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Film Reviews January 2011

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JANUARY 2011


BLACK SWAN, The
BURLESQUE
CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER, The
DESERT FLOWER
DILEMMA, The
FIGHTER, The
GULLIVER'S TRAVELS
HELEN
KORKORO
LITTLE FOCKERS
LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS
MEGAMIND
MORNING GLORY
SARAH'S KEY
TANGLED
TOURIST, The
TRON LEGACY
UNSTOPPABLE
YOGI BEAR (3D)



BLACK SWAN

(US, 2010, d. Darren Aronofsky)

The initial response to being mesmerised was the maybe-inelegant but apt, ‘Whew’ (and then some).

Tchaikowski, Freud and Jung and many others would probably be quite excited by this exploration of the themes of Swan Lake. We are alerted to this at once with Nina (Natalie Portman in an intriguing performance) dancing with a frightening black swan – and then her waking. With a dream to open the film, there will be many dreams, hallucinations and fantasies along the way until the expected but also unexpected ending which is, in Nina’s words, ‘Perfect’.

For some audiences, the treatment of Nina’s perfectionism may be too much, too confronting, too graphic. But, Nina herself is both white swan and black swan and she has to dance both. This means that for the dancer, she has to be her ego character and her alter ego. Early in the film, Nina passes herself in a tunnel. She is going to encounter her other self more and more and she is going to find it personified in another dancer whom she sees as rival and demonises as a black swan (Mila Kunis as Lily, a performance that has to be both sinister and charming).

We see Nina as a girlish perfectionist, dominated by her loving but ever-demanding mother (Barbara Hershey is now playing mothers, and fits here because of some resemblance to Natalie Portman). She is driven but introverted, keeping to herself, without a social life, without personal and social development, tied to her mother’s apron strings.

According to the director of the ballet (Vincent Cassell bringing his capacity for being frightening and attractive fully to this role), Nina is all technique and needs to both find herself and lose herself. He is sexually aggressive and she begins to react with vigour rather than accepting passivity. He urges her to discover her sensual self, her sexual self, something which alarms and embarrasses her. Nevertheless, deep down there is her sensual black swan self which surfaces in the way desires do when they have been suppressed and can be integrated if acknowledged but which can also lead to madness and acting out the desires (in reality or in the mind) which is what happens to Nina.

And, all the times, there is the music and there is the dancing, a lot of music and a lot of dancing, but all in the context of the ballet’s plot and of Nina’s desperation to perform her dual role perfectly.

This should give pleasure and satisfaction to those audiences who are watching for the ballet and for the psychodrama. There are also elements of the horror film in the imagining of the black swan and of Nina’s fervid and violent imagination.

A personal difficulty: I would have preferred far less handheld camera photography. Of course, it has a realistic and sometimes disorienting purpose, especially as the camera so often follows Nina, trailing us along in her path. More satisfying is the constant use of mirrors – Nina contemplating herself, donning her costumes, putting on make-up, and occasionally glimpsing her black swan self.

Darren Arenofsky has not made so many films but they are all distinctive: science-fiction of Pi, the drug world of Requiem for a Dream, the fantasies of The Fountain and the earthy, violent world of The Wrestler. I admire all of them, but I found Black Swan the most interesting and challenging.

BURLESQUE

(US, 2010, d. Steve Antin)

Burlesque ain’t what it used to be.

Back in the days of Gypsy Rose Lee and before, it was bump and grind ‘dancing’ for an ogling male audience (which led, I suppose, to the so-called Gentlemen’s Clubs of recent times which do not really foster gentlemanly behaviour at all).

Here, we are in Los Angeles in the present day in the kind of film that Madonna might wish she had made twenty years ago (although she tried out lots of the routines in a number of video clips). This is a rags to riches story, the naive young woman who arrives in LA (from the empty plains of Iowa, of course) looking for a job and who falls on her feet (no, that’s not right, she is quite adept on her feet) and lands work as a waitress, then tries an audition and fills in when the lead dancer does not break a leg but is unreliably drunk – and a new show is created around her since she is the greatest thing to hit LA since... And, because she is played by a reliable and talented singer, Christina Aguilera, there is a certain credibility about the whole thing.

There is no stone unturned, no shoe unfitted, no stick unshaken in writer director, Steve Antin’s screenplay. You know what is going to happen but that does not matter all that much. It is watching how it happens that is the important thing. This makes Burlesque something of a guilty pleasure unless you are like a number of those at the press preview who decided that the best they could offer to the film was to laugh at the obvious and melodramatic lines.

We are taken into a different world, not necessarily one that we would normally want to be in. We spend most of the time in the burlesque club with a few excursions to shared apartments, to an LA mansion for a party and to a lawyer’s office. By and large, we spend a lot of time in the darkness, illuminated by spotlights. There is an opening number about burlesque, presided over by Cher, looking more or less the same as she did 23 years ago when she won an Oscar for Moonstruck – she looks well preserved (and we might be wondering how). The song and choreography are in the Bob Fosse and Cabaret style (with Alan Cumming, who did play the MC on Broadway, doing a similar routine).

Christina Aguilera clearly believes in Burlesque as a star vehicle for her movie career and does her best, though her best is belting out the songs, a number of which she wrote.

There are some funny and ironic moments, many of which come from Stanley Tucci a la Devil Wore Prada, as the master of costumes in the club. Cam Gigandet is the romantic lead, a would-be song-writer who works in the bar at the club. Eric Dane is the handsome, ultra-capitalist villain who wants to buy the club and pull it down for re-development. James Brolin turns up as a lawyer and Peter Gallagher exudes anxiety as Cher’s ex-husband and part-owner of the club with only days before they lose ownership.

This is one of those excessive films which you surrender to or perch on a great height all the better to look down on it!

CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER

(US, 2010, d. Michael Apted)

Though I willingly went into the cupboard with Lucy in the first of the Narnia film series, I didn't find myself as much at home there as I had expected. Enjoyable, yes. Interesting enough, yes. But, not quite the magic anticipated. And there were the religious symbols, like the God in the noble lion Aslan, blessed still with Liam Neeson's voice, if you wanted to discover them but they were rather more oblique than I was led to believe. This was even more so with Prince Caspian but there was rather less enjoyment, less interest and far fewer religious references. So, I was not greatly anticipating going aboard the Dawn Treader, let alone being washed back through the painting of the ship and the sea into Narnia. Whether it was that the plot was more straightforward, I'm not sure, but I liked this one better.

This episode is geared to the fans of the previous films and presupposes you know who the Pevensie children are and what happened to them previously. Actually, Peter and Susan are now too old to go to Narnia (but appear in a brief fantasy sequence in America when Lucy succumbs to the temptation to be beautiful and to look like Susan only to find that she has been written out of their lives as has Narnia itself). This means that the two protagonists for Dawn Treader are Lucy, who is given a strong screen presence by Georgie Henley, and Edmond (played by Skandar Keynes, the younger brother who had succumbed to the White Witch to accept the temptation to power – and there is a brief repeat temptation this time) who is okay but is not a dominating presence. Actually, Ben Barnes, returning now as King Caspian, is much better and stronger than before.

But, there is a new cousin, Eustace Scrubb (which sounds and equivalent of Hyacinth Buckett). In fact, Eustace (well and obnxiously played by Will Poulter) has aspirations to be your perfectly ordinary, no frills, down-to-earth, wary of imagination and derisive of fantasy young Englishman – well, of those days, anyway. Eustace resents his cousins staying with him during the war and takes every opportunity to complain and whine (young whingeing Pom) in a priggy, piggy way. When he finds that the picture on the wall does have moving water (which he scoffed at) and ends up stranded in the sea, he still resists all belief in Narnia. He particularly dislikes rodent, Reepicheep. Simon Pegg is the elegantly voice of Reepicheep. Eustace is not only a pain in the neck but hampers the mission of the Dawn Treader at every move – until he is transformed into a dragon, which does him no end of good, and he admits at the end that he was a better dragon than a boy. As can be seen, he does provide some drama for the film.

In the meantime, King Caspian and Lucy and Edmond, discover that citizens are being taken as slaves and hidden away in a mysterious cloud dominated by a monstrous power. Seven Lords had tried to do something but had been defeated. The voyagers learn that they must collect the seven swords and place them on Aslan's table. The monster and some darting and swirling by Eustace-dragon bring some action to the climax of the film (the monster seems to have gone to the same make-up artist as Bill Nighy in the Pirate of the Caribbean series).

There are also some difficulties for the main characters as they are subjected to their personal temptations, with Edmond and Caspian building up to a confrontation, and Tilda Swinton looking in briefly as the White Witch. However, Aslan appears to them guiding them to righteousness.

The righteousness themes seem to me to be much more explicit than in the previous films.

This comes to a fine, rather didactic, conclusion to the film where Aslan suggests that God might be the name for him in our world, that he lives in a world beyond but is, nevertheless, present in our world and to us. He enables us to confront temptations, as we have seen for Edmond and Lucy earlier in the film.

Of local interest, the film was made in Queensland (with some photography in New Zealand) and featured some local actors, especially a vigorous Gary Sweet as the Captain of the Dawn Treader.

The film continues the appeal of fantasy on our screens.

DESERT FLOWER

(UK/Germany, 2009, d. Sherry Hormann)

Desert Flower is the Somali meaning of the name of Walis.

This film is based on the autobiography of a young girl from the deserts of Somalia who walked to Mogadishu to escape from her home and to be with her grandmother, who worked in the Somali embassy in London, lived in the UK as an illegal, holding on to her Muslim traditions, who worked in a burger cafe and became a top model with a world reputation. Rags to riches stories don’t come more amazing than this.

But, while that is one of the main themes of the film, it is not the only one. Waris Dirie underwent the tradition of circumcision at the age of three, before she was betrothed to an elder as his fourth wife. The reality of female genital circumcision may not be familiar to many in the west as it was not to Waris’ friend in London, Marilyn. This enables the screenwriters to communicate the pain and the horror of this kind of mutilation. Which means that the other main theme of the film is the campaign to stop this procedure. When Waris becomes a successful model and is to be interviewed by a top magazine about the day that changed her life, she opted to tell her story of the mutilation day. She then went on to address the United Nations and became a spokesperson on the issue for the UN.

Actually, the two strands sit uncomfortably together in this film. We move suddenly from one to the other, jolting us from the affluent and chic world of modelling back to the desert and the poverty.

It is difficult to say why the film does not have as much impact as might have been expected. Perhaps it is its aim to reach a wide audience unfamiliar with this material, so it takes the method of straightforward storytelling, the only artistic artifice being the juxtaposing of the two strands, the narrative and the contrasting flashbacks. It is also very earnest in its tone – some sensitive (over-sensitive) comments accuse the film of being patronising to its central character and the themes, of being condescending. However, others comment that the film is a reasonable adaptation of the autobiography, expressing Waris’s view of what happened to her. The film does become rather didactic at the end with Waris’s address to the UN, but it does bring home her experience and the consequences and the need for countries to prohibit circumcision (which a final note says has happened while still reminding audiences that 6000 girls are circumcised every day).

Ethiopian born Liya Kebede has a challenge to portray Waris from being a very reserved and heavily clad young woman to a confident woman who can strut the catwalks and be photographed nude. The British cast is quite exuberant. But that is the word often associated with Sally Hawkins. She plays Waris’s room-mate, Marilyn – exuberantly. Timothy Spall is clearly enjoying himself as the photographer who discovered Waris as she was mopping the burger cafe floor in Notting Hill. Juliet Stevenson exudes drama queen as the dominating head of the modelling agency.

On the whole this is a film that women will relate to much more intimately than a male audience will, from the ugliness of the mutilation to the glamour of fashion. Empathetic men will try to respond to the serious themes and not indulge in the ogling that the fashion and photography sessions are geared to excite.

For an audience who would prefer a more sobering film on female circumcision, Ousmane Sembene’s 2004 Moolaade is the film to watch.

THE DILEMMA

(US, 2011, d. Ron Howard)

Americans. They’re certainly out there, extroversion personified. That in itself may be a friendly warning about The Dilemma and its style and impact. Americans out there.

It might seem a romantic comedy with Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Connolly. Sometimes it is. It might seem a boofhead comedy with Kevin James. Sometimes it is. It might seem a drama about business and car manufacture and technology. Sometimes it is. It might seem a drama about fidelity and infidelity. And often it is. It makes for a heady kind of mixture.

Late in the film, it occurred to me that maybe the best way of responding to the film and its set of mostly unlikeable characters, is to take on the attitude of a therapist: sit, look and listen, while trying to read the characters, their problems and dilemmas, and looking for leads for their better mental and emotional health. Then, just before the end, there is an actual group therapy session, so this response was on the right track.

This is a problem drama for 40-somethings. The four central characters are at that age and their interests are in marriage, relationships, and success in their work. They value friendship as we immediately see. They value career as we then see. Kevin James is Nick, a wiz at technology for car engines. Vince Vaughn is Ronnie, his friend and partner, the mouthpiece and promoter for whom every presentation seems a variation on Saturday Night Live. Nick is long married to Geneva (Winona Ryder). Ron ought to be proposing to Beth (Jennifer Connolly, as the only really sympathetic character in the film).

So far, so good. Possibilities of a contract with Chrysler. Friends and success. An engagement in the offing.

But..., and here the dilemma starts. Ron sees Geneva with another man (a loopy Channing Tatum as Zip). And here is the dilemma. Should he tell Nick or not? He puts his foot in it with his sister who thinks he is warning her about his marriage. Nick is too busy with the project to listen, except to encourage Ron to propose. Geneva tries to put a story over on Nick. Beth just wonders what is wrong with Ron when he appears with plant poisoning and a black eye and a hyper state of anxiety.

For those of a calmer and quieter disposition in the face of such a dilemma, Ron’s reaction is so overboard, constant, grating, verbose, emotional, judgmental and self-righteous, leading him to snoop, photograph, threaten and give a singularly inappropriate toast at Beth’s parents’ 40th anniversary party, that you feel like avoiding him or giving him away. But, the therapist needs to listen and mull, even when the client is grating and unengaging. At times, you might even feel sorry for Geneva and her reasons for her affair – but she has no chance against the buddies.

The dilemma is worth pondering. How much truth should be told – and, importantly, when and how?

While the film does offer its answer, I’m not sure.

THE FIGHTER

(US, 2010, d. David O. Russell)

There is a long tradition of American films about boxing, as a sport, as an industry and the repercussions for individuals and family. Champion, The Set Up, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Raging Bull, Cinderella Man. Quite a collection of films. The Fighter is up there with them.

Many audiences are not boxing fans and may wince at some of the fight scenes in this film. But, there is a lot more to the film than the gruelling poundings.

Non- American audiences may be surprised that this story is based on actual characters and their quite recent past. In fact, the two brothers at the centre of the film are seen in actual footage during the final credits. The trainer, Michael O’ Keefe, seems to be played by a sympathetically talented actor, but it is O’ Keefe playing himself. The setting is Lowell, Massachussets, and much of the film was made there, including the use of the actual gym of the story. Given that the film is grounded in fact, this is surprising, given the often unflattering portraits of the main characters.

The Fighter is the story of two brothers, Dick and Mickey Ward. The Fighter applies to both of them but the centre of the film is Mickey, the younger brother. The film opens with Dick speaking direct to camera as documentary makers are filming him for a documentary about his comeback. Comeback does not seem likely as Dick is a wild and bug-eyed interviewee, fidgety and jumpy and hyping what he says – he spends a lot of time in a crack house. The scene includes home movie footage of the two brothers. While Dick had his moment in the 1970s, it is now the 1990s and he is training Mickey who has ambitions but fears he is a loser. This sets the tone for a story of powerful family bonds (and domination, especially by their tough as nails mother, Alice) played out in fights at home and in the ring.

One of the reasons the opening is so attention-grabbing is that Christian Bale is playing Dick. Sometimes Bale seems stolid (even as Bruce Wayne), especially as Melvin Purvis in Public Enemies, and in Terminator: Salvation. He was at his serious best in 3:10 to Yuma. But, here... he is hyperkinetic, a performance that deserves many awards. Which means that Mark Wahlberg, as Mickey, has to play the straight role to his brother’s histrionics. This Wahlberg is always able to do and makes his dramatic mark in a less showy manner. Melissa Leo (so strong in Frozen River) brings the matriarch, Alice, to frighteningly domineering life. She has an entourage of six daughters who seem something like a Greek chorus in attendance, with moments like the Furies.

This means that, although the boxing is the setting for the drama, and we see inside the gyms, the bouts, the championships, the deals and the pressures, The Fighter is a film about family. (It was released at the same time in America as Animal Kingdom and both Jackie Weaver and Melissa Leo divided the Best Supporting Actress awards from a variety of critics associations – an out-there matriarch compared with a smilingly-sinister in-there matriarch, both wreaking emotional havoc on their sons.) And Amy Adams (who can do sweet as well as pouty – Doubt, Julie and Julia, Leap Year) is able to adapt to the tough environment as Mickey’s girlfriend – who knows how to stand up to Alice.

David O. Russell has not made so many films and they range from Three Kings to I Heart Huckabees. This is one he can be proud of.

GULLIVER’S TRAVELS

(US, 2010, d. Rob Letterman)

Come to think of it, my first awareness of Gulliver’s Travels was Dave Fleischer’s 1939 animated version which I really enjoyed and gave me some images of Lilliput which stood me in reasonable stead as I later read Jonathan Swift’s satirical 1726 novel. I may have read the Classic Comic version as well.

Which means that this version of Gulliver’s Travels is for youngsters learning the story and for those who don’t intend to read Swift himself. This is the goofball version.

Jack Black is Jack Black, no smaller than he used to be and still suffering from a poor self-image, despite his flamboyant humour, and still stuck on rock and roll. So, this is the Gulliver that Dean Swift never dreamed of. To find critics and members of the public expecting it to be a ‘faithful film version’ are in need of reality checks. This is a live-action, cartoon version full of ‘cool’ and ‘dudes’ from Manhattan that uses the basic Lilliput story with an excursion to Brobdingnag that is designed for a chuckle and, perhaps, some shots at Americanising culture. (The theatre scenes where the Lilliputians are so moved by Gulliver’s version of The Empire Strikes Back and the end of Titanic where Gulliver is ‘king of the world’ as well as all the lights and posters he gets the people to build to transform a very British Lilliput into Times Square (ads for Gavatar and Galvin Klein), did raise a laugh.

Gulliver has worked in the mail room at a New York publishers, has not had the courage to confess his crush to Darcy, the travel editor. When he pretends to be a writer, off he is sent to the Bermuda Triangle and look where the waves send him.

The Lilliput episodes are as you might expect, although the hero is the tall Horatio, a commoner (Jason Segel) who has a crush on the Princess (Emily Blunt doing a persuasive haughty). Gulliver does a Cyrano de Bergerac to help Horatio woo the Princess. Billy Connolly, Scots accent and all, is the king while Catherine Tate is the queen, both welcome presences. However, Chris O’ Dowd as General Edward, all pomp and ridiculosity in the ra-ra British vein is a very welcome comic villain and traitor.

Darcy comes looking for Gulliver and finishes up in Lilliput as well where Gulliver becomes the hero he formerly boasted about being, saves Lilliput and declares his love for Darcy.

And then he bursts into song, as if it were the culmination of a Broadway musical, king, queen, princess and Horatio and the populace all joining in, including the rulers from rival Blefiscu who keep invading Lilliput. The song is Edwin Starr’s 1969 anti-Vietnam war song,War.

So, a jolly little lowbrow film, in 3D, which can easily be superseded by the next film version of the book, and a message that we should be ourselves, that pomposity is absurd – and so is war.

HELEN

(US, 2009, d. Sandra Nettlebeck)

Helen had very little commercial release. In fact, it is not a particularly commercial film. Which is a pity since it treats a very serious theme with intelligence and sympathy. The subject is depression.

German writer-director, Sandra Nettlebeck, had experienced the suicide of a depressed friend and read up on the issue. She took a number of years to write this project which has finished as a German-Canadian? production.

The story is not unfamiliar. Helen is married to a successful lawyer and her daughter, by a previous marriage, lives with them. She teaches music theory at a college. Everything seems almost perfect as the film opens (after some credits footage of home movies showing a happy Helen and her daughter) with a birthday celebration.

However, signs soon appear that all is not well with Helen. She sleeps fitfully, cleans up obsessively, comes in from jogging to her husband’s office, somewhat suspicious, she breaks down, begins to withdraw and weep. There are scenes where she is hospitalised, where a lawyer argues that she can’t be kept in the institution, there is more than awkwardness at home, deeper withdrawing and overwhelming depression. It has a profound effect on her husband who has no experience of how to cope with someone he loves suffering like this. Her daughter is upset.

This is all as might be expected from this kind of plot. What makes the difference is the performance by Ashley Judd as Helen. Someone remarked that the actress disappears inside her role so that we see only Helen. This is right. And this is a great value to the film as the actress makes us frighteningly aware of how much Helen is suffering, the overwhelming nature of depression and the inability to snap out of it as so many people would wish.

Helen has made the acquaintance of a music student, Mathilda (Lauren Lee Smith) at college and finds her again at the hospital since she also suffers from depression. They offer some mutual support, Mathilda being a good listener and finding a value in life by supporting Helen. Helen moves in with her. However, the desperation point is reached. The issue of contemporary shock therapy is also raised.

Goran Visnjic is sympathetic as David, the husband, who did not know of his wife’s previous episodes and is torn between trying to understand, trying to do the right thing but not knowing what to do.

The screenplay opts for hope so that the audience is not overwhelmed by the depression that does lead to suicide attempts and deaths. It is not a lecture on psychology or therapy or a study of how a family can cope. Rather, it is a story that takes its audience into the lives of its characters and asks for empathy.

KORKORO

(France, 2010, d. Tony Gatlif)

Writer-director, Tony Gatlif (born in Algeria with a gypsy background and settled in France) has developed a cinema career of making arresting films with gypsy stories, themes of wandering peoples, and a focus on their music, Latcho Drom, Gadjo Dilo, Exils, Princes... Korkoro is his latest, but it is different from his other films insofar as it takes us back into World War II history.

In Vichy France there was legislation against the gypsies and their way of life, especially preventing them from moving around the countryside. As one of the bigoted and fascist characters says of them in the film, they are considered as vermin. With their poor reputation for being wandering thieves and scoundrels, they did not elicit a great deal of sympathy from the French countrysiders. Gatlif ensures that they do receive some sympathy from his audience.

Korkoro is the name the gypsies give to a little boy, an orphan, who follows them and wants to join them. He has been in an orphanage and fostered but has suffered and is hungry. The gypsies are wary but let him tag along. When the gypsies arrive at a fruit-picking destination, they are under scrutiny from the French authorities as well as the German officials in the town.

The film shows the harshness of the treatment towards the gypsies, something they don’t understand, especially as they say the war is not their war. The authorities check their documents and use them against them. They are rounded up and interned. The main gypsy character audiences can identify with is the mentally-limited Taloche, a genial clown character – played with some miming allusions by James Thieree to his grandfather (he is the son of Victoria Chaplin).

A sympathetic vet, who is the mayor of the town, befriends them and also takes Korkoro into his house and cares for him. The other sympathetic character is Miss Lundi who works in the town hall office, working with documents, but who also teaches in the local school. She makes an appeal to the gypsies to better their situation by learning to read and write. She gets mixed results. However, she is also part of the resistance and both she and the mayor are arrested and tortured.

The mayor sells an ancestral property for a peppercorn price and it is made available to the gypsies, according to the law, and they could stay for the duration of the war, something they find too difficult. Korkoro always helps them. Then, as the situation deteriorates, he pleads to go with them. The concentration camps become a deathly prospect.

Throughout the film, Gatlif is able to introduce sequences of song and dance and the exhilaration of gypsy music.

2010 saw a number of films which took audiences back to the 1940s and occupied France and Vichy France, Gainsbourg, Sarah’s Key along with Korkoro and the 2009 L’Armee? du Crime. An opportunity to remember some hidden aspects of the war experience and to learn more about prejudice and persecution.

LITTLE FOCKERS

(US, 2010, d. Paul Weitz)

Yes, unless there is really clever and witty writing with some good plot developments, sequels begin to wear thin. This is the case with Little Fockers. Meet the Parents was very funny as we met florist, former agent, Jack Byrnes (Robert de Niro being serious and lacking humour) being ultra-demanding of and threatening to his prospective son-in-law, male nurse, Greg (Gaylord) Focker (Ben Stiller). In the sequel, Meet the Fockers, there was the added pleasure of meeting Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman as Greg’s way-out parents. Teri Polo was there as Greg’s wife, Blythe Danner as Jack’s wife – and Owen Wilson kept turning up.

They are all back. Despite the title, the (very uninteresting) children, the little Fockers, are not in the film all that much. The main addition is Jessica Alba as a drug sales rep who urges Greg to promote a Viagra-like pill called Sustengo, which leads, of course, to some obvious jokes and a trauma for one of the little Fockers (and maybe to the audience to find De Niro complicit in erection jokes). In fact, the screenplay is full of body jokes, bodily function joes and sex jokes that are more adolescent in tone than adult. They begin in hospital with literal in your end oh!

Not that there aren’t some amusing moments. Greg tries to stand up for himself against the domineering Jack. His father, Bernie, comes back from Spain and learning the flamenco. His mother, Roz, has a TV show Sexpress Yourself (which Barbra Streisand comperes with relish). Owen Wilson, Greg’s wife’s old flame, turns up all the time with New Age ideas and techniques to solve all the Byrnes and Focker problems. He got a lot of them from Deepak Chopra – who also turns up in a scene with Wilson. Laura Dern is the principal of a progressive primary school. Harvey Keitel is the boss of a building firm (and has a confrontation scene with Robert de Niro, reminding film buffs that it is more than 35 years since Mean Streets and Taxi Driver).

Paul Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy, The Golden Compass) directs. All three films were written by John Hamburg. This one seems more manufactured than inspired.

LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS

(US, 2010, d. Edward Zwick)

This is one of those films where audiences, especially older (and much older) audiences who may feel impelled to write off the drama as shallow or amoral or both, need to wait until the final credits for any judgment. The first half of the film might qualify for those descriptions but there is much more substance in the second half.

Edward Zwick was responsible for the popular television series, thirtysomethings. He knows the market for this kind of entertainment. However, the central characters here are in their twenties (as were Rob Lowe and Demi Moore in Zwick’s 1986 film version of David Mamet’s play, Sexual Perversions in Chicago, About Last Night). Twentysomethings will identify with this film.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jamie, drop-out from medical school, a carefree type from a wealthy and professional family (glimpses of George Segal and Jill Clayburgh as his parents). He also has a wiz younger brother who has built up a company but has the disadvantages of being overbearingly crass and larger than he should be (Josh Gad). Jamie is a salesman with persuasive spiels and a capacity to ooze charm. When he loses his job (he has no scruple regarding sexual adventures and has to pay the price), he finds an opportunity in selling pharmaceuticals, resuming his charm and insistent persistence. He has clashes with Prozac salesman and steals and throws out their samples. But then Viagra appears and he and the drug are a huge money-making combination.

With his doctor friend, Hank Azaria, he poses as an intern and encounters a young woman who has Parkinson’s disease. They clash. They don’t clash. They relate. They fall out. She, Maggie (Anne Hathaway), is a brash and rather uninhibited type who escorts oldies to Canada in buses to fill their prescriptions in a less expensive place.

So far, so callow and shallow. She is, despite appearances, self-pitying. He is self-centredly self-absorbed.

But, something clicks and he falls in love, finding it difficult to say, but going into action to try to find a cure for Maggie and for Parkinsons. He has gone to a convention in Chicago with its temptations of the high life but she finds that a group of Parkinson’s people and their spouses, at an Unconvention, open up ways of living with the illness and making something of life.

But, she is still unwilling to be dependent and so parts with Jamie. Which means that each of them has to face themself and make mature decisions as to what their future will be and whether it will be together. Can she admit her need for help? Can he? Can he let go of the promotion that would make him more money and fulfil his old ambitions? You guess.

MEGAMIND

(US, 2010, d. Tom McGrath)

Megamind is the inflated name of a galactic being that could have been a superhero but opted for the dark side. Like the hero of Tangled, he begins the film by telling us that he is falling to his death. As if... He reminds us that he started out from another planet as baby, grew up on earth and launched his evil career because he landed in a prison rather than in a wealthy mansion (starting like Superman but turning bad). During his school days, he confronted another intergalactic child who becomes Metroman, the hero.

So, this is an amusing variation of good versus evil, animation style (and 3D if you choose).

But, we are asked not to judge on mere appearances. Megamind is small, blue and is accompanied by his fishy henchman, Minnion , who helps him with his dastardly tasks. Obviously, the city is not to keen on Megamind and embraces the heroism of Metroman – who suddenly seems to be vanquished and disappears. In the middle is the Lois Lane variation, Roxanne.

But, it is not as simple as all that. Out with Metroman. Megamind is frustrated with no good character to challenge him. Then, he does the Frankenstein thing and transforms a cameraman, Hal, into a hero, Titan, who then opts for evil himself. What is a supervillain to do!

Megamind has the ability to shape shift and assume other appearances (like Bernard, Roxanne’s office associate), so off he goes to rescue Roxanne and save the city. Can he succeed, especially if he is falling to his death?

This one may not stay in the memory all that long but it is enjoyable while it is there. The animation is both traditional as well as doing some satirical drawings of heroes and villains.

The voices come from Will Ferrell doing a range of odd accents as Megamind, while Jonah Hill does not disguise his voice or mannerisms at all as Titan. Tina Fey is a vigorous Roxanne, David Cross a sweet Minnion, Ben Stiller is Bernard (when Megamind is not taking him over) and Brad Pitt is Metroman.

Probably, Megamind would not have minded being Despicable Me.

MORNING GLORY

(US, 2010, d. Roger Michel)

When you can advertise ‘From the writer of The Devil Wears Prada and the director of Notting Hill’, you have a guaranteed audience. With the attractive Rachel Mc Adams starring and the added presence of Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton and Jeff Goldblum, then more audiences will turn up. And enjoy Morning Glory.

For integrity’s sake, I should declare a special lack of interest in the topic! My radio is fixed on Radio National (and BBC Radio 4 in the UK) and, definitely, definitely, not fixed on popular breakfast programs. Morning Glory is about one of those TV shows that people glance at as they are getting dressed, cooking and eating breakfast and getting ready to go to work, shows which rely on pop and popular stories, celebrities and weather personalities and so on. This film tries to have its frittata (cooked by Harrison Ford) and eat it as well. It offers criticism of the breakfast show genre but then more than endorses it. (So, perhaps, Radio National listeners and ABC 24 Hour News viewers need to lighten up – only, perhaps, perhaps!)

The writer of The Devil Wears Prada (Aline Brosh Mc Kenna, who also wrote 27 Dresses) offers the same humorous and sardonic tone to the business world and communication world of television. The director of Notting Hill (Roger Michel who also did the serious Changing Lanes) brings the same (rather British) tone of humorous observation of human nature.

It is Rachel Mc Adams’ film. Since she was one of the Mean Girls (actually, the leader) in 2004, she has had a series of good roles (The Notebook, Red Eye, State of Play, Time Traveller’s Wife and Irene Adler in Sherlock Holmes) and is able to carry this film as a workaholic, overly ambitious morning television producer.

But, the pleasant surprise of the film is how Harrison Ford can do curmudgeonly and yet make it funny, sometimes appalling, with expert timing. He is the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who is, according to Patrick Wilson (the love interest here) who was his producer for many years, the third worst person in the world. Ford does sardonic, arrogant, detached, petty, obnoxious (and that is all in front of the TV camera as he co-hosts the morning show). Also along for the ride is Diane Keaton as the on-screen ditzy-merry host who can chortle at even the most absurd of stories or humiliating stunts for the weatherman (Matt Malloy). Offscreen, she is in the Harrison Ford vein.

Jeff Goldblum has the more serious role of company boss – where ratings mean everything.

Actually, a lot of the action is quite trite, as are the stories aired for undiscriminating viewers, who tend to perk up when the co-hosts begin sparring. But, as light entertainment which doesn’t bear too much thinking about, it is a comedy of errors, comedy of upsets, with dialogue which is sometimes spiky, sometimes sparkling.

SARAH’S KEY (ELLE S’ APPELLE SARAH)

(France, 2010, d. Gilles Paquet- Brenner)

This is a very fine and moving film.

For the first half of the film, Sarah is a strong-minded young girl. However, she is caught up in a European situation beyond her control. In the second half of the film, she is not seen on screen but is a strong presence as the audience explores the mystery of her adult life.

The European situation is, of course, World War II. Sarah (Melusine Mayance in a strong performance) is Jewish. She lives with her parents and younger brother, Michel, in the Jewish quarter of Paris. As the film opens (after a tender credits sequence with Sarah playing with her little brother), the French police (rather than the Gestapo) are rounding up French Jews and moving them to the Paris Velodrom nearby. They are kept in squalid, unhygienic conditions with little to eat or drink and with hastily packed suitcases. Before long, the adults and older children are sent to the railway stations to be transported to the camps.

While we have seen these situations on screen before (recently in Gainsbourg), the immediacy of the filming here, the handheld cameras immersing the audience so strongly into the middle of the crowds means that it is more vivid and harrowing than in many of the other films.

But, that is only the beginning. The title refers to the key that Sarah used to hide Michel in a cupboard to avoid detection. She had told him to stay there until she comes for him. This weighs so heavily on her and on her parents that she becomes more and more desperate.

The film is also set in the early 2000s. A French family are moving into the home of the husband’s parents in Paris, renovating it. The wife is American and a journalist. When pictures of the 1942 experience of the Jews come up at the office and the very young writers know nothing about these events, she sets out to investigate, which leads to the awareness that Sarah’s house is the house of her family. What did they know at the time, since they moved in soon after the rounding up of the Jews?

This raises the issue of the complicity of the French in the treatment of the Jews, the Vichy authorities and the police. The film offers an opportunity to acknowledge what happened and a speech of Jacques Chirac is included in the narrative.

There is a whole lot more to the film. The review so far refers only to the first part, so readers will appreciate just how much there is in the film.

As the plot develops, we intercut between the 1940s and the 2000s, eventually looking at the 1950s and 1960s as well.

A sympathetic French policeman helps Sarah (after initially standing on her foot when she tried to get her key, later allowing her to retrieve an apple thrown over the camp fence by sympathetic local women). Without revealing too much of the plot, one can say that she encounters an elderly French couple who refuse to help at first but then make her part of their family – and she is able to return to the room with the key. Niels Arestrup (the prison boss in The Prophet) brings the dilemmas of the ordinary French people under the occupation emotionally to life.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Julia, the journalist who is searching for the truth of what happened in the home and what happened to Sarah. It is one of Scott Thomas’ best and most emotional performances. She can embody coolness and detachment perfectly in many films, so it is moving to see her in this role. Her quest takes her to the US and to Italy and encounter with a middle-aged man, played by Aidan Quinn.

The story that she uncovers has much joy but also much sadness, as has her own story and the repercussions for her marriage, her husband not understanding while her in-laws relish the opportunity to open up what happened in the past and appreciate that there was honour amongst the dishonour in the war years.

The film is based on a novel by Tatiana de Rosnay.

TANGLED

(US, 2010, d. Nathan Greno and Byron Howard)

Becoming tangled could get hairy. Well, here it does for Flynn Rider, a Robin Hood type of sorts (who reveals that his actual name is Eugene). He becomes ensnared by Rapunzel, she of the long and healing hair.

It looks more like a traditional Disney film than most of the other animated films of 2010 – which is fair enough since it is a Disney film. As in the past, the fairy tale has been Disneyfied for a wide audience. This also means that the story has been very much Americanised, accents, some slang and some cutesy bits of dialogue and all. Which does not meant that it is not entertaining, just that it has been Americanised!

Not being too familiar with the tale of Rapunzel, I watched it with more interest than usual. It is an enjoyable variation of Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty stories. There is a villainous crone (who has been using a magic healing flower to rejuvenate over the centuries), well voiced by Donna Murphy, who abducts the young princess Rapunzel when the king’s messengers have discovered and taken her flower. She raised Rapunzel in a high tower, brushing and cultivating her ever-growing powerful hair.

But, Rapunzel is nearing eighteen and has a longing to descend from her tower. Her rather sarcastic ‘mother’ has all the reasons why she should not go and tends to mock, then cajole, then spoil Rapunzel.

But, the aforementioned Flynn Rider and his thug partners have stolen the princess’s crown from the palace and, to escape, he hurries up the tower. Instead of a romantic welcome (that will come later), she clobbers him with a frying pan! However, out they go into all kinds of adventures, ‘mother’ arriving back to manipulate matters and coax Rapunzel back, even to resorting to kill Flynn.

As the film went on, it became more and more enjoyable, even with some romantic, some comic and some schmaltzy songs, until ‘mother’ got hers and there was a happy ever after.

Mandy Moore voices Rapunzel and Zachary Levi (Spock in the 2009 Star Trek) is Eugene. And there is a very entertaining horse who is a great scene-stealer!

THE TOURIST

(US, 2010, d. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)

Fluff and nonsense. And in equal parts. A film for winding down, letting the mind go into neutral and just gliding along.

It looks good. Nice scenes of Paris boulevards, apartments and cafes. Very nice scenes of lush Italian countryside. Even nicer vistas of Venice, the canals, the side streets, the Rialto, plenty of them. And the hotel is the Danieli – nothing but the most affluent.

She looks good. That is, Angelina Jolie, looking as glamorous as you could want, dressed to the nines and beyond in a variety of dresses and gowns, walking along the streets and into hotels and ballrooms as if she were permanently on the catwalk of life. Well, I suppose she is.

Can’t say that Johnny Depp looks all that good, longish unkempt hair, moustache and an almost permanent look of boyish lostness – even when clambering over the roofs of Venice in his pyjamas, pursued by gunmen. The final line of the film is a joke at the expense of his face.

Perhaps you are getting the picture - or the variety of pictures The Tourist offers.

Plot is another matter.

It seems often enough like a continental romantic comedy. Then there is a kissing scene and the orchestra swells (and there are some when it doesn’t swell) and we find that it is all a dream and it is being sent up. Actually, the film has its tongue very firmly in its cheek for a lot of the time and challenges the audience to determine whether it is being serious, being romantic, being silly and spoofing. (Critics and public alike decided that they couldn’t decide or didn’t want to and thought the film too trivial to give an opinion beyond disapproval.) But, whether you like it or not, that is the point: a glamorous spoof.

Actually, there is more to the plot than that. It is a policier with the touch of the thriller. An Englishman named Alexander Pearce, who committed enormous fraud on a gangster, is being pursued by Scotland Yard (a pleasant Paul Bettany who seems to get it wrong all the time and his boss, Timothy Dalton – as if James Bond had retired to bureaucracy). His girlfriend is under constant surveillance and by Interpol (with some inefficient and some corrupt Italian police as well). Steven Berkoff is at his most Berkoffish as the gangster with Russian thugs and no scruples. Johnny Depp plays a Wisconsin maths teacher in a completely opposite style to Jack Sparrow, the Mad Hatter or Willy Wonka – which is a bit of relief.

Police, gangsters, thugs,

There are some major, major twists at the end (which you may see coming), but it is to the credit of the cast that they make these twists seem quite implausible when they are revealed. The Tourist would not bear seeing twice because the dialogue, behaviour of the characters and the situations would seem even more improbable than in mere retrospect. This is not a screenplay to engage the intellect.

It is based on a 2005 French story, Anthony Zimmer, starring Sophie Marceau and Yvan Attal with American Christopher Macquarrie (The Usual Suspects) and Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) contributing to the screenplay.

It is useful to compare the two films. The original French film by Jerome Salle is more streamlined in plot than The Tourist. Sophie Marceau is less aloof than Angelina Jolie, Yvan Attal less scruffy than Johnny Depp. The re-make makes a lot more of surveillance technology and of the detective on the track of the fraudster. The same twists are there but, there is a momentary credibility in the original than in the remake.

However, audiences will recognise the similarities of plot, especially up to the train journey and the arrival in Nice. There is the hotel room, the chase by the Russians, the interrogations by the police. But the new writers have added quite a bit of detailed comic business, some of it witty, some of it droll compared with the original. There is no grand ball in the original but the set up is the same – but maybe Anthony Zimmer at the end is a bit more honourable than Alexander Pearce.

And many eyebrows have already been raised with the discovery that the director of The Tourist is Florian Henckel von Donnersmark. It is his second film – he won the Oscar and universal plaudits for his feature film debut, The Lives of Others. So there!

TRON: LEGACY

(US, 2010, d. Joseph Kosinski)

While Tron: Legacy is a sequel to the now-classic 1982 film, Tron, it is also something of a re-make, a re-interpretation of the original story to allow for the passing of time, the developments in technology and to dramatise a relationship between father and son.

For science-fiction fans, the Grid of Tron (well before the Matrix) has beguiled the imaginations of computer game players as well as those whose lives are devoted to the developments of these technologies. For those less inclined towards the wonders and mysteries of the Grid, this sequel may not do it for them. It is certainly full of whiz-bang wizardry (make that whiz whiz whiz whiz... bang bang bang bang... wizardry) that, in 2010 boggles the senses and the mind (but how will it look in another 28 years?). It is full of strange characters, computer clones who seem human but are highly sensitised robotic creations that can smash in an instant. There are games, competitions, battles. But, is that enough? For many, yes it is. For others, there needs to be a more human component.

And that there is - which will tide the humanitarians in the audience through the wizardry.

The film opens with Sam, the son of Kevin Flynn, who went into his arcade those decades ago and created the Grid, hoping that this alternate world could help the real world to be a better place. The film has a flashback to 1989 with Kevin and his young son, Sam, and their bond after Sam’s mother has died and the boy’s hopes to share his father’s work and insights. But, Kevin never came home.

In the present, Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is something of a daredevil and enjoys sabotaging the Board Meetings of his father’s company, now a corporation that puts its futuristic technology on sale instead of making it available, free of charge. Kevin’s friend and partner, Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) is still there – but tells Sam he has a message from his father’s office.

So, begins Sam’s venturing into the Grid and discovering its magnitude and power. But it is dominated by Kevin’s creation, an alter ego, Clu (who appeared in the first film). Jeff Bridges played Kevin all those years ago and here he is again, trapped by Clu in the Grid. Bridges brings his age and authority to his role as the benign but imprisoned wise man, happy to be re-united with his son but concerned that he escape from the Grid and from Clu. But, Bridges also plays (as he did before) the ageless Clu (with Bridges affected by computergraphics to look young).

In a way, this is the Frankenstein story again, with Kevin the creator who makes a monster instead of the creature that could change life. And the monster turns against its maker, jealous of the son and aggressive towards the only remaining artefact of a group that he massacred (Quorra, Olivia Wilde). How will they escape? Which is the issue occupying the last part of the film.

Michael Sheen turns up in the bizarre role of a creature who runs a kind of nightclub and seems to be on something that makes him like a burlesque entertainer gone sinisterly but flamboyantly giggly.

Tron was released in 1982, the year of Blade Runner and both films have us remembering runners, matrixes and even the 2001 voyage beyond Jupiter. The screenplay also offers to those who would like to explore deeper metaphysical themes of being, identity, transcendence and scientific themes of development and their consequences as well as ‘ordinary’ human themes of family and relationships, material to ponder.

The opening and closing of the film (the real world) have been filmed in 2D, while inside the Grid, all is 3D. (And, not to spoil the ending, there may not be a sequel as the producers now haven’t got a Clu!)

UNSTOPPABLE

(US, 2010, d. Tony Scott)

Once the adrenalin starts to kick in for the audience, the impact of this thriller is unstoppable.

Although they have been around for under two hundred years, trains exercise a frequently mesmerising fascination for so many people. And they have provided any number of films with a wonderful atmosphere for murder mysteries like Murder on the Orient Express, for disappearances like The Lady Vanishes, for trains out of control like Runaway Train and Silver Streak. This is the story of a train out of control – and is based on actual events from Ohio in 2001.

Director Tony Scott and actor Denzel Washington combined for the remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. They work together this time to much better effect. The action takes place over a couple of hours. The plot is basic. Slob railway workers take short cuts in security and a train with a large number of carriages, some filled with toxic, flammable materials, takes off on its own, making demands on local controllers as well as the rail corporation’s executives. Meanwhile, a veteran and a rookie take out an engine to haul some goods carriages – and find themselves in harm’s way. They decide to attempt a risky manoeuvre to try to slow down the train and to try to stop it.

Nothing new, but it is always startling.

Scott wastes no time in getting the runaway train going and with realistic styles of camerawork plus a lot of footage from television crews intercut with the rail drama and the characters trying to cope, the pace is quick and constant. It is edge of the seat stuff.

The film gets some drama from what is in the path of the train: a carriage load of school children learning about train travel, a crashed wagon with some frightened horses – and a number of towns that could be contaminated or lit by explosions and, finally, a large city where the train has to go round a curved bend at a slower rail so that it can stay on the track, a bend near a large industrial area.

Denzel Washington gives a confident, laid-back performance, a practical and wise man with 28 years’ experience, who knows what he is talking about and is game enough to test his convictions. He is an ordinary working class hero, the backbone of America, a hero one can believe in. With him is Chris Pine (who successfully commanded the Enterprise as the younger Captain Kirk in the new Star Trek). Pine is a sensible young man who does make mistakes, is ticked off by Denzel but who rises to the occasion. There are some brief aspects of the stories of the two men which offers a little more human interest.

Meanwhile back at headquarters, Rosario Dawson is trying to deal with the unexpected crisis, using common sense, trust in her workers, and not afraid to stand up to the wheeler dealing of the officials.

The film really offers a strong critique of lazy work practices and the petty human reactions that can lead to disaster. It reminds us that there can be dire consequences of pettiness and not taking responsibilities seriously. It is also critical of the powers that be who have one eye on the crisis and the other on the balance sheets.

This is a film which sets out to entertain by telling a story which is exciting and frightening – it could happen. But, like popular entertainment, it also lets us leave the theatre, pleased with and proud of the men and women who do their best to save situations and take risks.

YOGI BEAR (3D)

(US, 2010. D. Eric Brevig)

Yogi Bear is 50 years old this year. He first appeared in his television series in 1961, then a feature film in 1964, Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear. With revival of interest in the 1980s, a new series, and the some specials in the 1990s, he has been on screen for half a century. He has now reached the 3D era.

Actually, it’s all pretty much the same as usual – which means that it keeps its popular formula and ensures its audience of knowing what they are getting. This is especially so for the younger audiences (who were lining up at the press previews - where the critics were able to sit with a real audience of children and parents - to be photographed with Yogi, Boo Boo, or both).

Yogi Bear is an unlikely hero. He is not the smartest bear in the forest despite his hat and tie and his being able to talk. He is, perhaps, the vainest of bears, and his second name is not modesty. He is also food-obsessed, especially that found in picanic baskets, which he devises many ways of stealing from under the noses of unsuspecting picnickers. So, that provides a lot of the humour (including a pie in the face). He also builds a flying machine which is used for a special mission at the end of the film.

There is a need for a special mission since a corrupt mayor and his Machiavellian public relations assistant have concocted the idea of raising money (for campaigns and bribes) by selling of f Jellystone Park and re-zoning it. This to the dismay of Ranger Smith (Tom Cavanagh) who is in the upright tradition of sturdy rangers, and of Rachel (Anna Farris, who has specialised in spoof movies, the Scary Movie series and The House Bunny) who is making a documentary about Jellystone, starring Yogi. There is also Ranger Smith (T.J. Miller) who makes Yogi look like an intellectual. Andrew Daly does the smilingly oily politician very effectively.

This part of the plot might keep parents interested while the children enjoy the slapstick.

Also involved is a frog mouthed turtle, an allegedly endangered species who provides the reason for keeping Jellystone as a park. So, plenty of environmental consciousness.

Dan Aykroyd obviously enjoyed voicing Yogi, but it is difficult to discern Justin Timberlake’s voice as Boo Boo.

Easy family entertainment.

Created by: malone last modification: Thursday 20 of January, 2011 [13:04:28 UTC] by malone


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