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Film Reviews February 2011

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SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS FEBRUARY 2011


127 HOURS
AFTERWARDS (ET APRES...?)
ARCTIC BLAST
BARNEY’S VERSION
BRIGHTON ROCK
GREEN HORNET, The
HEREAFTER
HOW DO YOU KNOW
MECHANIC, The
NEXT THREE DAYS, The
RABBIT HOLE
RAMONA AND BEEZUS
ROMANTICS, The
SANCTUM
STONE
TAKERS, The


127 HOURS

(UK/US, 2010, d. Danny Boyle)

127 hours means time going into a sixth day. That was the amount of time that climber, Aron Ralston, was in a crevasse, trapped when he fell and a large stone pinioned his arm.

One of the main features of this true life film (the author wrote of his ordeal in a book titled Between a Rock and a Hard Place) is that it shows the irrevocability of an accident. No amount of anger, not the least bit of wishful thinking can change what has happened. It’s the precariousness of the accident that comes across as well. Aron Ralston was climbing alone in the mountains, with a limited amount of food and, more importantly, water.

While there are many lyrical moments in the film, this is a story that is visceral and does not hesitate to indicate the reality of the physical pain, especially when Aron decides that amputation of his trapped arm is the only solution for his survival. Not that the film offers too many graphic close-ups, just enough for us to see and for the camera movement and the editing to make the suggestions more powerful.

James Franco plays Aron Ralston and brings him alive as an eager young man who loves the mountains, has a zest for living and finds that his life might be suddenly coming to an end. We are introduced to him cycling hard, climbing vigorously and helping two hiking girls to enjoy the spirit of the climb (and an exuberant freefall into a cavernous pool). These memories will come back to him – and he can also watch them as he has his video camera with him and leaves it on over the days of his suffering. He remembers his family, past episodes (some with joy, some with regret). He is also encouraged to persevere, especially during the amputation , by his vision of a young boy smiling at him.

The director is Danny Boyle, filming after his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire. (Boyle has shown great versatility and a wide range of interests: Trainspotting, The Beach, 28 Days Later, Millions, Sunshine). He has worked with The Full Monty’s screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy. The atmospheric (sometimes pounding) score was composed by Slumdog Oscar-winner, Indian A.H. Rahman.

Boyle has always shown great flair in his visual style, much more evident here with time-lapse photography, split screen shots, and a heightened colour palette for mountains and desert.

As with so many stories of real people, the actual Aron, with his wife and baby son (the premonition fulfilled), appears smilingly at the end – and still climbs though, as the caption reads, he always leaves a note to say where he will be.

AFTERWARDS (ET APRES)

(France, 2009, d. Gilles Bourdos)

From France, a film about death and the afterlife, then from the US Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter. The two films could serve as companion pieces.

Afterwards opens with a death and a resuscitation, a little boy who is hit by a car trying to get help for a little girl who has had an accident. He seems dead, but comes out of coma to grow up into a father but also a rather ruthless insurance manager. The question of why he is alive is raised in black and white flashbacks: a doctor who asks the boy why he came back from the coma.

Romain Duris plays Nathan, the man who came back. When a visitor to his office, Dr Kay, wants to talk to him about his health and caring for himself, he is disturbed. This is exacerbated when the doctor tells him that a man on the subway (the setting is New York) is going to die within minutes. And he does. Dr Kay sees an aura around those who are destined soon to die.

It emerges that Dr Kay really is an authentic doctor and does care for people, especially those who are dying. He comforts their families. Once again, he gives Nathan an indication that someone else is going to die. Nathan mostly believes him and follows through with the doctor’s suggestion.

But, the experience so disturbs him that he assumes the doctor is warning him about his imminent death. He decides that he must alter his life and mend the breaks, especially with his estranged wife (who was the little girl at the opening of the film) and daughter. Some moving flashbacks explain why this has happened.

There are many contemplative moments in the film, the languid opening on a lake, fields of puffballs, the desert and a beautiful flower that dies the day it opens.

The film is not exactly about the hereafter. Rather, it presumes the hereafter but wants to emphasise that the important place for healing and forgiveness is here, before death.

Romain Duris is a versatile French actor, very popular in France and in Europe. Dr Kay is played by John Malkovich in a performance that is quite restrained compared with many of his other, rather eccentric, performances and is the more affecting for it.

While the questions of afterlife, of afterwards, are important, Nathan discovers that it is in life that the important choices are made, actions done. He also discovers why he really came back from his coma.

ARCTIC BLAST

(Australia/Canada, 2010, d. Brian Trenchard Smith)

Since the icy blast which powers down through the ozone layer to produce a mammoth freezing originates south of Hobart, the title seems anomalous by a full hemisphere. Surely Antarctic Blast would not have been box-office poison! Actually, it wasn’t the box-office takings since this film was released straight to DVD.

It is a close relation to The Day After Tomorrow, with the world freezing, not just North America. And it is a close relation to all those disaster films where the lone hero has the solution to the global problems (this one seems remarkably close the explosions at the end of Armageddon) and the obtuse superior wants to go his own way. But, it is not a close relation to The Day After Tomorrow or Armageddon in terms of budget, special effects or cast. These are quite minimal.

That being said, and allowing for all the impossibilities, coincidences, heroics and challenges to physics laws and action, it is a passably undemanding 90 minutes disaster entertainment. If you are demanding, let it pass.

It’s not many films that can boast of being filmed in Hobart – and there are many attractive shots of the city and of Tasmania (before the ‘arctic’ blast arrives and ices up everyone and everything).

Our hero is an American working in Tasmania (Michael Shanks), married to a wife who feels he is work-preoccupied – there is nothing like a global disaster problem to put paid to this difficulty! He has a teenage daughter who feels neglected and has the touch of rebellion (though she survives but her two friends are iced). Meanwhile his boss in Philadelphia (Burce Davison) is not too sympathetic and wants answers, wants data – and wants them now.

But, it is not only Hobart which bears the brunt of the blast, which as it gathers pace, looks like a pursuing tsunami – and there is a certain amount of morbid enjoyment in seeing it overwhelm popular world landmarks like Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower.

Brian Trenchard Smith, who has made a long career of making this kind of film, directs a cast, mainly of Australians, who do their best to co-operate with the hero and save the world.

Old-style matinee material – with a sparing use of modern effects.

BARNEY’S VERSION

(Canada, 2010, d. Robert J. Lewis)

We all have our own versions of our lives, whether they be accurate or not. Those who have shared our lives with us, or those who have been influenced by us, will have their versions, possibly, even probably, quite different.

Montreal Jewish novelist, Mordechai Richler, chronicled stories of his home city in novels, stories and essays. He was not always a benign critic. Barney’s Version came later in his career, many noting the autobiographical connections. Film versions of his novels include Ted Kotcheff’s fine The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) with Richard Dreyfuss and Joshua Then and Now (1985) with James Woods. Barney’s Version stars Paul Giamatti, who won a Golden Globe award for his performance.

The place is Montreal, with some excursions to New York City. The time settings go back to the 1970s and move through the ensuing decades.

However, Barney’s Version is not a straightforward, linear narrative. The audience is invited to share Barney’s memories, the memories of an older, sardonic, gruff and blunt, disappointed, alcoholic man who may not be able to hold on to his memories for much longer. Giamatti shows his ability, first of all in making an on-paper unpleasant character interesting to watch, and, secondly, in portraying the changes that the decades and his experiences make on Barney.

A major focal point for the storytelling is Barney’s marital experiences, illustrating the kind of person he was at particular stages of his life. While we are introduced to him as a curmudgeonly older man, stuck in his TV work (a serial that has gone on for years), pestering his ex-wife’s husband, cared for by his daughter, we are taken back to his rather more carefree days in Rome, a kind of bohemian life with artistic friends and a sudden marriage to a pregnant girlfriend (Rachel Lefevre) which does not last long. We are also introduced to his best friend, a frequently drug-sodden writer, Boogie, (Scott Speedman) – and are puzzled by the arrival (in the present) of an aggressive detective (Mark Addy) who has written a book accusing Barney of the murder of his friend. Enough questions and enigmas to keep us wondering.

Barney’s second marriage is to a dominating ‘Jewish Princes’, played with presumptuous verve by Minnie Driver. She has one of the most disapproving fathers in movies. His disdain of Barney in so many scenes is very entertaining in a morose kind of way. But, at the wedding, Barney glimpses Miriam (Rosamund Pike), falls in love and continues over time to pursue and hound her. Eventually, they do marry and spend years together. And, even more eventually, Barney ruins things. Rosamund Pike is a standout in the film. She portrays Miriam with sensitivity and charm, making the audience appreciate how Barney can be infatuated by her, love her, marry her and remain married to her for years. She is a good and patient woman.

But, the actor playing Barney’s father, a rather outgoing, randy former policeman not noted for tact, is Dustin Hoffman – a solid reminder of what a scene-stealer he can be. (It is not only older actresses who play mothers on screen, now it is older actors who play fathers, Hoffman and Jack Nicholson in How Do You Know.)

This is a Canadian production and three prominent directors have cameos: Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg as directors of the series and Ted Kotcheff as a train conductor. Bruce Greenwood is the producer who later marries Miriam and Jake Hoffman (Dustin Hoffman’s son) plays Barney’s son.

The film is over two hours long and not all audiences will be enthralled by meeting Barney and becoming involved in his life. But, for those who do, the story is intriguing, the ending moves towards a pathos we were not anticipating, the performances are of top quality. It is a portrait of a flawed (very) human being, warts and all – but, ultimately, not irredeemable.

BRIGHTON ROCK

(UK, 2010, d. Rowan Joffe)

The new film version of Graham Greene’s 1939 novel, Brighton Rock, brings some Catholic themes into prominence. A BBC/UK Film Council production, it is directed by Rowan Joffe, who wrote the screenplay for The American, a Greene-like drama about a burnt-out hitman. His father, Roland Joffe, directed The Mission and City of God as well as the forthcoming film about St Jose Maria Escriva, There be Dragons, all films with Catholic themes.

Greene himself wrote the screenplay for the Boulting Brothers’ 1947 version of Brighton Rock, imbuing it with his frequent themes of sin and the possibilities and impossibilities of redemption. His central character, Pinkie (played with force by Richard Attenborough and now by a sullen Sam Riley) is one of the nastiest of Greene’s villains, young, brash and ambitious, the opposite of that other Greene arch-villain (all smiles and sinister calculation), Harry Lime, from The Third Man. The other central character is the naive young waitress, Rose, who becomes the target of Pinkie’s scheming so that she will not turn a police witness against him for the murders he committed.

The setting of the present film is 1964 rather than Greene’s original 1930s. It is the period of thugs and gangs, of Mods and Rockers and riots, the time just before the abolition of capital punishment in Britain. The film recreates the period and offers the visuals of Brighton, the dark swirling water, the Pier, the Pavilion, the blocks of waterfront flats, streets, tea rooms and bars, as well as dilapidated houses and estates.

It is not usual to have Catholic characters and themes in British films. However, they are a staple of adaptations of Graham Greene novels. There is no shirking of them here. But, what they do show is how little touched by the depth of faith so many Catholics are. Pinkie says he is ‘Roman’ but doesn’t practise, though he says that atheists have got it all wrong denying God and, especially, the existence of Hell. But, there is a moment when he is being chased along the beach, when he drops to his knees and starts reciting the Hail Mary. Rose is devout in a junior primary school kind of way. She is pious, prays the Rosary, goes to Church, lights candles, kneels before the Crucifix.

These depictions could serve as an indictment of the frequent lack of adult follow-up in faith development for so many Catholics – which Greene wrote about in the 1930s, in his screenplay in the 1940s and which is again presented here.

The convert Greene always struggled with the teachings of the Church, not only the moral issues, but the theology of sin, grace, forgiveness and redemption. He believed that literature had, of necessity, to be about sin.

The person of grace in the film is the blowsy Ida (Hermione Baddeley memorable in 1947, Helen Mirren in the current version). She is not a person of faith in any way, except in some goodness in human nature, in her trying to protect Rose, and in a sense of justice that evil should be punished. She is no saint, even at the end, but she does good.

This version of Brighton Rock brings an old way and style of Catholicism centre screen in a drama that is powerful. Audiences might wonder and question. It is not the core Catholicism of believers whose focus is not just on the Passion and death of Jesus but on the Resurrection (a criticism made of Mel Gibson and The Passion of the Christ).

THE GREEN HORNET

(US, 2010, d. Michel Gondry)

This superhero comedy drama has been something of a sign of contradiction.

Diehard devotees of the now so many versions of the superhero on screen have lamented the fact that Seth Rogen is nobody’s idea of a hero let alone a superhero and that the action and effects don’t match up to other high-tech blockbusters – even though it is made in 3D. Fair enough. But, this viewpoint does seem to miss the point of the movie and the treatment.

Certainly, Seth Rogen (even with a bit of weight loss) cannot compete with Batman, Spiderman (though Green Hornet keeps an eye on the storylines and activities of these heroes) and certainly not Superman and co. And that is how The Green Hornet ticks. It is a tongue-in-cheek romp, a send-up of the conventions of the genre while putting them to amusing use. When we notice that Seth Rogen and his writing partner, Evan Goldberg (Superbad, Pineapple Express),are responsible for the screenplay (with plenty of dude, cool and four letter language), then we should not be expecting po-faced action. When we notice that the director is Frenchman, Michel Gondry, whose projects are never quite straightforward (Eternal Sunshine, Human Nature, Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind), then anything is possible.

Which is rather a long introduction to a favourable review of The Green Hornet.

Britt Reid (Rogen) has been treated severely as a boy by his newspaper tycoon father (Tom Wilkinson). He grows up to be a partying spoilt brat (superbad style) who is confronted with responsibility at his father’s sudden death. Not that he undergoes a full conversion. He is still vain, petulant, cowardly and so on, despite his undergoing a kind of Bruce Wayne-Batman? experience after, by accident, routing a group of thugs. So exhilarated is he (and he has the money to finance the weaponry and cars) that he pushes the paper to promote his new identity as The Green Hornet (much humour about his choice of name and mask).

He actually can’t do it at all without the help of his father’s mechanic, Kato (Jay Chou in a role that was once Bruce Lee’s), who does all the work while Britt takes all the credit (and believes his own publicity). Shades of Inspector Clouseau and his Cato.

Cameron Diaz comes on board the paper and does research on how The Green Hornet is going to act – which, of course, Britt puts into action. Except that he wants everyone to think The Green Hornet, unlike Spiderman, is a baddy: doing good by looking superbad. But... the city’s criminals and the crooked DA (David Harbour) then set out to get rid of the Hornet – in a series of amusing (except for those who want it all to be serious) bouts of mayhem, chases and action (not least a knockout brawl between Britt and Kato).

Lots of scenes are stolen by the old-fashioned local gangster chief from Russia, especially our first view of him confronting an upstart Armani-suited would-be criminal boss, James Franco (uncredited). As he goes along, exasperated by the Green Hornet, he wants to look more up-market, dressing in red and changing his name from Chudnoffsky to Bludnofsky. It is to the credit of Christoph Waltz that he is able to make this character both funny and ludicrous as well as sinister. It takes a moment to realise that it is Waltz who looks and sounds so different from his Oscar-winning role in Inglourious Basterds.

A superhero tale for those who enjoy more than a touch of the absurd.

HEREAFTER

(US, 2010, d. Clint Eastwood)

An impressive film for audiences who like to reflect on the themes of their movies.

The credentials are impressive. The screenplay was written by Peter Morgan, best known for his political dramas like The Queen, The Special Relationship, The Last King of Scotland and Frost/Nixon. He has gone in a very different direction this time, a more meditative approach to his storytelling.

Very interesting that Clint Eastwood should choose to direct the film – and was in production when he turned 80 in May 2010. It is movie-making by an old man who is control of his skills but is thinking thoughts beyond this world. He is exploring themes of near-death experience, the possibilities of an afterlife and of communicating with those who have died.

Clint Eastwood has been directing for over 40 years as well as developing a screen personal for longer: an iconic western figure in the spaghetti westerns, the Dirty Harry policeman in that series as well as the symbolic gunfighters in his ‘religious’ westerns. He brought this acting career to a close with his coach and issues of assisted suicide in Million Dollar Baby and his gruff Walt, a dirty harry figure who finds self-sacrificing redemption. (After that, he made the tribute to Nelson Mandela, Invictus.)

The opening of Hereafter is quite overwhelming, action before the reflection. The re-creation of the tsunami in Thailand received an Oscar nomination. But, the film settles down to tell three very different stories.

The structure of the film is quite schematic. Sections of each story are told in regular turn until, in a pleasing way, the three central characters are brought together in London.

It should be said that Hereafter has quite a European feel to it rather than a glossy Hollywood style. That and the seriousness of the subject of the Hereafter might account for the film not doing very well at the US box-office.

The first story is set in Paris and concerns a TV journalist and host (Cecile de France) who tries to come to terms with what she experienced in almost drowning. It affects her relationships, he work and sends her to Switzerland to consult an expert on near-death (Marthe Keller).

The second story is set in San Francisco. Matt Damon works in a factory. We learn that he has powers, mysterious to him as well as to others, whereby he knows matters about a person by touching them. He regrets these powers and the effect they have had on his life and resists the attempts of his brother (Jay Mohr) to make a business out of the phenomenon. There is an episode where a young woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) who does a cooking course with George and she finds out more than she anticipated or wanted.

The third story is set in London. Twins live with their addict mother, trying to shield her from social workers. When one of the twins is killed in an accident and the other is sent to foster care, he wants to know more about his brother whom he senses is always with him. Frankie and George McLaren? play the twins as recognisably ordinary boys.

It might seem impossible for the three central characters to meet but they do, not in an overtly contrived way, but satisfyingly. George’s love for Charles Dickens’ novels is an important factor. He listens to tapes of the novels (read by Derek Jacob whom he meets at the London Book Fair).

Clint Eastwood shows great sensitivity in dealing with the themes and in the performances he gets from the central figures.

This is a film to surrender to and it will be richly rewarding.

(The French film, Et Apres...? (Afterwards, 2009) with Romain Duris and John Malkovich, would serve as an interesting companion film to Hereafter, different but touching on similar themes.)

HOW DO YOU KNOW

(US, 2010, d. James L. Brooks)

Given the strong cast and the Oscar-winning writer and director, James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, As Good as it Gets), it is very surprising how less than involving this romantic comedy actually is.

The premiss is the familiar one: how do you know you are in love?

The centre of the film, and the character asking the question, is a softball champion who has been forced to retire because she is over 30 and a few seconds slower in responses than up and coming players, Lisa (Reese Witherspoon). She suddenly is involved with a baseball player who is narcissistic, with too much money and too exploitative of women, Matty (Owen Wilson). By chance, she encounters business executive, George (Paul Rudd) who is being indicted on fraud – the blame for which is on the father who brought him up, Charles (Jack Nicholson).

Plenty of ingredients, but...

Lisa tends to know her own mind and is really living with Matty on the rebound of her disappointment in not being picked for the softball team. She thinks George is flaky. George falls in love with Lisa, but is tangled in her problems and his own financial difficulties and his relationship with his father. His secretary, the pregnant Annie, (Kathryn Hahn) who is devoted to him, wants him to know the truth about his father.

What is fairly obvious from early in the film takes a long time to work itself out.

Since Reese Witherspoon is so attractive, we are prepared to put up with her dilemmas. Paul Rudd is so nice, we are prepared to be patient until everything is sorted out. Owen Wilson does another variation on his screen persona – and is prepared to send up the naivety and sometimes earnestness of his self-absorbed character. And there is Jack Nicholson, playing a father whom you really couldn’t trust.

Some of the speeches seem overwritten and overwrought.

What a pity.

THE MECHANIC

(US, 2011, d. Simon West)

Once upon a time, British Michael Winner used to direct Charles Bronson action dramas like The Stone Killer, Chato’s Land, the Death Wish films and, in 1972, The Mechanic. But that was four decades ago. Now the sons of the original producers have decided that a remake of The Mechanic is in order and desirable, the original having achieved some cult status among the fans of the 70s actioners.

The Mechanic is someone who fixes problems. But, the mechanic’s employers are in the business of business and eliminating rivals and threat. The mechanic is a hit man.

This means that this version is a 21st century, glossy ‘re-imagining’ (as they say) of how hit men work and the techniques they use to make a murder seem like an accident or a suicide. This version is so glossy and fast-moving that it could serve as a recruiting film for the profession.

It also presents its audience with something of a moral dilemma (as distinct from the problems concerning hired killers in the first place). Arthur Bishop is an absolutely ruthless hit man. But, as his story progresses and despite his protestations to the contrary, he seems to be gaining some kind of conscience and some moments of remorse. This means that he becomes something of a hero for the story, especially when his employers are unscrupulous tycoons and the son of his best friend (whom he is persuaded to kill) becomes his apprentice, a disreputable young man who is in it for anger release, some risky thrills and some revenge.

Whether the fans who will be following the set-ups and double crosses, along with the skills in murder and cover-ups, will notice the moral dilemmas is another thing.

This is compounded by the casting. Who could be Charles Bronson in the 21st century?

The man who has made a niche for himself and garnered a big group of fans is former Olympic diver, Jason Statham. From Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, through Transporter and Crank films and a lot of others to The Expendables, Statham who does not claim to be much of an actor but is quite a distinctive screen presence, finds that the Bronson mantle has fallen on him, and seems quite comfortable. Not much of a smiler, in fact not much of a user of facial expressions, he nevertheless, in his silence and abruptness, conveys the feelings of the hit man who knows he should retire and get a life.

Ben Foster (so persuasively evil in 3:10 to Yuma) has no difficulty in conveying the ambiguous character of the apprentice (played by the more genial Jan- Michael Vincent in the original). Donald Sutherland is the father and Tony Goldwyn (so effective as the villain in Ghost twenty years ago) is the ruthless boss.

The film achieves what it sets out to do, tell a moral tale about amoral characters without providing easy answers and peppering it with action and hit men activity along the way.

THE NEXT THREE DAYS

(US, 2010, d. Paul Haggis)

Have you had the experience while watching a film, a new film, that you have actually seen a lot of it before but can’t remember where? Fans of French films who have not checked where The Next Three Days derives from may well have this sometimes alarming déjà vu. It was a relief at the end to find that it is based on a French drama of only two years ago, Pour Elle (Anything for Her) with Diane Kruger and Yvan Attal.. No wonder it was familiar.

France has been replaced by the US, Pittsburg specifically. Paul Haggis (Crash, In the Valley of Elah) has adapted the plot well and Americanised it very satisfactorily.

It begins as a drama and ends as a thriller, probably quite far-fetched, but suspenseful as the last part unfolds.

Russell Crowe plays a loving husband and father (real life mellowing him?). Elizabeth Banks plays his wife. Suddenly, police intrude into their home and arrest her, charging her with murder. Circumstantial evidence brings a guilty verdict and a long sentence. Her husband visits her faithfully. Her little son affects indifference because she doesn’t come home. Can anything be done?

This is a story where a fairly laidback and genial teacher devises a plan to effect his wife’s escape from prison. He studies various ways this might be done. He interviews a man who escaped many times and has written a book about it (a solid cameo from Liam Neeson). Gradually, after a long time of hit and miss experiments and testing possibilities, he does make a plan. The question, of course, is, once it is under way, will it work, will the unexpected happen (it does) and can they possibly get away.

While the first part of the film is fairly measured and spends a lot of time building up the characters and showing how the plan might seem a folly, the execution of the plan is effective and tense. Part of the effectiveness of the film is that the family seem fairly ordinary (with Brian Dennehy as the grandfather along with other relatives). Audiences can identify with them, with the shock of the arrest and the prospect of ruined lives.

Entertaining even if you have doubts afterwards that this kind of thing could really happen.

RABBIT HOLE

(US, 2010, d. John Cameron Mitchell)

This is a drama focusing on a couple who have lost their son, hit by a car outside his house. He is their only child and was four years old. Each of them tries to deal with their grief in their own way, but this sets up great tensions because they have reacted so differently. How can they come to terms with what has happened to their son and to them? Can they?

This is a well-written and well-acted film. It offers strong opportunities for Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart to show their dramatic skills. They work well with and against each other so that the audience is drawn into their conflict. Members of the audience will respond in different ways to the husband and to the wife, liking one and disliking the other, judging one and excusing or making allowances for the other.

Nicole Kidman is Becca. Her way of coping tends to suppress too much emotion and to move to a more cerebral stance. Aaron Eckhart is Howie, who is far more emotionally expressive, regretting Becca’s moves to eliminate what he values as memories of his son, his dog, the clothes and items in his room, even the suggestion to sell the house. He accompanies Becca to a help group but she is alienated by their outpourings and, especially, of their reliance on religious comfort and their talk of God. She laughs. She walks out. Howie continues to go and befriends Gaby (Sandra Oh) whose husband has walked out on her. Can she supply comfort and support for Howie? Comfort for herself?

What sustains Becca is tracking down the high school student who was the driver of the car. He is also living with regrets and a scruple that it may have been his fault, although the little boy had run out on to the street after his dog. The young man, Jason (Miles Teller) is finishing school but is a sketcher and is composing a graphic comic-book, Rabbit Hole.

Becca is also handicapped by her irresponsible sister, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) and handicapped and helped by her rather simple and homespun mother (Dianne Wiest) who is still grieving the death of her adult son by an overdose. Becca resents her mother’s comparing the two deaths and the motherly grief.

While the film is serious, there are some humorous touches, which enable the audience to stay with the drama, with their own thoughts and feelings. The film derives from a play and part of the success of the film is that it has some very strong dialogue and speeches which express the inner life of each of the central characters.

The film is directed by John Cameron Mitchell, better known as a director of some sexually provocative features, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus. He makes a very effective transition to more mainstream material with Rabbit Hole.

RAMONA AND BEEZUS

(US, 2010, d. Elizabeth Allen)

Definitely for its niche market, younger girls.

Joey King makes a feisty and articulate 9 year old Ramona. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her older sister, Beatrice (who has become Beezus because Ramona could not pronounce Beatrice properly), Selena Gomez, as well as a little baby sister. Her father is very nice (a genial John Corbert). Her mother is very nice and caring (Bridget Moynihan). And she has a very nice aunt, Aunt Bea, Ginnifer Goodwin. In fact, despite some mischief from Ramona and her frequently getting into trouble, along with bad report from her teacher (Sandra Oh), it is mostly very nice.

This is American wholesome family entertainment – but the boys may be wanting to watch something else (especially if they have sisters and may see all of this in real life).

There are some complications, of course. Dad loses his job and goes out for interviews but you know something will turn up – it does and it is very nice too. Aunt Bea used to have a crush on neighbour, Hobart (Josh Duhamel who must have been wondering at times what he was doing, with his movie reputation, in a film like this). He is back after wandering round for ten years but now realises he loves Bea. One of Ramona’s more egregious mess-ups (loads of paints over his vehicle) brings them together.

There is a lot in the film about Ramona growing up and taking responsibility. Her mother handles Ramona’s decision to run away with some wisdom. And, an ending with wedding bells, and the family all settled, with Ramona promising to be better behaved, means that all’s well that ends very nicely well.

THE ROMANTICS

(US, 2010, d. Galt Niederhoffer)

There is some passing reference to the literary romantics of the 19th century, but this film is a long way from the literature (in some instances it might be more related to their behaviour in real life).

This is a take-it-or-leave-it romantic comedy, based on a novel by the writer-director.

The set-up is this. Several friends from college days, now in their 30s, travel to a wedding. There will be a rehearsal, a pre-ceremony dinner with lots of drinking and lots of rather silly speeches, the anguish of the night before and then the wedding itself. That seems to be straightforward, but it is not. The main visitor, Laura (Katie Holmes), has always been in love with the about-to-be groom, Tom (Josh Duhamel), but they have broken up long since. But, given the characters’ expressions and behaviour, it is quite clear that the romance is still smouldering not too far under the surface. So, why has Tom proposed to Katie’s old roommate, friend and rival, Lila (Anna Paquin)?

If that sounds interesting, then The Romantics might be worth a look. On the other hand, Laura’s angst is obvious. Lila’s determination is pig-headed with a variety of motivations. And Tom’s behaviour still seems incomprehensible.

Candace Bergen turns up for older audiences as Lila’s mother and organiser of the wedding.

SANCTUM

(Australia/US, 2010, d. Alister Grierson)

James Cameron gives his name to the publicity for this action adventure which is not in the blockbuster vein, despite the settings and the 3D. It is rather old-fashioned matinee stuff. Not that Cameron’s films aren’t a bit in the matinee style, especially in their often prosaic dialogue. (This one has the same kind of dialogue but it is peppered with a lot of Australian slang and the touch of crass.) Not that Cameron is not interested in water stories from The Abyss to Titanic and documentaries on the Titanic. His cameras are employed here as well. Cameron and the writer, Andrew Wight, who was a diver in caves in the Nullabor in 1988 and had a similar experience, have worked together on all Cameron’s films in recent years, especially his underwater documentaries.

Why this film is called Sanctum will have to be one of those mysteries. Perhaps it’s the inner sanctum of the last vast unexplored cave and cavernous underground system. But it is no sanctum for the characters who disappear one by one, victims of the elements, the remote and deadly dangers and human flaws and clashes.

The plot? A group of caver-divers are in Papua New Guinea (Queensland and Dunk Island standing in) exploring the vast caves and underground lakes and rivers with a mixture of high current technology and old-fashioned derring-do. As they prepare for going beyond their limits, a cyclone with torrential rains comes down on them and it is a matter of escaping. (Unlike The Descent films or The Cave, there are no mysterious spirits or demons – just the hazards of nature.)

This may mean that the film is really of interest to cavers and divers, perhaps a bit tedious for those who prefer their armchairs or for those who want slambang action. Sanctu m is something of a spelunkathon.

While the caves are spectacular (filmed in South Australia’s Mt Gambier), the 3D techniques are a little disappointing and (testing with removing glasses throughout) many of the scenes look exactly the same in 2D.

Richard Roxburgh as the tough explorer who finds his identity in spelunking rather than in marriage and family and who barks out orders constantly brings a stronger performance than the script and plot might warrant. Rhys Wakefield is his alienated teenage son – who will come to know and admire his father. The rest of the cast is Australian and allowed to keep their accents and their rough and ready language, except for Alison Parkinson who becomes an American climber who accompanies her boyfriend, Welsh Ioan Grufudd sporting a broad American accent as a spoilt and self-centred playboy billionaire (we hiss his villainy).

Two cultural elements: a PNG highlander in full regalia, including nose bone, sitting like an icon, but also playing cards; and the quoting of Kubla Khan and Coleridge.

Sanctum offers adventure, B-grade, until the next one comes along – which it will pretty soon. And then the next... and the next.

STONE

(US, 2010, d. John Curran)

It can be safely said that Stone is not a crowd-pleaser. At first glance, it might seem like a thriller, a parole officer confronting a bizarre prisoner and audiences expecting the worst between them. Well, something of the worst does happen but not in a thrilling way. Rather, this film, the screenplay based on his play by Angus Mc Lachlan, is strong on verbal interactions, often a two-hander between officer and prisoner, between officer and prisoner’s wife, between officer and his wife.

So, this is a psychological drama, a drama of tests of integrity as well as of manipulative game-playing and seduction. It is not a pacy drama. It requires attention from its audience, demands that they get over their fidgets. Attention to the wordplay and verbal jousting means a deepening awareness of (very) flawed characters, not really sympathetic personalities who have made messes of their lives or who have messed others’ lives.

The director is John Curran who is at home with this kind of material, who does not compromise in presenting harsh realities and relationships. His films include Praise, We Don’t Live Here Anymore and his powerful version of Maugham’s The Painted Veil. Curran’s direction is unhurried and he uses the camera to help us focus on particulars (the characters’ eyes and gazes, trapped and crushed insects), long takes, careful framing. Curran also tinkers with the sound engineering, a lot of sounds, noises (which the prisoner becomes conscious of) and regular snippets of religious radio and rather literal biblical moralising.

There is also an alarming prologue concerning the parole officer, his young wife and his baby daughter which sets a violent tone to what will develop. Then the film moves forward two decades or so. The officer is at home with his wife, church-going, scripture reading, she particularly religious and emotionally damaged. At work, he has to be tough, but he is about to retire. He wants to keep his last case-load before leaving. And that is where he encounters the prisoner.

The officer is played by Robert de Niro, a more subtle performance than many of his recent turns, yet with a range of moods at home and at work. He is not really a nice man but he looks as if he has learned some integrity. Edward Norton is the prisoner, reminding us of how extraordinarily deceiving he was in his first film, Primal Fear. He wants to get out as does his schoolteacher wife who sets out to work on the officer. The seduction is well written and well played, with Milla Jovovich acting more effectively than all the Resident Evil performances combined. And, at home, Frances Conroy gives a fine performance as a complex, wounded woman.

The interactions become dramatically intense at times as integrity is tested. Where can it end? The finale here is not a cut and dried American ending. Life will go on but how?

Stone (the nickname of Norton’s Character) will not draw big audiences, but it may find a following for audiences interested in offbeat dramas and the work of John Curran and his cast.

THE TAKERS

(US, 2010, d. John Luessenhop)

Nothing subtle about the title of this heist action thriller. The central characters are real takers. They commit armed robberies and have no scruple in taking what they want to be theirs.

Maybe nothing particularly new here – but who says that everything has to be new? Yes, this is a gang of thieves. They work together. Some of them fall out. (Come to think of it, there is more than a resemblance to The Town, which was in fact made after The Takers.) But, this is a rather affluent group of seeming gentlemen who act thuggishly. They dress smartly, speak well, live in the best hotels and wear tailor-made clothes which, of course, they can afford. Idris Elba is the leader with some suavity and brains. Paul Walker look as if he has gone further out in defying the law than in the Fast and Furious series. Hayden Christensen is meant to offer brawn, though he still looks scrawny. Somebody mentioned he is acting-challenged and there seems to some truth in this. Chris Brown (who does the longest and most complicated run from the police chase in movies and doesn’t seem too much out of breath) and Michael Early are two brothers. They are joined by a former member of the gang who is coming out of prison (Tip Four of the gang are African Americans.

And the law? We are initially surprised to find that two characters whom we may have thought were part of the gang are LA police. Matt Dillon gives strong performances these days and is the tough cop, full-time committed and vigilant (divorced with a young daughter whose parental visits are spoiled as he follows leads instead of taking her out). His partner is the pleasant Jay Hernandez who finds problems of his own. Zoe Saldana has a brief role as a girlfriend and Jonathan Schaech is the respectable seeming money manager for the thieves.

There are two major heists, one brief and efficient, the other something of a fiasco (but not quite).

Thus the plot and characters. The rest of the review needs to emphasise that this is pretty much a non-stop actioner, fast, handheld camera work to remind us that it is real. Pounding score with music, editing, dialogue and performance all aimed at adrenalin pumping. The Takers does what it set out to do (which was not to be a masterpiece but a robbery genre piece).


Created by: malone last modification: Friday 04 of March, 2011 [22:09:11 UTC] by malone


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