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Film Reviews December/2 2011

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SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS DECEMBER 2011/2



ALBERT NOBBS
ANOTHER EARTH
COURAGEOUS
DOLPHIN TALE, A
GHOST PROTOCOL: MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 4
IRON LADY, The
JACK AND JILL
MELANCHOLIA
NEW YEAR’S EVE
ORATOR, The
RESTLESS
SKIN I LIVE IN, The
TALL MAN, The
TOWER HEIST
WAR HORSE
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
YELLOW SEA, The
YES MADAM, SIR


ALBERT NOBBS

(UK/Ireland, 2011, d. Rodrigo Garcia)

A genteel film about gentility.

Based on a novella by George Moore, Albert Nobbs is a project cherished by Glenn Close after she acted the character on stage in the 1980s. She worked on the screenplay and produced the film and offers a tour-de-force performance as Albert, a 19th century woman who dressed and acted as a man, who was comfortable acting as a servant at a hotel in Dublin (meticulous like Anthony Hopkins’ character, Stevens, in Remains of the Day). Yet, Albert had an ambition to buy and manage a tobacco shop. Having said that Glenn Close’s performance is a tour-de-force, it should be said that she is quite self-effacing as Albert.

Pauline Collins plays Mrs Baker, the owner of the hotel, a bumptious woman, fawning on her high-class guests while being severe on her staff. Amongst the staff are Brenda Fricker as Polly, in charge of the kitchen, and Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a pert young woman who hopes for better things. Into this world comes an illiterate handyman, Joe (Aaron Johnson) who takes to Helen and she to him – though, as he will state later, ruefully, that his life and his relationship with Helen is a cliché. There is a great deal of attention given to the details of life and work at the hotel, especially some of the work of the elderly male servants.

But, while Albert is short, small, rather repressed, rather unaware of the gender and sexual implications of the decision to life as a man, the other standout character and performance is that of Janet Mc Teer as Mr Hubert Page, a painter. Her performance is striking and strong and a persuasively dramatic counterpoint to Albert as they both deal with the decisions they have made. There is an excellent scene where the two put on women’s clothing (very awkwardly) and take a walk along the beach (also very awkwardly) which leads to a fall by Albert. It is quite moving.

The dramatic turn comes when Albert says that it would be good for him to have a wife. He gives his attention to Helen and invites her to walk out with him – again very genteel, especially in sitting at a fashionable restaurant, promenading, and going to look at a building which Albert would like to buy for the tobacconist’s.

The film builds up, quietly, to an unexpected climax and ending, but there is a genteel poetic justice in the way that the film and its themes conclude.

ANOTHER EARTH

(US, 2011, d. Mike Cahill)

Astronomists discover another planet which begins to loom large in the sky. They call it Earth 2.

A teenage girl is fascinated by the planet, gazing at it, wondering – until she recklessly crashes into a parked car, killing a child, the pregnant mother and putting the father into a coma.

The main action of the film takes place after she is released from prison. She is still fascinated by Earth 2 and writes a short essay for a competition for a place on a shuttle to visit the new planet. She also has a sense of shame and guilt and applies for a job cleaning a school. News that the father has come out of coma leads her to visit him, offering to do the cleaning for him.

This is a small film with a small budget. However, it works well as a character study of the girl (Brit Marling who also collaborated on the screenplay), her relationship with the man (William Mapother) and her not revealing the truth to him. This is a tension in the background, and sometimes foreground, through most of the film. The resolution of the problem is somewhat unexpected but works within the themes being explored: grief, anger, shame, love, self-sacrifice.

There is also an enigmatic final scene which leaves the audience with some thinking and puzzling to do. The girl has said that when the planet was first observed with its resemblance to earth, synchronicity was shattered. Is Earth 2 a parallel world to Earth? That is one of the final questions – and if so, do we have doubles, and is there a parallel and better life there? No answers, just a suggestion.

The film was released at the same time as Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. With a planet near earth, there are quite some similarities, but quite a different perspective.

Another Earth is modestly ambitious in its themes and scope and succeeds.


COURAGEOUS

(US, 2011, d. Alex Kendrick)

An explicitly Christian film with an evangelical background.

Alex and Stephen Kendrick have made four successful commercial religious features. In fact, their last three films opened on the top ten list in the US. The brothers hale from Georgia, have a media ministry from their Church and have proven that their religious films can be commercially successful and find a wider audience than they might at first have thought.

Facing the Giants was a baseball story. Fireproof was about firemen. Courageous is about policemen. The Kendricks tell a tale that fits into a popular genre and then become more open in terms of God language and morals as the films progress. They also advocate pastoral programs which offer help for marriages (Fireproof) and for father-son relationships in Courageous.

Clearly, they are aiming for a niche market, but one which seems to be expanding.

Courageous focuses on four policemen and their family situations. Not all are ideal. There is a white family where the father does not take enough notice of his teenage son. There is a black family where the teenage girl wants to go out unsupervised. A young rookie has neglected his former girlfriend and her daughter. Another man is separated and has visits from his son. There is a fifth family, a Hispanic family, where the father struggles to find work, but has created a loving family environment.

We see the police at work arresting drug dealers. We see the bonds between the friends who are able to confide in each other, have meals together, talk openly about their faith and churchgoing.

Alex Kendrick, co-writer, producer and director, plays the central role of the white policeman and father. When a tragedy strikes his family, he becomes more conscious of how precious time with his children is. This leads him to read the Scriptures and to formulate what he calls a Resolution, a charter for closer father-son relationships. It is pointed out that the statistics indicate that fatherless sons are more especially prone to criminal behaviour. He persuades his colleagues to go through a formal and family ritual (not in a church) to commit themselves to the Resolution.

For dramatic purposes, one of the fathers lapses.

Speaking of dramatic purposes raises a difficulty with many of the explicitly religious films, including Courageous. The earnestness of the film-makers comes through strongly, even in ordinary dialogue which often sounds highminded and dramatically unreal. And, as the films progress, this becomes even more pronounced with the specific religious references. Sympathetic audiences will not notice or will make allowances. Unsympathetic audiences will be tempted to turn off, not wanting to be preached at but wanting a message through drama and action rather than through sermon.

The film does end in church and with a longish sermon, spoken by Alex Kendrick himself. Which means the film ends in an exhortatory manner.

Another difficulty for many audiences (something which may also alienate the unsympathetic) is the way the father-son difficulties are handled. The father studies the Scriptures and finds many a text on the theme – but they are taken as ‘proof-texts’ without looking at them in their context in the book and in the development of attitudes towards God over the many centuries of the biblical centuries. The result is extremely (and sounds exclusively) patriarchal. It is the father who has full responsibility and will act. The wives look on in admiration but are not included in the commitment. Who will act? ‘I will’ says the father rather than ‘We will’ including his wife.

The motivation is strong. Intentions are admirable. But preaching and proselytising films work more on the converted than not. They would work better, not necessarily being less explicit, but relying on the drama for communicating the message and meaning.


DOLPHIN TALE

(US, 2011, d. Charles Martin Smith)

This is an enjoyable story, based on actual events. It could also be called Dolphin Tail, the focus of the drama in the film.
This is one of those films that can be recommended to parents and families. Not only is it designed to be suitable for all ages (though apparently it has a PG rating because of the treatment of the dolphin in trying to attach its prosthetic tale), it actually is encouraging for children to get an interest in life, something which engages their energies beyond sitting in front of a screen or playing video games, as the young boy’s mother tells his teacher, engaging with ‘something real’. With its focus on dolphins and caring for them as well as being creative with them, it entertains as well as inspires.

The setting is Florida, an aquarium that also serves as a hospital for injured sea creatures. Harry Connick Jr is the genial director. Morgan Freeman appears as a designer and maker of prosthetic limbs for wounded veterans who is asked to try to create a tail for the dolphin, Winter, who was caught in a crab trap and whose tail had to be amputated. At the centre of the film, besides Winter, is Sawyer, an 11 year old boy, played very well and unassumingly by Nathan Gamble. Children can identify with film easily - and parents will approve of him. He freed Winter and the dolphin responds better to him than many others. His mother here is played by Ashley Judd. And there is Kris Kristofferson as a rugged but genial grandfather. In her first film, Cozi Zuehlsdorff is full of verve as Connick’s
daughter.

Besides the rehabilitation of Winter and the blossoming of Sawyer, there are some sub-plots (not a romantic one that we might have anticipated). There is another with a wounded veteran affected bitterly by his injuries but being inspired to choose something more for his life. But, as in this kind of story, the centre is stuck for funding and has to be sold to make way for a hotel. But...

Filmed in quite unobtrusive 3D, which is especially effective for some underwater sequences, the film is a pleasing entertainment.


THE IRON LADY

(UK, 2011, d. Phyllida Lloyd)

‘I don’t understand feelings’.

Sometimes it is more than a little difficult for a reviewer to put aside personal dislikes or even bias when it comes to a film that is a portrait of a person that is disliked. Though, come to think of it, I quite enjoyed some of the films about Genghis Khan! What about Margaret Thatcher!

Margaret Thatcher was stimulated and motivated by an engagement with a very wide world. She was definitely decisive. Her range of interests and perception was wide and intuitive. No trouble in discerning that she favoured the hard-headed approach to politics and to life. But, how would she be presented on screen? How would the screenwriter, in this case, Abi Morgan who had written the adaptation of Brick Lane, the series The Hour and the provocative, award-winning Shame? Here’s hoping.

The fascinating aspect of the screenplay is that we see Meryl Streep as two Margaret Thatchers. In 1984, F. Murray Abraham deserved two Oscar nominations for his portrayal of Salieri in Amadeus. He was superb as the old and bitter Salieri. He was superb as the middle-aged and bitter Salieri. So, it is with Meryl Streep as the 80ish Margaret and the middle-aged Margaret. Alexandra Roach is able to carry the very young Margaret Roberts as well. Meryl Streep does not simply do an impersonation. She incarnates Margaret Thatcher, the voice, the look, the details of hand and eye movement, the determination, the strength, the stubborn adherence to what she saw as principles.

The film is always interesting, moving as it does from the more immediate past to Grantham during the war to her wedding to Dennis Thatcher to her political career and downfall. Meryl Streep is more than ably supported by Jim Broadbent as Dennis, a genial ghostly presence to his wife in old age, a stalwart supporter (sometimes despite her and her ambitions) during her career. Iain Glen is her father, a Conservative Methodist greengrocer who impressed his values on his strong-minded daughter – a bit of God helps those who help themselves, a policy she continued as leader, no sympathy for slackers. British character actors bring the Tory politicians to life.

Another strength of the film is the depiction of Margaret’s assertion in the face of male Tory chauvinism and disbelief about her abilities and ambitions, her quick journey from popularity to being disliked in the early 1980s riot times and union challenge to her imperious launching of the Falklands war, to recovery and then her inability to see how it was she who was putting the writing on the wall for her leadership. The cabinet scene where she humiliates Geoffrey Howe has the cabinet members squirming but also us, the audience, as we see her not realising what she is doing.

No problem in seeing Margaret as stimulated by the world from the time she is young during World War II, her determination to stand for parliament, her challenging powers that be and her subsequent election. Once she is in parliament, she starts to throw punches (and in the fashion where male politicians deride women by using vocabulary that they would not use to describe another male (like ‘shrill’)) and is mocked as ‘screeching’. She takes lessons in speech and undergoes a makeover (hair, hats and handbags). On the world stage, she is dominant.

No problem in seeing Mrs Thatcher as being decisive. She has her principles and puts them into action. It is interesting to see her approach to the Falklands war and the behaviour of the ‘Argentine thugs’. She seeks advice, listens to the military and the politicians and attacks.

In case anyone doubted whether Mrs Thatcher was comfortable in her objective approach to truth, she is given a speech where she discusses her inability to understand feeling and feelings. She explains that thought, thinking, is most important. This leads to words. Words lead to actions. She is very clear that principles and logic have a priority in living one’s life, and certainly in politics. The screenwriter has drawn on many of Mrs Thatcher’s policy statements about leadership, about the role of England, about British prosperity and her perceived threats by the unions. It is only at the end, when people, including fellow Tories, saw her as becoming entrenched – her speech about the poll tax applying to everyone no matter what their economic situation for the privilege of living in England during the ill-fated cabinet meeting brings this home most dramatically.

As she is threatened by the 1991 vote for the party leadership (and by that time she was 65), she wavers. She is not herself. She is not decisive. Dennis advises her to throw in the towel. She does, but it is a bitter experience for someone who was convinced of her own supremacy.

But, the film also shows us some personal moments, some more subjective moments, especially with Dennis – though she has no trouble in telling what to do, what to wear, how to behave (even when he is really a ghost). A symbol of this is her love for Rodgers and Hammerstein, particularly, The King and I and ‘Shall we dance’. This is a recurring motif, even to her having the DVD in her old age and knowing where Yul Brynner came from and how many times he had played the King of Siam on stage. As regards her twin children, she looks at home movies of their childhood, but she takes Carol for granted even at the end whereas she prefers Mark and is disappointed that he does not come to see her.

All the world’s a stage. It certainly was for Margaret Thatcher. This film concentrates on her political life in the UK. She is glimpsed dancing with Ronald Reagan. She has views about the emerging European Union (anti). She attends, just as she is to be ousted, an event in Paris celebrating the end of the Cold War.

So, Meryl Streep as and in The Iron Lady? A wonderful screen performance (directed by Phyllida Lloyd who also directed her singing and dancing in Mamma Mia).helping us appreciate Margaret Thatcher whether we like her or not, whether we approve of her or not. She was a supreme commander, commenting to the press that every day was a battle for her. Sadly, as the film shows, she did not read the final warplay accurately and she lost and retreated into some isolation and experienced some of the ravages of ageing.


JACK AND JILL

(US, 2011, d. Dennis Dugan)

Adam Sandler seems to be acting in two films a year. After Just Go with It, earlier in 2011, he is back in Jack and Jill and, of course as both Jack and Jill. There are two more scheduled for 2012 release.

Adam Sandler comedies seem to appeal to a wide audience, but not to critics. This film further antagonises critics by starring Al Pacino who they think has no right to be appearing in such a film. He himself seems to be enjoying being in a comedy as a comic variation on himself. Then to make critical matters worse, who should turn up for a cameo with Sandler and Pacino but Johnny Depp? What is the world coming to? One radio critic (who didn’t sound as if she had actually seen the film) lamented about Pacino with a an elongated plaintiff, ‘Why?’.

The quick answer is why not! Can’t Al Pacino and Johnny Depp let their hair down?

So, this is a typical Adam Sandler comedy with a touch of the raucous, directed by Dennis Dugan who has directed so many Sandler films. And it offers the opportunity for Sandler to do a drag role in the Mrs Doubtfire vain. Well, that is not quite correct. Jill is quite an annoying character for most of the film, especially annoying her twin brother, Jack. This does, by the way, offer Sandler a chance to act as the ‘straight man’ foil, Jack, to the more flamboyant Jill.

There is a lot of slapstick (Jill collapsing a pony, Jill KO’d on The Price is Right) and Jill is a faux pas personified. We laugh at her. Gradually, we laugh with her. Finally, especially after a morale-boosting speech by Pacino to Jack impersonating Jill, we feel a bit more sympathetic to her.

This is an American comedy so it usually less than subtle and Jill is often gratingly loud.

However, there is quite some comedy in Al Pacino’s presence, wanted for an ad for Dunkin Donuts and their Dunkacino (which does happen at the end, our chance to hear Al Pacino rap and see him dance), having a breakdown on stage because of a mobile phone call during a performance of Richard III, then taking a long call himself during a later performance.

Interestingly, as he gets older, Adam Sandler is emphasising his Jewish background more strongly, very evident in this film.

Of course, it’s always a matter of sensibilities and taste, but this one seems a more than reasonable and funny Sandler comedy – for his fans.


MELANCHOLIA

(Denmark, 2011, d. Lars von Trier)

At one point, director Lars von Trier focuses on a dictionary and the various meanings of melancholia. Already we have seen a pensive, inward-looking bride which suggests the melancholic mental disposition and its emotions. But, we soon learn that a planet veering towards earth, with the potential to destroy and consume it, is also called Melancholia.

Everyone, whether they ultimately like the film or not, will be very impressed by the opening sequences. They consist of a collage of evocative images, contemplative as well as action-oriented: the focus on the bride, birds mysteriously falling from the sky, horses falling and dying, a distant scene of a mother playing with her son, the approach of the planet towards earth. For those who have seen The Tree of Life, it is not difficult to begin making comparisons.

The comparisons can go further. Those who like both films have been enraptured by the visual beauty of each film with the evocation of something transcendent. One reviewer noted that she left the theatre in ecstasy. Those who did not warm to the films and their craft and beauty probably wanted something more behind the images, even more questions rather than answers. Obviously, the films are poetic and demand a poetic response, but there can be more hints or clues or suggestions for meaning.

A case in point is the broadly religious meaning. The Tree of Life offers an image of life after death, bleak as it may be, though family-oriented. In Melancholia, there is a strong family orientation but no religious dimension, nothing transcendent except the nobility of human (flawed) nature.

This is also a film about two sisters, made clear by the nomination of Part I and Part II.

The first sister is the younger, Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst. She is the glimpsed bride in the prologue. Part I is a portrait of her wedding, beginning with a long limousine unable to get through narrow country roads and the couple being late for the celebration. To the anxiety of the older sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband (Kiefer Sutherland). Initially, playful, Justine begins to act erratically (understatement) to the growing bewilderment of her gracious husband (Alexander Skarsgaard). Among the guests are the bon-vivant father (John Hurt) and his acidic ex-wife (Charlotte Rampling) and Justine’s employer (Stellan Skarsgaard). Enough enigmatic events occur which make us wonder about Justine, her state of mind and her future. As a visual and dramatic exploration of a disturbed character, the film is sometimes masterly.

Part II is not exactly a portrait of Claire because Justine is still to the forefront of the picture. Justine is in Claire’s care as she suffers from depression. There is a love-hate relationship between the two. It is mostly hate on the part of Claire’s husband. But their son is attached to his aunt. Claire is not only preoccupied with coping with Justine but she grows more and more afraid that the planet is moving dangerously towards earth. Her husband reassures her. However, as the planet nears, she goes into panic mode while Justine seems calmer, a touch fatalistic. How will they deal with imminent destruction without any resources except themselves, no transcendent hope?

Von Trier has chosen to confine all the action to the mansion that serves as a hotel for a golf course for the wealthy. Apart from the wedding guests and the staff, there is no actual contact with the outer world. Media contact is through the internet. So, this isolated group serves as a microsmic metaphor for macrocosmic events. In terms of realism, it doesn’t really work, so the audience is asked to suspend disbelief and focus on the symbolic few. Easy for those who are absorbed. Not easy for those not persuaded by the premiss.

Which means, as with all von Trier’s films, that there are contradictory opinions, enthusiasm and hostility or, as one unsympathetic reviewer remarked, he was indifferent. Whatever one’s response, von Trier makes distinctive films.

The small budget American film, Another Earth, was released about the same time as Melancholia. There are similarities in plot concerning a new planet and its relationship to Earth, but quite a difference in outlook between the two films.


MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL

(US, 2011, d. Brad Bird)

Who would have thought that from a popular TV series, such a popular franchise for the movies would emerge and survive for fifteen years? And, depending on how fit and able the now-almost-fifty Tom Cruise can keep up his athleticism, there could easily be another Mission Impossible.

This one moves at quite a pace – and, for those who examine plots for credibility and realism, there are the mysteries of how the team can move from Moscow to Budapest, Budapest to Dubai, from Dubai to Mumbai (and so instantly) without any obvious sources of money, bookings, let alone firearms, gizmos and other espionage paraphernalia that appear (also so instantly). Be that as it may, and otherwise the missions would be hardly impossible, it all moves along at a fairly cracking pace.

A mysterious death in Budapest leads to an elaborate prison escape in Moscow – which is where Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise’s alter ego) is interned – and then a gathering of a new team for the missions. Since a mad professor (played by the Millennium trilogy’s star, Michael Nykvist) who has an ideology of survival of the fittest and wants to detonate nuclear warheads to sift out the survivors, the team have a lot to do to save the world. Which, of course, they do.

Simon Pegg is back to offer some British humour to the screenplay and some IT expertise. Paula Patton brings both action and glamour. They are joined by a mysterious adviser, Jeremy Renner, who soon gets into the swing of things and has to repeat that stunt of being lowered into a dangerous machine that Tom Cruise did in the first one.

Some of the scenes where shot for Imax projection and are worth taking the trouble to see on that giant screen: vistas of Budapest, of Dubai, of a desert sandstorm, as well as some of the action shots like Tom Cruise scaling the world’s tallest building or a fight in a very modern car-parking facility in Mumbai.

The director is Oscar winner, Brad Bird, who directed those popular Pixar animation films, The Invincibles and Ratatouille, as well as The Iron Giant. He has done very well by directing this like action variation on an invincible team.

What else can one say except that fans will feel that they got their money’s worth.


NEW YEAR’S EVE

(US, 2011, d. Gary Marshall)

From the director and the writer (Katherine Fugate) of Valentine’s Day, that star-filled sweet concoction of multi-stories centred on that romantic day. So, why not New Year’s Eve in New York City and Times Square?

During a swanky dinner, the chef has designed desserts in parcels parachuted towards the guests on the floor below. Some are very light. Some are heavier. The guests reach out to catch the dessert they can. Seems a useful enough image for the whole film. A lot of sweet stories that might please the sweet toothed audience, will be too much for those who can’t take sugar and will be ignored by those who don’t like desserts.

This is a film for a night out, not for a character study nor a sociological study of American habits (being in Times Square or among the alleged millions who watch it on TV) and behaviour on New Year’s Eve.

Most of the stories are short and slight, generally undemanding. But, there is a crisis for the ball that falls in Times Square to mark the New Year. Can it be fixed in time? Hector Elizondo to the rescue. There is also an old man dying of cancer. There is a Skype-like call to a soldier in Iraq. (And, in good advertising, since the action takes place on New Year’s Eve 2011 into 2012, there is a huge poster in the Square for the new Sherlock Holmes film that would be screened at that time!).

And the stars! We are surprised at a very dowdy-looking Michelle Pfeiffer who is taken around the city to fulfil her wish list by Zac Efron. Caterer Katherine Heigl has romantic problems with a pop singer who had proposed to her and then run, Jon Bon Jovi. Hilary Swank is responsible for the success of the event in Times Square (and gets to give the homily on national television about good will and generosity). Sarah Jessica Parker has to cope with her fifteen year old daughter, Abigail Breslin. Two couples want to win a money prize for the first baby born in 2012. And, it’s Robert de Niro who is dying of cancer and Halle Berry, looking plain in nurse’s uniform if that is possible, who is his nurse (but then changes into glamour, expensive, for that call to Iraq). Ashton Kutcher exercises his boyish grin with singer Lea Michele spending most of their time trapped in a stuck elevator.

There is also a nice sequence of attention misdirection as Josh Duhamel hurries to meet the woman he met last year.
That’s the menu. Emphasis on the sweets.


THE ORATOR/O LE TULAFALE

(New Zealand/Samoa, 2011, d. Tusi Tamasese)

Not often do we see a film made in Samoa – since this is the first feature film from Samoa.

We slow down to Pacific time to become involved with a story of struggles in village life. Beautifully photographed, we see the natural beauty of the Samoan islands and country side. We also experience the traditions, benign and harsh, the hierarchical structures of authority, and the ordinary lives of people in the villages.

The orator of the title is Saili, a dwarf. He has inherited land from his parents but it is being encroached on by villagers who feel free to plant their own tara and harvest their crops. What will he do about it? He approaches a chief to make his case, since he has not been given his chief’s title, but he is rather timid in the circumstances. Saili also has a job as a night watchman at a local store but falls foul of the young men and one of the police. What complicates matters is that he has taken in a woman long since, a woman who had been exiled from her village with her daughter, and has given her love, shelter and care. When she dies, her relatives want to take over, so the orator has to take a stand for what he believes in.

The funeral sequence brings matters to a head, accusations and reconciliation, the importance of food and gifts for the authorities to be esteemed and to do their duties.

This is not high drama, well not for the audience as it is for the main characters. We have the leisurely pace to observe, to sympathise and to learn more about a Pacific culture that we do not always know much about.


RESTLESS

(US, 2011, d. Gus Van Sant)

A story of love and grief, of illness and death.

The protagonists are a young man and a young woman who might be described as free spirits. He lives with his aunt after his parents’ death. She cares for him, but he is absorbed in his own preoccupations. One of these is attending funerals of people that he doesn’t know. Sometimes he is accepted. Sometimes he is invited to get out. She notices him at a funeral and decides to follow suit. They have a lot in common and an attachment grows that leads to love and a sexual relationship. The difficulty is that she is terminally ill. Nevertheless, Van Sant (whose films are sometimes accessible, Good Will Hunting, Finding Forester, Milk, sometimes a little rarefied, Gerry, Paranoid Park, Last Days) really tells a short story here that younger audiences will identify with, older audiences finding it a little twee.

There is more.

The young man has a lively imagination and has created a ghostly friend, a Japanese kamikaze pilot, who appears and disappears and who serves as a companion and challenging alter ego. He has many reflections on death and choices which sometimes help, sometimes confuse the young man in his relationship with his sick friend.

The stars are Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre, Albert Nobbs) and Henry Hopper, the son of Dennis Hopper. The film is quite short, more like a short story. A light addition to Van Sant’s film list.


THE SKIN I LIVE IN

(Spain, 2011, d. Pedro Almodovar)

It is only in the latter part of this film that we discover (are shocked) to discover the identity of the I of the title. We are wondering why we are being shown particular events as the film moves from present to past and back, and then it suddenly makes sense. But, of course, one has to see the film to experience the meaning of the whole film.

Pedro Almodovar has been Spain’s leading director for more than two decades. His films are usually flamboyant, colourful (bright colours often enough), emotional and melodramatic. This one is no exception. In fact, by the end we realise just how melodramatic it is.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Antonio Banderas appeared in a number of Almodovar’s films, a strking screen presence. Then Hollywood lured him away. He has returned to his mentor in the role of a professor, a doctor who lectures but who also has a laboratory and assistants for experimenting with skin tissue. While Banderas looks handsome and urbane, not someone that we would immediately discern as a variation on Dr Frankenstein, it soon emerges that he has a human subject for his experiments, a young woman whom he keeps solitary, who resents him. It is only the housekeeper (Almodovar veteral, Marisa Paredes) who has access to his patient. The housekeeper also has her secrets.

Just when we have come to terms with all of this (plus an intrusion and attack by the housekeeper’s criminal son) and have learned that the doctor’s wife was killed in an accident some years earlier and that that has had a traumatic effect on his daughter, we are taken back six years. We see the doctor coping with his wife’s death, and his attempts to keep her alive. We also see the shy daughter at a party where she is hit on by a young man who works with his mother in a clothing store.

And that is probably all a reviewer should reveal of the plot.

As indicated earlier, we are left puzzling about the connection between the past and the present and the motivation that drives the doctor, which becomes more perverse as we move back to the present.

While the film has many common themes from other Almodovar films, especially his portraits of women, especially the fine and challenging Talk to Her, this is serious in tone but presented in a highly theatrical and melodramatic style (more Mediterranean than that of colder climates).


THE TALL MAN

(Australia, 2011, d. Tony Krawitz)

Cameron Doomadgee was a tall man, an aboriginal man, from Palm Island. Arrested for drunkenness one night in 2004, he swore at the arresting officer and less than an hour later he was dead. The officer, Christopher Hurley, was also a tall man.

Aboriginal deaths in custody has been a serious issue for many years. This one raised headlines because the arrested man had not even reached his cell. What happened and who was responsible?

This documentary is based on a book by Chloe Hooper (who is interviewed in the film) who is critical of the police procedures and the trials and inquests.

However, director Tony Krawitz is sometimes at pains to present the many sides of the discussion. The aboriginal community of Palm Island, especially Cameron Doomadgee’s partner and sisters, are quite vocal about what happened and the way the courts dealt with the matters. A reporter for The Australian is quietly spoken but very convincing in his criticism of procedures and the credibility of the police and their reports. Lawyers also detail anomalies in proceedings.

On the other hand, there is testimony that Christopher Hurley was a good policeman and had served in many difficult communities with racial differences. But, there are also reports of his being charged with violent behaviour. One of the major difficulties is that Hurley changed details of his story and the reconstruction of what happened – a fall, with both men collapsing which does not correlate at all with the injuries Doomadgee suffered, especially breaks in his liver, facial injuries and other cuts and bruising. An aboriginal witness in custody claimed that Hurley beat the fallen Doomadgee in anger. Hurley declined to appear in the film.

Proceedings lasted years. Hurley was freed of all charges, especially manslaughter, but the Queensland government intervened and another hearing was held in 2009.

There are some powerful scenes of the police union meetings and a very gung ho support for Hurley who continues in police work at the time of the release of the film.

In only 80 minutes, the film shows us the episodes and the immediate explanations, the changes in testimony, the history of racial disputes on Palm Island and life there, especially riots after the death, the attitudes of the police and their union, raising many questions for Queenslanders and for all Australians.


TOWER HEIST

(US, 2011, d. Brett Ratner)

Exactly what the title says.

However, like so many films these days, it takes its cue from the global financial crisis and the criminal behaviour of financial investors who take the savings of the working class for crooked investment plans while living the high life.

When one of these charmingly callous crooks is arrested and the hotel staff discover that he has lost all their pension fund savings, and that he might get off, what else can they do but make a plan to raid his apartment and take back the cash he has secretly stashed away? Well, there could be other options but, in the tradition of the movie heists, they decide to go for broke.

The first part of the film consists of introducing us to the characters, the bad (Alan Alda playing smarmy and ruthless), the good (Ben Stiller as the meticulous manager of the tower) and the ugly (Eddie Murphy back to his old style repartee, thank goodness, as a con whom they call in to train them and take part). The ‘them’ includes Casey Affleck as a nice but inefficient concierge, Matthew Broderick who has lost his money and is to be thrown out of the hotel, and Gabourey Sidibe a Jamaican on the staff whose father taught her how to open safes, and Stephen McKinley? Henderson as an old, likeable doorman. Judd Hirsch is also around and Tea Leoni heads the FBI investigations.

No real surprises, but that does not matter. It’s how they do the heist and the twists in the execution, one of which concerns a valuable car which finds itself at one stage swinging wildly from the side of the Trump tower in New York which serves as the film’s tower (with, one supposes, no connection between Donald Trump and financial situations!).

Everyone does what is expected of them. There are plenty of awkward situations, near misses and clever misleading of the police and the audience.

It’s an easy holiday show – which can also get people going about the financial crooks of recent years.


WAR HORSE

(UK, 2011, d. Steven Spielberg)

War Horse has been a very successful theatre drama (with actors using masks for the horses). It has been adapted by Lee (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Four Weddings, Love Actually) and directed with his usual fine craft by Steven Spielberg.

Most audiences will find this a very moving film and not just those who like stories which feature horses.

The first forty five minutes show ordinary farmers, landowners and tenants, on impoverished properties in Devon. Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) and his wife (Rose) are in debt to the wealthy Mr Lyons (David Thewlis). They have a teenage son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine). Spielberg obviously loves the countryside and immerses us in it. And we share the anxieties of the farmers, especially when a horse is auctioned which Ted sees as having great potential – when all he really needs is a draft horse for ploughing the hard fields. Albert volunteers to look after and train the horse, naming it Joe. They develop a great bond which is tested when Albert volunteers to guide Joe in ploughing. The neighbours and Lyons gather to watch and we are all moved by the spirit of the horse in succeeding in ploughing the whole field.

The World War I begins and Ted Narracott decides to sell the horse to the army. The friendly Captain Nichols reassures Albert that he will look after the horse. He does, even sketching Joe to send to Albert. The young English officers, like their French counterparts seen in so many films critical of them, are caught up in spirit and pride so that when they charge a German camp at dawn, presuming they have the upper hand, they are led into a forest where they are mown down. Joe and the other horses are taken – and almost destroyed when they are judged as too fine and too useless for the work of transporting weapons and goods.

Joe has several adventures during the war, episodes set in France and Belgium, which also illustrate how the war affected soldiers and ordinary people. A young horse trainer decides to desert to protect his younger enlisted brother. They ride away and hide in a windmill, but to no avail at all.

A grandfather who makes jams (Niels Arestrup) cares for his granddaughter who some across Joe and takes him in. However, the German troops come to the farm demanding food and, tragically, the horse is taken.

As the war goes on, Joe is involved with transport. Spielberg creates a powerful sequence where the exhausted horses drag large cannons up a hill. He then tops that with an extraordinary sequence where Joe breaks free and gallops wildly through the lines, through the barbed wire, tangling it around his body and comes to a standstill in no man’s land. There is a fine sequence where a British soldier comes out of the trenches and enlists a German soldier and his wire-cutters to free Joe. This is one of those scenes where the futility of the hostilities is dramatised as each side works with the other and join in a common cause which is peaceful.

The war ends. Will Joe find Albert again?

Beautiful to look at, with a moving John Williams score, an emotional film that appeals to the best feelings in us. It does not aim at the critique of World War I as in films like Paths of Glory. But, it offers some of the best of British heritage and a reminder that World War I is passing into history as modern warfare is so technological compared with the human endeavour and suffering in the trenches. A story where we focus on the horse’s heroics symbolises the harshness of the human experience as well.


WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN

(US/UK, 2011, d. Lynne Ramsay)

If you are looking for a film with difficult themes, offering a challenge and something to reflect on, We Need to Talk about Kevin is probably just the film.

It is based on the best-selling novel by Lionel Shriver who has given her imprimatur to the film version.

Lynne Ramsay has directed arthouse films, Ratcatcher and Morvern Caller. She brings this sensibility to the present film, making more demands on the audience through a complex structure, akin to a jigsaw puzzle or mosaic of events in the life of Eva whose son Kevin is. We need to be alert all the time to register at what stage of Eva’s story were are at, noticing her hair, her clothes, her manner. At times, we are back before her marriage when she used to travel. We are the beginning of her marriage and the birth of Kevin. We can build up a linear awareness of Kevin growing from a troublesome and continually crying baby to a malevolent child of four and six and finally into the cold, calculating and malicious teenager. But, we do not see it all in order.

While this is sometimes difficult, it enables us to build up the complexities of Eva’s character, her love for Kevin despite his treatment of her, her attempts to communicate with him. It is the same for Kevin as we piece together his life and follow the progress of his animosity towards his mother. Of course, there are the perennial questions about the influence of nature and nurture.

Then there is Eva’s husband, Franklin, who loves his children, with Kevin playing up to him, but who cannot understand his wife’s feelings towards her son. One hopes that all will be well when a daughter is born, but that is not to be.

For those who do not know how it will end, we are shown some of the outcomes very early in the film and the treatment of Eva by parents at Kevin’s school. Given the violent nature of American society and its right to bear arms culture, we are not surprised at what Kevin does – but we are still horrified.

At one stage, this reviewer (used to dramatic shocks) jumped and shuddered at one particular plot development that was in no way anticipated. All the more shocking for that and in its context.

Tilda Swinton is a persuasive actress. She makes Eva a sympathetic character, though there is some detachment about her. As the butt of Kevin’s animosity, she suffers a great deal. (The scene where she takes her wailing baby near men drilling in the street to drown out the baby’s cries makes an impact.) John C. Reilly brings his talent to the role of Franklin. While Ezra Miller is the teenage Kevin who is the focus of the crisis, the two children who portray him as a boy (and they could pass for his brothers) have been directed to act in such a way that the cumulative effect of Kevin’s behaviour is credible and horrifying.


THE YELLOW SEA (HWANGHAE)

(Korea, 2010, d. Hong- jin na)

Director Hong- jin Na has written and directed only two films, The Chaser and The Yellow Sea. The films belong to the action school of Korean film-making popular since the 1990s. Films like Old Boy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance made this genre of police and gangster thrillers popular and critically respectable. The Chaser screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

The films are complex in their presentation of characters, the law and the exercise of violence.

This film opens in the seemingly remote area between Korea, China and Russia, home for many migrants after the Korean war, the Cho- Sun- Jok. The inhabitants are not highly regarded, especially in Seoul where most of the action takes place. There is a lot of crime, gangs and bosses, killers for hire. They can be employed by seemingly respectable criminals in South Korea to handle their dirty work.

While this makes for interesting plots, though there is always a problem of who is working for whom, there is a grim perspective on life, often life being cheap, and difficult to find redeeming characteristics in the gallery of characters. The central character here is a cab driver in Yanji City whose wife has left for Korea and disappeared. He is an inveterate gambler and is hired to go to Seoul to assassinate a professor. This leads to tangles with underworld characters and, in something like the style of Charles Bronson action films of decades ago, this unlikely looking killer uses his wits to survive the increasing attempts on his life.

The film is quite long and becomes repetitive in its confrontations. But, what makes it difficult for some audiences, is the visual and action brutality in the assaults and killings, the close-up gashing (this is a film of blades not guns) and an atmosphere of crime, greed and betrayal that is not for the squeamish.


YES MADAM, SIR

(Australia/India, 2008, d. Megan Doneman)

What to make of a title like this? Once we learn that it is a documentary about the first Indian policewoman, the title makes more sense. That is the reply that many police gave when asked by her to do various jobs. They were certainly not used to a policewoman. And, judging by some sequences where high-handed male authorities officially vent their spleen about this particular policewoman, Indian men, despite the leadership of Indira Gandhi, are definitely not used to policewomen.

This is the story of Kiran Bedi who joined the police force in the 1970s.

Needless to say, Kiran Bedi is not a blushing violet. Rather a tomboy, she joined the force in the 1970s and put up with a lot of mild ribbing as well as serious discrimination. The film has footage of her from the past, so we see her in action over the decades. She does her work rather fearlessly, which gets her into trouble when she manages a training centre and trainees react against her. She is continually passed over for promotion when her long service and her rank would demand that she move up in the police hierarchy. Finally, she leaves for New York to do police work for the UN – but, ultimately finds the same discrimination against women there.

A Kiran Bedi interview for BBC TV offers the woman herself reflecting on her life. Family and friends also give interviews, especially her very proud father who encouraged his daughters to study and to build careers for themselves. The enigmatic side of Kiran Bedi’s life is her relationship with her husband, separating from him in practice. He too is interviewed when she goes to see him after several years. There are interviews also with her daughter.

Not easy to be a pioneer. Not easy to be a pioneer woman in a man’s cultural world let alone professional world. The narration is by Helen Mirren, also a strong-minded career actress.



Created by: malone last modification: Wednesday 21 of December, 2011 [06:05:28 UTC] by malone


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