SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS DECEMBER 2010
BENEATH HILL 60
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEADLY HALLOWS I
KING’S SPEECH, The
LAST EXORCISM, The
LOVED ONES, The
SISTERS OF WAR
BENEATH HILL 60
(Australia, 2010, d. Jeremy Hartley Sims)
World War I took place nearly a century ago. However, it is still vivid in the minds of many whose family members fought and died in the alleged war to end all wars. The cinema has a strong tradition of World War I films from the silent The Big Parade in 1925 to All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), through stories that had war episodes like The Razor’s Edge (1946) then Australian stories like 40,000 Horsemen (1940), Gallipoli (1981) and The Lighthorsemen (1988). Beneath Hill 60 is a significant contribution to this tradition, something of which director-actor, Jeremy Hartley Sims can be proud.
One of the features that makes an immediate impact is the production design, especially the detailed attention given to the re-creation of the battlefields and the barren darkness, to the stark realities of the trenches and the dugouts and, particularly, to the tunnels under the battlefields. The film immerses its audience in this first hand warfare experience.
The story is of particular interest to Australians and the contribution to this war effort made by the literal diggers of these war tunnels. Much of the screenplay by David Roach is based on the diaries of Oliver Woodward, a mining engineer who had worked in Papua New Guinea and then in Queensland and joined the war effort bringing his expertise to the excavating of tunnels in France and, then, to Messines in Belgium and the use of the tunnels under the German occupied Hill 60 for one of the biggest explosions of the war.
The film opens with his arrival in the tunnels and not finding his way, a cinematic means of putting the audience right into the darkness of the tunnel mazes. At one stage, the bombardments and casualties in the trenches makes the miners realise that they may be safer underground.
The film offers almost documentary sequences of the men in the tunnels, their work, their camaraderie, the dangers.
Oliver Woodward is played by Brendan Cowell with a sense of authority and dignity which is innate. The supporting cast includes Steve Le Marquand as a down to earth digger, John Stanton as the commanding officer and Chris Haywood as an old-school, by the book officer.
There are glimpses of German diggers, making them the equivalent of the Australians in their ordinariness, the background stories, their skills and their clashes with authorities.
And, breaking the grim tension on the front, there are flashbacks for Woodward to his life in Queensland, his friendship with a family (Jacqueline McKenzie? and Gerard Lepkowski and Isabella Heathcote as their daughter whom Woodward wants to court). The bright Queensland sunshine contrasts with the general darkness of the war and the fighting.
There is a finale not unlike that of Gallipoli which shows the hard human decisions that have to be made if military success is to be achieved. And the final information reminds us of so much of the futility of war – and that Hill 60 was re-taken by the Germans not long after the episode that is dramatised here.
(US, 2010, d. John Erick Dowdle)
With a title like Devil and the publicity highlighting the horror-diabolical elements of the plot, it is obvious that this is a film for fans of the genre. Personally, I thought it was very good. I jumped several times and actually felt a bit eerie at key points. At just 80 minutes, it sets out to tell a tale of a haunted elevator, of the presence of the devil, the power of vengeance and judgment for evil deeds. And that is what it does, efficiently and effectively.
Set in Philadelphia, whose skyline appears vividly during the credits – but upside down. We are disoriented from the start. And we are told that this is the first of a trilogy of Night Chronicles.
In a very modern office block, five people find themselves together in the lift, going up. Then it stops. The effect of this kind of story is that it could happen to any of us (and having been trapped with 25 people in a hospital lift for a half hour or more, I can vouch for this). We identify with these characters. We know that they will clash, be afraid, become desperate, even though they can be seen from security cameras and they can hear the voices of the officers as well as the police who arrive on the scene because there has already been a suicide jumper from the 35th floor and detectives are investigating. But, they cannot be heard, only seen.
The same song plays over and over. The lift jolts. Lights go out. The five bicker... and then a succession of deaths. But, who could be doing it?
A Hispanic security guard tells a voiceover story of how the devil disguised himself and takes people to himself who deserve it. So, which one of the five is the devil - or not?
The film builds the tension. Mechanical difficulties are not solved. There are more deaths.
And, the investigating detective has his own back story of grief at his family’s death in a hit-run accident, his drinking, his feelings of hatred for the unknown perpetrator.
Lots of little clues are scattered throughout the film – often to mislead the audience into rash opinions about the killer and the devil.
It all comes together by the end – and the devil doesn’t always win.
Many of the reviewers and bloggers attack the producer of the film, M. Night Shyamalan, who won friends with The Sixth Sense but whose reputation has gone downhill and become the target of hate bloggers. They seem to be reviewing him rather than the film, even though he is responsible for the story, not the writing and direction. The director is John Erick Dowdle who directed the remake of the Spanish horror film, Rec, the American film, Quarantine. Shyamalan also gives his name to the Night Chronicles. He was even condemned by one reviewer for moralising, being didactic, at the end of the film. In fact, the film does, especially in terms of redemption and forgiveness. But, it fits with this kind of terror-horror fable.
(US, 2010, d. Todd Phillips)
Maybe the tagline for the advertising is enough of a review, ‘From the director of The Hangover’.
More than a year on, it is rather difficult to remember why The Hangover, despite its often crass approach, was so successful and so funny, a guilty pleasure. But, the tagline does set up some expectations.
Some of them are fulfilled. It is not as hilarious as some of the scenes in The Hangover were. It has its crass moments, of course, but they are not so numerous in fact and the main ones (about the oafish character and his dog’s behaviour) are continually referred to as crass and disgusting, so no one is trying to trick us – though the makers have obviously enjoyed including the sequence). This means that the comedy depends on whether you take to the characters well or not.
Watching the trailer (several times in the cinemas), one gets the impression that Robert Downey Jr plays an ordinary put-upon citizen who deserves sympathy as he has to deal with the aforesaid oaf, played in a manner comedy fans expect from Zach Galifaniakis– including The Hangover). The film is much more complicated than that and the better for it.
Downey’s architect, Peter, has a short fuse,(his wife (Michelle Monaghan) reminding him and us about his severe flying off the handle propensity. He is not as sympathetic as all that from the start – he actually deserves a bit of what he gets, and finally confesses to it as he ultimately learns his lessons. And Zach Galifinakis’s would-be actor, Ethan, is certainly dumb about many things but does have a heart. What he does is set up by the screenplay to be annoying to Peter and to us, but Ethan is not altogether unlikeable. Even though you wouldn’t want to share much of this journey with him if you found yourself in the same situation. It is Peter’s fault more than Ethan’s, when they find themselves on No Fly lists. They both want to get to LA, Ethan for an interview, Peter for the birth of his first child. (That is the due date.)
What happens is a lower-brow version of that very funny film of the 1980s, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, with Steve Martin and John Candy in exactly the same kinds of roles. So, we have crashes, motels, verbal interchanges, a side trip to Mexico and another to the Grand Canyon (this a nice one as Ethan has his recently deceased father’s ashes to scatter). Some help is gathered along the way from one of Peter’s best friends, played by Jamie Foxx.
Downey is such a good actor that he makes his character more real and credible than another actor might have. Galifaniakis looks like a bear on the loose but tends to behave less intelligently. But, when you see him do auditions, like reading Brando’s wedding day speech from The Godfather, and then play out some scenarios that Peter suggests, we realise that he is quite talented. Which means that the film has a happy ending, a nice baby, happy marriage and Jon Cryer and Charlie Sheen being good sports in a playful spoof of Two and a Half Men (the show that inspired Ethan to want to go to Hollywood after he had managed a website on details of the show for six years).
And, if you were disappointed with Due Date, rest assured that they have finished filming The Hangover 2 (which even has a cameo from Bill Clinton!).
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART I
(UK/US, 2010, d. David Yates)
Harry, Hermione and Ron have become part of our lives, well, of the lives of those millions who have read the books, learned the language, absorbed the world and its characters and who have appreciated the films bringing the Harry Potter experience to the screen. It is far too late for a moviegoer to decide to start with Harry Potter with this episode, so to that extent the film is review-proof. It is there for those who want to see it and like it (to say the least).
Actually, there are some critics who look down their noses at the films without having read the books and have dismissed this one as boring and cynically dividing the final novel in two just to make money. Be that as it may, said critics are not against making money badmouthing the film! But, fans have said that the previous films have left out parts of the novels they held dear. With Deathly Hallows making a combined four to five hours, that should do justice for all.
Part of the complaint of those who did not find this film so interesting is that it focuses most of its attention on Harry, Hermione and Ron. But, this is the nature of the journey here. Part 2 promises the great climax in the struggle with Voldemort. This is the pre-climax where Harry has to be hurried into seclusion and safety and then must go on his quest to find the means to combat Voldemort. This means that this part is interim, with Voldemort brandishing, at the end, the special wand from Dumbledore’s grave. Harry and Ron have found the sword but that ragingly made character, Bellatrix, has outwitted Harry. So, how will the combatants be ready?
This film is stylishly photographed with a production design that takes us away from Hogwarts and, apart from an episode in London’s Shaftsbury Avenue, and some adventures in the ministry of magic, the action tends to take place out in the countryside, in some bleak and wintry forest and lake locations.
Not that there isn’t action. Early in the film, we have the volunteers becoming Harry look-alikes so that he can escape Voldemort’s minions who have discovered the plan to shield him. We have a meeting of Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes looking particularly reptilian) and his council. We also have a wedding that is rudely interrupted and a confrontation with Bellatrix with the aid of the elves.
But it does mean that this is a kind of Potter ‘road film’, with Harry and Hermione coming to rely more on each other, with Ron getting the sulks but returning at just the right time. Along the way are so many of the adult characters we have enjoyed seeing over the years, sometimes just glimpses, the Weasleys and the Dursleys as well as all the Malfoys, a sinister Severus Snape (but no Professor Mc Gonagle), Hagrid and Wormtail, Dolores Umbridge, Mad Eye Moody. Some new characters appear, Bill Nighy as the minister, Peter Mullan as Yaxley of the ministry and a very effective Rhys Ifans as Xenophilius Lovegood. It is he who provides the meaning of the title as he tells a story about three knights and death – which is shown is quite vivid animation rather than live action.
Of course, we would like to see more of them – and we hope that when Part 2 arrives, we will be more than satisfied, and that Harry Potter will have achieved his destiny (and that Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, having completed this marathon so well, will have new lives).
(France, 2010, d. Pascal Chaumeil)
Romain Duris (of the extraordinary strong jutting chin) usually appears in very French dramas, often as a pensive, even melancholic, type. Here he has the opportunity to be a charmer, a comedian, do some Dirty Dancing and be a heartbreaker.
We wonder what is happening as the film opens and a young woman on holidays in Morocco leaves her worthless fiancé at a swimming pool while she goes on an expedition with a doctor to see the dunes and to visit his patients, including some Siamese twins divided at the head. Too good to be true. Yes. It is all an entertaining set-up because Alex, along with his sister and her husband, specialise in breaking up engagements considered unsuitable by families and friends. Alex makes the women fall in love with them and backs off as he tells them (with crocodile tears which he produces often during the film) that he is in a place of grief. We see the routine speeded up in a collage with several more unwitting fiancées.
Then, Alex gets the chance at the big money (which he needs because he is in debt to gangsters, with huge, very huge, Serb bodyguards) to sustain his sense of himself and fashion. He has ten days to break up the engagement of a wealthy girl, Juliette (singer-actress Vanessa Paradis) and her British fiancé, also wealthy (Andrew Lincoln).
Of course, the audience finds Alex seductive as well and we become complicit in all his plots and plans and devices to make Juliette fall in love with him and call the whole engagement off. He outwits her but she can also outwit him. But, with extraordinary technological resources plus the fact that his sister can be seen doing umpteen jobs around the hotel, he keeps his plan more or less on track. His brother-in-law fancies himself as an actor wanting to live some of his fantasies and steps in, sometimes quite hilariously.
In real life Alex would be a cross between an unwelcome stalker and technological Peeping Tom but this is going to turn out like a fairy tale, the princess and the commoner Prince Charming. Or is it?
The screenplay is often witty, sometimes quite funny – and there is a knocking out of a character that brings on a laugh more than it should. George Michael and Wham’s songs get something of a wham, but the distributors of Dirty Dancing could not have asked for more promotion.
Light-headed, perhaps, light-hearted certainly, and quite amusing as we watch it.
THE KING’S SPEECH
(UK, 2010, d. Tom Hooper)
King George VI does not seem a likely contender for a film hero. There have been several films and mini-series on his brother, Edward VIII, and his abdication. Helen Mirren made George’s daughter, Elizabeth, a very interesting subject as The Queen. Nevertheless, here is a period drama that is strong on character and tension, insightful on the monarchy and its crisis in the mid-30s with the abdication and the outbreak of World War II, with George as the reluctant king. He also had a debilitating stammer. And it is the stammer that makes the film.
The film opens with his Duke of York 1925 speech at Wembley, a humiliating experience of awkward silences, and ends with his regal speech that stirred all of Britain and the empire.
Colin Firth has been around a long time and made impact with his Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice in the 1990s. But, in recent years, despite some reputation for being stolid, he has made quite an impact with Easy Virtue, A Single Man and many other roles. As George VI, he shows how you can still make an impact as a stolid man who has a desperate speech impediment and a bad temper. You believe that Firth is George VI and Firth makes you believe he has a stammer. He is well supported by Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth, who was an extraordinary strength for him during his reign – and did live on into this century as the Queen Mother. Good to see Helena Bonham Carter do something normal after her recent films, including the deranged Bellatrix in the Harry Potter films.
But, the point and the central relationship of the film is one of friendship and mentoring.
The speech therapist, Lionel Logue, a would-be actor from Australia, and subject to English sneering (especially from Derek Jacobi, sneerer par excellence as the Archbishop of Canterbury), but who possessed great self-confidence and skill in helping clients overcome their disabilities. Much of the film shows the interaction between the two men, not always easy, especially for the Duke who confesses that he has not met and does not know any ordinary people. (Some easily offended audiences may be surprised by some of the four letter aspects of Logue’s methods.)
Geoffrey Rush is at his best as Lionel Logue, a genial man who has learned his craft by experience and is determined that the Duke will speak confidently and that he will succeed when he makes king’s speeches. Jennifer Ehle (Elizabeth Bennett to Firth’s Darcy in Pride and Prejudice) appears as Logue’s wife, Myrtle.
Fans of British film and television will be delighted with many of the character actors who appear: Michael Gambon who brings George V to life, Claire Bloom as Queen Mary, Anthony Andrews as Stanley Baldwin, Timothy Spall as Churchill and Guy Pearce as Edward VIII.
As background to the speech therapy, which took place over years, we are invited to watch the formal style of George V and Queen Mary in bringing up their children at a distance, to feel the unprecedented national and political effects of Prince of Wales, David’s lack of interest in being king and his passion for Wallis Simpson (who is not presented sympathetically), the reluctance of the retiring Bertie to becoming king, the advances of Hitler and the declaration of war against Germany. It is well-known how much the British people admired the royal family, especially during wartime when they felt that the family was one with the people. The film offers solid grounds for this, which will do monarchists a power of good and will draw from republicans some quiet admiration.
The screenplay creates the characters well. Tom Hooper (Red Dust, Elizabeth I, The Damned United) has directed with wit and polish. Writer David Seidler had a speech impediment when he was young and admired George VI. The Queen Mother was willing to have her husband’s story told but only after she had died. So, here it is, belatedly but still most welcome.
THE LAST EXORCISM
(US, 2010, d. Daniel Stamm)
So much storytelling is fact told as fiction. With reality TV and the post Blair Witch Project genre, so many films are really fiction told as fact. The same here. While it does have one eye on The Exorcist and its story of demonic possession of a girl, the other eye is on the hand-held camera techniques that could make the initially unwary (but much less so now) believe that what they are seeing actually happened just as it is there on the screen.
Acknowledging the popular success of such terror films as Cloverfield, The Diary of the Living Dead and the Rec/Quarantine series as well as the alleged authenticity of the Paranormal Activity films, The Last Exorcist purports to give us interviews with the reverend Cotton Marcus, with his wife and son. It them makes us complicit with Marcus and his producer and cameraman as we visit a farm where Marcus will go through the ritual of an exorcism, get his fee and go on his way proving that ,possession’ is only a state of mind, heighted and/or hysterical and that God and the devil seem to have very little really to do with it. A one-time child prodigy of a preacher and with his first exorcism at ten (and his picture and the story proudly in the paper), he is a credit to his hyper-evangelical congregation-rouser of a pastor and a dab hand at raising alleluias himself.
But, with the birth of his deaf son, he has lost faith in what he is doing and just keeps going for the money to support his family.
So, (with the actor playing Marcus presenting a nice clean-cut image – we first see him shaving – a mixture of Michael Douglas and Robert Redford), the film is set to debunk possession, exorcisms and religion.
And he does it, with a few props to help things along and a few winks to the producer. He feels sorry for the 16 year old who seems to have been slaughtering cattle overnight and slashing her brother. He finds himself back at the farm where ‘legion’ seems to have come back to occupy the cleansed soul and body of the girl.
It gets quite complicated as he invokes the help of the local Lutheran pastor and his chubby assistant who is delighted she is in a movie. The father of the house has his problems when he discovers – you might have guessed it – that his daughter is pregnant. Plenty of suspicions as to the father, but...
Just when you might be suspecting that this is a case of real possession, the film-makers overdose on Rosemary’s Baby and give us a rather hurried ending which is big on shock but not on credibility, certainly as to how the film got rescued, edited and marketed at all. But, of course, that is not the point.
While there are references and biblical quotes, observations on Vatican exorcists and their increasing numbers, on how possession and exorcism are common to all denominations and religions, this is a religious film only in name. It does, of course, raise many questions about God and the devil, about faith and prayer, about superstition and credulity. But, the ending reminds us that this is just a movie concoction rather than, as it alleges to show, the real thing.
THE LOVED ONES
(Australia, 2010, d. Sean Byrne)
When the poster tells you that this is where Pretty in Pink meets Wolf Creek, think Wolf Creek... and then some.
Yes, there is a Pretty in Pink connection because this is a film about the school dance night, where those about to leave celebrate – it would be Prom Night if this were America. But, this is a country Australian story, filmed in and around Kyneton, Victoria, with Australian accents and flavour. But, you can tell also from the poster that there is death around just by looking at the picture of the two central characters and the way they are dressed.
It all starts happily enough with a father and son yarning as they drive, slinging off at each other's musical tastes. Suddenly, the car crashes (with the explanation coming later). Brent (Xavier Samuel who has been specialising in suffering and torment lately, Road Train, Twilight – Eclipse) becomes morose after the accident as does his mother. He has a girlfriend at school but is asked by Lola, who is on the outer with the students, to take her to the dance. He says no. So far, so reasonable.
However, Lola must have seen Misery and decided that she and her gentlemanly insane father (a really frighteningly persuasive performance by John Brumpton) think that Brent should have said yes. So, they abduct him (and wound his dog fatally).
What follows is a bizarre prom night variation including a fair amount of torture that makes the endurance of The Passion of the Christ seem plausible. There are few holds barred. Just as you think, 'they won't show us that', they do. In fact, they do more. And they reveal some ghastly secrets. But, it moves in an out of the abduction to a sub-plot about a sex-obsessed friend and his Goth partner at the dance who is the daughter of the policeman searhing for Brent – and another tie-in to the initial accident.
Xavier Samuel does his best with a role that scarcely lets him speak or make sounds, just suffer in enforced silence. As said, John Brumpton, coat and tie and forever praising and pandering to his little princess, Lola, uses his face to indicate all kinds of morbidity and morbid satisfaction. It is left to Robin McReavy? as Lola to combine a pretty in pink (literally) sweetness with complete vindictive madness and mayhem. While you guess that it won't end 100% badly, you will feel that you are behaving badly with attitude as you side emotionally with Brent and his lashing out at his tormentors.
While well made, it goes in the madness-and-torture thriller file.
(US, 2010, d. Robert Rodriguez)
Could there be a pelicula mas loco than Machete? Yes, but they tend to be released on DVD and disappear into mad movie limbo (or on to the shelves of the completely dedicated cult fans).
Should you stray into Machete (unlikely, given its title with its implied warning), if you last the first five minutes, then you have enough fortitude to stay for the rest. Others, who like their movies sane and quieter, will have exited. There are decimations, decapitations, slicing, dicing and gouging as Machete goes into action. And, every so often, the plot is interrupted by more of this mayhem until an all-out finale.
This is a Robert Rodriguez film. While he does make some of his movies for children (notably the Spy Kids series), he has a passion for on-screen violence, influenced by his friend, Quentin Tarantino, who would be giving full marks to Machete. There is something schoolboyish (in the bad, immature sense) about Rodriguez and Tarantino in the way they put violence and brutality on screen and then invite us to gloat with them at what they have achieved. It is not all that malicious in itself, it is just as if they are daring each other as to how this time they might outdo the previous episode. They may not have pulled the wings off flies when they were kids, but they probably looked on with a mixture of gleeful horror.
It is not as if Rodriguez can’t tell a story and get you in with some of the characters and plot turns (even when you have seen them before). He is a storyteller with verve, and so he is with Machete. And, for visual effect, he has one of the most lived-in faced actor, the lined (ravined) fearsome, Danny Trejo.
Machete came to life first in one of the fake trailers in the middle of Grindhouse, the Tarantino- Rodriguez collaboration of 2007 that had two features and trailers as if the audience were at a 70s drive-in show, no holds barred (especially in Tarantino’s ugly Death Proof). They had film stock that was grainy and scratched (as are the credits now in Machete). There was a B- Budget look that meant you were not to think ‘highbrow’.
So, Machete, an earnest Federale in Mexico is betrayed to a drug lord by his boss, his family is killed and he almost dies after his machete performance (and that is the first five minutes). Three years later, he is a labourer in the US and is picked up by a wheeler dealer to be an assassin. This part of the plot is very like Shooter and other assassination-conspiracy thrillers. He doesn’t kill. They pursue him. He is rescued by a woman involved in helping Latinos across the border and by an Immigration officer. And, it becomes even more complicated with Machete’s priest brother (who, I’m sure never went near a seminary, or missed out on what he was supposed to learn if he did), the assassin-hirer’s wife and daughter and the senator who was supposed to have been shot.
One of the reasons for that paragraph, besides a bit of plot information, is to be able to list the cast – Rodriguez must have huge powers of persuasion. The drug lord is Steven Seagall, with an accent, but still sword-wielding. The hirer is Jeff Fahey who used to be a tough screen hero. The officer is Jessica Alba who starred in Rodriguez’s Sin City. The migrant helper is Michelle Rodriguez. The priest is Cheech Marin. The hirer’s daughter is Lindsay Lohan (living up to her off-screen reputation – or, rather, notoriety). And, as they say, wait for it: the senator is Robert de Niro.
Actually, the core of the plot is rather topical. De Niro is a xenophobic and madly patriotic politician who wants to preserve the American way of life, so no change. He even shoots wetbacks and has himself filmed doing it. He is a demagogue seeking re-election with speeches about ‘stopping the...’ (well, there are only small boats on the US-Mexican border), but the screenplay lays on the redneck campaigning to make it like the bigotry it is. Audiences who stay to hear De Niro will be amused at the poetic justice of how he gets his in the end. Who says a loco film, despite all its blood and guts, can’t have a message?
(UK, 2010, d. Gareth Edwards)
There certainly are monsters in this brief drama about an alien invasion but, compared with an effects-governed matinee show like Skyline, which abounds in visuals of the monsters, this is a rather more modest film, a bit more thoughtful too.
We are informed at the outset that there have been NASA explorations of outer space and that, on its return, one vehicle crashed in Mexico, letting loose a mutating virus that is monstrous and devastating to humans and to civilisation as well. (Have we forgotten all about Roswell and all those aliens by now and concentrated in the movies on variations on The War of the Worlds and Independence Day!)
While there are some visuals of the monsters, they are brief and all the more effective for that, until a final vision which is not quite what we expected.
In the meantime a journalist-photographer is asked by his boss to forego his opportunity to make a name for himself in this crisis and to accompany the boss’s daughter back to the safety of the US. We see the devastation that the monsters have wrought on cities and buildings (very effective because director, Gareth Edwards, has been working solidly in these departments for films and television for almost ten years).
This means that Monsters is more of a journey film than a horror film, although there are quite a number of episodes, especially in the Mexican jungles, that offer some tingles of terror.
The focus is on the couple and the difficulties in their journey: finding a ferry to take them to the US and the exorbitant prices, passport restraints and robberies, kindly members of an outlying village, trekking on foot with people smugglers, the decreasing number of guides.
Then you begin to wonder what the film-makers had in mind when they set the film in Mexico. On the map shown, half of Mexico, the part adjacent to the US, is seen to be the infected area. The Americans have built a huge wall, with ramparts, to keep the illegals out as they journey north to the border against difficult odds. An allegory of self-centred and xenophobic Americans and the fear of monsters and infection from south of the border? (In Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, when the northern part of the world froze, the Americans were making their way in droves to cross the Rio Grande to find safety in Mexico!)
Be that as it may, Monsters is a more ‘art-house’ terror film than a multiplex horror show.
(Finland, 2010, d. Jalmari Helander)
Forget miracles on 34th Street and Kris Kringle, forget Tim Allen and Santa Clauses – even forget St Nicholas. While it is sub-titled for English language distribution, A Christmas Tale, this is not anything like what you may have been expecting.
Whether it’s the climate in Finland or something in the venison diet, the Finns have made a succession of films which are heavily ironic, black comedies from directors like Aki Kaurismaki (he of the Leningrad Cowboys). Writer-director, Jalmari Helander, is obviously in this tradition. It is his story, his writing and direction as well as the striking production design. His brother collaborated with the effects and the computer work.
In under 80 minutes, we are taken into another world, way up north in Lapland where we might have thought a nice Santa Claus and his elves work heartily away making the toys for all the gifts for children everywhere. But, this Lapland is a rugged place, peopled by tough men and labourers with reindeer herds and butcheries, trying to earn their living in snowbound villages.
But, there is a mysterious company excavating a mountain, with a mysterious, English-speaking entrepreneur who has been wanting to dig into Santa’s workshop since he was a child.
Ah, Santa. Two young boys trespass and hear some of the plans. Our hero, a younger boy who lives with his father, finds as many books as he can to discover what the truth is behind the Santa story. What is revealed is even grimmer than some of the Norse myths. Santa looks like a monster who, elsewhere, would surely be serving a long-term jail sentence for his brutality against children. He seems to have been into spanking. The books show us some alarming images.
When the reindeer herd is killed, there is a herdsman uprising against the excavators. The fantasy then gets fiercer as a motley group of elderly naked elves are rounded up and the little boy confronts a monstrous Santa.
Obviously, this is not a Christmas film for children (unless you empathise with this Santa and want to frighten and punish them!). It is very much a Christmas film for adults who like an intriguingly offbeat dramas which are haunted by the eerie wintry atmosphere of the Arctic Circle and get audiences thinking about Christmas (without reference at all to the gospel and historical origins) and, especially, its commercialism.
However, the twist at the end is not in the direction of idealism at all. The pragmatic Laplanders are unhappy about losing their livelihood and, after their confrontation with Santa’s helpers, they find their own way of exploiting the situation with some rare exports.
Someone who really won’t like this film is red-nosed Rudolph!
SISTERS OF WAR
(Australia, 2010, d. Brendan Maher)
A World War II memoir that re-creates events in New Britain during the Japanese invasion and occupation, a story of interest to all Australians who want to know more about the war and the experience of Australian soldiers, nurses – and nun s. Screened in the aftermath of the celebrations for the canonisation of Mary McKillop? and extensive media reporting about Mary and about the Josephite sisters, here is a story about the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, especially Sister Berenice Twohill and her working with and growing friendship with nursing sister, Lorna Whyte. Audiences expecting a treatment in the soft vein, will be surprised at the tough core of the film.
The background of the mission in Vunapope outside Rabaul is a story in itself. It was established by German Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and staffed by the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (of French origin) who were excluded from working in German territories at the end of the 19th century, so a new congregation of Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart was established with German sisters. By 1940, when Vunapope had been built up into a thriving mission town, the priests, brothers and sisters were mainly German and Australian.
As the film shows, the Australians pulled out leaving the nurses and wounded who took refuge in Vunapope. They were captured and about to be executed when Bishop Leo Scharmach MSC bluffed the Japanese by saying that he was the representative of Hitler and his people could not be executed. This saved their lives but, especially for some dramatic tension in the film, Lorna Whyte is suspicious of the bishop and thinks he is an informant for the Japanese, especially for the rounding up of Australian soldiers hiding in the jungle. Bishop Scharmach had a Germanic autocratic touch but was constant in his attempts to deal with the Japanese to save lives.
However, the bishop plays a supporting role in the film which is the story of the nurse and the nun. Lorna Whyte, along with the squad of nurses, does her best with their limited resources to save soldiers’ lives. The sisters become gradually involved, especially when they are confined to the convent/hospital area. Sister Berenice is awkward at first, devout in the style of the 1930s and 1940s, but with a blend of common-sense and faith. The two women get to understand one another – and their friendship has endured for the best part of seventy years.
The performances in the film are strong and credible. Sarah Snook has to carry most of the dramatic side of the film as Lorna Whyte, Aussie woman in captivity, dealing with uncertainties and sudden atrocities, with a certain Protestant scepticism about nuns. The final years of the war were spent in Japan by the nurses in hard labour until they were liberated by the Americans. The film does not shirk any of this hardship. And earlier scenes of hospital treatment are quite graphic.
The sisters stay in Vunapope until it is flattened by bombing raids and the Japanese transfer the mission personnel to Ramale valley where they are finally found by Australian troops.
It should be said that the production values are quite high, the use of Queensland locations for New Britain, with an authentic feel and look. The film does not look like a low-budget feature.
The cast is strong as well. Sarah Snook is able to combine fortitude with vulnerability. Claire van der Boom has the more difficult role playing Sister Berenice, helping the audience understand the transitions that happened in her life, from a devoted missionary with the people of New Britain, to a necessary ‘worldliness’ to deal with the Japanese physical and psychological violence, to help the soldiers, to be sensitive to frightened young Japanese soldiers, to learn that wars begin with hatred, to draw on inner strength for leadership.
Susie Porter does fine work as Kay Parker the matron and stands out in several scenes, defying the advances of the Japanese commander, rallying the nurses, hands on with tending the soldiers, and a final moving scene in Japan where an officer, crazed with grief and the death of his wife and children, threatens the women and the matron offers an empathy that contributes to the officer’s backing off and weeping.
Bishop Scharmach is played by Scots actor, Gerald Lepkowski, an ambiguous figure for the nurses and, perhaps, for the audience, as we see his efforts to save people’s lives which some, like Lorna, initially interpret as collaboration. He has the touch of the prince bishop until Lorna removes shrapnel from near his carotid artery and he has to bend – until he finally feels he has dried up inside. Nevertheless Sister Berenice demands that he assist a dying indigenous sister.
In fact, there are many fine vignettes in John Misto’s screenplay with Brendan Maher’s sympathetic direction. Some are surprising, like Bishop Scharmach going from giving communion to his congregation to the wire fence where three Japanese Catholic soldiers also receive. The women put on a musical evening with songs from The Mikado, Sister Berenice intoning ‘Deferred... to the Lord High Executioner’ when the commanding officer arrives. It could have cost them their lives, as they realise, but they also say it was funny. And it is.
The happy ending comes with many tears but some of the tears are from seeing Lorna and Sister Berenice in 2010, still admirable women who show us the value of life.
From a Catholic point of view, we can be pleased that a film has been made about these people and these significant events, with respect and with insight, that shows religious men and women with their strengths and their weaknesses – and heroism.
(Yes, the script does have Bishop Scharmach saying that he ‘ordained’ Sister Maria; and there is a picture in the background of Saint Maria Goretti who was not canonised until 1950. But the screenplay overall gets it right.)
Bishop Scharmach wrote a memoir, This Crowd Beats Us All. Ken Scully, Catholic Weekly journalist, wrote the story of Fr Ted Harris MSC, who helped Australian soldiers escape from New Britain and was executed by the Japanese, Every Man for Himself. Gillian Nikakis wrote He’s Not Coming Home about Rabaul. Sister Berenice’s memoir, Just one of the Crowd, The internment of Sister Berenice of Rabaul, is from Austinmer, 1983.
Sisters of War was based on research by auctioneer, Rod Miller, who came across a journal by a nurse in Rabaul and continued to gather more information about the events in New Britain.
The ABC also screened a 10 minute ‘extra’ for the DVD release, a meeting between Sister Berenice and Lorna Whyte, a vigorous exchange and vivid memories still, which shows how full of life, despite their hardships, these two women still are, over 65 years later.
(Audiences may be familiar with A Town Like Alice, from Nevil Shute’s novel, the 1956 film version and the later television mini-series. A fine treatment of women interned in Sumatra (including a Dutch nun) is in Bruce Beresford’s Paradise Road. For Catholic interest (and beyond), John Duigan’s film of war photographer, Damien Parer, Fragments of War, shows the war in the Pacific.)
(US, 2010, d. Sofia Coppola)
Somewhere could have been called Anywhere or even Nowhere. The writer-director is best known for her Oscar-winning screenplay for Lost in Translation. This screenplay is just about someone who is lost.
There is an emotional problem with Somewhere, in identifying with the central character, your average film star, Jack (played with a blend of conviction in his performance and the lack of conviction required of his character by Stephen Dorff who has himself been around for a long time in the movies). Jack is not the kind of celebrity you would be eager to meet. He does the expected PR things, but there is a hollowness underneath this tinselly behaviour. We would not be satisfied if we were to spend time in his company. He is too shallow and too self-centred.
Sofia Coppola has set herself a very difficult task: how to make an interesting film centred on an uninteresting character. She has not always succeeded but, if we are willing, we can make allowances for that because she is showing the US movie industry and its hoo-ha – and its potential for destroying those who are lost in it. As the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, and appearing in some of his films, she has a fair amount of background to draw on. And what she brings up for her film is not exactly flattering.
But, what she does do is introduce a character to be interested in, Jack’s eleven year old daughter. She is played effectively and interestingly by Elle Fanning. She is a young girl of imagination, has quite some poise (but she does not come across as a mini-adult as her sister, Dakota, did in so many films at that age and even younger) and really loves and is devoted to her father, no matter what. There are many scenes between father and daughter, even meals and cooking while he is carrying on with some woman or other. His wife has walked out on him.
While Jack is caught up wherever Somewhere is, we do see a lot of what is expected of the star: appearances and smiles for fans, supplying copy for interviews, spending lots of time in make-up (and being still for the setting of a face mask), being whisked off to the media rounds in Italy, especially for appearing on idiotic Italian TV shows and required to perform inanely, and relying on minders. Then he has a lot of free time where he presumes he must go womanising. Be with friends, hangers-on, surrounded by people who ultimately couldn’t care less about him.
There is a lot that is admirable in the making of and the performances for Somewhere but, maybe it couldn’t, it doesn’t completely grab attention or feelings.
(US, 2010, d. Colin and Greg Strause)
There have been all kinds of monster invasion movies, there have always been wars of the worlds. This one opens with a couple waking up to find eerie lights dropping into the streets of LA. Unfortunately, the moderately intriguing premiss which has the man who seems to be the hero being mesmerised and grotesquely transformed by the lights, is interrupted by the device of ’13 hours earlier’. We are introduced to a group of 30 somethings who are uninteresting, self-absorbed, crass, materialistic hedonists (to put it politely). And they (or the screenwriters) have not been to any articulate expression courses so there is nothing arresting here for the eye, the ear or the mind. Some of them behave irresponsibly, sexually, and, as with this kind of American film, they are among the first to be devoured by the monsters.
Because, when we come back after the pre-13 hours interlude, what we have is grotesque monsters seeking whom they may devour (and people falling from the sky as if it were the rapture – actually, one of the characters does say that). A space ship hovers, as from Close Encounters to Independence Day to District 9 they are wont to do. Their aggressive, invading monsters go on the rampage. Some are metallic jelly-fish like, some are like a giant octopus. Others are like scaly, anonymous robocops (who are not unlike predators – and the directors of this film, the brothers Strause, who have a very long list of special effects credits, actually directed Alien Versus Predator – Requiem).
Since the screenplay and the performances are nothing to write reviews about, we have to rely on the monsters, the predicaments, the decreasing cast, the intervention of a very well-equipped air force, some luckless soldiers. And, since the monsters have no personality – it is only in the more interesting epilogue to the film where it becomes a bit more imaginative in a Predator-like way – that we see they are interested in human brains and absorbing them. (And does this mean that they have absorbed these brains before and hence indulge in this kind of mindless violence?)
So, not a very good film at all. The effects are the main thing – and the crisp, shiny photography of the city skyline which gives the film its title. (And New York and London appear right at the end – looks as though the aliens made a co-ordinated, thoroughly invincible attack on earth.)
(UK, 2010, d. Jonathan Lynn)
There is an increasing number of droll films about these days. These are smiling rather than laughing films which leave the raucous shenanigans of Hangover-like comedy behind and opt for some wit, some satire, some black comedy with touches of the absurd which is just that bit realistic so that we believe in the characters and what they are up to despite our knowing that it is all far-fetched. (To check on Wild Target’s veracity and realism, you would need a review from a full-time hitman, preferably British, who has eluded arrest and lives an elegant ‘good life’ in private, preferably on a country estate.)
Bill Nighy is the hitman here. Emily Blunt is his erratically and moodily wild target. Rupert Grint is an apprentice (but does not realise what for.)
If that cast is not good enough, there is quite a funny and ironic turn from Eileen Atkins as Nighy’s demanding mother (she gave him a Baretta for his 7th birthday – she is that kind of devoted mother with high expectations). Martin Freeman is the most deadpanly calm of deadly assassins, with Geoff Bell as his sadistic but dumb assistant (asking for Rembrandt’s address during at art forgery case) and Rupert Everett is obviously enjoying himself as an art connoisseur who is hoodwinked about the Rembrandt but has more than enough money left over to hire the best hitman to get rid of the swindler.
There’s enough plot to keep one interested and amused.
Bill Nighy is particularly good as the nearing-55, gentlemanly, impeccably dressed and spoken, expert at disposing of people, who is about to get rid of Emily Blunt, a skittish instant kleptomaniac if ever there was one (but not against selling off a fake Rembrandt for a million dollars) but finds he cannot. He finishes up accepting a role as her security agent – and this transforms his life and his ability to defy his mother. And Rupert Grint, on holiday from Hogwarts, gives a nicely judged performance as a young man who happens to be in the wrong spot (or the right spot depending on how you judge job opportunities) when the attempt is made on the Wild Target’s life.
Obviously, it’s a farce. In fact, it is a very British re-working of a French farce, filmed by Pierre Salvadori as Cible Emourvante, with Jean Rochefort in 1993. It is so British in its manners, its buttoned up behaviour, its well-mannered and bad-mannered thugs, and its continually humorous spoof of British ways, that, even though it is really a very slight film, you enjoy it all the way through (unless you believe that justice must be seen to be done at the end, well police and legal justice anyway. It does not.)
Jonathan Lynn was one of the writers and the director of Yes, Minister. He has spent a lot of time in the US on more broadly comic movies. This is a welcome return home.
(US, 2010, d. Debra Granik)
A fine and serious drama, chilling in many ways, and demanding in terms of watching what is, for most audiences, an unfamiliar American mountain backblocks society.
The setting is Missouri, the Ozarks. The focus is on 17 year old Ree who is managing to bring up her younger brother and sister and care for her mentally disturbed mother. She has to find her drug-dealing father or the banks will foreclose and she and the family will lose their house with nowhere to go – despite the fact that there has been quite some inbreeding in the mountains and so many of the neighbours are cousins or related.
The film stays focused on Ree, a capable young girl despite the difficulties and her lack of experience. Her quest for her father takes her to her uncle, an addict, who warns her off but who does step in finally to support her. The other cousins are far tougher and won’t reveal what has happened to her father though she suspects he has been killed. In the meantime, the local sheriff is demanding that the father turn up to court or else the house will be handed over. The sheriff is rather cowardly at heart as is shown in a later sequence, but he lives in a tough society that is anti the law.
The scenes with some of the relatives are quite brutal and frightening, especially the harsh and cruel behaviour of some of the women. While they have television in the Ozarks, the society is inward-looking, meets in bars for drinking and singing, makes money from illicit drug production (the successors to moonshine) and, despite the money they seem to make, live in fairly ugly, sometimes squalid conditions.
And the look of the film matches the storytelling. The wintry, cold and bleak lack of colour corresponds to people’s grim lives. Ree has a plan to join the army to get a financial grant to support the family but even that is impossible for her.
There are some moments of give towards the end, some expressions of emotion and support for Ree despite the animosity and even physical violence towards her.
Audiences will be most impressed by Jennifer Lawrence’s assured performance as Ree. We do believe that she is Ree and we believe all that she is trying to do for her family. The supporting cast certainly looks the part, gnarled, sometimes frazzled, often menacing.
While the families would not necessarily think of themselves as deprived, they are, deprived not only of material goods, but of a broader and kinder social awareness beyond survival and family close-knittedness.
Winner of the main award at the Sundance Festival, 2010.