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Film Reviews February 2012

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SIGNIS REVIEWS FEBRUARY 2012

1911
30 MINUTES OR LESS
APOLLO 18
BETTER LIFE, A
EVERYTHING MUST GO
FEW BEST MEN, A
FLYPAPER
GREY, The
J. EDGAR
JOURNEY 2: MYSTERIOUS ISLAND
KILLER ELITE
LIKE CRAZY
MAN ON A LEDGE
MY WEEK WITH MARILYN
RETREAT
SHAME
TRESPASS
VOW, The
WC, The


1911

China, 2011
Winston Chao, Joan Chen, Jackie Chan, Bingbing Li.
Directed by Jackie Chan and Li Zhang

For better enjoyment of this historical film, and for better understanding, a reading of some of the background to Chinese history and the role of Sun Yat Sen in toppling the dynasty that had ruled the country for centuries is highly recommended.

While the subtitled version of 1911 has a great deal of information for the audience, it is difficult to keep much of it in mind.

Jackie Chan has co-directed the film and has a significant role but it is subordinate to that of Winston Chao who portrays the wise and dignified revolutionary who challenged the powers that were, pleaded his case to international politicians and bankers, who encouraged rebel in their stands against the government and the military and who finally achieves a new China. Jackie Chan plays his associate, a warrior, a survivor who inspires younger rebels. While there are some martial arts moments, this is a serious Jackie Chan film, made for the centenary of the events of 1911.

The scope of the film is vast at times, especially in battle sequences. However, the tone is very patriotic indeed, the dialogue highlighting the corruption of the dynasty and the integrity and heroism of the rebels, the sacrifice of young men for the country, the sufferings of the women.

To that extent, it all comes across rather conventionally and, if one tries to work out which army is that of the uprising and which the government, it is not always easy, so that the war scenes are just like those of other films. This is the area where Jackie Chan appears.

The non-military scenes are more interesting because of the tension, the initial war losses, the stubborn stances of the dowager empress (Joan Chen), the changing loyalties of her officials, the future of the boy emperor (the subject of Bertolucci’s Oscar-winner of 1987, The Last Emperor, which also featured Joan Chen). The career and diplomacy of Sun Yat Sen are also interesting, his dealings with foreign powers, asking them not to lend money to the failing dynasty and his persuading them that the future of China is with the rebels – in under forty years, Mao Tse Tung led is revolution.

A film for audiences interested in the period and the characters – but some preparation with historical background is advised.


30 MINUTES OR LESS

US, 2011
Jesse Eisenberg, Danny Mc Bride
Directed by Ruben Fleischer.

There is no major reason for seeing this film. Actually, there is no minor reason either. The director made the entertaining vampire spoof, Zombieland. There is a Zombieland of a different ilk. Most of the characters are living dead, each in their own way.

It would be interesting to sit down with the director to ask him why he made the film as he did. He would probably say that it was a lot of fun. Maybe, he was right about the basic plot idea. But, it is the screenplay which causes a lot of the problems. Sometimes, with the amount of crass language found in a film, a comment is made that with the cutting of all the four letter words, the film would be half its running time. This is the case here, four letter alternatives to witty or clever writing. The other question for the director – and he can always pass the responsibility on to the writers – is that why the four main characters have to be so gross about sexuality – and for so much of the time. If a visitor from Mars were to see this film as the first cinema experience and think it was typical of the human race, the alien would have no reason for thinking these were creatures who needed to be saved from invasion! Men would seem to be sexist yobs.

Danny Mc Bride is a comedian who has capitalised on this kind of explicit sexual reference (no innuendo here, just plain smut and beyond) in such films as Your Highness. He now plays a character who exhibits no redeeming features at all, completely dislikeable. His dumb friend is little better. Mc Bride portrays a stoner-loafer who resents his father (Fred Ward), a military man who has won millions in a lottery and is frittering it away. His son wants to get it and connives with a pole dancer, who promises to find a hit-man, to kill his father. But, the charge his $100,000. His brainwave is to pressure a slacker, he and his friends wearing monkey masks without any sense of irony of what this could mean) who works at a pizza place whose boast is that if it is not delivered within 30 minutes, you get the pizza free.

Jesse Eisenberg (so effective as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Contract) is abducted, a bomb strapped on him and given a day to rob a bank and deliver the money. He involves his friend, Aziz Asari (and they both have a propensity for language and sex talk at the slightest opportunity) and, in farcical fashion, they get the job done. Also involved is the hired killer (Michael Pena), which complicates the proceedings no end.

Had the writers stayed with the spoofy absurd plot, it may have had its comic moments. However, they didn’t and this is what they have ended up with. Time to move on to another film for all concerned.


APOLLO 18

US, 2011,
Warren Christie, Ryan Robbins, Lloyd Owen.
Directed by Gonzalo Lopez- Gallego

Moon expeditions have made for some excellent films, especially Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. This brief film is not in the same league. It is a modest (though a very long final credits indicates that a great number of people worked on it, especially for the effects).

But, the original moon landing and other space journeys have been fodder for conspiracy theorists. Even back in the 1970s, writers concocted the entertaining Capricorn One where it claimed that the whole thing was faked and filmed on a set. Recently, Duncan Jones’ Moon made audiences wondering what was going on up there.

This time, we are in Blair Witch film-making territory, that genre where fiction is disguised as fact. This is a kind of Lunar Paranormal Activity. We are told that there was a secret moon voyage after the US terminated the Apollo series with Apollo 17 in the early 1970s. Then it is claimed that a lot of footage from that time has turned up and this film has been edited from it. It seems there is no limit to the variations on this alleged cinema verite.

So, we are introduced to three genial astronauts, their training and mission. Most of the footage is of them in the shuttle, exploring the moon, making strange discoveries there of wrecked vehicles – and they wonder whether the Russians didn’t secretly arrive on the moon. But, there is a dose of Alien and infection, so we now know what really happened - and the secrets of the American government to preserve secrecy and the cover story of the disappearance of the astronauts.

If you like this kind of thing, here it is. If not, it will be a little tedious and repetitious, and making a lot of challenges to the imagination. The special effects artists have spent a lot of time making the footage look as if it is real rather than computer-generated, which means that they are avoiding spectacle and aiming for visual ordinariness. Which may please the science and technology buffs but makes the rest of us look forward to the next high-powered, high budget thriller!


A BETTER LIFE

US, 2011,
Demian Bichir, Jose Julian
Directed by Chris Weitz.

This is the film that was catapaulted into world attention when the leading actor, virtually unknown, though an award winner in Mexico, Demian Bichir, received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, knocking out such potential contenders as Leonardo di Caprio for his portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover. Whether this was correct or not is not important now. What is impressive is the performance of Bichir in what is a small film about Hispanic migrants, legal and illegal, in Los Angeles.

He portrays a simple and good man. From Mexico, he crossed the border many years earlier with his pregnant wife. However, after some years, she wanted more from her life in the US and abandoned her husband and young son. The boy, Luis (Jose Julian), is now fourteen and has been brought up (becoming a typical 21st century American boy, trying to fit in, toying with becoming part of a gang, putting on rebellious and resentful airs) by his hardworking father who is employed spasmodically on gardens. Bichir is an actor who can convey a great deal of interior feeling without words, a lived-in face which at first seems impassive but communicates inner struggles.

When he has the opportunity to buy a truck which will enable him to move to jobs more easily and make some money, he hesitates but eventually, with the help of his sister, buys the truck.

If only... Carlos does the right thing by a man who was kind to him, but this leads to some disasters for him and the dashing of his dreams. It is saddening to watch what happens to this decent man through no real fault of his own.

Stories about illegals in the US have been frequently seen on screen. With its humane touches, this one is quite moving, especially in the last part, empathising with Carlos and his sad fate.

Cinema is a helpful place for audiences to get to know and feel migrant and refugee issues rather than simply read headlines or listen to political grandstanding where the individual stories are lost in debates (and invective) about policies.

Surprisingly, the director is Chris Weitz who was responsible for both American Pie and About a Boy (with excursions into The Golden Compass and Twilight: New Moon).


EVERYTHING MUST GO

US, 2011,
Will Ferrell, Christopher Jordan Wallace, Rebecca Hall, Stephen Root, Michael Pena, Laura Dern,
Directed by Dan Rush.

Unheralded and sent straight to DVD release in Australia. What a pity. And, yet, after seeing it, it is clear that most audiences would find it too serious, something of a downer (though it is not without hope) and not the kind of film they expect or want to see Will Ferrell in. A pity because it is a humane film about actual situations that people find themselves in.

Will Ferrell has shown he can do comedy, sometimes broad, sometimes crass, sometimes hilarious – think Ron Burgundy or Ricky Bobby. But, he did somewhat serious very effectively in Stranger Than Fiction. While there are many sardonic remarks, his character here is very serious, a middle-aged man who has lost his wife, job, house and a great deal of his self-respect, an alcoholic who doesn’t seem to care and who can’t be persuaded to care.

The opening of the film emphasises this as we see him in action (and in inaction). Locked out of his house, he sets up on his lawn with his possessions, and sits and drinks beer. His sponsor, a deteetive (Michael Pena) gives him three days legal leeway to sell his possessions strewn over his front lawn or be arrested.

But, despite himself and his lack of effort, all is not lost. Best of all he encounters a young boy whose mother is caring for a neighbour down the street and rides around on his bike. They talk, strike up a deal for looking out for the possessions – and then a partnership as Nick decdes that the sale will go ahead.

In fact, a lot of the film is about the sale, the people, bargain hunting, what can go and what not, despite the title that everything must go. When most of it has gone, Nick does have a chance to think more positively about the future.

There are effective scenes of interaction with his neighbours, a rather boorish man next door (Stephen Root), a pregnant photographer moving in across the road (Rebecca Hall) and a visit to a high school friend from the past (Laura Dern). The encounters with the two women, especially Nick’s unwarranted insulting of the photographer, provide quite moving scenes.

However, it is in the subtlety of his growing friendship with the boy, the boy acting his age but also showing a better adult sense than Nick (and better at conducting the sale). The boy is played by Christopher Jordan Wallace, the son of the late rapper, Biggie Smalls (and played his father as a boy i the biopic, Notorious).

A satisfying look at the troubles of an ordinary man, some friendship and solidarity and an encouragement that people can change for the better.


A FEW BEST MEN

Australia, 2011,
Xavier Samuel, Kris Marshall, Kevin Bishop, Olivia Newton John,
Directed by Stephan Elliott.

American films like The Hangover, The Wedding Crashers and Bridesmaids remind us that the public has an appetite for raucous comedies. The British were more restrained with Four Weddings and a Funeral, though Death at a Funeral was a bit more in your face (and had an American remake).

Actually, Death at a Funeral is relevant here as the writer, Dean Craig, turns his attention to a wedding and transfers the multi-mishap plot to a wedding. And the director is Stephan Elliot, famous for Priscilla (less so for Welcome to Woop Woop).

This is not a film for the fastidious. It is for those who like a yarn that is funny but not afraid to be crude as well.

Xavier Samuel has his chance to be seen in a big hit film rather than in the small-budget stories and horror films that have marked his career. He is joined by two British comedians who have a solid TV reputation, Kris Marshall (playing the crass friend) and Kevin Bishop (playing the put upon friend). David (Samuel) has fallen in love with an Australian girl, daughter of a dill of an ambitious Senator, and comes with his friends for the wedding in the Blue Mountains. The Blue Mountains backgrounds look beautiful.

The action takes place over twenty four hours and the plot consists of whatever could go wrong does go wrong. This involves slapstick of people knocking into each other, drinking on a stag night with video, complications with a merino sheep called Ramsey, a despondent friend who knocks a huge marriage ball off its pedestal which hurtles down onto the wedding party, a fiasco of speeches. Drugs come into it with a dealer (a humorous performance by Steve Le Marquand as a druggie with a heart of mush – and a gun). And, the mother of the bride gets high and berserk. The shock is that she is played by Olivia Newton John as exactly the opposite of what we expect her to be like. There are also political complications, police complications and the marriage being declared a failure before it has begun.

But, all will be well.

Better than expected, it kind of grows on you... But there are several reviewers who want to assure us that it doesn’t!


FLYPAPER

US, 2011,
Patrick Dempsey, Ashley Judd, Tim Blake Nelson, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Jeffrey Tambor.
Directed by Rob Minkoff.

This is a heist movie, well two heists, well three in fact – and all at the same time.

Actually, the premiss is rather absurd – and so is the treatment, played for laughs and disbelief. And the flypaper of the title – that is just the money in the bank which attracts thieves like flies to flypaper.

The first group of thieves wants to be the real thing, masks, guns, blasting... The second group of thieves has to be seen and heard to be believed. Tim Blake Nelson and Pruitt Taylor Vince are a couple of good ole boys, dumb as they come, who have idealised bank robbers and plan to set themselves up for the pantheon of robbers. They get in the way, say the stupidest things (with that southern drawl) and behave oddly and badly.

Speaking of behaving oddly, Patrick Dempsey is an eccentric genius who needs his medication regularly and, during the burglary, doesn’t get his pills. This means that he is the one to outwit the robbers as well as solve the mystery of the third attempt, by a mastermind criminal to put in danger the lives of the robbers (he sent them invitations), his security guard (who has done time), his Swiss bank connection and his teller staff (Ashley Judd and Octavia Spencer before we all noticed her in Help and she won awards). Jeffrey Tambor is the bank manager.

If that sounds appealing, go for it. If it doesn’t (and this review has tried to communicate the feel and moods of the film – and the absurdity of the plot), then stay away. Director Rob Minkoff made The Lion King and Stuart Little! Advertised as ‘from the writers of The Hangover’ – they must have been on one when they wrote this one.


THE GREY

US, 2011,
Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts.
Directed by Joe Carnahan.

What could be worse than sitting through a horror film feeling scared?

The answer is sitting through a very well made film that has a group in a desperate situation that we can identify with and hope never to be in. But, just imagining it and seeing the terrifying experience on the screen means real horror, not make-believe ghosts and vampires. This is what watching The Grey is like. Praise to the skills of the film-makers and the performances. But, you may not want to stay.

Many decades ago, this reviewer read a book that has stayed in the imagination all these years. It was My Antonia by Willa Cather. The part that was terrifying in the book is where a married couple, travelling through a forest in the dark and the snow, is set upon by a pack of ravenous wolves and ravaged to death. Wolves are not to be danced with. They can be terrifying and their claw and teeth cruelty can be horrifying.

A group of rugged men on an Alaskan oil site crash land in the ice and snow. How can those not killed survive? Will they survive? They have landed in a wolf-infested area, huge wolves who are flesh eaters and pursue humans.

Ordinarily one would comment on the beauty of the Alaskan snowscapes, but we are too busy watching the men, on the lookout for the wolves and feeling the dread of their presence, their howling and the viciousness of their attacks on the men.

On board is Ottway (Liam Neeson), a hunter, a sniper for the company. However, initially we see him in despair because of his ill wife, writing her a letter and then contemplating shooting himself. However, after the crash, he assumes the leadership role and generally the men follow him – the man who doesn’t fights when taunted that he is afraid, and he finally admits that he is.

This is one of those ‘lost patrol’ stories where individuals are picked off one by one. During the attempt to reach an outpost, we get to know the men, some quite well. They also do a fair amount of reflecting on the meaning of what has happened to them and on questions of God. This reaches a climax when Ottway looks at the sky and challenges God to do something now – but the sky does not change and Ottway lets out a desperately angry and abusive outburst against God.

This means that there is some reflection during the film, moving it to a deeper level than just outwitting (or not) the wolves.

Co-written by director Joe Carnaha with the author of the original short story. Carnahan’s previous film (also with Liam Neeson) was the explosion-filled big screen version of The A Team. This film has more substance and requires more fortitude to watch it.


JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND

US, 2012

Dwayne Johnson, Michael Caine, Josh Hutcherson, Vanessa Huggins, Luis Guzman.
Directed by Brad Peyton.

Did we see Journey 1? Yes, we did. In fact the first journey was to the centre of the earth (with Brendan Fraser). Young Sean (Josh Hutcherson) had gone with his uncle (Fraser) on a 3D expedition adapted from Jules Verne’s novel. Here is Sean again, more devoted than ever to Verne as well as to his scalawag explorer grandfather who sends him a coded message that indicates he has found Verne’s Mysterious Island (in fact, this was Verne’s sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) and wants Sean to come. So, this is the journey 2 the island! It is in the Pacific, off Palau.

The trouble is that Sean now has a stepfather whom he resents (‘legal guardian’), Hank, an ex Navy man, played by Dwayne Johnson, tough but also sending his image up (and singing ‘It’s a Wonderful World’). Hank tries to bond with Sean and off they go. They hire an old helicopter piloted by Luis Guzman doing the funny schtick, Sean insisting because he has seen the teenage daughter, Vanessa Hudgins, no shy violet whose ambition is to go to college.

This is rather old-fashioned film-making and storytelling, not unlike those 1970s adventures, with exotic locations and frightening creatures, like Valley of the Gwangi or People that Time Forgot. It was produced by Walden Studios, that family friendly company who like moral stories like their Bridge to Terabithia or the Narnia films. Nothing to offend any family audience here.

After an attack by giant birds, they are rescued by Grandpa. He is played by Michael Caine in yo-ho-ho frame of mind, all grins and enjoying himself as he comes up to age 80. And, sounding just like Michael Caine has for almost fifty years.

The rest is adventures on the island, some menacing insects, everyone riding through the air on giant bumble bees – and then the discovery that this is really Atlantis and that it is sinking fast. Will they be able to get to the underwater cave to re-start Captain Nemo’s Nautilus and escape? You might like to guess!

Filmed in 3D, it has its exciting moments. But, basically, this is a wholesome adventure story, family values and bonding, a cheerful show where there are dangers but not for too long and some ready solutions to the problems that keep cropping up. Undemandingly entertaining for family audiences.


J. EDGAR

US, 2011,
Leonardo di Caprio, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench,
directed by Clint Eastwood.

While younger audiences may not be aware of J. Edgar Hoover and his influence on American politics and society in the 20th century, older audiences have strong views, and most of them not favourable. Which means that going into this film (as may also have been the case with watching The Iron Lady and Meryl Streep’s performance as Margaret Thatcher), they will be critical.

What Clint Eastwood’s film does, with the foundation of Dustin Lance Black’s telling screenplay, is give some credibility to Hoover’s character and behaviour and, to that extent, some sympathy for a man who, especially in the latter part of his life and career, did not merit it.

Leonardo di Caprio is an interesting choice for Hoover and he takes the opportunity to offer an interpretation of the younger Hoover but also of Hoover in his 60s and 70s. His makeup is effective (more than for the way Armie Hammer’s makeup is photographed for the older Clyde Tolson), as the film continually moves from the younger to the older Hoover dictating his memoirs.

The film does indicate the contribution Hoover made to the establishing and the early years of the FBI. From a staunch anti-anarchist (and anti-Communist) officer in the 1920s, Hoover moved towards a crusade against crime in the 1930s, using his agents (whom he demanded be spick and span at all times), his G-Men? against Alvin Karpis, John Dillinger and many others. He also took a deep interest in the Lindbergh kidnapping case, making sure of pictures and headlines (which Tolson later taunts him with, manufacturing an image while he was not as personally involved as he claimed). The film does not explore the 1940s or the black list and anti-communist attacks of the 1950s apart from referring to Joe McCarthy? as an opportunist. It is the latter part of Hoover’s career which is dramatised and his quite malicious surveillance of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. He dies during the Nixon administration where publicly Nixon extols his friendship with Hoover while instantly sending agents to find his private files. To this extent we get quite an overview of his achievement and his failures.

Hoover was quite a rigid character (although prepared to bend the law in later years in his campaigns), righteous as well. However, with his extreme devotion to duty and the protection of the nation, he was immature and undeveloped, especially emotionally. He may not have understood sexuality very well. He did propose to Helen Gandy who declined but never married and stayed his faithful assistant for almost fifty years. Hoover even imagined marrying Dorothy Lamour. However, people knew of his repression and of his devotion to his second in charge at the bureau, Clyde Tolson, who was homosexual.

The screenplay is both reticent and forthright on these issues. It portrays his mother knowing his personality better than he did – and he lived with her for years and took her to social events – and there is a telling sequence where she reminds him of a boy at school who was nicknamed ‘Daffy’ after ‘Daffodil’ and she warns him never to be a daffodil. In this context, his grief at her death has a profound effect. He identifies with her, tentatively putting on her necklace and taking out her dress – which gives a more interesting angle on his alleged cross-dressing.

There are many interesting episodes in the film, anarchist bombings in 1919, the Lindbergh case, the capture of gangsters, Hoover’s confrontation with Robert Kennedy as Attorney General and the news of JFK’s assassination, his anonymous letter to Martin Luther King exposing his behaviour so that he would not accept the Nobel Prize (and Hoover’s disbelief when he does).

Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay (he also wrote Milk) is a portrait of a man as well as of the American times. Clint Eastwood, making the film when he turned 81, offers a measured look at his subject, offering grounds for the audience being critical as well as acknowledging achievement. And the supporting cast is a strong one. A rather self-effacing Naomi Watts is the devoted Helen Gandy. Armie Hammer is the supportive Clyde Tolson. Judi Dench is a surprise choice for Hoover’s mother but, of course, is always impressive.

Interesting, and an opportunity to think about the 20th century US.


KILLER ELITE

US/Australia, 2011,
Jason Statham, Clive Owen, Robert de Niro, Aden Young, Dominic Purcell,
Directed by Gary Mc Kendry

Famed explorer and adventurer, Ranulph Fiennes, wrote a book about British war and espionage activity in Oman, and the role of the SAS. This actioner states that it is based on a true story and is based on Fiennes’ book. But, it plays like a variation on The Expendables, a lot of action and explosions, a group of macho men and the taking out of opponents by these elite killers - seems more the stuff of video game activity rather than a thoughtful drama.

Well, it is a Jason Statham show with him giving his usual performance (as distinct from doing a variation on his usual performance). After a career as a killer elite for the SAS, he has got out of the business in some disgust at a violent set-up and has retired to, of all places, the Yarra Valley, where he has taken up with a local girl, Yvonne Strahovski.

Wouldn’t you know it, he receives a call, an offer he can’t refuse because his long-time partner and mentor, Hunter, has been abducted by the sheikh of Oman who is bent on revenge on the SAS assassins who killed his sons (except for the rather selfish, effete young son who can’t stand the desert – or his father). Hunter is played with more energy than his age might suggest by Robert de Niro.

Their tough associates in the killing missions and contrived ‘accidents’ are played by Dominic Purcell and Aden Young, with Ben Mendelssohn along as well as veterans Nick Tate and Bille Brown. Yes, much of it was filmed in Australia (with locations also in Jordan and Morocco) with supporting Australian cast.

Clive Owen plays a retired veteran who is suspicious about the nature and execution of the killings and goes in pursuit, only to face up to violence in Oman and a confrontation with Statham and De Niro.

As was mentioned, it seems more like an Expendables variation, big on effects and action, less so on character and performances and the moral issues of this kind of clandestine violent activity.


LIKE CRAZY

Felicity Jones, Anton Yelchin, Alex Kingston, Jennifer Lawrence,
Directed by Drake Doremus.

One of those particularly American titles that can be quite offputting. That should not be a reason for not seeing this film. However, a warning is in order. This is a film about young adults, falling in love, coping with separation, and not coping, leading to reconciliation which the ending leaves open for various interpretations (like that of the reviewer who told me that I was absolutely wrong in how I understood the characters and their behaviour).

One of the film’s big advantages is that Felicity Jones (British) and Anton Yelchin (American) play the couple. They are both emerging as talented young performers. She was in Brideshead Revisited and was Chalet Girl. He has appeared in a wide range of films from Star Trek to The Beaver, as Mel Gibson’s son.

We meet them first, studying in Los Angeles. She is a writer. He designs furniture. They hit it off (like crazy, I suppose, though the real craziness has yet to appear). Then the fatal mistake which parental adults in the audience will wring their hands over. Her visa has a limited time – will she overstay? Despite warnings and her own seeming common sense, she stays. Which, of course, leads to the drama of the rest of the film. How will they maintain their relationship at a distance? He can come to England but, despite appeals, she cannot enter the US after she is turned back.

The distance, and the presence of significant others, means that true love is on, well, let’s say it, a crazy path. Years pass. There are complications, including a wedding in London. She thrives in her job and is promoted. He builds up an important company.

We are left with the question of whether they will stay together after all the years and the experiences which have changed them. Depends, I suppose, on how you view human nature.


MAN ON A LEDGE

US, 2012,
Sam Worthington, Elizabeth Banks, Jamie Bell, Ed Harris, Ed Burns, Bill Sadler, Genesis Rodriguez,
Directed by Asger Leth.

Far-fetched (one hopes) but eminently watchable.

Sam Worthington (rather uncharismatically strong) spends a great deal of the film on a ledge of the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan. But, first, we see him in prison, serving a 25 year sentence for stealing a very valuable diamond from building entrepreneur, Ed Harris. He is allowed out for his father’s funeral where he clashes with his brother, Jamie Bell – and then escapes. Which leads him on to the ledge.

It soon emerges why he is on the ledge – but that is part of the cleverness of the plot, quite intricate in its way, with more than an effective climax and a pleasing twist at the end. But, probably, best for an audience to find this out for themselves rather than read about the plot development in a review.

Worthington has appeared in Avatar and The Debt. Jamie Bell has been playing a number of character rather than leading roles and is building himself an effective career. Elizabeth Banks usually plays feisty roles. Here she is the expert on talking down would-be suicides, though she is haunted by a recent failure and her suspicions that this case is not ‘normal’ at all. Ed Burns is her associate on the scene – wary of a woman in the advisory role. Ed Harris plays the millionaire with great gusto, a narcissistic megalomaniac.

There is obviously much more to the robbery of the diamond and we suspect police corruption – and we are right. This means that getting the man down from the ledge (where a crowd has gathered, many urging him to jump) is far more complicated than we might have first imagined. It does involve his brother and his fiancée doing a lot of stunt work.

Right will out at the end and vindications where necessary – and a nice, tongue-in-cheek ending with the bell-hop of the hotel.

Paperback action, but entertaining.


MY WEEK WITH MARILYN

UK, 2011,
Michele Williams, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Redmayne, Judi Dench, Dominic Cooper, Emma Watson,
directed by Simon Curtis.

For film buffs who remember the 1957 film, The Prince and the Showgirl, a treat. For others, a chance to see something of Marilyn Monroe. This is a behind the scenes story of the making of the film and the difficulties between Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier. What seemed a good idea on paper turned out to be a very hard time for the two stars, and all those involved in the production, a bad mixture of impatience and being intimidated.

It is all seen through the eyes of a young man, Colin Clarke (son of the art historian, Kenneth Clarke), who wanted nothing better than to have a job, any job, in the movies. We seem him entranced by them, especially watching There’s No Business Like Show Business and Michelle William’s effective impersonation of Tropical Heatwave from that film. He pesters producers and is finally given a job by Olivier.

Olivier was fifty at the time and had been a successful stage actor and had made some memorable films. This was to be a film to enhance his popularity. Marilyn Monroe, recently married to playwright Arthur Miller who accompanies her, wants to be taken as a serious actress. She is used to getting her own way – Olivier warns Colin not to be taken in by her little girl lost posturing because she can be quite a manipulator – and has drama coach and adviser, Paula Strasberg with her at all times. Olivier on the other hand gives little credence to the intensity of the Strasberg ‘Method’ of thinking and feeling one’s way into a role. He prefers his cast to act. There is tension on the set – and even more when Marilyn arrives late.

Marilyn relies on Colin more and more and he is both starstruck and in love. Whether this is what actually happened, we will never know but Colin wrote and published a memoir of this week of supporting Marilyn.

The cast is memorable. Michelle Williams is able to impersonate Marilyn but also create a character, a damaged personality, ambitious, wilful, manipulative, naive – but able to be a strong screen presence, something which exasperates and delights Olivier. Kenneth Branagh, who has walked in Olivier’s footsteps (especially with a Hamlet and a Henry V), sounds just like him, a mixture of pomposity, irritability and charm. Judi Dench is Dame Sybil Thorndyke, a grand dame who is kind to Marilyn. A whole host of British character actors appear, Dominic Cooper, Derek Jacobi, Toby Jones, Michael Kitchen, Emma Watson (after Harry Potter) and Zoe Wanamaker as Paula Strasberg. And, Eddie Redmayne shows a blend of eagerness and puppy love in his devotion to Marilyn.

Something similar happened in Me and Orson Welles with a young man working on Welle’s Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar and all its ups and downs and tantrums. The two films make a pleasing show business double.


RETREAT

UK, 2011,

Thandie Newton, Cillian Murphy, Jamie Bell, Jimmy Yuill,
Directed by Carl Tibbets

Probably best not to walk into this one or hire or download it without knowing something about it. It begins one way and develops in quite another, with some twists along the way. It tells the story of a husband and wife with problems, going back to an idyllic island retreat where they once were happy, to find some closeness and love. Then it turns into a contagion action thriller with echoes of the end of the world. Retreat for reflection, then a retreat from the infected world.

The location photography of sea and island are beautiful and, for a while, we are treated to a domestic drama. She is writing a memoir, regretting that her husband did not take the birth (abortion?) of their now dead child seriously, he trying his limited best to rectify the relationship. If an audience began watching the attempts at reconciliation and the activities of two isolated people, they might think it was going to go on and on and become tedious. The couple is played very well by fine actors, Thandie Newton, as a miserable and despondent but finding some inner strength, and Cillian Murphy, who was in a similarly themed 28 Days Later, matching her as a pleasant but less fortitudinal husband.

Then Jamie Bell turns up. Who is he? How did he become so badly injured? Is he truly military? What is his babble about a world contagion and the need to barricade themselves into the isolated house? Should he be believed? Or is he mad and making the whole thing up?

Husband and wife do not take kindly to this eruption into their lives. They spend the rest of the film, reacting against the intruder, she especially, he more compliant. Doubts begin because there is little activity outside the house. Are they caught as hostages in a potential siege? Jamie Bell has chosen a career of character rather than leading roles and is quite dominating in this one.

Actually, the developments are not quite what might have been anticipated, with some unexpected twists and a downbeat ending. Interesting but not essential.



SHAME

UK, 2011, Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan,
Directed by Steve Mc Queen.

Over the years there have been some outstanding films that are psychosexual case studies. Obviously, not everyone will want to see or be exposed to such cases which can be very disturbing, not only because of the behaviour, but because they remind us that these are not merely stories but there are actual people dealing or not dealing with these obsessions, compulsions and addictions. When these films are made with serious intentions, they offer insight through storytelling and character depiction and exploration. This has been the case with such films of the past as Last Tango in Paris (now considered something of a classic) or, in more recent times, Sleeping Beauty.

The addiction in Shame is sexual addiction, sexual promiscuity and self-gratification. There are some explicit moments in Shame which ensure that the audience knows what the addiction is and how it affects the central character.

While this is a British production with British director and main actors, it is set in New York City – does this mean that this kind of story is more credible there? While we go into apartments, work offices, restaurants and clubs (and a brief excursion into a sleazy gay area), there is a thematic and visual motif that continues through the whole film and where we leave the protagonist. It is the New York subway, the underground symbolising a sub-conscious as well as conscious journey, where a passenger can get out for a momentary encounter (as he does here) or can stay on the train until he is prepared to arrive at a destination and come up into the light. The final locale of the film is the subway and the question whether the journey is never going to end, will end temporarily, or can truly end.

Michael Fassbender has emerged as a strong star as well as character actor in recent years (from Inglourious Bastards to X -Men First Class to Rochester in Jane Eyre and Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method). Here, he gives a performance, no holds barred, enabling the audience to see, understand and partly sympathise with the addict. Carey Mulligan (An Education, Never Let Me Go, The Great Gatsby) also has a self-revealing role as Fassbender’s depressive and self-destructive sister.

The screenplay (by director Steve Mc Queen who made the impressive Hunger, with Fassbender as Bobby Sands on hunger strike and Abi Morgan who wrote The Iron Lady) highlights the ordinary life of a mid-30s executive, especially at work, but also his private life, his use of women, his dependence on on-line pornography.

While the title does make some judgment on the protagonist’s behaviour, audiences may well be divided on whether he is redeemable or not, whether the film gives indications as to what his future will be. When he takes a fellow worker to dinner and she is able to get him to open up more personally than he is used to – revealing that his longest relationship had been four months – and his encounter with her leads to an impotence episode, he is not the same man we saw as the film opens. He also has to deal with his intrusive sister and, to his shock, a suicide attempt. Can he continue to be the same, self-absorbed man?

Shame is certainly a psychosexual case study, but it invites its audience to observe as well as to speculate on experiences which are destructive and experiences which could be therapeutic. The protagonist could go into the void and stay there – or are his experiences cries for help out of the depths?


TRESPASS

US, 2011,
Nicolas Cage, Nicole Kidman, Ben Mendelssohn, Cam Gigandet, Dash Mihok,
Directed by Joel Schumacher.

Thugs invading a home, trying to rob it and keeping the family hostage is not a new idea for a thriller. William Wyler directed a classic of this genre in the 1950s, The Desperate Hours, with Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March. It was remade in 1990 with Anthony Hopkins and Mickey Rourke. So, here it is again.

The director is Joel Schumacher, a director the critics love to mock for his highly colourful and emotional films (even his version of The Phantom of the Opera). Fans decry his two Batman films, Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, as spoiling, almost ruining, the franchise. Watching Trespass, we realise they may have more than a point.

This time the couple is played by Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman, fairly upmarket casting. Cage gets the chance to be more reticent than usual as a bespectacled businessman whose diamonds and cash are the target for the trespass of his home. Nicole Kidman now has a teenage daughter but looks as regal as ever. Australian Ben Mendelssohn, who has not appeared in many Hollywood films which makes us wonder why he chose this one, is the leader of the gang, and he does not miss an opportunity to snarl. Cam Gigandet plays his brother, a more complex character. There is also a teenage daughter who is having problems about going out and parental permission.

The film opens almost over the top, with the establishing of the relationship between the couple, the behaviour of the daughter and the loud and smashing intrusion of the gang. Once you are over the top, where can you go except to hysteria? That is the direction Trespass takes, lots of bullying and brutality, lots of shouting, cursing and screams – and the audience wanting to turn the volume down.

However, there are a few surprising twists in the plot, especially concerning the dealings of the businessman and what is in his safe, about one of the thugs and his relationship with the wife, the reaction of the security company, the use of her wits by the daughter.

Trespass means to go on to private property illegally. It also means a sin and an offence. Both are relevant for this melodramatic and over-heightened thriller.


THE VOW

US, 2012,
Channing Tatum, Rachel Mc Adams, Jessica Lange, Sam Neil,
Directed by Michael Sucsy.

If you are, as they say, ‘a sucker’ for romantic films, then this is definitely your film. And, even if you are not a sucker, you may well be drawn into it. It is about love and fidelity, and a surprising part of ‘the for better or for worse’.

The film opens cheerily, Paige and Leo love each other – and then, almost immediately, there is a car accident and everything changes. Paige suffers severe brain damage and loses her immediate memory. She does not recognise her husband which, while devastating for him, draws out the best in him as he tries to help his wife to regain her memory. Instead, she has regressed to a period when she did not know Leo, was at home with her wealthy, dominating parents, was studying law and was engaged to Jeremy.

While Leo is dismayed by her ‘regression’ to her former self, he tries his best (not always successfully) to help Paige, hoping that, if she does not regain her memory, she will fall in love with him again. Everybody is sympathetic to Paige, while Leo does not receive all the empathy he needs.

The film is announced as based on true events. We are invited to enter into this difficult emotional situation and share Paige’s quest to find her identity and Leo’s hope against hope.

The setting is Chicago and the film makes the most of its atmosphere.

Channing Tatum (who despite his credentials as a model seems in his other films more often a big lug) is convincing as Leo with his love for Paige. We feel deeply sorry for him. Rachel Mc Adams is Paige, always a vivacious screen presence, convinces us in the early sequences of her love for Leo and is equally convincing in her memory loss and how she handles it. Her parents are played by Sam Neill and Jessica Lange.

In days when relationships are so often casual or transient or both, it is an encouragement to see a story of committed love trying to overcome all obstacles.

The ending is not quite what we might have expected.


THE WC

Australia, 2011,
Tim Constantine, Wayne Cooper,
Directed by Kostas Metaxa.

No, not that WC, nor any toilet humour to speak of. This WC is Wayne Cooper, the British-born fashion designer who came to Australia in the 1980s, educated himself and became a power to be reckoned with. Not that you would necessarily think this while watching The WC.

Fairly soon into it, you start thinking that this can’t be for real. And it isn’t. We are in mockumentary territory here – until I read afterwards that writer-director, Kostas Metaxas called it a ‘dramady’. Whether you think it’s funny will depend on your taste and sense of humour and the ridiculous. And what reviewer can predict that!

A confession. I had a vague idea that Wayne Cooper was real but was not sure until I googled him after the film. What he says about himself in a 2001 interview (filmed by Metaxas) seems accurate enough. And it is cut into the action throughout the whole film. The ten years between that interview and Cooper’s appearance in the film as himself (a somewhat fictionalised self) highlight that we can change a lot in ten years.

The plot is rather corny and meant to be. It also has a lot of puns – disguised as alleged sayings of Confucius, and I just remembered one which was a bit toilet-humourish. One I did like, so test yourselves. What is a person who goes back and forth over the ocean without washing? A dirty double-crosser! So, there you are.

The characters. The main one is Stanley Finkelsteinenburger from Tasmania who creates an over-qualified CV, gets an appointment and a job in Sydney with Cooper, The WC. Actually, dirty double-crosser fits in with the plot where Stanley, calling himself Sidney London professionally, is pressured to commit fraud on Wayne by some eccentric Chinese (who offers the Confucius sayings). Stanley is to get WC a spot at a London fashion show (all this happens off-screen, presumably for budget reasons) which strains the credibility. And there are a lot of other odd characters with funny names that come up on screen plus Stanley’s mother and his old girlfriend.

It’s all amiable enough, some smiles and laughs, not demanding at all. But, the director says these are not real people – though they are the equivalent of types you would meet in this fashion and pseudo-fashion world.

Created by: malone last modification: Saturday 03 of March, 2012 [22:51:19 UTC] by malone


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