SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS FEBRUARY 2010
44 INCH CHEST
ALL ABOUT STEVE
BOOK OF ELI, The
BRAN NUE DAE
EDGE OF DARKNESS
PRINCESS AND THE FROG, The
ROMEO AND JULIET (INDONESIA)
ST TRINIAN'S: THE LEGEND OF FRITTON'S GOLD
44 INCH CHEST
(UK, 2009, d. Malcolm Venville)
Despite the prevalence of swearing and coarse language, it is still not usual to begin a review of film by mentioning the language first. However, 44 Inch Chest is a film about language, good and bad. The bad language is enough to drive many of the average audience from the cinema so coarse is it and so wearing and wearying as it grates on the ear and the sensibilities. Repetitious is an understatement. And, as spoken by some of Britain's top character actors, it sometimes seems incongruous and seems more of a performance rather than language that comes naturally. So, the warning comes first.
What can be said about the film, which was written by Louis Mellis and David Cinto, responsible for Sexy Beast, is that seems more like a play, even a radio play, with the strong emphasis on language (and the strong language). Most of the action, such as it is, takes place in one dingy room and in the stairwell and hallway outside the room.
This means that the emphasis is on characters and characterisation.
At the opening, Colin Diamond (Ray Winstone) seems to be lying dead while Harry Nilsson is singing in the background. But he is not dead, just devastated by his wife's announcement that she is leaving him for another man. His friends rally to support him and abduct the man, a French waiter, and lock him in a wardrobe. For most of the film, they talk, they argue, they try to persuade Colin to come out of it. They deliver themselves of opinions on all kinds of topics, very male and very macho and are waiting for Colin to kill the waiter.
The friends seem to be thugs of one kind or another. Tom Wilkinson is the ordinary bloke who lives with his old mother and seems to be a good mate. On the other hand, Ian McShane? plays a more suave character (and excels in his delivery and sense of menace) who is gay and self-centred. Stephen Dillane is the follower. And John Hurt is the old man who belongs to the days of the Krays and their codes for old-fshioned gangster behaviour. Joanne Whalley is the wife and Melvil Poupard (who has no dialogue but is able to convey his depression at being taken and held) is the waiter.
Do they have thug versions of Waiting for Godot? 44 inch chest seems to be making a claim for a position to the left of centre in the Godot field.
ALL ABOUT STEVE
(US, 2009, d. Phil Traill)
Sandra Bullock may not approve of this pun, but her character in All About Steve, Mary Horowitz, probably would: one is tempted to use very cross words about this sometimes bizarre comedy about crosswords.
Mary composes crosswords for the Sacramento paper. She is a middle-aged nerd of the highest order, talking incessantly like Wikipedia only more so, with a high IQ that bears no relation to her social ineptness. At one stage, a little hearing impaired child signs to her that she talks too much.
Sandra Bullock can do dopey well, and nicely – look at Miss Congeniality. Here she is just just plain (no, complexly plain) ditzy. At which stage, Mary Horowitz would burst into a definition of ditzy with a superabundance of synonyms and the origins and usages of the word. But, you know what I mean. Maybe on paper, this character seemed funny and sweet, despite her irritation-potential, but she really doesn't make much sense as her character develops (a euphemism for what she does during the film). And Sandra Bullock was a producer of All About Steve so she could have done something about it.
There are too many inconsistencies about Mary Horowitz to make much sense, gawkily introverted one moment, almost a sexual predator the next. The victim of this unexpected outburst is television cameraman, Steve (Bradley Cooper) who gets out of her literal clutches as fast as he can. Silly man, he has remarked that it would be nice if she were on the road with him. She takes it literally and stalks him all over Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado, egged on by the vain front man played by Thomas Haden Church.
There is quite some satire on television news, the pressures of the ratings-chasing boss, Emmy rivalries, the phony emotional commentaries, the on-screen faux pas, the media circuses. Finally, there is parody of disaster reporting as a group of hearing impaired children fall into a disused mine shaft. For entirely different reasons, so does Mary – who has time to reconsider her attitudes and behaviour, becomes a media heroine and lets Steve (who confesses his unthinking macho behaviour to her) off the hook. So, she doesn't have to be normal, just herself and we will all love her, listen to her encyclopedic chatter and do her crosswords. (Mystery: how could Sandra Bullock be so annoying?)
(US, 2009, d. Nimrod Antal)
If you are going to make a B-style thriller about an armoured truck robbery that has a bit more intelligence in it than just action and shoot-outs, then this is one good way to do it. It may not satisfy the blood and guts audience, but it should be of interest to those who want a thriller to have some sense in it.
And, it has a very good cast of characters actors, led by Matt Dillon as the mastermind and, ultimately, the villain. Others in the crew include Laurence Fishburne as the impetuous one, Amaury Nolasco (from TVs Prison Break) as the born-again one, Jean Reno (called Quinn despite his French accent), Skeet Ulrich as the reluctant one. Columbus Short (reminding us in look and performance of a young Don Cheadle) is the honourable one, an Iraq veteran who is taking care of his brother and is being hard pressed by the banks to repossess his house.
The plot is basically straightforward, a plan to rob the armoured truck by the security guards. As expected, something will go wrong. However, the things that go wrong are unpredictable and the film builds up quite some suspense as to how the thieves could get away with it. Each of the members is given some character development which makes the drama more interesting and the interactions more tense.
Direction is by Nimrod Antal, who spent some time in Hungary where his family came from to LA, and made the award-winning Kontrol. Back in the US, he made the terror film, Vacancy.
(US, 2009, d. David Bowers)
Astro Boy comes from the 1960s, an early Manga comic book character which inspired the Anime films from Japan and the versions of the Manga books. Now Astro Boy stars in an American film.
In the future, a mountain (looking like Mt Fuji) has risen into space from the devastated earth and a new civilisation is flourishing. There is much scientific research going on, especially with Dr Elefun and Dr Temna. However, as so often, a jingoistic president is more interested in developments in negative energy rather than positive (repeating that he is running for election). When an experiment goes destructively wrong, Dr Temna's young son is trapped and killed. However, the father constructs a robot just like his son – who becomes known as Astro Boy.
Astro Boy's adventures, after he discovers he is only a robot, take him back to earth where he finds a group of vagrant children in a circus – where he is made to fight all kinds of powerful robots to entertain the crowds. Meantime, the president is hell-bent on controlling the so-called Peacemaker, a giant robot whose red destructive power core overwhelms the blue positive core. Can Astro Boy remedy this?
The raging President finds himself inside The Peacemaker, which makes him more powerful. Which all leads up to a final confrontation and Astro Boy saves the world. What else!
Entertaining, differently drawn, with nods to the Japanese origins of the characters, the film has some excellent and pleasing voice talent. Freddie Highmore is Astro Boy. Donald Sutherland is a standout, both comically and seriously as the president. Nicholas Cage is the father. Bill Nighy is Dr Elefun (a rotund, small man which makes the thin Bill Nighy's voice seem a bit incongruous for those who are aware of him) and Nathan Lane is the circus master.
It should keep adults and children nicely amused.
THE BOOK OF ELI
(US, 2009, The Hughes Brothers)
Welcome, once again, to the end of civilisation as we know it and introducing the wasteland of post-apocalyptic America. Recently, this has been done with tongue in cheek humour in Zombieland and with earnest seriousness in the fine adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel, The Road, by John Hillcoat.
Eli has been wandering the devastated United States for thirty years. He is a survivor who is quick, very quick, with arrows, guns and a blade that would make some Samurai envious. Speaking of Samurai, he is the latest in the tradition of Mad Max heroes, a sign of contradiction, violent weapons master but straightforward sage who can be courteous and wise. Since he is played by Denzel Washington the latter almost goes without saying, so it is a surprise to see Denzel wielding the weapons.
The itinerary is familiar enough though the look of it, all desaturated colour and painter-like framing of scenes and of iconic buildings and roads, is quite distinctive and arresting. As is the soundtrack.
Eli shoots a wildcat for meat, is ambushed by a flesh-eating bikie gang which is literally dismembered, and rapidly. A gang rapes a wandering woman and Eli refuses to be involved. He chances on a town, ruled over by power-hungry Carnegie (Gary Oldman reminiscent of his Dracula in look and manner) who has search parties out looking for a book which will enhance his power and offer him a way to control people and their minds. We soon realise that it is the Bible – copies of which seem to have been destroyed because of the role of religion in the destructive wars.
Carnegie runs a bar and has a hold over a blind woman, Claudia (Jennifer Beals) and her daughter (Mila Kunis). The daughter is meant to seduce Eli but, instead, helps him. This brings on more disasters, especially for an elderly couple, with US-symbolism names of George and Martha (Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour), who offer shelter and tea in china crockery.
The final goal, according to Eli, is 'West'. Actually, it is a destroyed San Francisco though, ironically, Alcatraz is intact and is the centre, under the leadership of Malcolm McDowell?, where culture could begin again - with the help of the book of Eli and Christian teaching which takes its library place beside the Quran and other sacred texts.
The film is intriguing rather than involving, something like a futuristic western. The character of Eli is especially intriguing for religious audiences. He is a man who has become the bible incarnate even though he cannot always put it into practice.
After making some strong African-American? gang films (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents), the Hughes twins, Alan and Albert, made the intriguing Jack the Ripper film, with Johnny Depp, From Hell.
(Post-script: Some secularists have been mightily offended by this promotion of sacred texts and the role of religion which they see as fostering war and devastation and, because Eli begins with the book of Genesis, some commentators have seen this as part of a Creationist plot – now there's a different conspiracy theory, especially since one of the books that has survived, even out in the wasteland is The Da Vinci Code!)
BRAN NUE DAE
(Australia, 2009, d. Rachel Perkins)
Not a movie for a sobersides view of 1960s aboriginal history – it is better to check in one's serious race concerns at the door. Or, to take the concerns in but be prepared for a sunnily cheerful treatment, the kind that happens only in a musical, because this is what Bran Nue Dae is, a light look at life in Broome, in a school in Perth and on the road from Perth to Broome, with song and dance.
It is also a very broad comedy with some eccentric performances.
Bran Nue Dae began life in the 1990s as a theatrical performances, written by Jimmy Chi. The stage version was filmed and seen on screens and on television at the time. Now it has the cinema treatment, directed by Rachel Perkins (Radiance and the series, The First Australians).
It's a boy meets girl story. Boy goes to boarding school (his mother wanting him to be a priest, with a deeper reason that is revealed at the end) but owns up to a misdemeanour that he was not responsible for. Boy wants to go home and encounters a lovable rogue vagrant, some parody whites, a vampish Kimberly woman and sundry other adventures before getting home and finding true love and some surprising home truths.
When one remembers (if one was around at the time) aboriginal-white relationships in those days, just after the referendum for aboriginal rights to vote, it was not all sweetness and light. Actually, the screenplay does include a lot of the down side of prejudice, drink and hardships but they are incorporated into a treatment that is cheerful and forgiving and culminates in a rollicking song, sung by all, asking what could be better than being an aborigine.
However, there are some powerfully sombre moments in a dream sequence, Willie encountering phantoms and imagining himself strung up and hanging.
There are original songs as well as some borrowed ones (like Stand By Your Man). There are some dance routines, even a high school musical moment with a song and dance in the school chapel. Jessica Mauboy as Rose is able to belt out the songs with exuberant confidence and is a promising screen presence while Rocky Mc Kenzie is sometimes shy and reticent as the hero, Willie, a genial lad for whom priesthood is not a realistic goal.
But the star of the show is Ernie Dingo as Uncle Tadpole a well rounded performance of comedy, song and dance and an embodiment of many of the serious issues of the day.
What to say about Geoffrey Rush as Fr Benedictus, the German priest who runs the school, pursues Willie up the Western Australian coast and who gets some unexpected comeuppance in Broome? The thing to say is that he is sometimes over the top, way over, a Captain Barbarossa in clerical soutane, with a 'vot is wrong vis you' accent. Magda Szubanski, as the gun-toting Roadside Betty is over the top as well but that is what Magda Szubanski does so well and what we expect from her. Singer Missy Pilgrim is OK as a would-be hippy but xx is way under the top as Slippery, a German tourist.
At a time when Samson & Delilah has made a strong impact on Australian audiences and around the world with awards, showing a much more serious side to life in the centre of Australia, Bran Nue Dae takes an opposite and optimistic view, that, despite the past and some of its disastrous consequences, we can enjoy a send-up of some of the bad old days, whites can take a parody of themselves and, why not, a bran nue dae.
(Korea, 2008, d. Yang Ik-june)
Watching Breathless is an overwhelming experience that, probably, most audiences would not want to submit themselves to. It is an almost unrelenting barrage of visual violence, mainly bashings, and a verbal assault of violently rough language. It is a Korean film, by director, Yang Ik- June, who is making his mark as a chronicler of petty gangsters and their standover-brutal tactics as they collect protection money. He also has a great deal to show about Korean family violence.
It may come as a surprise to find that Breathless won the SIGNIS award in Buenos Aires in 2009. Over the years, SIGNIS has found that there are many grim De Profundis films ('Out of the depths, I cry to you O Lord') and this must be the most De Profundis of all the awards.
As the film progresses and we have become weary of the brutish behaviour and wonder where it could lead, we begin to see faint possibilities for some kind of change, some redemption for the central character, Sang-hoon – who is played most convincingly by the director himself. The film opens with him bashing a violent man in the street as well as the prostitute the man is attacking. His work for his boss gives him the opportunity of an outlet for his rage. But, gradually, we see him with his nephew and his half-sister and his befriending a school girl who has stood up to his spitting at her and confronted him.
The girl also has a dreadful home life, keeping house for a mentally ill father who fought in Vietnam and is still cursing his dead wife, subjected to violence and humiliation by her perpetually angry brother.
It is only later that we are shown the events which have turned Sang-hoon into a raging bully. His friendship with the young girl starts to effect some changes in him, especially towards the father he has loathed after the deaths of his mother and sister and his serving a long jail sentence. There is a crucial scene where he meets the girl for a drink in the middle of the night and sobs.
There are no easy answers for the violent men but some hope for their victims.
We always acknowledge that there are huge family problems in most societies. This Korean expose is alarming, more alarming than most because it immerses us in the anger, in the raging loss of control that is, at times, literally, deadly.
(US, 2009, d. Jim Sheridan)
When the Danish film Brothers was released in 2003, it was topical because of the invasion of Afghanistan and the work of peacekeeping forces like those from Denmark. There was a certain remoteness for the Danish audience. Afghanistan was a long way away and the Danes were not at war. This made the telling of a story about the hardships of a soldier, the crisis of conscience and the pain in returning home after being released from capture, all the more powerful. The film was directed by Suzanne Bier.
It has now been adapted for the United States and directed by Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, In America). And this makes a great deal of difference, especially for an American audience. America is involved in the Afghan conflict. The war makes headlines every other day, especially with news of casualties. Even President Obama finds himself in a situation where he feels constrained to send more troops.
What will the American public make of a film which portrays heroes but portrays them in a questioning light? While the drama was more palpable in the Danish version, it seems more 'real' in the American version.
The action is transposed to Minnesota. Tobey Maguire (who often has a kind of monotonous voice delivery and a somewhat impassive face which he uses for the most part here) does have some opportunities to be more compellingly dramatic than usual, in the key scene of torture in Afghanistan and in the emotional trauma he experiences on his return home. Jake Gyllenhaal has the easier role as the younger brother who is a disappointment to his ex-Vietnam marine (a strong performance from Sam Shepard) and has served time. He becomes more engaging as the action progresses and takes on opportunities to redeem himself. Natalie Portman is the wife and mother.
Most of the action is in Minnesota, with scenes of action in Afghanistan, especially the imprisonment of two marines and the physical and, ultimately, mental torture which tests the metal and integrity of the hero. The film emphasises the toll that military service takes on families with absences, dangers and the homecoming which needs so much tolerance and understanding and time for healing (where and if possible).
After all this, the film ends somewhat abruptly, both emotionally and thematically. Some more explicit indications of the future would have been helpful. (And marketers have burdened the film with one of the most trite and misleadingly trivialising taglines: 'She is caught between the man she loves and the man who loves her', as if it were a melodramatic soap-opera.)
(Australia/US, 2009, d. Michael and Peter Spierig)
2009 seemed to offer a glut of vampire filmes and television series, notably the Twilight films and True Blood. While Daybreakers is a vampire film, it is also, for the most part, not a vampire film. Meaning? It is really a film about human nature, human behaviour and the deterioration of human society using the mythical aspects of the vampire legends to offer an allegory. (There is comparatively little blood in the early part of the film; later there are some living dead gory, blood-drenched moments.)
Filmed in Australia (with some gun-tree countryside locations) standing in for the US, Daybreakers offers a more intelligent use of vampires than usual.
The premiss is quite simple – it is how the premiss is developed that makes for the unusual allegory. And the premiss is this: what if by 2009, vampirism has affected most of the human race so that society, which looks 'normal' on the surface, is in fact solely vampires who have to operate at night or in the dark while the humans are the minority on the edges of society, being hunted for the blood for the survival of the vampires?
One of the arresting aspects of the film is seeing the vampires conducting themselves reasonably, going to work, drinking blood coffee at bars, watching a familiar television news service, working in corporations and experimenting in laboratories. However, there is a more sinister effect of the almost complete transformation of humans worldwide. Humans are scarce. Human blood is even scarcer. Rationing is prevalent. Headlines are alarming. The lack of blood has a physically and mentally deteriorating effect which is growing more rapid and turning law-abiding vampires into marauding vagrants.
In the meantime, a corporation, presided over by Sam Neill who was suffering from cancer but 'turned' for life and immortality, is experimenting for blood substitutes. Sam Neill is usually suave in manner on screen and here this smoothness becomes more sinister (especially in his yellow eyes) as he manipulates his staff for greed and profit. His chief haematologist, Ed Dalton, is played by Ethan Hawke. He has been turned by his younger military brother (Michael Dorman) but is sympathetic to the humans and refrains from human blood. His sympathy is soon tested as he encounters a group of rebels led by Audrey (Claudia Karvan) and Elvis, who has been transformed back into being human (Willem Dafoe).
While the film builds up to something of an apocalyptic climax with the gory self-destruction of many vampires, it is overall a drama of dominating society in need of sustenance for survival (environmental echoes?), a rebel fringe group (as in The Matrix and Demolition Man) and the struggle for human hope and dignity.
EDGE OF DARKNESS
(US, 2010, d. Martin Campbell)
In 1985 the BBC screened a six part television series, Edge of Darkness, which went on to win awards and be considered as one of the best programs in BBC history. It was directed by Martin Campbell who went on to commercial success with the first James Bond film with Pierce Brosnan, Goldeneye, and the Zorro films with Antonio Banderas. He has now returned to Edge of Darkness, adapted for the screen, as was the 2009 adaptation of the series, State of Play.
The plot (and there is a powerful conspiracy plot in the plot) has been re-located to Massachusets and a Boston setting. It has also been adapted from the nuclear fears of the 1980s just prior to the arrival of Gorbachev on the world scene to the nuclear fears of the 21st century – with American companies covertly making nuclear weapons as the US accuses Iran of doing. So, Edge of Darkness remains topical.
The film also serves as an effective police thriller and investigation. When detective Tom Craven's daughter is shot on the doorstep of his home, it is presumed that he was the actual target. However, clues have been indicated already that his daughter was the real target. Craven grieves but continues at work and then follows the leads that bring him to a giant corporation which (as is frequently said by conspiring characters) brings finance to the state's economy. Northmoor is built on a site leased from the government where subterranean tunnels abound, enabling secret research and building to take place. It is presided over by Danny Huston who brings oily charm (and personal cowardice) to his character.
The film is significant with a return to the screen by Mel Gibson. Over 50 now, he is fit but his face looks lived in. He brings his sometimes steely look and stern visage to his role but also portrays some intensity and grief. Ray Winstone has an interesting role as a political fixer.
This is the kind of thriller that adult audiences find both interesting and thought-provoking. It has its grim and violent moments as Tom Craven struggles with the pain of the loss of his daughter and the feelings of vengeance countering his principled beliefs as an officer of the law.
(UK, 2009, d. Stuart Hazeldine)
An intriguing and clever film. It is not one that the general public would rush to see. It is a specialist film, very well crafted and asking for a thoughtful response.
The drama takes place in the exam room. Each of the characters is introduced as they prepare to come to the exam – make-up, combing hair, small personal things.
There are four men and four women. They come from different ethnic backgrounds. They are given precisely phrased instructions from the Invigilator (Colin Salmon) and given 80 minutes to complete their exam. An armed security guard is present to eject anyone who does not adhere strictly to the instructions.
The only trouble is that the exam papers are blank.
The purpose of the exam is explained right at the end so it is not just an exercise in futility but we spend the time watching these applicants for a job at a biopharmacy company (and trying to work out what we might do in such circumstances) interact to work out what is the question. At one stage, a candidate asks whether this is an exercise in group dynamics. It is.
The interactions reveal the characters, sometimes quite powerfully, even violently. Some are ejected. Some are prepared to use any means to stay.
The interest of the film is in the characters, in their response to a difficult situation, in their ethical or unethical stances and behaviour and in the puzzle as to find what really is the question.
The cast comprises character actors from stage and television. Jimi Mistry and Luke Mably are comparatively well-known. (And the thought occurs that the film could be described as neo-Kafakezque!)
(US, 2009, d. Mike Judge)
Even when we discover that the extract of the title refers to extracts of, say, vanilla, for flavouring products, it still doesn't really tell us much about the plot at all. Or, whether it is a comedy or a serious film. Let's say a broad comedy which raises some moral issues which are more serious. Let's also say that it deals with ordinary enough people that many audiences could identify with, if not in behaviour, at least, in temptations and personal crises and decisions – and the need to repair and make amends for some of them.
Actually, that might make it sound a bit more grandiose than it is, although grandiose it really is not.
Put it this way: Joel is a middle aged small factory owner, lenient on his staff (many of whom are stupid, gossipy and accident-prone) who receives an offer for his factory, who finds his wife, Suzie, rather cool at home and who takes refuge in a bar where his old friend, Dean, is the bartender and is full of really bad advice (and drugs as well). There is also a young con woman, Cindy, who is an unscrupulous thief who teams up with an employee, Step, who is the victim of a severe accident and is good-natured about it (until he meets Cindy). What is Joel to do – and, what is worse, what does he do, egged on by Dean?
Jason Bateman is Joel. He has been in many recent films and has proven himself quite a character actor. Dean is played with nonchalence by an almost unrecognisable Ben Affleck. Mila Kunis is the recidivist Cindy. Kristen Wiig is Suzie.
Add to that there are quite a few supporting characters who are well played,which probably make Extract better than it might have been. David Koechner is the wearing good neighbour whose demise comes as something of a shock to him and to us all. J.K. Simmons, always worth seeing, is the factory assistant. Gene Simmons (yes, of Kiss) is a ranting lawyer. Dustin Milligan makes a convincing really, really slow-witted would-be gigolo and Clifton Collins Jr offers a good turn as Step.
Writer-director, Mike Judge, made the animated film Beavis and Butthead do America, so he is not against some satiric touches in portraying some average (at times, very average in their decisions) middle Americans.
(Ireland, 2009, d. Tom Reeve)
For a while there, I was hoping that this would be a tongue-in-cheek Irish yarn (from the north) that would be undemandingly amusing. Chatting afterwards, somebody remarked that it was like a low-brow Ealing studios comedy from the 1950s. Someone else said that it was 'Viagra Galore'.
Yes, despite the several disclaimers that the Pfizer company had nothing to do with the film (well, except for producing it, distributing it and marketing it), this is the viagra comedy.
Four backblock types (where the local musician throws himself over a cliff – others just want to get away to England) join in a plan, fool-proof, of course, to hijack a truck full of viagra and sell it in Amsterdam and Patrick's your uncle.
And, of course, these fools are by no means fool-proof.
The robbery is lightly amusing. Then, when the yanks arrive with all their equipment to track the track, they hide the bins of pills in the local well. And the film goes right down even as it goes up, so to speak. What might have been light amusing comedy about the effects of viagra on all and sundry, it lapses into carry on viagra farce which isn't all that funny when you come to think about it.
The village is meant to be Catholic but they did not film in a Catholic church and did not consult on vestments or how confession goes.
Better luck next time.
(US, 2009, d. Clint Eastwood)
Invictus means 'unconquered'. However, the film's title comes from a poem of 1975 by William Ernest Henley, a poem Nelson Mandela relied on during his 27 years internment on Robben Island, especially its final lines, 'master of my fate, captain of my soul'. Mandela was certainly invictus in his surviving prison and invictus in his election as president
of South Africa.
This is a Clint Eastwood film. Eastwood will be 80 in May. During his 70s he has made a string of fine films, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, Changeling and Gran Torino, an extraordinary effort and one marked by themes of forgiveness, a seemingly far cry from his Dirty Harry days. Eastwood is a master storyteller and, in his older age, has not shied away from significant themes.
As Invictus opens, Mandela is being released from prison in 1990. Eastwood uses television-reporting style of filming not only to indicate the historic moment being recorded but to enable the audience to accept Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela for the rest of the film. While he looks like Morgan Freeman and he sounds like Morgan Freeman and has Morgan Freeman's gravitas, we readily accept that it is Nelson Mandela, the historical person, that we are watching.
In retrospect, as journalist John Carlin does in his book, Playing the Enemy, on which the film is based, it seems a master stroke of politics and humanity (as Mandela notes several times) to bring black and white people together supporting the national rugby union team when South Africa is hosting the rugby world cup in 1995. The sequences where the meeting of football supporters vote to eliminate the colours and the name of the Springboks and Mandela himself comes to tell them not to because it is depriving the Afrikaaners of something they value (which they had done to the blacks) but to use that for uniting people indicates his shrewdness and vision. The sequence where he persuades his black security officer to accept former white police, from Special Branch, into the bodyguard squad is similarly powerful.
The portrait of Mandela is glowing though the rift with his wife and family, his indefatigably driven work ethic, are indicated.
Matt Damon plays Francois Pinaar, the captain of the Springboks, who, with example in leadership and the encouragement of the president, urges his team on to a surprising victory. Again, the suggestion of Mandela that the team go to the townships and coach the black youth despite the wariness and ignorance of the conditions on the part of some of the team, works wonders and, on television, is a coup for public relations.
The final match against New Zealand's All Blacks is presented in all its rough and tumble ('soccer is a gentlemen's game played by hooligans and Rugby is a hooligans game played by gentlemen') though whether it would convert any American audience to the code is probably a 'no'.
With Mandela and with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 1990s South Africa, despite economic and social difficulties, despite the high crime rate, showed the world that hatred and revenge were understandable but futile – that is the spirit of Invictus. The poem reveals the experience of Mandela on Robben Island.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thanks whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstances
I have not winced or cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
(US, 2009, d. Nancy Meyers)
It certainly is. Complicated to review as well. It's the tangled relationships that cause the problems in the film and it's the tangled relationships and what they mean that make it complicated to review.
The film raises the issues of divorced husband and wife (ten years on) encountering one another and beginning a new relationship. Why would they do this? Are the reasons and motives the same for the man as for the woman? Does it mean that the divorce process was not finally concluded emotionally, only legally? Since the husband has remarried and has a step-child and his younger wife wants to become pregnant and hauls him off frequently to a fertility clinic does this mean that he is weary of and questioning his marriage? Does the wife (unmarried now) wonder what her life might be like with a relationship (and is being egged on by her middle-aged girlfriends? And what do the three children, close to their mother, think and how they should react? You get the picture. And that is what It's Complicated shows us.
So, a lot of ethical and moral issues that we need to sort out as do the characters themselves, Nancy Meyers' screenplay getting the characters themselves to ask and puzzle over the questions and their behaviour.
The strength of the film is in having Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin (surprisingly effective) as the ex-wife and husband. They bring depth and skills to roles that might otherwise just have been situation comedy performances. In comparison, Steve Martin as the wife's architect plays a somewhat self-effacing role.
With an American serious comedy like this, the characters tend to be all 'out there', a very extroverted display of the issues. Which means that too much exposure runs the risk of their being irritating at times rather than ingratiating. This is a companion piece to Nancy Meyers' other more recent explorations of relationships, What Women Want, Somethings Gotta Give and The Holiday.
(US, 2009, d. Katherine Dieckmann)
Two decades earlier there was the comic Parenthood which ranged over quite a number of parents and children (and then produced a television series). Robin Williams and Billy Crystal appeared in Father's Day. Now we have Uma Thurman in Motherhood.
Well, it's just one mother's story with a few asides from other mothers (and a glimpse of Jodie Foster walking with her family in the park). The park is in New York and, maybe that is the trouble for non-New Yorkers watching the film. The logo says 'I Love New York' but Motherhood offers any number of characters and situations which might have us saying 'I hate New York'.
The day (and the film takes place over just one day) begins at 6.20 and Eliza (Uma Thurman) wearlily gets out of bed to confront a long list of must do's. She has an eccentrically absent-minded husband (Anthony Edwards) and two young children, the older on her last day of being 5, with the prospect of her birthday party in the evening. So far, so ordinary.
Eliza is a would-be writer and blogs, especially about motherhood. She comes across a competition, a 500 word piece on motherhood, which she decides to enter but can't find the time to concentrate. We are treated to breakfast hassles, lunches, getting to school, forgetting the dog, walking the dog, going to the park, shopping (once for fun and tension relief, once for groceries, presents and birthday cake). But, it is the stress which is to the fore.
The film could have been called Stresshood.
There is the scurry to move a car and get it back to the parking spot, paying for an occupier to move, finding a film crew has moved in and towed all the cars. There is the pressure of traffic jams, not poop-scooping, smoking in front of censorious passers-by, bicycle punctures. Customers in queues are raging (especially about cell phone conversation intrusion into personal space – well that is not such a bad topic!!) and cannot tolerate line-jumpers. And so on, an so on... ('I love Manhattan, how about you...?).
Minnie Driver has some moments as Eliza's pregnant friend who is upset at being quoted in Eliza's piece. Eliza is upset about her husband's critique of her work. There is momentary relief when a letter delivery is made by an Indian messenger who writes plays and pays attention to her. The nice moments are when Eliza is kind to the lonely old lady next door.
If that sounds like your day, you may not want to empathise with Eliza and indulge in self-pity or you may get some grim satisfaction at finding some of your day mirrored on screen.
(US, 2009, d. Rob Marshall)
This reviewer was well disposed to liking Nine because of his admiration for the film on which it is based, Federico Fellini's 8 ½, very high on his list of all time great films. Fellini created a memorable character in Marcello Mastroianni's Guido, a director in the 1960s who has writer's block. He is also entangled with a number of women, his wife, Luisa, his mistress, Carla, his cinema muse, Claudia, his mother, and memories of Saraghina, a large woman on the beach of his childhood who initiated the young boys into the mysteries of sexuality. Fellini, drawing on his own experience, created a complex portrait of a man in emotional and career crisis.
Upping the ante by ½, playwright Arthur Kopit adapted the film for Broadway and Maury Yeston wrote the songs for this musical version. It opened in 1982 and won the Tony for Best Musical of that year.
Now, almost 30 years later, Rob Marshall, who directed Chicago and Memoirs of a Geisha, has brought the play to the screen and acted as one of the choreographers. It is a lavish production and has a very starry cast, especially the women, with Daniel Day Lewis as Guido.
There has been quite some dismay that it did not set the box-office alight as Chicago did. But, given the Fellini origins and the musical's following the outline and some details of 8 ½, what is called an art-house film, one might really ask just who is the potential audience for the film. It isn't the broad audience who wants to have alight night out see a musical version of Legally Blonde. It isn't the audience that wants a show with toe-tapping rhythms and tunes (though the belting out of Be Italian does have its moments). It's the audience who admire 8 ½ (who don't necessarily approve of a musical version of it) or who respond well to something offbeat and arresting.
Nine is offbeat and arresting. It continues to be set in the 1960s though two years after the release of 8 ½. It is, despite the showbiz glitter, very Italian in tone and accent. And it is rather downbeat over all with Guido experiencing a breakdown, hurting the women in his life and having to re-assess himself and admit that he is callow, philandering and becoming emotionally and morally bankrupt. Fellini's film ended with all the characters joining hands and dancing in a large circle of life to Nino Rota's score. This exuberance is missing from the end of Nine but an arresting substitute is presented as a rejuvenated Guido returns with all his leading ladies on the sound stage as he begins a film on his experience, looking like the opening of the film of Nine. And, alive again, he calls, 'Action'.
Needless to say, no expense has been spared on lavish theatrical sets nor, especially, on the musical numbers. These songs and performances contribute to the plot development but are principally a showcase to introduce and explain each of the characters. The musical style is very different for each of them, big numbers, monologues, showstoppers, recitatifs. While most of the cast are not well-known as singers, their acting abilities bring the songs to life.
Daniel Day Lewis is an actor who immerses himself in each role and is completely different from film to film. His last was the Oscar-winning performance as the ruthless oil baron in There Will Be Blood. Here, replete with broken English accent, he embodies the Italian director, his talent and his waywardness. The women are all good, each in their own way. Marion Cottilard, who won her Oscar for portraying Edith Piaf, is Luisa and has two songs, one plaintiff, the a striptease grinder . She is a strong character, independent, hurt but refusing to be victimised by Guido. She contrasts with the sexy verve of Penelope Cruz as Carla who has her moments of depression as she is rejected. Sophia Loren, now a grande dame of 75, is the mother. Nicole Kidman who has the difficult role of being the embodiment of goodness and inspiration is Claudia. Kate Hudson has a showstopper as an American journalist for Vogue. Stacy Ferguson (Fergie) is Saraghina and sings Be Italian to great effect. And, finally, there is Judi Dench as Guido's mentor, costume designer and make-up artist who is given a Piaf-like song, Folies Bergere.
A serious piece of musical theatre which shows its stage origins but is dazzling to look at and to listen to and stimulates reflection on its themes.
(US, 2009, d. James Mc Teigue)
A blogger wrote that a lot of the audience walked out of Ninja Assassin during the first fifteen minutes (though one would guess that they went during the first seven) and then remarked, quite rightly, that if they had thought about the title of the film, they would never have walked in. This is definitely a niche film, target audience mostly male, fans of martial arts and action shows of the graphic novel variety. There is not all that much more one can say about it except to admire the skilful direction of James Mc Teigue (the intriguing V for Vendetta and assistant to the Wachowskis on the Matrix films and Speed Racer). Also for admiration is the intricate choreography for the Ninja fights (and one can see why Tarantino admires this kind of thing and includes it as a feature of Kill Bill). It is the editing that should receive high admiration. The pacing, cuts, angles all make for a, to use a cliché, kaleidoscope of ninja action.
The plot is basic: little orphan is abducted to be trained as a ruthless, feelingless, warrior assassin by a master who is the equivalent of a sect leader in his body and mind control and in his vanity in exercise of power as well as the vicious and sadistic punishment meted out for alleged mistakes – he would be quickly arrested these days for gross physical abuse of children. Warrior grows up and, with the execution of the girl who had pity on him as a child, he rebels against the master, goes to Berlin where he teams up with a Europol researcher (Naomie Harris) and there are fights in Berlin as well as in the school where he is taken once again. In the vein of Indiana Jones shooting a sabre wielding opponent, it is clear that guns, especially automatic machine guns are far more deadly than all the Ninja training and lethal expertise
The hero is played by Korean pop star, Rain. Rain trained as a dancer and this is evident in the athleticism and poise of his acrobatic fighting. And, that's it.
THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG
(US, 2009, d. Ron Clements and John Musker)
An enjoyable Disney feature although the opening does not bode well with a rather soppy song and some gooey scenes of mother reading The Frog Prince to two little girls. Then the title comes on and the film picks up considerably.
US commentators were quick to point out that this seems to be the first mainstream American animated film to feature an African American lead. Though Disney had some elements (a song in Dumbo, a Southern setting in So Dear to My Heart), it is surprising that it was only in 2009 that this breakthrough in colour has arrived.
And breakthrough it does. The setting is New Orleans just prior to and during World War I. And setting is very important for the liveliness of the show. This is New Orleans, the home of jazz, with plenty of music and song (and an alligator, very friendly despite his big teeth, called Louis who plays trumpet!), with foot-tapping rhythms, colourful characters in even more colourful costumes, and some voodoo into the bargain.
And, Disney has not forgotten an array of animals, some cuddly (well it is difficult to cuddle frogs but one would if one could, even though the heroine screams at the prospect of kissing one, but that was before she was transformed into a frog herself) and friendly, like glowworms, and some fiercesome, like gnashing alligators.
And there are lots of songs that have tunes and rhythms, the work of Randy Newman who has composed for so many of the Pixar films (like Toy Story and Monsters Inc). Every principal character gets a showstopper – which means that The Princess and the Frog is going to follow Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King and be transformed into a spectacular and joyous theatrical event.
And the characters are strong. Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is no blushing violet but rather a strong girl with an ambition to open her own restaurant (daring for the times) and working hard for it. Charlotte, her featherbrained wealthy white friend wants to marry a prince. Prince Naveen (Bruce Campos) arrives, penniless and disinherited and is conned by the sinister Shadow Man, Dr Facillier (Keith David is compelling in this role). There are also the above-mentioned creatures and some parents (Oprah Winfrey as Tiana's mother, Terrence Howard as her father and John Goodman as Charlotte's father).
Plenty of colour, action, humour and, surprisingly a final deathbed scene and funeral before the happy ending and a witty way of remembering that it is a princess (even if she looks like a frog) who has to kiss and redeem Prince Charming. Entertaining.
ROMEO AND JULIET
(Indonesia, 2009, d. Andibachtiar Yusuf)
The story of Romeo and Juliet has been told and re-told. Here it provides a basis for an Indonesian story about football fanaticism and hooliganism. Which means, of course, that the fans of Jakarta and the rival fans of Bandung become the equivalents of the Capulets and the Montagues. And the enmity is literally deadly. In this situation, a Jak is smtten by a Viking girl (the name for the Bandung fans), the latterday Romeo and Juliet.
For a western audience, this is a surprisingly accessible story (as well as for many Asian audiences, though the film has been banned from screening in neighbouring Malaysia). This is the world of young adults all around the world, students and workers, in their T shirts and jeans, with popular music, with a much less traditional approach to moral behaviour, communicating in their slang and being hostile in local swearing. It seems that secularisation is not just a phenomenon of older Christian countries but with so many of the Muslim countries in Asia or in Africa.
There is quite an amount of hooliganism and brawls in the film, staged quite realistically and, for the audience, rather overwhelmingly.
As with West Side Story and Baz Luhrman's Romeo+Juliet, the interest is in looking at and appreciating whether the contemporary equivalents of Shakespeare's plays work or not, or how well. One thing is that this picture of Djarkarta youth shows them behaving and sounding like tough youth anywhere, especially with their language and preoccupation with sex. That is the world of Romeo, who is a leading hooligan. Juliet's world is that of college and study, though she has mechanic brothers who can be as belligerent and violent as the hooligan's in Romeo's world.
And, as we know, it ends badly and tragically, just as Romeo is coming to his senses and could be the better for it.
Indonesian films are not seen widely. Audiences might be surprised at the 'universal' style of young Indonesian film-makers.
(US, 2009, d. Jonas Pate)
Sounds promising. Kevin Spacey as a Los Angeles psychiatrist whose wife has killed himself and, while he is still practising, has opted out of ordinary life and taken refuge in drugs. However, it is not quite as engrossing as it might be. Perhaps it is the patchwork nature of the plot, with the focus on the shrink and then the focus on the stories of some of his clients. Reaching for an adjective to describe this, one might call it somewhat 'Altmanesque'.
Where the film is a little different is in the client list. They are not just from Los Angeles. They are from Hollywood or aspire to success in Hollywood. This gives the film a rather more wry tone than usual. There is the philandering film director who wants permission to philander (an uncredited Robin Williams). There is the actress and mother who is no longer the glamorous star (Saffron Burrows). There is the aspiring student (Keke Palmer) and the young man who befriends her but wants to write a script and 'borrows' her life (Mark Webber) and there is the obnoxious producer (Dallas Roberts). The shrink also has his personal dealer named Jesus (Jesse Plemons).
Perhaps that is the trouble. The characters are not all that interesting which means that the shrink's work is not so interesting either.
There are glimmers of hope for some of the characters at the end but this is one of those 'might be interesting if you happen to catch it' films.
A SINGLE MAN
(US, 2009, d. Tom Ford)
Colin Firth has received a great deal of acclaim for his role as George, a Christopher Isherwood-like professor of English in California in 1962. After winning the Best Actor award in Venice, 2009, he was nominated for many awards, including the Oscar. It has confirmed Firth as a strong and versatile actor (despite Mamma Mia!) after such films as Easy Living, And when did you last see your father, Genova and even such tongue-in-cheek straight roles in the St Trinians comedies.
A Single Man is based (with some variations) on Christopher Isherwood's novel. It takes place over one day in 1962 with news of the missile crisis and Cuba in the background. However, it is a sad day for George. Jim, his partner of 16 years is dead. George goes through the routines of his professorial day, lecturing on Aldous Huxley to uninterested students, except for the precocious Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) who stalks George and who, later that night, offers him something of a new life. George, however, has felt suicidal and remembers his time with Jim (Matthew Goode). There are some flashbacks to their meeting in 1946 as well as some scenes of their life together.
He is also in touch with his old London friend, Charlie (Julianne Moore), has a meal with her and gossips and reminisces. (American Moore plays an Englishwoman while Matthew Goode and Nicholas Hoult are British actors playing American.)
Obviously, this is not a film of action. Rather, it is a film of characters and of reflection.
Colin Firth offers a subtle and quiet performance as George. He is grieving. He receives the news of the death by phone from a mutual friend. He is being stoic at times. At other times, he feels like falling to pieces or opting out. His performance also communicates the gay sensibilities of his character at a time when gay men and women were closeted.
George is not welcome at Jim's funeral. George has some discussions with Kenny about minorities where the audience is asked to listen between the lines, about themes of fears and persecutions.
The film is the first directed by Tom Ford who wrote the screenplay. He has been better known prior to this as a world-known fashion designer
ST TRINIANS: THE LEGEND OF FRITTON'S GOLD
(UK, 2009, d. Oliver Parker and Barnaby Thompson)
When St Trinians appeared in 2007, it was meant to be a throwback to the British comedies of the 1950s, especially the classic The Belles of St Trinians from 1954 (which led to some lower brow sequels). The 21st century version seemed too knowing, too much innuendo and only spasmodically funny. So, it is a surprise to find the sequel so entertaining.
This time the girls are more cartoonish caricatures, much more like Ronald Searle's original sketches. And the dialogue is particularly PGish which makes it more like the original as well.
There are quite a few laughs and smiles, especially in some of the incidental dialogue and one-liners, often at the expense of the pretty but dumb girl. There are far fewer girls as pupils and, apart from Celia Imrie and Toby Jones, no staff except for Rupert Everett's Miss Fritton, the headmistress, can be sighted. While there are some shenanigans in the school, the action takes place outside.
It is all set up by an amusing prologue where Rupert Everett appears as a 1589 pirate confronting the prim and pedantic Lord Pomfret (Dr Who/David Tennant) who feels that women should be subservient and has no time for Elizabeth 1st. Cut to the present and the current Pomfret (photographed with the Queen, President Obama and Simon Cowell) has plans to recover the Fritton treasure by finding the two parts of a ring which give the latitude and longitude. With debts to such films as National Treasure, the hunt by the girls (via computers, digging up a grave and the head girl being possessed a la Exorcist, a visit in disguise to a boys' college, a song and dance routine at Liverpool St Station), leads to the ring and then to the Globe Theatre for the treasure.
In the meantime, a sexist secret society, presided over by Pomfret (with debts to Dan Brown) is infiltrated by the inspector of schools from the previous film, Colin Firth, who shows he is still a good sport and allows himself some scenes of buffoonery.
The climax is funny as Miss Fritton and the inspector improvise scenes and pseudo Shakespearian dialogue from Romeo and Juliet on the Globe stage until the treasure is found.
Probably, the screenwriters are more indebted to Shakespeare in Love and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter, as the final twist will raise eyebrows and give a chuckle or two, or three.
(Malaysia, 2009, d. Yasmin Ahmad)
Malaysian writer-director was very serious about telling stories that were cross-cultural and cross-religious in a Malaysian context with films like Mukhsin and Septem. Tragically, she died at age 51 in 2009 after completing this film.
Malaysia is a Muslim country but it has many Hindus and Christians – which sometimes makes for contentious relationships and enmities. The Romeo and Juliet archetype can be very important for this society and Yasmin Ahmad made popular films, geared to a younger audience, drawing on the age-old story. She also incorporated the variety of language (and songs) that are used in Malaysia.
Talentime (or, it could be Tale n Time) appeals to contemporary young people (in this case, especially, romantically minded teenage girls). It is the 21st century everywhere around the world now with popular music and dance, talent shows and cyber technology. The central youngsters here are Hindu, Indian Muslim and Chinese and Malays (and there is a grandmother who comes from Yorkshire).
Taking a cue from Fame and High School Musical, this is the story of a school's seventh talent show so the teacher responsible holds the usual auditions (some terrible performers for whom the response is a vociferous 'Next'!) and wants seven performers and seven students with motor bikes to bring the performers to rehearsals. One girl (Indian Muslim with the British grandmother) is assigned a Hindu boy who is hearing and speaking impaired, the Romeo and Juliet of talentime. Another boy, Muslim, writes songs, is clever, comforts his dying mother and incurs the jealous hostility of a Chinese boy. Plenty of ingredients for drama, melodrama, music and young love.
One hopes that Yasmin Ahmad's films contribute to harmony in Malaysian society. In their popular way, they show outsiders stories which help them understand some of the complexities of the country.
(UK, 2009, d. Gerard Johnson)
Tony sounds an innocuous title for a film. And Tony himself seems an innocuous type, wandering around north London, but very stilted and awkward in his attempts at communication. He is the kind of person that one might find hanging around and think that he was harmless.
Not so. Tony has been jobless for 20 years and is virtually unemployable - we do have the opportunity to see him at a job interview, oblivious of what he is communicating about himself and his self-absorption and his unreliability. He has lived in a flat for ten years, munching corn flakes for breakfast, watching violent videos and going for walks. He ends up in all kinds of strange situations: phoning a sex centre with the number on display in the telephone box, offering to join two druggies and taking some speed, staring at a quarrelling couple in a cafe, in a small, upstairs brothel, in a gay bar...
But, Tony kills people, dismembers them and tosses the parts in plastic bags into the Thames.
This is a skilfully made case study of a middle aged man who is almost completely unaware of himself and acts out urges which are reinforced by the material he chooses to watch. He has no idea of guilt, compunction or remorse. There are no explanations given of how he came to be this way. He is just there.
Peter Ferdinando, a cousin of the director, is completely believable as Tony. While the film has some gruesome moments, these are presented graphically but exploititatively.
Tony would have very limited appeal but might find a life on specialist television.
(Norway, 2009, d. Erik Poppe)
A moving film.
Troubled Waters takes its title from Paul Simon's song which is played twice during a crucial scene and its repetition. The troubled waters are evident. However, the full title of the song is Bridge over Troubled Waters and exploring that theme opens up the drama and the spiritual dimensions of the drama.
Here is a film which is commercially interesting but which incorporates into its plot aspects of Lutheran spirituality and practise without embarrassment. Norway, even though like other European countries it is marked by an increasing secularism, has a Lutheran tradition which is part of its heritage and, as the film indicates, can contribute to religion, morality and to its culture.
The film is in two parts. We see an abduction of a child as the film opens. There are painful consequences. One of the young men responsible (though he won't admit it) is released from jail and finds a job as an organist at a local church. The first part of the film is the young man's story, of his being rehabilitated, becoming friendly with the local priest. She has a young son (presented as a mirror image of the abducted boy). The second part of the film takes up the abduction once again and we follow the life of the family, especially the mother, whose son was taken. Each story has two sides and the second part fills in detail of what we have seen in the young man's story. The climax brings the man and the mother together to face what took place.
The mother is distraught and the effects of the tragedy are very deep in her. She needs to hear what actually happened to her son before she is able to consider any kind of forgiveness.
The screenplay draws attention to themes of forgiveness but also of atonement. Confessing, and the inability to confess, are significant. Communion is seen as a step in healing brokenness. And, despite what the young man has done, the manager of the church business has to tell the mother that, in terms of second chances, where else can this be done best but in the church.
The film has been made with elegant craft, has several sequences of organ music, but tells a story of everyday headlines and the lives behind the headlines, with both insight and a challenge to the possibilities for compassion.