SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS AUGUST 2009
MAD, SAD AND BAD
MESRINE: KILLER INSTINCT
MESRINE PUBLIC ENEMY NUMBER 1
SOUL AT PEACE
TAKING OF PELHAM 123, The
TUTTA COLPA DI GIUDA
UGLY TRUTH, The
MAD, SAD AND BAD
(UK, 2009, d. Avie Luthra)
A slight comedy drama that is set amongst Asians, mostly of Indian background, in London – although it does not give so much emphasis to the detail of the Indian community. The family could be from anywhere.
Actually, the comedy is often quite bitter. The family is dysfunctional. Father, an alcoholic, is long since dead. Mother is a self-centred drinker and tantrum-puller who dotes on her oldest son, tolerates her younger son and has no time, nothing kind to say to or about her unmarried daughter who lives with her. Mother is dead at the end of the film – and from her voiceover commentary, we realise that she has not improved on her way to the afterlife.
Oldest son is a psychiatrist who is something of a sex- addict who gets some comeuppance. Younger son is a writer of sit-coms, involved with an English girl, wanting to do something better with his life (and judging from his silly finale, a musical about cheese, he has not yet achieved this). Far more sympathetic is the daughter, a quiet, reluctant middle-aged woman, insulted always by her mother but who has an innate niceness about her. She is played by Meera Syal, writer and actress.
Not essential viewing but it has moments of humour and moments of revelation about self-centredness.
(France, 2008, d. Pascal Laugier)
A difficult film to watch – and many would not want to watch it – and a difficult film to review.
Some controversy arose about Martyrs when it was first released. Because of the prevalence of American 'torture porn' (a name given to such films as Saw, Captivity, Hostel I and 2, Frontieres), any film which featured graphic torture scenes received that label. However, Martyrs is different from these films which are designed for entertainment. Martyrs, whether one likes it or not, has a more serious intent.
Martyrs is the story of Lucie who escaped from her tormentors when a child. She is a very disturbed girl and mutilates herself. She also battles with a spectral girl who slashes her. However, the doctors think she is mentally ill, imagining creatures, and enlist the help of Anna who has befriended her.
15 years later, Lucie says she has discovered her torturers and goes to seek revenge by killing them. The film takes an unexpected turn here and takes further unexpected turns as the film goes on.
The key to the film is the introduction of a strange sect who want to investigate how much a person can suffer – and transcend the suffering. This is the difference between a victim and a martyr. Most people collapse under suffering and can withdraw into mental collapse. It is the martyrs who go beyond the pain, who go beyond fear and glimpse something of another world. This is the theory that the sect members express and the film, with some horrendous sequences of torture and pain, visualises this through the torture of Anna.
Clearly, this is not a crowd pleaser. Its plot of internment and exploitation, especially of women and children reminds us of shocking actual cases in Belgium and Austria. Martyrs merits serious attention for its themes, always raising the difficulties of sensibilities of how much detail of suffering audiences are willing to see or how much they can take.
(These themes are not all that far from those of Lars Von Trier in Breaking the Waves, Dogville, Manderlay and The Antichrist.)
MESRINE: KILLER INSTINCT
MESRINE: PUBLIC ENEMY NUMBER 1
(France, 2008, d. Jean- Francois Richet)
Jacques Mesrine (the s is silent and Mesrine became upset when people pronounced it wrongly) was a famous criminal in his time, the 1960s and 1970s in France and in Quebec, not a household name elsewhere. However, Killer Instinct and its second part, Public Enemy Number 1 certainly put him in the cinema pantheon of crime celebrities.
The first film on Mesrine is called Killer Instinct after his own book. The second film is Public Enemy Number One, the media headline for his career. The first film covers the 1960s, the second the 1970s. And each is quite different in its treatment of Mesrine and his career as well as the visual style and pacing.
The first film opens with a stakeout in 1979 and the death of Mesrine and his girlfriend, Sylvie, in a hail of bullets into their car (and there are other allusions to Bonnie and Clyde in the films). It then goes back to Algeria 1959 where Mesrine is involved in questioning and torture of insurgents and shows his metal by shooting one of them on orders. The second film ends with a longer reprise of the stakeout, the pursuit of Mesrine and Sylvie and the shooting.
For those who are interested in delving into the mentality of a criminal, the first film is the more rewarding. For those who like action and the creation of legends, that is the task of the second film.
Vincent Cassell is ideal casting as Mesrine. Over the years, Cassell has excelled at villains and creating an impression of evil – although he can show moments of tenderness as well as he does initially with his wife but does with his children. He has said that he wanted to make Mesrine human but not show him as in any way a hero.
When Mesrine returns to his family from Algeria and the prospect of working in the lace business, he is more interested in the contacts his friend Paul has with the criminal world, especially gangster boss Guido (played with steely solemnity by a heavy Gerard Depardieu).
Soon involved in robberies, Mesrine angers police, challenges Guido who supports him – but the spree cannot last and Mesrine finds himself in prison. But not for long. After the first crimes, Mesrine and Paul travel to Spain and meet up with some young women and Mesrine marries. But he is too moody and violently dominating for it to last. However, he is devoted to his daughter.
An encounter with a charmingly tough woman with criminal intentions, he forms his own small gang, always with the police after him. He finds they have to move to Montreal.
Mesrine, Public Enemy Number One has a different tone from the first part. It is full of exploits. At first, undercover as a building worker, he becomes friends with a fellow worker and involved in robbery. X gets a job for them both with a wealthy entrepreneur. Mesrine becomes indignant when he is treated as a mere servant and virtually abducts the man. When he and X are caught, he is imprisoned – but once again shows his flair for escaping. On his return to France, he is something of a big time criminal hot shot and plays up to this reputation, abetted by the media. In prison again, he encounters a criminal (Matthieu Amalric) and is soon on the loose again.
Mesrine is both self-confident and rather vain in his celebrity status and enjoys defying the police who are intent on his arrest. As we know from the outset, they do get him in a hail of bullets, a later Gallic version of the American gangsters of the Depression era.
More than effectively made, a most persuasive performance from Vincent Cassell and an immersion in a criminal world.
(UK, 2008, d. Duncan Jones)
On the 40th anniversary of the first mission for humans to walk on the moon comes this rather modest moon story, with the straightforward title of Moon.
The moon setting, the space station and the surface of the moon, suggest an authentic story from the future. In fact, the film opens with an advertisement from a company which harvests Helium 3 from the moon and supplies earth with all the energy it needs. However, the plant itself is run by one man on his own for a term of three years. The film takes up its story as a three year term is coming to an end for Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell). The isolation is taking its toll, although he does have the support of a voice computer named Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey). Visual messages between earth and moon are possible but in delay mode, not direct. Sam has a wife and daughter.
Obviously, all is not as it seems and, after an accident in his moon truck, Sam is confronted by another Sam Bell (Rockwell again) who is younger, more aggressive and more questioning. This leads the plot into themes of cloning and cryogenics. It also raises the issues of moon exploration and exploitation, greed and corporate disregard for individuals.
There are many echoes of 2001: a Space Odyssey (which was released the year before the landing on the moon). So, this film is more 'realistic' than 'poetic'. The director, Duncan Jones (who, in fact, is the son of David Bowie, which has nothing to do with the film itself), pays homage to the science fiction of the past while suggesting a critique of economics and exploitation of the present.
(US, 2009, d. Jaume Collet-Serra)
If you like an intelligent and well-made thriller with some touches to terror, then this one is well worth a try. One of the problems of reviewing the film is that the marketers have asked writers not to reveal a final twist. So, some comments about the atmosphere of Orphan.
The setting is a snowy Connecticut winter (filmed in Canada). It opens with a rather gruesome birth sequence which is, we find, literally nightmarish. This leads us with some apprehension to a portrait of a family: the mother, Kate (Vera Farmiga giving a fine performance as a tormented and devoted mother), father, John (Peter Sarsgaard offering a complex character who is both sympathetic and irritating), their son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and a five year old hearing-impaired Maxine (Aryanna Engineer who acts convincingly, and is hearing-impaired in real life). But, Kate has a desire to offer the love she has lost with her still-born daughter, so she wants to adopt.
This, of course, is where the orphan comes in, nine year old Russian Esther, a polite, articulate, artistic and ingratiating girl whom Kate and John cannot resist. Well, not at first, at least. This is a variation on the old 'bad seed' story, very well performed by Isabelle Furthman (aged eleven at the time). The film runs for over two hours, rather long for this kind of film, but it is always interesting, building up atmosphere, indicating aspects for tension, gradually changing the thrust of the film – and that is where the reviewer had better stop and leave the audience to experience the twist (which I wasn't expecting in the way it is revealed!).
(US, 2009, d. Anne Fletcher)
To say that this romantic comedy with the touch of old-time screwball comedy is predictable is not meant as a put- down. Yes, we have a fair idea where it will all end up. But, that is not the point. The point, of course, is to see how this film does the predictable and how the stars step into the shoes of couples that have shone at this kind of comedy before.
It is a very pleasant comedy and touched a US box-office nerve earning more than $100,000,000 in its first month. Not that this is necessarily a recommendation but it does indicate that it offers popular entertainment.
Sandra Bullock has proved a skilled comedienne in a number of comedies like Miss Congeniality. This time she, is Margaret, the hard business executive in a publishing firm whom everybody dislikes and many fear. The first minutes of the film where she is shown in operation are well done and funny.
Ryan Reynolds started in some crass comedies but has proven himself adept at both serious and comic roles. He is (Andrew) the assistant whom the boss imposes on, takes for granted and knows really nothing about.
The key to the plot is the fact that Margaret is Canadian and has neglected to fill in her visa documents. She will be deported. It is a green card situation. So, the odd couple agree to the fraud – she blackmailing him about being fired. The authorities are suspicious. But, off Margaret and Ndrew go to Alaska, to his family gathering for his grandmother's 90th birthday. Up there in Alaska, they're fairly extraverted and boisterous. Margaret is quite a fish out of water – the butt again of a lot of comedy. Betty White and Mary Steenburgen are lively as grandmother and mother. Craig T. Nelson is severe as the father.
You know there is going to be some mellowing, some love and a happy ending but there is a lot of battle of the sexes before that. And the reversal of roles with the woman as the boss and the man the put-upon assistant is interesting and enjoyable.
It won't stay in the memory much, but it is pleasant while it is there and the stars are very attractive and work very well together – even when they are fighting.
(Northern Ireland, 2008, d. Paddy Breathnach)
Hospitals are a reasonable location for a horror film (unless, of course, you have to go to hospital yourself). In 2008, there was also a film about hospitals and irresponsible students. This one is less of a horror except that the students torment a fellow student who goes into coma. At the hospital there are some experiments to bring consciousness back to the patient – and, here, when this happens, he takes over other personalities to kill off his tormentors. So, sometimes startling but routine horror. Once director Paddy Breathnach made amusing local comedies like I Went Down and Blow Dry. With Shrooms and Red Mist he has spent too much time with horror thrillers.
SOUL AT PEACE (POKOJ V DUSI)
(Slovakia, 2008, d. Vladimir Balko)
One of the most popular films at the Slovakian box-office in recent times. For non-Slovakians, it is a very interesting look at the country today via an arresting story.
It starts off rather alienatingly with a middle-aged man, Tonko, released from prison and met by two old friends. He has more than a chip on his shoulder, a bitter attitude as he returns to his country town where he worked in a sawmill (and robbed timber for a friend who marketed it, let him go to jail but has built him a fine home while he was away) and meets his wife and the son he has never seen.
So far, so ordinary and not particularly gripping.
However, it is surprising how the screenplay builds up his character, warts and all, shows us his reliance on his two friends and develops a man who feels that he is not a man any more (he finds he can't shoot a deer in the forest) and towards the end says that the thing that troubles him most is that there is nothing inside, as he points to his heart. It is a strong performance by Attila Mokos.
Needless to say, he can't get a job at the sawmill. He doesn't want to be on benefits so accepts a job at the rather rundown railway station, working with a gypsy. Gypsies are targeted by the community, not even allowed into the local hotels for a drink. It is his two friends who make the attempt to help him. One is a successful businessman who is able to lend him the money to pay his debt to his house builder and alleged friends who wants him to go into another scam. The other is the local parish priest who helps him spiritually, a fine sequence where he makes the equivalent of a confession in the church.
The ending is jolting and disturbing, a reminder that so many stories of ordinary people who make messes of their lives are a call to God, out of the depths.
The film is well and persuasively acted, especially by as Tonko, alienating at first but more interesting as a complex man who is not all that likeable but who deserves a second chance and shows there is more to his character than even he supposed.
The mountainscapes are attractive and the film shows country life in Slovakia, narrowness, hard-headedness and hard-heartedness, unemployment and social difficulties, the traditions of Catholicism, moves towards financial progress (and corruption) and the picture of basic human needs and relationships.
(Poland, 2009, d. Robert Glinksi)
It would be best to see this film without knowing anything about it so unpredictable and sad it is.
However, if you choose to read this, it should be pointed out that the title refers to teenagers who prostitute themselves not just for money but for anything they want – and they tend to be extremely self-centred and mercenary that they want and expect it instantly. Not that this is something particularly Polish, but here is a story of teenagers, especially 16 year old Tomak, a bright student whom his football coach father considers a wimp, who seems reserved and ordinary but who becomes infatuated with a selfish girl, Martha, which leads in directions for his life that he never dreamed to (and which the audience in the first part of the film would not have dreamed of either).
At the beginning of the 21st century, the younger generation really know and understand very little of the older generation who grew up with Communist austerity. The parents probably cannot imagine their children behaving as they do. We are gradually introduced to the prostitution racket in the town which is near the border with Germany where the customers come by car – and where the teenagers go to buy at the better-stocked stores. The membership of the European Union will bring more prosperity, they hope, or else offer opportunities to go to western member countries for work and to make money.
The film is so detailed in its presentation of life in the town that we feel we have not only been there but lived there – and the misery and moral vacuum we find are all the more disheartening. The church is presented with a not unreasonable and positive presence – but not enough to dissuade the materialistic young people from the life of gratification.
Filip Garbacz, who had not acted before, gives a compelling, even alarming, performance as Tomak. The rest of the cast, of each generation, is credible.
Some films are a cry from the depths for something better, or for God. Taking the title from Gaspar Noe's nihilistic film, Enter the Void, Swinki shows us a local void which too many characters cannot get out of.
THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123
(US, 2009. d. Tony Scott)
35 years ago there was a fine, taut, action thriller about the hijacking of a New York subway train, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (it set out on its route at 1.23 pm). This version, by writer Brian Heligoland (LA Confidential, The Knight's Tale), is based on the original novel, but the basic plot is much the same as the earlier film. However, this is very much an updated version, a New York with state of the art technology for the running of the subway system as well as internet links for the police as well as the criminals for instant information (on the part of the passengers as well). The background for the crime is financial, Wall St, with allusions to the contemporary credit crunch and crisis.
You can tell it is an up to the minute thriller - as well, for those who follow directors - because it is a Tony Scott film with swirl and moving colour pallettes before the credits are over.
On the other hand, it is also an old-fashioned thriller, a battle of wills and wits (the screenplay a mixture of smart writing and crass aggressivity) between the train controller and the train hijacker. Authorities are concerned that this is another terrorist attack. The film keeps on the move, the tension betwween the two protagonists, the fears of the hostages on the train and some callous deaths, the time limit for delivering $10,000,000 within an hour, the intervention of a hostage negotiating expert and the wise/unwise interventions of the mayor.
Denzel Washington seems to have put on weight, perhaps to show that he is an ordinary New York Joe – although his performance looks and sounds like a performance by Forest Whitaker as well. Washington is always an impressive screen presence and brings great credibility to all his roles. His controller seems an upright character but a back story emerges quite dramatically which shows some moral ambiguity and a test of his personal integrity. (Walter Matthau played the controller in the original.)
John Travolta has opted to be the villain, an unredeemed, vengeful, greedy and violent villain who likes to philosophise about life, money, death and who is comfortable (though with mood swings) keeping in contact with the controller. Travolta lives his role. (Robert Shaw played the hijacker in the original.)
The supporting cast is good, especially John Turturro also convincing as the hostage negotiator who makes some mistakes but is still the expert. James Gandolfini has a cameo as an opportunist mayor.
Tension is in the editing of the race for cars and motorbikes to get the money to the subway within the limited time. As the vehicles race through the Manhattan streets there are several collisions as trucks and taxis run red lights and cause crashes and roadblocks – a bit more realistic than the usual movie rush without incident through urban traffic.
The Taking of Pelham 123 does what it sets out to do: create a tense thriller that takes place over one afternoon in New York City and shows how people respond to unexpected crises.
TUTTA COLPA DI GIUDA
(Italy, 2009, d. Davide Ferrario)
Maybe Italy would not be the first country, with its deep-seated Catholic traditions (along with some anti-clerical heritage), to make a film about putting on a Passion play, re-thinking the meaning of expiation and sacrifice. But, by 2009, here was Tutto Colpa di Giuda. The reason that Judas gets his name in the title rather than Jesus is that the film is set in a Turin prison with inmates performing the play. And no prisoner wants to take on the role of Judas.
Writer-director, Davide Ferrario, was a volunteer for work in a prison for ten years. The experience led to this idea of prisoners doing a religious play and prisoners, in fact, play the main central roles in the film.
The setting up of the situation is ordinary enough. A young director, Irene (Polish actress, Kasia Smutniak), is allowed to come into the prison to work with a special section, not considered dangerous, and do theatre work with them. They are interviewed on video, so we have some inlking of their past and their personalities (although they do not become particularly clear as distinguishable characters throughout the film). They are wary, especially when asked to perform choreographed dance movments. However, they eventually give it a go. The chaplain is very enthusiastic. The warden does not want prisoners too excited and agitated. The nun who works in the prison presents the puritanical and sour face of the church.
It is the chaplain who has the idea of doing a Passion Play for Holy Week. Irene director, is agnostic and does not know the Gospels. She buys a copy, reads and studies and has to come to terms with an interpretation of Jesus. A first passage puts her off, Jesus cursing the barren fig tree (which is briefly but effectively shown as a black and white wash animation sequuence). But, this gives her the idea of Jesus as obsessed with his salvific mission rather than genial and gentle: tough talker, hard on his disciples and half-heartedly working miracles.
The priest urges her to consider further the human element in Jesus. This gives rise to quite an effective modern dance interpretation of Jesus on her part, especially in gesture, she finally leaping over the cross. The prisoners cannot make much of this performance.
The prisoners choose roles, avoiding Judas. They are fitted with costumes and a big solid cross is built and set up (which sets them wondering how Jesus ever carried his cross). By now, used to dance, they sing a vibrant song about Judas, about trials and judges, about imprisonment, a song and dance routine with verve.
Irene begins a secret affair with the warden. With her support, the inmates decide to get rid of the cross and their block letters with 'expiation' (espiazione) which they turn so that facing the audience is 'freedom' (liberta). They want to emphasise Jesus' passion for life and that everyone should have exuberant life through him. This lively song and dance routine, 'Come and Dance' has Jesus finally coming down from the cross and joining everyone in the dance. It is too much for the chaplain who tells Irene she has gone too far with her human element and this is a blasphemous interpretation. He declares that it goes against faith and the role of the Church. She, on the other hand, speaks against religion.
With a performance planned for Good Friday, two events complicate the issue. First, the prisoners discover her affair with the warden and refuse to perform. She has to choose and, of course, in a sacrifice of her own, chooses them. The second is an amnesty announcement which means that almost all of the prisoners will be released on Good Friday. The play will not go on because they choose life.
How to resolve the drama of the film? The prisoners set up a table, dress formally in suits and ties and sit for a last supper with Irene. The actor for Jesus takes on the role and speaks the Gospel words over the bread and wine. They all sharethe oaves and, with the wine, toast Irene. The supper is a celebration and Jesus' saving of the world, with a sacrifice, is so that they might live.
This is a Jesus film in the tradition of the Passion Plays, of Jesus of Montreal, of Corpus Christi, of Man Dancin'. It is a presentation of Jesus and selected Gospel episodes, not to give a theological interpretation but to explore some spirituality aspects of Jesus' life and mission. Using contemporary rhythms, songs and dance, it suggests questions and evokes feelings about the Gospel message.
THE UGLY TRUTH
(US, 2009, d. Robert Luketic)
The plotline follows all the developments you might expect in a romantic, 21st century screwball, battle of the sexes comedy. What you might not expect (and here the title is sometimes accurate in using the word 'ugly') is the sometimes low tone that the main characters adopt.
Actually, it is to be expected from Mike (Gerard Butler giving up his Scots accent which he used as Leonidas in 300), a television personality who is never inhibited in saying what he thinks and feels especially concerning men and women and their sexual attitudes and behaviour in a program called The Ugly Truth. Stubbled and outrageously macho – and not bothered by offending anyone – we know that he is going to have to learn to be more sensitive, acknowledging a bit more Venus than Mars.
It is not to be expected from Abby (Katherine Heigl who has good timing for comedy as we saw in Knocked Up) who is a 'control freak' TV producer who takes an instant loathing to Mike – and we know that she is going to have to let her hair down (well, actually, attach some hair pieces) – and become more spontaneous.
There are some funny moments, some rather crass moments, and a variation on the differences between image and reality and falling in love.
(France, 2008, d. Benoit Jacquot)
A very good reason for seeing this film is the presence and performance of Isabelle Huppert. For more than thirty years now, she has enhanced many films with insightful interpretations of difficult characters.
As this film opens, she (Anne) is spying on her partner of fifteen years, discovering that he is having an affair. At the same moment, she encounters Georges (Jean- Hugues Anglade) a friend from her childhood days, though not recognising him at first. When she breaks with her partner, she decides that it is time for a complete change of life.
In real life we wonder when someone we know or a relative or close friend makes a decision that seems irrational. They want to walk out on the life they have known and lived for a long time. They want to disappear. They want to do something else with their lives and do not mind cutting off contacts with people who love and appreciate them.
One of the strengths of this film is that it presents a credible picture of this kind of behaviour.
Anne is a talented pianist and composer. She walks out in mid-performance. She decides to sell her apartment. She asks Georges to set up an anonymous account for her and she will travel and disappear.
As Anne travels through Europe, she buys clothes, abandons them and tries to eliminate all trace of her life.
The Villa Amalia of the title is the house she finds on an island off the Italian coast where she feels she should be.
There is more to the plot – and the question of whether she will make contact, whether she will compose, what she will do with her life but the key issue is that of the crisis that would compel a person to change their life completely.