SIGNIS REVIEWS JANUARY 2012
ADVENTURES OF TINTIN, The
GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO, The
HAPPY FEET 2
MARTHA MARCY MAE MARLENE
SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS
TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY
TOO BIG TO FAIL
WE BOUGHT A ZOO
THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN
Voices of Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Toby Jones, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost,
Directed by Steven Spielberg
The comic strips by Belgian cartoonist, Herge, have been around for a long time. Steven Spielberg discovered them in the 1980s, the time when he was making Raiders of the Lost Ark and ET. Obviously, they appealed to his sense of adventure and the kind of action that might be undertaken by a young Indiana Jones. It has taken a long time for him to film a Tintin story. He has chosen to make an animation film using performance capture where the actors perform their roles and the animated characters are drawn over them (seen in Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol with Jim Carrey).
Commentators and fans have been blogging opinions on whether Spielberg and his writers (including Edgar Wright, Shaun of the Dead, and Joe Cornish, Attack the Block) are faithful to the vision and style of Herge. Most agree that they are, that Tintin is a rather bland looking character (younger looking even than Dougie Howser was when he was an MD, even resembling Neil Patrick Harris) who is a journalist with a track record of solving investigations (as seen in the cuttings on his wall) but who has a zest and confidence for action – and the support of his rather engaging and interesting dog, Snowy. He is voiced by Billy Elliot himself, grown up, Jamie Bell. On the other hand, someone suggested that the alcoholic survivor, Captain Haddock, is the alter ego of Tintin, reckless, grizzled and landing (on sea and land) in all kinds of messy situations. He is voiced by Gollum himself, and Caesar from The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Andy Serkis.
Daniel Craig makes a good sneering villain, though the animation looks nothing like him. By contrast, the two rather plodding Interpol detectives, Thomson and Thompson, are played for laughs by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. And the compulsive, tall, wallet kleptomaniac is played also for laughs by the short Toby Jones.
This is a Boys Own Adventure, Herge plus Spielberg style, lots of pace and action. Tintin buying a model ship, is almost immediately set on by Interpol and the sinister Sakharine. Secret messages, searches of other model ships, setting sail and discovering Captain Haddock, flashbacks to pirates, stranding on the high seas, a plane to Morocco, calamities as a dam bursts and races through the city, final confrontations with sword and wrench and heavy lifting machinery.
Another reviewer said that it seemed like a visit to a theme park and that seemed to summarise this reviewer’s experience of a cleverly crafted film (and in 3D), an old-fashioned adventure, a big 2011 matinee show.
Voices of: Saiorse Ronan, Tom Holland, Mark Strong, Geraldine McEwan?, Olivia Colman, Phyllida Law.
Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi.
‘Charming’ is probably the most apt word to describe this Japanese animation film. It is probably the most useful as well. It is not a film for those who find charming uninteresting or distasteful.
Arietty is one of the little people, one of The Borrowers (from the novel by Mary Norton), a member of the Clock Family who live in the corners and spaces in an old house. They seem to be the lone survivors, not knowing any more Borrowers, and with a strict code not to be seen by humans. (There was a live action version of The Borrowers in the 1990s with John Goodman.)
When Arietty is out one day, Sho, a little boy who is resting at his grandmother’s before an operation, glimpses her. This creates confusion for the Borrowers, some upheaval in the house, especially from the ill-tempered maid who wants to call in exterminators.
While the idea might seem more than a little fey or twee, the charm carries it along. Arietty is no wallflower. She is very active, admired by her father, worried about by her mother – who is captured in a bottle by the maid and imprisoned in a cupboard which requires Arietty to use her brains and her skill to rescue her. In the meantime, the friendship between Arietty and Sho develops quite sweetly after initial suspicions.
This is Japanese animation. In the last decade, these animators have produced beautifully drawn films (rather than rely on computergraphics) including Oscar-winner, Spirited Away. Interestingly, they have taken on a number of British stories, Steam Boy, How’s Moving Castle. The director is Hiromasa Yonebayashi in his first film in this capacity. He worked as an animator on Spirited Away and Howl and was assistant to their director, Hayao Miyazaki, for Ponyo. His work is certainly in that tradition.
With all respect to American dubbing and the casts (Amy Poehler, Will Arnett and Carol Burnett), the version under review is the British dubbed version with such excellent actors like Saiorse Ronan as Arietty, Tom Holland as Sho, Mark Strong as her father, with Olivia Colman, Geraldine Mc Ewan and Phyllida Law.
As said before, charming.
Rowland S.Howard, Genevieve Mc Guckin, Nick Cave,
Directed by Richard Lowenstein, Lynn- Maree Milburn.
An intriguing documentary even for those who know nothing of its subject, musician and composer, Rowland S. Howard who died in 2009 but who was interested in this film being made and gave interviews in the period before his death. The film also incorporates a great deal of archival footage as well as performances of many of his songs.
Richard Lowenstein made the feature film Dogs in Space in 1986, chronicling the lives in the rather chaotic music scene (and drugs) in Melbourne’s inner-city Richmond in the 1970s. Michael Hutchence played the central role. Lowenstein and his co-director and editor Lynn- Maree Milburn made further documentaries on Australian bands.
Interviewees express their admiration for Howard’s musical talents, his gift for lyrics, his performance. He seemed an unlikely musical hero when he was very young, rather weedy, but soon emerged as someone to be reckoned with (and some, including Nick Cave, reckoned with him).
The film does not try to trace a chronological path of his career, but that emerges: his bands in Australia, his going overseas and career in London, on the continent (including involvement with Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire with Wenders speaking warmly of him in the film), his return home, his marriage, his illness.
Genevieve Mc -Guckin, who was his companion for many years, collaborated on this film and contributes a great deal of biographical information as well as commenting on the period and how it affected Howard and his friends (including drugs). For a time, Howard was married and there is testimony from his stepson, putting more of a human face on Howard.
As a documentary, there is enough information about Rowland S. Howard and his career for audiences to have a feel for and some understanding of his life within the decades of his career. There is enough testimony, from members of his band, to international commentators, to friends and family (especially his brother, who worked with him, and his sister) to appreciate the complexities of Howard’s life. And there is enough music to indicate his development over the decades, and, with the music videos reminding the audience of the different styles of the times, what he contributed.
One of his songs was Autoluminescent, a great word to describe Howard’s self revelation through his songs.
George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, Robert Forster, Beau Bridges,
Directed by Alexander Payne.
Subject of a lot of hype and promotion, The Descendants turned out to be much better than anticipated. Director, Alexander Payne, has made only a few films but they have a strong humanity (About Schmidt) and sometimes quite a sardonic tone (Election, Sideways). The Descendants is strong on humanity.
In fact, there is quite a lot of depth to the characters and to the situations (ordinary enough in the lives of many people).
The film has been adapted from a Hawaiian novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, who has a brief cameo as George Clooney’s secretary. While events like those in the film can occur anywhere, the striking, of ten beautiful, location photography of islands and sea, beaches and mountains, ensure that the audience has a Hawaiian experience. And many Polynesian songs and music in the score.
We glimpse a happy water skier in the first few moments of the film. We soon learn that she has had an accident and is in coma, lying almost lifeless in hospital. Her husband Matt (George Clooney) is in the middle of an important business venture for his extended family (there are lots of cousins in the clan). Land their family was granted in the 1860s has to be sold according to law. It is an opportunity for the family to become comfortable, even wealthy. Most are for the sale, a few not. Later in the film we see the property, pristine beach and valley acreage – seemingly destined for more hotels and yet another golf club.
That would give Matt enough to worry about, but there is a great deal more. Wrapped up in business matters and rather restrained in emotional expression, he and his wife have become distant. Then he learns from his 17 year old daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley who brings sullenness, yet love and warmth to the role as she faces up to her mother’s plight and her father’s difficulties in handling problems, especially looking after her ten year old sister) that all has not been well.
Matt is quite a strong character but realises he has been cold as a husband and very much ignorant as to how to bring up his daughters. His father-in-law (Robert Forster) who has idealised his daughter is no help at all – and his wife is suffering from dementia.
As Matt investigates what has happened to his marriage and has to decide what steps to take, as well as how to inform the relatives and his daughters that the life support system has to be turned off, he takes his daughters to Kaui. He finds ways to try to resolve the problem which means a difficult meeting with an estate agent (Matthew Lillard) and his wife (Judy Greer). Along for the trip and moral support (which is gauche and offensive at first) is Alex’s friend, Sid. Annoying at first, we learn more about him and change our minds somewhat. A reminder that we need to listen to people and their stories first before rushing to judgment.
The resolutions of the two crises, the life support system and the deal about the land, are both satisfyingly presented, full of different kinds of emotion, but judicious in the presentation of feelings and sentiment. Matt’s final farewell to his wife is a moving and tender reminder that love should be unconditional and forgiving.
We get to know the King family very well. They are dysfunctional and, if tragedy had not intervened, the dysfunction might have greatly increased. However, with all their uncertainties and faults, they grow in awareness of themselves and loving relationships. The dynamic of the film is a blend of love, honesty, anger, forgiveness – and hope.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO
Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Stellan Skarsgaard, Christopher Plummer, Joely Richardson,
Directed by David Fincher.
Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy reached a vast number of readers. The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo introduced one of the standout idiosyncratic characters in fiction, Lisbeth Salander. Amongst other piercings, rings and sometime Mohawk hairdo, she has a dragon tattooed on her back. She is abrupt in manner, quick in retort, exhibits signs of Asperges syndrome, but is a whiz in information technology and computer hacking. She has worked on an assignment, investigating a journalist, Michael Blomquist, who has lost a libel case, his reputation and his savings. He had published an article in the magazine Millennium and had not thoroughly checked his sources.
In the film, we spend a great deal of time involved with each of these two characters, their lives running parallel. Eventually, they meet when she is employed by the family who commissioned her investigation into Michael, to help him in researching the unexplained disappearance forty years earlier of a young member of this Vanger family, Harriet.
This means that the drive in the film is the mystery and the attempts to solve it as well as the action taken to stop the investigation. Stieg Larsson was a journalist, so the film, which (it is said) is close to the book, takes us step by step on the investigative journey, where we meet a great number of the Vanger family, many of them quite unpleasant. While Michael uses the tried and thorough methods of research, using, scanning and editing old photos, for instance, to discover leads, Lisbeth is smart, more than adept at the technology and impatient with Michael’s slow touch with computers and his making deductions. While he does reach the right conclusion, he does make mistakes which she has to rectify.
The director is David Fincher who has done sinister (Se7en, Panic Room), murder investigation (Zodiac), IT (The Social Network) and tough mind tests (The Game, Fight Club). He has made the film in Sweden and captured the atmosphere of Stockholm and a remote town very effectively (and through different seasons). The cast speak with an accented (lightly) European English. The film remains in Larsson territory. The adaptation has been made by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Social Contract). What we get is an involving drama, a search and quest, the solving of mysteries and some comment about Sweden in World War II and after.
Daniel Craig (not much of a smiler) combines a macho attacking attitude with some self-doubt and some vulnerability. Rooney Mara looks the part of Lisbeth and, with the screenplay, makes her the dominant and controlling part of the duo. There is a fiercely sadistic episode in which she is sexually assaulted which brings out a fiercely violent response in her – we are gradually filled in about her harsh childhood and institutionalisation. Christopher Plummer is the patriarch (assisted by Steven Berkoff) who initiates the search. Stellan Skarsgaard is his nephew, managing the family company. Quite a number of British and Scandinavian character actors take smaller parts. Robin Wright plays the editor of Millennium.
Oh yes, there was an original Swedish film, made for television, but successfully released in cinemas.
A pity to feel the need to do a lot of comparison to prove one is better than the other. Both are interesting. This version is well made, stylishly directed and edited (with a pounding score by the Oscar winning team of Trevor Reznot and Atticus Ross), with most striking images and sound in the opening credits (rather stand alone instead of revealing the film), with fine performances. I wonder if we had seen Rooney Mara before Noomi Rapace (with her intense and disturbing face) whether she would have imposed herself on us as Noomi Rapace did foir our image of Lisbeth. Probably. Daniel Craig’s Michael is harder than that of Michael Nyqvist – and the question that will come up concerns the difference between Lisbeth’s sexual interest in Michael in each film. (Looking back over the review of the original film in 2008 as well as questions devised for discussion, most could apply to this version as well.)
HAPPY FEET TWO
Voices of: Elijah Wood, Ava Acres, Robin Williams, Pink, Richard Carter, Hank Azaria, Anthony La Paglia, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt,
Directed by George Miller.
This is a cheerful show even if most of the penguins, computer-generated thousands of them, are stranded by a shift in the ice and snow, in need of food, and longing to get to the sea. With lots of little penguins, especially Mumble’s tiny son, Erik, there is enough for the littlies and their parents – despite a sequence where the raiding Alpha Skua swoop on the penguins. Not sure at what age tolerance for penguins, especially singing, dancing and stomping penguins, cuts out.
This sequel can’t have the novelty of the Oscar-winning original. But, there are enough characters to welcome back, Elijah Wood as Mumble, serious now in caring for Erik (Ava Acres) and anxious about Gloria (Pink – singing some songs – replacing the later Brittanny Murphy. Hugo Weaving and Magda Szubanski have cameo roles as the severe Noah and the loud Miss Viola. And Robin Williams is back in two roles, and courting penguin Carmen (Sofia Vergera).
As always, from The Simpsons to The Smurfs, Hank Azaria does scene-stealing voices. This time he is the very Scandinavian, Sven the Puffin, pretending to be a penguin that can fly, helping when he can, though puffining out at times. Then there are the two Krill, Will the Krill and Bill the Krill, whose story runs parallel to the main one until the end, who indulge in lots of repartee and wisecracks – one in a krillion. They are voiced by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon who are obviously enjoying themselves.
My favourite was Richard Carter as Brian the giant sea elephant, very Ocker accent and vocabulary and all (with two littlies who are cutely concerned about their daddy). Since the penguins, judging by their accents, have all migrated from the US, except for Hugo and Magda, Brian offers more than a little local colour and tone. And the stories he is involved in are a bit of excitement instead of us looking so much at the stranded penguins, even though they do sing and dance a lot.
Mumble does a good turn for Brian when he is beached on an ice ledge. Later, there is an appeal to Brian and his company to come to shake the ice (the happy feet aren’t able to do it alone) and make a path to safety for the penguins.
There are excerpts from quite a few songs as well as some originals. When Erik sings to plead with Brian to come, he finds words about his hero father to an aria from Puccini. When, Brian and the herd take to the ice to come to the rescue, it is the theme from Rawhide.
Now that director George Miller has finished Happy Feet Two at last, we all hope that he gets back to his next Mad Max project – and we will be even happier.
Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jude Law, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer,
Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Fans wondered when they heard that Martin Scorsese was to direct a children’s film and in 3D. It didn’t seem like the material for the director of Taxi Driver, Mean Streets and The Departed. There is no need to be apprehensive, Scorsese has made one of his best films (and the vivid and sharp 3D photography works very well indeed).
So, the question is, who is Hugo? He is a boy, Hugo Cabret, from the novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick. And he is played by Asa Butterfield (from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas). He is surrounded by a fine British cast led by Ben Kingsley. And he teams up with the vivacious Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick Ass, Let Me In).
That is the who of the title. But, the interesting question is the where and when of the film.
The where is Paris and most of the action takes place in the railway station, Gare Montparnasse. Not only do we feel we have lived in the station, we know the regulars well, the vendors, the police, but we spend a great deal of time in the cavernous spaces behind the clocks of the station where Hugo lives. The film opens with a lengthy running sequence where we experience Hugo in the long corridors and vast rooms in an exciting 3D tour.
The when is the late 1920s, so the period is re-created with costumes and decor, quite sumptuous to look at – and to a stirring score as well.
The time is important because the film is also about the history of cinema, particularly French cinema and the early silent era. Scorsese is a cinema buff par excellence and he takes the opportunity to immerse his audience in the wonders of cinema and animation. Film buffs will really appreciate it. And, because, the central protagonists are children, it offers a wonderful opportunity to learn about cinema in the olden days.
There is a brief cameo by Jude Law as Hugo’s father, a man who loved tinkering with machines and novelties. He has rescued a complicated robotic machine and has been attempting to make it work, but a key is missing. After his father’s death, he is taken by his uncle (Ray Winstone) to work on the clocks in the station. One of the shops is owned by a crusty old man who accuses Hugo of stealing, setting the war veteran commissioner at the station (who interprets all rules rigidly) in pursuit of Hugo who can always escape behind the clocks and hide. Ben Kingsley is the shop owner and Sacha Baron Cohen the commissioner. There is a fine cameo from the elderly Christopher Lee as a bookseller.
This leads us to the films of Georges Melies, the French pioneer of animation, whose rocket to the moon short is well known (and was recently restored to its full colour (each frame hand painted at the time) which is featured at the end of Hugo). It is assumed that Melies died in World War I, but he did not. His many fantasy films went out of fashion with the hard edge of film reporting from the war, and Melies lost his money and studio and withdrew, rather embittered, to the shop at the station.
There is a warmth in the storytelling as Hugo becomes less defensive, where Melies re-discovers and visualises the story of his past and the wonderful experiences of studio filming with his wife, where the key to the robot is found and it begins to work and offers a message to Hugo from his father.
Because Scorsese has always made films for mature older audiences, he knows how to gear his children’s film to entertain and interest adults. Obviously, he hopes that children will identify with Hugo and share the wonder of the technical developments of the period and better appreciate where the films they take for granted came from and the genius of those pioneers like Melies.
MARTHA, MARCY, MAY, MARLENE
Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, John Hawkes, Brady Corbett,
Directed by Sean Durkin.
The tongue-twisting alliterative title is an indicator of the identity problems that Martha is having. She was Martha originally. Who has she become?
Many commentators have brought up Charles Manson and his family as a reference for this film. They are probably right. However, writer-director, Sean Durkin, has stated that he was more interested in the story of someone who had escaped from an enclosed group like the Manson family. That is who Martha is – an escapee. We learn this almost immediately as we are led into the commune, isolated, agricultural, dependent on a charismatic leader, and extremely sexist, with the women eating together after the men. And sexist in sexual exploitation as well. Early one morning, Martha runs away. Martha is played with feeling and convincing irritation to her family and to the audience by Elizabeth Olsen.
She has lived in the commune for two years without contact with her family, subservient to Patrick, the scrawny, rather non-descript-looking leader (John Hawkes eerily charming, controlling and ruthless). She rings her sister who comes to get her and Martha begins some kind of rehabilitation. But, the film poses the problem of whether she can ever be truly healed. Is she too emotionally wounded, too mentally unstable.
This is clear as Martha lives with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her upwardly mobile husband (Hugh Dancy) who suffers Martha’s presence only out of loyalty to his wife.
Martha is erratic in behaviour, offensive in attitude, wearing her benefactors’ patience very thin. But, incidents lead to memories and the film is continually reverting back to the commune and Martha’s life there, work, pleasing Patrick, dealing with the other men, with the other women, more work, petty jealousies, sexual expectations from Patrick. Late in the film, there is a chilling episode where the group intrude into a house, terrorise the owner, burglarise and kill without compunction.
Amidst Martha’s memories are dreams and possible hallucinations which show the precarious nature of Martha’s recovery.
The film does not take us beyond this initial stage. We are left wondering how Martha will cope after two years of oppressive experience. But, the dangers of the sect and the cult, the control of the leader and the damage to the members are dramatised with intensity.
Jason Segel, Amy Addams, Chris Cooper, Alan Arkin, Jack Black and Kermit, Miss Piggy and the Muppets,
Directed by James Bobin.
Usually it is the children who are taken to see a show that is considered suitable for them. With The Muppets, it is the film that children could take their parents (and their grandparents) to see. This is especially true if those adults who are not getting any younger have fond memories of Sesame Street, The Muppet Show and the later Muppet Movies. If they are anything like this reviewer for whom The Muppet Show was a delight, even back in the late 1970s, then this is the movie outing for them.
In 1981 with The Muppets Movie, the song sung by Kermit, The Rainbow Connection, seemed more than a touch corny and sentimental. By 2011, it seems positively nostalgic.
It is hard to know what the younger generation will make of the film. One eight year old girl told her mother the only person she recognised was Selena Gomez (which some parents and grandparents may well respond, ‘Who?’). A chance for them to be introduced to the Muppets.
The basic idea is a nice one. Two brothers have been fond of the Muppets on television for years, all the time they were growing up and now into adulthood. We suspend disbelief when we see that one brother, Gary, is tall and human (Jason Segel who co-wrote the screenplay) and the other is short and a Muppet, Walter. When Gary and his fiancée, Mary (Amy Addams) visit LA, they take Walter who discovers that the Muppets studio and theatre are run-down and about to be taken over by an oil tycoon (Chris Cooper as the aptly named Tex Richman). They find Kermit and help him round up the other Muppets, including Miss Piggy who works for Vogue in Paris. And they go back to that old, old story, the putting on of a show.
Needless to say, it is good to see them all back again – some of them could have more screen time. But, the old Muppet Show introduction is there, Statler and Waldorf commenting again. They find Animal doing an anger management course where he could not mention drums – this set him off! Jack Black was on the course too, so they abduct him when the TV network wants a celebrity to host the show. There are the usual jokes, stories and songs – and the shy Walter finds his talent (after a pep talk on the matter from Kermit).
There are some funny lines when Gary and Mary refer to the film that they are in, especially Gary not wanting to intervene because he had just sung a sad song. Then there are quite a few cameo performances, from Alan Arkin as a guide, with Whoopi Goldberg and others, including Selena Gomez, who turn up for the show.
Do Kermit and Miss Piggy rekindle their romance? Of course, they do. And we can re-kindle our delight in the Muppets.
SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS
Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Stephen Fry, Jared Harris, Rachel Mc Adams, Kelly Reilly.
Directed by Guy Ritchie.
When Guy Ritchie’s first Sherlock Holmes film was released in 2009, it seemed as if the screenplay and the new imagining of Holmes and his solving crimes was like a Graphic Novel. Holmes had become something of an action hero and quite a pugilist – bringing something of the 21st century into a 19th century society. If that was true then, it is even truer this time. Perhaps Sherlock had also had a premonition of Indiana Jones!
The first thing to do is include a warning. Purists beware – if the reaction of purists that I saw the film with is any indicator. They did not like this rather rambunctious Holmes – who seems to have studied some martial arts since the first film.
Be that as it may, the two films are what might be called ‘rollicking adventures’ and Robert Downey makes this kind of Holmes his own. There are the traits that Conan Doyle gave his creation, including his penchant for disguises. He is something of a snob, or considers himself superior – and he is not very considerate of others, including Dr Watson and his wife, Mary Morston. Jude Law has more to do in this one as Dr Watson and Kelly Reilly is not quite so-long suffering as she misses out on her honeymoon in Brighton as Dr Watson goes off to pursue Professor Moriarty with Holmes and save the world from World War I (or, rather, postpone it for twenty years). She gets involved in working for the authorities in London. Come to think of it, Holmes does a little channelling of James Bond, especially towards the end with an international peace conference in a castle on a high peak in the Swiss Alps that would have made Blofeld envious. There is a huge waterfall there as Holmes challenges Moriarty and Conan Doyle fans will know where the film and Holmes and Moriarty are heading.
Robert Downey, who showed twenty years earlier how he could do impeccable English when he portrayed Chaplin, is very Brit here, with wit, disguises, fighting and regrets for Irene Adler (Rachel Mc Adams who has a cameo here but featured in the original). There are several times when Guy Ritchie shows some flourishes as there are visual collages of Holmes’ mental and detection processes as well as the strategies of his fights with Moriarty, schematic outlines of what could happen and why.
Jared Harris (sounding more and more like his father, Richard, as he grows older) is Moriarty. His story and plots ares filled in extensively as are his dastardly plans to get France and Germany at war while he profits by munitions developments and sales. Stephen Fry appears more than before (and is seen more than before) as Mycroft Holmes.
The other member of the adventure is a gypsy whose brother has been taken in by Moriarty. ‘Have Dragon Tattoo, will have career.’ Noomi Rapace from the Millennium trio has been given an important role as the gypsy and gets plenty to do.
This is a bigger budget film than before and the sets are lavish, the action extended, and plenty of set pieces (and explosions) from London to Paris to Germany to Switzerland.
So, Holmes purists be alert. For everyone else, a visually stylish and busy, action-packed romp.
TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY
Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt, Benedict Cuberbatch,
Directed by Tomas Alfredson.
John le Carre has been around for a long time. Older filmgoers may remember his popularity in the 1960s with the almost archetypal, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, as well as The Deadly Affair and The Looking Glass War. He was the author of grim cold war stories which had been part of his own life and work. In the late 70s and early 80s, he was on television in the celebrated series, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as well as Smiley’s People. Fred Schepisi made The Russia House in 1990. More recently there have been films of The Tailor of Panama and The Constant Gardener.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy now gets a cinema treatment, honed down to a two hour running time that Le Carre has given his approval to. We are back in the Cold War, in the tensions between East and West, in the infiltration of intelligence offices, in the memories of Philby, Burgess and Maclean and their socialist loyalties which led to betrayal of the nation. There is a traitor in this film which makes it a mystery as well as an espionage thriller.
The film has been directed by Swede, Tomas Alfredson, who impressed critics with his vampire film, Let the Right One In. One might suppose that spies are akin to vampires, creatures of deception and the dark, draining the life blood of the country. Alfredson certainly takes us into the literal dark and the dark concealing the moles in high places.
Television viewers have remembered Alec Guinness as George Smiley. Gary Oldman now does an effective impersonation of a man who has been around a long time, still grieves over the loss of his wife and of his private life, a serious loner who is set the task by the powers that be (where the mole must be) to ferret out the traitor. Oldman is surrounded by a top cast, the powers that be: Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds and David Dencik; his young assistant, Benedict Cumberbatch; the young scapegoat, Tom Hardy; Control, John Hurt.
With the reduced running time, there are various layers of action and meaning to attend to, a film about Intelligence that requires intelligence. The setting is 1973, almost forty years ago, so the settings and the atmosphere are not familiar to audiences who may now be nearing fifty. And it is over two decades since the collapse of Communism. The film is inviting us to go back to a less well-known past.
The screenplay is written as a dramatic jigsaw. An assassination in Budapest, high level meetings, the lead up to Budapest, the discovery of the scapegoat in Istanbul, back to the times when Control was alive and definitely in charge, the setting up the trap for the mole – and some twists along the way.
This is the kind of film that older audiences will be interested in seeing, admiring the writing and the performances, wondering just how much spying and infiltration still goes on and who are the personalities attracted to this kind of life.
TOO BIG TO FAIL
William Hurt, Billy Crudup, Paul Giamatti, James Woods, Bill Pullman, Topher Grace, Tony Shalhoub, Cynthia Nixon,
Directed by Curtis Hanson.
The Global Financial Crisis.
The Oscar winner for Best Documentary for 2010 was Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job. It was a powerful, even frightening, look at the state of American financial dealings in the first decade of the 21st century. Full of facts and figures, it was also full of potent interviews with many of the movers and shakers from Wall St to Washington DC (though many others declined to be interviewed). It is difficult to comprehend how these men (mainly men) were able to misread the times, undervalue the advice they were given, presume on their egos to come to the closure of banking institutions in the US, and to depend on government bail-outs. (And, then, many would say, go back to their old practices and bonuses).
Another nominee for 2010 Documentary Oskar was Alex Gibney’s Client #9, the Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer, the story of the successful but flawed governor of New York State who went after the money rogues.
Too Big to Fail is an interesting companion piece to the documentaries. But, this time, the crises is dramatised in a feature film, based on a book by Andrew Sorkin.
Just as the documentaries were criticised for bias (mainly from critics and commentators right of centre), so the feature film, the dramatising of actual characters and events, has also been accused of being inaccurate. As could be said of Michael Moore (who made Capitalism: A Love Affair in 2009), if only half what he has in his films is true, then that is frightening enough.
This film takes Hank Paulson, Treasury Secretary, as the focus. It was he who had to handle the crisis, even more demanding as it seemed to be hurtling out of control. Paulson had been CEO of Lehmann Brothers before being nominated by President Bush to the Treasury post (and had made considerable profit from his sale of assets). His handling of the situation and the dramatis personae demanded concentration, skills, using his knowledge of the main players – not without mistakes, including underestimating the British response to merger deals and credit regulation, or even some of the government statutory requirements for bankruptcy as in the case of Lehmann’s. This is one of William Hurt’s best performances.
The film opens dramatically with James Woods as the head of Lehmann’s, arrogant and impatient, failing to estimate properly the nature of the crisis, calling his advisers, trying to do a deal with Koreans which he sabotages with American ill-mannered brusqueness. We get the picture at once. Later, we will see the CEOs of the other major American banks trying to save their companies and themselves, reluctant to make decisions for the good of the country.
We also see the Democrat and Republican Congress stand-offs with the legislation for the government bail-out.
Most of the other characters are Paulson’s advisers as well as Paul Giamatti as Chair of the Reserve Bank and Billy Crudup as Timothy Geitner, President of the New York Fed. Edward Asner has some moments as billionaire, Warren Buffet.
The film moves at a great pace, dramatising the desperation of those trying to find a solution – and finding ways to be diplomatic with banking powers that be as well as with politicians.
The film makes us realise that the capitalist system was at the brink – apocalypse in the next few days. Whether the bail-out solution (Democrats objecting) or the government takeover (Republicans crying ‘Socialism’) was the best answer at the time will be debated. The value of this feature drama, along with the documentaries, is that within a short time of the events, they can be brought to the public’s attention through film and television.
Director, Curtis Hanson, is best known for LA Confidential.
Directed by Lucy Walker
Anyone who has the opportunity to see Waste Land will be very happy that they did. It is a fine documentary, full of human interest, with a heart for people and justice, and a pleasing art lesson as well.
It is the work of Lucy Walker who has made a number of very good documentary films including Blindsight about Erik Weihenmayer and a group of blind climbers and guides on Mount Everest.
The subject of this film is photographer and artist, Vik Munoz, who moved from San Paolo, Brazil, to Brooklyn and achieved great success. He has the idea to go to Rio, to the landfill tip of Jardim Gramacho and make some works of art from the recyclable materials collected by the catadores, the many men, women and children who pick materials, collect them and sell them to recycling companies. He wanted to do something to help the people – he did not anticipate what would happen: so much good.
Vik Muniz is a genial character – we even visit his old house in Sao Paolo where his father is interviewed and he is filmed with his 93 year old grandmother. But, first of all he had to learn about the landfill, the people, their backgrounds and how they worked. As he gets to know them, chatting, moving around with his associate, Fabio (and all the while Lucy Walker photographs, keeping completely in the background), he picks out half a dozen or more who will be the subject of his art. He poses them like classic paintings, especially photographing Tiao, the founder of the pickers’ association and a born leader, like Marat in the bath in the picture by Jaques-Louis? David. T
The photos are highly enlarged on the floor of a warehouse and Vik engages his subjects to help in bringing them to life with the recyclables, outlining, giving colour as well as an idiosyncratically modern look. This has a profound effect on each of them, a man who collects books and who can talk about Nietzche, Tiao who also talks about reading Macchiavelli’s The Prince and what it meant to him, Valter who is getting old, Isis who has had a hard life, Suelem a young woman with two children, Magna who has been forced to work in the landfill when her husband lost his job, Irma, an elderly cook who keeps the caradores fed.
Vik and his wife have an important conversation about whether one of the subjects should go to London for the auction of the main painting. Is it too much and deflating when they have to go back to work? Or, is it an opportunity that will mean new choices? It is quite exhilarating for Tiao and the auction is a great success.
There is great joy at the end when they all go to the Museum of Modern Art in Rio and see themselves on the gallery walls. There is even greater joy when Vik gives them their picture and they hang it on the walls of their home.
The film offers a lot of think about it terms of work, poverty, exploitation (at one stage, the money to pay wages is stolen by thieves), human dignity, opportunities and self-esteem. This is confirmed in the final information given about each of them.
And the art is quite striking too. Even better when we watch how it was done.
WE BOUGHT A ZOO
Matt Damon, Scarlet Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Colin Ford, Elle Fanning.
Directed by Cameron Crowe.
We bought a zoo. As one does!
Well, not exactly. However, Benjamin Mee, an adventurer-writer, recently widowed and with two children, finds that his son is doing badly at school, draws nightmarish pictures and is to be expelled. Benjamin decides to move and finds an old house that he thinks is just right. (His son does not, but his rather precocious little daughter does.) Then the estate agent remarks that the house belongs to a zoo. And that they will own the zoo. Benjamin says yes.
The zoo is run down and closed for business. There is a motley group as staff, devoted and with particular expertise for caring for the animals. They are led by Kelly who has worked there for thirteen years. As we guess, staff and family will do their utmost to have everything ready for inspection and then a summer opening. But...
First of all the son is self-pitying, sits and draws and clashes with this father - though he allows himself to be distracted by Kelly’s niece, Lily. They are pre-teens so romance is of the shy, awkward, budding type.
Then there are the adventures with the animals (more and more of whom appear at various moments throughout the film). The tiger is old and some think he should be put down. A crater full of snakes is accidentally opened. The grizzly bear wanders into the town. There is always something. But, what is lacking is money – fortunately, Ben’s deceased wife had foreseen situations like this and had made provision. The money is managed by Ben’s sardonic banker brother, Duncan. They have a temporary inspection by a prissy official and then work harder for his final approval. There is a nice anti-climax on opening day. The weather had been terrible. Then it looks as if no one is coming, until... Well, that’s to find out when you see it.
Obviously a family friendly film about family, grief, clashes, energy and enterprise. And this is all enhanced by a sound cast. The ever genial and reliable Matt Damon is Benjamin. Scarlet Johansson has a better role than she has had recently as Kelly. Colin Ford makes a credible self-pitying son. Elle Fanning is Lily and Thomas Haden Church is Duncan. The film has been directed by former music journalist, Cameron Crowe, who had success with Almost Famous and did not have success with Elizabethtown. Here he is on safer ground.
The credits tell us that the zoo is functioning well and serves as a model in treatment of animals for other zoos.
Tom Cullen, Chris New,
Directed by Andrew Haigh.
A small-budget British drama, a story of a relationship developing and/or breaking over a weekend. The film has won quite a number of overseas awards.
The weekend is that of Russell who is in his mid-20s and works in superivision at a swimming pool. His background is an orphanage when he was a child and he still keeps in touch with a friend from those days and visits his family. Russell, however, lives alone, introspective in many ways. But, on the way home from his friend’s house, he goes to a gay bar, eventually returning home with Glen.
Much of the film consists of conversation between Russell and Glen and covers most of the issues that are of concern to gay men as well as to those who want to understand more of the lives of gay men and their search for relationships.
Russell has not succeeded in finding the right person for him. At this stage of his life, despite some casual pickups, he is looking for something deeper and more permanent. Glen, on the other hand, is not. He is ideologically opposed to commitment. He tapes Russell talking about his experiences for one of his art projects. This enables writer-director, Andrew Haigh, to voice different perspectives on love, sexuality, commitment and the issue of civil unions. Glen is about to go to study in the US, so there does not seem to be any prospect of long-term relationships. The film also includes some intimate sequences between the two men, visually and with frank language.
Audiences who identify with Russell or with Glen will find that the characters, exploring their own attitudes, offer opinions for thought. Those who don’t identify may be put off by having to listen closely to these men or they may be helped to some kind of better understanding.
Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson, Patton Oswalt,
Directed by Jason Reitman.
Don’t be looking for a young adult in this wry comedy drama. Young Adult is a book industry term for the niche market for novels that appeal to young adults. Charlize Theron plays Mavis, an author of a series that has been popular but has run its course. Of course, the more we get to know her, we realise that she has not really grown up and is the equivalent of a young adult. And when she decides to take her life in hand (most unsuccessfully), she makes it the equivalent of the novel that she is trying to finish at the same time.
Mavis is divorced but has idolised her high school boyfriend, Buddy (Patrick Wilson). Impulsively, after she has received an email that he and his wife have had a baby, she goes back home to snare him because she believes he really loves her. As we discover, Matt is a fairly simple soul, in love with his wife and bewildered by Mavis’ heavy handed behaviour. It has to blow up – and it does, at a gathering to celebrate the baby, more than a moment of humiliation for Mavis.
When she arrived back at the town where she grew up, she had encountered Matt, a crippled man, at the bar. Eventually, she recognises him as the boy everyone picked on, tagging him as gay. A group of boys have ensured that he is disabled for life. But he works at a diner, has a shed where he makes things, lives with his sister – and has quite some heart to hearts with Mavis. He is played well by Patton Oswalt.
The film is a collaboration between writer, Diablo Cody, and director, Jason Reitman (who were responsible for the well received portrait of teenage love and angst, Juno). Had Juno not faced her life and responsibilities, she might have finished up like Mavis. Diablo Cody writes some sharp lines with touches of ironic humour. Reitman has a flair for this type of comedy, having directed Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air as well.
This is an American portrait, a picture of a loser who, when completely humiliated and disabused of her fantasies, might make a go of life – but it will be hard going. The film has a strong performance by Charlize Theron.