SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS AUGUST 2009
ANGE A LA MER, Un (ANGEL AT SEA)
COCO BEFORE CHANEL
CHARLES DICKENS' LONDON
GI JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA
HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE
HURT LOCKER, The
JUST ANOTHER LOVE STORY
LAND OF THE LOST
LIMITS OF CONTROL, The
(US, 2009, d. Max Mayer)
A romantic comedy – with a difference. Aren't they all? Well, this one has a significant difference: Asperges Syndrome.
Perhaps a description of the Syndrome is in order so that Adam's behaviour is more comprehensible. Asperges is a form of autism but is generally distinguished from classic autism by higher linguistic and cognitive functioning. Characteristics could include obsession or preoccupation with some subjects to the exclusion of others; repetitive routines and rituals; socially inappropriate behaviour; lack of emotional reciprocity; difficulty in reading what people are thinking.
The story is rather straightforward, familiar in style to many a New York romance. A young man buries his father who took care of him. He has Asperges Syndrome and now has to manage by himself. He encounters a vivacious young teacher, Beth, who moves into one of the apartments in the block. She is puzzled at first. He explains himself and she tries to adapt in her relationship with him. The difficulty is that he lacks the capacity to read people's emotions in their faces and body language. And he is basically blunt and truthful in his comments. As with some autistic men and women, he is highly intelligent and, when asked, offers encyclopedic answers to questions or simple leading remarks.
In the background are the young woman's parents and a difficult court case.
Hugh Dancy has emerged as a pleasing leading man (Evening, Confessions of a Shopaholic) and makes Adam a credible character with the audience trying to be empathetic towards him and the consequences of his condition as well as wondering, perhaps, how we might respond to him in real life. Rose Byrne is the teacher who makes efforts to adapt but finds that she lapses under pressure, especially with the prospect of her father's imprisonment. Her parents are played by veterans, Peter Gallagher and Amy Irving.
The plot development is not quite as we might have anticipated. However, it offers a pleasing story of relationships and challenges as well as giving the audience an opportunity to see and feel a story of a personal condition rather than simply respond to a medical definition.
UN ANGE A LA MER (ANGEL AT SEA)
(Belgium, 2009, d. Frederic Dumont)
How can a film look so sunny and yet be so sad?
The bright Moroccan settings are a light-filled backdrop to this story of a European family living in Morocco. At first, they seem to be ideal. The father, Bruno (Olivier Gourmet) is a hard-working advocate for farmers' rights. The mother, Marie (Anne Consigny) is devoted, a loving mother who records events on her camera. They have two sons, Quentin and Louis. Louis, the younger (Martin Nissen), is a sensitive but robust boy who loves his father while Marie seems to favour Quentin.
But Bruno, back from advocacy work in Rome, is in a bad way with depression. He separates himself from his wife and family and Marie always excuses him by saying that he has to work. He loses his temper with his assistant. He observes from his window and rarely comes out.
However, one day, he calls Louis from a football game and confides a secret to him. He has no right to do this to a young boy, especially when he does not follow up on the secret. This gnaws at Louis who changes, watching his father, stammering, lying to his mother, clashing with his brother. It is tragic when the crisis comes to a head.
Convincingly acted, especially by Martin Nissen, and persuasive dramatically, this is a sad picture of goodness being destroyed.
(Denmark, 2009, d. Lars Von Trier)
At Cannes 2009, the crowds lining up to see Antichrist prevented this reviewer from getting in. Which may be a good thing, seeing it after all the initial sensationalism of the press audience, the booing, the condemnatory reviews, the controversial articles which spread like wildfire about the most violent, disgusting film ever seen in Cannes, often written by journalists – as in the UK Telegraph papers – who had not seen the film. In fact, regular attendees of Cannes could probably make a quick list of more controversial and violent films with their elements of disgust (Irreversible, Enter the Void, Battle in Heaven, Sin City, Death Proof...).
Lars Von Trier has been a subject for controversy for many years (and he has encouraged it). The 1997 Breaking the Waves raised questions about the treatment of women and raised the ire of many women in the audience. Dogville and Manderlay elicited the same questions. Even his Palme d'Or winner at Cannes, Dancer in the Dark, had Bjork as a woman condemned to execution. The Idiots alienated many audiences.
This review will try to look at Antichrist a bit more objectively – but, as a personal opinion, I would say that I admire the film very much.
A psychosexual drama
The film is a psychosexual drama with a focus on psychological disturbance and therapy. Of its nature, this leads into areas that are private to individuals or to couples. Nevertheless, there is always room for case studies. Even in the traditional teaching of moral theology in the past (before the Second Vatican Council), case studies were presented in the context of marriage, validity and reasons for annulment (which took the students into some detail about marital and sexual behaviour). However, this was a focus on the word, written and spoken, rather than on the image. The immediacy of the image for senses, emotions and thinking means a stronger impact. Many audiences prefer the word rather than being exposed to the (exposed) image. Some draw conclusions that presentation of such images is wrong. This may be a characteristic of religious people (of all faiths) and - there are cultural traditions to be considered as well. The English-speaking world has a rather puritanical heritage regarding sexual issues (which led to the permissive breakouts and reactions of more recent decades). Some are disturbed by glimpses of anatomical nakedness. Catholics in some countries have been influenced by Jansenistic reticence, their own form of puritanism.
The articles devised to create and maintain controversy about Antichrist have noted several 'shocking' scenes, the implication being that 'shocking' meant 'bad'. Some images that shock may have a good effect – a presupposition of Christian anti-abortion groups who show images of aborted foetuses to make their point.
The crucial questions of 'what?' and 'how?'
This always raises the question of what is presented and how it is presented. Theoretically, there is no limit on the 'what'. Every human experience, no matter how difficult, ugly or distressing, is a legitimate subject. The question is always in the how – and that depends on sensitivities, how people are effected (well or badly) by what is presented.
The scenes mentioned in articles for shock value from Antichrist (which does have male and female nudity throughout, though the characters are husband and wife and act as husband and wife) from the sexual aspect of psychosexuality are: a glimpse of a few seconds in the prologue of a penis penetrating a vagina; the wife masturbating (perhaps 15 seconds), an ejaculation of blood (10 seconds) and the vaginal mutilation by the wife, the cutting of her clitoris (fewer than 10 seconds). Except for the first instance, the other sequences come after one hour of the film and so have a context rather that being isolated incidents or scenes which come early without much preparation.
While the images have more immediate power and effect than words (which have just been read here legitimately), the proportion of time allotted to these sequences and their placement, mainly in the second part of the film, affect the how. The audience has spent an hour or more with the couple, has got to know them, been puzzled by the wife, shared their grief at the accidental death of their son, watched the husband (a therapist) try to help his wife with psychological exercises, discovered that the wife was writing a thesis on the historical treatment of women and been collecting images and articles in a folder titled 'Gynocide'. The film relies on dreams, and the transition from dream to waking. It also draws on the complimentarity between men and women both in love and in aggression. That already should have given the audience a great deal to think about before the 'shocking' scenes.
The references to violent scenes seemed fewer in many of the reports and articles but violence occurs more provocatively than the sex. The wife, in her mood swings, in her phobias, and with her background of gynocide studies, turns against her husband and physically tortures him, drilling a hole in his lower leg and attaching a millstone. He hides in a hole which she uncovers and she brutally batters him. Of course, this is shocking but is seen as the action of a woman becoming more demented. A reviewer can note that there was far more graphic physical violence depicted in the run of slasher and so-nicknamed 'torture porn' films, like (for 2009 alone), My Bloody Valentine or The Last House on the Left which were designed as entertainments or the French Martyrs which was intended as a philosophical/religious film on the limits of torture and transcending suffering).
Von Trier's skill
What has not been discussed sufficiently in most articles on Antichrist is the skill with which Von Trier has made his film. Much has been made of his experience of depression and the writing of the film helping him to come out of it. The depression experienced by the central characters does illustrate this quite vividly and persuasively. However, much more should be said about the opening and its effect: it is shot in black and white and in slow motion with Handel's Lascia ch'io piange being sung – while the parents make love, their little son comes out of his playpen, is fascinated by his toys, goes to the window where it is snowing and falls to his death. This is superb film-making and gives a more profound perspective on what follows.
The film is divided into chapters including grief, pain and the reign of chaos. This stylisation of the contents and the development of plot and character mean a studied approach by the audience. With the husband being a therapist, much of the earlier part of the film consists of exercises that he asks his wife to do so that she can surface her fears, face her grief, face the challenge of love and the marriage. This asks for a psychologically alert response from the audience, a sympathy with the characters as well as a critical look at the methods and whether they concur with the husband's approach or not (and whether, ethically, he should be treating his wife, a point that is made a number of times).
This is the context for the graphic sex scenes that have been singled out.
Von Trier is also Danish and shows a Scandinavian sensibility which tends to be grim, frank and earthy.
Religion, myths and symbols
The other pervading aspect is the religious/mythical background that Von Trier brings to his film, drawing on dreams and the traditions of interpretation (and there are many dreams which blend into the waking action of both husband and wife). The woods where the couple have holidayed and go for this therapy is called Eden. They are a new Adam and Eve, but they are fallen and are attempting (unsuccessfully) to regain their innocence. There is a great deal of discussion about nature both in the sense of the natural world as well as of human nature. The wife says that nature is the church of Satan, that it is destructive. The devil has already been present in her life. Then we see the images of the presence of the devil in the past, especially in the destructive treatment of women, and witches, in past centuries. Husband and wife discuss this misogyny and whether women have been considered evil or saints (a frequent Von Trier subject). One hopes that the film audience is paying attention to these discussions and assessing their meaning and value rather than concentrating on the shock scenes.
Von Trier has often been interested in religious dimensions of human nature and there is a credit here for theological advice. Venturing into interpretations of Genesis and the nature of evil and Satan leads to theological questions if not answers.
Animal imagery, real and symbolic, is used all through the film, Genesis symbols, as are this new Adam and Eve in their Eden. A fox, a deer and a bird all seen to give birth. The fox says that 'chaos reigns'. The husband in hiding is threatened by young chicks.
Tragedy and pessimism
Ultimately, Von Trier's vision veers towards the tragic and the pessimistic. It is the woman who is full of guilt at the death of her child, taking on the responsibility. She projects blame and indifference on to her husband. She has some moments of healing and love then loses them. But, perhaps this is also an effect of her studies, her becoming aggressive and attempting to destroy her husband only to destroy herself. He is the one who comes out of Eden. To what? There is a final image of couples on a hill and a long shot of crowds of people streaming up the hill. Does this mean that the film, despite Von Trier's intentions, is misogynistic? Some commentators have noted that female symbol on the t of the title drawing the conclusion that woman is the antichrist. Rather, it would seem, fallen nature, the church of Satan, is our antichrist.
Antichrist is not the ugly, simplistic film that word of mouth seemed to indicate. Von Trier does not offer pat answers to the issues he raises. While one might argue about the 'how' of presenting some of the issues and images, Antichrist has a great deal to say that is worth considering.
In Cannes, the president of the Ecumenical Jury, added a postscript to the awards. Speaking for only a minute or two, he rather ironically, even playfully, mentioned that the jury was awarding an antiprize to Antichrist, citing disapproval of Von Trier's treatment of women. This announcement was seen by journalists as something of a 'stunt'. And so it was. However, if you google, in English and French, Ecumenical Jury and Antichrist, more than 80 pages come up, mainly with a repeated story, sensationalising it and quoting Thierry Fremaux from the Festival direction, who was present at the award ceremony, as being 'furious' and, allegedly, criticising the president of the jury, director Radu Mihaleanu, of advocating censorship.
Reviews of the film in the trade magazines tended to be negative and mocked Von Trier's dedication of the film to Tarkovsky.
The articles seemed to be making a carnival out of a stunt.
(Iran, 2009, d. Abdolreza Kahani)
For devotees of serious Iranian cinema, it is best to warn potential audiences that, while distinguished director, Abbas Kierostami, called two of his experimental features, Ten and Five, the twenty of this title is very different. It simply refers to the number of days that the owner of a hall/restaurant for functions like marriages or wakes has before he sells his business.
Most of the action of this humane film is confined to the hall, the kitchen, the basement and the flat upstairs. And the characters are principally those who work there. The film opens with Mr Saloumeini realising that he must sell and signing the contracts. He then tells the staff, a group of hardworking men and women whom we see cook, serve, clean up and become tired with their hard and routine jobs. One of the women has a little daughter who tends to get in the way. A young man arrives to play the accordion at functions but also has a message for Mr Saloumeini which he cannot bring himself to communicate.
The film is principally about how the characters react, how they want the business to stay open, how one of the women wants to matchmake – Mr Saloumeini with the woman with the daughter.
The wonderful Iranian actor Parviz Parastui (serious in Mahid Majidi's Weeping Willow, comic in Kamal Tabrizi's Marmalouk/ The Lizard) is Mr Saloumeini, a character of fastidious tidiness, of loneliness, of grief and of getting old, but with touches of severity.
This is the kind of values film about human nature (and its universal aspects despite local customs) that Iranian cinema has been making for decades to make theirs one of the most values-oriented in the world.
(US, 2009, d. Larry Charles)
A ragbag of a film, a lucky (and sometimes unlucky) dip of jokes, spoofs and critique. It is also, intentionally, a ratbag of a film. Sacha Baron Cohen has made a career of out creating ratbags, Ali G and Borat and, now, Bruno (with an umlaut).
While Borat set out to interview a range of people, to upset many of them, especially Americans, with Bruno the interviews come later. With a huge advertising campaign behind the film, most people would have heard of or seen the eccentric posters and ads for Bruno, so it won't be much of a surprise to discover that he is an (allegedly) nineteen year old Austrian TV show host, flamboyantly gay, who has probably never heard of or thought of a closet. He has an overwhelming desire to be famous, world-famous. After getting fired from his media job, off he goes to Milan (where he disrupts a fashion show) and then to Los Angeles to become a celebrity. (There's one thing about Sacha Baron Cohen's personas, they do actually become celebrities whether they are from Kazakstan or Austria – and they do go on world tours and they do upstage people and they make up outrageous stories even about the Australian prime minister. However, a momentary episode with Harrison Ford may well sum up many people's attitude to Bruno.
Bruno is at its funniest in some verbal jokes and some slapstick. And some of it is funny.
But, then there is the matter of good taste. Anyone who prides themself on their good taste or is fastidious should probably keep as far away from Bruno, both person and film, as possible. There is plenty to offend. By taking on the camp persona, Bruno pushes gay jokes as far as possible, verbally, visually and in mime.
This comes to a critical climax where Bruno is pretending to be the straightest man on earth and is hosting a TV show, Straight Dayes, with macho wrestlers and on stage-bimbos and mouthing heterosexual cliches to the redneck applause of his audience both male and female. Then he pulls a trick on them with his assistant coming on stage and showing that this straight Bruno is not all that he is pretending to be. We are shown a bullish crowd of homophobes, satirised without their realising it – one presumes that this was a set up and the audience were not in the know. If they were in the know, they do a pretty good job of anti-gay attitudes and behaviour. This is the critique side of the show.
And so on.
It is hard to tell whether the interviews were set up or scripted and pre-arranged. Paula Abdul's looks planned. On old US senator, Ron Paul, trapped in a room with a coming-on Bruno looks like a set up with a victim.
The main set up, with Madonna and Angelina Jolie as targets, is the adoption of a black baby from Africa (who is called OJ) so that Bruno can become a celebrity. When Bruno and OJ appear on a TV chat show, hosted by Richard Bey, with a mainly African American audience, Bruno plays the character as far as he can to the obvious disgust of the audience. Playing fair or not to make a point about celebrity and power?
The film runs for under 90 minutes and concludes with one of those 'We are the people' cause songs, with satiric words that befit the tone of the film – only this time in the studio, playing and singing with Bruno, are the real Bono, Elton John, Sting, Chris Martin, Slash and Snoop Dog (who has the lyric about Bruno that he is 'the white Obama'!).
So there we are – or not!
(US, 2008, d. J.T.Petty)
Not a nature film about rabbits or some other subterranean animal. It is about subterranean monsters.
This is a horror film with a difference: a setting in the 19th century American West.
The Burrowers re-creates the remote West quite effectively, with its settlers eking out a living on the land, with the small towns, with the military and its vain, mini-ruthless officers, scouts and other wanderers of the West – and Indians.
While the race clashes are evident and the repercussions of confining the Indians to reservations, this is what is happening on the surface.
After a rather sweet romantic picnic and the possibility of a nice engagement, the family of the young woman find themselves under siege in their house and retreat to the basement. Is it an Indian attack? No, it is the burrowers – who drag them off to their burrows.
The film concentrates mainly on the searchers. They trek the west in search of the family, the military intending to wreak vengeance on the suspected Indians. The fiance, a scout, an official who is courting a widow, her son and assorted other men, including an Indian, follow leads until they too experience the burrowers – who are gradually revealed visually to the audience. So, this is a film of mystery and menace which evolves into horror with bodies paralysed and preserved for devouring by the burrowers. Then there are night attacks on the central characters themselves. An Indian woman joins the group and offers ways to combat the monsters...
The basic plot is familiar and always acceptable for this kind of genre. But, the unusual atmosphere of the west for this kind of story and the way that it is filmed enhance the conventions.
CHARLES DICKENS' ENGLAND
(UK, 2009, d. Julian Richards)
This film was produced by Sky Arts (which to many may seem an oxymoron!). Probably the best place to see it is in the school theatre or on television.
In some ways it is a terrible film, how not to make a documentary. Yet, I don't begrudge the time I spent watching it because I did see and learn a lot about Dickens and, despite the screenplay, it gets you thinking about Dickens, about writing, about his public, about his times and about social issues. So, it couldn't be all bad.
We are informed about Dickens from his birth to his death and most events in-between. We are also taken to so many of the places where he lived, worked and wrote. We are told about all his writing (though I don't think there was a reference to Hard Times) and it is interesting to reflect about the age at which he wrote his novels and what life experience he brought to them. Pickwick Papers was first. Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby were early while A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations came later.
We also discover how much he used the towns of Kent where he lived and returned to as well as the details of locations in London where he lived and worked. We also discover some of the real people on whom he based his characters: his first love, Maria, as Estella, his father as Mr Micawber, a lady living on the coast as Betsy Trotwood.
Then, what is the problem? The screenplay is often mundane when it could have benefited from some of Dickens' wit and insights. The glimpses of particular locations are often just that bit too quick and we are off to the next one, trying to assimilate why we have been looking at the previous place, building, coastal scene, overview of Chatham or Rochester or what. There will be an advantage in having the DVD and going back quickly to make sure.
The main difficulty, which should have been a surefire selling point, is the presence of Derek Jacobi as presenter and guide. He is at his most histrionic (including when he reads sections from Dickens' writings and his books). The director has made him get in and out of cars a lot, knocking on doors, going in doors, coming out doors. But, his manner has more than a touch of the supercilious. He gives the audience knowing looks, or raises his eyebrows while offering some arch comment – the editor not cutting away quickly enough so that he is left looking quizzical so that the audience has to deal with Sir Derek as well as Dickens.
There are some interesting interviewees like Roy Hattersley talking about the social and parliamentary aspects of the times, Adrian Wooten offering detail of Dickens' life in London, and Dr Tony Williams and other experts as well as the various caretakers and custodians of Dickens' houses and museums, some of whom may have felt awkward in the situation but are make to look awkward.
But, having said that, the makers have put a lot of effort into research and filming and (while many film critics amongst the audience were matching Derek Jacobi's supercilious tone with their own superior, knowing and supercilious laughter – though they toned down eventually and stayed until the end), it is a very informative film about one of England's greatest writers who was successful as a populist, a performer and someone who alerted people and government about needs for social reform.
COCO BEFORE CHANEL (COCO AVANT CHANEL)
(France, 2009, d. Anne Fontaine)
A recent surge in interest in Gabrielle Chanel (who died in 1971), better known by her nickname Coco Chanel. There is another French film, set in the same period as this film but moving the story along to the production of her perfume, No 5, the speculative 'Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky' (which was the closing film of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival). There is also a telemovie with Shirley Mac Laine, obviously moving towards Coco Chanel's more mature years (the cast list referring to her as 'Old Coco Chanel' with Slovak actress, Barbora Bobulova as 'Young Coco Chanel').
This film has the great advantage of having the diminutive Audrey Tautou, well-known in France but who is known internationally for Amelie, Dirty Pretty Things and The Da Vinci Code. She can look like a bewildered waif. But she can also show determination and strong will.
While Coco Before Chanel has great potential for an interesting story because of her rather courtesan-like early life before World War I (think Stephen Frear's move lavish Cheri), of her moving into the world of fashion and her ultimately confident entry into the world of 20th century business, a pioneer for women's presence in this past male-dominated area.
However, while this is all present and Audrey Tautou is convincing, the film seems more pretty than profound, more picturesque rather than tough. Symptomatic of this is that much of the action takes place between 1914 and 1918 – and there is only one mention of the war and that is made by the two principal male characters and it refers to making money out of the action which they hope will happen. Paris in this period looks like the usual Gay Paree.
Coco was prone to re-interpret her life story with creative invention. This film briefly shows her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain), and herself as orphans at an 1893 boarding school. Then there is their adult work sewing during the day but singing in a tavern in the evening. It is there that Coco meets M. Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), a military roue who repels her. However, because of his contacts with entrepreneurs in Paris, she moves into his chateau while he accepts her presence tolerantly. She feels a servant but begins to assert herself amongst his pleasure-seeking guests. She becomes friends with an actress, Emilienne (Emmanuelle Devos) and provides her with hats and dresses. This lead to her setting herself up in millinery and dress-making. She also meets the wealthy Englishman, Boy Capel (Allessandro Nivola) and falls in love with him.
So, the ingredients are a blend of fairytale good fortune after poverty and the forming and achieving ambitions – with the film culminating in a lavish fashion show of Coco's creations. The film has a female perspective with co-writer and director, Anne Fontaine (writing with her sister, Camille Fontaine), and, with its themes of romance and dresses and hats, rather feminine.
(US, 2009, d. Sophie Barthes)
An unexpected pleasure.
That fine actor, Paul Giamatti, appears here as an actor called Paul Giamatti. He is in rehearsals in New York for Uncle Vanya but is in the middle of an existential crisis. He can't do the part. His agent rings him and suggests reading an article in the New Yorker about an agency which extracts souls and keeps them in storage. Could that be a solution? Paul decides to go for an interview – but insists he does not want his soul stored in their warehouse in New Jersey!.
With that premiss,who could resist?
There is an initial quotation from philosopher, Rene Descartes, about where the soul is to be found in the brain. To enjoy the film and its comic drama about what it is to be soulful and then soul-less, it depends on what one's beliefs are concerning the soul, how material or how spiritual it might be – and can one live without it? And, even more strangely, what if you rented or had a permanent transplant of somebody else's soul? After all, you can live with somebody else's kidney or heart, so...?
While Paul Giamatti is doing angst-ridden so convincingly (with Emily Watson playing his bewildered wife), David Strathairn plays Dr Flintstein, the manager of the Soul Storage company, with as much cheerfully nonchalent realism that could contrast with angst. He has a pleasant answer for every question.
In the meantime, the screenplay parodies the human organ illegal trade and drug smuggling by having Russians do extractions of souls in Russia and use 'mules' to carry the souls as implants to the US. And this from the land of Uncle Vanya and Chekhov. One of the mules gets involved with the renting of Paul's soul (pretending that it is Al Pacino's) for a Russian Mafia boss's wife to become a better actress in a soap-opera.
Paul's deal might not seem all that Faustian and Dr Flintstone, sorry, Flintstein, seems a charming Mephistopheles. The big question is: how does one regain one's soul? And, should one look inside it to see what is really there?
Apparently, writer-director, Sophie Barthes, based her story on a dream she had. And, apparently, she gets upset if questioners and reviewers start to make connections with Being Inside John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – but it is difficult not to with their connecting ideas if not their style of film-making. Be that as it may, Cold Souls is an entertaining comedy drama with the touch of metaphysics.
(US, 2009, d. Wayne Kramer)
A film with contemporary, very serious issues, those of migration, both legal and illegal.
Writer-director Wayne Kramer (The Cooler, Running Scared) was born in South Africa and moved to the US at the age of 22. He became a US citizen in 2000 after going through the proper processes. He knows what he is talking about in his screenplay.
However, he takes on a wider scoped look at US migration and the illegals. He uses a multi-storied interconnecting plot of the kind associated with Robert Altman, 'Altmanesque'. This works well here. The connections do not seem as stretched as they might have been. He has also assembled a strong cast who make some of the sequences demanding on the emotions of the audience.
The central star is Harrison Ford, an officer with the migration squad. He is law-abiding as well as decent and he is immediately challenged during a raid on a dress factory to follow up on a young Mexican woman who has a son. This involves him with her son and with her parents. His partner (Cliff Curtis) comes from a traditional Iranian family where the father is about to be naturalised but is concerned, as is his younger lawyer brother, with what is judged permissive behaviour by their US-born sister. (Her partner also connects her with one of the other stories.) The Iranian policeman also connects in a devastating way with a young Korean who is about to be naturalised with his family but who is pressurised to join a local gang.
Alice Eve is an Australian would-be actress (who sounds authentic but is in fact an English actress). She becomes entangled with an official who could easily get her a green card – for favours. This story is persuasive and credible, even if the behaviour of the officer (Ray Liotta) is sleazy. His defence lawyer wife (Ashley Judd) is concerned with two cases, of an African orphan, and a Bangladeshi-born teenager who reads aloud a school project in class, stating that she understands the motivation of the 9/11 bombers and their wanting their voices to be heard. The class sequence with the bigoted and brutal reactions of the class makes for a very disturbing sequence. She is taken by officials who offer her the opportunity – quite heartrending - of leaving the US with one parent while the other stays with the two US-born children.
The final story is that of a young British man from a Jewish background but who is an atheist and does now know Hebrew. His case shows the testing of the applicant's credentials – with a surprising outcome, especially favourable for a shrewd orthodox rabbi.
Some have complained that the film is a bit solemn and didactic. Maybe, maybe not. But there is so much in each of the stories that audiences will probably be quite engrossed and resonate with the themes and the fact that so many of the issues are not exactly black and white.
(US, 2008, d. Courtney Hunt)
A small-budget independent film that is worth seeing. It received the SIGNIS award at the San Sebastian Festival in 2008. It also won awards in Sundance and actress Melissa Leo and the screenplay were Oscar-nominated.
The setting is winter in a small town on the US-Canadian border in New York state beside the frozen St Lawrence river. There is also a Mohawk reservation straddling the border. During the film, we feel we have lived in the town although we get to know only a few of its residents. The main focus is on a mother, Ray, whose husband has a gambling addiction and has gone off a week before Christmas with the money they were saving to buy a mobile house. There are two boys, 15 and 5.
As we see Ray (Melissa Leo), poor, grizzled and desperate, we wonder where the plot will take us. A chance encounter with a young Mohawk woman, Laila (Misty Upham, also very persuasive), has Ray involved in smuggling illegals from Canada into the US, across the frozen river.
This is one of those stories where the head tells us that what Ray is doing is wrong (and she herself admits that it is a criminal offence to smuggle) but the heart is compassionate because of the family's hardships, her seemingly dead-end job as a local store cashier, the 15 year old's wanting to get a job instead of going to school, the need for money.
Without giving away the plot, it is possible to say that values and honesty are honoured in the film despite initial appearances. There are many moving moments: Laila has a one year old baby which was taken from her when he husband was killed soon after the baby was born; the fearful migrants don't know what is in store for them as they cross the river; a Pakistani couple and their baby fall victim to Ray's ignorant prejudices; the 15 year old boy has to apologise for a phone and credit card scam to his victim who is an elderly lady.
A small film but a very moving one.
(US, 2009, d. Hoyt Yeatman)
Very entertaining, both for adults and for children (perhaps a bit frightening for some littlies). It has quite a lot going for it.
Everybody knows the name of Walt Disney and the nicer films that have come from his studios. Not everybody knows the name of Jerry Bruckheimer but he has been famous for years for his huge, noisy and expensive action shows (like those starring Nicolas Cage, whose voice is featured here, The Rock, Con Air, National Treasure). The two names seem an unlikely combination but, in fact, the co-production works very well.
Some of G- Force is Disney cute. The central characters are guinea pigs who are a specially trained force under the auspices of the US government – and one is a mole (Nicolas Cage). The voices for the guinea pigs are excellent: Sam Rockwell the hero, Tracy Morgan the blusterer and Penelope Cruz the femme guinea pig fatale of the Force. They are joined by a largish and gawky pet shop guinea pig voiced by Jon Favreau.
Actually, the film moves from real life (well Secret Service etc real life) to animation. Zack Galifianakis (who made such an impression as the odd man out in The Hangover) is in charge of the Force. Bill Nighy is an ambitious techology manufacturer and Will Arnett is a humourless agent who is finally sent to Antarctica where he is described as an FBIcycle!
It has been filmed in 3D, sometimes unobtrusive but quite excitingly used for showing computer screens and information as well as the derring-do of the Force as they try to save the world.
Somehow or other, all this comes together in a plot that keeps the interest and has a surprising plot twist at the end. The characters are well developed and engaging. And the action is Bruckheimer-best.
GI JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA
(US, 2009, d. Stephen Sommers)
A bit embarrassing – even though it is one of those mindless violence matinee holiday movies, I found myself quite enjoying it. And that, despite, the deafening soundtrack and booming musical score, not very startling performances and some basic and functional dialogue.
It comes from the Hasbro toys from past decades, especially the statue/toy of GI Joe (the name of the average Joe, the GI of World War II). Hasbro is also responsible for The Transformers (which was also deafening and pounding but much more difficult to follow, even the folding and unfolding machines and whose side they were on).
This one is better. After a rather frightening opening with a Scots arms dealer becoming a man in a fiery iron mask as punishment in the times of Louis XIII, we move to the 'not so distant' future where the billionaire Scots descendent (Christopher Eccleston in a kind of Blofeld megalomaniac interested in world power and domination) explains the warheads he has developed. They contain nanomites which can instantly chew any metal into nothingness (and we see some examples in demonstrations – and later a certain Parisian icon as well as some of the characters showing how effective the nanomites can be).
When the warheads are stolen in a fierce battle encounter, enter the special force the GIs, under the command of Denis Quaid. The GI Joes have lots of ultramodern and futuristic weaponry as do the enemy, so there is lots of warfare. The new GIS are Channing Tatum and Marlon Wayans who have to confront an enemy known to them, Ana (Sienna Miller) whose brother, Rex (Joseph Gordon Leavitt) is a mad scientist who can manipulate minds and wills with cobra venom. Jonathan Pryce is the US president.
Actually, a good cast, excellent sets, special effects and stunts that are particularly well done make it an adrenalin pumper while it is there. Then, with its gung-ho attitudes, probably better forgotten.
(US, 2008, d. Hamin Bahrani)
A small film but most welcome.
In 2006, American born (of Iranian ancestry with some years of film study in Iran) Hamin Bahruni made another satisfying brief film, Man Push Cart, which dealt with the life of a Pakistani with a food cart in New York City. There was a depth of humanity in this story and in the characters.
For Goodbye, Solo we are in a completely different part of the US and with a different set of ethnic characters. Solo (short for Soulemayne) is a taxi driver in North Carolina's Winston-Salem?. He hales from Senegal where he sends money to his extended family and to which he hopes to return. However, he has absorbed a lot of the American style and the US jargon. But, he has not absorbed the prevailing values. Solo is a good man, one could really declare him something of a secular saint. He is good-naturedly extrovert, cheerful and there is no trouble in his helping anyone who needs it (and who does not necessarily ask). His Latino partner is pregnant and he has a fine relationship with her young daughter.
However, the other central character is a 70 year old former biker, William (Red West) whom Solo befriends despite William's curtness and resistance. Gradually, William thaws a little and does a deal with Solo that in ten days' time, he is to drive him to Blowtop Mountain. It is clear to the audience and, soon, to Solo that he wants to end his life. Solo is persistently good and nice in his efforts to help William and they do become friends. William also befriends the young girl. There are many ups and downs during the ten days, especially Solo being sent away by the expectant mother and staying in a motel with William. He studies for an exam and interview to be a flight attendant and William helps with
quizzes. William also goes to a local cinema and chats with the cashier.
In many ways, nothing much happens. More importantly, a great deal happens in terms of genuine friendship, affection and an attempt to give some meaning to William's life.
The performances are just right. is completely engaging as Solo. Red West embodies this old-style biker. There is a lot of sentiment but not sentimentality. This is the kind of film that credibly and satisfyingly restores one's faith in human nature.
HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE
(US/UK, 2009, d. David Yates)
With the sixth installment of the series, all potential audiences know what they want out of the film version of J.K. Rowlings' novels. The millions of fans want to see on screen what they have read and imagined (and that is always a risk with an adaptation which devotees often don't realise has to be different in many ways from their beloved book – it is a version and an interpretation). Those who have enjoyed the films will naturally want to catch up with the latest. Anyone who has not read the books and decides to chance buying a ticket will probably be quite bewildered by what is going and, indeed, who is who – and why!
The other group comprises the adult group who have had to see it out of duty, with their children or for professional reasons. Many have declared that during this 153 minute film, they were bored, with not enough to excite them or keep the interest. Which means that the makers seem to have set their eyes and their screenplay on the target audience of fans, especially the teen fans and the young adults who grew up with the books and films. There is a great deal of attention to the feelings and budding romances of Harry, Ron and Hermione, even a kiss or two.
It is probably important to note that this episode is very much an interim film. It presupposes all that has gone before and it ends with the characters on the verge of a confrontation between Harry and Voldemort – Voldemort does not appear in this film. With the attempt on Dumbledore's life, revelations about Professor Snape, flashbacks to the schooldays' memories of Tom Riddle (who became Voldemort) and Dumbledore's preparing Harry to confront his nemesis, the main action will take place in the two-part film version of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, due for release in 2101 and 2011.
There is a new character in this film, Professor Horace Slughorn, a past professor at Hogwarts whom Dumbledore lures back to the school because he has special knowledge of the young Tom Riddle. He is played with great verve by Jim Broadbent and makes a lively impression. So does Michael Gambon's Dumbledore with his own magic and two dramatic climaxes as he seeks out Voldemort's soul and faces his attackers.
The other members of staff, Hagrid, Professor Mc Gonagle, Professor Snape, Professor Flitwick and the caretaker (now security guard), Argus Filch, all have their moments on screen. So does Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy who is set up to be a villain after his father's heart and who has received a commission from Voldemort. His deranged aunt, Bellatrix (Helena Bonham Carter at her most deranged) is there to create mischief and death.
So, what about Harry,Ron and Hermione? This time they are like the three musketeers though Harry still acts fairly independently of them. It is the friendship which counts. The three actors have grown with the films. Daniel Radcliffe this time is stronger and more assertive. Rupert Grint's Ron is still Ron, though he is in the throes of first love (though he is still very good at Quidditch in two all-too-brief effective games). Emma Watson's Hermione is rather nicer and sweeter than previously.
On the extra plus side are some excellent special effects, especially the opening as black clouds of the Death Eaters swoop destructively over London. There is some excitement as Dumbledore and Harry search for part of Voldemort's soul in a crystal cave.
Entertaining for its target audience – with the proviso that it is an interim film and is setting us up for the finale.
(France, 2008, d. Ursula Meier)
There's no place like... Well, there aren't so many like this home, at least in France.
This is a road movie – well, the home is at the edge of a highway that simply stops near this home and has been like that for years. A generally contented family is able to live happily, using the road for bike riding, playing games and can cross it at any time to go to work, school or shopping.
Then comes the news. The authorities are going to complete the highway. Suddenly they do. Then there is the waiting (all the time fueled by local radio which lauds the highway as the greatest improvement for the area) for the first cars. It fulfils the Field of Dreams adage (or, in this case, nightmare), If you build it, they will come. And they do.
A lot of the film is the family trying to cope with the sets of guard rails, trying to cross the road, observing the cars. But, then it is the noise and the constancy. They can cut themselves off and make their house soundproof, but this imprisons them and begins to suffocate them, often literally with a lack of ventilation.
They break out … and... well, who knows because the films stops there.
You probably need to be in an open frame of mind and an agreeable mood to immerse yourself in the details of the family life and the quandaries about the road and the noise. The film is evocative rather than explanatory. But, you really feel you have been there and shared this strange home experience.
Isabelle Huppert is excellent, as always, as the contented mother who does not want to move but is affected by the encroaching effects of the speedy rat race. Olivier Gourmet is the jovial father. There are three children with Kacey Mottet Klein a standout as their very young son.
It's obviously a fable – but, with homes, families, roads and cars, and no explicit pronouncements, the message of the fable is what the audiences make it.
THE HURT LOCKER
(US, 2008, d. Kathryn Bigelow)
Another film about Iraq, strong films (like Redacted, Rendition, Lions for Lambs (Afghanistan), In the Valley of Elah, The Battle of Haditha, Stop-Loss) which were not popular with the US public in 2007-2008. Too close to the bone? Too critical of American involvement in the invasion of Iraq, government policy, the waging of the war and the destructive and devastating consequences?
The Hurt Locker is one of the most critical of these films. It is based on articles written by Mark Boas (also the basis for In the Valley of Elah) after he spent time as an embedded journalist with a specialist
bomb-diffusing squad. As plots go, the film is generally a succession of missions to defuse, so detailed that the audience will feel that they have almost been embedded as well. The dangers and the risks are palpable. As one of the squad, with obsessive pessimism continually gnawing at him, states: that to be in Iraq is to be dead.
There is a quotation at the opening of the film which tells us that war is a drug. This is illustrated by the central character William James (Jeremy Renner) who is described by an officer as a Wild Man, whose actions are reminiscent of the cowboys (or, rather, the gunslingers). A young boy who sells fake DVDs and plays soccer with James and calls himself 'Beckham', asks him if he is a gangster. He kind of agrees.
The opening of the film shows a fatal incident - and will remind audiences of science-fction films from 2001 to Star Wars as the leader puts on the protective gear reminiscent of a space walk and uses robots for discovery - until a wheel literally falls off. The tension is always intense, the support officer is on the alert for hostile movement, the crowds look on, the huge bomb is in the middle of a Bagdad street and a bystander detonates the device.
With the cumulative effect of the missions, and the reminder that there are lessening numbers of days for the squad's tour, we realise we would want to be out of there. Yet James is a gunslinger, does not seem to
have any fear, takes off his protective gear, removes his earphones and takes all kinds of risks, even when the clean-up squad is ready to move in. We see a car parked at the UN headquarters with a cunningly concealed bomb. We see a cluster of bombs buried in a street. A boy is in a warehouse, a bomb inside his body. An innocent man is set up with explosives bound to him by steel and with a short timer. His assistant (Anthony Mackie) is angry with him and the other member (Brian Gerraghty) fears that James' recklessness will get him killed.
There is an interlude out in the desert but the group are pinned down under fire.
There seems virtually no relief, except some horsing around, drinking or the fake DVDs.
As with most of the Iraq films, the American soldiers are shown as automatically suspicious of every 'Hajji' and very limited in their knowledge of the language, relying on shouting, swearing, gun threats and intimidation.
At the end, we do get some relief as we go back to the US, but James is addicted, overwhelmed by shopping in the supermarket by endless rows of cereal choices (like Oliver Stone's sequence in Heaven and Earth), and wants to return.
The point is being made that for the average soldier and, perhaps for commanders as well, is that they are not fighting for a cause or ideals but just fighting and, for some, that is an addiction.
There are very brief cameos from Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes and David Morse. The Hurt Locker is surprisingly from a woman director, Kathryn Bigelow, although she has made some strong male bonding and conflicting films like Point Break and K9 - the Widowmaker.
Winner of the SIGNIS award in Venice 2008 (as was In the Valley of Elah in 2007).
(US, 2009, d. Grigor Jordan)
Curiosity might be a reason for seeing The Informers – to see how the other half (or the other quarter) lived in affluent LA in 1983. This is a version of stories by Bret Easton Ellis. It is over twenty years since his first novel, Less Than Zero, was filmed with James Spader and Robert Downey Jr. Idle, affluent, decadent and wasted lives. It was much the same in Rules of Attraction filmed in 2002. However, Ellis is best known for his portrait of a Wall St serial killer, the amoral Patrick Bateman, the American Psycho.
They said that greed was good in the 1980s (as per Gordon Gecko in Wall Street), but this film says that self-absorbed, excessive hedonism is good. The range of characters include a TV station manager and his estranged and neurotic wife, a TV news reader, an addled (to say the least) rock star and his manager, a gigolo, an ex-con who abducts children. These are some of the characters and drugged lives we are exposed to.
One desperate young man, Grahame (Jon Foster), who seems to be the centre of the drama, does say towards the end that he wants someone to tell him what is right and what is wrong, so there is a moral down there somewhere in Bret Easton Ellis' vision of those days.
The older cast (Billy Bob Thornton as the TV executive, Kim Basinger as his wife, Winona Ryder as the newsreader Rhys Ifans as the rock group manager and Mickey Rourke as the ex-con) are better performers than the younger cast who seem more like characters from a glossy soap opera, though Mel Raido as the British pop-star is frighteningly gross, brutal and ugly.
While The Informers is the name of the Rock group on tour, we are not so much informed as to why these people lead the lives they do as we are shown how they live them – with a rather alarming image of the advance of AIDS in the final beach closing shot.
JUST ANOTHER LOVE STORY
(Denmark, 2009, d. Ole Bornedal)
It is and it isn't. At least not 'just' another love story. It is a personal drama and a crime thriller. And very well done.
Immediately we see three love scenes: a dead man on a dark, rainy street, telling us about dying; a happy suburban couple talking in bed; a drugged couple and a potential shooting. Then back we go to understand what has happened.
Jonah is a photographer for the police at crime scenes. In his old car, he causes an accident on the road and the woman in the drug scene, Julia, is injured and goes into coma. Jonah feels guilty and visits the hospital to see Julia and is mistakenly welcomed by her family as the expected boyfriend, Sebastian. As might be anticipated, Jonah takes on the identity of Sebastian which leads to a collapse of his way of life and his marriage as he tries to bring Julia back to normal. That would be drama enough but there are complications with the real Sebastian who was a drug courier and was reported dead in Cambodia.
There is a matter of fact Scandinavian realism about the production but, increasingly, there are dreams, clips of memories as Julia begins to recover. And there are some twists that might not have been anticipated which brings quite some final tension for Jonah and Julia.
An intelligent thriller for adults (with a couple of brutal scenes of bludgeoning).
(Ireland, 2008, d. Lance Daly)
A very brief feature about two youngsters during one day in Dublin, Dylan and Kylie. They seem to live in ordinary families but we soon discover that Dylan's father is violent and that Dylan's older brother had left home so years before. Kylie's older sister picks on her and her mother makes Kylie do the work. She is also wary of her uncle Maurice.
After a particularly violent outburst against him, Dylan decides to run away and Kylie joins him. The day is both ordinary and eventful, pleasant on a barge where the captain tells them about Bob Dylan and his music, difficult when they find the street for Dylan's brother has lots and lots of houses. Other adventures have them helping a street busker (and Kylie taking a cut of the money collected) but as night falls things become more sinister, especially when a car of pedophiles presume that she is on the streets. Dylan clings to the car and rolls on his wheels in pursuit. They do meet a kindly Bob Dylan lookalike (an uncredited Stephen Rea). They tell their stories to each other and their secrets and then have to make the decision whether to go home or not.
Very well acted by the two children, this is a sad tale of contemporary families and their effect on the children. The film opens in black and white and becomes more colourful as their adventures go on – and then the colour fades.
LAND OF THE LOST
(US, 2009, d. Brad Silberling)
Oh dear. Someone remarked that at least is wasn't in 3D. Which occasioned the harsh thought that Land of the Lost had zero dimensions.
Perhaps those who watched the 43 episodes on television in the 1970s will feel nostalgic about the series and the film and may enjoy how the producers have interpreted the show three decades later. On the other hand, they may well not feel this way when they see it.
The original had an eccentric professor father and his two children who find themselves in an alternate world with dinosaurs and a strange and menacing race, the Sleestaks. Now Will Ferrell is the professor who lacks scientific credibility with his theories of time warps. Ferrell, as might be expected from his films and his career with Saturday Night Live, plays his role for slapstick humour, laughs and spoofs (sometimes geared for tolerant adults rather than children). The former children from the series are now adults who have never met before (though Danny McBride? as slacker Will is in the Saturday Night Live vein as well and calling him adult is a bit of a stretch). Holly becomes Anna Friel as a Cambridge educated scientist who believes absolutely in the professor. The Sleestaks look odd, to say the least, as does the monkey alien, Chaka (Jorma Taccone, also an SNL writer).
The adventures in the strange world are rather corny as well with more than amateurish look. The benefit of the doubt would be that the makers wanted to pay homage to the look of the old series with its technological limitations. But, there is a lot of doubt and my guess would be that it would all be too stupid (rather than affectionately clever) for adults. Even younger audiences would have to exercise some tolerance.
The professor's machine is a tacheon – tacky on most accounts!
And the thought came: inanity of inanities, all is inanity.
(Mexico, 2008, d. Fernando Eimbcke)
The setting is not Lake Tahoe – rather, Tahoe is a distant memory, or lost memory for Juan, who lives in a Mexican coastal town. We spend a day with him, realising that he has just lost his father. His mother has secluded herself and he is meant to keep an eye on his little brother.
While Lake Tahoe is a drama, it is more like a cinema poem, with its long, fixed camera shorts, where characters walk in an out, a film for reflection rather than any adrenalin rush. We get to know something of the town and its streets as well as some of its characters. Juan's car breaks down at the opening so he walks to a garage, then to a shop where he meets a single mother who works there and later wants him to baby sit for her, then to find David who can supply the broken part and fix the car. Juan also takes an old man's dog for a walk and loses it. Later they go in search of it. David is in no hurry and takes Juan to breakfast with his bible-quoting mother. He also loves martial arts and invites Juan to come to see Enter the Dragon with him... and, without spoiling the plot, that is most of the action.
However, if you allow it (and not everyone has a contemplative frustration tolerance level), Lake Tahoe rather grows on you. You feel you have visited the town, met the people and got to know Juan and the others a little.
THE LIMITS OF CONTROL
(US/Spain, 2009, d. Jim Jarmusch)
For a quarter of century, Jim Jarmusch has been making independent American films. He has developed something of a cult following rather than being popular with a mass audience. His 2005 Broken Flowers may have come closest to being a popular success.
The Limits of Control is one for his devotees. The general audience might find it too much of a strain, too slow and puzzling.
A caption at the end of the film links control with power. This is a theme of the film. But, it is not always clear. We watch a gradual unfolding of the central character and his mysterious mission which eventually shows us that it is a protest (a rather deadly one, not a peaceful protest) against globalisation and the power and control that some individuals are able to assume (and, since Bill Murray is the ultimate villain, Americans).
The film is a contemporary picaresque adventure. Isaach de Bankole appears as a lone messenger (who changes his natty clothes often and is frequently presented lying on hotel beds waiting for contacts) who is employed by a Frenchman and a Cajun for a not-quite-clear purpose which involves, messages in match-boxes which the lone man then swallows, diamonds and luggage – what Hitchcock might have called McGuffins?. While we concentrate on those, the more important action is probably happening where we are not looking.
Most of the stages of the lone man's journey are in Spain, ranging from Madrid to Andalusia. At each stop, he signals who he is by ordering two espressos in two different cups. Couriers turn up, ask him if he speaks Spanish (he doesn't) and then do the matchbox and message routine. But, more significantly for Jarmusch meaning and for meanings in movies, each has a spiel (the lone man tends just to listen) on music, cinema, art, drugs, bohemians, Palestinians... Since these messengers are played by actors like John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal, Hiam Abbass, they make for interesting cameos. Tilda Swinton is the messenger who talks about films and refers to Hitchcock (Suspicion and changed coffee cups). She also talks about Orson Welles and The Lady from Shanghai and Rita Hayworth's only screen appearance as blonde. In fact Tilda Swinton is wearing a white wig (the same colour as Jim Jarmusch's own distinctive white hair). She also offers an opinion that she prefers movies where people just sit and don't say anything – which she proceeds to do. Bill Murray sums up these conversations in the final confrontation with the lone man so they are clearly central to the film's themes.
On the other hand, why didn't the lone man simply fly to southern Spain after being commissioned by the two in the airport and do his job? Why the journey, the codes, the messages and the cameos!
The film is not boring if these kinds of elements get audience attention, but it is not particularly interesting either. And, maybe, that is what makes it a 'cult movie'.