SIGNIS REVIEWS DECEMBER 2017
ANNA KARENINA: VRONSKY’S STORY
BETTER WATCH OUT
BIG IN JAPAN
BORG vs McENROE
BUTTERFLY TREE, The
DADDY’S HOME 2
IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD
JUST TO BE SURE/ OTEZ- MOI D’ OUTE
KILLLING OF A SACRED DEER, The
MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS, The
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS
ONLY THE BRAVE
ANNA KARENINA: VRONSKY’S STORY
Russia, 2017, 138 minutes, Colour.
Elizaveta Boyaskaya, Max Meetvev, Kiril Grabenshchikov, Viatliy Kishchenko.
Directed by Karen Shakhnazarov.
Devotees of Leo Tolstoy’s great novel, Anna Karenina, will probably have a high opinion of her, seeing her as a tragic figure. Her husband, Karenin, seems a gloomy and oppressive figure. And, readers will probably blame the career soldier, Vronsky, for all that happened to Anna.
There have been many films over the decades of Tolstoy’s novel. Those who have portrayed her include Greta Garbo in the 1930s, Vivien Leigh, especially, in the 1940s, Jacqueline Bissett in the 1980s, Sophie Marceau in the 1990s and, more latterly, Keira Knightley. This reviewer saw Vivien Leigh in 1948, probably too young to view the film but it made a lasting impression, no sequence more vivid in cinema than Vivien Leigh on the train line and the bearing down of the train at the end of that film.
So, Vronsky’s story?
The events in this film take place 30 years after Vronsky’s affair with Anna. He has continued as a soldier. He is now in Manchuria with the Russian troops advancing on China but being repelled by the Japanese. Vronsky is wounded while playing cards and is in the caravan with the nurses and doctors and the wounded. They have set up a post – and there is a wonderful long continuous unedited sequence as the doctor moves through all the aspects of the post, a cumulative effect as if the audience was walking round and surveying everything with him.
And the doctor is Sergei Karenin, Anna’s son. We are told something of his life, his hatred for his mother, brought up by his father, university studies, marriage, failed, and now a surgeon with the troops. In recognising Vronsky whom he had known as a little boy, he is curious about Vronsky’s perspective and memories.
So, while the film is quite spectacular in setting up the sequences in Manchuria, the detail of the medical post, the final attack of the Japanese on the fleeing Russian troops, it also has quite a number of flashbacks meaning that we see the well-known story once again. But, from the title, it is Vronsky’s perspective and he doesn’t seem such a bad man. It is Anna, manipulative yet subservient with her husband, but will fall, ambitious and, finally, obsessive and mentally disturbed. This is not a reinforcement of favourable attitudes towards Anna.
While we see a lot of the familiar sequences, Vronsky seem something of a ladies’ man but becomes infatuated with Anna, beginning the affair, her telling her husband, her dilemma of leaving her husband and her son, her being despised by St Petersburg society (her display of emotion when Vronsky falls in an elaborate steeplechase race as well as her standing defiant to society disapproval of the theatre).
The film has the couple go on a tour of Europe for a year, their return, and her desire to see her son, the encounters with her husband, but her growing edginess, suspicions of Vronsky, which have no foundation.
Interestingly, the suicide scene is left to our imagination or memories – although, earlier, Vronsky had gone to the railway station to identify Anna’s body.
On the one hand the film is quite spectacular, in the 1904 Manchurian sequences as well as the steeplechase, the theatre and a magnificent ball. On the other hand, there are a great many close-ups, intense close-ups of the characters.
This film adds to the repertoire of Anna Karenina films – and there will be undoubtedly more.
Thailand, 2017, 130 minutes, Colour.
Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying, Eisaya Hosuwan.
Directed by Nattawut Poonpiriya.
Not exactly an enticing title. On the other hand, there is the curiosity factor: who is the genius? And how bad?
The curiosity factor might even be raised higher when it is revealed at the beginning of the film that the genius is a girl in her early teens. We see her at the age of 12 and follow her throughout her school years.
The film is cheating, youngsters and exams. (And it is very depressing to realise that most of these students lack the moral fibre that would actually give them pause or notice any challenge to their consciences on cheating.)
The other curiosity item is that this is a film from Thailand – but, local interest, some of the sequences were filmed in Sydney.
Lynn is a mathematical genius. When her father tries to enrol her in a better school, she does all the financial calculations in her head (and they are listed on the screen for our slower benefit!). She is offered a scholarship, a special grant for meals… She is a winner.
Over the years at school, she befriends a perennially smiling and agreeable friend, Grace. Grace is not too good at studies, does get help from Lynn but relies on her in an exam, cheating. Grace has a boyfriend at school, Pat, who fancies himself as a matinee idol, and comes from a very wealthy family. Because his parents think that Grace is a good influence, they suggest that they will finance her going to Boston where they want him to be educated. Pat has even less academic prowess than Grace.
In the Gospels, specifically in St Luke, Jesus tells the parable of the shrewd steward who is dismissed by his owners but before leaving employ, he contacts all the debtors and connives with them to alter their contracts and lessen their debt. Jesus remarks how amazing this is to observe. And that is what happens here. We watch amazed at the audacity. Lynn devises a way to communicate in the exam room with fellow students, who would become clients and pay substantial money, what the options are in a multiple-choice test. She has four melodies and taps these on her own desk as the others listen and fill in their answers.
She becomes even more ambitious with even more clients in a scheme for an international exam, held all around the world at the same hour in each country. The realisation is that with Sydney four hours ahead of Bangkok, if she and a friend who is forced to collaborate with her do the exam in Australia and find a way of communicating the results, the huge squad (many of them sitting on bikes waiting the answers before they take off for the exam centres) will all get top marks.
There is some tension in the Sydney sequences in how she and her friend deal with the exams, getting out during the breaks, getting their mobile phones, remembering the answers, getting them to Thailand where they are eagerly awaited. Things don’t go quite as well as planned which makes this part of the film even more interesting.
There is a moral dilemma presented at the end. Will she confess, will she take responsibility, is all this worth it?
BETTER WATCH OUT
Australia/US, 2016, 89 minutes, Colour.
Olivia De Jonge, Levi Miller, Ed Oxenbould, Alex Mikic, Dacre Montgomery, Patrick Warburton, Virginia Madsen.
Directed by Chris Peckover.
You'd better watch out
You'd better not cry
You'd better not pout
I'm telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town.
Yes, this is a Christmas film but it is best to note only the first line of the lyrics because Santa Claus is definitely not coming to town here.
This is a film which will appeal almost solely to horror fans. Others can just merely note this review. And, for horror fans, a warning to give this film 10 minutes, at least, because it focuses on two 12 year olds having puberty -like conversations which may seem something of a turnoff. Then there is a twist. But, this also might sound like familiar material, an intruder in the house. But, give the film another 10 minutes and there is more than a twist!
The film was the work of an American director and an American writer. However, apart from some street scenes, an American Street with Christmas decorations and snow, the film was actually made in Sydney. And, apart from Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen who have cameos at the beginning and end of the film as the central character’s parents, the five key roles are played by Australians, honing their American accents.
At the centre is the rather shy, sometimes awkward, Luke. He is played very effectively by Levi Miller who was Peter in Pan and then made this film before he appeared in Red Dog, True Blue as well as Jasper Jones. His performance in this film will be a substantial contribution to his CV. His best friend, Garrett, is played by Ed Oxenbould who was central to the fine children’s film, Paper Planes, but knows how to do an American accent from his roles in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible Day, No Good, Very Bad Day and In M. Night Shyamalan’s eerie film, The Visit.
Co-starring in The Visit was Olivia De Jonge who plays Luke’s babysitter, Ashley. She has a boyfriend, Ricky, Alex Mikics, who turns up during the night while she is babysitting as well as Jeremy, Dacre Montgomery (Stranger Things) who also comes to visit.
It is Christmas so there are lots of American Street decorations, many Santa Claus figures who appear momentarily menacing and Carol singers at the door with their repertoire.
It is what happens indoors (as well as a grim scene in the backyard) that is what will intrigue audiences. Unless the audience is skilled in pre-guessing outcomes, they will be rather surprised at all that happens inside, getting more gruesome as the film goes on, some uncontrolled psychopathic behaviour which becomes more and more unpredictable.
In fact, we see a portrait here of an ultra-psychopathic psychopath.
Probably best not to say anything more about the plot. It can be said that the performances of the young actors are better than one might expect. The plot is eerie and should make something of a hit with all but the most jaded horror fans.
Sweden, 2017, 107 minutes, Colour.
Sverrir Gudnason, Shia La Boeuf, Stellan Skarsgaard, Tuva Novotny, Leo Borg, Marcus Mossberg, Jackson Gann, Scott Arthur, Ian Blackman, Robert Emms.
Directed by Janus Metz.
An interesting film for tennis fans as well of those who like psychological portraits – especially when there is some rivalry.
Some reflections on the topic before the review of the film. The public tend to take for granted that sports champions are celebrities. Professional journalists and paparazzi supply sometimes avid readers and viewers with behaviour that can be exemplary as well as behaviour that elicits some reactions of shock-horror. But, how much attention is given to the life of the celebrity, the constancy of practice in exercising their expertise, the toll that this takes on body and soul, on the human spirit, on emotions, and on human relationships.
And the question arises, how much is the media to blame for the pressures on the celebrities? And how much is the public to blame for the pressures on the media to supply continuous coverage? Bjorn Borg was called an iceberg in his time, showing little, if any, public emotion. By contrast, McEnroe? was highly emotional in public, often objectionably so, even eliciting boos from the Wimbledon audience in 1980, his first attempt at winning the championship.
And, can people change? What about John McEnroe? And, speculatively, in 10 years will we be seeing a feature film about Nick Kyrgios?
As regards the film itself… It is a Scandinavian production, with more emphasis, naturally, on Borg than on Mc Enroe. Personnel, finance, post-production facilities all came from contributions from Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland. The director, Janus Metz, was born in Denmark and moved to work in South Africa, a documentary filmmaker, now with is first feature film.
Bjorn Borg was Swedish and Swedish actor, Sverrir Gunadson, quite a remarkable lookalike, portrays the intensity of Scandinavian introversion, a methodical life, even obsessively detailed and repetitious. There are scenes showing him as an eager youngster hitting the tennis ball against garage doors at home. There are scenes showing him as a rather temperamental teenager, rather McEnroe-like? at times, catching the eager eye of former tennis champion, Lennart Bergelin (a fine Stellan Skarsgaard this time speaking in Swedish) , who takes him in hand, is pressurised to let him play in the Davis Cup at the age of 15, confronts him about his tantrums and instils in him the resolution not to show any external feelings and to play one point at a time. Borg certainly fulfils this as he wins so many grandslam championships in the 1970s. By 1980, he had won Wimbledon four times in succession.
If you remember the result of that match, you will enjoy seeing how it is played out. If you don’t remember the result of that match, there will be a lot of dramatic tension in the progress of the sets and at one stage, of the record set points played.
As with the recent Battle of the Sexes, matches between Bobby Riggs and Margaret Court and, especially, Billie Jean King, the play is meticulously reconstructed and dramatically edited.
But the film does give attention to John Mc Enroe, something of a child whiz at arithmetic in his head when he was young, a chess player – but a telling scene where is mother is cutting his hair and comments on the 96 that he gained four and exam: “what about the other for?”. And there is quite some pressure at all times from his father. Which doesn’t necessarily explain his emotions, his extraversion, his tantrums and the bad impression that he made at press conferences (which did sometimes tend to ask you more about his behaviour than his tennis).
He is well portrayed by Shia La Beouf, an actor who has, in real life (or, according to the media and paparazzi) exhibited behaviour like that of an angry sports brat. Some might say it is not a stretch for this performance but he does do it particularly well. And this is the case during that fateful 1980 match on Wimbledon centre court. He did control himself that day and eventually won, and deserved, the applause of those watching.
The film mentions at the end that Borg and McEnroe? became friends, Borg becoming godfather to one of Mc Enroe’s children.
You might not expect to enjoy a feature film on tennis – but this one is worth seeking out.
THE BUTTERFLY TREE
Australia, 2017, 98 minutes, Colour.
Melissa George, Ewen Leslie, Ed Oxenbould, Sophie Lowe.
Directed by Priscilla Cameron.
This is a drama set in a Queensland town, some filming at Mount Tambourine. While it is a Queensland story, it could be universal. The focus is on three central characters.
And the title? Finn, the teenager of the film, is a serious collector of butterflies and other insects, cataloguing them, mounting them, photographing them. There is a tree on the grounds of the house owned by his father which also has a tree, full of butterflies. He is played by Ed Oxenbould.
Visually, the film wants to communicate to the audience that Evelyn, a middle-aged woman who has come to settle in the town, is, symbolically, a butterfly. During the opening credits, we see her dancing, her costume elaborate, wings like a giant butterfly. In fact, she is a burlesque performer, with a partial striptease, and dancing on rollerskates. There will be later allusions to her as a butterfly throughout the film. She is played by Melissa George.
The third central character is Al, the widower who is Finn’s father. He teaches at a local campus and is involved with one of the students, Sophie Lowe, to the disapproval of the authorities. He is played by Ewen Leslie.
Evelyn, the attractive butterfly, encounters Al by chance, his wanting to buy a display case that she has in a garage sale so that he can give it to Finn. The two are attracted, his coming back to get his wallet which he lost at her shop and greenhouse, promising to return. In the meantime, Finn encounters her, buying some flowers to commemorate his dead mother, and her offering him a job. He experiences an intense adolescent infatuation.
All does not go smoothly because Al wants to break off with the student, experiencing something a breakdown when she confronts him and he weeps. There is tension between himself and his son, his son holding the memory of his mother sacred and resenting his father’s affairs.
And, as we expect, there will be tension between father and son because of Evelyn.
There is a further complication with Evelyn, the reason she has come to the town, why she is not dancing, a problem with health.
But, the butterflies prevail and the audience will leave the cinema more cheered than depressed.
DADDY’S HOME TWO
US, 2017, 100 minutes, Colour.
Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, John Lithgow, Linda Cardellini, Alessandra Ambrosio, Owen Vaccaro, Didi Costine.
Directed by Sean Anders.
The lesson that reviewers need to learn is that they should not always sit at a preview with other reviewers, often solemnly po-faced during comedies. It might be better to sit in with a crowd of younger people who love the slapstick, are not afraid to laugh out loud, who offer a rollicking response to a film. Certainly the case with Daddy’s Home Two.
Hollywood has the habit of making several films on similar themes at the same time, so
At the end of 2016, equal time for family films… Bad Moms and Daddy’s Home.
Popular with audiences and commercial success. So
At the end of 2017, equal time for family films… Bad Moms 2 and Daddy’s Home Two’
But, both sequels have a lot in common. Both of them have a Christmas setting and announce at various times how many days it is before Christmas. And, thankfully, both have an acknowledgement that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ, midnight mass and carols with the Moms, a crib tableau with the dads, though some mayhem ensues…
But the great brainwave for the success of Bad Moms 2 was to introduce the grandmothers, some Bad Grandmoms. For Daddy’s Home Two we are introduced to the grandfathers. Since we already know the father’s, Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, we might guess that one is going to be roly-poly sweet and the other is not, definitely not. And they are played by John Lithgow enjoying himself immensely as a sweetness and light kind grandfather and by Mel Gibson who obviously relishes Kurt by name and curt by nature.
The situation in the first film was that the two fathers, completely unlike, Will Ferrell a kindly and gawky Brad, while Mark Wahlberg is rough and tough, Dusty. The film’s film was based on the premise of divorced families and the custody of the children, the two families in question, some of the children shared. The idea is that the families should actually work together, some co-parenting, all celebrating Christmas together. This sequel takes this for granted and that Brad and Dusty are firmly committed to it.
Don, John Lithgow, endorses his son more than 100%, lots of affectionate talk and embraces and kisses, lots of patter of the warm and cuddly type. Kurt has not been around for years, was an ineffectual parent, an astronaut, away from home, a womaniser, and severe and mocking with Mel Gibson’s glowering look.
What happens is to be expected – though there is lots of slapstick comedy, lots of pratfalls, ridiculous situations which led to a lot of laughter from the audience.
How are they all going to manage? Brad’s wife is loving? His stepchildren love him too? Dusty has a rather serious, glamorous wife, who is continually noting down details in her book for her writing. She has a rather sullen daughter. How are they going to manage?
Kurt not only has a bright idea, going away for Christmas, but instantly books an AirB&B on his phone. It takes five hours to get there by car and Kurt learns something of purgatory as he listens to Don and Brad going on and on and on so cheerfully.
Settling in, setting up the decorations – a sure sign for all kinds of things to go wrong. And, of course, they do. There is also a rivalry which results in Brad not only cutting down a Christmas tree but the tree which contains cell-phone connections. There is the fore-mentioned crib and quite a lot of snowballs.
There is a touch of pathos because Don has come by himself, saying that his wife has been held back by family illness. Rusty tweaks what has happened and when Don volunteers to entertain at an improv cafe, with Brad urging him on, Don has an emotional collapse.
So, with things turning out badly, on Christmas Day they set out for home only to be caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic by an avalanche. Fortunately, there is cinema complex nearby and all the motorists go there is something to eat and drink and a movie. The film that family actually goes into see is an action thriller with Liam Neeson, called Missile Tow, Neeson being heard but not seen.
Actually, that could be quite a good title for a thriller at Christmas! Missile Tow.
We all know it’s going to end well – but, with Kurt being as he is, it is rather restrained (except for his giving his son a big long kiss!).
And so, in 2018, where will the Bad Moms go? Where can Daddy’s Home Three go?
US, 2017, 143 minutes, Colour.
John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Jack Reynor, Kaitlyn Dever, Ben O' Toole, John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
Blunt title. Very blunt and direct filmmaking.
For many decades, Kathryn Bigelow has made films which have been very tough, and early vampire film, police dramas. However, she came to prominence as the first female director to win an Oscar as director for The Hurt Locker (2008). Her subsequent film was the search for Osama bin Laden,
Journalist Mark Boal wrote the screenplays for the latter films and has written this screenplay.
This is quite a long film. It is set in 1967, in the aftermath of the strength of the Civil Rights Movement with Martin Luther King and Selma as well as his Washington speech. It is also the year in which Robert Kennedy was assassinated as well as Martin Luther King. The opening sets the tone, the police raid (both black and white) on a Detroit speakeasy, moving the guests out, lining them up, but the locals resenting and reacting, setting off days of riots and looting, the local police in action as well as state troopers and, ultimately, the National Guard. There is an appeal by the Governor of Michigan, George Mc Govern, who is to be the Democratic candidate, defeated by Richard Nixon, in 1968.
The central part of the film is most effective. The audience has been introduced to a young group of black singers, about to go on stage when the theatre has to be evacuated because of the riots. Ultimately, they were to become the Motown group, The Dramatics. The main singer, Larry (Algee Smith) and his teenage friend, Fred (Jacob Latimore), escape through the barricades but decide not to go home. They go to a local motel, The Algiers. The film focuses for a long time on what happens at The Algiers.
Those in the motel are fairly young, mainly black, two young white girls from Ohio who are prostitutes, a veteran from the Vietnam war (Anthony Mackie). The police, troops, Guard all set up in the street, aware that there might be snipers. In the meantime, a very earnest and upright young black man (John Boyega) is a security guard but offers the National Guard cups of coffee. Which means, when the crisis occurs, he goes into The Algiers along with the troops to observe and to search the premises.
Small things can lead to huge crises. This is the case here, one of the young men firing a starting pistol out into the street where it is assumed a sniper is firing. The consequences of this act are dire, resulting in three deaths, and the rest of the residents being lined up for hours, bashed, treated brutally and humiliatingly, the two girls blamed for being with black men, the Vietnam veteran assumed to be a pimp. The police use the bluff of taking individuals into a room with the others presuming that they are being tortured and shot. In one case, the young policeman takes it all very literally, not a bluff, and shoots a victim.
The film presents the local police, especially three of them, as young, arrogant, racist, bigoted. The audience has already seen the leader, Krauss, (Will Poulter) shooting a fleeing looter in the back and being interviewed by his superior officer. Krauss does not hold back but, when one victim is shot, he has to alter the scenario.
The final part of the film is the court proceedings in 1969. After the physically disturbing sequence in The Algiers, the court proceedings are to some extent low key – except for the audience indignation at how the defence counsel (John Krasinski) interrogates the black witnesses, asking about their criminal records, implying that they are to blame. And the indignation continues with the jury’s verdict of not guilty – with the John Boyega character having been arrested, interrogated, implicated in the violence even though he was innocent.
John Boyega and Will Poulter are British and Jack Reynor grew up in Ireland.
Detroit is released on the 50th anniversary of the riots. With so many deaths in recent years, police killing black men, Detroit, to that extent, is in no way dated.
GOODBYE, CHRISTOPHER ROBIN
UK, 2017, 107 minutes, Colour.
Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther, Stephen Campbell Moore, Richard Mc Cabe, Geraldine Somerville.
Directed by Simon Curtis.
Enjoyment of this film does not depend on whether the audience has a familiarity with the Winnie the Pooh stories or has even read them. It is said that Winnie the Pooh is the most beloved of bears (well, Paddington might be a little envious).
This is very British story and is directed by Simon Curtis, a television director whose films include the Marilyn Monroe’s story, My Week with Marilyn and the German art story, Woman in Gold.. It opens in 1916, playwright and author, A.A.Milne experiencing war in the trenches, the bombardment, the many deaths and his suffering from shellshock. On his return, he is against war, but finds it very hard to settle back to ordinary life, writing for the theatre, his relationship with his wife, Daphne. Milne is played by Irish actor Dominique all Gleeson and Daphne by Australian actor, Margot Robbie.
One of the solutions that Milne needs to recover from the war is to move to the country, Daphne rather unwilling, with their young son, Christopher Robin whom they nickname Billy. Most of the action of the film takes place when Billy is eight years old.
Billy is very cautious about disturbing his father and his writing. His father and his mother have instilled this in him. He goes for walks in the woods, has a lot of animal toys, has a strong imagination. This has been fostered by his alternate mother-figure, his Scots and nanny, Nue (Kelly Macdonald in a very sympathetic performance). At one time, they visit the zoo in London where there is a huge grizzly bear called Winnipeg, which is where nickname Winnie comes from.
At one stage, while his mother is in London, Billy goes for a walk with his father, sharing three very happy days, bonding between father and son, delight in the woods, delight in his toys, delight in animals. Billy would like his father to write a story for him. His father does. Winnie the Pooh.
The impact is immediate, books literally flying off-the-shelf. The public as well as the media can’t get enough of Christopher Robin and so the eight-year-old is subjected to innumerable interviews, autograph signings, being in the public eye, international celebrity in the United States. His father is not against it. Daphne is at pains to promote and exploit the success of the stories.
Billy is rather excited when, to get out of the limelight, his sent to boarding school. However, he is mocked there. He is bullied.
The film has started with a prologue in a melancholy tone, 1941, the telegram coming to his parents – the audience not knowing the content until the end of the film.
When Billy returns from the war, he wants to live very quietly, marries, has a family, owns a bookstore in the south-west of England, never taking any money from the royalties from Winnie the Pooh books.
This might be described as a British heritage film, re-creating the period, highlighting a writer, telling the story of a little boy, reminding audiences of the power of imagination and story.
IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD
Japan, 2016, 130 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Sunao Katabuchi.
World audiences have become used to animated Japanese films from the Ghibli Studios, Ponyo, Howl’s Moving Castle, Arietty…. The audiences have appreciated their animation style, the creation of characters and their simplicity, the backgrounds, the local stories, many serious and reflecting on Japanese history, especially of war.
The film has all these qualities but comes from a different studio. However, it is an invitation for world audiences as well as Japanese audiences to go back into the past, to appreciate different times, different difficulties and how characters coped.
The film opens in the 1930s, focusing on the little girl, Suzu. We see her family, her siblings, the life and style in rural Japanese villages around Hiroshima in the decade before the war. Suzu is quite imaginative, a great capacity for drawing and bringing stories to life.
The screenplay offers many dates which makes the film something of a diary, something of a chronicle. Some years are skipped over quite rapidly, Suzu growing up during the late 1930s, then into the 1940s and her reaching the age of 19.
Audiences will be expecting explicit references to the war and Japanese involvement but this does not immediately happen. So much of Japanese life and international events do not impinge very strongly on people in local villages. What is important for Suzu as a young woman is that she marry. We see an arranged marriage, negotiations, finding a husband, the wife meeting the husband and the grandmother urging her with the symbol of the umbrella and the bride saying that she was willing to open her umbrella for her husband… Human feelings and love come later.
Suzu’s mother-in-law is quite hard on her. While Suzu is a loving wife, she also become something of a servant on the household, being relied on to clean, to mend and sew, to find ways of making meals where food was so scarce. She has a variety of recipes, gathers herbs from the countryside. The family survives. However, her husband goes to war.
The people in the village and the audience become much more conscious of the war, looking at the naval base of the ships in Hiroshima Bay. Then the planes begin to fly over, exploding in a variety of colours over the screen. Then there are the bombardments, the family seeking safety in dugout shelters.
We know that the atomic bomb is coming. Suzu wants to go back to her home in Hiroshima from her husband’s village but has lost her hand in a bomb blast, the hand with which she drew. The bombardment also kills her companion, a little girl. Which means that she is not in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped. And the audience does not see it. Rather, there are vibrations, the vast cloud, and the repercussions for the people of the city as well as of the neighbours.
Then the war is over, the Emperor surrenders, the Americans arrive, offering chocolate, and the Japanese have to adapt to defeat, the prospects of a different life and the rest of the 20th century. That, of course, is something that the audience for this film supplies in retrospect.
The film is bright in colour, gentle in its storytelling, a different perspective on Japan in the 1930s and 1940s.
US, 2017, 92 minutes, Colour.
Matt Passmore, Tobin Bell, Callum Keith Rennie, Hannah Emily Anderson, Cle Bennett, Laura Vandervoort, Paul Braunstein, Mandela Van Peebles, Brittany Allen, Josiah Black.
Directed by Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig.
This is jigsaw/John Kramer resuscitated – as well as a sequel to the very popular series during the two thousands.
Credit where credit is due. The Saw series was the brainchild of Australians, Lee Whannell as writer and James Wan as director. They collaborated in various capacities in the films that followed and are now involved as Executive Producers. And, as directors, brothers working together are, Michael and Peter Spierig who made the strong vampire film, Daybreakers, the excellent science fiction time mystery, Predestination, and the forthcoming chiller, Winchester, with Helen Mirren. Australian-based.
Can they do it all again? Answer: yes. Is it any different from the former films? And some: yes and no. Is it better than the former films? Answer: probably depends on your hunger for gory sequences.
These questions are relevant only to the fans of horror films, merely points of review reference for others who wouldn’t be seen dead - or alive - watching a Saw film.
In fact, the makers of this Saw contribution, while definitely repeating the formula of the previous films: Jigsaw choosing his victims, their all being guilty of crime and having gone unpunished, transported into a torture chamber which leads to other torture chambers and their survival depending on their capacity for confessing. (Given a theological frame of mind, it did occur during the screening of Jigsaw that there was a great emphasis on sin, responsibility, sense of guilt, self-excuses, the call to repentance, the torture chambers as being 21st-century version of Purgatorio and Inferno.)
The torture sequences are very similar to those in the previous films – which led commentators over a decade ago to designate films like this as torture-porn. There is certainly a point there.
But what makes this film more sittable through is that there are a lot of sequences outside the torture rooms, even some more humane elements. There are references to war service in Iraq. There are nice family glimpses. There are police shown in some detail pursuing their investigations. There are autopsy sequences (and they are definitely very grim and grisly), a mysterious and rather imperious doctor assistant and a very genial medical examiner for the autopsies.
Another factor is that the screenplay has the victims of torture lying about their responsibilities, with some flashbacks, but with some final revelations, that indicate characters more guilty than we would have expected, diminishing our sympathy for what they have undergone.
There is a visit to a bondage centre which resembles Jigsaw’s torture chamber. There are records again with his voice and his blood under the fingernails of some victims. But he has been dead and buried for 10 years. How can this be?
There is certainly a twist at the end, possibly a twist too far, audiences trying to find some credibility as regards time sequences and the ability of the torturer to do all his work within a 24 hours day. On the plus side, Tobin Bell repeats his presence as Jigsaw/John Kramer and, while he continues to torture, he is given some very moralising lines, even some momentary human touches.
However, human touches are not the staple of this series.
Australia, 2017, 115 minutes, Colour.
Daniel Radcliffe, Thomas Kretschmann, Alex Russell, Joel Jackson, Lily Sullivan, John Bluthal, Jacek Koman, Angie Milliken.
Directed by Greg Mc Lean.
Jungle is definitely not a misleading title. Most of the action takes place in the Bolivian jungle – though filmed in Colombia and around Mount Tambourine, Queensland.
This is the story of Yossi Ghinsberg, an Israeli man who left his home and family in Israel to find himself, working in Alaska, in New York, in Bolivia and invited to join an expedition into the jungle, to experience nature, to find tribes, perhaps gold in the rivers, and to find himself. In so many ways, he does. But it is a matter of survival in the jungle. And the final credits indicate that after these experiences, he moved back to Bolivia, into the jungle to contribute to ecology and prosperity, where he still is.
Interesting that Daniel Radcliffe plays Yossi Ghinsberg. In the years after Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe has chosen quite a wide range of roles, recently an undercover FBI agent in Imperium, Igor in Victor Frankenstein, the corpse in Swiss Army Man. Compared with the other main characters in this film, his companions in the trek into the jungle, Thomas Kretschmann as Karl, the ambiguous adventurer who leads them, Alex Russell as Kevin, the American photographer, Joel Jackson as Marcus, the Swiss teacher, he is definitely pint -sized. (Alex Russell and Joel Jackson Australian actors.) However, as ever, he has a strength of presence the persuades the audience of his character’s credibility.
The film has been directed by Greg Mc Lean, still best known for the two Wolf Creek films as well as the television series, for his crocodile film, Rogue, and the intense intra--offices gladiatorial survival film, The Belko Experiment. He knows how to draw intensity from his characters, from desperate situations which, in this case, are particularly visceral, a kind of intense physicality in threatening and survival situations which are reminiscent of films like Deliverance.
As the group trek into the jungle, the audience is drawn into sharing the journey with them, a strong identification of curiosity, of fear, challenge, of discovery. There is exhilaration in the beauty of the photography, mountains and jungle, close-ups as the group machetes its way, as well as beautiful aerial vistas.
The second half of the film takes place after Karl and Marcus trek through the jungle instead of continuing downriver on a raft which is what Kevin and Yossi do. If the audience ever wanted to know what it was like to raft through rapids, this may be as close as it will ever get! But, after the raft disaster, Yossi has to make his way through the jungle, surviving, becoming emaciated, having hallucinations, consoled by flashbacks, yet determined to continue, almost for three weeks before being found.
There is a religious dimension, Yossi’s Jewish background and the gift of a text from his uncle which reminds him of the divine as he survives.
In many ways, this film is not for the fainthearted who quail at the presentation of physical pain and suffering. The audience has to be prepared to share this demanding journey through the jungle.
US, 2017, 121 minutes, Colour.
Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Henry Cavill, Robin Wright, Connie Neilson, Amy Adams, Amber Heard, Diane Lane, Kiersey Clemons, Billy Crudup, JK Simmons, Ciaran Hinds, Jeremy irons, Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Mc Elhatton, Joe Morton.
Directed by Zack Snyder, Joss Wheedon.
Not exactly from time immemorial, but for some considerable time, there has been some rivalry between DC Comics and the Marvel Comics. In an ideal world, this ought not be so competitive, the fans able to appreciate both and the range of films made with their particular Superheroes and the linking of their Superheroes as Avengers or as the Justice League.
The main difficulty in writing a review of Justice League is that the reviewer is on the side of the Marvel Universe. From the 70s into the 90s, the Superman and Batman films were very well done, as was Christopher Nolan’s Batman series. The 2017 Wonder Woman was also very good. But, with Man of Steel, Suicide Squad… And their being outshone by, for example, Thor, the choice is for Marvel.
In checking on the bloggers for Justice League, one finds that there is extraordinarily passionate support! The fans consider it wonderful entertainment from start to finish.
What follows is just one reviewer’s opinion. There is a brief opening sequence, caught on phone camera, where children are interviewing Superman. Unfortunately, after Batman versus Superman, Superman is no longer with us, he is dead and buried. (Which is not necessarily going to stop screenwriters for DC Comics!).
Then there is a scene with Batman confronting a monster alien. Then there is Wonder Woman, from her base in London, using her gold lassoo and an ability to avoid bullets to thwart sabotage on four city blocks. Bruce Wayne does a trek to the remote north to have a challenging conversation with Arthur Curry, Aquaman. Then there is Barry Allen, visiting his father in prison, being urged to get a real job. And, in a secret laboratory, there is Victor Stone, victim of his father’s experiment.
Which means then that we have the introductions to the Justice League: Ben Affleck as Batman, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, Jason Memorial as Aquaman, Ezra Fisher as The Flash/Barry Allen and Ray Fisher as Cyborg/Victor Stone. And the reason for Bruce Wayne getting them together is that there are three mysterious boxes of energy, referred to in the documents of Lex Luthor, and the arrival of Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) who intends to destroy the world. (The audience is given something of a preview of what might happen in a sequence with an enormous squad of Amazon women converging on Steppenwolf.)
The rest of the film seems mainly fights and explosions. There is an important interlude, this review not wanting to spoil the plot but most fans will know this anyway, where Lois Lane and Martha Kent (Amy Adams and Diane Lane again) are mourning the death of Superman. However, Bruce Wayne, always aided by the surveillance and offbeat remarks of his butler, Alfred (Jeremy Irons) has the idea that the energy can resuscitate Superman. And, even with a photo of Kevin Costner as Clark Kent’s foster father, the energy does its job, although there is a certain innate hostility in Superman until it is mellowed by meeting Lois again. And, of course, it is Henry Cavill as the resuscitated Superman.
And so, more fights and explosions, victory through the variety of skills of the Superheroes and audiences being advised to sit through the very long credits to see where the series might be leading. Actually, with the revelation of a sinister character returning to the series, the reviewer left the cinema more hopefully.
THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER
US, 2017, 121 minutes, Colour.
Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Alicia Silverstone, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Bill Camp.
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.
Greek director, Yorgos Lanthimos, has become something of a celebrity in recent years. He made Dogtooth, 2010, and Lobster, 2015. Critics were impressed by his rather offbeat approach to storytelling, touches of the bizarre, and rather different perspectives on human nature. With this present film, made in the United States and in Ireland, he won the screenplay award at Cannes, 2017.
As with dogs and lobsters, he has animal connotations in his title. Thoughtful publicists and reviewers have let audiences know that the references to Greek mythology. King Agamemnon, on his way to fight the Trojans, suffered failing wins. Rather vengeful gods, it would seem, demanded that he sacrifice Iphigeneia. Just as he was supposed to kill her, she was transformed into a sacred deer. The ritual went ahead.
Sacred deer: victim, sacrificial, a motive for revenge?
Lanthimos tells his story in linear narrative but, what happens along the way means that there are dramatic gaps in the narrative, unexpected twists and turns, keeping the audience on its mental toes, so to speak.
In Cincinnati, Colin Farrell, who appeared in Lobster, is a surgeon, Steven Murphy (and with his own Irish accent), the opening image being of open cut surgery, the camera gazing, as we do, at intestines. Steven has a good reputation although some have died during surgery he performed – including the father of a rather enigmatic teenager, Martin (Barry Keegan) who keeps appearing at Steven’s office, or in a diner, or in walks, with Steven giving him the gift of a watch. So, we are immediately on the alert and questioning the relationship between Steven and Martin.
At home, Steven’s wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman) is strong-minded but often a touch of the lenient with her two children, teenage Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and younger son, Bobby (Sunny Suljic).
Then it becomes rather mysterious, perhaps psychosomatic, perhaps psychological, with Bobby unable to stand, going to the hospital, having tests, Steven sitting in on group analysis of what is wrong with his son. Kim, who has something of a relationship with Martin, riding on his motorbike, at one stage being sexually provocative, suddenly collapses and cannot stand.
So begins a period of greater anxiety for father and mother, for the children disabled in hospital, for their returning home. There are further complications with Steven’s anaesthetist, Matthew, also a family friend (Bill Camp) and Anna trying to get information from files and paying up sexually.
Ultimately, the film turns to touches of horror and violence, the pressure on Steven, his bizarre Agamemnon moments and the question of sacrificing a member of his family, which means that Martin is something of a vengeful God (although Steven has brutal moments with him as well). In the Iliad, Agamemnon is able to sail to Troy and for the Greeks ultimately to defeat the Trojans. No such triumphant outcomes here… just some survival.
Strange, even alienating, to watch – but it offers so much to reflect on.
JUST TO BE SURE/ OTEZ-MOI D'UN DOUTE
France, 2017, 100 minutes, Colour.
François Damiens, Cecile De France, Guy Marchand, Andre Wilms, Alice de Lencquesaing, Esteban.
Directed by Carine Tardieu.
This light drama has been highly touted as very popular at the French box office. While it is a pleasant entertainment, it is a comparatively ordinary film. (Some French reviewers have referred to it as “hilarious” which might indicate the French sense of humour is very different from other senses of humour!)
Not that there is not plenty to enjoy. The title is provocative – and refers to themes of paternity which are explored in several different ways throughout the film.
The central character is Erman (François Damiens), a working man in his mid-40s, an expert in bomb disposal and active along the Brittany coast, finding remainders from World War II. He leads a squad who generally have to detonate the bombs they discover but also risk dangers, especially from mines in farming fields. Erman is a widower, fond memories of his wife, devoted to his father, an ageing man who loves going out on his boat and needs medical clearances to continue to do so. Erman also has a daughter, Juliet, aged 22, pregnant and declaring she does not know who the father is.
First paternity problem.
There are quite some complications when Erman and his daughter go to the doctor to check on whether they are carrying a disease which has carried off family members in the previous generation. And so, the main paternity problem. It would seem that Erman’s sailing father is not actually his father. What to do? Try to find out the truth? Let it be? He even asks the rather awkward young man, Didier (Esteban) whom his daughter has persuaded him to take on for a job - which he does not do well.
There is an amusing sequence when he goes to a private detective – a rather older woman with an acerbic tongue. But she does the job and for the rest of the film, we can rather enjoy Erman’s searching out his actual father, their encounters, the bond between them.
Another part of the plot is the fact of Erman being upset when a driver hits a boar on the road during the night. She is Anna, a doctor, who is able to put the boar down. Later, Erman sees her in the town, is very much attracted, invites her to dinner. But then there is a further paternity complication – which the trailer unfortunately reveals but which will not be revealed here.
So, paternal complications, the role of the two fathers, the discovery of Juliet’s baby’s father (not too difficult), the possibility of a romance between Erman and Anna, the birth of the baby…
On the whole, the film has a rather gentle sense of humour, rather than hilarious, and there are some serious moments as well as, towards the end and the birth of the baby, some farcical moments.
And so, the meaning of the title, just being sure who is who – and how.
US, 2017, 88 minutes, Colour.
Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr, Tom Skerritt, Beth Grant, James Darren, Barry Shabaka Henley, Yvonne Huff, Hugo Armstrong.
Directed by John Carroll Lynch.
It is not everyone who has the opportunity to make a film of their epitaph. But, this is the case with Harry Dean Stanton, his last film, drawing on aspects of his own life, something of an epitaph portrait.
It is also an elegy for Harry Dean Stanton, his career, his way of life, his screen images – and, before he walks along the desert road the end of the film, he actually does look straight into the camera and, rather gently, smiles.
While there are narrative aspects of the screenplay, the film is more of a character portrait, perhaps too slow for those who have action compulsions, but rewarding for those who are able to stay quietly with Lucky and the inevitability of his moving towards death. The tagline for the film is “the spiritual journey of an atheist”. While this is basically true, Lucky is not a rabid atheist but, rather, a Texan humanist.
Harry Dean Stanton has appeared in a number of films over many decades, something of a figurehead for many independent films, including those of David Lynch. However, he is best known for his lead role in the 1984 Wim Wenders film, Paris, Texas. Interesting to note that in the final song in the film (and there are a number of songs whose lyrics contemplate death, life, darkness…), The Moonshine Man, there is mention of Stanton by name and also a reference to Paris, Texas.
The location of this film doesn’t seem to be all that far from Paris, Texas. It is a small town in the south-west, and in the desert (with opportunities for some fine desert scenery). Lucky, his nickname because of his job in the Navy during World War II, lives alone, never married, in a modern enough house. We see him get up in the morning, turn on the radio, light a cigarette (he is most definitely a smoker, defending it though sacked from a restaurant job for lighting up while working there). He does exercises, gets dressed, walks/shuffles to a diner for breakfast where he is friendly with the manager and the assistant, chatting, being quiet, doing word puzzles and reflecting on the meaning of “realism”. He later declares his belief in ‘truth’ as a thing.
He wanders around the town, buy some milk for his fridge (the only thing there) and is friendly with the shopkeeper who later invites him to the fiesta, many Hispanics in the town, for her son’s 10th birthday. In the background, frequently there is The Red River Valley on a harmonica.
At night he goes to the bar, drinks, talks to friends, is quiet, listens to the barkeeper (Hugo Armstrong) who has a long sequence of explaining the mechanism of Deal No Deal which Lucky doesn’t think much of. The proprietor is Elaine, Beth Grant, who has some raucous stories of her own but who is very fond of her long-time partner, Paulie, star of the past, James Darren, and, especially, his friend, Howard, who is lamenting the loss of his pet tortoise, President Roosevelt. He is played by David Lynch, making a tribute to Stanton by appearing in the film, and has a very fine speech about loneliness and his devotion to his tortoise.
There is a bitter moment when an insurance salesman, Bob (Ron Livingston), is putting pressure on Howard and is attacked with Lucky’s disapproval. But, there are moments of redemption, with Bob later visiting the town, getting Lucky’s cold and silent treatment but taking the initiative, breaking through, telling some stories about himself and his daughter with Lucky responding well. A Marine veteran (Tom Skerritt), stops for a drink and shares a poignantly reminiscing chat with Lucky about their war service, in Asia, in the Philippines. Happiness and regrets.
But, Lucky has a blackout and fall, goes to the doctor, Ed Begley Jr, gets advice but realises he has to prepare for death, which, for him, is simply a void, the end of everything.
Speaking of redemption, there is a wonderful sequence when Lucky goes to the fiesta, is welcomed by the mother and her son, the woman introducing him to her mother who does not speak much English. A Mariachi band plays and, suddenly and unexpectedly, Lucky breaks into a plaintive song in Spanish, a beautiful moment revealing the humanity of Lucky.
It is not surprising to find that Lucky won the Ecumenical Award at the 2017 Locarno Film Festival.
THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS
2017, 104 minutes, Colour.
Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Miriam Margolyes, Ian McNeice?, Morfydd Clark, Donald Sumpter, Bill Paterson, Miles Jupp, Annette Badland, Justin Edwards, Anna Murphy.
Directed by Bharat Nalluri.
One might have thought that Jesus himself might have been considered the “inventor” of Christmas – or, at least, Matthew or Luke in their Gospels. But, no, the man of the title is Charles Dickens, so well-known for his novel, A Christmas Carol.
This is an entertaining imagination about Dickens and his crisis in 1843, his failure with three books including Martin Chuzzlewit and his book on his American tour (with which the film opens, an extrovert extravaganza from his audience and his wishing he could get home!). Dickens has a block, is in debt, his fear that if he doesn’t produce another book or, if it fails, he will never write again.
Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey and his reminding us of his role as the Beast in Beauty and the Beast) is a sometimes frantic Dickens, caught up in his own world and imagination, angry with others, including his wife, resentful of his father and his extravagance, living in his imagination as he gathers names, images, family connections to produce A Christmas Carol.
Just as there are ghosts and fantasy in the novel itself, this film uses the same technique. Central to it all is Scrooge himself (and there are a couple of scenes in the trailer which are, unfortunately, not in the film, scenes where Dickens is trying to work out the name Scrooge as well is what he will call his story). Scrooge is played by Christopher Plummer, relishing the role, denouncing humbug, misanthropic, pessimistic, quick with the putdown of Dickens himself (the author – allegedly!). The ghost of Scrooge enables Dickens to focus on a story, the character of Scrooge and his heartlessness toward Bob Cratchit and, especially, the ailing Tiny Tim. Actually, by the end, Scrooge is able to challenge Dickens who then discovers his own Scrooginess, redeeming Scrooge himself.
We see how Dickens loves collecting names, relishing Marley, for instance. There is an nice touch at the end when he hears the name Copperfield. In fact, the presentation of his father in this film is very much like Mr Micawber.
Dickens has a put-upon wife, several children, a manager of his household and a maid. They all have a lot to put up with. And then his father turns up, Dickens having bought his parents a house in Devon. His father, well played by Jonathan Pryce, really has no conception of money and imposes on his son, his wife always patient. Dickens finds him exceedingly exasperating but, as he has a flashback about his father’s imprisonment, Dickens himself going to a blacking factory (with echoes of Oliver Twist), being bullied, he finally remembers that a bequest from his father is that everyone should play a part in lightening others’ loads.
Dickens’ sister and her family arrive from Manchester for a visit – and their little son is ill and has a crutch. Which means that various characters that Dickens encounters become part of his fantasy, his sister’s family becoming the Cratchits, his good friend and confidante, John Forster (a likeable Justin Edwards), becomes the ghost of Christmas present and his lawyer becomes the ghost of Jacob Marley. Dickens goes into this world quite frequently and, happily, with “God bless us everyone”, there is Christmas cheer all round as the book is finally published on time, John Leach (played by Simon Callow who has played Dickens on screen and on stage) finishing the sketches, Thackeray, seen as a rival to Dickens, giving the book a very warm review.
In the note at the end of the film remind us that one of the great effects of the novel was an increase in philanthropy, in people giving to those in need.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS
US, 2017, 114 minutes, Colour.
Kenneth Branagh, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr, Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, William Dafoe, Olivia Coleman, Derek Jacobi, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, Lucy Bointon, Adam Garcia, Richard Clifford, Miranda Raison.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh.
There are two ways for audiences to respond to watching Murder on the Orient Express. It will depend on whether the audience has read the book or seen film versions.
For those not in the know, the film will be quite a spectacular whodunnit. For those in the know, the intriguing aspect will be watching the journey, the crime, the interviews, the solving of the case – and, instead of whodunnit, ‘howdunnit’!
In the film and television audience imagination, older audiences will see Albert Finney in the 1974 version. At the end of this film, there is mention that there has been a murder on the Nile and Poirot is off to Egypt, in Death on the Nile, Poirot was Peter Ustinov, who appeared in several further Poirot films. The actor who most embodies Poirot, with television producers aiming to film all the novels with David Suchet, is David Suchet. Which means that for many, Poirot is bald, small, fastidious, immaculately dressed, immaculately spoken – and with a small moustache.
Kenneth Branagh goes to an entirely different style, not only head hair but, what a moustache!
Kenneth Branagh has directed the film as well. He has a very fine cast with Johnny Depp rather sinister and sleazy as the victim. Depending on the amount of time they have on screen, the strength of their screen presence, other members of the cast man make strong impressions or not enough. Probably the person with the most impact is Michelle Pfeiffer as the rather brassy American. But, audiences will have to be satisfied with the rather more diminished sequences with such luminaries as Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Willem Dafoe, although Daisy Ridley (so strong in Style Wars: The Force Awakens) certainly makes an impression.
To give a bit of flavour, there is an episode in Jerusalem in 1934, accusations of theft near the Wailing Wall, with the accused a rabbi, a priest, an email. It is all staged to give audiences an impression of the skills of Poirot – who has interrupted his fastidious breakfast, two eggs the same size, he measuring them for satisfaction… Or not.
Ferry to Istanbul and then the Orient Express, with some magnificent scenery in snowclad mountains, at train level, aerial photography, even an avalanche trapping the train on top of a wooden bridge.
And, there, a murder. Everyone has an alibi and each, in turn, has an opportunity for an interview with Poirot to explain their case.
Which gives the opportunity for the audience to enjoy the cast and their cameos.
As with most Agatha Christie stories, the detective gathers all the people concerned into a room, explains the situation and unmasks the killer. When you are in the middle of the mountains, why confine people to a room, even to the luxurious dining room of the train?. Rather, the weather having cleared, everybody sits at the opening of the train tunnel, Poirot facing them all and offering his detective disquisition on what happened.
Agatha Christie has many ingenious plots and this one has a high reputation in being ingenious.
ONLY THE BRAVE
US, 2017, 134 minutes, Colour.
Josh Brolin, Jennifer Connolly, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Andi Mac Dowell, Alex Russell.
Directed by Joseph Kosinski.
This is a fine film about firefighters, especially in Arizona. It is based on a true story and serves as a tribute to the firefighters. And, if an audience does not know the background of the story, it is well advised that they do not research it at all before seeing the film and so lessening its impact.
The Western states of the United States are frequently subject to huge forest fires. Professional firefighters as well as volunteers have to be ready at short notice to go into action. One of the great values of this film is how well and seriously it presents these themes. It highlights the professionalism needed by the firefighters, their dedication and commitment, the rigours of training which is very military-like, the need for following orders, the strong camaraderie in collaboration, the ever present dangers as well as the sometimes of long absences from home and family.
For other countries, like Australia, which experience fires in the summer seasons, this is a film well worth seeing. Visually, it certainly brings home the reality of the fires, their extent, the rapidity of movement given the winds, the intensity of the flames. Audiences will see how physically demanding the work is, hard work, with mental concentration – as well as the strategies that have to be developed by the leaders and supervisors to combat the fires. In this film, there are many fire sequences, realistic, and editing with the performers so that the experience of the fires is particularly real.
The film has a very good cast and is well written, based on a long article written in 2014 for GQ by Sean Flynn.
The film depends on the presence and performance of Josh Brolin as Eric, the superintendent of the group in Prescott, Arizona. He embodies very well the kind of sturdy solidity and responsibility that the firefighter leader must have. He is completely believable in the role. Jennifer Connolly is his strong-minded wife, Amanda, a horse-whisperer who is supportive of her husband but is beginning to change her mind about the need for having a family.
It is interesting to see Jeff Bridges, in the familiar kind of role as the older mentor, but with short back and sides and wearing glasses. He is a senior role model – although, towards the end of the film, he does have a moment to branch out at a celebration in a bar, singing Riders in the Sky. Andi Mac Dowell has some moments as his wife.
A team of good actors take the role of the special squad on which the film focuses. They are volunteers but want to be recognised and certified as an official group for their district. One of the episode shows their work in being observed for certification – and Eric using his crew with the observer, standing his ground in the decision about tactics. They are accepted and there are great celebrations, and T-shirts, to hail of the occasion.
It is Miles Teller (Whiplash) who has second billing. He plays Brendan Mc Donough who, it is noted at the end, served as a special adviser for the film. Actually, when he first appears, he is a heroin addict, something of a loner and a loser, has got a girl pregnant in a one-night stand, has been picked up the public by the police and jailed. He is ousted from his home by his mother. On probation, he does go to Eric and applies for a job with the firefighters, is interviewed strongly, is tested in a long-distance run and is finally accepted.
He clashes with one of the men who fancies himself a ladies’ man, Mac (Taylor Kitsch) but they develop a friendship, Brendan taking Mac in when he breaks up with his girlfriend, Mac fitting out the house for Brendan’s baby after her mother relents, supporting him after he is bitten by a snake. James Badge Dale is also strong as the captain of the group.
The action of the film builds up to a final fire, the historical fire in 2013 when the town of Yarnell stands in the pathway of the fire and the Granite Mountain Hotshots have to defend homes and stop the fire.
This is a solid film, interesting and entertaining, strong characterisations, significant action sequences, and showing how in reality, rather than in sloganeering, it is fighters like this who can make America great.
THE ORNITHOLOGIST/ O ORNITOLOGO
Portugal, 2016, 117 minutes, Colour.
Paul Hamy, Joao Pedro Rodriguez, Han Wen, Chan Suan and, Juliane Elting.
Directed by Joao Pedro Rodriguez.
While initially an audience might believe they are coming to see a nice film about a bird watcher, and there are some pleasant scenes of Fernando (Paul Hamy) on the river, his binoculars, looking at some beautiful birds, nesting, eggs…, it might be prudent to advise that this is not a straightforward narrative film. It is something of an allegory, it has touches of the mystical, and, for many audiences, maybe quite too mysterious.
There is an opening quotation from Saint Anthony of Lisbon, better known to us all as Saint Anthony of Padua, originally a Portuguese man named Fernando who became a Franciscan, and who has devout legends about him as being the patron of things which are lost as well as the story of his preaching to the birds. The opening quotation has references to nature, echoes of the spirituality of St Francis of Assisi, as well as a sense of spirits in the forests.
Something of this needs to be kept in mind. The director, Joao Pedro Rodriguez, has made a short film about celebrating the feast of Saint Anthony. And it can be noted that, by the end of the film, the director himself appears as an actor, taking over from Paul Hamy as the ornithologist, and this time called Anthony rather than Fernando as he and another character walk, like pilgrims, into the actual city of Padua.
Another note which will help audiences understand the approach of Rodriguez is that he is a gay man and there are some significant gay perspectives throughout the film.
When Fernando is caught in the rapids and his kayak is split, he lies in the water but has not drowned. Now begin some of the mysteries. He is rescued by two young Chinese women, who say that they are on their way to Compostella, walking the Camino. They are rather off-track, in forests in the north of Portugal where it meets Spain. While they are nervous, and say their prayers, and feed Fernando, they then tie him up, roped upright in his underwear resembling the image of Jesus on the cross.
But there are more encounters in Fernando’s Odyssey, most significantly a mute and deaf young man who write his name on the sand, Jesus. Some audiences may balk at what follows but there is a sexual interlude between Fernando and the young man, (perhaps a gay suggestion of the intimacy between St Anthony and Jesus himself), but there are some violent consequences with Jesus’ side pierced by a knife and blood flowing out.
In the forests there are some strange men, masks and elaborate costumes, shouting and dancing – preparing for a fiesta and one of them, Thomas, turns out to be the twin brother of Jesus. He also has a knife wound in his side (and it was Thomas who wanted to put his finger in Jesus’ side – as Fernando puts his finger in Thomas’s side).
Keeping the mythical tone, Fernando is accosted by three bare-breasted Amazons who actually speak to him in Latin. They let him go.
Birds are present throughout the film, images, bird sounds – and, significantly in a tableau at the end, there is a white dove (which some audiences researching the Catholic symbolism missed), the Holy Spirit in the forest. The quote from Saint Anthony at the opening of the film did indicate that there were spirits in the forest.
And, finally, Thomas and the now Anthony walking into Padua – and the Chinese girls passing by, waving from the other side of the road.
Plenty to puzzle over for those who wish to pursue the allegory.
Ireland, 2016, 99 minutes, Colour.
John and Amanda Leyden,
Directed by Neasa Ni Chianain, David Rane.
There is great deal of human interest in this documentary which has won a number of awards citing it has a pleasant experience about education.
Interestingly, the original title was the Latin, In Loco Parentis – in place of the parents.
The setting is Headfort School in an 18th-century estate and mention in County Meath, the last boarding school in Ireland for primary students. The student group is quite select, many of them having ambitions to get into prestigious schools in Ireland or, especially, Harrow and Eton in the United Kingdom.
While there is a great deal of emphasis on the students and some of them do become central to the story and action, especially the awkwardly dyslexic Ted, the silent Eliza, we recognise the students by their faces and behaviour rather than by their names.
However, the central focus is on two veteran teachers, John and Amanda Leyden. The film opens in their home, having a quiet breakfast smoke and conversation. They have been at the school many years – and John later tells a student that they were married in 1972, which puts him at the school for almost 45 years, married for almost 45 years. They have dedicated their life to the school. The current principal, Dermot Dix, was also a student there.
The number of students is comparatively small as is the number of staff. These are glimpsed, sometimes in conversation, sometimes with the children, but the principal focus is on the work of the Leydens. In appearance, John looks something of a rebel, very casually dressed, long hair askew, a touch of the cynical and the critical in his dealing with the students, yet very concerned about them. Amanda looks something of a dowdy grandmother. But they are deeply concerned about the students, do their best to form them in their studies and as persons. At home, the couple have conversations about the students, discussing their concerns and what they might do.
Amanda is principally concerned with literature. We see her in the library recommending books. We see her in the classroom. We also see her directing some scenes from Hamlet, intriguing to see the primary school students and their rehearsals, the extensive make up, the nervousness, the performance, especially of Ted as the ghost and of Hamlet. Amanda shares their anxiety as well as their exhilaration.
On the other hand, while John teaches maths and Latin, he is also interested (more interested?) in music. He is an old-time rock ‘n’ roller and there are various posters and indications of his fondness for David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix. He encourages the children to sing whatever they can and whatever they like. He is also interested in the instruments, he himself playing the piano. Some play the guitar. And there is a young girl, Florie, who arrives in the school, having been a model but with some low self-esteem, who plays the drums. Ultimately, there is a performance for the parents at which the students excel.
There are some staff meetings, interesting to hear the principal and his assessment of the students and the ethos of the school.
At the end of the year, some of the students are overjoyed they get into their preferred schools. And there is a ceremony in local awards with the untalkative Eliza winning several awards and beginning to talk – and talk and talk.
There is no voice-over for this documentary. Rather, the audience is introduced to John and Amanda, seeing the range of students at meetings, out in the grounds, in classes, in discussions, music practice, theatre, cricket.
The director and the editor have chosen particular scenes, seemingly at random, to build up the kind of piecemeal jigsaw rather than any set piece.
By the end of the film, the audience has experienced a perspective on education of primary school children. The film will, of course, be of particular interest to teachers and parents if their children are in primary school.
US, 2017, 121 minutes, Colour.
Nikolaj Coster- Waldau, John Bernthal, Omari Hardwick, Lake Bell, Holt Mc Callany, Benjamin Bratt, Jeffrey Donovan, Evan Jones, Max Greenfield, Emory Cohen.
Directed by Ric Roman Waugh.
This is a little heard of film, which is a pity. It is not a film that everyone would enjoy but for those who like serious and strong dramas with moral issues and emotional issues, this can be recommended.
The film has been written and directed by Ric Roman Waugh, better known for his work in stunts since the 1980s.
The film opens and closes with letters, the opening with a letter from a criminal in jail to his son, the ending with a letter from the son to his father, in jail.
The structure of the film is such that it seems to start, in terms of the narrative, at point B. A man who has been behind bars for ten years is released just as there is a hanging in the corridor. He looks tough, especially with a handlebar moustache, lines in his face. He is picked up by other criminals, taken to accommodation, goes to a club where there is a drive-by shooting and he makes contact with a rather baby-faced veteran from Afghanistan with discussion about stolen arms.
When the screenplay unexpectedly takes us back to point A, it is quite a surprise. How could the man that we have just seen leaving prison be the rather dapper stockbroker, with wife and young son, dining at a fashionable restaurant and discussing business, be the same man who leaves jail ten years later?
Nikolaj Coster- Waldau is most persuasive in the central role, shading the character of the stockbroker in his good days and as a prisoner in his bad days.
The continued flashbacks from the continuing point B, take quite a while to show the details of what happened in point A, car accident, court case, imprisonment.
Where the film is very interesting, psychologically speaking, is in the experience of the man in jail – real name Jacob, nickname “Money” because of his being a stockbroker. The screenplay raises the questions about how one survives in jail, the pressures of gangs, racial segregation, emotional blackmail. And the question whether a prisoner under such pressures has the exercise of free will or not. To that extent, the film shows the steps in the gradual downfall of Jacob leading to fights in the courtyard, murders, connections with arms dealing outside the prison, corrupt guards.
There is some emotion during the sequences with the visit of Jacob’s wife (Lake Bell), her sadness, her being mystified by the changes in her husband, and her surname growing up during his teen years.
All this is leading to point C, what will happen to Jacob as he leaves prison, the talk of an arms deal and his taking control. His liaison is Shotgun (Jon Bernthal) whom he had known in prison but is now making the connections for handing over of the weapons to a Mexican cartel.
In the meantime, we have been introduced to some of the police in Los Angeles, especially Omari Hardwick seen in a raid and wounded immediately in action when confronting a suburban paedophile. He is also Jacob’s supervisor during his probation. It emerges that the police have a leak within the rogue group and we wonder how Jacob is going to handle the situation. At times, this is not a pretty picture. The scenes of the sale and the raid are well executed and we are still puzzling over Jacob’s motivation and his subsequent behaviour.
There are explanations, some coming right at the end, which means that the audience is involved throughout the film with Jacob and his character, the changes, the motivations, some dismay at his behaviour, some hopes for change in behaviour, but the audience puzzling and reflecting right up to the end of the film.
US, 2017, 86 minutes, Colour.
Voices of: Stephen Yuen, Keegan- Michael Key, Aidy Bryant, Gina Rodriguez, Zachary Levi, Christopher Plummer, Ving Rhames, Gabriel Iglesias, Kelly Clarkson, Anthony Anderson, Kris Kristofferson, Kristin Chenoweth, Mariah Carey, Oprah Winfrey, Tracy Morgan.
Directed by Timothy Reckart.
Teachers and parents have been asking about this film. They want to know whether it would be helpful in classes about the religious meaning of Christmas, whether it will be helpful for families to see the film in preparation for Christmas.
This is an animation film, sponsored by Sony, with a great deal of the animation work done in Canada. The animation decision indicates that this will not be a “realistic “presentation of the familiar stories from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
(One might add that some bloggers have taken a very serious stance, objecting that this means of communication is not fit for gospel stories, is irreverent, could demean the stories. They forget that there has been a long tradition of cribs, different imagination of humans and animals in cribs, and Christmas legends like The Small One with Bing Crosby’s 1947 recording available on Youtube.)
It is important to note that this is a film designed for the youngest of audiences. It is definitely geared to “littlies” and the parents who accompany them and who are eager for their children to learn, as befits their age, something about Christmas – rather than the tinsel and commercialism, the over-emphasis on Santa Claus and children knowing more about him, the North pole, his reindeers than about Jesus.)
The filmmakers agree that they have taken liberties with imagining and embellishing the story, wanting to add some tones of humour to delight the children’s audience, some slapstick and pratfalls to have them laughing (which the littlies do), and a touch of drama with Mary and Joseph hurrying to Bethlehem, a sinister King Herod manipulating the wise men and a brutal soldier and two fierce dogs in pursuit of Mary and Joseph.
So, while Mary and Joseph and Herod are significant characters, the point about this telling of the story is that it is from the point of view of the animals and their being the central characters as well. Actually, the humans can’t hear them talk, only the familiar animal sounds. But, the audience hears them and they have a range of voices from a number of American actors and comedians including Oprah Winfrey, Tracy Morgan, Mariah Carey as the camels and Christopher Plummer as Herod.
The central character is a donkey called Bo. He and an old donkey (voiced by Kris Kristofferson) are mill donkeys, going in circles all their lives, Bo eager to escape but not really knowing how. He is well voiced by Korean-American? actor, Steven Yuen. Bo has a cheeky dove friend, prone to wisecracks (Keegan Michael Key). They want to be in the king’s entourage.
Bo and Dave want to help Mary, who has been kind to Bo, and they hurry along the road to Bethlehem where they meet a lost sheep, Ruth (Aidy Bryant). Lots of comedy here, verbal and physical.
While the pursuing soldier might be frightening, the littlies might find the two snarling dogs (one fierce, the other rather dumb) fiercer – though they do have a crib conversion!
The key elements of Mary and Joseph, annunciation, betrothal, visit from Elizabeth and Zachary, inns and stables are all there – though, for some tastes the expected very American accents of Gina Rodriguez and Zachary Levi sound too modern, Mary prone to say ‘OK’ a lot. While Herod is evil, we see all the elements of Matthew 2 – though not the killing of the Innocents, the fierce soldier in pursuit being enough.
The film opens ‘9 months BC’! The light of the annunciation vision goes up into the sky to shine for the Magi and all, people and animals alike.
It is not a film for older children, unless they are tolerant of films for those younger than they are, nor a film designed for adults. The older children will identify more with The Nativity Story of 2006.
But, this is a nice little film for little audiences, part of initial steps to learning the Gospel stories.
US/Canada, 2017, 93 minutes, Colour.
Jon Bernthal, Christopher Abbott, Imogen Poots, Rosemarie De Witt, Odessa Young.
Directed by Jamie M. Dagg.
Sweet is not exactly the word that comes to mind throughout this film. The title, in fact, refers to a motel in a remote Alaskan town (although the film takes full advantage of beautiful mountain scenery, photographed in the town of Hope, Canada). And, as regards Virginia, the central character plays an old rodeo rider, now injured and retired to Alaska, who had some success, as we see in flashbacks, in Roanoke, Virginia.
This is a film about moral decline in a small American town. It is something in the vein of the popular film noir of the 1940s, much of the action taking place in dark surroundings.
The film opens quite strikingly with a man arriving at a diner to join his two friends and a card game. Normal enough, phone calls to wives, everything quiet. A stranger then arrives, even though the diner is closed, and demands a meal. He identifies the manager of the diner. He does go out, but returns with deadly results.
As the film proceeds, we see his connection to quite a number of other people in the town. There are secrets and lies, there are fidelities and infidelities, there is ordinariness, there is malice, there is love and there is hate.
The rodeo rider, Sam, played by Jon Bernthal, now manages a motel where the stranger is staying and begins a friendship with him. This is in contrast with another resident of the motel subject of complaint about noise who is a violent man and bashes Sam.
It emerges that the stranger, Elwood (Christopher Abbott in a truly sinister role, psychopathic, heartless, yet sentimental in phoning his mother) is a hitman employed for the initial violence in the film. We are also introduced to two of the wives of the men dead in the diner, Imogen Poots as a young woman in an unhappy marriage, Rosemarie de Witt also in an unhappy but longer marriage, in a relationship with Sam.
It will emerge that Sam is to be the hero of the film even though he limps with his bad leg, is getting older, loses out in fights. But, he is sincere in his relationship with the widow, which comes to a head when masked robbers invade her home.
There are sympathetic characters at the motel, the older manager and a young woman for whom Sam is the father-figure, (Australian Odessa Young).
While some audiences may find the film more than a touch dour and prefer not to enter into this kind of moral decline, those who want an interesting drama with well-delineated characters, will find it interesting and different in its way.
UK, 2017, 107 minutes, Colour,
Alica Vikander, Christoph Waltz, Dane de Haan, Holliday Granger, Jack O’ Connell, Judi Dench, Tom Hollander, Zack Galifiniakis.
Directed by Justin Chadwick.
One of the difficulties of reviewing is the eventual comparing notes with other reviews. And, it is sometimes surprising when a reviewer finds that a film that he has very much liked and enjoyed is the object of so much derision and condemnation. Reviewers and IMD bloggers seem to be unanimous in their dislike of Tulip Fever. What a pity!
The screenplay has excellent credentials, a collaboration between the author of the original novel, Deborah Moggach and celebrated playwright and screenwriter, Tom Stoppard. So many amateur bloggers have dismissed his writing as uninspired! The performances are interesting but those who did not like the film consider the central characters as so unlikable. Being likeable is not the essential for audience entertainment – Macbeth and his wife were not the most likeable of characters!
So, after these observations, what can a reviewer say about Tulip Fever and why it seemed such an interesting entertainment.
The setting is Amsterdam in 1634 – and a postscript set eight years later. If ever there was a film which spent a lot of attention on settings, costumes and decor, a recreation of the city, the canals, the markets, mansions, convents and churches, then this is a strong contender. And the frequent scenes of Amsterdam are totally atmospheric, a great number of extras, all in the dress of the period (remember Rembrandt), all busy, scurrying through the streets, the side of the canals, the fish markets, the door-to-door sales, crowded gatherings for trade in tulips, and the convent where the tulips are grown. The audience is immersed in the atmosphere. (And the score is by Danny Elfman.)
The cast is strong. We are introduced to the central character, Sophia (Alicia Vikander), along with her siblings at an orphanage Judi Dench as the abbess. For the children to go abroad for a new life, Sophia has to enter an arranged marriage with a local merchant, Cornelis (Christoph Waltz). His great desire is to have an heir and the couple make frequent strenuous attempts but fail.
When the merchant has the idea that the couple should have a portrait painted, an inexpensive young painter, Johan (Dane de Haan) is employed. Actually, there is a lot of detail in how posing (with the subjects and substitutes) is done, details of paint mixing and sketching. It is not difficult to predict what will happen – and does, although the details of the romance and its consequences become quite complicated.
In fact, everything is narrated by Maria (Holliday Grainger), the maid of the house, an astute observer of characters and situations who is in love with the local fishmonger, Will (Jack O’Connell).
And the tulip fever? A kind of 17th-century Dutch dot.com frenzy with the buying and selling and exploitation of tulips – with the abbess quite a business manager in the cultivation and sale of tulips. And financial collapse.
Actually, there are quite a lot of complications and Tom Stoppard is able to suggest a lot of psychological dimensions in telling lines of dialogue, audiences needing to be alert.
Difficulties? The characters are in difficult situations and struggle with them and so audiences are not able to identify entirely with them. And the trouble with Dane de Haan is that he looks so young (as he did in Valerian) although, in fact, he is older than Alilcia Vikander. But Judi Dench is always interesting. Holliday Grainger and Jack O’Connell? do get our sympathy, Christoph Waltz is a master at a blend of the harsh and ironic, and Tom Hollander has a good cameo as a doctor who in later centuries would be immediately disbarred.
It is hoped that audiences venturing into see Tulip Fever will also find it interesting and entertaining.
US, 2017, 113 minutes, Colour.
Julia Roberts, Jacob Tremblay, Owen Wilson, Mandy Patinkin, Noah Jupe, Daveed Diggs, Navji Jeter, Bryce Gheiser.
Directed by Steve Chbosky.
Wonder is an appealing example of the feel-good film. Yes, it is highly emotional and often wears its heart on its sleeve. However, it is a film which believes in the basic goodness of human nature.
Before going into see this film, everybody will know that is about a young boy who has facial deformities, craniofacial difficulties, a very difficult birth, 27 operations for plastic surgery enabling him to both hear and to see well. As Auggie remarks, “it took 27 operations of plastic surgery to make me look this good!”.
Strong praise is deserved by the actor, Jacob Tremblay. He made such an impression in the film, Room, playing Oscar-winning Brie Larsen’s small son, that many thought he deserved an Oscar nomination himself. As Auggie here, he is completely believable and compelling. And he is aged 10.
It was a very smart move to cast Julia Roberts as Auggie’s mother. Ever popular, but not so frequently on screen in recent years, she is both strong and loving as Auggie’s mother, Isabel, who experienced the hardships of his difficult birth, has given up any hopes of a career and completing her thesis or developing her drawing skills, completely devoting herself to her son, even to homeschooling. Julia Roberts’ fans will respond warmly to this film.
And, it was a very smart move, and a surprising one, to cast Owen Wilson, usually in comic roles, as Nate, Auggie’s ever-supportive father. Owen Wilson fits very well into this role. Very strong support is given by Izabella Vidovic as Via, Auggie’s older sister who had wanted a little brother when she was four but has had to accept always being in the background as the attention is given to her little brother. In fact, she goes to high school, suffers the unexpected spurning by her best friend but then is encouraged by a fellow student rehearsing for performance of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, she does get the benefit of her innate goodness and self-sacrifice.
Auggie goes to school. The students stare. They don’t sit with him in the dining area. They are puzzled, some insulting, and, especially, Julian (Bryce Gheiser) who is one of those deputed to be kind to Auggie is guilty of some cruel bullying (and when the principal takes him to task in front of his parents, his mother is the most disagreeable character in the whole film making us realise that while everybody has goodness in them, there are some exceptions!). One of the other students, Jack (Noah Jupe, Matt Damon’s son in Suburbicon,) has some friendly moments, some bad moments, but an apology and a strong friendship.
Without a doubt, we will the audience who might have felt like staring at Auggie when we first saw him on screen, will almost imperceptibly go beyond the appearances, almost forgetting them, as we understand and appreciate the reality of Auggie as a person.
While the film ends in affirmation and newly – why not? They can be enough tragedy and pain in life so we can rejoice in and with those who rejoice.