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Film Reviews August 2012

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SIGNIS REVIEWS AUGUST 2012


ABRAHAM LINCOLN VAMPIRE HUNTER
AND IF WE ALL LIVED TOGETHER
BEAUTY
BERNIE
CAMPAIGN, The
COSMOPOLIS
DARK KNIGHT RISES, The
DOOR, The
HYSTERIA
HIT AND RUN
IN DARKNESS
JACKPOT
KING IS DEAD!, The
MAGIC MIKE
NOT SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN
SAPPHIRES, The
STEP UP: MIAMI HEAT
YOU INSTEAD


ABRAHAM LINCOLN VAMPIRE HUNTER

US, 2012
Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead,
Directed by Timur Bekmambatov

Well, the title is certainly provocative. It may mean that serious moviegoers (and historians and history aficionados) may be crossing it off their list of must-see films. That would leave only the action and graphic novel fans (which could, of course, include some historians) and the curious. This review comes from a curious historian.

If someone is going to make a film with this title and with this imagination, it might as well be done like this. I am not sure whether I should be writing this – but I enjoyed it, especially the playing with history (somewhat like Anonymous with Shakespeare’s plays and the Duke of Oxford) which in no way undermines the reputation of Lincoln. For those concerned about Lincoln and history, Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming portrait with Daniel Day Lewis will set the record straight.

So, what is happening here? Graphic novelist, Z, has adapted his story for the screen. And the director is the flamboyant Timur Bekmambetov (the Russian films Day… and the American actioner, Wanted). Supported by designers, costumers and seemingly legions of special effects experts, he offers a colourful film, playing with vampire myths and inserting them into Lincoln’s life as well as the waging of the Civil War.

Apparently, when Lincoln was a boy, a savage plantation owner (Marton Cokas) is confronted by Lincoln’s father when his wife is attacked and killed. The boy had been defending his black friend, William. Lincoln is bent on revenge until he meets a vampire hunter, Henry (Dominic Cooper), is instructed in confronting evil as well as in fight and weaponry techniques plus a philosophy of ridding the world of evil instead of being Abe works in a store, is dragged to meet Mary Todd whom he eventually marries.

He begins to study law, is persuaded to become political, especially after he meet Wiiliam (Anthony Mackie) again and, especially when he is tricked into travelling to New Orleans to a vampire coven to rescue the abducted William and becomes aware of slavery first hand. The coven is presided over by the arch villain, Adam (Rufus Sewell). Lincoln becomes the advocate of freedom for slaves, especially when he is elected to the congress and, of course, when he becomes president.

At these stages, the vampire hunting becomes less, the social, poiitical and freedom issues come to the fore (which could make the action fans who may not be on the history wavelength rather fidgety).

The author works the vampires into the Civil War scenarios. Adam wants to win the war so that American will become a free vampire country. But… with some twists and inventiveness and a huge set piece on a train with a vampire attack as well as a bridge set alight (quite spectacularly) and the train on the verge of plunging off the bridge.

Obviously, as Abe speaks the Gettysburg address, he has more in mind here than freedom from slavery – a realization of what might have been.

While Benjamin Walker (looking like a younger Liam Neeson) and the cast play it straight, the vampire cast, especially Rufus Sewell, have tongues in cheek. This invites us to take it all seriously even when we know it is all made up and far-fetched. It could set precedents for heroics of other presidents. ‘Teddy Rooseveldt in Cuba, Voodoo Pursuit’?


AND IF WE ALL LIVED TOGETHER/ Et si on vivait tous ensemble

France, 2011
Guy Bedos, Daniel Bruhl, Geraldine Chaplin, Jane Fonda, Claude Rich, Pierre Richard.
Directed by Stephane Robelin.

Daniel Bruhl plays Dirk, a young PhD student who wants to come to Australia to do ethnological studies of the aborigines. His girlfriend does not want to travel, so he agrees with former university lecturer, Jeanne, to study elderly Europeans, especially in France. So, he becomes the stand-in for the writer-director who wants to offer a portrait of five people in their 70s who begin to find it difficult to live at home or independently (health, dementia, mobility…) and decide that they will move into one couple’s home and live together. They think it is far better than a home for the elderly (which don’t look too good in this film either).

A good part of the interest in the film is in its cast, all of whom have had long and successful careers. The three French actors were in their 70s when the film was made and have been in films for decades. Claude Rich has had many a dramatic role as has Guy Bedos. The surprise for non-French audiences is to see that famous comic and farceur of the 1970s and 80s, Pierre Richard (The Tall Blond Man with the one Red Shoe and other comedies) who has worked continually but is here seen in a more serious role (with one or two comic lapses, especially for Dirk’s video of them all). The two women are better known worldwide since Geraldine Chaplin appeared in Doctor Zhivago and Jane Fonda is, well Jane Fonda, now looking very poised and dignified (Barbarella was a long time ago) and showing the benefits of aerobics into the mid-70s.

So, the group is quite an active, articulate group. Claude Rich is an old roué photographer with a still roving eye, sometimes unsympathetically lewd. And he has a past (as well as a son who irritates him with his concern, especially when he becomes ill and dependent). Guy Bedos is a social protester and has been for decades. Geraldine Chaplin is his wife (only 66 when she made this film). It is their house which becomes the centre for the five. Jane Fonda is Jeanne, the former university professor who has a terminal illness which she does not communicate to her loving husband (Pierre Richard) who begins to show signs of dementia.

The film offers a lot to think about in terms of getting old, dependent, and many unwilling to face these realities. There is pathos in the lives of the five, especially concerning illness and bewilderment as senility sets in. The five are not exemplary in their lives which makes them more ordinary despite the high profile cast. The film will probably challenge a lot more thoughts and emotions from the generation of sons and daughters who are facing the prospects of care for their ageing parents.

Some of it is amusing, some sad. And Dirk, when he is with the old people, is a strong part of the group but his personal story and the facile solution to his relationships, is much less interesting. But, there is also something about the film that makes it less impressive than it might have been, especially when one thinks of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It is not quite compelling as it might have been, despite the performances. So, there is more room for another film on this important topic.


BEAUTY

2011, South Africa
Deon Lotz, Charlie Keegan
Directed by Oliver Hermanus

…is in the eye of the beholder. Quite subjective. This is very much the case in this very serious, at times grim, portrait of Francois (Deon Lotz),a middle-aged Afrikaaner , a mill manager in Blomfontein, married with two adult daughters, whose life begins to unravel, especially as regards his sexuality.

The film opens with quite a long sequence of the wedding dinner of one of his daughters. The crowd greets the young marrieds, mingles – as do we. However, we can see that Francois is preoccupied, gazing at the twenty-something son of an old friend. The close-ups and the long gazes of Francois indicates that much more is going on. This is one of the visual styles of the film, the audience gazing and contemplating Francois as he gazes at and contemplates Christian (Charlie Keegan).

There are also some scenes of Francois, ordinary life, especially at home with his wife, taking each other for granted, tensions, a lot of humdrum. We see him at the mill, getting cash from the bank, talking with a friend who has left his wife and is disapproved of by Francois’ wife.

Then we go on a longish drive with Francois and find him gathering with a group of middle-aged men who meet for secret sexual gratification. This makes Francois’ obsession with Christian more understandable, especially when he goes to his doctor because he is irritated with everything and fears he will lose control of himself.

He invents a reason for visiting Cape Town, goes to Christian’s parents house but then tracks down Christian who is with Francois’ daughter. Francois’ behaviour becomes more erratic: a visit to a club, being propositioned, being sick. His plan is clear. Audiences will be horrified by Francois’ attitudes and his behaviour, especially in a graphic sexual encounter. The film tends to be visually reticent except for the two scenes, the latter of which is particularly grueling.

Advertising for the film mentions envy and jealousy, but thinking of the seven deadly sins, we can see this as a portrait of a proud Afrikaaner whose peers are still racist and think the country is going to the dogs (in contrast to the newer generation who mix easily with other races). He covets Christian and is envious of his and his way of life. He is also an angry man though he experiences that spiritual sloth that saps energy and willpower – and, of course, his motivation is lust.

Some have complained that the film does not ‘explore’ its themes, especially at the end. While it does not make its points verbally explicit, the whole film has explored in some depth Francois himself and leaves enough visuals for audiences to sort out for themselves what they have felt and thought.


BERNIE

US, 2011,
Jack Black, Shirley Mac Laine, Matthew Mc Connaughey.
Directed by Richard Linklater.

Adult audiences should find Bernie an interesting and entertaining film.

However, it is best to go into it knowing as little of the plot as possible. There are several very well portrayed character developments.

The film is both comic and serious, the work of director, Richard Linklater, who has had a successful career in independent and smaller-budget films. Matthew Mc Connaughey worked with him in one of his earliest films, the slacker comedy, Dazed and Confused. Jack Black worked with him in one of his most popular films, School of Rock. Linklater also made the romantic-conversation films, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.

It doesn’t hurt to know beforehand that this is one of Jack Black’s best performances. He throws himself into the part without the manic energy that we usually associate with him. He is Bernie personified, even to his stance, his way of walking, his mannerisms. He is a funeral attendant, a fussy but kind man, a little prissy with some dismissing him as a sissy. But, his concern for clients – and for everyone – means that he is very popular in the small Texas town where he lives.

Linklater has based his film on a true story. He also uses the device of having the townspeople give to-camera interviews and testimonies about Bernie. Some of these are very funny, with quite some criticism of Texas, its traditions and attitudes, a mixture of the sardonic and the affectionate. We welcome the testimonies and enjoy Bernie seeing Bernie show how true they are.

The other main character in the film is Mrs Nugent, the widow of a wealthy self-made banker who is gruffness and meanness personified, Mrs Nugent that is. Shirley Mac Laine can do mean disdain and imperiousness with no trouble at all. At almost 78, she is portraying an 80 year old woman. In the photo of the actual Mrs Nugent at the end of the film, she looks far kinder than Shirley Mac Laine does. Bernie treats her well and she takes a shine to him. The actual Bernie seems a very nice man too.

The other main character is the sheriff, played by Matthew Mc Connaughey as a good ole Texas boy, someone who dislikes Bernie and casts aspersions on him.

That is probably as much as a review should say, an indication of themes, of treatment, of characters, of tone – and leave the plot itself to please and surprise.


THE CAMPAIGN

US, 2012
Will Ferrell, Zach Galifiniakis, Jason Sudeikis, John Lithgow, Dan Aykroyd,
Directed by Jay Roach.

2012, US election year and incessant, minder-controlled, media-driven, down and dirty campaigning. So, why not a topical comedy, hit and miss variety, funny and serious, a cross between the humour of skits on Saturday Night Live and the humour of movies like The Hangover?

Director Jay Roach is best known for the Austin Power spoofs as well as the Meet The Fockers series. But, in recent years, he has directed two significant HBO films on American politics, Recount (on the Bush- Gore confusion in Florida, 2000) and Game Change, a forceful look at the choice of Sarah Palin as John Mc Cain’s running partner and the campaign of 2008. He is obviously on the wavelength. This is a spoof, parody (with some serious criticisms, especially of billionaire manipulators of trade and industry and unlimited profits). There was a similar kind of film with Kevin Costner,

This is a Will Ferrell comedy. Ferrell never minds appearing as a fool or a slob, or both. He gets the chance here, as a North Carolina congressman, nominating for his district unopposed. He is a sleaze. Two brothers with more money than patriotism, John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd relishing their roles, decide that they need a stooge to buy up land, sell it to China and then build local sweatships to avoid transport. They choose the dumbest candidate, Marty Huggins, played by Zach Galifiniakis. Galifiniakis can be very funny or obnoxiously unfunny. This time he is very good. His is a role that might have starred Jack Black, and it looks as though Galifiniakis has seen Black’s excellent performance in Bernie and taken over some of the mannerisms and body language.

The campaign is rough as Brady wants to win at all costs (and produces foul TV ads and behaves accordingly). However, his manager, Jason Sudeikis (who can be crass as in Horrible Bosses but is decency in this one) can’t support him. Meanwhile, sinister Dermot Mulroney controls Marty, making him play the dirty game. But, of course, Marty, we know, will rebel, and there will be an honorable ending (even more than anticipated).

Yes, a lot of the film is quite vulgar. But, a lot of it is very funny (especially a Chinese housekeeper whose boss wants her to speak like an old Southern mammy to remember the past, and who has the final word, in Latino accent). There is a guest appearance by the dog from The Artist, one of many throwaway funny bits – with a literal punchline. Political bias? The Republican candidate is nicer than the Democrat! Funny while forgettable.


COSMOPOLIS

Canada, 2012
Robert Pattinson, Paul Giamatti, Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton.
Directed by David Cronenberg.

It requires an initial commitment to stay to watch Cosmopolis, otherwise audiences might be making for the exit quick smart. The commitment is to David Cronenberg and his career and a film of talk and ideas rather than images and action.

Cronenberg has adapted a novel by Don de Lillo. The screenplay is wordy, often poetically wordy, often philosophically or existentially wordy. It often plays more like radio than cinema.

Cosmopolis is a big American city, a financial centre, a city the American president is visiting, a city of protest (which is where the main action sequences are found), a city of enterprise as well as resentment and violence.
For a great deal of the film, the existential tycoon hero is seated in his stretch limousine where underlings communicate with him, where he has a liaison (with Juliette Binoche), where he drives to have a haircut (in fact, only half) and then to answer a mysterious call from a man who wants to shoot him.

Some of the success of the film (or not) depends on response to Robert Pattinson in the central role. In the Twilight series, Pattinson is more of a passive presence and this is the case here. An enigma. He does initiate communication but his manner is more passive than active. Perhaps he is ultimately more of a victim than a hero, but when he comes alive in the final twenty minutes, dramatically playing off Paul Giamatti who makes a powerful impression as the disturbed and disgruntled gunman, he is more impressive.

While there are the action sequences, reminiscent of so many political protests, the action is more a succession of episodes where the mysterious millionaire who manipulates markets and currencies receives a succession of characters from bodyguard to chauffeur, from financial whizkids to women friends (though he does get out of the limousine to go to a diner with a woman friend).

The screenplay has a lot to say about our world, corporations, power and manipulation as well as existential topics of identity and meaning. One can read de Lillo and pause and reflect. Cosmopolis doesn’t always afford that kind of space which means leaving the cinema more puzzled than satisfied.


THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

US, 2012
Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cottilard, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine,
Directed by Christopher Nolan

When Christopher Nolan re-visioned the Batman franchise in 2005 with Batman Begins, the reviews were very favourable. The film offered the story of Bruce Wayne and the loss of his parents, his early training in combat as well as conscience. It also offered a bleak story of Gotham City and the law’s failure to control powers of crime and evil. A sequel was the order of the day.

It came in the form of The Dark Knight in 2008. In many ways, Bruce Wayne moved from centre stage, quieter, more reclusive and a Batman who was prepared to be despised by the people he had saved. And, it offered the confrontation between the larger and louder than life villain, The Joker, in a quite alarming (and Oscar-winning) performance by Heath Ledger. It also offered the corruption of law enforcer, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).

Needless to say, audiences wanted more. Christopher Nolan has obliged, writing with his brother, Jonathan, with what is tagged as the conclusion of his trilogy. Not that the end of this film does not leave the way for someone else to start another trilogy with both Batman and Robin.

This film does not have the sometimes overwhelming impact of The Dark Knight – no Joker. However, at two and three quarter hours, it is a more substantial film. And, though reluctant at first, Bruce Wayne and Batman are back at centre stage, with a much more complex and engaging performance from Christian Bale. Michael Caine is also back as Alfred – but there are some emotional complications as well as Alfred is conscious of his role in serving and saving Bruce and Bruce feels the call to go back into action for Gotham City.

Other members of the cast are back, especially Gary Oldman as the police chief and Morgan Freeman as the engineer and inventor, Lucius Fox.

But, there is also a new villain, Bane, a giant, physical, overbearing presence who is developing a thug army in the sewers of Gotham City. He is masked (like a Hannibal Lecter) and is played by Tom Hardy (in the vein of his performance in Bronson). He has several fights with Wayne/Batman which are very visceral.

However, there are two leading ladies who play very well as contrasting with each other right to the end of the film. Anne Hathaway is not named as Catwoman but that is her expertise, a jewellery thief who is in the pay of Bane. Marion Cotillard is the philanthropist who wants to develop the projects at Wayne industries.

There is a very good performance from Joseph Gordon Leavitt as a young rookie who has grown up in an orphanage (run by a sympathetic priest, no suggestions of any impropriety). He has some quite powerful scenes, simply talking, but cutting to the core, quite movingly, of the issues of order, law, heroics, and what society needs.

As with the previous films, they can be considered in the light of current politics, this time the global financial meltdown, illegal deals in bringing down companies, a challenge to Wall St (Occupy Wall Street) as well as a kind of French Revolutionary revolt. There are challenges to ideas of master criminals and ruthlessness, even in using nuclear weapons, to the role of the police (and the consequences of their absence), to double standards and cover-ups. Finally, the film focuses on Bruce Wayne’s dedication to helping people and modestly vanishing from public acclaim. And there is a twist at the end that most of us will not see coming.

As with the previous film, Nolan has filmed some sequences (many more this time) in Imax format, vistas of the city as well as many of the considerable action pieces. To be seen on an Imax screen if possible.

While characters and action are from DC Comics, Nolan’s films are not simply Graphic Novels on screen. He has set a high standard in writing, characterisation, themes for thought. Nor is he a slouch at action. He has brought his trilogy to a satisfying conclusion.


THE DOOR

Hungary, 2011,
Helen Mirren, Martina Geddek,
Directed by Istvan Szabo

It would be great to be able to recommend this film more eagerly than I can. Not that audiences won’t enjoy it or find it interesting, especially the performances. But, it is a Hungarian production (based on a celebrated Hungarian novel), directed by one of Hungary’s outstanding directors, so admired for his films like Mephisto, Colonel Redl and Sunshine, but it has been made in English. Whatever happened between the original screenplay writing in Hungarian and the English translation, it is often quite studied, artificial or unreal, and much of it is delivered as if the film were being dubbed (which, probably, some of the performances have been).

So, that is the major problem.

The other problem is the development of the characters and their motivations and behaviour. The Door is not a particularly long film, but might have benefited by the inclusion of some more sequences that would have illuminated the characters.

That being said, what is that we actually have?

This is a story of the 1960s-1970s, people living under strict Communist rule, with memories of World War II (and anti-Semitic behaviour of the times). And the door itself? It is the door to a dwelling where an older woman lives by herself, not letting anyone in, with neighbours suspicious of what she might have taken from a Jewish exiled family during the war. In point of fact, they are both wrong and right.

The woman, Emerenc, is a servant, a dedicated, hardworking servant whose washing, cleaning, cooking, are valued by her employers – though she is something of an inverted snob, committed to working class values, and discriminating as to whom she will work for – ‘I don’t work just for anyone, you know’.

She does accept the approach of a former teacher, Magda, who wants time to write a novel. She and her husband appreciate Emerenc’s work and meals but finds that she will enter their home at will, quite commanding in her manner, while always referring to the husband as ‘the master’.

The two women develop a strong friendship, bewildering much of the time to Magda, a relationship that Emerenc would never define as friendship. Here is the strength of the film, the relationship between the two women, especially when the husband is hospitalized. However, there are times of crisis, anger and apologies. Gradually, Emerenc does reveal so much of her story to Magda, even allowing her to come into her house.

Emerenc, sweeping snow from the footpaths constantly and diligently becomes ill. This precipitates a crisis for Emerenc and how Magda will deal with it, especially as she wins a government award for her novel, goes to a reception to receive he prize and praises Emerenc on national television (much to Emerenc’s disgust).

There are other emotional sub-plots, especially when Emerenc waits for a visit from someone from her past – and is angry when this does not eventuate. Magda also visits the town where Emerenc came from, learning more about her servant.

The key advertising point for The Door is that it stars Helen Mirren. Mirren can be Queen Elizabeth, giving an Oscar-winning performance as the Queen. Mirren can be a hard-headed, more tender-hearted than she communicates hard working rather drab looking servant. She embodies her roles and she makes Emerenc one of those strangely unforgettable characters. Martina Gedek, prominent in many German films like The Lives of Others, also gives a strong performance but also serves as a sounding board for Helen Mirren.

Allowing for the limitations for the sometimes stolid dialogue, stolidly delivered (but not by the two women), The Door is still an arresting cinema experience.


HIT AND RUN

US, 2012
Dax Shepard, Kristin Bell, Bradley Cooper, Tom Arnold,
Directed by Dax Shepard.

Something in this one for most 30s audiences. The action fans may wonder during the early scenes just what they had agreed to come and see because it is quiet, slow and, mainly, conversation between the central couple, with touches of psychology and philosophy. That means the non or less-action audiences will have something to listen to and think about. Action fans should not worry but relax, listen and think. There will be plenty of car chases later, excitingly filmed and edited.

This means that Hit and Run is not your usual crime thriller nor your average romantic comedy, though it is a romance and thriller.

The dialogue is frequently quite smart (though self-indulgent with dollops of swearing) with talk about love and relationships, about truth and lies. And it has some entertaining plot twists, a gradual revelation about the hero which we might not initially anticipate.

Charlie Bronson (whose real name is Yul) we soon discover, is in a witness protection program in the countryside (his choice of name – but taken from the British movie biography of criminal, Bronson, with Tom Hardy, - it is that kind of dialogue). His officer is an accident-prone Tom Arnold. Annie (Kristen Bell) has left a former partner, whose jealousy complicates the proceedings no end. His brother is a gay policeman (which leads to conversations about glib labeling, stereotyping, homophobia as well as racism). She now has the opportunity to move to LA and take up a university post and organize a course on her specialty, conflict resolution. (Some comedy about conflict resolution as well.)

Charlie offers to drive her to LA and the film turns into a road movie, a pursuit movie, a car chase movie. Bradley Cooper enjoys being sinister as the unsympathetic pursuer. Part of the enjoyment is discovering more and more detail as to why the chase is on. And some cameo stars turn up including Jason Bateman, Beau Bridges as Yul’s dad and Sean Hayes as a lecturer.

Smart plotting, smart dialogue are probably good ways of characterizing Hit and Run. Since Dax Shepard wrote, co-directed and stars, a lot of the smartness is obviously his.


HYSTERIA

UK, 2012,
Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce, Rupert Everett
Directed by Tanya Wexler

Basically, this is a Victorian romp, with consderation both to the Dickensian realities of medicine and hospital treatment in the 1880s (a lot of attention to period detail, costumes, décor, settings, both lavish and squalid) as well as a sense of naughtiness in showing the unwitting discovery of the vibrator.

One of the problems of watching the film these days (maybe this is more of a problem for men than for women, many of whom have found Hysteria quite a feminist entertainment) is that doctors behaving in the way that these doctors do in their treatment of women’s ‘hysteria’ would now land them in the courts and, possibly, in jail.

But, in its serious vein, it reminds audiences of how dominant men were in medical practice up to that period and into the 20th century. And it shows that men had their own presuppositions about women’s issues, emotions, psychology and health issues. Anything that ‘upset’ them was, until not all that long ago simply, simplistically, labeled ‘hysteria’. It was, at least with the doctor’s shown here, to be treated physiologically (while they underestimated, or did not understand, the sexual intimacy). Jonathan Pryce is very good as the opinionated doctor who has a very successful practice with a large clientele who come for his treatment and leave more than satisfied.

Hugh Dancy is also very good as the sincere and earnest doctor who talks germs with uncomprehending medical authorities and advocates, to their disdain, washing of hands. No wonder, he loses all his positions. But, treating hysteria, he is a success.

Two things happen to him. It is expected that he will court the intellectually enterprising daughter of his employer (Felicity Jones) while being highly suspect of the other daughter, the feminist (Maggie Gyllenhall, British accent and all) who puts her theories into practice in working in poor houses and campaigning for rites. Not hard to work out what will eventuate here (including an interesting court case).

Yes, the film is about the discovery of the vibrator (and the final credits show images of developments for the next hundred and more years), the young doctor working with his inventor friend (Rupert Everett) and realising the effect of an electric feather duster.

The screenplay is often witty, often incisive, critical of past medical practices, an amusing issue-raiser.

Having said that, Hysteria has many funny moments.


IN DARKNESS

Poland, 2011,
Robert Wieckiwiecz, Benno Furmann
Directed by Agnieszka Holland.

Poland’s nominee for Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, 2011.

We are taken back to the city of Lvov, at the end of 1942, beginning of 1943, a severe winter. Lvov is occupied by German forces. Jews are being rounded up or fleeing. This is material from many a similar story. However, director Agnieszka Holland, returning to her Polish roots (both Jewish and Catholic) and drawing on a book about these events and the memoirs of one of the children, has made quite a distinctive and powerful drama. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the story of Anne Frank and her family and friends, trapped for safety in an attic. Where this family and group are trapped is far more difficult, even grotesque, than the Frank story.

At first, we are introduced to two sewer officials who are seen robbing the homes of Jews who have fled. No righteousness here. The central character, Leopold Socha (Poldek) (Robert Wieciewicz, seeming at first like an anonymous, ordinary man who could have a supporting role) has a wife and sick daughter in their impoverished home. Poldek is also beholden to a local policeman who is determined to find and root out Jews. Then Poldek discovers a group of Jews who have been digging through their floor to the sewers. What will he do? Report them? Or capitalize on their predicament? He chooses the latter, taking money after bargaining with them, supplying them with food and necessities as they conceal themselves, literally, in darkness.

This is a long film (almost two and a half hours) and immerses the audience for a long time in the squalor, the stench, the cramped spaces, the darkness, as day after day the small group, supports each other, squabbles, hangs on to life to survive.

It is something of a relief when the audience is able to get out of the sewers and see Poldek in his daily rounds, the fear of his partner, being upbraided by his wife who is suspicious of the Jews. There is a disaster when a German guard is killed by Poldek and Mundek, one of the Jews who is able to come out of the sewers. The Germans exact a terrible toll on Lvov, hanging many locals. This affects Poldek who has become attached in some ways to the hideaways. And it is compounded as the film proceeds: the birth of a baby in the sewers and his and his wife’s willingness to take the child in – but there is no easy solution to this crisis. He helps Mundek to go into the concentration camp to find some of those interned there. And, after his daughter’s first communion Mass and the thunderous storm which floods the sewers, threatening the lives of the Jews, venturing in to lead them to safety.

Eventually, the Russians drive the Germans from Lvov.

At the end, there is a tribute to Poldek and his wife, their being acknowledged as Righteous Persons because of their sheltering the Jews. It is a sombre reminder that many of the Righteous helpers, like Oscar Schindler, were not as noble as they became – that involvement with suffering people drew on their better selves and enabled them to be heroic.

This is a holocaust and help story for a 21st century reminder of suffering and kindness.


JACKPOT

Norway, 2011,
Kyrre Hellum, Henrik Mestad.
Directed by Magnus Martens.

A Jo Nesbo story. Sweden and Norway have been producing authors who have achieved world popularity, Stieg Larsson and the Millennium novels, Henning Menkel, with Wallander, and Norway’s Jo Nesbo. The film version of his Headhunters screened recently.

Jackpot is based on a short story and runs for under 90 minutes. It is really a black comedy, ultimately very ironic. Movie buffs may pick up very quickly that Nesbo may have seen and drawn on a very popular American crime thriller of the 1990s.

After a shootout in a sex shop/ strip joint, a survivor is taken into custody and interrogated by the local police. He explains how he came to be there which leads into a long story (full of flashbacks) of how he worked at a factory with former criminals three of whom entered the football pools and won. He had signed for and bought the ticket. The story becomes more and more far-fetched, though all the claims are verified. There are murders, body chopping, corpses rolling from carpets on the top of cars, a body in a solarium…

This is all presented with a deeply sardonic humour and the anticipation of whatever could happen next. Which, eventually, leads back to the shootout. Needless to say, there are some more plot twists, but you might be able to work it out (and the screenplay does suggest clues).

The film versions of the Scandinavian authors tend to be very serious and intense. This film offers the lighter (if not brighter) side of crime.


THE KING IS DEAD!

Australia, 2011,
Dan Wylie, Bojana Novakovic, Gary Waddell, Luke Ford,
Directed by Rolf de Heer.

Neighbours have been a significant part of Australian movie and television consciousness, and not just at Ramsay St for so many decades. Neighbours, both cheerful and annoying, have popped up regularly, part of the Australian suburban landscape.

Rolf de Heer, celebrated writer and director for several decades now (Bad Boy Bubby, The Quiet Room, Tracker, Ten Canoes), must have experienced some traumatic neighbours – or has been able to imagine what might happen if you had very loud and violent neighbours. Here they are.

It all opens nice and quietly during the opening credits, the camera tracking along the street in a leafy Adelaide suburb picking out the details of the houses from numbers 35 to 41. One house is now for sale. The agent shows various groups in and out. Next door a chef is cooking plenty of garlic and wafting it over the fence. He wants only garlic-favouring newcomers. And he gets them, Max , a science teacher, and Therese, a tax accountant. They move in, make friends, allow the little girl next door to come in when she wishes. All very nice.

But, on the other side. A yob turns up, radio blaring with a four-letter (and more) rap song which he mimes and tries to memorise. But, he doesn’t live there. It is King who lives next door. He seems ultra-high most of the time and handles drug deals with his friends whom Max and Therese nickname Shrek and Escobar. Therese – at first - thinks they seem ‘interesting’ and can’t believe she is witnessing drug deals. In the meantime, the couple is doing up the house and working hard in the garden.

But… at night. Yells, screams and shouts, loud music, fights. And the police cant’ do anything, 95% of crimes are not solved…, regrets…

So far, so familiar for all of us (with varying degrees of identification with Therese and Max).

It is what happens then that turns the comedy blacker and more serious. Max and Therese think up all kinds of schemes to get the police to intervene, starting with graffiti on the fence proclaiming scum dealers live there. They don’t work.

The last part of the film is dark farce when the couple’s foolproof scheme goes so wrong in the middle of the night. It is a dastardly time for poor old King - whom we have come to like in an odd kind of way. Gary Waddell gives a wonderfully deadpan performance as King, sometimes to laugh at, sometimes to laugh with.

Audiences who have been enjoying the ordinariness and the satire so far may baulk at the torrent of language when a drug gang of Maori migrants turn up and throw their weight around. There are a couple of bashings as well. Of course, it is far-fetched…, isn’t it?

When all returns to calm and the only thing is for Max and Therese to move – they have tried the other suggestion made by police and crims alike to minimal avail: use ear-plugs. The film ends with a pleasantly neat joke.

Rolf de Heer has never been predictable. In fact, he has chronicled a great deal of Australian life, from aboriginal history to contemporary suburbia – this time with a smile, often grim.


MAGIC MIKE

US, 2012,
Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Matthew Mc Connaughey,
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Actually, magic is not the word that leaps to mind while watching this story of male strippers at a small club in Tampa, Florida, which is said to have been based on some events in the real life of the star, Channing Tatum. His gymnastic gyrations during some of his acts would support the claim.

However, unless you are an inveterate clubber (probably under thirty, or, maybe forty, by the look at some of the matrons who flock to the club), Magic Mike might seem more than a little tedious.

Of course, there are the acts which pepper the film throughout, tongue-in-cheek contrivances for shirts-off, pants-off performances and some lewd interactions with the clientele. Other than that, it is a more conventional story of a young man, turning thirty, who is tops at his game (well, at least in Tampa), works on construction sites and has an ambition and a skill in making furniture. Channing Tatum is quite convincing in his performance both on stage and in the more personal and humane sequences.

He finds a protégé (Alex Pettyfer who has not always been impressive up to now in films like I am Number Four and Beastly) who laps up the bright light life, seeing it as absolute freedom, meaning self-indulgence in drink, drugs and sex. Will he come to his senses? In the meantime, there are half a dozen other strippers whose lives we don’t really see much of and the boss, played with exuberant relish by Matthew Mc Connaughey, who opens the film with his hedonistic philosophy of life and gets a lot of the lines explaining how the club works on the fans.

One of the drawbacks of the film is the picturing of the responses of the fans, squealing and screaming over and over again.

There is something of a moral anchor in the character of the young protégé’s sister, played by Cody Horn. She tries to look after her brother and casts a cold, rather judgmental eye over the performances and the responses. You know she is going to end up with our hero but that she will try to challenge him for the better.

Director Steven Soderbergh can make arthouse films, from Sex, Lies and Videotape to his two part, Che. He can also do commercial films like the Oceans trilogy and his recent martial arts thriller, Haywire. He can also do satisfying entertainments like the conman story, The Informant, or the health thriller, Contagion. Magic Mike is, maybe, another experiment or, now for something completely different.

A mixture of the earnest and the romantic with the lewd and the sleazy.


NOT SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN

Australia, 2012
Ryan Kwanten, Sarah Snook, Ryan Corr, Bojana Novakovic,
Directed by Peter Templeman,

Not a classification piece of advice – though it would serve as that as well. No, Jonah, an easygoing, party-hosting, rather hedonistic 35 year old, discovers that he has testicular cancer and the operation will make him unable to father children. So, both in his lifestyle and in his physical condition, he is not suitable for children.

But he does suddenly discover that he really would love to have children. But, to his surprise and dismay, his sperm are not suitable for donating and freezing. He then meets (auditions for) a number of women who could carry his child, especially raising the question with a lesbian couple – but they decide against the proposition. Could there be an opportunity with his former girlfriend (Bojana Novakovic) from whom he is having a six month separation? He is being helped with contacts by his flatmate, Stevie (played with verve by Sarah Snook, whom, many note, looks and acts like American star, Emma Stone) who thinks she has no maternal instinct at all.

Just how wrong we can be when we are self-selfish-focused and not alert to our deeper longings?

So, that’s the story, Jonah becoming more desperate as time is running out (which is aggravated by his devotion to his sister’s children). What happens? Not a miracle, but a rather more down-to-earth realistic ending.

True Blood star, Ryan Kwanten, plays Jonah in an ingenuously earnest way. His appearances in Australian films, Griff the Invisible and Red Hill indicate he has more versatility than he can show in True Blood.

The film offers a light touch preoccupation with deeper values about life and, especially, about being able to create and love children.


THE SAPPHIRES

Australia, 2012
Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Chris O’ Dowd, Miranda Tapsell, Shari Sebbens,
Directed by Wayne Blair.

Quite a crowd pleaser – and deservedly so.

Who were the Sapphires? They were a group of Australian singers who went to Vietnam in the late 1960s to entertain the troops. They have not loomed large in the Australian memory. Why? Was it because the Sapphires were an aboriginal group and their tour of Vietnam took place just after the 1967 referendum on the aboriginal vote?

The film is an adaptation of a musical play written by Tony Briggs whose mother and aunt were members of The Sapphires. It has been directed with feeling by actor, Wayne Blair. It is not intended as a documentary account of what happened. Rather, it is an entertainment, an often-thoughtful entertainment, developing story lines from the original experiences.

It is a delight to see pictures of the women at the end of the film and learn of their more than forty years of service to the aboriginal communities, especially in Redfern.

On an aboriginal mission in country Victoria, some girls enter a competition in the local town, much to the prejudice of the hotel proprietor and many of the people attending the talent quest. The girls don’t win. And some bigoted, even vicious comments are aimed at them.

Meanwhile out on the mission, two young women are part of the group, (Gail, the ever-impressive Deborah Mailman, and Cynthia, Miranda Tapsell) performing to the delight of parents and the community – and a younger sister, Julie who sings best (Jessica Mauboy) who is determined to be part of it (and wangles getting into town). The breakthrough comes with the lackadaisickal compere at the competition, Dave (Chris O’ Dowd). He becomes alert to the talent and offers to be the girls’ manager. Not easy because, Gail, the older sister, has a highly developed sense of responsibility. She clashes vigorously with Dave but is persuaded that they should go to Melbourne for an audition.

While the film offers many images of aboriginal life and status in the late 1960s, it also introduces the theme of the stolen generation when the girls need a cousin who lives in Melbourne, passing as white to her subconsciously racist friends, Kay (Shari Stebbens). Gail has issues with Kay which will surface when they are on tour.

To their delight and glee, the girls impress at the audition and they and their manager are en route to Saigon.

Audiences are familiar with the visuals of the Vietnam war from classics like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, grim pictures of jungle battles, snipers in unfamiliar terrains, the Viet Cong. Apocalypse Now and, especially Bette Midler’s singing of In My Life in For the Boys, have stories of the entertainers. While the same elements are present here, convincingly portrayed, life in Saigon, the American presence, the touches of sleaze, but it is the range of songs, the situations where the concerts are held, the appreciation of the American soldiers which give verve and energy to the film.

The interesting thing is how the girls respond. Cynthia is out for a good time, boys, drink, even drugs. Julie, who has a little boy at home, is more cautious, but reacts against Gail’s supervision, but gets the opportunity to impress entrepreneurs. Kay is attracted to a soldier but conscious of her mixed race background. In the meantime, Dave and Gail fight, are caught up in dangerous situations, including a bombardment – but, of course, they are really attracted to each other, despite Dave’s often drinking, gambling and missing bookings.

There is use of some footage from the period, a recreation of the sense of the war in Australia at the time, protest and support. But, it is the characters and the amazing tour that they would not have anticipated as well as the range of songs of the time (and Jessica Mauboy’s performances with the others’ backup), that makes the film both lightly and seriously enjoyable.


STEP UP: MIAMI HEAT (STEP UP 4)

US, 2012
Kathryn Mc Cormick, Ryan Guzman, Misha Gabriel Hamilton, Peter Gallagher.
Directed by Scott Speer.

There was a spate of dancing films a couple of years ago, stories of groups, generally from poorer areas of big cities, going in for competitions, especially in the streets. There were rivalries, clashes, rehearsals and big finales. Just when it seemed they had quietened down, along comes Step Up, Miami Heat. In fact, it’s the fourth in the series.

While the dancers might come from an older and poorer part of the city, this is no slum show. The production numbers are big budget, lots of dancers, costumes, art design, IT backup with a finale that would rival the opening of the 2012 Olympic games (with infinitely less rehearsal time and finance for a lavish show that seems to come from nowhere – or has been forgotten by the script writers). Actually, there are no rehearsal scenes at all except a few minutes for the last show. We don’t see any real preparations. Everything seems to happen overnight, everything ready on time, the dancers not putting a foot wrong. It’s impossibly happy. There is an explanation of who’s who in the group, which is called The Mob – but where they get money from is a mystery, especially since the mastermind of The Mob works as a hotel waiter and is sacked from his job. Nevertheless, the show must go on – and it does.

There’s romance. The main dancer, Sean (Ryan Guzman) also a waiter, meets a girl (Kathryn Mc Cormick), dances with her, falls in love. She turns out to be the daughter of the millionaire who wants to tear down this section of Miami to build hotels, shops etc (Peter Gallagher). The Mob does performances in public places, films them and posts them on YouTube? (the film is an extended promotion of YouTube) to win a contest for most hits. With the development threatening, they move to protest dancing. They are a sensation with TV show commentators (actual ones, and well-known) all extolling them.

Do they stop the building? Is there reconciliation? Do hero and heroine have a happy ending? Is there some money for everyone at the end? Sorry, that might have spoilt the surprise!!

A lively and colourful show, exuberant and acrobatic and gymnastic performances, sweetness and light. Nobody is really a villain.


YOU INSTEAD

UK, 2011
Luke Treadaway, Natalia Teno.
Directed by David Mackenzie.

While not suggesting anyone should not see You Instead, I would make a caution: anyone over thirty should give a second thought. Anyone over this, a caution, unless you have happy memories of going to music festivals (especially if it rained and offered plenty of mud) or are a die-hard rock and roll fan.

This is what You Instead is about – an immersion in a Scots music festival, T in the Garden, in Kinross Shire. It was filmed there over five days. The plot concerns two days. And, even though the film runs only 80 minutes, it seems longer.

Adam and his partner, Tyko (Matthew Baynton), have arrived at the festival to sing You Instead. Morello is there with her girl group. They bicker a little and, when they are urged to pray in a group by an event officer, he handcuffs them. They spend most of the rest of the film handcuffed. This is no Defiant Ones!

Adam (Luke Treadaway, who composed You Instead) is somewhat taciturn, skinny and not always as interesting as all that. Morello (Natalia Teno), on the other hand, is far more vivacious. They quarrel, they taunt each other, they tangle. Their respective girlfriend and boyfriend make rash judgments and go off on their own. You could probably write the rest of the screenplay yourself, handing over to the cast opportunities for improvisation, which they take, not always persuasively.

It’s all a bit surface characterisation, a fair amount of superficiality and promiscuity (from their girlfriend, boyfriend, the singing partner and the manager). Of course, it has a feelgood ending when Adam gets the crowd (who yell, jump, pump the air and sing as they always do at festivals, all in individual conformism) to call for Morello to join him on stage. And, that’s it.



Created by: malone last modification: Wednesday 08 of August, 2012 [01:47:16 UTC] by malone


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