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Film Reviews January 2010

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SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS    JANUARY  2010
 


AVATAR
BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT
BROTHERS BLOOM, The
CHARLIE AND BOOTS
DIAMANT 13
DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS?
LAST STATION, The
LOVELY BONES, The
MAO'S LAST DANCER
OLD DOGS
OTHER MAN, The
POST GRAD
PRIME MOVER
SEX & DRUGS&ROCK&ROLL
SHERLOCK HOLMES
WHATEVER WORKS



AVATAR

(US. 2009, d. James Cameron)

Despite the early reviews and positive word of mouth for Avatar, it took me a long while to be drawn into the film and its story and feelings (which doesn't matter so much since it goes for 162 minutes).  But then, I succumbed to it.  One of the reasons for the delay, I would think, was that I was expecting it to be a fantasy epic but at first it was science, science fiction and mineral exploitation on the planet Pandora, with a hero who was singularly unsympathetic, even uninteresting, with a lot of dialogue of the 'How's it goin'?' lack of variety, rather mundane, even banal.
 
But, it does move into epic fantasy mode (though the dialogue does not improve all that much) and the paraplegic, ex-marine hero gradually moves into epic saviour hero mode, not least because he is transformed into avatar life (with the use of his legs and some mighty strength).
 
Avatar is the technical name given to creatures who are mixes of the DNA of a human subject with the DNA of the Pandoran inhabitants which transforms the character into a rather giant figure, blue, science fantasy features, including a tale.
 
That being said, it is the imagination and cinematic flair bringing that imagination on to the screen with special effects that keep us watching (at least mentally gawping, if not physically, in amazement) at the space, the beauty, the movement, the colours, the wonderful swooping beauty of riding creatures through the sky well beyond Quidditch and, a favourite, the floating mountains.
 
When we move away from the science and engineering (not entirely, of course, because the 'sky people', humans who have ravaged the earth and are on a futuristic conquistadoring expedition to Pandora with gigantic bulldozers and robots to exploit the resources, have to shape up for a final explosions and flame-throwing Apocalypse Now attack and a warrior confrontation), we enter the nature world of the Pandoran natives (a kind of beautiful pantheistic, divine energy world with a giant sacred tree and a vegetal network of energy), we are reminded of Eden and innocence.  It weaves its spell on our hero, Jake Sully, who enters into the world of natives and avatars, spying at first and reporting to military authorities, but then finding a new, simpler, harmonious nature world and, needless to say, falling in love.
 
The military leader (a very strong Stephen Lang in a familiar but effective performance), refers to the natives as 'hostiles' and, visually, they do remind us of cowboys and Indian films – perhaps the film is like a cowboys and Indians saga in a futuristic Jurassic Park, full of marvellous special effect creatures.
 
Australian Sam Worthington is Jake Sully (Worthington earlier in the year proving himself a more impressive presence than Christian Bale in Terminator Salvation).  The princess of the tribe is Zoe Saldana.  The scientist (who also transforms into an avatar) is Sigourney Weaver whose name is the feminine Grace (compared with her blunt name of Ripley in the Aliens series, the second of which, Aliens, was directed by James Cameron).  Giovanni Ribisi (looking too young) has all the villainous dialogue about exploitation, scepticism at any suggestion of mysticism or spirituality and vicious, without conscience, during the final battle.
 
While the film has a clear 'green' message, it also is strong in its reminder of the destructive realities of colonial and imperialist attitudes.  In fact, the film seems highly critical of US foreign and business policy (echoes of Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan) and its huge insensitivity to people who are different, to their cultures and their way of life which is judged as vastly inferior.
 
So, the epic quality is there.  The fantasy builds on the traditions of the Post Star Wars era – and, technically, and in 3D – so much of the images, movement and effects are cinema wonders to behold.
 
BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT
 
(US, 2009, d. Peter Hyams)

This legal thriller is adapted from a 1956 drama directed by Fritz Lang where a newspaper man sets up a situation to incriminate himself to expose an exploitative lawyer.  It starred Dana Andrews.  More than 50 years later, genre film director, Peter Hyams, has remade it with DNA evidence as the key issue for a would-be governor winning murder trials.
 
This time the journalist is a documentary maker with his eye on a Pulitzer Prize.  He is played with supreme self-confidence, even when his expose plan starts to go wrong, by Jesse Spencer.  Michael Douglas is the public figure prosecutor with ambitions.  Amber Tamblyn is his assistant – who becomes emotionally and professionally involved with the young man who puts himself in legal harm's way to make a name for himself.
 
If you accept that this is a rather far-fetched story, you will accept the rather melodramatic events, car chases, murders, incriminating photos and evidence planted – and be glad of the comeuppance to the crooked lawyer.  The film suddenly becomes a story in a hurry towards the end, but provides us with a twist that most audiences would certainly not be anticipating.
 
THE BROTHERS BLOOM
 
(US, 2009, d. Rian Johnson)

The Brothers Bloom may be a comedy which appeals to an offbeat sensibility and requires an acquired taste.  It seems akin to a Wes Anderson comedy and his work is also an acquired taste, exercises in eccentric comedy with bizarre characters in oddball situations (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited).  Comments about The Brothers Bloom refer to it as off-kilter! (Johnson's other film was the intriguing Brick, a story of a teenager taking on criminals to find his girlfriend who has disappeared.)
 The Brothers Bloom is both serious and comic.  They are two orphans, Stephen and Bloom, who move from foster home to foster home as children.  Stephen is shrewd and invents scams (with elaborately detailed plans), even conning the children at school.  When they grow up (Mark Ruffalo is Stephen and Adrien Brody is Bloom), Stephen is still creating scenarios that they play out, always featuring Bloom, dangerous cons which could get them killed – and they tangle with a mysterious French importer (Robbie Coltrane) and a sinister Russian dealer (Maximilian Schell). They also have a blonde Japanese assistant who rarely speaks.
 
One of the intriguing aspects of the film is watching the scam develop and pay off, not without risk.
 
They decide to target a wealthy New Jersey recluse, Penelope (Rachel Weisz) and they embark on a final con with her which takes them to different countries.  Stephen is still in control.  Bloom has fallen for Penelope.  Will they get away with the scam, especially when pursued by Russian gunmen?
 
No predictions as to who might like this off-kilter story – you might.  Or, feeling the need for some more balance, you might not!
 
CHARLIE AND BOOTS
 
(Australia, 2009, d. Dean Murphy)

Here is an easy-going comedy, serious in its themes, but lightly funny because of the characters and situations.  And it features two Australian actors who have become icons, one from the 70s and 80s, the other recently.
 
The first is Paul Hogan, who entertained us with television skits and sketches after working on painting Sydney Harbour Bridge (which provides the final quip of this film).  Then, he became Crocodile Dundee, advertised putting shrimps on the barbie and tried a few more films like Almost an Angel and Flipper, and was successful only in Crocodile Dundee sequels.  He made an amusing comedy some years ago, Strange Bedfellows, and now Charlie and Boots.  He hasn't really changed his style all that much but here he is a grieving widower who has given up on much of life.  He is Charlie.
 
The second icon is Shane Jacobson, perhaps better known as Kenny.  He is Boots (and you will enjoy finding out why he doesn't use the name which his mother, keen on popular singers, actually gave him).
 
Hogan and Jacobson make an entertaining odd couple.
 
This is a very Australian comedy, not just because of the stars and the characters they create, nor the jokes and Aussie humour style, but because it takes father and son and the audience on a trip through Victoria and New South Wales, up through Queensland with the destination, Cape York, the northern tip of the continent.  This is a trip that son thinks father needs to come to terms with his grief.  It is also a trip that enables father and son to come to terms with each other, father fulfilling a promise to take his son fishing at Cape York.  The trip elicits memories for Charlie.  Charlie wants it to offer opportunities for Boots to start dating again.  They meet a range of Aussie outback types: a 16 year old who wants to sing at Tamworth, various waitresses, a lady truckie, a north Queensland pilot, speeding tow truck drivers with our heroes car connected (and a Queensland policeman who wants to book the towed truck for speeding).
 
Plenty of scenery and plenty of outback Australian life, plenty of sentiment and plenty of humour.
 
DIAMANT 13
 
(France, 2009, d. Gilles Behat)

A tough police and crime thriller filmed in Antwerp.
 
It's not as if we haven't seen similar stories but this one is quite effective with its tale of an ageing, somewhat disillusioned inspector who is let in on a drugs and cash scam by an old friend on the force.
 
The film does not have too much time to explain all this before it all gets out of hand with murders, dealers and drugs, corrupt politicians, police loyalties and betrayals, a cache of money and an incriminating diary.
 
What makes the film more effective than usual is the atmospheric locations and photography and the cast.  It is Gerard Depardieu again (at almost 60) as the policeman, Olivier Marchal as his friend and Asia Argento as a young police chief.
 
The audience has to pay attention to who is good and who is bad and follow some unexpected (and some predictable) plot developments.  But it is an effective crime drama.
 
DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS?

(US, 2009, d. Marc Lawrence)

In a way, you could say, 'seen any of Hugh Grant's American romantic comedies, you've seen them all'.  Not quite accurate – some are more entertaining than others – but this one is more or less the usual.  When his voice comes over the opening credits, he really does sound more British than British (and is later referred to as 'the tea drinker').  When he comes on screen (and it is two years since his last film, Music & Lyrics), it is a shock to be reminded of how mannered he is, the charming bumbler who has gaffed his way through many a film.  His character is not quite so charming here – an infidelity in his marriage – and, as a New York City lawyer, he can't be all that bumbling...
 
Except, if the plot landed him in the middle of rural Wyoming where he is most definitely not at home.  Oh, how did he get there from NYC?  The Witness Protection program.
 
After a usual kind of opening as he meets his ex-wife, Sara Jessica Parker, a hot shot real estate agent, for dinner, they witness a murder and off they are hurried to the small town of Ray (one cafe, one store, a rodeo...).
 
The plot is a kind of Crocodile Dundee in reverse.  The city slickers who can't get to sleep because Wyoming lacks the accustomed noises of New York have to adjust (they do a bit), have to face their marriage (they do), escape the killer who has tracked them down (yes, she did make a phone call to her office which the killer had bugged), kiss and make up, find a child to adopt and become pregnant.  If you like the stars, no problem.
 
But Sam Elliot (who has done this kind of laconic cowboy role so many times in westerns and non-westerns but does it effectively) and Mary Steenburgen (who is appearing these years in welcome character roles) are the husband and wife deputies who are responsible for the protection of the witnesses.
 
That's it, neither more nor less.
 
THE LAST STATION
 
(UK/ Germany/ Russia, 2009, d. Michael Hoffman)

One hopes that many people would be able to answer the question of who wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina.  Leo Tolstoy.  Here is an opportunity to learn a little more about the man and his ideas.  It is also an opportunity to get to know his wife, Sofya.
 
The action of this beautifully made drama takes place in 1910, the last year of Tolstoy's life.  War and Peace and Anna Karenina are long behind him.  In his later years, he developed more socialist and utopian ideas, delved into the different religions and promoted a humanist and egalitarian perspective on life before the 1917 revolution.  He had devout disciples who put him on a pedestal, promoted his writings and teaching as if he were a prophet.  Many went to live and work in the communes.  This is the background to the personal story of his last months.
 
Christopher Plummer, turning 80, is still a strong screen presence and gives Tolstoy an energy, a compulsiveness to think, to work, to publish and to support his disciples.  His principal disciple is Vladmir Chertkov, played by Paul Giamatti.  He is an enthusiast but a man (under suspicion from and confined to his house by the Moscow authorities) who lives in his head despite his enthusiastic feelings.  He is an ideologue who has put Tolstoy, who is his close friend, on a pedestal, even wanting to orchestrate the way Tolstoy would die so that it would make impact on his followers and on the whole world (with crowds of journalists camping outside the station in southern Russia where Tolstoy was dying).
 
That being said, it should be emphasised that this is also a film about Tolstoy's wife, Sofya, the Countess who valued her status and way of life, disagreed with many of the principles of the husband she loved, detested Chertkov and his friends. She was hypersensitive, prone to tantrums and hysteria, jealous of her husband's friendships and fanatical about his will and the preserving of property for her children.  She is played by Helen Mirren in a marvellous tour-de-force.
 
One of the children is Sasha (Anne-Marie Duff) who works for her father and takes stands against her mother.
 
But the film is also about Tolstoy's young secretary, Valentin Bulgakov, also a young idealist hired by Chertkov and who is welcomed into the household by both Tolstoy and Sofya.  A prim young man, he is mocked by Masha who lives in the commune, but is also seduced and falls in love with her.  McAvoy? also gives a fine nuanced performance.
 
The film does not have the dramatic drive of Tolstoy's novels.  Rather, it offers an opportunity for the audience to enter into an unfamiliar world, meet arresting (and sometimes irritating) characters and learn about a different era and different ideas.  Director Michael Hoffman also made the very interesting period drama about the era of Charles II in England, Restoration.
 
 
THE LOVELY BONES
 
(New Zealand/US, 2009, d. Peter Jackson)

After The Lord of the Rings and King Kong, a Peter Jackson film sets up an expectation for most audiences for an epic adventure with special effects and action.  It is unfair to him – audiences should remember Heavenly Creatures – and he has tried to break through the expectation with this American story of 1973 in a small Pennsylvania town where a serial killer murders a 14 year old girl.  Teenagers and murder may remind some of Heavenly Creatures and that is probably a good thing because that film blended realism with fantasy and imagination.  Which is what The Lovely Bones does as well.
 
It is based on a novel by Alice Sebold, who is thanked in the final credits (though devotees of the novel have not hesitated in blogging how much they dislike the film and Jackson's interpretation of the novel).
 
What distinguishes the film from other murder stories is that it is narrated by the dead Susie Salmon, who guides the audience through what happened to her (with some restraint in what is actually shown on screen).  The other distinguishing feature is that she is shown, not in Heaven, but in a temporary afterlife called the In Between, where the landscapes, touches of lollipops and rainbows, is part of the dead girl's imagination (something similar to the visions of heaven in Vincent Ward's What Dreams May Come), that of a young female teenager (rather than the In Between that some adult critics thought should be modelled on their imagination, which might mean something of a dour place rather than the sentimentality they said they experienced).  It is interesting to look back at Heavenly Creatures and see how Peter Jackson also created the imaginary world of his teenage murderers.
 
Susie's family are distraught, the father (Mark Wahlberg, good but sometimes too restrained though he does have a number of angry outbursts) becomes obsessed and makes demands on the friendly detective on the case (Michael Imperioli).  The mother (Rachel Weisz, who is a strong screen presence) cannot cope with what has happened and with her husband's persistence in searching, so has to go away from her family.  Susan Sarandon appears as the hard-drinking, smoking grandmother who seems too much of a caricature for the tone of this storytelling. The victim's sister (Rose McIver) uses her grief with more initiative and precipitates the resolution of the case.
 
But it is Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, City of Ember, Death Defying Acts) who commands attention as Susie – in her ordinary life before her death, in the encounter with the killer, in her delight and her distress in the In Between and her desire that the killer give an account of his crime.  And Stanley Tucci as the quiet neighbour who is the smooth-tongued serial murderer gives a performance that takes us into the devious mind and emotions of a sexual predator.
 
Because the story told by the victim is not usual, audiences may find it hard to respond to its changing moods and locations.  This reviewer found the character of the grandmother unbalancing the impact and could have done without her.  Audiences may be saying similar things about other aspects that they found difficult or off-putting.  So, not an entirely satisfying experience, though Peter Jackson has tried to be creative in telling his tale in an offbeat style.
 
MAO'S LAST DANCER
 
(Australia, 2009, d. Bruce Beresford)

A fine, entertaining film, exhilarating at times.
 
Bruce Beresford has been making films for almost forty years.  He made some of the Australian classics of the 1970s and 1980s, including Don's Party and Breaker Morant.  His first Hollywood film won Robert Duvall an Oscar for Tender Mercies.  Driving Miss Daisy won the Best Film Oscar (with Oscar-winning actress, Jessica Tandy,  remarking on his not being nominated as Best Director that the academy must have thought the film directed itself).  He also made the humane/social films The Fringe Dwellers, Black Robe and Paradise Road.  He is always a strong craftsman.
 
The screenplay by Jan Sardi (Shine), based on the autobiography of Chinese dancer Li Cunxin, must have enthused him because this is one of his most energetic and creative films.
 
Li's Chinese background is shown (filmed in China), the small and remote village of the 1970s, post Cultural Revolution but steeped in Mao's ideology and cult.  At school, inspectors visit to choose talented children for further training.  The eager Li is supported by a teacher and he finds himself, still very young, taken away to board at an academy and, despite his fragile build, to train and exercise to be a dancer.  Life in this commune is also portrayed in some detail as well as the sometimes superhuman efforts Li makes to achieve strength and balance for ballet.  One teacher scorns him, another, devoted to classical ballet and made to suffer for it, instructs and inspires him.
 
When he is chosen to go for three months to Houston, he is coached in caution about American ways.  And, at first he is bewildered by the freedoms, the open political talk, the styles of dance at clubs.  He is under the wing of Ben Stevenson of the Houston Ballet (Bruce Greenwood is a different role as the career director with a slightly camp style).  Li is a success when he has to step in for a performance of Don Quixote and enraptures the audience.
 
There are quite a number of ballet sequences throughout the film which will excite fans and will be of interest (and some amazement at dance poise and agility) for those who do not know ballet well.  They range from Swan Lake to a final performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.
 
The two actors who play the part of teenage and adult Li Cunxin excel as dancers.  As they act and dance, the audience takes it for granted that they are Li Cunxin and has to remind itself that he was a great dancer but so are Chi Cao (adult) and  chengwu Guo (teenage) in their own right. The choregraphy is by Graeme Murphy.
 
While there are exteriors of Houston, most of the American scenes were shot in Sydney.  A number of Australians appear in the cast including Penne Hackforth- Jones as Stevenson's associate, Steven Heathcote (a former celebrated dancer) as the leading dancer and Jack Thompson repeating his southern drawl (from Original Sin, Last Dance, Broken Arrow) as a US Judge.
 
Information at the end indicates that Li Cunxin and his wife, a former partner in ballet in Houston and world tours, live in Melbourne where he is an accountant and stockbroker.
 
OLD DOGS
 
(US, 2009, d. Walt Becker)

A checklist of dispositions needed for enjoying Old Dogs:
 
A very high tolerance level in general,

A very high level for corny comedy,

A fan's attitude to Robin Williams, no matter what he is in (actually, here he has to be both zany and sympathetic),

A fan's attitude to John Travolta who has to be both comic and insensitive, then sensitive,

A liking for heart-on-sleeve tales of children of single mothers who need a father-figure,

Films that show how big business is soul-destroying and undermines family, love and quality time,

Laughing at slapstick and pratfalls, where humans have to be silly or silly for the sake of the children,

Laughing at Seth Green having to sing to survive while being cuddled by a gorilla (spoiler: it's an animatronic gorilla),

Laughing at golf balls and accidents with golf and balls, especially with Seth Green,

Seeing Matt Dillon as a taskmaster scoutmaster,

Attending a funeral for a pet dog,

Enjoying Walt Becker's other films, Van Wilder, Buying the Cow, Wild Hogs. (The sequel plans have been scrapped).

Hoping for compensation with the couple of sequences featuring Ann- Margret.
 
THE OTHER MAN
 
(UK, 2008, d. Richard Eyre)
Some years ago, Orange phones began a series of very amusing advertisements for cinemas warning people to turn off their mobile phones.  There was an Orange Committee for listening to pitches for films by well-known stars – and the head, Mr Dresden, always ruined them with a suggestion to insert a mobile phone into the script.  The first was with Carrie Fisher who had proposed a romance where the couple communicated by letters.  Mr Dresden suggested phone communication.  Mr Dresden must have been around for this screenplay where a secret cache of communications is not found, as in the good old days, letters hidden away and tied with ribbon, but by ransacking a hard drive for emails and photos and trying to work out the computer password.  Not as romantic as in the past!
 
The Other Man is a film with a fine pedigree: from a short story by Bernhard Schlink (The Reader), written by Charles Wood (How I Won the War, Iris), with the director, Richard Eyre (Iris, Notes on a Scandal), with a top cast.  However, the film was little seen and, if you see it (not without interest), you understand why.
 
What can work well on a page, given the time we take to read it and absorb it, may move far too quickly on screen where the film keeps moving on without time for a pause.  At times, this film is far too literary in the sense just explained, and, given the realistic setting and treatment of the plot, it seems far too contrived and stylised.  Some scenes may have worked much better on stage (which is where Richard Eyre is from).
 
The other difficulty is the structure of the film.  The audience is left deliberately confused until the end about what has happened, especially in terms of chronology - and an important (key) element is not revealed until very late.  This makes some logical sense of what has transpired but is a bit of a twist shock that makes for irritation that we did not know this information before.
 
The plot is rather simple in itself, after the event.  A wife asks whether a couple can stay married forever.  She disappears.  The husband discovers she had a lover and tracks him down and finally confronts him.  The wife is played by Laura Linney, the husband by Liam Neeson.  (they worked together in Love, Actually and Kinsey.)  Romola Garai is their daughter.  The 'other man' of the title is Antonio Banderas – and it is he who has most of the difficult lines (speeches) to deliver.  He does his best, but the situation is contrived by the husband and the declarations are rather stagily elaborate.
 
Of course, this may work well for some audiences but most may resist the urge to be drawn into it.
 
POST GRAD
 
(US, 2009, d.  Vicky Jenson)

Vicky Jenson was a co-director of Shrek and has worked extensively in animated films.  Which may or may not be a strong qualification for directing live-action.  In hindsight, this film has many cartoonish qualities.  It is amusing while there but is the lightest of the light in terms of characters and situations.
 
Advertising might suggest that this is one of those ever-recurring teen comedies that are often tiresome and, very often, crass.  It is not.  Rather, it echoes the employment situations of recent years where college graduates find it very difficult to find a job for their qualifications.  That being said, this is not a serious analysis of the times by any means.
 
Alexis Bledel starred in numerous episodes of TV's The Gilmore Girls and has some strong film credits as well.  Here she is in the Elle Wood tradition (though not blonde) of ingenuously charming blends of airhead and shrewdness (airhead often taking over).  She graduates and spends most of this short (85 minutes) film looking for a job and mixing it with pratfall comedy, insensitive to the neighbour who loves her (Zach Gilford), falling for the TV commercials director next door (Roderigo Santoro looking the exact opposite of his elaborate appearance as Xerxes in 300).
 
However, one reason for looking at the film is the cast for the family.  Michael Keaton is back in his old form of zany comedy (though with the touch of middle age) as the oddly inventive father.  Jane Lynch does her fine deadpan as the mother.  And who should turn up for some sardonic remarks, reminding us of her good old days on television sketches, but Carol Burnett?
 
Pleasantly harmless froth.
 
PRIME MOVER
 
(Australia, 2009, d. David Caesar)

No, this is not a film on the argument for the existence of God as the Prime Mover.  Rather, a prime mover is a rig that long-haul distance drivers ride the roads with, the truckies.
 
There used to be a popular phrase to describe Australian novels about ordinary people as literature about 'the battlers'.  In fact, author Kylie Tennant wrote a famous book, The Battlers.  This is the kind of phrase that occurs in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.  As Tom Joad said, representing the Okies, the farmers driven off their land, migrating to California, 'we are the people'. 
 
Prime Mover is an Australian Battlers' tale.
 
The setting is Dubbo in the north west of New South Wales.  Thomas (Michael Dorman) works as a mechanic with his father, is skilled in paint and design on the side of trucks but has ambitions to have a rig of his own.  He is attracted to Melissa (Emily Barclay) who works at one of those convenience shops at a service station.  The story is familiar.  After his father is killed in an accident and Melissa becomes pregnant, they marry and he takes out a loan from shady characters with strict repayment conditions and buys a rig.  He clashes with Phil (William McInnes), the kindly driver who helps him out and gets jobs, and goes out on his own - and moves with Melissa and the baby out to the back of Bourke.  You can almost guess most of the rest.
 
Australian audiences may be put in mind of the old 19th century stories of The Drover's Wife (especially the short story  by Henry Lawson).  The truckie seems to be the 21st century version of the drover, out on the road and away from home.    The lonely wife, left in something of a dump and upset by her crying baby, is the new long-suffering drover's wife.
 
The challenge for the driver/drover is whether he can live his dream with his rig, stay the long hours (with the help of drugs) on the road, really want his wife and child – and do what he does best, the design and painting.  Since this is a battler's story with a hopeful outlook, the driver does win some of his battles.
 
There is a down to earth tone in this film, written and directed by David Caesar (Greenkeeping, Idiot Box).  It's a small film with character actors, including a villainous Ben Mendelssohn, with Lynette Curran.  An Aussie story.
 
SEX & DRUGS & ROCK & ROLL
 
(UK, 2009, d. Matt Whitecross)

Sex, drugs and rock and roll is a phrase that has become part of the English language.  Present writer included, many of us are not aware who popularised the phrase and may have coined it, the English musician, Ian Dury (1942-2000).  This film is a portrait of Dury rather than a biography.
 
Dury was an eccentric character and we are introduced immediately into his eccentricity, his performance, a mixture of song and performance art.  He was one of the initiators of punk rock – and looked and acted the part.  He also studied at art school and the opening credits as well as some of the action throughout the film have been designed by his art teacher, Peter Blake, and serve as a mood creator for this portrait.
 
The other main feature of Dury's life that should be mentioned at once is that, as a child, he had polio and that from then on he had the handicap of an artifical limb and a severe limp, something which he absorbed as part of his personality and, later in life, as part of his mission to help the disabled.
 
The film is quite powerful in its plunging the audience into Dury's world.  We see his early years with a band and his clashes with them and ditching them and moving on.  Later he brought together new musicians and formed The Blockheads – The Blockheads came together to play their songs for the film in a special recording session with the film's star, Andy Serkis.  And, they are portrayed as characters through the film.
 
Andy Serkis is one of the principal reasons for the film's strong impact.  He embodies Dury.  He is both frightening and interesting.  Serkis has proven himself as a strong screen presence in The Lord of the Rings and King Kong.  His dury is something like Gollum on speed and fast-forward (and sometimes both).  He has not gone for mere impersonation but for portrait and character study, even to the singing and performance of Dury's songs.
 
As a person, Dury was a 20th century phenomenon, someone born in the first half of the century and dying in 2000 of cancer, but a man born during World War II, experiencing the privation of the post-war period, exiled to an instituion with his polio and suffering physical abuse, marrying but unable to sustain a monogamous relationship, fickle to the two women he loved, a loving father to his son, Baxter (who was a consultant on the film), expressing the freedoms and the 20th century consequences of his phrase, sex, drugs and rock and roll.
 
Olivia Williams is Dury's long-suffering wife, Naomie Harris is long-suffering girlfriend.  Bill Milner, the child actor who made such an impression in Son of Rambow and Is Anybody There? Gives a nuanced performance as his son who begins with hostility towards his father but learns to like him and love him, and give his father some meaning in life.
There are flashbacks to Dury's childhood, being taken to the institution by his father (Ray Winstone) and his treatment by a sadistic supervisor (Toby Jones).
 
For Dury and Blockhead fans this film is a must in its less conventional way of celebrating a celebrity.  For those who do not know Dury, it is an excursion into a world of British popular music as well as a study of a difficult man who had a difficult life.
 
 
SHERLOCK HOLMES
 
(UK, 2009, d. Guy Ritchie)

“Sherlock Holmes, the Graphic Novel” on screen.
 
This is a 21st century interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, not the almost aristocratic manner and diction of previous Holmes like Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing or Ian Richardson, rather, it presents Robert Downey Jr as a scruffy, knockabout Holmes (who still has his good diction which he uses to sound purpose in explaining his logic and thought processes).  It is also a rip-roaring (lots of rips and plenty of roaring) action adventure in the manner of the recent screen superheroes, like Iron Man (who, of course, was Robert Downey Jr).  It is interesting how commentators say that purist Conan Doyle fans may not like Holmes as a bareknuckle fighter and dressed in a fashion (rather, no fashion) that makes the rather dapper Dr Watson (Jude Law) embarrassed.  Yet, Doyle has described Holmes as using jujitsu and a master of disguise, both refined and down-and-out.
 
The plot indulges Doyle's interest in the supernatural, the afterlife and seances (borrowing something key from Rosemary's Baby).  It is a story of empire, ambition, vanity and political power.  Holmes' nemesis is the sinister Lord Blackwood (the ever-versatile Mark Strong) who is hanged early in the film but rises from the dead to lead a masonic-like group of political leaders to Blofeld-like world domination.  (And, in the background, is Professor Moriarty, working with Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) just in case there is to be a sequel which, if immediate box-office is any indication, should be appearing sooner rather than later.)
 
The re-creation of a dark Victorian London (Dickensian is the cliché description that easily comes to mind, or the London of Jack the Ripper) is vivid and detailed with Londoners and visitors pleased to see glimpses of life on the Thames, Piccadilly Circus, Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament.  Hans Zimmer's score is pounding and melodramatic.  But, this provides a background for Holmes and his cases, his upset that Dr Watson (with his limp from his military service that does not impede his fighting and brawling skills) is engaged to Mary Morsten (without any memories of The Sign of Four), some entanglements with Irene Adler, his visits to the masonic leaders, imprisonment, several beatings and a race against the clock (just as James Bond usually had to do) to disarm a destructive weapon.
 
Robert Downey Jr is usually very good in any film.  He did the English accent for his fine portrayal of Chaplin.  He is currently Tony Stark in the Iron Man films.  While he looks dishevilled, his brain is always at work (and there is a device used several times to instruct us how he would do something, shown with explanation in slow motion, and then it happens in real time) and he follows the example of his screen predecessors in giving a logical account of how he arrives at his conclusions (showing, for instance, that taking him blindfold to a rendezvous is completely ineffectual as he listens, and smells, the clues for his journey).  Jude Law's Watson is much less eccentric, a straight man to Holmes' comedy, with much more sense and nous.
 
Guy Ritchie is to be congratulated on having moved away from his gangster films (though incorporating much of the action, style and editing of those films) and successfully engaging with the world's most famous detective.
 
Sherlock Homes shows that one didn't have to be 'Victorian' to live in Victorian England.
 
WHATEVER WORKS
 
(US, 2009, d. Woody Allen)

An entertaining return to the 'old' Woody Allen, the Allen of the 1970s and 1980s (when he first wrote this screenplay for Zero Mostel).  More recently, Woody Allen has been working in England and Spain, making films which have drawn mixed reactions and reviews – though Penelope Cruz won an Oscar for her spitfire role in Vicky Christina Barcelona.  Allen is reported to have been held up by the writers' strike in Hollywood and so got out this screenplay and prepared it and pepped it up for the 21st century.  I'm glad he did.
 
Enter Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm) as Boris.  He sounds as if he is channelling  the Woody Allen of the past, though he does it in his own distinctive way.  He rants to his friends about everything, reminiscing how he almost won a Nobel Prize, his love for science, his scepticism about religion, his failed marriage and his botched suicide attempt.  He also rants direct to camera, talking about the reaction of the audience.
 
Enter Evan Rachel Wood as Melodie, a runaway from the south to New York City, rather ingenuous but ingenuously shrewd.  She listens to his orations.  He gradually gets used to her.  She is ready to be moulded and,  before you can say Woody Allen, they are married.  A shock for his friends.  But, it all seems to work well enough.  She starts to spout Boris's prejudices.  He relaxes and relents, a little.
 
Enter Patricia Clarkson as Melodie's mother, a conservative lady who has left her husband.  And, then, does New York change her!  From amateur photographer to photo galleries.  From proper and churchgoer to bohemian and permissive.
 
Enter Ed Begley Jr as Melodie's father, even more ingenuous than Melodie, who has broken up his marriage with an affair and has now come to New York to find wife and daughter.  And, then, does New York change him!  From uptight and homophobic to bohemian and gay.
 
Enter a would-be British actor who falls for Melodie who resists him, lectures him a la Boris, but...  Is this the end for Boris and his belief in luck and the meaning of the universe?
 
The cast performs well.  Woody Allen's dialogue is what we liked before, a blend of wit, of philosophy, of pessimism, of
pontificating, of provocative remarks and an invitation to think and reflect as we react to Boris and his pontificating.  The film also takes us back to films like Interiors and Hannah as he presents the odd couple blend of highbrow arty phonies and the common-sensed ordinary people, platitudes and pretensions versus down-to-earthiness.
 
Whatever Works is the response that Boris offers to all the questions and challenges of life though, sometimes, Allen and his characters are satisfied with whatever half-works.
 
 
 
 

Created by: malone last modification: Sunday 31 of October, 2010 [12:04:10 UTC] by malone


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