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Film Reviews February 2019

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SIGNIS REVIEWS FEBRUARY 2019


22 JULY
ARCTIC
AT ETERNITY’S GATE
BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS, The
BEN IS BACK
CAPERNAUM
EDGE OF ETERNITY
FRONT RUNNER, The
GLASS
HATE U GIVE, The
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
INSTANT FAMILY
KID WHO WOULD BE KING, The
LORO
MARY POPPINS RETURNS
MULE, The
ON THE BASIS OF SEX
PICK OF THE LITTER
PIERCING
POLAR
RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET
STORM BOY
VOX LUX


22 JULY

UK/Norway, 2018, 120 144 minutes, Colour.
Anders Danielson Lie, Jonas Strand Gravli, Jon Ohlgarden.
Directed by Paul Greengrass.

22 July is a significant date in Norwegian recent history. It is July 22, 2011. This was the day when Anders Breivic planted bombs at government buildings in central Oslo and then drove to an island, Utoya, where teenagers were present on a camp, and he hunted them down, killing 69 of them.

In 2018, Norwegian director, Eric Poppe, (Troubled Waters, The King’s Decision) made a film from the point of view of the youngsters, keeping the killer at something of a distance, not giving him the opportunity to watch the film and celebrate his presence in what he had done. It was a carefully constructed film, running for around 90 minutes, in real time, single take, focusing on the young people, their phone calls to their parents, their being hunted in the forests, under the cliffs, until the police eventually arrived and arrested Breivic. It was a powerful re-enactment.

British writer and director, Paul Greengrass, has been involved in many films with social unrest and disasters, focusing on Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland, on the air attacks on 9/11 in United 93, on the disaster in the World Trade Centre. He has also directed Jason Bourne Films.

In fact, compared with Eric Poppe’s film, Greengrass spends only 15 to 20 minutes on the actual hunt and massacre, and very effectively.

However, he is interested in wider issues, focusing on Breivic himself at the opening, the loner, at home, his mother, preparing explosives, having his extreme manifesto on his computer, placing the bombs, driving to the island in the guise of a policeman, beginning his massacre. Greengrass is also interested in his ideology, his extreme rightist beliefs, the purification of Europe and Norway, anti-multiculturalism, anti-Islam.

This focus on Breivic continues throughout the film, his surrender on the island, interrogated by the police, discussions with his lawyer, the preparation for the defence and the issue of insanity, consulting experts, Breivic himself wanting to speak in the court.

However, Greengrass has also focused on one of the teenagers and his protectiveness towards his brother, their hiding beneath the cliff, Breivic discovering them, shooting the older boy, the younger able to escape. The screenplay introduces their parents, the concern, the consulting of the lists of survivors, phoning of hospitals, and some detail in looking at the surgery for the young man, the pieces of bullet to his brain, his gradual recovery, his finally being persuaded to speak during Breivic’s trial.

This means that the film is more than just a portrait of Breivic himself, but a look at Norwegian society, social issues, the role of government and security, the judicial implications, the humanity consequences of such an event.

The film is in Norwegian production with a Norwegian cast, however speaking English for a worldwide audience.

It would be best to watch Poppe’s film and then expand the awareness by watching Greengrass’s film.


ARCTIC

Iceland, 2018, 97 minutes, Colour.
Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smaradottir.
Directed by Joe Penna.

if you are an enthusiast for powerful stories of endurance, endurance in impossible locations, prospects of rescue diminishing rapidly, then Arctic can be well recommended. It is precisely that. And, is rather visual in its presentation of a man who has crashed in the Arctic.

This is a film from Iceland, and filmed there. The central character, Overgaard, is played by Denmark’s top actor, International presence, Mads Nicholson. In most of his films, he is a very serious Character, not exactly prone to comedy. Which means, that he is ideal to portray this pilot, alone in the remote Arctic, crashed, the wing of his plane broken.

Needless to say, there is not a great deal of dialogue in this film, focusing as it does on the loan survivor. There is a great attention to detail, is devices for catching fish through the snow and ice, so we know that he is not going to be deprived of food and water. His radio is not working. He sleeps in the plane itself and has some resources, especially some players, some matches…

But, he is alone. Does anyone know what has happened to him?
Suddenly, helicopter circles, and he sets off a flare for of hope. In fact, so was the audience. But, perhaps a necessary spoiler, especially when you see that mads Mikkelsen is not the sole member of the cast, the helicopter crashes. There is a survivor, a young girl, gashed, in shock, not able to communicate well.

Which turns the film into a double survivor story – with the decision by Overgaard to put the young girl on a sled, gather supplies, track over the mountains in the hope of rescue.

So, the film is one of endurance – and one of the difficulties with this kind of film, think of those mountain climbing epics, the football team which crashed in the Andes, the audience is the endurance, a hard slog of film viewing, identifying with characters and their situations. Arctic is definitely for this kind of audience – but for a comfy night out, better not.


AT ETERNITY’S GATE

France, UK, US, 2018, 111 minutes, Colour.
Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Matthiue Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Neils Arestrup, Anne Consigny, Amira Casar, Vincent Perez.
Directed by Julian Schnabel.

Vincent van Gogh on screen again.

Van Gogh must be the most popular artist to have feature films and documentaries made about him. Vincente Minnelli made Lust for Life in 1956 with Kirk Douglas in the role. Since then Robert Altman made Theo and Vincent, Paul Cox made a documentary with John Hurt reading Van Gough’s letters, Vincent, recently an animated film of van Gogh and his life and art, featuring the voice of actors who resembled the characters in his paintings, Loving Vincent.
Directed Julian Schnabel is an artist himself and also made a portrait of the American artist, Basquiat. Here he wants to take the audience inside the consciousness of the artist who, at one stage, tells us that his life was like standing at the edge of a field, looking out on its beauty, in the sunlight, at the edge of eternity.

Willem Dafoe is quite convincing as van Gogh, receiving an Oscar nomination for his performance. He looks weatherbeaten by age and his personal problems. He has a compulsion to paint even though the public response to his work is minimal, not selling a painting during his lifetime. He comes from a religious background in Holland, his father a minister, and supported financially by his loving brother, Theo (Rupert Friend). He has found the weather and light in Holland too trying and his friend and associate, Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) has advised him to move to the south of France. He does.

The director uses a great number of devices, a great deal of handheld camera, intense and long close-ups on particular characters during their dialogue, sweeps of camera that resemble brushstrokes, playing with the styles of light. For those who like their biographies of artists straightforward in narrative and traditional film styles, they will have to make quite an adjustment to the style of At Eternity’s Gate.

Most audiences are familiar with many of the aspects of van Gogh’s life and work. Fortunately, this film shows him not only at work, but walking through fields, immersed in the colour of the landscapes, the beauty of nature in sunlight, and then his working – with a strange interlude where he is painting the vast roots of trees and a school teacher with a group of children pass by, the children curious, playing up, disturbing the artist who rouses on them as they flee (and his later being asked whether he was cruel to children).

Then there are the questions of his mental state, his being institutionalised, the cutting off of his ear and its motivation (not visualised in this film), the experiences in the institution, sitting in cold baths and being hosed, communicating with the other inmates who are less able to cope with their situation than the artist is.

Particularly poignant and meaningful is a long conversation with the priest who has the task of deciding whether van Gogh should stay in the institution or be freed. The sequence is filmed quite straightforwardly, focusing on the two men and their conversation, the priest, a somewhat traditional 19th century French priest (played, surprisingly and sympathetically, by Mads Mikkelsen) who has a series of questions to put to the artist. van Gogh draws on his religious background, responding to the petition of the people of Arles that he never come back there, by likening himself to Jesus before Pilate, rejected by the people, accepted by Pilate. The artist sees himself as a Christ figure.

The film offers a strongly emotional experience, an identifying with the artist and his life, his traumas, his achievement, and the lack of recognition – although there is a fine scene where he paints the doctor (Mathieu Amalric) who gives him shelter and tends him after the episode with the young boys, the gun and his being wounded, his death.

Obviously, a must for those who love 19th century art, who love all art, and who want to know and appreciate more about artists.


BEN IS BACK

US, 2018, 103 minutes, Colour.
Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B.Vance, Kathryn Newton, Rachel Bay Jones, David Zaldivar, Michael Esper.
Directed by Peter Hedges.

Ben is Back takes place over 24 hours, Christmas Eve into Christmas morning, the background family involved in the Nativity play at the local church, rehearsals and performance, but this being just an emotional background to a much more emotional experience.

Ben, played effectively by Lucas Hedges (continuing a successful career from Manchester by the Sea, Three Billboards, Boy Erased and here directed by his writer-director father, Peter Hedges), suddenly returns to see his family for Christmas. His mother, Holly, is delighted, sweetness and light in the Julia Roberts style, huge grins and laughter. However, it is the opposite with his younger sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton) who is very wary of his arrival. There are two younger children from Holly’s second marriage to a businessman, Neal (Courtney B.Vance).

What is the trouble?

Ben has been in drug rehabilitation, an addict from his early teens, involved in dealing and the death of a close friend. Ben states that he has the support of his sponsor to visit his family for Christmas, assures them that he is being off any drugs for 77 days, that he wants to be with them. Neal, who has been paying the fees for his stepson’s rehabilitation, is very firm in dealing with him. Ivy is reluctant but the younger children are delighted with his presence. Holly, realising the seriousness of the situation but delighted to have her son back, starts to take more serious stances (and, by the end of the film, is desperately loving but seems to have taken strong influence and language from her performance and is Erin Brockovich!).

The action takes place over only 24 hours. There are some very happy scenes, especially in the young children’s rehearsals for a Nativity play in the local church in the family going to see the performance. Ben goes shopping with his mother for gifts for the children.

However, the family are tense – which means that we, the audience, are increasingly tense as to whether Ben will take more drugs (but there is an engaging and moving sequence where he goes to a group meeting and talks frankly about himself, Holly being very proud of him). And there is always the problem of the truth, whether he has his sponsor’s approval for the visit on not, what are his contacts in the town.

In fact, the plot becomes more desperate as it continues – the family returning home from the Nativity play to find their beloved pet dog missing. This leads to a dramatic search, Holly becoming more desperate as they look for the dog, Ben making contacts because he knows who took the dog – and risking the consequences.

The film is effective in its drama, it involving its audience in the seriousness of the problems. Those who have seen the film which is similar in theme, Beautiful Boy, with Steve Carrell and Timothee Chalamet, will be on familiar ground. Interestingly, these are two films which are geared towards middle American families, that statistics reminds us that more Americans die from opioid overdoses then car crashes, that drugs are not problems of the ghettos or particular ethnic groups, but the addicts and challenges in their ordinary suburbs.

And, as with Beautiful Boy, the point is made that, despite the good intentions of parents, their earnestness in trying to help their children, the seeming helplessness, that ultimately, it depends on the antics decision as to whether they can be helped or not. Beautiful cowboy was based on memoirs by father and son. Ben is Back leaves the audience with uncertainties.


THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

US, 2018, 133 minutes, Colour.
Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Stephen Root, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Granger Hines, Bill Heck, JonJo? O’
Neill, Brendan Gleeson, Saul Rubinek, Tyne Daly, Chelcie Ross.
Directed by Ethan Coen, Joel.Coen.


After 20 years and more of writing and directing films, the Coen Brothers have won many awards, been present at festivals, have built up a great number of admirers around the world. This film was originally a series of six stories about the West. They decided they would put them together as a feature film and were taken on by Netflix.

The range of stories is quite vast, familiar stories from the west but given some twists, often with some wry comments. The tone is set with the first story which has the title of the whole film, enhanced by the presence of Tim Blake Nelson (reminding audiences of O Brother, Where Art Thou), riding through a vast canyon, singing ‘Water, cool clear, water’. He is ingratiating, cheerful, talking to camera – going into a remote bar to play cards, refused whiskey, finishing up killing everyone with speed and skills, gauging how to shoot, using a mirror. His luck runs out in the next town as he is hunted down by a bounty hunter, fails, but is seen cheerfully literally winging his way to heaven!

James Franco is the focus of Near Algodones, a bank robber in the desert, confronting a teller, Stephen Root, who turns the tables on him with concealed rifles. However, the robber is taken by a posse, judged, roped to a branch only for Indians to attack the posse and kill them. While he is rescued by a rustler, another posse takes him and he is sentenced to death by hanging – with a wry joke when he asks the blubbering victim next to him whether this is his first time!

The next story, Meal Ticket is rather sombre, Liam Neeson as a travelling impresario providing entertainment for remote communities, in the dead of winter, using his wagon as a stage and his artist, Harry Melling, a man with no legs and no arms, reciting everything from Shelley to Lincoln.

And the story after that is fairly straightforward with Tom Waits as a gold prospector, landscapes this time lush and green. This seems a happy story until the prospector is betrayed by a companion after his gold, but, ironically, the tables reversed.

The Gal who Got Rattled is a rather longer story, opening in one of those boarding houses of the 19th century with some of those present about to go on a wagon train journey to the west. The focus is on Zoe Kazan, a rather prim young woman, expecting to go west to be married, but her plans being radically changed. Bill Heck is sympathetic as one of the hands for the wagon train. He is attracted to the young woman, awkwardly but politely proposes, she accepting. A story which seems to be moving towards a happy ending but has, perhaps, the saddest ending of all.

And what to make of the last story? The Mortal Remains? A stagecoach with an odd selection of passengers, English, Irish, French, a trapper and a rather haughty lady discuss life in their lives, finally arriving at a mysterious hotel. A death story? A ghost story?
A mixed bag of stories but also with the Coen Brothers touch!


CAPERNAUM/ CHAOS

Lebanon, 2018, 121 minutes, Colour.
Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Sheferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole.
Directed by Nadine Labaki.

This is a very serious film about contemporary Lebanon, about Lebanon at any time – and about any society where children are put at risk and brutalised.

The alternate title to Caperaum is “Chaos”. The film is by a talented Lebanese director, Nadine Labaki, her third feature film – with her previous two films Caramel, Where Do We Go Now, concentrating on women characters, their lives, and some peacemaking between Christians and Muslims in a village.

This time her focus is on a young boy, age 12, Zain, played with some complexity by Zain Al Rafeea, up till now his only screen appearance. He is completely convincing.

Zain is from a very large family, squatting as a favour in an uncomfortable apartment in Beirut, packed together during the night, the mother angry, the father even angrier, treating the children brutally. Zain does have a job in a shop (and not above some shoplifting). The owner has his eyes on Zain’s younger sister, proposing an arranged marriage. And here we see Zain sensitive to his sister, noticing that she has had her first period and washing her clothes, advising her to be silent, really upset when she is made up for the meeting with the proposed husband.

The screenplay moves back and forth in time, highlighting Zain in prison for young offenders, in court, charged with a physical attack on the husband, unrepentant and acknowledging he had attacked the ’sonafabitch’. The judge listens to his case. There are scenes with the prosecution and the defence.

In the major flashback, Zain runs away from home, and encounters a sad clown on a bus and decides to stay in the town where he gets off, where he works at a large fair.

The opening of the film, there has been a scene where a number of women are gathered and accused of not having documents to stay in Lebanon. There is a focus on one from Ethiopia, Rahil, pregnant. The fair is where Zain and Rahil come together, she sheltering him in her home, relying on him to look after her young baby as she goes to work. There are very tender and moving sequences with a Zain and the baby.

The film moves towards tragic consequences, Rahil arrested and unable to contact Zain, imprisoned and concerned about her child. Zain meanwhile entrusts the baby, unwittingly, to a people smuggler who has promised him and a young Syrian refugee passage to Sweden or Turkey. When Zain returns home to get his papers, he discovers the fate of his young sister which leads to his brutal attack on the husband.

The film is not without hope, the young prisoners listening to a television program where an advocate for children’s rights is suggesting that some children could sue their parents – and, we realise, that this is where we came in at the beginning of the film, Zain declaring that he wants to sue his parents. His parents appear at the trial, an indictment of their brutal behaviour, but also harsh criticism of the conditions which lead to this kind of abusive behaviour.

So, the film is quite an emotional experience as well is a challenge to values and concern about the welfare of children.


THE FRONT RUNNER

US, 2018, 113 minutes, Colour.
Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K.Simmons, Mike O’ Brien, Molly Ephraim, Alfred Molina, Mamoudou Athie.
Directed by Jason Reitman.

For audiences who remember the 1984 and 1988 campaigns for presidential nominees, this will be an interesting retrospect film – especially from the point of view of 2018, the change in the expectations of the American public about the moral behaviour of nominees, the Bill Clinton era, the George Bush era, the change with President Obama, the experience of Donald Trump and a divided America. For those who do not remember or who are too young, this could be a tantalising case study of standards for both Democratic and Republican nominees.

Hugh Jackman, always a screen presence with great charm, has to play a more ambiguous character, Democrat nominee, Gary Hart. However, the screenplay presents him as, generally, a man of principle, who may or may not have been a womaniser but who, most imprudently to say the least, becomes entangled in an affair during his campaign – and, from front runner, to poor runner, to non-runner and pulling out of the race. A mighty political fall.

The film opens with the buzz (literally, a lot of the conversation being indistinct, finally becoming clearer) of the 1984 campaign, the issue of the re-election of Ronald Reagan or the Democratic candidate, Walter Mondale. Reagan was successful. Then there is a transition to 1988, the significance of Senator Hart from Colorado, his decision to run – and, very quickly, emerging as the front runner.

2018 also saw the release of Vice, a very clever satire on Donald Cheney, the Republicans, the election of George W. Bush, the influence of Cheney as vice president, and so many fiascoes associated with the invasion of Iraq. It was a powerful film, both serious and often hilarious at the same time. The Front Runner is much more straightforward, not so much of the subtlety that there was in Vice. Somebody remarked that as a film, it was interesting and “serviceable”.

We are taken into the hectic nature of a candidate’s campaign, focusing on three weeks, at the end of which Gary Hart is no longer running.

Dramatically, he goes to Colorado, climbing a mountain with the press corps to announce his candidature. He also visits Kansas where he lived. But most of the action is in and around Washington DC with some excursions to Miami.

J.K.Simmons, always effective, is the head of the campaign, cynical and sardonic, brusque remarks, criticisms of planning. He does his best with the enthusiastic younger aides and volunteers, not always understanding or agreeing with them. So, when the scandal breaks, he and his staff try their best to handle the situation, an impossible task; they are finally seen receiving envelopes with their severance pay.

And, in the background, is Gary Hart’s wife, Lee, played with some sympathy by Vera Farmiga - the Colorado house surrounded by the press, pressure on her and her daughter. She comes to Washington to be with her husband during the scandal, standing in the press conference to support. (There is a note in the final credits that after all these decades, the couple are still together.)

Gary Hart is something of an idealist, very serious on policies, forward-thinking, even prepared in 1988 to invite President Gorbachev from the Soviet Union to his inauguration. There are a number of sequences of his being interviewed on television, declaring his policies. He is not always so personal regarding his private life, thinking that the public had no right to know anything about it.

Of course, this is part of his downfall. While Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina) and Bob Woodward are amongst those discussing how they would handle stories about him in the Washington Post, journalists from the Miami Herald don’t have scruples, get wind of the affair after Hart goes on a whim-trip on a society boat during a visit to Miam. They stake out his house, get the information they want, question him in the street, photograph him – and the pursuit of the issue is on.

It is interesting in retrospect to look at the moral standards expected of the candidates in 1988 – and to look forward to Bill Clinton and his impeachment, to Donald Trump and many of the crass statements he made during his election campaign. Times have changed – although the tagline for this film is “the week America went tabloid”.

For audiences not interested in American politics, certainly not for them. However, with election campaigns emerging in so many countries around the world, America anticipating 2020, Brexit complications in the UK, Australian elections in 2019, there is plenty of material here to illustrate the past and to present moral challenges for the present.


GLASS

US, 2019, 129 minutes, Colour.
James Mc Avoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor- Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard, Luke Kirby.
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

It is almost 2 decades ago that Indian-born, Philadelphia citizen, M. Night Shyamalan, broke through with an enormous hit, critical and box office success, The Sixth Sense, 1999 with his quotable line, “I see dead people”. He followed it with a thriller, Unbreakable, with Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. Although he directed, wrote and produced, quite a number of films over the 20 years, he never had quite the same critical appreciation until 2018 with Split.

Split was a winner, a portrait of a man with 24 different personalities. James Mc Avoy gave a tour-to force performance bringing these characters alive, the haughty Patricia, young Dennis, the timid Kevin, and in a rage bursting out as the Beast, a tribute to the Hulk. So, what better than to have a sequel to Split?

And the answer is, introduce James Mc Avoy again and the many personalities, but, as the end of Split suggested, go back to Unbreakable, reintroduce Samuel L. Jackson as the literally brittle character, Elijah Price, Mr Glass, with his fragile bones, tended by his mother, sitting in his chair, masterminding the plots of comic thrillers. And, reintroduce David, Bruce Willis’s character, the security guard who alone survived a devastating train crash, who seemed to be imbued with powers of knowledge, superhuman.

And, not only reintroduce them and link them but also invent an ingenious plot device which brings the three of them together through the train crash, and an explanation of why the young Kevin became the 24 characters. But, one has to wait until the end for this explanation – well worth waiting for.

For security reasons, three central characters find themselves interned in a mental institution. Their progress is supervised by visiting psychologist, Sarah Paulson, who has three days to make a report on them, her main aim seeming to be to “normalise them”. As if this could possibly happen!

Each of the characters has a special person in the outside world and the psychologist summons them to help her, Anya Taylor- Joy as Casey, one of the schoolgirls previously held hostage by Patricia, the Beast and co, Elijah’s mother (Charlayne Woodard reprising her earlier role) and David’s son, Joseph (played in 2000 by the young Spencer Treat Clark and the adult actor now reprising his role).

Audience suspicions might be somewhat aroused by the assured manner of the psychologist and the question of to whom she is responsible.

In the meantime, everything builds up to quite a climax, the three involved in an elaborate escape from the institution, masterminded again by Elijah, his playing on the multiple fears of the personalities, his hostility towards David, established long since.

So, the screenplay is psychologically interesting. It also has touches of horror. It also builds up to a violently confrontative ending. But, there is a postscript, with the three contacts sitting in Philadelphia railway station and all the passers-by suddenly looking at their smart phones. We know what they are looking at, but will there be consequences?

And we have plenty of time to contemplate these questions during the striking final credits, a series of cascading glass shards showing us the characters, their interactions, reinforcing our puzzles.


THE HATE U GIVE

US, 2018, 133 minutes, Colour.
Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Anthony Mackie, Issa Rae, Common, Algee Smith, Sabrina Carpenter, K.J.Apa, Lamar Johnson, TJ Wright.
Directed by George Tillman Jr.

This is a stirring film, powerful in many of its sequences. Its impact is principally for American audiences, black audiences, and the challenge for white audiences. However, non-Americans, observing from the outside, will nevertheless find it accessible as well as disturbing.

In recent years, the media has given prominence to stories of police shooting young black men, especially in the cities. This is one of those stories. However, it is based on a novel by a Mississippi author, Angie Thomas, African-American?, with the screenplay by a white American woman, Audrey Wells. Which gives the film a particular female sensibility. And this is enhanced by the performance of Amandla Stenberg as Starr Carter, the central character.

Starr is 16 years old, lives with her loving parents, Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby, a half brother, Seven, Lamar Johnson, and a very young brother, Sekani, TJ Wright. The parents have given their children symbolic names: Starr with her shining light, Seven the perfect number, Sekani meaning joy. The father has served a prison sentence for drug dealing in the past but now is a man of fervent principle, determined to do what is right, bringing up his children with both affection and discipline. Their mother is a nurturing devoted mother. And they have sent their children to school out of the local African-American? neighbourhood, with its drug problems and violence, to a more respectable high school.

Starr confides to us that she has to be two people, the Starr for the neighbourhood, the other Starr for the prep school. She berates herself for her smiling accommodation to the expectations of the school. She has white friends, two girls in her class, and a boyfriend, Chris (played by A.J. Apa, a New Zealand actor who looks older and more mature but, was in fact 18 or 19 during filming).

While there is pressure in the neighbourhood from the leader of the drug gang, King (Anthony Mackie), life for the family tends to be comfortable enough, the father managing a convenience store with plenty of customers, well-liked and respected.

The crucial event at the centre of the film is one of those dire shootings, a young white policeman holding up the young black man, suspicious of him, questioning him, thinking that he was reaching for a weapon (merely a brush) and shoots him, Starr in the car and then dragged out, pushed to the ground and handcuffed.

So, the film is about Starr’s conscience, her being the sole witness for a grand jury, her mother not wanting her to be exposed to this notoriety, Starr keeping the secret, but facing all kinds of questions about what she should do, especially when urged to be involved by an activist for justice for African-Americans?.

In fact, the film becomes very emotional for the characters as well as for the audience, the concern for Starr whom we like, having to remember that she is an inexperienced teenager although a young woman with a conscience and finding ways to follow it – to the grand jury, to others knowing the truth, especially Chris, apprehensive about the demonstrations in the street outside the court, threatened violently by the drug chief, finding her voice and further determination, participating in a protest that becomes a clash with police and a smoke-bomb riot.

Amandla Stenberg is a young actress with quite a number of credits, Everything Everything as well as The Darkest Minds. On this performance, we should be seeing a lot more of her.

Topical and challenging, even outside the United States.


IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

US, 2018, 119 minutes, Colour.
Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Anjanue Ellis, Michael Beach, Teyonah Parris, Finn Whitrock, Ed Skrein, Diego Luna, Bryan Tyree Henry, Dave Franco.
Directed by Barry Jenkins.

Writer-director, Barry Jenkins, shot to international fame with his Oscar-winning film, Moonlight. He has followed the success with an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel, set in 1974.

Baldwin noted that he was born in Beale Street in New Orleans. But, he adds, there is a Beale Street in every city, the African-American? neighbourhood of the city. This story is set in the Beale Street equivalent in New York City. With his well-respected novel, Baldwin makes his Beale Street talk, eloquently, about the people who live there.

The screenplay demands that the audience pay careful attention as it moves from character to character, and backwards and forwards in time. It is something of a cinema jigsaw puzzle, directing its audience to the attention of one piece, then another, gradually putting them together, getting more understanding in the light of an adjacent piece, and a new look at a situation.

At the centre of the story is a young man and a young woman. Tish (a persuasive performance from Kiki Layne) is the young woman, 18 years old, beginning to tell us her story, of her love for Fonny (Stephan James) whom she has known since childhood. Later, there are glimpses back to this childhood and friendship. However, as she begins to tell the story, the audience seeing the happy couple together, her love for him, his devotion to her, there are some puzzles. He is giving himself up – to prison? Yes, we find out. He has been falsely accused of rape.

And, for Tish, she has to tell her family that she is pregnant. She lives in a warm family, a hard-working and devoted mother (Regina King in an award-nominated performance), a genial father, supportive sister. They toast the coming child. They also invite over Fonny’s family – and quite a different reception of the news, his rogue father joyful, his very prim and proper mother, filled with religious talk and attitudes, disapproving as do his sisters. Tension.

And so, the film goes back, the friendship with the two young people turning into love, a re-creation of what happened on the night, gradually revealed, step-by-step (but not in that order). What seems idyllic, the possibility of getting a loft for Fonny to do his sculptures, all thwarted with the arrest after Tish has been accosted in a supermarket, Fonny attacking the man, the hostile white policeman, told off by the friendly storekeeper, but wanting revenge.

And also, the film goes forward, Tish visiting Fonny in prison, his love, his being upset, the months of the pregnancy. The parents consult a white lawyer, an earnest young man who is warned off taking such a case. Money has to be found to pay for the lawyer – and the two fathers get into some stealing rackets.

The woman who is the victim of the rape and has identified Fonny in a lineup (and we realise that she has been pressurised to do this by the police) has fled to Puerto Rico. Tish’s mother makes the decision to go, tracks the woman down, deals with her protector, pleads for mercy, encounters the woman in the street, and a desperate interchange.

In a way, the narrative just stops. It means then that Baldwin, Barry Jenkins, are asking the audience to reflect on what they would like to happen, how Tish will bring up the baby with the support of her family and mother, what will happen to Fonny in jail…

In many ways, Beale Street could be more effective as the novel and the time taken to read it, perhaps, a theatrical piece. But, as a film, Beale Street talks and has much to say.


INSTANT FAMILY

US, 2018, 118 minutes, Colour.

Mark Wahlburg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz, Juliana Gomez, Octavia Spencer, Tig Notaro, Margo Martindale, Julie Haggerty, Michael O' Keefe, Joan Cusack..
Directed by Sean Anders.

There is a humorous tone in the title in this film about adoption. And there is a humorous tone throughout the film, even though the underlying theme is a very serious.

While the film would be appreciated by an enthusiastic American audience, some of it might feel too much for more reserved cultures and societies. The screenplay is characterised by the American heart on sleeve, emotions all out there, an extroverted society which might be a bit overwhelming for introverts in the audience who are sympathetic to the themes but trying to keep pace with all the emotions, love and angers, everything “out there”.

The film states that it is based on actual events – and, by the sympathetic ending, audiences will be happy to see such a range of photos and families during the final credits.

Mark Wahlberg is Pete and Rose Byrne is Ellie. They are happily married but have no children. This becomes a bit of a thorn when they visit Ellie’s parents (Julie Haggerty and Michael O’ Keefe) and get into discussion tangles with Ellie’s sisters and their husbands, issues of pregnancy, children. The pressure is on Pete and Ellie.

They work together very well on reconstructing and redesigning homes. They discuss the children issues and decide to go to an adoption agency. Octavia Spencer is Karen, the sympathetic member of the team. Tig Notaro is Sharon, straight down the line, not blessed with an immediate sense of humour. Pete and Ellie attend a meeting with quite a range of prospective parents, religious couple, mixed-race couple, gay couple, single mother looking for an African-American? boy that she can train to be a sports star! They all attend a gathering where they can look at prospective adoptees, Pete and Ellie a bit put out by the teens all standing by themselves, make their comments out loud (as they perennially do) and find that the teens have been listening in, especially Lizzie, a 15-year-old girl (Isabela Moner).

Between the jigs and the reels – and there are very many jigs and very many reels, the foster phase begins, some initial sweetness and light, then a revelation of tantrums by the little girl, being accident-prone by the little boy, and Lizzie becoming more and more, and more and more, self-assertive (going out with her girlfriends and disobeying curfews, grounded and inviting the girls into the house, and their being ordered out of the window by which they entered by and irate Ellie, Lizzie photographing herself to exchange photos and texts with the young man who works at the school). After the sweetness and light, the mess and the mayhem.

It is getting closer to the court hearing for the adoption, the birth mother of the children, an addict, gets out of prison and meets her children, stating that she is able to take care of them. Lizzie is delighted – but the two younger children have bonded with Pete and Ellie as well as their grandmothers, especially Pete’s mother, Grandma Sandi (Margo Martindale), an exuberant enthusiast, again in the extroverted style.

The question is continually raised, especially by Lizzie, as to why Pete and Ellie have chosen to adopt children. They find it more nor difficult to answer. It is quite clear that prospective adopters need a lot more training to be able to cope with the children let alone help with their education and development. Which, of course, is a sound message for the film.

Happy ending, as if we didn’t know, but the film does offer an opportunity for audiences to appreciate better the motivations for adopting, the needs of children, some of the harshness in foster care, providing the children with a better self-image, especially that they are lovable.


THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING

UK, 2018, 120 minutes, Colour.
Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Dean Chaumoo, Angus Imrie, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris, Rebecca Ferguson, Patrick Stewart.
Directed by Joe Cornish.

Once upon a time, there was a king called Arthur, who created unity in his kingdom with his Knights of the Round Table and whose famous sword, Excalibur, was caught in a vast rock, and it could be drawn out solely by an authentic descendant of Arthur. (All this is illustrated quite vividly with colour animation at the opening of this story.)

Now, in the present, what starts out to be a very different story indeed – but which will end up with the Arthurian Legend in the present and appearances by both Morgana and Merlin. Clearly a contemporary fantasy – focusing on two young boys, a film for boys their age as well is a touch younger and attach older (even to fathers). There are some girls in the story but this is mainly a Boy’s Own Adventure!

Alex is at school (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of Lorraine Ashbourne and Andy Serkis), living at home with his mother, memories of his father who had given him a book of those ancient tales when he was little. However, not everything is going so well at school. He and his best friend, Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) are picked on every day, eventually Alex retaliating with some punches and a call before the school principal. Alex, not even a hero in his own life!

But, one day he and Bedders are being pursued in an abandoned building and they fall over the open space, landing near a rock in which, you might guess, is Excalibur. And, Alex is able to draw it out. The boys think it couldn’t be what it is – but, it is. And, who should turn up at the school but an extremely nerdish student, Merlin, who puts Alex on the equivalent of a regal pedestal.

The trouble is that in drawing the sword out of the stone, Alex has unleashed the witch of Arthurian times, Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) an evil woman, serpentine, vowing vengeance now that she has been liberated. On the other hand, the young Merlin disappears and the old Merlin (in the form of Patrick Stewart) pops up every now and again.

As you might expect, the Legend of Arthur lives again, especially in the warrior school children, helped by the magic of Merlin with helmets and warrior arms – and, thank goodness, the two bullies, well-converted and becoming heroes beside Alex and Betters.

Not sure about the title and whether Alex really wanted to be King – but, given the circumstances and the school, he does quite a good job, heroic.


LORO

Italy, 2018, 152 minutes, Colour.
Toni Servillo, Riccardo Scarmacio,
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino.

Loro is the Italian for “Them”. And, here, who is Them?

Writer-director, Paolo Sorrentino, has made quite a name for himself in Italy and internationally. In the past he has made some telling domestic dramas, has been highly critical in his portrait of Christian Democrat politician, Giulio Andreotti, in the film Il Divo he also won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for La Grande Bellezza, The Great Beauty, in 2013, wandering through contemporary Italian society, social, political, ecclesiastical, his working in the Federico Fellini tradition, the 21st-century La Dolce Vita. Then he made the television series, The Young Pope, with Jude Law as Pius XIII, a young American cardinal who firmly believes in his own infallibility and treats the church as such. Quite a record for a decade of film and television-making.

Loro is quite ambitious. Again, one might note the tradition of Fellini, once again the overtones of La Dolce Vita.

The film is in two parts. The first focuses on a young man with entrepreneurial ambitions and dreams, Sergio (Riccardo Scarmacio) who is not afraid of political blackmail and using sexual intrigue to gain his contracts. He comes from the Italian South, is married to an ambitious woman who has been connected with politicians in the past. It is to be noted that his father, of the old school, heartily disapproves of his son and his behaviour. Then Sergio moves to Rome. However, his ambitions is to meet the mysterious industrialist who has a mansion on the island of Sardinia.

In the second part, we see this mysterious figure in his mansion, having succeeded in building up a fortune, in business, in ownership of football teams, in power over several networks on television. He is not a fictitious character (the opening information for the film indicating that it is based on fact – but always on interpretation of fact). And the figure is Silvio Berlusconi.

For Italian audiences, there will be no difficulty in identifying Berlusconi, remembering who he has been, his years in political power, his conservative stances politically but his permissiveness, socially, in his life, in the media. (Italian writer-director, Nanny Moretti, also had a film about Berlusconi, very critical, in 2008, Il Camaino). For non-Italian audiences, the film may be something of a revelation, needing to be checked in some detail with authenticated facts, but certainly fostering a dislike and distain for Berlusconi.

Sorrentino has been very well served in several films by the presence of Toni Servillo. He portrayed Andreotti in Il Divo. He was at the centre of The Great Beauty. He is the embodiment, sometimes with a touch of the grotesque, especially his black-plastered hair, make up, giving something of an impression that he is an embalmed Bella Lugosi.

So, the second part of the film shows his ascent, political coming, the persuasion of six senators to cross the floor and enable him to move into leadership. But, his wife is exasperated and leaves him. And, what about Sergio? He comes into the good graces of Berlusconi, has shown that he is able to organise social events, round up plenty of attractive women, would-be actresses, starlets, the sexy kind of emphasis that was a mark of Berlusconi’s television productions. But, Sergio is no match for Berlusconi. He does his will, but makes a poor judgement in asking about his preferment, falls by the wayside.

The film is long, perhaps indulgent in its portrayal of Berlusconi’s world, perhaps wallowing in the sexy glamour, but always targeting Berlusconi and his treatment of Italy. Probably best to check with a politically-savvy Italian to discover what is accurate and what is satire (or both?).


MARY POPPINS RETURNS

US, 2018, 129 minutes, Colour.
Emily Blunt, Lin- Manual Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, Dick Van Dyke, David Warner, Jim Carter,
Directed by Rob Marshall.

Although Julie Andrews first appeared as Mary Poppins in 1964, even winning a Best Actress Oscar for her performance and engaging presence, it is not as if Mary Poppins has been absent for half a century or more. With videos, then DVDs, and always with continuous repeats on television, especially on the Disney Channel, Mary Poppins seems always to be with us. She has been no stranger to succeeding generations. Clearly, there are millions who welcome her return, and who have high expectations.

So, what is Disney to do? Well, there has to be a new Mary, in the tradition of Julie Andrews, also being distinctive. Fortunately, they are in a sound position with Emily Blunt. Some commentators mentioned that Julie Andrews was rather sweet and that Emily Blunt is less sweet – this reviewer’s memories of Mary Poppins right from the 1960s is that she was a very sharp, sometimes severe character, her song reference especially to medicine going down (with a spoonful of sugar). Emily Blunt looks somewhat the same, sounds somewhat the same, is always looking in the mirror and touching her hair, tells us that she is “practically perfect”.

Many audiences poked a bit of fun at Dick Van Dyke’s accent in the original. The setting is now 1935, the Ban’s children have grown up and there are children of the younger generation. And there are no more chimneys to sweep. Composer Lin- Manuel Miranda steps in as Jack, a lamplighter in London, with a whole group of fellow-lighters who can join in song and dance routines like those chimney-sweeps of the past.

And, never fear, Dick Van Dyke was the owner of the bank long ago so, at 92, and able to shake a leg in a dance routine, he turns up as a pleasant bonus towards the end of the film. There is no bird lady at St Paul’s Cathedral this time but, at the end, in the park in summer, there is an old lady, cheerful, who sells balloons – Angela Lansbury at 93!

Actually, the plot outline parallels the original. The oldies are in some financial trouble, Michael has lost his wife, is to work in the bank, is about to lose the family home. Jane on the other hand, like her mother, is very much socially involved, this time with the poor in the Depression-era. There is still the maid at home, this time played by Julie Waters with plenty of energy and some sharp repartee. The admiral is still next-door, this time David Warner, firing his canon on the hour (but now five minutes late).

In fact, the songs are much in the same vein as in the original, with Richard Sherman as a music advisor here. And most have a chance to sing! And, despite P.L.Travers not liking animation in her stories, the children go into their bath and go down into an underwater fantasy and, later, when the children break a Royal Doulton vase which could be sold to pay debts, the characters on the vase come alive and their is an elaborate fantasy, including a Music Hall routine (so, was that Mary Poppins previous career!), with Mary and Jack and some strange creatures who kidnap one of the children. The voice of the main villain in the fantasy is that of Colin Firth who is now the manager of the bank, avaricious, double-dealing, ready to take back the Banks’ home.

Next they take the vase to Mary Poppins’ most eccentric cousin, Topsy (of all people, Meryl Streep, East European accent, her house turning upside down, everybody joining in an athletic song and dance routine).

With the impending disaster, a solution is found at the last minute – and, with time running out to pay the debt, Jack and co climb Big Ben to try to push back the hand to gain more time – but, Mary Poppins, hoisting her umbrella, rises to the occasion and puts back the clock (and the admiral delighted that at last Big Ben has caught up with him!).

As hoped for, pleasing Mary Poppins’ entertainment.


THE MULE

US, 2018, 116 minutes, Colour.
Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Andy Garcia, Dianne Wiest, Michael Peña, Laurence Fishburne, Clifton Collins Jr, Ignacio Serricchio, Taissa Farmiga, Alison Eastwood.
Directed by Clint Eastwood.

After what might have seemed a grand finale to his acting career in Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood also acted as a coach in Trouble with the Curve. However, with The Mule, he has added another grand finale. Of course, he continues directing – an extraordinary number of fine films over the last 20 years, the Iwo Jima films, the afterlife in Hereafter, race relationships and football in Invictus, the musical Jersey boys…

And, here he is in 2018, acting and directing as he turned 88.

The film opens and closes with beautiful shots of exotic flowers. Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a horticulturist who loves flowers – much more than his wife and daughter. In fact, he prefers to be with the flowers, going to conventions and winning prizes, drinking with his buddies, neglecting to go to his daughter’s wedding. She refuses to speak to him. His wife loved him but is exasperated. The two women are played by Alison Eastwood, Clint’s real-life daughter (raising curious questions in the audience about his relationship with her over the decades) and Dianne Wiest as his wife.

Just as Clint growled audibly at his granddaughter in Gran Torino using her mobile phone in church, he is upset here by the Internet which has deprived him of outlets for selling his flowers personally. He growls about people always on their phones but, in his new job, has to have a phone and learn to text – and even has a lesson or two.

So, what is an old guy a 90, Korean War veteran, deprived of his outlet with the flowers, to do to earn a dollar or two, even as the banks foreclose on his house? An enterprising young Latino chats to him at his granddaughter’s engagement party (he did go because he likes her). He is given a card, takes his battered old truck to a rendezvous with some very suspicious-looking types with guns and finds that all has to do is drive his truck to a hotel, leave the luggage that has been put in the back, return to the truck and find his payment. And, quite some payment it is, enabling him to pay for his granddaughter’s education as well as the refurbishment of an old club.

And the contents, drugs. He is a 90-year-old Mule, quite conscious of what he is doing, enjoying the drive, the stop offs, even flying down to the hacienda of the leader of the drug cartel (Andy Garcia). However, one of the underlings (Ignacio Sericchio) finds Earl’s lack of discipline irritating, becomes something of a chaperone, but comes to admire the old man who uses his wits to ward off a curious policeman when they stop at a diner.

So, how will it end?

The screenplay provides a look at the DEA in action, overall official played by Laurence Fishburne, two agents in the field, Bradley Cooper (would worked with Clint Eastwood in American Sniper) and Michael Peña. It is interesting to see the tactics they use, surveillance, listening into phones, car pursuits, helicopter pursuit…

One of the keys to the resolution of the film is that the granddaughter phones Earl to tell him that his wife is dying. He puts her off because he is on a trip but then decides to break free of the supervisors and spend time with his wife and attend her funeral.

The DEA narrows its surveillance, and…

The thing with the grand finale of The Mule is that it is not heroic, self-sacrificing, in the way that Gran Torino was, a dramatic, heroic and to a life. Here, Earl lives on, experiencing some reconciliation with his family, willing to answer for his actions, an old man experiencing some kind of redemption. So, if Clint does act in another film, it will be a postscript to his two career finales, Gran Torino hero, The Mule Everyman.


ON THE BASIS OF SEX

US, 2018, 120 minutes, Colour.
Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Cailee Spaeny, Jack Reynor, Steven Root, Chris Mulkey.
Directed by Mimi Leder.

In 2018, a fine documentary made its mark in the United States, award nominations, but also had successful release outside America. The title was simply initials, RBG. For Americans in the know, they were the initials of a significant Justice of the Supreme Court since the 1990s, Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The documentary was always interesting, giving the background Ruth Bader, her studies in law in the 1950s, not the time for women to be studying law, especially at Harvard, and her marriage to fellow lawyer, Martin Ginsberg.

The documentary traced her life, her 56 year marriage to Martin Ginsberg, their children. But it also traced her career, lecturing, getting jobs, focusing on equal rights for men and women, especially for women, making her pleas in the court, fighting for progressive issues and, ultimately, her appointment to the Supreme Court.

While she herself appeared in the documentary, many an audience, especially those who don’t see documentaries, would like to know more of her personality and her life, her struggles and achievement, in the form of the feature film. Here it is.

An American would realise the significance of the title. Audiences outside America might be wondering about the emphasis on “sex” and prefer more legal usage, “gender”. In fact, the initial phrase is that used in many legal documents and judgements. And, later in the film, Ruth’s secretary, preparing a brief for the court, suggest to her that there is too much emphasis on the word sex and suggests gender. Ruth agrees. (But, that might not make a sufficiently attractive from title!)

British actress, Felicity Jones (Stephen Hawking’s wife in Theory of Everything, warrior in the Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One) portrays the young Ruth in her early decades. She is small (as was Ruth whom we actually see mounting the steps of the Supreme Court at the end of the film), strong-minded, determined, stubborn. We see her admitted to Harvard, one of the few women there in the mid-1950s, and treated by some of the male staff (especially Sam Waterston as the Dean of Law at Harvard) as something of an unwelcome appendage to the student body which should be male.

However, Ruth has also married Martin (an engaging presence by Armie Hammer) and they have a daughter Jane. Lecturers discriminate against asking questions of women in class, but Ruth is always volunteering answers, writing papers, topping her class. The couple endure a great blow when Martin is diagnosed with cancer, has to go into surgery, with Ruth sitting in on his classes as well as her own, doing his work as he recuperates.

Then there is the irony of her interviews for jobs and, even the most sympathetic interviewers, saying they don’t have a position for her. She becomes a professor instead. In transition to 1970, we see a very changed United States after the growing freedoms and experiences of the 1960s. It is an era of protests and demonstrations, the younger generation speaking out more forthrightly (including Ruth’s daughter, Jane).

Ruth admires Dorothy Kenyon, a prominent female lawyer of the early 1960s, a robust crusty Kathy Bates, and is friends with a leading lawyer in the organisation promoting legal action for minorities. He is played with energy and determination by Justin Theroux.

At the core of the film is a particular case, a bachelor looking after his ill mother, falling foul of some government regulations which presumed that women care for parents at home, with various tax complications. He is played by Chris Mulkey and Ruth takes his case, refusing to do a deal with the old Harvard authorities and professors.

The film shows Ruth’s inexperience as well as her skills. We see her preparing her brief, relying on Martin for his collaboration, rehearsing her defence in front of Judge friends and not being too successful – which leads to the case itself, dividing the 30 minutes of presentation between herself and Martin, the judges grilling Martin, her having a very limited time to make her case but, historically, she did, she won, she changed interpretations and applications of the law.

The way the film was written is that it starts as we might expect in a biography but becomes more and more interesting as Ruth’s character develops, in her work with Martin, and the legal details about the case.

So, 2018 was a most significant year for RBG at 85 and for audiences to get to know her.


PICK OF THE LITTER

US, 2018, 81 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Don Hardy Jr, Dana Nachman.

Yes, they have used the pun for promotion, Dogumentary!

This documentary lives up to its title which explains fairly exactly what it is about. Screenings of the film around Australia have been sponsored by organisations for Guide Dogs for the Blind.

This is a film which most dog-lovers probably could not resist. Those who are not dog-lovers will appreciate how significant it is for the selected dogs to be nurtured and trained so that they will be able to enhance the lives of those who cannot see or who cannot see well. The dogs will enable them to rely less on canes and more on the instincts and behaviour of the dogs and to save them from accidents and danger.

The structure of the film is very straightforward. It focuses on five puppies, their being born, helped by the experts in their initial moments, nurtured by their mother, ready to go into a program that will lead some of them (not all of them – and that provides a bit of dramatic tension throughout the film as to which of the five will succeed in being guide dogs or will have on their profile the rather whitewashing term “career-changed”) to guiding the blind.

So, the dogs are named, three males, two females. Much is made of the energy in two of the males, Phil and Patriot. As a device to focus the attention of the audience, following the two dogs, maybe liking one better than the other, hoping for one to succeed over the other (or, perhaps even-handedly, hoping that both will succeed). And there are two female dogs also in training.

We meet quite a number of adults along the way, the initial trainers who inculcate the basics for the dogs, accompanying them with great attention and care. One or other of the dogs proves to be too playful, not having that innate sense of responsibility that will lead them to be a guide.

And then the dogs are moved into more careful training, the types of experience that will help them with their carers, alert them to oncoming vehicles, enable them to turn right or left at the correct time and place…

In the meantime, the film also focuses on some of the adults who have been waiting for a guide dog for some time and will be eligible once the pick or picks of the litter are trained.

There is of course some tension, in the final tests, not every dog measuring up – and one or other of the dogs having to walk the exam again.

Needless to say, there are some delights for the audience having the opportunity to watch the incapacitated adults to meet their dogs, scenes showing how they get used to the dogs, walking with them, and the exhilaration of the blind to find opportunities for having a freer, more open life.

Certainly a case of worthy documentary-making.


PIERCING

US, 2018, 81 minutes, Colour.
Christopher Abbott, Mia Wasikowski, Laia Costa.
Directed by Nicolas Pesce.

Piercing is an 80 minute two-hander generally confined to rooms, there are some scenes in a car and at a hospital. It is based on a Japanese novel, adapted to the United States. The author of the novel, Ryu Murakami, has written a number of novels and directed some film versions, including Audition.

This is not exactly an enjoyable drama. Rather, it is a specialist film for arthouse/festival audiences.

In fact, with its confinement, it might have had more effect had it been a theatre piece in a small theatrical space. On the big screen, it seems somewhat extended, melodramatic in its realism, and some prurient fantasies.

The central character, Reed, played by Christopher Abbott with some intensity, is seen initially with a weapon and holding his baby. However, he loves his wife and his child, contacting her throughout the drama. However, there is something strange about him, his look and his demeanour.

He books into a hotel for a rendezvous with an escort, and there is a quite elaborate scene where he mimes in great detail how we will deal with the woman, meeting, undressing, tying her up, violence. It emerges later in the phone call that his wife has encouraged him in this enterprise.

The film then makes a transition to the prostitute, Jackie, Mia Wasikowska, waking up, demands made on her for money, her going to the appointment, the awkwardness of meeting with Reed, his nervous reaction, her responding negatively, going to have a shower, his concern, then discovering that she was stabbing herself in her leg. His careful plan has gone completely awry.

Which makes the audience wonder where this drama will go. There is a hospital interlude, going back to Jackie’s flat, a drama where she turns the table on Reed, he reacts, she gets free – and questions about sexual behaviour, fantasies, sado-masochism, blood, control and consent…

The film stops, leaving the ending open for the audience to speculate about what will happen in the future of each of the characters.

At beginning and end, there are extensive crane shots of the facades of apartment blocks, stylised, the filming of miniatures.

POLAR

UK/Germany, 2019, 118 minutes, Colour.
Mads Mikkelsen, Vanessa Hudgens, Matt Lucas, Richard Dreyfuss, Johnny Knoxville.
Directed by Jonas Ackerlund.

Polar is based on a graphic novel and its main appeal will be to those who are avid devotees of such a novels. It is particularly graphic – more graphic than the average audience might want to watch. This means strong reservations in whether to recommend it to an audience or not.

However, the central idea has its interest. The action take place in a world of hired men and women who perpetrate hits throughout the world. They are part of a company. Mads Mikkelsen plays one of the last of the hitmen of his generation, turning 60, considered too old for his profession.

For Mikkelsen himself, it is something of a return to the style of film in Denmark, the violent Pusher series, in which he made his mark. He seems to be a conscienceless hitman, dressed in black, going into action with complete ruthlessness.

However, the head of the company, played as a caricature of a caricature by Matt Lucas, wants his associates to get rid of him. There are financial incentives involved, eliminating him and so not having to pay his pension. He has his own particular squad, international group, as well as his advisor, Vivian (Kathleen Winnick).

When the hitman goes to execute his target, he finds that he has been expected, that it is a set up, and that he is to be killed. However, with blood and gore and touches of torture, he escapes. He has used a prostitute and her son as cover to get into the hotel as well as to leave without suspicion.

He then challenges the boss, who lives in Chicago in a lavish mansion, with a very prim receptionist, with thugs galore to protect him as well as the sardonic Vivian ready to betray him as well as to warn him.

The first part of the action consists of the vicious squad threatening the hitman’s accountant, getting his financial papers, going to the various properties that he owns, interrogating residents who know nothing about it, protest their innocence, and are all slaughtered viciously – even filmed viciously.

In the meantime, the audience has seen him retiring to a small town in Montana, encountering a young woman who sells her dog to him, living quietly, even sympathetically. The young woman lives nearby and he buys her gifts. He also helps to train her in shooting a gun but she seems afraid and trembling.

Eventually, the death squad arrive, one of the women posing as a hapless driver broken down on the road, his taking her home, having a sexual relationship with her – and then the rest of the group come, guns blazing. In terms of graphic novel exploitation, the hitman’s ability to turn the tables on all his enemies is quite vivid. However, they abduct the girl.

This leads to confrontation in Chicago, the hitman getting into the building, eliminating the members of the death squad one by one, the rest of the boss’s thugs in corridors and stairwells, even the death of Vivian. Her captors have been filling the young woman with drugs to keep her sedated while the boss tortures the hitman, most explicitly (beyond the human torture even of The Passion of the Christ) and in great detail for three days.

His associates fleeing, the hitman confronts the boss – and, surprisingly, off-camera decapitating him although the head is projected out the window into a street close-up.

Actually, that is not the ending – there is an interesting twist. The hitman has had flashbacks to an occasion in New York City. The explanation is the girl who survived is the young woman in Montana, that he has paid for her education, has not recognised her, and she now wants to confront him and get her revenge. He is willing. But she cannot.

Had the film been edited for a lower classification, with the elimination of so much sadistic violence (masochistic for the audience), with the toning down of the sexual scenes and, perhaps, the amount of nudity as the hitman survives, it might have been a film for a wider audience.


RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET

US, 2018, 112 minutes, Colour.
Voices of: John C.Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Taraji P Henson, Jack Mc Rae, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Alfred Molina, Ed O' Neill.
Directed by Phil Johnston, Rich More.

Wreck-it Ralph was a very popular animation film from Disney. Here is a sequel, Ralph doing a fair job of wrecking all kinds of things, including a threat to the Internet, in this series of adventures.

The theme of the film and the words and images pull an audience up. What would a children’s audience, 15 years ago, have made of this film? The growth of the Internet, youngsters relying on it, adults relying on it, the possibility of disruption and breakdown, all common themes today. So, what might Disney animation entertainment of 15 years time be like?

Ralph is at his arcade, still friends with Vennelope, their working on games and cars. With a mechanical breakdown, Ralph gets advice to go into the Internet and takes Vennelope with him. It is a bewildering world for him – though modern audiences will be reassured as they recognise all the names, brands, icons and devices – an extraordinary amount of product placement!

There are some interesting characters in the Internet world including the manager of the search engine, Mr Knowsmore, as well as Yess who works on algorithms for solutions. But, Vennelope meets Shank, champion driver, their befriending each other and Vennelope persuaded to join Shank in her racing enterprises – and Ralph, unfortunately, overhearing her comments to Shank and criticisms of Ralph.

Beware resentments in the Internet. While there is a very friendly character, J.P.Shanley who seems a wizard with all kinds of things, always helping out, Ralph is taken to see Double Dan who introduces him to a worm, a virus which could close down the Internet. It is not green with jealousy, but read with envy, feeding on all Ralph’s insecurities (of which there are many), gradually growing in size and strength, producing Ralph clones, the world of technology moving towards a disaster and closure.

Some reconciliation with Vennelope and talking of the truth and their discovering the nature of true friendship. Which means then that Ralph’s insecurities can disappear and the giant red monster can collapse – with the princesses of so many Disney films who have encountered Vennelope and discuss the nature of princesses banding together to catch Ralph as he falls.

John C Reilly is immensely cheerful as Ralph, Sarah Silverman a determined Vennelope, Gal Gadot a commanding heroine, Shank, Alfred Molina as Double Dan.

For those who love IT, there is a recommendation to sit through the final credits, not necessarily t credible o read all the names, but to be amazed at the extraordinary number of emojis, icons, pop-ups, signals that continually trail through the credits – and a preview of Frozen 2 with Ralph singing the theme song!


STORM BOY

Australia, 2019, 109 minutes, Colour.
Finn Little, Geoffrey Rush, Jai Courtenay, Erik Thompson, Trevor Jamieson, Morgana Davies, Chantal Contouri, David Gulpilil.
Directed by Shawn Seet.

Storm Boy is based on a very popular novel, read by adults and children, taught in schools, a novel by Colin Thiele. The 1976 film version with Greg Rowe and David Guliplil is a cinema classic, a significant part of the 1970s revival of the Australian film industry.

This version should have a similar appeal for children’s audiences in the 21st century – and, for those 50 or more who saw it when they were children, and for older audiences who probably took the children to see the film in 1976! A wide-ranging appeal.



To reassure those readers who treasure the original story, it can be said that it is all there. Finn Little is an appealing young Michael, the Storm Boy of the title, given his name by his aboriginal friend, Fingerbone Bill (an engaging performance by Trevor Jamieson who appeared in Rabbit Proof Fence and has featured in the television shows, Black Comedy and Cleverman).

And the perennial appeal of pelicans has been preserved, from Michael finding the chicks and deciding to foster them, finding ways of feeding them, giving them names, especially Mr Percival. The chicks grow up, show their skills in beautiful flight. And Mr Percival becomes Michael’s close companion, on the beach, in the house. Michael’s father, Jai Courtenay (The Water Diviner as well as international action drama is) is a recluse after the death of his wife and daughter in a car accident, spending his time fishing, selling the fish in the local shops. And he is sympathetic towards Michael’s love for Mr Percival.

This is most significant in the famous storm scene, quite some special effects for the lightning in the sky, the waves, Tom’s father out fishing, caught in the storm, the boat overturning – and, without spoiling the scene for those who do not know, Mr Percival playing a significant role.

And this is significant for Michael, journalists and photographers tracking him down – and the friends in the shop in town collecting money for him to go to boarding school, something which he does not want, making him antagonistic towards his father, not wanting to be away from Mr Percival.

So, the core of Colin Thiele’s story is there. However, it has quite an extensive 21st-century framework. Michael has grown up, is a grandfather, has returned from overseas and is caught up in business plans for the Pilbera. His granddaughter, Maddy (Morgana Davies) is highly critical of her father, chairman of the board, vents her anger on her grandfather, who is played by a sympathetic Geoffrey Rush. This is the context of Michael’s reminiscing, his being stirred by the memories, remembering the joys, especially with Mr Percival and Fingerbone, his regrets about his hostility towards his father.

This means that the film is very satisfying in the basic story of the boy and his bird. And, it will touch the ideals of younger audiences concerning the environment and its future.


VOX LUX

US, 2018, 119 minutes, Colour
Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy, Stacy Martin.
Directed by Brady Corbet.

Unless you are a pop-concert aficionado, you may need some time to settle down after seeing Vox Lux. (Fans will be revved up by the quite spectacular finale and may not want to settle down at all.) In fact, the final credits are in silence, so that is settling.

This is quite a strange film, a different kind of star is born. It opens with some home videos showing the talent of Celeste as a little girl, with a voiceover narrator, Willem Dafoe. That seems rather nice, even cute. Then the title comes on screen, Prologue 1999. At first night and darkness, cars on the road, a solitary walker – then a transition to music class after the new year’s break, a genial teacher, eager students – and then a shocking experience in the school (memories of the killings at Columbine that year). It has a deep effect on Celeste who was in the class, knew the boy, is wounded, spinal injuries.

Celeste is close to her sister, Eleanor, and in hospital they spend time creating a song, lyrics and music, to commemorate those who have died. They perform in a candlelight memorial. So far, so American, normal and abnormal.

The abnormality will tend to pervade the rest of Celeste’s story.

There are two chapters and a finale. The first chapter is called Genesis and is set in 2000-2001, New York City and the experience of 9/11. The second chapter is set in 2017, called Regenesis. The focus is on Celeste and her career which takes off more spectacularly than anticipated. Celeste is fourteen.

We are introduced to her sometimes snarling manager (Jude Law) and her rather smarmy agent (Jennifer Ehle). Appearances are managed. Celeste is able to manage dance lessons despite her spine. More music, trips to Sweden, meeting a local pop star (with consequences) – there is a certain fascination in how a star is born and how a star is created and a star is moulded.

The director of this film is actor Brady Corbet (Mysterious Skin) whose other directed-film was the often eerie Childhood of a Leader, again the portrait of a young disturbed child and his growing into a fascist leader. In Vox Lux, we finish with Celeste at 31, something of a wreck of a woman, emotional and beyond, feuding with her sister, dependent on her manager and her agent, imposing her erratic moodiness, sometimes collapsing, sometimes stage triumphant, on her daughter.

While the portrait of Celeste is intriguing, it is the casting which contributes considerably to the intrigue. The teenage Celeste is played with initial innocence, increasing shrewdness, ambition-fulfilment by British actress, Raffey Cassidy. But, not only does she play the young Celeste, she also plays Celeste’s daughter, Albertine. She is most persuasive in both roles.

Natalie Portman is the older Celeste, a bold, sometimes brazen, performance, pitiable at one moment, repellent the next. It is a tour-de-force performance, very different from other Natalie Portman performances. And, in the glamour and glitz of the Finale, she is the supreme embodiment of the singer, dancer, performer (beyond-Madonna, for example).

At times, Corbet directs sequences of his films like installation pieces. At other times, he is realistic. In the Finale,he goes for broke in the lavish concert style.

It’s not exactly a recognised word, but at the end of the film it occurred to this reviewer, ‘bizarrity’.



Created by: malone last modification: Monday 04 of February, 2019 [18:20:41 UTC] by malone


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