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SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS JANUARY 2009
BEVERLY HILLS CHIHUAWUA
BUNCH OF AMATEURS, A
CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, The
DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, The
GONZO, The Life and Work of Dr Hunter S. Thompson
GROCER'S SON, The
LOVE AND HONOUR
ROMAN DE GARE
(Australia, 2008, d. Baz Luhrmann)
Crikey! Many of us have been wondering about how Baz Luhrmann's Australia project would turn out. Would it be the great Australian epic? Would it be a rousing patriotic adventure? Would be be the emotioinal rollercoaster of an Australian romance? And the location photography? And the aboriginal themes? And World War II? And the droving?
Well, the ingredients are certainly all there. It would have been different had Australia been directed by Peter Weir, or Fred Schepisi or (and there's an idea!), Paul Cox. But it hasn't. It's a Baz Luhrmann film and that means something different. His three previous films offer some ideas on what the film might be like: colourful with more than few touches of tongue-in-cheek kitsch like Strictly Ballroom; a breaking through of expectations of a genre as he did in his wildly whirling update of Romeo+Juliet; enjoying what he is doing colourfully and extravagantly as he did with Moulin Rouge. And, yes, that is what he gives us with Australia, plus the epic aspects, the locations, the aboriginal themes, the romance, the cattle droving, the bombing of Darwin. And, as a song which may be a favourite of his says, 'who could ask for anything more!'. (The title is, of course, the hopeful, 'We're in the money'.)
Actually, the first fifteen minutes or so seemed more than a little farcical, especially establishing Nicole Kidman as Lady Sarah Ashley, almost a caricature of British landed gentry, and all this intercut with fast moving stuff in Darwin with cattle barons, their unscrupulous managers, drovers and pub brawls. What were we in for?
Then it all settles down for another two-and-a half hours where we can either sit grouchily wondering how someone else might have done it or just surrender to it and be carried along by the melodramatic romantic swirl of it all. This reviewer opted for the latter.
Luhrman loves old movies and this one plays like those colourful Hollywood epics of yesteryear, no, yesteryears – take Gone with the Wind from the 30s, of course, but think of Raintree County or Elephant Walk from the 50s... You know that a lot of these events took place with characters like these but not quite like what we are seeing.
The cattle industry of the 1930s at the service of the war effort brings Australian patriotism to the fore but, also like those westerns of yesteryear, the cattle droving must include stampedes and some jealous rivals and dirty work. The humanising of the prim English lady has to happen – and, emotional-screenplay-wise, who better to achieve this than the archetypal outback Australian (no, not Crocodile Dundee though not necessarily all that far off), the drover. Needless to say, Hugh Jackman is the perfect embodiment of the drover. And you can't help but like him. And who better than a mixed race eleven year old boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters), who looks and acts endearingly cutely (only stone-faced curmudgeons will resist a tear glistening in their eyes), who does the voiceover commentary, is wanted by the police as part of the stolen generation, joins the cattle drive and looks on 'Mrs Boss' as his new mother, and has a grandfather, a tirbal elder (David Gulpilil continuing his playing of archetypal aboriginal roles) who connects mystically to Nullah and wants to instruct him on a walkabout.
The villains are usually good in this kind of melodrama. Bryan Brown seems to be enjoying himself immensely as the slightly lordly but beer-drinking rival cattle baron and David Wenham (not having a moustache to twirl, he chews the sets instead as dastardliness personified) is the unscrupulous and ambitious manager.
For an Australian audience, the cast is full of familiar faces, led by Jack Thompson as an educated, rum-fuelled and filled accountant, Ben Mendelssohn as a military officer, Barry Otto as the administrator of Darwin, John Jarratt as the sergeant, David Ngoombujarra as the Drover's sidekick, Tony Barry as Callahan and plenty more.
The cattle drive has its impressive moments. The bombing of Darwin captures the surprise of the attack and the effect on the locals – though the writers have made up a story about a school of mixed race boys on an island in Darwin harbour run by religious priests, brothers and nuns where Arthur Dignam as the priest-in-charge rings the information about the Japanese planes through - in real life, the call was made by Fr John McGrath? MSC from the mission on Bathurst Island) which provides a dramatic climax involving Sarah looking for her foster son, the drover leading a rescue operation and the search for Nullah.
So, Australia will divide the audiences and the critics, love it or hate it, be enthralled or be bored, but it's there and it now finds its place in Australian cinema history.
PS. Crikey! Some people have complained about all the 'crikeys'. The drover says it four or five times and Sarah twice, so that's six or seven times in 165 minutes, averaging one for every 22 minutes.
(US, 2008, d. Adam Shankman)
The word that some reviewers use to describe this kind of off-beat comedy which, if you are in the mood and get caught up in it, is 'a hoot'. It is not for the curmudgeonly or those who would not be seen dead (let alone alive) in a multiplex.
Adam Sandler's comedy is an acquired taste – and, for the last thirteen years or so, many audiences have been happy to acquire it. The comedies are often hit and miss but that is the nature of popular comedy. Try a gag and move on to the next one.
Sandler himself has become somewhat more sympathetic, or plays more sympathetic roles than he did in his earlier 'airhead' comedies. He is now over 40 and has children. Which obviously attracted him to this story where he can play zany father-figure and still be the clown.
Speaking of attraction, he has attracted quite a large cast of actors rather than comedians, especially from the UK and Australia. The film opens with Jonathan Pryce confiding in the audience about his son, Skeeter, to whom he loves to tell bedtime stories. He manages a hotel, or, rather, he does his best which, business-wise, is not good enough. And the buyer, the rotundly eccentric Richard Griffiths, does not honour his promise to make Skeeter a manager when he grows up. Instead, he is the local handyman.
His rival for a try at persuading the owner to give him the job is the supremely arrogant, without-a-moment-of-self-doubt, ambitious Guy Pearce, obviously enjoying himself playing a hiss the villain prig. He is aided and abetted by Lucy Lawless as the hotel receptionist. Skeeter, on the other hand is aided and abetted by Russell Brand, a hotel waiter, doing his shtick of obnoxious behaviour and amusingly literate talk. And there is the boss's Paris Hilton-like daughter, flirtatious and seemingly the princess of the piece (Australian Teresa Palmer). But, of course, she isn't.
Oh, the plot and the hoot content. When Skeeter's sister, Courtney Cox, has to travel away for a job interview, Skeeter has to look after her little children who have been brought up environmentally correctly. Skeeter takes babystitting in turns with his sister's best friend, Keri Russell. Needless to say, the kids are introduced to burgers and fries, television and all that they should not eat or do. They also possess a scene-stealing guinea pig called Bugsy because of his large, gazing eyes (the guinea pig is real but his eyes are special effects!).
When Skeeter tells the kids bedtime stories, and they intervene with plot details, the stories are variations of Skeeters' struggles with this rival and, the best part, is that they come alive: in medieval times, in the wild west, in ancient Greece and in space, parodying all those kinds of films, with all the cast included in the story to amusing effect. Then, they have a twist fulfilment in real life.
Sandler is genial. His friend Rob Schneider makes some funny appearances as he usually does in Sandler's films. The romance works out. The hotel is renovated (though that is too stylish a word). The villains get their comeuppance but more nicely than not. A critic walking out of the cinema said that it was his worst film of the year. Objectively, he was quite wrong!
BEVERLY HILLS CHIHUAHUA
(US, 2008, d. Raja Gosnel)
It turned out much better than expected – unless you really wanted to spend 90 minutes sharing the experiences of a wealthy, spoilt LA fashion mode poodle named Chloe (voiced by Drew Barrymore), over-cared for by a deliriously doting Jamie Lee Curtis (who could have played this kind of eccentric dog-devotee character in her husband, Christopher Guest's Best in Show).
Once Jamie Lee has gone off to Italy (and off her mobile phone) to promote perfumes and has entrusted Chloe to her flibberty niece (Piper Perabo) who takes Chloe off on a trip to Mexico where she is abducted by a bunch of crooks collecting a variety of pooches for their illegal dogfights, it gets more interesting. Needless to say, Rachel is frantic and joined by her aunt's gardener, hispanic Sam, (whom she does not like) and led (though they can't understand the doggy dialogue which, fortunately, we do) by the gardener's pet, Papi (voiced by George Lopez), who has a thing for Chloe, the film gets going.
It is 'little dog lost' but she is helped by a sage old ex-police sniffer (voiced by Andy Garcia), though they get into a lot of adventures, including Chloe having her jewel-studded collar stolen by a comic rat and an iguana (that's right), and she eventually arrives at the ancient Aztec ruins of the state of Chihuahua and, helped by the mighty little leader, Montezuma (voiced by of all people, Placido Domingo), she learns about her heritage, even discovering her bark when confronted by the abducter's black dog, Demon (voiced by Edward James Olmos).
Chloe, Puppy, Rachel and Sam all end up back in Beverly Hills more down-to-earth than they used to be.
Actually, now that I think of it, I must have enjoyed it more than I thought.
A BUNCH OF AMATEURS
(UK, 2008, d. Andy Cadif)
If anyone had told Burt Reynolds when he first appeared on television in 1959 that in half a century's time, he would be starring in a British comedy as an actor portraying King Lear, that 'anyone' would have had an enormous gift of prophecy. However, numerous films and television shows later, here is Burt doing precisely that.
Down on his luck, his career and the affection of his daughter and being panned by audiences as too old to be a screen action hero (of a nice series called ironically Ultimate Finality), he wants to fire his agent (a very old-looking Charles Durning, 86 in February 2009). The agent persuades him that a Shakespearian turn in Stratford would be just the thing to revive him. He doesn't mention that this Stratford is Stratford St John in Suffolk, an amateur group trying to save its theatre.
Reynolds has always been able to send himself up – and he does it here with knobs on. His manner is that of the spoilt Hollywood star who expects attention and luxury, which is not exactly available in Stratford St Johns. He boards with Imelda Staunton at a B & B, rehearses in a barn and looks down on all the locals who are eager to play Shakespeare. Things go from very bad to very worse and, though you know things will work out at the end, you are wondering for a long time just how they could.
This is quietly amusing British humour, the putting on a play English-village style.
Actually, the screenwriters also make the plot something of a parallel with King Lear itself. Burt is the grumpy Hollywood king who has been wayward with his career and lost his daughter. The villagers have quite a lot of lines straight out of the play to illustrate what is going on. And when Burt is finally driven away, he has a storm scene on a heath. While Burt is never going to be Olivier or anyone of that calibre, he has some good scenes which he puts heart and soul into as an American star having a go at playing King Lear. With Derek Jacobi in support, sending up his own orotund performances, there is some poking fun all round. It is up to Samantha Bond as the director to try to keep things on an even keel.
Brits putting on amateur theatricals has been a popular movie theme. There were Margaret Rutherford and Robert Morley in Curtain Up in the 1950s. In recent decades there have been Jeremy Irons and Anthony Hopkins in A Chorus of Disapproval, 1988, and in the mid-90s, Kenneth Branagh, Joan Collins and cast in In a Bleak Midwinter. Here is another pleasant addition to the list.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
(US, 2008, d. David Fincher)
This is quite a film, always interesting and entertaining through its almost 3 hour running time. It has been written by Eric Roth (who won an Oscar for his screenplay for Forrest Gump – which has many similarities with this one) and is directed by David Fincher, a director with a high and offbeat imagination and visual style, especially in his two highly influential films Se7en and Fight Club, both of which starred Brad Pitt.
Brad Pitt stars again. It is quite a brave and demanding performance from him. He is matched by Cate Blanchett.
Most people will know that this 'curious case', from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is about a baby who is born as an old man and who lives backwards, appearing younger and younger as the decades go on, but inside he is old from birth and will reverse to baby mentality when he dies. With some special effect work, the younger (older) Benjamin looks like an old man but is short in stature, gradually changing to the Brad Pitt we know. The earlier scenes imagine what Pitt may look like as he ages; the later scenes remind us of what he has looked like in past films. Pitt also has to speak the voiceover and make it convincing and moving, which he does. It is a bravura performance.
Cate Blanchett as Daisy, on the other hand, appears at age 80 at the beginning of the film. She is in hospital, dying, in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina. She wants her daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond) to read Benjamin's diary aloud and to learn about him. Daisy also tells a magic realism story of a clockmaker in New Orleans who creates a grand clock for the railway station – but it moves backwards, the clockmaker's reminder that we want to recapture life and change it (as he and his wife felt when their son went to World War I and was killed). This fable enables us to enter into Benjamin's life and journey as he is born in New Orleans on the night World War I ends.
As with Forrest Gump, Eric Roth's screenplay tells the story of an unusual man who lives through crucial events in American 20th century history: the post-war 20s, sailing in a tugboat through the 30s, commissioned to fight in World War II in the 40s. The visual style of these decades images the films of the period (with a very funny recurring image of a man who was struck by lightning seven times done in silent film style). The photography becomes brighter during the 1960s and onwards as Benjamin returns home, has a tumultuous then happy relationship with Daisy but has to face the reality of his growing younger as she grows older and the question of whether she will be able to mother Caroline as well as himself.
There are some interesting interludes throughout the film: Benjamin's father (Jason Flemyng) abandoning his son but wanting to be with him as he grows up, Queenie and Tizzy (Taraji P. Henson and Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) caring for the ugly baby and bringing him up as their son, episodes on the tugboat with the hard-drinking, tatooed womanising captain Mike (Jared Harris), a meeting with the wife of a British diplomat in snowbound Russia in the late 30s (Tilda Swinton) with an interlude about her swimming the English Channel, a performance of Carousel on Broadway. And, all the time, Daisy is getting weaker, Caroline is surprised at what she is reading and Hurricane Katrina is turning and heading straight towards New Orleans.
At the halfway point of his life, Benjamin has the opportunity of living the life of Gatsby – and the heroine's name is Scott Fitzgerald's favoured name, Daisy. Benjamin is something of a variation on the Gatsby story, coming from nowhere and prospering. But Benjamin is a good man, a reverse Everyman of America's 20th century. And there is plenty to reflect on in terms of the meaning of life and death, grief and loss, love and care.
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL
(US, 2008, d. Scott Derrickson)
Almost sixty years ago, The Golden Globe awards had a special prize for a film Promoting International Understanding. The 1951 winner was the now classic science-fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still. This remake is called a 're-invention' – and it is again a film for fostering peace and encouraging the preservation of the planet's environment.
This screenplay acknowledges the script of the original and has many of the same plot elements. However, it is able to take advantage of the current cinema technology to create some striking effects, for a different kind of spacecraft, the initial appearance of the alien Klaatu, the destruction of trucks, Yankee Stadium and mysterious bugs which threaten all humans. But the effects do not dominate the plot and its message impressive though they be.
And this is a strong message film, a touch didactic at times. In the post World War II Cold War atmosphere, Klaatu came to Earth to warn against violence and aggression. For the 21st century, the aggression is taken for granted. As soon as an alien appears, the suspicions and paranoia mean that American defence forces open fire without time to question whether the alien might be friendly. This is the ethos of the Bush administration, embodied by Kathy Bates, the Secretary for Defence, a cross between Madeleine Albright, Condoleeza Rice and Hilary Clinton. And it is dramatised vigorously by weapons used against the spacecraft and the huge protective robot GORT which is now not just metallic but biological.
The aliens are critical of humans for their exploitation and destruction of the environment and judge that to save the world, humans must go.
However, it is the ordinary human experience that is important. While Keanu Reeves' Klaatu moves through the action somewhat robotically at first but, step by step, absorbing emotion and understanding, it is Jennifer Connolly's widowed scientist who brings the genuine human feeling and concern to the drama. With the words of her professor friend (John Cleese in a brief appearance) in mind that awareness of the need for change looms persuasively when people are standing on the precipice, she tries to persuade Klaatu that humans can change for the better. However, her stepson (Jaden Smith who appeared memorably with his father, Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness) embodies all the worst aspects of suspicion, violence, mistrust and aggression. It is through his experience and change of heart that audiences will appreciate the need for change.
The film is very audience-friendly, moves at a good pace, is more than a cut above formulaic science fiction and is a plea for environmental consciousness through an entertainment.
(US, 2008, d. Edward Zwick)
This is a story of actual events and characters during the early years of World War II in Belarus. It is based on a history of the Bielski brothers and their efforts to save several hundred Jewish survivors hiding in the woods.
While the film begins with familiar footage of Hitler's speeches and the rounding up of Jews in the villages in the countryside and the massacre of those who resisted, the film then focuses on the initially ragtag group who begin to depend on the Bielskis, hungry, needing shelter, ill, subject to German raids or attacks from the local collaborating police but managing to eke out survival, shelter and food. When the freezing winter sets in, the times are desperately hard.
However, they are captured by a squad of Russian soldiers who are fighting partizan battles. They join with them at first but, later, they opt to try to live in peace in the woods, although one of the brothers, pugnacious by temperament, joins the Russians despite some of their blatant antisemitism. The group survive despite everything and even build up something of an alternate town as the war goes on.
The film is emphatically Jewish in its screenplay, not just the Nazi persecution and the local betrayals but in a religious sense. A teacher becomes the de facto rabbi for the group, the teacher of the religious traditions and an officator at weddings. References to the Jewish scriptures build to some allegorical parallels to the Hebrews' experience in Egypt, plagues and oppression and a direct comparison with the exodus and the crossing of the Red Sea – making us realise that, whatever happened in reality under Moses' leadership, the Book of Exodus is telling symbolic morale-boosting stories that God helps his people, especially if they help themselves.
Director Edward Zwick has shown interest in a variety of war experiences over the last twenty years: the African Americans and the Civil War in Glory, Desert Storm in Courage Under Fire, the opening up of Japan in The Last Samurai. His cast is unusual. Daniel Craig as the firm but peace-hoping brother has more opportunity for subtle and varied performance than as James Bond. Liev Schreiber is the gung-ho brother and Jamie Bell is the younger brother emerging into adulthood. Allan Corduner is impressive as the wise teacher.
The film is not easy to watch and Jewish audiences may hold their breath at some moments. There is little black and white – except that the Nazis and the collaborators are villains. The Russians are ambiguous in their attitudes. But the screenplay has some shocking eye for an eye moments as revenge is wrought, especially a Jewish mob in lynch revenge mood, bashing and kicking an ambushed German soldier.
An interesting postscript indicates that the two older brothers survived the war, migrated to America and worked together in a trucking business for thirty years – and never claimed any credit for the defiance and leadership they exercised in the war years.
(US, 2009, d. John Patrick Shanley)
John Patrick Shanley won a Pulitzer Prize for this drama about the Catholic Church in the Bronx in 1964. It also won a number of Tony Awards on Broadway. Shanley has opened out his play for the screen, written the screenplay and directed the film.
There will be quite contrasting responses from Catholic audiences who have a feel for the church and its history and from audiences who don't share the Catholic experience and will see it as another drama about authority and power, which has a church setting.
It is a film of strong Catholic interest.
On the immediate surface, it might seem another film about clergy and sexual abuse. Shanley is aware of the current situation but his drama does not indicate whether the priest is guilty of any misconduct or not. There are some clues which might suggest that he is. But, there are clues which might suggest that he is not. Shanley is much more interested in doubt and the uncertainties of certainty. He wants his audience to doubt.
So, the focus of the film is on a struggle of authority and power in the context of a strict American Catholic Church which is about to enter an era of transition, about to learn different models of Church, especially that of the people of God and a more biblical way of interpreting authority and action.
Sister Aloysius belongs to the old school of sternness, a superior and a principal who demands order and good conduct. Older Catholics will recognise her. And Meryl Streep does one of her extraordinary performances, lowering the register of her voice, barking out commands, frightening the children (she says that is what she is supposed to do), supervising the nun's community and, most of all, pursuing Fr Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman convincing as a priest of the time) with relentless certainty and judgemental superiority. Caught between the two is the nice, young and rather naïve Sister James (Amy Adams) who tries to do the right thing.
The nun who taught Shanley at school and who is the model for Sister James was technical adviser to the film and so it has a much more real and convincing Catholic atmosphere about it than most films (though Ubi Caritas from Taize was composed later and there is an English breviary in 1964).
There is a powerful performance from Viola Davis as the mother of the boy who is at the centre of the dispute between Sister Aloysius and Fr Flynn. He is the only African American in the school and is bullied. A quiet boy, Fr Flynn tries to affirm him – which , after his opening sermon on doubts which Sister Aloysius will have none of, arouses her suspicions. She pursues them righteously and there are some powerful scenes of confrontation between the two.
The film is set in the autumn and the season as well as the relationship between pursuing nun and accused priest become colder and colder. The look and colour of the film reflect this, so that this memoir of a period of a Church about to change is quite a sombre, strong and well-acted experience.
(UK, 2007, d. Asif Kapadia)
Beautiful to look at, Norway locations standing in for what seems like Arctic territory in the East, this film enables its audience to experience the frozen north in close-up and vista long shots, as if they were really there.
The plot, mostly without dialogue and moving at what might be called a 'contemplative' pace, enabling the audience to observe the three central characters without rush and have time to reflect on the way of life, the interactions and the effect of living in remote, isolated and physically gruelling environment.
The focus is on Saiva (Michelle Yeoh at her most dignified), a middle aged woman who tells us almost immediately that she was pronounced 'cursed' by a shaman. When some flashbacks later tell us her story, we realise that the curse was fulfilled and she is a bitter woman with an inner rage (something like the icebergs and their tips that we frequently see).
The second character is Anya (Michelle Krusiek), a younger woman whom we presume is Saiva's daughter. They wander alone through the ice and floes, across the sea to the pebbled tundra shore, surviving on any meat available and that they can catch, dog, walrus, deer. The bond between the two women is strong.
The third character is Loki (Sean Bean) whom Saiva finds wounded and exhausted on the pebbles. He explains that he is a refugee from the military (whom we have seen early in the film as Saiva and Anya sail pass their barracks and the workers on a rail line).
Clearly, this gathering of three characters leads one to expect some personal and sexual tensions, archetypal characters and myths. What follows is partly what we anticipate but, ultimately, not what we might have thought. Tragedy with more than a touch of the macabre is in the air.
Director Asif Kapadia made the well-received The Warrior (2001) with a lone hero being pursued in exotic landscapes. Clearly, he is fascinated with what isolation will mean to people as well as a context of violence. The screenplay has been adapted from a story by Sarah Maitland.
(US, 2008, d. Ron Howard)
Frost/ Nixon was a significant play on the London West End, Broadway and around the world. Its author, Peter Morgan, had made an impact on television with his screenplay for the alleged bargain between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown about the tenure of the British Prime Ministership, The Deal, as well as for Longford, his fine telemovie on Lord Longford and his contact with Moors Murderers, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady. For the big screen, he wrote The Last King of Scotland, The Other Boleyn Girl and the award-winning, The Queen. With Frost/ Nixon, he extended his political interest to the United States and the history of the 1960s and 1970s, with a serious look at the Nixon heritage.
Many people were surprised that the task of bringing Morgan's adaptation of his play to the screen fell to Ron Howard, especially since Howard's previous film was The Da Vinci Code. However, Howard has proven himself with Frost/ Nixon and reminded audiences that he is skilled at a wide range of genre films from his Oscar-winning, A Beautiful Mind to Apollo 13, The Missing and Parenthood.
Both in London and in New York, the central roles were taken by Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. Both are award-winning theatre actors. Over a long career, Langella has appeared in many films but, even though he does not look like Richard Nixon, we eventually accept the actor as the president and are both fascinated and repelled by this flawed American leader. Michael Sheen has been Mozart on stage in Amadeus, Kenneth Williams in Fantabulosa on television and Tony Blair both in The Deal and The Queen. Because David Frost has been around for so long now, audiences have forgotten, or never knew, the style and manner(isms) of Frost and his deadpan and emphatic voice – which Sheen does mimic well at times.
For those for whom the 1970s is a distant past, the opening credits recap the period, the American involvement in Vietnam, the heritage of John F Kennedy (against whom Nixon ran for president in 1960) and L.B. Johnson, the protest and demonstrations with their campus violence and deaths, the bombing of Cambodia. After the credits we are introduced to Frost, down on his luck in British and US TV but Down Under on his luck in hosting an odd reality program. He is in Australia when he sees Nixon's resignation speech on August 8th 1974. And he has an idea...
With the backing of British television producer, John Birt (Matthew McFadyen), he starts negotiations for an interview with the disgraced president. What is interesting to watch is the eagerness exhibited by Nixon to reach the American public to justify himself, something backed by his principal adviser (Kevin Bacon). Nixon also has a rather mercenary approach to the interview, reflecting one of the key elements of the Watergate break-in concerning election year campaigning funds.
In the hindsight of the long career that Frost had in interviewing political personalities, it is something of a surprise to be reminded of his youth and inexperience, his presumption and his self-confidence, as well as his digging into his own pockets to pay for the interviews when he was scorned by political journalists and knocked back by the networks. While we know that, ultimately, the interviews were seen extensively in 1977, Frost's inept dealing with Nixon, allowing him to ramble and sermonise in the first three interviews, is also something of a shock.
Frost is seen as a celebrity (with famous parties), a talk show host and a performer. But, the film's drama builds up to the fourth interview where Frost had done more homework for a change, had consulted his researcher, James Reston (Sam Rockwell persuasive in a more mainstream role), and clicked with the President's need to admit mistakes and communicate with the American public.
The supporting cast is strong, including Rebecca Hall, Oliver Platt and Toby Jones.
Frost/Nixon reminds us of the key role that television plays in reaching a wide audience, with close-ups of face, body language and emotions, that do reveal a personality – while, on the other hand, presenting a carefully media-crafted image and persona.
So, in terms of politics, in terms of the impact of media and a glimpse back at a controversial and turbulent time in US history (just prior to the celebration of the Bicentenary of American independence in 1976 where one of the top films was All the President's Men), Frost/Nixon provides its audience with intelligent and thought-provoking cinema.
(Canada, 2007, d. Jeremy Podeswa)
A very moving and elegant film. As the title, suggests, it is a film of the interweaving of experiences and memories, pieces of memory which sometimes elude, which are sometimes overwhelming.
Writer-director Jeremy Podeswa has adapted a poetic novel (and very popular best-seller) by Anne Michaels. It is the kind of adaptation that Anthony Minghella did for The English Patient, taking a novel of impressions and creating a narrative framework while preserving the elusiveness and the allusiveness of the original.
Fugitive Pieces moves from Toronto in the 1970s back to Poland during the war to Toronto in the 40s, 50s and 60s and back to the Greece of the war years and the Greece of the 60s and 70s. The screenplay is written to remind us how we might be doing one thing which can immediately set off a memory of something or someone else. What helps us to do this with great empathy here is the character of Jakob, the young Polish Jew who is taken to Greece and then to Canada where he grows up, becomes a writer and something of a celebrity. He is given greater power by the performances of the two actors who portray Jakob: Stephen Dillane as the adult Jake and Robbie Kay as the traumatised and wide-eyed Jakob. (Both actors are British.)
The memories of Poland, the arrival of the Gestapo and Jakob's loss of his family are dramatically poignant. However, he is saved by a Greek archeologist, a rugged but kindly man, who smuggles Jakob out of Poland to bring him up in Greece. Rade Serbedzija, who is so often a villain or a boisterous character in his films, is warmly sympathetic here as Athos, who takes Jakob with him to settle in Canada after the war.
The picture of Jewish migrants settling in Canada during this period is also a strong theme, especially with Athos' neighbours in the rather grim apartment block. The mother speaks Yiddish as does Jakob; the father is still living the deprivations of the war and there is a strong scene where he rebukes his very young son for not finishing eating a whole apple, quoting how they suffered during the war. The boy grows up admiring Jake (and is played as a teenager by Devon Bostwick, who was the central character in Atom Egoyan's Adoration and as an adult by Ed Stoppard).
Jeremy Podeswa is a literate writer and directs the film with deep feeling and, in the scenes with Athos, with great warmth. Fugitive Pieces is a fine blend of emotion and intelligence.
(US, 2007, d. Oliver Hodge)
Sounds like people throwing litter at each other but, no, this is a much more serious documentary than that.
Michael Reynolds is a trained architect who opted out of traditional designing in the 1970s and began to study how to build in an environment under threat, to design buildings that were friendly to their surroundings and even incorporated into their materials stuff that was being tossed out as garbage. He worked in New Mexico.
Reynolds is a blend of the amiable and the curmudgeonly. He is single-minded in his mission to build homes, build townships that utilise his insights for eco-friendly power, lighting, sewerage systems. Not all of his creations have been successes and he has been sued by dissatisfied customers. However, he has gathered a group of devotees.
All this is presented very interestingly by director, Oliver Hodge. However, Hodge also followed Reynolds' campaign to be reinstated as an architect after his state and then his national licenses were revoked. He also tried to introduce bills into the New Mexico legislature but was thwarted vigorously by politicians who wrote him off as a crank or who, when Reynolds employed a lively lobbyist, filibustered to prevent a vote. This is where he became a political garbage warrior.
The film also shows Reynolds and his friends travelling to the tsunami-hit Andaman islands and putting his theories into practise to overcome the damage to infrastructure there. This still did not persuade the politicians. It was only in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and other hurricanes where they did similar repair work which was environmentally sound that the legislation was passed and Reynolds regained his respectability.
Garbage Warrior is always interesting as is Reynolds himself and his wife and friends (warts and all). His lead for environmental architecture and use of materials opens up all kinds of possibilities.
GONZO, THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER. S. THOMPSON
(US, 2008, d. Alex Gibney)
Irrespective of the title of his films, director Alex Gibney has made two excellent documentaries that are well worth seeing, his expose of Enron, the Oscar-nominated Enron: the Smartest Men in the Room (probably all the more relevant in the current financial crises) and the Oscar-winning film about American torture in Afghanistan and Iraq, Taxi to the Darkside which is highly recommended.
Now he has taken on the famous, notorious, journalist Hunter S. Thompson, for whom the word 'Gonzo' was applied to his iconoclastic, anti-sacred-cows, hard-hitting journalism. How much of it was fuelled by his constant drug and alcohol consumption is hard to say but this film indicates quite a bit. But, he was a man who believed that writing could change the world. Thompson was a man of contradictions, hellbent on self-destruction (which culminated in his suicide by gunshot wounds in 2005) but hellbent on supporting the politics and politicians he approved of.
Gibney uses only Hunter's words thoughout the film, from audio tapes, film and television material. Johnny Depp reads his written words. Depp portrayed Thompson in the Terry Gilliam phantasmagoria, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1998), the visuals of which, in the monstrous fantasy style, by the drawings of his friend and collaborator, Ralph Steadman. He used fear and loathing as his trademark after his book, based on an actual journey, was published in 1971.
Thompson emerged in the later 1960s, through Rolling Stone magazine, with his targeting of American politics. This reached a climax in 1972, so the film shows us, with his campaigning for Democratic candidate, George McGovern?, his starting destructive rumours (eagerly latched on to by the media irrespective of truth) about Ed Muskie. Needless to say, Thompson was anti-Nixon.
Thompson loved guns, a member of the NRA, and tried to be elected sheriff of Aspen. Contradictions.
There is a great number of interviewees in the film including Jimmy Carter, novelist Tom Wolfe and conservative Pat Buchanan who obviously still has a sneaking regard for Thompson.
Thompson's two wives also speak up, especially his first wife who has a mixture of exhilarating and bitter memories. His son also appears.
This is not just a portrait of a wildly eccentric journalist, a man of his changing times, but a close up of the mid-60s to the mid-70s. What the film does not explain is what happened to Thompson between 1980 and 2000. It seems as if he believed his own myths and publicity and carried on as a celebrity. There is some writing after 9/11 but, the film suggests he had passed his use by date and, after often talking about taking his life, he did.
THE GROCER'S SON
(France, 2008, d. Eric Guirado)
Low-key might be the best word to introduce this very French drama about a young man, alienated from his family, who is drawn back into the family life and grocery business out in the provinces, when his father is hospitalised.
We watch the characters sometimes in a detached way, sometimes emotionally. Antoine (Nicolas Cazale) is not strong on people skills, especially when he goes on the daily rounds through the attractive hilly countryside, a service to those who are not mobile. And we go on the rounds with him many, many (too many?) times. However, when Claire, a friend from Paris who is studying for entry into a Spanish college, accompanies him on his rounds, she charms all the customers with her genial interest and help.
You know that Antoine will mellow, at least a little, but it takes him a long time to break through his rather bitter attitude towards life. He also clashes with his older brother who is concealing his broken marriage from his parents who see him as the better son and who becomes suicidal.
This is a slice of country life. The director has made films which show an interest in society and customs in regional France which makes this film something of a blend of sociological documentary with dramatic fiction.
(UK, 2008, d. Iain Softley)
Another fantasy adventure based on a popular series of books, this time written by the German novelist, Cornelia Funke. The rather odd fantasy film, The Thief Lord, was also adapted from one of her books.
Inkheart does not have the epic scope of the very high concept series that we have become accustomed to. However, it is an imaginative adventure that should please those who want their fantasies to explore the confrontations between good and evil with a little magic.
The special feature of Inkheart is that it is a story about stories, about words and about the wonder of reading stories aloud. Books are treasures. However, some readers, we are told at the beginning, have the power to make the stories they read come alive. While this can be something wonderful, it can also lead to tragedies. When Mo, who is known in the fantasy world as Silvertongue, reads, his wife disappears into the story and a character named Dustfinger comes out, to wander the world in the hope of somebody reading the book so that he can go back home.
Mo (played by Brendan Fraser in his genial, smiling adventurer style) searches for years but keeping his powers (and hers) from his young daughter, Meggie (Eliza Bennett). The film takes up the story as Dustfinger (a fine and interesting performance from Paul Bettany) confronts Mo and Mo at last finds a copy of Inkheart.
What follows is an unusual blend of action in the present world (with cars, bookshops, highways in Italy) and the magical world of the book. The main trouble is that the villain of the book now rules the castle with black-clad henchman with guns and is determined that a special reader will read the chapters of the book on the monstrous Shadow which will destroy any opposition and he will have absolute power. He is played with sneering menace by Andy Serkis.
Also along for the adventure is the real-life author of the book, Fenoglio (Jim Broadbent) who wishes he actually lived in the fantasy land and great aunt Elinor (Helen Mirren in grande dame mode).
There are some good special effects especially in the finale and the menacing Shadow which lead to the happy conclusion of what is a fairly modest contemporary fairytale.
LOVE AND HONOUR
(Japan, 2006, d. Yojo Yamada)
Prolific Japanese director, Yojo Yamada, completes his Samurai trilogy with Love and Honour. The first in the series, Twilight Samurai (2004 and the Japanese entry for that year's Oscar for Foreign Film) and the second, The Hidden Blade (2005) received critical and popular acclaim. They were not the typical martial arts or Samurai adventures. They looked behind the action and dramatise the characters and their personal interactions as well as the repercussions of Samurai codes on their lives.
This film is moving in its portrait of a callow young Samurai (played by Japanese heart throb, Takuya Kimura, who shows a depth of acting skill as his character matures) who is one of the Lord's food-tasters. He has a young wife but is both dominating and flippant in his relationship with her. When he suffers a bout of food poisoning and loses his sight, his whole demeanour changes, far more serious and depressed. He clashes with his wife and divorces her. Finally, the action builds to a duel between himself and one of the Lord's important officials who has lied to him.
The other two characters are also well delineated, the Samurai's wife and his old servant.
The film is elegant, beautiful to look at. While there is the final duel, this is not an action film but a humane drama.
(US, 2008, d. Gus Van Sant)
It is not usual for a reviewer to put a personal note at the beginning of the review, but I thought it appropriate for Milk.
The first thing is that I was studying for two months in Berkeley in October-November? 1978, fourteen Australian religious and priests at that time, the period for the dramatic climax of Milk. There was much discussion amongst Catholics as well as ecumenical discussion about Proposition 6, proposing the repealing of legislation discriminating againsts the rights of homosexual men and women. This made Australians think more about these issues than they had occasion to think of before. The proposition, proposed by Senator John Briggs and anti-homosexual rights campaigner, singer Anita Bryant (both of whom are featured in the film), was defeated. The atmosphere in San Francisco and the Bay area was suddenly shattered when a few days later, supervisor Dan White shot openly gay city supervisor, Harvey Milk, who had championed the opposition to the Proposition. White also shot and filled the mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone. To the outsider, this was another shocking instance of American recourse to the gun as a means of 'solving' an issue.
Though there is no allusion to it in the film, it was only 11 days after the vote that the crisis in Jonestown, Guyana, came to its horrific conclusion with the mass suicide of 900 people and the death of the sect leader, Jim Jones. Most of the Jonestown people were from San Francisco, where they had their headquarters, or from California.
November 1978 was a strange, even weird, time to be in the Bay area.
The second thing is that this review is being written on December 12th and CathNews?, the Australian Catholic website, is today posting comments by the Vatican spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, on the Catholic Church's stance on legislation discriminating against homosexual people. 'The Church is contrary to legislation that criminalises homosexuality.' Fr Lombardi added that this is clearly expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Church's position stems from its respect for the rights and dignity of the human person and explicitly excludes 'any unjust discrimination on the basis of homosexuality'. This was one of the key issues in opposition to the Californian proposition 6.
Incidentally, just above the item on the Vatican on Cathnews website, there was a report of an address by Bishop Manning of Parramatta to graduates where he commented on those Catholics who believe that 'it is their mission to correct everybody else' and to develop a Church of 'those who are right' rather than 'a Church of mercy'. This seemed apposite to the film, Milk.
Clearly, this is not a review of the film but might be considered as 'matters arising...'. The review follows.
Sean Penn, in one of his best performances, holds audience attention in this long film about the San Francisco city supervisor, Harvey Milk, already the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk (1985) by Rob Epstein. This film acknowledges its debt to the documentary.
The film opens with Milk dictating some memories in 1978 and then moves to the announcement of the assassination of Milk and the mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone. Audiences know the outcome of what they are about to see.
Director Gus Van Sant is a gay man and his film, written by Dustin Lance Black, is heartfelt in its championing of campaigns for the civil rights of homosexual men and women and its attacks on discrimination. It also portrays people as they are, strengths and weaknesses, achievements and failures, whether they be gay or straight. Clearly, the film is sympathetic to the cause of homosexual men and women, seeing their history of civil rights as similar to those of other racial, disabled or marginalised minorities.
Van Sant has made a number of more experimental films as well as some in the mainstream like Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester. While drawing on his experimental styles, he has made Milk as more accessible to the mainstream.
The film goes back to 1970 when Milk is celebrating his 40th birthday and is sad that he has not achieved anything of which he might be proud. Beginning a partnership with Scott Smith (a sympathetic and genial James Franco), he moves to San Francisco and the Castro district where he enjoys a less restricted life than he did working in insurance in New York and sets up a business which leads him into the politics of civil rights. Over the years, he increases his vote, finally being elected as a city supervisor in 1977, the same time as Dan White, of Irish Catholic background, is elected. They try to collaborate but take opposite stands on Proposition 6 and other matters and White feels that he has been humiliated by Milk.
Josh Brolin (after his fine performances in No Country for Old Men and W) is excellent as White, enabling the audience to get behind the sensational headlines of his murders to understand something of why he killed Milk and the mayor.
Quite a lot of footage from television news of the period is incorporated: daily life in the developing gay area of the Castro, news reports from Walter Cronkite, the campaigning of Anita Bryant.
The casting of Milk's associates seems based on their resemblance to the characters they portray with stills of actors and the real people shown at the end. They include Emile Hirsch, Joseph Cross, and Diego Luna as Milk's partner during the campaign, whose erratic behaviour questions Milk's personal judgements or shows his compassion for people in trouble.
Milk is well-made but not comfortable viewing. It also serves as a challenge for audiences unfamiliar with its themes and its characters to reflect on what they stand for and campaigned for, to be better informed and to have a more nuanced approach to agreement or disagreement.
(Australia, 2008, d. Don Castle)
A film mainly for teenage and young adult male surfers (and, maybe, oldie surfers as well).
You know the story. Unsympathetic Jesse (Lachlan Buchanan) has problems with his abilities and his self-image, with his friends, especially Fergus (Xavier Samuel), and problems with his older brother's putting him down and his treatment by the coach. He does get on well with Debbie in that permissive adolescent sexual encounter way. It's more than a bit hard to keep interest in him.
There is also the disadvantage in the first part of the film that everyone is compelled (not frequently but all the time to use the confined four-letter articulation of every thought (not so many) and feeling – the friends are a continually bickering lot so that these interchanges quickly become expletively tiresome even if it is argued that this is how they all talk in real life.
The plot progresses through a night on the beach with the friends, surfing on a beach which is older surfers' domain which leads to competitiveness, accidents and deaths (with an elaborate funeral ritual on the beach which reminds us that in these non-church times, everyone needs and creates rituals for significant events).
There is a competition at the end – as one expects.
There are some sub-plots about macho friendship and drinking destroying marriages and families as well as Fergus and a friend discovering mutual sensitivity and homosexual orientation.
On the plus side, the atmosphere of the Newcastle waterfront is captured well, especially set up during the credits, and there is fine photography of waves, breakers and underwater.
NORDWAND (NORTH FACE)
(Germany, 2008, d. Philipp Stolzl)
An impressive piece of film-making, a must for those who follow mountain climbing. However, it is an extraordinarily gruelling film to watch if you are caught up in the characters and their efforts to climb the north face of the Eiger. We share the physical energy and exertion of the climbers, the hardships in scaling rock faces, in danger of falls and avalanches, the changes in weather and the exposure to the freezing temperatures. The photography is most impressive, with sweeping vistas of the mountain and close-ups of the men and their climb.
While this is the main impetus of Nordwand, there is a very interesting historical context. The year is 1936. Some German mountaineers have died the previous year on the side of the Eiger and Swiss authorities want to ban any attempts to reach the summit. In Germany itself, Hitler has been pushing ideals for German youth and the Berlin Olympics are imminent. Government and the newspapers are eager for German climbers to conquer the Eiger. The film shows the cynical bravado of this kind of Nazi propaganda and, ultimately, the disillusionment with this kind of manipulation.
Two young men, expert and enthusiastic, are persuaded to attempt the feat. An Austrian team catches up with them. What follows is a detailed following of the climb and all its difficulties. And this, as has been said, is extremely gruelling to watch and share. It is a relief when the the action returns frequently to the warmth and comfort of the chalet. Benno Fuhrmann and Florian Lukas are very good as the two climbers who found their place in mountaineering history as the postscript to the film indicates.
The screenplay is also critical of the role that media plays in these events, hyping stories for headlines and less interested in the human problems, noting that only success or tragedy are front-page-worthy.
It is interesting to note that Hitler's favourite director, Leni Riefenstahl, who had made the expert propaganda feature Triumph of the Will in 1934 and was a keen actor and director of mountain films at the time, was about to direct the film of the Berlin Olympiad. One of the characters in Nordwand watching the climb and lost in admiration of the men attempting an Olympic gold kind of achievement resembles Riefenstahl.
(UK/Germany, 2008, d. Stephen Daldry)
Given the controversy about the themes and the treatment of these themes in this film, which has been written and designed for a mature and reflective audience, not everybody will find it as moving as this reviewer did, one of the best films of 2008.
It is a film where any judgement (moral or aesthetic) made before the final credits is in danger of being peremptory and wrong. This could be the case for some audiences who might find the nudity and sexuality of the first half (in fact, more than is normally seen in a mainstream film) too much to watch. However, this contributes to the meaning of the themes when the second part of the film is seen.
Playwright David Hare, whose films often have political perspectives (Via Dolorosa, Gethsemane), has adapted the very popular (even extending to Oprah Winfrey's TV Book Club) short novel by German lawyer and writer, Bernhard Schlink. The film has been directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours). It has a very strong cast with Kate Winslet giving one of her best performances. David Kross is effective as the 15 year old Michael Berg. Ralph Fiennes is the older Michael. (Though the make-up for Kate Winslet as she grows older is convincing, it is hard to accept the transition from Kross to Fiennes in the plot short span from 1966 to 1976.)
The first half almost immediately plunges the audience into an affair between a schoolboy and a 36 year old Berlin tram conductor and the effect on each of them of the attraction, the sexual awakening and experience and the unusual feature of the relationship that the conductor wants the boy to read to her, his choice including Homer, Twain and Chekhov.
The narrative and Daldry's direction and the performances enable the audience to understand the behaviour as psychologically credible whether they approve of what is happening or not.
The second half of the film changes tone completely and the book and the film raise uneasy questions about the Holocaust and the guilt of Germans who were adults during the Nazi period and the war as well as how the children of those adults dealt with the memories (and suppression of memories) and the inherited guilt. There are several memorable and disquieting court room sequences which also raise the question of responsibility for the atrocities, the choices made by, for instance, security guards at concentration camps and the consequences – and the prison sentences they received. By focusing on 'ordinary' Germans instead of the authority figures, the film is a reminder of the 'banality of evil' embodied in people who seemed to live by ordinary moral standards but who were capable of alarming evil, of physical and psychological brutality.
Another question the film raises is that of judging and understanding, some commentators emotionally criticising book and film for being too understanding of and, therefore, too lenient on the war criminals. In a late scene with Lena Olin as an Auschwitz survivor and the older Michael Berg, the objectivity of judgement and the subjectivity of experience are well dramatised and seem to remain irreconcilable, a mystery of human nature and human behaviour.
Underlying this is the theme of illiteracy and the limiting of life choices for the uneducated. Books which tell stories or offer poetic insight into the nobility of human nature are offered as a symbol of what might have been, of what could be.
Since we have only one life to lead, then choices mean honour or dishonour, savagery or nobility. And the book and the screenplay do not offer any easy thoughts or ways of redemption, reconciliation or healing.
The Reader might be seen in retrospect as an archetypal story of 20th century Europe, the tragedy and horror of what was, with deepest regrets for what might have been.
(US, 2008, d. Sam Mendes)
1955 was the year that the makers of Back to Future chose as the year to return to from 1985. The journey was from the uglier aspects of the middle of the me-decade, the 80s, to a time of greater simplicity and niceness. They went back only 30 years in time. With Revolutionary Road, the film-makers have gone back to 1955 as well, more than 50 years earlier. On the surface they have found the same simplicity and niceness. But, the film probes what lies beneath the surface.
The location is suburbia, the cosy, leafy and trim neighbourhoods outside New York City. It is easy, as a number of commentators have done, to say that director Sam Mendes has been here before. He won a directing Oscar for the 1999 American Beauty, which also won the Oscar for Best Film. But that is too glib a comparison, especially as these commentators laud American Beauty over Revolutionary Road. American Beauty was far more complex. The two households, side by side, contained a greater number of characters, young and old, in moral crisis. It being the 90s, much more was on the surface and there were far more problems beneath. The treatment was franker, more explicit, according to the times.
Revolutionary Road does have some neighbours but the focus is on a younger married couple whose problems are no less serious but are those which tormented the adults of the 1950s, the problems with which we are more familiar, coping with marriage, family, jobs and discovering meaning in life.
First impressions are not necessarily correct. In a prologue set some years earlier, we are introduced to April, an aspiring young actress, whose poses and cigarette suggest some sophistication. In fact, she is a drama student. Frank says he is a longshoreman about to work in a cafeteria. In fact, he will be competent in a business office, holding down a solid job and in line for promotion. But, the first impressions linger and complicate our responses to the couple when we cut to several years later and April is upset about her poor performance in a play and Frank, thinking he is frank and open, upsets her even more by his presumption that she should give up. Then we discover they have two children.
Frank has become the kind of character Gregory Peck played in the 1956 The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, a regular commuter to work, dissatisfied but keeping up the expected front. April has become a genuinely desperate housewife at a time when housewives were meant to be TV-commercial cheery, proud of their homes and gardens, caring for the children and waiting on their husband. Actually, the couple next door, who have four children, Shep and Milly, are living the same kind of life, Shep (David Harbour, obviously unsettled and with a gaze on April), Milly (Kathryn Hahn excellent in her constant anxiety to please her husband and make sure all is quietly well at home).
Aspects of the plot are what you might expect, Frank's friends at the office, the girls in the typing pool, the tedium of the work as well as April at home, restless. Their real estate agent friend, Helen (Kathy Bates in another different and persuasive role) has a mathematics professor son who is having shock treatment and brings him for visits. He is played so well by Michael Shannon who is very skilled in playing frightening characters (Bug, World Trade Center) and he provides a catalyst for looking at the truth.
For much of the film, April has persuaded Frank to give up his job and the whole family is preparing to move to Paris, to take a risk so that he might find what he truly wants to do, and she will support him by secretarial work there. This is pretty revolutionary for the residents of Revolutionary Road, the street where they live.
Ultimately, the film is a harrowing look at disappointment and depression, well served by fine performances by award-nominated Leonardo di Caprio as Frank and Kate Winslet as April. Both have appeared recently in Body of Lies and The Reader respectively to strong effect. These films reminds us of what good actors they are.
ROMAN DE GARE
(France, 2007, d. Claude Lelouch)
Claude Lelouch won an Oscar in 1966 for A Man and a Woman, a lush and emotional drama. Before that, and energetically since, Lelouch has made a constant stream of beautiful, emotional films which have, even when they are sad or, indeed, tragic, like his update of Les Miserables, have a sunnier quality and look than most French films.
This is the case here in this roman de gare, 'railway novel' (or 'airport novel') tale, which opens with the leading lady accused of the murder of her ghost writer and which takes us back to what is the plot of a novel being acted out for an ultimate masterpiece.
Lelouch has used the clever mode of misdirection of audience attention, making us assume aspects of plot and character which are not true at all. And this, of course, leads to a number of twists in a complex plot.
It is fascinating to see French actor, Dominique Pinon, whom film buffs will recognise from Delicatessen and many films. They may not know his name, but he is the small actor with a mouth and jaw which looked somehow squashed and have led to his playing offbeat, even bizarre, roles. Lelouch has given him a leading role here, a mysterious man, of whom audiences are suspicious and for the most part, questioning his behaviour and motives.
The leading lady, a celebrity novelist, is played in grande dame style by Fanny Ardant. Matching her, is Audrey Dana as a moody hairdresser who becomes a central character in the novel.
With locations in Paris, in French villages and beautiful countryside as well as Cannes and Alba, the film is designed as a popular entertainment – with quality.