SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS APRIL 2011-03-04
BATTLE LOS ANGELES
BUTCHER, THE CHEF, THE SWORDSMAN, The
COMPANY MEN, The
DAY I WASN’T BORN, The (DAS LEID IN MIR)
GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST, The
HEARTBEAT AWAY, A
IN A BETTER WORLD
JUST GO FOR IT
LINCOLN LAWYER, The
MY AFTERNOONS WITH MARGUERITE (LA TETE EN FRICHE)
RED RIDING HOOD
RITE, The (see the SIGNIS Statement)
BATTLE LOS ANGELES
(US, 2011, d. Jonathan Liebesman)
This is not a close encounter of the friendly kind.
Aliens have been targeting earth in the last few decades, and not with kind intentions. Think War of the Worlds, think Independence Day, think Monsters, think Skyline. In fact, this looks and sounds like a bigger and louder version of Skyline.
As the film opens, we are in mid-battle. The Marines are on the go, then on the run, as mysterious craft are attacking not only Los Angeles but a dozen key cities around the world. It is all go, rendered all the more vivid because of the camera techniques, hand-held, television reporting style, so that we, the audience, are right there in the melee. As a reminder of this, CNN broadcasts are glimpsed throughout the film.
But then we are taken back 24 hours and introduced to members of the marine squad we will be following, lots of names on screen, close-ups and detail – though many of us will find it difficult to remember who is who. We see glimpses of ordinary lives: a marine farewelling his pregnant wife, friends shopping for a wedding, some playing golf with rowdy sex chat... But, we are introduced to the important character, Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz who has finished tours of duty in Iraq (and lost some heroic men in action, which rankles others) and is about to leave active service where he trains the recruits. He is played with genial conviction by Aaron Eckhard getting his chance as a screen action hero (heroics described as ‘that John Wayne action shit’ – with the inevitable response from the juniors, ‘who the hell is John Wayne?’).
Like the old World War II films, like Platoon and Black Hawk Down, the action focuses on one small representative group, their mission, their team work, their rescuing civilians, their encounters with the enemy, suffering losses as well as outwitting the invaders. It is all done with the ‘Oo-ra’ enthusiasm and dedication of the American forces.
Speaking of the American forces and given the 21st century involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and troubled countries in the Arab world, the zest with which these young men give themselves and sacrifice themselves to ward off the attack and save the threatened, this film seems like something of a live recruitment poster, an appeal to macho gung-ho dedication and patriotism.
Interestingly, we don’t see any aliens for about 30 minutes. They are of the mechanical look variety, more than a touch of the robot. However, when the marines, with the help of a vet who is part of the rescued group (Bridget Moynahan), examine the physiology of the aliens, we realise they have muscular and organic intestines.
Some have complained that the action is repetitious and the hand-held camera work disconcerting. Maybe, but this is how this kind of action goes. It is slow, dangerous, people die, people use their wits, people are daring. Three of those rescued are children. There is a boy who loves his father who joins in the action which leads to tears and emotions all round.
Also joining the group is Michelle Rodriguez (seen lately as a pilot in Avatar) who has the info as to the control space ship (seemingly a replica of that in District 9). Fortunately, she and Nantz get the chance to use the information for a battle climax.
Easy to dismiss as another action show, but it can stand as a symbolic movie of popular American hawkish stances of our times.
THE BUTCHER, THE CHEF, THE SWORDSMAN
(China, 2010, d. Wuershan)
Maybe the bizarre aspects of the title offer a guide to what you might expect from this Chinese movie (well, it’s not exactly the Chinese movie we are used to). A couple of years ago there was a very offbeat Korean film called The Good, the Bad and The Weird. This one goes beyond that and could have been called The Good, The Bad, The Weird and the Absurd. The absurdity is intentional. (The IMDb blurb uses the words ‘brash’ and ‘wild’.)
Not easy to get into the film, a lot of it visually dark. We are introduced to three symbolic characters whose stories eventually become intertwined – all connected by a cleaver made from swords which goes into action throughout the film.
Personally, I found the Chef story the most coherent and interesting. A group of novice cooks fail their practical exams. However, a mute young man shows he has skills – derived from his grandfather who had to cook a grand banquet for an important court eunuch. Visually, the different courses, with their exotic names, are sumptuous. The cook is a master chef, almost a culinary magician. The eunuch has been eating too many banquets for too long and is enormous (with some hand gestures like Mike Myers’ Dr Evil, and then we realise he is a variation in make-up, look and windbreaking like Mike Myers’ Fat Bastard, whose destiny is, politely putting it, a vile dunny).
The Butcher story is slapstick with a not very attractive character at all, who is in love with a young woman forced into prostitution. In the background are classical excerpts from Bizet and others. It is a bit long and a bit gross. It moves towards a romantic ending, with The End on screen, only to be postponed for a happier ending.
The swordsman is a dark figure as well.
There are many tongue-in-cheek devices to keep the audience aware that this is meant to be absurd – a diagrammatic replay of a sword slitting accident. A confrontation that is visualised like a computer game.
Probably best seen at one of those late night cult screenings.
THE COMPANY MEN
(US, 2011, d. John Welles)
The Company Men is set in 2008. However, while it is set in the context of the global financial meltdown, its focus is less on the financial complications than on redundancy, downsizing and unemployment.
Craig T. Nelson plays a self-made tycoon who has built up his ship-building company. With downturns in manufacturing in the US, he decides to downsize, laying off thousands of workers. He is not troubled by feelings or ethical scruples, and, finally, prefers to boast about his wealth status. The film shows how the downsizing affects three company executives. This is not a film about the workers and their struggles. Rather, the attention is on middle class professionals and the repercussions of their unemployment on them.
Ben Affleck has proven himself a more substantial actor and director in recent years. He is able to sustain interest in his character, a genial, rather proud man, who never anticipated being let go. His attempts to maintain self-respect and look for jobs (often frustratingly) reflect the experience of many similar men in their late 30s. Fortunately, he has a strong and loving wife (Rosemary de Witt) who can stand up to his tantrums, continue to support him and make him realise the sobering realities of less income, not only on extras but on mortgages, possessions and even their house.
Kevin Costner appears has her brother, who is in the construction business and offers his brother-in-law temporary manual and carpentering jobs.
The second focus is on an engineering expert played by Chris Cooper. Nearing 60, he stays on in the company but is victim to the second round of sackings. His life becomes miserable and he does not have the energy or credentials to get back into the workforce.
Tommy Lee Jones is the centre of the third story, the co-founder of the company, who has been able to speak his mind at board meetings. He too is let go. He has difficulties in his private life, estranged from his wife and having an affair with one of the tough executives responsible for making the lists for sacking (Maria Bello).
While the images and stories of financial and industrial life in the contemporary US are grim (images of dilapidated factories contrasting with lavish office blocks, speeches about the fine old days of enterprise and pride in manufacture and an honest day’s work), the film opts for some hope, some opportunities with a touch of humour. The philosophy is that of pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps so is a story of the able rather than those who are in situations where they can’t help themselves.
THE DAY I WASN’T BORN (DAS LIED IN MIR)
(Germany, 2010, d. Florian Micoud Cossen)
The English title is much more serious than might be first thought. But, the German title, The Song Inside Me, is an effective one – the central character is a young woman in her late 20s, a champion swimmer, who begins a quest to find out who she really is and who her family is. She hears a woman singing a song at an airport and it evokes long hidden memories and sets her on her journey.
This would be interesting enough in itself, but the story takes us from the comfort of growing up in affluent Germany to memories of the dictatorship in Argentina and the fate of those who were called ‘The Disappeared’. This has been the theme of a number of Argentinian films, Lamb of God and Cautiva. In the latter, there is a school girl who discovers that she was adopted and that officials at the time of the dictatorship had taken possession of her.
This means that films like this are not simply about the search for identity. They have repercussions for the adopting parents, especially if the paths to the adoption were not entirely legal or moral.
Jessica Schwartz holds the audience attention as the young woman deciding, on an impulse after missing a flight connection to Chile, to go to Buenos Aires instead. Michael Gwisdek is the devoted father who has not revealed the past to his daughter and, even flying to join her in Argentina, is still more than hesitant. With the aid of a local policeman (who had wheedled a bribe from her when she reported her passport missing but with whom she has a relationship, meeting his genial father who was in the police at the time she was born), she discovers another family and relishes their company.
Approaching thirty, she already has a full life but has to work out how to incorporate this new awareness, of her murdered parents, of her new relations, into the life she has been used to.
The film has been made with deep feeling and deep concern. The audience shares this.
(UK, 2011, National Theatre UK Live, d. Danny Boyle)
During its season at the National Theatre in London, the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature were performed alternately by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. This review is of the Cumberbatch as Creature and Miller as Frankenstein performance.
The filming of live performances from London for overseas viewing has proven a very successful program. The advantage for the cinema audience to compensate for the experience of not being actually in the theatre is that of close-ups of actors, of differing angles of photography, including overhead, making for a strong impact.
The credentials for this play are very good (as explained in a documentary preceding the screening with interviews, discussions of Mary Shelley and her work with scenes from the 1931 film version). Nick Dear has written a strongly verbal play which requires attentiveness for the richness of the themes. Danny Boyle, collaborating with cast and an arrestingly elaborate staging, has brought the 19th century into the 21st.
Benedict Cumberbatch is a somewhat gangly actor. He capitalises on this in an extraordinary opening where he mimes being born, struggling to find his feet and balance, finally being able to stand and face life. He continues this ability to present a very physical creature but one who grows in capacity for reflection, for education, for cultural awareness, for acknowledging his loneliness and his need for a bride like himself. There is a great deal of pathos in his characterisation. When all seems to go well for him and the Doctor creates a bride and then destroys it, the Creature seeks and wreaks revenge, acknowledging that he has truly become a man because he has learnt hatred, lying and shocking, violating violence. Nick Dear and Danny Boyle point out that in the Frankenstein films, the Creature does not or cannot speak. This play restores his voice.
Jonny Lee Miller comes more into his own as Frankenstein in the latter part of the play. The first half is more devoted to the Creature, his self-discovery, the friendly encounter with the Blind Hermit, the fear and loathing of ordinary people. His encounter with little William we can acknowledge as sad. But it introduces us to the proud, yet cowardly, Frankenstein, who does not know how to relate, even to his family, to his fiancée, Elizabeth (Naomie Harris), or to love anyone. He is reclusive, obsessive, arrogant in the name of science, going to Scotland and finding corpses to create the Bride, defying the Creature maliciously and returning to marry only to find that the Creature has destroyed his future. By the end of the play, the audience understands Frankenstein more but can feel little sympathy for his fate.
Ideas were important for Mary Shelley, coming into the Romantic era of the 19th century after the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason of the 18th. Can a mere human, no matter how brilliantly intelligent, have the right to create life? Is this not God’s role? And what is the result of this hubris? Only destruction. The Frankenstein story, which has become a significant myth or archetypal story, is always cautionary about the potential for science and its claims for bettering the world and the human condition (but at what physical, mental, moral and religious cost?).
All these issues are voiced in the play. In the context of the drama, they can be heard from the different points of view. Interestingly, it is Elizabeth who does not recoil in horror from the Creature but admires what her husband has achieved, but it is also she who raises the God and hubris question. They seem more important, as Nick Dear and Danny Boyle discuss in the initial documentary, because of the increasingly less presence of God in modern discourse, especially about science. Mary Shelley’s work is even more relevant in modern times.
THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST
(Sweden, 2009, d. Daniel Alfredson)
The main reason, of course, for seeing this third film in the Milennium trilogy based on the novels by Stieg Larsson, is to find out what happens to Lisbeth Salander and whether her persecutors get their comeuppance. This is what happens.
Many readers of the novels (and there are more than many) have expressed dissatisfaction with the film versions of Larsson’s novels. From the point of a view of a non-reader, the first film was arresting and interesting, not only for the intriguing character of Lisbeth Salander and the investigations of Mickael Bolmqvist which lead to a strong drama about neo-Nazis and sexual aberrance.
The second film was rather more straightforward, interesting again, but focusing more on Lisbeth and the confrontation with her father.
This third film recapitulates some of the preceding events during the credits and throughout the film furnishes further information for those whose memories are not quite as clear as they would liked. So, we see Lisbeth in prison for the assault on her father and preparing with a sympathetic lawyer and the continued work of Mickael Bolmqvist and the Milennium staff. The shadowy group which protected Lisbeth’s father and his later criminal kingdom emerges more clearly, especially with their attempts to thwart the case and justice and threaten Milennium.
But, there is some sympathy this time for the critics. The film does not seem to be particularly cinematic, except, perhaps, for the final 15 minutes or so. It is very much a film of close-ups and talking heads, in hospital, at the Milennium offices and in the court room. The director, Daniel Alfredson, was the director of the television series. Hornet’s Nest might be more exciting and gripping on the small screen with the focus on persons which seems somewhat flat on the big screen.
This brings the trilogy to a thematically and dramatically satisfying close but, thinking back to the Dragon Tattoo and the different director, this might have been more adventurous and challenging.
(Germany, 2010, d. Philipp Stolzl)
It’s the ! at the end of Goethe’s name that indicates the tone of this portrait of one of Germany’s most celebrated intellectuals and writers. And somebody else remarked that it was really Young Goethe in Love.
We are in the latter part of the 18th century, the era of the Enlightenment and rational thought in Western Europe – which was already sowing the seeds of a reversion of attitudes that would mark the romanticism of the 19th century.
Goethe as a young man was studying (a euphemism) law and, outrageously improvising about philosophy and human nature,fails his oral examinations, though tickling the humour of his examiners. Whether this happened or not – as indeed for quite a number of incidents in this film – is not quite the point. This is a light entertainment showing what might have happened. A number of commentators have been at pains to tell us that the key events of the film, his working as a legal clerk, the suicide of his friend, Wilhelm Jerusalem, and his encounter with Charlotte Buff are not historically correct – but neither was a lot of Shakespeare in Love.
Alexander Fehling is exuberant as the young Goethe though he finds his wings considerably clipped when his father makes him go to work filing legal papers – and this under the watchful and critically stickling eye of his superior, Albert Kestner (Moritz Bleibtreu). Goethe also encounters Charlotte Buff and her family but – and the film does not quite convince on this point – she succumbs to the very proper attentions of Kestner. Goethe had enjoyed the company and shared apartment of his friend Jerusalem and is shocked at his death. (Moritz Bleibtreu and Alexander Fehling can be seen to great advantage in the World War II adventure, My Best Enemy, Mein Bester Feind.)
Held as a reprehensible blackguard by Kestner, rejected by Lotte, sad about Jerusalem, what is Goethe to do? Obviously, sit down and write about his feelings in novel form, The Sufferings of Young Werther – and to be rejected by publishers. But Goethe, at 23, could overcome his woes because Lotte has had the novel published and Goethe is feted as a celebrity. Seriousness was to come later.
The film takes us into the period, costumes, decor, the towns, the countryside, the wealth, the poverty – a pleasant PR exercise for Goethe!
A HEARTBEAT AWAY
(Australia, 2010, d. Gale Edwards)
Old-fashioned storytelling and film-making that may seem to much of the past to the intended audiences. Since it is aimed at the young as well as the old, it might be fairer to say that it misses its mark with the young but might well entertain the older who enjoy a feelgood movie.
The setting is Queensland, a country town. In 1990, a tempest rivalling that of Shakespeare's, has wreaked havoc for the local marching band. During the opening credits in downpour, with thunder and lightning and rolling clouds (the film-makers liked these effects and use them again later), the musicians slip and slide in the mud and lost the competion trophy. Life has been humdrum since, though they gather to rehearse rather half-heartedly and are getting older. Some of them bicker.
The conductor (William Zappa looking angrily sullen most of the time) has a teenage son whom he is continually putting down, bemoaning his son's waste of musical talent. Kevin (Sebastian Gregory) leads a rock and roll band.
How will these two stories combine? How will the generation gap be bridged, because we know it will?
Well, keep an eye on Brassed Off. Get the conductor knocked down by a truck and then stuck in hospital. Let Kevin gather the players together. Let him succeed, especially with his friend Mandy (Isabel Lucas) who teaches aerobics and can put the band through a few paces they never thought they would be performing.
In the meantime! Mandy's father is the mayor (Colin Friels) who has ambitions for a huge re-development to revive the town now on hard economic times. The barrier to this (apart from the fact that he is a nasty, scheming, do-badder) is that, of course, the hall for the band's rehearsals is slap-bang in the middle of the land.
You know that all will have to end well and you know that there will be a lot of hurdles before that. But, the feel good is seeing how it all pans out and (spoiler!), Kevin leads the oldies to victory. A light old-style story for a rainy day.
(US, 2010, d. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman)
Howl is a very brief film that contains a great deal, of poetry, of changing standards, of the nature of literature, of personalities and the context of the US in the middle of the 20th century. It is directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who won an Oscar in 1985 for their documentary, the Life and Times of Harvey Milk.
Howl was a poem by Allen Ginsberg, read at a gathering in 1955 and then published in San Francisco by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It was under attack in an obscenity case in 1957. The screenplay of Howl is a mosaic of section of the reading of the poem, testimony in the court case as well as a long interview with Ginsberg about his life, his poetry and his philosophy of life. The readings and the case are in black and white, the interview in colour.
James Franco offers a tour-de-force performance as Ginsberg. His appearance is similar to that of the poet. He is young, fresh-faced during the readings. He is older, bearded, during the interviews. He explains that he chose not to attend the court case as it was Lawrence Ferlinghetti rather than himself who was being prosecuted.
The poem itself repays listening to and several of the passages are repeated. It is written in rhythmic free verse and Franco is able to bring out both the rhythms and the meanings. Its language is replete with literary references and quite a number of biblical references (and to Jesus on the cross). It is a mixture of the literate and the colloquial. It is both existential in its questions and emotional and psychological in its imagery and the focus on Carl Solomon who was kept in a mental institution.
A special feature of Howl is the extensive inclusion of animated sequences to illustrate Howl. They are based on the work of Eric Drooker who contributed illustrations to Ginsberg’s publications.
As might be expected of the poets and writers of the time (who became known as the Beat poets), the experience of drugs and open sexuality (and homosexual orientation, emotions and behaviour) permeate the poem. This comes to the fore in the court case where the necessity versus the relevance of themes and word choice is argued. Mary Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels appear as critics of Howl arguing that it has no literary merit. Allesandro Nivola appears as a San Franciso critic who argues in favour of the poem. Bob Balaban is the judge, David Strathairn the prosecutor who does not understand the poem and finds his task distasteful, Jon Hamm the defence lawyer.
During the interview segments, there are flashbacks, also in black and white, to Ginsberg’s earlier life, his declaration of love in his poems and in real life to Jack Kerouac who does not respond and to Neal Cassady, with whom he travelled across America, who does. Ginsberg is very frank about his sensitivity towards his father’s opinions of him, of his coming to terms with his sexuality, and about his long-term relationship with Peter Orlovsky.
While community standards have long since changed, the issues of what is acceptable in art, of what true art is and how it is to be assessed, are still very relevant.
IN A BETTER WORLD (HNAEVEN)
(Denmark, 2010, d. Suzanne Bier)
In a Better World can now introduce itself as winner of the Golden Globe and then the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film of 2010. And an interesting and entertaining piece of film-making it is.
Suzanne Bier has made some arresting films at home, Brothers, After the Wedding, and, in Hollywood, Things We Lost in the Fire. She likes to take on serious themes and emotional conflicts.
The Danish title means 'Vengeance' and that is at the core of the story. However, the hope in the English title, that we could live in and make a better world even though we don't highlights the ultimate message that revenge is only destructive.
We are introduced to two quite diverse worlds at first. In the first, filmed in Kenya, Michael, a Swedish doctor who has married in Denmark, works with local doctors and nurses for the large population who through to the surgery. Many of the women are the mutilation victims of a brutal warlord. In the meantime, Christian reads a poem about a nightingale at his mother's funeral. She has died after a long fight with cancer. He returns home to his grandmother's house with his father whom he blames for his mother's unhappiness and death.
Christian then takes centre stage as he begins in a new school finding a boy continually bullied because of his teeth braces and his face shape which is a touch rodent-like. He is Michael's son. When Christian himself is at the receiving end of a punch, the film's title really comes into focus. Christian, a pleasant looking and quiet young boy, surprises us be revealing that he is bitter, angry and ready to take out his vengeance on anyone who stands in his way. And he does, drawing Elias into his plans (actually bullying his friend with psychological and emotional pressure).
When Michael returns from Africa, he has to deal with Elias and his problems. He is separated from his wife but Elias is devoted to him. But, Michael has to return to Africa and, after a gruelling encounter with the warlord, is too weary to realise that Elias has contacted him for advice about Christian's plans. Michael had already shown the boys a readiness to turn the other cheek when he has been insulted and hit and reminded them that wars begin with these small attacks and small revenges.
There is more tragedy but the film, while acknowledging the hardness in the human heart, is not without some hope in forgiveness and the resilience of the human spirit.
The performances are excellent and the two boys (who have had little screen experience before this) are most convincing and compelling. This is a truly intelligent drama which offers satisfying viewing and a great deal to reflect on human values.
JUST GO WITH IT
(US, 2011, d. Dennis Dugan)
It might come as a surprise to older audiences who may have strayed unwittingly into an Adam Sandler movie to find that it is based on the 1969 film with Ingrid Bergman, Walter Matthau and Goldie Hawn in her Oscar-winning performance, Cactus Flower. It follows the key characters and plot devices of Cactus Flower but turns them into a 21st century romantic comedy (with touches of 21st century innuendo and straightforward sex jokes – though most of them could probably go straight through to the keeper!).
Despite the jokes and some ogling of the Goldie Hawn equivalent (swimwear model, Brooklyn Decker) and some visual humour at the expense of those who indulge in plastic surgery and the ridiculous consequences, this is quite an amiable film. And Adam Sandler, now in his 40s, has mellowed for this role, from a serial womaniser who pretends to be married to preserve himself from any commitment, to a middle aged potential committed husband and stepfather. He does this quite genially.
Which means that Jennifer Aniston has the Ingrid Bergman role. Critics and audiences were surprised in 1969 when they saw Ingrid letting her hair down (somewhat). Critics and audiences will not be surprised to find Jennifer Aniston here, but they might be surprised to see her in one of her best performances. She is fully in the spirit of the film, the loyal assistant to the plastic surgeon, divorced mother of two, pretty but pretty dowdy who does not expect her life to turn out the way it will. As with Ingrid (who had one on her desk), she is the cactus who flowers.
The gist of the film is that Palmer (the blonde bombshell that Danny proposes to – who teaches maths at school!) thinks that Danny is really married and wants to meet his wife – and then discovers that he has children. After a shopping spree, Katharine really flowers (and has some good lines in repartee while pretending to be Danny’s wife) but then has to deal with a trip to Hawaii where Danny’s brother Eddie poses as Katharine’s boyfriend and joins the extended family where Palmer hopes they will all bond. (It is very hard to bond with Eddie; he has all the innuendo and more.)
Cactus Flower was itself based on a French farce of mistaken identities and this is how the Hawaii episodes are played – so that, we know it of course, Danny will realise that he really loves and likes being with the constant Katharine, and also likes her children, one of whom does drama classes and speaks most of the time with a British accent that is beyond Dick Van Dyke’s in Mary Poppins, the other of whom he teaches to swim as a real Dad should. A lot is played for laughs and mostly it is quite amusing.
Then we are offered a special treat. Katharine has always disliked her snooty college room-mate Devlin (and has used her name as a euphemism for a bodily function for her children). Danny in panic has called Katharine Devlin in talking with Palmer. So, who should turn up in Hawaii but Devlin herself. And she is more than snooty. She is garrulously snobbish, always wants to be first and win (which gets tested with Katharine in a hula contest) and is an all-out gushing phony. The reason for saying all this is that Devlin is played with a great sense of humour, relishing playing such an obnoxious character, by Nicole Kidman. She should do more comedies. She has good timing and delivery of her unpleasant lines.
While it is another Adam Sandler comedy, it is nicer than usual and an entertaining pastime.
(US, 2011, Neil Burger)
The meaning of the title becomes apparent very quickly as the rather ordinary would-be writer, Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), explains it as he contemplates suicide on the roof of a skyscraper. He wants to communicate how he got to that point and what drove him to it. We go to flashback and see him trying to get going on his book, relate to his reluctant girlfriend (Abbie Cornish), encountering the brother of his ex-wife. What happens is that he is persuaded to take a designer drug, NZT – and the rest of the film follows.
Limitlessness is what the drug offers Eddie. There is talk about our using only 20% of our brains. NZT activates the brain 100%. This is not just a high, it is a sky high where the sky is really a limit and Eddie can go further and further. He smartens up, finishes his book, finds that he is an instant expert on everything and is able to summon up all the memories of his past and connect them. What can hold him back?
That is not a question that he considers while his stash of the drug lasts (which he had purloined when his brother-in-law is killed – and he is a suspect). What does happen is that with his knowledge of the financial markets, his investments and his making millions, he comes to the attention of a millionaire businessman Carl van Loon (Robert de Niro) who uses him to vet the details of a takeover of a company from another instant self-made tycoon.
And reality steps in. The supply of NZT is coming to an end. Gangsters are after the stash and money and violence is no obstacle. Eddie is tricked by a crooked lawyer and everything begins to fall apart. His girlfriend tries to help... And Eddie is back on the roof ready to jump.
Actually, the whole film might be called ironic and immoral, amoral at best in its portrait of Eddie and the consequences of his NZT transformation. It is not a story of a man seeing the evil in his ways. Rather, the opposite. Eddie vanquishes all before him and enters the world of politics and not even the experienced pressures and influences of van Loon can provide barriers to his rise and rise. Ruthlessness triumphs. Which means that, at the end, we have to do more thinking about issues than we might have thought when we first saw Eddie on the roof. (And part of the thinking will be about the parallels – by means of modern fable – with bankers, financiers and politicians, and make us think suspiciously less of them.)
THE LINCOLN LAWYER
(US, 2011, d. Brad Furman)
A screen adaptation of a novel by popular crime writer, Michael Connolly - and this reviewer has read all Connolly’s books so was in a high state of expectation for the film. Expectations more than fulfilled!
The Lincoln Lawyer is Mike Haller, a self-confident and shrewd (even devious) lawyer who takes on any case he can chase and get, though he does have his antennae up for who is guilty and who is not. Having lost his driving licence (he is prone to drinking), he has hired a driver for his Lincoln and works from the back seat as he is chauffeured around Los Angeles.
Mike Haller is played by Matthew Mc Connaughey (not one of this reviewer’s favourite actors) and he brings his character to life vividly and convincingly. It is, perhaps, Mc Connaughey’s best role. He looks the part, sounds the part and the screenplay (a very good adaptation from the novel by John Romano) enables him to display his skills as a wheeler-dealer par excellence in the opening sequences – very cocky with a mixture of suavity and smugness.
It is no wonder that he gets the job of defending a young real estate agent, Louis Roulet, who is accused of assault and battery. And the audience gets the chance to consider the case with Haller as we see two versions of what might have happened, the defendant’s plausible explanation and the police theory.
There are complications, of course, and Mike Haller finds himself in a position where he has to draw on some moral principles, investigate the justice of a case he had previously defended, and exercise his shrewdness to make justice do right at the end (which he does in a fascinatingly intricate performance, giving the impression that the course of events has nothing to do with him). Mc Connaughey is also convincing as a man surprised to have to be wrestling with his conscience.
Director, Brad Furman, not only keeps the action going, but he directs a large cast, each of whom is essential to the plot. Sometimes they appear in only one or two sequences but they are given enough to do by the screenplay to make an impression and for us to appreciate how they are part of the Lincoln lawyer’s plan. They include, Michael Pare as a detective who despises Haller, Michael Pena as a man imprisoned for murder, Margarita Levieva as the assaulted prostitute, Frances Fisher as Louis Roulet’s demanding mother, Bob Gunton as the family legal counsel, Trace Adkins as a very hairy biker who becomes involved with the case and Shea Wigham as an addict snitch giving testimony in court.
While Marisa Tomei is good as Haller’s wife and Josh Lucas as the inadequate prosecuting lawyer, it is Ryan Philippe as Louis Roulet who is a match for Haller, the role of a man from a cushioned life who finds he has to protest his innocence. The other fine performance, as always, comes from William H. Macy as Haller’s investigator and friend.
All the threads seem to be tied together well at the end so, all in all, a superior example of this kind of crime, investigation, court proceedings movie.
MY AFTERNOONS WITH MARGUERITTE (LA TETE EN FRICHE)
(France, 2010, d. Jean Becker)
A deeply humane film that repays viewing.
The English translation of the title might suggest far more than the film delivers in terms of trysts and romance. But, in terms of a friendship between a 60 year old man and a 95 year old women who encounter each other in a public park, it is very rich indeed.
In looking for a google translation of the French title, I came across ‘Fallow head’. Doesn’t sound so elegant but it suggests a major theme. Margueritte (her father could not spell and wrote this version of her name on her birth certificate and the family liked it) is an elegant lady, a reader whose eyesight is failing. Germain seems a rather pleasant but oafish man who does odd jobs and lives in a trailer. He is genial and has friends at the local bar and has a relationship with a pleasant younger woman who drives one of the local buses. An unlikely pair, Margueritte and Germain. But, they begin to talk, count the pigeons who come each day (Germain has given them names). Margueritte reads aloud from Camus’ The Plague. Germain does not understand much, but he imagines (vivid on screen images) the rats and their fate. Germain does not read, finds it too difficult and does not understand the words. (Another title of the film, used in Germany, is Labyrinth of Words.) Germain’s is the fallow head, ready for a new crop and growth.
There are some powerful flashbacks to Germain’s life as a boy, a fat boy who is mocked by classmates because he is slow, ridiculed by teachers and mocked by his mother who says she never wanted him. It is something of a shock to discover that he lives on his mother’s grounds. She has aged badly and still ridicules her son.
Germain is touched by his meetings with Margueritte and encouraged very sympathetically by Annette. He ventures into a library for the first time and replies to enquiries that he wants a book. A good librarian helps him out.
Although the film runs under 90 minutes, there are some fine plot developments: Germain and his bar friends and their loves, grief over spouse’s death, and a tough sympathetic bar owner. There are emotional complications with Germain’s mother’s death and his discoveries about her real feelings. Margueritte’s relatives take her away to an institution in Belgium.
Director Jean Becker, who has made a number of films about the French provinces has adapted a novel by and imbued it with sensitivity and emotion. The cast is excellent. Gaby Casasdeus was 95 when she filmed her role as Margueritte. But, the biggest tribute is to Gerard Depardieu. Looking bigger than ever, he brings Germain, oafishness, vulnerability, goodness of heart to wonderful life. Depardieu has to be one of the greatest actors of our times, able to be Danton, Cyrano, a gangster, a comic foil, a seemingly impossible romantic lead. Germain is one of his finest creations.
(France, 2010, d. Francois Ozon)
Potiche is the kind of comedy with serious undertones that the French do so well (with some Gallic behaviour, especially in relationships, that other cultures are more reticent about).
Director Francois Ozon has made some serious films in his time (Under the Sand, The Swimming Pool, Time to Leave about a man dying with HIV), but can let his hair down too. He made the upstairs-downstairs musical 8 Women. He is back with his main star of that film, Catherine Deneuve who, almost fifty years after her movie debut, is still headlining her films, making two films a year at least. Plenty of life – and, though more matronly, a striking and beautiful screen presence.
So, that is one reason for seeing Potiche. Another is her co-star, Gerard Depardieu who elicits quite a different vocabulary to describe his appearance but he is still making about three films a year and proving what a commanding presence he has on screen.
And, there is another reason, the not so well-known but very versatile French actor, Fabrice Lucchini, who tends to play the straight man in comedies, with a talent for double takes as well as uncomprehending doubt.
The film is set in 1977 at a time when French industry needed something of a worker’s revolution. Lucchini runs an umbrella factory which his wife Suzanne (Catherine Deneuve) inherited from her father, a man beloved by his workers. Not so Lucchini who presents himself as a picture of Parisian respectability but who is arrogantly dismissive of his workers (but not his personal assistant with whom he is having an affair). He has a son who prefers art to factory work and a daughter who takes after her father in his fascist attitudes but whose marriage is on the rocks.
When the workers abduct the boss, Suzanne confronts Maurice (with whom she has something of a past) and takes over management. With aplomb and success. Her husband finds this intolerable and manoeuvres to have her ousted. Son and daughter have to take sides.
So liberating has the experience been for Suzanne that she decides to stand for political office against Maurice, with her son as campaign manager and her husband’s assistant definitely on her side and working for her.
While the screenplay is quite serious about Suzanne and her new lease of life, her stands against her husband and her confrontations with Maurice, there is also a light touch, moments of froth, and enjoyment of feminist victories – and it all ends with song.
C’est la vie!
(US, 2011, D. Gore Verbinski)
An animation (often quite animated) film for an adult audience rather than for children (with a PG13 rating in the US). Children might enjoy the action but it requires some sophistication, there is a lot of dialogue (more dictionary-oriented than popular) and there are frightening elements as well.
We are led into the ballad and legend of Rango by a Mariachi-group of four owls who sing and narrate throughout the film. Rango is a lizard, not the most handsome of desert creatures, who is a would-be actor, an actual fantasist who performs with a toy fish and a broken doll’s torso – and none too convincingly. And he is voiced by Johnny Depp, a rung more coherently up from Jack Sparrow, Mad Hatter and Willy Wonka. And he has a gift for adapting from faux pas situations, quite an affected vocabulary, as has much of the screenplay, an amusing indulgence in words and meanings.
Stranded on a desert highway, Rango encounters a mentor, Roadkill, (Alfred Molina) who gives him advice about crossing to the other side. What does happen is that he lands in a town, boasts that he is a legend, and is made sheriff. They have a crisis: no water, only a bottle preserved in the bank. When Rango gives a morale-boosting speech about keeping the water untouched just in case and not drinking it (while illustrating how devastating it would be if they all drank by downing three glasses himself), we see his skill in political spin.
The crooked mayor, a turtle in a wheelchair is voiced by Ned Beatty. The villainous rattlesnake enemy is hissed by Bill Nighy. The practical iguana heroine, Beans, is Isla Fisher. There are a lot of character actor voices (Harry Dean Stanton, Abigail Breslin, Ray Winstone) and Timothy Olyphant appears as The Spirit of the West, channelling Clint Eastwood in appearance and voice and The Man With No Name. And the final credits song owes more than a small debt to the theme from Rawhide.
Which means that Rango is something of a trip. It is a literal road movie. It is the quest of an ordinary lizard to discover his inner hero. It is something of a satire on the building of Las Vegas. And, most of it is a pastiche play on Western conventions. The villains who rob the bank for the water. The posse in pursuit (and then pursued themselves by villains on birdback to the Ride of the Valkyries). The crooked mayor and his henchman (playing golf while others thirst). The gunslinger snake. The high noon confrontation. The pilgrimage to the desert to seek advice from The Spirit of the West.
Director Gore Verbinski made Mouse Hunt and The Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy and has an offbeat sense of humour. Writer John Logan is even more versatile with screenplays for Sweeney Todd, Gladiator, The Aviator and Hugo Cabret for Martin Scorsese – and adapting Shakespeare’s Coriolanus for Ralph Fiennes.
The animation is bold and vivid for the motley characters and the desert locations. For movie buffs, it is something of a wild hoot.
RED RIDING HOOD
(US, 2011, d. Catherine Hardwicke)
It is of little use for sophisticated adults to sniff and turn up their noses at this variation on the story of Little Red Riding Hood. It was not made or geared for them. This is a film with a niche market, the female audience who enjoy the Twilight series. It was directed by Catherine Hardwicke who made Twilight but who has specialised in telling stories about teenage girls, Lords of Dogtown and, especially, Thirteen. She also directed Keisha Castle Hughes as the young Virgin Mary in The Nativity Story.
Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) lives in an isolated mountain village in an era where religion and superstition governed life and attitudes and where werewolves could attack at the time of the blood moon. Valerie is something of a rebel and is in love with another rebel, Peter (Shiloh Fernandez, a woodcutter, whose cast of face and expressions suggest he would be more at home as a Mafia villain), but is to be betrothed to the nice and wealthy, Henry (Max Irons). She has a loving mother (Virginia Madsen) and a drinking father who is seen as something of a loser (Billy Burke). She also has a kind grandmother (Julie Christie) who gives her a red coat with a hood. In this village, everyone speaks with an American accent, including Julie Christie. The film is definitely American audience-friendly.
The adolescent romantic tangles have to take second place when a werewolf attacks and kills Valerie’s sister. While the villagers track a wolf and kill it and celebrate their victory, the local priest (Lukas Haas) has summoned Fr Solomon, a strange mixture of priest, exorcist and inquisitor. He is played by Gary Oldman, reprising something of his celebrated Dracula performance in Coppola’s film, middle European accent and all. The wolf appears, wreaks havoc – but communicates with Valerie who is accused of being a witch.
Of course, the unwary will suspect that the Inquisitor is the wolf. Not so, we soon find out. But it is someone in the village – and, to this reviewer’s embarrassment, among the many possible candidates that the film suggests (strange eyes, strange talk, suspicious behaviour...), he did not pick the villain, a case of diverted attention.
If you accept the premiss and know that this interpretation will be grimmer than Grimm, it is enjoyable in its own teenage Twilight way. The acting quality is mixed (the heroes seem rather unconvincing). Gary Oldman is veering towards over the top. And there is an acceptable bit of cheating in the plot that enables Red Riding Hood to say to Grandmother what big eyes, ears and teeth she has. Sophisticated audiences can forget it and children can rent Hoodwinked or wait for Hoodwinked 2 which is on the way.
(Australia, 2010, d. Andrew Trauick)
Reefs, dangers and sharks.
Andrew Trauick wrote and directed a small-budget crocodile thriller, Black Water. Modest, but quite effective in its way. The same can be said for The Reef.
The story is quite straightforward (and resembles an American film, Open Water). A group begin a voyage off the Australian coast to deliver a boat. They spend a day on a reef. Then the bottom of the boat encounters something jagged and capsizes. What are they to do, sink or swim? Most swim, one stays with the boat.
The main part of the film is the group swimming towards the reef, finding that they are being pursued by a shark.
The advantage of the film is the stronger than usual characterisations of the principal characters. We get to know them. They are quite ordinary people except for the skipper, Luke (Damian Walshe-Howling) who seems a decent chap but who is able to exercise leadership in decision-making and in encouraging morale. Needless to say, not everyone survives.
Another advantage of the film is the photography, much of it at ocean surface level, emphasising the vastness of the empty sea. There is also quite a deal of effective underwater photography, initially of the beauty of the reef, but then the focus on the shark and Luke’s need to continually look under water to assess the dangers. Filming was done off the Queensland coast at Hervey Bay and Bowen, with some Port Lincoln locations and quite an amount of circling shark footage.
Jaws has a lot to answer for! Audiences inevitably tend to move fairly quickly into apprehension mode when we see that ocean surface, when we see legs underwater, when the music suggests a shark is lurking. This works well here.
The film is not visually gory when the shark does attack. Rather, it relies on moods and fear, building up the suspense, understanding and sharing the terror of the individuals under threat. It is really scarier than any contrived slasher terror film because, while we might never be in such a situation ourselves, we know that it is more than possible for anyone. We identify with those in the situation, challenged as to whether we would stay with the boat or risk the seas to swim to safety and experience the unknown.
The Reef succeeds in what it set out to do.
(US, 2011, d. Mikael Hafstrom)
It should be said that The Rite is particularly Catholic-friendly. Christian believers will find the film interesting. Believers in the transcendent would be open to the events and the interpretations. Rationalists and sceptics would (and have) dismissed the story as ecclesiastical mumbo jumbo and superstition, a variation on themes for horror movies.
The film makes a reasonable case for possession (without any explicit reference to Gospel stories or Jesus' own casting out of devils). It offers some plausible enough scenarios (though they are in Italian settings, more emotional than in Anglo-Saxon?, Celtic traditions) and shows the rituals, the unpredictable nature of demonic behaviour, the energy demanded of the exorcist in praying and confronting evil.
The Rite has strong credentials. The Director is Swedish Mikael Hafstrom (whose credits include the thriller 1408 and the Swedish film, Evil, about a malevolent schoolboy). The writer is Michael Petroni who did the screenplay for The Chronicles of Narnia, Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It is 'inspired by' (not based on) material from a book on possession, exorcism and the story of Fr Gary Thomas, The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, by American Italy-based investigative writer, Matt Baggio.
The film is in two parts, each asking for a different response from the audience. The first part focuses more on theory, arguments pro and con possession; the second shows cases, which move the action into a more melodramatic phase.
The first part is more 'reasonable'. A young man, Michael Kovaks (Colin O'Donogue), helping his father in his mortician's business, decides to get away from home, receives a scholarship and goes to a seminary. At the time of his diaconate, he has doubts about his personal faith and asks to leave. When his seminary director slips in ice and causes a car to swerve and hit a girl on a bike, Michael, the young seminarian, is asked by the dying girl for absolution. He prays over her, very movingly. His superior (warning him that were he to leave he would forfeit his scholarship and would have to repay it – money and the American Church!) sends him to Rome for the course in Exorcism.
The scenes in the course, delivered by a Dominican, present the questions and queries an audience might have about possession and exorcism. Psychological arguments about mental illness are put forward and whether psychotic behaviour could be confused with possession.
Michael is sent by Fr Xavier, the lecturer (Ciaran Hinds), to visit an old Welsh Jesuit who lives out of Rome, a former doctor, who has performed many exorcisms, Fr Lukas. Anthony Hopkins, giving an intelligent and generally restrained performance, is Fr Lukas. He invites Michael to observe and participate in examinations of the possessed (a pregnant 16 year old girl who had been raped by her father, a young boy who has mule prints on his back and torso, both of whom know secrets about Michael). Michael talks things over with a young woman (Alice Braga), a journalist who is doing the course, researching a feature article.
In the second part of the film, Fr Lukas himself is taken over by a demon, giving Anthony Hopkins some heightened histrionic moments. This is the challenge for Michael who has just received news that his father has died and has experienced hallucinations, including a phone call from his father. The possessed Fr Lukas uses this knowledge to torment, quite diabolical in its destructive insinuations, both Michael and the journalist about their lives and their families. (Choosing not to believe in the devil won't protect you from him, says Fr Lukas.)
As might be expected, this is the test for Michael, to perform the ritual despite his doubts and to recover the gift of faith. Given the recent crises in the American Church concerning priesthood, The Rite is remarkably respectful of priesthood and vocational choices.
(US, 2011, d. Zack Snyder)
Move over Boys’ Own Story. Here is Girl’s Own Story.
Though, on reflection, how true is this? Certainly, the girls are the centre of the action. There is no romance in the air or on the screen. These girls are warriors. But, not all of them survive the film. Those who do and those who don’t are the victims of male brutality and malice and the girls’ final victory is not all that great. The story comes from a man, director, Zack Snyder, who wittingly or unwittingly (we can give him the benefit of the doubt, but...) places his leads in exploitative situations; they have to pander to exploitative men and then the screenplay turns on the girls. The only friendly man is played by Scott Glenn as a cross between guru, commander and your local bus driver.
Whether the audience will think about the film this way will be interesting to find out.
For those who see it and might feel they are not quite on the wavelength, especially with some of the early plot jumps (which make you wonder whether you missed something or weren’t quite paying attention), just stay with it because it does all work out. You can tell there is something strange because the heroine, Baby Doll (Emily Browning, a mixture of the angry and the coy without as much zip as she might, especially compared with some of the other girls) is orphaned, the victim of a cruel stepfather, taken to an institution for the mentally insane (sic) and suddenly finds herself in a sleazy (very) club being trained to do exotic dances for gross wealthy customers.
Baby Doll meets Sweetpee (Abby Cornish who is much more vital than Emily Browning) and her sister, Rocket (Jena Malone). There is Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens from the High School Musical films). They are being trained by a weirdly exotic kind of KGB dance instructress (Carla Gugino) and a slimy club owner (Oscar Isaac, who has played both St Joseph and Jose Ramos Horta in his time). Quite a lot of parody of other films here.
When Baby Doll is asked to dance and the music turned on, she escapes into several alternate worlds, World War, a Kingdom of Dragons...) where she accomplishes tasks which she hopes will enable her to escape from this imprisoning club where it turns into a Junior Kill Bill.
And, then, it all makes sense, more or less, but not exactly the feminist triumph that we thought it was going to be.
Zack Snyder obviously loves exotic sets, decor, costumes, special effects, as we have seen in his Dawn of the Dead, 300, Legends of the Guardians – the Owls of Ga’hool, and Watchmen. They are quite elaborate and fantastic here which, along with an often pounding score, make Sucker Punch a film of the senses (not always of the sense).
(US, 2010, d. Julie Taymor)
While The Tempest receives a lot of attention from Shakespearean scholars and aficionados, it is stil overshadowed by the tragedies and some of the histories. It comes from Shakespeare’s later career, a period of some melancholy and winter’s tales.
For many, Julie Taymor’s adaptation of the text and imaginative presentation will bring The Tempest alive. She did it quite spectacularly and frighteningly for her version of Titus Andronicus, Titus. The world of The Tempest is a more magical world, a world of tragic-comedy.
Julie Taymore has done another innovative thing. She has turned Prospero into Prospera – with comparatively little change to the text. This offers an opportunity for Helen Mirren to take on a traditional male role. And she performs magnificently. She is a dominating screen presence. She articulates the verse both clearly and emotionally. She communicates the meaning of her character and the play, the experience of her being deposed in and exiled from Milan, he r life on the remote island where she is able to perfect her magician’s arts as well as care for her daughter, Miranda.
As the film opens, there is a huge, literal tempest – and one listened in dismaying anticipation because it was very difficult to hear and discern what they were saying. Would the whole film be like this? Fortunately, not. Once Prospera begins to speak, it is clear and meaningful.
The other advantage of a screen version is the possibility of special effects. The tempest is an obvious one, but there are moments when Prospera conjures up a mysterious sky with diagrams of stars and constellations, which means that we are in a magical world, not to be observed as naturalism or realism. But, the device of having Ariel as a fey white, naked creature who can be a will o’ the wisp and dart around the island, be larger than the ship on which he is blowing and arrive with the speed of light, makes the magic world more credible. Ariel is played by the rather ethereal Ben Whishaw.
The cast for the nobility washed ashore is electic but effective: David Strathairn as the King, grieving for his drowned son, Chris Cooper as Ontonio, Prospera’s treacherous brother, Alan Cumming as the disloyal brother of the king – and an opportunity to relish the presence of Tom Conti and his distinctive voice as old Gonzalo, the sage.
And Caliban? This Caliban has been harshly dealt with by Prospera and is her slave. But this Caliban elicits some sympathy and some pity, played in a combination of the monstrous and the human by Djimon Hounsou.
We are not as fond of the humour in Shakespeare’s plays of the comic figures who are introduced to entertain the ‘groundlings’. They are rather good here, even if the humour sometimes seems quaint and silly. Russell Brand simply does his thing, accent, intonations, faces and all. And it works. Alfred Molina is also very good in bringing this comedy to life.
Felicity Jones is nice as Miranda but Reeve Carney seems too boyish (with a rather thin and reedy voice for his song) as Ferdinand.
One wonders where the film-makers found such varied landscapes of barren rock, craters and crevices, crags and shorelines. The answer is Hawaii.
Shakespeare’s principal themes are all here: the state, power usurped and restored; romantic love and hope; and a figure who could be tragic but who draws on her heart as well as her mind, relinquishes her magical control and comes back to ordinary life after forgiving the wrongs against her.
This version of The Tempest opens up the play – and would be worth seeing (and listening to) again.