SIGNIS REVIEWS APRIL 2016
BIGGER SPLASH, A
EYE IN THE SKY
GOD WILLING/ SE DIO VUOLE
LABYRINTH OF LIES
LONDON HAS FALLEN
MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN
MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING 2
OUR BUSINESS IS CRISIS
ROCK THE KASBAH
SUPERMAN VS BATMAN
WHERE TO INVADE NEXT
VVITCH, The: A NEW ENGLAND FOLKTALE
BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE
US, 2016, 153 minutes, Colour.
Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot, Scoot Mc Nairy, Harry Lennix, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Carla Gugino.
Directed by Zack Snyder.
On first hearing of the title, it seemed rather silly. Not the Dawn of Justice part but a clash between the two heroes for good, Batman and Superman? They are the stars of DC comics but one lives in Gotham and the other in Metropolis. And how could they descend into enmity? Was this going to be a silly film?
Fans of superhero movies have been delighted with the result. And, it turned out to be much better than expected.
The film takes up where Zack Snyder’s 2012 Superman film, Man of Steel, ended. General Zog and the enemies from Krypton have attacked the United States, Superman defeating them and General Zog dead. As the film opens, Bruce Wayne is in the streets, looking up at the invading spaceships, seeing all the destruction of buildings, the deaths, and rescuing his friend Keefe from heavy rubble, Keefe losing his legs. Batman takes on a hostile attitude towards Krypton, the alien attack – and, for some of us in the audience, after all these decades, a realisation that, in fact, Superman can be called an alien!
The film takes Bruce Wayne/Batman as the central character. He is played by Ben Affleck, something that the fans initially dreaded, but Affleck fills the role quite well, a solid, stolid, intense, crime-fighting, humourless, middle-aged character. There are flashbacks to his parents’ death, this time situated in 1981. And, this time, Alfred is played by Jeremy Irons, serious, technically savvy (and so probably not having time to shave his perpetual stubble), something of a male nanny but also expert on surveillance and advice. This is all in Gotham.
Meanwhile in Metropolis, which we are told later is just across the Bay, Clark Kent is at work in his office, living with Lois Lane (Henry Cavill and Amy Adams again), doing odd reporting for the editor (Laurence Fishburne). But, there are those times when he disappears – especially at the beginning, with Lois Lane in Africa, interviewing a local chief, caught in the middle of an assassination attempt and troops firing on each other, to be rescued by Superman, of course, but his getting the blame in the United States and in the media for being responsible for the deaths. Superman then become something of a bad man, the fickle crowds demonstrating against him.
As regards the versus: Batman resents Superman because of the invasion and deaths; Superman resents Batman (and Clark Kent writes articles against him) because of his vigilantes campaigns against criminals.
In the meantime, here is Lex Luthor again, not with the gravitas of villain Gene Hackman but rather with the mannerisms, stammering, psychotic touches of Jesse Eisenberg. He gets his company going again, after the invasion, but has sent an expedition to the Indian Ocean to find some kryptonite which he stores in a ship, ready to wield power. He communicates with American government officials, especially Senator, Holly Hunter, but she does not agree with him and there are dastardly results when Superman is called before a Senate hearing and there is an explosion – Superman to blame again.
Batman certainly wants to combat with Superman but it is Lex Luthor who is the catalyst for the conflict, abducting Superman’s mother, Martha Kent (Diane Lane – and just as we were wondering about Kevin Costner having died in the previous film, he does have a cameo), encapsulating her in explosives, giving Superman a limited time, wanting the head of Bruce Wayne.
There is quite a fight with Lois Lane trying to intervene. And, no spoiler, rescuing Mrs Kent.
But, in the meantime, Lex Luthor has been able to revive General Zog and create a giant monster who does battle with Superman. Early in the film, there was a rather glamorous woman, Diana, Gal Gadot, who has some initial conflict with Bruce Wayne but eventually emerges as Wonder Woman and, despite her travelling from Paris on a plane, is able to don her costume and join the heroes, the beginnings of a Justice League.
Is this something of a sad termination for Superman? Where is Lex Luthor? Who will be part of the Justice League?
Well, there are two sequels planned.
A BIGGER SPLASH
Italy/France, 2015, 124 minutes, Colour.
Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson, Aurore Clement, Lily Mc Menamy, Corrado Guzzanti.
Directed by Luca Guadagnino.
David Hockney created a celebrated painting called A Bigger Splash. It showed a group of men sunbathing. The biggest splashes in this drama are not as tranquil as sunbathing.
The film has received quite some praise as being a character study, a portrait of four individuals, from a show business and media background, a tangle of past and present relationships, wealthy, enjoying – but, ultimately, that is not the right word – a holiday on a rather arid Sicilian island. At just over two hours, the film immerses the audience in the lives of these characters and in the atmosphere of the island.
The question for the audience is how interesting are the characters, can we identify with them, or are they and their crises rather remote from our ordinary experiences? For this reviewer, they were not all that very interesting.
And, who are they?
The central character is Marianne, a former pop star, glimpsed standing on stage in an auditorium, seen in a studio recording, moments of tension in her dressing room. But now, she is recuperating from surgery on her throat, a question of whether she will be able to sing again. She is played by Tilda Swinton, a touch of the tour-to-force because of the surgery making it impossible for Marianne to speak. She has to mime. She has to whisper. With her is her companion, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a technician, a photographer, who has had a suicidal experience because of his drinking but is now more tranquil in the company of Marianne.
Into their rather quiet companionship bursts Marianne’s former producer, Harry, an exuberant, over-exuberant, Ralph Fiennes. Talking incessantly, buoyantly laughing, he takes over, much to the couple’s apprehension. And, he brings with him, a newly found daughter, Penny, Dakota Johnson. the piece de resistance is Fiennes entering into the spirit, energetically dancing to The Rolling Stones.
The rest of the action takes place over two days, with some flashbacks for Marianne remembering her relationship with Harry, Harry remembering his introducing Paul to Marianne. The daughter is rather quiet, not particularly taking well to the new company, but, Lolita-like, she sets her cap at Paul. Dakota Johnson looks rather like a young Sharon Stone Reminding audiences of Stone’s earlier films.
The director made an impact with his drama, I am Love, also starring Tilda Swinton.
Tensions in the relationship, literal struggles and quite a surprising outcome.
EYE IN THE SKY
UK, 2016, 102 minutes, Colour.
Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Jeremy Northam, Barkhad Abdi, Iain Glenn, Phoebe Fox, Aisha Takow, Richard Mc Cabe, Monica Dolan, Michael O' Keefe, Gavan Hood, Laila Robbins.
Directed by Gavan Hood.
It was once thought that God’s eye was in the sky. Nowadays, with satellites in space and with drones and surveillance machinery so readily available, governments and military do have eyes, many eyes, in the sky.
This is a story about a drone strike, the role of the military, politicians in Britain, in the United States, legal advice, the technicians who calculate collateral damage in the case of a strike, intelligence and photo recognition, and the pilot and his associate who pulls the trigger.
Most people probably, give little thought in their everyday lives to the existence of drones, the missions, the dropping of bombs. When they do, it is usually as the result of media headlines, taking out of some terrorist leaders or the sad news of collateral damage of civilians being killed and injured in explosions.
This is where Eye in the Sky takes us, 105 minutes of screen time to give thought to all the implications of drones, strikes and the consequences.
At the opening of the film in Nairobi, we see little girl and her father mending her hulahoop and her playing in the yard (later, as a reminder of the strictness of Somalia’s Al Shebab, she is told not to play in front of a customer who disapproves of children, playing according to Sharia law). As the little girl appears throughout the film, going up the street to sell loaves of bread that her mother is baking, we appreciate that the question of collateral damage is going to be raised in her regard at least.
The film gives immediate information about the central characters and the places where decisions will be made: at a military base in England, at a conference room in Whitehall, London, in an image recognition centre in Hawaii, local offices for collaboration with Kenyan military authorities and the room in the Nevada desert base where the pilot who will pull the trigger will watch screens and wait for orders.
We are brought up to date with the situation, a British citizen who has married a terrorist and has been radicalised, an American citizen flying in to join the local terrorist cell, the Somalis who are operating in Kenya and antagonistic towards the Kenyan government and its alliance with the UK and the US. When intelligence comes in that these suspects are in the one building, the Colonel in England makes a plan for the capture of the terrorist with British and American passports.
Most audiences will be amazed at the amount of surveillance available, the clarity of the images, the ability to zoom in and out – not just from drones in the sky but from mini-drones, mechanical birds with surveillance eyes and, then, a small mechanical beetle which can fly into rooms and around rooms bringing in extra detail to all those watching in Africa, Britain and the United States.
The screenplay has all those involved in making decisions about the strike tackling all the reasons, for and against, moral decision-making and its being grounded in rational arguments as well as emotional arguments.
The Colonel in charge is played by Helen Mirren who noted that the part was originally written for a male actor but changed for her. She is in contact with a general who goes to Whitehall for decision-making about the strike with the Attorney General, the ministers of the Crown. He is Alan Rickman in one of his final roles, and Jeremy Northam and Richard Mc Cabe as the ministers. Monica Dolan appears as another minister who has strong views about the repercussions of the strike.
The main American is the pilot, Aaron Paul, sitting with his associate in a small hut, unlike a cockpit, at the Nevada base.
Most of the action seems to be playing in real time – or at least it seems that way. The situation inside the targeted house changes dramatically bringing an urgency for a decision to be made as quickly as possible, the Colonel urging immediate action, supported by the general in Whitehall, but complications arise with the opinions of the ministers, the need to contact the Foreign Minister who is in Singapore, contacting the American Secretary of State who is in Beijing, the Prime Minister who is giving a speech in Strasbourg.
In the meantime, the little girl is selling bread at a table-stall outside the wall of the targeted building, bringing that extra dimension of collateral damage into the consideration. And the question: is the death of one little girl in collateral damage to be preferred over the potential for 80 or more people to be killed by suicide bombers in public areas. All sides of the argument are presented with some drama as the local agent, a Somali, who has controlled the beetle in the house, makes an attempt to buy all the bread so that the little girl will go home.
This means that the film is a challenge to moral stances, whether one agrees with the military making the strike decision or those who hesitate, thinking compassionately about collateral damage or weighing up the odds about public opinion if the UK and the US authorise a strike with a consequent death or whether the terrorists, Al Shebab, will be blamed for greater acts of terror and massacres.
There is a tension throughout the film, more so as the audience begins to weigh up the choices and identify with one or other approach.
In one sense, it may be thought that there is a satisfactory ending, but, on the other hand, not.
GOD WILLING/ SE DIO VUOLE
Italy, 2015, 87 Minutes, Colour.
Marco Giallini, Alessandro Gassman, Laura Morante, Ilaria Spada.
Directed by Eodardo Maria Falcone.
A surprising film about priesthood from Italy, Se Dio Vuole/ God Willing reminds audiences of Italy’s growing secularisation, the inheritance of the Catholic tradition and rejection of it, and a low opinion of the priesthood.
A young man, Andrea, goes out frequently with a young man and when he asks his family for a meeting, they tend to expect that he will announce that he is gay. They psych themselves up for this, wanting to be broadminded, tolerant, prepared to embrace him. But, what he tells them is that he wants to be a priest. They are not ready for this at all, especially his rather arrogant surgeon father who cannot bring himself to contradict his son but will do anything to stop him becoming a priest.
His mother is more understanding. His sister, who seems to know practically nothing about Catholicism, gets a whim to learn more about it, praying the rosary, watching Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, not wanting anyone to tell and spoil the ending for her.
The father invokes the aid of friends and investigators, following his son only to find that he has gone to a Bible session, conducted by Don Pietro, an enthusiastically vigorous performance by Alessandro Gassman. He has a full house of young listeners, explains the Gospels with great gusto and theatricality. The surgeon wants an investigation done on him, finds that Don Pietro has spent time in jail, for fraud, and suspects that he has brainwashed his son.
Don Pietro is a fine contemporary, pastoral priest. He admits his use of fraud, the time in jail, influenced by the prison chaplain, joining the seminary, concerned for all people in need, rebuilding a church that his mother used to attend, a sensible man in the 21st century ministry.
He has advised Andrea about the priesthood and puts himself out when the surgeon turns up at a session, pretends to be penniless and homeless, sets up his colleagues to confirm his down-and-out status in a rundown house to Don Pietro, but is found out when Don Pietro is visiting his actual home. Don Pietro asks him to do a month’s penance, working on the church with him, where they talk a great deal, go to a hill overlooking a lake which is the priest’s favourite place for reflection, the surgeon upset when Don Pietro has a motorbike accident and spends his time finishing the work on the church. He doesn’t necessarily become a believer – but his attitude towards priests changes, he is more understanding and respectful to his staff, to patients and his wife and daughter – and Don Pietro doesn’t tell him that he actually knew for some time that Andrea, after a retreat, had fallen in love and the priesthood was not for him.
Perhaps the film is saying that celibacy is an impediment for priesthood – and that the better priests are men who have had solid and mixed experiences and are ordained later in their lives.
LABYRINTH OF LIES/ IM LABYRINTH DES SCHWEIGENS
Germany, 2015, 124 minutes, Colour.
Alexander Fehling, Andre Szymanski, Friederike Becht, Johannes Krisch, Kurt Voss, Tim Williams.
Directed by Giulio Ricciarelli.
In going in to see Labyrinth of Lies, it did not occur to me that a film set in Frankfurt, Germany, in the late 1950s, could serve as a mirror of film for Australia, other organisations and nations - and the Catholic Church - in 2016.
Yet, it does.
The subject of the film is how German society, prospering in the 1950s under Chancellor Adenauer, could put behind it the experience of World War II, the experience of Hitler and the third Reich (which lasted comparatively few years instead of the predicted and hoped-for thousand).
The screenplay of the film suggests that many ordinary Germans, the German middle-class, had very little knowledge of Auschwitz and the concentration camps and of the horrors that were enacted there. The name of Auschwitz seemed quite unfamiliar to so many. A number of the authorities chose not to acknowledge Auschwitz let alone admit to the presence of the prisoners, their treatment, and the mass extermination.
The film features a young lawyer, ambitious, who by chance encounters a journalist challenging the legal authorities by bringing a survivor of Auschwitz to their offices. The chief inspector in Frankfurt throws the page of information into the rubbish bin – with the young man later quietly going to retrieve it, contacting the journalist, being brought into contact with the survivor, going through his locked case and unearthing some incriminating documents. The survivor himself is initially unwilling to collaborate, remembering the fate of his daughters and his inability to help them when they were separated from him and put into the charge of Dr Mengele and subjected to his barbaric experiments. The sequence where he explains his sadness and the tragedy of his girls and of his life, his compassion for his daughter-victims and his feeling towards the man who cruelly abused them, is one of the most moving moments of the film.
The lawyer gets the support of the Attorney General, himself a Jew who had been incarcerated in a concentration camp in 1933. He is encouraged to approach American authorities, the occupying force archives, to retrieve Auschwitz documents which, eventually he does, a truckload of them. He and his associate with the woman who served as a secretary in his office, spend a great deal of time and energy combing through the documents while he accosts some of those mentioned with the intention of arrest.
The powers that be put obstacles in his way at times and in no way is he supported.
The lawyer has a great admiration for his father, a lawyer who had handed onto his son the ideal of the search for truth. When he realises that his father, as all lawyers were expected to be during Hitler’s time, was a signed-up member of the party, he becomes disillusioned, especially as all his attempts to track down Dr Mengele during his secret visits to Germany from Argentina, are thwarted. There is also the complication that the German government is in contact with Mossad who are intent on bringing Eichmann and Mengele to justice but, at the time, prize the return of Eichmann to Israel for trial as more significant.
At the end of the film, with documents, including Commandant signatures on orders for gas and equipment for the camp, German methodical bookkeeping leading to incriminating papers, the audience is told that many of those responsible in Auschwitz were tried in the courts, most found guilty.
The film serves as a gripping investigation, uncovering of secrets, a mission for justice.
And the connection for Australia and the church? In watching the film, one could have substituted a number of times church for Germans, for failure of memory, unwillingness to remember, cover-up and allowing perpetrators to live free lives, untouched by their victims or the victims’ families. In terms of the church and sexual abuse, the parallel is very telling – and discomforting. The German title, has been translated for English-language distribution as Labyrinth of Lies but the German, Im Labyrinth des Scheigwens, even more tellingly, could be translated: in the labyrinths of the silences.
A film that is worth watching in itself and for appreciating something of German postwar history. but, as has been suggested, a film that is mirror to contemporary issues, investigations and hearings.
LONDON HAS FALLEN
US, 2016, 99 minutes, Colour.
Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhardt, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Alon Aboutbool, Jackie Earle Hayley, Robert Forster, Melissa Leo, Colin Salmon, Penny Downie, Charlotte Riley.
Directed by Babak Najafi.
A couple of years ago there was a political thriller, Olympus has Fallen, with Aaron Eckhardt as the president of the United States, Gerard Butler as the head of security, Morgan Freeman about to become vice president. And a lot of buildings in Washington DC, the capital and the White Hosts, were destroyed. Strangely enough, this sequel has no explicit reference to the former film, Washington looks as normal, even though the stars have returned as well as a number of the supporting cast at work in the White House, the Pentagon and on security duty.
The action is taken from contemporary headlines, arms dealers, international terrorists, the role of the United States, especially in the Middle East and drone action in countries like Pakistan. While the tone of the film is generally that of hawks rather than doves, there is some implicit criticism of some of the vengeful tactics of the United States.
This is the kind of film that drives armchair critics and those campaigning for peace rather demented. Many of the reviews have denounced the film as mindless, jingoistic, ultra-patriotic. And, in many ways it is. But that is the nature of action stories, popular novels, television series, the movies, that heighten characters and situations for action entertainment. Do they influence popular attitudes? Perhaps only in reinforcing stances but audiences have taken in to the cinema to see the movie.
One hopes that the scenario is impossible – but the filming was already completed by the November 2015 attacks in Paris, and the film was released not long before the March 2016 attacks in Brussels.
Having said that, Gerard Butler resumes his role as the almost one man band security detail for the President, jogging with him, intending to resign because of his wife’s pregnancy but called into action when the Prime Minister of England dies and a state funeral is arranged.
One hopes it is impossible because before very long, the heads of almost 40 nations have been killed, including Germany, Canada, France (but not such small fry as the Prime Minister of Australia). The running time of the film is not very long and so action moves along, the attack at St Paul’s Cathedral, hurrying the American President to hiding, at Charing Cross Underground Station, an attempt at a helicopter trip to Stansted, forced to land, finding the safe house in London, in Soho i(where a number of the preview cinemas are located) and a battle with the help of a British SAS team.
Scotland Yard is involved, the head of the safe house, the backup squad – and, needless to say, the body count is very high, especially, of course, of the terrorists. Gerard Butler is of the relentless school. He would have made an effective screen Jack Reacher.
The terrorist attack is explained by a drone dropping bombs on a wedding in Pakistan, the daughter of an arms dealer who then plans his revenge, especially to take the American president prisoner and to kill him on social media.
Meanwhile in Washington, VP Morgan Freeman keeps his calm, is able to make code contact with the security man, is able to teach keep the British authorities informed.
If there are going to be terrorist attacks, we’ll need the Gerard Butlers of the cinema world – but, sadly, we realise with real life episodes, this is not the case.
Despite the contemporary connections, this is an action show.
MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN
US, 2016, 109 minutes, Colour.
Jennifer Garner, Kylie Rogers, Martin Henderson, Queen Latifah, Eugenio Derbez, John Carroll Lynch.
Directed by Patricia Riggen.
It is said that after the success, commercially, of The Passion of the Christ, American faith films received a boost of confidence, moving to bigger budgets, campaigns for wider and mainstream distribution, both in the United States and beyond. Miracles from Heaven is one of these films.
These faith films divide opinion and comment. American secular reviews of Miracles from Heaven are quite damning, not ready to give much credit to such films, saying that they are too pious, too sentimental, too unreal, especially in this case as in the previous Heaven is for Real, the events, the healings and miracles, too difficult to swallow.
On the other hand, for instance on the Internet Movie Database, practically all of the comments are from the faith audience who have found this film not only a good entertainment but a reinforcement of faith and values.
It is based on a true story and a book by the mother of the family, Christy Beam. She and her husband, Kevin, and their three daughters are a typical middle American family, he a vet who works some of the land, she a mother, and the family are members of the local evangelical church, led by very genial pastor, John Carroll Lynch. Clearly, this is a wholesome story in its perspective and treatment.
When the middle daughter experiences stomach and throat trouble, is in continual pain, and the diagnoses assert that there is nothing basically wrong with her, Christy becomes very angry with the doctors and demands further tests, which leads to the discovery that the girl has severe intestinal problem, especially for any digestion of food. While the family prays, and the Christian community is supportive, there is a severe scene where two of the ladies of the parish accost Christy and say that either she and the family, or even the daughter, must have sinned in some way for the daughter to be so ill. Christy loses her sense of faith.
In a sense, this is a story about family, how they deal with in illness, the contact with a world specialist in Boston with an enormous waiting list and Christy, determined, takes her daughter to Boston and, providentially, gets an appointment. The doctor is in the vein of such medical characters as Patch Adams, a way with children, a way with adults, cheerful and joking even when the prognosis indicates terminal illness.
There is a miracle in this film, not as one might have anticipated, but a healing.
One of the interesting aspects of presenting miracles on screen is the response of different faith communities towards miracles. For more evangelical communities, this is an encounter with God, and intervention in people’s lives. Catholics need to remember that miracles are required for any progress on stages for beatification and canonisation and that at any one time around the world many Catholics are praying for here things for potentials saints and their recognition.
Some physical comments made during the film and the issue of spontaneous reconstruction. On the other hand, with the little girl saying that she had an encounter with God, this could be seen as the equivalent of a dream – and there is a great deal of thinking and writing on the effect of dreams on the human psyche and the human body.
Yes, the film was very American, is not ashamed of sentiment, is not ashamed of prayer and faith. The central couple is played by Jennifer Garner and Martin Henderson. And the very sympathetic doctor is played by Eugenio Derbez. Kylie Rogers gives a persuasive performance as the sick girl, trying to cope with her continued pain and hospitalisation, tests and treatment, bonding with her family, healed. And Queen Latifah is genial and jovial as the friendly waitress.
And, in the final credits, there are photos and video footage of all the family several years after the miraculous experience – the young daughter herself, large as life, on the screen as a testimony to her faith.
MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING 2
US, 2016, 94 minutes, Colour.
Nia Vardalos, John Corbett, Michael Constantine, Lainie Kazan, Andrea Martin, Gia Carides, Joey Fatone, Elena Kampouris, Alex Wolff, Louis Mandylor, Bess Meisler.
Directed by Kirk Jones
Everybody loved My Big Fat Greek Wedding – but that was back in 2002. There was a brief television series in 2003 with the main cast participating except for John Corbett. So, audiences have been waiting for 13 years for a sequel. Obviously, there will be many takers.
Toula and Ian now have a daughter aged 17, Paris, making applications to go to college, finishing her last year at school. As might be expected, she finds living in a Greek family, with all the extended relations, rather oppressive, and she reacts accordingly, moving from calling Toula Mummy to Mother, upset with her father, principal of the school, talking with her in the library. And her grandfather, triticale was in the original film, is always talking about finding a Greek boy that she can marry and have babies.
Nia Vardalos, so attractive as Tool in the first film, has had a brainwave to have a second big, fat Greek wedding – not Paris and the Greek boy but, rather, her parents discovering that the marriage certificate was never signed, that, therefore, they are not legally married – and what will Maria and Gus to about it. Gus tries to get the local priest to sign the document – but he says he can’t. Gus fears that Maria will be upset – but, in fact, she laughs, says she is free, has lived like a hippie, and demands a new proposal, which Gus finds himself unable to give.
Needless to say, everybody has an opinion but both Maria and Gus have their stubborn side. In the meantime, tool is expected to solve all the family problems – though even tries to get her to step back. But there is always aunt Fuller (Andrea Martin) who has an opinion on everything and is never afraid to step in to put pressure on all the characters.
Eventually, there is to be a wedding, and a wedding planner is hired – who clearly disapproves of all of Maria’s choices. The wedding planner buyers her! Family meeting. Everybody chips in, doing all the cooking, preparing wedding dresses and tax egos, getting the hair done – but forgetting to organise limousines so that Greek cousin and the police organisers some squad cars.
The film will probably appeal very much to the grandparent audience, the 50 years of marriage between Gus and Maria, the ups and downs, but the getting used to each other, finding it very hard to be separated, a fine example of love – which, of course, is reproduced by Tool and Ian and their love for each other, and having to make parental decisions, especially the possibility of letting Paris go to study in another city.
Quite some sentiment at the end, laughs and tears. But there is the celebration, music, dancing, everybody present, everybody getting on so well with one another – and a postscript when Paris goes to her new College (with a large section of the family in so, and to be got rid of).
OUR BRAND IS CRISIS
2015, 107 minutes, Colour.
Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Joaquim de Almeida, Ann Dowd, Scoot Mc Nairy, Zoe Kazan, Reynaldo Pacheco.
Directed by David Gordon Green.
2015 and 2016 have seen extraordinary campaigning for both Democrat and Republican nominations for the presidency. Candidates go on the campaign trail more than a year before the actual election date. There are huge staffs, advisers, spin doctors, experts studying language, body language, noting every incident and nuance which might alienate voters. The spectacle of the campaigner Donald Trump, his wealth, self-confidence, bullying comments, prejudices against Hispanics, Muslims…
Which means the satiric here, might not be as exaggerated as it might at first seem.
The main characters are American but the campaign is for the presidency of the Latin American country of Bolivia. There is a popular candidate, some other candidates whose campaigns are not emphasised in the film, and the former President who wants to make a comeback. The decision has been made that American experts should be flown in and get to work on the political make-over to make sure that the candidate will be elected. On the face of it, this is a huge task. He has a reputation for conservatism and is personally arrogant (Joaquin de Almeida).
The director is David Gordon Green, who began with small budget serious and comic films like Undertow, All the Real Girls, had a phase where he made some outlandish comedies like The Sitter and Your Highness as well is the very funny Pineapple Express, and then moved to films like this, more serious comedies with point, Prince Avalanche, and as writer of Goat.
Two members of the task campaign, Nell (Ann Dowd) and Ben (Anthony Mackie) committee decide to approach a successful veteran from past American elections, Jane (Sandra Bullock). She has retired from the public eye and seems particularly reluctant to become engaged again. But the overtures from the committee members prove tantalising and off she goes to Bolivia. The other member of the team, Buckley (Scoot Mc Nairy) is very sceptical about her.
In Bolivia, she finds a friend/enemy campaigner from the past, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), and part of her energy is aroused by the prospect and the practicality of some dirty tricks interactions, he very smart with a touch of smugness, she very smart, even smarter.
Audiences will find the film interesting as the American team study the presidential candidate, assess his strengths and weaknesses, especially his weaknesses, and devise strategies, image-changing, meeting people, concealing his arrogance to make him more viable than he is – and, of course, finding situations, money deals, that will undermine the credibility of the popular candidate.
As the team goes off into the Bolivian countryside, they meet quite a ground swell of opposition, especially from indigenous people – and, it is intriguing, if somewhat disgusting, to see the smarmy speeches and calculated gestures to win them over. In the countryside, each group is travelling in a bus along the steep mountain roads – and the rivalry is dramatically (and rather stupidly) dramatised and symbolised in a race to overtake the other no matter the danger.
There is co-operation from some of the locals, especially a young lad who believes in the candidate and is commissioned to be eyes and ears – that is, spying – to pick up information about the opposing camps. Jane also calls in an expert in digging up dirt and information.
The film does show the election day and its aftermath, the success of the candidate and his calculated behaviour as soon as he is elected, endorsement as well as disillusionment, especially on the part of the young man who volunteered to help – and Jane herself walking amongst the crowds, amidst new protesters, doing a bit of reflection on what she had contributed to. Which gives the audience an opportunity to draw some conclusions about campaigning, its artificiality and falsehood, possibilities for genuine communication with people, and politicising, compromise – and downright lies.
ROCK THE KASBAH
US, 2015, 106 minutes, Colour.
Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel, Leem Lubany, Arian Moayed, Scott Caan, Danny Mc Bride.
Directed by Barry Levinson.
Rock the Kasbah should not be confused with the Israeli military film, Rock the Casbah, or the Moroccan film of the same name about a large family and their relationships. This one is set in Afghanistan.
Since the 1960s there have been satiric films about war and the waging of war, from Dr Strangelove in 1963 to M*A*S*h and Catch-22 in the early 1970s. M*A*S*H introduced the idea of comedy and satire even in contemporary war. While there have been very serious films about American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, It is only now that we have the satiric comedies coming in, this film as well as Whiskey Tango Foxtrot with Tina Fey and Margot Robbie.
This is a star vehicle for Bill Murray, capitalising on his laid-back, touch of the lazy, wisecracking conman style. In the United States, Murray is a record executive, Richie, holding auditions with his secretary, Zoe Deschanel who has singing hopes of her own, but mainly interested in affirming the singers and getting them to pay their fees. When a military recruiter visits a club, he is impressed by the singing and suggests to Richie that he goes on one of those entertaining the troops tour – in Afghanistan.
It is an opportunity that Murray has been looking for, but his secretary gets cold feet and, after landing in Afghanistan and experiencing the military atmosphere as well as the possibility of terror attacks, she opts out with the help of a local military character played by Bruce Willis, Bombay Brian.
Richie also gets tangled with Merci, a local prostitute (Kate Hudson) who decides that there are possibilities in a record executive working with local talent. Audiences might be surprised to see one of the Afghan television shows, Afghan Star (a local version of American Idol), with all the glitz and enthusiasm compere and judges, of Western TV talent shows. This becomes all the more important when Richie is caught up country and hears a young woman singing, is entranced by her voice and decides that she is the one. Needless to say, her father and other members of the clan in the village are not support of this at all – although they are not above having a look at the TV show later on.
The singer, Salima (Leem Lubany) hides in the boot of the car, persists in pressurising Richie that she go on the show and, between the jigs and the reels, many of them, she eventually does, breaking through a lot of the taboos about women, singing, public performance.
As might be expected, the film is very (very) American in tone which might be very popular at home but has its moments of grating on audiences beyond the United States.
Australia/Nepal, 2015, 96 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Jennifer Peedom.
This documentary did not finish up in the way that the director intended. It turned out to be much more.
Writer-director, Jennifer Peedom, was interested in the recent almost-industry of Westerners wanting to climb Everest. She does fill in some of the background of the naming of Everest, the 1953 expedition, led by Sir John Hunt and an achievement for New Zealander Edmund Hillary. There are some visuals of this conquest of Everest. But, a name which became synonymous with this ascent of the mountain was that of Tensing, the Sherpa guide. Two of his sons do contribute some commentary to this documentary.
It was the Sherpas and their role that interested the director. She introduces us to one of the Sherpas who had made the ascent 22 times. We see his wife and family and his wife’s reluctance for him to continue climbing the mountain. There have been many Sherpas employed in working on the mountain – the Sherpas considering the mountain as rather sacred, sacred ground, divine or transcendent presence, and have treated the mountain accordingly.
This is in contrast with the Westerners who see scaling Everest as action, something to be achieved. This materialistic aspect is reinforced by the role of the Sherpas especially in carrying all the goods and equipment up the mountain, even with a scene showing the Sherpas serving tea to the climbers in their tents in the morning.
There are a lot of scenes at base camp, and especially with New Zealander Russell Brice who, for many years, has managed ascents, and is interviewed several times during the film.
This perspective changed when a number of Sherpas were killed in the sudden avalanche in 2014. More consideration was given to the Sherpas, their families, the tradition of ascending the mountain, the exploitation as it seemed by Westerners, the inequality in pay, and the Sherpas in the 21st century becoming much more conscious, especially through social media, of work and conditions.
The film also highlights a clash in 2013 when one of the climbers swore vehemently at a Sherpa and the guides took offence, demanding an apology – which was given, but highlighted the superiority attitudes of the climbers. This was reinforced with the reactions to the cancellation of the 2014 ascents after the option was given to the Sherpas to work or not. They chose to retire.
So, a film which serves as providing magnificent scenery and tracing the history of the increasing number of climbers (at one stage a long line tracking up the mountain side of people waiting to ascend) turns into a plea for consideration of the Sherpas and a reassessment of Western attitudes and behaviour.
And then came the 2015 devastating earthquake in Nepal.
Jordan/ United Arab Emirates/ Qatar, 2014, 100 minutes, Colour.
Jacir Eid Al- Hwietat, Hussain Salameh Al- Sweilhiyeen, Hussain Mutlad Al- Maraiyeh.
Directed by Naji Abu Nowar.
Theeb is an impressive film, the Oscar nominee from Jordan, not the usual country for Oscar nominees.
Theeb is the name of the young boy, member of a clan in the Arabian peninsular at the time of World War I – the period familiar to worldwide audiences from Lawrence of Arabia and also, very interestingly, in the story of Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert.
The film opens quite simply, two brothers in the desert, playing, getting water from a well, shooting practice. In the clan tent that the evening, two strangers are welcomed with the unquestioning Arab hospitality, a guide as well as an English soldier, both of them want to find a regiment as well as the railway line that is being laid through the desert.
Obviously, with the war, with the domination of the Ottoman Turks, there is an atmosphere of change, changes in tradition, the developments of the 19th and 20th centuries, especially the railway, making journeys so much shorter and efficient but also a threat to the traditions.
While the older brother is appointed a guide through the desert, Theeb follows on his donkey, and persuades his brother to take him on the journey, the soldier often wary, protecting his possessions which included a detonator.
One of the major hazards of travelling through the desert, apart from the desert terrain and the need for water, is the presence of brigands who then make themselves more than felt. While he is small and young, Theeb is a survivor, confronting one of the brigands, overwhelmed by the need for vengeance but covering it, complying with the brigand who wants to curry favour with the Turkish authorities.
Theeb acts surprisingly at the end and goes off into the desert, back to his clan and an uncertain future.
With its desert scenery, the film is impressive to look at. It also invites its audience into understanding some of the life of the Arab clans, the beauty of living in the desert, the hazards of living in the desert, and the colonial interventions of Western powers – and contemporary audiences realising the extraordinary consequences of the post-war creation of nations, carving up lands to create different boundaries and the subsequent power struggles and the modern Middle Eastern clashes.
US, 2016, 115 minutes, Colour.
Casey Affleck, Chiwitel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson, Aaron Paul, Kate Winslet, Gal Gadpt, Norman Reedus, Teresa Palmer, Michael Kenneth Williams, Clifton Collins Jr.
Directed by John Hillcoat.
This is a grim picture of an ugly America, a police story, International crime, investigation and police corruption, set in the city of Atlanta.
The film was the work of Australian director John Hillcoat who made an impact with the prison drama Ghosts of the Civil Dead in the 1980s, made a bigger impact with his 19th century Australian “Western”, The Proposition, both films working in collaboration with Cave. His two previous American films were The Road, the post-apocalyptic story by Cormac Mc Carthy and then, Lawless, a powerful story of bootlegging in the 1930s.
There is very little gloss in this picture of Atlanta. The film shows a background of Russian Mafia types, with strong Jewish emphasis and Israeli connections, the deals, their brutality, the leader being put in prison but his little kingdom in Atlanta being ruled by his wife, a very hard-to-recognise Kate Winslet. She enters into the role of the Mafia matriarch with fierce zest. She commissions a group to stage a robbery to get back documents that will enable her husband to get out of jail. This leads to some strong action scenes.
The group is led by a former arms dealer played by Chiwitel Ejiofor – there is a link with the Russians because he has married the sister of the matriarch and has a son who is used to support for their hold over him. There is a friend, also a former arms dealer, a driver played by Norman Readers. And then there is his younger brother, Gabriel, played by Aaron Paul, a former policeman who shot someone during action and is now very nervy. The surprise is that the other two members of the gang are a homicide detective, played by Clifton Collins Jr, and an active detective played by Anthony Mackie.
The film shows the double lives, especially Mackie, who is assigned a new partner from another part of the city, a dedicated and tough officer, played by Casey Affleck. His uncle is a significant presence in the Atlanta police force, also a detective, played by a scene-stealing Woody Harrelson.
While the film gives some personal background to the characters, especially of Casey Affleck, his wife (Teresa Palmer) and his son, and the interactions with his uncle, most of the film concentrates on the corrupt police, the need for a second robbery for more documents.
This is where the title comes in, 999, the code for officer down – and the group decide that they will target Casey Affleck, shooting him by using a gang member whom he had humiliated, draw all police action to that site while the robbery is underway (another powerful action scene). And this is what happens – though not in the way that was anticipated, not at all.
The final part of the film is some detection of who was responsible, some deaths (well, quite a few deaths), and, probably and unfortunately, only a pause in grim activities in Atlanta.
WHERE TO INVADE NEXT
US, 2016, 120 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Michael Moore.
For a while, documentary-maker, Michael Moore, was a hero, on television and beginning to make feature films, especially his portrait of his home town, Flint, Michigan, Roger and Me, and the car industry and its collapse.
Then he became headlines with controversial documentaries, especially with his Oscar-winning film about guns and students in schools, Bowling for Columbine. He followed this up, winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes with his political film, Fahrenheit 911, America after September 2001. Further documentaries were Sicko, comparing America’s health-care system with the benefits of other countries from France to Cuba, and Capitalism: A Love Story.
But that was six years ago. Now, with this new film, it sounds as if he is going to take on American militarism, American involvement after World War II (and he does list and give visuals of American defeats after 1945, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan…). But, actually, this film is much more positive and is certainly not what we might have expected it to portray.
The ever shambling, lumbering, heavy Michael Moore, shabby clothes and hat, making him a character with characteristics rather than a glib-looking and sounding smooth interviewer, has decided that he should invade quite a number of countries but not militeraly. Rather, he takes a look at some of the significant things that these countries are doing, matters that could well be transferred to the United States to make it a better place – something like re-shaping the American Dream.
So, this is a jolly Michael Moore, off to Europe and Tunisia, with his camera crew, making most of the situations look casual, listening sometimes with astonishment, although arranging some more formal interviews, especially with the President of Slovenia.
His interviews and his exploration of themes will probably make many audiences sit up and take notice. Despite problems in the various countries, some of their social policies have been very successful.
He meets up in Italy with a couple who explain the amount of paid holiday time they have and their possibilities for travelling; he meets owners of factories and managers of factories who are comfortable with higher pay, benefits like going home for lunch and cooking, elimination of stress for greater productivity. By contrast, when he moves to France, he shows gourmet meals in close-up and their preparation, only for us to discover that he is visiting a school and this is the chef and the lunches for the students whose lunch-hour is the equivalent of class enabling them to be more discerning about food and health. He does show audiences, by contrast, the typical American school lunch, where health does not seem to be a preoccupation.
Among other countries in Europe that he visits are Finland, checking their education system where homework is virtually eliminated enabling the students to be free, develop their interests and hobbies; and Slovenia where tertiary education is free, with a number of American students going there to study at the University. It is industry in Germany that he investigates, factories which are salubrious, with windows and light, with good conditions for workers and better productivity. Portugal is famous in having abolished criminal drug legislation and Moore has an interesting chat with a rather laid-back government official and interviews with local police, being reminded that with the decriminalisation of drugs, crime has gone down in Portugal.
When he visits Norway and goes to a prison, many audiences who feel that prisoners should be punished and feel the punishment will think that the prison is something of a comfortable motel. And there are only four guards. Interviews with the prisoners highlight government interest and policy is in human dignity and rehabilitation. And just when vindictive audience attitudes might be on the rise, Moore anticipates the criticism and visits a maximum security prison in Norway, presenting, tongue-in-cheek, music videos sung by the guards welcoming people to the prison. But, once again, it is a matter of human dignity, not revenge. This is highlighted by an interview with a father whose son was killed by Brevik and who went to the trial but does not believe in an eye for an eye Justice, lowering people to the level of the criminal.
There is a surprise visit to Tunisia, praising the role of women, their presence in Parliament, and the availability of sex education, abortion since 1973, and the philosophy that the government should not interfere in people’s private lives. Iceland is another port of call, a reflection on the financial collapse and its devastation, the small nation’s recovery, the trial and imprisonment of rogue bankers, an interview with the first woman president and a golf game with three female CEOs and their observations about the role of women in Iceland.
Moore wants to be optimistic, that change is possible despite the odds. He remembers the Berlin Wall coming down, his presence there with a friend, people scraping at the wall, then a hole, people escaping, the collapse of the wall, and change and unification in Germany. He also remembers the end of apartheid, the freeing of Nelson Mandela and his becoming President.
At the end, Moore makes the point that most of those improvements that he valued and wants to take back to America after his invasion all had precedents in American history and the American experience – and they need re-discovery.
THE VVITCH: A NEW ENGLAND FOLKTALE
US, 2015, 93 minutes, Colour.
Anya Taylor- Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson.
Directed by Robert Eggers.
The title and its tone seems to indicate one of those horror/history tales of witchfinders and persecutions as well as dire presentations of witches and their sinister behaviour.
Not the case.
The helpful clue is given in the subtitle of the film, A New England Folktale. At the end of the film, the writer-director, Robert Eggers (his first full-length feature film and winner of the Best Director award at Sundance 2016) informs the audience that his screenplay draws on memoirs, diaries, reports and court proceedings from the period, the time of the witches of Salem, the end of the 17th century in New England.
Most of the cast in the film are British, Ralph Ineson as William, patriarchal figure expelled by the authorities for usurping his role as a Christian preacher and exiled to the forest, along with his wife, Kate Dickie, and his four children. The scene in the tribunal is reminiscent of those scenes in such films and plays as The Crucible.
Life in the countryside of this British colony is harsh indeed, a hut with no comforts, a barn, corn crops, the chopping of wood, two goats for sustenance.
The oldest of the four children is Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), on the verge of adolescence, the good girl, with spirit, but, through circumstances, suspected of being a witch. Her younger brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is reliable, working on the farm, his parents devoted to him. On an excursion into the woods, the hunting dog sees a rabbit and pursues it, Caleb following, but experiencing something sinister in the woods, involving a mysterious young woman with a red cape and clawlike arm and hand.
This ferments the religious beliefs and superstitions about witches and about the hand of Satan. It is compounded by the mischievous little twins and their playful attacks on Thomasin, accusing her of being a witch. A test of prayer shows Thomasin able to pray but the twins not being able to remember the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Nevertheless, she is not believed.
The parents try to cope, relying on their straightforward faith, their attempts at prayer, belief in Jesus Christ, belief in Satan, and a belief that evil can infiltrate into the human in the form of a witch.
The film takes its audience right into the life of these impoverished people of the time, the details of life on the farm, the hardships in relationships, the dominant father, patriarchal, yet devoted to his children, the mother, still yearning for England, hardened and wizened by her difficult life.
There is no easy outcome given this religious framework, the entrenched beliefs, the fears and superstitions, the inability to discern where good lies and where evil exists, the tragedy that pervades devout families, but seem especially in this period in New England.
US, 2016, 108 minutes, Colour.
Voices of: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrance, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, J.K.Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, Shakira.
Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore.
There were many ads and trailers but this reviewer had not really learnt anything about Zootopia before going into the cinema. Within a minute or two, watching an enjoyable school play about tolerance and harmony, the main actors being a young fox and a young rabbit, it seemed that this was going to be an interesting Disney animation film.
And it is. Thoroughly entertaining – and enough enjoyment for the children with the animals and their antics, enough for the adults with the story, the homage to various movie conventions, and smart dialogue. A very good candidate for the Oscar for Best Animation Film.
As can be seen from the title, this is a wonderful society, living in harmony, a real Utopia for the animals. However, the animals are completely anthropomorphic, mirroring their human counterparts exactly. And this is where the message comes in, despite the difficulties, if animals can live in Zootopia, why can’t humans overcome bigotry, racism, fear, and create a human Utopia?
The central character is a young rabbit called Judy, who desperately wants to become a policewoman, despite the anxious and cautious advice of her parents, who have a stall selling carrots, not to take any risks in life. She is voiced excellently by Ginnifer Goodwin. She does to the training, she graduates, gets her badge – but, despite some attempts to do police work, she is assigned to be a meter made by the rather large, dark, Ox police chief, voiced by Idris Elba.
Just as she is beginning to lose heart, Mrs Otter (Octavia Spencer) comes to report her missing husband and Judy is egged on by the Deputy Mayor (Jenny Slate) who is imposed on by the lion-Mayor, (she is a sheep), for menial jobs in running the city. Judy is given 48 hours to solve the crime. In the file, she notices a photo of a young fox, Nick, and goes to question him. Fans of Jason Bateman will immediately recognise his voice and intonations. He is something of a con-fox, getting out of taxes over the years – but Judy is able to record his confession and persuade him to join her in the search, giving him a badge.
He has connections so they go to visit a Mr Big, who in fact is tiny but is in Marlon Brando’s Godfather vein, surrounded by tough polar bears. They get a lead, a numberplate and go to the office which is staffed by a group of sloths – who provide a great deal of comedy with their slow and measured speech and response to telling jokes and stamping documents (and the final joke of the screenplay is excellent with a sloth reappearance). This leads Nick and Judy to the chauffeur, to a rogue Jaguar who has wolves as guards who can easily persuaded to join in a howling. This is where the action sequences, chases and cliffhangers, come in.
In fact, Nick and Judy solve the case, and Judy, her job having been saved by Nick, gives a press conference, becoming eagerly rash in her comments to the press which hurt Nick. She resigns, goes home, discovers the truth behind the plot, apologises to Nick – and off they go again with their detective work, solving the mystery – with a train rushed sequence like Taking of Pelham 123 or Unstoppable) and the unmasking of the villain behind the plot.
The dialogue is very entertaining, often very witty, enjoyable with the parallels with human experience, the echoes of the movies, the banter between Judy and Nick. If the makers can come up with another ingenious plot and smart dialogue, Zootopia 2 would be welcome.