SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS JANUARY 2010
SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELLING PANTS 2, The
STONE OF DESTINY, The
TALE OF DESPEREAUX, The
(US, 2008, d. Gabriele Muccino)
Mysterious title. Mysterious stranger. Mysterious behaviour.
Well, after a while audiences may realise that the weight of a human heart is seven pounds, so the title makes sense. Rosario Dawson sympathetically plays a young woman with a terminal heart disease waiting for a transplant. She is mysteriously befriended by an internal tax revenue officer who helps her in hospital and at home. As played by Will Smith, he is niceness personified – although he does break into some angry outbursts, especially near the beginning of the film where he is particularly and unnecessarily rude to a blind telephone service operator played by Woody Harrelson. He is also evasive with his brother and mysteriously puts pressure on his friend from school days played by Barry Pepper.
He also becomes involved with a social welfare worker and a Hispanic battered mother with two children.
This is one of those humane films that seems to irk reviewers who prefer cerebral activity to heart activity but appeals to audiences, especially if they know relatives or other people in similar plights. Will Smith appeared in the previous film by Italian director, Gabriele Muccino, The Pursuit of Happyness, which also dealt with suffering and possibilities for hope.
However, this time our hero remains tense and rather unhappy most of the time which means that the film is sometimes a bit 'miserabilist'.
The opening is emotionally arresting but the screenplay takes a while to unwind its plot and we need to be particularly alert to what is flashback and what is real time. The clues are all there and, by the end (or a bit before) we are able to piece it all together, a suicide attempt, a car crash, a jellyfish, space engineering, tax forms...
The ending (which publicists have specifically asked reviewers not to reveal) will raise quite a number of emotional and moral questions.
THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELLING PANTS 2
(US, 2008, d. Sanaa Hamri)
It seemed best to do some googling on the Internet Movie Data Base to check what fans, especially American fans and, especially, female American fans, felt about Sisterhood 2. Many of them had read the books and knew the lives of the characters very closely, had enjoyed the first film and responded very positively to this one. For them, the two hours running time passed quickly.
For others, it passes – eventually.
With its four stories of Tibby, Lena, Carmen and Bridgid being intercut all the way through with no particular reason for taking up one bit or another even though they are sometimes interconnected and, of course, came together at the end, it is the kind of material that is familiar from many a television series (and the actresses themselves are better known for the television series they have starred in). This gives plenty of distraction time to thinking about the reasons why soap opera material is popular and wonder just how it is different from more solid drama – always acknowledging that audiences can enjoy both soap opera and solid drama if they wish. Watching episode after episode in this film, I realised that the important thing was 'that it happened' rather than delving into character and showing 'why it happened'.
So, here we have a succession of events involving the four girls going to college, spending a summer artistically, Bridget on an antiquities dig in Turkey, Carmen acting Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale in Vermont, Lena studying drawing somewhere on Long Island and Tibby writing a screenplay in New York while being bitchy to customers in a video store and experiencing a 'pregnancy scare' (although in wonder when she has to assist at the birth of Carmen's half-brother).
There are some men in their lives to larger or lessening degrees.
The other thing is that when the story shows 'that it happens' then you can make a fair guess as to what will happen. With a 'why it happens' drama, there can be all kinds of unexpected twists in character and plot.
It is best to be an aficionado of the books and the original film to enjoy this sequel.
(India/UK, 2008, d. Danny Boyle)
A popular hit around the world for 2008.
This is a surprising film for Danny Boyle (who made Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, The Beach, 28 Days Later), although, come to think of it, he made the entertainingly offbeat story of children, lotteries and saints, Millions.
It is spoken principally in Hindi with English sub-titles.
Slumdog is the derogatory name for street kids in Mumbai. Jamal is a slumdog as is his brother, Salim, although Jamal now works as a teaboy for a phone answering service and Salim works for a powerful gangster. Their close friend from the orphanage is Latika. Throughout the film there are flashbacks to the youngsters and their hard lives, exploited by unscrupulous criminal types, surviving their poverty and hardships (some of it in photogenic Agra at the Taj Mahal, most of it in an uglier Mumbai).
However, as TV watchers around the world know, there is a tantalising question: 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire?'.
Taking the Indian version (with an unsympathetic, scoundrel host), the screenplay by British Simon Beaufort, best-known for The Full Monty offers us a program where teenage Jamal has entered and is progressing steadily through the questions. Though we see him being brutally interrogated by the police who suspect he has cheated.
Beaufoy nicely uses the device of offering flashbacks at each of the questions to show us how, in Jamal's hard life, he has had an opportunity to know the answers to the questions (Bollywood film stars, Indian songs, the figure on a $US note...) and build up a portrait of Jamal, his friends and the transitions in Indian society and prosperity over the last twenty years.
Dev Patel is good as the older Jamal. Is most engaging as the little Jamal. The child actors are persuasive.
While Indian audiences will rally round the film and be pleased, on the whole, at the picture it offers, Slumdog Millionaire is designed for western audiences who don't know India and are given an opportunity to learn as well as those who know and like India and are fascinated by its contemporary growth and change.
Of course, it offers a huge promo for Who Wants to be a Millionaire, but it capitalises on audience familiarity to create some suspense but also, as has been mentioned, to use the questions and answers to probe the unpredictable lives of Jamal and his friends as they grew up.
THE STONE OF DESTINY
(UK/Canada, 2008, d. Charles Martin Smith)
The kings and queens of England have been crowned at Westminster Abbey, sitting on the throne under which sits the Stone of Scone or the Stone of Destiny. This has happened since the 14th century. Most people take this for granted. But the Scots are not most people. And this is a Scots story, a political story, a patriotic story that will have most (all?) Scots on its side – and a lot of those whom the British considered (and still consider) colonials. This review shares that experience!
Charles Martin Smith seems a strange choice for writer and director of this film. An actor for almost forty years (especially in American Graffiti and Never Cry Wolf) and a director for film and television, he is an American and Smith does not sound particularly Scottish. But, he has written and made the film with Scots zest, a Canadian/British co-production.
This story of stealing the Stone took place in 1950 and is based on a book, written almost immediately afterwards while it was still fresh in his memory, by the planner and executor of the taking of the stone, Ian Hamilton, who became a QC and advised on this production in his 80s.
The film opens with rowdy and enthusiastic speeches about a Covenant for Scotland which had been part of the Union since 1705. The rector of Glasgow university, played with dignity and fierce belief by Robert Carlyle, played a key role in promoting the Covenant which was rejected by Westminster. Several students are incensed and consumed by patriotism, especially Ian Hamilton (played with charm and ego by Charlie Cox).
This was one of those 'robberies', planned by enthusiasts (visits to the Abbey, discovering information about security, drawing maps, practising lifting...) who were not professionals at all. Much of the film is about the stealing of the stone – and all the unforeseen things that make it go wrong. Except, that they really did steal it and brought it back to Scotland. (However, it was back in the Abbey for the coronation event of 1953.)
The film is colourful, has attractive Glasgow and Scots countryside scenery and looks quite authentic in the sequences at Westminster Abbey, both inside and out.
The supporting cast act with enthusiasm and, apart from a Scots and rebel-minded audience, it may just be another caper story (especially for the English?), but it is a pleasantly entertaining recreation of a moment of history.
THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX
(US, 2008, d. Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen)
What a delightfully entertaining animated film.
Sigourney Weaver delivers a narration with just the right tone of information and tongue-in-cheek quirkiness about the events and the characters and the happy ending.
The visual style is quite sumptuous at times, the sea, a medieval town, the interiors of a castle, the castle kitchen and the grungy Ratworld and the genteel Mouseworld. The humans tend to be long-faced and gaunt, except for some of the servants. The rats are large and verminous. The mice are nice, especially the tiny Desperaux whose ears are almost as long as himself. But he has a staunch and fearless heart, despite the Mouseworld ethos that mice have to be scared all the time, and lessons in fear are provided at school.
There is enough action and humour for children, though the big cat menacing Desperaux in Ratworld's equivalent of the Colisseum has its frightening moments. But, adults should enjoy it too, especially when they read the voice cast list at the beginning. Matthew Broderick can still do nice young creatures (as he did in The Lion King). Dustin Hoffman is very good indeed as the vagabond Rat, Roscuro, who goes through some upsetting adventures and has to make a moral choice at the end. There is Kevin Kline as the chef with Stanley Tucci as a man made up of fruit and vegetables. Ciaran Hinds rules Ratworld, looking like Nosferatu and sounding like a typical aristocratic British movie villain. Tracy Ullman is the rather large servant and Robbie Coltrane is her large father. With entertaining dialogue to speak, they give the film an added aplomb.
But, there is plenty of plot which plays on the familiar fairy tales with their quests and heroism – particularly important because Despereaux is not your typical mouse (and the question is asked whether he is mouse or man), fearless, rapt in books (instead of eating them) and has an imagination full of Knightly adventures as well as heroics for saving the princess. The rats are the villains and we would need to see Ratatouille again to rehabilitate them in our minds.
If you appreciate animated films, of which there is such a range these days, Despereaux is a pleasure to watch and listen to.
(US, 2007, d. Marco Kreuzpaintner)
With its subject of sex trafficking, especially from Mexico to the United States, Trade can never be less than harrowing. At times, dramatic, with some melodramatic moments, it offers a personalised story of what is one of the ugliest trades in the world today.
It has been the subject of a number of films from different countries. One of the most challenging is Amos Gitai's Promised Land (trade from Eastern Europe into Israel). And Your Name is Justine is a sobering film about Polish women being tricked into believing that they are going on holidays in Germany only to be trapped. Lucas Moodysson's Lilya 4 Ever had a similar theme for Russia and Finland. The action drama, Taken, showed scams at Paris airport tricking American tourists, imprisoning them, drugging them and auctioning them.
Trade is based on award-winning articles by American Peter Landesman who spent months in Mexico researching this shadow world. The film has been scripted by Jose Rivera who wrote The Motorcycle Diaries and directed by a young German, Marco Kreuzpaintner (Summer Storm). The cast is mainly Mexican, led by two young amateurs (Cesar Ramos and Paulina Gaitan) who are believable as brother and sister, the 13 year old girl abducted in daylight from the neighbourhood street, the brother, a petty thief and con man, desperate to save his sister and finding his life turned round. He encounters an insurance investigator (Kevin Kline) who is still searching for a long lost daughter who was sold into prostitution and, together, they cross the US to find the girl. This leads them to quiet suburban New Jersey and an online auction crime gang.
Location photography in Mexico City, especially the poorer streets and homes, on the US/Mexican border and Juarez where illegals try to cross, give the film a realistic tone.
While the film is based on research, the film-makers have decided to emphasise the narrative drive and urgency of the search as well as the plight of several abducted women, one of whom is Polish and who is held because of threats to her family and son back in Poland, another of whom is a young boy brought in from Thailand.
While this 'trade' is shocking and upsetting, the film tries to show that effort, personal and by the police, can confront the lowlife criminals and customers (many of whom are wealthy and high-life sleazy individuals) and do something about the trade.
(US, 2007, d Brad Anderson)
If you have ever wondered what it would be like to cross Siberia into Russia from Vladivostok, this dramatic thriller will go part of the way to answering questions. There is quite a lot of scenery of the steppes and the forests (which go for long, long distances). There are also some stations, some sidings and some villages and snow-clad countryside with old and ruined churches. So far, so all right.
However, there is a sub-plot about drug smuggling, police, murders and missing money. Ben Kingsley appears, accent and all, as the police chief who also gets on the train to report in Moscow – or so it seems.
However, the focus then goes to four passengers on the train, three of them Americans. There is the nice American couple who belong to a church and have gone to Europe to meetings and want to experience the country and the husband to indulge his hobby of trainwatching. Emily Mortimer and Woody Harrelson play the nice couple. Needless to say, there is much more to their stories than immediately meets the eye. Then there is another couple, charming but suspicious, Kate Mara as a young teacher and her Spanish boyfriend who is in exports (and it doesn't take too long to guess what he is exporting), Eduardo Noriega.
What seems like a train movie gradually becomes very complicated with a murder, the search for the drug money, some large doses of torture, some lying, an escape through the snow, trains careering along their tracks and the unmasking of villains.
That may make Transsiberian a bit more entertaining than it really is. Perhaps the initial expectations from locations and cast are set too high for the melodrama which follows. On the other hand, the transsiberian railways may feel that such adventures might put off potential travellers.
(US, 2008, d. Catherine Hardwicke)
Not being – by a long shot – part of the demographic for Twilight, I have to defer to the teenage girls who have read Stephanie Meyers' books, think Robert Pattinson is adorable and have flocked to see the film.
The girls will tell you that this is a vampire film. A vampire film? It looks a lot like a high school film. And it is.
So, much of the expected characters and events in a high school is here again (although the Indian lad explains that he has to go to school on the reservation, still in 2008?) . This time we are in Forks, Washington state, where it is cold, surrounded by forests and mountains, but the students seem more agreeable than in most high schools. Although there is that strange group that comes into the cafeteria, the Cullen group, about five of them all cared for by the nice doctor of the town. Yes, they are the vampires.
Twilight does not rely on a lot of the traditional horror-movie lore about vampires. Yes, the are immortal and, yes, they don't sleep or eat. They are attracted by blood and there are some renegade types who kill humans (well off-screen) but the Cullens have opted for harmonious living with humans and control their appetites for blood and limit it to animals. Edward (Pattinson) is the soulful, Byronic hero (who has graduated again and again over the years) who knows he is a predator but does not want to destroy anyone. That is why he makes it so hard for Bella (a vigorous and sympathetic Kristen Stewart) who has moved back from Arizona to stay with her police chief Dad in the town where she originally grew up, to like him.
Bella is put off by Edward's aloofness (and his wanting to change courses instead of sitting next to her in the lab). But, the attraction is there, especially when he uses his powers to save her from being injured by an out-of-control car. Just as Edward says 'no' to killing people or vampirising them, the youngsters' falling in love is particularly chaste with Edward, deeply in love, saying no to anything further. Interesting, in view of other rather open and permissive lifestyles shown in a number of American high school movies (except those High School movies), that Twilight is so popular.
The action has some lyrical sequences with Edward taking Bella on flying, clambering and swooping flights through the air and trees. Vampiric powers are shown to be an advantage as well for the family's playing baseball, which they can do unobserved during thunder and lightning storms.
There is a crisis for Bella and Edward with the rogue vampires – and Bella has to reflect on whether she would be happier living her quiet life in Forks or being a vampire with Edward forever. We will find out more because the final shot indicates sequel (and the publicists indicate that it is in pre-production).
Director Catherine Hardwicke, formerly a set designer, has a talent for stories about teenage girls with Thirteen and her Gospel film, The Nativity Story.
(US, 2008, d. Darren Aronofski)
Wrestling may not be your favourite sport - on the other hand it could be - and those not enamoured of the theatrical moves and thumping, grinding and tossing may find the first part of this film too much. This is especially so when the camera does not draw back from close-ups of the action and the repercussions of pain in the performances (including a staple gun). That having been said, it can be added that The Wrestler is a very well-made film with a message about life, talents, wasting one's talents and affecting other people's lives for the worse.
Mickey Rourke used to be a dashing presence on screen in the 1980s. He definitely looks the worse for wear now. Which fits his character as Randy, 'The Ram' Robinson (acutally Robin Ramzinxki), a one-time wrestling champion and audience favourite who relished his career and big victory in 1989 (seen in posters and photos during the credits). The Ram is now definitely even the worst for wear, cuts and bruises all over his body, a hearing aid, glasses and performances at also-ran bouts for small crowds. Yet, he keeps in shape, puts his body through punishing events (with the help of some steroids) and has not lost any enthusiasm for his sport. Wrestling is his talent and life and he has given up everything else (including a daughter, Evan Rachel Wood) to stay in the game. He now finds himself lonely, living in a trailer, occasional drugs and semi-anonymous sex and seeking the friendship of a stripper (Marisa Tomei).
When he collapses and has to have a bypass, he has to make deeper choices. He visits his daughter and, despite her initial hostility, he makes a breakthrough and then irresponsibly throws it away. He proposes to the stripper but she has a young son and wants to draw a line between her clients and her friends.
This is not to say that The Ram is a gloomy character. On the contrary, he gets on well with fellow-wrestlers, a community in themselves who appeciate each other and the particular moves that they put on show. When he gets a job in a supermarket deli, he is quite genial with the customers - until he is too annoyed to continue.
The decision he has to make is whether he will perform in a 20th anniversary re-match with his old opponent, The Grand Ayatolloh (actually, Bob from Arizona who runs a used car business). This will threaten his health and his life. It does not spoil the film to know that he does decide to fight (what else would the film be?). His vigorous speech to the admiring crowds is a scene that sums up his life and its meaning.
Mickey Rourke is always believable as The Ram and takes us into a world that is unfamiliar and maybe repellant to most of us.
Darren Aronofsky is not a director who can be pinpointed: erudite maths and philosophy in Pi, the world of addicts both young and old in Requiem for a Dream and romantic science-fiction and time-travel in The Fountain. The Wrestler, therefore, is quite different.
(US, 2008, d. Peyton Reed)
Jim Carrey is back. He is still mugging to good effect so his fans should be pleased enough. He is also doing some seriousness which he has been trying on and off over the last ten years.
The premiss of Yes Man is the value of self-help motivational methods – but the film, one might say, is self-betterment lite – or, not quite.
Carrey is Carl Allen, divorced, morose, introspective, avoiding everybody including friends, working at a humdrum job – with an irrepressibly optimistic boss who holds Harry Potter and 300 parties where friends (of the geeky variety) dress up as characters, have non-intoxicating refreshments and watch the movies over and over again. He is played very well by New Zealand stand-up comic, Rhys Darby, accent and all. Carl's word is obviously and defintively, 'no'.
Dragged off to a Yes seminar and surrounded by gleeful cheering devotees eager to shout 'yes' at the slightest cue, he finds himself spotlit and he is badgered by the supremely self-confident guru into making a covenant with himself to say 'yes' to everything. The Yes-master is played humorously with sombre panache by Terence Stamp.
Carl is persuaded by his friend to his first 'yes', into giving a lift to a vagrant (who tells him that hanging around this Yes auditorium gets him more lifts and gifts than he used to get). This hard-expressed initial 'yes' leads him on a zany and unpredictable emotional journey that, of course, changes his life (even to his being arrested as a terrorist and interrogated by programmed agents with paranoid presuppositions – except that he, utimately, has to learn to use his common sense when he has to say 'no'. And that doesn't come easily.
This kind of story lends itself to a series of funny episodes rather than a real plot, so one just has to along with Carl for the ride, some hit, som miss experiences, until he realises what life is meant to be, happy, giving and loving. Zooey Deschanel is the kooky singer, photographer, jogger that he encounters and...., of course.
Though written before the current financial crises, the screenplay has Carl as a loans approval officer at a bank. No trouble in saying 'no'. When he has to say 'yes', he approves small loans for people to be able to buy things they want/need. And, his superior says, 98% of them are faithful in repaying loans. There must be some message there about doing good rather than doing greed for the increasing number of discredited financiers these days.