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Film Reviews January 2014

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SIGNIS REVIEWS JANUARY 2014


12 YEARS A SLAVE
47 RONIN
ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES
ARE WE OFFICIALLY DATING?
BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR
DRINKING BUDDIES
FREE BIRDS
GREAT BEAUTY, The
HER
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT
LABOR DAY
LONE SURVIVOR
MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES
PAST, The
SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY, The
SHORT TERM 12
WIND RISING, The
WOLF OF WALL STREET, The


12 YEARS A SLAVE

US/UK, 2013, 134 minutes, Colour.
Chiwitel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Lupita Nyong’o, Alfre Woodard, Michael K. Willilams, Sarah Paulson, Scoot Mc Nairy, Bill Camp, Garret Dillahunt, Quvenzhane Wallis.
Directed by Steve Mc Queen.

It is surprising to find that the story on which this film is based was first published in 1853, the memoir of Solomon Northup, who had been abducted from Washington DC and transported into slavery in the South. He spent 12 years, 1841-1852, as a slave, working in cotton fields, on cane fields, on menial tasks as well as engineering work. It seemed impossible that he would be released and ever see his wife and children, living in Saratoga in New York State, ever again. Through the intervention of a Canadian working in the South, his friends were able to come and effect his release. After writing his book and in succeeding years, he worked for the Underground Railway, enabling the escape of slaves from the South to come to Freedom in the North.

This is a most worthy story as well as a reminder, not often presented in films, of the racist presuppositions of the slave-owners, the slaves not being humans but their possessions, and the humiliation of the slaves as persons as well is the deprivation of their freedom. This is presented strikingly and most forcefully in this film.

The film opens with scenes of Solomon working in the cane fields, herded with other slaves in the mass sleeping quarters. And then it goes back to his past, to his freedom in the North, in his status as a citizen of Saratoga and his being well received by the town’s people, especially the store owner who will come to his aid at the end. He has a wife and two children. Accepting the invitation to play the violin, which he does very well, for a circus and three weeks engagement, he is drugged and imprisoned, treated shamefully and brutally, and sent for sale in New Orleans.

The screenplay has frequent flashbacks to Solomon’s life, highlighting his anguish.

The pathos is emphasised a young woman being tricked as she sought out her children who were taken and they are all sold as slaves, her children being separated from her, and her continued depression at their loss.

The first landowner is comparatively benign though he still thinks of his slaves as his possessions. He is impressed by Solomon who now goes under the name of Platt, and shows his skill in improving the transport of goods along the river. But he falls foul of an overseer and fights with him, thus forfeiting his right to stay on the plantation and he is sold then to a ruthless landowner, who is sadistic in his treatment of his slaves, resorts to brutality and whippings, humiliates Solomon, and exploits a female slave, Patsy, as his mistress, to the haughty anger of his wife. Both plantation owners are pictured gathering the slaves together and reading the Bible to them – and later the plantation owner interpreting the Scriptures to bolster his interpretation of possessions.

This mere description does not do justice to the visuals of the life of slavery, the effect on the men and women themselves, the psychological oppression, the physical and psychological violence which is up there, sometimes relentlessly, on the screen.

Director, Steve Mc Queen, began his career as an artist, a painter, and this is evident in the visual style of the film. As with the silent film directors, he uses a fixed camera for most of the sequences, letting the action happen within the frame. Sometimes he moves the camera, tracking as people walk. He has long takes, like paintings, while the audience has time to contemplate what is happening.

The film is blessed with a strong cast, led by stage and screen actor from Britain, Chiwitel Ejiofor, who has had a successful career in the United States. The more kindly plantation owner is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, while the sadistic and tyrannical owner is played by Michael Fassbender, star of Mc Queen’s previous films, Hunger and Shame. There are smaller roles, dramatically significant, for Paul Giamatti as the auctioneer in New Orleans, for Paul Dano as a jealous overseer, for Brad Pitt, who produce the film, as a Canadian who takes on Solomon’s cause. The film introduces the Lupita Nyong’o, whose performance as Patsy, requires her to experience humiliation and great physical pain as she is flogged. She was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

The film will be seen as important in its time, dramatising the experience of the slaves in the American South, a story and treatment which remind audiences of the continued slavery in different parts of the world.


47 RONIN

US, 2013, 119 minutes, Colour.
Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada.
Directed by Carl Rinsch.

If you would like a matinee adventure, colourful and often spectacular, with Samurai martial arts, and a touch of romance, then why not 47 Ronin?

The film was very costly and, unfortunately, reviews and box-office have not been kind to the film. On the other hand, ordinary audiences who do go and see it have generally been more than satisfied.

One of the difficulties for critics and for some of the public is that the star is Keanu Reeves. While he received aclaim for The Matrix series, most of the comment about him is that he has a rather wooden, often passive, screen presence. He is not an actor of huge emotions. Here he can capitalise on that screen persona. He portrays what everybody in the film refers to as a “half-breed”. That is, he is the son of a Japanese woman and a British father, stranded in Japan, brought up in the woods by a strange hybrid people, thought by many to be a Demon.

The screenplay is a variation, imaginative, on the famous Japanese legend of the 47 Ronin, a group of disgraced Samurai who band together to avenge the death of their leader who was executed by the Shogun for attacking a guest. The audience knows, however, that a shape-shifting Demon incited him to this action, working for his rival who wanted to take over his kingdom. The Demon is quite spectacular in her transformations, the special effects people working hard to see her as a wolf, as a presence threading through the palace rooms and, finally, as a fire-breathing dragon.

The half breed is punished along with the other Samurai and then sold into slavery. The daughter of the executed Lord is in love with him but is taken off by the rival and, after a year of mourning for her father, she is to be married to him.

The Ronin loyal to the Lord is imprisoned in a hole for a year. On his release, he decides that he will avenge the Lord – Samurai belief in a circle of vengeance for crime. Reconciliation and diplomacy are certainly not on the agenda of the Samurai. He goes in search of the half-breed, releases him, and rounds up the exiled Ronin.

The first part of the film is quite spectacular, forest locations and an enormous giant beast who pursues the Warriors through the forest until the half-breed kills it. There are mime and musical perofrmances in honour of the visiting Shogun. Colours are bright, costumes brilliant and a great deal of pageantry.

The second part of the film is rather grim, the training of the Samurai, the half-breed’s visits to the hybrid people with whom you grow up in order to get swords to be able to fight the enemy. This also has spectacular moments as the Ronin are tested, not to draw their swords, no matter what. Some do and suffer the consequences.

But, when the Ronin attack the villain, the Demon has anticipated it and there is a battle and a rout. It is the final fight, within the Palace, during another performance in honour of the couple about to marry, that brings the story to a vengeful, fight-filled climax – and the loyal captain fighting the villain to the death, and the half-breed confronting the dragon and destroying it.

47 Ronin does what it sets out to do and offers an entertainment for those who are fans of this kind of Japanese Samurai stories.


ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES

US, 2013, 119 minutes, Colour.
Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, Christina Applegate, Dylan Baker, Meagan Goode, Greg Kinnear, James Marsden, Josh Lawson, Kristin Wiig, Harrison Ford, Fred Willard… and a host of cameos from big stars at the end (beware they are listed at the end of this review if you don’t want to know who they are beforehand).
Directed by Adam Mc Kay.

Enjoying Anchorman 2, and remembering Anchorman from 2004, I looked up the review and found a sentence I rather liked. And, of course, it is relevant to this sequel: One culture's hilarity is another culture’s stone-faced incomprehension. So, it is obvious that not everyone is going to enjoy Anchorman let alone warm to Run Burgundy’s personality.

We are still back in the past when anchor rivalries on networks could bring on warfare. This time round, boss Harrison Ford wages an attack on Ron, sacking him, while making a star of Ron’s wife and co-host, Veronica (Christina Applegate). While Will Ferrell has the capacity to create a character who is unlikeable and somewhat likeable at the same time, his Ron Burgundy is something of a dill, narcissistic, but fine at jokes and spoofs. What is Ron to do?

Fortunately, he is being headhunted for a new 24 hours TV News Service (which Ron thinks is silly, but the pay is good). He rounds up his old friends from last time and finds them in funny situations: David Koechner (racist and homophobic) has a fried food franchise – which fries bats; Paul Rudd is photographing cats; and Steve Carell thinks he is dead and attends and speaks at his own funeral.

The new network is financed by an Australian, Josh Lawson with a broad accent, owner also of Koala Airlines. Where did they get the idea for an Australian magnate who owns TV networks? Ron’s rival at the network is an equally narcissistic James Marsden.

The screenplay is sending up the origins of reality TV and the news as entertainment, a helicopter following a chase in the hope that there is something sensational. Just by filming it with Ron’s commentary has made it sensational and watchable. Ron appeals to his audience to think American.

So, we are off to silly shenanigans, like smoking crack on screen, which are not too far from what passes today for news. Foxnews? There is also a squirmingly funny sequence as he goes to his manager’s family for a meal and does all the caricature of black people turns. The others get their turn at the funnies, especially Steve Carrell as Brick, the most seriously obtuse weather man you could find – who falls in love with the humourless assistant, played by Kristin Wiig. Hid deadpan responses become better and funnier.

Ron has a romance with the manager, Meagan Good, goes blind for a time with Veronica trying to make up with him. Then defiance of the powers that be because of interference.

How can it end – mainly with his son’s recital of a piano piece he composed for his father – but not before a battle of the news anchors which brings in a whole lot of cameos from some performers you would not expect to see. So, there is a lot of entertainment in this fracas. (The cameos are from Sacha Baron Cohen, Will Smith, Kirsten Dunst, Liam Neeson, Marion Cotillard, Jim Carrey, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, John C. Reilly, Vince Vaughn, Kanye West).

Ron Burgundy, despite himself, would be welcome to come on screen again.


ARE WE OFFICIALLY DATING? THAT AWKWARD MOMENT

US, 2014, minutes, Colour.
Zac Efron, Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Imogen Poots.
Directed by Tom Gormican.

Wild oats seem to be getting wilder – but young people are still sowing them, and profligately.

This is a film about 20-somethings for 20-somethings. As Danny Glover said (often) in the Lethal Weapon films, ‘I’m too old for this…’.

If The Wolf of Wall Street can be described as a ‘cautionary tale’, then this, in its minor way, is the same kind of tale for its (probably) eager audience.

Three friends have a code (that’s dignifying it) where they have a list of women they liaise with – but no real relationships or commitment. This allows for some sex moments with touches of sleaze.

But, you expect that, this being an American film, this will not last and the three men will learn that traditional love, relationships and commitment are what is truly worthwhile.

The three are played by Zac Efron as the leader, Miles Teller as the obvious sleaze and Michael B. Jordan who, at the end, seems left high and dry after the failure of his marriage.

So, this is mostly looking at the three friends, Zac Efron living up to the code until he realises that he has fallen in love, Miles Teller secretly in a relationship, Michael B. Jordan secretly trying to revive his marriage.

And, that’s it, until the next similar film turns up – and it will soon.


BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR/ LA VIE D’ADELE –CHAPITRES 1 ET 2

France, 2013, 179 minutes, Colour.
Adele Exarchopoulos, Lea Seydoux.
Directed by Abdellatif Kekiche.

Blue is the Warmest Colour is an arresting title although it is not quite explained during the film. The French title is much more realistic, The Life of Adele, Chapters 1 and 2. This title appears on the film itself.

The film was warmly received in Cannes, 2013, winning the Palme d’Or.

However, the film was not without a great deal of controversy, at the festival and with the films distribution. While the film is the story of a young woman, starting at the age of 17 and moving into her young adult years, it is a study and close portrait of Adele, growing in self-awareness and coming to the realisation of her sexual orientation. At first, this puzzles her, until she sees a young woman in the distance, a striking woman, with a blue hair rinse. She watches in fascination, feeling the first stirrings of attraction.

The woman with the blue hair, Emma, comes into life, meeting her, talking in a friendly manner, the two sharing their lives and hopes. The attraction becomes stronger, becoming a forceful sexual attraction which leads to sexual encounters between the two young women. There are several scenes of sexual intimacy, quite detailed in their sensuousness and sensuality – which challenges the audience to ask themselves whether they are empathising with the two women and their experience and love or is this something prurient, even voyeuristic (or both). It should be said that this is a very long film, three hours, and the first explicit encounter does not occur in the film until after 75 minutes, which gives a strong context for the scenes, and with so much of the film yet to come in the study of the two young women.

Adele Exarchopoulos is able to hold the story together, from the eager schoolgirl running for the bus at the beginning, to talking with her friends at school, often with some sexual curiosity, to her hopes to become a teacher, to her training and qualification (which occur off-screen), to her working with kindergarten children with some tenderness, a little more moody when she has to teach writing and dictation, but, despite the disappointments in her life, she is resilient.

Lea Seydoux is Emma. She already has quite a number of films in her career, especially Lourdes and Farewell My Queen. At first glance, with her blue hair, audiences might make judgements about her. In fact, she is a very sympathetic character, an art student with talent for painting, succeeding in her profession with several exhibitions. As she encounters Adele, she gradually falls in love and the experience with Adele has profound effect on her.

But, as the years pass, and as with heterosexual couples, life takes on a more even pace, passion diminishes, and there is the possibility of fidelity and infidelity, the dying of the relationship. This has quite a profound effect on Adele, who loves Emma and has become strongly emotionally dependent on her. It is not the same with Emma who becomes enraged when Adele behaves stupidly and risks their partnership.

The director has made some interesting films, including La Grain et le mulet/ The Secret of the Grain. He is originally from Tunisia but has lived in France, bringing a different sensitivity and sensibility to his film-making, especially from male director making this very female-centred film.

But he is a skilful storyteller, maintaining a quietly even pace, highly attentive to details of background and in the characters’ behaviour, so that the audience feels within an hour that they have got to know the two characters well – and the reality of another two hours running time to understand them and appreciate them better.

A challenging film for all different stances in these years of diverse public and private opinion on same-sex relationships and commitments.


DRINKING BUDDIES

US, 2013, 90 minutes, Colour.
Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, Ti West, Jason Sudeikis, Joe Swanberg.
Directed by Joe Swanberg.

Drinking Buddies is a small, independent film, written and directed by Joe Swanberg (who appears in this film as the cantankerous driver fighting with Luke, who is helping to move his friends, Kate’s, furniture).

The action takes place over a couple of weeks, focusing on Kate (Olivia Wilde) who works as secretary and part-manager at a beer factory. She is good at her job, liaising with other companies, making sales, continually on the phone. But she is also asked to do other jobs, like preparing a social party for the company and prospective customers. At work, she has a good friend in Luke (Jake Johnson) who works on the floor of the factory. They joke together, have lunches together, and join other workers in having a beer after work.

They are all drinking buddies, and a genial look at drinking buddies rather than just watching gatherings to have drink after drink. These people have their drink, enjoy the conversation, enjoy the company, crack jokes, and build up a good spirit in their factory.

The film also shows two sets of relationships. Kate is involved with recording executive Chris (Ron Livingston) who seems to get on well with Kate and she with him. The other pair is Luke and his partner, Jill (Anna Kendrick). Jill is a Special Ed teacher, committed to her work. And committed to Luke.

The two couples go together for a vocation to the mountains. On a hike, Chris is attracted to Jill, having admired her for her work and dedication, and they kiss. That’s all. But, of course, there are repercussions.

Jill goes away to sort out her relationship with Chris. In the meantime, Luke enjoys Kate’s company, helps her to clean up the apartment she is leaving, helps her with the removal of her goods and furniture – though he cuts his hand with a nail and she has to call in some of the other men from the factory to help her. This does not please Luke and they fall out about their plans for dinner after their work.

The final scene is very low key, action rather than words, but a gently pleasing end to this story of work and relationships in the lives of the various buddies, drinking or not.


FREE BIRDS

US, 2013, 91 minutes, Colour.
Voices of: Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Amy Poehler, Colm Meaney, George Takei.
Directed by Jimmy Hayward.

Once upon a time - actually in 1995 - children around the world were entranced by Farmer Hoggart’s sheep-pig, Babe. And many made resolutions that they would not eat any pork!

Unfortunately, Free Birds has not had the popularity of Babe. Which may be a pity, because this is the equivalent story of turkeys, of turkey liberation. How the film was made in the United States, with its annual menu of Turkey and cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving, is something of a mystery – the film is a plea for the safety and lives of turkeys.

This is an animation film which may not appeal so much to the littlies, except, perhaps, in its visuals. It is a film that young boys might enjoy. And, if this reviewer is someone to go by, it is a film that might appeal more to adults watching it in a relaxed vein.

A blue Turkey, Reggie, is the hero of this film. He is the outsider, always has been since he was young, the other turkeys ganging up against him. He tries to tell them that they are being fattened in order to be killed for Thanksgiving dinners – but they have a flock-like mentality and eat up whatever the farmers give them. But then Reggie encounters an odd Turkey, Jake, who says he has a mission from The Great Turkey but does not know what it is – but has a belief that he has to travel in a time capsule. The capsule appears and Jake and Reggie find themselves in the 17th century, with the Settlers and the Indians, and many turkeys, of course, preparing for the first Thanksgiving.

Reggie and Jake are turkeys on a mission and are persuasive with the 17th century turkeys, the chief, and the plucky (that’s not quite the right word) daughter, Jenny. The settlers seem a tough lot, especially their defender, Miles Standish.

This leads to quite a lot of comedy, but also a sense of dread in the turkeys, and battlelines being drawn up as the turkeys face the Indians and the settlers. Part of the action involves flashbacks to Jake’s unhappy background and his vision of The Great Turkey. Part of the action also involves Reggie going backwards and forwards in the time capsule, inviting Jenny to come with him to the 21st century, and in another flashback, discovering who The Great Turkey actually is.

Looking back at that paragraph, it might seem that the film is a whole lot of nonsense. However, the screenplay is well written, has many witty lines, and is perhaps a bit daring for an American audience to suggest that the turkeys are really a symbolic equivalent of the Native Americans and that the settlers seem to be rather ruthless aggressors. The points are made, but this is an animation film for the family, and so there is some kind of happy ending, symbolised by the Indians and settlers sitting down to the Thanksgiving dinner.

The voices are particularly good with Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson bringing their vocal style of comedy to Reggie and Jake. And Amy Poehler is a strong-minded Jenny.


LA GRANDE BELLEZZA/ THE GREAT BEAUTY

Italy, 2013, 142 minutes, Colour.
Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli.
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino.


Just when you are pleased that you have made the Fellini connection with La Grande Bellezza, you find that every reviewer and every blogger has had the same thought. Never mind, it is, most definitely, very close to a Fellini film, especially through most of the running time, La Dolce Vita. It is Rome and La Dolce Vita since the release of the film in 1959. This is one of Italy’s most eminent directors in recent years, Paolo Sorrentino, and his meditation on Rome, its hedonistic life and culture and, in the latter part of the film, its worldly Catholicism.

For those who have visited Rome, for those who know it well, the film will be fascinating, stopping along the way at many landmarks in the city as well as many of the ordinary goings-on in the different quarters. For those who do not know Rome, it may be difficult to see some of the points or appreciate how it Roman in look and style, language and image that the film is.

The opening is a tantalising look at some aspects of the city, Japanese tourists and one dropping dead after taking photos, a choir of women singing in the alcove of an agent building… And then a huge scream and in an instant transition to La Dolce Vita, 21st century style, pounding music, writhing dancing, over made-up older women, under-clad younger women, older men, younger gigolo types, with atmosphere of rhythms and beats, provocative sexual poses, drugs. And from this emerges the man whose 65th birthday it is, Jep (Tony Servillo who has appeared in most of Sorrentino’s films), King of the socialites, known by everyone, knowing everyone, mingling with the guests, a complacent smile on his face (or is it incipient boredom?), a writer of only one novel, 40 years earlier, everybody asking him why he has not written more. He has, but only articles and commentary on Rome’s culture.

As the plot emerges, Jep and some other characters also emerge. over the long running time of the film, we are shown Jep in various situations, like a pseudo-dramatic art performance in a field outside Rome and an interview with the pretentious performer, going to an exhibition photos of every day in the life of a now middle-aged man, going to a kind of clinic where an expert (or a charlatan) injects into clients, including a nun who has sweaty hands, and charging a small fortune for his services. There is also a little girl whose parents encourage her to take buckets of paint, throw them on a canvas, her hands over them and produce an expensive inverter, work of art’.

On the personal side, Jep encounters a friend who had married the love of Jep’s life long since. He has read her diaries and found very little reference to himself, only as a companion, and says there is no reference to.Jep. This occasions flashbacks to his encounter with the girl – and his regrets that he never followed through with her? A father is concerned about the sexual activities of his middle-aged daughter. Jep becomes friendly with her, goes to social events and parties with her, takes her to an exclusive gallery, but she is ill. And there is his writer friend of 40 years who is desperate to succeed theatrically and, momentarily, does. Another friend has a giraffe in the Coliseum and promises to do a magic trick to make the giraffe disappear.

After all the partying, after all the strange counters encounters, with all the Fellini style grotesques, and his impending age, Jep begins to take stock of his life. At a wedding reception, he encounters a cardinal, ascetic looking, pleased with all his cardinalatial robes, who is touted to be the next Pope, but his conversation is generally confined to recipes, cooking and cozying up to Roman aristocracy. (It would be interesting to see Pope Francis review of the film and his comment on this character!).Then, at the end, a 104-year-old nun who has worked in Africa visits Rome. She has a reputation as a saint (echoes of Mother Teresa) and is being touted by an over-enthusiastic, unctuous entrepreneur. However, as she sits on a kind throne and dignitaries, from various faiths, come to kiss her hand, her legs dangle, she shakes her sandal and it falls off. It is an arresting symbol of this artificial scene.

Jep wants to ask the Cardinal a spiritual question, but the Cardinal is distracted and hurries off to lunch. Later Jep says to him that he doesn’t think he should ask the question – because he could be disappointed if the Cardinal had no answer.

The sister agrees to go to a dinner at Jep’s house, the Cardinal trying to draw attention to himself and his recipes, while the entrepreneur explains that she eats roots – and the Cardinal saying he liked roots with lemon! She excuses herself to go to the toilet and is later found asleep on the floor, which is her custom. In the morning, a flock of huge birds, winging themselves out of Europe, are found on the balcony. She breathes out and they fly away. She advises Jep that roots are important. While she ascends the Scala Santa on her knees, indicating faith and belief in the transcendent, Jep goes back to the lighthouse and the memories of his early love, the final two images of the film being the sister on the steps and the image of the girl Jep loved.

The final credits are beautiful, gliding along the Tiber, the camera roving around, watching people on the bridges, gliding under the bridges, to a rather plaintive melody. Jep has been asked about his search for the great beauty. He seems to be coming close to the end of his quest.


HER

US, 2013, 126 minutes, Colour.
Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt.
Directed by Spike Jonze.

It was not a surprise when Spike Jonze’s film won the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay. Jonze made an impression some years ago with his films about identity, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.

This time he goes into the not-too-distant future. It looks very much like our own time – and especially with people, so many people, walking the streets and talking into some kind of communications implements. To capture this atmosphere, the exteriors of the future city are those of Shanghai in the present, with some locations in Los Angeles.

And why the title, Her?

It is best to first consider the hero of the film, Theodore Twombley, Teddy/Ted to those close to him. The trouble is that there are not too many people close to him. At the opening of the film, we see him telling a story into a computer, a sad letter which we find he is composing for a client, working at the company bestletters.com. He has some contacts which with his fellow workers, especially Paul who always praises him and his work. But, as he goes home, we realise he is in the middle of a divorce, his wife wanting him to sign the papers. He has a son whom he loves. And that is about all.

Teddy sees a huge billboard advertising a computerised Operating Service, providing a voice and intelligence as some kind of assistant or companion. Teddy signs up and is given Samantha, Sam, who proves herself not only a companion, an intelligent friend, but someone who is exploring her own identity even though she is an artificial intelligence. Teddy begins to rely on her more and more, talking with her, listening to her, sharing her personality and vitality, and falling in love with her.

Most of the film is taken up with this growing friendship and love, a growing intimacy, sexual awareness. The film is unpredictable, the audience not sure where it might be going in terms of Teddy and his identity, his humanity, his love. And the audience is not sure how Sam will develop and how human she could become.

We are very conscious now of how people rely on mobile phones, texting, continually communicating with people who are not physically present and how that has repercussions on what they are actually doing, saying, sharing with the people who are with them. Her takes for granted this kind of communication (most people in the film, in the streets, in buildings, are busy talking but not to anybody physically with them). What will it be like in the future with the developments in technology and the developments in robotics as well as artificial intelligence? Will humans be the better for all of this? More human? Better communicators?

While these issues are being explored and the audience thinking about them, the film invites us to share Teddy’s life and experience, his ordinariness, his sense of failure, the support that Sam gives him and the power of her transforming him. And questions are raised about the personalities of the artificial creations, with all the semblance is of humanity and intelligence.

Joaquin Phoenix gives one of his best performances, being on screen for all the scenes, communicating by his body language, his silences, the intensity of his inner feelings, who Teddy is and what he is longing for. For most of the film, Phoenix is interacting with an off-screen voice. Scarlett Johansson provides the voice of Sam, and is compelling. Amy Adams plays a close friend, a sympathetic sounding board for Teddy.

Once more, Spike Jonze contributes an interesting and tantalising exploration of contemporary men and women, the technologies of the 21st century and the challenges, creative and potentially destructive, of how human beings can be.


INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

US, 2013, 103 minutes, Colour.
Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, F. Murray Abraham,
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.

‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is the title of the recently-released album of folk songs from the central character, Llewyn Davis. But the film intends for us to go beyond the music, to go exploring inside the character and psyche of Davis, perhaps surprised at some of the things we find there, but also disappointed in that there is not so much to find. And Davis himself, during the film, has to go inside himself, seeking the truth about himself, also disappointed in what he finds, with people thinking that he is a loser. And in many ways, he really is.

This is a film from the Coen Brothers, who have been making excellent films fairly consistently for almost 30 years. With this one they won the Grand Jury Prize in Cannes 2013. It has received several further nominations and awards.

The setting is 1961, New York City, the time of the emergence of the folk music that was to characterise the early part of the 1960s, the movement, pushed by the experience of the Vietnam war, which led to many of the popular singers, Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter Paul and Mary (whose 500 Miles is performed during the film). At the beginning, Davis is singing a ballad, about life, about death, about love, about regrets – with forlorn lyrics. By the end of the film, when he sings the ballad again, we realise and, perhaps, he realises, that he is come full circle but that it is a very narrow circle.

Oscar Isaac has received great praise for his performance. He has a wide range of films behind him, The Nativity Story (as Joseph) Drive, down, and as Jose Ramos Horta in Balibo, but he also has a strong future ahead of him.

Davis wanders New York, gets some small gigs in a club, goes to visit his friends only to find that Jean (Cary Mulligan) is pregnant and he wants to get money to pay for an abortion for her. Her husband, Jim (Justin Timberlake), is unaware of this and offers Davis an opportunity to do a record of a comic song in praise of the President, John F.Kennedy. Davis also catches hospitality from these friends and from a Jewish professor in upper New York City. They help him but he seems unable to help himself.

The film also features the strong presence of a cat, owned by the Professor, but accidentally locked out of his apartment, with the elevator driver refusing to take care of him and Oscar having to carry him around the city, almost losing him in the subway. We focus on the cat, perhaps a symbol of Llewyn Davis himself, getting lost, being found again (or, perhaps, not).

There is also something of the picaresque about Davis’s journey, hitching a ride to Chicago hoping to get some recognition and performance dates, with John Goodman in the back seat, larger-than-life, with sardonic observations and wisecracks about music. In Chicago he meets an entrepreneur, F.Murray Abraham, who does some plain talking to Davis.

The other option that Davis has is to go back to the merchant navy where he is known, especially as the son of his father also in that navy. There seems to be little love lost between father and son and Davis goes wandering again. He is rude in his dealings with others, ridiculing some of the other singers, leading to his being beaten up, twice.

And, at the end, there he is in the same place, singing the same song, the same forlorn lyrics, which have book ended Inside Llewyn Davis as well as his own attempted self-exploration.

The look and the tone of the film are greyish. There is a certain glumness, bleakness about the characters and the story. But this does not mean that this is not a very good film, that it is not an interesting film – rather it is a slice of life, a visit to a particular time and place, a memoir of the music of the period and what it meant. The visit inside Llewyn Davis is both challenging and effective.


JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT

US, 105 minutes, 2013, Colour.
Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Keira Knightley.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh.

This film will probably not be on Vladimir Putin’s must see list. But, by the last scene, it will definitely be on President Obama’s list.

It is an action thriller, an espionage drama, based on characters created by Tom Clancy. In fact, Jack Ryan appeared on screen almost a quarter of a century ago in the form of Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October. He was then portrayed by Harrison Ford in two films during the 1990s, Patriot Games and A Clear and Present Danger. His previous incarnation was by Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears ten years ago.

This time round it is a much younger Jack Ryan. He is played by Chris Pine who has come to substantial screen presence with his role as Captain Kirk in the new Star Trek films. He is young when the film opens, doing his PhD in London at the time of 9/11. As a result, he joins the marines, fights in Afghanistan, writes high-powered confidential reports and saves two fellow-marines in a helicopter explosion. And this before the title comes on screen.

During his rehabilitation and learning to walk again, he is helped by his physio supervisor, Kath (Keira Knightly) and visited by a CIA officer (Kevin Costner). Then it is 2013, Jack is a 30s something financial analyst on Wall Street, already in a relationship with Kath (no wasting time with onscreen romantics here). Transition to Moscow and an introduction to the villain, an ultra-patriotic financier who is masterminding a plot to bring the US enconomy to Depression. Everything introduced – and then into it.

A quick review would be to say that if you enjoyed the Bourne films, then you will probably like this one. It is smaller-scale, just over a day in Moscow for Jack (and Kath who turns up as well) with Kevin Costner there to supervise (with the help of a huge range of surveillance and tracking and communication soft and hardware that seems to work instantly), getting the blocked financial information. There are some fights and a desperate car chase. The rest of the film is a day in New York to stop an activated ‘sleeper’ from performing another terrorist attack. It’s a variation on those CIA espionage novels, not great but effectively entertaining. And very ra-ra pro-US – and the Russians sinister.

With Kenneth Branagh having time out from the classics (though he also directed Thor) and enjoying himself with this kind of popular fare, he guides Chris Pine in an action performance even though he looks, as Costner remarks, like a boy scout on a picnic. It is good to see Costner in a good part and Keira Knightly having something to do. But the key performance comes from Branagh himself, making the villain (whom we see as instantly brutal) an interestingly complex character, not a comic-book cutout.


LABOR DAY

US, 2013, 111 minutes, Colour.
Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gatling Griffith, Toby Maguire, Clark Gregg, Maike Munro, James van den Beek, J.K.Simmons, Brooke Smith, Brighid Fleming.
Directed by Jason Reitman.

Labor Day is a quietly moving drama. Some audiences may find it very slow moving, but the film is finely detailed, giving the audience time to appreciate, be moved, contemplate what is happening and to contemplate the characters and their feelings and interactions.

In a sense, the plot is fairly familiar and, perhaps, predictable. It has been seen in dramas like The Desperate Hours when a family is held hostage in the home by escaped criminals. But, Labor Day is not like this. There is little or no overt violence in the film, except, most unexpectedly, when the mother of a boy with muscular dystrophy is annoyed at the end of a busy day caring for her father and slaps him across the face – more unexpected because of the lack of violence throughout the film.

We are introduced to Adele, a middle-aged woman suffering from depression and a general fear of going out of the house or making contact outside. The introduction is made in the voice-over by her son Henry, at the time of the film’s action he is 12 or 13, but the voice-over voice is that of his adult self, played by Toby Maguire. He explains that he has to look after his mother, care for her, take responsibility for her, which he does willingly. On a rare visit to a supermarket with his mother, Henry is accosted by a man who is bleeding and asks to be taken to his house. Adele is afraid, especially when it emerges that the stranger is a prison escapee, who had been serving a sentence for murder.

After the initial alarm, the film settles down in a way that we had not anticipated. We begin to wonder whether the escapee, Frank (Josh Brolin in a most sympathetic role), is guilty of the charge. During the film there are quite a number flashbacks to his previous life, his marriage, the birth of his child, the death of his wife. While tying up Adele for appearance’s sake, and intending to leave the next morning, he decides to stay for the Labour Day weekend. And he proves himself an extraordinary father-figure, mending things in the house, coaching Henry at baseball, a kindly and wise man. He is practically a saint-figure, a practical one at that.

This is all reassuring for Adele, who is played excellently by Kate Winslet, an intelligent actress in all her performances. Henry is played by Gatling Griffith, a talented young man who is able to keep his own on screen with both Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin. The weekend is not what they all we were anticipating and it leads to plans for the future. In the meantime, Henry has a Sunday visit with his father, who confesses that had he been a stronger man, he would have been able to stay with Adele in her depression.

Significantly, Adele’s depression has been caused by trauma in giving birth to Henry, several miscarriages, and a very difficult birth experience which will move all audiences, eliciting compassion for women who experience such circumstances.

The screenplay is not as predictable as some audiences might have it, more of reality than we might have expected. Some reviewers have remarked on sentiment and sentimentality – but it always depends how involved you are with the film before you go on the side of appropriate sentiment or decry sentimentality. Many audiences will share the sentiment in this story of three human beings who, by chance, interact with each other and whose lives are changed.

In some reviews, the writers and speakers have noted the previous films by director Jason Reitman, Juno, Up in the Air, and Young Adult, which had strong and wry senses of humour. They seem to blame him for not continuing in this vein but he has moved towards a more humane story and characters.


LONE SURVIVOR

US, 2013, 121 minutes, Colour.
Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Eric Bana.
Directed by Peter Berg.

Lone Survivor is a strongly American patriotic film. In the first week of its release in the United States it was the top of the box office.

It is best to give a warning for audiences. If you do not want to spend two gruelling hours in the cinema, best to let it go. With its close-up of a mission, and the close-up fighting, it is a particularly visceral film. We are so immersed in the mission and the fighting – and wounding and death – that it is a tough movie experience.

The film is based on a true story, an American mission in Afghanistan in 2005, targeting an Al Qaeda leader, but the mission ending in failure. As can be seen from the title, there is only one survivor.

The timing of the film’s release is interesting. Had it been soon after the actual mission in 2005, with memories of 9/11 still vivid, it might have been used as propaganda for the American presence in Afghanistan, the war against terror and against Al Qaeda. However, it was released at the end of 2013, with the imminent withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Many watching the film and being stirred by it, by American military prowess, by the antagonism towards the Taliban, might have thought that the withdrawal of the troops was a wrong decision.

During the film, in a particularly difficult situation where the squad on mission are discovered by goatherds and they have to decide what they will do, various stances are discussed: whether to kill the men and save lives, how to apply the rules of engagement, investigations into military behaviour. The four men on mission show the different attitudes towards their mission and hostility towards Afghans and the Taliban.

The leader is played by Taylor Kitsch, making the decisions but also putting forward all the options. Emile Hirsch is a young man caught up in the aggression. Ben Foster (who in many films has shown himself a sinister presence, sometimes villain) is aggressively gung-ho. Mark Wahlberg plays the older member of the group, more common-sensed, Marcus Luttrell. It is his memoir on which the film is based.

Prior to the mission, we are introduced to the men, Navy SEALS, their presence in Afghanistan, their skills and training. Their commander is played by Eric Bana.

Actual filming was done in New Mexico, mountains, forest and desert standing in for Afghanistan.

The writing is stronger than in many similar films and the audience has time to get to know the central characters and so identify with them during the mission, their hard decisions, the pursuit by the Taliban and their being wounded and dying.

However, the action then moves to the survival of the lone Navy SEAL. He is rescued by Afghan villagers who are then attacked by the pursuing Taliban, which makes the action a little more complex as the villagers fight back with guns and guard the American, and reactions to Afghans more complex. The survivor is wary at first, but then he is cared for because of the very long traditions of hospitality and care for guests that guide the people in the village. In part, Marcus Luttrell’s book is his opportunity to thank the Afghans for their kindness and care, and the final credits, showing photos or home movie footage of the members of the mission, also includes a photo of Luttrell in 2010 with his Afghan friend.


MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM

UK/Africa, 2013, 141 minutes, Colour.
Idris Elbar, Naomie Harris.
Directed by Justin Chadwick.

Nelson Mandela was one of the most significant personalities of the 20th century. His life, and especially his endurance, if they were the subject of fiction, might seem exaggerated. But his story was well known all over the world, finally written by Mandela himself in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. Now screenwriter, William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Nell, Les Miserables, Everest) has adapted the autobiography for the screen, a difficult task in compressing 94 years of life into 2 ½ hours screen time. It is clearly the material for a television mini-series. However, audiences will be pleased to have this cinema biography available.

The film is in the traditional biopic style, a fairly straightforward presentation of Mandela’s life. It follows his life chronologically, with some alerting sequences when he was a boy, his family, initiation ceremonies in the 1920s. We also see something of his early professional life as a lawyer, an excellent scene which sets a tone for the film where a black woman is accused of stealing a white woman’s lingerie, the woman in high dudgeon at being questioned by a black man who effectively wins the case for the accused, not without some humour. But, at this stage he is not politically active though sought after by the African National Council.

Injustices are dramatised effectively, and the humiliating treatment by the white population. With the legislation for apartheid in 1948, Mandela, who had married and had a family, opts for protest, leaving his wife and family, and becoming involved politically. He becomes increasingly radicalised, showing his abilities in leadership. As is well-known, after the failure of protest, he opts for some sabotage activity, shown briefly in the film, and he and his comrades are arrested, tried, and, to avoid making them martyrs, the judge sentences them to life imprisonment.

Many audiences will be aware of this part of Mandela’s life but it is interesting for it to be fleshed out, however briefly. It was at this time that he encountered Winnie whom he married. The group is sentenced to Robben Island, off the coast at Cape Town.

Again, audiences will know something of the 18 years he spent on Robben Island and the further nine years in prison on the mainland. But, it is dramatic to see the island, the cells of the prisoners, the courtyard where they worked, the quarry where they slaved, and, again, the humiliating treatment by the warden and the brutality of most of the guards.

For those interested in Mandela’s influence on South African politics, the film shows the discussions with the white politicians, with President De Klerk, the combination of shrewdness and practical idealism that marked Mandela’s ability to change South Africa. Ffter his release, there were riots and killings of traitors amongst the black Africans (shown graphically). But, in showing the broadcast where he spoke plainly, offered leadership, explaining that fighting the whites was a war that could not be one, we see him as the elder statesman, stressing peace. His final words in the film are about people not being born haters, their having to learn that, but that human beings are born with the capacity to love.

Idris Elba is able to capture the manner and the speech patterns of Mandela. Perhaps he is made to look too old before his time and audiences may focus on the make-up for the older Mandela, a bit too obvious. But this does not detract from the performance and the communication of the spirit of Mandela.

While the story of the man himself is familiar, and he is seen, not perfect, as strong, even with touches of heroic leadership, from his early years, it is the story of Winnie that is dramatically effective in the sense that she has to move from a devoted young woman and wife, mother of Mandela’s children, to a woman who is arrested, tortured, kept in solitary confinement 17 months, who becomes a leader, ever more embittered, alienated from her husband’s non-violent approach, becoming actively militant, even to military uniform, separating herself from her husband’s way of achievement, and their personal separation and divorce. Which is a sad, openly public, comment on the complexities of the anti-apartheid movement and the walk to Freedom.

Morgan Freeman made a great impression as Mandala in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus. He was played by Denis Haysbert in a little seen film of 2009, Goodbye Bafana), a drama of Mandela’s final prison years and his emergence on the world scene with a focus on the sympathetic guard, played by Joseph Fiennes, who is also dramatised significantly in this film. Other portrayals of interest include a 1987 biopic (worth looking at in retrospect) with Danny Glover and in two films about Winnie Mandela.

Long Walk to Freedom ends in 1994, Mandela is elected President, confounding the expectations of both black and white South Africans, unthinkable six years earlier when the discussions about his release began.

This is a worthy film, and an opportunity for audiences to obtain more knowledge about Mandela, about apartheid, about South African politics, and the extraordinary phenomenon that was Nelson Mandela himself.


PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES

US, 2014, 84 minutes, Cover.Cover.Colour.
José Diaz, Andrew Jacobs, Gabrielle Walshe.
Directed by Christopher Landon.

A Paranormal Activity film has become an annual event, celebrated by the faithful fans of the series. They have capitalised on their title, also capitalising on the number of films which have used hand-held cameras to observe the minutiae of the spaces under continued surveillance. They also have capitalised on found footage of episodes from the past. They have tended to focus on a particular family, its history over the decades of strange movements in the night, poltergeist experiences, evil powers and their presence.

There is something of the same in this edition but it is quite different, different family, different settings.

The film opens cheerfully with a high school graduation in California, the speech of the valedictorian urging change as the means to go into the future. Actually, he and some of the others do not survive very far into the future…

The action takes place in a Hispanic section of a Californian town. Jesse, the main character, has a camera, which – as in the other films – he uses in all circumstances, even when they are implausible. He and his friend Hector, who also takes over the camera work times, seem to be living a fairly idle kind of life, a touch of drugs, a touch of sex, and not much interest in anything else except the camera.

But, there are noises and bumps downstairs and, with nothing better to do, they decide to explore. Lowering the camera down the chute, they discover a naked woman and a seemingly Satanic ritual going on. Then the woman dies. And their friend Oscar runs screaming from the house.

As with the more recent Paranormal Activity films, the screenplay takes a bit of time to get going, in the sense that it creates atmosphere rather than makes audiences jump from their seats. Though there are some of these scenes later on, especially at the end, which probably means that the fans leave the cinema laughing at their fears and jumps, satisfied with what they have experienced, and looking forward to the next instalment.

After a lot of ordinary events, seeming a bit like padding, Jesse, Hector and Marisol, decide to try some Ouija experiments. But, the battery-run, technicolour surface toy that they use does seem a touch ludicrous as it highlights the green panel for a yes and the red panel for a no.

If you intend to go to see this film, this review, in terms of plot, needs to end here. Some bad things happen to Jesse, and to the cheerful grandmother who gave a bit of a human dimension to the early story. As might be expected from seeing the Satanic ritual, a coven of midwives is discovered, the characters go to the house, camera in hand even in less credible situations, and… Shocks and jumps and we’re ready for the next film in the series. (The coven, with its midwives ‘marking’ some babies to be possessed at age 18 offers a link with the earlier films, the girls and their grandmother.)


THE PAST/ LE PASSE

France/Iran, 2013, 130 minutes, Colour.
Berenice Bejo, Tahir Rahim, Ali Mossaf.
Directed by Asghar Farhardi.

Asghar Farhardi has proven himself to be one of the world’s best directors, and one of the best directors to come from Iran.

In his film, About Ellie, he portrayed a group of adult characters interacting on a holiday, something tragic occurring and the repercussions on the life of the group and their perceptions of Ellie. Then came A Separation, impressing audiences at the Berlin Film Festival, winning the main prize (and winning the Ecumenical Prize also), then moving to international distribution, receiving praise everywhere, leading to many awards including Golden Globe and Oscar.

The Past is his next film, with audiences having high expectations. They will not be disappointed. This is a very fine film, continuing in the vein of his previous films and their close study of individuals and interrelationships, often low-key, set within a comparatively small world, but nevertheless showing an extraordinarily humane sensitivity and creating believable characters with both strengths and weaknesses.

The film was made in France, the director not speaking any French but, nevertheless, eliciting wonderful performances from his cast. Berenice Bejo as Marie won the Best actress award in Cannes, 2013 (where The Past also won the Ecumenical Award). She is most persuasive in a very complex role. And the men are impressive as well, Ali Mossaf as Ahmad,her former husband arriving in Paris to sign divorce papers, and Tahir Rahim as Samir, the local drycleaner with whom she is having an affair and wants to marry, especially because she is pregnant.

The performances by some of the children in the film are outstanding, making us wonder how on earth the director elicited such action, feelings, extraordinary expressions of emotions, especially of the young boy). They include Marie’s teenage daughter, as angry a character as you will ever see on screen, resenting her mother and the new liaison, its effect on her, on Samir’s little son, because they have both moved in with Marie. And the performance of the little boy, Samir’s son, is absolutely convincing and passionate, in anger, in wilfulness, ultimately in affection.

All seems well at the airport when Marie welcomes her former husband who had abandoned her four years earlier and returned to his native run Iran. There are smiles, but soon the smiles will disappear, especially as we wonder at Marie’s motivation in inviting her ex-husband back when there is no legal need. And she expects him to stay at her house rather than a hotel which makes it very uncomfortable for him – and the rest of the family. She also wants him to talk to the teenage daughter, her daughter from a previous liaison, but who admires him and listens to him as well as argues with him. Because she does a number of very imprudent actions which have deep effects on the other characters, we feel for her, are aghast at what she has done, but trust that with her confessions she will be able to recover and continue on her life.

Samir owns a dry-cleaning shop and the action moves there later in the film as he returns with his son. In fact, he is married, and the question arises whether his wife knew about the affair or not, if she found out, because she attempts suicide in the shop, complicated by the actions of the young woman who works as an assistant in the shop. As the film opens, she is in hospital in coma.

While all this is happening within a very short space of time and in a rather narrow area of Paris, we see that there are universal themes in relationships, in vindictive attitudes, and the consequences of choices for children, and responsibilities for the consequences, sometimes like attempted suicide, for those not immediately involved in the crises.

The performances are excellent, quite believable, especially in audiences responding sympathetically. The dialogue is powerful, and very credible. In fact, the film does offer a mirror to us all, loves, fidelities, infidelities, rancour, vengeance, angers, with an Iranian sensibility which is quite universal. One of the best films of any year.


SAVING MR. BANKS

US, 2013, 125 minutes, Colour.
Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Annie Rose Buckley, Kathy Baker, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Rachel Griffiths, Ruth Wilson, B.J. Novak, .
Directed by John Lee Hancock.


Everyone probably has a view on Mary Poppins, how much they like her or, perhaps, have some reservations. A personal response: when I saw Mary Poppins in 1965, I felt somewhat bad for having some caution about this most famous nanny. She seemed far too severe in her manner and in her speeches. So, while I enjoyed the film, Mary Poppins was not a heroine for me in the same way as Maria Von Trapp in The Sound of Music really was! And then came Jungian psychology: Jung described a perspective on the criteria one used for making decisions, whether they were clear, logical and objective or whether they were more personalised. Mary Poppins was certainly clear logical and objective, not exactly my cup of tea.

But, back to the review of Saving Mr.Banks. Being a bit wary of Mary Poppins, I wondered whether I would enjoy this film. I definitely did and would heartily recommended it to most audiences, especially older audiences who remember seeing Mary Poppins half a century ago and to those who’ve seen the film and watched it on television in the succeeding decades. It brings Mary Poppins to life in the persona of her creator, P.L.Travers.

This is a film about the making of Mary Poppins. Walt Disney had been asking P.L. Travers for the rights to make the film since the 1940s when his daughters read and enjoyed the stories. She had resisted but, in the early 1960s, running short of funds, she was persuaded to go to Hollywood, meet Disney and discuss the screenplay for the film. She had many reservations, certainly did not want any animation, was wary of it being a musical, and she didn’t want Dick Van Dyke. In fact, when she went to the meetings with the screenwriter and the Sherman Brothers, who are composing the songs, she stipulated that all the meeting should be tape-recorded.

It is wonderful to see Emma Thompson as P.L.Travers. She portrays a difficult personality, not immediately blessed with personal communication skills. We see this in her dealings with her agent, on the plane with the flight attendant, with all the staff at the Disney officers, even with Walt Disney himself. She disliked a lot of the screenplay, took umbrage at some of the songs, especially when the Sherman Brothers invented the word ‘responsibilit’which she urged them to unmake. And there is a humorous moment when the brothers conceal the music page which starts ‘Super…

And Disney himself is played by Tom Hanks, bringing dignity to the role as well as an affable approach to his difficult author. There are many scenes in the Disney offices, interesting and entertaining, but very helpful in terms of dialogue, descriptions of characters, especially Mr Banks and his mustache, and the composing of the songs. Mrs Travers also has a visit, with Disney himself, to Disneyland.

There is a very good supporting cast including Paul Giamatti as her Los Angeles chauffeur, Bradley Whitford as the screenwriter, Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Godly as the Sherman brothers.

But, this is only half the film. In fact, it opens in Maryborough, Queensland, in 1906, with the author herself as a little girl whose nickname from her father was Ginty. The family was poor, the father working in a bank, but having a drinking problem. He was devoted to his daughter, sharing her love of stories and poems. Later, the family is transferred to south-western Queensland where her father works in the bank, almost getting fired because of his drinking.

The sequences of Queensland are intercut all the way through the film with the scenes in Hollywood. What happens is that the adult Mrs Travers is understood through her childhood and her relationship with her father, and Mary Poppins is understood from the childhood, especially with the aunt (Rachel Griffiths) who looks and sounds like Mary Poppins when she comes to look after the family during the father’s illness. It is quite surprising to find Colin Farrell playing the father, strongly and sympathetically, despite his drinking and his failings.

There is plenty to interest and enjoy in this behind-the-scenes story of the difficulties and joys in making Mary Poppins classic movie.


THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY

US, 2013, 112 minutes, Colour.
Ben Stiller, Kristin Wiig, Shirley Mac Laine, Kathryn Hahn, Sean Penn, Adam Scott.
Directed by Ben Stiller.


Ben Stiller. Ben Stiller has been making an impact on cinema screens and on television screens for several decades. He can write. He can direct. And he can be a striking screen presence, sometimes hilarious, sometimes more serious, and in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, something of both.

In his early 30s, he chose to make, both directing and acting, the absurdly funny Zoolander. Zoolander was a supremely self-confident of award-winning nincompoop of a male model, coming from a disapproving mining family, vain, ignorant, but, finally, something of a movie hero. That was then, this is now. In his early 40s, he has decided to re-create James Thurber’s comic character, Walter Mitty. The short story by Thurber is readily available on the Internet, only two pages long, published in early 1939 – with a comic and musical version starring Danny Kaye in 1947.

Is a 1930s Walter Mitty relevant to the 21st century? In a period when men are supposed to be men (with more than a macho touch), is there room for a comic hero who is alarmingly introverted, satisfied on the surface with his 16 year basement but important job in framing and editing the photos for Life Magazine, unable to make real contact to find a girlfriend? And there is also his mother and sister, Shirley MacLaine? enjoying herself as his mother, Kathryn Hahn as his eccentric sister.

A man is expected to be sure of his identity and go about using it and developing it. Although, come to think of it, there is a whole generation of introverted game-players, assuming all kinds of identities instead of their own – is there a Walter Mitty computer game?

At the opening, Walter is unable to send a ‘wink’ to an attractive girl at work. He phones the computer dating company and begins a series of conversations, often at the most inopportune times and unlikely places, with the editor of the site, finally meeting him when he makes one of those times opportune instead of inopportune (funny silhouette version of an airport search). And then he goes into ‘the zone’, those imaginary spaces and places which Thurber introduced in his short story and which filmmakers and writers have taken much, much further. Walter is a hero, he rescues dogs, his photo is on the cover of Life Magazine, and , then, he is stranded on the subway station having missed his train.

Matters get complicated at Life Magazine, an executive (Adam Scott) being sent in to close the print magazine and put it on-line. This executive is a monster of a person, ruthless in his self-satisfaction and in his downsizing the staff. Needless to say, he is not impressed by Walter Mitty at all (though Walter does get the better of him in fights in the elevator and skateboarding along New York streets, in his imagination, of course). Then there is Cheryl (Kristin Wiig), new at Life Magazine, with a young son and an ex-husband, who begins a touch compassionately for Walter eventually attracted to him.

And that is only the opening. The Mitty adventures really begin, in real life, when Walter flies to Greenland to try to make contact with Life’s staff photographer, an interesting cameo by Sean Penn. There are some funny sequences with a big, burley, inebriated, singing helicopter pilot who takes Walter out to the ship, dropping him in the sea for him to be picked up rather than landing on the small ship. No luck in Greenland, trying out in Iceland where there are lots of mod cons but an erupting volcano. So a few Mitty real-life adventures.

Just when we think that this is a climax, Walter’s mother tells him that she has met the photographer and he has gone to Afghanistan to film snow leopard’s. What else is Walter to do but go there – the aim to find the perfect photo for the last cover and meet the deadline. Actually, what follows, in the Himalayas, are some rather nice emotional touches care of Sean Penn, and the resolution of the problem so laid-back that you might not notice, care of Shirley Mac
Laine.

Walter’s imaginings are entertaining, with some funny episodes, though the film is not a long laugh-aloud to fun-fest. Rather it is a somewhat romantic, comic and serious exploration of a man in mid-life crisis who has not really faced his early-life crises. Good luck to Ben Stiller.


SHORT TERM 12

US, 2013, 96 minutes, Colour.
Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr, Keith Stanfield, Kaitlin Dever, Rami Malek.
Directed by Destin Cretton.

While this is a small, independent film, it has much to commend it. Ecumenical Award winner, Locarno, 2013.

The setting is a small institution, for short term internees, children 12 plus. At the beginning of the film, some of the staff stand around and one of them tells an embarrassing story about chasing one of the youngsters. There are many stories told throughout the film, and at the end, the staff are standing around and listening to yet another story.

Some of the stories are very funny, some have their sad, even tragic side.

Brie Larsen and John Gallagher Jr portray Grace and Mason, two of the staff who work in direct contact with the kids. They are also a couple. But Grace is in charge, with Mason very agreeable in working with her. A new member of staff, Nate, is introduced with the stories.

It means that there are two strands of the film intercutting each other. The first is the story of Grace and Mason, their love for each other, pregnancy and the issue of whether there should be a termination, Mason acknowledging his foster parents and the influence they had on him, and the gradual revelation of the very difficult childhood that Grace endured. The actors seem very natural in their roles and communicate their personalities and their problems to the audience.

The other strand is, of course, the stories of some of the children in the institution. One of the main characters is Marcus, an African American about to turn 18, down on life, yet stimulated by music and rap. Mason is particularly helpful to Marcus, listening, playing the drums, sharing his aspirations. The other principal character is Jadyn, a bitter young girl, prone to cutting herself, daughter of a wealthy businessmen who fails to turn up at the time of her birthday, which leads to her wanting to get out. It is Grace who relates well to her, putting up with her critical comments, and her not wanting to be involved with the other children, yet having a capacity for drawing. Ultimately, she communicates her life and her emotions, especially with her father, to Grace in a story of a shark and its devouring friendship with an octopus. After she intervenes for Jadyn, Grace is able to tell her own very difficult life story to Jadyn.

A lot of the film is ordinary day life at the institution, the meetings and notifications, meals, birthday party, yet the tragedy of attempted suicide. The party sequence where Mason and all the other foster children of a Hispanic couple join together is an optimistic and welcome relief from the day-by-day troubles and joys of the institution.

Father Edward Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town, said that there was no such thing as a bad boy. Short Term 12, operates on a 21st century variation of this motto – that there is no such thing as a bad person and that friendship, support and love can gradually break through any shell that wounded persons protect themselves with. This is quite a humane and moving film.


THE WIND RISES /KAZE TACHINU

Japan, 2013, 126 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

The Wind Rises received award nominations, including for the Golden Globe for Best foreign Language film. It is the final film of celebrated animator, Hauao Miyazaki, noted to such films as Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponette by the Sea. He also received an Academy Award for his animation film, Spirited Away.

This film is quite different from his previous films which led the audience into worlds of fantasy and magic, human beings but also strange animals, immersed in the Japanese countryside and the seaside, but accessible to Western audiences (and mostly dubbed by American actors of some note for the international release).

This time the focus is on the human, especially a young boy, Jiro, who is fascinated by planes. It is the 1920s, the era of development of aircraft, the beginnings of commercial aviation, and the design of planes which could be used in warfare.

It is somewhat disconcerting for a Western audience to watch this film, the story of a young man who contributed to Mitsubishi’s development of planes that were used in World War II, confronting the allies, contributing to the kamikaze ethos of the Japanese pilots, and contributing to many deaths. However, it is a film which takes the Japanese audience back into its past, an audience sometimes reluctant to consider the aspects of World War II, like this, and highlights the ambiguity of attitudes of the period and later.

Jiro goes to the University, but in a very dramatic sequence, he experiences the great fire of 1923. It must be said that the animation for the sequences is most impressive, far from the world of fantasies, rather grim pictures of the extent of the fire, the population and their terror, Jiro and his rescue of two young women from the fire. They search for him but do not find him – yet, after a long search, he is found in the latter part of the film, which forms the basis of a romantic story, complicated by the fact that the young woman that Jiro loves is suffering from tuberculosis and has to stay in a sanatorium.

In the meantime, a great deal of the film is devoted to Jiro and his research, working with a friend, collaborating with the Mitsubishi boss. During the 1930s, the two are sent to Germany where they examine the planes, under the auspices of the designer, Junker, and experience some hostility from the Germans who see themselves as superior to the Japanese.

The film also introduces the Russians and has subplots indicating the espionage network of the 1930s.

Jiro is an engaging hero, something of a nerd of his time, lost in his books, in his imagination and world of design, bespectacled. His love for the young woman changes his life – and gives something of a moral to the film where people design planes that can be used as weapons and instruments of war whereas their motivation is for peaceful and profitable use, and the realisation that love is the most important experience.

There is an interesting fantasy in Jiro’s imagination – the presence of an Italian designer who encourages Jiro, develops all kinds of fascinating planes which, eventually, fail. However, he is an inspiration Jiro.

And interesting that late in a significant career, contributing to Japanese animation for over a quarter of a century, and introducing it to international audiences, that Miyazaki has chosen to tell this Japanese story.


THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

US, 2013, 175 minutes, Colour.
Leonardo Di Caprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Rob Reiner, Jean Desjardin, Jon Bernthal, Matthew Mc Connaughey, Jon Favreau, Joanna Lumley.
Directed by Martin Scorsese.

Fascinating and repellent.

There is something mesmerising about films which portray the wheeler dealers of big finance, especially on Wall Street. In the 1980s, Oliver Stone gave us the archetypal insider dealer, Gordon Gecko (who is mentioned in passing in this screenplay). Other films which led us into the world of finance and sales include Glengary Glen Ross, based on David Mamet’s play, and the world of young dealers in Boiler Room. While 2013’s American Hustle is about fraud, it is still based on the premise of getting money as the most important quest in life. The miss quote from the Letter of James, ‘money is the root of all evil’, actually reads ‘the love of money is the root of all evil’. And the behaviour of Jordan Belfort and the other brokers in The Wolf of Wall Street certainly illustrate this dictum. So here is Martin Scorsese’s take on this world, his fifth collaboration with Leonardo Di Caprio.

There has been quite some controversy about this film, some claiming that it glorified this self-centred, warped and sometimes degrading world. Those who defend it say it is ‘a cautionary tale’, not an exhortation to be another Jordan Belfort. Some audiences have been disgusted by several orgiastic interludes but out of a film that runs for 175 minutes, they are comparatively brief and are meant to illustrate the way of life that the central character, Jordan Belfort, has become accustomed to.

In this kind of cautionary tale, there is always the possibility, especially in the early part of the film, that some members of the audience, especially ambitious men, might identify with this kind of behaviour. But, as Jordan’s father reminds him early in the film and he neglects to remember it, chickens come home to roost. Nothing succeeds like excess – until it catches up with you.

Leonardo Di Caprio has won some awards for his performance as Jordan Belfort. This time he is something of a combination of his landowner in Django Unchained and the great Gatsby. Starting as a naive young man with ambitions, he is overwhelmed by the energy and frenzy of the brokers on Wall Street, listening attentively to his mentor or, a very effective small cameo from Matthew Mc Conaughey, who glorifies the exhilaration of making money, egged on by cocaine, alcohol and womanising. It is not long before Jordan is not only part of this world but a leader.

Everything might have collapsed after the Stock Exchange failure of October 1987. Jordan goes on the road giving talks about making money but his wife urges him to follow up and ad and he discovers a small company, dealing in small shares and almost instantly takes it over, recruiting a group of avaricious men who are not the greatest intellects but have killer instincts for their job. He is pursued by a young man, Don (Jonah Hill) who gradually becomes his right hand man, not only in work, but in self-indulgence and a willingness for debauchery.

These themes sound serious but, in fact, the tone taken is rather comic, often sardonic and ironic, sometimes, as with a prolonged scene where Jordan and Don indulge in pills which take time to take effect, and Jordan, affected by them, has to crawl along a hall and fall down steps to get to his car and drive it under this influence – which does lead to a crisis with the police, with his wife, and his daughter.

It is a long film, prolonged at times, but it shows the ambition and self-delusion of a would-be highflier, ignoring realities, including investigation by the FBI, opening accounts in Switzerland with the aid of his wife’s aunt (an unexpected cameo by Joanna Lumley) which unexpectedly leads to more crises and a reckless voyage in the Mediterranean in the lavish yacht he has bought for and named after his wife, his second wife, Naomi (Australian Margot Robbie). The Swiss banker is played by Jean Desjardin, Oscar-winner for The Artist.

Often it is said that this is an amoral world and, indeed, it is. But on the evidence of The Wolf of Wall Street, it is an immoral world, recklessly so, exploitative lease so. But this is not to say that it is advocating this kind of world – it is presenting it in a way that is both fascinating and repellent.


Created by: malone last modification: Monday 03 of February, 2014 [22:04:08 UTC] by malone


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