcasm. He encourages free expression but is definite about decorum and discipline. He is not always in control and some of the students know how to be stubborn or manipulative. When he loses it later in the film and two girls report him for insulting them – he is critical of their behaviour at a staff meeting where they are the student representatives and their breaching confidentiality in letting students know about the discussions – he is in danger of losing his job. We see him in discussions with other teachers, with the principal and with the members of the Board.

The main drama concerns a student originally from Mali, Soulemayne, who has chips on his shoulder, is disruptive in class and is finally reported for suspension or expulsion. Decisions about Soulemayne are tests of how the audience would respond in similar circumstances.

Cantet captures a great deal of adolescent life even though the camera is confined to the school, mostly in the classroom. The film also raises many questions about the nature of education, the processes of learning, class management and discipline and issues of respect. Teachers and students at this age may find it invaluable for discussion.


THE EXCHANGE (formerly CHANGELING)

(Competition. US. Director, Clint Eastwood).

Clint Eastwood turned 78, May 2008. His films made during his 70s have been impressive and award-winning. There will be a positive response to The Exchange.

Based on actual characters, including the mother at the centre of an abduction and the mayor of Los Angeles, the Police Chief, police captains, detectives, prominent lawyers, a killer and a Presbyterian minister, Gustav Briegleb, who used the new medium of radio to attack the police for corruption, the film starts domestically, moves to the abduction crisis, police incompetence and brutality, mental institutions, abuse and killing of children to courts, investigations and perspectives on capital punishment. Quite some contents for a film even at two hours twenty minutes.

The setting is LA 1928. Cityscapes, streets and homes, trams, buildings, costumes and décor are all impressively used to create the atmosphere of the times. While the newspaper media play an important role in information, protest (and headline seeking), it is the new media of radio that is making a difference.

The Police chief of the times, James Davis (Colm Feore) ran a tight ship that employed violence against criminals and acted unscrupulously and without warrant against the rights of ordinary citizens. The Reverend Brieglib (John Malkovich) denounces the authorities with names and details every day and takes up the cause of Christine Collins whose 9 year old son, Walter, disappears.

Christine Collins is played convincingly by Angelina Jolie in a very substantial role.

The film’s title indicates what goes wrong. Her son is not found. She persists and the police won’t listen to her, especially the captain who is irritated by her and commits her (Jeffrey Donovan).

Another detective, sent on a routine enquiry to a ranch outside Los Angeles, eventually discovers a series of killings.

As Christine, with the help of the Reverend and a growing number of sympathisers and protestors in the streets, mounts civil suits against the police, the film deals with the trial of the killer and the cross-examination of the police.

Just when we are thinking the film will end, there are additions. This happens several times. Eventually, the fine screenplay by Michael Straczynski, the ever skilful and unobtrusive direction of Clint Eastwood and the fine performances bring the film to a satisfying end. (And, then one remembers that only 20 years later there was the Black Dahlia murder and 25 years later the world of LA Confidential – and in the 90s, the Rodney King event…)


LA FRONTIERE DE L’AUBE (THE DAWN SHORE)

(Competition. France. Director, Philippe Garrel)

Philippe Garrel has decided to tell a romantic, amour fou, story in the style of French film-making of forty years ago or more. It is in black and white, uses captions and dialogue that is ripe and sometimes melodramatic. Some French critics see it as poetic. Others were not so sympathetic, nor were non-French reviewers.

Louis Garrel, the director’s son, appeals to many audiences although his screen presence in such films as Dans Paris, Chanson de l’amour and even Bertollucci’s Dreamers, seems to be excessively passive making it difficult to empathise with his emotional life. Here he is a photographer who is smitten (though this seems more cerebral than feeling) with a moody and depressed married film star whom he goes to photograph. They love, they clash, she dies.

Two years later, he is engaged to an attractive and wealthy girl and is about to be married. The actress begins to appear in a mirror, a vengeful figure which a friend, quite rightly, advises him is his sub-conscious. However, it all builds up to a highly, highly melodramatic climax which seems more like a theatrical tragedy than real life.


GOMORRA

(Competition. Italy. Director, Matteo Garrone)

This is not the most lucid of films. We admire the sincerity and courage that has gone into the making of it, the craft and the skill in working with many non-professional performers. However, with the decision to take five stories out of the many in Roberto Saviano’s 2006 best-seller (translated into 33 languages) and to intercut them, this structure has made it difficult to follow – plus the complication that many young Neapolitan thugs look much like the other and without a firm establishing of many of the supporting characters, it is difficult to distinguish one from another.

For non-Italian audiences, it might have been more helpful to have the five selected stories shown in their entirety one after the other. The press kit says that they are interconnected. In fact, episode after episode is not interconnected. They are simply juxtaposed. This means that we are following one of the stories and then it is left for twenty minutes or so while we pursue some of the others and so on.

However, the film creates a contemporary Gommorah atmosphere in the northern suburb of Naples, Scampia, which is notorious for its ugly estates, open drug-dealing, murders and control of everything by the Camorra – hence the play on names.

The five stories in themselves illustrate what Saviano (who has been under police protection since the publication) and Garrone wanted to show of the reality of the Camorra today, an often vicious world of blood, death and power. Again, the stories could have been developed more and characters probed. The story of Toto, a 13 year old boy is absorbing. He has to make a life and death decision but his story then ends. The story of a tailor who secretly trains Chinese immigrants is also interesting as is the expose of how the Camorra control the dumping of toxic waste in the south and are employed by many Italian companies. Perhaps the best written and dramatised is that of two young would-be independent thugs who imitate Pacino in Scarface, boldly rob a Columbian drug business, find a Camorra cache of arms and think they are kings of the world.

Sombre and alarming material.


THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE WEIRD

(Out of Competition. Korea. Director, Kim Jee-won)

The title is certainly not false advertising. There is some good, a lot of bad and, indeed, most of it is weird.

Adapting the title of Sergio Leone’s classic and some of the plotline, the climax is a repeat of the three man shootout at the end of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. This time the setting is the desert on the border between China and Korea. The war is that of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in the 1930s. But, the film-makers have been looking at films like the National Treasure series or Indiana Jones stories, so there is a map of buried treasure which The Bad has to steal and bring back to a company head. He is a young snarling type with his fringe over one eye enabling him to scowl malevolently. The Good is a bounty hunter who is after The Bad and, despite the end, is sidelined for a lot of the action. The Weird, who gets most of the screen time looks like a fat comedy actor until his true deadly nature emerges.

The film is quite visually striking at times and the special effects contribute to the mood and energy.

However, this is a tribute to the spaghetti western tradition. After the Japanese made Sukiyaki Western Django, the Koreans want to do better – or, at least, more spectacularly and with a higher body count than any other and ingenious-brutal (and some really crass) ways of killing off the villains (or anybody for that matter). But you could hardly call it a ‘rice western’ or a ‘noodles western’.

So, the film-makers, admirers of Leone, obviously grew up on spaghetti westerns, became addicted to Sam Peckinpah violence and have now over-and-over-dosed on Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. What is the Korean for ‘Grindhouse Western’?


HUNGER

(Un Certain Regard. UK (Northern Ireland). Director, Steve McQueen)

A gruelling film to watch (and feel).Turner Prize-winning artist, Steve McQueen?, has co-written and directed his first feature and drawn his audience into the Troubles of 1981 in Belfast, especially in the Maze prison at the time of the blanket and washing strike, culminating in the hunger strike and the death of activist, Bobby Sands.

The film is clearly divided into three parts. The first hour focuses on the inmates and the conditions in the Maze and their demands to be treated as political prisoners because of the IRA war rather than as criminal murderers, a plea turned down by Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, whose severe (and arrogant-sounding) words are played here.

One of the difficulties of any armed movement against a government is that, depending on where sympathies lie, participants are lauded as resistance fighters (World War II France or the opposition in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or Begin’s Jewish fighters against the British before 1948) or condemned as terrorists (Palestinians, Tamil Tigers and any number of groups since September 11th 2001). Northern Ireand was a hotbed of terrorism and counter-terrorism by local militias – and with occupying British forces present to keep order. As this film indicates more than 2000 people were killed between 1969 and 1981.

There have been many notorious prisons. In recent times we have seen the atrocities at Abu Ghraib in Bagdad and there have been the controversies about Guantanamo Bay. Governments have been stepping up security and detention legislation. But, before that, there was the Maze.

Wise commentators have stated that one can determine the civilisation of a nation by the way it treats its prisoners. Conditions shown in Hunger are appalling: men stripped, clad in blankets (since they refused to wear criminal garb), isolated in cold cells which they have smeared with excrement in protest. The men have to wash and dress to see their visitors (where a whole lot of smuggling letters and radios goes on). Beating and kicking are rife – and we are not spared any of this detail in the film. The riot squad as well as local guards exercise a shameful brutality – which makes us wonder throughout the film where these people came from, what they were like in real life with their families. Hunger brings this home to us as it opens with a local guard having his breakfast fry, checking the roads and under his car before he goes to work. He laughs with his mates – but then he shows a brutal side with his bloodied knuckles. And anonymous killers eventually execute him as he visits his mother in a nursing home.

The second part of the film is an intense conversation between Bobby Sands and his friend Fr Dominic Moran. Much of it is in a single take, a medium shot as the two men sit at a table and argue the pros and cons of Sands’ decision to go on a hunger strike to death. This demands constant attention as the different points of view are persuasively put. Is Sands too much of an idealist, wanting to suffer, to be a martyr, expecting that history will remember him (which it does)? Should he have a broader view and be open to dialogue and negotiation so that life will be respected? This is a long sequence well performed by Michael Fassbender as Sands and Liam Cunningham as Fr Moran. Interesting to see the Catholic background of the men (although in a Eucharist sequence, the priest is frustrated as the men chat loudly over his reading of a psalm and catch up).

Before the third part there is another long single take as a cleaner mops up the urine that the men have tipped under their doors into the corridor. This gives us time to absorb some of the conversation we have listened to.

Then there is the 66 days of dying that Bobby Sands underwent, with explanations of what the hunger did to his internal organs. We can see what it was doing to his exterior, with Michael Fassbender looking frighteningly emaciated, dying with pain and an attempt at dignity.

Hunger joins a number of films about this era including In the Name of the Father and Some Mother’s Son (which was about Bobby Sands, his hunger strike and his being elected an MP during this time, something Hunger mentions only in the end information). The IRA committed atrocities. The British and the prison guards do themselves little credit in their behaviour. It is more than a blessing that matters have been able to change in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday agreement of 1997.

JOHNNY MAD DOG

(Un Certain Regard. Liberia/France. Director, Jean-Stephane? Sauvaire)

It is quite amazing to read acknowledgements to the president and government of Liberia for a film, especially a film that shows so many ugly faces of war in the troubled conflicts of the 1990s. Yet, here they are – and the film was made on Liberian locations in and around Monrovia. And the cast consisted of former child soldiers who portray the fighting and atrocities they committed in those times.

Director and producers took care in the casting, finding that the re-enactments, as acting, were a kind of therapy. The technical adviser was Joseph who plays the rebel general. He had been a child soldier since the age of ten. Since many of the cast could not read or memorise a script, much of the dialogue is memory and improvised.

The film is a frightening experience in the sense that it shows horrors that are normally unimaginable. The HD photography gives graphic closeups of characters and action and the editing immerses us in terrible events. With the focus on Johnny, and even more frighteningly on the young boy who plays a 13 year old merciless soldier called No Good Advice, we have to ask ourselves how such abductions took place, how the children were brainwashed (nicknames, songs, drugs…) and could attack, abuse and kill as they did. The film is a challenge to conscience and consciousness of the evil dimensions of human nature.

There must be some hope as Liberia has an elected government, the film was made there, and the children are coming to terms with what they have done, but this latter is a desperate and hard road to go.

LEONERA

(Competition. Argentina. Director, Pablo Tupera)

There have been many prison films but one like this is comparatively rare. It is a gripping film that has its audience wondering what is the right thing to do for prisoners. But this question is complicated here because the prisoners are women and the group is made up of pregnant women and women with children under the age of four, some of whom were born in prison, all of whom live in the prison, behind bars.

Leonera opens like many a crime drama. A woman wakes with blood on her hands but ignores the bodies in her apartment and goes to work and study. It is only when she returns home that the enormity hits her and, while she calls the police, she is paralysed with panic. One of the men is still alive and recovers in hospital. She, Julia, is arrested for murder.

Filmed in prison locations, most of the action takes place there, in these women’s wards. There are endless corridors and doors to be unlocked. There is solitary. There is also a common space and places where the mothers can be with their children as well as a kindergarten. (And all the time those questions about whether the children are going to be adversely affected without a male parent, living in prison and its routines, with the effect on their incarcerated mothers.) Julia is pregnant and eventually gives birth to a little boy, Tomas.

The guards are not really brutal, just tough and demanding. The head of the prison shows some sympathy, so it is not a drama of them against us, although there is a small riot and fire before the end. Rather, the women manage. Marta, a tough woman with more than one child, helps Julia, as well as making sexual advances to her. Julia’s mother who had left her 13 years earlier to live in France, returns and there is some kind of rapprochement between the two, although the mother sets in motion plans to take Tomas from prison and care for him. A lawyer gives her a script for her case but the surviving man has his own version of what happened and Julia is sentenced for wilful murder. The screenplay never quite makes clear the detail of what happened but that is not the point.

And the ending. Julia has spent many years in prison by this and has become more worldly-wise but still longs for her son. And, as the final credits roll, we are still wondering whether justice has been done for both Julia and Tomas.

LINHA DE PASSE

(Competition. Brazil. Directors, Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas)

A film about soccer in the Cannes competition? A film by Walter Salles, yes. But, of course, it is about many aspects of life among the underprivileged in the suburbs of Sao Paolo. Salles has said that there are three things that can offer alternatives to the hard way of life: soccer, religion and crime. Linha de Passe illustrates all three.

At the centre of this story is a middle-aged mother of four sons – and pregnant with another child. She is Cleuza who works as a maid and as a cleaner for a doctor and her family. The oldest son, Denis, works as a motorcycle delivery man (one of 300, 000 in the city, it is said). He fancies himself as a ladies’ man and already has fathered a child. The second son is Dinho. He is religious, belonging to one of the mushrooming evangelical churches in Latin America. The third son is Dario, turning 18, and desperate to find a place in a professional soccer team. Then there is, Reginaldo, quite black (‘If I am as black as this, my father must be the colour of coal’). He spends a lot of time riding the local buses looking for his father and, in fact, learning how to drive the bus.

Salles, with his co-director Daniela Thomas (together they made Foreign Land in 1994) knows how to bring alive the smallest incidents in this part of the city and the incidents range over soccer tryouts (where a large bribe is needed to get into a team), sermons, prayer and baptisms by immersion in the church, delivery men smashing windows at traffic lights to steal back-seat bags.

Though the film chops from one story to another, the directors immerse us in their world, its struggles, its sometime joys and its frequent pain. And, as the film stops with the main characters at personal turning points without telling us where they are going, we have hopes for them but are prepared for their disappointments.


MILH HADHA AL-BAHR (SALT OF THIS SEA)

(Un Certain Regard. Palestine/US/France. Director, Annemarie Jacir)

Any film which captures the present situation in Palestine and in Israel is welcome. This film is emotionally heavyweight but, as screenplay, it is dramatic-lite. It is a heartfelt film from Annemarie Jacir, herself a Palestinian who lives in Ramallah (which she uses as part of the plot and photographs tellingly).

Brooklyn-born Soraya (Suheir Hammad) arrives for a visit to Israel and is subjected (for her own security!) to a series of grillings at the airport about her name, its pronunciations and origin, about her parents (born in Lebanon) and her grandparents (born in Jaffa). The mood is set.

One of her aims in coming to Ramallah is to check her grandfather’s back account, frozen after 1948 with the present owners finding every way to stop payment. A chance traffic encounter with a waiter, Emad (Saleh Bakri) at a restaurant she went to with friends leads to a daring escapade and a surreptitious visit to Israel with Emad and his film-maker friend enables them to see what life in Israel in prosperity despite the security is really like, the countryside, the imposingly menacing wall, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the beaches and the sea and a visit to Soraya’s grandfather’s house. The Israeli occupier of the house welcomes them but Soraya wants an acknowledgement that the house was stolen from her grandfather, something the Israeli is unwilling to do – and one cannot help thinking of claims made after World War II for property stolen from Jewish owners in Europe to be acknowledged. The couple then visit Emad’s village of origin only to find it destroyed.

Again, no easy answers but many questions in a story that stirs the emotions.

LA MUJER SIN CAPEZA

(Competition. Argentina. Director, Lucrecia Martel)

This is tough going, especially if one does not get on the wavelength of the film early. The screenplay is often elliptical, leaving it to the audience to discover or work out what is going on.

We see a group of Buenos Aires mothers and listen to their chat about swimming pools, children and other assorted topics. We follow one of them as she drives home. Momentarily losing concentration, she has an accident. Has she simply crashed? Has she hit someone or something? And, what of her mental state as she composes herself? As she goes to a hospital for an X ray? As she books into a hotel for the night?

When she returns home she seems to be acting normally but she is distracted – she seems to have lost her head somehow. When she comes to realise that she may have been responsible for hitting a boy, her family and friends check on details and she rehearses her steps. It seems there is no evidence of the accident.

The question arises as to whether she is the one who knows what happened and others are refusing to acknowledge this – or what? The performance by Maria Onetto is fine and the director takes us into the mind and emotions of a troubled middle-aged woman in well-to-do Buenos Aires society.


MY MAGIC

(Competition. Singapore. Director, Eric Khoo)

A modest 75 minute film for Cannes to acknowledge the small but active industry in Singapore.

The film opens with a large man in a bar continually asking for another drink. We glimpse a small boy forlorn in a shopping mall. Soon we learn that they are father and son, the son, an intelligent boy, has to care for his alcoholic father.

Because the father was once a magician who specialised in fakir-like magic in enduring piercings, beatings and broken glass, he gets an opportunity to make money for his son by enduring more and more tests of pain for a paying Chinese audience. (The magician and his son are both Tamil and speak Tamil.) The proprietor is interested in acts that ‘make the audience squirm’ – which is more than a bit the same for us as the cinema audience watching.

The boy longs for his departed mother. Finally, the father tells his son the truth about what happened and there is a pleasing fantasy touch to end the film.

Brief but telling, with a sense of humanity and a glimpse of Singapore.


OCEAN FLAME

(Un certain regard. Hong Kong. Director, Liu Fen Dou)

We are back in the world of Hong Kong gangsters, the film an opening with a prisoner being released, who goes to meet up with characters from the past, helping one to die, and searching for the woman who was the love of his life but whom he treated shamefully. The film is a long flashback about what brought him to prison and his loss of the woman.

However, the first scene is an enigmatic beach scene with a boy counting numbers out loud and running away. By the time we come to the end of this rather long film, we are back at that scene which now makes sense and brings the film to a sad, grim conclusion.

While this gangster world is related to what we know from other Hong Kong films, Ocean Flame (the title is obscure) is set in a different milieu, a world of bars, of prostitution rackets, of blackmailing victims. The central character is at home in this world, not working for the money but because he really likes it. When he comes across a young woman who works at a bar, he falls for her and she for him. But, he has little finesse in expressing his emotions. He is so caught up in his work and expose of philandering husbands and blackmailing them, that he is suspicious, subjects the woman to some sado-masochistic behaviour, forcing her to participate in one of his set-ups and refusing to rescue her.

The film builds to a sad climax and death and prison.

While the film seems to meander at times and be repetitive, it does come together at the end.



DE OFRIVILLIGA (INVOLUNTARY)

(Un Certain Regard. Sweden. Director, Ruben Ostlund)

We do all kinds of involuntary actions every day. We even make ‘decisions’ which are involuntary. This is the idea behind this comic/serious film about different groups of ordinary people. The film is like a jigsaw although most of the initial stories are unrelated. They are simply patterned for audiences to respond and then a pause for reflection as they watch the next piece.

At a party, an older man goes to a firework which did not explode and his eye is injured. A famous actress takes a bus and is pestered by fans. On the bus some youngsters play raucously while the serious driver chats to the young tour guide. A teacher complains about another teacher’s use of punishment. Two young girls giggle as they take sexy photos and then go out drinking, finally listening chastened (but perhaps unrepentant) to one of their mothers. A group of 30 something men drink and play sexual pranks.

Ostlund keeps the interest in each of the stories, making the point (especially during a class where a little girl changes her mind about what is correct because the other children disagree with her) that we are influenced by many factors whether we perceive this or not. Audiences who travel on buses will find the sequence where the driver holds up everyone until whoever broke a curtain rod in the toilet confesses!

PALERMO SHOOTING

(Competition. Germany. Director, Wim Wenders)

There was a time when Wenders was considered a cinema great. He seems to have fallen from critical appreciation. A pity, since The Palermo Shooting is an attempt to go back to some of his themes of the past (and the mysteries he explored in Wings of Desire or Paris, Texas) with the perspective of a sixty year old. His early films were ‘road movies’. Now his voyagers travel by plane but, nevertheless, as his new company, ‘New Road Movies’, indicates, he is still interested in the journey.

This is an odyssey on the way to face death – and, in this case, facing death literally, death being personified by Dennis Hopper.

Singer Camino plays Finn, a photographer professor who acts like a rock star (which, in fact, the actor is). He risks elitist art opprobrium by enthusiastically doing popular fashion photography – we see some shoots with a pregnant Milla Jovovich. But Finn is prone to strange dreams and, at forty, wonders what he has done with his life. He also risks death in his car for the sake of a photo – and, at this point, his search becomes more intense.

After the shoot in Palermo (it is not a Mafia shooting but a photo shoot), he stays on, meandering on his odyssey, sleeping, dreaming, looking at the religious imagery, meeting an artist restoring a church painting, ‘The Triumph of Death’. In the meantime, he experiences arrows being fired at him (this is also a Palermo shooting) by a robed and hooded figure. Eventually, he sees Death in a huge archive containing the documents of people’s lives. A long conversation about the meaning of life and death, which Hopper is able to sustain, follows which offers food for reflection.

The film is dedicated to Bergman and Antonioni who died in 2007. His film seems to be a Wenders-like tribute and exploration of themes they valued.


SANGUEPAZZO (WILD BLOOD)

(Out of Competition. Italy. Director, Marco Tullio Giordana)

While running for two and a half hours, this is a continually absorbing film which has the sub-title, An Italian Story. Director Marco Tullio Giordana had been trying to make this film for more than two decades but, after his success with The Best of Youth, he was able to raise the money. It is a large project.

During the course of the film, there are two stories running parallel. The first takes place during the five days before the end of World War II and the setting is Milan. The second is in flashback to 1936 and then through to early 1945. In the first story, a famous actor, Osvaldo Valenti, a matinee idol who continued to appear in Fascist-backed films, gives himself up to the Partisans and saves his co-star and partner, Luisa Feridi. The Partizans accept this, especially former anti-Fascist director and exile, Golfiero Goffredi. However, they must stand trial for their complicity with the government and answer rumours that they had participated in the torture of prisoners.

The flashbacks tell the story of Osvaldo’s career, a Don Juan character with a cocaine and heroin problem, who survived and even became leader of a Fascist division. It also tells the story of Luisa, a country girl who wanted to be an actress, was seduced by Osvaldo, directed by Golfieri and became one of Italy’s leading celebrities, leading a wild private life while continually supporting Osvaldo.

As a picture of Italian cinema, production, the Venice festival, the government financed popular entertainments and the collapse of the Fascist agencies, the film is fascinating. As a human drama, it has its harrowing moments in the brutal experience of war. As an Italian story, it is a very good film. Luca Zingaretti as Osvaldo Valenti gives a mesmerisingly memorable performance and is supported well by Monica Bellucci as Luisa.

SERBIS

(Competition. Philippines. Director, Brillante Mendoza)

Just another day in a struggling neighbourhood of Manila – or is it? Is this yet another Filipino look at squalid surroundings and squalid aspects of life in these surroundings showing both a financial poverty and a spiritual poverty? Yes, but presented by Brillante Mendoza who has become a rising director in recent years, ranging from gay massage in Masahista to social questions in Foster Child and local thieves and pickpockets in Tirador.

Mendoza has a distinctive cinema style, using handheld cameras to follow his characters wherever they go – in this case up four storeys and down in a cinema building and through the corridors or out into the loud and busy streets. He immerses us in the life of his characters, sometimes slowing right down as we observe them paint, scrub or clean toilets in real time.

The location for this day is a decaying, rather grand old cinema that plays ‘adult films’ and is run by a family, or, rather, the matriarchs of the family. This day the strong grandmother goes to court to get justice against her husband who abandoned her and started another family. Her daughter does the practical management of the cinema as well as its café, helped by her nice but rather slow husband. They have a little son who goes to school and does well and then returns to wander round the building spying or working on his computer.

The practical work is done by two young men. The films shown are trashy sex movies. The venue, however, attracts a lot of gay men who use young prostitutes for ‘serbis’, the core meaning of the title. Mendoza has decided to portray some sex scenes quite bluntly.

Clearly, a 90 minute film can show only glimpses of a wide range of characters but Mendoza has done that, raising questions of poverty and its effect, questions of morality, especially in the context of a Filipino pious Catholicism which is seen in the statues and pictures, some passing nuns and a final Marian candlelight procession.


LE SILENCE DE LORNA (LORNA’S SILENCE)

(Competition. Belgium. Directors, Pierre and Jean-Luc? Dardennes)

The Dardennes Brothers make a film every three years, so this is their fourth in a decade, two of which Rosetta and L’Enfant? won the Cannes Palme d’Or and the other, Le Fils, was very well received.

The previous films were full of movement, the camera following the characters around at very close range. This time the camera remains still for much of the time giving the film a sense of classical realism. It is a fine film.

The setting is Liege, typifying a large city in the contemporary European Union where Belgian identity cards are of great value to migrants (legal and not) from Eastern European countries. Gangs set up fraud schemes, especially through marriages to citizens for a large down payment. This is Lorna’s world. Already married to a local heroin addict, her boss plans for him to die of an overdose so that Lorna can marry a wealthy Russian who wants legal entry into Belgium. Meanwhile she and her lover, an international truckdriver, plan to open a bar with the money.

Despite the tough line taken by the taxi-driving gang boss, Lorna does not follow the plan in detail. She would prefer her temporary husband to live. This leads to a sense of pity and changes her relationship with him even as divorce papers come through. The plan becomes untangled and Lorna withdraws more into herself and her fantasies.

Kosovo actress, Arta Dobroshi, brings great presence, beauty, toughness and pathos to the role of the contemporary migrant. And Jeremie Renier who worked for the Dardennes in Rosetta and was the callous young father in L’Enfant? gives a believable and evocative portrayal as the addict. The boy who was Le Fils, Morgan Marinne, appears as the boss’s subservient but violent sidekick.

Once again, the Dardennes bring their sense of humane realism to significant social issues.


SOI COWBOY

(Un Certain Regard. Thailand/UK. Director, Thomas Clay)

An experimental film that combines British sensibility with contemporary styles of Thai film-making. While it is not exactly boring, it often comes pretty close.

The first 90 minutes are a slow and detailed look, in black and white, of the relationship between a Danish film-maker living in Bangkok and a prostitute he has met at the bar, Soi Cowboy. Many of these scenes are filmed in real time: getting up, a shower while she has breakfast, going to the supermarket… The man has some affection for the girl and she is pregnant. He phones his agent without success. They go for a train trip and stay in a hotel and visit some shrines…

The film abruptly changes (as some recent Thai films) to colour, to the poor countryside, to a farm and work in the fields. The younger son (whom we have seen in the earlier film) comes home with a deadly mission on behalf of the proprietor of the Soi Cowboy. At the bar we see the Dane (all sleeked) and the girl – whether this is how they met or whether this is a kind of film within a film is not clear.

However, the film does open up the complexities and emotions of an inter-racial relationship that is not casual.

SURVEILLANCE

(Out of Competition. US. Director, Jennifer Lynch)

After a critical mauling for her Boxing Helena in 1993, David Lynch’s daughter, Jennifer, withdrew from films for writing novels and raising her daughter. Surveillance is her comeback, produced by David Lynch who also wrote the provocative lyrics to the final credits’ song. She has co-written it with Kent Harper who has a central role as the local police officer, Jack.

It opens like a variation of In Cold Blood with a vicious home attack at night on a family. Later, it will go into something of a Funny Games mode. Obviously Jennifer Lynch has been influenced by her father – we travel on another Lost Highway which has the alternate worlds of what the characters describe verbally and what the audience sees as actually happened. It also looks, especially towards the end, that she has also absorbed the spirit of Quentin Tarantino.

The plot has a twist at the end (which may or may not be signalled in advance although the present reviewer picked it early enough). The film takes place over one day as two FBI agents (Julia Ormond and Bill Pullman) arrive to investigate the killings. The police are resentful of the intrusion, although the chief (Michael Ironside) is co-operative as is the secretary (Caroline Aaron). They have two witnesses, a junkie and a 9 year old girl. Much of the film shows the interviews (with surveillance cameras) along with the tell-tale flashbacks to the truth. This builds an atmosphere of puzzle as to what happened, even why the witnesses are the only two present besides the police. However, all becomes clear with the twist and some truly manic and appalling violent behaviour.

Not everyone’s kind of police thriller but effective of its kind.


SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK

(Competition. US. Director, Charlie Kaufman)

Set in Schenectady in upper New York state, this is a life drama and a death drama.

Written by Charlie Kaufman, who tantalised audiences with his imaginings, both creative and bizarre, in Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this film marks his directing debut. For some minutes, it looked as if he was going to present a ‘normal’ family in ‘normal’ situations and one wondered what he was up to. But, there was no need for apprehension. He soon moves off into the realms of the imagination.

Yes, a ‘synecdoche’! That is what Wikipedia is for, so (with acknowledgement to Wikipedia), Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which:
• a term denoting a part of something is used to refer to the whole thing, or
• a term denoting a thing (a "whole") is used to refer to part of it, or
• a term denoting a specific class of thing is used to refer to a larger, more general class, or
• a term denoting a general class of thing is used to refer to a smaller, more specific class, or
• a term denoting a material is used to refer to an object composed of that material.
The use of synecdoche is a common way to emphasize an important aspect of a fictional character; for example, a character might be consistently described by a single body part, such as the eyes, which come to represent the character. This is often used when the main character does not know or care about the names of the characters that he/she is referring to.
So, that is what Charlie Kaufman is doing here. Fortunately, he has a strong cast to do it with.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden, a theatre director who is something of a hypochondriac, especially as so many things go wrong with him physically. But, things go wrong otherwise. His artist wife (Catherine Keener) leaves for a Berlin exhibition with their young daughter and her best friend (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Caden is directing a young cast in Death of a Salesman which stars Claire (Michelle Williams). The theatre assistant, Hazel (Samantha Morton) has a crush on him.

So far, so good. Then Caden wins a grant which enables him to go to New York and stage ‘a really important play’ in a huge abandoned warehouse. The rest of the film takes place in a parallel universe or, perhaps or definitely, inside Caden’s head. But we watch him direct the play of his own life for twenty years, changing the dialogue, re-building elaborate sets, getting new ideas, hiring actors, Tom Noonan as Sammy to play himself and Emily Watson as Tammy to play Hazel. Since Hazel is Caden’s assistant there are some clashes there.

Then, at some stage, Millicent (Dianne Wiest) is hired to portray a nurse but eventually considers that she could play Caden himself and direct the play, which she does as Caden assumes something of her identity.

Actually, that makes some sense in describing an overview of what happens – although there is a great deal more detail, character interplay and clash – and it all being a synecdoche of Caden. The conclusion, apart from several deaths and funerals: that one needs to see the film again.

TOKYO!

(Un Certain Regard. Japan/France. Directors, Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, Bong Joon-Ho)

One needs to notice the ! after the Tokyo of the title. This is not a film set in Tokyo as such or about Tokyo as such. It is about aspects of Tokyo!

Over a cartoon cityscape, we hear a flight hostess inviting us all to travel to Japan. There are three stories for us, three surreal stories which film buffs would expect from the directors. This is something of a cinema of the absurd.

Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind) delves into some Tokyo realism as a young couple arrive to spend some days with a friend in her very small apartment. They apartment hunt (put off from one because of a dead cat), job hunt – he gets a job putting paper on packages, she does not. He has an intellectual experimental film which he shows to business people in a porn cinema using a smoke machine for atmosphere. There are jokes about mutations at the beginning of the film – and that is what happens to the girl.

Leos Carax has made some exotically strange films in his day (Lovers of the Pont Neuf, Pola X). This one is both exotic and strange. Denis Lavant portrays a strange looking, semi-dressed man who runs around Tokyo! harassing people and then hiding in the sewers. He finds a cache of arms, especially hand-grenades and gleefully runs down many streets flinging them with abandon and not seeming to notice the mounting dead. Eventually he is arrested but no one can communicate with him except a limelight-loving eccentric French lawyer. There is more and an absurd ending – and a joke that the next episode will be in New York with a US bill and Lincoln drawn to look like the man from the sewers.

Maybe these two episodes are particularly French and need a Gallic sensibility and sense of humour to appreciate the surreal humour.

The third story is by Korean Bong Joon-Ho? (The Host, Memories of Murder), more straightforward but no less absurdist. A man has lived indoors for ten years or so and has stacked all his pizza boxes, for instance, along with other packaging and books to make his apartment a neat work of art. When a young woman delivers a pizza, eye contact is made – and Tokyo shakes with an earthquake. It jolts the man to decide to go out to find the woman – only to find everybody has introverted themselves, only emerging momentarily during another tremor.

All three films are stylish and create an oddball world that audiences will find funny and/or curious.


UC MAYMUN (THE THREE MONKEYS)

(Competition. Turkey. Director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Uzak (Distance) was a Cannes award winner and a well-made study of loneliness in the Turkish countryside and in Istanbul. Climates was also a hit on the festival circuit. Well filmed and acted, for many (including this reviewer) it was a rather slow and sometimes tedious look at a marriage and its difficulties. While The Three Monkeys is not tedious, it is melodrama material with a familiar enough plot. (If the same screenplay had been made in English, it may well have been dismissed as rather obvious.)

However, it opens well with a hit-run accident where a politician wants to avoid any publicity and pays one of his workers to go to prison for him, paying his family a salary each month and a lump sum at the end of the sentence. In the meantime, the worker’s wife is at home with her late teenage son and has a relationship with the politician which the son discovers and is angry with his mother. Things come to the anticipated head when the prisoner is released and comes home.

The politician is as loathsome as expected. The prisoner is affected by some macho brutality. The son tends to mope all the time so it is hard to be as sympathetic to him as the screenplay wants. The wife, however, is a woman of vitality and verve despite what she does. When she is on screen, the film is alive.

The Turkish locations and atmosphere are interesting but the film offers only average interest.

TING CHI (PARKING)

(Un Certain Regard. Taiwan. Director, Chung Mong Hong)

Have you ever had the frustrating experience of being hemmed in by someone who has double parked and is now nowhere to be found? This is the premise of this humane drama (which also has touches of Chinese criminality and some violence).

The central character has gone from work to buy his wife, a model, some cakes for dinner after their difficult previous day when they received information from their doctor about their infertility and their only option of in vitro fertilization.

When he experiences his parking situation, our hero makes enquiries of a friendly one-armed barber who directs him to the third floor of the building where he is greeted by an old man as his long lost son and the father of the little girl they care for. This becomes an important theme of the film, especially after we learn about the difficulties in having a child.

But that is not all. We have some flashbacks of a young woman suddenly receiving severance money from a Chinese factory and her journey to Taipei where she is trapped in prostitution. This will be important also, especially as the man is hemmed in again by double parking. It is Mother’s Day and the tow trucks are all out and unavailable. When in frustration he bangs on what he thinks is the empty double-parked car, he ends up witnessing a beating and being hit himself, only to be saved by the barber, a former gangster. And so on…

Further adventures include his inadvertently sitting on his cakes and having to clean his trousers, going to buy more cakes, a fish head soaking in the basin in the toilet, having a meal with the family upstairs, being bashed by the prostitute’s pimp and dumped and …

A wryly humorous long night’s journey into day.

TULPAN

(Un Certain Regard. Kazakhstan. Director, Sergei Dvortsevoy)

Out on the windy steppes of Kazakhstan, poor herdsman look after black sheep, moving their family and their tent around as they look for grazing land. Young men cannot own their own herd unless they are married and settled. A young sailor, whose sister is married to a herdsman, wants to marry and work with the sheep. He is a touch garrulous (and his food-delivering friend is worse) when his family confers with Tulpan’s family to arrange a marriage. Tulpan remains in the tent catching glimpses of him, not liking him, especially his big ears!

This is not necessarily the stuff of great drama. Rather, it is something of an ethnographic story where audiences who might know of the country only because of Borat and the reactions about his film have an opportunity to immerse themselves in the land and the life of the people.

Not a great deal happens but we get a feel for the situations and the characters and – and this does sound a bit strange on paper but it works well in the film – there is a very moving sequence as the young man, wanting to get away, comes across a lost pregnant sheep who has begun to give birth but is in difficulties. We cannot help but become really involved as the young man works hard for the delivery and the young lamb emerges, finds its feet and its mother.

Some years ago there were two quite moving films from Mongolia, The Story of the Weeping Camel and The Cave of the Yellow Dog. Tulpan is very much in this vein of storytelling and emotion. Tulpan also won the Un Certain Regard award for best film.

TWO LOVERS

(Competition. US. Director, James Gray)

Joaquin Phoenix starred in two other films that director James Gray had in competition in Cannes: two crime thrillers, The Yards (2000) and We Own the Night (2007). Phoenix had to do tough in these two films. This time he is required to play vulnerable and he does so very well indeed.

The beginning and the end have his character, Leonard, contemplating drowning himself. Leonard is bi-polar and has recently come home to his parents’ house in Brighton Beach (the setting for Gray’s Little Odessa) and works in his father’s dry-cleaning store. His love is photography and he is quite expert at taking black and white pictures. What are his prospects in life?

Two events occur, one planned, the other not. The plan is that the business is to be bought by the Cohen family and Leonard’s parents think that their daughter, Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) would be a good match, a good Jewish match. The other event concerns Michelle (Gwynneth Paltrow), Leonard’s new neighbour who is wandering the hallway to get away from her shouting father. Leonard is smitten and the two become friends, especially as Michelle finds that she can talk to Leonard about her problems, especially her current affair with a married lawyer (Elias Koteas). Not only is Leonard a good listener, he goes out of his way all the time to help Michelle, going to dinner where she asks him to give his verdict as to whether the lawyer will leave his family for her, taking her to hospital in a crisis, looking after her.

In the meantime, Sandra, who had a crush on Leonard, is now in love with him.

Phoenix is a very good actor (when we think of his range from To Die For to Gladiator to Walk the Line) and makes Leonard a very sympathetic character, the audience very much on his side. And Gray makes us realise that there could be fairy tales in actual life as well as the hard and disappointing realities.

VERSAILLES

(Un Certain Regard. France. Director, Pierre Schoeller)

A homeless woman wanders Paris streets with her young son. Helped by aid agencies, despite her innate anger, she goes to Versailles for help and work. On the way to the railway station through the woods, they encounter a former addict who lives rough and helps them. However, after a night together, she leaves her son and goes away to work and eventually return. However, the boy and the man bond during her absence and he goes back to his estranged family where the boy gets a chance to find some stability. The reformed addict decides to officially recognise him as his own son – but is unable to follow through in responsibility.

Guillaume Depardieu plays the addict and Max Basette de Malglaive plays Enzo, the young boy. Their scenes together give force and emotion to this social-minded film.



VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA

(Out of Competition. Spain. Director, Woody Allen)

Towards the end of Woody Allen’s comedy of manners and morals (and lack of them), Vicki (Rebecca Hall) tells Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) that Judy (Patricia Clarkson), the friend in whom she confided her own misgivings about her marriage was really working out her own problems. Earlier Judy had confided in Vicky, remarking that the way she told Vicki her story was just the way she had told it to her therapist.

Does it mean – probably, yes – that Woody Allen himself as writer and director is telling us the stories he tells to his therapist and is trying to work out his own problems. Since Allen made this film in his early 70s, this is a further cause for wondering.

The theme is love in its various forms.

Two American students, Vicki and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) arrive for a summer in Barcelona, Vicki, the serious one who is engaged and is working on a thesis on Catalan identity, Cristina has just finished a 12 minute film on love and is still searching, believing in passion and pain and romantic love. They are almost immediately bowled over (well, Cristina, anyway) by a charming painter, Juan Antonio, whose philosophy of life is centred in art and in in-the-moment hedonism. His attentions affect each of them in quite different ways. Vicki learns more about her passionate and impulsive side. Cristina learns a little, especially some talent in photography, but is still searching.

The other complication is Maria Elena, Juan Antonio’s passionate (no, that is an understatement) ex-wife.

Despite Woody Allen’s still not having worked out the real meaning of love and having presented us with varied experiences, some deep, some callow, there are many things to enjoy about this film. Barcelona looks marvellous as does Oviedo. He captures Spain with a mixture of the director’s and tourist’s eye. And, after the cold-blooded murders at the centre of his last three, British-based, films, it is something of a relief that here there are only Mediterranean outbursts and threats.

The acting is top-notch, although Scarlett Johannson is quite effaced by the intelligent and magnetic performance of Rebeccah Hall. Penelope Cruz as Maria Elena is electric, firing up the screen. Javier Bardem is more restrained (especially after No Country for Old Men) and quite engaging.

So, where to next as Woody Allen advances into his 70s?

LA VIE MODERNE (MODERN LIFE)

(Un Certain Regard. France. Director, Raymond Depardon)

Raymond Depardon is a celebrated French journalist and photographer. He became a documentary maker in the 1990s. Since that time he has worked in partnership with Claudine Nougaret to produce documentaries about people from the French countryside.

Born on a farm himself, Depardon decided to go into the mountains he had been visiting for some years and interview several of the farmers there, many of them elderly, all of them finding the work and financial difficulties hard going, along with some younger people who can scarcely manage.

Depardon knows how to photograph and film people. They really come alive before our eyes. We enjoy listening to most of them, especially two old brothers in their 80s, Marcel and Raymond Privat, who give insights into the past while finding the present difficult. Scenery in different seasons is beautiful.

But, Depardon is a terrible interviewer. He mostly asks questions which lead to a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ answers. And he pauses at length and the often inarticulate interviewees don’t elaborate. When he does ask a questions along the lines of ‘why?’ or ‘how?’, he does get some answers. The danger with his simple questions, simple answers is that the interviewees are made to look stupid at times (not his intention) with the audiences often unwittingly laughing at them, which undermines much of the effect, reducing them to objects of study. A great pity because the farmers and their views and the insights into their lives are well worth hearing.


WALTZ WITH BASHIR

(Competition. Israel. Director, Ari Folman)

A documentary, performed as a 90 minute video but then storyboarded for animation. And, all the more effective for that.

Ari Folman, who wrote, produced and directed, has drawn not only on his experiences in the war in Lebanon in the 1980s, but also on his subsequent blocking of the experiences, especially the Christin Phalangist massacres in two Palestinian camps, Sabra and Shatira, where Israeli military were in the vicinity and the Israeli government and Ariel Sharon may or may not have been informed beforehand.

This means that audiences, especially younger audiences for whom these events are already a quarter of a century old will need to do some homework to understand and appreciate the film.

Folman recounts how a friend approached him with his own nightmare. This triggered a desire to find out what really happened. It led him on a journey to interview fellow soldiers, officers, a TV journalist, even going to Holland to hear the memories of someone who served with him all the time. He also saw a therapist. He says that the four year production of the film, his decision to produce a straightforward documentary, interview style, but to have the animators bring to vivid life, colour and action, the frightening realities of war. This is not just the violent shooting and bombing, but the ignorance of the young recruits, their shooting at anything, their wanting to be elsewhere and, Apocalypse Now-like, their music, surfing and playing on the Mediterranean beaches before attack.

War is not only ugly, Folman concludes, it is ineffective – and, when soldiers suppress memories, they are likely to erupt at difficult and dangerous times.

The vivid credits’ sequence has 26 vicious and nightmarish dogs, hounds of hell, rampaging through the city and sets a tone for the proceedings. While there are actual interviews with the persons named, the characters are drawn, the action they describe is portrayed which gives limitless possibilities for idiosyncracies in the characters and their behaviour.

As the film builds to its climax with the massacre of the Palestinians and Folman has surfaced his ghosts and prepares to deal with them in the film, some actual footage of grieving and desperately shouting survivors concludes the film.

With Israel’s long occupation and war with Lebanon, portrayed in so many films, with the withdrawal in 2000 the subject of the 2007 Oscar-nominee, Beaufort, and with Israel’s bombing of Lebanon in 2006 while the film was in production, make this not only telling but still relevant and challenging


WHAT JUST HAPPENED?

(Closing film. US. Director, Barry Levinson)

An unstartlingly amusing film. Well, the cast is quite striking and A List - but there really are a couple of startling scenes to do with a dog and blood on the camera lens!

Robert de Niro plays Ben, a harassed Hollywood producer, based on prolific producer Art Linson and his autobiography. Linson also wrote the screenplay. Ben is seen sitting at a preview screening of his latest thriller, Fiercely, starring Sean Penn. We see the climax of the film several times in different versions. This is the work of a temperamental British director, accent and all, played excellently by usual villain, Michael Wincott. The hard-headed studio head is Catherine Keener. Stanley Tucci turns up as a writer and John Turturro is a somewhat passive agent.

Meanwhile, Ben is preparing a film to star Bruce Willis. Bruce, unfortunately has grown a long beard and refuses to shave, indulging in verbal and violent tantrums.

As with Hollywood people, there are complicated family issues. Ben takes his two younger children to school and has therapy sessions about how to live apart from his ex-wife, Robin Wright Penn. He also takes a teenage daughter (Kirsten Stewart) from a previous marriage to school and accidentally discovers her relationship with an agent who has committed suicide.

The film reaches its climax in Cannes with a screening of Fiercely, a fiery speech by the director, Sean Penn in attendance – and some gasps and applause.

De Niro worked with Barry Levinson on another media, crisis and temperamental director film, the satire on American propaganda, Wag the Dog.

This is more of a smile film rather than laughs as we look at (an exaggerated?) expose of Hollywood troubles.

WOLKE 9 (CLOUD 9)

(Un Certain Regard. Germany. Director, Andreas Dresen)

Every cloud allegedly has a silver lining. The cloud in the title of this German film does not. For a time, Inge (Ursula Werner), a sixty-plus housewife who mends clothes at home, sings in a choir and, with her husband, minds her daughters children at times, experiences some cloud nine bliss. One of the questions the film raises is: at what cost?

However, most of the reviews use their space to comment on how a young director has looked at ageing people and their sexual relationships both in marriage and extra-maritally, portraying these relationships in the same way that he would for younger men and women. This is certainly the case. But, in looking at older people, two of whom have lived thirty years of marriage, means we see people who have had long experience, both of happiness and some unhappiness and who have to draw on this experience to assess what is happening to them.

In portraying older people and a woman beginning an affair with a man in his seventies, the three actors concerned perform with unflinching candour. The director wisely shows the more explicit sequences, with frank nudity, early in the film so that this is not a distraction when we have to consider the emotional effects on each of the characters as well as the moral choices (or lack of choices and a relying on the ‘argument’ that ‘this just happened and I didn’t want it to happen’).

The acting is very strong and convincing. An older audience would relate better to the film and its issues. The generation younger might be somewhat shocked and puzzled. And it is all something that the younger generations may not have thought about at all.

To cap it all – and, certainly, not to make the resolution too easy – there is a grim ending that demands reflection from the audience.


SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS June 2007

AIR I BREATHE, The
ANAMORPH
BALLS OF FURY
BLACK BALLOON, The
CARAMEL
CASHBACK
CHARLIE BARTLETT
CHEMICAL WEDDING
ESCAPIST, The
EYE, The
FILTH: THE MARY WHITEHOUSE STORY
HAROLD AND KUMAR ESCAPE FROM GUANTANOMO
HEARTBEAT DETECTOR (LA QUESTION HUMAINE)
HONEYDRIPPER, The
INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL
KAMIKAZE GIRLS
MAD MONEY
MEMORIES OF MATSUKO
MONGOL
PERSEPOLIS
PROM NIGHT
SARKAR RAJ
SECRET, Un
SEX AND THE CITY
SHUTTER
SPEED RACER
STOP LOSS
SUPERHERO MOVIE
TAXI TO THE DARKSIDE
TIMBER FALLS
TOVARISCH, I’M NOT DEAD
WELCOME HOME ROSCOE JENKINS
WELCOME TO THE CHITLIS (WELCOME TO THE STICKS)
WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS
WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN?
XXY





THE AIR I BREATHE

(US, 2007, d. Johei Lee)

Some interesting credentials, especially the cast. But…

There are four stories here, focusing on the lives (and some brief explanations from childhood) of four people whose lives and fate are interconnected. So far, so good. However, the first story, which focuses on a somewhat timid money manager, played by Forest Whitaker, who gambles on a tip and falls foul of gangsters, becomes highly melodramatic very quickly, before the air we breathe has had time to move through our system. The action at the end of this story stretches credibility.

Fortunately, in some ways, the next story slows us down to a more recognisable and acceptable pace. It is the story of a hitman who has a gift for seeing the future. He is an emotionless man who has had some influence in the life of the money manager. He is played calmly by Brendan Fraser, a man with a strange and violent calling but who lives by a code. He works for the gangster who is played in scenery-chewing mode by Andy Garcia.

The third story involves an up and coming singer, an emotionally fragile woman, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar. The gangster becomes her manager and the hitman her protector – and he becomes, as we knew he would, involved with her.

In some hospital scenes we have glimpsed a doctor, Kevin Bacon, who is the focus of the fourth story. He is desperate to find a rare blood specimen that will save the life of his scientist-friend, Julie Delpy, who has been bitten by a snake. Bacon gives an overwrought performance so that the final story – which reunites all the central characters becomes again too quickly highly melodramatic. And there are some time and continuity problems with the cross-cutting of the strands, as well as some stretches with coincidences, which leave us with some questions and puzzles rather than emotional satisfaction.

ANAMORPH

(US, 2007, d. Henry Miller)

This is a rather cerebral and aesthetic-focused serial killer investigation. There is an explanation of the title later in the film: a Renaissance technique with painters (illustrated by a Rubens and other pictures) offering one scene but, with a different angle of observation, offering another. Willem Dafoe portrays a detective who thought he had solved a serial killer case but was retired to teach at an academy. He explains to his students that they can only work on a crime scene by examining the evidence within the frame of the scene. He has to learn that there are other angles.

The film is principally Dafoe who appears in all scenes except two towards the end. He portrays a man who drinks too much and is an obsessive compulsive in the fastidious details of his life. When he is asked to come back because, after five years, it seems a copycat killer is murdering victims and setting them up like art works, he goes to work to solve the mystery. He is a brooding, taciturn and lonely man, hard to communicate with – although he does interact with his antiques dealer (Peter Stormare) who offers ideas on the modus operandi of the killer.

The screenplay gives a great deal of attention to the aesthetics of anamorphism which may be difficult for some audiences, especially if they do not have an eye for this kind of art.

The rest of the cast, which includes Scott Speedman as a detective partner, is not given so much to do, so the focus is always on Dafoe and his activities and working out what is going on in his mind.

BALLS OF FURY

(US, 2007, d. Robert Ben Garant)

Silly but often funny in a broad sense.

This is a film about ping pong but some of the fastest ping pong you will see. It opens with a world tournament where Randy Daytona is a champion but who is knocked out (literally) and his father is killed for gambling debts to the mysterious Chinese gangster, Feng. Poor Randy is reduced to playing in old people’s homes where the residents chomp their meals without looking at him.

Taking a cue from the Eddie Murphy espionage film, I Spy, where a sports personality is used by secret agencies, the film has Randy (now played by chubby Jack Blackish style actor, Dan Fogler, the unbearably crass friend in Good Luck Chuck) recruited by the FBI to become a champion again and get an invitation to a sudden death tournament (the sudden death for losers is literal from a blowpipe) so that the FBI can track and arrest Feng.

Since this film is in the Blades of Glory tradition, expected crises and pratfalls regularly occur which offer some amusement. However, when Feng is revealed, the film perks up because it is Christopher Walken looking as if he were auditioning for The Mikado – and someone asks him whether he got his outfits from an Elton John garage sale. Walken plays it in his usual style but the incongruity of his character, his offhand remarks, his glee in ping pong, his deadly getting rid of competitors all means that this is a performance that will have to be included in any retrospective of his career.

Veteran James Hong (whom most viewers will recognise but not be able to name) has a substantial role as Randy’s blind teacher (lots of obvious jokes there as well). Maggie Q is vigorous as his niece.

Probably best watched on DVD with a group – which is in a silly mood to appreciate the humorous nonsense.

BIENVENUE CHEZ LES CH’TIS (WELCOME TO THE STICKS)

(France, 2008, d. Dany Boon)

It’s the North-South? divide with all its stereotypes, prejudices, jokes and mocking of language and accents. But, this time it is in France (though the same plot could be adapted for most countries with their rivalries and differences).

Writer-director, Danny Boon, who appears as the friendly, mother-dominated Antoine, did not speak French until he was 12. He comes from the northern region of France around Lille where the dialect is quite particular in its vocabulary and slant – and pronunciations. Since his home area is the main target of the satire in this genial film, he has been courageous – except that by the end everyone, audience included (or it should be), really likes the north and the northerners.

Obviously, with the inside knowledge and the recognition of words and accents, it is the French who will enjoy the film. Non-French? can enjoy it but will not have the same relish, although the sub-titles are so geared and spelt (sometimes phonetically) to convey the bewilderment the southerners are having with the Stia dialect that English speakers can enjoy the comedy and the mix-ups.

When Philippe Abrams, a post-office manager, is desperate to get a comfortable appointment in the south where he and his wife and son live, he pretends that he is handicapped. But, found out, he is exiled to the sticks. At first, we see the locals through southern eyes and perceive them as hicks in the French backblocks. However, they soon reveal that they are good-natured and Philippe quickly settles down. There were tensions with his wife about the move but they become closer because he comes home only on weekends and decides to foster his wife’s paranoia about the north and confirms all her fears so that she is always concerned about him and his situation.

It can’t last, of course, and something has to give way. And niceness all round.

The collection of characters in the north play to the gallery but, along with Philippe, we get to know them and like them.

Could it be intentional, but the overhead microphone frequently lurks into the top of the frame both in interiors and exteriors, quite distracting?

THE BLACK BALLOON

(Australia, 2007, d. Elissa Down)

There have been many films about intellectually handicapped adolescent boys. This is one of the better ones. The first reason is that Luke Ford gives such a believable performance as Charlie, a young man who means well but is severely limited. His parents are wonderful with him, especially his mother, played with cheerful empathy by Toni Collette. His father (Erik Thomson) is a military man, away during the week, but devoted to his son when he is home. The other member of the family is Thomas, the fifteen year old (who becomes sixteen with a disastrous party). He is good to his brother but, as the film goes on, we discover his upset and then his anger, his inability to accept his brother deep down and the wish that he would change and be ‘all right’.

Rhys Wakefield is also very persuasive in this role and audiences, while hoping that he would not be like this in his attitudes, can truly understand how he has grown up and how difficult it is for him to cope.

This theme has been the subject of several Australian films: Malcolm, Struck by Lightning, Clubland.

Children are insensitive and there are some disturbing scenes of childish intolerance of someone different. However, one girl, Jackie (Gemma Ward) is attracted to Thomas at school – and has a most unfortunate experience of Charlie while he is out on a jog and, needing the toilet, rushes into her bathroom while she is showering. Thomas is mortified. But Jackie gets over it and befriends Charlie, going out of her way to be with him and treat him well.

Thomas has a crisis and loses his temper with Charlie. However, it is Jackie who supports Thomas too and he is able to join Charlie in the concert the special school is putting on for the parents.

There is plenty of sentiment but the film has some edge and is not sentimental. Difficulties at home and the problems of feeding and hygiene are not skimmed over. There is an Australian down-to-earthness that makes this film so watchable and achieve its points about understanding and tolerance of difference.

Writer-director, Elissa Downs, has written this story from her own family experience.

CARAMEL

(Lebanon, d. Nadine Labaki)

Caramel is very much a women’s film. The director, Nadine Labaki, also appears in the central role of the beautician who is in a relationship with a married man who has promised to leave his wife, but… She works in a salon in Beirut with three other women, one an aspiring actress who probably will not make it, another is about to be married but concerned that she has had a previous relationship and her husband will find out, the third a down-to-earth organiser (whom they want to persuade to wear a dress).

While this might be familiar material enough, it is presented with a female and feminine sensibility, especially with the detail of work in the salon. The actresses are strong enough to make these characters come alive. There are a number of other women, two elderly sisters, and the wife whom the husband is not going to leave. While the underlying tone is serious, it is all presented with a light touch and some humour.

There are a couple of men in the background, especially a policemen who is attracted to the beautician.

And it is all shown in a Beirut that is peaceful and where life is ordinary – but we are aware that in these years such peace is, at best, precarious.

CASHBACK

(UK, 2007, d. Sean Ellis)

Four years before this film, writer-director, Sean Ellis, had made a short, Cashback, which went on to win several awards. Two years later, he gathered the cast again to film further sequences to make the film feature-length. The short may have been an effective and quirky short story. Making it a feature seems just to prolong it and make it yet just another offbeat British comedy.

The focus is on Ben (Sean Biggerstaff) who is devastated by his girlfriend dumping him. To counter his insomnia, he takes a night job at the local Saintsbury’s and is attracted to the rather bored cashier, Sharon (Emilia Fox). The night staff is rather oddball with the young men working on stocks and shelves raucous and mischievous and the very prim manager rather too taken with Sharon.

One of Ben’s ways of escaping reality is a capacity to make time stand still. Since he sketches, one of his activities is to freeze-frame the women customers in the supermarket to assess their beauty.

It goes on a bit like this, with Ben being more of a mopoke but suddenly realising that Sharon likes him – rather complicated, as always, when the ex-girlfriend makes an embarrassing scene and wants to make up. The boys at the store, after playing a football match against another staff, send in Ben’s sketches to a gallery to set him up. But, guess what…? Happy endings all round.

CHARLIE BARTLETT

(US, 2007, d. Jon Poll)

There is a slyly humorous caption at the end of the credits, ‘No teenagers were harmed during the making of this film’. On the other hand, if looks or thoughts could kill, many of the main characters would not have survived the critical gaze of many an adult and parental audience.

It is one of those films that make a plea for understanding of teenagers when the teenagers, on the surface, don’t seem to deserve the understanding. But, by the end, lessons are learned and, once again, the worlds of high school and adolescence are not entirely without hope.

The strong centre of the film is young actor Anton Yellchin as 17 year old Charlie Bartlett. Expelled at the beginning of the film for forging driving licenses for his fellow students and charging well for them, he goes to a local high school where his blazer and tie appearance immediately elicit scorn and a toilet dunking by the school bullies – and the seeming indifference of the principal (Robert Downey Jr). Charlie is rich, is chauffeur-driven and is mollycoddled by his scatty mother (Hope Davis). Dad is in jail for tax evasion.

Charlie’s greatest desire (as the film’s opening fantasy of Charlie on stage being greeted by cheering peers) is to be popular. He has something of a gift for noticing people’s problems and, eventually, some empathy. This gets him into deep trouble since he invites one of the bullies (who has been low-esteeming his softer side) to partner him in selling the prescription drugs he has been given for his own concentration. While this creates literally rave responses, he still gets into trouble. However, he is the popular hero of the school – and has achieved one of his ambitions.

After the drugs, he then counsels students with problems (quite a long line) and can’t help himself in inviting adults to pour out to him. He is involved with the principal’s daughter which leads to his punching the principal, being arrested and the principal being fired because of demonstrations against surveillance cameras in the students’ lounge.

But, there is a moral to the story which nobody can disagree with: grow up (whatever your age is) and take responsibility for your own actions.

CHEMICAL WEDDING

(UK. 2007. d. Julian Doyle)

If you have a taste for the bizarre, Chemical Wedding more than fills the bill. I needed to know that Aleister Crowley was an actual person – which makes it even more bizarre since this story of a reincarnation or possession seems the stuff of horror/science fiction.

We are introduced to Crowley a mad, addicted, sex-preoccupied Satanist who promptly dies (1947). Sixty years later a stammering Cambridge professor (Simon Callow hamming it up) uses some modern scientific apparatus to have Crowley’s personality enter into him (whereby Callow loses the stammer but increases the hamming). He gets up to no good in a Jack the Ripper kind of way, with his henchman doing no good either and a friendly American scientist trying to confront him. No major reason for seeing this oddity.

THE ESCAPIST

(UK/Ireland, 2008, d. Rupert Wyatt)

It is only at the end of this effective small-budget film (made principally in Ireland) that what seems to be a basic and low-key title is found to be far more significant than was expected.

This is a prison film. It is an escape film. The first-time feature director and co-writer, Rupert Hyatt, states that he has an admiration for genre films, the tough kind of the 1930s, which had stars like Humphrey Bogart or Spencer Tracy. This is what he is aiming for in The Escapist. It stays within the prison walls for most of the film, moves out into tunnels and sewers during the escape and, only for some minutes at the end at Charing Cross Underground station followed by a quietly emotional scene on the Thames Southbank, can the audience escape the confined settings as well.

Moviegoers have long been familiar with the routines of prison life. The Escapist shows us these routines and, while there is tension amongst the inmates, a boss who thinks he is kingpin (Damian Lewis) and his psychotic brother (Steven Mackintosh particularly and frighteningly convincing), the prisoners are more ordinary, less melodramatic than usual. The guards are the usual mixture of tough and considerate but there are no sadistic types that seem to populate prison movies. This means that the action focuses on the small group of prisoners involved in the escape attempt.

What makes the film more interesting dramatically is that the escape is introduced at once. However, throughout the film, there are continual flashbacks which illuminate the characters but also show us the development of the plan. The cumulative effect of this, along with the frequent returns to the escape in progress and, sometimes, in danger, means that the audience has to work at two different emotional levels. There is the obvious emotional hope that the escape will succeed simply because this group has undertaken it. But, as we learn more about the characters and see them within the confines and routines, we become more sympathetic.

The cast is strong. Brian Cox, always an impressive character actor who appears frequently in roles on both sides of the Atlantic, plays the lifer who wants to get out to see his daughter. Liam Cunningham is another life who knows ways out. They get a surly thief (Joseph Fiennes) to join the plan – which involves him having to endure a tough boxing bout to get the diamond tooth stud which will enable them to cut through the steel. The pressure of the insane brother requires them to bring in another member who is the librarian as well as producing the drugs circulating for inmates (Seu Jorge).

We know from the beginning that they are all part of the team but the flashbacks are able to build up the reasons why they are there.

The final member of the group is a young criminal (Dominic Cooper) who is targeted by the brother for sexual reasons. The leader of the escapees who shares his cell with him shows generosity and concern by pushing him into the escape.

This means that the escape is also symbolic of a journey to freedom and, for the escapist, some final hope and redemption. The final ten minutes are not expected and offer a deeper meaning to the whole film.

THE EYE

(US, 2008, d. David Moreau and Xavier Palud)

Another American remake of an Asian horror film, this time something of a classic made by Danny and Oxide Pang in 2000. This remake stays close to the synopsis of the original while re-locating it to California. What works in ghost films in Asia, with the traditions of spirits, is a bit harder to believe in a more rationalist US. However, with a nod to an allegedly more superstitious Mexican culture, the solution here is found in Mexico and Mexican characters.

While the film has its eerie moments, like the recent One Missed Call, it has some better known actors (and older) rather than a group of threatened, unlikeable young adults who feature in slasher horror. And is the more acceptable and accessible to a general audience for that.

Jessica Alba plays Sydney, a blind violinist, who undergoes an operation to get back her sight – this is done rather well with the subjective camera indicating how gradually adjusting to seeing really is. As with movies about people who receive transplants (especially of hearts which take over the personality of the receiver!), Sydney begins to see ghosts and events from the future. Her rather stolid psychologist (Allesandro Nivola) is sceptically helpful but then lets her know the identity of the donor. This means a trip to Mexico, meeting the victim’s mother and becoming involved in a frantic scenario where one of the visions is about to become a disastrous reality.

One is tempted to say that The Eye is nothing startling (although it does have some startling moments) but will be too quiet for many of the avid fans while easy enough entertainment for most.

FILTH: THE MARY WHITEHOUSE STORY

(UK, 2008, d. Andy DeEmmony)

A BBC film shown on television but an interesting look back at the discussions about media and the need to clean up television in the last decades of the 20th century. Mary Whitehouse became a household name in the 1960s and she continued to be a figure of controversy (and mockery) until her death in 2001.

Since one of the main targets of her campaigns was the BBC itself, especially its director general 1960-1060, Sir Hugh Carleton Greene, it is surprising that the BBC produced the film and that it attempts a more even-handed approach to its portrait of Mary Whitehouse. In fact, if anyone wanted to sue it would be Hugh Greene who does not come out of the film too well at all. The screenplay was written by Amanda Coe.

The principal strength of the film is Julie Walters’ performance as Mrs Whitehouse. It is a familiar enough kind of character for Julie Walters but she invests Mary Whitehouse with some humanity, a sense of ordinariness at home with her husband, Ernest, as well as showing her convictions in her campaigns and her singlemindedness and the effect that so much limelight had on her. The suggestion is that she started to believe a bit in her own publicity and celebrity status. She was accused of being a ‘self-appointed’ guardian of morals.

Julie Walter’s portrayal is well worth seeing. Alun Armstrong is also humane as Ernest, always supportive of his wife and very much affected by the tragic accident he was involved in when a man lay in a bag on the road to commit suicide and it was Ernest Whitehouse who ran into him.

On the other hand, Hugh Bonneville, who is very good, has to make Hugh Greene an impersonal bureaucrat who refused to meet Mary Whitehouse and insulted her grossly behind her back while being a roving eye boss. He felt he had a mission to transform the BBC into a modern era company with programs which reflected the frankness of the times, something that Mrs Whitehouse could not agree with, especially programs that were available at times of children’s viewing. Hugh Greene might have done better in confrontations with Mrs Whitehouse where opinions could be expressed and argued instead of a stand-off with snide remarks on his side and narrow/sheltered views on hers with examples that sometimes led to ridicule rather than reasoned discussion.

The clash was between freedom of expression and community standards and the protection of children. Obviously many of the issues Mary Whitehouse raised are still important. Each generation has to face the same issues in its own way. While personalities can highlight these issues in the public mind for good or for ill, when personalities become the subject of discussion, the issue can be lost in slanging matches.

Filth shows the campaigns, the thousands of people who were concerned about media standards, the rallies, the debates, the opposition, the television mockery of Mary Whitehouse in programs like Swizzlewick. It is a film that can foster discussion of contemporary media problems of content and programming.

HAROLD AND KUMAR ESCAPE FROM GUANTANOMO

(US, 2008, d. John Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg)

Well, this one is only for devotees of this kind of broad, and frequently pothead, American comedy, plenty of crass jokes, especially bodily functions in the first few minutes so that audiences will know whether they want to stay or not. Devotees who enjoyed the first Harold and Kumar outing will obviously want to see the film, no matter what.

Should one persevere, the result is a sometimes very funny (sometimes not but the makers don’t worry as they hurry on to the next episode and know that humour is hit and miss) spoof of bigoted American attitudes as well as the fear of terrorists. Harold is a Korean American, Kumar Indian. The number of jokes that would be considered in execrable bad taste in an ‘ordinary’ film are so blatant that they are funny. A scene where the US intelligence agencies interview the parents of both Harold and Kumar, employing a translator who speaks laborious Korean and cannot understand their English makes the point. Kumar is also prone to draw on his complexion as an occasion for attacks on presumptions that he is from the middle east and a terrorist.

Harold is intelligent and tries to do the right thing (though he is almost as much as stoner as Kumar). In flashbacks we see that Kumar had his good moments but how he got to the obtuse personality we see in the film defies credibility. Off they go to Amsterdam but, through Kumar’s gadgets for smoking on board and paranoid passengers seeing terrorists everywhere, they are sentenced to Guantanomo Bay. They don’t stay long, able to escape by sheer chance, get back to Florida and begin a trek cross country to be at Kumar’s former girlfriend’s wedding.

In fact, given the range of people they meet, including some Alabama backwoods types and Neal Patrick Harris who takes them to a western brothel, this is a variation on Borat’s trip across American, plenty of spoof targets.

Rob Gorddry (in some of the Judd Apatow films and What Happens in Vegas) plays to the hilt the most narrow, bigoted, indiscreet and lamebrained intelligence office that ever lived.

One of the final targets is George Bush himself who is shown to be just another Kumar at heart!

HONEYDRIPPER

(US, 2008, d. John Sayles)

John Sayles has become something of the chronicler of the more offbeat (and often more interesting) corners of many different states of the union. From New Jersey, this state has featured in several of his films (The Return of the Secaucus Seven, City of Hope) but he has ranged widely beyond: miners and strikes in West Virginia (Matewan), hope and survival in Alaska (Limbo), domestic drama in Louisiana (Passion Fish), property and finance in Florida (Sunshine State), politics in Colorado (Silver City), complexities of local Texan communities (Lone Star)…

This time Sayles takes us to a small town in Alabama, 1950. The film, with mainly an African American cast, shows a period of social transition as well as a period of transition in American music styles. This is quite a leisurely paced film (for some too slow but for others who like it, plenty of time to savour the atmosphere, appreciate the characters and issues and listen to the music).

Danny Glover portrays Tyrone, the owner of a very old-fashioned club in the town, the Honeydripper, with live singing but few patrons. He himself was a piano player touring the country but he has settled down with a loving wife (who goes to prayer meetings and is concerned about Jesus as her lord and about salvation) and his young step-daughter who helps out but who wants to study. 1950 is not the best time for black people, nor is it the worst. The white sheriff (Stacey Keach) likes to get his cuts from takings but is a pragmatic racist. Mary Steenburgen represents the rich white people of the town who seem lost in a backwater.

However, most of the action takes place in the club, especially when Tyrone hires a New Orleans musician with something he does not approve of but comes to accept: an electric guitar (more portable than a piano) which will revolutionise music and herald the era of rock and roll.

But… when a young guitar player (Gary Clark Jr) with his own electric guitar gets off the train in town, we know that he will be the man to change things. Except that he is picked up by the sheriff and, along with other prisoners, hired out to a cotton-fields owner to pick the cotton. It is not that we don’t anticipate all that is going to happen. We can sit back and take pleasure in being drawn into this town, among all these people, sharing the prejudice against them and the exploitation and experiencing the final joy when, as they say, Tyrone’s joint is finally jumping.

Sayles has often said that his Catholic upbringing and the reading of Jesus’ parables at Mass stimulated him to be a storyteller. Honeydripper is a wonderful addition to Sayles’ American parables.

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL

(US, 2008, d. Steven Spielberg)

Once upon a time (well, 1981 to be precise), the world discovered a new hero who indulged in jaw-dropping adventures but always with a genial tone and the advantage of being the embodiment of good against evil. Steven Spielberg, working from characters invented by Star Wars creator, George Lucas, created an icon. Harrison Ford wowed everyone as Indiana Jones. Two sequels later, everyone knew Indiana Jones with his characteristic hat and whip and John Williams’ rousing score.

It does seem odd that it took Spielberg and co twenty years to come up with another sequel, especially since Harrison Ford had a big disadvantage. At the time of filming, he was 65.

One way out of this problem was to place it centre screen, so in this new adventure, there are a lot of references to age (he is called ‘gramps’ and his age is guessed at 80!). There are also lots of references to
the past and he is not as agile as he used to be. Karen Allen turns up again after 27 years and has a surprise for him in the form of young Shia La Boeuf, though his identity will surprise no one except Indiana Jones himself.

The new adventures take up the spirit of the old except that we are in the 1950s, nuclear tests are taking place in the American desert and, surprisingly, a group of Russians turns up to take over the base. But, their leader, Irina Spalko from Ukraine, described as Stalin’s favourite scientist though her field is more psychological than physics, is more interested in some relics which came from Roswell and could lead to a close encounter of yet another kind. She is played, broken English accent and all, by Cate Blanchett making a claim to be a mid-20th century Fu Manchu (with some skills in fencing and martial arts as well).

The search for the El Dorado where the crystal skull comes from takes them to the jungles of Peru and a hidden city (which reminds us that there have been several National Treasure movies recently). On the way there is a long and adrenalin-pumping chase with swordplay on the back of speeding vehicles and Mud (La Boeuf) swinging through the trees like Tarzan.

John Hurt is in the cast as a bewildered professor and Ray Winstone as a double (or triple) agent.

Box office suggests that an eager world has been waiting a long time for the new Indiana Jones adventure. It will be interesting to see whether it is more than nostalgia from older audiences or whether he captures the younger moviegoers.

KAMIKAZE GIRLS

(Japan, 2004, d. Tetsuya Nakashima)

Kamikaze Girls and Memories of Matsuko are getting western release so that it is possible to see Nakashima as an idiosyncratic director with a personal style. It is surreal, to say the least. His stories are a blend of the real and the surreal and he favours bright colours, imagination and dreams.

This is the story of a young girl who tells us that she would prefer to have lived in 18th century Versailles and enjoyed the rococo style, especially of clothes. This is, in fact, how she lives and dresses, sewing patterns with expertise and in demand for her work, though lacking in self-confidence. She encounters a young bikie woman and they become friends, even saving her from a beating (where she turns into a character from Japanese manga traditions).

With the focus on the sweetness and light optimism of the central character, the film is reminiscent of the spirit of Legally Blonde. But then there are the gangs to balance the sweetness.

MAD MONEY

(US, 2007, d. Callie Khouri)

This is a lighthearted caper film in the tradition of getting money to fulfil the American dream. This time it is ‘girl-power’ that gets the job done. Diane Keaton plays a wife and mother whose husband (Ted Danson) has been retrenched and they find they owe almost $300,000 debts. When she gets a job as a cleaner in the Reserve Bank, the area where old and tattered notes are shredded, she hatches a scheme to relieve the bank of many unwanted notes. She persuades single mother of three, Queen Latifah, who shreds the money, to join her and they recruit a scatty young woman (Katie Holmes) as the third member of their crew. And it works. They do have to incorporate a few others into their plan but…

It is amusing to watch how they do it right under the nose of their incessant supervisor (Stephen Root) and the women together are quite congenial. Except… Diane Keaton’s Brigid gets a taste for money and is never satisfied. Most of the money goes to themselves with practically nothing altruistic about their motives at all. They are no Robin Hoods. Which gives the proceedings something of a bitter taste: this is the self-centred American dream, the ultra-consumerist dream which does not scruple to get more and more money for me and my wants (not necessarily needs)

Director Callie Khouri won an Oscar for her screenplay for Thelma and Louise..

MEMORIES OF MATSUKO

(Japan, 2007, d. Tetsuya Nakashima)

It is difficult to categorise this film. Is it optimistic pessimism or pessimistic optimism? Its ambivalence is certainly Japanese: some hope in life but a mortal fatalism. That means that this story of a woman from young girl looked down on by her father in favour of her sick sister (except when she pulls a funny face, which she does quite often) who becomes a teacher but loses her job when she tries to save a student accused of stealing to a collapsing life with men, pimps and sex, who goes to jail for murder, who lives a masochistic life with the student grown to an adult in the Yakuza to a life of neglect shows a great deal of what is wrong in Japanese society. But, it is also an affirmer of life, especially with her slothful nephew who has to clean up her room after he murder. And then, at the end, there is a long resume of her whole life and all those who influenced it and a vision of a stairway to heaven.

It’s not as if there is not enough plot! And then there is the style.

Director Tetsuya Nakashima has been developing a particular style, with Kamikaze Girls, this film and his 2008 film which indicates more of the same, Paco and his Magical Picture Book, a blend of realism with brightly colourful surrealism looking to the Hollywood tradition of melodramas like those of Douglas Sirk (Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life) and the homages to him by directors like Tod Haynes (Far From Heaven). They also rely on an extensive soundtrack of songs and themes from the movies. This means that his films are geared to film buffs, maybe more to them than to the wider audience. That said, they have a certain fascination and unpredictability as we suspend disbelief.

Mika Nakatani who plays Matsuko won a number of awards in Asian festivals and Japanese awards for her performance.

MONGOL

(Kazakhistan, 2007, d. Sergei Bodrov)

The official Kazakhistan entry for the 2007 Oscars for Best Foreign Language films and, in fact, one of the five finalists.

This is the story of Genghis Khan’s early years. It is a sweeping drama, filmed on location in Mongolia and China with a Japanese actor as Temudjin who became the khan, and a Chinese actor as his friend, then enemy, Jurmukha. The rest of the cast is Mongolian. However, to show international co-operation, director Sergei Bodrov is Russian.

This film opens with the boy Temudjin, aged nine, going to pick his wife. Encountering a little girl just a bit older than he, he chooses her for his wife instead of a wife from a rival tribe. Almost immediately his father is poisoned but the boy is not because of a code that vengeance is wreaked only on adults. Temudjin escapes capture though he will experience being taken twice more before the film is over. In the next capture, he is able to go free and his strong-minded wife stays behind so that he can escape. This means an expedition to rescue her with the help of his friend and blood brother, Jumurkha. But Temudjin’s battle skills and his dividing spoils equally amongst his men leads to a clash with Jumurkah, a further grand battle (Braveheart style) and his being captured again and enslaved by Jumurkah.

The climax of the film is his confrontation with Jumurkah and defeating him with an enormous army (suddenly, and from where?) and his being ready to conquer the world. This film is said to be the first in a trilogy about Genghis Khan.

The location photography is quite spectacular. The effects for the battles provide for immense attacks and fights. Khan himself emerges as a just leader according to his lights, devoted to his wife who is a good adviser to him. Historians may consider that he is presented in too favourable a light. However, he has been played in the past on screen by John Wayne (The Conqueror) and Omar Shariff (Genghis Khan). This one seems a bit more authentic!

PERSEPOLIS

(France, 2007, d. Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi)

Persepolis is animation with a difference. As with a number of French animated films, this one is for adults rather than children. It is based on a series of comics or graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi and they translate vividly to the screen, most of them in strong, even heavy, black and white with some excursions into colour.

Marjane Satrapi was born in Iran and her early years were spent in the era of the Shah. In those days, living was rather easy and comfortable in Tehran, although several of her relatives were imprisoned for their left-wing views. Then came the Islamic Revolution and the tightening of controls and strictness is behaviour, dress codes, education, especially for women. Her parents send Marjane to Europe and she spends some time, working, poor, on the street, caught up with the rebel culture and falling in love but betrayed. She returns to Iran and lives through the restrictions of more recent years with her parents and her wise grandmother. But Marjane needs more space and freedom and she leaves.

Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni (Catherine Deneuve’s daughter) voice mother and daughter in both the French version and the American-dubbed version. (Sean Penn and Gena Rowlands also feature in the American version.)

The film won many awards including the Jury award in Cannes 2007 eliciting protests from the Iranian authorities.

PROM NIGHT

(US, 2008, d. Nelson McCormick)

The original Prom Night was from the early 1980s when Jamie Lee Curtis had made such a impact in Halloween that she was cast in some features cashing in on her status as ‘Scream Queen’ like Terror Train. This version takes some elements from the earlier Prom Night but has reworked most of them. In fact, this is a rather more audience-friendly slasher film with quite a number of slashes but not presented very graphically at all. To that extent, for the fans of gory slasher movies, it is not audience-friendly at all because it is so (comparatively) low-key.

After a prologue setting the scene where a dementedly obsessed man kills a teenager’s family because he thinks she is his, we find that he is imprisoned. Of course, he escapes on her prom night and comes to get her. And that is really what happens, a fairly straightforward story, no ‘supernatural’ explanations, just a madman eliminating those who stand in his way as he comes to take his beloved. Meanwhile she is at the prom which is interrupted as police clear the hotel, search for the killer who eludes them and everyone converges on the heroine’s house for the rather straightforward showdown. The aim is for more realism rather than more gore.

Brittany Snow (the spoilt daughter in Hairspray) proves an initially screaming lead but then shows that she is tough. Idris Elba is the detective and Jonathon Schaech, with no special make-up, clothes or masks but just a knife, is the killer.

LA QUESTION HUMAINE (HEARTBEAT DETECTOR)

(France, 2007, d. Nicholas Klotz)

Director Nicholas Klotz and his partner, writer, Elizabeth Perceval, have made several fiction features as well as documentaries. They draw on both skills in this seriously fascinating narrative with philosophical and moral texts and subtexts. The film is based on a novel by Francois Emmanuel.

The voiceover is by Simon Kessler (Mathiew Amalric), a psychologist in a large German manufacturing company. While genial in many ways (though his emotional life and social behaviour is in something of a mess), he is efficient at work, uses roll play techniques to motivate executives to make them more competitive and has worked out very strict criteria for retrenchment of over a thousand employees. He seems to be the very model of the successful middle-aged career man.

He is asked, confidentially, by one of the bosses to make a report on the CEO (Michael Lonsdale) whose behaviour and moods have worried many of the staff. In the meantime, the CEO is making international deals with other countries, including Japan. Simon notes that the CEO and some other significant people played for some time in a company quartet but broke up suddenly. He uses an investigation into the quartet and reviving it as a cover for his study of the CEO. He interviews him, also another quartet member as well as the secretary and the CEO’s wife.

This indicates for the first part of what is quite a long film that the study of the human questions (though ‘question’ is a limited word about interrogations whereas, as the subtitles indicate, ‘issue’ is a far better word), human issues today are illustrated in the structure and life of global companies.

However, as Simon’s investigations continue (and the CEO tells him that he knows he is under suspicion), deeper issues emerge. Both the instigator of the investigation and the CEO have links through their fathers to the Nazi past and French collaboration. When Simon receives a series of anonymous letters about this, they lead him to an elderly laid-off man (Lou Castel) who knows many secrets.

It is here that the audience has to pay real attention as Simon tells us that he also has dreams about these issues and the finale seems to be dream but a revelation about the past, about chemicals to kill Jews, about trucks driving through the towns to deposit corpses, about the children who witnessed their fathers issuing these orders, and about a quartet which seemed to play to the victims before their deaths.

With Simon having to look into his own treatment of workers in the company, the film makes the point about 20th century inhumanity finding a new global and corporate outlet in the 21st century.

The dialogue is particularly dense and packed many times throughout the film. Many of the takes are edited so that the effect is quite prolonged, the audience gazing at close-ups of characters, of interviews, of behaviour at ‘rave’ parties of the staff which shows another side of the executives.

Finally, after the quartet plays and we are trying to absorb the ‘questions humaines’, the screen goes dark and some minutes of final commentary about the past and the present, the continuity of these issues and of human behaviour, good and bad, bring the film to a serious end.

SARKAR RAJ

(India, 2008, d. Ramgopal Varma)

An Indian film where there is no dancing as such and, while there are some songs, they are part of the background and atmosphere of the film and do not put a halt to the action.

Sarkar Raj is a political film, a sequel to the successful 2005 film, Sarkar, which drew its inspiration from the Godfather films. The director’s statement for this film insists that the sequel does not relate to The Godfather 2. The concern here is with global companies, corruption and politics. It is more Western-audience friendly than many other Bollywood films.

Ramgopal Varma employs a particular visual style that relies on close-ups of faces and unexpected framing of faces, the camera tracking slightly introducing light and shadows that can be suggestive, especially of sinister dealings. The continuously changing angles make for differing perspectives, overhead, ground level, tilting. We are drawn into the characters, listening intently while trying to read their faces and their minds.

Popular Indian star for many decades, Amitabh Bachchan plays the 60 year old Sarkar, a man of status, power and dominance. A statesman, his critics describe him as a gangster in the guise of a leader. Bachchan’s son, Abishek Bachchan, plays his powerful son, Shankar. A corporation in London wants to build a power plant in a rural areal and seeks the support of Sarkar and his son. What follows is a complicated tale of business intrigue, changing loyalties, manipulation of supporters, especially the outspoken son of a local dignitary who operates as a power behind many thrones while being the venerated leader.

Glamour is introduced into the film by the casting of former Miss India and popular star, Aishwarya Rai (who, in real life, married Abishek Bachman in 2007). She plays the influential daughter of the London head of the corporation.

Supporting characters include government ministers, security staff and rival business interests and gangsters.

While some of the performances move over the top for less demonstrative audiences, the key roles are performed with quiet intensity to make this an intriguing film of intrigue.

UN SECRET

(France, 2007, d. Claude Miller)

Claude Miller has made a number of interesting dramas over many years. This time he tackles a novel about French Jews, World War II and the holocaust, a story which Miller feels that he can identify with because there are elements of his own family history in it.

Miller uses an unusual device to literally ‘colour’ his storytelling. Most of the events in the film take place from the mid-1930s to the immediate post-war years and up to the mid-50s and early 60s. However, there are flashes-forward throughout the film to the central character and his relationship to his parents in 1985. These segments are in black and white.

In the 1980s, middle-aged Francois (Mathieu Amalric) has been called by his mother (Cecile de France) to look for his father (Patrick Bruel) who has been extremely upset about the death of his dog. Francois finds him, comforts him, is puzzled by his strong emotional attachment to his dog, especially as he recalls his father’s life before and during the war – and the family’s secret.

It is a great disadvantage in writing a review of Un Secret that, of its very nature, the film has important elements that should not be referred to but left for the audience to discover. So be it.

However, while these elements are not exactly new because of the many memoirs of these times and the explorations of the ways in which Jewish people in France, Germany and other European countries handled their crises, they are presented here in a sufficiently interesting way, especially through the characters who we get to know well (or, when the secrets are revealed, not quite as well as we thought we did).

Young Francois, a weakly child who receives physiotherapy, especially from Louise, a neighbour and long-time family friend (Julie Depardieu), admires his champion swimmer mother but is intimidated by his demandingly athletic father. His father has had him baptised after the war but this secret (not the main one of the film) is to be kept from his Jewish grandfather and relations. As he grows older, Louise decides to tell him the details of his family background.

The film is made in that calm French way, focusing on characters and their feelings, lots of scenes of family get-togethers, meals as well. When the film goes back to the war years, especially the traumas of occupied France and Vichy France, there are some interesting complexities.

This is a thoughtful film and its message about the experiences of the 20th century Jews in Europe and at the hands of the Nazis is: lest we forget.

SEX AND THE CITY

(US, 2008, d. Michael Patrick King)

This is one of those highly anticipated blockbuster events that is review proof. Since the television series was so popular for five years and won so many awards, it had an enormous following worldwide. And the fans will be lining up for this film and, with its two and a half hour length, they can indulge in nostalgia and enjoyment. For those who have not seen the series and find themselves watching the film, the screenplay does its best to introduce the characters and fill in the background of how they got to this stage of their lives – but some audiences may find it difficult to sustain interest in these characters for such a long time.
The target audience is women and women who are middle-aged and older.

The emphasis is certainly on the city, New York. It is a star in its own right. This is where three of the famous four girls (now forty-something women) live while the fourth lives in (and criticises) Los Angeles.

The emphasis is also on the Sex of the title, but, compared with so many films, this is quite restrained with a few breakout moments to emphasise Samantha’s roving eye and appetites. In fact, by the end of the film, traditional values have been affirmed, especially as regards marriage and commitment – which may also help to explain its wide appeal.

Sarah Jessica Parker as writer, Carrie Bradshaw, produced the filmand carries the plotline with her voiceover and her own story being at the centre, the other women being supportive of her. She has been with the millionaire Big (Chris Noth looking like – and acting like – a latterday Victor Mature) – for ten years. The question of marriage arises but is waylaid for a time. Charlotte (who is prone to outbursts of laughter, excited squealing and eating only American made products during a trip to Mexico with dire stomach results) is happily married, has adopted a child and is pregnant. She (Kristen Davis) is able to say that she is happy every day. Lawyer Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is married with a son but experiences betrayal and separation. Her story is the most interesting.

Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is living with what is generally called a hunk – who looks it but actually speaks and acts with more presence and sense than a hunk.

The story is slight as stories go. It is the girl-power in the friendship through thick and thin for so many years that is the core of the film. The other aspect is fashion, and even more fashion – glamorous clothes galore. Somebody remarked that one of the underlying principles of this kind of story is that ‘expensive is good’ – which will certainly irritate the more social-justice-minded amongst us. Which means that Sex and the City, despite its yearning for love and commitment, is a glossy would-be fantasy-fulfilment of the American dream.

SHUTTER

(US, 2008, d. Masayuki Ochiai)

Yet another remake of an Asian ghost story, this time from Thailand in 2004. It belongs to that group of remakes of horror films that are watchable by most audiences, like One Missed Call and The Eye recently, The Grudge and The Ring films some years ago. They are not slasher horrors.

Wisely, the adaptation, while it begins and ends in New York, takes the action to Japan where this kind of ghost story has more traditions and credibility. The subject is ‘spirit photography’ where either a white blur or the figure of a dead person registers when a film with a negative is taken. When newlyweds, Ben and Jane (Joshua Jackson and Rachael Taylor) arrive for their honeymoon in Japan where Ben had previously worked, they have a car accident on a lonely road where Jane runs into a young woman. Search reveals that there is no trace of the woman. Ben is on a special assignment from his two American friends – but the white blurs appear and spoil his fashion photoshoot. Who is the ghost? Why is she following Ben and Jane?

While the film is spooky, it is not too spooky and the screenplay plays fair in the last half hour giving a reasonable (if not rational) explanation of all that has happened. It is one of those ‘sins of the past finding you out’ moral scary fables.

It reminds moviegoers of Lost In Translation because the husband is a photographer and the wife is on her own. This gives the film opportunities to show a great deal of local Tokyo colour and activities. The trouble is that the wife encounters a ghost rather than Bill Murray. Joshua Jackson acts distressed and Rachael Taylor is a strong heroine with whom the audience can identify and perceive what is going on.

SPEED RACER

(US, 2008, d. The Wachowski Brothers)

With the developments in technology for film-making and the creative inventiveness for storytelling which means that beginning, middle and end do not necessarily have to appear in that order, it seems that many young viewers (and critics) are so fascinated by the form of a film that the way a film looks and the clever way a film is constructed becomes as important as or more important than the plot and the values dramatised.

This is true of Speed Racer. It is an extraordinary cinematic creation in its style. Based on a Japanese comic and animated television series, the Wachowski Brothers bring the skills they showed for The Matrix series and create a world of human beings with touches of realism in a setting of bright colour, videogame settings and shapes, adrenalin action that are intended to grip the audience and keep them there for over two hours. And, in entertainment terms, that will happen for many audiences.

However, much of it was a dead loss for this reviewer. While there was some fascination with the creativity and the imaginative use of comic book landscapes and styles as well as reasonable performances from Emile Hirsch as the young racer with an innate genius for cars and John Goodman and Susan Sarandon as his parents (and a pantomime-style villain in British stage actor, Roger Allam), the theme was not all that interesting and the thundering action and emotion was in the ‘sound and fury’ vein of much ado.

STOP-LOSS

(US, 2008, d. Kimberly Peirce)

‘Stop-Loss’ is one of those unusual terms associated with American war activity that does not immediately mean anything to the casual (or the serious) observer. Like ‘rendition’, it has to be explained. It actually refers to the decision concerning someone who has completed active service (today in Iraq or Afghanistan) and is to be discharged but is commanded to return to action for another tour by the military powers that be.

Once again, as with the 2007 films about the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Redacted, Lions for Lambs, this film seems to have been avoided by the American public. A pity, because these films are contributing to a consciousness about the wars as they are being fought now, not reminiscences about the past.

The film opens with a group of enlisted men who have bonded during their time in Iraq doing their roadblock duty when they are asked to follow a speeding car – which eventually leads them into an alley and an ambush. As with so many stories out of Iraq, the closeness of the action, the uncertainties, the sudden producing of guns leads to deaths of soldiers and to the deaths of innocent civilians and family members in houses. This first part of the film is quite a vivid re-creation of action and conditions.

In many ways, the film is reminiscent in its plot and situations like Oliver Stone’s Vietnam film, Born on the 4th July (1989). A young man is committed to his country, well motivated by patriotism, experiences harsher action than he imagined and returns home, more questioning than when he went away. The central character here, Sergeant Brandon King, a good leader but one who blames himself for what went wrong (Ryan Philippe), is not physically wounded though his friends are quite psychologically wounded (one eventually killing himself, another drinking and brutal towards his fiancée, another maimed and blinded). Their small Texas town welcomes the heroes back but does not quite know how to deal with them.

As King goes to do the paperwork for his discharge, he finds that he is ‘stop-lossed’. He can either go back to active service as ordered or he can leave the US for Canada or Mexico. With the help of his friend’s fiancée (Abby Cornish), he begins the process of leaving the country. However, he visits the wounded man in hospital as well as the parents of a dead comrade, his friend finds him to bring him back and he has to face what he really wants with his life: risking dangers again in Iraq or a permanent exile.

Some commentators saw the film as a piece of US patriotism. While the film respects patriotism, the key issue in obeying or disobeying the stop-loss command is far less patriotism than personal issues like family, friendship and a future at home.

The film is the director’s first film since Boy’s Don’t Cry (1999).

SUPERHERO MOVIE

(US, 2008, d. Craig Mazin)

After all the Scary/Date/Not Another Teenage/Epic Movie spoofs, plus Meet the Spartans, we know, more or less, what to expect from these send-ups of popular films and anything else that comes to the screenwriter’s or director’s mind.

They are corny, inexpensive skits with a functional lookalike cast (but this time we also have Leslie Nielson as well as Uncle Albert with some really crass remarks in Nielson’s deadpan style), some really corny jokes, quite a number of bodily function jokes, some spot-on satire and generally a hit or miss approach to the humour. They are short and the custom is to have about ten minutes of more plot and a number of out-takes after the final credits, much of which is often funnier than the film. Here the out-takes seem like an alternate (and sometimes better) screenplay.

Not so long after Meet the Spartans and the send-up of 300 (and a lot of US TV shows), we now have a poke at the Spiderman series, a key-scene from Batman Begins, an X-Men? interlude and a dollop of the Fantastic Four. Needless to say, Drake Bell as our hero, Rick Riker (instead of Peter Parker), is not the most super of superheroes. On a school tour, he is bitten by a genetically-engineered dragonfly and becomes Dragonfly, a Spiderman would-be, except he can’t fly. (This leads to some interviews with celebrities about flying, the best one being with a Tom Cruise impersonator – he looks the part and is really one of the best imitators for a long time – and there is more of his work in the out-takes than in the film itself, which is a real bonus.) Robert Joy is the Stephen Hawking parody – heavy but clever.

Sarah Paxton plays the Kirsten Dunst lookalike and follows the Spiderman scenario quite closely as does Rick Riker’s aunt. The villain gets a lot of time and some good lines and is played by Christopher McDonald? for even more than it is worth. Needless to say, he is an evil scientist.

The flashback to Rick’s ineptitude in causing the deaths of his parents is a spoof of Batman Begins. And the tour of Professor Xavier’s academy gets some parody of the X-Men? films.

As usual, you have to have seen the originals to follow these parodies and to appreciate whether the jokes hit their mark or not. Not a really great laugh-out-loud film (except in the post-credits material) but amusingly silly.

TAXI TO THE DARKSIDE

(US, 2007, d. Alex Gibney)

An excellent documentary, well worth seeing and pondering. It won the Oscar for Best Documentary, 2007, and its director, Alex Gibney, was also Oscar-nominated for his previous expose film on Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room.

Taxi is completely absorbing and, at times, appalling in what it shows of American torture in the last six years and in what those in authority have to say. The taxi of the title refers to one driven by a 22 year old Afghan, Dilawar, who was arrested in a sweep in 2002, tortured and died five days later (probably arrested on the say-so of a local or a war-lord wanting a monetary reward from the US). The documents of the examining doctor indicate the nature of his injuries, especially beatings on the legs, and declare that this was homicide. By focussing on Dilawar, his situation, his family and their grief, the film personalises the issues of torture and what Gibney refers to as ‘the momentum of torture’.

Some of the initial interviews are with members of the forces at Bagram, a Russian airbase used as a prison by the US in Afghanistan (which is also shown and is a disgraceful facility). It emerges that several of these men are those who went to court during the Dilawar investigation. Their testimony highlights how ordinary citizens in such circumstances can resort to excessive torture, especially when they have received orders (not in writing) that encourages them to this behaviour and when the details of the Geneva Convention have not been explained to them. As the film progresses (like a detective story), we hear these officers reflecting on their behaviour and its violence and inappropriateness and the consequences of their imprisonment on their lives and careers.

Reference is made to Abu Ghraib with graphic photos and video footage of the notorious treatment of prisoners there. Complementary to Taxi to the Darkside is Errol Morris’ detailed picture of Abu Ghraib, with interviews, Standard Operating Procedure. Explanations of developments and use of particular methods, especially sensory and sleep deprivation and consequences are placed throughout the film.

The darkside of the title (apart from Darth Vader and Star Wars) comes from a statement from Vice President, Dick Cheney, ‘We also have to work through… the darkside… it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective’. Cheney is a frightening presence throughout the film, the power behind the Bush throne. Donald Rumsfeld, with his supremely confident bluff style, is also frightening. These are key figures in President Bush’s war against terror and the film includes several of the president’s seemingly offhand generalisations (which were taken by many as dogma) about who were the terrorists and the imprisonment, especially in Guantanamo (which also features in the film) as ‘the worst of the worst’.

There are interviews with lawyers for the imprisoned as well as defence lawyers for those accused of torture. Meanwhile in the visual background are the generals in Iraq and Afghanistan and the commander of Guantanomo with their gung-ho permissive statements about punishment and interrogations but who have not been sanctioned. On the other hand, there are scenes of an investigation with Senator John McCain? asking pertinent questions about torture, detailing particular methods which are listed on screen several times for the audience to comprehend, and about their legitimacy. The film suggests that it all comes down to definition of torture which authorities can shape to mean what they want it to mean.

The Geneva Convention was a 20th century agreement aimed at outlawing processes of physical and psychological torture. It reminds us that torture is alive and sick in the 21st century.

TIMBER FALLS

(US, 2007, d. Tony Giglio)

It is not just because of timber being cut, but Saw and its dungeons definitely come to mind during the prologue of this version of the terror and torture genre. People trapped and imprisoned, gruesomely tortured and escaping (momentarily) set the tone for Timber Falls.

The West Virginia Tourist Bureau may or may not be pleased with all the attention the state gets in this kind of film. The scenery is beautiful (though much of this film was made in Romania) but the inbred inhabitants and their violence are something else.

As our central couple go hiking and don’t follow the ranger’s advice as to which path to take, they meet various characters who belie their appearances. It is always the initially nice who are the real villains. We anticipate the rest: capture, torture, confrontation, escape. The difference is the religious piety of the entrapping couple and some discussion about Jesus, God’s will and Judas as well as a violent antipathy to swearing. Unable to have their own child, they want a child conceived by a married couple – at any cost.

Probably a bit better than others of its kind because of the scenery and the acting is above par for this kind of film making the characters a little bit more interesting. But, it was made for, and will be appreciated by, only those who want to see yet another example of terror in the woods.

TOVARISCH, I AM NOT DEAD

(UK, 2007, d. Stuart Urban)

Tovarisch, I Am Not Dead was the title of a 1980 autobiography by Garri Urban, the father of the film director. There were many highly dramatic episodes in the book: growing up in Poland, an escape to Romania which was thwarted by capture and internment, time in the Ukraine and then travel after the war to England. The title comes from an escape incident where Garri plays dead to survive and when approached by a Russian soldier, tells him, ‘Tovarisch, I Am Not Dead’.

With home movies, Stuart Urban shows how his father was a larger than life figure, strong, opinionated, loud but also secretive. Urban makes his growing up and the film selection an interesting childhood memoir.

However, with the fall of the Soviet empire, Garri Urban was able to visit Russia and other eastern European countries. His son accompanied him with his camera. Quite a journey it is – although they discover various people, including an old woman who was in love with Garri in the 1940s, and his brother comes to visit from Israel, Stuart is told by Russian officials that there are some stories about the past which cannot be released and would make his hair stand on end. Sorry to say, curiosity about these episodes is not satisfied. Was he a spy? Did he do deals…?

What the film does is offer a portrait of Garri – and we can respond in many ways as he is dominating, attractive, gung-ho, careful, a showman.

We share Stuart’s surprise at what he does discover, about the experience of the war, of the Russian gulags, of people in the Ukraine whom his father visits and who welcome him after forty years.

This is a very interesting ‘first person documentary’.

WELCOME HOME ROSCOE JENKINS

(US, 2008, d. Malcolm D. Lee)

Easy enough to offer a general review of this comedy. If you don’t like Martin Lawrence, don’t go. If you do, go.

It is much the same as most of Martin Lawrence’s recent comedies. Lawrence’s screen persona is usually of a man who has some low self-esteem but who really has the capacity for great self-worth. This entangles him in all kinds of either phony behaviour or disguise on the job – like a policeman in Blue Streak or his double outing as Big Momma. After the escapades, he is the better man for it.

This time he is invited home for his parents Golden Wedding anniversary celebrations. His parents are played with some aplomb by James Earl Jones and Margaret Avery. But Roscoe is now a TV host with a show that is a blend of Oprah and Jerry Springer. The trouble is he has bad memories of his father favouring his bombastic, fatherless cousin, Clyde, who was taken into the family when both were boys – and rivalry usually led to Roscoe’s humiliation. This is especially true of his crush on a local girl, Lucinda. He has not visited home for many years but his son persuades him to go. He is engaged to a dominating beauty, Bianca (Joy Bryant), who has won Survivor on TV and who is psychologically geared to dominate everyone. There is also his big (very big) brother, Otis (Michael Clarke Duncan) and his large, outspoken and amorous sister, Betty (Mo’nique).

Mishaps galore when he returns home. His cousin (Cedric the Entertainer) reignites the rivalry and he is smitten by Lucinda (Nicole Ari Parker) all to the competitive dismay of Bianca. It is all predictable enough but the comedy is in watching how it all pans out and whether sentiment will win out at the end – as if we ever doubted it!

The comedy is geared towards an African American audience, poking fun at types and customs but celebrating community and family. Because of Martin Lawrence’s popularity, it reaches out to a wider audience.

WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS

(US, 2008, d. Tom Vaughan)

What happens in Vegas is a lot of idiotic behaviour, letting loose, drowning one’s sorrows, not only flirtation but instant weddings – and then the hangover and the awful truth. When irresponsible Ashton Kutcher’s Jack (who has been fired from the family firm by his father) and Cameron Diaz’s uptight Joy (who has been ditched by her boyfriend before he realises that the room is full of guests for a surprise party) seem to click on a visit to Las Vegas, they marry and then wake up! After he pulls the lever on
a slot machine with one of Joy’s coins, they decide that the $3.000.000 jackpot has to be shared between husband and wife.

When they appeal for a divorce and division of property, the judge sentences them to six months ‘hard marriage’. Well, we all know what is going to happen. There will be a continuation of the battle of the sexes, especially as she has to stay at his sloppy apartment. They pretend to the marriage counsellor (Queen Latifah) that all is well so that she will give a good report to the judge. There will be a ‘nice’ turning point and they will fall in love… So, that’s not giving away anything of the plot. It’s just that we want to know how the screenplay will get them to this point.

Kutcher has an energetic laid-back style. Cameron Diaz plays uptight as well as relaxed – moving from one to the other at the company ‘retreat’ where her boss (Dennis Farina) makes an instant and unexpected shine to Jack. There is a sub-plot with the couple’s best friends, he a less than principled lawyer called Hater (Rob Corddry) and she a hard-bitten type called Tipper (Lake Bell).

All in all, it is yet another of those contemporary romantic comedies – where it is mostly the men who have to grow up.

WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN?

(US, 2008, d. Morgan Spurlock)

Not only is it a good question, it is one of the main questions of the last seven years. The practical answer, if he is not dead or disabled, is that Osama is hiding in the mountains on the Afghan-Pakistan? border and, on the evidence of images of the remote caves and their survival and aggressive contents, this is feasible.

However, Morgan Spurlock comes to the conclusion that many others have endorsed: it doesn’t matter. Al Quaeda set a movement in motion that has extraordinary and dangerous impetus despite him and/or without Osama bin Laden.

So, what in the world is Morgan Spurlock up to? One might say that he has a preoccupation with individuals and institutions of which it could be said, ‘they might be giants’. After his demolition job on McDonalds? and their supersizing (let alone the risk to his own health), he has done it again with the world’s most notorious terrorist leader (not without, again, risks to his own health and safety).

Spurlock has the great cinematic advantage that he comes across as a genial personality taking us into his confidence as friends. So does Michael Moore whose films are sometimes mind and emotions-boggling with their exposes. Morgan Spurlock is more humorous, even flip as he makes his points.

After some health testing and language and culture input, he sets off in his quest. In the background is his wife’s pregnancy and his promise that his journey will be over in time for him to be back in the US for the birth. This is a recurring theme throughout the film giving it some emotional and time urgency.

Off he goes to a range of countries (all listed like a video game or a catalogue on a TV game show, including a singing and dancing animated Osama bin Laden).

This is what is most interesting. Obviously, he must have hours and hours of material but Spurlock has chosen to offer samplings of people from each of the countries so that audiences will share his impressions. In Egypt, he interviews some Bin Laden relatives who are supportive of their notorious relation. In Palestine, he becomes as bewildered as most observers do about the plight of the Palestinians, many for peace, many not, with Israel. But, life in the Gaza strip can be bitter. In Israel, he meets people who know that the result will be two states but ponder the hardships to be endured before that happens. Some of the righteous Israelis do themselves no service in demonstrating their intolerant and potentially violent responses to the stranger filming in their midst.

In Afghanistan, Spurlock goes embedded with American troops. He goes into the dangerous mountain areas. In Pakistan, he interviews the widest range of people for reactions about terrorism.

Some commentators have sneered at the film for not offering anything new. They have misunderstood Spurlock’s intentions. He is attempting a personal cinema essay, especially for American audiences, that uses the lighter touch at times to highlight the issues, to show that many people around the world, Christian, Muslim or men and women of no religious faith, believe in peace and understanding – and that this is a goal for everyone.

XXY

(Argentina, 2007, d. Lucia Puenzo)

The title XXY takes us into the symbols of chromosomes, questions of what makes men male and women female and what happens with different chromosomes. It can’t be reproduced in this typeface, but the lettering for this film’s title on the screen and in advertising indicated that the y still had a small piece of the fourth part of the X indicating that this was a film about gender ambiguity.

This is a serious film but it takes the form of a domestic drama with scientific conversation interludes. The focus is on Alex (Ines Efron), a fifteen year old girl who has both male and female genitalia. It emerges that she has had many operations, that she has had to move from school to school because of student curiosity and bullying, that her parents (the father involved in marine science, especially concerning turtles and their sexual constitution) have moved for some peace to an isolated part of Uruguay.

When a surgeon and his wife visit the family, their shyly awkward son is attracted to Inez and confused by her. She is a strong-minded girl but, at her age and with her difficult experiences, she is trying to discover more of her identity and her sexual attractions. This is complicated by her antagonism towards a school friend who is really supportive of her and by the brutal attacks of some of the local louts. She is also friendly with the daughter of her father’s work associate and talks freely about sexual matters with her.

While the character focus is on the teenagers (and the performances are strong because the two leads were actually 24 at the time of filming), the issues are left to the discussions and clashes between the parents of Alex and the visitors. The surgeon is in favour of further surgery. Alex’s parents are weary and wary and feel they need to let their daughter decide about her own life. The father finds an article about a person who had a transgender operation from girl to boy and who has led a full life since and goes to visit and talk over matters with him.

No easy answers, of course, and this is an issue that most of us do not come across first hand, so the questions remain rather abstract until we see a film like this which shows actual people in their story – which gives us food for thought and for emotions.





ADULTHOOD
BANO DEL PAPA, El
CASSANDRA’S DREAM
EDGE OF LOVE, The
FEMMES DE L’OMBRES, Les
FORBIDDEN KINGDOM
HANCOCK
HAPPENING, The
INCREDIBLE HULK, The
IN MEMORY OF MY FATHER
IN SEARCH OF A MIDNIGHT KISS
KUNG FU PANDA
MAD DETECTIVE
MAMMA MIA
MAN ON WIRE
MES AMIS, MES AMOURS
MY WINNIPEG
PRINCE CASPIAN
PRICELESS
ROMANCE OF ASTREA AND CELADON, The
RUINS, The
SCONOSCIUTA, La
TEETH
WAITING ROOM, The
WANTED


ADULTHOOD

(UK, 2008, d. Noel Clarke)

Two years ago, Noel Clarke wrote the screenplay for and acted the central role in a tough look at schools and homes in West London, the gang culture, the knives, guns and baseball weaponry, attitudes towards authority, family, sexuality. It was called Kidulthood. Local London audiences appreciated it. Those for whom the stories and images were more part of alarming headlines in tabloids were disturbed.

Since then, there has been a proliferation of news about gangs and mindless killings. There have been even more stabbings, especially of teenagers in London in 2008, so Noel Clarke’s new film is timely and relevant (and much of it was filmed just down the street from where this reviewer is writing!). Clarke has written and directed this time and takes up his character from Kidulthood. This film is Adulthood.

When Sam (Clarke) is released from jail after serving a sentence for killing his friend (shown in Kidulthood), he is threatened by a former friend who has set gang members on to him to pay him back. One of these (unaware of who the target is) is Sam’s younger brother.

The film takes place over one day. We see Sam contacting people from the past, even his victim’s widow. He comes across a drug-addicted girl who is sympathetic but is trying to set him up as well with the killers so that she can get her fixes. Sam also visits his mother, is concerned about his brother, shows his wits in escaping his pursuers and turning the tables on the criminal gangs and setting the police on them.

While this is not just another day in London’s western suburbs, it is a reminder that there is a lawless society out there beneath the surface and sometimes coming out on to the streets with violence, a depressing world that seems to be untouched by values. The film is something of a cry out of the depths that there could be a better world for a better life.

EL BANO DEL PAPA (THE POPE’S TOILET)

(Uruguay, 2007, d. Cesar Charlone and Enrique Fernandez)

Not the Pope’s own toilet!

Rather, the toilets needed in an Uruguayan town for people attending the ceremonies during a papal visit.

On the one hand, this is an amusing story of poor people in the town of Melo, many of whom make their living by venturing across the border to Brazil and smuggling goods back into Uruguay, dependent on the needs and whims of the black marketeers and shopkeepers (and random confiscations by border guards).

On the other hand, this is quite a sardonic take on the impact of papal visits and the question about their immediate effect and their lasting effects. Just what will a papal discourse on the dignity of work delivered in the context of papal robes and political dignitaries do for the workers.

The characters in Melo, May 1988, are an earthy lot. They have little scruple about their trade and have devised ways of beating the law, especially with alternate routes, hiding from inspection and concealing the most valuable commodities. But, this is a hard Latin American way of life, no easy ways. The smuggling is done on the backs of pushbikes as the men dream of enough money to buy motor-bikes.

The central character, a smuggling expert with a hard-working and devoted wife, wants the best for his daughter. But, she dreams of going away to study to become a radio announcer. Will this ever be possible?

With the news that the Pope will come to Melo on 8th May to deliver his discourse about work, dreams of capitalising on the promised influx of Brazilian pilgrims to hear the Pope become more and more fervid and ambitious. (The Pope did actually go to Melo on that day and the film uses archival footage of John Paul II and the events; the text of his speech can be found on the Vatican website for papal visits by clicking on that date.)

While most think food and drink for the hungry and thirsty and are cooking huge quantities of food, preparing their stands and looking at the television promises of huge estimates of visitors (and gloating), our hero (who prides himself on wearing his thinking cap) gets the brainwave: toilets and a charge for their use. So, all his efforts (and all his extra ‘trips’ into Brazil) go into clearing the ground for the toilet, buying a stylish wooden door and, eventually, a bowl.

And the effect of the papal visit?

The question left for viewers of the film is: should the papal visit be an occasion for a commercial bonanza and/or or a pastoral experience, especially for the poor and the workers?

CASSANDRA’S DREAM

(UK, 2007, d. Woody Allen)

Cassandra was the Trojan prophet of doom – and nobody believed her. While there is a yacht in this film called Cassandra’s Dream, this is a Woody Allen comedy/drama about dreams and hopes dashed by doom.

Woody Allen has been having a very bad press in recent years. While his first film made in England, Match Point, was well received elsewhere, British reviewers were harsh on it. They were even worse, those who saw it, because his next film Scoop was not released there despite a cast led by Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson. Both of these were about murder. So is Cassandra’s Dream.

The film focuses on two brothers, Ewan McGregor? and Colin Farrell, who seem to be living fairly ordinary lives in London. Their uncle (Tom Wilkinson) returns from the US and draws on family loyalty to get them to get rid of a rival. Neither of them are born killers but the film goes on to show how differently (and unexpectedly) they react to what they have done. One finds some kind of fulfilment in the murder, the other is plagued by guilt and bad dreams. It is interesting to see how McGregor? and Farrell play against previous type-casting, especially Colin Farrell.

While there are a number of Woody Allenisms, this is Allen with his interest in murder and conscience, not just in his British films but in others like Crimes and Misdemeanours and Manhattan Murder Mystery. This film gets by on its cast more than on Allen’s writing.

THE EDGE OF LOVE

(UK, 2008, d. John Maybury)

The edge of love can mean the sharp edge or it can mean being on the outer rim of love. Both meanings are relevant to this World War II memoir. With Dylan Thomas as a central character, one might expect it to be a portrait of the prolific Welsh poet who also wrote Under Milkwood. However, while he might be the pivotal character of the drama, he is not central. Rather, the two principal women in his life are centre screen, Vera his childhood friend and Caitlin, his wife.

John Maybury directed the portrait of artist, Francis Bacon, Love is the Devil. It was a wry portrait, Bacon himself not being particularly likeable despite his talent. Maybury is an artist himself. This is evident in some of the visual flourishes and swirling colours to indicate memories and moods. While Maybury loves Thomas’s poetry and admires his talent, he communicates the unpleasant aspects of Dylan Thomas’s character. The screenplay seems to have something of a set against the poet, so obnoxious does he seem at times – reinforced by the clever performance of Matthew Rhys, a blend of raffish charm with childish petulance.

Sienna Miller as the outgoing Caitlin, a mixture of wilfulness and moods, is very good indeed, somewhat overshadowing Keira Knightly as Vera. (The screenplay is by Knightly’s mother, Sharman Macdonald.) Knightly can always get by on her pretty presence and this time she sings (quite strikingly) a number of songs, especially to people taking shelter in the London underground during blitzes.

Caitlin is quite a match for Dylan Thomas in zest and irresponsibility yet both seemed protective of the other despite their frequent infidelities. Being an artist was his excuse. Hers was her nature.

The fourth character in the group is William Killick (played with quite some intensity by Cillian Murphy) who is infatuated with Vera, marries her before going to war in Greece – shown with some graphic detail, an amputation intercutting the delivery of Vera’s and William’s child. Vera is lonely during the war even though she stays with Caitlin and Dylan in Wales. She and Caitlin are best friends but Dylan is flirtatious. When the damaged William returns, he is suspicious of Vera, alienated from his child and disgusted with the pub chatter of BBC writers (Dylan was one of them during the war) who had never experienced the horrors of battle. He takes a gun to them and finds himself in court. Vera supports him but Dylan acts in a mean and resentful manner. (Vera and William’s marriage in fact was long-lasting.)

While there are excerpts from Thomas’s poetry inserted into the film, The Edge of Love is not always very interesting although it perks up dramatically at the end with the return of William from war and his erratic behaviour and the trial. The whole film is a mood piece, a portrait of the women and a recreation of a period where the future and relationships were uncertain.

LES FEMMES D L’OMBRE (FEMALE AGENTS)

(France, 2008, d. Jean-Paul? Salome)

The French title is much more evocative of the themes and mood of this World War II thriller than the pot-boiling English title. The women of the shadows are women of the French Resistance who carried out dangerous missions but were overshadowed by the reputations of the men. However, there have been a number of films with women at their centre, Odette (with Anna Neagle) and Carve Her Name with Pride (with Virginia McKenna) in the 1950s, Jean-Pierre? Melville’s L’Armee? des Ombres with Simone Signoret and Carole Bouquet as the real-life Lucie Aubrac in Claude Berri’s film.

This time there are five women. The plot is drawn from actual events. The central character, Louise, played very tellingly by Sophie Marceau, died in 2004 at the age of 98.

It is easy to dismiss this film (as did some younger reviewers) as traditional film-making with familiar themes and style, not ‘adventurous’ film-making. The answer is that a solid narrative is presented in a classical style that is evocative of the film-making of the period while benefitting by being able to be more forthright about behaviour and being able to present harsh realities more directly.

With an opening that shows the Resistance in action in blowing up a train but also showing the dangers, the attacks of the German soldiers and summary executions, the film soon goes to England to explain the activities directed by London in France. Louise, and her brother Pierre (Julien Boisselier), have to recruit four women to rescue a British geologist from a German hospital in Normandy. He has important information for the forthcoming DDay landing.

The execution of the mission is well portrayed, the women disguised as nurses and two (Julie Depardieu and Marie Gillain) performing a song and strip show for the patients. While the mission is successful, the women are told to stay in France and to kill the SS officer who wants to prove to Rommel that Normandy rather than Calais is the place for the invasion.

The film then becomes an effective spy thriller with the attempts to kill the officer, played by German actor, Moritz Bleibtreu, as ruthless but not entirely inhuman. However, there are some graphic torture scenes to remind us that interrogations were cruel and painful.

Perhaps the ending is rather melodramatic as Louise emerges from the smoke at a railway station and suddenly disappears into the smoke, a woman of shadows who can move into prohibited areas because the men underestimate the women.

Interesting to see such a story told more than sixty years after the events.

THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM

(US/China, 2008, d. Rob Minkoff)

Kung Fu Panda would have martial arts appeal to children’s audiences. The Forbidden Kingdom has a similar kind of story but is geared towards the teenage audience (and is not as funny!).

There is huge marquee value in having Jackie Chan and Jet Li together in a Kung Fu movie and they live up to their appeal. Jackie Chan is not as young as he used to be and, while he does get into the action, and vigorously, he plays the master role this time. Jet Li did announce his retirement from these films a year or two ago, but obviously he has been persuaded to come out fighting one more time.

After a prologue with Li as the Monkey King, the Great Sage, clashing with foes, we are in South Boston where a group of vicious toughs are threatening young Jason (Michael Angareno) and assaulting the old Chinese man who owns a shop with souvenirs, combat DVDs and so on (Jackie Chan again). Then, suddenly, we are in a very picturesque China, mountains, valleys and deserts where a bewildered Jason cannot communicate with anyone until he encounters a drinking warrior who turns out to be an immortal (Jackie Chan). They team up with a monk warrior (Jet Li) and a young girl out for vengeance against the war lord who has killed her parents.

Jason has to do lots and lots of backbreaking training – with both master and monk training him. Eventually, they reach the war lord’s kingdom and battles, many battles (with athletic martial choreography) ensue. There is also a female villain, young but with white hair (which itself is at times quite lethal).
A PG action film and a chance to see Chan and Li together.

HANCOCK

(US, 2008, d. Peter Berg)

What a good idea –even if a little bizarre. With a welter of Marvel Comics heroes proliferating these years, all with their mutant origins, all with their costume flair, here is a superhero who is on the streets, drinking heavily, susceptible to insults but not caring what people think of him – and initially resistant to a costume. But, save the residents of Los Angeles he does, whether they appreciate it or not. His methods are ultrarapid but sloppy, smashing and damaging buildings and cars and trains as he swirls villains around much to the exasperation of the police and officials with disgruntled citizens and TV pundits wanting him to be sued. He can’t even land in the street without causing large potholes.

But our superhero is played by Will Smith, one of the most genial presences on screens these days. So, how could the plot develop?

When Hancock saves a heart-on-sleeve do-gooder (literal with logos) PR man Ray (Jason Bateman), Ray sees a golden opportunity and persuades Hancock not only to clean up his act but go to gaol in the hope that the authorities will miss him and he will be called back into action.

Meanwhile, Ray’s young son idolises Hancock but Mary, his wife, (Charlize Theron) obviously does not. For a long while, we might be wondering why Miss Theron has decided to play a devoted housewife but she does get some opportunities later (to make up for Aeon Flux).

There is quite a nicely surprising twist in the latter part of the film and the plot perks up with some interesting complications. There is also a final shootout with LA thug bank robber (Eddie Marsan).

Lots of tongue-in-cheek humour, plenty of effects and action, plenty of spoof of the more serious superhero films. And it works nicely even if the explanation of the powers comes late in the film. The early part has the Los Angeles people simply accepting the uniqueness of Hancock and taking for granted his interventions. Luckily, at the end of the final credits, we are relieved to find: ‘This is a work of fiction’!

THE HAPPENING

(US, 2008, d. M Night Shyamalan)

Divided opinions on this one. This review will be very favourable.

Most of the objections to the film came because of critical and popular expectations of the writer-director, M. Night Shyamalan. Having been most successful in 1999 with The Sixth Sense, he was expected to make films which were equally as effective. But, this has not been the case. On the other hand, he has been able to create eerie atmosphere in a number of films: Unbreakable, Signs, The Village and Lady in the Water. Had Shyamalan’s name not been on the credits, The Happening might have been better received and reviewed.

It is a brief 90 minute film which relies on a sense of unease and uncertainty as to what is happening in the north eastern states of the US. The credits show movements of wind and cloud. The opening shows people in Central Park in New York becoming confused, transfixed, bewildered and a number killing themselves. While we wonder why this is happening this is not so important right throughout the film as to identify with the characters trying to deal simply with what is happening. Television newscasts speculate on why this lethal event is happening: nature, human behaviour, something transcendent?

After New York, the action moves to Philadelphia (Shyamalan’s city which he always includes in his films). Mark Wahlberg is Elliot, a science teacher, who focuses on observation and scientific method to interpret the world. When classes are abandoned, he joins his strange, and emotionally estranged, wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel in an odd, detached performance of a character afraid of revealing emotions). They and his friend, Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter Jess, leave the city by train but find themselves stranded in the Pennsylvania countryside with people trying to flee the deadly toxin, whatever it is. Elliot tries his scientific method to work out what to do but this happening is beyond science and his abilities.

There are some alarming sequences as people flee and as they discover the dead along the roads. This kind of fear-inducing atmosphere is what Shyamalan does best.

Finally, the film focuses on Alma and Elliot and Jess and their attempts to survive.

It’s not the greatest film, of course, but it does achieve what it sets out to do, create an alarming happening.

HORS DE PRIX (PRICELESS)

(France, 2007, d. Pierre Salvadori)

Sometimes a film has such an effect on you as you watch it that it stirs deep feelings and creates a great empathy. On the other hand, sometimes a film has such an effect as you watch it that it stirs deep feelings and creates a great antipathy. For this reviewer, Priceless is one of the latter films. It stirred many puritan attitudes, perhaps, but it stirred a lot of feelings consumerist-based fairy tales and about social justice, poverty, affluence and waste and narcissistic hedonism!

Of course, it is well-crafted, has two attractive leads in Audrey Tautou and Gad Elahel, looks sumptuous with its Riviera setting and spending (ah! a key word to the film) so much time at the Hotel de Paris in Nice (with some glimpses of prices on menus). The poster quotes an anonymous enthusiastic reviewer saying that it is ‘sexy, funny and glamorous’. And many others have noted that it is Breakfast at Tiffany’s meets Pretty Woman on the Riviera. While Sex and the City seemed to be based on the principle that ‘expensive is good’, Priceless is ‘most expensive (no matter how you get it) is best’.

What can one say? Here is a young woman who cultivates older men to support her increasingly lavish lifestyle and expectations. She does not have a heart of gold except that she would probably like one of real gold. When she mistakes a dopey barman for a millionaire and takes aim at him, he falls for her, lets her spend all his savings on extravagant clothes and meals – and then he is mistaken for a gigolo by a wealthy widow! They begin to be competitive with each other, which certainly gets her attention and the screenplay (not reality) makes them fall in love. Still, they both continue to lie and connive for their own gains. And, suddenly, even more artificially than those ‘moral’ tacked on endings in old Hollywood movies from the days of the Production Code to show that crime doesn’t pay, they seem to go off to live happily ever after without wanting to exploit anyone again and to do without the luxuries that seemed indispensible.

THE INCREDIBLE HULK

(US, 2008, d. Louis Letterier)
The Hulk is probably the strangest of the comic strip characters created by Marvel. While many of the heroes are mutants of one kind or another, Hulk is not only mutant because of scientific experiments gone wrong, his appearance is that of a gigantic green mutant. And what might look credible enough (?) on the page, does not look so persuasive on the screen despite top of the range special effects. This was one of the features which did in Ang Lee’s 2003 version, Hulk, with Eric Bana. The computergraphic hulk looked too bizarre and leapt and bounded far more bizarrely.

This time, the Hulk’s appearances are more limited and he looks a bit more believable – but still not quite. By the time he is battling his transformed enemy at the end, the film degenerates into a groaning, growling, bashing, pounding, galumphing battle of the computergraphic giant monsters.

However, before that, it is much better. The opening (after credit images which recapitulate the failed experiment and its effect on Bruce Banner and Betty Ross) is a striking sequence in the favelas of Brazil and the factory where Bruce is working unbeknownst to the US military. When they do discover where he is, there is a kind of mini American invasion of Brazil which leads to a long pursuit of Bruce through slum streets and into the factory and wholesale (and retail) destruction. Bruce, after taking courses in anger management, gives in to his rage and transforms into the Hulk. Director Louis Letterier (Transporter 2) does action very effectively.

This introduces us to the brains and power behind the experiments and the hopes of creating an ultra-physically strong human weapon, General Ross (William Hurt) and his co-opted tough soldier, Blonsky (Tim Roth). Blonsky is defeated by the Hulk but wants to be injected with serum so that he can confront him. After Blonsky is again defeated, after another long chase sequence, this time through a university campus, his severe injuries are rapidly healed and he becomes another giant mutant, completely angry and malevolent. Which leads to the groaning, growling… battle.

Edward Norton would not be the immediate choice for working in this kind of film let alone playing Bruce Banner. He brings his usual serious style to the role, making Banner an anguished and tormented soul, still in love with Betty (Liv Tyler) but anxious to be healed – and in email contact with an anonymous scientist who may be able to cure him, something General Ross does not want to happen.

Spiderman, Iron Man and even the Fantastic Four are more congenial than the Hulk. While he is a victim of strange circumstances and mutations, the actual Hulk is not a hero but anger and rage personified.

In a nice homage, Lou Ferigno voices the Hulk this time but also has a role as a genial security guard who enjoys a pizza.

IN MEMORY OF MY FATHER

(US, 2005, d. Christopher Jaymes)

Praised at many festivals and making contact with the age group of the protagonists of this drama (30 somethings), this film may be something of an ordeal for other audiences, especially older audiences.

A Hollywood personality is dying and has asked one of his three sons to film his death and funeral. The son (who employs a clumsy friend photographer) complies, hoping to gain from his father’s will. His other brothers arrive, one obsessed with his wife and the possibility that she will leave him for another woman, the other a callow type without much integrity. Add to this a number of other friends, their girl-friends and former girl-friends, including a 17 year old, the dying man’s younger mistress and his brother who, years earlier, had married his brother’s wife who had abandoned her family.

They talk and they talk. While much of it is psychodrama and may do some of them some therapeutic good, their chatter tends to be narcissistic and hedonistic, the kind of chatter you would not be wanting to listen in on if you happened to be there in real life.

IN SEARCH OF A MIDNIGHT KISS

(US, 2007, d. Alex Holdridge)

A quirky independent US movie that is much better than the average romantic comedy. The central characters are flawed and live in the unreality of the American dream of success (especially in the movie world of LA) and, in their loneliness, have succumbed to a self-centred moral world where their problems and their sad moods eliminate the rest of the world. But, we know they are better than that. This story takes place over one day, New Year’s Eve, and by the time it is over, they may have taken only one small step to opening up to a fuller and better life. But, at least, it is a step.

The midnight kiss of the title is the New Year’s kiss as the old year goes on its way and the new year arrives full of hopes (or, at least, some resolutions).

Wilson (Scoot McNairy) is a would-be writer who has broken up with his girlfriend back home and is glumly stuck in Los Angeles, pining for her and doing nothing with his screenplay. His chirpy DJ friend enters his name and details on a dating website. Wilson somewhat reluctantly goes to meet the first caller who fits him in as one of four men she is interviewing for a New Year’s Eve date. He seems to be OK for her requirements but waits until she meets and dismisses the fourth interviewee, which he listens into with some dismay.

She, Vivian (Sara Simonds), has come to LA with her boyfriend to be an actress (what else?) but has not succeeded and has broken up with the boyfriend (who appears later in a frantically angry phone call sequence).

What we do is follow Wilson and Vivian around the city for the rest of the day. Without quite realising it, they really do open up to each other, able to confide and confess, and feel somewhat better about themselves. They do clash but are able to talk things through. After a nice meal, then a worried rush to her apartment to rescue her things which her boyfriend threatens to burn, they go to a party where the DJ is about to propose to his girlfriend.

City atmosphere is important. Photographed in black and white, the film nevertheless brings central Los Angeles alive, makes it real. Dialogue is important. It’s the kind of dialogue that Woody Allen tended to write for his New York stories decades ago: revealing, whimsical, significant and sometimes pleasantly inconsequential.

The central characters are turning thirty. It is a film especially for that age group probably mirroring a great deal of life for those who are still searching for the midnight kiss and well beyond.

KUNG FU PANDA

(US, 2008, d. John Stevenson, Mark Osborne)

Most audiences should find this animated film very amusing. Children will enjoy the characters, the settings and the cartoonish version of Kung Fu fights (of which, it needs to be said for small children, there are quite a lot). Adults will enjoy the characters and the dialogue which is brought to expert life by a cast led by Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman.

As with all of this kind of animation film, the basic story is a moral one: find oneself and be true to oneself. It is neatly summed by Po, the panda (a very large and rotund, food-loving panda), when the villain, Tai Lung (voiced by Ian McShane), taunts him, ‘Your’re nothing but a big, fat Panda’ and Po replies, ‘But I’m THE big, fat panda’. This is Po’s ‘awesomeness’.

Dustin Hoffman is the martial arts master, a small but very articulate guru who is training a crack team of Crane (David Cross), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Mantis (Seth Rogen) to confront the Snow Leopard Tai Lung whom he had adopted, trained as a warrior but who became proud and rebellious and has been locked away in a mountain prison for 20 years. Who will be the prophesied Dragon Warrior? In the meantime, Po is a noodles waiter in his father’s diner. But, he dreams (and the film opens with a marvellous tour-de-force dream where Po is champion of every combat and acclaimed by everyone) – and when he wakes up he can hardly manoeuvre himself out of bed.

By a series of comic mishaps, Po is designated the Dragon Warrior. The master is in despair and the Five are not impressed. But, capitalising on Po’s need to eat (and eat) when he is sad, the master finds a way to train him to peak performance (although he still finds climbing steps puffs him out) by making him use every tactic to get the dumplings and other delights from the master.

Jack Black lets go as Po and brings his manic humour and timing with great effect. He and Dustin Hoffman recorded together and the interaction between them, which is the core of the film, makes for very entertaining comedy-drama.

The settings are magnificent: valleys, the mountains, the bustling town, the shrine, the exceedingly dungeon-like prison. The action has been photographed and edited with verve and flair – a confrontation on a high rope bridge is full of vitality.

The Chinese setting is topical and will open up a more sympathetic view of Chinese traditions as well as the focus and discipline of the martial arts rather than mere knockabout or knockout bashings.

MAD DETECTIVE

(Hong Kong, 2007, d. Johnnie To)

Mad Detective is another film from the prolific Hong Kong director Johnnie To. In the early years of the 21st century, he made a number of films, which were screened in Venice and Cannes at the festivals. They include Exiled, the two Election films, Breaking News as well as his collaboration with Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark in Triangle.

This film is more restrained than some of the gangster films of Johnnie To (as was his subsequent film about thieves, Sparrow). It is a story of good cop bad cop. We are introduced to the mad detective immediately,

An eccentric police officer who has second sight, who reacts some of the crimes and then declares who the culprit is. However, in his eccentricity, he slices his ear to present it to his commander-in-chief on his retirement. He incurs the enmity of his squad and is dismissed.

However, another crime scene is shown and a young detective who admires the mad detective asks his help. We are introduced then into the mad world of the detective - who is divorced from his wife but continually imagines her presence, fights with her, flirts with her, and takes her to dinner. When they pursue the criminal policeman, considered responsible for the crime, the mad detective sees the seven different personalities within this policeman. They are quite varied - and the audience sees them. The mad detective then pursues the villain, interacts with the various personalities - but ultimately sees that the young officer is also timid, a child personality inside, fearful of the resolution. The resolution is open-ended as the young officer surveys three dead bodies and starts to change the guns from one hand to another, leaving the audience plenty of time to try to work out what has happened, their understanding of the mad detective, the intricacies of the plot and his psychological state.

MAMMA MIA

(US, 2008, d. Phyllida Lloyd)

Mamma Mia, here we go again.

The trouble is that Abba songs and their catchy tunes have been around for over three decades and they have lodged securely (and are ready for replay) in the neural grooves of those of us who are not as young as we used to be. The theatre musical that has been playing round the world for almost ten years has reinforced their popularity and with some younger audiences as well.

Mamma Mia is one film that is definitely critic-proof. Fans will want to see (and hear) it, no matter what. For those who detest Abba songs, nothing will get them to go to see it. Fair enough. But what about those of us who are stranded somewhere along the love-hate continuum? Since this reviewer finds himself there, a few comments may be in order… Comments!

The plot has been concocted along the lines of the old Hollywood musicals like Singin’ in the Rain. The songs are there, so construct a story around them. This one has the advantage of a Greek island setting which, of course, is very attractive. But the plot is built around a fairly flimsy outline: young girl about to be married finds her mother’s diary and finds that she has three possible fathers so she invites them to come to the wedding; mother is furious; the three reminisce and…

One of the problems with the film is that it starts loudly with a gaggle-giggle (the bride and her friends), then increases to shriek level (mother and her ‘old’ friends) and generally doesn’t back down. A fellow-reviewer suggested that it is really like a pantomime with characters, dialogue, songs and costumes heightened accordingly.

It is, of course, fascinating to see Meryl Streep as Donna, the mother, and listening to her sing hits like Mamma Mia itself. She has sung effectively in the past in Postcards from the Edge, Death Becomes Her and A Prairie Home Companion. The three fathers are Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgaard (keeping up the Swedish connection). They seem to be enjoying themselves and doing a bit of singing – though Pierce Brosnan is no great shakes. In an interview, Meryl Streep defended him by saying that his voice was something between Tom Waites and Joe Cocker. Amanda Seyfried is very central to the proceedings as the daughter but Dominic Cooper as her fiancé does not really persuade us that he likes her let alone loves her. Christine Baranski is very good as one of Donna’s buddies and fits into the proceedings perfectly and humorously. But Julie Walters as Donna’s other friend is so hyper-hyper that she needs hosing down or should have taken a lot of tranquilisers before she came on set.

Two spoilers which fans may actually appreciate. Fernando is not in the film and, for those waiting for Waterloo to turn up, don’t despair, it does get a finale with the main cast wearing all those 1970s bright costumes and flares.

There is a lot of exuberant choreography. The whole thing is rather camp in visuals and style. But, at the end, fans are going to enjoy their favourite songs in a colourful musical.

MAN ON WIRE

(UK, 2007, d. James Marsh)

A fascinating film about a fascinating (if self-publicising, idiosyncratic) celebrity. While it is a documentary, it has some reconstructed sequences and plays as interestingly as a fiction feature.

Philippe Petit was a 23 year old Frenchman who walked on wires between the two towers of the World Trace Center on August 7th 1974. At the same time, Richard Nixon was making speeches about Watergate and, the day after the walk, resigned the presidency losing some of the headlines to M. Petit.

Documentarist James Marsh (who also made the feature film, The King, with Gael Garcia Bernal) has had access to a great deal of film footage and photographs of Petit’s walks, not only in New York, but also between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 1971 and between two pylons on Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1973. The framework of this film, however, is the narrative of preparations for the World Trade Center walk, an attempt cut short, the night before the walk with its tensions in getting into the building, carrying the equipment, hiding from security staff, firing the arrow which would take the cable from one tower to the other.

Most of the principal members of the team have been interviewed for this film intercut with the archival footage showing them over thirty years earlier (looking particularly 70s-ish with hair styles and clothes), part of the fascination. In the reconstructed sequences, we see Philippe’s early days in France, his developing his tightrope walking skills. And Petit himself, in his late fifties, is a vigorous and entertaining raconteur, drawing us into his story and his vision and his feelings. He just doesn’t tell the story but gets up and re-enacts a lot of what he did.

Petit’s skills, nerve and acrobatic skills are often beautiful – the testimony also of one of the NYPD who was on hand to arrest him.

A continually gripping and intriguing documentary – sometimes unnerving if one has empathetic vertigo sensitivities as one sits in one’s comfortable seat looking at Petit way up high.

MES AMIS, MES AMOURS

(France, 2008, d. Lorraine Levy)

What is the French word for ‘twee’? It needs to be used several times to describe some of the action and feeling in this very Gallic slice of romantic life – even though it is set in London.

London looks very good here –enough to do some effective touristic advocacy.

The plot is like many of those very French stories about problem relationships. However, some of the characters and their behaviour strain audience suspension of disbelief. It is very hard to accept the central character Mathias’s (Vincent Lindon) falling in love so ultra-rapidly with much younger TV journalist Audrey (Virginie Ledoyen) after she helps him with two bouts of vertigo. It is even harder to believe, even though the screenplay says so, that she could fall in love with him. He is, again the screenplay says so, an attractive middle-aged man. On the other hand, he shows himself moody, selfish, undependable, fickle.

His best friend Antoine (Pascal Albe), though obsessive and fastidious, is far more interesting and likeable. But then, at the drop of a computer key, Antoine falls deeply in love with the florist across the street who has had a thing for him.

Add to the ingredients, a cheerful, pot-smoking restaurateur (Bernadette Lafont) and an ambitious ex-wife. There is also an emotional funeral. When the two men and their children, one boy and one girl, aged nine, share a house, then the two children become precocious interferers in their fathers’ arguments.

It is French soap-opera with a strong cast, fine locations and a catalogue of improbabilities, French-style.

MY WINNIPEG

(Canada, 2007, d. Guy Maddin)

Guy Maddin is a favourite director for film festivals. He makes films which are poetic, often melancholic, visually experimental and always a challenge.

My Winnipeg is his most accessible film.

Commissioned to make a film about the city he has lived in for decades, he has offered us a kind of love-poem to his home but always with a wry comment and a recurring motif of his alter ego sitting in a train, looking out the window at Winnipeg and speaking about leaving forever.

Maddin’s voiceover commentary is a blend of poetic images, poetic rhythms and an essay on the history of Winnipeg combined with a memoir. The memoir is reinforced by the director talking about setting up re-enactments of different scenes of his childhood with the actress Ann Savage (whom Maddin admired for her tough role in the 1940s film noir, Detour) playing his mother. These scenes with his mother and brothers and sisters tells us about Maddin as a person with his artistic feelings rather than offering any autobiography.

There is some nostalgia for the Winnipeg of the past, out there in the vast distances of Manitoba, a centre for the 19th century railroads, the building of a city that was large and remote. Maddin now regrets the demolishing of so many landmark buildings (he shows the collapsing of a stadium) and the authorities making Winnipeg seem like anywhere else in North America.

This is 80 minutes of impressions. Those who prefer linear narrative may like it although they may decide it is too meandering. Those who are able to sit back and let the images and sounds wash over, find interest in the history and enjoy the subjective perspectives of the director will be satisfied with an impressionistic portrait of a city.

PRINCE CASPIAN

(US, 2008, d. Andrew Adamson)

For those who enjoyed the initial film in the Narnia series, this return to Narnia (albeit 1300 years later in Narnia time while only one year in earth time) will be more than welcome. It leaves a kind of Harry Potter world of 1944 behind at the Strand Underground station and sends the four Pevensie children into a beautiful beach and coast of Narnia (courtesy of New Zealand locations). With the range of mythic animals and creatures and warriors, it is akin to Lord of the Rings territory but without the grandeur of Tolkein’s vision. This is four teenagers – rather prissy and plum-in-mouth British teenagers with a heritage of Empire greatness guiding their attitudes towards everyone, especially unworthy enemies – who have been made monarchs of Narnia, who are summoned by the magic horn and join with the ousted Prince Caspian in his battle to regain his kingdom.

Some commentator’s have spoken of a Christian sub-text and many reviewers have repeated this without giving any substance to the claim. While C.S.Lewis had a Christian perspective and some of this may be in his novels, it is very difficult to see any real Christian meaning in the screenplay (unless Aslan, absent for most of the film is a God-figure who comes to help the children and be on the side of the righteous against the usurpers).

Actually, the film is a rather bloodthirsty show, not bloody in the sense of our seeing a lot of blood but full of vigorous and sometimes vicious sword-fights, large scale battles and plenty of arrows, especially from Suzy – with TV interviewers joking with the actress, Anna Popplewell, that she scored the highest body count in the film.

While the locations, computer work and stunts and effects are top of the range, the difficulty with the film is that William Moseley, who comes across more strongly in TV interviews than he does as Peter in the film, does not exude the leadership that the screenplay says he has. Often he seems merely petulant, at other times not strong enough for us to believe that he could be, in his own words, King Peter the Magnificent. The two younger stars bring more oomph to their characters, especially Georgie Henley as Lucy whose mission it is to bring Aslan (voiced with great decorum again by Liam Neeson) back to the fray.

Ben Barnes (affecting a foreign accent) is stronger as Caspian but the acting honours go to Peter Dinklage as Trumpkin the dwarf Narnian hero and Italy’s Sergio Castellitto who makes a suitably villainous King Miraz.

Spectacle, battles between good and evil, muscular righteousness.

THE ROMANCE OF ASTREA AND CELADON

(France, 2007, d. Eric Rohmer)

The Romance of Astrea and Celadon is a film that could be made only my Eric Rohmer or one of his disciples. It is based on a 17th century novel by Henry D’Urfe?. In turn, it is a novel about the times in Gaul in the 5th century at the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire and the establishment of the Gauls- especially in the French countryside. However, Rohmer has chosen to film it in 17th century style while keeping the plot in the 5th century.

Rohmer is a man who has made moral fables for 50 years or more. In the 1960s with such films as My Night at Maud’s and Claire’s Knee, he established himself as a perfectionist in artistic and morally restrained films. It was the implicit values, the delicate presentation of character and interactions, which charmed audiences as well as critics. As the decades went on, he chose to do a range of moral stories and fables including Pauline at the Beach, The Fine Marriage, as well as historical films like The Marquise of O and Percival the Gaul.

Even at the beginning of the 20th century, he made a costume drama, The Lady and the Duke as well as a more contemporary piece, The Triple Agent.

This film is beautiful to look at - it is almost a museum piece, full of tableaux of shepherds and shepherdesses in the French countryside (near the Loire river and its shadows), in woods, in castles. The dialogue is very much of its era - which also makes the film something of a museum piece.

There are echoes of the 17th century writings of Shakespeare and his lyrical and pastoral plays. Realism is not to the fore though much of the action takes place naturalistically. However, there is a tension between the realism and the artificiality of the dialogue and many of the set speeches (a feature of Rohmer films).

The film is the basic one about love, deception, the hardness of heart of the woman and the despair of the man, intervention by special characters who are able to heal the wounds and bring the couple together again. This is done with the background of Nature Religion and the Druids - but with speeches, especially about the three facets of the gods, which incorporates aspects of Christian Trinitarian Theology.

Not to the taste of contemporary audiences - more an illustration of the style of filmmaking that Rohmer specialised in and a view of a more French literary tradition.


THE RUINS

(US, 2008, d. Carter Smith)

Recent years have seen so many horror films and slasher terror that even the fans might feel somewhat sated. Those who watch them are now probably able to predict most of what will happen and have become experts in the genre. However, The Ruins is a bit different and much better than many of them. It is based on a novel by Scott Smith who wrote the screenplay as well. (Smith also wrote the novel and screenplay for the excellent drama, A Simple Plan.)

One of the differences is that more attention is given to the characters. They are not the usual American bimbos and jocks who seem to populate these films only to be picked off in gruesome variations of torture and death. This time they are four friends in Mexico on holidays who take up the offer of a young German to visit the Mayan ruins (not on the maps) where his brother is excavating. While they go through the usual frights and fears, they are played rather more substantially than usual.

Another difference is that the menace comes from clinging and slithering vines on the side of a Mayan pyramid whose flowers can mimic sounds including human voices – and, deceiving the group into thinking they might call for rescue, a mobile phone ring. Actually, the vines and the flowers are effectively produced by the effects staff and look alarmingly real, especially when they go into action, covering wounds, infiltrating the body and dragging corpses away.

This might make the film sound more gruesome than it is. However, it is gruesome in part but the film-makers have made these grim sequences, especially of amputation of legs and cutting out the vines from the body, rather plausible. What would we do if we happened to be in such a situation?

The five travellers are trapped on the pyramid because the locals know the power of the vines and are keeping armed guard to prevent the group from leaving.

Of course, it is all terror hokum but it is better done and more credibly interesting than usual – and it was all filmed in Queensland standing in for Mexico!

LA SCONOSCIUTA

(Italy, 2007, d. Giuseppe Tornatore)

An impressive film. A very strong film.

While Italian director, Giuseppe Tornatore, made a world impact with Cinema Paradiso in 1988, it was a film of some sweetness and light as well as rueful memories about watching the movies in Italy in those days of parish priest censorship. Tornatore has taken on more serious themes in his Everybody’s Fine, A Pure Formality, The Starmaker and The Legend of 1900. However, after Malena in 2000, he did not make a film for six years. This is the film.

It is important to say that the core theme is one that is becoming more and more frequent in European cinema in recent years, human trafficking, especially trafficking for sexual purposes (Gitai’s The Promised Land, the Polish film And My Name is Justine, the Australian The Jammed, as well as films about workers like Nick Bromfield’s Ghosts and Ken Loach’s It’s a Free World). However, there is much more plot and character development in La Sconosciuta than this important issue.

The film begins joltingly as women are displayed for prying eyes – and later in the film we discover that the choosing of a woman had far more serious consequences that we initially imagines. This sex trade background recurs during the film as the central character, Irena, an exploited migrant from the Ukraine, continually remembers the humiliation, brutality and sex slavery she has experienced. These flashbacks have a narrative dramatic momentum of their own as well as their sudden eruption into Irena’s memories and emotions. The cumulative effect of this past story has an overwhelming impact on the audience. Graphic, though presented in jigsaw or mosaic pieces, we feel many emotions ourselves, sharing Irena’s suffering, her pain, her humiliation and shame as she is shamelessly used.

In the present, the narrative also has a powerful effect though it is not too difficult to pick up most of what has happened to Irena and why (though some elements emerge clearly only towards the end). Arriving in an Italian city, she seeks work but shows determination as to where she should live, where she should work, whom she should shadow and follow, where she must pry and investigate. This also has some harrowing consequences for a friendly fellow servant and the injury-prone daughter of the couple for whom she works as a nanny. The scenes where she tries to toughen up the little girl, relentlessly, (trying to make her fight back unlike what has happened in her own life) are emotionally disturbing.

As Irena moves through pain and challenges, as he past catches up with her and threatens a brutal retaliation, we are accompanying one of life’s victims through her torments and her interior anguish.

The performances are memorable. Russian actress Kseniya Rappoport has an extraordinary screen presence, able to portray the vivacious but abused blonde prostitute as well as the dignified and solemn dark Irena in the main part of the film. Her final close up is a marvellous portrait of sadness, resignation and a glimmer of joy. The supporting cast is very strong and veteran Michele Placido creates a horrendous character as the brutal pimp.

The score, which has a range of moods and styles, is by Ennio Morricone.

This is one of those films which explores the depths that human beings experience, exploited by vicious characters, trapped in moral squalor, who are profoundly affected by their sufferings and inflict pain on others, both innocent and guilty, in self-preservation, but who have an innate resilience that can lead to love and some redemption.

TEETH

(US, 2007, d. Mitchell Lichenstein)

This is a curio film.

Only 80 minutes, it starts as a wry look at US abstinence groups and their stances as well as the ridicule their sincerity is exposed to.

Then it makes us realise that members of such groups and their protective parents can create a false morality, a fragility of moral sense that is too rigid and easily fractured. As the central character, Dawn, played by Jess Weixler, discovers her own sexual feelings, she also discovers that, gynaecologically speaking, she is a modern day example of an ages-old myth about castrating women – though the writer-director says that he is not misogynistic and wants to make the point that the woman in herself is not aggressive or rapacious but her destructive bite is directed only towards aggressive and rapacious men. In fact, most of the men of the same age are presented as hedonistic and self-centred.

After that, the film becomes something of a black comedy as the girl uses her sexuality as a weapon against the aggressors. And then it ends.

Many ordinary audiences might find the film (and some of its visuals) too confronting. However, by using what on the surface looks like a typical film about teens and their problems, Mitchell Lichtenstein wants to make the audience think about sexual behaviour and relationships – and both laugh in disbelief and feel uncomfortable in the process.

THE WAITING ROOM

(UK, 2007, d. Roger Goldby)

A domestic drama set and filmed in actual locations in London’s Wandsworth and Balham. While the scenario is not unfamiliar, it is given an emotional treatment with some good performances.

Most of the action takes place in adjacent houses of a suburban street with some excursions to the nearby park and to Wandsworth Common station and its waiting room. Some action also occurs in a home for the elderly and the flat of one of the workers. A circumscribed world but one which many audiences will find familiar and/or identify with it.

Anna (Anne-Marie Duff) is divorced and alienated from her former husband. She lives, very protectively, with her young son. Next door is a little girl, his best friend. Her mother (Zoe Telford) and Anna are also best friends but Anna, who can’t believe she is doing it, is having an affair with her best friend’s husband, George (Rupert Graves). George is out of work, is moody with his wife and wants to leave her and go away with Anna. This is not part of Anna’s life-plan at all.

In the meantime, Steve (Ralf Little) cares for an old lady who is dying (Phyllida Law) and a man who has lost his memory (Frank Finlay) and goes every day to the station to wait for his wife’s train. Steve usually brings him back – but one day, the old man is helped by Anna. That is how she and Steve meet. Steve is in the process of breaking up with his girlfriend and imagines… Anna imagines…

A glimpse of fairly ordinary people in a fairly ordinary suburban setting, their problems, their struggles and their hopes.

WANTED

(US, 2008, d. Timur Bekmambetov)
There is a recent over-the-top tradition in action films, especially those based on graphic novels, comic strips and computer games, a kind of anything you can do, I can do bigger, better and louder – and flashier. It can be traced back to Quentin Tarantino and his pal Robert Rodriguez in the 1990s to their recent collaboration, Grindhouse. John Woo could do it as well, think of Face/Off. The Wachowski Brothers raised the bar with The Matrix series. Meanwhile over in Moscow, the Kazakhstan-born director of commercials, Timur Bekmambetov, tried to outdo them all with his futuristic thrillers Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006) and, just in terms of flash and flair may have outdone them all.

Now he has his own Hollywood blockbuster, Wanted, and there’s no mistaking the graphic oomph that he brings to it. Immediately in its favour, it is much easier to follow the plot than in Night Watch or Day Watch. But, here he is with huge action pieces like smasheroo car chases and a train crash and dangling carriages on a high bridge (which completely ignore collateral damage in terms of people’s lives and property destruction – no realism here). And here he is again with all kinds of camera techniques, hand-held, playing with time and motion, altering speeds at whim, especially with firing bullets that can go round people to their intended targets (and some bullets just colliding in mid-fire and melding).

By this stage of the review, it is hoped that those who don’t fancy this kind of visual extravaganza will have decided whether they want to indulge or not. What remains is the actual content.

This is shoot-em-up with a vengeance (a lot of vengeance). Since it cannot be taken for real (and this kind of thing was spoofed by Hancock), we have to put aside the body count, the bullets and the knives as part of the graphic novel imagination. This may be a generational thing as younger audiences play along with the conventions, lap them up as once upon a time kids did as they played cowboys and Indians. Many of the older generation are not on the wavelength and don’t want to be.

One of the difficulties with an adrenalin-pumping two hours like this is that plays on our aggro tendencies and sensibilities. The discussion is whether they are intensified or sublimated by a kind of new Saturday-matinee-mentality catharsis.

James McAvoy? seems one of the least likely candidates for action hero (think Mr Tumnus in Narnia or Atonement) but that is the point. He is a beyond-nerdy accountant who is recruited by a secret society of assassins presided over by Morgan Freeman at his most oratorical with Angelina Jolie at her most Lara Croft- CGI iconic looking. He becomes a top killer only to find a twist in the plot that starts to make a moral point about making decisions for life, learning that you cannot always trust the information you are given – but it would be interesting to conduct an exit poll from the cinemas to check whether this is actually what the enthusiasts get out of the film. Checking on comments on the IMDb, it looks as though some do. So there were are or, as the case may be with non-fans, there we are not.


SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS AUGUST 2008

ANGUS, THONGS AND PERFECT SNOGGING
BABY MAMA
BEFORE THE RAINS
BLINDSIGHT
BUDDHA COLLAPSED OUT OF SHAME, The
CASS
CITY OF MEN
CJ7
DARK KNIGHT, The
DONKEY PUNCH
ELITE SQUAD
ELLE S’APPELLE SABINE (HER NAME IS SABINE)
FOX AND THE CHILD, The (RENARD ET L’ENFANT)
JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH
LOVE GURU, The
MAKE IT HAPPEN
MARRIED LIFE
MEET DAVE
MUMMY: THE TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR, The
PARIS
SWING VOTE
X FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE
WALL-E


ANGUS, THONGS AND PERFECT SNOGGING

(UK, 2008, d. Gurinder Chadha)

At least the title gets one’s attention. Angus is a cat. A catty girl wears thongs. And, perfect snogging is a 14 year old girl’s idea of a dream kiss.

Actually, the centre of the film is a 14 year old girl who will be fifteen before the final credits. For a fairer review of this film, it would be best to have an interactive discussion between girls of this age and their parents or grandparents. Meanwhile, this review will have to do.

This is a genial British film from the director of Bend it Like Beckham and Bride and Prejudice. Though born in Kenya, Gurinder Chadha grew up in London. This time she goes further afield than London, down to Sussex, Eastbourne and Brighton. While the director said she wanted to make a film like those of John Hughes (and she specified Sixteen Candles) and it is reminiscent of many American films about teenage girls, this one is firmly British in accent, vocabulary, mood and family portrait.

It should also be said that it is a ‘nice’ kind of comedy with an air of innocence, where perfect snogging is the ultimate in relationships between the sexes.

Georgia Groome, as Georgia Nicolson, has a strong personality and keeps us interested in her travails, the young adolescent girl preoccupations. She has nice parents but thinks they are very old hat and is embarrassed when they kiss, snog, in front of her. Her baby sister is a born mischief-maker. Luckily, she has three friends (and Angus, a really odd cat) that she can discuss matters of moment with, her worries, especially about getting a boyfriend. The screenplay by Gurinder Chadha and her husband Paul Mayeda Berges is full of little touches that indicate just how young and inexperienced the girls are (which may be reassuring to parents). When a boy says that he will see her later, there is an intensely serious discussion about what ‘later’ really means and how long.

Poor Georgia is into contriving situations, especially when she sees the boy of her dreams with the vain blonde of the school. She also goes to a gawky boy who coaches girls on how to kiss – and he becomes besotted with her. She, meanwhile, is planning, scheming, abetted by three friends. Complications arise when her father is transferred to New Zealand and she worries about the interior decorator who is spending a lot of time in the house and with her mother at Salsa lessons.

Georgia makes some huge mistakes, alienates her friends who accuse her of being selfish. Needless to say, this helps bring her to her senses and a happy ending for all concerned (except the vain blonde).

Based on a series of autobiographical books by Louise Rennison (who grew up in Leeds along way from the sea and the piers of Sussex), this film will probably go over very well indeed with its target audience of 11-15 year old girls and (unless they are in a state of trauma with their own daughters), their parents.

BABY MAMA

(US, 2008, d. Mike McCullers)

Much of this comedy derives from Saturday Night Live. Its stars, Amy Pohler and Tina Fey have made frequent appearances and have written for the show. Writer-director, Mike McCullers? (Austin Powers) has written for it and Lorne Michaels is a long-time producer. However, that having been said, it should be added that the satire is much lighter here – with a lot more feeling and sentiment.

Tina Fey portrays Kate, a rapidly upwardly-mobile VP of a prosperous health food company which is expanding its shops (and is presided over by an ex-hippie who is into the mantras, the jargon and the New Age processes but is now corporately rich – and is played by Steve Martin). She has never had the urge to have children but, at 37, she is now seeing children everywhere. An indiscreet gynaecologist tells her that her uterus is the wrong shape and she only has one chance in a million in conceiving. Adoption will take a very long time. She tries out sperm donors. And, finally, she goes to a chic surrogacy firm run with unctuous charm and ruthlessness by Sigourney Weaver (who has no trouble, at her age, of becoming pregnant naturally).

The prospective mother, Angie, is played by Amy Pohler (who has many funny roles to her credit, like Blades of Glory). She is what used to be called (and the ‘superior’ Kate still has little trouble in calling her) ‘white trash’. Dax Shepard is good as her ‘common-law’ husband.

Everything about the pregnancy itself seems to be going well, but Angie is one of the most politically incorrect eater, drinker, smoker, dancer, karaoke singer, couch potato that the screenwriters could think up. It all becomes a female version of The Odd Couple.

Naturally, Kate does overcome her snobbishness (which she obviously gets from her bluntly self-absorbed mother, Holland Taylor), helps Angie tidy up and better herself. Angie assists in Kate letting down her hair (actually, she puts it up when she goes clubbing, dancing and drinking). She meets a former lawyer who now makes smoothies, the ever-genial Greg Kinnear and…, of course.

There are a couple of twists that you may or may not guess which complicate friendships but that doesn’t really matter much to the enjoyment.

Some people who get concerned about stories with moral issues and behaviour that they do not approve of, for example, surrogacy, sex outside of marriage… (which we find here) and expect the stories to reflect ideal living rather than the messy emotional complications that people find themselves in. As I watched Baby Mama, I realised that I would recommend this film for moralists and ethicists to discuss conception, surrogacy, life and pregnancy issues because, in its humorous and rather sympathetic way, it raises the themes in the context in which the problems are lived rather than theorised about. And, with the positive attitudes towards babies, the film is extremely (though not in the political sense) pro-life.

BEFORE THE RAINS

(India, 2007, d. Santosh Sivan)

This is an old-fashioned film for those who are not into fast and slick action. It is reminiscent of many of the films of the 30s, 40s and 50s, often based on stories by W. Somerset Maugham, stories of colonial plantation owners, affairs with the locals and presenting a presumptuous picture of British settlement, trade and exploitation of the colonies. Before the Rains certainly does this.

The plot is developed in a rather low-key way but it is presented amid beautiful Kerala scenery. The time is 1937 and there are more than rumblings all over India for independence. In the meantime, British planters are developing roads for transport of spices for further trade benefits. The local men are given opportunity for work on the new roads – which must be built strongly and securely before the rains come.

Linus Roache portrays Henry Moores, a seemingly thoughtful man who is securing bank loans for a new road. We see him involved, quite lyrically, with his servant (Nandita Das) who is in love with him. And then we discover that he has a wife and son and that she is married, albeit to a brutal and unloving husband. When she runs away from him, expecting to be taken in by Henry Moores not only do complications ensue but tragedy for her.

Further complications arise because of the unwilling involvement of Moore’s British-school educated foreman, T.K. (a sympathetic Rahul Bose) who has to face a moral decision in giving information to the village elders, led by his father. He undergoes a traditional ritual like a medieval ordeal to test whether he is telling the truth or not.

The tragedy reveals the lack of moral courage and integrity in Moores and the dismay of his wife (Jennifer Ehle).

This means that the familiar enough story serves as an allegory of the British presence in India and other colonies. They are dominant when they are in control but exploit both the land and the people (including sexually). They cannot face up to their responsibilities and should be ousted.

Before the Rains was directed by renowned Indian cinematographer Sandosh Sivan who also wrote and directed the thriller, The Terrorist (1999).

BLINDSIGHT

(UK. 2006, d. Lucy Walker)

Blindsight is a documentary that urges faith in human nature and its goodness.

The title refers to the experience of people who are blind but who have their others senses heightened and experience so much of the reality around them without seeing it.

If you hear that this is a documentary about a group of blind teenagers who climb a peak adjacent to Everest, you have not heard wrongly. How could this happen?

The film opens with some footage of an American man, Erik Weihenmeyer, who went blind young and who was challenged to take up rock climbing in his native Colorado. Eventually, he scaled Everest and we see him climbing, tip-toeing over bridges, arriving triumphantly on the summit. Weihenmeyer also published an account of his feat which caught the attention of a blind German woman, Sabriye Tenberken, who had trekked to Tibet and established an organisation, Braille Without Borders, and collected children for her school, children who had been rejected by society which judged that they must have done something evil in a previous life to have been so afflicted. Sabriye made contact with Erik who came to Tibet with a plan for some of the students to climb a mountain and for the adventure to be filmed.

The narrative has quite some dramatic impact. The preparations for the climb – the students had little experience of rock climbing – the mental and psychological conditions and the practicalities of young people without sight managing on the mountains. A range of experienced sighted guides flew in to Lhassa to work with the youngsters.
The trek itself has its moments of drama with personal challenges but the progress is interspersed with the personal stories of each of the teenagers. These offer quite some insight into the range of Chinese and Tibetan life and customs.

Director Lucy Walker and the camera crew are quite unobtrusive but still immerse us in the day by day ascent, the difficulties, the illnesses, the indomitable spirit as well as the disappointments in those who are unable to reach the summit. The photography of the mountains is crystal clear, continually breathtaking and fascinating.

A verb is used at the beginning of the film to describe Erik’s achievement: to summit. This is key to the meaning of the experience for the climbers. Sabriye, whom some of the guides thinks is over-protective, is concerned about the pushing of the youngsters to achieve and reach the top. She strongly makes the point that the aim of the experience is not to summit but to build a sense of solidarity amongst the group, care for the weakest amongst them and growth in self-esteem and confidence from the experience that most sighted people would not be able to experience.

Rightly uplifting.

BUDDHA COLLAPSED OUT OF SHAME

(Iran, 2007, d. Hana Makhmalbaf)

One of the Iranian cinema’s great qualities is that it can make delightful and powerful films which feature children. This is one of those films.

The central idea is to offer a critique, even a polemic, concerning the attitudes and behaviour of the Taliban in Afghanistan – but via the experiences of children. Set in the locations where the Taliban destroyed the centuries-old large statues of the Buddha in 2002 (which is shown as the film opens), the film shows a contemporary community which lives in the desert caves as well as the town where there is the local market and the school for the boys – with the school for girls across the river.

A little girl, Baktay, is put in charge of the baby by her mother when the mother goes out. Her neighbour, a little boy, Abbas, is rehearsing his alphabet. Baktay wants him to keep quiet for the baby’s sake but she is fascinated by the reading and the stories and wants to go to school. Off she goes to buy a notebook but hasn’t any money. She can’t find her mother, so the sympathetic stall owner suggests she gets some eggs from their hen and sell them. The sequence where she tries to sell the eggs is so well observed that we learn a lot about the people, their customs and their attitudes.

Spoiling the plot a little, we can add that she does get a notebook and tries to get into school with Abbas but the cranky head of the school punishes Abbas and gets rid of Baktay, telling her to go across the river to the girls’ school. His (superior) school is only for boys.

The allegory of the Taliban begins when Baktay sets off for the school and encounters a group of young boys whose game is to imitate the Taliban. Baktay becomes a target as they act out all the harsh attitudes of the Taliban towards women with more than a touch of menace and violence, the use of make-up, covering their hair, not going to school. Poor Abbas is then attacked as an American spy and they give him the treatment. Meanwhile, planes and helicopters fly overhead.

As we see the children acting out what is happening with the Taliban and the people, the message is very strong.

When she made this film, Hana Makhmalbaf was turning 18. She had made the documentary, Joy of Madness, about her sister Samira’s filming of At Five in the Afternoon, when she was 14, inheriting the love of film and film-making from her father, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and her mother, Marzieh Makhmalbaf, who wrote the screenplay for this film.

CASS

(UK, 2008, d. Jon S. Baird)

Down-to-earth, gritty, f and c-layered, British gangsterland and the world of British hooliganism of the 1970s and 1980s. Enough to be quite off-putting for many audiences.

But, Cass has a lot going for it.

While it does immerse its audience in an ugly world with brutish behaviour, it is also a story of British racism from the 1950s to the present and the social changes affecting young thugs (and older), especially Margaret Thatcher’s post-Falklands war on football fan violence. This has been portrayed in such films as Greenstreet and The Football Factory but many commentators thought that these films were in danger of glorifying what they were deploring. There certainly are some graphic brawling sequences, in the streets and in a Newcastle club, but there is also much more to think about.

Cass is based on a true story. As the film opens, the adult Cass Pennant in the 1990s is gunned down outside a South London club. His voiceover tells us that this is his actual story and then takes us back to his experiences in Wolverhampton when he was 14 and his introduction to bashings by the ‘Firms’ (the yob supporters gangs). He takes us further back to when he was adopted through Barnardo’s by a middle-aged British couple and his experiences of being different, especially when he was at school, aged ten in the late 1960s. These sequences are credible and introduce us to Cass’s background (real name Carol Pennant but wanting to be called Cass after Cassius Clay). The other reason that these scenes work so well, as do some later scenes, is the wonderful performance by Linda Bassett as Cass’s adoptive mother, a strong woman, and by Peter Wight as his very laid-back but no less loving adoptive father.

However, Cass grows up to become the Intercity Firm leader for West Ham supporters, is interviewed for television and states that it was only in the camaraderie of the firms that he found any acceptance. Soon he is organising pre-emptive strikes against Newcastle which lands him in gaol. With time to think, he handwrites his story but is forbidden by regulations to take it when he is released.

After release he has the option of going back to how it was or changing. His encounter with a young woman, Elaine (Nathalie Press) pushes him in a more respectable direction. His friends still entangle him in the violence but times are changing. CCTV videos troublemakers and energy has gone for many young people into clubs and the world of drugs where Cass now works as a manager.

Cass’s story is a success story that takes us beyond the yobbism. Married for some time and with children, he is also a writer and publisher, keen on young people learning from his life and dangerous mistakes.

Well-acted by the imposing Nonso Anozie (who has already portrayed both Lear and Othello on stage) and an excellent cast of British character actors, this is an inspiring story without the ‘preaching’ that one sometimes finds in films exhorting young people to change for the better.

CITY OF MEN (CIDADE DOS HOMENS)

(Brazil, 2007, d. Paulo Morelli)

Several years ago, Fernando Mireilles’ City of God made a huge impact on world audiences with its taking them into the barrios of Rio de Janeiro and introducing them to the gangs, the individuals and the groups, and the hard lives they led and the violence that was their way of life.

There was a spin-off television series, City of Men, that continued the stories of the barrios.

Now, there is a feature film which is a spin-off of the television series.

After showing us the kingpin of the hill and his entourage (and the second-in-charge whom he cavalierly treats as a servant), the film focuses on two young men, friends from childhood (shown in flashbacks) and connected by family ties to the gang leader. One of them has a young child, the other is still looking for his father.

While the film continues to show the gun warfare (with a steady supply of arms getting into the barrios), especially when the second-in-charge leads an uprising, the personal drama and interest in the film is what happens to the two young men: the wife leaving one with their baby as well has his being forced to become involved in the fights; the other finding his father through his friend, some bonding with the father and discovering disturbing stories from the past (also in flashback) which threaten to wreck the friendship.

The film presents the tensions in the area, the macho bravado of the gang members, their violence and vindictiveness. But, this time, with the two young men and their stories, there are some suggestions of hope.

CJ7

(China, 2008, d. Stephen Chow)

An entertaining comedy with touches of fantasy, especially for young boys and their parents.

To look at Stephen Chow as he plays the father in CJ7, you would never pick as having such a sense of humour. He plays a widowed building site labourer who is extremely poor, lives with his little son, Dicky, in what is little better than a hovel but loves his son, is proud of him, tries to instil principles of honesty and integrity and sends him to a private school so that he will have opportunities that he never had. It is quite a serious role and performed with quite some dignity.

But this is the Stephen Chow who wrote and directed the action comedies Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, both very popular at home in China and abroad. This time he is much more gentle and was very clearly influenced by ET.

Dicky is a very engaging little boy who tries to live up to his father’s ideals (but not always succeeding). He is picked on by a clique of bullies led by a super-arrogant little rich boy. He is attacked by the largest boy in the school who can fling him into trees. The fastidious teacher who won’t go near him because he loathes dirt (though he has a breathtaking nose-picking sequence) always picks on Dicky while the Phys. Ed teacher sidelines him because his sneakers are old and sewn together. (Also sidelined is the biggest girl in the school who takes a shine to Dicky!).

And the title? The rich boy has a high technology toy dog, called CJ1. Dicky would love to have one and puts on a tantrum in a shop. His father, scouring a garbage dump (and not noticing the space ship parked there which takes off) finds a rubbery ball which he brings home as a gift for Dicky. This ball is from outer space and transforms itself into a very, very cute creature, small, rubbery but with a pooch’s face which can (and does) express all kinds of moods. Dicky calls him, in a moment of superiority, CJ7. He also helps Dicky to conquer his enemies and pass exams but, as they say,… ‘in your dreams’.

Of course, this is a pleasant fable about parental love and children’s responses as well as proper pride in oneself no matter how poor one is. And it is pleasant to watch a delightful variation on ET.

(Confession time: though watching films for so long and so attentive to performances, it was only when I read it in the production notes afterwards that I discovered that Dicky was actually played by a little girl!)

THE DARK KNIGHT

(US, 2008, d. Christopher Nolan)

Year by year, the stakes rise higher and higher for quality craft in plot and writing, in creating characters, in stunt work and effects and excellence in cinematography in the film versions of comic book heroes. In many ways, versions of Batman have led the way, from Bob Kane’s original comics, through the comedy television series in the 1960s to Tim Burton’s breakthrough into darker and deeper waters with Michael Keaton in Batman of 1989. Burton did it again with Batman Returns. When Joel Schumacher took over during the 1990s, he painted the stories with brighter colours with more caricature villains and tried out Val Kilmer and George Clooney as Batman. The audiences tended to dwindle. The end of Batman?

Christopher Nolan declared a resounding no with Batman Begins in 2005. He took the Batman story very seriously and created a narrative of how Bruce Wayne become the warrior that he is, his training in Asia and his return to Gotham City to combat evil. With Christian Bale as the hero, he created a Batman that was a tormented man, a loner who, as Batman, was his freer self but, as Bruce Wayne, wore the mask of the idle playboy. Critics and fans appreciated the totally serious treatment, its strong writing and performances by a distinguished cast. This was raising Batman from pop art to popular art.

Could Nolan repeat or even better his Batman Begins? It looks as though he has – and the initial box-office success combined with critical favour.

A recommendation. If it is possible to see the film on an Imax screen, this is best. Nolan filmed some of the action sequences with Imax lenses and they look spectacular as do the city vistas of Chicago and Hong Kong.

This Batman story is even more serious than Batman Begins. Nolan wrote the story with David S. Goyer (the Blade series) and has shared the writing credit as before with his brother Jonathan. Bruce Wayne is even now more tormented. In his fight to free Gotham City, he has become branded as a vigilante and the police have been urged to arrest Batman. Batman has a set of rules about the use of violence and sees himself as a saviour rather than a vigilante. His two advisers, his butler Alfred, played again by the effectively never-changing Michael Caine, and his Board chief, the inventor, Lucius Fox, played with his customary gravitas by Morgan Freeman, try to help him to see what he must do and where he must set limits.

As the film opens (with a bank robbery and the revelation that Mob interests and their Chinese connections are controlling the city), we find that police chief, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman becoming something of a screen elder statesman) has been collaborating with Batman to target the mob (led by Eric Roberts). However, the new DA, Harvey Dent (a quite charismatic Aaron Ekhart) is courageous in confronting the gangsters and is aided by Bruce Wayne’s former girlfriend, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gylenhaal). Hundreds of criminals are imprisoned. Will Bruce Wayne at last be able to give up his costume, cape and mask as he says he wants? Or, will he, as Rachel tells him, continue to need to be Batman?

No easy answers because a new criminal mind appears in Gotham, the Joker. He is not a sinister pantomime villain as Jack Nicholson portrayed him in 1989. Rather, he is a madly menacing psychopath and sociopath, played with an unsettling blend of realism and surrealism by the late Heath Ledger. He makes a tremendous impact in this unpredictable characterisation, mad of appearance with his caked whiteface, smeared red lips, green stringy hair and unkempt wardrobe, mad of voice in speech and cackle, mad of action with no scruple in killing individuals or whole groups. He is fascinated by Batman and enjoys their confrontations.

Not being in any way expert on Batman characters, I missed the significance of Harvey Dent’s name as he appears as the Gotham hero and so did not make the connection with Two Face (Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever) until a dramatic climax.

As we left the theatre, a colleague asked me what was the moral of this Batman film. With his socialist stances, he was not in favour of a hugely wealthy hero who fought to maintain the American way of life. That is definitely not the case here. Batman is a hero confronting crime and evil. He uses his wealth to help fight crime. But, this time he is attacked as a vigilante. He feels guilty that so many innocent people have been killed because of him. The law has not been able to eradicate crime. He seems to retreat into himself leaving society to try to help itself. This is not the confident American comic book hero of so many films. The present Batman is not the fulfilment of the American dream.

DONKEY PUNCH

(UK, 2008, d. Oliver Blackburn)

The first half of this film is an ‘immorality fable’, the second part a ‘morality fable’ about the wages of sin (which has been over-illustrated in the first part). The plot is set in Mallorca (though filmed in South Africa with Malaga exteriors).

The plot seems to owe quite a lot to Dead Calm. Three young women on holidays meet four young men who are working the holidays on a luxury yacht. They inevitably accept the invitation to go back to the yacht (the owners away). They glibly take drugs and sex (some explicit and videoed) ensues.

One of the grossest of the characters tells the urban legend of the ‘donkey punch’, a sexist blow to a woman during sex for the pleasure of the man. A nitwit of the group is goaded by the gross man and delivers the punch with dire consequences.

The rest of the film is the cover-up of what has happened, the men conspiring and the women resisting. This leads to violence and the gradual elimination of the characters like many of those current US horror thrillers where the disposable cast is gradually disposed of.

Well-made – but a really unpleasant experience.

ELITE SQUAD

(Brazil, 2007, d. Jose Padilho)

Rio de Janeiro can be a frightening place, especially the barrios, and especially if you have seen City of God and City of Men, films that made a big impact in their own country as well as around the world. This was the world of the slums, of poverty, of drug dealers who rule the barrios with weapons and violence and of attempts by the law to combat crime. They were films which took the audience inside.

Elite Squad (co-written by the writer of City of God) will not allay the fright. This time, however, we enter the same world of poverty, drugs and violence along with the police, through an Elite Squad of intense officers who apply the law sometimes with the same violence as their criminal targets.

The film is complex in its plotting and requires a great deal of attention as well as facial recognition to remember just who is who in the squad and who is who among the corrupt police who seem to control the force. Also, after the turmoil of the opening, the action goes back six months earlier, then catches up and proceeds from there – which also requires our wits to be about us.

The narrative is a voiceover by one of the elite, a principled man with an obsessive streak who wants to find a worthy successor so that he can retire and be with his pregnant wife who gives birth during this time. His two candidates are friends from school days. At the opening we see and hear how one is single-minded and trigger happy, the other more measured. When shooting breaks out in a crowded club, we are taken into the world of the squad, including a strenuously demanding training session.

In fact, the film is very disturbing indeed, not just for the presentation of the mayhem in vivid and violent sequences, but in its portrayal of systematic corruption within the police force, the exploitation of the locals for protection from criminals and the schemes for making money by bribes as well as the cut-throat betrayals and mutual suspicions of one officer invading the protected neighbourhood of another and the plans to get rid of rivals.

As the trigger-happy squad member is assigned to repair cars (and discovers that the police steal the car parts and sell them), he becomes more and more determined to root out corruption but, uses the same means of skimming and lies, with his friend to set up culprits. His friend, meantime, is studying law at university and mixing with a group of rich young adults who are always on the lookout for hash and use the same drug lords and dealers. This character is more immediately sympathetic so that his growing more and more intensely violent is emotionally alarming as he relentlessly pursues the local murderous drug lord.

A surprise winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin, 2008, this is strong and powerful stuff which many would find very hard going.

ELLE S’APPELLE SABINE (HER NAME IS SABINE)

(France, 2007, d. Sandrine Bonnaire)

Sabine Bonnaire is the younger sister, by a year, of the French actress, Sandrine Bonnaire. As the girls were growing up, Sandrine took home movies of her sister. Some of this footage is incorporated into this film as Sandrine continues to photograph the middle-aged Sabine. How shockingly the images make their contrast. Sabine has been diagnosed as having an infantile psychology and is autistic.

We have seen a number of films over the decades dramatising autism, from Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man to Forrest Gump to Sigourney Weaver in Snow Cake. But, this portrait of Sabine is the real thing, drawing us into the real life story of Sabine, observing her, sometimes empathising with her, always puzzling over how this could happen to anyone and sharing the continual challenge of how to relate to the impaired person.

Sandrine Bonnaire herself is almost always behind the camera, only in front when she is seen dancing with Sabine in the older home movies. But she speaks from behind the camera trying to coax answers (sometimes it seems too persistently) from Sabine about what has happened to her, especially five years in an institution, and how she feels. Sabine has bonded with her sister and, in the film, asks the repetitive questions about Sandrine’s visits and whether she will come again.

The contrast, even in physical appearance, between the vivacious young adolescent and the overweight, sometimes listless, middle-aged woman is very saddening. So is her history as it gradually unfolds.

However, there are two other people in the film whose story is highlighted, a young woman prone to tantrums of joy and disruption and a thirty year old man who suffers also from epilepsy – and an interview with his mother. Sandrine’s mother and her sisters (to whom the film is dedicated) are not interviewed and do not appear.

It should be mentioned that the various carers who appear with Sabine and the others generally show an extraordinary ability to simply be with their charges and exercise a great deal of patience.

THE FOX AND THE CHILD (RENARD ET L’ENFANT)

(France, 2007, d. Luc Jacquet)

After his long and painstaking time in Antarctica for The March of the Penguins, director Luc Jacquet has returned to his home countryside (with some help with sequences shot in woods in the Italian Abruzzi) to tell a tale that is something of a memoir of his childhood, of his own love of the woods and of his encounter with a fox.

As with the visit to Antarctica, the photography is extraordinarily vivid, especially as the story takes place over the four seasons, each of which is captured in its characteristic beauty.

The story is very simple. A ten year old girl who loves walking in the forest and is content with her own company spies a fox and falls in love with it. At first she cannot gain its trust but, during the winter, she discovers its lair and discovers that it is a vixen and that she has a litter. The film shows in detail the little girl’s passion for the fox, playing with it, partly taming it, getting into trouble from her parents (whom we do not see) for staying out too long with it. The film is what one would describe as lyrical with its woodland innocence (despite a grizzly bear turning up, a vicious lynx stalking and a pack of wolves pursuing the fox).

However, the little girl has to discover that the fox has a life of its own and playing inside her room with the door shut is a fearful experience for an animal from the wild.

Bertille Noel-Bruneau? is perfectly credible and is attractive as the girl. The English version has a voiceover by Kate Winslett as the little girl does not speak much at all though she does sing. As with most voiceovers, some will find it may say too much or state the obvious which we are looking at.

If some films are bad for us, this is one that is positively good for us (but may be too gentle and genteel for children who are fast action-oriented).

JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH

(US, 2008, d. Eric Brevig)

When a reviewer is surrounded by about sixty children at a press preview, the only thing to do is to surrender to the film and try to pick up the vibes of the children’s reactions. After they rightly screamed a bit at the opening nightmare and the prehistoric creatures reaching out towards their 3D glasses, they settled down and quietly and intently enjoyed the film. With some applause at the end.

It seems that the film-makers have read their target audience very well indeed. Children from about 9-14 will probably like the film a lot. Some of the fearsome creatures (with a penchant for huge teeth and snapping jaws) might be a bit much for younger audiences and the older teenagers will be off trying to see Wanted or some such adaptation of a graphic novel. Parents who go with their children will be satisfied that here is an adventure film, a family bonding film, without any crassness to disturb or upset, no icky romance – and bit of science (implausible as it actually is) that might generate its own interest and have some good study after-effect.

Well, it’s not exactly crass, but Brendan Fraser’s professor does spit his gargle straight at the audience for 3D effect (which did go over well with the young audience) and some of the creatures are also prone to that 3D spitting! When you’re on a good thing…

This is simplified Verne, far less elaborate than the popular 1959 version or the many film and television movies that have been made of Jules Verne’s classic. The core of the plot has been used her by writers Michael Weiss and the husband and wife team who adapted Nim’s Island, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin, but the characters have been reduced to three: Trevor, the professor who believes in the seismic theories of his disappeared brother, Max; Sean, Max’s thirteen year old son who never knew his father but misses him; and Hannah, the Icelandic guide whose father was a colleague of Max and who now shares their adventures as they set off to put the theories to the test and are quickly trapped in caves and, in trying to find their way out, fall down shafts, go on a terrific roller-coaster ride in trucks on the rails in the mine, hurtle thousands of miles down into the centre of the earth, discover sand and seas, huge rocks which float above crevices because of the magnetic field – but also giant-toothed piranhas, carnivorous plants, huge sea monsters and a rampaging T-Rex?. But they are guided by some kindly and psychic phosphorescent blue birds of happiness.

The action moves quite quickly. The dangers seem real. The dinosaur would give you a fright, but the rolling magnetic stones are fascinating. The effects are, as teenagers and Kung Fu Pandas are prone to say these days, ‘awesome’.

The digital 3 D filming is of high quality, enhancing a matinee movie that succeeds in doing what it set out to do and gives entertainment pleasure to the young in heart of all ages.

THE LOVE GURU

(US, 2008, d. Marco Schnabel)

There is one thing about a Mike Myers’ comedy. He always laughs heartily at his own jokes – much more, sometimes, than his audiences might be inclined to. This film is very much a hit and miss comedy, more like a series of TV sketches some of which get a laugh, some get a giggle, some get a groan and others a sneer or instant forgetting. Since so much of the material is childish (and some really puerile), it is hard to recommend the film to anyone except the most undiscriminating – or to the very discriminating who may want to go on an undiscriminating binge.

This may have been the case with Ben Kingsley (Sir Ben Kingsley) playing a cross-eyed, flatulent guru.

On the other hand, Jessica Biel is really very nice no matter what happens and Justin Timberlake obviously enjoys himself as a vain hockey player. Which leaves Mike Myers, not as funny as Austin Powers and even more scatological (because elephants are involved). He will either irritate with his unflappable cheeriness or carry you along. Speaking of carrying, Myers literally carries his friend Verne Troyer (Mini Me of old) who plays the hockey coach.

Myers plays a limelight seeking (actually TV camera-seeking, especially for an Oprah show) would-be guru who wants to outshine Deepak Chopra (who actually puts in an appearance along with Val Kilmer, Jessica Simpson, Mariska Hargitay, whose name is the greeting by the guru and his followers) and be a celebrity. This side of the film pokes fun at the comic Indian tradition especially as seen in the west from the days of the Beattles and the Maharishi and the popularity of Bollywood films.

Along with this is a typical team-languishing-in-the-competition film where the guru gets a key player (Romany Malco) back on track with his estranged wife who has taken up with Timberlake, with his dominating mother and with his image of himself and his self-esteem. The sport is ice hockey – and the team is Myers’ own Toronto favourite. This gives the basic narrative for the film.

In writing all this down, it may give the impression that the film is better or more coherent than it is. If you are not against a puerile giggle (and some occasional better ones), then this is for you.

The Love Guru was the target, sight unseen, of some alleged Hindu protests in the US (with internet appeals for others to follow) criticising its treatment of Hindu religion. This is not particularly evident in the actual film.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

(US, 2008, d. Darren Grant)

Is it Flashdance from a quarter of a century ago that is responsible for many moviegoers loving films about dancing, especially of the vigorous kind wether it be Footloose or Dirty Dancing, or the popular trends from Salsa to Breakdancing and the competitions with dance gangs in the American city neighbourhood streets? It probably was. And, Make it Happen certainly follows this long-standing trend: a girl from a garage (well, she does the books rather than get round in a boiler suit) loves to dance. Trapped into helping out her disapproving brother at the family garage for three years, she finally heads off from Indiana to Chicago where she has an audition for a prestigious dancing school. It doesn’t spoil the plot to discover she is not accepted – the judge does not understand her style of dancing or her burning ambition. We do – and we know what the challenges she has to face will be.

Feeling low, she meets a young woman who is serving coffee (which is puzzling because we soon discover she is a bombshell of burlesque style dancing at a popular club). The two women become good friends. There is a DJ who composes his own music. Now we are into Coyote Ugly territory although the patrons of this Chicago club have much better manners. If, at this point, you are guessing the rest, you are probably not wrong at all. But, the whole point of following the formula is actually following the formula so that audiences who know where it is all going can enjoy watching how it actually does work out.

This means that Make it Happen is the 2008 contribution to the US dance-fail-and-succeed trend, made just for the audience who loves this trend.

MARRIED LIFE

(US, 2007, d. Ira Sachs)

What more straightforward title could you get for a film? And, yet, how much possible ambiguity!

The novel on which this film is based is the 1953 Five Roundabouts for Heaven by John Bingham. That title is a little more indicative of what we find in the film.

First of all, the story is set in late 1949 and the way that it is filmed is very much in the style of those times: the setting of scenes, the costumes and décor, the more ample dialogue than we have now – and a visual reticence in portraying relationships. The film is all the stronger for that.

But, the question comes up: how serious is it, how comic and sardonic, how moral (or not)?

We are guided in our response by a voiceover throughout the film. It is that of Pierce Brosnan, who delivers it most agreeably. He plays Richard who emerges, even from his own descriptions of himself, as something of a cad. He is the best friend of middle-aged grandfather, Harry (the excellent Chris Cooper) and finds himself listening to the seemingly staid and upright Harry telling him how he is going to leave his wife for a younger woman. Nothing particularly new here as life goes. However, Harry does not want anyone, especially his wife, to be hurt. He feels he couldn’t possible divorce her. The solution: murder. And a very genteel and loving method (straight out of Agatha Christie or her then American equivalent) through poisoning, quick and not leading back to him.

You will have to see the film (or read one of those ‘spoiler’ reviews or blogs) to find out whether he succeeds or not.

Kay, the young woman Harry is smitten with is played with great sympathy by Rachel McAdams?, coiffeured and dressed like Lana Turner in movies of the time. She will play a crucial role in the murder situation though she does not know it.

The wife, Pat, is played by the always impressive Patricia Clarkson. We find that Harry has read her correctly only partially and that there is more to her than we think if we listen solely to Harry and Richard.

The strength and interest of the film is in the screenplay and the performances. It is the character portraits of the four protagonists that keep the interest and it is their dialogue which intrigues us.

MEET DAVE

(US, 2008, d. Brian Robbins)

This is a light and entertaining, rather unsophisticated comedy that has a wide appeal and is family friendly. It is Eddie Murphy doing his popular comic schtick, faces and voices (Doctor Doolittle, Nutty Professor) rather than his Beverly Hills cop, smart-mouthed heroics.

The premisses are familiar. It is a kind of benign War of the Worlds with a touch of ET – and the kind of fish-out-of-water comedy where a stranger lands in an American city and learns what it is to be in an unexpected culture and learn its customs and language – with lots of faux pas and pratfalls.

The planet Nill is short of water and a space-ship comes to Earth to drain the oceans – without regard to the fate of humans whom they consider large, gross and ignorant. These miniscule Nill invaders would be more at home in Lilliput. But, they have designed a space-ship that looks human, very much like Eddie Murphy, but their dress sense is stuck in a Bee Gees’ white suit 1970s time warp. Number 3 on the ship (Gabrielle Union) does a lot of googling but gets matters mixed. Number 1 (Eddie Murphy) is the captain and can see through the space ship’s eyes and speaks for the android while technicians move its arms and legs. This leads to some simple but humorous slapstick.

The Captain chooses the name, Dave. Dave encounters a cheery widow (Elizabeth Banks) with a young son who idolises Dave. Scott Caan plays a New York cop very open to the arrival of aliens. Ed Helms, meanwhile, plays the rather fascist and aggressive Number 2 who is ready to lead a mutiny.

Only 90 minutes, a smile and chuckly film, the humour is geared to be acceptable to parents looking for something suitable for the kids.

THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR

(US, 2008, d. Rob Cohen)

Brendan Fraser swept on to the screen in 1999 as Ric O’Connell?, archaeology expert and adventurer, whose talent also lay in combating evil Egyptian Mummies who rose from the dead and threatened, well, everyone. This was Indiana Jones territory (and there hadn’t been one of those films for more than ten years) but Ric and co were more than adequate, if lower-budget, substitutes. Rachel Weisz turned out to be a vigorous adventurer as well, though John Hannah as her dippy brother, was along for the ride and getting himself into danger. It worked so well that a sequel was desirable and inevitable, The Mummy Returns as did Fraser, Weisz and Hannah. And audiences were delighted.

After quite a while, here comes another sequel and just after Indiana Jones has turned up again. I don’t know whether Steven Spielberg would be too pleased, but this third Mummy film seemed much more enjoyable than adventures in the kingdom of the crystal skull.

One of the difficulties for any sequel is that the novelty of the original has worn off. However, this time the action moves away from Egypt and Scorpion Kings to China and Dragon Emperors.

The prologue to this adventure takes us back to a ruthless ruler who wanted to be emperor and stopped at nothing to vanquish foes – and there are plenty of action effects to make this introduction to the film spectacularly exciting. But our emperor, played by Jet Li, wants immortality and summons a benign witch (Michelle Yeoh) to get the elixir of life. When she falls in love with his general, the wrath of the emperor descends and he and his computergraphic thousands of warriors do battle. But, he and his warriors are bewitched and buried and for millennia have just been waiting for someone to pour the elixir into his tomb and - the emperor mummy and the soldiers (bearing a remarkable resemblance to the Chinese terra cotta soldiers) will return. And that’s just the prologue!

It is 1946 and Ric and Evy have retired to England while their now grown-up son, Alex, is not studying but, in fact, is in China, digging up and discovering… guess what and who!

The film is definitely old-time Saturday matinee material, the adventures like those old serials with their cliffhangers at the end of each episode. Needless to say, Ric and Evy (this time Maria Bello instead of Rachel Weisz, a bit disconcerting as brunette instead of blonde) are sent to China, discover Alex and find themselves entangled with the resuscitated emperor (who has the ability to shape shift, including into a monstrous three-headed dragon) and the terra cotta forces. Fortunately, the witch is immortal (as is her charming and martial arts trained daughter), so the O’Connells? have some allies. But they also have some extra enemies in the form of a Chinese general who wants to raise the emperor, serve him and conquer all China (is this an anti-Mao sentiment!).

Intensely serious students of archaeology might have a number of quibbles over plot details and might find it hard to suspend disbelief in all the magic, but the rest of us, in holiday mood, will probably enjoy it for the tongue-in-cheek spectacular adventure that it is.

PARIS

(France, 2007, d. Cedric Klapisch)

While the title is simply, Paris (not to be confused with the recent Paris, Je T’Aime?, a portmanteau tribute to the city by 19 directors from around the world), this is not the last word on or image of Paris. Some years ago, writer-director Klapisch made a film about young adults called L’Auberge? Espagnole which was translated for the English-language release as Europudding. This film might well be called Parispudding. There are lot of ingredients and characters in the mix all churned up together.

Paris is the kind of film that the French seem to love. It is tres francais for non-French taste, having that je ne sais pas quoi that makes it so distinctive. Is it the city, is it the characters, is it their moods, is it their capacity for ‘amour fou’ mad love, is it their melodramatic romanticism along with some hard-headedness, is it an emotional recklessness, is it the assumption that French is best? Probably, all of the above. And they are all present here.

Pre-credits images give us glimpses of a number of characters who rouse some curiosity. These scenes will recur later. Then we are introduced to some of the characters in more detail – and we find that there are clear links between some of these stories while others have only tenuous links. But, they are all edited in together to keep us interested in the various strands.

Central to the film is Fabrice Lucchini (always worth watching) as Roland who has theories about the city and the fact that it has no head or tail (like the stories in the film) and instead of commentators contrasting the old with the modern, this juxtaposition ought to be an aesthetic and cultural challenge. He is a history professor involved in a mad love for a young student becoming a stalker (not only on foot but through texting). He is also ‘the talent’ leading a series of TV documentaries on Paris. This links him with the story of his builder brother (Francois Cluzet), a highly emotional and tearful man who is expecting a baby.

The other central character is Pierre (Romain Duris who has appeared in six of Klapisch’s films), a dancer at the Moulin Rouge, who is diagnosed as having a serious heart condition. As he moves into melancholic moods at home, his sister, Elise (Juliette Binoche) moves in to care for him. She has three children and often goes to the markets to shop where she becomes friendly with the traders, especially Jean (Albert Dupontel) who has separated from his wife.

There is another sub-plot, which almost seems incidental, about migrants from Cameroun and their brother trying to get across from North Africa to France illegally. The race issue is quite amusingly highlighted by the manager of a boulangerie who is carpingly critical of staff but can move instantly to sweet mode for her customers.

Lots of talk, lots of emotions, lots of shots of Paris. A bonus is the scene where the usually serious, sometimes severe, Fabrice Lucchini dances with lively and unexpected gyrations.

SWING VOTE

(US, 2008, d. Joshua Michael Stern)

There’s democracy and then there’s democracy. As the world looked on, the American public experienced the phenomenon of Florida’s voting procedures for the election of George W. Bush over Al Gore in 2000. There were further voting irregularities in Ohio in Bush’s 2004 re-election. These events were pored over by the media and some fascinating documentary feature films were made, all alarming in their exposure of procedures that were not above suspicion.

The makers of Swing Vote had the bright idea of taking these experiences to an extreme situation. It is a bright idea and it is explored very brightly and entertainingly. Of course, there is a tradition of good-natured American political films that inspire civic duty and a respect for the rights of the underdog. James Stewart as Jefferson Smith in 1939 became the cinema embodiment of this kind of politics of the people, for the people in Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington. That story has been re-made several times from Billy Jack Goes to Washington, to Goldie Hawn in Protocol, even to Reece Witherspoon’s Elle Wood in Legally Blonde 2. Now it is Kevin Costner’s turn.

The action of Swing Vote takes place over ten days in November. It opens on election day when conscientious and intelligent Molly wakes her bum of a father (Ernest ‘Bud’ Johnson) and urges him to vote. She presents her essay at school and is filmed for the TV news. He, meanwhile, loses his job at the egg factory – and forgets to pick up Molly and forgets to vote. She starts to do this for him but an accident with the lead to a cleaner coming out of its socket means that the vote was incomplete. And regulations state that Ernest Johnson has the right to cast his vote after ten days.

This is not just a right. It becomes crucial as the two candidates are on level pegging. The future of the United States depends on the vote of one ordinary man.

We are in a small town in New Mexico and soon everybody else is. There is the predictable media circus camped outside Bud’s trailer. Both candidates arrive in town and set up campaigns to woo Bud.

There is plenty of comedy and satire as the presidential hopefuls and their ambitious spin-doctor campaign managers get to work, as the TV pundits make their pronouncements, and as Bud rather enjoys being feted by everyone. It is Molly who tries to keep a sensible eye on things and on all the manoeuvres, including being disappointed by her TV reporter friend (Paula Patton).

But, this is a nice film and so everybody (with the notable exception of the campaign managers) has the chance to be their better selves.

Kevin Costner fits the role of Bud perfectly, believable as the ordinary US citizen who has not realised his potential and his dreams but loves his daughter who is certainly more capable than he. The role of the daughter could well have sabotaged the film were she one of those obnoxiously precocious know-it-all little girls. She is not thanks to a persuasive performance by the young Madeline Carroll. Kelsey Grammar is the incumbent president, Republican. Dennis Hopper is his Democrat rival. Both are spoofed and both have the chance to think more deeply about what they stand for – although there are two funny satirical commercials (one for Gay Marriage, the other for Pro-Life) when Bud in his TV interviews is interpreted as being in favour of these issues. Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane are expert at being ruthless spin-doctors.

One trouble is that Kelsey Grammar comes across far more charismatically than Dennis Hopper and, if an election depended on this alone, the Republican candidate would be returned.

Made for the year of the 2008 election, maybe Swing Vote, which is voter-friendly but politics-lite, will encourage swinging and doubting votes that there vote means something.

WALL.E

(US, 2008, d. Andrew Stanton)

Andrew Stanton directed Finding Nemo and contributed to many Pixar Studios films including Toy Story. This is enough to recommend a look at WALL.E. And the reputation of Pixar with its string of excellent animated films (always preceded as is WALL.E) by an entertaining short film, stands very high. It may go even higher with this unusual film.

It should be said at the outset that this is not a film made with small children in mind. They may well not follow the plot and may lose interest despite an initial curiosity about WALL.E and his world. Rather, this is a film for adults to enjoy and for children who enjoy reflecting on what they see.

Next, some words of praise for the animation itself. It is highly imaginative in its creation of WALL.E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class), the lone robot on earth who is still programmed centuries later to keep collecting garbage, packing it, processing it and piling neatly produced blocks into litter skyscrapers. WALL.E moves with agility and, with the aid of a mechanised voice (supplied by Ben Burtt who worked on the robots in Star Wars) and binocular eyes, seems almost human. The other robots are also striking, especially the leading ‘lady’, EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), a modernistic polished oval who is ethereally mobile. And there are some other humorous robots like a malfunctioning umbrella as well as the spy on the space ship who rids it of contaminants and the sinister wheel autopilot, AUTO, who is made to look like a relative of 2001’s HAL.

While the abandoned earth and the decaying metropolis are fascinating to watch (and so much of this is without dialogue), so are many of the scenes (some almost balletic) in space. On the other hand, the hedonistic spacecraft looks like a luxury liner with its two dimensional obese humans.

This is a message film through story and characters rather than an explicit lesson. The Earth has been abandoned 700 years earlier and lazy humans are having an extended holiday in space. But, the captain is still on the lookout for signs that they should return. When WALL.E finds a plant, EVE is sent to investigate and drama ensues as WALL.E follows EVE into space, when robots following orders try to destroy the plant and when the fat humans actually try to stand up and walk (to the music of Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra evlking 2001).

One of the devices for helping establish WALL.E and his character and routine is to have him play his only remaining video (no DVDs seem to have survived). It is Hello Dolly and he replays the ‘Put on Your Sunday Clothes’ song as well as ‘It Only Takes a Moment’, over and over as happy reminders of what cheerful human life could be. The finale of ‘Moment’ with Michael Crawford’s hand clasping Marianne McAndrews’? hand becomes a key symbol.

So, one might say this is a cross-genre film. There is amusing robot comedy and human spoofs. There is the unlikely romance of two robots made credible. There is futuristic drama. There is science fiction. There is space drama. And there is ecological message – and hope via a green future.

THE X FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE

(US, 2008, d. Chris Carter)

This is a ‘stand-alone’ film deriving from the extremely popular TV series which ran for nine years were simply a reasonably entertaining murder thriller with psychic overtones.

Needless to say (but still saying it), fans of the series will want to see this story no matter what. Whether they will be happy that, while Mulder and Scully (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson) are centre-screen, this is not a film about FBI or government paranoia and mysterious aliens. It is a here-on-earth investigation of disappearances and a grim conspiracy that has to do with medical practice and malpractice.

Scully is now a doctor at a Catholic hospital and concerned about a young boy with a rare and deteriorating brain disease and whether he should be permitted to die or to undergo a number of radical and untested surgical procedures. Mulder, by contrast, is living, more or less, as a hermit. Scully is asked to bring him back for an FBI investigation which involves a former priest (Billy Connolly) who claims to have visions about the case. Mulder, with his keen intuitions about intuitions becomes interested. Scully is the rationalist, the sceptic. The FBI (Amanda Peet and Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner) are on the side of the sceptics but keep getting drawn into the search for the missing women.

The surgery issue (and stem cell research) is intercut with the investigation, making the two issues closely connected in themes, especially about the efforts to prolong life. Mulder pursues the hunches and leads to a final confrontation. Scully has to question her presuppositions and the possibilities that there could be more realities than those that science allows. This centres on the truth or fakery of what psychics say and do. The film takes great interest in what advertising says is ‘supernatural’ (which it is not because that is the area of grace) but which, to be technical, is ‘preternatural’, experiences beyond the normal.

Set in a wintry West Virginia (though filmed in Canadian mountain locations), the film has action and chases but it also has a great deal of discussion about issues.

Scully works at a Catholic hospital where the Board is headed by Fr Ybarra (Adam Godley). The film makes him a very serious character and, from Scully’s point of view, quite unsympathetic, especially in discussing the decision about whether to go ahead with the boy’s surgery. This is dramatised in Scully’s discussions with Fr Ybarra, with the boy’s parents and their decision not to go ahead with the operations as well as in her impassioned speeches at the Board meeting where the hospital management support the decision against the surgery.

The screenplay introduces stem cell research since the surgery requires results from such research. In fact, the screenplay does not speak about stem cells from embryos or adult stem cells. And, in further fact, when the malpractice at the centre of the mystery and experimentation with dogs and with humans is exposed, the audience’s emotional response is against what is, as expected, characterised as the work of a ‘modern Dr Frankenstein’.

It can be added that nuns appear in the hospital but the producers have not checked out what contemporary nuns in hospitals actually do, whether they walk in solemn pairs down corridors or what they wear in terms of habits modified from older days – this presentation of nuns is over thirty years out of date.

Writer-director Chris Carter, who created the original series, says that his story ‘involves the difficulties in mediating faith and science’. This involves talk about belief in God or non-belief, Scully ‘cursing God’ for allowing children to be born with fatal diseases. Mulder, somewhat off-handedly but seriously, asks her whether she thinks God is unable to sleep because of this. Mulder is open to faith beyond the senses, at least. The title of the film, taken from a poster used in the series and shown here in his room, states in capital letters, ‘I WANT TO BELIEVE’.

Billy Connolly plays a former priest, Fr Joe, a convicted paedophile, with quite some restraint instead of his sometime over-the-top style, is a convicted paedophile priest, guilty of penetration of 37 of his altar boys.
Derogatory remarks are made about Fr Joe. Scully is particularly antagonistic and judgmental and Mulder makes a few of his offhand sardonic remarks about the priest. But the screenplay is actually leading its audiences into some more serious reflection on these issues and the consequences.

Fr Joe has been suspended from his priestly functions and lives in an institution for offenders. He experiences psychic ‘visions’, stating that he did not ask for them but that God had given them to him. It seems to be an opportunity for him to make some kind of atonement for what he has done. The question of what attitudes people should take towards offenders is a key one. By the end of the film, with some complications about the identity of the central criminal in terms of being one of Fr Joe’s victims – and some ‘mystical’ connections made between deaths and the saving of lives – this introduction of a paedophile priest is not a mere opportunistic device but something more substantial. It seems that underlying the character of Fr Joe in an X Files story we can find some of these deep issues.




SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS SEPTEMBER 2008

ANGEL
BEN X
CANTANTE, El
CLONE WARS, The
COLLEGE ROAD TRIP
DAYLIGHT ROBBERY
DUCHESS, The
GET SMART
HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY
MAN FROM PLAINS
MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY
PUFFBALL
SHOOT ON SIGHT
SOMERS TOWN
THREE AND OUT
TIMES AND MINDS
VEXILLE
WACKNESS, The
WILD CHILD
YOU DON’T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN



ANGEL

(France/UK, 2007, d. Francois Ozon)

Angel is an interesting case study. But, who is Angel?

She is the creation of novelist Elizabeth Taylor and the central character in Francois Ozon’s adaptation of the novel for his first English language film. Ozon wrote in French and gave it to writer and scholar, Martin Crimp, to translate. Filming was done principally in England, near Bristol.

Ozon has come into prominence since 2000 with such films as Under the Sand, The Swimming Pool, 8 Women and Le Temps qui Reste. Commentators note that he is particularly skilled in writing roles for women, a gift from his gay sensibility. 8 Women starred a gallery of French actresses including Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart, Ludovine Sagnier, Virgine Ledoyen and the veteran Danielle Darrieux. Under the Sand and The Swimming Pool were vehicles for Charlotte Rampling who also appears in Angel.

But Angel is played by Romola Garai who made an impression on British television in the adaptation of George Elliot’s Daniel Deronda. She has often played supportive women, sisters and friends, in Nicholas Nickleby, Vanity Fair, Scoop and As You Like It, though she did have a more vigorous role in the little seen Dirty Dancing 2.

This time she is no blushing violet. She is Angel Deverill from the grocery store in Norley who has dreams above her station. She says she does not waste time in reading. She wants to be a famous writer drawing on her most fertile and sometimes fevered imagination. Write she does and she achieves her ambition.

It is said that Angel is based on the novelist Marie Corelli and her career at the beginning of the 20th century. She was a precursor of the Harlequin, Mills and Boon style of romantic novel. She was a moralist and not a feminist – which makes her largely unread or unreadable these days.

We watch Angel lord it over everyone, display an unwarranted self-confidence and arrogance, be rapt in her own narcissism yet being attractive as well as appalling.

Angel Deveril is an introverted young woman who judges all things completely subjectively. But, she is a woman of imagination who expresses her feeling and her intuitions in romantic novels. This drives her. When in her teens she sends the manuscript of her first novel to a publisher, she takes to her bed in tormented waiting. When it is accepted, she is so supremely confident that she tells the publisher (a quietly decent Sam Neill) when he raises a few difficulties, that absolutely nothing in it can be changed. He, poor man, is overwhelmed by her and remains that way for almost twenty years, despite the frequently sardonic (and accurate) comments on the books and Angel’s style by his wife Hermione (Charlotte Rampling). Angel weeps with frustration in secret but, once the publisher has relented, there is no stopping her for almost ten years.

Her social life and reputation were all ‘out there’. She was focused in her writing and in the ordering of her life. All was going to plan and she would continue to write for her public until she died. Nobody is allowed to give her some insight about herself, to make her realise that she was so self-absorbed and ambitious that she had very little idea of who she really was. She might well have been shocked to find that her real self was the opposite of the way she lived.

Situations challenged her and drove her back into herself but she tended to see them as attacks on her self-image. She falls in love with a handsome, out of fashion painter (Michael Fassbender), but controls him like a general, even setting up a lavish studio that does not suit him at all. When he is injured in the war and is in debt, she races off to write another novel for him. He fails her in fidelity and in ending his life. She goes into denial and creates myths about him as she does about her origins and her mother’s humble state. While her secretary and companion is in love with her and absolutely devoted, she does not see any of this even though it is pointed out to her.

When she dies, she asks whether her life was worthwhile and had meaning. With the contrast between her real self and her image of who she was, she is so ‘beside herself’ that she cannot really answer.

Ozon has made another insightful film about women, helped by Romola Garai’s fully committed performance. Audiences who enjoy the cinema of Hollywood’s golden age may be reminded of the melodramas from Warner Brothers in the 1940s like Devotion, the film about the Bronte Sisters.

BEN X

(Belgium, 2007, d. Nic Balthasar)

A powerfully striking film and winner of the Ecumenical Jury award in Montreal 2007.

The film grips audience attention from the first with its detailed presentation of video games – which continues throughout the film. We soon realise that this is the world where the central character, Ben, is at home. He is the dashing knight hero and he sees other people, especially boys at school and his dream heroine, as participants in the games in which he has achieved a high level score.

But, we also see that Ben is limited in his expression (except that his voiceover, from his interior life, is quite articulate). He is intelligent, has his strict routines and rituals for getting up, playing his game, having his breakfast, greeting his mother and brother and getting the bus to school. He is autistic.

Punctuating this narrative of Ben’s ordinary life and his imaginary games life are a range of talking head interviews, commenting on Ben’s life and its tragic aspects: his mother, his father who has left his family, teachers, a friend.

The saddest and most alarming part of the film is its portrayal of teenage bullying in school, merciless ridicule by students who aren’t aware of the damage they cause, a brutal cruelty that they take for granted (including filming their taunts, jeers and humiliations on their mobile phone cameras and posting the episodes on the internet). Some teachers and the gym master are sympathetic but feel powerless except to try to affirm Ben. The principal is aware of what is going on but the two chief tormentors have a breezy cheekiness that rationalises their behaviour and they resort to ridicule of their teachers.

Ben’s main support comes from his weary and harassed mother.

When Ben receives a call from the young woman who plays the games with him, Scarlite, there seems to be some kind of hope. Psychologically speaking, she is an Anima figure, a complementary figure from Ben’s sub-conscious who offers some possibility of growth and harmony.

The ending demands attention. While the audience is looking one way and feeling quite emotional, the screenplay turns the audience in another direction, unanticipated, but an answer to some puzzling about the behaviour of the family towards Ben.

Nic Balthazar, a respected Belgian film critic, wrote the novel and then the one man theatre piece, called ‘Nothing’ and then the screenplay for this film. He is able to take us some ways into the mind, imagination and consciousness of an autistic young man, enabling us to share his pain at the hands of his peers. Balthazar is aided by the performance of Greg Timmermans who is completely persuasive as Ben. Marijke Pinoy is very moving as his mother. Laura Verlinden is an attractive saviour-figure as Scarlite.

We have seen Rain Man, Forest Gump and other films about autism (including the Australian film, The Black Balloon). Ben X takes us right into this world.

EL CANTANTE

(US, 2006, d. Leon Ichaso)

The singer in question is Puerto Rican born Henry Lavoe who is credited as being a driving force behind Salsa and its popularity in the US.

Interest in this portrait will depend on the audience’s interest in Salsa and Latin American music because, without it, the story is the familiar one of young man gets an opportunity, makes good, becomes famous and well-loved, marries a strong-minded woman, is unfaithful, becomes drug-dependent, suffers family losses and contracts a life-terminating illness. While the structure of the film has the plot going backwards and forwards, it really doesn’t make the story any more captivating. The framework, however, in black and white, is a reconstruction of a long filmed conversation in 2002, a decade after Lavoe’s death, with his wife, who tells her side of the story and her staying with him for more than twenty years despite everything.

The curiosity angle of the film is that it stars real-life husband and wife, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony. Jennifer Lopez is always an intense screen personality and is so here, especially in the moody interview sequences which drive the film along. Marc Anthony brings his singing talent and some exuberance to the frequent rendition of the songs. The film does evoke the 1970s and 1980s in New York City – and some of the darker aspects of that period.

In 2001, director Leon Ichaso made an interesting biography, Pinero, of Latin American playwright, poet, actor Miguel Pinero which is much more telling and powerful than this subject and treatment.

THE CLONE WARS

(US, 2008, d. Dave Filoni)

Just when many reviewers thought that ‘Enough is enough with the Star Wars franchise’, it is now taking off again in a new form. And, perhaps, the old fans (who were around 10 when the first Star Wars film was released in 1977) will be pleased to see some more. And the younger audiences may be pleased with an animated version rather than live action. For that is what it is, an animated version, relying on the popular styles of daytime television and of the Anime and Manga cartoons from Japan. (Much of the animation for this film was done in Lucasfilms Singapore studios.)

After a voiceover introduction explaining who is who, what is what and where is where (and some why is why) that might bamboozle those (few?) who are not familiar with the Republic and its becoming the Empire, we find that many of us are more at home in the galaxy than we might have thought. After getting accustomed to the animation style (not classy in finesse but strong in Lucas atmosphere), we find that it is not bad and it is quite enjoyable to be in the company of Yoda, Obi-Wan? Kenobi, Annikin, The Chancellor, Senator Padmila, Jabba the Hut and many old friends and enemies (especially Count Dooku) and Jabba’s Truman Capote-sounding brother, Zero the Hut.

While there are many Clone battles, the main action concerns Count Dooku (voiced in his familiar sinister fashion by Christopher Lee who played him in previous episodes) and his plot to bring down the Jedi and the Republic by getting his sinister lady-assassin to abduct Jubba’s son, a little Hutlet. Annikin, still in training with Obi-Wan? Kenobi, and showing some of the impetuosity that we know will lead him to the Dark Side, hurries to the rescue, along with a 14 year old trainee Ahsoka Tano who shows she is impetuous too. After a number of adventures, especially destroying the destructive shield, they achieve their goals, not without further risks and dangers. R2 D2 accompanies them – and 3CPO is allied with the Senator.

Apparently this episode fits in between 2 and 3, although Annikin and Padme Amidala don’t seem to be as well acquainted as they were in The Attack of the Clones.

An above average animation film though no masterpiece. But, after all, there could be some sequels and we are assured that The Force is well and truly with us again.

COLLEGE ROAD TRIP

(US, 2008, d. Roger Kumble)

This is a G-rated Disney film for audiences of the Disney Channel (where Raven-Symone? has been a child star and has her own series) and those who enjoyed High School Musical films. (It is probably safe to say that those who do not enjoy Disney Channel movies and series will find this comedy too basic, too sentimental, too predictable). On the other hand, if you are in a good mood, it is lightly amusing, though there are reservations about the amount of teenage girl screaming that goes on when friends get together, go on trips or have sleepovers.

And then there is Martin Lawrence. And then there is Donny Osmond.

Martin Lawrence plays a devoted father who thinks he is the model of love, care and communication but who is really a control freak who can’t see that his daughter (Raven-Symone) is 17 and on her way to college (the college where he wants her to go, not far from home). When she gets an offer of a place at prestigious Georgetown and wants to go with her girlfriends for her interview, Daddy insists on taking her (and her precocious stowaway brother who has secret plans for technology for the State Department and is accompanied by his chess-playing, toilet-trained (almost) pig friend, Albert).

Of course, most things that can go wrong, do go wrong, including car breakdown, travelling on a bus with Asian tourists, completely destroying a wedding party (well, the pig started it) and Dad finishing up in jail for trespassing at the sorority house. Of course, all things that can go right, do go right, including getting to the interview one minute ahead of time (after father and daughter sky dive into Georgetown, their first jump!). And reconciliation all round.

And Donny Osmond. He portrays an impossibly cheerful American ultra-extravert father whose daughter is a chip off the old block (and so is Mum when we finally see her). They have the habit of breaking into songs from musicals at every cheerful moment (when they off a lift ‘Getting to Know You; when they leave, Goodbye, Auf Wiedersehn, Adieu etc).

But Donny Osmond does get the final joke of the film which is a good one that sums up the heavily portrayed lesson about parents letting children grow up and be themselves.

DAYLIGHT ROBBERY

(UK, 2008, d. Paris Leonti)

Surprisingly interesting.

We have seen many a bank robbery film both from the UK and the US, but this one, small-budget and focused on just one day and the robbery, keeps the attention and generates credibility and suspense. While British directors often take the opportunity to make a gangster film as a debut feature which turns out to be routine or lacking oomph, this first film by Paris Leonti (both writing and directing) succeeds admirably in what it sets out to do.

Using an early check-in on an Easy Jet flight to Berlin to fly to World Cup matches (effective product placement here) as a cover for not waiting in the lounge but doubling back to central London to execute a detailed bank robbery plan, the film shows the steps in the robbery so that audiences understand the plan, get to know the personalities and idiosyncracies of the criminals, follow the details and the pressures on the robbers and their hostages, see the frustrations of the police who do not know whether they are dealing with a robbery or terrorists, appreciate the long time it takes to open the vault, pack the sacks with cash, transport them through a tunnel to a waiting van that the police know nothing about. The tunnel is the means by which the mastermind, a London cabbie, is able to enter the bank through a hole in the floor and orchestrate what happens.

And, of course, not everything goes according to plan. One of the robbers is hurtled from the van as it backs into the bank and suffers a severe injury causing loss of considerable blood. There is an interlude where the police allow a doctor to enter and treat the injured man.

Time passes. It is hard work to pull the sacks through the tunnel. They also have to lift and pull the sick man. Tensions arise between the men, some jealousies, a young nitwit, claustrophobia and a likelihood of the tunnel roof caving in. Will they pull it off and get back to the airport, board the plane as if they have been drinking and watching the matches on TV in the lounge?

At 90 minutes, the film is well-paced. The performances are also credible utilising the talents of actors whose faces rather than names are known: Geoff Bell, Vas Blackwood, Leo Gregory, Justin Salinger, Robert Boulter and the better-known film and television actor, Paul Nicholls, as Chubby, the wounded man.

A modest but very good example of its kind.

THE DUCHESS

(UK, 2008, d. Saul Dibb)

Most audiences will probably enjoy The Duchess. No expense has been spared on settings and sets (usually actual British stately homes and gardens, London and Bath), costumes and décor. This is the Georgian era during the second decade of the reign of George III. The life style of the rich and famous was sumptuous – and looks it.

This is a star vehicle for Keira Knightly who became an international star very young, playing football in Bend it Like Beckham. In no time, she was in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film and, despite critical carping concerning her limitations as an actress, she has had the chance for substantial roles in The Jacket, Atonement and The Edge of Love. Her role as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire is ideal for her and she gives a good performance.

A key to appreciating the story, the personalities and the royal issues is that Georgiana was the great-great-great aunt (or thereabouts) of Lady Diana Spencer. Georgiana’s mother, played here with her trademark blend of the charming and the supercilious by Charlotte Rampling, was a Lady Spencer. As one watches the film, the parallels (in real life and/or in the construction of the screenplay) between the Duchess and the Princess of Wales are hard to avoid. Had Georgiana died young in a coach and horses crash, the comparisons would be complete. On the other hand, Georgina’s living on in the same house as the Duke and his mistress (her former close friend, Mrs Foster (Hayley Attwell), who later married the Duke) indicates what might have happened to Diana had she lived.

The blogs will tell us what audiences think of any comparison between the Duke of Devonshire and Prince Charles.

Georgiana was something of a late 18th century free spirit, spirited as far as society would allow her (and sometimes beyond). She is shown as a vivacious teenage girl who delights in marrying an older man only to discover that his sole interest is in her producing a male heir (traditions of Henry VIII), a man who had no trouble in supplementing his marriage vows with seemingly impartial zest – except, ultimately, in his true love for Bess Foster. Georgiana had to cope, especially, with bringing up three daughters (one being the Duke’s daughter by a commoner). But, her vivacity broke through many of the protocols, especially in her friendships with Whig Prime Minister Charles Fox and the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. It has been suggested that Lady Teazle in School for Scandal was based on Georgiana. Georgiana, with her clothes’ designs, her high fashion dresses and hats, with her wit and political interests, with her being a darling of high society – and with her passion for profligate gambling which is briefly shown here but was far more substantial in real life.

Her husband referring to her and to up-and-coming politician, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), with whom she began a compensatory affair but was forced to give him up or else lose her children, as visionaries who wanted to change things. Georgiana campaigned for Grey in his Westminster constituency. Grey was later to become the Earl Grey, British Prime Minister.

Ralph Fiennes’ embodiment of the seemingly stolid Duke of Devonshire (probably less so in real life according to the histories) is frighteningly convincing. His horizons are completely in the here and now (except for the hope that his wife will produce a male heir), his attention span is limited and, according to his lines of dialogue, he is not particularly intellectual, or even intelligent. He is emotionally quite phlegmatic except for his care for his dogs and his passionate lusts. Bess Foster does seem to have mellowed him somewhat. He has little compunction in ordering Georgiana to do his will and calmly administers threatening conditions on her behaviour and her life with her children. He also has the power of the male, the power of the husband, the power of aristocracy and the power of the purse. While he arrogantly imposes his decisions, he seems quite oblivious of the impact of his behaviour – it is at the level of his sending away some mutton from his lavish dinner table because he thinks, despite Georgiana’s demurring, that it is a bit off.

The protocols of the aristocracy and the era reinforced this kind of behaviour. Whatever the private behaviour of individuals, the era controlled both men and women, but especially put controls on women.

This was the case, shown only in formal dining scenes in the film, of the Duke, Georgiana and Bess in the many years they lived together. The advertising tagline for the film rather cheekily reminds us of the Diana interview, ‘There were three people in her marriage’!

This formal control in the Age of Reason led to the French Revolution and its ‘death to the aristocracy’ soon after the action of this film. On the other hand, Victoria would ascend the throne of England fifty years after the central situations of The Duchess.

GET SMART

(US, 2008, d. Peter Segal)

In the 1960s, the James Bond decade, with its multitude of imitations as well as spoofs, it was inevitable that there would be a television series that would send up the whole espionage game. Mel Brooks and Buck Henry rose to the occasion and created Get Smart in 1965, one of the very popular series of its time with 138 episodes (and revived in 1995 with 7 episodes). Don Adams was the goof-prone agent, Maxwell Smart, and Barbara Feldon was the attractive Agent 99.

Even though the Cold War is long over and the Soviet Empire has collapsed, audience appetite for spy films has not abated. James Bond was revived with Pierce Brosnan and has been re-reated with Daniel Craig. Matt Damon as Jason Bourne has shown that Robert Ludlum world conspiracies, so much a feature of the 1970s and 1980s, are still very popular. So, why not an update of the spoof?

Because Get Smart was humour-smart but not an exercise in Bond-sophistication, it was not, and is not, geared for the intelligentsia (unless they have a sense of humour). Mel Brooks is capable of the corniest of puns and jokes as well as getting to the funny core of a genre (just think The Producers, Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, Spaceballs). This is what the writers and director Peter Segal try to do here – and have made an agreeable update.

While there are plenty of throwaway jokes, spy situations sent up and some lively action sequences (including skydiving, chases and explosions – and a nuclear disaster set for the last note of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in the Disney Theatre in Los Angeles), it is the performances that ensure that this all goes well.

Steve Carrell can do solemn comedy (The Forty Year Old Virgin, Little Miss Sunshine) as well as rubber-faced (Bruce Almighty). He plays it seriously straight here so that the comic results are more effective. Max is the research expert (listening in to the Russians (still!!) having cups of coffee and writing 800 page reports which actually do give the clues when action is required). When all agent identities have been compromised, Max gets the chance to go into action, botching plenty, getting away with accidental success but finally imprisoned as a double agent. Anne Hathaway turned glamorous in the Devil Wears Prada and continues glamorous and lethal doing her stuff in top fashion and high heels and gradually accepting Max (though their falling in love strains credulity).

Alan Arkin is, as always, very good as the Chief and Dwayne Johnson has good comic timing as the star agent in the department.

James Caan turns up as a Bushlike president (whom Arkin has to correct about his pronunciation of ‘nucular’ but the president doesn’t get it) and Terence Stamp entertains as the arch-villain who delivers the archest of lines with the archest of intonations.

Get Smart sets out to spoof espionage and that is what it does.

HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY

(US, 2008, d. Guillermo del Toro)

Mexican director, Guillermo del Toro, must love the Hellboy comics. Not only did he write and direct the very successful and imaginative Hellboy in 2004, he has written and directed this sequel and, as with all his films, especially the Oscar-winning Pan’s Labyrinth, has imagined the extraordinary and sumptuous fantasy locations and creatures that abound here. Visually, Hellboy II is a treat.

Taking for granted the detail in the original Hellboy about how the young lad came to Earth during World War II and was saved by the Allies from being a creature of destruction, the film opens in 1955 with a pleasing interlude where John Hurt as the adolescent boy’s father-figure (who has to struggle with Hellboy’s penchant for watching junk television) tells him a fable that is the basis of what is to follow.

In a secret kingdom, gold clone warriors are made by the ambitious king. However, out of control, they massacre their enemies. The king sequesters them but his ambitious son (Luke Goss) needs the missing part of the royal crown to bring the army alive again. When the crown is up for auction in modern-day New York, the prince strikes, using a monstrous creature to destroy all in his path. But, Hellboy (Ron Perlman recreating his role) lives in New York where (a bit like Hancock), people and the media misunderstand his actions to save them. Hellboy’s partner Liz who can burst into flames (Selma Blair again) is having domestic difficulties and is fighting with him.

In the meantime, Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) is trying to keep a lid on the experiments going on, especially with Abe Sapien, the Merman (Doug Jones). No such luck as Prince Nuada keeps attacking after killing his father. However, his twin sister, Nuala (Anna Walton), is on the side of good and Abe Sapien falls for her (and, at one stage, with Hellboy lamenting his fights with Liz, they sing along with Barry Manilow to ‘Can’t Live without You’!).

There are all kinds of breathtaking feats, including Hellboy, holding on to a baby he has rescued, confronting a monstrous tree demon as he scales the buildings in Times Square, an underground market of mutants and the caverns under New York where the Golden Army is revived and goes into battle).

While there are some similarities with the now familiar screen heroes like Spiderman and Iron Man. Del Toro’s visual imagination makes the Hellboy films quite different from the others.

MAN FROM PLAINS

(US, 2007, d. Jonathan Demme)

The Man from Plains, Georgia, is President Jimmy Carter.

Audiences expecting a biography of Jimmy Carter will be only partially satisfied. This film takes place over a two month period at the end of 2006, early 2007, as the former president goes on a book-signing tour through the United States, promoting ‘Palestine: Peace not Apartheid’. The president’s life and background are filled in, but the focus is on the tour and the furore it aroused.

It should be said that, at the time of the tour, Carter was 82 (and been married to Rosalynn for 60 years). Carter is full of energy, intelligence and the good will that has marked his international role for almost thirty years after he was defeated in the 1980 election by Ronald Reagan.

The film has been written (constructed and edited from hours of footage) by Jonathan Demme, best known for his Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs and other feature films like Philadelphia, The Manchurian Candidate. However, Demme is also known as a top documentarist, of rock concerts, but also his story of Haiti and Jean Dominique, The Agronomist (2003). Demme does not intrude in any way in the film although it is his perspective on Jimmy Carter, a man whom he admires. This is a tribute to Carter that will not persuade Carter’s critics to like him but will endear him to those who do like him. The film is not without some voices of critique, especially about Carter’s stances and writing on the Israel-Palestine? situation. The most telling of the voices of criticism is that of celebrity lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, who offers some telling parallels between Hamas and Nazi Germany as elected governments who commit atrocities.

There is also some criticism of the title of the book and the use of ‘apartheid’ which was a racial separation before a political separation. Carter defends the use of the word and amplifies its meaning.

While the tour is interesting in its moving from city to city (including a look at New Orleans and the lack of reconstruction a year after Hurricane Katrina), it is also fascinating in its range of radio and television interviews that travel over the same material and the way that Carter keeps answering. There are some well-known personalities like Larry King, Jay Leno and Wolf Blitzer and many American hosts who would be well-known to American audiences. Some have read the book, others not. Some ask the routine, even cliché, questions. Others try to get to the key issues between Palestine and Israel, especially concerning terrorist acts and mediation for accord and peace. There is an interview with an Israeli television channel but a group of Rabbis from Phoenix who asked for a meeting blur their faces and heads and refuse to let the media into the talks. Meanwhile, outside, there is a frighteningly bigoted demonstration on the part of Jewish protestors against Carter and hurling frightening abuse at Palestinians who are gathered there.

The film also includes scenes of terrorist acts by Palestinians and military reprisals by Israel with deaths of civilians and children on both sides.

Throughout the film, there are glimpses of Carter’s life. His coming from Plains and his black nurse and a visit to her grave, scenes of barbeques with friends (preceded by a grace and blessings), a talk in the church where he is a deacon and his unabashed comments on his faith and bible reading with his wife. He visits veterans from the Iranian holding of marine hostages in the 1980s and gives his explanation for his patient negotiation.

Most impressive are the scenes of Camp David and his bringing together of Israel’s Menachem Rabin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and the friendly signing of the accord between the two countries – an image that is important for the contemporary Palestinian situation.

This is a continually interesting portrait of a man who could have retired after his one term in office but who has developed foundations for building communities all over the world and who has been willing to be on the world stage to negotiate for peace wherever it took him.

MISS PETTIGREW LIVES A DAY

(UK/US, 2007, d. Bharat Nalluri)

I suppose there are some Miss Pettigrews somewhere in England today but the name sounds so much like a name from the past, especially when Miss Pettigrew’s first name is Guinevere. In fact, she is the central character to a novel that was very popular in the late 1930s where the book is set. The author, Winifred Watson, stopped writing in 1943 to bring up a family and died in 2002 having seen her book of sixty years earlier be reprinted and experience a new success. Now, here is the film version.

I wished I could have liked and enjoyed it as much as so many reviewers and the public have. It is very well made and acted but it belongs to a period and to a world that can sometimes be more than mildly irritating when portrayed on stage or screen (like Being Julia with Annette Bening some years ago), the enclosed world of the theatre with its petty intrigues, its wealth and snobbery. It is the world of Noel Coward comedies, drawing rooms, dressing rooms and brittlely witty repartee. It is a London of the 1930s.

What makes this one different is that Miss Pettigrew does not really belong in this world at all. She is an impoverished governess who lost her fiancé in action in World War I and is dreading the oncoming, which is imminent in 1939 where this story is now set, of the next World War. She speaks her mind – which loses her jobs from the obnoxious rich and exasperates the manager of the employment service. She has to sleep out at railway stations and eat at soup kitchens.

The day of the title is the one where she takes a card from the desk of the employment agency and hurries to she knows not what – in the form of an American actress with the impossible name of Delysia Lafosse who is as scatty as they come, is involved with the son of a West End producer, in a flat owned by a London night club owner where she sings and is in love (though career hopes make her blind and selfish towards it) with her pianist. It is up to Miss Pettigrew to juggle all the farcical aspects of this when they visit. The next thing is that she improbably attends a fashion show where she recognises a shop owner, Edythe, whom she saw with another man – but Delysia wants her to persuade Edythe’s lingerie designer fiancé, Joe, not to cancel the engagement.

There is a lavish party where Miss Pettigrew achieves all this. But, a the nightclub, during an air raid drill, she persuades Delysia (really Sally) to do the right thing, charms Joe who learns the truth about his fiancée – but Miss Pettigrew goes back to the railway station.

Of course, it does not end there. This is a Cinderella story with Miss Pettigrew as both a Cinderella herself while being a benign fairy godmother.

Frances McDormand?, clipped British accent and all, makes the film as Miss Pettigrew counterbalancing Amy Adams’ ditzyness as Delysia. Shirley Henderson is a mean Edythe. Mark Strong is the nightclub owner and Lee Pace the pianist. Ciaran Hinds brings some dignity as Joe.

PUFFBALL

(UK, 2007, d. Nicolas Roeg)

The film was originally to be called ‘Puffball: the Devil’s Eyeball’. This might have been a greater help to audiences who are not sure what a puffball is (a mushroom) and, while watching, might not be too sure what it was really about and wonder about its tone.

Nicolas Roeg was a celebrated director of photography in the 1960s and, during the 1970s, turned to directing and made a number of films that have classic status: Performance, Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, Bad Timing.

Just as Don’t Look Now had an eerie, out of this world atmosphere and was based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier, Puffball is based on a novel by Fay Weldon, has an eerie atmosphere (the film is set in the Irish countryside) and has witchcraft and rituals. The screenplay was written by Fay Weldon’s son, Dan Weldon. The novel made an impact in the 1980s and focuses very much on women’s issues of conception, pregnancy, miscarriage and birth. Some animated sequences highlight this sometimes vividly.

Kelly Reilly portrays Liffey, an up-and-coming architect who is remodelling an old house in Ireland with the help of her boyfriend (Oscar Pearce). The neighbours are both friendly and suspicious, especially Mabs (Miranda Richardson) who has three daughters but is desperate for a boy. When Liffey becomes pregnant, Mabs’ mother, a sinister Rita Tushingham, thinks she has stolen Mab’s baby and, with the help of her granddaughter, she performs incantations in the woods and tries to destroy the baby.

There are further emotional complications because of the spells, especially Liffey’s entanglement with Mabs’ husband. In many ways, the film’s surface looks perfectly realistic – which may make the preternatural goings on seem rather absurd in the light of day. However, Roeg is working with suggestion and mood.

Donald Sutherland, star of Don’t Look Now, has a cameo appearance as the boss of the architectural company who discovers a sense of freedom from the constraints of the corporate world in the Irish woods.

Plenty to think about, but, on the whole, a curiosity item.

SHOOT ON SIGHT

(UK/India, 2007, d. Jag Mundhra)

A topical drama about the war on terrorism and how drastic laws and regulations and procedures can have disastrous side effects. It is also a topical drama about being Muslim in the Western world and being under suspicion.

This film is based on the case of Jean Charles de Menezes, an innocent Brazilian victim of the pursuit of the terrorists in the London bombings of July 22nd 2005 where an address under surveillance was a wrong one and de Menezes was wrongly followed and shot at Stockwell Underground station by police assuming his guilt and his response to their attempts to stop him – in fact, he was afraid of the police because of visa difficulties.

Writer-director, Jag Mundhra (who directed the topical film about Asian men’s violence towards their wives, Provoked, has taken the outline of the story (with acknowledgement) but changed the victim to a Pakistani student who does not hear the police challenge because of his I-Pod?, goes to turn it off and is shot by police thinking he was going for a weapon. Again, there is an issue of a mistaken address, grieving family and a British lawyer who takes on the case for compensation.

However, the bulk of the film is about a senior Asian (Pakistan origin) police officer who is put in charge of the internal investigation. He experiences suspicion, envy from another officer who is a rival for promotion, racial and religious hostility (and sensationalist media coverage) and is victimised by the racism inherent in the police force. Brian Cox appears as his commanding officer who has to deal with the Police Commissioner, the investigations and the potential for cover-ups. All these issues will resonate strongly with a British audience, especially a London audience. With much location photography, the film has a realistic feel about it.

The officer is played with great dignity (with sympathy but also with personal shortcomings) by prolific and award-winning Indian actor, Naseeruddin Shah. Further plot complexity is introduced by having him married to an Englishwoman (Greta Scacchi) which means he can move comfortably in both Asian and British worlds. Because he is a practising Muslim (and is seen at prayer and at the mosque), he can also be condemned by both worlds. (There is also a complication when his teenage daughter is picked up by police for drugs during a party.)

While the victim is innocent, the film does show a group of rabid extremists, their rallies, their converts, their arguments that, although the Koran is against killing, dominance, persecution and invasions by the West, especially the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, mean that there is a war going on which justifies suicide missions. Much of the dialogue offers counterbalancing arguments.

Om Puri is persuasive as an Imam who preaches violence (with rising rhetorical questions about who is innocent) and encourages bomb massacres in a rabble-rousing style. He is a schooldays friend of the police officer and the rival police and the media make hay of a photo of the two shaking hands (which belies the actual situation completely). He is also a strong influence on the officer’s nephew who has come to study in the UK.

The drama moves into thriller mode with the threat of a suicide bombing in a crowded shopping mall on a Saturday. This leads to a moving and complicated emotional ending to an interesting and topical film.




SOMERS TOWN

(UK, 2008, d. Shane Meadows)

This is a brief story of two teenagers who become friends in the King’s Cross area of London, Somers Town.

It was directed by Shane Meadows who has become something of a British favourite with his glimpses into life in the Midlands (24/7, A Room for Romeo Brass, This is England). This time, he is trying out filming in London, atmospheric black and white photography (with some grainy colour at the end for a trip to Paris – on the Eurostar (who invested in the film) out of the newly built and opened St Pancras station near King’s Cross which has become the Eurostar station).

The screenplay is also topical, not just the detail of living in this area of London (where the boy from Nottingham can be mugged and robbed in the streets), but with the building sites around the station, the flats and the shops selling goods that have fallen off the back of a truck, but in the presentation of migrant workers from Poland, their labour, their struggles with the language, their loneliness.

This is particularly true for the introspective Marek, a teenager who has come with his father, misses his mother (wishing she could come to London for weekends), spends a lot of time with his camera, snapping the sympathetic French waitress at a local café. Tomo (Thomas Turgoose from This is England) has come from Nottingham with no prospects and no desire to return home. He is befriended on the train by a woman who helps him out with a sandwich and some cash after the mugging. At the café he meets Marek, messes around with him and takes his photos. But, they become friends, Marek hiding Tomo at home, meeting with Marie, the waitress, encountering Graham and his dodgy goods and doing some work for him and falling foul of Marek’s father after a bout of drinking and raucous music and letting their hair down.

Life wasn’t meant to be easy is one of the messages of this film but there is a warmth of feeling in this tale of two very different boys meeting and becoming friends. Apart from the immediate trip to Paris, who knows how far this friendship will lead to?

THREE AND OUT

(UK, 2008, d. Jonathan Gershfield)

A problematic British comedy where the central idea for the humour concerns people under the trains in London Underground and a driver who has accidentally hit two people being told that if he hits a third person within a month, then the company have to dismiss him but with ten years’ salary. Since the driver in question, Paul, a weedy looking nerdish type, played by Mackenzie Crook, is a would-be novelist, he decides that this would be the answer to all his problems, so he searches for would-be suicides. So far, so…

When Paul saves Tony (Colm Meaney) from jumping off a bridge, they do a deal. However, Tony wants to travel north first to see his estranged wife (Imelda Staunton) and daughter (Gemma Arterton) for the first time in years. The odd couple travel together, not without some adventures. Then the film changes tone completely with the interlude in the country, Meaney and Staunton bringing their characters alive more strongly than the film itself.

When they get back to London, Tony is ready for the accident. What is Paul doing? Assisting a suicide, participating in an accident, doing research for his book? Thus far, so…

Underground drivers were not too pleased when they heard the plot of the film and commentators were testing their sensibilities when they wondered whether this material was suitable for comedy. In theory, yes, but the practice here is something of a mixed bag.

TIMES AND WINDS (BES VAKIT)

(Turkey, 2006, d. Reha Erdem)

This is a cinema-artistic portrait of people in a Turkish mountain village, made in the European style rather than the US narrative mode. This is a film for contemplation of landscapes, figures in landscapes (and times, winds and seasons), unhurried like the paced films of some of the Russian master-directors. And there is, periodically, a vigorous orchestrated score, that adds to the rather operatic nature of the whole film.

The location photography is very beautiful indeed, the craggy mountains, the fertile mountainsides and, always visible in the distance, the sea. The village is isolated (no TV watching here) and has to rely on itself and its few amenities. (This is a reminder to those who blame the media for all that is wrong in behaviour these days that human nature, good and evil, especially evil action, is something intrinsic to all cultures and all times.)

It is also a religious village with many scenes of prayer and calls from the minaret. Some of the dialogue highlights this devout attitude: asking for the leader of prayer to call when someone is sick; even children talking about what is good and what is sinful.

The film opens with a focus on a young lad, Omer, and the film ends with him sitting on the mountain. We perceive most of the events through his eyes and those of his close friend, Yacup, and Yildiz, a girl the same age. But, not all is sweetness and light despite the beauty of the surroundings. Omer resents his harsh father and is jealous of his favoured baby brother, and contemplates killing his father. Yacup catches his father peeping through windows at the young school teacher. The girl has to take care of her sister and, at one dreadful moment, she trips on a rock on the path and drops the baby. There is a poignant aftermath when everyone concentrates on helping the baby, ignoring the girl who just collapses in a faint.

The film is made up of fragments of life through the different time and wind headings: evening, night, noon and the dawn – these cosmic themes are introduced early via the children reading in class from books of geography and astronomy. While the ambience and the culture is Turkish and Muslim, the film is universal in its characters and themes.

VEXILLE

(Japan, 2007, d. Fumihiko Sori)

While the Japanese studios have been developing Anime and Manga animated action films (a counterbalance in animation film content and style from Hollywood and the US), they have tended to be seen by fans of the genres rather than the general public. However, as the years have gone on, more and more of these films have become more readily available and there is a huge market for the DVDs.

The films tend to take up science fiction and science fantasy themes. This is the case with Vexille, which focuses attention on the heroine (and away from Leon, the hero, who should get equal time). However, the original title was Japan Isolation, 2077.

Japan has cut itself from the rest of the world in the 21st century (as it did in the 17th and 18th centuries). But, one of the consequences of this narrowing of horizons is that a corporation has been able to take over human beings and turn them into androids and is pursuing the production of slave-robots. The United Nations has condemned this action.

When two American agents, Leon and Vexille, arrive at a meeting for international representatives, they become involved in confronting the company authorities and do battle, with the help of some fantasy creatures, to stop the process. This being Japan, with its propensity for despair and suicide, is not easy as the populace seems to be determined to go to its doom.

Fans have not been disappointed with this film but, for those not accustomed to style and stories, it is an acquired taste.

THE WACKNESS

(US, 2008, d. Jonathan Levine)

We might ask what on earth is ‘the wackness’. Is it the same as ‘wackiness’? In some ways, yes, though the wackness indicates a more down-mood view of life and reality. Life is skewiff.

While that is an interesting premise for a comedy, a rather dark comedy, the characters are not all that interesting as they go about showing us what a wackness perception of life can be.

The central character is Luke Shapiro during the summer of 1994. This was the summer that the director himself graduated as well so there is more than a touch of nostalgia for that period (especially the music, just after the death of Kurt Cobain) as well as the proliferation of drugs in New York City. In fact, the film is a kind of fictional autobiography – the director pointing out now that this kind of drug-taking can be stupid and that he is not approving, just recording the factual atmosphere of 1994.

Josh Peck does well as Luke but does not bring him to interesting life. Perhaps that was an impossible task because Luke has depressed moods, has the wackness view of life – and is frustrated by his father’s loss of the family money so that they will have to be evicted (and, horror, live in New Jersey). Luke sells drugs when he might be studying and he has a large and varied clientele who ring him and then he personally delivers. It is surprising that he has so many customers because he seems to lack all social charm and graces.

The bright part of the film is the performance of Ben Kingsley as an ex-hippy (well not quite yet ex) type who is a therapist and has Luke for sessions (paid in kind by drugs). Luke also supplies Kingsley’s step-daughter (Olivia Thirlby) with whom he strikes up a friendship which he (not she) dreams of as a romance. The girl’s mother (Famke Janssen) has been through drug rehabilitation and her marriage is strained.

Kingsley (with a wig giving him more hair than we have ever seen him with) gives an offbeat amusing performance that really illustrates wackness.

Only for devotees of oddball black comedies.

WILD CHILD

(US, 2008, d. Nick Moore)

If you are a member of the targeted teenage audience, you will probably have a completely different reaction to the film from that of parents – and of those even older. Here was Material Girls become Mean Girls and go to St Trinians until our wild child becomes a perfectly responsible young miss who has changed Malibu pampered self-centred hedonism for the discipline and sporting skills of a British private school lady.

Older audiences will have mood swings, especially if they are not sympathetic to presumptuous Americans who assume that their affluence is the only way of life and are arrogantly insensitive to other cultures and styles. Poppy (Emma Roberts, Eric Roberts’ daughter) is an unbearable sixteen year old with a gaggle of hanger-on mindless friends who is resentful of her father (Aidan Quinn) after the death of her mother. She is brazen, he is exasperated and packs her off to Abbey Mount in England as a boarder, where nice but disciplined Natasha Richardson is the calm, non-negotiating headmistress.

Moods get worse as we see Poppy bring all her Yankee bumptiousness to the school, the girls, the staff and the rules.

Of course, we know that she is going to transform for the better by the end of the film but we do not realise she will go through the rebel stage (minor St Trinians’ misbehaviour) which makes us emphathise with her father’s exasperation.

Gradually, she transforms, getting the dorm room girls on side, and confronting the impossible head Girl who has her yes-girls in tow and moves through the students aping royalty. And we know she is going to get her comeuppance (Americans can change, the Brits just get their comeuppance).

By the end, Poppy is so good at LaCrosse? (and discovers her mother was captain at the school 30 years earlier), so repentant of her misdeeds, so becoming in her uniform that we are prepared (or are supposed to be prepared) to forgive her everything.

YOU DON’T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN

(US, 2008, d. Denis Dugan)

Adam Sandler comedies used to be raucous in his Billy Madison days. Then he went a bit more up-market with such comedies as The Wedding Singer, then more serious with Punch Drunk Love. Since then he has been combining most of these elements, which is what he is doing here. However, a lot of people are put off by the lowbrow end of his humour and this cancels out the middlebrow humour for them even though it is often quite good.

This is what has happened with this one. There are plenty of corny-to-crass jokes of a sexual variety as well as some farcical slapstick, especially when Israeli agent Zohan is doing battle with Palestinian champion, The Phantom. With that said, there remain quite a lot of gags and jokes that are entertaining.

On the serious side (at least in intention), this is a comedy about the present Israel-Palestine? situation, the one that is deadly for that part of the Middle East with terrorist attacks and military reprisals. The subject of comedy? Of an Adam Sandler comedy? Why not? Millions of people are going to see it, have a laugh and maybe give not only a second thought but also a third thought and beyond to the sad and deadly implications of the conflict. Sandler is not trying to solve the problems or find a peace solution but, as an American Jewish comedian, he is asking his audiences to think about what each side has in common (apart from terrified Americans after 9/11 thinking that Jews and Arabs look the same so are suspicious of them)
and ask whether peace is possible.

Sandler plays Zohan a top Israeli agent whose nemesis is the Palestinian The Phantom (John Turturro in overdrive). Tired of warfare and possessed of a dream of going to New York to become a hair stylist (not what his Jewish Momma or father had in mind), he fakes his death and stows away to the US calling himself after the two poodles he travelled with. He doesn’t make immediate headway but finally gets a job in a Palestinian salon (on the Palestinian side of the street opposite the Jewish side) calling himself an Australian. Then the sex scenes begin! With the mother of the shy man whose side he takes in after demolishing a driver who caused a car accident, then with all the senior-age ladies who come to get their hair done and… It is probably important to note here that one of the writers is the now very successful Jud Appatow and, looking at recent films he has written and sometimes directed, we find that there is a ‘Jud Appatow Syndrome’ (in The 40 Year Old Virgin, in Knocked up and here): characters promote and indulge in promiscuity but finally discover genuine and true love and move to committed monogamy. No moralist could complain about that.

To complicate the Jewish-Palestinian? conflict further, some Palestinians in New York (including an almost unrecognisable Rob Schneider who appears in most of Sandler’s films) want to firebomb Zohan’s salon in revenge for his confiscating their goat, and then some WASP capitalist developers hire thugs to disguise themselves as Palestinians and create warfare so that the Americans can come in, take over and build a mall!

Needless to say, there is a happy ending, with a love story between Zohan and his Palestinian boss, with The Phantom and his dream of selling shoes and with peace breaking out, at least on the street.

So, the Sandler formula of lowbrow, middlebrow comedy with something of a message.




SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS 2008 OCTOBER


88 MINUTES
APPALOOSA
BABYLON AD
BANGKOK DANGEROUS
BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS, The
BRIDESHEAD REVISITED
BURN AFTER READING
CITY OF EMBER
DEATH RACE
DISASTER MOVIE
EDEN LAKE
FALL, The
FOOT FIST WAY, The
GOOD DICK
HOUSE BUNNY (The)
HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS AND ALIENATE PEOPLE
JAR CITY
LIVE!
MIRRORS
MUTANT CHRONICLES
PARTITION
PINEAPPLE EXPRESS
REDBELT
RIGHTEOUS KILL
ROCKNROLLA
STEP-BROTHERS
STRANGERS, The
TAKEN
THEN SHE FOUND ME
TROPIC THUNDER
UNRELATED
WOMEN, The
WELLE, Die (THE WAVE)



88 MINUTES

(US, 2007, d.Jon Avnet)

Well, yes, it is far, far-fetched (we hope) and aspects of the plot and the murders seem to defy ordinary logistics and, yes, it is melodramatic and has more than a couple of lurid aspects, but this is what we might expect from this kind of heightened crime thriller rather than detailed and credible realism. To see it as the equivalent of an hour's episode of a police thriller which goes for realism is to misjudge the intentions of the film-makers. That said, this is one of those breathless thrillers where someone is threatened with death in 88 minutes and he has to track down the killer and save himself.

It has been directed by Jon Avnet who went on to make Righteous Kill with Al Pacino and Robert de Niro. Both are extremely melodramatic but this one has the edge over Righteous Kill.

The film opens with a gruesome killing, the arrest of the perpetrator, a court case and his being found guilty, especially because of the testimony of the victim's twin sister who glimpsed him as he tried to kill her and, especially, the expert witness, Jack Gramm, a psychiatrist who assists the police in their work. Al Pacino is Jack Gramm.

The rest of the action takes place nine years later as the murderer is about to be executed. A similar murder is discovered and Jack Gramm is implicated. He also receives a series of phone calls threatening him with death in 88 minutes (a sadistic touch as Gramm's little sister had been murdered years earlier and tortured for 88 minutes and he had been haunted by guilt since). Gramm believes that the murder has been orchestrated by the condemned man and tries to find out who, especially among his university students, had visited him and could be the accomplice.

There is a lot of breathless running, driving and constant mobile phone calls which speeds up the research as well as the ease of contact from the killer. There is, naturally, a great deal of misdirection but, on the whole, the screenplay plays fair with clues and indications which means that suspicions become more focused because of a suspicious incident about half way through.

Alicia Witt and Lelee Sobieski appear as two of the psychiatrist's students. Amy Brenneman is his loyal assistant and Deborah Kara Unger is the faculty principal. Neal McDonagh? is the eerily charming murderer, appearing on national television hours before his execution.

Not a Pacino must but geared to the thriller audience.

APPALOOSA

(US, 2008, d. Ed Harris)

There have not been many big westerns in recent years. Kevin Costner made Open Range and there was the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Ed Harris has decided to put a great deal of effort into co-writing, producing, performing and directing this new western. (He sings the song during the final credits which he also co-wrote!)

This is a classic western, a return to immersing the audience in a particular place and a particular time with its own ethos and its own morality. It is not looking at the frontiers and the 19th century west from a 21st century point of view. We are in Appaloosa, New Mexico, 1882, a period of transition. A small town has prospered through mining but the wealthy landowner is a self-made man with a dubious past, a man who takes the law into his own hands, as we see from the beginning, when he shoots a marshal and his assistants to avoid them arresting his ranch hands. The man is arrogant and confronts the law, even hires men to help him escape from custody and execution. He is played by Jeremy Irons, an actor one normally does not see in the west. He carries of his villainous role with conviction.

The film has a voiceover commentary from a former West Point officer turned independent lawman, Hitch (Viggo Mortensen). Hitch admires a stronger lawman, Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and they hire themselves out to impose law and order on towns. The apprehensive town leaders (including Timothy Spall) welcome them.

This is not an action-packed western. It takes its time, drawing its characters, setting up the confrontations, making sure that the audience is well entrenched in this world. Cole is a steely-eyed, quick shooter who also ruminates, reads and, with the help of Hitch, wants to improve his very limited vocabulary. Hitch is the upright, very loyal deputy.

There is some disturbance in the town when a widow, Rene Zellwegger, arrives in town and Cole takes a shine to her. Hitch is less convinced.

With all of this established, the film can move into some action, including a court case presided over by the judge who is played by Ed Harris's father. There is a train hold-up, a desert pursuit, an encounter with Indians, some shootouts.

It is a compliment to Ed Harris to say that one can imagine Clint Eastwood making this kind of autumnal western, autumnal insofar as the 19th century west is coming to an end, and autumnal in the age of the protagonists. They are not young guns. And the superb photography is by Australian Dean Semler who won an Oscar for Dances with Wolves.

BABYLON AD

(France/US, 2008, d. Mathieu Kassowitz)
Director Mathieu Kassowitz has expressed, very strongly, his disapproval of this version of his film. For fans of this kind of futuristic action film may have to wait for the Director’s Cut.
What remains is strong on locations, stunts and special effects - these locations range from an over-populated Russia, to the wilds of Mongolia and a Shangri-La? convent, to Vladivostok and the ice cap between Siberia and North America, to the wilds of Canada and a New York that does not look all that different from now. The reason for the locations is that the hero, a disillusioned mercenary now seen as a terrorist, is blackmailed into bringing a special woman, a genetically engineered creation who is to be proclaimed as a new messiah and to give credence (and financial gain) to a new religion.
One of the problems is that the mercenary is played, as much he did in Pitch Black, xXx, The Chronicles of Riddick, by a grim Vin Diesel (of the Steven Seagall school of hard, expressionless action). Melanie Thierry is the girl. But, for cinema buffs, it is the supporting cast which is the most interesting: Charlotte Rampling doing he cold, haughty and cutting thing as the exploitative high priestess of the new religion, Lambert Wilson as he estranged doctor-genetic engineer husband, Mark Strong as a gung-ho drive and, best of all, Michelle Yeoh as Sister Rebecca who is the demure guardian of the young woman - though she is forced into exercising her martial arts skills. Gerard Depardieu appears in a couple of scenes grotesquely playing a grotesque criminal.
Familiar material, not always coherent (maybe due to producer interference) with some interesting moments.

BANGKOK DANGEROUS

(Thailand, d. The Pang Brothers)

It's a bit of a surprise to find that this film actually opens in Prague. However, it is an introduction to a hitman, a meticulously ruthless and unemotional professional played by Nicolas Cage in his sombre mode.

Soon we are in Bangkok where the killer has a contract to dispose of four targets. There is a young go-between who is in admiration of the killer who has told us his unchangeable rules include not forming any attachments. But, he does, and starts to train the eager young man. By chance, he visits a pharmacy and is attracted by one of the staff who turns out to be a mute woman. She is attracted by him – and he shows a charming side of his impersonal character. Finally, as we know, he will have to face his conscience. One of his targets is an honest politician who does good for his constituents. Will he kill him or not?

The film, though dark, is full of local colour – though of those parts of Bangkok which tourists don't normally visit.

The Pang Brothers originally made this film in 1999. This remake for an American and worldwide audience is really much as action fans would expect: a brutal killer, some brutal killings, some action sequences, a touch of romance and a challenge to conscience and to his feelings.

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS

(UK, 2008, d. Mark Herman)

This is a children’s film, in the sense that it is about small children (as well as adults) and much of it is directed towards small children (age eight and upwards). This does not mean that it is an easy or delightful entertainment for an outing. Rather, this is a message film, a strong message through a story and characters that they can understand, whom they will feel with. It would be good for parents and children to see this film together. It is also one of those films which would be helpful in a school or discussion situation.

It is a Holocaust film.

The Holocaust took place over sixty years ago but it is a 20th century event that should never be forgotten. This was in the mind of the novelist who wrote the story, Irishman John Boyne (born in 1971). For him, the internment and extermination of millions of Jews was something that happened a long time ago. He wrote the story to remind his readers of the horrors so that this should not happen again. This is the intention of the film-makers, especially the writer-director, Mark Herman (who also made Brassed Off and Little Voice).

It seems important to remember that the story is one that is seen from an 8 year old's point of view. He does not understand what is going on. He thinks that the camp that he can see from his window is a farm and the farmers wear strange clothes, like pyjamas. We see the camp from his limited point of view and, to that extent, the 'realistic' details can be criticised as 'unrealistic'. Adults looking at the film, especially the reconstruction of the camp without too many watchtowers and parts of the fences left unguarded, may be dissatisfied. But that is not the point. This is a fable for children about friendship and the ugliness of cruel power and prejudice.

The little boy, Bruno (Asa Butterfield), is the son of the camp commandant (David Thewliss quietly menacing). The family has moved from Berlin to the camp, to a big house beyond the fences and the boy is lonely without his friends. There is a strange servant in the house, also wearing pyjamas, who is kind to him, a doctor who now peels potatoes and works the garden. Bruno cannot understand why Pavel (David Heyman, the producer of the film) has given up being a doctor for this.

Bruno loves exploring. Which brings him, without his parents knowing, to the camp fence where he sees Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), an 8 year old internee. Bruno asks all kinds of questions about Shmuel and the camp, innocent even naïve questions. Friendship blossoms but, at one crucial point, where Shmuel is working in the house, Bruno denies that he knows Shmuel and accuses him of stealing the food that Bruno had secretly given him. The boys have to work through this betrayal to forgiveness and some atonement.

Vera Farmiga portrays the children's mother – Bruno has a 12 year old sister who embraces the Nazi ideology unquestioningly. The mother thinks that the camp is just a labour camp but is puzzled by the smoke and smell from the chimneys. The adjutant makes a casual remark about the furnaces and what they are really for. This creates a dilemma for the mother and her relationship with her husband (whose father, Richard Johnson, supports his son's necessary work but whose mother, Sheila Hancock, strongly disapproves).

The dialogue does not downplay the bigotry, the arrogance and the ignorance of the Nazi beliefs and aims. The children's father and their tutor mouthe the prejudices without a second thought. The tutor remarks, ironically, that the greatest exploration would be to discover a good Jew. That becomes something of Bruno's goal. Together with Shmuel, he tries to achieve it.

A warning that the ending is not what audiences will expect and is quite disturbing and may need parents' and teachers' help and explanations for some children to deal with it.

BRIDESHEAD REVISITED

(UK, 2008, d. Julian Jarrold)

Evelyn Waugh wrote this novel in 1945, a strong departure from the barbed satires that he wrote in the 1920s and 1930s. This was a more serious treatment of British society between the wars. Not that it was a cross-section of society. The locations for the story were an ancestral home, Oxford University, middle-class Paddington, Venice and a transatlantic luxury liner. It has often been said that, while Waugh did not belong to this upper class, he felt himself drawn to it even as he attacked it.

However, what makes Brideshead Revisited (the novel, the classic television series of 1981 and this version) of great interest to audiences who think about society, class differences, aristocratic snobbery and presumptions, is the religious dimension from Waugh, the convert to Catholicism. The family at the centre of the story is Catholic. Their Catholicism was not typical of the broader sweep of Catholicism at that time (no Irish working class Catholics here, no Catholic Action, no indication of the renaissance in writing, publishing, preaching of the period). Rather, this was the religion of the Recusant families with their steadfast stances against the Reformation, persecuted in penal times and now taking a stance against secularism.

This is all observed by the audience through the eyes of young atheist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode, looking and sounding like a young Jeremy Irons who played Charles in the series). The Catholicism that is gradually revealed does not appeal to him, indeed comes to repel him. The rituals and devotions of the times evoke memories for older Catholics but may not mean much to younger Catholics at all: rosary beads, holy water and genuflections, the family chapel with night prayer and the singing of the Salve Regina, the family chaplain, the last rites. These are some of the practices.

However, the religious stances seem to be more an inheritance that is as ingrained as class superiority. Which means that the ideology of belief imposes itself as the right and only way of life. The screenplay has much God-talk but Charles is very critical of it. This faith is personified in Lady Marchmain (an excellent Emma Thompson) who could serve as a metaphor for 'Mother Church', so protecting her children and determined to achieve good for them despite themselves. This means a hard religion, with harsh judgments, which drives her children away from her, except for her eldest son who replicates his mother. Hayley Atwell is Julia, a woman of low self-esteem, trapped in moral quandaries of marriage and love. Ben Whishaw is Sebastian, homosexual and alcoholic, in love with Charles, blaming his mother but, maybe finding some salvation, in serving others in his later life.

Michael Gambon plays Lord Marchmain, resentful of his wife's control, who has given up family and faith to live in Venice with his mistress (Greta Scacchi). Yet, the film keeps raising faith questions as he comes back to die in Brideshead and his family insist on the ministrations of the priest.

The love of Brideshead, the experience of the family, his affection for Sebasitan, his love for Julia, the clashes with Lady Marchmain and his condescension towards his father (Patrick Malahide) and his being ousted from Brideshead all mean that Charles has to consider seriously this religion and belief (no matter how guilt-ridden it is). He has to be a doubting atheist – symbolised by his not extinguishing the chapel candle at the end.

Literary adaptations are always a problem: what to include, what to omit, how to communicate the thrust of the original in a cinematic interpretation. Those unfamiliar with novel and series may see the film as yet another English heritage story, with lavish settings (and the Howard stately home is magnificent, Oxford looks wonderful as does Venice). Whether the film is, as some audiences have felt, an attack on Catholicism (or, at least, this narrower version of Catholicism) or not, films like this offer an opportunity for reflection and are a challenge to believers.


BURN AFTER READING

(US, 2008, Joel and Ethan Coen)

After the grim excellence of No Country for Old Men, what would the Coen Brothers do next? They haven't taken very long to show us: a Washington DC drama that moves into comedy that revels in spoof. And most audiences are going to find it very funny indeed. Who would have that (and this does not spoil film viewing) that a final scene between two supporting actors talking in an office would be so hilarious?

George Clooney is back in a daft character, after working with the Coens for O Brother Where Art Thou and Intolerable Cruelty. Frances Mc Dormand is back (she is Mrs Joel Coen) and has worked for them often, most memorably in her Oscar-winning turn in Fargo. There is also a sharp-tongued angry Tilda Swinton, a soul-searching Richard Jenkins and a disillusioned CIA operative played with zest by John Malkovich. The advertising has focused on Brad Pitt but he is in a supporting role - nevertheless he steals the film with his very funny characterisation of a rather limited-witted assistant at a gym, working with McDormand? for Jenkins. His look, his body language, his behaviour contributes to a performance well worth seeing.

In fact, all the cast are worth seeing, Clooney doing some dumb things, Frances McDormand? on her high horse to raise money for four bouts of elective body improving surgery, Malkovich at this wit's end.

You wonder at the opening how a firing at the CIA, a Treasury worker and his children's story book writing wife and three characters at the gym could possibly come together, but come together they do and the plot becomes more and more entangled and enjoyable.

There is slapstick and farce as well as witty (if too often peppered with swearing) dialogue. This is especially the case with J.K. Simmons as the CIA head (really doing a repeat of his editor role in Spiderman) but, with perfect timing, he sends up the world of espionage, Washington decisions and responsibilities and cover-up.

The Coens have done it again.

CITY OF EMBER

(US, 2008, d. Gil Kenan)

Where or what is the city of Ember? It is a city from a fantasy novel by Je.oanne Deprau, a city under the earth built to last 200 years to protect survivors from a dying world. The 200 years are now up and the inhabitants of Ember have lost the knowledge of how they are to live on. Ember is running down and collapsing.

This is the stuff of science fantasy and futuristic tales. It seems to be aimed at the younger audience but adults fond of this genre may well enjoy it.

The sets are immediately striking – and the whole city was built on a wharf in Belfast that saw the building of the Titanic (the real one, not James Cameron’s!). There is the town square, the mayor’s palatial offices, dingy houses and half empty shops, a greenhouse for vegetables and the vast pipeworks and the generator which keeps the city going but is breaking down more frequently. There is always something for the eye in the film.

Children are the heroes of City of Ember, two teenagers, one a girl who is a messenger (phones have long disappeared), the other a pipeworks technician. Together, they are able to discover what is happening and solve the mysteries and search for safety and a future. This takes them into vast realms under the city, a river and a waterway and a climb to the surface.

The film-makers have assembled an impressive cast. Saoirse Ronan (from Atonement and Death Defying Acts) is a strong-minded messenger. Harry Treadaway is the technician. And there are quite a few adult stars including Bill Murray doing his thing as a seemingly nice and patriotic mayor, Toby Jones as his fawning assistant, Tim Robbins as an eccentric scientist, father of the hero, and Martin Landau as an ancient worker who is narcoleptic. Add in British Liz Smith, Marianne Jean-Baptiste? and Mackenzie Crook and you have a quality cast list.

There are plenty of themes for those who like to work on the interpretation of this kind of fantasy, themes of light and darkness, themes of authority and freedom, themes of fear and hope as well as forces for good and forces for evil.

Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands) wrote the screenplay. Director Gil Kenan made the fine animated story Monster House and shows again his flair for exciting the imagination.


DEATH RACE

(US, 2008, d. Paul W.S.Anderson)

Bing, bang, bam, boom, bash... And that's just the pre-credits' prologue! Depending on where you see Death Race (that is presuming you want to see it), then you will experience cinematic assault and battery. It is an assault on the eyes with its wide screen format and pounding pacing and editing. And it's loud. Very loud.

Which makes one wonder who is the target audience. Those of us who felt that the 1975 Death Race 2000 on which this film was based (with David Carradine and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone) was a guilty pleasure may just feel guilty without the pleasure. But, in the words of Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon films, we are probably to old for this kind of... Those who are not into cars and violent death races, which means a large percentage of the population, will not want to see it. Which leaves us with those younger macho boys at heart with their testosterone-fuelled sensibilities. It will be adrenalin-pumping. On the other hand, such high octane crash-bam-wallop shenanigans are just numbing.

It is 2012 and we are told that the American economy has collapsed (which makes the film more current than it might have imagined). Unemployment is rife. Our hero, Jason Statham, in a variation of his Transporter driver roles, is let go with not enough money to support his wife and daughter. When his wife is murdered and he is framed, he finds himself in a prison where the warden (Joan Allen of all people) runs drivers and cars in a death race series which the avid public can subscribe to watch on television and on line. Tyrese Gibson is around as a rival driver. Ian McShane? is the coach and mechanic.

While the races are loud and fast-paced, with no holds barred brutality, they do not seem to be all that interesting.

Ultimately, this is a battle of wits and the underdogs defying the bosses. The producers must have thought they were on to something when they have Joan Allen mouthe some words that she normally doesn't say in films. They might not, as in the words of My Fair Lady, make a sailor blush, but the sailor might well be shocked to hear Joan Allen saying them. At the end of the final credits, she says them again!

The whole thing is gruelling – which is what director Paul W.S.Anderson (who made Resident Evil and Alien Versus Predator) exactly wants.

DISASTER MOVIE

(US, 2008, d. Jason Friedberg, Aaron Seltzer)

This time one must agree with the severe and/or the humourless critics. This is not a funny movie.

For several years there have been spoofs of most of the popular genres, some of them made by the present team. Although there were, at times, jokes in execrable taste, there were still some amusing lines, some laugh-making parodies and some clever moments of spoof. There have been Scary Movies, Date Movies, Epic Movies, Superhero Movies and Meet the Spartans,

This short spoof is very up-to-date, even sending up some of the 2008 summer movies as soon as they have reached screens around the world, including Iron Man, Indiana Jones, Hellboy, Get Smart and Sex and the City. There is a long section on Amy Winehouse.

About the cleverest bit was the performance of the comedian who was taking off Ellen Page as Juno. Some of her lines were good and she delivered them in a successful impersonation of Juno.

All in all, a cheap and ineffective quickie which could have been funny given the wide range of films that it took on (and took off).


EDEN LAKE

(UK, 2008, d. James Watkins)
Eden Lake sounds very placid and, indeed, the lake is. It is just that the violent episodes at the lake are far from placid.
While this terror film (no supernatural suggestions for the terror, just plain brutality from young thugs) takes its audience into familiar territory: a young couple on a quiet weekend away being hounded for their lives, this is film is a cut (actually a lot of cuts) above many similar films. This is due to the performances of Kelly Reilly, who has to bear the brunt of most of the drama, and Michael Fassbender. While there is some gore which sensitive audiences may well find too much, there is an underlying theme of the ugliness of so much of British violence today.
In the context of the UK and its concern about knife crime and the seemingly indiscriminate killings in the streets, the film seems quite relevant. It does not analyse. It just tells its story and shows a group of six teenagers with insolent attitudes, taunting the couple, becoming angry, the leader letting loose and putting fierce peer pressure on the rest of the group to indulge his growing vindictive taste for violence. Particularly repellent is the young woman who films everything on her mobile phone.
At the end we see the parents who seem to be oblivious of the behaviour of their children - and actually reinforce their children’s antisocial actions by their own attitudes and behaviour.
A terror film so well done that it is quite disturbing and, ultimately, horrifying.

THE FALL

(US, 2006, d. Tarsem)

Writer-director Tarsem was born and educated in India and then moved to the US in his 20s. He directed The Cell with Jennifer Lopez and has directed a range of music videos. Clearly, he is a film-maker who is fascinated with striking and colourful (extremely colourful) images. This means that, above all, The Fall is a visual and aural experience (with many musical styles as background).

Looking at the final credits, most will be amazed (and wondering about the air fares, let alone the budget) at the many, many locations used, from the US and India to South America and Fiji, Bali and the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They are exotic but have been enhanced (and re-created with buildings and sets) by computergraphic effects.

It seems best in a review of The Fall to mention this first because this is where the main impact occurs. There is a plot, several plots that audiences may well find difficult to keep in focus and follow. Thoughts of Terry Gilliam come to mind with Baron Munchhausen or Time Bandits… This is especially true of the opening sequence on a railway bridge over a river and the lifting of a horse to the top. In fact, this is an adaptation of a Bulgarian film.

And the plot? Los Angeles in the early 20th century. A hospital. A small girl, Alexandria (played by a Romanian, Catinca) has lost her parents, employed for seasonal fruit-picking, in a fire started by bigots. She visits an actor, stuntman, who has been injured but is also pining his lost love. The two begin to talk. He tells a story about Alexander the Great (with vivid re-enactment in a bright orange desert) which Alexandria does not really like. He then begins an epic story which is visualised for us, from Alexandria’s point of view not his, because she begins to include him in the story as a gallant bandit, the nurse as an oriental princess, and her parents as well. Eventually, she is in the story with the bandit.

There are four characters stranded on a tropical sand bar, all the victims of a Count Odious. There is an Italian explosives expert, a slave, an Indian who has lost his wife and there is Charles Darwin. Each of their background stories is visualised, quite elaborately. So are their adventures and the pursuit by Odious. The bandit joins them and, eventually, Alexandria.

The film keeps coming back to the hospital where the storyteller, Roy (an unexciting Lee Pace) wants to die. On the wards is Nurse Evelyn who becomes the Princess (Justine Waddell is less than exciting). The wards and the X Ray rooms are a touch eerie as is life in the hospital.

Finally, everyone sits watching films (silent films) and, especially the children in the hospital, enjoying them.

Exotically esoteric.

THE FOOT FIST WAY

(US, 2006, d.Jody Hill)

The foot fist way is Tae Kwon Do.

This is not exactly an unmissable film. It features Danny R. McBride? and could have served as an audition and a calling card to roles that he accepted soon after, especially some Judd Appatow (Drillbit Taylor, Pineapple Express) and some Ben Stiller films (The Heartbreak Kid, Tropic Thunder). He is proving himself quite an adept comedian.

He is also adept here, but this is a low-budget film, brief in running-time and not as funny, perhaps, as it intended to be. The trouble is that McBride? plays the obnoxious central character, Fred Simmons, so well that he does not seem to be funny but, rather, someone to avoid. He is the self-important (well, he had been a winning champion in 1991) director of a suburban Tae Kwon Do centre, catering for school children, some lonely middle aged clients and some oldies. He can train them well but it is all formal and pompous. He is not the most discreet of characters when he blurts out what he thinks and what he thinks ought to happen. He is married to an over-tanned, statuesque beauty – and we wonder how they ever got married and how they stayed together (though the plot soon shows us that the marriage is collapsible).

There are a lot of shenanigans with his two assistants, one a fat Latino boy whom he puts down, the other a gawky bullied teenager whose low self-esteem he is continually reinforcing. When a school friend turns up, a really strange and creepy type, played by the director and co-writer, they go to a convention and meet their hero, a martial arts movie star. Humiliation, fisticuffs, betrayal all follow! It all culminates in the tests for a higher belt where the right people defeat the wrong people. Whether Fred Simmons could be happy every after is not clear. He may have learned a few lessons, but he really is thick, self-inflated and obtuse.

GOOD DICK

(US, 2008, d. Marianna Palka)

A brief, small-budget character study, something like a psychodrama.

Marianna Palka grew up in Glasgow but moved to the United States at the age of seventeen. In Los Angeles she partnered Jason Ritter in creating the company Morning Knight Inc. They work together here, she as writer, director and star, he has a producer and co-star.

Ritter plays the unnamed young man who works in a video/DVD store, with a group of friends who sit round and talk about relationships and about movies (as if they were akin to Kevin Smith's Clerks). One of the customers is an unnamed young woman whom we first see nervously driving to the store and renting erotic films. The young man is attracted, intrigued and follows her, trying to get up the nerve to speak to her. He has a telephone-dominating mother and has had to move out of his apartment and is living in his car and refers to himself, as he gives the gift of a cross, as a lifelong Catholic though this seems to have nothing to do, really, with what goes on. She seems quite neurotic.

Eventually, he infiltrates himself into her almost-confidence and into her apartment though she is very strong in exercising control over him. He is a genial and patient type. What follows is the sexual part of the psychodrama, with not a great deal of visual explicitness. This is more in the topics of discussion and the dialogue. He is fairly ordinary in his outlook and behaviour. She has been compensating with the DVDs and has to come to terms with moving away from the merely physical to the emotional and the relational.

Towards the end, she visits her father (Tom Arnold) at work and the audience learns quite a deal about her and what has stunted her emotional maturity.

The director describes her film in a statement as a fairy tale. That is not the first phrase that an audience might think of but, in terms of a just-down-the street-ordinary-charming man rescuing a young woman trapped in her emotional ivory tower, yes, that might be an apt description.

THE HOUSE BUNNY

(US, 2008, d. Fred Wolf)

Who would have thought? In 2008 a PG rated story about Bunnies and the Playboy mansion, with an appearance by Hugh Hefner himself (looking old and only semi-lecherous)? But, this is partly what this light, breezy and cheerful comedy is about.

Anna Faris showed that she has a talent for cleverly portraying dumb blonde types on screen in such films as the Scary Movie series. This time she is a neglected orphan, Shelley, who is mysteriously transformed (something like the conglomerated mix-up of familiar fairy tales that Shelley recounts) into a Bunny living at Hefner’s mansion. The mansion and behaviour portrayed here seems audience-friendly-sanitised. When ousted from the mansion, and with no credentials or work talents, and no education (her vocabulary is seriously limited), she arrives like an innocent Crocodile Dundee, or any of those naive heroes and heroines of city comedies, in Los Angeles, trying to find somewhere to stay.

She ingenuously turns up at a college, spurned by the rich and intelligent, depended on by the sorority outcasts, wanting to be the house mother – and, of course, she transforms them into glamorous starlets, finds a decent man to fall in love with, defeats the mean girls and their cohorts, blends her extravert talents and charms with some study and innate shrewdness and shows that it is best to be one’s true self with inner beauty and that being the November centrefold is not a be-all and end-all of life. And who could quibble with that?

HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS AND ALIENATE PEOPLE

(UK/US, 2008, d. Robert Weide)

This satirical film has been adapted (or based on without reproducing the plot and themes exactly) from a book by Toby Young about his journalistic ambitions in London and his opportunity to fulfil them in New York. Actually, his ambitions are far less exalted. He wanted it all: the easy good time, the wealth, the glamour and the glitter, being seen with celebrities in the public eye and writing, mainly gossip (and invention) in a glossy magazine. He does all this, of course, but at what price? And, can it last? In real life, with bluff and no shame, it probably could, but this kind of film is one of those morality stories where you have your cake, eat it and then move to a higher plain where such cake can be looked down on.

A lot of the film is bright and breezy and there some very funny bits.

However, we are taken into the world of gossip columnists and paparazzi where the pinnacle of achievement is to have written a cover story of about 2000 words that remains in the public eye until the next issue is published. This is the ephemeral achievement of having done that and, therefore, been there, with the strong possibility that that is it.

Simon Pegg is quite convincing as Sidney Young, the well-educated (but that does not matter) son of a prominent philosopher (but that is far too serious) who behaves like a magazine world Austin Powers (manic, say whatever comes into your head - his analysis of the art of Con Air is worth hearing - dance as vigorously as you can and presume that you are absolutely right about everything and there is no need to worry about tomorrow). We see him trying to gatecrash parties, talk to Thandie Newton herself as if he were a top producer, spy on the well-known and then, almost inexplicably, be invited to New York to work on the magazine of his dreams by its editor, Jeff Bridges, doing his executive variation of Lebowski.

Danny Huston is very effective and all too credible as his smarmy boss. Gillian Anderson is also good as a dominating, no holds-barred-if-it-promotes-my-client agent. Megan Fox is the star she manages who is up to doing anything required for publicity. (She is up for an award in a highly-fictionalised (!) film of Mother Teresa's vocation, The Making of a Saint which we see glimpses and posters of and, if we stay for the final credits, see the complete hilariously irreverent trailer!)

But, it is Kirsten Dunst as Sidney's co-worker who brings an element of reality into his life even though she herself has her own problems. She is quietly charming and reminds us of how pleasing an actress she can be.

If you want to risk spending time in this phony world and its worldliness, there is enough humour and good performances to see you through. But, as the Danny Huston character reminds us, not everybody sees the light to do the good and right thing.

MYRIN (JAR CITY)

(Iceland, 2007, d. Baltasar Kormakur)

Given its very small population (just over 300,000), Iceland has a reputable film industry and many of its productions receive international release. Baltasar Kormakur is one of the most prominent directors with 101 Reykjavik, The Sea and A Little Taste of Heaven.

Those who enjoy police thrillers will like Jar City, especially those who liked the Scandinavian versions of Insomnia or Nightwatch or read the novels of Henning Menkel of Sweden. This film is based on an award-winning novel by Arnaldur Indrioasen.

The setting is Reykjavik, especially its suburbs. An institution that is compiling computer records of the lives (and illnesses) of the inhabitants is the subject of ethical questions in terms of invasion of privacy. One man is illegally undertaking his own investigation, especially concerning the brain disease that is killing his young daughter.

In the meantime, the body of an elderly man is found, murdered.

The two strands will eventually come together quite effectively, especially through the police work of the inspector and his team. The inspector also has serious problems with his addict daughter.

Since this is not Los Angeles and the world of private eyes, the atmosphere is quite dark, the story is bleak and questions are raised about this isolated population and some consequences of sexual assault and inbreeding.

Jar City unravels its mystery in an intelligent and interesting way.

LIVE!

(US, 2007, d.Bill Guttentag)

If you loathe 'reality TV' shows, then this is the film for you. On the other hand, if you love 'reality TV' shows, then you need to see this.

We are immediately introduced to the vigorously ambitious Katy (a strong Eva Mendes) who works for a television channel whose ratings are slipping. By chance, somebody jokingly remarks that the reality shows are getting so way out that the next thing could be Russian roulette on the small screen. It clicks as no other way out idea (and the film offers some jaw-dropping examples) for Katy and off she goes. She knows how to manipulate people, confronting the boss (Paul Michael Glaser), persuading the upright company lawyer (Andre Braugher) that he will find his place in legal history if he defends the freedom and rights to air this show. His specious speech to the TV controlling board is a stunning example of false logic delivered with sincerity and gravitas. She cajoles the sponsors into coughing up their millions for commercials, after making them weep at a sob story.

Then we realise that she is being filmed by a young director (David Krumholz) who is making a documentary on her (often leaving his camera running when he is told to turn it off).

What clinches the show is a series of auditions of talent who are willing to risk their lives for a shot (literal) at $5,000,000 to each survivor. The director makes some puff pieces to introduce each candidate. Each of these is well worth seeing as a parody of particular types of American pizzazz and/or sentimentality. The actors in these roles are very good indeed, as they are when the show finally goes into production. Jeffrey Dean Morgan wrings the heartstrings, with his wife and ill son, as the middle American desperately impoverished farmer. Jay Hernandez is the Latino, injured so that he cannot become a dancer but who loves his mother – and is gay. There is a surfer dude, a model who has had an epiphany about exploitation of the body and who has become a performance artist. There is the young girl who came to Hollywood to be a star but who had to go the hard way via strip clubs. And there is the intelligent black New Jersey man who wants to become a writer (and whose parents are horrified at his decision). This is a nice and amusing cross-section of ordinary Americans.

As an expose (exaggerated, we hope!) of life in a TV channel where morality becomes obsolete, where ratings and getting easy money (well, after the risk that the one bullet in the revolver is for you) are a 21st century of the media-hyped American dream, the film hits its targets effectively.

Needless to say, the show is finally presented with all the studio glitz and glamour it can muster, is suspenseful as we watch each candidate being presented and cheered by the equally amoral audience: then the firing of the gun.

How can the film end? Surprisingly, and in a very American way.

Documentary director Bill Guttentag has followed 15 Minutes and Series 7: the Contenders, two films on the morality of this kind of live television exploitation, with a film that is always interesting, often amusing and, ultimately, horrifying.

MIRRORS

(US, 2008, d. Alexandre Aja)

Mirrors, for most audiences, will prove to be a genuinely scary movie. This is quite an accomplished film, more a terror film rather than just what we think of as horror even though there is some explanation given that involves ghosts and some demonic powers. It is based on an effective Korean ghost film, Into the Mirror, which worked well because of Asian beliefs in spirits. Mirrors takes the basic themes but relocates them to New York, this time the hulk of a fashionable department store that was burnt out (the original used a store that was operating) but was built on the site of an closed down psychiatric hospital.

While there is a death before the credits, Mirrors generally keeps the terror with atmosphere, especially with the huge mirrors in the darkened store, though there are a couple of scenes and a climax that are blood-drenched.

Keifer Sutherland plays a New York detective who has shot someone in the line of duty and is on suspension but has drinking and nerve problems which have a destructive effect on his wife and children. He becomes the night guard of the store and begins to experience weird sounds and sights. Is it his mind or is it happening in reality?

The film works on the premiss that our mirror images can confront us and can wreak violence - and this extends to several characters in the film.

The production is good to look at, the tone set during reverse images of the New York skyline during the credits, with the facade and the interiors of the store. The plot eventually takes the detective to Pennsylvania, an abbey and a nun who has the power to stop the evil.

French director Alexandre Aja made the effective remake of Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes. Here he has made a thriller that is more wider audience friendly - if that is how you can describe an cinema terror experience.

MUTANT CHRONICLES

(US/UK, 2008, d. Simon Hunter)

Something of a glum experience. We are back in the future and a grim future it is. The map of the world shows, not countries, but divisions based on corporate organisations. They are at war with each other – and the film uses the model of trench warfare in World War I for fifteen minutes to show the horrors and the bloodshed. But, an explosion opens up a hole in the earth's crust letting out a race of mutants whose be-all and end-all seems to be to capture as many humans as possible and take them down into the interior of the earth to a machine that will transform them all into mutants. A dismal prospect for the human race so many are escaping to Mars.

A monastic order (with plenty of vocations it seems) holds the secret book and stone which can lead to the destruction of the mutant-making machine, so Brother Samuel (Ron Perlman) sees himself as the leader of the mission to fulfil the prophecy of a coming saviour. He enlists the help of several soldiers led by Hunter (a less than charismatic Thomas Jane). Down they go into the earth just like the board game that the film is based on, down and down with many levels at each of which as many mutants must be graphically disposed of as possible. The team must use all kinds of ingenuity and force of arms to proceed to the next level.

So far, what you might expect and a story not all that interestingly told.

The set design for the caverns and tunnels is impressive it its way. However, the film-makers have opted for a colour design that is basically grey-green which means that the proceedings look particularly drab. There are splashes of bright red for blood which do punctuate the monotony.

Not a futuristic adventure with great appeal.

PARTITION

(Canada, 2008, d. Vic Sarin)

Writer-director Vic Sarin was born in India then his family migrated to Canada. Obviously, his Indian heritage is important to him, especially the memories of the partition between India and Pakistan in 1947 with the consequent mass migrations of Hindus to India and Muslims to Pakistan and the million who died, many massacred, in this event. This is the background to this story of love and doom.

Opening in 1941, the film introduces us, via a polo tournament to the Indians and the British who live and work in India. War has broken out and India is involved. The action moves quickly to 1946, the aftermath of the war and the deaths as well as the return of the Indians to their homes, villages and farms.

An unrecognisable Jimi Mistry portrays Gian, a good man who wants no more deaths after his sad experiences in the trenches in Burma. With him is his friend Avtar (Irfan Khan) whose anger is roused by the Muslim migrants and who participates in a local massacre. A young woman, Naseem (Kristin Kreuk), escapes and is sheltered by Gian. While the villagers are hostile, Gian saves Naseem and gradually she settles into the patterns of the town. Gian travels to Delhi to try to find the location of her family in Lahore and is helped by an old friend, Margaret (Neve Campbell).

Eventually, Naseem is able to visit her family but they are still full of hatred against the Hindus who killed their father. Gian goes in search of her with their young son.

Suprisingly, much of the film, the mustard plant fields, the border, were filmed in Canada. However, there is also a great deal of location photography in India, particularly in Delhi. This creates an authentic atmosphere, even beautiful, despite some of the horrifying and tragic events.

The latter part of the film is highly emotional, melodramatic, with a passionate love story.

Sarin's film is heartfelt and is a personalised way of communicating a message of peace, harmony and tolerance which was so much lacking in the partition.

For a more sombre and penetrating film on partition, Deepa Mehta's Earth is recommended.

PINEAPPLE EXPRESS

(US, 2008, d. David Gordon Green)

Some stoner comedies are just too silly and merely offer the audience the opportunity to share in the stoners’ experience and outlook on life – which is not really all that interesting to warrant spending the time with them.

This one is different. Yes, the central characters are stoners (and slackers as well). Yes, they do get high. But, thankfully, there is a little more than that. In fact, the drugs are mostly the occasion for a witness to murder adventure and chase. And, with Judd Appatow as a producer, as with his sex comedies (The Forty Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up), there is a moral shift from irresponsibility to responsibility, this time concerning the use and consumption of drugs.

A respectable Catholic director called Tropic Thunder ‘appallingly funny’. This could apply to Pineapple Express as well. Just in case you were wondering, pineapple express refers to a top quality drug – which is limited in sales in LA , which enables the drug lord to easily trace our two rather witless heroes who are dealers and buyers and know about the murder of a rival Asian drug lord.

Seth Rogen wrote the script. Only 26, he must have had a hankering to be in an action blockbuster but his size and his propensity for playing comic roles probably have excluded his name from potential auditions. So, why not write one for himself? Rogen, who is good at deadpan delivery and has good comic timing, plays a subpoena deliverer who prides himself on the various roles he takes on to deceive the recipients. One happens to be the drug boss (Gary Cole) who is in cahoots with a policewoman (Rosie Perez) and this is where the murder occurs.

What follows is a cat and mouse flight and an action car chase, all with the help of a really out-of-it James Franco (who has been James Dean as well as Spiderman’s friend and foe and also shows good comic timing) and a harassed (and several times almost-killed) Danny R McBride? (The Foot Fist Way, Tropic Thunder).

And, if that sounds all right for an easygoing watch (and allowing for the expected crassness), then Pineapple Express is better than average of this kind of thing.

REDBELT

(US, 2007, d. David Mamet)

Very mixed reactions to David Mamet's Redbelt. Audiences attracted by the belts and the martial arts may find that the film is far too philosophical and underuses martial arts sequences to satisfy them. Audiences attracted by the plays and screenplays of David Mamet may be more satisfied since the fight sequences that are in the film are at the service of the broader and more thoughtful themes. And some may not be interested in either facet of the film – or dislike Mamet's work. Mamet himself spent five years in Jiu Jitsu training, especially that of the Japanese tradition to the US via Brazil.

This is a review strongly in favour of the film.

Although the opening keeps us in the Jiu Jitsu studio for quite some time, it introduces us to a character who is exemplary in terms of being a good and principled man. It is often very difficult to dramatise integrity and decency. If they are portrayed in a context of greed, phoniness and corruption, they do stand out. That is what happens here.

Chiwitel Ejiofor is at his best as Mike Terry, former military, who now runs the studio. The initial encounter is a lesson with his friend, Joe, a policeman and a sometime bouncer at his Brazilian brother-in-law's club. They are disturbed on this rainy night by a lawyer (Emily Mortimer) crashing into Mike's car as she is desperately looking for a pharmacy for her medication. In her anxiety, she grabs a gun, fires and smashes a window. The group feels sorry for her and decide not to report this to the police. A lot of sad consequences follow from this decision.

When Mike goes to ask for a loan from his brother-in-law (Rodrigo Santoro) at the urging of his wife (Alice Braga) who runs a fabric and design company, he saves a film star (Tim Allen) in the bar during a brawl. Invited to dinner at the star's house, he is feted by the star and his wife is feted by the star's wife (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's own wife) and friends. Problems over? No, only beginning.

Some years ago, Mamet made a film with a complex plot, plots within plots, deceptions and lies, The Spanish Prisoner. Redbelt goes in this direction as Mike's wife is the victim of fraud and borrows money from a loan-shark friend (David Paymer). Mike is swindled out of his ideas by an agent (Joe Mantegna) and a fight promoter (Ricky Jay). Mike's principles are tested, especially since he does not believe in competitive sports and winning. His martial arts are for defence, protection by grappling rather than hitting, deflecting an attack. Even the lawyer's attempts to help backfire because of the initial gun incident.

Mamet works out a satisfying ending, including a fight, that is not an easy way out and protects Mike's integrity.

As can be seen by the cast, Mamet is working with many actors that he has included in his plays and films.

Redbelt may not be to everyone's taste but it is well worthwhile.

RIGHTEOUS KILL

(US, 2008, d. Jon Avnet)

With a title like this, you can rightly if not righteously guess that we are in the realm of vigilante killings, the administration of justice for crimes which the processes of law cannot touch.

The film bills itself as historic. It pairs Robert de Niro with Al Pacino (though they were in Michael Mann's Hear, they had only one major scene together). We now have the opportunity to compare the performances of the two – and this reviewer would give the award to Al Pacino. De Niro has been relying on a number of blustery gestures and face-pulling in recent years and this is what he does here. Pacino tends to rant and rave but he shows more energy than de Niro.

For those who are fans of police thrillers, novels, television programs and films, this is a murder mystery. And, to put it mildly, there is a whole lot of misdirection of audience attention going on. But, the screenplay cheats. There are some pieces of information and misinformation that it would be impossible for the audience to pick up clues to until late in the film – and that is a maybe. This means that suspicion hovers over characters until the twist at the end.

Someone is killing off New York scum and leaving some doggerel verses to make comment on the executions. The victims include a pimp, a gun dealer, a rapist, a Russian thug and (topically, with some elaboration) an elderly pedophile priest. The target throughout the film is, of course, a drug dealer who owns a fashionable night club. He is played by 50 Cents (Curtis Jackson).

In the mix are the forensic officer who is in a relationship with de Niro, Carla Gugino, the superior officer, Brian Dennehy, and two other detectives, John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg.

The film is dark, often literally. The subject is contemporary but also squalid and violent. The solution might irritate some audiences who like to follow leads and clues. But, this is our chance to see de Niro and Pacino together.

ROCKNROLLA

(UK, 2008, d. Guy Ritchie)

Guy Richie's name has become synonymous with with tough British gangster movies: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch and Revolver. The flavour of the month a decade ago, he has not been the flavour for many a month or year since. Accused of repetition, lack of imagination, the substitution of visual flair for style, he is targeted by British critics. However, this kind of thing is what he does best and this is as good an example of his film-making as any.

This time he also has a more upmarket cast. Tom Wilkinson plays a gangster chief, full of his own pretentions, imagining that he is cleverer and more powerful than he really is. Mark Strong is effective as his chief adviser. They get themselves into complicated deals with Russians with their new money, each side depending on the other to get permits to build a sports stadium. Jimi Mistry is the less than upright lawyer who usually makes things work.

But there are other players as well. There is the local gang, led by Gerard Butler, who also fancy themselves as smarter than they think. They are being used by a classy accountant for the Russians (Thandie Newton) to hold up the money couriers, stealing the Russian cash payments en route to the gangsters. The Russian entrepreneur has a good luck painting which he lends to the Brits – but it is stolen by the boss's spoilt, addict-musician adopted son. The father puts pressure on two American club owners who work with the son to find him and the painting.

There is all that intrigue, complications, double-dealing to follow and for all the threads to be untangled. Since there is a key element foreshadowed but unexpected, then the climax is not quite as we might have imagined.

Rocknrolla is probably the second best Ritchie thriller, after Lock, Stock...

STEP-BROTHERS

(US, 2008, d. Adam McKay)

This is a Will Ferrell comedy so that you know what you are in for when you buy your ticket. If you don't like it or find some of the crass jokes too crude, you will know to leave Will Ferrell comedies alone.

Even though many of the jokes and routines are childish, corny, bodily-function-oriented (with few inhibitions about naming body parts), many of the jokes can be very funny and Ferrell at his best and John C. Reilly who is good at both serious roles and comedy (they clicked well in Talladega Nights) are good comedy performers. Blades of Glory was very funny.

However, the premise of Step-Brothers, while funny in itself, is a risky undertaking.

These days we are used to the phrase, especially from the American television series, 'Arrested Development'. The problem is: when did the development become arrested, at what age and at what stage of mature growth. The two step-brothers here are certainly ultra-arrested but, one suspects, there has been minimal development. Though they are both 40ish, they haven't left home, have never really had a job and their behaviour veers from that of a 6 year old to that of a 13 year old (at their worst!). While the stars do their utmost (crass and not-crass), such behaviour is so childish that it is too often too stupid rather than funny. The film is like a collection of sketches of dopey doings.

On the other hand, Mary Steenburgen and, especially, Richard Jenkins, veterans of many films and television shows who are very good actors prove themselves to be very good sports here for taking the role of the parents who fall in love and marry and inherit the other's son. Adam Scott is also convincing as Ferrell's smarmy younger brother.

Ferrell devotees will want to see it and gauge its place in the hierarchy of his comedies. Sensitive viewers check in your sensibilities at the ticket office.


THE STRANGERS

(US, 2008, d. Bryan Bertino)

Nothing supernatural here, just a straightforward terror thriller, eerie in its way, inviting audiences to identify with its quite ordinary characters who find themselves menaced by masked intruders in their house at 4.00 am. For those who don't see many of these films, it could be quite nervewracking - but goes for a brief 80 minutes.

Information is given at the opening by a deep movie-trailer voice on how many crimes of violence there are a year in the US, over a million. Then we are told that the film is based on true events even though the details are somewhat of a mystery. Then there are some fright scenes which will come back at the end of the film.

After that it seems it is going to be a rather quiet film for a while. Jimmy and Kristen come back from a wedding reception where he has proposed and she has declined. The mood is somewhat tense between them though it is obvious that they love each other. A mysterious woman knocks at the door asking for Trudi. She goes away. Jimmy goes for a drive...

Then three masked people, a man and two women, who remain anonymous throughout begin to terrorise Kristen and then Jimmy when he returns.

There are gruesome moments and the final confrontation is dismaying. Liv Tyler has to bear the brunt of the terror as Kristen and she does it effectively, afraid and bewildered. Scott Speedman is Jimmy, a more gentle type who is shocked by the violence.

A mood piece for terror fans rather than horror fans.

TAKEN

(France, 2008,d. Pierre Morel)

It is nothing new to see an action film where someone takes the law into their own hands to effect justice. There is always a worrying dimension to this kind of story. Our emotions are caught up in the issue of the crime and the brutality of the perpetrators: we feel vengeful. On the other hand, our heads tell us that there are procedures and processes, a right and legal way of doing things and to go outside the law runs the danger of collateral damage (at least) as well as turning the avenger into an instrument of violence.

Not that Taken gives its audience all that much time to think these thoughts. It is 93 minutes in motion, especially when the 17 year old daughter of a former government espionage agent (who describes his work and his skills as 'a Preventer') is abducted from a Paris apartment. Once her father arrives in Paris to rescue her, it is fairly non-stop mayhem despite his French colleague's plea with him not to make a mess. Our hero has surveillance resources to identify those responsible very quickly and the energy (without any evidence of time for sleep,meals or even rest room stops) to confront his enemies, gather more information by torture and bring the whole exercise to a satisfactory conclusion.

The film was written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen (who wrote The Karate Kid but who in recent years has been writing Besson-produced action shows like The Transporter series). The director is Pierre Morel who made one of these shows, District 13.

The team have gone quite upmarket this time with the opening sequences in an affluent California but most of the action taking place in Paris. And they have Liam Neeson as the former agent. He is big enough, strong enough and able to create a powerful character to make the story and his actions credible while on screen. Famke Janssen plays his wife and Maggie Grace his daughter.

However, as you watch, you realise that to apply criteria of natural realism would be to misunderstand the search and rescue genre. Yes, there is a chase and chaos outside the airport. Yes, Neeson destroys a building site that is used for drugging girls abducted for prostitution. But, this is a genre picture where you have to suspend realistic belief and go for the ride, so to speak, and enter into the action.

The themes are topical: trafficking for prostitution and police payoffs and corruption. The villains are those who have emerged on screens in recent times, thugs and gangsters from Eastern Europe, in this case, Albanians. And some of the customers at auctions in expensive hotels are Arab sheikhs.

And, yet, all the time there is this nagging feeling about American gung-ho, going everywhere in the world where they feel they have been wronged and take the higher moral position, using every means at hand, including torture, to get the information they need in the name of righting the wrongs.

Neeson is good, the action is fast-paced, the brutality quotient is quite high. And there is a warning for teenagers who think they know everything and are naively secure: Father knows best!

THEN SHE FOUND ME

(US, 2007, d. Helen Hunt)

Helen Hunt has built up a solid reputation from the days when she was a child star. She has mastered television comedy in the series Mad About You. She has proven that she can act, especially ordinary and harassed women, by winning an Oscar and many awards for standing her ground with Jack Nicholson in As Good as it Gets. While recently looking after her child at home for several years, she worked on the screenplay for this film, adapting a novel by Eleanor Lipscomb, and developing the plot and adding characters. She also decided to direct.

This is the story of a middle-aged teacher, April, who knows that time is running out for her to become pregnant. At times, there is a great deal of humour, a lot of deadpan remarks and asides. At times, there is a great deal of pathos because life does not go the way we want it to go – there are regrets and disappointments. But, all the way through, Helen Hunt has made a humane film that takes on themes of marriage, separation, pregnancy, adoption, fertility treatment, love.

The film also has a pervasive Jewish background, not just because the characters are Jewish but there are prayers, rituals and ceremonies and questions about the existence of God.

Helen Hunt, looking quite gaunt and careworn, plays the teacher for sympathy but allowing the audience to be critical of her, even impatient with her. She marries a genial husband (Matthew Broderick) but he cannot deal with marriage and quickly leaves to go back to live with his mother. She encounters a divorced father who is trying to bring up his children and not let his bitterness overwhelm him (Colin Firth). It is not difficult to see where this is leading but some complications arise, especially with her ex-husband, that a happy ending does not necessarily seem likely.

April also tries fertility assistance (with a doctor played, of all people, by novelist Salman Rushdie). She does not want to adopt because she herself was adopted and felt that she was not as loved as her younger, naturally conceived, brother.

And, then she found me. Who is she? Bette Midler. A successful TV interviewer called Bernice, she bounces into April’s life, claiming to be her mother (and that Steve McQueen? was her father – but she or the screenplay are not at all accurate about when McQueen? made Bullitt, so the movie buff knows there is something wrong with the story). Bernice is an inveterate showbiz personality and cannot always be trusted with the truth. However, Midler does the shtick well, is funny in her bumptious way but also has some of the more serious sequences which she also plays very well.

In fact, this is quite a likeable film, genial while warts and all, does not pretend that life was meant to be easy but offers some insight as well as hope.

TROPIC THUNDER

(US, 2008, d. Ben Stiller)

I was very taken by a colleague's way of dealing with the fact that so many broad American comedies these years are both funny as well as often exceedingly crass. He wrote that Tropic Thunder was appallingly funny. That is right.

This is a Ben Stiller film. He knows comedy and he knows how to be provocative through comedy. However, one of the difficulties with this film is that its production values seem to be far too big and expensive for the kind of film it is. With a top cast including Robert Downey Jr, Nick Nolte, Jack Black, Steve Coogan, Matthew McConnaughey? and Stiller himself and with an extraordinary performance by a fat and balding Tom Cruise as a monstrous Hollywood producer, it seems that the film should be funnier and better than it is (and more modest).

There is a great deal of satire at the expense of Hollywood and its megalomania and the tantrums of stars which put production over-budget and overtime as well as the lengths some actors will go for performance.

The film opens with three funny trailers featuring the central characters: Scorcher VI, an action hero environmental epic with Stiller; a highly flatulent comedy with Jack Black aping Eddie Murphy and his disguises in The Nutty Professor films; the third is a medieval drama with two monks (Downey and Toby Maguire) infatuated with each other, Satan's Alley. Then there is the film that is being made, a war mission and rescue adventure with apologies to Apocalypse Now.

Stiller wants to be a star but is on the wane having appeared in a film, Simple Jack, where he is mentally impaired. These episodes and scenes from the film (with Stiller's wife, Christine Taylor) raised the hackles of US organisations who felt that the film demeaned the mentally impaired. They have a point – maybe more. The defence argument is that what is being satirised is the Hollywood portrayal (and Oscar wins) of autistic characters like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man and Forest Gump.

Then there is Robert Downey Jr as an Oscar-winning Australian actor (Downey said that it was not a take-off of Russell Crowe – but it has to be!) who undergoes pigmentation change to play an African American soldier.

When the director and the effects supervisor put the actors out in the jungle and leave them to their own devices while using hidden cameras and explosives, the group is set upon by drug-dealing guerillas. Things slow down a bit. There are some jokes and funny situations but it has to build up to a rescue of Stiller who has been abducted and has been re-enacting this Simple Jack role because the film is the guerillas' only and favourite cassette.

There is the gross, the crass and the hilarious (but not as much as hoped for). Tom Cruise, channelling his settee-leaping energy into dance during the final credits, is worth watching, a high point of comic absurdity.

UNRELATED

(UK, 2007, d. Joanna Hogg)

Divided critics, divided audiences.

Winner of several critical prizes, Unrelated is the story of a middle-aged woman (Anna, played by Kathryn Worth) facing menopause who decides to get away from her husband and join friends on holiday in Tuscany.

Those who admire the film mention its not being predictable, the performances and the quality of the talk (of which there is a great deal). They find the film full of insight.

Those who find the film something of an ordeal (or, rather, quite an ordeal) know that they themselves could never go on a holiday like this with these people, could never enjoy it let alone find it the occasion of re-discovering one’s self. And the talk seems not particularly fresh or insightful.

There is a lot of extraverted stuff going on, lots of drinking, chatting, arguing and angst discussions. Interestingly, the screenplay does not present any overt sexual activity. The younger generation is rowdy, the older generation more staid. Anna veers towards the younger but that might be compensation.

While the same screenplay could have been used had the characters all remained in the UK, there is some local Tuscan scenery and a visit to Siena, some wines and some Italian meals.

Reading between the lines, you might guess that this reviewer, while not disliking the film, still found it an ordeal.

WELLE, Die (THE WAVE)

(Germany, 2008, d. Dennis Gansel)

Our potential for being or becoming fascists. That is what this film is about.

While the experience on which it is based occurred in Palo Alto, California, and a 1981 44- minute film was made for television on the experiment, the story of a school where a week is devoted to a project to teach the realities of anarchy or autocracy to the students seems very Germanic indeed.

Initially, the students voice their opinion on the topic by saying that fascism is something from the past. They say they know that Hitler and the Nazis were fascists. Some want to leave it there. Others are concerned about guilt, others about responsibility. The class has to make an option on which project to enrol for. It is the popular teacher, Rainer, who gets the most students. He had wanted to teach anarchy – and remembered what he did in his student days. However, he loses out and has to teach autocracy, putting together a plan at short notice.

As the film takes us through the project day by day, we and Rainer soon realise that he has been more than successful. His autocratic discipline (standing when speaking, breathing deeply, referring to him respectfully, marching in step to reinforce unison) soon gives energy to the students and then it enthuses them. What starts as role play soon becomes quite real: uniforms, logo, rally cry, exclusive partying and sports support, as well as hostility towards those who refuse to conform and seeking out of 'the enemy'.

Rainer himself is caught up in the excitement despite warnings from his wife and is accused of manipulation.

However, the film is strong in its portrayal of quite a wide range of students and showing the effect that the experience of fascism has on them without their quite realising it. Before the experiment they would have been shocked to know what was happening to them. Some of them become quite fanatic, especially the loner who designs the logo, has not family so becomes totally dependent on Rainer and the group, The Wave, as they decide to call themselves. There are a few rebels but they are relegated to the periphery of the class. It builds up to quite a frightening climax.

The actors who portray the students are quite convincing – that this could happen within such a short time, the potential for Rainer becoming a new Hitler and they being devout Nazis.

Some audiences may find the film and its structure and its detail of fascism a bit obvious, almost like an allegory rather than a parable. However, most will be caught up in the enthusiasm or the increasing horror that the students are behaving in this way.

For an alarming deadly variation on this theme, try the Japanese film, Battle Royale,

THE WOMEN

(US, 2008, d. Diane English)

Back in 1939, Clare Booth Luce's acerbic play, The Women, was adapted for the screen with more acerbic lines and tone by Anita Loos (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). The play and film were meant to be quite stringent satiric barbs at gossiping New York socialites. It had a total female cast, was directed by George Cukor, and its black and white narrative finished with a fashion show in colour. It was remade and updated in the mid-1950s as a musical, The Opposite Sex.

Can a satire of the 1930s be brought successfully into the 21st century? Originally, writer-director, Diane English (who was the creator and writer for ten years of the popular TV show, Murphy Brown) wanted to make it in the 1990s but finance was not forthcoming. With the popularity of such shows as Sex and the City, there seems to be a place for it now. It does cover a great deal of Sex and the City territory but casts its net a little wider and is not so preoccupied with the principle of 'Expensive is best' (well, at times it is!).

While staying with the general thrust of the play and the film, this version is not quite so acerbic, not quite so barbed in its satire. It has a softer approach in general. Many reviewers referred to it as in the 'chick-flick' vein which is not entirely wrong.

On the whole, the film seems to lack a little oomph. This is evident when Candice Bergen turns up (and she was TV's Murphy Brown herself). She is a strong presence and has some telling lines and delivers them with an elan that raises the level of the film's temperature. Not that the performances aren't good and frequently effective. Once again, there is a large female cast. Meg Ryan is the central character, happily married, she thinks. She is a genial socialite who is having problems with her teenage daughter. Candice Bergen plays her mother. Annette Bening does well as the ageing professional women who is not above gossip and is prepared to be disloyal to her best friend for career's sake. Debra Messing has a good role as the pregnant friend, used to noise and mess – and she gives her all to the birth sequence at the end.

There are assorted cameo appearances by Cloris Leachman, Bette Midler, Debbie Mazur, Joanna Gleeson and Carrie Fisher.

And the femme fatale (played by Joan Crawford and Joan Collins in the previous versions) is Eva Mendes.

Enjoyable enough, depending on one's interest in gossip, fashion, relationships and quips, but it doesn't quite stay in the memory.


















SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS NOVEMBER 2008



BIGGA THAN BEN
COEUR SIMPLE, Un (A SIMPLE HEART)
EAGLE EYE
FLY ME TO THE MOON 3D
FREE JIMMY
GHOST TOWN
HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3
IGOR
INCENDIARY
INVESTIGATOR, The
NIGHTS IN RODANTHE
NON PENSARCI (DON'T THINK ABOUT IT)
OF TIME AND THE CITY
QUANTUM OF SOLACE
RACHEL GETTING MARRIED
ROCKER, The
RUMBA
SAW V
VINYAN
YOUNG@HEART
ZONA (LA)




BIGGA THAN BEN

(UK, 2008, d. Suzie Halewood)

Any prospective migrant to the UK, especially if they are contemplating a less than honest approach to their new country of adoption, will want to see Bigga than Ben. It is something of a handbook of how to defraud the British government and people. Anybody working in Social Services, the banking system (when it recovers from the worse deals made to its overpaid executives) or the police may well want to see the film to see what they are up against.

However, it is all done with the light touch, although 'touch' is a sensitive word to describe what our two 'heroes', Cobakka (Ben Barnes – who was Prince Caspian) and Spiker (Andrei Chadov) get up to. It is based on the memoirs of the two young men who leave Russia in the 1990s to come to 'foggy Albion' and make their fortune and live off the fat of the land.

Needless to say it does not work out that way. They get into all kinds of scrapes, have to deal with far shadier characters than themselves, fall into the world of addicts and, ultimately, have to make some choices for better or worse.

This is a brief film, a series of anecdotes, some of which are hit and miss, or more like hit, miss, miss. But, it does touch on the realities of movements around Europe as well as the rest of the world and the hard lives that so many migrants experience.

UN COEUR SIMPLE (A SIMPLE HEART)

(France, 2008, d. Marion Laine)

For those, like this reviewer, who are not as familiar with 19th century French literature, it might come as a surprise to find that the novel on which this film is based was written by Gustave Flaubert, author of that critique of middle class morality and values, Madame Bovary. A Simple Heart was written twenty years after his classic novel.

This film could be called a French heritage drama. It takes its audience and immerses it in rural France with its contradictions and contrasts: the world of the wealthy and their aristocratic pretensions and the world of the servants and farmers whose existence is taken for granted to be at the disposal of the wealthy. These strata of society are taken for granted – and somewhat reinforced by the Church. While the 19th century saw the aftermath of the French Revolution and the dechristianising of the nation as well as draconian anti-clerical legislation even into the 20th century, it was also a period of extraordinary Catholic vitality in attempts at mission in France, in the founding of so many religious orders who set out to foreign missions, the phenomenon of Lourdes, a flowering of intellectual and spiritual culture. Both of these aspects of Church life are suggested during this film. (And Felicite shows us how we might understand the goodness of St Bernadette.)

A Simple Heart is a story of goodness – one could see Felicite in the classic tradition of the 'Holy Fool'.

Sandrine Bonnaire is completely convincing as Felicite (an ironic name in itself), a peasant girl who is mentally simple. Caught up in a love which might have led to marriage, her ignorance of sexuality and sensuality lead to her being jilted. Seeking a job with a family, she spends the rest of her life as their servant. Her life with the family serves as a microcosm of France at the time.

The screenplay contrasts the personalities of the two women at its centre, Felicite and the widow, Mathilde (Marina Fois), who employs her. Mathilde is a grim young woman, closed in by her grief for her husband, distant, even harsh, with her two children. While Felicite cares for the children, especially the little daughter with delicate health, play and singing are forbidden. However, it emerges that Felicite is a good and loving young woman and brings light and life in her wake.

Much of the film shows the small details of life in the household and on the farm, with excursions to the sea. The action takes place over a period of ten years and involves the devotion of the daughter to Felicite, Felicite's discovery of a sister she thought dead and her caring for her nephew. Despite the hard work and the frequent drudgery in her life, Felicite accepts her lot and is happy. The gift of a brightly coloured parrot brings extraordinary joy to her.

The widow remains strict, is courted by a cello teacher but is too timid to accept his love. Relationships with her children are strained. However, Felicite's loyalty and goodheartedness do ultimately touch the widow.

Winner of the Ecumenical Jury award in Kiev 2008, with the citation praising the film's thoughtful adaptation of Flaubert's novel, its refined sentiment and its austere beauty. It was suggested that there is also a parallel between
Felicite's holy fool and Job, that, in her lifelong sacrifices, she could be seen as Job's daughter.


EAGLE EYE

(US, 2008, d. D.J.Caruso)

Decades ago, there was a frightening science fiction film called Colossus, the Forbin Project. Someone had the imagination to create a computer that controlled everything and everyone. It was also the period of HAL, the malevolent computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Well, we have got used to those ideas and are so aware that the amount of surveillance we experience from too many authorities that very little seems private any more.

How do you make a contemporary film about these themes? The way director D.J. Caruso answers this question is Eagle Eye, a non-stop (or very few stops) action thriller that does not give audiences much time at all to work out the details of the plot and whether there is a logic to what is happening on the screen. And, having decided that this was the answer, he makes it a chases, explosions and conspiracies galore whambanger.

Shia Laboeuf has had busy and breathless screen time in recent years with Disturbia, Transformers and Indiana Jones (and more Transformers to come). Here he is a college dropout who suddenly finds money in his bank account, armaments delivered to his apartment, his perfectionist twin brother dead and a mysterious woman's voice on his mobile ordering him to escape the FBI. And that's only the beginning. Michelle Monaghan as a single mother seems to be having a quieter life, seeing her little son off to music camp. Then she gets mobile and mobilisation orders and the flight is on, with agents Billy Boy Thornton and Rosario Dawson in pursuit. (Chase action and car crashes galore.)

We have been prepared for something strange in the film's prologue where US government authorities make a decision to obliterate what might be a funeral group in Afghanistan which contains a top terrorist. Wrong – and the consequences for attacks on the US are dire.

With nods to Hitchcock (after all Caruso and Laboeuf made the updated version of Rear Window, Disturbia) in North by Northwest pursuits and The Man Who Knew Too Much concert finales, the film takes us deeper and deeper into secret agencies and computer control that would make both Colossus and HAL envious.

After we experience all that adrenalin, the ending lets the audience walk out of the cinema calmly with a sweetly twee final moment.

FLY ME TO THE MOON 3D

(Belgium, 2008, d. Ben Stassen)

It's not just fly to the moon but 'flies to the moon'. How often have we said that we would like to be a fly on the wall to be present at some event. This animated film takes the saying to its logical space age conclusion. On Apollo 11 there were some stowaway flies who shared in the voyage and one who walked on the moon with Buzz Aldrin (though Aldrin himself appears at the end to reassure us that there really were no 'contaminants' on the moon mission).

This is an amiable blend of fantasy for children and a lesson on the exploration of space. The three young flies are bright company: one is ordinary, one is bespectacled and the other eats a lot and the only way he can enter the link of the moon capsule back to the spacecraft is a windbreaking experience. But, bye and large, that is about the only 'rude' thing in a film that is wholesome for (younger) family audiences.

Quite some attention is given to the moon voyage – and it looks quite impressive in very sharp 3D photography.

There is also a reminder of Cold War espionage and sabotage as well as the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the US in the 1950s and 1960s in a sub-plot where a glamorous fly (does seem a contradiction in terms but seems plausible here!! and she is voiced by Nicolette Sheridan) from Russia comes to help out her old flame, now Grandpa, to stop Igor and other Soviet fly agents from destroying the moon mission. Christopher Lloyd is a cheery, vigorous voice for Grandpa.

An animated film that is lightly amusing and instructive.

FREE JIMMY

(Norway, 2006, d. Christopher Neilson)

Once upon a time, there was Fritz the Cat, from cartoons by Robert Crumb and animated on film by Ralph Bakshi. It was considered the first of the mainstream R certificate animation films. Since then, animation for adults has proliferated and no subject is taboo. Much of this kind of work was considered 'underground' in the past and Norwegian artist, Christopher Neilson, has continued in this tradition.

As his film, Free Jimmy (echoes of Free Willy) comes over ground, we see that these days there are no holds barred in content, language or visualisation (especially for blood, death and dismemberment). Not that it isn't extremely clever and will find a cult following of devotees but many of the overground audience may well find it too much.

From the late 1960s, there used to be jokes (as well as reality) about audiences getting high to appreciate and enter into some films. Since many of the characters in Free Jimmy are stoned a lot of the time and others are drug dealers, this is obviously one of those films to watch while in an altered state.

As for Jimmy, he is an elephant. But, he too is stoned, and has been for years to keep him subdued as he performs in a third rate touring circus. The humans involve a number of groups: a rabid animals' liberation movement, the circus itself and its workmen, some moose hunters and some Russian drug dealers – all in pursuit of Jimmy who, scraggy though he is and doped up, makes a bid for freedom, helped by a kindly moose, the most sympathetic character in the whole film. There are also two nice American tourists who don't want to disturb the thugs but they are quickly disposed of.

So, there is lots of action in the mountains as groups pursue groups and poor old and decrepit Jimmy can hardly stand, let alone run, on his last legs.

The voice cast is topnotch with Woody Harrelson and Kyle MacLachlan?, Samantha Morton and Jim Broadbent, Scots James Cosmo and Douglas Henshall and the cast of the League of Gentlemen. Simon Pegg is there too and he wrote the English screenplay.

Most films can be described as 'mainstream' movies. Free Jimmy is a 'substances in the bloodstream' movie.

GHOST TOWN

(US, 2008, d. David Koepp)

What a pleasant surprise. Ricky Gervais is usually seen as a poker face, unemotional, acerbic presence in his television series, The Office and Extras, and in his films, like the severe manager in A Night at the Museum. Actually, for most of Ghost town he is pokerfaced, unemotional and acerbic. You guess that he will have to change by the end of the film but it doesn't seem likely. It is to Gervais' credit as a comic and serious actor and his timing that he finally does get our sympathy.

Very soon into the film you realise that this is a variation on the Scrooge and ghosts themes of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Gervais' British dentist, Bertram Pincus, has migrated to New York and is strong on denouncing (or ignoring) what he would see as humbug. He likes being a dentist because he can put equipment into people's mouths to stop them talking!

The film has barely started when Greg Kinnear, as a charming cad, is killed and becomes a ghost. Our dentist undergoes an operation, is affected by a negative anaesthetic and finds himself in a medium state of ghosliness (reminiscent of Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost only she was very nice). Soon there are plenty of ghosts who want him to help resolve some issues that they were not able to do because of their untimely deaths. Will the dentist help them? Not likely.

However, he does agree to stop Kinnear's widow marrying again. She is a paleontologist and is played attractively by Tea Leoni. Dr Pincus has the people skills of a robot and his responses and dialogue can be just as clunky. However, he is charmed – and the complications begin from there (especially with the ghost trying to coach him – and interfere).

This is not a laugh aloud comedy but there is a wry sense of humour pervading the film and Gervais remains resolutely British, uptight and in need of a good emotional shaking.

The ending might seem more than a little contrived but it satisfyingly feelgood.

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3: SENIOR YEAR

(US, 2008, d. Kenny Ortega)

At this high school they don't seem to do many school room subjects. They play basketball and are cheerleaders (and win against all the odds). They spend a lot of time in rehearsal for the 'musicale' to celebrate graduation. They sing a lot and do some dancing. But, that is what has touched the teenage audiences of the US ($42 million on opening weekend) and of the rest of the world (one North London complex had it on five screens during the day with 13 sessions each day in the complex). And then there is Zac Efron who at twenty finds himself a worldwide hearththrob. And there is Vanessa Hudgens who is popular as well but this is a film that is popular with girls and so the attention is on Zac.

What began as a pleasant movie for the Disney Channel surprised the powers that be with its popularity. A second television movie was commissioned and did very well. Then it was adapted for the stage with tours all over the US and elsewhere. This has led to the present sequel which was made for cinemas rather than television. And the young and the very young are flocking to see it. It is G rated.

As a film, it is pleasantly ordinary for adults in a tolerant mood. It's the show must go on. It's final year and the prospects of college. It's teenagers behaving wholesomely. It's teenagers having difficulties with their parents' expectations and their feeling the need for some independent choices.

Troy and Gabriella have become important for the High School Musical audiences. Sharpay, who is really a nasty piece of work embodying all the hiss characteristics of the villain, becomes nicer at the end of each film – but relapses for the next one. Her twin, Ryan, is still doing choreography. And the bespectacled composer is still churning out the tunes. A nice touch is that Julliard is offering college scholarships so there is an incentive for potential candidates.

It's all rather old-fashioned in a contemporary way – and an unexpected series phenomenon.

IGOR

(US, 2008, d. Tony Leondis)

Adult horror fans will immediately respond to the name, Igor. He's the hunched one who helps mad scientists or vampires get their work done. Not sure what a children's audience will make of him. They will miss the Frankenstein parallels. Perhaps they will just enjoy the bizarre settings, characters and plot.

The animation for Igor and his country of Malaria is bright and creative with its range of mad doctors, Igors and machines. Malaria used to be prosperous, but at the behest of the King, evil scientists created clouds which darkened the country. The main industry became the invention of evil and destructive machines – for which the rest of the world paid protection money so that the machines would not leave Malaria and wreak havoc. So far, so bad for Malaria.

Each year there is a competition for the most destructive creation at the Evil Science Fair. Dr Schadenfreude wins each time because he steals other scientists' ideas. This year, despite his ambitions to depose the King, he is in for a shock.

Igor is one of many hunchback assistants in the land (whose degree, cleverly, is a Yes, Masters degree). His ambition is to create the winner of the competition (he already has some secret creations, a scatty brain in a bottle and a chattering rabbit with a death wish. Now he creates Eva – but she wants only to be an actress (and keeps singing the excruciating song from Annie, 'Tomorrow'). Will she destroy? Will Igor fall in love with her? Will Igor see the evil of his ways? Will Dr Schadenfreude prevail? What do you think!

You can see the wry sense of humour behind the storytelling, some slapstick laughs and some spoofing and some popular songs sung by Louis Prima.

The voice cast is very good indeed. John Cusack bears the brunt of it with a great deal of dialogue as well as voiceover as Igor. John Cleese is his mad scientist boss and Eddie Izzard is Dr Schadenfreude while Jay Leno is the King. Much of the humour comes from Sean Hayes voicing the Brain and Steve Buscemi as the rabbit. Eva is Molly Shannon.

Not a great animation comedy but quite entertaining.

INCENDIARY

(UK, 2008, d. Sharon Maguire)

The original novel by Chris Cleave may have been moving and exciting but Sharon Maguire's adaptation, while it may have sounded moving and exciting on paper, has not translated to the screen as well as it might have. It is highly contrived and melodramatic with too many coincidences and takes an exhortatory tone about contemporary terrorism and dealing with the horror and the grief.

Michelle Williams (English accent and all) plays an unhappy wife but a very loving mother in North London. Her husband works for the bomb disposal unit and anti-terrorist forces. His boss is played sombrely by Matthew MacFadyen?. The mother, never named, refers to herself as a London slapper (not the impression she gives when with her son) but she takes up with a womanising journalist (Ewan McGregor). Then, sudden disaster as the Arsenal stadium explodes with suicide bombers. The mother has to deal with her grief for her son, almost to the point of delusions and madness.

The journalist seems to have a very sudden change of heart and lifestyle and investigates a lead concerning one of the bombers and tells the mother. She finds the bomber's son, follows him and strikes up a friendship. This leads to a near repetition of the fatal shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes by police at a London station after the 2005 bombings.

The cast do their best, especially Michelle Williams and the two children. However, it does not quite gell and is not as persuasive about its concerns as it wants to be.

THE INVESTIGATOR (A NYOMOZO)

(Hungary, 2008, d. Attila Gigor)

The title might sound rather mundane but the film itself is certainly not. It is quite a smart, clever psychological drama and murder mystery.

You know you are in for something different when the credits sequence turns out to be a red herring, inserted as with some other brief sequences later on, to show some of the absurdity of lethal accidents. Already the film is both ironic and droll. The opening leads us to the pathology department of the morgue and the central character, Tibor, an imagination-less examiner, laconic, dutiful, and caring for his hospitalised mother who desperately needs an operation which he can't afford. He does have some social life with a waitress at a cafe that he goes to regularly. However, it is she who takes the initiative for going out, but it is always to the cinema (with some funny dialogue about international movies today).

Then we begin to wonder what the meaning of the title could be and what is to be investigated. Writer-director (in his late 20s), Attila Gigor has been leading us on and does not disappoint. There is a murder, an exchange of money, a sinister broker hiring a hitman. And then it becomes complicated! There is a will, an unfaithful wife, a seedy blackmailing lawyer, the victim's boss. There is plenty for our pathologist to investigate since it was he who was hired to commit the murder.

Crime thriller readers cannot but help think of Agatha Christie and her ability to veer the reader away from the identity of the real killer. This happens here. Just when you thought you had been smart and worked it out, you find you were wrong and kicking yourself for not realising what in retrospect seems quite obvious.

Gigor adds a number of arresting visual, surrealistic touches – and capitalises on the traditional gathering of all the suspects in a room for the revelation of who did it. Here, the cast gather for a post-mortem and declaration of their involvement.

At the centre is a multi-award-winning performance by Zsolt Anger as the pathologist. He creates a memorable character from someone who on paper seems quite banal.

The film creates its own moral world where the audience, repelled at murder for hire, finds itself supporting the pathologist as he deals with characters far less moral than himself.

All in all, a treat that is serious, smart, droll and very clever.

NIGHTS IN RODANTHE

(US, 2008, d. George C. Wolfe)

Nicholas Sparks has written some very popular best sellers which are highly emotional. Several have been made into films, Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, The Notebook. Such novels and films are easy to look down on as romantic tearjerkers – and they are – but who says we can't like this playing on our emotions? (It's only 'manipulation' when you don't approve of it!)

Adrienne, the mother of a critical teenage daughter and a bookish 10 year old son, grieving the recent death of a beloved father and upset that her husband has walked out on his family for another woman but who is now pleading to be taken back, helps out a close friend at her guest house resort on the North Carolina coast for the weekend. A hurricane is strengthening in the Atlantic. But, that will be nothing to the emotional storm she will experience. The only guest is a doctor, Paul, who is fighting a malpractice lawsuit and whose doctor son is alienated from him and has gone to work for the poor in Ecuador. Even though you can make an educated guess – or, really, any old reasonable guess - as to what is going to happen (and, by and large, you will be right), most will not be able to avoid a tear or two (or more).

Time must be passing. Richard Gere plays Paul and James Franco plays his son. Gere will be 60 in 2009. On the other hand, time is not passing so fast that the plot is not similar to many that we have seen so often over the decades, and will probably see many times more.

But, on the whole, this is Diane Lane's film. She makes her character more interesting and easy to identify with than many other actresses, ordinary in her life and troubles, but with that something extra which makes her a committed mother despite everything and open to more vitality in her life. Richard Gere is, well, Richard Gere, exerting his charm as usual even though he has to learn to be a more humane doctor in his dealings with people. There is a strong sequence with Scott Glenn as the bereaved husband of 43 years whose wife has died inexplicably on the operating table.

And the North Carolina scenery is magnificent even if the prospect of hurricanes is daunting.

NON PENSARCI (DON'T THINK ABOUT IT)

(Italy, 2007, d. Gianni Zanasi)

An engaging Italian comedy-drama, focused on a dysfunctional family.

The film opens with the central character, Stefano (Valerio Mastandrea), a member of a band who finds himself with writer’s block, betrayed by his girlfriend, dissatisfied with his band. He decides to go home to visit his parents. While the reunion is important, he discovers that his younger brother is finding the family cherry factory too difficult to manage and is in debt, while his marriage is breaking up. His sister has not completed her degree but is working with dolphins (something which she loves to do). He misinterprets her lifestyle as lesbian and mentions this to his parents, causing them some shock - and some anger on the part of his sister.

The members of the family tend to confide in him. He also re-meets his old friends, a security guard and a friend who has had a nervous breakdown and who eventually kills himself, following joking comments of the security guard.

The film explores the stories of each of the three children as well as the parents. The father is retired, enjoying playing golf, but sees the situation and finds a way of getting some money. The mother, who has a personal secret in her life, follows a New Age guru for liberation and exercise. The sister is involved with a rising politician who has self-doubts. The younger brother enjoys his children but when the security guard sends a prostitute to meet him, he does not realise this, goes out with her and falls in love with her.

The film has many strands - but, ultimately, the advice of the father is that everybody should follow their own path, whatever they are good at - and the final freeze-frame is the musician actually leaping out to the audience, presuming that they will catch him.

The film is quite humorous in many ways, serious as well. The characters are interesting and, mostly, engaging.

OF TIME AND THE CITY

(UK, 2008, d. Terence Davies)

Liverpool was one of Europe's 2008 capital cities of culture. One time resident of Liverpool, director Terence Davies, agreed to make a film for the celebrations, a blend of documentary, cinema poem and symphony and personal memoir. The film, hailed at the Cannes film festival, had its world premiere in October at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall and was released throughout the United Kingdom on October 31st. Clearly, it played an important role in the consciousness of Liverpool as a capital of culture.

Davies was born in 1945 and his film generally focuses on the years of his life, especially of his childhood. His film is something of a meditation on time and on change.

The 72 minute film begins with a red curtain rising on a screen but then moves to black and white archival footage of early 20th century Liverpool. Davies' use of of archive material enables him to remind his audience of the growth of the port city during its heyday in the 19th century. As his camera slowly sweeps over the many grand architectural sites, we are impressed by how the city saw itself and its importance. However, Davies does not shirk from the grimier aspects of Liverpool and its industrial age heritage. And, as regards architecture, Davies has no qualms in displaying the high rise ugliness of 'developments' from the 1960s.

But, as with Davies' own feature films, it is the people, the poorer people, the workers who merit his attention and time. A great deal of the running time of the film is devoted to detailed footage of ordinary people, especially from the 1940s to the 1960s, the humdrum lives in dingy neighbourhoods, the ugly rows of buildings, the small enjoyments despite the deprivations. By way of relief we see pictures of colourful Sunday excursions to New Brighton, sun-bathing, deck chairs and the fun of the fair.

While Davies makes reference to the war years and the rationing afterwards, it is the effect of the Korean war that gets his attention. Davies uses a great range of music as background to his images but one Liverpool phenomenon that does not meet his approval is the Beatles and the pop music from the 1960s on.

Another aspect of British life that does not meet with his approval is the royal family. He shows some scenes of Princess Elizabeth's wedding and of the coronation of the queen, but he peppers his commentary with unflattering remarks about extravagance at a time of post-war rationing.

However, what receives his greatest disapproval is the Catholic Church of his childhood. Having become a 'born-again atheist' in his teens, he does now know the church of the post Vatican II years. Many Catholics who go to see his film may be quite surprised at his frequent lambasting of the Church.

But, a critic of the Church needs to be listened to. Often the criticism is a cry of anguish concerning perceived treatment by the church or by its officials. This is certainly the case with Terence Davies. His cries are sometimes howls of rage, at other times bitter reminiscences of a time when he believed and prayed. For audiences who have seen his films since the 1970s, especially his trilogy of his childhood, his memories of his abusive father and long-suffering mother in Distant Voices, Still Lives and his own prayer and devotion in The Long Day Closes, this will be a familiar theme. This time it pervades his memoir of Liverpool. Criticism can be offensive but, for people of faith and commitment, it can also be a challenge to how they understand their faith and how they can respond to a person whose cry comes, as the psalm says, out of the depths.

The sticking point for Davies and the church is his sexual orientation. He is more explicit in speaking about it in this film than in his feature films. Coming to adolescence in the late 1950s, at a time when these issues were not spoken about, he tells us that he prayed fervently but received no help. This led to his disillusionment with faith and the church. This pervades his commentary in the film.

Davies seems to be one of those people who, despite his hostility and bitterness, can't seem to let go of the Church. His film has many images, refers to prayers, keeps dwelling on his childhood faith. When he comes to Christ the King cathedral, he shows the building as well as the consecration by Cardinal Heenan. This gives him the chance to make jibes at liturgical dress and the Popes. While they are smart and cleveristic, they remain at the level of cheap shots and offer no depth of comment or criticism. They lead to the thought that Davies has been regurgitating this bile for decades which can only leave a sickeningly bitter taste in his mouth. But, his criticisms should be a challenge, even an examination of the Catholic conscience on how it has treated people, especially the young and the inexperienced, in the past.

Finally, it should be said that Davies has created a film that captures so much of a city, its various times and memories. He has chosen images. He has chosen music. He has chosen beautiful prose and poetry, finally quoting T.S.Eliot at length, especially his Four Quartets – and a prayerful wish for Davies and his obsessive returning to his past would be that like the traveller who goes back to his beginning and discovers it for the first time, Davies could see his past in a new and different light.

QUANTUM OF SOLACE

(UK/US, 2008. d. Marc Forster)

Quantum of Solace is a multiplex mouthful but it is taken from the title of an Ian Fleming story. The plot is made up for this occasion, beginning immediately after the end of Casino Royale and the effect of Vespa Lynd's death on James Bond.

While there are convolutions in the plot, this must be one of the most straightforward of all the Bond films. Most audiences accepted Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, so it is much easier now to take to a Bond who is not dapper, though he does get to wear dinner dress at one stage, who does not have a whole lot of Connery-Moore-Brosnan? repartee, who is pretty single-minded and talks to M about doing his duty.

Quantum also allows Bond to be a little more feeling than last time, acknowledging that there are emotional moments in life, especially the death of a friend. Quantum also allows a bit more conscience in the film in discussion and in points made by M about violence and revenge. Not that there isn't a rising body count but there is a bit more context than usual.

Actually, it is fairly non-stop action which has given plenty of work to the film editors who have made it adrenalin-pumping and fast and flashily paced. It opens with a car chase on an Italian autostrada (much briefer than the stunt-filled prologues of more recent decades), moves into Siena for the Palio and the horses and the introduction of the conspiracy, followed by a breathless chase on foot over the roofs of Siena and through the buildings. As in Casino Royale, Bond is very fit and does a lot of running. With the expected interludes in London (M's office is very technologically slick as is her home bedroom with communications equipment), we move to Haiti where there is a boat chase. And, then in Bolivia (after excursions to Austria and Italy again) there is a plane chase.

It all ends up in the middle of Bolivia - quite literally explosively.

So, Daniel Craig is Bond (though he doesn't do the famous introduction, but his drink is shaken). Olga Kurylenko is not really a Bond girl but a character in the plot. Gemma Arterton is, almost momentarily, a Bond girl but she evokes memories of Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger, this time with oil. Judi Dench's M features more frequently and gives some gravitas to the proceedings. And, just when you feared we weren't going to hear the familiar theme, there it is in the final credits.

Bond villains have often been larger than life but Matthieu Amalric (start of numerous French films including his masterful performance in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is small of stature with something of a manic look but sinister and ruthless nonetheless.

Audiences may be so caught up in the action and chases that they miss the topical political references in the Quantum conspiracy: the references to Aristide in Haiti, the planned upsetting of society to pave the way for coups, the hostility of the US administration to more left-leaning leaders in Venezuela and, especially in this case, Bolivia. And, maybe the film is prophetic. While authorities assume at first that the object of greed and of national interests is oil, the precious and scarce commodity that threatens peace and which avaricious entrepreneurs want to get hold of is water.

Director Marc Forster went from directing The Kite Runner to Quantum. He obviously is interested in a wide range of genres as previous films include titles so diverse as Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland and Stay.

RACHEL GETTING MARRIED

(US, 2008, d. Jonathan Demme)

After some remakes (turning Charade into The Trouble with Charlie and a new Manchurian Candidate) which received mixed responses and after some excellent documentaries (The Agronomist about Jean Dominque in Haiti and Man from Plains about Jimmy Carter) Jonathan Demme has returned to an original film (with a screenplay by Sidney Lumet's daughter, Jenny).

The action takes place over a couple of days with the preparations for Rachel's wedding, the ceremony, the day after. There is a lot of good cheer in these sequences. The large gathering of friends of the bride and groom, a meal where each sings, speaks or makes tributes, offer a very genial marriage preparation as does the rehearsal. The ceremony is given a great deal of attention, especially the recitation of the vows and the groom (from the music business) singing to his wife and then the meal and dancing afterwards.

However, underlying the celebration is a great deal of family animosity, mood swings from love to hate and the clear necessity for conflict resolution and the healing of memories. In fact, the central character is not Rachel at all. Rather, it is her sister, Kym, whose life is beset by very serious problems. Rachel is played by Rosemarie de Witt and Kym is played, in a departure from her sweet and good-natures roles, by Anne Hathaway. And quite effectively.

The film opens with Kym being released from drug rehab for the wedding, being picked up by her good natured but always concerned and protective father (Bill Irwin). Kym wanders the house, ignored by Rachel's many friends, remembering her life. Her initial meeting with Rachel is a mixture of affection and deep recriminations. And these continue throughout the film, especially as we get to know more about Kym's drug-taking, her role in her young brother's death and her inability to forgive herself. Rachel is studying psychology and pulls this authority on Kym several times. Kym, in desperate need of affirmation, tends to see things revolving around herself and sometimes tries to steal the limelight even as she makes a speech about making amends.

She attends some drugs anonymous meetings and has been clean for nine months. However, events and characters from her past combine to disrupt her equilibrium and she drives her father's car recklessly.

The cast were encouraged to improvise on the basis of the screenplay and this is highly effective and confronting at times, especially about her relationship with Rachel and their father's different attitude to each of his daughters. A further complication is that their father is remarried as is their mother (Debra Winger) and, while Rachel does not have issues with her mother, Kym does (which also leads to some dramatic confrontations).

There is a great deal of music throughout the film, there is a comfortable Connecticut setting with quite a range of characters. The wedding is a happy event but the family needs a great deal of healing. Audiences, thinking of their own families and relationships, will find much to observe, much, perhaps, to identify with and much to think about. How would we handle these situations?

LE RING

(Canada, 2007, d. Anais Barbeau-Lavallette)

At the centre of this drama, set in some of the poorer, run-down neighbourhoods of Montreal, is a 12 year old boy, Jessy, played believably and engagingly by Maxime Desjardins Tremblay. One reason is that he is so convincing is that he is a non-professional who lives in the area and knows the kind of life that is portrayed on screen.

Director Anais Barbeau-Lavallette? has made a number of documentaries and brings this sensibility to her story of a sadly dysfunctional family. While the focus is on the children, we see an ineffectual father who has no joy out of life and a depressed mother who leaves home to work as a prostitute. The older boy, Sam, is pressurised by his peers to work as a drug courier and spends time in jail for stealing a car. Kelly, just older than Jessy, is quite strong-minded as she enters puberty. There is also a young baby.

Jessy is bored at school and is a truant, going to see his wrestler friend, Killer, and to play with his old dog, Clomp. It is the wrestling world that makes Jessy come alive – the film opens vividly with his eager arrival at the ring, his shouting his lungs out with the vigorous crowd, cheering the local hero Firestorm and booing the loser, Killer. If he could plan his life, Jessy would become a wrestler. He does get a chance to do a little training. He is also astute enough to live through a possible disillusionment when he learns that all the bouts are fixed.

Jessy is underpriviliged in terms of family, home, possessions, education, even healthy food. But, he has something of decency and principles which are tested when he goes to see his mother, when he visits his brother in prison and refuses to deliver drugs, when he questions Killer why he always accepts defeat in the ring and decides that a person does not have to lie down just because the crowd expects it and wants it. It is a squalid world that Jessy lives in – but there is hope in the film that he can move beyond it.

THE ROCKER

(US, 2008, d. Peter Cattaneo)

Sometimes a trailer, which, of course, is designed to attract audiences to go to see a film, can be extremely off-putting. Having been trapped in some cinemas several times with the trailer for The Rocker, I was certainly not attracted but was rather dreading it. The central character, Fish, is one of those arrested development forty somethings who seems determined never to grow up, played by Rainn Wilson from the US version of The Office.

For the first ten minutes, every harsh preconception seemed to be being fulfilled as Fish (our non-hero) plays the drums in a rock group called Vesuvius.

But... a film isn't over until it's really over. And, after ninety minutes, I had found that I enjoyed The Rocker.

Despite the fact that Fish is an archetypal slob for most of the film – and finds adjusting to a 9 to 5 job impossible – we realise that everyone deserves an opportunity to be their better selves and try to fulfil some of their dreams.

Fish is very unceremoniously and disloyally dumped by Vesuvius in 1986 so that a producer's nephew can be the group's drummer and they can hit the big time. Fish has almost opted out of life for 20 years when he loses yet another job and moves in with his sister. His nephew (largish with some low self-esteem) is going to play in a band for the school prom. There drummer is suspended at school and, guess what!

Josh Gad, Ted Geiger (an actual teenage singing star) and Emma Stone are the nice, clean-cut trio for whom Fish is culture shock. Rebel and hedonist Fish is a fish out of water in this rather sedate 2006 US town. The plot is wish- fulfilment but the twist comes courtesy of the exploitational side of the internet and instant celebrity. This development would not have been a surprise to the British director of the film who made that most popular of comedies, The Full Monty. It's not quite that here. Rather it is the almost-full Monty (Fish's only) which becomes the first step to America- wide success. Most aspiring bands will think, 'if only...'.

There is a pervading niceness about the film and many parents may be relieved to see teenagers portrayed so generally responsible and pleasant.

For those of a vindictive frame of mind, there is a wonderful on stage before thousands comeuppance for Vesuvius and a nicer Fish (with a haircut) has happily filled the void of the previous twenty years. And there are quite a few laughs as a bonus, especially in the send-up of the rock culture and venal agents. So, it's best to wait until the end before passing judgment.

RUMBA

(Belgium, 2008, d. Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, Bruno Remy)

At 77 minutes, Rumba is a brief but funny excursion into the foibles of human nature – and with quite a number of laugh aloud humour.

Dominique Abel and partner Fiona Gordon have been working together for over ten years. They made some short films and then a feature in 2005, Iceberg. Influenced by burlesque and the theatre of movement and mime as well as the screen comic tradition from Chaplin through Tati, they take ordinary situations and play with them, devising visual and movement pieces that are a blend of good-natured spoof, parody and satire. They themselves , while not prepossessing screen presences or glamorous, are able to hold audience attention with their abilities in lithe movement and comic timing.

The plot outline is the simplest. A husband and wife teach in school. After school they rehearse Latin American dancing and enter competitions. They have a terrible car accident and the consequences, though serious on paper, lead to a number of very funny routines. The other central character is a largish would-be-suicide who has a devastating effect on the couple's life and dancing – and whose sobbing sessions as he contemplates what he has done have audiences in fits of laughter. It is that kind of contradictory humour that makes the proceedings both hilarious and poignant.

Dominique and Fiona are joined in the direction of the film by Bruno Romy who plays the villain who makes all kinds of desperate attempts to steal a chocolate bun from Dominique and whose demise causes a guffaw as well.

There are three rumba scenes which give musical and dance verve to the film. The attempts at suicide are ironically funny and a scene where the house burns down because a wooden limb is inadvertently set alight by an outdoor grill during a romantic love song might indicate that Rumba is a different kind of comedy that is highly entertaining. Just as Tati brought mime and timing to the ordinary situations of French life, so Dominique and Fiona continue this tradition in Belgium.

SAW V

(US, 2008, d. David Hackl)

Trying for a sense of balance, I went to see Saw! Well, a review has to start somewhere.

The Saw series is review-proof. The fans, who seem to be legion judging from box office returns, are committed to the series. Others who venture into the cinema for Saw V and immediately see a 21st century variation on The Pit and the Pendulum will know whether they want to stay or not.

Since October 2004, the end of October and the anticipation of Halloween has seen the annual release of a Saw movie. The first one was a bit of a shock: graphic in its torture and in its capacity to create anxiety in the audience as a mad killer imprisons victims and plays mental and physical games with them as they try to follow his rules to survive. The rest of the series have been variations on this theme. The masked murderer is called Jigsaw and the series has continued to feature him even though, chronologically, he has been dead in Saw IV and Saw V. The potential of the flashback, while it might not produce resurrection, it at least manages resuscitation. Actor Tobin Bell, with his somewhat sepulchral look and his definitely sepulchral voice and speech, gives a bit more solidity, if not solemnity, to his scenes as Jigsaw.

However, he has passed on his heritage to a police officer whose sister has been murdered and her killer freed long before justice demands because of a technicality. This device has meant that Saw IV and Saw V have been able to continue, via the officer played by Costas Mandylor who entered the series with Saw III – and who, despite appearances in the last scene, should be available to wreak havoc in Saw VI.

The original Saw, devised by two Australian film-makers, Leigh Whannell and Malaysian-born James Wan, led audiences into the horror-torture genre that has led to Hostel and some truly ugly films like Captivity and La Frontiere. At least the dialogue in the Saw films (though not delivered with the greatest of thespian polish!) tries to introduce some ideas of crime, justice, retribution – and then adds in another splatter scene.

VINYAN

(Belgium, 2008, d. Fabrice du Welz)

The 2004 tsunami had devastating effects on the populations of the Asian countries where it struck, especially Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka... It also affected a number of people from Europe who were holidaying in those regions. This is a drama that takes the aftermath of the tsunami as its starting point.

The focus is on a couple, he is English (Rufus Sewell) and she is French (Emmanuelle Beart). They have lost their young son in the disaster and have stayed on in Phuket, aligned with some relief activity but the mother, still hoping against all hope, that their son is alive. While watching a DVD filmed in Myanmar by the charity, she believes she sees an image of her son. Nothing will stop her in her quest to find him, despite the more rational approach of her husband and the costs that prospective guides, reputable or not, demand (another concern of the husband).

Their journey leads them to sail north to Myanmar and then enter the jungle. For many stories, an intense journey into the jungle becomes a voyage into what Conrad called 'the heart of darkness', with memories of the river voyage in Apocalypse Now - geographically not far from this journey and just as deadly. In fact Vinyan evokes many images from Apocalypse Now as well as its themes.

The couple and their mercenary guide (who lost his family in the tsunami) become lost in the jungle. Alternate children are offered to them. Gradually, there is the loss of a hold on reality, eerie settings in ruins, ghostly children and final grim confrontations.

Writer-director, Fabrice du Welz, is not averse to showing suffering human beings and not shy of scenes of torture. His previous film, Calvaire, had a hapless hero, lost in the Belgian countryside, hounded cruelly to his fate.

That said, the film is quite powerful in its emotions, sinister in its quest and descending into what we remember from Conrad and Coppola, into 'the horror'.

YOUNG@HEART

(UK, 2007, d. Stephen Walker)

The Young at Heart Chorus has been well documented for television since its inception in 1982. Now there is a joyful film that has great appeal. It is an exuberant performance by the cast and an exhilarating experience for the audience.

When is old? What is old? Not just chronological age.

A group of senior citizens were gathered together by a young conductor, Bob Cilman, who, at 53, is still just under 30 years younger than the average age, 81, of the members of the chorus.

The opening of the film puts us on full alert as Eileen Hill (later revealed as 92) gives her all to a live performance of the Clash's 'Should I stay or should I go'. This is not your ordinary musical. This is not your ordinary concert movie.

Director Stephen Walker and a British crew stayed with the Chorus in the early months of 2006 and followed their almost two months rehearsal period, the rehearsals themselves, and some biographical pieces on some of the prominent singers. They live in Northhampton, Massachussets, and have toured Europe and been to Australia. They are a fine example of men and women who, even though sometimes disabled or terminally ill, have a zest for life. Their energetic singing – and some limited swaying and dancing – means that they are alive in body as well as soul.

While many of them declare a love of classical musical, they actually perform a wide range of songs from more recent decades. They sing James Brown. They sing Cold Play. And, bring to life the songs they certainly do. To watch them rehearse and finally perform 'I Feel Good' (with the elderly man finally remembering most of his lyrics and the elderly woman finding her rhythm at last) is energising for those of us just sitting in cinema seats.

The old people love what they are doing. They may have their cantankerous moments (though we don't see all that many) but these are not important when they see themselves as a group collaborating and sharing song and joy. Bob Cilman has to be tough and demanding – and makes them rehearse and rehearse Schizophrenia (which they initially don't like) and 'If you can, can...' (which, with its 71 'cans', some think is too difficult to remember and enunciate at tongue-twister speed).

The personal stories are wonderful to listen to, good, decent folk (as the Americans might describe them) with their families and their histories and some extraordinary courage in the face of cancer treatment and death.

The film ends with the concert – which makes you wish you had been there to see the Chorus and hear them. The rendition of Cold Play's 'Fix it' rendered powerfully and in fine voice by a very large elderly man, seated and with an oxygen cylinder beside him means that no-one should give up on life.

LA ZONA

(Mexico, 2007, d. Rodrigo Pla)

La Zona works very well as a thriller but it also works well as an allegory of exclusive societies who live in fear, barricading themselves behind walls and wire and take the law into their own hands, lynch-law like, when they feel threatened or attacked.

The Zone is a wealthy enclave in the suburbs of a Mexican city, surrounded by slums and poverty. During a storm, some thieves from outside are able to climb into the Zone when a billboard collapses on part of the wall. The result is not only robbery but murder. One of the thieves, a 16 year old who supports his mother, hides out in the basement of one of the houses. In the meantime, the Zone authorities meet and take matters out of the hands of the police, concealing the truth of what happens so that officialdom will keep away and not disturb their priviliges.

A rich boy discovers the poor boy and a bond grows between them.

It would be nice to be able to say that all works out well but we know that this is not possible with this vindictive
community who display a most alarming blood-lust. The film is also pessimistic about integrity, even with principled police officers.

Drama is powerful. Performances are persuasive. Though we look at the situation through the eyes of a privileged boy, the point of view of the impoverished boy is also strong. The resolution is dramatically satisfying and gives hope for some decency. When the film ends at 97 minutes, we feel that it could have gone on longer and we would have been interested to see further developments in several of the characters. That is a compliment.






SIGNIS REVIEWS DECEMBER 2008

BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX, The
BELLE TOUJOURS
BODY OF LIES
BONNEVILLE
CHILDREN, The
CHOKE
CHOKING MAN
CONVERSATIONS WITH MY GARDENER
DEAN SPANLEY
EASY VIRTUE
EXPRESS, The
FAINTHEART
FINE, TOTALLY FINE
FLAWLESS
FOUR CHRISTMASSES
GIRL IN THE PARK, The
JULIA
KIT KITTREDEGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL
LAKEVIEW TERRACE
MADAGASCAR ESCAPE 2 AFRICA
MAX PAYNE
MY BEST FRIEND'S GIRL
OXFORD MURDERS, The
PO DE CHOCOLADE, Un
PRIDE AND GLORY
QUARANTINE
RIVALS
SCAR 3D
SECRET LIFE OF BEES, The
SUMMER
TRANSPORTER 3
VENTO VA IN GIRO, Il
W
WARLORDS, The
ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO



THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX

(Germany, 2008, d.Uli Edel)

In the aftermath of the upheavals of the 1960s, the student protests, the Vietnam War, the undermining of governments and authority, the 1970s saw a number of revolutionary groups who took to terrorism and thuggery for their alleged social and reformist ideologies. The Italian Red Brigade was one. But, probably, the best known was the Baader Meinhof Gang who called themselves the Red Army Faction.

Producer Bernd Eichenger (who wrote the film about the last days of Hitler, Downfall) has based his screenplay on the 1980s (revised in the 1990s) book by journalist Stephen Aust who followed the activities at the time. The film has been directed by Uli Edel who made such tough films as Christiane F and Last Exit from Brooklyn as well as some far more commercials films in the US like Body of Evidence with Madonna. Here, he and Eichenger are back with their German roots when they were young film-makers in the 1970s, initially impressed by the causes of the RAF but then disgusted by their ruthlessness and the killing of civilians. This is evident from the film.

The Baader Meinhof Complex is certainly not simple. It is a chronicle of the activities from the late 1960s to the deaths by suicide of the main protagonists ten years later. Events follow events. Characters come and go and we are not sure who they are except that they belong to the RAF. Nevertheless, the film holds the attention as it recreates the period and shows us the RAF in action as well as the members with their interactions and tensions.

Initially, the film concentrates on the wife and mother, leftist journalist, Ulrike Meinhof. She is stirred by the protests of the 1960s. Her husband betrays her and she leaves with her children, only to become involved with giving shelter to Andreas Baader. Eventually, she makes an ideological choice and abandons her children for the RAF causes, wanting to be a voice of reason but caught up in the violent activities. Baader is presented as a narcissistic rabble rouser without too much political savvy but a knack for enthusing followers, especially his girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin (daughter of a religious minister) who becomes one of the leaders.

Martina Gedeck and Moritz Bleibtreu are strong presences as Meinhoff and Baader. Johanna Wokalek is striking as Ensslin.

The bulk of the film shows the hardening of the group's determination, their training with the PLO (and Baader's arrogant superiority, racism and anti-authority stances), their robbing of banks, their increasing terrorist activities as well as the hard line taken by the police (who don't emerge with much credit with their brutality) and the shrewd chief of police (Bruno Ganz).

Eventually, the heads of the gang are arrested and spend years in gaol and in the courts. Young Germans who do not know the leaders personally join the ranks of the RAF and finally hijack a plane to demand the release of the prisoners. Ulrike Meinhof becomes more depressed and hangs herself. Another leader dies in a hunger strike. After the failure of the hijacking Baader and Ensslin kill themselves in prison.

The film offers little sympathy for the gang's actions and their setting themselves up as saviours and martyrs. But it does remind audiences that waves of protest and violent action have continually occurred and history can teach us what happens and why.

BELLE TOUJOURS

(Portugal/France, 2006, d. Manoel de Oliveira.)

Belle Toujours is the fortieth film from Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira. He directed it at the age of ninety-seven. (Five other projects are listed in his CV after Belle Toujours.)

He began directing films in 1931 and had what can now be seen as an almost eighty years career. His films are often very difficult, old style, with dialogue and touches of surrealism. However, at the age of ninety-five, he made Un Filme Falada (A Talking Picture) which was a serious observation on the development of Europe and the European Union, Europe as a centre of culture and historical heritage, terrorism in the beginning of the 21st century.

However, with this film he looks back to Bunuel’s Belle du Jour with Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli, 1966. The story takes up the characters forty years afterwards, Michel Piccoli once again as the man about town who encounters Severine, this time played by Bulle Ogier rather than Catherine Deneuve. They agree to meet, have a meal together, he then takes her back through their past and the years afterwards. The film is very strong on dialogue, has excellent performances, is an interesting postscript to Bunuel’s film.


BODY OF LIES

(US, 2008, d.Ridley Scott)

Writer William Monahan wrote the Oscar winning film, The Departed, a crime and police thriller that was intricately plotted, two young men, one criminal in the police force, the other a deep cover agent in the crime world, pitted against each other. His screenplay for Body of Lies has two men pitted against each other and audiences may well be asking themselves if they are watching a criminal world – the intricate plotting world of the CIA, its engagement in Iraq and the 'war against terror'. And the film stars one of the young men of The Departed, Leonardo di Caprio. This time he is pitted against Russell Crowe, even though they are officially on the same side.

Ridley Scott has proven for over thirty years that he can tell stories (think Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator for his versatility). He has also ventured into US conflicts with Black Hawk Down (and G.I.Jane) and looked at the middle east, albeit in Medieval times, in Kingdom of Heaven.

Body of Lies is a brisk action thriller as well as a psychological and verbal conflict between two officials dealing with the Middle East.

Both Di Caprio and Crowe have self-assured screen presence, confident in their interpretation of their roles. Di Caprio is Roger Fells, a young field agent in Iraq (where he witnesses torture), impulsive in trying to do the right thing by his agents despite the armchair (and ear-plug-always-in-the-ear detachment of the heads in Langley). He is moved to Jordan and given freedom of action, yet Crowe as, Ed Hoffman, his superior (a getting-towards-obese husband and father whose life is a blend of picking up the kids from school and making life and death decisions at the same time) interferes behind the scenes working on a need not to know agenda. The CIA have the advantage of sophisticated spy satellites with powerful zooms which can look at action any time, anywhere.

In Jordan, Fells makes contact with the head of Jordanian security, Hani (a masterful performance by Mark Strong) who demands absolute honesty all the time. This requirement is not on Ed Hoffman's list of musts, so Roger falls foul of operations in Amman and Hani's anger.

If audiences think that this is the body of lies, they have much more awaiting them. The CIA invents a conspiracy designed to flush out Jihadic extremists. The film opens with a police operation gone wrong in Manchester, later has an explosive massacre in Amsterdam and troubles in Amman to keep reminding us that the war on terror as well as the terror itself is global. (This reviewer watched the film the day after the Mumbai November 2008 attack.) This body of lies is meant as strategy but innocent men and women are set up, tricked, bewildered and their deaths seen, without emotion, as collateral damage.

There is a further body of lies towards the end which gives some more edge to proceedings.

Filmed, as all the Iraq films have been, in Morocco, Body of Lies, is contemporary in its immediate relevance but also a timeless action thriller. And Di Caprio, Crowe and Strong give memorable performances.

BONNEVILLE

(US, 2007, d. Christopher N. Rowley)

A Bonneville (for those who, like this reviewer, do not know) is a vintage American car. So, this is an American road movie – with a difference. The passengers in the car are three woman of more mature age. The journey takes them from Idaho to Utah, to Arizona and Nevada (and Las Vegas) to California and Santa Barbara – with a postscript in Mexico. The vintage car serves them well.

The reason for the journey is a funeral service.

Jessica Lange plays Arvilla, the wife of an anthropologist who has died in Borneo. She has returned to their home in Pocatello, Idaho, with his ashes. The difficulty is that his adult daughter from his first marriage wants to bury the ashes in the family plot. Clash. The daughter, Francine, is played with haughty assumptions by Christine Baranski. She threatens to evict Arvilla if she does not comply with the funeral arrangements because no new will can be found leaving the house to Arvilla.

When Arvilla decides to give in, she persuades her two friends, the bumptious extraverted Margean (Kathy Bates) and the prim Morman wife and mother, Carol, who has never travelled (Joan Allen) to accompany her. She revisits the special places in her life with her husband, the salt lakes, the canyons and the lakes, Las Vegas... and, on their arrival in Santa Barbara, the urn is considerably lighter.

Along the way, there is lots of girl talk, camaraderie, some fights, drawing Carol out of her careful reserve. She is thunderstruck when she wins the jackpot in Las Vegas with a dollar from a woman whose hotel profession she misunderstood. They encounter a genial young man (Victor Rasuk) who helps them with their flat tyre. They meet a friendly truckie (Tom Selleck) who is a godsend for Margean.

The locations are attractive, the dialogue has pep but it is the strength of the four actresses who make the film.

THE CHILDREN

(UK, 2008, d. Tom Shankland)

There have been a number of films where children have been malevolent – think of the film versions of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw (like The Innocents) and of John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos (Village of the Damned, Children of the Damned). This is one of those films though not nearly in the same league. Taking a cue from the general plot of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers where a strange presence (this time chemical, it seems) takes over the personalities of the snatched, the children turn on the adults.

Formerly called The Day, The Children is about a wintry day at Christmastime where Elaine and Jonah (Eva Birthistle and Stephen Campbell Moore) take their two children plus unhappy teenager, Casey (Hannah Tointon) from Elaine's previous marriage, to spend a carefree holiday with Chloe (Elaine's sister) and Robbie and their two children. The four children are very young.

After what seems like interminable jollity, the audience is ready for some more serious goings on and (unworthy thought) that Robbie, who seems too cheery to be true, be the first to go. He is.

What follows is a lot of daylight mayhem and some puzzle as to what is driving the children to such malice.

Actually, one does not wonder all that much because the acting is not particularly persuasive, especially that of the children, so one observes the terror rather than identifying with it, despite the efforts of Eva Birthistle to give the proceedings more oomph.

The idea behind the film is effective. It is just that the children themselves are not.

CHOKE

(US, 2008, d. Clark Gregg)

Choke may not be finding its way to the must see list for many people. It is about sexual addiction, an issue that we notice in the news or in articles about celebrities, but one which we don't feel the need to follow up in detail. Choke is often frank in its dialogue about the addiction, often quite explicit in its verbal references though no more explicit visually than many another film. When we know what the film is about and how the topic is treated, Choke self-censors itself.

The point can be made that sex addiction is a legitimate subject for a film. It is just that we are not quite used to it and, because it takes up sexual themes, language and behaviour, many will not feel comfortable about it. But, with alcohol addiction stories or drug addiction stories, real examples need to be shown, the consequences of the addiction need to be spelt out.

One of the draws of Choke for some audiences is that it is based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club. Palahniuk is preoccupied with men's psychology and behaviour, the violent identity in Fight Club that leads to brutality and viciousness, the sexual identity in Choke that leads to promiscuous, lewd and abusive attitudes, imagination and behaviour. There are glimpses of some clients of a sex addicts' anonymous group and some details of their stories but the focus is on Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell very effective in both serious and sardonic mode) who is obsessed with anonymous sex and his best friend Denny(Brad William Henke) who has a more familiar self-abuse problem.

It should be noted that the tone of the film is often light and humorous – an interesting way of dealing with a subject that creates both prurient curiosity as well as disgusted aversion. Victor and Denny work at an 18th century American display town, not guides but 'historical interpreters'. They are supervised rigorously and upbraided in 18th century English by their supervisor, played by Clark Gregg who has written the screenplay. The action veers between the town and the addicts' meetings and the men's homes.

However, a great deal of the action takes place in a mental institution where Victor's mother has long been resident and suffers from dementia, imagining men from her past life as Victor visits her – and she criticises Victor to them. His preoccupation is that his mother confides in one of her imagined friends that there is a secret as to who Victor's father really was. There are many flashbacks to mother and Victor wandering the American roads by themselves, his mother being smotheringly protective. She is played to the hilt by Anjelica Huston.

Victor also meets a sympathetic doctor (Kelly MacDonald) who concocts an experiment to get his DNA by impersonal sexual encounter (which Victor finds impossible) but then is able to tell him that he is a clone from an experiment with a Jesus' relic. Victor begins to think of himself as Jesus-like with a good effect on the aged inmates of the institution. These sequences, in the chapel with a crucifix looking down on Victor and the doctor, capitalize on the Christian tradition of humour but many may find this offensive.

Not everyone's drama or comedy but Choke tries to find ways of bringing sex addiction to the attention of the cinema public.

CHOKING MAN

(US, 2006, d. Steve Barron)

This is one of those brief, affecting low-budget independent films that invites the audience into a small, sometimes overlooked world and spend some time with characters that we might generally not meet or only notice in passing.

We are in a diner in Jamaica, Queens, New York, not exactly the centre of the universe, but, as the Greek American proprietor of the diner (Mandy Patinkin) says, there are 140 languages spoken there. We are going to meet the staff.

Jorge (Octavio Gomez) is a quiet young man from Ecuador who spends most of his waking life washing dishes and mopping the floor. He travels by subway to his apartment where he lives alone – well, not exactly alone, we see a white man there who spends a lot of time telling Jorge what to do. It is his stronger alter ego who often speaks a lot of good sense to the painfully shy and taciturn Jorge.

Among the staff at the shop is Jerry, a young ex-con from Philadelphia, who enjoys teasing Jorge. A middle-aged woman who is disappointed by the treatment she receives from her family is the stalwart of the staff, strong and kindly.

Then a new member of staff arrives, Amy (Eugenia Yuan), a sweet Chinese young woman who is niceness personified – to everyone, but especially to Jorge whose 'roommate' urges him to befriend her and give her a present.

Nothing much happens on the surface. The proprietor and his gorgon wife go to Florida for Thanksgiving. Jorge is caught up in his inner life. Amy continues to be nice to people. Jerry comes back and harasses Jorge some more.

The main drama comes from a regular customer choking on a fishbone and unable to dislodge it. Eventually, Jorge reluctantly comes to the rescue, putting into practice the moves, the Heimlich Maneuver, shown on a poster that he always works under.

Steve Barron has a strong reputation as a director of music videos. His small repertoire of films includes Electric Dreams, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mike Bassett, England Manager (with Ricky Tomlinson).

A pleasing small sketch of a movie that also uses animation sequences to illustrate Jorge's inner life and conflicts.

CONVERSATIONS WITH MY GARDENER (DIALOGUE AVEC MON JARDINIER)

(France, 2007, d. Jean Becker)

There are not many films about strong and deep adult friendships. Michael Radford's Il Postino was one, the friendship between Nobel prizewinning poet, Pablo Neruda, and the postman on the Italian island where he lived in exile from Chile. This time the friendship is between a painter and his gardener.

We soon learn that the two men were friends in school together but the artist was sent to boarding school and they lost contact after a prank with an exploding birthday cake. Leo, the gardener, has answered an ad placed by the artist who has left the city and returned to his mother's home and wants to clear some of the land and create a vegetable garden. He is also in the throes of a divorce (his fault) and tensions with his daughter.

Daniel Auteuil makes the artist (not such a good one on the evidence of some of his paintings) more sympathetic than he really is. He pleads with his wife, pleads with his daughter but keeps up some of the friendships which threatened his marriage. He also engages in a caustic conversation with a pretentious art critic – where he presumes that he is an arbiter of taste and honesty. However, he mellows in his conversations with Leo, in reminiscing with him about his life, in shared activities like fishing, in helping him through his terminal cancer. He pays a final tribute to Leo by painting his wife (Hiam Abbass) and exhibits a series of paintings of simple tools and vegetables that were Leo's world.

Sometimes, despite himself, the artist is petty bourgeois and condescending in his approach to life and people.

However, the film really belongs to Jean-Pierre? Darroussin as Leo. He is a good man, a simple man in the best sense who is truly happy (even though the local plumber was chosen instead of him for a husband by the girl he was in love with when young and he detests the plumber - and the high prices he justifiably charges), and who loves what he does. He has a kindly wisdom, a tolerance for the artist and, by the osmosis of friendship, he makes the artist a better man.

A particularly French film in its love for dialogue and in its sensibilities about friendship and about art.

Originally, the book was just a series of talks by the gardener through which a wider story was revealed. The film opens up these monologues into an attractive story. A comparison could be made with the same method for the fine and literate New Zealand/British film Dean Spanley with Jeremy Northam and Sam Neill.

DEAN SPANLEY

(New Zealand/UK, 2008, d. Toa Frazer)

What a pleasant surprise. For those who like their films visually appealing and literate, intelligent and delightful, this will be a most satisfying entertainment. It is G-rated though it is not a children's film.

The screenplay is an imaginative expansion by Alan Sharp (Rob Roy) of a small novel of 1936 by . The book is principally conversations between the narrator of the novel and the Anglican dean who comes to dinner to discuss reincarnation.

Filmed principally in Britain in locations that recreate the Edwardian period in London and in the countryside (with some interiors and scenes filmed in New Zealand), the director is playwright, Toa Frazer, whose previous film, No 2, set in Auckland, acknowledged his Fijian heritage, while this film acknowledges his British ancestry.

Jeremy Northam is expert at playing genial British suave. It is 1904, his brother has been killed in the Boer War and his widowed father, typically tyrannical with the world revolving round him, lives alone though he has an extremely patient housekeeper (Judy Parfitt). His son visits him every Thursday.

They see an ad in the paper for a talk on reincarnation and go to listen. At this stage, one should say that the father is played by Peter O'Toole at his very best, amazing to listen to and a master class to watch. He has some wonderful lines delivered with unconsciously arrogant panache (especially when he wakes up at the end of the lecture and responds to 'Any questions?'). Father and son meet two characters at the talk, one a brash colonial who is a dealer, able to track down and negotiate whatever one needs. He is played (and spoken) by Bryan Brown as Bryan Brown, always a pleasure with his Aussie ironic humour and kindness.

The other is the rather humourless Dean Spanley, played straight by Sam Neill, especially when we and the others get to know him. He has more than a passing interest in reincarnation – which involves another life as a dog.

The conversations are interesting and entertaining and, when Peter O'Toole turns up for a meal and becomes involved in the Dean's story, the film becomes quite moving, especially in the father finally acknowledging that one son has died and the other has devoted himself to him.

No special effects, no action sequences, just a delight for ear and eye, for the emotions and for the mind.

EASY VIRTUE

(UK, 2008, d. Stephan Elliot)

Many of Noel Coward's comedies seem slight, light and even frivolous. This is true of Easy Virtue, written in 1924 and reflecting aspects of the flapper age and how American verve impacted on stiff upper lip snobbish Britain. It was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1928.

Easy Virtue is reminiscent of Coward's Relative Values, set in the 1950s and filmed in 2000. Jeanne Tripplehorn was the alleged American gold-digger of 'easy virtue' who was judged to have intruded herself into an aristocratic family presided over by Julie Andrews. Her role as the matriarch seems like Mary Poppins compared with Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs Whittaker, the haughty authority figure whose daughters have imbibed her prejudices and whose husband, a psychological victim of World War 1 fatalities (Colin Firth, who was also in Relative Values), observes the goings on with some detached irony.

The gold-digger is Jessica Biel. She is Larita, a racing car driver who wins but is then disqualified in Monte Carlo. However, she notices John Whittaker (Ben Barnes, who was Prince Caspian) and, in a whirlwind romance, she marries him and goes to his English ancestral home – and feels insulted and stifled. All this is presented with the Coward detached humour and arch one-liners. Australian director, Stephan Elliot (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) takes a cue from Moulin Rouge and has characters burst into snatches of song as well as having songs in the background. Many are from Coward's repertoire and from Cole Porter, but a number of them are from later times and moods.

Not everyone has an empathy for the wealthy (some about to be impoverished) landocracy of the 1920s and their inward-looking problems. However, there is enough Coward and his talent to amuse. The acting is very good with Jessica Biel both glamorous and convincing, especially when her dark past secret is revealed. Kristin Scott Thomas is adept at this kind of icy and controlling mother. Colin Firth is pleasingly surprising as he brings some deeper humanity to the family and a sympathetic ear to Larita. Kris Marshall obviously enjoys himself as a quizzically-eyed butler.

Pleasant while on screen but not likely to remain in the memory.

THE EXPRESS

(US, 2008, d, Gary Fleder)

A surprisingly watchable film, even for those who know almost nothing about American football, even though it is quite predictable as sports films and champions go. However, it is based on a true story, the brief career of Ernie Davis at Syracuse College in the late 1950s and his winning the Heisman Cup in 1961, the first African American player to do so.

And that is where the main interest lies, apart from those who love watching choreographed matches, the race issue.

We get some glimpses of Ernie Davis's childhood in prejudiced Pennsylvania in the late 1940s. He is supported by his grandfather (Charles S. Dutton) and learns how fast he can run as he escapes from bullying boys. He also hears of Jackie Robinson, the first African American major league footballer.

He comes to the attention of Syracuse coach, Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid at his coachiest, crusty, demanding and, ultimately, a good man) and receives a scholarship. He also experiences racial tension within the team but soon wins them over with his skills. It is not so easy with inter-college matches and there are some scenes of vicious West Virginia and Texas fans showing their bigotry.

Rob Brown is sympathetic as Ernie Davis. He follows in the pioneering steps of Jim Brown (later a star of films like The Dirty Dozen) but stakes his claim to be an original. Sadly, he died of leukemia at the age of 23 in 1963. The film does not dwell on the illness much nor even on his love for a student-teacher. It is the sport and the race issues that are important. Though released before the election of Barack Obama, it is very much a film in that spirit of achievement.

FAINTHEART

(UK, 2008, d. Vito Rocco)

When one is not quite sure what to say about a brief film that offers an oddball view of human nature and human behaviour, one relies on the description, 'a quirky little film'. And that is quite appropriate for Faintheart. It runs for under 90 minutes, is set in a contemporary English village, has humorous touches as well as some serious themes treated in a comic way. It stars that very versatile British character actor, Eddie Marsan (Happy Go Lucky, Sixty Six, Pierrepoint) with Ewan Bremner and Jessica Hynes.

The opening momentarily takes us aback as a medieval battle begins – then a mobile phone rings and Richard (Marsan) has to run to his car to hurry to a funeral. A mood is set. His wife is not at all happy with Richard and wants a separation.

The trouble is that Richard and his mates have never quite grown up and like to get together to re-create Viking battles. Richard does not want a separation and does his best to reconcile (which is a bit difficult because his wife has taken up with the phys ed teacher (Paul Nichols) and his bullied son is ashamed of him). He has a dead end job and a sneering boss.

But, if you keep the title in mind and remember your Gilbert and Sullivan, you know that faint heart never won fair lady. So Richard has to change his attitudes and his life and fight for his family.

It is all quite slight but offers a slice of British complicated life.

FINE, TOTALLY FINE

(Japan, 2008, Yosuke Fujita)

Except for Japanese audiences, Japanese comedies are most probably an acquired taste. This is definitely the case for Fine, Totally Fine. It has won awards and has found a release in the US with some popularity. On the other hand, it is the kind of film which will turn off those who are not on the wavelength who may well find themselves quite irritated.

The humour is broad and involves two brothers, one who is a heavy, technological nerd who loves horror (and practical jokes) and whose dream is to build a theme park Haunted House. The other is a straight up and down doctor. There are a lot of peripheral characters, pals, hospital staff, bookstore and library staff and the older generation.

However, the other principal character is an eccentric young woman who observes a poor woman at the river side and does paintings of her. She is clumsiness personified (and her attempts at slapstick humour seemed to be far more wince-making than funny).

Well, the two brothers are attracted to her and the usual routines follow.

FLAWLESS

(UK, 2007, d. Michael Radford)

The opening credits show us hands sifting for precious stones in the South African mud pools and then the cutting and polishing the gems until they shine as brilliant diamonds. Flawless is a film about diamonds. But, it is also a thriller about a very cleverly thought out robbery from the vault of London Diamonds, a multinational that has a hold on all international sales. The setting is 1960, the period of apartheid and ambiguous British attitudes towards workers in South Africa.

There are political implications in the robbery but also personal motivations.

The film opens, however, in 2000 and makes a suggestion that audiences are meant to interpret one way while the screenwriter means another – which gives the film an irony as we watch it and then another angle as the film comes to an end.

Demi Moore is an ambitious executive in London Diamonds but is continually passed over for promotion by the irascible boss, played by Joss Ackland. Michael Caine is one of the janitors and cleaners that no one notices but who hears everything. He concocts a plan to enter the vault and – well, you will just have to see the film to find out what he does...!

This is a polished thriller from Michael Radford (Il Postino, Merchant of Venice) with Demi Moore giving one of her now relatively infrequent performances. Michael Caine has been constantly on screen in leading roles for more than forty years and still commands attention. He is quite believable as Hobbs, the ingenious but unnoticed cleaner (Caine notes that his mother was a cleaner at the British Houses of Parliament). Lambert Wilson is the insurance investigator who has to find the diamonds and unmask the thieves.

Flawless can be seen as either old-fashioned or classical film-making – which means that it tells an interesting story, has classy performances and entertains.

FOUR CHRISTMASES

(US, 2008, d. Seth Gordon)

A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, Christmas in the movies meant something like the cosy sweetness of Meet Me in St Louis or the perennial It's a Wonderful Life. In the 21st century, in a franker age and with so many families unlike the nuclear families of yesteryear, then Four Christmases will have to do.

It is often quite funny. In fact, the message is not too much different from that of the old days. Hope does spring eternal. Families should be close and the season is one of peace and love. Four Christmases adds a nativity play and images of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (albeit in a humorous, happy-clappy congregation) that are a contemporary reminder of Christ in Christmas in an age where some cities have substituted 'the holiday season' and banned representations of the Gospel story. (In fact, this film was re-titled Four Holidays in some countries – which rather ignores and/or belittles the point. It kept its original title in the US and the UK.)

Brad and Katie are a modern couple, unmarried, playing innuendo games in the opening scenes which deceives no one who has seen this kind of sequence before, happy in each other's company and trying to avoid Christmas family gatherings (when we meet the families we can understand why) by pretending to be going to do charity work in Burma but in reality hightailing it for Fiji and scuba diving. Fog in San Francisco. Planes grounded. TV news cameras everywhere interviewing frustrated travellers. Guess what! And guess who sees their offspring on TV! This means four Christmases on the one day as they visit Brad's father, Katie's mother, Brad's mother and Katie's father with some good comedy sequences and some personal discoveries and learning more about each other and, finally, some good advice and the traditional ending.

Vince Vaughn is just right as Brad. Reese Witherspoon is as resourceful as Elle Wood was but more serious-minded. And the stars for the parents are a treat. Robert Duvall provides the rough and down-to-earth Dad. Mary Steenburgen is the glamorous, flighty mother. Sissy Spacek provides unself-conscious humour with a board game. Jon Voight has the wise-in-retrospect role.

Those who hanker after the niceness of the past may be put off at first, but the film grows on you and becomes very likeable. The characters – even the gallery of parents and oddball siblings – are engaging in their own way.

THE GIRL IN THE PARK

(US, 2007, d. David Auburn)

There is a rather unprepossessing title, even prosaic, for what is a much better film than we might be led to believe. It has been written and directed by playwright, David Auburn (Proof, which was filmed with Gwynneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins, and the screenplay for the romantic time travel story, The Lake House).

There has been a mini-proliferation of films about child abductions in the last year. Ben Affleck directed a film version of Denis Lehane's Gone Baby Gone to considerable effect. Angelina Jolie was impressive as a mother whose child disappeared in Clint Eastwood's Changeling. The very dark side and consequences of a child disappearing and subject to sexual abuse featured sombrely in Damian Harris's Gardens of the Night. All three films were well worth seeing.

This time the focus is on the effect of the abduction on the family, especially the mother who blames herself for the loss of her daughter and cannot forgive herself and who cannot really move on in her life. The film is a star vehicle for Sigourney Weaver as the mother, Julia. In the opening sequences, she shows she is a sweet and loving mother. However, 16 years are passed over after the disappearance of her child. She is separated from her husband (David Rasche), alienated from her son (Alessandro Nivola), embittered by life and fate. She returns to New York for her bank job and her boss (Elias Koteas) at the time of her prosperous builder son's engagement. His fiancee (Keri Russell) takes great pains to bring her fiance and his mother together.

The film is tough going emotionally for the audience. While there is great sympathy for the bereft mother, there is always the hope that she can make more of a life for herself and the feelings of frustration when she doesn't.

The core of the drama is a young woman, Louise, whom Julia impulsively helps when Louise is shoplifting a pair of sunglasses. They meet again and Julia gives her money to help her home. But, that is a facade and Julia is angry at their next chance encounter. However, Louise who has serious drugs and sex relationships is roughly the age her daughter would be and she takes her in. We guess what the consequences will be but also want to see whether Julia will be changed or not, whether she will be reconciled to her son, and how the young woman will react. Kate Bosworth gives a strong performance as Louise.

Serious themes and good performances.

JULIA

(France/US, 2008, d. Erick Zonca)

Tilda Swinton has capitalised on portraying rather cold, calculating and determined characters on screen, often in arthouse cinema – from her days in Derek Jarman's films to the recent Burn After Reading and her Oscar-winning executive in Michael Clayton. Here she gives what is usually called a 'bravura performance' that certainly grabs audience attention – and she has to keep her hold because the plot, slight in itself, stretches to almost two and a half hours.

Julia is an unpleasant and untrustworthy character. She can't keep her real estate job in Los Angeles. She wants to be a goodtime girl but can't maintain her good will or composure. She is an irritable alcoholic who can't take the AA meetings. What is she to do with her life now that she is in her 40s and Max (Saul Rubinek) who cares for her can't influence her for the better?

Chance, providence or just bad luck turns up in the form of a fellow AA meeting attender who proposes a scheme to kidnap her eight year old son. The mother is Mexican. Her husband is dead (drugs probably) and the boy is being cared for by her husband's rich industrialist father). Julia goes for it – and that is what almost two hours of the film is about: Julia's botched kidnapping attempt.

What the episode does for Julia is alert her to many qualities and many defects in herself. She certainly has not thought the project through. When the unexpected happens, however, she generally rises to the occasion, surprising the audience and even herself. The poor little rich boy (Aidan Gould) has a lot to put up with but shows some initiative and, as you guess, they have to ally themselves to face a common enemy. She Julia takes refuge in Mexico, she runs the danger of encountering criminals, both professional and amateur, who are also in the kidnapping business.

As indicated, the film is long, probably too long for the slenderness of the plot and its developments. However, to see Tilda Swinton give such a lively performance, running a wide range of emotions, from alcohol haze to some attempts at motherliness and wielding and using a gun, is quite an experience.

Director Erick Zonca won many festival awards in 1999 with his film about two women, desperation and crime, The Dram Life of Angels. He then made Le Petit Voleur in 1999. This is his first film since then.

KIT KITTREDGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL

(US, 2008, d. Patricia Rozema)

If you are not in the know about the American stories of Kit Kittredge by Valerie Tripp, you might well wonder what you are in for if you decided to try out this film – after all the Canadian director has made some interesting films including I Heard the Mermaids Singing and Mansfield Park. Who is Kit Kittredge? Is she a superheroine in the tradition of Spiderman...? Is this a piece of US propaganda and public relations? Actually not.

This is a Depression story for a girls' audience (and for families where the boys might prefer to stay home or go into another cinema at the multiplex). However, it is very nicely told, has a very strong cast and, while sweet in an American way, it is a good story about values and learning values.

It is Cincinnati, 1934, the Depression still hurting with banks foreclosing on homes, even of the relatively well-off, and people taking snobbish attitudes to the increasing number of hobos on the trains and in their own townships on the edge of the city. Those with money have little tolerance: the attitude that people should be able to find jobs themselves, keep them or pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Kit is 10, a Pulitzer Prize winner in the making as she types out topical stories and hounds the editor of the local paper. She is played by that very versatile of child actors, Abigail Breslin, which means that this quite precocious Kit is more than credible. Her charming and kind mother is played by Julia Ormond and Chris O'Donnell is her father. The family falls on hard unemployment times and mother takes in a range of boarders (played by Glenne Headley, Jane Krakowski, Stanley Tucci and Joan Cusack). This is not how Kit imagined life to be and she has to learn about poverty and soup kitchens, about kindness to hobo children looking for jobs, about sharing her house and possessions.

The drama steps up when there are some robberies and the young boy is accused because the hobos are easy scapegoats. But reporter Kit becomes a new Nancy Drew and the robberies are solved and the hobos absolved.

It is a surprisingly nice and nicely told story.

LAKEVIEW TERRACE

(US, 2008, d. Neil LaBute)

Neil LaBute? is best known as a playwright who is concerned by human relationships, especially those which are exploitative and dangerous. This has been true of several of his films, especially In The Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbours. These two films showed men behaving not only badly but cruelly. This theme is present in Lakeview Terrace, emphasis on neighbours, even though he did not write the screenplay.

Malevolence.

We speak of ill-will towards others but that sounds slight compared with malevolence. Iago's constant and gnawing jealousy and hatred of Othello was malevolence, a deep-seated animosity that led to malicious behaviour. What is such malevolence like in suburbia? This is one of the key questions in Lakeview Terrace, an urban psychodrama (where some would put an emphasis on the psycho).

We are quickly introduced to Abel Turner, played with his customary commitment by Samuel L. Jackson. He is a single father, with two children, and a house that he controls with regulations, manners and good grammar. We then learn he is an LA police officer.

His curiosity is roused as he waters his garden and watches a young couple moving into the house next door. Chris (Patrick Wilson) is white. Lisa (Kerry Washington) is black. His immediate facial expressions indicate that Abel does not approve. As the days go on, not only does he disapprove, he starts to relish criticising them and disturbing them. He forbids his daughter to go to their pool. He humiliates Chris, smilingly, at a welcoming party. He is full of insinuations.

Needless to say, this puts pressure on Chris and Lisa as well as on their marriage as they struggle with fixing the house, then job issues and, finally, pregnancy. Chris tries macho confrontation with Abel but he is not good at it and Abel is able to turn the tables and humiliate Chris with a DVD of sexual provocation of Chris at a police stag party Abel has hosted.

In the meantime we find out more and more about Abel and his mode of police work that leads to official inquiries.

Constantly in the background, on television news and in the scenes of smoke and haze, are the frequent LA fires that threaten the hills and the houses in the outer suburbs. Their proximity provides an image for the final confrontation and the culmination of Abel's malevolence.

The fact that Abel shows animosity towards a couple in a mixed race relationship highlights the nature of prejudice that leads to violent bigotry using righteousness as an excuse.

The usual name given to this kind of psychological thriller is a story of 'the neighbour from hell'. Hell is malevolence.

LES LIGNES DU SANG (RIVALS)

(France, 2008, d. Jacques Maillot)

'Rivals' is not a very helpful title for this intelligent French thriller and character study. The French title emphasises the 'Blood Ties' which are the key to the film rather than any rivalry.

If they did not know before they went in, the audience would be amazed at the end to find that this is based on a true story, a book of the late 1990s written by two brothers, one who was a criminal (the elder) and one who was a police officer (the younger). The younger idolised the older but was disillusioned when his brother took to crime. Eventually, they became close again and collaborated on their book.

The setting is the 1970s (did people actually wear their hair and their clothes like this!). Younger brother, Francois (Guillaume Canet) is an efficient officer, though he has been attracted to the wife of a criminal he has caused to be arrested. Older brother, Gabriel (Francois Cluzet looking even more like Dustin Hoffman than usual), has come out of jail and is reunited with his parents and with his ex-wife and children. All seems to be going well, especially when Gabriel takes up with a nice but mousy younger cashier at a supermarket.

However, money... , criminal connections..., employment as a hitman..., money to pay his demanding ex-wife, the possibilities of a lavish life-style and purchasing clubs and setting up prostitution..., Gabriel chooses the easy, criminal life again.

In the meantime Francois does the right thing but is always under some kind of suspicion or hostility from the police authorities because of his brother's behaviour (though Gabriel is expert at covering his tracks).

Gabriel is a sometimes attractive rogue whose conduct we deplore but we can be caught up in his genial grin. Francois is far more serious but has his problems with his girlfriends vicious and vindictive husband and his family.

There is a great deal of police activity, French-style, reminiscent of older films. The portraits of the two brothers are very well drawn. The film moves to a dismaying finale but this is a satisfying French drama.

MADAGASCAR ESCAPE 2 AFRICA

(US, 2008, d. Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath)

Not a fan of the original Madagascar (too many in-jokes for the voice stars undermining the cartoon capers), I approached this sequel with some trepidation. However, I found it far better and funnier (and less 'in') than the first film.

Maybe, there is a touch more of the human this time (and some echoes of The Lion King) where we are shown Alex, the King of New York in zoo showbiz, as a cub more intent on dancing than fighting, where we see his father confronting his rival for leader of the pride of lions, where we see the mischievous Alex caught by hunters and his imprisoning box floating to New York and the life that we saw in the first film with his friends, Marty, Gloria and Melman.

This time they want to go to Connecticut but land up in Madagascar, presumably, and getting a lift back to New York in a ramshackle plane piloted by the penguins which then has an amusing crash landing in deepest Africa – where Alex originally came from. What follows is Alex finding his roots (and confronting his father's rival after he fails the initiation rite), is Gloria falling love with a very large hippo to Melman's dismay, is Melman offering himself as a sacrifice to the gods of the volcano to get water back, is Marty finding that all zebras look the same even though each is unique. King Julien is on hand again, just as manic, and leading the ceremony for the sacrifice. There are some humans too, especially a determined 'little old lady' intent on controlling the big 'kitties'.

Lots of zany action, some funny musical allusions, some adventure and danger – and the entertaining voices of Ben Stiller as Alex, Chris Rock doing his shtick as Marty, David Schwimmer mournful as Melman, Jada Pinkett Smith romantically hippo as Gloria and Sacha Baron Cohen on the loose as King Julien. The voice of Makunga, the villain line, had a touch of sinister whispering familiarity about it – Alex Baldwin.

A lot of nonsense, of course, but this time engagingly so.

MAX PAYNE

(US, 2008, d. John Moore)

Another video game actioner. This one is rather lugubrious, dark, intense, a one-note vengeance journey.

Max Payne subsscribes to the Big Bang Theory: Big Guns and incessant Big Bangs.

Mark Wahlberg (stolid like a small screen cypher character rather than showing his acting abilities) is a cop whose wife and child have been killed. While working in a small, unobtrusive office, he takes the opportunity to track down the killers, especially after an encounter in a club with Olga Kuryenko (Camille in Quantum of Solace) and her assassin sister (Mila Kunis) who thinks that Max Payne has killed her.

Not always easy to follow (you probably need to be an initiate of the world of video games and play stations), the plot has Max discover a tattoo which has mythical significance (a demonic bird of prey) which leads him deeper into a government experiment with aggression enhancing drugs that went wrong. What is left but confrontations and shootouts? No peace and reconciliation here.

Surprising to see Beau Bridges and Chris O'Donnell turn up in the middle of the cover-up.

As with so many of these films, the characterisation is secondary to the production design. Here it is a CGI squalid and dark city with hallucinatory monstrous and devouring birds that offer some visual art distraction from the big bangs.

MY BEST FRIEND'S GIRL

(US, 2008, d. Howard Deutch)

Probably, several PhD theses in cinema studies are under way at the moment focusing on US romantic comedies and how they have changed over the decades but, especially, in more recent years. They have become much more sexually explicit in language, depiction and issues. In fact, an interesting thesis could be written on how many of them are portraying obnoxiously loud and obvious males who are any woman's nightmare – then showing how they go through some process that turns them into semblances of decent, even likeable, men. This is one of those films.

The trouble with My Best Friend's Girl is that Dane Cook is more persuasive when he acts obnoxious than when he acts with a touch of decency. Seth Rogen in the Judd Apatow comedies, which by now also must be the subject of theses, is able to say the most obnoxious dialogue but gives the impression that there might be something better underneath his roly poly exterior – and usually there is. With Cook, it is hard to believe in his conversion when we have seen how expert (and in the sequence of the wedding that he disrupts, how demonic) he is in being boorish. Yes, the romantic comedies of the 1930s introduced audiences to farce and screwball comedy but this one has too much emphasis on the screw.

Kate Hudson, who has inherited a number of her mother, Goldie Hawn's mannerisms, finds herself in a comedy that does not do all that much credit to her character either. Jason Biggs seems better as the lovelorn suitor – but then he is given some sex lines which undermines his credibility. And Alec Baldwin turns up as Cook's lewd and lascivious professor father who, no sooner is he given some sensible lines, mouthes some more lewdness.

This makes the film far too flippant in tone to support the ultimate message of true love and commitment.

THE OXFORD MURDERS

(UK/Spain, 2008, d. Alex de Iglesia)

There are not too many murder mysteries which spend a lot of time expounding philosophy and the nature of mathematics. The Oxford Murders does precisely that – which may be too much for the multiplex audiences for whom the murders might be interesting but the constant references to particular mathematicians and the equations and series will be too much (and maybe not just for the popular audiences). It is a very cerebral thriller.

We are put in the mood pre-credits when John Hurt delivers a lecture about the impact of Ludwig Wittgenstein on 20th century philosophy and the impossibility of attaining absolute truth. This line of plot is central because Elijah Wood plays an American student who comes to Oxford for Hurt to supervise his thesis. They initially clash in the lecture hall but then by coincidence they arrive at the same time to discover the body of the wife of Hurt's colleague and Wood's landlady (Anna Massey). There are some other murders and a lot of speculation, using mathematical symbols for which the police (led by Jim Carter), like the audience, need a translation into lay terms.

Needless to say, the plot is quite intricate and the audience is led in several directions at once. John Hurt is always credible as this kind of articulate, complex and eccentric character. Elijah Wood is believable as the rather nerdy, intellectual student but less convincing when asked to play the romantic hero with some intimate scenes with Leonor Watling.

The film was directed by a past enfant terrible of the Spanish cinema, Alex de Iglesia (see his 1998 rampaging Perdita Durango for something entirely different). This is quite a toned down film in plot and pace for him, although French actor Dominique Pignon has some delusional dialogue about Jesus' life and resurrection, which one is inclined to dismiss but this character needs watching!

This is a kind of cult film, designed for film buffs and those who love puzzles, codes, maths, equations and who read mystery novels in their spare time.

UN POCO DE CHOCOLADE (A LITTLE BIT OF CHOCOLATE)

(Spain, 2008, d. Aitzol Aramaio)

A light, very sweetly flavoured story of friendship.

An old man (Hector Alterio), cantankerous in his ways, goes home from hospital, to the relief of the staff, to the care of his sister. He is already mixing memories, moving easily back into his past as if it were the present. In the meantime, a young man (Daniel Bruehl) has come to Barcelona from the country and, finding the empty house, has squatted there. A young woman has seen him in the square and is attracted.

The old man and his sister accept the presence of the young man who shows himself concerned and attentive, caring for the old man (and preparing sushi which the old couple are to polite to tell him that they dislike). The old man glides in and out of memories of his long-dead wife and the scenes of their young days on the streetcars of the city.

Not all that much happens in terms of plot: meals at home, illness alarms, a picnic in the country, flashbacks of memories, the young man and woman in love and marrying. Rather, it is the atmosphere, of warmth and human kindness on the part of all the characters that make the film a pleasant experience. It is of interest to see as part of the career of Daniel Bruehl. (The American dubbed version is to be avoided – it makes it sound American slangy and a very badly performed soap.)

PRIDE AND GLORY

(US, 2007, d. Gavin O'Connor)

New York police stories, especially about family and loyalty and corruption, are not exactly new territory. James Gray showed us a Brooklyn family of cops in We Own the Night. Pride and Glory is familiar but is well done and with a very strong cast.

When four police are killed during a raid to take in a drug dealer, New York's finest are not very happy. Neither are a group of rogue police who are a scandal for the finest. Police patriarch, Frank (Jon Voight in a commanding performance) persuades his younger son, Ray (Edward Norton), who is out of detective work after giving testimony in a cover-up inquiry some years earlier, to head the investigation. Paternal pressure forces him to accept.

And there the complications begin. His older brother, Francis (Noah Emmerich) is in charge of the Washington Heights division and discovers that there is corruption on his watch. Ray's brother-in-law, Jimmy (Colin Farrell) is a genial, football playing family man. However, we soon discover that this is only his surface personality. How will the police handle the case? How will the Internal Affairs officials handle the case? How will the family handle the case? Is loyalty to the police and their reputation to be maintained at all cost? Where does personal integrity lie for Francis? Where does the truth lie for Ray?

While there are pleasing family gatherings and playing with grandchildren, the film is mostly dark in its presentation of ordinary men faced with moral crises. It is very dark in its presentation of Jimmy and his cronies and their getting in too deep in corruption, drug-dealing and violently handling criminals, making themselves even worse. In a scene where Jimmy threatens a baby with an iron to extort the hiding place of the fugitive drug dealer, we gasp at its intensity – and then gasp at the tenderness Colin Farrell shows as he gives the baby back to its terrified mother.

This is also a film of the New York streets and that is where the culmination is played out before the father and sons go to face the inquiry.

QUARANTINE

(US, 2008, d. John Erick Dowdle)

This is scary stuff, especially for those who have not seen the original Spanish film, Rec, which was in cinemas less than a year before this remake. Rec was a brisk 80 minutes or so. Quarantine is a little longer, mainly because of a stronger development of the opening sequences, setting the scene with a television reporter following a firefighting squad. Otherwise, the remake follows the original quite faithfully while taking the opportunity to make a few adjustments.

Almost ten years ago, The Blair Witch Project successfully persuaded many film-makers that they could make their films more 'realistic' and 'atmospheric' if they used hand-held cameras to place the audience in the middle of the action. Digital cameras have developed this capacity since then – seen to effect in 2008 in the monster thriller Cloverfield and in George A Romero's latest zombie episode, Diary of the Dead.

The premiss of Rec and Quarantine is quite straightforward: firefighters and police (with the television reporter and her cameraman in tow) are called to an apartment where some of the residents are sick. Almost immediately they are closed in by the authorities without explanation (which does come later so that audiences are satisfied that there is a reason for the turmoil and the fear, reminiscent of 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later). With the hand-held camera and the action taking place within the building, there is a claustrophobic effect, the audience knowing something of what the residents are feeling.

This is why the film is so effective. This could happen in our terrorism-anguished age. Authorities could seal up a building, trapping police, firefighters and residents. People in panic do behave like this. Faced with imminent and ugly death from a mysterious infection, how would we react? And it all takes place overnight, more and more in the dark.

The device of having a TV camera operator filming all the time, with interruptions, threats to himself and his aiding his more and more hysterical reporter adds to the tension.

In terms of classification, the UK censors gave it an 18, maybe because of its 'realism' but it is far more real and challenging than many of the hyped-up horror and violent action shows that receive a 15 classification.

THE SECRET LIVES OF BEES

(US, 2008, d.Gina Prince-Bythewood)

Based on an award-winning 2002 novel by Sue Monk Kidd, this film has been adapted and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood?. Sue Monk Kidd drew on her experiences of growing up white surrounded by black women and also living on a property with many hives and a honey industry. This film version captures the intensity and the importance of these experiences for the author.

This is a highly emotional film, a film for fear and for tears, one of those easy to dismiss as too feeling. However, it is also a strong film. The opening with the voiceover of the young Lily (Dakota Fanning) and the violence between her mother and her father and her mother's death pervades the film.

Overwhelmed by her father's moods and punishments, Lily runs away from home with the servant, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) to try to find out more about her mother and whether she had been abandoned as her father (Paul Bettany) claimed.

At this point it seems important to praise the presence and performance of Dakota Fanning. In the past, she has seemed too precocious to be true, a little adult in a little girl's form. Here, at 14, she shows how confident an actress she is and makes Lily a truly credible character.

The main part of the film shows her life with three sisters who take Lily and Rosaleen into their home because the sisters have a strong connection to her mother. The three sisters are played by three imposing black actresses, Queen Latifah as August, singer Alicia Keys as June and British Sophie Okenado as May. It is 1964 in South Carolina in the aftermath of the Civil Rights developments of 1963 – and television footage shows Lyndon Johnson signing into law the civil rights legislation. However, attitudes in the south are still bigoted and the young boy who dares to take Lily to a movie becomes the victim of insult and violence.

These race themes offer a context for Lily's emotional development.

And the bees?

Early in the film, there is a touch of magic realism as Lily has an experience of bees in her bedroom. The reality of the bees (and August explaining their lives and secrets) comes in the hives that the sisters and the young boy tend to produce honey.

If audiences allow for the more overt emotion that the main American audience for this film feel and display, it is a fine film of racial equality, of relationships and of the process of an adolescent with a difficult background growing up and taking responsibility for her life.

SCAR 3D

(US, 2008, d. Jed Weintrob)

No, it's not a sequel to The Lion King (if only it were!).

This is just another of the torture terror films that have become popular with some audiences in recent years (the Hostel films, Captivity...). They require both strong stomachs and fortitude to sit through, especially the torture scenes where young women are, as here, sliced by a psychotic young man. While the film is obviously made to capitalise on 3D shock effects and blood spattering, it actually doesn't. The audience may experience morbid temptations to speculate how the makers could have really exploited the 3D blood and gore.

A little bit more effort has gone into creating some characters. A young teenager, Joan, was tortured by a funeral home worker and made to take responsibility for his killing her friend. When Joan returns to her home town as an adult, it all happens again for her niece. In a macabre scene, we see that the new funeral director has set up a museum in the home which titillates tourists with the gory story (just as we are as we sit in the audience). The new killer is not hard to pick (and, ironically, one of his excuses for his behaviour is that his father was in Iraq and tortured prisoners – but two wrongs don't make a right).

As in the Friday the 13th tradition, a number of people start disappearing and turning up dead. Not at all a 'must-see'.

SUMMER

(UK, 2008, d. Kenny Glenaan)

This is a small-budget British film, a slice of life, raising a number of issues and, in unexpected ways showing aspects of a deep humanity.

The title refers to a summer when the central characters, Shaun, Daz and Katie, were sixteen, something of an idyllic time when Shaun was in love with Katie and she with him (despite her mother's stern disapproval) and Daz was something of a tearaway. The film is working on three time levels, going back to when the three were in primary school as well as in the present which is the main concern of the film.

As the film opens (with a Scottish setting though filmed in the English Midlands), we find Shaun and Daz in their forties. Daz is confined to a wheelchair and Shaun acts as his carer. We soon learn that Daz has very little time to live. At this stage, we are not sure what has happened to lead to this situation. With the flashbacks inserted in the action to build up the narrative links which do explain everything, there is a sense of curiosity on the part of the audiences: who really are these characters, what has happened to them, and why.

Robert Carlyle has proven himself an actor of great versatility. However, in films like this, he is so good that you believe that he really is the character. He is Shaun with every gesture, every movement of his face. It is a compelling performance. Steve Evets is also good as the older Daz, angrily confined to his chair, dependent on Shaun, a man of moods and finding that his teenage son is following in his uncontrolled footsteps.

While the film is generally naturalistic, there are moments of memory, dreams and fantasy which give more meaning to what has happened: that Shaun found school impossible, dyslexic, unable to spell and write and consequently ferociously angry towards boys who taunted him and towards himself. These disabilities still plagued him at sixteen but Katie was a great support and Daz, though not particularly responsible, a good friend. But Katie's mother organises her going away and Shaun's life is different.

When Daz is close to death, he goes in search of Kate (Rachael Blake) and then has the opportunity to put some kind of closure to the past.

One could say that this is a portrait of disadvantaged people, those who have difficult home lives, are considered slow and unteachable at school and whose future is disabled, but it is a sad story where friendship provides some humane hope.

Director Kenny Glenaan directed the Ecumenical award-winning Yasmin, a story of racial tensions between the British locals and the Pakistani British in Yorkshire.

TRANSPORTER 3

(US/France, 2008, d. Olivier Megaton)

You have to wait only five minutes for the first car chase (and small crash), then fifteen for the first martial arts fight and then only three minutes more for the first major explosion. That's what the Transporter audiences want and that is what they get.

Jason Statham has made a lot of films (similar films) since The Transporter and has established himself as a star of this kind of action film. He is serious, clipped British accent, generally unflappable as he uses his wits and skills to drive into and out of the fastest and riskiest driving commissions he takes on. The only difficulty this time is that he is transporting a young Ukrainian woman, daughter of a minister who is about to give a speech on the environment but is being pressurised by industrialists to sign a document to their advantage in disposing of toxic waste. They have now abducted his daughter as blackmail.

Actually, that is not the precise difficulty. Everyone knows that Statham can do this transporting with ease (though not without chases, a spectacular drive off a bridge, raising his cherished car from the bed of the river with the bags that were in the boot of his car and the air from his tyres, then two spectacular car leaps on to the carriages of a moving train). It is the actress, first timer Natalya Rudakova who is the difficulty. She is meant to be attractive, seductive and causing the Transporter to fall in love with her. Statham's acting does not convince in the romantic department at all. He is merely following what is asked of him in the script. So is she, trying her best which is not nearly good enough.

Robert Knepper is a nasty villain. Jeroen Krabbe is the harassed minister.

Writers, producers and director know ( a documentary maker whose name itself sounds hugely explosive) exactly the kind of adrenalin action that their clientele want and spare little expense on stunt work (though saving costs on the leading lady) to give it to them.

IL VENTO VA IL SUO GIRO (THE WIND BLOWS ROUND)

(Italy, 2005, d. Giorgio Diritti)

A particularly local Italian story set in a remote northern valley, in a village which has lost most of its inhabitants to the cities. The experience is narrowly focused but the message about human nature is universal.

The valley is beautiful, outside Turin. However, the weather and snow are severe and opportunities are limited. When a Frenchman and his family, originally from the Pyrenees but moving because of the building of a nuclear power plant, ask to come in to herd goats and make cheese, there is a mixture of help and reluctance to allow strangers into the village which has had its own language for more than 900 years.

At first all seems to go well. There are memories and celebrations of how the locals hid the hay from the Germans during the war and then everyone joined in to distribute the hay. But human nature being what it is (or the unpleasant sides of human nature, like xenophobia, being what they are), the locals become discontented, jealous, mean-spirited group, believing unfounded gossip. The farmer himself can be abrasive, which does not help.

The film pays great attention to detail of farming, herding and country living. It also intersperses the working scenes with discussions about language, identity and culture. The film is similar in many ways to Raymond Depardon's documentary portrait of changing farm life in France, La Vie Moderne.

It would be pleasing to finish the review by saying that this is an optimistic film about human friendship and collaboration. While there are good moments, people can be harsh and hostile.

W

(US, 2008, d.Oliver Stone)

Throughout the whole film, audiences will be asking themselves how George W. Bush, with his background and personality actually became president of the United States and was re-elected in 2004 only to end his presidency with his ratings falling to extremely low levels. This film was released the week that Barack Obama was elected as his successor.

For those not particularly interested in George W. Bush or American politics, the film is still continually absorbing as a study of a rather irresponsible and spoilt wealthy young man who cannot hold down a job, is looked down on by his successful father in favour of his younger brother but who is supported by a loving wife, has a born again Christian experience, gives up the drink and becomes ambitious for a variety of motives, including a defiance of his father as well as an attempt to honour his father's memory.

Oliver Stone has explored the American experience in Vietnam and its aftermath in his trilogy, Platoon, Born on the 4th July and Heaven and Earth. He enjoyed fomenting conspiracy theories in his JFK, exploring the personal flaws of Nixon and now takes on both Bushes ( with only a cursory mention of Clinton by Barbara Bush who felt that the Clintons were beneath the Bush family). Richard Dreyfuss, who portrays Vice President Dick Cheney as a reptilian, arrogant eminence grise, said that this film is too empathetic towards George W. Bush. This may be only partly true. There is a certain sympathy for the man and his personal struggles, especially with his father, but the film leaves little doubt that Bush's motivation for invading Iraq was questionable, gung-ho American Manifest Destiny vision, pushing on to Bagdad which he had urged his reluctant father to do, Cheney's desire for empire and oil control in the Middle East with no pulling out of Iraq, a simplistic belief that democracy would instantly flourish in Iraq – let along the false information about weapons of mass destruction.

The core of the film takes place in 2002-2003, the lead up to the war, the invasion, the premature declaration of mission accomplished and the revelations of the inept ambitions of his advisers. While The End comes up on the screen, it was not and still is not the end. Bush's unfinished business is to be handed on to this successor.

There is a succession of flashbacks to Bush's past: his boozy initiation at Yale and the revealing of his strong memory, his job on an oilfield and his throwing in the towel, his father's reprimands and his getting him out of trouble with a pregnant girlfriend. We see his meeting Laura, her influence on him, his running for congress and losing, his drinking and his collapse on one of his regular three mile runs with a subsequent seeking out of a religious adviser and his born again conversion and giving up alcohol. His father invited him to work on his 1988 presidential campaign and he advised his father during the Gulf War. His parents did not approve of his running for governor of Texas – we see him campaigning with the advice of Laura on education despite his inept word choice and faulty grammar. Ironically, he won while his brother, Jeb, lost in Florida (though was elected next time round).

The film takes a lot for granted: the courtship and wedding of W and Laura, most of Bush Sr's presidency, the Florida recount in 2000, even any visuals of 9/11.

George Bush Sr is a strong character who knows politics, can pull strings but who weeps when he finds that his war has not persuaded the American public to re-elect him.

Stanley Weiser (writer of Stone's Wall Street) had a mammoth task in writing a screenplay that assesses recent history before the events have come to their conclusion.

The cast is excellent with Josh Brolin capitalising on his successful performance in No Country for Old Men bringing the younger and the older W to life. There is an enormous pathos in the final scene as he realises that he has been misled and that the job was too much for him – and the question whether he realises this in real life or not. The cabinet personalities are generally well portrayed, especially by Richard Dreyfuss as Cheney and Bruce McGill? as George Tenet of the CIA. Thandie Newton looks exactly like Condoleeza Rice. Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld is not given enough to say (and in real life he was no blushing violet) so that his role is not as clear or as powerful as it actually was. There are fascinating hints at how Karl Rove (Toby Jones) began to control Bush and his thinking and public answers. Ioann Gruyfudd's brief scene as Tony Blair does not adequately illustrate the role that the British Prime Minister played in 'legitimising' the invasion.

It will be interesting to watch W again in five years (and more) when there has been more time and opportunity to evaluate the Bush presidency.

THE WARLORDS

(China, 2008, d. Peter Ho-sun Chan)

A Chinese epic of 19th century warlords and battles with high tragic overtones.

Since Jet Li has got older (although he was born only in 1963) and begun to move away from the rather potboiling shows for the American market, he has emerged as a strong actor and the star of some serious Chinese films (Hero, Fearless). Here he is General Pang who survives a massacre and begins life again in a small village but eventually becomes the leader who takes Nanking for the Dowager Empress in a very disturbed China of the 19th century.

The film is impressive in its battle sequences, in its stylised colour photography and in its production design that immerses us into the civil strife of the times.

One needs to be attentive to appreciate just who is who in the line-up of Generals doing battle and manipulating behind the scenes.

General Pang aligns himself with a village leader, a thief, whom he recruits to the army along with the adult men of the village. He becomes his blood brother. Another blood brother is the idealistic young man who narrates the story, explains his admiration for Pang and becomes disillusioned and ultimately violent when he sees the feet of clay of his idol. This not only includes a massacre of 4000 surrendering starving soldiers, the power plays for control and the love that Pang has for the young wife of his blood brother.

The development of the war history and the personal ambitions and relationships is rather reminiscent of Shakespeare's tragedies: epic in scope, focussing on significant leaders, dramatising their fatal flaws which lead to their tragic downfall.

An impressive piece of Chinese film-making which may (or may not) be fascinating for audiences unfamiliar with the history and Chinese traditions.



ZACH AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO

(US, 2008, d. Kevin Smith)

The title is truthful. It offended a number of groups in the US – which rightly raised the question of what is more pornographic, sexuality or violence – and a number of cinemas refused to show the film. The cast pointed out that there is nothing in Zach and Miri that has not been seen in many other films, some with a lower classification. They did not point out the language, which is also a strong issue for many audiences. It has been written and directed by Kevin Smith, a Catholic, who used to revel in being an 'enfant terrible' of the cinema with Clerks and Dogma and now might be called a 'middle-aged terrible', in the sense that he enjoys being more than a little provocative.

Years ago, I was warned by a priest that I respected greatly not to make an immediate assumption about the suitability or not of a film about sex (and this was in the context of Doris Day and Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk). He said that every human topic could be the subject of humour, otherwise we put it on a pedestal and it is idolised (or demonised). So, Zach and Miri is a legitimate subject for a movie. Some sensibilities (which are pre-moral) may not be interested in the film or its subject at all. But, then come the sensitivities and moral discussions: how is the subject presented?

Prudery and permissiveness are in constant debate with each other. For many it is a generational thing. In the past, many of us were reticent in matters of sexuality, seeing it as a matter of propriety. The main difficulty with this, as we have discovered to our great cost, is that this meant that many people were furtive in their curiosity about sexuality and in pursuing that curiosity. The revelations about sexual misconduct and sexual abuse in the churches have scandalised many but have made us realise that a kind of rigid propriety is not enough to control curiosity and urges. The last forty years have seen a broader presentation of sexuality, nudity and more open and detailed discussion in films and television. Which means that many middle-aged and younger people are more open, more explicit about these topics and issues (even in humour). It does not occur to them that their treatment of the topics is objectionable to others. This may be crass. It may also be more honestly earthy.

This leads to discussions about community standards and acceptability – which, of course, means that sensitivities will differ considerably from one culture to another.

Kevin Smith, since Clerks, has had no trouble in his characters talking about all aspects of sexuality and using language that Professor Higgins once said 'would make a sailor blush'. As an 'enfant terrible in middle age', he wants to push beyond some limits. But, as a commercial film-maker who has invested a lot of money in his project, he does not want it banned. He wants it to be seen, and paid for. What he has done in Zach and Miri is to use what is euphemistically called, by consumer advisers and censors, 'strong language', which means that there is constant swearing (which is taken for granted rather than intentionally offensive), explicit references to body functions, bodily functions and the range of behaviour which comes under the heading 'sexual'.

Depending on our sense of humour and our tolerance, some of this, despite ourselves, will probably be funny whether we think it should be or not. It is the toppling of sexuality from its too exalted pedestal.

It is a pity that pornography seems to be taken for granted by so many as a sex resource that most people use, whether it be the internet, magazines or movies. We still need some moral standards regarding sexuality that respect persons and highlight exploitation. While Kevin Smith's characters take pornography as a given in today's (western) societies, Smith is something of a moraliser (perhaps despite appearances). The context of Zach and Miri is a platonic relationship of a couple who are not sexually inhibited in their behaviour (until the challenge of making the porno comes up) but who have a deeper sense of love and respect. They discover this more really for themselves (and it is obvious to their colleagues) and move towards a truer loving commitment. This is something of the 'Judd Apatow Syndrome'. In his comedies (Knocked Up, 40 Year Old Virgin, Zohan, Pineapple Express...), Apatow has a first part which shows us the crass and, then, the resolution always shows us deeper love and commitment. With Apatow's writer-star, Seth Rogen, as Zach, the connection is valid.

Zach and Miri go through the experience of making the porno and discover themselves and love.

Of course, what Kevin Smith is doing is poking fun at porno films, their crassness and the audience response. He employs two stars of 'adult' (another odd euphemism), Traci Lords and Katie Morgan as well as his Jay character, the uninhibited Jason Mewes. But, then he shows the awkwardness, the silly things that happen (and some disgusting ones) and the inherent inanity of pornography. He also introduces a gay porn actor (a very funny performance from Justin Long) who talks with great seriousness about himself and his work as well as his relationship with the High School hero (Brendan Routh).

Elizabeth Banks as Miri and Craig Robinson as their friend and colleague give the film some 'gravitas' even amid the capers. Seth Rogen can do humour, slob and unusual romantic hero with earnest and deadpan humour.

So, Kevin Smith is a man of his times in language and outlook on sexuality and offers humour accordingly. Some of it is inevitably hit and miss, some of it is funny and much of it is crass. But, it is only a movie, a spoof that should not be taken literally, even the tongue-in-cheek sequence after the credits – except in what Smith values most: a truly loving commitment.



Created by: malone last modification: Sunday 15 of May, 2016 [01:53:40 UTC] by malone


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